• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,316 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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2 - Identity

Princess Celestia’s room stood frozen in time during the day. The fireplace remained customarily unlit, the sheets lay folded neatly across the bed, and the few items on the desk were arranged carefully with their edges aligned with those of the desk.

A single tree flanking the window basked in the sunlight. A single shard from a mirror hung from a string off one of its branches. A tall, wooden perch for a bird stood on the window’s other side.

Aside from the occasional bird chirping out on the balcony, the room opted for silence.

A small orb of light flickered in the middle of the room. And then, in a dramatic flash of light and an electrical crack, a hole appeared. It grew to such a height where Celestia herself could walk through on her hindlegs, and then it held steady as a ring of energy clamped down on its edges.

Through the hole was Celestia’s room once more but in a nighttime setting. The curtains, decayed and threadbare, flapped in the breeze. The window was hollow and vacant, yearning for replacements of its cracked and shattered glass.

Two figures stepped through, both dressed in long, flowing cloaks that obscured everything but the faint silhouettes of their muzzles. Long horns poked out of their shroud, and for one of them a red magical aura as well (although that disappeared in short order). They each scanned the room, drinking it in, before they split off toward each side.

One of them approached a tapestry that depicted a shooting star, eyeing its contrails that arced into a bright and shining point which complimented the blue, nightly background on which it was sewn. That made them smile approvingly.

The other trotted toward the desk and glanced over the several objects upon it. While most were bottles of perfume and powder, a book with the words Re-cant emblazoned on the cover sat in the center. A novel, by the looks of it.

The figure passed over that for the final object: a large stack of paper positioned on the very corner. Unlike the novel, the stack of paper was relatively plain in presentation. They lit their horn, magically lifted the stack, and then they dove into it without even so much as a glance at the cover.

The pages inside revealed a vast array of symbols, each as complex as the next. Walls of them ran down the height of each page, written concisely between invisible lines, somehow cramming much more information on a page than should have been feasible, especially in fonts so unmistakably hoofwritten (which, notably, varied wildly on a page-by-page basis). Notes written in a plain language were occasionally scrawled between the margins, pointing out particular details and explaining algorithms.

The figure hummed and then flipped through several more pages. They went through tens of them, each as condensed and particular as the last. Eventually, however, those ran out and gave way to another set of pages. These were written neatly by a hoof that had not been present in the former sections; practiced in the curls without being so fancy as to be illegible. Therein lay diagrams as well as a few paragraphs written in a plain language that covered topics that, judging by the spaces, never ran on for more than a few pages at a time.

The figure flipped through the final page and then nodded. They made a hissing sound at their companion and then held up the stack in question. Their companion trotted over and the two of them skimmed through it together, pointing toward several things along the way.

Finally, one of them slipped the entire stack of papers into their cloak, and the two turned back toward the portal and stepped through, back into the darkened version of the room from whence they came.

The other flared their horn once and the hole in the middle of the room shuddered and shrank. At last, it disappeared in a bright flash and one final electrical cry.

And the room remained, returning to the same silence, unaware that something was now missing.


Sunset Shimmer stared at the ceiling, watching the tessellations as they reflected different shades of the pale blue light that pervaded the room. The rustled sheets nipped at the tips of her hindhooves, but everything else lay out in the open, and she made no attempt to cover herself.

She had no clock on hoof, but she knew it had been dark for hours. Perhaps the entire night had nearly passed already; there were some fuller blues in the night sky outside now.

What could they want to talk about? Sunset thought. Why would they want me in Canterlot?

Sunset readjusted her rest against the pillow but found it no more comfortable than before.

Why… would they want both me and somepony who, before tonight, I’d never even met? Why us?

Sunset’s eyes drifted around the room, but she found nothing new. The intricately carved dresser remained standing on the opposite side of the room, the heavy wooden door sat snug inside its frame, and the window streamed the same amount of moonlight as it had the last few times she had looked.

And Sunset knew that after enough time had passed, she’d likely check everything once again to see if anything had changed.

What could they want to talk to us about?

Sunset heard a low, rhythmic thump from some direction below. It lasted for less than two seconds but even that was enough to capture her attention. It was a change, after all, but one she could not see. What was that? she thought, rolling over on her bed.

A few seconds of silence passed and then the rhythmic thump happened again. And then a third time. Sunset decided that it could not be a random happenstance.

She pinpointed its location, compared it to her mental map of the castle, and then focused energy into her horn. Sunset teleported out of the room and reappeared within the castle foyer.

She heard the same rhythm a fourth time, but now it bellowed louder and closer and with a certain wooden quality. She whirled around and determined the front door as the source of the sound.

She groaned. “Who in Equestria knocks on pony’s doors this early in the morning?” she thought aloud.

Strolling over to the doors, Sunset pulled them open with her magic. “Hello?” she asked. She then got a good look at the knocker and felt the air rush from her lungs.

The pony in the doorway towered over her in nearly every sense. Sunset had to crane her neck in order to meet her visitor’s gaze and, just for the slightest moment, she cowered in the doorway. Sunset lit her horn, creating a blue orb of light. The orb floated upward, illuminating the both of them. That revealed the visitor’s severity in full; the horn on top of her head, the wings at her sides (which currently lay underneath a saddlebag), and the soft yet harsh glare that would have pushed a lesser mare to the ground within moments. The small bags under the mare’s eyes contributed to that. Her silky hair, save the few unkempt knots here and there, flowed like a river that stopped just past her belly. She smelled of roses if said roses had wilted and could only offer traces of their former lush scent.

“Hello, little one,” the visitor spoke with a low and silvery voice. “I am looking for Twilight Sparkle. Is she here presently?”

Sunset swallowed, locking her legs in place. “She’s… not back from Canterlot yet.”

The alicorn’s expression remained unchanged. “Oh, I see. She was not here yesterday either, and I would really like to ask her a question.”

Sunset rubbed her eyes. “It’s… really early.”

The alicorn smiled. “Well, I thought it prudent to come over at the earliest opportunity. This hour is the one chance I have per day, and the sooner that I can have my question for her answered, the better.”

Sunset forced a grin onto her face. “Well, I’m sure she will be back soon. I-I could take a message if you want.”

“Ah, but it would be very singular and detailed. I cannot possibly trouble you with it. I will just have to come back tomorrow morning.”

“Adamantine!?” called a voice from high above. Starlight Glimmer peered down at the both of them from the balcony railing within the foyer.

Sunset gulped, looking between the unicorn up top and the alicorn in front of her, then back, and then forward again. She considered the visitor once more and straightened herself. So, this is Adamantine.

* * *

Sunset rubbed water out of her eyes and yawned before peering toward the morning sun. Her ears flipped backward on her head. “I forgot there were other things to get up this early for besides school,” she grumbled.

Starlight, who walked right beside her, chuckled before letting out her own yawn. “You’re telling me.”

On Starlight’s other side, Adamantine chuckled. “I rise this early every day, mostly because there is so much that I must do on any given day.”

“And today?”

Adamantine thought about it. “Today is… will be a slow day, if my calculations are correct.”

“Yes?”

Adamantine adjusted her saddlebags. “I’m looking at light grocery shopping this morning, and then I will return this afternoon to run mail for the post office.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “You work?”

“Yes. Odd jobs here and there—yesterday, I spent around ten hours working at the construction site northwest of here, if you would believe that.” She shrugged. “I must make my keep somehow.”

Sunset hummed and nodded in acknowledgment. As the three of them rounded the corner and Sugarcube Corner appeared in view, she smiled. As opposed to the day prior, very few ponies crossed their path, and those that did went quietly about their mornings. I guess it really is too early, huh?

“Here we are,” Adamantine said as they arrived in front of the bakery.

Sunset blinked. She looked Sugarcube Corner up and down with her brow raised in astonishment. “…Here?”

“Whenever I come to Ponyville,” Adamantine said with a twinkle in her eye, “I make it a point to start here.” She opened the door and trotted inside.

Starlight watched her go and then turned to Sunset. “I guess I should probably get something too since we’re here.”

Sunset rolled her eyes as the both of them followed Adamantine inside.

She caught a stronger flavor of the scent that yesterday had merely hinted at: creamy and wheaty, but now with a mix of vanilla and a powerful tinge of vinegar. And then she smelled the bold chocolate and the pungent aroma of a hot and steamy brew, both mixing into an awakening smell that made her feel like she had just woken up from a night spent with her friends.

Sunset took a deep whiff and then let that out with a satisfied sigh.

Adamantine, meanwhile, approached the counter where a mare stood fiddling with some items on the shelf next to her. “Good morning, Mrs. Cake.”

Mrs. Cake looked up and smiled. “Adamantine, good morning. How are you?”

“I am well. Tired, but well. And how are you?”

“Oh, you know how the twins are,” Mrs. Cake replied with a laugh. “Getting up this morning was a struggle, but here I am!”

Adamantine laughed in response. “I sympathize completely. Well, I am looking to have three cups of coffee this morning, please.”

Mrs. Cake nodded and rang it up, prompting Adamantine to fish some bits out of her saddlebag. Mrs. Cake slid three filled cups of liquid bread onto the counter. Adamantine took them all into her red magical aura. With that, Adamantine skipped back in Sunset and Starlight’s direction. Starlight, busy browsing the displays, didn’t even look over.

Sunset beamed at the three steaming cups of coffee. “Oh! Oh! You bought coffee. That was nice,” she said and reached up toward one of them.

Adamantine frowned and tugged the cups away. “I’m sorry?”

“Oh, I…” Sunset quivered, “thought you were buying?”

“No,” Adamantine replied with a nervous laugh. “This is all for me.”

Sunset stared at the cups of coffee floating above Adamantine’s head and refused to break her gaze even as the alicorn brought one down and took a long and purposeful sip.

Starlight trotted back over at that moment, and after taking stock of Sunset’s expression, met glances with Adamantine. “Coffee? Again?”

Adamantine nodded. “I must have it. I don’t really know what is in this concoction, but I am glad that I discovered it. It is the grace of goddesses.”

Starlight looked above at the cups of coffee. “Only three?”

“Yes.”

“…Well then, you were right,” Starlight said, giggling. “Today is a slow day.”

Sunset glanced furtively between the two of them. She settled on Adamantine with a dumbstruck mouth-wide-open frown. “How are you alive!?”

Adamantine, busy taking a sip, shook one of the other full cups while wearing a wry smile on her muzzle.

With another laugh, Starlight laid her hoof across Sunset’s withers once more. “Trust me, she has gotten pretty famous around here for her coffee habits. Come on, why don’t I get us some?”

Sunset smiled and watched as Starlight ordered a cup for the each of them. With the ding of the register and the gurgle as the cups filled, the two took their respective cups in their magical grips and trotted out the door.

Adamantine took another sip of her coffee, found her first cup empty, crumpled it up and stashed it in her saddlebag, and then let her eyes wander over the scenery. “I like Ponyville in the morning. It’s always a peaceful place,” she said before starting on her second cup.

“Well,” Sunset began, “that’s good to hear. I never really get to see Ponyville.”

“Ah, then you must sometime. I particularly enjoy these quieter hours. It gives me ample time to think. Mind you, I don’t mind having a conversation here and there, though.”

Sunset stepped forward. “Well, then maybe you won’t mind if Starlight and I tag along? We have nothing to do before taking the train to Canterlot this afternoon.”

“That’s true,” Starlight agreed.

Adamantine smiled. “I suppose not. In fact, you could probably help me get through my grocery list for tomorrow too. I think that sounds fair, hmmm?”

Both unicorns smiled. “It’s a deal!”

* * *

“You are absolutely certain that it goes to another world?” Princess Celestia asked at length.

“Yes,” Twilight Sparkle replied.

Celestia nodded and pensively paced around the room, though even then she appeared to glide like she normally did. She remained quiet and thoughtful, her perpetually flowing mane her only other sign of movement. “I see,” she muttered.

Twilight exchanged concerned glances with her five best friends, each of whom also sat around the table.

“You may still want to check the portal at Neighagra Falls,” Celestia began, “but other than that, I do not think it would be wise to enter any more of those portals until we can further understand why they are there.” The princess stopped in front of a bookshelf, running her eyes down some of the bindings. She turned to face them, “Likewise, given the apparent nature of what lies on the other side, we should not let anything through to our side either.”

Twilight nodded. “I agree, Princess.”

“Which is why I have ordered guards posted at all known sites. Nothing is going in or out of those portals.”

Rarity let out a relieved sigh. “I am so glad to hear that, Princess. I really wouldn’t want to jump into all of that until we know what’s going on with those. ...I’m still struggling with the prospect that those places even exist.”

“Yeah! Totally!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, slamming a hoof against the table. “Because you would think it wouldn’t exist because Twilight and Starlight rewrote the past so that it never happened.”

Applejack pressed her hat further onto her head. “Now hold on here a sec,” she began, glancing between all of them. “Wasn’t it that time was fixed and all that?”

“Yes,” Twilight replied. “We had to make an amendment to that because of Starlight. Because of what very definitely happened.”

“And then this happens,” Applejack said.

Rainbow Dash shook her head, sitting up in her seat. “But how do we know it’s really the same one? I mean, it could be just a random version, right?”

Twilight groaned and let her head fall against the table. “No, it’s definitely the one. I found the Map.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow.

“Starlight’s modified time travel spell would always bring us back to the present after a short period of time,” Twilight explained. “And whenever Spike and I arrived back in the present, whichever present that was, I always appeared on the Map from the castle. Because… Starlight used the Map to anchor the spell. The existence of the Map was the one constant out of all the alternate worlds that I visited.

“I had to be sure,” Twilight continued. “So, when I sent everypony back here, I flew back out. It took me some time to find it, about an hour or so, but it was there. I found the Map. It’s the same Equestria I said it was.”

Rainbow Dash groaned and banged her head against the table.

“This is gettin’ weird!” Applejack exclaimed.

Celestia felt the urge to exit the room and do something very un-regal. She felt a twisted feeling within the pit of her stomach. “To think,” she half-croaked, “there is a world out there… where I am banished to the moon.”

“And where I am still under that terrible influence,” said Luna, breaking from her position at the window. While not as tall as Celestia, Luna stood just as proud, if not prouder. “I shudder to think of what those ponies on the other side have had to deal with.”

The other seven regarded Luna with sorrowful frowns and some disgusted shakes of their heads. She has not taken this so well either, Celestia thought. In fact, my fate is not nearly as bad…

Twilight nodded solemnly. “Yes… To think… that is where we might have been if things had gone differently here.” She then let off a smile. “It makes me that much happier that I met all of you.”

At that, the entire room shared much-needed chuckles.

Celestia placed a hoof to her chin in thought. But there is still the issue of the existence of this reality. This horrible, wrong reality. If it exists concurrently with this one, and did not, in fact, cease to exist, then…

“I may not be as knowledgeable on the subject of time as all of you might be,” Celestia said, trotting up to the table, “but this revelation that this world still exists, suggests a new answer.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Huh? Yeah? Whaddya got?”

She glued her eyes to the center of the table as she gave it further thought. “I do believe your first assumption, that time is immutable, is not necessarily disproven. What may have happened with Starlight Glimmer’s altered time spell was that it took you from our timeline and into another, where your interference in the past was set in stone.”

Twilight blinked, as did the rest of the mares at the table. Even Luna, who hung at the edge of the group, regarded Celestia with a raised eyebrow.

Celestia smiled. “If you think of existence as a tree, a tree containing many worlds, where each branch is a different timeline, perhaps that might make my meaning a little clearer?”

Twilight gasped. “Yggdrasil!” she cried.

Celestia chuckled. “That is correct, Twilight. You did not change the tree. Merely… where you were on that tree.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, yes! That seems reasonable to me.”

“Ah like thinkin’ ’bout this whole thing as a tree. Trees are good,” Applejack chuckled. “Although that kinda makes me wonder where the trunk is.”

Celestia shrugged. “It is only a theory.”

Luna regarded the rest of them with a scrutinizing look, and then drifted away from the table entirely as she delved into her own pensive pacing.

“Okay, wait a minute.” Rainbow Dash furrowed her brow and tapped a hoof against the table. “I just had a thought. If Twilight kept jumping to other branches… then… what if…” She gasped. “Woah! What if we’re a timeline that looks like the one that Twilight left, but isn’t actually the same one?”

Twilight giggled after a few moments. “Maybe. If I’m not the same, there still wouldn’t be a problem. If I left mine, then another me took my place.” She nodded from side to side. “But… honestly, I don’t think that’s the case, Rainbow Dash. Pretty sure this is the same one that I left.”

Luna shook her head and snorted. “While I am glad to hear that much, I do believe you are missing the big picture.”

Celestia forced a smile onto her face. “Yes, Luna?”

“If what you say is true and this world on the other side of the portal is that alternate timeline which came to be through Starlight Glimmer’s actions,” Luna said as she circled the table, “then that world very definitely still exists, despite the fact that you have arrived back here.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me Luna, but I don’t quite see—”

“Twilight,” Luna interrupted, narrowing her eyes, “you must extend that logic to all of the alternate timelines that you visited.”

Five of the mares at the table gasped. Twilight, on the other hoof, jumped out of her seat with an exasperated frown. Celestia quivered for the briefest of moments and narrowed her eyes in response.

Luna shook her head. “And at this very moment, judging by the existence of all of those portals around the country… All of those awful worlds are, shall we say, knocking at our door as we speak.”

Celestia turned and walked to the window in order to peer out toward the greater Equestria beyond. She imagined all the portals out there. All the portals that she told us about, Celestia thought. And Luna’s logic is sound… This is far worse than we originally thought.

* * *

“That will be seventy-two bits, please,” the vendor said.

Adamantine nodded, and with her magic, she plucked several bits of sizable denomination out of her saddlebag and set them down on the vendor’s stand. The two exchanged nods before she took her prize: a baleful of basil larger than her entire saddlebag, and she trotted back toward the central causeway.

Sunset chuckled. “You don’t mess around, do you?”

“Well, it is something that I absolutely need, so I would hope not,” Adamantine replied.

“Much like coffee,” Starlight quipped.

Adamantine considered it, and then she shrugged. “Certainly.” She pointed up toward several other bags held in the air with Sunset’s magic. “I’ll take those.”

Sunset and Starlight looked at the several equally sized portions of other herbs and ingredients and nodded, yielding as Adamantine wrapped her own magical aura around them.

As the three of them continued down the street, Sunset thought about the basil Adamantine floated beside her. She eyed it for several moments but then shelved the accompanying thought for later.

After regarding the remaining shops on the block, giving each less attention than the next, Adamantine finally swerved toward an open patch of grass and took a seat to take stock of her belongings.

Starlight, meanwhile, collapsed onto the grass next to her and moaned as she stretched her muscles. Her legs especially shook as she flexed them. “Four hours,” she groaned.

“Adamantine doesn’t mess around,” Sunset replied, taking a seat.

Adamantine chuckled before gingerly laying all her groceries in a neat pile and lay down herself on the grass with a heavy sigh.

“Either way,” Sunset said, “that was fun. We managed to kill most of the morning.”

Starlight groaned. “Yes, we did. And I’m beat.”

Sunset grinned. “You should talk. You barely carried the bags at all!” she quipped. “Except for the coffee, I have no idea how Adamantine is still awake.”

Adamantine rolled her eyes and yawned. She then shook herself and began rummaging through her saddlebag, grumbling under her breath about more coffee.

Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “She’s an alicorn! She has an excuse!”

“Now now, there’s no reason to act like foals,” Adamantine said as she continued fishing around. “It is a taxing endeavor and the both of you were very helpful. Ah,” she said as she pulled something out, “here we are.”

Sunset regarded the small, shiny metal object with a raised eyebrow. “A harmonica?”

Adamantine nodded. “Indeed it is. I like to play whenever I get the chance. It helps me take my mind off things. Especially since I will probably not get another break until later today—or tonight, even.” She glanced between the two. “Would either of you ostensibly object if I just played for a minute or two?”

Sunset nodded. “Sure. Why not?”

Starlight also rolled over and kicked her hooves back, ready to lose herself in a simple tune.

“Well, let’s see what I can do, then…” Adamantine looked at the instrument in her hooves, mulled it over, and then pressed it to her muzzle.

The buzzy tune that emerged rang through the streets of Ponyville. As pony after pony trotted about, basking in the sunlight of a warm and cloudless day, where not a single blade of grass was out of place, the wind carried Adamantine’s song outward and onward. The tune accentuated the smiles on everypony’s faces.

And Adamantine stayed there. Her performance remained long, sweeping, and mellow, much like the calm town around her. Each sustained note, strung together in a vibrant and hopeful song, washed over her audience of two. Sunset swayed with the beat, a thoughtful smile on her face.

But when it came down to it, Sunset could hear the subtle strain in each note. The more she listened, the more she found something underneath the simple buzzes and pauses.

Sunset looked at the alicorn before her. Adamantine appeared lost within her own music, like the very thing she played spoke to her. Her song was a voice from far within. But then Sunset noticed again the eternal bags under Adamantine’s eyes, the lack of colors that should have been in her face, and the mess that was her mane.

Sunset thought of one word that could describe all of it, from Adamantine herself to the song she played: exhausted. The coffee suddenly made more sense.

But… why? Sunset wondered.

The rest of the song played out and Adamantine rode along with it just as much as they did, carried by her own tune. The two listened in silence up until the final long note, and said nothing even as it faded, just like the song itself, into memory.

With a sigh, Adamantine woke from her hypnosis and regarded the harmonica in her hooves with the smallest adoring grin.

“Huh,” Starlight began, sitting up, “that was… good. That was pretty good.”

Adamantine smiled. “Thank you, Starlight.”

Sunset hummed in agreement, clapping her hooves together a few times in applause.

Adamantine sighed again with an even wider smile before she laid her head down to rest. “I wish I could play it more often,” she murmured. “But this was nice.”

Sunset ran her eyes over the groceries. She examined the large bags containing large quantities. Everything was in bulk. In fact, Adamantine had sold out several stalls with her purchases.

“Adamantine?” she asked.

“Yes?”

“I… know that Starlight and I have to go to the train station soon, but since we have some time…” she said, scratching the back of her head, “I’d like to ask you something that, really… has been on my mind all morning.”

Adamantine cleared her throat and sat up. “Go ahead, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset pointed toward the pile. “I mean, this is an awful lot of stuff. And I’m guessing this all’s for something. Right? So then, what’s it all for?”

Adamantine regarded her groceries with a quick aside glance. “Ah… yes. You see, all of these are ingredients for a recipe.”

“Yeah?” Starlight said.

“What for?” Sunset asked.

Tapping her hooves together, Adamantine blushed. “Well, actually, it’s an original recipe. I call it unstew.”

“Oh, so it’s food.”

Adamantine mulled it over with an uncertain frown. “Well, in a way, yes. But… you don’t really eat it in the normal sense.”

Sunset tilted her head. “You don’t?”

“No. It… is meant to be consumed in vapor form. I… do not think you would enjoy it all that much, actually.”

Starlight snorted. “You don’t say. That approach seems very… inefficient.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sunset scoffed. “Why not just eat something, you know, whole?”

The smile faded from Adamantine’s face and she, in turn, tapped out a thoughtful rhythm against the grass. “I suppose I can tell you this much for the morning you have shown me.”

Both unicorns straightened up in response, regarding her through cocked eyebrows and contemplative frowns.

“This stew is not for me. I have… as you would say, ‘mouths to feed’. And they are very particular about what they can and can’t eat. And the stew is… adequate.”

Sunset stroked her chin in thought. “Isn’t there anything better than that, though?”

Adamantine snorted in response. “There was. But it suddenly disappeared some time ago.” She shook her head, “But we get by. …Barely, but we do.”

Sunset shot to her hooves, a determined look on her face. “Well, maybe… maybe we can help you find it.”

Starlight stood up, equally firm in her stance. “Yes, we could.”

Adamantine frowned and dug her hoof through the dirt. “No.”

“Oh, come on.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “Why not?”

At that, Adamantine leaned forward. “Sunset…” she growled, nearly pressing her face to Sunset’s. “I suppose I can forgive you since we have only just met, but that sort of thing... is not something I should speak of. While I want to make it clear that the offer is much appreciated, letting you get involved would require opening a can of worms that has been closed for a very long time.”

She levitated her mountain of groceries into the air. “And it… is in both our interests if it stays that way.”

With a dejected hang of her head, Sunset sighed. “Okay… I’m sorry.”

Starlight, meanwhile, rolled her eyes.

Adamantine smiled and reached up, lifting Sunset by the chin. “Don’t be. As I said, we get by. So don’t worry. Alright?”

As Sunset looked into Adamantine’s clear and shining eyes, she wondered if it could be true. If it really was okay. Maybe what Adamantine had was indeed adequate. Plus, she thought, when it comes down to it, I’m probably going back home tonight, anyway. If there really is some sort of problem with this… Chances are I am not needed nor will I be around to help anyway.

Sunset nodded. “Okay, alright.”

Adamantine surrounded herself with her keep. “I’m glad. Well then… I must get going now. Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer… Thank you for the morning.” She smiled. “Good luck in Canterlot.”

Sunset gave a token wave in response. She managed to defeat part of her frown, but only partly.

With that. Adamantine focused more power into her horn and it grew brighter and brighter, and then with a crack, both she and her spoils disappeared in a white-hot flash of sparks.

Starlight and Sunset remained for many moments, staring at the spot where Adamantine had teleported away.

* * *

Every once in a while, Starlight stole a glance at Sunset who sat in the opposite seat, but she otherwise stared out the window just like Sunset did. The scenery rolled by in time with the click-clack of the train cars as they rumbled along the track. The car occasionally shook as it hit a small bump, but she paid that no mind.

“You’re worried about it, aren’t you?” Starlight asked.

Sunset nodded. “I am, yeah. It all just seems… off.”

Starlight snorted and nestled herself further into the seat. “Yeah.”

Sunset glanced up, pursing her lips all the while. “Do you believe her? When she says it’s okay?”

“…No. Not really,” Starlight replied at length. “But… she’s saying the same sort of thing that she’s said when she first appeared in Ponyville. So I don’t think too much about it either.”

Sunset sighed and laid her head against the window. “I guess.”

Actually, Starlight thought, I think she might have said more than she usually does. Or, at least, it seemed that way…

She shrugged to herself. I’m probably imagining things. She cleared her throat. “Either way, it’s a quick stop in Canterlot, probably, and then you can go home. Right?”

“Yeah.”

* * *

As the guards escorted them through the castle halls, Starlight ran her eyes over every niche and crevice of the tall passageways through which they traveled.

Sunset looked absorbed in some thought with the way she plastered her eyes toward the floor.

Meeting with the princess, Starlight thought. She swallowed. This is going to be something… I just wish I knew what we were walking into. And why they’re leading us this whole way…

The pack rounded another corner and stopped in front of a large and ornate door. But as they approached, one of the guards that stood watch over those doors slid inward and opened it for them.

Celestia’s room welcomed them with open hooves. The unlit fireplace blended in with the night sky that patterned the walls. A lonely figure stood in the middle of it all.

“…Princess Luna?” Sunset started, a confused expression across her face.

Luna smiled and trotted over to them. “Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, it is good to see you again.”

Starlight nodded. “You too, Princess.”

“You have come earlier than I expected.” Luna smiled and then nodded. “Before we get to why you have been summoned you here, there has been… a recent development that I would like to tell you about. Sunset,” she said, gliding over toward Celestia’s desk, “I think you may find it of some interest.”

Sunset nodded. “Yes?”

“Quite a bit has happened since you last came here and… so valiantly fought to save Twilight’s life,” Luna began. “We have kept nearly all of the effects here at the castle. The machine you built, for example, we had moved someplace where we could preserve it. We also have Twilight’s farewell letter… somewhere. It escapes me where we put it right now.”

She placed her hoof on the corner of the desk. “And in case of The Answer, we have made a few copies. The grand master is locked away in a vault, of course, and we made copies for Twilight Sparkle, my sister, and a few various copies to scholars all across Equestria.”

Sunset blushed. “Oh… I see.”

“I must say, it is quite the spell. If I had the time, I too would like to study it,” Luna said with a smile.

“Well… heh…”

Luna’s smile faded. “But about four days ago,” she said, rubbing the empty corner, “somepony appeared in this very room and took my sister’s copy of The Answer.”

Sunset frowned. “…They took it? Why?”

“That’s a good question,” Luna replied. “Even ignoring the fact they managed to get into this room undetected, it’s curious as to what they would want it for.” She banged a hoof against the table and said, “But that is a matter for another time. I just thought you would like to know.”

Sunset scratched the back of her head. “Well, thanks, Princess.”

“Now, as to the reason that you have been summoned here this afternoon,” Luna said, opening a drawer and levitating out two shining slips of paper. “I have… received some very particular instruction… that I should give you these.”

Starlight received them and looked them up and down, her frown deepening as she took in each line. “Uhm… these are train tickets. To Ponyville.”

“Yes, indeed it is.”

She blinked and then stared Luna down. “…And what are we supposed to do with these?”

Luna shrugged. “Well, they did not say. I suppose you could use them to take the train home.”

Sunset stared daggers into her ticket and then turned her silent wrath toward the alicorn before them. And then she snorted. “So… basically… I got brought all the way here from the human world, had to miss school and everything, just for you to send me back home!?”

“That is how it would appear, but...” Luna replied, before turning around to look at other parts of the room.

A blood vessel in Starlight’s head felt like it would burst. She shook her head. “You have to excuse me, Princess, but… are you out of your bucking mind!?”

Sunset stamped a hoof against the floor. “Yeah, what the hay!?”

Luna whirled around, her wings flared to their fullest and her eyes ablaze. “Still thy tongues this instant!” she bellowed. “Thou may be students of Twilight Sparkle but let me remind you that you stand before royalty! I will not be spoken to in that manner!”

Both unicorns flinched under Luna’s glory, but their agitated expressions refused to disappear.

“I know this does not sound ideal. My sister meant to tell you much more about this than I, but she has left the castle to attend to some business in the mountains. So, I am who you get.”

“Well,” Sunset seethed, “is there anything else?”

Luna frowned. “…Yes. And that is another thing; you did not give me much chance to finish. I have...” she trailed off as she stalked around the room. “Wait right here, I must check the other room,” she said before she disappeared through a doorway on the side.

Starlight snorted. “Well, this is really great. I feel like we came here for nothing.”

“This is a load of bull,” Sunset muttered, practically billowing smoke from her nostrils.

The two of them heard several clicks as several objects within the next room shifted. And then it all stopped, punctuated by an, “Aha! I hath found it!”

At that, Luna reemerged with a new object in her magical grasp. “I wanted to have this ready for you but, again, you were early. Plus, she did not tell me that she had moved it,” she explained. “I suppose she did so in light of the break-in.”

Starlight glanced up to take a good look at the object in question. A ball, made of brilliant crystal, sparkled in the light of the room. But on closer inspection, she could make out an image contained within: the very room that they presently stood in but, oddly enough, from an entirely different view than what it should have displayed. Moreover, as Starlight took it in, she noted the spot where they should have been standing but found that spot empty with no hints anypony was there at all.

She shook her head. “That’s it?” she asked, feeling a bit of her blood begin to boil again.

“This was what Celestia was instructed to give to you,” Luna replied. “Of course, I do it in her stead, but…”

“Well,” Starlight replied, “that’s wonderful. That’s truly wonderful. Like, I mean… It’s just a crystal ball, nothing really—”

“O-oh,” Sunset stammered.

Starlight blinked and looked at her friend.

Sunset appeared as white as a sheet, her gaze transfixed on the object in Luna’s grasp. She blinked several times as the object, and then the ramifications of that object, registered. “Somepony… instructed Celestia… to give that to us?”

“That is correct,” Luna said with a nod.

Sunset regarded the crystal ball for several more moments, rubbing a hoof across her face as she stared into it. And then she flared her horn and wrapped her own magical aura around it. “…I see. We’ll… we’ll take it then.”

What in the world is with her now? Starlight mentally asked.

Luna yielded. “I suppose you’ll find the meaning of all of this soon enough,” she suggested. “For now, that is all that I have for you.”

Sunset nodded, drawing close to Starlight. “Thank you… Princess. We’ll be heading out now.” And with that, she hung a leg around Starlight’s withers and led her out of the room.

And just before they left, Starlight looked at the tickets floating before them and then back to Princess Luna who watched as they walked away. And as they crossed the threshold, Luna’s piercing frown refused to let up. It was then that Starlight found a nameless dread in the pit of her stomach.