Sunset awoke, her thoughts vivid and keen. Her body was covered in sweat, matting her fur. She sat up, panting.
She held herself, shivering like a leaf. She didn’t know where she was or how she had got there. Was she still dreaming? Was she locked up in a dungeon somewhere?
She heard the wind whistling outside, and slowly became aware of the natural sounds of the forest.
Getting some measure of control over herself she lit up her horn. She had to put her hoof over her mouth to stifle a scream as she saw a giant face staring back at her. She quickly moved backwards on her hooves to get away, and wound up falling right off the bed onto the floor, landing on her back and bumping her head from the momentum.
She closed her eyes as she covered the back of her head with her hooves. She didn’t have time to be stunned. She was in grave danger. She was going to die!
She flipped over, preparing a blast from her horn. Her body suddenly froze, the glow from her horn fading away. What kind of powers did this thing have?
A voice echoed in her head. “Calm yourself, Sunset!”
Sunset recognized the voice, and her panting breath slowed down. ‘St-Stardust,’ she thought.
“Yes. Now look again.” Her horn glowed, and she saw the creepy face again. “Just a mask. That’s all.”
Sunset looked closely, and she could see that indeed it was a mask. She could still feel her heart beating a mile a minute.
She heard movement to her side, and she turned to see a curtain blocking her view. “Ah! W-who’s there?” she cried out, panting deeply.
“Why, it is Zecora, of course,” replied a sleepy voice, opening the curtain. Rubbing an eye she continued, “This fear you have, what is the source?”
“Z-Zecora,” Sunset replied. “R-right. I’m sorry I woke you.
“Listen, I need to go for a walk.”
“At this time of night it would not be wise. Outside, beasts of the forest are all that lies.”
Sunset gulped, trotting in place. “I thank you for your concern, but I really, really need to walk.” She went to the door, opening it. “Don’t worry about me.”
Before the zebra could respond she left, closing the door behind her. She walked in the direction of the river, scanning the dark forest for any sign of danger or movement.
“Sunset,” started Stardust. “What’s all this about?”
“Just leave me alone!” she whispered harshly, not wanting to draw anything to her.
“You’re acting strange. Should I not be concerned?”
“Concerned?” she said a little louder. “No! I think you probably want me locked up too!”
“Locked up… too? What does that mean?”
Sunset held a breath, her cheeks puffing out. She let it out after a few seconds. “Don’t give me that. You’re trying to tell me you don’t know? You knew everything else about me.”
“Hey, now. I admit I went through some of your memories when we first made contact, but that was simply for the sake of knowing who you really were. Now that we’re friends it would be rude to go through your thoughts and personal memories.”
“Friends…” She paused for a moment, her heart feeling heavy. After a couple of seconds she walked the last little bit until they reached the clearing where the river was.
“Come now, Sunset,” Stardust said, concern coloring his voice. “Tell me what’s wrong. You’re very jittery. Something must have happened while you were asleep.”
She walked up to the edge of the clear water. Her reflection felt unusually dark. “I… I’m all alone.”
“Pardon?” said Stardust.
“I had a nightmare, or a vision, or something in between.” She picked up a pebble, throwing it in and seeing the water ripple. “I’m feeling as torn apart and shattered as my reflection there.”
“You had a vision?” Sunset mused. “That would explain things. I could feel something drawing on my power while you slept, even though your horn wasn’t affecting anything in the area.”
Sunset’s body clenched, but she had to ask the question. “You said… you said before that you could keep up with what’s going on in Equestria through visions, did you not? You can see things far away from you?”
“Yes… that’s correct.”
“Do… do you think it’s possible… to see things in another world?”
“You mean, like the world where your friends are? Honestly… I’m not sure. My thoughts have always been about the safety and welfare of Equestria. Thus that is where I’ve always looked around at. It might be possible to see into that world, especially as our two worlds are connected right now.”
Sunset hugged herself, scanning the area around the clearing for signs of wildlife. “I… I think I saw the truth. Or… or maybe not. I don’t know!” Her voice cracked on the last word, and she quietly cried.
“Tell me what you saw,” Stardust said comfortingly. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”
Sunset put a hoof to her face, snuffing out the light. She could almost see the vision again. “They… they were never really my friends. None of them were. They hated me just like everyone else. They only talked to me and were nice to me because of Twilight asking them to.
“All they were doing is keeping an eye on me, expecting me to go through the portal again when it next opened… when I’d be arrested and confined for the past.”
“Oh, Sunset… I’m so sorry,” Stardust said mournfully.
Sunset put her hoof down, a joyless smile on her face. “Well, it’s no big deal, is it? All that means is I have no reason to return. No reason to return there, and no reason to stay here either. A second vision showed me the pony versions feel the same way as the human ones do.”
“Where would you go?” he asked. “Planning to find a third world to inhabit?”
Sunset stared off into the distance. “If only there was. I just want to escape all of this!” She looked down at the river. “Who would miss me if I were to… disappear?” Her fake smile disappeared, and tears began to pour down her face.
Stardust was pleased at this development. Things were going just as he had hoped. Without her friends supporting her Sunset’s outlook was crumbling. If she wanted to live then she had no choice but to entrust herself to him.
“Sunset,” he said cautiously, “suicide is not the answer.”
She turned around, and didn’t reply for a while. “Maybe not, but it’s not your choice, is it?”
“I know that, but I don’t want to see you go.”
“You don’t mean that,” she said emotionlessly. “It’s not me you really want. I’m just a vessel for you to accomplish your own means.”
‘Well… that’s not untrue,’ Stardust thought with a chuckle.
To Sunset he said, “How do you know that what you saw is even real?”
Sunset was silent again, her heart thumping. “It’s what I expected, deep down. No matter how far I run I’ll never escape from my reputation as a monster.”
“That’s what you think. What is it that you know?”
“What do I know?” Sunset replied, once more staring at her reflection. “I know from talking with Twilight that Princess Luna is free from the moon, and frees ponies from nightmares. If everything I saw was just a bad dream then at some point Luna should have sensed it and settled things down. Instead, everything I saw was horrible and painful.”
“Sunset… would it be alright if I were to go through your memories of the last few hours? I want to see these visions or nightmares for myself.”
Sunset closed her eyes. “Do what you want. I don’t care anymore.”
Of course Stardust already knew everything, but he waited for a suitable time before saying, “WHOA!”
Sunset opened her eyes halfway. “What?”
“Sunset!” he said, feigning shock. “How could you have neglected this third vision?”
“Third?” she replied, sounding half-asleep.
“Twilight… she was…”
Sunset tapped a hoof on the ground several times. “Twilight… was the only one that really believed me. Now… she’s just like all the rest. Willingly or not, everyone has turned against me. Now I’m all alone. There’s nothing left for me. I’ve lost any interest in this world.”
The jewel in the amulet was steadily thrumming, casting the area in red light.
Stardust could feel her pain and despair. Sunset was weakening. It was time to strike.
“And… what of Celestia?”
Even though the Amulet was around her neck and turned with her she still made a point of turning her back. “What about her?” she said coldly. “Ponies suffer all the time. That won’t change just because Celestia isn’t around.”
“I don’t think you really believe that, Sunset.”
He played her own words back to her. “Laugh it up while you can! I swear I’m gonna make you pay for this!”
“The world is counting on you, Sunset. A lot of them don’t even know you exist, and some of them only know you as a villain, but a true hero is one that forges ahead no matter what obstacles are thrown in their path. You have the capacity to become that true hero, and liberate every pony that has suffered under Celestia’s rule.
“If you can accomplish this massive task then everyone that doubted you will begin to trust you. How could they not? You can kill yourself here, alone, never having accomplished your dreams. Or… you can live on just a little longer, just long enough to save the world. As you said, the choice is up to you. I cannot make that choice for you. I only think of what will be the best for the future of Equestria. I hope you will too.”
Sunset put a hoof on the Amulet, taking a deep breath. “What am I supposed to do?”
Stardust didn’t respond. She guessed he was waiting for her now.
She looked up towards the moon. It was a brilliant white now, but in the past the shadow of Nightmare Moon had been etched across it.
“I’m not a monster!” she said determinedly. “I’m not! I may have been one in the past, but that’s not me anymore. I want everyone to know that.
“I will prove that! No matter what! Even if no one else is on my side I’ll simply have to go it alone.” Her gaze grew colder. “I’m used to being on my own. When you trust others you get betrayed. Wasn’t that what I learned?” The glow from the Amulet increased in intensity.
Joy filled Stardust. ‘Excellent!’ he thought. ‘I can feel the darkness swirling around her heart. Her doubts and fears are beginning to drive a wedge into her innocence.”
Sunset spun around as she heard something traipsing through the forest in her direction. She could make out a shadow in the distance, growing larger. “You won’t take me alive!” she said fiercely. Her horn glowed bright red, and she shot a beam of energy towards the shadow.
There was a cry of pain, and Sunset paused as she prepared another attack. In the split second before the attack had hit the creature had been lit up from the light of the spell. She also recognized the voice.
She lit up her horn, running towards the one she had hit, hoping she was wrong.
She wasn’t. Zecora lay sprawled out on the forest floor, unconscious. There was a burn mark across her chest “Why? What were you doing out here?”
She put a hoof to her head. “She must have come out to check up on me.” She trotted in place for a few seconds. “This is bad! I… I didn’t want to hurt her.”
Stardust spoke quietly, imitating Sunset’s voice. “Is it really that bad? Zecora was probably setting me up like everyone else.”
Sunset took the words as her own thoughts, an uncomfortable look on her face. “Is that what I really think?” Her mind passed back to the other visions she had had. No one else had trusted her. Was it that farfetched that Zecora was among their number?
She let out a quiet growl. “Just another one I have to convince.”
“She deserved what she got.” Stardust whispered, still using her voice.
Sunset felt cold. She turned her head away, not liking these thoughts going through her head. “She was just another lookout, waiting for the slightest indication of dishonesty. Maybe she did deserve this. It was her own fault for not just trusting me and leaving me alone!
“Hmph!” Her horn glowed, picking Zecora up. “Regardless of her intentions she housed me. I can’t just leave her out here to die.” With a flash of her horn the burned area was restored. “I’ll take her to her home.”
Each step was heavy, another seemingly trustworthy individual proven to be a fraud.
Stardust would have been smirking if he had a body. The jewel was flashing bright again. Few ponies knew the true nature of the Alicorn Amulet. While he did have some degree of personal control over his hosts, the true corrupting power of the Amulet came from his host’s psyche. He’d get into their heads, expanding all their negative thoughts. Once they began to discard themselves for the sake of protecting their ego, or began to make excuses to justify their bad behavior, he knew they were sufficiently under his influence.
The more they denied themselves the stronger his influence would grow. Sunset was already jumping to conclusions just from a few implanted thoughts with no actual factual basis behind them. He had definitely gotten to her.
It wasn’t that simply using his magic made one more corrupted. But a good pony doing morally dubious things needed to fill themselves up with more lies and excuses to justify such actions, which in turn made them discard responsibility for such things. Running farther and farther away from their true selves, their hearts growing harder and harder, any action could be considered righteous in their minds.
Sunset dropped Zecora in her bed, looking coldly down at the zebra. “I’m not a bad pony!” she said strongly, though she knew Zecora couldn’t hear her. “I’ll prove it to you. I’ll prove it to everyone tomorrow. Celestia will fall. I will rule over Equestria, destroying any that threaten the peace and stability of this land.”
She turned around. “That is my duty as the wielder of this power, is it not?” Without turning around a web of magic covered Zecora’s head. “You’ve forgotten what just happened, and you’ll be asleep until I leave in the morning.”
She closed her eyes. “Twilight…” She hadn’t forgotten her rage at Celestia, or her sadness for Twilight’s plight. “Twilight, you were the only one I could count on, and now Celestia has stolen you from me as well. The Twilight I knew and loved is now… gone. And now… now…” Her voice quivered, her determination fading slightly. She shook her head hard. “No! No holding back!”
She lifted a hoof, clenching it. “Now that Celestia has brainwashed Twilight it’s going to be impossible to battle Celestia without Twilight coming to her aid. I must ‘liberate’ Twilight from Celestia’s control, no matter what it takes.” After a slight hesitation she continued on, “Even if I have to kill her to do it! That… that is my duty to her as her friend.”
The jewel flashed brightly, Sunset’s eyes turning red with it.
She knew there was no way she was going back to sleep. She tromped out of the hut, heading back towards the river to practice for her morning confrontation.