Chapter Twenty Six - Through the Looking Glass

“How did she get her wings?”

“She’s always had them.”

“Oh.” That had been rude, hadn’t it? “How did she get her horn, then?”

A chuckle met the question. “She’s always had that, too.”

Her brow furrowed. She knew she was young and relatively uneducated, but that didn’t sound right.

Trixie hummed in thought. As unconventional as the idea sounded, it had potential. “Are you sure Ponyville would like it?” The ponies flowing into town for the festival likely would, but she’d learned a thing or two over her years in the show business. Sometimes her audience’s opinion mattered less than that of whoever filled her coffers. A bad reputation on the job market could come back to bite her hard.

“Psh! Please, nopony would even notice.”

From what Trixie had heard about Ponyville, she suspected that was true. Still, this was Pinkie Pie, and that mare’s reassurances could be dangerously double-edged. On one hoof, she didn’t seem the responsible sort. On the other hoof, however, she could literally see the future. Trixie was still scratching her head on that magical mystery.

“Well,” Trixie began as she came to a decision, “we can try to incorporate it into the act. It shouldn’t take too long to master.” But perhaps she would privately run it by the mayor first.

Ignoring Pinkie Pie’s exuberant little celebration at having her idea accepted, Trixie turned her gaze toward the pony who’d finally gotten out of bed. She pushed aside the sting of jealousy that reared its ugly head at the sight. It was unwanted, outdated, and might not be warranted even if it weren’t. Sure, Luna was probably spending her nights with Twilight Sparkle, but Trixie didn’t know that. Nor did she care, obviously.

Trixie scowled at her own reaction. Ugh, I sounded like… What was the term the locals had used while she’d toured Neighpon? It’d been tsun something, hadn’t it? She shook her head. It wasn’t important.

Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle made her way directly across the open lab space to Trixie. “Hey, quick question,” she said. “I was going to go about this way differently, but then I realized I was being stupid and ignoring the obvious solution.”

Well, if that was how this conversation was going to start, perhaps Trixie could enjoy it a bit.

“I mean, I have Luna’s own apprentice right here and all,” Twilight Sparkle rambled on. “I thought I’d ask Celestia first, and if that didn’t work, I’d start asking around and sic my intelligence network at the task. What a waste of time that would have been.”

Trixie arched her eyebrows.

Twilight, in turn, made a sheepish attempt at laughter. “Yeah, anyway,” she said when that fell flat on its face. “Do you know where Luna keeps her toys?” Her eyes momentarily flicked down to Niian hanging from Trixie’s neck in its amulet form, a clear admission of the answer she expected.

“That depends on what you’re after,” Trixie answered stonily.

Without missing a beat, Twilight Sparkle said, “The working crystal mirror.”

A moment passed.

“The portal to the human world?”

“Oh. That.” Trixie knew it existed, but her interest began and ended there. Luna’s human friend had always felt like a threat on the rare occasions when they’d met. Not that that mattered anymore. “Why do you want it?” If she recalled correctly, the portal wouldn’t even open for another year or so.

A battered, old journal appeared from Twilight Sparkle’s subspace storage. “Well,” she drawled, “I just so happen to have a copy of Star Swirl’s original research notes on the mirrors. I thought we could force the portal open, go sightseeing, and worse come to worst, drop it on Luna.”

In a blink, Pinkie Pie was at Twilight Sparkle’s side. “Did my ears deceive me, or did I just hear you propose an adventure across time and space?”

“Technically, all adventures are across time and space,” Twilight Sparkle replied, which earned an eye roll from Trixie. “It’d be more accurate to say we’d be universe hopping.”

Pinkie Pie said, “Oh, I am so in!” as she stuck a hoof out between the three of them. Upon receiving an expectant look from her, Twilight Sparkle put her own hoof out as well. They both then turned to stare at Trixie.

Rolling her eyes once more, Trixie said, “Fine. I’ll go dig it out of storage.” She wasn’t participating in any hoof-stack, though.

A dull thud filled the air followed by the rustling of leaves and branches far further off. Apple Bloom swore under her breath. There went her good kicking rock. Now she’d have to find another. Looking around, her eyes fell onto a small log on the path. That would do for the moment, she supposed. She timed her pace just right to align her step with her target and gave it an extra strong kick in case it was stuck in the dirt.

It exploded into fragments of bark and rotten wood.

Frustrated, Apple Bloom wiped the debris from her face and struggled with her mane to get it all out. Why did everything have to be so complicated? Why did Zecora have to live in the Everfree? Why did the forest have to be so…so uncouth! She wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but it sounded like something Sweetie Belle would say.

With one last huff, Apple Bloom straightened the bow keeping her mane under control and then set off with a bit of a stomp to her hooves. With the Everfree nipping at her magic, she needed to get moving. She might not make it to Zecora’s little island of safety before suffering some real damage if she didn’t hurry. She already felt sick and sore from being so deep in the forest for so long.

Apple Bloom moved more quickly now, as fast as she could without her magic responding to her call for greater speed. That would just invite the Everfree to make things worse for her faster. But despite that restriction, she soon came upon the familiar ring of bricks placed around Zecora’s home. Crossing over them made her feel a little weird as they always did, but once she made it to the other side, the forest’s wild, chaotic magic backed off and left her alone. As far as she knew, this was the one place in the Everfree not susceptible to its hunger.

Here Zecora made her home inside one of those weird, hollow trees like the Golden Oak Library. They were native to the Everfree, Apple Bloom reckoned. Regardless, she first took a moment to let herself rest from the journey and then walked right up to the front door. She knocked, and Zecora called out for her to enter.

Inside the tree, the great bubbling or simmering cauldron Zecora used to brew major potions was the first thing any visitor noticed. It was more bubbling today than simmering, Apple Bloom noticed. After that, the eye naturally turned to the colorful and mismatched containers spread about the central room upon everything that qualified as a flat surface. Those not containing finished potions instead boasted ingredients gathered from the forest, some of which could be found nowhere else in the world. Zecora, in pursuit of new alchemical knowledge, was perhaps the only person in history to so brave the dangers of the Everfree. Most thought her mad or a monster to live here. Apple Bloom didn’t exactly disagree, but at the same time, she had to admire the dedication.

Speaking of, Zecora stood over her current brew with a thoughtful frown on her face. A huge mess of miscellaneous items and oddly coloured goops surrounded the cauldron. In fact, a faint tendril of sickly green smoke emitted from it, now that Apple Bloom looked a bit closer, which most certainly wasn’t plain old steam. It floated up and crawled along the sloped ceiling until it fled through the ventilation out into the forest. Since Zecora hadn’t donned one of the masks hanging from the walls, it was probably safe to breathe, but all the same, Apple Bloom kept herself at a safe distance as she came closer to observe.

“Young seeker of truth, your arrival comes just in time. I ask of you to prepare an extract of thyme. Do as I say if you wish to stay under this roof, or this potion shall not remain aloof.”

That sounded bad, like Applejack trying to buck the entire orchard herself bad. Apple Bloom hurried off to work in the next room over while Zecora monitored the potion.

Zecora’s full storeroom, not just the common ingredients she kept at hoof in the brewing chamber, overflowed with raw materials and equipment. Apple Bloom grabbed hold of a stool to compensate for her short height and then headed straight for the area containing magical flora. Her eyes scanned the shelves until she found what she was looking for. Climbing atop the stool, she pushed off the wall onto her rear legs. That gave her the reach she needed to shove aside a few jars to grab hold of the magical thyme gathered from the outskirts of the Everfree.

With that, Apple Bloom moved over to her own workstation. She threw a few thyme leaves into a mortar and then ground them into a powder with a pestle. That she tossed into a flask. Into it, she added a solution of water, ethanol, and an unpronounceable alloy that catalyzed the magical extraction process. She didn’t have time to do this right, so she placed the flask over a Bunsen burner and gently shook it while remaining careful not to let it boil prematurely. The heat and motion would speed up the reaction.

A short while later, Apple Bloom attached the flask to a fractionating column. She only needed the magically enriched water now and boiled away the ethanol. Once she had just that, she ran the water through a filter to remove the thyme and the alloy. This final product she then delivered to Zecora, who dumped it all straight into her currently roiling cauldron.

The potion quickly calmed as Zecora mixed it in. It turned from an angry red to a warm pink with a slight green tinge.

“Thank you, Apple Bloom. Without your assistance, there would be only gloom.”

“Aw, ’tweren’t nothing,” Apple Bloom said. She knew Zecora could have managed just fine on her own. “So? Whatcha making?”

Zecora tossed in a bit of crisscross moss and frowned as it turned the potion blue. “An attempt at curing swamp fever, this brew. Now I fear it’s not fit for even stew.”

A ripple of disgust surged through Apple Bloom at that invasive thought, and it made her gag. Potions were downright disgusting to drink, one hundred percent guaranteed. Who would eat it for a meal?

“Now what about you, my little friend?” Zecora asked. “Will your absence from your family not offend?”

“Nah. There’s so many of ‘em at the reunion, they’ll never even notice I’m gone.”

Zecora eyed Apple Bloom skeptically, but she kept her silence and smiled. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be with her family. She did. She loved them. Well, she usually did. Sometimes they could be a bit much, especially the elders. Under any other circumstances, she’d be with them. She just couldn’t deal with how normal and boring it all was right now. Not that they were boring boring, of course, but, well, how would Sweetie Belle put it? It was all…dreadfully mundane. That sounded right.

Apple Bloom bit back a sigh of relief when Zecora let her off without a word more. So with this opportunity, she asked, “Hey, Zecora? What are the great unsolved secrets of alchemy?”

Naturally, Zecora arched her eyebrows. That question had kind of come out of nowhere. Hopefully she wouldn’t pry. Apple Bloom didn’t want to talk about her unfair, stupid, selfish feelings if she could avoid it, but she needed something right now, something big to aim for to make her feel special like her friends. Alchemy didn’t call to her, not the way Scootaloo and especially Sweetie Belle loved their own styles of magic. Maybe it was because she lacked a close connection to the arcane as an earth pony. But she liked it well enough to dig into the subject.

A few moments passed as Zecora regarded Apple Bloom skeptically. At last, however, she replied, “The great mysteries of magic are well documented by many a unicorn. For you, I recommend your dear friend’s books most worn. Yet I warn you now. To solve them, I know not how. Perhaps for these great knots the answer lies in alchemy, but to believe you will untangle them is to turn from reality.”

That wasn’t really what Apple Bloom wanted to hear. She didn’t want to listen to Sweetie Belle go on about magical fields and Star Swirler’s last theorem and whatnot. Maybe she’d not been specific enough or had reached too far and landed in the realm of the truly impossible. “Can I help you with your research, then? I know enough now to be useful, don’t I?”

“Do not feel as though I dissuade, but your help, indeed, has been made.” Zecora gestured to her cauldron of useless goop.

Apple Bloom couldn’t help but stamp her hoof as she said, “That’s not what I meant!”

“Of that, my student, I’m well aware, but you yet have much to learn before you dare. To venture into the unknown is dangerous even for the grown. To complicate matters further yet, without knowledge, only frustration will you beget.”

It wasn’t any different than Apple Bloom had expected to hear, but she still pouted.

“Perhaps our lessons, we should adjust. In you, the forest’s secrets, can I entrust?”

Apple Bloom’s ears perked up. “Of course! I won’t breathe a word of them to anypony, I swear!” It wasn’t quite what she’d asked for, but it was a start.

“Very well, but you must wait, my eager ward.” Zecora glanced at the mess her experiment had caused. “Let us clean. Then you shall have your reward. And though I know it will bring you sorrow, we must wait until the morrow.”

Apple Bloom groaned.

If Twilight hadn’t known who they were already, she could pick out the honors students amongst the Element bearers and their guests now by the groans. Even Trixie, who’d known this was coming, joined in on the response. It was a predictable reaction, really. She herself enjoyed the occasional bit of collaborative research, but that always occurred under very different circumstances than these. If she were on the other side of this conversation, she’d just as happily bemoan the idea.

Sweetie Belle was, of course, the exception. Whether it was the chance to work with Twilight directly on something nontrivial or because of some conditioning arising from her Crusader activities, she wore an eager expression of excitement.

Regardless, as no one could honestly say they didn’t want to explore another universe, Twilight had them all within her grasp. “Okay, look,” she said. “I rightly hate group projects as well, and yeah, I know we might as well be randomly assigned, too, but do you really want to pass this opportunity up? It’s another world! Together, we can force open the portal.”

Trixie pointed out the obvious. “Pretty sure we could each open it faster individually.”

On the other side of the gathered crowd, Lyra conspicuously coughed in agreement. Bon Bon averted her eyes. Even Spike, that traitor, turned aside.

“That’s not the point,” Twilight feebly protested.

No one heard her, however, as Pinkie Pie drowned her out with an animated speech about the spirit of teamwork and adventure. For an extemporaneous delivery full of the mare’s characteristic rambling tangents, it proved remarkably effective at getting everyone on board. Since Twilight had far less to say about the virtues of teamwork, she sat back and let Pinkie Pie do her thing. She really was a treasure once one developed a tolerance. If living in a place as stuffy as Canterlot wouldn’t make her miserable, Twilight would hire her on the spot as a personal assistant. It would make life so much simpler to just hurl her at nonsense Twilight didn’t want to deal with. She probably wouldn’t even mind a literal interpretation of that.

As Pinkie Pie carried on with her good work, Twilight considered for perhaps the dozenth time if she should bring Sunset in for this. She felt like they’d really bonded over it back at Star Swirl’s workshop, both in the research itself and in their shared outrage at discovering how useless it’d turned out. Leaving Sunset out didn’t sit well with her.

Twilight scanned the gathered crowd, came to a conclusion she didn’t like, and grit her teeth.

The bearers needed to spend more time together. There was no getting around that. Their poor performance at the Crystal Empire was proof enough. Two extras was already two too many, but Spike and Bon Bon functioned as effective social lubricant. Sunset, on the other hoof… Well, she was Sunset. Her brand of social manipulation, while unquestionably masterful, probably wouldn’t sit well with the Elements.

With a silent sigh, Twilight pushed the matter from her mind. The Elements’ needs had to overrule her own misgivings, and she knew how that sounded. She had to hurt a budding friendship to min-max her ability to power a friendship laser to protect another friend. She’d have to see what Magic had to say about this sort of dilemma at some point. That was sure to be a conversation, however one-sided, to remember.

At any rate, Twilight would apologize later and offer a guided tour – for all that she’d become an expert on an entire universe over the course of a day or two – in recompense.

“Beware! Take care! This dark forest could spell your doom. Are you prepared to face it, Apple Bloom?”

Apple Bloom offered an earnest salute. “Ready and able!” Zecora’s warnings always came across so overly dramatic, but that didn’t mean they weren’t worth taking seriously. In her saddlebags, she felt the weight of all the little magicless devices she’d prepared for today’s journey just in case. To name but a few, she had smoke bombs, a smelly potion most animals wouldn’t come within a league of, and an electric flashlight that would, owing to its lack of magic, actually work properly inside the Everfree. If she were to go exploring in an evil forest, she wouldn’t be caught unprepared.

So reassured, Zecora led Apple Bloom not out into the trees but, strangely enough, downstairs into her basement. Below ground in the dank, dark gloom, a vast variety of mushrooms grew. Few were fit for raw consumption, and even those that were tasted like dirt. Their magical properties, however, were not in doubt. They would become ingredients in a potion someday.

Apple Bloom had no idea what they were doing down here. Mushrooms, even magical ones, weren’t that interesting. They ate dead stuff, and that was about it. She also knew there wasn’t anything else of particular interest stored here, just the normal stuff ponies put in cellars. When she asked what they were doing, Zecora only smiled back mysteriously at her and instructed her to have patience.

And so it came as a huge surprise when Zecora scraped away a layer of dirt from the ground with a hoof to reveal a hidden trapdoor leading even further down. She slipped a hoof into its ring handle and opened the passage. A crude set of stairs led down into the darkness and vanished from sight. From further within came the sound of snapping wood, a low growl, and the distinctive eerie green glow of a pair of eyes.

“Is that a timberwolf!” Apple Bloom cried, leaping back from the abyss. “Why do you have a timberwolf in your home? How do you have a timberwolf in your home?” They weren’t supposed to be able to exist outside of the Everfree. “Wait…” She turned that thought around. “Is that” – she gestured at the room beyond the trapdoor – “outside of the protections?”

“Only the deepest depths, for those who descend the steps,” Zecora replied casually as though there weren’t a timberwolf in her sub-basement. “Creating the conditions for them to spawn was no mean feat. It took many long years of study for me to complete.” Then, with true indifference, Zecora plucked a lantern from the wall and descended the steps to confront the beast.

With a gulp, Apple Bloom withdrew a blowtorch from her saddlebags and followed after. It wouldn’t do any lasting damage against a magical construct like a timberwolf. They could just replace their burnt wood. But it would hopefully make her not worth bothering with.

Timberwolves ranged in size from no bigger than a foal to hulking monstrosities capable of wrestling hydras. As magical constructs, only dismemberment could slow them down and, even then, not for long. They felt no pain. They knew no fear. They needed no food or water. They were one of the many terrors of the Everfree, lurking in the shadows and hunting in packs for no other reason than because they could.

And this one was firmly locked behind bars. It barely had enough room to move about. That didn’t stop it from being a killing machine the size of her brother, but Apple Bloom relaxed her grip on her blow torch when she saw it was contained.

Meanwhile, Zecora set her lantern down and grabbed a pair of tongs. The timberwolf growled threateningly at her, but it seemed almost resigned when she reached past the bars with her instrument and plucked a twig from the construct. The wood glowed green and fought to return to the larger body, but she held it firm and withdrew the tongs. The wood wiggled in her grip even as she held it between them and offered Apple Bloom a better view.

Once the initial aversion died down and Apple Bloom overcame her long buried instincts to flee from predators, Zecora spoke. “The Everfree is a danger, but only to a stranger. Take half and chew so that it may know you.”

Apple Bloom’s jaw hung open. Surely Zecora couldn’t be serious!

But Zecora just stood there patiently waiting for her pupil to follow instructions.

“You – you want me to eat that?” Apple Bloom had to be sure before she did anything.

And as much as Apple Bloom had hoped against it, Zecora only confirmed what she’d feared with a wry rhyme. “Would you prefer hydra meat? I could find you some to eat.”

A shiver of revulsion shot through Apple Bloom. “No thank you,” she said. At least a timberwolf was made of wood. She could properly digest that even if it tasted like, well, wood. “Why exactly do you want me to do this?” She gathered that this would somehow protect her in some way from the Everfree, but Zecora had been rather lacking in the details.

“So long as its magic lies with you, the forest shall not extract its due. Within the chaos you may walk so long as your magic does not talk.”

“Oh.” That’s…useful, Apple Bloom supposed. But she could see why nopony else had ever discovered this. What had even possessed Zecora to try eating part of a timberwolf in the first place, some strange desire to be a predator rather than prey? “So if I eat this, the forest won’t bother me for a while if I don’t use much magic? How long does it last?”

“The protection will not end soon nor last past the rising of the moon. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. So much changes from day to day.”

Apple Bloom emitted a skeptical, “Right…” but still gathered her resolve to do as instructed. She closed her eyes, pushed the fact that the twig was still moving from her mind, and reminded herself that most potions tasted far worse than a bit of magical wood. She braced herself. She could do this. Leaning forward, her teeth found the twig – it was struggling against her tongue! – and she clamped down hard enough to snap it in half.

Now came the part where she had to chew. The moment Apple Bloom parted her teeth, the wood tried to push its way out past her lips. She didn’t let it escape, but that didn’t stop her from feeling sick as she fought to break it into manageable bites. After a long battle and multiple moments where she almost vomited, the wood finally stopped struggling. She swallowed, gagged, and then hurriedly dug her canteen out of her saddlebags. She desperately needed to wash even the memory of the taste from her mouth, and she could only hope apple juice would do the job.

It didn’t.

Zecora finished crunching her own half of the twig into a pulp, something Apple Bloom could have gone her entire life without witnessing. She swallowed and then asked, “After this ordeal, how is your zeal?” with a distinctly amused air.

“Fine,” Apple Bloom bit out. Celestia, she could still taste the wiggling wood on her tongue, and it wouldn’t go away! So gross! Another shudder of revulsion surged through her, but she didn’t let it get to her. She wouldn’t back down. “Can we get going?” An adventure in the Everfree was just what she needed to distract her and, with any luck, forget this experience.

Unfortunately, Zecora first gathered a few more wood samples from the timberwolf and stuck them in a jar she pulled from a dark shelf below the stairs. She promised that they would only be a precaution in case they stayed out for too long, but who would believe that after what had just happened?

Thankfully, however, Zecora then led them back upstairs with no more unpleasant surprises. After she retrieved her own saddlebags, they securely locked her home. It wouldn’t do to leave it open and unattended. Knowing the Everfree, they’d have an unpleasant surprise with a lot of teeth awaiting their return otherwise.

And then at last the time had come! They left Zecora’s house behind. They were going to head into the Everfree deeper than any earth pony had ever gone before! Apple Bloom paused at the brick boundary of safety surrounding Zecora’s home. This was it, the moment of truth.

Apple Bloom took a step forward.

The forest, for once, didn’t immediately leap to eat away at her magic. She still felt it there, waiting and watching. She could almost feel its confusion, she thought, or maybe she was just imagining things.

Either way, Apple Bloom hurried to catch up to Zecora, who’d waited for her only just up ahead. The zebra sent her a silent look that asked if she wanted to continue.

The answer to that was obvious. Apple Bloom sent a smile back at her, unperturbed, and hurried on deeper into the forest and adventure.

They’d set the crystal mirror up in one of the workshops Twilight had cleaned out before bringing everyone to her no longer secret lab. It stood in the center of the room, a magnificent work of thaumic engineering grown in, for whatever reason, the shape of a horseshoe standing upside down upon a base decorated with more horseshoes. They didn’t seem to have any effect upon the portal’s function, so Star Swirl must have been going through a phase of some sort.

Surrounding the mirror was a horrifying example of what happened when there were too many cooks in the kitchen. They’d bickered and argued over how to force the portal open, and this was the result. The external power device they’d constructed looked like a fungal infestation growing off of a tumor that had overwhelmed some unidentified but most certainly dying animal. It was a tangle of cables and magical fluxes that made her head hurt just to look at. If she didn’t know better, Twilight would have assumed some prehistoric monster had escaped Tartarus and decided her nice, pristine lab would make an excellent place to hibernate.

Worse, at some point, Pinkie Pie had clearly gotten her hooves on the designs, because there were balloons floating from it that, as it happened, were integral to the machine’s function. Twilight didn’t know how that’d happened, how no one had noticed, nor how Pinkie Pie knew how to engineer that sort of nonsense, and she didn’t – well, no, she did want to know, but she worried that the knowledge would somehow drive her insane or melt her mind.

At long last, Trixie, the first to lose the last thread of her patience, threw her hooves up into the air. “Enough! This…thing is absurd! We need to tear it down and start all over.”

Lyra gave the contraption a light kick as if that would magically make it start working. It didn’t, obviously, and then she said, “We should throw it into the abyss to hide our shame.”

“Wouldn’t a volcano work better?” Sweetie Belle suggested. She’d been assigned some basic tasks within the current bounds of her knowledge, and that was enough to have equal culpability.

Off to the side with the odd jobs team, no longer needed, Spike commented, “Wow, who would of thought putting three and a half sorceresses together wouldn’t work.” Twilight wasn’t sure if anypony else doing actual work – sort of – right now heard him, but she would remember that, nor would she forget the hoof bump Flash offered.

“Hey!” Bon Bon said. “Lyra plays nice with others.”

Twilight ignored the lovesick mare’s delusions, for she had a brilliant idea. “Why don’t we put it at ground zero of one of Trixie’s giant explosion spells?”

The team offered up its instant agreement with Trixie enthusiastically calling the Night Guardian Staff into her waiting hoof from its amulet form. Ah, good old team building through shared suffering. She’d just known this would work out in the end if she didn’t try to formally organize everyone. Better yet, their next attempt would turn out better and go faster now that they had the basics worked out. And perhaps best of all, Pinkie Pie returned with fresh snacks for everyone! Twilight snatched a delicious, fresh from the oven blueberry muffin for herself.

It tasted like success.

Nopony had ever questioned that the Everfree was a horrible, evil place, but Apple Bloom had a hard time accepting the brutality so openly on display in front of her. A pack of timberwolves and a flock of cockatrices had collided with each other while the former had been hunting her and Zecora. They crashed into each other in a chaotic melee of pointless death.

The timberwolves surged forth, low to the ground and swift of foot. In turn, the cockatrices grouped up and used their petrifying gaze to defend their flock. The timberwolves, one by one, turned to stone, forever stilled.

But there were too many timberwolves to stem the tide. The craftier ones skulked between the trees to close the distance or found a high vantage point to leap upon their prey. Their sharp, wooden fangs sunk into the vulnerable, feathered necks of the cockatrices just above their tougher, scaled bodies. They whipped their heads from side to side until their victim’s neck snapped or they tore a bloody strip of flesh away.

Apple Bloom nearly vomited at the first spray of blood she saw, but she grew strangely numb to the scene of battle as it progressed. At the height of the chaos, Zecora took the opportunity it presented to slip off and gather as many cockatrice eggs as she could find. They had a use in a number of useful potions.

The massacre didn’t last very long. The timberwolves, far greater in number, won after slaughtering everything that moved and running down anything that dared try to escape. The pack, now counting barely half its original size at most, limped away back into the forest to lick its wounds.

That had to be the worst part. It wasn’t as though Apple Bloom had never seen an animal eating meat. Hay, the Crusaders had once even helped Fluttershy butcher fish to feed to her pets. But these timberwolves, they had no use for flesh or bone. They savored only the kill and the eradication of life.

Why had nopony burned this forest to the ground?

“Apple Bloom–”

The filly in question barely stifled a scream at Zecora’s unannounced return. With how their adventure had gone so far, that would have unquestionably drawn the timberwolves back to continue their hunt. Zecora claimed the pack wouldn’t be able to find them, not while they hid in the branches of the single worst smelling tree Apple Bloom had ever encountered, but life had been particularly fond of giving her lemons lately.

“–you look very green about the gills. Today, I admit, has been filled with many ills.”

That was like saying Applejack had a fondness for apples. Even so, Apple Bloom said, “I’m fine. Honest.”

Zecora didn’t look like she bought that, but it didn’t matter.

“So you’ve shown me a bunch of ruins, a brick road, terrifying star bears I’d hoped never to see again” – Zecora had been somewhat chagrined to learn the local ursae had already introduced themselves to Ponyville while she’d been away – “that weird underground watering hole, and foraging, I guess. What’s next?”

A thoughtful hum escaped Zecora as she stared off to the east. “If your hooves are feeling hale, there is a castle upon which we might prevail. Within its walls, danger lurks. Without? Peace and order works. It’s quite a walk to this mystery, but it’s much a part of pony history. Two royal sisters sat upon their throne. Now but one stands all upon her own.”

Apple Bloom’s eyes widened.

“You know of what I speak? Your story must be unique.”

“Ah, no, um… Not the castle, exactly.” Apple Bloom fidgeted with a twig on her branch as she considered how best to respond. “I’m not supposed to tell anypony. I Pinkie Promised and everything.”

Zecora expectantly arched her eyebrows.

Apple Bloom resolutely stayed silent in turn.

“To protect this information, you show much dedication. Then I will not ask but rather leave you to your mask. But as to the castle, shall we go to the hassle?”

Now that was a much safer question. Apple Bloom nodded, eager. “Of course I wanna see it!” Really, who wouldn’t?

Thus they set off back into the forest.

Enough was entirely enough. Their designs grew more elegant and cohesive with each attempt, she admitted. Despite their differing approaches to magic – and her relative inexperience – they were managing to iteratively iron them out. Slowly. But this would not do. She would take a page from Apple Bloom’s book and force all of these lone wolfs to work together properly.

Sweetie Belle left the group behind and swept up the plans for their makeshift artifact. All they were trying to do was provide power to the crystal mirror and forcibly open the portal. Granted, interfacing with an entirely self-contained artifact was an inherently difficult problem, let alone meshing modern magic with ancient magic, and they were playing with a level of power that could kill them all if they became careless, but this was fundamentally a solved problem. They were more or less just building a really big magical battery. She could take apart a few of her childhood toys and have a bunch of those.

So how would Apple Bloom deal with this? She was always good with project management when the Crusaders needed to build something. She’d probably have them divide the work up into bite-sized tasks wherever she could so that they didn’t step on each other’s hooves. That even fit nicely with some of the things Archmage Twilight had hinted at about spell construction in passing, although that was a complex topic she’d not even scratched the surface of. Maybe it would be easier to think of it like individual movements in a song? Did that function as a proper analogue? If so, where, then, did it sound most natural to divide this great work?

Well, we need the actual giant battery. Then we need a safe way to contain and transfer all the magic we’ll use while it’s in use. After that, we need the device that interfaces with the portal. Lastly, we need the control system, although that’s basically just an on-off switch with a few bells and whistles. All of it needs to flow into the next segment so we can work individually. And then there’s general construction work. A thought occurred, one that would have been a tragedy to overlook. Oh, and baking, of course. Pinkie Pie made the best snacks.

Sweetie Belle whistled shrilly. That successfully got everyone’s attention even if more than a few sent her an annoyed look in return. Honestly, though, if they thought it hurt their ears, they should try wearing Generosity and see how their brain felt after the echo died down.

Regardless, Sweetie Belle made her pitch. “Okay, um…” That was actually a lot of eyes staring straight at her, most of whom were far older and wiser. She cleared her throat. She would do this. “Well, you three” – she pointed at the fully grown trio of sorceresses in the room – “aren’t very good at working with each other.”

Archmage Twilight mentally conceded the point after a strange pause, Trixie rolled her eyes, and Lyra opened her mouth to protest before glaring down at Honesty around her neck.

“And that’s okay,” Sweetie Belle continued. “When the Cutie Mark Crusaders work on a project, we split the work into smaller tasks and bring everything together at the end. So which of you three is most used to high-power spellcasting?”

Even if it was somewhat begrudgingly on Trixie’s part, she and Lyra turned to look at Archmage Twilight. Considering the spectacle she’d put on during her duel with Trixie, no one could reasonably argue otherwise.

As such, Sweetie Belle said, “Then you design the safety critical parts for containing and transporting the magic the artifact will use. You’ll have to mark up how you’ll handle input and output and let us know so we can match it.”

With no objections, or at least continuing on before anyone could raise one, Sweetie Belle turned to her remaining sorceresses. “Which one of you wants to build the fiddly bit that connects to the portal?”

“I’ll do it,” Trixie said. Turning to Lyra, she added, “I can have Niian error check and optimize my work as I go.”

Lyra accepted this and said, “Guess I’m building the actual battery, then?”

“Yeah.” Sweetie Belle glanced down at the blueprints for their latest attempt at building this device. “I think I can make the control system on my own.” That left four others unassigned, however. She turned to them. “Pinkie Pie, you’re on baking duty. Keep us fed and hydrated.”

The mare in question saluted and said, “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Somewhat random, but Sweetie Belle wasn’t going to argue with cooperation. To the last three, she said, “We’re going to need a framework to contain everything. We’re building a rigid artifact, remember, so everything needs to be fixed in place relative to its other parts. Once we have the individual components designed, you can get started on that.”

And like that, Sweetie Belle had made herself the project manager.

The remarkably not crumbling arch bridge, Zecora promised, marked the beginning of the end of their trek through the Everfree. They’d stuck to the old road cutting through the trees for the greater part and made good time. It was a relatively easy journey without worry, but Apple Bloom had to admit she felt slightly winded for it. Zecora looked worse off; zebras weren’t built as durably as earth ponies. Her step was no slower despite that, however.

Then at last the moment came. They summited the last hill before their destination, and Apple Bloom made a silent gasp at the sight.

The castle was beautiful. Despite the neglect it’d suffered, it stood as a sight to behold. The care and craftsmareship that had gone into the architecture could be referred to as nothing less than a work of art. The columns, the arches, the great dome at its center! Even at this distance, she could even see bas-reliefs preserved in the stone. And all of it stood without magic! For a palace over a thousand years old, this was a historical treasure. Maybe if Sweetie Belle asked very nicely, the Crusaders might get permission from on high to explore it without triggering whatever defenses Zecora had mentioned awaiting them inside.

It would be a fitting last crusade.

“That’s strange,” Zecora mumbled, drawing Apple Bloom out of her minor funk. “There’s been much change.”

Apple Bloom took in the castle in its whole once more before asking, “How so?”

“Before it had seen much care. Now, it’s in dire need of repair.”

That felt like an over-exaggeration. Sure, some of the structure looked a little, well, crumbly, but it was a ruin. Most of it had withstood the test of time. And in a place like the Everfree Forest, that counted for a lot! “It should still be safe to rest here, though, right? We just have to stay outside, don’t we?”

After a few moments in which Zecora’s brow furrowed in thought, she said, “If we dare, we must take care. To meet our end here would be tragic, if the danger within is no longer magic.”

So they needed to watch out for giant monsters that could smash through wards designed to kill intruders. Apple Bloom could manage that. There weren’t any in sight right now, so whatever had caused the new damage had either moved on or settled down to rest. Then so long as they didn’t set off any explosions, they should be fine.

“Let’s go!” Apple Bloom cried, cantering ahead. “There’s no time like the present.” It was getting late, too. They wouldn’t be able to stay long even without dawdling on the boundary.

As she neared what once had been the main gate, Apple Bloom felt the shift the moment it happened. The Everfree’s vicious magic, even as confused about her as it currently was, fell away entirely. This was more than just a safe zone, more than a ring of protective bricks scavenged from the forest. Whatever the cause, this place felt pure. Orderly. Harmonious. In fact, it felt somewhat familiar, but Apple Bloom couldn’t recall why.

Zecora left the jar of timberwolf cuttings at the boundary. Apple Bloom had a bad feeling she was about to reveal that they’d need a second serving to get back home. And she did. Fantastic.

Still, it would be worth it. Even if they couldn’t go inside, there were plenty of empty windows, open gates, and gaps in the brickwork to peer in at the interior. The main entrance alone was worth the journey. An avenue of stairs led to other parts of the castle until it came to a grand staircase at the far end. The walls alone were works of art that probably depicted significant events of the distant past, and once upon a time, there must have been a well tended garden here.

Above it all hung two moth-worn tapestries side by side. The right one bore the image of the sun with Princess Celestia below. On the left, somepony had stitched the stars and moon above a dark blue alicorn that could only be Princess Luna.

“Sweetie Belle was right.” The words escaped Apple Bloom on a whisper of a breath. She hadn’t doubted, but this was proof.

Then all at once there came a flash of light. Apple Bloom squeezed her eyes shut, blinded, and hurried to hide behind the outer wall. She held her breath, not daring to make a sound. Beside her, she felt Zecora react similarly. Maybe this had been a mistake.

“I regret to inform you that the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters is not currently accepting guests or offering tours,” a melodic voice called out. Neither threat nor anger found a home there, but a certain firmness of fact underlaid it. “I will, however, escort you out of the Everfree should you wish it.”

Well, that’s…surprisingly fair. And since whoever this was could talk, surely they could be reasoned with, unlike one of the Everfree monsters. Apple Bloom dared peek around the corner of the wall and silently gasped at who she saw. Princess Celestia! In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. She and Zecora were trespassing on royal property, after all, weren’t they?

The princess’s eyes zeroed in on Apple Bloom the moment she stuck her head out. There was no going back or pretending they weren’t here now. With no other option, she summoned up her courage and stepped out into the open. If the princess was surprised to find a filly, let alone an earth pony, so deep in the forest, she didn’t show it.

Apple Bloom slipped into an awkward bow, not really sure what she was supposed to do. “Your Highness,” she said half in greeting and half in supplication. It sounded about as nervous as she felt. “I – well, I’m Apple Bloom. I’m sorry for trespassing. I promise I won’t do it again, honest. I, uh…” What more could she say? Actually, one thing did come to mind. “Princess Flurry Heart and Spike can vouch for me.” As her potions mentor came up behind her, she added, “And Zecora.” That last part was a bit of a stretch, but surely vouching was transitive.

“Apple Bloom?” Princess Celestia said with the oddest note of recognition in her tone. “Are you Sweetie Belle’s friend?”

“I… Yes?” Since when did Sweetie Belle know Princess Celestia of all ponies! That was huge news! Did she send some letters to Spike without telling–

No, of course she had. It’d been weeks since they’d last met, and Sweetie Belle wouldn’t drop her new pen pals just because she was off on a secret mission without the other Crusaders hanging around. Who knew what adventures she’d gone on since she’d left.

Without the other Crusaders.

Princess Celestia hummed in interest as she approached. “Well, despite the strange circumstances, I have looked forward to meeting you. Sweetie Belle told me a bit about you, and Twilight has mentioned you as well.”

“Twilight?” Apple Bloom echoed dumbly. It couldn’t be. “Archmage Twilight Sparkle?” More importantly, she asked, “Not Index?”

A sheepish expression passed over Princess Celestia’s face. “Ah, we appear to have a breakdown in communication. Index Code is a false identity Twilight and I use on occasion.”

“What? But – but that means…” The enormity of the revelation hit like a train. “Sweetie Belle is studying under the archmage?” And she didn’t tell anypony? No, that didn’t sound right, not considering what she had revealed, and yet it stung all the same to find out this way.

Princess Celestia smiled and turned her attention to the other person present. “And you are…Zecora, was it?”

“I am, Your Highness. Please forgive my shyness.”

“Ah,” the princess said in understanding. “An alchemist? The Everfree, whatever its other faults, certainly would make for a novel source of ingredients.” After Zecora agreed with the sentiment, she asked, “Are you here to stay or just visiting the country?”

“I left my home many years ago. Here, I’ve let my roots grow.”

“Always a pleasure to hear. Welcome to Equestria,” Princess Celestia said. “But perhaps we should relocate to somewhere more comfortable. You could both tell me what brings you here over evening tea?”

Apple Bloom didn’t really like tea, but she wasn’t going to turn down the chance to talk with the princess nor the opportunity to not get in trouble for barging into the old royal palace.

Lyra looked on with pride at the external power source the team had created together, never mind that this was their fourth attempt. The other versions were mere prototypes and nothing more no matter what Honesty had to say about that. This version, this final product, stood as a more sensible design. They’d banished the complex innards of their prior attempts to neatly packed, modular containers surrounding the crystal mirror in a semicircle.

In all honesty, any of the Crusaders would have been the last ponies Lyra would have picked to lead a project like this, but Sweetie Belle had really pulled through. Who would have guessed? Then again, they did tend to be less of a walking disaster when they weren’t all together.

At any rate, everything was set to go. They performed the initial tests without the mirror. Now they only needed to conduct their final experiment.

“This is so exciting!” Lyra said as she danced impatiently on her hooves. “I’ve never made an artifact before. If I did, I always thought it’d be for, well, killing stuff.”

Bon Bon wrapped an arm around Lyra’s shoulders and pulled her in close for an affectionate nuzzle. “You know, I wouldn’t mind a few new toys.”

“Um…” Unsure of how to take that request, Lyra asked, “Toys or…toys?”

Bon Bon, of course, craned her neck to nip at Lyra’s ear. She whispered a husky, “Why not both?”

“Eh-hem.” From the front of the crowd, an oddly assertive Sweetie Belle glared the couple down from half their height. “If we’re done with the foreplay…”

Blood rushed to Lyra’s face. She nodded and sidestepped to put the tiniest bit of distance between herself and her marefriend, just enough to be able to force a piece of paper between them.

“Then we can begin.” Sweetie Belle picked up a short report from the table beside her. She glanced through it and then turned her attention to Trixie. “If I understand your math, we can only hold the mirror’s portal open for about a minute before we need to recharge the battery, right?”

“Yeah. Even for the Great and Powerful Trixie, that piece of junk is a huge power sink.”

Lyra certainly agreed with that. She’d been involved in a lot of cooperative spellcasting in her past to produce enormous magical effects to kill giant monsters, but nothing had ever demanded magic in the sheer quantity punching a hole through realities required. It didn’t help that this universe and their destination were nearly maximally out of sync with each other right now.

Really, though, Lyra wondered why Twilight had so much solidified magic lying around. What did she use it all for?

“That’s fine,” Sweetie Belle said. “We only need it open long enough to get through it. Which I have a note here about, actually. We need to send a clock through first to check for…time dilation?” She glanced up from the text to Twilight with a questioning look.

The mare in question offered a simple explanation. “Since the physics of each universe isn’t identical to our own, we need to check if time flows in the human world at the same rate it does here. Unless, Trixie, you can offer some insight?”

Trixie shrugged and said, “No idea. I’ve only met one human years ago, and we never spoke much. You’re lucky enough that I even knew what this mirror was.”

“Can we just start?” Lyra asked, her voice on the verge of a whine. She really wanted to see this new world and witness the fruits of her labor.

With no further objections or points of order to raise, Sweetie Belle gave them the go ahead to conduct the final experiment. Twilight unearthed a pair of durable clocks from one of her lab benches. After synchronizing them, she kept one and tossed the other, a string literally attached, to Sweetie Belle to hurl through the portal if all went well.

The group counted down from ten. When they hit zero, Sweetie Belle flicked the switch to turn their device on. It hummed ominously in protest under the magical load placed upon it, but it remained stalwart in its duty. Power collected at the focus until a massive wave of magical flux burst forth, steady and continuous. Although the mirror showed no visible change, Lyra’s horn missed neither the rapid rate it consumed power nor the warping of space upon its surface.

They’d really done it, hadn’t they?

A glowing green blur whizzed toward the portal. A second later, Lyra realized Sweetie Belle had just flung the experimental clock through. After a short wait, she pulled it back and powered down the portal. When they compared one clock against the other, they found them still, if not perfectly in sync, then close enough as to make no matter.

“Well then,” Twilight said. “I do believe we can go ahead. But” – she exchanged looks with Lyra and Trixie – “one of us needs to stay behind.”

Not catching the hint, Flash volunteered. “I can do it.”

“I’d much rather it be somepony who can fix the portal if need be,” Twilight said, much to Lyra and Trixie’s agreement.

Flash, however, responded, “If that happens, I can just pop off to Canterlot and call upon your regent, can’t I?”

“I…suppose so,” Twilight allowed.

When Twilight looked Lyra’s way, she shrugged. It was fine by her so long as somepony was around to pull them out. She didn’t want to be stuck in another universe.

“Whatever,” Trixie said, which counted as consent.

And so they were decided. Twilight offered Flash a quick, “Thank you,” and then said, “Give us an hour to explore before you open the portal again.” To the rest of the group, she asked, “So who wants to go first?”

Lyra raised her hoof and hopped forward on her remaining three. Her last adventure with Bon Bon down into the bowels of the Canterhorn, however hesitant she’d been initially, had turned into a real thrill. This part two could only be better!

But when Lyra stepped forward, Twilight piped up with unwelcome news. “Leave Honesty behind. I don’t want to take any chances with the Elements. I’ve emptied my bag of holding as well.”

That, any reasonable pony had to admit, made sense. “I… Okay.” Lyra reached for Honesty’s clasp with her magic. “But–”

“Yeah, I see where this is going,” Twilight muttered. “Let me lend you all a hoof.”

And just like that, Twilight called Magic to her. Using it, she summoned Honesty, Generosity, and Kindness and sent them away to some dark shadowy corner of the abyss. It all happened so fast. None of them had time to react before the shock and sense of loss set in. Despite her best efforts, Lyra couldn’t even summon Honesty back to her.

“Hey, I do this all day every day,” Twilight said, entirely unsympathetic. “Without Trixie’s crutch, I might add.”

Trixie harrumphed but didn’t deny it.

“Just get going,” Twilight continued. “A universe away, the call probably won’t be able to reach you. At least not when the portal is off.”

That sounded just plausible enough to believe in and hope for. Lyra worked up the strength to push down the sense of longing and emptiness Honesty’s absence had left in her. She turned the portal on and rushed through it without pause to examine how it felt.

On the other side, Lyra immediately toppled over onto her barrel. For some reason, that hurt. In fact, she had a hard time making sense of most of the signals her body was sending her. Everything felt off and foreign up to and including the positioning of her limbs, and for somepony who’d had to adjust to having four instead of two, she felt that said a lot. It didn’t help that wherever she’d ended up was pitch black as well.

Pinkie followed Lyra through the portal moments later. She avoided falling on top of Lyra, thankfully, and an array of lights above flicked on with her arrival.

“Ooh, automatic lighting. Fancy.”

While Pinkie immediately set to exploring, Lyra did her best to roll out of the way of the next arrivals. Pinkie Pie was Pinkie Pie, but she couldn’t count on anypony else adjusting so quickly.

As more of the group came through, Lyra took in their changes. The mirror, for whatever reason, had turned them all into bipeds that sort of looked like hairless monkeys, except for the luxurious manes sprouting from their scalps matching their natural colors. Their skin, too, bore the tone of their coats. That didn’t seem natural, but it did all mesh with the description of humans Twilight and Trixie had offered them. She thought it best not to wonder how they’d each also picked up a set of color-coordinated clothing along the way.

But speaking of Twilight, she came through the portal – apparently an unassuming slab of stone mounted against a wall in this universe – second to last and managed to keep her balance. With only a minor stumble, she safely remained upright on two legs. For some reason, however, when Spike followed in her wake, he turned into a dog. The clock he’d been carrying clattered onto the tile floor now that he didn’t have hands. Judging by his grumbling, though, he could still talk.

And then the freak out started. Twilight let out a wail of loss and horror as she rushed back toward the portal, but it was too late. Flash had already shut it behind them.

Neither seeing nor feeling any particular cause for alarm, Lyra ignored whatever drama was playing out there for now and explored her new body. She wiggled her not claws and found them at least as dexterous as Spike’s normally were even if she’d clearly need to practice with them. She didn’t have a tail – disconcerting – nor a horn – troubling – and she couldn’t feel her magic – that’s probably what has Twilight in such a state – yet she felt oddly pleased with the changes for some reason she couldn’t pin down. She poked at the strange lumps on her chest, which yielded under pressure. A look under her shirt and the weird article of clothing beneath that made her realize that they were a pair of oversized teats.

What a strange species.

At any rate, Lyra managed to get up onto her feet with some assistance from her arms. She propped herself up on a nearby table until she gained a semblance of balance and then looked around.

They were in a lab, clearly, with only one door out and no windows. Lyra glanced at a chalkboard and, to her great surprise, recognized both the scribbled language as Modern Ponish and some of the mathematics as magical equations. Even the bookshelves had untranslated tomes she recognized. Had somepony crossed over from Equestria to live in this universe?

Meanwhile, Bon Bon teetered her way over to Lyra with the help of a lab stool as a third leg. “How are you…” She vigorously waved a hand up and down at Lyra.

“Eh, I’ve had no legs and four legs,” Lyra replied in a hushed voice. “Two isn’t that hard to figure out.”

A strangely enticing look emerged on Bon Bon’s new face, and Lyra just had to kiss it even though she suspected it’d not been intentional. Biological wiring was weird like that. And with as weak of a connection as this body had with her magic, it probably had extra weight in her decision making processes here. As an extra experiment, she determined that the act felt just as pleasurable on this side of the mirror.

“Okay, that was weird,” Bon Bon said when they broke apart. “This isn’t going to become some weird fetish for you, is it?”

Lyra had to think about that. Now that Bon Bon knew about her past and the full scope of her magical talent, such things were no longer off limits. A smirk pulled at her lips. Just as she was about to answer, however, Trixie interrupted their moment.

“Hey, I know whose lab this is.” Trixie held up a photo for everyone to see. It depicted two humans holding an award between them. One had amber skin with graying yellow and red hair. The other made Lyra look between her and Twilight. As humans, those two could pass for identical twins.

Pinkie said what they were all thinking first. She let out a long, “Oooooh.” She then added, “This is a parallel universe.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Twilight protested weakly. She’d curled up into a ball atop a chair with her legs tucked tightly between her arms, but it seemed she’d not lost her capacity for reason. “The odds of that happening by chance are effectively zero. Moreover, our universes have bumped into each other multiple times. There’s no good reason for another me to exist.”

“That doesn’t change the facts,” Spike said with excitement. “Unless there’s time travel involved! In Power Ponies, this sort of thing happened multiple times. It turns out that–”

Trixie cut Spike off. “Not the time.” She pointed at the other human in the picture. “This is Luna’s friend, Sunny. And now that I’ve met our version, I recognize her for who she really is. Don’t break anything if you don’t want her to break your legs.”

After a few moments, Twilight let out a gasp of surprise. Then she chuckled, albeit somewhat weakly in her current state. “Oh, Trixie, don’t be silly. Sunset isn’t so uncouth as to break legs. She’d find a much more effective way to hurt you for far longer.”

Yeah, because that’s so much better. Not that Lyra knew who this Sunset pony was, of course. She’d have to remember to ask later once they’d gone back through the portal.

Lyra then realized something. “Hey, so this is human Twilight’s lab? Who wants to bet we can’t get out on our own without explosives or mining equipment?”

There were no takers.

Pinkie tried the door and found it locked with no obvious way to open it, not even a keyhole.

Twilight herself muttered, “Ponyfeathers.”

So they were stuck in this room until Flash opened the portal for them to get back or somepony came in and let them out.


Next time they’d have to come during regular business hours. Whenever those were here.

Sweetie Belle, who’d been exploring the lab on her own, saved the day. “I found a few decks of cards.”

Apple Bloom stole a glance at ‘Sun Wisp’ escorting her home after evening tea in Canterlot with Zecora. If she didn’t know better, the disguise would have fooled her. Archmage Twilight’s certainly had, and Princess Celestia’s was no less real. To all senses, she appeared as no more than an ordinary unicorn mare with a bronze coat and a mane and tail the color of yellowed wheat with all the curiosity of a tourist.

“Ponyville is bursting at the seams,” Princess Celestia idly observed.

It was true. Between the Summer Sun Celebration coming in a mere two days now and the ongoing Apple family reunion, the number of ponies residing in town had more than tripled over the past few weeks. A few might decide to stay if they found a business opportunity, but most were mere faces Apple Bloom would see once or twice in her life and then never again after the solstice.

Case in point, a stallion new to town traveling opposite them down the road took an interest in the princess. Resisting the urge to not scream what a horrible mistake he might be about to make took all of Apple Bloom’s strength. And then when Princess Celestia followed her charge’s gaze, clearly wondering what had her tied in knots, she sent him back an innocent smile. But that only lasted until they passed one another. Once he was behind them, she, Princess Celestia, put a little sway into her rear and ever so slightly raised her tail.

From the dull thud, the crash, and the sound of falling produce, Apple Bloom didn’t need to look back to know the stallion hadn’t kept his eyes to himself. Served him right.

“Oh my, this is fun.” A bit of a giggle found its way into Princess Celestia’s voice, and Apple Bloom honestly had no idea how to process that nor what had just happened. “It’s been too long since I truly got out of the castle.”

Apple Bloom made a few feeble attempts at speech, but she had nothing.

Once the giddy energy finally left the princess, she settled down enough to say, “Now that we have some privacy, relatively speaking, I meant to ask why alchemy? What drew your interest? Between your background and the tales I’ve heard, I would not have guessed it.”

“Aw, well…” That sort of question had a long answer, and surely the princess didn’t want to hear about a random little filly’s problems when she had so much larger ones to wrestle with. “It’s interesting.”

“Oh, certainly. My area of expertise lies in unicorn magic, but I do try to keep up with the field. Twilight, of course, has made a study of it as well. How long have you been practicing?”

“A few years,” Apple Bloom replied. That was when she’d started taking it seriously, at least, instead of just dabbling.

Princess Celestia hummed in delight. “I do wish our educational department would make basic potions a core subject. Or the more practical brews, at least. Unfortunately, we have a lack of experienced alchemists willing to teach. Zecora is very generous to volunteer her time for your lessons.”

“Uh, yeah. I reckon she is.” Apple Boom had never really thought about it that much before. She did do a lot of learning on the job, though, so to speak. “Sweetie Belle was so jealous when I told her Zecora agreed to teach me.”

This time Princess Celestia hummed her understanding. “And your other friend, Scootaloo–”

Apple Bloom nodded when the princess looked her way for confirmation.

“–she had Rainbow Dash to teach her magic, no?”

“Yeah, she–” It hit Apple Bloom only now, years later, that Sweetie Belle had ended up as the only one studying magic on her own when it’d kind of been her thing to begin with. And she’d never said anything. Really, what would there have been to say? That she was jealous? Upset? Angry? It wasn’t like her to unload on others like that.

Great, now I feel even more like an ass for kicking around Ponyville and bellyaching to myself.

Princess Celestia must have known what was on her mind, but the princess had no words of comfort nor condemnation. No, instead she steered the conversation into equally dangerous waters. “Forgive an old mare for the repetition, but could I ask again why you decided to take up alchemy?”

“I…” Finding herself suddenly without words but with a dry mouth, Apple Bloom tried to wet it and then swallowed. She dared glance up at the princess only to find a knowing look there with a sympathetic, understanding smile. There’d be no judging from her, but Apple Bloom still quickly looked away. “Scootaloo was learning how to fly without wings, and Rainbow Dash taught her all sorts of amazing things. Then Sweetie Belle got into magic, and she could do things with a flick of her horn that would take me forever to accomplish. I – I wanted to be special too. But, ya know, earth pony. Then I met Zecora, and I saw my chance, and alchemy really is interesting. I swear!”

They walked in silence for a few moments before Princess Celestia asked, “How long have the Cutie Mark Crusaders been crusading?”

What? Apple Bloom blinked in place, not prepared for that question, and then trotted to catch up. “Um… A little over five years now.” That sounded right. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Oh, I just want to fully understand the situation. My student’s student thinks the world of you and Scootaloo, after all.” The Princess’s tone then turned slightly teasing. “Twilight herself has offered mixed reviews. She admires the brilliance but worries about the chaos that follows in your wake.”

“That’s–” That was totally their fault. Apple Bloom couldn’t deny it. “We have to get our cutie marks,” she weakly protested.

Now more solemn, Princess Celestia said, “You three are quite old to not have them. Twilight has her own theories on why that is. I agree with her. To an extent. She has a blind spot when it comes to certain matters.”

When Index – when Archmage Twilight had brought the subject up, Apple Bloom had pressed for answers. Now? Right now she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear more as she shrunk in on herself. If this was all tied together, all coming to one central point, it couldn’t be anything good.

“But Apple Bloom,” Princess Celestia began in all seriousness. The filly in question noticed the princess looking down at her from the corner of her eye. When she summoned up her courage and turned to gaze back, she nearly stumbled in her step under the weight of those eyes. The next words were cutting. “Do you truly care so long as you remain together?”

Apple Bloom shook and fought as hard as she could against any more visible reaction.

It was true. It hurt because it was true. It was truer than she’d ever dared to think.

In the dark corners of her mind, she’d wondered what would happen once one of them actually managed to get their cutie mark, once the Cutie Mark Crusaders had no reason to exist. When they found their own special talents, wouldn’t they go their separate ways to learn more about them? It was what adults always did.

Wasn’t that what was happening right now anyway?

But if they all had the same special talent, then wouldn’t they stick together?

Magic had been the obvious guess to glue them together forever. Sure, they’d all have different specializations, but that would just give them a wider breadth of knowledge to work with.

But that wasn’t going to happen. Not anymore. Even if they did all end up with magic cutie marks, they’d been separated. Sweetie Belle would be a fool to turn aside her apprenticeship. Scootaloo had a fancy new school to attend under her own idol.

And Apple Bloom had Zecora. The only people who might be better able to teach her alchemy lived on an entire other continent. If she had any chance at all of getting a cutie mark in magic, it’d be here in Ponyville.

Not that she expected that to happen. Life seemed more fond of taking from her than giving.

A bit of white blocked Apple Bloom’s vision. It took her a second to realize the princes had hung a tissue in front of her. She didn’t resist the favor and blew her nose. It didn’t make her feel any better, but at least she wasn’t leaking as much. And only now did she realize that not only had she stopped walking but that the princess had also first led them into a secluded spot for some privacy.

“Apple Bloom,” the princess said now that her charge had regained a semblance of dignity. “I have no easy answer for you. Being separated from your friends is hard. Giving up something you could dedicate your entire life to in order to remain with them is hard. A healthy balance is not always possible to achieve. Some friendships are worth the effort. Some are not. The one thing I do know is what happens when you choose not to talk to the ponies you love. Your friends will accept your feelings if you share them. In turn, you should accept theirs, whatever they may be. No good will come of bottling them up until you explode.”

“I already know what their feelings are,” Apple Bloom said in a low, defeated voice.

“Do you? Or do you merely suspect?”

Apple Bloom said nothing. She knew. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t had their emotional parting of ways with Sweetie Belle already.

A small sigh came from Princess Celestia. “Perhaps I asked the wrong question. Do they know how you feel?”

“Yes.” They had to, right? “Sweetie Belle can read minds, you know.” Without a doubt, Apple Bloom had let some of her thoughts slip when they’d last been together. Surely she had.

“Generosity.” The word came as soft and longingly as a lover’s whisper. “Ah, I miss it so. But it got me into trouble a few times. It has its failings. I find, when it comes to friendship, that assumptions tend to cause more problems than they solve.”

Apple Bloom managed a rueful chuckle. “No offense, Princess, but you sound like my big sister.”

“You honor me to place me amongst such hallowed company.” But despite her words and her mock bow, there was a distinctly strained quality to Princess Celestia’s smile.

Before Apple Bloom could find the right words to ask what that was about, Princess Celestia ushered them back out onto the road to Sweet Apple Acres. As they walked, she said, “For whatever comfort an old mare’s advice is worth, it can sometimes be good to have time apart from your friends. Are there not things they enjoy that you have less interest in?”

It didn’t take long for Apple Bloom to come up with an answer. “Sweetie Belle likes music. She wrote our theme song. And Scootaloo I think likes when our crusades go wrong a little too much.”

“And what about you?”

As before, Apple Bloom found an answer right away. “I really like designing things to build. New things. Old things. Anything to spark the creative juices. I even get royalties from a few of my inventions.”


“Uh-huh. It’s how we funded ourselves. We–” No, that wasn’t really right anymore, now was it? “I own the patents on some of the things I designed for our crusades.” Mostly it was a bunch of specialty items involving electronics, useful when somepony needed a nonmagical solution. That field was rife with low hanging fruit and a teeny-tiny, niche market. It was almost insulting that her income from all that amounted to a trickle in comparison to the literal toy she’d made. “I invented the pogo stick.”

“Oh?” Princess Celestia sounded impressed.

Apple Bloom couldn’t resist a small huff. “It’s a spring on a stick. I’m surprised somepony didn’t think of it sooner.”

“If only you had thought of the hula hoop first,” Princess Celestia said in some wry amusement.

“It’s just a hoop! We’ve used them for barrels since forever!” Honestly, the things ponies could slap their names on! “Who even owns that?”

Princess Celestia awkwardly cleared her throat.

And that was just perfect, wasn’t it? As if Apple Bloom hadn’t embarrassed herself enough in front of the princess already, now she just had to go and open her big mouth again.

“To be fair,” Princess Celestia began, “it expired centuries ago, and I only ever held it in trust. It started as something of a joke and became an argument for early patent reform. The idea of intellectual property was relatively new at the time and still in need of refinement.”

“Huh.” If Miss Cheerilee had lectures half as interesting as the princess’s idle anecdotes, Apple Bloom might have done better on her last history exam at the end of this spring term.

At any rate, seeing as they were back at Sweet Apple Acres, Apple Bloom thanked Princess Celestia for walking her home and talking with her. She wasn’t any happier about anything, but she had to admit she felt a little better after having somepony really listen to her.

A thought did occur, however, before they parted ways. “Um, Princess? Granny Smith said you were the one who gave us our land. Is that true?”

After a long and thoughtful hum, Princess Celestia said, “Oh, yes. My, that must have been nearly sixty years ago now.” The slightest hint of a cringe passed over her face. “Such dreadful bonnets. What were we thinking?”

“Right…” Perhaps it was for the best that Apple Bloom didn’t really understand that remark. “Well, thank you for that. We’re having a family reunion right now, so it’s a bit…” She shrugged in lieu of saying anything awful. “But if you want, Granny Smith would want to see you, and we could probably find some zap apple jam somewhere or some cider, if you’d like. It’s not much, I know, but it’s what we got.”

Princess Celestia first eyed the sun low on the horizon and then said, “It would be an honor.”

Flash patiently waited just beside the crystal mirror’s controls. The synchronized clock sat atop a stool just beside him, slowly ticking down the seconds until the group’s intended return. A minute became thirty seconds, then twenty, fifteen, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five…

The battery powering the portal fired up. It was a few seconds early, but Flash knew they expected to be able to cross through after precisely an hour, so better to have it open, ready and waiting for their return. There was enough power left in the battery for all of them to make it anyway, and if not, they could recharge it. Bits, he’d come to realize, meant a whole lot less when one had access to the archmage’s purse.

As Lyra went through first, so did she return first. Flash first saw the splash of aquamarine that was the end of her muzzle poke through the mirror’s surface. A strange rippling effect spread out from there like water in slow motion, but when more of her came through, it was clear the waves didn’t obey any proper physical laws. The changing cross section of her body didn’t create the expected chaos of waves interfering with–

Something was very, very wrong. Instead of the unicorn Flash had come to know, a very Lyra-esque seapony flopped to the floor with a heavy, “Oof!” It would have been comedic if it wasn’t a seapony.

In almost a blink of an eye, the seapony’s body reformed itself into the very image of Lyra Heartstrings from horn to cutie mark.

“I… What?”

Drawing attention to himself was a mistake. Flash took a step back when the seapony in disguise shot a fierce glare at him. Even as other ponies began exiting the portal, she stepped uncomfortably close and hissed, “You saw nothing. Understood?”

Flash nodded in perfect silence.

“Good.” The seapony backed off.

Yet it wouldn’t do to just let this go like that. “But you’re Lyra, right?”

The seapony turned back to him, nodded, and then frowned. She spun next to Twilight, who was dancing – if that was what she called that strange ritual – while gleefully casting spells at everything in sight for no apparent reason. “Can I have Honesty back now?”

Twilight, with the widest, most beautiful smile on her face Flash had ever seen, cocked her head to the side, momentarily confused. Then realization struck. “Oh. Sure.” She called Magic to her for a second and then sent it back to wherever it’d come from. “Just summon it back to yourself.”

A moment later, the seapony – Lyra – had Honesty around her neck. All was apparently well with the world. “Satisfied?” she asked.

Flash nodded again. He probably should have just used Loyalty to verify her identity, but that worked just as well. And if Lyra was secretly a seapony, well, that was fine with him. It wasn’t like she’d tried to torture them or something equally psychopathic. If she hadn’t yet, she probably wouldn’t in the future.

Once everyone had made it through the portal, Flash shut it down. He gave them a few moments to readjust to their home universe and then asked, “So how was the trip?”

“A nightmare,” came Twilight’s instant response.

“Boring,” Spike added, to which Sweetie Belle promptly agreed.

Trixie snorted and then said, “The exit is in a locked lab with no alternative way out.”

“We failed to arrive during business hours,” Bon Bon said.

Pinkie, unbroken, went with, “We had fun! We played cards with these weird noodly things like claws.” She held up one of Spike’s hands at eye level as a visual aid, much to the shorter dragon’s displeasure.

“It was oddly satisfying,” Lyra added.

Lastly, Twilight said, “You can find out for yourself tomorrow. I’m volunteering to stay behind next time.”

It had been so very tempting to allow herself to get drunk, but Twilight considered herself more responsible than that. Sure, the human world had been traumatizing to visit, but that didn’t mean she had to reach for the brain bleach to forget. She had far more efficient ways to do that with magic, after all. Not that she would, of course, but the option was there.

Twilight lifted her cider to her lips and tipped her head back. The fizzy, burning sensation from the alcohol helped clear her mind just a bit. She slammed her cup down and silently commanded her tavern’s barmare to refill it.

The human world. What a horrid place. She’d known going in that magic wouldn’t work properly, but she certainly hadn’t expected to be completely cut off from her magic there! It was like dying in a way. It’d still been her, still part of her, but she’d felt disconnected like somepony had carved out the core of her. It was no wonder Star Swirl had used that universe as an alternative to Tartarus for beings too powerful to contain.

Twilight immediately took another drink as soon as it arrived at her table. She almost felt bad for planning to send Luna to that world even just for a few minutes.

Speaking of whom, Luna’s arrival just rang the doorbell. Twilight took the short time it would take the mare to seek her out to compose herself as best as she could.

Soon enough, Luna sat down at their table. They made their salutations. She ordered a drink in peace. It arrived.

And then Twilight pounced.

“So I asked Trixie for a better description of ‘Sunny’.”

Luna snorted into her drink with enough force to send the liquid flying all over her. Even then, she only kept on laughing afterward without a care.

“When were you going to tell me there’s a parallel version of Sunset running around?”

And really, Twilight still didn’t understand how that made any sense. Their worlds were completely different. Even if one ignored the DNA and the cultural problems of making their worlds ‘parallel’ in the literary sense, there were so many other absurdities to overcome. If she didn’t know how the mirror worked, she would have assumed it created a pocket dimension loosely based on what it reflected.

“Oh, dear Twilight,” Luna began as she finally fought back her laughter. She cast a spell to clean herself up and said, “Sunny has spent so much time here. It would be an injustice to call her parallel any longer.”

It had occurred to Twilight to wonder how a Sunset Shimmer crossing over worlds as a filly would be changed for the experience. That whole universe had probably already started experiencing the ripple effects by now as well. Luna had mentioned that Sunny had managed to get magic to work there. That had to have had major repercussions. She couldn’t imagine any Sunset Shimmer contenting herself to a life of obscurity and solitary academic fulfillment.

And apparently Sunny and the human Twilight Sparkle were coworkers? Friends? Maybe sisters? Twilight wouldn’t know until she asked, she supposed, but the age difference between them really showed in the human world. For all she knew, the other her might look upon Sunny as a mother figure. That would be…weird.

Despite that mental image, Twilight somehow felt calmer now and certainly more settled. She opted for a controlled sip of her cider rather than the long gulps she’d been favoring.

“By the way,” Luna said, “I have it on good authority that the human you has vowed to make out with you if you two ever meet.”

Twilight choked on her drink.

They’d come prepared for a long wait this time just in case after an early start. If the human Twilight Sparkle was anything like their version, she would be a night owl. Late to bed, late to rise, and probably late to work. The human Sunset Shimmer, better known in Equestria as Sunny, was more of an unknown. Given that they apparently worked together, however, they probably kept the same schedule. Still, better to be bored waiting than to potentially miss this last chance to explore before the solstice made everyone too busy to bother for who knew how long.

Sweetie Belle heard them before her weak nose picked up the delicious smell of their lunch. The conversation came across muted and indistinct, but a conversation it had to be by the cadence. They stopped in front of the door out of the lab for a few moments until a strange beep filled the air. Then came the sound of the door unlocking.

This was it. Sweetie Belle wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about meeting a parallel version of her mentor. Would this Twilight be anything like Archmage Twilight? In a world almost without magic, what would fill the void? If there was a human Sweetie Belle, did they even know each other?

A quick glance over the rest of the lab left Sweetie Belle reassured that everyone else was away from the door. They didn’t want the humans to freak out, run away, and call the police. That would be quite the diplomatic blunder.

Finally, they made their appearance.

Sunny looked just as she did in the photo they’d found of her except for a few more years of wear and tear from aging. She had a cheap paper box in one hand and a pair of wooden sticks in the other with noodles dangling from them. They only made it halfway to her mouth when she noticed her uninvited guests.

On the other hoof – or hand, rather – the human Twilight Sparkle could easily pass for Archmage Twilight’s twin in reality just as she could have in the photo. The only real difference between the two was a pair of thick glasses perched atop her nose and their preferred hairstyle. With a sample size of two, it was clear that this one liked to wear hers up in a bun. She had a similar box full of food and a pair of sticks, but hers seemed to contain some sort of rice dish.

The two groups stared at each other for a few moments.

Twilight set her sticks down. She said something that might as well have been Zebrican for all that Sweetie Belle understood it. The only intelligible words she caught were three names: Pinkie, Trixie, and her own.

As they’d agreed beforehand, Trixie took the lead. “Sunny, remember me? We met a few times in our dreams.”

Sunny’s eyes widened in time with her smile, and she elbowed Twilight. “Sparky, they’re Equestrian.”

The hint of annoyance vanished from Twilight’s face. A raspberry glow, a perfect match to the color of Archmage Twilight’s magic, lit up her free hand and her glasses as she straightened them with telekinesis. “Really?” she asked in a messy attempt at Ponish so unlike Sunny’s own perfect Canterlot accent. The fascination came through clearly all the same. “You’re all ponies? But the portal…”

“We forced it open on our end,” Trixie explained. “Our Twilight Sparkle found the mirror’s documentation.”

Sunny’s gaze immediately went toward the portal. “Can we go through it right now?” The eager anticipation sparkling in her eyes faded, if only slightly, when Trixie shot her down.

“Not for a while. The mirror takes a lot of power to hold open, and we’re not due to check in for hours yet.”

“But you can open it whenever you want for travel?” Twilight asked with no less interest than Sunny.

Trixie, however reluctant to please any Twilight Sparkle, answered, “I guess.”

“Well then. I suppose there’s no harm to us playing host.” Sunny looked to Twilight for any objections and received none. “What brings you to our neck of the multiverse?”

With a shrug, Trixie said, “Curiosity. To explore.” Rather sarcastically, she added, “Group bonding with our fearless leader who refuses to step hoof in this world again. She freaked out over the dead connection to our magic here.”

Personally, Sweetie Belle felt that was an understandable reaction. She felt uncomfortable with it as well, if not nearly to the same extent. Maybe Archmage Twilight was so much more affected because her special talent was magic, full stop? Who knew? Trixie was being unfair.

“I understand the sentiment,” Sunny confessed. “The time after I first returned from Equestria was…rough.”

Even the nearly nonmagical human agreed!

Heedless to this, Trixie scoffed. “The Great and Powerful Trixie is not bothered by such petty things.”

Twilight muttered something under her breath in her own language.

And then her eyes fell onto the only nonhuman in their group. “Spike?” Twilight breathed. Not waiting for an answer, she swept him up into her arms and hugged him tight to her chest. “Oh, Spike, how are you alive?” Asking everyone but him, she said, “Do dogs live longer in Equestria?”

That was about as ironic of a question as anyone could ask.

Annoyed and perfectly willing to show it as he struggled to break free, Spike said, “I’m a dragon, not a dog.”

Twilight’s gaze snapped down to Spike. A moment later, she emitted a loud, startled shriek and let him fall to the floor. He landed clumsily, clearly not used to being quadrupedal, but it was hard to lose one’s balance entirely with four legs.

“You can talk!” Twilight asked, taking a half step back.

In the extreme opposite reaction, Sunny leaned closer with a curious expression on her face. “Not the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “More importantly, how do you talk? Magic? Or is your anatomy different than a regular dog’s?”

Spike retreated under the increasingly scrutinizing gaze and sought refuge in Sweetie Belle’s lap. She internally shrugged and placed a hand atop his back protectively.

Meanwhile, Twilight pulled Sunny back by the nape of her collar. “You never told me that Equestrians keep dragons for pets!” she hissed.

Naturally, Spike overheard and protested, “I’m not a pet!”

Twilight blinked once, momentarily confused, and then said, “Well, I should hope not. You’re obviously intelligent.” Her brow furrowed, confused once more. “But then what exactly is your relationship with the other me?”

“Mom hatched me and raised me.”

That visibly hit the other Twilight like a ton of bricks. Her eyes widened, and she collapsed back against the desk behind her. At her side, Sunny placed a steadying hand upon her shoulder.

The pair exchanged a look, the sort that had far more meaning in it than a mere glance ever should. Twilight had a bit of a glare about her, and Sunny ended up raising her hands in surrender after the exchange. As nothing more was said, Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure what to make of it beyond the obvious.

“Soooo,” Sweetie Belle said, drawing it out nice and long, to break the silence. “You two know me? The human me?”

“We’re acquainted,” Sunny drawled as though that were a bad thing.

“Rarity designed the dresses we wore when we received our Nobel Prize in Physics,” Twilight further explained. “We’ve become friends since.”

It seemed that some things, even when they occurred purely by chance, stayed the same across universes.

Pinkie took the opportunity to ask, “And me?”

“You run our favorite bakery a few blocks away,” Sunny replied.

As Sweetie Belle expected, Pinkie looked exceedingly pleased with that answer.

Then Sunny turned to Trixie and flatly said, “You don’t want to know.”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie cares not what some pretender gets up to.”

That, too, was about what Sweetie Belle had expected from Trixie.

Sunny had a sudden look of realization about her as though she’d just remembered something she’d forgotten. “Actually,” she said, turning to Twilight, “speaking of Rarity, didn’t you mention plans for tonight?”

Sweetie Belle gasped as silently as she could manage, and she even felt Spike tense up on her lap. Plans between Twilight and Rarity? Could it be? Was it a date! Would that happen back home too? That would be the greatest possible thing ever! She turned her gaze onto Twilight and tried not to look too hopeful.

The human Twilight slapped a hand to her forehead. “Sweetie Belle’s concert. I promised I’d go.”

If she had her natural pony form, Sweetie Belle would have felt her ears perk up at that. Actually, it felt a little weird that she couldn’t move them, now that she thought of it. But that didn’t matter right now. “A concert! Me?”

“Well, it’s not yours,” Twilight said, much to Sweetie Belle’s disappointment. “It’s a charity thing. You’re in it, though. Well, not you, but you know. You’re quite good, actually. Er, she is, that is. Well, I assume you are as well…” She trailed off awkwardly, probably hoping not to dig herself any deeper into a hole. After a moment to stare at her clearly fascinating feet, she cleared her throat. “Right. Anyway, a few talent scouts have actually approached her already. Her parents aren’t keen on letting her enter showbiz so young, but–”

Sweetie Belle, to her later surprise, found herself tuning out a Twilight Sparkle. She’d already heard what she wanted to know. So the human me is a singer? Huh. That sounds…nice. It wouldn’t do for her, of course. Magic was too enticing a subject to give up so completely. But at the same time, she couldn’t deny that she liked the idea.

“Can we go?” Sweetie Belle asked, interrupting the conversation that’d gone on without her. “To the concert?”

As no one had any objections to that use of their time here today, they turned to Twilight. She presumed that the tickets wouldn’t be sold out for a simple local performance, so it was decided. They’d spend the day wandering around, taking in the sights and absorbing the culture, and then tonight they’d attend the concert.

Apple Bloom did her best not to breathe as she finished cleaning out the pigpen. Chores, sadly, didn’t stop needing doing just because there was a family reunion going on, a holiday approaching, or an alicorn princess due to return from exile tomorrow night. Nope, not for her. Her friends were a different story. Scootaloo had permission to run wild during the festival, and Sweetie Belle, well, she’d never really had chores to begin with, had she? Not beyond a few token things around Rarity’s boutique, at least. Part of that had to do with her comically bad domestic skills, but the point stood.

Regardless, this last bucket of filth would end Apple Bloom’s labor for the day. She heaved its contents into the fertilizer pile to decay. She knew a potion to speed up the process, but nothing ever changed around here. Applejack especially had a stubborn streak about that, and nopony ever told her why.

Not that any of her griping really mattered, Apple Bloom knew. When she was old enough to strike out on her own, she would. Farm life wasn’t for her.

Apple Bloom caught a whiff of the stench clinging to her from a passing breeze. She blew out through her nose as hard as she could to get the smell out. After that last chore, she desperately needed a long shower. It probably wouldn’t hurt to brush her teeth as well just in case.

It wasn’t until midday when Apple Bloom finally had the rest of the afternoon to herself. Now she had to decide what to do with it. Zecora had work to do. Scootaloo said she had to practice her weather magic today while Rainbow Dash was away. Most of Apple Bloom’s ongoing projects were a little too involved to work on with her entire extended family on the farm.

Well, there was always the reunion. She should probably show her face there at least for one full day instead of wandering off to do her own thing. Maybe she could find her cousin, Babs, and swap stories. That could be fun.

So resolved, Apple Bloom made her way down to the tent Babs’s family was supposed to be staying in to start her search. She failed to find her quarry there, so she checked in on some of her younger cousins who might be able to send her in the right direction. Unfortunately, none of them knew either, so she turned to scouting out food sources. With any luck, she might bump into Babs having a late lunch. If that didn’t work, she’d probably have to head into town to scour the festival for a misplaced tourist.

That was where Apple Bloom found her. The Archmage of Equestria sat there on that bench in disguise as Index amongst a dozen Apples as if she had nowhere better to be. They were eating lunch together and idly chatting about only Celestia knew what.

The sight of it strangely irritated Apple Bloom. She marched right up to Archmage Twilight and asked, “Shouldn’t you be with the others?” She ignored her great aunt’s chastisement for not minding her manners.

“The last time I was here, I recall, I was invited to return anytime. Not the precise words used, granted, but ones to that effect.”

That deserved no more a response than the raised eyebrows Apple Bloom gave it.

Archmage Twilight politely excused herself from the conversation and, with a nod of her head, invited Apple Bloom to walk with her. This was going to be all secret like, then? Apple Bloom could appreciate that.

When they were a fair way removed from the others, Archmage Twilight asked, “Did you know your family has a long history with Luna?”

Apple Bloom froze in place for a moment. “Say what now?”

“You might want to take advantage of this reunion to ask around about her. She’s mostly just old stories now, it seems, but there’s more truth to them than I think anypony here realizes. Some are quite interesting. There’s more to your family than first meets the eye.”

“Huh.” That was certainly something worth looking into, but that wasn’t really what Apple Bloom wanted to know. Not that Archmage Twilight hadn’t taken the wind out of her sails. Even so, she asked, “Is that why you’re here and not, you know, off adventuring?”

“Who says I’m not with the others?”

“I do,” Apple Bloom said. “You’re right here.” How was that not obvious? “Unless…” She poked the archmage. “Yep. Real.” When magic got involved, one could never be too sure.

Archmage Twilight chuckled. “You have the right idea, but nopony ever said I can’t be in two places at once.”

Flabbergasted, Apple Bloom asked, “You can do that!” Getting a nod, she said, “That is so unfair.”

“Perhaps, but it’s not an easy trick. It’s not a simple as casting the spell. Dividing your attention is hard. Although just between you and me, my main body isn’t really doing anything right now. My friendship plan backfired on me a bit last evening.”

That didn’t sound good. “Is everypony okay?”

“Well, I’ve left everyone no worse off than they started, I think.”

If the archmage intended to inspire confidence, Apple Bloom found her sorely lacking. “What happened?”

After a quick promise to keep this secret, Archmage Twilight shared the latest details of the bearers’ adventures in the Frozen North.

“Let me get this straight. Sweetie Belle gets to go to a whole new universe?” That would have made for the crusade of a lifetime!

Archmage Twilight knew exactly what was on Apple Bloom’s mind. She said, “I’m sure we can arrange something if you and your friends want to spend a day there.”

“Honest?” Apple Bloom meant no offense, but it was almost too good to be true.

And in the face of that suspicion, Archmage Twilight merely said, “I don’t see why not. I don’t know if I will ever go there again, but I see no reason to restrict tourism now that we can open the portal on demand. Then again, that means immigration, border controls, diplomatic missions…” She grunted and then dismissively added, “Whatever. Not my problem.” A moment later, she amended that last statement. “Well, border control will probably become my problem. Urgh, never mind. The point is I have no problem with letting you use the mirror. It actually belongs to Luna, but if she objects, I can just make another one that goes to the same place now that I have the destination coordinates.”

Apple Bloom politely ignored most of the archmage’s ramblings. All that really mattered was that she’d given the okay. Apple Bloom reflexively moved for a high hoof to start the Crusaders’ ever changing motto. Except she was alone right now, so she half-heartedly set her hoof back down on the ground.

That really took all the fun out of it.

At any rate, there was another question Apple Bloom wanted to ask. “So are you, Sweetie Belle, and the others gonna win tomorrow night?”

Archmage Twilight didn’t answer right away, which alone spoke volumes. She did, however, eventually say, “Win is a strong word. I don’t think anypony can ‘win’ tomorrow except perhaps Luna. I had hoped to reconcile the royal sisters, but that’s turned into a longer project. No, no matter what happens tomorrow, somepony is going to be hurt. Likely a lot of someponies.”

“But not hurt hurt…right?”

A heavy sigh escaped Archmage Twilight. “No, I think not. I made sure of that.” That didn’t sound like a victory the way she said it.

With no better idea to change the subject from all this doom and gloom, Apple Bloom asked, “So what’s going on in the other universe?”

“I’m unsure,” Archmage Twilight replied. “I sent them over this morning, but they missed their first check in time.”

“Are they all right?”

Archmage Twilight nodded. “They left me a note. Apparently, they’re ‘out’.”

“Wait, what is it called again?” Sweetie Belle asked. She poked at the strange device Twilight had called a phone, and it suddenly started playing a recording of this world’s version of her singing her heart out. She was good. Really good. It was only too bad she didn’t understand a word of the lyrics.

With just a hint of resigned amusement, Twilight replied, “The Internet.”

“But there’s no net,” Spike protested from where he sat literally watching over Sweetie Belle’s shoulder. They were packed tight into a horseless carriage that ran without magic, and there wasn’t any particularly better spot for him.

“Net being short for network, Spike.” As the carriage came to a stop at an intersection, Twilight glanced back at them from the steering wheel. “The details are complicated, but… Well, if what Sunny has told me about your world is true, you can sort of think about it as a bunch of dragons sending mail back and forth to each other. Just several orders of magnitude more mail.”


As Sweetie Belle played with the device more, she couldn’t help but think Apple Bloom would have loved this place.

It wasn’t the most productive day ever, but after Twilight had eventually left the Apple family’s boisterous reunion behind, she’d had the rest of it all to herself. It’d been a while since she’d last had some uninterrupted peace and quiet. Between the bearers in the waking world, Luna in her dreams, and everypony else currently on the periphery, she’d not truly had any real alone time in far too long.

Sadly, it was ending. The alarm clock went off, reminding Twilight that she needed to recharge the crystal mirror’s battery. She didn’t bother to put her book down as she did so. Rather, she merely went through the motions. This was the sort of routine magical task she could do in her sleep.

It was only when the second alarm rang that Twilight stored her book in her bag of holding. She sighed, braced herself for more social time, and then put on a smile to welcome everyone back.

The first pony through the portal was Lyra. Twilight had known the mirror stripped enchantments, polymorphs included, from having gone through it herself, but it only hit her now when she saw Lyra the seapony just barely catch herself with her magic before flopping to the floor what that really meant. It was good to know Flash knew how to keep his mouth shut.

Lyra readopted her unicorn form in haste as the next pony followed through right after her. The graying mane came as a surprise, but the fading colors gave away its owner’s identity.


The other Sunset Shimmer sent Twilight a familiar cocky grin. “Heya, Sparky. Look after yourself for me, will you? I have a few ponies to say hi to before they kick the bucket.”

And just like that, the human Sunset teleported out into the Frozen North. Hopefully she knew where she was going. And that her pony counterpart was still technically wanted for crimes against the crown.


Twilight came face to face with Twilight.

“Uh, she just left,” Twilight managed to get out. This was weird, right? “Welcome to Equestria? Is this your first visit?”

“Yes. Earlier than I expected.” The human Twilight experimented with the range of movement of her legs, neck, tail, and even her ears. “Fascinating. How do I do magic?”

After a lengthy pause to best consider how to answer that, Twilight decided on, “With a lot of practice.” Learning to properly use a horn took years. Being an adult with all the maturity that entailed might help, but she’d never had the misfortune of having to teach magic kindergarten to grown ponies. “How do you do it at home?”

“Oh, I channel magic into artifacts. Humans don’t have the biology to support natural casting, it turns out.”

Twilight didn’t think she’d ever need to know that, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Before they could say any more, two hyperactive foals appeared. Sweetie Belle and Spike started belting out everything they’d experienced to her in a rapid-fire exchange over the course of seconds that left her neck sore from the back and forth. From what she gathered, they’d attended a concert involving the human Sweetie Belle after a long day of sightseeing.

When the whirlwind finally departed, the other Twilight said, “Sorry about that. We may have given them too much sugar.”

“Ah.” That would burn out of Spike’s digestive system quickly, at least, now that he was a dragon again.

Looking around, Twilight saw that everyone who was supposed to be here had made it through the portal. She thus turned it off after confirming that no one else would get caught between universes.

Now that all that was out of the way, Twilight gave her opposite a more scrutinizing look. She had her mane up in a bun, which was a good look for her, she admitted, if perhaps requiring too much work. They had the same cutie mark, oddly enough. She hadn’t expected her human self to have one at all, let alone one in magic. But then Sunny and this Twilight Sparkle were studying magic in the other world, so perhaps that checked out after all. The glasses were an odd addition, however. She’d never needed them nor corrective procedures.

“So…” Twilight began. How did one best strike up a friendship with oneself? “Your Sunset calls you Sparky?” That would do for an icebreaker, she supposed. And it stayed far away from what Luna had told her last night. She was not going to embarrass herself again over this sort of thing. Especially since, now that she thought of it, she was fairly certain Luna had only been messing with her.

“Yeah. What does yours call you?”


The other Twilight snicker-snorted before she could stop herself. “What, do you sparkle when you cast magic?”

“No.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Magic has a tendency to sparkle here–”

“Same at home,” the other Twilight interjected.

“–but I seriously doubt that’s why she went with the name. Why Sparky?”

The other Twilight developed a noticeable blush before she forced it down. “Well, this was before Sunny went public with magic and changed the world. She heard about you on one of her visits and decided to recruit me. I’d been tracking some strange energy readings and managed to build a crude thaumometer. I went looking for her. She was looking for me. When we finally bumped into each other, my thaumometer overloaded, short-circuited, and shocked me. My hair poofed out from the static charge I ended up with. It wasn’t the best first impression. When we shook hands, I shocked her, and, well, she rolled with it.”

“All right, you win the amusing backstory award,” Twilight said, and they traded smiles. She assumed that was why her opposite self wore her mane up instead of letting it hang loose. And this amusing anecdote presented a good opportunity to resolve a problem they were going to have very soon. “It’s going to be too awkward having two of us around. You’re Sparky.”

“And you’re Sparkles?” Sparky asked.

Twilight shrugged and nodded. They could call dibs on Twilight Sparkle in their own home universes, she supposed, but it’d be easier to just pick permanent names to use for each other.

“How long are you planning to stay?” Twilight asked. Sunny had run off to parts unknown and could be gone for days.

Sparky, however, replied, “I only planned to get my feet wet tonight. You can send me back, right?”

“Yeah, that’s no problem. So long as it’s just the two of you, you and Sunny can come and go as you please now. If you want to bring more people across, we’re going to have to talk about visas.”

It took a few moments of bemused staring for Sparky to remember exactly who she was speaking to. “Oh, right. I’m – you’re an important government official here. That’s so strange to think about. I mean, me with that sort of responsibility?”

“I assure you it’s just as bad as you imagine,” Twilight replied wryly. “But if you ever want to trade places for a day…”

“No thank you.” Sparky’s refusal came in an instant.

Twilight clicked her tongue.

“So? Show me around?”

“Well, knowing me, you’ll like it here, but there’s not much to see. This is my own secret lab of solitude.”

Naturally, Sparky’s eyes lit up at the mere idea.

“Or it was. It’s pulling double duty as a friendship retreat right now, unfortunately. We’re in a bit of a situation at the moment.” And with Sunny having removed herself from the equation, Twilight had no qualms about warning her counterpart of events to come. “On that subject, you might want to clear out some space around the portal tomorrow night on your end. There’s a very strong possibility I’ll be forcefully sending an angry goddess through the mirror to fight on equal terms.”

Apple Bloom stared up at the mare in the moon from her bedroom window. The solstice, the shortest night, would happen tomorrow. That was when it would all happen. The where, Apple Bloom knew, had to be the Castle of the Royal Pony sisters in the Everfree Forest. That was what Princess Celestia had called it, she thought. Why else would the princess show up personally to evict trespassers?

“Sweetie Belle, I hope you’re doing well. I’ll sneak away from the festival with Scootaloo to come cheer you on. I promise.”

It was the least Apple Bloom could do for a friend. She wished she could do more, but what more could she do?

It was going to be hard to get to sleep tonight. Maybe that was for the best. She’d be up late tomorrow, after all.

All of Equestria would.