Sunset screamed, running for her life. She was in a forest, weaving in and out of trees in the path. Something was pursuing her. Something that wanted to hurt her.
Turning her head she fired blasts into the forest, and she felt some connect. She slowed her rapid pace, trying to see what the mysterious creature was. A cloud shifted overhead, and moonlight shone down upon the forest.
Sunset shuddered, unable to breathe. Twilight was down. Spike was down. All the rest of her friends were down. Shining, Cadance, and Celestia were down. Each of them were quivering on the ground, burns across their bodies.
A dark mist began to emerge from their bodies, converging into one solid mass. “Look what you’ve done, Sunset,” said the familiar mocking voice of Stardust. “Once again you’ve betrayed everyone. It’s just never going to end with you, is it?” He approached her on shadowy legs, gliding rather than walking. “The darkness in your heart will never be extinguished.”
Sunset was gasping for breath, tears coming down her eyes. “No! You’re… you’re dead! This isn’t real!” She fired at him, but it just went right through.
Stardust ignored it. “Oh, isn’t it? Did you really think you could get rid of me so easily? Even if the jewel was destroyed it doesn’t matter. I left a little piece of myself in you.”
“W-W-WHAT?” she sputtered out, backing up a step.
His voice came from right next to her, and she turned her head and screamed. Another Stardust was emerging from her neck.
“It’s very comfy in here. So much evil and hatred and malice. This is a lovely home. It’s an honor to call you my master!”
“NO! STOP IT!” She went to push him away, but her leg went right through him. She pulled it back out, but the darkness was now on her leg too, slowly crawling up.
“There is no escape from me, Sunset, because I live in-side-you.” He whispered the next bit into her ear. “One day, I will take over you again. And this time, I will make sure that THIS comes to pass.”
The Stardust by the others exploded, engulfing all of them until there was nothing left but ash.
Sunset’s mouth was hanging open, horror going through her.
“Let’s see what lies inside your heart, hmm?”
A leg appeared alongside the head and neck, and he reached inside her, pulling something out. It was in the shape of a heart, beating hard, but it was black. He gave it a squeeze, and a seemingly endlessly amount of darkness spewed out of it, creating a wave that surrounded her. She was trapped as it spread throughout the forest and kept rising, as though it was water.
She tried to swim through it, but it was too dense. The ground seemed to open up beneath her, sucking her down into it. She struggled to breathe, staring up into the sole spot of light left, that of the full moon. It slowly began to fade as the darkness grew heavier and heavier.
Accusations and hurt began to echo around her. “You remember all this, don’t you?” said Stardust. “All this pain and despair and-”
“ENOUGH!” A loud voice reverberated through her ears, and a beam headed toward her, easily cutting through the darkness crushing her. It hit her right between the eyes, but it didn’t hurt at all. Light emanated from her, expanding outward until she was left on the forest floor.
She held herself, trembling on the ground. A figure landed on the earth, one she didn’t recognize. “W-who are you?”
“Greetings, Sunset Shimmer,” said a kindly voice. “I am Princess Luna, Princess of the Night.”
“You’re… Princess Luna?” she asked. Of course she knew that Luna had been freed from her research, but she didn’t know what the mare actually looked like.
Luna was the polar opposite of her sister in appearance. Princess of the Night certainly suited her for that alone.
She slowly sat up, looking around the forest like Stardust might return.
“My sister told me to keep a watch out for your dreams, Sunset Shimmer.”
Sunset turned to Luna. “She… she did?”
“She informed me of what had been going on today, so it was only natural that you were going to have a nightmare or two. You’re not the only one, though.” Luna gestured with her hoof.
To her surprise a distraught Twilight came into view. “Twilight? What are you doing here?”
“She was also suffering under a terrible weight that necessitated my aid,” said Luna.
“But why? What was going on with her?”
Twilight hung her head. “I’d guess the same sort of thing you’ve been dreaming of.”
Luna spoke up again. “Being taken over again, hurting her friends by her own hoof, and having to watch them fall by someone else. It ended up with many dead.”
Twilight closed her eyes tight. “It was horrible! All there were was bodies, as far as the eye could see. He had control of my body, but I could only watch as he used my power to destroy everything.”
“This was the first time that Twilight has experienced true loss. Even though in the end neither Spike nor you had actually died she still believed that they had until finding out the truth of their survival.
“For Twilight… this was a matter of two great fears: For Spike it was about losing a friend through a preventable mistake, and for Sunset it was being too powerless to protect those she cared for.”
“Oh, Twilight.” Sunset walked over, giving her friend a hug. “Mine wasn’t much better. Stardust told me that he left a piece of himself behind in me, waiting for the moment he could use me again. I was literally swimming in an ocean of darkness.”
Twilight hugged her back. “I guess we both need more time to process things. All I could hear was Stardust’s mocking voice. You wouldn’t know this, since it would have been right after he attacked you, but he mocked how I failed at protecting either of you. He said I’d never recover from the shame, so it wouldn’t matter whether he stole my body or not. Even if it wasn’t him he expected me to be ruined to the point I couldn’t defend my friends or family or Celestia from the next big threat to Equestria. I… I’m scared he might be right.”
“You mustn’t let your fears overpower you, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said meaningfully, “lest you wind up like me. Or Sombra. Acknowledge those feelings, and share them with those close to your heart.” Her horn glowed, and lights came from Sunset and Twilight’s chest.
The lights split into ten separate pieces, before landing and changing into the human and pony versions of their five friends, who proceeded to hug the both of them.
Twilight closed her eyes, reveling in the feelings. Though they were just manifestations that Luna created it was always empowering to have her friends nearby to rely on.
Sunset was also reminded of how they had shown up through the power of the Element of Magic. It was the friendship in her heart, and not her own self, that had allowed her to prevail in the end.
The ten phantom friends let go, standing off to the side but still looking joyful. “Princess Luna?” Sunset started.
She hesitated, not wanting her question to come off the wrong way. “Well… what… do you think of your sister now?”
Luna’s eyebrow went up. “In what way?”
“Has anything changed in the way you feel toward her, or are you just running from those emotions like I was because you’re afraid of succumbing to darkness again?”
“Ah,” Luna replied, understanding. “The basis of your questions comes from your own misgivings. This event has made many of your flaws obvious to you, so it’s only natural you’d ask advice from someone who was once in the same position as you.”
Sunset just nodded.
“Things have changed between the two of us since then. My failing back then was the assumption of mindreading. I didn’t voice my hurt and pain to my sister, believing she should realize it if we were really that close. She knew something was off, but when she’d attempt to approach me I’d shut off and dismiss her. Even though she tried to help me I didn’t give her a genuine opportunity to.
“And, of course, it eventually built up to the point that I lost myself to the darkness. I willingly surrendered to it, in order to gain the power I’d need to overthrow her. I failed, obviously, as she used the Elements of Harmony against me.
“When Twilight Sparkle and her friends pulled me from the darkness it was like seeing things anew. For all my anger and pain I saw I was more at fault than her for not simply being honest. Celestia was not my enemy. She was my dear sister.”
She smiled warmly. “These days our relationship is strong. We do not want to be separated from each other again, so we regularly interact with one another and share our hearts, keeping our bond as strong as can be. We do still have the occasional disagreement, but we can work past it together.
“So to answer your question, Sunset, I do not work with my sister now out of fear, but love. I love her, and she loves me. It took me a hefty punishment to get it, but I don’t need the admiration of hundreds when I have the purest, truest love possible from my dear sister. So should it be for you, as well as you too, Twilight Sparkle. Let the pure love of your friends trump your fears, and you will excel as you always have.”
The ten phantoms all began to talk, offering them encouragement.
Sunset and Twilight looked at their five friends, then at each other. They both seemed calmer now. Sunset extended a hoof toward Twilight, who took it.
“It doesn’t feel so scary now,” said Sunset. “Not when we’re all working together.”
“I agree,” said Twilight, putting her other front hoof to her chest. “I can feel them inside me, giving strength to my heart. I will overcome this, and come out stronger. For all of us.”
Luna beamed. “Very good. I will leave these ten with you. I trust they will protect you from any more nightmares.
“Now I must go. There are others who need my protection.”
Soaring up into the air she vanished.
“Have I mentioned how glad I am that Luna is free?” Sunset said, flopping onto the ground.
“Tell me about it,” Twilight responded, doing the same.
Laying down on the grass the two of them gazed upon the moon and stars overhead. “Hey, Twilight?”
“I just want to say thank you. Back then, after you used the Elements on me and purged the darkness from my heart, you could have done anything. You could have requested a harsh punishment, but instead you directed me to your friends so I could learn from them what friendship really meant. If you hadn’t done that then I probably would have reverted back to my old ways.”
Twilight smiled warmly. “I also have to thank you too. If you hadn’t fought so hard to get the Element of Magic back to me then I would be dead right now. Celestia said that if he took a body after he was freed from the Amulet that he would share the fate of his vessel. In other words, had he gotten my body I asked Celestia to finish me off to get rid of Stardust as well. It seemed like the only choice once Cadance began to falter.
“Because of you I still get to experience life with my friends.”
“Well, it only felt right after all. I did cause this whole mess. And it wasn’t me that saved you, you know. The Element of Magic would never have granted me some of its power if I didn’t have friendship in my heart.”
“That’s partially true, but the victory still goes to you. Those reflections from your heart only appeared AFTER you tried to sacrifice yourself to protect the Element.”
“I guess you’re right.”
Things were so quiet and peaceful after Luna rid them of their nightmares that the two were completely relaxed. There would still be some work to do in healing their souls, but for the moment they were content.
When the two woke up in the morning they shared a look, remembering the previous night.
Time seemed to be running at ten times speed for Sunset. She wanted to prolong things and forget about what was coming later, but was successful at neither. One second she was having breakfast, then the next she was partying and dancing, and then after that the sun was going down. She had no idea where the time went, but she hadn’t been able to fully keep her mind on the fun because of the underlying fear of what awaited her at the end of things.
She knew her time was up when Spike suddenly belched up a letter, requesting their presence at Celestia’s castle.
Her heart was beating quickly, but she wasn’t really afraid of the banishment itself. She knew Celestia was not a cruel pony, so wherever she was being sent was somewhere she could handle. Her discomfort now was the same as the first night she had arrived. Luna had told the two of them to endure through the help of their friends. Twilight could do that easily, being a free pony, but she could not. She was going to be sent somewhere away from them.
She had asked for this. She had asked for punishment befitting her crime. She hadn’t forgotten that, but now she was regretting it. How was she supposed to survive without her friends? How could she trust herself not to regress without their love and faith and encouragement to build her up when she was feeling low?
She felt like saying nothing. After all, they couldn’t override Celestia. They didn’t have the authority. However, as she had to keep reminding herself, it was thoughts like that that had sparked all this in the first place.
Twilight was preparing to teleport all of them to the castle.
“Everyone?” Sunset said meekly. They turned to look at her. Taking in a deep breath she said, “I’m sure gonna miss all of you.” She couldn’t stop a tear coming down her eye. Her eyes clenched shut as she hugged herself. “You’ll come to visit sometimes, won’t you? Promise me you will.”
Twilight grimaced. She could understand Sunset’s pain. It reminded her of right after they had stopped Nightmare Moon. She had had a taste of friendship and how wonderful it could feel, but then was going to have it torn away from her when she left Ponyville.
Their friends were similarly hurting, surrounding her with hugs. “Of course we will!”
“Every chance we get!”
“You’re not gonna be alone for long.”
It wasn’t much, but their assurances that she’d at least get to see them occasionally would have to do.
Twilight seemed to be stalling now, but Sunset wanted to just get things over with. Eventually Twilight acquiesced, and teleported them outside Celestia’s throne room.
Sunset took another heavy breath, then knocked on the door. It was enveloped in a yellow aura, opening up.
The eight of them walked down the carpeted hall, seeing Celestia sitting on her throne. Besides a few Royal Guards there was also something covered with a sheet against the wall.
Celestia sent the guards away. Once they had left she closed the door to the throne room. “Greetings, Sunset Shimmer.” Her voice was regal and composed, an air of power about her. Her head was raised up high as she looked down upon them all. “Have you prepared yourself?”
Sunset bowed. “Yes, Princess Celestia.”
Standing up she walked down the steps until she was at their level, her horn glowing and pulling the object towards her. “This will very likely interest you, Twilight Sparkle, as I’ve never shared this information with you. You will soon see something you’ve never seen before. Take a look.”
Twilight was intrigued, but more about Celestia using her full name. Celestia was rarely so formal since she had become an alicorn.
The sheet came down, revealing what looked like a mirror.
Sunset’s head tilted slightly. “Isn’t that just the portal to the human world?”
Celestia shook her head. “Oh, no. There is more than one portal. The human world is simply one of an infinite amount of alternate universes out there.”
Twilight’s eyes sparkled. That WAS intriguing to her. “So where does this one go?”
Celestia turned her back on all of them, walking a few steps away. “I find it odd, Twilight Sparkle, that you’ve never once asked about my parents. After all, if I am the princess there must be a queen out there, hmm?”
Twilight blinked. It seemed so obvious, but she really had never considered that. Once more she was put off by Celestia using her full name. Maybe it was simply because Celestia wanted to show she was being serious, as they had come here to hear the details of Sunset’s banishment.
Celestia put a hoof on the top of the mirror. “We did not always know about the Elements of Harmony, and one day we fought a powerful foe. Me, Luna, and our parents the King and Queen, all fought together valiantly but ultimately were overcome. For the sake of their children and Equestria they sacrificed their very souls to lock the fiend away in another dimension.”
“Oh, Princess… I don’t know what to say.” Although she had spent the majority of her childhood with Celestia there were many things about her teacher she didn’t know.
“Even now their immortal life force holds the creature back. There is only one way to break the seal.”
“Hold on!” Rainbow said. “What do you mean ‘break it?’ Why would you want to do such a thing?”
“And what does this have to do with Sunset anyway?” asked Twilight, confused.
Celestia let out a little chuckle. “Oh, it has everything to do with Sunset… my dear… faithful… student.” Those last words had a trace of sarcasm to them.
Twilight unconsciously backed her head up. Celestia was acting real strange.
“A nice sacrifice will SURELY break the seal, don’t you think?” Celestia’s head slowly turned around, her eyes glowing green and a black mist coming from her horn as she smirked. With a cruel laugh she said, “The opening of this portal will spell doom for everyone!” In a deeper voice she continued, “Did you really think you had gotten rid of me so easily, my little ponies?”
“S-S-S-S-Stardust?” Sunset exclaimed in disbelief, backing up rapidly and falling on her flank, still backing up. It reminded her too much of her nightmare.
The rest of them were following suit in retreating and screaming in horror.
Twilight was panting, unsure of what to do. They didn’t have the Elements with them.
The effects around Celestia vanished as quickly as they appeared. “Or maybe it’s just the portal to the human world,” she said casually. She put a hoof to her chin, chuckling gently into it.
It took a few seconds for it to sink in. Twilight was the first to respond. “PRINCESS, THAT WAS NOT FUNNY!” she yelled.
Fluttershy collapsed to the ground in a heap. “Oh, my heart. I think you just shaved a few years off my life.”
Rainbow was putting on a brave face, crossing her hooves as she hovered. “M-maybe YOUR life, but I knew it was a j-joke from the very beginning.” A bead of sweat gave her away, though.
Sunset put a hoof to her rapidly beating heart, panting. “Way… way too soon!”
Rarity looked disapprovingly at Celestia, clutching Spike close to her. “After we almost lost Spikey-Wikey you pull a joke like that?”
Celestia was unperturbed by their reactions. “Well, all of you were looking like I was sending Sunset into the sun or something. It certainly livened up the atmosphere in here, hmm?”
That got her a whole host of dirty looks.
Applejack raised a hoof, saying angrily, “All in favor of going with Sunset’s plan and overthrowin’ Celestia?”
Celestia snickered again as they all agreed almost in unison. She looked out the window for a few seconds into the night sky. “Hmm, yes. It’s nearly that time, isn’t it?”
“Time for WHAT?” Pinkie said, scowling. “Another terribly unfunny prank?”
“Well… I guess that maybe things are still too raw.” In a rare action for her Celestia bowed to the eight of them. “I offer my humblest and sincerest of apologies to you.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “I swear, Princess Celestia, your sense of humor can be really messed up sometimes, like inviting Discord to the Grand Galloping Gala.”
“You ever think of just getting a hobby or two to alleviate your boredom?” Rainbow said flatly.
“Honestly!” said Rarity.
Spike just held tight to Rarity, coming down from the emotional high.
Reluctantly they began to accept her apology. It wasn’t until the last of them did so that she finally rose up from her bow. “Well, now that I got that little bit of fun out of the way it’s time to get down to business. From what I can see there’s only a few minutes left so this really does have to be quick.”
“A few minutes until what?” asked Twilight.
“The deadline, of course. After thinking it over I have decided on the best place and duration of Sunset’s banishment.
“Sunset Shimmer!” she said authoritatively, “I hereby banish you from Equestria for the next thirty moons. You will leave through the portal, and you are not allowed to come back until that time is up. At that time I’ll judge if you’ve learned anything important from your friends, and whether to extend the sentence.”
Looking around at all of them she said, “I’ll trust you’re all in agreement that this is a fair and just punishment?”
It certainly wasn’t what any of them were expecting. They were expecting her to be banished somewhere in Equestria, and certainly somewhere where things would be harder for her.
After a few moments Pinkie said, “So her banishment is… to just go back to what she was doing?”
Celestia nodded. “Sunset Shimmer bears responsibility for her failings in taking something that wasn’t hers and multiple counts of attempted murder, property damage, stealing a priceless artifact, twice, and attempting to conquer the world. However, as soon as she was freed of that influence she gave everything she had to make amends for it. She fought on despite all her injuries, and even the Element of Magic itself recognized the strength of her heart, protecting her life when she tried to sacrifice herself. It was also through her efforts that we ultimately prevailed and put Stardust away for good. I’d say these actions weigh each other out pretty well.
“As I’ve said before the Elements reflect what is in one’s heart, and thus cannot be deceived. Had Sunset been planning another takeover, or been irredeemably evil, her sentence would be much more severe to fit that crime. But seeing as the Element saw fit to recognize her and grant her a little of its aid I must accept Sunset’s intentions as genuine.
“That being the case, her punishment calls for a second chance to do things right. I will grant her another opportunity to prove herself, and I know for a fact that if she does not have good friends close-by that she won’t be able to make the most of this.”
Sunset was lost for words. Her friends! She wasn’t going to lose them, after all. Tears slowly leaked down her face. She bowed in genuine reverence, unable to properly express exactly how grateful she felt. “T-t-thank y-you!” she stammered out, overwhelmed, barely keeping from sobbing in joy.
“Time is short, everyone, so please say your farewells now.”
The seven of them gathered around Sunset, hugging her tightly. She eagerly hugged them back. All her fears had come to nothing. The worst hadn’t happened, either killing someone or being separated from her friends. She had one more glorious opportunity to learn and grow.
When they all released one another Sunset was beaming widely, her eyes still shining with tears. “Oh, thank you, Princess Celestia. I’ll study harder than ever before!”
“Hmm…” Though doubtless a coincidence Twilight had said those exact same words when told she could stay in Ponyville after the defeat of Nightmare Moon. That only gave her hope that Sunset was on her way to becoming the mare she was always meant to be.
“Bye, everyone!” Sunset said brightly, running towards the portal and jumping through it with a giddy laugh. She couldn’t wait to see her friends again.
“And there she goes,” said Pinkie, a content smile on her face. “I’m gonna miss her.”
Twilight looked at Celestia questioningly. “Princess?”
She turned away from the portal. “Yes, Twilight?”
“You were planning to send Sunset back through the portal the whole time, weren’t you?”
Celestia chuckled, a mischievous smile on her face. “Can’t get anything past you, can I, Twilight?”
Rarity frowned. “All of you chewed me out yesterday for drawing out your suffering by not telling you Spike was alive. So I’m sure you also have a good reason for not telling Sunset the truth?”
“Of course,” she replied, becoming a little more serious. “Sunset would not have accepted my judgment had I told her at the start. Even though she was being controlled she was still responsible for a lot of nasty actions. Because of that she sought to be punished in some way. As she said she didn’t want things to just be forgotten simply because she had been unsuccessful in her scheme. Had I told her then I wanted her to return to the human world she wouldn’t have seen it as a consequence, but as a reward for bad behavior.”
She walked towards some of the stained glass windows. “Perhaps it is a bit indulgent not to lock her up, but I finally got to see Sunset accomplish what I wanted her to all along. She made some friends and kept them in her heart. She fought to her utmost for something bigger than herself or her own goals. I’m quite proud of what she has become.” She put a hoof on the window of the six of them defeating Nightmare Moon. “And hopefully she will now follow in your hoofsteps properly. Now that her fears and doubts have been laid bare and dealt with I believe she will grow immeasurably by the time I see her again.”
“Princess…” Fluttershy hesitated. “Well… if you wanted her to excel why didn’t you teach her again? Or leave her to our care? You two finally made up. Aren’t you going to miss her?”
“That’s simple. There is nothing of worth left for me to teach Sunset. Academically, she was on Twilight’s level. The same with learning spells. The last thing left for Sunset to accomplish as a pony is strengthening her heart, and that is best left to her close friends.”
Turning around and walking back towards them she continued, “Of course I’m going to miss her. Although my first vision of my student I haven’t seen in over ten years was her trying to blow me away I got to see her overcome everything to be a hero. But my own desire to be near my former student is not what is best for her. I sent Sunset back through the portal because I believe she should be somewhere without magic for a while. Not because I believe she would be corrupted again if she stayed here, but because I believe she would fear that too greatly to be truly happy.”
Twilight slowly nodded. “She’d probably be afraid of her magic for now, so it feels like the safest option. Sunset won’t grow if she’s consumed by fear.”
“Are you worried, Twilight?” asked Celestia.
Twilight looked over at her mentor, then around at her friends, and shook her head. “I trust my friends here, and I’ve seen that the ones in the human world are just like them. They’ve been taking care of Sunset all this time, and I believe they’ll continue to do so until the next time she returns. So, no, I’m not worried. I trust my friends, no matter what world they’re in. And because I believe in them, I believe that Sunset will overcome her fears and become someone just like me.”
“That would be a joyful thing.” Celestia smiled, putting a hoof on Twilight’s head and gently rubbing it. “If you trust in them, then so do I.”
Twilight walked up to the mirror, putting her hoof on it. The portal between the worlds was closed again, but that was of little concern to her.
“Do your best, Sunset. I believe in you!”