• Published 26th Aug 2016
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Glimpses - Pen Stroke



The power to ask “what if,” can be a source of great amusement… but for some, the hypotheticals are haunting reminders of what could have been.

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Core Chapter - Displeasing Constants

Glimpses

By Pen Stroke

Pre-read & Edited by

Illustrious Q, El Oso, Recon777, Questionable & Winston

Core Chapter

Displeasing Constants

====================


In celebration of Past Sins’ fifth anniversary, please enjoy the one-shot story contained in this “Core” chapter before going on to indulge in the more hypothetical, and far less canon, “Variance” chapters.

Thanks so much for five great years of friendship.

Sincerely
Pen Stroke


“It is so good to be home.”

Twilight pushed open the doors to the private apartment of her palace, smiling as Nyx and Spike trod in behind her. Spike was stifling a yawn while Nyx nearly stumbled into one of the reading cushions near the door. Their exhaustion was a little more intense than what Twilight felt, but that was only thanks to the tea she had enjoyed on the train ride back. The caffeine, however, was starting to fade, and Twilight knew it wouldn’t be long before she’d be stumbling off to her own bed. “Go get cleaned up, you two, and get to sleep.”

Normally such an early bedtime would rouse very vocal complaints from both Spike and Nyx. Nyx tried to resist. She shook her head and opened her mouth to protest, but all she managed to utter was a yawn. It was a sight that made Spike chuckle. He nodded his head to Twilight, and gently nudged Nyx towards the hallway that lead to their bedrooms. That was enough to break her resistance. Nyx and Spike wished Twilight a sleepy ‘good night’ before walking out the living room.

“I guess that’s what they get for not taking a nap on the train.” Starlight Glimmer stepped into the room, setting down a few of her own bags in the hallway outside.

Twilight nodded as she watched them go to their bedrooms. “It’s been a long couple days for all of us. I never thought Flurry Heart’s Crystalling would be so… eventful. All that trouble, and it wasn’t even anypony in particular causing it. Just a matter of circumstance.” Twilight flopped down in one of the reading cushions, stretching out her wings and letting a sigh escape her lips as she sank into the soft fabric.

“That or Discord, though I think he learned his lesson after that road trip he sent you five on.” Starlight said as she remained standing, though she did move a bit closer to Twilight. “Can’t believe it took so long to get back to Ponyville, though.”

“The snowstorm messed up a lot of train schedules. We’re lucky we didn’t have to wait to take the train tomorrow morning, though I couldn’t really complain about spending more time with my niece.” Twilight smiled, squirming in her seat. “I still have trouble believing it myself when I say it out loud. I have a niece. I’m an aunt, and she’s so adorable. She’s also an alicorn, which raises numerous concerns and questions in its own right, but at the moment, I’m going to focus on the how cute Flurry Heart is.”

Starlight nodded. “Yeah, she’s cute, though she is going to have massive wings when she gets older. I’ve never seen a newborn foal with wings that big, and they will only grow bigger. Also, that horn. I don’t know about you, but I feel bad for Princess Cadance.”

Twilight winced. “If what I heard from the doctor is true, that horn almost poked his eye out when Flurry Heart was being born.”

Starlight stood still for a moment, head tilted to one side before she grimaced and brought a hoof to her eye. “You’d never think you could lose an eye delivering a baby.”

“Just like you’d never think a crying baby could break a millennia-old artifact, or that my student’s first friendship lesson would be so crucial to fixing it.” Twilight gestured for Starlight to sit as she smiled. “Still, I am just as glad to know your first friendship lesson went so well. When do you think you’ll send your first letter to Sunburst?”

Starlight moved over to one of the other cushions and sat down. “Probably in the next few days, if not tomorrow. I’ve got his address, but I realized when I was talking with him that I don’t know the castle’s address. Does this place even have an address?”

“Technically, the palace’s name is the address. That’s how it works for Canterlot Castle, though it doesn’t help that this place’s name is still in flux.” Twilight used her magic to fetch some glasses of water from the kitchen. “I believe the first, and most common, name is ‘Friendship Castle.’ I’ve also heard the variation ‘Castle of Friendship’ a few times. Another one I’ve heard is ‘Ponyville Palace.’ I’m not particularly fond of any of them, but I imagine one will eventually stick, and that’s what it will be. Still, if you’re worried about the mail getting lost, Cadance knows how to send and receive letters from Spike. You might need to bribe him with a cupcake once in a while, but it’s one of the fastest way to sends letters across Equestria.”

Starlight gave a thankful nod as Twilight passed a glass of water into her own levitation spell. “I don’t think I’d want to inconvenience Cadance. She’s going to have her hooves full taking care of Flurry Heart, even if she has a castle filled with servants to help her.” Starlight laughed to herself. “And look at us; we tried to talk about mail and my friendship lesson, but I’ve managed to bring it back to talking about the new baby.”

Twilight giggled as she waved her hoof. “It’s okay. I imagine most ponies in Equestria, especially the Crystal Empire, will be talking about little baby Flurry Heart for a while. Even if they have some more sleepless nights to endure, I know Shining and Cadance will make good parents. They’re in a lot better position than I was when I had to help raise Spike.”

“You helped raise Spike? I didn’t know that.”

After finishing a sip from her glass, Twilight nodded. “Yes, haven’t I told you that story? I had just started at Celestia’s school when the princess showed me the little baby dragon I hatched during my entrance exam. Then she told me that I’d have to help take care of him. During the first day of school, Princess Celestia made me Spike’s primary caregiver. I had to feed him and try to calm him when he was crying.”

A bittersweet smile formed on Twilight’s face. “It was murder on my schoolwork. I was overwhelmed, especially considering I was still a kid myself. I even shouted at poor Spike in my frustration before I managed to realize why Celestia gave me the responsibility. After that, it got better. Before long, Spike was talking and sleeping through the night. He grew to be my friend and number one assistant—a younger brother. It’s only recently, since our crazy trip in the Rainbow Range, that I’ve been feeling our bond shifting back to something more… maternal. He’ll always be my Spike, no matter what.” Twilight smiled warmly as she took another sip of water.

“I guess that’s one reason you were so good with Nyx. As AJ might say, it wasn’t your first rodeo.”

Twilight swallowed and let out an uneasy chuckle. “That’s true, though I never realized how much taking care of Spike would prepare me to take care of somepony Nyx’s age. Well, Nyx’s biological and mental age, anyway. Technically speaking, she’s only about a year and a half old at this point. But biologically, she’s just as mature as Apple Bloom.” Twilight’s tone grew hollow and her eyes wandered to an empty corner of the room. “When we threw her first birthday party this past spring, we used Apple Bloom’s age. It… it seemed appropriate.”

Starlight tilted her head to the side before speaking gently. “Twilight, are you alright? You sound... disappointed, and you were pretty quiet on the train as well. I watched you brush your hoof through Nyx’s mane for what must have been a half hour while she was reading that book from the Crystal Empire’s library.”

Twilight cleared her throat and tried to make eye contact, but couldn’t seem to meet Starlight’s scrutinizing gaze. “Oh, that… you don’t need to worry about that. I was just feeling a bit clingy, that’s all. That level of concern, however, is exactly what I’d expect from a good friend. Yes, that was very good, Starlight. Maybe we should make next week’s lesson about—”

“Thanks, but I’m not letting you change the subject to another friendship lesson. I want to hear why you were being ‘clingy.’”

Twilight chuckled softly at how Starlight had managed to see through her attempt to shift the conversation. “I guess… I don’t know. Flurry Heart is such an adorable baby. As she grows up, Cadance and Shining are going to be there for every moment. They’ll hear Flurry’s first word be ‘mama’ or ‘dada.’ They’ll get to see her go to her first day of kindergarten. They’ll get to help her learn her ABC’s and 123’s. They’ll even get to clean her stinky diapers and stay up all night rocking her to sleep when she’s fussy. Cadance and Shining will get to help Flurry Heart every step of the way as she grows up.

“But with Nyx and Spike… I missed some of that.” Twilight’s smile faded. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to change what the three of us have. We are a family, but on days like today, I can’t help but feel like I missed out on something.”

Twilight used her magic to form some basic geometric shapes in the air, which she assembled into depictions of Spike and Nyx. “Spike grew to be mostly self-reliant faster than any foal. Nyx… she was never a foal. She just completely skipped that part of her life.” The geometric shapes gave happy little waves in Twilight’s direction before fading away as she ended her spell. “I feel… maybe I’m a little jealous that I missed out on some of that.”

“I don’t know. If I was going to have a filly or colt of my own, I wouldn’t mind skipping a bunch of stinky diapers,” Starlight said lightheartedly, before her voice shifted to an understanding tone. “But I can see where you're coming from.”

“I think I’d be happy if I could just know, if that makes sense. Maybe it’s my inquisitive nature betraying me, but being able to at least see what Nyx would have been like would be nice.” Twilight lifted a hoof to her mouth to cover a yawn before she arched her back and stretched her wings. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to keep you. It’s not just Nyx and Spike who could use a good night's sleep after everything that’s happened. Do you need help finding your way back to your room?”

Starlight shook her head. “I know the way from here. This place and my bedroom are about the only two rooms I really know how to find in this castle of yours.” She finished off her drink with a few quick gulps then set the empty glass down next to Twilight's. She began to head out of the room, pausing just before her hoof touched the hallway.

“Starlight… is something wrong?” Twilight asked.

“Nope.” Starlight turned around, wearing a big smile and shaking her head. “Just got lost in thought. Have a good night, Twilight.”

“Sleep well, Starlight.”

~~~

“So, does anyone know what Starlight wanted to see us about?” Rainbow asked as she led the group of friends through Twilight’s castle. They had all received invitations that morning to some sort of unveiling. The nature of the thing being unveiled was a mystery, at least to the five mares now climbing the steps of the castle’s central trunk.

Pinkie bounced to the top of the stairs, then turned around to smile at and wait for the others who were moving at a more casual pace. “I don’t know, but it sounded like good news, and it’s for everypony. It’s good news, everypony! Do you think it’s a party to celebrate saving the Crystal Empire?”

“Maybe it’s something to celebrate her first friendship lesson,” Applejack said as she and the others caught up with Pinkie and began to move through the castle hallways.

“Both are equally possible, I’d say, but I imagine we shan’t have to wait too long to find out.” Rarity gestured to the throne room door, where Twilight was waiting outside with Spike. The duo greeted the quintet with waves. “I presume you got an invitation to Starlight’s mysterious event as well.”

Twilight nodded to Rarity. “I found it slipped under my bedroom door this morning. Do any of you know what’s going on?”

“Unfortunately, we’re all just as mystified as you are.” Rarity went up to the throne room door and placed a hoof on it. “Have you tried going inside?”

“Spike tried to take a peek about an hour ago, but Starlight shooed him out.” Twilight opened her mouth to say more, but was cut off by the sound of the latches on throne room doors clicking. As the doors opened from the inside, Starlight’s smiling face came into view.

“Thank you all for waiting. I had to put on the final touches.” Starlight stepped back, letting everyone step into the throne room. All eyes searched around, seeking what had been changed as they naturally drifted toward their individual thrones.

“Final touches on what? I don’t see anything,” Spike said. He didn’t sit in his seat, but instead stood on it like a stool so he could see over the map table more easily.

“A new spell.” Starlight’s horn lit up as she levitated a clipboard sized chalkboard. Its frame was composed of crystal, bearing a striking resemblance to edge of the nearby table. “I wanted to say thanks for everything you’ve done, for the second chance you’ve all given me. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to express my gratitude for a while, and last night, Twilight gave me an idea.”

Starlight set the small chalkboard down on the table. The crystal map gently glimmered to life, though instead of showing a map of Equestria, it displayed a sea of swirling, pastel colors. “What you’re looking at is the map table’s natural aura of temporal magic. Without this unique property, my time travel spell wouldn’t have been able to function.”

Starlight took a piece of chalk that had been clipped to the chalkboard and began to write. “I don’t know where the magic comes from, but I have a feeling I know its purpose. The map table sees the past, the present, and maybe even a bit into the future. It then uses that knowledge to give you friendship missions, sending you where you are most needed and can do the most good. For example, have any of you wondered why or how the combinations of ponies sent to solve problems are always ideal for the situation?”

“Well, I’ll admit, I’ve never pondered it myself,” Rarity said, her words drawing nods from most of the others seated around the table. “I’ve always just trusted the map, like we would trust the Elements of Harmony or each other.”

Fluttershy gently brushed her hoof across the table, as if petting a friendly animal. “We haven’t been given a reason not to trust it, and it has let us help a lot of creatures.”

“I can personally attest to that,” Starlight said. “Now, while I was working with the table these last few days on my gift, I discovered a few things. One, having so much natural temporal magic makes the table something of an anchor in the event reality is altered. Even in instances where the present was vastly different from the world we know, the table still existed. It was why Twilight was able to travel back in time again and again to keep trying to stop me.

“Two, you may not be getting sent to fix any friendship problems for a while.” Starlight used a hoof to point at the table. “The swirling colors you see are indicative of the problem. The first time I cast my time travel spell, the magic of the table was very constant. The aura from the table was just a simple blue. Now, as you can tell by all the swirling colors we see, its magic is far more erratic. Twilight and I will have to take some time to figure out how to, for lack of better phrasing, put the map table back into focus before it will work normally again.”

Starlight paused from her writing to give the chalkboard a quick, dramatic spin while smiling at the group. “But, at least for today, its current, erratic state is to our advantage.”

“How can having a broken map table be to our advantage?” Rainbow asked.

Starlight finished writing on the chalkboard and set down the piece of chalk. “We can briefly adjust the table’s focus. With a simple request, the table can use its magic to show us possible variations of Equestria. For example…” Starlight’s horn glowed, casting a spell on the chalkboard that caused the gems around its frame to glow.

The swirling colors on the map table shifted, starting to stabilize until it showed a picture. It showed a familiar mare flying through a muddy, red sky. The mare had a colorful, rainbow mane, but the differences were as visible as the similarities. She bore a scar over her eye. There was a chunk missing from her ear. Her left wing was not of flesh and bone, but of steel and magic.

“Whoa,” Rainbow leaned forward in her seat, putting her hooves on the table. “Is that—”

“That is the you of another time, another place, another variation of our world where things are similar but different.” Starlight said as the others craned their necks or leaned in, trying to catch a glimpse of the other Rainbow Dash that was being displayed by the map table. They, however, didn’t get to look for long. Starlight erased the chalkboard, causing the image on the table to dissipate back into swirling colors as she wrote something else. “Here’s another one I came across, one that isn’t as drastically different.”

“I need a hayburger in my belly right now.”

Rainbow Dash’s muffled voice came from the table as the colors refocused, showing the six friends gathering around the fountain in the Ponyville town square. The events progressed quickly, Twilight finding a scroll in the statue’s mouth, and then getting giddy about a scavenger hunt. The whole time, the alternate Pinkie Pie was acting strange, even for her. She was impatient, even snapping at Twilight about her love of books.

“I don’t recall ever going on a scavenger hunt, at least not with everyone here,” Twilight glanced up from the map table and looked at Starlight. “But this seems like regular, normal Ponyville. It’s not some dystopian world where a villain took over. Is this something that happens in our future?”

“Not the future. This is another possible present,” Starlight said. “It’s the first thing I managed to get into focus when I was working on the spell last night. It’s a variation of reality where Flurry Heart isn’t born yet. This scavenger hunt we’re watching is a game Shining Armor put together to tell you about Cadance’s pregnancy. In this other timeline, I’m still… well… I’m still trying to formulate my time travel spell. Some events happened, some didn’t, and others are happening in a different order. You found out the news about the baby during last year’s Hearth’s Warming because Cadance got pregnant sooner. Thus, this scavenger hunt never needed to happen in our present.”

“But what’s different?” Twilight asked as she went back to watching the map table. Their view of the alternate reality now showed her and her friends going to the Ponyville schoolhouse.

“It’s part of the reason why I’m glad Nyx had plans with her friends today. As far as I can tell, this is a world without Nyx.” Starlight let her words hang in the air. Many eyes in the room moved to Twilight, who was herself staring down at the table. The only noise came from the ponies on the other side of the polished surface continued their search for clues around Ponyville.

Starlight eventually broke the silence, clearing her throat before continuing. “It’s hard to say what would have to change to make this world happen. Maybe the pieces left behind after Luna’s purification either weren’t gathered, were destroyed, were never delivered to Spell Nexus, or perhaps just didn’t have the same potential. Maybe Spell Nexus never became ‘blessed’ and never formed his cult. Whatever the cause, no one tried to resurrect Nightmare Moon, and thus Nyx was never born.”

Applejack sat back in her throne and scratched her head. “But how in tarnation would that have affected when Princess Cadance got pregnant? One sure don’t seem related to the other.”

The seven mares and dragon glanced around at one another, pondering the question before Rarity sat up a bit taller in her chair. “Perhaps Twilight raising Nyx as a daughter inspired Princess Cadance and Prince Shining to start trying to have a baby earlier, or perhaps it had something to do with Shining being enthralled as a soldier for the Children of Nightmare.”

“But what about the other things that are different. Like, why would Nyx not existing help you figure out your time travel spell faster?” Rainbow asked.

Starlight was silent a moment, pondering the question before her eyes lit up. “A book. During Nyx’s rule over Equestria, the Children of Nightmare started moving books from Canterlot to Night Stone Castle. Of course, all that had to be undone when things were put back to normal. There was one particular book which I needed to find in the Canterlot Library to get my spell to work. I found that book right where the card catalog said it would be. Maybe, in a timeline where Nyx never existed, that book got misplaced and I lost weeks trying to find the information I needed.”

Twilight used her magic to project the image of a river into the air. “Zecora… or rather, the Zecora in the world where the changelings took over, described this concept really well to me.” Next to the river, Twilight manifested an image of Zecora as she had been in that timeline: a wise tribal leader with an impressive, princess-quality mohawk. “Time is a river where even the tiniest changes can lead to a cascade of effects downstream. To phrase it more simply, a small change can have big consequences. On the other hoof, I imagine a big change can just as easily yield numerous additional small consequences.”

“Different paths on the river of time. That’s what the table can now let us see. It lets us ask ‘what if?’” Starlight erased the chalkboard again, letting the table lose focus and return to a pool of swirling colors. “I realize this could be a very dangerous spell. Being able to see ‘what if’ scenarios could drive ponies mad or even provide some with dangerous information. Still, this spell will likely stop working once we fix the map table’s focus permanently. In the meantime, I’m turning the chalkboard over to Twilight so she can decide what should be done with it.”

“What should we do with it?” Rainbow leapt from her seat, hovering above the table and gesturing towards it with her hooves. “Are you kidding? We should see some more awesome versions of me.”

“And more super silly party pony versions of me,” Pinkie chimed in.

“I can’t say seeing parallel realities wouldn’t be fascinating, Rainbow, but we do have to consider the side-effects of such a spell.” Twilight used her magic to gently push Rainbow towards her throne. “After all, I doubt Starlight could have predicted her time travel spell would knock the table out of focus in the first place.”

“But Twilight, darling, surely a little peak into the other possibilities couldn’t hurt,” Rarity said. “I personally would love to see how fashions change as we gaze through to these other worlds. It might very well be a wonderful source of inspiration.”

Applejack smirked. “I can’t say I ain’t curious, but I’ll trust Twilight and Starlight on this one. They’re the ones who went time jumping, not us.”

“If something goes wrong, we can always just stop, can’t we?” Fluttershy asked. “It’s not like we’re hurting anypony, right?”

“All right,” Twilight said, smirking as she glanced over her friends and eventually focused on Starlight. “Looks like the vote is basically unanimous, Starlight.”

Starlight returned Twilight’s smile. “I promise, we can stop the moment we see any negative side-effects. But for now, I hope this spell properly demonstrates how much I appreciate what you did for me. You helped me not only see but live in a future where I have friends again. This spell seemed like an appropriate way to express my gratitude.” Starlight picked up the piece of chalk, giving it a small twirl as she smiled at everyone. “So, what do we want to see first?”

“Oh! Oh! I know! What if Applejack was a giant, like three times as tall as an apple tree? Or what if the princesses had a super huge pillow fight? Or what if both those things happened at the same time?” Pinkie Pie asked, bouncing out of her seat. “Or what if I found a talking plant from outer space? Or what if me, Rarity, and Applejack had to go on a super epic adventure beyond Equestria to save Twilight when a spell backfired and her horn started to rot? Or what if Celestia secretly hated tea? Or what if the embodiment of death took a holiday? Or what if Fluttershy was the actual Equestria-wide champion of being quiet? Or—”

“One thing at a time, Pinkie Pie,” Rarity said. “That all sounds wonderfully fascinating, but I think we should take turns. That, and perhaps brew some tea and get some light snacks. I imagine we may be enjoying Starlight’s gift for a while.”

~~~

Nyx struggled to contain her laughter as she watched her friends’ expressions. At the Cutie Mark Crusader Clubhouse, the five core members—her, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Twist—had gathered for a matter of utmost importance. It was something that simply could not wait another day: the selection of a single photo for a rare honor from the few dozen that were spread out on the clubhouse floor.

Nyx was having her friends help her choose which picture of her new cousin Flurry Heart would go into her treasure book back at the library.

“I still think this one is the best,” Sweetie Belle said, holding up the picture that had been her personal favorite for a while. “Look at her. That teeny tiny yawn of hers is so cute, and Princess Cadance is holding her in this photo too.”

Apple Bloom looked up from the three photos she was holding in her hooves. “Can’t say that one isn’t cute, but it doesn’t really capture all the crazy stuff that happened. It’s just a cute picture.”

Twist held another photo that had, so far, been overlooked by everyone. “Both those are good, but this one of Princess Flurry Heart with her mom and dad is way cuter.” It was of Shining and Cadance hugging Flurry Heart together while the foal appeared to be squirming and giggling from the attention.

“Oh my gosh, how did I miss that one?” Sweetie Belle dropped the picture she had been favoring and took the one Twist had discovered.

Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “Apple Bloom just said it probably shouldn’t be just a cute photo. I like this one the best. It has a picture of everyone after the Crystalling next to the Crystal Heart. You can even see Starlight Glimmer and that… not-a-wizard-but-still-smart stallion. What was his name again?”

“Sunburst,” Nyx answered. “And I’m not against putting more than one of these in my treasure book; I just can’t put all of them in. After all the amazing stuff we’ve done together, my book is getting full.”

Apple Bloom chuckled. “Well, that’s easy to fix. Just get a bigger one.”

“Or get a second whole book,” Twist suggested.

“You can take my school textbook and cut out the pages if you want,” Scootaloo passed her favorite picture over to Sweetie Belle before looking back down at the pile. After a few moments, a frown formed on her face. “Hey, why aren’t there any pictures of the good stuff? You said the princesses were fighting the storm and the Crystal Heart was shattered. Why didn’t you take any pictures of that?”

“I was with Spike most of the time. We didn’t even know the Crystal Heart was broken until we got back and saw everyone at the library, trying to find a book to fix it.” Nyx raised the flap of her saddlebag and used her hoof to tug it closer so she could look inside. Her magic nudged a few things around before she found another, smaller stack of pictures. “I did try to take photos of those things, but we were in such a rush that they came out kind of bad.”

“I don’t care about blurry. I just want to see awesome,” Scootaloo said as she quickly snatched the photos as soon as they levitated closer to her. She smiled at the picture on top of the pile, which showed the princesses shooting blasts of magic into the looming storm clouds. The image was a little blurry, off kilter, and the princesses themselves were very small. The photo had been taken at a distance without any sort of zoom. “See, even if this isn’t the best picture, it should still be considered because of just how awesome it is.”

Scootaloo passed the first of the new photos to Sweetie Belle. She then looked to the next, and her smile quickly fell into a frown. “Oh come on! She’s flying already!?”

Nyx got up from her place in the photo circle and took a few steps to one side so she could look over Scootaloo’s shoulder. The Scootaloo-irritating picture was of Flurry Heart flying around, dragging Pinkie Pie along as the mare failed to keep Flurry on the ground.

“See?” Scootaloo complained. “What the hay is that?”

Nyx studied the photo, trying to suppress a giggle at the expense of her flightless friend. “You know, foals do sometimes have bursts of magic and flight. Twilight tells me it's an old defense mechanism from when we ponies were wild, roaming herd animals. Something to let little foals protect themselves from predators.”

“That doesn’t make it fair.” Scootaloo passed the photo and continued to look through the stack. “Still, she’ll never be a fast flyer with monstrously big wings like those.”

Apple Bloom sat at the end of the sharing circle where she received photos from Twist. She took a close look at the one with the princesses fighting the storm. “I don’t know about that. The princesses have pretty big wings, and they can still fly pretty fast. Maybe not as fast as Rainbow Dash, but they’re not slow either.”

“It would be interesting to see them race. You know Rainbow Dash would be up for it,” Nyx said before starting to grin. “All that aside, we’re getting close to the end of the pile. So, I have to wonder, did you girls bring the things I asked for? I mean, I appreciate all the help, but we did have an agreement. You got to see foal photos of my new cousin. Now I get to see pictures of… a similar nature.”

“Y’all don’t have to beat around the bush. I brought mine.” Apple Bloom got up from her place in the circle, moving to her saddlebags near the front door of the clubhouse. It took a few moments, but soon she had fished out what looked to be a photo album. She placed the album on her back before returning to the circle.

“I got mine too,” Sweetie Belle and Twist said in unison. When they returned from their saddlebags, they were just carrying single pictures instead of a whole album. Scootaloo was the last. Nyx watched her for a time as her friend remained focused on flipping through the blurrier pictures she had taken.

When Scootaloo didn’t respond to the events going on around her, Nyx cleared her throat and tapped her hoof a few times. This finally drew Scootaloo’s attention, though it was hard to tell if she was simply absorbed in the photos or deliberately ignoring the question.

“Yeah, I’ve got it.” Scootaloo set down the stack of Nyx’s pictures, went to her bags, and returned with a single photo.

Nyx received her friends’ part of their agreement, and couldn’t help but smile as she looked over the pictures. The deal had been simple. She was letting them see baby pictures of her cousin, maybe even letting them keep some if they really wanted. All Nyx wanted in return was to see their baby pictures, too.

“You are all so adorable.” Nyx gushed. “Though… Scootaloo, where’s your mane?”

Scootaloo’s cheeks flushed slightly. “Some babies are born bald, okay? It happens. My super sweet purple mane started growing in after about a week.”

Sweetie Belle raised her hoof, as if they were sitting in Cheerilee’s class. “Ooo, I want to see bald Scootaloo.”

“Me too,” Twist chimed in.

“Yeah, keep it up. I don’t have to give you a ride home.”

Scootaloo’s weak attempt at a threat did manage to have an effect. After she finished looking them over, Nyx let her friends all see the collection of baby photos. Sweetie Belle’s photo was of her making a mess while trying to eat some mushed carrots. Twist’s was of her infant self sleeping with a candy-cane colored teddy bear. Apple Bloom was pictured in a pile of red ribbons. She had taken one and was trying to chew on it as a hoof from off-camera reached to stop her.

“Why did you have so many bows even when you were a foal?” Twist asked as she got her turn to look at Apple Bloom’s photo from the Apple Family album.

“Well, these ribbons haven’t always been mine. My mom used to wear them in her mane,” Apple Bloom said. The smile on her face had weakened. “It’s something my family does, I guess. We like to wear some of the things our parents did. Mom wore these ribbons, and Dad wore a cowpony hat and yoke.”

“So you’re wearing their old stuff?” Scootaloo asked.

“We don’t really wear the originals,” Apple Bloom continued as one of her hooves reached back to fluff her ribbon. “We keep those in the attic in a trunk so they stay safe, but Big Mac wears the same brand of yoke Dad did. Applejack’s hat is just like Dad’s too. My ribbons are the same color and size Mom used to wear.”

“So they’re similar but not the originals. I guess that explains why you’ve always worn such a big ribbon in your hair, and why Applejack doesn’t get super mad when her hat gets trashed,” Sweetie Belle said. “Still, that’s really sweet, Apple Bloom.”

“I guess.”

Eyebrows arched around the sharing circle as the other four fillies all looked at Apple Bloom. “You guess?” Nyx asked.

“I like my ribbon, and I understand what it's supposed to mean, but… I don’t really remember them.” Apple Bloom paused, the last of her smile fading into a frown as her eyes wandered over the photos spread across the floor of the clubhouse. Nyx noticed the clusters of pictures that drew her friend’s attention the most were of Flurry Heart with one, if not both, of her parents.

“I was pretty young when they… I know what they looked like. Granny Smith has plenty of pictures of them. Some of them are even in this scrapbook. But… I don’t remember what their voices sounded like or who they really were as ponies. I don’t know if they liked to sing songs or if they would have read bedtime stories to me. They’re just… two ponies in a bunch of pictures, and one of them happens to wear red ribbons like I do.”

“Oh Apple Bloom, I’m—” Sweetie Belle’s attempt at comforting words was caught off by a knocking at the clubhouse door.

Normally, whoever came knocking would just open the door, but this time the door stayed shut. The girls glanced at one another, then back at the door. Had it just been a bird or the wind? The answer came when the door finally swung open to reveal Applejack.

“Hey there, Sugarcubes. Sorry to ruin your fun, but I have some chores I could use Apple Bloom’s help with.”

A collective “Aw,” escaped the lips of the group.

“Now don’t go fussing. You five have been playing together since before lunch. I think that’s more than enough for one day,” Applejack said, though her voice lacked the usual playful firmness it had when she came to say it was time to go home.

Though there were a few more complaints, the girls obliged. Nyx returned the baby photos of her friends to their respective owners before quickly gathering up all the pictures she had taken. Soon, the whole group had departed the clubhouse. Apple Bloom’s friends all put on their helmets and hopped onto the wagon, which Scootaloo pulled behind her scooter.

“See ya later girls,” Apple Bloom said with a wave as she and Applejack stood at the foot of the clubhouses ramp.

“Yeah, see ya later,” Sweetie Belle echoed as the rest of them waved.

Nyx heard the buzz of Scootaloo’s wings and felt the lurch of the wagon as they began the relatively short trip back to Ponyville. She looked back at Applejack and Apple Bloom as they were pulling away. The elder sister of the Apple Family was standing very close to Apple Bloom, even keeping a hoof on her shoulders.

~~~

“Are you sure you don’t want to just dismantle it? I won’t mind, especially since there still might be some yet-unseen consequences of this kind of spell even existing.”

Twilight shook her head as she carried the gem-studded chalkboard that was the cornerstone to Starlight’s new spell. They were descending the spiral staircase of the central library, eventually departing the stairs for one of the landings. “We can argue the philosophical dangers of your spell later, but for the time being, I think the best course of action is just to lock it up for safe keeping. That and you did such a wonderful job casting and anchoring the spell, I’d hate to just destroy all your work.”

“But how can we lock it up?” Starlight asked as they walked between the stacks of books. “Your palace doesn’t really have a dungeon or a vault, right?”

“No, but it does have these.” Twilight came to a stop and turned her gaze to an empty glass case in one of the many alcoves of the library. Within the many similar cases, artifacts from Twilight’s friends and their adventures were preserved for future generations. Nyx’s helmet, Fluttershy’s Mare-Do-Well costume, and the friendship diary were just a few of the items on display.

Starlight leaned in, scrutinizing the display before looking back at Twilight. “You have a glass case in a library that’s open to the public during the day. Wow, you really are trusting.”

“Not that trusting.” Twilight opened the case, fluffed the pillow inside, and then gently set the chalkboard down on the soft fabric. She then closed the case and tapped it with her horn.There was a small glimmer along the seams. “The palace is quite strong from the outside. It’s not going to get blown up like the Golden Oaks Library. However, after you managed to sneak in and reach the map table, I realized a few things. One, I really need to start talking to Princess Celestia about at least getting a few royal guards of my own. Two, that there may be other ponies in the future that will try to sneak into my home to do nefarious things. Three, that I should apply my magical prowess to protect my home.”

Starlight nodded her head as she lifted a hoof and pressed it against the case. “I understand now. You cast defensive spells on these cases.”

“Not just the cases. I also cast spells on most of the doors. It’s a suite of charms developed by one of the greatest locksmiths in Equestria’s history, Locked Secret. In fact, one of the spells I used—Fouling Felonious Fiends Profoundly—is the same spell Princess Celestia used to protect the Elements of Harmony from Discord when we were first trying to reform him. Really, I am quite proud of this setup.”

“I couldn’t tell,” Starlight said with a roll of her eyes.

Twilight smiled at Starlight as the pair turned and began walking back towards the central staircase. “Trust me, no sneak-thief or villain is going to be able to get in here and steal anything easily. All the cases in the library have a level one security. That means only ponies that can open them are myself, my family, my fellow princesses, and my friends. I’ve got plans for higher stricter security levels, but there’s nothing that dangerous in here yet. So, it's still on my to-do list.

“Still, I can show you my advanced defensive matrix. It’s the central control mechanism for the defensive spells in the castle.”

“No, it’s okay, I believe you.”

Twilight licked her lips, and her wings twitched, like she had been about to take off when she was suddenly told she couldn’t fly. It was enough to draw Starlight’s attention and make her chuckle under her breath.

“Though, if you want to show it to me anyway, I wouldn’t say no,” Starlight said.

Twilight’s smile bounced back. She jogged up to and past Starlight, climbing up the stairs at an impressive pace. “Come on then. The central spell matrix is up in my bedroom. Oh, this will be so much fun! The only pony I can really talk to about magic is in Ponyville is Rarity, and complicated stuff like this isn’t her usual cup of tea. Oh, I should brew some tea too! What variety of tea is best when two magically minded mares will be discussing a complex defensive spell matrix?”

~~~

“Good night and sweet dreams.”

Those words had been uttered just about an hour earlier. Night had fallen, dinner had been eaten, and all those who resided in Friendship Castle were snuggled into their beds. They were all supposed to be asleep, preparing for a new day.

One filly was resisting the welcoming embrace of dreams. Nyx hid under her covers, a small point of light glowing on the tip of her horn. She had pulled her treasure book with her, and was fiddling with the items within. She just needed to figure out the best way to add the photos of Flurry Heart her friends had helped her pick out to her treasure trove without them getting damaged.

Nyx rubbed her eyes as she removed everything from the book to try reorganizing it again. The girls had been right; she really needed to either get a bigger treasure book, a second treasure book, or start using something other than a hollowed out book to keep her mementos.

Picking up a few things with her levitation magic, Nyx began to fill the book up again, but stopped for a moment. She glanced up, even though all she could see was the underside of her blanket, and remained perfectly still. A few moments passed, her ears listening. When Nyx heard nothing, she shrugged and focused back on her book. She managed to put a few more things into the book before having to stop again.

This time, she was sure of it. She had heard a noise.

Nyx quickly stuffed all of her treasures back in the book. The cover wouldn’t close all the way, and her kazoo stuck out haphazardly, but it was good enough for the moment. She slipped the book out from under the covers and set it on her nightstand, then cut the light spell coming from her horn and poked her head out from under the covers.

She tried to fake sleep while keeping her eyes cracked open to watch her door. Sometimes, when she stayed up past bedtime, Twilight would catch her. Nyx’s first instinct was to think the noises were coming from Twilight moving in the hallway. She had been caught staying up past bedtime more than a few times just because Twilight decided to poke her head into the room. Yet, even as the noises continued, the bedroom door never opened.

Maybe Twilight was just staying up late to read a book. She’d do that sometimes, but she usually didn’t move around so much. The hard floors and walls of the castle tended to let any noise echo clearly to neighboring rooms, and Nyx was fairly certain the noises she was hearing were hoofsteps.

Trying to ignore it, Nyx closed her eyes, mentally vowing to finish figuring out what to do with her treasure book in the morning. She snuggled into her pillow, pulled up her blanket, and tried to calm her breathing. Yet, the sounds lingered.

Step… step… shuffle… step… step… shuffle… shuffle…

Was Twilight looking for something in the living room? It sure sounded like somepony was looking for something. Maybe it was Spike? Maybe he left a jewel or something somewhere. He did like having a small gemstone of some variety before bed. Or maybe it was Starlight. Nyx didn’t know why Starlight would be in their private part of the castle so late at night, but that was another possibility.

Or maybe it was somepony she didn’t know.

Nyx sat up in her bed, the quiet noises still teasing at her ears as she tugged her blanket closer to her chest. The thought of an intruder was unnerving, especially considering the over-the-top rivals and enemies her mother tended to attract. Worse, if she was asleep, Nyx doubted the noises she was hearing would have been enough to wake her. The intruder was being stealthy enough to be undetected by sleeping ponies, doing unknown evil deeds in—

“Stop it,” Nyx whispered to herself as she pushed back the covers and climbed out of bed. “It’s probably just Twilight. Just go look and see for yourself that it's nothing bad.”

She walked to her bedroom door and nudged it open, peeking out into the hallway. She expected to see either the light from Twilight’s horn or the glow from a candle spilling from the living room, but the light was unfamiliar. It flickered inconsistently with a weak, yellowish glow. It took Nyx a moment to recognize it, but it looked like the light from a firefly lantern.

No one in the castle would use a firefly lantern.

Nyx retreated back into her room, pulling the door closed to leave only a narrow crack to see through. She could still see the light, and she watched it for what felt like an eternity. Should she go get Twilight? Was she sure the pony in the living room wasn't Twilight or Spike or someone else she knew? She bit her lip. Even if she was just having a strange dream, Nyx knew she couldn't just go back to sleep. She had to do something, but what?

If it really was a stranger, she'd have to get Twilight or Spike. If she got Spike first, he might try to confront the intruder. He could scare some ponies off with his fire, but he could also get himself hurt. So, it was better to get Twilight, but to do that, Nyx would have to get to Twilight’s bedroom. Unless she dared to try flying outside the castle to reach the correct window, there was really only one path to Twilight’s room. She would have to climb the stairs in the living room.

There were some benefits to the plan. If she saw it was somepony she knew, then she could go back to bed. If not, she just had to climb the stairs and get to Twilight. There were also obvious dangers, but Nyx chose not to focus on those as she took a deep breath to brace herself.

Opening the door again, Nyx silently slipped out of her bedroom and into the hallway. She went one hoof at the time, moving as if she was walking on eggshells. She’d put the tip of her hoof down first, then gently ease the rest of her leg down. Each step brought her closer to the living room, and she began to catch glimpses of the pony’s silhouette against the dim light cast by the lantern. Nyx, despite her ability to see fairly well in the dark, couldn’t get a good look until she reached the end of the hallway and dared to peek around the corner.

The pony was clad in black from head to hoof. Nyx could tell it was a mare, but the intruder’s mane and tail were tucked into her clothes. She even wore a pair of goggles to obscure her eyes.

The pony was checking the shelves, gingerly removing books, cracking them open, and then putting them back. It was like she was checking to see if something was hidden in the back of the shelves. The intruder was also searching the drawers with the same methodology: open, search, and then close. It was strange to see a neat burglar, but the pony’s intent appeared clear. She was looking for something, and she was a stranger intruding in a place where she didn't belong.

Nyx tried to ignore her heart pounding in her chest and the shaking in her hooves as she glanced towards the staircase. The steps ran the perimeter of the room and led to Twilight’s bedroom door just above the bookcases. If she had her full powers, Nyx could have just turned to smoke and snuck up the steps. Then again, if she had her full powers, she wouldn't be scared. Since she was distinctly lacking in that level of alicorn magic, she had to sneak past this pony.

Nyx waited, clinging to the shadows with her back against the corner of a nearby wall. She only moved when she was sure the mare wasn’t going to turn around—when the intruder had her hoof in a drawer. In that moment, Nyx pressed herself to the floor and crawled to the base of the living room stairs. There was almost no sound to her movement, but any little noise made Nyx wince. In the silence, she could hear her belly sliding against the floor. Each time she put her hoof down to push herself further, she was sure the burglar would turn around.

It felt like it took forever to reach the base of the steps, but once Nyx got there, she glanced to see the burglar was still looking through the same drawer. Nyx allowed herself a quiet, haggard breath and even smiled a little. So far, so good, but looking to the stairs, Nyx felt like she still had to climb a mountain.

Nyx glanced over her shoulder once more before placing her hoof on the first step.

A clink, then a loud, sharp noise reached Nyx’s ears, and the rubber band of tension inside her body snapped. She flew up the stairs, flapping her wings and using her legs to push herself off with enough force to carry her forward. It was perhaps the longest flight she had ever accomplished as a child, but she paid no attention to her achievement.

All Nyx could think about was the noise she had just made. The burglar was going to turn around and spot her. And then… Well, the mare would do something. Nyx didn't know what, but the the mare would take some kind of action to prevent herself from being caught in the act. She stayed by the door to Twilight's room, just waiting for the intruder to shout. When that didn’t happen, Nyx glanced over her shoulder. She was sure she’d see someone stomping up the stairs. She held her breath, waiting for the inevitable.

Nothing happened.

A single heavy breath slipped out of Nyx’s mouth before she got a hold of herself again. She glanced around, first noticing that the shadows from the stair’s banister were moving. She followed the lines of shadows to the source of the light. The burglar’s firefly lantern was on its side, rolling gently across the smooth floor.

The intruder had knocked over her lantern. That had been the clinking sound that had sent Nyx flying up the stairs like a bat out of Tartarus. The mare was only just now catching up to her toppled lantern, catching it with a hoof and setting it upright again. She then began to look around, and Nyx had to quickly retreat to the far side of the stairs, using the shadows cast by the banisters to try and hide. For what seemed like an eternity, the burglar watched the room around her, turning her head to listen for any sound. When she finally seemed satisfied that she hadn’t been detected, she went back to her search.

Yet Nyx remained, frozen in place and waiting. She was so close to Twilight’s room, she was almost certain she could hear Twilight snoozing through the door seam. Forcing down a swallow, she dared to stand up. Her horn glowed, and she turned the door handle. Their palace home was brand new. No squeaky hinges. Just a small click, and Nyx had the door open. The burglar didn’t appear to take notice. Nyx slipped into Twilight’s room, shut the door, and then proceeded to pounce onto Twilight’s bed.

~~~

“Are we sure Nyx wasn’t just sleepwalking?”

Twilight stood in front of Spike, Nyx, and Starlight in the living room of her family’s private part of the castle. It was late, the moon was high, and Twilight couldn’t deny that they all looked horrible from being so unexpectedly roused from their beds.

Still, the situation could not be ignored. “Yes, I’m sure,” Twilight said to Spike. “I know it may look like everything is in place, but I know my personal library, and I know when something’s wrong. Just look over here.” Twilight pointed directly below the stairs at one of the bookshelves built into the living room’s walls. “What do you see?”

Spike stifled a yawn. “Books.”

“Yes.” Twilight said with a node “Almost all of them are in the exact order they’re supposed to be in, but take a look at the Encyclopedias of Enhancing Enchantments.” Twilight levitated the six books off the shelf, each one identical except for the number on the sides. It was an older style number system, a combination of V’s and I’s attributed to ancient unicorn civilizations like the lost city of Trot. “What is wrong with these books?”

Starlight, Nyx, and Spike all stared at the encyclopedias, tilting their heads to different angles. This went on for a few moments before Twilight groaned and pointed at the levitated books with a hoof. “Look at the numbering.” The books were stacked in a sequence: I, II, III, VI, V, IV.

“I don’t see it,” Spike said.

“They’re out of order.” Twilight tapped on the spines of two books. “VI is six, IV is four. That means these books were on the shelf in the order of one, two, three, six, five, four. That’s wrong, and I know they were not mixed up last time I did a cataloging.”

“All right, so we have some evidence somepony might have been in here,” Starlight said as she watched Twilight put the encyclopedias back on the shelf in the correct order. “Should we call the police or maybe the Canterlot royal guard?”

“We can send a letter to Princess Celestia, but it may be hours before she can send someone to help. Princess Celestia is asleep, and Princess Luna is likely vising ponies in their dreams right now. My letter might not even get read until morning. We can’t wait that long.” Twilight frowned as she looked at the others. “I engaged a lockdown using my defensive spell matrix as soon as Nyx woke me up. The sound of the magic activating may have been what scared our unexpected guest out of this part of the castle. Still, the intruder is locked in, and we’re going to find where she is hiding.”

“But why can’t we just wait till morning? Why do we have to go out there looking for her?” Nyx glanced at the door that lead to the rest of the castle, taking a step away from it and closer to Spike. “She’s locked in the castle, and we’re safe in here. Can’t we just wait until Princess Celestia sends help?”

“We could, but that mare came here for a reason. If she’s looking for something, I’d rather catch her before she’s able to find it.” Twilight gestured for Nyx to come closer. She trotted over, and Twilight pulled her into an embrace. “I know it was scary, but you were very brave coming to wake me up. Still, we can’t let that pony do whatever she wants in our home.” Twilight took a moment to glance up at Starlight, putting on a smile. “I don’t think we want to take our chances leaving somepony unsupervised in this castle.”

Starlight nodded her head and smiled back at Twilight. “I’m going to agree. Let’s avoid having to jump through time tonight.”

Spike rubbed his eye, not hiding his exhaustion as he tried to stay focused. “So what do we do, just start wandering the halls hoping to find this pony?”

Twilight shook her head. She gave Nyx another little squeeze, then let go of the hug and moved to the small hearth in the living room. Above the mantel was a portrait of their family which had been painted by Discord as a castle-warming present. There were times Twilight was sure she saw the eyes of the painting following her, or that it was making faces behind her back. Still, most of the time it was simply a nice portrait, and considering Discord, that was good enough.

Twilight levitated the picture down and set it against a nearby wall. She then focused her magic on the bare crystalline wall that had been behind the canvas. In the blank space, etchings began to come to life before projecting an image out into the center of the living room. It was a projection of the castle, one which was now glowing a threatening, red color.

“I can use my defensive spells to control the doors of the castle from here,” Twilight said. “I’ll guide you three through a systematic search. Once we’ve cleared a room and ensured the intruder isn’t inside, I’ll seal it off and lead you to the next room. We’ll use Spike’s dragon fire to stay in contact.”

Twilight glanced away from the map to focus on Spike. “I promise, we’ll keep them small and infrequent so you don’t get a stomach ache.”

Spike shook his head, slapped his cheeks, then looked back at Twilight and nodded. “Okay, let’s teach this pony what happens when you wake up a dragon.”

Nyx took in a big breath, then flared her wings and nodded. “Yeah, I’ll do my best to help.”

Twilight smiled and nodded to the two before levitating out a scroll, a quill, and an ink well. She began to quickly write out a letter to Princess Celestia. “Above all, be safe. We don’t know who this pony is, what they want, or what they are capable off. I’d rather have something valuable stolen than hear any of you got hurt.”

“Don’t worry, Twilight,” Starlight said as she moved over to stand next to Nyx and Spike. “I’ll keep them safe and we’ll catch this burglar red hoofed. Just tell us where to start.”

~~~

“Okay, door is locked. Move on to the central library.” Spike read the message from Twilight aloud as they left the castle ballroom behind. They had worked their way down from the royal family’s private quarters to the lowest level of the castle proper. They still hadn’t found the intruder Nyx had seen earlier, but they had found a few more signs. The door to the throne room had been left open, and more than once, the trio was sure they had heard the sounds of hoofsteps in the distance.

As they continued on, Twilight used her defensive spells to lock the doors behind them. Room by room, corridor by corridor, they cleared and secured the castle. The burglar was slowly being herded down into the main library. Once there, they would go ring by ring, descending the multiple levels of the library within the castle’s crystalline trunk. If the intruder tried to use magic to escape, Starlight would sense it with the detection spell she had been maintaining for much of the search. In addition, the open space of the central library made it impossible for any fleeing pegasus to avoid being spotted.

The noose of their search was tightening, and they would soon have the burglar cornered and ready to be apprehended.

The lights of the central library came on just as the door’s lock audibly clicked behind them. They were now sealed in the library with their target, and the sweep began. With Starlight staying at the stairs while keeping a close eye on her companions, Nyx and Spike circled around the ringed landing. They checked the aisles of books, looking down each as they walked the circle, eventually completing the loop and returning to where Starlight was waiting.

Then, they’d take the stairs to the next landing down and repeat the process.

All the while, there were noises. They heard the sound of hoofsteps. They heard single steps and quick gallops. They heard their target constantly trying to stay one step ahead, but the cavernous nature of the main library made it almost impossible to determine where the sounds were coming from. They could only continue their search.

Starlight, Spike, and Nyx reached the middle landing of the seven in total, getting halfway down the palace’s trunk. Starlight assumed her usual place at the staircase, and watched as Nyx and Spike walked the landing. Yet, when they were about half way around the circle, Nyx raised her voice in a shout. “Hey, we found something.”

“What is it?” Starlight asked, trying to crane her neck to see what was going on while not abandoning her post at the stairs.

“One of the display cases is open.” Nyx said.

Starlight watched as Nyx and Spike disappeared down an aisle. Starlight could hear them jogging to the far wall. For a few seconds there was nothing. Starlight glanced around, shaking out a shiver that had crawled up her spine before looking back to where she had last seen Nyx and Spike. “Well, which one is it?”

“Starlight’s Parallel Timeline Possibility Transcriber.” Spike shouted back. “It’s your chalkboard thing. It’s gone.”

This revelation was enough to pull Starlight from her post. She quickly trotted over to where Nyx and Spike were, worry written on her face as she arrived and saw the depression in the display case cushion where the spell-inlaid chalkboard should have been. “No, this can’t be… ” Starlight cursed under her breath. “I told Twilight we should have dismantled it.”

Nyx’s brow furrowed in frustration as she glanced between Spike and Starlight. “Can someone please tell me what you’re talking about?”

Spike opened his mouth to answer, but his words were cut off by the clatter of hooves. Somepony was running, and from the sounds of it, they were going upstairs. Spike, Nyx, and Starlight all bolted, sprinting to the edge of the landing and pressing themselves up against the banister. “Up there!” Spike shouted as he pointed to someone, dressed in all black, that was running up the steps.

“Hey! Stop!” Starlight shouted, and the burglar actually paused.

“Allow me to depart, or suffer my… unending wrath.” The pony shouted back at them, sounding prim, proper, and perhaps a bit snooty. Yet, there was a hesitance in her voice, causing her threat to sound hollow. Starlight opened her mouth to shout back, but the intruder had already turned and continued running up the stairs.

“After her!” Starlight lead the charge with Nyx and Spike following in her wake. Their heavy hoof falls echoed in the interior of the library like rolling thunder. Floor by floor, landing by landing, they pursued the mare until they had reached the doorway at the very top of the library. There, the intruder was struggling with the door handles, trying to get them to open to no avail.

“She’s got the chalkboard,” Spike said, pointing to the gem-encrusted hunk of wood that had been left lying on the floor. The mare, upon hearing his shout, quickly turned her attention away from the door and snatched the chalkboard up into her right forehoof.

“Now, let’s not be too hasty,” the intruder said clearly, properly pronouncing every syllable. “Surely we can come to some sort of meaningful arrangement. I merely require the chalkboard for a brief time.”

“Sorry, but that isn’t happening,” Starlight said, her horn starting to glow. There was a moment’s pause, a stand off as each side waited for the other to make the first move. Then, the burglar acted. She leapt at them, reaching out a forehoof to strike Starlight’s horn, a known way to briefly stop a unicorn from casting spells. Starlight tried to dodge, but she wasn’t fast enough.

Starlight gritted her teeth and braced herself, trying to think of what she would do without her magic.

The blow didn’t connect. Instead, the burglar's hoof made a clinking noise against a small bubble that had appeared in its path. The tiny spell shield was Nyx’s, and Starlight wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity. Her magic lashed out, levitating the mare up against the door. The chalkboard dropped, and Spike reflexively leapt, arms outstretched, to grasp its edge before it could slip between the bars of the banister.

“Good work, both of you,” Starlight said with an approving nod before she climbed the last few steps to face the burglar, who was pinned up against the door. “Now let’s see who we’re dealing with.” She reached out with a hoof, gripping the mask and goggles before pulling them off. From beneath the black fabric, the mare’s true coat and mane color came into view: summer orange and blonde, respectively. Her freckled face was exposed, and her green eyes looked back at them in shame.

“Applejack!” Starlight, Spike, and Nyx shouted in unison.

“Yeah, it’s me,” she admitted with low voice.

~~~

“Why would you try to steal this?”

Nyx winced. It was her mother’s angry voice, and Twilight had every reason to use it.

After they had captured Applejack, Starlight sent a note to Twilight. A few moments later, Twilight popped into existence beside them. When she saw the truth, her expression didn’t hide her disappointment. She had Starlight release Applejack, and then directed everyone to the throne room. The whole walk had been silent. Twilight didn’t say anything. Applejack didn’t try to explain her actions. Nyx had glanced at Spike, hoping he might at least look at her, but he was keeping his eyes straight ahead as he carried the strange chalkboard.

Once they were in the throne room and the doors were shut, Twilight broke the silence with her question. There would be no beating around the bush, no kind words. Twilight asked the question, simply and honestly. “Applejack, why would you do this?”

Nyx imaged that, like her, everyone else wanted Applejack to give the simple, honest answer.

“I wanted… I needed ta see something,” Applejack said. While in the disguise, she had used her Manehattan voice, the one she had learned while staying with her Aunt and Uncle Orange. Now, she was back to her normal country twang.

“You just wanted to use the spell I made? Why wouldn’t you just ask?”

“Because I heard y’all talking when Fluttershy was trying to decide what she wanted to see. You were talking about the dangers of something like this. Of something that lets you see how things could have been. How it can drive some ponies crazy or ruin their lives, but… dang it, I can’t go on not knowing. Not after seeing all them different things and yet seeing the same thing every time.”

“What are you all talking about?” Nyx asked, frustrated that she was apparently out of the loop on the situation. She had been patient. She hadn’t even asked questions about the chalkboard when they were bringing Applejack back to the throne room. But now they were talking about seeing things and ponies going crazy.

“Starlight made that there chalkboard, and it makes the map table show us things,” Applejack said. “It shows us other timelines, like the ones Twilight saw when she was trying to stop Starlight. We spent the afternoon looking at all these different things. We saw worlds where we were superheroes. We saw worlds where we had different jobs, we were of different tribes, and we even saw ones where we were of different species.”

Nyx glanced between Starlight and Twilight. “That’s amazing! Why didn’t I get to see it?”

“You can see it in a bit, Nyx.” Twilight gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder before focusing back on Applejack. “And so there’s something you wanted to know? Something you wanted to see? What could it possibly be that justifies everything you’ve done tonight?”

Applejack tried to fight back tears, but she stomped before throwing forward a forehoof to point at the map table. “I wanted to ask that… horrible, hateful thing why, in all the worlds it showed us, my parents are always dead!”

The shout lingered, sinking into everyone present like a cold ocean mist. Nyx and Spike glanced at one another. Starlight and Twilight did the same. Then, all four looked back at Applejack, who was trying to wipe away tears with her hooves, only for fresh ones to escape her eyes.

Twilight extended a hoof. “I—”

“No, I don’t want to hear it.” Applejack cut Twilight off, her words sharp as razors. “I get it, this was all just supposed to be for fun. But… it started with that superhero timeline. I was some dark avenger, and I got like that because my parents died. My family was rich. We were happy, but the death of my parents drove that Applejack into being some crime fighting vigilante. Still, I was sure that in some of the other worlds, I’d see them alive.

“But no. Again and again, they weren’t there. My family ran some weird company called Apple that didn’t grow apples. My family defended the last safe acres of Equestria from some strange diseases. Yet again and again, it was just us. I was wearing my hat. Big Mac had his yoke. Apple Bloom had her bow. All those different worlds with all their strangeness, and we all still wore those things… we were all still trying to remember them.”

Twilight made another attempt, taking a step towards her friend. “I—”

Applejack backed up, shaking her head. “No, it ain’t right. There has to be somewhere… there has to be some world where they lived. There has to be a time when they get to live. There has to be a time when… when my sister knows more about the best darn parents a filly could ask for. A timeline where she isn’t telling her friends how she doesn’t know what Ma and Pa sounded like or how they acted. A place where Apple Bloom has more than bows as a reminder of her mother.”

“You heard us talking.” Nyx took a step towards Applejack. “When we heard a knock at the door, that was you. You were listening when Apple Bloom was talking about the baby picture she brought.”

Applejack didn’t even register what Nyx had said. She just kept going, caught up in the emotions inside her that wouldn’t be ignored. “I spent the whole walk back to Sweet Apple Acres just trying to understand why the table—” She lifted a hoof to try and dry her eyes again. “Then I heard Apple Bloom talking, and it ain’t right. It just ain’t right that she has to grow up without ever knowing them.”

Applejack shifted her gaze back to Twilight. “I know I should have just asked ya. But if y’all went into one of your lectures, I’ll be honest, I might have stormed out. I’ve been told it all my life by Granny Smith and other Apples. They say, ‘I can’t think about what they’d do if they were here.’ That ‘Ma and Pa would be proud of how Big Mac and I have been running the farm.’ Maybe I doubt that sometimes, but that isn’t what this is about. I want Apple Bloom to hear their voices, and I want that table to tell me why, in all of these other worlds, they’re never alive.”

“Applejack, I’m sure there could be other timelines where your parents are alive. The table just… didn’t need to change that.” Starlight tried to explain, her eyes glancing across the floor as if she was reading the details of her own spell from the nuances of the crystal. “When we make a request with the chalkboard, the table predicts what would need to change in Equestria for that different reality to be true. So unless the other reality depended on your parents being alive, it didn’t try to change what happened to them.”

“Then please, do it once for me… maybe once again when Apple Bloom can be here… and that’s it. I promise I’ll never do anything like this again. Just please… I…”

Twilight took a few steps forward to place her hoof on Applejack’s shoulder. “ I don’t want to see you doubting yourself. I have no doubt that your parents, any parents, would be proud of all you’ve accomplished for your family.”

“I know. I know, I know, and I promise, I’ll never try to go behind your backs again.” Applejack brought a hoof to her head and ran it through her mane. “Just… it feels like I’m starting to forget them too. Big Mac is the only one who really grew up with them. I was darn young myself when we lost them.”

Twilight looked silently at Applejack for a few tense moments, but then nodded her head and stepped back. She levitated the enchanted chalkboard away from Spike, holding it in front of her. “What should I write, Starlight?”

“I don’t know.” Starlight glanced at the table as it reacted to the chalkboard’s magic, swirls of color starting to emanate from its surface. “We could just ask the table what it would be like if they were still alive, but who knows where we’d see them. And… look, AJ, I understand what you want, but I’m worried you will doubt yourself if the table shows you something, a version of Sweet Apple Acres that you think is somehow better. I want to give you what you want, but I’m afraid of the effects it could have on you.”

Applejack’s brow furrowed and her jaw tightened. “So you want me to see them, but you won’t let me because you think they would have done a better job.”

“No, I didn’t say that. I… “Starlight glanced at the others. “Anypony is free to help me out here.”

“I have an idea.” Nyx climbed up in the nearest throne, putting her head closer to Twilight’s. “Ask what Applejack’s parents would have said, the day before they died, if someone told them the future. A message they knew would be delivered right now. A message they could leave, knowing everything Applejack, Big Mac, and Apple Bloom have done since their deaths.’”

Starlight moved up beside Nyx and Twilight. “Where did you get an idea like that?”

“Power Ponies number sixty-one,” Spike said, smiling. “When the team receives messages from the past that help them defeat a super charged villain.”

“I don’t know about defeating a villain, but…” A slight smile began to form on Twilight’s face as she wrote her interpretation of what Nyx said. Soon, the colors on the map table were beginning to focus. Applejack moved breathlessly to the edge of the crystalline surface. She no longer made an effort to clear the tears from her eyes as her gaze became fixed on the swirling colors.

“Come on, let’s give her some privacy,” Twilight said, motioning for everyone else to leave the room as she placed and carried the chalkboard under her wing. “Applejack?”

“Ya, Sugarcube?”

“Just come out when you’re ready. We’ll be in the sitting room just down the hall. Tomorrow, you can bring Apple Bloom, Big Mac, and Granny Smith. We’ll do this once for each of them. Okay?”

“Thank you, Twilight.” She glanced back to smile, lifting a hoof to try and dry her eyes. “That would mean a lot to me. Don’t suppose we could get a copy of this somehow?”

Starlight frowned. “I didn’t really build a recording system into my spell.”

“Don’t worry, I got it.” Spike trotted over to his throne, getting some of the emergency take-a-letter supplies he kept there. “I can write down everything they say, Applejack. I am pretty good at taking dictation.”

“I’d be mighty grateful, Spike,” Applejack said, her trembling lips managing a smile.

“Hey, what are friends for?” Spike said as he got ready to write. The images in the map were starting to properly come into focus, and a few voices began to echo across the room. Twilight, Starlight, and Nyx left the room, the doors closing behind them as a strong, unfamiliar female voice managed to escape before the room was sealed.

“Dear Applejack,”

~~~

“I’m exhausted,” Twilight said as she and Nyx carried the chalkboard back into the throne room. Applejack had come to the sitting room, looking like she had been crying a lot, but she was smiling. It was the smile of someone that had been relieved of a great burden, even if it wasn’t one they had been aware they were carrying.

At the moment, Spike was making a second copy of the message, just in case, before he’d head back to bed. Starlight was escorting Applejack back downstairs, which left Nyx and Twilight to return the chalkboard to the throne room, at least until tomorrow when Apple Bloom, Big Mac, and Granny Smith would be coming by for the agreed upon time with the table.

Nyx moved alongside Twilight, keeping pace as they went around the table towards Twilight’s throne. “I still can’t believe she thought the only way was to steal the chalkboard.”

Twilight set the chalkboard on her throne, casting a barrier spell to protect it for the few hours until dawn. “That’s part of the reason this spell Starlight created is so dangerous. For some ponies, it's just fun to see how things could be different in their lives. But for others… many have lost things in their lives earlier than they expected. Parents, siblings, friends, pets… they sometimes disappear before we’re ready to say goodbye.”

“I… I think I understand,” Nyx said quietly. Twilight felt the filly brush up against her leg, clinging a bit closer. “You almost… with Spell Nexus and… the execution.”

Twilight stopped where she was, knelt down to Nyx’s level, and looked her in the eye. “I know. It must have been scary. Thinking back, if I hadn’t been infected with that corrupt magic, I would have been terrified as well.” She smiled and leaned forward to embrace Nyx tightly in her wings. “But I had a guardian angel that day who swooped in to save me.”

Nyx let out a small sniffle in Twilight’s ear. “But… you might not have even been in danger if it wasn’t for me,” she whispered while Twilight held her.

“Shh… It’s okay. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have such an amazing daughter either.” Twilight leaned back to look once more into Nyx’s eyes before giving her a peck on the forehead. “Never blame yourself for what happened. When it really mattered, you did the right thing.”

“But what if… what if I didn’t get to you in time?”

“That’s the kind of ‘what if’ question you can’t dwell on,” Twilight said. “Just learn from your mistakes, and always try to do your best in the future. You do that, then no matter what happens, I’ll always be proud of you. Okay?”

Nyx nodded, rubbing her face against Twilight as she did. “Okay.”

Twilight gave Nyx another tight squeeze before letting go of her. “Good, and good job helping Applejack. That idea of yours was just what she needed.”

“I did just get it from one of Spike’s comics.” Nyx smiled at Twilight’s praise.

“Applying knowledge you have, even if it's from a colorful, illustrated source, can be just as valuable as coming up with an idea yourself,” Twilight said with a small chuckle. Nyx, however, was overwhelmed with a yawn, and she used a hoof to rub her eye. “Still, I think it's well past all of our bedtimes.”

“Aw…”

Twilight laughed and squeezed Nyx a bit tighter. “Don’t you ‘Aw’ me. You can’t not be tired.”

“I am,” Nyx admitted. “But we’re not going to get much sleep anyway. It’s almost morning, and I… it's not fair you and your friends got to play with the chalkboard while I wasn’t here.”

“Oh, it's not fair, huh?” Twilight glanced back at the chalkboard, her mind weighing the options for a moment before her horn lit up. The protective spell around the chalkboard popped, and Twilight brought it over to Nyx. “Okay, we each do a quick one, and only one. Then we go to bed, okay? This is your bedtime story.”

Nyx clapped her hooves together and fluttered her wings, managing to hover and climb up onto the map table. “So who goes first?”

“Well, since I’m the one allowing this, I say I go first,” Twilight said, already starting to write something on the chalkboard. “And I know just the thing. We’re going to see what you’d have been like as a foal.”

“You mean like all those embarrassing photos my friends showed me?”

“Yes, those exactly. In fact…” Twilight set down the board, then popped out of existence as she teleported somewhere. She reappeared a few moments later, carrying Nyx’s camera, the same camera Nyx had used to take so many pictures in the Crystal Empire.

“You’re going to take pictures?” Nyx asked with a whine.

“Yes, I am, and I’m going to start an alternate timeline baby book, too.”

Nyx crinkled her nose, but resigned herself to her fate. “Okay, but then I want my question for the table to be… um… I want my question to be… what if you were married?”

“Married!?” Twilight almost dropped Nyx’s camera as her mind tried to process what she had just heard. “Where did this come from?”

“Rarity’s always saying it’s a shame you don’t date.”

It was Twilight’s turn to groan. “Rarity says a lot of things, Nyx. You know that.”

“Yes, but if you’re going to see me as a baby, then I want to see what it would be like if you were married to… Discord.”

“Discord!?” Twilight’s voice jumped an octave.

“I just saw first hoof yesterday how my friends squirmed when they were showing me their baby pictures. I need something equally as embarrassing.”

“I swear, Flim and Flam rubbed off on you,” Twilight said, but she was smiling all the same as the table finally came into focus, showing a nursery in the crystalline castle decorated in the colors of the night. She smiled, seeing a familiar bundle of black fur starting to stir in a cradle. She began to lift the camera, trying to ensure it was at a good angle to capture some quality pictures. “All right, but we’re not taking pictures of that. Deal?”

“I also want to see what I’d be like as a superhero.”

“Yes, okay,” Twilight said, using her magic to ruffle Nyx’s mane. “Now shush, I think you’re foal self is just starting to wake up and… oh, you are so adorable.” Twilight clicked the button on the camera, the film inside capturing the moment in the map table. The moment had started, and in truth Nyx and Twilight would remain in the throne room till dawn, seeing many different timelines and worlds. They laughed and smiled at one another, seeing things both heartwarming and ribtickling.

It was all made possible by a gift from a newly-made friend who asked a single question:

What if?

============

The End of the Core Chapter

Prepare for the Variances

============


Dear Readers,

In brief, I hope you have enjoyed this core chapter, and I want to thank everyone again for making these past years memorable for me as an author in this fandom. I truly can’t say thank you enough.

The variances you are about to read are my way of trying to give back. What you are about to read aren’t bedtime stories for Nyx, as the end of the core chapter might imply. Instead, they are what-if scenarios written for you, going to places that the canon story likely never will. Five variances for this, Past Sins’ five year anniversary.

The variances will be posted once a day following the initial posting of the core chapter at approximately the same time every day.

I do hope you enjoy them. If you just want to go on and enjoy the stories, go ahead and click the link to the next chapter.


For those of you still reading, I would like to take some time to really honor those that have helped make Past Sins what it is today. It’s hard to believe it’s already been five years since Past Sins saw its original debut to the public on Equestria Daily. It has truly been an interesting journey with lots of stories and friends made and enjoyed along the way.

Past Sins wouldn’t be what it is without those who enjoy it, especially those who made fan art, music, and stories about Nyx and the world of her AU. As part of the 5th Anniversary, I want to celebrate and honor at least some of those people here.

Also, one disclaimer before I begin. I’m going to try and provide links as often as I can, but some of things I am mentioning may no longer be available at their original sources. Also, I am just trying to name projects and persons I am most aware of. If I don’t mention you and you feel I should, that doesn’t mean I dislike you or the work you’ve done. It’s most likely because I can only list off so many names and I can only list things I am personally aware of.

Finally, if you feel like some project/person deserves some attention, please feel free to give them a shout out in the comments. That way you can share art, songs, stories that others may not know of and help make this 5th anniversary all the more enjoyable.


HARDCOVER PRINTING


Unlike some other authors, who had to undertake the burden of printing their stories themselves, I was extremely lucky. I was approached by a group, Equestria Publications, who wanted to undertake the endeavor of bringing Past Sins to print. The book’s interior design, the editing of the Season 2 rewrites, the per-chapter art, and the logistics of printing were all handled by them. For those of you who are lucky enough to have one of the hardcover copies, you hold a mountain of time and effort that came together to create a wonderful memento of Past Sins and our fandom as a whole.

Equestria Publications Organizer
ProfPatch

Layout Director and 1st Printing Packing/Shipping

The Illustrious Q

Interior Book Design & Formatting

Kevinltk

Art Direction and 2nd Printing Packing/Shipping

Qbalonka

Per-Chapter Art

CatbeeCache & CiscoQL

Creator’s Tribute Art

Pa-Kaishia

Editors for The Original Story
ActionSCripter - Nightsong - Lightsideluc - Vimbert

Kim Fluttershy - Dykas- Var/Varus - Cloud-vent/Filler

The Editors for Hardback Printing

Adam Kurth - Alexstrazsa - Brois Zhou - Dave - Eythan Finklestein - Frederik Jacobsen

Kevin Keller - Kirk Heller - Koha Izumi - Mark Geiger - Nekomata - PolkdekPL - Trillo

Trinity Cotta - Trival - Valor_Force


ART


It’s hard not to talk about relating to Past Sins without speaking of the story’s original cover art. Though Valcron (Dreatos) did the original cover art as commission, he went to do on other pieces of art involving Nyx and was crucial in establishing what has become Nyx’s accepted look in the fandom. He also did the dust cover art for the Past Sins printing for free, and I am eternally grateful for the beautiful work he did to make such a stylish dust cover.


One piece of art that has become iconic to Nyx and Past Sins was done by Alexlayer. It was an arguably simple piece, but it was done with a great deal of care and attention to the details of the story. It was Alexlayer’s interpretation of Nyx’s Cutie Mark. That design became Nyx’s official cutie mark, and has emblazoned Nyx’s flank in dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces of fan art.


Though she was not the first to try, SaturnStar14 has gone further than any other in adapting Past Sins into a comic form. As of writing this, she’s into Chapter 12, beyond the halfway point and still going. This is an endeavor SaturnStar14 has been working on for 3 years now, and I can’t say enough how much I applaud all she’s done. Past Sins is by no means a small story. To turn the story into a comic is a task of monumental proportions, but she has shown the perseverance and skill to keep going long past when others had given up.


Some of the best art involving Nyx and Past Sins has come out of the MLP fandom’s rich tumblr ask-blog community. While there aren’t any currently active ones that focus solely on Nyx, those that did were beautifully drawn and still deserve recognition. We also can’t forget those ask-tumblr’s where Nyx was lucky enough to be a guest star.

Nyx Contacts by Sevireth
Ask Nyx Tumblr by Mhrathalos


Another monumental piece of fan-art done involving Past Sins was made for Bronycon 2014. The-Paper-Pony, famous in the fandom for their shadow boxes, was commissioned by one 7tails to turn Past Sins’ original cover into a shadow box. It was one of the most complicated shadow boxes they’ve ever built, but they did an amazing job. I was lucky enough to be able to see this shadowbox in person and sign it for 7tails.


There are far too many artists who have created images, comics, and plushies of Nyx to list them all in the detail they deserve. Still, I will try to honor at least some, and to everyone, even those I don’t mention, thank you. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

Artists who have depicted Nyx

More can be found at Nyx’s DevianrtArt group & on Derpibooru


MUSIC AND READINGS


One of the first complete audiobook styled readings of Past Sins done was completed by Morgan Freepony, aka Illya Leonov. While there have been others, this one was particularly special as it was first performed to live readings through one of the MLP communities in Second Life. A community that invited me, helped me set up an avatar, and let me enjoy the reading in the unique setting of their reading library.

It’s also a reading that’s being lovingly paired with SaturnStar’s comic rendition by Recon777 to create a narrated picture book.


Another project worthy of special mention would be the work done by Nimbus Productions. They have gone a step beyond a regular audio reading, working to coordinate different voice actors to create a full radio play. All the voice actors do great work in bringing the characters to life, canon and OC alike.


Past Sins has found life in music and some rare animations as well. There are so many that are a delight to the ears, and again, I can’t show my appreciation enough to those who have taken the time to do this simply because they enjoyed the story.

For Nyx by Chaoomoon


FANFICTIONS


When it comes to fanfictions about Past Sins, I honestly feel guilty I haven’t read more. Still, I would like to at least point out a few in particular that I have read and can recommend.

The first I will give special mention too will be Nightmare Nyx: Protector of Ponies. Written by Recon777, it's a blending of Past Sins with another classic of the fandom, Fallout Equestria. Yet, while it is a crossover, the story is trying to carve its own path without relying too heavily on its source materials. Recon777 and his editing team also were kind enough to help prepare this story, Glimpses, for posting.


There are of course many other fanfictions that have taken and incorporated Nyx. At the time of writing this, one of the Past Sins related Fimfiction groups lists one hundred and thirty four stories about Nyx and, by extension, the Past Sins canon. Adventure, slice of life, shipping, and just about every genre you can imagine. So if you find the gaps I have between writing more stories about Nyx too unbearable, you should go and give some of these stories/groups a try.

When All You Have Is Memories by keaton-furman-prower

FINAL WORDS


Again, if I’ve failed to mention someone or something you feel deserves some extra attention, please give them a shout out in the comments. There is just simply too much for me to put into one place, and that alone is such a great honor.

It has been a wonderful five years, and hopefully we can see a few more years and perhaps a few more stories about Nyx.

I love and appreciate you all so very much

-Sincerely-
Pen Stroke

Author's Note:

PSA: If you see typos, I ask that you send them along in PM rather than post them in the comments. The little bit of extra effort is greatly appreciated.

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