• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,315 Views, 127 Comments

Substitute - RQK



Everything has a price. The smallest of actions, both good and bad, can place many into the grave. The roots run deep, after all, in any and all Equestrias.

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8 - Existential II

Most decorations had been cleared off of the dining room table. Gone were the doilies and small plants. Instead, stacks of papers dominated most of the surface, only leaving a quarter for various objects and effects which took up all the remaining space.

“Fluttershy, can you flip that paper over? There, on your left?” the crystal ball said. “Yes, that one.”

Fluttershy flipped the paper in question over before returning to scanning her own document.

“Thanks. That one’s a grocery list for three weeks ago,” Twilight’s voice said.

Twilight shuffled some papers around. “A lot of this seems like housekeeping records. It’s not particularly useful for solving these issues.”

Rarity sipped on some tea. “Although I would admit that it’s somewhat informative, regardless. Just imagine how they were living over these past few months.”

“True. These records only go back around three months. That must be when they must have first met.”

Applejack held up some sheets. “Ah reckon these ones here talk about setting up their homes in them chambers.”

Rarity leaned over, scanning their contents. “Why it would seem so. Look, you can even see in the footnotes where they noted population rates and—”

Rainbow Dash slammed her head into the table and groaned. “For buck’s sake, this is booooring.”

Pinkie Pie yawned. “…Yup. I agree with Dashie on this one.” She waved a hoof at the central pile. “And we still gotta go through those.”

The large, white double doors at the front of the room swung open. Everypony turned to see Adamantine standing underneath the doorframe’s high arch.

“Hello, everypony,” Adamantine said. “Welcome back. I see you’ve brought back those items that have been in the possession of my other selves.”

Applejack nodded. “Sure have. Figured we’d sit down with it now that we’ve cleaned up most of them other worlds.”

Rarity motioned toward the cluttered table. “We’ve received all of this from the other timelines. We have Starlight Glimmer to thank for coordinating efforts there.”

“Ah, Starlight,” Adamantine answered, stepping into the room. “I notice she is not here. Nor is Sunset Shimmer.”

Rarity waved her hoof dismissively. “Well of course. They’re working on some other things right now. We met up with them just before we came here, talked for a bit. Twilight gave them copies of the portal spell. So on, and so forth.”

“I see. I wonder what they are doing.” Adamantine paused as she raised an eyebrow. “Portal spell? You recovered a portal spell? Like the ones we have seen?”

“It’s not directly from the source,” Twilight answered, “but it works. If you like, we could teach it to you.”

Adamantine smiled. “I would be interested in learning it. Perhaps you could teach me while we sort through this. I am sure that I could be of assistance here.”

“As nice as that sounds,” Twilight’s voice cut in, “we will have to decline your offer.”

All seven of them glanced up in confusion.

“Everything in here is classified, including that portal spell. I’m sorry, Adamantine. But you need to leave.”

Adamantine backpedaled, snorting. “I… I don’t understand. Why must I leave?”

“I can’t have you seeing any of this. You… don’t have permission. I’m sorry.”

“…Do you not trust me?”

After a few moments of silence, Twilight’s voice answered, “No. Not with this.”

The room remained silent. The six at the table exchanged glances and shifted about in worry. Some pursed their lips in displays of continued silence.

There couldn’t be many good reasons to contradict her future self. Twilight sighed. “Well… You heard me, Adamantine. You have to leave.”

Glancing around and finding nothing in their expressions, Adamantine straightened up, looking offended. “Very well,” she huffed. “I will… take my leave.” She whirled on the spot and exited. The doors thumped against the frame and then clicked into place.

Applejack sighed. “Uhm, Twi, Ah know you’re tryin’ to make some things not happen and all… but Ah really reckon we coulda used her help, ’specially with goin’ through all this stuff,” she said, motioning to the pile.

“The truth is… there are some things in that pile that I do not want her to see,” Twilight’s voice said.

“Oh yeah?” Rainbow Dash asked, her voice almost a snarl. “Like what?”

Twilight stood up. “Let’s find out,” she said, lifting some papers off and passing them around.

Minutes ticked by as they glanced through document after document. Some were many pages in length and those took time but the six, some with more enthusiasm for the task than others, eventually sorted through them. Eventually, the pile dwindled down.

“That. That’s what I don’t want her to see, Pinkie Pie,” Twilight’s voice said.

Pinkie Pie glanced at the stack of papers that she had reached over the rest of the table for. Tilting her head in curiosity, she dove in. The others leaned forward with interest. She flipped through pages upon pages of symbols and magical sigils and the occasional plain-language footnote. It appeared to be missing a title page, but it neared seventy pages in total.

She wasn’t even a quarter of the way through before she gasped dramatically. “Twilight! This is—”

Twilight shot up in her seat, gasping herself. “No way. That’s… The Answer!”

The other four jolted in place amidst a chorus of cries.

Twilight magically snatched it from Pinkie Pie’s grasp. She stared at a few pages as well, opening and closing it again in disbelief. Finally, she looked up. “How did they get this?”

Applejack swallowed. “Ya reckon this is the one that went missin’ from Princess Celestia’s room?”

After a pause, Rarity narrowed her eyes. “The one that those alternate Adamantines must have stolen.”

Twilight grabbed her temples. “My goodness, this… answers that question.”

“Truthfully, I knew the answer to that already,” Twilight’s voice said.

“No duh,” Rainbow Dash snorted.

Twilight shot her a stink eye.

“…Yes. And I know what the other Adamantines took it for. It’s… the thing that I’ve been trying to prevent.”

The six glanced at the ceiling, trying to look back at something that wasn’t actually in the room with them.

“We’ll want to take this out of the room,” Twilight said, fiddling with The Answer.

The other five voiced their agreements.

“Speakin’ of which, maybe it’s time that you tell us what it is?” Applejack asked.

“…Maybe I should. I really want to,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Fluttershy frowned. “Did you?”

There was a pause. “No, I didn’t.”

“You talked about this,” Fluttershy continued. “I know you could tell us what it is, and all. But I guess we would do things much differently after that. And you wouldn’t be able to predict too much of anything.”

Applejack nodded. “It’d render that there crystal ball pretty useless forever,” she said.

“I’m surprised that you have been with us this long and haven’t caused any deviation yet,” Twilight said.

“I know,” Twilight’s voice said. “It’s really a matter of taking something that did or did not happen in my world and doing the opposite. I think I have an idea of what that is by now, but I still need to think about it some more.”

Rarity nodded. “Well, I suppose you are at least making progress. But I would have hoped you would have made a decision.”

“Me too. But,” the crystal ball said with a sigh, “the path ahead still isn’t very clear. There are too many unknowns.” When they motioned for her to continue, Twilight’s voice said, “Why did the Nameless die in all timelines at the exact same time? How did the other Adamantines even find each other? Why do those alternate timeline unponies know about Starlight and Sunset? Why do they know about me?”

“If ya ask me,” Applejack said, stroking her chin, “if we figure any of that out in the next few days, we oughta send it down. You oughta send it down,” she said to Twilight.

Twilight nodded. “I agree. This is… weird. I’ll do it. I just have to hope that it doesn’t change things too much.”

“I hate to say this,” Twilight’s voice said, “but… I remember saying those exact words. Gosh, I hope this won’t be a straight repeat of my chain of events.”

The six hung their heads, glumly considering the implications.

“There is… one thing that I am going after, but this seems to be a repeat too. If we solved it already, then I really am not sure why my own future self is being quiet about it.”

“Have ya been talkin’ to yer future self?” Applejack asked.

“…No. Now that I think about it, that’s really strange. Nonetheless, check that pile there. There’s something at the bottom.”

The six of them went through a few more documents, stacking them into a pile near Twilight. The pile dwindled even more until, finally, Twilight’s voice cut in again. “That one, there.”

The document in question spanned a couple of pages. Symbols that didn’t resemble anything magical nor alphabetical filled the pages.

Rainbow Dash held it up, turned it sideways, and pressed her muzzle to it. Her expression turned sour. “…The buck is this?” she finally asked. She shoved it in Twilight’s face. “Can you read this?”

Twilight took it and skimmed through it. “This is weird. No, I can’t read any of it.”

“It’s written in code,” Twilight’s voice said. “At least, that’s what I think it is.”

Applejack peered over the table. “Sure looks like it.”

“Or maybe it’s another language,” Rarity offered.

Twilight frowned. “If it is, I have never seen it before.”

“It could be, it could not be,” Twilight’s voice said. “I’m not sure what it is, or if it’s even important. But it is of enough complexity that even now where I’m collaborating with A.K. Yearling on deciphering it… we still haven’t cracked it yet.”

Rainbow Dash’s face lit up. “Woah, wait a minute. You’re working with Daring Do!?”

“The one and only!” Twilight’s voice replied. “She heard about what happened and offered to help me here.”

“So! Awesome!”

Twilight beamed, but then that faded. “But we won’t see the results for a while, it sounds like.”

“Right,” Twilight’s voice concurred.

Fluttershy reached across the table, looking at a few more similarly coded documents. “There’re also these other ones here,” she pointed out.

There was a pause. “Right. I’ll take care of them,” Twilight’s voice said. “Really, the only thing that concerns me about this collection is that there’s no portal spell amongst this.”

Twilight lit her horn and levitated a paper over. “I was just thinking about that. Starlight managed to nab this list for us. Which, since I know the portal spell myself, these are obviously addresses.”

Pinkie Pie nodded. “Yup! See, they’re using those letters too! D for Discord, C for Chrysalis, and all the others!”

“That accounts for the D, the C, the S, the T, and the N. Those ones are straightforward.”

“But there’re three more,” Fluttershy said, pointing. “What is the I for?”

Twilight pressed her face into the list. “That’s Flim and Flam. So I guess… I for industry?”

Pinkie Pie zipped over. “Oh, that R there. That’s us, right?”

“Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied.

“But why an R?” Twilight wondered.

Everypony exchanged glances and hummed quietly in thought.

Eventually, Rainbow Dash slapped the table. “I know! R for Rainboom!” she exclaimed.

The others giggled and nodded in response.

“And then there’s this last address,” Twilight continued. “And we haven’t even been to this W place yet.”

“What do you suppose that one is, then?” Rarity asked.

Twilight considered the list in silence. Her head rocked from side to side while she mulled it over. And then she frowned. It was the only one that they had not been to yet.

Twilight swallowed and she looked up at her friends. A drop of sweat fell down her muzzle. “…I know where this W leads to.”

* * *

Sunset Shimmer glanced at the magenta orb in front of her. She then attached some tape to it, labeled it I-52, and then crossed out the corresponding I-52 entry on the list in her magical grasp. She tugged at the green bandana bearing the letter C around her neck.

She floated the orb to another Sunset Shimmer. “That should be the last one,” she said.

The other Sunset Shimmer, who wore a red bandana bearing the letter T around her neck, nodded, and the two trotted over toward a set of identical machines which four more Sunset Shimmers gathered around. Setting the magenta orb amongst nearly two score others, they joined their doubles on examining their machines.

One Sunset Shimmer, wearing a silver bandana bearing the letter S around her neck, levitated a steel plate into place before stepping back to admire the work. Her eyes briefly drifted around the room; she saw the room’s towering bookshelves containing every book imaginable, the sprawling window that offered a view of the rest of Canterlot Castle beyond, and the hourglass that served as this room’s centerpiece.

“I’ve missed this place,” Sunset Shimmer S thought aloud.

The others hummed in agreement.

“Have any of you tried talking to Princess Celestia?” she then asked.

A few looked up. “Heck no,” Sunset Shimmer T replied. “Why?”

“Eh. Because I’m thinking about it,” Sunset Shimmer S thought aloud. “You know, because of the war, and all.”

“Seriously?” another Sunset Shimmer, wearing a brown bandana with a letter I on it, said. “Did you forget how she basically threw us out and denied us?”

Another Sunset Shimmer, wearing a blue bandana with a letter N on it, shivered. “I do. My Celestia is banished to the moon for the next thousand years now. Actually, I kinda wish I could go talk with her.”

Sunset Shimmer I frowned. “Well… maybe I should go give my Celestia a piece of my mind then.”

“You know,” another Sunset Shimmer, wearing a yellow bandana with a letter D on it, said as she turned to Sunset Shimmer N, “I bet if you wrote it big enough, your Celestia might be able to see it on the moon.”

Sunset Shimmer N half-snorted, half-chuckled. “Maybe. I might do that.”

“Anyone want to go draw a giant finger?” Sunset Shimmer I asked.

And then all six Sunset Shimmers laughed.

An electrical crack caught their attention and they turned as a portal burst into being at the top of the stairs. The six of them looked on as another Sunset Shimmer stepped through the portal, a determined frown across their face. Unlike them, she wore no bandana. There, they straightened up.

Sunset flared her horn, and the portal behind her closed with an airy pop. “How are we doing?”

Sunset Shimmer C stepped forward. “We just finished sorting out all of those… stones that you told us about.”

Sunset Shimmer I nodded. “That’s every one of them from within a two-hundred-mile radius, from every timeline. They were right where you said they would be.”

“You can thank the royal guard for getting those,” Sunset said.

“You’re the one that set that up. But why aren’t there any from your timeline?”

“They don’t exist anymore,” Sunset replied. “They melted into a pony when I performed The Answer.”

The Sunset Shimmers considered it. “Well, there’s what we got,” Sunset Shimmer C said, motioning to the collection.

Sunset narrowed her eyes and trotted over toward the collection of stones. She counted forty-two stones, and yet, somehow, a random few of them appeared very not-purple like she expected, but white in color. She examined one closely, noting a now-revealed glassy layer on top of the white, which she supposed was the core. They lacked the energy that their magenta brethren did.

She scanned every other stone, noting their label, and then held one of them. These aren’t the color that I remember them, she thought, but these are stones alright. I guess the color is just a reflection of what’s inside the seal, after all. But…

She turned. “What’s with these white ones?” she asked, pointing.

The six looked equally confused. “I don’t know,” Sunset Shimmer S said. “Maybe those are dead stones?”

The seven stood in silence, quietly pondering it.

Dead stones? How does that even work? Sunset thought. I guess they kinda look dead when you set them next to the other, huh?

Eventually, Sunset sighed and shook her head. “Whatever. What about the machines?”

“We just finished. We can start scanning those stones whenever,” Sunset Shimmer S said.

Sunset nodded. “Okay. This 732 set looks all alive, I guess, so start with these. Go onto 52 after that. I imagine, with all these machines, each set should take about an hour.” She smiled. “You’re all doing a great job, by the way. Keep it up!”

The Sunset Shimmers exchanged glances. A few hazarded smiles as they levitated their respective stones over. They turned to their machines, flipping switches and turning dials. The machines flickered to life in response.

Sunset chuckled and then trotted down the stairs.

* * *

Starlight Glimmer lit her horn, and a portal opened in front of her. She peered through and noted that the Canterlot Castle on the other side of the aperture appeared just like the one that she stood in. The throne room stretched ever upward and the end, where a mighty throne capped it, seemed so far away.

She discerned a few figures at the other end of the room, and she glanced back at Princess Celestia who stood behind her. A Celestia, she knew, who had just walked off a battlefield at the end of years-long war. Together, the two of them ducked through.

Celestia stood tall as she peered over Starlight. Several versions of herself (four, to be precise) looked back. Whereas she took them in with wide eyes and a hanging jaw, her doubles smiled. Several versions of Princess Luna (five, to be precise) joined them, all of whom save one were fully matured. The last Luna was significantly smaller and less ethereal than the others.

Celestia trotted toward them. “By the stars, you are all real.”

One of the Celestias chuckled and stepped forward in kind. “You are not the only one to have had doubts about a grand claim like that.”

“That alternate timelines exist,” a Luna said. “Tell us, where are you from?”

The newest Celestia smiled. “I am from a timeline in which we waged war against King Sombra. We won the war earlier this morning, as a matter of fact.”

“With the help of a handful of other ponies from another reality, yes?” a Luna replied.

Starlight blushed and stepped back from the circle.

“Why yes, exactly that,” Celestia said.

“They managed to reform Discord in our reality, if thou might believe it,” a Luna replied.

“They imprisoned Lord Tirek in our timeline,” another Celestia replied.

One of the Celestias cleared her throat. “Our reality is dominated by industry—too much so. I’ve spoken with those six, and they promised to come back with ideas.”

The Luna that appeared frail and depowered stepped forward. “Where I come from…” she began, her voice almost inaudible, “I was Nightmare Moon. I have… banished my sister to the moon, and I brought eternal night for years. Those ponies… they showed me the light.”

She turned and sheepishly kicked the floor. “I cannot express enough how… sorry I am. I don’t even know how to bring my sister back down. I am… I will be… alone for a very long time.”

The room hung silent as many of them frowned, mostly in contemplation but partly in sorrow. Starlight hung her head as well with little idea on what to say.

A Celestia stepped forward and nuzzled that Luna. “Dear sister… you are not alone. You never were.”

Another Luna held up a scroll. “With these portals, we never have to be alone again. We can help each other. We can… stick together.”

The Celestia that had walked through with Starlight then turned to her. “Including wherever it is that you came from, Starlight Glimmer. Especially with all that you have done for us. For saving our worlds.”

Starlight cracked a nervous smile. Saving worlds and cleaning up after herself were, in this case, one and the same. Surely, they would not have said so much if they’d known she had caused it in the first place.

Caused it by accident.

Starlight paused. It had been an accident. Maybe Twilight had been right. She had not started a war or brought about eternal chaos. That was not her, nor would it ever be.

She smiled and nodded in return. Maybe I’ll tell them later.

A Celestia turned. “Now, what’s say we get started. I would imagine that there is much to discuss.”

* * *

Twilight glanced forward and took a deep breath. Her friends waited with bated breath right behind her.

Twilight flared her horn, and a portal appeared on the lawn before them. A slow, dusty wind greeted her and her friends, caressing their manes and tails. Whatever lay on the other side appeared drab and dull, with a thick haze where clouds would have hung blocking out most of the light.

Cautiously, they approached the opening. Twilight peered through first, noting that, somehow, the ground on the other side had dropped down by several feet. She leaped through and landed on solid dirt. The others followed one at a time.

Twilight whirled around, searching for any sign of green in the expanse, but they found nothing but brown in every direction. Even the dirt, where she was sure there should have been grass, sank under her weight.

The wind’s dulcet whistle topped it off, offering the only track of audio that the landscape had.

Most of the outer wall was gone, affording them glimpses into what had once been the lawns beyond. The moat had dried up and the waterfall had disappeared, leaving only solid rock. What had once been the gatehouse lay in some facsimile of its former shape, the gate itself gone and the bridge beyond sitting in two pieces. What had been the path beyond that lead down the mountain was now a sea of uneven dirt.

They turned and headed further into the castle grounds. Most structures, some of which were in such shape that they could hardly recognize them, were but silhouettes in the distance. One tower had toppled over and now leaned against another, the latter of which was missing its top. As they came closer, they saw what were once windows, now hosting only a few remaining shards of glass. Several roofs had collapsed or caved in. Flags and tapestries, many hanging on by a thread, flapped erratically in the breeze.

Twilight’s frown deepened and she let out a long sigh. A few others whimpered or averted their gaze. Applejack hid behind her stetson. Together, they pressed on.

They treaded over dried and cracked earth. Leafless trees, missing most of their branches and sporting several cracks in their bark, were littered near the half-standing walls with some even uprooted and now on their sides.

They came across a hole in the wall where the castle grounds ended and the city began, and they ducked underneath.

The city was in similar shape. Most buildings had lost good portions of their white paint and sported sizable holes. Some of them lay in rubble. The remains of carriages and small pieces of broken furniture littered the cracked and (in some places) upheaved streets.

The six walked down the street, still accompanied by the wind’s whistle. Everywhere they looked, they found no signs that anypony still remained. Then they heard something, and they quickened their pace, only to find at the next intersection that the source of the sound was a wooden store sign, squeaking as it rocked incessantly in its overhang.

A street later, they found a crack running what seemed like from one end of the city to the other. They glanced inside and found some now-exposed pipes. Some of them were cracked open and they offered no hints of anything flowing through them. The thinner ones were rusted and warped, with their ends flaring out in every direction.

Sullenly, Twilight turned to the others, and the others turned to her. Sadly, they nodded, and that prompted Twilight to wrap her magic around them.

Twilight took to the air, levitating her friends behind her. They flew further down at a rapid pace, observing more decay as they went. They looked, first anxiously then desperately, for signs that anypony remained, but they found nothing. Finally, when they reached what Twilight figured was halfway into the city, Canterlot suddenly gave way, leaving them nothing but a view of the sloping mountainside below. There, through the murky fog, they saw the slightest hints of mass debris in a large pile at the foot of the cliff.

Twilight circled them around so that they faced Canterlot, and they saw the full severity of its decay. The earth had been gutted. The low winds continuously dislodged streams of dirt from the weathered rock before scattering them in the breeze, with bits continuing to stream off the weathered bottoms. Buried debris jutted out, with several pipes clawing their way out only to grow limp. Buildings on the new city edge sagged within their foundations, clinging for dear life.

Fluttershy started crying and Pinkie Pie followed. Rarity shed a few tears as well but tried to hide it. Applejack and Rainbow Dash exchanged sad glances but said nothing.

Twilight turned and looked across the rest of Equestria. She found no traces of Cloudsdale, which should have floated in the sky to the northwest. The plains below, which should have been populated with trees and grass and other fauna, lay barren. She tracked hints of a riverbed toward where Ponyville should have been, finding nothing but a single gray dot that she imagined was the Map. Where the Everfree Forest should have been, she found a lifeless expanse of dirt and sand, without any signs that anything had ever grown there.

She widened her gaze toward the horizon, where distant shapes made regressed forms of the geography that she knew. She saw no end to the haze, she saw no end to the clouds. She wondered when the last time the surface had ever seen the sun was.

Twilight sniffed and wiped a few tears from her eyes. But they had already started and could not stop.

She lit her horn, another portal appeared, and she took them through it. Their home Canterlot, still intact and whole, full of color and life, greeted them. She took one last look at the wasteland through the portal and then closed it tight. The constant whistle that had accompanied them faded away.

And for a while, they floated there in Twilight’s magical grasp, sobbing in silence. Eventually, Twilight found the strength to float them back toward the castle.

* * *

Luna and Celestia cantered into the dining room, the former carrying the crystal ball behind her. They circled around the table, tilting their heads over certain documents as they tried to read them.

“They had The Answer in here earlier,” Twilight’s voice said. “We took it out.”

“It was delivered to my room about an hour ago,” Celestia said. “I’ve since hidden it in someplace very secure.”

“I don’t want Adamantine getting her hooves on it.”

Luna picked up some papers. “It would seem to me that most everything else is benign,” she said. “Nonetheless, I am sure that Starlight Glimmer and Sunset Shimmer may want to peruse these at some point soon.”

Celestia hunched over some papers with several odd symbols on them. “It would seem that way, although these appear to be an exception.”

“Let me see those,” Twilight’s voice said.

Celestia obliged by spreading the strange documents across the table.

“I have to remember how this went,” Twilight’s voice continued. “In my world, one of these two-pagers were stolen. As I understand it, we attempted to dispose of it ahead of time, but we disposed of the wrong one.”

“Then we must be sure to select the correct one this time around,” Luna said.

After a moment of silence, Twilight’s voice gasped. “Okay! There, that one! Third from the left! That’s the one.”

Celestia lifted said document and considered it. “Are you certain?”

Another pause. “Yes.”

Celestia levitated over a trash bin and then shot a beam at the document, incinerating it. Its ashes fell into the bin. “It is done.”

“Great, thank you. I’ll be keeping an eye on this place to make sure we made the right move. Hopefully, we didn’t just incinerate information that could have helped us out.”

Luna frowned. “That’s a good idea, but would it not be more efficient to post some guards here? That way we could prevent it entirely.”

“I agree,” Celestia said. “If we are to take steps to—”

“No, no guards,” Twilight’s voice curtly replied.

Celestia ruffled her wings. “Twilight.”

“No.”

“Twilight, we must station guards here,” Luna said.

“I think that’s a bad idea. We can’t physically stop Adamantine from getting into this room!”

The room fell silent. Both sisters froze and then tentatively exchanged glances.

Luna swallowed. “So then, it is… Adamantine. She will attempt to steal a document tonight.”

The crystal ball said nothing for a few moments. And then, “Yes.”

Celestia shook her head. “We have already disposed of the document that we think she will take, but Twilight, we must take every precaution, in case we have guessed incorrectly.”

“I would like to, but I’m afraid that since I rejected her earlier, I’ve already given her some reason for suspicion.” A pause. “If we post guards here, we reinforce it. And if they try to stop her, we lose her entirely.”

A long and pregnant pause later, Twilight’s voice spoke one more time. “Adamantine causes the disaster.”

Both sisters shuddered and exchanged glances. An entire conversation passed between them with their eyes alone.

“Then,” Luna tentatively began, setting the crystal ball onto the table, “we… must tread carefully.”

“Yes. We must. And if we mess this up… She will set it in motion tomorrow. And there will be no avoiding it after that. I am making my move here.”

“We are at the critical moment,” Celestia said, nodding. “Then, Twilight, we look to you on this matter. Give us any task you see fit, and we will execute it to the best of our ability.”

“We must keep Adamantine busy for the next twenty-four hours. She does not leave this castle.”

* * *

Adamantine’s world folded together in several ways and then unfolded again. Her hooves made contact with the hard floor and she stood at her full height.

The dining room was empty. She looked around several times before cautiously approaching the table.

She levitated a few documents and read them. Most were housekeeping documents, and she read through a few of them, but she had no strong reactions to any of them; the best she afforded was a hum as she moved between documents.

Finally, she reached a set of documents with strange symbols and found her pause. She narrowed her eyes, lifting one up. She scanned it once and then reeled. This is… code, she thought. This is the code that I developed with my trusted lieutenants several years ago.

She set the document down and picked up another. And then another. Her frown deepened. Most of this is gibberish.

She blinked. Wait, some of this is legible. And there’s an order to them. Take… document.

She switched over to another piece. A... document.

Another piece. Take… random.

Adamantine kept silent as she read through it. Take a random document? she thought, contemplating what they were telling her.

At that, she dove into them in full. She skipped over the illegible parts and to what parts made words, cross-referencing other documents as she read along. Her jaw occasionally twitched as she considered the contents.

Upon reaching the end of the last of them, she set it down and sighed.

“Drat,” she said aloud.

She looked at the other coded documents on the table, hovered over them with a contemplative expression, and then picked one up. “Well, I suppose this will be of some interest… I don’t think they will miss this.”

Adamantine glanced toward the ceiling, briefly wondering if somepony was watching.

Finally, she lit her horn and teleported out of the room.