• Published 8th Feb 2019
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Elements of Harmony - Starscribe

Starlight Glimmer rewrote history, erasing the Sonic Rainboom and stranding Twilight in an Equestria that suffered one disaster after another until it was barely recognizable. Twilight has to act fast if she ever wants to see her home again.

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Chapter 11: Crystalarium

As their expedition passed into the Crystal Empire, Twilight could still see faint traces of what a beautiful city it had once been. All the old buildings were still here, spires of transparent rock rising twice as high as ponies could build in Canterlot or Manehattan. Truly ancient, powerful magic had once been invoked here.

And its inheritor was trampling all over it. It was true that the crystal ponies in her own world had forgotten their magic, and so the new things they built used regular pony methods. They were having to build regular power plants to supplement the Paragon generator below the crystal heart. But while she had heard Cadance and Shining Armor ranting and complaining about what was lost, she couldn’t imagine either one would want to trade with this Cadance.

It seemed that Sombra understood crystal magic much better than Cadance ever had, because there were plenty of new buildings here. Everything he built was black, utterly ignoring the way districts had been color-coded and structured to form a harmonious whole. But still the new buildings went up.

Besides, the old city’s ancient monoliths were all covered with ash from coal fire anyway. In her own world, the Crystal Empire’s single coal plant had been located well outside the city limits, with insulated lightning-cables to supplement the city when it needed it.

She could see at least a dozen coal plants here, filling the sky with a constant ashy rain. It covered everything, right down to their brand-new uniforms.

“Good to be home,” Mainstay was saying, oblivious to the thin coating of ash on her face. Right, they’re crystal ponies. They don’t need to breathe. “Looks like our king has been busy since we left.”

“As always,” Jagged Rut answered. “Can’t wait for a little time in the barracks. The Queen won’t need us for any more unusual assignments, will she?”

“No,” Cadance answered, as they approached the palace from below. “You can escort my servants and I to my private quarters, then take the next three days for yourself. I believe my husband has another trip planned for me after that.”

Far from being a public square, the palace had been transformed much as the Castle of the Two Sisters: into a fortress. There were low walls all around it, and cannons mounted along them. Facing into the city. Even if you did get attacked, you’d be blowing up the Crystal Empire to defend it. Stupid.

There were no visitors around the castle grounds, either. No gardens of crystal berries and musicians visiting and politicians debating on the agora steps. Soldiers marched in formation or drilled at a training yard cut straight through where the paving stones had been. The only exception were the servants bringing supplies up and down the steps.

Twilight’s ears flattened as they passed through one checkpoint after another, swearing to herself that the next ward they passed through would be the one that uncovered her ruse. The deeper she got into the Crystal Empire the more she realized that King Sombra outclassed her.

Except… maybe he didn’t. She still hadn’t been arrested as they made their way up the palace steps, then around and around. Much higher than Cadance’s proper bedroom. They weren’t going to the master suite, but one of the guest wings.

The doors opened, and Mainstay gestured inside. “Here we are, Queen. You and your servants of questionable repute. You realize we’ll be filing a report about what happened with the Guard, right? You keeping them isn’t up to us.”

“It isn’t ‘up to’ anyone,” Cadance countered, puffing up her wings. “I am a queen. My husband may rule over the Empire’s important affairs, but I am master of my own household. You can tell anypony who tries to set hoof in here without my invitation that I’ll shatter them like the last. See if I don’t.”

Her horn glowed bright pink for a second, and Mainstay shivered. The first sign of fear from her Twilight had ever seen.

“We’re not trying to make trouble for you, Queen Cadenza,” Rut said. “Just trying to keep you safe.”

“They’re no threat to me,” Cadance said, her voice still flat. “And neither are you. Don’t forget that.” They left in a hurry.

Rarity collapsed onto the ground, positively melting under the weight of the saddlebags she had lugged all the way up. Since they were Cadance’s servants, they were carrying her luggage—even in the end of the world, she hadn’t traveled light.

“Well,” Cadance said, her voice a whisper. “That went about as well as I expected. Hopefully you were watching, Twilight. You see the danger here. This wing of the palace is mine, and you’re likely to be safe here… so long as you make yourselves scarce if my husband comes for me. But what you want… the Diamond Guard is as much a political organization as a military one. They will want to assert their authority. You must not leave this palace without being in my presence. You must go nowhere except on errands I send you, or else…” She shook her head. “You’ll find your friend sooner than you thought.”

“How soon can we find her?” Rarity asked, squeezing out of the oversized bag. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for your help, Princ—Queen Cadenza. But the more of this empire we see, the more urgent it seems that we finish Twilight’s spell and save the world.”

“I… I don’t know.” She took a step back. “Make yourselves seem like you’re servants. Unpack all this. I’ll ask around the palace, see if your friend is still… resisting. It’s been almost a week since I saw her last. Most don’t resist my husband that long. And if she did… she will not be in good shape.”

“Ask around,” Twilight agreed. “We’ll make it convincing for anypony who wanders in to check on us, won’t we Rarity?”

A faint groan was her only response.

They did work, though mostly it was mostly Pinkie and Applejack getting all the heavy lifting done. Twilight was alright with that—so long as she could station Rarity as a scout at the door to Cadance’s massive closet, it meant she could free her wings from the charm, and finally give them a proper preening. The itching had been driving her insane for two days.

By the time Cadance returned, the moon had set and risen again through the gigantic windows, and activity in the city below began in earnest. Mostly that meant more ash falling on the city, and more huge wagons of ore and metal bars passing through.

Everything in this place is about war. What do the regular ponies eat? In her own world, everypony who had been in the Empire when it returned was a crystal pony, except for Sombra himself. But many ponies had moved in since that moment, at least in her world. Was it the same way here?

“Alright.” Cadance stepped into the closet, wearing a semitransparent ballgown and looking exhausted. “I asked around. It wasn’t easy, but… I got the prisoner manifest.” Something appeared in the air in front of Twilight. She caught the scroll, unrolling it. Sure enough, halfway down the list…

“Rainbow Dash, Equestrian Infiltrator. Sentence: Death by Starvation or Integration via Crystalarium.”

“Well that’s cruel. He starves ponies to death? Doesn’t he care if ponies do the same thing to his troops? There’s a reason we have laws for war.”

Cadance shook her head. “His troops can’t be starved, remember? He hopes you’ll be cruel to his troops. They don’t feel pain, and every one of them you kill is another soldier returned to continue the fight.” She slumped into a sitting position, closing her eyes. “It’s why this war is already over. Equestria lost, it just doesn’t know it. Your soldiers die, ours don’t. It’s only a matter of time.”

“Not anymore,” Twilight said, before Rarity could object. She raised her voice a little, glaring at the unicorn. “We might not have that kind of magic, but we have other kinds.”

“So, what do we do…” Rarity asked from the doorway. “Queen Cadenza, didn’t you say something about visiting the prisoners, and trying to persuade them to change sides? Maybe we could… do something like that? Could you visit with us?”

“Not a chance,” she said. “The Diamond Guard at the Crystalarium have strict orders. I’m allowed inside because my husband always hopes I’ll submit to its magic too. He wants everyone to submit, even me. But you can’t force anypony, especially an Alicorn. If he tried to keep me locked inside, he knows I’d blast the entire thing apart. It’s a… delicate balance. Like all the Crystal Empire, I suppose. As beautiful as it is fragile.”

Not so beautiful anymore, at least not through the oversized window at the far end of the room. The moon turned the smog bright orange, blocking out the stars and making the haze look worse. Living here long-term would probably suffocate any real ponies who tried it.

“Where is it?” Twilight asked. “We have to get inside. Rainbow is still there—not given up yet. I’m guessing she hasn’t eaten for a week. She’s running out of time. Every minute we waste could be the moment she can’t hold on any longer.”

“He constructed it from his ancient laboratory,” Cadance answered, voice weak. “Where he was storing the Crystal Heart. It’s a maze—endless stairs, hallways, dead ends. Reflecting all your mistakes and failures back at you until you can’t keep going. I can get you a map—without one, you’ll be like any other prisoner.”

I’ve been there before, Twilight realized. She didn’t need a map to find it, or to get it to open and close. She waited for it anyway, still hiding in the closet to give her wings the most time possible to air out.

When Cadance returned with a worn map, she found herself nodding. It was exactly the way she remembered it.

“Every passage in the Crystalarium leads into the Lens. That’s what my husband uses to create new crystal ponies. You must walk into it willingly—if you don’t, you just burn to ash. He still sometimes throws ponies down there…”

“Buck this,” Applejack muttered. “Nopony should be treated like this. Twilight, we gotta do something about it. Break that damn thing, set everypony free.”

She nodded sadly. “I want to do that as much as you, Applejack. But there are four of us. Five, if you count Cadance. We can’t fight an empire. Nightmare Moon is more powerful than me and she’s been losing for years now. If Sombra finds me, it won’t even be a fight.”

“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said since getting here,” Cadance muttered. “I’m sorry about your friend. But once anypony goes down there, they’re basically gone forever. Either they don’t come out, or… you wish they hadn’t.”

“I wasn’t giving up,” Twilight said, standing straighter. “I know this place. I’ve been there, in my world. We’re getting Rainbow back. We just need a plan.”

But it wasn’t Twilight who came up with it. After a few seconds, Rarity spoke from the door. “Queen Cadenza, I, uh… I wonder if that prisoner manifest might include the date when the next group of condemned ponies get thrown inside? And… I know this might sound unrelated, but… how well do they search you when you make your visits?”

Twilight’s eyes lit up when she heard it. It was an insane plan—but no less insane than anything they’d done in the last few weeks. Could they make a disguise for Twilight so good that the guards on the outside wouldn’t try to remove it?

“Wait,” Twilight stuck out one wing. “All of us going in there would be… that’s too much.”

“It would be,” Cadance agreed. “Sombra never punishes more than one pony at once. He doesn’t want groups forming down there. Since going in together is the only reliable way not to be separated…”

“Alright,” Twilight said. “Here’s what we need to make this plan work—”

This was an incredibly stupid plan.

It was easy to act brave when Twilight planned this infiltration from the outside. She was an Alicorn, she had an entire lifetime of study to her name. There was nothing that could threaten her, really. She’d already penetrated Sombra’s sanctum in her world, thanks to Celestia’s teaching. She could use that same magic to escape it again.

They had spent a day and a half in the Crystal Empire, waiting out the clock on Cadance’s next diplomatic trip to the city of Quartzite. “That’s where you’ll join my entourage,” Cadance said. “The first inn along the way should be far enough for a long-range teleport out of the Empire without attracting my husband’s attention.”

Twilight sat in the back of a metal prison-wagon, wearing makeup almost as thick as her illusion spells. Enchanting a vest to hide her wings would work well enough for most things, but there was no way she’d be allowed to take anything into the prison. Twilight had been forced to take the magic to the next level.

Transformation was a much more dangerous art, even when only cast on the self. Twilight had mastered that school of magic as few ponies before or since could dream of—she could change ponies into breezies, change oranges into frogs, and even create griffons. Of course, she wouldn’t be doing anything so difficult today.

Twilight had changed herself into an earth pony. There was no visible horn for abusive guards to break that way, no vests for them to remove or wings to torture her with. Twilight had no illusions about her ability to resist treatment like that, however brave she could talk.

She didn’t ask what had happened to the intended prisoner, but thanks to a little magic, she looked exactly like her. Rarity’s excellent stage makeup made it look like she’d already been beaten badly, with coat shaved away to make her seem sickly. So pathetic she wasn’t worth abusing. So far, that part of the plan had worked.

Heavy locks on the door to the metal cart clicked and rattled, then fell away. Something creaked, and light emerged from the other side. Diamond Guard stood there—none she knew, though they wore the same thick armor and carried spears. “Rise, prisoner,” they commanded. “Now.”

She did, putting on the best show of weakness and shaking limbs she could. It wasn’t hard to act. Twilight was feeble compared to her usual self. She couldn’t cast spells. Her transformation was powerful enough that it was complete—were it not for the trigger word she’d given it, she would have to wait for it to run out of energy and give her horn back.

As Twilight emerged from the metal prisoner carriage, she caught sight of Cadance somewhere nearby, talking to the guards and pretending not to pay attention. I hope nopony else is down here. What if they decide you’re not worth imprisoning?

No time for her to worry about that now.

“Wonder what our king saw in her,” one of the ponies muttered, smacking her lightly with the back of the spear. Towards a doorway located directly below the city.

This was where the Crystal Heart should’ve been in the real Empire, not far from Spike’s statue. Neither were here, a black archway standing by itself. There was just smoggy sky on the other side as they got closer.

“Doesn’t matter,” said the other. “Here is your prison, uh…” He fumbled with a scroll, unrolling it a little. “Candy Wish. You have two ways to leave it. Either with honor, as one of us. Or as fertilizer for the crops. These are your only choices. Make the smart decision, for your own sake.”

She nodded weakly. “I-I… I will.”

“If she lives long enough to walk there,” the other guard whispered. “Buck, what did the border guards do to her? Barely left anything for the king.”

“Not our business.”

They reached the archway. One of the ponies stepped through it, and the air rippled behind them. A void appeared on the other side, stretching back, and causing a brief flare of nausea in her stomach. Dark magic. It was the same kind of space magic she’d trained with her whole life, but… wrong at the same time.

Before she could get second thoughts, Twilight stumbled through into the gloom. The crystal light faded from behind her as the portal closed, stranding her in the Crystalarium.

Sombra’s magic defied the ordinary construction of spells and spaces. Dark magic was like that—it allowed unbalanced equations, and unsatisfiable ethical clauses. It allowed Limbo and its nightmares to fill in the gaps.

The most powerful dark wizard who ever lived built this place, she thought, shaking off her pretended weakness and straightening. She could’ve banished the illusion right away, but she hesitated. Candy Wish hadn’t alerted any magical defenses, and there was at least a chance that it would respond to an Alicorn differently.

Twilight settled onto her haunches, studying the space in front of her. A hallway, ending in a crystal stairwell stretching down. She started to walk.

Walls appeared around her, like broken chunks of black crystal. She saw images there whenever she turned her head. There were cities frozen over with ice, forests dead, her mentor banished for a thousand years. Luna trapped as a monster, killing the ones she loved.

“It would be wrong to abandon the secrets this world contains,” Tirek’s voice whispered to her. “It’s all dust and smoke anyway. You’ll fix it eventually. But before you do, you can harvest what is valuable to you.”

“No mystery should go unstudied,” Princess Luna said. “No question unasked. Ignorance in Equestria is the product of these.”

Celestia’s face appeared in the stairs, watching her with disappointment. “I trusted you,” she said. “You were supposed to protect Equestria. Every death is your fault.”

Twilight faltered. Did Sombra know who she was? Had he… been watching her, this whole time? She felt like she was being watched right now. Every wall was a thousand eyes, seeing through her flesh into her soul.

“You don’t even know the spell will work,” Sunset Shimmer said. “But how is that different. Alicorns gambling with the lives of their inferiors. What else is new.”

“Sweetie Belle could die because of you,” Rarity added.

“And my sister too,” Applejack said. “That just ain’t right.”

Twilight ran. She couldn’t say where she was running, or why. She wouldn’t have said much of anything anymore. All she knew was that the voices were too loud, and she had to make them stop. She took the stairs several at a time, jumping with the aid of earth-pony strength and pelting down hallways and turns at random. But no matter how far she ran, there was no silence. Not until she found her way down to the bottom.

It took one glance for Twilight to discover the “Lens” that she’d been warned about—a massive crystal formation tapering down from a huge ceiling until it reached the size of a single pony, a brilliant spotlight across a perilous length of bridge. On either half there was a drop down to oblivion, and on the other side—another stairwell, leading out. She could see bits of bone on the ground around the lens—the ones Cadance had talked about, being forced to cross.

Twilight took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She couldn’t have said how long she had run, or how far. But the voices had stopped. They were leading me here. That’s the whole point of this place.

She wasn’t alone, either. She could see a figure near the bridge, huddled up against a wall. They had found a ragged blanket, and only a glint of metal emerged from within. What? Someone brought something down here?

Curious, Twilight crept closer, gazing up towards the lens with horror. Magic radiated from it, not as dark as she expected. Sombra didn’t make this. It was already here. He didn’t create the crystal ponies. But he could control them, somehow. That was almost worse.

“Excuse me…” Twilight lowered her voice, wiping away at the makeup around her face. No reason to look like she’d been beaten half to death while gathering information. “I’m looking for somepony, maybe you can help.”

Something stirred in the blankets, with a little shifting motion. A pair of eyes gazed out at her from within. Familiar eyes glazed over with pain and madness. “Nothing helps,” she said, voice near to madness. “You can leave, but the voices come back. Can’t fly across the gap. Magic pushes you down. Spikes at the bottom. No escape, escape by crossing. No rescue coming.”

Rainbow Dash looked almost as bad as Twilight had imitated with illusion and makeup. Her coat was patchy, and her face was shriveled, almost skeletal.

“Your rescue is here,” Twilight said, her voice shaking as she said it. She’s still alive. Thank Celestia. I haven’t failed yet. “I’m going to get you out of here.”

“How?” Rainbow shook off the blanket, though she didn’t seem to have much energy to move. The rest of her body looked as bad as her face, and she smelled worse. Ponies could go a month without starving, but that didn’t mean it would be good for them. We won’t have a proper Equestrian hospital to treat her when this is over. We’ll have to be extra careful.

Even more frightening than how shriveled Rainbow looked, the most shocking thing about her was her wing. It was entirely missing, gone just a few inches past the connection to her back. But rather than a jagged wound from whatever butcher’s job had cut it off, she had a replacement. The entire thing was built from metal, probably aluminum from how light it looked.

Magic radiated from it, intact even in this terrible place. It moved when she did. Did we lose that? I’ve never seen that kind of magic before.

“Star Swirl the Bearded,” Twilight declared. While Rainbow’s expression became confused, she herself felt the spell unraveling. Transformation magic was never pleasant, but at least reversing it didn’t take concentration. A few seconds of discomfort, and she stood suddenly tall, confident, wings and horn both restored. She shook herself out, feeling relieved.

“There, now that’s done with. Let’s see…” She took a few steps away, finding bits of broken crystal wall and levitating them over. Each one was about the size of a hoof. Twilight concentrated for a few seconds, and they melted into squat loaves of dark bread.

Making food this way was incredibly taxing and tasted terrible. But rescuing a pony who could barely stand would be worse. “Here.” She set them both on the ground in front of Rainbow. “I hear dripping nearby—I’m guessing there’s water in here?”

“You can make food? What kind of unicorn…” Rainbow seemed to see her for the first time, and her eyes widened. “Buck me, a princess. I don’t… warrant a rescue like this.”

“You do,” Twilight argued. “Because I need your help to save Equestria. First, eat. Then we can talk.” No sign of recognition from the other pony—but as much as it hurt, it wasn’t surprising. Starlight Glimmer had taken away all that—her history with these ponies had never happened. It wasn’t their fault.

Rainbow ate quickly, scarfing down what little food she’d given her. This was dangerous—it was why she hadn’t made more. Twilight might not be a doctor, but she knew there was a procedure involved. She would just have to hope that feeding her a little at a time would work. And that my strength lasts. There’s a reason armies don’t use unicorns to stay fed.

Twilight crossed the huge space to the fountain on the far side, which even had some crystal cups. She drank the metallic-tasting water, where it dripped from the ceiling above into the reservoir. She brought a full cup over for Rainbow and held it out for her until she drank it.

“I heard you’ve been down here a week,” she said, sitting with her back to the wall and staring up at the Lens. Even gone from the cursed hallways, she still imagined she could hear Tirek’s voice, luring her to further study. This was magic lost to her Equestria. How did it work? Maybe there was a way to use it that wasn’t so evil…

“Yeah,” Rainbow muttered. She didn’t look so glazed anymore—instead, she just looked like a pony who had just eaten a ton. Like the food-coma she fell into after a day of cider season. “About. Lost track. Between this… and the way behind. No way out, just the voices. But here… it’s the Lens, and a cliff. Watched a few… go through. Leave, join his army. Betray Equestria. Can’t believe they’d do that.”

Yet her voice had a twinge of fear in it. What did she think she might’ve done, if she had been kept here a little longer?

“You won’t have to,” Twilight said. “I won’t explain the whole thing now, but… I need you to be part of something. The most important military action in the war.”

“Not… much use anymore. They’ve had me in prisons like this for weeks. I’m… completely out of practice. None of my information is good anymore… but I didn’t tell them anything.” Her eyes settled on Twilight’s wings, and this time she seemed to understand what they meant. “I’m guessing the war must’ve turned, if we have a second Alicorn fighting on our side. Have you already taken the Crystal Empire? Is that how you’re here?”

She shook her head sadly. “Afraid not. I infiltrated, like you. And now we have to exfiltrate, without getting caught by King Sombra. In… his most important prison, surrounded by his best-trained soldiers.”

“Great.” Rainbow slumped against a wall. “That sounds… great. I hope, Princess, uh… what’s your name again? I don’t think you told me.”

“Twilight,” she answered. “Twilight Sparkle. But you can just call me Twilight. This is war now, right? We don’t need special titles or anything in war.”

“I don’t think that’s how war works,” Rainbow muttered. “But… I guess an Alicorn wouldn’t be regular military. You’re some kinda… crazy special forces. It’s alright, that’s cool. Unless you’re a changeling. Crazy… conspiracy of a plan that would be. And it wouldn’t work. I know how to make the potion to find you.”

“I’m not a changeling,” she said. “That wouldn’t make sense. If I was, it would be better just to let my enemies kill each other. This would be going into danger for no reason.”

“Oh yeah.” Rainbow nodded, apparently satisfied with that explanation. “Guess most changelings probably don’t know… advanced magic like that. Do you have any more food?”

“Not for a few hours,” she answered. “You’re not ready for…” Then she shook her head. There was no way the pegasus was going to care for that explanation. Getting food again would reawaken all her numb pains of starvation. “The rest of my team has all the food you can eat. They’re waiting for us in the city, we just have to get to them.”

“Oh, cool.” For the first time, Rainbow stood. Her legs were thinner than Twilight remembered, and a little shaky. But the magic in her replacement wing seemed intact, because it opened and flexed when her real one did. “Ugh. Sorry Princess. I must smell awful.”

“Just Twilight.” And you do, but I won’t tell you that. She turned away, glancing back towards the way she’d come. There are a few entrances. We’re at the bottom, but… this sanctum also has doors back into the castle. That would be the best way out—if they could make it into the princess’s chambers, they could dress like her servants and slip back into the city.

Twilight’s horn glowed for a second, and a thin line of light appeared between their hooves. “I need you to stay with me as we go back up,” she explained, voice gentle. “It’s… not going to be easy. I can’t dispel the charms on this place without Sombra realizing they’ve been tampered with. If he finds us, we’re doomed.”

“Alright.” Rainbow lifted her foreleg, tugging gently on the rope. “You’re good at this magic stuff. Did Princess Nightmare train you herself?”

“Something like that. It’s hard to explain. Let’s focus on getting out first.”

Twilight plotted the path out in her mind, both from the map that Cadance had shown her, and her own memories of this place. She had wandered this sanctum for hours during her last encounter with Sombra, but she had eventually been able to find her way out. She could escape now too. It wasn’t impossible.

“Equestria is doomed,” the voices called to her, as she walked her way up endless spiral staircases. “The Elements are broken. Your friendship never happened here. You’ll be powerless to reverse the spell.”

“Starlight Glimmer will have the Equestria she always wanted. You lost.”

And on and on. She might’ve broken and run again under the strain of it, except for her companion.

Rainbow Dash could barely walk. Her body was drained, and she was running on fumes. Yet the pegasus kept going. She gritted her teeth, and from the haunted look in her eyes Twilight could tell that she was hearing similar things.

Once Rainbow stopped walking at the top of a flight of stairs, crying as she stared into a slab of black crystal. Twilight hadn’t noticed until she got far enough away that the rope caught, and she jerked to a stop. Twilight turned, walking back to where her objective had slowed.

“Something wrong, Rainbow?”

The pegasus wiped away moisture from her face. But Twilight couldn’t see what was in the crystal. The strange torture-chamber spoke directly to each prisoner.

“Nothing.” She swallowed, then turned. “Equestria is depending on us. Let’s go.”

Twilight walked until she ached, amazed that her companion could keep going. They stopped several times, though what physical rest they got felt outmatched by the grinding pain of emotional torture. Rainbow was on the edge of her strength every moment—no amount of loyalty would change the physical frailty of her body.

But then they found the doorway. It looked like an arch in the crystal, leading to a solid wall. But Twilight remembered what to do. Her horn sparked with green magic, as she conjured the only dark spell she knew. The one Celestia had taught her.

The doorway flickered, then opened. A wide space spread out beyond it, somewhere in the castle. She couldn’t see anyone in it, just a tapestry on the far wall and an open window.

“Not yet.” Twilight stuck her hoof out. She concentrated, casting her illusion again. Doing it directly to her own body would only last minutes, not days. But she would only need minutes. Besides—she didn’t have enough magical energy left for a spell as powerful as transformation.

Together, they stumbled from the Crystalarium at last.

The doorway closed behind them. They were standing in a workshop of some kind, with intricate spell-diagrams on the walls and heavy bookshelves packing the space. And in the air just above them, the Crystal Heart.

It looked… sick. Black and green, grown all over with shards of sharp crystal. Like it might crumble apart any second.

“Well, this is unexpected,” said a voice from across the room, totally unafraid.

Twilight turned, and her breath caught in her chest.

Standing in front of a desk—his red horn glowing with power—was King Sombra.