• 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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13 - Payment

The clouds hanging overhead ultimately blocked out the sun. A dull gray hue shone down on the land as a result. The forest floor lay dormant and largely undisturbed beneath it. The songs of birds and the occasional cracks of rustled twigs echoed through the quiet, but even those were not plentiful.

The forest itself cleared the way for a large hole in the ground. The hole drew down a ways before opening up into a vast cavern. Given the cloud cover, only a bit of gray made it down to the cavern floor far below.

Crystals of blue fire, each sticking out of the walls at regular intervals, served as the main lighting for the cavern. But now they mixed with the streaming sunlight.

Empty caldrons lay strewn about the cavern floor, their green stains the only signs that anything had ever been in them. A discolored ring, carved into the sides of the ceiling opening, bore traces of a magic barrier that had once hung over the cavern and trapped gasses in that had since evaporated.

The cavern lay quiet. Not even the forest sounds made it in.

Ever-diminishing dirt mounds also littered the cavern floor. Air flowed into the cavern via adjoining tunnels and escaped through the hole in the ceiling, snatching bits of dust off the mounds as it blew by. The smaller mounds did not survive for long, but the larger mounds, fortuitous against the winds, deteriorated in their own ways.

In several corners of the room lay several objects. Books lay in haphazard piles, with some open to random pages lying face down on the ground. Spent chalk congregated near drawings on the cavern walls, the designs now stained into the rock itself. The designs depicted a number of things, but certain characters—namely ponies of a particularly dark hue—recurred. An abandoned acoustic guitar lay against the wall in another corner of the cavern, still with shiny varnish and all six strings strung.

An inlet in another corner of the chamber housed a paper-littered desk and a cushion that had bled out all its cotton. Empty styrofoam cups littered the ground throughout the inlet, some flattened and sporting hoof-shaped marks.

Several crystal balls, seven to be exact, sat against the back wall. Each ball showed a chamber, each bearing their own similarities and differences. The images within occasionally moved as ponies like the ones in the wall-paintings squirmed and rolled over. One of the chambers lacked the structures or occupants that the others had.

The inlet’s single fire crystal, which cast a blue light within the room, flickered once and then died altogether, leaving the inlet to darkness. It made no pomp nor circumstance as it withdrew its energies, and thus the rest of the cavern remained none the wiser. It was another thing to be forgotten.


“Everypony!” Princess Celestia boomed. “Please remain calm! We will have you sorted out shortly!”

She looked around the large, hemispherical chamber. Several members of the royal guard helped countless ponies to their hooves. Said ponies wobbled, teetered, and some couldn’t even find their hooves to begin with. Most words out of their mouths were variations of “What happened?” and “Where am I?” to which the guards offered by-the-book “You’re safe now”s.

The countless sigils within the chamber walls and floor flashed a white light, and then another pony popped into existence. Said pony, a unicorn as it turned out, fell out of the air, only for a pair of guards to catch him with their magic.

A few seconds later, the sigils flashed again, and another pony, a pegasus this time, appeared from a white flash of light. Said flash deposited him right on the floor of the chamber.

A few seconds after that, the sigils flashed, and an unpony of the earth variety fell from the top of the chamber. The unpony failed to gain consciousness before slamming into the floor, shattering into a billion particles.

And many ponies jumped, crying out in shock in surprise and otherwise reeling in horror.

Celestia didn’t even look. “Remain calm!” she boomed again. “Let the members of the royal guard see to you. If you are in need of medical assistance, please flag them down.”

“You have nothing to fear,” Princess Luna added. She stood at Celestia’s side, watching the growing crowd with scrutiny.

The chamber flashed again, and a pegasus fell from the ceiling, only to catch herself in midair. The guards underneath her, who had reached up to catch her, instead made way as she landed.

Six mares appeared at the open entryway to the chamber. They packed tightly together, wearing half-blank stares and sporting misplaced hairs and wet faces. They trudged into the chamber, stopping just long enough to examine the scene around them. Their eyes ran over the ponies standing confusedly about, lit up on seeing that many of them looked in good shape, only to wilt again on seeing several mounds of blackened sand here and there.

The chamber flashed, and a pegasus unstallion popped into existence. His wings instinctively flapped and he gained conscious long enough to steer, through erratic difficulty, toward the doorway. And yet, within seconds, his body disintegrated as he flew, showering anypony below his path. He never reached the exit.

Princess Celestia swallowed and trotted toward the new arrivals. “Twilight Sparkle. Friends.” She motioned to the scene around them. “Are you alright?”

Twilight Sparkle continued glancing around the chamber, focusing on the mounds. Her frown deepened with each one she saw.

“No,” she finally replied.

“I think that I speak for all of us, Princess Celestia,” Rarity said, “that this… didn’t exactly turn out the way we would have liked to.”

Celestia’s eyes drew to Pinkamena, in particular, and her own frown deepened. “I understand. This has been a taxing ordeal for us all. But I know the burden has been especially heavy on you.”

“This is all our fault, and you know it,” Rainbow Dash seethed through grit teeth.

Twilight watched as the chamber flashed again, spitting out a unicorn unstallion just long enough for him to fall and smash against the floor. “Gosh, I… I wish it were me. I wish I could take their place.”

Celestia shuddered and nodded solemnly. “I understand, Twilight. But it is what it is. And for what it is worth,” she said, lifting Twilight by the chin and putting on her signature mentorly grin, “I believe you made the right choice.”

Twilight didn’t smile back. Rather, she let her head hang again. “I… think so too. But… Princess, there was a moment there where I thought about making the other choice.”

Her friends turned, collectively frowning.

Celestia tilted her head with curiosity. “Oh? Is that right?”

Twilight dragged a hoof across the stone floor. “I… yes. Part of me wanted Adamantine to win. Part of me wanted her to save her people. I… thought about sacrificing our ponies so that hers could live.”

The chamber flashed again, and Twilight’s friends craned their necks to see who it was.

Twilight shook her head. “I’m so ashamed. Tell me I was wrong. Wasn’t I?” she asked, meeting Celestia’s gaze.

Celestia, in response, glanced behind her and watched as Luna helped some ponies to their hooves and spoke brief reassurances to them. Many of theirs had managed their way to their hooves. Those that did shied away from an unpony trying to crawl across the room, leaving a trail as he went.

Celestia shook her head. “I think… that you are not wrong to value life, Twilight,” she said.

Applejack sidled up alongside and draped a hoof across Twilight’s withers, but her gaze remained toward a far-off corner of the room. Both Twilight and Celestia looked at Applejack first and then toward where Applejack, as well as the other four, looked.

A yellow pegasus looked around the chamber, shaking and cowering and otherwise curling up into a defensive ball. She hid her face behind her long pink mane and hugged her tail, keeping it to herself. She shied away from the guards trying to help her up.

Celestia’s eyes, as well as everypony else’s, drew to Fluttershy, who looked at her alternate self with a disbelieving frown.

While the six looked on, Celestia trotted toward the other Fluttershy. She approached with caution, watching the other Fluttershy’s every movement, lest she frightened one whom she figured was already shivering in her bones.

Indeed, the other Fluttershy withdrew. “P-p-p-princess Celestia?”

Celestia smiled. “Hello, Fluttershy. I hope you are alright.”

The other Fluttershy swallowed and meekly nodded.

“You have nothing to fear,” Celestia continued. “You are safe now.”

The chamber flashed again, and an unpony streaked across the room before disintegrating. The other Fluttershy tracked the late unpony and whimpered in distress.

“You are safe,” Celestia repeated.

The other Fluttershy shivered.

“There, there,” Fluttershy said, trotting up beside Celestia, a warm smile on her face. “It’s going to be okay.”

Both Celestia and the other Fluttershy looked over with varying degrees of surprise.

“Everything is going to be just fine. I know there’s so much going on right now,” Fluttershy continued, even while the chamber flashed again and spit out an earth stallion across the room. “But we’ll get you home, I promise.”

The other Fluttershy frowned. “B-but, Tirek…”

Celestia and Fluttershy exchanged glances and nodded affirmatively

Fluttershy turned back to her counterpart. “Don’t worry, he isn’t going to bother anypony anymore. We’ll get you back home, safe and sound. Okay?” she said, extending a hoof.

The other Fluttershy looked up. Her features softened, and now she looked at Fluttershy with cautious scrutiny. Her eyes flicked between Fluttershy’s outstretched hoof and Fluttershy’s soft, kindly face. Eventually, with trepidation, the other Fluttershy grabbed Fluttershy’s hoof. Fluttershy, in turn, helped her counterpart to her hooves, and the two finally exchanged smiles.

Celestia looked back and met Twilight in the eyes. The both of them smiled.

The chamber flashed again, and an earth unmare popped out, lasting a few seconds before she splattered against the floor right by where Celestia stood.

Celestia’s smile faded yet she didn’t afford it a glance. There was no helping it, after all. Instead, she gravely nodded at Twilight. Twilight, in turn, nodded in solemn acknowledgment.

* * *

Sunset Shimmer watched the scenery fly by outside the window. Mossy rock walls occasionally sported tree roots or even gave way to trees or collections of trees. The constant clickety-clack from the train thundering down the tracks served as background noise. The car swayed from side to side, shuddering over the occasional rail tie.

And somehow, all of it seemed lost on her. The scenery was a blur, the sounds were faint. She couldn’t register the movements.

All she had were the thoughts.

Pictures of unponies swam through her head. Pictures of ponies, onyx in their color, dancing around and reading together and laughing at jokes. Things, she knew, they had to have done at some time long passed. Things, Sunset knew, they would not do again.

Imaginations of an alicorn, her long, silver hair tied in a bun as she lifted several heavy objects or sorted and filed paperwork, all for the bits that would eventually pay for what ingredients went into unstew, all so her people would be fed.

Where was she now?

Sunset clutched the crystal ball tighter and said nothing.

Starlight Glimmer sat in her own seat at the other end of the empty train car, just as wrapped in her own world. She sighed through her nose, vacantly and perpetually shaking her head.

“Sunset Shimmer?” the crystal ball said.

Sunset blinked. That had been Celestia’s voice. Sunset looked up. “Princess?”

“Sunset. I’ve caught up with you,” Celestia’s voice said. “Moving the view in the ball to keep up with you is a bit of a chore. I am still learning how to control it.”

Sunset chuckled.

“But,” Celestia’s voice continued, “Twilight Sparkle told me that I should talk to you. I was hoping you would be willing to tell me what happened. Once you reach Ponyville, of course.”

Sunset continued looking at the ceiling, knowing that Princess Celestia was watching from the world above hers. A world nine days into the future. Sunset’s expression remained unchanged.

The car shuddered as it went over an uneven section of track.

Sunset let her head roll back toward the window and she nodded half-heartedly. “Okay.”

* * *

Sunset stepped off the train and onto the station’s wooden platform with the crystal ball floating right behind her. The depot itself stood like a hut, with but a simple overhang to cover the platform. Compared to Canterlot’s glassy and polished depot, the simple wooden construction looked thrown together. The platform boards creaked under her hooves and did so again when Starlight joined her on the platform a moment later.

The two stood in silence, even as several other ponies ambled onto the platform from the next car over, chatting jovially about topics that neither of them really cared to listen to.

Sunset watched as some of them departed, and then she sighed. “Ah, welp…”

Starlight looked up. “I guess this is it, huh?” she asked, scraping the floorboards.

Sunset nodded vacantly. “Sure looks like it, Starlight.”

The engine bellowed a loud and drawn-out whistle and then lurched forward. Steam flew out from several nooks and crannies within the engine, punctuated by a hiss each time. The hisses grew more rapid as the train moved faster and faster. And then the last car pulled away from the platform.

Except for the two of them, the platform lay empty.

“I guess you’re going to go back home, right?” Starlight asked.

“Yeah.”

“I guess this is where we say goodbye, then,” Starlight said.

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Huh? Wait, you’re not going back to the castle? I figured we’d at least be heading that way together.”

Starlight shrugged. “Well, it sounds like the princess wants to talk to you. And… I’m not going back to the castle. Not right now.”

Sunset tilted her head with concern. “Yeah? Why’s that?”

Starlight watched as the train rounded a corner and disappeared into the distance. She hummed in thought and drew circles in the floorboards. “I just… I can’t go back right now. I don’t want to go back.”

“No?”

Starlight shook her head.

“Why not?” Sunset asked, frowning.

Starlight snorted and shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t know. Sunset, I… I’m just not ready. We both know what Twilight’s going to be doing for the next nine days, and I don’t want to be around for that. I can’t look at all this again.”

Something sharp shot through Sunset’s body, and she shivered in response. “Yeah. Buck all this.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You and me both.”

“We’re going to have to live with this for the rest of our lives,” Starlight said.

Sunset nodded. “Well, it’s like I say to myself, ‘My past does not define me.’ And besides… we tried our best. We really did.” Sunset paused, considering her own words. She ran the words through her head over and over again, nodding slowly. “Yeah… We really did try our best.”

Starlight sucked in a breath. “Listen. Sunset. It was… something, being able to work with you these past few days. You know, you’re really smart, and you’ve got some really nice magic. And…” Starlight cracked a smile. “You know, it was really nice.”

Sunset blushed. “Well, thanks,” she replied.

“No, listen,” Starlight said, approaching. “I didn’t really say any of this yet, but… you know, you remind me a lot of myself. You made these mistakes in the past and… did a bad thing or two. But… Gosh, where you’ve been since.” She opened her mouth to speak, but she found herself too busy looking Sunset up and down, considering her. “Yeah, you’re right. We tried our best. It just wasn’t enough this time.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah.”

Starlight nodded. “This is going to sting for a while. And I’ll just need some time.”

Sunset nodded, approaching Starlight. “That’s okay. Whatever time you need.” She placed a hoof on Starlight’s withers. “Just remember to bounce back. Okay?”

Starlight brushed and then moved forward, wrapped her forelegs around Sunset. “You take care of yourself, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset returned it. “You too, Starlight Glimmer. Take it easy.”

The two broke the hug, and after sharing smiles, Starlight turned and trotted down the platform. And Sunset watched the whole time until the moment Starlight descended the stairs and disappeared around the corner.

* * *

“Just keep an eye out for me, okay?” Starlight asked.

An azure-colored mare tipped her lavender, starry-patterned magician’s hat and nodded solemnly. “Trixie promises to keep you updated. And if anypony asks where you went, Trixie’ll tell them that you went someplace away from here.”

Starlight smiled. “Thanks.”

Trixie then levitated the hat off her head and placed it on a nearby wooden trunk. “But for real, Starlight, I feel awful for you. I feel awful for all those, um… underponies that you tried to help. I just want you to know that I will be here if you need me to talk to.”

Starlight smiled and wrapped Trixie in a hug. “Thanks. You’re a good friend.”

“The greatest and most powerful friend,” Trixie replied.

The two broke, and Starlight turned. Trixie’s brightly colored cart sat in the shade of the tree at the top of the hill. Several other ponies milled about the rest of the park below, oblivious to their presence.

Starlight sighed and lit her horn. After a flash of light, a portal opened up. Dust and a low whistle streamed through the aperture. A glance through revealed a dirty, bleak expanse.

Trixie’s breath left her, but Starlight looked on with a dejected frown. And, after one last glance at her friend, Starlight stepped through the portal and closed it behind her.

* * *

Unlit candles clung to the walls and hung from a chandelier as well, but the sun’s natural light sufficed in their place. White pillars blended with white walls, broken only by the room’s grand (although solitary) window.

Twilight sat at the very end of the varnished table, both her forehooves laid across its surface. She sat in silence. The room gave no sounds in response. Only the occasional bird chirp and glass rattle from gusts of wind made it in.

She paid those no mind.

The double doors opposite the window opened, and five mares stepped through, the last bits of conversation leaving their lips. Stuffed saddlebags lay draped across each of their backs; in Pinkamena’s case, unused streamers had no recourse but to dangle from the sides. The five trotted over.

“Hey, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said, her voice subdued.

Twilight looked over. “Are you going home?”

Applejack nodded. “Reckon Ah’ve been away from the farm fer too long.”

“I have to feed my animals,” Fluttershy squeaked.

“I understand,” Twilight replied, sighing.

“Figure we’ve already missed the noon train home,” Applejack replied. “But we can still make the evenin’ train, Ah guess.”

“I suppose I’ll want to check in with Sassy Saddles on the way over,” Rarity said, “if that’s alright with everypony.”

Rainbow Dash looked up. “What are you gunna do, Twilight?”

The other four looked up in questioning.

Twilight frowned. “Well, I… I can’t let this happen. I just can’t.”

“We feel ya, Twi,” Applejack said.

“I mean, obviously I have to work out Equestria I still. I have an idea on how to tackle Flim and Flam. But I have to do research on that timeline first.”

“Well, you’re better at researchin’ than anypony, Twi,” Applejack said, cracking a smile.

“But this… I can’t let it. I will put a stop to this.”

Pinkamena inched forward, a pleading shine in her eyes. “Twilight… didn’t it already happen? We… watched it happen, Twilight. We were there…”

Rarity stepped forward, whipping her mane back where she wanted it. “Of course. It’s too late for us.”

Applejack hung her head. “Eeyup, ain’t no way we can change that now.”

“I know,” Twilight replied.

“But that world below us,” Fluttershy said. “This hasn’t happened for them yet.”

Rainbow Dash furrowed her brow and beat her forehooves together. “That’s right! You… you can stop this from happening to them!”

“You know where things went wrong now,” Rarity said. “You have insight on everything that’s going to happen to them. You know what needs to be done.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

Rarity placed her hoof on Twilight’s withers. “We have faith in you, Twilight. You can do this.”

The others drew in and wrapped Twilight into a group hug, each giggling and laughing as they went. While they did not return to their former brightness, a bit of color returned to them. Even Pinkamena, while neither her mane nor her tail exploded into poofy shapes, turned several shades brighter.

Twilight giggled and drew back, but not far enough back to break the hug. “Thanks, girls. You’re the best.” She looked across each of their faces, her expressing scrunching into something more determined with each one. “And I promise you… I’ll make everything right.”

* * *

“But she did not,” Celestia’s voice said.

Sunset shook her head and gave a simple, “No.”

“And if you went back and told your Twilight everything,” Celestia’s voice said, “Then it would unravel this train of events.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Sunset replied. She hung her head. “Still…”

“That’s a bummer,” Spike’s voice said.

Sunset continued down the street with the crystal ball floating beside her within her magic. She passed by dozens of ponies, most of whom trotted merrily in opposite directions or stood with companions, engaged in lively conversations. Ponyville’s weather team kicked clouds apart, allowing sunbeams to bathe the ground.

“That is, indeed, a tough call,” Celestia’s voice said. “It does make me think. Perhaps in some worlds above ours, some which have already been through these events, they may have, in fact, struggled with those things. Perhaps they did not save those alternate timelines. Perhaps worse things happened.”

Sunset frowned.

“You think so?” Spike’s voice asked.

“It is possible,” Celestia’s voice replied. “But I cannot say for sure. Nevertheless, Sunset, if you say that is the best outcome that we could have managed… Then perhaps you made the right choice.”

Sunset bit her lip. “Yeah, it doesn’t feel that way.”

“I understand.”

“Gosh, Sunset,” Spike’s voice said. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”

“Whatever,” Sunset said, snorting. “Now you know what I know.”

“Very well then,” Celestia’s voice said. “You’ve answered all of our questions, Sunset Shimmer. Do you have any questions that you would like to ask us?”

The street opened up into a very large plaza. Many ponies milled about, standing or trotting with the same fervor that Sunset had seen in the streets. A large, circular building, supported by several wooden trusses ringing the outside, capped by what looked like a red, upside-down top, dominated the square.

Sunset considered it, spying some ponies passing through the front doors, before turning her attention to the crystal ball floating beside her. “I wanna know what happens now.”

“Sure,” Spike’s voice said. “What do you wanna know?”

“Uh…” Sunset hummed in thought. “Well, first things first, I guess. About all those ponies that, you know, got foalnapped? What happened to them?”

“Ah, of course,” Celestia’s voice replied. “It took us some time to figure out which timeline each pony came from, but we sorted them out. We’ve accounted for every single pony reported missing over the past two to three weeks. There have been no Equestrian casualties.”

Sunset glanced at a few of the ponies standing about the plaza, trying to imagine if they had not been there, and then grinned. “Nice.”

“I helped out with that,” Spike’s voice said.

“Yes. His help in sorting them out proved invaluable,” Celestia’s voice added.

“I saw Applejack and Rarity and them and figured something had happened. So… I thought I’d lend a claw.”

“I’ll bet you got your organization skills from Twilight, huh?” Sunset asked, giggling.

“I get a lot of stuff from her, ya know,” Spike’s voice said with vigor.

Sunset giggled even more. “Well, that’s great. That’s great. I’m glad everypony is okay.”

“Indeed,” Celestia’s voice replied.

Sunset headed into another street and took a moment to observe Ponyville’s wooden construction. She saw two ponies, whom she ascertained were Equestria’s Lyra and Bon Bon, pressing their noses into a list and debating under whispers and subdued gestures.

“And what’s Twilight doing now?” Sunset asked. “I know she’s kinda been working with us for the past few days.”

“Of course,” Celestia’s voice replied. “Twilight stayed in Canterlot for several days, although I am sure she made multiple visits to one of those alternate timelines. I believe it was that one which had been heavily industrialized. Now, who was it again…?”

“Oh yeah,” Spike’s voice replied, “that’s Flim and Flam. They probably did some reaaallllyyy shady stuff over there.”

“Ah, yes, them. I would imagine that I will want to keep my eye on them,” Celestia’s voice sternly said.

“Nah, we got ’em, Princess.”

“If you say so, Spike. But, anyway,” Celestia’s tone perked up, “Twilight spent some time in Canterlot coordinating efforts to make that timeline a better place. I do not know what she did over there, but she tells me that she is happy with what she did with the place.”

Sunset nodded. “She kinda said the same thing to me too, I think.”

“She came back here to Ponyville about two days ago, I believe,” Celestia’s voice said. “I would imagine she has been totally committed to you in that time.”

“Alright, sure. And…” Sunset trailed off as her smile faded, “what is she doing right now?”

The crystal ball, floating in Sunset’s magic, paused. Sunset imagined Celestia and Spike sharing glances.

“Well, it is like I said, I came to Ponyville in order to check on her, in addition to taking this crystal ball back to Canterlot,” Celestia’s voice said.

“We’re at the castle right now. I, uh, made some snacks for the three of us but… Twilight,” Spike’s voice sighed dejectedly. “Well… she’s just kinda not leaving her room right now.”

“I would imagine that, after everything that has happened, she will just need a little time,” Celestia’s voice said.

A pair of stallions near Sunset started throwing out exclamations and shrieking with joyous laughter before hanging onto each other to keep balance.

Sunset watched them for a few seconds while she walked by, the frown on her face undeterred. She nodded solemnly. “Yeah… I’m not surprised. I hope she’s okay.”

“I am sure that she will be,” Celestia’s voice said reassuringly.

Sunset swallowed. “What about the unponies?”

Tentatively, Celestia’s voice replied, “I do not think that there are any left.”

Sunset felt a bolt of pain shoot through her entire body, and she chalked it up as her imagination. She felt something heavy in her eyes. “So, that’s it?” she croaked under her breath.

“Hmmm?”

Sunset’s mouth moved to form more words, but the words failed to find a voice. She sighed.

“Gosh, Sunset…” Spike’s voice said. “I didn’t think what we were doing with Twilight, you know, saving her, would, you know…”

Sunset shook her head. “Buckin’… They had an entire civilization. Spike… an entire civilization died this morning.”

She watched as three fillies with similar cutie marks upon their flanks raced by in an isolated parade of playful screams. The Crusaders jumped around each other, sharing waves and greetings with a few of the older folks that they passed by. The older folks, in turn, brightened up with infectious smiles. Sunset watched them go, her frown deepening. Their giggles rang in her ears even as they galloped away.

“Wow,” Spike’s voice said.

“And looking at what they all did,” Sunset did, “I just… can’t help but wonder what everypony will end up thinking of them.”

There was a pause. “I wish the news was better on that front, Sunset,” Celestia’s voice said. “Public opinion has been… negative.”

All of Sunset’s features furrowed and she stopped to rub her face. “…I’m gunna be sick.”

The crystal ball offered no response.

Sunset continued on, rounding a corner onto the street that led up into Twilight’s giant, tree-like castle. The crystalline blues and purples shimmered in the early afternoon sunlight. A purple flag, bearing the pattern of a star, hung limply off the left-most spire in a windless air. The castle’s large crystal star, shooting up from the center tower, acted as a bright beacon for all to see.

Sunset advanced toward it, averting her eyes from the smiling faces passing by her.

“...And Adamantine?” she asked.

Another pause. “Sunset,” Celestia’s voice replied.

“I want. To know. What happens to her.”

“Adamantine…” Celestia’s voice said, falling silent for a few moments. “Queen Adamantine was… tried—”

Sunset grimaced, closing her eyes.

“—and sentenced. And now she’s locked away in Tartarus.”

Sunset ground to a complete halt in the middle of the street and had to fight the urge to punch something or somepony.

“Who’d have thought, huh?” Spike’s voice said.

Sunset snorted. “That’s just… great,” she said, resuming her trek.

“Do not forget, Sunset Shimmer,” Celestia’s voice said with sharp assertion, “she knowingly and willingly tried something that would have taken the lives of thousands.”

Sunset stamped the dirt. “Yeah! Because we starved her people out and gave them the death kneel. For buck’s sake, tell me what else we can do to her, huh?”

The street gave way to a solitary dirt path that led up to the castle’s front door. Sunset trotted down it, just short of stomping her way toward the door.

“Sunset…” Celestia’s voice said, her tone stern.

Sunset reached the door, but while she placed a hoof on the handle, she did not pull. Sunset rested her head against the doorframe and sighed. “Okay look,” she said. “I’m not disagreeing with you. Like… The Nameless needed to die. I know that. She tried to kill a bunch of ponies. Nothing makes that right. It’s…” She sighed again. “This whole thing just… sucks.”

“Yeah…” Spike’s voice trailed off.

“She’s not a bad pony, I’m telling you,” Sunset asserted. “She just… made a very bad choice.”

The crystal ball remained silent.

Sunset lit her horn and teleported through the doorway, reappearing in the castle foyer. Tall, crystalline pillars held the curved ceiling up far above her head. A balcony up the back wall caught her attention but then lost it to the stairs at the end of the hall ahead. Silence passed as Sunset trotted down the length of the foyer. She lit her horn and teleported her way onto the balcony.

Celestia’s voice sighed. “If I am to be frank, I suspect that, if we had given her the chance, she might have otherwise tried to find someplace to crawl into and… rot...” Her voice paused. “Nonetheless, that is why I wanted her sent to Tartarus… where we can keep an eye on her.”

Sunset bit her lip, letting her eyes wander as she processed it. Finally, she nodded. “Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“And here we had her over for dinner a few weeks ago,” Spike’s voice said. “Wow.”

She dragged her hooves through the carpet as she passed through arches and by varnished wooden doors. The ceilings hung high enough overhead as it was, but Sunset felt two inches tall under them. The back of her mind drew a map, and her body obeyed.

She turned a corner and trotted down the hall before heading through an opening.

The castle library stretched up before her. Crystalline walls hosted ringing shelves full of tomes and textbooks. Green flags bearing a tree-like pattern hung from the far end, each flanking a circular window bearing the same design.

Just underneath that stood the crystal mirror. The compressors and pumps surrounding the mirror lay idle. A brown-colored hardcover book bearing the image of Celestia’s cutie mark lay nestled inside a niche at the top of the machine.

Spike, who stood at the top of a ladder against a bookshelf off to the side, turned. “Sunset?”

“Spike, hey,” Sunset said, brightening up. “How are you?”

Spike descended halfway down the ladder and then leaped off it. “Sunset! Hey! You’re back!” He ran over to her and wrapped his claws around her.

Sunset hugged him back. “It’s good to see you, Spike. Are you okay?”

Spike broke away, motioning toward a pile of books on a nearby table. “Uh, you know, reorganizing Twilight’s books.” He frowned and mumbled, “For the third time this month.”

Sunset chuckled.

Spike shrugged. “Whatever. I’m, uh,” he started, twiddling his claws, “sorry about those, uh, unponies that you sent through the portal.”

Sunset nodded. “It’s okay, Spike. You did your best, but it couldn’t be helped.”

He looked up. “Did you end up helping them out, at least? Tell me they’re okay.”

Sunset frowned and shook her head, rubbing her foreleg in shame.

Spike’s scales lost some of their luster, and he visibly shrunk. “O-oh.”

“Hey, me?” Spike’s voice said out of the crystal ball. “Ya think you could give us a minute or something?”

Sunset met eyes with Spike and nodded.

Spike looked toward the ceiling, snapping his fingers. “Sure, I’ll get out of your manes real quick,” he said. He grabbed a broom and dustpan sitting against the wall and then took them out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

“I don’t… really have any more questions,” Sunset said, glancing through the bookshelves.

“Very well, then,” Celestia’s voice replied.

Sunset continued scanning the bookshelves, trying to find one in particular. But shelf after shelf held no hint of it.

She found it on one of the tables instead; a purple book with what looked like the Elements of Harmony on the front cover. A diary, Sunset knew. A quill lay next to it. Sunset levitated both toward herself.

“Say, Sunset…” Spike’s voice said. “I was wondering about something. You know, you said that saving the unponies probably couldn’t be done. So, uh, why’d you go through all the trouble and all that work?”

Sunset hummed as she vacantly flipped through the pages. She lingered on some entries but did not actually read them, pausing in time with her own thoughts instead.

“I guess…” Sunset mumbled, “I think that I, uh…” She paused. “I couldn’t just sit and do nothing.”

“Yeah?”

“I know I ran out of time. I know I can’t do anything else now. But there are still unponies in the layers below us who haven’t died yet. They still have time. And I will bet you that those versions of me in those lower layers won’t be able to sit and do nothing either.”

Sunset found a blank page and stopped. Her head tilted in recognition, and she brought the quill to bare.

“The way I see it,” she continued, “if I gave up and did nothing, then it would never happen for sure. But… if I did something about it, even a little bit…”

“Yes,” Celestia’s voice agreed, chuckling. “You are absolutely right. I have met many a pony who I know could have done great things but failed simply because they did not try.”

Sunset pressed the quill against the page, but nothing came out. She jabbed the spot a few times, and then she pulled the quill back, humming in thought.

“But wait,” Spike’s voice said, you still failed, didn’t you?”

Sunset continued staring at the page. The diary hung in her magic, waiting for her. Spike’s words ran through her head, again and again. Failed. Failed, failed, failed.

She had failed.

Sunset smirked.

“You know what? Yeah. And you know what I learned from that?”

“Oh!” Celestia’s voice replied. “By all means, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset placed the quill to the page and dictated what she wrote.

“Dear Diary,

“Friendship is a wonderful thing. Over these many months, I’ve grown with it and become somepony better. I would say that, almost surprisingly, it has become one of the cornerstones of my beliefs. With friendship, I believed that we could do the impossible. And, for the longest while, we did the impossible.

“But what I dealt with this week was not one of those things. I guess, sometimes, the impossible is just that.

“Sometimes, what worked in the past won’t work anymore. Friendship, as wonderful as it is, can’t solve everything; it did not solve this, and it could not. When that happens, decisions have to be made. They can fix problems and save the day, as I’ve seen time and time again. Or… as I have now seen… they can also sow the seeds for your destruction or the destruction of others.

“And worse yet, sometimes there is no avoiding these triumphs or (in this case) catastrophes once they are set in motion. Sometimes we can’t escape our past deeds.

“But we tried, and that is something we can always do. We can’t solve all of the problems, and our best is just not enough, but we tackled the problems and we tackled them at our best. We did something and failed, and that… is better than if we did nothing and failed.

“And there will be others who will come after us and face the same problems. And they can and will try. And maybe there will be others after them who can and will try too. And they will learn from our mistakes and do it better.

“And maybe, someday, somepony will succeed. It is not today, and it may not be tomorrow, or it may not be ever, but if it ever happens, then our failure won’t be for nothing.

“Because we are bound to fail. And sure, we might be bound to fail many times. And our mistakes might be ones that never leave us. But if we can eventually succeed because of that or in spite of that, then it’ll all be worth it.

“Yours truly,

“Sunset Shimmer”

Sunset read over her work again. Her muzzle twitched as she reached certain words, and after all was said and done, she marked the page with a bookmark and then set the closed book on a table.

“Perhaps,” Celestia’s voice said, “perhaps someday…”

“Yeah,” Sunset replied. She chuckled. “Make sure Twilight sees that at some point. Okay?”

“Yeah, gotcha,” Spike’s voice replied.

She turned toward the apparatus surrounding the mirror and flipped a switch on the side. The machine grumbled to life as the pumps fed condensed magical energy into the tubes. The compressor sputtered and kicked into gear.

“Well,” Sunset said, “time for me to go.”

“Absolutely,” Celestia’s voice replied. “Be sure to take good care of yourself, Sunset Shimmer. It was very nice to see you again, regardless of everything that happened.”

Sunset smiled, turning just to see the library doors crack open. “You too, Princess Celestia. Take care!”

“See ya, Sunset,” Spike’s voice said.

“Later,” Sunset replied, opening the doors the rest of the way with her magic.

Spike walked back into the room, twiddling his claws together. He glanced up as the apparatus shot several magical beams into the mirror, creating a bright vortex on the portal’s surface. He walked over to Sunset and took a seat on the table edge.

Sunset nodded. “Yeah…”

“So…?” he asked.

She dropped the crystal ball into his lap. “So, chances are you’ll go to Canterlot soon. Take this with you, okay?”

Spike blinked and looked at the object. “Oh, yeah, sure. I oughta let Princess Celestia know you had this,” he said.

“Thanks.”

Sunset turned to the portal.

“I’ll see you later, right?” Spike asked, hopping off the table.

Sunset looked over her withers and cracked a smile. “Sure thing. See ya, Spike.”

Spike grinned. “See ya.”

With that, Sunset stepped forward. The mirror swallowed her up, and with that, Sunset was no more.

* * *

Dust splashed against Starlight’s coat, but she couldn’t care. She squinted in a breeze which blew her mane in all directions. Her hooves left tracks wherever she went, but Starlight knew those would fall prey to the winds. Given a day, there’d be nothing to say she was ever there at all.

Starlight’s eyes passed from brown horizon to brown horizon, and she saw nothing but the occasional twisted remains of a tree. Starlight stepped on the occasional rock, but it was earth all the same.

She trudged forward, a resigned frown across her features. Her downtrodden expression was so devoid of life that even the wind could not faze it.

Starlight saw a shadow in the distance and perked up. Said shadow jutted from the ground and sported a flat top. She trotted toward it with greater stride.

Maybe she had found it after all.

Starlight walked and walked and the shadow drew nearer. Eventually, she reached it and stood over the object.

A crystalline table sat before her. A layering of brown, earthy dust smothered out its blue hues. The top surface contained a dull, almost greyed-out image of the land; the mountains and hills were all there but the cities and all other signs of civilization were all gone.

A smile flickered on Starlight’s muzzle for a brief second before disappearing again. She lit her horn, generating a gust of wind around the Map that ripped all the dust off it. She created a feather-duster with her magic and dusted everything else off. The Map, as a result, shined like new, even in the rusted nothingness of the wasteland.

She chuckled under her breath. Now it felt right despite still being so wrong.

She stared at its surface and sighed before climbing onto the Map herself. She stood, first looking at the nothingness surrounding her and then down at the something where she stood. The wind continued its idle whistling in her ears and somehow, then, it subsided. Sand still whirled about, but it did not feel as blasting as before.

Starlight sat down and curled up, resting her head against her forelegs. Thoughts of timelines and ‘What If?’s swam through her head. She contemplated what could have led to everything, and where everything now would go. Thoughts of unponies crumbling in the wind and ponies now parts of that wind crossed her mind, along with the whimpers of cowering servants and cries from magic being sucked out of their bodies. Starlight frowned.

Images of her friends flashed through her mind. Cheers of liberated ponies and ecstatic cries from loved ones now reuniting rang through her ears. She thought of the new leases on life and the sighs of relief. She pictured life as she remembered it, sure that much would not change. Starlight hummed and nodded to herself.

She closed her eyes. On that Map, in the middle of nothingness, where dust blew in an eternal wind, she let a sleep overtake her.