• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,340 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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10 - Burning

Principal Celestia pulled her truck into the parking space nearest the school’s back door and hopped out, nearly forgetting to turn the engine off. She dashed across the lawn, unlocked the door, threw it open, and dashed into the school.

Her footsteps echoed through the empty halls, but she could not hear them over her own pants and wheezes. Still, she ran faster than what she thought any of the track athletes ran. She felt her phone vibrate within her pocket, but she ignored it. She knew what it was.

She rounded a corner and spotted a long trail of some darkened sand. Tipped by a small mound, the trail ran around another corner. Celestia swallowed. She knew where the trail went.

Celestia followed it to the gym doors and then barged through them, nearly throwing them off their hinges. She found at least two-dozen sleeping bags strewn across the floor. Only a handful were occupied, and it was around those that her students gathered around.

“What happened!?” she bellowed.

Vice Principal Luna, who had her phone to her ear, whirled around and then jammed her phone into her pocket. “Sister! It’s gotten worse in the night.”

Celestia bent down to peer into one of the seemingly occupied sleeping bags, only to find it taken by a mound of dark sand. Her frown deepened as she observed the same thing in a couple of other sleeping bags. She crawled over to another bag, around which several pajama-clad students gathered around.

Fluttershy adjusted the wet cloth on the unhuman’s forehead. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, her tone soft.

The unhuman whimpered and mumbled something not even close to comprehensible.

Rarity bent over another unhuman, rubbing moisturizer over his deeply cracked skin. She spread it vigorously, her brow furrowing even more with every stroke. She glanced at the other unhumans and groaned in frustration.

Applejack stood up. “Ah don’t get it. The portal turned ’em into humans and everything. What gives?”

Luna frowned. “It would appear that it has not solved the problem.”

“But how?”

Twilight Sparkle inched forward, her hands clasped and her gaze fixed on the floor. “I think we should take them back,” she said, almost at a whisper. “They can’t… survive here.”

The doors burst open again and Rainbow Dash and Trixie rushed in, the both of them in their normal school attire.

Pinkie Pie joined the two shortly after. “We got your texts!” she exclaimed. “What happened?”

Twilight pointed to the black sand trail that led out of the gym. “Well, um… it looks like a few more of them… died during the night.”

The three newest arrivals let out pointed exclamations.

Celestia crossed her arms and grimly shook her head. “I believe it’s time that we take them back. I did not sign us up for this.”

Rarity gasped and then shot up. “Good heavens, you cannot seriously suggest that.”

“But I must.”

Fluttershy rose to her feet. “But… Sunset is counting on us. We have to save them somehow.”

Applejack shook her head. “Ah really don’t think we can.”

“But we must!” Rarity shrieked.

“Rarity, Ah’m sorry. If we can get them back to Equestria, they might have a chance.”

Celestia bent over a sleeping bag and unzipped one side. “Come, let us carry them back.”

While Luna squatted down opposite Celestia and started on the other zipper, two of the boys, Curly Winds and Wiz Kid, approached another, more-undone sleeping bag. They ducked underneath the unhuman’s arms and pulled her up. The unhuman wheezed in response as sand dripped out from the cracks in her body.

“Wait just a second!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, blocking the path. “Sunset sent them over here because they couldn’t really survive over there either! We can’t!”

“You are right, Miss Pie,” Celestia said, “but there is nothing we can do for them here.”

Rainbow Dash stomped the floor. “No way. There has to be a way!”

Applejack pointed at the mounds occupying the sleeping bags. “We ain’t been able to save six of them. We don’t got the stuff to save the several thousand of them there are.”

“W-we’ve lost so many already,” Fluttershy cried.

The boys tried to shift the weight, but that only served to deepen a crack in her shoulder to the point that everything beyond broke off. The unhuman teetered and then collapsed. While her head sustained only a few new cracks, the rest of her body seemed to deflate under the clothes. Her remaining arm, which sustained the brunt of the fall, shattered into a billion sand particles.

Every abled-body in the room let out a series of shrieks and cries and even the most forbidden expletives. Some, like Fluttershy, stumbled backward and fell. Others, like Rarity, could not stop screaming.

The remaining unhumans, still in their sleeping bags, labored to glance up but found they could not. They sobbed quietly instead.


Sunset Shimmer squinted in the morning sun and then pushed the door to the tower open. She, along with Starlight Glimmer behind her, trudged inside. They let the door click shut behind them and made no other sounds as they slithered across the room.

Some figures stirred in the darkness and then a few orbs of light materialized and lit the room. Several Sunset Shimmers bolted up from their spots.

“You’re back!” Sunset Shimmer T exclaimed furiously. “Where have you been?”

Sunset collapsed onto the bed in the corner. Starlight took a cushion nearby, sighing deeply.

After a few moments, Sunset shook her head. “Adamantine’s betrayed us.”

The Sunset Shimmers shared furtive frowns. “Um, yeah. So what?” Sunset Shimmer T asked.

“She’s… going to switch the bodies of our ponies and hers,” Starlight said. “And then our ponies will die.”

Sunset Shimmer S tugged at her silver bandana. “Well, that’s just buckin’ great.”

“Twilight went off to write a counterspell,” Sunset continued, rubbing at her bagged eyes. “It will pull everypony out of the door, just as they were when there got put in.”

“Okay. Wasn’t the whole point of this to save everypony? That’s what you said. And that sounds like exactly not what we were supposed to do.”

“That Adamantine is an idiot,” Sunset Shimmer I said. “That’s just typical. Those unponies won’t survive long in there. ...I don’t think.”

“Well, we’re here now,” Starlight groaned. “Twilight… knew this might happen. We didn’t stop it.”

Sunset rubbed her muzzle. “I’m pretty darn sure that that itself isn’t the disaster but... I think it’s safe to say that we’re locked into it.”

“There’s no way this can turn out okay,” Starlight said. She stared up at the ceiling, lost in her own thoughts. As the seconds passed, her expression became more focused before, finally, she hopped to her hooves. “If we let it go that way.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. The other Sunset Shimmers tilted their heads with curiosity.

“We still have at least a day before the spell is finished,” Starlight said. “We could use that time to, I don’t know, think of something.”

Sunset flipped over and stood up. “You know what? You’re right. We still have time to try some things. We can’t give up now.”

Sunset Shimmer N stepped forward. “Woah woah woah, hold on. You honestly think you can do it in a day?”

Sunset chuckled. “Hey, I’ve done the impossible in this sort of time crunch before.”

Starlight nodded. “I think we’ll think of something.” She yawned and then giggled. “Just because something happened in some world above us nine days into the future doesn’t mean it has to happen here too.”

Sunset nodded. “Damn straight. We can make a difference.”

* * *

Twilight Sparkle pushed through the crowd of guards standing within the cavern. Each of them looked bewildered. The commanding ranks huddled near the side and spoke in low voices. Some of the guards regarded her as she passed through, but they said nothing.

Something twisted in her chest. What had happened?

She rounded the corner to find the end of the cavern where the seal lay. The doors, given the presence of so many standing in front of it, had parted into the walls. And then Twilight saw it: the familiar pink barrier stretching across the opening. The chamber beyond was as they had left it: a giant latticework of wood, akin to a small colony, with unponies resting here and there. Some royal guard effects, like helmets and armor, were abandoned within the chamber.

Twilight glanced behind her, now noticing that some of the guards were, indeed, out of their armor.

She shuffled up to the barrier, expecting it to react in the same way as the one she had seen just a few days prior, wherever it was Adamantine had taken then to. But, unlike that one which had deformed to her touch, this one was as solid as stone.

Twilight lit her horn and teleported. She arrived on the other side of the barrier and into the chamber itself, and immediately had to cover her nose from the strong and putrid stench. Her eyes watered as she glanced around, locating several cauldrons of unstew that had not been there before.

She lit her horn again and a filter appeared around her muzzle. Only then did she dare to breathe again.

She examined her surroundings, noting some of the guards now pressing up against the barrier in curiosity. Those same guards had just been on the battlefield against King Sombra.

Twilight frowned and opened a portal to another timeline. On the other side of the portal, she saw the same barrier, and past it and into the passage itself, several night guard members. She spotted Princess Luna, or at least the one that had been Nightmare Moon until a few days ago, having a hushed conversation with her captains.

She closed that portal, opened another one, and found the same thing: the royal guards all locked out of the chamber.

A shiver ran up Twilight’s spine.

* * *

Princess Celestia adjusted her wings, only to find they were just as uncomfortable as before. “Everypony?” she asked.

The guard nodded. “Yes, Your Highness. Every unit sent to the unpony cavern is accounted for. We’ve triple-checked.”

Celestia looked past him and down the lawn where at least two hundred guards stood at attention. Most ponies would have seen focus and determination, but she knew how to read guards well enough to see the tense muscles and forced blankness. They were confused.

As was she. “If you would, please, explain to me what happened?”

“Your Highness. Queen Adamantine asked us to gather together and then she teleported us here.”

Celestia blinked. “Did she give any reasons why?”

“No, Your Highness. She did not say anything. She brought us here and then she disappeared. We have not seen her since.”

Celestia’s frown deepened but only by an amount that Luna could have discerned. She looked over her misplaced guards. What is she doing…?

* * *

Sunset glanced up. “This is the last of it?”

Sunset Shimmer C nodded. “Every set of stones done twice over,” she said.

Starlight leaned over and skimmed through the pages along with Sunset. The two paused every once in a while to compare readings.

“Every set of readings gave us the same results,” Sunset Shimmer I said.

Starlight pointed toward a timestamp at the top of one of the reports. “Yeah, look at these. Same timestamp, right? Every single stone in this set gave us the same thing.”

Sunset furrowed her brow. “…Which, given all this information, basically amounts to just two things. One, that the insides of the seals are changing—”

“Which we already knew about,” Starlight interjected.

“—and two, that the seals in every timeline are the exact same.”

A moment of silence passed before Starlight groaned. “How the buck does that make any sense?”

Sunset pinched the bridge of her nose. “It doesn’t. Like, at all.”

“So, lemme get this straight. Adamantine looks into the seal in our timeline and pretty much finds everypony that’s gone missing, plus her alternate selves, and some spell to switch everything around. That’s six selves, maybe sixty thousand other ponies…” Starlight said, trying to count with her hooves, “and then if we just trotted on over to, say, Equestria S, and checked the seal there, we’d find another six Adamantines and sixty thousand more ponies.”

“Where are they coming from?” Sunset Shimmer S asked. “I get the alternate timelines aspect, but that just sounds like its making copies.”

“How the hell is that supposed to work?” Sunset Shimmer I replied as she tugged at her brown bandana. “These things are separated by entire timelines. What happens in one should not be happening in all the others.”

“Not to mention that violates some energy laws, I’m sure,” Sunset piped up.

“Because the doors are connected somehow,” Twilight’s voice said with a subdued tone.

Everypony glanced toward the ceiling, despite the voice originating from the crystal ball in the middle of them. “Twilight,” Starlight said, “good morning.”

“Good morning, everypony. I was just listening in and I thought I’d chime in.”

Sunset stood up. “You’ve said that bit before. Have you figured anything out about it?”

“…Sadly, I haven’t. I mean, I know that the door acts in that certain way—where if you put a pony into one door, somehow… you can bring them back out via another door in another timeline—but I still can’t tell you why.”

“That makes even less sense than before!” Starlight exclaimed.

“I wish I had something definitive for you. I’m just…” Twilight’s voice sighed. “I don’t have anything. And after yesterday… Honestly… I don’t even know what I want to do anymore.”

Sunset sighed. “Gosh, Twilight, I’m sorry. I know we really failed you.”

“No… it’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I wasn’t vigilant enough.” Twilight’s voice spoke at a near-whisper.

“Even when you and the princesses wanted us to keep her occupied yesterday, we couldn’t do it,” Starlight said. She shook her head. “We’re the ones that failed.”

Adamantine figured everything out the moment she looked into that seal. There wasn’t much we could do at that point.”

Sunset snorted. “Yeah, I guess…”

“I know you were with me for a while this morning. Did you, by any chance, mention any of this to me?”

Sunset sighed. “I don’t even remember the last few hours, if I’m being honest. Probably not.”

Starlight shook her head. “I-I wasn’t entirely there either.”

“Of course,” Twilight’s voice replied. “Don’t worry about it. I’m kinda feeling the same way too.”

“Yeah.” Starlight shrugged. “Anything else?”

“Yes. A.K. Yearling and I have just finished decoding those documents. I know now exactly how I was fooled. I was so sure I had to prevent her from taking the portal spell with her. I remembered the one that had been taken in my timeline. I was so sure of it. Sure, she took a different paper instead, but I was satisfied with what I saw.

“…But they were all red herrings. The portal spell was redundantly spread across all of them. It had the portal spell several times over. Even with one document missing, she still had the whole thing. They interspliced it with gibberish to throw us off.”

“How do you know all that for sure?” Starlight asked.

“There were instructions for her to take a random document redundantly spread across each page. Those other Adamantines knew she’d be able to commit the entire spell to memory before she even left the room—gosh, that possibility didn’t even occur to me.” The voice in the crystal ball paused. “She must have read that much and realized that these documents were meant for her. It took her to Equestria W. She figured out exactly where she needed to go after that.”

Starlight scratched her head. “Okay, so we made a huge mistake there. So wait, maybe we can warn ourselves about that particular mistake so that we don’t make it again?”

Sunset nodded. “I guess. We could warn the layers below, but it’ll be too late for us.”

Starlight went pale in the face and then hung her head. “Right. Alternate layers.”

“That sounds like a great idea; you’ll need to find me later and tell me about all this,” Twilight’s voice said. “Although I’m not sure why the layer above mine didn’t warn us about this particular mistake.”

“Did they diverge?” Sunset asked.

“It doesn’t look like it.”

Sunset shrugged. “Whatever. How much time do we have?”

“About thirty-six hours.”

“If we somehow find some permanent solution within the next thirty-six hours, then we’ll still be golden. Especially if we can turn things around in our world with it.”

“Alright,” Twilight’s voice said. “I’ll lend you whatever assistance that I can.”

Sunset glanced around, noting the stone results and noting her doubles. She regarded the crystal ball and then smiled at Starlight. “Alright, I have kinda an idea how I want to go about this.” She turned to her doubles. “I’ll need to do some thinking later on, so, at some point, we’ll need to put the setup together. And Starlight, when that happens, I’ll need the tower.”

Starlight nodded. “Sure. If you’re going to do that, then that might give me some time to go do something out northeast. Hopefully, I’ll have some friends to bring back with me.”

The Sunset Shimmers exchanged glances and then nodded in approval. “I’m sure there are things we’ll be able to do in the meantime,” Sunset Shimmer C said.

“Great. In the meantime, Twilight…” Sunset began, glancing up, “you’ll need to tell us everything that you know.”

* * *

“She has pushed us out, then,” Celestia said, setting her teacup onto a coaster.

Twilight nodded solemnly from her position across the table before flipping a page in her pages-long document. A quill idly floated within her grasp.

“Oh, Queen Adamantine,” Celestia said with a sigh, “what are you doing?”

Twilight jotted some symbols down and then lay her quill down. “This was the last thing I ever thought would happen.”

Celestia straightened up. “Twilight, I have to be sure. You can still get in and perform the counterspell that you have there, yes?”

Twilight nodded. “Absolutely.” She paused. “If it comes to that.”

“It may very well come to that, considering what has happened in the past few hours.”

“I just…” Twilight trailed off, nervously rubbing her foreleg, “I’m just not sure what will happen when I do. Adamantine’s rolled the dice on this… I’m so afraid that no matter which of us pulls through first… we’re still going to lose.”

“You are afraid that this will seal the unponies’ fate.”

“Or whoever ends up taking their place.”

Celestia sucked in a breath and ruffled her feathers. The telltale signs of thoughts manifested through searching eyes and a scrunching of her muzzle. Finally, Celestia sighed. “If that really is the case, then this truly is a disaster.”

* * *

Sunset downed her cup of tea and then placed the teacup in the sink. With a deep breath, she took one last look at her notes, taking in each page. She was silent like the rest of the tower. She then set her notes down on the counter and then, after taking one last glance around the empty living area and sighing, she trotted up the stairs.

The study area was just as empty, save for the towering bookshelves, the now quiet machines, and the giant hourglass in the center of the room. She found a pillow on the other side of the glass, flanked by candles and incense rods all standing within small bowls. The setup faced Celestia’s tower, which felt right, even more so than it ever did before.

She took a seat on the cushion. She flared her horn and the objects flickered to life; a dull flame stood on the tip of the candles while a small and steady stream of smoke wafted off the incense.

With her magic, Sunset flipped the hourglass over. The sand within shifted and began falling through; it made a ssssh as it trickled into the bottom chamber.

She took a long whiff of the incense’s wooden smell and let out a long sigh, content to stay and lose herself in the moment.

Sunset took one last look at her setup and then closed her eyes. Her breath slowed down to a deep crawl.

The tower around her melted away. All her senses faded, and shortly after, her perception of black did so as well.

Peace.

Quiet.

Tranquility.

Sunset took a long, deep breath and opened her eyes.

An eternal plane of coalescing reds and oranges greeted her instead. Sunset peered across the idle expanse of her own mind and nodded.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be sorted through this time around,” Sunset thought. “Let’s get started.

“I need to remember the most basic questions that I have because they’ll be key to figuring all of this out. For starters, why did the Nameless die in all timelines at the exact same time?”

A flame materialized in front of her, dancing for a few moments as an image formed within its body. Said image settled into a simple skull and crossbones. A few moments later, the flame began orbiting around her head.

“And in addition to that, why is it that, despite being from other timelines entirely, the unponies know who Twilight is? Why do they know who I am, and who Starlight is?”

Another flame appeared, this one containing the disembodied heads of Twilight, Starlight, and herself. It joined its brother in orbit.

“And some other questions that may or may not be related... How did the other Adamantines find each other? What is the remote property that apparently exists for the unponies? How it is that every bit of magic we throw at them doesn’t work?”

Three more flames appeared: one contained several disembodied Adamantine heads, another contained the image of unponies with a red interdictory symbol on top, and the last contained a television remote.

Sunset eyed the last one and frowned. “A TV remote…? Whatever. Close enough.”

She turned to the skull and crossbones and took it into her hoof. “Let’s start with you. Twilight mentioned that the doors were connected somehow. Considering the behaviors that we’ve seen from the stones, which reflect the status of their respective seals, that kinda makes sense.”

A new flame containing a stone appeared next to the skull and crossbones. Sunset took it in her other hoof.

“And Twilight talked about the possibility of placing somepony in a seal within one timeline and pulling them out of the seal in a different timeline. If that’s true, then the matching statuses of the seals in each timeline are more than just coincidental; they’re directly linked.”

Sunset tossed the skull and crossbones out where it hung within the ether.

“All of that seems to imply that anything we do to one seal causes the same thing to be done on every seal.”

She tossed the flame with the picture of the stone out to which it collided with the skull and crossbones. Both exploded into a million sparks on impact which then imploded into a combined flame containing a skull and crossbones overlaid by a chain link.

Sunset stroked her chin and trotted forward, circling around that flame like a predator. “But there are some contradictions that come about from that. For one, there’s the clear violation of the conservation of energy. And then something like that would imply that the seal is able to create and destroy in order to match its alternate timeline counterparts.

“Which is impossible, because if it could do that, then it would have been more efficient to simply destroy the Nameless. Chances are it’s not doing that.

“And there’s Adamantine saying that whenever she peered into the seal herself, she would sense copies of herself. Sure, with every Adamantine, from our timeline and the alternate timelines, possibly looking into the seal at the same time, that would explain the mirrors that she would see. It would also explain why Adamantine stopped seeing them a few years ago, because that was when the Rainboom happened and the timelines diverged after that.

“But, by that same token… If there are multiple Adamantines looking into the seal, there should also be multiple Nameless inside the seal as well. That isn’t happening.

“And also…” she thought as a faint spark floomed into existence next to her, “if there are eight timelines in play, there should be, via omniverse theorem, infinitely many timelines. We saw that through the infinitely many worlds connected through the crystal ball. The existence of only a finite amount here… violates that beautiful symmetry.” The flame took form, containing three straight lines that formed a symmetry symbol.

Sunset pursed her lips. “Dammit. Something’s not right.

“There can’t exist some arbitrary bound that determines what seals are able to interact with what seals. If every seal is truly alike, then either all of them must be linked together, or none of them must be. It’s definitely not none of them, but eight is way too small to be infinitely many of them.”

The skull and crossbones broke from behind the chain and separated into its own distinct flame. A wooden door took its place behind the chain.

“That must mean that there exists some built-in bound. Something built into the seal itself. Each seal must be explicitly aware of each other. …Just as we are explicitly aware of the other timelines.”

Sunset gasped. “That… makes sense. Just like our timelines are currently connected through portals… which would make us a system of timelines… maybe the seals are connected via portals.”

She stared down the flame containing the chain and the door. She blinked and took a step back. She ran her eyes over the other flames within the expanse and then nodded. “That would make the seals… one single system. And so, what if… what if instead of eight individual seals within eight timelines, it’s… one single seal, all connected and twisted together, spanning all eight timelines?”

The chain and door exploded into a raging inferno, prompting Sunset to shield her eyes. Even from a distance, she could feel its heat radiating across the front of her corporeal body. The image within the inferno showed a series of doors, each at the tail ends of arrows that pointed toward a single point in the center.

“The door in every timeline goes to the same place…” Sunset murmured, considering the inferno. “There really is a tree trunk…

“Yes… that explains so many things. Aside from the obvious being it answering why we get the same behavior between seals and why ponies can go into one and out the other, it explains how…” she thought, grabbing the flame containing the many Adamantine heads, “…the other Adamantines were able to meet each other and work this out; they had a common place to meet at, and the seals provided them with the means to eventually come into physical contact with each other.” She threw the flame at the inferno, causing it to grow even brighter.

“Why… the Nameless died in all timelines at the same time,” she thought, grabbing the flame of the skull and crossbones. “Because, even though there’re multiple timelines, somehow… there was only one Nameless.” She threw that flame as well and it too fueled the inferno.

Sunset tilted her head in thought. “It would be kinda neat to know why there only exists one Nameless despite the fact that there are several timelines, or how the ones that originally sealed the Nameless away figured out that there were alternate timelines as well. Maybe they were all merged together. But… it’s impossible to tell at this point, and it doesn’t matter.”

She whirled around. “Anyway, since I’ve established some common ground between the timelines… I wonder if I can apply the same logic to the unponies?

“Obviously, they are unique to whatever timeline they come from, but maybe… there exists room for information from all other timelines to reach everypony simultaneously, because of the channel the timelines share through the seal. Like… how they knew about us.”

She turned to some of the flames behind her. “Alright, so there’s the fact that there exists some remote part to the unponies.” She glanced at the flame containing the TV remote and frowned. “And… according to Discord, for the unponies from our timeline, at least, Twilight Sparkle exists on the other end.”

A new flame tore off from the old one, forming into Discord’s smiling mug heading an arrow that pointed to Twilight’s distressed mug.

She pushed the new flame out of the way. “I’ll have to come back to that one. There exists a remote part to the unponies, and our magic can’t fix their problem,” she said, glancing between both flames representing those respective ideas. “Something to consider, in addition to that, is that literally every spell we cast works; we can change them into breezies and levitate them no problem, but no matter what, they’re still reliant on unstew or Nameless energy.”

A flame containing some magical aura appeared.

She turned to the TV remote. “If Discord is to be believed, then some secondary part exists somewhere. It seems like half of any unpony’s being is in those pony forms that we’ve seen while the other half of their being exists in some unknown form some distance away.”

Sunset flicked it aside and allowed both the magical aura and the red interdictory symbol to glide into her center of attention. “I guess... magic can be cast on the pony half, and the pony half will react accordingly, but nothing changes the rule that unstew or Nameless energy is required. This suggests… that that requirement exists at this unknown half.”

The two flames fused to make a magical aura surrounding a question mark.

The TV remote floated back toward the front. “And considering that unknown half sustains the pony half, that… suggests that the pony half is just a peripheral with which to gather this Nameless energy with. Which means… anything could happen to the pony half, but if the unknown part is not sustained… then the entire unpony dies.”

The expanse rumbled and flickered for a few moments, causing Sunset to whirl around in alarm. The flames containing all her ideas nearly burned up, and some shrunk to mere embers. Even the raging inferno that was the single seal conclusion lost its luminosity. A brief image of her friends in the human world flashed across the expanse.

“Hold on… hold on… s-stay focused,” she stammered, feeling some proverbial sweat go down her muzzle. Her body felt fuzzy and she tried to tune it out. “Stay focused… this isn’t done yet.”

The tremors subsided and the expanse restabilized. Her flames returned to their former intensity, and that prompted Sunset to stand up straight.

“It’s a matter of sustaining that unknown part. What remains to be seen is if the unknown part is capable of absorbing the energy itself or if it relies on the pony form to gather that energy and funnel it into itself.”

Sunset flung the TV remote at the question mark and the flames fused.

“Now, as to figuring out exactly what that unknown part is… Twilight said that the unponies explicitly exist in order to clean up overvented Nameless energy. Just… the fact that the creators were able to engineer them that way is incredible, although considering they also created the crystal ball and linked the doors together… it’s not too surprising, I guess.

“Either way, that just means that the unponies are just a peripheral to the Nameless seal.”

The flame containing Discord and Twilight’s heads reentered her view and she narrowed her eyes at it. “But… it has to be some peripheral such that the unknown half of the unponies from our timeline is Twilight Sparkle.” Discord’s head responded by shapeshifting into an unpony.

“That’s… just plain weird.”

She paced around for a few moments, lapping the linked-seal inferno. Her muzzle twitched and her expression drew blank. She paced and paced until she arrived in an empty spot.

“There’s also the matter that every unpony in existence knows Twilight Sparkle like they know themselves. Why they know Starlight and I.”

The three disembodied heads came racing over.

“And in addition to that, why they are suddenly fully aware of everypony that exists within the seal. They know their identities, histories, everything.”

She gathered the heads and turned to the inferno.

“Not even Adamantine is aware of those in that capacity.” Sunset scratched her muzzle. “But if… the unponies are really fully integrated with the seal in that way… then that would explain why the unponies know who we all are, despite the glaring fact that they’re from alternate timelines; Twilight existed inside the seal at one point, and now those thousands exist inside the seal now.”

Sunset tossed the disembodied heads into the inferno. The inferno grew in size and turned into a weak blue. Several unpony heads surrounded the chain link and wooden door.

“So… those are the conditions. Some part of the unponies is directly linked to the seal, and for our timeline… they are connected to Twilight.” She rubbed her muzzle. “What… peripheral could actually match that description?

“I mean, we have a peripheral that reflects that insides of the seal, yet in our timeline, said peripheral transformed into Twilight Sparkle. I mean, obviously, unless Twilight took something in…”

In the ether, there was no need to breathe, and yet she felt all breath escape her. Physicality had no power there, yet she felt unable to move. The expanse flickered again, this time accompanied with an audible scratching.

It was her mind, after all. And yet Sunset feared whatever came next.

The entire expanse evaporated. The ideas, which she had carefully cultivated, burnt up without even so much as leaving lingering smoke plumes. All that remained was her still-frozen corporeal self.

“W-what…?” she mentally croaked.

An image formed in the space in front of her. Even as parts of it burned into existence, the picture moved. It gradually revealed itself. Sunset narrowed her eyes, trying to see it clearly.

It was a crystal pillar. A tree-like pillar that now was cascading downward like a viscous fluid. A purple horn which had just been encased in it remained floating above the large, rotating puddle that the crystal formed.

Sunset shuddered and nearly cried out in surprise when a purple orb appeared before her. And then another, then a score, then a few hundred. Many more blinked into existence and swirled around a central point, counter to the liquid below.

One by one, the stones dove into the liquid. Several splashes dotted the surface as each orb disappeared. With each addition, the rotating pool spun faster and faster, turning purple as a result.

Sunset became aware of the low rumble that accompanied it, even as the picture skipped a few frames and parts of it disappeared for bits at a time. As more and more orbs teleported into the expanse and then kamikazed into the liquid, the hum turned into a deafening roar.

And then, once the last of the orbs dove in, the purple horn that floated in the center of the formation lit up and sucked the molten crystal up toward it. The liquid spiraled around the horn at first and then swallowed it whole. As more and more rose up, the liquid compacted into a solitary sphere around it.

And then the sphere exploded in a bright white flash and Sunset’s entire expanse lit up. She could not see in any sense of the word. The roar reached its apex, deafening her as well. After a few moments, her vision returned, and Sunset hazarded a look.

Twilight Sparkle stared back at her through white-lit eyes and an unconscious frown. Her rainbow-like mane and tail swayed with the energy that flowed through them. She floated with her wings spread to their full length.

Sunset’s body burned. She could feel her rear end being blasted away, but her full attention remained on the figure in front of her which was radiating something powerful. Said radiation, strangely visible within the expanse, condensed into thousands of flames.

Thousands of flames containing the same purple orbs.

“…The unponies,” Sunset thought, blinking. She considered the stones, she considered Twilight. “The unponies. They’re…”

Twilight Sparkle exploded. The fireball rapidly expanded, meeting Sunset so quickly she barely had time to process the image inside before it completely obliterated what remained of her.

Sunset Shimmer screamed.

And then she tumbled off the pillow, knocking over a bowl and its spent incense. She hit the floor, gasping for breath. She felt at her chest, checking for a heartbeat. When she found it, she rolled over, now trying to control her hyperventilation. She tried to stand, but her legs wobbled beneath her. Sweat dripped down the side of her face and her teeth chattered.

Only a few moments later did she managed to find breath.

“…Oh my bucking stars.”

* * *

Starlight reached the tip of the stairs. The crystal ball floated by her head and the six Sunset Shimmers followed closely behind. They stood in front of the tower’s entry door for some moments, and Starlight reached out with her magic to pull it open when it nearly swung off its hinges on its own.

Sunset sprang out and grabbed Starlight by her withers.

“Sunset!?” Starlight cried.

“They’re stones! They’re stones!” Sunset shrieked. “The unponies are stones!”

“Say—”

“What!?” Twilight’s voice exclaimed.

“I figured it all out! I know the answers to pretty much everything now. The unponies are literally stones!”

The Sunset Shimmers’ mouths hung dumbstruckly open.

Starlight pressed a hoof against her forehead and rubbed it like soothing a headache. “Wow…”

“No… no way,” Twilight’s voice said. “No way. This… I-I think I see it. Y-yes, i-it… Oh, by the stars.”

“I’ll go into the details later,” Sunset said, pushing through them. “I have to go. I’ll be back in, like, twenty minutes.”

The seven whirled around as Sunset reached the stairs. “Wait!” Sunset Shimmer T yelled. “Going? Where the buck?”

“I have to get a message to Spike!” she called back before disappearing down the stairway.

* * *

Spike,

Go to CHS and bring the unponies back through now! They aren’t safe there!

Sunset Shimmer

Spike clenched the scroll in his claws as he bolted into the mirror portal. His world twisted into a rainbow-colored light show and his body contorted in ways that he could not be aware of. And then his doggy paws hit pavement.

On seeing that his transformation had tucked the note into his collar, he surged forward. He scampered up the stairs and pushed through the front door. He found several students in the main foyer, although their voices were more hushed than what he remembered. He dismissed it and wormed his way through them and into the hallway.

After dodging through several more pairs of legs and around some grounded backpacks, Spike arrived at the gym doors. But, to his dismay, he found that these doors opened outward, presenting no more than a pair of handles.

He tried to jump up toward them but didn’t find the height. He tried scampering up the side of the door but couldn’t find the height. He clawed at it, hoping someone on the other side would hear.

Then the door swung open. Principal Celestia poked through and looked around.

“Principal Celestia!” Spike exclaimed.

She started and then glanced down. “Oh… Spike. Hello.”

“Thank you!” he exclaimed before running through her legs. He emerged into the gym proper, ignoring Celestia’s bewildered expression, and looked around.

And found nothing except for a mound of what looked like black sand that couldn’t have been any bigger than his paw.

Spike blinked and ran his eyes over the rest of the gym to make sure he hadn’t missed something. And then he realized that it wasn’t him that was missing something, it was that several somethings were missing.

“…Where is everyone?” he asked.

Celestia walked up behind him. “They either were sent home for the day… or…”

Spike frowned. “Where are the unponies at? I need to take them back to Equestria. Right now.” He reached into his collar and then presented the note.

Celestia bent down, took it, and read it over. At that, her already-somewhat pale face paled even more, and her expression fell. “…I see.”

“Where are they?”

Celestia hobbled over to a folding chair in front of the small mound and sat down. “I’ve… spent the past hour just sitting here,” she said, “with that pile of… I don’t know what you’d call it. I’ve been watching that pile dissolve into thin air.”

Spike shuddered, regarding her with suspicion. “Principal Celestia…?”

Celestia hung her head. She motioned toward the pile but couldn’t find anything more to say about it. “I’m… so sorry, Spike. We couldn’t do it.”

* * *

Sunset glanced at the reply in her magical grasp. She read it a third time, and a fourth. She read it several more times after that. She paced around the living area all the while.

They’re dead.

Sunset’s frown deepened.

They’re dead because they were there.

Her breath became hot and her heart pounded against her bones.

They were there because I sent them there.

They’re dead because I sent them there.

Sunset threw the note to the floor, but that did nothing to put her at ease.

They’re dead… because of me.

With a scream, she levitated a pillow and threw it across the room. It collided with a cupboard in the kitchen, propelling several glasses and porcelain pieces off; they promptly shattered against the floor.

“Dammit. Just… dammit,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. Her hooves shook, emphasizing the way her body shuddered. After a few moments, she sighed.

Sunset whipped around and stormed up the stairs where the others were invariably waiting.