• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar



Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

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11-1 Hollow Hearts

XI

Hollow Hearts

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

XI - I

Of Scarves and Spoilers

"That seems like an awfully large course of study," I noted, looking at the list Vow had scrawled onto a piece of parchment at the table in my living room (awkwardly, slowly sounding out the letters to get through words much larger than I had yet reached in my lessons with Diadem). "You do remember I'm supposed to be helping Gale, right? And studying with Celestia? And Diadem?"

"I know," Vow agreed with a grin on his wooden face. "But I've got a secret for that. Do you think I knew everything I needed to slip into noble society when I left Wintershimmer and came to Everfree?"

I shrugged. "You were older than me when you left Wintershimmer, weren't you?"

That earned a nod. "But it's not as if he was waiting on your twenty-first birthday to teach you social graces. Wintershimmer had a lot of flaws, but if he ever had one virtue, it was that he had strong character."

I cocked my own head at that, and felt my ears spring up in curiosity. "We're talking about the same old crotchety wizard, right? Maiming ponies who got in his way in the halls?"

"I didn't say it was a good character," Vow noted. "I said it was strong. Meaning, he was exactly the same kind of pony no matter who he was interacting with. That pony might have been spiteful and evil, but he was reliable. And if he had any diplomacy or tact to offer when he was our age in River Rock, he'd certainly already cast them aside by the time I was his apprentice, to say nothing of your tutelage." Vow then chuckled, and gestured up the grand stairs with a ponyquin's wooden foreleg. "Which is to say, sir, I had to teach myself. And just like you find yourself now, my time was limited. But there was something Wintershimmer taught me that helped a great deal with that problem." As I began climbing the stairs, Vow added "The north hall there, but it's a hidden door. I'm right behind you."

Though I followed Vow's direction, I did pause at the top of the stairs with a curiosity: you may recall that amongst the dusty, weathered features of the house was a massive oil painting above the stairs, directly opposite the front door that had been covered in a great white sheet. In the days since his reanimation, Vow and Angel had made a great effort of cleaning the old home (even if it left many of the rooms completely empty as I hadn't yet started seances to bring in more funds). However, with so much dust, mold, and rot thrown out, and the finer wooden and glass pieces of Vow's furniture cleaned and polished, the white sheet over the painting remained. All I could see of the artwork was Vow himself (not wooden at the time of painting) in the upper corner, where one bit of the sheet had sagged. Thinking nothing particular of it, I grabbed onto the sheet with my teeth and yanked.

"No!" Vow shouted, but the word came too late; in a great puff of dust, I was rendered briefly blind and found myself coughing heavily.

"Ugh…" I managed between hacking and wheezing. "Sorry; I… I didn't think there'd be so much dust. I can… help you and Angel get that cleaned up."

Vow, however, did not seem especially concerned with the dust I'd deposited on the fine wooden staircase, instead fumbling desperately (and rather in vain, without a horn to reach up to the top of the painting) to put the sheet back up.

"What's wrong?"

And then I saw the subject of the painting.

It was a rather beautiful family portrait; you've probably seen the type. A proud father (or the mother, if taller) upright in the background. A seated mother, holding a foal. All three clad in their finest clothing.

Vow, of course, stood in the background—hence his appearance in the corner of the painting. But stunning to me were the other ponies, because I recognized both.

The seated mare was a younger Typhoon. And the foal she held was, though I hardly recognized him save for his coloration, Tempest.

"You're Tempest's dad?" I asked.

Despite a featureless wooden face, Vow managed to wince—even as he fervently shook his head in denial. "No, no. I… Morty, this is very complicated. And if there's anything I regret about the pony I was in life, it's how I hurt Typhoon."

I heard the sound of Vow drawing in a breath—which, given he had no real lungs, I knew was a sign of his emotional state and nothing else— and so I chose to interrupt. "Don't, Vow. I'm not here to rehash your life or… judge your sins or whatever you might call it. If you would rather not discuss it, I understand."

With audible surprise accompanying his gratitude, Vow first said "Thank you." He then added "How did you learn to… I mean, Wintershimmer didn't make you like that? Did he?"

I chuckled. "He did, accidentally. And if I'm being honest, it was a pebble in his shoes for the rest of his life. When you were a foal, did he tell you stories about King Ardor and the Knights of Canterlot?"

As I asked that question, I continued up the stairs, and Vow proceeded down the hall until he reached a much less controversial painting of an hourglass—notable only for the fact that the sands in the glass were flowing upwards, in defiance of gravity; and even then it was just an artistic stroke in a placeholder piece of wall art.

To my surprise, after removing the picture, Vow pulled back his hoof and punched straight through the rather elegant wallpaper. And so, as we spoke, we both proceeded to rip apart the beautiful wall.

"Those foals' stories?" Vow asked once we'd gotten properly started. "No; I was already too old for that kind of thing when Wintershimmer took me in." Then, with a cocked head, he added "How old were you?"

"Three. I'm half-crystal, and being a 'softcoat'..." I let the words trail off not into silence, but with a grunt of exertion as I fought with a particularly stubborn plank, which Vow reached over to help with.

Thankfully, even that little scrap of words was enough that—having spent enough of his youth in an even harsher Crystal Union than mine—my undead butler could put things together. "Oh. Stars, that must have been awkward. He really told you foals' stories? Old Wintershimmer?"

"Where would he have learned any better? His usual methods won't work on colts that young; I don't think the 'is your neck cold' threat can stop a foal crying." That got a chuckle from both of us, alongside a pause in our demolition. "Short version of a long story: the first time I realized he was going out of his way to look evil on purpose was the same day he told me the story of Sir Gallant Hat and the Holy Grail. So when he asked me how I wanted to present myself, I told him I wanted to be 'the hero'. And it just… stuck. Admittedly, my idea of what a hero means has changed a lot since then. Come to think of it, I think I have the Holy Grail downstairs now." When Vow's ears perked in surprise at that claim, I simply elaborated "Well, by definition, I got Celestia to fill a cup with her blood. And in fact, it did exactly what the legends claim, since I used it to bring you back from the dead."

"I… am not in love with what that implies for the future," Vow noted, ripping off a plank that exposed—perhaps unsurprisingly—a boarded up dark room. "Not for me, I mean, but for you and Her Majesty."

"It's just a foal's story," I countered, and ripped out another plank, now much easier with the leverage of the hole from the other planks to reach in and push back directly against its mounting. "Now, what have we here?"

Vow and I stood in silence for a very long moment. Then, finally, he realized my question wasn't rhetorical. "It occurs to me I need to grab a lamp, since you won't want to make your horn glow."

"I do see the runes on the floor," I offered. "I can't read them all in the dark. But I would hope maybe the author could just tell me what they do."

"It's my masterpiece. Well, besides my work as a warlock." With considerable pride, Vow swept his hoof broadly into the dark secret room that I still couldn't properly see into. "This, Morty, is my take on Clockwork's Runic Septagraph."

"Septagraph?" I asked with a scoff of disbelief. "And you buried it in some dusty room behind a wall?"

"I couldn't have Star Swirl come for a visit in his role as Duke Zodiac and just stumble on it. It's not exactly the kind of magic a 'failed apprentice' like me could believably make."

"What did you need all that power for?"

That question put a wide, almost foalish 'grin' on lips that formed on the surface of the enchanted wooden being. "Hourglass'..." he began slowly, letting each syllable linger in the air.

"No!" I couldn't help myself, grinning ear-to-ear. "You didn't! A Horological Hoop?"

"I did," Vow replied. "All the rooms up the hall on this side of the hall have a two-to-one time dilation. Or, at least, they did. Obviously, the Septagraph hasn't been unkept in almost twenty years."

My mind, however, had hitched halfway through his thought. "Only two to one? Why not go stronger?"

Vow's mirth turned to concern in an instant. "Why not… Morty, are you okay? In your mind? When Wintershimmer covered chronomancy, he did explain the risks to you, right?"

"Of course. I know—at least roughly—what happens if you screw up time magic. But a Septagraph is famous for its stability; you should be able to support three or four… maybe even five-fold dilation without even straining it. And Septagraphs fail gracefully; if it runs out of power, it's not as if you're going to tear apart your hallway. If it had, there wouldn't be any hallway past this point left."

"Yes, but…" Vow sat down so he could rub his wooden face with both his hooves, and sighed. "Something I learned as a warlock—and, might I add, unlike the famous adage, my spirits never turned on me because I didn't overreach my talents and try to bind something too powerful—is that only pushing magic as far as it is needed is what keeps our kind of pony alive."

I couldn't help but laugh in Vow's face, which he understandably took less than gratefully (even if he held his lack-of-tongue). "And as the pony who killed Wintershimmer the Complacent, I can tell you that if I had any kind of respect for 'limits' on magic, I'd be dead and he'd be a god. I'm guessing your point is that you picked up all the odd skills you needed by studying with time dilation, and getting more hours a day than anypony else?"

"I am," Vow agreed. "And two-to-one was more than sufficient for—"

"Seven," I interrupted.

"I beg your pardon, what?! It's official; the horn rot is already in your brain."

"If we're going to be studying all these different skills, and plotting to make me a noble, and plotting to steal Wintershimmer's notes back from Star Swirl the Bearded, then two-to-one isn't going to be enough."

"So you jump to seven?! Think of all the delightful integers and counting numbers you're spurning in between sanity and whatever you think it is you're jumping to, Morty!"

"By definition, Clockwork's Septagraph should support that level of dilation—and then we get we the synergy that we're building a seven-fold mandela inside a naturally seven-oriented—"

"In theory."

"The math checks out."

"The math… How do you know? You haven't checked it!"

"I'm very good at math," I countered. "Take one-hundred twenty eight and four-seventh's of a degree for the interior angles, and—"

Flustered, Vow cut in. "Even if the math works out in theory, better wizards than either of us have died trying to go to four-to-one. You're not just proposing going up to the known limit; you're shooting right past it!"

"Archmage Hourglass can stop time. Why shouldn't we be braver about slowing it down?"

"Morty, Archmage Hourglass is made up!" Vow very-nearly-shouted. "A pony who ages backwards? You don't think King Ardor was a real pony, do you? Or that Canterlot is a real place?"

Our argument was stopped by a knock at the door.

"Drat!" I winced. "You put the boards back, I'll get the door in case it's somepony who knows enough to object to chronomancy."

"Nobleponies don't answer their own doors," Vow hissed in a voice much quieter but no less urgent than the one with which we had been arguing. "It'll be suspicious."

"If they want me anyway, I might as well just be there in the first place; there's no temptation to just walk—"

Vow and I both instantly became silent when we heard the door open. And then a mare's voice that I vaguely recognized but couldn't quite put my hoof on called out "Morty? Sorry for letting myself in. I'll be right up."

Cold ran down my spine as if Wintershimmer had been there to threaten my life, and despite lacking blood or body heat, I suspect Vow felt the same. Together, we galloped down the hall hoping to catch the approaching pony before she saw the torn-up wall.

We met the pink mare on the stairs, where she had paused to regard the painting. She was clad in a wizard's jacket very much like mine, save that it was colored a rich cerulean with royal blue hemming at the trailing edge and on the sleeves at her fetlocks. Around her neck, she wore a scarf of marigold that she had knotted into a sort of necktie and tucked into her jacket (despite the warmth of summer) and around her waist was a similarly yellow sash of the same lush fabric.

"Ma'am," Vow began, not recognizing the mare—though I did. He had donned one of his accents for that word. "I must insist on behalf of Master Coil that you wait at the door to be greeted; as a wizard, he can't be interrupted so frivolously."

"You can drop the voice, Vow," the mare answered, causing Vow to lock up—even if I wasn't especially surprised by her knowledge. "Morty, care to introduce me?"

"Did you know we were talking about you?" I asked. "Did you time your arrival specifically to interrupt that conversation?"

"I… may have stood on the porch for a few extra seconds," she answered. "But we're scaring your friend."

I nodded. "Vow, this is Archmage Hourglass."

Vow's wooden surface developed an eyelid simply to accommodate it twitching.

"Hourglass, Solemn Vow. The, uh…" Every title that came to mind sounded insulting, accusatory, or both, so I settled on "My butler."

Hourglass couldn't help but laugh at how badly that introduction had broken Vow, but she did nod his way. "I'm not going to tell anypony your secret, Vow. That would cause a paradox that isn't worth the reality I'd need to patch it. And I might not have the same past you do, but I'm a firm believer in redemption." Then, with a slight scoff of amusement, she added "Knowing Morty as well as I do, you might just earn yours putting up with him."

"As well as you do?" I asked. "We met one time. For… what, three minutes?"

"Oh, you're so adorable when you're a kid." I didn't particularly appreciate that then, though I can now at least see where she was coming from. "Morty, our introduction after you fought Wintershimmer was the first time you met me… well, formally anyway… but it definitely was not the first time I met you." Glancing to Vow, she added "The 'King Ardor' stories about aging backward are a little bit of a creative liberty. But I do jump around through time, fixing places where misuse of time magic tears the fabric of reality, so it comes across that way to ponies who experience time in the 'normal order'."

Finally finding his wits, Vow offered a rather flourishing bow. "Well then, Archmage, it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance." As he rose, he took her hoof on his own (a motion she made no move to stop—and believe me, she could stop anything she wanted to) and deposited a kiss that was simultaneously flattering and quite wooden. "I'd say it is an honor, but I suspect your presence here means Morty's plan was about to rip a hole in reality."

"Yeah… Well, about that." She sighed through gritted teeth and turned to me. "I'm sorry, Morty, but unfortunately, Vow's right."

"Really? Am I just going to get it wrong in the implementation, or is the theory wrong?"

Hourglass frowned heavily at that. "You're trying to get me to explain how to do it right?" Then, shaking her head, she noted "Nice try. I don't think I can, at least right now."

"Why not?"

"The math you need hasn't been invented yet. Or discovered? Do you discover mathematical fields, or invent them?" The question was obviously hypothetical; she continued. "The problem with the math you're thinking through is that the thaumic degradation rate of the Septagraph includes an additional component based on the inverse of the dilation ratio."

"I can easily do one-and-one-seventh of my cost logic."

Hourglass shook her head again. "The degradation you add also has a degradation of its own. And so on and so forth, infinitely."

"So there's infinite degradation?" I asked. "But Vow got two-to-one to work."

"The degradation isn't infinite. It's the base value plus the limit of the sums of the base value times over of the time dilation factor to the value of 'n' as n approaches infinity. You need calculus. And that won't be invented for… spoilers."

(In case you're reading this well into the future, she said 'spoilers'; that isn't self-censorship. Calculus has been invented in the time between this conversation and my writing. And for those curious, the jar in which I am regrowing my brain has a glorious fourteen-to-one ratio right now, though that isn't practical for a container much larger than a beer keg. Though in her defense, there are other more practical reasons it would never have worked on a whole hallway anyway, and I suspect she just didn't want to list them all out to younger me.)

"But how did Vow's work, then?" I pressed. "Or anypony else who hasn't learned secret… 'calculus' math from the future?"

"I wish I had a chalkboard," she muttered—an odd complaint, given I am certain she could summon one from thin air if she really cared. "The margin by which you can miscalculate exact degradation and still produce a stable effect—not just for time dilation, but for lots of magical effects—is calculated in part using the magnitude of the effect; in this case, the quantity of the dilation. I'll leave it as an exercise to you to figure out what other factors go into that equation, since as far as I can tell, you taught me that."

"I did?"

"Crap; spoilers. But well… actually, that one's probably safe. It won't be a grandfather paradox because you have external motivation to do that research later anyway." Hourglass rubbed her temple as she thought. "Yeah… yeah, you'd figure that out regardless of this to get… that spell to work."

"Perhaps we'd all like to stop standing on the stairs," said Vow. "Archmage, can I interest you in something to eat? Tea? Wine?"

"Oh, yes! I've been so excited; Morty writes so highly of your cooking." Briefly rising onto her hind legs to clap her forelegs in giddy, foalish excitement, the mare who was the supreme magical authority of all of time grinned and rushed down the stairs ahead of us.

"Writes?" Vow asked, looking at me with concern.

At the bottom of the stairs, the archmage paused to look back up with a pang of empathy. "Oh, no, sorry; long after you're gone. Nothing you need to worry about."

"I'm not sure I like that choice of wording either." announced Vow as he caught up to the elder mage on his way to the kitchens. "Could I convince you to put a 'much later' in there?"

Hourglass shook her head. "I can't safely explain when I mean by that; it would probably change the way you go about your life in a way that would change my answer. And unfortunately, despite your excellent apron, The Time of Time's End only tells you about your first death, which you already know plenty well."

Vow looked down to verify he wasn't wearing his pun-emblazoned apron (for those who have forgotten the footnote, The Time of Thyme's End - only it wasn't written in Equiish, but rather as a parody of a ritual circle). After remembering that having never met the mare before, and that having never shown her his apron were no impediment to her knowing what was written on it, the warlock-turned-ponyquin retreated to the comfort and comparative sanity of his duties. That left Starlight and I standing in the entryway of my home, at the foot of the grand staircase.

"Take a seat?" I offered, gesturing to my exceptionally elegant set of sofas and armchairs around what we would now call a coffee table, whose legs I had yet to remove (pro tip, young wizards: floating furniture is better for your floors, in addition to the aesthetic).

With a smile, Hourglass flopped herself down on both seats of a loveseat, crossed her forelegs, and made herself altogether more comfortable than a first-time acquaintance would usually dare. "How are you doing, Morty?"

I couldn't help but offer a small quirk of my head. "Well, I'm getting used to the headaches, and nopony has tried to kill me in at least a week. So I guess that makes things good. I would think the mighty Archmage Hourglass had better things to do than make small talk, though."

"Come on; we're friends! You know I have time for you!"

I raised my brow even further, raised a hoof most of the way to pointing directly at her as part of a point, and then a bit of a realization hit me. "Have you… not met me when I woke up from fighting Wintershimmer yet?"

Hourglass' eyes widened, and then she let out a gentle laugh. "How did you put that together?"

"Because you keep implying that conversation made us great friends—but in fact, we barely shared four sentences, because Star Swirl kept complaining that you were going to cause a paradox by sharing 'spoilers'—I assume that's some technical term for a prophecy, or a description of the future?"

Hourglass' eyes widened, and then she nodded. "Alright, let me just be as open as I possibly can. There's some things you need to know about me anyway. Firstly, 'Hourglass' isn't my real name. And because you're my friend—or at least, you're going to be—I think you deserve to know better. Call me Starlight Glimmer."

Finally, I had the wherewithal to realize that I had not yet sat down to match her comfort, so I flopped myself into the tallest and most ornate of the armchairs in the room, and then folded a foreleg across my chest in a sort of bow-like posture. "A pleasure to meet you, Starlight."

"It's important you call me Starlight," she continued, "because someday, you're going to meet me before I'm Hourglass. And it would be bad for reality if I found out I was Hourglass that early."

"How long do I have to wait?" I asked.

It seemed like an innocent question to me, but Starlight shook her head firmly. "That is way off limits. In general, it's probably best not to ask about your future."

At the time of writing, that hasn't come to pass yet.

"Fine… But you're willing to tell me that I write about this in the future?"

"I sort of have to," Starlight confessed. Then she lit her horn with mint green magic and pulled out a tiny vial filled with what looked like the night sky, glittering with a swirl of vibrant suns. After unscrewing its cap, she tossed the liquid into her mouth, spent a few seconds swishing it, and then swallowed it. "Ahh…", she concluded, satisfied. "Now… right, your writing. There's a point in the future where another unicorn who moved to a parallel reality is reading what you write about this conversation. And, because I already exist at that time in the future, it isn't safe for this version of me—the one who is Archmage Hourglass—to be in that timeline for more than a few seconds. Because if I run into my future… well, my past self, but future from your perspective…" Waving away the thoughts like an odor with her hoof, she loudly declared "Anyway, the point is, if 'Hourglass' runs into 'Starlight Glimmer', the world definitely ends. But if right now I say to you 'This house isn't where you think it is, but you should follow your hunch about the Re—'" Starlight swallowed heavily. "Er, anyway, if I say something like that, then I know someday you'll write it down, so I can use it to pass a message to somepony who needs to hear it even though I can't show up and help her face-to-face."

"The Re-what?"

"It's a historical term for a period of Equestrian history in your near future, so my lips are sealed. I mean, I almost slipped up, but… well, you get the point."

"Are you new at this?" I asked. "Or just generally very lackadaisical about causing paradoxes?"

Starlight winced. "I'm that obvious? This is sort of my first stop after becoming Hourglass; I'm taking a tour arranging all the stable time loops and prerequisites so that my being Hourglass doesn't cause any paradoxes. Paradoxen? Parodicies? Whatever." Then she sighed, lit up her horn again, and produced an enormous leather-bound book from some pocket dimension she apparently kept handy. I took note of several obvious and important features: firstly, that the book was bound in iron, sealed with an iron clasp that featured an enormous lock, and was then chained shut as well. Secondly, the front of the book was decorated with a hunk of obsidian carved in the shape of an equine skull, possessing a tertiary eye socket in the center of its forehead. And, thirdly and perhaps most disturbingly, when the book was dropped—given the noise, some might say slammed—onto my coffee table, it began to leak a faintly green mist.

"What does this book have to do with you being new?"

"You need it for me to become Hourglass," Starlight explained. "So here it is. Enjoy."

"What is it?"

"Can't tell you," she answered with probably more amusement than was warranted, given how transparently evil the book felt.

"Oookay. How do I open it so I can read it, then? Once… you probably know, don't you?"

Starlight nodded. "And I promise I won't make fun of your illiteracy. But I do have to be a bit awful, because I can't answer that question either."

"You're not giving me the key?" I stroked my chin. "Does the key even exist now? Or am I going to have to hire somepony to pick this?"

I watched Starlight steeple her hooves. "If you think you can find somepony to pick that lock, I have a bridge in Canterlot to sell you. And Lark absolutely shouldn't try; it wouldn't end well."

"Lark?" I asked, honestly forgetting the name for a moment. "Wait, Gale's hoofmaiden? She knows how to pick locks?"

Starlight winced. "I, um… forget I said anything. And just don't try to open it."

"Then what good is the book?" I prodded. "None of my furniture has off-balance legs to shove it under."

For my question, I got a rather amused shrug from the legendary mistress of time.

It was about that time that Vow appeared, balancing across one foreleg a tray of biscuits, scones, and assorted baked treats, piping hot, along with various jams, a pair of delicate carafes of juice, and an ornate, s-nosed teapot. "Something to drink, Archmage? We have orange juice, apple cider, and I have a little bit of Earl Hay tea brewing. I apologize for the lack of variety; I haven't fully restocked yet, since I got back from… well, since I got back."

"Orange juice would be lovely," said Starlight.

I was able to gesture with my horn to the tea without speaking, and as Vow began to serve, I raised a question sitting at the forefront of my mind. "I have to wonder—that stuff you drank earlier; that potion. What was that?"

"Oh, my bottled reality? Mostly vodka, unfortunately. Reality doesn't keep in water; you have to store it like an extract of vanilla or orange peel or whatever. But there's a sort of… you wouldn't know what I meant if I said 'tutti-frutti', would you? I actually have no idea when that flavor was invented."

Vow and I shared a glance and a shrug.

"I'll have to ask Pinkie," Starlight resolved, mostly to herself. "Anyway, if you're worried it'll clash like mint toothpaste with the orange juice, I appreciate the concern, but if anything it would come across like a screwdriver."

Vow laughed. "I recognize about half of those nouns. What is 'Reality?'"

"That's quite the philosophical question," Starlight joked. "It's exactly what it sounds like." Starlight reached into the sleeve of her jacket not with magic but a hoof. It emerged holding a similar bottle to the one I had seen before. "I'm not going to explain how to use the stuff, so if you feel like keeping hoofnotes at sunset, don't take this as a masterclass." At the time, I thought the strange wording there might have been just an anachronistic idiom Starlight brought back from the future. Re-reading it, I assume it was instead a more subtle comment to a future reader of my current writing. If you keep hoofnotes, I won't hold it against you, but if you muck with the actual text like all the unwarranted censorship in Beginner's Guide, we are going to have a problem.

Starlight continued "I think the best metaphor is to think of reality like fabric. Like… imagine our timeline is a scarf. Some magic can damage the fabric, scuffing it or even tearing it, if it's misused. Time magic isn't the only kind that can do that, by the way; it's just the easiest kind to screw up—which is why we don't make seven-to-one Horological Hoops." I didn't particularly appreciate the look that accompanied that last comment. "If you tear fabric just a little bit, your scarf might have a hole in it, but you can still wear it and keep your neck warm just fine. But if you leave a hole in the fabric and you keep putting wear and tear on those frayed, damaged threads, the hole's gonna get larger, and the threads around the tear are going to keep pulling and ripping and the damage will spread to other parts of the fabric. And, sooner or later, you step on a thread or it snags on a doorknob or a branch or something, and your scarf is ruined; you just have a big bundle of loose thread that's all gnarled and knotted up and useless."

Vow frowned. "To be clear, in this metaphor, stepping on the thread is destroying the world?" I asked.

Starlight's chin bobbed up and down curtly. "Well, that version of the world. Now, I do my best to protect not just our timeline—our scarf—but also other scarves—adjacent timelines."

"Adjacent timelines?" I asked.

"Do you remember how Clover explained her spell when you were dueling her? I think she used a river as a metaphor, because she was talking specifically about branching, but we're both talking about the same thing. Despite using the metaphor of a scarf, time isn't actually just a line. It branches depending on the choices ponies make—and if a choice is important enough, the scarf splits so that both realities exist. Now, from your perspective inside of time, it looks like a straight line, because you can't see down the road less traveled." With a chuckle she added "...and that has made all the difference."

"Hmm?"

"Famous poem from the future," Starlight noted idly. "The point is, in addition to moving up and down the timeline, with magic I can also hop off of our path and see alternate worlds where ponies made different choices. Worlds where Wintershimmer won, for example."

"Don't they each have their own Hourglasses to take care of that?" asked Vow, refilling my cup of tea without needing me to ask.

"Oh, no; there's only me. It's, um… Nope, actually, can't talk about that with Morty in the room. Just, suffice it to say there are lots of Starlight Glimmers—oh, that's my real name, Vow—but only one Archmage Hourglass. Only one set of choices can lead to me… Explaining why is really complicated, since it gets into bigger and smaller infinities, so just trust me on that for now."

"And you said our timeline?" I pressed. "That, and the book, mean this is the timeline that leads to you?"

"Oh, there are tons of forks between now and when I become Hourglass. So you'll be lots of Mortys. But one of them is my friend. Just as you'll have lots of different friends… lots of weird, magical friends, if I remember right. The kind you can trust for a carriage ride, but that you really shouldn't trust to host you overnight." Starlight seemed to lose track of her thought for a moment, before glancing back to the bottle in her hoof. "Oh, right; reality. So, I do my best to stop time magic and paradoxes and so forth from destroying timelines. But, as a particularly heroic necromancer once taught me: you can't save everypony, but sometimes the ponies you can't save are your best tool for doing whatever you can."

I took a long sip of my tea and frowned. "So what you're saying is that I live long enough to sound that wise?"

"Morty, you already talk like that already when you think somepony is going to write it down," Starlight answered. "But yes; that's a possible you. The only difference between what you meant and what I'm doing is that you were using corpses, but this reality is—to continue the metaphor—the usable leftovers of the gnarled pile of thread that used to be a scarf. And, if you have enough of that spare thread, and you know something you're going to do is going to make a tear in your scarf, you can apply your spare thread and patch the hole immediately, before it has a chance to get bigger."

Vow seemed very confused by that, but I gave a small nod and spoke up to summarize my understanding. "So you drank that other bottle to cover your tongue, so that even if you slipped up and said something that would cause a paradox, it wouldn't destroy the world."

Starlight nodded. "For somepony about to make as poor of a choice as you were upstairs, Morty, you pick up time theory quite quickly. Again."

"I appreciate having a friend in high places—or in your case, high times—to help me out of that spot." I offered in return, before draining a long sip of my tea.

Vow raised a brow. "You consider Morty your friend, Archmage? Just a friend?"

"I'm not sure that's a conversation I want to have with you of all ponies, Mr. Vow."

"Ah, forgive me;" Vow nodded his head. "I'm not trying to be a lecher on your shared future, Archmage. But since you already know about me, I feel I can be blunt, and if you're his friend, I hoped you might do him a favor. I'm attempting to teach Morty certain, shall we say life skills, and there's one such skill that I'm woefully unequipped to provide direct mentorship in. And in addition to being able to assist, you might benefit yourself in the future by teaching him precisely what you prefer in—"

Starlight's expression got gradually more sour, and she finally cut Vow off with a "Please stop, Mr. Vow. Morty might be cute, but…"

"I prefer handsome," I cut in.

Starlight smiled and rolled her eyes. "Never change." Then turning back to Vow she continued "But he's a kid. And I'm immortal. I'll admit, dating as an immortal is weird, since the 'half-your-age-plus-seven' rule falls apart really fast when time dilation gets involved. But I'm not that desperate." With a huff of her nostrils, Starlight added "Morty, you can talk to me when you're older, and less complicated."

Starlight, were you hitting on me, now, eight-hundred years in advance?

Anyway, she didn't actually pause at that point in her sentence, instead continuing "Even if you were an adult now, I know enough about the cyclomatic complexity in the shipping chart of you nobles in this era to know I don't need anything to do with Gale's teenage libido and her weird preferences… Er, uh, not trying to kinkshame; just not what gets my motor running."

Vow turned to me. "The future has such delightful vocabulary, don't you agree, sir?"

"Is 'kinkshame' one word or two?" (I should note that at the time of writing I still haven't actually heard this one used by anyone I haven't introduced it to.)

"Celestia, I need to get out of here… Let me make sure I covered everything." Drawing a small list out of her jacket breast. "Let's see… stop the time dilation disaster, hand over The Princess in Yellow… and I didn't let any spoilers slip there, good…"

"I take it that's the title of the evil book taking up so much of the coffee table?" Vow asked.

"Fuck." replied Starlight, in what I now know from many subsequent encounters to be an uncharacteristic slip of profanity. "Ah, pardon my language."

"We know Gale," was all I had to say, and it was clear all was forgiven.

"Umm… note about the house in the Everfree…" Damn forest. Damn definite article that I chose not to comment on as a kid. "Yep, that's everything. And with plenty of time to leave before Cherry gets here."

"Cherry?" Vow asked, glancing my way. "Do you know that name?"

I nodded slowly. "He's a foal from Graarghs's school. I'm not sure he'd even know the address though…"

"Well, I'll leave you two gentlestallions to figure that one out from him. Morty, I will do you a small favor though; Cherry is telling the truth, no matter how strange his reasoning sounds. Knowing that won't make any difference to what you eventually decide to do; you'll just feel less guilty about what ultimately comes of it." Starlight stood up from her seat. "Thank you very much for the beverages and the company."

"How kind of you," said Vow. "It's good to know Master Coil has such a substantial friend."

"Well, I don't know if I'd say that yet," I muttered. "She might consider me her friend, but I hardly know her."

"There's no need to be like that…" Vow let the objection trail off when I held up a hoof.

I continued, "I'd think if somepony wanted to grease the wheels of a friendship that matters to the fate of all possible futures, as it were, they might be inclined to do a small favor."

The implication seemed to amuse Starlight, even as Vow (despite having a blank wooden face) took on a very concerned expression.

"Morty, are you trying to extort Archmage Hourglass?" Then with a hoof to his brow, he muttered to nopony in particular "Archmage, I'll have a talk with him about who it's appropriate to manipulate; I've just started—"

"Well, hold on, Vow. I don't remember this, which means that reality I drank was worthwhile after all. I'm curious, Morty; what did you have in mind?"

"Well, you know about my horn, and I may have started glyph magic studies with Celestia, but it's not like I'm up to really advanced permanent spells yet. So I was… kind of hoping I might borrow your horn upstairs."

"Didn't you just move in? What's upstairs?"

I slapped my hoof against my face. "Your name is literally in the spell, Starlight. Hourglass' Horological Hoop."

"You… want me to set it up for you?"

I couldn't help but don a bit of a 'no, seriously' grin. "If you wouldn't mind?"

Starlight sighed, glanced at the door, pulled back the sleeve on her jacket to reveal a bracelet centered around some kind of winding-free pocketwatch (which exist now only at substantially larger sizes, but certainly didn't then), and finally gave a heavy huff. "Three-to-one," she grumbled. "And someday, when you tell me I owe you for one of your ridiculous tricks, I get to bring this up."

"Deal."

Just as our hooves were meeting for a quick shake, there came a frantic knocking at the door.

"Morty, you'd better answer that. I'll send Angel down."

"Angel? What for?"

Starlight ignored that question, already heading up the stairs. "Vow, you can't help him with this; mind lending me a hoof?"

"Certainly," Vow answered with some trepidation.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Mere moments later I opened the house's door to reveal, true to Starlight's word, an out-of-breath, sweaty, and visibly worried Cherry Tomato.

"Morty!" he shouted directly into my face, and then had to pause to catch his breath before offering a next word.

"Yes, that's me," I couldn't resist offering dryly. "Do you need a glass of juice or something, kid?"

As he firmly shook his head, he announced. "Graargh! They want to kill him!"

Immediately, all inclination to joke fled my mind. "What? Who?"

"Mrs. Aspirations! And a stallion."

"What? Sure, she's a bad teacher, but—"

"They aren't ponies. They sent us all home from school except for Graargh, but I felt worried so I snuck back to look in the window. The stallion turned all black, and was holding Graargh in green magic even though he wasn't a unicorn. I know it sounds impossible, but I can feel it. It's like how I'm lucky; I just know. Please, Morty, you have to believe me."

"I… I do."

"You do?"

I nodded, glancing back up the stairs—where, to my surprise, Starlight had disappeared around the corner, but Angel was fast approaching.

"Master Coil, a strange mare and Mr. Vow said you needed me urgently for some sort of combat?"

I nodded. "Angel, Graargh's in trouble. We need to go kill some monsters."

Angel… how do I express this to someone who had never met him? The way he reoriented his halos relative to his central rock, with a pinch near the top and tilted slightly forward, conveyed a mixture of worry and intensity of determination that I would like to a furrowed brow and tightened lips on a pony's face. "My gemstones are full, so you should have five spells… but will your horn be alright? Should we summon Lady Celestia?"

"Forget my horn!" I snapped. "I'm not waiting! Follow me, Cherry; we're going to the back balcony."

"The back balcony, sir?" asked Angel. "The balcony that looks out off the cliff?"

I was already running by the time I bothered to answer. "I don't want to try to teleport that far blind. If we look off the back of the house, over the edge of the ridge, I should be able to see it." Running up the stairs (the exterior balcony stuck off of the 2nd floor), I briefly glanced at Starlight and Vow, and between breaths I offered the former "Thank you."

"Good luck," said Vow.

"He doesn't need luck," said Starlight. "You'd have to be an idiot to pick a fight with Coil the Immortal."

At the time, I assumed she was stoking my ego. However, upon magically reviewing my memory to record this chapter, I note that the point of view my spell provided, somewhere off my younger self's left shoulder, was exactly where Starlight focused her gaze when she said that.

Given she fit at least a couple other secret messages to future readers into her statements on that day, I have a sneaking suspicion those words weren't meant for me.

So, dear reader, if you're in a situation where you're considering making yourself my enemy, you should really follow Archmage Hourglass' advice. I can't say how much more powerful I've grown since I wrote this, since (out of respect for my friend) I generally avoid forecasting my own future. However, when I'm done writing this book down, some portion of the next few decades of my life are going to be dedicated to making sure that if a threat like Nightmare Moon ever rises against Equestria again, I can put it down without needing the massive loss of life our most recent conflict cost.

Since you're worth Starlight's attention to even offer that warning, I guarantee you're strong enough to kill me, but you'll be sorely disappointed by how little that means. And if you've already crossed that threshold and made for yourself an enemy in Coil the Immortal, Hero of Equestria, I'll leave you with some parting words from a physical gate you are rather likely to soon pass through yourself:

Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here


Sunset's Hoofnotes:

Why did this have to be the chapter where Morty told me it was okay to write in the book?

I'm really, really worried about even asking 'Mentor' about this. Will he remember and realize Starlight was talking about me?

Honestly, right now, after Morty threatening me, personally, a thousand years into the future, I'm not sure I'm up to piecing through what stuff Starlight said was secretly for me and what was her just being kind of absent-minded or quirky the way she is.

Also, glad I don't have to hear about her sleeping with Morty and Gale; Somnambula is already TMI.

Oh, right, this world doesn't have text abbreviations. Future reader, that means 'Too much information'.

I'm just gonna go onto the next chapter and hope there's a touching family rescue or something that makes me feel better.

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