I want to believe Fluttershy. I want to forget the scientific method and all my logic and reason, and just believe there is a part of me that I can’t know or sense, that is eternal and enduring. I want to believe that when this is over, that part will remain, to watch over my daughters—to witness them fulfill their incredible, miraculous potential.
But it's hard for somepony like me to just believe, even after all the wonders I've seen in my life. So if there is nothing else, if all of what I am is transferred into that gemstone, then I want to at least leave them something to remember me by. I want them to know that their mother loved them with all her heart.
I can still remember how she used to look at me, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, to spend every day knowing what was coming, knowing that each sunrise was bringing her one day closer to the end. How painful must it have been for her, on that last day? I suppose I know, now. So before I cast the spell, before we all say our goodbyes, I intend to write one last letter, so that when this is all over, at least she will know how much I loved her.
“Mom!” a high, clear voice rang out in the compact, two-room cottage, forcing Twilight Sparkle to get out of her thoughts and return to the world around her.
“Yes, my darling girl?” she replied, closing her journal and setting her quill back in its jar. Her older daughter stared up at her with shining, expectant pink eyes.
“I want a bedtime story! Spike’s are good, but yours are the best! I want the one about the brave Princesses and the evil unicorn king again, the one with the crystal ponies!”
Twilight smiled. “Alright, alright, let’s go to the bedroom and I’ll tell the story after you’re all tucked in and cozy. Do we have a deal?”
As always, it took some time to make sure that teeth were brushed and hooves were clean, but soon the younger unicorn was snug beneath her blankets. She yawned, and her eyelids were already drooping heavily. Twilight doubted she would get through much of the story tonight.
“I want to be like those Princesses some day. I’d be a good Princess, kind, and strong, just like in your stories, and I’d be even prettier than Auntie Rarity! Do you think I could be like that someday?”
Twilight Sparkle felt so proud, and so sad, and so overflowing with torturous love in that moment, she felt she would burst and melt into a pathetic lavender puddle on the plank floor beneath her hooves.
“You will be just like those Princesses,” she said. "Every bit as brave and clever and beautiful. You have my word on it.”
“But, how do you know?" the unicorn filly asked. "I want to be strong now. Daffodil says the Hodgepodge is coming to get us. I want to protect you, and sister too."
"You listen to Daffodil over your own mother?" Twilight asked, miming incredulity. "Listen to me, my sweet. Mommies know things. Your mommy especially knows an awful lot of things. It's a special kind of magic that mommies have, you see. No matter what happens, you and sister will be safe. I promise. That monster will never find you, but someday, when he least expects it, maybe you and your sister will find him."
"And take him out, just like those Princesses did to the mean old king!"
"Just like them," Twilight declared.
At that moment, the younger unicorn opened her mouth wide and yawned, then glanced over to see her baby sister sleeping soundly in her bassinet. “I think I’m too tired for a story tonight," she said. "Maybe tomorrow."
“Sleep tight, then, my love."
“Night night, Mom. I love you too.”
Twilight swiftly blew out the candle providing the only light in the bedroom, and hurried out before her daughter could see her face.
"I love you," she whispered in the dark.
Longer than five hundred ponies lined up snout to tail, thicker than the mightiest spire in Canterlot, and as black as moonless night, the Old Worm's passing shattered the tranquil countryside, and the ponies of Equestria trembled before his wrath.
Very soon, Princess Celestia knew, he was going to try to tear her castle right off its mountainside perch, and then the mighty serpent would aim to burn and destroy the capital city itself. The soldiers of the Guard and the airships of the home fleet stood no chance of stopping him, and the spells of the academy mages would feel less than pinpricks as they fizzled and died against his black armored scales.
Yet, as she stood atop the highest parapet of her mountaintop citadel, surveying the burning slopes a league below, where the most legendary, powerful, and ancient dragon known to ponykind was ascending the Canterhorn like wildfire climbing a dessicated pine tree, Celestia knew without doubt that the Old Worm would be stopped. This was not a battle, not really. It was a routine, choreographed long, long ago. It had to be perfect.
Celestia knew all of the Old Worm's secrets. For instance, she knew that the tremors and minor earthquakes felt by generations of ponies who lived on and near the Wormrest, in the heart of the Serpent's Spine, were not the product of tectonic shifts, but rather rumbling echoes of his fitful dreams. She was well aware of how, over the march of centuries, the Old Worm had grown ever more vast and powerful, while the volcanic crucible in which he lived transformed his reptilian hide into obsidian armor. She knew that the Old Worm’s resting place was so deep and so close to the heart of the world that the dragon had passed a dozen centuries and more practically soaking in the wild, ancient magic sealed in the planet’s core. Celestia knew that the Old Worm was, in this moment, indisputably the single most powerful force in Equestria—a slithering elemental fury against which no ordinary armed response could offer resistance. Celestia also knew that he was also more than a little upset with her.
Celestia had deduced that her relationship with the Old Worm had soured when she last descended into the flames to rouse him from his sleep, three hundred years before. She had expected conversation, and reminiscences, for what were they really but the oldest of friends? Instead, she had been met by the gnashing of sharp teeth as thick as tree trunks. Perhaps the untamed magic of the world had changed him so, or perhaps he simply no longer wished to see her face, and be reminded. In any case, she decided then that there was no point in meeting with him any longer.
After all, no matter how feral he might become, no matter how much resentment he might hold in his great heart, he would do what was asked of him. For her. And of course, in this, the appointed hour, he had come. He was here.
As she watched the beast climb ever higher toward her capital, Celestia reflected that at this point, “dragon” was a bit of an odd term for the Old Worm, though a dragon he was, and always had been, despite his differences from the majority of his kind. The Old Worm had no wings, and his limbs had become vestigial. Truly, he appeared more like an unfathomably huge, armored snake than what most ponies' minds would conjure from the word "dragon." Celestia, unlike most ponies, knew that dragons’ forms were the most malleable of all creatures, and everything from color to size to number of limbs depended on the creatures’ thoughts, emotions, and living circumstances, even more than age.
Now, the Old Worm was coiling his great bulk around the steep mountainside and slithering ever higher. The air around the dragon rippled with distortions from the intense heat he radiated, and his passing left a swath of crushed rock, glowing red hot, giving the strange impression of lava flowing uphill.
Against such a foe, the battle, for lack of a better term, was predictably one-sided. All three of General Dancypants' heavy airships stationed to defend Canterlot fired broadside after broadside at the serpent, but his armored scales shrugged off the cannonballs as though they were made of crumpled paper. The spears of the royal guard were equally ineffectual. A few brave soldiers risked landing on the roiling, twisting body of the beast, attempting in vain to pry open a gap in the Old Worm’s plates and strike at whatever soft part presumably lay hidden beneath. Inevitably, though, the heat forced them to retreat to a safe distance lest they be roasted alive.
Suddenly, an angry voice cut into Celestia’s thoughts and observations. “What is this, sister? What do I see? Have you lost your nerve? Your mind? You allow our soldiers to face the monster alone!”
Luna. The tumult of battle had roused her from her rest. The dark blue alicorn alighted upon the parapet and turned to Celestia, her eyes glowing white with righteous fury. “They will fall if we do nothing!” the younger Princess pressed. “We cannot tarry while our brave guardsponies lay down their lives for us!”
“Little sister,” Celestia said calmly, with a nod of acknowledgment. “I can do nothing to stop the dragon, so I need not try.” Celestia had never made her sister privy to her special relationship with the Old Worm. Well, that was only partially true. The fact was that Luna had long since forgotten she ever knew him. It was far better that this was so, though it made for a slightly dicey situation in the present moment.
“What?” Luna cried out in surprise. “Never could I believe that I would hear you speak this way! You and I are not of the craven highborns of your plush city, sister. You know even better than I that we were raised to fight, to defend this land at any cost, and we have never yet cowered before any foe! Fly with me, and let us confront the beast together!”
“We cannot change the outcome of this fight, Luna," Celestia said patiently. "This story was written long ago, in indelible ink. You need not futilely place yourself in harm’s way.”
“I hear your words, but I do not understand them, and I will not heed them. They are not my sister's words,” Luna replied hotly. “You have never cowered like a frightened foal, not like this.”
“I knew I would prevail before,” Celestia replied simply. “Today, there is no way to prevail."
“Feh! A pox on you, then, and your pusillanimous poltroonery!” Luna shouted, and rose into the air with a single powerful beat of her wings. “I shall slay the dragon myself!”
Celestia shook her head, and watched Luna fold in her wings and dive, swift as an arrow, toward the raging Old Worm. With all the majesty of the night, and all the power of a creature who could command the moon on its sojourn across the heavens, Luna attacked.
“Base vermin!” she cried. "Have at you!" Celestia watched as inky shadows coalesced around her sister, only to be released as bolts as black bolts of magic. The impact of Luna’s spells against the Old Worm’s armor sent sparks of green magic flying and gave the dragon a momentary pause, but otherwise caused no serious damage. He was, as Celestia well knew, impervious to common magic.
In response to Luna's futile strikes, the Old Worm whipped the tip of its long tail, which terminated in a diamond-hard bladelike spike in the shape of a huge arrowhead, at Luna, who barely avoided the first strike by flying up and over it. The backswing, however, caught her. Mercifully, it was the broad flat side of the tail spike that connected, or Luna would have been cloven in two. The princess of the night tumbled through the air and struck the mountainside with bone-crushing force, before sliding down and collapsing on a ledge where she lay still. The Old Worm rolled and twisted his body in order to aim his head at the downed alicorn, and then began moving toward her crumpled and unconscious form.
Celestia gasped, shocked at the Old Worm's viciousness. In an instant, everything she thought she knew about this moment was turned on its head. Could it be that he had abandoned the plan after all this time? Could it be that he would truly try to kill her sister? That he would betray them all? Could it be that the dragon was not merely irascible—but that he had gone completely mad?
Without another moment's hesitation, Celestia leaped from the parapet and spread her white wings, then streaked toward the battle like a meteorite wreathed in orange flame, as she called upon the power of the sun.
The beleaguered soldiers of the royal guard cheered as Celestia approached, and she could see them returning to their formations and pressing once more against the seemingly invincible dragon. Celestia landed on an outcropping of rock just above the Old Worm with an impact that sent cracks shooting through the stone beneath her and a cloud of dust into the air.
“No!” she shouted, magically amplifying her voice so that the sound crashed against the mountains like a thunderclap. “You will not harm my sister! Do what you came to do, what you must do, and no more!”
The Old Worm turned away from Luna and focused his dark emerald eyes on Celestia. She could feel the anger in the immense dragon's gaze just as viscerally as she could the heat from his body. She could feel something else, too: frustration, and helplessness. She finally understood.
"You must remember!" Celestia shouted. "Remember her! You are here for her, because she asked it of you. You can't save her, not by disregarding her wishes, not by hurting me, and certainly not by hurting Luna! But you can help her. Do as you were asked."
The dragon stared back at her, and to Celestia’s surprise, he opened his gaping maw and spoke.
"How?” The earth itself shook from the deep boom of the Old Worm’s voice. Celestia could feel the words rattling around inside her. “How can I?”
Celestia considered the question. “I don't know,” she finally replied. "How can I? How can anyone do what is asked of us, when what is asked is that we tear out our own hearts?"
“Not fair ...”
“I know it isn't fair!" Celestia shouted, as her wings unfurled behind her. It was, perhaps, the first time she had really yelled in a thousand years. "I know! For the love of Equestria I know! We had a few years that passed like seconds! Nothing could be less fair!”
"Can't stop the rage. Too much now. Too much ...
“You cannot blame me, or yourself, or any—”
Celestia felt the rush of magic and comprehended what the dragon intended even before she saw the green flare of light within the Old Worm’s throat. She barely had time to cast the most powerful magical barrier she could manage in the split second before everything around her was engulfed in a blast of green balefire hot enough to cook a phoenix egg. Her shield could not prevent the flame from reaching her entirely, and Celestia could smell her coat singing and smoldering in patches.
“You know what you must do!” she yelled, hoping her voice was getting through.
"Please ... help me ... don't want ...
"Get ahold of yourself!" Celestia shouted. Her shield was spent, and she knew she would not survive another blast if the Old Worm was so inclined. "Remember why we're here! You can save everything else—everything!"
Deep in the dragon's throat, Celestia saw a green glow forming. She wondered if maybe this wasn't the right thing, after all. If the dragon burned her to ash, if he burned away the whole world and let them start anew, maybe that would be better than what was meant to happen. Maybe, but it wasn't what she was asked to do.
"You promised," Celestia said softly. She folded her wings to her sides, and closed her eyes. Only the dragon could decide what would happen next. Celestia wondered what the brief pain of immolation would feel like, in the instant before oblivion, but the Old Worm suddenly snapped shut his jaws and turned away from her.
“Stop right there!” a new voice rang out in a tone as clear as a bell. It echoed between the mountain peaks and in the alpine vales, until finally it died out and a still silence took hold. The royal guard ceased their vain assault and the cannons stopped firing. “And get away from Princess Celestia!” demanded Princess Twilight Sparkle.
The lavender alicorn stood on a railroad platform cantilevered off the mountainside, where she had obviously just disembarked from the express train to the capital. Her friends flanked her: Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy, each wearing the necklaces that contained their respective Elements of Harmony. Twilight, for her part, wore the the Element of Magic in her golden crown. Spike, the little dragon, stood protectively in front of her, his tiny arms crossed on his chest.
The Old Worm stared down the newcomers, not moving, not even blinking.
“We have the Elements of Harmony—you know what they are, don’t you?” Twilight asked. “In case you need a refresher, they're only the most powerful magical objects known to ponykind—and they're strong enough to stop you. We don’t have to fight, but I won’t let you get any closer to Canterlot. You aren't going to hurt anypony else today.”
For a moment, both sides simply faced each other, resolute and silent. Then, the Old Worm sighed, and the hot breeze of his breath ruffled the ponies manes. He closed his heavy scaled eyelids and let his massive head droop.
"You're wrong ..." the great dragon rumbled.
“Please!” Celestia suddenly shouted from the outcropping where she stood. “You can save us all!"
Princess Twilight looked to her teacher and mentor, uncertainty on her face.
“You heard Princess Celestia,” Rainbow Dash shouted. “It’s time to go all-out Elements of Harmony on that dragon.”
“But he stopped attacking everypony. He’s just sitting there,” Fluttershy pointed out.
“I don’t understand, Princess,” Twilight said. “Fluttershy’s right.”
“Do it!” Celestia screamed. "Please, if there is still any love left in you!"
Twilight simply looked back uncomprehendingly. Unless she was mistaken, there were tears trickling down the Princess’ face. A lot of dust had been kicked up as the dragon climbed the mountainside, she supposed. As she tried to make sense of what she was seeing, Twilight missed the Old Worm open his right eye and fix it on Celestia.
“Look out!” several ponies cried out at once.
Without warning, the Old Worm loosed an ear-splitting roar as his snakelike body shot up off the ground. He snapped his jaws once at Celestia, but the alicorn teleported out of danger. His target gone, the dragon turned his attentions back to Twilight and her friends.
“He’s gonna torch us!” Applejack shouted.
Green light poured from gaps between the Old Worm’s scales and bolts of magic arced along his great length. Whatever attack he was preparing was clearly going to be massive. The air took on the acrid scent of ozone.
“Twilight, we must use the Elements of Harmony at once!” Rarity shouted.
“Right! Now girls!” Twilight Sparkle called out. “Get behind us, Spike!”
The six Element Bearers were lifted into the air by the sheer power of the magic they wielded, and the rainbow ribbon of harmony twisted and twirled among them before shooting forth against the Old Worm as a shining prismatic beam.
At the same time, the dragon had drawn on all the magic he had absorbed over the centuries to fuel the flame that burned deep in his body. The heat and force of the fire he was gathering cracked and shattered his armor, and green beams of light stabbed at the sky as holes opened all along his great length. The Old Worm was destroying himself, but even as his body came apart, he retained just enough control over his last conscious act to focus his flame directly at the ponies opposing him.
The harmonized magic of the Elements and the Old Worm's ancient, wild magic met in the open air between the combatants, and the power of the resulting blast was such that it would be seen and felt across Equestria. A great nova of light bloomed into being and forced everypony watching to look away. When the glow dissipated, murmurs of shock and consternation swept through the guardsponies present to witness the spectacle.
The Element Bearers were gone, along with the Old Worm.
The guardsponies were too surprised even to notice their ruler, huddled against a boulder, her wings folded protectively over her. Sobs wracked Celestia’s body.
She alone knew that the old dragon's last act had been one born not of anger, but of love.
Twilight Sparkle wasn’t a Princess anymore. None of them could explain it, but there was no questioning an obvious and visually verifiable fact: she was a regular old unicorn again. Whatever had happened, wherever Twilight and the others now found themselves, the one indisputable truth was that the blast had stripped her of her wings, her crown, and the increased stature she had enjoyed as an alicorn.
It felt surprisingly strange to find herself back in the body in which had spent her entire life, save for the last five months. She felt small, and somehow vulnerable, though perhaps being completely lost in a seemingly endless forest had something to do with the latter. She also felt a newfound sense of claustrophobia, as she was suddenly unable to fly up and see from horizon to horizon. More than anything, she was exhausted. They all were. Somehow, after the dragonfire and the magic of the Elements of Harmony collided, the resulting explosion had transported them to a forest.
It wasn’t the Everfree Forest, nor Whitetail Woods, but some other place. The trees were strange, and no familiar landmarks stood out. Even Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were completely unable to agree on which way to go—they claimed the terrain features they knew weren’t where they were supposed to be, and they couldn’t see the way back to Ponyville no matter how high they flew.
After an hour of making wide, lazy circles high overhead, Rainbow Dash finally located the verge of the woods, and the six ponies determined to press on in that direction until they returned to civilization. That had been seven hours ago—seven hours of traipsing through thick, thorny underbrush and across fast-flowing streams strewn with hidden rocks and sharp sticks. Poor Spike had to be carried on Twilight's back after the first four hours. It felt like an unpleasant eternity by the time the group finally emerged from the treeline and into a wide, flat expanse of grassland and gently sloping hills, all verdant with green grass and dotted with colorful wildflowers.
“Finally,” Applejack announced. “I was beginnin’ to think we’d never see the end of that place.”
Twilight looked around to try to gain her bearings, and perhaps even to be able to hazard a guess as to where they were. Hills and fields were all around. In the far distance, steep mountains reached skyward. Strangely, inexplicably, there were no signs of civilization anywhere.
“Halloo! Do I hear somepony up there? Mayhap you could lend a hoof?”
Make that almost no signs of civilization.
Twilight and her friends searched for the source of the voice, and soon found a deep pit not far from the forest edge, at the bottom of which stood two rather ragged-looking earth ponies, a stallion and a mare. It took only a moment for Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy to haul the two back to the surface.
“Many thanks,” said the mare, her coat bright yellow and her mane and tail a sharply contrasting vivid blue-violet. She wore bulging, coarsely woven burlap saddlebags draped over her back. “You must be interesting ponies, to have pegasi, earth ponies, and unicorns all traveling together peaceably, and even a lizard!"
"Dragon," Spike corrected with a scowl.
"They call me Morning Glory," the mare continued, "and my traveling companion here is Firebrand. I speak for both of us when I tell you how very glad we are that you chanced upon us. I would have hated to discover what becomes of the poor ponies caught in these pit traps. The dog monsters are constantly sneaking back around these parts and digging them, even though the guards keep chasing them off our lands.”
“Dog monsters? You don’t mean diamond dogs, do you?” Rarity asked, as she looked around nervously. “I thought those ruffians had learned to keep to their own territories.”
“This is their territory,” the stallion said. His coat was burnt sienna and his mane and tail streaked with red and orange. “At least it was when our grandparents and great-grandparents discovered this land. After all these decades of pushing them away from their dens and their old mines, it is but a small wonder they strike back when they get the chance.”
“Diamond dog territory?” Rainbow Dash reiterated. “Just where are we, exactly?”
“I think we might be a little lost,” Twilight ventured. “We came here from Canterlot, somehow, and we’re trying to find the way back there. Can you show us?”
“Canter...what?” Morning Glory looked quizzically back at Twilight. “Is that one of the new settlements outside the colonial marches?”
“Huh? No, Canterlot,” Twilight Sparkle said again. “You know, the big city on the mountain with the castle? The Princess lives there?”
The sunshine yellow earth pony mare blinked, and then a look of sudden comprehension swept over her face. “Oh, yes, of course, you are Unicorn. How could I be so blind? I do know the place you seek. Indeed, your princess is up there, overseeing the construction.”
“Construction?” Twilight repeated. “What construction? And what do you mean ‘my princess’?”
The yellow mare laughed brightly. “Can it be that you were frozen in the Blizzard and only thawed this very morning? Your unicorn princess, Thallium, has made the mountain her seat of governance alongside her consort, Lord Cobalt. They are building a great gaudy castle up there, with the aid of a few earth pony clans Thallium has rallied to her banner. That is not everything: I have heard rumors that the pegasi are working to construct a cloud citadel nearby, in fear the unicorns are fortifying for war.”
“I myself am traveling to the mountain,” the stallion spoke up. “There is certain business there which I must transact with your kind. It would be my pleasure, if you wish to accompany me for the journey.”
Twilight did not immediately reply, but her mind was racing as she attempted to digest and comprehend the information that was coming to her. Thallium. Cobalt. Colonial marches. The absence of Canterlot. Morning Glory, Firebrand, and their oddly formal manner of speaking, which was not formal, really, just archaic.
“Please excuse me for just one moment while I speak to my friends,” she finally said. Morning Glory and Firebrand nodded, and Twilight quickly turned and gathered her friends just out of earshot of the others.
“Girls,” she began, “I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but—”
“We’ve traveled way, way back to the time of the founding of Canterlot?” Pinkie Pie finished.
Twilight gaped in astonishment as her four other friends chorused their disbelief and consternation.
“Well, yes, but how did you know? Don’t tell me you have Pinkie Sense for time travel.”
“Nooo …” Pinkie Pie pronounced slowly. “That would be silly. I’ve only traveled through time like …” She paused, and held up a hoof on which to count. “Once. Just now. So Pinkie Sense for time travel would be kind of a waste. I did grow up on a rock farm though, and my closest fillyhood friends were a quartz crystal and a chunk of plagioclase feldspar with particularly nice cleavage. Little rock joke there.”
“How is that even supposed to be funny?” Rainbow Dash asked, throwing up her forelegs in confusion as she hovered in place.
“I have no idea!” Pinkie replied, giggling.
Twilight continued to gape, but now added a raised eyebrow to her expression.
“So I had a lot of time to read when I wasn’t working in the fields!” Pinkie finished. “Including the Complete Unabridged History of Equestria. Princess Thallium was the unicorn leader after King Blueblood III, her uncle, and he was Princess Platinum’s grandson. Did I get that right?”
“Yes, you did, exactly,” Twilight acknowledged. “And that means we’ve gone almost two thousand years into the past.”
“Stars!” Rarity exclaimed, throwing a hoof over her mouth in shock. Fluttershy and Spike both steadied themselves against one another for support, while Rainbow Dash and Applejack both continued to stare disbelievingly at Twilight and Pinkie.
“Nineteen-hundred and seventy-seven years, to be exact,” Pinkie Pie proclaimed.
“Oh, come on, Pinkie, how could you possibly guess the exact year?” Twilight asked.
“Duh, that’s Firebrand over there,” Pinkie replied, gesturing at the stallion.
“Firebr—… oh!” Twilight gasped, then shook her head violently. “No, it can’t be the same pony.”
“What in Celestia’s name are you two goin’ on about?” Applejack demanded.
“Princess Thallium was assassinated in the year 98 A.E. on the old Exodus calendar,” Twilight began, “by an earth pony dissident named Firebrand. Her consort Lord Cobalt then took the throne as Blueblood IV.”
“You don’t mean—” Rarity was cut off before she could finish.
“That guy?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “We just saved a murderer? Uh-uh, not on my watch!” She turned to fly back toward the two earth ponies, but was stopped as Twilight’s magic took hold of her.
“No, Rainbow, you can’t,” Twilight implored. “In our own timeline Firebrand did assassinate the princess. We can’t stop him, or we risk changing the entire course of history from this day forward. The damage from that one change could be catastrophic.”
“Wait, you wanna let that guy kill a princess? That’s crazy!”
“Hang on, Rainbow,” Applejack broke in. “I think what Twilight’s sayin’ is that we could be putting our own future at risk by changin’ the past. Like if this Thallium lives, then that Cobalt feller would never take over, and the changes could just keep pilin’ on after that.”
“Applejack’s right,” Twilight said. “We could even wind up erasing ourselves from history!” She paused a moment. “Oh, but if we erased ourselves from history, we couldn’t have stopped Firebrand in the first place … but then we couldn’t have helped him out of that pit either …” Twilight gasped. “That means …”
“We always saved him, even in our own timeline,” Rarity guessed. “Being sent back in time was always a part of our own history.”
“Maybe …” Pinkie Pie said. “Or it could be that our own memories are changing as we make changes to the timeline. We might never even know what we’re changing until all of a sudden, ‘poof!’”
“‘Poof?’” Fluttershy asked. “Oh my. That sounds serious.”
“‘Poof!’” Pinkie repeated. “That's the sound of us vanishing from existence.”
"How can something that never existed go 'poof?'" Rainbow Dash asked skeptically, forelegs crossed over her chest.
“All I know is that I don’t wanna find out!” Spike declared. “Twilight, do something!”
Twilight grimaced involuntarily at the suggestion of experiencing an abrupt and unanticipated lack of being. She had to admit that Pinkie Pie raised a valid concern. There was only one thing to be done.
“There’s only one thing to be done,” she said aloud.
“And that is?” Rarity prompted.
“Well, get home as fast as possible, of course,” Twilight replied. “But in the meantime, we do absolutely nothing. We can’t risk damaging the timeline, especially if we can’t even be certain what it is that’s changing. We need to get as far away from any historically important goings-on as we possibly can.”
“Hmph,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “I still say we gotta stop this Firebozo, or whatever his name is. What if in the real timeline we did stop him, and our memories will return to normal the second we throw him back in that hole, or hoof his sorry flank over to the diamond dogs?”
“We can’t take that risk,” Twilight declared authoritatively. “I’m ninety percent certain our memories are inherently stable regardless of flux in the timestream caused by our actions here, and in the history I learned, Firebrand succeeded in assassinating Thallium. That’s just how it has to be.”
“If our actions here can have such tremendous ramifications in the future, the prudent thing to do is concentrate on doing whatever it takes to return to our own time as expeditiously as possible,” Rarity said.
“Rare’s right about that,” Applejack agreed. “Let’s part ways with those two and figure out a way back home lickety split.”
Twilight nodded, and even though Rainbow Dash grumbled and looked away, she could tell that all her friends were in agreement. She hurried over to Firebrand and Morning Glory, who were engaged in their own conversation.
“We’ve actually decided to head in the opposite direct of Cant—er, away from the fortress the unicorn princess is building, so I’m afraid we can’t join you, Firebrand, though we thank you very much for the offer.”
“Likely ‘tis far better this way,” Firebrand replied, nodding. “Storm clouds are gathering above that mountain. Besides, the unicorns do not take kindly to the presence of pegasi these days. Rumors have it that Princess Thallium aims to have a war with the Sky Commander.”
“You could come with me,” Morning Glory proposed. “My town is as far distant from the happenings on that mountain as is possible here in Equestria, and if you seek to stay away from any troubles here in the marches, we are always eager for strong sets of hooves.”
Twilight paused a moment. The more interactions she and the others had with ponies in the past, the greater the danger of damage to the integrity of the timeline. Then again, her experience with Firebrand seemed proof that their presence here had always been part of the historical record. Clearly, they could afford at least some interactions with the ponies of this time without irreparably damaging history, and it would be much easier to figure out a way home if they had some civilized sort of place to call home while she worked on a solution.
“Where did you say you were going?” she asked.
“My home village,” Morning Glory replied. “A ways to the north, beyond the Unicorn Range. I had only traveled south to Trotterdam to purchase seeds to get our fields and orchards started. My village, Trefoil, is still very small and new. We don’t have many resources yet, but we make up for it by being resourceful ourselves.”
“Sounds more than a little isolated,” Applejack noted with a frown.
"Do you mind having pegasi?” Fluttershy asked.
“Or dragons?” Spike broke in.
“We welcome anypony, even little dragons, so long as they contribute an honest day of work each day, and take no more than they earn from the communal stores.”
“S’pose I can appreciate that,” Applejack said grudgingly.
“It sounds perfect,” Twilight broke in. “We would be honored to travel with you to your village.”
“I shall be grateful for the company, the more so if we should run into any of those dogs ourselves,” Morning Glory said. Shortly thereafter, the company parted ways with Firebrand, and, after stopping to acquire supplies from a traveling caravan, made for the pass through the mountains to the north.
Stacks of decrees, proclamations, and judgments that required a royal seal before they could be given force of law covered most of Celestia’s writing desk. Rather than attend to them at once, she was at the present moment staring out the large picture window, enjoying the rays of the morning sun playing across Canterlot as her glowing charge traversed its ecliptic, having only a short time ago been urged on its way. Without warning, the door to her drawing room was suddenly and violently thrown open. Celestia did not startle, but calmly turned to meet her sister.
“I have come to learn that you decided to release Discord, and that you removed the Elements of Harmony from your ward-vault in order to place them under the care of Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said, the statement sounding rather like an accusation.
“Yes,” Celestia replied calmly. “It seemed that the time was right.” She paused only a moment before adding, “I cannot help but observe that you should be asleep at this hour.”
“Why did you not consult me for such a momentous decision, sister?” Luna’s eyes glowed with the force of her rising ire.
“I did not know that you had taken such a personal interest in the lesson plans I prepare for my personal student,” Celestia said. “Had I been aware, of course I would have invited—”
“Do not make sport of this! You have freed Discord, the hodgepodge daemon, the same monster that nearly destroyed our world, and then you would go so far as to remove from our protection the only thing he fears! These are the actions of a madmare, not those of a Princess!”
“Have you forgotten, dear sister, that our connections to the Elements are severed?” Celestia asked. “We could no more stop Discord now than could the humblest and most timorous of our subjects.”
“Yet you have unleashed him upon this world, having seen for yourself the multifarious ills he has begat? Explain yourself, sister! Was he able to warp your mind, even as he remained trapped in stone?” Luna’s horn glowed, and shining black armor shimmered into being around her throat and shoulders, and an obsidian helm appeared over her head. “I will do what I must to protect Equestria. Forget not that I have bested you before.”
“Becalm thyself, Luna!” Celestia shouted, standing from her seat and reaching her full height, while her great wings unfurled above her back. She quickly adopted an even tone before speaking again. “Equestria is safe. Discord can wreak no harm upon anypony now, for I have spent the time of his most recent imprisonment developing safeguards. Though we can no longer wield the magic of the Elements, I was nevertheless able to weave unbreakable spells between them and Discord, so that he can no longer hide the Elements from us, nor harm their Bearers in any way. He will also be able to be summoned using the Elements, should it become necessary to imprison him again.”
Luna stood stiffly for a long moment, before finally allowing her armor to fall away and dissolve into shadow. “You know, sister, that he is chaos that lives and breathes. I fear he may find a way around even your most clever spellweaving.”
“I trust Twilight and her friends,” Celestia replied. “They have bested Discord before, though the odds were against them. Now I have asked them to make Discord understand the error of his ruinous path, and I believe they can do it.”
“You have much faith in your student,” Luna observed.
“It is not faith, but secure knowledge. Twilight Sparkle has a grand purpose, as do her friends. This is but another important step.”
“I know where her path leads. I have sensed her ability, and the strength of the connection she and her friends share with the Elements is something I have not felt since we were young. Yet my concerns linger still. After she joins us there will be great changes, and I know not what will come of them.”
“Nor do I, my sister,” Celestia said. “There will soon come a point where all of Equestria will have to write its own destiny. For now, though, you may return and sleep soundly in the knowledge that Discord poses no threat at this time. You have my word.”
Still looking unsure, Luna nodded once before turning and walking out the open door. "Then you have my trust," she called back as she departed.
Another day, another frustration. I continue to make no progress in discovering a spell that can return us home.
The mission to infiltrate Canterlot, or what passes for Canterlot these days, went exactly as I had planned: The citadel is still in chaos after the death of the princess and the ascension of Thallium’s young son to the throne, all while Lord Cobalt works to consolidate his own power and establish himself as the legitimate ruler, so the guards were more concerned with determining who they are actually working for than with keeping out intruders.
It was simple for Rainbow and me to gain access to the mage hall where the surviving archives of Walnut, Star Swirl, Clover, and the other famous high wizards and archmages of the past are being kept, without being seen or discovered. Of course, some of the most famous ponies whose spells I’ve studied and mastered haven’t even been born yet, so it was simple to devise a stealth spell for which the unicorns of this time period could not possibly have been prepared.
Unfortunately, there was nothing there to help us. Star Swirl’s time spells only work for traveling into the past, not the future, and even then he never learned how to sever the connection to the original time period and remain in the new time period, or how to send multiple ponies. Nopony else even came close to unraveling the mysteries of time travel. Unless I can create a completely new form of magic, we’re stuck here. Of course, I’ve written new magic before. If I keep at it, I’m sure to discover a way.
“Twilight, darling, have you been up all night?”
Twilight blinked as Rarity walked into her house and threw open the curtains to let in the morning light.
“Um, I guess so,” she said. “Not that my work is doing us any good. We’ve been here for a month now, and I still have no idea how to create a “Back to the Future” spell.”
“Oh, I’m not worried at all,” Rarity replied. “I know that you shall figure it out in due course, and in the meantime, well, Trefoil is actually a lovely place, despite being a little unfinished and rough around the edges. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see Equestria in such a naturally beautiful and unspoiled state. Why, in our own time, this entire area is part of the greater Whinnyapolis metropolitan area, and completely covered by the small towns and villages that surround the city. My own parents grew up here, perhaps right where Trefoil is located in this time. I prefer it now, to be honest, without all the ironworks and smokestacks that will be built.”
“I’m glad you’re handling this so well, Rarity,” Twilight said, getting up from the simple bench she had created. “But we can’t stay here much longer. Even if we keep our distance from any historically famous ponies and events, we are still risking damage to the established timeline by our very presence.”
“You certainly don’t have to worry about me,” Rarity replied. “When the time comes I shall be first in line to get home to Ponyville, my family, and the boutique. And rest assured I have been staying out of trouble. At most I have been doing a bit of knitting and weaving here and there for the villagers. They truly are in dire straits when it comes to textiles.”
Twilight nodded, then suddenly noticed a large empty basket in one corner of the room. “Have you seen Spike?” she asked. “He must have sneaked out while I was writing in my journal. I’m going to need him to help me practice teleportation methods later, to see if I might be able to develop one of them into a time spell.”
“Spikey-wikey? I ran into him on my way here. He was hungry, so I pointed him in the direction of a cache of gems I had located earlier. After that, I think he said he was going to go watch Rainbow Dash.”
“Oh, that’s—wait … watch Rainbow Dash do what?” Twilight asked, narrowing her gaze. “Anything that involves watching Rainbow do something doesn’t sound inconspicuous, and I distinctly remember telling her to stay inconspicuous.”
“Goodness, I’m sure I haven’t the foggiest, but I see your point.”
“Well, I’d better go look for them before—”
Twilight jumped as a loud boom left the entire cottage shaking and shuddering. Even before she galloped outside to see the brilliant rainbow arcing across the sky, she knew what had happened. As she looked around at all the awed faces of the villagers staring skyward, she realized she would have to have another long talk with Rainbow Dash that afternoon. For the moment, though, she supposed she could allow herself to enjoy the spectacle.
“It’s nice having Princess Luna back to raise the moon,” said Twilight. “We didn’t have very many chances to do this together before she returned.”
“Yes,” Celestia replied, smiling. “Among many reasons for which I am glad to have my sister back, the chance to stargaze with my favorite student is near the top of the list.”
“I can’t imagine how taxing it must have been to have to raise the sun and the moon every single day and night.”
“I would gladly bear that burden again for the reward of seeing my sister saved from the nightmare, and witnessing my faithful student learning about the magic and power of friendship.”
“I’ll never be able to thank you enough for sending me to Ponyville,” Twilight said. “I’d never have made friends like the girls I met there. I’d never have been able to use the Elements of Harmony.” Twilight paused. “Princess, may I ask you something?”
“Of course, Twilight.”
“Did you know? I mean, I know you knew that I would have to make friends to wield the Elements, but did you know for certain that the other Element Bearers were right there in Ponyville? Or was it just chance? Or destiny?”
“I knew,” Celestia replied softly.
“How? Did you plan all of it in advance, so that you would be prepared when Nightmare Moon was set free? How could you have arranged for every one of us to be there?”
“It was not my plan. Not even I could conceive of such a grand design, that would place six so remarkable ponies together, at the perfect moment to save my sister. Yet I knew it would be so. Some things that are yet to be are already written, you see.”
“Do you mean, you could somehow see the future, and that’s how you knew we would find each other?” Twilight’s eyes grew wide. “I didn’t know prognostication spells were real! Can I figure out my future? Will I ever get my own shelf at the Library of Magic?”
Celestia shook her head. “Nopony can truly peer into the future, Twilight. What I knew—what I still know—I cannot teach or explain. Nor would I tell you your future, even if I could somehow discern it. I can, however, assure you that you have within you a potential for greatness the likes of which have never been seen in this world, and may never be seen again. It is up to you to use that potential to write your own destiny, regardless of the circumstances in which you may find yourself.”
Twilight looked thoughtful for a moment. “Thank you so much, Princess, but I could never be as great as somepony like you. I’ll always be just a regular unicorn, no matter how hard I study or how much I practice.”
“You will never be like me,” Celestia agreed. “For you will be greater in every way.”
“Greater?” Twilight whispered.
“Look up, Twilight. Follow my hoof. Do you see those six stars, clustered together?”
“Yes. That’s an asterism,” Twilight said with confidence. “A group of stars that appear clustered together in the night sky. Astronomers call that particular asterism the Harmony Cluster, because of the even distribution of the six main stars. Most ponies call it ‘The Band,’ or ‘The Band of Friends,’ and each of the stars is called after a type of pony: the princess, the warrior, the confidante, the healer, the jester, and the maker. Nopony really knows the origin of the names, but the Harmony Cluster has been shining brightly for thousands of years. And because of their position near the celestial pole, they do not move with the seasons, but appear in the same place each night of the year.”
“Exactly correct, as always,” Celestia replied. “What’s more, they are my most beloved stars. They remind me that, though the world may change, though everything may change, the bonds of friendship can never be broken, and the magic of harmony will persist in Equestria forever. You, Twilight, embody that magic. You are a champion for harmony, moreso than I could ever be—I who could not even prevent my own sister from slipping away from me."
“I … I don’t know what to say, Princess. Thank you for having so much faith in me.”
“It is not faith, my dear, but knowledge, fastly secure.”
Twilight did not reply, but moved closer to Celestia, and nuzzled against the alicorn’s warm white coat. Silently, Celestia opened a wing and enfolded her student in its feathery embrace.
Twilight decided that morning that she was going to admit defeat. There was nothing left to try; no trick, no spell, no means whatsoever of getting back to her own time. Perhaps if she could tap into the power of the Elements of Harmony, there might be a way, but the Elements were gone. Even if they did exist in this time, the historical record was quite clear on the fact that the Princesses had discovered them and used them to stop Discord when he first appeared. She could not risk altering history by searching for them now, even if doing so was their only way back. After all, there might not be a “back” to go to if she changed history like that.
It had been three long years since she and the others had arrived in the past, and in that time they had made homes for themselves in Trefoil. Of course they curtailed their public activities and were all considered somewhat reclusive and eclectic by the townsponies, but they still had each other.
Rainbow Dash kept her skills sharp by tending to the local weather at night, while the earth ponies of Trefoil slept. Fluttershy’s life had hardly changed at all: she cared for the local fauna just as she had in their own time, though she had become involved in something she called a prayer group. Some of the townsponies believed that thinking positive thoughts and beseeching the world itself for peace could somehow make a difference. Twilight didn't understand it, but she was glad Fluttershy had found something meaningful to her.
Applejack and Rarity had, to Twilight's surprise, become inseparable. It made sense in a way, for they both drew strength and sustenance from the tight bonds of family, or in this case the closest thing to it. Rarity tended the house they shared and produced basic garments, ropes, and other useful things for the town, while Applejack cared for the bountiful garden and fruit trees outside. Together, they got through each day, week, and month stuck here in Trefoil, in this time that was not their own. Pinkie Pie was having the most difficulty, unsurprisingly, because keeping to herself and maintaining a low profile were antithetical to her nature. It took all of them together to help keep up her good cheer.
As for Spike, and Twilight herself, each day was spent hypothesizing, testing, and ultimately rejecting every approach they could think of for creating a time spell that could send them home. Now, though, she was finally ready to stop. There was no way, no theory left unexplored. They were all going to live out the rest of their lives in this time, and they were never going to see any of their loved ones again. Twilight was never going to share another moment with Princess Celestia, or write another letter explaining what she had learned about friendship. Not only that, but Twilight's must have been the shortest and most unmemorable, unremarkable, and unfortunate Princesshood in Equestrian history.
She had to tell them, today, that Trefoil was going to be all they would ever see for the rest of their lives. How would she be able to do it? How would they react? What would they think of her—their would-be savior and only hope—after this? That she was a failure? That it was a joke that she had ever been a Princess of Equestria? Could they even remain friends after such a crushing development? If not for her, and if not for the Elements of Harmony, none of them would ever have been condemned to this fate. Did she deserve her friends, after this?
Twilight sighed, and threw open her front door.
Celestia stood before her throne as she addressed Major Tanager. As per standard procedure for confidential military briefings, the throne room was empty save for her and the soldier standing stock-still before her. She briefly wondered whether the uniformed pegasus’ projected confidence would waver once she revealed the task she had in store for him.
“I have requested that the Millennium Wake be prepared and a contingent of patrol rangers from the First Air Guard placed at the ready. I trust you have read the mission dossier?”
“Of course, your highness. If I may be so bold, I admit that I do not immediately see the need for your fastest cruiser and a squadron of elite rangers for a simple geological survey to the western border.”
“This is not, in fact, a geological survey,” Celestia stated.
“I thought as much, Your Highness.”
“The dossier provides a cover story, and will be placed in the military archives. Your true objective is not to survey Wormest Volcano, but to deliver a payload of magical charges to the caldera, then return to the capital without attracting undue attention.”
“You are ordering me to bomb an active volcano?” Tanager asked, raising an eyebrow. “There are numerous settlements on the Equestrian side of the mountain. If we should trigger an eruption, they would have no time to evacuate. That is in addition to the rumors of what lurks beneath.”
“Your concerns are noted, Major, and they have already been addressed by our most capable volcanologists and seismologists. The explosives are intended to ease a buildup of pressure that has been detected, and to quell the temblors that are alarming the locals. As for any rumors, I trust you not to give credence to the overactive imaginations of a few shaken civilians.”
“That does not explain why I need a warship and a fighting unit, when a cargo hauler would do just as well.”
“It should be a simple mission, Major,” Celestia stated. “I selected you to command it because you are capable of dealing with any unforeseen circumstances that may arise. Consider the ship and the soldiers as insurance in the event something does.”
“Understood, Your Highness.”
“I expect you back in Canterlot in three days time.”
Tanager nodded, and turned to leave.
As soon as the soldier was gone, Celestia slumped tiredly into her throne and looked out into the vast empty space. The blank gazes of Twilight Sparkle and all the other ponies preserved in her stained glass windows stared back at her.
Dear Princess Celestia,
You will never read this letter. I know that. Even so, I can’t bear the thought of not writing to share with you the most wondrous news: I, Twilight Sparkle, am now a mother. My daughter was born Tuesday morning, beautiful and healthy, thanks in no small part to Fluttershy’s amazing help. She weighed almost five pounds, and, I should mention that she’s a unicorn like her mom. She’s the lightest pink, with a pink mane. Not exactly what I expected when I shacked up with a dark blue pegasus with a silver mane! (I can write that only because I know you will never read this).
Of course, you would be very surprised if you did know about this. Having a foal violates everything I ever said about not contaminating the timeline, and about leaving no impact in the past. Her existence, every action that she takes throughout her life, and and every action her children ever take could change Equestria’s future forever. As my daughter, I would be surprised if she didn’t affect the fate of Equestria.
Even so, I don’t feel guilty. I would want you to know that. I didn’t plan for a daughter, but I didn’t plan for any of this. We simply couldn’t live in complete isolation and obscurity forever. I couldn’t force that on my friends, and I couldn’t force it on myself. Pinkie Pie already has twins, just like the Cakes, and even though her girls are both earth ponies, I promise they put any unicorn foal to shame as far as mischief is concerned! Pinkie is happy. Rarity and Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, Spike: they are as happy as I could ever hope for them to be under these circumstances.
Maybe Evertrot’s theory of parallel universes is right, and the future in store for our own children will take place in a world different from the one we left. We are still here, after all. In any case, the instant I looked my daughter in the eyes—in her perfect pink eyes—I knew I would never regret her.
Whatever will be, will be.
Finally, though you will never know, I named her after you. You probably know that it’s considered bad luck in my own time to name a foal after you, but in this time you haven’t come to Equestria yet. Still, it wasn’t easy to convince her dad to go along with such an unusual name.
With love, your faithful student always,
My dearest Princess Twilight,
It has come to my attention that Equestria once again faces a serious threat. Mining operations near the Wormrest Volcano deep within the Serpent’s Spine Mountains have inadvertently roused the Old Worm, the lord of all the dragons, from his long slumber. Unfortunately, the Old Worm appears to be most upset at being disturbed, and after causing significant damage to the communities near the volcano, he is even now crossing the Western Plain toward Canterlot.
The Old Worm is an ancient dragon, heavily armored and resistant to all common types of magic. I am concerned that my sister and I cannot stop him alone, and Discord, were he even inclined to help, is nowhere to be found. The responsibility falls once again to you, as Princess and protector of Equestria, to summon your friends and wield the Elements of Harmony. Together, with the magic of friendship on your side, I am confident you will be able to calm the Old Worm’s rage.
“It’s true!” Rainbow Dash shouted, even before she touched down hard in the plowed field beside the inviting house Rarity and Applejack shared. “I saw him with my own eyes.”
He is here.
As the others rushed to surround Rainbow Dash, full of questions, Twilight reflected on the fact that she had written those three words in her journal last night, and nothing more. Even before Rainbow had returned from her scouting trip, the subtle changes in the magical field permeating the land and the air above it left no doubt in her mind. Discord had arrived in Equestria.
She had known it was going to happen sooner or later. The history books were divided on exactly when Discord had popped into being in Canterlot Castle and declared that Equestria was to be his personal playground, but Twilight had determined years ago that if she continued to be unable to find a way home to her own time, the odds were increasingly likely that they would be here when the spirit of chaos and disharmony did make his grand entrance.
The knowledge had hardly prevented Twilight from living her life. On the contrary, she had lived each day secure in the knowledge that when Discord did appear, he would be defeated by the coming of the Princesses and the Elements of Harmony. When her second daughter had been born, the event had occasioned joy, not fear for the foal’s future. It had been especially important to allow a little joy to find its way into her life, after Morningstar's death.
Little Lulamoon was only three months old now, and a quiet, introspective foal by any standard, but especially for a pegasus. Twilight supposed she should be thankful that she showed no signs of having a personality like that of her namesake, and also that nopony in this time could possibly know where Twilight had gotten the name. Lulamoon was a beautiful name, after all, and it was not Twilight’s fault that it happened to be attached to the most obnoxious unicorn she had ever met, back in her own time. She also was secretly delighted by Tia’s terrible trouble pronouncing the name, with the result that she referred to her baby sister exclusively as Luna-moo. It was adorable.
Now that Discord was actually here, though, Twilight’s maternal instincts left her fretting. She did not know when, nor where the Princesses would make their appearance. She did not know how much of Equestria Discord would actually cause to fall into chaos before he was defeated. Part of her wanted to pack up the children and gallop off into the hills until the trouble passed, but that wouldn’t exactly be setting the example that a former Princess of Equestria and once-Bearer of the Element of Magic should. Applejack and Rainbow Dash would never let her get away with it, anyway.
"It's bad," Rainbow Dash continued. "He's got a mean streak like nothing we ever saw. He's making the pegasi fight the unicorns, and the earth ponies fight everyone. It's nothing but fighting and craziness from Canterlot to Trotterdam, and I think he's probably just getting started."
"At least we'll get to be here when the Princesses show up to turn that ol' so-and-so to stone," Applejack said. "I'll be lookin' forward to it."
"I just hope it happens soon," Fluttershy said. "I can't bear the thought of ponies fighting each other."
"And I just hope Discord keeps his ugly mug far away from here until the Princesses do come," Spike added.
After more conversation on the subject, and a few other pertinent topics du jour, the assembled ponies settled down to picnic in Applejack's sun-splashed yard. Twilight had sent her daughters inside the house to play with Firefly, Whoopie, and Banana Cream, under Rarity's watchful, if not entirely patient eye, so she was surprised when little Tia flew out the front door toward her mother.
“Look Mommy! Auntie Rarity made them for us!” Tia shouted as she galloped headlong out of the house on her little legs. Rarity followed with Lula on her back, using a little bit of magic to keep the slate blue pegasus foal steady. Both of Twilight’s daughters were wearing tiny, delicate little silver tiaras, studded with brightly colored gems.
“We’re Princesses!” Tia shouted. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna-moo, here to save Equestria!”
Twilight stared at her daughters in silence for a long few seconds, then gasped audibly as she felt her heart clench.
“He is coming! He is coming on like wildfire!”
Major Tanager shouted the words breathlessly, having galloped the length of Celestia’s throne room right in the middle of the Sun Court’s early session.
“Speak plainly, Major,” Celestia demanded, even as dozens of others in the throne room murmured their surprise and consternation at the intrusion.
“The great snake! He will be on the slopes of the mountain in no more than an hour. The mission was a terrible mistake, Your Highness. As soon as we dropped the bombs, we awoke the beast slumbering below the volcano, and he erupted from the volcano spewing smoke and fire! We were lucky to escape at all without exploding the boiler from running it so hard. None of us had ever seen such power or fury. I fear the beast aims to destroy the capital!”
At that last, the ponies filling the throne room fell into panic and began to shout and clamor.
Celestia nodded in acknowledgment of the soldier's words, then stood. When she spoke, her magically-amplified voice silenced all others. “Citizens, collect your families and go up the mountain to the old citadel. Whatever is coming, I shall protect you.” Next, Celestia turned toward Hickory Switch, the recently-appointed captain of her personal guard. “Captain, sound the general alarms. I’ll need you to coordinate the evacuation of the city. Any forces you can spare are to be placed under the command of General Dancypants to aid in the defense of the city.” She finally turned to the fear-stricken face of Major Tanager. “Major, report to the General with my orders regarding the defense of Canterlot. It will fall to his Air Guard to coordinate the protection of the city, and I want every ship and able bodied soldier he can spare well-prepared to greet our guest when he arrives.”
“What of Princess Luna and Princess Twilight?” Hickory Switch asked. “Shall they be summoned?”
“I shall attend to them myself, Captain,” Celestia replied curtly. “Now go, everypony. There is no time to waste.”
There was no time to waste at all, not if a routine two-thousand years in the making was going to go off without a hitch. So far, it was all proceeding exactly as planned.
“It sounds impossible, fantastical even,” Rarity said. “It sounds exactly like something only you can do. Of course, I shall do everything in my power to help you.”
“You do know what it would mean if we succeed?” Twilight asked.
“That we all die? Yes, that thought did occur to me upon you first proposing to siphon out my life essence.”
“It’s nothing to make light of!” Twilight snapped. “I’m talking about murdering the five ponies I love most in the world.”
Rarity threw a foreleg around Twilight’s neck, and Twilight felt the other unicorn nuzzle against her cheek.
“I’m sorry, darling. I know this is more difficult for you than for any of us. You must understand, though, that every one of us is prepared to do this, for the future, and for Equestria. This is not our time. We were never meant to live and grow old here. The good years we’ve had, the friends we’ve made, the families and loves and foals … those were wonderful, amazing gifts, but in the end, what you’re planning … it is simply what must be done."
Twilight sighed. “When Discord first appeared, I was so certain that the Princesses would come to the sound of blaring trumpets, Elements of Harmony in tow, and defeat him just like that. But it’s not going to happen. I should have known when you told me you couldn’t sense the Elements anywhere. With your skill in locating gemstones, and the connection to your Element you developed, it should have been obvious that they didn’t exist.”
“But they do exist,” Rarity countered. “Only in a different form.”
“Yes," Twilight said with a heavy sigh. "Generosity, Loyalty, Honesty, Laughter, Kindness, and Magic. We're the Elements of Harmony. We always were. It’s why we had a special magical connection even before we met each other, and why the Elements bonded with us the moment we first found them in the Everfree Forest. Only, without the ability to concentrate the magic of our friendship, to focus it, we can’t use it to its full potential. The six of us together, without more, can't stop Discord.”
“Not only that, but the Elements survived for nearly two thousand years, and helped the Princesses defeat Celestia knows how many ghastly villains, not to mention ...” Rarity trailed off.
“Nightmare Moon,” Twilight finished glumly.
“Yes. And well, I hardly think I would have looked quite so intact after all that time, were I not preserved as a magical gemstone. I shall never forgive you if you tell Applejack, but I found a gray hair in my mane yesterday morning, if you can believe such an absurd thing. Anyhow, perhaps you can explain exactly how a simple unicorn such as myself might help you to create the most powerful magical artifacts known to Ponydom?”
“You can find me the six most perfect gemstones anywhere in Equestria, and once you do you can help me keep Spike from eating them. I also know you have some experience charging gems with magic, so I want to go over the technique with you. What I'm going to be employing is a heavily-modified variation of the spell I used to send the Pinkie Pie clones back into the Mirror Pool.”
“Only this time time you’re going to be using it on real ponies,” Rarity noted. “I admit that it shall be most odd helping to plan my own demise.”
“I’m so, so sorry, Rarity. I wish there was some other way.”
“There is no other way, Twilight. You have tried everything, and besides … I should think by now we’ve all realized the truth about your sweet daughters."
Twilight shook her head. “I can hardly believe it, but we never changed history. I don’t even know if it’s possible to change history. Tia and Lula—Celestia and Luna—are the ones who will wield the Elements of Harmony and defeat Discord.”
"Though I note that at present they are lacking wings and a horn, respectively."
"I have some ideas about that," Twilight said.
“And what of our dear Spikey-wikey?”
“He’ll watch over my daughters, and Pinkie and Rainbow’s children as well. He’ll make sure Tia and Lula find their way to the fortress of the mage council, far from Discord’s current reach. Shortly before we were sent back, Princess Celestia sent me a book about Paisley the Perspicacious, leader of the exiled council at this point in history. It must have been a hint that I was to entrust them to her care.”
"So Princess Celestia knew this was going to happen," Rarity concluded.
"Because I'm going to tell her."
"And Spike was—"
"Yes. His magical teleportation fire, if it was sufficiently powerful ... there could be a reaction, you see ..."
Rarity nodded. “About your girls. I hope you know, Twilight, that their father would be proud of them. I’m just so very sorry that neither of you will be there to see what they will accomplish.” Tears were welling in Rarity’s eyes, and Twilight hugged her friend tightly, and let Rarity rest her head on her chest.
“We can all be proud. The Equestria that we were born into exists because of all of us, and what we’re about to do here. And Rarity?”
“I’m proud of you too. Sometimes I think you’ve been the fiercest and the bravest one of us all along.”
“Oh, stop it, you flatterer. Just make sure mine really sparkles, okay? I know you will. I always thought it was the loveliest of the lot.”
Dear Princess Celestia,
If you are reading this, then the sealing spell I placed on this page has expired, or you figured out how to break it. I’m sure I came up with one or two tricks in my day that could fool even you, so I’m going to assume the spell worked as intended. So if you are reading this, I’m gone, along with Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Spike. I won’t be able to see you again, so this is my final letter to you—Celestia, Princess of Equestria—my beloved darling daughter.
Before I write anything further, I want you to know how proud of you I am. You did the impossible thing I asked of you. You never revealed the truth to me, not even when you knew I was shortly to leave you forever. After so long a time to wait the all-too-brief years we spent together must have seemed to fly by in a flash, and most of that time you were forced to spend training me for the destiny you knew was in store for me. I know you must have been tempted to interfere, to try to change things, only to remind yourself over and over that you couldn’t, because you knew the timeline would be shattered if we did not go back.
Do not regret anything, I beg of you. Your actions saved Equestria, and gave you and Luna the chance to build a nation founded on the principles of friendship and harmony. If we had not been sent back, Discord would have prevailed, and you and Luna would never have been born. Even if Discord never appeared, the Equestria that would have arisen would have been a pale shadow of what you and your sister built. I’m glad I never was made to see that Equestria.
I have only one regret of my own, and that is how little time I had to spend with you, and especially with your sister. I should mention that I’m certain you never told her. She was so young that she wouldn’t have remembered me anyway. You made the right decision, though maybe sometime in the coming days you can tell her, to help her understand everything, and what we did. It was awful to know that a rift was going to develop between you, and that I would not be there to help heal it. Always love your sister, as I loved you both.
I used to wonder what friendship could be. Thanks to you I learned not only about the magic of friendship, but about love, and true devotion. Tomorrow night I will create the Elements of Harmony, and I will be gone from another stage of your life. You deserved a mother, and I can never apologize sufficiently for depriving you of one. Though I was present only for a sliver of your wonderful, incredible life, I want you to know that yours is the proudest mother in all of Equestria. I love you Tia. Tell your sister I love her too.
Your most faithful student and adoring mother,
With tears in her eyes, Celestia set the ancient journal down on her drawing table just as Luna swept into the room followed by a number of her night pegasi and a pair of Celestia's own Royal Guards. What’s more, they escorted someone else, someone Celestia had not expected to see at all.
“Princess,” said Spike, bowing low before Celestia. The baby dragon looked a little singed around the edges of his spines, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
“We discovered him where Princess Twilight and the others vanished,” Luna declared. “He appears undamaged.”
“Spike!” Celestia exclaimed, before catching herself. It was impossible for Spike to have remained behind. He had been there to care for her, and all along after that until this fateful day. This could not truly be Spike. She had to be dreaming, though a quick tap of a gold-shod hoof to the side of her head informed her otherwise.
Suddenly, though, Celestia remembered that dragons’ forms were malleable. A creature who was in one moment no larger than a hatchling could become a massive serpent a moment later, under the right circumstances. The reverse could no doubt be true as well.
“It’s good to find myself looking up at you again,” Spike said with a wink. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too, you old geezer,” Celestia replied, and used her telekinesis to lift Spike into the air and over to where she sat.
“Oh, hey, watch how hard you squeeze! I’m just a baby dragon! Ack! Princess Luna!”
The six friends were gathered outside Twilight’s cottage, standing around a large stump that had been planed flat. Six brilliant white diamonds, cut by Rarity into the shape of each of their respective cutie marks, had been placed in a circle on top of the stump. Spike stood just a few lengths away, keeping watch in the unlikely event that any villagers might be out and about in the dead of night.
“I’m ready if y’all are,” Applejack declared. “Might as well get this over with.”
“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “Ready.”
“Mm, I’m not sure,” Rarity said. “Applejack, how do I look?”
“Exactly like what I want my last memory to be, Rare,” the orange mare replied with a faint smile.
Rarity didn’t reply, but instead shut her eyes tightly, obviously holding back tears. Applejack rested a supportive foreleg on her shoulder.
“Well, I don’t know about you ponies, but I’m ready to get harmonized!” Pinkie Pie declared.
“Fluttershy?” Twilight asked, turning to the butter yellow pegasus.
“Oh, um, almost. Actually I was hoping to say a little prayer … if nopony minds too much.”
“Really, now?” Applejack asked.
“Let her do it, AJ,” Rainbow said. “It’s important to Fluttershy, and what’s important to her is important to me.”
“Well, I reckon it can’t hurt nothin’.”
“Please, go ahead,” Twilight said.
Fluttershy took a deep breath before speaking softly and serenely. “May all creatures find happiness. May all be free of sorrow. May all find love and kindness in their hearts. May all live in harmony, believing in the equality of all living things. May all true friends stay together forever, in this world and forever after. May all creatures find peace. I’m ready now, Twilight.”
“I guess that’s all of us then,” Twilight said, swallowing anxiously. “Time to make some Elements of Harmony.”
“Let’s just get it over with,” Rainbow Dash prompted. “I’m going first so I can show you girls how a tough pony does it.”
The pleading look in Rainbow Dash’s eyes told Twilight that there was more to her request than mere bravado. The pony who represented loyalty couldn’t bear to stand around and watch her friends perish, one by one.
“I know it seems crazy to say so now, in this moment,” Twilight began, “but I want you to know I feel like I’m the luckiest pony who ever lived. I never thought I would find friends like you. I grew up not knowing what friendship even meant. After I met you girls, though, you shared the magic of friendship with me, and I learned that there is no force more wonderful, more powerful, and more eternal than true friendship, and the love that is a part of it. I’m so sorry that it’s come to this, that this is what we must do to save Equestria, but I’m still so happy for all the good years, and the good times we shared. I love you all so, so much.”
“Yeah, I love you too,” Rainbow Dash said, looking down. “I really do.”
“Me too!” Pinkie Pie proclaimed.
“We all do,” said Fluttershy.
“And we don’t blame you for anything, darling,” Rarity added. “We’ve treasured every moment with you. You know, in a way, this will allow us to be together forever.”
Applejack spoke next. “Twilight, y’all know I don’t ascribe to none of that mumbo jumbo of Fluttershy’s—no offense, sugarcube—but just in case she's right, well, see ya soon, I reckon. If not, it’s been an honor.” She tipped her hat.
All seven present stood in silence for a long moment, while Twilight steeled herself for what came next. “Alright then,” she said at last. “Let’s do it. Rainbow Dash, please step forward and place a hoof on your Element.”
“Got it.” The pegasus swiftly complied, while the others all took a step away from their friend. Rainbow then looked around at the ponies surrounding her. “It’s okay, guys. Nothing lasts forever, right? Oh, hey Spike, if you somehow survive that magic explosion, see if you can arrange for someone to take care of Tank, okay?”
“Um, sure thing!” Spike promised.
“Right. Okay, Twi. Do it.”
Twilight did not reply, but instead concentrated on casting the spell she had developed. If all went to plan, she would be able to condense a living pony into their pure magical life essence, and transfer it into the crystal matrix within a gem. Of course, the presence of the Elements of Harmony in the future was a strong indication that this was going to work, but that didn’t mean she could afford to be careless.
Twilight gathered her magic, and cast the spell in a flash of magenta from her horn. Just like that, Rainbow Dash was gone, and a glowing red diamond expertly cut in the shape of a lightning bolt rested on the tree trunk. Twilight turned to Pinkie Pie, who steadily returned Twilight's gaze.
“So I guess this is how Equestria was made! It really is a gem!” Pinkie Pie declared, before she too collapsed into a bright jet of light that flew into the balloon-shaped diamond Rarity had prepared, which then became suffused with a brilliant blue glow. Pinkie was gone. Fluttershy was next.
“Is it going to hurt, Twilight?” she asked. “I hope it’s not going to hurt.”
“I honestly don’t know,” Twilight replied. “I hope not.”
“Oh. Okay. Bye, Twilight.”
In a flash, Fluttershy dissolved into light that filled her butterfly-shaped gem with a warm pink glow. Twilight felt hot tears soaking her coat below her eyes. Blinking, she turned to Applejack.
“We’d like to go together, iffin’ y’all can finagle it,” the orange mare said. “I don’t think I can bear to witness losin’ this one.”
“We’ve grown rather attached, you see,” Rarity added. “I’m not sure how that happened, really.”
“I can try,” Twilight said, doubtful.
“Well, then this is goodbye, Applejack,” Rarity said, sighing. “I guess there’s no point in denying it any longer. I really am going to die an old maid.”
“Aw, hay, at least you had me, Sugarcube,” Applejack replied. “I know it wasn’t what either of us dreamed, and I know there wasn’t really nothin’ romantic about any of it, but, well …” Applejack removed her hat and held it over her heart with a foreleg. “You made somethin’ beautiful out of this ugly fate, Rare. You made it possible for me to get out of bed every mornin’ and tend my crops. I don’t understand how, or why, but in this crazy life, I guess it's fair to say you turned out to be my soulmate.”
Rarity used her telekinesis to pull Applejack’s hat away and place it on top of her own head, then pulled Applejack close to her and nuzzled against the orange mare’s shoulder. “You made it easy for me to find the good and the beautiful, Applejack.”
Finally, Rarity opened her eyes and looked directly at Twilight. “Goodbye, Twilight. Goodbye, Spikey-wikey.”
Spike looked away as Twilight cast her spell for the last time. When the light of her magic faded, an orange gem in the shape of an apple and a sparkling purple diamond rested on the stump.
“It’s over, Spike,” Twilight said, between labored breaths. She felt weak, in part from the taxing spellcasting, but in part because of the recrimination gnawing at her. As hard as they had all tried to reassure her that this was the best, and the only option, none of that could change the fact the she was going to leave this world as Twilight Sparkle: premeditated murderer of those she loved the most.
She wondered if this is how Celestia would feel, after she brought to fruition the plan carefully laid out for her in Twilight’s journal, after she witnessed the collapse of the time vortex. Would she feel this empty, knowing that she would never see any of them again? At least Twilight would have only a short time to dwell on it. Celestia would have millennia. Twilight was pretty sure she was the worst mother in the history of the universe.
“Spike,” she began. “Tia and Lula …”
“I’ll keep them safe, I promise,” he replied. “And after I deliver them to the mages, I’ll keep watch over them for as long as it takes for them to defeat Discord and get the hang of ruling Equestria.”
“I’m so sorry to leave you like this.”
“Aw, we had some good times,” Spike said, eyes watering. “It won’t be so bad. I’ll just find a nice volcano to sleep under until it comes time to send us all back to the past with an awesome magic fireball. And you all thought my magic breath was only good for sending scrolls to Canterlot. Oh, and just for the record, I am not a worm. I'd like to know how that whole thing got started.”
"Are you okay?"
"Okay. Neither am I."
"I'll still help you go through with the rest of it."
“You’re the best Number One Assistant a girl could ever ask for.”
“I love you too, Twilight.”
“You’ll tell my girls not to fight, right? After I've gone?”
“That might be a bit of a long-term problem, given the whole Nightmare Moon thing. Because that totally happens.”
“I know. Just do your best.”
“Okay. We’ll do this in the morning then, after I say goodbye to the girls, if it doesn’t kill me to see their faces after I tell them they’re not going to see their mother again."
“Um, don’t look now, but you might not have until morning. Something's happening!"
Spike gestured frantically behind Twilight, and she hurriedly turned to look. One by one, the newly-created Elements of Harmony were beginning to glow more brightly than before. Twilight could feel the power building within them.
“What's going on? What's happening?" Twilight was cut off as blinding beams of energy projected directly at her from each of the glowing gemstones. The light enveloped her, and she felt her hooves leave the earth. The sensation was not entirely unfamiliar: she had experienced it once before.
Even before Twilight's hooves finally touched down again, she felt the change that had occurred, and she spread her wings experimentally. The Elements had not finished their work yet, though, for the light enveloping Twilight brightened again, and a colorful beam fired straight up into the night like a beacon. Suddenly, high above a single point of light blossomed into incandescence and became a six pointed star surrounded by five more shining lights.
The Harmony Cluster. The Friends. Twilight had not had the time nor the heart for astronomy in this time, but how could she have been so blind to fail to notice her teacher's favorite stars were missing from the night sky? Fluttershy was right after all, and now they were calling to her. Twilight knew she had to go, to complete the new magic she had written, and create the last Element, the Element of Magic.
Twilight whirled around at the sound of her daughter's hushed whisper.
“There was a lot of lights and noise outside. Mommy, you look like a Princess. Are you a Princess?” Tia stood wide-eyed in front of the cottage, while Lula—Luna—simply stared as she clung tightly to her sister’s back with all four limbs.
“Yes, my love, I am a Princess, just like in the stories,” Twilight said. “I’m your Princess, and I always will be. I’ll watch over you, and keep you safe, and if one of you is in trouble, I’ll convince the very stars themselves to aid you. I think, though, I think I have to go now."
"Where are you going?" Celestia asked.
Twilight pointed a foreleg up, directly above her at the night sky which was still all aglow with shifting light. "Spike will take care of you," she said. "When you think of me, of any of us, you look to those stars. That's where I'll be.” She felt calm, and serene, which shouldn't have been possible at a time like this. She tried to feel regret, and sorrow, and guilt, but those feelings were washed away by the magic of love, harmony, and friendship coursing through her.
“I don't understand,” Celestia whispered, sniffling.
“You will someday, I hope," Twilight said. "Ponies are magical creatures,” she continued. “But we are even more than that. We live here.” She touched a hoof to her her chest, directly over her heart. “Remember that, and remember that I love you both so much more than I can say with clumsy words."
“I love you, Princess Mommy.”
"You're got to be strong now, Celestia. For your sister."
“Be strong, be brave. Goodbye, my little Princesses.”
Twilight saw Celestia gallop forward, Luna on her back, even as she felt her body losing coherence. By the time the filly reached her, she was already gone. On the tree stump, the Element of Magic set in its crown shined with magenta light that expanded outward, quickly enveloping the two youngsters standing nearby.
A moment later, the light dimmed. Six bright stars shined down on Equestria from the highest point in the celestial sphere, and would continue to shine forever more. Six gems with the power to save the world a thousand times over rested on an old tree stump. One young dragon gazed up at the heavens. Two new Princesses of Equestria did not cry.