by RQK

First published

Everything has a price. The smallest of actions, both good and bad, can place many into the grave. The roots run deep, after all, in any and all Equestrias.

A terrible loss has been averted, but even that has a price.

Between the disappearance of several hundred ponies from around the world, strange portals leading to alternate versions of Equestria, an unknown alicorn frequenting Ponyville for secretive reasons, and the arrival of a new race of ponies bringing some ulterior motives, the pieces sowed by Twilight’s fight with the Nameless are set to crash back down.

What happens when friendship fails? Who will take Twilight’s place within the grave?

Feedback - Substitute - Divergence

The Crystal Ball Trilogy is a series of stories which deal with time travel, parallel universes, and other manipulations of time and space. Substitute is the middle story; it is preceded by Feedback and is succeeded by Divergence.

Digital pdf version here
Print book version here

Featured on 7/19/2016!
Goodreads entry~

Ask Me Anything 10/22/16
Ask Me Anything 1/18/17

Edited (with varying degress of contribution) by
sourichan, Kuairu, Thought Prism, Orion Caelum, Corejo, and AlicornPriest


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“Sunset Shimmer, please report to the principal’s office immediately.”

Sunset Shimmer glanced toward the intercom in the ceiling and frowned. Calls to the office were not uncommon, but Principal Celestia rarely spoke so sharply. What’s going on now? she thought.

With a sigh, she took one last look at the books sitting neat and orderly in her locker’s top shelf. She slid all but one into her backpack and then flipped through the pages of that final, sun-covered book to see if there was anything new. She sighed—half in disappointment and half in relief—when that came up negative and she jammed it into her backpack along with the others and then slammed her locker shut.

She dipped into the next available hall, brushing past several students as they laughed and talked about plans for the coming weeks and lamented over recent tests. The standard fare of gossip and rumors flew overhead, but Sunset ignored it all in favor of the dread stewing in her stomach.

She rounded another corner and finally found a source of relief. Four sources, in fact. They had gathered in the center of the hall and they, despite bearing almost no similarities to each other, had the tightest bonds out of everyone in the school. Just the very sight of them usually served to ease whatever tension and stresses she had. Even now, she felt just that, and she faintly smiled.

They all turned to her as she approached.

“Sunset?” Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow and crossing her arms.

“I’m on my way there now,” Sunset replied without missing a beat as she reached them.

They moved forward in anticipation and then collected her in full. “We’re going with you,” Rainbow Dash said, balling her fists.

Sunset nodded. “Yeah.”

They moved forward in unison, zig-zagging through the packed hallways as a single fluid unit. Their strong aura prompted the other students to move toward the lockers on the sides of the hall, leaving a clear path.

Applejack appeared out of a side hall and joined the group without saying a word. Her furrowed brow, a mirroring of the rest of their faces, did the talking for her.

Another girl raced up from behind, pushing her bulky glasses back up her nose. “Oh goodness,” said Twilight Sparkle—the human world’s Twilight Sparkle, “I sure hope it’s not bad news!”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “I’m sure it’s nothin’. Ya know?”

Fluttershy pushed her long, pink hair out of her face. “I’m not sure… we get an awful lot of not-nothing around here…”

“Just as long as it ain’t something we gotta save the world from, it can’t be that bad,” Applejack said.

They arrived in front of a wooden door whose textured window made everything past it a kaleidoscope of browns and whites. It had the words Main Office emblazoned on the center, their former shine lost to scratches and paint tears. Sunset stopped and turned to face them. “I’m hoping we’re just overreacting to this,” she said as she grabbed the door handle. “But I guess, either way, we’re gunna find out.”

The girls stepped into the office. They immediately saw their school’s principal digging through the secretary’s desk, sliding manila folder after manila folder into a drawer.

“Principal Celestia,” Sunset began, stepping into the room, “you wanted to see me?”

Principal Celestia looked up. While she recognized Sunset, her expression remained unreadable. “Yes, yes,” she said, standing up. “I just had a visit from Spike. The other Spike.”

The six looked at each other with worried frowns as light shivered overtook them.

On the other hand, Spike the dog—the native Spike—popped out of Twilight’s backpack, panting happily.

Sunset swallowed. “Y-yes?”

Celestia fetched an amber scroll, all rolled up and tied with a shiny red bow, from atop the keyboard at the end of the desk. A horseshoe seal held it all together. “He told me that I should give this to you,” she said, offering it.

Sunset paused before grabbing it. She frowned at the construction, noted the seal, and shook her head. Her fingers quivered as she broke the seal, her stomach ached as she unfurled the scroll. Whatever it was, it didn’t belong there, and yet there it was.

Sunset skimmed over the contents once, and that was enough to get the gist of it. “Oh, buck me.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. “Sunset Shimmer! Language!”


Twilight frowned. “What is it?”

Sunset pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ease the sudden mental pressure. “I don’t really know…” she said at length, “but it’s something. And chances are I’m going to see it soon.”

At that, she buried herself into the scroll once more, intent on reading the entire thing in silence.

Dear Sunset Shimmer,

I hope that this letter finds you well. I am loath to say this, but I must summon you to Canterlot. There are some important matters I must discuss with you face-to-face. And while I do not wish to impose, especially since I am well aware that you have made a living for yourself in the other world, you must come here tomorrow afternoon.

Please make your school principal aware that you will have to miss class tomorrow. You are permitted to show this letter as proof. I am sure it will be permissible.

Due to circumstances that I am not at liberty to disclose, I cannot offer you any official escort, so you will have to find your own means of transportation. I would suggest the afternoon train from Ponyville.

There is one more thing that I want to mention. I have also summoned one other to be present as the discussion is intended for the both of you. I expect you will meet them as soon as you arrive in Ponyville.

I look forward to speaking with you.

Yours, as always,
Princess Celestia

1 - Home

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Princess Celestia, upon reading the note in her magical grasp, did something she had not done in a long while: she crumpled it. Not all the way, of course, but enough to burn the folds into the parchment forever.

The line of guards before her remained stalwart despite the uncharacteristic display.

Kibitz, her assistant, on the other hoof, regarded her through narrowed eyes and a thoughtful hum.

“Seventeen more?” Princess Celestia asked.

The lead guard nodded, clutching his helmet tighter against his chest. “Yes, Your Highness. From Hoofington.”

Celestia buried her face into the note again and then rolled it up and dropped it, prompting Kibitz to juggle it between his hooves before finally managing to catch it. “The squad before you reported fifteen,” she said, “from Baltimare.”

“...I understand, Your Highness. If I may, how long ago was that?”

Celestia stood frigidly, yet even that faded like an ice sculpture set out during a hot summer day. “Not even a half-hour ago,” she replied.

The guards remained still and silent in their line, but Celestia saw it in their trembling eyes.

“Captain…” she began, pacing about, “chances are what I am going to say will have to leave this room very soon. I’m sure you have heard a few rumors today, and I’m afraid that I must say that they are most likely true.”

The captain said nothing. He only let his jaw shift and then he audibly gulped.

“These numbers you have given me bring the total to nine hundred and twelve,” Celestia said, fixing her gaze on him. “That’s how many ponies have been reported missing in the past forty-eight hours.”

Kibitz’s frown finally grew too large to hide behind his mustache.

“And we have no clues as to why,” she continued. “In all reported cases, they simply vanished.”

The captain shifted, munching on some further words.

Celestia frowned. “Do you have something to say?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied, “we have one other piece of news to report.”

Celestia nodded, urging him to continue.

“We have had reports of strange… anomalies—I think that is the word—from around Equestria, Your Highness. From what I am told, they are portals of some unknown type.”

Celestia shifted uncomfortably. “Portals? Where do they go?”

“We have not tried to venture through them ourselves, but we did some preliminary tests. Whatever is on the other side looks like the exact same spot as our side, but we’ve determined that it is not.”

Celestia remained thoughtful for a few moments. Her eyes ran over the guards in front of her and then to Kibitz who looked up at her expectedly.

Could it be?

“Where have these… portals… been located?” she asked at length.

“We have found two so far,” the captain replied. “The first one is at Neighagra Falls, on the stretch between the two falls. The second one is a lot closer; it’s located in the mountains near here, on some train tracks off the main line.”

Celestia’s expression remained as unreadable as ever, but the shudder that ran down her body betrayed her.

Kibitz, ever used to her tendencies, blinked in response. He grunted and pretended to jot something down on his notepad.

“Kibitz…” she began, “what do my notes say?”

Tucking the quill away, Kibitz jumped to a solitary page in the rear which contained a few choice lines. He scanned them once and looked up. “Your Highness… What I have in your notes concurs with this information.”

Then it is as I thought, she grimly concluded.

“Captain,” Celestia said, straightening herself.

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“I want you to put patrols at each portal site, both those already found and any more that you find. Nopony is to pass through those portals besides myself.” She paused and stroked her chin for a moment. “Or Princess Twilight. She will have as full authority on this as I do. Anypony else, you turn them away. If they continue, you arrest them on sight. Kibitz, a scroll if you please.”

On receiving a sheet from him, as well as a quill, she continued, “In the meantime, you will encourage the citizens to stay away from those portals. Use as much discretion as possible. Dismissed.”

The squad saluted. “Yes, Your Highness!”

As she watched them depart, she furrowed her brow. She then put her quill to her paper. Dear Twilight...

Sunset’s world twisted, turned, pulled her inside out and back again, stretched into what felt like seven unique directions, and then she emerged into reality once more. She wobbled about on her hind legs and then let herself fall forward, planting all four of her newfound hooves on the floor where they belonged.

And even then, the world around her spun faster than she could keep up with, like she had just stumbled off a merry-go-round operating at Pinkie Pie speeds. Finally, the spinning subsided, and she looked around.

Sunset felt like a pinprick within the room that dwarfed her several times over. The crystalline walls, constructed like three-dimensional mosaics, reflected her in their many iridescent faces. Shelves upon shelves of potion tomes and dissertations on matrix theory circled her like the rings around a bullseye. Everywhere she turned, she found leather bounds, paperbacks, and even a few journals tied together with strings.

And Twilight’s probably read everything in here at least twice over, she thought.

Behind her stood the magic mirror in all its glory. She noted the magical compressors bobbing up and down, the pumps thumping along, and the glowing magic streaming through the tubes connecting it all. A brown-colored hardcover book bearing Celestia’s cutie mark nestled itself inside a niche at the top of the machine.

Sunset blinked and looked around the room, finally noting the lack of reception. She cleared her throat. “Hello?”

On receiving no response, she lifted her ears to detect any distant sounds. Nothing.

She trotted through the open doors and into the castle’s spacious halls. She dragged her hooves through the carpet as her gaze wandered along the arches and the varnished wooden doors. All were things she had seen during her last visit to the castle. That much had given her a rudimentary knowledge of how to get to the exit.

As Sunset rounded a corner, she frowned. She’d be screwed if she couldn’t find anypony along the way.

She emerged onto a balcony overlooking the castle’s spacious foyer. She ran her eyes down the impressive columns between her level and the floor far below.

“Hello? Anyone home?” she called again.

Something kerplunked in one of the side rooms, followed closely by the echoing pitter-patter of footsteps. A small, wide-eyed dragon skidded to a halt in the center of the foyer. Spike whirled around, looking in every direction. “Hello!?”

Sunset leaned over the railing. “Spike! I’m up here!”

Spike looked up at her, and a smile zipped across his face. “Sunset!” he exclaimed, waving.

Sunset chuckled and then focused some of her magic into her horn. The balcony disappeared from underneath her and the rest of her world twisted and turned. She reappeared on the floor below, just in time for Spike to leap into her outstretched hooves. “It’s so good to see you again!”

“I missed you too!” Spike replied, nuzzling into her. “It’s been a while!”

“Yeah, sure has.” Sunset laughed and hugged him. “How’s Twilight doing?”

Spike beamed. “She’s doing pretty good,” he replied. “A whole lot of stuff’s happened since you were last here.”

“So I hear. I can’t wait to swap stories with her!”

Someone off to the side cleared their throat, prompting the two to look over. A new mare stepped forward, sporting a notable cyan stripe in her mane. A smile arced across the mare’s face, and while Sunset determined that it was not completely genuine, it was enough for her to give the mare a chance. Everything else seemed tense and her gaze especially vibrant, and that convinced Sunset that this mare was trying to make a good impression.

“Welcome!” the new mare said, giddily swaying in place. “Welcome to the Friendship Castle! We’re very pleased to have you!”

Sunset cocked an eyebrow and smiled back. “Uh… hello!” she said with a wave.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Spike said, “this is Starlight Glimmer. She’s uh… staying at the castle right now. She also got that royal summons too, and she’s going with you tomorrow.”

So, she’s the one, Sunset thought. “Oh… how nice. Good to meet you, Starlight Glimmer.”

Starlight nodded. “You too, Sunset Shimmer.”

“Your name sounds familiar, but I don’t remember where.”

Starlight flinched and made up for it by widening her grin. “So does yours… I can’t remember where I’ve heard your name either.”

Sunset scratched her chin and hummed thoughtfully. “Are you related to Twilight somehow?”

Starlight nodded. “I’m Twilight’s pupil.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Oh,” she said, fixing her gaze on Starlight, “is that right?”

“Yup,” Spike said. “She’s really, really talented with magic. We’ve never seen anypony like her.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing Starlight. “You must be some tough stuff then, huh?”

Starlight thumped her chest with pride. “I can do a thing or two.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that. So, you’re a student then…” She nodded and chuckled. “That makes two of us.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Do... you study under Twilight too?”

Sunset grinned. “I guess you could say that.”

“Oh, I see. I’ve never seen you around the castle before.”

Sunset shrugged. “I study abroad.”

“Study abroad? Study… really?” she asked, turning to Spike.

“Yup,” he replied.

“Huh… imagine that. That’s pretty cool, I guess. It’s good to meet ya.”

Sunset grinned. “Yeah, you too.” She then looked up toward the rest of the castle. She fixed her gaze on the room that, she presumed, they had come from. Both of them. “So hey, where’s Twilight?”

Spike blinked. “Twilight?”

Starlight hummed, biting her lip. “Twilight… well… she’s at that thing somewhere and whatever it was.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

Starlight frowned. “Spike? Help me out here…”

Spike scratched his head. “Well… I kinda don’t really remember exactly where she went, though. I mean, I know she got a letter from Princess Celestia about something somewhere and then the Map called them up that way. Whatever it is, something’s going on.”

Sunset scratched her head. “Map?”

Spike inhaled to give a long reply, thought twice about it, and then said, “There’s a map that sends Twilight and them off to solve friendship problems. It’s called the Cutie Map. I’ll show you later.”

“Say,” Starlight began, glancing down at him, “why didn’t you go with them, Spike?”

“The Map didn’t invite me,” he replied, deadpan.

“Oh,” Starlight said, frowning.

“Sounds like it’s all that important princess stuff,” Sunset said, chuckling nervously. “...Just as long as she doesn’t do anything too dangerous, I guess.”

Spike chuckled. “Nothing they can’t handle.”

“Probably not. Still, I do worry about her sometimes. You know, after what happened.”

Spike looked up, partly blank in the face. And then he nodded solemnly. “Oh, yeah, that. I remember that. That was the last time that you came to Equestria.”

“I came to Equestria because of that.”


Sunset shook her head. “That was bad.”

“I don’t mean to be a bother, but… What?” Starlight asked with a tone of a schoolfilly racing up to a schoolyard tussle.

“Oh yeah, Starlight,” Spike said, “that was a thing that happened. I uh… kinda need to go back and finish this thing before Twilight gets back. Otherwise, I’d tell you all about it. It’s kinda a long story.”

“I could tell ya,” Sunset said. “I think we’re gunna have a lot to talk about, pupil to pupil.”

A silence passed between the three. Spike backed a few steps toward the doorway but paused when the two remained standing there, looking confused.

“Erm,” Sunset said, “I’ve… never been around Ponyville before. Maybe you could show me around?”

Starlight let out the breath she had been holding. “Yeah, sure. I could do that. Sorry, I really am still pretty new to all this,” she said, blushing.

Sunset giggled and wrapped a foreleg around Starlight. “No biggie. I think I might know how that feels.”

“I am kinda curious to hear how Twilight took you on as a student,” Starlight said. “She doesn’t take just anypony on.”

“I know. We can talk about that too.”

Spike continued inching away. “Well, uh, you two do that. Okay? I’ll be here if you need me!” he said. After the two of them gave their acknowledgments, he disappeared through the open doorway.

Starlight giggled. “Twilight gave him a lot to do today, so I guess he’ll really appreciate us being out of his mane. ...Err, scales, I mean.” With that, Starlight led Sunset toward the door. “Come on, Sunset Shimmer, Ponyville awaits!”

* * *

Ponyville had that rustic charm which the human world definitely lacked. Sunset appreciated all the simpler wooden trusses, the rounded shapes, and the way that some lofts jutted out and hung over the side of their respective houses. It contrasted the blocky construction of the residences back home.

Ponies here didn’t have social media like she did. But rather, as she saw dozens upon dozens of ponies in the streets, chatting and laughing with neighbors and passersby, Sunset decided that the fresh air was their social media.

“And that,” Starlight said, pointing toward the largest gingerbread house Sunset had ever laid her eyes on, “is Sugarcube Corner.”

Sunset stopped in front of the structure and took a whiff of the thick syrup of confectionery, the strawberries and jam, the toasty aroma of bread, the milky and fruity caress of completed cakes, all of which drew imaginings of the delights inside, and then she realized it as a familiar smell. It was yet another analog between this world and the human world.

Sunset took it in for a few long moments before she laid a hoof across Starlight’s withers, keeping her gaze fixed on the monolithic structure of sugar all the while. While the smells hinted to her, the no-doubt sweet-tasting building in front of her sold her.

“Pinkie?” she asked.

“Pinkie,” Starlight replied without batting an eye.

The two continued on past, strolling through the groups of ponies within the plaza and into yet another street, talking all the while.

“I dunno, Starlight,” Sunset said. “Rewriting time like you did, trying to get back at Twilight…”

Starlight giggled. “I guess it doesn’t really compare all that much to becoming a… she-demon, really. I don’t know.”

Sunset nodded uncertainly. “I guess we both have done some really weird and messed up stuff, huh?”

“We’re pretty bad ponies,” Starlight said.

“...Were pretty bad ponies,” Sunset countered with a grin.

A grin also spread across Starlight’s face, and then she let out a short chuckle. And then they fell into some short, almost nervous giggles together.

“No, it’s okay,” Sunset continued. “Just... the thing I’m thinking about through all that is the fact that you managed to change history. Just… that part.”

Starlight frowned. “What about it?”

“Well, it goes back to that time where Twilight, you know, died.” Sunset paused to think. “By the way, how much do you know about that? About Twilight dying?”

Starlight grimaced and then nodded. “I heard about it when I was still… scouting around way back when. But Twilight… She doesn’t really talk about it. She might have mentioned it once or twice, but… she never really went into detail about it. So I didn’t know all that much before you told me about it just now.”

“I see.”

“Parallel worlds and infinitely many universes is also sort of a scary prospect, but hey,” Starlight laughed, “the world’s a weird place. If you say you live in a world through Twilight’s mirror where everypony walks on two legs, then I’m not going to argue with it.”

Sunset laughed but said nothing, opting to run her eyes over more of the scenery.

“Which, now that I think about it, also explains that ‘studying abroad’ thing you mentioned,” Starlight added.

Sunset nodded. “It’s a very interesting place. You should have Twilight show you around sometime.”

Starlight nodded as they rounded a corner, and new smells greeted them; the tang of fresh produce begged for their attention. Vendors competed against shoppers in flavorfully heated and animated negotiations. They passed by an apple cart, exchanging waves with Granny Smith as she explained several types of apples to a potential customer: a curious little colt.

“It does make me miss things that happen here, though,” Sunset admitted. “I missed out on all of Tirek, and I heard there was some sort of bugbear around here sometime recently? Something like that.”

Starlight giggled. “I would imagine.”

Sunset shrugged. “It’d be nice to know what all goes on here, I think. I really should visit more often.” She hummed to herself as she watched a couple perched on a bench amidst a plate full of fresh muffins.

Starlight nodded. “I guess the biggest thing going on is that there are two new alicorns in Equestria now.”

Sunset hesitated for a few moments. “...Oh, is that right?”


Sunset deadpanned. “...Two?”

Starlight considered it. “Two.”

While Sunset did everything to suppress the following cackle, bits still escaped. “Okay, fine. Yeah. Whatever,” she said, throwing her hooves into the air. “They seem to be coming out of the woodwork now.”

Starlight shrugged. “I guess.”

“So then, tell me about them?”

“Well, see, Princess Cadance had a foal. Flurry Heart is what they named her.” She paused to chuckle to herself. “Because… yeah. But get this: she was born an alicorn.”


Starlight nodded. “Yeah. No one’s really sure why yet since that’s kinda unprecedented in Equestria. She’s still very young, though, so it’s kinda hard to really say much else about her yet.”

“I see.”

“Did I mention she’s Twilight’s niece?”

“...Oh?” Sunset glanced back with an initially confused frown. And then she gasped. “...Oh! Yes! So, that’s the niece? You know, I remember now, she mentioned something about it some time ago.”

“Oh, believe me, Twilight goes on and on about how she’s an aunt now.”

“Heh… things sure change, don’t they?”

Starlight nodded.

Sunset scratched at a bald spot in the grass, digging up some dirt. She then cleared her throat. “What about that other one? You said there were two.”

“Yes,” Starlight replied, straightening up. “So there’s Flurry Heart. The other is a little more recent too.”

Sunset frowned and rolled her hoof for Starlight to continue.

“Her name is Adamantine.”

Sunset hummed and nodded in acknowledgment.

“Yes,” Starlight continued. “She’s been frequenting Ponyville for the past month.”

“And what’s her story?”

“Well, that’s just it…” Starlight said, her voice falling toward a dejected whisper. “I actually don’t know.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know?”

“Nopony seems to know,” Starlight said, shrugging. “I know less about her than I do Flurry Heart, even.”

“Well,” Sunset said, glaring, “what do you know?”

Starlight shrugged. “I know she started showing up about a month ago. She comes to the markets a lot and practically buys all the produce. The vendors love her. She also does lots of odd jobs here and there; I imagine that’s how she pays for all of it. She’s done waiting tables, working the bookstore, you name it. She hits up the locals sometimes too, I guess. Heck, she’s come over to the castle for lunch a few times as well.”

After a few moments of silence, Sunset leaned forward in anticipation. “And?”

“And?” Starlight frowned. “That’s it.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s all anypony knows about her,” Starlight said, snorting. “She always comes here alone, always disappears without a trace. I couldn’t possibly tell you where she goes or what she does with the food she buys.” She prodded the ground in time with her voice, “Normally, I wouldn’t care what a pony’s daily routines are, but her case is a bit sketchy. And then, of course, she’s an alicorn.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Sure, whatever. I guess she’s not really a threat right now. Right?”

Starlight chuckled nervously. “Thank Celestia, no. And that’s kinda been why we haven’t really made it so much of an issue.” She watched as three fillies with similar cutie marks raced by in an isolated parade of playful screams. She waved to them and the Crusaders waved back. “We’re keeping our eyes out, sure. But… you know.”

Sunset shrugged. “I guess I’ll take that. Still, I’d like to meet this… Uhhh…”


“Adamantine.” She then muttered it under her breath, trying to commit it to memory.

“Maybe we’ll run into her while you’re here.”

The two arrived in an expansive park of grassy greens and the occasional picnic blanket. As several colts and fillies ran about, throwing balls and discs and all sorts of other objects through the air, older ponies sat by and watched from beyond the pages of a book or the throes of a conversation.

Starlight pointed to an open spot on the grass. “That looks like a good spot there,” she said.

The two sat down and looked toward the clear skies to see a few pegasi playing hoofball through a haphazardly thrown-together field. They zoomed about, looping around each other in rapid jukes that left their opponents dazed and their spectators awed.

Sunset watched one of the players shoot the ball past the opposing goalie. “So, Starlight, about that story that you told me…”


Sunset dug a line into the dirt with her hoof. “Back when I worked on The Answer—that was the spell that we used to bring Twilight back from the dead—we figured a lot out about how the time stream works. We used that to our full advantage.

“One thing that I learned… when dealing with time travel and all of that… is that time is fixed. It’s immutable. ‘Is, was, will be.’ And we relied on that, even, just to get things done. It worked, too.”

Sunset glanced over to Starlight with a thoughtful frown. “And yet, you going back in time… changing the world…? Setting off these alternate realities just by changing the past? That’s what gets me.”

Starlight cleared her throat and blushed. “Yeah… I guess it must have had something to do with how I rewrote Starswirl’s spell. It… allowed me to rewrite history. And that was what I was going for…” she said with a giggle.

“I guess no one told you it was impossible,” Sunset replied with a laugh.

“No! And so I did it… and I was successful for a while, at least. I had Twilight on the ropes. I didn’t see the results, of course, but I was sure I had done it. And then…” Her voice trailed off as a frown overtook her. Starlight fixated her gaze on a piece of grass and she toyed with it using her hoof. “Twilight managed to pull me through the time nebula and I saw… I finally saw it. I saw a world. I saw an alternate Equestria. I saw someplace so totally different than what’s here now. I saw a world where Twilight never happened.” She shook her head. “It was a bad place. It was there… all because of me.”

Some water formed in Starlight’s eye but did not fall, and her frown refused to deepen any more than it had. “It was… sobering, to say the least. I didn’t realize the consequences of what I was doing. It showed me just how wrong I was about my whole approach. How... my philosophy had nearly ruined everything, really and truly.”

Sunset had to force herself to not picture it. She had heard stories, and if they could remain that way, that would be okay. Instead, she laid a hoof across Starlight’s back. “You just wanted what you thought was fair, right?”

A small smile formed on the rim of Starlight’s muzzle. “Yeah. I did. I just didn’t think about how catastrophically wrong it would make things. Looking back, I see that I was just a tad bit extreme. And I’ve learned since then.”

Sunset giggled in response, understanding the sentiment perfectly.

Starlight nodded her head back in forth as if entertaining another thought. “But…” she began, turning to face Sunset, “if there’s one thing about all of that… one thing that I do take solace in…?”

Sunset turned to meet her friend’s gaze. “Yeah?”

Starlight swallowed, her expression more certain than before. “It’s that those worlds, as horrible as they must have been… they’re just a terrible memory.”

* * *

Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria scowled at the large portal before her. She ruffled her wings once as she approached it. Her horn lit up and she scanned the anomaly from top to bottom, frowning further when her spell told her nothing.

The portal hummed quietly as sickly green light swam around the rim. She noted the image contained within the large, parabolic shape sticking out of the ground: the night sky on the other side of the opening.

She looked at what lay underneath her hooves. And our train tracks run right into the broad side of this portal, she thought. That’s interesting…

Peering around the side, she noted the flat construction and the similar behavior on the other side of the portal. At least it acts like a two-dimensional hole…

Rarity walked up behind her, throwing her shining coiffure into the wind. “Well?” she asked. “What do you make of it?”

Twilight gave it another once-over and then stood up with a huff. “Well, it seems like it’s sustained for now. I can’t determine the power source but… it’s not local.”

“And that…” Rarity continued, pointing through the opening, “whatever that is on the other side?”

“That…” Fluttershy squeaked, cowering at the sight of the portal, “looks like Equestria to me.”

“If that’s what it looks like,” Rainbow Dash said, gliding through the air above them with her wings, “then I say we go on through.”

“Now hold yer horses,” another voice said. Applejack trotted up and ran a careful eye up and down the anomaly. She adjusted her hat and then looked back up to Rainbow Dash. “Ah don’t want none of us going through some sort of magical so-and-so without knowin’ it’s alright to do so.”

“Weeeellllll,” Pinkie Pie squealed, zipping up to it, “this portal does lead right around to this spot! You can see it in the shape of the environment, see?”

“Why have a portal that doesn’t go anywhere?” Rarity asked.

Fluttershy shook her head. “But it does go somewhere. It’s nighttime over there,” she pointed out.

Rainbow Dash examined the opening. “Those train tracks look in better shape than these ones do. I know you said that this is an old rail line, but still.”

Twilight peered behind them at the royal guards who stood off to the side with their spears in the air. She then glanced at the five friends around her, and then finally to the strange image beyond the aperture.

She narrowed her eyes. “I’m going through,” she announced.

Applejack stepped forward. “Twi, we’re comin’ with ya.”

Twilight glanced back at the five of them and nodded. She looked over at the guards and gave them a simple, “Stay here.”

They saluted in response.

Taking a deep breath, Twilight stepped through the portal. Her closest friends followed closely behind.

In an instant, she felt a cool grip across her coat and a chilled wind through her mane; Twilight shrugged them off. She looked through the surrounding darkness, drawing her eyes over the earthen contours. They looked the same, at any rate.

The other five fanned out, taking up the remainder of the clearing. They examined every nook and cranny, occasionally comparing it to the area on their side of the portal. They looked toward the nighttime sky, comparing it to the daytime through the opening.

Applejack, for her part, froze on the spot. She stared upward for many long moments before adjusting her stetson. “Uhhhh… y’all… anypony else seein’ what Ah’m seein’?”

The other five looked toward where Applejack’s gaze rested and collectively frowned. The moon above bore an image. The profile of a mare’s head, created by a series of darkened craters on the moon’s surface, glared down.

Rarity swallowed. “Isn’t that… the Mare in the Moon?” she asked.

Fluttershy nodded. “That’s what it looks like.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. No, there was more. She saw the translucent contours of cyan and purple and red arranged in a pattern that, as Twilight thought about it, looked vaguely familiar. No, she had definitely seen it once before.

She considered the night sky again, and with each star that she saw, her frown deepened.

“Oh no!” she cried.

Twilight took to the air amidst startled cries from each of her friends. She beat her wings, zooming above the tree line as fast as they could carry her. Twilight’s heart thumped in her chest as she fought off the urge to curse out loud. Her grinding teeth remained the only clues that such a battle was happening at all.

She knew that face. She knew it, she knew it, and it was impossible. The colorful Mare in the Moon refused to budge from her position. Twilight began to sweat.

Up and up the incline she went, knowing her general location enough to get a good view. The terrain eventually flattened out and then dropped off again in the form of a steep cliff. There, at the very top, Twilight nearly plowed into the ground as she touched down. She closed the distance with the cliff and looked over the valley below.

She found trees where Ponyville should have been. Said trees proliferated into the Everfree beyond. Twilight frowned. No, the Everfree had spread into where Ponyville should have been. First the moon, then the forest. She then wondered if she would find a map in there, just like the one in her castle.

She turned and raced along the cliffside trying to get a better view of Canterlot to the north, and nearly fell off the cliffside entirely when it ran out. Canterlot still clung to the mountain, and while she wasn’t close enough to see any of its finer details, she was close enough to see the disrepair all over. The city contained fewer lights than she remembered, and even though it certainly had to be early evening, the city lay quiet. A few buildings here and there bore the aged scars of some magical tussle, with jagged holes and collapsed columns abound.

But a single gigantic, moon-insignia flag the size of the tallest tower of the old castle which it perched on cemented it for Twilight and confirmed the impossible. She watched as it flapped in a nightly wind.

Rainbow Dash touched down behind her and peered across the valley as well. “Twilight! What is all this!?”

Fluttershy flew down from above the treetops soon after, and the other three pushed through the shrubbery soon after that.

“I know this place,” Twilight replied. “I’ve been here before. B-but this is impossible…”

As the others gazed toward Canterlot, Rarity voiced it for them. “But… where is here?”

“Impossible?” Pinkie Pie asked.

Twilight swallowed, running everything through her mind once again. “This…” she half-whispered, “is… the world… the alternate reality from when I fought Starlight Glimmer… where Nightmare Moon won.”

2 - Identity

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Princess Celestia’s room stood frozen in time during the day. The fireplace remained customarily unlit, the sheets lay folded neatly across the bed, and the few items on the desk were arranged carefully with their edges aligned with those of the desk.

A single tree flanking the window basked in the sunlight. A single shard from a mirror hung from a string off one of its branches. A tall, wooden perch for a bird stood on the window’s other side.

Aside from the occasional bird chirping out on the balcony, the room opted for silence.

A small orb of light flickered in the middle of the room. And then, in a dramatic flash of light and an electrical crack, a hole appeared. It grew to such a height where Celestia herself could walk through on her hindlegs, and then it held steady as a ring of energy clamped down on its edges.

Through the hole was Celestia’s room once more but in a nighttime setting. The curtains, decayed and threadbare, flapped in the breeze. The window was hollow and vacant, yearning for replacements of its cracked and shattered glass.

Two figures stepped through, both dressed in long, flowing cloaks that obscured everything but the faint silhouettes of their muzzles. Long horns poked out of their shroud, and for one of them a red magical aura as well (although that disappeared in short order). They each scanned the room, drinking it in, before they split off toward each side.

One of them approached a tapestry that depicted a shooting star, eyeing its contrails that arced into a bright and shining point which complimented the blue, nightly background on which it was sewn. That made them smile approvingly.

The other trotted toward the desk and glanced over the several objects upon it. While most were bottles of perfume and powder, a book with the words Re-cant emblazoned on the cover sat in the center. A novel, by the looks of it.

The figure passed over that for the final object: a large stack of paper positioned on the very corner. Unlike the novel, the stack of paper was relatively plain in presentation. They lit their horn, magically lifted the stack, and then they dove into it without even so much as a glance at the cover.

The pages inside revealed a vast array of symbols, each as complex as the next. Walls of them ran down the height of each page, written concisely between invisible lines, somehow cramming much more information on a page than should have been feasible, especially in fonts so unmistakably hoofwritten (which, notably, varied wildly on a page-by-page basis). Notes written in a plain language were occasionally scrawled between the margins, pointing out particular details and explaining algorithms.

The figure hummed and then flipped through several more pages. They went through tens of them, each as condensed and particular as the last. Eventually, however, those ran out and gave way to another set of pages. These were written neatly by a hoof that had not been present in the former sections; practiced in the curls without being so fancy as to be illegible. Therein lay diagrams as well as a few paragraphs written in a plain language that covered topics that, judging by the spaces, never ran on for more than a few pages at a time.

The figure flipped through the final page and then nodded. They made a hissing sound at their companion and then held up the stack in question. Their companion trotted over and the two of them skimmed through it together, pointing toward several things along the way.

Finally, one of them slipped the entire stack of papers into their cloak, and the two turned back toward the portal and stepped through, back into the darkened version of the room from whence they came.

The other flared their horn once and the hole in the middle of the room shuddered and shrank. At last, it disappeared in a bright flash and one final electrical cry.

And the room remained, returning to the same silence, unaware that something was now missing.

Sunset Shimmer stared at the ceiling, watching the tessellations as they reflected different shades of the pale blue light that pervaded the room. The rustled sheets nipped at the tips of her hindhooves, but everything else lay out in the open, and she made no attempt to cover herself.

She had no clock on hoof, but she knew it had been dark for hours. Perhaps the entire night had nearly passed already; there were some fuller blues in the night sky outside now.

What could they want to talk about? Sunset thought. Why would they want me in Canterlot?

Sunset readjusted her rest against the pillow but found it no more comfortable than before.

Why… would they want both me and somepony who, before tonight, I’d never even met? Why us?

Sunset’s eyes drifted around the room, but she found nothing new. The intricately carved dresser remained standing on the opposite side of the room, the heavy wooden door sat snug inside its frame, and the window streamed the same amount of moonlight as it had the last few times she had looked.

And Sunset knew that after enough time had passed, she’d likely check everything once again to see if anything had changed.

What could they want to talk to us about?

Sunset heard a low, rhythmic thump from some direction below. It lasted for less than two seconds but even that was enough to capture her attention. It was a change, after all, but one she could not see. What was that? she thought, rolling over on her bed.

A few seconds of silence passed and then the rhythmic thump happened again. And then a third time. Sunset decided that it could not be a random happenstance.

She pinpointed its location, compared it to her mental map of the castle, and then focused energy into her horn. Sunset teleported out of the room and reappeared within the castle foyer.

She heard the same rhythm a fourth time, but now it bellowed louder and closer and with a certain wooden quality. She whirled around and determined the front door as the source of the sound.

She groaned. “Who in Equestria knocks on pony’s doors this early in the morning?” she thought aloud.

Strolling over to the doors, Sunset pulled them open with her magic. “Hello?” she asked. She then got a good look at the knocker and felt the air rush from her lungs.

The pony in the doorway towered over her in nearly every sense. Sunset had to crane her neck in order to meet her visitor’s gaze and, just for the slightest moment, she cowered in the doorway. Sunset lit her horn, creating a blue orb of light. The orb floated upward, illuminating the both of them. That revealed the visitor’s severity in full; the horn on top of her head, the wings at her sides (which currently lay underneath a saddlebag), and the soft yet harsh glare that would have pushed a lesser mare to the ground within moments. The small bags under the mare’s eyes contributed to that. Her silky hair, save the few unkempt knots here and there, flowed like a river that stopped just past her belly. She smelled of roses if said roses had wilted and could only offer traces of their former lush scent.

“Hello, little one,” the visitor spoke with a low and silvery voice. “I am looking for Twilight Sparkle. Is she here presently?”

Sunset swallowed, locking her legs in place. “She’s… not back from Canterlot yet.”

The alicorn’s expression remained unchanged. “Oh, I see. She was not here yesterday either, and I would really like to ask her a question.”

Sunset rubbed her eyes. “It’s… really early.”

The alicorn smiled. “Well, I thought it prudent to come over at the earliest opportunity. This hour is the one chance I have per day, and the sooner that I can have my question for her answered, the better.”

Sunset forced a grin onto her face. “Well, I’m sure she will be back soon. I-I could take a message if you want.”

“Ah, but it would be very singular and detailed. I cannot possibly trouble you with it. I will just have to come back tomorrow morning.”

“Adamantine!?” called a voice from high above. Starlight Glimmer peered down at the both of them from the balcony railing within the foyer.

Sunset gulped, looking between the unicorn up top and the alicorn in front of her, then back, and then forward again. She considered the visitor once more and straightened herself. So, this is Adamantine.

* * *

Sunset rubbed water out of her eyes and yawned before peering toward the morning sun. Her ears flipped backward on her head. “I forgot there were other things to get up this early for besides school,” she grumbled.

Starlight, who walked right beside her, chuckled before letting out her own yawn. “You’re telling me.”

On Starlight’s other side, Adamantine chuckled. “I rise this early every day, mostly because there is so much that I must do on any given day.”

“And today?”

Adamantine thought about it. “Today is… will be a slow day, if my calculations are correct.”


Adamantine adjusted her saddlebags. “I’m looking at light grocery shopping this morning, and then I will return this afternoon to run mail for the post office.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “You work?”

“Yes. Odd jobs here and there—yesterday, I spent around ten hours working at the construction site northwest of here, if you would believe that.” She shrugged. “I must make my keep somehow.”

Sunset hummed and nodded in acknowledgment. As the three of them rounded the corner and Sugarcube Corner appeared in view, she smiled. As opposed to the day prior, very few ponies crossed their path, and those that did went quietly about their mornings. I guess it really is too early, huh?

“Here we are,” Adamantine said as they arrived in front of the bakery.

Sunset blinked. She looked Sugarcube Corner up and down with her brow raised in astonishment. “…Here?”

“Whenever I come to Ponyville,” Adamantine said with a twinkle in her eye, “I make it a point to start here.” She opened the door and trotted inside.

Starlight watched her go and then turned to Sunset. “I guess I should probably get something too since we’re here.”

Sunset rolled her eyes as the both of them followed Adamantine inside.

She caught a stronger flavor of the scent that yesterday had merely hinted at: creamy and wheaty, but now with a mix of vanilla and a powerful tinge of vinegar. And then she smelled the bold chocolate and the pungent aroma of a hot and steamy brew, both mixing into an awakening smell that made her feel like she had just woken up from a night spent with her friends.

Sunset took a deep whiff and then let that out with a satisfied sigh.

Adamantine, meanwhile, approached the counter where a mare stood fiddling with some items on the shelf next to her. “Good morning, Mrs. Cake.”

Mrs. Cake looked up and smiled. “Adamantine, good morning. How are you?”

“I am well. Tired, but well. And how are you?”

“Oh, you know how the twins are,” Mrs. Cake replied with a laugh. “Getting up this morning was a struggle, but here I am!”

Adamantine laughed in response. “I sympathize completely. Well, I am looking to have three cups of coffee this morning, please.”

Mrs. Cake nodded and rang it up, prompting Adamantine to fish some bits out of her saddlebag. Mrs. Cake slid three filled cups of liquid bread onto the counter. Adamantine took them all into her red magical aura. With that, Adamantine skipped back in Sunset and Starlight’s direction. Starlight, busy browsing the displays, didn’t even look over.

Sunset beamed at the three steaming cups of coffee. “Oh! Oh! You bought coffee. That was nice,” she said and reached up toward one of them.

Adamantine frowned and tugged the cups away. “I’m sorry?”

“Oh, I…” Sunset quivered, “thought you were buying?”

“No,” Adamantine replied with a nervous laugh. “This is all for me.”

Sunset stared at the cups of coffee floating above Adamantine’s head and refused to break her gaze even as the alicorn brought one down and took a long and purposeful sip.

Starlight trotted back over at that moment, and after taking stock of Sunset’s expression, met glances with Adamantine. “Coffee? Again?”

Adamantine nodded. “I must have it. I don’t really know what is in this concoction, but I am glad that I discovered it. It is the grace of goddesses.”

Starlight looked above at the cups of coffee. “Only three?”


“…Well then, you were right,” Starlight said, giggling. “Today is a slow day.”

Sunset glanced furtively between the two of them. She settled on Adamantine with a dumbstruck mouth-wide-open frown. “How are you alive!?”

Adamantine, busy taking a sip, shook one of the other full cups while wearing a wry smile on her muzzle.

With another laugh, Starlight laid her hoof across Sunset’s withers once more. “Trust me, she has gotten pretty famous around here for her coffee habits. Come on, why don’t I get us some?”

Sunset smiled and watched as Starlight ordered a cup for the each of them. With the ding of the register and the gurgle as the cups filled, the two took their respective cups in their magical grips and trotted out the door.

Adamantine took another sip of her coffee, found her first cup empty, crumpled it up and stashed it in her saddlebag, and then let her eyes wander over the scenery. “I like Ponyville in the morning. It’s always a peaceful place,” she said before starting on her second cup.

“Well,” Sunset began, “that’s good to hear. I never really get to see Ponyville.”

“Ah, then you must sometime. I particularly enjoy these quieter hours. It gives me ample time to think. Mind you, I don’t mind having a conversation here and there, though.”

Sunset stepped forward. “Well, then maybe you won’t mind if Starlight and I tag along? We have nothing to do before taking the train to Canterlot this afternoon.”

“That’s true,” Starlight agreed.

Adamantine smiled. “I suppose not. In fact, you could probably help me get through my grocery list for tomorrow too. I think that sounds fair, hmmm?”

Both unicorns smiled. “It’s a deal!”

* * *

“You are absolutely certain that it goes to another world?” Princess Celestia asked at length.

“Yes,” Twilight Sparkle replied.

Celestia nodded and pensively paced around the room, though even then she appeared to glide like she normally did. She remained quiet and thoughtful, her perpetually flowing mane her only other sign of movement. “I see,” she muttered.

Twilight exchanged concerned glances with her five best friends, each of whom also sat around the table.

“You may still want to check the portal at Neighagra Falls,” Celestia began, “but other than that, I do not think it would be wise to enter any more of those portals until we can further understand why they are there.” The princess stopped in front of a bookshelf, running her eyes down some of the bindings. She turned to face them, “Likewise, given the apparent nature of what lies on the other side, we should not let anything through to our side either.”

Twilight nodded. “I agree, Princess.”

“Which is why I have ordered guards posted at all known sites. Nothing is going in or out of those portals.”

Rarity let out a relieved sigh. “I am so glad to hear that, Princess. I really wouldn’t want to jump into all of that until we know what’s going on with those. ...I’m still struggling with the prospect that those places even exist.”

“Yeah! Totally!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, slamming a hoof against the table. “Because you would think it wouldn’t exist because Twilight and Starlight rewrote the past so that it never happened.”

Applejack pressed her hat further onto her head. “Now hold on here a sec,” she began, glancing between all of them. “Wasn’t it that time was fixed and all that?”

“Yes,” Twilight replied. “We had to make an amendment to that because of Starlight. Because of what very definitely happened.”

“And then this happens,” Applejack said.

Rainbow Dash shook her head, sitting up in her seat. “But how do we know it’s really the same one? I mean, it could be just a random version, right?”

Twilight groaned and let her head fall against the table. “No, it’s definitely the one. I found the Map.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow.

“Starlight’s modified time travel spell would always bring us back to the present after a short period of time,” Twilight explained. “And whenever Spike and I arrived back in the present, whichever present that was, I always appeared on the Map from the castle. Because… Starlight used the Map to anchor the spell. The existence of the Map was the one constant out of all the alternate worlds that I visited.

“I had to be sure,” Twilight continued. “So, when I sent everypony back here, I flew back out. It took me some time to find it, about an hour or so, but it was there. I found the Map. It’s the same Equestria I said it was.”

Rainbow Dash groaned and banged her head against the table.

“This is gettin’ weird!” Applejack exclaimed.

Celestia felt the urge to exit the room and do something very un-regal. She felt a twisted feeling within the pit of her stomach. “To think,” she half-croaked, “there is a world out there… where I am banished to the moon.”

“And where I am still under that terrible influence,” said Luna, breaking from her position at the window. While not as tall as Celestia, Luna stood just as proud, if not prouder. “I shudder to think of what those ponies on the other side have had to deal with.”

The other seven regarded Luna with sorrowful frowns and some disgusted shakes of their heads. She has not taken this so well either, Celestia thought. In fact, my fate is not nearly as bad…

Twilight nodded solemnly. “Yes… To think… that is where we might have been if things had gone differently here.” She then let off a smile. “It makes me that much happier that I met all of you.”

At that, the entire room shared much-needed chuckles.

Celestia placed a hoof to her chin in thought. But there is still the issue of the existence of this reality. This horrible, wrong reality. If it exists concurrently with this one, and did not, in fact, cease to exist, then…

“I may not be as knowledgeable on the subject of time as all of you might be,” Celestia said, trotting up to the table, “but this revelation that this world still exists, suggests a new answer.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Huh? Yeah? Whaddya got?”

She glued her eyes to the center of the table as she gave it further thought. “I do believe your first assumption, that time is immutable, is not necessarily disproven. What may have happened with Starlight Glimmer’s altered time spell was that it took you from our timeline and into another, where your interference in the past was set in stone.”

Twilight blinked, as did the rest of the mares at the table. Even Luna, who hung at the edge of the group, regarded Celestia with a raised eyebrow.

Celestia smiled. “If you think of existence as a tree, a tree containing many worlds, where each branch is a different timeline, perhaps that might make my meaning a little clearer?”

Twilight gasped. “Yggdrasil!” she cried.

Celestia chuckled. “That is correct, Twilight. You did not change the tree. Merely… where you were on that tree.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, yes! That seems reasonable to me.”

“Ah like thinkin’ ’bout this whole thing as a tree. Trees are good,” Applejack chuckled. “Although that kinda makes me wonder where the trunk is.”

Celestia shrugged. “It is only a theory.”

Luna regarded the rest of them with a scrutinizing look, and then drifted away from the table entirely as she delved into her own pensive pacing.

“Okay, wait a minute.” Rainbow Dash furrowed her brow and tapped a hoof against the table. “I just had a thought. If Twilight kept jumping to other branches… then… what if…” She gasped. “Woah! What if we’re a timeline that looks like the one that Twilight left, but isn’t actually the same one?”

Twilight giggled after a few moments. “Maybe. If I’m not the same, there still wouldn’t be a problem. If I left mine, then another me took my place.” She nodded from side to side. “But… honestly, I don’t think that’s the case, Rainbow Dash. Pretty sure this is the same one that I left.”

Luna shook her head and snorted. “While I am glad to hear that much, I do believe you are missing the big picture.”

Celestia forced a smile onto her face. “Yes, Luna?”

“If what you say is true and this world on the other side of the portal is that alternate timeline which came to be through Starlight Glimmer’s actions,” Luna said as she circled the table, “then that world very definitely still exists, despite the fact that you have arrived back here.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me Luna, but I don’t quite see—”

“Twilight,” Luna interrupted, narrowing her eyes, “you must extend that logic to all of the alternate timelines that you visited.”

Five of the mares at the table gasped. Twilight, on the other hoof, jumped out of her seat with an exasperated frown. Celestia quivered for the briefest of moments and narrowed her eyes in response.

Luna shook her head. “And at this very moment, judging by the existence of all of those portals around the country… All of those awful worlds are, shall we say, knocking at our door as we speak.”

Celestia turned and walked to the window in order to peer out toward the greater Equestria beyond. She imagined all the portals out there. All the portals that she told us about, Celestia thought. And Luna’s logic is sound… This is far worse than we originally thought.

* * *

“That will be seventy-two bits, please,” the vendor said.

Adamantine nodded, and with her magic, she plucked several bits of sizable denomination out of her saddlebag and set them down on the vendor’s stand. The two exchanged nods before she took her prize: a baleful of basil larger than her entire saddlebag, and she trotted back toward the central causeway.

Sunset chuckled. “You don’t mess around, do you?”

“Well, it is something that I absolutely need, so I would hope not,” Adamantine replied.

“Much like coffee,” Starlight quipped.

Adamantine considered it, and then she shrugged. “Certainly.” She pointed up toward several other bags held in the air with Sunset’s magic. “I’ll take those.”

Sunset and Starlight looked at the several equally sized portions of other herbs and ingredients and nodded, yielding as Adamantine wrapped her own magical aura around them.

As the three of them continued down the street, Sunset thought about the basil Adamantine floated beside her. She eyed it for several moments but then shelved the accompanying thought for later.

After regarding the remaining shops on the block, giving each less attention than the next, Adamantine finally swerved toward an open patch of grass and took a seat to take stock of her belongings.

Starlight, meanwhile, collapsed onto the grass next to her and moaned as she stretched her muscles. Her legs especially shook as she flexed them. “Four hours,” she groaned.

“Adamantine doesn’t mess around,” Sunset replied, taking a seat.

Adamantine chuckled before gingerly laying all her groceries in a neat pile and lay down herself on the grass with a heavy sigh.

“Either way,” Sunset said, “that was fun. We managed to kill most of the morning.”

Starlight groaned. “Yes, we did. And I’m beat.”

Sunset grinned. “You should talk. You barely carried the bags at all!” she quipped. “Except for the coffee, I have no idea how Adamantine is still awake.”

Adamantine rolled her eyes and yawned. She then shook herself and began rummaging through her saddlebag, grumbling under her breath about more coffee.

Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “She’s an alicorn! She has an excuse!”

“Now now, there’s no reason to act like foals,” Adamantine said as she continued fishing around. “It is a taxing endeavor and the both of you were very helpful. Ah,” she said as she pulled something out, “here we are.”

Sunset regarded the small, shiny metal object with a raised eyebrow. “A harmonica?”

Adamantine nodded. “Indeed it is. I like to play whenever I get the chance. It helps me take my mind off things. Especially since I will probably not get another break until later today—or tonight, even.” She glanced between the two. “Would either of you ostensibly object if I just played for a minute or two?”

Sunset nodded. “Sure. Why not?”

Starlight also rolled over and kicked her hooves back, ready to lose herself in a simple tune.

“Well, let’s see what I can do, then…” Adamantine looked at the instrument in her hooves, mulled it over, and then pressed it to her muzzle.

The buzzy tune that emerged rang through the streets of Ponyville. As pony after pony trotted about, basking in the sunlight of a warm and cloudless day, where not a single blade of grass was out of place, the wind carried Adamantine’s song outward and onward. The tune accentuated the smiles on everypony’s faces.

And Adamantine stayed there. Her performance remained long, sweeping, and mellow, much like the calm town around her. Each sustained note, strung together in a vibrant and hopeful song, washed over her audience of two. Sunset swayed with the beat, a thoughtful smile on her face.

But when it came down to it, Sunset could hear the subtle strain in each note. The more she listened, the more she found something underneath the simple buzzes and pauses.

Sunset looked at the alicorn before her. Adamantine appeared lost within her own music, like the very thing she played spoke to her. Her song was a voice from far within. But then Sunset noticed again the eternal bags under Adamantine’s eyes, the lack of colors that should have been in her face, and the mess that was her mane.

Sunset thought of one word that could describe all of it, from Adamantine herself to the song she played: exhausted. The coffee suddenly made more sense.

But… why? Sunset wondered.

The rest of the song played out and Adamantine rode along with it just as much as they did, carried by her own tune. The two listened in silence up until the final long note, and said nothing even as it faded, just like the song itself, into memory.

With a sigh, Adamantine woke from her hypnosis and regarded the harmonica in her hooves with the smallest adoring grin.

“Huh,” Starlight began, sitting up, “that was… good. That was pretty good.”

Adamantine smiled. “Thank you, Starlight.”

Sunset hummed in agreement, clapping her hooves together a few times in applause.

Adamantine sighed again with an even wider smile before she laid her head down to rest. “I wish I could play it more often,” she murmured. “But this was nice.”

Sunset ran her eyes over the groceries. She examined the large bags containing large quantities. Everything was in bulk. In fact, Adamantine had sold out several stalls with her purchases.

“Adamantine?” she asked.


“I… know that Starlight and I have to go to the train station soon, but since we have some time…” she said, scratching the back of her head, “I’d like to ask you something that, really… has been on my mind all morning.”

Adamantine cleared her throat and sat up. “Go ahead, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset pointed toward the pile. “I mean, this is an awful lot of stuff. And I’m guessing this all’s for something. Right? So then, what’s it all for?”

Adamantine regarded her groceries with a quick aside glance. “Ah… yes. You see, all of these are ingredients for a recipe.”

“Yeah?” Starlight said.

“What for?” Sunset asked.

Tapping her hooves together, Adamantine blushed. “Well, actually, it’s an original recipe. I call it unstew.”

“Oh, so it’s food.”

Adamantine mulled it over with an uncertain frown. “Well, in a way, yes. But… you don’t really eat it in the normal sense.”

Sunset tilted her head. “You don’t?”

“No. It… is meant to be consumed in vapor form. I… do not think you would enjoy it all that much, actually.”

Starlight snorted. “You don’t say. That approach seems very… inefficient.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sunset scoffed. “Why not just eat something, you know, whole?”

The smile faded from Adamantine’s face and she, in turn, tapped out a thoughtful rhythm against the grass. “I suppose I can tell you this much for the morning you have shown me.”

Both unicorns straightened up in response, regarding her through cocked eyebrows and contemplative frowns.

“This stew is not for me. I have… as you would say, ‘mouths to feed’. And they are very particular about what they can and can’t eat. And the stew is… adequate.”

Sunset stroked her chin in thought. “Isn’t there anything better than that, though?”

Adamantine snorted in response. “There was. But it suddenly disappeared some time ago.” She shook her head, “But we get by. …Barely, but we do.”

Sunset shot to her hooves, a determined look on her face. “Well, maybe… maybe we can help you find it.”

Starlight stood up, equally firm in her stance. “Yes, we could.”

Adamantine frowned and dug her hoof through the dirt. “No.”

“Oh, come on.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “Why not?”

At that, Adamantine leaned forward. “Sunset…” she growled, nearly pressing her face to Sunset’s. “I suppose I can forgive you since we have only just met, but that sort of thing... is not something I should speak of. While I want to make it clear that the offer is much appreciated, letting you get involved would require opening a can of worms that has been closed for a very long time.”

She levitated her mountain of groceries into the air. “And it… is in both our interests if it stays that way.”

With a dejected hang of her head, Sunset sighed. “Okay… I’m sorry.”

Starlight, meanwhile, rolled her eyes.

Adamantine smiled and reached up, lifting Sunset by the chin. “Don’t be. As I said, we get by. So don’t worry. Alright?”

As Sunset looked into Adamantine’s clear and shining eyes, she wondered if it could be true. If it really was okay. Maybe what Adamantine had was indeed adequate. Plus, she thought, when it comes down to it, I’m probably going back home tonight, anyway. If there really is some sort of problem with this… Chances are I am not needed nor will I be around to help anyway.

Sunset nodded. “Okay, alright.”

Adamantine surrounded herself with her keep. “I’m glad. Well then… I must get going now. Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer… Thank you for the morning.” She smiled. “Good luck in Canterlot.”

Sunset gave a token wave in response. She managed to defeat part of her frown, but only partly.

With that. Adamantine focused more power into her horn and it grew brighter and brighter, and then with a crack, both she and her spoils disappeared in a white-hot flash of sparks.

Starlight and Sunset remained for many moments, staring at the spot where Adamantine had teleported away.

* * *

Every once in a while, Starlight stole a glance at Sunset who sat in the opposite seat, but she otherwise stared out the window just like Sunset did. The scenery rolled by in time with the click-clack of the train cars as they rumbled along the track. The car occasionally shook as it hit a small bump, but she paid that no mind.

“You’re worried about it, aren’t you?” Starlight asked.

Sunset nodded. “I am, yeah. It all just seems… off.”

Starlight snorted and nestled herself further into the seat. “Yeah.”

Sunset glanced up, pursing her lips all the while. “Do you believe her? When she says it’s okay?”

“…No. Not really,” Starlight replied at length. “But… she’s saying the same sort of thing that she’s said when she first appeared in Ponyville. So I don’t think too much about it either.”

Sunset sighed and laid her head against the window. “I guess.”

Actually, Starlight thought, I think she might have said more than she usually does. Or, at least, it seemed that way…

She shrugged to herself. I’m probably imagining things. She cleared her throat. “Either way, it’s a quick stop in Canterlot, probably, and then you can go home. Right?”


* * *

As the guards escorted them through the castle halls, Starlight ran her eyes over every niche and crevice of the tall passageways through which they traveled.

Sunset looked absorbed in some thought with the way she plastered her eyes toward the floor.

Meeting with the princess, Starlight thought. She swallowed. This is going to be something… I just wish I knew what we were walking into. And why they’re leading us this whole way…

The pack rounded another corner and stopped in front of a large and ornate door. But as they approached, one of the guards that stood watch over those doors slid inward and opened it for them.

Celestia’s room welcomed them with open hooves. The unlit fireplace blended in with the night sky that patterned the walls. A lonely figure stood in the middle of it all.

“…Princess Luna?” Sunset started, a confused expression across her face.

Luna smiled and trotted over to them. “Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, it is good to see you again.”

Starlight nodded. “You too, Princess.”

“You have come earlier than I expected.” Luna smiled and then nodded. “Before we get to why you have been summoned you here, there has been… a recent development that I would like to tell you about. Sunset,” she said, gliding over toward Celestia’s desk, “I think you may find it of some interest.”

Sunset nodded. “Yes?”

“Quite a bit has happened since you last came here and… so valiantly fought to save Twilight’s life,” Luna began. “We have kept nearly all of the effects here at the castle. The machine you built, for example, we had moved someplace where we could preserve it. We also have Twilight’s farewell letter… somewhere. It escapes me where we put it right now.”

She placed her hoof on the corner of the desk. “And in case of The Answer, we have made a few copies. The grand master is locked away in a vault, of course, and we made copies for Twilight Sparkle, my sister, and a few various copies to scholars all across Equestria.”

Sunset blushed. “Oh… I see.”

“I must say, it is quite the spell. If I had the time, I too would like to study it,” Luna said with a smile.

“Well… heh…”

Luna’s smile faded. “But about four days ago,” she said, rubbing the empty corner, “somepony appeared in this very room and took my sister’s copy of The Answer.”

Sunset frowned. “…They took it? Why?”

“That’s a good question,” Luna replied. “Even ignoring the fact they managed to get into this room undetected, it’s curious as to what they would want it for.” She banged a hoof against the table and said, “But that is a matter for another time. I just thought you would like to know.”

Sunset scratched the back of her head. “Well, thanks, Princess.”

“Now, as to the reason that you have been summoned here this afternoon,” Luna said, opening a drawer and levitating out two shining slips of paper. “I have… received some very particular instruction… that I should give you these.”

Starlight received them and looked them up and down, her frown deepening as she took in each line. “Uhm… these are train tickets. To Ponyville.”

“Yes, indeed it is.”

She blinked and then stared Luna down. “…And what are we supposed to do with these?”

Luna shrugged. “Well, they did not say. I suppose you could use them to take the train home.”

Sunset stared daggers into her ticket and then turned her silent wrath toward the alicorn before them. And then she snorted. “So… basically… I got brought all the way here from the human world, had to miss school and everything, just for you to send me back home!?”

“That is how it would appear, but...” Luna replied, before turning around to look at other parts of the room.

A blood vessel in Starlight’s head felt like it would burst. She shook her head. “You have to excuse me, Princess, but… are you out of your bucking mind!?”

Sunset stamped a hoof against the floor. “Yeah, what the hay!?”

Luna whirled around, her wings flared to their fullest and her eyes ablaze. “Still thy tongues this instant!” she bellowed. “Thou may be students of Twilight Sparkle but let me remind you that you stand before royalty! I will not be spoken to in that manner!”

Both unicorns flinched under Luna’s glory, but their agitated expressions refused to disappear.

“I know this does not sound ideal. My sister meant to tell you much more about this than I, but she has left the castle to attend to some business in the mountains. So, I am who you get.”

“Well,” Sunset seethed, “is there anything else?”

Luna frowned. “…Yes. And that is another thing; you did not give me much chance to finish. I have...” she trailed off as she stalked around the room. “Wait right here, I must check the other room,” she said before she disappeared through a doorway on the side.

Starlight snorted. “Well, this is really great. I feel like we came here for nothing.”

“This is a load of bull,” Sunset muttered, practically billowing smoke from her nostrils.

The two of them heard several clicks as several objects within the next room shifted. And then it all stopped, punctuated by an, “Aha! I hath found it!”

At that, Luna reemerged with a new object in her magical grasp. “I wanted to have this ready for you but, again, you were early. Plus, she did not tell me that she had moved it,” she explained. “I suppose she did so in light of the break-in.”

Starlight glanced up to take a good look at the object in question. A ball, made of brilliant crystal, sparkled in the light of the room. But on closer inspection, she could make out an image contained within: the very room that they presently stood in but, oddly enough, from an entirely different view than what it should have displayed. Moreover, as Starlight took it in, she noted the spot where they should have been standing but found that spot empty with no hints anypony was there at all.

She shook her head. “That’s it?” she asked, feeling a bit of her blood begin to boil again.

“This was what Celestia was instructed to give to you,” Luna replied. “Of course, I do it in her stead, but…”

“Well,” Starlight replied, “that’s wonderful. That’s truly wonderful. Like, I mean… It’s just a crystal ball, nothing really—”

“O-oh,” Sunset stammered.

Starlight blinked and looked at her friend.

Sunset appeared as white as a sheet, her gaze transfixed on the object in Luna’s grasp. She blinked several times as the object, and then the ramifications of that object, registered. “Somepony… instructed Celestia… to give that to us?”

“That is correct,” Luna said with a nod.

Sunset regarded the crystal ball for several more moments, rubbing a hoof across her face as she stared into it. And then she flared her horn and wrapped her own magical aura around it. “…I see. We’ll… we’ll take it then.”

What in the world is with her now? Starlight mentally asked.

Luna yielded. “I suppose you’ll find the meaning of all of this soon enough,” she suggested. “For now, that is all that I have for you.”

Sunset nodded, drawing close to Starlight. “Thank you… Princess. We’ll be heading out now.” And with that, she hung a leg around Starlight’s withers and led her out of the room.

And just before they left, Starlight looked at the tickets floating before them and then back to Princess Luna who watched as they walked away. And as they crossed the threshold, Luna’s piercing frown refused to let up. It was then that Starlight found a nameless dread in the pit of her stomach.

3 - Dimensional

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The wind, populated by wayward water particles, blew through Twilight Sparkle’s mane. The loud roar of splashing and churning water battered her ears as two separate waterfalls crashed down momentously on either side of her small strip of land.

She peered at the portal just in front of the cliff face. This one, unlike the portal in the mountains which had been several times her size, seemed more fitted for a standard pony.

Applejack appeared beside her. “Well, Ah figure we might as well see what’s on the other side.”

Rarity strolled up, taking Twilight’s other side. “I agree. Especially now that we have a good idea of what’s over there.”

A pink blur raced past them. “Last one through the portal’s a rotten egg!” Pinkie Pie called, skipping along at breakneck speeds.

Rainbow Dash poked her head through the other girls and scowled. “Oh, nuh-uh!” she yelled before hopping over them and surging forth.

“Now wait just a minute!” Applejack exclaimed, but the two were already through. She stood for a moment and then shrugged. “Eh, what are ya gunna do with those two?”

Twilight giggled.

“I’m okay with being a rotten egg if you girls are,” Fluttershy said, appearing beside them with a smile.

Rarity flicked her mane about and nodded. “It’s a rough term, but… let’s be rotten eggs together.”

The four trotted toward the portal as a single unit. They each acknowledged the guards surrounding it and, one by one, squeezed through the portal.

The trees on the other side danced about, but Twilight chalked that up to the wind, despite their sways appearing too pronounced to be natural.

Something pink and blue dashed above the trees, prompting the six of them to glance up. Another blur appeared, and then a third. Then two at the same time.

“Rainbow, can you go up there and see what those are?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow Dash smirked and saluted. “I’m on it,” she said before flying upward.

She glanced around, waiting for something. She swiveled about until, finally, another blue blur tried to race past, and she snatched it. And then she sampled the strange object; it was fluffy like a cloud but with a sugary sweet flavor.

“Cotton candy!” Rainbow Dash declared.

“Oh! Ohoh!” Pinkie Pie gasped. “Can you bring me some?” she called.

Rainbow Dash shrugged, gathered the cotton candy cloud, and spun it into a manageable shape. She flew back down to them. “Here.”

Pinkie Pie beamed and then devoured it in one fluid bite.

“That cotton candy cloud is pretty telling already, but let’s go this way,” Twilight said, leading them toward the riverbank.

They wove through the trees, stepping over multicolored roots. A squirrel with a tail several feet long hung off a tree, nibbling on a piece of pineapple. But as they looked closer, they saw that the squirrel was, in fact, un-eating the fruit.

They arrived at the riverbank and observed the water which, while turbulent as they expected, flowed in the opposite direction. Their eyes followed it to the base of the falls themselves which, to their dull surprise, fell up the cliff.

“Cotton candy clouds, water is moving the wrong way, and weird squirrels,” Rarity said.

They stood in silence on that river bank, their eyes drawn toward some patchworks on the horizon.

“Discord,” they said in unison.

Twilight hummed. She scrutinized the sky’s patterns, yet at the same time, her thoughts drifted elsewhere to places related yet so far removed.

Applejack adjusted her stetson and then patted Twilight on the shoulder. “Well, whatcha thinkin’?”

“Well,” Twilight replied at last, “this pretty much confirms what we thought about every alternate timeline existing.”


“Oh goodness, that’s not so good,” Fluttershy whimpered.

“Took the words out of my mouth,” Rarity added. “We really do have a potent issue on our hooves. It would be… most awful if Discord caught us out here.”

Rainbow Dash twisted her hoof into the pudding-dirt. “Yeah, or if Nightmare Moon suddenly found the portal back in Canterlot.”

“Or King Sombra,” Applejack added.

Twilight sighed. “Well, for now, we’re going to have to hope for the best,” she said. “I can’t close the portals because some external magic is keeping them open. Whoever’s making that portal has to cancel the spell on their own.”

“Well, as fun as this place is…” Pinkie Pie said as she snatched a snozzberry off a nearby tree. She took a few moments to chew, swallowed, hummed in delight, grabbed another snozzberry and ate that one too, and then stored several more in her mane. “We probably should get outta here before somepony sees us.”

Applejack started back into the wood. “Ah hear ya on that.”

As they walked back toward the portal, Twilight paced internally. While her body navigated the living terrain, her mind tried to navigate what little she had. We don’t know the actual scope of any of this yet, she thought. Why do these things even exist? What’s making them? Why do they go between these timelines and ours? How did whomever made these figure out how to travel between timelines? How did they even know about the alternate timelines?

And that’s assuming it’s a pony, and we don’t know even that!

Twilight snorted and took one last look at the riverbank before the trees obscured it. Her eyes scanned for any sign that anything was following them, but she found nothing.

She turned and looked at her friends who trotted in silence. They kept alert but calm sans Pinkie Pie who made sleuthy maneuvers through the trees. Twilight could not tell what was going on in their heads, but she had no doubt that this too was on their minds, except perhaps Pinkie Pie who was busy slurping a puddle of chocolate milk.

Twilight wondered what they thought about it.

And what Celestia and Luna would think about it.

And, most of all, what Starlight Glimmer would think about it.

Sunset Shimmer nibbled on her hoof while staring at the far door. She watched the train car beyond sway in rhythm with the creaks and groans of the wheels below. With little room to stretch her legs, considering other passengers had packed into every seat, Sunset tried anything to busy herself mentally.

But her eyes still occasionally wandered. The other ponies in the carriage bided their time over books and hushed conversations.

There must have been some sort of event tonight, Sunset decided.

Her eyes fell on an onyx stallion in the seat right across from her. He sat with his eyes in a brochure, his expression one of naïve indifference. That much was understandable; Sunset herself found educational finances a bore, but that wasn’t what caught her attention.

She knew she wouldn’t have thought anything of it on any other night, but even at the station, she had seen twenty of him, all with dark coats and equally dark manes. Three of them sat nearby, and the others had undoubtedly interspersed throughout the rest of the cars.

Maybe they were members of the Night Guard. Sunset wasn’t sure.

Starlight Glimmer, who sat next to her, regarded the crystal ball on the seat between them.

Inside the ball, Princess Celestia sat in her chambers. Her regalia, however, lay on her desk, and she lay comfortably with a Jade Singer novel and a glass of wine.

Starlight chuckled. “Kinda weird, but okay.”

The train rumbled onwards, passing a wall of rock on the left and skirting a deep drop-off on the right. It wove a thin line manufactured into the mountainside. With the cloudy skies obscuring the early evening sun, Sunset found it hard to see.

“Princess Luna gave this to us,” Starlight said with renewed fervor. “I have to guess it’s important. There’s gotta be something special with it, right?”

Sunset nodded vacantly. “It is. This crystal ball… was what allowed me to work out how to get Twilight back.” Sunset scratched her muzzle in thought. “This ball looks nine days back in time, so that’s Princess Celestia nine days ago.”

Starlight’s jaw dislodged from her muzzle and then she stared into the ball. With the slightest shudder, she nodded in acknowledgment.

“We’re watching her from nine days into her future,” Sunset continued. “So… naturally, it’s also possible for someone to watch us from nine days into our future.” She drummed her hooves against the seat in thought. “Which…”

At that, she looked toward the ceiling, searching for something that she would never see. “Hey! Is anypony watching up there?”

Starlight also glanced up, her eyebrow cocked in full.

After a short silence, an answer came. “Yes,” said a voice, “I’m here! I’m here.”

Starlight jumped in her seat, her wide eyes centering on the crystal ball between them. The ball had spoken with a familiar voice. “T-Twilight Sparkle!?”

“Not so loud!” Twilight’s voice replied.

That prompted both of them to look up and notice the odd glares, especially from the stallion sitting across from them.

“Listen,” Twilight’s voice said, “I need you to find someplace private. Okay?”

Sunset hopped to her hooves. “Alright. Come on, Starlight.”

Starlight stood up, and together they strolled toward the rear of the car. Opening the door, they passed into the vestibule. After considering the deafening roar of the wheels underneath, they pressed on into the train’s caboose.

The room’s dull wood, with crates and boxes and other pieces of cargo all about, was a definite far cry from the lively colors of the cozy passenger cars behind them. A single rope ladder dangled from an unlocked but unopened hatch in the ceiling.

“Okay,” Starlight began as she levitated the crystal ball before her, “this is really something. So, you’re… talking to us from the future?”

“Well…” Twilight’s voice replied, “there’s more to it than that, but… yes.”

Even as Sunset brushed by her, checking to make sure nopony lay hidden out on the rear platform, Starlight regarded the object with a quizzical grin. As she sat back on the floor, she floated it into her hooves. “That is just the coolest thing. I’d like one of these.”

Inside the crystal ball, Princess Celestia blinked and glanced around the room. “H-hello? Who goes there?”

Starlight jumped in response, fumbling the ball for a few seconds. “Oh! Oh gosh, Twilight, what did I do?”

“What?” Twilight’s voice asked.

“Uhm, Princess Celestia just responded to me. I think.”

Princess Celestia flared her horn and levitated a crystal ball (which, to Starlight, appeared pure white) in front of her. She stared into it while humming to herself.

“Oh,” Twilight’s voice said. “Yes. If you’re touching the ball—or if you’re touching somepony who’s touching the ball, and so on and so forth—she’ll be able to hear you like you’re hearing me right now,” Twilight’s voice explained.

Starlight paled. “…Well, now you tell me,” she grumbled. She turned her attention back toward the princess within the ball. “Uhm, hi, Princess Celestia.”

Inside the ball, Celestia straightened up. “Hello. Who is this?”

“Starlight. Starlight Glimmer.”

At that, Celestia smiled. “Oh, Starlight, I remember you. How are you?”

Starlight sighed in relief and managed to put a smile back on her face. “Oh, I’m good. I’m on a train with Sunset right now and I’m learning how to use this thing.”

For a few moments, Celestia’s expression remained unchanged. But then she blinked. “Wait a moment. Sunset? As in Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset arrived back at that moment and draped a hoof over Starlight’s shoulder. “Yeah, hi. We can’t really talk right now. But it’s good to see you.”

Celestia’s gaze fleeted around the room as she lost herself in some thought. And then she nodded. “It’s good to hear you too.”

“Same,” Starlight agreed. “Anyway, sorry to bother you!”

“It is no problem,” Celestia replied. With that, she set her own crystal ball down on the cushion beside her and returned to her reading.

At that, Sunset looked up. “Twilight, you have some explaining to do.”

Starlight whirled around in alarm to gauge the severity of Sunset’s frown and then looked up as well.

“…Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied, “I guess I do.”

“You’re the reason we were summoned to Canterlot. You’re the one that instructed the princesses to give us the crystal ball.”

“All true.”

“So... why?” Sunset asked with a sharpness in her voice.

“Well,” Twilight’s voice replied, “I… have a task for you. And I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

“And that is?”

“Do you remember all of those very dark ponies that boarded your train?”

Sunset swallowed, peered back into the passenger car beyond, and settled her gaze on the dark-coated stallion that had been sitting opposite them. “Yeah,” she replied.

“That’s no coincidence. They’re called unponies. I don’t have time to go into details, but…” Twilight’s voice trailed off. “You’ll learn about them soon enough,” she finished, her tone sharp yet hesitant.

“So then… why do we care about them?” Sunset asked, ducking away from the entrance.

The crystal ball went silent as if considering its words. And then, with a sharp whisper, Twilight’s voice replied, “Because… here in a few moments, they are going to try and take the train.”

Sunset blinked and felt her heart skip a beat. “They’re… going… to take the train?”

“Yes. And let me check… hold on.” The crystal ball went silent for a few moments, and then, “Yes. A few of them are already moving up toward the engine.”

Starlight collapsed against the wall. “Oh… goodness. Oh goodness gracious.”

Sunset, on the other hoof, silently rampaged around the room.

“Oh goodness, this is bad,” Starlight continued.

And then Sunset zipped back over to the door, staring into the room beyond. She paled, however, when her eyes met the unstallion staring back at her with an almost equal intensity. She ducked under the door’s window and cursed herself for appearing so obvious.

“Okay,” Starlight began, rising to all fours. “So, we have to stop them?”

“I’m afraid so,” the crystal ball replied.

“What do they want?”

“They’re trying to reroute the train to someplace else.”


“…It’s a long story, but it involves those portals that popped up. They’re trying to take it through the one that’s on that unused spur further down the mountain.”

Sunset snuck away from the door and slunk back over. “Okay,” she asked, nearly seething. “Why?”

“They’re collecting ponies,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Sunset stamped a hoof against the floor. “Why!?”

“That’s also a long story and you’re going to find out soon anyway,” Twilight’s voice said, a stern sharpness in her tone. “Right now, I need you to focus on the present.”

Starlight shook her head. “You throw us right into the middle of things and expect us to focus?” she asked, glaring up in contempt. “How do you think I feel right now, Twilight?”

The crystal ball sighed. “I’m… sorry. I didn’t really mean for any of this to happen. Right now, I’m actually winging this, and all I knew was that you were on that train. And… I needed you to be on that train anyway.”


“Starlight,” Twilight’s voice pleaded, her voice strained, “please. There’s a lot more riding on this than just those other ponies on the train. I beg you.” With those final three words, Twilight’s voice cracked, bringing a chilling silence after it.

Sunset met Starlight’s questioning gaze and the both of them frowned. Twilight never spoke that way. Sunset pictured the mare somewhere above them, but the image looked nothing like what Twilight had looked when she last saw her; a ragged and jaded mare hunched over the ball somewhere solitary had replaced the Twilight she knew.

The two mares debated the whole situation solely through the looks that they gave each other. But once Sunset relented, Starlight sighed and followed suit.

Sunset snorted. “Whatever. At least tell me that we succeeded in your layer,” she growled.

“Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied, “you did. But that won’t mean anything if you stand around.”

“…Uhm, excuse me?” Starlight asked, raising an incredulous eyebrow.

Sunset shushed her, earning an annoyed glare. “Fine, whatever. What do we have?”

The crystal ball went silent. And then, “Well… there’re twenty aboard the train. And right now… two of them are heading your way.”

“Hayseed!” Sunset kicked a dent into the nearest box.

“And do they know we’re back here!?” Starlight cried.

“I would think so,” Twilight’s voice replied. “He did see you, after all.”

Starlight took a quick stock of the caboose once more, stroked her chin in thought, and jumped as a proverbial light bulb lit above her head. “Quick! Up that ladder!”

The two then scampered up the rope ladder. They flipped the hatch door open and climbed into a small observation room just in time for the two unponies to push through the door and creep inside.

“They saw you,” Twilight’s voice warned.

“That’s okay,” Starlight whispered as she rolled over the edge. “Let them come.”

Sunset peered through the opening as their enemies reached the ladder themselves.

To that end, Starlight dashed over to the window and flung it open, exposing them to the howling wind and metallic clatter outside. She barred Sunset from jumping through and then dragged her into the dark recesses of the loft.

The both of them watched as the rope ladder hung taut and then oscillated as somepony ascended. The nails securing it to the wall creaked in time with the motion.

“Now!” Twilight’s voice cried.

They sprang forward just as their first foe poked his head through. He had just enough time to find the window before they pounced. They hurled him into the wall behind them before they peered back over and each shot a beam at the stallion on the ladder. The unpony lost his grip and fell backward onto the floor.

The first unpony, still behind them, hopped to his hooves, lit his horn and threw his own blast at them, but they rolled out of the way. He shot at Starlight then, only for the shot to bounce pathetically off her sudden shield.

Sunset hopped to her hooves and shot her own beam, but he dodged and threw one back. It rammed into her, sending her stumbling back into the wall. Starlight then returned the favor in the form of a well-placed blast, sending him into the other wall and knocking him out cold.

“You okay?” Starlight asked, rushing over.

Sunset climbed to her hooves and dusted the offended spot off. “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. He didn’t hit me that hard.”

Starlight snorted and trotted over toward the downed unpony. “I’m surprised you let him hit you, Celestia’s student.”

“I’m out of practice,” Sunset replied, peering down at the unstallion splayed across the caboose floor below. She reached out with her magic and pulled him upwards, only for him to fly through the hatchway and slam against the roof, leaving a dent.

Sunset cried out in surprise at her own display.

Starlight groaned. “Out of practice, huh?”

Sunset turned red. “I didn’t mean to do that either, promise,” she replied as she lowered him against his partner. “That was… weird!”

“Like he’s not even there, right?” Twilight’s voice asked.

Sunset started, and then nodded. “Uh, yeah! I felt nothing. It was like… levitating a feather.”

“Yes, that’s another thing. Unponies react strongly to magic. I’m not sure why that is yet. Still working on it.”

Starlight blushed and then shrugged. “Oh, okay I guess.”

“And that brings me to my next point,” Twilight’s voice said, “I need you to be careful.”

Sunset lifted the unstallions and propped them against the corner. “Yeah yeah,” she replied offhoofedly.

I mean it, girls,” the crystal ball warned.

Starlight hummed and glanced out the window. “I don’t think they’ll give us much trouble, Twilight,” she affirmed.

“Yes! And that’s the whole point! I know that you can just blast them and be done with it, but I need all of them unharmed!”

The two paused, exchanged furtive glances, and then looked up toward some unseen entity (but, rather, Sunset looked up out of habit and Starlight followed her lead) with contemplative frowns. And then, after a few unhelpful gesticulations, Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “Well… that complicates things.”

“I know that’s asking a lot of restraint, but I know you can do it. I believe in you.”

The two mares stood there, contemplating it in silence. The train rolled on and the car shook as it went over ties in the track.

“’Kay then,” Starlight began, clapping. “What’s our plan?” she asked.

Sunset straightened up. “Right. We have to stop them from taking ponies through the portal.”

“And they’re going to do that by driving the train through.”

“And the portal is on some spur.”

“If I remember correctly… that spur is off the Baltimare line.”

“This train’s supposed to go to Ponyville. They’d have to reroute it to the Baltimare line first.”

“And then onto the spur.”

Sunset paused and tapped a hoof against her chin. “They can’t do that unless the tracks are routed that way.”

Starlight groaned. “They must have accomplices on the ground at each junction along the way.”

“Which we can’t do anything about.”

“Which means… the train will go that way.” Starlight shook her head. “You’d think the engineers would notice and stop the train.”

Sunset frowned. “And… well… I guess that’s why they’re taking the engine; to prevent the engineers from doing that.”

Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “Great! Well then, I guess that leaves us. We’ll have to stop the train ourselves!”


Starlight thought for a moment and then said, “Okay, what do we have for brakes?”

“Those trains use chain-continuous brakes,” Twilight’s voice chimed in. “Those are operated from the engine.”

Starlight snorted. “So then, we have to take the engine.”

Sunset nodded. “How do we get up there?”

Starlight hummed and glanced through the hatchway toward the door leading to the rest of the cars. “Well… I don’t really think we can go through the cars without getting noticed. I’d rather not risk a fight in there.”

“I counted three in that carriage we were in,” Sunset added, “and chances are that one’s still in there. He’ll notice us right away if we come out alone.”

“But we still have to make the engine!” Starlight cried. “There has to be another way.”

Sunset scratched her chin. I… could get all of us there in a single instant. ...But on a moving train over this distance? She shuddered. Yeah, no.

She leaned out the window instead, glanced down the long, steel snake as it thundered along, and saw the engine disappearing around a bend in the cliff. The wind smashed against her face, blowing her mane in all directions, prompting her to squint through it.

“Do you think we can make it?” Sunset asked. “You know, using the roof?”

Starlight poked her head out the window as well. “I think… that it’s only six or seven cars. Probably a minute, tops.” She turned to meet Sunset’s eyes and swallowed. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Sunset sighed. “Okay. Let’s go for it.”

She climbed through the window, exposing herself to every bit of the elements. Her world shook and swayed with the cars and her hooves tried to slip out from under her. With a steep cliff hurdling by on her left and a steep drop-off inviting her to fall to her doom on her right, Sunset did her best to keep her eyes forward.

After Starlight stepped through the window with the crystal ball floating behind her, the two galloped across the roof, each step a mountainous metallic thud as the roof caved and rebounded under their weight.

The wind howled at such intensity that they found it difficult to hear the train rumbling right below their hooves. Sunset was sure that the slightest shift would send her flying, and so she surged forward, eager to best it first. With each victory, her vision grew clearer until, finally, it likened to running on solid ground on a calm day.

And that was just in time to meet the first passenger car. She bounded across the gap and landed, prompting the steel plate to respond with a sharp pwack. The wind gained ground against her, and the cycle began anew.

Starlight landed right behind her to the same metallic report. The two galloped on.

One gap down, several more to go. But even with the engine in sight, it appeared as distant as the moon.

Even as she bounded over the second gap, Sunset felt her heart race. She could have been home, studying for a chemistry test over a bowl of cheese dip.

She growled and summoned forth from her reserves and then sprinted forward with renewed energy. The third gap offered no trouble. In her mind, she swore that somepony was getting punched by the end of the night.

Up ahead, a head poked up from between the cars. The unstallion growled when he saw them and then fired a spell.

Sunset dropped a few hair’s length underneath it, sliding across the roofing. Starlight, meanwhile, threw up a shield, off which the beam ricocheted harmlessly into the mountainside.

Sunset shot a beam of her own, but it hit so much air that the unstallion didn’t even try to dodge. Rather, he climbed out from between the cars and onto the roof proper. There, he fired another shot.

Again, Sunset dodged, but then lost her balance. She fell chest-first, sliding down the incline toward the cliff-side of the car.

Starlight, still behind her barrier, gasped. “Hold on!” she cried, flaring her horn and wrapping her aura around Sunset just as her back hoof dangled off the edge.

Sunset shivered and tried to drag herself up. Once certain enough, she took another shot at the unstallion, but her bolt missed him just as much as the first.

“You really need to work on your aim!” Starlight cried, shooting a blast of her own.

The stallion ducked and subsequently lost precious footing. He rolled over just before her next shot burned into the steel where he had been splayed out.

“Restraint, Starlight!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed.

Starlight recoiled. “...Right, sorry!”

Starlight advanced forward while firing another, less-powerful beam. The unstallion hopped to his hooves and shot back in kind. The two beams collided, the report cracking the air around them. The nexus, howling from the perpetual collision, jettisoned blinding-white sparks.

Sunset watched, hoping the beams wouldn’t entwine. At that, she resolved to climb back to her hooves.

Another unpony popped her head through the gap behind them. She found her companion in distress, gasped, and then took to the air. She arced through the sky above and then dove headlong toward them.

“Look out!” Twilight’s voice cried.

By the time Sunset noticed and charged up a counterspell, the pegasus unmare had bowled into Starlight. The magic beams swayed and buckled and then rebounded with tremendous velocity. The nexus died against the cliffside, leaving an explosive memento in the form of rock and root showering the train, leaving them coughing and wheezing.

Moreover, it rocked the carriage, and no doubt jostled the remaining cars. Even as Sunset found her footing again, she frowned.

“…That’ll do it,” Twilight’s voice sighed.

Sunset began tracking the pegasus as she swooped about for an aerial view. Meanwhile, Starlight renewed her duel with the unpony unicorn, trading blasts with him without either finding their mark.

And as an earth unpony scampered onto the roof a few cars away, the pegasus charged.

Oh no you don’t, Sunset thought with a snarl. She shot out a fireball as big as the train itself. It fanned out, crackling and howling like a miniature sun. Everypony on top of the car sweltered in its heat.

The pegasus ground to a halt just before the flames reached her, and she first tried to dive around it, only for Sunset to follow. The pegasus eventually retreated far out of the fireball’s reach to observe.

Starlight watched the fireball dissipate with a pale face. “…Oh,” she cooed.

“That… was nice,” Twilight’s voice began, “but you have incoming behind you.”

Sunset whirled around to find an earth unstallion charging her down. Starlight, who still dueled ahead of her, also glanced back, throwing up a shield as she did so.

Thinking quickly, Sunset focused energy into her horn and disappeared in a flash of light.

The earth unpony crashed into the air and then the metal roof a second later.

Starlight frowned as another blast hit her shield. “…What?”

Sunset stumbled back into existence on the other side of Starlight’s foe. She got her bearings, planted her hooves into the ground, and then bucked. Her hindhooves punched straight into him, launching him across the car. He tumbled pathetically against the steel and ground to a stop just before Starlight’s hooves.

Starlight flung a crystallization spell onto the unicorn, freezing him to the car’s roof, and then gawked at Sunset. “How the heck…?”

Sunset thumped her chest. “It’s a little something I picked up.”

“That’s… pretty cool.” Starlight narrowed her eyes, “But that would have been useful a lot earlier.”

“I can’t even hit the broadside of a barn right now,” Sunset retorted. “I’m not feeling that confident.”

“Look sharp!” Twilight’s voice barked. “Miss pegasus is diving in and you’ve got two more about to join you up there.”

The two companions glanced up to see the unpony swoop through the air, hesitate, and then switch to rapid serpentines.

Starlight shot several volleys into the sky, and the pegasus weaved through them, all at the cost of losing ground.

“Ahead of you, Sunset!” the crystal ball warned.

Two more appeared on the roof two cars ahead. One took to the air and joined his companion in the sky, and the other charged, her earthly hooves like thunder against the metal. Behind Sunset and Starlight, the other earth unpony stood up and snorted and dragged his hoof against the roof.

All four of their foes charged at once; Starlight continued her volley against the two from the air, but Sunset found the two on the ground, charging from either side, a larger issue. She shot a beam at the newest arrival, but the other managed to ram head-first into the crystal trapping the unicorn foe. The crystal cracked and the unicorn inside stirred. With a flare of his horn, he shattered the rest of it. The unicorn stood up amidst the pile of crystal shards, gave his companion a nod, and then shot a beam at Starlight.

Starlight screamed and teetered for a few moments. The crystal ball, once held by her magic, shot into the air. She lost her footing and tumbled over the side of the train and down the cliff face beyond.

Sunset reached out with her magic, but Starlight was already gone. She swore, with no recourse but to catch the crystal ball when it plummeted back down near her. Crying out, she grabbed a passing tree branch with her magic. She then whipped the unicorn with it, sending him tumbling backward. She whirled around and shot a fireball at the earth unponies behind her, leaving several soot marks on their muzzles and tiny flames in their manes, swearing at them as she did so.

“They’re still coming!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed. “Your two friends from the caboose are on the way!”

Sunset glared down the length of the train to see the two unstallions from before bounding across the roof. They were enough cars away that they couldn’t take any good shots, but neither could she.

She could have been home watching Horse Whisperer. Instead, here she was outnumbered. Three unicorns and two earths on either side, and two pegasi in the air.

The pegasi, however, didn’t appear happy. In fact, they had recoiled out of alarm. From the way they scooted away from the cliff, something below had spooked them. And then a beam shot between the two of them, grazing one and shooing away the other.

Starlight floated back up into view, supported by her own magic.

Sunset let out a breath and let a huge grin spread across her face.

Starlight’s expression bore holes into the two pegasi as she floated along, closing the distance between them at a meandering pace. She let out a volley of purple light.

One unpegasus’ eyes grew wide and Sunset swore she could see her mouth something before she took flight, not intending to let Starlight close.

“Well,” Sunset chuckled, “that’s… something.”

While Starlight engaged her foes in the air, Sunset turned her attention back to the unponies on the roof. She shot a fireball at the large group in front of her, causing them to duck for cover. She then whirled around, grabbed bits and pieces of rock off the cliffside, and hurled them at the foes behind her.

She threw up a rudimentary force field and charged straight through her own fireball, toting the crystal ball all the while. She emerged from the flames and immediately bowled over some unfortunate unstallion on the other side.

She skidded to a halt and quick-fired at another unpony poking up between the gaps in front of her. Unfortunately, her actions bought her more immediate foes enough time to take stock of her and charge her in kind.

“Incoming!” Twilight’s voice warned.

Sunset punched the roof with her magic. The metal protested and fussed but gave way all the same, leaving a sizeable depression in the car. Her foes tumbled into it, piling onto each other with “Oof!”s and “Ack!”s.

The ponies inside would definitely notice that.

Sunset felt a drop of sweat slide down her brow and finally noticed how short of breath she actually was. Her lungs heaved her entire chest with each motion. Her heart thumped against her insides.

How much magic did she have in reserve? Suddenly, that was a pressing question.

The two stallions from the caboose, whom she had left in the dust, had turned their attention to shooting bolts of energy into the sky, intent on knocking Starlight out of it.

A third pegasus climbed out a window a few cars down and took to the air, intent on helping take Starlight down. While the train rounded a bend, carrying the cars away from the aerial skirmish, Starlight maintained control.

But even then, many of her shots hit air. With each one, Starlight’s confused frown deepened. Her foes moved wherever they wanted, and that included, more times than not, a direction other than that of the train.

Sunset looked around to gauge what lay ahead. The tracks followed the curve of an ever-waning mountain, and even though the plains below still lay down some unfathomable drop, it wasn’t as pronounced. The tracks, despite still following the mountain slope, wove through low-reaching rocks now.

She recognized the area. Her heart sank. We’re pretty far along now!

Sunset glanced up as the newest arrival—an earth unpony—charged her, She teleported on the spot; she disappeared just long enough for him to pass through and land in the heap of unponies before she reappeared.

She glanced back toward Starlight’s battle in the air, which Starlight had managed to pull toward the train again. That, or she was going for a landing, if her panting was any indication.

Starlight’s foes were closing in fast.

We need a way to disable them and be done with it, Sunset thought. This isn’t working.

Sunset threw out a barrier fireball and then oriented her crystal ball in order to look inside. Princess Celestia remained buried in her book, letting off a soft chuckle as she turned the page. She sipped the last drops of her wine before floating the glass onto the desk.

With the mob behind her occupied with detangling themselves, Sunset surged forward again, allowing her mind to work even as she jumped from car to car. I’m going to need some things, she thought. I think I know what I should do here.

“Twilight,” Sunset started.

The crystal ball sighed in the response. “I am… so sorry,” Twilight’s voice replied sorrowfully. “Maybe this was a bit much…”


“I was so sure that you could do it because you did it.”

Sunset snorted. “Twilight!”

The crystal ball paused. “…Yes?” Twilight’s voice asked, her tone indicative of the blush that was without a doubt on her face.

“Have we passed the first switch yet?”

“…No, you haven’t. But you’re about two minutes away by my counts, why?”

Sunset hopped another gap and then skidded to a halt. “That will do. Okay,” she said as she wrapped a hoof around the crystal ball and turned her attention toward the alicorn inside. “Princess Celestia, can you hear me?”

Celestia looked up from her book once again with a small smile on her face. “Sunset. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, actually. I need some supplies delivered,” she said.

Starlight finally neared the train. She surrounded herself with a shield, but few shots managed to get close enough to necessitate it.

Celestia hummed while turning a page within her book. “I can see to that. Aren’t you heading somewhere?”

“Our train is heading for Ponyville, but I need them sooner than that. Much sooner.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “How soon?”

Sunset puckered her lips, unsure how to phrase it. “Like… immediately soon. Right now soon.”

Celestia sat there, dumbstruck, for several long moments. And then she gasped and blushed. “Oh, yes! Of course. Silly me, I forgot that this crystal ball operates on nine-day intervals.”

Sunset was thankful that Celestia couldn’t see the red on her own face. “Yes! Yes, sorry. Yeah.”

“I… should believe that is perfectly possible. What would you like me to bring you?”

Sunset shook herself off. “Yes, Princess,” she replied, looking back down the train. “We’re going to need some hoofcuffs. And some wing binders. And some magic inhibitors. I would say enough for fifteen of each, just to be safe.”

At that, Celestia frowned. She flipped her book closed and glanced up, her expression stern. “Sunset Shimmer… why would you need something like that?”

Starlight chose that moment to land in the crater two cars away, pressing the unponies within down with her shield. The two unicorns from the caboose continued their assault, but their shots bounced off with little effect.

But now Starlight was sweating and teetering about.

“Hold on a moment,” Sunset said. She lit her horn and hurled out a wind blade. It struck the cliff face, showering the two stallions with chunks of rock and soil.

It gave Starlight just enough opportunity to finally drop her shield. She galloped in Sunset’s direction, glancing behind her in case any stray shots came her way.

“The train we’re on got hijacked,” Sunset explained.

Celestia shot to her hooves and her wings flew open such that each feather stood on end. She looked upwards, shaking like she had seen an aberration. While Celestia normally had a whiter-than-white coat, she had somehow visibly paled.

“We’re working on taking it back before it reaches some sort of portal further down the line. So that’s why we need those,” Sunset continued.

Princess Celestia swallowed. “I see. I see. Then, where are you right now?”

“We’re on the route from Canterlot to Ponyville, but we’re coming up to a junction in the tracks and we’re getting forked toward Baltimare, and then we might get forked onto a spur after that. We’re about a minute away.”

Celestia nodded and levitated over a quill and a parchment. “I’ll see to it,” she replied.

“Thanks,” Sunset replied, “I appreciate it.”

“Coming up here,” Twilight’s voice said, “there is a bag hanging from a tree branch off to the side. That should be it.”

Sunset whirled around right as Starlight joined her. Together, they advanced toward the locomotive with their several foes, both aerial and not, right behind them. But while Starlight was content to simply run, Sunset passed her the ball and shot a few token volleys behind her.

The train itself passed into a wooded area between two of the mountain ridges. Branch after branch arced over the tracks, creating a tunnel of sorts.

Starlight looked up as they reached the next gap, now only two cars away from the engine. “What’s that up there!?” she cried.

Sunset looked up as they bounded over and saw the bright green sack, large enough to fit a pony or two inside, hanging off a rope just over the tracks. “Yes! That’s it!” she cried. She hurled a wind blade at the rope, cutting it in two. She caught the sack and just about slammed it onto the roof.

While Starlight went to work on unpacking, Sunset renewed her assault, providing cover for the both of them via several rapid volleys. Starlight pulled out several items, all meant to incapacitate ponies. Every single one of them shone a brilliant silver, without a single scratchy patch or dent in them. She pulled out a set of cuffs first, four on each chain, and ensured there were many more within the sack.

Starlight shot the first set of shackles out, guiding them with her magic. Her first target, a unicorn, hopped out of the way, and so Starlight kept going. The shackles ended up buckling tight around an earth pony’s legs, and the sudden constriction tripped him, sending him crashing face-first.

“Good shot!” Twilight’s voice said.

“Thanks!” Starlight replied.

A few foes cried out and rushed to their fallen comrade’s aid, taking stock of the shackles binding him. The rest charged forward with renewed fury, letting out thirsty battle yells. The pegasi swooped down in haphazard dive-bomb attempts.

The two mares ducked under the first two and then Sunset levitated the third dead in their tracks. Sunset managed to hold the unmare long enough for Starlight to fasten the wing binders and shackles on. As soon as they heard it click, they unceremoniously let the pegasus land on the roof with a thud.

There’s two! Sunset thought.

But the others were soon upon them. Even as Starlight shot at and secured an oncoming unicorn, their foes shot back at them, forcing Starlight to revert to her shield spell.

Sunset shot a fireball at them to block their progress, but it only managed to stop the ground advancement. Even then, a blast cut through the flames and hit her in the face, blinding her. She stumbled backward, crying out in annoyance.

“Oh no!” Twilight’s voice cried.

Starlight barely had time to register it as she focused on shooting some more shackles. A third set hit a unicorn and she fished out a magic inhibitor and floated that onto the downed foe’s horn.

“Starlight! Behind you!” Twilight’s voice warned.

The pegasi pounced, slamming Starlight into the roof. She let out a cry but managed to keep her hold on the crystal ball. But the others gathered around and pinned her from all angles. Those that found themselves unoccupied moved in the direction of their shackled companions.

Through blurred vision, Sunset wrapped her own magic around the ball. She tugged at it, breaking it free from Starlight’s feeble magic.

“Get off me!” Starlight exclaimed, shooting a frenzied bolt into nothingness.

A unicorn advanced on Sunset, watching her intently. He moved slowly, cautiously, not daring to peel his eyes off her, despite the crystal ball floating into her grasp. Sunset let off a volley, but it hit air. The unicorn, in turn, fired another shot at her, causing her to lose her footing.

“Get up, Sunset!” Twilight’s voice commanded. “Get up!”

Sunset wrapped her hooves around the ball. “Princess…?” she croaked.

Celestia looked up with renewed alarm. “Sunset? Do you need something else?”

The blur continued to approach her, and Sunset was sure he had an inhibitor in hoof. Sunset moaned. “Oh. Ow. Starlight’s down. Uhm, I probably might need something here at something somewhere.”

Inside the ball, the hair on Celestia’s coat stood on end and her muzzle darkened. “Hang in there, Sunset Shimmer,” she replied, her voice cold and foreboding.

Starlight shot another beam of energy into the sky and hit nothing.

But then, somehow, the sky answered. A single powerful beam as bright and vibrant as the sun blasted the surface, nearly striking Sunset’s adversary dead on.

You will leave her alone!” boomed a voice from above. A moment later, Princess Celestia, glowing with radiant energy, crashed down upon the pile. The remaining scattered, trying to keep their wits about them.

She headbutted them like a madhorse, digging down until Starlight had room to stand again. Those out of reach cowered under the unforgiving shadow of Celestia’s fully stretched wings and the heavy, energy-laden air.

“…Woah,” Twilight’s voice cooed.

The unicorn that had been approaching Sunset before now turned his back to her. Sunset reached toward the bag with her magic and levitated out another set of shackles. Before the unicorn knew what hit him, they shut around his legs and swept him off his hooves.

Got you, she thought, shaking the last of the disorientation out.

Celestia herself levitated several items out of the bag, counted them in the air, and gingerly levitated them on and around the ponies cowering before her. A cuff here, a magic inhibitor there. The pegasi remained airborne, well out of Celestia’s reach.

Starlight stood up and brushed herself off. “Princess Celestia…?”

Celestia smiled. “Hello, Starlight.”

Sunset groaned and, after some difficulty, pulled herself to her hooves as well. “You… came and rescued us?”

Celestia nodded and turned around. “That was my plan for a few days now.”

Sunset smiled weakly. “Heh… well, I appreciate it. Thanks.”

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed. “You… you never said anything about being on that train too!”

At that, Celestia blinked. After taking one more careful glance back at their captives, she nodded. “Well then, Twilight, I guess I’m not telling you that I am on the train.”

The crystal ball paused, and then Twilight’s voice snorted.

“Which, before I forget…” she said, “I must see that for a moment.” Celestia levitated the ball over to herself and wrapped a hoof around it. “Pardon me,” she began.

Inside the crystal ball, Celestia tripped, landing on the floor with a thud. She shot back to her hooves with a beet-red face and whirled around to face her own crystal ball. “Uh, yes! Yes. What is it?”

“Concerning that last part,” Celestia continued, examining her surroundings, “I would say about five minutes from the second switch would be a good spot for intervention.”

Celestia opened her mouth to speak and then hummed as a thought struck her. She nodded sagely and returned to her bed, adjusting a pillow as she sat down. “I see. Thank you. I will be sure to remember that.”

Celestia took her hoof off the ball. “And I know that technically is not me, but that is what I heard as well. And, lo and behold, I remembered!”

Sunset had trouble holding back her laugh and eventually let it out in full. “That’s… impressive!”

Celestia glanced back toward the sky, tracking the pegasi as they weaved over the treetops looking for a possible way in. Her frown returned and she regarded them with narrow eyes. “I have a few guards on the way as well. Hopefully… they will catch up soon.”

Starlight cleared her throat, turning her gaze down the length of the train. “That’s great, Princess, but I don’t think we should wait for them too long.”

Sunset levitated the bag over her head and nodded. “Agreed.”

Starlight shot a single beam at their captives, encasing them in a large block of crystal. The steel buckled under its weight but ultimately held. “That should keep them long enough.”

Celestia straightened herself. “Then let us stop this train!”

The train car thumped in time with the track as they turned and galloped down the roof. Even while the wind fought with them, blowing their manes this way and that, they kept pace with each other without the slightest sign of submission.

The train thundered onward. A misplaced whistle bellowed from the engine. They drew close enough that the smoke exhaust mingled with their air, and they charged headlong into it.

They hopped another gap. And then it was the final car. The engine chugged along at the other end, swaying this way and that.

Sunset coursed energy through her horn in preparation for a new attack. With any luck, she’d be able to fire down on them right as they reached the gap.

From the way Starlight lit her horn, Sunset assumed she was thinking the same thing.

“Expect two of them in there,” Twilight’s voice said.

Starlight and Sunset easily outpaced Celestia who remained content to bring up the rear. Sunset dropped the bag of restraints onto the roof and the two of them slid down through the crack, landing at the very foot of the engine’s open rear.

Celestia, meanwhile, jumped the entire gap, skidding to a halt atop the cabin. She looked back down the length of the entire train, fashioning herself as a sentinel.

Within the cabin, amidst a myriad of pipes and nozzles and gauges and a single spot for the fire pit, two unponies whirled around to meet them. The two engineers lay slumped unconscious against the wall.

Neither mare exchanged greetings, opting to hit their foes with a simultaneous attack. The stallions tumbled into the metal hull, prompting a loud clang as they went. Starlight floated their bag down, and before the stallions could recover, they fixed magic inhibitors and shackles onto them.

Sunset rushed over to one of the unconscious engineers. She noted the spent yet eternal drool that hung off the side of his mouth and grimaced, opting instead to check everything else. She noted a magical burn mark on his lapel and went from there.

Starlight scooted around the downed unponies. A long handle hung down from above the driver’s seat which, through a series of cranks and moving shafts, controlled something deeper within the engine. The throttle, she decided.

“I think this is what we’re looking for,” she announced.

“Yes, pull that back,” Twilight’s voice concurred. “That’ll discontinue power.”

Starlight reached up, threw the handle back and felt the cabin shudder in response. The churning rumble on the other side of the boiler faded away, leaving only the familiar grind of wheel on steel and the occasional metallic clink of tie after tie. The scenery, however, continued galloping by.

Sunset nodded once before trotting over to the other engineer and giving him a once-over.

Starlight frowned. “How are they?”

“They’re out cold but otherwise okay,” she replied. She poked one of them in the stomach and he stirred but only feebly. “You wanna go ahead and hit the brakes?”

Starlight nodded and examined the central console. To her horror, an entire set of levers stuck out in front of her. While each appeared unique, she couldn’t tell which one did what.

Sunset glanced behind them into the very first passenger car. Two unpony stallions pressed up against the glass, forlornly watching the proceedings. The handle jiggled in place but remained locked. Sunset smiled demurely. Ha.

The air cracked as Celestia shot another beam into the sky. An unpony passed overhead, likely one of the pegasi from before. “How’s it going down there?” Celestia called down.

“Uh, we’re working on it!” Starlight cried.

“Try not to take too long,” Celestia replied. “While I have some guards trying to take that second switch back as we speak, I would prefer not to leave all of our success to them.”

Sunset stood up and trotted over. “What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know which one of these is the brake,” Starlight explained, motioning between her choices.

Sunset blinked, feeling a cold sweat on her brow. “Well… yeah. This complicates things, I guess.”

Starlight shook her head. “Twilight, can you give us a little help here?”

“Oh… dear,” Twilight’s voice replied after some moments. “It should be… okay. Yes. Try the yellow handle.”

They found the lever in question and nodded affirmatively to each other. “Alright then,” Sunset said, “here goes nothing.” She pulled it.

The cabin shuddered and lurched under their hooves, throwing them to the hard metal floor. The train whined in protest as it skidded along the tracks. The bag shifted and rolled up against the closed fire pit. The unstallions in the adjacent car, once watching through the window, now found themselves pressed uncomfortably against the glass, with one of them grimacing in front of a small crack.

Above them, Princess Celestia lifted off, flapping her wings and allowing the train to pass by underneath. She burst through the trees, making a beeline for the pegasi above.

The screeching wound down and down and the pulling at their chests grew less and less until, finally, the entire thing stopped. The engine sighed, billowed some final bits of steam, and then idly hummed in wait.

Sunset climbed to her hooves and took a glance outside to confirm that, yes, they had stopped. She giggled and tapped out a celebratory rhythm on the metal.

She then retreated and collapsed against the wall, sighing in relief.

She looked over at the soundly unconscious engineers. In fact, they could have been sleeping.

She looked over at the unponies who lay flopped one on top of the other in front of the door to the adjacent car. While they remained alert, they made no sounds. Rather than appearing panicked like she thought they would be, they looked contemplative, as if merely thinking of what would happen next.

Starlight sat there for a few moments, content to splay herself across the floor. She took several deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling. “What the buck,” she said at length.

Sunset, at that, doubled over and guffawed. “Haha, yeah. Exactly.”

“Great job, girls,” Twilight’s voice said. “I knew you could do it.”

Starlight pumped a hoof into the air in celebration. “Woo hoo.”

Sunset giggled even more. Starlight followed. Finally, the two fell into tired laughter, as much as their breaths could afford them. Eventually, the two went silent once more, content to rest until the guards arrived.

4 - Consequences

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Princess Celestia dabbed the last bits of powder onto her face and then closed the lid. She set the tin container down to the side of the mirror, glanced at herself, adjusted the container’s placement, and then returned to her gaze.

The sun would set soon, and that normally meant an end to another good day. But now, with her mane combed and her coat cleaned, she looked refreshed. She sparkled in the mirror, and for a moment, Celestia smiled.

She stood there for several minutes, staring down the figure within who, in turn, stared back at her. She saw a princess who was regal, majestic, and eager to lead and serve her subjects. And yet, even though Celestia knew that image as herself, what she saw was somehow an enigma.

It had to be the butterflies in her stomach. Bureaucratic hoops and insufferable nobles were one thing that she knew she could do well. But this… she thought, I really hope I do not mess this up.

Her ear twitched when she heard a rapping at the door. “Come in,” she called.

Princess Luna squeezed through the doorway, closing it back shut behind her. “Sister,” she said.


“I take it that you are preparing to go out?”

“Yes, I am.”

Luna trotted over and joined her sister in silently critiquing Celestia’s reflection, making sure that everything was in place. “You look like you are ready.”

“I should hope so,” Celestia sighed, “because, somehow, I do not feel ready.”

Luna raised an eyebrow, fixed a misplaced strand in Celestia’s mane, and then looked at her sister in earnest. “You’re nervous.”

“I am, a little,” Celestia replied, shaking her head. “I have known about this event for nine days now and now I must fulfill my duty. I am glad to do it, but I… do not want to let them down.”

“Let them down? Whyever would you be afraid about that?”

Celestia twisted within her golden shoes, eyeing her crown as it hung on the stand. She thought of the pony standing before her, she thought of Chrysalis, and she thought of Twilight Sparkle. She thought of Sunset Shimmer. Her face turned red and she said, “I have my share of failures…”

“You will be with two of the most capable unicorns that there are,” Luna replied. “They are Twilight Sparkle’s students, after all.”

Celestia chuckled. “I suppose they are.”

Luna lit her horn and lifted Celestia’s crown from its stand and gingerly placed it on Celestia’s head, adjusting it so that it would remain in place. Celestia remained still as Luna worked, abstaining from even the slightest glance to make sure it was done right.

“Besides,” Luna continued, “it is but a train, and your enemies will be but few. And you are more than capable of handling all of that. I have faith in you, Sister.”

Celestia chuckled. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Luna. I suppose, then, I should be off.” She strolled over and unlatched the window, letting a cool breeze into the room. She drew her eyes toward her setting sun and she took a moment to relish the atmosphere.

“But still,” Luna said, approaching behind her, “do be careful. You are my only sister and I do not know what I would do if I lost you.”

Celestia grinned. She turned and wordlessly wrapped her forelegs around Luna, and Luna, in turn, hugged back. They remained silent in their embrace for what seemed like hours, but they eventually broke apart.

“I will see you later tonight, Sister,” Celestia said.

Luna nodded and smirked. “Go get them. Smite them with thy power!”

Celestia roared with laughter as she sauntered back toward the window and then out onto the balcony. With one last look, and one last confident grin on her face, Celestia flapped her wings and took to the sky.

I didn’t know that there were any rooms in the castle that were this… damp, Sunset Shimmer thought. She ran her eyes across the floor, if solid earth could be called that. Between the decayed wooden trusses and the rusted nuts and bolts holding those together (and even then, they cracked and buckled under their own weight), as well as the eternal puddles dotting the ground, she felt like she had stepped into a mining operation of sorts.

Part of her wished that they would have a constant dripping sound to go along with it. Instead, they had to settle for the low hum of poor, stagnant ventilation.

Even Princess Celestia tugged at her regalia for some air.

The bars lining the cells looked no better, with some bars collapsed altogether. The guards held a magical aura around the steel, standing at attention on the opposite walls. Sunset figured that if anything tried to break through the cells, it would be the guard’s magic that would stop them as opposed to the bars themselves.

She had no idea this area of the castle even existed. Judging from the lack of furniture and light fixtures, everypony else had simply forgotten.

And so she stared into one of the cells. She made out the faint outlines of this cell’s occupants; the five unponies inside, with coats blacker than the night itself, huddled against the back wall. The abysmal lighting offered them a great deal of camouflage, and Sunset supposed that she could only see them now because she was looking for them specifically.

After all, they hadn’t said a word since the guards brought them off the train and rounded up the ones working the tracks; not even to each other. They just sat there in utter quiet. And that prompted a knot to form in Sunset’s throat.

Just what are they thinking? she thought.

A wooden door at the end of the tunnel-hallway creaked open and a mare stepped in, levitating a crystal ball behind her. Starlight Glimmer rubbed her eyes and placed a hoof on the doorway to steady herself. “They’re here,” she announced.

Celestia let out a breath she hadn’t known she had been holding. “Very good. Sunset, what do you say we go up to meet them?”

Sunset twitched, considering it. “…Yeah, let’s go.”

At that, the three of them exited the tunnel and wound their way up a spiral staircase. Several torches, all with fresh kindling, lit the steps with an orangish glow. The stair wrapped and wrapped and Sunset had no idea how far below the main castle the dungeons lay, but they were far enough to give the staircase an endless quality to it.

They reached their landing soon enough. Glossy checkerboard tiles and polished stone walls welcomed them, and the lighting from simple chandeliers hanging off a low and equally plain ceiling took a hold of them and led them further in. It was still abysmally small by castle standards, but unlike the catacombs that they had just trudged up from, Sunset found no reason for complaint. And it smelled nice.

The double doors at the end of the room, just as uninteresting as the rest of the room, parted, and six mares stepped through.

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight Sparkle cried before pausing in the doorway. She blinked. And then she blinked some more. “Sunset Shimmer?”

The others bunched up behind her, pushing Twilight into the room in their efforts to see.

Sunset waved. “Hey.”

A flurry of gasps escaped them first. And then, “Sunset!” they cried in unison. They surged forward, scooping her into a tight embrace among several greetings and giggles. The pile rolled over, and then the seven tumbled onto the floor which only served to fuel their laughter.

Starlight watched from the side, snickering. Celestia, on the other hoof, beamed.

Finally, Twilight stood up. “It’s good to see you! What brings you here?”

Sunset playfully pushed Pinkie Pie off and then stood up herself. “Actually, it’s a bit of a long story.”

“I should probably cut to the chase,” the crystal ball said, “and say I brought her here.”

The new arrivals went silent, standing up if they had not already. And then they, including Pinkie Pie, froze in place.

Rainbow Dash, her eyebrow raised as high as Cloudsdale, said it first: “Twilight? Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Twilight tapped against the floor, the sound of which echoed several times over. “What? No way.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. Twilight really helped us out on that train,” she said.

Rarity shook her head. “Wait a moment, darling. You’re… Twilight from the future?”

“That is correct,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Pinkie Pie climbed onto Fluttershy and glared at them from her perch. “Wait a darn second! What’s this I hear about a train?”

Sunset frowned. “They didn’t tell you?”

“Nope, just that there was a thing that happened and there was some fighting and then all the ponies that did the thing or whatever the thing was were down here and that you were waiting for us down here,” Pinkie Pie said.

Starlight stared back with a glazed expression. “Um… yes, Pinkie Pie. That.”

Sunset had to bite her hoof in order to suppress a giggle.

“That would be right,” Twilight’s voice said. “They attempted to hijack the train Sunset and Starlight were on and take it through the portal. As in, the one that you investigated yesterday, girls.”

“Really!?” Twilight cried.

“Yes, really. They are trying to collect ponies. Thankfully, though, we managed to stop them before they got there. It was quite a challenge!”

“Yeah,” Sunset giggled. “But hey, I’ll take it.”

“And now we have them all locked up downstairs,” Starlight added, pointing toward the staircase.

Fluttershy surged forward. “Oh, goodness. You weren’t hurt, were you?” she asked, running her eyes up and down Sunset’s body. “I mean, if you were, um, fighting on a train, that is.”

Sunset frowned. “I’m fine, Fluttershy. Starlight’s fine.”

Fluttershy looked up through pleading eyes. “Are you sure?”

“…Really. We’re fine.”

“Okay, okay, hold on a moment,” Twilight interjected, knocking her own skull. “Why are they collecting ponies? And why would they want to take them over there?”

Celestia glanced upward, fixing her gaze on some invisible spot on the ceiling. “Yes, Twilight, I think now might be a good time to give some explanations.”

The rest of them looked up as well.

“I would like to… but I can’t exactly do that,” Twilight’s voice replied.

“And why the hay not?” Applejack replied, her gaze turning into a glare.

“It’s a bit complicated, but the simple version is that I didn’t tell you anything about that at this moment in my past. I hope that makes sense.”

Applejack adjusted her stetson. “Sorta.”

Sunset groaned. “Because it would cause the worlds to diverge. Right.”

“And again,” Twilight’s voice continued, “I’m not really sure what I’m doing either. I have a specific goal in mind, but getting there is… um, fuzzy.”

“And your goal is…?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“I’m… trying to prevent something,” the crystal ball replied after a few moments of silence. “Something that’s already happened here.”

The nine of them shuddered and shared uncertain glances.

“Something that has already happened?” Rarity echoed.


“Um, Twilight,” Sunset began, “I hate to break it to you, but… if you’re trying to prevent something, then aren’t you going to have to do something at some point?”

“Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied, “and I’ll lose all of my advantages when I do that. So I have to tread lightly and wait for the right time. ...I just don’t know when that is yet.”

After a moment’s consideration, which included gauging each other’s expressions (most nodded and the others remained silent), Sunset shrugged. “Fine then. What should we do in the meantime?”

Twilight muttered something under her breath and then shook her head. “Okay then. Just for now, maybe we should start by talking to those ponies that you caught.”

“I have no objections,” Twilight’s voice said.

The others let out a series of “Uh-huhs”s in response.

The nine of them turned and filed into the stairwell. As they wound down and down, the air grew colder and wetter. With every step, Sunset’s frown deepened, but she found it curbed because her friends were with her.

The nine stepped into the tunnel, and then the new arrivals advanced forward, peering into the various cells. Where Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were the extremes—Pinkie Pie pressing herself against the bars and Fluttershy staying as far back as she could—the others stood just out of reach.

“Careful, Pinkie,” Twilight warned.

The ponies within the cells shifted, causing the ponies outside to shift in kind. Several shadows against the darkest walls stood up in succession. And then they slowly, cautiously, with their expressions transfixed and awestruck, stumbled toward the light. They watched Twilight closely, uncomprehending.

“I hope you are in the mood for talking,” Twilight said, her voice gruff and commanding.

One of the unponies pressed up against the cell bars, regarding her with a glazed shock. The stallion swallowed once, twice, and then opened his muzzle to speak. “Your name… is Twilight Sparkle. Is that correct?”

“Yes, I am Twilight Sparkle,” she replied.

The unpony shuddered. “Then… you do exist.”

Everypony shared confused glances. Twilight spoke for them: “I… exist? I’m sorry?”

“We didn’t think you were real but… this…”

Sunset glanced into the other cells. Twenty-five unponies glanced back out. Those in other cells pressed against the metal bars, watching silently with unwavering attention.

“If you are Twilight Sparkle… then that confirms it.” He turned, his gaze drifting until they found new targets. There, his darker-than-dark coat managed to pale. “That would make you… Starlight Glimmer… of that town near the mountains, and you… are Sunset Shimmer… from the other world.”

A flurry of silent gasps rose up in unison. Even Pinkie Pie, who had before buzzed with energy, stiffened on the spot. Rainbow Dash ruffled her wings and Rarity held her breath. Princess Celestia stood over them, now glaring daggers.

Starlight stumbled forward. “You know who we are?”

Sunset approached the bars with a sinister scowl. “How do you know that!?”

If the unpony had not appeared vacant before, he seemed lost then. He returned to Twilight. “All of us know that, but… We do not know why we know that…”

Twilight snorted. “You don’t know why?”

“No. And I trust… from that… You don’t know either.” He grimly shook his head. “I am disappointed.”

Celestia approached the cell, towering over the ponies within. While she remained calm and collected, the unpony at the bars still cowered beneath her.

After glancing at the mares behind her, Twilight shook her head. “Who are you, exactly? And why did you try to take those ponies through the portal?”

At that, the stallion glanced toward his companions behind him who all, in turn, met his gaze. They nodded and he nodded back. The unpony swallowed and then stood to his full height. “We would like to speak; to tell all,” he said. And then his frown grew deeper and he added, “But not with you.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, dragging a hoof through the dirt. “Well, okay. If not us… then who exactly would you like to talk to?”

The stallion met her square in the eyes. “Our Queen,” he said. “We wish to speak to Queen Adamantine.”

* * *

Starlight’s pacing ground to a halt when the door opened once again and several ponies stepped into the room. Twilight appeared beside her, and together the two watched their friends file back in. And then Celestia appeared, with Luna behind her, both followed closely by a few guards.

And then Adamantine strode through the doorway. She held herself high, and where yesterday her mane had been somewhat tangled, it now lay straight and shined against the torchlight. Several disposable cups, filled with steaming coffee, trailed within a red aura behind her, save one which floated close to her muzzle.

Somehow, sans a crown, she looked like an actual queen. If… what they say is true, Starlight mentally added.

But, on looking into one of the cells, Adamantine lost her grip on her cups and the coffee splashed against the ground. She rushed toward the cell and the unponies, in turn, stood up and rushed toward her.

“Queen Mom!” one of them said, saluting.

“…Basalt!?” Adamantine cried, running right into the bars. “What is the meaning of this!?”

“It’s complicated,” Basalt replied as he ruffled his wings.

“What… what is this!? How did you get here!?”

“It’s complicated.”

“By The Great Benefactor’s graces, Basalt!” she cried again, tracing her gaze across the others within the cell to those in the other cells. “I am glad you are okay, but… how long have you been out?”

“We last fed at midday yesterday,” he croaked.

Adamantine shook her head. “That’s dangerous,” she said, her voice sharp and reprimanding.

Another unpony in an adjacent cell, this one of the earth variety, cleared her throat. “Queen Mom, we can explain…”

Adamantine whirled around and thundered up to the other cell, giving the mare a once-over. “I should very much hope so, Gabbro… because I come here, hearing that a few of you have tried to do something to a train full of innocent ponies…” She stamped the dirt, leaving a sizeable hoofprint. “Do you realize how much you’ve jeopardized us!?”

“Before we answer that…” Gabbro began, dragging her hoof down the metal, “does… The Great Benefactor exist over here?”

At that, Adamantine glanced through the other cells. “Does… No. Of course not. The Great Benefactor does not exist. It hasn’t. We’ve been over this!”

Gabbro frowned, slumping her head against the metal. “…Darn it all. We did not think so.”

Adamantine shook her head. “What… are… you… getting at!?”

Basalt cleared his throat. “We are merely following the directives set forth by Her Majesty.”

Adamantine slunk backward. Her lips quivered but no sound emerged.

“Would you care to explain, Queen Adamantine?” Twilight seethed.

“I-I have never given any sort of directive like that!” Adamantine cried.

“No,” Gabbro replied, “you haven’t.”

The room paused once more. Eleven incredulous and confused faces contrasted twenty-five knowing frowns. The guards’ expressions lay in some unreadable place in between.

Gabbro stood up and locked eyes with Adamantine. “There is something we must tell you, Queen Mom. The thing is… we are not from this world.”

The visitors refused to breathe, opting to stand there with their jaws hanging off their heads. Their hairs bristled and stood at attention and Twilight, for her part, narrowed her eyes, trying to discern them more closely.

“There are other worlds…” Gabbro continued, “much like Equestria… where things have gone very differently. That is where we come from. We are obeying our Queen Moms.”

Starlight snorted in disbelief, but she then considered Celestia. The princess was leaning so very far forward with an almost vacant stare. Her wings shuffled against her sides and she tugged at her regalia. Starlight regarded Twilight who watched the unponies through a brooding frown. The rest of her friends stood by with pained expressions like somepony had just socked them in their chests.

A shiver ran down Starlight’s spine. What are they talking about? What other worlds…? They can’t…

Twilight stumbled forward, staring into Gabbro’s soul. “These… worlds. These alternate worlds… you wouldn’t happen to be able to travel to them… using portals?”

After sharing a glance with Basalt, Gabbro nodded. “Yes. That is correct.”

They can’t be, right?

Twilight shuddered, her expression painfully somber. Slowly, certainly, she turned. “…Starlight?”

Every head in the room suddenly faced her.

Starlight swallowed. “…Y-yes?”

After looking to her friends for reassurance, Twilight sucked in a breath to speak. “Do you… remember those realities that you and I visited? Those worlds… that came about from the spell that you modified?”

Starlight nodded hesitantly, dreading whatever came next.

“Well…” Twilight continued, kicking the ground, “they… you see…”

“They’re still there,” Rainbow Dash finished.


“King Sombra wages war with Equestria in my world,” one of the unponies said.

“I’m from a world where the changeling Chrysalis has taken much of Equestria,” another said.

“The spirit of chaos rules my world.”

“Lord Tirek has destroyed a lot of Equestria where I come from.”

Starlight backpedaled, retreating toward the door. “Oh please no… Please no…” she croaked. They couldn’t exist. She needed them to not exist. She desperately needed them to not exist.

Applejack nodded solemnly. “Eeyup.”

“In the absence of The Great Benefactor in our worlds,” Basalt concluded, “we are exploring… alternate methods.”

Those alternate worlds should not exist!

“Even when it involves the lives of our subjects!?” Luna growled.

Basalt shied away from the bars. “Y-yes… We don’t k-know how, persay…”

“But those are directives set by our Queens from our own worlds. You cannot blame her,” Gabbro seconded, pointing at Adamantine. “She has done nothing to cause this. It is not her fault.”

Starlight’s world spun around, and she finally blurted, “Oh stars!”

All heads turned to her, and that only served to double the sweat running down her muzzle. She stumbled backward, even falling to the floor at one point only to scramble back to her hooves.

“Starlight?” Twilight started.

“It can’t,” Starlight stammered. “It can’t. It can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

The tears formed in her eyes and then ran down her face where they mingled with her sweat. Every drop shed was one step closer to the door. “They can’t exist,” she continued. “They… they can’t exist. Please…”

Twilight pursed her lips. “Starlight… I’m sorry.”

Starlight shook her head once, twice, but the mares in the main tunnel and the ponies within the cells remained unchanged, unfazed. Some even looked despondent, dejected even. Regretful.

Starlight turned and ran. She ran through the door, she ran up the staircase, she ran and didn’t look behind her. She ran and ran and ran, guided only by whatever was left of the world that she could see in front of her.

“Wait! Starlight!” Twilight called, but Starlight barely heard her.

* * *

Starlight tripped over the last step and sprawled across the tiled floor. It agitated her skin, burning it just enough to distract her from her own thoughts.

She lay there in that whitewashed room, splayed out for anypony to come and find.

But when that didn’t immediately happen, she took a deep breath and rose. She stood for many moments, doing nothing but breathing in and out slowly. In, and out, she told herself. Just in and out.

She slunk into the room proper and glanced at one of the chandeliers hanging off the ceiling. She tried her hardest to fill her mind with nothing but her task, but then a few stray tears squeezed through anyway, laying most of her effort to waste.

Twilight appeared in the open doorway. “Starlight!” she cried before stopping to catch her breath against the doorframe. “Starlight, talk to me.”

Starlight shook her head. “By Celestia’s mane, Twilight. By… I can’t.”

“Starlight, I’m so sorry, but… they are there. We’ve known about them for nearly two days now. The other girls and I have gone into two of them so far, but we figured there were more.”

“They weren’t supposed to exist anymore! They were... supposed to be some sort of… memory,” she said, her tears turning from occasional drops to an outright downpour.

“…I know. I was… debating on whether or not I should tell you…” Twilight admitted, rubbing her foreleg in shame, “but...”

Starlight fell to the floor, burying her head in her hooves. “Buck… just… buck…”

She stayed there, stuck in her thoughts, content to remain there for the rest of eternity if everypony would let her.

Twilight watched in silence. Even though she remained still, Starlight had her full attention. Twilight waited, and waited, and then sighed and stepped forward. “Starlight…” she said, draping a foreleg around her friend, “you don’t need to blame yourself. You didn’t know that any of that would happen. We didn’t know. You weren’t trying to create those terrible alternate realities, you were just…” Twilight said with a chuckle, “trying to get back at me at the time.”

Starlight’s grimace deepened. “But look at what ended up happening. Those Equestrias are ruined, Twilight, because of me.”

“Starlight…” Twilight sighed. “You... didn’t plunge Equestria into chaos, or bring eternal night… Or start a war.”

“But… I made it all possible.”

Twilight hesitated.

“Didn’t you tell me once that what we do in the past can be an avalanche of trouble for the future? Didn’t you…” Starlight trailed off as several pictures came rushing back. She had only heard about most worlds second-hoof from Twilight. But one world, if it could even be called that any longer, burst forth from her memory and rattled her body. “...Didn’t you show me what my tiny act led to?”

A knot went up and down Twilight’s throat, and she cast Starlight a forlorn look. She spoke, tentatively now, “Yes. I did. But… and here’s what I think is important... Starlight, would you have still done all that if you knew it would lead us here?”

Starlight took a deep breath. “No. I wouldn’t. Not if I had known.”

Twilight nodded. “Then that certainly counts for something.”

“Twilight, that hardly matters. Those ponies are suffering because of what I did, whether I wanted that or not.”

“And because of what Chrysalis, and Tirek, and all of those others did.”

After a moment’s consideration, Starlight nodded. “...Okay, I guess they had parts to play in it too.”

“They decided to do what they did. They chose to ruin those worlds. And that’s what sets you apart, Starlight.” Twilight straightened up. “Now yes, we have some responsibility for what happened to them. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to fix it.”

Starlight blinked, looking up from the floor.

“It’s a lot to swallow, I know,” Twilight continued. “I thought these worlds were nothing but memories too. But they’re still there. And sitting around here doing nothing will not change that. Do you understand, Starlight?”

Starlight nodded.

“The best thing that we can do,” Twilight continued, “you and I and the rest of our friends, is to try and fix it, regardless of how responsible we are for it.”

Starlight swallowed. “You really think we can do that?”

Twilight trotted over and tugged Starlight to her hooves. “Of course,” she said, her expression a confident grin. “My friends and I have beaten those villains before, and I know we can do it again.”

That brought the smallest glimmer of a smile to Starlight’s face, but then the images raced through her mind again.

“Twilight…” she said, her voice a whisper, “what if we can’t… what if the damage is so great… what if the damage has already been done?”

Twilight’s frown faded. “If… well…” She hummed in thought and loosened her grip. “I guess we do what we can and hope for the best.”

“And if that’s not enough?”

Twilight smiled. “Well then, it is what it is. We’ll just have to let it go. At least we’ll have tried.”

Starlight stared for many long moments. There had to be some sort of responsibility there. Starlight was sure of that. She sighed.

“Okay,” she said at length. “I’ll try.”

Twilight smiled in response and pulled Starlight in for a hug. The two remained in each other’s embrace for a long and wordless while.

* * *

Sunset led the group into the hall. She spotted Twilight and Starlight hugging each other and trotted over to them. They broke the hug to look up at her and the two nodded.

Adamantine followed close behind, but once she stepped into the room, she lost herself in her own thoughts and paced along no particular path. Celestia and Luna emerged next, whispering amongst themselves. The other five took up the rear and quickly joined up with Twilight.

“This might change things,” Adamantine murmured.

Twilight turned. “What did I miss?” she asked.

“We discussed what happened on that train,” Rarity answered.

Rainbow Dash trotted up and punched Sunset in the shoulder. “That was pretty awesome. Heck, I woulda liked to have been on that train just so I could see it!” she said with a laugh.

Sunset giggled in response and Starlight merely smiled.

“Ah reckon y’all did pretty good up there,” Applejack said.

“Yeah, well,” Sunset said, shooting Celestia a glance, “we had some help.”

Celestia responded with a sly smile. Luna, who stood beside her, smirked as well.

“And,” Fluttershy added, “you managed to keep everypony safe too.” She looked toward the stairwell that led back to the cells far below. “Even them.”

Starlight shrugged, “Well, it’s what Twilight would have done.”

“And that…” Adamantine began, looking up, “is why I think that I should thank you. You could have very well thrown them off that train and that would have been the end of it. But instead… well, they are all downstairs safe and sound, thanks to your restraint.”

Sunset chuckled. “Trust me though, they made that a little bit difficult.”

Adamantine smiled. “Well then, it is a true testament to your skill. That is a very admirable trait.” At that, she glanced back toward the stairwell, a contemplative frown across her face. Her hoof tapped a light rhythm into the tiled floor and her gaze wavered between vacant and purposeful. The changing twists of her mouth indicated thoughts zooming through her mind.

“Maybe they’re not my subjects, per say,” she said at length, “but I still feel the same love for them like I do my own. And so, I am especially appreciative of your skill and tact in that situation. And because of that…” She grinned a toothy grin. “I am confident that you can help me after all. And maybe, just maybe, through this, we might just solve your problem too.

“And so,” she said, addressing the ten of them, “I would like to reveal all to you. But rather than just tell you… I would like to show you. Please, gather around,” Adamantine commanded. “I’m going to teleport all of us there. Otherwise, it would be a journey of several days.”

They did as instructed, bunching themselves as close as they could. Rainbow Dash, in particular, settled for hoping on Pinkie Pie’s back, and the latter only laughed in response.

“I want to stress… that I am about to open a tremendously large can of worms. It was meant to remain a secret, and my people have lived in isolation for a very, very long time in order to preserve it. Our entire existence is a secret.” Adamantine shook her head. “I suppose I would have had to reveal us anyway because of these extraordinary circumstances but… I suppose we will now see.”

“We’re ready,” Twilight said, nodding.

Adamantine’s horn lit up and a ball of energy closed around them. It pulled and tugged, stretched infinitely thin, and then streamed into a single point. The feeling was familiar for Sunset, but teleporting with several other ponies was just downright claustrophobic.

Reality broke down, and she lost touch with all her senses. They came rushing back a moment later just as her world reassembled herself, and once it stopped spinning, Sunset noticed that it was not the same reality that they had left.

A rocky cavern wrapped around them, given a bluish tint by several lit crystals lining the walls at regular intervals. The tunnel snaked around corners, off to destinations unknown.

“We’re here,” Adamantine announced, advancing through the group.

She led them down the tunnel, and on rounding a corner, they spotted two unicorn unponies flanking what looked like a bubbly barrier stretching from rock to rock, cordoning off the tunnel beyond.

“Quartzite! Gneiss!” she barked, “Look sharp! We have guests.”

The two ponies guarding the bubble snapped to attention. “Queen Mom!” they shouted in unison as they flashed salutes.

Sunset looked them up and down. They lacked armor of any sort and their physiques revealed a startling lack of muscle; not what she would expect of any sort of guard. Moreover, they remained even more like statues than the guards at the castle in Canterlot. That convinced Sunset that, while they were guards, they weren’t guards.

“Mind the smell. It might be a little strong,” Adamantine warned. She then walked through the bubble which reformed behind her.

Sunset followed next and stepped through. The stench hit her like a school bus; the roughened garlic and onion (or at least that’s what she thought it was) smashed through her nostrils, sending her reeling for a moment.

The others followed. “Ugh!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, plugging her nose. “A little strong!?”

Luna shook her head. “I would dare say that smells like soiled bed sheets dipped in a waste dump.”

Adamantine laughed. “It’s unstew! Perhaps you have heard me mention it?”

Starlight frowned. “Yesterday morning, in fact… It’s a food you eat through the nose.”

“That smell is just awful,” Twilight said, plugging her own nose.

“My subjects, the unponies, they love this stuff.” Adamantine shrugged. “Of course, it can’t replace the real thing.”

Celestia, who somehow remained unfazed, nodded. “I have not heard so much about it. Perhaps you will explain it for Luna and I as we go further in?”

Adamantine glanced back at Celestia and nodded. “I am here to reveal all, after all.” She looked around at their disgusted faces and chuckled. “Here, perhaps this will be of some help,” she said before flaring her horn. Around each of their noses, sans her own, appeared small aural balls.

Rainbow Dash let out her breath. “I can breathe through my nose again,” she said.

The others sighed in agreement, taking whiffs of filtered air. Celestia, however, peeled her filter ball off and flung it toward the wall where it disintegrated harmlessly before carrying on no worse for wear.

Adamantine led them around another corner and, finally, the tunnel opened into an expansive cavern. The morning light filtered in through a large opening above, painted a pinkish hue by a barrier similar to the one they had passed through. Several bodies milled about the ground beneath, grouped together in pockets throughout the area where they held conversations or gathered around small piles of books. Others stood chalking various diagrams and accompanying symbols into the rocky walls, almost as if they were cave-painting. A group of colts and fillies kicked at several balls and empty cans and ran like they were running through sap.

Of note, however, were the number of ponies not doing anything at all. While one or two here and there stared up at the sky through the hole in the cavern’s ceiling, no doubt pondering the outside world, the rest of the unponies lay silent. They were a scattering of charcoal lumps, all within a deep slumber, anywhere and everywhere. They lay on the bare floor, against the walls, and even piled on top of each other.

Those in deep slumber vastly outnumbered those awake. Those unconscious shared one detail in common: troubled grimaces and frowns that lay perpetually plastered across their faces. A few appeared to have several cracks all across their bodies from forehead to hindleg. Some cracks went deeply into their bodies, like a toy shovel driven into a sand castle.

The pattern was broken by the occasional cauldron. Each cauldron boiled and bubbled, spewing the gaseous unstew into the cavern.

Adamantine’s eyes fell on a mound somewhere in the middle and her smile left her face, leaving no hint it had ever been there. She rushed forth, darting between sleeping bodies and stepping over what she had to. The others followed with confused frowns, minding their steps along the way. They arrived at the mound in question and Adamantine bent over it, looking it up and down, even as her body quaked and rocked and she shook her head in disbelief.

Sunset looked at the mound and then realized it wasn’t a pony. It looked like black dust dumped into a haphazard pile. It matched the color of the unponies around them, but the similarities ended there. “What is that?” she asked.

Adamantine made no indication that she had heard Sunset. Rather, she reached down and caressed the mound’s surface with a shaky hoof, aghast. But even that came to a stop, and after a few frozen moments, Adamantine backed off. Her hoof made itself the sole exception as it shuddered more violently than before. Her eyes watered and she shook her head, looking ready to punch something.

Instead, she pinched the bridge of her muzzle, biding herself until it passed. She said a few things under her breath and then straightened up. And then Adamantine smiled but forlornly. “It is most regrettable that you had to witness that just now. You no doubt have questions…” She shook her head. “They shall be answered in due time.”

Rolling her eyes and regarding the mound of dirt one last time, Sunset glanced toward the hundreds and hundreds of ponies within the cavern. “So, these are your people, huh?”

Adamantine nodded, motioning for them to follow her once more. “Yes, they are. These are my unponies. I know they are not much to look at right now. But… we get by.”

“That’s what she was talking about yesterday,” Starlight whispered into Sunset’s ear.

“These are only a few of them,” Adamantine said, “the rest are sleeping in adjacent chambers,” she said, pointing toward several branching tunnels on the far side of the space.

“That’s a lot of sleeping,” Fluttershy said, looking around for herself.

“This is most strange,” Luna said. “In all of my nights, I have yet to encounter your subjects.” She then looked at Sunset and Starlight, both of who regarded her with confusion. “You see, as the Princess of the Night, I travel into ponies’ dreams. It’s one of my duties. But I have never had any sign of their dreams,” she finished, motioning toward the sleeping bodies.

Adamantine chuckled. “That’s very interesting. These days, they are only awake for maybe five hours out of the day, seven if they take it easy.”

“They don’t seem to be doin’ much, that’s for sure,” Applejack said as she stumbled over somepony’s tail.

“Like, really,” Pinkie Pie continued, “you know what I think they need? We need to throw them a party!” she exclaimed, punching the air. “We need to get those groove things shakin’!”

“Huh, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea,” Rarity said.

Celestia grinned. “I am sure they might appreciate something like that. It would shake things up, at the least.”

“I’d like to see that,” Starlight agreed.

“I appreciate the thoughts, truly,” Adamantine said as they reached an inlet in the wall. “But I am afraid that the actual problem is a bit more severe… than what that solution may attempt to solve.”

The inlet offered very little save for a lone fire crystal, a paper-littered desk, and a single cushion bleeding balls of cotton from several holes. Adamantine began sorting through several papers, eyeing each one carefully before stacking it on the far end of the desk. “I hope you’ll forgive the mess.”

“Hmmm, this looks like… your workplace?” Celestia asked, concerned.

“It is. I know it is not much to look at either, but…”

“I have made do with less,” Celestia said, a small yet smug grin on her face.

“I used to have quite a bit more to this, but this is what happens when you move about a lot.”

Twilight scanned the elder cushion and frowned. “Don’t tell me you sleep on that thing,”

Adamantine laughed. “No no, of course not. I sleep outside, with them. I would much rather be with my subjects—they are my family, after all.”

Sunset frowned. That’s good, I guess, she thought. It’s probably really really uncomfortable though.

“That does it!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. “We really need to liven this place up.” She grabbed a notebook and quill out of her mane and wrote furiously into it. “We’re gunna get you a couch, and a lamp, and I think we need some sort of trampoline here.”

“Perhaps we may worry about that some other time,” Celestia interrupted. “We should remember why we are here. Queen Adamantine, you said that there was some sort of problem. Would you care to elaborate on it?”

With a sigh, Adamantine nodded. She pushed through them and stood at the entrance, looking over her flock like a shepherd. “There is actually a very good reason why they spend so much time sleeping and conserving their energy.” She glanced back to Pinkie Pie with a certain frown. “It’s not because they’re bored or have nothing to do. They do it… out of necessity.

“You see… as I mentioned before, unponies are very particular about what they can eat. The one thing they usually eat is gone, and when I said that the unstew that I created was a suitable substitute…” she said with a frown, “that was a slight fib, I’m afraid.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “So it’s… not?”

“It can only do so much,” Adamantine finished. “The truth of the matter is that, as much as I try, I can’t refine the unstew enough to fully replicate that ambient energy which is given… was given by The Great Benefactor. And so…” she said, turning to face them, her silhouette outlined by the sunlight, “my people starve.”

Pinkie Pie gasped. “Ohhh!” And then her energy faded. “Ohhhh.” And then she frowned. “Oh.” And then she wilted. “Oh…”

“Oh my…” Rarity muttered, hiding her gasp with a hoof.

Celestia and Luna shared furtive glances before whispering things into each other’s ears.

Fluttershy whimpered, Starlight swallowed, Applejack hid behind her hat, Rainbow Dash averted her gaze.

Sunset felt a heat crawl up her spine and she frowned. So... this is a thing…

Twilight dragged her hoof through the dirt, her frown deepening by the second. “So… that’s why. …How long has this been going on?”

“Ever since The Great Benefactor disappeared a few months ago,” Adamantine replied. She turned and slunk out into the hall to look over her subjects. “We’ve always been a steady population, but ever since then… we have been in decline.”

Sunset stamped a hoof. “So… you’re dying?”

I’m fine. They, however…”

“Your unponies,” Twilight said.

At that, Adamantine looked back out and located the dusty mound that she had surveyed before. She sucked in a breath and pointed to it. “Oolite over there was sleeping peacefully when I left this morning. That… mound there… is what is left of her now.”

All eyes drew toward the idle mound, a mound which no one but they regarded. Their breaths became stuck in their throats. The only signs of life that they exhibited were the occasional blinks.

Fluttershy whimpered and collapsed onto the floor, a few tears forming in her eyes. Pinkie Pie rushed over and sat behind her, patting her on the back.

“I have yet to consider what I will do once winter comes around,” Adamantine finished.

“That’s awful…” Twilight said, barely audible.

Applejack took off her stetson and held it close to her chest, almost as if in silent prayer.

“Why would you keep them a secret if all of this is going on?” Twilight asked.

“Because it is necessary,” Adamantine replied after a moment of thought.

Celestia hummed affirmatively. “Because of your secret, I imagine?”

Adamantine nodded. “Yes, precisely that.”

Luna swallowed and looked out over the unponies as well. Her furrowed brow complimented a fire in her eyes, and as she rose slowly to her full height, her expression grew more certain. “I see,” she said. “While this does not completely solve the problem of those unponies from the alternate worlds, I would be very remiss if we should stand idly by and let all of this happen. Queen Adamantine, you must tell us what we may do to rectify this. We will do everything in our power to make sure they starve no more.”

The others stepped forward and nodded affirmatively. Fluttershy picked herself off the floor and joined them too, her expression a certain frown.

Adamantine glanced between them, her smile growing wider with each determined face that she saw. She then nodded. “Yes, of course. Thank you… I appreciate it. I could really use some help…”

She looked out across the cavern and sighed. “They mean so much to me and… I really don’t know what I would do if I lost them.”

* * *

“Adamantine?” Twilight asked, looking up at the alicorn. She paused, and then tried to correct herself, “I’m sorry, Queen Adaman—”

“Twilight,” Adamantine interrupted, “just Adamantine is fine. The whole ‘queen’ thing is a formality.”

Twilight giggled. “Fine, Adamantine. I have a question that’s kinda been nagging at me.”

“Certainly, what is it?”

“Who exactly is The Great Benefactor?”

The others perked their ears and drew closer in. Adamantine, meanwhile, tilted her head inquisitively.

“I’ve heard it mentioned quite a few times this morning,” Twilight continued, “and we still have no idea what that’s all about. You said that it was something that provided them with their food.”

“It used to be that unponies fed on the ambient energy in the air, all of which came from The Great Benefactor. It’s not something you can readily detect during daily life but…” Adamantine said, pointing toward her flock, “they thrive on it.”

Twilight nodded from side to side. “Okay, I think I can see that. I’m guessing that they know about it too, right?”

“Every unpony knows of The Great Benefactor. But… I’m the only one that knows where you would find it.”

Celestia hummed. “You keep it a secret from them?”

“Of course. The Great Benefactor…” Adamantine said, “is precisely the secret we have been trying to keep.”

“The unponies that tried to take that train asked about it,” Celestia said. “It would seem to me that the existence of this Great Benefactor seems to be a factor in all of this. I do believe that looking into this matter may be a good starting point.”

Adamantine shivered but nodded all the same. “I s-suppose it would.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Why the hesitation?”

Adamantine hid behind her long and silky hair, running it through her hooves several times. She twisted it, knotted it, undid it, and then sighed. “I did bring you here to reveal all, but… I must absolutely stress the fragility of this information. Its guarding is my prime directive.” She paused to stroke her chin. “However, then again… The Great Benefactor is gone… so the directive may already be complete…”

She turned to them once more with a certain expression. “I would like to show you, but please… I ask for your absolute discretion on this matter.”

Starlight nodded. “We’re game, Adamantine. You can count on us.”

Celestia nodded once, grinning.

“Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, doing several accompanying motions.

Applejack followed through with the same mantra, and that prompted the others to finally follow suit. Luna looked up to Celestia in confusion only for the latter to shrug. Celestia too took the oath, complete with every motion involved, much to the other’s delight. Luna eventually gave in and performed the same.

Adamantine scratched her head. “I am not certain of what that was about, but very well. Gather around, I will take all of you to see it.”

They gathered around again, huddling as tightly as they did before, and then Adamantine lit her horn. Twilight steeled herself for what came next, briefly wondering what it could be. One thought briefly flashed across her mind, but she discarded it before even being aware of it.

The world pulled, twisted, turned, faded out, twisted some more, and then sprang back in. It came back too quickly, in fact, and then Adamantine’s spell ended, and she wobbled about in place as her eyes tried to adjust to the sudden comparative darkness.

A loud groan pierced her ears, knocking her two steps back on her orientation. Nothing noticeably changed at first, but as her senses came even more to, as she adjusted to the relative darkness, and as the groaning became a mainstay, she finally took in her surroundings.

A tunnel composed of crystal arched over and around them, bathed in an ambient light. The dirty floor broke that tradition, offering something firm and familiar for them to stand on. Twilight’s first thought was the Canterlot caves, but surely that couldn’t be it.

But then her eyes drew up toward the source of the groaning, and her heart just about stopped. Dust streamed off the large and ornate double doors as they shook and shuddered and then parted. Swirls contoured into pictures of unknown beings, but even then, they looked familiar. She had seen them before.

A cold sweat formed on her brow as she watched the doors part, and when they parted enough, she looked past them and into the room beyond.

Twilight wanted to scream.

A large hemisphere of a room greeted them. A singular space, nearly as large as her entire castle back in Ponyville, stretched this way and that. Sigils covered the walls in every direction and ringed around the floor in several layers. All of them glowed a cool violet, and the air felt soft and comfortably chilly, nipping at her coat but not biting.

While Starlight looked on in confusion and Adamantine looked on in consideration, the others remained deathly silent. Jaws hung agape and a few hairs stood on end. Celestia and Luna’s manes, usually flowing in an ethereal wind, froze solid and hung limply from their sides.

Twilight met Sunset’s gaze. Sunset looked back at her through stricken eyes and an increasing tremble. An unspoken conversation passed between them, where they asked each other if what they were seeing was what they were seeing; if, Celestia forbid, what they were thinking was actually going on.

Swallowing, Twilight stumbled forward. The others followed.

Adamantine led them into the center of the lavender-lit room, examined many of the symbols on the walls and ceiling, and then nodded.

“The room is a doorway. A seal. And it has been around longer than anything I have record of. Something has changed since I was here last—and that was not so long ago. That is interesting. Regardless…” Adamantine turned to them and smiled.

“The Great Benefactor…” she said, her tone foreboding, “is the ancient entity for which this seal exists. If ever released, it would mean very grave things. Things that I am incredibly loath to even think about. While it is the thing that sustains my people, it is also a clear and present danger to the entire world.”

Twilight needed to scream.

“Or, rather, it was, until a few months ago,” Adamantine continued, glancing around the chamber. “That ancient evil is now gone. Dead. Destroyed. It will… never befall Equestria.”

Applejack removed her hat and held it tight against her chest. Her expression grew wet.

Fluttershy whimpered quietly, blinking like mad.

Rarity folded into herself and fell to the ground. “Oh stars! Oh stars!” she shrieked.

Celestia and Luna shared hardened glares.

Adamantine said nothing in response. Her eyes continued wandering around the room, but she blinked all the same as if considering it.

A loud bang broke the overall silence before the air rushed out of Pinkie Pie’s mane. Pinkamena Diane Pie fell to her knees, her stare vacant and long.

Rainbow Dash, who stood right next to her, didn’t even react to the report. Her expression matched that of Pinkamena’s, but she somehow remained standing.

Starlight glanced around at them, half-confused, half-terrified. She opened her mouth to speak, but on seeing their expressions contort into unrecognizable shapes and seeing the way they trembled, she stomached her words.

Sunset, who shook like a leaf, finally stepped forward. “Twilight...”

Twilight jumped, glancing back in alarm.

Sunset motioned to Adamantine. “You have to tell her.”

Twilight’s body locked up. She wanted to move, but nothing responded. She, instead, just stared back.

Sunset visibly swallowed. “...You have. To tell her.”

“Y-ya gotta tell her what we did to ’em, Twi,” Applejack concurred.

A confused smile spread across Adamantine’s face. “I am sorry?”

Twilight, for the first time, cowered under Adamantine’s innocent gaze. She saw all the sags in Adamantine’s face, and she looked into Adamantine’s tired and worn eyes, and somehow noticed a light within them die.

Adamantine… oh by the stars, Adamantine…

Adamantine’s smile faded. “Tell me what?”

Twilight sighed and lowered her head in shame. She has to know. She has to know.

“Adamantine…” she croaked, “we... are the ones responsible. The truth is… we know of The Great Benefactor, but we know it as something else. We know it… as the Nameless.”

5 - Assertion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s gone!” she cried. “Gone gone!”

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

“I don’t know! It’s… gone!”

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

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

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

“What do we tell them?” Flint said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s good.”

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

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

“Any ideas?” Starlight asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m down for that,” Sunset added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Gabbro considered it. “How is Queen Mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She seems pretty cool,” Rainbow Dash agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fluttershy smiled in response.

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

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

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

Twilight nodded. “I can accept that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you ever think to ask?”

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now why should we know any of that?”

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

Basalt nodded. “We look forward to it.”

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

Basalt nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Some unponies gasped, others reeled.

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

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

“Yes,” Twilight said, swallowing.

Sunset’s eye twitched.

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

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

“Well, I’ll be,” he finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twilight nodded. “Go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twilight stifled a gasp.

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

“And that is?”

“…The wasteland.”

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

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

* * *

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

Twilight nodded. “Yes.”

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

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

Twilight sighed. “Well, drat.”

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

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

Starlight shook her head. “Same.”

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

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

“Maybe I cast it wrong.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything?” Sunset asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guards saluted in response.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rarity snorted. “Humph!”

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

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

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

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

“And find those missing ponies,” Fluttershy said.

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

“Discord!” Rainbow Dash yelled.

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

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

“You are hindering us!” Twilight countered.

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t say that,” Discord replied.

“...Then you don’t have a solution?”

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

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

Applejack snorted, mouthing something under her breath.

“My mane is popcorn…” Pinkie Pie cooed.

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

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

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

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

“Twilight,” Pinkie Pie said, more firmly.

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

Pinkie Pie pointed. “My mane is popcorn.”

“...I can see that.”

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

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

Twilight raised an eyebrow. The others followed suit.

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

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

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

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

Discord solemnly shook his head. “None.”

* * *

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

“Or anyzebra, or anydraconequus,” Starlight said.

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

The eight mares collectively groaned.

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

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

Starlight giggled and blushed in return.

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

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

The Answer.

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

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

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

Sunset hummed in response.

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

Sunset chuckled. “You don’t say?”

“It’s a marvel of a spell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Might as well. Anything else?”

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

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

Twilight clapped her hooves together. “Great.”

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

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

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

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

The other four nodded and hummed in agreement.

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

A pre-cast. A blueprint for a spell.

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

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

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

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

“Ready!” they all replied.

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

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

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

The others beamed, save Gabbro who cowered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it working!?” Sunset shouted.

“I don’t know!” Twilight replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Laser beam?” Sunset giggled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s if they agree to teach us.”

“That’s if we can even find them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We gotta save them!” Rainbow Dash cried.

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

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

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

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

“Well, we gotta do something.”

“Ah know!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applejack nodded. “My thinkin’ exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starlight grinned from ear to ear in response.

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

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

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

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

“In this timeline,” Applejack added.

“Hmmm, yes.”

“Who else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh huh?”

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

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

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

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

Twilight nodded solemnly. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“I can handle that,” Starlight said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yay,” Fluttershy said, clapping.

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

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

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

“Really?” Applejack asked.

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

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

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

6 - Manifest

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“You were not lying when you told me that it would be a tall order,” Principal Celestia finally said.

Sunset Shimmer dug her boot into the dirt and then joined Celestia in staring up at the school. A soft wind played with their hair and the morning sun warmed their skin. A few glances toward the windows revealed a few figures, with some drifting between glancing the lectures within and the two of them on the lawn.

“Personally, I was content to be a simple high school principal at this age,” Celestia continued. “Magical horses, alternate timelines, and infinite worlds was not what I had in mind.” She shrugged. “I do not claim to understand all of it, but… such is life.”

“I know, it’s a lot,” Sunset replied. “I just… I don’t know. I just wanna bring some of those unponies over here to see if it works. The portal transformed me into a human. I just figure that it will do the same for them.”

“That may be true,” Celestia countered, “but I’m not so sure they are ready for a world like ours. Or we them. Honestly, I’m not sure that I’m ready for them.”

Sunset sighed, kicking the ground. “…I know. But I can’t just let them die, either.”

Celestia crossed her arms and glanced toward the school. “No… I suppose not. Suffice it to say, you make a strong argument. Especially if all the methods you’ve tried on your side haven’t worked.”

Sunset looked up. “So… are you saying you’ll do it?”

“I suppose I am,” Celestia said with a sigh.

Sunset clasped her hands together and grinned from ear to ear. “Oh, thank you, Principal Celestia. This means a lot to me.”

“It’s not a problem, Sunset. I’m happy to allow it, of course.” Celestia scratched her chin. “I just need to figure out the logistics here…”

Sunset nodded. “Of course. I’m… sure my friends would be able to help you.”

“Oh, I am sure of that. I know my sister will agree to help as well. Eventually. But I do not think the eight of us will be enough…”

Sunset shook her head, staring at the ground.

“I suspect there will be some other students who might volunteer,” Celestia continued. “Perhaps I should put out an announcement… And I suppose we can lodge them in the library or someplace like that. We’ll find room.”

“Whatever works, Principal.”

Celestia turned. “I must warn you, Sunset… I know that I can lodge these… erm, unponies of yours for a few days. I really can’t promise anything after that.”

“That’s okay,” Sunset said, twisting her heel further into the dirt. “I have no idea what will happen after that either.” She let a few moments of silence pass, and then said, “I can have Spike bring them by. Will sometime this evening work, maybe?”

Celestia’s fingers drummed against her arms. “I think I could have at least something by then.”

A strong breeze blew through at that moment, stroking the lawn and flinging small dirt particles into the air.

“What will you do now?” Celestia asked.

Sunset glanced toward what had once been the statue of a rearing stallion behind them which had been reduced to just its base in a magical tussle. “I have to go back. They’ll need me. We’re leaving for the other timelines this afternoon.”

Celestia swallowed and straightened her jacket, almost pulling too hard. “I see.”

“I might be gone a few days.”

“I understand. I’ll take care of things over here. Don’t worry.”

Sunset nodded, turned, and walked back toward the portal. “Alright. I’ll see you later, Principal Celestia.”

Celestia listened to Sunset’s receding footsteps, but her mind occupied itself with these prospects: her ever-expanding reality full of things that boggled the mind, the powerful threats lurking about, and now a civilization on its last legs. And, most pressingly, a student of hers plunging into the dangerous and unknown.

“Sunset,” Celestia called, peering back over her shoulder.

Sunset paused and looked over her shoulder in return.

Celestia met Sunset’s gaze and said, “Be careful. Alright?”

For a few moments, Sunset remained silent, her eyes wandering in contemplation. Finally, Sunset smiled and nodded.

Sunset continued on and walked into the statue. The statue’s base swallowed her with a pool of white light and then she was gone.

Celestia’s expression remained as stoic as ever and she turned back toward her school, hanging her hands off the pockets of her jacket. She then nodded to herself and started toward the front steps.

Sunset Shimmer scraped the mud—although it looked and felt like peanut butter on closer inspection—off her hooves. She then crept toward the gap in the thicket, adjusting her saddlebag along the way, before sliding into place next to Starlight Glimmer. She took note of the crystal ball situated in Starlight’s hooves.

“That’s him alright,” Fluttershy whispered from nearby, pointing to the opening.

“Just as I knew he would be,” the crystal ball said.

Sunset glanced over, taking note of Fluttershy’s appearance; the long green stripe running down Fluttershy’s extended locks, the pink pigments in her wings, and the extra butterfly symbols on her legs. She looked further down, noting the soft glow that surrounded Applejack, the extra poof in Pinkie Pie’s mane, and the extended rainbow from Rainbow Dash.

Sunset smirked and turned her eyes forward, peering into the opening. She saw blue checkerboards where the dirt paths should have been and floating houses on the horizon. Canterlot, in the distance, was entirely detached from the mountainside. She also saw clouds made from multicolored cotton candy.

Instead, she focused on the nearby figures. The first two she recognized as ponies, both sporting large afros and clashing denim vests, topping their ensembles off with red clown noses. The smaller one stood in a delicate, ballerina-like pose on top of the other who, in turn, wobbled about on top of a large rubber ball.

And then Sunset gasped. That’s Celestia and Luna! She paused and looked again. As clowns!

Sunset took Starlight’s free foreleg in a sort-of vice grip with one hoof, while her other hoof covered her mouth.

Starlight turned, staring daggers at her.

Come on, don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. …But I want to laugh. This is so wrong. …But it’s so funny though.

Applejack gave them a brief glance and then did a double-take. “Hey, Sunset,” she hissed. “Are ya for real?”

Sunset fanned herself and swallowed it. “Sorry, sorry. I’m good.”

She turned her attention toward the third entity in the clearing. Discord the draconequus sat on his throne, watching the two of them with an amused smirk. He would lob a tennis ball at them every so often. When it inevitably bounced off and landed nearby, he would then summon it back to his paw. His claw held a cane bearing his visage and he wore a crown twice the size of his head.

Twilight Sparkle looked on, her eyes full of carefully contained fury. She snorted. “Alright, let’s go,” she said, emerging from the bush.

Fluttershy looked toward the tree behind them. “Watch out for us, okay?”

A low-lying branch on said tree curled into a hand which then formed into a thumbs-up.

The eight of them trotted down the hill and approached the scene, eyeing the draconequus all the while.

As they approached, Discord the draconequus turned to them and then finally stood up. “Oh! Lookie here!” he exclaimed. “Lookie here!”

They stopped. “Hello, Discord,” Twilight said, her tone firm.

Celestia and Luna, while they remained in their balanced pose, glanced toward them. Sunset watched the relief wash over them, noting the fading fear in their eyes.

And then she met Celestia’s gaze, and Celestia started trembling again. In response to Celestia’s forlorn frown, Sunset smiled and gave a quick “how do you do” wave.

Discord the draconequus kicked his throne onto its back, landed on it, and then propped his goat-leg onto the base. A sail sprouted out of the throne and a telescope sprouted out of his paw. He then sailed his throne over to them.

“I would introduce myself, but it looks like you already know me!” he exclaimed, laughing jovially. “What fun!”

Applejack half-smirked, half-snarled. “‘Course we do,” she said, twisting her hoof into the tiled ground. “You’re causin’ all sorts of crazy stuff ’round these parts.”

Pinkie Pie eyed a shape passing along the horizon: a cloud, spilling what looked like chocolate. A bit of drool fell from her mouth. “Like… yeah! Like chocolate rain!”

Discord the draconequus leaned forward, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, do you like chocolate rain?”

“I do!” she exclaimed, hopping in delight. “I do!”

“Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash began.

“A fan, I see!” he said, drawing up to his full height. “How rare! Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint, so have some chocolate rain!”

Pinkie Pie gasped as he snapped his fingers, summoning a large, green cloud above their heads. It rained down chocolate on everypony, even coating Discord himself. While the princesses wobbled, Pinkie Pie went to lapping it up.

Everypony else glared at Pinkie who ignored them for a few moments. When she came to, she saw them and frowned. “Whaaaat?”

“Look what you’ve gone and done, Pinkie!” Rarity growled, blowing her chocolate-soaked mane out of her face. “You’ve ruined my beautiful rainbow coiffure!”

“But,” Pinkie Pie replied, zipping up and pressing herself up against her in challenge, “you don’t say ‘no’ to chocolate rain!”

“…Pinkie, dear.”

“Seriously, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash glowered.

Discord the draconequus fell backward in laughter. “Oh, you should see the looks on your faces. Priceless!” He then turned his cane into an umbrella and leaned in close to Pinkie Pie. “I don’t know who you are, but I like you. It’s oh so rare that anypony appreciates my beautiful chaos.” He reached out to pinch her cheek. “I mean, you are soooo ador—”

Discord the draconequus jumped backward, shoved his claw into his mouth, and sucked on it while looking down at them as he would at an offensively hot stove.

Twilight grinned, and then the others grinned along with her.

He reached back down, hesitated, tried poking Rainbow Dash, and then jerked back in pain again. “What the what!? You’re burning hot!”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “What can I say?”

“How is this possible? I don’t understand.”

“Because you can’t touch them,” a new voice said. “Really, you can’t.”

The trail turned into a stagnant gray color before a large pair of yellow eyes appeared. They blinked and then focused on Discord the draconequus, prompting him to backpedal through the air. The trail laughed and then oozed upward before settling into a tall form. And then it popped into full being.

“Hellloooo!” Discord exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air.

Celestia wobbled about and then tumbled off her ball, her sister following suit.

Discord the draconequus furrowed his brow and frowned. “Well…hello… me.”

“Discord!” Fluttershy exclaimed, her wings flaring. “You were supposed to… wait for the signal…”

“Well sooooooooorry,” Discord replied, emphasizing his tone with a swing of his hips, “if that seemed like the perfect moment to make my big entrance!”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She then turned to her friends and simply shrugged.

“You’re me,” Discord the draconequus said, pointing a shaky finger. “Hello.”

“Yes, yes,” Discord replied. “Good to see you, me.” He glanced around, took a long whiff, and then sighed with pleasure. “Ahhh, so much magnificent chaos. I really do like what you’ve done with the place.”

Discord the draconequus chuckled heartily. “Why, thank you, me!”

Discord teleported next to his other and leaned on his shoulder. “I do hate to break it to you, but as much as I like it… it’s got to go.”

The royal sisters blinked and exchanged confused glances.

“I… don’t think so?” Discord the draconequus replied.

“But it has to be so.”

“You tell him, Discord!” Rainbow Dash cheered.

Discord the draconequus reeled back out of reach. “And miss all of this glorious chaos? You must think me mad!” He paused, stroked his chin in thought, and then added, “Well, I am mad. But that’s what makes it fun!”

“Fun for you, fun for me,” Discord replied. He then teleported next to the royal sisters and wrapped his arms around them. “But trust me, me, these two don’t find it all that fun. I would imagine there are very few ponies that do.”

Discord the draconequus snorted, snapped his fingers, drank the resulting glass of water, and then spit it out. “That’s silly. I don’t care. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I am Discord! Master of chaos!”

Discord deadpanned. His eye twitched and his grip around the two sisters tightened. He then teleported next to Applejack. “Was I really that bad?” he asked.

“Yup,” Applejack replied, keeping her glare on the offending draconequus.

“Yeesh. I’m glad I agreed to help you out with this, at least. Because I’m worth it.”

At that, Discord spawned a large and poofy recliner and sat down in it. The recliner then sprouted large swan wings and took him into the air.

What the actual…? Sunset thought, her jaw hanging as she watched.

Discord broke through several high-hanging clouds and then, once at a good vantage point, he snapped his fingers. A wave of light washed over the land, engulfing many wild objects within.

Cotton candy clouds became normal white ones, and giant candy canes turned back into trees. Houses of cards reverted into houses for ponies. Birds flew through the sky, singing their songs as they went. A soft wind blew through the area.

Discord the draconequus gasped. “Oh no no no no no!” he shrieked. “We’re not having any of that!”

He snapped his fingers in response. A few nearby flowers, still in the process of blooming again, grew mouths and started snapping at everything within range. The once card houses sprouted legs and frolicked into the distance.

Starlight shivered and her already-worried expression deepened.

The others watched in silence as Discord the draconequus raced toward his double.

“Oh,” Discord said, raising an eyebrow, “so you’re going to be like that, hmmm?”

“You insult me! You’re trying to take away my chaos! I might expect that of those… ponies, but you…!?”

“Oh, trust me. I’ve been where you are now, and I’ve learned a thing or two since then.”

“That’s rubbish.”

Discord hopped off the swan-chair which promptly vanished in a cloud of smoke. “Well then, I can tell you this: I personally don’t have a quarrel with all this beauty. But my friends do. So… if you really want it to stay… You’ll just have to out-chaos me,” Discord said. And then he leaned in close. “And I should warn you… I’ve been deprived.”

On the ground, Celestia and Luna began vehemently shaking their heads.

“Woah, nelly…” Applejack hissed, backpedaling.

Discord the draconequus narrowed his eyes, staring his opponent down. And then he detached his claw and whacked Discord with it. “I accept your challenge.”

In a flash, both Discords disappeared. The sun dipped beneath the horizon and the stars came out. Said stars proceeded to zip through the sky, forming into faces that then blew raspberries at each other. The ground rumbled and then large beanstalks emerged, shooting into the heavens.

Spacetime itself performed a few iterations of the worm. The two draconequui reappeared, each tangled up with and clawing at the other, before disappearing again. The flowers responded by spewing fireworks into the sky.

At that, the group wandered toward the princesses. “Y’all okay over here?” Applejack asked.

Luna dusted herself off, checked her sister’s well-being, and then glared them down. “Art thou mad!?” she growled.

“Beg yer pardon?”

Luna stamped her hoof. “Thou hath brought another Discord? Nevermind where thou got him. Dost thou knowest the damage you have wrought?”

“Relax,” Rainbow Dash countered, “we know what we’re doing.”

Celestia stood up, towering over them. “You have brought a second Discord upon us. Our world… is already in ruin just from one. And you thought it would be a good idea to bring another!?”

The sky flashed through a variety of colors in rapid succession, prompting everypony to shield their eyes. The faint echoes of an upbeat and bass-heavy tune rang through the land.

“We’re from an alternate timeline, Princess Celestia,” Twilight said. “Discord’s reformed over there.”

Both Celestia and Luna raised an eyebrow, and once the strobing sky returned to daytime, they exchanged glances. Celestia then shook her head. “I very much find that hard to believe.”

“It’s true,” Sunset said.

Celestia’s other eyebrow went up and she peered over all of them to get a good glance at Sunset. Her expression shifted through multiple combinations of consideration and confusion. Sunset nervously waved in return.

“O-okay,” Celestia finally stuttered. “Uhm, hello, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset bowed. “Good to see you, Princess. I’m alternate timeline too.”

The ground quaked and rumbled and then melted into a river of vanilla pudding. Twilight threw up a large barrier; it turned the pudding inside back into solid ground. The current swept them away, rocking the bubble ever so slightly. Nearby trees danced their way across the torrent’s surface, kicking their roots about in kozachok-like movements.

Celestia swallowed, and that prompted Luna to shudder.

“V-very well,” Luna said. “But say that we believe thy tale. You have still wrought Discord upon us. …We hope that strange form you hath taken on is some way to rectify this.”

“Oh, of course it is,” Twilight said, grinning. “We’re the living embodiments of the Elements of Harmony. Right now, energy is streaming through us directly from the Tree of Harmony.”

Both sisters paused for the umpteenth time. After a quick yet thorough scan up and down their bodies, the two sisters shared a determined look and exchanged nods. “Very well,” Celestia said. “It would seem like you speak the truth. Not many know about the Tree, after all.”

“We’ve also taken Discord down before, too,” Rainbow Dash said, smirking. “If our Discord doesn’t get through to this guy, or, hay, something else goes wrong, we can just blast ’em.”

The vanilla pudding river turned into chocolate. Pinkie Pie licked her lips.

“Then we will place our trust in you,” Celestia said.

They turned to gaze into the world beyond which jumped about in a jumbled manner. Once recognizable objects morphed into incoherent messes or merged with others. Laser lights of every color beamed in every direction, almost in a sort of show. The bedlam kept a steady tempo throughout, even as the chocolate stream carried them further into Ponyville.

And then everything paused. Even the river froze. The bubble stopped without so much as throwing them off balance.

The two Discords reappeared, dressed in elegant velvet robes and sporting monocles and dapper hats. Both rested in very luxurious armchairs, simple in design but lavish in material. One of them held a teacup filled with some steamy brew while staring off into the distance.

“Verily,” he said, “thine doth art forsoothed.”

The other Discord responded by blowing into his oaken pipe. A plethora of bubbles came out of the end, making several popping sounds.

They disappeared, and the bedlam resumed ten-fold. The sky flashed through several colors in rapid succession, objects spun at high velocities, several things took on indeterminate forms, and the noise reached deafening levels.

“Hold onto yer hats, everypony!” Applejack warned, pressing her stetson down.

The chaos intensified from there. Twilight’s bubble of order cracked and crumbled, and she strained to keep it up. Starlight lit her horn and added her strength to the spell. They had a few moments to calmly watch the warping reality outside before the cracks started anew. The two of them buckled under the strain.

Soon enough, Celestia and Luna added their own magics, and the cracking stalled, only for the intensifying chaos outside to eventually beat it back down. Sunset frowned and added her magic as well, but that only bought a few seconds. Eventually, the shield shattered entirely, exposing them to the outside chaos.

∀up ʇɥǝu ǝʌǝɹʎʇɥᴉuƃ ʍɐs ndsᴉpǝ poʍu˙ ⟂ɥǝ ʇɹǝǝs ɟǝll nd ɐup ǝʌǝɹʎdouʎ losʇ ʇɥǝᴉɹ qɐlɐuɔǝ˙

.tfel emaceb thgir dna ,thgir emaceb tfeL .oot sdrawkcab saw gnihtyreve neht dnA

A̸̢̡̯͙̗̠͔̎́͒̀͊̓͘͘͢͜͠͠n̷̢̹̻͎̏͊̔̃̑̒̋̕͜͞d̨͇̝͕̯̜̹̰̀́͒̈́̆͂̅̕͠ t̰̞̻̻͉͑̑̓̎̌́͛͋h̡͇͓̻̻̫̩̀̔̄̂͗͌͐̕͢ě̗̮̬̙͓͇͕̠͉͋̌͗͋͘͢n̩̝͖̱͓͔̤̻̅̏̀̾͋̿̏͟͠͠ e̯̬͍̠͇̗͈̣̼̐̉̔̀̌̇͟v̘͖͉͇̝̭͚͛̈́͒͆͗ę̛̙͕̭̗̻̥̞̀̿̑̀̑͌̅͞͝ȓ̛̙̯̥͍̝̤̈̐̒͟͡͝͝y̶̧̢̢̛̭̬̋͑̉͊t̢̡͚̦̻̱̖̟̖͐̇̅̄̌̋͘͞h̶̛͓̙̝̦̠̰̙̰̬̫̆̌̋̆͗̒̚į̶̘̟̺͍̯̻̣̩̊̋͒̐̽͘̚n̛̟̩̱̭͓̈́̒̓̄́̿́͠͝ģ̶̭͙͈̬͓͖̲̯̀̂͌̚͟͝ g̫͓͕̜̲̣͍̬͎͛͌̑̒̽̿́̉̈́͟o͈̟̙͇͔͍̒̈́̀̅͛t̵̨̢̘̜̪̰̯̪͚́͑̊́̒̕ ş̷̤̜̞̞͇̗̮͚̅̏̒̄̒̄͌̚ō̵̼͎͕̻̼͎͖̿̈̓̆̉͒̚͞ ç̷͖͙̣͎̦̟͛̿̂̔͜͡ḩ̶͖̹̟̽̐͋̓͛̔͢͞͝á̵͔̪̥͚͇̼̱́̐͊̂̄̅́͝ŏ̡̧̮͇̖̦̰͇͈́͒̈̋́͂̏̇͢͠ţ̯̦̯̥̆͂̅͛̔͢͢͞͡į̫̫̻̙̙̗͉̝̣̋͛́̓̅c̸̛̫̺͚̜̟̹͉̑̀̒̌͠͞͠ͅͅ t̷̼̠̲̞̻̥̤̖̖͂͒̋̾̾̚ͅh̨̛̯͇͍͍̋͆̒̉̋͐͜͡ą̸̨̬̱̗͈̖̫̠̑̍͑́͑̅͠͞ṫ̻̖̼̭̏̑̓̈̎̾͐̔͢͟ ţ̛̳̲͔̰̹̥̤̼̦̎̄̀̅̇̓͡ḩ͉̺̗͉̼̞͆̿̔̓͟͡i̧̪̦͔̼̭͔̹̐͆̅̈̒̾͠͞ṣ̴̨̘͉͛̓̽̓̉̃̿̑̑̕͟ͅͅ n̴̨̯͉̰̣̦͕̯͌̋̾̎̽͑a̷̛̠̭̬͉̝͓͎̻̅͋͂͘͝r̡̨̤̠̥̻̗̃̈̊̿͘͟͞ͅr̠̗͍̤̜͌́̋̎̇̈́̂ͅȧ̝̙̘̘̮̂̾͊̀͐̚͝t̸̻̜̘͔̺͛̏̌̓͌̚̚i͙̲̰̙̜̐̔̍̿̿͗̽̚͝õ͎̤͓͓̪͛̊͛͒͛͡͡n̡͍̥͇͖͐̒̈́̂͒̔̔ͅ c̸̢̼̘͇̻̜͇̺͓͚̓͗͂̿́̎̋o̢̡̖͈̽̊̏͐̽̑̏͟͢͝ṳ̴̝̼̯̳̜̐͛͆̉̆̚͟͜ͅl̴̢̠͍̭̞̭̠͚̣̋͒́̐̔͆̋͝ͅd̶̛͖͇̙̠͔̠̱̽͂̐̏̉̀ n̶̨̹̗̅̅͂̊̈́͟͟͝ò̠̰̱̗̭̖͌̾̅͋̀̄̕̕ l̢̲̰̩̞͖͖̄̄̽͐̈́̈́͗ô̶̧̖̱͇̩̭̻͕͎̔̉̃̂n̵̝͉̫͇̦̖̖̈́̐̀̒͑͋̇̓͒͘͜g͓͖̟̥̊́͑̋̌͑͟͡e̸̡̜͔͚̩͍̼̪͑̀͛̀͗̔͗͢r̢̡͚̤͖͐̓̐̄̈́͐̔̄̓͠ k̡͍̰̜̺̜͎̻̥̾̅̏̑̾e̸̱̯͇͇̣̼̳͒͂͂̕͝e̸͇̞̯̻̰͆̓̌̇͘͜͢ͅṕ̢͚͙͉͍̜͉̜͌͆̏̎͋̌͘ ų̸͔̗̠͓̘͕̲͗͒̏̇͑͆͑̿͘͜͢p͕̯̤̳͍̱̼̳͌̔̈́̽̈́̎͂͟͡͠.̼̭͓̙̪̭̦̲́͛̔͛̈́̔̆̎͢



In a flash, the two Discords reappeared. They promptly flopped onto the now-hardened ground and panted heavily. The bedlam had frozen once more; a few things that were never meant for the air drifted back down. Buildings, while still sporting legs, stood motionless.

Sunset grinned and stepped off the remains of the bubble-raft. Her hooves sunk into the dirt as she landed. The others followed suit with varying degrees of smiles.

“I have,” one Discord began, “never chaos’d so hard in my entire life… augh.”

The other Discord shook his head and wiped some sweat off his brow.

The first tried to stand up, wobbled on his legs, and then collapsed again, letting out several exhausted grunts. “You win… you win… you’ve out-chaos’d me.”

The other Discord smirked, flipped over, glanced over at the ponies, and then flashed a thumbs-up.

“There we go,” the crystal ball said.

Pinkie Pie sprang into the air. “Yeah, buddy!”

They, save Celestia and Luna, ran toward him. The six transformed out of their rainbow-fied states as they went. Together, the eight tossed him up and down, cheering all the while. Discord laughed heartily in return.

Discord the draconequus stumbled to his feet and gawked at the display. “What… what is all that?”

Discord chuckled, flipped over, and swept the eight into an embrace. “Oh, these are my friends, you know. They’re just… celebrating my victory with me.”

Discord the draconequus raised an eyebrow and folded his arms together. “…What?”

“Friends,” Discord repeated. “I know, you’ve never had a friend before. We’ve been there, old chap. My friends… they celebrate me, and all the things that I’m able to do.” He shrugged. “Sure, I’ve had to tone it down a little, but I have found…” he said, glancing back toward them with a smile, “that they are worth it.”

Discord the draconequus inquisitively tilted his head. “Really?”

“It was very nice,” Fluttershy offered.

“Was a tad uncomfortable for a moment there,” Rarity said, pausing to shiver. “But I agree with Fluttershy. I would suppose he’s been dying to use some of those ideas.”

Discord nodded affirmatively.

“They really do like you, huh?” Discord the draconequus said. “That sounds nice.”

“I know, I know, they’re the best. If you want, I could be your friend,” Discord said.


Discord walked over and wrapped his arm around his alternate’s neck. “Ohhh, of course! It would be oh so grand to have someone to discuss chaos with! Even if that someone is me.”

Discord the draconequus stroked his beard and hummed thoughtfully. “I might like that.”

“Why don’t you come visit Chaosville sometime?” Discord continued. “We’d have a blast there, you and I.”

“Well, that sounds stupendous, me,” Discord the draconequus said, smirking.

“Plus,” he said, flying back over toward his ponies, “you have eight more friends right here.”

They each grinned and even gave some light chuckles. Discord the draconequus half-smiled in return.

“And maybe, someday…” Discord began before teleporting between Celestia and Luna. He snapped his fingers and a flash of light enveloped them, and in an instant, their costumes disappeared, replaced by their royal fineries. “Someday, these two might be your friends too. I know they have been through a lot.” He plucked the one remaining costume piece, Celestia’s rubber nose, and turned it into a flower. He handed it to Celestia, who vacantly took it, and then he wrapped his arms around the two sisters.

“But I have absolute confidence,” he said, looking back up to his double, “that these two can show you a better way.”

* * *

Sunset hung around the back of the group with one hoof wrapped around the crystal ball, eyeing Princess Celestia all the while. Most of Ponyville had returned to normal, and by the looks of things, the rest of the country as well.

“Thou art departing already?” Luna asked.

“We have to,” Twilight replied. “We did exactly what we came here to do, but there’re other places we need to tend to.”

“Do not worry,” Celestia said. “We will check that spot under Canterlot. With care. And I think a few hours may be enough time to find a portal or two, but I hope you won’t expect too much from us.”

“Of course, Princess.”

Starlight hummed and then stepped forward. “Uhm, before we go… can I just say something real quick?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Oh, sure.”

“Just… want to, oh you know, say sorry for all this.”

Celestia smiled in amusement. “Sorry?”

“For,” Starlight said, quivering, “everything that’s happened. I mean… yeah. It’s a long story, but…”

Twilight giggled and stepped in front. “Actually, don’t worry about it, Princess.”

Starlight went to say something, but she changed her mind when Fluttershy wrapped a hoof around her withers. The two shared smiles instead.

“If you say so, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia replied. “And again, thank you. Perhaps we might make something of Discord yet.”

“We cannot believe we’re saying that,” Luna added. “But perhaps.”

Twilight nodded and then turned. “Alright, girls, let’s head on out.”

“I’ll catch up with all of you in a bit!” Sunset called out as they left. She watched the others depart and then trotted up. “Hi, Princess Celestia.”

Celestia half-smiled. “Sunset Shimmer… it has been a very long time since I have seen you. Even if… you are from an alternate timeline as they are.”

“Yeah. Listen… I know we’ve thrown a lot of stuff on you, but… I have one more favor to ask.”

Celestia nodded. “What is it, my little pony?”

Sunset twiddled her hooves together and sucked in a breath. “Well… in my timeline at least, I’ve been living on the other side of the mirror for quite some time now. I’ve made a lot of friends over there. I go to school there and everything.”

“I see.”

“And, well… me… your me… she’s living there too, but she’s probably not on the right path.”

“…As I feared,” Celestia said, hanging her head.

“The thing is, I need her help. And I have to help her too. I need to go through that mirror.”

Celestia sighed and shook her head. “As much as I would like to make that happen, my dear pony, I’m afraid that portal will not open for some time yet.”

Sunset grinned. “Yeah, about that…” She reached into her saddlebag, pulled out some papers, and levitated them to Celestia. “Twilight actually built a machine that can open it manually. It uses the book that you and I used to share messages through. These are the schematics.”

Celestia blinked. Her jaw hung just a little as she received it and then she buried herself into the pages. She glanced over to Twilight once or twice before diving back in. Finally, she straightened up. “I see. This is… clever. I am surprised that I never thought to do it.”

Sunset chuckled.

“Very well. How soon do you need it?”

Sunset frowned. “Very soon. I would do it myself if I could. I probably will have to later…”

Celestia smiled. “Well, I will be happy to do it in this case. And I can tell you some things that should help you for that ‘later.’”

* * *

Princess Luna kicked some small pebbles off the train track and then regarded the guards patrolling the portal; half of them faced outward and half of them faced the aperture. They, in turn, stood as stalwart as when she arrived, affording her an occasional glance.

“So, this is the portal through which they arrived,” Adamantine said, walking up behind her.

“So it is,” Luna replied. “It leads to an alternate version of Equestria.”

Adamantine glanced into the night sky on the portal’s far side. “So it would appear.”

Luna nodded and then motioned for Adamantine to follow. The two trotted toward the circle of guards.

“Princess Luna,” one of the guards said, shifting, “you are not allowed beyond this point. Celestia’s orders.”

Luna didn’t stop. “I suppose she’ll just have to make another attempt at my moon pie privileges,” she said, breaking through the line. She then leaned toward Adamantine and whispered, “Attempt.”

Adamantine giggled under her breath, nervously glancing at the guards while she passed through.

“Besides,” Luna continued, “the world on the other side of this portal is of some personal significance. I also… hope to help Twilight liberate it this afternoon.”

Adamantine nodded gravely and approached the portal. She scanned it with her magic. “This is my magic, alright,” she concluded. “But it is no surprise. I do wish to know what those alternate versions of me are attempting to accomplish.”

“Indeed. We will know their game soon enough.” Luna turned toward the nearest guard. “I do not expect us to be gone more than half-an-hour. Should Twilight Sparkle arrive before we return, have her wait here.”

The guard trembled for a few moments and then finally saluted. “Yes, Your Highness.”

The two alicorns stepped through the portal, and then Luna lead Adamantine into the sky.

They zipped around some low-lying clouds, ascending toward a widespread layer of them. They dove into it, drilling holes through the bottom-most ones only to find more. Luna noted their haphazard shape and the lack of craftsmanship. Everfree clouds, she concluded.

They reached a depression in the cloud layer and Luna touched down. Her gaze first ran over the towering clouds still around them before finding a gap and narrowing her focus on two figures in the distance.

Adamantine touched down behind her and looked as well. “Those look like armored pegasi,” she whispered. “Guards, perhaps?”

Luna narrowed her eyes. “Yes, but they are not ours.”

Adamantine nodded and continued tracking them, even as the two distant guards banked and then started flying in their direction. “It seems they have noticed us.”

“So they have. Let them come.”

The two alicorns stood tall, only digging into the cloud by the tiniest amount, as the pegasi guard stopped a few feet away. Their blue, thestral-like armor gleamed in the moonlight. “You there,” one of them said. “This is restricted airspace. What do you think you are doing here?”

“We are out for a stroll,” Luna replied.

“Rhetorical question, ma’am,” the other snidely replied. “We will need you to come with us.”

Luna smirked and exchanged glances with Adamantine. “I’m afraid that we have no such intentions.”

The stallions’ scowls deepened, and then they lowered their spears. “That was not a request.”

Adamantine remained indifferent to their display. Luna, meanwhile, flared her wings to full length and channeled energy into her horn.

One of the guards reached for a whistle around his neck and went to blow on it.

The air flashed red for a moment, and when everypony looked again, the whistle shattered into several pieces. The offended stallion, himself no worse for wear, leaped back in surprise. All eyes drew toward Adamantine whose horn remained lit the same color red.

“I do not believe we can treat it as such,” Adamantine murmured, obscuring her expression behind her bangs.

The guards silently hovered for a few moments, registering what had happened. And then the remains of the whistle fell through the clouds and the offended stallion growled. “You’ve just attacked an officer! Prepare for punishment!”

They lunged at Adamantine with their spears. Adamantine magically blocked one, then the other, and then kicked the second out of the guard’s grasp. It went flying into the air far above.

She then lunged forward, wrapping her foreleg around the vulnerable guard’s neck. Her magic grabbed the other guard’s helmet and yanked, flipping him over. Adamantine teleported, guard in tow, and caught the other as he tried to reorient himself.

In a flash of light, Adamantine was gone, leaving Luna alone. She spent that time locating the spear, still in the air above her, and caught it as it fell. She took a few moments to observe its construction and how the pointed end gleamed menacingly.

Adamantine reappeared, asked for the spear, disappeared again, and then reappeared a few moments later.

“I had to return that to them, at least,” Adamantine said. “I have already cost them a whistle.”

Luna laughed heartily. “So you did. That was quite impressive.”

Adamantine bowed. “I do my best. Either way, they are some ways beyond Canterlot now. They shouldn’t bother us anymore.”

Luna nodded. “I see,” she said. After taking another look at the moon (taking a moment to note its features) to get her bearings, Luna spread her wings. “Still, that was done with practiced grace and finesse. I very much wish to see more.”

Adamantine laughed and followed. “Perhaps after you are done here.”

The two of them pushed through several more clouds. Cloud after cloud greeted them without much room for reprieve. Luna saw darkness as bits of dusty gas pressed against her over and over. A few times, she even spat out some things.

“I do not believe that we can truly blame them,” Adamantine called out when they reached a gap. “They are only doing their duties, after all.”

“Such duties are to a despot,” Luna called back, “but otherwise, I agree!”

Clouds stood in their way for several more minutes. Luna kept her horn lit so that Adamantine had some way to see. With how dense the clouds were, Luna was sure they wouldn’t be spotted.

The clouds eventually broke again, allowing a respectable view of the forest below. The both of them touched down on a small ‘mesa’ at the tip of the formation.

“You know they are loyal to a despot?” Adamantine asked.

Luna ambled toward the edge and peered at the forest below. “Well, not particularly. But…” she trailed off, spotting something in the distance, “a despot is… something I know I would have been.”

Adamantine walked up beside her. “You? What does that have to do with anything?”

Luna pointed down. “Behold.”

A tall and sprawling castle covered the better part of a clearing in the forest, save a singular gorge that ran around its rightmost side. The main building sat at the very front of the complex, looming over potential visitors with its tall, triplet towers. The tallest and most prominent commanded a view of the entire forest, topped by a large, glowing crescent moon.

“I see she has rebuilt it,” Luna said. “Once upon a time, many centuries ago, I was consumed by petty jealousy. I felt that my night, which I toiled to create, was underappreciated by everypony. They would sleep through it. And, from that, envy prompted me to become Nightmare Moon.”

Adamantine gasped. “Ah! Yes. I have heard of Nightmare Moon. I heard of what… you did a thousand years ago. I also recall something else… that you returned as Nightmare Moon for a brief time.”

Luna nodded. “Yes. For a time. And then Twilight Sparkle saved me.”

Adamantine raised an eyebrow, renewing her glare on the castle. “Twilight Sparkle?”


The two stood in silence, watching as some guards moved across the grounds down below. A soft wind blew past them, and the clouds shifted by a small amount.

“I still owe her my life,” Luna said, “as does Equestria. Several times over.”

Adamantine hummed. “This is an alternate reality. I take it… that in this world, Twilight did not save you.”

“No. As far as I can tell… Twilight Sparkle’s rise did not even happen.” Luna paused to purse her lips and suppress a shudder. “Not in this reality. Not in any of those other horrible realities that you have heard about.”

Adamantine’s frown deepened and she ran her eyes up the central tower one more time. Her gaze landed on the crescent moon for a few moments and then ascended into the eternal night beyond. “It is strange how quintessential some ponies are,” she finally said.

Luna, meanwhile, scanned the ground with greater purpose, tracking guard stations and patrol routes.

“That castle is well guarded and we will need a way in,” Luna mused. “Adamantine, may I ask a favor of you?”

Adamantine vacantly hummed in response.

“I do not expect you will want to fight with us. But if you would be willing to teleport us into that castle later on, so that we may get right into it, that would be most appreciated.”

Adamantine’s silver mane blew about every direction, but she remained silent and focused, like she had forgotten she was even there. But after a few moments of careful thought, Adamantine nodded. “If it will help you succeed in saving this world, then I shall happily do it.”

* * *

Sunset kept a firm magical grip on the crystal ball while eying the dozens of spears pointed in her general direction. Her friends stood similarly poised, eyeing foe after foe. Their adversaries, in turn, stood unmoving. The spacious room, shrouded in dark hues and flanked by intricately woven tapestries, set an even graver tone.

Nightmare Moon stumbled off the throne. Even she said nothing, eyeing them with an apprehensive curiosity and with caution in every step. The usual blowing of her mane appeared stifled and unsure.

Luna stood opposite, taking point for the nine. She took a careful glance back at Twilight who, while not transformed (nor were any of the others, for that matter), had a complex pre-cast floating right beside her. Luna then met her own gaze, yet a gaze that was not her own.

“How is this possible?” Nightmare Moon asked.

Luna tilted her head in response and flashed a quick smirk.

Nightmare Moon swallowed and tried to look past Luna. “You… You were the one that traveled through time. But now you have returned…”

Twilight nodded but said nothing.

Nightmare Moon narrowed her eyes, drawing them across two other mares in the group. She then turned and glared at one of her guards. “And what is the meaning of that!?” she yelled, pointing at the offending ponies. She looked at her staff members cowering on either side of the stairs, and she centered on one. “Explain!”

The aforementioned guard quivered in her horseshoes.

Twilight frowned and stepped forward. “The two of them have nothing to do with this. They are innocent.”


Twilight glared Nightmare Moon down, and then turned to the aforementioned staff member, noted the tight bun in her mane, and smiled. “Your name is Rarity. You and I talked last time I was here.”

The mare swallowed and nodded, refusing to leave her servant’s huddle.

Twilight turned to the guard. “And you are Rainbow Dash. Isn’t that right?”

Another moment of silence passed as all eyes landed on the young, fully armored pegasus. The helmet obscured most of her face, but Sunset could see the uneasiness in the eyes. Eventually, the guard removed her helmet altogether, revealing her gruff expression to them.

“Yeah,” Corporal Dash replied, “that’s me.”

Rainbow Dash stared at her double. Her mouth hung agape, and her wings briefly faltered. The two stared at each other until Rainbow Dash let a few snickers escape.

“Dashie?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“Look at that mohawk,” Rainbow Dash said, pointing. “I look like a tool.” She fell to the ground laughing.

The others looked on, affording only a few token giggles.

Nightmare Moon looked on in bewilderment. A crook in her lips betrayed mild amusement.

Rainbow Dash hopped to her hooves. “Wow, I just totally dissed my alternate-timeline self. That’s awesome!” She then narrowed her eyes on her double. “Not you, though. You’re not awesome. That mane-do is not awesome.”

Rarity snorted. “I do agree, that manestyle is simply dreadful.”

Corporal Dash blushed and then grumbled something under her breath.

Across the way, Rarity’s double nodded in solemn agreement.

Rarity glanced toward her double and grinned. “It’s good to see that in this timeline, at least, I’m looking as stylish as ever! Loving that vest, darling!”

“Uh… thank you!” the other Rarity replied.

“What is this idiocy?” Nightmare Moon seethed.

Luna shrugged. “They’re merely noting the differences that time can bring.”

“Time,” Nightmare Moon snarled. “I do not understand how you came here. I suppose I cannot simply erase you from time.”

“Time doesn’t work that way, anyway,” Sunset said, stepping forward. She broke through the crowd. “We’ve learned a few things ourselves over the past few days. You can’t actually rewrite time.”

Nightmare Moon frowned. “If this is true, then how are you here?”

“Because we exist elsewhere,” Luna replied. “We are from another life. A life that, maybe, you might have lived.”


Luna paused, taking a long deep breath. “You see, we,” she said, motioning to her friends, “come from another reality. It is a world where… you are a wonderful ruler for your subjects. Where you are loved, and adored, and you have the best of friends that anypony could ask for. Where ponies love your night and relish in your night. Where you are celebrated, and where you cast your own shadow, instead of living under our sister’s.”

Nightmare Moon twisted her hoof into the carpet but said nothing.

“The world is a far different place than the one we left,” Luna continued. “There is so much of it, so much to glean from the ponies in it, so much which you have yet to see. So much that, I fear, you may not see as you are now.”

“I am the ruler of all of Equestria,” Nightmare Moon countered. “I can see whatever I please.”

“No, you cannot. Tell me, when was the last time you saw anypony genuinely happy?”

Nightmare Moon froze. Her mouth hung for a few moments, only for her to hide it behind another snarl.

“When was the last time you enjoyed an intimate moment with another pony? When was the last time you have engaged in activities with ponies you could consider friends? When was the last time you have met somepony…” Luna glanced back toward Twilight, “that you might give your life for?”

“I do not need any of those things,” Nightmare Moon replied after a few reflective moments. “I command all of my citizens. Just as a good ruler should.”

Luna tilted her head. “Is it because of fear that they follow you?”

“Well, of course they fear me,” Nightmare Moon replied, standing tall. “I am the princess of Equestria!”

“Then tell me, Luna, do you think—”

“I am not Luna!” Nightmare Moon screamed. “I am Nightmare Moon!”

Luna didn’t even flinch. “…Luna. Do they… earnestly love your night?”

Nightmare Moon opened her mouth to say something, but whatever words she may have had never passed her lips. She pondered this for a few moments. “W-well, I—”

Applejack smirked. “Well, Yer Highness?”

Nightmare Moon backpedaled, almost tripping at that. Her fangs ground together and her eyes darted around the room as if she might find a reply elsewhere. She looked at her guards who looked back at her with gruff indifference. She glanced back at her staff who shied further toward the wall.

“Do they really and truly love your night?” Luna asked again.

Nightmare Moon blinked and then shrunk by the slightest bit. She started to shake her head, caught herself, and then turned her back to them. “I am the princess here. I do not need to answer that question.”

Luna glanced back at her friends and smirked, and they giggled under their breaths in return.

“I have gone through what you have gone through,” Luna said, stepping forward. “I know what it is that you truly desire; that you cannot deny. But unlike you, I gave up Nightmare Moon a few years ago.” Luna smiled. “I have been happier ever since.”

Nightmare Moon didn’t even glance back. “You? Happy?”

“But of course. I’ve grown in these past few years. And more importantly, I have learned a few things.” She glanced out a window, briefly laying her eyes on the prismatic moon, momentarily allowing a frown to grace her muzzle as she went. “You have done it, after all. You have brought eternal night. And now… it has lost all of its meaning and is no longer special.”

A low and almost-demonic growl brushed past Nightmare Moon’s fangs, prompting her staff and even some members of her guard to tremble. “You dare call my night unspecial?”

“You cannot have one without the other,” Luna continued. “I know, for the both of us have tried. The night… is nothing without the day. And the day… is nothing without the night. They are of great and equal import, and for the longest time, I did not understand that.

“That is one of the most important lessons that I have learned in these past few years.” Luna narrowed her eyes. “So I will say this: you must lower the moon. Eternal night must end.”

The whole room fell deathly silent. Both guard and servant alike began to tremble as they turned their eyes toward their ruler. Some hid behind others, while those without somepony to hide behind cowered.

“T-that…” Nightmare Moon said, trembling for other reasons, “is heresy.” She turned to face Luna, her snake-like eyes ablaze. “Nevermind that you should not exist—you are the last pony that I should ever expect to say such a thing! And I will not tolerate it!”

Luna raised an indifferent eyebrow in response.

“You will not tell me these things! I am Nightmare Moon!” she boomed, her voice shaking streams of dust off the ceiling. “And I will make this night last forever!”

Luna sighed and drew circles into the carpet. “…I see that you are not convinced.”

Everypony stood in silence as Nightmare Moon stared her counterpart down. Luna, on the other hoof, continued drawing circles, a thoughtful frown across her muzzle. And then she looked up to meet her opponent’s glare.

“I shall have to rectify that,” she said.

Luna lit her horn and then surged forward. Nightmare Moon gasped and tried to fire a shot back only for that to ricochet against a well-placed shield. Her guards started to react but had only moved to retaliate when Luna barreled head-first into Nightmare Moon’s face.

Luna bounced off but not before her spell fired, wrapping around Nightmare Moon’s horn. As Luna sailed over, the spell went taut, pulling Nightmare Moon backward. Shortly after, both alicorns landed on their backs, unconscious and with a white line connecting their horns.

“Your Highness!” several guards cried, rushing over.

“Luna!” the eight mares exclaimed, also rushing over.

“No! Stop! Everypony stop!” the crystal ball exclaimed, sending several from all parties stumbling. “Don’t… touch them! Don’t.”

Applejack looked up. “Twilight?”

“They’re asleep,” Twilight’s voice said. “Don’t you see that thread there? That’s Luna’s dream-walking spell.”

Everypony stood around for a few moments. The staff, once pressed into the recesses, inched forth in order to see. The guards lowered their spears and yet also tightened their grips around them. Eyes fell on the single glowing line connecting Luna’s horn to Nightmare Moon’s.

“…What is this?” Nightmare Moon slurred.

“…What is worth more than any words I may say,” Luna slurred back. “…These are my memories. It is my life.”

“Let them be,” Twilight’s voice said.

Twilight ruffled her feathers and brought her pre-cast closer to her horn. Starlight and Sunset streamed magic into their horns. The others arched their backs toward the foes, dragging their hooves like they were about to charge.

“Who are they?” Nightmare Moon half-slurred, half-growled.

“Luna just attacked her, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash snapped. “She’s gunna be pretty mad when she wakes up.”

Nightmare Moon’s guards adjusted their helmets but did not otherwise move.

“…They are our friends,” Luna replied.

Fluttershy shook her head. “Maybe she won’t be.”

Rarity’s counterpart hazarded a glance at Nightmare Moon, and she tilted her head in curiosity.

“…What are they doing?” Nightmare Moon hissed.

“…They are celebrating,” Luna answered.

“…What are they celebrating?”

A small smile graced Luna’s muzzle. “You, Luna… You…”

Sunset met gazes with one of Nightmare Moon’s guards. The stallion, while still in his helmet, regarded her with equal intensity. The helmet itself was built with an intimidating thestral design, and the guard’s physical features had changed to support the part, but in that moment, his eyes softened up.

Sunset chuckled, and then the guard chuckled back.

The grimace on Nightmare Moon’s muzzle flickered. “…Celebrating me?”

“…They are celebrating you. And… they are celebrating this…”

“Night…” Nightmare Moon slurred, her voice almost a whisper.

Luna let out a deep breath. “Our night…”

The magic connecting them froze for a moment as Nightmare Moon rolled over in her slumber. “…Our night,” she said. The lingering scowl disappeared from Nightmare Moon’s face, now replaced with a crestfallen frown. And then the beam resumed its tug but with gentle, graceful motions. “You have… made our night special.”

“It is special… It is a gift.”

“The night is a gift…”

“Wow,” Twilight’s voice said. “I remember this. …What would it be like to know the depth of their conversations right now?”

“…I now see what you meant,” Nightmare Moon mumbled. “The night is a gift… a gift with meaning.”

“A gift to the ones we love…”

“A gift that should not be for granted….”

“A gift that is not taken for granted...”

Nightmare Moon’s grimace returned, but it appeared troubled more than anything. “That which is eternal is taken for granted. Unlike your night...”


“I see now how I have broken it… I am not sure I can fix it…”

“Yes, you can. Because… Luna…” Luna began.

Nightmare Moon shifted and kicked about. “You call me Luna… You call me…”


“You call me Luna… I am… I am…”


Everypony blinked, now turning their gazes toward the two sleeping alicorns. All let out several low gasps, some held their breaths. Some even took a few steps forward. Some guards lost their grips on their weapons. Twilight’s pre-cast nearly fizzled out. Her friends looked on, pensively frowning.

“Luna…” Luna slurred, “you are loved. You are loved… so much more than you know.”

Nightmare Moon swallowed. Nightmare Moon sniffled.

“…You are loved so much more than you know.”

Some of the guard’s spears clattered against the floor. Several others removed their helmets and held them in their forelegs, exposing their worn faces. The maids and servants held onto each other.

“You are loved so much more than you know…” Luna said one last time, her voice fading into nothing.

The line connecting the two alicorns fizzled out and then Nightmare Moon’s eyes flew open. The room held its breath as she climbed to her hooves. Once at her full height, she trudged over toward Twilight and company.

She stared down at them and said nothing; she did not even breathe. And then she lit her horn and slowly removed her own helmet. Her miasmic mane swirled in every direction, but now in a slow and calm manner.

Twilight shuddered and then stood to her full height as well, meeting Nightmare Moon’s gaze. There, she let her pre-cast die.

“I understand you now, time traveler. Somehow, I do. I have… been shown a great deal about your time. The world that you have come from,” Nightmare Moon said, shooting a quick glance at Luna who was rising to her hooves. Nightmare Moon then leaned forward, her expression pleading. “…Is it true?”

Twilight smiled. “Of course. The night’s a really great thing where I come from. It’s so… wonderful and majestic and artful.”

“Oh, it is,” Fluttershy said. “I remember this one time… It was just after our Luna came back. We all went out together and watched this really wonderful meteor shower.”

Twilight giggled. “I remember that. That was around the time I met Owlowiscious. I’ve gone through several full nights of studying thanks to his help.”

“Grand Gallopin’s Gala’s usually at nighttime,” Applejack laughed.

“Oh Applejack, dear,” Rarity said, “you have no idea. Much more… shall we say… lesser events than that are also held at night.”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “Hey! Remember the royal wedding? We soooo partied the night away!”

Rainbow Dash stamped her hoof. “Nightmare night! That’s so darn fun! Haha!”

“One of my favorite things to do is just… go outside sometimes and stargaze,” Twilight’s voice said. “I can name all the constellations!”

Nightmare Moon shuddered. “It sounds like the night is… precious and appreciated where you come from.” She sighed. “And the night is so important to me. …Knowing ponies find it worthwhile is… all I ever wanted.

“But… if I’m to answer your question… No, I do not think they earnestly love it as I do. Perhaps I have done something to cause them to think that way. Perhaps I have caused that damage,” Nightmare Moon said, glancing up at the moon which bore her sister’s face.

Starlight’s knees wobbled, and she quietly whimpered.

The others glanced up at the moon and shared grave frowns. “Ah reckon it might take some time to fix all that,” Applejack said.

“Erm, if I may, Princess Luna,” Sunset said, glancing back at the others. “I agree with Applejack there. But… I’ve kinda been where you are right now. I’ve made some really terrible mistakes and hurt a lot of people.” She smiled. “But I speak from experience. It might not happen right away, but… if you give them reasons to… they’ll forgive you.”

“It will be a hard road, should you choose to take it,” Luna said, walking past Nightmare Moon. “I’ve been where you are too, but where I am from, I have had so many advantages. Advantages that, unfortunately, you will not have.” She laid a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder and smiled. “But even then… if this is what you want… then you should find ponies that may be willing to help you. That can guide you, aid you, and comfort you. I have had this wonderful group of friends to show me the way in my own time, and I would not give them up for the world. I have no doubt that having friends of your own… will be the best thing that has ever happened to you.”

“…And where might I find ponies such as they?” Nightmare Moon said after a few long moments.

A cough from the side interrupted them and they all turned to find Corporal Dash, helmet tucked under her wing, cautiously stepping forward. Without speaking, she walked up and stood at Nightmare Moon’s side, holding herself high.

Rainbow Dash grinned and gave a slight nod.

Another pushed through the crowd of staff, even knocking some over in her haste. Rarity’s counterpart joined Nightmare Moon and Corporal Dash, flashing the former a small smile.

Slowly but surely, several others came forward, taking Nightmare Moon’s side. While some held their heads just as high, others near the back blushed and sheepishly kicked at the floor.

Nightmare Moon grinned. “I suppose… that I may find them right here.”

Sunset nodded. “And Luna… if there’s one thing I’ve learned… it’s that if you go looking for friendship,” she said, wrapping a leg around Twilight’s withers, “you’ll find it.”

“So now I must ask…” Luna said. “Do you still wish to be Nightmare Moon?”

For many long moments, Nightmare Moon stood silently. She looked down at them, a stoic expression hiding anything that might have been going through her head.

She grunted and shuddered and dropped her helmet which clattered to the floor. Her black body rippled, throwing off tiny bits of magical energy. Nightmare Moon cried out before a new aura, blacker than black, wrapped around her. And from someplace within, she screamed.

Luna watched in stoic silence.

The aura shrunk and a crouching Princess Luna emerged. Gone were the ethereal mane and tall posture, now replaced with a body that more resembled Twilight’s form than it did Luna’s.

Her horn lit up and then Princess Luna rose to her hooves. Outside, the moon moved; it streaked across the sky before it finally met with and disappeared beyond the horizon. The shadows moved as another object peeked from the other horizon, glowing a hot yellowish color. Princess Luna flared her wings, and the sun emerged.

Light streamed in through the windows, prompting the guards and maids and servants to shield their eyes. When they finally looked, their breaths left their bodies and they glanced around in awe.

Princess Luna’s eyes flew open, and even though her face looked wet, she stood tall and proud like a regal mare. The sunlight landed right on her, accentuated her every feature. Before them, Princess Luna glowed.

“No,” she said with a firm whisper, “I wish to be somepony better.”

7 - Refraction I

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Princess Luna stared out the window. The day outside, as warm and vibrant as it was, felt alien. Part of it had been its absence. The other was more subtle; there was something stagnant and crude in its presentation.

Oh, dear Sister… she thought, I’m afraid that I’m not as good with the day as you are. I had no idea what went into the daytime. I had no idea…

She swallowed. Why did I put you in the moon? Oh why?

The door creaked open and a young pegasus, clad in thestral-like armor, stepped in. “Your Highness,” Rainbow Dash said, removing her helmet and saluting.

Luna didn’t even turn. “Yes?” she asked, her voice barely loud enough.

“We got that mirror and that book that that bacon mare wanted,” Rainbow Dash said. “And they aren’t damaged.”

It took a deal of strength to prevent the habitual “Good,” from escaping her lips. “Thank you,” she said instead, “you may take them to the southwest hall. They are assembling the other components there if they have not already assembled it. And then, after that, you may join the others in the search of those missing ponies. Those… visitors will want a report on that underground chamber of which they spoke of.”

“Will do, Your Highness.”

Another pony, Rarity, appeared in the doorway. A stack of papers floated in her grasp. “Ah, Your Highness. It would seem I have arrived at a good moment.”

Luna hummed. “Miss Rarity… What is it?”

“I’m here to tell you that we managed to put that machine together which that Sunset Shimmer requested of us,” she said, waving the stack of papers around. “You will forgive my slight eavesdropping, but as I understand it, the remaining parts have just arrived?”

“Yes ma’am,” Rainbow Dash said.

“Then see to it,” Luna said. “Is that all?”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Rarity replied, bowing.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Rainbow Dash replied, saluting.

Luna sucked in a breath and whirled around, causing the both of them to jump. She blushed at their reaction. “Actually...”

“Your Highness?” they both said.

Luna sighed. “Please… just… call me Luna. Okay?”

The two exchanged glances, considering it. Rarity eventually chuckled, and then Rainbow Dash chuckled back.

“Absolutely… Luna,” Rarity answered.

Luna smiled and then turned back toward the window. Rarity and Rainbow Dash took that cue and disappeared together.

Luna glanced at her reflection, reading the features of a long-forgotten form. She found nothing imposing. She found nothing to fear in the face glancing sadly back at her.

Only anger.

Anger at one who had so irrevocably altered the world. Anger at one who had probably caused so much strife and despair. Anger at one who could not see what they had done.

I’ve made a mistake, she thought, letting her head thump against the glass. I’ve done all of that. I’ve wanted to be loved and appreciated but… I think that everypony hates me.

Luna paused and glanced back toward the open doorway, and her frown twitched. Perhaps I have some. Those two, at least, maybe others.

But Equestria?

…Equestria will be the judge of what I have done to it. Maybe they’ll decide that I have done wrong and act accordingly.

Luna stood up to face her reflection in full.

And I… I shall atone.

Rarity adjusted her reading glasses and pressed herself against the page. “Ahem. Celestia and Luna—”

“Which Celestia and Luna?” Pinkie Pie interrupted, leaning across the long, lacquered dining room table.

Rarity frowned. “…From the Discord universe, say they’ve found some portals in their own world.”

“Well aw’right,” Applejack said, smiling. “Now we’re gettin’ somewhere. They say where they go?”

“They did. Let’s see…” she shuffled through a few more papers and found another report, this one written by a different hoof than the first. “This one says that they found some ponies in the wild who spoke of changelings.”

“Sounds like Queen Chrysalis,” Fluttershy said, shuddering.

“Twi did say that was the problem one,” Applejack said. “Probably ’cause them changelings’d all skedaddle when we turn on the Rainbow Power and we gotta hit all them.”

Rainbow Dash hurled a fork high into the air. Given Canterlot Castle’s propensity for high ceilings, it hit nothing but air. “Then when Twilight gets back from geeking out with her future self, we should tell her that’s where we wanna go next. I wanna kick that queen’s flank,” she said, catching the fork.

“Where’d they find the portal at?” Applejack asked.

“Ghastly Gorge,” Rarity replied.

Rainbow Dash sat back in her seat. “Hey, that’s where we all went to get our one stone for Twilight. How about that?”

“Right you are,” Rarity said, nodding. “They also found another portal out near Vanhoover. We’ll probably know which one that is by the time we defeat Chrysalis. And… we’re still waiting on Princess Luna.” She paused and looked up. “From the Nightmare Moon universe, I mean.”

“So, um,” Fluttershy said, “I know that Sunset is off doing something with the mirrors. Does anypony know where Starlight went?”

“Oh, she went back to Equestria D to do some investigating!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed.

Everypony else frowned. “Huh?” Fluttershy asked.

“Equestria D! You know, D for Discord!”

The room fell into silence. The four of them regarded Pinkie Pie, their features frozen as they processed her statement. And then Applejack puckered her lips, uttered a pointed, “Eeyup,” and then they sat back in their seats.

Pinkie Pie shrugged.

* * *

“Here,” the crystal ball said.

The six of them stopped and craned their necks upward. While most of the sky was a clear blue, a batch of clouds hung overhead. On further inspection, they could make out structures in those clouds; bridges and buildings and even houses built into the sides of the clouds. A run-down coliseum and an idle factory hung at the outliers.

“Aw’right then,” Applejack said. “If the changelings are up there, how do we get their attention?”

Rainbow Dash ran her eyes over Cloudsdale’s worn curves and intricate, if saggy structures, noting how some parts had lost their forms more than others. “Hey, future Twilight. Can you check to see if there’re any ponies up there?”

“Yes, I can. Just let me move this view…” A few minutes of silence passed, during which everypony continued watching the sky in silence. “I didn’t find any ponies up there except for two,” Twilight’s voice eventually replied. “But they will be okay. There are a lot of changelings in city hall, though. Rainbow Dash, you are go.”

“Got it,” Rainbow Dash said, stretching her wings. “Yo, Discord. Take me up far above Cloudsdale, will ya?”

Twilight Sparkle’s shadow shifted, and a shadowy claw took form. With the snap of its fingers, Rainbow Dash disappeared in a flash of white.

While the others squinted to see up that way, the hand shifted again. A telescope appeared in its grasp, and the hand offered it up to Twilight. She, in turn, received it and pointed it upward.

“Do you see anything?” Fluttershy asked.

After a few moments of searching, Twilight nodded. “I see her. Way up there!” she exclaimed, pointing.

Discord’s head poked out from the shadows. “Hmm, what is she planning?”

“Hold on tight,” Twilight’s voice warned.

Twilight followed the dot that was Rainbow Dash as it held steady and then dropped. Rainbow Dash dropped and dropped and then Twilight gasped. “Oh my, she’s barreling straight down into Cloudsdale!”

By now, Rainbow Dash drew near enough to reappear, but she streaked so fast that they could not make her out. The last thing that they saw before Rainbow Dash disappeared into the city was a small cone forming at the tip.


The ground shook as a multicolored explosion blew out from Cloudsdale, sweeping out several rings in its wake. Cloudy buildings toppled, bridges broke apart and then disintegrated, and entire islands shot outward at neck-breaking speeds. The Rainboom itself caught up with many of those cloudy islands, slicing them to bits.

Everypony jumped in surprise. “Woah!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. “Dashie! She—”

Twilight’s jaw hit the ground. “Oh my, did she really just…”

“She did,” Discord said, grinning and flipping some sunglasses onto his face. “She really did. How chaotic!”

Fluttershy whimpered and shielded her eyes. “Oh, Dad’s poor cloud collection…”

Rainbow Dash flipped over several times, curling into a ball as she hurtled down. Finally, however, she unfurled and flapped her wings several times to slow down before landing in a triumphant pose. “There! That should get their attention!” she said, laughing.

Applejack’s eye twitched. She glanced back up at the crumbling structures above. “…Rainbow Dash,” she seethed.

“What?” Rainbow Dash asked, frowning. “Like, did you even see that? I probably did all the damage to them.”

And the rest of Cloudsdale too!” Applejack yelled back.

“I agree,” Pinkie Pie yelled. “I mean, that was really really awesome! But it was mean. And it was awesome. And mean.”

“I’m sure that they think so too, everypony,” Rarity said, pointing up.

Several dots appeared from the city above. Those dots held as even more joined them, and then the mass descended. A low buzzing grew to deafening levels as tens and then hundreds and then perhaps even thousands appeared. The closer the mass drew, the more they could make out each individual changeling flying down toward them, each with their fangs bared.

Discord snickered and melted back into Twilight’s shadow.

The six of them stiffened up as the mass drew closer and closer, wincing under a buzzing like several train horns in unison. Finally, the mass arrived, hovering mere feet above them. Ponies growled, and changelings snapped, but neither moved.

The changelings parted and another, much larger changeling joined them. Queen Chrysalis, looking down her nose, ran her eyes over each of them. Her frown deepened with each pony she saw.

“What have we here?” she asked, her once buggy voice now full of power and nutrition. “Little insects, you gave me quite a shock just now. I don’t like that one bit.”

“Queen Chrysalis,” Twilight said, stamping her hoof.

Chrysalis glanced at the remains of Cloudsdale and then ran her eyes across everypony besides Twilight, taking special attention of Applejack (who Twilight knew had been one of Chrysalis’ transformations before). “I don’t really know what you’re trying to get at here. I’ve seen the both of you before,” she said to Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, “and even you look vaguely familiar,” to Twilight. “But you three…”

Chrysalis laughed. “Oh, I see, this is rich. You can drop your form now.”

“We’re not changelings, Chrysalis,” Twilight replied, watching as a claw sprouted out of the ground underneath Chrysalis.

“Oh, I’m sure. There’s no way the lot of you can even be here right now,” Chrysalis sneered.

The claw rose and rose, climbing like a snake, before it grabbed Chrysalis’ hindleg and dragged her down, prompting her to yelp. She hit the ground with an audible thud before a figure appeared on her opposite side.

“I know, isn’t it just the best?” Discord sneered back, reaching over her to reattach his claw.

Chrysalis gasped and pushed him off. “You!”

Discord glanced at himself. “Me.”

“No! This can’t be! You aren’t here right now!” Chrysalis cried. She shot into the air. “Get them! Get them all!”

The changelings dove toward them, screeching viciously. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie leaped into action, punching and kicking several attackers. Rarity shifted the crystal ball in her magic and stood her ground with Fluttershy.

Twilight, meanwhile, saw Chrysalis trying to make a break for it and she teleported to Chrysalis’s opposite side before delivering a laser to the chest. “No!”

“Nice,” the crystal ball said.

Chrysalis hurtled toward the ground, only to find her hooves in time to land. She glanced back up at Twilight and growled, launching a laser of her own which bounced off a quick shield.

Discord grinned like a lunatic and teleported into the main body of the mass. A netted safari hat appeared on his head and a large net formed bit by bit into his hand. And then he held it at the ready. “Time to do some bug catching!” he exclaimed, before swishing a good score of changelings into his net.

A few changelings flew toward Rarity and Fluttershy, and while Fluttershy ducked, Rarity socked one in the jaw as it flew past. “Ha! Take that you—” she backhoofed another as they too passed by, “—ruffian!”

A loud bang shook the area as Pinkie Pie shot a stream of confetti from her party cannon straight into one changeling’s abdomen. As the changeling fell, Applejack ran up and springboarded off him and onto another changeling, springing off her in return.

“Yeehaw!” Applejack yelled, continuing to jump from changeling to changeling and throwing them off balance.

Several changelings transformed. Those still in the air took the forms of Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy while the others took the remaining three. They all lunged forward, and the result threw up so much dust and debris that anypony would be hard-pressed to make out the fighting.

Chrysalis and Twilight continued trading shots with neither hitting their mark. Where Chrysalis dodged, Twilight blocked with magic. At many points, Twilight teleported in order to avoid charging changelings and took potshots at other changelings, all while defending herself against Chrysalis. When their beams actually connected, Twilight thought back to her own Chrysalis besting Celestia, and she snapped the clashing spells into nearby changelings instead of sticking the fight out.

Discord scooped up several more changelings into his nets and then found, to his surprise, his net so full that some of his captured changelings were spilling out. Discord frowned and swished his net about to throw his remaining captives off balance. A large fly swatter formed in his paw and he swept it through the air, slapping down several foes in his wake.

Twilight parried another of Chrysalis’ beams, only for Chrysalis to bear down on her and kick her in the chest. Twilight tumbled backward, only to catch herself and fire a beam that Chrysalis barely managed to dodge. Twilight used that opportunity to throw another beam, but when that missed by a mile, to her dismay, she haphazardly threw out a strong wind gust instead to throw Chrysalis further off balance.

Discord swatted down several more changelings, but with his net full, he could take no more. His still-free foes charged from behind, slamming into him. While their efforts only managed to jostle him, it was enough to send his net flying from his grasp. The net clattered against the ground and every changeling flew out.

Discord teleported away from those that clung to him, only for others to latch onto him. He teleported again, throwing himself into the fray down below. The rumble intensified as foe kicked and punched foe. Some changelings shot beams which were countered with high-speed attacks and cannon fire.

The dust cloud exploded, sending several changelings flying, but not far and certainly not enough to destroy their balance. The offended changelings hovered, growling back as several figures emerged from the dust.

The five ponies backed into each other while Discord floated over them. The changelings surrounded them again but did not pounce. Those once laying in the dirt stood up and took flight again, rejoining the rest of the swarm. Their opponents hissed and snapped at them.

“Oh dear,” Rarity quivered, “we haven’t even made a dent in them.”

Fluttershy groaned. “Oh, this is just… awful.”

“Twilight!” Applejack called.

Twilight uttered a panicked shriek in reply as she barely dodged another laser, losing her balance. She tumbled through the air, and Chrysalis flew into pursuit.

“That Rainbow Dash is a spy!” Twilight’s voice cried.

Discord growled and, before Rainbow Dash could react, he grabbed her and held her aloft. Rainbow Dash hissed and flailed about, and while the others cried out in surprise, Discord searched about. He found a dogpile nearby and hurled the Rainbow Dash at it, striking them like bowling pins. One pony remained at the bottom, another Rainbow Dash, until Discord funneled magic into his claw and levitated her close.

Rainbow Dash sputtered back and her eyes rolled, breezies circling her head. She shook both off and looked at them. “Real me! Real me!”

“Put her down, Discord,” Twilight’s voice instructed.

He set her down and glanced back toward the swarm. “This is getting tricky.”

Rainbow Dash wiped some sweat off her brow. “Augh. These changelings are a lot tougher than I remember.”

“I think I should bring in some reinforcements,” Discord exclaimed. He snapped his fingers. “Oh, I know! I’ll use a lifeline here and phone a friend.”

Discord reached over and picked Pinkie Pie up with his claw. He held her up and then, using his paw, poked her belly several times, prompting her to giggle in response. He then pulled her mouth open and held her up to his ear.

A muffled sound came out of her.

“Hello there, new friend,” Discord said.

“…Uhm?” Fluttershy said, exchanging confused glances with the others.

The changelings bore similarly dumbfounded expressions.

More low muffles escape Pinkie’s mouth.

Discord chuckled. “Yes, yes, it was yesterday. And—” He paused and listened to more mumbles and frowned. “Well, yes, K.K. has a particular propensity for that.”

Pinkie Pie glanced down at her friends, her gaze as befuddled as theirs. She shrugged.

“Yes. Yes. I see.” Discord said. “Oh. I’ve found that larger books also make good projectiles. Yes, especially after you’ve eaten all the pages. Oh! Remember the purple one? There’s a reason why I call her ‘Book horse.’”

“Discord!” Twilight’s voice yelled.

Twilight glanced over, panting. “What?”

Chrysalis wiped some sweat off her brow and fired another laser. Twilight had enough time to throw up a simple shield, but the force of the attack made it explode in her face. She tumbled backward through most of the swarm and thankfully stuck the landing nearby. One of the nearby changelings hissed and tried to pounce on Twilight.

Discord whirled around and slapped that changeling out of the sky. “Do you mind!?” he exclaimed.

Another series of muffles came out of Pinkie Pie mouth and Discord sighed. “Oh, sorry. Actually, that’s why I’m calling,” he said, tucking her under his ear. He summoned a file and went to work on his offended claw. “I’m dealing with some pesky changelings right now and I could use some help here. No, I’m not taking it particularly seriously… But I probably should. They’re a smidge more formidable than I thought.” He paused to parry the piercing stares that he received. “Do me one and go to that area under Cloudsdale for me, won’t you, old sport?”

Discord smiled. “Thanks, see you in a few,” he said. He shut Pinkie Pie’s mouth and then lowered her to the ground.

Pinkie Pie felt at her own mouth, and the others considered it too.

“I have no idea what just happened,” Pinkie Pie finally said, thankfully with her own voice.

Twilight rose to her hooves and backed into the circle. “Whatever he just did, we could use the help. This isn’t working.”

Discord pointed at the air in front of him. There, with a bright flash and an electrical cackle, a hole in spacetime appeared. It grew to the size of Discord himself and then held steady as a ring of energy clamped down on the hole’s edges.

Another Discord popped his head through and glanced around. “Hellllooooo?”

Discord pulled the draconequus through. “Discord, old buddy old pal, welcome to the party.”

Discord the draconequus chuckled. “Thanks. Messing with changelings is going to be fun.”

“…Are you kidding me?” Chrysalis seethed.

Twilight, meanwhile, focused on the portal, stroking her chin. …That’s the same portal that we’ve been using so far… How…?

Discord the draconequus snapped his fingers, and then the entire swarm dropped out of the sky, including Chrysalis herself. They landed with several exclamations and even the rare curse, but when they stood up, they found their horns and wings gone. They cried in surprise.

Discord gasped. “Oh! Did you just...?”

“I did,” Discord the draconequus replied.

Discord roared with laughter. “Priceless! That’s a classic trick.”


The changelings hissed and then transformed into copies of the six ponies on the ground. Some then changed back, their horns and wings suddenly there again. Those that did took to the air, renewing the constant buzzing.

“Aw shucks,” Applejack said. “They’re changelings, y’all remember?”

“They’re changelings, y’all remember?” the ones that looked like Applejack parroted back.

Both Discords frowned. “…Oh,” they said in unison.

Twilight created a barrier around herself and then levitated a set of papers out of her saddlebag. “Cover me, everypony! I’m going to put the Rainbow Power together!”

Chrysalis huffed and rose into the air herself. “Get them!” she cried.

The changelings surged forward once more and both Discords flew up to meet them. The other five ponies surrounded Twilight as the latter read through her papers and formed a pre-cast.

The seven of them—both Discords and the five ponies—swatted at and kicked and punched and bucked changeling after changeling. A few changelings, in turn, managed to land a few blows as well, though never anything more severe than a decent punch or kick.

Several trees sprang out of the ground and those too went to work, dancing along the battlefield on their roots and kicking several changelings out of the way. Discord the draconequus briefly broke from the fighting to dance along with them.

Fluttershy, for the most part, stayed near Twilight. She gave piercing stares at any changeling that ventured close, and that was enough for most of them. When there became too many for her, Twilight’s voice in the crystal ball would call out positions, and Twilight, in turn, would turn away from her pre-cast reading long enough to blast the offenders out of the sky.

One changeling attempted to barrel straight into Fluttershy. She froze like a deer in bright hornbeams, only for Discord to teleport right in front of her with a tree branch. He wound up and then swung, batting the changeling away. The changeling flew past several copies of Discord who stood up from their floating bleachers amidst cheers while waving around bags of peanuts and crackerjacks.

Discord himself threw his makeshift bat into the air. “It’s a home run!” he exclaimed. He then turned to Fluttershy. “Are you okay, my dear?”

Fluttershy ran her eyes down his body, noting a couple of ruffled patches and dirtied skin. She then noted his chipper smile and smiled herself. “I am, thanks to you.”

He smirked and teleported back into the fray. As Fluttershy looked, she saw her friends dripping with sweat. Rarity’s mascara ran as she tried to keep several off herself and even Pinkie Pie bounded with much less pomp and circumstance than usual. Fluttershy paused to stare off another changeling, and then went back to whimpering over the sight of her friends.

“It’s almost ready!” Twilight shouted, wiping some sweat off her own brow.

A sizable beam passed within a few feet of Fluttershy. She whirled around to see Chrysalis, wavering about through the air, panting heavily, and staring back at her. Fluttershy froze, perturbed by her opponent’s glare. She knew that Twilight had been fighting her before, and under her barrier, Chrysalis couldn’t reach her.

The crystal ball gasped. “Oh no! Fluttershy! Look out!”

Chrysalis fired off another shot and Fluttershy managed to dive out of the way of the first one. The second, however, drilled into her side and she cried out in pain.

Twilight jumped as her barrier fizzled out. “Fluttershy! No!”

Fluttershy tumbled across the dirt a few times and then slid to a stop. She rolled over, kicking at something that wasn’t there and then squirming frantically. She reached for the offended spot and rubbed a burn mark.

Twilight rushed over and, soon enough, the others broke from their fights to rush to Fluttershy’s aid. While one Discord kept swatting at the changelings around them, the other hovered right above Fluttershy, running frantic eyes up and down her.

“Ow! Ow! Ow…” Fluttershy whimpered, tears welling up in her eyes.

Rarity leaned forward. “Are you okay, dear? Please, tell me you’re okay?”

Fluttershy sniffed and then nodded softly.

Applejack threw her hat to the ground. “Nu-uh! What no good varmint did that!?” she yelled, pointing at the singes on Fluttershy’s side.

“Chrysalis hit me…” Fluttershy cried.

Chrysalis threw her head back and chortled. Her cackles echoed across the plain and the swarm, now with time to regroup, joined in.

Discord the draconequus glanced over and chuckled. “Oh,” he cooed.

Discord, on the other hand, silently floated above them, eyeing Fluttershy’s boo-boo intently. His expression remained unchanged, save for a small shiver that ran down the length of his snake-like body.

And then he straightened up.

Discord shot his claw out. It stretched several times its normal length, well across the battlefield, and then fixed itself onto its target: Chrysalis’s throat. She gasped in surprise, trying to weasel her way out of it to no avail. As he reeled her in, she flailed about trying to escape and then started frantically gasping for air.

“Oooooh, my dear…” Discord said as he finally brought her in close. He turned to stare her directly in the eyes. “You are going to wish that you had not done that.”

The others looked up at him and shuddered. Fluttershy ceased sobbing for a moment to glance up as well, and all breath left her when she saw his claw shaking. In fact, Discord himself was shaking.

Discord the draconequus paled. “…Oh.”

A hardhat appeared on Discord the draconequus’ head, and in quick succession, brick after brick appeared. He layered them all into a wall, and then another wall, leaving a space just large enough for the seven of them. A large stone slab appeared above them and rested on top, enclosing them in darkness.

“Uh, what are you doing?” Rainbow Dash asked, blinking.

Fluttershy moaned and rolled over. “I can’t see…”

Pinkie Pie stumbled forward and then tripped over Fluttershy. “Woah! Hey!”

“Did you even see me just now?” Discord replied. “If I know me as well as I know me, then I definitely don’t want to see that. And so, I built a safe house.”

Twilight coughed. She floated her pre-cast into the center where the light off it actually lit the room. “See what?

“What happens next, obviously,” Discord the draconequus said. “And I’d like to think it will be suitable for a rated-teen story such as this one, but I don’t want to take that chance.”

Before anypony could respond, a deafening explosion shook their darkened house. Everypony lost their balance and fell to the ground, while Discord the draconequus, still airborne, cringed. Another boom, and the foundations shook even more. The ground heaved, but the house held, but when the ground heaved a second time, the house hopped on its foundation.

Twilight hit the ground so hard that her pre-cast fizzled out, returning all of them to darkness. “I can’t see!”

“…I don’t know if I want to see right now,” Pinkie Pie said, laughing nervously.

A ceiling lamp appeared, bathing the room in a low light. It flickered as something slammed into the side of the house.

Rarity leaned over Fluttershy, wincing at another explosion. “Mmm, why don’t we take a moment and look at this, hmmm?” she said.

Fluttershy coughed and wiped some remaining tears from her eyes. “Okay.”

Twilight stepped forward as well as Rarity ran her hoof over the singe marks on Fluttershy’s side. She poked at it, and Fluttershy instinctively jolted but otherwise remained still. A series of explosions, meanwhile, rocked their space, causing them to jump.

“It’s a bit tender,” Rarity said.

“It don’t look too bad to me,” Applejack said, trotting up. “That Chrysalis looked pretty plum tuckered out, if ya asked me.”


Fluttershy coughed and struggled to her hooves. “I… uh… I think I’ll be okay.”

Twilight smiled and gave Fluttershy a hug. “I’m so glad to hear that. I’m sorry that I let that hit you.”

Fluttershy smiled. “Don’t worry. Chrysalis is a big old meanie.”

“You bet she is. As soon as this is over, I’m gunna clean her clock,” Rainbow Dash snarled, pounding her hooves together.

Pinkie Pie swallowed, glancing up at the flickering light that told of the bedlam outside. “…If she has any clocks left to clean, Dashie.”

The house shook once more before a loud shriek deafened them. It lasted for several seconds, during which everyone, including Discord the draconequus, covered their ears. It could have been screaming. It could have been a massive outburst of magical energies. No one could say.

And then everything went silent. They cautiously glanced around when there was nothing to see.

Applejack adjusted her hat. “…Is it over?”

Discord the draconequus placed an ear to the wall, listening intently. “I… think so.”

“Um,” the crystal ball stammered. “Um, um, uh… That was… something… It’s… um… over…”

“Twi?” Applejack asked.

“Emmm, yes. He’s done. Um, you can… go out now.”

Discord the draconequus traced a line through the wall and then pushed it down. Light flooded into the windowless house.

Changelings littered the ground as far as they could see. They were strewn about in all sorts of positions, some undignified and others unnatural. Notably, none of them were moving to any appreciable degree. A few were wheezing, trying to find any semblance of a wind again. Others drooled and blinked slowly and conservatively.

Discord hovered above them, his expression cross. Hot, steamy snorts escaped through his nostrils and his paw still resembled a fist. His claw, however, held aloft a dark figure, which he tossed to the ground in front of them.

Chrysalis rolled over, her eyes rolled back into her head and her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. “I wanna ride the pony, daddy,” she slurred.

“Uhhhhhhhhhh,” Twilight’s voice said. “Good… job… I guess?”

Discord snorted. “No one hurts Fluttershy and gets away with it.”

* * *

Columns and columns of shackled changelings filed down the road in a slow procession. A few ponies, drenched in dirt and sweat, with twigs stuck in their manes and mud smeared across their faces, watched from the tree line. Some watched from the safety of the trees, while others goaded the prisoners on with makeshift spears.

Discord the draconequus floated above the procession. Occasionally, he would crack a whip at them with a shrill, “Hyaa!”

Twilight trotted alongside the procession, smirking all the while. I’m sure Tartarus will hold them all.

Eventually, she reached the front and met up with Discord. He stared scornfully back down the procession, ready to snap at any that fell out of line.

“We’ll need to actually ask them what they’ve done to the place once they fully regain conscious,” Discord said.

Twilight glanced back, noting the disoriented and sickly expressions each changeling bore. She shuddered. “I agree. We don’t even know where Celestia and Luna are.”

“I can’t imagine they’re too far. Chrysalis would have needed them to control the sun and moon.”

“…Or just Celestia. Who knows what happened to Luna?”

Discord snapped his fingers after a moment of thought. “True. That’s very true.”

Twilight cleared her throat. “Anyway, about that portal that you opened up... How in Equestria did you do that?”

Discord blinked and lowered himself to the ground. The rest of the procession passed him by. “Oh, ohhhhhh!” He chuckled. “You mean this?” he said, snapping his fingers and prompting a hole to appear. A ring of energy clamped down on its border.

Through it, Twilight saw Ponyville in the distance. More so, she saw her own castle. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “That! You just made a portal back home!”

Discord shrugged. “What can I say?”

“When did you learn to do that?”

The other five trotted up at that moment, dividing their attention between the portal and the procession. Their frowns deepened with the former.

“Oh, you see,” Discord began, “I was just going to rip holes to other dimensions like I normally do. But since you’ve taken me through two portals now, I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I can do it like that?’ And so I did it.”

Twilight hit herself in the face with her hoof and sighed. “Okay, Discord. That’s really really nice. And it would have been useful earlier. Do you realize the time we could have saved?”

“Agreed!” Rarity exclaimed. “We wouldn’t have had to spend allll this time searching for new portals!”

Discord reeled. “Oh! Well, you see, that’s just it. I only know how to go to places we’ve already been. Or, rather, I’ve already been. I don’t know how to get to those timelines you haven’t visited yet.”

Applejack groaned. “Whatever. Ya reckon ya can teach us the spell so we can do it ourselves? That’ll make this a heck of a lot easier.”

Discord tapped his chin, humming thoughtfully. He slowly rolled over in the air. Discord teleported near Twilight but kept his claw to his chin, continuing to hum. He listed some more. And then Discord nodded.

He then poked Twilight’s forehead, causing her to stumble backward. He then floated into the air. “Congratulations, Twilight Sparkle, you now know how to make portals.”

Twilight glanced up at her forehead, batted at it a few times, and then said, “Blegh. What? That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Twilight gasped for words. “…I thought there’d be more to it than that! I mean… Sure, okay. Yes, I know it—”

“Which, let’s be honest, you’re the only one here besides me that can actually do it,” Discord added.

“That wasn’t how I expected you to teach me.”

“Twilight, if I can corrupt ponies with the touch of a finger,” he said, shooting Fluttershy an apologetic look, “then learning you a spell is nothing. Really.” He inspected his claw for dirt. “Besides, it lets us skip an entire training sequence. Saves on the word count. You know how it is.”

The six ponies exchanged glances and, one by one, shrugged.

* * *

Sunset Shimmer emerged on the other side of the portal, wobbling for a moment as her human feet hit concrete. Her insides still felt like they were twisting, but it was mild at best. That sensation quickly disappeared, just like it did every other time she had recently gone through the portal. She glanced up at the school, adjusted her leather jacket (which, thankfully, topped her gentler blueish ensemble), and then strode across the front lawn.

An entire conversation played out in her head, and with everything she said wrong, her heart beat faster. The conversation played again but with fewer mistakes. Her fingers jittered by the time she climbed the steps and curled her hands around the door handle. Taking a deep breath, Sunset entered Canterlot High.

The shiny blue floors and yellow plaster walls, shades of Wondercolt colors, were nothing new. The hanging banners bearing a stallion’s head, the trophy case housing meager ribbons and trophies, and even the rotunda above were all things she could see even with her eyes closed.

But this isn’t my school, she thought.

She passed into the halls, noting the lockers lining both sides. Her eyes glanced over those and onto the small strips of bare wall, finding familiar cracks and discolorations. She smirked.

She rounded a corner to find Micro Chips in front of his open locker, his face buried in a laptop. Against her every volition to greet him, Sunset kept her mouth shut as she passed. Even then, he glanced up and then backed into the lockers, protectively clutching his hardware. He stared her down even way after she cleared him.

There we go.

She jammed her hands into her jacket pockets and stormed onward.

She eventually reached the main office and went right in. Without stopping to see who was there, if anyone was there at all, she turned and marched up to Principal Celestia’s door. She grabbed the handle, paused, and then knocked instead.

When the voice on the other side beckoned for her to enter, Sunset finally went through. “Principal Celestia,” she said.

Principal Celestia shut the folder that she had been looking in and set it on her desk. “Sunset Shimmer. What can I do for you?”

Sunset closed the door behind her, stepped forward, and placed her hands on the chair. For a moment, her eyes drifted toward the walls. Most were just decorations, but four pictures on the wall, all of herself, caught her eyes. The first three were familiar; her crownings at the Fall Formals. The first was innocent enough, the second more haughty and smug, and the third mad with power.

The final picture was new. The girl in the picture looked as gussied up as ever, but her expression was far more subdued. Almost crestfallen, even. Sunset had looked in the mirror enough times, especially in those dark months after the Fall Formal, that she learned how to see past her own smile.

“Principal Celestia,” Sunset began, “there are some… very big things going on that I need to talk about.”

“Well, Sunset, might I suggest our counselor?” Celestia asked, her frown deepening.

“Erm, that won’t work. I need to talk to you. You’re going to want to hear about this.” Sunset paused and smiled. “Actually, not just you. Could you… do me a favor?”

“That depends.”

“I need you to call some people down here,” she said. “It’s… just as much for them, too.” She then rattled off some names.

Celestia’s hand hovered over the button for the intercom, but she did not press it. “Sunset, can this wait until after school?”

Sunset shook her head.

With a shrug, she pushed the button and leaned into the microphone. “Attention, will the following students please report to the principal’s office, please: Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie. Thank you.”

A minute passed by, during which Sunset returned to the last portrait again. She glanced at her own worn features. No doubt a face that had seen what Equestria had become. No doubt a face that needed help.

“There’s one more I’d like you to call, actually, Principal Celestia,” Sunset said. “I want you to call me to the office too.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

“Me. Call me to the office with that intercom.” She paused. “Trust me.”

Celestia rolled her eyes and pressed the button. “Sunset Shimmer, please report to the principal’s office.”


Sunset heard a click, and then the door opened.

Applejack stepped into the room. “Principal Celestia,” she said, before spotting Sunset and giving her the stink eye. “…Sunset.”

Pinkie Pie entered soon afterward, going through similar motions. Then Rarity arrived, giving everyone save Celestia a mean look.

Sunset crossed her arms and sized the others up, noting how darker their palettes appeared compared to her friends. Fluttershy crept into the room shortly afterward, not even making a peep to acknowledge the others.

Rainbow Dash marched into the room, and while she edged away from Sunset, an almost giddy smirk remained on her face. “What’s up, Principal Celestia?”

Celestia shrugged. “Sunset?”

All eyes turned to her. The five of them, whose faces she would love to see on any other day, drilled holes into her soul. Sunset swallowed. “Well… here’s the thing. It’s just as I was telling Principal Celestia… that there are some big things going on right now.”

Sunset heard another click, and she smirked. “Some of them… you might never understand.”

The door opened again, and one more girl, dressed in attire bearing the large image of a sun, stepped through. “You wanted to see me, Principal Celes…” The words died in the other Sunset Shimmer’s throat as she paused in the doorway, her hand still gripping the handle.

Celestia slowly rose from her seat. Her chair complained as her movement pushed it back. The others stood by, steadying themselves against cabinets. Their jaws dropped, their bodies shivered. Glances shifted between the Sunset in the room and the other Sunset in the doorway, and with each glance, their colors paled even more.

The other Sunset stared back, all words lost.

Sunset took in their reactions and shook her head. “…This is one of those things.” She then whirled around to face her double and motioned for the open chair. “Please, have a seat. We have a difficult conversation to get through.”

7 - Refraction II

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Starlight Glimmer stared at the ornate doors at the end of the tunnel and shifted her saddlebag into a more comfortable position. Even then, it dug into her coat. She eyed the bulging depictions of beings likely long-extinct. She noticed a spherical depression in the center where both doors met, conspicuously empty.

Twilight said we might find a crystal ball wedged in there if one existed, Starlight thought. Looks like somepony beat us to it.

“So, it does exist…” Princess Celestia trailed off, trotted up behind Starlight. “All this time, this place lay right below us…”

Princess Luna joined her sister. “Indeed. To think, we art so deep within the earth. ’Tis truly remarkable. We should hope that Discord’s rampage hath not touched it.”

“The one from our world didn’t know about this place either, Your Highnesses,” Starlight said. “I don’t think they did.”

The doors creaked and groaned. Dust streamed down from every point as the doors rumbled and shook and slid apart.

“I would hope not,” Celestia said. “If we are to help those ponies that you spoke of… then, hopefully, their effects are still intact.”

Luna snorted. “Perhaps we may find their queens.”

Starlight shuddered. “Or maybe we’ll find all the ponies that they took. …I kinda hope we’ll find them.”

The three stepped forward as the doors sank into the walls and finally clicked into place. A large, pink barrier filled the entire opening just behind the door’s grooves. Several structures, both large and small, caught their eyes from beyond. Starlight licked her lips contemplatively and then cast a spell that placed a magic aura around their noses. One by one, they stepped through the barrier and into the chamber itself. Once inside, they gasped.

Large, wooden structures filled the interior chamber, reaching from floor to ceiling, sporting catwalks and even the occasional small shack, all supported by large, wooden pillars. Tarps and small pieces of debris covered the massive rings on the floor. Several cauldrons dotted the room, placed more frequently than Starlight had seen in the cavern. She could practically feel the unstew vapors nipping at her coat.

Starlight narrowed her eyes and looked more carefully, spotting dark lumps amongst the balconies and terraces, slowly undulating on their sides. While most of the onyx-colored unponies looked asleep—although through troubled expressions—some bore giant cracks in their bodies. Some unponies had only small cracks to speak of, but others had deeper runs along every inch of their bodies.

The occasional mound of black sand broke that pattern and, at each one, Starlight cringed, her grinding of teeth becoming more audible.

“By the stars!” Luna exclaimed. “These poor creatures!”

Celestia shifted uncomfortably. “There are so many…” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “To think all of this suffering has gone on and I was never aware of it…”

“We must do something!” Luna exclaimed.

Starlight saw one of the lumps move. She then realized that the unmare, who lay several yards away from her on a tarp, bore several deep cracks along the length of her body. In fact, like a sand sculpture that had been left to the elements, entire shapes were missing from her. Several small mounds circled around the fallen unmare, all remnants of her fallen parts.

And the unmare stared back at her. The unicorn, flat on her side, tried to make a sound, but found no wind to speak of, containing whatever words she wanted to her lips. She tried to lift one of her forelegs, but that shook and eventually fell limp. The only thing left was her pleading eyes, fully wet yet somehow dry and lifeless.

Starlight stomached some bile and averted her gaze. “There’s… nothing we can do. Not yet.”

Luna whirled around. “Nonsense! Look at them!” she exclaimed, pointing toward the pleading unmare.

Starlight wiped a tear from her eyes. “…I know. They have the unstew. That’s…” she paused to sniffle, “the best thing they can have right now.”

Celestia frowned, glancing around once more. “…It would appear that we must continue looking.”

The three pressed further into the chamber. Starlight levitated herself onto some catwalks above, and the sisters flew after her.

They immediately came to a small hut and ducked through some hanging cloth that served as a doorway. They found large quantities of produce bundled on shelf after shelf. Basil here, cucumbers there, and several herbs and spices that she couldn’t recognize.

A table took up the hut’s center, containing a listing of the shack’s stock as well as some memos on needed items and brewing schedules.

“They must make unstew here,” Starlight said, pushing some of the memos aside.

Celestia examined some of them herself and then pointed to it. “This, here, is this a recipe?”

Starlight quickly read it over and nodded, stashing it in her saddlebag. “Yeah. We’ll probably want to make a copy of this. Maybe it’s a little better than what we already have.”

Luna nodded and dipped out of the hut. “Good. If there art nothing else, let us press on.”

They trotted further into the lattice, ascending several more floors and teetering across thin planks of wood that served as catwalks. They stepped around the occasional sleeping unpony, careful not to make any sounds.

They eventually arrived on a large, circular terrace, positioned just under the highest point in the hemispherical ceiling. The wood creaked as they came to a stop. Several portals floated before them, all the size of Celestia herself, each teasing other versions of the chamber. While the energy flow within the walls on the other sides remained the same, the structures were, at first glance, different.

“I guess that’s how they’ve been getting around, too,” Starlight said.

The princesses crept up toward one of them, eying them closely. “These art the dimensional doorways that thou spokest of?” Luna stuttered.

Starlight crept up to another portal nearby and stuck her head through it, taking a quick glance around. The version on the other side had a different set of structures in it (Starlight noted the hut they had just visited in her current chamber was not in this alternate chamber). “Yes,” she said, glancing further around.

She then noticed a posting board at the edge of the alternate version’s terrace which contained a few notes. Humming to herself, she backed out and glanced around the side of the portal and found the same posting board in her version too. She trotted up to that and glanced at the diagrams.

There was a map of the terrace, denoting each corresponding portal with a single letter. “C, T, I, S, and N…” she read aloud. Atop it, a large letter D titled the map.

Beside it hung a scroll lined with magic symbols. Starlight could tell that they were spells but, on closer inspection, they appeared incomplete. Perhaps they were additional instructions or, considering the portal hub they stood in, addresses. There, she found two more letters: R and W.

I’ll need to get this to Twilight, she thought. She snagged the list and placed that in her saddlebag. “So, there’s a map here of where those go,” she announced, pointing at the portals. “I don’t know what the letters are for. I guess they’re designators. Something like that. But that’s about all I know.”

Celestia trotted over to another portal. “You said that the alternate timelines on the other sides were in similar predicaments like ours. I would assume, for the moment, that they aren’t safe.”

Luna nodded. “We would agree. Perhaps, just for the time being, we should keep only to our own reality.”

Starlight nodded. “That’s okay! It’s a lot, I know. I’m still grateful that you’re willing to help us with this. Especially after what you’ve been through just surviving Discord.”

“Most of our troops are out securing the rest of Equestria,” Celestia replied. “I am sure it will take some time to calm the citizens down, especially those that… may have lost their minds through those chaotic times.”

Starlight cringed but kept silent.

“But we can certainly save some for your cause,” Celestia continued. “It is the least we can do for you, after all.” She glanced down toward the cluster of unponies. “And especially for these poor souls.”

“We shall let you know if we find anything, Starlight Glimmer,” Luna seconded. “Go forth, do what thy must in those other timelines. We will make do here.”

Starlight grinned. “I sure will.”

* * *

“Who am I?” Sunset replied when asked. She glanced around the room and smirked. “Yeah. I’m her,” she said, pointing to her double, “and she’s me.”

“That don’t make no sense,” Applejack gasped.

Sunset shrugged. “Honestly, I really don’t know how much of this is going to make sense. Although,” she thought aloud, “I’m getting better at it, since this is the third time I’ve had this conversation.”

Principal Celestia leaned across her desk. “…I’m sorry?”

Sunset glanced around, gauged their confused frowns, and blushed. “Um, nothing. Nothing.”

“Where did you come from?” the other Sunset stammered, gripping the armrests.

Sunset cleared her throat. “Right. I’ll give you the basics. So… I’m, well, we’re from a faraway place called Equestria. There’s… a portal to Equestria in the base of the statue on the front lawn.”

The other Sunset shifted uncomfortably in her seat, gripping the armrests even tighter.

Sunset grinned and leaned against the desk. “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I managed to open it manually. And that’s why it’s possible for me to be here.”

“T-that’s just crazy talk,” Applejack said.

“I’m going to prove it before I leave,” Sunset replied.

Celestia glanced back and forth between the two Sunsets and folded her arms together. “I will want to see it.”

Sunset nodded. “I won’t take you through it, but I can show that it works. The place it goes to, Equestria, isn’t like this world. It’s filled with magical creatures.”

Pinkie Pie raised her hand. “Like dragons?”

Sunset snapped her fingers. “Yeah, we have lots of those. And griffons. Most of all, there are ponies, which are what her and I actually are.”

Rainbow Dash blinked and shook her head. “Wait wait wait… Sunset Shimmer is a pony!?”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. The portal has a transformation spell in it. We’re humans here, yes, but there… we are ponies.”

“That’s… kinda awesome!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, throwing her hands into the air.

The other Sunset shot out of her chair. “Okay, that’s enough,” she seethed, getting into Sunset’s face. “I don’t know what gave you the bright idea to come in here and try to slander me,” she said, shooting Celestia a look, “but I’m not going to sit there and let you say these crazy things. Seriously… Other worlds filled with ponies? Portals? Magic? Give me a break.”

Sunset snorted and crossed her arms in response.

The other Sunset smirked, looking at Sunset down her nose. “Thankfully, I’ll let you off easy. So… why don’t you go ahead and trot on back to whatever insane asylum you happened to escape from, m’kay?”

Sunset snorted and grinned in return. “…I like how you’re trying to discredit me. Hey, just prove that I don’t exist while you’re at it.” She held a hand to her ear, “Come on, I’d love to hear you explain me.”

The other Sunset raised a finger into the air and breathed in to speak, but nothing came out. She stood, flabbergasted, even as all eyes turned to her.

“Oh!” Sunset gasped, “I just realized. There’re changelings in Equestria. Maybe I’m a changeling. That would explain everything, right? Since changelings exist.” She flicked her ear again. “Come on, lemme hear you say it just once.”

The other Sunset blinked, looking dumbstruck.

Sunset shrugged. “Nothing? Really? Someone so practiced as you has nothing?” she asked. After a few moments of silence, she snorted and shoved the other Sunset back into the chair. “Sit down.”

The other girls covered their gasps and glanced at each other, stifling giggles.

Celestia narrowed her eyes. “Sunset Shimmer… is it true?”

The other Sunset shrunk down in her chair, laying her hands on her skirt. After a few moments, she meekly nodded.

Applejack adjusted her stetson. “Well, Ah’ll be…”

“Um… yay?” Fluttershy offered.

“This is… making my head spin,” Rarity wheezed, feeling for a fever.

“That’s not all I’ve got,” Sunset said, crossing her arms. “You’re… probably wondering why the five of you are here too. Right?”

Rarity narrowed her eyes. “With these lying ruffians? Why Sunset, I’d loooove to hear it.”

Applejack slammed her hands against Celestia’s desk, glaring Rarity down. “Lyin’!? Why you prissy little—”

“Girls!” Celestia thundered. “I will not have this behavior in my office!”

Sunset nodded. “Thank you, Principal Celestia. Actually… that’s just it. And I… have a confession to make on her behalf,” she said, pointing to her counterpart.

Rainbow Dash crossed her arms and snorted. “Yeah?”

The other Sunset sunk further into her seat.

“You used to be such good friends,” Sunset said, “and then some things drove you apart.”

She stopped a moment to glare at her counterpart and then pointed to Pinkie Pie. “You supposedly got a text from Fluttershy asking for a big party at her animal shelter, where… you, Fluttershy, didn’t like that she ruined your silent auction. Right?”

The two shared shocked glances.

“Or e-mails refusing your help with party decorating, Rarity?” Sunset continued.

Rarity gasped.

Sunset pointed to Rainbow Dash. “You got a message saying the bake sale had been moved to another day.” She turned to Applejack and snorted. “She showed up with the entire softball team, Applejack.”

“I…” Pinkie Pie began, pulling at her hair, “I thought…”

Fluttershy scratched her head. “I never sent you any texts like that…”

“You never moved the bake sale?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Applejack solemnly shook her head.

Rarity fell back into the cabinets with a frown. “That’s…” she murmured, massaging her temples.

Sunset glanced at each of them and sucked in a breath. “And it was me.”

The room paused. The five slowly turned to her, blinking incredulously. The other Sunset shivered in her seat, balling her hands into fists. Principal Celestia narrowed her eyes and leaned across her desk.

“I’m… really good at ripping friendships apart,” Sunset said. “That’s how I’ve stayed on top. I’ve destroyed countless relationships since I’ve arrived.”

Celestia sucked in a breath. “I don’t believe it…”

The other Sunset glanced up at a picture frame on the opposite wall, showing twelve students flanked by both principals. While most stifled cheerful smiles, some holding onto the gold medals around their necks, one, herself, smugly grinned from in front of them.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that in a thousand years,” Celestia continued, “especially not after—”

“I ‘lead’ the team to victory?” Sunset interrupted, complete with air-quotes. She snorted and crossed her arms. “That only happened because of that Crystal Prep girl who blew it during the archery portion of the Games.” She shuddered, hung her head, and whimpered, “I don’t even want to know what’s happened to her since.”

She then looked toward the five and rested her hands in her jacket pockets. “But… anyway, I just wanted you to know. So that… maybe you could put all that behind you. Maybe you could be friends again. Maybe you could even show her a better way.”

“I don’t understand,” the other Sunset interrupted, pounding the armrest. “What gives? Why are you here?”

Sunset nodded. “Well, you see, a few friends and I are working on a problem. It’s too big for just us. I mean, yeah… I did want to set things right with you. And I’m sorry if I had to come and break you down first. But trust me, there’s a much better way than what you’ve been doing. But… I also want to recruit you.” She leaned forward. “I want to take you back to Equestria for a while.”

The other Sunset stared back in silence, glaring holes into Sunset. With every inch Sunset leaned forward, the other Sunset leaned back. Her scowl deepened with each breath, before she finally turned away. “I can’t go back.”

“Why not?”

The other Sunset snarled. “I’m going to guess that you’ve seen Equestria already since you so pompously mentioned changelings. I mean,” she said, turning back, “are you for real!?”

“We already took care of that.”

The other Sunset opened her mouth to say something but ended up tilting her head inquisitively instead. “I’m… what?”

“We took care of Chrysalis and her changelings already.”

The other Sunset blinked, trying to get any sort of word out. “…How?” she croaked after a few moments.

“We have some advantages…” Sunset said. She leaned in close. “Yeah, Chrysalis was running around Equestria for years. And we stopped them in the time that it takes to you watch a TV show.”

The other Sunset blinked, letting her mouth hang open. She chuckled in disbelief.

“We’re working on something else now. It’s pretty complicated…” Sunset said, swallowing, “and I’ll need your help with it.”

“Even after all that? It sounds to me like you steamrolled Chrysalis. Seriously.”

Sunset grinned. “I’ve defeated evil sirens, and I’ve soloed a girl who went mad with sudden power… and I’ve even brought back the dead.”

The whole room jumped and then fell into a deathly silence. Even the other Sunset blinked several times, trying to wrap her head around it.

Sunset shook her head. “Even after all that… I can’t do this.”

The other Sunset swallowed and shifted in her seat. “…So. You run in here, completely demolish everything that I’ve built… You honestly expect me to help you?”

Sunset placed her hands on her double’s shoulders, locking eye contact with her. “Listen to me… this isn’t some academic test anymore. It’s not some sort of beauty pageant that you can win for four years straight.” She sucked in a breath. “There are… lives… thousands of lives... on the line.” She tightened her grip, trying to fight her dismayed expression.

The rest of the room silently gasped and then held their breath.

“They’re depending on my friends,” she continued, “and they’re depending on me. I know you can help me with them. Now… I’m no princess. I gave that up a while ago, mostly. But I know that’s something you still want. Sunset… me… I am asking you to serve. I am asking you to do what any princess worth their title would do.”

For the first time, Sunset Shimmer truly regarded her foreign counterpart. She kept silent, her only response to periodically blink and remain staring into Sunset’s eyes. She sat up in her seat, pursing her lips over and over again. Finally, after what seemed like a full minute, she inhaled to speak.

* * *

The overgrowth covered the ruin’s misplaced stones like a coating of paint, giving a splash of green and brown to what should have been a dull gray. Much of the roof was missing but the walls still stood together. A pair of wooden double doors sat in their frame. The rest of the Everfree Forest surrounded it, with the most immediate trees still standing.

“I don’t think Tirek has been here,” Twilight announced as she pushed one of the doors open with her magic.

The six stepped through, arriving in a decent-sized room. A tall tower, connected to the far end of the room, stood over them like a sentinel. Much of the window framework and even the glass within remained.

But a complex contraption took up the center of the room: a marble pillar topped by a large, spherical object. The overgrowth gave said sphere the look of hair. Five arms jutted out from the base, each holding spheres of their own.

Pinkie Pie hurled herself onto one of them. “Oooooh, Elements! How I missed you!”

“Good call, Twilight,” Applejack said, playfully punching her friend in the side.

Rarity walked forward, levitating one of the balls down to her level. “Indeed. It makes me wonder if we’d find the Elements in those other timelines too.”

Twilight giggled. She focused some magic into her horn and two portals appeared, one right next to the other. They each showed the same area, but one of them lacked the elementary structure.

Rainbow Dash stuck her head through that one and snorted. “Yeah, sure. Discord would have hidden those things.”

Fluttershy pointed at the other one which had the structure. “Chrysalis wouldn’t have known about them. That’s why they are still there.”

Twilight stroked her chin and considered the Elements as she floated a couple more down to ground level. “Well, we are two for three, at least.”

Pinkie Pie rolled over, taking her ball with her. “We’d have to ask Nightmare Moon—I mean Luna from Equestria N about what she did with hers.”

Twilight paused and then closed the two portals with her magic. “…Yes. Once we find a way into Sombra’s timeline and Flim and Flam’s, we’ll be able to check on those too,” she said.

“Humph,” Rarity said, “jury is still out for now.”

“Ah reckon we oughta get these back to the Tree of Harmony soon,” Applejack said.

As Fluttershy arranged the balls into a circle, she nodded. “I agree.”

She jumped when the balls lit up and backpedaled when those rose into the air. The other five gasped as magical auras, each a different color, enveloped each ball. Said gasps became elated cries when said balls dispersed and settled into orbits around each of them sans Twilight.

A white light blinded them from above and, from that, a sixth ball floated down, this time joining Twilight. She turned, grinning from each to ear.

The balls exploded, morphing into complex shapes that couldn’t be made out past their incredible brightness. Those shapes wriggled into long strands which then latched onto their necks before finally settling into ornate necklaces, each with gems in the shape of their cutie marks in the center. Twilight’s stone did much of the same but instead formed into a tiara atop her head.

Finally, the lights faded out and the six were left to the quiet castle walls once more. They stood in silence, admiring their new trinkets.

Twilight giggled before turning to the others. “I guess the Elements have other plans. Girls?”

After a few moments of silence, during which their smiles grew, Rainbow Dash stepped forward with a mischievous grin. “Hey, anypony else thinking what I’m thinking?”

* * *

Twilight dug into the dirt. On the other side of the portal, Lord Tirek shot high-power beams into the ground, throwing up wooden shrapnel and uprooted bush. He punched the earth, threw up debris, ripped trees from the ground and hurled them through the air, and committed other crimes against the Everfree that would have made King Aspen’s blood boil. The centaur’s expression remained focused yet bored. His fists remained clenched as he cut swaths through the landscape. The mid-afternoon sky found itself clouded by thrown-up dust and debris.

They were too far away for him to notice. They were too far away for their Elements to reach.

Not a problem. Twilight flared her horn, the portal snapped shut, and with that, the image of Tirek disappeared. She turned to the others. “Come on,” she said.

Rainbow Dash banged her hooves together and flew ahead. “Let’s kick his butt already! Move it or lose it!”

The six walked further into the Everfree, stepping over trees roots here and there. The vines kept their distance, content to idly sway. Their sky, in contrast to what had been through the portal, appeared an unmarred blue.

Twilight counted her steps, internalizing her distance. The crystal ball floated behind her, ready to speak up if she went too far.

After a few minutes, Twilight opened the portal again. A laser beam cut close to the aperture, shooting chunks of broken twigs and sheets of earth through which Twilight deflected with a quick shield. Together, the six of them stepped through.

Tirek stared down at them. His sheer size cast shadows over each of them even at the distance he stood at. His head alone was as big as a pony. He snorted, fogging his nose-ring. “What is this?” he thundered.

“Tirek,” Twilight replied. She then closed her eyes, channeling energy into her tiara.

The others followed suit as a magic aura enveloped the six of them. The necklaces glowed, as did Twilight’s tiara.

Tirek narrowed his eyes. “Are you puny ponies trying to challenge me?” he roared, his voice shaking the landscape.

When he received no response, an orb of sickly orange energy appeared between his long horns and he shot a beam at them. It swallowed them, but Tirek kept shooting.

Several lights shot out of Tirek’s beam, aiming in his direction. A lightning bolt, a balloon, a butterfly. Tirek dodged a gem and an apple and ducked underneath a star. “What!?”

His energy beam split at the seams and Tirek ended it entirely. As more lights shot toward him, his eyes went wide as he saw all six ponies untouched by his attack. Their glow grew and grew and together they rose off the ground.

“No! That’s not possible!” he exclaimed.

Twilight’s eyes shot open, revealing a pure-white expanse. The ground quaked and rocked as a rainbow appeared, swirling around the six before whipping into a vortex. That rainbow then shot into the air with a crack. It arced straight into Tirek, scooping him into its vortex before he could so much as turn to flee. Instead, he cried out in fright.

Twilight smirked, allowing the Elements to move her in whichever way they deemed fit.

They moved to crush. The rainbow crunched down and Tirek screamed as it squeezed several layers of magic out of his body. His stature diminished with each wave of magic that left him until he was scrawny, small, and considerably duller in color.

The Elements shifted, now done with him, and curled those expulsed energies into a tight ball before blowing it all apart and spreading it in all directions. The Elements, now hanging above the trees, remained in place, directing the energies to return to their former hosts.

And Tirek lay discarded on the forest floor below. He grunted and groaned, rolling onto his back. He stared up at them through blurred eyes, tried to reach toward them but fell short by many lengths, before he fell unconscious.

* * *

Applejack kicked an empty can into an already grown pile and then kicked some dirt onto it. She spat on it for good measure. Finally, she returned to the others.

The six of them looked at the several large facilities in the distance, each spewing black gasses from several tall smokestacks into the polluted air. While it didn’t cover all of Equestria from the looks of it, they still found themselves gagging at its intoxicating blackness. A Flim Flam Industries banner hung from the side of one of the larger buildings.

Most trees in the area they stood in were no longer anything more than stumps. From what they could see, the rest of the Everfree was likely in the same bulldozed and, based on the garbage lying about, trashed condition.

About a few feet away from them lay a table made of crystal. While nothing displayed on it, it bore a similar-enough design to the Cutie Map to convince them that it was exactly that. The question on everypony’s mind, then, was why it was inoperable. Pockmarks in the dirt immediately around it told of abandoned attempts to dig it out.

Fluttershy sniffled. “This is making me cry… thinking about all those poor, homeless animals…”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Have you even seen the sky, Fluttershy? It’s a disaster!”

“I don’t know if this is something we can just hit with the Rainbow Power, girls,” Twilight finally said.

“No, you can’t,” the crystal ball concurred. “Not that I have actually tried it or anything. Actually, I’ve been working on this very world over the past few days. That is when I’m not helping you out, of course.”

Twilight nodded. “Any luck with that?”

“We’re making progress. It’s not difficult… but it’s not easy either.”

Twilight placed a hoof to her chin and hummed thoughtfully.

Applejack trotted up and draped a hoof across Twilight’s withers. “Ya reckon we oughta come back on this one?”

Twilight nodded. “I think so.”

“The portal to Equestria S is two hundred yards to your nine o’clock,” Twilight’s voice said. “Once you go through that, you’ll be able to open portals to anywhere.”

“Besides that dreadful wasteland that I keep hearing about,” Rarity added.

“Yes, besides that.”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “Then let’s go kick Sombra’s butt! I wanna go end a war already!”

Twilight scratched her head. “It’s been a while since I was there, so I don’t know how the war has progressed…” She paused, and then turned to them with a cunning smile. “But since we’re near Ponyville… I know just the pony to ask about that.”

* * *

“Yeah, Ah remember ya,” Applejack said, adjusting her hairnet. “Last time ya showed up, you showed me some weird table thing that Ah’d never seen before.”

Twilight nodded, knowing that the Applejack before her was not her Applejack, but rather an Applejack playing her part in the war against King Sombra.

Applejack sighed and hung her head. “Ah guess ya didn’t fix things after all.”

“Actually, that’s exactly why we came here,” Twilight began, raising her voice over the canning machinery. She watched some apples fall into a boiling pot out of the corner of her eyes. “We’re here to put a stop to it.”

Applejack kicked a small piece of trash underneath the machinery. “Well, that’s mighty nice, but…” She paused. “Ya brought others?”

Five mares walked through the barn’s open door and approached from behind Twilight. The Applejack in front of her went wide-eyed and took a few steps back.

Applejack—Twilight’s Applejack—smiled. “Howdy, pard’ner.”


“I brought my best friends with me,” Twilight answered.

“Hello,” Rarity said, waving.

The other Applejack swallowed, glanced between each of them, especially her double and then, eventually, Twilight herself. “Well, Ah’ll be… Ah honestly thought you might have been plum makin’ crazy talk the last time you came here. Ah mean, you done showed me that thing outside Ponyville and all, but still…”

Applejack chuckled. “Ah know, it’s mighty confusin’.” She stepped forward and wrapped a foreleg around her double’s withers. “But we’re here now and we’re gunna stop that war real quick. We just gotta know what all’s goin’ on with it first.”

The other Applejack thought it over then nodded “Aw’right. Ah reckon she mighta told y’all about it. Since you were here last… There was some gigantic push to take some magic relic from him. Turns out he’d been hidin’ it at the top of his castle.”

“You mean the Crystal Heart?” Rarity asked.

The other Applejack jammed her hoof toward Rarity. “Yeah, Ah reckon that’s what it’s called. They mighta turned things around if they’d gotten that. Ah heard they even got in there. But…” she sighed, “they never made it out. King Sombra’s been gainin’ a lot of ground since. He might make it to Canterlot soon, Ah hear.” She trembled, and her expression grew troubled. “If that’s true… it might be the end of the war for us.”

“But he still might be in that area right now, right?” Fluttershy asked.

The other Applejack nodded.

Applejack adjusted her stetson. “Twi?”

Twilight stroked her chin. And then she levitated some papers and a quill out of her saddlebag. Instructions for the portal spell that Discord had taught her filled half of them. She began writing on the other half, copying much of the first. “There is something I want to try. It involves splitting the apertures so that each end can be in different locations, as opposed to how it is now. Which means…” she trailed off thoughtfully. “Hmmm, I will need to account for spacetime distortions there…”

Rainbow Dash scratched her head. “Huh?”

“I’m making a modification to it. It will take a lot more energy to open, so just to be safe, we could power this portal with the Rainbow Power,” Twilight said. After a few more moments to mull it over, she added, “And we’ll have a nice backup plan. Plus, it will probably be useful later on.”

Twilight finished her modified copy of the spell and tucked everything back into her saddlebag. She stood in silence for a few moments before opening a portal to another timeline. She turned to the others with a smirk. “So, now for step two… Let’s go put on a Crystal Faire.”

8 - Existential I

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Zecora blew a pile of dust off her hoof, coating Basalt in a green, glittery substance. He blinked several times to get it out of his eyes.

The dust settled onto his coat as well as into several deep cracks in his midsection, some deep enough that they almost ran through to the other side. The back of his tail was gone, and his muzzle slowly crumbled like the rest of his body.

Sunburst trotted up, levitating forth a plate with a fully loaded albeit slightly burned hayburger. “Here, eat this,” he said, offering it.

Basalt wheezed in response and took the plate in his mouth. He slunk back toward a mattress on which another unpony, with deeper cracks than himself, slept soundlessly. He sat down and quietly ate. His worn expression remained unchanged the whole time.

Sunburst knelt down and picked up a small, rock-like piece from where Basalt had just been standing. It was the same color as Basalt’s coat and even had some hints of its consistency. Sunburst regarded it with a troubled frown before he levitated it over to Zecora for her to see. She solemnly shook her head.

Zecora and Sunburst intently watched Basalt for a few moments before exiting the room. Zecora’s living room sported the usual wooden masks and vials and jars and even a cauldron containing some unstew, but now mountains of books also lay scattered about the room. Thick tomes and dissertations took up an entire wall. Sunburst picked up an open book and continued from the page he had left off on.

Zecora sighed and picked a random book off the pile. She spent several minutes flipping from page to page, line by line. Her jaw occasionally twitched when she ran into unfamiliar concepts, and the further along she went, the more often it happened. Eventually, the pages ran out, and she set that book on top of a neat and orderly stack before moving onto the next book. While she had learned a few things, she wouldn’t claim to understand unicorn magic.

Sunburst eventually finished his own book and levitated over a couple of ingredients from a nearby shelf. The right mixture of these two would make something useful, that much he knew. He wouldn’t say that he completely understood a shaman’s work, but he had learned some things. There were some other herbs that he could mix in, but they had since run out of those.

“Maybe I designed the spell matrix wrong…” he wondered aloud.

Zecora glanced up from her reading and swallowed. “We have yet to see any effect. At least, as far as I can detect. But I very much doubt that it is you. After all, we made this out of unstew.”

Sunburst sighed. “She did say that unstew wasn’t completely adequate.”

“They grow worse by the moment. Before long, they will both be spent!”

The two sat in silence for a few long moments, pondering their options.

“I’m trying to think of what else there is,” he said.

“Perhaps that remote quality is behind this,” she replied.

“Do you think that’s what’s in play here?”

“You know as well that’s not so clear.”

Sunburst hummed and briefly returned to his book. He skipped a few pages, took a glimpse at the end, briefly dove into the middle of another book, and then sighed. “Because I’m thinking that if we have to interface with that part that we can’t reach, then we’re just wasting our time.”

Zecora groaned, slapping her face with her hoof. “Hii ni mwendawazimu!” she cried.

They heard an airy pop outside, and a few moments later, the front door opened. Discord ducked through the opening, his features drawn and furrowed in a furtive frown.

Sunburst frowned. “Discord.”

“Sunburst,” Discord said, “Zecora. Do you have any news for me? Because I have news for you.”

“I am glad that you have asked for a report,” Zecora answered. “But I’m afraid that we have nothing of the sort.”

Sunburst shook his head. “We’ve tried everything we could think of. We’re even cross-referencing each other. But every bit of magic we try keeps flopping around like they’ve collided with a magic spell.”

“Twilight described that in much the same way, but other than that, we’ve no more to say.”

Discord shut the door behind him and peered into the adjacent room, running his eyes over both unponies inside. With a short hum, he turned back to them. “That is a shame.”

“It might be that remote component that you discovered,” Sunburst said.

“Ah, but you see, I have been trying to look further into that. I’ve actually been rather curious about that fact ever since I discovered it,” Discord said. “I normally wouldn’t try to make sense of it, but it is fascinating. Anywho, I didn’t look at all of the unponies that came through from those other dimensions, so I looked through the remaining ones that Sunset Shimmer didn’t take with her. I didn’t find anything.”

Zecora nodded. “It is as we have been told. That is something we’ve yet to unfold.”

Discord crossed his arms. “Well, you see, that’s why I’m here. I then took a look at the unponies from our dimension, and I found something. Consistently, I might add.”

“…Oh? So?” Zecora asked, climbing to her hooves.

Discord swished his jaw in thought. “Yes. But honestly, I’m even more confused than I was before. This is a really extraordinary position to be in.”

Sunburst stood up.

Discord swallowed. “When I looked through the unponies of our dimension… and I tried to resolve whatever part of them is apparently located so remotely… I found Twilight Sparkle on the other end.”

Pinkamena Diane Pie parried another blow. Her foe, a crystal pony clad in heavy armor, stumbled back. Seeing the opening, Pinkamema lunged, delivering a rapid series of punches that would have pulverized a large boulder. The armor crumbled to dust, leaving the crystal mare underneath to collapse unconscious.

She snorted and glanced around the rest of the battlefield. Spells flew this way and that while pegasi dive-bombed from overhead. And yet the crystal ponies continued unabated, trading blows with whatever forces they could run into and dodging volleys from those they couldn’t.

And their blitz was gaining steam.

She glanced back at Canterlot, which sat atop its mountain not too far away. Then to Princess Celestia, now fitted with some heavy armor of her own, taking on several crystal pony soldiers nearby with more approaching.

Pinkamena looked forward, catching a glimpse of King Sombra. His dark visage alone was usually enough to cast a shadow over them, but now Sombra wielded what looked like a scythe. He swung it toward one group of Equestrian infantry, throwing them off balance. He launched a spell at another group, propelling them across the battlefield.

She’d been on the battlefield several times before, but she had yet to see him actually playing offense. It was like he wanted to battle to end. In fact, the whole battle had happened several weeks earlier than anypony was prepared for.

It was like Sombra wanted to end the war. Pinkamena narrowed her gaze, studying him as closely as she could, given her great distance.

King Sombra looked… spooked.

Had somepony finally managed to take the Crystal Heart?

Her entire body convulsed, knocking her off her hooves. Shudders upon shudders overtook her, shaking her from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail.

Maud Pie, her sister, rushed over while knocking a charging crystal pony away. Even covered in dirt, she remained as stoic as ever. “Are you okay?” she asked with a straight tone, helping Pinkamena to her hooves.

“A doozy, Maud! I’m sensing a doozy!” Pinkamena cried.

The two scoured the battlefield for anything that might look like a potential doozy. The battle was still young, Celestia was still dealing with some enemy soldiers, and Sombra was still dealing with allied soldiers.

“I sure hope the doozy isn’t Sombra killing Princess Celestia too and then ending the war,” Maud said.

Pinkamena swallowed. “Please, oh please, let it be something el—”

A loud roar erupted from overhead—and from behind them. She, Maud, and it seemed the rest of the battlefield stopped and turned to see a multicolored ring appear out of thin air, containing an image of some large, crystalline city. The ring expanded until it was easily the size of Canterlot Castle itself.

Several allies made pointed exclamations and others simply gasped. The enemies stood silently, watching it unfold. Even Princess Celestia herself looked with her jaw dropped.

“The Crystal Empire!” somepony exclaimed, sending another wave of gasps around.

The streets of the Crystal Empire through the portal glowed a hot blue hue, making out the pattern of a snowflake. In the very center, the gleaming crystalline castle stretched above the city, its tip pointed straight toward the aperture. From Pinkamena’s angle on the ground, it looked like the Crystal Empire was pointing right at them.

Her body shuddered again. The doozy!

No! No!” King Sombra’s guttural voice boomed over the landscape. “Impossible!”

A smaller portal opened up right beside the monolithic one. Pinkamena had just enough time to make out a small group of ponies coming through before the world lit up.

The Crystal Empire crackled and rumbled and the tip lit up before a bright, rainbow-like laser shot out of it, shooting straight into Sombra. He cried out as the charge exploded, shattering him into a million pieces. The shockwave blew several chunks of earth this way and that, and the very ground shook under the force.

From that came tendrils of every hue. Waves of energy washed over the battlefield, bathing everypony. The crystal ponies lost the ever-present green glow in their eyes and teetered to the ground. What they gained, however, was a certain sparkle to them. Neigh, everypony, ally and foe alike, sparkled like crystal. Several ponies jumped in awe, taking themselves in.

A few of the crystal ponies rose up and removed their helmets. They squinted and blinked, glancing around as if trying to make sense of where they were. Some approached their non-crystal counterparts, cautiously trying to determine if they were real or just another nightmare.

“Oh… Look, Maud!” Pinkamena gasped, glancing at her own crystal-like self, a definite contrast to her dirtied and dull uniform.

Maud nodded and glanced toward the portals. “What happened?”

The six ponies that Pinkamena had registered coming through the portal swooped over the battlefield at that moment. Rather, it was six ponies and a crystal ball.

“Sombra is down!” the crystal ball said. “I hope Radiant Hope is paying attention!”

The six of them, with gorgeous rainbow-like patterns on every inch of their bodies and symbols all over their legs, also glittered a brilliant crystal. They glowed with power. Pinkamena could feel it bristling against her coat. She even recognized some of those ponies. There was a purple one, Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy, at least. How Rainbow Dash had gotten up there and undergone whatever had given her such a long mane and her other wing back, she didn’t know.

“Sombra got wrecked!” the last one exclaimed.

Pinkamena jumped. It was her! The last one was her!

And Pinkie Pie, as she flew by, turned, her expression a study in shock. “Hey, look! There’s alternate universe me!” Pinkie Pie waved. “Hi, alternate universe me!”

Pinkamena slowly raised a hoof and vacantly waved back.

Finally, the six paused in the air above them, glancing around at the battlefield. Applejack chuckled. “Sorry it took us so long to get here, folks. Ah reckon… that there’s the end of the war.”

There was a pause. And then the allied forces shared relieved smiles and exhausted laughs. There were no boisterous cheers, but the occasional “Hooray” sprung up here and there.

Pinkamena’s mane filled up with air, attaining some sort of poofy shape. And she, for the first time since the war began, smiled.

* * *

Princess Luna stared through the hole in the ground, past a pink barrier that stretched across the aperture, and into a large chamber below. Several guards wove through the sleeping unponies with magical filters around their muzzles, now positioning fresh batches of unstew.

A black alicorn trotted up behind the guard ponies, observing their placement. When Adamantine seemed content with their placement, she took to the air and flew upward through the barrier and touched down behind Luna.

Luna turned. “Is it to your liking?”

Adamantine smiled. “It is, so very much. You have my thanks.”

“They are still decaying.”

“…They are. But with the supplies you have furnished us with, you have bought more time.”

Luna grinned. “I’m so glad to hear that.”

Adamantine giggled and then straightened up. “Well then, Princess Luna. Are you sure that you are prepared?”

Luna cracked her neck. “For an opportunity to cut loose for a while? Surely, I would be. And I know you will appreciate it.”

Adamantine considered her foe. “And you are sure that we will be left to it?”

“They did insist on having at least some eyes on us, just in case. But we should be fine.”

Adamantine cocked her head as her smile grew. And then she flapped her wings, backing away from Luna. “Well, if you so insist on testing my abilities…” she said, lighting her horn, “then come at me!”

Luna shot a beam of energy out of her horn, aimed directly at Adamantine. Adamantine disappeared in a flash of light and Luna’s shot hit air. Luna took to the sky herself, whirling about every direction.

Adamantine reappeared nearby and shot a beam of her own. Luna raised a barrier to meet it and, although it cracked, it managed to repel the shot. Adamantine teleported to a spot nearly behind Luna and shot another, and Luna’s barrier blocked it before shattering altogether. Adamantine teleported again before firing a third shot which Luna flew out of the way of.

After dodging a fourth shot, Luna let off a volley of her own. Adamantine teleported out of the way, only for Luna’s shots to follow. Adamantine instead flew in circles, with Luna’s shots trailing behind. Adamantine teleported away once they came close enough.

Luna focused some energy and created an electrified bubble around herself. With a roar, she blew it outward and the bubble expanded. Adamantine blinked out just as it reached her, only to reappear right in front of Luna. Adamantine flipped over, channeling some energy into her hindhooves.

Luna had just enough time to throw up a shield around herself before Adamantine bucked, sending Luna toward the ground. Her shield formed a crater as she hit.

“You almost had me there,” Adamantine called. “Usually, my opponents cannot even keep up with it!”

“I’ve studied Coltelli,” Luna replied. “He made that offense famous about five centuries ago!”

Adamantine chuckled. “Ah, so it has a name?”

Clenching her teeth, Luna focused on moving the earth beneath her. A pillar of rock rose up, and Luna rose with it until she was nearly Adamantine’s altitude. A few rocky chunks broke off the top which Luna hurled at her opponent. Adamantine dodged most, but she caught some with her magic and shot them back. Of those, Luna caught some of them and shot those back. With each back and forth, the number of volleyed rocks dwindled until, finally, Luna zapped the last one into dust.

Adamantine lit her horn and the earth just underneath Luna swallowed her hooves. Luna fidgeted about, trying to get loose, but threw up a barrier instead as Adamantine shot a beam. When that bounced off, Adamantine instead shot a slew of wind blades at the rock pillar, slicing it to pieces.

Luna fell with the late top of the pillar, but when Adamantine shot another bolt toward her, she flipped over. Adamantine’s attack hit the underside of the rock, breaking it into pieces and consequently setting Luna free. Luna flapped her wings and shot back up, coming level again.

“That was a very nice move,” Adamantine said. “Your technique is quite impeccable!”

“Thank you!” Luna replied. “I am quite impressed with what you’ve shown me so far! I should like to see more of it!”

Adamantine bowed. A moment later, she charged at Luna with her horn alight. Luna responded by pulling bits of earth up and quickly molding it into a long shape. She then created a sword out of energy and reinforced it with the long, earthly shape. She readied it for a swing.

As Adamantine disappeared in a flash of light, Luna whirled around, swinging her weapon in a broad arc. Adamantine reappeared at what had once been behind Luna, only to narrowly dodge Luna’s swing. She flipped backward and away.

Luna smirked before diving after Adamantine, forcing her to dodge a few more swings. Adamantine teleported away again, forcing Luna to search the entire area. She found Adamantine on the ground below, forging a sword of her own, but did not dive to meet her.

Adamantine shot into the air, shooting several energy bolts in Luna’s direction. Luna deflected each of them with her sword just in time for Adamantine to reach her. Their blades clanged together to sparkly fanfare. Their swords met several more times in lightning-like succession, but neither went for any decisive lunges or swings. An experienced swordspony would have called it silly.

Luna’s horn flared and a gust of wind sucked Adamantine away. Adamantine tumbled as it carried her higher into the sky. Luna gave chase, closing in for another series, but Adamantine found her bearings in just enough time to parry. Luna’s strikes were relentless and wild, pushing her foe back little by little.

Adamantine backed away just long enough to raise her blade for a counterattack. There, their blades locked again, their muzzles close enough that they could feel each other’s breath.

“Truly, you are wonderful!” Adamantine said. “This is educational, Luna.”

A few exchanges of their blades later, they locked again.

“Indeed, Adamantine!” Luna replied. “And you’ve already given me several ideas as well!”

Adamantine teleported away, reappeared on the ground far below. “I am sure that having such a wealth of magical knowledge available is certainly helpful!” Adamantine called back. She then wrapped her magic around a large chunk of ground and hurled it at Luna, most of which broke apart in the air.

Luna shot a bolt at one bit that was coming right at her, turning it into dust. “I agree! ’Tis a shame we rarely get to make use of it. I should much like to show you it later.”

Adamantine teleported from the ground to the air far above Luna. And then Luna noticed that she was unarmed. She flipped over just in time to meet Adamantine’s blade as it shot up from the ground. The blade swung, again and again, moving into different positions each time. Luna nearly had trouble keeping up with it.

Adamantine floated above, controlling her blade from a distance. “Perhaps after all of this is over!” she called.

Luna smirked and started swinging hard. Adamantine’s blade cracked, an effect punctuated by startled gasps from Adamantine herself. Once Luna hit it far enough away, she spun around and launched her own sword upward. When Adamantine dove to avoid it, Luna flipped over again and wrapped her magic around Adamantine’s sword, wresting it from its remote controller. She flipped it with her magic and then glanced up toward Adamantine who looked down in shock.

Luna shot an energy bolt upward, and Adamantine dove out of the way of that. A second and third followed.

The fourth was well off target, and both knew as soon as it left Luna’s horn. Adamantine focused on it and lit her horn. Adamantine’s red glow encircled Luna’s cobalt bolt and then, as it passed a ways to Adamantine’s left, the bolt turned in the air, forming a decent arc before it sped away some ways to the right.

Both combatants floated there in silence for a few moments, watching the bolt trail away and eventually fizzle out. Finally, Luna said, “…Did you just curve that?”

Adamantine glanced behind her, her eyes wide. “Well… I suppose I did. I just pulled on it, I suppose. I wanted to return it, but it wasn’t nearly enough…”

Luna shook her head. “Oh, you have so much potential. I would sooner leave a stained glass window uncleaned than let your talents go to waste!”

She flipped what had once been Adamantine’s sword about and then flung it upward.

Adamantine flew around it, flying in circles as Luna shot a few more bolts in her direction. Some of those bolts curved as they passed by, but not to the same degree.

Eventually, Luna reached Adamantine’s altitude and shot a continuous beam. Adamantine, in turn, whirled about and shot a beam of her own.

The two beams connected, meeting at a white-hot nexus. The center howled as sparks plumed out of it. It was Luna’s cobalt versus Adamantine’s red. Luna could feel her magic intertwining with Adamantine’s as their energies struggled for dominance. She grit her teeth together, much like her foe.

The beams wavered but remained connected. Luna felt sweat forming on her brow and fought the urge to wipe at it. Her body tingled as she tried to balance keeping airborne and redirecting her energies into the blast. With each second that they remained locked, the nexus grew bigger and brighter, accumulating more energy than it could expend.

And then the nexus moved. Luna glanced up. She wasn’t doing anything different. No, Adamantine was losing it. The nexus moved and moved and Luna studied Adamantine’s expression. First, Adamantine narrowed her eyes in focus and managed to slow the nexus down. It temporarily held but eventually inched its way toward her again.

Adamantine’s expression went wide and then the nexus blew up in her face. Luna blinked as the spell ruptured, and she pushed through the disorientation enough to discern a smoke trail from where the nexus had been.

And a pair of white dots rushing to catch the smoke trail. Luna surged forward, saying a few choice words under her breath. As she neared them, her vision cleared back up, allowing her to see that her guards, who had been watching the fight, had caught Adamantine.

“Set her down!” she boomed. The guards nodded, carrying Adamantine’s unconscious body toward the ground. There, they cradled her, trying to shake her awake.

Adamantine regained consciousness with a start, looking at the two pegasi guards that had caught her. She winced, reaching up to feel at her horn. “What happened?” she slurred.

Luna landed in front of her. “You fought very well, Adamantine. But it would seem I managed to best you there.”

After a moment’s silence, Adamantine shook her head and chuckled. “It would seem so. I’m afraid that I lack the raw power that you do…”

“Worry not, you were the finest opponent I’ve had the pleasure to duel in a long time.” She leaned forward to check. “Are you alright?”

Adamantine lit her horn and levitated herself to her hooves. After nodding to the guards, she smiled at Luna. “…I think I will be okay.”

* * *

Adamantine trotted through the castle gardens, occasionally stopping to admire the statues. She took a left, and then a right, and then tried to remember where to go next. The gardens were vast, but she had a specific spot in mind.

She walked through an opening in the hedges to find a large, open area. Flowerbeds lined each side of the cobblestone path. The path itself led up to a structure that was flanked by small fountains that trickled with running water.

She found Twilight Sparkle sitting in front of the object. Adamantine trotted up, curious to see for herself.

The object itself was a few times her size. What caught her attention was a statue in Twilight’s likeness that served as its upper half. Her likeness was reared in a courageous pose, pointing toward the sky with a bold, mouth-wide-open smile.

The lower half, the base, was more simple and cubic in design. The design of an open book spanned the entire front face, with the words Twilight and Sparkle heading each page. Adamantine then looked further down and noted some descriptive text. And then she found dates.

One deathdate and, oddly enough, two birthdates.

“This is my grave,” Twilight explained. “But, of course, I was never actually buried here.”

“So I gathered,” Adamantine replied. “I suppose it is now a bit wrong in concept.”

“It was right at one point,” Twilight said. “It’s not as right anymore, but it’s not completely wrong either.”

“Of course not.”

The two stood in silence, briefly tuning in to a small gust of wind.

“I hear that things have improved while we were away,” Twilight said. “Is that right?”

“They have secured enough ingredients for several day’s worth of unstew and are working on finding more.” Adamantine paused. “Ever since you’ve given me supplies, I’ve had a drop in the number of passings per day. Three days is not a pattern, but I have hope.”

Twilight brightened up. “That’s great! Then we’ve managed to buy some time, at least.”

“That you have. Meanwhile, I trust that you’ve completed whatever it was that you intended to do in those alternate timelines?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, we have. At least, for now. We’ve managed to bring a lot of ponies on board to help. I know that the alternate timeline princesses are looking for solutions even now.”

“But you haven’t found anything definitive yet.”

Twilight swallowed. “…No. We haven’t.”

“Your future self told me that much,” Adamantine said. “I suppose I’ll just have to keep working for a while longer.”

Twilight shook her head. “You’ve been at this long enough. Even in Ponyville, you were working to the bone.”

“And while this train of events has given me some respite, I must press on. I cannot truly rest until my unponies are saved.”

Twilight sighed. “I… guess. I don’t know. You’ve moved mountains for them. And I’m just… wishing I could do more.”

“I assure you, Twilight, you are helping, and I appreciate that. You should know that.”

“But I haven’t done enough for your people.”

“You need not concern yourself with that. You have already done several great things in the past few days alone.”

“And your unponies are still suffering. I wish I could do more.” Twilight glanced upward, looking up at her statue and contemplating its smile. “I have a responsibility, here. This is all my fault.”

Adamantine frowned.

“I just… I had no idea. I was just trying to map out those caves under Canterlot. There was a time when I was stuck down there, and Cadance and I made it out by a miracle. But there had been other ponies in there since who have not been so lucky. I wanted to map it out so that wouldn’t happen to anypony ever again.

“I didn’t think I’d find the Nameless down there. I could have taken my own life without destroying it. But I chose to do both.” Twilight hung her head. “I didn’t know it would lead to this.”

Adamantine’s frown grew deeper as she sat down.

Twilight sniffed. “I… Adamantine, I just… I wanted to say…”

“It’s okay.”

Twilight blinked and looked up in questioning.

Adamantine nodded. “Really.”

“I don’t know how you can say that. Your people are suffering because of me.”

“Yes, Twilight, you have put my people in quite a pickle. But…” Adamantine sighed, “the thing is… the Nameless was a considerable threat. Not just to you, or Canterlot, or Equestria, but the entire world. That whoever had to deal with that thing way back when managed to seal it away is a miracle enough—it’s still something I wonder about to this day. But that’s lost to time—either way, you managed to destroy it, Twilight Sparkle.”

Adamantine leaned in close. “To say that you have done a great service is an understatement. Yes, it has put my people in a pickle, but you must remember that my unponies and I serve our prime directive. All you did was bring it to its conclusion, and that is a monumentally important service. You are not our enemy, Twilight; you weren’t then and you aren’t now. So I cannot be angry at you.”

Adamantine groaned, a knot forming in her throat. “And really, I am not so surprised that it has led to this current situation.” She sighed. “It is no accident that they depend on the Nameless’ energy. The truth is… it was by design.”

Twilight paused. Her eyebrow went up and she cocked her head in questioning. “By… design?”

Adamantine nodded. “Whoever sealed it away had to place many safeguards in order to prevent it from inflicting any damage to Equestria. That crystal ball by itself was a safeguard. An early warning system, if you will. I know there was an additional safeguard tied to it but that never went off. There are… were a network of rocks across the globe that supplemented the seal, which you probably know was never perfect. They were… vents for the seal. Perpetually tethered to the Nameless, they would soak up and purify just enough of its energy to keep it in check without soaking up enough to give it something to grab onto and escape.” She chuckled. “I would suppose you are at least familiar with that mechanic.”

Twilight shivered, holding herself tight. “Don’t remind me.”

“My unponies are just like that. There’d always be a stone or two overventing somewhere in the world, and so we existed as a catch for that energy which escaped.” She leaned in close, her expression a sad stern. “Now that the Nameless is gone, our reason for existence is up.”

“It’s not fair. All these lengths, just for the Nameless.” Twilight threw her hooves into the air. “And we had no idea. Our world depended on your people, Adamantine, but… we have nothing to show for it.”

Adamantine shook her head. “You are living and thriving.”

“At your expense.”

A bird touched down on the statue’s outstretched hoof. It held a worm in its mouth, and it glanced around the courtyard for a moment.

Adamantine watched as it flew off with the worm, and then she chuckled. “Everything is at the expense of something else. That’s something that you learn when you live like we do, out where things are wild.”

Twilight averted her eyes.

“Tell me, have you ever seen a predator chase its prey?” Adamantine asked.

Twilight shook her head. “That sort of thing isn’t anything we really see in Equestria.”

“Usually the point is that the predator is able to catch, kill, and then consume its prey. In doing that, the predator gets to live a little longer.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “And that’s barbaric. Those poor creatures don’t deserve to be killed.”

Adamantine chuckled. “Ah, yes. But as it is, some of the time as well, the prey is able to escape and live another day. But in doing that, the predator starves.” A glint flashed in her eye. “Sometimes, that’s how predators die.”

“That’s just as horrible. And not fair,” Twilight spat, stamping her hoof.

“It is not. You are so very lucky that you do not encounter that situation here. It is not always so… kind in those remote places in the world; in those remote places where we have lived.”

“...I guess you have some experience with that, huh?”

“That I do. It is not so safe out there. I have many tools at my disposal, so I can fare well by myself. But there have been many times where my unponies have been in danger. There would be times where it would boil down to them or us.”

Twilight tilted her head out of curiosity. “And what did you do?”

“I fought back, of course. I have… bested my share of would-be attackers. Sometimes… to violent results.”

Twilight shuddered. “And you’re okay with that?”

Adamantine smiled. “Of course I am. I love my unponies. And for them… I would do anything.”

8 - Existential II

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Most decorations had been cleared off of the dining room table. Gone were the doilies and small plants. Instead, stacks of papers dominated most of the surface, only leaving a quarter for various objects and effects which took up all the remaining space.

“Fluttershy, can you flip that paper over? There, on your left?” the crystal ball said. “Yes, that one.”

Fluttershy flipped the paper in question over before returning to scanning her own document.

“Thanks. That one’s a grocery list for three weeks ago,” Twilight’s voice said.

Twilight shuffled some papers around. “A lot of this seems like housekeeping records. It’s not particularly useful for solving these issues.”

Rarity sipped on some tea. “Although I would admit that it’s somewhat informative, regardless. Just imagine how they were living over these past few months.”

“True. These records only go back around three months. That must be when they must have first met.”

Applejack held up some sheets. “Ah reckon these ones here talk about setting up their homes in them chambers.”

Rarity leaned over, scanning their contents. “Why it would seem so. Look, you can even see in the footnotes where they noted population rates and—”

Rainbow Dash slammed her head into the table and groaned. “For buck’s sake, this is booooring.”

Pinkie Pie yawned. “…Yup. I agree with Dashie on this one.” She waved a hoof at the central pile. “And we still gotta go through those.”

The large, white double doors at the front of the room swung open. Everypony turned to see Adamantine standing underneath the doorframe’s high arch.

“Hello, everypony,” Adamantine said. “Welcome back. I see you’ve brought back those items that have been in the possession of my other selves.”

Applejack nodded. “Sure have. Figured we’d sit down with it now that we’ve cleaned up most of them other worlds.”

Rarity motioned toward the cluttered table. “We’ve received all of this from the other timelines. We have Starlight Glimmer to thank for coordinating efforts there.”

“Ah, Starlight,” Adamantine answered, stepping into the room. “I notice she is not here. Nor is Sunset Shimmer.”

Rarity waved her hoof dismissively. “Well of course. They’re working on some other things right now. We met up with them just before we came here, talked for a bit. Twilight gave them copies of the portal spell. So on, and so forth.”

“I see. I wonder what they are doing.” Adamantine paused as she raised an eyebrow. “Portal spell? You recovered a portal spell? Like the ones we have seen?”

“It’s not directly from the source,” Twilight answered, “but it works. If you like, we could teach it to you.”

Adamantine smiled. “I would be interested in learning it. Perhaps you could teach me while we sort through this. I am sure that I could be of assistance here.”

“As nice as that sounds,” Twilight’s voice cut in, “we will have to decline your offer.”

All seven of them glanced up in confusion.

“Everything in here is classified, including that portal spell. I’m sorry, Adamantine. But you need to leave.”

Adamantine backpedaled, snorting. “I… I don’t understand. Why must I leave?”

“I can’t have you seeing any of this. You… don’t have permission. I’m sorry.”

“…Do you not trust me?”

After a few moments of silence, Twilight’s voice answered, “No. Not with this.”

The room remained silent. The six at the table exchanged glances and shifted about in worry. Some pursed their lips in displays of continued silence.

There couldn’t be many good reasons to contradict her future self. Twilight sighed. “Well… You heard me, Adamantine. You have to leave.”

Glancing around and finding nothing in their expressions, Adamantine straightened up, looking offended. “Very well,” she huffed. “I will… take my leave.” She whirled on the spot and exited. The doors thumped against the frame and then clicked into place.

Applejack sighed. “Uhm, Twi, Ah know you’re tryin’ to make some things not happen and all… but Ah really reckon we coulda used her help, ’specially with goin’ through all this stuff,” she said, motioning to the pile.

“The truth is… there are some things in that pile that I do not want her to see,” Twilight’s voice said.

“Oh yeah?” Rainbow Dash asked, her voice almost a snarl. “Like what?”

Twilight stood up. “Let’s find out,” she said, lifting some papers off and passing them around.

Minutes ticked by as they glanced through document after document. Some were many pages in length and those took time but the six, some with more enthusiasm for the task than others, eventually sorted through them. Eventually, the pile dwindled down.

“That. That’s what I don’t want her to see, Pinkie Pie,” Twilight’s voice said.

Pinkie Pie glanced at the stack of papers that she had reached over the rest of the table for. Tilting her head in curiosity, she dove in. The others leaned forward with interest. She flipped through pages upon pages of symbols and magical sigils and the occasional plain-language footnote. It appeared to be missing a title page, but it neared seventy pages in total.

She wasn’t even a quarter of the way through before she gasped dramatically. “Twilight! This is—”

Twilight shot up in her seat, gasping herself. “No way. That’s… The Answer!”

The other four jolted in place amidst a chorus of cries.

Twilight magically snatched it from Pinkie Pie’s grasp. She stared at a few pages as well, opening and closing it again in disbelief. Finally, she looked up. “How did they get this?”

Applejack swallowed. “Ya reckon this is the one that went missin’ from Princess Celestia’s room?”

After a pause, Rarity narrowed her eyes. “The one that those alternate Adamantines must have stolen.”

Twilight grabbed her temples. “My goodness, this… answers that question.”

“Truthfully, I knew the answer to that already,” Twilight’s voice said.

“No duh,” Rainbow Dash snorted.

Twilight shot her a stink eye.

“…Yes. And I know what the other Adamantines took it for. It’s… the thing that I’ve been trying to prevent.”

The six glanced at the ceiling, trying to look back at something that wasn’t actually in the room with them.

“We’ll want to take this out of the room,” Twilight said, fiddling with The Answer.

The other five voiced their agreements.

“Speakin’ of which, maybe it’s time that you tell us what it is?” Applejack asked.

“…Maybe I should. I really want to,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Fluttershy frowned. “Did you?”

There was a pause. “No, I didn’t.”

“You talked about this,” Fluttershy continued. “I know you could tell us what it is, and all. But I guess we would do things much differently after that. And you wouldn’t be able to predict too much of anything.”

Applejack nodded. “It’d render that there crystal ball pretty useless forever,” she said.

“I’m surprised that you have been with us this long and haven’t caused any deviation yet,” Twilight said.

“I know,” Twilight’s voice said. “It’s really a matter of taking something that did or did not happen in my world and doing the opposite. I think I have an idea of what that is by now, but I still need to think about it some more.”

Rarity nodded. “Well, I suppose you are at least making progress. But I would have hoped you would have made a decision.”

“Me too. But,” the crystal ball said with a sigh, “the path ahead still isn’t very clear. There are too many unknowns.” When they motioned for her to continue, Twilight’s voice said, “Why did the Nameless die in all timelines at the exact same time? How did the other Adamantines even find each other? Why do those alternate timeline unponies know about Starlight and Sunset? Why do they know about me?”

“If ya ask me,” Applejack said, stroking her chin, “if we figure any of that out in the next few days, we oughta send it down. You oughta send it down,” she said to Twilight.

Twilight nodded. “I agree. This is… weird. I’ll do it. I just have to hope that it doesn’t change things too much.”

“I hate to say this,” Twilight’s voice said, “but… I remember saying those exact words. Gosh, I hope this won’t be a straight repeat of my chain of events.”

The six hung their heads, glumly considering the implications.

“There is… one thing that I am going after, but this seems to be a repeat too. If we solved it already, then I really am not sure why my own future self is being quiet about it.”

“Have ya been talkin’ to yer future self?” Applejack asked.

“…No. Now that I think about it, that’s really strange. Nonetheless, check that pile there. There’s something at the bottom.”

The six of them went through a few more documents, stacking them into a pile near Twilight. The pile dwindled even more until, finally, Twilight’s voice cut in again. “That one, there.”

The document in question spanned a couple of pages. Symbols that didn’t resemble anything magical nor alphabetical filled the pages.

Rainbow Dash held it up, turned it sideways, and pressed her muzzle to it. Her expression turned sour. “…The buck is this?” she finally asked. She shoved it in Twilight’s face. “Can you read this?”

Twilight took it and skimmed through it. “This is weird. No, I can’t read any of it.”

“It’s written in code,” Twilight’s voice said. “At least, that’s what I think it is.”

Applejack peered over the table. “Sure looks like it.”

“Or maybe it’s another language,” Rarity offered.

Twilight frowned. “If it is, I have never seen it before.”

“It could be, it could not be,” Twilight’s voice said. “I’m not sure what it is, or if it’s even important. But it is of enough complexity that even now where I’m collaborating with A.K. Yearling on deciphering it… we still haven’t cracked it yet.”

Rainbow Dash’s face lit up. “Woah, wait a minute. You’re working with Daring Do!?”

“The one and only!” Twilight’s voice replied. “She heard about what happened and offered to help me here.”

“So! Awesome!”

Twilight beamed, but then that faded. “But we won’t see the results for a while, it sounds like.”

“Right,” Twilight’s voice concurred.

Fluttershy reached across the table, looking at a few more similarly coded documents. “There’re also these other ones here,” she pointed out.

There was a pause. “Right. I’ll take care of them,” Twilight’s voice said. “Really, the only thing that concerns me about this collection is that there’s no portal spell amongst this.”

Twilight lit her horn and levitated a paper over. “I was just thinking about that. Starlight managed to nab this list for us. Which, since I know the portal spell myself, these are obviously addresses.”

Pinkie Pie nodded. “Yup! See, they’re using those letters too! D for Discord, C for Chrysalis, and all the others!”

“That accounts for the D, the C, the S, the T, and the N. Those ones are straightforward.”

“But there’re three more,” Fluttershy said, pointing. “What is the I for?”

Twilight pressed her face into the list. “That’s Flim and Flam. So I guess… I for industry?”

Pinkie Pie zipped over. “Oh, that R there. That’s us, right?”

“Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied.

“But why an R?” Twilight wondered.

Everypony exchanged glances and hummed quietly in thought.

Eventually, Rainbow Dash slapped the table. “I know! R for Rainboom!” she exclaimed.

The others giggled and nodded in response.

“And then there’s this last address,” Twilight continued. “And we haven’t even been to this W place yet.”

“What do you suppose that one is, then?” Rarity asked.

Twilight considered the list in silence. Her head rocked from side to side while she mulled it over. And then she frowned. It was the only one that they had not been to yet.

Twilight swallowed and she looked up at her friends. A drop of sweat fell down her muzzle. “…I know where this W leads to.”

* * *

Sunset Shimmer glanced at the magenta orb in front of her. She then attached some tape to it, labeled it I-52, and then crossed out the corresponding I-52 entry on the list in her magical grasp. She tugged at the green bandana bearing the letter C around her neck.

She floated the orb to another Sunset Shimmer. “That should be the last one,” she said.

The other Sunset Shimmer, who wore a red bandana bearing the letter T around her neck, nodded, and the two trotted over toward a set of identical machines which four more Sunset Shimmers gathered around. Setting the magenta orb amongst nearly two score others, they joined their doubles on examining their machines.

One Sunset Shimmer, wearing a silver bandana bearing the letter S around her neck, levitated a steel plate into place before stepping back to admire the work. Her eyes briefly drifted around the room; she saw the room’s towering bookshelves containing every book imaginable, the sprawling window that offered a view of the rest of Canterlot Castle beyond, and the hourglass that served as this room’s centerpiece.

“I’ve missed this place,” Sunset Shimmer S thought aloud.

The others hummed in agreement.

“Have any of you tried talking to Princess Celestia?” she then asked.

A few looked up. “Heck no,” Sunset Shimmer T replied. “Why?”

“Eh. Because I’m thinking about it,” Sunset Shimmer S thought aloud. “You know, because of the war, and all.”

“Seriously?” another Sunset Shimmer, wearing a brown bandana with a letter I on it, said. “Did you forget how she basically threw us out and denied us?”

Another Sunset Shimmer, wearing a blue bandana with a letter N on it, shivered. “I do. My Celestia is banished to the moon for the next thousand years now. Actually, I kinda wish I could go talk with her.”

Sunset Shimmer I frowned. “Well… maybe I should go give my Celestia a piece of my mind then.”

“You know,” another Sunset Shimmer, wearing a yellow bandana with a letter D on it, said as she turned to Sunset Shimmer N, “I bet if you wrote it big enough, your Celestia might be able to see it on the moon.”

Sunset Shimmer N half-snorted, half-chuckled. “Maybe. I might do that.”

“Anyone want to go draw a giant finger?” Sunset Shimmer I asked.

And then all six Sunset Shimmers laughed.

An electrical crack caught their attention and they turned as a portal burst into being at the top of the stairs. The six of them looked on as another Sunset Shimmer stepped through the portal, a determined frown across their face. Unlike them, she wore no bandana. There, they straightened up.

Sunset flared her horn, and the portal behind her closed with an airy pop. “How are we doing?”

Sunset Shimmer C stepped forward. “We just finished sorting out all of those… stones that you told us about.”

Sunset Shimmer I nodded. “That’s every one of them from within a two-hundred-mile radius, from every timeline. They were right where you said they would be.”

“You can thank the royal guard for getting those,” Sunset said.

“You’re the one that set that up. But why aren’t there any from your timeline?”

“They don’t exist anymore,” Sunset replied. “They melted into a pony when I performed The Answer.”

The Sunset Shimmers considered it. “Well, there’s what we got,” Sunset Shimmer C said, motioning to the collection.

Sunset narrowed her eyes and trotted over toward the collection of stones. She counted forty-two stones, and yet, somehow, a random few of them appeared very not-purple like she expected, but white in color. She examined one closely, noting a now-revealed glassy layer on top of the white, which she supposed was the core. They lacked the energy that their magenta brethren did.

She scanned every other stone, noting their label, and then held one of them. These aren’t the color that I remember them, she thought, but these are stones alright. I guess the color is just a reflection of what’s inside the seal, after all. But…

She turned. “What’s with these white ones?” she asked, pointing.

The six looked equally confused. “I don’t know,” Sunset Shimmer S said. “Maybe those are dead stones?”

The seven stood in silence, quietly pondering it.

Dead stones? How does that even work? Sunset thought. I guess they kinda look dead when you set them next to the other, huh?

Eventually, Sunset sighed and shook her head. “Whatever. What about the machines?”

“We just finished. We can start scanning those stones whenever,” Sunset Shimmer S said.

Sunset nodded. “Okay. This 732 set looks all alive, I guess, so start with these. Go onto 52 after that. I imagine, with all these machines, each set should take about an hour.” She smiled. “You’re all doing a great job, by the way. Keep it up!”

The Sunset Shimmers exchanged glances. A few hazarded smiles as they levitated their respective stones over. They turned to their machines, flipping switches and turning dials. The machines flickered to life in response.

Sunset chuckled and then trotted down the stairs.

* * *

Starlight Glimmer lit her horn, and a portal opened in front of her. She peered through and noted that the Canterlot Castle on the other side of the aperture appeared just like the one that she stood in. The throne room stretched ever upward and the end, where a mighty throne capped it, seemed so far away.

She discerned a few figures at the other end of the room, and she glanced back at Princess Celestia who stood behind her. A Celestia, she knew, who had just walked off a battlefield at the end of years-long war. Together, the two of them ducked through.

Celestia stood tall as she peered over Starlight. Several versions of herself (four, to be precise) looked back. Whereas she took them in with wide eyes and a hanging jaw, her doubles smiled. Several versions of Princess Luna (five, to be precise) joined them, all of whom save one were fully matured. The last Luna was significantly smaller and less ethereal than the others.

Celestia trotted toward them. “By the stars, you are all real.”

One of the Celestias chuckled and stepped forward in kind. “You are not the only one to have had doubts about a grand claim like that.”

“That alternate timelines exist,” a Luna said. “Tell us, where are you from?”

The newest Celestia smiled. “I am from a timeline in which we waged war against King Sombra. We won the war earlier this morning, as a matter of fact.”

“With the help of a handful of other ponies from another reality, yes?” a Luna replied.

Starlight blushed and stepped back from the circle.

“Why yes, exactly that,” Celestia said.

“They managed to reform Discord in our reality, if thou might believe it,” a Luna replied.

“They imprisoned Lord Tirek in our timeline,” another Celestia replied.

One of the Celestias cleared her throat. “Our reality is dominated by industry—too much so. I’ve spoken with those six, and they promised to come back with ideas.”

The Luna that appeared frail and depowered stepped forward. “Where I come from…” she began, her voice almost inaudible, “I was Nightmare Moon. I have… banished my sister to the moon, and I brought eternal night for years. Those ponies… they showed me the light.”

She turned and sheepishly kicked the floor. “I cannot express enough how… sorry I am. I don’t even know how to bring my sister back down. I am… I will be… alone for a very long time.”

The room hung silent as many of them frowned, mostly in contemplation but partly in sorrow. Starlight hung her head as well with little idea on what to say.

A Celestia stepped forward and nuzzled that Luna. “Dear sister… you are not alone. You never were.”

Another Luna held up a scroll. “With these portals, we never have to be alone again. We can help each other. We can… stick together.”

The Celestia that had walked through with Starlight then turned to her. “Including wherever it is that you came from, Starlight Glimmer. Especially with all that you have done for us. For saving our worlds.”

Starlight cracked a nervous smile. Saving worlds and cleaning up after herself were, in this case, one and the same. Surely, they would not have said so much if they’d known she had caused it in the first place.

Caused it by accident.

Starlight paused. It had been an accident. Maybe Twilight had been right. She had not started a war or brought about eternal chaos. That was not her, nor would it ever be.

She smiled and nodded in return. Maybe I’ll tell them later.

A Celestia turned. “Now, what’s say we get started. I would imagine that there is much to discuss.”

* * *

Twilight glanced forward and took a deep breath. Her friends waited with bated breath right behind her.

Twilight flared her horn, and a portal appeared on the lawn before them. A slow, dusty wind greeted her and her friends, caressing their manes and tails. Whatever lay on the other side appeared drab and dull, with a thick haze where clouds would have hung blocking out most of the light.

Cautiously, they approached the opening. Twilight peered through first, noting that, somehow, the ground on the other side had dropped down by several feet. She leaped through and landed on solid dirt. The others followed one at a time.

Twilight whirled around, searching for any sign of green in the expanse, but they found nothing but brown in every direction. Even the dirt, where she was sure there should have been grass, sank under her weight.

The wind’s dulcet whistle topped it off, offering the only track of audio that the landscape had.

Most of the outer wall was gone, affording them glimpses into what had once been the lawns beyond. The moat had dried up and the waterfall had disappeared, leaving only solid rock. What had once been the gatehouse lay in some facsimile of its former shape, the gate itself gone and the bridge beyond sitting in two pieces. What had been the path beyond that lead down the mountain was now a sea of uneven dirt.

They turned and headed further into the castle grounds. Most structures, some of which were in such shape that they could hardly recognize them, were but silhouettes in the distance. One tower had toppled over and now leaned against another, the latter of which was missing its top. As they came closer, they saw what were once windows, now hosting only a few remaining shards of glass. Several roofs had collapsed or caved in. Flags and tapestries, many hanging on by a thread, flapped erratically in the breeze.

Twilight’s frown deepened and she let out a long sigh. A few others whimpered or averted their gaze. Applejack hid behind her stetson. Together, they pressed on.

They treaded over dried and cracked earth. Leafless trees, missing most of their branches and sporting several cracks in their bark, were littered near the half-standing walls with some even uprooted and now on their sides.

They came across a hole in the wall where the castle grounds ended and the city began, and they ducked underneath.

The city was in similar shape. Most buildings had lost good portions of their white paint and sported sizable holes. Some of them lay in rubble. The remains of carriages and small pieces of broken furniture littered the cracked and (in some places) upheaved streets.

The six walked down the street, still accompanied by the wind’s whistle. Everywhere they looked, they found no signs that anypony still remained. Then they heard something, and they quickened their pace, only to find at the next intersection that the source of the sound was a wooden store sign, squeaking as it rocked incessantly in its overhang.

A street later, they found a crack running what seemed like from one end of the city to the other. They glanced inside and found some now-exposed pipes. Some of them were cracked open and they offered no hints of anything flowing through them. The thinner ones were rusted and warped, with their ends flaring out in every direction.

Sullenly, Twilight turned to the others, and the others turned to her. Sadly, they nodded, and that prompted Twilight to wrap her magic around them.

Twilight took to the air, levitating her friends behind her. They flew further down at a rapid pace, observing more decay as they went. They looked, first anxiously then desperately, for signs that anypony remained, but they found nothing. Finally, when they reached what Twilight figured was halfway into the city, Canterlot suddenly gave way, leaving them nothing but a view of the sloping mountainside below. There, through the murky fog, they saw the slightest hints of mass debris in a large pile at the foot of the cliff.

Twilight circled them around so that they faced Canterlot, and they saw the full severity of its decay. The earth had been gutted. The low winds continuously dislodged streams of dirt from the weathered rock before scattering them in the breeze, with bits continuing to stream off the weathered bottoms. Buried debris jutted out, with several pipes clawing their way out only to grow limp. Buildings on the new city edge sagged within their foundations, clinging for dear life.

Fluttershy started crying and Pinkie Pie followed. Rarity shed a few tears as well but tried to hide it. Applejack and Rainbow Dash exchanged sad glances but said nothing.

Twilight turned and looked across the rest of Equestria. She found no traces of Cloudsdale, which should have floated in the sky to the northwest. The plains below, which should have been populated with trees and grass and other fauna, lay barren. She tracked hints of a riverbed toward where Ponyville should have been, finding nothing but a single gray dot that she imagined was the Map. Where the Everfree Forest should have been, she found a lifeless expanse of dirt and sand, without any signs that anything had ever grown there.

She widened her gaze toward the horizon, where distant shapes made regressed forms of the geography that she knew. She saw no end to the haze, she saw no end to the clouds. She wondered when the last time the surface had ever seen the sun was.

Twilight sniffed and wiped a few tears from her eyes. But they had already started and could not stop.

She lit her horn, another portal appeared, and she took them through it. Their home Canterlot, still intact and whole, full of color and life, greeted them. She took one last look at the wasteland through the portal and then closed it tight. The constant whistle that had accompanied them faded away.

And for a while, they floated there in Twilight’s magical grasp, sobbing in silence. Eventually, Twilight found the strength to float them back toward the castle.

* * *

Luna and Celestia cantered into the dining room, the former carrying the crystal ball behind her. They circled around the table, tilting their heads over certain documents as they tried to read them.

“They had The Answer in here earlier,” Twilight’s voice said. “We took it out.”

“It was delivered to my room about an hour ago,” Celestia said. “I’ve since hidden it in someplace very secure.”

“I don’t want Adamantine getting her hooves on it.”

Luna picked up some papers. “It would seem to me that most everything else is benign,” she said. “Nonetheless, I am sure that Starlight Glimmer and Sunset Shimmer may want to peruse these at some point soon.”

Celestia hunched over some papers with several odd symbols on them. “It would seem that way, although these appear to be an exception.”

“Let me see those,” Twilight’s voice said.

Celestia obliged by spreading the strange documents across the table.

“I have to remember how this went,” Twilight’s voice continued. “In my world, one of these two-pagers were stolen. As I understand it, we attempted to dispose of it ahead of time, but we disposed of the wrong one.”

“Then we must be sure to select the correct one this time around,” Luna said.

After a moment of silence, Twilight’s voice gasped. “Okay! There, that one! Third from the left! That’s the one.”

Celestia lifted said document and considered it. “Are you certain?”

Another pause. “Yes.”

Celestia levitated over a trash bin and then shot a beam at the document, incinerating it. Its ashes fell into the bin. “It is done.”

“Great, thank you. I’ll be keeping an eye on this place to make sure we made the right move. Hopefully, we didn’t just incinerate information that could have helped us out.”

Luna frowned. “That’s a good idea, but would it not be more efficient to post some guards here? That way we could prevent it entirely.”

“I agree,” Celestia said. “If we are to take steps to—”

“No, no guards,” Twilight’s voice curtly replied.

Celestia ruffled her wings. “Twilight.”


“Twilight, we must station guards here,” Luna said.

“I think that’s a bad idea. We can’t physically stop Adamantine from getting into this room!”

The room fell silent. Both sisters froze and then tentatively exchanged glances.

Luna swallowed. “So then, it is… Adamantine. She will attempt to steal a document tonight.”

The crystal ball said nothing for a few moments. And then, “Yes.”

Celestia shook her head. “We have already disposed of the document that we think she will take, but Twilight, we must take every precaution, in case we have guessed incorrectly.”

“I would like to, but I’m afraid that since I rejected her earlier, I’ve already given her some reason for suspicion.” A pause. “If we post guards here, we reinforce it. And if they try to stop her, we lose her entirely.”

A long and pregnant pause later, Twilight’s voice spoke one more time. “Adamantine causes the disaster.”

Both sisters shuddered and exchanged glances. An entire conversation passed between them with their eyes alone.

“Then,” Luna tentatively began, setting the crystal ball onto the table, “we… must tread carefully.”

“Yes. We must. And if we mess this up… She will set it in motion tomorrow. And there will be no avoiding it after that. I am making my move here.”

“We are at the critical moment,” Celestia said, nodding. “Then, Twilight, we look to you on this matter. Give us any task you see fit, and we will execute it to the best of our ability.”

“We must keep Adamantine busy for the next twenty-four hours. She does not leave this castle.”

* * *

Adamantine’s world folded together in several ways and then unfolded again. Her hooves made contact with the hard floor and she stood at her full height.

The dining room was empty. She looked around several times before cautiously approaching the table.

She levitated a few documents and read them. Most were housekeeping documents, and she read through a few of them, but she had no strong reactions to any of them; the best she afforded was a hum as she moved between documents.

Finally, she reached a set of documents with strange symbols and found her pause. She narrowed her eyes, lifting one up. She scanned it once and then reeled. This is… code, she thought. This is the code that I developed with my trusted lieutenants several years ago.

She set the document down and picked up another. And then another. Her frown deepened. Most of this is gibberish.

She blinked. Wait, some of this is legible. And there’s an order to them. Take… document.

She switched over to another piece. A... document.

Another piece. Take… random.

Adamantine kept silent as she read through it. Take a random document? she thought, contemplating what they were telling her.

At that, she dove into them in full. She skipped over the illegible parts and to what parts made words, cross-referencing other documents as she read along. Her jaw occasionally twitched as she considered the contents.

Upon reaching the end of the last of them, she set it down and sighed.

“Drat,” she said aloud.

She looked at the other coded documents on the table, hovered over them with a contemplative expression, and then picked one up. “Well, I suppose this will be of some interest… I don’t think they will miss this.”

Adamantine glanced toward the ceiling, briefly wondering if somepony was watching.

Finally, she lit her horn and teleported out of the room.

9 - Fracture

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Princess Celestia straightened herself, trying to look tall, but found that she had nothing to say. There was nothing she could say. She looked down at the crowd gathered at the foot of her dais. She could see every heartbroken face peering up at her with glints of hope in their eyes that were sadly diminishing with every second.

“It’s been days!” the exasperated mare before her cried. “That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen my husband. P-please, I need to know where he is.”

“That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen my daughter,” an older stallion behind her added. “I would… crawl into a hole and die if anything’s happened to her.”

Several others also voiced their concerns and pleas.

Celestia sighed. “I promise you that the very best that Equestria has to offer are working around the clock to find them. I only ask for your patience here.”

“Princess Celestia,” one of them said, “w-we are worried sick. Surely, you must have something.”

“Anything,” another said.

Celestia went to speak but then noticed another pony, a new pony, pushing through the crowd. A mare, whose long mane had fallen by the wayside, with bagged eyes and lack of color in her muzzle, slunk through until she was at the front. And the new mare looked up.

“Your Highness…” she tentatively began, “I have to ask you about my sister. Her name is Quiet Gestures. She’s a mime here in Canterlot. Surely, you know of her?”

Celestia sighed. “I know of many ponies, my little pony.”

“I even had dinner with her this time last week. We ate out at a restaurant, went to a show together. And when we parted ways… I thought she had gone home, but nopony has seen her since. I am so incredibly worried for her. I beg you, Your Highness. You must know where she has gone!”

Celestia swallowed but said nothing. The quiver in her lip, however, gave her away.

A strand in the mare’s already disheveled mane fell in front of her face. “P-p-please, Princess.”

Celestia’s heart ached. She felt at it, worried that it would break in two. “I can assure you that we are doing our best—”


“—to find them. Again, I must ask for your patience.”

The disheveled mare stumbled backward, her grimace spreading across every inch of her features. She hung her head. “Oh stars… Oh stars.”

A few hushed voices passed through the group.

“They’re… not coming back,” a mare croaked.

A friend wrapped their hoof around the mare’s withers. “Don’t say that. I’m sure they’ll be back.”

Another stallion began hyperventilating. “N-no. I c-can’t.”

It took every ounce of Celestia’s considerable strength to hold back tears. Instead, she looked toward the ceiling, hoping to see a face there. Oh, Twilight, I really hope you can find them soon.

Starlight Glimmer reached the top of the steps and glanced behind her. “Here we are.”

Adamantine took a sip from one of the coffee mugs floating around her. She peered over the banister toward the ground and then at the door. “So, this is the spot where they worked out of however many months ago,” she said.

Starlight shrugged, fiddling with the crystal ball in her magical grasp. “Yeah, that too.”

They opened the door and went inside. No less than two Sunset Shimmers, hunched over documents, glanced up at them. Another Sunset Shimmer descended the stairs, regarded them with indifference, and then trotted toward a teapot in the kitchen area. They all wore colored bandanas around their necks. Adamantine and Starlight waved sheepishly in return.

The two then pressed further into the tower, hearing the rumblings of machinery above. They ascended the staircase into the study area where they found multiples of the same large machine as various energies poked and prodded at small spherical rocks in their chambers. There were four more Sunset Shimmers up here. Three of them, also wearing their own bandanas, raised their eyebrows but said nothing.

The last, without a bandana of her own, stood up and trotted over. “Starlight, Adamantine,” Sunset Shimmer greeted.

“How is the work going?” Starlight asked.

“We’re almost done doing our initial readings,” Sunset replied, “and we’ve started deciphering them, see if they can tell us anything. But…”

Adamantine raised an eyebrow. “But?”

“Check this out,” Sunset said, levitating over some papers. She separated them into two stacks. “We’ve started on a second round of readings. This is a set from the first round,” she said, holding up one stack, “and here’s the same set from the second round.”

Both Starlight and Adamantine leaned in close in order to examine them. They shifted between the old and the new, back and forth.

The crystal ball voiced it. “They’re different,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset paused and then nodded. “Yeah, they are. I’m not entirely sure what it means just yet but… I’m wondering if the seal is changing.”

Starlight frowned. “Well… uhm…”

Adamantine shook her head. “I would… hazard that it has indeed changed. After all…” she said as her eyes shifted back and forth like she was searching her mind, “it did change between when The Great Benefactor perished and when I took you to the chamber.”

“But then that would mean that it’s changed again in the last twenty-four hours,” Starlight said.

“This is the first I’ve been aware of this,” Twilight’s voice said. “This is illuminating.”

Sunset glanced toward the ceiling. “Do you know where it leads?”

“I do, but I’m not going to say anything.”


“…Have you found anything else?”

Sunset nodded, motioning toward a set of orange spheres. “Yeah, I think I have something that you might not have seen before either,” she said. “Look at these.”

Twilight’s voice gasped. “Those are stones! But… wait. Wait… Why are some of them white?”

“I don’t know,” Sunset replied, looking over them.

Adamantine approached the set and picked one up with her magic, eyeing it closely. She paused to take another sip. “So, these are the items that supplemented the seal. I never thought I would actually see one of these up close…”

“Those things perpetually tethered to the seal, yes,” Twilight’s voice said. “It’s as you told me yesterday.”

“Which would be ten days ago for you,” Adamantine replied. She picked up another stone, this one white. She held it up. “This one is missing the energy in its outer layer.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Starlight asked.

Adamantine frowned. “It’s a dead stone.”

Sunset gasped. “It’s alive?”

“I suppose that you could say that. It is, in a sense. I don’t fully understand it, however. I just know this one to be dead.”

Sunset stroked her chin. “I wonder how exactly a stone dies…?”

“They’ve changed color. Weren’t they purple when you worked with them, Sunset?” Twilight’s voice asked.

“Yeah. And… they’ve changed color again in the past twenty-four hours.”

After a pause, Starlight stroked her chin. “So, there’s definitely stuff happening there, I guess.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah.”

Adamantine set the stone down and drew to her full height again. “I would think that might be useful information, at any rate. Where have Twilight and her company gone? I am sure they would like to hear it.”

* * *

Twilight Sparkle glanced around the cavern’s crystalline walls. The ambient light within them lit the path. Her five friends trotted behind her as the path spiraled down.

The path hung a sharp left and, once again, they arrived at the short tunnel that lead right into ornate double doors. The entrance to the seal. She glanced upon its features, noting the strange entities depicted within each one. Her eyes fell on a circular depression where the doors met, where the crystal ball would have been had they not taken it.

The address to Equestria W flashed through her mind and then she opened a portal. The tunnel on the other side, in contrast to the adequately lit one that they stood in, was completely dark. Twilight made a light with her horn and floated it through the portal first, illuminating the area beyond, before stepping through herself.

Glancing around, she noticed that while her lighting spell was reflecting, the crystal walls did nothing else. It was as if they, like the rest of this world, were dead. Her eyes drew toward the double doors, which were in the exact same condition as in her own timeline.

She narrowed her eyes. Exact same condition. No crystal ball.

No sooner did her friends join her did the doorway groan loudly. They shuddered and then parted ways, revealing the white-lit chamber beyond. She had heard that the other chambers had large, community-like structures within them. This one was empty and barren, just like the chamber she remembered.

She bent down to examine one of the sigils in the floor. There was now a glassy layering to each sigil, covering a white core underneath that burned with far less intensity than the sigils in the other timelines (but contributed enough light to dimly illuminate the stone-walled chamber).

Applejack trotted up behind her. “What are those over there?” she asked, pointing.

They raced into the center of the room to find seven crystal balls, all arranged in a haphazard circle. The six of them paused, eyeing them with curiosity. The views within each crystal ball showed different versions of the chamber. While six showed magenta-lit chambers with lattice-like structures and sleeping unponies, the final one was white-lit and empty, just like the one they stood in.

Twilight picked it up and peered into it. “Look, there’re some ponies in there,” she said.

They gathered around and peered into the ball. Six copies of Adamantine, each wearing colored bandanas, gathered in the center of the chamber. They sat around a crystal ball, speaking in whispers.

Twilight glanced up at her friends and then wrapped her hooves around the ball. She licked her lips and then spoke. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

The Adamantines glanced up, passing more whispers between each other. One of them, wearing a yellow bandana, then spoke. “Greetings. We had word that somepony such as yourself would make contact here.”

“Contact? You knew we would be here?”


The six exchanged glances. “How?”

“We were told, several days ago, via communication sent down by our counterpart,” another Adamantine, wearing a silver bandana, said.

“Counterpart?” Rarity asked.

“I cannot say who you are, exactly, but if I had to hazard a guess… you are Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight swallowed. “Yes, that is me.”

“And you are accompanied, currently, by your friends. Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Smash, and…”

“Rarity and Fleurshy,” the yellow bandana Adamantine finished.

Another Adamantine, who was wearing a red bandana, frowned. “I am… pretty sure that we did not have those names correct.”

Rainbow Dash placed her hoof on Twilight’s withers. “It’s Dash. Although Smash is kinda cool.”

Applejack placed her hoof on the ball. “Alright, now y’all listen here. We know y’all been taking ponies. We’ve known for several days now.”

Rarity joined Applejack. “Where have you taken them?”

The Adamantines exchanged glances. “We cannot tell you,” the green bandana Adamantine replied.

“And we will not tell you,” the red bandana Adamantine added.

“What you are doing is wrong. You must set those ponies free,” Twilight said.

“We will not.”

Fluttershy placed her hoof on Twilight’s withers. “…Why? Why do you need them so much?”

“How can you justify this?” Rarity added.

“We are following those orders which have been passed to us by our subjects.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Passed by your subjects? I thought you were in charge?”

“We are, in a sense. It would seem to me that you are already familiar with the crystal ball and how it works.”

“More than you might think.”

“Then it should not be so difficult for you to grasp this concept: we have used time to issue and carry out operations, well before even being aware of them ourselves.”

Twilight took her hooves off the ball. “They’ve been using the crystal balls to send orders back in time. That must mean that the worlds are still similar enough to follow each other.”

Applejack shrugged. “Makes sense to me.”

Twilight replaced her hoof. “We understand it.”

“But,” Rarity said, “you have… just said it all. It would seem to me that you don’t have any actual idea why you’re doing any of this. Do you?”

The Adamantines exchanged uncertain glances. A silence passed between them as some unspoken conversation passed between them. One of them nodded, the other’s expressions turned resolute. “That is correct,” the blue bandana Adamantine said. “We have concepts about the scope of our operation, and we know that it points toward a result which is in our interests... but as far as we can tell, it is the brainchild of our counterpart.”

Twilight ground her teeth together. “…Your counterpart?”

* * *

Sunset stared down at the page before her, flip-flopping between examining the data and jotting down notes.

Starlight and Adamantine sat close by, staring at their own sets of readings. Their expressions were confused frowns, contrasting Sunset’s determined smirk. Starlight snorted and Adamantine shook her head.

Some of the other Sunset Shimmers, between tasks, looked at the two and giggled between each other.

“Twilight,” Sunset said, “you’ve been pretty quiet these past few minutes. Something up?”

“No, everything’s fine. Actually, things are great.”


“Absolutely. We might just avoid the disaster at this rate!”

Everypony in the room perked up and then shared smiles as well as short and sweet cheers.

“I thought so too. So… I thought I would take a moment to reorganize my notes. And… I’ve remembered something. I remember hearing…” Twilight’s voice paused. “Yes. Adamantine, did you have a question that you’ve been wanting to ask me for a while?”

“Oh!” Adamantine gasped in surprise and then nodded. “Yes, yes I did. But... it’s since answered itself.”

“Just out of curiosity, what was your question, exactly?”

“It’s quite particular.”

“That’s okay!”

Adamantine grinned and ran her hoof across the floor. She then stood up.

“As you know it by now, I am the queen of the unponies. By that same token, I am… intimately linked with The Great Benefactor; that entity which you have chosen to call the Nameless. So it should come to no surprise to you if I say… that I have the ability to peer inside the seal.”

“I think I can see that,” Starlight said, nodding slowly.

“I cannot describe what is on the other side. It is not a place that you can see, or hear, or feel. Our rules of existence do not so much apply there. Rather, you can only be conscious of it. You can only sense it. Me? I can sense that place at any time that I feel like, given that I focus.

“And in the past,” Adamantine continued, “when I did that, I could sense The Great Benefactor.”

The few Sunset Shimmers that had been working now looked over. The remaining ones appeared in the stairwell, the afterthoughts of a conversation leaving their lips.

Adamantine frowned and stared into the distance. “But I could also sense… copies of me. I could never really interact with them because they were like mirrors of myself. But… they stopped showing up a few years ago. I thought nothing of it then. Perhaps it was an omen.

“I felt The Great Benefactor disappear, Twilight. And then, after that, whenever I immersed myself, I could not sense it anymore.”

And then Adamantine frowned, “But… briefly, I did sense something else.”

Starlight blinked, frowning. Sunset, meanwhile, rose to her hooves as well.

“And…” Twilight’s voice hazarded, “what was that?”

Adamantine chuckled. “You, of course.”

Sunset shuddered and exchanged glances with Starlight. The other Sunsets, meanwhile, exchanged shrugs.

“I used to wonder about that,” Adamantine said. “I wanted to ask you if you knew anything of that. But… after the story which I have heard some days ago… I do not wonder anymore.”

“I guess I’m not surprised,” Twilight’s voice said. “I was in there during that time, after all.”

Starlight tilted her head with curiosity. “You know… I’m still a bit fuzzy on all that. I know you kinda told me the basics of what happened, but…”

Adamantine nodded. “I am interested in hearing more about how you went about that as well.”

Twilight’s voice paused. “Yes. You see, I was able to destroy the Nameless by tricking it into the door as it tried to come through. I met it at that point in between our world and the seal. But… you can’t exist there. It ended up destroying my body and it destroyed the Nameless too. When I first came up from that chamber, I had the making of that plan and I could have very well done that on my own. …That could have been the end of it.

“But, thanks to The Answer, my essence, at least, made it through. The Answer stored that within the seal so that it could be retrieved later. That must be what you saw. But… considering that my body was utterly annihilated, that took a considerably greater amount of work and computation just to make something new.”

Sunset grimaced. “So… you don’t even have the same body as you used to.”

“…No, I don’t. But, I guess, considering all the weird transformations I’ve undergone over the years—just look at the mirror portal—it’s not a big deal. It’s a really good thing you got this body right, though.”

Starlight stood up. “What? Could they have brought you back as a stallion?”

“Uhhhhhhh,” Twilight’s voice chuckled. “That… goes places that I’d rather not go… but… I guess so.”

Sunset grinned. “Huh. If only.”

Starlight went red in the face.

“Hey!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed.

Adamantine hid her chuckle behind a hoof.

Sunset threw her head back and laughed. “I’m kidding, okay? Come on, Twilight. You know that getting it right was really difficult.”

“Probably wouldn’t have been as much trouble if your body had gone through intact, right?” Starlight said.

After a moment’s pause, the ball replied, “Yes, of course. That would have been interacting with the seal.”

Starlight shrugged. “No stallion, then.”

Sunset leaned over and whispered, “Just between you and me, I’d take her either way.”

Adamantine hummed. “What I find interesting is the fact that you may separate an essence to begin with. That it… does not have to return to the body from which it left.”

After a few moment’s pause, Twilight’s voice replied with a tentative, “Yes.”

“Ooooh,” Starlight cooed, “that’s a good point. You could go to somepony else’s body that way. Maybe.”

Sunset giggled. “In fact, you could switch bodies with somepony, maybe?”

The crystal ball was silent for many moments. “Yes,” Twilight’s voice tentatively said, “but… the both of them must exist to begin with.”

Adamantine tilted her head in silent consideration. She said nothing.

Starlight nodded. “Huh. Interesting stuff.”

Sunset nodded in agreement.

Adamantine stood up and trotted across the room, eyeing the hourglass as she passed by it. She arrived in front of the sprawling window and started pacing. She took a seat next to the window, the sun at her back. She looked like she was meditating.

“U-uh, Adamantine, what are you doing?” Twilight’s voice nervously asked.

A few moments later, Adamantine replied, “I had a thought, you see. We’ve been talking about the seal so much… And I wonder what I would see if I looked there now.”

Starlight and Sunset inched closer, flanking the hourglass.

Adamantine focused. Her body remained still yet relaxed. Her breaths were shallow and slow, and yet there was rapid movement behind closed eyelids.

Her muzzle twitched, her brow furrowed. “That’s strange,” Adamantine whispered.

Sunset frowned. “What do you see?”

“Well… I see… ponies. Thousands and thousands of ponies.”

The whole room paused. Sunset and Starlight exchanged glances and swallowed. The Sunset Shimmers flinched and then leaned forward with devout curiosity.

“They must be all the ponies that have been taken from the timelines,” Adamantine concluded. “The ones which you have been searching for.”

Starlight blinked. She turned to Sunset. “They’re… inside the seal?” she whispered.

Sunset narrowed her eyes.

“I see thousands,” Adamantine continued. “There are some… ponies that I have seen before here, but they are not quite the same.”

“…That’s why no one could find them,” Starlight continued. “This explains so much.”

“And…” Adamantine shuddered, her frown deepening. A confused eyebrow went up. “What are…? I see… the other versions of me are here too. They’re here… in limbo just like every other pony here. Yet…”

“What!? This is the first I’ve known about this,” Twilight’s voice said. “That… explains some things. But…”

“Why are they there?” Adamantine thought aloud.

The only sounds that followed where the whirs of the machines.

“…A-Adamantine,” Twilight’s voice quivered. “What… else is there? Is there anything else in that seal?”

Adamantine shifted, her expression turning perplexed. She nodded from side to side as she, presumably, looked around. “I see… something. It’s… I don’t believe it. My other selves have embedded something within themselves. Within this seal. It’s…” She went silent.

Everypony leaned forward in interest.

“It’s… information. My other selves have managed to integrate some additional information with their essences. And there’s a lot of it. I can’t readily read it in full, but I can read it. It… looks like a spell, a very powerful and intricate spell, and it…” Adamantine went silent.

“…Adamantine,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset’s heart thumped in her chest.

Adamantine remained for many long moments. A minute, maybe two, passed by. And then, finally, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

“Twilight Sparkle…” Adamantine said at length, “I am afraid that… you have been fooled.”

Everypony in the room tensed up at that.

“I’m… sorry? I’ve been… I-I don’t—”

“It was not by my doing, I assure you. But I know that it has happened, and I have concealed it from you. I want you to know that I have the utmost respect for you, Twilight. And as such… I want to tell you this much:

“I read those documents on the table last night. And despite your best measures, I learned… a critical piece of material.”

The crystal ball was silent for many long moments. Starlight imagined a mare taking a long pause as she steadied herself.

“Adamantine,” Twilight’s voice firmly said.

Adamantine looked up and her frown deepened. Finally, tentatively, she spoke. “And I know why you would have liked to conceal it from me. So… I’m sorry, Twilight.”

Her horn lit up and, with an airy pop, a portal twice her size appeared behind her, showing a ruined tower full of bleached dust and debris. The room’s grand window was shattered, letting a shallow wind make its way through the portal.

Starlight and Sunset reeled, crying out in surprise.

“No! No! That’s impossible!”

The Sunset Shimmers stared with wide-eyed shock.

“I understand you now, Twilight. I think… that I’ve nearly grasped what is going on. But there is something I must see about now.”

“Stop! Adamantine! Think about what you’re doing. You can’t!”

Sunset swallowed and stepped forward, looking at Adamantine with uncertainty. Starlight joined her, lighting her horn in the process.

Adamantine nodded. “I have. You are a princess of Equestria. And your existence now… your motive... has helped to convince me that I am right.”

“Step away from that portal, Adamantine,” Sunset warned.

“Listen to me. You have to stay here!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed. “You go through with this, you’re going to cause something very terrible!”

Adamantine paused, her expression growing somber. She looked up, trying to find a watching face. After a moment’s thought, she vacantly nodded. “You… I am sure that you are correct. You have been through these events already. If I go through with this… then I will do something that is… most regrettable.”

Starlight and Sunset held their breaths.

Adamantine drew to her full height. Her wings unfurled to their full, magnificent length, and magic coursed through her horn.

“But... only for them would I do anything.”

Adamantine teleported to the other side of the aperture—into the ruined room beyond. Her horn was still lit.

Sunset dove, Starlight shot.

“Adamantine! Wait! That’s not—”

The portal snapped shut, fizzling out before their eyes.

Sunset tumbled, and Starlight’s shot ricocheted into some shelves.

“Oh, by the stars!” Twilight’s voice cried.

A flurry of gasps and cries erupted from the Sunset Shimmers.

Starlight stamped her hoof. “Twilight!”

“Ah! Ahhhh! Starlight! You have to go after her!” Twilight’s voice screamed.

Sunset swore and rolled over. “Twilight, where did she just go!?”

“Oh stars! Oh stars!”


“She’s going to the seal in Equestria W, where we are right now. And when she gets there, it’s over!”

Starlight broke into a gallop toward the stairs. “Come on, Sunset!”


Sunset hopped to her hooves and galloped behind. She paused at the first step and turned. “You all stay here! We’ll be back!”

Without checking for acknowledgment, she bolted down the stairs and out of the tower.

* * *

Twilight groaned and pinched the bridge of her muzzle. “Okay, you must have known that it would lead to this. You must have known how wrong it is to take all of those innocent ponies.”

The red bandana Adamantine reluctantly nodded. “We are well aware of that. But you see, we do this because it will be to the benefit of all of our unponies.”

“You are a princess in Equestria,” the blue bandana Adamantine said. “We know; our subjects have had plenty of time to tell us about you. We are not so certain why they all know you so intimately, but all the same…” She shook her head. “Surely, as a princess, you have felt the compulsion of duty.”

“Of course I have,” Twilight replied, “but I don’t think that I could ever do something like this! It’s a crime!”

“Diplomacy and law cannot help us here,” the yellow bandana Adamantine countered.

A loud groan reached them and they turned to see the huge stone doors parting. Adamantine stepped through, appearing to glide toward them.

Twilight blinked. “Adamantine?”

Rainbow Dash zipped forward. “Wait a second! Which one are you?”

Adamantine smiled. “Do not fear, Rainbow Dash, I am yours.” She turned to the others. “May I ask what you are doing?”

“We’re talking to your alternate universe selves,” Pinkie Pie replied.

Adamantine nodded. “…I see,” she said, stopping just short of them. “I would… like to have a word with them.”

The others exchanged glances and then backed away, letting Adamantine into the circle. Adamantine lit her horn and levitated the crystal ball out of Twilight’s grasp. She pressed on toward the center of the room, picking up the other crystal balls in the process.

She pressed the first crystal ball against her side. “Greetings, my counterparts.”

The Adamantines straightened up and glanced toward the ceiling, which Adamantine saw was up toward her. “Queen Adamantine of Equestria R. Our… prime counterpart,” the brown bandana Adamantine said.

“I understand that you have been very busy recently.”

“We have been,” the silver bandana Adamantine said. “It has been a long and hard road, but we feel… that whatever it is that we are working for… it is almost to fruition.”

Adamantine glanced back toward Twilight and the others. She nodded. “I see.”

“Surely, you have seen hints of our activities by now.”

“I have. And, as it so happens, said activity has brought attention to my people.”

“That is… unfortunate.”

Adamantine grew somber. “It has… had its merits. These past few days have been a whirlwind… of developments both good and bad.”

“That is understandable. We would imagine that this has happened so quickly for you. You have been isolated for the longest time.”

“Whereas we have had each other for a long while,” the red bandana Adamantine said. “We have been able to share resources and… given the condition that our worlds are in… less-obstructed access to so much more.”

“We predicted your existence not long after we made contact ourselves,” the green bandana Adamantine said. “We would have liked to have made contact with you sooner so that we could share our resources with you; so that we could save our unponies, together.”

The silver bandana Adamantine lowered her head. “Back then… there were more of us.”

Adamantine paused, counting them up. She counted six of them. “…There was a seventh, wasn’t there?”

“From the timeline that we are in right now. We made contact with this timeline’s version of us, but… sadly… she and her unponies perished along with the rest of this world before we had the chance to meet.”

Adamantine wobbled about but otherwise remained standing.

Rarity suppressed a gasp with her hoof, and Applejack hid behind her stetson. The others whimpered and frowned.

“But that is behind us now,” the green bandana Adamantine said. “We have endeavored, ever since, to bring about a future for our people. We can, finally, save them.”

Adamantine was quiet. Her jaw moved as if moving for words, but she did not speak. She looked up, vacantly considering it. “Save them?” she wheezed, her eyes sparkling with hope.

“That is correct.”

After a few moment’s consideration, she looked back into the crystal ball. “And… how exactly do you plan to save them?”

The yellow bandana Adamantine smiled. “Ah. We were hoping that you might tell us. The plan is, after all… your idea.”

Twilight’s legs felt weak and she almost collapsed. She, instead, stumbled backward into her friends.

Adamantine’s handle on the other balls shifted as she brought this one before her and carefully considered her counterparts within. Shakily, she draped a hoof on the ball. “…My idea?”

“Yes, and we are ready to follow it through to the end.”

“You are our prime counterpart,” the brown bandana Adamantine said, her expression piercing. “And thus… we look to you.”

A portal opened behind Twilight and the six of them glanced back to find Starlight and Sunset scrambling through. The two skidded to a halt with crestfallen expressions. “Oh no…” Starlight wheezed.

Adamantine regarded her counterparts for a bit longer and then straightened to her full height. Every eye in the chamber followed her as she strode a ways toward the rear of the chamber. “Twilight… I think I’ve finally figured it out.” She turned. “I am the one behind all of this. I am the mastermind. I just... didn’t realize it until now.”

“T-that’s n-not…” Twilight stammered.

Adamantine’s expression grew grim and she clutched the crystal ball tighter. The other balls drew in close, surrounding her. “There exists a method with which you may bind an essence within the seal to a body that is not its own, provided the body exists. My companions… I submit to you a plan… to take those bodies of the ponies that we have gathered and trade them with those of our unponies.”

Twilight’s legs fell out from underneath her. The others let out short distressed cries and shocked whimpers.

Rarity inched forward. “Adamantine… whatever are you doing…?”

Adamantine met Rarity’s glance with a mild stare. She offered no reply.

“I see…” the blue bandana Adamantine replied. “So… they will have the bodies of normal ponies… and those normal ponies will have those decaying unpony bodies. A substitution.”

“That is correct,” Adamantine replied. “It will… allow our people to live the full lives they deserve.”

The Adamantines exchanged glances, each on their own processing it. Their muzzles swished from side to side, they stared into the distance, and they shifted in place. One of them nodded, the others followed suit, and they looked up. “That sounds like a good plan.”

“I am glad that you see so. As you may have already seen, much of the work has already been done, provided you send your orders back in time. Just as I am doing right now.”

“We understand.”

“I may also tell you where you might find a spell, which you may use as the framework to bring this about. Once you are able to find your way into my reality, you may find this spell in the chambers of Princess Celestia. And… you may find any number of able-bodied ponies here within my reality.”

“We are able to access it right now. We may take it as soon as we are done here.”

“There are… further logistics that we will need to discuss that, despite already seeing the results, I am not sure of all of the specifics. Thus, we will need to speak again later.”

The Adamantines smiled. “We are looking forward to it,” the red bandana Adamantine said.

The silver bandana Adamantine lit her horn and several portals appeared, all heading to different versions of the chamber. “I suppose, then, that we shall speak with you later.”

Adamantine nodded. “May The Great Benefactor grant you speed, my companions.”

The Adamantines went their separate ways, each heading into a different portal. The one that had opened them lingered behind, closing them as her counterparts passed through, before disappearing through a portal herself. The room lay empty.

Adamantine spent many long moments just looking into the crystal ball before her. Briefly, she floated the other balls close, registering her counterparts now within each of them. She hummed in affirmation.

She then glanced over to Twilight and company and some color immediately disappeared from her face. She sucked in a breath and quickly averted her eyes.

Twilight’s throat was dry. She tried to find her air and she shakily rose to her hooves. “Adamantine… what… why…?” she croaked.

Adamantine turned even further away.

A heat overtook Twilight’s body. She could feel it crawl up her spine. First, her hooves shook, then her body. Her lips pursed and her breath turned hot. “I… cannot believe you. You’d sacrifice the lives of thousands of ponies?”

“I would,” Adamantine croaked in response. “For them, I would do anything. Would you not do the same for your subjects?” She jabbed at her own heart. “For those that you love?”

Twilight shook her head. “This isn’t the way.”

Adamantine whirled around. “Then what is the way, Twilight Sparkle? May I remind you that your exhaustive list of ways have not worked?”

“We’re still trying! We just need more time to find something that will work.”

“But I have just discovered it. And I have a great many reasons to be certain that it will work.”

“N-now hold on just a bit,” Applejack said, stepping forward. “Ya can’t just go an’ do that. Them ponies will be killed.”

“Applejack is right,” Rarity seconded. “That’s extreme! And barbaric!”

Adamantine scowled and turned away.

“We’re gunna find something. You can bet on that,” Pinkie Pie said. “I Pinkie Promise that we’ll find something, you’ll see!”

“That is a promise that you cannot keep!” Adamantine thundered. She turned, a flame burning in her eyes. “If another way existed, you or your future self”—she stared at Twilight—“would have had it by now.”

Rainbow Dash’s teeth-grinding was drowned out by Sunset’s frustrated stomping.

Twilight shook her head. “Please, Adamantine… we need you to be patient.”

“I have been patient,” Adamantine replied, her voice cracking. “For months, I have. And in that time, I have already watched hundreds of them—no, a few thousand of them die. Every one of them is a dagger in me, Twilight. I can’t,” she said, pointing to her heart.

Twilight swallowed, unsure of whether to reply or not.

“You may find it,” Adamantine continued, “but it may take months, or years, or even lifetimes. They do not have that kind of time. Would you… truly suggest… that I wait around while they suffer and perish?”

Twilight stumbled backward, her stern expression shattering. She tried getting some words out, but they got caught in her throat. She hung her head. “No. I… No, I wouldn’t.” She sighed, pulling at her face. “I just… Gosh, I don’t know.”

Adamantine sighed, pacing about for a moment. “Twilight Sparkle… I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for you… and I bear no ill will. Not to you, not to Equestria, and not to her ponies. But… I cannot let this continue to happen to my people.”

She rose to her full height, looking at them down the end of her muzzle. “I am their queen, and their safety and well-being is on my hooves. And even if I were not, I love them more than anything else on this planet. They are my world, Twilight. And so… I will save them by any means necessary, even if that means playing the predator and making your ponies the prey.”

A long and pregnant pause passed through the room as the eight friends exchanged worried glances, all the while forgetting to take their breaths. Save Rainbow Dash, whose wings kept her aloft, they remained motionless.

Twilight Sparkle swallowed and stood to her full height as well. “And I think highly of you, Queen Adamantine. I know you want to save them, and I desperately want to help you do that. But this… this is fundamentally wrong.

“I am responsible, as princess of Equestria, for her citizens. And even if I wasn’t, I couldn’t stand by while this happens. I can’t stand by while you take the lives of innocent ponies… even if it’s just to survive. There is nothing that justifies that. So I can’t let you do this, and I will do everything in my power to stop you.”

Adamantine nodded. “I… understand. Then… it would seem this places us in direct opposition.”

“…Yes. It does.”

“And if that is the case… then I would suppose that makes you and me…”

Twilight held back some water that had been forming in her eyes. “Enemies.”

The low hum of some far away seismic activity caressed the room, ultimately serving to draw Twilight’s attention to her own thumping heart. She did not breathe. She wasn’t sure if she could breathe. The others stood as still as statues, also holding their breaths.

Oh, Adamantine…

Adamantine swallowed. Her expression looked apologetic, even. But she said nothing. After a few moments, she nodded resignedly and coursed energy into her horn.

In a single white flash, Adamantine and the crystal balls were gone, leaving the eight of them alone in the chamber.

“…Oh dear,” Fluttershy whimpered, collapsing.

Rarity started choking on her own air and fanned herself in order to stave it off.

Starlight and Sunset turned to each other, aghast.

Rainbow Dash floated back to the ground next to Pinkie Pie. They considered each other, only for their frowns to deepen.

Twilight stared at the spot where Adamantine had been standing, every other sense and thought nonexistent. After a few long and painful moments, she shuddered and glanced back to her friends in questioning, almost afraid of what they would say.

Her friends met her gaze, equally lost and afraid.

After a pause, Applejack held her hat against her chest and swallowed. “…Ah said it before and Ah’ll say it again. W-we’re with ya, Twilight. ...One hundred percent.”

The others nodded solemnly.

Twilight sucked in a breath and looked back toward the center of the chamber. “Alright then… girls. It looks like… we… have a terrible task ahead of us.”

10 - Burning

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Principal Celestia pulled her truck into the parking space nearest the school’s back door and hopped out, nearly forgetting to turn the engine off. She dashed across the lawn, unlocked the door, threw it open, and dashed into the school.

Her footsteps echoed through the empty halls, but she could not hear them over her own pants and wheezes. Still, she ran faster than what she thought any of the track athletes ran. She felt her phone vibrate within her pocket, but she ignored it. She knew what it was.

She rounded a corner and spotted a long trail of some darkened sand. Tipped by a small mound, the trail ran around another corner. Celestia swallowed. She knew where the trail went.

Celestia followed it to the gym doors and then barged through them, nearly throwing them off their hinges. She found at least two-dozen sleeping bags strewn across the floor. Only a handful were occupied, and it was around those that her students gathered around.

“What happened!?” she bellowed.

Vice Principal Luna, who had her phone to her ear, whirled around and then jammed her phone into her pocket. “Sister! It’s gotten worse in the night.”

Celestia bent down to peer into one of the seemingly occupied sleeping bags, only to find it taken by a mound of dark sand. Her frown deepened as she observed the same thing in a couple of other sleeping bags. She crawled over to another bag, around which several pajama-clad students gathered around.

Fluttershy adjusted the wet cloth on the unhuman’s forehead. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, her tone soft.

The unhuman whimpered and mumbled something not even close to comprehensible.

Rarity bent over another unhuman, rubbing moisturizer over his deeply cracked skin. She spread it vigorously, her brow furrowing even more with every stroke. She glanced at the other unhumans and groaned in frustration.

Applejack stood up. “Ah don’t get it. The portal turned ’em into humans and everything. What gives?”

Luna frowned. “It would appear that it has not solved the problem.”

“But how?”

Twilight Sparkle inched forward, her hands clasped and her gaze fixed on the floor. “I think we should take them back,” she said, almost at a whisper. “They can’t… survive here.”

The doors burst open again and Rainbow Dash and Trixie rushed in, the both of them in their normal school attire.

Pinkie Pie joined the two shortly after. “We got your texts!” she exclaimed. “What happened?”

Twilight pointed to the black sand trail that led out of the gym. “Well, um… it looks like a few more of them… died during the night.”

The three newest arrivals let out pointed exclamations.

Celestia crossed her arms and grimly shook her head. “I believe it’s time that we take them back. I did not sign us up for this.”

Rarity gasped and then shot up. “Good heavens, you cannot seriously suggest that.”

“But I must.”

Fluttershy rose to her feet. “But… Sunset is counting on us. We have to save them somehow.”

Applejack shook her head. “Ah really don’t think we can.”

“But we must!” Rarity shrieked.

“Rarity, Ah’m sorry. If we can get them back to Equestria, they might have a chance.”

Celestia bent over a sleeping bag and unzipped one side. “Come, let us carry them back.”

While Luna squatted down opposite Celestia and started on the other zipper, two of the boys, Curly Winds and Wiz Kid, approached another, more-undone sleeping bag. They ducked underneath the unhuman’s arms and pulled her up. The unhuman wheezed in response as sand dripped out from the cracks in her body.

“Wait just a second!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, blocking the path. “Sunset sent them over here because they couldn’t really survive over there either! We can’t!”

“You are right, Miss Pie,” Celestia said, “but there is nothing we can do for them here.”

Rainbow Dash stomped the floor. “No way. There has to be a way!”

Applejack pointed at the mounds occupying the sleeping bags. “We ain’t been able to save six of them. We don’t got the stuff to save the several thousand of them there are.”

“W-we’ve lost so many already,” Fluttershy cried.

The boys tried to shift the weight, but that only served to deepen a crack in her shoulder to the point that everything beyond broke off. The unhuman teetered and then collapsed. While her head sustained only a few new cracks, the rest of her body seemed to deflate under the clothes. Her remaining arm, which sustained the brunt of the fall, shattered into a billion sand particles.

Every abled-body in the room let out a series of shrieks and cries and even the most forbidden expletives. Some, like Fluttershy, stumbled backward and fell. Others, like Rarity, could not stop screaming.

The remaining unhumans, still in their sleeping bags, labored to glance up but found they could not. They sobbed quietly instead.

Sunset Shimmer squinted in the morning sun and then pushed the door to the tower open. She, along with Starlight Glimmer behind her, trudged inside. They let the door click shut behind them and made no other sounds as they slithered across the room.

Some figures stirred in the darkness and then a few orbs of light materialized and lit the room. Several Sunset Shimmers bolted up from their spots.

“You’re back!” Sunset Shimmer T exclaimed furiously. “Where have you been?”

Sunset collapsed onto the bed in the corner. Starlight took a cushion nearby, sighing deeply.

After a few moments, Sunset shook her head. “Adamantine’s betrayed us.”

The Sunset Shimmers shared furtive frowns. “Um, yeah. So what?” Sunset Shimmer T asked.

“She’s… going to switch the bodies of our ponies and hers,” Starlight said. “And then our ponies will die.”

Sunset Shimmer S tugged at her silver bandana. “Well, that’s just buckin’ great.”

“Twilight went off to write a counterspell,” Sunset continued, rubbing at her bagged eyes. “It will pull everypony out of the door, just as they were when there got put in.”

“Okay. Wasn’t the whole point of this to save everypony? That’s what you said. And that sounds like exactly not what we were supposed to do.”

“That Adamantine is an idiot,” Sunset Shimmer I said. “That’s just typical. Those unponies won’t survive long in there. ...I don’t think.”

“Well, we’re here now,” Starlight groaned. “Twilight… knew this might happen. We didn’t stop it.”

Sunset rubbed her muzzle. “I’m pretty darn sure that that itself isn’t the disaster but... I think it’s safe to say that we’re locked into it.”

“There’s no way this can turn out okay,” Starlight said. She stared up at the ceiling, lost in her own thoughts. As the seconds passed, her expression became more focused before, finally, she hopped to her hooves. “If we let it go that way.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. The other Sunset Shimmers tilted their heads with curiosity.

“We still have at least a day before the spell is finished,” Starlight said. “We could use that time to, I don’t know, think of something.”

Sunset flipped over and stood up. “You know what? You’re right. We still have time to try some things. We can’t give up now.”

Sunset Shimmer N stepped forward. “Woah woah woah, hold on. You honestly think you can do it in a day?”

Sunset chuckled. “Hey, I’ve done the impossible in this sort of time crunch before.”

Starlight nodded. “I think we’ll think of something.” She yawned and then giggled. “Just because something happened in some world above us nine days into the future doesn’t mean it has to happen here too.”

Sunset nodded. “Damn straight. We can make a difference.”

* * *

Twilight Sparkle pushed through the crowd of guards standing within the cavern. Each of them looked bewildered. The commanding ranks huddled near the side and spoke in low voices. Some of the guards regarded her as she passed through, but they said nothing.

Something twisted in her chest. What had happened?

She rounded the corner to find the end of the cavern where the seal lay. The doors, given the presence of so many standing in front of it, had parted into the walls. And then Twilight saw it: the familiar pink barrier stretching across the opening. The chamber beyond was as they had left it: a giant latticework of wood, akin to a small colony, with unponies resting here and there. Some royal guard effects, like helmets and armor, were abandoned within the chamber.

Twilight glanced behind her, now noticing that some of the guards were, indeed, out of their armor.

She shuffled up to the barrier, expecting it to react in the same way as the one she had seen just a few days prior, wherever it was Adamantine had taken then to. But, unlike that one which had deformed to her touch, this one was as solid as stone.

Twilight lit her horn and teleported. She arrived on the other side of the barrier and into the chamber itself, and immediately had to cover her nose from the strong and putrid stench. Her eyes watered as she glanced around, locating several cauldrons of unstew that had not been there before.

She lit her horn again and a filter appeared around her muzzle. Only then did she dare to breathe again.

She examined her surroundings, noting some of the guards now pressing up against the barrier in curiosity. Those same guards had just been on the battlefield against King Sombra.

Twilight frowned and opened a portal to another timeline. On the other side of the portal, she saw the same barrier, and past it and into the passage itself, several night guard members. She spotted Princess Luna, or at least the one that had been Nightmare Moon until a few days ago, having a hushed conversation with her captains.

She closed that portal, opened another one, and found the same thing: the royal guards all locked out of the chamber.

A shiver ran up Twilight’s spine.

* * *

Princess Celestia adjusted her wings, only to find they were just as uncomfortable as before. “Everypony?” she asked.

The guard nodded. “Yes, Your Highness. Every unit sent to the unpony cavern is accounted for. We’ve triple-checked.”

Celestia looked past him and down the lawn where at least two hundred guards stood at attention. Most ponies would have seen focus and determination, but she knew how to read guards well enough to see the tense muscles and forced blankness. They were confused.

As was she. “If you would, please, explain to me what happened?”

“Your Highness. Queen Adamantine asked us to gather together and then she teleported us here.”

Celestia blinked. “Did she give any reasons why?”

“No, Your Highness. She did not say anything. She brought us here and then she disappeared. We have not seen her since.”

Celestia’s frown deepened but only by an amount that Luna could have discerned. She looked over her misplaced guards. What is she doing…?

* * *

Sunset glanced up. “This is the last of it?”

Sunset Shimmer C nodded. “Every set of stones done twice over,” she said.

Starlight leaned over and skimmed through the pages along with Sunset. The two paused every once in a while to compare readings.

“Every set of readings gave us the same results,” Sunset Shimmer I said.

Starlight pointed toward a timestamp at the top of one of the reports. “Yeah, look at these. Same timestamp, right? Every single stone in this set gave us the same thing.”

Sunset furrowed her brow. “…Which, given all this information, basically amounts to just two things. One, that the insides of the seals are changing—”

“Which we already knew about,” Starlight interjected.

“—and two, that the seals in every timeline are the exact same.”

A moment of silence passed before Starlight groaned. “How the buck does that make any sense?”

Sunset pinched the bridge of her nose. “It doesn’t. Like, at all.”

“So, lemme get this straight. Adamantine looks into the seal in our timeline and pretty much finds everypony that’s gone missing, plus her alternate selves, and some spell to switch everything around. That’s six selves, maybe sixty thousand other ponies…” Starlight said, trying to count with her hooves, “and then if we just trotted on over to, say, Equestria S, and checked the seal there, we’d find another six Adamantines and sixty thousand more ponies.”

“Where are they coming from?” Sunset Shimmer S asked. “I get the alternate timelines aspect, but that just sounds like its making copies.”

“How the hell is that supposed to work?” Sunset Shimmer I replied as she tugged at her brown bandana. “These things are separated by entire timelines. What happens in one should not be happening in all the others.”

“Not to mention that violates some energy laws, I’m sure,” Sunset piped up.

“Because the doors are connected somehow,” Twilight’s voice said with a subdued tone.

Everypony glanced toward the ceiling, despite the voice originating from the crystal ball in the middle of them. “Twilight,” Starlight said, “good morning.”

“Good morning, everypony. I was just listening in and I thought I’d chime in.”

Sunset stood up. “You’ve said that bit before. Have you figured anything out about it?”

“…Sadly, I haven’t. I mean, I know that the door acts in that certain way—where if you put a pony into one door, somehow… you can bring them back out via another door in another timeline—but I still can’t tell you why.”

“That makes even less sense than before!” Starlight exclaimed.

“I wish I had something definitive for you. I’m just…” Twilight’s voice sighed. “I don’t have anything. And after yesterday… Honestly… I don’t even know what I want to do anymore.”

Sunset sighed. “Gosh, Twilight, I’m sorry. I know we really failed you.”

“No… it’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I wasn’t vigilant enough.” Twilight’s voice spoke at a near-whisper.

“Even when you and the princesses wanted us to keep her occupied yesterday, we couldn’t do it,” Starlight said. She shook her head. “We’re the ones that failed.”

Adamantine figured everything out the moment she looked into that seal. There wasn’t much we could do at that point.”

Sunset snorted. “Yeah, I guess…”

“I know you were with me for a while this morning. Did you, by any chance, mention any of this to me?”

Sunset sighed. “I don’t even remember the last few hours, if I’m being honest. Probably not.”

Starlight shook her head. “I-I wasn’t entirely there either.”

“Of course,” Twilight’s voice replied. “Don’t worry about it. I’m kinda feeling the same way too.”

“Yeah.” Starlight shrugged. “Anything else?”

“Yes. A.K. Yearling and I have just finished decoding those documents. I know now exactly how I was fooled. I was so sure I had to prevent her from taking the portal spell with her. I remembered the one that had been taken in my timeline. I was so sure of it. Sure, she took a different paper instead, but I was satisfied with what I saw.

“…But they were all red herrings. The portal spell was redundantly spread across all of them. It had the portal spell several times over. Even with one document missing, she still had the whole thing. They interspliced it with gibberish to throw us off.”

“How do you know all that for sure?” Starlight asked.

“There were instructions for her to take a random document redundantly spread across each page. Those other Adamantines knew she’d be able to commit the entire spell to memory before she even left the room—gosh, that possibility didn’t even occur to me.” The voice in the crystal ball paused. “She must have read that much and realized that these documents were meant for her. It took her to Equestria W. She figured out exactly where she needed to go after that.”

Starlight scratched her head. “Okay, so we made a huge mistake there. So wait, maybe we can warn ourselves about that particular mistake so that we don’t make it again?”

Sunset nodded. “I guess. We could warn the layers below, but it’ll be too late for us.”

Starlight went pale in the face and then hung her head. “Right. Alternate layers.”

“That sounds like a great idea; you’ll need to find me later and tell me about all this,” Twilight’s voice said. “Although I’m not sure why the layer above mine didn’t warn us about this particular mistake.”

“Did they diverge?” Sunset asked.

“It doesn’t look like it.”

Sunset shrugged. “Whatever. How much time do we have?”

“About thirty-six hours.”

“If we somehow find some permanent solution within the next thirty-six hours, then we’ll still be golden. Especially if we can turn things around in our world with it.”

“Alright,” Twilight’s voice said. “I’ll lend you whatever assistance that I can.”

Sunset glanced around, noting the stone results and noting her doubles. She regarded the crystal ball and then smiled at Starlight. “Alright, I have kinda an idea how I want to go about this.” She turned to her doubles. “I’ll need to do some thinking later on, so, at some point, we’ll need to put the setup together. And Starlight, when that happens, I’ll need the tower.”

Starlight nodded. “Sure. If you’re going to do that, then that might give me some time to go do something out northeast. Hopefully, I’ll have some friends to bring back with me.”

The Sunset Shimmers exchanged glances and then nodded in approval. “I’m sure there are things we’ll be able to do in the meantime,” Sunset Shimmer C said.

“Great. In the meantime, Twilight…” Sunset began, glancing up, “you’ll need to tell us everything that you know.”

* * *

“She has pushed us out, then,” Celestia said, setting her teacup onto a coaster.

Twilight nodded solemnly from her position across the table before flipping a page in her pages-long document. A quill idly floated within her grasp.

“Oh, Queen Adamantine,” Celestia said with a sigh, “what are you doing?”

Twilight jotted some symbols down and then lay her quill down. “This was the last thing I ever thought would happen.”

Celestia straightened up. “Twilight, I have to be sure. You can still get in and perform the counterspell that you have there, yes?”

Twilight nodded. “Absolutely.” She paused. “If it comes to that.”

“It may very well come to that, considering what has happened in the past few hours.”

“I just…” Twilight trailed off, nervously rubbing her foreleg, “I’m just not sure what will happen when I do. Adamantine’s rolled the dice on this… I’m so afraid that no matter which of us pulls through first… we’re still going to lose.”

“You are afraid that this will seal the unponies’ fate.”

“Or whoever ends up taking their place.”

Celestia sucked in a breath and ruffled her feathers. The telltale signs of thoughts manifested through searching eyes and a scrunching of her muzzle. Finally, Celestia sighed. “If that really is the case, then this truly is a disaster.”

* * *

Sunset downed her cup of tea and then placed the teacup in the sink. With a deep breath, she took one last look at her notes, taking in each page. She was silent like the rest of the tower. She then set her notes down on the counter and then, after taking one last glance around the empty living area and sighing, she trotted up the stairs.

The study area was just as empty, save for the towering bookshelves, the now quiet machines, and the giant hourglass in the center of the room. She found a pillow on the other side of the glass, flanked by candles and incense rods all standing within small bowls. The setup faced Celestia’s tower, which felt right, even more so than it ever did before.

She took a seat on the cushion. She flared her horn and the objects flickered to life; a dull flame stood on the tip of the candles while a small and steady stream of smoke wafted off the incense.

With her magic, Sunset flipped the hourglass over. The sand within shifted and began falling through; it made a ssssh as it trickled into the bottom chamber.

She took a long whiff of the incense’s wooden smell and let out a long sigh, content to stay and lose herself in the moment.

Sunset took one last look at her setup and then closed her eyes. Her breath slowed down to a deep crawl.

The tower around her melted away. All her senses faded, and shortly after, her perception of black did so as well.




Sunset took a long, deep breath and opened her eyes.

An eternal plane of coalescing reds and oranges greeted her instead. Sunset peered across the idle expanse of her own mind and nodded.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be sorted through this time around,” Sunset thought. “Let’s get started.

“I need to remember the most basic questions that I have because they’ll be key to figuring all of this out. For starters, why did the Nameless die in all timelines at the exact same time?”

A flame materialized in front of her, dancing for a few moments as an image formed within its body. Said image settled into a simple skull and crossbones. A few moments later, the flame began orbiting around her head.

“And in addition to that, why is it that, despite being from other timelines entirely, the unponies know who Twilight is? Why do they know who I am, and who Starlight is?”

Another flame appeared, this one containing the disembodied heads of Twilight, Starlight, and herself. It joined its brother in orbit.

“And some other questions that may or may not be related... How did the other Adamantines find each other? What is the remote property that apparently exists for the unponies? How it is that every bit of magic we throw at them doesn’t work?”

Three more flames appeared: one contained several disembodied Adamantine heads, another contained the image of unponies with a red interdictory symbol on top, and the last contained a television remote.

Sunset eyed the last one and frowned. “A TV remote…? Whatever. Close enough.”

She turned to the skull and crossbones and took it into her hoof. “Let’s start with you. Twilight mentioned that the doors were connected somehow. Considering the behaviors that we’ve seen from the stones, which reflect the status of their respective seals, that kinda makes sense.”

A new flame containing a stone appeared next to the skull and crossbones. Sunset took it in her other hoof.

“And Twilight talked about the possibility of placing somepony in a seal within one timeline and pulling them out of the seal in a different timeline. If that’s true, then the matching statuses of the seals in each timeline are more than just coincidental; they’re directly linked.”

Sunset tossed the skull and crossbones out where it hung within the ether.

“All of that seems to imply that anything we do to one seal causes the same thing to be done on every seal.”

She tossed the flame with the picture of the stone out to which it collided with the skull and crossbones. Both exploded into a million sparks on impact which then imploded into a combined flame containing a skull and crossbones overlaid by a chain link.

Sunset stroked her chin and trotted forward, circling around that flame like a predator. “But there are some contradictions that come about from that. For one, there’s the clear violation of the conservation of energy. And then something like that would imply that the seal is able to create and destroy in order to match its alternate timeline counterparts.

“Which is impossible, because if it could do that, then it would have been more efficient to simply destroy the Nameless. Chances are it’s not doing that.

“And there’s Adamantine saying that whenever she peered into the seal herself, she would sense copies of herself. Sure, with every Adamantine, from our timeline and the alternate timelines, possibly looking into the seal at the same time, that would explain the mirrors that she would see. It would also explain why Adamantine stopped seeing them a few years ago, because that was when the Rainboom happened and the timelines diverged after that.

“But, by that same token… If there are multiple Adamantines looking into the seal, there should also be multiple Nameless inside the seal as well. That isn’t happening.

“And also…” she thought as a faint spark floomed into existence next to her, “if there are eight timelines in play, there should be, via omniverse theorem, infinitely many timelines. We saw that through the infinitely many worlds connected through the crystal ball. The existence of only a finite amount here… violates that beautiful symmetry.” The flame took form, containing three straight lines that formed a symmetry symbol.

Sunset pursed her lips. “Dammit. Something’s not right.

“There can’t exist some arbitrary bound that determines what seals are able to interact with what seals. If every seal is truly alike, then either all of them must be linked together, or none of them must be. It’s definitely not none of them, but eight is way too small to be infinitely many of them.”

The skull and crossbones broke from behind the chain and separated into its own distinct flame. A wooden door took its place behind the chain.

“That must mean that there exists some built-in bound. Something built into the seal itself. Each seal must be explicitly aware of each other. …Just as we are explicitly aware of the other timelines.”

Sunset gasped. “That… makes sense. Just like our timelines are currently connected through portals… which would make us a system of timelines… maybe the seals are connected via portals.”

She stared down the flame containing the chain and the door. She blinked and took a step back. She ran her eyes over the other flames within the expanse and then nodded. “That would make the seals… one single system. And so, what if… what if instead of eight individual seals within eight timelines, it’s… one single seal, all connected and twisted together, spanning all eight timelines?”

The chain and door exploded into a raging inferno, prompting Sunset to shield her eyes. Even from a distance, she could feel its heat radiating across the front of her corporeal body. The image within the inferno showed a series of doors, each at the tail ends of arrows that pointed toward a single point in the center.

“The door in every timeline goes to the same place…” Sunset murmured, considering the inferno. “There really is a tree trunk…

“Yes… that explains so many things. Aside from the obvious being it answering why we get the same behavior between seals and why ponies can go into one and out the other, it explains how…” she thought, grabbing the flame containing the many Adamantine heads, “…the other Adamantines were able to meet each other and work this out; they had a common place to meet at, and the seals provided them with the means to eventually come into physical contact with each other.” She threw the flame at the inferno, causing it to grow even brighter.

“Why… the Nameless died in all timelines at the same time,” she thought, grabbing the flame of the skull and crossbones. “Because, even though there’re multiple timelines, somehow… there was only one Nameless.” She threw that flame as well and it too fueled the inferno.

Sunset tilted her head in thought. “It would be kinda neat to know why there only exists one Nameless despite the fact that there are several timelines, or how the ones that originally sealed the Nameless away figured out that there were alternate timelines as well. Maybe they were all merged together. But… it’s impossible to tell at this point, and it doesn’t matter.”

She whirled around. “Anyway, since I’ve established some common ground between the timelines… I wonder if I can apply the same logic to the unponies?

“Obviously, they are unique to whatever timeline they come from, but maybe… there exists room for information from all other timelines to reach everypony simultaneously, because of the channel the timelines share through the seal. Like… how they knew about us.”

She turned to some of the flames behind her. “Alright, so there’s the fact that there exists some remote part to the unponies.” She glanced at the flame containing the TV remote and frowned. “And… according to Discord, for the unponies from our timeline, at least, Twilight Sparkle exists on the other end.”

A new flame tore off from the old one, forming into Discord’s smiling mug heading an arrow that pointed to Twilight’s distressed mug.

She pushed the new flame out of the way. “I’ll have to come back to that one. There exists a remote part to the unponies, and our magic can’t fix their problem,” she said, glancing between both flames representing those respective ideas. “Something to consider, in addition to that, is that literally every spell we cast works; we can change them into breezies and levitate them no problem, but no matter what, they’re still reliant on unstew or Nameless energy.”

A flame containing some magical aura appeared.

She turned to the TV remote. “If Discord is to be believed, then some secondary part exists somewhere. It seems like half of any unpony’s being is in those pony forms that we’ve seen while the other half of their being exists in some unknown form some distance away.”

Sunset flicked it aside and allowed both the magical aura and the red interdictory symbol to glide into her center of attention. “I guess... magic can be cast on the pony half, and the pony half will react accordingly, but nothing changes the rule that unstew or Nameless energy is required. This suggests… that that requirement exists at this unknown half.”

The two flames fused to make a magical aura surrounding a question mark.

The TV remote floated back toward the front. “And considering that unknown half sustains the pony half, that… suggests that the pony half is just a peripheral with which to gather this Nameless energy with. Which means… anything could happen to the pony half, but if the unknown part is not sustained… then the entire unpony dies.”

The expanse rumbled and flickered for a few moments, causing Sunset to whirl around in alarm. The flames containing all her ideas nearly burned up, and some shrunk to mere embers. Even the raging inferno that was the single seal conclusion lost its luminosity. A brief image of her friends in the human world flashed across the expanse.

“Hold on… hold on… s-stay focused,” she stammered, feeling some proverbial sweat go down her muzzle. Her body felt fuzzy and she tried to tune it out. “Stay focused… this isn’t done yet.”

The tremors subsided and the expanse restabilized. Her flames returned to their former intensity, and that prompted Sunset to stand up straight.

“It’s a matter of sustaining that unknown part. What remains to be seen is if the unknown part is capable of absorbing the energy itself or if it relies on the pony form to gather that energy and funnel it into itself.”

Sunset flung the TV remote at the question mark and the flames fused.

“Now, as to figuring out exactly what that unknown part is… Twilight said that the unponies explicitly exist in order to clean up overvented Nameless energy. Just… the fact that the creators were able to engineer them that way is incredible, although considering they also created the crystal ball and linked the doors together… it’s not too surprising, I guess.

“Either way, that just means that the unponies are just a peripheral to the Nameless seal.”

The flame containing Discord and Twilight’s heads reentered her view and she narrowed her eyes at it. “But… it has to be some peripheral such that the unknown half of the unponies from our timeline is Twilight Sparkle.” Discord’s head responded by shapeshifting into an unpony.

“That’s… just plain weird.”

She paced around for a few moments, lapping the linked-seal inferno. Her muzzle twitched and her expression drew blank. She paced and paced until she arrived in an empty spot.

“There’s also the matter that every unpony in existence knows Twilight Sparkle like they know themselves. Why they know Starlight and I.”

The three disembodied heads came racing over.

“And in addition to that, why they are suddenly fully aware of everypony that exists within the seal. They know their identities, histories, everything.”

She gathered the heads and turned to the inferno.

“Not even Adamantine is aware of those in that capacity.” Sunset scratched her muzzle. “But if… the unponies are really fully integrated with the seal in that way… then that would explain why the unponies know who we all are, despite the glaring fact that they’re from alternate timelines; Twilight existed inside the seal at one point, and now those thousands exist inside the seal now.”

Sunset tossed the disembodied heads into the inferno. The inferno grew in size and turned into a weak blue. Several unpony heads surrounded the chain link and wooden door.

“So… those are the conditions. Some part of the unponies is directly linked to the seal, and for our timeline… they are connected to Twilight.” She rubbed her muzzle. “What… peripheral could actually match that description?

“I mean, we have a peripheral that reflects that insides of the seal, yet in our timeline, said peripheral transformed into Twilight Sparkle. I mean, obviously, unless Twilight took something in…”

In the ether, there was no need to breathe, and yet she felt all breath escape her. Physicality had no power there, yet she felt unable to move. The expanse flickered again, this time accompanied with an audible scratching.

It was her mind, after all. And yet Sunset feared whatever came next.

The entire expanse evaporated. The ideas, which she had carefully cultivated, burnt up without even so much as leaving lingering smoke plumes. All that remained was her still-frozen corporeal self.

“W-what…?” she mentally croaked.

An image formed in the space in front of her. Even as parts of it burned into existence, the picture moved. It gradually revealed itself. Sunset narrowed her eyes, trying to see it clearly.

It was a crystal pillar. A tree-like pillar that now was cascading downward like a viscous fluid. A purple horn which had just been encased in it remained floating above the large, rotating puddle that the crystal formed.

Sunset shuddered and nearly cried out in surprise when a purple orb appeared before her. And then another, then a score, then a few hundred. Many more blinked into existence and swirled around a central point, counter to the liquid below.

One by one, the stones dove into the liquid. Several splashes dotted the surface as each orb disappeared. With each addition, the rotating pool spun faster and faster, turning purple as a result.

Sunset became aware of the low rumble that accompanied it, even as the picture skipped a few frames and parts of it disappeared for bits at a time. As more and more orbs teleported into the expanse and then kamikazed into the liquid, the hum turned into a deafening roar.

And then, once the last of the orbs dove in, the purple horn that floated in the center of the formation lit up and sucked the molten crystal up toward it. The liquid spiraled around the horn at first and then swallowed it whole. As more and more rose up, the liquid compacted into a solitary sphere around it.

And then the sphere exploded in a bright white flash and Sunset’s entire expanse lit up. She could not see in any sense of the word. The roar reached its apex, deafening her as well. After a few moments, her vision returned, and Sunset hazarded a look.

Twilight Sparkle stared back at her through white-lit eyes and an unconscious frown. Her rainbow-like mane and tail swayed with the energy that flowed through them. She floated with her wings spread to their full length.

Sunset’s body burned. She could feel her rear end being blasted away, but her full attention remained on the figure in front of her which was radiating something powerful. Said radiation, strangely visible within the expanse, condensed into thousands of flames.

Thousands of flames containing the same purple orbs.

“…The unponies,” Sunset thought, blinking. She considered the stones, she considered Twilight. “The unponies. They’re…”

Twilight Sparkle exploded. The fireball rapidly expanded, meeting Sunset so quickly she barely had time to process the image inside before it completely obliterated what remained of her.

Sunset Shimmer screamed.

And then she tumbled off the pillow, knocking over a bowl and its spent incense. She hit the floor, gasping for breath. She felt at her chest, checking for a heartbeat. When she found it, she rolled over, now trying to control her hyperventilation. She tried to stand, but her legs wobbled beneath her. Sweat dripped down the side of her face and her teeth chattered.

Only a few moments later did she managed to find breath.

“…Oh my bucking stars.”

* * *

Starlight reached the tip of the stairs. The crystal ball floated by her head and the six Sunset Shimmers followed closely behind. They stood in front of the tower’s entry door for some moments, and Starlight reached out with her magic to pull it open when it nearly swung off its hinges on its own.

Sunset sprang out and grabbed Starlight by her withers.

“Sunset!?” Starlight cried.

“They’re stones! They’re stones!” Sunset shrieked. “The unponies are stones!”


“What!?” Twilight’s voice exclaimed.

“I figured it all out! I know the answers to pretty much everything now. The unponies are literally stones!”

The Sunset Shimmers’ mouths hung dumbstruckly open.

Starlight pressed a hoof against her forehead and rubbed it like soothing a headache. “Wow…”

“No… no way,” Twilight’s voice said. “No way. This… I-I think I see it. Y-yes, i-it… Oh, by the stars.”

“I’ll go into the details later,” Sunset said, pushing through them. “I have to go. I’ll be back in, like, twenty minutes.”

The seven whirled around as Sunset reached the stairs. “Wait!” Sunset Shimmer T yelled. “Going? Where the buck?”

“I have to get a message to Spike!” she called back before disappearing down the stairway.

* * *


Go to CHS and bring the unponies back through now! They aren’t safe there!

Sunset Shimmer

Spike clenched the scroll in his claws as he bolted into the mirror portal. His world twisted into a rainbow-colored light show and his body contorted in ways that he could not be aware of. And then his doggy paws hit pavement.

On seeing that his transformation had tucked the note into his collar, he surged forward. He scampered up the stairs and pushed through the front door. He found several students in the main foyer, although their voices were more hushed than what he remembered. He dismissed it and wormed his way through them and into the hallway.

After dodging through several more pairs of legs and around some grounded backpacks, Spike arrived at the gym doors. But, to his dismay, he found that these doors opened outward, presenting no more than a pair of handles.

He tried to jump up toward them but didn’t find the height. He tried scampering up the side of the door but couldn’t find the height. He clawed at it, hoping someone on the other side would hear.

Then the door swung open. Principal Celestia poked through and looked around.

“Principal Celestia!” Spike exclaimed.

She started and then glanced down. “Oh… Spike. Hello.”

“Thank you!” he exclaimed before running through her legs. He emerged into the gym proper, ignoring Celestia’s bewildered expression, and looked around.

And found nothing except for a mound of what looked like black sand that couldn’t have been any bigger than his paw.

Spike blinked and ran his eyes over the rest of the gym to make sure he hadn’t missed something. And then he realized that it wasn’t him that was missing something, it was that several somethings were missing.

“…Where is everyone?” he asked.

Celestia walked up behind him. “They either were sent home for the day… or…”

Spike frowned. “Where are the unponies at? I need to take them back to Equestria. Right now.” He reached into his collar and then presented the note.

Celestia bent down, took it, and read it over. At that, her already-somewhat pale face paled even more, and her expression fell. “…I see.”

“Where are they?”

Celestia hobbled over to a folding chair in front of the small mound and sat down. “I’ve… spent the past hour just sitting here,” she said, “with that pile of… I don’t know what you’d call it. I’ve been watching that pile dissolve into thin air.”

Spike shuddered, regarding her with suspicion. “Principal Celestia…?”

Celestia hung her head. She motioned toward the pile but couldn’t find anything more to say about it. “I’m… so sorry, Spike. We couldn’t do it.”

* * *

Sunset glanced at the reply in her magical grasp. She read it a third time, and a fourth. She read it several more times after that. She paced around the living area all the while.

They’re dead.

Sunset’s frown deepened.

They’re dead because they were there.

Her breath became hot and her heart pounded against her bones.

They were there because I sent them there.

They’re dead because I sent them there.

Sunset threw the note to the floor, but that did nothing to put her at ease.

They’re dead… because of me.

With a scream, she levitated a pillow and threw it across the room. It collided with a cupboard in the kitchen, propelling several glasses and porcelain pieces off; they promptly shattered against the floor.

“Dammit. Just… dammit,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. Her hooves shook, emphasizing the way her body shuddered. After a few moments, she sighed.

Sunset whipped around and stormed up the stairs where the others were invariably waiting.

11 - Uncertainty

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Queen Adamantine sat back in her cushion and sighed. Her eyes remained on the crystal ball in front of her, where several copies of herself, once in a chamber, began to disperse. Each of them carried a few pages of notes, all unique, and as each Adamantine opened portals to their native timelines, they considered their respective contents.

Adamantine turned her attention to her own set of notes which consisted of numbers and micro-plans. Scratched-out lines led into fully fledged ideas, many of which she had circled for reassurance.

Adamantine set those notes down on her desk and glanced down at the cushion that she sat on. A few more unruly cotton balls had escaped and subsequently settled on the floor. At least a half-dozen empty styrofoam cups, bleached a chocolate color from their former contents, joined them. She picked one up to see if any drink remained inside and frowned when she found none.

Instead, she placed the crystal ball among six other crystal balls and then stood up. Adamantine hobbled toward the opening and peered into the grander cavern beyond.

The noontime sun filtered in through the giant hole in the cavern’s ceiling, its light shaded a pink hue by the magic barrier that stretched across the aperture. Underneath, several bodies lay about the cavern, some conscious, others asleep. A few gathered in reading circles or tossed objects, but they were the lucky few that still had all their parts. Many others bore deep cracks along a part or several parts of their bodies. Those were the ones that Adamantine paid attention to.

She walked among them. Each stride brought her to somepony different and she regarded each that she came across. Some rested, others glanced up. Most smiled, but some rolled away. Adamantine checked them all, observing the states they lay in. Some were cracked, some were not, and others were falling apart.

It wasn’t until she reached the other side of the cavern that Adamantine found a reason to finally stop. An earth unpony, propped against the wall, had deep cracks running along every inch of his body. Small chips and missing pieces cropped up everywhere. What drew her attention were the depressions where his eyes should have been.

She knew Calcite like she knew all unponies. From the way he sounded like a woodpecker when he laughed, and the way he’d spin tales around a campfire with his closest friends (and even the occasional passerby), to the cool head that drew others to lean on him, she could remember it all. Images of various wooden figurines depicting many unponies, including one of herself, flashed through Adamantine's mind. There were a number of artists to go around; some were concerned with literature while others dabbled with paintbrushes. Calcite was the only sculptor and the only one in a while that only worked with wood.

And now Calcite was blind.

Adamantine bit down of her hoof, suppressing the urge to sniffle, which she knew would ultimately lead to tears. She couldn’t do that until it was all over.

But by goodness was looking at Calcite hard.

She sighed and took a seat right next to him. She reached out, hesitated, and then brushed him on the foreleg. Calcite moaned quietly to the touch. He carefully lifted his forelegs and took her forelegs in his own.

Adamantine lit her horn and, in conjunction with her forelegs, pulled him into her. They lay there together in silence. Adamantine stroked him like a mother would stroke a child. Her expression was blank, and Calcite never would see it. Calcite, in turn, quietly nestled himself into her.

After a minute, Adamantine heard approaching hoofsteps, and she looked up. A pegasus unmare, carrying an acoustic guitar on her back, regarded the two of them with a sullen frown. Adamantine knew her as a musician who had, in recent months, lost her bandmates. But her cracks, unlike many others, were few and far between. Scoria was a lucky one, indeed.

Scoria sat down next to them and pulled the guitar off her back. She contemplated the two, stroked her chin, and then lay a hoof across the guitar neck.

Her other hoof strummed the guitar, creating dulcet tones that made up the short sequence of notes. After a rest, allowing those notes to fade away, she strummed the same pattern again. Her song was slow, lingering on each solemn sequence. Scoria herself swayed with the tones.

Adamantine swallowed and continued stroking Calcite, nearly content just to listen. Then she met Scoria’s eyes and some unspoken conversation passed between them. She lit her horn and pulled on something well across the cavern. A harmonica floated over seconds later.

With a sigh, Adamantine pressed it against her muzzle and joined in. Their tunes wove together into a soft-spoken duet. Those around listened in silence and peace, reflecting with the music. Where Scoria’s guitar went, Adamantine’s harmonica followed. Sometimes, her harmonica took the lead, with the guitar close behind.

Calcite sighed, a weak smile appearing on his face, and he nestled himself further into Adamantine’s bosom.

There, Adamantine lost herself to the music; into a melancholic tune that spoke more than anything she could ever actually say in words.

While Twilight Sparkle sat at the table, feverishly writing several lines into a stack of papers, her five closest friends watched from a ring of couches in the opposite corner of the room. Through those long stretches of silence, the only sounds available were the scratching of Twilight’s quill, the occasional shuffling of papers or body parts, and random noises from far-off places outside. Nothing with any meaning.

The five occasionally glanced over but otherwise had nothing to offer. They sat lost in thought.

Fluttershy sucked in a breath, preparing to speak, but ended up just shaking her head.

Applejack looked over. “You okay?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

Fluttershy nodded solemnly. “Oh, I’m just thinking. That’s all.”

“We all are,” Rarity said. “This definitely isn’t how I imagined things would go…”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “Nope…”

“As soon as Twilight completes that there spell,” Applejack said, “we’ll be gettin’ our ponies back.”

“That’s if Adamantine doesn’t complete her spell first,” Rarity replied, tugging at her curly mane.

Pinkie Pie sighed as she toyed with her mane. She yanked it, her expression an unusual study in calm puzzlement. A few moments later, she sighed. “I don’t wanna do this,” she murmured, hanging her head.

Applejack nodded. “Ah know.”

“I mean, I really don’t wanna do this. This is super-duper terrible.”

“Tell me about it,” Rainbow Dash said, kicking about. “Shows how much we helped if she’s gotta do all this.”

“That don’t give her no excuse,” Applejack countered.

“You heard her! What else is she supposed to do? Let them die?” She sat back into her cushion and snorted. “I dunno,” Rainbow Dash said at length. “I guess if I were in her horseshoes right now… I wouldn’t leave them hangin’.”

Applejack narrowed her eyes. “Rainbow Dash. Ah can’t believe you’d even suggest that.”

“Not doing anything either can’t be much fun,” Pinkie Pie said, sitting up. “I couldn’t watch those unponies go through all that. Not even for another minute.”

Rarity swallowed. “I see what the two of you are saying. But still, that doesn’t give them the right to take lives that aren’t theirs. If they had all been volunteers, that would be one thing.”

“But they weren’t,” Applejack said, “and heck if there’d be anypony willin’ to volunteer for somethin’ like that, let alone a few thousand. It ain’t fair to them.”

“Those unponies didn’t volunteer for this to happen to them either,” Rainbow Dash countered. “Adamantine’s the only one sticking up for them right now.”

“Adamantine is committing several crimes,” Rarity countered. She shook her head. “Honestly, it doesn’t really matter how this plays out, she might have thrown herself away regardless.”

“And she’s too plum obsessed with saving her people to care,” Applejack said.

“And that’s just the thing,” Fluttershy piped up. “She’s trying so hard just to keep them alive… But up until now… all she’s managed to do is make them hurt for longer. And that’s not a kindness.”

The other four fell silent. Their expressions drew into deeper sadness as they considered her statement. Even Twilight glanced up from the other corner of the room—but only out of some cursory curiosity—before she dove back into her writing once more.

Fluttershy sighed. “I really really want to help them. But… it’s not as if we can bring the Nameless back. And everything else we’ve tried hasn’t worked. I, um… I just… I think they’re done. And I think we should, maybe, let them be done.”

Pinkie Pie slumped into her cushion. “I don’t know…”

“Eeeeeyeah. That doesn’t really solve the problem, Fluttershy,” Rainbow Dash said with the shake of her head.

“Letting them go through with this doesn’t solve the problem either,” Fluttershy replied. “It’s mean.”

“There ain’t no real good ways to fix this,” Applejack said. “Ah’ll say it. But there’s gotta be a decision here. And besides, Twilight’s got a responsibility here. And Ah’m gunna stand behind her all the way.”

“But we have responsibilities to them too,” Rainbow Dash hissed. “Don’t you remember? We’re the ones that screwed those unponies up in the first place.”

After a few moments of silence, Applejack swallowed. She stood up, her stance firm but her expression full of agony. “Eeyup, Ah remember. And Ah reckon… here pretty soon…” she said, looking them dead in the eyes, “we might just have to finish the job.”

* * *

“How did I miss it?” Sunset Shimmer thought aloud.

“How did we all miss it?” Twilight’s voice asked. “How did I miss it?”

Sunset paced, performing yet another lap around the hourglass. A few of her curls had ruffled or fallen out of place, and her eyes remained vacantly fixed ahead of her. “I don’t know. Why am I surprised? Everything’s been connected to the Nameless from the very beginning. I shouldn’t have expected anything else.”

“Gosh, it explains so much. I’ve felt a little bit strange ever since I came back from the dead. A little, you know, underpowered. That’s where my magic has been going. I’m them.”

Starlight Glimmer, leaning against a bookshelf, narrowed her eyes. “It sounds like they’re being parasprites to me.”

“I don’t understand it fully, but it just… sounds like the unponies are living spells. Somehow, my body has been sustaining their spells.”

“They haven’t been dying so much as their spells have been canceling,” Starlight said.

“Or something like that. That’s what the signs point to. And if that’s the case, then that is really interesting,” Twilight’s voice said. “Really, think about it. This isn’t a new species of pony, but an entirely different form of life! Purely magical beings! The possibilities! Oh, what I wouldn’t give to conduct some long-form studies on them!”

“It’s nice to see you’re enthusiastic about it and all, Twilight,” Sunset said, her voice stern, “but that can’t happen if we don’t buckle down right now and figure out a way to fix the problem.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry. I mean, it’s really exciting. But on the other hoof…”

“You know what this means, right?” Sunset asked.

Twilight's voice paused. “If she’s putting the unponies in the door… then the stones will starve. They can’t survive in there. They’ll be dead by the time she takes them out.”

Sunset swallowed. “Yeah. It really is all or nothing now.”

“I don’t know if Adamantine knows of her unponies’ true nature, but she knows that she is all in.”

“Well, what are we going to do, then?” Starlight asked.

Sunset sighed. “I don’t know. We’d have to think about that. But there’s gotta be something we can do with those stones.”

Starlight rubbed her muzzle, humming thoughtfully. “Maybe we should get Discord over here.”

“No good,” Twilight’s voice said. “He disappeared after helping us free Equestria C from Chrysalis. I’ve been trying to find him too.”

“Perfect,” Sunset groaned, trotting over toward the desk. She magically grabbed a stack of paper and aligned it against the desk. “I don’t even know how to find him. So, looks like it’s up to us.”

The Sunset Shimmers climbed the stairwell and stepped into the room, congregating toward the stand containing the stone collection. They glanced over the collection, briefly pointing toward now-dead stones that had previously not been.

“So, hey, we were talking...” Sunset Shimmer C said, “and we might have an idea.”

The two glanced over. “Alright,” Starlight said. “What is it?”

Sunset Shimmer C glanced at her counterparts for consensus. “We were thinking that maybe we could make some sort of tank to put these stones in. And we could pump some of that unstew into the tank. Maybe if we expose those stones to that unstew, that might do something.”

Sunset considered it. “Do you think it’ll work?”

The Sunset Shimmers collectively chuckled. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” Sunset Shimmer D replied.

“We could ask the princess to make us some unstew for that,” Starlight offered.

“Yeah,” Sunset agreed.

Sunset Shimmer N stepped forward. “What are you going to do?”

Sunset scratched her chin and met eyes with Starlight. “Well, I guess we’ll find someplace to think up some other ideas. I’m sure we can come up with something.”

“We have to,” Starlight added. “I mean, look at everything we’ve done in these last few days. We should be able to do this. Right?”

Sunset jabbed her hoof in Starlight’s direction. “Yeah. …Buckin’ straight.”

* * *

“Well, what do we have other than that?” Sunset asked, leaning back in her seat.

Starlight hovered her chalk across the board, circling around ideas encapsulated within short blurbs. She jabbed at one in particular. “I’ve got a good feeling about using Anularis to override that condition.”

Sunset stared at the words on the board, her eyes narrowed in concentration. She leaned forward. “See, I think it’s also a good idea, but… it took us several days just to get ten stones. Even with several realities able to help us out there, we couldn’t get every single one of tens of thousands of stones together in just a day.”

Starlight sighed and hung her head. “Yeah… I guess I was thinking if we could try it out on one or two of them and see it if works, we could have it for the worlds below us.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t really help us.”

“Yeah...” Starlight frowned. “That’s assuming that Anularis even sticks.”

Sunset flipped her own piece of chalk within her magical grasp. “I don’t think straight Anularis would do it.”

“Sure, but we could modify its targeting parameters. Although, I guess that would mean making new ones from scratch in the case of the unponies.”

“We’d have to get it pretty exact. It would take some time to develop that.”

“...Which we don’t have.”

Sunset leaned back against the part of the wall that served as the far edge of the bed. Her chalk spun at rapid speeds as she scrutinized the board. “I still think trying to switch control of the unponies to some object other than the stones would be a good idea.”

Starlight snorted. “Same thing. We don’t know how tangled the unponies and the stones are. …We’d have to get it pretty exact.”

Sunset rubbed her face. “So,” she mumbled, “pretty much… everything we’ve come up with would take more time than we have.”

Starlight glanced back at the board and sighed. “Yup.”

Sunset puffed her cheeks out and blew a raspberry. She pinched the bridge of her muzzle while letting the chalk fall out of her magic and onto the bedspread.

“I mean,” Starlight began, shrugging, “we have enough time to get some fraction of the work done. But not enough where we could put a whole solution together.”

“It’d be great if the whole thing was done already.”

Starlight giggled. “Isn’t that how you saved Twilight’s life?”

Sunset went to respond but then paused. Having the whole thing done already, she thought. Yeah, that was how we did it. And… Sunset stroked her muzzle, remaining silent. Even when Starlight turned back to the board to consider the other options, Sunset stared into space. The entire rest of the tower seemed to fade out of her knowledge.

Having the whole thing done already.

Sunset climbed off the bed.

Done already.

Sunset stormed toward the stairs without a word, leaving a bewildered Starlight in front of the chalkboard. She promptly arrived in the study area soon after, where her counterparts huddled in front of a half-constructed chamber. “Hey, Twilight!” she barked. “Are you up there?”

The crystal ball, which lay on the desk nearby, answered with a “What? Sunset? Yes?”

“I, uh, I have some questions. Do the worlds still follow each other?”

“Do the worlds still follow each other? Yes, as far as I can tell. Pretty closely, at that.”

An airy pop announced Starlight teleporting into the room. “Woah, Sunset! What gives? Did you think of something?”

Sunset rubbed at her skull. “I don’t know. Yes? Maybe?”

The Sunset Shimmers shared confused glances and then set their tools down, watching with intrigue.

“Oh! Well, let’s hear it,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset nodded. “I just have to make sure of something really quick.”

She flared her horn, levitating the crystal ball over. She briefly looked inside it. Princess Celestia sat at her desk, writing into a notebook with her quill. Her expression was scrunched with a keen and unbreakable focus.

Sunset then trotted toward the half-completed machine that her counterparts had constructed, glancing at the tall glass dome that sat on top of it. The base of the chamber hosted a vent where she assumed unstew would filter through. A half-completed skeleton designed to hold several stones filled the chamber itself. She peered through an opening in the machine’s paneling, but found nothing that caught her interest. She gave a quick nod to her counterparts before pacing toward the hourglass.

After her wandering eyes searched for ideas, she nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Somepony mentioned that there were a bunch of ponies that were studying The Answer.”

“Sunburst said that, I think,” Starlight interjected.

Sunset nodded. “Did anyone find anything out about how the worlds behave?”

Twilight’s voice hummed. “Well, there were some breakthroughs on it. A lot of that has been added onto The Answer’s manuscript.”

“And you’ve read it, right?” Sunset asked.


“Great. Did they figure out if the worlds following each other is local or not?”

“Well, yes and no. As you can probably guess, there was a layer out there where they had enough information to complete The Answer. They had a slightly different chain of events than we did.”

“And anything on the layer above them?”

“That’s just it. That layer that finished that spell pretended to have nothing. They restarted the whole information-gathering process, so they were both a top world and a bottom world. The layer above them was back to business as usual.”

Sunset blinked. “So… that would mean that the thing happens again, and then again after that…” She slowly nodded. “So, what you’re saying is the worlds are periodic?”

“Yes. There were some multilayer experiments run that not only confirmed that fact but also more-or-less confirmed that this periodic sequence goes on forever, just by the virtue that every world above us and every world below us also ran the exact same experiment. If you ask me… I think that quantum mechanics or something very strange could break that at some point, but the important thing is that this phenomenon isn’t local.”

Sunset nodded. “Nice.”

“We even determined where we are on the period. Let’s see. Yours is layer number three hundred and twenty-four from the bottom of the cycle.”

Starlight frowned. “Well, at least you two know what you’re talking about,” she said, leaning against the bookshelf.

Sunset chuckled and paced about. “Okay. So, then it’s safe to assume that every world above us has approached this problem. That’s what I was looking for. We could use what they had to break the cycle here.”

The crystal ball paused. “…Where are you going with this?”

“You remember how The Answer came down to us already complete? Well, I’m saying that now we exploit the infinite again and get a complete solution from the world above us—your world.”

Starlight blinked, tilting her head out of curiosity.

“Already complete? Woah, hold on!” Twilight’s voice cried. “You can’t be serious. There’s no way that could work.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “And why not?”

“I mean, I mean… causality, Sunset! You have to put it together before it can be complete!”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

“And, and… we’ve done nothing to put it together. Where’s the work needed to complete it?”

“That’s all been done too,” Sunset said. “Any number of layers above ours. Remember? Infinitely many worlds. We should have the definitive solution to this entire disaster figured out by now. And the best part is… as long as they figured it out exactly one time, we’re good.”

A few moments of silence passed. The Sunset Shimmers scratched their muzzles, mulling it over. Their features remained motionless and somewhat glazed. Starlight, on the other hoof, blinked, losing her spaced-out look.

And the crystal ball remained silent. Sunset imagined a Twilight Sparkle, hunched over a ball, with a million thoughts flying through her head.

“Sunset… While I think… Adamantine was right. If it existed, we’d have it by now. All of this has already happened in my world, too. I…” Twilight’s voice said. “I really, really, want to believe you.”

“You think that the unponies are a lost cause. But don’t you remember? So were you!” Sunset pointed toward the ceiling. “When we were trying to save your life, we knew you to be dead. We knew there had never been a way to save you. You were a lost cause, Twilight. And then look what happened.”

“I… I… Sunset…”

“We’ve been in this exact situation before, and look at what we’ve done since. We brought back the dead. We did the impossible. Hell, we’ve been doing the impossible since the moment we met. We’ve done the impossible these last few days.” Sunset stamped her hoof. “We can do this.”

Another palpable pause passed through the room. While Sunset continued appearing assertive, Starlight stood up, some color returning to her face. The Sunset Shimmers turned to each other and nodded.

“Well…” Twilight’s voice said, “I guess… I think it’s a long shot, but… I trust you with my life, Sunset. So… okay. What do we do?”

“Well, I still have to figure out how exactly I want to do this…” Sunset trailed off, turning her gaze toward the hourglass. She stroked her muzzle for a few moments before turning her eyes toward the crystal ball, with Princess Celestia still reading inside.

Then she nodded. “Alright. This is an oldie but a goodie.”


Sunset wrapped her hoof around the crystal ball and looked into it. “Princess Celestia?”

Celestia gasped and glanced up. While her focus immediately vanished, her features relaxed quicker than thought possible. “Sunset Shimmer,” she said, “I’m so very glad to hear from you again. I hope the train wasn’t too much trouble?”

“Thanks to your help,” Sunset replied. “But listen, I need another favor.”

“Certainly. Whatever you need.”

Sunset took a seat, glancing at the hourglass. “Let’s see… You know the tower that I worked out of the last time I was here? Well, I’m here again. Starlight’s with me. I also have a few other friends helping me out.”

“I see. And I’m happy to hear that she is doing okay too.”

“Hello again, Princess,” Starlight said from her spot near the bookshelves.

Twilight’s voice giggled. “Starlight, you know she can’t hear you if you’re not touching the ball, right?”

Starlight frowned and turned red in the face.

Sunset giggled. “She says ‘hi’, by the way.”

“Well, hello, Starlight,” Celestia said.

“Anyway, my plan…” Sunset continued, “is to have some documents. And I’ll be working with them until I leave. So…” Sunset paused to consider it. “I… am going to leave those documents here once I am done with them.”

Celestia nodded. She stood up and trotted across the room, circumventing the large cushion that served as her bed, and approached the window. Her eyes fell on a tower across the grounds, certainly trying to imagine Sunset and Starlight there. “Is there something that you would like me to do with them?”

“Yeah. I want you to deliver them someplace nine days from now.”

Celestia hummed. “Which… is eighteen days for me, yes?”


“Where would you like me to deliver them to?”

Sunset paused. “Uh, Twilight, where are you right now?”

“I’m at my castle,” Twilight’s voice replied.

“Twilight’s castle,” Sunset said. “Exactly eighteen days for you, and not a second later.” Sunset glanced up. “Twilight! Go see if Spike has anything for you!”

“On it!” Twilight’s voice replied.

Sunset glanced over at her doubles who were busy sharing astonished glances. Eventually, they met her glance in kind and nodded in approval. Sunset then considered Starlight who was perplexing.

“Oh, I get it. I see where this is going, I think,” Starlight said.

Sunset smiled.

Celestia’s muzzle twitched, signaling another thought. “Oh, are you talking to Twilight Sparkle?”

“Yeah, we are,” Sunset replied. “I guess you can’t hear anything that she’s saying, huh?”

Celestia shook her head and trotted toward her bed. “Unfortunately not. But, I guess, that’s just how the crystal ball works. It is what it is.”

“Right. Well, thanks for the help, Princess Celestia.”

“Anytime, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset released her grip on the ball. She then lit her horn and levitated a large stack of papers over. She set them in the middle of the floor and motioned for the others to gather around.

Starlight sat down. “So, what’s going to happen?”

Sunset levitated over some quills and passed them around. “Okay. One of two things is about to happen.” She took a deep breath, licking her lips nervously. “We either get something within the next few minutes… or saving the unponies was always impossible.”

Starlight bit her lip. “…Besides what Adamantine is doing.”

Sunset nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

Starlight swallowed and laid down. “Then… I guess… for now, we wait. Gosh, I hope we get something.”

The Sunset Shimmers followed suit, laying across the floor. They remained silent, contemplating whatever came next.

Sunset nodded and took her own seat. With the good old hourglass at her back, she glanced around the room. The towering bookshelves that ringed around them had always been a mainstay. And certainly, this time, she knew the new décor. The very top shelves remained in the shade as the afternoon sun filtered through the large window behind her.

Six large machines at the edges of the room stood idle, their purposes at least a day complete. Of course, they were copies of another that she was sure she had invented herself several months prior. In this very room, in fact.

She held the crystal ball close, rocking back and forth all the while. She tried to hum something to herself: an old song from the Rainbooms’ early days. Her ears, meanwhile, listened to some faint sounds outside. A few birds chirped out songs of their own. Relatively few city sounds made it this far into castle grounds, and Sunset couldn’t make those out. Nothing loud enough that she could hear, anyway.

Sunset knew that this room contained no clocks, but she looked anyway. How much time had passed? How long had Twilight been gone? Had she found something?

Sunset shuddered. Come on, Twilight…

The Sunset Shimmers shifted and fidgeted. Starlight rubbed the back of her neck, looking uncertain.

“Sunset!” Twilight’s voice said.

“We’re here,” Sunset replied. “Do you have anything?”

“I can’t believe it,” Twilight’s voice replied peppily, “but I have something! I have a very large document right here.”

Sunset couldn’t tell if she had leaped to her hooves or if something had picked her up. “That’s it! That’s it right there!”

Some of the Sunset Shimmers swore, leaping to their hooves as well. Starlight scrambled up so quickly that she almost overshot and stumbled about as a result.

“You were right! I have it! I mean, I have no idea what’s in it, but still! You were right!”

Sunset punched the air. “Alright! Then send it down to us. We’ll be able to use it from there.”

“Sure thing! Just give me a moment to get situated here.”

Sunset passed the first few papers out. “Alright, this is it. I hope you girls are ready to write. It sounds like we got quite a bit of work ahead of us.”

Everypony cheered and lifted their quills to the ready. Their smiles brimmed with confidence and mirth. It was a start, at least. Sunset, in turn, couldn’t help but shudder in delight.

Maybe there was a way out after all.

“Okay! I’m ready to transmit!” Twilight’s voice called.

Sunset lit her horn. “Alright, let’s go.”

* * *

The crystal ball let out another ear-piercing screech that made everypony cringe. Sunset’s lit horn sputtered and shot a beam of light into the air, forming an image. The screen contained the image of two pieces of paper placed side-to-side on some wooden desk.

After examining the image for a moment, Sunset flipped said screen toward a pair of Sunset Shimmers (C and N, it turned out) waiting on the side. They examined the image and then jabbed their quills into their papers. Everypony else sat two to their own screens, copying the contents of each into several stacks of paper.

Sunset swept her quill across her own page, writing down what she saw. There was a lot of math, for certain, but she couldn’t readily tell what any of it was saying. But there had been, especially in the opening pages, plain text that, as far as she could tell, didn’t say anything definitive. One page had been a list of methods with all but one crossed out.

And she had seen an awful lot of question marks. But, then again, she had only actually transcribed a small fraction of the whole thing. Plus, it had been at least an hour and a half, judging from the orange-lit sky behind her.

Sunset grinned. It was probably nothing.

She scribbled down a few lines, cross-referenced the hoofwritten copy and the image in front of her, noted that it looked like Starlight’s writing, and then grinned as she set it into the pile. “Next.”

“Here’s the last page,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset sighed, poking at her aching horn. “Finally. I’ll take it.”

A shriek later, Sunset’s horn formed one last image. This page contained only a few lines compared to the rest. Sunset glanced up and continued on, transcribing letter after letter.

One by one, Starlight Glimmer and the Sunset Shimmers completed their own pages and set their quills down. They added their pages to the pile and then examined its thick size; it looked like a volume from an encyclopedia. They sat back, intent to relax.

Sunset finished her page and set it on the top of the pile and then let the images fade out. She collapsed with an exhausted groan.

Starlight smiled and lit her horn in response, wrapping her magic around the pile. She straightened the pages out and then skimmed through the first few hundred pages, taking in their work. She turned to the others. “Good work, everypony,” she said.

Sunset Shimmer I giggled. “That was a lot of writing,” she said.

“Buck yeah it was,” Sunset Shimmer T agreed.

“I didn’t see everything that was in it,” Sunset Shimmer C said, adjusting her position on her cushion, “but wow, this thing was long. I wonder what it says.”

Sunset groaned again, letting her head hit the floor.

Sunset Shimmer D smirked. “That’s rough.”

“That sucked,” Sunset replied.

Starlight presented the document. “Well, hey, this should be worth it, right?”

Sunset glanced up, looking Starlight in the eye. She grinned and pulled herself to her hooves. “You bet. Let’s see…” she said, taking the documents.

Sunset flipped them over, reading over the first page. She scanned it with a grin on her face. The first page contained a simple description of the problem. It then went on to outline some of the major discoveries. Sunset smirked. I figured all of this out several hours ago, she mentally mused.

As Sunset read on, her pacing took her around the hourglass. She read in silence before reaching the page where all the methods save one were crossed out. Sunset chuckled and then continued with her scan. She went through page after page, noting several incomplete equations along the way. “Documentation…” she muttered, “documentation…”

The others watched in silence.

“A lot of this looks like documentation,” Sunset said, flipping through more pages. “But… I guess I haven’t found the actual solution yet.”

Starlight frowned. “Uh, keep looking. It’s gotta be in there.”

Sunset flipped through pages one at a time and then several at a time. Her expression became more flustered with every few pages. Her steps became stiffer, and as the end of the document drew near, she started looking panicked.

Still incomplete math and still nothing definitive.

And then the pages ran out.

Sunset shook her head in disbelief, skipping back to random pages in the middle. She was sweating now. She then levitated the crystal ball over and floated it close. “I-is there anything else?” Sunset asked.

“No,” Twilight’s voice quivered, “that’s everything.”

Sunset frowned. “Twilight… you had better not be hiding anything from me.”

“I’m not! That’s all of it! I promise!”

It couldn’t be all of it.

Starlight glanced up. “Twilight…? What is going on?” she said, her tone hinting at alarm.

Sunset felt something crawling up her spine. Something hot. Something that made her tremble. She continued pacing around, practically pressing her face into the pages. Her body shook more and more, and with each page that contained nothing of what she wanted, her breath grew hotter and her vision blurred.

Sunset cried out and wrapped her magic around the nearest object and hurled it. Said object, whatever it was (she couldn’t see clearly at that moment), turned out to be large as it slammed into the room’s spanning window, causing it to shatter into a thousand pieces amidst a cacophony of crackles and tinkles.

All six Sunset Shimmers cried out in surprise and raced toward the window’s remains.

Starlight, on the other hoof, jumped. “Goodness! Sunset!?”

Sunset stood in place, huffing and puffing and grinding her teeth together.

“I’m sorry!” Twilight’s voice cried.

“This is bullshit!” Sunset yelled, stomping the floor.

Starlight shook her head in disbelief. “O-okay,” she stammered, “then what’s actually in it?”

“Infinitely many worlds and you know what they send me?” Sunset slammed the papers down. “Garbage! Fucking garbage!”

“Oh, you are kidding me,” Starlight nearly growled. “That’s not even right.”

“I know,” Twilight’s voice seconded. “It’s all I have for you. I… I… I’m not sure what else I can say here right now.”

“Twilight!” Starlight cried.

“It’s incomplete. Whatever it was that the worlds above yours were working on, my world… they didn’t complete it.”

Starlight threw her forehooves into the air. “Well!? Then why don’t we just sit down and complete it already!? We still have time.”

“That’s not happening,” Sunset replied.

The Sunset Shimmers glanced back toward them, but they quickly returned their attention back toward something on the ground far below.

Starlight narrowed her eyes. “And why the buck not?” she hissed.

“Because I know it,” Sunset countered. “I said that we only had to do this once. I knew exactly what I was doing. That if we already figured all of this out, we didn’t have to do anything else. I would have sent myself the complete thing.”

She motioned to the downed document. “And I get this shit. For Celestia’s sake, Starlight, I’m not going to give this to myself!”

“So? What?”

“That just means the world above us didn’t have a complete version, and the world above them didn’t have a complete version. Nopony had a complete version. Just the fact that we got this as-is means that the solution doesn’t exist. Or if it does, we never find it. And we will never find it.”

Starlight stamped the floor. “Not with that attitude you won’t! Weren’t you just saying that you’ve come back from lost causes before?”

Sunset paused, narrowing her eyes at Starlight. “…Yes,” she growled, “I did.”

“Then why can’t we do this?” Starlight asked. “Look at all the things we’ve done in just the past few days? What’s one more thing?”

Sunset ground her teeth together, dragging a hoof across the floor. She opened her mouth to speak, but she didn’t have the words. Instead, she let out one final snort. “Fine. What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know. It sounded like this was trying at a specific solution. We can continue on that, maybe.” Starlight shrugged. “It’s better than doing nothing.”

Sunset felt the rage inside her body subside and she sighed. She looked up, her vision clearing, now to recognize that her doubles were all standing where the window used to be. Starlight glanced over at the same time, exchanged glances with Sunset, and stalked over.

The Sunset Shimmers cowered at their approach. Sunset and Starlight approached the edge with even more caution then. Once there, they looked down.

The window’s remains lay across the lawn in more pieces than could be counted. What drew their attention, however, was the mound of sand that had spilled out of half-broken glass containers. The golden arms, curved into neat swirls, lay half-buried in debris. The plates that had served as caps had fallen down the side of the pile and come to rest at either end.

Sunset felt a shiver run up her spine and she whirled around, only to find the hourglass, the room’s centerpiece, the one thing she couldn’t imagine the room without, no longer in its place.

The Sunset Shimmers shied away. Starlight looked toward the spot with a deep frown.

Sunset floated the ball (which now showed an empty room) over and held it close, almost as if steadying herself. “Twilight…” Sunset croaked. “…How much time do we have until Adamantine does her spell?”

The pause was palpable. “If I am right… then Adamantine is getting ready to try the spell in the next few minutes,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset’s heart sank, and her pained expression joined Starlight’s gasp.

“No way!” Starlight cried. “That’s nothing! That’s… I can’t believe it.”

Sunset stamped her hoof. “So, that’s it then. Our ponies are about to die.”

Another pause. And then Twilight’s voice sighed. “The truth is… I haven’t been trying to prevent the death of our ponies. I’ve… been trying to prevent the premature death of the unponies. That is the exact disaster that I’ve been trying to prevent.”

Starlight frowned. “Uh, I’m sorry, Twilight. But aren’t you forgetting about our ponies?”

“Our ponies are safe. Always were.”

Sunset bit her lip. “How!?”

The crystal ball was silent. I’m the other half of some of those unponies. So… there’s… a complication.”

* * *

Adamantine stood at the edge of the white-lit chamber as the last unponies stalked through portals at every corner. Those that came through made their way toward the center of the chamber. A few loitered around the portals, poking their heads through to see if anypony had not made it yet. Adamantine found herself making small portals in order to peek through, double checking the alternate chambers.

Everypony eventually gathered in the center of the chamber. With that, Adamantine lit her horn and the portals all snapped shut. She stood up and looked over the half-thousand before her. They would be the last ones to go through.

She cantered toward the center of the room. A hush fell over her unponies as they eyed her with gleams in their eyes and hopeful smiles on their muzzles. Some even fidgeted with excitement. With every face that she saw, the peppier her steps became and the wider her smile became. By the time she reached the center, Adamantine was practically skipping along.

She turned around to try (and fail) to face everypony at once, and she lit her horn. A ball of white light, containing an ever-increasing amount of magical sigils rotating around each other, formed in the air in front of her. It grew to some complexity, but eventually, Adamantine was content with it. “Well,” she said, “this is it. I will see you all on the other side.”

A bright-eyed unpony near the front nodded and smiled. “We love you, Queen Mom.”

Many others voiced their own declarations, with some “Thank you!”s and their variations thrown in here and there.

Adamantine lowered the pre-cast toward her horn and blushed. “I love you all too.”

Her horn absorbed the pre-cast and then Adamantine shot the resulting beam of light into the center of the floor. A rainbow-colored wave propagated outward through the sigils embedded in the floor. The wave climbed the walls and then met again at the top of the hemisphere. The room shuddered, and a low rumble grew into a deafening roar. Many unponies lost their footing, but Adamantine remained on her hooves.

Everything turned grainy and fuzzy and Adamantine felt her body become lighter. And then, as a white glow overtook the chamber, she felt her body disintegrating. As her vision faded to white, which happened almost quicker than she could make out, she caught a glimpse of the unponies, their bodies being similarly ripped to shreds.

And then Adamantine did not exist.

There was nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Time wasn’t even a concept. Neither was space. A sense of self was the furthest thing from thought, and even thought was an impossibility. Nothing to experience nothing.

A dim white light appeared in the nothingness, grew, expanded, and then engulfed everything.

Adamantine landed, staying on her hooves this time.

She blinked as her vision, incredibly blurred, slowly came to. Her nerves turned on, one by one, trying to restore feeling to her body. The rest of her seemingly slotted into place. Faint static evolved into fully realized sounds.

Once her senses came back in full, Adamantine looked around. The white-lit chamber, from which she had just left, lay undisturbed. Just as it had been moments before.

And it was now empty, with not a single unpony in sight.

Adamantine nodded and then closed her eyes and focused. She cleared her mind, pushing her other senses back.

The ponies that had been gathered from all the timelines all hung unconscious within the void, each like a little ball of light within an otherwise intangible expanse. Her alternate selves were there in the same state.

And thousands of unponies, once weak, were now flickers of light that she hoped soon would stay lit for a long time to come.

Adamantine felt her body sigh in relief. They were all still alive within the seal. That was good, at least.

She shook her head, allowing her senses to come back once again. She stroked her chin, perplexing. Alright, she thought. Everypony is within the seal. Now, for the final step…

Another pre-cast popped into being above her head. Adamantine built some parts of it, watched it swirl around for a bit, and then focused again. She peered back into the void and located her counterparts. Adamantine almost wanted to talk to them, but she knew that they would not respond in the state that they were in.

And she wanted to warn them. Memories came rushing back.

“So, the next item of business is how to get the spell to you. If those ponies from your timeline search these chambers, I do not think that I would be comfortable leaving it somewhere for them to find,” Adamantine C said from within a crystal ball.

“As I have seen it,” Adamantine replied as she watched them in her crystal ball, “you have bound the spell to your essences, such that I was able to read it when I peered inside the seal.” She grinned. “After all, we are the only ones able to look there for it.”

The Adamantines inside the crystal ball paused. They tilted their heads and hummed quizzically, pondering it. Finally, Adamantine I nodded. “That is… a very ingenious idea. Somewhat strange, but ingenious.”

Adamantine T nodded. “We may try to think about how to do it. Perhaps some extra instructions for the seal will do.”

Adamantine smiled. “Perhaps it will.”

She looked upon them through the void, reading the information that floated around them. The spell was intricate and, Adamantine was sure, would have been significantly longer than even the most complex spells (save one, from which this had been derived). While her senses read the information, her horn, someplace within the real world, fed that information into a pre-cast.

It was a long process. Maybe it had been a day. Maybe it had been a few minutes. There was no telling time within the void.

She read the last bits of information floating around her final counterpart, and Adamantine experienced a feeling. She was sure that her body was frowning. Her mind reached out, intent to at least touch her alternate self. There was nothing to touch, and she had nothing to touch with. But, nonetheless, Adamantine’s senses sensed her alternate self as a point. A single, vulnerable point.

Adamantine shivered. She looked back at the others. They were definitely her, but her from another life. Fleeting thoughts of stories of worlds that she had only glimpsed crossed her mind. What would they all have done together had The Great Benefactor still lived? What would their lives have been like?

“Performing the spell will require all of our energies,” Adamantine S said from within a crystal ball. “And, out here, we could only offer so much.”

“But if we are inside the seal, all of our energy may be extracted,” Adamantine N said. “That is what you must do. That is how you will power the spell.”

“As we discussed,” Adamantine replied. “That will end your lives, so I must be sure; are you certain?”

The Adamantines paused. “We are,” Adamantine D replied. “And are you?”

“I am taking the lives of my alternate selves. It is… not something that I can find any enjoyment in. But…” Adamantine nodded solemnly. “If I must do that in order to cast the spell, then I shall. For them, anything.”

The other Adamantines nodded. “For them.”

Adamantine grimaced, steeling herself. Resignedly, she let her senses blur, and the void faded away. Thank you, my companions. And may you find peace.

She touched the spell to her horn, and then her horn trembled. Energy coursed through her body and her body stiffened. And then that energy jerked her head forward; it pointed her horn at the center of the floor again and shot a beam into it. Another rainbow-colored wave coursed through the room and the room shuddered in response. It didn’t reach the roar that Adamantine remembered, and she held her ground as the spell did things that she could not readily picture.

Adamantine felt something new coursing through her body. It was energy. Her own energy, yet somehow alien. But it was energy, many times her own energy, and then some. Her body tingled, and with how quickly it rushed into her, she thought she would burst. Adamantine kept her footing all the while, but she winced under the pressure.

And then, as suddenly as it started, the pressure stopped. Adamantine felt like she could tear the mountain apart with the power flowing through her. The tingling didn’t go away, but she no longer felt it stretching her every fiber.

With the sensations, however minor, bombarding every precipice of her attention, she knew there was no way she could peer into the seal.

She frowned. There was no way she would find her selves there anymore. They were gone in every sense of the word.

Her head moved again, and then her horn fired another beam at the floor. The rainbow-colored wave spread out again, but unlike the last few times she had done something with the seal, the beam didn’t stop. The once white-lit sigils passed through the entire rainbow spectrum but did so without any regard to their neighbors. She found no pattern to any of it, but the sight of it made her smile.

And, for the first time in her life, Adamantine felt truly connected to the seal. She could feel the energies swirling inside it. She felt it all. The energy, the spell, reaching through the void, feeling about, circling around those figures within. It poked the souls floating within. And then the spell wrapped its tendrils around them.

Adamantine sighed in contentment. Finally, it was over.

Something went click, and the spell froze. The tendrils recoiled away from a few of the points (all corresponding to unponies) within the void. The various tinglings that Adamantine had felt in her bosom ceased and the beam that had been shooting from her horn dissipated. Adamantine blinked, and then her body went cold. She looked around the chamber in confusion. The entire chamber had frozen in time, the colors that had been in every sigil were now solid and unchanging.

“What?” she croaked.

She recalled the last thing that the spell had been doing and shot a beam at the floor again. A rainbow-colored wave swept across the floor and up the walls; the energy within the seal twitched but did nothing else.

A drop of sweat fell down the side of her muzzle. “N-no…” she stammered. She shot another beam, but the spell within the seal clicked in place and didn’t move another inch.

“Oh no… no no no no no no no! No!” She shot another beam to no effect. “Please, no!” she cried, grinding her teeth together. Another beam. “Oh, by the stars, please no!”

A multitude of shivers racked her body and she trembled. She tried fanning herself, but that did nothing to sedate her thumping heart. Her mind raced at a million miles a second. What had happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? Were they okay? Were they okay?

Adamantine swallowed and blocked her senses out. They had to be there. They had to. Everything faded out, and then the void appeared before her again. She peered around, seeing through the now idle energy loitering within. The souls within hung as unconscious as ever, floating in non-existence. She found a few hundred at first sense. She shifted her focus and found several hundred more, and then even more.

Adamantine’s body sighed in relief. She then took several moments to breathe in and out, trying to compose herself. She looked through the void again and found some things missing. Her counterparts were indeed gone.

Adamantine opened her eyes and scraped at the floor, examining the sigils themselves. The spell is still here, so… what…? she thought.

She swallowed. I don’t understand. How… how did it not work? It was perfect! I was sure! She paced about, looking frantically for something she knew she wouldn’t find there. I checked! That spell should have worked. So why is it…?

Adamantine paused as a conversation from two days prior flashed across her mind. She then looked into the distance, narrowing her eyes. What did she do!?

* * *

Twilight came to, blinking several times as she tried to process the blurs above her shouting any number of indiscernible things.

Her senses returned and told her that, for whatever reason, she was lying back-first on the floor, with her five friends bent worriedly over her. “Wha… what happened?” she slurred.

Rarity sighed in relief. “Good heavens, Twilight! You had us very worried. You collapsed so suddenly, and what not!”

“I… goodness…” she felt her head, trying to pick herself up.

Applejack held Twilight down. “Easy there. Don’t wanna get up too quick, ya hear?”

Twilight shook her head and laid back down. “Yeah… yeah… How long was I out?”

“You were out for about a minute. What happened?” Fluttershy asked.

Twilight prodded at her chest with a hoof. There was definitely something knotted there. “I felt something very powerful just now,” she said. “I think… I don’t know. It feels like…” She paused to prod at her chest a few more times. She then gently brushed aside Applejack’s hoof, rolled over, and then stood up.

She scratched her muzzle in thought, her frown growing deeper by the second. “I don’t know. I think… Adamantine tried her spell just now, and somehow… I blocked it.”

The other five exchanged glances that flickered between wide-eyed shock and eyebrow-raising confusion.

Twilight continued feeling at her chest, her own muzzle twisted into a befuddled frown. “I’m pretty sure that’s what it is, but I don’t really know… I don’t know how I managed to do it.”

Applejack shook her head. “Alright, wait a darn second. You mean to say that Adamantine nearly did it? And you… stopped it?”

Rarity swallowed. “My goodness… I don’t know what you did, Twilight, but it sounds to me that we just had a near-miss.”

“Ah’m glad ya did it,” Applejack said, her tone affirmative.

“I don’t know how I did it either. It’s as if…” Twilight prodded at her chest again. “I can feel it trying to continue. Right here.” She paused, biting her lip. “I could… let it go through. I know I could. I could let Adamantine switch them around and let our ponies die in their place.”

She scratched the floor, drawing circles in the tile. And then she scowled. “But… I won’t.”

12 - Substitute

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Starlight Glimmer glanced over the top of the rock and at the village below. The houses, arranged into the shape of an equal sign, marked the end of the path that snaked down from her position. She squinted, wondering if she could make out any old faces from this distance.

Maybe there would be a time where she could face them again. Starlight shook her head and retreated off the rock. Another time.

She turned to the pegasi guards, relieving themselves of a small chariot. “Thanks for bringing me out here. But if anypony asks… I’m not here. Okay?”

The guards nodded quietly and flashed quick salutes.

Starlight focused some energy into her horn and opened a portal. Upon stepping through, she closed it behind her and then trotted down the path. She looked toward the mountains on the northern horizon, wondering what the Crystal Empire looked like now that they had liberated it from King Sombra.

A shiver ran up her spine. He didn’t find our town out here, did he?

As she rounded the corner, the town (or, at least, this timeline’s version) came into view. She cringed at the mere sight of it, but she then found even more reason to pause when she found nopony about. She squinted, trying to see what lay under the shadows of the dark clouds above. The stone walls sported darkened stains and several wooden beams within the roofs had split into two parts, some sinking into the house below.

Starlight lit her horn and teleported straight into the town. Now she could see household objects half-buried in the dirt as well as the eternally ajar doors. One house nearby was missing its door entirely, allowing her to see a furnitureless room beyond. A lump of heavy armor, topped by a helmet with a long, black ploom, protruded from a pile of rocks in one of the alleyways.

She looked toward the house at the end of the lane which had been gutted and was now almost completely rubble. She then stomached some bile.

She lit her horn, opened another portal, and dove through it, but could not stick the landing on account of what she saw.

Now, in this timeline, every house had been blown away. Orphaned supports sporting black scorch marks all over stuck out of the ground toward random directions. Pieces of brick, split into several fragments, lay strewn about. Cracks ran the length of uneven ground which Starlight was sure had been upheaved at some point.

She stomped the ground and cursed Tirek under her breath.

She opened another portal and stepped through. This time, the town was completely gone, without any hints that there had ever been a town in the first place. A few trees stood there instead, just as barren of leaves as their counterparts nearby.

Starlight shuddered. There wasn’t any pony here. She wasn’t here.

Upon stepping through another portal, Starlight found the same thing or rather found the same nothing. Still the same undisturbed landscape, still the same lack of ponies. Still the same lack of her.

“Please…” she croaked. “Please, come on…”

She opened another portal and scurried through that. The town, this time, was completely whole, including the house at the end of the lane. But, again, nopony could be found. She found stains of all kinds on the shingles and walls while dust clouded the windows. Several tumbleweeds claimed the street for themselves, sitting idle on a windless day.

Starlight stumbled toward the house at the end of the street, her house, and knocked on the door. It creaked open without resistance, revealing the darkened room inside. Starlight lit her horn and projected a light into the interior, revealing the cobwebs clinging to the corners and the empty, dusty bookshelf. The fireplace contained a few long-spent ashes but otherwise lay empty.

She fought back tears, turning toward the wall where a picture frame of an equal sign should have hung. It wasn’t there. It was gone just like everything else.

Just like she was, everywhere.

She opened one final portal but didn’t step through. She only looked through it. The house on the other side was completely caved in. There was no point in exploring it further. She closed the portal.

There was one last place where Starlight knew she could check, but she couldn’t find the nerve to even try. She doubted she could find something in a world of nothing.

Starlight’s world spun, and after a few choked seconds, she finally collapsed. Her sobs echoed through the halls of an empty home.

Twilight Sparkle trotted around the corner and into the crystalline passage that led into a pair of large stone doors. Those doors groaned, and while they slid apart, she looked at a set of documents floating within her magical aura. She read a few lines, and in doing so, a pre-cast floating above her head grew bigger and bigger.

The doors recessed, and she looked up and into the empty chamber beyond. A pink barrier filled the opening.

Her friends trotted behind her. A soft glow surrounded each of them, accenting the gradients in their coats and the patterns in their hooves and within their longer and more colorful manes. Twilight felt her own hairs standing on end just from them being near her, but the power coursing through her as a result of her own transformation largely suppressed that feeling.

She flipped through the last few pages of the spell and the pre-cast spun more rapidly in response, gaining several rotating layers in the process. Twilight watched it closely and then tucked the pages into a saddlebag. She then undid the saddlebag and laid it to rest against the cavern wall right next to the doors.

She then turned to her friends, all of whom bore resigned frowns, and smiled. “Alright. Let’s get our ponies back.”

Twilight teleported them just beyond the barrier, and then they stalked toward the center of the room. Their pace was slow and drawn out. While Twilight led the way, the other five followed close behind with perturbed frowns. The doors groaned and closed behind them, but nopony paid them any mind.

Twilight glanced at the central spot from which the floor rings radiated, noting the large, complex symbol she knew would have taken a score of strokes just to write. It was the same symbol that she had once fired another spell at, one which had ended her own life.

And, this time, her spell that would end others instead.

She stared at the spot, frozen in place. The pre-cast for the spell floated idly above her head. She made no movements to dispel it nor made no movement to touch her horn to it either.

“Twilight?” Applejack asked.

Twilight glanced over her withers.

Rarity stepped forward. “We’re ready whenever you are, darling.”

The others hesitantly nodded in agreement.

Twilight sucked in a breath and turned her attention back to the symbol. After a few more moments of silence, she floated the pre-cast down and touched her horn to it.

The pre-cast disappeared, and her body responded by channeling large amounts of power. Twilight could hear it radiating from her skin, and she saw the glow around her intensify. A ball of pure energy formed around her, lifting her into the air, before tendrils shot out and wrapped themselves around her friends, lifting them into the air as well. The spell then brought them together into one single ball of coalescing energies.

The Rainbow Power carried them high above the floor, and then, just before they broke through the roof of the hemisphere, the spell turned and shot a beam at the center symbol. A rainbow-colored wave tinted with the six’s primary colors radiated outward through the sigils within the floor.

Twilight felt something foreign yet somehow familiar pass through her body as the seal absorbed the remains of her spell. It tugged at her insides, and she shuddered, but the feeling disappeared as quickly as it came about.

And then the energy which enveloped them suddenly dissipated and the six tumbled. Rainbow Dash and Twilight managed to flap their wings and catch themselves, but the other four hit the ground with audible thuds and sharp yelps.

Twilight touched down. “Everypony okay?”

Pinkie Pie sat up and rubbed her flank. “Owwie. That hurt!”

Applejack also sat up, snarling. “What the hay was that fer?”

Twilight looked back at the spot, prodding it with her hoof. “I-I don’t know,” she stammered. “It just cut out. I’m not sure…”

Twilight paused as she noticed some feeling in her horn, and she prodded at it. The sensation was stagnant but still palpable. It felt like she was casting a spell. That wasn’t true. Was it?

Twilight’s muzzle twitched as a thought struck her. “Oh… I see how it is.”

Rarity stood up. “What?”

“I can still feel the spell that we just did. The spell’s just… stuck.” She rubbed her muzzle. “And I know why; the seal’s still trying to do Adamantine’s spell. Which means… my spell is waiting on hers.”

Rainbow Dash snarled. “So… what? Does that mean…?”

Twilight nodded. “It means… I either remove that block and let Adamantine’s spell go through, or…” She frowned. “Or we wait until she cancels the spell.”

The chamber fell silent for a few moments as the other five shifted uncomfortably.

“Or… we force her to cancel,” Rarity tremulously said.

The six heard a pop near the closed doorway and turned to see Adamantine tumbling through the air, falling from what had been a teleportation spell.

Adamantine flipped over, nearly missed the landing, and then whirled around to face them. Her expression was a study in accusation with the way she narrowed her eyes at them. “Twilight Sparkle...” she said, “and friends.”

Twilight stepped forward. “Adamantine.”

Adamantine stormed up. “You have done something to the seal. I have felt it.”

“Yes, yes I did. But your spell is blocking mine.”

“As is something that you have done. My own spell is being blocked.”

Twilight stood at her full height. “This can’t be happening, Adamantine,” she said. “I need you to cancel your spell.”

Adamantine, even with her slight hunch, towered over Twilight. But she then too rose to her full height. “Out of the question. That is, unless, you have found a way.”

Twilight frowned. “We had to stop looking because of this insane plan of yours. I want to help you, but I just can’t when all this is going on. When my ponies are in danger.”

Adamantine snorted. “Twilight.”

“Please,” Twilight said, shuddering, “just… put an end to this. Cancel your spell and let them go.”

Adamantine paced in disbelief, shaking her head with each step.

“Listen to me,” Twilight continued. “We can help you. We could find a way, together. Trust me, I know from experience that going it alone doesn’t work all that well. I learned it the hard way. Let us help you, Adamantine. …Please.”

“With you, I chance what is already certain. I will not throw that certainty away.”

“But there has to be something better than this. I know you can see that.”

Adamantine pursed her lips. “Twilight… My counterparts have already given their lives for this. I am committed. It must be seen through to the end.”

Twilight’s friends shifted uncomfortably, cringing and otherwise paleing.

Twilight swallowed and stepped forward. “I know you have good intentions, but you can’t do this.”

“I do believe I have made my position quite clear, Twilight Sparkle.” Adamantine leaned forward, coming nearly muzzle to muzzle. “You will remove the block that you have placed on the seal.”

Twilight stood still, almost petrified. The bags under Adamantine’s eyes underscored the intensity of her stare. Had it been more intense, Twilight was sure Adamantine would have been able to see her very soul.

Was this the mare she had passed on the streets on some mornings? The mare she had seen hauling freight, waiting tables, and washing windows, all to afford supplies? The mare she had laughed with over a good book once or twice?

Yes, Twilight decided. And this was the mare now trying the unthinkable.

She narrowed her eyes, staring back with equal intensity. “That’s not going to happen.”

Adamantine twitched.

“And furthermore, I need you to cancel your spell.”

Twilight’s friends formed up behind her, now wearing similarly resolute frowns.

Adamantine snorted. “Absolutely not. I would sooner curl up into a ball and die before I give up a chance to save them. I will say it again, Twilight Sparkle: remove the block.”

“No. Cancel your spell. Adamantine, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Nor I. Remove your block.”

Twilight lit her horn, and a ball of energy formed around her. Tendrils reached out and wrapped themselves around her friends, pulling them closer to her. All the while, the six retained their focus on Adamantine, their expressions resolute.

Twilight’s frown grew deeper. “Do not. Make me. Do this.”

Adamantine’s wings spread to their fullest and her horn lit, channeling energies beyond what a normal unicorn could ever possess. “I will do anything for them, Twilight. Remove your block, or I will be forced to put you in dispose.”

Twilight’s heart thumped wildly. Her body, despite the hot and potent energy coalescing around her, remained cold. Silence passed for many long and agonizing moments, during which neither party backed down.

Finally, Twilight sighed. “I guess I don’t have a choice,” she finally said.

She willed the magic surrounding the six of them to move. It swirled faster and faster, and then it all lashed out, barreling straight for Adamantine. However, when Adamantine disappeared in a flash of white light, the Rainbow Power hit air.

Adamantine reappeared at the other end of the chamber. From her airborne point, she launched her own beam of energy. Said beam was hot enough to light the chamber around her and pierced the very air through which it traveled, bending all of spacetime around it.

Said beam splattered against the ball of energy surrounding Twilight and her friends, and while the report was deafening, the magic remained untouched. The beam faded away after a few moments, leaving the chamber silent and still again.

Twilight blinked and eyed Adamantine closely. Her entire heart felt like it had stopped. Her breath had left her body.

She recognized it. That was several alicorn’s worth of magic.

Adamantine’s mouth hung open, equally shocked herself. She blinked several times before cautiously prodding her own horn. Adamantine then looked up and considered the six. She considered their changed forms, and the energy surrounding them which her attack had, somehow, had no effect on.

Adamantine narrowed her eyes and lit her horn again, growling under her breath.

Twilight resumed her stance, willing the magic again. The tendrils lashed out, but Adamantine teleported away before they could reach. When she reappeared, the tendrils changed course. Adamantine teleported all over the room, and the tendrils gave chase every time she reappeared.

Twilight growled in frustration, taking the six to the air in order to close the distance. But then, Adamantine suddenly appeared directly in front of her. And Twilight hesitated.

Adamantine lit her horn, and then Twilight’s world folded into a single point, twisted about, and then expanded back into existence. Twilight flipped over, feeling the energy surrounding her lose its grip. She found her orientation just in time to register Adamantine unleashing another blast, this time at point-blank range.

The energy that had encased her and her friends, or rather what had been brought with, soaked up the blast. The clash sent chunks of energy flying into the distance where they dissipated. Twilight saw her impromptu barrier take the blast, but as Adamantine’s attack continued, the energy waned.

Twilight lit her horn and teleported a few hundred meters backward. There, she took a moment to gather herself and find her bearings. A moment’s glance told her that she was outside. Another moment’s glance told her that a mountain range stretched upward far ahead, with a gleaming white city perched atop it. Twilight knew where she was.

And that somewhere was without her friends.

And she registered the dot that was Adamantine, which disappeared in a white flash. Adamantine reappeared close by. Twilight steeled herself, flared her horn, and charged in kind.

* * *

Sunset Shimmer hunched over a stack of papers, pressing the quill to her muzzle. The page in front of her contained several numbers. Several equations at the top of the page translated, somehow, to a grid of numbers and values at the bottom of the page. With an affirmative hum, Sunset jotted an expression in the last empty cell and then sighed.

“Buck this determinant,” she thought aloud.

She floated over several sheets of paper, placed her quill on one of them, and then paused. Her muzzle twitched in thought, and then she grinned. “Oh, right,” she said to herself. A pre-cast formed above her head and her attention flipped back and forth between that and the mathematics on her paper. When it was only a few layers strong, she touched her horn to it.

This pre-cast, unlike others, didn’t disappear, but rather changed shape. The layers condensed, fused together, and once it had collapsed down to just one layer, the spell turned red.

Sunset squinted as if it would help her to see the symbols within. Her quill went to work, transcribing the computation. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew her high school friends would have cringed at the sight of a double-digit exponent.

She glanced down at the equation and nodded. “Well, this is done, at least.”

Starlight Glimmer, who sat in the corner surrounded by a pile of books, sporting a splitting mane and bags under her eyes, looked up. “What happened?”

Sunset motioned to the paper in front of her. “I solved this, I’m pretty sure. Well… okay, not all of it, but still.”

Starlight lit her horn and floated the crystal ball over.

“What did you get?” the crystal ball asked in Twilight’s voice.

“Well, I can tell you that this system gives me fourteen eigenvalues,” Sunset said. “I already made a characteristic polynomial off the matrix, but…”

“Wait… you didn’t actually find the eigenvalues. That’s a tough calculation. Wait.” The crystal ball paused. “Let me see if I can make a spell that will find those.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Twilight, I’m sure somepony already wrote one that will do it.”

“You’re probably right, but neither of us has it. And it’ll be faster if I just re-derive it. I’ll be a couple of minutes.”

Starlight chuckled and shook her head. She then flipped a page in her book and continued on.

Sunset, on the other hoof, shrugged and leaned back against the wall. She groaned and stretched her legs every which way. Muscles popped and joints cracked. She let out a long sigh.

Sunset sunk into the cushion underneath and stared into the distance. Her eyes felt heavy, and she yawned. Her mane, which had once been a neat curl, split into several strands. The sharp pulses of a coming headache and an emptiness in her stomach compounded things, but she brushed those aside.

Because, certainly, Starlight looked no better. Likely, Twilight Sparkle, either the one in the present (wherever she was) or the one watching from nine days into the future, looked no better either.

The upstairs was quiet save for the low thump of a pump. Sunset’s other selves were no doubt keeping an eye on their finished device. One or two occasionally trotted down the stairs in order to grab a bite to eat or something to drink, looking sluggish and contemplative each time. They would regard Starlight with a worried frown. They would regard Sunset with disbelief.

Maybe they would be okay when they went back to their own timelines.

Her selves would be okay.

Sunset’s muzzle twitched, and her frown deepened. She looked toward Starlight who was staring blankly at her page.

“Hey, Starlight?”

Starlight looked up. “Huh?”

Sunset swallowed. “Didn’t you say you went someplace to look for some friends? …Did you ever find them?”

Starlight’s expression, already crestfallen, sunk no further, but the color that left her gave it away. She shook her head. “No… I didn’t.”

Sunset nodded. “I figured. I guess… I can kinda guess who they all were.”

Starlight’s eyes held water but she blinked them away. “Yeah. I just… I saw what you did with your counterparts. You brought them here, probably showed them another way. You saved yourself, Sunset. I thought I could do that too.”

Starlight shook her head. “But either they’re each someplace that I could waste years trying to find, or they’re…”

Sunset’s heart hurt. She laid a hoof across it, her frown deepening with each caress. “I see. I’m sorry.”

Starlight sucked in a breath and stared into the distance. After a moment’s thought, she said, “I guess I thought it could happen. After how easy you did it, I thought”—she flung her hooves into the air—“that after everything we’ve done… I created alternate timelines. We’ve saved several timelines from undefeatable evils. You”—she pointed at Sunset—“brought back the dead. And… I couldn’t save myself.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t get it either.”

Starlight rested her head on her hooves, giving a heavy sigh. “I mean… Look at me, Sunset. There were ponies important to me that I couldn’t save.”

“You’re not the only one,” Sunset croaked.

Starlight paused, raising a curious eyebrow. “Yeah? Who?”

“She…” Sunset stared into the distance. “There’s this girl that I’m friends with back where I live. She transferred into my school a little while ago. But before that, she was going to this other school, and there was this competition and…” Sunset paused. “Well, she nearly cost her school the competition and they think it’s a matter of life and death by the way they go about it.”

Starlight snorted. “That’s kinda stupid. Good thing she got out, then.”

“Yeah, I guess. And she got blackmailed into being in the competition with being refused admission to some independent study thing she wanted to get into.”

Starlight’s frown deepened. “Yeah. So, she’s not going to your school in these other timelines.”

“But that’s the thing,” Sunset said, sitting up. “Every other timeline I’ve gone to these past few days… She did blow the competition. Not getting into Everton would have been the least of her problems. If she didn’t get run out of that school…”

Starlight reeled, aghast. “Oh! Oh… I see…”

“That girl…” Twilight’s voice spoke up. “It’s me. My human counterpart. Isn’t it?”

Sunset nodded solemnly.

Starlight paused, tilting her head in consideration. Her features fell, and she too nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

“I defeated sirens…” Sunset said. “I brought back the dead… I saved that girl when she turned into a monster… and I know there isn’t a thing I could do to help her now. I’m just… I’m powerless over there.”

A silence hung over the room for a few moments.

A flash of light somewhere outside startled Starlight. She stood up and trotted cautiously toward the living area’s open balcony.

“Sunset…” Twilight’s voice quivered, “I have those numbers for you. I’m going to transmit now, if that’s alright.”

Sunset lit her horn. The crystal ball shrieked, and Sunset’s lit horn intensified in kind. An image formed in front of her. Sunset looked, spotted several numbers sporting several decimal places, and grunted.

“I’m feeling it too,” Twilight’s voice said. “I’ve done the impossible so many times that I’m not entirely sure what the count is. But I knew there was a way. There was a way, and we did it.” The crystal ball paused. “But… I still have no idea on how to fix the wasteland. Not even in the slightest.”

Starlight afforded a brief glance back before peering out, stretching herself beyond the railing as if it would give her a better look into the distance.

“I… I think of all the things that I’ve done too. All the ponies that I’ve helped over the years, all of the problems that I have solved…”

Sunset finished writing the current number down and glanced toward the ceiling. “Do you think you could fix it?” She paused. “Do you… think that it can be fixed?”

The crystal ball considered it. “No.”

A beam of energy shot into the sky from someplace far into the distance. Said beam was infused with blindingly intense energies.

After blinking a few times, Starlight turned toward Sunset and the crystal ball. “I think it’s started,” she announced.

Sunset’s heart skipped a beat, and after a hesitant glance, she stood up as well. “Really?”

“I… can confirm it,” Twilight’s voice said. “This is it.”

A third beam shot upward, and while the light was just as intense, it was as silent as the ones before it.

“The battle was of some length,” Twilight’s voice added. “This is just the opening. But still…”

Sunset glanced at the dozens of papers scattered across the bed. Most of them, or even all of them, contained incomplete sentences, unresolved mathematics, fledgling ideas, and other things indefinite.

“We’re out of time,” Sunset concluded.

* * *

Twilight dove out of the way of another beam, watching it sail far below and blast the ground into a million pieces. After dodging another, she fired a beam of her own back which disappeared into the clouds above.

Adamantine flew around, launching a rapid volley which collided against a hastily casted bubble barrier. The barrage continued, and when the barrier cracked, Twilight created a second one inside the first, just in time for the first barrier to shatter.

Adamantine continued the barrage, flying in every direction all the while. Then she channeled some energy into her hindhooves and teleported. She was gone just long enough for Twilight to drop her bubble barrier and prepare an attack of her own when Adamantine appeared above her.

Adamantine bucked. The latent residue that was the Rainbow Power absorbed most of the blow, but Twilight nonetheless yelped as the force sent her hurtling toward the earth. She tumbled, instinctively throwing up another bubble barrier which deflected Adamantine’s follow-up beam. She only then found her bearings.

Twilight ground her teeth together, staring her foe down as gravity pulled them apart. Twilight knew that she could have charged back into the fray. But, surely, it would have been like charging a hydra. The Rainbow Power at full strength could regard Adamantine’s enormous power like it was nothing.

And Twilight wasn’t sure if an iota of it, as alone as she was, could disregard it in the same way. And Twilight didn’t want to test that out.

Rather than charge back, Twilight flipped over and sped toward the ground, checking for any incoming attacks behind her. Sure enough, Adamantine dove in pursuit, launching beams which Twilight evaded with ease. The misses peppered the ground and Twilight silently gave thanks that nopony stood below for them to accidentally strike.

As more volleys rained down, Twilight flipped over and slowed to a near-hover. Above, Adamantine fired another blast, one Twilight was sure would hit dead on. In response, she lit her horn. The address to Equestria W flashed through her mind and a portal appeared between her and the blast. Adamantine’s attack disappeared through the far opening, while Twilight herself darted upward through the near opening.

Twilight emerged into a mild dust storm and closed the portal shut behind her. She flipped over and spotted the impact crater from Adamantine’s attack. Not stopping to admire the sheer lack of scenery, she opened another portal and hopped through that.

Twilight sped across the ground. Black clouds, which she tracked coming from distant smokestacks, covered her from above. She swooped up toward Canterlot with every intention to meet back up with her friends.

If they knew where to go, that was.

She could spot the entrance to the cave in the distance. Twilight lit her horn and teleported, reappearing at the cave’s entrance. In contrast to things in her own timeline, the entrance was bare, devoid of the debris piles she knew well.

She opened another portal to her own timeline and prepared to race through. Instead, Twilight threw up a barrier right as a laser blast shot through the aperture. The shield shattered, causing pain to shoot up her horn, but she did not otherwise falter. Twilight jumped out of the way of a second blast and flew a distance away from the opening, closing the portal in the process.

Another portal opened in the same spot. When Adamantine dove through, Twilight backpedaled hard.

Drat! She was waiting for me! Twilight thought.

Twilight shot upward, arcing through the sky and toward the city. Anywhere that was far away. Adamantine gave chase behind her, prompting Twilight to fly even faster. She opened a portal and flew headlong into it. She only had a few fleeting instants to glimpse the crumbled and overgrown city which had been Nightmare Moon’s beyond before another portal—decisively not hers—opened up in her immediate path. Unable to swerve, Twilight flew through, only to arrive back in the timeline she had started in.

The portal behind her closed, revealing Adamantine charging straight toward her at full speed. Twilight shot a beam, forcing her opponent to swerve, before channeling a new spell into her horn. The residual Rainbow Power, which still hugged her body, expanded and engulfed her. More energy burst forth, streaming, Twilight guessed, straight from the Tree of Harmony itself to form a swirling ball of energy around her. It formed just in time for Adamantine, who had formed her own energy ball, to smash right into her.

The impact sent Twilight flying straight into the city where she pinballed between several buildings, showering the streets with chunks both large and small as well as eliciting several cries and shrieks from the crowds below. The energy surrounding her jostled her uncomfortably but it held nonetheless.

And Adamantine zoomed in again, colliding a second time. Twilight shot through an overhang, shattering it into a million pieces, but gathered herself just in time for Adamantine to charge again and, this time, Twilight met that charge head-on. The collision sent out a shockwave that swept many below off their hooves.

The two flew apart and collided several more times, reported by loud booms that shook the entire city. Each time, Twilight caught clearer glimpses of Adamantine’s expression; focused, yet lacking a healthy color. Sometimes, Adamantine’s eyes glossed over the ponies cowering under their skirmish.

Twilight herself had been stealing glances. She had to make sure nothing was happening; she had to make sure they were okay.

A pillar of rock shot up from underneath her, punching Twilight into the air. She didn’t have much time to react before a portal opened up above her, sucking her into another timeline. The expansive wasteland sprawled out around her, with the ruined Canterlot below.

Adamantine popped through a few moments later. She looked back through the aperture, eying the intact city on the other side, before closing the portal and turning her attention back to Twilight.

“This is getting out of hoof, Twilight!” Adamantine called.

Twilight nodded. “I know. It is.”

“We could end this. Right now.” Adamantine’s frown deepened. “Remove your block and we could end this.”

Twilight willed the energy around her to spin with greater vigor. “We’ve been over this. That isn’t happening.”

Adamantine shook her head in disbelief. “Twilight…”

“I’m warning you, Adamantine, there’s no way you can win this. But it’s not too late to find another way.”

Adamantine cringed like she had just been bucked in the abdomen. She twirled before throwing a blade of energy in Twilight direction. Twilight lashed out with her energy in response, slicing the incoming blade in two.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Twilight continued, shooting a beam right back which Adamantine deflected. “We can find a way. But if you continue like this, then I can’t help you!” She shot another beam. “And I want to help you. Really, I do.”

“Twilight,” Adamantine replied, “I recognize that you are trying to act in the best interests of your people. As you should. But I reject your offer… because there is no other way. The only way in which you can help me now is to remove your block.”

Twilight ground her teeth together and stamped the air. The energy surrounding her deformed like a viscous blob and then, as she lit her horn, stiffened and then shot several small, impossibly dense pellets at speeds faster than discernable. The pellets pitter-pattered against Adamantine’s coating of energy, pushing her back.

Adamantine curled up in the face of the barrage. Then, when Twilight’s attack failed to break through, she exploded, shedding her energy ball and focusing it into a single blast back at Twilight. It ate Twilight’s pellets and Twilight’s reaction was to teleport out of existence just long enough for the wave to pass by.

Adamantine hovered bare but her horn remained lit, her scowl just as certain as before. “Please, Twilight. I do not want to hurt you. But I will if I must.”

Twilight felt faint and like her heart had just fallen out of her chest. With a sigh, she opened a portal the size of her head and peered through, hoping she could see something good. There, at the cave’s entrance, she found five glowing lights. She couldn’t make them out, but she knew exactly who they were.

Twilight turned her attention back to Adamantine and steeled herself. She then teleported to just above the cave entrance, noting it as completely collapsed in this wasteland, and then fell through a portal of her own creation.

Her friends, standing below, looked up. “Twilight!” They cried.

“Gather close!” she cried, lighting her horn.

They huddled together just as Twilight reached them, and she swept them up in a teleportation spell that took them up to the top of the mountain.

Twilight touched down, taking a moment to compose herself and breathe. The others turned.

“My goodness!” Rarity exclaimed. “Are you alright, dear?”

Fluttershy trotted up and gave Twilight a good examination. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

Twilight panted some more and then shook her head. “No. No. I’m fine. But Adamantine is really going at it.”

Applejack nodded, adjusting her hat. “She ain’t lettin’ up?”

Twilight shook her head.

Applejack glanced toward the city below, holding her hat to her head. Her scowl deepened, and she said, her tone low, “Then, ya know what we gotta do now.”

Twilight glanced between all her other friends. Rainbow Dash hovered, her expression a study in pain. Pinkie Pie stood nearby, half-catatonic, half-fearful. Rarity and Fluttershy shook their heads in resignation and stepped forward.

Twilight nodded and lit her horn. The Rainbow Power burst forth, wrapping itself around all of them and bringing them back together into a bright and shining ball of energy. The power pulsated and burned and, by sheer force, lifted them from the ground.

And despite all of that, the other five only thought to look to Twilight for direction.

And Twilight looked each of them in the eyes in response. “Let’s finish this. Once and for all, this time.”

* * *

Sunset glanced at the chalkboard, wrote what was on it into her stack of papers, flipped through them one last time, and then set them down on the bed. She stood up. “That’s the last of it,” she said.

Starlight glanced over and nodded solemnly. Together, the two of them trudged up the stairs into the study area. There, they found the Sunset Shimmers gathered around a device in the center. Said device, which was comprised of a capsule-like glass dome filled with a greenish gas that the both of them immediately recognized as unstew.

One of the Sunset Shimmers, wearing a brown bandana with a letter I on it, turned around and stepped forward. “Well, what’s up?”

Sunset sucked in a breath. “Well, we got as much done as we could. But…”

Sunset Shimmer I narrowed her eyes. “You… what?”

Starlight stepped forward. “How is your machine working?”

Sunset Shimmer I blinked and then stepped aside. “It’s all put together. The stones are all in there,” she said, pointing toward faint outlines of spheres inside the device. “All the ones that were still alive, anyway. We’ve had it running for a few hours already. With any luck, those unponies will survive. We’ll have this in the bag.”

Sunset Shimmer D looked over. “We were Princess Celestia’s students once. We were on our way to being princesses.” She chuckled. “But you already knew that.”

Starlight nodded. “Well, I sure hope that it does, because we got nothing.”

The Sunset Shimmers turned toward them in full, aghast. A silence passed between them before Sunset Shimmer T stepped forward, her head tilted incredulously. “What do you mean you got nothing?”

Sunset kicked the ground, looking like a foal meekly admitting to a wrong. “We… That thing we were working on… That big solution that was supposed to solve all of this…” She looked her counterparts dead in the eyes. “We couldn’t finish it. We’re out of time.”

Her counterparts’ expressions curled into disappointed snarls. “I can’t believe you. How the buck did you fail?” Sunset Shimmer T hissed.

Sunset shrugged. “We just did,” she croaked. “We don’t… have anything.”

Sunset Shimmer D snorted. “Well, forget you. We have this. And this is going to work.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”

“You bet your flank. Don’t you have any idea who you’re talking to?” Sunset Shimmer D snorted as she batted at the yellow bandana around her neck. “Of course you do, you’re supposed to be us. Look at you…”

“You might have gone soft,” Sunset Shimmer S said, “but we still have what it takes. This is it, right here.”

Starlight turned. “It all sounds fine to me, Sunset. Come on, this could be our chance.”

Sunset stared at the machine. She looked at the way the cloud of unstew filled the dome, ebbing and expanding and rushing around itself like smoke. She looked at the pump on the side, pulsating as it circulated fresh unstew into the chamber from a canister on the bottom. She watched gauge needles pointing out chamber pressure and pumping rates, each gauge accompanied by a knob.

And she tried to see the contents, but the shroud made it impossible to tell. Her counterparts had faint grins across their faces and held their heads high and proud. Starlight was looking expectedly, pleadingly, at her.

Sunset swallowed. “And every stone in there’s alive?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Sunset Shimmer S replied, smirking triumphantly.

Starlight afforded a glimmer of a smile.

Sunset met her counterpart’s eyes. “Show me.”

Sunset Shimmer S narrowed her eyes (and the others followed suit), but she nonetheless lit her horn. The gas in the chamber shot up toward the top of the dome and the machine shook from the shift in mass and apparent wind inside the chamber. There, everypony had a good look at the skeleton-like support that held every maroon stone and white stone aloft.

Sunset Shimmer S cried out, and the gas flowed back down, shrouding everything once more. Everypony reeled and stared at the machine in surprise. Aside from the ever-present thump of the pump, the room fell completely silent.

“What... was that?” Starlight wheezed.

The Sunset Shimmers cautiously stepped toward the machine, sharing uncertain glances.

Sunset frowned worriedly.

Sunset Shimmer N stepped forward, hesitated, and then stepped again. She lit her horn, and the gasses flew toward the top of the dome again.

The eight of them scanned the stones in their entirety. Some were maroon. But most were white, lacking energy in their outer layers. Lacking life.

Sunset felt the color drain from her face. So… it’s true, she thought.

Sunset Shimmer D said it first: “I… I don’t understand.”

“It didn’t work?” Sunset Shimmer N croaked.

Starlight shook her head and then shook her head again. “No way. How’s that…?”

Sunset knew that if she had been wearing her leather jacket, she would have jammed her hands in her pockets and sighed. She settled for only the latter. “Well… now you’re up to speed,” Sunset said. “You know what I’ve known for a while.”

Everypony turned toward her, aghast. Starlight shook her head with greater vehemence. “No. No no no no no.”

Sunset stamped her hoof. “It’s time we face it. We’re done. We have nothing.”

“No. I don’t take that. Adamantine figured out a way.”

Sunset frowned. “That way will cost thousands of lives. Adamantine’s way is not good enough.”

Starlight snorted. “W-what about all those other things we had ideas for?”

“They’ve all been tried before. Any number of worlds above us. None of them worked.”

Starlight opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Her mouth twitched in an effort to put something together, but as the seconds passed, her vigor vanished, and Starlight shrunk back.

“This really is impossible,” Sunset said. “There are some things that just can’t be done.”

A few Sunset Shimmers looked back at their machine even as the cloud enveloped the stones, both dead and alive, once more.

Starlight stared at the machine, her pale expression a mix of disbelief and contemplation. Her eyes darted between the machine, between the Sunset Shimmers, between Sunset, between the shelves, and the broken window.

Sunset Shimmer C placed her hoof on the device, crestfallen. She pursed her lips and spoke tentatively. “Well… Now what?” she asked, looking up.

The other Sunset Shimmers turned. Starlight turned.

Sunset looked at her counterparts who eyed her expectedly. Looking for direction. Looking for anything. They needed it, Sunset knew. There had to be something.

“What do we do?” Sunset Shimmer N asked.

Sunset fought back some wetness in her eyes and hung her head. “I don’t have anything else for you. I’m sorry.”

The six Sunset Shimmers shared uncertain glances.

Sunset trudged toward an inlet in the shelves where several machine parts lay about. She floated six empty sheets of paper over, wrote a letter on each of them, and then set them on the floor. Then she lit her horn, and no less than six portals appeared, one in front of each lettered paper.

Then she trudged back toward her other selves. “I’ve marked which portals go where. You can take those home whenever you’re ready.”

“T… t-that’s all?” Sunset Shimmer C stammered. Her features were creased and scrunched and her face was ablaze. The others bore similar expressions, staring intently.

Sunset didn’t even look up at them. She couldn’t look up at them. She couldn’t face them. Instead, she averted herself, looking at anything other than them. “That’s it,” she croaked. “Go home. Go back to C.H.S.. Do whatever. We’re done here.”

Starlight watched from the other side of the room, her jaw slack in disbelief. She looked at the portals and then at the ponies who would eventually walk through them, her expression growing increasingly dismayed with each thing she saw. All that disappeared when she returned her gaze to Sunset before, finally, she buried her face in her hooves.

* * *

Twilight opened another portal in front of her and willed the Rainbow Power which enveloped her and her friends to take her through it. The land below, which bore the fresh gashes and scars of a battle between opposing armies, looked deserted.

The six of them craned their necks around, scanning the scenery for anything moving.

“Anypony see her?” Applejack asked.

“Not yet,” Pinkie Pie replied.

Twilight flew them toward the Canterlotian mountainside and looked into the city itself but, aside from the numerous guards patrolling the city’s edge (who, given the bright energy surrounding the six, eyed them with cautious scrutiny), she found nothing.

A portal opened up a few tens of meters behind them, and Twilight whirled around just long enough to glimpse it closing shut, but not long enough to see what was on the other side.

“Oh dear,” Rarity murmured.

Had that been her? Did she see them?

Twilight scanned the skies with greater fervor, her gaze darting between every direction. The others followed suit with their own searches.

A portal opened above them and a beam of energy shot through, colliding with their shell. The Rainbow Power recoiled, and they with it, prompting surprised shrieks. The attack subsided as quickly as it hit and the portal closed as quickly as it had opened.

“What the—?” Rainbow Dash screeched.

Another portal opened up a few degrees over and another beam shot through, splashing against the Rainbow Power. Their surprised exclamations were much more subdued, such that they came around fast enough to collectively watch the portal close again.

Another portal opened a few degrees over from the previous, and another attack came before that portal closed. The same attack pattern happened again a moment later, and again after that, every time at a different angle.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

“I know!” Twilight replied.

Another attack smashed against the Rainbow Power.

“She’s hitting us from alternate timelines, Twilight!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed.

I know!”

One attack came off its mark and Twilight moved them out of the way. The shot barreled into the mountainside, away from the city.

Twilight lit her horn and aimed a portal spell through the closing portal. She saw something flash on the far side of the aperture before the enemy portal closed entirely. A little further away, Twilight’s own portal stood open.

Twilight cried giddily and willed them Rainbow Power to take them toward it. “I got it!”

They emerged on the other side. Nopony could readily tell which timeline it was, but they didn’t stop to ponder it as the Rainbow Power swerved around. Adamantine looked up at them in surprise.

“How the hay did ya do that?” Applejack asked.

“Adamantine did it to me earlier,” Twilight replied. She willed the Rainbow Power to lash out, shooting several tendrils in Adamantine’s direction. Adamantine backpedaled out of their initial reach and then lobbed quick shots at them to slow their progress when they lunged again.

Adamantine teleported out of range and lobbed several more shots at them. A few missed, but those that hit splashed pathetically against the sphere. She, at the same time, tried building a pre-cast.

Adamantine’s pre-cast disappeared into her horn and then she too disappeared a moment later. She reappeared right on top of them before launching another beam. This one punched into them with an intensity likened to several suns. Flanges of energy peeled off after hitting, still hot enough to cut through the air before they disintegrated. The force of the blast pushed the sphere downward, which meant nothing in the air far above the plain. Still, the sphere surrounding the six deformed against the force.

The six, apart from crying out in surprise, shied away from the blast even as the Rainbow Power protected them. No, the Rainbow Power had buckled just a little bit. It had deformed. But it held, despite the tremendous power ramming into it.

The attack subsided after a few moments. What had been a meter between the two sets of combatants had grown to a hundred.

Twilight and the rest of her friends straightened up and looked toward their foe flying above.

Adamantine flapped her wings, keeping level at her altitude. She panted, looking down at them in shock. And then one of her wings flapped erratically, and Adamantine momentarily lost her balance long enough to drop a meter or two, before she regained herself.

Twilight frowned. She and her friends, meanwhile, floated within the Rainbow Power sphere, their multicolored manes without a single hair out of place and their energy-radiating coats without so much as a smudge or ruffle. The sphere had returned to its previous shape as if it had never been struck.

Adamantine straightened herself up and swallowed. “Twilight!” she called from above. “Y-you… I’m telling you one more time: remove your block!”

Twilight shook her head. “No. We’ve been over this.”

Twilight’s friends looked up as well, their expressions a mixture of stern glares, distressed grimaces, and uncertain frowns.

Adamantine shifted. “Please! Remove your block, Twilight. I am begging you!”

Twilight felt her heart skip a beat as a heaviness washed over her. She sighed. “I can’t,” she croaked.

Adamantine looked green in the face, she shook her head, and she lit her horn again.

Twilight steeled herself, and then she and her friends charged forward.

And Adamantine flipped over and dove straight down toward them in kind, all alone.

* * *

Sunset trotted up to the machine that her doubles had built. The machine housed stones which would be both dead and alive until the moment she drained the smoke. But the former would come. If not sooner, later.

She flipped a switch on the front panel, and the pump, which had been dutifully thumping away, ground to a silent halt. The gas inside the chamber stagnated but remained aloft within dense, puffy clouds.

Sunset stared at it for a few moments, considering its design. She then looked into the now-empty alcove where she had earlier made portals.

Sunset hoped that everything would stick with her counterparts. It had to.

With a sigh, she trudged toward the window, or rather what remained of the window. Several shards clung to the frame, but the hole was still large enough that several of her could fit through it. Sunset chuckled. Just a few hours ago, she could have done exactly that.

Some flashes of light in the distance caught her attention, and she looked out past the castle grounds to see two points of light shooting at each other. They danced around each other, their contrails swirling together like a waltz. They never closed the distance, but when their shots connected, a low boom soon followed.

Sunset idly followed them as they meandered across the sky before they disappeared in a flash of light; into alternate timelines, Sunset assumed.

She floated the crystal ball over from the desk but said nothing. All she could afford was a subdued and silent shake of her head.

Starlight slunk up toward the edge, joining Sunset. Her head was bowed. “I’m…”

“This…” Twilight’s voice started, “this isn’t where I thought we would be.”

Sunset continued shaking her head, feeling something in her eyes; nothing substantial yet. She sighed. “Yeah.”

“This isn’t how I planned this.”


“I could have prevented all of this. I could have…”

Starlight sighed. “Twilight… where do we go from here? What do we do?”

The crystal ball paused. “Starlight, I… I don’t know.”

The two unicorns in the room hummed in solemn agreement, watching as some pegasi positioned some clouds in the sky, adding to a blanket that already stretched toward the valley.

“I could have done more,” Twilight’s voice continued.

Starlight nodded. “I feel you. I know we did a lot over these past few days. I mean, a lot.”

“Fought unponies on a train,” Sunset said, smiling.

Starlight giggled. “Kicked flank on a train,” she seconded.

“Found other timelines,” Twilight’s voice said. Saved other timelines.”

Starlight nodded, brightening up a little. “Sure. Brought the timelines together. Gave them each other.”

Sunset thumped her chest. “Figured out all the timelines. The entire multiverse.” She looked over to Starlight with a grin. “And then I solved unponies.”

Starlight nodded in agreement and then looked up. “Speaking of, Twilight, how did… working out that Flim and Flam stuff go?”

“Flim and Flam?” Twilight’s voice asked. “Yes. Of course. I fixed a good deal of Equestria I. Not all the way, but it’s a lot better. I’m really really happy with what I’ve done there.”

Starlight sighed. “Wow. We, sure have done a lot of really good things these past few days.”

“That’s right, we have,” Twilight’s voice concurred. “We’ve been pretty successful!” There was a prolonged pause before Twilight’s voice said, more subdued, “But… even then… there’re… things. I couldn’t fix the wasteland.”

The grins on both Sunset and Starlight’s muzzles faded, and their eyes drew toward the floor with dejection. Silence passed. Nopony spoke.

Finally, Sunset spoke up. “I couldn’t save my friend,” she said.

Starlight kicked the floor and nodded. “I couldn’t save myself.”

A few flashes in the distance preceded more beams of light and subsequent booms. The room shuddered, and the metal window frame rattled. Every report filled in missing heartbeats.

Sunset flopped her hoof in the direction of the battle. “And then there’s this.”

“This,” Twilight’s voice replied.

With the knot in her chest growing tighter, Sunset levitated over a cushion and set the crystal ball on it.

“This… chain of events. All this… it all started with me.” The crystal ball paused. “But I won’t make the same mistakes. I know the full situation now, whereas I didn’t several days ago.”

“Okay?” Starlight asked.

“You can warn me. No. On second thought, let me warn me. This… can stop with her.”

Starlight’s expression widened, and she nodded in acknowledgment. “Oh, I see. Knowing what you know now, you really could guide Twilight through all this.”

“Exactly,” Twilight’s voice replied. “I know it’s a bit late for your world. I’m… sorry about that. But your Twilight… she can prevent this from happening in the world below yours. And then they can prevent it from happening below them. Ad infinitum.”

“That sounds good to me.”

“What about those other Adamantines?” Sunset asked. “The ones from the other timelines?”

After a pause, Twilight’s voice replied, “Hmmm, that’s a good question. I kinda forgot about them.”

“What would they do?”

“I don’t know. I guess… if they’re just as tenacious as our Adamantine… then they won’t give up just like that. That could cause trouble. And I would have no way of predicting anything.”

Starlight frowned. “Sure, okay. But still, we’d avoid all of this. That’s gotta be worth something.”

Sunset nodded in agreement. “So, what do you think you’d do then?”

“Well, I would do what I was doing before: I’d look for a way to save those unponies.”

Starlight smiled. “That would be amazing!”

The knot in Sunset’s chest unexpectedly tightened. She threw on a grin and hummed in agreement, but her thoughts ran downstairs. She blinked and then turned around to look back into the room. Her eyes looked across the bookshelves lining the walls, at the empty spot where the hourglass had once been, and then, finally, at the floor itself.

Rather, she tried to see through the floor. She tried to see a set of documents, the incomplete solution, lying on the bed in the living area downstairs.

“Twilight?” Sunset tremulously said.

“Oh…” Twilight’s voice said, sounding dejected. “I know what you’re thinking, Sunset. We’ve already spent a day-and-a-half forever looking for a solution, haven’t we?”

Sunset swallowed. “Yeah.”

Starlight’s jaw fell open.

“And… even after all that time… we still haven’t found a solution…” Twilight’s voice said.

“Yeah,” Sunset said.

“B-but…” Starlight stammered, glancing between Sunset and the ceiling.

“S-so,” Twilight’s voice stuttered, “really, when it comes down to it, even if I prevented all this from happening, I still wouldn’t be able to come up with the solution to the problem… and then the unponies would die anyway.”

Sunset nodded vacantly.

Starlight swore under her breath.

“That’s… ridiculous. That’s… unacceptable. I can’t…” Twilight’s voice stammered.

Sunset felt her body go numb.

“They… the unponies. Even if we could postpone it… No. We all saw them in those caverns. That’s just… that’s no way to live. I just… I’d just be drawing things out, wouldn’t I?”

Sunset’s legs felt weak and wobbly. She held firm.

Starlight stared down at the ground below, her expression growing more distraught by the moment.

“Augh!” Twilight’s voice cried. “I just can’t! There has got to be something better than this!”

A gust of wind plunged through the shattered window, whistling in their ears and playing with their manes. Two flashes of light in the distance signaled the battle returning, and in short order, the laser blasts came about it. One blast crashed right into the nearby mountainside, dislodging small rocks which cascaded down the side and landed someplace on the far end of the grounds.

The city beyond seemed quiet, probably watching the battle unfold. The grounds were deserted, with every guard having raced into the city sometime prior. The booms of colliding magics came in an almost rhythmic fashion but, as Sunset and Starlight could see, one source could hit their shots while outright evading the shots of the other.

And, Sunset knew, it would be over once the other source connected.

She thought of what would be lost. She thought about the unponies, and what surely awaited them shortly.

And she thought of what had been gained. She thought about the millions and millions who, as a result of what had happened over the past several days, now had better lives. She thought of the ponies in the reality once ravaged by Tirek, and she thought of the ponies once under Nightmare Moon’s control. She thought of many others.

And Sunset knew that they could have happened or not have happened. Maybe there was a place where some or none of them had happened. But here, all but one of them had happened; all but one of them had been saved.

All the pieces, save one that now seemed forever elusive, had fallen into place.

“I think…” Sunset swallowed. “This… this really is as good as it gets. I don’t think we can do better than this.”


Starlight whirled, looking at Sunset in wide-eyed surprise.

“Twilight, hear me out,” Sunset said. “Look, I know this isn’t perfect. But we did everything that we could. And… we did pretty okay.”

The crystal ball sighed. “Yes, Sunset, but...”

“It still feels wrong,” Starlight croaked. “We should have been able to do this. I wish we could have.”

“Yes. We let them down. This isn’t the best scenario.”

“But we’ve done so much good,” Sunset replied, “the most we could have done. So… I’d call this, like, the second-best scenario.”

Twilight’s voice groaned. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I… I don’t like it.”

A picture of a mare rubbing her darkened and bagged eyes, hunched over a crystal ball while looking overall pale, sprang to Sunset’s mind.

A few more booms in the distance sent tremors through the tower. In the skies above Equestria, the lights continued dancing around each other.

“Sunset… I need you to understand…” Twilight’s voice said, “that this… what is happening now… is what I set out to prevent in the first place. And I did not do it.”

“I understand that, Twilight,” Sunset said.

“All I have to do is talk to your layer’s version of me, and we could prevent this battle, now and forever.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “And we can also prevent everything else. We could prevent us from saving those other Equestrias. Or maybe those alternate Adamantines end up causing an even worse disaster. We could unknowingly start something that will seriously mess up the lower layers.”

Starlight visibly swallowed. The crystal ball remained silent.

Sunset stamped her hoof. “This is the best it gets. It’s time to cut our losses.”

Starlight hung her head. “I… I guess… I know how much a tiny change can drastically change the future.”

“Darn it all…” Twilight’s voice said. “I wish you weren’t right. I just… don’t know if I can be content with leaving it at this…”

“We did what we could, Twilight,” Sunset said. “Only thing we can do now is hope for the best.”

“Hope for the best? How?”

“Look, we weren’t the first ones to work on this. Just look at everything we got from the layers above us—your layer too. We were able to do what we did because of every one of us who worked on it before.” Sunset paused to glance at the ceiling where she was sure Twilight was watching from. “And the layers below us will work on this too. They’ll be able to build off what we did. I don’t know. Maybe some layer below us will actually solve it someday. That’s all we can hope for.”

“But that means it’s out of our hooves,” Starlight wheezed.

Sunset sighed. “It’s still our best bet.”

“But… from what I’ve seen from you in the past few hours… even after all that, we could never find it, and all of this will amount to nothing,” Twilight’s voice said. “Sunset, our best bet is nothing.”

Sunset’s heart thumped in her chest. “It’s still our best bet.”

Starlight started looking decisively green in the face. Some light in her eyes had faded; the way her face had contorted and the way she gazed blankly into the distance was just the icing on top.

The crystal ball produced what sounded like uncomfortable grunts, which Sunset interpreted as a future Twilight trying, and failing, to find words.

The battle had drawn closer to the city, evidenced by the louder booms and brighter attacks. The faint silhouettes of six mares, wrapped in a magic sphere of unfathomable power, swatted away incoming beams from a seventh mare wrapped in her own powerful aura. The latter attacked with less intensity and ferocity than earlier.

“There will be a lot of lives lost today,” Twilight’s voice said at a near whisper. “Today, forever. ...You know that, right?”

Sunset nodded vacantly. “I know.”

The two sides continued trading blows, but Sunset knew enough about the Rainbow Power. She had been hit by something like it at one time, and then she had wielded it herself another time. It didn’t mess around. It went straight for the throat and worked without prejudice or mercy.

The Rainbow Power on display in the distance was reserved and defensive. Hesitant, even. It was enough to piece together Twilight’s internal conversations. It was enough to know where Twilight stood; enough for the things which Sunset already knew.

“Second-best scenario…?” Twilight’s voice quietly trailed off.

The Rainbow Power swatted incoming attacks away like flies, unperturbed. Adamantine’s attacks were flimsy and invisible by comparison at this point. And, if future Twilight was to be believed, it wouldn’t be long.

Sunset swallowed and stared into nothing. “Yeah.”

The floor rattled from the reports of the battle. The air trembled before resuming its biting embrace. Apart from the battle over the land of Equestria, everything was silent and still. It was only a moment, and yet it was a moment that would last forever.

Starlight stood by, her expression fearful and, somehow, hurt.

Because it did hurt.

Sunset felt sick, like her mind, body, and soul were twisted impossibly tight. It was all too wrong. Whatever would happen in the next few minutes, whatever would happen in the next few days, wrong. In a layer above, in a layer below, and theirs too, all wrong.

Forever wrong. Forever the best wrong.

“Okay…” Twilight’s voice croaked.

Starlight collapsed and buried her face in her hooves.

Sunset did not react. Sunset could not react.

“Okay…” Twilight’s voice said. Stay the course.”

* * *

Twilight whirled the Rainbow Power around. Her friends floated behind her, watching in silence. The energy around them coalesced at rapid velocities, shining like a sun. The immediate air glowed in their presence, and their light no doubt lit the land far below.

Adamantine swung up from underneath, looking toward them with gritted teeth and narrowed eyes. Her wings flapped unevenly; not enough for her to fall out of the sky, but still enough to make her movements erratic.

The magic coursing through and around Adamantine seemed faded compared to how it had been minutes ago.

Adamantine reeled in order to shoot another blast. Twilight’s lip quivered in response before she willed the Rainbow Power to move.

Their two beams connected in a cacophonous display of showering sparks and white-hot energy flakes. But, rather, the nexus drifted toward Adamantine straight-away, to which she responded by pouring her energies into the beam, putting her everything into the attack.

Twilight responded in kind, but it was like swishing her tail; thoughtless and automatic. The nexus sped toward Adamantine now, Even with Adamantine’s full power pressed against it, the Rainbow Power split her attack down the middle, sending fragments in every direction.

Twilight tracked the nexus right up until it ran into her opponent, and there she saw Adamantine’s expression grow wide as it neared. In the split second before, Adamantine froze, and every bit of pigment drained from her darkened coat. Twilight could even hear the gasp.

Adamantine… Twilight solemnly thought, forgive me.

The nexus exploded, enveloping Twilight’s foe in a darkened cloud. The report shook the very air around them, and then a trail of smoke jetted from the cloud and sailed toward the earth. Various energies, in various bright, blinding hues, escaped from the cloud in strands and dissipated into nothingness.

And the trail smashed into the ground with an equally booming thud. The spot smoldered, revealing nothing of the mare there.

At the same time, Twilight felt something churning in her chest. It swirled and twisted all the way up and then through her horn, just like if she was casting a spell. Only she hadn’t just then cast a spell. But she knew what it was.

Twilight sucked in a breath and glanced back at her friends who just stared at the spot in shock, even as they floated a few hundred meters above it. One by one, they looked up at Twilight and their shocked expressions turned to resolute frowns.

Twilight moved them down, following the smoke trail toward the ground. Her heart thrashed within her chest, and despite the energy enveloping her, Twilight found herself sweating. They reached the ground above which Twilight hovered. Together, the six of them stared at the spot, collectively holding their breaths.

A scream rose from within the smoke; a prolonged, from-the-lungs scream that made every hair on their Rainbowfied bodies stand on end and made their blood curl. The smoke cleared, revealing Adamantine on her back, writhing about like an insect lashing out in its final moments; her wings rapidly extended and contracted, her legs kicked and flailed violently. She cried out, again and again, her screams angry, feral, and pained.

The energy that had surrounded her was completely gone. Only the bare mare remained.

Twilight willed the Rainbow Power to set the six of them down. The energy sphere popped like a bubble, but they remained, individually, in powered states. They stared at the display with open-mouthed shock. They didn’t move, they didn’t speak. With every ear-piercing cry that escaped Adamantine, bits of color escaped from them.

A whistling sound caught the six’s attention and they, after briefly looking around, found their cutie marks spraying out several small symbols. The marks whistled and whistled, over and over again.

The six looked at their own marks, then each other’s marks, and then each other, their expressions growing more wide-eyed with each glance.

After a few more moments, Adamantine flopped over and glared intensely at them. Her screams turned to growls and panicked cries. She planted her hooves, tried to lift herself, failed, looked for more secure footing, then rose to her hooves.

The six watched her in silence as Adamantine glared them down. Adamantine ground her teeth together, and her entire body shook almost uncontrollably. And Adamantine wound up to unleash a laser blast.

Adamantine fell on her face instead with no blast to speak of. The dirt muffled the resulting cries before Adamantine climbed to her hooves again. She flicked her head, intent on again unleashing a laser blast, but her horn remained unlit. It had not lit in any capacity. As Adamantine tried more and more just to put out an attack, stumbling closer and closer as she went, the end result looked like pathetic flailing. With each attempt, Adamantine’s cries became more jaded and frustrated and diminished in strength.

Twilight looked at it all, considered their whistling cutie marks, quietly whimpered, and then made one final will. The Rainbow Power enveloped her and each of her friends in a brief flash of white light before disappearing altogether. The rainbow-like patterns that had run through their extended manes and tails were gone, and the glow around their bodies had vanished. They looked like everyday mares once more.

Rarity hid her horrified expression behind her hoof. Fluttershy did much of the same, but the liquid pouring out of her eyes gave her away. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkamena stood in terrified silence.

Twilight could not watch it anymore and looked away.

Adamantine, now a few meters away, tried for one final, point-blank attack. Her horn remained as barren as before and Adamantine collapsed, her angered cries now reminiscing sobs, none of which they could see as her long, silver mane lay draped over her muzzle. Her entire body trembled and Adamantine labored just to plant each hoof into the dirt again. Her climb to her hooves was slow and shaky.

The tears that hadn’t yet fallen welled up in Adamantine’s shaky, dilated eyes. Her cries and sobs had faded away altogether, leaving Adamantine silent.

Applejack doffed her hat, holding it close to her chest. Pinkamena finally lost her footing and collapsed. The others held their breath, especially as Adamantine came to a stop just a few inches away from Twilight.

Adamantine stood there, silently staring at Twilight in disbelief.

Twilight dared not meet Adamantine’s gaze. Her features twitched as she held everything else at bay.

Far-off winds brought whistles that broke the silence, but they otherwise did not dare to venture close.

Twilight felt her insides twisted into several knots and she stomached bile that wasn’t even there.

An entire eternity passed, especially between the two of them. Nopony moved. Nopony spoke. Nopony breathed. The only things that moved were the tears streaming down Adamantine’s muzzle.

Finally, Adamantine blinked and turned her gaze to some location behind the six: the mountainside that led up to Canterlot. She stumbled right past Twilight, not even affording a passing glance. She stumbled through the rest of them, not even considering them in the slightest through her daze. Her breaths, half sobs and half labored pants, echoed in their ears as she passed through the six.

Fluttershy dropped her muzzle into her hooves and sobbed. Rainbow Dash groaned and kicked the ground over and over again. Pinkamena and Rarity joined together and held each other close, wailing. Applejack trotted over and joined them, opting to remain silent all the while.

Twilight sniffled and finally let some of her own tears fall, but she wiped them away just as quickly. Instead, she turned.

She watched Adamantine, now stumbling away toward Canterlot. Presumably toward the chamber. Presumably toward her people. Adamantine’s path took her up a hill, and Twilight tracked her as Adamantine reached the crest.

And then, finally, the last and former queen of the unponies disappeared over the other side.

13 - Payment

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The clouds hanging overhead ultimately blocked out the sun. A dull gray hue shone down on the land as a result. The forest floor lay dormant and largely undisturbed beneath it. The songs of birds and the occasional cracks of rustled twigs echoed through the quiet, but even those were not plentiful.

The forest itself cleared the way for a large hole in the ground. The hole drew down a ways before opening up into a vast cavern. Given the cloud cover, only a bit of gray made it down to the cavern floor far below.

Crystals of blue fire, each sticking out of the walls at regular intervals, served as the main lighting for the cavern. But now they mixed with the streaming sunlight.

Empty caldrons lay strewn about the cavern floor, their green stains the only signs that anything had ever been in them. A discolored ring, carved into the sides of the ceiling opening, bore traces of a magic barrier that had once hung over the cavern and trapped gasses in that had since evaporated.

The cavern lay quiet. Not even the forest sounds made it in.

Ever-diminishing dirt mounds also littered the cavern floor. Air flowed into the cavern via adjoining tunnels and escaped through the hole in the ceiling, snatching bits of dust off the mounds as it blew by. The smaller mounds did not survive for long, but the larger mounds, fortuitous against the winds, deteriorated in their own ways.

In several corners of the room lay several objects. Books lay in haphazard piles, with some open to random pages lying face down on the ground. Spent chalk congregated near drawings on the cavern walls, the designs now stained into the rock itself. The designs depicted a number of things, but certain characters—namely ponies of a particularly dark hue—recurred. An abandoned acoustic guitar lay against the wall in another corner of the cavern, still with shiny varnish and all six strings strung.

An inlet in another corner of the chamber housed a paper-littered desk and a cushion that had bled out all its cotton. Empty styrofoam cups littered the ground throughout the inlet, some flattened and sporting hoof-shaped marks.

Several crystal balls, seven to be exact, sat against the back wall. Each ball showed a chamber, each bearing their own similarities and differences. The images within occasionally moved as ponies like the ones in the wall-paintings squirmed and rolled over. One of the chambers lacked the structures or occupants that the others had.

The inlet’s single fire crystal, which cast a blue light within the room, flickered once and then died altogether, leaving the inlet to darkness. It made no pomp nor circumstance as it withdrew its energies, and thus the rest of the cavern remained none the wiser. It was another thing to be forgotten.

“Everypony!” Princess Celestia boomed. “Please remain calm! We will have you sorted out shortly!”

She looked around the large, hemispherical chamber. Several members of the royal guard helped countless ponies to their hooves. Said ponies wobbled, teetered, and some couldn’t even find their hooves to begin with. Most words out of their mouths were variations of “What happened?” and “Where am I?” to which the guards offered by-the-book “You’re safe now”s.

The countless sigils within the chamber walls and floor flashed a white light, and then another pony popped into existence. Said pony, a unicorn as it turned out, fell out of the air, only for a pair of guards to catch him with their magic.

A few seconds later, the sigils flashed again, and another pony, a pegasus this time, appeared from a white flash of light. Said flash deposited him right on the floor of the chamber.

A few seconds after that, the sigils flashed, and an unpony of the earth variety fell from the top of the chamber. The unpony failed to gain consciousness before slamming into the floor, shattering into a billion particles.

And many ponies jumped, crying out in shock in surprise and otherwise reeling in horror.

Celestia didn’t even look. “Remain calm!” she boomed again. “Let the members of the royal guard see to you. If you are in need of medical assistance, please flag them down.”

“You have nothing to fear,” Princess Luna added. She stood at Celestia’s side, watching the growing crowd with scrutiny.

The chamber flashed again, and a pegasus fell from the ceiling, only to catch herself in midair. The guards underneath her, who had reached up to catch her, instead made way as she landed.

Six mares appeared at the open entryway to the chamber. They packed tightly together, wearing half-blank stares and sporting misplaced hairs and wet faces. They trudged into the chamber, stopping just long enough to examine the scene around them. Their eyes ran over the ponies standing confusedly about, lit up on seeing that many of them looked in good shape, only to wilt again on seeing several mounds of blackened sand here and there.

The chamber flashed, and a pegasus unstallion popped into existence. His wings instinctively flapped and he gained conscious long enough to steer, through erratic difficulty, toward the doorway. And yet, within seconds, his body disintegrated as he flew, showering anypony below his path. He never reached the exit.

Princess Celestia swallowed and trotted toward the new arrivals. “Twilight Sparkle. Friends.” She motioned to the scene around them. “Are you alright?”

Twilight Sparkle continued glancing around the chamber, focusing on the mounds. Her frown deepened with each one she saw.

“No,” she finally replied.

“I think that I speak for all of us, Princess Celestia,” Rarity said, “that this… didn’t exactly turn out the way we would have liked to.”

Celestia’s eyes drew to Pinkamena, in particular, and her own frown deepened. “I understand. This has been a taxing ordeal for us all. But I know the burden has been especially heavy on you.”

“This is all our fault, and you know it,” Rainbow Dash seethed through grit teeth.

Twilight watched as the chamber flashed again, spitting out a unicorn unstallion just long enough for him to fall and smash against the floor. “Gosh, I… I wish it were me. I wish I could take their place.”

Celestia shuddered and nodded solemnly. “I understand, Twilight. But it is what it is. And for what it is worth,” she said, lifting Twilight by the chin and putting on her signature mentorly grin, “I believe you made the right choice.”

Twilight didn’t smile back. Rather, she let her head hang again. “I… think so too. But… Princess, there was a moment there where I thought about making the other choice.”

Her friends turned, collectively frowning.

Celestia tilted her head with curiosity. “Oh? Is that right?”

Twilight dragged a hoof across the stone floor. “I… yes. Part of me wanted Adamantine to win. Part of me wanted her to save her people. I… thought about sacrificing our ponies so that hers could live.”

The chamber flashed again, and Twilight’s friends craned their necks to see who it was.

Twilight shook her head. “I’m so ashamed. Tell me I was wrong. Wasn’t I?” she asked, meeting Celestia’s gaze.

Celestia, in response, glanced behind her and watched as Luna helped some ponies to their hooves and spoke brief reassurances to them. Many of theirs had managed their way to their hooves. Those that did shied away from an unpony trying to crawl across the room, leaving a trail as he went.

Celestia shook her head. “I think… that you are not wrong to value life, Twilight,” she said.

Applejack sidled up alongside and draped a hoof across Twilight’s withers, but her gaze remained toward a far-off corner of the room. Both Twilight and Celestia looked at Applejack first and then toward where Applejack, as well as the other four, looked.

A yellow pegasus looked around the chamber, shaking and cowering and otherwise curling up into a defensive ball. She hid her face behind her long pink mane and hugged her tail, keeping it to herself. She shied away from the guards trying to help her up.

Celestia’s eyes, as well as everypony else’s, drew to Fluttershy, who looked at her alternate self with a disbelieving frown.

While the six looked on, Celestia trotted toward the other Fluttershy. She approached with caution, watching the other Fluttershy’s every movement, lest she frightened one whom she figured was already shivering in her bones.

Indeed, the other Fluttershy withdrew. “P-p-p-princess Celestia?”

Celestia smiled. “Hello, Fluttershy. I hope you are alright.”

The other Fluttershy swallowed and meekly nodded.

“You have nothing to fear,” Celestia continued. “You are safe now.”

The chamber flashed again, and an unpony streaked across the room before disintegrating. The other Fluttershy tracked the late unpony and whimpered in distress.

“You are safe,” Celestia repeated.

The other Fluttershy shivered.

“There, there,” Fluttershy said, trotting up beside Celestia, a warm smile on her face. “It’s going to be okay.”

Both Celestia and the other Fluttershy looked over with varying degrees of surprise.

“Everything is going to be just fine. I know there’s so much going on right now,” Fluttershy continued, even while the chamber flashed again and spit out an earth stallion across the room. “But we’ll get you home, I promise.”

The other Fluttershy frowned. “B-but, Tirek…”

Celestia and Fluttershy exchanged glances and nodded affirmatively

Fluttershy turned back to her counterpart. “Don’t worry, he isn’t going to bother anypony anymore. We’ll get you back home, safe and sound. Okay?” she said, extending a hoof.

The other Fluttershy looked up. Her features softened, and now she looked at Fluttershy with cautious scrutiny. Her eyes flicked between Fluttershy’s outstretched hoof and Fluttershy’s soft, kindly face. Eventually, with trepidation, the other Fluttershy grabbed Fluttershy’s hoof. Fluttershy, in turn, helped her counterpart to her hooves, and the two finally exchanged smiles.

Celestia looked back and met Twilight in the eyes. The both of them smiled.

The chamber flashed again, and an earth unmare popped out, lasting a few seconds before she splattered against the floor right by where Celestia stood.

Celestia’s smile faded yet she didn’t afford it a glance. There was no helping it, after all. Instead, she gravely nodded at Twilight. Twilight, in turn, nodded in solemn acknowledgment.

* * *

Sunset Shimmer watched the scenery fly by outside the window. Mossy rock walls occasionally sported tree roots or even gave way to trees or collections of trees. The constant clickety-clack from the train thundering down the tracks served as background noise. The car swayed from side to side, shuddering over the occasional rail tie.

And somehow, all of it seemed lost on her. The scenery was a blur, the sounds were faint. She couldn’t register the movements.

All she had were the thoughts.

Pictures of unponies swam through her head. Pictures of ponies, onyx in their color, dancing around and reading together and laughing at jokes. Things, she knew, they had to have done at some time long passed. Things, Sunset knew, they would not do again.

Imaginations of an alicorn, her long, silver hair tied in a bun as she lifted several heavy objects or sorted and filed paperwork, all for the bits that would eventually pay for what ingredients went into unstew, all so her people would be fed.

Where was she now?

Sunset clutched the crystal ball tighter and said nothing.

Starlight Glimmer sat in her own seat at the other end of the empty train car, just as wrapped in her own world. She sighed through her nose, vacantly and perpetually shaking her head.

“Sunset Shimmer?” the crystal ball said.

Sunset blinked. That had been Celestia’s voice. Sunset looked up. “Princess?”

“Sunset. I’ve caught up with you,” Celestia’s voice said. “Moving the view in the ball to keep up with you is a bit of a chore. I am still learning how to control it.”

Sunset chuckled.

“But,” Celestia’s voice continued, “Twilight Sparkle told me that I should talk to you. I was hoping you would be willing to tell me what happened. Once you reach Ponyville, of course.”

Sunset continued looking at the ceiling, knowing that Princess Celestia was watching from the world above hers. A world nine days into the future. Sunset’s expression remained unchanged.

The car shuddered as it went over an uneven section of track.

Sunset let her head roll back toward the window and she nodded half-heartedly. “Okay.”

* * *

Sunset stepped off the train and onto the station’s wooden platform with the crystal ball floating right behind her. The depot itself stood like a hut, with but a simple overhang to cover the platform. Compared to Canterlot’s glassy and polished depot, the simple wooden construction looked thrown together. The platform boards creaked under her hooves and did so again when Starlight joined her on the platform a moment later.

The two stood in silence, even as several other ponies ambled onto the platform from the next car over, chatting jovially about topics that neither of them really cared to listen to.

Sunset watched as some of them departed, and then she sighed. “Ah, welp…”

Starlight looked up. “I guess this is it, huh?” she asked, scraping the floorboards.

Sunset nodded vacantly. “Sure looks like it, Starlight.”

The engine bellowed a loud and drawn-out whistle and then lurched forward. Steam flew out from several nooks and crannies within the engine, punctuated by a hiss each time. The hisses grew more rapid as the train moved faster and faster. And then the last car pulled away from the platform.

Except for the two of them, the platform lay empty.

“I guess you’re going to go back home, right?” Starlight asked.


“I guess this is where we say goodbye, then,” Starlight said.

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Huh? Wait, you’re not going back to the castle? I figured we’d at least be heading that way together.”

Starlight shrugged. “Well, it sounds like the princess wants to talk to you. And… I’m not going back to the castle. Not right now.”

Sunset tilted her head with concern. “Yeah? Why’s that?”

Starlight watched as the train rounded a corner and disappeared into the distance. She hummed in thought and drew circles in the floorboards. “I just… I can’t go back right now. I don’t want to go back.”


Starlight shook her head.

“Why not?” Sunset asked, frowning.

Starlight snorted and shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t know. Sunset, I… I’m just not ready. We both know what Twilight’s going to be doing for the next nine days, and I don’t want to be around for that. I can’t look at all this again.”

Something sharp shot through Sunset’s body, and she shivered in response. “Yeah. Buck all this.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You and me both.”

“We’re going to have to live with this for the rest of our lives,” Starlight said.

Sunset nodded. “Well, it’s like I say to myself, ‘My past does not define me.’ And besides… we tried our best. We really did.” Sunset paused, considering her own words. She ran the words through her head over and over again, nodding slowly. “Yeah… We really did try our best.”

Starlight sucked in a breath. “Listen. Sunset. It was… something, being able to work with you these past few days. You know, you’re really smart, and you’ve got some really nice magic. And…” Starlight cracked a smile. “You know, it was really nice.”

Sunset blushed. “Well, thanks,” she replied.

“No, listen,” Starlight said, approaching. “I didn’t really say any of this yet, but… you know, you remind me a lot of myself. You made these mistakes in the past and… did a bad thing or two. But… Gosh, where you’ve been since.” She opened her mouth to speak, but she found herself too busy looking Sunset up and down, considering her. “Yeah, you’re right. We tried our best. It just wasn’t enough this time.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah.”

Starlight nodded. “This is going to sting for a while. And I’ll just need some time.”

Sunset nodded, approaching Starlight. “That’s okay. Whatever time you need.” She placed a hoof on Starlight’s withers. “Just remember to bounce back. Okay?”

Starlight brushed and then moved forward, wrapped her forelegs around Sunset. “You take care of yourself, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset returned it. “You too, Starlight Glimmer. Take it easy.”

The two broke the hug, and after sharing smiles, Starlight turned and trotted down the platform. And Sunset watched the whole time until the moment Starlight descended the stairs and disappeared around the corner.

* * *

“Just keep an eye out for me, okay?” Starlight asked.

An azure-colored mare tipped her lavender, starry-patterned magician’s hat and nodded solemnly. “Trixie promises to keep you updated. And if anypony asks where you went, Trixie’ll tell them that you went someplace away from here.”

Starlight smiled. “Thanks.”

Trixie then levitated the hat off her head and placed it on a nearby wooden trunk. “But for real, Starlight, I feel awful for you. I feel awful for all those, um… underponies that you tried to help. I just want you to know that I will be here if you need me to talk to.”

Starlight smiled and wrapped Trixie in a hug. “Thanks. You’re a good friend.”

“The greatest and most powerful friend,” Trixie replied.

The two broke, and Starlight turned. Trixie’s brightly colored cart sat in the shade of the tree at the top of the hill. Several other ponies milled about the rest of the park below, oblivious to their presence.

Starlight sighed and lit her horn. After a flash of light, a portal opened up. Dust and a low whistle streamed through the aperture. A glance through revealed a dirty, bleak expanse.

Trixie’s breath left her, but Starlight looked on with a dejected frown. And, after one last glance at her friend, Starlight stepped through the portal and closed it behind her.

* * *

Unlit candles clung to the walls and hung from a chandelier as well, but the sun’s natural light sufficed in their place. White pillars blended with white walls, broken only by the room’s grand (although solitary) window.

Twilight sat at the very end of the varnished table, both her forehooves laid across its surface. She sat in silence. The room gave no sounds in response. Only the occasional bird chirp and glass rattle from gusts of wind made it in.

She paid those no mind.

The double doors opposite the window opened, and five mares stepped through, the last bits of conversation leaving their lips. Stuffed saddlebags lay draped across each of their backs; in Pinkamena’s case, unused streamers had no recourse but to dangle from the sides. The five trotted over.

“Hey, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said, her voice subdued.

Twilight looked over. “Are you going home?”

Applejack nodded. “Reckon Ah’ve been away from the farm fer too long.”

“I have to feed my animals,” Fluttershy squeaked.

“I understand,” Twilight replied, sighing.

“Figure we’ve already missed the noon train home,” Applejack replied. “But we can still make the evenin’ train, Ah guess.”

“I suppose I’ll want to check in with Sassy Saddles on the way over,” Rarity said, “if that’s alright with everypony.”

Rainbow Dash looked up. “What are you gunna do, Twilight?”

The other four looked up in questioning.

Twilight frowned. “Well, I… I can’t let this happen. I just can’t.”

“We feel ya, Twi,” Applejack said.

“I mean, obviously I have to work out Equestria I still. I have an idea on how to tackle Flim and Flam. But I have to do research on that timeline first.”

“Well, you’re better at researchin’ than anypony, Twi,” Applejack said, cracking a smile.

“But this… I can’t let it. I will put a stop to this.”

Pinkamena inched forward, a pleading shine in her eyes. “Twilight… didn’t it already happen? We… watched it happen, Twilight. We were there…”

Rarity stepped forward, whipping her mane back where she wanted it. “Of course. It’s too late for us.”

Applejack hung her head. “Eeyup, ain’t no way we can change that now.”

“I know,” Twilight replied.

“But that world below us,” Fluttershy said. “This hasn’t happened for them yet.”

Rainbow Dash furrowed her brow and beat her forehooves together. “That’s right! You… you can stop this from happening to them!”

“You know where things went wrong now,” Rarity said. “You have insight on everything that’s going to happen to them. You know what needs to be done.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

Rarity placed her hoof on Twilight’s withers. “We have faith in you, Twilight. You can do this.”

The others drew in and wrapped Twilight into a group hug, each giggling and laughing as they went. While they did not return to their former brightness, a bit of color returned to them. Even Pinkamena, while neither her mane nor her tail exploded into poofy shapes, turned several shades brighter.

Twilight giggled and drew back, but not far enough back to break the hug. “Thanks, girls. You’re the best.” She looked across each of their faces, her expressing scrunching into something more determined with each one. “And I promise you… I’ll make everything right.”

* * *

“But she did not,” Celestia’s voice said.

Sunset shook her head and gave a simple, “No.”

“And if you went back and told your Twilight everything,” Celestia’s voice said, “Then it would unravel this train of events.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Sunset replied. She hung her head. “Still…”

“That’s a bummer,” Spike’s voice said.

Sunset continued down the street with the crystal ball floating beside her within her magic. She passed by dozens of ponies, most of whom trotted merrily in opposite directions or stood with companions, engaged in lively conversations. Ponyville’s weather team kicked clouds apart, allowing sunbeams to bathe the ground.

“That is, indeed, a tough call,” Celestia’s voice said. “It does make me think. Perhaps in some worlds above ours, some which have already been through these events, they may have, in fact, struggled with those things. Perhaps they did not save those alternate timelines. Perhaps worse things happened.”

Sunset frowned.

“You think so?” Spike’s voice asked.

“It is possible,” Celestia’s voice replied. “But I cannot say for sure. Nevertheless, Sunset, if you say that is the best outcome that we could have managed… Then perhaps you made the right choice.”

Sunset bit her lip. “Yeah, it doesn’t feel that way.”

“I understand.”

“Gosh, Sunset,” Spike’s voice said. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”

“Whatever,” Sunset said, snorting. “Now you know what I know.”

“Very well then,” Celestia’s voice said. “You’ve answered all of our questions, Sunset Shimmer. Do you have any questions that you would like to ask us?”

The street opened up into a very large plaza. Many ponies milled about, standing or trotting with the same fervor that Sunset had seen in the streets. A large, circular building, supported by several wooden trusses ringing the outside, capped by what looked like a red, upside-down top, dominated the square.

Sunset considered it, spying some ponies passing through the front doors, before turning her attention to the crystal ball floating beside her. “I wanna know what happens now.”

“Sure,” Spike’s voice said. “What do you wanna know?”

“Uh…” Sunset hummed in thought. “Well, first things first, I guess. About all those ponies that, you know, got foalnapped? What happened to them?”

“Ah, of course,” Celestia’s voice replied. “It took us some time to figure out which timeline each pony came from, but we sorted them out. We’ve accounted for every single pony reported missing over the past two to three weeks. There have been no Equestrian casualties.”

Sunset glanced at a few of the ponies standing about the plaza, trying to imagine if they had not been there, and then grinned. “Nice.”

“I helped out with that,” Spike’s voice said.

“Yes. His help in sorting them out proved invaluable,” Celestia’s voice added.

“I saw Applejack and Rarity and them and figured something had happened. So… I thought I’d lend a claw.”

“I’ll bet you got your organization skills from Twilight, huh?” Sunset asked, giggling.

“I get a lot of stuff from her, ya know,” Spike’s voice said with vigor.

Sunset giggled even more. “Well, that’s great. That’s great. I’m glad everypony is okay.”

“Indeed,” Celestia’s voice replied.

Sunset headed into another street and took a moment to observe Ponyville’s wooden construction. She saw two ponies, whom she ascertained were Equestria’s Lyra and Bon Bon, pressing their noses into a list and debating under whispers and subdued gestures.

“And what’s Twilight doing now?” Sunset asked. “I know she’s kinda been working with us for the past few days.”

“Of course,” Celestia’s voice replied. “Twilight stayed in Canterlot for several days, although I am sure she made multiple visits to one of those alternate timelines. I believe it was that one which had been heavily industrialized. Now, who was it again…?”

“Oh yeah,” Spike’s voice replied, “that’s Flim and Flam. They probably did some reaaallllyyy shady stuff over there.”

“Ah, yes, them. I would imagine that I will want to keep my eye on them,” Celestia’s voice sternly said.

“Nah, we got ’em, Princess.”

“If you say so, Spike. But, anyway,” Celestia’s tone perked up, “Twilight spent some time in Canterlot coordinating efforts to make that timeline a better place. I do not know what she did over there, but she tells me that she is happy with what she did with the place.”

Sunset nodded. “She kinda said the same thing to me too, I think.”

“She came back here to Ponyville about two days ago, I believe,” Celestia’s voice said. “I would imagine she has been totally committed to you in that time.”

“Alright, sure. And…” Sunset trailed off as her smile faded, “what is she doing right now?”

The crystal ball, floating in Sunset’s magic, paused. Sunset imagined Celestia and Spike sharing glances.

“Well, it is like I said, I came to Ponyville in order to check on her, in addition to taking this crystal ball back to Canterlot,” Celestia’s voice said.

“We’re at the castle right now. I, uh, made some snacks for the three of us but… Twilight,” Spike’s voice sighed dejectedly. “Well… she’s just kinda not leaving her room right now.”

“I would imagine that, after everything that has happened, she will just need a little time,” Celestia’s voice said.

A pair of stallions near Sunset started throwing out exclamations and shrieking with joyous laughter before hanging onto each other to keep balance.

Sunset watched them for a few seconds while she walked by, the frown on her face undeterred. She nodded solemnly. “Yeah… I’m not surprised. I hope she’s okay.”

“I am sure that she will be,” Celestia’s voice said reassuringly.

Sunset swallowed. “What about the unponies?”

Tentatively, Celestia’s voice replied, “I do not think that there are any left.”

Sunset felt a bolt of pain shoot through her entire body, and she chalked it up as her imagination. She felt something heavy in her eyes. “So, that’s it?” she croaked under her breath.


Sunset’s mouth moved to form more words, but the words failed to find a voice. She sighed.

“Gosh, Sunset…” Spike’s voice said. “I didn’t think what we were doing with Twilight, you know, saving her, would, you know…”

Sunset shook her head. “Buckin’… They had an entire civilization. Spike… an entire civilization died this morning.”

She watched as three fillies with similar cutie marks upon their flanks raced by in an isolated parade of playful screams. The Crusaders jumped around each other, sharing waves and greetings with a few of the older folks that they passed by. The older folks, in turn, brightened up with infectious smiles. Sunset watched them go, her frown deepening. Their giggles rang in her ears even as they galloped away.

“Wow,” Spike’s voice said.

“And looking at what they all did,” Sunset did, “I just… can’t help but wonder what everypony will end up thinking of them.”

There was a pause. “I wish the news was better on that front, Sunset,” Celestia’s voice said. “Public opinion has been… negative.”

All of Sunset’s features furrowed and she stopped to rub her face. “…I’m gunna be sick.”

The crystal ball offered no response.

Sunset continued on, rounding a corner onto the street that led up into Twilight’s giant, tree-like castle. The crystalline blues and purples shimmered in the early afternoon sunlight. A purple flag, bearing the pattern of a star, hung limply off the left-most spire in a windless air. The castle’s large crystal star, shooting up from the center tower, acted as a bright beacon for all to see.

Sunset advanced toward it, averting her eyes from the smiling faces passing by her.

“...And Adamantine?” she asked.

Another pause. “Sunset,” Celestia’s voice replied.

“I want. To know. What happens to her.”

“Adamantine…” Celestia’s voice said, falling silent for a few moments. “Queen Adamantine was… tried—”

Sunset grimaced, closing her eyes.

“—and sentenced. And now she’s locked away in Tartarus.”

Sunset ground to a complete halt in the middle of the street and had to fight the urge to punch something or somepony.

“Who’d have thought, huh?” Spike’s voice said.

Sunset snorted. “That’s just… great,” she said, resuming her trek.

“Do not forget, Sunset Shimmer,” Celestia’s voice said with sharp assertion, “she knowingly and willingly tried something that would have taken the lives of thousands.”

Sunset stamped the dirt. “Yeah! Because we starved her people out and gave them the death kneel. For buck’s sake, tell me what else we can do to her, huh?”

The street gave way to a solitary dirt path that led up to the castle’s front door. Sunset trotted down it, just short of stomping her way toward the door.

“Sunset…” Celestia’s voice said, her tone stern.

Sunset reached the door, but while she placed a hoof on the handle, she did not pull. Sunset rested her head against the doorframe and sighed. “Okay look,” she said. “I’m not disagreeing with you. Like… The Nameless needed to die. I know that. She tried to kill a bunch of ponies. Nothing makes that right. It’s…” She sighed again. “This whole thing just… sucks.”

“Yeah…” Spike’s voice trailed off.

“She’s not a bad pony, I’m telling you,” Sunset asserted. “She just… made a very bad choice.”

The crystal ball remained silent.

Sunset lit her horn and teleported through the doorway, reappearing in the castle foyer. Tall, crystalline pillars held the curved ceiling up far above her head. A balcony up the back wall caught her attention but then lost it to the stairs at the end of the hall ahead. Silence passed as Sunset trotted down the length of the foyer. She lit her horn and teleported her way onto the balcony.

Celestia’s voice sighed. “If I am to be frank, I suspect that, if we had given her the chance, she might have otherwise tried to find someplace to crawl into and… rot...” Her voice paused. “Nonetheless, that is why I wanted her sent to Tartarus… where we can keep an eye on her.”

Sunset bit her lip, letting her eyes wander as she processed it. Finally, she nodded. “Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“And here we had her over for dinner a few weeks ago,” Spike’s voice said. “Wow.”

She dragged her hooves through the carpet as she passed through arches and by varnished wooden doors. The ceilings hung high enough overhead as it was, but Sunset felt two inches tall under them. The back of her mind drew a map, and her body obeyed.

She turned a corner and trotted down the hall before heading through an opening.

The castle library stretched up before her. Crystalline walls hosted ringing shelves full of tomes and textbooks. Green flags bearing a tree-like pattern hung from the far end, each flanking a circular window bearing the same design.

Just underneath that stood the crystal mirror. The compressors and pumps surrounding the mirror lay idle. A brown-colored hardcover book bearing the image of Celestia’s cutie mark lay nestled inside a niche at the top of the machine.

Spike, who stood at the top of a ladder against a bookshelf off to the side, turned. “Sunset?”

“Spike, hey,” Sunset said, brightening up. “How are you?”

Spike descended halfway down the ladder and then leaped off it. “Sunset! Hey! You’re back!” He ran over to her and wrapped his claws around her.

Sunset hugged him back. “It’s good to see you, Spike. Are you okay?”

Spike broke away, motioning toward a pile of books on a nearby table. “Uh, you know, reorganizing Twilight’s books.” He frowned and mumbled, “For the third time this month.”

Sunset chuckled.

Spike shrugged. “Whatever. I’m, uh,” he started, twiddling his claws, “sorry about those, uh, unponies that you sent through the portal.”

Sunset nodded. “It’s okay, Spike. You did your best, but it couldn’t be helped.”

He looked up. “Did you end up helping them out, at least? Tell me they’re okay.”

Sunset frowned and shook her head, rubbing her foreleg in shame.

Spike’s scales lost some of their luster, and he visibly shrunk. “O-oh.”

“Hey, me?” Spike’s voice said out of the crystal ball. “Ya think you could give us a minute or something?”

Sunset met eyes with Spike and nodded.

Spike looked toward the ceiling, snapping his fingers. “Sure, I’ll get out of your manes real quick,” he said. He grabbed a broom and dustpan sitting against the wall and then took them out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

“I don’t… really have any more questions,” Sunset said, glancing through the bookshelves.

“Very well, then,” Celestia’s voice replied.

Sunset continued scanning the bookshelves, trying to find one in particular. But shelf after shelf held no hint of it.

She found it on one of the tables instead; a purple book with what looked like the Elements of Harmony on the front cover. A diary, Sunset knew. A quill lay next to it. Sunset levitated both toward herself.

“Say, Sunset…” Spike’s voice said. “I was wondering about something. You know, you said that saving the unponies probably couldn’t be done. So, uh, why’d you go through all the trouble and all that work?”

Sunset hummed as she vacantly flipped through the pages. She lingered on some entries but did not actually read them, pausing in time with her own thoughts instead.

“I guess…” Sunset mumbled, “I think that I, uh…” She paused. “I couldn’t just sit and do nothing.”


“I know I ran out of time. I know I can’t do anything else now. But there are still unponies in the layers below us who haven’t died yet. They still have time. And I will bet you that those versions of me in those lower layers won’t be able to sit and do nothing either.”

Sunset found a blank page and stopped. Her head tilted in recognition, and she brought the quill to bare.

“The way I see it,” she continued, “if I gave up and did nothing, then it would never happen for sure. But… if I did something about it, even a little bit…”

“Yes,” Celestia’s voice agreed, chuckling. “You are absolutely right. I have met many a pony who I know could have done great things but failed simply because they did not try.”

Sunset pressed the quill against the page, but nothing came out. She jabbed the spot a few times, and then she pulled the quill back, humming in thought.

“But wait,” Spike’s voice said, you still failed, didn’t you?”

Sunset continued staring at the page. The diary hung in her magic, waiting for her. Spike’s words ran through her head, again and again. Failed. Failed, failed, failed.

She had failed.

Sunset smirked.

“You know what? Yeah. And you know what I learned from that?”

“Oh!” Celestia’s voice replied. “By all means, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset placed the quill to the page and dictated what she wrote.

“Dear Diary,

“Friendship is a wonderful thing. Over these many months, I’ve grown with it and become somepony better. I would say that, almost surprisingly, it has become one of the cornerstones of my beliefs. With friendship, I believed that we could do the impossible. And, for the longest while, we did the impossible.

“But what I dealt with this week was not one of those things. I guess, sometimes, the impossible is just that.

“Sometimes, what worked in the past won’t work anymore. Friendship, as wonderful as it is, can’t solve everything; it did not solve this, and it could not. When that happens, decisions have to be made. They can fix problems and save the day, as I’ve seen time and time again. Or… as I have now seen… they can also sow the seeds for your destruction or the destruction of others.

“And worse yet, sometimes there is no avoiding these triumphs or (in this case) catastrophes once they are set in motion. Sometimes we can’t escape our past deeds.

“But we tried, and that is something we can always do. We can’t solve all of the problems, and our best is just not enough, but we tackled the problems and we tackled them at our best. We did something and failed, and that… is better than if we did nothing and failed.

“And there will be others who will come after us and face the same problems. And they can and will try. And maybe there will be others after them who can and will try too. And they will learn from our mistakes and do it better.

“And maybe, someday, somepony will succeed. It is not today, and it may not be tomorrow, or it may not be ever, but if it ever happens, then our failure won’t be for nothing.

“Because we are bound to fail. And sure, we might be bound to fail many times. And our mistakes might be ones that never leave us. But if we can eventually succeed because of that or in spite of that, then it’ll all be worth it.

“Yours truly,

“Sunset Shimmer”

Sunset read over her work again. Her muzzle twitched as she reached certain words, and after all was said and done, she marked the page with a bookmark and then set the closed book on a table.

“Perhaps,” Celestia’s voice said, “perhaps someday…”

“Yeah,” Sunset replied. She chuckled. “Make sure Twilight sees that at some point. Okay?”

“Yeah, gotcha,” Spike’s voice replied.

She turned toward the apparatus surrounding the mirror and flipped a switch on the side. The machine grumbled to life as the pumps fed condensed magical energy into the tubes. The compressor sputtered and kicked into gear.

“Well,” Sunset said, “time for me to go.”

“Absolutely,” Celestia’s voice replied. “Be sure to take good care of yourself, Sunset Shimmer. It was very nice to see you again, regardless of everything that happened.”

Sunset smiled, turning just to see the library doors crack open. “You too, Princess Celestia. Take care!”

“See ya, Sunset,” Spike’s voice said.

“Later,” Sunset replied, opening the doors the rest of the way with her magic.

Spike walked back into the room, twiddling his claws together. He glanced up as the apparatus shot several magical beams into the mirror, creating a bright vortex on the portal’s surface. He walked over to Sunset and took a seat on the table edge.

Sunset nodded. “Yeah…”

“So…?” he asked.

She dropped the crystal ball into his lap. “So, chances are you’ll go to Canterlot soon. Take this with you, okay?”

Spike blinked and looked at the object. “Oh, yeah, sure. I oughta let Princess Celestia know you had this,” he said.


Sunset turned to the portal.

“I’ll see you later, right?” Spike asked, hopping off the table.

Sunset looked over her withers and cracked a smile. “Sure thing. See ya, Spike.”

Spike grinned. “See ya.”

With that, Sunset stepped forward. The mirror swallowed her up, and with that, Sunset was no more.

* * *

Dust splashed against Starlight’s coat, but she couldn’t care. She squinted in a breeze which blew her mane in all directions. Her hooves left tracks wherever she went, but Starlight knew those would fall prey to the winds. Given a day, there’d be nothing to say she was ever there at all.

Starlight’s eyes passed from brown horizon to brown horizon, and she saw nothing but the occasional twisted remains of a tree. Starlight stepped on the occasional rock, but it was earth all the same.

She trudged forward, a resigned frown across her features. Her downtrodden expression was so devoid of life that even the wind could not faze it.

Starlight saw a shadow in the distance and perked up. Said shadow jutted from the ground and sported a flat top. She trotted toward it with greater stride.

Maybe she had found it after all.

Starlight walked and walked and the shadow drew nearer. Eventually, she reached it and stood over the object.

A crystalline table sat before her. A layering of brown, earthy dust smothered out its blue hues. The top surface contained a dull, almost greyed-out image of the land; the mountains and hills were all there but the cities and all other signs of civilization were all gone.

A smile flickered on Starlight’s muzzle for a brief second before disappearing again. She lit her horn, generating a gust of wind around the Map that ripped all the dust off it. She created a feather-duster with her magic and dusted everything else off. The Map, as a result, shined like new, even in the rusted nothingness of the wasteland.

She chuckled under her breath. Now it felt right despite still being so wrong.

She stared at its surface and sighed before climbing onto the Map herself. She stood, first looking at the nothingness surrounding her and then down at the something where she stood. The wind continued its idle whistling in her ears and somehow, then, it subsided. Sand still whirled about, but it did not feel as blasting as before.

Starlight sat down and curled up, resting her head against her forelegs. Thoughts of timelines and ‘What If?’s swam through her head. She contemplated what could have led to everything, and where everything now would go. Thoughts of unponies crumbling in the wind and ponies now parts of that wind crossed her mind, along with the whimpers of cowering servants and cries from magic being sucked out of their bodies. Starlight frowned.

Images of her friends flashed through her mind. Cheers of liberated ponies and ecstatic cries from loved ones now reuniting rang through her ears. She thought of the new leases on life and the sighs of relief. She pictured life as she remembered it, sure that much would not change. Starlight hummed and nodded to herself.

She closed her eyes. On that Map, in the middle of nothingness, where dust blew in an eternal wind, she let a sleep overtake her.


View Online

Sunset Shimmer jammed her hands into her pockets as she passed another empty classroom. The halls of Canterlot High, usually barren during classes anyhow, were equally so at the moment. But, she knew, today was a school day.

Sunset glanced up at a wall clock. Last period was almost over. Almost.

She continued down the hall, passing locker after locker. She peered through a door to find the classroom beyond it empty as well.

She reached the double doors that led into the gymnasium, and before she could go through, Sunset heard Principal Celestia’s unmistakable voice from the other side. The doors muffled the words, but she knew the telltale echo, like Celestia’s voice coming from several directions at once. A microphone. Suddenly, it clicked where everyone had gone.

Sunset pushed through the doors and stepped inside. The pulled-out bleachers immediately flanked her, bearing several students sitting and watching the auditorium-like stage. The same went for the bleachers on the opposite end of the room. Several occupied folding chairs sat in the middle of the room. She even saw some teachers within the crowd. It seemed like the whole school was there.

“I know that she would want us to be strong, in spite of these distressing events,” Principal Celestia said into the microphone. “She would want…” she trailed off as the rest of her breath left her.

Vice Principal Luna, who sat with some faculty members to the side, shot to her feet.

Sunset felt all eyes turn to her as a collective gasp washed over the gymnasium. Many stood up from their seats as whispers of her name crossed their lips. She walked into the open where the whole gymnasium could see.

Rainbow Dash knocked her folding chair over just from springing out of it. She raced over, plowing through several others. “Sunset! You’re… back!”

Rarity came running up. “Good heavens! Sunset! We’re so sorry.”

Rainbow Dash shivered. “Y-yeah. We couldn’t do it.”

Sunset remained quiet, nodding vacantly as she watched others step down the bleachers and off the stage to congregate around her.

“H-how’d it go?” Applejack said, her voice quivering with worry. “Did ya save ’em?”

“Yes, please, tell us the good news!” Rarity cried.

Sunset scanned the faces bearing several concerned frowns and fearful glints of the eyes. Pinkie Pie shook anxiously, Fluttershy held her balled fists defensively close to her face, and Micro Chips gripped his glasses. Celestia watched with an uncertain frown, while Luna stood by with her hands on her hips.

Flash Sentry, however, scowled. Sunset met eyes with him, and he solemnly shook his head in response.

Sunset sighed and kicked the floor in shame.

Rarity hid a sharp gasp behind both of her hands and turned white as a sheet. Fluttershy let out a short and subdued whimper. The sharp bang that reported Pinkie Pie’s hair deflating drowned out the murmurs that shot through the crowd.

Sunset folded her hands together and waited for everyone else to quiet down. She looked out at each of them, gauging their expressions. “Listen, I…” she said, speaking quietly, “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. To us… to them… All this has been…” She snorted and shook her head.

A few sniffles rose from within the crowd.

“Sunset…” Twilight Sparkle croaked, folding her hands together.

“I’m…” Sunset continued as her eyes welled up. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I…” Sunset sniffed, letting a tear go down her cheek.

Rarity sighed. “Oh, Sunset…” She surged forward, wrapping Sunset in a tight hug.

Sunset stood, catatonic to Rarity’s initial touch. When Pinkamena stumbled forward and joined them, she sighed and rested her head on their shoulders. Twilight approached from the back and became the fourth in the group hug. The rest of the students trickled in, gathered in silence around her.

For a good minute, Sunset stood there, wrapped by her fellow students. She let a few tears fall, but she made little sound aside from a few whimpers and sniffles. Finally, she pulled back.

“Look…” she began as she wiped her face, “I want you all to know that we did some things too. Good things. I know it doesn’t change this. This… I want you all to know that this was a pretty big loss… but it wasn’t a complete one.”

Everyone in the room perked up, with some wiping away their own tears.

The school’s bell rang, signaling the end of the day. No one paid it any mind.

“It’s a really long story,” Sunset said, licking her dry lips. “I’m… I’m not ready to tell it right now, but… I’m sure with everything that you’ve done for me… for them too, you all probably want to hear it.” She shook her head. “No, you all deserve to hear it, and…”

“Well,” Flash Sentry said, gripping the fringes of his jacket, “whenever you’re ready to talk about it, we’ll be here to listen,” he said, flaring a toothy smile.

“I would be perfectly willing to open the school up for an hour or two during the weekend,” Celestia chimed in, “if you need it.”

Sunset thought about it. She considered the sea of faces around her, all trying to put on smiles of their own. She chuckled, shaking her head in disbelief. “I… uh… sure? This time Saturday, maybe?”

Various affirmations rose up from the student body. The faculty nodded in approval.

“You’re all sure?” Sunset asked.

“We’re with ya, Sunset,” Applejack said, nodding affirmatively. “One hundred percent.”

Sunset felt like her feet had left the floor, and she blushed. “T-thank you. Thank you, everyone.”

With some last smiles in response, most of the students and faculty meandered toward the exit doors. Many threw goodbyes in Sunset’s direction and she waved back as they passed by. All who passed through the doors remained in reflective silence. Some faces remained wet, but they took deep breaths to try and shake the feelings out.

And that left Sunset alone with seven friends.

Sunset swallowed. “I’m sorry that I did this to all of you.”

Twilight adjusted her glasses. “W-well… we all knew the risks from the start. We knew, Sunset. I mean, sure, it was still shocking, but, you know…”

“We didn’t have to deal with it like you did,” Rainbow Dash said, stepping forward. “It must have sucked big time.”

Rarity shook her head. “We had to spend some time getting over it ourselves… but we thought about what you would do in our shoes, and we all thought that you were still at it.”

“And if you can be strong through all that,” Rainbow Dash said, pumping her fist, “then we can be too.”

The others, including Pinkamena, nodded affirmatively.

“That said,” Celestia said, crossing her arms, “if you do need to stay home tomorrow to recuperate, then by all means. We won’t hold it against you.”

Sunset chuckled. “It’s a tempting offer. But… I think I’ll be okay.”

Celestia nodded. “Very well. Take care of yourself,” she said, turning toward the door.

“See you later, Principal Celestia,” Sunset replied, watching as Celestia disappeared through the double doors.

Rainbow Dash cracked her neck. “Welp, I best be heading off to practice.”

“Ah hear ya,” Applejack said. “Ah gotta head out too; Ah’m takin’ Apple Bloom to see that Transformers movie that just came out.”

Rarity turned. “Call us if you need anything, Sunset,” she said.

“Will do,” Sunset replied. “See you all later!”

Together, the other six stepped toward the door, waving behind them as they went. Sunset waved back, even past the point where they too disappeared through the double doors.

Sunset turned to face the rest of the empty gymnasium. Distant sounds of locker slams faded out, replaced by voices and shouts outside the building. Nevertheless, Sunset sighed and stumbled toward the stage, taking a seat on its edge.

Her thoughts drifted to everyone else. She thought about Rainbow Dash, joining her team in the locker room. She thought of Twilight, probably checking her list of what to study for the next few hours. She thought of Fluttershy, likely on her way to the animal shelter. Images of ponies in Equestria—the very same ponies she had passed in Ponyville, going about their days—flashed through her mind.

Something bad had, indeed, happened. Sunset nodded to herself. But life goes on, doesn’t it?

It stung, as Sunset knew it would. But there, on that stage, Sunset closed her eyes, content.

For it was not okay at that exact moment, certainly. But, Sunset knew, it would be. Eventually.