Starlight Glimmer took a deep breath, held it in her chest until her lungs burned and her legs shook, then let it out, slow and deliberate. She was in control – not the discomfort of suffocation, not the nervous energy that always accompanied these tests, and certainly not the paralyzing fear of failure and the disappointment that would follow. She was in control.
Control. It was the most important piece of a pony’s character. The glue in Twilight’s books, the gluten in Pinkie’s cakes, the thread in Rarity’s ensembles. Without control, a pony was nothing but scraps.
“Okay,” she said. “Ready.”
Twilight Sparkle’s lip twitched, the faint sign of a smile desperate to crack through her stern visage. It was the only warning Starlight got.
The first attack was the simplest. A collimated beam of pure energy, thinner than a hair, ionized the air between the two of them with a blinding flash. A deafening thunder followed that shattered the library’s windows. The heat singed Starlight’s coat, and her shield buckled under the assault. Reflections of the flash set books and tapestries on fire throughout the vast hall.
Starlight leaned into the beam, ignoring the stabbing pain in her horn as she fought to counter the tremendous power Twilight poured into the assault. She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling with the tendrils of her magic for the source of the beam, and—there, she could see Twilight in her mind, wing’s flared, horn pointed forward like a spear.
She stepped to the side and let her shield collapse, drawing the magic into her. A twist, a touch, and a small patch of the universe bent to her will. Natural laws changed, probabilities shifted, and the temperature around her plunged to freezing and zero and then far, far beyond. The moisture in the air condensed into fog and then snow, and then the oxygen and finally the nitrogen froze as well, and she crushed these ghostly powders into a sliver of ice colder than the dark side of the moon. Starlight gathered all of her power, channeled it into the spear, and shoved it at Twilight. It broke the speed of sound after two feet and continued to accelerate.
Her reward was a panicked yelp from Twilight, followed by a sudden darkness as the beam snuffed out. A flash and a pop announced her teleport.
A flutter of displaced air teased Starlight’s tail. She lashed out with her hooves, spun, and readied another counter when Twilight’s second attack caught her.
It came from below. The crystal beneath her seemed to shift, and her body weight doubled, tripled, quadrupled. Her legs collapsed, and she crashed to the floor. The breath exploded from her lungs. It felt like a buffalo stood on her spine.
“Cavendish’s Greater Gravitic Grounding,” Twilight Sparkle said. She stood a few feet away, breathing heavily. A faint wisp of smoke rose from the tip of her horn, and her feathers were ruffled from Starlight’s attack. “You remember how to counter it?”
“Glrhgh,” Starlight said.
“Oh, sorry.” Twilight’s horn flashed again, and the crushing pressure weighing Starlight down vanished. “Better?”
Starlight gasped for air. She felt weightless, like the slightest motion might send her floating into the air. Her legs trembled, but she managed to pull them beneath her and stand. The room swam for a moment as the blood pooled in her limbs slowly returned to general circulation.
"That was terrible,” she said, finally. “Only two attacks? I should… We’re supposed to be evenly matched.”
Twilight shrugged. “Maybe I got lucky? Or maybe you’re getting lazy.” She smiled as she spoke, and used the tip of her wing to prod Starlight’s belly. The touch lingered a moment longer than it needed.
Or maybe Starlight was imagining things. She pushed Twilight’s wing away and turned to hide her blush. “You surprised me, is all. Gravity, who uses that? Nopony, that’s who. One more time?”
Twilight smiled again. Her horn flashed, and around them the room reassembled itself. Smoke withdrew into flames that shrank and vanished. Shattered glass melted together and fell up into the empty windows. Tapestries and books appeared out of ruins and tatters, and in seconds the room looked as pristine and perfect as before their duel.
“One more, then breakfast. As soon as you’re—oh, Starlight, you’re hurt!” Twilight rushed over, concern on her face, decorum gone. “I must’ve tagged you with that beam! I’m so sorry!”
“Huh?” She wasn’t hurt. Surely she would have felt even the faintest touch of that terrible ray. She craned her head back to look for any wounds. “I’m not—”
She was sitting now, she realized. Or she had fallen. All that was secondary to the black score running down the left side of her body in a charred furrow from shoulder to flank. It didn’t hurt, which was impossible, because even as she watched the skin along the wound peeled away, falling off in great sheets. Ash and burnt hair drifted off in the air, revealing under it not burned muscle but something else impossible. Shining, black, perfect chitin shone beneath the excavated flesh. A thousand iridescent colors played in the glossy reflections, and she couldn’t help but gasp with wonder as she reached out to touch—
Starlight woke with a gasp, an inhaled scream that left her throat raw. She kicked in panic, tangled her legs in the thin summer sheets, and fell from the bed in a jumble of limbs. The hard shock of crystal banished the last of the dream, and she lay there panting, sweating and shivering.
"Buck me,” she whispered. She wriggled upright and managed to light the room with her horn. Her left side was whole and unmarked. She pressed her hooves against the matted coat. Nothing. Just her. Skin and fat and muscle and bone.
That dream again. It was never exactly the same – the duel with Twilight was new – but the ending never changed. Her skin peeled away to reveal glossy black armor beneath. Starlight stood and kicked the sheets away. Sweat prickled in her coat, and the cool summer night rapidly gave way to chill. She grumbled, gathered the sheets in her magic, and spread them back out on the bed. Hopefully she hadn’t woken up Twilight or Spike with her dramatics.
It was still dark outside. Dawn was hours away, at least. She settled back on the bed and closed her eyes. Getting back to sleep after that would be difficult, but it was far too early to be awake.
A moment later she got out of bed and stumbled off to the lavatory to empty her bladder. Dreams, after all, weren’t the only thing that could keep a pony awake.
* * *
“So you’ve had this dream before?” Twilight blew on her hot cocoa and took a tiny sip.
“Three nights in a row. And that’s just the ones I can remember.” Starlight pushed her bangs out of her eyes for the umpteenth time and tried to focus on her coffee. It was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary morning. Hour of lying in bed, staring at her ceiling as the gray dawn light slowly filled her room, hadn’t been restful. “Do you think it means something?”
“Dreams are usually just the mind’s way of processing unusual stimuli or dramatic events. Your confrontation with Chrysalis was certainly a dramatic event.”
“I fought changelings,” Starlight said. She took another gulp of her coffee, ignoring the sting on her tongue. “I didn’t turn into a changeling. That’s not how changelings work. They imitate ponies, not the other way around.”
“Mhm.” Twilight took another sip of her cocoa. Her horn glowed briefly, and Starlight felt a warm rush wash across her body.
“Did… you just check if I was a changeling?”
“No.” Twilight set her mug down. “Okay, yes. Can you blame me for being careful, though?”
Yes, yes she could. But Starlight could never say that to Twilight’s face. She wondered if there were some way to get Twilight to scan her again, if only to feel the gentle warmth of her magic.
“Of course not,” Starlight said. “Can never be too safe, right? Ha, ha. So, am I?”
“Are you what?”
“Oh!” Twilight blinked. “No, of course not. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a changeling! But I would certainly wonder where the real you went if you were.”
Starlight found herself smiling behind her mug. “Would you come looking for me if changelings kidnapped me?”
“Rescue the changelings from you, you mean,” Twilight said. She smiled as she spoke, to take the edge off the joke. “It sounds like these dreams are bothering you. Is there anything you want to talk about, maybe? I find talking with my friends sometimes helps.”
Did Twilight linger on the word ‘friends’ for just a shade longer than normal? Did she lean forward as she spoke? Did she always lick her lips like that? Starlight shook her head to banish the questions.
“Not really,” she said, which was terrible. Of course she wanted to talk with Twilight. She loved talking with Twilight. On any other occasion, she’d happily suffer any number of mental crises in exchange for an opportunity to talk with Twilight about her problems. But today… she sighed.
“Have you ever heard of Cavendish’s Greater Gravitic Grounding?”
“Um.” Twilight’s brow furrowed. “I don’t… No? Is that a spell?”
Of course it was. Or was it? If Twilight hadn’t heard of it, it couldn’t exist. The mare knew everything. Starlight shook her head and banished the memory. “Nevermind.”
“Hm. So what’s bothering you?”
“Nothing, really. It’s like these dreams are coming out of nowhere.”
Twilight tapped a hoof on the table. “Well, in that case, I suggest you try to keep your mind on other things. If it keeps bothering you, we can ask Princess Luna for some advice.”
Princess Luna for some advice. On the list of things Starlight wanted to do, that was near the bottom. Although Twilight and her friends had been quick to forgive and accept Starlight into their fold, she’d never gotten that same feeling from Celestia and her sister. Even as thankful as they’d been after rescuing them from Chrysalis, she always sensed a certain wariness from them. And why not? In their minds she was in the same category as Discord, a reformed villain still on parole. It would be a long time before Starlight felt comfortable sharing a room with Luna, much less sharing her dreams.
But that was a problem for later. If Twilight was correct – and Twilight nearly always was – these dreams would soon be a thing of the past, and she would no longer even remember that she was once troubled by the fear of black armor lurking beneath her coat. She opened her mouth to say something meaningless and hopeful when a quiet chime from the library caught their attention.
“Oh, that’s the map table!” Twilight’s face lit up like the sun with her smile. “Someone has a friendship problem. Let’s go see who’s solving it this time!”
The table again. Honestly, Starlight wanted to disassemble it just to see how it worked. But Twilight would probably object, and technically the table was Twilight’s property, even though it had just sprung out of the ground one day. So Starlight made do with fantasies of tearing it apart and drinking down its secrets. Some day, perhaps. Someday.
She followed Twilight into the throne room at a more sedate pace. The princess stood beside the table with her forelegs propped up on the edge. The map’s glow lit her face from beneath, giving it an eerie cast.
She wasn’t smiling – she looked puzzled, almost troubled. Starlight frowned and trotted closer. “Twilight, what’s wro… uh…”
She stumbled to a stop. She recognized both cutie marks floating above the map, for she was intimately familiar with both. One was Twilight’s starburst pattern. The other she saw in the mirror every morning.
It was hers.
“You’re not nervous, are you?”
Twilight’s voice jerked Starlight out of her reverie. She blinked away the sight of the countryside zipping along outside the train’s window and turned to her seatmate. Twilight’s head was tilted slightly, her eyes wide and inquisitive. The look she wore when confronting a problem that maybe wasn’t a problem but maybe was and she wasn’t quite sure if her prodigious intellect was the right solution either way.
Starlight forced a smile. “Why would I be nervous?”
Twilight feigned a shrug. She lifted a wing and draped it over over Starlight’s shoulder. It was soft and fuzzy and warmer than the finest blanket. It was all she could do not to snuggle up against it.
But that would be inappropriate, on a train or anywhere else for that matter. Students didn’t snuggle up to their teachers. There were boundaries to be observed, borders of proper behavior, the lines of control that gave equine society purpose and harmony. And control was everything. So Starlight held as still a statue in Twilight’s embrace.
“I’m always nervous,” Twilight said. “Every time I leave Ponyville for one of these missions. Sometimes all we have to do is find the right pony and talk to them. Other times we end up finding some ancient eldritch horror and have to fight it for the fate of the world. You’d think the map would have some way of telling the difference when it sends us to places.”
The map table could probably tell them lots of things, if only Twilight would let her split it open. Starlight considered making another stab in that direction and decided it could wait until they returned to Ponyville. After all, they had more pressing problems before them in Las Pegasus.
Or, she assumed they did. Frankly there was no way of knowing what was in Las Pegasus, only that the map table thought the two of them were necessary to find the problem and solve it. And for that, Starlight supposed, she owed the map table a favor. Maybe disassembling it could wait.
“How will we know when we find it?” she asked.
“Sometimes we don’t.” Twilight looked past her, out the window at the darkening landscape. They’d left the last tree behind hours ago, and now the world was filled with endless waves of grass and grain. The hills in the distance were like the swells of the ocean, and as the sun fell beneath the horizon Starlight could imagine they were sailing across the sea, guided by the stars and not the iron rails beneath them.
“With any luck, we’ll find it quickly,” Twilight continued. “Especially if it’s an eldritch abomination. I’ve always noticed them right away.”
“So… we’re hoping it’s a monster?”
“Well.” Twilight frowned. “It sounds bad when you say it that way.”
“Hm.” Starlight leaned back into the seat and closed her eyes. “Do you remember when we used to practice dueling?”
“We haven’t done that in a while, have we? I wonder if I’ve gotten out of practice. Are those dreams giving you ideas?”
“No, they just… reminded me, I guess. It has been a while.”
“We could start again, if you want,” Twilight said. “Magical dueling skills are like any other; they degrade if you neglect them. And you never know when you’ll need them, especially if the map starts sending you out with the girls on more of these trips.”
“Maybe when we get back. I kind of miss beating you.”
Twilight snorted. “Beating me? Oh, never change, Starlight. Never change.”
Never change? Not likely, not as long as she was Twilight’s pupil. She’d done nothing but change since the princess first offered to help her, after that disastrous attempt to revise the past with Starswirl’s spell. She hadn’t just changed under Twilight’s tutelage – she’d been entirely remade.
Perhaps that was the source of her dreams? If so, it was comforting. The old Starlight, the villain, deserved to be abandoned and forgotten. The new Starlight was better in every way, and if the cost of that change was a few uneasy dreams about being a changeling, well then, so be it. She would gladly suffer more than some sleepless nights if it meant truly appreciating the metamorphosis Twilight had sparked in her.
Yeah, that was it. Those silly dreams were just the shadow of her old self, raging against its slow, inevitable slide into memory and obsolescence. She closed her eyes again and let the train rock her to sleep.
* * *
“Okay,” Starlight said. “Ready.”
Twilight Sparkle’s lip twitched, the faint sign of a smile desperate to crack through her stern visage. It was the only warning Starlight got.
The blast of light from Twilight’s attack shattered Starlight’s world. It blinded and deafened her, but she expected that. She was already in motion and didn’t even need her shield. The crystal wall behind her glowed, melted and evaporated under Twilight’s assault.
Starlight skidded to a stop on her knees. She couldn’t see Twilight – she couldn’t see anything – but she could feel the heat pouring off of Twilight’s horn. It curled the hairs on her muzzle, and she aimed a beam of coherent force in its direction. The castle’s foundations shook as great plates of crystal lifted from the floor and flew across the intervening space like nothing more than snowflakes. They crashed onto the princess in a rockslide.
Twilight was already gone, of course. She’d teleported away, just as Starlight knew she would. And any second now… yes, there it was. She jumped to her feet and dove away as Twilight appeared behind her. A circle of power appeared where she had just stood, and Cavendish’s Greater Gravitic Grounding caught just the tip of her rear hooves. It was enough to tear her shoes clean off.
“Too slow!” Starlight shouted. She rounded, stumbling on her bleeding hooves, and used her magic to electrify the floor beneath Twilight. Normally the crystal wouldn’t hold a charge, but normally there wasn’t an alpha-class unicorn pouring megawatts of power into it. The floor flickered and glowed with a sickly yellow light, and the hot stench of ozone flowed into her muzzle. It tasted like blood.
Twilight tossed her head casually, dismissively. Starlight felt an incomprehensible force push against her magic, and just like that her spell vanished without a trace. Negated by the simple force of Twilight’s will.
Crap! Starlight leapt again, barely avoiding a bolt of force that tore the air apart behind her. A hot wind picked her up and flung her halfway across the library to crash into a fully stocked shelf. An avalanche of books buried her.
“Ow,” she said.
Her ears were still ringing, but she could hear Twilight trotting closer. The books glowed and lifted away, revealing the smiling princess’s face.
“What was it you said?” Twilight asked. “That I’m too slow?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Starlight brushed the last of the books off of her flank and stood. An old copy of Argent’s Atlas of Astronomical Apocrypha lay open before her, and she lifted it carefully back onto the shelf. Once, years ago, she’d owned a rare first-edition copy of that very book. It was lost now, left behind when she’d fled Our Town, and the sight of that familiar title filled her with an odd longing.
She shook her head and slid it back onto the shelf. Around her, the library pulsed with a gentle lavender light and quickly reassembled itself. Within moments no sign of their duel remained.
“That was impressive, though,” Twilight said. “How did you know I was about to cast Cavendish’s Greater Gravitic Grounding? I thought I was quick with it.”
“You were, it’s just…” Starlight stopped and slowly turned. “Do… Have we done this before?”
“What, duel? Of course, we practice all the—oh, Starlight, you’re hurt! Your hooves!”
“Huh?” Starlight peered back at at her rear legs. They stung, and red hoofprints stained the crystal floor beneath her. “Oh, it’s nothing, it’s just…”
The words died in her mouth, and a cold thrill shot up her spine. Beneath her hooves, beneath the blood, something shining and black screamed for attention. Her skin split as she watched, bursting like a seam, and the heliotrope coat fell away, revealing sharp edges and lines and holes. Starlight opened her mouth to scream, and—
Starlight jerked awake with a start. Beside her Twilight twitched, snorted, and after a moment resumed quietly snoring.
Starlight turned to the window. Outside, the prairie had given way to desert. The sand reflected the moon like snow, and with the lingering chill of the dream still upon her she could imagine they traveled through some arctic waste. Only the occasional shadow of a cactus remained to dispel the illusion.
For a moment she considered waking Twilight to share the dream. But just as quickly she discarded the notion – Twilight would just get wound up, as was her tendency, and neither of them would sleep again until dawn. And by then they would be in Las Pegasus, in search of friendship troubles to solve. Better to let her sleep.
Curious – and, to be honest, a little fearful – Starlight ran a hoof down her leg. Nothing there but coat and hooves. The dream was just that, a silly dream.
She sighed and closed her eyes. Soon enough the rocking train worked its magic, and she fell into slumber again.
* * *
“Woo, Las Pegasus!” Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship, Bearer of the Element of Magic, respected scholar and many-time savior of Equestria from slavery and destruction, jumped out onto the train platform and bounced like a filly. “Las Pegasus! It’s, uh… wow, it’s hot.”
“Yeah, it’s the desert.” Starlight already wore her matching shades and scallop-brimmed sunhat, both gifts from Rarity. “Also, it’s summer. The hottest time of year, most places.”
“Right, I suppose it is.” Twilight fanned her wings, stirring up a gentle breeze. A few of the ponies crowding around them on the platform, rushing toward the stairs, stopped at the sight and seemed to recognize her. But either they were used to alicorns in Las Pegasus or were too hip to gawk, because none of them even missed a step. A counter-rush of ponies poured onto the train, and minutes later it was pulling away, heading toward its next destination.
“So, big city,” Starlight said. The station was in the heart of Las Pegasus, and dozens of skyscrapers spread out in all directions. “Where to?”
“Um, honestly? I’m not sure.” Twilight started walking, and Starlight followed. The station exited onto a broad street filled with carriages and ponies, more than Starlight could count. The entire population of Ponyville could fit on a single block of a single avenue here. The drumbeat of thousands of hooves on concrete drowned out all but the loudest conversations. “Normally these missions are in small towns, and we just go the mayor. I guess we could try the town hall, or a newspaper, the library, maybe even a police station. What do you think?”
“The…” Starlight stumbled to a stop. For a moment the dream returned, overwhelming her senses. She stood across the crystal library from Twilight, readying spells designed to maim and destroy. The image was so real she bumbled into Twilight’s rump. “Er, sorry. You said a library?”
Twilight brightened, as she always did when the topic of libraries arose. “I did! They have a beautiful public library here. I exchange books with it sometimes. Do you want to visit?”
“Visit, to find this friendship problem?”
“Oh.” Twilight flicked her ears back. “Uh, of course. There’s no better place to start looking for friendship problems than a library, after all.”
“Well, lead on, then.”
After a few false starts and directions from a helpful pegasus, they finally found the Las Pegasus Municipal Library. Its marble edifice was akin to a fortress, the relic of an architectural fad that swept through public buildings about seven decades ago that littered Equestria with hulking, brutish monuments in imitation of ancient Pegasopolian designs. They projected power and dominance and control.
Personally, Starlight loved them. Equestria needed more buildings like this.
The inside was blessedly cool. New electric lights replaced gas fixtures on the walls, humming quietly in tune with the current flowing through the wires.
There were no crowds inside, at least not compared with the vast herds in the streets outside. But neither was the library empty – a constant stream of ponies flowed through the lobby, stopping by the information desk or checking books out from the counters. A gaggle of fillies dressed in school hats and bows followed behind a stern, older mare. University students with book-laden saddlebags huddled around study desks. Some were actually studying, others seemed to take the library as an opportunity to press up against their coltfriend’s side and pretend to read together.
“So, um.” Starlight scratched her muzzle. “What now?”
Twilight sighed. “I don’t know. Normally the problem just finds us. And it’s hard to miss monsters. Somepony would probably have said something if they saw one running around a city this big.”
“Right.” Wonderful. Her first friendship-map-mission-whatever with Twilight Sparkle, and it was turning into a dud. She wondered, absently, if the map would penalize her for failure.
Lacking any other ideas, they walked across the lobby toward the information counter. A faint buzz of interest followed as ponies noticed Twilight’s wings and horn, and a few inclined their heads in faint imitations of formal bows. Twilight either didn’t notice or pretended not to.
At the counter, Twilight exchanged a few words with the head librarian, then fell into a more excited conversation. Starlight listened with half an ear – she would have paid more attention, but they were talking about circulation and late fees rather than friendship problems. Instead she gazed about the cavernous lobby. Above her, the building’s multiple floors overlooked the space, with broad stairs leading up to each higher level. The Ponyville library could fit several times over into this place.
Beside her, a cream mare put a book on the return cart. Starlight gave it a slight nudge with her magic to line it up with the books below it – a little organizational tic she’d picked up from Twilight – and was about to resume her lazy overwatch of the library when the book’s title finally registered in her mind.
Argent’s Atlas of Astronomical Apocrypha. She picked it up and stared. The illustration on the cover, the edition, everything was the same as the dream. She set it down carefully, as if it might break at the slightest touch.
Huh. She stared at her hoof, then pressed it against her coat. Skin and muscle and bone. No chitin.
Twilight and the librarian were still yammering about something or other. They didn’t notice as Starlight walked away. The cream mare was there, across the lobby, moving up the stairs toward the third floor. Starlight rushed to catch up. At the top of the stairs, a flash of blue tail caught her eye between the shelves, and she nearly tripped over her hooves in pursuit.
“Wait!” she called as loudly as she dared, which was little more than a hiss. For this was a library, and a year of living with Twilight had ground such an intense respect for the rules of libraries into her soul that she couldn’t conceive of a real shout. Ahead of her, the cream mare turned in the aisles, vanishing behind a tall row of shelves.
Starlight cantered after her. They were in a deserted part of the library now, deep in the shelves of the antiquities section. The bookcases here bore huge tomes on their shelves, ancient and crumbling. Most of the titles weren’t even in modern Equestrian. Starlight trotted faster, rushing past the mouldering books, and jumped out of the aisle.
Nothing. The shelves stretched away into the distance. As far as she could see, she was the only pony on the entire floor. The only sound was the hammering of her heart.
Then, somewhere close, a page turned. Starlight froze and strained her ears forward.
Again, to her left. Starlight walked toward the sound slowly, not wanting to startle the mare. She rounded the corner and froze. A few feet away, a cream unicorn mare with a sky blue mane held a slender volume in her hooves. She stared at it intently, her eyes scanning rapidly across the pages, oblivious to Starlight’s presence.
“Er, excuse me, I couldn’t help—” Starlight didn’t get any further.
The cream mare didn’t just jump, she flew back, soaring nearly twenty feet and landing with catlike grace. The slender tome zipped after her, held in her magic, and she snatched it out of the air with a blindingly fast motion of her hooves.
“You,” the mare said. She growled. “How did you find me?”
“Uh.” Starlight blinked. “Sorry, I, uh… do we know each other?”
“Do you think I’m a fool? Is that it?” The mare snarled, her lips peeling back to expose a snake’s fangs and long, forked tongue.
“Whoa.” Starlight stepped back, and it began to occur to her that Twilight was nowhere around, and neither for that matter were any other ponies. And whoever this mare was – whatever she was – didn’t look happy to see her. “Hey, I just wanted to—”
A bright flash cut her off. Green flames erupted, licking at the mare’s coat, burning it away to reveal the shining black armor beneath. The mare grew with the flames, her legs and neck extending until she stood as high as Celestia. A limp, sickly cyan mane, riddled with holes, flowed down the back of her neck, and slitted dragon eyes stared down at Starlight with unrelenting hatred.
Oh. Starlight took a stumbling step back from Chrysalis.
“No friends to save you now, are there?” the queen hissed. She grinned, exposing a forest of wickedly sharp teeth. “I think I will enjoy this.”
A emerald ray burst from Chrysalis’s horn, eating away the distance between them in an instance. Starlight’s shield came up a moment too slow, and for a moment she could taste the viridian energy that wracked her body. Rot and insects and acid. Around her the shelves blackened and sagged.
Dozens of spells leapt to mind, but still she hesitated. Dueling was one thing, with its extensive safety protocols and careful rules. But this? This was for keeps. Chrysalis was trying to kill her.
Trying to kill her. Starlight’s pulse doubled in the space of a breath, and she let loose a primal, wordless shout. More even than Chrysalis’s attack it broke the serene atmosphere of the library, and in that instant she found her resolve.
She grasped at the queen with her magic, trying to crush her like a bug. Chrysalis snarled and fought back with her own strength, and they strained against each other. Sweat broke out in Starlight’s coat, and she felt Chrysalis slowly forcing her back. The queen had no adept skills, no intricate workings, but she was powerful, nearly as powerful as Twilight. She only had a few seconds until Chrysalis overwhelmed her, and then—
“Starlight!” The sudden shout interrupted them both. There, at the end of the aisle, stood Twilight Sparkle. She took in the scene in a single glance, and her lips curled back in a fierce imitation of Chrysalis’s expression. It occurred to Starlight that her mentor had her own unresolved issues with the queen of the changelings.
And those issues were about to explode. Twilight’s eyes filled with a brilliant light, and her wings wings extended out to brush the shelves on either side. A blinding, searing light surrounded her horn, and the floor beneath Starlight began to shake.
Whatever attack Twilight was about to launch never landed. Chrysalis gave her a look dripping with hate, and the green fire washed over her again. When flames and smoke cleared, she was gone.
She was breathing too fast. Hyperventilating. Starlight forced herself to sit and hold the air in her lungs as long as she could. Barely a second passed before it escaped, and she had to gasp for another.
“Starlight! Are you okay?” Twilight crossed the space between them in a blink. “That was Chrysalis!”
“I know. I know.” Starlight gulped for air. If Twilight hadn’t come along… The world began to gray around the edges of her vision, and she hung her head below her heart until the feeling of lightheadedness went away. “I followed her up here. I thought she was just another patron, but… Oh, buck me. Why is she here?”
“This must be why the map sent us here,” Twilight said. She stopped to inspect the shelves, which still smoked in the wake of Chrysalis’s attack. The rows of spines were blackened; molten glue dripped out from them, sizzling as it touched the floor. “How did you know it was her?”
“I didn’t. She had a book downstairs, a book that I… that I…”
Dreamed about? How could that be? Starlight stopped and ran her hoof along her legs, along her barrel. Nothing but skin and muscle and bone.
“Starlight?” Twilight looked worried now. “She didn’t hurt you, did she? Oh my gosh, she hit you in the head, didn’t she?”
“No, I… Twilight, am I dreaming?”
“Um.” Twilight blinked. “No? Why?”
“The book she had downstairs. I dreamed about it last night on the train.” Starlight looked around at the shelves, and stopped when she found the gap. “She was reading a book when I found her. Right here.”
Twilight leaned forward to inspect the gap and recoiled from the smoking books around it. “What book was it?”
“I don’t know. I think we need to find out, though.”
Clover the Clever’s Treatise on Starswirl’s Unfinished Spells, an Annotated Work by Mithril d’Carthenique, it turned out. They needed two librarians and the card catalogue to determine which book was missing, a project complicated by the near destruction of every other book on the shelves. So, they had a clue. That was the good news.
The bad news was that Starlight recognized the book. She’d used it to produce her own, improved version of Starswirl’s time travel spell to try and revise the past.
“Time travel?!” It was Twilight’s turn to panic, a task at which she excelled and Starlight normally took pleasure in observing. Right now, though, it felt entirely justified, and Starlight was on the verge of panicking with her. “She’s trying to undo the past! Like, uh, you did!”
Yeah, like she did. A hot wave of nausea rolled up Starlight’s gut at the thought. Chrysalis’s villainy was all too easy to intuit, because she’d pioneered the art herself.
“Okay, okay.” Twilight took a deep breath. Then another. “This is fine. Starlight, that book. How useful is it for her? Is it enough to develop her own version of the spell?”
“Not by itself,” Starlight said. “But it’s part of the puzzle. And it took me almost a year to put it together.”
“Right.” Twilight took another breath. “Chrysalis isn’t a sorceress like you. She powerful but not skilled. Also, if she had a working version of the spell, I assume we wouldn’t exist anymore. So, that’s a good sign.”
“You’re really reaching there, Twilight.”
“Bear with me. Okay, uh, we need more hints. You said she was reading another book when you found her?”
“Sort of.” Starlight had already retrieved the book and pulled it out of her saddlebags. “Argent’s Atlas of Astronomical Apocrypha. Heard of it?”
Twilight floated the book over and leafed through it. “In passing. Why would she need it? It has nothing to do with time travel or Starswirl.”
Not quite a true statement – the atlas was all about the motion of the stars, of their alignments and the patterns they formed. Starlight could still remember the star diagrams she’d lovingly memorized from the book years ago. She didn’t even need to open the book to know what Chrysalis had been looking for.
“The stars form recurring patterns in in the sky, right?” Starlight said. “Seasonal, yearly, decamerally. It’s possible she’s trying to use those patterns to reach back in time and influence events somehow. I don’t think I could do it myself, but with enough time I could probably come up with something similar.”
“This spell, would she need to cast it at night?”
“Um.” Starlight frowned. “Technically, no. The stars are out during the day too, you just can’t see them. But it would be easier to wait for night, then cast it. Assuming that’s what she’s doing.”
“Right. We know what we need to do, then.” Twilight paused and turned to the librarians who had been lurking a polite distance away. “Um, can I check this book out?”
* * *
When Twilight had an idea, she went all out. It was one of the things Starlight loved about her.
They were on the roof of the tallest building in Las Pegasus. Twilight had commandeered the entire expanse, and filled the sandy tiles with all manner of arcane diagrams drawn with salt and iron powder and dessicated leaves. They pulsed gently in time with Twilight’s magic and filled Starlight with a warm glow. The city’s lights stretched out in all directions, and beyond it the dark expanse of the desert covered the world out to the horizon.
The spell to detect changelings was fairly easy to cast – on a single pony. Trying to detect a single changeling in an entire city, however, was a steeper hill to climb. Twilight was lathered with sweat when she finally finished the spell, and sat heavily in one of the few spaces on the roof not covered with some glowing sigil or other. Starlight levitated a glass of cool water over to her.
“Thanks.” Twilight took a long gulp. “If she tries any serious magic, we should know right away. We can teleport to her and stop her.”
“Kill her, you mean.”
Twilight bit her lip. “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Right. Starlight looked over the edge of the roof. Below, the streets were nearly empty as the guard swept the city for any sign of the changeling queen. Above them, the sky had darkened into the turquoise of late dusk.
“What now?” Starlight asked.
“We wait for her to move. Chrysalis… well, you know her just as well as I do. A perfectly rational pony, who had a spell that let them manipulate the past and wanted to change something, would do so immediately and without taking any action that jeopardized her chances of success. She hasn’t done that yet, which means it must not be possible yet.”
“Or she’s not rational.”
Twilight nodded. “Chrysalis is… I think she’s a little crazy. Maybe she wasn’t always that way, but losing her hive had to have been a serious blow. If she’s out for revenge, then it might not serve her purpose to just change the past. She’d want to make sure we knew of her success.”
“Because that’s what villains do, right?” Starlight closed her eyes. “When I had Starswirl’s spell, the first thing I did wasn’t to go back and change the past. It was to track you down and gloat.”
“You’re not a villain, Starlight.” Twilight reached out toward her with a hoof, paused halfway, and set it down. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as villains, or heroes. Just ponies, and some of them make bad decisions.”
Yeah. Starlight tried to swallow, but the dry air betrayed her throat. “Why are bad decisions so easy to make, Twilight?”
“Because we’re ponies, Starlight.”
She snorted. “We can’t stop being ponies. How do we stop making bad decisions?”
Starlight expected a prompt response, some schmaltzy quip about friendship or hope or believing in ponies’ better nature. Instead Twilight was silent. Starlight glanced over to see her friend staring up at the fading sky.
Way to bring the mood down. Starlight considered scooting over the few inches it would take for their sides to brush together, to share their warmth against the rapidly cooling desert night. It would be so easy, then, for Twilight to stretch out her wing like a blanket, and together they could banish the—
“We could be here a while,” Twilight said, still staring up at the sky. “It’s been a long day. Try to get some sleep.”
Right. Sleep didn’t seem likely, but knew better than to complain with a nervous Twilight Sparkle. Starlight closed her eyes, and let the gentle murmur of the city fill her thoughts.
* * *
Starlight woke to the sensation of being crushed. Tons of invisible rocks weighed her down, squeezing the breath from her lungs. She gasped for air, failed, and began to drown in the empty expanse of Twilight’s crystal library.
“Cavendish’s Greater Gravitic Grounding,” Twilight Sparkle said, standing just a few feet away. “Very useful against unicorns, not so much against earth ponies or pegasi. Makes it hard to concentrate, doesn’t it?”
Something snapped in Starlight’s chest. Her scream emerged as a pitiful whimper.
“Painful, I know. And it doesn’t help that all the blood in your body is pooling in your limbs. Your vision will start to fail in a few seconds, and then you’ll black out.”
Please stop. Help. Her lips moved to form the words, but with no breath they died stillborn on her tongue.
“It’s almost impossible to counter unless you remember your physics lessons,” Twilight continued. “You might want to think about that. Quickly, though. Oh, a little hint: compression.”
Starlight wanted to curse at her, to scream in frustration and betrayal. Most of all, though, she wanted to breathe, and it didn’t look like any of her desires were coming to pass. A dark tunnel began to close around her vision. She flailed at Twilight with weak, broken magic, and began to despair.
Compression. On the edge of passing out, Starlight focused on that word. On all it could mean. She wracked her brains for old lessons about it. For some reason she kept thinking about the ocean.
The ocean. She focused the last of her strength on a weak working, on the floor beneath her. Mist gathered above it, and—
“Starlight, are you awake?” Twilight said.
Starlight jerked. She sucked down a quick breath, expecting it to fail. Instead she drew in the cold desert air, full of delicious oxygen.
She shivered. “Yes, Twilight.”
“Sorry, just… nervous, I guess.” Twilight exhaled into her cupped hooves and rubbed them together. “The stars are out.”
Starlight looked up. It was a moonless night, and the glow of dusk to the west had faded to a weak gray light that barely silhouetted the mountains. Above them, the stars battled for supremacy with the glow of Las Pegasus’s casinos.
“They look so harmless,” she said. “What was the saying, though? ‘The Stars will aid in her escape’?”
“I haven’t thought about that in years,” Twilight said. “We never did figure out what it meant.”
“Did you try asking Luna?”
Twilight shook her head. “I tried not to pry into her imprisonment. Old wounds, you know?”
Yeah, Starlight knew something about old wounds. She stared up at the emerging constellations in renewed silence when the arcane diagram all round them began to glow. Lavender sparks began to rise from the central sigil.
“That’s her,” Twilight said. She stood and brushed off her coat, then peered down at the glowing circuits. “She’s casting something. Not a… hm, it’s not a major spell. It’s nothing to do with time travel.”
“Maybe she’s not ready yet,” Starlight said. “Or it takes some preparation?”
“Or she’s off terrorizing some more ponies.” Twilight closed her eyes, and her horn began to glow. “I have her location. Are you ready?”
No. Starlight swallowed. “Yeah.”
“R-right.” Twilight licked her lips, and the light spilling from her horn grew in magnitude, doubling and redoubling until it filled the rooftop with daylight. “Here we go!”
The light flared, and the familiar sensation of a teleport gripped Starlight’s chest. The wrenching sensation of dislocation followed, and the city vanished, replaced by the empty sands of the desert. Starlight spun, already charging her horn, when an emerald spark caught the corner of her eye.
It wasn’t enough warning. The sands beneath her seemed to shift, and then the weight of the world collapsed onto her, crushing her to the ground. The little waves and ripples in the sand flattened instantly into a paper-smooth surface. Beside her, Twilight crashed to the ground with a strangled yelp.
Starlight gurgled for breath. The muscles in her chest struggled against the terrible force weighing her down, and failed.
“Well, this was too easy,” a familiar, sibilant voice whispered. The green flames came again, and Chrysalis walked up to them. “You know, I had two traps planned, in case you came one at a time? I guess it wasn’t needed.”
Damn it, that would’ve been smarter. On the ground a few feet away, Twilight groaned. Her horn sparked weakly before flickering out.
“Oh, do you like that?” Chrysalis said. She leaned down to leer at them. “My own invention. I call it Cavendish’s Greater Gravitic Grounding. Perfect for unicorns! It’s hard to concentrate when your body weighs ten times as much as normal.”
Starlight tried to strike back, to set the bug on fire, to split her in half. Each of her efforts was batted away effortlessly by the queen’s magic.
“I suppose it doesn’t hurt if I share my plans,” Chrysalis said. “That’s what villains do, right? And soon you won’t exist. This whole wretched timeline will cease to exist.”
She tilted her head up toward the stars. “I can’t get Starswirl’s spell to work. That’s beyond my skill. But I’ve been studying, Twilight. And soon? Soon I’ll be able to send messages back in time, to warn myself. Little things like, I don’t know, Don’t Invite Twilight to the Wedding, or Make Sure You Capture Starlight Glimmer. Little hints like that. Little nudges to change the course of events. Then I will be victorious, and none of this… of this ruin will come to pass. I will be queen of everything.
“I suppose I’ll cease to exist, too,” she continued. “But that’s a small price to pay. The me that inherits this world would be grateful, if she ever knew. Ah, but first, there’s something to take care of. Two things, actually. I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. Goodbye, Twilight.”
The queen’s horn began to glow. A sickly light built in her eyes, matched by the lurid glow in her eyes. They were as thirsty and eager as her gaping grin.
Starlight struggled to stand. Her legs dug fruitlessly into the sand, and her ribcage bent. Her spine sagged like wet straw. The blood in her veins labored to reach her brain and failed. Every bone in her body seemed to compress.
Compression. The word flickered through her mind, fleeting as lightning. She marshalled the last of her power, poured it into her horn, and instead of lashing out at Chrysalis, focused on the sand beneath her.
Transmutation was a simple spell, especially for a powerful sorceress. The sand below her stretched, popped, and turned into water. And funny thing about water – it can’t compress, no matter how much gravity it’s under.
And ponies float in water.
Starlight bobbed to the surface of a makeshift pond, only a few feet wide and deep. It was barely enough for her to stand, and even then she only had the strength to hold her muzzle above the water. But all the blood that had pooled in her legs rushed back into her body. Vision and lucidity returned in an instant. It was enough to breathe, and with breath came the power to concentrate. And attack.
The blast from her horn was weak, barely respectable. It probably wouldn’t have even injured Chrysalis if she’d been expecting it. But she wasn’t, and it lashed across the queen’s face, up her eyes, to the gnarled, sharp horn rising from her forehead. A high, unbearable scream split the desert, and the emerald light vanished.
A brief sensation of weightlessness gripped Starlight. She seemed to float. Blind from the sudden darkness, overwhelmed by exhausting, she drew in a deep breath to scream.
Water rushed into her lungs, and even the faint light of the stars vanished.
* * *
Starlight woke in Twilight’s library. She lay on the crystal floor, shivering. Water dripped from her coat. A few feet away, Twilight flipped through the pages of a first-edition copy of Argent’s Atlas of Astronomical Apocrypha.
Starlight coughed up a chestful of water. She sputtered and drew in a painful breath.
“Who are you?”
Twilight closed the book and set it back on the shelf. Emerald flames washed over her, and when the smoke cleared Chrysalis sat before her. She didn’t return Starlight’s gaze.
Starlight licked her lips. “This is a dream, isn’t it?”
“It is. The last one, I expect. You’ll have succeeded by now.”
“Succeeded?” Starlight pushed herself up slowly and gave her mane a shake, sending droplets of water flying. “Why warn me about Cavendish’s spell? How are you even doing this?”
“I figured it out.” Chrysalis reached out a hoof to stroke the closed book. “How to send messages into the past. It works.”
“The past.” Starlight jerked as comprehension struck. “You… you’re in the future.”
“I was. I don’t exist anymore, now that you’ve beaten me in the desert. Now I’ll never develop the time spell, and I’ll never warn my previous self about you or Twilight. None of that will come to pass. My timeline has been erased.”
Starlight stared at her. The magnitude of that destruction, the enormity of it, set her shaking. She sank to her belly.
“Why? Why… I mean, thank you, but why would you do that?”
“Because I know now what my victory leads to. The world where I win? I’ve been trying to fix it for a long time.” Chrysalis closed her eyes, and for the first time Starlight realized how tired she looked. “It’s not what I expected victory would be. It’s empty, Starlight. Empty and void. Without love. Better if it never comes to pass.”
“Oh.” Starlight stared at the floor. Words seemed inadequate when speaking to the memory of a future that would never come to pass. “Why, uh, the dreams? Why not just warn yourself?”
“I tried. I was never one to listening to warnings. You know, I actually remember getting messages from my future self about all this, and ignoring them. It was years before I realized what a fool I’d been. I needed somepony else, somepony who would be in a position to stop me, somepony who knew the dangers of time travel spells.”
Starlight took a step forward. She reached out, but withdrew her hoof before she could touch Chrysalis’s black skin. “What about you, though? You’ll die now!”
“No, I’ll never exist. And a different me will start existing, the me that’s in the desert with you.”
Starlight winced. “That… the you in the desert. She’s hurt.”
Chrysalis nodded. “I expected that. To be honest, I even thought you might kill her. Either outcome was… Ah, it looks like you’re starting to wake up. This is goodbye, then. I hope, for her sake, you’ll be kind.”
Kind. Right. Starlight opened her mouth to agree, to thank her, to say anything, but before she could speak a white glow overwhelmed her vision, and—
“Starlight! Wake up! Please wake up!”
Something was shaking her. Starlight struggled, coughed, and vomited up what felt like an entire pony worth of sandy water.
“Oh, thank Celestia!” Twilight’s arms and wings wrapped around her, banishing the desert chill. “I thought I lost you.”
Starlight gurgled in response. She spat out another mouthful of water and drew in a greedy breath. The desert night seemed enormously bright and filled with stars.
“Did we… did we get her?” she managed to choke out.
“Huh? Oh, Chrysalis.” Something like worry flashed across Twilight’s face. “Yes, you, uh, you got her. She’s hurt.”
Hurt? Starlight peered around Twilight’s wings to see a dark form, bound in glowing lavender chains, on the desert sand a few feet away. A trickle of smoke rose from the terrible black score marking her horn. Starlight grimaced and turned away.
“You had to do it,” Twilight said. “She’d have killed us both.”
“Yeah.” Worse than that, actually. Chrysalis would have destroyed everything they knew and loved. And all the things they didn’t know or love, for that matter. Starlight struggled to her hooves and stumbled over to the fallen queen.
Twilight joined her a moment later. She laid a wing across Starlight’s back.
“So, what now?” she asked.
“Now?” Starlight closed her eyes and leaned against Twilight’s side, letting the warmth of her body banish the desert’s chill. “I’d like to be kind.”