The first thing Twilight Sparkle noticed when she and Spike were unceremoniously dumped back into the present via Starswirl the Bearded's time scroll was the absence of any semblance of society. Other than the few scorched husks of trees that were spread out across the barren plains of Equestria, there was nothing to suggest that the dry soil beneath her hooves had supported life. The lack of vegetation, reinforced by the inclement weather that kicked up dirt and pressed against her unabated, rendered this harsh environment inhospitable.
The Princess of Friendship tensed as she gazed apprehensively into the horizon. Though she fully expected to face yet another threat as she had experienced in the other alternate timelines she had visited, Twilight was relieved to find none; at least, none that were in her immediate vicinity. She slowly released a breath of stale, dry, dusty air, her tension momentarily subsided. Unlike most of her encounters thus far, she appeared to have ample time to assess her situation.
Spike seemed dumbstruck as he was taking in the scene. He opened his mouth, but the words were lost to him before they could escape his lips. It was as if he was trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
"I don't know, Spike." Twilight reflexively sheltered her eyes from the dust storm beginning to brew around them with her wings as she turned toward the Cutie Map. The sand-blasted wastes kicked fine grit into her eyes, forcing her to blink in an effort to clear them, not that it did her much good. Despite her blurred vision, she could see that the magical projection of Equestria on top of her round crystal table was inactive.
"I've just about had it. It's time to show Starlight exactly what kind of impact changing the past will have in the future. This time, I'll drag her to the present by force if I have to." Twilight directed a spell at the Cutie Map, her facial expression overtaken with surprise when nothing happened. She stared blankly at the map, her heart racing in alarm. "Why isn't it working? I have the spell right here!"
She delved into her satchel and rummaged for the scroll that would allow her to travel back into the past, only to discover that it wasn't there.
Twilight replayed the events of her fight against Starlight Glimmer in her mind's eye. When the portal opened to reclaim them, she had fully intended to drag Starlight back with her. A scuffle had broken out between them; in the heat of their exchange, Starlight had forcibly extracted the scroll from Twilight's satchel in an attempt to stop the Alicorn from coming back to the past altogether.
Desperate to ensure that didn't happen, she held the scroll firmly. With her own magic warbling around the parchment, they fought for dominance over the spell. The paper flew across the sky as they dragged it back and forth between them.
In the midst of their struggle, she was momentarily distracted by the sound of her assistant crying out as he was pulled into the portal first. Unbidden, her grip on the scroll loosened as her attention shifted between it and the deranged unicorn vying for its possession. She wanted to show Starlight the serious impact that changing the past had on the future, but she didn't want to lose the one item she had that would ensure Starlight's victory. She either needed to retrieve the scroll now to have a chance to try again later or risk it all and bring Starlight in with her. She was quickly losing time to accomplish both.
A change of tactics was in order. She declared, "This spell could mean the end of all of Equestria if you go through with it!"
"Oh yeah? What makes you and your friends so special?" Starlight delivered the most ferocious glare she could muster as she clung to the parchment with more intensity than ever. "You took everything away from me! Why shouldn't I exact my revenge on you?"
"Every time I've been sent back, the future has been worse off than before. I don't know why we're so important to Equestria, but we are." When she was sure that she had her opponent’s undivided attention, Twilight continued. "Whatever it is that's made you feel this way, I'm sure we can work everything out together if you just give us a chance."
"What would you know about my feelings? You don't know a thing about me!" Starlight yelled. Without waiting for an answer, she struck Twilight with a lance of pure magic that sent her soaring through the portal alone.
Had she been able to bring the distraught mare with her, they might have come to a mutual understanding. No matter what troubles had driven her to this point, Twilight wanted to help Starlight see that she did not have to face them alone. She wasn’t sure that she would be able to, but Starswirl the Bearded’s scroll would at least grant her one more chance.
Then it dawned on her. The spell! The intensity of the situation was so vast that she hadn't accounted for the fate of the scroll. Had she managed to wring it from the clutches of her opponent? Or had she been stripped of its possession, sent here without any means to return to the past?
Though there was no one around her except Spike, she still vocalised her question. “Where is it?”
She ran frenziedly back and forth past Spike in search of the missing scroll. Panic set in when she found nothing, despite looking high and low for the object in question. She even lifted the table and gazed underneath. Nothing.
"Not here either."
"Where's what?" The young drake looked every bit unprepared to help her as he was lost over Twilight's sudden outburst.
Too alarmed to formulate a verbal response, she continued her search unimpeded. When she peered over the table, she finally spotted the wind whipping it to and fro.
His eyes trailed beyond her hoof as Spike took notice of the parchment and lunged for it. He gave a sigh of relief as he clasped the spell in his claws just as it ascended into the sky.
"Got it." He passed it to her. "That was a close one."
When she unrolled the scroll, realization dawned on her that half of it was missing, the result of her conflict with Starlight as she was pulled into the portal. Starlight would undoubtedly have the missing portion of the spell. All this amounted to her being trapped with no method to return to the past.
There was no way to set things right.
"No, no, no! This can't be happening. We can't afford to get stuck here now. Think, Twilight, think!" She closed her eyes and tapped her forehead in deep contemplation.
"Twilight, slow down! What do you mean we're stuck?" After catching a glimpse of the jagged edges of the torn parchment, Spike understood the reason for his sister’s panic. "Oh. That's not good, is it?"
"Of course it isn't good. Without the other half of this scroll, there's nothing we can do to stop Starlight from changing the past that will inevitably lead to the demise of our future!" She wallowed in her failure as she placed her hooves over her eyes and groaned. "All my lessons in magic kindergarten, my friendship lessons, they're all for naught."
"Can't you just recreate the spell? I mean, Starlight did it, so why can't you?"
"That's it! There's still hope.” She waved the torn scroll excitedly. “I might be able to extrapolate what the spell said by comparing this to Starswirl the Bearded’s research notes. The only question now is whether or not any of his old notes remain intact. I know just the place to start looking."
Off in the distance, Canterlot could still be seen. The beauty and elegance of its design, which once emboldened many denizens' livelihood, were no more. A swath of devastation had befallen the wondrous city, leaving in its place the decayed ruins of a metropolis that brought an ache to her heart. Upon closer inspection, she could make out one of the castle's great spires which housed her old quarters. Once upon a time, Princess Celestia herself had bequeathed them to her for the purpose of furthering her studies.
Twilight’s voice was barely above a murmur as she said, "Come on. Something may have survived in my old study back in Canterlot."
They walked in relative silence for a time after setting a course to the decrepit remains of Canterlot. Minutes turned into what felt like hours as they soldiered through the barren fields of Equestria. All the while, the gathering storm pelted them with dirt and shattered debris. It continued to worsen until Twilight could no longer see more than a couple hoof-lengths in front of her. When she felt Spike's claws grasping a patch of hair on her shoulder, she sensed the young drake's fear of separation. Offering him the briefest of smiles, she patted his back reassuringly before they pressed forward.
The howling of the wind mesmerized her, its whispers echoing into her ears unbidden. She was oblivious to what was being said if there was anything being said at all, but it persisted relentlessly. It laughed on occasion, while other times it bellowed out deafening cries which chilled her to the bone.
As the day dragged on, the sweltering heat of the sun's rays was beginning to get to Twilight. Her eyes trailed upwards in bewilderment; by her rough estimation, they had already been there for going on four hours. Despite that, the sun was just as high in the sky as it had been the moment they were deposited back into the present. Through lulls in the dust, the moon was also sometimes visible, though it appeared distinctly larger in the sky than she remembered.
A tug on her shoulder brought her attention down to her friend. Even as he huddled closer to her, his voice was all but drowned out by the tempest. He made up for the storm's interference by outwardly extending his other claw to point at a nearby camp. A trail of smoke billowed violently against the gale’s updraft.
With no other distinguishable landmarks to guide them, they approached the camp cautiously. Upon nearing it, the companions quickly realized that it had been abandoned. Several belongings littered the camp, haphazardly discarded in the wake of somepony leaving in a hurry. The campfire, recently put out, consisted of blackened charcoal. A rusted pot swung roughly over the top. Aged food waded back and forth inside, sometimes spilling as the winds sent the pot teetering over the side. The timber, which was crudely fashioned together, that held the kettle in place snapped. The utensil and its contents were dislodged from the construct as they hit the ground with a resounding clatter.
Movement out of the corner of Twilight’s eye caught her attention. Somepony, who was a few steps away from her, returned her gaze. The pony’s identity, however, was masked due to the brutal winds between them. She watched as the pony, seemingly frightened by her presence, galloped away and vanished into the storm.
Twilight shouted over her shoulder as she followed after, hoping that Spike was not far behind. This was the first contact since their arrival; she did not want to waste the opportunity of acquiring the knowledge a local might possess. Given that there was no quick solution to return to the past, the need to be prepared for anything was essential. Even though she had yet to stumble across any diabolical foe, that did not mean there were none.
A sudden, insatiable curiosity was also driving her forward. Unlike the other timelines, whose forces could immediately be attributed to the calamities brought on to Equestria, there was nothing so far as she could see that would have led to this eventuality.
I can’t afford to waste the opportunity to discover what happened here. It could one day save Equestria!
Twilight galloped faster after sparing a quick glance over her withers to ensure that Spike was still following. As she rushed after the fleeing pony, whose hooves thunderously struck against the ground, she could feel the bitter sting of the dust from the storm lashing out against her flesh. She fought through the pain, hoping against hope that shelter wasn't far beyond her vision; she wasn’t sure how much she could handle otherwise.
The chase eventually led her to an immense cave mouth. She stepped inside without hesitation and found instant relief. Though her muscles ached and her skin had developed sores, she was glad to be out of the fierce tempest.
Once she caught her breath, she asked, "Are you okay, Spike?"
Only the gale thrashing against the mouth of the cave returned her call.
Alarmed, she turned back to the cave’s entrance and prepared to step back into the fray to retrieve her beloved friend. She was rendered immobile by a magical bubble, however, before she could take the first step.
"I wouldn't go back out there if I were you," a voice called from deeper within the grotto. "When it gets this bad, ponies never survive out there for more than two or three minutes."
Though Twilight Sparkle couldn't place it, the stranger’s raspy voice was strikingly familiar. She desperately fought against the magical bonds, but her captor’s spell prevented her from moving even a muscle.
"Whoever's there, unbind me this instant. My friend is still out there."
"A baby dragon, correct?" The stranger continued without waiting for a response. "He should be fine, at least for the time being. I'm going to release my spell. Don't move."
After releasing Twilight from her bonds, the other pony immediately cast a ray of light, which bolted past the princess with alarming speed. As the energy pierced the storm, the gale around it temporarily dissipated until it vanished beyond the dust and out of sight.
“If he's lucky, he will see that and come running to us. Otherwise, there is nothing more we can do for him. You’re welcome to go back out there and look for him if you’d like, but I can’t guarantee your safety if you do."
"What are you talking about? Of course there's something more we can do," she snapped. "We can go back out there and look for him. For all we know, he could be hurt!"
Her concern for Spike’s safety was mounting. As she spun to face the other pony, she only saw a receding form fading into shadows of the dimly lit cave. The alien yet familiar hoofsteps grew fainter with each step. She spared the pony a frustrated glare before turning back to the mouth of the cave.
Twilight would not be dissuaded from her desire to retrieve Spike; she was not about to let him meet his doom on the word of a stranger. She was still apprehensive of the storm’s potential danger and reached her hoof out tentatively to gauge its destructive capabilities before stepping blindly into the tempest.
When she took a bolt of energy from Starlight, the short burst of pain she felt was intense but was not long lasting. Before she had reached the cave, the storm had hit her with all the impact of a dull throb; it never ceased, but at least her suffering wasn’t sharp. When she stuck out her hoof out now, however, she was met with a blistering agony that caused her to recoil reflexively and tend to her wound.
The stranger had spoken truthfully; she could very well die as soon as she went back out there. Twilight dropped to her belly on the cave floor and contemplated the best method of approach. The image of her friend suffering, being buffeted about by winds that could strip the flesh from a pony's bones, reinvigorated her. She knew there was only one solution that was not a betrayal of Spike. She had to go back out there, no matter the risk.
She fabricated a bubble of energy, which began to glow brilliantly as it formed around her, before stepping out into the storm. She was careful to maintain her focus as she walked slowly and methodically against the terrible pressure of the storm’s screaming winds. A single lapse of concentration, no matter how brief, would spell her demise.
Images of Spike’s lifeless corpse assaulted her mind over the course of the next few minutes as the storm relentlessly struck her dome. No matter how she tried to dispel them, they came regardless.
Twilight’s search took her to a ravine, which had long since dried up. She called out in the hopes that he would be near enough to hear and sufficiently lucid and stable to respond. A groan beckoned to her. She carefully trod down the slope and, upon reaching the bottom, heard it once more.
"Spike, is that you?"
She pressed along the riverbed in the direction of the sound. It eventually opened into a vast canyon where a lake once stood. The sediment beneath her hooves crumbled as she neared the wailing sounds, prompting a downward glance to ensure the ground underneath her hooves was stable. The sight of a trail of blood leading toward the center of the valley caused her breath to hitch.
She broke into a gallop. The focus on her spell was momentarily forgotten; the air current raging against her force field threatened to overwhelm her magic. She redoubled her efforts to fortify it and earned an increased illumination in response.
Crisis averted, she turned her attention back to her surroundings. She gasped as her rapid pace brought her before a massive creature. It lay entirely still. Some of the scales on its hide were grey and ashen, almost as if they had undergone decomposition. As she stood there and studied the corpse, she wondered if the storm had been the cause.
An eye three times her size opened to gaze down at her.
It adjusted its posture to face her diminutive form and released a wail of agony. Several of its scales fell away. It snarled at her before shifting to rest on its side. It stared at her almost lifelessly as it became still once more.
The massive monster's movements revealed the unconscious form of Spike hidden where it had once lain. He let out a pained wheeze as the harsh storm once again buffeted him.
After Twilight ran to his aid, she extended her magical dome around him and heaved him onto her back. His body, nestled between her wings, was unresponsive, prompting a worried look. She turned back to thank the creature for its selfless act, hoping to do something for it as well, but she could only watch helplessly as its eye closed, never to open again.
"I'm sorry I couldn't save you."
A heavy heart weighed her steps as she trotted back to the cave. By the time she reached the mouth of the cavern, the extensive use of her spell had drained her to the point that her steps dragged, nearly causing her to stumble. As soon as she reached the cave’s protective interior, her spell fizzled and she again collapsed to her belly from exhaustion. Spike’s unconscious form rolled away from her and skidded to a halt against the far wall of the cave.
"Spike? Please, wake up. Are you alright?" She picked herself up and walked over to her friend, where she propped him against the wall and nuzzled his forehead. "Please tell me you're alright."
Spike’s breathing was shallow at first, but he slowly woke to her insistent nudging. He broke into a coughing fit as soon as he took a deep breath and then gave a painful sigh.
“Twilight? Why do I feel so ... weak?"
"I’m so sorry, Spike. I thought you were right behind me," Twilight said. "I’m going to make to make sure you’re okay.”
"Cheer up, sis. I'm your number one assistant. I'm not going ... anywhere." Despite the pain, Spike let out a dry chuckle. His words were not quite as funny when he entered into another coughing fit, which resulted in a small trickle of blood running down his chin.
Twilight desperately pushed concerns about his weakened state from her mind as her magic formed a glittering sheet that passed through his body. When she spotted the same grey discoloration she had previously seen on the larger dragon, a mote of panic slipped into her.
That she did not have intimate knowledge of the storm’s composition had not crossed her mind. Her focus was trained solely on rendering aid. So far as she could detect, there was nothing on or in Spike's body that could cause so much damage, but the evidence said otherwise.
"I was following you," Spike replied, "but then I heard a cry for help. By the time I got there, it was already too late. I don't really know what happened, but he was in worse shape than I am now. Is he okay?"
Twilight shook her head ruefully. After analyzing his discolored scales, she cast a spell directed toward his injuries. A violet streak of her magic enveloped Spike; as the rays continued to bombard the infected areas, the grey discoloration dissolved away. She was relieved to see the spell taking effect, and she released her hold on the magic when she saw no more spots.
The sight of its sudden return darkened the brief light of hope.
"It's no use.” Twilight bowed her head despondently. “If only we were back in my library, I might be able to discover a method to treat your unusual injuries."
“I don’t like that look, Twilight.” Spike bit his lower lip and looked down at his scales. His expression was somber as he closed his eyes. “You’ve gotten us out of worse situations before, right? We’ll get ourselves out of this mess and back home with the girls.”
"Spike, we’ll get through this. I promise.” The statement felt like lies right out of her mouth. She tried to cast her doubts aside as she placed him on her back again. A renewed sense of determination granted her the strength to pull herself back to her hooves once more. “I’m not about to let you succumb to the same fate that dragon met.”
"He-He was trying to tell me something before he...,” Spike sniffled, wiping a small tear from his eyes. His voice slurred. The hours of unending stress were finally catching up to him, but he staved off sleep as best as he could. “Somepony caused all of this. It was ... was ... Princess...." Before Spike could say more, he passed out.
Twilight pondered the meaning of his words. Her initial assumption was that all the devastation had been the indirect result of a number of events culminating in Equestria’s unfortunate demise. That there could alternatively be something far more sinister at play brought on shudders that did not cease until she pushed the thought from her mind.
Thoughts of the mysterious stranger took its place. Out there, somewhere deep within the ominous shadows that swept over the inner dwelling of the chasm, was a pony doing nothing. The idea that somepony so cold-hearted, one whose magical abilities eclipsed her own, could be plotting or doing anything at all without Twilight knowing about it made her anxious. While that other pony had not shown any overt hostility, a heavy disquiet made itself known in the form of a cold sweat.
A skittering sound that was almost imperceptible echoed across the cavernous space and broke her darkening line of thought. Twilight became distinctly aware that something lurked beyond her sight. The shrill sound of hissing pierced the silence.
Suddenly, it sprang from the darkness. Instead of the ferocious beast that she had pictured, it was nothing more than a harmless lizard claiming its territory. It maintained its distance, eyeing her suspiciously as it let out another warning hiss. She breathed a sigh of relief; there was nothing to fear from that little guy.
The princess gave the cavern entrance one final wayward glance before she trekked along a winding path into the shadows. As the walls sprawled outward and down, her eyes became somewhat acclimated to the dark. She stopped once or twice along the way illuminate her path with a light spell, but she was reminded of her exhaustion when her magic fizzled and provided only a split-second's glow in response.
Despite her unsuccessful attempts to stave off the dark with her magic, she continued to push herself, not because it would light her path, but because of the chills crawling up her spine at the feeling of being watched. It was as though something lurked within the shadows, watching her every movement. She entertained the thought of returning to the relative safety of the entrance, but she expelled the idea entirely when one of Spike’s arms shifted and fell to her side, the hint of grey visible even in the shadows an urgent reminder that she could not afford to wait.
After what seemed an eternity, a dim light eventually filtered into her vision. The vibrant glow danced across the natural formations of the cave, exposing the faint outlines of crevices and rocky surfaces around her. Originating from a hollowed out section of the chamber, the light already exposed the faintest hints of a makeshift abode. From where she stood, a bookshelf that had been hastily erected off the ground and leaning to one side held a plethora of books and various instruments. As she approached the dwelling, the devices became more distinct. Splayed out alongside the books were compasses, charting apparatuses, and a number of crumpled lists of crossed out ingredients.
The interior was just as unkempt as the shelf standing near the entrance. Alcoves lit by candles lined the walls between them. Each of the shelves sported containers of various sizes, age-worn binders, bottles of murky water, and food long past its expiration date. At the center of the room was a table with numerous notes and a single lit candle whose flames were nearly burnt out. Most of the notes around the candle were illegible. Whole passages of writing were faded over time through extensive use.
Rapid, crinkling sounds from the far corner of the room tickled Twilight's ears. Somepony, hidden within a cubbyhole just beyond her sight, was turning the pages of a book. The pony emitted a grunt of frustration which indicated that the book lacked the answers the stranger sought. Another muttered word of irritation preceded a resounding thud as the pony slammed it closed.
"You survived after all.” There was no inflection in the stranger’s tone to indicate whether the pony was in anyway affected by the fact. “My hypothesis was incorrect. I wasn’t sure even an Alicorn could survive the harsh environment of the above world."
"What happened out there to cause all of this? It’s like no storm I've ever seen," Twilight said. "I think it's done something to Spike. Are there any remedies for his grey scales?"
The other pony came limping into sight. Except for the considerable scarring down one of her forehooves, she could have been Twilight's twin; all it took was a quick glance at her sides to confirm that she was only a Unicorn, however. She walked closer to study the Alicorn through tired, bloodshot eyes. She grabbed one of Twilight’s wings roughly without asking permission and inspected her primaries.
"You are undeniably, one hundred percent a real Alicorn alright. I thought I was having another hallucination back there. I found out the hard way that a lack of sleep will do that to a pony."
Twilight forcibly withdrew her wing and eyed her local counterpart suspiciously. She was promptly ignored by the Unicorn, whose attention turned to her companion.
“Where did you get a dragon? The Tempestus Magicus has killed most if not all of them by now. Never mind that. Just seeing you here gives me hope that I will make it through this mess.” She stared at the young drake in disbelief.
"What's wrong with you? Where are the other Elements of Harmony? For that matter, where is Princess Celestia?"
When the Unicorn heard the princess’ name being called out, she became utterly still. Her schooled demeanor faltered, and she bowed her head in mourning.
“Princess Celestia....” She walked over to one of the shelves containing phials of various fluids. She selected one, which contained an abhorrently green liquid, and picked it up. “Given the genuine confusion on your face, I suppose at some point you must have lost your memory.”
“Oh no, my memories remain quite intact, thank you very much.” Twilight flashed her counterpart a smile. “But I would appreciate an explanation nonetheless.”
The Unicorn nodded as she absent-mindedly swirled the phial around in her hoof and gave the mixture a blank stare.
“Your pet has been exposed to violent surges of magic. It wouldn’t normally be enough to cause serious damage but because it hasn’t found a home for quite some time, it has become desperate to return to equilibrium.
“This has led to the extreme conditions you’ve seen on the surface of Equestria.” The Unicorn limped over to them where she patted Spike’s head softly. She poured the contents of the phial into his mouth, much to Twilight’s protest, before she continued. “If Princess Celestia was still around, she would be able to contain the raw magic floating around up there. It was originally hers, after all.”
Twilight looked over her shoulder to inspect her companion. Spike’s scales slowly returned to their natural color, and the drake’s breathing stabilized as he snuggled into her hair. She sighed in relief and returned her gaze to the Unicorn.
“Tirek,” the Unicorn said. “When he attacked Equestria, he drained the princesses of most of their magic. Had I not intervened when I did, then Equestria would likely still be under his control.”
The Unicorn pulled out a book from one of the nearby shelves and opened it. She scanned its contents with heavy eyes, and she stifled a yawn more than once before she found what she was looking for.
“Despite our best efforts, the princesses had no other choice but to sacrifice themselves so that we wouldn’t have to live in fear of his reign.” She stomped her hoof in frustration. “If only I was stronger, I could have done something about him myself and the princesses wouldn’t have to get involved...”
“I’m sorry that you’ve had to go through with that.” Up until that point, the princess had only seen the aftermath of everything that had transpired. Having to live through it must have been a nightmare. “But if you help me get back to the past, then all of this will never have happened in the first place.”
The Unicorn stared Twilight in the eyes for a moment; she arched her brow and shook her head in disbelief before she passed her book over. She then recited one of its passages with as much passion as she could muster.
“‘It is theorized that the magical feats of the Alicorn know no boundaries; that they should raise the sun and the moon is a testament to their might.’
“‘Enquiries into their magical potential continues to be conducted, though such studies have yet to quantify the degree of magical power they may be capable of harnessing. The antithesis is that there is an upper limit which may only be perceivable, or even achievable, to others of their kind.’”
After she finished reciting the text, the Unicorn closed the book and placed it on the table beside her. Her hoof lingered on the tome as she closed her eyes wearily.
“I think I understand what you’re trying to say,” Twilight said. “I am an Alicorn, therefore you believe I can fix all of this. Am I correct?”
“I’ve done everything I can to bring an end to this calamity.” The Unicorn’s hoof trembled on top of the book, and a terse frown adorned her features momentarily before she masked her pain behind a neutral expression. “I know I’m grasping at straws here, but I’m not sure what else to do. I have endured encounter after encounter, and I haven’t come all this way only to be stopped here. Princess Celestia wouldn’t have wanted this for Equestria.”
Twilight’s ears faltered. She gently set Spike down and walked up to herself. She pushed the book away and held the other Twilight’s hoof with her own.
“I wish I could help.” Twilight stared apprehensively at the book. “But if I do what you’re asking, I’m not sure how long I could even contain it. The last time I held that much magic inside of me, I couldn’t completely control it.”
“We don’t have any time to waste!” The Unicorn snatched the book into her hooves and held it to her chest in desperation. “Every moment we spend debating is another moment that Equestria suffers. Please, you have to do this! Isn’t that why you’ve come here?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t come by my own choice,” Twilight said. “I was sent here from the past by a troubled pony named Starlight Glimmer. Everything you see around you is the result of her tampering with the past. Now that you understand, we can-”
“That’s not possible!” The Unicorn shuddered violently and gripped the book tighter against her form. “You can’t be from the past. If you are, then how have we become an Alicorn? No, it’s impossible. You must be confused. That’s it. Your memory loss must be more extensive than I had first surmised.”
“I can’t believe I am saying this to myself, but get a hold of yourself,” Twilight said. “All I need is Starswirl the Bearded’s research notes and I can fix the past myself. You won’t have to suffer through all of this.”
“But haven’t you already come back into the past? No....” The Unicorn stared her in the eyes. She whimpered as her grip on the book grew lax; as it slipped from her hooves, it plunged to the ground and opened to a torn page. “I was wrong. You haven’t come to save the day at all.”
The first signs of Spike’s consciousness returning came as he moaned from across the room. He shifted slightly in his slumber but otherwise remained still.
“Actually, I have come to save the day, in a way.” Twilight stared at Spike hopefully. “You saved Spike. Now it’s my turn to save you, but I can’t prevent this without your help.”
“Do you understand what you’re asking me to do?” The other pony asked. “Even if I succeed, how can you guarantee that what you do in the past won’t create an alternate timeline? I could very well be trapped here with no hope of fixing this. I cannot allow that to happen!”
Suddenly, a brilliant violet glow sprung to life on top of the Unicorn’s horn, and she hurled the magic straight at her adversary.
“What are you doing?” Twilight teleported to the side in a flash. A violet stream of magic sparkled out of her horn as she prepared to meet the next attack with a counterstrike. “Have you gone crazy?”
“If you aren’t willing to help me, then I will just have to force you to!”
Twilight was stunned for a moment when her counterpart disappeared in a flash of light. When she saw a beam of magic flying toward her, she realized that the Unicorn had reappeared next to her. After she redirected her spell, she cast it at the offending magic.
Their magic collided.
Twilight was temporarily blinded by the eruption of violet energy that resulted. As she blinked away her disorientation, she was shoved into the ground.
“Hold still,” the Unicorn said. “If I use myself as a conduit, I can direct all of the surrounding magic inside of you.”
The Unicorn stepped up to her. She towered over the mare with a determined look on her face as a white glow emanated from her horn. She bowed her head and touched their horns together. The surrounding magic began to swirl around them. Unshed tears welled up in the her eyes as she stared down at Twilight.
“This has to work...,” the mare mumbled. “For you, Princess Celestia.”
“No!” A yell came from across the room.
Abruptly, the mare standing over her was on the ground next to her. The Unicorn was struggling in Spike’s grasp, who glanced over his shoulder to make sure that his Twilight was alright. As he looked away, he exposed her counterpart’s face, which contorted in fear as the Unicorn began to hyperventilate.
Before Twilight could stop her, the Unicorn delivered a magical blow straight into Spike’s gut. He gave a shout and fell away. There was immediate worry present on the other mare’s eyes as she laid on her belly and scooted over to him.
“I-I didn’t mean to harm your pet. It all happened so fast!”
“Spike!” Twilight ran over to him and cradled his head in her hooves. He winced in pain as he clutched his sides. He mumbled something incoherent before losing consciousness. “He’s not my pet. He’s my friend.”
“Your ... friend?” There was a lost look on the other mare’s eyes.
“I have others, too. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy ... you. Everypony is counting on me to fix this. I’ve got to.” Twilight hugged Spike close and shut her eyes.
“What have I done?” The Unicorn draped her head over her hooves and wept openly on the floor. “Princess Celestia, I’ve failed you again. First in my test to get into magic kindergarten, then against Tirek, and now this. I’m not sure what you ever saw in me; I’m nothing but a failure.”
“That’s not true,” Twilight said. “Even now, you’re still giving it your all to succeed where others have not. That is not failure. But you’re doing it all on your own when you don’t have to. I can carry your burden, if you’ll let me.”
“Okay.” The mare nodded blankly. “I understand. All I have to do is send you back into the past and everything will be as it should be, right?”
Twilight nodded. She felt Spike shift in her forelegs. She looked at his newly acquired wound; it didn’t look quite as bad as she had imagined.
For the first time, a wide smile played at the other mare’s lips. She sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes; she stifled a sob that threatened to surface.
“I-I’ll have friends. I’ll have friends, Princess Celestia. Just like you always wanted.”
She sobbed. As the tears streamed down her face, she looked up into the sky. “You told me to make some friends. I hadn’t known what you meant, not until now.”
When the mare calmed down, she turned to Twilight, closed her eyes, and flashed her a smile. It was pained, but there was real elation behind that pain. After enduring so much for so long, she was finally content.
“Thank you. I put all of Equestria’s fate into your capable hooves, Twilight Sparkle. You’re me, after all.”
“I won’t let you down,” Twilight said with a nod.
Twilight and Spike were both encapsulated by the mare’s magic. The Unicorn strained as every ounce of her strength was placed into the spell. She wobbled on her hooves as her knees buckled.
“Don’t you dare fail.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Twilight replied.
As Twilight and Spike were carried off through a portal, the Unicorn slumped and fell forward. Severely weakened, she laid on the ground and stared at her book, which no longer served its purpose. She reached out to it, her teacher’s final gift to her and pulled it close to her. She read its title: Starswirl The Bearded’s Tome of Magic Potential. As she clasped it to her chest, her eyes became as barren as the fields of Equestria.