• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,339 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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12 - Substitute

Starlight Glimmer glanced over the top of the rock and at the village below. The houses, arranged into the shape of an equal sign, marked the end of the path that snaked down from her position. She squinted, wondering if she could make out any old faces from this distance.

Maybe there would be a time where she could face them again. Starlight shook her head and retreated off the rock. Another time.

She turned to the pegasi guards, relieving themselves of a small chariot. “Thanks for bringing me out here. But if anypony asks… I’m not here. Okay?”

The guards nodded quietly and flashed quick salutes.

Starlight focused some energy into her horn and opened a portal. Upon stepping through, she closed it behind her and then trotted down the path. She looked toward the mountains on the northern horizon, wondering what the Crystal Empire looked like now that they had liberated it from King Sombra.

A shiver ran up her spine. He didn’t find our town out here, did he?

As she rounded the corner, the town (or, at least, this timeline’s version) came into view. She cringed at the mere sight of it, but she then found even more reason to pause when she found nopony about. She squinted, trying to see what lay under the shadows of the dark clouds above. The stone walls sported darkened stains and several wooden beams within the roofs had split into two parts, some sinking into the house below.

Starlight lit her horn and teleported straight into the town. Now she could see household objects half-buried in the dirt as well as the eternally ajar doors. One house nearby was missing its door entirely, allowing her to see a furnitureless room beyond. A lump of heavy armor, topped by a helmet with a long, black ploom, protruded from a pile of rocks in one of the alleyways.

She looked toward the house at the end of the lane which had been gutted and was now almost completely rubble. She then stomached some bile.

She lit her horn, opened another portal, and dove through it, but could not stick the landing on account of what she saw.

Now, in this timeline, every house had been blown away. Orphaned supports sporting black scorch marks all over stuck out of the ground toward random directions. Pieces of brick, split into several fragments, lay strewn about. Cracks ran the length of uneven ground which Starlight was sure had been upheaved at some point.

She stomped the ground and cursed Tirek under her breath.

She opened another portal and stepped through. This time, the town was completely gone, without any hints that there had ever been a town in the first place. A few trees stood there instead, just as barren of leaves as their counterparts nearby.

Starlight shuddered. There wasn’t any pony here. She wasn’t here.

Upon stepping through another portal, Starlight found the same thing or rather found the same nothing. Still the same undisturbed landscape, still the same lack of ponies. Still the same lack of her.

“Please…” she croaked. “Please, come on…”

She opened another portal and scurried through that. The town, this time, was completely whole, including the house at the end of the lane. But, again, nopony could be found. She found stains of all kinds on the shingles and walls while dust clouded the windows. Several tumbleweeds claimed the street for themselves, sitting idle on a windless day.

Starlight stumbled toward the house at the end of the street, her house, and knocked on the door. It creaked open without resistance, revealing the darkened room inside. Starlight lit her horn and projected a light into the interior, revealing the cobwebs clinging to the corners and the empty, dusty bookshelf. The fireplace contained a few long-spent ashes but otherwise lay empty.

She fought back tears, turning toward the wall where a picture frame of an equal sign should have hung. It wasn’t there. It was gone just like everything else.

Just like she was, everywhere.

She opened one final portal but didn’t step through. She only looked through it. The house on the other side was completely caved in. There was no point in exploring it further. She closed the portal.

There was one last place where Starlight knew she could check, but she couldn’t find the nerve to even try. She doubted she could find something in a world of nothing.

Starlight’s world spun, and after a few choked seconds, she finally collapsed. Her sobs echoed through the halls of an empty home.


Twilight Sparkle trotted around the corner and into the crystalline passage that led into a pair of large stone doors. Those doors groaned, and while they slid apart, she looked at a set of documents floating within her magical aura. She read a few lines, and in doing so, a pre-cast floating above her head grew bigger and bigger.

The doors recessed, and she looked up and into the empty chamber beyond. A pink barrier filled the opening.

Her friends trotted behind her. A soft glow surrounded each of them, accenting the gradients in their coats and the patterns in their hooves and within their longer and more colorful manes. Twilight felt her own hairs standing on end just from them being near her, but the power coursing through her as a result of her own transformation largely suppressed that feeling.

She flipped through the last few pages of the spell and the pre-cast spun more rapidly in response, gaining several rotating layers in the process. Twilight watched it closely and then tucked the pages into a saddlebag. She then undid the saddlebag and laid it to rest against the cavern wall right next to the doors.

She then turned to her friends, all of whom bore resigned frowns, and smiled. “Alright. Let’s get our ponies back.”

Twilight teleported them just beyond the barrier, and then they stalked toward the center of the room. Their pace was slow and drawn out. While Twilight led the way, the other five followed close behind with perturbed frowns. The doors groaned and closed behind them, but nopony paid them any mind.

Twilight glanced at the central spot from which the floor rings radiated, noting the large, complex symbol she knew would have taken a score of strokes just to write. It was the same symbol that she had once fired another spell at, one which had ended her own life.

And, this time, her spell that would end others instead.

She stared at the spot, frozen in place. The pre-cast for the spell floated idly above her head. She made no movements to dispel it nor made no movement to touch her horn to it either.

“Twilight?” Applejack asked.

Twilight glanced over her withers.

Rarity stepped forward. “We’re ready whenever you are, darling.”

The others hesitantly nodded in agreement.

Twilight sucked in a breath and turned her attention back to the symbol. After a few more moments of silence, she floated the pre-cast down and touched her horn to it.

The pre-cast disappeared, and her body responded by channeling large amounts of power. Twilight could hear it radiating from her skin, and she saw the glow around her intensify. A ball of pure energy formed around her, lifting her into the air, before tendrils shot out and wrapped themselves around her friends, lifting them into the air as well. The spell then brought them together into one single ball of coalescing energies.

The Rainbow Power carried them high above the floor, and then, just before they broke through the roof of the hemisphere, the spell turned and shot a beam at the center symbol. A rainbow-colored wave tinted with the six’s primary colors radiated outward through the sigils within the floor.

Twilight felt something foreign yet somehow familiar pass through her body as the seal absorbed the remains of her spell. It tugged at her insides, and she shuddered, but the feeling disappeared as quickly as it came about.

And then the energy which enveloped them suddenly dissipated and the six tumbled. Rainbow Dash and Twilight managed to flap their wings and catch themselves, but the other four hit the ground with audible thuds and sharp yelps.

Twilight touched down. “Everypony okay?”

Pinkie Pie sat up and rubbed her flank. “Owwie. That hurt!”

Applejack also sat up, snarling. “What the hay was that fer?”

Twilight looked back at the spot, prodding it with her hoof. “I-I don’t know,” she stammered. “It just cut out. I’m not sure…”

Twilight paused as she noticed some feeling in her horn, and she prodded at it. The sensation was stagnant but still palpable. It felt like she was casting a spell. That wasn’t true. Was it?

Twilight’s muzzle twitched as a thought struck her. “Oh… I see how it is.”

Rarity stood up. “What?”

“I can still feel the spell that we just did. The spell’s just… stuck.” She rubbed her muzzle. “And I know why; the seal’s still trying to do Adamantine’s spell. Which means… my spell is waiting on hers.”

Rainbow Dash snarled. “So… what? Does that mean…?”

Twilight nodded. “It means… I either remove that block and let Adamantine’s spell go through, or…” She frowned. “Or we wait until she cancels the spell.”

The chamber fell silent for a few moments as the other five shifted uncomfortably.

“Or… we force her to cancel,” Rarity tremulously said.

The six heard a pop near the closed doorway and turned to see Adamantine tumbling through the air, falling from what had been a teleportation spell.

Adamantine flipped over, nearly missed the landing, and then whirled around to face them. Her expression was a study in accusation with the way she narrowed her eyes at them. “Twilight Sparkle...” she said, “and friends.”

Twilight stepped forward. “Adamantine.”

Adamantine stormed up. “You have done something to the seal. I have felt it.”

“Yes, yes I did. But your spell is blocking mine.”

“As is something that you have done. My own spell is being blocked.”

Twilight stood at her full height. “This can’t be happening, Adamantine,” she said. “I need you to cancel your spell.”

Adamantine, even with her slight hunch, towered over Twilight. But she then too rose to her full height. “Out of the question. That is, unless, you have found a way.”

Twilight frowned. “We had to stop looking because of this insane plan of yours. I want to help you, but I just can’t when all this is going on. When my ponies are in danger.”

Adamantine snorted. “Twilight.”

“Please,” Twilight said, shuddering, “just… put an end to this. Cancel your spell and let them go.”

Adamantine paced in disbelief, shaking her head with each step.

“Listen to me,” Twilight continued. “We can help you. We could find a way, together. Trust me, I know from experience that going it alone doesn’t work all that well. I learned it the hard way. Let us help you, Adamantine. …Please.”

“With you, I chance what is already certain. I will not throw that certainty away.”

“But there has to be something better than this. I know you can see that.”

Adamantine pursed her lips. “Twilight… My counterparts have already given their lives for this. I am committed. It must be seen through to the end.”

Twilight’s friends shifted uncomfortably, cringing and otherwise paleing.

Twilight swallowed and stepped forward. “I know you have good intentions, but you can’t do this.”

“I do believe I have made my position quite clear, Twilight Sparkle.” Adamantine leaned forward, coming nearly muzzle to muzzle. “You will remove the block that you have placed on the seal.”

Twilight stood still, almost petrified. The bags under Adamantine’s eyes underscored the intensity of her stare. Had it been more intense, Twilight was sure Adamantine would have been able to see her very soul.

Was this the mare she had passed on the streets on some mornings? The mare she had seen hauling freight, waiting tables, and washing windows, all to afford supplies? The mare she had laughed with over a good book once or twice?

Yes, Twilight decided. And this was the mare now trying the unthinkable.

She narrowed her eyes, staring back with equal intensity. “That’s not going to happen.”

Adamantine twitched.

“And furthermore, I need you to cancel your spell.”

Twilight’s friends formed up behind her, now wearing similarly resolute frowns.

Adamantine snorted. “Absolutely not. I would sooner curl up into a ball and die before I give up a chance to save them. I will say it again, Twilight Sparkle: remove the block.”

“No. Cancel your spell. Adamantine, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Nor I. Remove your block.”

Twilight lit her horn, and a ball of energy formed around her. Tendrils reached out and wrapped themselves around her friends, pulling them closer to her. All the while, the six retained their focus on Adamantine, their expressions resolute.

Twilight’s frown grew deeper. “Do not. Make me. Do this.”

Adamantine’s wings spread to their fullest and her horn lit, channeling energies beyond what a normal unicorn could ever possess. “I will do anything for them, Twilight. Remove your block, or I will be forced to put you in dispose.”

Twilight’s heart thumped wildly. Her body, despite the hot and potent energy coalescing around her, remained cold. Silence passed for many long and agonizing moments, during which neither party backed down.

Finally, Twilight sighed. “I guess I don’t have a choice,” she finally said.

She willed the magic surrounding the six of them to move. It swirled faster and faster, and then it all lashed out, barreling straight for Adamantine. However, when Adamantine disappeared in a flash of white light, the Rainbow Power hit air.

Adamantine reappeared at the other end of the chamber. From her airborne point, she launched her own beam of energy. Said beam was hot enough to light the chamber around her and pierced the very air through which it traveled, bending all of spacetime around it.

Said beam splattered against the ball of energy surrounding Twilight and her friends, and while the report was deafening, the magic remained untouched. The beam faded away after a few moments, leaving the chamber silent and still again.

Twilight blinked and eyed Adamantine closely. Her entire heart felt like it had stopped. Her breath had left her body.

She recognized it. That was several alicorn’s worth of magic.

Adamantine’s mouth hung open, equally shocked herself. She blinked several times before cautiously prodding her own horn. Adamantine then looked up and considered the six. She considered their changed forms, and the energy surrounding them which her attack had, somehow, had no effect on.

Adamantine narrowed her eyes and lit her horn again, growling under her breath.

Twilight resumed her stance, willing the magic again. The tendrils lashed out, but Adamantine teleported away before they could reach. When she reappeared, the tendrils changed course. Adamantine teleported all over the room, and the tendrils gave chase every time she reappeared.

Twilight growled in frustration, taking the six to the air in order to close the distance. But then, Adamantine suddenly appeared directly in front of her. And Twilight hesitated.

Adamantine lit her horn, and then Twilight’s world folded into a single point, twisted about, and then expanded back into existence. Twilight flipped over, feeling the energy surrounding her lose its grip. She found her orientation just in time to register Adamantine unleashing another blast, this time at point-blank range.

The energy that had encased her and her friends, or rather what had been brought with, soaked up the blast. The clash sent chunks of energy flying into the distance where they dissipated. Twilight saw her impromptu barrier take the blast, but as Adamantine’s attack continued, the energy waned.

Twilight lit her horn and teleported a few hundred meters backward. There, she took a moment to gather herself and find her bearings. A moment’s glance told her that she was outside. Another moment’s glance told her that a mountain range stretched upward far ahead, with a gleaming white city perched atop it. Twilight knew where she was.

And that somewhere was without her friends.

And she registered the dot that was Adamantine, which disappeared in a white flash. Adamantine reappeared close by. Twilight steeled herself, flared her horn, and charged in kind.

* * *

Sunset Shimmer hunched over a stack of papers, pressing the quill to her muzzle. The page in front of her contained several numbers. Several equations at the top of the page translated, somehow, to a grid of numbers and values at the bottom of the page. With an affirmative hum, Sunset jotted an expression in the last empty cell and then sighed.

“Buck this determinant,” she thought aloud.

She floated over several sheets of paper, placed her quill on one of them, and then paused. Her muzzle twitched in thought, and then she grinned. “Oh, right,” she said to herself. A pre-cast formed above her head and her attention flipped back and forth between that and the mathematics on her paper. When it was only a few layers strong, she touched her horn to it.

This pre-cast, unlike others, didn’t disappear, but rather changed shape. The layers condensed, fused together, and once it had collapsed down to just one layer, the spell turned red.

Sunset squinted as if it would help her to see the symbols within. Her quill went to work, transcribing the computation. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew her high school friends would have cringed at the sight of a double-digit exponent.

She glanced down at the equation and nodded. “Well, this is done, at least.”

Starlight Glimmer, who sat in the corner surrounded by a pile of books, sporting a splitting mane and bags under her eyes, looked up. “What happened?”

Sunset motioned to the paper in front of her. “I solved this, I’m pretty sure. Well… okay, not all of it, but still.”

Starlight lit her horn and floated the crystal ball over.

“What did you get?” the crystal ball asked in Twilight’s voice.

“Well, I can tell you that this system gives me fourteen eigenvalues,” Sunset said. “I already made a characteristic polynomial off the matrix, but…”

“Wait… you didn’t actually find the eigenvalues. That’s a tough calculation. Wait.” The crystal ball paused. “Let me see if I can make a spell that will find those.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Twilight, I’m sure somepony already wrote one that will do it.”

“You’re probably right, but neither of us has it. And it’ll be faster if I just re-derive it. I’ll be a couple of minutes.”

Starlight chuckled and shook her head. She then flipped a page in her book and continued on.

Sunset, on the other hoof, shrugged and leaned back against the wall. She groaned and stretched her legs every which way. Muscles popped and joints cracked. She let out a long sigh.

Sunset sunk into the cushion underneath and stared into the distance. Her eyes felt heavy, and she yawned. Her mane, which had once been a neat curl, split into several strands. The sharp pulses of a coming headache and an emptiness in her stomach compounded things, but she brushed those aside.

Because, certainly, Starlight looked no better. Likely, Twilight Sparkle, either the one in the present (wherever she was) or the one watching from nine days into the future, looked no better either.

The upstairs was quiet save for the low thump of a pump. Sunset’s other selves were no doubt keeping an eye on their finished device. One or two occasionally trotted down the stairs in order to grab a bite to eat or something to drink, looking sluggish and contemplative each time. They would regard Starlight with a worried frown. They would regard Sunset with disbelief.

Maybe they would be okay when they went back to their own timelines.

Her selves would be okay.

Sunset’s muzzle twitched, and her frown deepened. She looked toward Starlight who was staring blankly at her page.

“Hey, Starlight?”

Starlight looked up. “Huh?”

Sunset swallowed. “Didn’t you say you went someplace to look for some friends? …Did you ever find them?”

Starlight’s expression, already crestfallen, sunk no further, but the color that left her gave it away. She shook her head. “No… I didn’t.”

Sunset nodded. “I figured. I guess… I can kinda guess who they all were.”

Starlight’s eyes held water but she blinked them away. “Yeah. I just… I saw what you did with your counterparts. You brought them here, probably showed them another way. You saved yourself, Sunset. I thought I could do that too.”

Starlight shook her head. “But either they’re each someplace that I could waste years trying to find, or they’re…”

Sunset’s heart hurt. She laid a hoof across it, her frown deepening with each caress. “I see. I’m sorry.”

Starlight sucked in a breath and stared into the distance. After a moment’s thought, she said, “I guess I thought it could happen. After how easy you did it, I thought”—she flung her hooves into the air—“that after everything we’ve done… I created alternate timelines. We’ve saved several timelines from undefeatable evils. You”—she pointed at Sunset—“brought back the dead. And… I couldn’t save myself.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t get it either.”

Starlight rested her head on her hooves, giving a heavy sigh. “I mean… Look at me, Sunset. There were ponies important to me that I couldn’t save.”

“You’re not the only one,” Sunset croaked.

Starlight paused, raising a curious eyebrow. “Yeah? Who?”

“She…” Sunset stared into the distance. “There’s this girl that I’m friends with back where I live. She transferred into my school a little while ago. But before that, she was going to this other school, and there was this competition and…” Sunset paused. “Well, she nearly cost her school the competition and they think it’s a matter of life and death by the way they go about it.”

Starlight snorted. “That’s kinda stupid. Good thing she got out, then.”

“Yeah, I guess. And she got blackmailed into being in the competition with being refused admission to some independent study thing she wanted to get into.”

Starlight’s frown deepened. “Yeah. So, she’s not going to your school in these other timelines.”

“But that’s the thing,” Sunset said, sitting up. “Every other timeline I’ve gone to these past few days… She did blow the competition. Not getting into Everton would have been the least of her problems. If she didn’t get run out of that school…”

Starlight reeled, aghast. “Oh! Oh… I see…”

“That girl…” Twilight’s voice spoke up. “It’s me. My human counterpart. Isn’t it?”

Sunset nodded solemnly.

Starlight paused, tilting her head in consideration. Her features fell, and she too nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

“I defeated sirens…” Sunset said. “I brought back the dead… I saved that girl when she turned into a monster… and I know there isn’t a thing I could do to help her now. I’m just… I’m powerless over there.”

A silence hung over the room for a few moments.

A flash of light somewhere outside startled Starlight. She stood up and trotted cautiously toward the living area’s open balcony.

“Sunset…” Twilight’s voice quivered, “I have those numbers for you. I’m going to transmit now, if that’s alright.”

Sunset lit her horn. The crystal ball shrieked, and Sunset’s lit horn intensified in kind. An image formed in front of her. Sunset looked, spotted several numbers sporting several decimal places, and grunted.

“I’m feeling it too,” Twilight’s voice said. “I’ve done the impossible so many times that I’m not entirely sure what the count is. But I knew there was a way. There was a way, and we did it.” The crystal ball paused. “But… I still have no idea on how to fix the wasteland. Not even in the slightest.”

Starlight afforded a brief glance back before peering out, stretching herself beyond the railing as if it would give her a better look into the distance.

“I… I think of all the things that I’ve done too. All the ponies that I’ve helped over the years, all of the problems that I have solved…”

Sunset finished writing the current number down and glanced toward the ceiling. “Do you think you could fix it?” She paused. “Do you… think that it can be fixed?”

The crystal ball considered it. “No.”

A beam of energy shot into the sky from someplace far into the distance. Said beam was infused with blindingly intense energies.

After blinking a few times, Starlight turned toward Sunset and the crystal ball. “I think it’s started,” she announced.

Sunset’s heart skipped a beat, and after a hesitant glance, she stood up as well. “Really?”

“I… can confirm it,” Twilight’s voice said. “This is it.”

A third beam shot upward, and while the light was just as intense, it was as silent as the ones before it.

“The battle was of some length,” Twilight’s voice added. “This is just the opening. But still…”

Sunset glanced at the dozens of papers scattered across the bed. Most of them, or even all of them, contained incomplete sentences, unresolved mathematics, fledgling ideas, and other things indefinite.

“We’re out of time,” Sunset concluded.

* * *

Twilight dove out of the way of another beam, watching it sail far below and blast the ground into a million pieces. After dodging another, she fired a beam of her own back which disappeared into the clouds above.

Adamantine flew around, launching a rapid volley which collided against a hastily casted bubble barrier. The barrage continued, and when the barrier cracked, Twilight created a second one inside the first, just in time for the first barrier to shatter.

Adamantine continued the barrage, flying in every direction all the while. Then she channeled some energy into her hindhooves and teleported. She was gone just long enough for Twilight to drop her bubble barrier and prepare an attack of her own when Adamantine appeared above her.

Adamantine bucked. The latent residue that was the Rainbow Power absorbed most of the blow, but Twilight nonetheless yelped as the force sent her hurtling toward the earth. She tumbled, instinctively throwing up another bubble barrier which deflected Adamantine’s follow-up beam. She only then found her bearings.

Twilight ground her teeth together, staring her foe down as gravity pulled them apart. Twilight knew that she could have charged back into the fray. But, surely, it would have been like charging a hydra. The Rainbow Power at full strength could regard Adamantine’s enormous power like it was nothing.

And Twilight wasn’t sure if an iota of it, as alone as she was, could disregard it in the same way. And Twilight didn’t want to test that out.

Rather than charge back, Twilight flipped over and sped toward the ground, checking for any incoming attacks behind her. Sure enough, Adamantine dove in pursuit, launching beams which Twilight evaded with ease. The misses peppered the ground and Twilight silently gave thanks that nopony stood below for them to accidentally strike.

As more volleys rained down, Twilight flipped over and slowed to a near-hover. Above, Adamantine fired another blast, one Twilight was sure would hit dead on. In response, she lit her horn. The address to Equestria W flashed through her mind and a portal appeared between her and the blast. Adamantine’s attack disappeared through the far opening, while Twilight herself darted upward through the near opening.

Twilight emerged into a mild dust storm and closed the portal shut behind her. She flipped over and spotted the impact crater from Adamantine’s attack. Not stopping to admire the sheer lack of scenery, she opened another portal and hopped through that.

Twilight sped across the ground. Black clouds, which she tracked coming from distant smokestacks, covered her from above. She swooped up toward Canterlot with every intention to meet back up with her friends.

If they knew where to go, that was.

She could spot the entrance to the cave in the distance. Twilight lit her horn and teleported, reappearing at the cave’s entrance. In contrast to things in her own timeline, the entrance was bare, devoid of the debris piles she knew well.

She opened another portal to her own timeline and prepared to race through. Instead, Twilight threw up a barrier right as a laser blast shot through the aperture. The shield shattered, causing pain to shoot up her horn, but she did not otherwise falter. Twilight jumped out of the way of a second blast and flew a distance away from the opening, closing the portal in the process.

Another portal opened in the same spot. When Adamantine dove through, Twilight backpedaled hard.

Drat! She was waiting for me! Twilight thought.

Twilight shot upward, arcing through the sky and toward the city. Anywhere that was far away. Adamantine gave chase behind her, prompting Twilight to fly even faster. She opened a portal and flew headlong into it. She only had a few fleeting instants to glimpse the crumbled and overgrown city which had been Nightmare Moon’s beyond before another portal—decisively not hers—opened up in her immediate path. Unable to swerve, Twilight flew through, only to arrive back in the timeline she had started in.

The portal behind her closed, revealing Adamantine charging straight toward her at full speed. Twilight shot a beam, forcing her opponent to swerve, before channeling a new spell into her horn. The residual Rainbow Power, which still hugged her body, expanded and engulfed her. More energy burst forth, streaming, Twilight guessed, straight from the Tree of Harmony itself to form a swirling ball of energy around her. It formed just in time for Adamantine, who had formed her own energy ball, to smash right into her.

The impact sent Twilight flying straight into the city where she pinballed between several buildings, showering the streets with chunks both large and small as well as eliciting several cries and shrieks from the crowds below. The energy surrounding her jostled her uncomfortably but it held nonetheless.

And Adamantine zoomed in again, colliding a second time. Twilight shot through an overhang, shattering it into a million pieces, but gathered herself just in time for Adamantine to charge again and, this time, Twilight met that charge head-on. The collision sent out a shockwave that swept many below off their hooves.

The two flew apart and collided several more times, reported by loud booms that shook the entire city. Each time, Twilight caught clearer glimpses of Adamantine’s expression; focused, yet lacking a healthy color. Sometimes, Adamantine’s eyes glossed over the ponies cowering under their skirmish.

Twilight herself had been stealing glances. She had to make sure nothing was happening; she had to make sure they were okay.

A pillar of rock shot up from underneath her, punching Twilight into the air. She didn’t have much time to react before a portal opened up above her, sucking her into another timeline. The expansive wasteland sprawled out around her, with the ruined Canterlot below.

Adamantine popped through a few moments later. She looked back through the aperture, eying the intact city on the other side, before closing the portal and turning her attention back to Twilight.

“This is getting out of hoof, Twilight!” Adamantine called.

Twilight nodded. “I know. It is.”

“We could end this. Right now.” Adamantine’s frown deepened. “Remove your block and we could end this.”

Twilight willed the energy around her to spin with greater vigor. “We’ve been over this. That isn’t happening.”

Adamantine shook her head in disbelief. “Twilight…”

“I’m warning you, Adamantine, there’s no way you can win this. But it’s not too late to find another way.”

Adamantine cringed like she had just been bucked in the abdomen. She twirled before throwing a blade of energy in Twilight direction. Twilight lashed out with her energy in response, slicing the incoming blade in two.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Twilight continued, shooting a beam right back which Adamantine deflected. “We can find a way. But if you continue like this, then I can’t help you!” She shot another beam. “And I want to help you. Really, I do.”

“Twilight,” Adamantine replied, “I recognize that you are trying to act in the best interests of your people. As you should. But I reject your offer… because there is no other way. The only way in which you can help me now is to remove your block.”

Twilight ground her teeth together and stamped the air. The energy surrounding her deformed like a viscous blob and then, as she lit her horn, stiffened and then shot several small, impossibly dense pellets at speeds faster than discernable. The pellets pitter-pattered against Adamantine’s coating of energy, pushing her back.

Adamantine curled up in the face of the barrage. Then, when Twilight’s attack failed to break through, she exploded, shedding her energy ball and focusing it into a single blast back at Twilight. It ate Twilight’s pellets and Twilight’s reaction was to teleport out of existence just long enough for the wave to pass by.

Adamantine hovered bare but her horn remained lit, her scowl just as certain as before. “Please, Twilight. I do not want to hurt you. But I will if I must.”

Twilight felt faint and like her heart had just fallen out of her chest. With a sigh, she opened a portal the size of her head and peered through, hoping she could see something good. There, at the cave’s entrance, she found five glowing lights. She couldn’t make them out, but she knew exactly who they were.

Twilight turned her attention back to Adamantine and steeled herself. She then teleported to just above the cave entrance, noting it as completely collapsed in this wasteland, and then fell through a portal of her own creation.

Her friends, standing below, looked up. “Twilight!” They cried.

“Gather close!” she cried, lighting her horn.

They huddled together just as Twilight reached them, and she swept them up in a teleportation spell that took them up to the top of the mountain.

Twilight touched down, taking a moment to compose herself and breathe. The others turned.

“My goodness!” Rarity exclaimed. “Are you alright, dear?”

Fluttershy trotted up and gave Twilight a good examination. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

Twilight panted some more and then shook her head. “No. No. I’m fine. But Adamantine is really going at it.”

Applejack nodded, adjusting her hat. “She ain’t lettin’ up?”

Twilight shook her head.

Applejack glanced toward the city below, holding her hat to her head. Her scowl deepened, and she said, her tone low, “Then, ya know what we gotta do now.”

Twilight glanced between all her other friends. Rainbow Dash hovered, her expression a study in pain. Pinkie Pie stood nearby, half-catatonic, half-fearful. Rarity and Fluttershy shook their heads in resignation and stepped forward.

Twilight nodded and lit her horn. The Rainbow Power burst forth, wrapping itself around all of them and bringing them back together into a bright and shining ball of energy. The power pulsated and burned and, by sheer force, lifted them from the ground.

And despite all of that, the other five only thought to look to Twilight for direction.

And Twilight looked each of them in the eyes in response. “Let’s finish this. Once and for all, this time.”

* * *

Sunset glanced at the chalkboard, wrote what was on it into her stack of papers, flipped through them one last time, and then set them down on the bed. She stood up. “That’s the last of it,” she said.

Starlight glanced over and nodded solemnly. Together, the two of them trudged up the stairs into the study area. There, they found the Sunset Shimmers gathered around a device in the center. Said device, which was comprised of a capsule-like glass dome filled with a greenish gas that the both of them immediately recognized as unstew.

One of the Sunset Shimmers, wearing a brown bandana with a letter I on it, turned around and stepped forward. “Well, what’s up?”

Sunset sucked in a breath. “Well, we got as much done as we could. But…”

Sunset Shimmer I narrowed her eyes. “You… what?”

Starlight stepped forward. “How is your machine working?”

Sunset Shimmer I blinked and then stepped aside. “It’s all put together. The stones are all in there,” she said, pointing toward faint outlines of spheres inside the device. “All the ones that were still alive, anyway. We’ve had it running for a few hours already. With any luck, those unponies will survive. We’ll have this in the bag.”

Sunset Shimmer D looked over. “We were Princess Celestia’s students once. We were on our way to being princesses.” She chuckled. “But you already knew that.”

Starlight nodded. “Well, I sure hope that it does, because we got nothing.”

The Sunset Shimmers turned toward them in full, aghast. A silence passed between them before Sunset Shimmer T stepped forward, her head tilted incredulously. “What do you mean you got nothing?”

Sunset kicked the ground, looking like a foal meekly admitting to a wrong. “We… That thing we were working on… That big solution that was supposed to solve all of this…” She looked her counterparts dead in the eyes. “We couldn’t finish it. We’re out of time.”

Her counterparts’ expressions curled into disappointed snarls. “I can’t believe you. How the buck did you fail?” Sunset Shimmer T hissed.

Sunset shrugged. “We just did,” she croaked. “We don’t… have anything.”

Sunset Shimmer D snorted. “Well, forget you. We have this. And this is going to work.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”

“You bet your flank. Don’t you have any idea who you’re talking to?” Sunset Shimmer D snorted as she batted at the yellow bandana around her neck. “Of course you do, you’re supposed to be us. Look at you…”

“You might have gone soft,” Sunset Shimmer S said, “but we still have what it takes. This is it, right here.”

Starlight turned. “It all sounds fine to me, Sunset. Come on, this could be our chance.”

Sunset stared at the machine. She looked at the way the cloud of unstew filled the dome, ebbing and expanding and rushing around itself like smoke. She looked at the pump on the side, pulsating as it circulated fresh unstew into the chamber from a canister on the bottom. She watched gauge needles pointing out chamber pressure and pumping rates, each gauge accompanied by a knob.

And she tried to see the contents, but the shroud made it impossible to tell. Her counterparts had faint grins across their faces and held their heads high and proud. Starlight was looking expectedly, pleadingly, at her.

Sunset swallowed. “And every stone in there’s alive?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Sunset Shimmer S replied, smirking triumphantly.

Starlight afforded a glimmer of a smile.

Sunset met her counterpart’s eyes. “Show me.”

Sunset Shimmer S narrowed her eyes (and the others followed suit), but she nonetheless lit her horn. The gas in the chamber shot up toward the top of the dome and the machine shook from the shift in mass and apparent wind inside the chamber. There, everypony had a good look at the skeleton-like support that held every maroon stone and white stone aloft.

Sunset Shimmer S cried out, and the gas flowed back down, shrouding everything once more. Everypony reeled and stared at the machine in surprise. Aside from the ever-present thump of the pump, the room fell completely silent.

“What... was that?” Starlight wheezed.

The Sunset Shimmers cautiously stepped toward the machine, sharing uncertain glances.

Sunset frowned worriedly.

Sunset Shimmer N stepped forward, hesitated, and then stepped again. She lit her horn, and the gasses flew toward the top of the dome again.

The eight of them scanned the stones in their entirety. Some were maroon. But most were white, lacking energy in their outer layers. Lacking life.

Sunset felt the color drain from her face. So… it’s true, she thought.

Sunset Shimmer D said it first: “I… I don’t understand.”

“It didn’t work?” Sunset Shimmer N croaked.

Starlight shook her head and then shook her head again. “No way. How’s that…?”

Sunset knew that if she had been wearing her leather jacket, she would have jammed her hands in her pockets and sighed. She settled for only the latter. “Well… now you’re up to speed,” Sunset said. “You know what I’ve known for a while.”

Everypony turned toward her, aghast. Starlight shook her head with greater vehemence. “No. No no no no no.”

Sunset stamped her hoof. “It’s time we face it. We’re done. We have nothing.”

“No. I don’t take that. Adamantine figured out a way.”

Sunset frowned. “That way will cost thousands of lives. Adamantine’s way is not good enough.”

Starlight snorted. “W-what about all those other things we had ideas for?”

“They’ve all been tried before. Any number of worlds above us. None of them worked.”

Starlight opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Her mouth twitched in an effort to put something together, but as the seconds passed, her vigor vanished, and Starlight shrunk back.

“This really is impossible,” Sunset said. “There are some things that just can’t be done.”

A few Sunset Shimmers looked back at their machine even as the cloud enveloped the stones, both dead and alive, once more.

Starlight stared at the machine, her pale expression a mix of disbelief and contemplation. Her eyes darted between the machine, between the Sunset Shimmers, between Sunset, between the shelves, and the broken window.

Sunset Shimmer C placed her hoof on the device, crestfallen. She pursed her lips and spoke tentatively. “Well… Now what?” she asked, looking up.

The other Sunset Shimmers turned. Starlight turned.

Sunset looked at her counterparts who eyed her expectedly. Looking for direction. Looking for anything. They needed it, Sunset knew. There had to be something.

“What do we do?” Sunset Shimmer N asked.

Sunset fought back some wetness in her eyes and hung her head. “I don’t have anything else for you. I’m sorry.”

The six Sunset Shimmers shared uncertain glances.

Sunset trudged toward an inlet in the shelves where several machine parts lay about. She floated six empty sheets of paper over, wrote a letter on each of them, and then set them on the floor. Then she lit her horn, and no less than six portals appeared, one in front of each lettered paper.

Then she trudged back toward her other selves. “I’ve marked which portals go where. You can take those home whenever you’re ready.”

“T… t-that’s all?” Sunset Shimmer C stammered. Her features were creased and scrunched and her face was ablaze. The others bore similar expressions, staring intently.

Sunset didn’t even look up at them. She couldn’t look up at them. She couldn’t face them. Instead, she averted herself, looking at anything other than them. “That’s it,” she croaked. “Go home. Go back to C.H.S.. Do whatever. We’re done here.”

Starlight watched from the other side of the room, her jaw slack in disbelief. She looked at the portals and then at the ponies who would eventually walk through them, her expression growing increasingly dismayed with each thing she saw. All that disappeared when she returned her gaze to Sunset before, finally, she buried her face in her hooves.

* * *

Twilight opened another portal in front of her and willed the Rainbow Power which enveloped her and her friends to take her through it. The land below, which bore the fresh gashes and scars of a battle between opposing armies, looked deserted.

The six of them craned their necks around, scanning the scenery for anything moving.

“Anypony see her?” Applejack asked.

“Not yet,” Pinkie Pie replied.

Twilight flew them toward the Canterlotian mountainside and looked into the city itself but, aside from the numerous guards patrolling the city’s edge (who, given the bright energy surrounding the six, eyed them with cautious scrutiny), she found nothing.

A portal opened up a few tens of meters behind them, and Twilight whirled around just long enough to glimpse it closing shut, but not long enough to see what was on the other side.

“Oh dear,” Rarity murmured.

Had that been her? Did she see them?

Twilight scanned the skies with greater fervor, her gaze darting between every direction. The others followed suit with their own searches.

A portal opened above them and a beam of energy shot through, colliding with their shell. The Rainbow Power recoiled, and they with it, prompting surprised shrieks. The attack subsided as quickly as it hit and the portal closed as quickly as it had opened.

“What the—?” Rainbow Dash screeched.

Another portal opened up a few degrees over and another beam shot through, splashing against the Rainbow Power. Their surprised exclamations were much more subdued, such that they came around fast enough to collectively watch the portal close again.

Another portal opened a few degrees over from the previous, and another attack came before that portal closed. The same attack pattern happened again a moment later, and again after that, every time at a different angle.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

“I know!” Twilight replied.

Another attack smashed against the Rainbow Power.

“She’s hitting us from alternate timelines, Twilight!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed.

I know!”

One attack came off its mark and Twilight moved them out of the way. The shot barreled into the mountainside, away from the city.

Twilight lit her horn and aimed a portal spell through the closing portal. She saw something flash on the far side of the aperture before the enemy portal closed entirely. A little further away, Twilight’s own portal stood open.

Twilight cried giddily and willed them Rainbow Power to take them toward it. “I got it!”

They emerged on the other side. Nopony could readily tell which timeline it was, but they didn’t stop to ponder it as the Rainbow Power swerved around. Adamantine looked up at them in surprise.

“How the hay did ya do that?” Applejack asked.

“Adamantine did it to me earlier,” Twilight replied. She willed the Rainbow Power to lash out, shooting several tendrils in Adamantine’s direction. Adamantine backpedaled out of their initial reach and then lobbed quick shots at them to slow their progress when they lunged again.

Adamantine teleported out of range and lobbed several more shots at them. A few missed, but those that hit splashed pathetically against the sphere. She, at the same time, tried building a pre-cast.

Adamantine’s pre-cast disappeared into her horn and then she too disappeared a moment later. She reappeared right on top of them before launching another beam. This one punched into them with an intensity likened to several suns. Flanges of energy peeled off after hitting, still hot enough to cut through the air before they disintegrated. The force of the blast pushed the sphere downward, which meant nothing in the air far above the plain. Still, the sphere surrounding the six deformed against the force.

The six, apart from crying out in surprise, shied away from the blast even as the Rainbow Power protected them. No, the Rainbow Power had buckled just a little bit. It had deformed. But it held, despite the tremendous power ramming into it.

The attack subsided after a few moments. What had been a meter between the two sets of combatants had grown to a hundred.

Twilight and the rest of her friends straightened up and looked toward their foe flying above.

Adamantine flapped her wings, keeping level at her altitude. She panted, looking down at them in shock. And then one of her wings flapped erratically, and Adamantine momentarily lost her balance long enough to drop a meter or two, before she regained herself.

Twilight frowned. She and her friends, meanwhile, floated within the Rainbow Power sphere, their multicolored manes without a single hair out of place and their energy-radiating coats without so much as a smudge or ruffle. The sphere had returned to its previous shape as if it had never been struck.

Adamantine straightened herself up and swallowed. “Twilight!” she called from above. “Y-you… I’m telling you one more time: remove your block!”

Twilight shook her head. “No. We’ve been over this.”

Twilight’s friends looked up as well, their expressions a mixture of stern glares, distressed grimaces, and uncertain frowns.

Adamantine shifted. “Please! Remove your block, Twilight. I am begging you!”

Twilight felt her heart skip a beat as a heaviness washed over her. She sighed. “I can’t,” she croaked.

Adamantine looked green in the face, she shook her head, and she lit her horn again.

Twilight steeled herself, and then she and her friends charged forward.

And Adamantine flipped over and dove straight down toward them in kind, all alone.

* * *

Sunset trotted up to the machine that her doubles had built. The machine housed stones which would be both dead and alive until the moment she drained the smoke. But the former would come. If not sooner, later.

She flipped a switch on the front panel, and the pump, which had been dutifully thumping away, ground to a silent halt. The gas inside the chamber stagnated but remained aloft within dense, puffy clouds.

Sunset stared at it for a few moments, considering its design. She then looked into the now-empty alcove where she had earlier made portals.

Sunset hoped that everything would stick with her counterparts. It had to.

With a sigh, she trudged toward the window, or rather what remained of the window. Several shards clung to the frame, but the hole was still large enough that several of her could fit through it. Sunset chuckled. Just a few hours ago, she could have done exactly that.

Some flashes of light in the distance caught her attention, and she looked out past the castle grounds to see two points of light shooting at each other. They danced around each other, their contrails swirling together like a waltz. They never closed the distance, but when their shots connected, a low boom soon followed.

Sunset idly followed them as they meandered across the sky before they disappeared in a flash of light; into alternate timelines, Sunset assumed.

She floated the crystal ball over from the desk but said nothing. All she could afford was a subdued and silent shake of her head.

Starlight slunk up toward the edge, joining Sunset. Her head was bowed. “I’m…”

“This…” Twilight’s voice started, “this isn’t where I thought we would be.”

Sunset continued shaking her head, feeling something in her eyes; nothing substantial yet. She sighed. “Yeah.”

“This isn’t how I planned this.”

“Yeah.”

“I could have prevented all of this. I could have…”

Starlight sighed. “Twilight… where do we go from here? What do we do?”

The crystal ball paused. “Starlight, I… I don’t know.”

The two unicorns in the room hummed in solemn agreement, watching as some pegasi positioned some clouds in the sky, adding to a blanket that already stretched toward the valley.

“I could have done more,” Twilight’s voice continued.

Starlight nodded. “I feel you. I know we did a lot over these past few days. I mean, a lot.”

“Fought unponies on a train,” Sunset said, smiling.

Starlight giggled. “Kicked flank on a train,” she seconded.

“Found other timelines,” Twilight’s voice said. Saved other timelines.”

Starlight nodded, brightening up a little. “Sure. Brought the timelines together. Gave them each other.”

Sunset thumped her chest. “Figured out all the timelines. The entire multiverse.” She looked over to Starlight with a grin. “And then I solved unponies.”

Starlight nodded in agreement and then looked up. “Speaking of, Twilight, how did… working out that Flim and Flam stuff go?”

“Flim and Flam?” Twilight’s voice asked. “Yes. Of course. I fixed a good deal of Equestria I. Not all the way, but it’s a lot better. I’m really really happy with what I’ve done there.”

Starlight sighed. “Wow. We, sure have done a lot of really good things these past few days.”

“That’s right, we have,” Twilight’s voice concurred. “We’ve been pretty successful!” There was a prolonged pause before Twilight’s voice said, more subdued, “But… even then… there’re… things. I couldn’t fix the wasteland.”

The grins on both Sunset and Starlight’s muzzles faded, and their eyes drew toward the floor with dejection. Silence passed. Nopony spoke.

Finally, Sunset spoke up. “I couldn’t save my friend,” she said.

Starlight kicked the floor and nodded. “I couldn’t save myself.”

A few flashes in the distance preceded more beams of light and subsequent booms. The room shuddered, and the metal window frame rattled. Every report filled in missing heartbeats.

Sunset flopped her hoof in the direction of the battle. “And then there’s this.”

“This,” Twilight’s voice replied.

With the knot in her chest growing tighter, Sunset levitated over a cushion and set the crystal ball on it.

“This… chain of events. All this… it all started with me.” The crystal ball paused. “But I won’t make the same mistakes. I know the full situation now, whereas I didn’t several days ago.”

“Okay?” Starlight asked.

“You can warn me. No. On second thought, let me warn me. This… can stop with her.”

Starlight’s expression widened, and she nodded in acknowledgment. “Oh, I see. Knowing what you know now, you really could guide Twilight through all this.”

“Exactly,” Twilight’s voice replied. “I know it’s a bit late for your world. I’m… sorry about that. But your Twilight… she can prevent this from happening in the world below yours. And then they can prevent it from happening below them. Ad infinitum.”

“That sounds good to me.”

“What about those other Adamantines?” Sunset asked. “The ones from the other timelines?”

After a pause, Twilight’s voice replied, “Hmmm, that’s a good question. I kinda forgot about them.”

“What would they do?”

“I don’t know. I guess… if they’re just as tenacious as our Adamantine… then they won’t give up just like that. That could cause trouble. And I would have no way of predicting anything.”

Starlight frowned. “Sure, okay. But still, we’d avoid all of this. That’s gotta be worth something.”

Sunset nodded in agreement. “So, what do you think you’d do then?”

“Well, I would do what I was doing before: I’d look for a way to save those unponies.”

Starlight smiled. “That would be amazing!”

The knot in Sunset’s chest unexpectedly tightened. She threw on a grin and hummed in agreement, but her thoughts ran downstairs. She blinked and then turned around to look back into the room. Her eyes looked across the bookshelves lining the walls, at the empty spot where the hourglass had once been, and then, finally, at the floor itself.

Rather, she tried to see through the floor. She tried to see a set of documents, the incomplete solution, lying on the bed in the living area downstairs.

“Twilight?” Sunset tremulously said.

“Oh…” Twilight’s voice said, sounding dejected. “I know what you’re thinking, Sunset. We’ve already spent a day-and-a-half forever looking for a solution, haven’t we?”

Sunset swallowed. “Yeah.”

Starlight’s jaw fell open.

“And… even after all that time… we still haven’t found a solution…” Twilight’s voice said.

“Yeah,” Sunset said.

“B-but…” Starlight stammered, glancing between Sunset and the ceiling.

“S-so,” Twilight’s voice stuttered, “really, when it comes down to it, even if I prevented all this from happening, I still wouldn’t be able to come up with the solution to the problem… and then the unponies would die anyway.”

Sunset nodded vacantly.

Starlight swore under her breath.

“That’s… ridiculous. That’s… unacceptable. I can’t…” Twilight’s voice stammered.

Sunset felt her body go numb.

“They… the unponies. Even if we could postpone it… No. We all saw them in those caverns. That’s just… that’s no way to live. I just… I’d just be drawing things out, wouldn’t I?”

Sunset’s legs felt weak and wobbly. She held firm.

Starlight stared down at the ground below, her expression growing more distraught by the moment.

“Augh!” Twilight’s voice cried. “I just can’t! There has got to be something better than this!”

A gust of wind plunged through the shattered window, whistling in their ears and playing with their manes. Two flashes of light in the distance signaled the battle returning, and in short order, the laser blasts came about it. One blast crashed right into the nearby mountainside, dislodging small rocks which cascaded down the side and landed someplace on the far end of the grounds.

The city beyond seemed quiet, probably watching the battle unfold. The grounds were deserted, with every guard having raced into the city sometime prior. The booms of colliding magics came in an almost rhythmic fashion but, as Sunset and Starlight could see, one source could hit their shots while outright evading the shots of the other.

And, Sunset knew, it would be over once the other source connected.

She thought of what would be lost. She thought about the unponies, and what surely awaited them shortly.

And she thought of what had been gained. She thought about the millions and millions who, as a result of what had happened over the past several days, now had better lives. She thought of the ponies in the reality once ravaged by Tirek, and she thought of the ponies once under Nightmare Moon’s control. She thought of many others.

And Sunset knew that they could have happened or not have happened. Maybe there was a place where some or none of them had happened. But here, all but one of them had happened; all but one of them had been saved.

All the pieces, save one that now seemed forever elusive, had fallen into place.

“I think…” Sunset swallowed. “This… this really is as good as it gets. I don’t think we can do better than this.”

“…No.”

Starlight whirled, looking at Sunset in wide-eyed surprise.

“Twilight, hear me out,” Sunset said. “Look, I know this isn’t perfect. But we did everything that we could. And… we did pretty okay.”

The crystal ball sighed. “Yes, Sunset, but...”

“It still feels wrong,” Starlight croaked. “We should have been able to do this. I wish we could have.”

“Yes. We let them down. This isn’t the best scenario.”

“But we’ve done so much good,” Sunset replied, “the most we could have done. So… I’d call this, like, the second-best scenario.”

Twilight’s voice groaned. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I… I don’t like it.”

A picture of a mare rubbing her darkened and bagged eyes, hunched over a crystal ball while looking overall pale, sprang to Sunset’s mind.

A few more booms in the distance sent tremors through the tower. In the skies above Equestria, the lights continued dancing around each other.

“Sunset… I need you to understand…” Twilight’s voice said, “that this… what is happening now… is what I set out to prevent in the first place. And I did not do it.”

“I understand that, Twilight,” Sunset said.

“All I have to do is talk to your layer’s version of me, and we could prevent this battle, now and forever.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “And we can also prevent everything else. We could prevent us from saving those other Equestrias. Or maybe those alternate Adamantines end up causing an even worse disaster. We could unknowingly start something that will seriously mess up the lower layers.”

Starlight visibly swallowed. The crystal ball remained silent.

Sunset stamped her hoof. “This is the best it gets. It’s time to cut our losses.”

Starlight hung her head. “I… I guess… I know how much a tiny change can drastically change the future.”

“Darn it all…” Twilight’s voice said. “I wish you weren’t right. I just… don’t know if I can be content with leaving it at this…”

“We did what we could, Twilight,” Sunset said. “Only thing we can do now is hope for the best.”

“Hope for the best? How?”

“Look, we weren’t the first ones to work on this. Just look at everything we got from the layers above us—your layer too. We were able to do what we did because of every one of us who worked on it before.” Sunset paused to glance at the ceiling where she was sure Twilight was watching from. “And the layers below us will work on this too. They’ll be able to build off what we did. I don’t know. Maybe some layer below us will actually solve it someday. That’s all we can hope for.”

“But that means it’s out of our hooves,” Starlight wheezed.

Sunset sighed. “It’s still our best bet.”

“But… from what I’ve seen from you in the past few hours… even after all that, we could never find it, and all of this will amount to nothing,” Twilight’s voice said. “Sunset, our best bet is nothing.”

Sunset’s heart thumped in her chest. “It’s still our best bet.”

Starlight started looking decisively green in the face. Some light in her eyes had faded; the way her face had contorted and the way she gazed blankly into the distance was just the icing on top.

The crystal ball produced what sounded like uncomfortable grunts, which Sunset interpreted as a future Twilight trying, and failing, to find words.

The battle had drawn closer to the city, evidenced by the louder booms and brighter attacks. The faint silhouettes of six mares, wrapped in a magic sphere of unfathomable power, swatted away incoming beams from a seventh mare wrapped in her own powerful aura. The latter attacked with less intensity and ferocity than earlier.

“There will be a lot of lives lost today,” Twilight’s voice said at a near whisper. “Today, forever. ...You know that, right?”

Sunset nodded vacantly. “I know.”

The two sides continued trading blows, but Sunset knew enough about the Rainbow Power. She had been hit by something like it at one time, and then she had wielded it herself another time. It didn’t mess around. It went straight for the throat and worked without prejudice or mercy.

The Rainbow Power on display in the distance was reserved and defensive. Hesitant, even. It was enough to piece together Twilight’s internal conversations. It was enough to know where Twilight stood; enough for the things which Sunset already knew.

“Second-best scenario…?” Twilight’s voice quietly trailed off.

The Rainbow Power swatted incoming attacks away like flies, unperturbed. Adamantine’s attacks were flimsy and invisible by comparison at this point. And, if future Twilight was to be believed, it wouldn’t be long.

Sunset swallowed and stared into nothing. “Yeah.”

The floor rattled from the reports of the battle. The air trembled before resuming its biting embrace. Apart from the battle over the land of Equestria, everything was silent and still. It was only a moment, and yet it was a moment that would last forever.

Starlight stood by, her expression fearful and, somehow, hurt.

Because it did hurt.

Sunset felt sick, like her mind, body, and soul were twisted impossibly tight. It was all too wrong. Whatever would happen in the next few minutes, whatever would happen in the next few days, wrong. In a layer above, in a layer below, and theirs too, all wrong.

Forever wrong. Forever the best wrong.

“Okay…” Twilight’s voice croaked.

Starlight collapsed and buried her face in her hooves.

Sunset did not react. Sunset could not react.

“Okay…” Twilight’s voice said. Stay the course.”

* * *

Twilight whirled the Rainbow Power around. Her friends floated behind her, watching in silence. The energy around them coalesced at rapid velocities, shining like a sun. The immediate air glowed in their presence, and their light no doubt lit the land far below.

Adamantine swung up from underneath, looking toward them with gritted teeth and narrowed eyes. Her wings flapped unevenly; not enough for her to fall out of the sky, but still enough to make her movements erratic.

The magic coursing through and around Adamantine seemed faded compared to how it had been minutes ago.

Adamantine reeled in order to shoot another blast. Twilight’s lip quivered in response before she willed the Rainbow Power to move.

Their two beams connected in a cacophonous display of showering sparks and white-hot energy flakes. But, rather, the nexus drifted toward Adamantine straight-away, to which she responded by pouring her energies into the beam, putting her everything into the attack.

Twilight responded in kind, but it was like swishing her tail; thoughtless and automatic. The nexus sped toward Adamantine now, Even with Adamantine’s full power pressed against it, the Rainbow Power split her attack down the middle, sending fragments in every direction.

Twilight tracked the nexus right up until it ran into her opponent, and there she saw Adamantine’s expression grow wide as it neared. In the split second before, Adamantine froze, and every bit of pigment drained from her darkened coat. Twilight could even hear the gasp.

Adamantine… Twilight solemnly thought, forgive me.

The nexus exploded, enveloping Twilight’s foe in a darkened cloud. The report shook the very air around them, and then a trail of smoke jetted from the cloud and sailed toward the earth. Various energies, in various bright, blinding hues, escaped from the cloud in strands and dissipated into nothingness.

And the trail smashed into the ground with an equally booming thud. The spot smoldered, revealing nothing of the mare there.

At the same time, Twilight felt something churning in her chest. It swirled and twisted all the way up and then through her horn, just like if she was casting a spell. Only she hadn’t just then cast a spell. But she knew what it was.

Twilight sucked in a breath and glanced back at her friends who just stared at the spot in shock, even as they floated a few hundred meters above it. One by one, they looked up at Twilight and their shocked expressions turned to resolute frowns.

Twilight moved them down, following the smoke trail toward the ground. Her heart thrashed within her chest, and despite the energy enveloping her, Twilight found herself sweating. They reached the ground above which Twilight hovered. Together, the six of them stared at the spot, collectively holding their breaths.

A scream rose from within the smoke; a prolonged, from-the-lungs scream that made every hair on their Rainbowfied bodies stand on end and made their blood curl. The smoke cleared, revealing Adamantine on her back, writhing about like an insect lashing out in its final moments; her wings rapidly extended and contracted, her legs kicked and flailed violently. She cried out, again and again, her screams angry, feral, and pained.

The energy that had surrounded her was completely gone. Only the bare mare remained.

Twilight willed the Rainbow Power to set the six of them down. The energy sphere popped like a bubble, but they remained, individually, in powered states. They stared at the display with open-mouthed shock. They didn’t move, they didn’t speak. With every ear-piercing cry that escaped Adamantine, bits of color escaped from them.

A whistling sound caught the six’s attention and they, after briefly looking around, found their cutie marks spraying out several small symbols. The marks whistled and whistled, over and over again.

The six looked at their own marks, then each other’s marks, and then each other, their expressions growing more wide-eyed with each glance.

After a few more moments, Adamantine flopped over and glared intensely at them. Her screams turned to growls and panicked cries. She planted her hooves, tried to lift herself, failed, looked for more secure footing, then rose to her hooves.

The six watched her in silence as Adamantine glared them down. Adamantine ground her teeth together, and her entire body shook almost uncontrollably. And Adamantine wound up to unleash a laser blast.

Adamantine fell on her face instead with no blast to speak of. The dirt muffled the resulting cries before Adamantine climbed to her hooves again. She flicked her head, intent on again unleashing a laser blast, but her horn remained unlit. It had not lit in any capacity. As Adamantine tried more and more just to put out an attack, stumbling closer and closer as she went, the end result looked like pathetic flailing. With each attempt, Adamantine’s cries became more jaded and frustrated and diminished in strength.

Twilight looked at it all, considered their whistling cutie marks, quietly whimpered, and then made one final will. The Rainbow Power enveloped her and each of her friends in a brief flash of white light before disappearing altogether. The rainbow-like patterns that had run through their extended manes and tails were gone, and the glow around their bodies had vanished. They looked like everyday mares once more.

Rarity hid her horrified expression behind her hoof. Fluttershy did much of the same, but the liquid pouring out of her eyes gave her away. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkamena stood in terrified silence.

Twilight could not watch it anymore and looked away.

Adamantine, now a few meters away, tried for one final, point-blank attack. Her horn remained as barren as before and Adamantine collapsed, her angered cries now reminiscing sobs, none of which they could see as her long, silver mane lay draped over her muzzle. Her entire body trembled and Adamantine labored just to plant each hoof into the dirt again. Her climb to her hooves was slow and shaky.

The tears that hadn’t yet fallen welled up in Adamantine’s shaky, dilated eyes. Her cries and sobs had faded away altogether, leaving Adamantine silent.

Applejack doffed her hat, holding it close to her chest. Pinkamena finally lost her footing and collapsed. The others held their breath, especially as Adamantine came to a stop just a few inches away from Twilight.

Adamantine stood there, silently staring at Twilight in disbelief.

Twilight dared not meet Adamantine’s gaze. Her features twitched as she held everything else at bay.

Far-off winds brought whistles that broke the silence, but they otherwise did not dare to venture close.

Twilight felt her insides twisted into several knots and she stomached bile that wasn’t even there.

An entire eternity passed, especially between the two of them. Nopony moved. Nopony spoke. Nopony breathed. The only things that moved were the tears streaming down Adamantine’s muzzle.

Finally, Adamantine blinked and turned her gaze to some location behind the six: the mountainside that led up to Canterlot. She stumbled right past Twilight, not even affording a passing glance. She stumbled through the rest of them, not even considering them in the slightest through her daze. Her breaths, half sobs and half labored pants, echoed in their ears as she passed through the six.

Fluttershy dropped her muzzle into her hooves and sobbed. Rainbow Dash groaned and kicked the ground over and over again. Pinkamena and Rarity joined together and held each other close, wailing. Applejack trotted over and joined them, opting to remain silent all the while.

Twilight sniffled and finally let some of her own tears fall, but she wiped them away just as quickly. Instead, she turned.

She watched Adamantine, now stumbling away toward Canterlot. Presumably toward the chamber. Presumably toward her people. Adamantine’s path took her up a hill, and Twilight tracked her as Adamantine reached the crest.

And then, finally, the last and former queen of the unponies disappeared over the other side.