Chapter 9 The Party Hasn't Begun
The world felt hazy around Twilight, as if it wasn't entirely certain what it was supposed to look like. Objects around her seemed wavy and out of focus, and she couldn't look at them without getting a headache. The walls of the cave were almost smooth like oil, and the entire experience felt psychedelic.
This was another dream, thought Twilight. It had to be. She realized that this was the first time she was aware she was dreaming. She wondered what would happen if she went crazy and broke character, but she didn't dare disrupt what was already in progress. If these dreams had a meaning, she wouldn't figure it out by turning them into her own playtime. She had to behave and do what the dream asked her to.
There were hoofbeats behind her; she wasn't alone. When she turned to look, however, she couldn't make out the faces of her comrades, nor how many there were. If this was a memory, it was a memory from long ago, the details long since washed away.
"Zecora?" she called, and her voice echoed back through the darkness. If the zebra had heard her, she didn't respond.
"It's... dark," said a voice from behind Twilight.
"Yeah," said another. "How about some light?"
Twilight laughed. Right. Light would help. She beat her hooves on the floor in rhythm. Two clops, a pause, and then three clops. The lights came on, and Twilight became aware of how much the room had changed since the last time she had seen it. The machines lining the wall were smashed in, and holes in the shape of thick claw marks adorned them on all sides. The damage was irreversible, realized Twilight, crestfallen. Her star map had been torn up. Jars were smashed and quills broken in two. Zecora was nowhere in sight, but two holes in the back led deeper into the mountain.
"Stay back," ordered Twilight, and she crossed the room and entered the left hole, which led to Zecora's sleeping quarters. Maybe she was just resting, reasoned Twilight. It was difficult to keep a reliable sleep schedule in a world without daylight, she reasoned.
The room was sparse and the walls were bare. A dirty mattress took up most of the space on one side, and the only other features of the room were masks and other trinkets from the zebra homeland. As in the main room, everything was destroyed. Wooden zebra heads, separated from their bodies, almost looked like they were crying over the destruction.
Twilight's head turned slowly as she took in the surrounding. There was little lighting in the bedroom; Zecora didn't need it, as she only used the room to sleep, so Twilight had to strain to make out the details, and it took her some time to notice the figure lying on the mattress.
"Zecora?" she repeated again, falling back on her haunches to get a closer look. Her horn hummed softly as it provided additional light. The zebra didn't appear to be moving.
"No." she whispered softly. She cried the zebra's name one more time and shoved her gently on the shoulder. Before she could do anything else, a large mass collided with her side and send her sprawling across the room. Trying to orient herself, she raised her head and found herself looking at two large glowing eyes.
"So you came back," hissed the voice. "Good. I wasn't done with you."
When morning came, Twilight didn't have the strength to get out of bed. Her entire body ached when she tried to move, and the image of Zecora's broken body wouldn't leave her mind. She buried her head in the pillow and cried softly, not knowing what else to do.
She felt lost. Everything was changing around her; she didn't understand it and she had no control over it. It was all a horrible nightmare that she couldn't wake up from.
Twilight lost track of how long she lay in bed, trying not to think about anything. Rarity came in briefly to offer her some breakfast, but when she didn't respond to any of Rarity's questions, the white unicorn set the tray of food down and left.
When Twilight finally stopped crying, she began to consider her situation rationally. The dreams made a bit more sense now. They were her life, her real life. Any happy memories she had were fake. I really am brain damaged, she thought quietly.
Still, brain damaged or not, Twilight knew she couldn't let her fears and confusion rule her. When Rarity returned to check on her eating, she was ready.
"I can't eat this," she said, levitating the tray and shoving it back into Rarity's mouth. "It's charity."
"Who said anything about charity?" asked Rarity. "I told you, we don't have enough food for ourselves. You'd be earning your keep."
Twilight looked at the host of the Element of Generosity. "I'm not staying," she said. "And would you really let a complete stranger just join your family like that?" she asked.
"Well, the rest of the clan might have problems with it, but I'd talk some sense into them. Family's important, but it's not everything. I'd remind them how they took me in back before I was family. Which reminds me. Pumpkin's mother wants to talk to you. You're the mare of the hour, apparently."
"Really?" asked Twilight as she got out of bed. "I suppose I should get that over with. Can you show me the way?" She managed to get to the door before Rarity cleared her throat to get her attention.
"Yes?" Twilight asked, irritated.
"Darling, you're not fit to go anywhere until you finish your breakfast. I insist."
Twilight returned to the tray, which held two apples. Twilight felt stupid for not predicting the meal, and she devoured them both in a couple of bites. "I'll make this up to you," she told Rarity. "If I can use my magic, I'm sure I can help."
"And I'm sure you will help," said Rarity. "But first you have somepony to meet."
As Rarity led Twilight through fields and between houses, Twilight got her first detailed look at the real Sweet Apple Acres, and nothing in the atmosphere could betray the overwhelming sense of sorrow and desperation. Sickly thin trees stuck out of the ground at uneven angles, and they reminded Twilight strongly of the skeletal claws of some poor creature that had been buried before its time. The ponies they passed bore grim expressions, resigned faces drained of all energy, the only remaining hope being the hope of seeing their next meal. It reminded Twilight of how she felt on a cloudy day, only multiplied thousandfold. And that was precisely what it was, Twilight realized. The scene before her was what a thousand days without the sun had wrought.
"Is it like this everywhere?" she asked Rarity.
Rarity stopped walking, and Twilight almost bumped into her from behind. The white unicorn was thinking, trying to decide which words to use that would not betray the bitterness on her tongue.
"Only in the small towns," she said. "Most of the big cities, like Manehattan and Canterlot, are actually quite well off. You see, not long after the famine started, this big industrial company up north developed these magical greenhouses that could grow crops just as well as with the sun, if not better. Nopony goes hungry there, especially not if they have the right connections."
"Why don't you have any?" asked Twilight, figuring it was the obvious question.
Rarity reacted as if she had just been stung. "We'd love to," she explained. "But the company that makes them doesn't sell them. It rents them, and most of the food it makes itself. And they're not even going to notice a place like Ponyville, much less build their greenhouses here. The only option we'd have is to buy food straight from them, and while I'm no economist, I figure that if all of our bits leave Ponyville to get consumables, Ponyville will drown in its own debt. Somepony has to make food locally, and that's us." She started walking again at a slow trot. "Doesn't stop ponies everywhere from leaving for artificially greener pastures, though."
Twilight didn't understand why that was so difficult for Rarity to say. There was something her friend was intentionally leaving out, Twilight figured, some vital detail, but she didn't dare press any further and spent the rest of the trip in silence.
Pumpkin's family lived in a shack on the edge of the farm. As Rarity and Twilight approached, they noticed a gray earth filly struggling to gnaw a pumpkin off of its stem with her teeth. After ten seconds of furious chewing with little progress, she noticed the arrivals and waved to them, not letting go of the fruit.
"Hello, Inkalina," said Rarity. "Is your sister home?"
Inkalina released the plant and trotted over to Twilight. "Is this the new girl?" she asked in a timid voice that sounded like Fluttershy. "Um, it's nice to meet you, I guess. She's inside, with Pumpkin."
Rarity nodded and nudged Twilight forward. "Go ahead, darling. I need to get working. When you're done, ask Inky here what you can do. I'm sure she could use the help."
Twilight started toward the door, and Inkalina followed her. "So, you grow pumpkins?" asked Twilight.
Inkalina nodded. "We didn't, before sister got married. Back then, we grew potatoes. None of us liked them, though. Pinkie would joke that they were no better than rocks." She knocked on the door, twice in succession, and shouted. "We got company!"
Twilight hadn't heard anything after "Pinkie," and when the door opened and Pumpkin darted out between two pink forelegs, Twilight couldn't help but stare at the mare that now looked back at her with a weary expression. Her mane was flat and clung to her head, lacking its usual perkiness, and her normally lustrously bright coat was dull and muted. She looked nothing like she should, except for the basic coloring, and for a moment Twilight figured she must have simply misheard Inkalina.
The pink pony stretched her head through the opening and called Pumpkin's name, but her voice lacked any amount of assertion, and her request sounded more like pleading than an order. Inkalina opened the door fully and swung a hoof around the pink pony's neck.
"This here is Pinkamena Pie Custard, but we call her Pinkie Pie," Inkalina said, and Pinkie Pie seemed to shy away from the contact. "Now don't you worry," Inkalina said to her. "I'll take care of Pumpkin," and she trotted down the field after the filly, shouting "Now hold on, Sweetie Pie, yer not clean yet."
Pinkie Pie sighed and gestured to Twilight. "Would you like to come in?" she asked timidly, as if she wasn't even sure if she wanted it. Twilight nodded and followed Pinkie into the home.
"So, Pinkie Pie," she began, figuring she should get the dreaded conversation over with. Remembering Fluttershy, Twilight could only imagine what horrors the real Pinkie Pie had suffered that she had been spared in the idyllic dream world of Twilight's memories.
"Pinkamena," Pinkie Pie interrupted, not looking back.
"My name is Pinkamena. Don't call me Pinkie." Pinkie began reorganizing a series of pans that had been left on a shelf, avoiding making any eye contact with Twilight.
The room was dusty and littered, having long since surrendered the battle against filth. Twilight knew she couldn't blame Pinkie for having higher priorities than making sure her home was well-dusted, but she still couldn't avoid the feeling of light disgust that pushed down on her whenever she was surrounded by anything in desperate need of organization. This, compounded by the stress of being forced into a new and unfamiliar situation with a new and unfamiliar Pinkie Pie, was not helping Twilight think clearly, she knew. "So, Pumpkin?" she said, trying to bring the conversation to something they both knew.
"She's my daughter," said Pinkamena, and Twilight saw her crack a smile. "And my life." She looked directly at Twilight for the first time since they'd entered the housing. "Thank you for saving her," she said slowly, and then immediately broke eye contact and grabbed a sponge in her teeth.
The way Pinkamena was acting, intentionally avoiding any real communication, disturbed Twilight. She didn't understand the way everypony seemed to be acting. Even Rarity, while the white unicorn hadn't shown any fear, had displayed carefulness mixed with curiosity. "I thought you wanted to talk to me," said Twilight, after another minute had passed with silence.
"I wanted to thank you," said Pinkamena, scrubbing one of the pans. "Which I have. I don't know what I'd do without Pumpkin. And so you can leave now."
Twilight wasn't satisfied. "So Pumpkin's your daughter," she pressed forward. "How did that happen?"
The Pinkie Pie Twilight knew would have used the opportunity to make a joke; Twilight realized after she spoke how the question could have been alternatively interpreted. Instead, Pinkamena stopped scrubbing, irritated. "The usual way," she answered. "I'm married, if that's what you're wondering."
"Of course," said Twilight, furiously backpedaling. "I didn't mean to say you weren't."
"Good. Please leave, then."
Twilight turned toward the door, but then she paused. She still had one more question to ask. "Why are you all afraid of me?"
No response. Twilight turned her head to look back at the earth pony.
"Please answer me, Pinkie. Why are you scared of me?" Pinkamena cringed when she heard the nickname. "I know I've probably done something bad, because Pumpkin said I eat fillies' souls, and Rarity said my name explained a lot. But whatever I've done, I don't remember it. I need your help, Pinkie. I need your laughter."
Pinkamena slowly forced herself to look at Twilight. "You called me Pinkie again," she said. "Why do you keep doing that. Only my family calls me that."
"I am your family. Or like a family, at any rate. I know you, Pinkie Pie, even if you don't know me. I remember you. You're the pony with the curliest mane and the brightest smiles and the biggest parties. You're the Element of Laughter, and nothing can ever scare you. But you've changed now, like the old you never even happened. But I still believe she's in there."
Pinkamena trotted toward Twilight, and Twilight winced, unsure what the other pony was going to do. Instead, Pinkamena moved past Twilight and closed the door. "I think we should sit down," she said. "And you need to run that by me one more time, because that's a lot for a pony to take in at once."
So Twilight recounted her tale to Pinkamena, starting with her first trip to Ponyville, describing their adventures together to defeat Nightmare Moon. Pinkamena listened thoughtfully and didn't interject except to ask questions about the other ponies in the story.
"I don't expect you to believe me," said Twilight after she finished.
"I do," admitted Pinkamena. "The Pinkie Pie in your story, I can kind of see it. She seems happier than me. And you called her the Element of Laughter." She leaned forward. "Have you ever heard the legend of the Sparks of Creation?"
"I don't usually pay attention to legends and mares' tales," said Twilight dryly.
"You did once," interjected Pinkamena. "And it paid off."
"I got lucky," insisted Twilight. "So, what are the Sparks of Creation?"
"An old pony legend. From the moment the first royal sisters were born, they were enemies, so the story goes. They fought each other, violently, and each spell cast, each blow they dealt with their horns shot hundreds of sparks off into the world. As the world was young at the time and not fully formed, most of the sparks weren't caught until they reached the backdrops at the edge of the universe, where they were embedded, becoming the stars. But as the world grew, the sparks became stuck in other things. Things like ponies."
"Stars don't work that way," interrupted Twilight. "They're gaseous bodies millions of miles away."
"But that part isn't important. What matters is that each pony has a spark. It's a glimmer of their true potential, and it can take many different forms. And I know mine exists because I've seen it."
Twilight was confused. "How do you see your spark?" she asked. "Is it like a cutie mark?"
"Sort of, but only in the sense that everypony has one. But while a cutie mark says what your talent is, your spark is more personal. And you know what they are because sometimes they ignite. When you need to do something important they flare up, like a bright flash, and then they tell you what to do. Are you curious to know what mine is?"
"Sure," said Twilight, trying to sound disinterested, although she was curious.
"I discovered it the day Pumpkin was born. It was actually the same day I got my cutie mark." She turned and showed Twilight the picture of three hearts on her hindquarters. "I was a nervous wreck that day. I didn't know how to handle being a mother. But when I saw her, everything started to settle down. Just looking at her made anything seem possible. Have you ever had a child?" Twilight shook her head. "Then I can't explain what it feels like. But it's the most amazing feeling ever. And as we looked into each other's eyes, she suddenly started laughing. And that's when I saw the flash. And I found myself laughing with her. Just looking at her face filled me with the greatest joy I'd ever known. I kept laughing and I never wanted to stop. The doctors probably thought I was deranged, but I just watched the laughter as it glowed and filled up the room. And that's when I knew why I was alive. For her. I loved her. Are you crying?"
"No," lied Twilight. "Continue."
"My spark was laughter. Laughter for my precious daughter. I never told anypony about the spark, and then you come along and call me the Element of Laughter."
"So you believe me?"
"That's not the only reason. On my wedding day, five years ago, I met a mare, and she said some of the same things you said, but she was older than you. 'Pinkie Pie'. 'Element of Laughter'. Nopony had called me by either of those names before. And she had a message for me. She said 'Someday, a long time from now, you're going to meet a pony by the name of Twilight Sparkle, and she's going to ask you for help. Do what you can, and pass along this message. The sun's wind can reach where the sun cannot. And what you have will show you what you need. Do either of those make any sense to you?"
Twilight shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "Who was she?"
Pinkamena shrugged. "I never saw her again after that. Who knows who she was? It's a mystery."
"Speaking of mysteries," asked Twilight, "who am I? My memories are clearly wrong, and you and your family seem to have heard about me. I want to know who I am, in your eyes. I want to understand why everypony's afraid of me."
Pinkamena thought for a moment. "First off," she said. "Ponyville's founded on earth pony tradition. Magic doesn't sit well with us. Just hearing that a mage had made a home in the mountains was worrisome. The fact that Nightmare Moon appeared the year the Summer Sun Festival was in Ponyville probably didn't help much either. But most of us ignored you until he showed up."
"He?" asked Twilight.
"I don't remember his name. He was a royal guardspony, still loyal to the missing princess. He believed that you were allied with Nightmare Moon, that you knew where the princess was taken to. He came to Ponyville because he was looking for you. He said you were a thief and a scoundrel, and he said that you killed anypony who got in your way, including foals."
"I would never hurt a foal!" exclaimed Twilight, feeling threatened. "Why would he say that?" Some small part of her reminded her that this Twilight wasn't her, that this Twilight was somepony else. Maybe the real Twilight, the Twilight that existed before she hit her head, would kill foals if they got in her way, but Twilight immediately took that notion and tore it to shreds. She would rather live in denial than face that she murdered foals.
"I'm not saying it's true," said Pinkamena, trying to defend herself. "I'm just repeating what he told us. And that's really all we know about you, Twilight. He searched the mountains, but I don't think he found you. The mountains are a pretty big place, after all."
"I see," said Twilight. She didn't know what to say after that. She had even more to take in than Pinkamena. All her life she had striven to do right by other ponies while she perfected her craft. She would never harm anypony, foals least of all. But now she was learning that the life she thought she had didn't exist and may never have existed. She didn't know anything about her past.
But she did know about her future. She knew that whatever monster she had been was gone now. It had no hold over her. And while she didn't know about the past, there was a very easy way to figure it out.
"Thank you, Pinkamena, you've been helpful," said Twilight as she stood and headed toward the door. "But I promised Rarity I'd help Inkalina today."
Pinkamena nodded. "You should do that. Breaking a promise is the fastest way to lose a friend."
"Forever," finished Twilight. "You really are Pinkie Pie, aren't you? And I just have one more question. Is there a library in Ponyville?"
"I think so," said Pinkie Pie. "Although it doesn't get used often."
Twilight smiled. "Good."
It was time for her to go home.