• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,318 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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4 - Consequences

Princess Celestia dabbed the last bits of powder onto her face and then closed the lid. She set the tin container down to the side of the mirror, glanced at herself, adjusted the container’s placement, and then returned to her gaze.

The sun would set soon, and that normally meant an end to another good day. But now, with her mane combed and her coat cleaned, she looked refreshed. She sparkled in the mirror, and for a moment, Celestia smiled.

She stood there for several minutes, staring down the figure within who, in turn, stared back at her. She saw a princess who was regal, majestic, and eager to lead and serve her subjects. And yet, even though Celestia knew that image as herself, what she saw was somehow an enigma.

It had to be the butterflies in her stomach. Bureaucratic hoops and insufferable nobles were one thing that she knew she could do well. But this… she thought, I really hope I do not mess this up.

Her ear twitched when she heard a rapping at the door. “Come in,” she called.

Princess Luna squeezed through the doorway, closing it back shut behind her. “Sister,” she said.

“Sister.”

“I take it that you are preparing to go out?”

“Yes, I am.”

Luna trotted over and joined her sister in silently critiquing Celestia’s reflection, making sure that everything was in place. “You look like you are ready.”

“I should hope so,” Celestia sighed, “because, somehow, I do not feel ready.”

Luna raised an eyebrow, fixed a misplaced strand in Celestia’s mane, and then looked at her sister in earnest. “You’re nervous.”

“I am, a little,” Celestia replied, shaking her head. “I have known about this event for nine days now and now I must fulfill my duty. I am glad to do it, but I… do not want to let them down.”

“Let them down? Whyever would you be afraid about that?”

Celestia twisted within her golden shoes, eyeing her crown as it hung on the stand. She thought of the pony standing before her, she thought of Chrysalis, and she thought of Twilight Sparkle. She thought of Sunset Shimmer. Her face turned red and she said, “I have my share of failures…”

“You will be with two of the most capable unicorns that there are,” Luna replied. “They are Twilight Sparkle’s students, after all.”

Celestia chuckled. “I suppose they are.”

Luna lit her horn and lifted Celestia’s crown from its stand and gingerly placed it on Celestia’s head, adjusting it so that it would remain in place. Celestia remained still as Luna worked, abstaining from even the slightest glance to make sure it was done right.

“Besides,” Luna continued, “it is but a train, and your enemies will be but few. And you are more than capable of handling all of that. I have faith in you, Sister.”

Celestia chuckled. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Luna. I suppose, then, I should be off.” She strolled over and unlatched the window, letting a cool breeze into the room. She drew her eyes toward her setting sun and she took a moment to relish the atmosphere.

“But still,” Luna said, approaching behind her, “do be careful. You are my only sister and I do not know what I would do if I lost you.”

Celestia grinned. She turned and wordlessly wrapped her forelegs around Luna, and Luna, in turn, hugged back. They remained silent in their embrace for what seemed like hours, but they eventually broke apart.

“I will see you later tonight, Sister,” Celestia said.

Luna nodded and smirked. “Go get them. Smite them with thy power!”

Celestia roared with laughter as she sauntered back toward the window and then out onto the balcony. With one last look, and one last confident grin on her face, Celestia flapped her wings and took to the sky.


I didn’t know that there were any rooms in the castle that were this… damp, Sunset Shimmer thought. She ran her eyes across the floor, if solid earth could be called that. Between the decayed wooden trusses and the rusted nuts and bolts holding those together (and even then, they cracked and buckled under their own weight), as well as the eternal puddles dotting the ground, she felt like she had stepped into a mining operation of sorts.

Part of her wished that they would have a constant dripping sound to go along with it. Instead, they had to settle for the low hum of poor, stagnant ventilation.

Even Princess Celestia tugged at her regalia for some air.

The bars lining the cells looked no better, with some bars collapsed altogether. The guards held a magical aura around the steel, standing at attention on the opposite walls. Sunset figured that if anything tried to break through the cells, it would be the guard’s magic that would stop them as opposed to the bars themselves.

She had no idea this area of the castle even existed. Judging from the lack of furniture and light fixtures, everypony else had simply forgotten.

And so she stared into one of the cells. She made out the faint outlines of this cell’s occupants; the five unponies inside, with coats blacker than the night itself, huddled against the back wall. The abysmal lighting offered them a great deal of camouflage, and Sunset supposed that she could only see them now because she was looking for them specifically.

After all, they hadn’t said a word since the guards brought them off the train and rounded up the ones working the tracks; not even to each other. They just sat there in utter quiet. And that prompted a knot to form in Sunset’s throat.

Just what are they thinking? she thought.

A wooden door at the end of the tunnel-hallway creaked open and a mare stepped in, levitating a crystal ball behind her. Starlight Glimmer rubbed her eyes and placed a hoof on the doorway to steady herself. “They’re here,” she announced.

Celestia let out a breath she hadn’t known she had been holding. “Very good. Sunset, what do you say we go up to meet them?”

Sunset twitched, considering it. “…Yeah, let’s go.”

At that, the three of them exited the tunnel and wound their way up a spiral staircase. Several torches, all with fresh kindling, lit the steps with an orangish glow. The stair wrapped and wrapped and Sunset had no idea how far below the main castle the dungeons lay, but they were far enough to give the staircase an endless quality to it.

They reached their landing soon enough. Glossy checkerboard tiles and polished stone walls welcomed them, and the lighting from simple chandeliers hanging off a low and equally plain ceiling took a hold of them and led them further in. It was still abysmally small by castle standards, but unlike the catacombs that they had just trudged up from, Sunset found no reason for complaint. And it smelled nice.

The double doors at the end of the room, just as uninteresting as the rest of the room, parted, and six mares stepped through.

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight Sparkle cried before pausing in the doorway. She blinked. And then she blinked some more. “Sunset Shimmer?”

The others bunched up behind her, pushing Twilight into the room in their efforts to see.

Sunset waved. “Hey.”

A flurry of gasps escaped them first. And then, “Sunset!” they cried in unison. They surged forward, scooping her into a tight embrace among several greetings and giggles. The pile rolled over, and then the seven tumbled onto the floor which only served to fuel their laughter.

Starlight watched from the side, snickering. Celestia, on the other hoof, beamed.

Finally, Twilight stood up. “It’s good to see you! What brings you here?”

Sunset playfully pushed Pinkie Pie off and then stood up herself. “Actually, it’s a bit of a long story.”

“I should probably cut to the chase,” the crystal ball said, “and say I brought her here.”

The new arrivals went silent, standing up if they had not already. And then they, including Pinkie Pie, froze in place.

Rainbow Dash, her eyebrow raised as high as Cloudsdale, said it first: “Twilight? Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Twilight tapped against the floor, the sound of which echoed several times over. “What? No way.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. Twilight really helped us out on that train,” she said.

Rarity shook her head. “Wait a moment, darling. You’re… Twilight from the future?”

“That is correct,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Pinkie Pie climbed onto Fluttershy and glared at them from her perch. “Wait a darn second! What’s this I hear about a train?”

Sunset frowned. “They didn’t tell you?”

“Nope, just that there was a thing that happened and there was some fighting and then all the ponies that did the thing or whatever the thing was were down here and that you were waiting for us down here,” Pinkie Pie said.

Starlight stared back with a glazed expression. “Um… yes, Pinkie Pie. That.”

Sunset had to bite her hoof in order to suppress a giggle.

“That would be right,” Twilight’s voice said. “They attempted to hijack the train Sunset and Starlight were on and take it through the portal. As in, the one that you investigated yesterday, girls.”

“Really!?” Twilight cried.

“Yes, really. They are trying to collect ponies. Thankfully, though, we managed to stop them before they got there. It was quite a challenge!”

“Yeah,” Sunset giggled. “But hey, I’ll take it.”

“And now we have them all locked up downstairs,” Starlight added, pointing toward the staircase.

Fluttershy surged forward. “Oh, goodness. You weren’t hurt, were you?” she asked, running her eyes up and down Sunset’s body. “I mean, if you were, um, fighting on a train, that is.”

Sunset frowned. “I’m fine, Fluttershy. Starlight’s fine.”

Fluttershy looked up through pleading eyes. “Are you sure?”

“…Really. We’re fine.”

“Okay, okay, hold on a moment,” Twilight interjected, knocking her own skull. “Why are they collecting ponies? And why would they want to take them over there?”

Celestia glanced upward, fixing her gaze on some invisible spot on the ceiling. “Yes, Twilight, I think now might be a good time to give some explanations.”

The rest of them looked up as well.

“I would like to… but I can’t exactly do that,” Twilight’s voice replied.

“And why the hay not?” Applejack replied, her gaze turning into a glare.

“It’s a bit complicated, but the simple version is that I didn’t tell you anything about that at this moment in my past. I hope that makes sense.”

Applejack adjusted her stetson. “Sorta.”

Sunset groaned. “Because it would cause the worlds to diverge. Right.”

“And again,” Twilight’s voice continued, “I’m not really sure what I’m doing either. I have a specific goal in mind, but getting there is… um, fuzzy.”

“And your goal is…?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“I’m… trying to prevent something,” the crystal ball replied after a few moments of silence. “Something that’s already happened here.”

The nine of them shuddered and shared uncertain glances.

“Something that has already happened?” Rarity echoed.

“…Yes.”

“Um, Twilight,” Sunset began, “I hate to break it to you, but… if you’re trying to prevent something, then aren’t you going to have to do something at some point?”

“Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied, “and I’ll lose all of my advantages when I do that. So I have to tread lightly and wait for the right time. ...I just don’t know when that is yet.”

After a moment’s consideration, which included gauging each other’s expressions (most nodded and the others remained silent), Sunset shrugged. “Fine then. What should we do in the meantime?”

Twilight muttered something under her breath and then shook her head. “Okay then. Just for now, maybe we should start by talking to those ponies that you caught.”

“I have no objections,” Twilight’s voice said.

The others let out a series of “Uh-huhs”s in response.

The nine of them turned and filed into the stairwell. As they wound down and down, the air grew colder and wetter. With every step, Sunset’s frown deepened, but she found it curbed because her friends were with her.

The nine stepped into the tunnel, and then the new arrivals advanced forward, peering into the various cells. Where Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were the extremes—Pinkie Pie pressing herself against the bars and Fluttershy staying as far back as she could—the others stood just out of reach.

“Careful, Pinkie,” Twilight warned.

The ponies within the cells shifted, causing the ponies outside to shift in kind. Several shadows against the darkest walls stood up in succession. And then they slowly, cautiously, with their expressions transfixed and awestruck, stumbled toward the light. They watched Twilight closely, uncomprehending.

“I hope you are in the mood for talking,” Twilight said, her voice gruff and commanding.

One of the unponies pressed up against the cell bars, regarding her with a glazed shock. The stallion swallowed once, twice, and then opened his muzzle to speak. “Your name… is Twilight Sparkle. Is that correct?”

“Yes, I am Twilight Sparkle,” she replied.

The unpony shuddered. “Then… you do exist.”

Everypony shared confused glances. Twilight spoke for them: “I… exist? I’m sorry?”

“We didn’t think you were real but… this…”

Sunset glanced into the other cells. Twenty-five unponies glanced back out. Those in other cells pressed against the metal bars, watching silently with unwavering attention.

“If you are Twilight Sparkle… then that confirms it.” He turned, his gaze drifting until they found new targets. There, his darker-than-dark coat managed to pale. “That would make you… Starlight Glimmer… of that town near the mountains, and you… are Sunset Shimmer… from the other world.”

A flurry of silent gasps rose up in unison. Even Pinkie Pie, who had before buzzed with energy, stiffened on the spot. Rainbow Dash ruffled her wings and Rarity held her breath. Princess Celestia stood over them, now glaring daggers.

Starlight stumbled forward. “You know who we are?”

Sunset approached the bars with a sinister scowl. “How do you know that!?”

If the unpony had not appeared vacant before, he seemed lost then. He returned to Twilight. “All of us know that, but… We do not know why we know that…”

Twilight snorted. “You don’t know why?”

“No. And I trust… from that… You don’t know either.” He grimly shook his head. “I am disappointed.”

Celestia approached the cell, towering over the ponies within. While she remained calm and collected, the unpony at the bars still cowered beneath her.

After glancing at the mares behind her, Twilight shook her head. “Who are you, exactly? And why did you try to take those ponies through the portal?”

At that, the stallion glanced toward his companions behind him who all, in turn, met his gaze. They nodded and he nodded back. The unpony swallowed and then stood to his full height. “We would like to speak; to tell all,” he said. And then his frown grew deeper and he added, “But not with you.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, dragging a hoof through the dirt. “Well, okay. If not us… then who exactly would you like to talk to?”

The stallion met her square in the eyes. “Our Queen,” he said. “We wish to speak to Queen Adamantine.”

* * *

Starlight’s pacing ground to a halt when the door opened once again and several ponies stepped into the room. Twilight appeared beside her, and together the two watched their friends file back in. And then Celestia appeared, with Luna behind her, both followed closely by a few guards.

And then Adamantine strode through the doorway. She held herself high, and where yesterday her mane had been somewhat tangled, it now lay straight and shined against the torchlight. Several disposable cups, filled with steaming coffee, trailed within a red aura behind her, save one which floated close to her muzzle.

Somehow, sans a crown, she looked like an actual queen. If… what they say is true, Starlight mentally added.

But, on looking into one of the cells, Adamantine lost her grip on her cups and the coffee splashed against the ground. She rushed toward the cell and the unponies, in turn, stood up and rushed toward her.

“Queen Mom!” one of them said, saluting.

“…Basalt!?” Adamantine cried, running right into the bars. “What is the meaning of this!?”

“It’s complicated,” Basalt replied as he ruffled his wings.

“What… what is this!? How did you get here!?”

“It’s complicated.”

“By The Great Benefactor’s graces, Basalt!” she cried again, tracing her gaze across the others within the cell to those in the other cells. “I am glad you are okay, but… how long have you been out?”

“We last fed at midday yesterday,” he croaked.

Adamantine shook her head. “That’s dangerous,” she said, her voice sharp and reprimanding.

Another unpony in an adjacent cell, this one of the earth variety, cleared her throat. “Queen Mom, we can explain…”

Adamantine whirled around and thundered up to the other cell, giving the mare a once-over. “I should very much hope so, Gabbro… because I come here, hearing that a few of you have tried to do something to a train full of innocent ponies…” She stamped the dirt, leaving a sizeable hoofprint. “Do you realize how much you’ve jeopardized us!?”

“Before we answer that…” Gabbro began, dragging her hoof down the metal, “does… The Great Benefactor exist over here?”

At that, Adamantine glanced through the other cells. “Does… No. Of course not. The Great Benefactor does not exist. It hasn’t. We’ve been over this!”

Gabbro frowned, slumping her head against the metal. “…Darn it all. We did not think so.”

Adamantine shook her head. “What… are… you… getting at!?”

Basalt cleared his throat. “We are merely following the directives set forth by Her Majesty.”

Adamantine slunk backward. Her lips quivered but no sound emerged.

“Would you care to explain, Queen Adamantine?” Twilight seethed.

“I-I have never given any sort of directive like that!” Adamantine cried.

“No,” Gabbro replied, “you haven’t.”

The room paused once more. Eleven incredulous and confused faces contrasted twenty-five knowing frowns. The guards’ expressions lay in some unreadable place in between.

Gabbro stood up and locked eyes with Adamantine. “There is something we must tell you, Queen Mom. The thing is… we are not from this world.”

The visitors refused to breathe, opting to stand there with their jaws hanging off their heads. Their hairs bristled and stood at attention and Twilight, for her part, narrowed her eyes, trying to discern them more closely.

“There are other worlds…” Gabbro continued, “much like Equestria… where things have gone very differently. That is where we come from. We are obeying our Queen Moms.”

Starlight snorted in disbelief, but she then considered Celestia. The princess was leaning so very far forward with an almost vacant stare. Her wings shuffled against her sides and she tugged at her regalia. Starlight regarded Twilight who watched the unponies through a brooding frown. The rest of her friends stood by with pained expressions like somepony had just socked them in their chests.

A shiver ran down Starlight’s spine. What are they talking about? What other worlds…? They can’t…

Twilight stumbled forward, staring into Gabbro’s soul. “These… worlds. These alternate worlds… you wouldn’t happen to be able to travel to them… using portals?”

After sharing a glance with Basalt, Gabbro nodded. “Yes. That is correct.”

They can’t be, right?

Twilight shuddered, her expression painfully somber. Slowly, certainly, she turned. “…Starlight?”

Every head in the room suddenly faced her.

Starlight swallowed. “…Y-yes?”

After looking to her friends for reassurance, Twilight sucked in a breath to speak. “Do you… remember those realities that you and I visited? Those worlds… that came about from the spell that you modified?”

Starlight nodded hesitantly, dreading whatever came next.

“Well…” Twilight continued, kicking the ground, “they… you see…”

“They’re still there,” Rainbow Dash finished.

No.

“King Sombra wages war with Equestria in my world,” one of the unponies said.

“I’m from a world where the changeling Chrysalis has taken much of Equestria,” another said.

“The spirit of chaos rules my world.”

“Lord Tirek has destroyed a lot of Equestria where I come from.”

Starlight backpedaled, retreating toward the door. “Oh please no… Please no…” she croaked. They couldn’t exist. She needed them to not exist. She desperately needed them to not exist.

Applejack nodded solemnly. “Eeyup.”

“In the absence of The Great Benefactor in our worlds,” Basalt concluded, “we are exploring… alternate methods.”

Those alternate worlds should not exist!

“Even when it involves the lives of our subjects!?” Luna growled.

Basalt shied away from the bars. “Y-yes… We don’t k-know how, persay…”

“But those are directives set by our Queens from our own worlds. You cannot blame her,” Gabbro seconded, pointing at Adamantine. “She has done nothing to cause this. It is not her fault.”

Starlight’s world spun around, and she finally blurted, “Oh stars!”

All heads turned to her, and that only served to double the sweat running down her muzzle. She stumbled backward, even falling to the floor at one point only to scramble back to her hooves.

“Starlight?” Twilight started.

“It can’t,” Starlight stammered. “It can’t. It can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

The tears formed in her eyes and then ran down her face where they mingled with her sweat. Every drop shed was one step closer to the door. “They can’t exist,” she continued. “They… they can’t exist. Please…”

Twilight pursed her lips. “Starlight… I’m sorry.”

Starlight shook her head once, twice, but the mares in the main tunnel and the ponies within the cells remained unchanged, unfazed. Some even looked despondent, dejected even. Regretful.

Starlight turned and ran. She ran through the door, she ran up the staircase, she ran and didn’t look behind her. She ran and ran and ran, guided only by whatever was left of the world that she could see in front of her.

“Wait! Starlight!” Twilight called, but Starlight barely heard her.

* * *

Starlight tripped over the last step and sprawled across the tiled floor. It agitated her skin, burning it just enough to distract her from her own thoughts.

She lay there in that whitewashed room, splayed out for anypony to come and find.

But when that didn’t immediately happen, she took a deep breath and rose. She stood for many moments, doing nothing but breathing in and out slowly. In, and out, she told herself. Just in and out.

She slunk into the room proper and glanced at one of the chandeliers hanging off the ceiling. She tried her hardest to fill her mind with nothing but her task, but then a few stray tears squeezed through anyway, laying most of her effort to waste.

Twilight appeared in the open doorway. “Starlight!” she cried before stopping to catch her breath against the doorframe. “Starlight, talk to me.”

Starlight shook her head. “By Celestia’s mane, Twilight. By… I can’t.”

“Starlight, I’m so sorry, but… they are there. We’ve known about them for nearly two days now. The other girls and I have gone into two of them so far, but we figured there were more.”

“They weren’t supposed to exist anymore! They were... supposed to be some sort of… memory,” she said, her tears turning from occasional drops to an outright downpour.

“…I know. I was… debating on whether or not I should tell you…” Twilight admitted, rubbing her foreleg in shame, “but...”

Starlight fell to the floor, burying her head in her hooves. “Buck… just… buck…”

She stayed there, stuck in her thoughts, content to remain there for the rest of eternity if everypony would let her.

Twilight watched in silence. Even though she remained still, Starlight had her full attention. Twilight waited, and waited, and then sighed and stepped forward. “Starlight…” she said, draping a foreleg around her friend, “you don’t need to blame yourself. You didn’t know that any of that would happen. We didn’t know. You weren’t trying to create those terrible alternate realities, you were just…” Twilight said with a chuckle, “trying to get back at me at the time.”

Starlight’s grimace deepened. “But look at what ended up happening. Those Equestrias are ruined, Twilight, because of me.”

“Starlight…” Twilight sighed. “You... didn’t plunge Equestria into chaos, or bring eternal night… Or start a war.”

“But… I made it all possible.”

Twilight hesitated.

“Didn’t you tell me once that what we do in the past can be an avalanche of trouble for the future? Didn’t you…” Starlight trailed off as several pictures came rushing back. She had only heard about most worlds second-hoof from Twilight. But one world, if it could even be called that any longer, burst forth from her memory and rattled her body. “...Didn’t you show me what my tiny act led to?”

A knot went up and down Twilight’s throat, and she cast Starlight a forlorn look. She spoke, tentatively now, “Yes. I did. But… and here’s what I think is important... Starlight, would you have still done all that if you knew it would lead us here?”

Starlight took a deep breath. “No. I wouldn’t. Not if I had known.”

Twilight nodded. “Then that certainly counts for something.”

“Twilight, that hardly matters. Those ponies are suffering because of what I did, whether I wanted that or not.”

“And because of what Chrysalis, and Tirek, and all of those others did.”

After a moment’s consideration, Starlight nodded. “...Okay, I guess they had parts to play in it too.”

“They decided to do what they did. They chose to ruin those worlds. And that’s what sets you apart, Starlight.” Twilight straightened up. “Now yes, we have some responsibility for what happened to them. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to fix it.”

Starlight blinked, looking up from the floor.

“It’s a lot to swallow, I know,” Twilight continued. “I thought these worlds were nothing but memories too. But they’re still there. And sitting around here doing nothing will not change that. Do you understand, Starlight?”

Starlight nodded.

“The best thing that we can do,” Twilight continued, “you and I and the rest of our friends, is to try and fix it, regardless of how responsible we are for it.”

Starlight swallowed. “You really think we can do that?”

Twilight trotted over and tugged Starlight to her hooves. “Of course,” she said, her expression a confident grin. “My friends and I have beaten those villains before, and I know we can do it again.”

That brought the smallest glimmer of a smile to Starlight’s face, but then the images raced through her mind again.

“Twilight…” she said, her voice a whisper, “what if we can’t… what if the damage is so great… what if the damage has already been done?”

Twilight’s frown faded. “If… well…” She hummed in thought and loosened her grip. “I guess we do what we can and hope for the best.”

“And if that’s not enough?”

Twilight smiled. “Well then, it is what it is. We’ll just have to let it go. At least we’ll have tried.”

Starlight stared for many long moments. There had to be some sort of responsibility there. Starlight was sure of that. She sighed.

“Okay,” she said at length. “I’ll try.”

Twilight smiled in response and pulled Starlight in for a hug. The two remained in each other’s embrace for a long and wordless while.

* * *

Sunset led the group into the hall. She spotted Twilight and Starlight hugging each other and trotted over to them. They broke the hug to look up at her and the two nodded.

Adamantine followed close behind, but once she stepped into the room, she lost herself in her own thoughts and paced along no particular path. Celestia and Luna emerged next, whispering amongst themselves. The other five took up the rear and quickly joined up with Twilight.

“This might change things,” Adamantine murmured.

Twilight turned. “What did I miss?” she asked.

“We discussed what happened on that train,” Rarity answered.

Rainbow Dash trotted up and punched Sunset in the shoulder. “That was pretty awesome. Heck, I woulda liked to have been on that train just so I could see it!” she said with a laugh.

Sunset giggled in response and Starlight merely smiled.

“Ah reckon y’all did pretty good up there,” Applejack said.

“Yeah, well,” Sunset said, shooting Celestia a glance, “we had some help.”

Celestia responded with a sly smile. Luna, who stood beside her, smirked as well.

“And,” Fluttershy added, “you managed to keep everypony safe too.” She looked toward the stairwell that led back to the cells far below. “Even them.”

Starlight shrugged, “Well, it’s what Twilight would have done.”

“And that…” Adamantine began, looking up, “is why I think that I should thank you. You could have very well thrown them off that train and that would have been the end of it. But instead… well, they are all downstairs safe and sound, thanks to your restraint.”

Sunset chuckled. “Trust me though, they made that a little bit difficult.”

Adamantine smiled. “Well then, it is a true testament to your skill. That is a very admirable trait.” At that, she glanced back toward the stairwell, a contemplative frown across her face. Her hoof tapped a light rhythm into the tiled floor and her gaze wavered between vacant and purposeful. The changing twists of her mouth indicated thoughts zooming through her mind.

“Maybe they’re not my subjects, per say,” she said at length, “but I still feel the same love for them like I do my own. And so, I am especially appreciative of your skill and tact in that situation. And because of that…” She grinned a toothy grin. “I am confident that you can help me after all. And maybe, just maybe, through this, we might just solve your problem too.

“And so,” she said, addressing the ten of them, “I would like to reveal all to you. But rather than just tell you… I would like to show you. Please, gather around,” Adamantine commanded. “I’m going to teleport all of us there. Otherwise, it would be a journey of several days.”

They did as instructed, bunching themselves as close as they could. Rainbow Dash, in particular, settled for hoping on Pinkie Pie’s back, and the latter only laughed in response.

“I want to stress… that I am about to open a tremendously large can of worms. It was meant to remain a secret, and my people have lived in isolation for a very, very long time in order to preserve it. Our entire existence is a secret.” Adamantine shook her head. “I suppose I would have had to reveal us anyway because of these extraordinary circumstances but… I suppose we will now see.”

“We’re ready,” Twilight said, nodding.

Adamantine’s horn lit up and a ball of energy closed around them. It pulled and tugged, stretched infinitely thin, and then streamed into a single point. The feeling was familiar for Sunset, but teleporting with several other ponies was just downright claustrophobic.

Reality broke down, and she lost touch with all her senses. They came rushing back a moment later just as her world reassembled herself, and once it stopped spinning, Sunset noticed that it was not the same reality that they had left.

A rocky cavern wrapped around them, given a bluish tint by several lit crystals lining the walls at regular intervals. The tunnel snaked around corners, off to destinations unknown.

“We’re here,” Adamantine announced, advancing through the group.

She led them down the tunnel, and on rounding a corner, they spotted two unicorn unponies flanking what looked like a bubbly barrier stretching from rock to rock, cordoning off the tunnel beyond.

“Quartzite! Gneiss!” she barked, “Look sharp! We have guests.”

The two ponies guarding the bubble snapped to attention. “Queen Mom!” they shouted in unison as they flashed salutes.

Sunset looked them up and down. They lacked armor of any sort and their physiques revealed a startling lack of muscle; not what she would expect of any sort of guard. Moreover, they remained even more like statues than the guards at the castle in Canterlot. That convinced Sunset that, while they were guards, they weren’t guards.

“Mind the smell. It might be a little strong,” Adamantine warned. She then walked through the bubble which reformed behind her.

Sunset followed next and stepped through. The stench hit her like a school bus; the roughened garlic and onion (or at least that’s what she thought it was) smashed through her nostrils, sending her reeling for a moment.

The others followed. “Ugh!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, plugging her nose. “A little strong!?”

Luna shook her head. “I would dare say that smells like soiled bed sheets dipped in a waste dump.”

Adamantine laughed. “It’s unstew! Perhaps you have heard me mention it?”

Starlight frowned. “Yesterday morning, in fact… It’s a food you eat through the nose.”

“That smell is just awful,” Twilight said, plugging her own nose.

“My subjects, the unponies, they love this stuff.” Adamantine shrugged. “Of course, it can’t replace the real thing.”

Celestia, who somehow remained unfazed, nodded. “I have not heard so much about it. Perhaps you will explain it for Luna and I as we go further in?”

Adamantine glanced back at Celestia and nodded. “I am here to reveal all, after all.” She looked around at their disgusted faces and chuckled. “Here, perhaps this will be of some help,” she said before flaring her horn. Around each of their noses, sans her own, appeared small aural balls.

Rainbow Dash let out her breath. “I can breathe through my nose again,” she said.

The others sighed in agreement, taking whiffs of filtered air. Celestia, however, peeled her filter ball off and flung it toward the wall where it disintegrated harmlessly before carrying on no worse for wear.

Adamantine led them around another corner and, finally, the tunnel opened into an expansive cavern. The morning light filtered in through a large opening above, painted a pinkish hue by a barrier similar to the one they had passed through. Several bodies milled about the ground beneath, grouped together in pockets throughout the area where they held conversations or gathered around small piles of books. Others stood chalking various diagrams and accompanying symbols into the rocky walls, almost as if they were cave-painting. A group of colts and fillies kicked at several balls and empty cans and ran like they were running through sap.

Of note, however, were the number of ponies not doing anything at all. While one or two here and there stared up at the sky through the hole in the cavern’s ceiling, no doubt pondering the outside world, the rest of the unponies lay silent. They were a scattering of charcoal lumps, all within a deep slumber, anywhere and everywhere. They lay on the bare floor, against the walls, and even piled on top of each other.

Those in deep slumber vastly outnumbered those awake. Those unconscious shared one detail in common: troubled grimaces and frowns that lay perpetually plastered across their faces. A few appeared to have several cracks all across their bodies from forehead to hindleg. Some cracks went deeply into their bodies, like a toy shovel driven into a sand castle.

The pattern was broken by the occasional cauldron. Each cauldron boiled and bubbled, spewing the gaseous unstew into the cavern.

Adamantine’s eyes fell on a mound somewhere in the middle and her smile left her face, leaving no hint it had ever been there. She rushed forth, darting between sleeping bodies and stepping over what she had to. The others followed with confused frowns, minding their steps along the way. They arrived at the mound in question and Adamantine bent over it, looking it up and down, even as her body quaked and rocked and she shook her head in disbelief.

Sunset looked at the mound and then realized it wasn’t a pony. It looked like black dust dumped into a haphazard pile. It matched the color of the unponies around them, but the similarities ended there. “What is that?” she asked.

Adamantine made no indication that she had heard Sunset. Rather, she reached down and caressed the mound’s surface with a shaky hoof, aghast. But even that came to a stop, and after a few frozen moments, Adamantine backed off. Her hoof made itself the sole exception as it shuddered more violently than before. Her eyes watered and she shook her head, looking ready to punch something.

Instead, she pinched the bridge of her muzzle, biding herself until it passed. She said a few things under her breath and then straightened up. And then Adamantine smiled but forlornly. “It is most regrettable that you had to witness that just now. You no doubt have questions…” She shook her head. “They shall be answered in due time.”

Rolling her eyes and regarding the mound of dirt one last time, Sunset glanced toward the hundreds and hundreds of ponies within the cavern. “So, these are your people, huh?”

Adamantine nodded, motioning for them to follow her once more. “Yes, they are. These are my unponies. I know they are not much to look at right now. But… we get by.”

“That’s what she was talking about yesterday,” Starlight whispered into Sunset’s ear.

“These are only a few of them,” Adamantine said, “the rest are sleeping in adjacent chambers,” she said, pointing toward several branching tunnels on the far side of the space.

“That’s a lot of sleeping,” Fluttershy said, looking around for herself.

“This is most strange,” Luna said. “In all of my nights, I have yet to encounter your subjects.” She then looked at Sunset and Starlight, both of who regarded her with confusion. “You see, as the Princess of the Night, I travel into ponies’ dreams. It’s one of my duties. But I have never had any sign of their dreams,” she finished, motioning toward the sleeping bodies.

Adamantine chuckled. “That’s very interesting. These days, they are only awake for maybe five hours out of the day, seven if they take it easy.”

“They don’t seem to be doin’ much, that’s for sure,” Applejack said as she stumbled over somepony’s tail.

“Like, really,” Pinkie Pie continued, “you know what I think they need? We need to throw them a party!” she exclaimed, punching the air. “We need to get those groove things shakin’!”

“Huh, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea,” Rarity said.

Celestia grinned. “I am sure they might appreciate something like that. It would shake things up, at the least.”

“I’d like to see that,” Starlight agreed.

“I appreciate the thoughts, truly,” Adamantine said as they reached an inlet in the wall. “But I am afraid that the actual problem is a bit more severe… than what that solution may attempt to solve.”

The inlet offered very little save for a lone fire crystal, a paper-littered desk, and a single cushion bleeding balls of cotton from several holes. Adamantine began sorting through several papers, eyeing each one carefully before stacking it on the far end of the desk. “I hope you’ll forgive the mess.”

“Hmmm, this looks like… your workplace?” Celestia asked, concerned.

“It is. I know it is not much to look at either, but…”

“I have made do with less,” Celestia said, a small yet smug grin on her face.

“I used to have quite a bit more to this, but this is what happens when you move about a lot.”

Twilight scanned the elder cushion and frowned. “Don’t tell me you sleep on that thing,”

Adamantine laughed. “No no, of course not. I sleep outside, with them. I would much rather be with my subjects—they are my family, after all.”

Sunset frowned. That’s good, I guess, she thought. It’s probably really really uncomfortable though.

“That does it!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. “We really need to liven this place up.” She grabbed a notebook and quill out of her mane and wrote furiously into it. “We’re gunna get you a couch, and a lamp, and I think we need some sort of trampoline here.”

“Perhaps we may worry about that some other time,” Celestia interrupted. “We should remember why we are here. Queen Adamantine, you said that there was some sort of problem. Would you care to elaborate on it?”

With a sigh, Adamantine nodded. She pushed through them and stood at the entrance, looking over her flock like a shepherd. “There is actually a very good reason why they spend so much time sleeping and conserving their energy.” She glanced back to Pinkie Pie with a certain frown. “It’s not because they’re bored or have nothing to do. They do it… out of necessity.

“You see… as I mentioned before, unponies are very particular about what they can eat. The one thing they usually eat is gone, and when I said that the unstew that I created was a suitable substitute…” she said with a frown, “that was a slight fib, I’m afraid.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “So it’s… not?”

“It can only do so much,” Adamantine finished. “The truth of the matter is that, as much as I try, I can’t refine the unstew enough to fully replicate that ambient energy which is given… was given by The Great Benefactor. And so…” she said, turning to face them, her silhouette outlined by the sunlight, “my people starve.”

Pinkie Pie gasped. “Ohhh!” And then her energy faded. “Ohhhh.” And then she frowned. “Oh.” And then she wilted. “Oh…”

“Oh my…” Rarity muttered, hiding her gasp with a hoof.

Celestia and Luna shared furtive glances before whispering things into each other’s ears.

Fluttershy whimpered, Starlight swallowed, Applejack hid behind her hat, Rainbow Dash averted her gaze.

Sunset felt a heat crawl up her spine and she frowned. So... this is a thing…

Twilight dragged her hoof through the dirt, her frown deepening by the second. “So… that’s why. …How long has this been going on?”

“Ever since The Great Benefactor disappeared a few months ago,” Adamantine replied. She turned and slunk out into the hall to look over her subjects. “We’ve always been a steady population, but ever since then… we have been in decline.”

Sunset stamped a hoof. “So… you’re dying?”

I’m fine. They, however…”

“Your unponies,” Twilight said.

At that, Adamantine looked back out and located the dusty mound that she had surveyed before. She sucked in a breath and pointed to it. “Oolite over there was sleeping peacefully when I left this morning. That… mound there… is what is left of her now.”

All eyes drew toward the idle mound, a mound which no one but they regarded. Their breaths became stuck in their throats. The only signs of life that they exhibited were the occasional blinks.

Fluttershy whimpered and collapsed onto the floor, a few tears forming in her eyes. Pinkie Pie rushed over and sat behind her, patting her on the back.

“I have yet to consider what I will do once winter comes around,” Adamantine finished.

“That’s awful…” Twilight said, barely audible.

Applejack took off her stetson and held it close to her chest, almost as if in silent prayer.

“Why would you keep them a secret if all of this is going on?” Twilight asked.

“Because it is necessary,” Adamantine replied after a moment of thought.

Celestia hummed affirmatively. “Because of your secret, I imagine?”

Adamantine nodded. “Yes, precisely that.”

Luna swallowed and looked out over the unponies as well. Her furrowed brow complimented a fire in her eyes, and as she rose slowly to her full height, her expression grew more certain. “I see,” she said. “While this does not completely solve the problem of those unponies from the alternate worlds, I would be very remiss if we should stand idly by and let all of this happen. Queen Adamantine, you must tell us what we may do to rectify this. We will do everything in our power to make sure they starve no more.”

The others stepped forward and nodded affirmatively. Fluttershy picked herself off the floor and joined them too, her expression a certain frown.

Adamantine glanced between them, her smile growing wider with each determined face that she saw. She then nodded. “Yes, of course. Thank you… I appreciate it. I could really use some help…”

She looked out across the cavern and sighed. “They mean so much to me and… I really don’t know what I would do if I lost them.”

* * *

“Adamantine?” Twilight asked, looking up at the alicorn. She paused, and then tried to correct herself, “I’m sorry, Queen Adaman—”

“Twilight,” Adamantine interrupted, “just Adamantine is fine. The whole ‘queen’ thing is a formality.”

Twilight giggled. “Fine, Adamantine. I have a question that’s kinda been nagging at me.”

“Certainly, what is it?”

“Who exactly is The Great Benefactor?”

The others perked their ears and drew closer in. Adamantine, meanwhile, tilted her head inquisitively.

“I’ve heard it mentioned quite a few times this morning,” Twilight continued, “and we still have no idea what that’s all about. You said that it was something that provided them with their food.”

“It used to be that unponies fed on the ambient energy in the air, all of which came from The Great Benefactor. It’s not something you can readily detect during daily life but…” Adamantine said, pointing toward her flock, “they thrive on it.”

Twilight nodded from side to side. “Okay, I think I can see that. I’m guessing that they know about it too, right?”

“Every unpony knows of The Great Benefactor. But… I’m the only one that knows where you would find it.”

Celestia hummed. “You keep it a secret from them?”

“Of course. The Great Benefactor…” Adamantine said, “is precisely the secret we have been trying to keep.”

“The unponies that tried to take that train asked about it,” Celestia said. “It would seem to me that the existence of this Great Benefactor seems to be a factor in all of this. I do believe that looking into this matter may be a good starting point.”

Adamantine shivered but nodded all the same. “I s-suppose it would.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Why the hesitation?”

Adamantine hid behind her long and silky hair, running it through her hooves several times. She twisted it, knotted it, undid it, and then sighed. “I did bring you here to reveal all, but… I must absolutely stress the fragility of this information. Its guarding is my prime directive.” She paused to stroke her chin. “However, then again… The Great Benefactor is gone… so the directive may already be complete…”

She turned to them once more with a certain expression. “I would like to show you, but please… I ask for your absolute discretion on this matter.”

Starlight nodded. “We’re game, Adamantine. You can count on us.”

Celestia nodded once, grinning.

“Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, doing several accompanying motions.

Applejack followed through with the same mantra, and that prompted the others to finally follow suit. Luna looked up to Celestia in confusion only for the latter to shrug. Celestia too took the oath, complete with every motion involved, much to the other’s delight. Luna eventually gave in and performed the same.

Adamantine scratched her head. “I am not certain of what that was about, but very well. Gather around, I will take all of you to see it.”

They gathered around again, huddling as tightly as they did before, and then Adamantine lit her horn. Twilight steeled herself for what came next, briefly wondering what it could be. One thought briefly flashed across her mind, but she discarded it before even being aware of it.

The world pulled, twisted, turned, faded out, twisted some more, and then sprang back in. It came back too quickly, in fact, and then Adamantine’s spell ended, and she wobbled about in place as her eyes tried to adjust to the sudden comparative darkness.

A loud groan pierced her ears, knocking her two steps back on her orientation. Nothing noticeably changed at first, but as her senses came even more to, as she adjusted to the relative darkness, and as the groaning became a mainstay, she finally took in her surroundings.

A tunnel composed of crystal arched over and around them, bathed in an ambient light. The dirty floor broke that tradition, offering something firm and familiar for them to stand on. Twilight’s first thought was the Canterlot caves, but surely that couldn’t be it.

But then her eyes drew up toward the source of the groaning, and her heart just about stopped. Dust streamed off the large and ornate double doors as they shook and shuddered and then parted. Swirls contoured into pictures of unknown beings, but even then, they looked familiar. She had seen them before.

A cold sweat formed on her brow as she watched the doors part, and when they parted enough, she looked past them and into the room beyond.

Twilight wanted to scream.

A large hemisphere of a room greeted them. A singular space, nearly as large as her entire castle back in Ponyville, stretched this way and that. Sigils covered the walls in every direction and ringed around the floor in several layers. All of them glowed a cool violet, and the air felt soft and comfortably chilly, nipping at her coat but not biting.

While Starlight looked on in confusion and Adamantine looked on in consideration, the others remained deathly silent. Jaws hung agape and a few hairs stood on end. Celestia and Luna’s manes, usually flowing in an ethereal wind, froze solid and hung limply from their sides.

Twilight met Sunset’s gaze. Sunset looked back at her through stricken eyes and an increasing tremble. An unspoken conversation passed between them, where they asked each other if what they were seeing was what they were seeing; if, Celestia forbid, what they were thinking was actually going on.

Swallowing, Twilight stumbled forward. The others followed.

Adamantine led them into the center of the lavender-lit room, examined many of the symbols on the walls and ceiling, and then nodded.

“The room is a doorway. A seal. And it has been around longer than anything I have record of. Something has changed since I was here last—and that was not so long ago. That is interesting. Regardless…” Adamantine turned to them and smiled.

“The Great Benefactor…” she said, her tone foreboding, “is the ancient entity for which this seal exists. If ever released, it would mean very grave things. Things that I am incredibly loath to even think about. While it is the thing that sustains my people, it is also a clear and present danger to the entire world.”

Twilight needed to scream.

“Or, rather, it was, until a few months ago,” Adamantine continued, glancing around the chamber. “That ancient evil is now gone. Dead. Destroyed. It will… never befall Equestria.”

Applejack removed her hat and held it tight against her chest. Her expression grew wet.

Fluttershy whimpered quietly, blinking like mad.

Rarity folded into herself and fell to the ground. “Oh stars! Oh stars!” she shrieked.

Celestia and Luna shared hardened glares.

Adamantine said nothing in response. Her eyes continued wandering around the room, but she blinked all the same as if considering it.

A loud bang broke the overall silence before the air rushed out of Pinkie Pie’s mane. Pinkamena Diane Pie fell to her knees, her stare vacant and long.

Rainbow Dash, who stood right next to her, didn’t even react to the report. Her expression matched that of Pinkamena’s, but she somehow remained standing.

Starlight glanced around at them, half-confused, half-terrified. She opened her mouth to speak, but on seeing their expressions contort into unrecognizable shapes and seeing the way they trembled, she stomached her words.

Sunset, who shook like a leaf, finally stepped forward. “Twilight...”

Twilight jumped, glancing back in alarm.

Sunset motioned to Adamantine. “You have to tell her.”

Twilight’s body locked up. She wanted to move, but nothing responded. She, instead, just stared back.

Sunset visibly swallowed. “...You have. To tell her.”

“Y-ya gotta tell her what we did to ’em, Twi,” Applejack concurred.

A confused smile spread across Adamantine’s face. “I am sorry?”

Twilight, for the first time, cowered under Adamantine’s innocent gaze. She saw all the sags in Adamantine’s face, and she looked into Adamantine’s tired and worn eyes, and somehow noticed a light within them die.

Adamantine… oh by the stars, Adamantine…

Adamantine’s smile faded. “Tell me what?”

Twilight sighed and lowered her head in shame. She has to know. She has to know.

“Adamantine…” she croaked, “we... are the ones responsible. The truth is… we know of The Great Benefactor, but we know it as something else. We know it… as the Nameless.”