Twilight stood atop the deck of the airship, watching as the wasteland of Equestria blurred by beneath her. She could always tell when civilization was below her, thanks to the little circles of green around the snowy wasteland.
So little is left. It was a good thing they were about to pull the reset switch and put the world right, because she didn’t think this planet had much longer. Nightmare Moon isn’t stupid, is she? She had to know this wasn’t sustainable. Is she really willing to watch the planet die?
Twilight lost track of time. Night, Eventide, there was very little difference, and almost no change to the light. The heat-crystals kept warm with an occasional burst of magic, and that would have to be enough.
She had no desire to disrupt whatever was going on aboard the ship. She could hear happy voices, and the occasional song or snippet of music. The closer those ponies became in a short time, the better their chance of finally saving the world.
Eventually she heard another set of hooves moving up the stairs. She didn’t turn around, just kept leaning over the railing. In this case, she didn’t have to look to know who had come. She knew that hesitant canter anywhere. It might’ve been Fluttershy, with her apparent reluctance to talk to anyone. But Twilight knew her own steps.
“You’re afraid about something,” Twilight said, sitting back from the rail and brushing a little snow from her mane. “You don’t have to keep pacing back there. I won’t bite.”
She didn’t turn around. But sure enough, it was the other Twilight’s voice she finally heard. “I’ve been… I’ve been hoping to ask you something since we met. I would’ve asked you sooner, but… we were always too busy.”
Twilight turned, gesturing towards the deck beside her. “Sit and ask. I’ll help you if I can. But just because I’m from somewhere far away, I don’t know everything. There’s a lot your world has that mine doesn’t.”
“It was about that…” Twilight said. She squeaked a moment more, looking away. Had her old self really been this nervous? Yes. Around Alicorns. This was the version of her who had failed, who hadn’t spent her life around royalty. She would have to be gentle.
“When I was in Our Town, Starlight Glimmer put me to work. That’s not unusual, we all come to work. It’s important that a pony have labor in order to fit with their community. Shared endeavor makes them mutual stakeholders in the success of—”
Twilight cleared her throat. Far below, they were flying over desert now. At least it didn’t look as bad as dead forests, it was still mostly sand. “You worked,” Twilight supplied, hoping to get her back on task.
“Right.” She whimpered, looking away from her. She rose onto her hooves, turning as though she were going to walk away. Was that fear in her face? What reason did she have to be afraid?
Twilight stuck out a wing, blocking her retreat. “It’s alright, you can tell me. I know you better than you do. If there’s one thing I’m sure about… well, just don’t worry. Alicorns aren’t that different from other ponies, really. Just more magic, and a longer history. That’s all.”
Twilight hesitated another moment, then her voice sped up. She didn’t speak so much as vomit out what she said next. “Starlight Glimmer still wanted me studying. Experimental magic would be what kept Our Town safe. I needed to know what might come for us, needed to know every possible avenue of attack.
“That ended up with reading lots of books that nopony would think had anything to do with it. The only way I could be sure about what was coming was to know as much as possible. I know a little bit about…” She shuddered. “Time travel. Or I think I do. Maybe more than anypony else alive.”
Twilight felt her eyebrows going up. Was it possible that this other version of her actually knew something useful? More than just being a pony to rescue, and a monument to the failures she’d almost made.
“I know a little about it,” Twilight said. “Star Swirl wrote a spell to travel back, though it was flawed in many ways. Before all this, the one time I tried to use it for anything I ended up creating the future I was trying to prevent.”
“Most ponies…” Twilight’s voice became even more timid, and she turned away. “There have only been a few experts to study the subject. But most of them agreed on… that. You can’t change the past. There’s only one past, one future. Anything you do has already been done.”
“Most ponies are wrong,” she said flatly. “I know you’ve never known any other world, but I have. A place where the sun shines, where Luna is a kind and loyal pony of Equestria. Where Sombra is dead and Chrysalis is banished. I can show you the way I showed the others. I think the place the spell was cast created a… conflux, between the true reality and this imitation. If you touch it, you’ll see.”
Twilight watched her unicorn self, searching for any sign of disagreement. She wasn’t very good at hiding her feelings—this Twilight didn’t believe her for a second. But she wasn’t quite brave enough to say so directly. “Obviously they’re wrong about something. But that doesn’t mean we should reject everything the experts ever learned.”
“What are you getting at?” Twilight asked, exasperated.
“When we use the Elements,” she said. “When we cast Starlight’s spell. What happens to Equestria?”
“We fix it,” Twilight said simply. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do since—”
Unicorn Twilight rose, glaring at her. “The sun comes back. The wars all end?”
Twilight nodded. “Of course.”
“What about your friends? My friends too, I guess. What about them?”
“They’ll… go back to the lives they had,” Twilight supplied lamely. “Better lives. No war, no death. Rarity can make dresses like she wanted, Pinkie can be a party planner.”
The unicorn silenced her with a hoof on her mouth, standing inches from her face. “What about me?”
“You…” Twilight thought about it, then trailed off. She didn’t actually have a clue.
“I’ve got some idea,” Twilight said. “There’s not going to be two of us when you fix this, just like with the other Starlight Glimmer. If I still had bits, I’d bet them all that one of us is gonna be gone forever. So which is it—the unicorn who failed at everything for her whole life, or the powerful Alicorn who’s actually going to be using the spell?”
She whimpered, wiping tears from her eyes. “That’s ignoring… other things. Logical things, the others didn’t consider. Like what happens when we ‘fix’ everything? Years of our lives erased from our memories, how is that different from killing us?”
Twilight didn’t have an answer to that either. “Are you saying… you don’t want to support me? You don’t want to help with my plan?”
The unicorn made a pained squeak. “I thought about it. Told the others what I thought. I came up here to tell you our decision. They’re waiting for… for me back inside.”
Twilight turned to face her, rising to her hooves. After everything she’d fought, everything she’d overcome… she’d taken it for granted that these ponies would support her. Now she was paying the price. She braced herself for the news, like a physical blow. Unlike everything else they’d fought so far, there was no spell to help here. If her friends decided not to help… that was it. She couldn’t force them.
“We decided helping you was still the right thing,” the unicorn said. “We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen. Maybe we won’t forget, somehow. Maybe both of us will keep existing, either merged together or averaged, or… somehow. We don’t know. But we know that the Equestria we live in is barely hanging on. Many of our friends are already dead. They deserve another chance, and so does Equestria.”
Relief flooded her. Twilight watched her unicorn companion for another moment, wiping tears away from her face with the back of one hoof. She was wrong to doubt these ponies. They were her friends—of course they would do what was right for Equestria.
“I don’t know what will happen when we cast that spell,” Twilight said, speaking slowly and cautiously. “But I know one thing. A friendship like ours is too powerful to get wiped away by a little magic. Starlight Glimmer already tried that once, and look at what happened. Friendship is magic. I don’t know how this ends—but I’m sure it works out.”
Ponyville wasn’t much of anything from above—far less so now. Twilight took the airship down slowly, half expecting powerful spells or maybe weapons to be waiting for them. But there was nothing to stop them from losing enough gas to land again—this time for good, until they could get more.
The strange clearing in Ponyville’s wilderness was hard to notice, even for a pony who knew to look for it. But where Twilight had a hard time looking in that direction, her companions seemed visibly ill as they disembarked the ship and made their way towards it. Twilight in particular more stumbled than walked.
“It won’t be a problem for much longer,” Twilight herself explained, letting her voice carry to the others. It was around noon, or would’ve been if there were still days. What did that make it, midnight? Fixing her sleep schedule when she returned to Equestria was going to be a nightmare.
“Keep those Elements close. You shouldn’t have to do much of anything when we get there. They created the map, and they should be enough to return its strength.”
They climbed the hill where her castle had been, now blackened for several hundred meters around the map. It wasn’t just her friends that didn’t like being here—even the feeble grass that surrounded Ponyville had died. If there were any animals still living, they hadn’t traveled this far.
“I can’t believe we actually made it,” Rarity said, voice weak. “After everything we’ve been through. I thought…”
“Didn’t think we’d make it this far?” Rainbow turned, grinning at her. “Come on. This is Twilight we’re talking about. Of course we were gonna win.”
Twilight almost found herself agreeing. They’d made it so far—survived encounters with both factions of evil conquerors in Equestria. Escaped from their lairs, and gathered together the elements. Using Starlight’s spell was really just perfunctory at this point.
“Win, yes. But against who?” Called a voice from behind the map. Twilight felt her blood run suddenly cold, and she froze in her tracks.
Nightmare Moon emerged from behind the map, rising suddenly to her full height in glittering black armor outlined in silver. She had no soldiers and no guards with her—but Twilight didn’t have to wonder about why. She was an Alicorn—there were no creatures alive who stood a chance against her in combat. What would be the point of guards?
“When you first arrived in my country, I didn’t believe you,” Nightmare Moon said. “I wondered what plan King Sombra or Queen Chrysalis had turned against me.” She took a few steps closer. The others backed away, retreating behind her a little. Even Rainbow Dash, who had seemed so brave before. All bowed before an Alicorn.
Except for her. Twilight had no idea what Nightmare Moon could be doing here, or what she’d discovered. But no matter what it was, she couldn’t retreat now. “We’ve completed everything I promised we would, Princess,” she said. “My friends and I are ready to cast the spell. Your enemies will all be defeated.”
“I have no doubt,” Nightmare Moon said. She ignored the others, walking up to Twilight, then past her. She circled around her slowly, like a predatory cat. “When you left, I began investigating you. Do you know what I found?” Her eyes lingered briefly on the other Twilight, the unicorn. “I suspect you know now. Records of a unicorn, buried in the old census. A failure—nopony of any significance. But she did exist.”
“She’s not a failure!” Rainbow shouted—she was the only one who dared to speak at all, and even she was far quieter than her usual. “Twilight was brave.”
The Alicorn ignored her completely. “But you weren’t a changeling—and no soulless slave of Sombra could’ve entered my house. What did that make you? It meant your story was true.”
“Of course,” Twilight said, meeting her eyes. She didn’t bow. She had to watch, had to be ready to act. But even with all her practice, even with the magic of a lifetime—she knew her chances of victory here were zero. If Nightmare Moon attacked her, she would suffer the same fate Celestia had. “I haven’t lied to you, Princess Nightmare.”
She tensed in response, twisting to one side so Twilight could see the sword sheathed at her shoulders. “And now you have,” she said. “Deception doesn’t suit you.” She didn’t give Twilight a chance to defend herself this time. “You promised to defeat my enemies, just as you did now. Is that all you’re doing here?”
Nightmare Moon lifted something in the air beside her, shaking it free of dirt and debris. Twilight’s eyes widened as she saw it—the scroll. Nightmare Moon hadn’t just gone to the map, but she’d searched the area as well. “The changes to this were very interesting. Not a week of travel, as in Star Swirl’s ancient spell. What good would a week give us, at such terrible cost? No… this can only travel to one specific moment. It can only send you a decade into the past. I don’t know what changes you wanted to make, but one thing I do know. That was before my reign began. Anything you did there could stop more than Chrysalis or Sombra. It could stop me as well.”
“Sombra and Chrysalis were only—”
But Applejack spoke from behind her, much louder. “You don’t have to be like this either, Princess Nightmare. Did you touch the map? You’re in her world too—and you seem much happier there.”
Nightmare Moon’s expression turned sour. She tossed the scroll away, back towards the map. It landed on the dark crystal surface, limp and powerless. “A princess does not rule by depending on the mercy of others. Nor does she remain in power by trusting to those who have already shown they cannot be trusted. I was tempted by the panacea of an easy victory—but it is not worth the risk. You have this one chance to surrender yourself to me, Duchess. You’ve proven yourself clever and resourceful—perhaps I will spare you. In time, you might serve the kingdom in other ways. I know you prefer my rule to those of my enemies.”
She strode past her, raising her voice. “As to the rest of you—I hold no blame at your hooves. You’ve been manipulated by this Alicorn, deceived by her. I remember it well. My sister did the same, though she was far better at it. I will allow each of you to return to your lives as though nothing happened, under one condition. You must renounce your loyalty to this pony here, and swear fealty to me. If you obey, your misdeeds will be forgotten. If you do not, you will die, along with any others you may’ve corrupted. This is the choice I offer.”
Not much of a choice. Twilight watched as Nightmare Moon stalked towards her friends, her horn glowing. Her voice was absolutely confident—this one mercy might not be repeated. Maybe she really should surrender. Maybe she should be content to survive.
“We’re not surrendering to you,” Fluttershy said. Fluttershy, of all ponies! “We just want to make Equestria better for everyone, don’t we? We’re almost done. All you have to do is let us cast the spell.”
But it wasn’t Fluttershy Twilight was watching closest. She’d lived in relative isolation during all this, and so far as she knew Nightmare Moon probably didn’t know about her family. Not like Rarity and Applejack.
But as they met her eyes, Twilight could see a little nod from each one. They weren’t giving up either, no matter what it took.
We have to beat her, somehow. Twilight couldn’t even begin to imagine how they could. But she had to try.
“Forget about them,” Twilight said, raising her voice a little. “I’m the one you want. You don’t care if six random ponies bow to you or not. But I’m from your future. I already defeated you in my world. The only reason I didn’t do it here is it was a waste of time. You can’t fight me.”
Easy to say. And she was right to think it would get Nightmare Moon’s attention. She turned almost instantly, her eyes getting wider and wider.
“There’s fight in you after all, Twilight? I half expected you to roll over and die like the version of you that lives in my world.” She turned away from the others, her horn glowing a little brighter. “Did I hear that correctly? You threatened the Princess of all Equestria?”
Twilight began preparing her spell. She might be lying through her teeth, but there were some elements of truth buried at the bottom. She had learned much more about magic, at least more than she had when she fought Nightmare Moon the first time. Maybe some of it would be enough.
Enough for what, Twilight? What’s your plan when she blasts you into the sun?
She tried to answer, but couldn’t, not even to herself. She didn’t have a bucking clue what she would do.
“Well, not all Equestria. You said to be honest, Princess Nightmare. You don’t even hold the capital. Say what you want about how soft Princess Celestia was, but she won that fight and you lost.”
That touched a nerve. Nightmare Moon blasted out with a wave of dark magic, a wave that tore up the ground and shattered stone and would probably have turned Twilight to powder.
But Nightmare Moon made the same mistake Starlight Glimmer did—she seemed to expect Twilight would try to stop her spells, instead of just dodging out of the way. She teleported up into the air, then rained down a spell of her own.
It was something Celestia had taught her—sunlight. A shaft of light cut through the dark, bright enough that Twilight would’ve gone momentarily blind if she wasn’t prepared for it. Her friends squealed from underneath, retreating down the hill and away from the fight. Good. Get out of here.
If by some miracle Twilight won this, she could gather them up and finish what they started. But all Nightmare Moon had to do was kill one of them, and it was all over.
Her sunlight spell, meanwhile, shone down on Nightmare Moon from above. The touch of warmth on her coat, real warmth, after weeks in darkness, nearly brought Twilight to tears. But the effort of the spell was immense, and the concentration it required precluded an emotional outburst.
This wasn’t Twilight’s element like it was Celestia’s. She couldn’t use it to make a casual display.
Nightmare Moon screamed, vanishing from the dark patch and reappearing beside her in the air a second later. Any amusement that had been on her face was gone, along with any trace of mercy. “That was a mistake, Twilight Sparkle. I would’ve just killed you. But now I will enjoy your death. You’ve earned yourself a special cell in my dungeons.”
You go ahead and try. If Nightmare Moon was trying to leave her alive for a torturer, then she wouldn’t be atomizing her. It meant the Alicorn would be holding back.
“How long until the ponies of Equestria throw you into those dungeons?” she asked. At this point Twilight had moved well beyond reckless into true insanity—but she’d also gone so far that she didn’t want to stop. Weeks of being trapped in this nightmare world she’d created had finally worn her too thin. “For taking the sun away. You’ve gone from wanting ponies to love and appreciate your night to strangling all life. Have you been to the oceans lately?”
Nightmare Moon attacked again. This time it wasn’t just one spell, but a dozen, bolts of dark energy that leapt from her horn in many directions before zooming towards Twilight. She retreated again, a thousand meters higher in the air—and the bolts of darkness curved upward to follow.
Twilight abandoned her sunlight spell completely, focusing on her flying. A few years ago, she’d be doomed to die here, in the heights of upper air where she hadn’t previously belonged.
But she had plenty of time to practice now—time to learn from the very ponies she had to protect. Unfortunately for her, Nightmare Moon’s attacks didn’t give up just because she’d moved. The Alicorn held in place, firing a dozen more bolts of energy and staying still to control each one. They buzzed about erratically, most not chasing her but spreading widely through the air.
Twilight teleported a few more times, and with each jump there were always a few bolts that were close, forcing her to keep flying. Then she mistimed a jump, and one of them smashed right up against her.
Her counterspells were fast, much faster than any unicorns could’ve been. Twilight summoned a shield-bubble, the same kind her brother had taught her, only much smaller and stronger.
The shield exploded with a single impact, sending coursing pain through her head. She stopped flying completely, arcing suddenly downward. Nightmare Moon’s attacks kept following her, a dark flock that gathered together.
Twilight moaned, clutching at her head with one hoof and trying to fight off the pain. It was hard to concentrate—even a simple teleport was beyond her now. Her horn fizzed and sparked, but she couldn’t even make a coherent glow.
What kind of dark magic was that? She might’ve been fascinated by the attack, if conditions were better.
Instead, Twilight fell rapidly towards the ground, trying and failing to spread her wings to catch her. So much for all those brave threats. Nightmare Moon only had to attack you twice.
Princess Celestia had fought her sister for far longer than this, and even then won the first time. Why had she lost now?
She wasn’t around to ask. Twilight wouldn’t be either unless she did something.
As the ground rushed up to meet her, Twilight spread her wings with a desperate roar. It took everything she had to keep them from bending up and sending her back into a tumble—but she had earth pony strength too, and that was harder to take away with simple dark magic.
She landed in the clearing beside the map, smacking into the dirt hard enough that dust rose from around her in a wide crater.
Twilight rose slowly, limbs shaking from the effort of her desperate escape. She’d survived, apparently slowing just enough that the impact hadn’t broken all her bones.
Then Nightmare Moon’s attacks started slamming into her. She felt the first impact like a physical blow, a charging minotaur that crushed her to the ground. The next one made her legs buckle out from under her, and blood start to dribble from her mouth. She tried to protect herself, struggled to cast any kind of barrier—but nothing happened.
Over a dozen dark bolts struck into her, until Twilight’s world finally went black.