• 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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5 - Assertion

The moment that The Great Benefactor disappeared was the moment Adamantine learned what it felt like to have the wind knocked out of her. Staring at the mound before her brought forth a ghost of that feeling, just like every new mound before it.

She caressed the mound, vainly righting a few out-of-place grains. And now the memories played like a record. The fall that she took, the desperate gasping for air, the writhing, the moaning, her faithful subjects rushing to aid her amidst cries and wails.

“Queen Mom!” they cried. “Queen Mom! Are you okay!?”

The delirious blur that was the several hours afterward. The stumbling about without a coherent word or thought, with all her capacities spent in an effort to realize that the impossible had just happened.

Adamantine looked down at the pile, and then with a sad shake of her head, she turned away. She trudged through the cavern, fending off the sad looks that those awake gave her. The route back to her little room was long and ever winding. Just as it always was. Even then, the way was clouded, hard to see, and she stumbled.

Images flashed through her mind. Him as a young colt running amongst his friends, playing catch and other games. Him as an older colt performing magic for the first time, yelling in excitement, only to accidentally shoot his rock far past reckoning. And as a stallion, engaged in intellectual conversations amongst peers, tackling problems that Adamantine could not fathom.

He had been Flint. And now Flint was a mound. Adamantine wanted to curse, but there was nothing nor no one to curse.

Adamantine hobbled into her cove and approached her desk, finding a spiral notebook on its corner. She noted the dust under the binding.

Adamantine considered herself close to all her subjects, but some were closer than others.

His shrieks rung in her ears once more. “What do you mean it’s gone?”

“It’s gone!” she cried. “Gone gone!”

“I don’t understand. How can The Great Benefactor be gone!?”

“I don’t know! It’s… gone!”

She dipped her quill once—and only once—and then wrote a name down. His name. Flint.

“Well, what do we do?” another voice said.

“We have to figure something out. This is… unprecedented,” said yet another voice.

“What do we tell them?” Flint said.

“We can’t tell them anything right now, we don’t want to start a panic,” Adamantine replied. “Not yet. I… have to look into this.”

Adamantine replaced her quill. His name was now in the notebook. Four names lay above his, and then a date. Today’s date.

She saw his young face smiling at her with every bit of innocence in the world. Flint tilted his head in interest, like she had just said something fascinating. She saw his older face, looking up at her for guidance.

Her eyes wandered further up the page where saw five names under yesterday’s date. Before that, the take from the day before yesterday. And then before that. On and on until the beginning of the notebook.

“It is gone. But it has left enough that we should be okay for a month, maybe two, before we start seeing issues.” Adamantine looked at her trusted lieutenants and sighed, trying to smile. “We have time. I will look into this, but just for now, let’s keep it to ourselves.”

And Flint glanced back at her and nodded. “Absolutely, My Queen.”

And that straw was what finally broke the proverbial camel’s back. Her head went thump against the table and remained there. Adamantine made no movements and made no sounds. All to herself, where nopony could see her, she let her emotions manifest freely.

They did, letting one tear fall down her face, and then another. And the room grew even more silent than before.


Sunset Shimmer had given up on tracking how much time had passed since anypony had spoken in earnest. An uncomfortable silence hung over the throne room as they stood about or sat around. Some occasionally moved to speak, but they would only make it as far as drawing breath before changing their minds.

Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, sitting atop the throne room’s dais, hunched over a document or two; details of the day’s duties, things that required their attention. They spoke in hushed voices, and Luna occasionally yawned.

Sunset’s friends gathered around a pillar on one side of the room. Their expressions were vacant; even Pinkamena looked withdrawn, hollow, and in her own world. Movement broke them out of their trances just long enough for consideration, but when nothing happened, they returned to their stillborn silence.

Twilight Sparkle stood in the center of the room, staring blankly into space. She hadn’t moved from that spot, even when Kibitz, Celestia’s aide, had walked right by her to deliver the aforementioned itinerary.

Despite it all, even in their stupor, no one dared to look at Adamantine who lay crumpled and discarded in the corner. They avoided her like a plague, and she them. While they had been silent ever since leaving the ancient chamber, Adamantine had been the most silent of all. Sure, Adamantine had brought them back using her teleportation, but Sunset wondered if that had just been an automatic reaction.

Sunset tried to look, but the closer her sights got, the tighter the knot in her chest wound, and she averted her gaze again.

The double doors opened, and Starlight Glimmer stepped through. She levitated the crystal ball behind her. “You did all of it piecewise because there was just no way to gather thousands of those stones,” she said.

“We gathered all of that information via a feedback loop in the multiverse,” Twilight’s voice said from the crystal ball, “and that relied on stable time loops. It was a little bit of a shock, yes, but we eventually figured it out.”

“That’s a lot to think about…” Starlight said, scratching her head. “I don’t know if I understand all of it, but…” She turned, considered Adamantine’s idle form in the corner, and frowned. “I think I have a better grasp on what’s going on, at least.”

“That’s good.”

Sunset’s mind flashed through several images: fishing a box out of the hourglass in the tower, copying a book down, and then several diagrams and equations on a chalkboard. She even briefly caught sight of the fiery expanse in the deepest part of her mind where it had come together. That place, she knew, was inaccessible in her current state of mind.

Starlight planted herself firmly in the center of the room and scanned its inhabitants with a calculating frown. At that moment, Sunset inferred that Starlight was—finally—up to speed.

“Any ideas?” Starlight asked.

“I am afraid not,” Luna said as she stepped off the dais. “We are… still trying to come to terms with the gravity of our error.”

Twilight’s wincing was as subtle as she could make it.

Starlight frowned. “Okay, I guess. But I was thinking, I don’t know, maybe doing something about it might be better than just sitting around. Isn’t that right, Twilight?”

Sunset groaned and climbed to her hooves. “You’re probably right. We’re kinda responsible for what happened.”

Celestia rolled up the itinerary, laid it on her throne, and then followed her sister down the ramp. “Even if we were not, it would be very unbecoming of us if we did nothing about it. I, for one, think that we should ask our dimensional visitors some more questions.”

“That’s a fantastic idea,” Twilight’s voice said. “I… actually might have a question or two for them.”

Twilight blinked and then looked up. “You think so?”

“It might give us some good insight,” Rarity offered.

“We still haven’t done what the Map sent us out to do,” Fluttershy added, standing up. “I think it might be this.”

“Well, Ah think it’s all them terrible things that’s been goin’ on in them other worlds,” Applejack countered, adjusting her stetson.

“Whatever it is,” Twilight said, “we should go ahead and try. Who knows? Maybe we’ll solve both?”

A bubbly explosion shook the hall as Pinkamena’s mane poofed up. “You know what? Yeah, let’s go!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, punching the air.

“Now that’s the spirit!” Applejack said.

“I’m down for that,” Sunset added.

Starlight nodded. “Great. I think, then, we should get started. Maybe we can get those unponies some help.”

“The unstew would be ideal for that,” Twilight’s voice offered.

Luna chuckled. “Ah, Twilight, that is exactly what I was thinking.”

In her corner, Adamantine perked up and glanced in their direction.

“If what you have told me is accurate,” Celestia said, “then most ingredients for this unstew can be found in an everyday market. And if that is the case, assembling materials should not be an issue. We may even be able to do so on our personal bits.”

Adamantine stood up, her joints cracking as she went, and cleared her throat. “That is certainly true, but I should stress that it is only because the stew can only mimic The Great Benefactor’s energies… and even then, it only manages to capture a fraction of its potency.”

Relief flooded through Sunset as Adamantine finally joined them and spoke. And thus, she felt compelled to respond; “They’re able to eat it well enough, so… it works?”

“That it does,” Adamantine replied. “I can teach you the recipe if your intention is to make some yourself. But I should warn that the last steps in making the unstew require advanced magic and potion-making techniques.”

“We will be happy to learn it, nonetheless,” Celestia said, nodding. “For starters, our guests downstairs will certainly need some soon.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, that would be good. At the very least, you won’t have to overwork yourself anymore just to feed them.”

Adamantine paused. And then a wave of color returned to her. She smiled. “That sounds lovely.”

Celestia nodded. “How large is the typical batch?”

“On a good day, I have enough ingredients to make around eighty gallons of it, and that lasts for twenty-four hours,” Adamantine explained. “I suspect that if you doubled that, it might very well slow the decay down substantially.”

“Then we will see to that.” Celestia nodded.

“But… at the same time, for a pony such as yourself, a concentration like that might be poisonous. I would exercise care.”

Celestia chuckled nervously. “I see. Perhaps… you and your subjects could be of some assistance there.”

“Perhaps.”

“In the meantime,” Twilight said, “we’ll go downstairs and ask some more questions. That should give us further ideas.”

Luna nodded. “Sister and I will be up here setting things up. Let us know how it goes.”

* * *

The eight of them filed into the darkened chamber, gathering near the lit torches and dodging wet spots on the floor. Twilight blinked and checked behind her, making sure that Starlight had brought the crystal ball down.

One of the unponies stood up and approached the bars yet said nothing. She eyed them all, but Twilight most closely.

“Gabbro, correct? We have a few questions for you,” Twilight said.

Gabbro considered it. “How is Queen Mom?”

“She’s doing better. We’ve all decided to collaborate. We are trying to look for the… Namele—” She cut herself off. “Err, I’m sorry. Great Benefactor. We need to know the full situation.”

Gabbro glanced into an adjacent cell. “Basalt and I were the ones leading the operation on the train. If… this world’s Queen Mom has decided to work with you, then… we will try our very best.”

Twilight nodded and held up a scroll. “Let’s start with some basics. Who are you and where are you from?”

“We are the unponies. We have lived in secret for a very, very long time. We’re migratory by design, but we stay away from populated areas and otherwise keep low profiles.

Twilight nodded. “I see. How often do you move?”

“It’s sporadic, actually,” Gabbro replied with a shrug. “We’re never in the same place for a few months at a time. Our last settlement was a village on some island somewhere; that was where we had been living in our respective timelines when The Great Benefactor disappeared.”

Twilight hummed before burying her head in her list once more. “Okay. That’s good information. Can you tell me who Adamantine is, exactly?”

“Oh, she’s our Queen Mom,” Gabbro replied, a sudden smile on her face. “She’s just the best, isn’t she?”

“She seems pretty cool,” Rainbow Dash agreed.

“After what we saw in that there cavern,” Applejack said, “Ah gotta admit she’s got her work cut out for her. Ah admire how hard-workin’ she is.”

“But of course,” Rarity said, swishing her mane, “I can’t very much say if the Adamantine from our timeline is the same as the one in yours. A lot can change in a few years, you know.” She placed a hoof to her chin. “Come to think about it, I wonder what’s in over there?”

“They do live away from everything though,” Fluttershy countered.

“True.” Rarity nodded. “I suppose you wouldn’t know.”

“Our queens very much alike,” Basalt chimed in, pressing against the bars. “I don’t suppose that you would notice any differences between them. But of course… to our trained eyes, we can see those subtle differences.”

Gabbro giggled. “We noticed them pretty quickly. But… she still looks like the Queen Mom that we know and love.”

“But she’s an alicorn,” Starlight said, shaking her head. “What’s up with that?”

Twilight frowned, poked a hoof into her list, jabbed at a certain item, and then nodded.

“It’s a… strange thing. She’s not like us at all, and yet… she is not like you either. She was born out of the remains of our old queen who was, in turn, born out of the remains of the king before her,” Gabbro said.

“Oh!” Fluttershy gasped. “Like a phoenix.”

Gabbro opened her mouth to respond and then hesitated. Her eyes grew wide. “You know, it is like that. Huh.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way before either,” Basalt said, laughing.

Fluttershy smiled in response.

“But if that’s happening, how is old is she?” Twilight asked.

Basalt scratched his muzzle. “The exact number escapes me at the moment, but I would say that she is no more than a decade older than yourself.”

“And it is likely she will easily be around for several decades more,” Gabbro added, “and then her successor will rise from where she falls. Our flock needs a shepherd, after all.”

Twilight nodded. “I can accept that.”

“So hey,” Rainbow Dash said, “do you do the same thing? When you, you know, die?”

“Yes, we are like our Queen in that regard. When we die, a new unpony is born from our ashes.” And then Gabbro hung her head. “Well, at least, we did until The Great Benefactor disappeared.”

Basalt’s expression turned equally brooding. He wrapped his hooves around the bars. “Yes. Now… we do not rise again.”

Twilight pursed her lips. That was what we saw in that cavern, she thought.

Gabbro shook her head. “Regardless, our starvation is of far greater concern.”

“Because you have no food source,” Twilight finished.

“Precisely.”

“We strongly suspect that if that issue did not exist, our mission would be moot,” Basalt said.

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “What you were doing on that train?”

Basalt nodded affirmatively. “Queen Mom opened that portal for us a few days ago. We were going to take that train to a checkpoint we set up on the other side, and then take the ponies from there. That did not happen.”

Twilight remained silent for a few moments, contemplating his words. Well, that explains who’s making those portals, she thought.

“So why are you doing that?” Sunset asked. “How the hay could that possibly solve anything?”

“Our queens did not tell us why we were doing what we were doing,” Basalt replied. “They only directed us to gather as many ponies as we could.”

“Did you ever think to ask?”

“Of course we did. They said that it was secret for their ears only.”

“And where are you taking them?” Twilight asked, looking up from her list.

“Thus far… We have been taking them to these chambers deep under the earth. You see, there exist these places deep under Canterlot. I myself could not imagine them there before.”

“While we do not understand its significance ourselves,” Gabbro added, “we could tell, as soon as we arrived, that it was a very old place. Maybe it is related to The Great Benefactor somehow?”

Twilight considered it, and then she glanced back toward Sunset. Do you think we should tell them? she thought.

Sunset shook her head.

“I see,” Twilight said. “How many ponies have you collected so far?”

“With all the teams we have out collecting, I would say… several thousand thus far. Maybe more.”

Twilight fought back the sudden dryness in her throat and continued, “And what do you do once they arrive?”

Gabbro hummed. “We… deliver them to our queens as they have so directed us. What happens after that, sadly, we do not know.”

“They didn’t tell you that either, huh?” Twilight grumbled.

Gabbro solemnly shook her head, her dark and coarse mane swishing about. “We do not know what has become of them. And yet… Somehow… We have come to know them. Very… intimately.”

Basalt nodded. “Indeed. Their histories, their identities. We, inexplicably, know all of it.”

“Just like we know you. Why you, Twilight, do not particularly care for quesadillas.”

“Now why should we know any of that?”

Twilight swallowed. “I… guess we will have to research that.”

Basalt nodded. “We look forward to it.”

“So wait,” Sunset said, stepping forward, “about The Great Benefactor… It disappeared from your timelines too?”

Basalt nodded.

Twilight hummed. “…When did that happen? In your world, at least?”

The unpony shuddered. “Well, that’s a peculiar thing. You see… as far as we can tell, they disappeared simultaneously.”

The room went silent as that fact sunk in. The mares stared on in silence, each trying to come to terms with it. Rarity remained straight-faced, but her quivering lip betrayed her. Fluttershy glanced uncertainly around the room. Sunset plastered her eyes toward the earthen floor, tracing out a ridge.

Twilight felt her heart skip a beat when a thought came to her. It had to be a long shot, but there was a chance. But… she thought, if it’s true, then…

Twilight shuddered and then spoke, uttering a date. A day and a month. Her birthday.

Some unponies gasped, others reeled.

“Twilight Sparkle…” Gabbro wheezed, “that is the exact date. …How do you know that?”

“Because,” Twilight’s voice said, “that is the date in which the Nameless disappeared from our timeline too.”

“Yes,” Twilight said, swallowing.

Sunset’s eye twitched.

Basalt frowned, turned his gaze first to Starlight Glimmer, and then to the crystal ball in her aura. “Was it at nighttime? Equestrian time?”

Pinkie Pie nodded first. The others, save Starlight, followed suit.

“Well, I’ll be,” he finished.

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash snorted, “that’s one heck of a coincidink.”

“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. “For all of them to vanish at the exact same time!”

“But the thing is,” Twilight’s voice said, “it’s not actually a coincidence. They’re very definitely related.”

The room skipped another beat as several of their frowns deepened.

Applejack, on the other hoof, looked annoyed. “Excuse me. What in tarnation are you talkin’ about, Twi?”

“They’re related. What happened in our timeline, the Nameless disappearing, also somehow caused the same exact thing in theirs.”

Sunset swore under her breath, and Starlight fell back on her haunches. The rest of them, especially Twilight, grew several shades paler, even through blank and uncomprehending stares.

“Uhm,” Fluttershy began, “how can that even happen? Across several… timelines, I mean?”

“I don’t know. I do know that the doors are connected somehow. …I’m still looking into it.”

Sunset placed a hoof to her chin, stroking it in thought. She mouthed something to herself as she considered the others. Finally, her expression grew determined and she nodded to herself.

“Hey, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash began, looking up, “you got any of your own questions? Since you’re here?”

“I’m writing all of this down,” Twilight’s voice answered. “It’s a good time to get all of my notes back in order. My list of questions that you have there is pretty exhaustive. I do have a question right now, but… it’s part of the script.”

Twilight nodded. “Go ahead.”

“All of you are from alternate timelines. Sombra, Nightmare Moon, Queen Chrysalis. You mentioned Tirek, Discord. Flim and Flam.”

The unponies nodded. “We are from those places,” one of them said.

“…There is still one more,” Twilight’s voice continued.

At that, everypony paused. The mares frowned, glancing toward the crystal ball. The unponies glanced between each other in confusion.

“I am sorry,” Basalt said. “One more?”

“Yes. There is one more alternate timeline. One I know that none of you are from.”

Twilight stifled a gasp.

Every shade of color disappeared from Starlight’s coat, and she hung her head.

“And that is?”

“…The wasteland.”

Basalt blanked out for many moments, digesting her statement. And then he shook his head. “I am… afraid I have no knowledge of any such place. This is the first I have ever heard of it.”

“…As I thought,” Twilight’s voice concluded. A few moments of silence passed, and then she spoke again, her tone more hushed, “That is all I have for now. You may continue.”

* * *

“An interesting story, my dear. But the path ahead is… not so clear,” Zecora said, her voice a rhythmic tenor. She stood next to a bubbling cauldron with a bamboo stick clutched in one foreleg.

Twilight nodded. “Yes.”

“And plus, we all tried our own spells to see if we could find anything,” Starlight added. “There was nothing we could understand.”

“My detection powder had something strange to say. That is a first, and it is not okay,” Zecora said. “There is more to them than what I can see. I can’t say what it could possibly be.”

Twilight sighed. “Well, drat.”

“What other methods have you tried? Has anything else been verified?”

Sunset frowned. “Not really. I tried a few spells that didn’t really fit.”

Starlight shook her head. “Same.”

“I had a spell that I was sure would work,” Twilight snorted. “It was the one I used to help the breezies out. I figured if we could turn them into us, we might get somewhere. But it didn’t work…”

“The transformation worked, but they were still dependent on this non-existent food source,” Starlight added.

“Maybe I cast it wrong.”

“Neither spell nor tonic produced the results we desire. It seems this situation is truly dire!” Zecora exclaimed.

Twilight shrugged. “Well, do you have any other ideas? We’ll take whatever we can get.”

Zecora hummed and then stuck the stick into the cauldron and stirred it a few times. Her ear twitched with every pop and crackle of the boiling broth. She next left it and rummaged through several ingredients on a nearby shelf. Glass clinked and wood thumped before Zecora set a few herbs onto the table.

And then she pointed past the three mares. “Please pass me that bowl over there, and that pestle too if you so care.”

Sunset levitated both objects over. Once Zecora went back to work, Sunset glanced out the window and ran her eyes over the ponies outside. Most of them were chained in place, but they nonetheless stood patiently. A few guards flanked them, looking as stalwart as ever. Sunset chuckled as Pinkie Pie bounded completely over Rarity and landed on Rainbow Dash, garnering scowls in the process. Whatever context might have been there never reached Sunset.

Zecora practically danced in front of her work, chanting several words under her breath as she went. The pestle clinked in a haphazard rhythm as she ground the ingredients together into a fine powder. A few more additions and mixes later, she turned around.

“Here we are, one original recipe,” she said, “this one is of some complexity. One coating of this, from tail to mane, then perhaps their vitality will no longer wane.”

Twilight smiled and peered into the bowl to observe the powder within. “Are you sure?”

Zecora frowned. “I do not know of their kind of sick, so I cannot promise this will do the trick.”

Twilight nodded. “Then I guess... we can give this a try,” she said as she took the mixture from Zecora.

At that, the four of them drifted toward the doorway, threw it open, stepping outside. While the ponies trotted back toward the gathering outside, Zecora watched intently from the doorway.

Twilight flared her horn and the very air around the unponies shifted and blew this way and that. They buckled under its force. An audible whistle sounded throughout the wood, with faint whispers of wind blowing in all directions.

She mixed Zecora’s powder into it, thus showering the unponies in a greenish hue. Twilight’s tempest subsided and then the unponies stood up, blinking. They then examined their now-tinted coats, their expressions each some variety of befuddlement.

“Anything?” Sunset asked.

The unponies took stock of themselves, poking at the layer of powder on their coats. Some rubbed at it, but it failed to come off. One of them sneezed.

“It feels like there’s something sticky on my sides,” one of them replied.

“It may take some time yet. Or I might need to refine it, I bet,” Zecora replied. “You mentioned their queen has been using stew. I could use that to make something new.”

“I think they’re getting the recipe together right now,” Sunset said.

“If you could get it to me with speed, I may be able to meet their need.”

Twilight nodded and then turned to the guards. “Make sure she gets a copy of the unstew recipe as soon as it is available,” she commanded.

The guards saluted in response.

Zecora approached the unponies, scrutinizing them. She scratched her chin, humming thoughtfully all the while. She zeroed in on one pony, and then switched to another. Her glare intensified the further she went, but she said nothing.

“We can leave a few of them with you, if you want,” Twilight offered.

“One or two would be best,” Zecora replied after a few more moments. “That should be enough to test.”

At that, two unponies, neither of whom had spoken up to that point, stepped forward. They looked at each other, shared a quick laugh, and then one of them, Basalt, said, “It would appear... that we volunteer.”

Zecora chuckled and motioned toward her door. “Right this way, my friend. Let us work to make this crisis end.”

* * *

Starlight leaned over toward Sunset. “He’s…” she whispered, “an interesting character, isn’t he?”

Sunset’s eyes remained fixed on the strange, snake-like figure floating above the unponies, her gaze wandering over his mishmash of parts. “…Yeah.”

Discord the draconequus swooped over one of the unponies and poked them with his claw, humming thoughtfully all the while. He pulled at his goatee and clenched his jaw as his expression intensified to a boil.

While most of the unponies glanced up incredulously at him in return, a few, in particular, cowered under his gaze. Those must be the ones from that timeline where Discord rules, Starlight thought.

Starlight took a moment to peer across the garden, trying to sample the unique topiaries and bountiful assortments of flowers, trees, and other sorts of plants. She even saw a statue or two. She briefly considered the guards that flew in from the castle tower to relieve their comrades of duty.

After a few more examinations, Discord heaved a huge sigh and floated back down, landing on the grass. “Well, I’m finished. I did find some things out,” he mouthed the word “mostly” under his breath, “but I don’t have any solutions that I can offer to you.”

Twilight frowned. “...No solutions, huh?”

“Well see, look...” He reached back, his arm stretching several times his length and lassoing in Gabbro. “The magic behind these ponies is one that I am sure Equestria has never seen. Although I suppose it is linked to that Nameless thing.” He unceremoniously dropped her, leaving her in a daze of spinning breezies. “I can give that to you, at least.”

Rarity sighed. “Well, that’s a start. But we would oh so appreciative,” she said, batting her eyes at him, “if you could help us in some other manner.”

Discord raised an eyebrow. Said eyebrow, however, didn’t just stop as one would expect; rather it continued upward and disconnected from him entirely until it hovered several feet above his head. “Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, rolling her hoof along, “something like… solving their hunger problem?”

“And how would I do that?” Discord asked, shrugging.

“Maybe… errrm… a very very large supply of unstew? Enough to last them for the rest of their lives, of course.”

“I don’t think so.” Discord frowned. A small, ceramic bowl appeared in his paw and a spoon in his claw. He stirred whatever was inside the bowl, sending a few brown droplets here and there. “It’s my understanding that the other princesses are already making that happen. Whyever would I put their efforts so far to waste?”

Rarity snorted. “Humph!”

Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “Then why don’t you do something more permanent? Like, make it so that they can eat regular food, or something?”

“Oh, look at you,” he said, flying forward to pinch her cheeks. “You’ve come such a long way from dictatorship. I especially liked the time where you created several alternate histories,” he said, laughing. “That was a gem.”

Starlight reached up, felt at the offended area, and then her head dejectedly hang.

“There’s the other thing we needed to ask ya about,” Applejack piped up. “We gotta control them portals that have been popping up and we could use your help there.”

“And find those missing ponies,” Fluttershy said.

Discord sighed. “Oh, you silly ponies. You really need to look at all of this from my perspective. You’re fumbling with causality with a future Twilight from a parallel reality, a new species of ponies has come knocking at your door, and you have portals to alternate timelines,” he said, slapping Starlight on the back, “what’s not for me to love? I highly doubt I’ll see anything like this again.”

“Discord!” Rainbow Dash yelled.

“What?” he asked, shrugging. “I am loving this. This is chaotic. I might be reformed, but I live for this.”

“Besides...” he said, reaching forward. He grabbed a part of Pinkie Pie’s mane, eliciting a pointed shriek in response. “I do take some small pleasure in watching you squirm through a problem that I have no doubt you’ll be able to solve. You are more than qualified to deal with every bit of that. I wouldn’t dream of hindering you here.”

“You are hindering us!” Twilight countered.

Pinkie Pie felt at her mane and chuckled. She pressed a hoof against her mouth and blew; that served to inflate her mane to the size from before.

“Mmmm, no,” Discord replied, “I’m not. I’m helping you. Why, if I came along and solved every single problem thrown at you, how would you grow?”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak but paused. She glanced back toward the others who offered shrugs and hesitant nods.

Starlight voiced it. “He… kinda has a point.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and sighed. “Fine. But it sounds to me that you have a solution.”

“I didn’t say that,” Discord replied.

“...Then you don’t have a solution?”

“I don’t have a solution to give you.”

The shred of mane in Discord’s claw exploded and out popped several kernels, all of which he caught in a pinstriped popcorn bag. He then took several pieces of popcorn and shoved them into his mouth.

Applejack snorted, mouthing something under her breath.

“My mane is popcorn…” Pinkie Pie cooed.

“Fine, I get it,” Twilight groaned. “Thanks for the help, I guess.”

Discord folded his arms together. “Now that doesn’t sound all that appreciative. I’m hurt, Twilight.”

Twilight’s eye twitched, and she sighed. “Thank you very much for doing this for us, Discord,” she said, hissing the last word.

“It’s an improvement, at any rate. I’ll take it.”

“Twilight,” Pinkie Pie said, more firmly.

Twilight felt something go pop in her head. “…Yes, Pinkie?”

Pinkie Pie pointed. “My mane is popcorn.”

“...I can see that.”

Discord smiled amidst a bite and offered the bag. Pinkie Pie giggled in response, took a few, and chewed down. They crunched and crunched and she even winced as she went.

He shook his bag of popcorn at them, his speech muffled. He then swallowed. “There is one other thing that I can give to you,” he began, his tone sharper than before. “And I think that it might be of some interest to you.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. The others followed suit.

“There is some… remote quality to them,” he said, furrowing his brow, “but when I say that, I mean… there is some… part of them that isn’t here.”

“What do you mean by that?” Starlight asked, blinking.

Discord motioned toward the unponies. “I mean, most of them is right there, with us. But there is… some part of them is someplace very remote. I can’t resolve it from here.”

Sunset frowned. “Any idea what’s on the other end?”

Discord solemnly shook his head. “None.”

* * *

“From what you tell me,” Sunburst said, adjusting his glasses, “it seems the general pattern is that nopony knows anything.”

“Or anyzebra, or anydraconequus,” Starlight said.

“I know some spells that come close but…” He rubbed the back of his head and blushed. “Not any that would quite do the trick. Too many unresolved variables. I’m afraid I’m another dead end for you…”

The eight mares collectively groaned.

“Either way,” Starlight said, wrapping a foreleg around him, “we’re glad you’re here. Thanks for coming out to Canterlot for us.”

Sunburst smiled and waved a dismissive hoof. “Oh, it’s fine. It’s nice to get out every once in a while. But especially if it means seeing my oldest friend again.”

Starlight giggled and blushed in return.

“Oh!” Sunburst gasped, “I almost forgot.” His magic unclipped his saddlebag and then reached inside. “I did bring something that I thought you might find useful,” he said, fishing out a sizable stack of papers, all bound together with string. “In fact, Twilight, something tells me that you might recognize this.”

Twilight took it and then looked at the cover. In short order, the others bunched up around her, craning their necks to see what it was.

The Answer.

Several of them gasped at once, and even as Twilight flipped through it, running her eyes across page after page, they stole glances at Sunburst who watched their reaction with a demure satisfaction.

Finally, Sunset stepped forward. “How did you get that?”

“Well,” he said, chuckling, “after I became the Crystal Empire’s crystaller, I finally had some clout. So, I asked for a copy. It’s a highly sought-out item for scholars, after all. And here I am!” he exclaimed jovially.

Sunset hummed in response.

“You should really check out the appendices for the spell,” he added, pointing lazily at it. “It has a lot of the compiled notes from that time. The essays on the infinite are especially fascinating.”

Sunset chuckled. “You don’t say?”

“It’s a marvel of a spell.”

“Well, I should hope so!” Sunset exclaimed, laughing. “That thing was pretty darn hard to write!”

At that, Sunburst’s glasses slid down his face, only for him to catch them before they fell completely off. “Wait a minute… you’re that Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset grinned. “One of infinitely many, anyway.”

His jaw dropped, and then he bowed. “Oh my, I had no idea I was in the presence of such a distinguished mage. It is an honor!”

Twilight’s voice burst out of the crystal ball with a roaring laughter, prompting Twilight herself to laugh as well with the others following.

Twilight lifted The Answer up. “So, Sunburst, since you brought this, do you mind if I use it?”

“By all means,” he replied. “Do you need any paper?”

“Please.”

Sunburst hoofed some over and even threw in a quill. Twilight sat down on the throne room floor and started writing, referencing several passages from several pages. The pages crinkled and her quill quietly purred with each stroke.

“What are you gunna do, Twi?” Applejack asked.

“I have an idea,” Twilight replied. “I’m going to try to extract the part of The Answer that calls on the Rainbow Power. I think it might be useful.”

“Oh, heavens yes,” Rarity said. “If we had something like that on call, that would give us some advantage.”

“Yes, it would,” Twilight’s voice concurred. “We did the same thing that you’re doing right now. I’m sure, by this point, you already know how to do it. Right?”

Twilight held up Sunburst’s copy of The Answer and nodded from side to side. “I think so. I think I might even be able to streamline the spell a bit.”

Twilight’s voice giggled. “We did that too. Modifying the isolines should also, at least, bind the sorting algorithm.”

“Which should make it more compact as it limits potential casters. It should make access a little more private.”

“You just have to be sure to disentangle that from the spell’s main nexus.”

“Already figured out how to do that, just haven’t written it down yet. Now that it’s a standalone spell, I can affect some optimizations that should reduce energy turbulence by thirty-seven percent.”

“Might as well. Anything else?”

Twilight hummed. “Only other thing is to figure out how to control state duration.”

“You can just loop the instructions and make your own exit condition. It should hold up for as long as you need it. It’s what we did.”

Twilight clapped her hooves together. “Great.”

She returned her focus to her work, leaning into the paper as she wrote. With every lick of her lips, her writing sped up.

After a few minutes, Twilight punctuated her last stroke with a jab of her quill. “That should do it,” she announced, standing up. “If it’s okay with you girls, I’d like to try it out.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Yeah! Let’s go!” she exclaimed, punching the air.

“Shoot, Twilight, we’re with ya on whatever ya wanna do,” Applejack said, smirking. “One hundred percent.”

The other four nodded and hummed in agreement.

Twilight grinned and then turned back to her work. Even at four pages, the spell was still rather lengthy. She considered this and then lit her horn. A ball of light appeared above her head.

A pre-cast. A blueprint for a spell.

She scanned down the pages, and with each line, the ball of light grew. Several sigils formed within, swirling around each other at increasing speeds. Twilight glanced between it and the written spell in front of her, making several comparisons. After a few moments, she folded the sheets back together and passed it to Sunset.

“Can I get a volunteer, please?” Twilight asked, turning toward the unponies.

A wave of discomfort passed through the unponies. Gabbro stumbled forward. “I-I’ll volunteer.”

Twilight smiled. “Thanks. This shouldn’t take too long. I can’t promise anything from it either, but it’s worth a shot.” She turned to her friends. “Ready?”

“Ready!” they all replied.

Twilight touched her horn to the pre-cast, absorbing it. Her horn then took on a new, more-potent energy. It glowed and glowed, shooting off tiny, harmless sparks with increasing frequency. The air around her stiffened and dried, and then Twilight herself glowed. And then her five closest friends, the other Elements of Harmony, bristled with latent energy as well.

Several pillars of white light scooped them up, and they disappeared for several moments amidst the roar.

And then they emerged, splashed with every color of the rainbow. Their manes grew several sizes larger, flapping from the energy coursing through them, and their coats radiated a cool white glow. A swirling ball of pure energy held them aloft above everypony else.

The others beamed, save Gabbro who cowered.

“Yes!” Twilight exclaimed. “Here goes!”

Several beams sprang forth from their ball and arced toward Gabbro. One connected, and then two, and then several of them. They then banded together to form one singular beam. The cacophony intensified as the Rainbow Power was unleashed, entangling Gabbro with unprecedented magnitudes of energy.

What the actual hay, Starlight thought. They’ve been able to do this before?

Why the buck did they not blast me into the next millennium?

And yet, while Gabbro flinched, she appeared otherwise unfazed.

Twilight snarled and channeled her all into the beam. The stream intensified, but Gabbro remained in place, looking up at Twilight through worried eyes.

“Is it working!?” Sunset shouted.

“I don’t know!” Twilight replied.

The beam wavered, decayed into several tendrils once more, and then even those fizzled out. The six of them floated to the ground, gently touching down. Each mare bore a confused frown.

Sunset blinked, shifting glances between the two parties. Sunburst adjusted his glasses, furrowing his brow. Gabbro checked herself in various spots and shook her head when her search came up empty.

And Starlight swallowed. What in the world? she thought.

And then they heard a whining sound, and then several. Everypony glanced around for the source before zeroing in on the six’s cutie marks. They buzzed, spraying out several small symbols.

The six mares in question shared uncertain glances and a few shrugs.

The cutie marks quit their buzzing as quickly as they started. Silence fell once more, and even then, they remained fixed on their cutie marks.

“That’s… strange…” Rarity trailed off. “Those don’t usually do that unless…”

Twilight shook her head and considered Gabbro again. Her brow furrowed. “I don’t know what that was, but I can say this, at least,” she said as a beam of light enveloped her. One bright flash later, she emerged once more, back to her everyday self. “That wasn’t a victory ring.”

* * *

“Could it be that it just didn’t work?” Sunset asked, leaning across the table.

“Ah honestly don’t think that weren’t it,” Applejack replied, leaning back in her seat. “The Rainbow Power is mighty powerful. If it wanted to do something, it would do it.”

Starlight sighed and sat back in her seat, only for the evening sun to hit her square in the face thus forcing her to return to an upright position.

The other five sat around the table, eating quietly in silence. Rainbow Dash traced circles through her mashed potatoes with her spoon, while Pinkie Pie drew a smiley face. Twilight flip-flopped between the assorted fruit on her plate and the large stack of papers beside her, scanning each of them in turn.

“But again,” Sunset said, slamming her hoof against the table, “why didn’t the Rainbow Power do anything?”

“It could be that there was nothing for it to do,” Twilight said, sending several pages to a reject pile behind her. “I’ve been thinking about it and it’s possible that the problem isn’t something it can fix. Even the Elements of Harmony have historically dealt with those of evil hearts. Gabbro didn’t exactly strike me as an evil heart.”

“Still, maybe it did something and we didn’t see it. Maybe she can eat normal food now.”

Rarity wiped her mouth clean. “I suppose we will see later on if those carrots that we gave her afterward will take.”

Twilight nodded. “And if that’s the case, then this half of the problem is solved.”

“So, um… does anypony think it will?” Fluttershy asked.

Applejack shook her head. “Ah wouldn’ count on it, Sugarcube.”

“Wouldn’t it be really great, though?” Pinkie Pie asked. “Just hit the unponies with the Rainbow Power laser beam! And then they’d be good as new! And then none of them would be sad or anything, and that would make me really happy!”

“Laser beam?” Sunset giggled.

Rainbow Dash snickered. “Hey. We’ve solved a lot of problems by blasting them with lasers,” she said proudly, kicking back in her seat.

“Well hey, Twilight solved me with lasers. So I believe it!” Sunset laughed.

Pinkie Pie pointed around the table with her fork. “I’d do it too. It might take us a while to laser a few thousand ponies, but if that’ll get them out of this problem, then I’m alllll for it.”

“Hear hear,” Rarity replied, sipping on her wine.

“It would be nice,” Twilight said. “But, like Applejack said, I wouldn’t count on it. Besides, their starvation isn’t the only issue we have to deal with, either.”

“That’s right,” Fluttershy agreed. “We still have all the ponies that they took. We have to find them.”

“And we gotta close them portals,” Applejack added.

“I think,” Twilight began, glaring into a single sheet of paper, “we also need to get down to the root of the problem. That seems to be the existence of the Nameless everywhere. Or, rather, the lack of it.”

Starlight let her fork clatter against the plate. “I kinda think that’s a good thing to figure out. Where do we start?”

Twilight flipped through several more pages before placing them back onto the table in favor of another stack. She sorted through those as well and then looked back up. “Just from my notes here, I think we need to find those other Adamantines. We need to get them to close those portals.”

“Because the longer those are open,” Rarity said, “the higher the chance something dangerous might slip through.”

“Exactly. While we’re at it, I myself could probably learn to cast the portal spell. Might be useful.”

“That’s if they agree to teach us.”

“That’s if we can even find them.”

“I know the seal would be a good place to start,” Fluttershy said.

“Yeah, but which one?” Applejack asked, groaning.

“As much as I would like to do all that,” Rainbow Dash said, slamming the table, “aren’t we forgetting the other big problem of all those baddies on the other side?”

Starlight sunk further into her seat, opting to eat as close to her plate as possible.

Sunset regarded her friend for a moment and then shook her head. “Right. That.”

Applejack stabbed her fork into her eggs and left it there. “To be honest, Ah reckon that’s a more important problem.”

“We gotta save them!” Rainbow Dash cried.

“I kinda think we should try and find those missing ponies…” Fluttershy said.

“Ah hear ya, Sugarcube,” Applejack said, “but they could be anywhere. And we haven’t even found some of them other Equestrias yet.”

“But what about the unponies? What about them? We still gotta find a way to help them out,” Pinkie Pie said.

“We don’t even know where to go with them.”

“Well, we gotta do something.”

“Ah know!”

“I simply hate to put a damper on the situation,” Rarity began, “but we don’t have much time either. The thing future Twilight mentioned is going to happen here within the next few days.”

“Augh!” Starlight cried. “This is just too big for just eight of us.”

Sunset laid her head in her hooves. So much… she thought. So many ponies that need help right now. So many problems… How are we supposed to do all of this in just a few days? Help the unponies, help the missing ponies, help the ponies in those alternate worlds...

Sunset shook her head and sighed. This is too big for just eight of us.

Sunset blinked and then blinked some more. But… it doesn’t have to be just us.

Rarity glanced up from her plate. “Sunset? Dear? Do you have something to say?”

Sunset nodded and cleared her throat. “Yeah, actually. It is too big for just us, but I know where we can find a lot more help. A few realities’ worth of help.

“Say we liberate the other worlds, okay?” she continued. “And then, maybe, we can ask the ponies there to help us look. I mean, they’re missing ponies too. Plus, maybe they’ll find a cure for the unponies. ...Not to mention we’d problem save a few million from the awful conditions those timelines are in right now.”

Applejack nodded. “My thinkin’ exactly.”

“This is too big for just eight of us,” she continued, nodding to Starlight. “So, I think if we help them and they help us in return, then we might have a chance.”

“That could take a lot of time,” Fluttershy said.

Sunset chuckled. “Actually, I bet we could get future Twilight to help us get that done super quick.”

“Ya reckon so?” Applejack asked, sitting up.

“Infinitely many worlds. I’m pretty darn sure that we figured out how to do it by now,” Sunset said.

“Well… that might be true. I know she’s—no, I am using the crystal ball. Actually, no. I don’t think there’d be any problem with her moving the ball’s view through the portal since it’s just connected spacetime there.” Twilight shifted some papers around. “Yeah, that seems like a pretty strong argument to me.”

Fluttershy nodded affirmatively. “It’s very true. We’d be helping a lot of ponies too.”

Starlight grinned from ear to ear in response.

“Awww yeah!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, punching the air. “I can’t wait to kick some bad guy butt!”

Pinkie Pie laughed. “Oh, we’re gunna get them good! We have the Rainbow Power now, after all!”

Twilight cleared her throat. “I… heh, never thought I would say this, but… yeah! Tirek will be really easy, at least. King Sombra will also probably be a pushover.”

“I do much enjoy hearing you say that, darling,” Rarity said, giggling. “Especially after all the grief they’ve given us.”

“In this timeline,” Applejack added.

“Hmmm, yes.”

“Who else?”

Twilight shifted through more papers, scanned the ones she found, and nodded. “Right now, we can only get to Discord and Nightmare Moon. They shouldn’t give us any trouble. But I have some other ideas on how to approach them.”

Applejack grinned. “You’re gunna try and reform ’em, aren’t ya?”

“Of course,” Twilight said, glancing toward another paper. “We know they can be.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Fluttershy said.

“So that’s them,” Applejack said, scratching her head. “Alright, and what about Flim and Flam?”

Twilight pulled up another thick stack of papers. “We’d probably have to investigate that more thoroughly once all this is over. Really, the only villain I see being an actual issue is Chrysalis. I have an idea, but let me think on it.”

“I’m so glad you have a plan going in, Twilight,” Starlight said. “You have all of those worlds covered. But…”

“Uh huh?”

Starlight stared holes into the table, her brow pensively furrowed. She swallowed, and then swallowed again. “I was… just… I was wondering. That’s all.”

The others turned with concerned frowns, simultaneously leaning across the table.

Twilight glanced up, her lip quivering in anticipation. “Starlight…” She sighed. “I… don’t have anything on the wasteland. I think, in this case… it might be too late for them.”

Starlight shuddered and shrank into her seat. “You… really think so?”

Twilight nodded solemnly. “Yes.”

Starlight sunk even further, and soon enough, her head came to rest on the table itself. She grimaced as if she was in physical pain. A quiet and defeated sigh brushed past her lips and then she fell silent.

At that, Twilight placed her stack of papers with the rest of them, and she stood up and smiled. “But you know, if my ordeal taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t lose hope. If we can’t, we can’t. It’ll be a loss. But who knows?” she said, meeting Starlight’s gaze. “Maybe we’ll find a way. Together.”

A small smile reappeared on Starlight’s face. “Oh. Yeah. I guess you’re right. Again,” she said with a giggle.

Twilight nodded. “There’re some things that I’d like to put together, but I think we can leave by tomorrow afternoon,” she said before burying herself into her new stack of papers.

“I can handle that,” Starlight said.

“Me too,” Sunset agreed. “That might give me a chance to go home and set some things up.”

Applejack looked toward the afternoon sun and nodded. “And Ah don’t know about y’all, but after the day we’ve had today, Ah’m plum tuckered out anyhow.”

“Agreed there,” Rarity said. “I think a little rest will do some wonders for us.”

“Ha!” Pinkie Pie laughed. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep! I’m so excited, like, I’m really really excited. This is going to be so good!” she exclaimed, banging the table and making the food jump off her plate.

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash said. “This is gunna be the best thing ever!”

“Yay,” Fluttershy said, clapping.

“Great,” Twilight said offhoofedly, placing a thoughtful hoof to her muzzle. “Then, I think, there’s just one other thing we need to get in order.”

Sunset leaned across the table and smirked. “What’s up?”

“I was thinking about what Adamantine said when she took us to the door earlier,” Twilight said, “that something about that room had changed.”

“Really?” Applejack asked.

“Honestly… I noticed it too. I think I’ll have Princess Celestia and Princess Luna look at it,” she said, flipping through her papers one last time before laying them on the table. “But I think it’s related to everything.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow, glanced around at the others, and then swallowed. “What makes you say that?”

“I’m convinced,” Twilight continued. “Something changed in that room after I was last there. Which means… whatever happened there… it happened recently.”