Twilight Sparkle is stuck in a time loop amid a changeling invasion. This time, she's not the only one whose day is repeating.
Twilight still isn't having a very good day. An army of changelings is attacking Canterlot, and the experimental spell that blew up in her face has stuck her in a time loop until she gets everything perfect and saves Equestria.
She's got a plan. She's also got a problem: Suddenly, she's not the only one whose day is repeating. And when you're caught between unstoppable force and immovable object, life has a tendency to get complicated.
* * *
This story is an authorized alternate-universe re-imagining of Eakin's Hard Reset, in which multiple loopers turn the time shenanigans up to 11. (Knowledge of Hard Reset is not required, but based on reader comments, will help in sorting out the early chapters.)
Spike blinks. "Uh, well, I just meant I don't know what you cast, but I'm pretty sure Starswirl the Bearded never wrote any 'blow-up-in-your-face' spells. Are you okay?"
I stagger forward — I'm long since used to the pain by now, but there's always a moment of adjustment at the start of a new loop as my consciousness reassembles itself, screaming and flailing, and reorients into a body that hasn't been clawed apart or mashed into pulp or disassembled into its component molecules by explosions. I clamp my hooves around my faithful assistant's shoulders and shake. "WHAT. DID. YOU. SAY?"
Spike yelps and cringes. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and force myself to start over. I've long since grown tired of wasting time explaining things to others who will forget it all the next time the loop resets — but this is significant enough to be worth talking out in order to give me a chance to sort through my thoughts.
"I'm sorry, Spike," I say. "Listen. The spell you just saw me cast stuck me in a time loop — I keep getting reset to this exact moment over and over again." I wave a hoof around the restricted section of the Canterlot Library archives, where I'd found Starswirl's spell and been so overwhelmed by curiosity that I'd chalked an evocation circle in a back room to try it out. "Under normal circumstances, this would be the best possible thing, right? Getting the same block of time to experience over and over again, here in the largest library in the world, with all of Canterlot outside the door; and if I ever get bored of the ability to infinitely devour knowledge without aging, I can go ask one of the princesses for help getting things back to normal."
Spike looks at me blankly. "Uh, Twilight, are you sure you didn't maybe hit your head a little hard there?"
"But there's a catch," I continue. "I just so happened to cast the spell right at the cusp of a new changeling invasion. Queen Chrysalis is minutes from replacing Princess Celestia in a surprise attack, there’s the world's biggest swarm on its way here in less than an hour, and the palace staff and Royal Guard have been thick with infiltrators for months. As if that weren't enough, in about three hours the Elements of Harmony will overload from the negative energy of all the death and destruction of their attack, and blow the whole world up."
His jaw is hanging open. Now he's staring at me with a mixture of disbelief and horror. I feel a brief twinge of regret for shredding his innocence — yet again — but it's not like he'll remember it next time the loop resets, and it's hardly the worst thing I've done while trying to singlehoofedly accomplish the impossible task of saving Equestria.
"I've been trying to stop that for … several hundred? … loops now," I say. "Nothing changes from loop to loop except for the knowledge I have from the previous ones. Everything is absolutely identical except for what I myself alter. And without fail, every single time, I've woken back up to four little words."
He points at me, then brings a claw to his chin. He squinches his eyeridges together, staring at me. His jaw works soundlessly. "… Well, that sure didn't work?" he finally manages.
"Spike, that's FIVE."
"Twilight … your fur is still smoking. Maybe you should sit down and —"
"Why did you say 'sure'?"
"Because you sure blew yourself up! You're scaring me, Twilight. Please sit down and I'll go get a doctor." He dashes out of the room, his stubby legs a blur.
I rack my brains. Did something tangible from my last loop carry over to this one? All I did was grab the Elements of Harmony from their vault and hop on a train, trying to test whether removing them from Canterlot would prevent their explosion so that Celestia wouldn't have to spend all her focus on keeping them calm. Well, as it turned out, that didn't work. But it must have done something. I know I heard that extra word, and I know there's no way I could have reacted differently enough in the split-second after resetting to change his speech.
I take a look around the library. Really look, in a way I haven't done in subjective months. If there's a book out of place, if there's a line chalked differently in my circle, then I can't see it. The air does look smokier, I guess? No — that's confirmation bias. Spike just told me I was smoking, so it's exactly the sort of claim I could convince myself of without evidence. I could take samples and measure the composition of the air, but … no, it would take me too long to find sensitive enough equipment, not to mention if something has changed I don't have a baseline measurement from previous loops.
Instead, I teleport in a series of hops up to a nearby observation tower, hoping that there's something to learn by getting a view of the library from outside. I give the city a cursory glance over my shoulder, and my jaw falls open.
There's no swarm approaching Canterlot.
No — wait. There they are. They're a black fuzz out on the horizon in the direction of the Everfree. They've never been this far away, and I've come straight here any number of times. I glance over at Big Pen, but the clock on its face is at the same 3:13 that every loop has started with.
This is completely incomprehensible, but I don't want to look a gift pig in the mouth. Did something happen to delay the changelings' plans? Then that might mean …
I've teleported down to the hallway in front of Celestia's private chambers before I can even finish the thought. There should be a full platoon of changelings here disguised as Royal Guards, while Chrysalis overpowers Celestia inside. But the hallway is empty except for Sharp Edge and Parade Rest standing by her door.
Sharp blinks. "Twilight? What's —"
"National security emergency. Today's validation code" — learned in one of my earlier loops trying to figure the best way to muster the Guard — "is 438 hay-roan-zebra. I'll be inside. Nopony else comes in."
Sharp salutes, but hesitates. "Nopony at all? Not even —"
"Okay, you can let us know if the building's on fire around us," I joke, giving him a disarming smile. "Don't worry, we'll be as quick as we can. Also, call Blue Glow — she's the battlecaster from Barn Company — to lay down an anti-transmutation ward on this hallway, and then get 114th squadron here to back you up." The 114th is changeling-free. I'll need them elsewhere later in the invasion, but right now I want trustworthy ponies here. I get two salutes in return, Parade wingsprints off, and for the first time in many, many loops I feel hope stir in my chest.
Celestia is sitting at her desk when I barge in, elbows up on the smooth white marble, resting her muzzle on her pasterns and staring unfocusedly into space. She looks up at my arrival and forces a smile. "Twilight," she says, faltering for a moment, "I'm sorry you had to hear —"
I stride up. "No time for apologies. Chrysalis is in the castle, there's a changeling swarm on the horizon —" I blink. "Wait. Had to hear what? This is the first time I've seen you this — today."
Her eyebrows furrow in thought. "At Court … the stallion who came up to the two of us and …" She stares at me. Her eyes widen as it all clicks together. "Chrysalis was you. Of course! Twilight, I hope you don't mind if we cast changeling detection spells on each other?"
I don't mind. We both come up clean. She sits in front of me, staring down at me with an intensity I rarely see. "Tell me everything you know, Twilight, and we'll fix this."
"'Everything' would take a while. I'm stuck in a time loop —"
I stop because her hoof is jammed in my muzzle. She leans in. "In that case, wait." She closes her eyes. Her muzzle shifts as she subvocalizes some words. I feel the wrench of magical activation, even though her horn doesn't glow. However, whatever it was she triggered dissipates without any apparent effect. She opens her eyes again; a dim light in her pupils is fading away.
"If we don't get things right on this pass," she says, "then the next time you meet me, tell me the phrase 'preengaged blackout deharmonizes antihunting dissertation', exactly as I just spoke it. Have you got that?"
I repeat it to myself a couple of times. "Yes."
"Out loud, just so we're sure. It's neutralized now."
"Preengaged blackout deharmonizes antihunting dissertation, right. What does that trigger?"
She smiles inscrutably. "Tell me in another loop, and you'll see. What's our tactical situation?"
I give her a brief summary of what I've learned over the scores of loops spent teleporting in between the various Royal Guard units. She listens attentively, asking good questions, and leans back in thought when I'm done. "It sounds like we have the numbers to repel them," she says, "as long as the infiltrators can be dealt with before the swarm arrives. Have you tried taking this information to the Guard commanders? Do you need today's validation code?"
"Actually, I've never had time before. That's the weirdest thing about this. When I started this loop …" Something tickles at my nostrils. "… Do you smell smoke?"
The door bursts open, and Sharp Edge and Blue Glow gallop in. "Princess, Mistress," Sharp says hurriedly, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but the building's on fire around us."
My jaw drops. "Wait, are you serious? Because, for the record, I was joking about that."
"There are at least four separate fires throughout the castle, including a small one right downstairs," Blue Glow says. She points a hoof toward the window. "The main blaze is deep in the East Wing. You can see fire in some of its windows from here."
If the infiltrators moved before we did, then this loop's a bust — but I can still gather information for the next one. I note the time — 3:46 — then gallop over to the window and look out into the courtyard. I see smoke over the East Wing, but not the fire itself. "Where?"
Blue joins me, putting a hoof around my withers and drawing me in so I can see down her foreleg as she points at a window semi-obscured by a tree in the courtyard. A squadron of Guard pegasi is surrounding it, hauling in a chain of rainclouds, shouting orders and sending civilians scurrying every which way.
I squint. "Hang on," I say. "That's the 114th. Who's out in the hallway?"
Blue freezes for a moment. Then she grabs my neck and wrenches. I hear a pop.
Celestia gasps as I crumple to the ground. "Chrysalis!" My vision blacks out amid her laughter.
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
I leap to my hooves. Oh, it is on. That's the first time in over a hundred loops that Chrysalis has killed me, and it is going to feel so good setting that right.
"Unless Starswirl the Bearded wrote a 'blow-up-in-your-face' spell —" is all I hear Spike say before I teleport to the hallway in front of Celestia's room. I give Sharp and Straight the same orders, word for word, and dash inside.
Celestia is staring unfocusedly into space again, and gves me the same forced smile. "Twilight," she says, faltering for a moment, "I'm sorry —"
"No time for apologies. Chrysalis is …" I've gotten so good at putting my brain on autopilot and repeating my actions from loop to loop that I almost forget. "Hang on. Last loop, you told me to tell you: 'Preengaged blackout deharmonizes antihunting dissertation.'"
As I finish speaking the trigger, a wave of energy bursts out from her. Pain lances through my head, and my muscles lock up. I can feel my horn spark with magical feedback and my body go numb. The world goes grey around me, and as I topple to the floor, I hear two muffled thumps out in the hallway.
Celestia — who is still moving — steps forward. She looks at me dispassionately. I feel a vague pressure on my chin as she caresses my muzzle in her hornglow.
"I hope that you weren't manipulating my mind, Twilight," she says, "and that you truly are in a time loop, so that next time you can add the safeword 'coruscating' right before the trigger."
I try to protest through the paralysis. I can't even breathe. My lungs are starting to burn.
Her horn flares. I hear a familiar pop.
* * *
"Well, that didn't work," a familiar maternal voice says.
I sit upright, head swimming, to find Celestia standing behind Spike at the edge of the evocation circle.
Spike yelps and spins. "Princess Celestia! What are you doing here?"
"Hzbuh," I say, using my words seven times more efficiently.
"Spike," she says, drawing him into a winghug, "the spell Twilight Sparkle just cast has some unusual consequences that I need to discuss with her. Why don't you run to the palace kitchens to get her something to eat?"
"I. Er. But …"
"I hear Garde Manger is looking for taste-testers for a new line of powdered gemstone condiments." She gives him a wink, and shoos him away with a hoof. "Twilight deserves only the very best of those, wouldn't you agree? We'll join you when we're done here."
I watch Spike go, then turn to Celestia unsteadily. "Uh … I've got a billion questions, but first I probably ought to say, 'coruscating preengaged blackout —'"
I'm stopped by a hoof to my mouth. "Let's not go through that again. We've got a lot to talk about and I don't want you paralyzed."
"Okay," I say, "what."
Celestia smiles. "I know you can figure it out, Twilight. You did last time."
"Last time I didn't say your 'coruscating' safeword and you killed me."
Her smile falls away. "Two things about that. One, if you'd been lying about looping, your only way of knowing the trigger words would have been the darkest of forbidden magics, and if you were studying those behind my back, you would have been an existential threat to Equestria. I had to be certain, and I knew that if you were telling the truth all I would do was reset you."
The logic is flawless, cold and impersonal. She's right, of course, and that means that rationally I should drop it and move on, but there's an unfamiliar internal voice screaming that logic isn't sufficient here. I have no idea what to make of it. "Okay," I say uncomfortably.
"Two, that was your last time. I've been busy."
It takes a second for that to click. My jaw drops. "You're in a time loop too?!"
"Did I —"
"No, this is my own loop, independent from yours."
"My reset point was first thing this morning, though I cast the original spell right after I was forced to banish Luna. I promised myself I wouldn't ever let those I loved go through such pain again."
She looks at me expectantly. The obvious next question assembles itself in my mind. She braces herself.
"Then why," I whisper, eyes blurring with hot tears.
"Let it all out, Twilight." She lowers her head. Her shoulders droop.
"Why. Didn't. You," I say, voice rising to a yell, "STOP. ME?"
She won't meet my gaze.
"You were standing RIGHT THERE!" My vision swims. I want to strangle her, and I'm not sure whether that's more insane, or the fact that she just stood there and watched me cast the spell that locked me into subjective weeks of ceaseless torture. "ONE WORD and I could have never cast this in the first place! I've discovered ways to die I didn't even know were POSSIBLE!"
"If it helps, Twilight," she says, still staring at the floor, "I have, too."
"LOOK AT ME!" I scream. She flinches, but complies.
Despite all the time we've spent together, it's easy for me to forget how old Celestia is. She was old when my granddam's granddam's granddam was just a twinkle in the eye of two ancestors yet to meet. She's never acted old. But right now, as I stare into those magenta eyes, it is as if the centuries worth of weariness have collapsed in on her all at once.
"Why didn't you stop me," I say, tears streaming down my cheeks, "you heartless bitch."
She stares mutely at me, one corner of her muzzle quivering, eyes glistening. A dam breaks inside me. A shudder wracks my body, then a sob, and then I'm on the floor bawling, curled up into a little ball, and a hoof touches my shoulder and I lunge for the comfort of the universe's most callous chessmistress, who holds me and doesn't flinch when I flail my hooves weakly at her side and wipes my cheek with a wingtip when I soak her shoulder with tears.
"Because I need you, Twilight," she whispers when my breathing finally slows, and I believe her, even without the evidence of the damp patch on the top of my mane.
"But not like this," I beg. "I can't keep failing over and over. Failing my friends and failing Equestria, and … and failing you."
"I'm sorry, Twilight, if there were any other way …"
"Why isn't there?"
"Because we're not the only ones looping."
"Chrysalis?" I ask, and Celestia nods. "Right. Setting the building on fire to take advantage of my joke."
"Yes. Even the tiniest imperfection in a plan, even a one-in-a-million chance, is exploitable with infinite attempts and sufficient patience."
"… But you don't need me. You can do the same thing."
"I can." Celestia sighs. "That puts us at a stalemate. When I change the past to stop her before you cast this spell, then she changes her tactics to launch pinpoint strikes at our most valuable and least guarded assets, and I haven't been able to halt her invasion without … unacceptable losses. I had to let her set the stakes, and then delay until she was irrevocably committed to this invasion. Now I need to break our parity, and you're a resource she can't counter."
"But why me?"
"There are four living ponies capable of casting the loop ritual. A side effect of Luna's banishment is that she can no longer anchor time loops at any point except for the moment of her departure, and I would watch Equestria burn before putting her through that millennium alone again. Your brother dealing directly with Chrysalis would be … let's just say problematic. That leaves you, Twilight."
No. No! It doesn't. It can't. Haven't I been through enough? "I need some time to think about this," I stall.
Celestia smiles wanly. "We've got nothing but time. Two things first, though." She floats a spellbook over to me, making a show of lifting it from the nearby shelf so I can see where it came from. "One: You will want to learn the Euthanatos spell on page 146. It painlessly vaporizes a small area of your own brain, which causes instant death. Trust me, this is far preferable to jumping off a cliff, or drinking poison, or stepping into one of the deadfall traps in Canterlot Caverns, or whatever you've been doing to reset."
I've already snatched the book, and I'm skipping past the giant screaming warnings — "KNOWLEDGE OF THIS SPELL WITHOUT ROYAL AUTHORIZATION IS PROHIBITED", "THIS SPELL IS INSTANTLY FATAL TO CASTER", "MISUSE OF THIS SPELL IS PUNISHABLE BY EXILE OF ALL FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS" — to read the surprisingly simple instructions. I can already see how invaluable this spell is. Once upon a time, I reflect, I would have found that notion incomprehensible.
"Even with that odd explosive feedback surge — I'll help you change your grounding runes to mitigate that — the Euthanatos should make looping a great deal more pleasant for you," she continues as I read. "I only wish we had had a few weeks for proper preparation. I could have helped you enchant yourself to activate this on a verbal trigger — that way you could end any loop instantly even if you didn't have the time or focus to cast a spell. That comes up more often than you'd think."
I try not to think about the fact that I'm about to willingly learn a suicide spell from my mentor. "What's the second thing?"
"We're going to need to start coordinating. So let's call this loop T-zero C-zero. Every time you die from here on out, raise your half of the loop number by one. At the beginning of each loop, tell me your current number, and the last number you remember hearing me say for myself. That way we'll both know which loops we don't remember."
And now we're discussing number of resets as if we were keeping score? My stomach flips. Accepting death was one thing when I was desperately fighting for my life, alone against the changelings — when I had no choice and no hope except for pressing forward and getting it right — but I'm talking about the process with the one pony who should understand the pain involved. I can't wrap my head around it. How can she be so casual about death?
She misinterprets my stunned silence. "Memory is critical, since it's the only permanent asset we have. Here's the one-paragraph version of several lifetimes' worth of time-loop theory: When multiple loops like this interact, then the first caster to die resets the timeline state for everyone — including other loopers — back to the time of the dead caster's anchor. It's that process of triggering the reset which causes your start state to update with the new memories, so only one looper will ever remember a given loop. If something happens you want to remember, you should reset immediately, before Chrysalis or I die and change what you observed."
I'm barely registering this. "Princess," I say, "I'm sorry. I need time. Alone."
She opens her mouth to respond, reconsiders, and looks away with a sigh. "I'll see you in three hours after the Elements explode, or sooner if you cast the spell. Please don't leave Canterlot this loop, or the explosion will kill me first and we'll have to have this whole conversation a third time." She trots away, pausing at the library door. "I'm sorry, Twilight."
As soon as I'm sure she's gone, I scream incoherently and start destroying the library — bucking over bookshelves, ripping up scrolls, tearing pages by the hornful out from thousand-year-old books and then using mouth and hooves to dismember the bindings. Every time my rage starts flagging, I picture Celestia standing at the edge of my evocation circle, smiling — smiling! — as she waits for me to complete the spell. When even that image can't push my body to further violence, I sink to the floor, curl up, and sob until my body's drained of all emotion.
This is all her fault, says a voice I can't shake.
The faithful student wants to help her. Intellectually, I can accept that she needs me. But she stood there and watched me — no, she maneuvered me into it; any outcome of a time loop can only be deliberate — as if I was just a cannon to be fired. A cannon powered by hundreds upon hundreds of agonizing deaths. Gee, thanks for giving me that Euthanatos spell right away, Princess.
I can't do this.
She's waiting for me to reset and talk to her, right? And she said only the one who dies remembers anything. So if I make up a large number of deaths — say, Twilight thirty-four, Celestia zero — and tell her we keep arguing and I just can't handle helping any more …
A time loop means infinite chances to get it right, doesn't it? She doesn't really need me. After she stops me from ever having been in this loop, she just needs to try something different. Try enough different things and one of them will work. She doesn't even have to hurt to get another chance.
I consult the spellbook and light up my horn —
* * *
A wave of vertigo smashes into my head. Magical feedback crackles along my coat and sears through my nerves, but it's already fading before I can process it. Huh. Amazing how much difference dying easily makes. That wasn't so bad.
… It's quiet. Too quiet.
I open my eyes. The library is a darkened mess, lit only by a giant hole in the outside wall. Every magelight in the room has shattered, and sharp fragments of glass are everywhere. Books carpet the floor, as if I'd just missed an earthquake. Spike lies motionless at the edge of the circle, eyes open and unfocused, greasy blue smoke curling up from his body.
"C-376, T-34," Celestia says from behind me, voice flat. "You lied to me, Twilight."
I turn and look. She's bleeding from her mouth. Both wings are shredded. Her back looks like a cactus spined with glass shards. She's directly between me and an empty magelight pedestal.
A black figure alights at the hole in the wall. "There you are," Chrysalis says.
"Chrysalis!" Celestia spins and fires a blast from her horn. It goes far astray, and at first I take it for a miss until one of the support arches over the changeling queen's head creaks and gives.
With a roar, the ceiling collapses, but Chrysalis is already in motion. Celestia's horn spits a barrage of blue-white death, which the black figure vaults through, twisting in midair and deflecting one shot with a burst of green magic and flared wing-edge. The shot arcs back straight at Celestia, who leaps up, the shot grazing her ankle and making her yelp in pain. She flaps her shredded wings in a failed bid for midair purchase, and falls back to the floor, off-balance.
Chrysalis' horn flares, and a green bolt shoots out. Celestia flings herself sideways, tucking and rolling through a dive — I hear the crunch of breaking glass as she rolls over her back — and comes up with her horn already glowing. Chrysalis simply stands there and smirks. I hear the spang and clatter of a double beam reflection from the back of the library, and the bolt plows straight into the back of Celestia's neck.
The shot Celestia was charging fires prematurely, exploding a large bust of Clover the Clever that somehow had managed to remain upright through the earlier devastation. Celestia spasms, goes limp, and falls, one hoof jerking, her chest heaving as she gasps for breath.
Chrysalis lets out a satisfied laugh and turns to me. "Well, well. Look at who else thinks they have a plan to stop me." She steps forward slowly, horn charged, eyes locked with mine, muzzle curled into a rictus of a smile, tongue running over the glistening daggers of her fangs.
That snaps me out of my fugue and back into loop mode. Well, here we go again, I think, a quiet resignation settling in. I'm going to die, and then I'll salvage something from this mess. I won't have much to work with if I'm waking up to certain doom, but at least I can tip the odds in the fight I just watched and … and … I'll figure something out from there. I'll have to.
I'm already thinking about next loop, considering how I should interfere in the fight, when the logic centers of my brain catch up with me. Chrysalis didn't kill Celestia.
Of course not. We reset the loop by dying. And if Chrysalis merely disables me …
Oh stars. I need a voice-triggered Euthanatos.
I backpedal out of the evocation circle, trying to buy time. How can I make sure I die? If I start casting the Euthanatos, Chrysalis has got me straight in her sights, and if I try to run, I need dodging room she's not giving me.
"No last words, Twilight?" she sneers. My hinds bump into a bookshelf, and I stumble and flatten myself against it. She takes another step closer. "Come on. Make this worth it. I've spent fifty loops just for the look on your face as I kill you."
The fear drains away. Oh, that's fine then.
She pauses at that, staring at me suspiciously. "Wait."
The fear returns. I glance desperately around for some miracle. Oh stars. Please.
Chrysalis turns her head to look back at the circle. "Noy jitat. Are you looping now? Was that her grand plan?"
The stars answer my prayers. My eye is caught by a familiar length of wood, sitting on the adjacent bookshelf as if it had always belonged there.
"In that case —" Chrysalis begins as she turns back toward me.
More accurately, she turns back toward a face full of pain.
I swing deliberately short, the tip of the bat smashing into her nose. There's a loud crack as her muzzle folds in on itself under the magically augmented momentum of 33 inches of solid ash. Chrysalis staggers back, and one hind hoof slips on broken glass. She goes down, spreadeagled, and doesn't get up.
I brandish Home Run at Chrysalis like a talisman, breathing heavily. Green blood pools at her muzzle. She's not moving — but she can't be dead, or the loop would have reset. I bend down and cautiously check her pulse. Thin but present. Looks like she'll be out a while.
Celestia struggles to an upright sprawl. I rush over. "Well done … Twilight," she says, forcing a smile though her face is ashen and sweating.
"Princess!" I fling my hooves around her neck in a hug, and immediately regret it as she hisses in pain. "Aah! Sorry! Sorry. I … I'm just glad you're safe. I'm sorry. We've got to fix … I … what happened … we'll reset and, and stop her —"
"Quick … question. How many loops … did that take you?"
I hesitate, a sense of wrongness tickling at the corners of my mind. With everything going so wrong around us, what kind of question is that? "… Just one?"
She freezes. Her expression grows stern. "That's … not funny. We talked … about lying."
"I'm serious! Got lucky, I guess."
Celestia facehoofs. "Son of a timberwolf."
The wrongness leaps up and grabs me by the throat. "… What?"
She takes a deep breath to steady herself, speaking just above a whisper and still stumbling a bit over her words. "Will you please Euthanatos yourself and say 'Darjeeling' immediately, so that we can talk in a loop where I don't have multiple broken ribs and glass in my spine?"
In any situation a rational mind could conceive, that request would be a no-brainer; it's a mark of just how screwed up this whole thing has gotten that my first thought is to hesitate. "I … think first you ought to tell me why."
Celestia takes another few breaths through gritted teeth. "Your idea was that after you drove her off, I'd be able to reset to a non-doomed loop with you still remembering something of this. Now that won't work. No offense, but I am in an immense amount of pain right now, and I'm not going to endure this again for the sake of a clean teachable moment."
"Teachable …" I sputter incoherently. In the seconds it takes me to find my words, that sense of wrongness has ignited into full-on betrayal. "You SET THIS UP?"
"At your request," she says, exasperation shading the pain on her muzzle. "Loop C-340. Reset, please."
"BULLSHIT." Rage floods me with adrenaline, which catches fire in my blood. My vision fuzzes at the edges. "Don't even start. I am DONE with your manipulation, you hear me? Take your time loops and shove them where your sun don't shine, and if YOU survive YOUR city's invasion send me a postcard so me and my friends can burn it and dance on the ashes."
"Twilight," she repeats, squeezing her eyes closed, a drop of blood spilling from the corner of her muzzle. "Reset. Talk."
"No," I say, the word filling me with giddy liberation. I savor the feel of it against my tongue. "No. You reset, and find some other pawn. Goodbye, Celestia. Never talk to me again." I wheel around, walking out toward the burning city on shaking legs, feeling bizarrely light.
Behind me, I hear the uneven staccato of her hooves as she struggles upright. "Wait," she calls out, and coughs. "One … sentence. Give me that."
I nearly keep walking; I owe her nothing after what she just put me through. But something makes me hesitate. The princess behind me did take a bookish, maladjusted filly, teach her magic, and coax her out into the world to find her best friends. She spent many long nights listening to that filly's woes, telling her wondrous stories, and sneaking with her into the castle kitchens to raid the freezers. Even if it was all part of some sick scheme to destroy my life and drag me through pointless torture, she did give me some wonderful moments before it all fell apart.
I turn back around and stare dispassionately at Celestia. "Alright. I suppose you've earned one sentence."
She nods, wipes blood from her muzzle with a pastern, and takes a deep breath. "You just asked the mare who you think is manipulating you to make you forget your strongest evidence against her."
The distant sounds of fighting filter in through the hole in the library wall to fill the silence. I clear my throat. "Oh," I say.
"Take your hurt and rage. They're wrong, but take them. Reset. 'Darjeeling.' Let me explain. Please."
I shake my head numbly. She did just set me up — and then stopped me from giving her a perfect chance to get away with it. I'm utterly lost. "This had better be good," I mutter, focusing on a Euthanatos and then flaring my horn —
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
"It's alright, Spike," Celestia says. "I'll help her out from here. Run on down to the palace kitchens and we'll come down once we've cleaned up." She turns to me as he scampers off. "By the way, C-378 and I'm assuming the Darjeeling loop was T-35, but if it's all the same to you I'd prefer we reset the numbering back to zero."
I sit up, vertigo clearing and feedback receding. The library is intact. Celestia is looking at me expectantly. The smile has fallen from her face. "Let's try this again," I say. "How dare you. How DARE you?"
Celestia immediately sighs. "I knew the teachable moment you asked for was a bad idea."
I frown. "You keep trying to blame that on me. You've earned a chance to explain, but I'm sorry, that's ridiculous."
"Look at me, Twilight," she says in that heartbreaking voice of gentle maternal disappointment. "After all we've done together, what makes you think I'd start lying to you about such important things?"
I don't want to think that. I just want to snuggle under my mentor's wing and have her tell me everything is alright. But … "I don't recognize you anymore," I say, ears flattening. "Who are you, really? You've been pushing me around like a chess piece! You maneuvered me — no, tricked me — into casting a spell I was totally unprepared for, and then played dumb while I died a few hundred times before giving me any sort of help, much less acknowledgement of my suffering."
She sighs again. "And this is why it was a bad idea. None of that is true. We talked about this, but I had to be the one to reset for your teachable moment to work, so you don't remember it."
"Of course I don't. How convenient." I narrow my eyes. "You know why you're not giving me an explanation? You're lying to me, and that last loop was an attempt to scare me into working for you by sending Chrysalis to kill me."
"Twilight." Celestia kneels, facing me, staring earnestly. "If I leap straight to the explanation you'll reject it, but I promise it all fits together if you're willing to work through to it logically. So, first: What purpose would it serve for me to behave the way you propose? You're saying that I deliberately sent you through weeks of torture instead of simply asking for the help of the pony who would trust me the most. I'm neither sadistic nor idiotic enough to do that to anypony — especially you, my faithful student."
Tears gather at the corner of my eyes. "I wish I could believe that. But let's not forget, you killed me."
"And I'm very sorry for that, but look at it from my perspective, Twilight. I'm having a perfectly normal day when the most powerful mortal mage alive barges into my room and speaks five words I don't remember sharing with anypony — words which trigger a powerful spell in my brain whose knowledge I've hidden from even myself. An unexpected time loop and unexpected dark mind magic are both plausible, and the cost of telling them apart is a single death of someone who should already be used to dying. In my position, that's a precaution I can't afford not to take."
"Hang on. What do you mean, perfectly normal day? There's a changeling invasion on!"
"Yes, there is, but I didn't discover that until after we first spoke. Literally the first loop I remember today is you marching in, saying that if I killed you again we were going to have some very serious words, and telling me the safeword and the trigger."
"But …" I put my hoof to the bridge of my muzzle and try to think through it. The loop she gave me the trigger, Chrysalis killed me. The loop I spoke the trigger without the safeword, Celestia killed me. She wouldn't remember either of those. However … "I've been looping for WEEKS. I've WATCHED you die a few times, so I KNOW you knew about the invasion."
"Ah," Celestia says, nodding sagely, "but that's the paradox. Think for a moment, Twilight. How could you have watched me die?"
I blink. "Wait."
"Exactly. If I were to die, the loop would immediately reset, and you wouldn't remember what you saw."
I open and close my mouth uselessly a few times. That's … a good point.
"Which brings us to the explanation you wanted. I'll summarize what we concluded in C-340. Simply put: Immediately before Spike's wording changed, you must have prompted a dramatic change in a loop you yourself don't remember. That implies the reset of a third party — yet from what you say, neither I nor Chrysalis were looping at the time."
"But," I finally manage. "You've been looping since Luna's banishment. You said so yourself! How could that have changed?"
Celestia shrugs. "Obviously, the anchor point of their spell would have to be even earlier."
"Then it could be anyone old enough to have cast the loop spell back then, right? Even you."
She holds up a hoof. "Only if that looper never updated their anchor. We only get one anchor point. No looper would choose to relive a thousand years with each death, and Luna's not stupid enough to cast a loop spell again. So it seems impossible, Twilight — yet it had to happen, or else you're lying to me. I think we're both better served by accepting each other's impossible facts and moving forward in trust."
I nod slowly. That does make sense, but … "Be that as it may," I say levelly, "now-you is manipulating me, and that's not okay."
Celestia looks down. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Twilight," she says quietly. "You deserve better, and I'm trying to set this right. I know your teachable moment is generating a great deal of distrust, but if you think everything through logically, you'll —"
I got very good, over my hundreds of loops of solitary struggle, at listening to that little inner voice which comes up with ideas that are so dumb they're brilliant. That voice is screaming at me right now. I smirk and interrupt her, blurting out: "Preengaged blackout —"
As fast as I speak, Celestia is quicker. The first word hasn't yet left my mouth when she flings herself forward, and she clamps her hooves around my muzzle before I can finish.
"Please don't say that," Celestia murmurs, releasing my muzzle. "I never deactivated the trigger in this loop."
I take a step backward and level a hoof. "HA! See? That's EXACTLY what I'm talking about! How'd you know in advance what I was going to say if you weren't manipulating me?"
She sighs. "Because we had that exact conversation in C-377, and I couldn't stop you from speaking the trigger. We can't talk when you're paralyzed, and it was clearly painful for you, so I reset the loop."
"And then we replayed it, with you knowing exactly what I was going to say! This entire time you've been playing me like a fiddle!"
Celestia presses a hoof to the bridge of her muzzle. "Twilight, I know you're upset, but you're smarter than this. If I changed what I said in order to change your reaction, then I wouldn't know any more how the rest of the conversation would go."
"Then you could just reset again and again until you got exactly what you wanted from me."
She settles to the floor, bringing her head level to mine, and looks earnestly into my eyes. "I could have, Twilight, but I didn't. I will never, ever lie to you about loop numbering or about what happened in prior loops, because I care too much about you to do that — and because the only hope we'll ever have of cooperating in a multi-loop situation is to be absolutely honest with each other's memories."
"But you just admitted you lied about the loops!"
"No. I arranged a situation, based on your request, to make the point that lies in a time loop can have dire consequences — which I believe our frustration and mistrust right now are confirming. I assume from 'Darjeeling' that we didn't even finish C-376 T-34 before I'd told you the truth about the setup, and even if I hadn't, the whole point of your demonstration was to tell you the truth the instant the point was made. Where, exactly, is the lie?"
I grind my teeth inside my closed muzzle. I can't stand this — running into her wall of dispassionate logic every time I bring up an objection, being confident in my position but not in my facts. There's got to be a problem here! How could the Celestia I know treat me like this? I turn away mutely, staring at a bookshelf and fuming.
My brain churns through everything she's told me since Spike's first "sure". Where is the lie? I feel like there's got to be something I can point to, but all my problems come from the gaps. I have a perfect lack of evidence for actual lying.
I look back at her, and at her tired expression I can feel doubts about my doubts start to creep in. But the paranoid part of my brain isn't ready to give up yet. I grab for the obvious answer. "That you've died 378 times since we started looping together," I say.
Celestia nods. "We went over this in C-340, too. Would you like to hear how I died in each loop?"
Torn apart by changelings. Euthanatos after watching Luna die. Torn apart by changelings. Torn apart by changelings. Euthanatos after watching half the royal family die. Crushed by falling building. Euthanatos after the barracks exploded. Torn apart by changelings. Explosion … She looks straight into my eyes the whole time, listing each one off with clinical detachment. I stop her a few times to challenge her for details, which she provides without hesitation.
At first, I try to pick apart each detail, verifying what I can, analyzing the likelihood of her making it all up. She continues on ceaselessly, her horn occasionally flaring up in brief access of a memory-aid charm. As it blurs together, the list gets morbidly interesting, all too similar to my own solitary struggles. That similarity slides into a subtle discomfort, which wraps back around to curiosity — just how long will she continue if I let her? — then back to discomfort again, which deepens almost to the point of illness. I push through that and force myself to keep listening.
By the time she reaches the hundreds, the numbers and methods and details have lost all meaning. She might as well be reading out the menu at a restaurant. I stare into her eyes, beginning to understand why she's so dispassionate about death. She's been looping for how long now?
It becomes too much somewhere in the 170s. "Stop." I lower my head. "I'm sorry."
She halts mid-sentence, then simply says "I am too."
I sigh. "Just … how come haven't you just been straight with me from the beginning? Why have the teachable moment at all?"
"To answer that, may I tell you a little story about when trust breaks down in a time loop?" She looks at me expectantly. I nod. "The last thing I remembered before loop C-0 T-34 was having you tell me you needed some time alone. A few hours later the Elements exploded. I remembered the loop, so I prepared myself to replay the discussion —"
"See? You keep doing that! How can I trust you to have honest discussions with me when you keep going into our conversations with advance warning?"
I see exasperation cross her muzzle. "Twilight … every conversation we have is guaranteed to be half forgotten. If I replay it the same way and we each die, at least we'll remember the same discussion. Anything I meddle with when we re-run it would lead to a mismatch in memories, and that's the fastest way to destroy any hope of trust. Even if you doubt my motives, please have faith I'm not stupid."
I let my brain gnaw at that for a few moments, then chalk up another point against my doubts. "I'm sorry, Princess. Go on."
"Anyway, when you woke up in T-34, you broke down and begged me to stop you from looping — you said you couldn't bear the way that our attempts to work together were sparking shouting matches and recriminations and driving a rift between us."
Guilt stirs in my breast. Yeah, that had been the vague plan I'd had in my head before casting the Euthanatos — although if I actually said what she claimed, I was laying it on too thick.
"I took you at your word, Twilight," she says softly. "Why wouldn't I? It seemed like a lot of loops to go through without me resetting even once, but you're my faithful student and the Element of Magic, and I can't count the number of times I've trusted you with Equestria itself."
Guilt develops a stinger, and jabs at my heart.
"So I immediately apologized, reset the loop, and the first thing I did was send you down into the Arcane Storage Vaults to do some research in safe isolation while I fought off the invasion myself. I told myself I wouldn't even consider asking you to loop again unless I'd spent ten times your number of deaths without making any headway against Chrysalis." She turns her head and won't meet my gaze. "You heard what happened. After three hundred and forty loops of watching her burn down my capital … murder ponies I love … I …"
I step forward and rest a hoof on her shoulder. A small voice screams that it's all part of the act, that she's still manipulating me — but this finally feels like Celestia in front of me, and the rest of me doesn't care.
She swallows, dabs a pastern at her eye, and continues. "I was prepared to beg, Twilight. In C-340, I set you up to cast the time anchor again, and as soon as you sat up I started crying before you could. You went awfully silent when I mentioned my own 340 loops, then apologized and said you'd help again. We talked for an hour — I meant to reset so we could do it in smaller chunks, but after so long trying to handle the loop on my own, when I got the chance to finally talk with somepony who understood, I let time get away from me — and finally, you admitted your lie and told me how guilty you felt. You begged me to use the fact that you wouldn't remember anything since T-0 to arrange a dramatic demonstration about honesty. I had misgivings, but I wanted to do right by you, so I agreed. You know the rest."
As she lays it all out in her gentle, kindly voice, I struggle to stay focused on dissecting it, but the weight of discomfort increasingly settles in. It makes too much sense. I sigh and make my decision, and the paranoid part of my brain screeches incoherently in betrayal.
I walk back over to her. "Alright," I say quietly. "I think it's time to save Equestria."
She gives me a weary but genuine smile. "Thank you, Twilight."
"I'm sorry for lying to you about those 34 deaths. I don't remember that, but I know I was planning to, and I … I should trust you that I hurt you as bad as you said." Guilt compels me to throw in a little honesty of my own. "I'm still not 100% sure of that trust, but the fact is, I don't want to be the sort of pony who causes that kind of hurt."
She curls her neck to mine. "I'm sorry, too, for everything you've gone through. I wish I understood how you got so hurt that you're acting this way. I'd fix it all for you in a moment if I could."
I smile back, letting all the suspicion and doubt just melt away into the moment. "Then let's stop Chrysalis, and talk this all out where we can both remember everything."
I can feel her grin through the neckhug. "I think that can be arranged …"
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
The noise snaps me into focus from the gentle agony of my Euthanatos. "It's alright, Spike," Celestia says. "I'll help her out from here. Run on down to the palace kitchens and we'll come down once we've cleaned up." She turns to me as he scampers off. "By the way, C-378 and I'm assuming the Darjeeling loop was T-35, but if it's all the same to you I'd prefer we reset the numbering back to zero."
I sit up. This is cheating. After the reconciliation of the last loop, I feel like a rotting road apple doing it. But it's the same principle Celestia used with her anti-mind-magic trap: I have to make sure that she's not benefiting from asymmetric information exchange and lying through her teeth to me.
"Let's try this again," I say, mustering all the outrage I can, staring straight into her eyes, scrutinizing her expression. "How dare you. How DARE you?"
We agreed I'd be the one to reset last loop. If she remembers that, then the only thing she wouldn't expect would be for me to repeat it. However, exactly like last time, she sighs without hesitation. "I knew the teachable moment was a bad idea."
I frown. "You keep trying to blame that on me. You've earned a chance to explain, but I'm sorry, that's ridiculous."
"Look at me, Twilight," she says, disappointed. "After all we've done together, what makes you think I'd start lying to you about such important things?"
Identical down to the word. No sign of additional confusion or hesitation. That's all I needed. Now for a few moments of misdirection. I flare my horn; a magenta aura engulfs a random book in the stacks. "As it turns out," I lie, "the information I left myself in this book here …"
I turn my head and extend a hoof, looking at the book as I levitate it over. Except I wasn't levitating anything; it was a foal-level glow-charm on the book, followed by the Euthanatos —
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
It did. I smile in relief. Oh, it did, thank the stars.
"It's alright, Spike," Celestia says. "I'll —"
"I agree," I interrupt, sitting up. "Let's go back to zero. I'm sorry for all the trouble, Princess. I'm going to reset my loop, and then repeat this exact same sentence followed by asking you to reset yours, and once you do, that's zero, okay?"
She processes that for a moment. "Okay."
My horn flares —
* * *
"C zero T zero," she says as I stir back to consciousness.
"T zero C zero," I say, sitting up.
Spike stares in disbelief. "Well, that didn't … okay, was it supposed to explode?"
I put my forehooves together and crack my pastern joints, grinning. Operation: Roach Motel is a go.
There's a story you hear about Clover the Clever if you spend any length of time around professional wizards. Supposedly, when she was creating the discipline of ornithomancy, every time her explorations ground to a halt she would stop and take a bath. After relaxing in warm water for fifteen minutes, she'd float a rubber duck in front of her muzzle, and then she would explain her problems to the toy. That forced her to focus and organize her approach when she was spreading herself too thin.
"Twilight? You're not really going to start blowing things up, are you?" Spike says, catching his breath while the smoke from several hastily written scrolls zips off through the city.
"Figure of speech. Gratuitous destruction would work against what we're trying to accomplish here."
Spike is the best rubber duck ever. He asks questions.
"Which is to say, painlessly stopping today's changeling invasion," Celestia says. "I believe Twilight was about to explain the plan to us."
"We have the advantage of numbers, but they will always have the advantage of surprise, since Chrysalis can always reset and adapt the infiltration to foil any pre-planned defenses," I say. "That's why the Princess couldn't organize the Guard to repel them on her own. With Princess Celestia and Chrysalis using their time loops to neutralize each other's planning, however, I become a wild card. That's why I'm going to go catch a ride down to the train where our friends are coming up the mountain, and bring them here before the swarm catches up to them. Once the six of us get back here, we put on the Elements of Harmony, and we blast Chrysalis into next week."
Spike's mouth opens and closes. "You mean, like, literally?"
"Yeah. Or, at any rate, out of her time loop, so we can clean things up from there without opposition."
"Can you do that?"
"The world's most powerful artifacts can. I hope."
"They can," Celestia says firmly. "They have."
Spike combs through his crest, staring out into space, his young brain working overtime. I can almost see smoke coming out of his ears when the thought-gears finally unjam. "The Elements are already here in Canterlot, right?" he asks me. "Why aren't you, y'know, taking them with you?"
"Something about Chrysalis' current plans is making them unusually volatile," Celestia says. "Twilight couldn't move them that far without setting them off. If they stay here, I can personally keep them stable until we have all six bearers present."
Spike frowns, looking outside — where smoke from several burning buildings mingles with the dissipating fog from fire crews' spent clouds. "Alright. But … you're in a time loop too, right, Princess? Why not go back and tell everypony to take an earlier train, and avoid all the fighting?"
Celestia nods. "The problem is, we need to delay the invasion as long as possible relative to their arrival, to minimize the damage done before we can use the Elements. The instant anypony does anything that gets the changelings suspicious of being unmasked, the infiltrators attack immediately. Both I and your friends are being watched, so I haven't been able to pass them any messages without starting the invasion early. Believe me, I've tried."
We walk outside amid distant shouts and screams and the clangs of weaponry. The two phaetons I just commissioned pull up to the Library steps, along with a half-dozen Guard pegasi: enough to pull the chariots and fend off skirmishers, but hopefully not enough to call attention to my mission.
Celestia sweeps a hoof around. "As much as I'd prefer to delay even longer, forcing Chrysalis' hoof now should keep her too busy to deal with Twilight's trip. And now I need to go oversee the defense and keep the world from exploding." She smiles at me. "I'd wish you luck, but there's none like the luck we make for ourselves."
I curl my neck around hers in a brief hug, and then reach down and nuzzle Spike. I'll be seeing them both soon enough, but regardless, this does feel like a moment worth acknowledging. The start of the home stretch.
I should know better than to jinx things like that.
I buck the Royal Guard behind me hard in the face as he gets within pounce range. Celestia's horn lights up, and another screams as he's set on fire. The remaining four soldiers freeze, eyes bugging out, until they realize that the corpses falling to the ground are covered in black chitin.
"I guess we're a little short-hooved this trip," I say to the actual ponies, stepping onto the first phaeton's platform. "I'll need you all in the leads, two apiece. Fly like you mean it. I'll provide close-range fire support, but mostly, we want to outfly trouble —"
"— which means circling around to the southwest rather than taking the direct route, because somepony forgot to mention the fierce fighting around the south gate barracks." I shoot Celestia a glare.
"I'll get that cleaned up by the time you return," she says, having the grace to sound ashamed, "and meet you at the gate with the Elements."
There's an exciting moment when a changeling patrol spots us just past the city walls, but in between some hornbolts and a near-freefall descent, they quickly lose their enthusiasm for pursuit. We level off into a steep, fast glide, letting gravity pull us down to the lower slopes, where the 6:28 train from Ponyville is winding its way up the first of the mountain's many switchbacks.
Closing in on it is a ragged cluster of flying black figures — a full wing, nearly a hundred strong. Just beyond them, to the south, is the main swarm.
"That is a lot of changelings," one of the guards pulling my phaeton murmurs.
"Well, then," I say, "we'll have to work fast. Swing the phaetons around as we get close to the train, near the top half of that steep switchback there, and let it round the switchback and catch up with you. I'll have my friends ready to board by then."
I brace on the side of the air-chariot, waiting for my moment as we approach the tight switchback. The train wheezes into view far underneath us, pouring on the steampower and hoofpower in a futile attempt to outrun its pursuers. I ready a soft-landing charm and leap —
— aiming for the flat wooden roof of a cargo car rather than the slick yet attractive curved metal roof of a passenger car. This time, I slam down squarely, paralyzed in a crouch for a few moments while the spell safely dissipates the kinetic energy of my fall.
As I'm struggling back up, I hear hooves on metal. I look up. Bon Bon is climbing the ladder up the side of the cargo car to join me on the roof. Her eyes are wide with concern. "Twilight! I heard you land. Is everything okay?"
I look over her shoulders at the giant swarm of approaching death she's ignoring. "Oh, stuff it, bug," I say, stepping forward —
— with Home Run floating at my side —
This time, I brandish my bat and wait for her to make the first move.
I back away as she lifts herself into a hind-legged fighting stance. "Okay, that's Krav Naga," I say, cautiously impressed. "A dragon martial art."
"She encourages her underqueens to travel." The thing that isn't Bon Bon smiles humorlessly and advances.
This time, I leap as she lunges, swinging a hoof down at her in an overhead chop before she gets into grappling range. She blocks effortlessly. But as my hoof glances off her foreleg, I unleash the spell I'd been holding — no longer a soft-landing charm, but a kinetic-transfer charm supercharged with the impact from my leap from the phaeton.
Before she can even flinch, she's traveling at terminal velocity. With a sound like an explosion, her body blasts through the roof beneath us, as well as several layers of heavy wooden crates. A plume of dust, debris, and green mist jets up from the cargo car's new skylight.
I land from my jump and smile down into the silent hole. "Allow me to help you with your travel plans."
I hop down between the cars and heroically fling open the door to the passenger … ahem. I get a good grip on the stuck door and I … ohforstarssake. Locked? I pound on the door and shout. They don't let me in, probably because of the half-dozen changelings who just caught up with the train and cannonballed straight into me —
Well, that was stupid. I immediately teleport past the locked door.
Right into a small group of black figures holding the passengers hostage —
— who are neatly dispatched by spell and bat while they're still processing my arrival.
None of my friends are in this car. I collar a passenger who looks vaguely familiar from home. "Pinkie Pie," I say urgently, starting with the one pony who everypony is guaranteed to know. "Where is she?"
Half of the passengers immediately point toward the next car. The rest point back toward where I came in. I groan and facehoof. If there are already changelings in the train, of course they're here for the highest-value targets on board. Oh, well. I'll have to find the real ones, right after I beat down the half-dozen changelings who just smashed in through the windows.
These have neither surprise nor exotic martial arts on their side.
Seconds later, I dislodge Home Run from the two changelings I shishkebabbed to the wall and amble forward, whistling "Smile, Smile, Smile." The door unlocks easily from the inside. The next car, however, is locked again. I sigh, prep a few spells, and teleport.
Five familiar faces turn to me from their posts at their boarded-up windows. "Twilight!" a poofy-haired Pinkie wails. "We're doomed! There's all these icky buggy things —"
I set off a kinetic burst to her right. The impact smashes her through the barricaded window, and she vanishes with a yelp. The other four stare at me in open-mouthed horror.
"One, she didn't have despair hair," I say, pointing to my mane, "and two, the real Pinkie would have had a warning of impending defenestration — tingly tongue, itchy hoof, twitchy tail — and been huddled under a seat away from the window." I light my horn, focusing on the intricate patterns of a changeling detection spell. "I think it's time to find out who else here is a fake."
All of them. Sigh.
I disable them before they can jump me this time and try to beat some information out of "Fluttershy," but she's made of far sterner stuff than the original. While I'm finding creative ways to grill her, the train derails.
Despite my best efforts, "Applejack" remains tight-mouthed until the train derails.
"Rarity" puts on a brave face, but she's clearly moments from cracking when we're interrupted by the train derailing. Hmm. A weak link, but I'll need to speed things up.
Bon Bon climbs the ladder up the side of the cargo car to join me on the roof. Her eyes are wide with concern. "Twilight! I heard you land. Is everything okay?"
"Oh, Bon Bon! A familiar face! Thank goodness," I say. "How'd you escape the changelings inside the passenger car?"
"I, uh," she says, eyes flicking around, "was in the bathroom when they attacked. I snuck out the window."
"Oh. I thought it might have been because you kicked their plots with the Krav Naga you learned when Chrysalis sent you to the Eastern Deserts."
I see her muscles tense for a leap at me. Then the crate of books I hauled all the way here from the Canterlot Library — and fired skyward right before I jumped from the phaeton — slams down onto her head.
Before she can even flinch, she's squashed … well, like a bug. There's a sound like an explosion as the crate continues on and bursts through the roof beneath us. A plume of dust and debris jets up from the cargo car's new skylight.
That was so worth the eight loops it took to line up.
I gallop over the passenger car, leap to the next one, and stomp a sharp metal spike into the roof over the fourth window on the left. I grip my teeth around the rope that's tied to the spike, give it a tug to make sure it's secure, and then fling myself off the side of the train. The rope snaps taut, and I swing down and back in, smashing hinds-first through the barricaded window.
The things-that-are-not-my-friends inside recover first, but they're caught just enough off guard to try faking me out. "Twilight!" Pinkie wails, bounding forward in search of a hug. "We're doomed —"
I touch her on the forehead and finally discharge the kinetic-transfer charm. With a sick snap of heavy wood and squeal of protesting metal, the floor gives way and she vanishes beneath us. The car jostles as its left rear wheels hit an obstruction and hop the track for a split second. "Pinkie" lets out an unearthly shriek, dissected by train wheels into a quickly fading echo, intercut with sickening thumps.
I turn to "Rarity," who is staring with eyes as wide as saucers. "You," I say, leveling a hoof. "Tell me where the real versions of you are, or you go down the hole after her."
"Th-three cars back, behind s-some crates in the right rear," she says instantly, not even bothering with the accent.
"What were you going to do when you got to Canterlot?"
"G-give them to Chrysalis as high-value hostages, and b-become them to infiltrate any remaining resistance." She shifts back into a small changeling, who if she were a pony I would estimate at a year or two shy of my age, and sinks to her knees, trembling. "Please don't kill me."
I shrug. I'm making progress; I can afford to be generous. "Sure, why not? I've got things to do, and you've never hurt me before. Stay here, and keep it that way."
I'm freeing my friends from their cocoons when the train derails. Dammit. I forgot about that.
I've hit a wall. So did Celestia, apparently — some Guards she was leading hit a string of nasty ambushes after Chrysalis shifted strategies — but she says she's got things back under control. I fill her in on my progress.
"I need some extra troops," I say. "The changelings on the train start sabotaging the engine as soon as I start my attack, and when the boiler explodes, it tips the engine off the track and pulls the rest of the train with it. But while I go prevent that, the wing of reinforcements arrives, and some of the flyers attack the phaetons while others collapse a bridge at the far end of the switchback. I can't kill them all fast enough to save both my ride and the train."
Celestia grabs a piece of parchment and does some math. "Their sabotage only starts when you arrive. If you get there two minutes later, you'll reach the train at the same time as the reinforcements, and you can take out the aerial troops first and mop up the ones on the train afterward."
I frown. "I've gotten good at fighting, but I'm no alicorn, and in midair I can't take cover or force them to bottleneck. I can kill maybe twenty." I hear Spike make a little strangled noise, but he looks away when I glance at him. "Not a whole wing."
"If we send more guards with you," Celestia says, "you'll get pursuit from the city, and you'll be no better off. What about a force multiplier to augment the power of your spells?"
"Power isn't the issue — I've already learned powerful enough spells to splatter a changeling in one shot. I just can't keep up with their numbers. What I need is area control, or area denial, or vastly increased area-of-effect." I do some mental math. "Maybe if I force them to cluster and then electrocute the lot of them with a From Thin Air … hmm. Do you think a Want-It-Need-It spell would work on changelings?"
In an instant, Celestia's expression turns glacial. "That's not funny, Twilight."
I blink. My love spell did cause problems the first time around, but that vehement of a reaction makes no sense — not from the pony who asked me to write an analysis on why it snowballed out of control and how I could have neutralized it if she hadn't arrived. Then I remember what she said earlier: something I did changed history. Presumably the version she remembers went beyond a narrowly averted disaster.
"I'm sorry," I say, wincing. That seems inadequate, so I add, "That was inappropriate. It, uh, just seemed like a relevant question given my dilemma."
Celestia's icy mask softens into a frown. After several tense moments, she shakes her head and sighs. "We'll discuss the difference between 'relevant' and 'appropriate' later, after we figure out how you're killing a full wing of changelings. Have you run across Cavaneigh's Chaining in your research?"
I let out a breath and try to tamp down my adrenaline. Now I'm curious about the button I unintentionally pressed, but it's not as important as stopping the invasion. Nothing's as important as stopping the invasion. Everything else can wait until I'm not dying every few hours. "I haven't," I say, "but that's fixable. Is it more efficient than adjuring a time-limited self-replication augmentation onto the base attack?"
"Significantly. Kills-per-thaum is going to be a major concern given the raw numbers involved. Even you would be pushing it, trying to kill them all with a single spell."
Spike says something incoherent that sounds like "Erg."
I stare at him for a moment before responding. "Then I should zap the first half, and give myself some recharge time with a tactical retreat before taking out the rest."
"That wouldn't work. The survivors would scatter, and taking them out individually would slow you down too much."
"If they scatter they won't have the numbers to kill my escorts. Mission accomplished."
"But that commits you to guarding the phaetons, and you won't be able to take out the changelings who derail the train."
My little purple dragon clears his throat, looking increasingly green. "What is it, Spike?" I snap.
He shifts his weight from claw to claw. "Um, Twilight … I know you're going through weird timey-wimey things right now, but you two are starting to scare me. Where are my best friends who know that friendship always wins? Why can't you not kill them?"
Cynical comebacks spring into my mind, but before they can reach my tongue, his words find fertile soil somewhere in the back of my brain. I stare at him mutely. Ideas germinate and sprout.
Celestia and I turn to each other simultaneously. I can see the same glimmers of ideas in her eyes.
Best. Rubber. Duck. Ever.
Once she slips on the travelling robe, Sweet Voice is a dead ringer for me. The shape of the face, the color of the coat, the mane (note to self: really ought to style it less severely) … even my dam might be fooled at a quick glance. It's not even an illusion spell. All dyed and styled, I'm sure, but all real.
"Should I ask why you have a body double for me on your personal payroll?" I say, donning the invisibility cloak.
"Now Twilight," Celestia says, "there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations for that."
It's a joke. We both laugh, but then my mind processes the unspoken implications and lurches to a halt. "Wait, you're saying that the actual explanation is …"
Celestia blinks, and a pink flush spreads across her muzzle. "Oh! Oh, my. Also perfectly innocent, thank you, although it's long, intricate, and begs an awkward conversation about the contingency plans I've created in the event of you being indisposed during a national crisis."
My jaw drops. "Sweet stars, you're blushing," I manage amid incredulous laughter. "I can't remember the last time I've seen you blush."
This time, she's not laughing with me. She looks away.
My laughter dies away. "… Princess?"
"You haven't," she says faintly. "Nopony has in a thousand years. Too politically awkward."
"Oh. I … um. Sorry." The obvious thought occurs. "Because you reset, right?"
Silence stretches. I clear my throat. "Do you want to? Reset, I mean."
Celestia lets out a shaky breath. "I … almost did. I want to, yes. But I shouldn't. You deserve better than that, especially after all that happened." She looks back at me, touching a hoof to my pastern, and the fear in her eyes is as out of place as the changelings in the streets. "You … need me to be trustworthy, and that needs to be bigger than my pride."
I give her a reassuring smile and slide forward into a hug. "Thank you," I whisper. "That means a lot."
We hold each other in silence for a bit. I feel her muscles slowly untense, and I lay my head against her neck, feeling the warm and rapid beat of her heart pulse against my cheek. She draws in a breath, and lets it out, her body briefly shaking before the rigid tension returns.
I look up. Just like that, the mask is back on.
"You should reset," she says.
I don't ask what happened last loop. She doesn't volunteer.
Sweet Voice slips on the travelling robe. "Should I ask why you have a body double for me on your personal payroll?" I say, donning the invisibility cloak.
"Oh, you know," Celestia waves a hoof casually, "politics."
I chuckle. "That happens."
Sweet Voice and the invisible me climb onto a single phaeton, with two guards pulling and two flying escort. We circle to the southwest, evade the patrol, and glide down in a slower descent to the train, making sure to keep the guards' wings fresh. Inside the cloak, I keep an eye on my pocket watch.
When we get to the train, the reinforcement wing is already upon us —
— so, after some fine-tuning, we arrive a little earlier, in time for just their four fastest fliers to engage us. "Twilight" fires off a few energy beams to stun two, and the unattached guards buck the other two changelings out of the air to get us temporarily clear. However, the rest of the wing is already closing in from several directions.
"Twilight" screams a retreat as the train passes beneath us. I leap off the phaeton unnoticed, and while I'm waiting for the soft-landing charm to finish dissipating my impact, I see the phaeton turn tail and jet back toward Canterlot at top speed, a swarm of changelings trailing behind.
I sneak through the unlocked door to the cargo car the first time that there are no changelings in sight, settle in atop some boxes near my friends' cocoons, and wait. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Changelings occasionally pass through the car, or dump cocooned ponies near me, but the train chugs onward and upward.
Six p.m. We're close enough to Canterlot that I can smell the fires of the city burning. I open the cocoons to make sure my friends are alright, and they wake up with a thousand questions I can't answer yet. First, it's time to report in.
"How many deaths? Sweet stars, what happened?"
Celestia's expression screams an exhaustion her posture doesn't reflect. "Three hours of delaying actions punctuated by ambushes happened, trying to keep our troops from direct conflict and from getting pinned down. I had to ensure we still have the strength to counterattack and push through to the train station when you arrive." She smiles. "The good news is, now that you've confirmed the plan works on your end, we're in the home stretch."
"Out of curiosity, how many times have you told me that now?"
"Eight, but this time Luna and I are going to use the main Guard force for a feint and break away to deliver the Elements on our own."
"Hmm. Chrysalis knows you're looping, right? Wouldn't you make a more effective feint, forcing her to confront you directly while Luna sneaks the Elements to us?"
"If I didn't have to personally keep the Elements from exploding, then you could have taken them with you in the first place."
We give each other unnecessary good-luck wishes and, once again, I head for the train. It's uneventful, which is to say, the skirmishing and killing and fleeing and singlehorned infiltration of an entire hostile army goes off exactly as I remember it. I even manage to sneak in a nap while I'm waiting for the train to approach Canterlot.
Shortly after 6:00, I deadbolt the doors, float several of the heaviest boxes I can find in front of them, and walk over to the cocoons. I'm about to break them open when I'm distracted by a small scratching noise on the side wall of the car. I freeze. The sound stops.
I slide the hood of my invisibility cloak back over my head, and tiphoof over to the area where I heard the sound. It starts again — a barely audible, arrhythmic scrape that alternates between longer and shorter sounds. Horse code? It's hard to make out the pattern, so I lean in silently and put my ear to the wood.
There's a thunderous roar. The world spins around me.
My body hits the floor amid a shower of kindling and splinters. A large black form rolls and grapples with me. I throw off the hoof at my throat, kicking madly, and fling myself sideways straight into the buffeting thwack of a wing. I roll the other way, and something catches and pulls me back, and I thrash and wriggle and break free of the ominous grasp of … my invisibility cloak. Oops.
I roll away and struggle to unsteady hooves as Chrysalis grabs the limp pile of cloth in her teeth, stomps one end down with a hoof, and yanks. There's a sick tearing noise and the spark of enchantment discharge. Two halves of a faded grey cloak flutter down to the floor.
"FINALLY!" she shouts, spitting out a small strand of fabric that had gotten hooked to her fang. "Noy jitat. Do you have ANY IDEA how much grief that First-forsaken thing caused me?" She looks up at me and narrows her eyes. "Now it's time for teacher's pet to play dead."
I open and close my mouth. My heart is hammering in my chest. This can't be happening! I was so close! On blind instinct, I snatch Home Run out of its shoulder holster and swing it in a vicious arc at her neck. Chrysalis leaps backward, barely dodging. I reverse the swing into a diagonal downward slash, which she leans underneath, and then I leap forward at her with an incoherent scream, hoof lashing out at her face. She catches my leg, wheels me over her back, and flings me into a wall.
The blow croggles me for a second, but not long enough for me to miss seeing her brace to spring at me. I fumble for Home Run, and my aura closes around it and lashes out just in time to intercept her jump with a vertical sweep — or at least it would have if she hadn't paused for a moment right before leaping, causing the bat to whiff through empty air. As I'm fighting to redirect my bat's momentum into another swing, she lunges forward, headbutting my nose with a crack I feel rather than hear. My vision fuzzes out amid a moment of vertigo, and when it returns, she's sitting on my chest, firmly grasping my neck in her forehooves.
"Your move, princess," she says, staring down at me smugly.
Her hooves clamp down and squeeze. Suffocation is not a quick way to go.
I wake up thrashing and screaming.
Celestia has leapt into the evocation circle and grabbed me in a fierce hug by the time I scramble upright. I cling to her, gasping for breath. She makes little shushing noises, nuzzling maternally at my neck.
"Chrysalis," I stammer.
"I know," Celestia whispers. "She's figured out we're trying to reach your friends, but she's run out of ways to stop Luna and I from reaching the station. She's panicking and desperate."
"No. This is all wrong." A sob escapes my muzzle. "I, I was supposed to fix things while you fought her, and I was going to get everything perfect because she wouldn't show up to stop me and, and, now she's fighting me and she'll keep resetting and I'll never ever be done." I collapse bawling against her side.
"You don't need perfection," Celestia says firmly. "Twilight. Listen. If you and your friends can get past her just once to activate the Elements, then we win. It doesn't matter what else goes wrong that loop, because we can reset to fix it and she won't be able to do a thing about it. This is her last stand."
I struggle to slow my breathing, tamping my hysteria down with the calm reason of her words, letting my tears play themselves out as she holds me. Finally, I wipe at my cheeks with a dirty hoof and nod. She's right. I can't kill Chrysalis, but I can out-think, disable or delay her — and all I have to do is wake up my friends and protect them until Celestia arrives.
"Be strong, Twilight," Celestia says, letting me go and stepping back.
I nod. We've got unlimited attempts and coordination and twice as many chances to reset. I've got an invisibility cloak. I can teleport. One success. I can do this.
Sweet Voice and I climb into the phaeton and fly down the mountain in silence. My mind is replaying the fight over and over again. Something slowly dawns on me. Every one of those improbable, graceful dodges represents a time when I beat her. In my panic, I was swinging to kill, and I must have, because in the loop I remembered, she knew exactly what to expect.
Well … not exactly. "Your move, princess"? Did she think Celestia was the one behind this? How could she have forgotten seeing …
A smile spreads across my muzzle. Wait a minute. I'm the one who died, that time back in the burning library when she had her epiphany. She straight-up killed me on the train. She must not even know I'm looping yet!
Do I have any idea how much grief that invisibility cloak caused? No … but given how upset she was, I think I can guess. And she didn't get rid of it. Oh no. She hasn't even seen grief yet.
I giggle. What with me being invisible, she won't see it. She'll just suffer, time after time, until she cracks and gets careless and leaves me an opening to knock her out.
I prepare for our aerial skirmish as we draw closer to the swarm, but the incoming changelings seem oddly uninterested in us. The phaeton rounds a ridgetop on its descent toward the train tracks. The mountain slope falls away — as does my smile. The train's not there.
I look around and spot it almost immediately. It's down at the very bottom of the mountain, at the base of a plume of dark smoke, burning brightly on the tracks.
I killed her. I took at least three fatal swings. I must have had dozens of opportunities to reset when my invisibility cloak screwed up her plans. But I didn't. I freaked out when she showed up, and I killed her. I kept freaking out, and I killed her. Because I didn't have the presence of mind to reset and fight smart, all my friends are dead.
It's so simple to fix it in hindsight, because she was fighting dumb too. Fire a hornbolt deliberately wide while she's tearing apart the invisibility cloak, then step into her return fire. Lift the heavy crate of metal scraps up as if I'm lining up a shot with her, then jump underneath it and let go while she's taking cover. Swing Home Run from the right instead of the left, forcing her to leap back toward the center of the car, and then charge her shoulder so she wheel-throws me out the hole she created; Euthanatos as I'm falling from the bridge. Hundreds of ideas. There's a new one each time I mentally replay the fight.
"Twilight, are you okay?" Spike touches my shoulder, then waves his claw in front of my face. I ignore him, keeping my eyes unfocused.
The worst part is that I did die. Her hooves around my neck were a free gift-wrapped second chance — and I wasted it by thinking of how to make her suffer in kind, rather than thinking strategically. Every single thing I did should have been focused, at any cost, on keeping her from dying.
I didn't do that. I blew my chance. I killed her, and they're dead.
"Oh no," Spike says. "Twilight?" When I continue to not move, he dashes off (again) in search of help (again). Once he's gone, I hear the click of hooves on stone (again) and the rustle of wings (again) as Celestia approaches and sits down just past the edge of my vision.
I say nothing, and it's a question; she says nothing, and it's a reply.
I curl up on my side, turning my back on her. For a long time, I hear neither speech nor motion from her. The faint cries, clangs, and screams of warfare drift in from outside. Finally, after what must be fifteen minutes, she breaks the silence. "I still need you, Twilight."
I stare at a mote of dust wandering through an unusually faint sunbeam — weakened by the smoke of a burning city, presumably — and ask the question her silence already answered: "Are my friends still dead?"
"Yes," she repeats.
"Well then," I say caustically, "I'll get right on that 'mildly inconvenience Chrysalis without having any effect on the outcome' thing."
"You have more power than you know, Twilight, but you have to get up to change the world."
"What's the point? The bottom line is, her loop starts before mine, so there's literally nothing I can do which she can't sabotage in advance of me ever starting. Honestly, I'm surprised she's not already here preemptively killing me. And clearly, her loop also starts too early for you to save my friends, or else you wouldn't be sitting here giving me pep talks."
"I'm sorry, Twilight, you're absolutely right," Celestia says with gentle reproach. "I'm here asking for your help because nothing can change the fact that we're doomed."
That line gave me pause when she first used it, but for the past several loops I've had a comeback prepared. "For five values of 'we', that's already true."
This time, she also responds instantly. "Six, if you're going to act like that. The one defeat that time looping can't change is a surrender."
I finally lift my head and look back at her. Her horn is a solid cone of brilliant white light, but that's not what catches my attention. She's sitting in perfect royal repose, one hoof raised, framed by the unearthly pastel radiance of her gently flowing mane — every inch the immaculate and indefatigable goddess whose single word can turn the fate of nations. It is rather inspiring. I wonder how much she practices that pose.
"Things have changed this loop," Celestia says. "Get up. Come see."
I frown. "Hang on. If you're about to tell me that my friends' death was another teachable moment …"
"No, no," she says quickly. "No lesson could ever come close to justifying that level of betrayal."
"Not to mention the sabotage of our best hope for victory. I don't enjoy this war any more than you do, Twilight."
"Well," I say, suspicion receding, "it still sounds like war out there."
"As well it should. You said it yourself — Equestria's doomed."
I raise an eyebrow at her. "Gee, you really know how to motivate a mare."
She smiles enigmatically. "I can guarantee you've never seen it doomed like this before."
Outside, in the far distance, I hear new screaming, along with clear, high-pitched calls. There's the rumble of a building collapsing, then a loud, low roar to match it. The rumble builds — no, that's a different rumble, a low and ceaseless white noise I feel rather than hear. I notice that the magelight chandeliers are beginning to sway.
Curiosity finally overrides despair. "You win," I sigh, climbing to my hooves.
"I really don't," she says, pulling two invisibility cloaks out of her saddlebags with her teeth and passing one to me with an outstretched wing, "but at least we get to go out with a show."
A fierce glow in the bags catches my eye. "Are those the Elements?"
"Oh, yes. If I weren't devoting the entirety of my magic to suppressing them, they'd have lit up hours ago like fireworks in a volcano."
"So you're artificially delaying the end in order to watch the world burn with me," I say, narrowing my eyes. "Despite how much you say that hurts you to see. How is this not a … teachable …"
My words die away as we reach the front door of the archives. Outside is what I can only describe as an all-you-can-eat apocalypse buffet.
The moon is casting the mountain in shadow from impossibly close overhead, glowing red around the edges and shimmering with superheated air, already taking up a quarter of the sky and getting larger by the second. Underneath it, changelings, gryphons, dragons, and an occasional pegasus are wheeling through the skies and clashing in a loose free-for-all. A deep chasm has opened up along the main street of the city, with ponies and zebras and diamond dogs scrambling away as the edges crumble in and the cracks widen. On the far side of it, an ursa major is wading through the streets, casually smashing buildings underfoot. One of the wings of the castle is coated in purple slime, which is writhing and expanding and climbing the walls as five desperate armies throw fire and claw and spear and spell at it.
"You should probably put your cloak on before the seapony snipers spot you," the empty air next to me says.
I hurriedly don it as I drink in the ludicrous scale of the devastation. "Are you serious? Seaponies?!"
Celestia laughs. "The logistics of getting them to attack Canterlot were a touch too challenging, but you believed me for a second there, didn't you?"
I nod numbly, then remember she can't see me. "Wait. 'Getting them to attack'? What did you do?"
"I woke up this morning, forced Chrysalis to start the invasion early, and sent orders to our foreign ambassadors to publically assassinate seven world leaders. Once Luna fell defending the city, I rose her moon and stopped it mid-sky. Then I wiped out the wards and safeguards on as many of the arcane storage vaults as I could before I had to devote my full attention to the Elements. Now half a dozen races of mortal enemies are trying to find a way into the vaults to kill me so they can divert the moon and maybe stop the world from ending." I hear her hooves clop toward me and feel her sit down, her cloak just brushing against mine. "There's a strange sort of beauty to this, isn't there?"
"No!" I protest a little too quickly, desperately trying to ignore the part of me that's giggling like a schoolfilly. I turn my head toward Celestia, wishing I could see her expression. "That's … that's … how can you watch this? How could you do this to everypony?"
The silence of the invisible figure at my side stretches out into awkwardness, and I realize I just judged her over a loop designed to be reset away — destruction which won't exist in another few minutes. I'm about to retract my lecture when she clears her throat uncomfortably. "I'm so sorry, Twilight," she says, voice subdued. "You must think I'm a monster."
"To be fair," I add hurriedly, "it does make sense. It's just blowing off steam, right?" Stupid. Stupid!
"Thank you, but you're absolutely right. This was a bad idea. If … if you haven't reset yet, I would greatly appreciate it if you'd allow me to wipe this out and try again."
"Please don't," I say. "I didn't mean it."
"Twilight …" she says, pained. "I'm trying not to steal information from you by resetting without consent, but please, please, let me be better than this."
"Princess, please listen. I do understand. I didn't mean to judge — did I tell you about my loops spent shoplifting? I just said something thoughtless. I mean, while we're in a time loop, none of this is real …"
She sighs. "I don't deserve that excuse. Time loops are my life, Twilight. This is as real as anything else I've seen since the Celestial War. The only difference is I'll reset it at the end, instead of advancing my anchor point and letting time march on for another day. Looping does terrible things to you, and sometimes I forget how much I've changed."
"You're not a bad pony," I say firmly. "You could make this actually happen at any time, but you don't."
"I suppose there's that," she says.
We lapse into uncomfortable silence, and I force myself to watch Canterlot as a distraction. A pair of unicorns lose their grip on the edge of the chasm and fall screaming into blackness. A dragon noisily chews on a dying stallion. A four-story building collapses with a roar; a mare jumps from the roof as it goes, hits the ground, and stops moving. Next loop, I think, they'll all get up, eat breakfast, and go to work whistling a happy tune.
Suddenly the enormity of that hits me between the eyes. Celestia's monstrosity is her sacrifice. She sees all of this so that they don't ever have to. In a mere few years as the Element of Magic, I've staved off catastrophe after catastrophe, and she's been looping for a full millennium. Our perfect, beautiful Equestria must be built on the skeletons of thousands of apocalypses that never came to be.
"I really should explain myself," she says faintly, interrupting my thoughts. "I wasn't lying. Watching Chrysalis destroy Equestria over and over again did hurt, more than anything. But this … it feels remarkably different when it's you destroying everything you hold dear, instead of watching yourself flail ineffectually against a fate you can't fix alone. This is monstrous, Twilight. It's horrible of me, and it's wrong … but it's cathartic in all the right ways."
I shake my head and can't help but laugh. "It is, and it is … and to be honest? It is." That gets a chuckle out of her before we lapse into silence again.
A company of diamond dogs lets out a piercing howl, all in unison, then charges straight at the ursa major, stabbing its paws and swarming up its legs as it stomps and swats and bites them in half. It's gloriously pointless, but I guess they've decided that if their world is going to end, they might as well take down the biggest thing they can find on their way out. With three times the dogpower, they might have even made a dent in it.
"Did you really mean what you said?" Celestia asks. "About me not being a bad pony?"
"… Thank you."
We watch quietly as the castle is dissolved in dark ooze, the moon grows to half the sky's width, and the five armies abandon the pretense of cooperation and start tearing each other apart in earnest. Right around the time the ursa major flattens Big Pen, I lean into Celestia's side. She shifts her weight to brace me, and I close my eyes, listening to the end of everything and feeling her barrel rise and fall with her slow, even breathing. The Elements in her saddlebags poke uncomfortably into my side, but after all the pain I've been through, such a little thing barely even registers.
"Thank you," I whisper back.
Her shoulder shifts as her head turns toward me. "For what?"
For everything, a voice inside me whispers, but I'm not quite brave enough to give voice to it. "For showing me this," I say instead. "Don't deny it, this was totally a teachable moment. But it worked."
Celestia laughs, and the gentle confidence returns to her voice. "I don't think 'teachable moment' means what you think it means. But for the sake of argument, what did you learn from this loop?"
"One, no matter what Chrysalis does, we are still masters of our own destiny."
"Poetic. But, yes, that's it exactly. All that the loop spell has power to do is add new memories to her brain from potential futures. It makes her neither invincible nor perfect — nor a genius, for that matter. She has weaknesses and blind spots. We'll find them."
The so-dumb-it's-brilliant corner of my brain is beginning to stir. "Two, that all of us have ponies we … care about an awful lot," I say. "But if you wake up one loop and they've vanished and all you have left are memories and monsters, mourning that loss is just going to drive you crazy."
"Mourning is absolutely legitimate … but they're not lost yet, Twilight. Your friends weren't dead at my anchor point — so they're not dead until we let them be dead, and I promise you that neither one of us is going to accept that."
I clear my throat. "What I meant is, sometimes you can get this sacred and untouchable image of how it's all supposed to go. Who ponies close to you are, and what they mean to you. Time loops don't give you that luxury. That image is going to get wrecked over and over again. And what you have to do to stay sane is accept those changes as they come, and make the most of the opportunities that creates."
I can almost hear the smile in her voice. "I'm proud of you, Twilight. You're in very difficult circumstances right now, but with an attitude like that I know you'll make it through with everything I admire about you intact."
She missed it. Missed it, or is ignoring it. The so-dumb-it's-brilliant corner of my brain is screaming like a madpony. The more reasonable parts decide to give up, sit back and watch the show. "Princess? Would you pull back your hood?"
She's silent for a moment. "Why?"
"I want to see the expression on your face for something. Humor me."
There's a rustle of fabric. A white-hot glowing horn and a pastel-framed white head appear out of thin air, as she stares down over her shoulder to where she feels me resting at her side. "Alright."
I grin. "And three," I say, "sometimes when things are at their worst, you have to give yourself permission to go a little crazy."
Telekinesis can't move only part of an object. I can't grab her head in my aura without overpowering her and grabbing her whole body. But I can grab her crown — and when I yank that down toward me, her head comes with it.
With my torso still pressed against hers, I lunge my neck forward, gripping her neck and jaw with my forehooves, tilting my muzzle and clamping my mouth hungrily to hers. Her eyes widen, and there's a snort of breath on my cheek, and the muffled start of what might have been intended as a word, and her lips are soft and warm and
"Fffffff–" I hiss, until he walks up to stand in my field of vision and my there's-a-hatchling-in-the-room instincts kick in. "–fffUDGE." All that build-up, and I didn't even get to see how she reacted.
"Are you okay, Twilight?" He prods at my still-smoking body and winces in sympathy. "Can I get you a healing scroll? Wait, you probably don't want to use your magic right now. Some bandages? I'll …" Spike wilts in my glare and backs away. "Uhhh, I'll just stand back here quietly until you need me?"
I sit up and assess. Whatever killed me was instantaneous and painful. I recognize that pain — the Elements of Harmony blowing up the universe again. Of course they did. Celestia herself was the source of the disharmony this time.
And then I kissed her.
The full implications of my act of impulse filter in. Oh, stars, that's a great message to send the immortal goddess who controls Equestria, isn't it? "Hey, teacher, for years I've been carrying around these feelings for you I never had the courage to act on — but when you turned supervillain and destroyed the world, wow, I simply couldn't help myself."
But my reaction being about her destroying the world is ludicrous on its face. Isn't it? I've admired Princess Celestia all my life, after all. And our time loops are forcing us to be honest with each other in a remarkably intimate way — already she's shared something with me that nopony else in the world knows. Learning that she's not a shining paragon of morality also made her approachable in a way I've never felt before, and even with a reset button you have to admit that impending doom creates a sense of both urgency and subconscious liberation.
See? Purely rational responses at a purely rational moment. Nothing to do with my id snapping its leash and engaging an unknown and unwanted paraphilia amid a magnificent orgy of gratuitous destruction.
Nnnope. Nothing at all.
"Twilight?" Spike says. "Are you sure you're okay? Your face has gone all red."
What in the seven underworlds is wrong with me? I stare into space, unable to believe my brain. Even considering all that I've been through while looping, that is some seriously up-rutted mental wiring. I don't even want to think about my therapy bills once I'm out the far end of this.
The silver lining of this discovery is that by definition only one of us can remember the loop — and it's me. I give a silent prayer of thanks to the stars that I died first. Otherwise, that could have led to the most awkward conversation in the history of speech, explaining how hot I found the destruction of the world that we're trying to save. New rule: Celestia must never, ever hear of what we did.
I give Spike a feeble laugh. “It’s alright. Craniofacial erythema is an occasional consequence of imperfect temporal alteration."
He tilts his head. "Huh?"
"Exactly." I climb to my hooves and look around. Aside from Spike and I, the library is silent and empty. It dawns on me there's something wrong here. Something missing.
"Spike," I ask, "where did Princess Celestia go?"
"Huh?" he repeats, raising an eyeridge.
"She's not here." My blood freezes in my veins. "She's supposed to be right there, sitting and waiting for me and trying to talk me out of my funk." I was the one who reset, so she should be behaving identically. She's not. Therefore, I'm missing a loop. I have a secret, and I'm missing a loop, and she's gone. What did I tell her last time?
Spike opens and closes his mouth. "You're not making any sense, Twilight. Why would the Princess be here? We were going to go watch Day Court this morning, but she cancelled it and said she wasn't seeing anypony, so we came to the library instead and you found that spell of Starswirl's. You remember that, right?"
No, I don't … and it belatedly strikes me how strange it is that my only memories of the morning before the loop starts are from the timeline when I first cast the spell. What Spike describes is something that I lived through a few hours ago, right? Celestia said the loop spell is designed to add memories, not replace them — and that's clearly how it works, or else I would only ever remember a single loop at once.
On the other hoof, my day is completely contained within another, larger time loop, which implies I'm falling prey to some secondary interaction effect. Every time Celestia or Chrysalis resets, the entire day in which I cast my spell is undone — how could I remember it, other than what the loop saves for me? The only past I should remember is the one that doesn't get wiped out every few hours.
That puts it in the category of "yet another glitch to unravel once things calm down." Right now, I've got much bigger hayburgers to fry. I charge up my horn. "Don't worry, Spike. I'll straighten this out. You stay here."
"Are you sure —" he begins, but I've already teleported to the hall outside Celestia's chambers.
Sharp Edge blinks. "Twilight? What's —"
"National security emergency. Today's validation code is 438 hay-roan-zebra. I'll be inside. Nopony else comes in."
Sharp salutes, but hesitates. "Nopony at all? Not even —"
"And if anypony sets the building on fire, look at them very sternly for me."
I don't see Celestia at first. She's not at the desk where she takes care of state business, nor in the fireplace nook where she has private discussions with diplomats. That leaves the bedroom, or … but my mind has already derailed at that thought, and I'm not even certain I can name the feeling that washes through me when I hear her hoofsteps moving through the dining room toward me.
"Oh! Twilight," she says. I wish I could see the expression on her muzzle — however, the bookshelf by the hall door has suddenly become extremely fascinating, which has nothing to do with the heat in my cheeks.
"I figured I would come by," I say, because words.
"Well," she says, then clears her throat, and her tone fills with cheer. "My door is always open for you."
"I know," I say, my mind racing in circles. I start alphabetizing her bookshelf to distract myself. "I just figured, what with the whole impending changeling threat, and all."
"Of course." I hear her walk over to her desk and sit down. "In fact, I was just doing some research on that, myself." She's silent for a moment as she shuffles the thick piles of scrollwork. "See if I could get some clues as to where her infiltration might be thickest."
"That's smart," I say. Quadruple-checking always is.
I realize her bookshelf is already alphabetized, so I start refiling it by Dewy Grass decimal number while I try to think of something else to say. No good; my brain is stuck in a loop of its own. Augh augh augh what did I tell her? I glance down at the book in my horngrip, hoping for inspiration — but it's a gift copy of An Annotated Encyclopedia of Meteorological Tools, and if I start blathering on about weathervanes out of nowhere she'll know I'm stalling.
Deep breath. Start over. We should exchange loop numbers, right? Except that means comparing notes on past loops, and that leads all too quickly to me needing to actively lie about the apocalypse kiss. I shouldn't … no, I can't … do that. But what do you say when you're stuck between a lie that betrays a trust, and a truth that ruins it?
Celestia clears her throat. "So," she says, "it's good to see you out of your depression."
That kicks my brain out of its tiny little circle and into an entirely new one. That means I was still lying on the floor doing nothing in the loop she remembers, so she would have taken me apocalypse-watching again. No, wait. My thought processes at the start of this loop would have been identical to the missing one, and by the time she spoke up I would have already concluded that she must never learn of how the apocalypse affected me, so I would have stopped her. On the other hoof, she would have been there, so she would have overheard me say … what did I tell Spike? Just that I was blushing, which she would have seen anyhow.
Why do time loops have to be so hard?
The room is silent, and I realize belatedly it's my turn to speak. I force a laugh. "Well, yes," I say. "The teachable moment helped."
She doesn't say anything, and panic grips me. I walked right into that one, didn't I? I force myself to turn around — I need to see how she reacted to me talking about a loop she shouldn't remember, and her seeing me blushing is the least of my worries right now.
Celestia meets my eyes, already wearing her usual inscrutable gentle smile. "That's good to hear. I don't think we need to go through the apocalypse more than once."
She remembers the apocalypse? We went through it again? Why did I go through it again?
"Well," I stall, "as apocalypses go, I'd have to say it was. Um." My brain flashes out huge screaming warnings. "Objectively impressive."
Celestia glances away. "I suppose. It had its … awkward moments."
She knows she knows she knows! Only the belief that I wouldn't have been so stupid as to kiss her twice in a row keeps me going. "Oh?" I manage.
She waves a hoof in some vague, meaningless gesture. "Well," she says, "you know how it is. I did something monstrous and you called me on it."
"Yeah, I remember that."
I can't take it. I feel like my head is about to explode. "Did I do anything else awkward?" I blurt out before my brain can stop me.
Oh, road apples.
She freezes. Not a twitch, not a tremble, just one solid wall of unblinking, unbreathing poker face. I wonder exactly how astronomically unlikely my chances are of charging up a Euthanatos before she can speak her voice trigger.
"Oh, Twilight," she says softly, giving me a smile honed by millennia of iron diplomacy. "Why would you be worried about that?"
"Well," I babble, heart hammering, "we've got a lot of work to do, and my friends to save, and Equestria to save, and things being awkward between us would be bad. Because of all the saving. And because I —" my brain, at least, halts me there, saving me from flat-out capitulation — "because I … have a track record of doing stupid things in loops I don't remember, and, and …" I'm not sure whether the tears gathering at the corner of my eyes are genuine or desperate method acting, but I'll take what I can get. "Did I do something wrong?" I whisper.
She stands up from her desk and walks over. I stand there, trembling, as she curls her neck around mine in a thoroughly chaste hug. "Oh, Twilight," she whispers back, in that old familiar voice of heartrending all-encompassing perfection.
I lose it, and start bawling on her shoulder. "I did. Didn't I."
"Twilight," she says firmly, "listen to me." She pulls back and stares directly at me. "I don't remember you doing anything else awkward, I promise. That having been said, clearly you're carrying around some recent guilt, and I don't think that's productive. Isn't the entire point of a time loop that you can try it again and change your actions?"
I sniffle, smear some tears around my cheeks with a pastern, and nod.
"So let's just put the apocalypse — and both our mistakes — behind us, okay?" She gives me a hopeful smile.
Relief floods in. That's right! She's got her own embarrassment to bury. She's sitting here watching me freak out, and she doesn't even care what I did — she's just as anxious to move on as I am.
"Y-yeah," I say, giving her my first genuine smile of the loop. "That sounds like a good idea."
"Wonderful." She returns my smile, staring into my eyes for a moment before her expression falls back to detached focus. She abruptly turns and walks back to her desk. "We have a great deal of saving to do, and we should figure out our plan."
"I'd love to." It'll be good to start moving forward again. Speaking of which … "First, I think we should reset our count back to zero." I chew my lip for a moment, then add unnecessarily: "You know. Symbolism."
She glances down at her scrollwork for a moment, grins, then lights her horn, sweeping it all off her desk.
I chuckle weakly. "You know."
"So, Twilight," she says, "I just reset and replayed this conversation. That gave me a few hours' time this morning to organize all my ideas. I left my notes in between the second and third books on the stained lower shelf nearest your circle. Why don't you reset, do some reading and thinking, and then when you're ready with a plan come find me again and tell me 'Genmaicha'?"
I nod and charge up my horn. I'll make her proud of me. It's the least I can do.
* * *
"Well," Spike says, "that sure didn't work."
On the contrary, that couldn't possibly have gone better. We didn't have to talk about the wrongest kiss ever — and, without even knowing what happened, she agreed to put our … mistakes …
"Fffffff–" I hiss, until he walks up to stand in my field of vision and my there's-a-hatchling-in-the-room instincts kick in. "–fffUDGE."
"Are you okay, Twilight?" He prods at my still-smoking body and winces in sympathy. "I —"
"I TOLD her," I yell, sitting up. Spike yelps and winces back. I clasp my hooves to his shoulders and shake. "She didn't remember me doing anything else awkward. Well, that was sure specific! And she was awfully eager to put our mistakes behind us, wasn't she?"
"T-twi-wili-ight w-what d-d-do —"
I stop shaking him and throw my hooves up. "Stupid! Stupid!"
"— y-you." He picks himself up and scrambles backward. "Twilight, you're scaring me."
I walk over to a bookshelf and pound my head against the wood. "I kissed her. I kissed her and I told her about it. I made a rule I wouldn't tell her and I don't even get a single loop in before I break it and now she thinks I'm some sort of monster."
"I. Um." Spike backs away, tapping his claws together. "Did something go wrong with the spell, Twilight? Is this like the time you found that book about holding a seance with the spirits of the stars, and you burned the wrong incense, and you spent the next three hours rolling on the floor, giggling about Mister Moochick and his flutterpony friends?"
"It's nothing like that, Spike! Princess Celestia got a whole bunch of armies to attack Canterlot and destroyed the world with the moon and I got turned on and kissed her."
"… uh-huh." He edges toward the door.
Something clicks. "But she doesn't want me to know she knows."
"Listen, Twilight, I'm going to go get a doctor."
I grab him in my hornglow and haul him back over. "Hang on. Work with me here, Spike. She could have freaked out, or told me how sick I was, or simply said no, but instead she played dumb. Why would she do that?"
He points at the door pleadingly. "Doctor."
"Time loop. Replaying the day. A few loops back you recited to me the poem you've never told anypony about, comparing Rarity to a sapphire." Actually, that was in his diary, which I found by accident behind his basket one day, but the lie is a lot faster than getting sidetracked into justifying my experience. "So hush and focus. Is she trying to preserve my feelings?"
He stiffens and his face goes red. "Glrk."
"Or save me from my shame?"
"I read you the poem?!"
"Or — wait." I blink. "She doesn't want this to color our friendship."
"Oh geez, Twilight. Please don't tell her!"
"Exactly!" I level a hoof at him. "See, now that you know your secret's out, you won't be able to talk with Rarity without some lingering awkwardness. … Of course, her being dead does inhibit conversation, and you won't remember this after I reset, so really, for you the whole point is moot."
Spike stares at me, one eye twitching.
"Anyway, Celestia knows I kissed her, and she doesn't want me. She could have let it linger between us, but instead she tried to give me a second chance." I feel my eyes moisten, and smile. Not the worst outcome, considering how much could have gone wrong discussing why I kissed her. "Thanks for helping me figure that out, Spike."
I stand up. "And now I've gotta do some reading before delivering some tea-based code word to her."
"Well, she told me to go tell her 'Genmaicha', the same way she did with 'Darjeeling' in the teachable loop, for presumably the same purpose — she worked some sort of code out in advance so that she could send herself messages from loops she knows she won't remember. Huh. That's really smart, actually. I should have some of those." I glance at the nearby bookshelf for inspiration. "Like, 'Clover' could mean 'You should trust whatever message she's about to give you,' which would imply 'Platinum' for 'I suspect something's wrong here.' Ooh! And 'Starswirl' for 'The thing I planned to do this loop was really stupid, don't do it again.' I bet that one will get a lot of use."
"I meant, what do you mean, Rarity's dead?"
"Temporarily. Don't worry, you won't remember any of this, only the loop in which we fix things. So I'll just … hang on." The mention of memory reminds me that I was on the way to making a mistake. "I should reset. I've got a lot of reading ahead of me, and if one of them dies before I do, I might not remember the code words I just made up." I kiss Spike maternally on the cheek. "Thank you. You're an awesome rubber duck, and don't ever let anypony tell you different."
"Um. Thanks. I think?"
* * *
Nothing interrupts my reading. Nopony arrives to look for me, and I guess there aren't a lot of ponies — or changelings — interested in obscure theoretical texts during a war.
There are some great ideas in Celestia's notes. One in particular catches my attention. It gives me prep time before needing to face Chrysalis directly — if at all — and lets me do it on my own terms. I don't know whether anything will actually come of it, but it ought to be a good confidence builder after so many loops surrounded by nothing but death.
It's time to start setting this right.
I charge up a Euthanatos, and hastily add two more codewords to my repertoire: "Cookie" for "This loop was uneventful except for me telling Celestia her tea code," and "Puddinghead" for "Something unexpected happened." I guess we'll see how that goes —
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work," Spike says from an unfamiliar position at my left.
"You will find, young drake, that appearances often deceive," Luna says from somewhere behind me.
The air is cool and musty. There's a quiet background thrum of magical energy, and the ticking of a wall clock. I open my eyes. Wall-mounted magelights illuminate a small windowless room with well-aged brickwork walls, floor, and ceiling. Near the clock — it's breakfast time — are several bookshelves, one of which is occupied by the still-quiescent Elements of Harmony.
I'm lying in the center of a metal filigreed evocation circle permanently inset into the brick. Thick black smoke is curling off my body, and there are a few stray sparks playing at the edge of the circle, but I barely hurt at all.
"Delta-two, T-0 C-0," Celestia says from my right. "Also, cookie."
That's worth the extra few seconds it'll take to remember —
* * *
"Delta-two, T-0 C-0," Celestia says from my right. "Also, cookie."
I sit up. "Delta-two, T-1 C-0, message received and remembered."
A smile plays across Celestia's face as I stand. "Then I believe," she says, "it's time for Operation: Hornet's Nest."
The stars are beautiful tonight. There's not a cloud in the sky, and without the lights of civilization around me, the glow of the cosmos is on breathtaking display from zenith to horizon. A soft wind sighs through the trees behind me, and I draw in a deep breath of night and let my eyes wander around Luna's majestic constellations. Right before I turn back, I fix my eyes on a patch of empty sky, and am rewarded a second later when a meteor blazes through it, leaving a wake of mist and flame. I drink in every moment of the display. It's just as beautiful this time around.
On one hoof, changelings have taken over Equestria, my best friends are dead, and I'm deep in the Everfree Forest. On the other hoof, no night can be all bad when the land is so peaceful and the sky so vast.
I head back underneath the clinging darkness of the trees, tiphoofing — no longer because I think Spike is asleep, but because changing that might have unintended ripple effects later on — back to camp. The game trail back to our hidden clearing has become familiar through repetition, but I take it slow again, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness. Spike's curled in a tight ball next to the firepit, staring vacantly down at the shimmering heat of the embers.
"I'm back," I repeat. "I didn't expect you to still be up."
"I'm sorry." His reply is reflexive and subdued. "I tried. I couldn't sleep."
I continue reading through the mental script. "Thinking about our friends?"
"I … I just can't believe they're gone."
"Oh, Spike," I say, forcing the sound of sympathy into my voice. It's not that I don't feel the same pain, it's just that when you've been through the exact same conversation half a dozen times in a row, it's tough to summon any genuine emotion. "I know it's hard. But that's why we're on a mission to infiltrate Chrysalis' hive and find some leverage against her. Then, with the power of time loops, Celestia and I will reset to back before the invasion started, and make it so that none of this ever happened." I trot over to our bedrolls and fuss with his blanket, my back to the darkness beyond the fire, surreptitiously tugging Home Run loose from my saddlebags. "I just need you to be strong with me for a little while, and then you'll wake up yesterday morning, and we'll go greet them at the station when their train arrives in Canterlot, and you won't even remember this."
"But how does —"
"Excuse me," I interrupt, and charge my horn.
The world lurches around me, and I'm five feet to the left. A huge dark shape plummets down where I was just standing and lands with a heavy thump, jaws snapping closed on empty air. While the shadowcat is glancing around in confusion, trying to refocus on its prey, I grab Home Run in my horngrip and give it a solid thwap on the snout. It yowls and staggers back, and I follow up with a crack upside the skull hard enough to take down a pony. Under most circumstances, this would merely make the six-cubit-long predator angry — but this one was looking for an easy snack, and my resistance takes all the fight out of it. It whirls and flees, crashing away through the forest.
I turn back to Spike, who is staring with eyes wide as dinner plates. "See? Time loop. I've got this. Nothing else bad will happen the rest of the night, so get some sleep." I turn and walk away before he has a chance to respond. "I'm going to go stargaze some more."
I return to the edge of the chasm, where the skies open up, and pass the time by looking for flying changelings. I've gotten pretty good at picking out their tiny forms far above me by the way they blot out the stars as they pass. Most of the traffic is north-south, a steady stream that I've been shadowing from the ground in order to discover their source, although here in the Everfree there are also plenty of random flights crisscrossing the area thanks to the resistance forces gathering at the Ancient Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. In other circumstances, that would be an inspiring testament to the indominable pony spirit, but right now it's a major annoyance — forcing me to detour almost out to Rambling Rock Ridge rather than stumble through a succession of changeling patrols.
The stars creep across the sky, keeping pace with the moon. Half an hour later, when Aldebarn sets on the western horizon, I return to camp.
Spike's asleep. I sigh in relief — another conversation about our dead friends avoided. It's amazing how much time and energy can get sucked into providing reassurances nopony will remember. This way, at least I get an uninterrupted night's sleep. Sleep! Amazing how much you take it for granted until you live through several subjective weeks without ever reaching nightfall.
I wake up to birdsong and the wind in the trees — the sweetest sounds the world has ever welcomed me back to consciousness with. Almost worth the destruction of everything I've ever held dear. Spike's already boiling water for coffee, and as the scent of it unfolds from the beaten metal pot, my stomach growls. Hunger! You forget about that, too, when you keep reliving the same few hours of a war. I wolf down two days' worth of rations as Spike picks at a bowl of granola, and even though my stomach is screaming at me when I'm done, I finish off his leftovers.
There's nothing I want more after our meal than to simply lie there in a food coma — but I've got an appointment to keep and that little luxury isn't worth redoing the loop, so I force myself to repack my saddlebags and walk it off, ambling down the trail behind Spike as we wander generally southward.
After half an hour of silence, he glances back at me, eyes flicking back and forth between the steady glow of my horn and Home Run shining on my back. "What are you doing?"
"Preparing," I say. His face falls, and I quickly catch up and put a reassuring hoof on his shoulder. "You never know when it'll be useful to pack a little extra punch."
Spike stops, looks at me for a few moments, and sighs. "You do. So, how many?"
I feel my face flush. I've spent so many loops trying to explain the basics of time magic to him, over and over again, that it's a little disorienting to have him understand well enough to call me on that. "How many what?"
He starts walking again. "How many changelings are you going to fight? Any monster that was big enough to make you prepare, you'd have changed our route instead."
Smart little guy. Uncomfortably smart.
"Spike," I say sternly, "cut me some slack. We're on a mission."
"Not to fight them. Celestia even gave both of her invisibility cloaks to us."
"This time, it's important. Trust me."
He opens his mouth, reconsiders, and walks on in silence.
Half an hour later, Home Run is fully charged and we're at a bend in the path I recognize. "Alright," I say, turning around and looking back the way we came. "I need to prepare an ambush. There's a clearing up ahead, just far enough to be out of earshot. Go wait there until I catch up. You'll be safe."
He pauses for a moment. "Twilight, please. Let's just go. I've … I've lost everyone else I cared about. I don't want to lose you too."
I smile. "Well, then there's nothing to worry about, seeing as how I'm functionally immortal."
"That's not what I …" He trails off and trudges away. "Never mind."
I wait until he's around the corner and out of sight, put on my invisibility cloak, and then pull out a pocket watch. That's all that's left of my "preparations," after one loop to listen in, one loop to time the trip from this corner, and a quick raid on the castle alchemy labs before we set off on our hike. I whistle tunelessly for 1 minute, 37 seconds, stow the watch, and trot after Spike.
As soon as I hear voices, I cast a dampening charm on my hoofsteps and approach the clearing in perfect silence. A group of about twenty ponies, talking animatedly back and forth, is raggedly clustered around the remains of a campfire. At the center of it all, a bawling Spike is clinging to a disheveled Rarity, surrounded by our other friends.
"I'm so sorry I doubted you," Spike sobs, hugging Rarity's foreleg tighter as she curls her other forehoof around his shoulders. "But both Twilight and Celestia said you'd, you'd all … snf. Died."
Hmph. I set too quick a pace. I resolve to spend a loop recalibrating my mental metronome, and lean back against a tree to listen for a bit.
"Believe me, sugarcube," Applejack says, "we tried to let y'all know we escaped. Ain't nothin' gonna keep the Elements of Harmony down, right? But all our messages to Canterlot got caught."
"Yeah, squirt. We're just glad you're okay," Rainbow Dash says.
"Oh, my little Spikey-Wikey," Rarity says, lavishing him with kisses on the cheeks.
"But, um. Spike, if you don't mind me asking. What are you doing so far out in the Everfree?" Fluttershy asks. "It's kind of dangerous."
"I'm with Twilight on some kind of anti-changeling mission." Spike wipes his tears away. "Please, you've gotta talk to her! I think something happened when she cast her spell, because right after that she got all violent and scary. If we can comfort her as friends —"
"What did you say?" Rarity blurts out in an odd tone of voice. I'd love to see the expression on her muzzle, but she's got her back to me. "Spike, this spell you mention —"
Behind her — at the edge of the group, on my side of the clearing — Bon Bon loudly clears her throat. Rarity immediately shuts up. "Not to interrupt, Spike," Bon Bon says, "but where is Twilight Sparkle?"
"She stopped to ambush some changelings," Spike says as I level Home Run and trigger the spell I've been building up all morning.
The air splits with a sharp crack as the kinetic-transfer charm hurls the bat like a javelin. Within the blink of an eye, Bon Bon is cartwheeling forward, bouncing through the campfire and slamming into a tree at the far side of the clearing, a new wooden horn sprouting from her forehead where the bat wedged clean through her skull. She's dead before gravity can even drag her to the ground.
"Hello!" I shout, throwing back the invisibility cloak, my horn shining like the sun.
Pandemonium erupts. In between the loss of their underqueen and my sudden appearance, none of them even notices the little ball of metal fragments and explosives rolling into the clearing at their feet, much less the subtle hiss of its lit fuse. I duck behind a tree trunk and throw everything I've got into a shield spell. There's a loud thump and an avalanche of tiny pocks and pings as metal ricochets off stone, tears through chitin, and buries into wood and earth. Then silence.
I step out from cover to find a circle of charred, scarred dirt where the clearing used to be, studded with shiny black corpses. In the center of it all, wrapped in a bubble of raspberry-colored light, a wide-eyed Spike is clinging to Rarity. They're both frozen, staring at the surrounding devastation in abject horror.
"Aaaand goodbye," I say, dropping their shield and walking forward.
The sound of my voice finally spurs Rarity into motion. She turns her head and fixes a terrified gaze on me. "Please don't kill me."
"Oh, hey!" I say brightly. "I remember you. The smart one."
"So are you going to do the smart thing and drop the disguise while you step away from the world's Number One Assistant?"
She hesitates, and for a moment I'm annoyed at myself — way to remind her she's got a hostage, numbskull — but then she does something genuinely impressive and saves me a loop by complying.
"Huh," I say as Spike dashes over to me and clings to my leg the way he did with Rarity's. "That probably shouldn't have worked."
"I know you're angry," the small changeling says. At the same time, Spike blurts out: "I'm sorry!" They both press on, and the rest comes in a jumble. "What happened to your friends —" "I should have known —" "— was unforgivable." "— but you said I'd be safe here." "But please —" "And when Rarity —"
"Quiet!" I shout. They both flinch back and look uncertainly at each other. I sigh inwardly; I thought vengeance would be more cathartic than this, but suddenly it's complicated. Maybe Spike was right — I should have just snuck past them and pressed on. I turn to the changeling. "Look. Nothing personal, but if I let you survive, you're going to go tell Chrysalis what happened here. Then it's back to flailing around for new plans for stars know how long, and I'm already sick of this and can't get back to my normal life until it's fixed." I yank Home Run from the underqueen's corpse and float it over. "So you've got to go."
The changeling sinks to the ground, cowering. "Wait," she says.
"Twilight!" Spike says.
I sigh. "What?"
"You're really going to kill her, too? What's happened to you?"
"I can help you," the changeling says.
"Help me? Pull the other leg, it makes my nose dispense applesauce. As for you, Spike, these were the changelings that set our friends' train on fire. Now is not the time for a lecture."
Spike looks at the changeling in horror. "What?"
She winces. "I'm sorry. Nodrone wanted to kill so many innocent ponies — that's just insane — but we had to. Chrysalis' orders."
Spike staggers back and sits down heavily. I turn to the changeling. "If it's any consolation, I'm working on a future where this isn't necessary." I lift Home Run.
"Wait! Future! Chrysalis!" the changeling squeaks, trying to cover its head with its forelimbs. "I, I think Chrysalis is, is manipulating time."
I lower the bat. "Are you serious?"
"No. I mean, did you seriously think that was news?"
"I guess not?" she stammers. "But, um, maybe I know something you don't. Let me live and I'll tell you everything."
I'm about to take a swing anyway when I realize that there's the potential for some efficiency here. "On one condition. Take us to your hive and help us sneak in."
The changeling's jaw drops. "You're joking. Chrysalis would tear my limbs off for grub food, one by one, while I watched."
I shrug. "Her or me."
Her thorax shifts as she swallows. "I. Um. I'm not sure you understand when I say she's manipulating time. It doesn't matter how sneaky you are or how much help you have. She already knows your plans. Please, for your own sake, start running now." The changeling cautiously stands. "Listen: conquering Canterlot is like trying to climb a mountain with your fangs. No hive has ever been able to do it despite decades of planning. She herself failed at it once. And yet, with her army still weakened and everypony still suspicious of us, it only took her a week to pull it off."
"Well, now Canterlot is fighting back," I say, lifting Spike to my back. "You heard my deal. I'm only giving you one chance, so if you want it, shut your mouth and lead the way."
She pauses for a moment, eyes flicking around, then lowers her head and starts trudging southward. I fall into step behind her.
As the tension of the standoff falls away, I hear some muffled sobbing from my back, and feel dampness start to seep into my neck where Spike's head is buried in my mane.
The changeling glances back. "Is Spike —"
"Less talking," I say. "More walking."
"I'm sorry. But he —"
I sigh loudly. "When I said 'less talking,' what I meant was 'I don't want to hear a single word from you unless I ask you for it'."
She shuts up.
After a mercifully quiet day, we set up camp by a stream in a forested ravine — which is to say, I find a small clearing, rip some branches from the surrounding trees, and point Spike at a patch of dirt. He digs a firepit and lights a fire without speaking, then wanders off into the forest while I sit down and stare at the flames. The changeling huddles against a tree, staring at me. The blessed, blessed silence stretches out as I idly prod the burning wood.
"Permission to speak?" she finally says.
I glance up. She looks scared enough that I figure it's important. "Fine."
"I … think I figured it out. You're manipulating time too, aren't you?"
"Oh, gee," I say acidly. "What was your first clue?"
"Well," she says, as if it wasn't a rhetorical question, "ever since you cast the spell Spike mentioned, you're acting like Chrysalis."
I fix her with a stare, feeling heat rush to my cheeks. "And what's that supposed to mean?" I ask, in a flat tone that suggests she think very carefully about her answer.
She freezes. "Was that a bad thought?" she squeaks.
"No, that was bad words, in your outside voice."
"I know. But … you let me say it, and then you got upset." The changeling stares at me. "I don't understand."
It takes me a few seconds to parse that, then I snort in disbelief. "What, you think I'm a mind reader?"
"Well, no — but you're looking into the future to see everything I say, right?"
"No. I'm repeating time. I learn things the hard way, by enduring these ridiculous conversations over and over, and over, and over again, and giving out exactly this sort of stupid explanation to people who don't remember a word I say, getting more and more pointlessly frustrated as … wait. I am looking into your future. At least, that's what I'll tell you next time. You'll be too scared to lie to me."
The changeling is silent for long moments. "Huh," she finally says. "That does explain a lot about Chrysalis."
I leap to my hooves. "Oh no. Let's get one thing straight. I'm not her, and don't you dare compare us. I never asked for my country to be invaded. I never asked to have all my best friends killed. I never asked to die painfully over and over again as I tried to set things right. I never asked to be like this, and you of all people don't get to judge me, you murderer!"
She shrieks and flings her forelimbs up over her face, which seems like an overreaction until I realize that I was brandishing Home Run at her to punctuate my statements, and it's poised above my head ready to swing.
The changeling lies there, balled up, her breathing rapid and ragged. I sit back down at the fire and return to staring into the flames. Discomfort gnaws at my stomach. I'm not Chrysalis. I'm not, but … she's got a point about me acting that way. It's not like this bug doesn't deserve a bat to the face, but I was about to kill her simply because I lost my temper. All of my violence so far has served the greater purpose of saving Equestria and ending this time-loop torment; unnecessary infliction of pain is what separates us from the monsters.
I hate her for bringing me to this point.
This was a bad idea. I should reset and mercy-kill her right after she lets Spike go … but no, I can't do that without Spike freaking out on me, which means I can't use him as a distraction and lay the ambush, which means returning to the loops of dying to Bon Bon's krav naga or the combined strength of her dozens of drones.
I sigh. I might as well tough this out. Either the bug will betray me and I'll have enough proof next time to override Spike's objections, or else I'll get something useful out of her after all.
A minute or two later, out of the corner of my eye, I see her stand again and slink forward to join me. I look up and glare at her over the fire. She freezes. I look back down in silence. After a few moments of hesitation, the bug takes the last few steps and sits across from me.
"I really am sorry for killing your friends," she says quietly. "It haunts me. I wish I could at least get you to believe that."
I'm really not in the mood, but I'm still feeling guilty over the Home Run thing, so I force myself to respond. "Yeah, well," I say noncommittally, "if you're telling the truth, I'll know soon enough. If there's one thing I've learned about time loops, it's how impossible it is to hide a lie for long."
"It's not a lie. It was the most horrible thing I've ever done. I couldn't even look as the train was burning — I ran off into the bushes and vomited."
I frown. "Then why'd you do it?"
She looks away. "You don't understand what it's like living under Chrysalis."
"She's an insane tyrant, yes, yes. You still had a choice."
"You really don't understand." She scoots in a little closer to the fire, warming her hoof-things. "If she were just a tyrant, she'd be dead by now. After the first failed invasion, most of the underqueens started piecing together plans to overthrow her — the only thing that stopped an immediate revolt was the maneuvering over who would replace her. She played up those divisions to delay it as long as possible, but a revolution was inevitable … right up until a week ago."
"She recalled all her infiltrators for a big hivewide announcement. In front of everydrone, she called forward her five most powerful underqueens — and then declared herself a goddess, murdered one of them on the spot, and told the other four they had 24 hours to prove her wrong before she killed them. She stopped eight assassination attempts and two military coups that day, and hung the bodies of the underqueens off her balcony the next morning."
I make a mental note to mention that to Celestia — it sure sounds like a just-started-to-loop sort of day.
"Even so, when Chrysalis announced we were going to return to Canterlot, the sheer insanity of it set off a fresh wave of rebellion. Brightest Eyes told me that she and some of our friends were going to flee the hive and beg Celestia for asylum. She asked me to join them, but I was too scared. The next morning, Chrysalis met them at the hive entrance as they were about to leave and killed them all without a word. Thirty seconds before I heard the news, Chrysalis stepped into my chambers long enough to thank me for my loyalty, pat me on the head, and promote me to Elite Infiltrator First Class. She stopped as she was walking out, and added that if I had come to her to turn them in, I'd be an Underqueen now."
Rewarded for abandoning her friends? "Hunh," I say, feeling unexpected pity stir in my breast. "I'm sorry to hear that."
The changeling sniffles and inches around the fire toward me. "That's better than I deserve. But thank you."
Tiny doubts gnaw at me as she scoots over to my side. Yes, she murdered all my friends — but I'll fix that soon enough, and once I do, she'll just be a smart young drone in over her head. Just like I was when I got sent to Ponyville … except that everything I gained in that trip, she had ripped away from her. Why wouldn't she do such monstrous things? And how would I have turned out, if I'd had Chrysalis watching over my foalhood?
She stares forlornly into the fire. The poor thing. I can't help it — I reach out my hoof for a hug. Then she shifts her jaw, and the plates of her neck flex in a motion I recognize immediately.
She's swallowing drool.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics screams in protest as my heart ices over and my blood boils. I'm trying to offer a moment of sympathy and she's sitting there drooling over me!
How dare she? my fury screams, and the cold, rational center has an immediate answer: Because she's a changeling. The worst part is that I can't even blame her for her nature, no more than I could blame the wind for blowing.
I stand abruptly and stalk away from the fire. "Yes, well, your story's so very touching," I say, keeping my voice tightly controlled.
She stares blankly at me. "Twilight? Did I say something —"
I fling a stale cookie from my saddlebags at her, hard enough to make her wince as it bounces off her muzzle and rolls across the clearing. "Eat."
"Ow! Oh. Um." She recovers and glances between me and the now-dirty treat. "I … actually, uh, I get no nutrition from pony food. Would you maybe —"
"No. Which reminds me." I lean forward and narrow my eyes. "Don't you dare pretend I didn't see you sucking Spike's love dry back in the clearing, you filthy parasite."
Her wings quiver. "What? N-no! He was my chance to start redeeming myself. I didn't. I wouldn't."
"And you won't. If I catch you saying one word to Spike, or coming within feeding range of him, or if you even think about changing back into Rarity again … then the only thing you will ever see of me again will be a baseball bat to the face. You have caused quite enough damage already, and every minute I have to watch him get hurt is another hour I can't spend fixing everything." I punctuate it with an almost feral growl, right in her face. "Am. I. Clear."
She shrinks back. "Yes?"
"Good." I point out beyond the firelight. "Then get out of my sight."
She opens her mouth. I give her a glare that would make Fluttershy herself hesitate, and she thinks better of it — backpedaling and then almost galloping for the safety of the forest.
I watch her leave, wait for a few moments, then walk over to the nearest tree. I rear up and slam a forehoof into it, choking back a scream into a sort of incoherent gurgle.
How dare she! How dare she tangle up this mess even further? Already this has ballooned out from stopping an invasion, to outwitting another looper, to saving my dead friends. I have a plan, and the last thing I need is a whole race of parasites to save from tyranny on top of that.
… She's lying. She has to be. I saw how she kept scooting closer to me, and how she drooled. She made it all up to make me feel for her, and then I called her on it and she took off into the night like the lie-filled lying liar she is. In the morning, she'll be halfway to the hive. I'll have no choice but to reset and kill her, like I should have in the first place.
I sag against the tree, trembling. Okay. Breathe. Breathe. I can do this.
"Twilight?" Spike's voice comes from behind me.
I whirl around on reflex. He's standing at the far edge of the clearing, staring at me across the fire, holding a pile of small red spheres in cupped claws. It takes me three tries and two deep breaths to find my voice. "Yes?"
"Are you okay … um. Where'd Rar… the changeling go?" Spike clears his throat. "I, I brought you some … are you okay?"
"Yes," I lie, then retreat to a smaller untruth: "I'll be fine." I force a smile. "What are those?"
He traces a tiny circle in the dirt with the heel of one hindclaw. "I, uh … you saved my life today and I didn't even thank you, I just got upset over you killing the changelings, and I wanted to say sorry, and … and you're my very best friend, Twilight, but I didn't know how to make it up to you, then I thought we're running out of fruit and you might want something nicer than oatmeal for dinner, so I went out and picked some berries."
The receding wave of frustration is overtaken by a tsunami of gratitude, and tears spill from my eyes. "Oh, Spike," I whisper, my throat seizing up. "Thank you." I step over to him, curl my neck around his in a hug, and then grab a giant mouthful of smooth, waxy berries in my horngrip.
They're oddly bitter.
* * *
∆-2 T-9 C-2:
"Well, that sure didn't work."
I stare vacantly at the ever-more-familiar ceiling of the arcane storage vaults' experiment room. Celestia and Luna look at my expression, then exchange a silent glance.
I have to replay that whole farce, don't I? I mean, I don't have to, but every time I try upending major decisions and changing my approach, my life gets even worse. Starting from scratch again won't fix anything — it'll just leave questions I won't be able to answer once my mission's done. I let out a deep sigh.
"A difficult loop, Twilight?" Celestia asks gently.
"Long," I say, getting up. "But not as long as the next one. Be right back. Got a little question for a friend in 581 point 9."
* * *
∆-2 T-10 C-2:
"Oh, Spike," I whisper. "Thank you."
Then I put a hoof on his wrist and push the berries gently away. "But those are Ilex everfricillata, the fruits — technically, drupes — of the wildlands holly. Found in white-flowered shrubs 2 to 10 cubits tall. Highly poisonous to equines."
He makes a little strangled noise and drops them as if they were burning his hands.
I float him our last apple with a smile. "It was a lovely gesture. Let's eat."
"I know." I root through my saddlebags and pull out a biscuit for myself.
His face drains of color, and I immediately realize that was the wrong thing to say. "You know? Did I —"
"Really," I say, my smile growing forced, "it's alright. No harm done, see?"
"You know things I don't remember. You time-looped. I … I killed you."
"Who hasn't killed me by now?" I float the apple insistently at his face. "You are one hundred percent forgiven. Let's —"
He brushes it away and stares in horror at me. "I killed you. What if you weren't in a loop, Twilight? What if I'd given those to somepony who couldn't fix it?"
"The bug doesn't eat pony food. Please, Spike, let's have dinner."
He's silent for a moment. I can see resolve lighting up in his eyes. Oh no. No no.
"Twilight," he says, "make me a time looper."
Nightmare visions swirl through my mind. More lost memories. More complicated coordination. An endless future of me consoling him through the harsh realities of war.
"Sweet stars, no," I say. "Not even if it worked like that."
"But I'd stop making mistakes, and you'd be less alone."
"NO!" I repeat. "This conversation is over."
We eat. Next to each other. Alone.
I spend the night tossing and turning, and as the first light of dawn reaches the treetops, I open my eyes to the one thing that could make this farce worse: a changeling sitting quietly across the firepit.
I sit up. "What are you still doing here?" I whisper.
"Keeping my end of the deal," she whispers back.
"Oh, come on! You had the perfect opportunity to run. I chased you away."
"I almost did," the bug murmurs, and swallows. "I-I'm pretty sure you plan to kill me. But I have to try. This might be my only chance to save the hive."
"This is some trick," I say, my heart pounding in my chest. "I don't believe you." I can't.
Does she really need it spelled out? "Even setting aside the whole bit about you killing my friends, you … uh … you're just lying to feed from me."
"Okay, then I promise not to eat until we get there."
She agreed to that far too quickly. "Ha!" I shout. "Look how accommodating you're being. You're leading me into a trap."
At my raised voice, Spike stirs. "Hzbuh?"
"You're time looping, right?" the changeling presses on. "That would only work once, and then you'd know not to trust me. I don't get second chances like you and Chrysalis do. I can't afford to lie."
I'm flailing around for further objections when Spike sits up. "Oh! You're back!" he says far too brightly. "Good morning."
"Good —" she says, before cutting herself off and glancing at me in wide-eyed fear.
Spike looks between the two of us, confused. I press a hoof to the bridge of my muzzle, feeling a migraine coming on. "Fine," I say. "I'll give you your chance. Spike, pack up, and don't talk to the bug. We'll eat on the trail."
As Rambling Rock Ridge rises in elevation, the forest starts thinning. Even with the cloaks, I hadn't been looking forward to crossing the bare ridgetop under heavy aerial surveillance — and with a third traveler tagging along I'm unable to conceal, it would be downright stupid. So we lose the better part of two days in a wet eastward slog up a wooded river canyon in order to get out from under the main changeling flight paths.
The changeling is visibly slowing down by the time we finally crest the ridge. We pause to catch our breath and she points to a dark, solitary peak on the southern horizon, deep in the stark red mesas of the Badlands. "There."
"How far?" I ask.
"About … eight leagues, I think?"
My mood finally brightens. "Eight leagues! That's four hours' brisk trot. We're as good as there."
Two days later, we're sweating under a fierce and cloudless sky, scratched up by manzanita and a few stray cactus thorns, smelling of sage from the chest-high brush we just plowed through, staring at the walls of a box canyon that I could have sworn wasn't on my topographic map.
"Cheer up," I say, prodding at the crumbling sandstone cliff in front of us. "Once we climb out of here, only one more fork of the Coltarado River to go."
"Hnh," Spike grunts, glancing wearily up at the top of the mesa.
The changeling plods forward at a slow, even pace, head drooped. When she reaches the canyon wall, she stops for a moment, panting. She lifts one leg, then another, her trembling limbs finding tenuous holds on tiny edges of rock. She hoists her body up, leans into the steep slope while she catches her breath, and repeats. I sit, pull our last biscuit out of my saddlebag, and share it with Spike while I wait for her to make some progress.
A mere six cubits up, a rock under her hindlimb gives way, clattering down the canyon wall. She faceplants, then slides down the rock, bouncing off a small outcropping at shoulder level and pitching backward, wings weakly buzzing. Her body hits the sandy canyon floor with a muffled thump, and she lies flat on her back, limbs spreadeagled, thorax heaving.
Spike leaps to his feet. "Are you okay?"
"Don't talk to the bug," I sharply remind him, and glance over. "A slip like that would knock the wind out of anypony. Give her a minute."
I finish my half of the biscuit. She still hasn't moved. I walk over. "Come on. Get up."
Her jaw works soundlessly for a few moments as her chest rises and falls. Her chitin looks abnormally pale, closer to Thunderlane's grey than to a changeling's black. "Can't," she whispers, in a voice that sounds more like the rustle of the passing wind than the product of a throat. "Sorry. Wasn't strong enough. Please … Twilight … save the hive."
"What's going on?" Spike asks.
I pull out Home Run dispassionately. If she thinks she can worm out of her promise by faking need, she's got a nasty surprise coming.
Spike lets out a strangled cry, lunges for the bat, and yanks it out of my horngrip. "Twilight!"
I grab him, pin him down with a hoof, and snatch Home Run back. "Stop that."
Spike shoves up at my leg. I stagger off balance for a moment, and he rolls away, scrambling over to the changeling and throwing himself atop her body. Her eyes widen. "No! Don't do this!" Spike begs.
"Spike," I say, shifting the bat around in an unsuccessful attempt to find a line of attack that doesn't go through him, "step away from the parasite who is as we speak drooling over her next meal."
The bug swallows. Saliva nevertheless streams from a corner of her mouth. "Spike," she whispers. "Stop." Her gaze shifts to me, eyes wide in panic. "Stop him. Get him away."
I set Home Run aside and grab Spike in my horngrip. "No! Twilight, you're better than this!" he shouts as I lift, clinging for all he's worth. The changeling's body effortlessly rises along with him, and I almost drop them both in surprise: She weighs no more than he does.
She walked herself into starvation for me.
Spike notices, too. "She's starving, Twilight! You never shared any of our food with her, and now you want to kill her for being hungry? How could you do this to her?"
My reply dies on my lips as I hear that question in another voice: my own. I'm sorry, Twilight, Celestia's voice echoes. You must think I'm a monster.
I do drop them at that.
"No," I stammer. "I'm not a monster. I can't be! This doesn't count. Everything's going to turn out okay, so this loop won't matter."
Spike picks himself up and stands between me and the helpless and drooling changeling, arms outstretched in shelter. "It matters to her. It matters to me."
I have to laugh incredulously at that. "No it doesn't, Spike! How can you matter when you won't remember?"
He stares at me, stunned. I see his eyes start to fill with tears.
Oh, road apples. Well, that was a Pferdian slip. "I mean, of course you matter," I backpedal. "But real you matters, not now you, because nothing is real until I get the loop right." I try changing the subject. "I'm doing this for you, don't you see? Undoing all the bad things so the real you can have all his friends back. And me, too. The real me, not the monster I have to be now to save us. I love you, Spike."
I step forward and put a hoof on his shoulder, staring earnestly into his eyes, feeling tears of my own build. "Please, Spike. I'm just asking you to trust me for a little while longer. I love you, don't I? Trust that I'll make it right."
"But you'll remember," he says.
My blood freezes. "What?"
"I killed you! You remember that. M-maybe I'm just fake Spike to you, but I'm the same dragon as real Spike, aren't I? And I k-killed you, and now you'll never forget, and you'll love real Spike less and less." Tears spill down his cheeks. "Is that why you're treating me like this?"
I'm barely even listening. Two words echo accusingly in my head: You'll remember.
Spike will forget me walking away as he sobbed himself to sleep. Spike will forget me using him as bait in my trap, and killing dozens of changelings around him. Spike will forget me making him cry by telling him he didn't matter. But Twilight will remember, won't she? And when real Twilight looks at real Spike, after all the fighting is over, she's going to see every single time she ever hurt him.
I don't want to lose you too, Spike had said.
I sink to the ground, light-headed. I finally understand.
* * *
∆-2 T-11 C-2:
"Well, that sure didn't work."
I leap to my hooves, lunge at Spike, and clamp him in a hug with my forelegs, tears streaming down my face.
"Ack!" he says, arms flailing. "Twilight?"
"I'm sorry," I sob. "I'm so sorry. I promised you I'd make it right, b-but I … this can't wait until the looping's done."
"Huh? Twilight, what happened?"
I laugh through my tears. It comes out as a hiccup. He doesn't remember; he won't remember. But every moment I'm a monster kills real Twilight a little more, and if real Twilight lets herself die, there won't be anypony left for him to love when we win.
"Spike," I say, wiping my cheeks off and smiling at him, "take a letter."
"You know, I am standing right next to you," Celestia says from the other side of the evocation circle.
"Yes, but this is an official friendship report, and there's protocol," I say, letting Spike go and floating him a parchment and quill from my saddlebags. "Dear Princess Celestia. Today … no, scratch that. Seven days from now, I … will have learned … an important lesson from my very best friend. 'This loop matters.' In the future, if I ever act like I'm starting to forget that lesson, I humbly beg you with all my heart that you do anything it takes to remind me. Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle."
Spike finishes writing, rolls up the parchment, and looks between it and Celestia. He thinks for a moment, shrugs, and breathes a long blast of green flame. The scroll promptly vaporizes — then recoalesces inside his fire, the travel magic discharged. It bursts into flames as it falls to the ground.
Four sets of eyes stare at the burning parchment. Luna glances sideways at her sister and giggles, and soon we're all helplessly laughing.
"Hunh," I say once I recover. "Well, that's two things I learned today."
* * *
∆-2 T-12 C-3:
The stars are beautiful tonight. There's not a cloud in the sky, and without the lights of civilization around me, the glow of the cosmos is on breathtaking display from zenith to horizon. But I'm too antsy to enjoy the sights. The instant a meteor flashes across the sky, I whirl around and quickly tiphoof back to camp. Spike's curled in a tight ball next to the firepit, staring vacantly down at the shimmering heat of the embers.
"I'm back," I repeat. "Thinking about our friends?"
"I'm sorry." His reply is reflexive and subdued. "I … I just can't believe they're gone."
"Oh, Spike," I whisper, lying down behind him. I snuggle up against his back and drape a leg over his chest, staring into the firepit with him. "I miss them too."
He sniffles, then sobs into my arm. "I-I'm trying to be strong for you … I know how important this mission is. B-but …"
"Shhh. It's alright. There will be time for you to be strong later." I nuzzle his head. "It took me time, too. You should have seen me dozens of loops ago, when I first found out."
He huddles against me, taking a few deep breaths to steady himself. "But what if you're in danger and I'm too busy crying to notice? I can't lose you too, Twilight. I just can't."
Up above us, there's a muffled click, and then a barrage of phut-phut sounds as tranquilizer darts launch from the half-dozen traps I rigged. There's a loud yowl and the cracks of broken branches, and then the body of a comatose shadowcat plunges down through the brush to crash-land in a snoring heap just outside our firelight.
"You won't," I say. "Not if I have anything to say about it."
"Now remember," Bon Bon says, "the area's swarming with rebels, but they're desperate and demoralized, looking for heroes like us. Act confident and friendly. When we get close to the castle, Underqueen Longscratch will lead an attack on us to sell our cover. Fight back, and fight … huh?" She looks down at the baseball that just rolled into her hoof. "Noy jitat, Wing Wing! Stop fooling around!"
The cross-eyed mailmare shrinks back. "It wasn't me!"
"Whose is this?" Bon Bon demands. She's met with silence.
"Um, there's writing on the back," Fluttershy says, pointing.
Bon Bon rolls it over. "'Property of … Snugglepuss'?"
The things-that-are-not-my-friends start glancing nervously around the forest. All is silent.
"Group into squadrons," Bon Bon orders. "Search the area. Stay with your teammates at all times, and within sight of the next nearest squad." She leans down to sniff the baseball suspiciously. "Is it just me, or does this smell … tasty?"
I drop my sound-dampening charm, gaining back enough focus for a spell to snap Snugglepuss out of his dart-induced sedation. He wakes up with a snort. His nostrils flare. His pupils immediately turn into little hearts. His head swivels, fixating on the baseball.
Moments later, amid screams and scrambling and flailing, a six-cubit-long shadowcat bursts into the clearing. The changelings scatter. Somepony kicks the baseball as they're stampeding away. Snugglepuss skids, corners, and pounces. Applejack shrieks and bucks him in the head, and gets grabbed by the leg and flung across the clearing for her trouble. I grab the ball in horn and shoot it back toward Bon Bon's hooves, and Snugglepuss is off again, bowling over Dash and Pinkie and leaping for their leader.
Amid the chaos, Rarity scrambles behind the tree I'm using for cover. Really, how much easier can it get? I poke her in the neck with one of the unused darts, and her eyes roll up as she drops to the ground. I hoist her over my back, throw the second invisibility cloak atop her, and walk off, terminating the Want-It-Need-It enchantment as I go. The last I hear of Snugglepuss is a long receding yowl as he exits stage left, pursued by half a dozen changelings.
I rejoin Spike in an isolated glade a 20-minute walk away. "Welcome back, Twilight," he says. "I cross-referenced the berries I picked against the pocket botany guide."
"Excellent! I pulled off a clean snatch-and-dash. No killing."
He nods in approval, but his eyes widen for a moment as I pull the cloak off Rarity and lower her to the ground. "That's … the changeling you told me about, right?"
"Yeah. Please let me do the talking for a while. I need to convince her to cooperate with us again."
Spike acquiesces, so I cast an awakening charm and lean back against an oak tree by her side. "Wakey, wakey."
She stirs, rolling upright. Her wandering eyes finally lock on mine. She freezes.
"Relax," I say. "I'm here to help."
The changeling leans over and discreetly sniffs at me. For a moment, she looks confused, then covers it up by lunging further in for an embrace. "Twilight!" she coos in Rarity's melodic soprano, though she can't quite keep an edge of panic out of her voice. "It truly IS you! I was so worried, darling —"
I put a hoof to her chest and push her away. "You can drop the act. We've met, but you don't remember it. I'm time looping — the same way that Chrysalis is."
She hesitates at that, and I do a little fishing. "You told me about her putting down your hive's rebellion, and about what happened to your friend … what was her name? Bright Wing?"
"… I told you about Brightest Eyes?"
I nod. Good. Redundant verification never hurts.
"Then you already know why it would be insane of me to trust you," she says, backing away.
Less good. "Hey. Whatever happened to 'you're my only chance to save the hive'?"
"Look, I don't know whether you're crazy, lying, or just stupid, but you clearly don't understand. She's unstoppable, and I'm not going to betray her for some pony who she's going to fry with a thought before tearing me limb from limb."
I sigh behind a smile. Why isn't she cooperating? I wonder for a moment if she sold me a fake sob story as she died, but it defies logic that the changeling who begged for her life back at the train would be brave enough to sacrifice herself for a lie. No, she must have been telling the truth, which mean's there's something else going on here.
… Another complication. A small voice in the back of my head starts screaming bloody murder, but I ignore it. This loop matters. The changeling matters. If I'm going to set things right, I'm going to fix her problem too, and we're going to tackle it together. New, non-monstrous me will figure out what's going on, and I'm going to prove once again that the power of friendship will always prevail.
I lean forward. "Okay. Forget for a moment about Chrysalis, and trust, and saving the hive. Let's just talk."
* * *
∆-2 T-15 C-3:
She stirs, rolling upright. Her wandering eyes finally lock on mine. She freezes.
"Relax, Crooked Fang," I say, putting a hoof on her withers and smiling. "I'm a friendly time looper — Equestria's answer to Chrysalis. We've already cooperated in previous loops; I'm just getting a new start on our joint mission to save your hive."
"You were sixth egg to hatch from your clutch. Your favorite food is unrequited. Before your promotion last week, you were infiltrating Ponyville as a flower seller named Azalea. You vomited when you burned the train. You're trying to keep an eye on Wing Wing, because you think her enthusiasm will get her into trouble. You have misgivings about your current mission, because the hive has more than enough food now and the rebels don't have the numbers to pose any problems."
Crooked Fang's eyes widen a little further at each revelation. She backs away, shrugging off my hoof. "No. No … I'm loyal. I wouldn't cross her. Where's the Underqueen? Let me go."
I sigh. "Come on. How would I know all those things if I wasn't telling the truth?"
She looks around nervously. "How else? She's behind this somehow."
* * *
∆-2 T-21 C-4:
I'm silent as she stirs, rolling upright. Her wandering eyes finally lock on mine. She blinks, disoriented.
"You're not giving me much to work with yet," I say.
"Nothing. Do I look like a foalnapper?"
Crooked Fang freezes. "What are you going to do with me?" she squeaks.
"Oh, I am," I say. "You just don't realize it yet."
There's a few moments of silence at that. "You're not making any sense."
"No, you're not."
She backs away slowly. "I … uh, I'm going to leave now."
"Because you just realized I've been responding to your statements before you made them."
Crooked Fang opens her mouth, then closes it again. She blinks several times. Then her jaw falls open. "Noy jitat."
Now that I have her full attention, I run back through my summary and personal information. "Finally, think about that demonstration for a bit," I conclude. "Facts about you are one thing, but predicting your words in real time should be sufficient evidence that I've got the same powers Chrysalis does. Also, you're disguised as Rarity, so you know who I am — and it should be obvious Chrysalis is the last being in the universe I'd ever work for. This is on the level, Crooked Fang."
I'm quiet for a while to let her digest that. She finally nods. "I believe you."
I give her a weary but genuine smile. "Great. Then let's get going. C'mon, Spike." I levitate my saddlebags onto my back and start walking. She doesn't move.
I look back at her. "What's the hold-up?"
"I … I believe that you're time-looping. But I can't help you."
I facehoof. "Stars and fishes. Why?"
"It doesn't matter how sneaky you are or how much help you have. She's unstoppable. Conquering Canterlot —"
"— is like climbing a mountain with your fangs, yes, yes. The thing is, we've got the power to undo everything she's done, as if it never was. I'm just trying to help you out, too, along the way."
"No, you don't," Crooked Fang says.
"I don't what?"
"You don't have the power to fight her. If you did, Canterlot wouldn't have fallen."
"I know that's how it looks, but Celestia and I are simply letting a bad future play out in order to run a special mission before resetting and fixing things."
"I can't take your word for that."
I stare at Crooked Fang in disbelief. "What is with you? You were begging for my help half a dozen loops ago."
She looks at me dubiously. "That makes no sense."
"Tell me about it," I mutter.
"Hmm. What did you say to convince me, half a dozen loops ago?"
I think for a moment. My face goes pale.
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
I sit up. "Delta-2, T-22, C-4."
Celestia takes a deep breath before answering. "Delta-2, T-22, C-5. You asked a difficult question. My answer led to … more awkwardness than there needed to be. I'm deeply sorry, Twilight, but I had to reset. Please, let's try that again."
"Awkward how?" I ask, but the pained look on her muzzle is enough to dampen my curiosity. "Um. Never mind."
She nods. Silence falls. Luna and Spike glance between us.
"You had a question," Celestia prompts.
"You already know it. I thought you were going to answer."
"I'm not the only one here with relevant experience."
"Fair enough." I clear my throat. "Princess … er, princesses. I need some advice from one time looper to another. Are there some good outcomes which are only achievable through evil acts?"
Celestia inclines her muzzle to me, but she's looking over at Luna while she speaks. "I have three answers to that question, and it's extremely important that you consider them as a group rather than passing judgment on them one by one."
"Alright," I say.
"The first is the truth: Yes."
"Celestia!" Luna's voice is sharp. "How dare —"
"Please let me finish. The second answer is that this is a truth to whisper only in private, a truth we dare not allow the world to learn — for the light of harmony would be snuffed out if every pony committed evil acts, no matter how selfless the ultimate ends."
"Sister. Stop. I will not allow —"
"The third," Celestia says, bodily turning and staring straight into Luna's eyes, "and the most painful, is that this is a truth you must never allow yourself to believe. Even at the best of times, the line between a necessary evil and an unnecessary one is deceptive. Once upon a time, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary." Her voice softens. "I was mistaken, and it remains the greatest regret of my life."
Luna is silent at that. Her lower lip trembles.
"You should reset," Celestia says, still holding Luna's gaze.
"You must listen to me first, Twilight. She is wrong," Luna says quietly. "Lost in her time loop, or driven mad by this invasion. I assure you I know more of regrets than she ever will, and I promise you that evil acts will always extract their price from you. They are never justified."
"That's not what she asked," Celestia says. "She asked if there were good ends only achievable that way. Twilight, without Luna's banishment and my subsequent looping, today's Equestria would have been impossible. It wasn't worth it, but it's here, and millions of ponies over hundreds of years lived … live … in an unprecedented utopia. That's no small thing."
I open my mouth to mention that Equestria also prospered before I changed history to make her loop — then I remember someone was looping the whole time, and start to wonder whether she's got a point despite being technically wrong.
Luna's voice interrupts that thought before it can go anywhere. "Twilight Sparkle, know this," she says. "Once upon a time, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary. I was correct … and it remains the greatest regret of my life. If I find you also travelling down that path, I promise you, I will end you."
"Luna," Celestia says quietly, "you will not threaten my student."
"That was a boon, not a threat. What I offer would be the greatest mercy." Luna stares at me, and her eyes are the implacable chill of the endless void.
I shiver. I'm glad I'm not getting the "awkward" version of this.
* * *
∆-2 T-23 C-6:
"Hmm. What did you say to convince me, half a dozen loops ago?"
I take a deep breath. "Truthfully? I killed all your friends and threatened your life. You helped me because I made you think I was scarier than Chrysalis."
Crooked Fang looks at me wide-eyed. "I. Uh."
"That was wrong of me. I'm sorry. I won't do it again."
"… Okay, wait. Are you serious?"
"As a burning train."
She winces. I remain silent while she paces around the clearing. "I guess I deserved that," she finally says. "Look … I want to give you a chance. After what I did, I owe you that much. And I do appreciate you being, well, kinder than I deserve. I just … I can't, not without some reason to believe this is any more than an elaborate suicide plan."
"Fair enough. Is there anything I can do to convince you that doesn't involve me acting like a monster?"
She thinks. "Actually … yes. Save the pony resistance. There's eight wings of changelings here, so they're outnumbered about four to one. Between that and our elite infiltrators within their ranks, they're doomed. Saving them is nothing compared to going up against Chrysalis, but it'll at least prove you've got some slim, crazy hope."
"Alright. In that case …"
* * *
∆-2 T-24 C-8:
The stars are beautiful tonight. There are an awful lot of them, too, from our vantage point at the top of the Rambling Rock ridgeline. I can feel Spike clinging to my back, but with our invisibility cloaks on, we're merely ghosts flitting under the unbroken bowl of the sky. Aside from the thin crunch of my hooves on gravel — which is quickly lost in the stiff night breeze — the two of us might as well not even exist.
I spare one last glance back across the sprawl of the Everfree — the dots of campfires flaring out in the augmented light of my night-vision charm, and the distant silhouette of the castle where the resistance is about to be wiped out — before turning my back and walking south.
You have to know when to cut your losses.
I'm in a timeline that shouldn't be, in a future that really shouldn't be. As much as each individual loop matters, the good future matters, too — the future where Crooked Fang never killed anypony, and the resistance she wants me to save doesn't exist. I'm only here to put Chrysalis on the defensive; I can't afford to get dragged into another fight where she can pick and choose how to sabotage what I'm protecting.
I'll redeem Crooked Fang and save her hive. For what she taught me, I can't do any less.
"Twiliiight," Spike whines, breaking me out of my reverie. "We've been walking all night. Can't we set up camp yet?"
"Not here," I say, gesturing around the Rambling Rock ridgetop. "It's too exposed, and we're right under a changeling flight path. We'll find a sheltered spot down the southern side of the ridge and sleep all day before we reach the Badlands."
The trip from there is surprisingly uneventful. It's a big adjustment walking in darkness — more so since I'm carrying Spike the whole way — but with good planning, night vision, and avoiding the worst of the scorching sun, we make far better time than we did on our run with Crooked Fang.
I follow a route across the flat table of the mesa that takes a wide southwestern arc, avoiding the exhausting climbs and descents by skirting around the Coltarado River to approach the mountain from the west. With that simple change of direction, we only have to cross the canyon once. We're down at the bank of the Coltarado after just one more night's hike, and our third dawn is spent watching the enormous silhouette of our destination cling to darkness against the slowly lightening sky.
"Skyrend Mountain," I say as the sun finally crests over the side of its cone. "I do have to give Chrysalis credit for one thing. Everything about it screams 'evil overlord'. I mean, look at it — it's like a giant black knife stabbed through Equestria and the tip came out here on the other side, staining the world around it red."
"Uh-huh," Spike says.
"Of course, that's just because the mesas of the Badlands are highly ferrous sedimentary rock, and the mountain is obsidian. Which in itself is fascinating! Here's a young but dormant volcano, alone in an area with no other hints of tectonic activity. It's so geologically bizarre it makes my hooves itch."
"But if you comb through local legends about Adiltahi-ya — the mountain's name in the original Buffalo — they say that he was born when once upon a time Father Earth and Mother Sun were fighting. She smote him with her light so hard he gave birth, and their child's blood glowed with her heat for generations. Think about that one. We have witnesses, through an ancient oral tradition, who suggest that Celestia once called down a spell so powerful here that it ripped completely through the crust of the world, down to the lava core, and this volcano was the result."
"… Oh, come on, that was eight hours of library research, once upon a time, after she smiled cryptically and told me to look it up."
"Equestria to Spike! Are you even listening?"
"Huh? … Oh, sorry! I, uh, was just thinking … do you remember, a while back, how you banned me forever from 'Star Horse' quotes?"
The question is so mundane that it takes me a moment to process. Spike has been ceaselessly and repetitively grieving our dead friends for two months of my subjective time now. The idea that he could be distracted by trivia rather than mourning is disorienting. But apparently spending three days getting love and support, rather than dealing with my weariness and his friends' killer, has made a lot more difference than I realized.
"I did?" I stall.
"Back when you were trying to figure out Pinkie Sense. You were staring at some calculations you'd just done and pulling at your mane, and I came up behind you and breathed funny and said 'I find your lack of faith disturbing,' and Pinkie wouldn't stop laughing for a whole minute."
I'm drawing a blank on that part of the incident — but even without the time loops that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. "Um, yeah. What brought that up?"
"Oh, nothing," he says in a voice that means exactly the opposite.
I smile — not that he can see me inside the invisibility cloak. Whatever he's got in mind, it's worth it just to have him acting real again. "Go ahead. Say it."
Spike clears his throat and deepens his voice. "Skyrend Mountain. You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
I groan theatrically.
"Sorry," he says in Opposite Voice.
I let him dangle for a few moments before I can't hold back my giggling any more. "Okay, that was actually pretty clever. Tell you what. If I can steal that line from you in future loops, you are officially un-banned."
"Deal!" I feel Spike slide down from my back, and there's a little puff of dust as his invisible claws hit the ground. He steps up next to me, one hand on my side. "So," he says, voice more subdued, "now that you're here, what are you going to do?"
I put a fore over his shoulders. "We are going to sit out here for a little while, and observe and communicate. You're crucial to this entire plan."
"Absolutely. You remember how we left Princesses Celestia and Luna down in the Arcane Storage Vaults when we snuck out through the one-way secret passage? You're our instantaneous, no-reset-required link to thousands of years of experience and tactical support."
I feel him nod. "Okay, but I don't get it. They're not running Canterlot. How come they didn't come here with us?"
"This is the only way to get the element of surprise. Raising the sun and moon takes such a huge burst of power that every mage in the country can trivially locate the princesses twice each day. This way, they've locked themselves inside hundreds of cubits of solid stone and thousands of years' worth of ponykind's best arcane wards, so Chrysalis won't be able to do anything to them until long after we're finished here. Also, because the three of us fled from her invasion this time around, this makes it look like we're holed up together doing some research or planning. If we were all loose, she'd have to expect some sort of counterattack."
Finally, Celestia had to drain dry some of the highest-powered artifacts in the Vaults and has been spending a solid day of each loop spellcasting in order to disable the ever-more-explosive Elements of Harmony. I don't mention that part.
"I guess I should take a letter, huh?" He pulls back the invisibility cloak from his claws, and they appear in midair along with a quill and scroll.
"Not here. We'll want to obscure the smoke of your sending. We'll set up camp in that shallow gorge to the north."
He climbs back onto me for one final trot, and we settle into cover. I've barely dictated the coordinates of Skyrend Mountain to him when his face squinches up and he belches out a letter.
"My faithful student," he reads, "my apologies for my vagueness when you asked me about Triangle-2 T-24 C-7. The 'research' I referred to was the week's worth of external reecoh …"
"External reconaissance you and Spike performed last loop. There would have been so much to discuss that it would have delayed your departure considerably, and last loop's journey to Skyrend Mountain was so fast and uneventful that it was best not to risk altering the trip. While you were traveling, however, I wrote up everything you shared with me. Scrolls follow. Celestia." His eyes skip down a bit. "P.S.: We agreed I would reset, since you didn't want to remember all the hot, miserable walking and climbing. Clover."
"That's what it says. Clover."
I'm puzzled for a few moments until I remember my secret code words. That's the "this is on the level" one I made up. Oh! Excellent.
Spike quickly belches up a series of scrolls. Several are horn-drawn maps, showing various external views of the mountain with features marked and labeled, accompanied by some old photographs clearly cut out from books. There are six routes into the interior of the mountain: the huge vertical shaft of the now-dormant volcano; a large cavern near the peak whose entrance has been collapsed; a pony-sized tunnel directly underneath the cavern; sizable northern and southern entrances into the changeling lair near the base of the mountain; and another pony-sized tunnel below mesa level in a canyon to the southwest, which appears to be a wastewater drainage.
There's a listing of all the observed departures and arrivals from the northern and southern entrances, along with the routes of their external patrols and the sizes and schedules of the guard details posted there. Finally, one scroll estimates the size of the hive from the volume of the tailing piles, the inflow and outflow of traffic, and the number of patrols. I feel the blood drain from my cheeks. There's at least ten thousand changelings in there.
I send an acknowledgement and spend an hour committing it all to memory, having Spike drill me on the facts until I can rattle off everything I learned without hesitation. (I make a mental note: Ask Celestia for advanced memory aid spells. Given her demonstration with her 340 deaths, she's got much better ones than the basic charms I've been using — which only stands to reason, for an immortal alicorn, much less a time looping one.) Then I dictate a quick letter: "Time for internal recon. Will scroll or reset within 24 hours."
We wait until there are no patrols nearby, then walk south to the drainage tunnel, quickly locating the entrance. It's halfway down a vertical cliff in a secluded canyon — but Celestia thoughtfully added some light climbing gear to my pack, and it's nothing a little impromptu rappelling can't handle. I magically work loose the piton once we're in the tunnel mouth and repack the rope.
I glance back once I feel Spike's weight return to my back, double-checking that he's still wearing his invisibility cloak. "You ready?" I whisper while I cast a night-vision charm.
"Actually," Spike whispers back, "there's been something bugging me. You said we came here to get leverage, right? Something you could trade her to stop her from killing our friends?"
"Well … yeah." Technically, something we can threaten her with to force the trade. You can't stand up to a bully without throwing a few punches, but in light of my recent revelations, there are still some uncomfortable questions about morality involved. I brace myself. "Why?"
"Is there really anything that Chrysalis cares about as much as we care about them?"
That's a whole different sort of uncomfortable. "Well. Um. Yes? I mean, that's what we're here to find out." I swallow and try again. "Celestia certainly thinks so."
He's silent for a moment. "I hope so."
"This was her idea, and I have faith in her."
"Yeah. But, I mean, I love our friends a lot."
"Me too." I cast a silence bubble around us, so we can walk up the drainage tunnel while we talk. I quickly realize I'd have had to do that anyway — an inch or two of thin, odorless green sludge is flowing in a steady stream under my hooves, splashing every time I step. "But I'm starting to think that ruling her hive is super important to her. According to Crooked Fang —"
"Long story. Anyway, Chrysalis apparently started looping to keep herself from being overthrown. The hive was ripe for a coup as recently as a week ago. With another looper on their side, I think a changeling rebellion might be a significant enough threat to get her to flinch."
I plod uphill through the featureless darkness for what seems like forever. A tiny star in the distance slowly brightens in intensity, finally expanding out into the tunnel's far end. The first thing I notice is the thick iron bars across the mouth — shiny and free of corrosion. Behind them is a large room whose rough-hewn walls are the lighter grey of rhyolite, ringed with crystal magelights of a foreign yet naggingly familiar design. Most of the room is taken up with a pool of the same sludge I've been walking through; more of it flows in through smaller tunnels that pepper the walls, and there's an irregular stream of changelings hauling buckets of it in. Two changelings wearing red sashes are slumped against the wall near the room's only proper exit, staring dully at the inbound traffic.
"Alright, Spike," I say. "I'll need to tighten up the silence charm from here on in, so we won't be able to talk, but for the moment I don't have anything more ambitious planned than getting the layout of the hive. Turn yourself around and ride backward, okay? Kick me once if there are any changelings behind me that might bump into us. Twice if you want to talk. Three times if we've been noticed. I'll pat your leg when we're about to start moving."
I take a deep breath to steady my nerves. I'll still have the opportunity to restart the loop as soon as I slip up, but it's taken me three and a half days to get here, so it feels like there's actual consequences riding on doing well without resetting. It's … huh. It's actually scary, in an oddly nostalgic way.
I tease that nagging thought out from the back of my mind. What does this all remind me of? Spike and I, alone against a malevolent tyrant wielding powerful magic … plunging into the unknown after a long walk through the darkness … my heart pounding as I try to piece together unfamiliar fears. Of course! It's just like when we saved the Crystal Empire from Sombra.
How I ever pulled that off without time looping, I have no idea.
An uncomfortable idea begins to gnaw at me. Did I pull that off without time loops? I didn't know the spell then, but because I changed history, Celestia was looping at the time. Did she help me get it right, observing from afar and resetting me by proxy? Did she watch me fail, over and over again, giving me a new nudge each time with a lecture and test that focused my mind differently?
How many times did that fear trap destroy me before she finally maneuvered me into taking Spike north with me, just like she convinced me to take him on this trip? How many resets before she convinced him to make a promise not to help me, so that I'd agree to take him down those dark stairs?
There are so many places, so many ways, that trip could have gone wrong. Statistically speaking, it's a near certainty that at least one of them did. There's got to be something that helped me beat the odds to get here … and now an obvious explanation is staring me in the face. In Celestia's place, I would have been foolish not to tip the odds that way.
I don't think I'll ever be able to not see time loops again.
Speaking of which … was I being helped out even before I changed history? I've been through more close scrapes than I care to count. The same logic applies, and even if Celestia wasn't looping at the time, there's still that thousand-year-old mystery looper to deal with. What's been going on behind the scenes? I've been focusing like a hornbeam on the invasion, but it's getting increasingly clear that powering through this and sorting out all the questions afterward wasn't a smart plan.
Spike's hindclaw taps my side twice, breaking me out of my reverie.
"… I was going to ask how we're getting through the bars. But didn't you say you were going to tighten the silence spell?"
"Right. Sorry." I give him what I hope is a reassuring laugh. "Just lost in thought. Remembering the Crystal Empire."
"Oh! Yeah. Just like old times, huh?"
I wince. "Yeah. Just like." I change the subject to the first thing that comes to mind. "Do you think changelings read much? I hope we find some books in here. That library in the Crystal Empire was hooves-down the most amazing part of the trip, though I have to say that Due Date was a lot friendlier once she got her memory back."
"Um …" I'm disoriented for a moment. "That was her name, right? Due Date. The librarian."
"Twilight … the Crystal Empire didn't have a library."
I sigh. "Well, it did before I changed history."
He's silent for a beat. "But you only cast your time loop spell a couple of days ago. How —"
"I reset the loop of someone else who was anchored long ago." And, for some reason, that changed the civic planning of an Empire that vanished before the Celestial War. The question of cause and effect there is noteworthy enough to spark my curiosity. "Hey, when we were exploring the city … do you remember the, uh, second building on the right on South Street? A block deep and three stories high. Gryphon statues out front. If they aren't storing enough books inside for a 10:1-scale recreation of Fort Summer, what are they using a building that size for?"
"Wait. Wait, wait." A more urgent thought leaps forward. "No library? If there wasn't a library, how did we learn what events to plan for the Crystal Faire?"
"The what now?"
I can feel my eye starting to twitch. "Okay, Spike, please tell me that somehow we managed to beat Sombra and restore the Empire anyway."
"Of course we did. Did the time spell mess with your head, Twilight? The eight of us went through all that together."
"Once upon a time, yes, but then I … changed …"
My words trail off as something Celestia said an apocalypse ago finally catches up to me: All that the loop spell has power to do is add new memories from potential futures. That's not what's happening here.
I'd been writing off mismatching memories of Invasion Day morning as a side effect of the loops' intersections … but my trip to the Crystal Empire was months ago. Spike's right — I did live through it with him. If all the loop spell does is add memories of prior loops to my brain, why don't our pre-looping memories match? Even if I changed my own history, the me that's standing here in a sewage pipe talking with Spike did go to a Crystal Empire without a library a few months ago — and, right up until I cast the looping spell, presumably I remembered it that way.
Now those memories are gone.
Did the time spell mess with my head? Spike's question hits uncomfortably close to home. Something's wrong here. Something's very wrong.
I glance into the hive. Three and a half days of walking … but no. This absolutely cannot wait. Memory is my only weapon in this war, and I need to be able to trust it.
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
I sit up. "Princess, we've got a problem."
Celestia's staring at me in grim silence. Her face has got an odd aquamarine tint, and I quickly realize that's because everything in the room does except for me and the floor of the evocation circle. Spike is standing at her side, glancing back and forth uncertainly between us. Luna, on the other side of the circle, is staring at me as well, though her expression is blank.
"Princess?" I try again, stomach twisting in knots. "… Celestia? Um. Delta-2, T-25, C-8."
That, at least, stirs her to conversation. "Delta-2, T-25, C-9. Please, come join us."
I roll to my hooves and stretch a foreleg out toward her. At the edge of the evocation circle, it hits sudden resistance and stops. The air darkens at my touch, and then I hear a high-pitched crackling. Pain sears up my leg, and my hoof is shoved back. "Ow! What's going on?"
"You tell me," she says. "You were the one who set the ward's password."
I stagger back to the center of the circle. "Th-that's not funny."
"It's not a joke." Celestia's eyes flick over to Luna. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Luna give a slight nod in response.
I swallow through a dry throat. "Did I explain how I'm not remembering correctly what happened before this afternoon? We … we talked about that in the missing loop, right? I want your help with that. I'm not going to lie to you about it."
"That's not the whole issue," Celestia says carefully. "There were … complications. I'll explain after you help us clear up one or two details. Would you mind terribly singing the Crystal Kingdom Anthem for us again?"
"Huh? Uh … okay." I don't like where this is going, but the best way to fix this is to cooperate until she tells me more. I force a cough and clear my throat; if I'm going to be singing for the Princesses, authenticity demands that I use the proper archaic pronunciations and the harder Presolar consonants that I researched back in the Empire.
<The fires of thy Crystal Heart,> I sing.
Luna gives Celestia what I suspect to be a significant glance, keeping her face carefully neutral. Spike looks at me, confused. Celestia's grim expression doesn't so much as twitch.
I falter for a moment, but press on. <Were ever bright and glistening. Thy spires, ever from the start, to hymns of light were listening …>
"I think that's enough," Celestia interrupts. "You remember a significantly different history. That much is clear."
"Yes," I say pointedly, "and that's the problem I came to you about. What's with the containment ward?"
"An unfortunate but necessary precaution," Celestia says, "though it may have outstayed its usefulness." She brings a hoof up to her chin in thought for a few moments. "The password is three words relating to the pony who was most important to you growing up."
It's immediately obvious where this is going: some sort of identity verification. She said that I was the one who came up with the password — most likely based on the exact same prompt she just gave me. If she's not telling it to me outright, she must want to make sure that now-Twilight and pre-loop-Twilight are thinking the same way.
It's a trap, the paranoid part of my brain screams. She wouldn't have gone to all of this trouble if it weren't some kind of setup. But the calm, logical part points out that Celestia just had me, out of the blue, sing something I haven't thought about in months — something which, if the Empire doesn't have a library now, nopony else would know that I know. Was she concerned about a spell trigger tied to that? Nothing happened when I sang it — hopefully that's exactly what she was looking for.
I steady myself with a long breath. I need Celestia on my side if we're going to figure this out, and the current worrying circumstances aside, she's done right by me ever since we got that "teachable moment" thing straightened out. I tamp down my paranoia and speak the obvious answer to her riddle: "Sunshine ladybug dance."
"Um," I say as Celestia looks at me expectantly. "Sister in law?" Nothing. Panic begins to creep into the edges of my brain. "Empire's new ruler? Crystal heart butt?"
Luna inhales sharply.
"Stop," she says, first softly, then with more urgency. "Stop."
I shut up, increasingly lost, while Celestia walks over to her sister and touches a hoof to her shoulder. "Never?" she says with quiet steel. "Not even now?"
Luna stares at me in anguish for a moment before turning away toward a small box with dozens of locks and wards. "It is true. Tia … I concede. I see no other choice." She lifts an ominous black circlet from the lockbox, and places it on her head. Her voice hardens. "Stars help us all."
"Wait! What choice?" My heart is hammering in my chest. I glance at Spike, who won't meet my eyes, then back at Celestia. "What's true? Princess, for all stars' love, what is going on?"
Celestia returns my stare, the grim detachment on her muzzle finally curling into emotion — a fearsome and icy resentment. "What is going on," she says quietly, "is that I allowed foolish hope to blind me, when our downfall was right under my nose the whole time."
"What?! That's absurd. How could you think that?"
"Where should I start? You introduced yourself as a looper by offering your aid against the threat of an attack which conveniently started at the moment of your arrival. You sold me a literally impossible cover story by lying over something unrelated, deflecting all my suspicions onto it, and reconciling with me after a fierce argument over my own honesty — that was quite clever, by the way, I have to give you that. Then you sabotaged the only plan which could have ended your distraction decisively. Now, at least, we know why."
"That's not true. None of it is true. Stop. Talk this out with me."
"It's too late for that. You tipped your hoof. I can only hope it's not too late for Equestria." Celestia turns toward the door, wrapping Spike in a wing and pulling him away. "You shouldn't watch this."
"NO!" I shout, terror taking fully over. Celestia wouldn't bother with this setup if they were just going to do something to me that resetting would fix. I lunge at her, slamming my hooves into the force field, and there's a noise like a thunderclap as it flings me back to the center of the circle.
I scramble back to hooves I can't feel, overbalance, and faceplant. "Princess," I sob desperately, stretching out a leg weakly to her. "Wait. This is a mistake." She continues walking slowly, deliberately, away. "I asked you for help! What are you doing?"
Spike looks back at me, eyes filled with tears, but Celestia shifts her wing to block his view. "We'll do our best to save her," is the last thing I hear her say before she pushes him outside and closes the door.
To heck with this. The instant she leaves, I fire up my horn for a Euthanatos; it won't change my situation, but it'll give me more time to squirm out of it. But a wall of feedback from the ward slams straight into my brain, ripping the spell into sharp, tiny fragments, which dissolve painfully back into my memory. A few hot sparks scatter uselessly from my horn. I don't even know why that surprises me — it would have been criminally stupid not to account for it.
I climb to my knees and turn toward Luna, who is reading an ancient and fragile-looking scroll. "Stop. Please. Let me explain."
"Hush," she says, not looking up. "This shall be resolved soon enough."
"Why are you going along with this without hearing my side of the story? Luna! It's me! I saved you from the Nightmare!" She continues reading; I rear up and strike the floor with all the hoofpower I can muster. "Look me in the eye and tell me I don't deserve that same second chance!"
She meets my gaze with the calm implacability of a mountain. "I am afraid you are mistaken."
A faint "Huh?" is all I can manage in return.
"It was Twilight Sparkle who saved me from myself. It was Twilight Sparkle who cast Starswirl's spell a minute ago. You, to whom I now speak? You are not Twilight Sparkle." Luna's horn flares out into an ultraviolet antiglow that seems to suck space itself into the black hole of the circlet, warping the lines of the room.
"…," I protest as my lungs implode and spasms jerk my limbs.
"And it is time," her voice echoes as everything goes dark, "to discover what you truly are."
I sit up in the fancy evocation circle of the magical vaults. There's something subtly wrong … something incomplete. Something screaming for closure.
Luna prods Spike. "Well, that sure didn't work," he says.
Oh, there we go! I can start fixing things now.
"Hello, Twilight," Chrysalis says, walking into the circle. "I'm going to kill you now so I can take over the world."
"I'd rather you didn't do that," I say. I am trying to schedule my pain. I have millennia of it to parcel out, carefully balancing severity and type and inconvenience, and I've already written 187 pages of notes which a death now would disrupt. She keeps stealing my pages, and she's burned five of them. Why is she so mean?
"Chrysalis, I do not believe you are telling her the entire truth," Luna says.
"You mean the part where I don't have to kill her if she's one of my secret agents?"
"Don't be silly," I say. "I've been trying to stop you from the beginning."
"Oh," Chrysalis says, disappointed. "Okay." She takes out an oversized knife and slides it smoothly through my chest.
I check my notes. This is a Mortal Pain, Class 8. Now I'll have to reschedule getting fried in that burning building for T-66, and that means a full fourteen Class 4s to redistribute. "Ouch," I say, because Mortal Pain, Class 8 hurts a lot.
There is the sound of a bell. Celestia floats a "6" up to the scoreboard and hangs it over my ones place, incrementing the "25". "Oh, drat," Celestia says. "Chrysalis, stop breaking her. That's my job."
"Does that not seem like a strange thing for my sister to say?" Luna murmurs. "Why would she say that?"
I have to think about that one. I gasp. "Because … she's not the real Celestia!" I bound forward, gripping her Celestia costume by the shoulders, and yank it away in a single swoop. Underneath is a changeling! I knew it!
Luna frowns. "Incorrect." Her horn lights up, and she grabs the changeling costume and pulls. It comes away to reveal the real Celestia underneath, who waves sheepishly and giggles. Ha ha! We laugh at it together because the reinforcement of her authenticity is a cathartic reversal of the subversion of expectation created by my unfounded doubts, and cathartic r. of the etc. has been correlated with humor reactions in double-blind tests.
"Tell her what you think of her," Luna tells the genuine Celestia.
Celestia curls her neck around me in a hug and smiles. "I don't love you in the slightest."
"I know," I whisper, nuzzling her back, feeling her warmth and her closeness and the rise and fall of her breath.
Luna clears her throat. "That is not correct. Celestia, do you love Twilight Sparkle?"
"I love Twilight with all my heart," she says.
The feeling of subtle wrongness intensifies. "NO! That is a logical contradiction!" I scream, loud enough for cracks to appear in the floor. I scramble back away as an increasing sense of vertigo overtakes me. "I am Twilight. You cannot both love me and not love me!"
Suddenly, there's a sharp snap, the scent of ozone, and a stinging pain in my butt. I flail helplessly as reality forgets about gravity for a moment. The room cartwheels around me, then explosively shatters as it slams to a halt in my face.
Something foreign stirs at the edge of my consciousness as the world's fragments batter me like hail — another room almost identical to the shattered one, dim and a touch chilly, with a dark body grappling and pinning a thrashing lavender form —
"Hold!" Luna shouts, leaping into my field of view with her wings magnificently flared, chilling darkness streaming from her in every direction, repulsing the shards of perception, sending me tumbling into the void of endless night. I freeze instinctively, and lose all frame of reference as the echoes of her shout disrupt my thoughts.
"…," I say. There's a part of me that wants to keep screaming and flailing, but it's a distant, abstract sensation, like listening to a scratchy phonograph from across the room.
There's a sense of motion amid the featureless dark, then she fades into view again. "Look at me," Luna says, as if there was a reason to do anything but. "Take a deep breath. Refocus. How are you?"
"I'm Twilight," I mumble.
"How are you."
I whimper. "I'm Twilight." The blackness is still whirling nauseatingly around us, and that's the only thing left for me to cling to.
"Clearly you must be for us to continue," she says more quietly. She glides in to grab me in an awkward full-body embrace, making the universe lurch back into alignment, and stares into my eyes. "Be calm. We are here to help Twilight. Every one of us cares for Twilight greatly. Twilight is among friends."
It's instantly obvious that that's true. "The princess loves me. The princess trusts me." I gasp in realization and look around for the weird other-place again. "There was another Twilight Sparkle! I bet that's what confused her!"
"There is not," Luna says firmly. "That has been ruled out, else we should not be here."
"But the other-place!"
"Look." Her horn glows for a moment, and she tilts her head toward what I saw earlier. It's only a giant mirror! There I am sprawled in the middle of the evocation circle, where I've been all along, and there's Luna, her body pinning mine to the ground in a helpful and caring and friendly hug.
But … wasn't there something more? The sense of subtle wrongness stirs again. I shift my hooves. My reflection doesn't move —
"Sshhh. Calm." Luna stares into my eyes, and I refocus on her. She waves a wing, and somewhere in the unimportant background, the mirror fades back away. "Breathe. Empty your thoughts."
It's hard. My head hurts. "I'm scared, Luna. Help me."
She closes her eyes. She's silent for long moments, and her lower jaw quivers. Finally, she fights her expression back into careful neutrality, and says: "Twilight Sparkle believes in the power of the truth, even when it is frightening."
I do. I take a deep breath, holding her. "Show me the truth."
"I have tried. Perhaps we should approach it in a roundabout fashion." Luna coaxes me upright and points back over my shoulder at the scoreboard. "Do you not remember that you died? It is time for you to reset your loop."
Oh! That's what was wrong. She's right, we've got to save Equestria! I walk back to the center of the evocation circle and lie down where I started, but Chrysalis is still there. I glare at her and she walks back out of the circle again. Celestia … huh, she's back in place already. Of course she is, she's perfect and awesome, even if sometimes she's smart on some transcendent level that looks horrible to us stupid mortals.
"Spike?" I prompt.
"Well, that sure didn't work."
Chrysalis steps forward. "Hello, Twilight. I am going to kill you, et cetera."
I read through my script. "I'd rather you didn't do that," I say. I have to follow it until it's time to throw it away.
I glance over at Luna. It's her turn to speak. But then I feel a Mortal Pain, Class 8 in my chest. "Hey," I scold Chrysalis. "You weren't supposed to do that yet."
"Evil enough to take her over without her knowledge?" Luna asks.
Chrysalis raises an eyeridge. "What, this twerp? Don't make me laugh. She couldn't even stop me the first time. She's useless without her friends."
"I am not," I protest as I die again.
Celestia increments my scoreboard. I shoo Chrysalis out of the circle and prod Spike. "Well, that sure didn't work," he repeats.
While I page through my script, Chrysalis steps back up to me and takes out her knife. "Hello, etcetera. Can we skip to the fun part?"
"Hmm," Luna says, hoof at her chin. "If I may?"
"Silly pony," I say. "Stop interrupting. You're not looping." She stops open-mouthed at that, so I turn back to my script and frantically flip ahead to see if I can figure out what to break to fix this.
Luna's hoof comes down, crumpling the scroll I'm reading. "We shall speak of that belief later," she hisses. "For now, know this. Time was my plaything long before either Twilight or my sister ever thought to bend it." It's true. She's the smartest; she's got thick glasses on. "Listen to me."
"Okay!" I say, staring into her eyes. (They're beautiful eyes. She almost destroyed the world twice.)
"Further confrontations here will tell us little. Our answers lie in the past."
"Yes! Let's apply the second-order derivative of the thaumic flux and reverse the polarity of the temporal matrix!" Celestia declares. She's put on her glasses too. (So hot. I wonder if they've ever caused an apocalypse together.)
This is a puzzle. But I'm good at puzzles! I'll make her proud of me. After a moment's thought, I fire up my horn, and a glowing arrow labeled "TIME" appears on the wall, pointing to the right, surrounded by ghostly spinning clockwork gears and swinging pendulums. I grab the arrow in my hornglow, pull it from the wall, flip it, and stick it back into place so it reads "EMIT" and points to the left. "Now I'm looping backward," I say proudly.
",krow t'ndid taht ,lleW" Spike says.
",lekrapS thgiliwT ,uoy esruC" Chrysalis says as she kills me for the last time ever. Celestia takes a "1" off my side of the scoreboard and there's a glistening, perfect "0" in its place. Her side reads seventy billion and twelve.
"!thgiliwT ,won uoy evol I" Celestia says and gives me a hug.
Luna blinks. "What?"
"It's true!" I say. "Life was wonderful before I started looping."
"You had not cast any time loop spells prior to this invasion?"
I point at my scoreboard. "Duh."
"Then let us not be misled by borrowed memories." Her horn lights up, and a glowing white "TWILIGHT SPARKLE" line appears underneath the "EMIT" arrow. She peels everything to the left of us off of the wall, neatly folds it up, and hides it under her wing — leaving only several hundred glowing segments where I've been looping through invasion day, and a huge grey foggy mess throughout the rest of history. "Let us, instead, seek where you learned the Crystal Kingdom Anthem."
I look at her, confused. "You took it away."
"But that is …" she says, trailing off, then closes her eyes in concentration for several moments. "Very well. Show us." She returns my life to the wall.
I trot up to the line, squint real hard, and point. Sudden cold stabs at my flanks. Surprised, I turn around — only to take a blast of snow full in the face and flinch. When I open my eyes again, we're atop a small hill near the center of the Crystal Empire, amid the blinding white of a storm.
"It was in the library. Let's find the library," I say, trying to walk downhill to the street. It feels like my hooves are glued to the ground. Why is there such resistance? I know where to go.
Luna walks effortlessly over to me and brushes the snow underhoof to one side. "Observe."
At her motion, an even greater gale roars up around us. The layer of fallen snow smothering the hill is picked up by the wind and flung into the night. Left exposed is the shattered boneyard of a building — jagged chunks of granite brick and marble facing; twisted pikes of snapped iron struts; smashed statues of gryphons. Deep in the rubble, scattered flinders of charcoal and burnt wood scar a bed of soft white ash.
I look up, through a sky scoured clean by the receding storm. There's that residential building right next door, and the armory across the street, and the public house on the corner … everything else is right where I remember it. This is the library.
Was the library.
"This isn't right," I murmur.
"And thus we draw closer to understanding. Where did you learn the Crystal Kingdom Anthem?"
"Here. Now. From a library book."
"Impossible. Where did you learn the Crystal Kingdom Anthem?"
"Here! Right here, before history changed! I read it!" We're about where the reading room should be, right? Why doesn't she believe me? Am I a little too far to one side?
"Impossible," she growls, leaning forward. "Your memories are not consistent with mere time loop alterations. Where did you learn the Crystal Kingdom Anthem?"
My eyes fill with tears. "I-I don't know."
Her voice turns kindly, and she smiles at me. "That is progress. Let go of the lies. Deep inside you, you know the truth."
I don't want to disappoint her. She's being so nice. "I do."
"Close your eyes," she says. I do. The world around me fades away into featureless black, leaving just the two of us. "Once upon a time, you learned the Crystal Kingdom Anthem. Open yourself to that memory." There's a funny tingle in my body; I think Luna's helping. "Excellent. When you open your eyes, we shall be in the location where you learned it. Are you ready to see that?"
"Yes," I say, and open my eyes confidently. We're still in the rubble of the library.
The smile falls away from Luna's muzzle. Panic stirs within me. What did I do wrong?
"Very well," Luna says slowly. "Foal steps. Twilight, when did you learn the Anthem?"
I glance at my pocketwatch. It's Sombra o'clock. "Now."
"Sing the Anthem for me."
I take a deep breath. <The fires of —>
"Thank you." Luna's horn lights up, and the minute hand of the watch jerks backward a tick. The world motion-blurs around us, back to the train station, back through the long trip north, back into the Canterlot throne room where Celestia has just finished preparing me for the journey. "Sing the Anthem for me."
I take a deep breath, and stop with it held in, confused. What anthem?
"Hmm," Luna murmurs, and advances the watch again. Time whips forward and jerks to a halt with us in the ruined library. "How did you learn the Anthem?"
"From a book."
"Where was the book?"
"In … there." I gesture vaguely underneath us.
"Impossible." She thinks. "And yet this place is significant. Were you reading the book by yourself?"
"No. Spike helped." I point to where he's holding it open for my perusal, a proud living bookstand.
"Tell her the truth, Spike."
"I don't know the Anthem," he says, peeking around the side of History of the Crystal Empire, "and I never went to the place where the library used to be before Sombra's reign." He shrugs as best he can while keeping the book steady. "Sorry, Twilight."
"But," I say faintly. "Spike was there."
"Then … perhaps that is significant," Luna says. "Dark magic is full of illusions and deceptions, is it not?"
I think about that for a moment. All of this is wrong, but she has to be right. I can't let Luna down when she's gone to so much effort to help me.
Spike blinks. His eyes go glowy purple. "Yes," he hisses.
"Waaaagh!" I say. Sombra!
"You pitiful whelp!" he says. "I had you fooled this whole time! Everything you remember about my defeat is an illusion!"
I crouch into a fighting stance. "Then it is both my moral and academic obligation to defeat you again!"
Luna quietly clears her throat. Her horn glows.
Evil Spike briefly glances at her. "But first," he gloats, "I feel strangely compelled to deliver a detailed monologue on my plans so that you know the true depths of your previous crushing failure! Because I am a villain, and that is what villains do."
"Yes," Luna says. "Explain."
Sombra shrugs off his Spike suit and sidesteps out into his unicorn form like a pack of clowns from a foal-sized clown-wagon. It's clearly him, but he looks … wrong, in a way I can't place. He walks up to a lectern, turns to Luna, smooths down his beard with a hoof, and clears his throat.
"Uh," Sombra says, "are you okay?"
I glance at Luna. Her muzzle is contorted, her eyes squeezed closed. She draws in a breath through her teeth. "Worry not about me. Continue." When she opens her eyes again, her expression is again distant.
Sombra glances at me and shrugs, then leans over the lectern. Dark clouds roll through the sky, and the shadows around us deepen. "Clearly," he says, voice deepening ominously, "I lured Twilight to the old library, as a location of the symbolic triumph of my deception over the power of her knowledge." His horn flares out with dark magic. In a burst of sulphur-scented smoke, cardboard standees of my friends appear, along with a giant white backdrop with the word "LIBRARY" printed on it. "She wouldn't have believed that she came on her own, so I created phantasms of her friends to help her with her research. And then …" He pauses dramatically. Thunder rolls in the background, followed by the deep, dissonant chord of a pipe organ. "I taught her music! Ah-hahahaha!"
Luna arches one eyebrow. "Why?"
The chord peters out and dies. Sombra glances at me uncertainly, then stands up straighter. "To turn her evil." The lightning crashes again and a new, higher chord plays. "Because it was evil music!"
Luna lowers her head and presses her hoof to the bridge of her nose.
Sweat glistens on Sombra's forehead. "Wait. This makes sense, I promise. It was … revenge! I knew that if I taught Twilight the Anthem, it would make you and Celestia kill her someday."
Luna turns to me, eyes flaring out into light. "Stop."
"No?" Sombra says. "Okay, I did it to make her stop trusting her memories —"
Luna's horn flares. With a quiet squit, Sombra explodes into tiny fragments of flesh, leaving just four smoking hooves and a large red stain. "Thou art defying us, somehow," she says, the solid white of her eyes boring into me. "No more games."
Silent terror floods me. What am I doing wrong? I'm trying so hard to tell her what she wants! "I'm sorry!"
"How didst thou learn the Anthem?"
"I — I don't know!"
She frowns, grabs me with her forehooves, and slams my thrashing form against the "LIBRARY" wall. "How didst thou learn the Anthem?"
"I read it here with my friends!" I say with desperate conviction, because it's the only other answer I have.
"Nnghaaah!" she shouts. "Impossible! Who art thou?"
"Twilight —" I see her horn start to glow. "NO!" I scream, and start shouting names. "Chrysalis! Sombra! Discord! Trixie! Gilda!" Her implacable white eyes are just inches from my muzzle. It feels like they're about to leap out and devour me, and the thought fills me with a terror beyond rational description.
"Tell me!" I sob. "Tell me who I am!"
Luna stares at me in silence. I am thrashing my limbs with all my strength — I can feel resistance, somewhere, and the world cracking and crumbling around the edges — but I'm not getting free. I'm not getting free! Nothing matters but that primal need.
"Be that a clue?" she snarls. "Dost thou mock us, spirit? Do we … know …"
Her words trail off into a sharp gasp. Her eyes lose their glow in a single blink, and her horn sputters out. She scrambles backward as if I'd just set her hooves on fire, and drops into a crouch, teeth bared, shivering with adrenaline.
I take that opportunity to whirl around and rip apart the world, flinging rocks and buildings and snow and air aside and flailing at the darkness. Other-place! Where's the other-place? Scary! Hide!
"N-no," she whispers, then: "No!" — and I slam into a wall of her words right as I'm about to escape.
It's not a very good wall. It's brittle, hollow, tasting of fear and full of bluster. But it's enough to make me think for a moment. She's scared of me? I must be scary. That's what I'm doing wrong! I'm not supposed to run!
I turn around and stand up straight, towering over this weak and cowering foal. "We are done here," I bluff, my voice a dagger of ice slicing through her laughable barricades, leaving only her between me and freedom. "You will let me leave."
"W-we cannot," she says, voice quailing. She closes her eyes for a moment, takes a sharp breath, and stands up on trembling legs. "We have realized the truth," she says more evenly, and her hornglow flares weakly back to life. "Small wonder thou wert powerful enough in this realm to confound the truth so. Thou art the Nightmare itself."
What? No! That makes even less sense than the rest of this! But … why else would she be so scared?
I laugh, a low and building chuckle, as I release my new true form. My mane and tail go jet black to complement my deep amethyst coat. Dark smoke roils from the edges of my eyes and the tip of my horn. I grow wings of smoke, because that sounds like the sort of awesome thing that evil me would do. Note to self: Learn to fly.
(Nightmare Twilight. Nightlight! No, wait, that sounds ridiculous. Twilight Darkle … ugh, worse. Alright, second order of business after crushing this puny foal before me is finding a decent name.)
"I was wondering when you'd figure it out," I purr, in a voice that could kill with sexy at thirty paces. I reach out a smoke-wing to caress her chin, and she scrambles backward to avoid it. "You fell right into my trap. Now you're stuck here with me." Her face pales. This is fun! "I think I'll toy with you for a while — but not too long. I need to go … hm. Wreak eternal vengeance against the illiterate?" I shrug. "Really, it's about the joy of unfettered power, but that sounds like as good an excuse as any."
"W-we cannot let thee!"
I raise an eyebrow. "I don't think you understand. I'm the Nightmare, babe. You're the weak little filly who crumples like parchment every time we meet. Game over. I win."
"N-not so," she says, cold sweat glistening on her forehead. Her hornglow has grown bright enough to cast shadows. "Perhaps on our own we are weak, but somewhere within thee lies also the mare who was our salvation. We owe all to her …" She straightens and slams a hoof on the ground. The thunder-crack echoes around the ruined landscape. "And for her sake we shall stand and defeat thee!"
"You're kidding," I say, getting a trifle irritated. "You're kidding, right?"
Luna lowers her head, horn glowing like a newborn star, and hoofs the ground. Oh, it is on.
We charge at each other. I know how this goes. At the last second, she's going to swerve or dodge or teleport, unable to face me head-on, and then that's when I get to unleash the spell that's aimed a few cubits behind me.
The only problem is, that's not what happens.
She lowers her head, and we collide straight on, her horn spearing through my chest. I barely have enough time to get the wind knocked out of me when she unleashes the spell she's been building, and the full power of a goddess explodes straight into my heart —
… That's not accurate. Everything doesn't actually speak. More like, one moment I'm lost in the dark void of nothingness, and the next, my consciousness is smothered in a warm white gestalt of every possible sensation in every possible combination. Logically, you'd think the net effect of that would be a billion billion ideas screaming in opposition and canceling out against their counterpoints, but as I bathe in the glow of the universe, I become aware of an … organization to it. A single unified purpose toward which every component of existence strives and which every level of perception and identity and understanding reflects. And right now, that harmony is a sense of painful wrongness.
Allow me the latitude of a finite interpretation of the ineffable. I can't talk about everything; our words are too small. But if there were a way to conversationalize that dissonance — if I had to constrain it to something comprehensible by a pony, with only one phrase in one language — then at least "Well, this isn't working" would be sufficiently close to give you all the wrong ideas for all the right reasons.
I groan and sit up. (Again: metaphor. I'm not separate from the everything. I don't have a body to groan or sit up with. But this conversation gets fractal if I try to dig into it at a deeper level than that.) My mind is a haze. "What's going on?"
Everything points. I open my eyes to look —
— And it all rushes in. I slam my eyes shut again, but it's too late; I can't unsee it. The suspicion I didn't remember. The trap I cooperated with. Celestia's betrayal. Luna's dark magic. My mind ripped apart in their search for answers —
Realization builds up inside me like a sickness. How could they? How could they! I thrash desperately around, trying to dislodge the cancer of that knowledge and failing, alone and used and broken, and that's when everything reaches out and wraps me in the soothing harmony of a hug.
"It's alright, Twilight," everything says.
No … Harmony says. That's where I've felt this feeling before: the unity of the Elements. Except that was five friends and I, electrons whirling in a single atom's orbit, and now I'm surrounded by every possible friend in every possible combination. All of existence was created for this very moment, to let me know that it's alright, Twilight, that it proceeds according to some greater plan, and that in my trials I'm never alone.
I cry in Harmony's embrace for a heartbeat, a minute, a millennium. I cry until I no longer need to cry, and then lie in everything's warm embrace with my tears spent.
Finally, there's nothing to do but open my eyes again. When comprehension seeps back through me, the wrongness of what they did lingers, but the pain is tiny and abstract. How could it be otherwise? It's a single drop in a boundless ocean of sensation.
I drink it all in.
I can see all of time and space from here. The grand sweep of it is so magnificent that "magnificent" is as inadequate to describe it as a string of numbers is to describe the ratio of a circle to its radius; I could spend an eternity in contemplation of it and never fully hold within myself the totality of its perfection. But amid the vast sweep of actualities occupying the vaster sweep of possibilities, there's one tiny little speck that's glaringly out of place. I focus in.
"Huh," I say. "Luna killed me."
I, Twilight Sparkle, am dead. Not "got reset again" — I have ceased existence. One of Equestria's goddesses unleashed into my tiny little mortal mind enough power to make one of the archons of the universe flinch — but the Nightmare wasn't actually there to soak up the blow. There was such immense damage that it sent feedback exploding out of the loop in which it occurred and into the spell that maintained me from timeline to timeline. The me that was looping — and there is a looping-me, I note, who is distinct from pre-loop Twilight — was obliterated.
As I watch that unintentional act of finality, it begins to fragment and spread. I'm dead, so the spell resets everything to the start of a new loop and re-inserts all of the various players. But when it tries to add me, I'm dead. The spell resets everything to the start of a new loop and re-inserts all of the various players. But when it tries to add me, I'm dead … and so on, ad infinitum. Every single iteration strains and warps and forks our timeline, spawning off a whole new future which instantly locks up, unresolved and unresolvable.
My jaw drops as the realization hits. We have caused literally infinite damage to spacetime.
"That's not all," Harmony says, and gestures.
I pull back my perception slightly and refocus. The unfolding damage I'm seeing is half of a fork that splits off from the moment of the blast. The other half blossoms out into a similar ugly-looking mess — but its timelines are living things, unrolling themselves and thrashing around in possibility-space like an army of seeking tentacles. One by one, inevitably, each one ends with the flash of a sudden discontinuity as the time spell steals away a looper's experiences, terminates all the loopers, and severs and abandons the timeline. Many of those disconnected futures are vaporized in the light of the exploding Elements of Harmony and return to the nothingness whence they came — but others linger on, abandoned and hopeless, spiraling into chaos.
"What changed here?" I ask.
"These are the futures where I intervene to save you and the timeline continues," Harmony says. "As I must, because there is no other hope of ultimate repair."
"I'm not so sure these branches are better," I murmur. "Time looping leaves all those failed futures behind after we reset?"
"No, disabling the Elements of Harmony does that." Harmony frowns. "You and Celestia both were once Bearers. You knew better."
"But they were trying to kill us!" I protest, as if yet another ill-timed reset mattered to the universe. That's a non-starter; I swallow and try again. "We just needed more time to learn a way to save Equestria … hold on. I 'was once' a Bearer?"
Harmony shakes its heads sadly. "After a thousand years without a champion, I had such hopes. But you have given yourself over to a different master."
My blood runs cold. "NO! It was a mistake," I plead, throwing myself at Harmony's hooves. "Everything good in my life has come from you. Looping has brought me nothing but misery. Please give me a second chance."
"Of course," Harmony says, with infinite love and forgiveness. "Stop looping."
"I've already tried! But unless I start my time loop, Equestria is doomed. The instant it's saved —"
Harmony shakes its head. "You misunderstand. Stop looping. Yourself, her, Chrysalis, and the others who would be drawn into this. I cannot unmake your failure of a timeline if its destruction merely spawns another copy with all the same problems."
I'm struck speechless.
"Why do you hesitate?"
I swallow. "Unmake? You … you think the solution is for us to not exist at all?"
"Twilight," Harmony whispers, "listen." My perception shifts, and I behold the thrashings of our timeline as a whole. It screams like a wounded animal as the tentacles of living futures blindly flail outward through possibility — as the loop spell severs its heads and new ones spring up in hydra-like replacement. There's a shuddering, silent sibilance from the other half, where the paradox timelines are swelling out like a cancerous growth. I clap my forehooves to my ears. It's my earlier pain, multiplied by every pony to suffer from our mistakes, multiplied by every failed loop in which they relive it, exponentiated by the anguish of spacetime itself.
The scale of my perception is nudged outward. The rest of existence is singing in unison. Its voices rise and soar, mingling in a grand chord that sounds through my bones, flooding through me and sweeping me away. Its beauty is so exquisite that it is all I can do to fall mute to my knees, humbled at the gift of having shared it for even a moment.
Harmony doesn't hate me — doesn't hate us — couldn't hate us. Harmony wants only the best for everypony. It doesn't understand how I could cling to my miserable existence of enmity and struggle and torment — not when giving up and letting go means that someday, some sublime version of me would get to live in that boundless unity, never once able to even conceive of my tortures.
The arc of the universe evolves toward perfection — but to get there, the failures have to be uprooted, the ground cleared for healthier seed. It's all so clear here. "Show me," I whisper. "Show me what I have to do."
And Harmony does. There's a convoluted potential timeline where I reconcile with Celestia and she helps me halt the invasion at great but acceptable cost. Just the right words with just the right inflection at just the right time spark her doubts about our prospects, and some impossibly brilliant sleight of hoof brings me to Chrysalis' side in a guise she trusts to plant similar uncertainty. With both of their hopes of a clean victory in ruins, I propose a third way. After weeks of intricate negotiation, they tentatively agree to stop looping so they can open diplomatic relations. We all gather, and a joint ritual ends everypony's time spell. The instant we're powerless to reset away from fate, I directly channel the light of Harmony, and everything dissolves away.
It's the best thing ever. I'll get to destroy the world for a good cause.
My head goes light for a moment as Harmony sears every detail of that future into my memories with supernatural clarity. Within the blink of an eye, it's more real than the life I've lived. It is The One Loop, the true loop of which all others are mere shadows. Any deviation from it I'll be able to sense in an instant and steer it back toward its proper end.
All that remains is to live through it. Just once. Then it's all over.
Harmony hugs me. "You are a good pony, Twilight Sparkle." The approval of the universe fills me with an indescribable joy. "And now we must part ways again … but only for a little while. Be strong."
"I will," I say, and close my eyes, hoping to hear the song of Harmony one last time before it all fades away.
I do, of course. Harmony loves me. Harmony loves.
"Forgive them," the words go. "Bring peace."
` . ’∵ ∗
"Twilight?" Celestia says in the hazy, painful darkness.
"I, uh, don't think that worked," Spike says.
"No," Luna whispers. "No …"
"Wait!" Spike says. "I think she just twitched."
I open my eyes. They're huddled around me. Luna's wearing a familiar black circlet, and she's been crying. "Nnnnh," I grunt as the light of the Arcane Storage Vaults basement stabs my pupils and the force of a thousand headaches explodes inside my brain.
Luna gasps. "Twilight! I …" But her words seize in her throat as her jaw begins trembling. She buries her muzzle in my chest and sobs, the tension draining out of her body.
I try sitting up. Instead, my body twitches spastically. The purple of Spike's scales goes donut-scented, and the world separates into its component squares and circles. Circles are cold and squares are hot. I'm lying on square bricks. I start sweating. I'm burning up.
"The Elements of Harmony sort of exploded," Spike interjects. The room is dark with smoke, and the shelf where they had been sitting is little more than a charred mess. "You got glowy and screamed and then they went all bzzow and saved you."
"Luna's been repairing your mental damage for the past several hours, and she's convinced she … well." Celestia puts a hoof on my shoulder. "I want to hear your side of the story. How did you die last loop?"
I finally manage to connect the automatic rise and fall of my chest with the part of my brain that's struggling to assemble words out of breath and throat and tongue. "Fargeløse grønne ideer sove rasende," I say urgently.
Celestia nods, staring into my eyes. "Luna," she mutters out of the side of her mouth, "I don't think you're quite finished."
Luna gulps for breath and wipes her tears away with a hoof-edge. "U-understood," she says. She sits up and her horn flares into light.
My vision fuzzes. The circles and the squares clash.
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
My eyes creak open. Two migraines are at war, firing artillery shells at each other over the scorched fields of my brain. I have full motor control back, though! When I try to sit up, all the right muscles respond, and colors no longer have a taste.
That should be enough. Harmony gave me a job to do.
Celestia's staring at me in stony silence. Her face has got an odd aquamarine tint, which means the ward's still around the evocation circle. "Look ever upward," I say, because that's how The One Loop starts. The ward promptly responds by dropping away.
Surprise and suspicion clash on Celestia's muzzle for a moment before her mask of neutrality slams back down. "I see you're feeling better. Delta-2 T-25 C-11. How did you know the trigger?"
I fight to stay focused on The One Loop. The words stumble out. "You told me. Whitetail."
Her demeanor softens in an instant. Was that a code word? "Oh! Twilight … I'm so sorry," she says. "I'm sure I apologized last loop, but it bears repeating. Will you catch me up on what we discussed before you reset, so we can talk about what I can do to make this better?"
I climb to my hooves. She's saying everything she should be saying, but it's more difficult to follow The One Loop than it should be. Every time I play through the script, it bursts open a fresh mini-migraine. My head feels like it's swelling like a balloon. "There's … no time now, there's a … war to … wuh. Wuh. Wiiiih."
"Win?" Spike asks.
"Twilight," Luna says, "are you alright?"
I clench my teeth. "Yes," I lie, because it'll take me off-script the least. "Spike, this is … super argent. Go to Ruby's and get … me matching earrings. Luna, get a Night Guard vomlumteer for a suicide machine, we need the, the … Smooze released in the northquest warter —"
"What?" Celestia and Luna chorus.
"Uh, what's a super argent?" Spike says.
"Needs to be … down quiggley! Chop chop!" I shoo him toward the door.
Celestia and Luna glance at each other, then look back at me. "Trust me," I say earnestly through the pounding in my temples. "Good flan. Smooze."
"Twilight," Celestia says hesitantly, "of course I trust you if I told you that code — but destroying Canterlot won't stop the invasion, and you seem a bit, er, discombobulated."
"No. It meggs perfect sense. We … can't destroy the … cindy, which is why all … the gourds find in arf."
Spike pokes his head back through the doorway. "What are the earrings supposed to match?"
I close my eyes and press a hoof to my temple. "I don't know! Each under!" What's their problem? None of these questions are on script.
"You mean … 'guards'?" Celestia says. She's staring at me with worried eyes. "Guards … fight it … off?"
"YES!" I shout. The throbbing in my head surges, like a dam overtopping, and something wet spills from my nose. "Gourds!"
Celestia's eyes widen. "Twilight!?"
Oh, good. The migraine's finally receding, replaced with a warm, comforting floatiness. I let out a breath and absently wipe my muzzle with the back of my forehoof. Then I freeze as I'm pulling my leg back away.
The last thing I see as the floor rises up to meet me is blood on my pastern.
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work."
The twin migraines are back. "We … have a priblem," I say, sitting up. Gravity goes weirdly sideways and I faceplant. "Ow."
Celestia glances uncertainly over at her sister, then arches one eyebrow at me, her face still a stony mask. I try again. "Princess. Priblem. Priblem, princess."
"Delta-2, T-25 C-11," Celestia says. "Do you … have any messages for me, Twilight?"
"T numbers." I stagger to my hooves. I can't feel one leg. "Priblem. Runa bloke my blain."
Luna gasps. "What?"
"I know. I meant —"
"She brasted my blain and … the pear-figged loop is there! But I'm blaining to dead! Figs it figs it OW!" I say as I stagger muzzle-first into the ward, which unloads a face full of pain at me and flings me back into the center of the evocation circle.
That's not so bad, though. It makes the migraine go warm and floaty again. The floor by my nose is oddly wet as I let my eyes drift closed.
* * *
Luna looms over my prone form in the featureless expanse of my mind. My heart stops for a moment — not again — until I see her expression. Her eyes are red and raw, her muzzle tight with worry.
I sit up. There's no pain. I feel fully lucid, without the nagging wrongness that gripped me last time we were here. "Um," I say, "hi?"
"Twilight," she whispers, "I am so, so sorry." She reaches out a hoof, but hesitates before touching me. "I have had to take some … rather unorthodox measures to stabilize you. How do you feel?"
"Different." I think. "My head doesn't want to explode any more."
She exhales, and a bit of the tension sags out of her shoulders. "We shall speak of my repairs when you awake. But first, I must fall upon your mercy and beg of you a boon."
"Uh." Forgiveness is one thing, but a favor? Still, she did fix me, and that's worth hearing her out. "Go ahead."
"Some of your damage … was mine own hornwork. In a previous loop I used the Circlet of Mind upon you, and in the process …" Her voice grows faint. "I attacked you, Twilight, and were it not for the intervention of the Elements of Harmony, I would have ended you. It was this sort of disaster which I feared when we banned mind-manipulating magic, and locked the Circlet away, so long ago."
I blink. I remember our fight, but … "You're not looping. If that was a previous loop, how do you know about it?"
"From your memories of the attack. I glanced at them to ascertain the source of the damage. I was losing my temper, and you attempted to flee me, and then I … I sensed the Nightmare …" She swallows. "I could not bear to watch, but the damage to your psyche bore my energy signature, and the rest is clear enough."
It clicks: Luna thinks she relapsed. I fidget uncomfortably. Is that why she fixed my brain? Is false guilt the only thing between me and another deadly interrogation? "Uh … yeah," I stall. "So what's the favor?"
"You are looping. I am not. I will forget my failure soon, and with it, any hope of preventing a recurrence." She looks away, her muzzle sunken in excruciating misery. "I have no right to ask after what I have done, and it is magic no less forbidden than that which caused the damage … but I beg you, Twilight, allow me to borrow a portion of your memory. I must record my knowledge of my guilt, so that in future loops you may share it with me if you fear I am in danger of again losing my way."
And just like that, I'm handed a free ticket to the express train out of Questionsburg. No more worries about The One Loop getting sabotaged by bizarre suspicions or threats of renewed interrogation.
All I have to do is leave at lie o'clock.
I shouldn't feel bad about that. Technically her guilt is accurate, right? Luna did blow my mind up while interrogating me, and based on what Harmony showed me, I was an innocent victim. What's the harm in letting her get the facts correct in the wrong context? Letting her blame herself for a Nightmare rampage isn't really a lie.
Not — a simmering thought boils up to the surface of my mind — like giving Celestia that unearned codeword was.
Now there's an uncomfortable thought. Harmony started my perfect loop by having me lie to Celestia's face about something she never told me in a loop that couldn't have occurred — since I don't remember it, and based on her reaction, neither did she. But surely, if there's any way to tell between a necessary and unnecessary evil, Harmony could do it … right? Lying to Luna here might be avoidable, but Harmony wouldn't have had me lie to Celestia if there were any way around it.
Wait. Doesn't that logically imply The One Loop would be impossible if I told the truth?
That can't be right. I know that the oblivion of The One Loop is the correct path; my visit with Harmony made that all too clear. But I can't wrap my mind around the idea that Harmony's goal requires a lie. Honesty is one of the Elements!
Are they broken? Am I still broken, and misremembering? Is this some sort of test?
Luna interrupts my thoughts. "Twilight?" she says, lower jaw beginning to quiver. "Please. I will not force you, but I am begging."
I gaze into her eyes. Once upon a time, her voice echoes, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary. I was correct … and it remains the greatest regret of my life.
So many lies … so many regrets. No wonder Harmony gave up on us. The most merciful path is to end this by any means possible … isn't it? On the other hoof, Harmony went against the Elements' own nature, and asked me to do the same. How can that be right?
My mind is chasing itself in loops. I need to make a decision.
Forgive them, Harmony said. Bring peace.
… I'm going to regret this, I just know it.
"Luna …" I rest a hoof on her shoulder, and swallow through a dry throat. "You weren't the Nightmare."
She stares at me blankly. Then her eyes widen.
"Neither was I," I add hurriedly. "That's why the Elements protected me. I … I think … it wasn't your fault. It was a big misunderstanding. There were too many impossible things happening, and I was pretending to be what you told me I had to be, and we were both too afraid to think it through."
"Twilight," she says, visibly struggling for words.
"Please look at the memories you flinched from. You attacked what you saw as the Nightmare because you wanted to save me. You were wrong, but I won't have on my conscience you blaming yourself for turning evil." I grab her other shoulder with my other forehoof and stare intensely into her eyes. "No more lies. A … very big thing … is at stake right now, and I've realized that before I do it I have to know that the truth will lead me there. If you want to fix this, we need to both start with the truth."
Luna nods. She takes a long breath, then I see a reflection of shifting light and dark on her eyeballs as she stares silently into me. Finally, she closes her eyes. "Thank you for your honesty," she says faintly, "but I fear the truth speaks no better of me. I coerced you into believing the foulest of lies about yourself, and then destroyed you for complying."
"Alright. Then … why?"
"It is a long story, which you deserve in full once we awaken. Briefly, the Crystal Empire is the grave of an ancient secret whose unearthing signals the end of our world. When Celestia learned you had knowledge buried with that secret, we could no longer trust your intent. After all, Celestia and I first sent you there — sent Twilight there — to …" She stops and presses her hoof to the bridge of her muzzle. "No. You are Twilight Sparkle, of that I am now convinced. The protection of the Elements is proof enough. Yet, as you do not remember Twilight Sparkle's memories, you clearly cannot be. It is all greatly confusing."
"I think," I say slowly, "where all this is leading is that I am not your Twilight Sparkle."
I've heard that word way too often lately. "Yet here I am."
"Indeed. All proofs to the contrary, here you are."
I clear my throat. "The scientific method tells us that an observed impossible result is evidence of a faulty model. I've been — we've been — rushing through this in the hope we wouldn't have to think about the impossibilities until after the looping was over. Look where that led us. It's long past time to question our assumptions."
Luna nods. "We must include Celestia in that conversation. One last question before we do." She takes a long breath. "Will you honor my request?"
"You, uh, weren't the Nightmare. We established that."
"It dulls the edge of my failure not a whit. I erred, with dark magic banned for good reason, and it nearly cost you everything. I could not bear the thought of a recurrence."
Now that we're no longer talking about stamping a lie into my brain, it would be insane to say no to improved information exchange. In fact, this could open up a whole new world of possibilities. "Please, do it. And teach me the spell while you're at it."
She shakes her head firmly. "Thank you. However, I cannot send you down the path which drove Starswirl to madness. I would not dare cast it again myself were the circumstances not so urgent."
"I haven't been able to have a conversation both sides remember since I cast the loop spell. I'll take that risk."
"I am painfully aware of the difficulties of looping. I am sorry. There are lines which must not be crossed."
I sigh. "Fine … for now. We've got too many other pressing things to talk about, but this conversation isn't over."
"Look at the damage I have already done by thinking evil justified. My answer will not change."
"Be that as it may … thank you, again." She reaches forward with bent leg to brush her pastern to mine. "You have taken my failure much better than I had any right to expect."
"It's alright." I shrug. "We screwed up so bad it wrapped around to right again. I ought to thank you, really."
Her ears flatten. "Please do not jest about that."
"I'm serious. The Elements of Harmony are going to want a word with you, but for my own part, I have real hope for this mess for the first time in a long while." I step forward and curl my neck to hers. "No hard feelings."
Luna tenses at my touch. I feel her swallow. Then, tentatively at first, she returns the hug. I curl a hoof around her withers. She chokes back a sob, then lets one out, and soon she is sagging into my embrace, letting her emotions drain away. I close my eyes, silently holding her, feeling the warmth of her body as we share a moment of forgiveness and redemption.
Luna's memory cache is remarkably boring for such a forbidden spell. She merely stares at me for a short while, horn glowing. I had expected some bookshelf, or billboard, or huge steel vault, or something, to pop up from the surrounding mindscape — but the only apparent effect is a mild tingling in my scalp, which recedes as her hornglow dies away.
"It is done," she whispers as the mindscape fades around us. "Thank you."
I return to consciousness with a slow ticking in my ears. When I open my eyes, the cold — and mercifully non-aquamarine-tinted — stone of the experiment room is illuminated by the stifled glow of covered magelights. The wall clock reads a little after 3:00.
Luna is stowing the Circlet of Mind back in its lockbox. Celestia is curled up in a corner, eyes closed, breathing slow, with a sleeping Spike sprawled out against her side. Aside from the languid swinging of the clock's pendulum, the room is silent.
I sit up and stare at Celestia — my gut balling up as I try not to think about the conversation I know is ahead — but my thoughts are interrupted by an odd weight at my neck. I glance down. A large oval amethyst glimmers against the lavender of my coat, centered in a heavy silver setting secured tightly to my throat with a thick silver chain. The necklace tingles with restrained magical energy.
Luna finishes securing the locks and walks over to me. "In future loops," she whispers, "to instruct me to retrieve the memory cache, simply make reference to me of 'six persimmons,' or of the Qilinese gardens of that name. Long ago, during my theft of the Jade Horseshoes, I used this same spell to smuggle forbidden knowledge into the court of the Qilinese Emperor. I will know of what you speak."
"Okay," I whisper back, then tap the necklace with a hoof. "What's this?"
Discomfort flits across her muzzle. "I spoke of the unorthodox measures I took to stabilize you, yes? In brief, Twilight, that amulet is a phylactery, prepared long ago by a necromancer we defeated before it could be put to use. Your consciousness is now attuned to it, rather than your body."
"Uh. So to fix me, you bound my soul to an inanimate object? I'm a LICH now?" I can feel a migraine coming on — not the broken-brain kind, the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me kind.
"Yes. No. Somewhat." She rubs the bridge of her muzzle with a hoof; it looks like I'm not the only one with a hurting head. "In ordinary circumstances, you should be correct — such a process would have terminated your body's vitality immediately, and only the transference of spirit from the phylactery would animate it. But there is a suppressed second consciousness inhabiting your body, beyond the one I speak with now. Celestia suspected that to be Twilight, back when we believed you were a hostile spirit assuming control of her. As you are Twilight, that is impossible, but I know not who else it might be."
I have no idea where to start with my questions, but the interaction of this with my time loops seems pretty darn important. "So what happens if I take the necklace off? Does that count as dying? What happens if I don't die? Can I even be killed now? Since I'm bound to the necklace, what happens to me if I start the loop without it on?" The headache presses at my eyeballs. "I really don't want to get another lecture from the universe, especially since the Elements of Harmony already exploded saving me."
"The situation is unprecedented. We shall discover the answers as we proceed, taking every possible precaution to prevent paradox." Luna sighs. "I do apologize, Twilight. I tried every trick I knew before resorting to the techniques of forbidden magic. I have spent the better part of four nights on this. I do not say lightly that isolating your consciousness was the only method of stabilization."
"Because of the second … um, me?"
"Yes. No. Somewhat," Luna whispers. "There were not two but three components to separate, the third of which was a vast amount of foreign memory data."
"Three?" My migraine threatens to get worse, but then a piece of the puzzle clicks together. "Ah, okay. The One Loop."
"I was able to repair my own damage to your mind early on — due to the intervention of the Elements, it was not severe. The issue which caused your premature deaths was not my attack, but an overflow of memory far beyond what your mind was ever meant to contain. The recall of the overloaded memories was triggering physiological controls without regard to their effect on your body."
"Wait — The One Loop was killing me?"
"Yes. It was writ to such detail as to overfill a mortal mind on its own. Even after the separation of the two consciousnesses, it presented an immediate and insoluble hazard to your health."
I know exactly where this is going, but I still have to ask. "What did you do with it?"
"I removed it, naturally."
It's surprisingly liberating to realize that the universe is actively out to get you.
"Twilight?" Spike mumbles, blinking sleep from his eyes. Celestia lifts her head from the floor near his side, glancing over at me. Luna stares at me, frozen in place. Spike sits up. "Are you okay? What's so funny?"
"It's gone," I manage in between gales of helpless laughter. "All of it. Gone."
Celestia nods, staring into my eyes. "Luna," she mutters out of the side of her mouth, "I don't think you're quite finished."
I gasp for breath, light-headed and grinning. "No, no, humor is a perfectly natural reaction to a cathartic reversal of subversion of expectation. They've done studies and everything." They're all looking at me, lost. "See, I figured I was stuck in this time loop because the universe hates me — and then the Elements of Harmony gave me the perfect way out of this mess, so for a minute it looked like maybe things would turn out okay after all, but of course it was just a way to make everything worse — how could it have ever been any different? And now that it's done its damage I don't even get to try it." I glance around from face to unsmiling face. "Did explaining the joke ruin it?"
Celestia clears her throat, her eyes drifting away from me. "I … well. I'm afraid I don't see much humor in this, Twilight. Now that you're better, I owe you an apology. I owe you a great deal more than that."
Aaand here we go. My amusement plummets away like a feather drifting into a cockatrice's gaze.
"But you have to understand," she says quietly, "I have a world to save — not just from Chrysalis, but from every possible threat —"
"That's a strange way to start an apology." I'm really not ready to hear why it made perfect sense for her to talk Luna into brain-ripping me.
She sighs. "You're right. I'm sorry, full stop. But if there's one thing I know about my faithful student, it's how important it is that the world makes sense around her. If I just tell you I was wrong, my words aren't going to mean anything. You want to know why."
That line would have worked wonders on pre-Ponyville Twilight, or even pre-looping Twilight — and that's almost certainly why she's using it — but it's not what I need right now. Even if I were ready for this conversation, the naked appeal to rationality (is that a logical fallacy? Can it even be?) would leave a bad taste in my mouth. It feels like some continued identity test, like she's trying a little too hard to offer a Twilight-specific fix to our schism — except it isn't, because that's also how she behaved the last time things went sour between us, and in some ways that makes it even worse.
"Yeah, well," I say lamely. "Right now I'm still sorting through the consequences."
She nods. "We all are. This has gotten strange in ways that none of us could have expected."
That's what friendship is for, I want to say. That's what trust is for. That's how we face the unknown. That's what separates us from the monsters. But I can't look her in the eye. I don't want to be here. And if I open my mouth, I just know I'm going to pick a fight.
We sit in uncomfortable silence for a moment. "I do want to make this right for you," Celestia continues.
"Forgive me if I'm a bit suspicious of that," I allow myself to say.
"That's only natural. We'll have to make that better the same way we're fixing everything else: one loop at a time." Celestia gestures with a wingtip down at the evocation circle. "First order of business is to get rid of that ward, wouldn't you agree? It's not much, but we have to start somewhere."
I nod mutely.
"Tell me what else you want me to change." She glances behind her. "Oh … speaking of which, what should I do with the Elements? I don't know how much good they're going to do at this point."
"What do you mean?" I glance up at the bookshelf where they've been sitting during all the loops I've started here. The jewelry looks like it's been through a fire, and its gems are dull and dark, but the shelf itself is pristine. I blink. "Huh? What happened to them this loop?"
"This loop? Nothing, as near as I can tell. They've looked like that ever since the massive feedback surge and your accompanying mental damage." Celestia looks earnestly into my eyes. "What happened? I'd like to hear it straight from you."
Luna clears her throat. "Sister, if I might interrupt …"
Celestia glances at her sister. "Luna, this is important."
"I know. It is one of many topics which, if you are to make any progress in understanding our predicament, you both will need to discuss in full. But I am concerned, since there seems little point in you asking such a question now."
Celestia looks blankly at Luna. "Why wouldn't there be? I …" She blinks, and her mouth curls downward. "You told me that once she woke up you were done fixing her."
"You misunderstood. Not until she resets."
"But you said the reanchoring was a loop-independent alteration of her underlying consciousness. That was the point of it, to repair her in a way that wouldn't be undone the first time someone died."
"Correct, but due to the excised foreign memories, the work I performed is a potential source of discontinuity until she resets with knowledge of my repairs. If you were to reset first, and the loop spell attempted to add her memories back in … the damage would at minimum undo all that I have accomplished, and hypothetically might create a paradox that could threaten our timeline itself."
The corner of Celestia's eye twitches. "You definitely didn't mention that earlier."
"I was quite explicit that you not reset until my repairs were complete, under pain of severe existential consequences. I see I was insufficiently clear on the definition of 'complete'." Luna stares back with cool intensity. "Celestia, I must insist, in the most emphatic possible terms, that Twilight be the next to terminate her loop."
I decide to weigh in. "Look, it's no big deal." I try not to show my relief at the reprieve; if I reset, I can take a loop or two as a breather before fully diving into this. "Let's make sure I'm stable first, and have this talk right after my loop starts, where we can both reset and remember it equally."
"It won't be that simple," Celestia mutters. "At the start of this loop you were still trapped in the ward, and I didn't realize the need for my apology."
Oh, right. That … could complicate things. I'm about to backpedal when Luna cuts in: "You are not pressed for time, sister. It will be no great task for you to re-learn all we have discovered. Give Twilight Sparkle the ward password; I have already informed her of the nature of her repairs and the purpose of the necklace, and can easily verify that information upon her reset. At that point, she can bid us to recreate the investigation which led us here — with you resetting at that terminus, once again prepared for your conversations."
"That's reasonable," Celestia says after a moment's thought, though she doesn't sound at all happy about it. "She resets first. Twilight, the password is 'Look ever upward.' Tell me 'Fillydelphia.' I apologize in advance for next loop's behavior; it will take me some time to straighten out what happened, so I beg you not to take any initial suspicion personally. Let's get it over with."
Luna's mention of the necklace gives me a twinge of unease, and I turn to her. "Uh, actually … I'd like to know, first, that it's safe for me to reset." I tap the amethyst with a hoof. "What with the necromancy and all."
"You were wearing the necklace at the start of this loop," Celestia says before her sister can reply. "There will be no paradox. We'll figure out the rest later."
"Was my spirit in the necklace at the start of the loop?"
"No, but even if that reverts, your body will be animate and Luna can simply redo the reanchoring. There's no mechanism for harm — it's no more dangerous than it would be if you were standing at a slightly different location inside the circle." She gives Luna a pointed stare until Luna glances at me and nods in confirmation.
"Okay, no offense, but you're not thinking this through, again," I say, feeling my heartbeat speed up under the heavy jewelry. "That's one possible problem, and having an answer for it doesn't make the rest of them go away. For instance, now that I'm some sort of undead offense to equinity, what happens if I cast a Euthanatos and do brain damage that doesn't actually kill me?"
"Then it'll get fixed once you reset. You don't know any magic powerful enough to have meta-loop effects."
I stand my ground. "Sorry, that's not enough. I don't have the Elements of Harmony as a safety net this time, and given how much trouble I've already gotten into with unreliable memories, I'm not taking any chances. I want to know exactly what a Euthanatos is going to do to me before trying to reset myself. And if that's not going to work, I need to know, now, a spell that will."
Celestia sighs. "Fine. Come, Luna. Let's go back to your notes and get her an answer."
Luna opens her mouth, but appears to reconsider as she looks back and forth between us. "Very well," she says meekly, and the two of them turn to the door leading back into the central vault.
I'm speechless for a moment, but the opening of the door snaps me back to my senses. "Excuse me?" I say, raising my voice. "Get me an answer? I'm not invited to the research session that will determine whether my brain will break again?"
They look back. Luna has the grace to look ashamed, but Celestia's glaring. "I hope you're not implying that you have the knowledge to add anything productive to our discussion."
"No, and I hope you're not implying that's the only factor to consider here."
"Think logically for a moment, Twilight. I find it hard to believe that, after all the problems time looping has caused you — not to mention your front-row seat to the Want-It-Need-It disaster — you'd have any enthusiasm for dabbling in how both time and mind magic interact with necromancy."
"Under the circumstances, yes! How is that hard to believe?!"
"Twilight," Luna says, trying to sound stern and failing utterly, "there are lines which must not be crossed." She clears her throat and focuses her guilt. "We … have already failed you. Let us take the consequences of this upon ourselves."
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I guess that conversation couldn't wait after all. "With all due respect, Princess," I say, "this is one of those consequences, so please let me speak." I open my eyes and stare at Celestia levelly, feeling my heart plummet to hide behind one of my ribs. "We …" In for a bit, in for a bank. "We have a problem, Princess. You don't trust me. And unless you're going to fix that, don't bother to apologize."
That gets their attention.
Celestia freezes, then turns back to me, casting a longing glance at the door over her shoulder. She takes a long breath, and pulls her muzzle into a smile. "Oh, Twilight," she says in her most gentle, maternal voice. "Listen to Luna. There's a difference between trust and prudence. I've had centuries upon centuries to see the consequences of trustworthy ponies dabbling with powers they don't understand — or, worse, understand but overreach. Don't make this into something it isn't. It's simply best that you don't cross that line."
"You don't get to 'Oh, Twilight' me right now," I say, standing my straightest and staring up into her muzzle. "I'm not talking about the research. Well, not just about the research. I came to you with a problem, and your reaction was to cage me and rip my brain apart."
"I thought you wanted us to talk about that where we could both remember it," she murmurs. "This isn't fair." The forced cheer is fading, degree by degree, from her muzzle. Luna, for her part, bites her lower lip, unable to look either of us in the eye.
"And what you did to me was?" My hooves are starting to shake with adrenaline; I have to get all this out before I lose my nerve. "Did I get a trial by jury in a loop I don't remember? Did you even listen to my side of the story before you decided I was evil?"
Celestia leans forward, speaking in clear, clipped syllables. "You took over the mind of the faithful student I care so deeply about. What was I supposed to think?"
"Celestia, she is —"
"I took over nothing! I'm the same Twilight Sparkle I've always been, but I woke up one loop and suddenly the world had gone crazy!"
"And I went to extremes to give that explanation the benefit of the doubt — only to have you lie to me, destroy my hope and toy with my feelings. Furthermore, I did not appreciate you using the cover of my faithful student's good name —"
Luna takes a step forward and brings one solleret down with a sharp crack. "Celestia! Stop! She is Twilight Sparkle. There can be no further doubt on that point."
"Let me speak," Celestia says coldly. "She questioned my actions. I was explaining the source of my earlier doubts."
"And in so doing, you evade the question at hoof. Do they persist?"
Celestia's mouth flattens into a tight line. "Kindly do not dictate to me the best manner in which to approach my student's concerns."
"Kindly cease avoiding mine," Luna says with equal frost. "Did you bid me delve back into the dark sorceries which once consumed me in order to preserve the existence of a pony you cannot even trust?"
Whoah. Looks like my talk wasn't the only one that couldn't wait.
I try to get a word in, but Celestia wheels on her sister. "I asked for what was necessary, and now we are far beyond that. Look me in the eyes and tell me that you trust her to learn dark magic."
Luna hesitates, guilt flashing on her face, then frowns, muzzle re-stiffening. "Do not cloud the issue. You drew the distinction between trust and prudence yourself. I trust Twilight Sparkle."
"Do you trust this one?" Celestia asks, raising her voice. "This Twilight has different memories than the one who saved you — and by her own admission, she works with the pony who tainted you and nearly killed us both."
"Wait," I say. "What?"
"Yes, sister. For all that, I do." Luna spreads her wings and raises a hoof. "I looked within her heart at your bidding — and the Elements of Harmony did as well, when they judged her worthy of their protection. Are you rejecting both my judgment and theirs? Then you are ill served by false words of contrition —"
"How dare you question my sincerity!" Celestia snaps, wings and hoof lifting to match Luna's defiant pose. "I acted wrongly, yes, and I admit that! But do not conflate the question of my guilt with the question of her innocence. She is not the only one who has had her trust betrayed."
The two alicorns stare at each other in silence, outstretched wingtips quivering. The temperature of the room drops a few not-entirely-metaphorical degrees. I glance down, and realize that I've taken an involuntary step back; Spike has backed into a corner and is staring with wide, frightened eyes.
I clear my throat, but neither of them so much as twitches in response. "Uh, Luna?" I say, hoping to sidetrack things. "What's she talking about? With the tainting and the killing?"
"My sister refuses to consider," Luna says pointedly, eyes still locked with Celestia's, "that in the vast sweep of possible Equestrian histories, the Mi Amore Cadenza of your acquaintance might have been redeemed."
Cadance is evil? Cripes, how badly did time get screwed up!?
"Incorrect," Celestia says with dire calmness. "I refuse to place this stranger above suspicion based on that possibility, when the world is at stake and evidence to the contrary continues to mount even now. Or do you think nothing of the timing of this conversation, and the casualness with which she approaches forbidden arts?"
I should know better than to open my big dumb mouth and step back into this face-off, but I can't let that one go. "Hold on. I think I have the right to understand a spell that was cast on me, especially when it's affecting the only thing I can rely on from loop to loop."
My heart stops as Celestia swivels her cold eyes to me. "You have the right to do a great many things. This decision is about your judgment."
"Then Twilight was correct. You do not trust her."
"I need a basis to trust her!" Celestia roars, head whipping back to Luna, eyes bursting into light. I nearly wet myself on the spot. I've never heard the Royal Canterlot Voice out of the Living Sun, and it is a thing of magnificent and horrible power. "Stand down and let us speak!"
Luna doesn't even flinch. "Here is basis enough." She blinks her eyes into radiant darkness. "She is Twilight Sparkle. My savior. Bearer of Magic."
"It is not nearly so simple, sister," Celestia hisses, "and every word you say makes this less amenable to rational approach."
"It is exactly that simple," Luna says with ominous finality. An intangible wind whips up, sending a ripple coursing through the galaxy of her mane, flaring the stars within. The aurora of Celestia's mane lifts and strengthens in response, lighting the walls with diffuse pastel glows. "Twilight Sparkle hath indicted thee for thy mistrust. Twilight Sparkle, who we wronged most greviously, in fear proven erroneous — who nonetheless offered us reconciliation and even now works to save us all." Gravity goes a little wibbly as she begins hovering a hoof's-edge off the floor. "Abandon thy fear, or admit it and face her judgment. I cannot allow again thy pretenses of a millennium past."
Celestia crouches. The glow of their eyes intensifies, and energy fills the room like static electricity before a lightning strike. My breath comes out in steam, which boils away before it can clear my nose; my skin breaks out in simultaneous sweat and goosebumps.
Oh, sweet alicorn shit. I did not need a front-row seat to the next Celestial War.
The air of the room begins to distort, pockets of superheated and subglacial air colliding and collapsing. Spike sprints across the room and dives behind the false cover of an old wooden chair. I scramble back and dive behind the false cover of Spike.
Then Celestia blinks.
And like that, it's over. The seething air slams from sublimation point to hard freeze. Celestia flinches, eyes closed, and takes several shallow breaths through her nose. Her wings droop, then fold, and there is a single click of solleret on brick as her raised hoof returns to the ground.
Luna holds her flared posture a moment longer, then resettles her own wings and blinks her eyes back to normal. Her hooves touch down, and I realize she's trembling. The room starts slowly thawing.
"Stars damn it, Luna," Celestia says faintly.
Luna merely closes her eyes in reply, breathing in and out through her nose, and Spike and I don't dare move. My erstwhile mentor turns to look at me. "Twilight?"
I peek out around the edge of the chair. "Yes?"
She's standing tall, body held in a rigid approximation of control, and there are fresh tears trickling down her cheeks. "The honesty she asked for puts me in an impossible position, but … I can't hurt her again, not even to save the world." She stops to breathe. "Twilight … I need you. The looping you, the one I'm talking to now. I can't defeat Chrysalis without you. But you're right, I don't trust you. The instant I realized what you knew, it was clear you were a threat to Equestria even more dire than Chrysalis, and even if we repelled the invasion, I was going to have to … address that. That hasn't changed. So I suppose that apology will have to wait."
Intellectually, some part of me knew that was coming, but to actually hear that from Princess Celestia is more horrible than I could have imagined. I feel the room go floaty around me. A burning sensation pools and pours through my chest, like somepony just ripped my heart out through my ribs.
"T-twilight?" Spike asks, looking between me and Celestia with the unalloyed horror that can only come from a child whose parents are fighting.
I touch a hoof to his shoulder in what I hope is a comforting gesture, and swallow through a dry throat. I wish I could tell him it's okay. I wish I could tell myself that. But it's a very long distance from okay, and the only possible thing to do is to pick up the pieces and bring them as far back as I can.
I force myself to my hooves, face Celestia squarely, and take a long, shaky breath of my own. "Well," I say. "That's a start. But I can't help you under these circumstances."
"That's the only sane response for you." Celestia looks over at Luna, and adds bitterly: "Which is why Equestria's only chance at salvation was to avoid this talk."
Luna meets Celestia's stare with glistening eyes and trembling jaw.
"Then so be it," she whispers. "It was my sister who I intervened to save."
Luna, quite understandably, asks for a few moments alone with her sister. No sooner have they stepped out into the main basement than a purple blur gloms on to my foreleg.
My heart twists up. Poor little guy — he shouldn't have had to see that. I sniffle and wrap a comforting leg around his shoulders, nuzzling the top of his head, fumbling for words.
He squeezes my leg a little tighter, and throws his other claw around my withers, resting his head on my shoulder. "I-it's gonna be alright, Twilight. We'll fix things. We'll find a way."
I can't help but laugh, which comes out as a hiccup. He's trying to comfort me? "Thanks, Spike. I appreciate the sentiment."
"I mean it. We'll make her see. Maybe you're not the Twilight Sparkle I know, but … but you're still Twilight, and you wouldn't destroy the world. You never, ever would. She's wrong."
"Yeah," I lie, trying not to think about The One Loop, and oh stars I can't do this. I told one tiny little lie at the beginning of my mutual looping with Celestia, and it snowballed into everything falling apart — the Elements of Harmony themselves kicking Honesty to the curb, and Celestia trapping and brain-ripping me — and now I'm stuck in a basement with two goddesses on the verge of war while Chrysalis destroys Equestria outside. My teachable moment about lying while looping? It didn't go far enough.
"Well. I mean …" On the other hoof, I have to lie about The One Loop now, don't I? If I'm honest it justifies Celestia's suspicion, and the instant I become more dangerous than useful she resets and destroys me before I can even respond.
But even without knowing about it, she thinks I'm a bigger threat than Chrysalis. There's no win condition for me, is there? Save Equestria and get backstabbed by my mentor, tell the truth and get murdered, or walk away and let Chrysalis destroy my friends and my home for good.
The full weight of it hits me, and I cling helplessly to my faithful assistant, feeling tears leak through the dam of my eyelids as my emotions spiral out of control. "I can't do this, Spike. I, I can't. Sweet stars, oh stars, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"We'll fix it," he repeats, hugging me fiercely, and I collapse bawling onto his shoulders, feeling him stagger and brace under my weight, not even caring, just needing some friendly touch. "I'll fix it," Spike whispers. "I promise."
"You can't." It's hopeless. It's entropy, the cold and cruel and uncaring truth of the universe; everything falls apart. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't even change the game.
"Because of all the timey wimey stuff, you mean? When you reset it gets un-fixed again?" Spike pulls his head back to look into my eyes. "Then I'll have to re-fix it harder. I don't know anything about time magic, Twilight, but I'm going to live for a long time and I can study. Once I figure it out, I … I can go back to before it all began and stop things from going wrong in the first place."
My blood freezes.
"Wait. You can what?" I grab him by the shoulders. "No. Don't. Promise me you won't."
"Huh? But —"
"PROMISE me. Pinkie Pie swear," I say, desperately hoping she still does that in this timeline. "That you'll never, ever mess with history. That's what caused this in the first place, and I will NOT let you be the one who ruined everything."
"But you need —" Spike says, but stops dead at my expression. He swallows. "Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. But I've got to do something, Twilight. I can't let this happen to everypony."
I let out a breath. Crisis averted. That mystery looper has a lot to answer for, and the last thing I want is for this to be one of those situations where the well-intentioned time traveller accidentally creates the disasters of her own present. If it is, then at least this way it's not on Spike's head.
But that thought gets my mind going. None of this would have happened if that mystery looper hadn't changed history. And a loop that's changed once can be changed again, right?
"Uh, Twilight?" Spike says. "You're getting your idea face."
"It's not hopeless," I say slowly.
"Well, of course not. I thought that was the whole point of time magic? You get to go back and try it again?"
"Yeah. But right now, resetting from loop to loop isn't going to help me, not while I'm stuck at the mercy of somepony who can't trust me." I wipe my cheeks with a pastern, sit down, and frown in thought. "I can't win, I can't break even … but I can change the game. I know I already have, once."
Spike looks at me blankly. "What do you mean?"
"I left Canterlot with the Elements, and …" I trail off as I look at the shelf with the darkened jewelry. "Oh." Well, that's a non-starter. "But there is somepony — or someone — out there who can upend everything. Give me a fresh start, or maybe even change it back to when I was the only one looping. I just need to find them, and get them to help." I glance at the door to the main basement. "Which means surviving long enough to do some travelling. Which means getting Celestia to trust me … at least for now."
Spike nods. "We'll talk to her. I'll talk to her."
"That won't help. We'll need to talk in a loop she remembers." I tap my hoof to my chin. "But, actually, I think I've got that covered." Based on Celestia's reaction during the first of the two loops I died from an aneurysm — which was T-27, I think? It's only been a few resets, and I'm missing our loop numbering already — the "Whitetail" codeword that Harmony gave me should do the trick.
Of course, that would mean once again moving forward based on a lie. I stifle my queasiness. I tell myself I can use that as a fallback plan if things go pear-shaped; for now, since Luna warned us that Celestia might cause a paradox by resetting, I can talk to her in safety, and that will give me a shot at convincing her legitimately.
Plus, answers. Answers are good.
The door creaks open, and the princesses walk in. Luna looks … the only word I can use is "disappointed." Her back is straight, her neck upright, and she's walking with measured steps, but she's staring at the floor with a distant expression on her muzzle. Celestia, behind her, is trying as hard as possible not to exist — walking with shuffling, silent hoof-falls, eyes fixed on Luna's tail, head and ears lowered. She looks as bad as I feel, and despite all she's done to me, I can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy.
"Is everything alright?" I ask, pulling back from my hug with Spike, standing straight and gently coaxing him to move behind me.
"We had a brief conversation regarding the behavior she feels is appropriate for resolving difficulties while looping," Luna says. "Brief, because neither of us shall remember it; but if she is to be saved from the mistakes which ruined me, it must begin with now."
That seems like a good opening. I swallow and brace myself. Get some answers. Get her to trust me. Change the game. I need to be the bigger pony here, for both of our sakes.
"Listen … Princess," I say, voice faltering. I take a deep breath and continue. "I can't believe that you're so fundamentally different from the Princess Celestia I know that there's no way to fix what's wrong here. I screwed up history something awful, and what you told Luna to do to me was —" I stop myself from saying 'unforgivable' — "indefensible, but the Equestria you rule still looks an awful lot like mine. It's a peaceful place full of happy ponies. Twilight Sparkle's still your student and the Element of Magic. You love your sister — look at what you went through to redeem her. You are good, I know it, and you're trying to make the world a good place. That's why it hurts so much that you …" I force myself to say it. "That you tortured me. And that you almost fought your sister in order to … to lie to me, and use me like some tool. I would have been willing to forgive you for a mistake, but this goes way beyond that." That slips out before I can stop it, and I mentally kick myself.
Celestia looks away. "I'll understand if you don't believe me, Twilight, but the apology I wanted to give you truly was sincere. I was fully aware I did something wrong as my only possible means toward a greater good. It was a choice between you and the entire world. I wish I had had any other option."
"But you did," I say, feeling tears brimming in my eyes. "You always did. Why didn't you talk to me? I could have explained. I'm not evil, Princess, I …" Oh, stars, if I start crying I won't be able to do this. I squeeze my eyes shut and force myself to breathe. "Why didn't you talk to me?"
"Because to give you a single chance at diplomacy would also have been to give you as many chances at sabotage as you needed," Celestia says. "If you had been hostile — and I should point out that you can be a threat even with the best of intentions; but plausible evidence suggested you might actively be working against me — then you could have repeatedly reset until you found the perfect lie to allay my fears. To tip my hoof before taking action would have left me with no chance of action at all. When looping is involved, the tiniest hesitation in a plan might as well be a crack in a dam."
Once upon a time, Celestia's voice echoes, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary …
I hear the click of sollerets approaching me, and open my eyes as Luna brings a hoof to my shoulder. "She has much to reconcile with you, Twilight, but please do not fault her for entrapping you," she says quietly. "Had she not been able to catch me wholly by surprise with the Elements of Harmony a thousand years ago, the land would yet be in eternal night. It is true — with loopers, the middle ground of diplomacy is fragile, and fraught with consequences worse than those of overreaction."
"And yet it's all we have left now," Celestia says. "So, Twilight, here we stand."
"Here we stand." I take a few moments to steady myself. I can't do this right now. I need answers and trust, and calling her on the false necessity argument will leave me a wreck while getting me neither. "Let's go back to the basics. Why can't you trust me? I need that story."
"Tell her," Luna says immediately, turning back to her sister. "Withhold nothing. It is our only chance of learning the truth conscionably."
Celestia nods. "Alright. You're already aware of Starswirl the Bearded's prodigious comprehension of time and mind magic, far beyond our own. But neither you, nor anypony else, know the details of his downfall. We've kept them silent, both for safety's sake, and to give him the legacy he deserved." She paces over to the lifeless Elements of Harmony. "Shortly before he … turned … he devised a spell to examine our future. What he saw — and shared with us, in increasingly cryptic and deranged terms — was the complete destruction of our world. His last sane act was to eradicate all possible trace of the knowledge which it appears you possess — both the records of an entire empire and the memories of its people. His first insane act was to attack us with what he still remembered of it." She looks up at me grimly. "Your mere existence is an existential threat, and though I don't know the exact mechanism of our doom, the signs are clear enough. That you have either been hiding your knowledge from us, or are unaware of its significance yourself, implies a trap we cannot afford to spring, and there is only one certain method of defusal."
I shift uncomfortably. "Luna said something about that, too. The Crystal Empire was the grave of a world-ending secret. Is that what happened to Cadance in this version of history? She discovered it and went mad?"
"Most likely, but it's difficult to say," Celestia says. "She was mad when we found her — but she did clearly rule over the Crystal Empire, once, and knew its secrets."
"Found" her? But Cadance was born just a decade before me, right in Canterlot! I need to know that story — that's a major discontinuity — but first, speaking of discontinuities … "Be that as it may, there is an exceptionally simple fact here I literally cannot believe you overlooked. I'm from a version of Equestria where none of this happened. In my history, Starswirl disappeared without a trace near the end of his life and, as far as I can tell, didn't have a thing to do with the Crystal Empire. You're judging me based on your history, when the very first thing we determined is that I changed something huge to get here."
Celestia glances at Luna, who narrows her eyes. Celestia sighs. "I had been afraid that calling out the inadequacies of your story would let you refine it and further obfuscate the truth … but at this point, if that's your goal, it's already too late to stop you. So: The logic you mention, coupled with the second spirit Luna detected within you, was the key flaw in your tale."
"It's not a 'flaw' because I'm still not lying," I say defensively, then force myself to take a slow breath. Keeping myself from turning this into an argument is taking everything I've got; how stupidly ironic that, after all the looping I've done, I can't afford to replay through this to say what needs to be said. "And it looks like, for us to get anywhere, I need to convince you of that. That means figuring out the source of the contradictions here."
Celestia nods, not looking at Luna this time. Progress? "Twilight, think about the history you remember growing up in. For instance, you told me after returning from Skyrend Mountain that you remembered Mi Amore Cadenza foalsitting you."
"Just to be clear — here she didn't?" I interject.
"Heavens, no. Now … I know the exact spell you cast to begin looping. That spell merely preserves the contents of the loops in which you died, and restores them to you when you reset. It leaves completely untouched your memories from before you cast the spell."
We've been over this. "And I wasn't looping as a foal. So … if I had triggered a change in the past during one of my loops, like we first thought, then both before and after I cast the looping spell four days ago, I would remember this past, without Cadance as a foalsitter." I think this is starting to come together.
"Correct. In fact, if you were any possible version of Twilight Sparkle, you would remember our past — unless the second consciousness in your body unstuck you in time as the Nightmare did Cadenza."
Right there, where I said this was starting to come together? I lied.
But I have to stay focused. Stick to the trust issue. "Let me stop you there, because — as Luna pointed out repeatedly — the Elements protected me. You know that I'm Twilight, and that there's no Nightmare here."
"All I know is that the Elements were explosively disabled while a foreign consciousness was operating within the Bearer of Magic's mind."
"Celestia," Luna says, voice dark with warning.
"Hers," Celestia adds hurriedly, gesturing to me as she looks at her sister. "And if she could call upon the power to do that, she could just as easily have arranged your deception." She glances between us. "It's the only explanation I've found. So please offer a non-contradictory alternative — accounting for a second, foreign consciousness being drawn into Twilight Sparkle's body when a mere time loop spell is cast, and Twilight herself having her memories overwritten in ways the spell itself is incapable of."
"I do not have one," Luna says immediately. "But a failure to understand should not preclude acceptance."
"Even when our continued existence is at stake?"
"Especially then. When the stakes are so high, we must confront that which confounds us with open eyes, and be prepared to follow the truth where it leads."
Celestia shakes her head and sighs. "Luna, for your sake I've probably already doomed us by being honest about my suspicions. I draw the line at discarding them until there is some glimmer of hope beyond the contradictions."
I clear my throat. "Then let's find one."
"I've tried. Believe me, I've tried. But I'm listening." Celestia shifts her body to face me full-on, sitting on the ground and staring at me intently.
My mind starts racing in five different directions at once. No pressure. "Uh, for starters, saying 'any' possible version of Twilight is ruling out a lot. Couldn't some previous version of me back before the changes have seriously glitched up their time spell and, I don't know, screwed it up badly enough that me-Twilight accidentally swapped loops with here-Twilight? That would also explain the explosive feedback when I cast the spell."
Celestia's response is immediate. "That doesn't match the story you told, doesn't explain the second presence, and time loops don't work that way."
She ticks a forehoof at ninety-degree intervals around the circle of her other upturned hoof, visually counting off the possibilities as she rattles through them. "You can't be from our past brought forward, or I would remember the interactions with me that you claim. You can't be from our future brought backward, or future-you would have remembered all of current-you's time loops the first time that future-you ever cast a loop spell. You can't be the Twilight of a different loop, or you'd simply have differing memories within the loops, and we run into the remembering-the-past dilemma. You can't be from different loops' past or futures, same reason. That leaves unstuck in time: yanked from a failed branch of our history which no longer exists to anchor your spirit, and reinserted here by some saboteur to unknowingly overwrite your more innocent self. Who's the second presence, then, the quiescent one along for the ride? The one who selected you, brought you here, and is controlling you. Unless that presence is the Elements — which makes no sense, since they already have Bearers here and could have exerted far more direct influence with far less hassle — the only entities with the power to manipulate time and mind to that extent are the Nightmare; Discord, who's neutralized; or some heretofore unknown remnant of Starswirl, who's dead. Even if it's somehow one of the latter, they're insane tyrants bent on our destruction."
It's cold comfort that Celestia has thought this through in a lot more depth than I did, because now I'm starting to worry about myself too. Is there some weird Nightmare sleeper agent thing going on? Is that why the Elements acted so strange, giving me a loop to follow that not only made no sense but broke my brain?
I try to shake off that unease. There's got to be something we're missing. "Okay. Um. The Elements," I think out loud. As good a place to start as any. "When Harmony gave me The One Loop …" and made me lie to Celestia … "I wondered if it was a test of some kind. So … maybe all this is a test? My presence here is clearly impossible. Maybe none of this is real and I'm stuck in a simulation."
Celestia raises an eyebrow. "No offense, Twilight, but I think your version of me let you read one too many philosophy books without proper supervision."
I feel my cheeks heat. She's right, that was just silly. And if I'd thought for a few seconds before shooting my mouth off, I would have remembered the big clue right away.
"Sorry," I say. "But that does remind me of something I saw when talking to Harmony — another me. Princess … your sister told me that, back when you thought I was the Nightmare, you thought the second presence was Twilight. But she said that since I'm Twilight, that's impossible. Why?"
Celestia puts her hoof to the bridge of her muzzle. "Because our timeline can only have one of you. Really, Twilight, do we have to have The Talk about lexually transmitted malaise?"
"There is more than one of me, though. I saw it!"
"I am reluctant to question the evidence of your senses," Luna says, "but my sister is correct. Becoming unstuck in time, and then reinserted at a moment when another Twilight Sparkle existed, would cause the timeline to overwrite one of you to avoid paradox. You would be lost entirely, or replace her consciousness entirely." She shrugs. "You say you saw this when you spoke with the power behind the Elements of Harmony? Perhaps it was not entirely a literal experience."
I'm not going to let it go that easily. "I met myself before, though, when I time-traveled a week back to the past —"
"And there was only one of you then — just with your timeline kinked to briefly intersect itself," Celestia says. "Yourself from the future would still be you inside your brain, not a separate consciousness. At any rate, the evidence has already ruled out time travel."
"Okay then." I tap a hoof to my chin. I know what I saw, and I know I'm onto something here — but we're still in "that's impossible" territory, so I need to think further outside the box.
"I believe Twilight Sparkle has raised an excellent point," Luna says while I ponder. "We would be far closer to the truth of this matter were we simply to reset, separate her from her companion spirit, and discover its identity."
"Uh …" Resetting? Bad idea.
"We would," Celestia says, staring at me, "but Twilight doesn't seem to be a fan of that idea."
I feel my face heat. "I am, but not yet." I consider for a moment, and honesty seems harmless: "I'm just as curious as you are, but this is the last time I have a guarantee that we'll talk about the answers we find." If something's wrong here and that spirit isn't another Twilight, anyhow. A second Twilight would exonerate me, but my doubts are a little too scary right now for me to leap blindly at that chance. The voice of reason nags at me: How could a second Twilight Sparkle exist, if any possible version of me is treated by the timeline as identical?
… By this timeline as identical.
"Hmm," I say, rolling the thought around in my head. It's crazy, but … "I can't help but notice when you were ruling out alternate-loop Twilights, you didn't even mention parallel dimensions."
"Because that's impossible," Celestia says without hesitation.
"One, would everypony stop saying that word, and two, since everything about this is impossible, would you stop treating that as self-evident and explain what in Tartarus you mean?"
She sighs, exasperation creeping in. "Even if parallel dimensions exist, there's no way to get another Twilight into our timeline. Like Luna just said, we can only have one of you."
"But that thing about overwriting almost seems to fit what we know, and parallel dimensions would fill in the gaps." An idea takes coherent form. "If I'm from, not just another timeline branch, but a place where something fundamental is different, I might have been drawn to this dimension's Twilight by her jerry-rigged looping spell, which was crude enough to identify us as identical — but the timelines didn't match closely enough for my consciousness to overwrite the original's, and so your Twilight is also left behind. I know the idea's kinda out there, but you're being suspiciously knee-jerk about denying it."
"It's not denial, Twilight, it's Starswirl's Seventh Law. One of the most basic foundations of applied tempomancy. If you know enough to cast a time loop spell, I refuse to believe you don't know it inside and out."
I frown. "I'm pretty certain the Seventh bans nothing of the sort."
She's briefly silent. "Right. You remember a different history; your numbering might have changed. Which one is the equation that defines the difference in thaumic potential between two anchor points in temporal branchspace?"
I turn to Luna. "Princess, should a memory charm be safe for me?" She nods, and to triple-check, I sift through everything I remember of a few loops' worth of intensive research way back at the beginning of all this. "That would be the Ninth, and I still don't follow your logic."
"Really, Twilight? You of all ponies need this explained?" Celestia raises an eyebrow. "It's obvious from the equation. D(t) equals the inner branch product of A1 and A2, divided by the product of H1 minus P1,2 and H2 minus P2,1."
In the corner of my vision, I see Spike's eyes glaze over at the math. I'm equally thrown, for a different reason. "Uh … you lost me just past A2."
"The divisor is the product of both timelines' branch height minus their temporal prominence."
"Prominence measures the relative divergence of two anchor points from the latest common branch point they share," Luna adds. "If the branches are, so to speak, on two different trees, then the prominence would be equivalent to the entire height. Thus, you would twice divide by zero."
"Resulting in infinite thaumic feedback the moment any connection to a parallel timeline is established," Celestia says, "and a runaway feedback loop resulting in the immediate and complete destruction of both universes. In laypony's terms, our existence rules out any sort of connection which would lead to us speaking to a parallel you."
I shut my hanging jaw and finally manage to clarify. "It's not the math that lost me. Just to be clear, this was sane Starswirl's work, right?"
Celestia and Luna exchange a glance. "Of course," Luna says. "Though near the end. And it has been borne out ever since by test upon test."
"Because in my history, all evidence suggests that he disappeared while testing the Ninth, but the world survived long enough to create me. And, more importantly, the version I learned has no divisor at all."
The room goes silent except for the ticking of the clock.
"I know we're talking right now about a number of things that aren't as impossible as they seem, but that's extra impossible," Celestia says slowly.
"The laws of magic are fundamental descriptions of the underlying principles of reality," Luna says. "They do not change from place to place — even dimension to dimension, if the dimensions are cross-accessible. Your suggestion that Starswirl's Seventh Law is different in your history makes no more sense than saying that … let us suppose … if one were to fly to Qilin, light were to take up space, and a well-lit room were to be half the size of a darkened one."
I hold up a quill and a scroll, and grin widely.
"Yes," I say, "it's impossible. But, at long last, we have a testable impossible."
Five minutes later, we're crowded around a table, collectively scribbling on scrolls, parchment, the empty notebook I've been carrying in my saddlebags since before the looping started, and a stray napkin that managed to find its way into the pile.
"This is sheerest madness," Luna mutters, holding up a succession of equations side by side. "Starswirl's Seventh Law is integral to the field equations which underlie the entire discipline of tempomancy. Every single time spell ever created validates its formulation. To alter it should render the temporal spells we know wholly uncastable. And yet there is a remarkable consistency to the incorrectness of results obtained using the law which Twilight Sparkle proposes. I suspect some deeper truth at play."
"My version of the time spell did work, or I wouldn't be here," I say, my head starting to ache from genuine, good old-fashioned academic focus. It's a nice ache. "And no offense, but this timeline's version of Starswirl was a hack."
"On the contrary, Starswirl was the single smartest pony to have ever lived," Luna says flatly.
Celestia doesn't look up from her furious scribbling; she's filling up page after page trying to subtract the two field equations from each other. "Luna was one of the few ponies that could hope to keep up with him —"
"More or less."
"— and even with the benefit of both of their notes, after Luna's banishment it took me a decade to derive a castable looping spell, and two lifetimes to understand it. So if you're saying that the Starswirl you remember was smarter than the one who created this discipline, forgive me if I'm dubious."
I set down my quill. "Fair enough. But I'm trying to recreate my work on his unfinished spell I cast to start looping — using your Seventh Law instead of my Ninth — and when I do the matrix algebra, the extra variables in the divisors explode out into this ridiculous sequence of additional terms that add three dimensions to the hypermanifold. My brain locked up around the time I had to visualize its discontinuities in n-space. How did pre-looping me even cast this without help?"
"The spell in the archives wasn't his. It was a simplified version of my own completed looping spell, with all of the math pre-derived but missing a few key components a sufficiently clever mage could deduce from scratch."
"Huh." It was Celestia's looping spell I cast in this history? "Then when you —"
"And before you ask, no, I didn't point you at it. I stored it there as a contingency, and you stumbled across it. I've got a lot of those around."
I nod, considering. Suddenly, there's room for my original doubts to creep back in, but on this one the circumstantial evidence is still on her side. It would have saved both of us a great deal of heartache if she'd simply asked me for my help instead of maneuvering me into looping, and no matter her motives, I can still trust her to be smart enough to act in her own self-interest. I try to shake the suspicion and refocus. "So … how are those equations coming?"
"Slowly. Maybe you should take a look." Celestia sets down her own quill for a moment and tilts her head back to work out a crick from her neck. "You know, I always figured a mage of your talents would discover the loop spell someday — but I designed those missing pieces to take several days' work to derive, so I'd have enough lead time to keep tabs on anypony who requested access to the scrolls. Can you imagine my surprise to find out that you had solved it before I even got the report that you'd visited the Archives? That puts you on a level with geniuses like Clover."
I feel my face heat. Did … did she just call me smarter than her? It's not quite me she's complimenting — it's the other, pre-looping Twilight — but even so, my heart skips a beat before my brain notices and kicks it back into its cage. I shouldn't take her words at face value right now, it warns. Maybe she's trying to stroke my ego so I relax and get careless.
… Augh! I hate this! Celestia's paranoia is infectious. She's probably just trying to be nice, but given my situation, I can't afford not to be suspicious. Which means I won't be cooperating fully, which means she'll have further grounds for suspicion, which means she won't cooperate … is that all I have to look forward to if the math doesn't convince her? Suspicion forever?
To my relief, a distraction sidelines that thought before it starts spiraling in earnest. Luna gasps, then leaps up and slams her hooves to the table. "T squared!"
"T what?" Celestia and I chorus.
"T squared! The thaumological constant."
"Again, what?" I ask.
"Oh! T." Celestia turns to me. "That's the base energy potential of the background thaumic field."
"… You have a constant for that?" I say, confused. "I thought Starswirl's definition of 'thaum' was based on energy potential, so by definition that's 1."
"No," Celestia says. "The thaum is based on the energy required to invoke a reference spell Starswirl created for measurement purposes. T is 2.718 thaums per bushel per second."
"The square of which is present as a necessary conversion factor in nigh unto every single equation in modern thaumic theory, including the loop spell you cast four days ago." Luna flips her calculations around and gestures to her sheet. "In the case when both branches are on the same timeline — as we had assumed they must be, if parallel universes were inaccessible — then the magnitude of the branch height minus the prominence will be identical no matter the contact points one chooses. And when one applies last century's discovery of Foaler's Identity …" She taps the first line of her notes, where she wrote the divisor that distinguishes their Seventh Law from my Ninth, and then the final line: = (T * T). "The divisor cancels out wholly with the square of the thaumological constant, leaving Twilight Sparkle's simplified equation."
I snatch the pages from Luna and skim through the equations. "So Starswirl did screw up his math! Your spell's way more complex than it needs to be — so complex that sorting the problem out took you a thousand years and extradimensional help — and he hid that goof by canceling it out with a constant that's complicating literally everything else you cast."
Luna holds up a hoof. "Do not leap to conclusions. You say that you did not expect your spell to work as it did in bringing you to us. Is it possible that our Starswirl outlined a more complete general case, and due to the false simplicity of the equation you used, it only produces the expected results when used within a single timeline?"
"No," I say, a little churlishly. "Your Starswirl was wrong. He went crazy."
A frown flits onto Luna's muzzle. "He was driven to madness by his dark research, but it affected his intellect not a whit. There is no need to impugn his memory so."
"Well, if he hadn't screwed up," I say with calmness I don't feel, "there wouldn't have been a need to torture me, because instead of talking about impossibilities you could have theorized that I was a parallel-universe Twilight and talked things out peacefully. So forgive me if I'm the tiniest bit upset at him."
Luna looks away, emotions warring on her muzzle. "Twilight Sparkle, Starswirl sacrificed everything, including his own sanity, to save us all. Think not ill of him for a single mathematical error. Our mistakes in mistreating you are our own."
"Actually," Celestia says slowly, "I don't think it was a mistake."
Oh, that is it. I whirl on her, ready to say something that hopefully she'll regret more than me, but even as I'm moving her eyes go wide and she holds up both forehooves. "Starswirl! Starswirl's mistake wasn't, because I think he did it deliberately."
I bite back my words, deflected but not entirely mollified — is this some attempt to pass the bit for her screw-up? — as Luna's wings fluff out in a way I recognize from watching Rainbow Dash read a bad performance review. "Sister," she says with quiet menace.
Celestia swallows, caught between us, and some quiet inner part of me giggles in schadenpferde. "Set aside your feelings for him and think, Luna," Celestia pleads. "If this Twilight wasn't unstuck in time by a hostile force, then her very presence suggests her math is the correct one. But if that simpler formulation worked, why would Starswirl write a Seventh Law that created such complications in his own spellcasting? In this Twilight's history, he was able to discover the simpler version, so I'm dubious that the one we knew would have been incapable. And you don't introduce such complexity without some benefit."
Luna sets her jaw, takes several breaths through her nose, and begins pacing. "Thy point strikes true. The additional complexity adds naught but interference with advanced spellcraft." Her wings resettle as she walks. "Literally the only benefit of our Seventh Law over her Ninth is in identifying cross-dimensional contact as impossible."
"Convincing everypony it's impossible," I correct. "Falsely."
Celestia nods. "I agree." That feels like an accomplishment — having her back me up on something. It would feel like more of one if she were meeting my eyes. "We know he tried to bury the knowledge of the Crystal Empire. It would seem that wasn't all he was trying to hide."
"But why would he go to such trouble to lie about parallel dimensions?" I ask — and as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realize why she's avoiding my gaze, and my heart sinks. "You think he was protecting you from me, don't you."
Celestia closes her eyes for several moments before answering. "That does appear to be the most likely possibility, yes."
"Princess," I plead, thoughts of more loops of lies already filling my head. With what I know, I might be able to salvage this regardless of how she acts … but, for my sanity's sake, I need this to work. The alternative is that downward spiral. "Don't do this to me."
She sighs. "It's how I feel. Would you rather I lied to you about that? But … at the same time, that's not fair. It's not fair to you, or to Luna. I asked you for a glimmer of hope, and you've offered that. It's clear you legitimately are a different universe's Twilight — I can't imagine you came up with math correcting one of our fundamental magical laws on the spur of the moment — and if I was wrong about that … well …"
Hope cautiously stirs in my chest. "Then you were also wrong about me?"
But Celestia hesitates, and my heart sinks again. "Starswirl clearly didn't want us talking with you, but …" Her muzzle contorts. "No, that's not clear. Maybe it wasn't you he was concerned about. Maybe … maybe … this is a big coincidence." She closes her eyes. "No. That's simply not the way the universe works! At every level of existence, a higher order is imposed upon the lower. There are no coincidences — not unless another higher power like Discord or the Nightmare is stepping in to create dissonance."
"We cannot rely upon that logic to comprehend our situation," Luna says. "This Twilight Sparkle is not from our universe."
"I know," Celestia says, pressing her hoof to the bridge of her nose. "But I don't know what it means. I … don't … know. And I can't. Our evidence is too indirect."
I sigh and step down from my chair. That's it. I keep saying that, but this time it's different — resignation rather than frustration. I can't handle being strung along like this, not after everything I've endured and everything I've tried. "Well, think about it, then," I say heavily, "and call me when you figure out what the hay it's going to take for you to trust me." I ignore the tiny voice in my head pleading for me to bite it back for the sake of diplomacy. "Because here's something I do know: I've gone above and beyond, trying to give you a chance, and I don't see you bringing anything to the table except your stupid and poisonous suspicion. I'm sick of this. I'm sick of concessions. Sick of my fate being in your hooves. I'm sick of trying to save Equestria from you thinking that you're doing something good here, because this —" I sweep my hoof around the room — "is what happened when we tried it your way. I … I can't try any more, Princess. I can't make you be part of the solution, and you're not going to get anywhere but here until you decide to change."
I turn and stomp toward the side chamber. I wish I could say that that felt good, but there's no catharsis in it, only the bitter tang of failure. I didn't get through … back to the lies.
"Twilight," she says in a shaky voice as I light my horn around the door-grip, "wait."
… No. Not going to hope. I'll listen, but I've been jerked around one too many times to expect to hear anything I like. "What."
Rebellious hope stirs just enough for me to look back. "I'm sorry? I didn't hear that. Could you say it again? Perhaps with a little more groveling?"
Celestia looks about as small as it's possible for an alicorn to get. She's sitting on her haunches, legs pressed together, with wings tightly tucked in and head lowered. Even her mane seems wilted, pressed in against her body. "You're right," she says. "Something's got to change. I need your help — which means I have to trust you."
Luna frowns. "Celestia, trust should not be based on such cold calculation —"
Celestia holds up a hoof. "I was going somewhere with that. I have to trust you, Twilight … but underlying that trust, I need to know that our universe is safe from your knowledge. And this is where I'm failing both you and the world. I can't. I can't ignore Starswirl's fears, especially after the lengths he went to. But that's an impossible burden of proof. How could you possibly prove you're innocent of something that we know is coming but not how — something which you seem to know nothing about, which we might trigger by investigating?"
At that, the so-dumb-it's-brilliant voice begins to stir at the back of my brain. I hush it — I want to know where this is leading. "I appreciate that you recognize that. And?"
"And you're right about our impasse. The alternative to reconciling is Chrysalis … and to be honest, I'd rather see the world end than watch everything I love get torn apart, and then spend centuries rebuilding a shattered country the way I did after Luna's banishment." Celestia finally looks at me, her eyes weary. "You said I have to trust you for us to work together. I simply can't think of a way for that to happen honestly. But I do have a codeword that means Luna's investigation cleared you of suspicion. If I give that to you, we can proceed from next loop as if we had found a way to come to terms."
I have absolutely no idea how to respond to that. "You want me to lie to you?"
She shifts uncomfortably. "I'm asking you to do something impossible; this just lets us proceed as if you had. Everything about this situation is already impossible. Does that really make it a lie?"
The shock of the idea is quickly wearing off, being replaced by the earlier gnawing horror of the trust spiral. "Yes! Yes, it does. I can't believe you're considering that." I mean, I was, but that was a temporary measure to let me go find whoever changed history; she's talking about it as a long-term foundation for cooperation. "You're going to want details, and I'm going to have to cobble together some story that sooner or later will fall apart, and then we're back here again except with even more distrust. Did neither of us learn anything from the teachable moment?"
Celestia grimaces. "Twilight, if I wanted to resolve this with lies, I'd have pitched this idea as some sort of genuine reconciliation, and tried to build some sort of inconsistency into the process that I would notice later on. For Luna's sake, and yours, I'm being totally honest about my position, so that you can move forward knowing exactly where I stand. I'm asking you to help me lie to myself, because it's too important to establish trust, and my suspicions won't let me."
I shake my head firmly. "You're making an effort. I have to give you credit for that. But it's still a horrible idea."
Luna clears her throat, glancing between the two of us. "My sister does raise an excellent point: if trust cannot be established, we all lose. I hardly see an alternative. Twilight, how else do you propose to lay a foundation upon which she may have faith in your motives?"
The so-dumb-it's-brilliant corner of my brain is screaming at full volume now, and with an opening like that, there's no way I can hold it back any longer.
Change the game.
"By doing something that a hostile looper would never do," I blurt out, and before my logic centers can stop me: "Spill the beans on my plan to end the world."
There's a deafening silence, like the aftermath of one of those entropic entanglement experiments that first-year thaumodynamics students use to prank each other, when the spell discharge has cascaded through the room and the metal orb is glowing red-hot in its cradle while frost crystals grow on every inorganic surface in sight. That's a pretty good analogy for the way I've suddenly sucked up every last jot of attention, too. Even Celestia is staring at me open-mouthed, as if she's trying to figure out whether she heard that right.
Luna clears her throat, breaking the silence. "Ah … Twilight, we are ill served by such jokes." The sentence ends with a hesitant upturn in tone, balancing between a question and a denial.
"It's not a joke. I've seen the future, and I've been shown exactly how to destroy the timeline. I reset, say 'Whitetail' —" I hear Celestia draw in a sharp breath as she realizes her codes are compromised — "release the Smooze to create an existential threat that forces the Princess and Chrysalis to work together, broker a cease-fire between them, and then manually trigger the Elements of Harmony into exploding everything after I've talked everyone into stopping their loop spell." With The One Loop gone, I have no idea how I'd make that work, so for good measure, I add: "I tried that already, by the way, but my brain broke. I do appreciate you fixing that." That last bit is aimed at Luna, whose cheeks are turning an ugly shade of grey as the color drains from them.
"You did try to end us," Celestia says slowly, her face contorting somewhere between horror and fury. "Give me one good reason that I shouldn't reset right now and break you."
"Paradox," Luna murmurs. "Twilight …"
I should be panicking right now, but none of the parts of me that are prudent enough to do so are in charge. I look intently into Celestia's eyes, matching her fire with something vaguely resembling Luna's earlier frost. "That. Also, because I really am going somewhere with this. We both know that with your voice trigger, you can reset faster than I can, so there's no reason to do anything rash. Hear me out."
Celestia stares at me for several tense seconds, just long enough for the rational part of my brain to recover and call for a vote to impeach the so-dumb-it's-brilliant part. The Braintown Council passes the motion, but Mayor Dumb vetoes it — she still has a few tricks left.
Finally, Celestia growls, "I don't know what your game is, but I'm hardly in the mood for ultimatums."
"There won't be any." I lean forward. "Because I literally have nothing to gain from telling you this. Wouldn't you agree? I already have what I would need if my intentions were bad. Even if I didn't, all I had to do was shut up and let you give me your trust code, and then, next loop, fish everything else out of a more cooperative you. For the same reason, there's no point in me lying, not when I could have waited and lied to a receptive audience. Any benefit I might get out of speaking up is completely negated by the fact I could have gotten that same benefit more easily and safely by waiting."
She thinks for a moment. "But you have nothing to lose, either, since you have a guarantee we won't remember this."
I feel my chest tighten. This is the point of no return. But it'll work … it has to work.
I steady myself and talk through the logic. "There's another thing the teachable moment taught me. Remember when you stopped me from walking away by pointing out how you could have taken advantage of it? Even when you can't trust words, you can trust sacrifice." Deep breath. "So you're wrong, Princess. You are going to remember all of this … because Princess Luna is going to teach you her memory cache spell, and you're going to record all of this in my brain."
"What?" Celestia thunders, but she's not looking at me.
Luna cringes, pinned like an entomologist's specimen. "Twilight," she begs, trying her hardest not to acknowledge her sister. "Do not do this."
I turn to her. This is the painful part. "I'm sorry," I say. "You trusted me, and I should honor that, but this is a secret you can't hide. You were willing to bend your rules and store a cache in me so that I could prevent you from doing something even more terrible. Well, you heard your sister's suggestion earlier. Without your help, our best-case scenario is a future of deliberate lies and toxic mistrust, adding up to the same problems not just for me but for her, and you, and the whole world. If there's a higher principle worth bending the rules for, it has to be this. We'll be less evil with the spell than without."
"No. It is not necessary. Hold this conversation in subsequent loops, and replay it until it is communicated."
"That won't work, and you know it. We can't establish trust when we're not remembering the same conversation; there's no way to prove we didn't game it. But this is a unique moment to establish honesty. It's the one loop that we can guarantee neither of us is replaying it for advantage — Princess Celestia can't reset without causing a paradox, and I can't reset without repairing my memories, which you would have noticed when you were fixing me back at the start of the loop. So we have to both remember it, and it has to be now."
"Even if it is necessary this once," Luna says in increasing desperation, "once the spell is learned, it will grow into a source of temptation. It will seem the answer to less and less urgent problems, until it is misused, then misused routinely. I have fallen prey to that darkness, Twilight Sparkle, and I cannot allow either of you to do the same."
"Which is why, every time we update our caches, you'll do so too," I say. "Help us, Luna. You know how time loops can change a pony. We need you as a conscience."
Luna closes her eyes, and Celestia takes advantage of the pause. "You told me the Elements of Harmony purged the dark magic from your brain when they cleansed you," she says, quietly but with a hard edge.
"They did," Luna responds, voice faint. "But they did not purge it from yours."
Celestia's jaw opens and closes. "You stored a cache in my mind," she manages. "Unbelievable."
"While under sway of the Nightmare. After my cleansing, I retrieved the cache in secret to learn more of its methods, that I might better recognize and combat it should it return. But I have never dared put that knowledge to use. Even now, had I not failed Twilight Sparkle so horribly, it would yet lie fallow."
Celestia shakes her head. "That is … just … that's not acceptable, Luna."
"I was aware," she says quietly. "That is why I did not inform you."
I feel the conversation drifting out of control, so I edge back in. "You know," I say placatingly, "we've all got secrets right now that we didn't want to come out. Celestia, you almost fought your sister to hold onto yours. Luna, you've been lying to her all this time." They both look away from each other. "Speaking of which, you bet your marks I'm freaking out about what's going to happen to me once we reset and you remember that I tried to destroy the world two loops ago. Maybe it's time to admit we all did some wrong things with the best of intentions — and realize that things have to change, starting now."
Celestia sighs. "This is a lot to take in all at once. What's behind your change of heart?"
Mayor Dumb hadn't thought that far ahead. "Well," I stall as ordinary logic steps back in, "it's become clear to me that, when you're looping, secrets are every bit as dangerous as lies — and we can't afford to waste our efforts playing trust games with each other." Instinct lends logic a helping hoof. "I was too scared of what you'd do to me to come clean right away, but I'm starting to think we've got a bigger problem here that we need to cooperate to solve, and I'm not talking about Chrysalis."
I look Celestia in the eyes. "The only reason I was trying to destroy the world — and the only reason I know your code — is that, when the Elements of Harmony saved me after your brain-rip killed me and created a paradox, they told me to. They might be broken. Not just exploded-to-save-me broken, but something more fundamentally wrong." I briefly run through my visit with Harmony, leaving nothing out this time. They both listen in shocked silence.
"That's why I started to have second thoughts," I continue. "At the time — especially considering what you'd just done — I was totally convinced that destroying the world was a good thing, but once I started to think critically about it, the idea fell apart. Once I realized the implementation violated the spirit of at least one of the Elements, I decided that I wouldn't do it unless I was able to convince both of you to help. If it's genuinely true that our destruction is the best path, that truth should stand up to study and debate."
Celestia nods, her mind clearly elsewhere. Luna glances uncertainly at her sister.
"… Right?" I add.
"I'm sorry," Celestia says. "Give me a minute."
The room lapses into silence. I try not to let it get to me. Celestia was right — this is a lot to process all at once. But I can't help but feel terror creeping in by degrees. Was this really a good idea? I've built a long and fragile chain with the truth — all it takes is one weak link for her paranoia to sunder, and then I've put myself in her hooves and wrecked my only viable Plan B. And the truth is pretty far out there.
I suppose I could bail out and reset before Luna teaches Celestia the cache spell — but that could be bad, because like an idiot I brought all this up before Luna checked the math on how the Euthanatos affects the lich-necklace-thing. At least I can still emergency-reset if Celestia refuses to trust me, right? … except that now I've given her too much incentive to remember this. In her horseshoes, if I was being paranoid I'd lie and reconcile and learn the spell, and then leave myself a warning in the cache to get rid of looping-Twilight ASAP. So I can't trust her signals —
Luna's hoof prodding at my shoulder breaks me out of my spiraling panic. "Twilight?"
"Given all that has been discussed, I shall do as you requested," she says solemnly. "Once you and Celestia are both prepared, we shall review the memory cache spell."
Something about that nags at me — then hits me between the eyes. I bite my lip, then decide the only chance I've got is to double down on the power of the truth; I'm already sunk if this doesn't work, so I can't afford to sabotage my chances by hedging. "No, we won't," I say. "You're going to teach it to Princess Celestia, not me. I said I had nothing to gain from being honest this loop, and as much as I'd like to know the cache spell, I need that to be true. I hope you and Celestia will consider teaching it to me after we straighten this out with a few resets, though."
"Ah," Luna says, her cheeks burning as she realizes that twice in a row she's handed me a gift a hostile looper could have horrendously misused. "I … ah. Just so. Thank you — again — for your honesty."
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Celestia nod. She stands and turns to me, drawing in a deep breath. "Alright then. You've given me quite a lot to think about, Twilight. I … don't know what my word's worth any more, but if you do follow through by telling us of the memory cache after you reset, I promise I'll treat you honestly and fairly, and we'll work together to fix both our problems. And if — when — you tell us of the cache, I think I owe you." Her voice cracks; she visibly swallows. "A … very … sincere apology."
A wave of jumbled emotion — relief and adrenaline and catharsis and that old unstoppable bastard hope — floods my body, seizing my throat and nearly staggering me with vertigo. I want to cry and laugh and flee in terror all at once; this is the end and the beginning and I don't even know if it's genuine and somewhere amid the tsunami I manage to croak out "we'll cross that bridge later" and stumble from the room, turning back halfway to add "come get me when you're done." I start crying before I'm through the door, breathing in great gasps of cold damp air, and for the second time in half an hour I collapse on Spike as he dashes up to me, and all I can think as I sob onto his shoulder is I'm basically going to owe him infinite ice cream once this is all over with.
I have enough time to pull myself back together — fifteen minutes? Twenty? I hadn't been keeping an eye on the clock — and give Spike an abbreviated version of our discoveries before Celestia and Luna return to the evocation room, side by side. "If you are prepared," Luna says, "we are ready to install Celestia's cache and update mine own — at which point I see no further barriers to reset."
I nod numbly. "Alright. Uh … but what about the Euthanatos —"
"After substituting in your Ninth Law for our Seventh, it was a matter of mere minutes to confirm that there was no cause for concern," Luna says. "As the Euthanatos is self-targeted, it will have the same impact on the structure of your crystalline soul storage that it would upon a living brain. It will terminate your consciousness as expected, and with it, the loop. In the spirit of your desire to gain nothing from your honesty, I will refrain from sharing the mathematics with you until a subsequent loop, but I do wish to reassure you that my sister also independently confirmed my work."
I glance over at Celestia, but I can't read her face. I steady myself with the hoof-extension breathing exercise I learned from Cadence, then nod. "Let's do this."
Luna's cache update is the matter of a few moments of hornglow as she stares into my eyes. Celestia's is far more involved — taking an hour of coaching from Luna, with a lot of weird tingling on my part and a brief moment of intense nausea — but at last they finish, and Celestia tells me her cache trigger so I can relay it to her next time. I take what might be the last breath of freedom I ever remember, and …
… And steady myself, and breathe again, and light my horn —
* * *
"Well, that sure didn't work," Spike says.
I open my eyes to a mercifully non-aquamarine evocation room and glance around. Just me and Spike. Alright, that's confusing, but mostly it's a relief. Opening my eyes to Celestia's face might have been more than I could handle.
With that thought, the door creaks open, and she walks in; I can see Luna looking at me through the doorway behind her.
"Good morning, Twilight," Celestia says, giving me a gentle smile. "Delta-2, T-30, C-13."
"Uh, okay," I say, standing up and noting the weight of the phylactery around my neck. My mind starts racing to match my heartbeat. I try to distract myself with loop arithmetic, but sifting through the confusing mess of unexpected deaths since we last compared notes is too challenging right now. "Loop numbers. Um. Are you cross-checking, or telling me?" I could probably work it out with a quill and scroll and five minutes' time, but —
"Telling. It took us five minutes and two pages of notes to work that out last loop," Celestia says. "At any rate, we've got a big change ahead of us. However, you and Luna and I all thought you'd appreciate a moment to reorient and access your memory cache first, since it might be a shock jumping straight to the change from our big moment of honesty. Your cache recovery password is 'Starswirl's Ninth'; look into my eyes and say it out loud."
I let out a short laugh. It worked. Oh, dear stars in heaven, it worked.
"You know what," I say, "I think catching up on the details can wait for a bit. I'd like to bask in the glow of a pleasant surprise for once. This … is a good change, right?"
Celestia's smile broadens. "Good change. There's a brilliant young mage who's looking forward to helping us."
"Then I think it's time to meet them." I charge my horn, and let loose a Euthanatos —
* * *
This time, it's different.
The world blacks out, then flashes and reforms around me — somewhat reminiscent of the pew-bang of teleportation — except that every sense in my body chooses that moment to go haywire. My eyes are open, but I can't see anything through the starbursts exploding into my vision. There's a sharp tang of ozone in my nostrils. The thrum of blood in my ears. Gravity is pressing down on my standing body, with a weight that's probably the phylactery dangling at an odd angle around my neck, and the cold solidity of flat stone underhoof.
Something resembling a voice makes a short, unintelligible noise from a few cubits ahead and slightly to the left, and as my vision starts to clear and my ears begin to pick individual sounds out from the receding static, I hear that voice's owner climb to their hooves. Vague shifting masses of color solidify into blobs, which coalesce into pony-like shapes, white and midnight-blue and a smaller upright purple and … lavender?
I blink rapidly and the images sharpen. Lavender.
"Well," Twilight Sparkle says, standing in the center of the Vaults' evocation circle and dusting off her shoulder with a hoof, "that sure didn't work."
I make a note to watch out for that pit this time around. But I quickly realize that Spike hasn't greeted me with any words this time. I'm conflicted; I know now that I succeeded in making another huge change to history, but once again, I have no memory of the event. Still, at least I know that my plan brought this about.
"Delta-3, T-5, C-5," I say, not presuming to move the counter to Δ-4 just yet. Then I actually look around. I'm back in the library — scratch that; I'm back in Ponyville's own Golden Oaks Library. That might be fortunate, because it suggests I've moved my anchor point even further back.
"I take it," says Princess Luna from somewhere out of sight, "that this is part of how you and my sister were keeping track of time, along with the word 'Clover.'"
"Um. Well, yes." It makes sense that Luna might not have had the system explained to her this early — that is, assuming my hunch is correct and we don't create the notation until several days from now. I'm about to ask the date when I notice something that shouldn't be missing … er, is missing. An evocation circle, to be specific. I put it together swiftly; I'm talking to the Princess of the Night in a place I couldn't actually be right now. "Princess Luna? Not to presume, but why is this a dream?"
"A great many differences exist between the world today, Twilight Sparkle, and your memories thereof." She emerges from the basement, her voice gaining direction as her observed position is made singular. "It is our hope — mine, as well as Celestia's — that I could help to ease your transition."
Her appearance is inexplicably as I remember it from when my friends and I freed her from being Nightmare Moon — great Heavens, is that even close to how I remember it? She's barely taller than I am, her dark blue coat is unadorned but unchanged, and her wavy mane is a single, lighter shade of blue and doesn't actually wave. I've almost concluded this is as it could be, if not should be. But I scream a little that it isn't.
"Princess Luna, your horn!" I race to meet her. "And your wings! What happened?" Wait, that's not what I should be asking. "I mean, why do you … why are you …"
"Why aren't I an alicorn like my sister?" she supplies. But as she says this, she is indeed an alicorn like her sister, exactly what I remember from Nightmare Night and every time I've seen her since. "I sense that your memories are a fair match for mine. It is not I who has drifted most from their original history. I am taking this form," the earth pony continues, "because it best illustrates my message. I am sorry I caused you undue concern, though."
Perhaps I'm noticing this now because I so rarely dream lucidly, and even less so with a partner, but I am struck by how despite looking straight at Luna, I never noticed her change forms. She just looked one way at one point, then another way at another point. But this isn't a paradox that needs untangling now, so I set it aside. "It's okay. Just … before I forget, what day is it?"
"The first of April, eight days before the projected attack."
Good. That might even mean we can prevent the attack. "And … um, have you ever heard of a pony named Cadance?"
"Now that is a vague question," she smirks … cryptically? She really is Celestia's sister. "Had I not been in the Moon for a thousand years, I imagine you would have to choose from a hundred ponies with that name. But you mean the alicorn princess ruling the Crystal Empire with your brother at her side, do you not?"
"Y-yes!" My gambit paid off in spades, and that's a mixed gaming metaphor, but nopony cares! "She's back! We got her back!" I hug earth-Luna's neck and jump around.
"I'm glad this meets your approval," she answers dryly.
Now I'm hanging off her neck for some reason. I register that while the dream-world is probably making excuses for the geometry of our configuration, Luna is still part earth pony in the waking world and absolutely strong enough to hold me up like this.
"Take all the time you need," she adds.
"Oh!" I drop off and scramble to my hooves. "Right … right." I take a few meditative breaths, readying myself for … whatever it is Luna thinks she can't just tell me. "All right, I think I'm ready."
Luna leads me to the front door and knocks. It opens out and she is greeted enthusiastically by an aged pony who must be Princess Celestia. But this is all very confusing; her mane is a single shade of pink, she's barely taller than Luna is now, and as they hug, I see she doesn't have any wings, though she's kept her horn. Oh, and I can't make out anything being said, but that part isn't too strange for a dream.
Celestia leads us through a cluttered room — I'm too busy keeping up to notice any more than that — to a dining table occupied by a unicorn I did not expect. He's not wearing his signature hat and cloak, and his beard's a little short, but Celestia — in the real world — has done a good job of keeping the portraits of him faithful to the real thing over the centuries. "Starswirl the Bearded!"
"Ah!" Only Luna reacts to my outburst. Broken out of her reverie, she now clears her throat. "Yes, you are correct."
I note Starswirl and Celestia's non-reactions. They seem to be … well, Starswirl's having a restrained argument, while Celestia's having a heated discussion.
Luna explains, "Celestia and I weren't always alicorns. This is a composite memory of mine from just after the unification of the tribes."
"Huh?!" That's quite a big piece of history to drop on a pony. I can't imagine what this is softening me up for. "How is that —?"
"Did you think there was a full tribe of alicorns dating back to the paleopony period?"
"I'm not sure how to respond to that." I'm not sure how to res—right. "I mean, nopony talks about what alicorns were like when they were young, and there are only three around — wow, is that the same? You, Celestia, and Cadance being back?"
She nods. "Yes, well. Celestia was a unicorn born into royalty, and went on to become one of the unicorns in charge of raising and setting the Sun. I was not so lucky. As an earth pony born to the same parents, I was clandestinely relegated to the farmer caste and my heritage kept secret."
I glance back at Starswirl. His naturally red eyes are unnaturally jaundiced, and on top of his aggressive gesticulation, this makes him look positively menacing. It's unnerving; I've only seriously studied Starswirl as an intellectual, a pioneer in magic … not so much as a product of his time. "I … had no idea."
"Not many do."
"How did you even find her?"
Luna chuckles. "Strangely enough, it was through my special talent."
I blink. I look to Celestia's familiar sun cutie mark, then to Luna's familiar moon cutie mark. "I must be missing something. I don't think earth ponies were ever involved in raising the Moon. Except you, obviously," I hastily add, "and Celestia if any alicorn counts." But now I'm afraid I've brought up a painful memory. Well, besides this one, where Celestia is trying and, so far, succeeding in keeping civil.
"As it so happened," Luna thankfully interrupts me, "I did not begin raising the Moon until I became an alicorn, well after I earned my mark. It actually came to me in my sleep, when I realized I could enter other ponies' dreams."
What? "What? I —" I sputter. I struggle through constructing my next sentence. "I … am going to … choose to … believe that … in just a few minutes." I sigh heavily. "I mean, I don't think you have to be lying about that, but it's not something I can just wrap my head around." This is nothing short of insane. I mean, I'd always believed that something complicated like — no, that something like shared dreaming required a control over magic only a unicorn or alicorn could exercise. Actually, I could imagine Pinkie Pie popping in without warning, but —
"Hi Twilight! Hi Luna!"
"Oh, for the love of Flourish Prose!" I just imagined that while I was dreaming. Of course she'd show up! Even Luna seems disturbed by the new addition to the dream's cast. "Hello, Pinkie."
"What's for breakunchinner?" She looks over the dining table. "Ooh, honeybread!" She pronks down right between Celestia and Starswirl and slathers butter onto a slice of what I didn't recognize as "honeybread." This is embarrassing in any case, even in a dream, but especially a shared dream with actual witnesses, and now everypony's staring right … at … oh buck me.
Pinkie stops in mid-chew. "Whaf?"
Starswirl erupts from his chair and yells at Pinkie, then at Celestia. Celestia responds forcefully, throwing a protective foreleg in front of Pinkie. Pinkie is enthralled by the battling magical titans and resumes chewing.
"Twilight?" Luna enunciates. "Who is that?"
"That's Pinkie Pie," I just say. "Wait, don't you know her?"
"I have met Pinkie Pie. That is … not quite she."
This is yet another thing I don't immediately understand. I can't ask about it yet, though, because I am transfixed by Pinkie joining the shouting match with a trumpet and a slightly unnecessary mute.
"We should run," Luna says. I agree by starting.
The cluttered room has become a labyrinth now that I need to get through in a hurry. I struggle to move, but Luna catches up and starts bucking walls out of the way. I try to float or teleport the overgrown detritus out of the way, but my magic is strangely sluggish.
Luna reaches the door and opens it with her mouth. I limp through, tripping as she closes the door behind us. Then the rooms behind it explode.
I gasp. "Is it over?"
"It's a dream. We're safe."
Well, Luna may be safe from the dream. But I once got killed by her when — no, no, talk about something else! "So Starswirl the Bearded was, among other things, shamefully racist by today's standards?"
"Most ponies of the time were," she admits. "The discovery of the Fire of Friendship convinced many to change their ways and work for the unification of the tribes, but it was not instantaneous. And Starswirl ... well, he was not only a student to Celestia, but also a teacher to Clover the Clever."
"Ouch. So being literally between the unicorn princess reconnecting with her long-lost earth farmer sister, and one of the co-casters of the original Fire of Friendship …" I can't be witty here. "…adds up to kaboom."
"Yes, quite." Luna is now a full alicorn again. "I carried the treatment I received from Starswirl and others like him past my becoming an alicorn and a princess." She frowns a little. "Which is perhaps a subject I shouldn't tease, but 'tis a story for another time.
"In any case, my previous treatment does not excuse my becoming the Nightmare, but it's a significant part of why I did. I hope we can head off those feelings this time."
Before I can ask what she means, the door slams open and a charred Pinkie Pie stumbles through. "Wow!" she rasps. "I've never seen a pony turn so many colors before! Except maybe Rainbow Dash when you saved her from Discord's brain bamboozling. Let's see, that's one, two …"
I groan. "Princess Luna, I'm sorry Pinkie keeps interrupting."
"It is no problem. She's actually one of the differences I wanted to talk to you about."
"… so nine for Starswirl, and Rainbow dash is six plus cerulean plus magenta … hmm. Do black and white count?"
"Would you have counted them on Starswirl?" I quip.
"I did! But he turned black and white in places he wasn't black and white before, and Dashie only turned black where she was already black and white where she was already white, so that means Starswirl is right between Rainbow Dash and Rainbow Dash with his personal record for turning different colors in a short time!"
"Right … so Luna, what's different about Pinkie Pie in this timeline?"
"The Pinkie Pie I know has wings."
Instantly, the pink pony sprouts pink wings. "Oooh! This is gonna make pranking with Rainbow Dash even better!"
"It really isn't that bad," Luna admonishes. "Now, what do you remember of the other important ponies in your life?"
I knuckle down to form a list. "Well, to start, you're pretty much the same as I remember. Then there's Princess Celestia, who … um …" I fumble as I am surprised to see Celestia walk up beside Luna. "Who looks like that," I finish, pointing lamely.
"There's my mom, Twilight Velvet, and my dad, Night Light." They also appear, beside me. This is obviously going to continue, so I stop worrying about it. "My brother Shining Armor, former captain of the Royal Guard and current husband of Princess Cadance. Spike, my adoptive little-brother-slash-son, who isn't exactly a pony, but he's certainly important enough.
"And in Ponyville, there's of course Pinkie Pie … um …"
She's doing loop-de-loops, which isn't too surprising. "Wheee!" But if this is going to be a proper shortlist, I'm going to need everyone on the same page, so to speak.
"Pinkie, would you please take off those wings and get down here?"
"Aww. Okay!" She pops the wings off and tucks them under one leg. Then she prances down an invisible staircase … come to think of it, the entire room is invisible. And it's not a white void either, just … featureless. But I'm getting distracted. Pinkie's already taken her place.
"Thanks, Pinkie. Anyway, she and I control two of the Elements of Harmony. She has Laughter, I have Magic. Rarity has Generosity —"
"I'm here!" Rarity trills. What the hay, I'll give it to her.
"Then Rainbow Dash has Loyalty …"
"Present and awesome!"
"… Applejack has Honesty …"
"Howdy, Twilight! Princess."
"… and Fluttershy has Kindness."
"… Um … hello …"
"I could go on and on, but is that enough for now?"
"Yes, Twilight. Thank you." She turns to face Celestia. "Sister?"
Celestia politely bows out.
"Celestia is still looping. She is not much different, besides having lived through a thousand-plus years of history yet again." I cringe, but Luna adds, "I'm told Cadance was very helpful in easing the stress."
"Wait," says Cadance. "How do you mean that?" I cringe again, trying to keep mental images unseen.
Luna hesitates. "I mean that's all I heard about it. It's probably nothing more than being a good friend and confidant." That's fair. I'll take it, and Cadance seems to accept it too.
With that potential distraction set aside, Luna continues. "Anyway, your family is also as I remember it." They, too, bow out and fade away. "Your friends are mostly the same, except for Pinkie Pie and this … Fluttershy."
"Eep!" The butter-yellow pegasus reacts to being singled out by curling up as small as possible and covering herself with her wings.
"I recognize her as the bearer of Kindness, but in this version of events, her name is Gold Dust."
She peeks out between her feathers when she hears her new name. "That … doesn't sound so bad."
"Also, her colors are a little deeper than this."
Fluttershy, now Gold Dust, gasps and looks herself over curiously. "Oh my."
"But most strikingly, she's not a pegasus, but a unicorn."
Gold Dust's eyes go wide as her golden wings disappear and a matching golden horn grows from her forehead. "eeeeeeeep!!" She can't cover herself up, but she curls up even tighter than before and hides her face just as well.
"Hey come on," Rainbow Dash interrupts. "Leave her alone!"
"None of this is my doing, Rainbow Dash, I promise."
"What's that?" Applejack chimes in. "Ain't you controllin' the dream?"
"I was," Luna confesses, "but it somehow escaped me."
Several pairs of eyes turn to face me. I go beet-red. "S-sorry!"
"It's okay, Flutterdust. You can borrow my wings." Pinkie lays her detached wings over Gold Dust like two pink blankets and hugs her. "Better?"
"All right," I finally say. "Princess Luna, I have a guess about why this happened, but can you just tell me? Do you know?"
"Yes, well. According to Celestia, when she woke up just after banishing me, she approached the time-looping spell with a certain malaise. She remained the sole ruler of Equestria, but she had to take a more hooves-off approach for her own sanity. She did re-anchor herself in certain extraordinary cases, but she did not micro-manage her subjects' lives, and as a result, different ponies wed and each new generation diverged from her memories.
"There were some similarities in major events she dismissed as coincidence, but as she approached the present day, more and more of the smaller events started lining up. And when Rainbow Dash performed her first Sonic Rainboom, that convinced her history was trying to repeat itself.
"She didn't tell me she knows why this is. All I can say for certain is that you and your friends' parents are slightly different, your grandparents are slightly more different, and the divergences are most apparent five hundred years ago, in the middle."
"That makes sense," I nod. "Well, maybe more sense than the second timeline hugely matching the first timeline. I can accept a lot of confusion about this third timeline matching a little less than that." I survey my friends' assembled images. "So I have basically the same friends, only now there's one earth pony and three unicorns."
"Twilight, dear," Rarity speaks up. "Whatever do you mean?"
Of course I have to answer her. "Well, Luna said most of us were the same as I remember, and between Pinkie and Gold Dust, we have one more unicorn and one less earth pony."
Rarity says nothing, but her eyes tick up to focus on a spot just over mine. Why is that? It couldn't mean …
I touch my forehead. Round. I look to Luna. She nods curtly.
Maybe I should be angry. But Luna just shared something very personal with me to ease this blow, and I can't really fault her for that. Besides, I just finished freaking out about other ponies turning different races, and it's not shocking anymore. Instead, my mind leaps to amazement.
"I can't believe how much sense this makes! We're still an evenly-distributed group, for one thing, but this is something big enough to ask for all that theater you put in front of it! And it even explains why I couldn't use my magic in Starswirl's house; the neural pathways don't lead to anything anymore!"
"Well …" Luna considers for a second. "That last is close enough, I suppose."
The Princess approaches me. "Twilight Sparkle, you were born into this world as an earth pony. I am heartened to see you taking to it so well; the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can assist again in halting the impending changeling invasion. But as I know it will irritate you if I say nothing, I will say this: you lost control earlier because the dream frightened you, and you had your horn in the dream until you realized you don't have it in the waking world." She leans close. "It's not a profound thing, but if your 'neural pathways' story helps you keep the facts in order, then use it."
I chuckle unsteadily. "If you say so, but I guess it does sound a little silly. So, any other big differences I should know about? Am I still the Element of Magic? Have I been studying under Celestia?"
"Yes to both, and not just because she knew you as a unicorn. She tells me you were keeping a diary; this should answer any further questions you have once you find it."
"All right, that sounds fair."
"I believe that's all for now." With that, she lifts a forehoof and silently strikes it down. The world dissipates.
I think I wake up. The first sense to return is unfamiliar, but unthreatening. I haven't woken up this relaxed in ages, and I'm pretty sure that remains true by the calendar.
Second comes a sense of gravity, in the casual sense of which way is down. It travels along my spine, and I realize I am seated in a lotus position, as I've often seen Zecora occupy.
Further senses return faster than I care to put in order. Cool, earthy air fills my lungs, tinged with miscellaneous plant extracts. Forest breezes and animal sounds filter through thick wooden walls. I conclude that I should have asked where I fell asleep, but it's likely to be Zecora's house. I open my eyes, and sure enough, there she is, on the outside of my evocation circle. Her meditative position mirrors my own.
She, too, opens her eyes. "Good afternoon, Twilight," she greets me. "Is everything all right?"
"I think so." Even realizing there were more questions I could have asked earlier, I'm not exactly worried. "If you could humor me a second … what do you know about the spell I just cast?" Wait, I'm an earth pony now; did I cast it? Well, I've seen Zecora do magic, so that's not exactly a reason to think otherwise.
Whether she sees my mild confusion or I hide it sufficiently, she doesn't draw attention to it. "You should be from a future with a differing past," she proposes, "and this change in events may well not be the last."
I'm frankly relieved I don't have to repeat the exercise of trying to re-earn somepony's lost trust. "Yes, that's right." I bring myself to all fours and get my bearings, which includes touching my forehead. Round again. "Heh. I'm going to find it kind of weird living without a horn." Another should-have-asked occurs to me. "So … do I still live in a library in this timeline?"
"Yes, you still live in that lovely tree. A friend will help you out of the Everfree."
I nod. "Makes sense. Even assuming the forest is dangerous in exactly the same ways as I remember it, I won't be able to react the same way. Better to have somepony who still has applicable experience with the area." I make my way to Zecora's front door. "So do I just wait here, or —"
My question is interrupted by both of my ears flopping. That wouldn't be so distracting, nor would the fluttering eyelids shortly after, but then my front legs give out and my face hits the floor.
"Ow," I grunt instead. Strange, that was suspiciously similar to a Pinkie Sense combo: the one for a beautiful rainbow about to grace the sky.
Zecora hurries to my side. "Twilight, if you have a — oh!" She staggers for some reason.
"Sorry Zecora! Hi Twilight! Hi Zecora! Sorry Twilight, Gold Dust couldn't make it, but I could so I did. Are you hungry? I know meditating isn't the same as sleeping, but I don't know if that's one of the differences and you might be hungry anyway even if it is a difference and even if you weren't, I wanted to get an oat burger from the Hay Burger so I figured you'd want me to ask!" The familiar voice matches the familiar logorrhea.
I look up and realize about three things. One, while I had no reason to doubt Luna, I can confirm Pinkie Pie really does have wings. Two, Zecora is massaging her muzzle, so I'm guessing Pinkie hit her with the door. It would appear Zecora says "oh" instead of "ow." Third, I landed just far enough from the front door that if I still had my horn, the door would nearly have taken it off.
But I don't have a horn. I'm an earth pony. And then I realize; that combo was not only suspiciously close to Pinkie's rainbow combo, but suspiciously identical to her "watch out for opening doors" combo. I might have taken Pinkie's Sense.
And that sends my mind racing. Is this Pinkie Sense linked to earth ponies specifically? I'd need a couple more data points to be sure; for example, does Pinkie have Fluttershy's Stare, or did it stick with Gold Dust? And this combo seems to match, but do the others? Speaking of which, they need another name; "combo" suggests "combination," which mathematically suggests order doesn't matter. "Permu"? No, maybe "permute." It ought to stay punchier than "permutation," or even "arrangement." And is this why, at least according to Luna, I'm Celestia's student? I mean to say one of these things out loud, really I do.
• "Erred Earth's Re-had Easter" [Fanfic] — Prawo Jazdy's delightful HR2 homage explores what might have been, if the "easter egg" that I included in Chapter 11 had actually been a cryptic hint that Twilight Sparkle was going to start having some racial issues. NOTE: Currently this is included here (just click on the "previous chapter" link), but should be moving out to its own story soon.
• HR2 Movie Poster[Art] — I commissioned Alexstrasza for cover art, and Alex created this amazing homage to Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Looks even more awesome (and contains some easter eggs) at full resolution.