• Published 15th Jan 2014
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Hard Reset 2: Reset Harder - horizon

Twilight Sparkle is stuck in a time loop amid a changeling invasion. This time, she's not the only one whose day is repeating.

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Higher Principles

Author's Note:

Two quick apologies before you begin:

1. After publishing my last chapter, I ninja-edited the equation everypony was talking about from "Starswirl's Second Law" to "Starswirl's Seventh Law." (Narrator-Twilight's version is still the Ninth.) My bad. Proceed accordingly.

2. The bonus chapter written by Prawo Jazdy has been shifted to follow this one, and should be moving out to its own story soon (at which point I'll remove it from here). It's well worth reading, but as a reminder, it is not canon to HR2. I'm sorry if that created any confusion.

Standard author's notes, next publication date, etc., are in a comment following the chapter.

Five minutes later, we're crowded around a table, collectively scribbling on scrolls, parchment, the empty notebook I've been carrying in my saddlebags since before the looping started, and a stray napkin that managed to find its way into the pile.

"This is sheerest madness," Luna mutters, holding up a succession of equations side by side. "Starswirl's Seventh Law is integral to the field equations which underlie the entire discipline of tempomancy. Every single time spell ever created validates its formulation. To alter it should render the temporal spells we know wholly uncastable. And yet there is a remarkable consistency to the incorrectness of results obtained using the law which Twilight Sparkle proposes. I suspect some deeper truth at play."

"My version of the time spell did work, or I wouldn't be here," I say, my head starting to ache from genuine, good old-fashioned academic focus. It's a nice ache. "And no offense, but this timeline's version of Starswirl was a hack."

"On the contrary, Starswirl was the single smartest pony to have ever lived," Luna says flatly.

Celestia doesn't look up from her furious scribbling; she's filling up page after page trying to subtract the two field equations from each other. "Luna was one of the few ponies that could hope to keep up with him —"

"More or less."

"— and even with the benefit of both of their notes, after Luna's banishment it took me a decade to derive a castable looping spell, and two lifetimes to understand it. So if you're saying that the Starswirl you remember was smarter than the one who created this discipline, forgive me if I'm dubious."

I set down my quill. "Fair enough. But I'm trying to recreate my work on his unfinished spell I cast to start looping — using your Seventh Law instead of my Ninth — and when I do the matrix algebra, the extra variables in the divisors explode out into this ridiculous sequence of additional terms that add three dimensions to the hypermanifold. My brain locked up around the time I had to visualize its discontinuities in n-space. How did pre-looping me even cast this without help?"

"The spell in the archives wasn't his. It was a simplified version of my own completed looping spell, with all of the math pre-derived but missing a few key components a sufficiently clever mage could deduce from scratch."

"Huh." It was Celestia's looping spell I cast in this history? "Then when you —"

"And before you ask, no, I didn't point you at it. I stored it there as a contingency, and you stumbled across it. I've got a lot of those around."

I nod, considering. Suddenly, there's room for my original doubts to creep back in, but on this one the circumstantial evidence is still on her side. It would have saved both of us a great deal of heartache if she'd simply asked me for my help instead of maneuvering me into looping, and no matter her motives, I can still trust her to be smart enough to act in her own self-interest. I try to shake the suspicion and refocus. "So … how are those equations coming?"

"Slowly. Maybe you should take a look." Celestia sets down her own quill for a moment and tilts her head back to work out a crick from her neck. "You know, I always figured a mage of your talents would discover the loop spell someday — but I designed those missing pieces to take several days' work to derive, so I'd have enough lead time to keep tabs on anypony who requested access to the scrolls. Can you imagine my surprise to find out that you had solved it before I even got the report that you'd visited the Archives? That puts you on a level with geniuses like Clover."

I feel my face heat. Did … did she just call me smarter than her? It's not quite me she's complimenting — it's the other, pre-looping Twilight — but even so, my heart skips a beat before my brain notices and kicks it back into its cage. I shouldn't take her words at face value right now, it warns. Maybe she's trying to stroke my ego so I relax and get careless.

… Augh! I hate this! Celestia's paranoia is infectious. She's probably just trying to be nice, but given my situation, I can't afford not to be suspicious. Which means I won't be cooperating fully, which means she'll have further grounds for suspicion, which means she won't cooperate … is that all I have to look forward to if the math doesn't convince her? Suspicion forever?

To my relief, a distraction sidelines that thought before it starts spiraling in earnest. Luna gasps, then leaps up and slams her hooves to the table. "T squared!"

"T what?" Celestia and I chorus.

"T squared! The thaumological constant."

"Again, what?" I ask.

"Oh! T." Celestia turns to me. "That's the base energy potential of the background thaumic field."

"… You have a constant for that?" I say, confused. "I thought Starswirl's definition of 'thaum' was based on energy potential, so by definition that's 1."

"No," Celestia says. "The thaum is based on the energy required to invoke a reference spell Starswirl created for measurement purposes. T is 2.718 thaums per bushel per second."

"The square of which is present as a necessary conversion factor in nigh unto every single equation in modern thaumic theory, including the loop spell you cast four days ago." Luna flips her calculations around and gestures to her sheet. "In the case when both branches are on the same timeline — as we had assumed they must be, if parallel universes were inaccessible — then the magnitude of the branch height minus the prominence will be identical no matter the contact points one chooses. And when one applies last century's discovery of Foaler's Identity …" She taps the first line of her notes, where she wrote the divisor that distinguishes their Seventh Law from my Ninth, and then the final line: = (T * T). "The divisor cancels out wholly with the square of the thaumological constant, leaving Twilight Sparkle's simplified equation."

I snatch the pages from Luna and skim through the equations. "So Starswirl did screw up his math! Your spell's way more complex than it needs to be — so complex that sorting the problem out took you a thousand years and extradimensional help — and he hid that goof by canceling it out with a constant that's complicating literally everything else you cast."

Luna holds up a hoof. "Do not leap to conclusions. You say that you did not expect your spell to work as it did in bringing you to us. Is it possible that our Starswirl outlined a more complete general case, and due to the false simplicity of the equation you used, it only produces the expected results when used within a single timeline?"

"No," I say, a little churlishly. "Your Starswirl was wrong. He went crazy."

A frown flits onto Luna's muzzle. "He was driven to madness by his dark research, but it affected his intellect not a whit. There is no need to impugn his memory so."

"Well, if he hadn't screwed up," I say with calmness I don't feel, "there wouldn't have been a need to torture me, because instead of talking about impossibilities you could have theorized that I was a parallel-universe Twilight and talked things out peacefully. So forgive me if I'm the tiniest bit upset at him."

Luna looks away, emotions warring on her muzzle. "Twilight Sparkle, Starswirl sacrificed everything, including his own sanity, to save us all. Think not ill of him for a single mathematical error. Our mistakes in mistreating you are our own."

"Actually," Celestia says slowly, "I don't think it was a mistake."

Oh, that is it. I whirl on her, ready to say something that hopefully she'll regret more than me, but even as I'm moving her eyes go wide and she holds up both forehooves. "Starswirl! Starswirl's mistake wasn't, because I think he did it deliberately."

I bite back my words, deflected but not entirely mollified — is this some attempt to pass the bit for her screw-up? — as Luna's wings fluff out in a way I recognize from watching Rainbow Dash read a bad performance review. "Sister," she says with quiet menace.

Celestia swallows, caught between us, and some quiet inner part of me giggles in schadenpferde. "Set aside your feelings for him and think, Luna," Celestia pleads. "If this Twilight wasn't unstuck in time by a hostile force, then her very presence suggests her math is the correct one. But if that simpler formulation worked, why would Starswirl write a Seventh Law that created such complications in his own spellcasting? In this Twilight's history, he was able to discover the simpler version, so I'm dubious that the one we knew would have been incapable. And you don't introduce such complexity without some benefit."

Luna sets her jaw, takes several breaths through her nose, and begins pacing. "Thy point strikes true. The additional complexity adds naught but interference with advanced spellcraft." Her wings resettle as she walks. "Literally the only benefit of our Seventh Law over her Ninth is in identifying cross-dimensional contact as impossible."

"Convincing everypony it's impossible," I correct. "Falsely."

Celestia nods. "I agree." That feels like an accomplishment — having her back me up on something. It would feel like more of one if she were meeting my eyes. "We know he tried to bury the knowledge of the Crystal Empire. It would seem that wasn't all he was trying to hide."

"But why would he go to such trouble to lie about parallel dimensions?" I ask — and as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realize why she's avoiding my gaze, and my heart sinks. "You think he was protecting you from me, don't you."

Celestia closes her eyes for several moments before answering. "That does appear to be the most likely possibility, yes."

"Princess," I plead, thoughts of more loops of lies already filling my head. With what I know, I might be able to salvage this regardless of how she acts … but, for my sanity's sake, I need this to work. The alternative is that downward spiral. "Don't do this to me."

She sighs. "It's how I feel. Would you rather I lied to you about that? But … at the same time, that's not fair. It's not fair to you, or to Luna. I asked you for a glimmer of hope, and you've offered that. It's clear you legitimately are a different universe's Twilight — I can't imagine you came up with math correcting one of our fundamental magical laws on the spur of the moment — and if I was wrong about that … well …"

Hope cautiously stirs in my chest. "Then you were also wrong about me?"

But Celestia hesitates, and my heart sinks again. "Starswirl clearly didn't want us talking with you, but …" Her muzzle contorts. "No, that's not clear. Maybe it wasn't you he was concerned about. Maybe … maybe … this is a big coincidence." She closes her eyes. "No. That's simply not the way the universe works! At every level of existence, a higher order is imposed upon the lower. There are no coincidences — not unless another higher power like Discord or the Nightmare is stepping in to create dissonance."

"We cannot rely upon that logic to comprehend our situation," Luna says. "This Twilight Sparkle is not from our universe."

"I know," Celestia says, pressing her hoof to the bridge of her nose. "But I don't know what it means. I … don't … know. And I can't. Our evidence is too indirect."

I sigh and step down from my chair. That's it. I keep saying that, but this time it's different — resignation rather than frustration. I can't handle being strung along like this, not after everything I've endured and everything I've tried. "Well, think about it, then," I say heavily, "and call me when you figure out what the hay it's going to take for you to trust me." I ignore the tiny voice in my head pleading for me to bite it back for the sake of diplomacy. "Because here's something I do know: I've gone above and beyond, trying to give you a chance, and I don't see you bringing anything to the table except your stupid and poisonous suspicion. I'm sick of this. I'm sick of concessions. Sick of my fate being in your hooves. I'm sick of trying to save Equestria from you thinking that you're doing something good here, because this —" I sweep my hoof around the room — "is what happened when we tried it your way. I … I can't try any more, Princess. I can't make you be part of the solution, and you're not going to get anywhere but here until you decide to change."

I turn and stomp toward the side chamber. I wish I could say that that felt good, but there's no catharsis in it, only the bitter tang of failure. I didn't get through … back to the lies.

"Twilight," she says in a shaky voice as I light my horn around the door-grip, "wait."

… No. Not going to hope. I'll listen, but I've been jerked around one too many times to expect to hear anything I like. "What."

"You're right."

Rebellious hope stirs just enough for me to look back. "I'm sorry? I didn't hear that. Could you say it again? Perhaps with a little more groveling?"

Celestia looks about as small as it's possible for an alicorn to get. She's sitting on her haunches, legs pressed together, with wings tightly tucked in and head lowered. Even her mane seems wilted, pressed in against her body. "You're right," she says. "Something's got to change. I need your help — which means I have to trust you."

Luna frowns. "Celestia, trust should not be based on such cold calculation —"

Celestia holds up a hoof. "I was going somewhere with that. I have to trust you, Twilight … but underlying that trust, I need to know that our universe is safe from your knowledge. And this is where I'm failing both you and the world. I can't. I can't ignore Starswirl's fears, especially after the lengths he went to. But that's an impossible burden of proof. How could you possibly prove you're innocent of something that we know is coming but not how — something which you seem to know nothing about, which we might trigger by investigating?"

At that, the so-dumb-it's-brilliant voice begins to stir at the back of my brain. I hush it — I want to know where this is leading. "I appreciate that you recognize that. And?"

"And you're right about our impasse. The alternative to reconciling is Chrysalis … and to be honest, I'd rather see the world end than watch everything I love get torn apart, and then spend centuries rebuilding a shattered country the way I did after Luna's banishment." Celestia finally looks at me, her eyes weary. "You said I have to trust you for us to work together. I simply can't think of a way for that to happen honestly. But I do have a codeword that means Luna's investigation cleared you of suspicion. If I give that to you, we can proceed from next loop as if we had found a way to come to terms."

… Hunh.

I have absolutely no idea how to respond to that. "You want me to lie to you?"

She shifts uncomfortably. "I'm asking you to do something impossible; this just lets us proceed as if you had. Everything about this situation is already impossible. Does that really make it a lie?"

The shock of the idea is quickly wearing off, being replaced by the earlier gnawing horror of the trust spiral. "Yes! Yes, it does. I can't believe you're considering that." I mean, I was, but that was a temporary measure to let me go find whoever changed history; she's talking about it as a long-term foundation for cooperation. "You're going to want details, and I'm going to have to cobble together some story that sooner or later will fall apart, and then we're back here again except with even more distrust. Did neither of us learn anything from the teachable moment?"

Celestia grimaces. "Twilight, if I wanted to resolve this with lies, I'd have pitched this idea as some sort of genuine reconciliation, and tried to build some sort of inconsistency into the process that I would notice later on. For Luna's sake, and yours, I'm being totally honest about my position, so that you can move forward knowing exactly where I stand. I'm asking you to help me lie to myself, because it's too important to establish trust, and my suspicions won't let me."

I shake my head firmly. "You're making an effort. I have to give you credit for that. But it's still a horrible idea."

Luna clears her throat, glancing between the two of us. "My sister does raise an excellent point: if trust cannot be established, we all lose. I hardly see an alternative. Twilight, how else do you propose to lay a foundation upon which she may have faith in your motives?"

The so-dumb-it's-brilliant corner of my brain is screaming at full volume now, and with an opening like that, there's no way I can hold it back any longer.

Change the game.

"By doing something that a hostile looper would never do," I blurt out, and before my logic centers can stop me: "Spill the beans on my plan to end the world."

There's a deafening silence, like the aftermath of one of those entropic entanglement experiments that first-year thaumodynamics students use to prank each other, when the spell discharge has cascaded through the room and the metal orb is glowing red-hot in its cradle while frost crystals grow on every inorganic surface in sight. That's a pretty good analogy for the way I've suddenly sucked up every last jot of attention, too. Even Celestia is staring at me open-mouthed, as if she's trying to figure out whether she heard that right.

Luna clears her throat, breaking the silence. "Ah … Twilight, we are ill served by such jokes." The sentence ends with a hesitant upturn in tone, balancing between a question and a denial.

"It's not a joke. I've seen the future, and I've been shown exactly how to destroy the timeline. I reset, say 'Whitetail' —" I hear Celestia draw in a sharp breath as she realizes her codes are compromised — "release the Smooze to create an existential threat that forces the Princess and Chrysalis to work together, broker a cease-fire between them, and then manually trigger the Elements of Harmony into exploding everything after I've talked everyone into stopping their loop spell." With The One Loop gone, I have no idea how I'd make that work, so for good measure, I add: "I tried that already, by the way, but my brain broke. I do appreciate you fixing that." That last bit is aimed at Luna, whose cheeks are turning an ugly shade of grey as the color drains from them.

"You did try to end us," Celestia says slowly, her face contorting somewhere between horror and fury. "Give me one good reason that I shouldn't reset right now and break you."

"Paradox," Luna murmurs. "Twilight …"

I should be panicking right now, but none of the parts of me that are prudent enough to do so are in charge. I look intently into Celestia's eyes, matching her fire with something vaguely resembling Luna's earlier frost. "That. Also, because I really am going somewhere with this. We both know that with your voice trigger, you can reset faster than I can, so there's no reason to do anything rash. Hear me out."

Celestia stares at me for several tense seconds, just long enough for the rational part of my brain to recover and call for a vote to impeach the so-dumb-it's-brilliant part. The Braintown Council passes the motion, but Mayor Dumb vetoes it — she still has a few tricks left.

Finally, Celestia growls, "I don't know what your game is, but I'm hardly in the mood for ultimatums."

"There won't be any." I lean forward. "Because I literally have nothing to gain from telling you this. Wouldn't you agree? I already have what I would need if my intentions were bad. Even if I didn't, all I had to do was shut up and let you give me your trust code, and then, next loop, fish everything else out of a more cooperative you. For the same reason, there's no point in me lying, not when I could have waited and lied to a receptive audience. Any benefit I might get out of speaking up is completely negated by the fact I could have gotten that same benefit more easily and safely by waiting."

She thinks for a moment. "But you have nothing to lose, either, since you have a guarantee we won't remember this."

I feel my chest tighten. This is the point of no return. But it'll work … it has to work.

I steady myself and talk through the logic. "There's another thing the teachable moment taught me. Remember when you stopped me from walking away by pointing out how you could have taken advantage of it? Even when you can't trust words, you can trust sacrifice." Deep breath. "So you're wrong, Princess. You are going to remember all of this … because Princess Luna is going to teach you her memory cache spell, and you're going to record all of this in my brain."

"What?" Celestia thunders, but she's not looking at me.

Luna cringes, pinned like an entomologist's specimen. "Twilight," she begs, trying her hardest not to acknowledge her sister. "Do not do this."

I turn to her. This is the painful part. "I'm sorry," I say. "You trusted me, and I should honor that, but this is a secret you can't hide. You were willing to bend your rules and store a cache in me so that I could prevent you from doing something even more terrible. Well, you heard your sister's suggestion earlier. Without your help, our best-case scenario is a future of deliberate lies and toxic mistrust, adding up to the same problems not just for me but for her, and you, and the whole world. If there's a higher principle worth bending the rules for, it has to be this. We'll be less evil with the spell than without."

"No. It is not necessary. Hold this conversation in subsequent loops, and replay it until it is communicated."

"That won't work, and you know it. We can't establish trust when we're not remembering the same conversation; there's no way to prove we didn't game it. But this is a unique moment to establish honesty. It's the one loop that we can guarantee neither of us is replaying it for advantage — Princess Celestia can't reset without causing a paradox, and I can't reset without repairing my memories, which you would have noticed when you were fixing me back at the start of the loop. So we have to both remember it, and it has to be now."

"Even if it is necessary this once," Luna says in increasing desperation, "once the spell is learned, it will grow into a source of temptation. It will seem the answer to less and less urgent problems, until it is misused, then misused routinely. I have fallen prey to that darkness, Twilight Sparkle, and I cannot allow either of you to do the same."

"Which is why, every time we update our caches, you'll do so too," I say. "Help us, Luna. You know how time loops can change a pony. We need you as a conscience."

Luna closes her eyes, and Celestia takes advantage of the pause. "You told me the Elements of Harmony purged the dark magic from your brain when they cleansed you," she says, quietly but with a hard edge.

"They did," Luna responds, voice faint. "But they did not purge it from yours."

Celestia's jaw opens and closes. "You stored a cache in my mind," she manages. "Unbelievable."

"While under sway of the Nightmare. After my cleansing, I retrieved the cache in secret to learn more of its methods, that I might better recognize and combat it should it return. But I have never dared put that knowledge to use. Even now, had I not failed Twilight Sparkle so horribly, it would yet lie fallow."

Celestia shakes her head. "That is … just … that's not acceptable, Luna."

"I was aware," she says quietly. "That is why I did not inform you."

I feel the conversation drifting out of control, so I edge back in. "You know," I say placatingly, "we've all got secrets right now that we didn't want to come out. Celestia, you almost fought your sister to hold onto yours. Luna, you've been lying to her all this time." They both look away from each other. "Speaking of which, you bet your marks I'm freaking out about what's going to happen to me once we reset and you remember that I tried to destroy the world two loops ago. Maybe it's time to admit we all did some wrong things with the best of intentions — and realize that things have to change, starting now."

Celestia sighs. "This is a lot to take in all at once. What's behind your change of heart?"

Mayor Dumb hadn't thought that far ahead. "Well," I stall as ordinary logic steps back in, "it's become clear to me that, when you're looping, secrets are every bit as dangerous as lies — and we can't afford to waste our efforts playing trust games with each other." Instinct lends logic a helping hoof. "I was too scared of what you'd do to me to come clean right away, but I'm starting to think we've got a bigger problem here that we need to cooperate to solve, and I'm not talking about Chrysalis."


I look Celestia in the eyes. "The only reason I was trying to destroy the world — and the only reason I know your code — is that, when the Elements of Harmony saved me after your brain-rip killed me and created a paradox, they told me to. They might be broken. Not just exploded-to-save-me broken, but something more fundamentally wrong." I briefly run through my visit with Harmony, leaving nothing out this time. They both listen in shocked silence.

"That's why I started to have second thoughts," I continue. "At the time — especially considering what you'd just done — I was totally convinced that destroying the world was a good thing, but once I started to think critically about it, the idea fell apart. Once I realized the implementation violated the spirit of at least one of the Elements, I decided that I wouldn't do it unless I was able to convince both of you to help. If it's genuinely true that our destruction is the best path, that truth should stand up to study and debate."

Celestia nods, her mind clearly elsewhere. Luna glances uncertainly at her sister.

"… Right?" I add.

"I'm sorry," Celestia says. "Give me a minute."

The room lapses into silence. I try not to let it get to me. Celestia was right — this is a lot to process all at once. But I can't help but feel terror creeping in by degrees. Was this really a good idea? I've built a long and fragile chain with the truth — all it takes is one weak link for her paranoia to sunder, and then I've put myself in her hooves and wrecked my only viable Plan B. And the truth is pretty far out there.

I suppose I could bail out and reset before Luna teaches Celestia the cache spell — but that could be bad, because like an idiot I brought all this up before Luna checked the math on how the Euthanatos affects the lich-necklace-thing. At least I can still emergency-reset if Celestia refuses to trust me, right? … except that now I've given her too much incentive to remember this. In her horseshoes, if I was being paranoid I'd lie and reconcile and learn the spell, and then leave myself a warning in the cache to get rid of looping-Twilight ASAP. So I can't trust her signals —

Luna's hoof prodding at my shoulder breaks me out of my spiraling panic. "Twilight?"


"Given all that has been discussed, I shall do as you requested," she says solemnly. "Once you and Celestia are both prepared, we shall review the memory cache spell."

Something about that nags at me — then hits me between the eyes. I bite my lip, then decide the only chance I've got is to double down on the power of the truth; I'm already sunk if this doesn't work, so I can't afford to sabotage my chances by hedging. "No, we won't," I say. "You're going to teach it to Princess Celestia, not me. I said I had nothing to gain from being honest this loop, and as much as I'd like to know the cache spell, I need that to be true. I hope you and Celestia will consider teaching it to me after we straighten this out with a few resets, though."

"Ah," Luna says, her cheeks burning as she realizes that twice in a row she's handed me a gift a hostile looper could have horrendously misused. "I … ah. Just so. Thank you — again — for your honesty."

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Celestia nod. She stands and turns to me, drawing in a deep breath. "Alright then. You've given me quite a lot to think about, Twilight. I … don't know what my word's worth any more, but if you do follow through by telling us of the memory cache after you reset, I promise I'll treat you honestly and fairly, and we'll work together to fix both our problems. And if — when — you tell us of the cache, I think I owe you." Her voice cracks; she visibly swallows. "A … very … sincere apology."

A wave of jumbled emotion — relief and adrenaline and catharsis and that old unstoppable bastard hope — floods my body, seizing my throat and nearly staggering me with vertigo. I want to cry and laugh and flee in terror all at once; this is the end and the beginning and I don't even know if it's genuine and somewhere amid the tsunami I manage to croak out "we'll cross that bridge later" and stumble from the room, turning back halfway to add "come get me when you're done." I start crying before I'm through the door, breathing in great gasps of cold damp air, and for the second time in half an hour I collapse on Spike as he dashes up to me, and all I can think as I sob onto his shoulder is I'm basically going to owe him infinite ice cream once this is all over with.

I have enough time to pull myself back together — fifteen minutes? Twenty? I hadn't been keeping an eye on the clock — and give Spike an abbreviated version of our discoveries before Celestia and Luna return to the evocation room, side by side. "If you are prepared," Luna says, "we are ready to install Celestia's cache and update mine own — at which point I see no further barriers to reset."

I nod numbly. "Alright. Uh … but what about the Euthanatos —"

"After substituting in your Ninth Law for our Seventh, it was a matter of mere minutes to confirm that there was no cause for concern," Luna says. "As the Euthanatos is self-targeted, it will have the same impact on the structure of your crystalline soul storage that it would upon a living brain. It will terminate your consciousness as expected, and with it, the loop. In the spirit of your desire to gain nothing from your honesty, I will refrain from sharing the mathematics with you until a subsequent loop, but I do wish to reassure you that my sister also independently confirmed my work."

I glance over at Celestia, but I can't read her face. I steady myself with the hoof-extension breathing exercise I learned from Cadence, then nod. "Let's do this."

Luna's cache update is the matter of a few moments of hornglow as she stares into my eyes. Celestia's is far more involved — taking an hour of coaching from Luna, with a lot of weird tingling on my part and a brief moment of intense nausea — but at last they finish, and Celestia tells me her cache trigger so I can relay it to her next time. I take what might be the last breath of freedom I ever remember, and …

… And steady myself, and breathe again, and light my horn —

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work," Spike says.

I open my eyes to a mercifully non-aquamarine evocation room and glance around. Just me and Spike. Alright, that's confusing, but mostly it's a relief. Opening my eyes to Celestia's face might have been more than I could handle.

With that thought, the door creaks open, and she walks in; I can see Luna looking at me through the doorway behind her.

"Good morning, Twilight," Celestia says, giving me a gentle smile. "Delta-2, T-30, C-13."

"Uh, okay," I say, standing up and noting the weight of the phylactery around my neck. My mind starts racing to match my heartbeat. I try to distract myself with loop arithmetic, but sifting through the confusing mess of unexpected deaths since we last compared notes is too challenging right now. "Loop numbers. Um. Are you cross-checking, or telling me?" I could probably work it out with a quill and scroll and five minutes' time, but —

"Telling. It took us five minutes and two pages of notes to work that out last loop," Celestia says. "At any rate, we've got a big change ahead of us. However, you and Luna and I all thought you'd appreciate a moment to reorient and access your memory cache first, since it might be a shock jumping straight to the change from our big moment of honesty. Your cache recovery password is 'Starswirl's Ninth'; look into my eyes and say it out loud."

I let out a short laugh. It worked. Oh, dear stars in heaven, it worked.

"You know what," I say, "I think catching up on the details can wait for a bit. I'd like to bask in the glow of a pleasant surprise for once. This … is a good change, right?"

Celestia's smile broadens. "Good change. There's a brilliant young mage who's looking forward to helping us."

"Then I think it's time to meet them." I charge my horn, and let loose a Euthanatos —

* * *

This time, it's different.

The world blacks out, then flashes and reforms around me — somewhat reminiscent of the pew-bang of teleportation — except that every sense in my body chooses that moment to go haywire. My eyes are open, but I can't see anything through the starbursts exploding into my vision. There's a sharp tang of ozone in my nostrils. The thrum of blood in my ears. Gravity is pressing down on my standing body, with a weight that's probably the phylactery dangling at an odd angle around my neck, and the cold solidity of flat stone underhoof.

Something resembling a voice makes a short, unintelligible noise from a few cubits ahead and slightly to the left, and as my vision starts to clear and my ears begin to pick individual sounds out from the receding static, I hear that voice's owner climb to their hooves. Vague shifting masses of color solidify into blobs, which coalesce into pony-like shapes, white and midnight-blue and a smaller upright purple and … lavender?

I blink rapidly and the images sharpen. Lavender.

"Well," Twilight Sparkle says, standing in the center of the Vaults' evocation circle and dusting off her shoulder with a hoof, "that sure didn't work."

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