The Worst of All Possible Worlds

by TheTimeSword


Arc 1: Chapter 1

The school’s halls petered out students, many rushing to get to their lockers and grab their things. Echoes of shoes squeaking against the vinyl floors were overshadowed by the chatter amongst the schoolmates. The voices died down as quickly as they had come, their excitement for the day’s end pushing them to the exits. But not all were eager to leave just yet. One such girl of ketchup and mustard colored hair was more than happy to linger behind, insisting on spending as much time as possible with her new friend. “Thanks for the tour today,” Twilight Sparkle said as she pushed her purple bangs back, her books firmly in the other hand.

The girl with ketchup and mustard hair smiled and turned, slumping against a green metal locker. “Hey, I’m just glad they allowed you to transfer here,” she replied. “I’m also glad they put your locker right next to mine.” She twisted the knob on the lock, dialing in her combination.

Twilight Sparkle pushed her glasses further up the bridge of her nose and attempted to fiddle with her own locker. The combination lock popped up and she pulled the frigid metal door open, placing the books she held on top of other, larger books. She grabbed her backpack from the hook in the back and closed the door. Her eyes wandered over to the talkative girl who had suddenly become very quiet. She peered over her shoulder, past the slightly curly locks of yellow and red, eyeing the pen that was striking the pages with a light touch of ink. The girl must have felt the eyes on her as she twirled to face Twilight.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” Twilight immediately apologized.

“Don’t worry about it. Just finishing up a little message to a friend of mine. Gotta let her know everything turned out alright.” She slapped the book closed and placed it into the small pocket on her backpack. Pulling the bag over her shoulder, she shut the door of the metal locker and turned back to Twilight. “All done!”

As they walked, Twilight couldn’t help but let the curiosity get to her. “When you said message to a friend and let her know, what did you mean by that?”

A few strands of mustard colored hair fell forward as the girl halted in her tracks. “Right!” she suddenly shouted. “I suppose I better tell you about the other you from the world I come from. Same reason people keep getting you mixed up with someone else.”

Twilight pushed her glasses back into place. “R-Right, the pony world. There’s another me there? And you know her?”

“It’s kind of a long story. She’s the one that taught me the value of friendship. The journal I have actually allows me to communicate with her, but she hasn’t been answering for a while. I just wanted to give her a little update. We kind of called on her help during the games.”

“Two of me.” Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “Could you imagine two of me running around at the same time? That’d be insanity.”

“Hey, she’d be useful when it comes time for homework.” Pushing the door open, the condiment hair colored girl held it open for Twilight. The sun was low in the orange sky, casting shadows that dimmed everything in the courtyard, especially the marble statue that sat in the middle. A group of five lingered around that very statue, chatting with each other as they waited. “Hey, there are the girls!”

Twilight paced down the Canterlot High steps and turned back as she reached the bottom. “Aren’t you coming, Sunset?” she asked the girl with ketchup and mustard hair.

Sunset Shimmer was busily waving to the five friends she had come to cherish before turning her attention to the purple haired girl with glasses. “I’m just going to hang out here for a little while,” she answered. “I’ll see you tomorrow!” Her newest friend gave a nod before turning and leaving, waving her goodbye. “Don’t forget,” Sunset yelled, “Picnic tomorrow in front of the statue!”

“I won’t!” the girl with glasses yelled back before meeting up with those five other friends.

Sunset watched from the top of the steps as her friends disappeared around the corner of the high school. A slight breeze fell into the courtyard as she sat down, kicking her legs out onto the steps beneath her. She leaned to one side and pulled off the backpack, scraping it against the concrete as she placed it beside her. It slumped forward, weighed down by the journal that peeked out from the smallest pocket. Her eyes wandered down the spine of the brown book, skimming over the golden bindings that were etched symmetrically. Reaching down, Sunset pulled it into her lap and smiled down at the red and yellow sun that was plastered on the front of the journal.

Her smile stayed as she flipped through the first few pages, soaking in every memory, triumph, or plea that had been carved in her delicate handwriting. As she skimmed over each page, a sudden gust caused the pages to ruffle, shifting it all the way to the final pages of the journal. She pushed her hair from her face and looked down, noticing how packed in the paper had become. She quickly turned back a few pages, noting that each had been filled to the brim with questions and responses between her and the pony princess. She gave a quiet sigh and asked herself, “How’d it get so full so fast?” Her eyes must have been quicker than her brain as she found herself staring at the statue that sat in the courtyard.

As she sat, chewing her bottom lip and squinting her eyes, a brilliant idea formed in her head. An idea so brilliant that her face lit up with a gleeful grin once she thought of it. “Just a short, simple pop in. Say hello, grab a replacement, and then head home for dinner. That wouldn’t be so bad, right?” she talked to herself, boosting her own confidence with every word she uttered. It didn’t matter what she said though, her mind was already set. She shoved the journal back into the nylon backpack, zipping it up tight before she stood. Her reflection grew as she jogged up to the backside of the statue. Gently stroking a finger against the marble caused a rippling effect as if it were made of water, her reflection bending with each wave.

She sucked in air through her nose and released it through her mouth. Her heart pumped faster with every second she hesitated. Reaching out, she pushed both hands against the watery marble and felt her whole body follow suit. Her physique ached, twisted, and contorted, a feeling she hadn’t forgotten since the last time she had traveled through the portal.

When her eyes opened she was met by strands of red and yellow hair blocking her vision. She pushed them aside with her hoof, getting a good view of the blue crystalline room she stood in. “Wow. So this is the castle she got,” she thought aloud. Her eyes wandered around the shelves of books that cluttered the room. “Not bad. Not bad at all.” With her backpack still on her back, she pushed open the room’s sole door and stepped out into a brightly lit hall. It was a long hallway with more doors than she wanted to count. She wouldn’t have to, however.

A gasp rang out, followed by a voice. “Hey! You’re Sunset Shimmer!”

Sunset’s head swiveled to look into the eyes of the familiar pink pony. “And you’re most definitely Pinkie Pie.”

The pink haired, pink furred pony stood bipedal, pushing a cart with a frosted, three-layered chocolate cake. “It’s a pleasure to meetcha!” greeted Pinkie. Another gasp followed as she hollered, “I’m going to have to bake another welcoming cake!”

Another welcoming cake? Who’s this one for?” Sunset asked, pointing to the pink frosting.

“Twilight and Spike! They should have gotten home today from their trip to Canterlot,” she answered. “They’re in for a double surprise now that you’re here!”

Sunset placed a hoof to her mouth as she giggled. “Where is Twilight anyway?” As she finished her question, the sounds of heavy gusts and thunder echoed down the corridor. “What was that!?”

Pinkie raised her shoulders in a shrug before pushing the cart down the hall. Sunset kept a few paces back, listening intently on every creak, squeak, and clop made within the hall. A draft had come and gone as they walked, but was soon followed by a yelling of words. Sunset could only tell the last few syllables. “Don’t touch that!” The words felt confusing without context, but the context was soon there as the bellowing winds and echoes rattled the hall once more. In an instant, just like before, it was gone.

Pushing open the doors with the cart, Pinkie rolled into a brightly lit room. The pink party pony gave another shrug before biting down and taking a chunk out of the cake. Sunset rushed in behind her, giving a glance over the room, and asking, “No, seriously, what was that?”

After swallowing the contents in her mouth, Pinkie turned her chocolate covered face to Sunset. “Probably a time traveling portal opening up and pulling somepony into the past,” she answered before grabbing hold of the cart. “I’mma go bake another cake!” she added and began wheeling the cart backward.

Sunset shook her head, giving a smile as the doors closed. “Never change, Pinkie. Never change.” Her attention turned to the room she was now standing in, a circular table that sat directly in the center. Doors covered in crystals loomed around the outside. A set of chairs sat around the table, each chair marked with a different cutie mark. She curiously trotted over to the blank table, her eyebrows narrowed as she examined it in great depth. “I wonder if this is the table with the map she had told me about,” she murmured as she rose up, placing both forelegs onto the crystal.

Her hooves touching the flat surface triggered the map to appear, displaying all of Equestria within its circular border. A twinge of delight appeared as a smile, her eyes glittering against the world she had once lived in. But it wasn’t the only thing that had been trigged by the unicorn. Without warning, strong gusts of wind began pulling the mare up, causing her to shriek in fear. Her eyes shot up at the open portal, lightning shooting from its edges. The sounds of ticking echoed within her eardrums. Her body levitated from the ground as she struggled to reach out and grab hold of the table. The portal was too strong, however, and pulled the unicorn into itself before disappearing completely.

Though her body didn’t ache, or twist, or even contort, it still didn’t feel like a joyous run through the park. Instead, it felt more like a run through the park on a day with one hundred and seven degrees fahrenheit heat, even though the weatherman had said it would be in the seventies with a gentle breeze. Sweat poured from her brow as she peeled through the unknown. She closed her eyes in fear. Inside the tumbling dimension, a voice rang out, a voice of an unfamiliar. “You are about to find out,” that strange voice said, an eerie tone accompanying the ominous words.

As quickly as it began, the magical ride ended by spitting the amber furred unicorn onto a patch of rough grass. Her jaw skidded against the dirt as she moaned, spinning her eyes uncontrollably. The gusts hadn’t stopped, however, catching her attention. Just as she arrived, the purple furred alicorn left, departing back through the portal. “Twilight!” Sunset yelled, spitting out grass, dirt, and saliva. The bellowing wind must have been too much, the alicorn didn’t seem to acknowledge Sunset’s presence before the portal closed.

The unicorn clambered up to the map, staring up at where the portal had been. Her eyes shifted between the busted chairs, damaged table, and cloudless sky. Sky, the word repeated in her mind. Like a mouse trap being triggered, it clicked within her brain. “Where’s the castle?” her voice quivered as she asked. Broken bits of crystal from the chairs crunched beneath her hooves as she rose up, leaning bipedal on the edge of the table. Just like before, the map triggered, but this time it was different. The Crystal Empire extended farther south, beyond the normal lengths it had been moments ago.

As her eyes studied the new surroundings, six lights began to form over certain areas, followed by a brighter seventh light. These lights faded and altered, turning into six very familiar patterns, but the seventh revealed itself to be a tree. “Cutie marks!” she uttered as she examined the colorful lights. One was in Ponyville, a set of three apples. Two were in the east, in Manehattan, a set of diamonds and a set of butterflies. And three were in the north, close to The Crystal Empire. These last three held a set of balloons, a cloud with rainbow lightning, and one of a purple star.

It wasn’t the cutie marks that confused her but the white tree to the south of Ponyville. It seemed to glow brighter than the cutie marks and was oddly out of place compared to everything that surrounded it. It sat surrounded by forest, near bits of stone that rose up between the trees like some sort of castle. A sign? A message, perhaps?

Whatever had happened to her seemed to have an adverse effect on Twilight and the castle, or perhaps it was the reverse. Sunset took a step back from the table, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath through her nose. She could feel the odor of copper stinging her nostrils and burning her nose hairs. Centering herself, she opened her eyes. She felt good – for a moment.

Then the screaming came.

Then the pleading for answers came.

Sunset finally managed to center herself once more, this time focusing on the world that seemed to betray her understanding of what Equestria had become. “Oh-kay. Castle is gone, weird crystals shooting up from The Crystal Empire, and my friend’s cutie marks are strung about almost randomly. There’s got to be something here to help me discern what happened to me.” She pulled a hoof across the table and tapped the apples. “From Canterlot, this is Ponyville. Twilight’s castle is in Ponyville, so assuming the map remained in the same place while the castle vanished, it’s safe to assume I’m in Ponyville.” The closest cutie mark was right outside of town, the set of three apples. She knew exactly who that would be, or at the very least, she hoped she knew.

Her eyes shifted as she squinted down at the town. Without many options, she trotted toward the horizon, hoping to find the apple pony and gain some answers.

What she found instead was a deserted town that time had slowly demolished. It was clear she’d be lucky to find any pony. Wooden buildings with cracks and boarded up windows, tiles missing from roofs, and the ground bare of any grass. It wasn’t like the tales told through short descriptions within the journal from Twilight. “Roads of smiling faces eager to greet you,” she remembered. Her muzzle wrinkled as she became more and more disgruntled, eyeing every ugly building with a leer of confusion. “This has to be one elaborate prank. It just has to be.”

As she crossed over into the orchard, Sunset noticed the dreadful looking apple trees that seemed to mirror the state of Ponyville. The apples themselves looked to be pleasant enough, but the smoky air emitted over the orchard made everything unappetizing. She had assumed Sweet Apple Acres would be filled with lush green trees, fields of grass and flowers, and barns a shade of red that would make an apple jealous. Instead, the main barn was one big factory that spewed out product and smoke like how rain spewed from clouds.

One thing had remained the same, however. An apple never falls far from the tree, and the same goes for the Apple family. The orange earth pony hadn’t yet noticed Sunset’s arrival, but Sunset noticed her and the cafeteria worker outfit she wore. The golden mane Applejack had was tucked underneath a netted cap, while expressionless, dark beige clothes wrapped around her as if they were suffocating the happiness from her body. “Applejack?” she called out, unsure if it truly was the Element of Honesty.

The green eyes raised from her task to match Sunset’s. “Why does everyone seem to know my name today?” the orange mare asked aloud, obviously disgruntled by some past event.

“Hey there, I’m Sunset Shimmer. You probably don’t remember me too much but I’m the one that stole Twilight’s crown that one time.” Sunset extended a hoof, hoping for a pleasant greeting. “It’s kind of weird meeting you, again.”

An eyebrow raised on the earth pony’s face as she stared back. “Twilight? You mean that crazy mare that just passed through here a lil’ while ago? Check on the outskirts of town. There’s some weird map thing that she apparently brought in from another world or whatever.”

Sunset’s ignored hoof planted on the ground as she slumped forward, pressing her face closer to the earth pony. “Crazy mare? Weird map thing? You’re surely pulling my leg,” she nervously laughed.” “Don’t you go on adventures following the map’s destinations? And Twilight! She’s your friend! R-Right?”

“Yeah, she mentioned somethin’ about friendship, but apparently she’s from some other world where we aren’t at war with King Sombra. She must’ve been livin’ under a rock… or telling the truth. I don’t rightly know, or care.” Applejack turned away from Sunset and began walking towards the barn, but Sunset followed behind.

“King Sombra? War? But Sombra’s gone. Th-The Crystal E-Empire-”

“Gone?” Applejack halted and swiftly turned back to Sunset, her eyes as wide as wagon wheels. “Are you from that there other time too? Do I have to be worried ‘bout a hundred other ponies askin’ me these questions? I’ve got a lot of important work to do, I don’t need a queue formin’ and interruptin’ my schedule. Just because y’all ain’t got a war goin’ on doesn’t mean we can just stop what we’re doin’ for your sake.”

The words spoken by Applejack seemed to resonate within Sunset, giving her an understanding that it wasn’t a prank she was dealing with but something more. “You’ve got to help me! Do you know how Twilight left? What else did she say!?” Sunset threw her questions at the mare, thrusting her face closer to Applejack’s with every sentence.

Before answering, Applejack pushed the unicorn away from her personal space. “Why don’t you just go ask her yourself? I’m sure she’s still by the table.”

“No! She disappeared into the same type of portal I was brought through just as I arrived. I’ve got no way of contacting her or finding out how to leave,” Sunset replied as she ran a hoof through her hair. “Did she tell you at all why she was here?”

“Well, she did mention about some pony going into the past and changin’ things with that map of hers. I think she said Starlight Glammer? Glimmer? Somethin’ like that.” Applejack shrugged, and asked, “Another friend of yours? Or ours? Or whatever…”

“Not a name I’ve heard. Did she say anything about why your cutie mark shows up on the map?”

“My cutie mark? No. My cutie mark wasn’t on it when she dragged me up there to look at it. I was really surprised to see such a thing. The way she talked, I just assumed she lived under a rock or somethin’.”

“What about a white tree?”

“White tree?” Applejack snorted. “Now you really got me thinkin’ you hit your head. I ain’t ever seen a tree of white in this here part of Equestria. Except whenever it snows.”

“It’s true!” Sunset argued, stomping a hoof on the hard, barren dirt. “C’mon, I’ll show you!”

Applejack groaned and lowered her head. “Fine, just don’t drag me by the hooves like that last crazy unicorn.”

The grimy air and castle’s disappearance was beginning to make a lot of sense. It wasn’t a prank, not in the ordinary sense, and definitely not meant for Sunset. Perhaps the cutie marks and tree that had lit up on the map would give some sort of semblance or rationale to all the events. Unfortunately, the cutie marks and strange white tree had disappeared. “It was here, I swear it!” Sunset argued, trying to convince herself more than Applejack. “You were right there, and Twilight’s cutie mark was there!” She stretched her hoof out, pointing at the areas before placing both on the table.

As soon as her hooves touched the crystal surface, lights formed and shined before displaying the six cutie marks and the white tree she had described. “Well I’ll be a dragon’s fairy godmother! You were tellin’ the truth, that is my mark. And that’s definitely the cutie mark your friend Twilight had, though how she got up north so fast is beyond me. She must’ve been one powerful alicorn.”

“Twilight, my friend, she left through a portal. I saw her leave with my own two eyes! No, this must belong to this world’s Twilight.” She shook her head. “Another Twilight, just like the one from Crystal Prep,” she murmured before pointing to the south. “And what about this tree? This has to mean something!”

“I don’t really know what to tell you,” replied Applejack as she scratched a bit underneath her cap. “But whatever it means, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. I’ve gotta get back, those carts won’t load themselves.”

“Wait!” Sunset moved in front of the Apple. “You’ve had to have lived in these parts your whole life, right? You’ve surely been down into this forested area. Could you lead me to this tree? It’s been a long, long while since I lived in Equestria, and even longer since I visited anywhere south of Canterlot,” Sunset begged, almost groveling at Applejack’s hooves.

“You want me to guide you down into the Everfree Forest? If you hadn’t shown me my cutie mark, I’d surely be thinkin’ you’re a few eggs short of a full basket right about now. Even so, there ain’t no way you’re gettin’ me to go down there. That place is filled with some of Equestria’s worst creatures, even some o’ which would keep King Sombra himself up at night just thinkin’ about them.”

“Applejack, please. You’re part of this, I just know it. Maybe it has something to do with you being an Element of Harmony, maybe not, but we won’t know unless you take us there. It might be my only way home. Please.” If everything she’s said is true, I’ve got to figure out a way home. The tree has to be it, she assumed. I need you Applejack. Not just for your help, but because you’re a friend. Her eyes continued to beg the earth pony for help.

Applejack paused a few steps from the table and Sunset. She didn’t move or say anything for a good long bit. When she finally did, she asked, “Element of Harmony? What’s that?” That’s when Sunset saw it, the glimmer of curiosity within those big green eyes.

“Twilight didn’t tell you while she was here? You, her, and the other four are all Elements of Harmony – you’re the Element of Honesty. Nopony is more honest than you!” Sunset pushed, hoping to intrigue the earth pony just enough.

“Honesty?” repeated Applejack, “Honesty…” She looked to the ground, then the table, then back to Sunset. “That crazy alicorn-”

“-Twilight.”

“Yeah, Twilight. She said we defeated King Sombra in y’all’s timeline. Is that there part of them Element whatevers?”

Sunset nodded. “If you can take me to that white tree then I believe I can prove to you you’re the Element of Honesty. I just know it. Perhaps it might even reveal a few answers as to why I’m even here, or it could get me home.”

“Listen, I’ll help you find this here tree, but if nothin’ seems to come of it, can you promise to leave me alone afterward? The farms hard enough to maintain without all these interruptions.”

“If this tree has nothing to do with you or me, I promise you’ll never have to speak to me again,” Sunset lied. Regardless if she didn’t talk to this Applejack again, she wouldn’t stop herself from talking to her own Applejack. “However, if I’m right, we might be able to save your world and get me home.” Especially get me home…

Applejack smiled, the first time Sunset had seen her do so. “Smack two apple trees with one buck, I like the way you think, err… Sunset, was it?”

“That’s right, Sunset Shimmer,” she replied, extending her hoof again, this time Applejack welcomed the friendly shake.

They didn’t stand around long before heading off to the Everfree Forest. Applejack recalled the area where the tree on the map sat, detailing the Castle of the Two Sisters which sat relatively close by. As they traveled to the edge of the forest and into the overgrown woods, Applejack told the story of how her sister, Apple Bloom, once traversed the treacherous landscape all the way to the old castle. “It was all because of a truth or dare game played by some of her school friends,” she explained. “They were lookin’ for some monster or somethin’, instead she found the castle. I found her snoozin’ on the old throne that sat there, covered in dust and spiders. I was so worried, but exhausted too. Wound up snoozin’ along with her.”

As Applejack retold her sister’s adventure, the story reminded Sunset of a similar event Twilight had described within the journal. She made a mental note to check the journal once they had a moment to stop, then continued to listen as Applejack told stories she hadn’t heard. “Whoa. I’m going to have to tell my Applejack these stories once I get back to my own timeline,” Sunset remarked once Applejack concluded her tales. “She’ll get a kick out of it. Though I imagine I’ll have to explain a little bit more about the pony mannerisms first.”

“So, you don’t really live in this world in your own timeline? That’s why you introduced yourself thinking I was, well, actually, now I’m gettin’ confused again.”

Sunset giggled and gave a nod. “That’s right. I live in an alternate universe, a human world, which can only be gotten to through a magic mirror. That means two Applejacks. Now, if I can figure out how I got here, there might be three. Just think of all the farm work you’d get done with three of you.”

“To be honest, if I hadn’t seen my cutie mark on the map, I’d have you run out of Ponyville for how crazy that sounds. I mean, could you imagine three of me? That’d be a stubborn bunch, I tell you what.”

Sunset gave another nod, and said, “What irks me is how it all changed. If my Twilight told you that another pony went into the past and changed something, shouldn’t I have been changed with it? Multiverse theory might have been proven with this timeline, but I don’t know how Twilight pulled something like this off. It explains why she hasn’t been answering my journal’s call, though.”

“Yeah, I’m not exactly keen on bein’ a science project for you,” Applejack hastened to say as she pushed a fern leaf out of the way. “So if you could fix it and then not do it again, I’d be mighty thankful.”

I’d hate to try and explain the theory to her, Sunset mused. Applejack isn’t exactly in the honor roll at CHS. As she became lost in thought, she was suddenly pulled back by her tail and slammed to her rump. “Hey! Watch it!” she hollered, throwing a stink eye over her shoulder.

“I was watchin’, you weren’t,” Applejack attested, pointing in front of Sunset.

Sunset turned her head back around and then shifted her weight away from the empty ravine that she had almost tumbled into. “S-See? This is why I needed a guide,” she said as she clung to the earth pony.

Quick to regain her composure, Sunset leaned over the edge of the ravine and peered down. Whatever river had run its course through the Everfree Forest had long been depleted. The overgrowth that sprung up on its sides had remained unchanged regardless, leaving little visibility for any pony traipsing through the lush jungle. Applejack called out and pointed to the far side, the Castle of the Two Sisters barely seemed visible beneath the canopy of tree limbs and leaves. A bridge that had once been used to traverse the olden river had become decrepit and hung flat against the sides of the gorge.

“I don’t see high nor low of some white tree, and I don’t think we’re crossing here,” Applejack commented as she peered down the empty crevice. “Might be a farce.”

The earth pony was ignored. Sunset had caught a glimpse of the faint glow that struck a chord – her eyes wouldn’t drift from it, nor would her ears hear the loudest of horns. Her heart raced as she snapped off, trotting down the cliff side along a rickety, rocky path. Applejack was hot on her tail, calling her name every few seconds, but still, Sunset did not listen. Gravely sand brushed against her hooves as she made her way across the bottom of the ravine, pouring herself towards the glow that grew from a cave. The cave itself wasn’t something that could be seen from any angle from above. The sight startled the earth pony into being quiet. Sunset knew, however, that what was inside didn’t want to be seen by anypony else.

It might have had no desire to be seen by Sunset, but perhaps it realized that she would be its only option if it did not act. Whatever the cause, the Tree of Harmony glowed bright white. The bluish crystals that made up the tree only seemed like a reflection against the shimmers of pure white. As Sunset stepped forward, Applejack at her side, the Tree of Harmony finished its cry for help. The incandescent light faded and reduced to a small light at five branches. Sunset had seen the design somewhere, she knew the white tree on the map looked oddly familiar.

She tossed the backpack to the ground, pulling open the zipper and levitating the journal from the nylon bag. “You really weren’t lying,” Applejack murmured. Sunset looked up from the book for a moment, turning the pages at the same time. She didn’t answer Applejack, there was no need. Her eyes strained to search through the pages, but eventually, it was found. A rather shoddy drawing done by the Princess Twilight Sparkle of her world. “You weren’t lying. You were telling the truth,” Applejack repeated. After finding the image and the title of the tree, Sunset looked up with glee, but her mouth fell agape as Applejack drew close to the tree. “The honest truth.”

That horribly bright light returned, not from the tree, but from Applejack. Her eyes glowed white and she was levitated a yard off the ground, being held by magic coming from the Tree of Harmony. Wind flooded the cave, throwing the pages of Sunset’s journal and shaking the crystal branches. The white light suddenly twisted and formed around Applejack’s neck. And then it was gone. In its place, a gold hemmed necklace with a brilliantly carved apple of orange hanging in the center. Applejack floated to the ground like a delicate feather, her hairnet fell from all the excitement, brandishing her blonde mane against the radiance of the golden necklace.

“Applejack!” Sunset rushed beside the earth pony, staring at her magnificent glow. “Are you okay? How’d you get the Element? What just happened!?”

Applejack wasn’t just looking vibrant, it was obvious to Sunset that she felt it too. “I-I’m not entirely sure, but, once I realized you weren’t lyin’ about everythin’… it just sort of clicked.”

“Clicked?” repeated Sunset, perplexed. “What like… like a seatbelt?”

“A seat-what?”

Sunset tapped the amulet, and said, “Never mind that. I find it odd that the tree granted you this. It doesn’t look like the Elements are in this tree in the first place, though.” Her eyes glazed over as she studied all the branches of the great crystal tree. “Where did it get the Element in the first place?” she asked aloud as she went back to the journal.

“I’m not rightly sure, but I think maybe the tree knew me, maybe because of some time travellin’ thingamabob caused by you and that Twilight Sparkle. Could’ve been because I touched the map that it recognized me as a bearer.”

“I don’t think it’s any of those things,” Sunset replied, lifting the page that held the sloppy drawing of the tree into Applejack’s view. “This whole passage is of you – err – the other you, placing all six Elements of Harmony back into the tree. Not taking it. This tree,” she said, pointing up. “This Tree of Harmony doesn’t have the Elements. I think that means it’s giving them up freely, perhaps just by having you stand in front of it.”

“So, you think that because I stood in front of a tree, which doesn’t have the Elements, it decided to give me my Element anyway?”

“Uh huh,” replied Sunset.

“And havin’ realized that you were tellin’ the truth a few seconds prior to gainin’ this fancy necklace, regardless of being in front of an Element lackin’ Tree of Harmony, has nothing to do with it?”

Sunset attempted to grab for the collar of her shirt that wasn’t really there. “Well, when you put it like that, I suppose it might make more sense.” A single brow raised on Applejack’s face. “Okay, okay. You make a lot of sense. I suppose that means…” A hesitant pause came as a bit of movement caught her eye. At first, it looked like the darkness of the cave playing tricks against the light, but it couldn’t be when it happened twice in a row.

The branches had moved.

Not some, not all, but just enough to spell the word ‘help’ and ‘time’.

“Y’know, I might be biased because it may or may not have given me a pretty neat necklace, but I think you should do what the magical tree says,” encouraged Applejack, pleasingly.

Scouring the journal for any more information, Sunset looked up at the Tree of Harmony. “I suppose the tree is connected to the map, which would explain why the map is still here.” She unknowingly chewed on her bottom lip, trying to discern whatever the map could be telling her. “I suppose, if it meant returning the Elements to each of the six bearers, then that might be helping.” Her eyes met the earth pony’s. “And if your theory is correct, then just getting them to see their own Element might be the key to what we need to do to unlock their necklaces.”

“And then we could defeat King Sombra! Get you home too!” Applejack stomped her hooves like a giddy filly. “Who are these other Elements, anyway?” she asked.

“I’ll name them with their Element. Twilight Sparkle, of course, is the Element of Magic. Rainbow Dash is the Element of Loyalty, Rarity is the Element of Generosity, Fluttershy is the Element of Kindness, and finally, Pinkie Pie is the Element of Laughter. Huh. Wonder if that last one will give us any trouble?”

“And I, of course, am honesty. But, what are you?”

“Me?” Sunset pointed to herself, unsure of the question. “I’m not an Element.”

“Oh.” Applejack’s tone was a bit accusing as if to say that Sunset would be a perfect seventh Element. Or, at least, that’s what Sunset assumed.

Placing the journal back within her bag, Sunset zipped it closed and hoisted it onto her back. “I guess this means we’ll be heading off to find the others. It may not be fair, but you’re needed for this. I know that you had duties to fulfill and all, but-”

“Ah,” Applejack interrupted with a gentle voice and wave of her hoof. “You don’t need to convince me to help. A magical necklace is more than enough proof for my country eyes. Even if this was all some elaborate prank, I don’t think anypony would be callous enough to waste their time, what with all the war efforts goin’ on. And, well, it’s been a long time since I’ve had somepony tell me I’m needed for something bigger than cannin’ apples.” She smiled with a certain wistfulness, which Sunset noted and nodded.

Sunset could feel her chest swell with pride. It was an odd sort of feeling since she was already friends with an Applejack, but this one was different. Applejack didn’t know her, she didn’t know the awful thing she had done or her redemption within Canterlot High School. It was almost a fresh start for her and this new pony. Would it be that way for the others? For Twilight? Perhaps, even her old teacher? Would that old teacher still know her?

The words ‘help’ and ‘time’ lingered in her thoughts as they traveled back up the cliff and through the forest. Twilight had told this Applejack of a pony who messed with time, and it would make sense that the Tree of Harmony would want to correct that. She could help fix this timeline, but how would that get her home? After Sombra was defeated? After the Elements of Harmony were returned to the bearers? To the tree, maybe? The cloud of questions weighed her down, though she didn’t want Applejack to see her anxious fears.

“So, do you need to tell your family before we head off? I’ve got to consult the map and mark down where the others are at before we blindly tread into unknown waters,” Sunset explained with idle chitchat.

“I suppose that would be the right thing to do,” Applejack answered as they reached the edge of the Everfree Forest. “It won’t take me long. Catch you at the map, friend?”

“Alright,” Sunset giggled. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

Hastily, Sunset jogged back to the map. She knew Applejack wouldn’t take long, and she needed more than just the locations of the other Elements. Upon reaching the map, she tossed her backpack to the ground and ruffled through the contents, yanking out a pen and paper with her magic. Her eyes darted between the map and the paper as she drew the outline of Equestria. Every crystal column, city, and river that was between them and the Crystal Empire. As she finished the rough sketch, Applejack called out to her. She didn’t look up from her drawing, a simple wave was all she did to acknowledge the mare.

“That’s some talent you’ve got there,” Applejack noted as she peered over Sunset’s shoulder.

“I used to make star maps when I was a filly. Later on, I did a map of Canterlot. Some things you never forget how to do,” she replied as she scribbled down the point for each cutie mark. The map was a bit off compared to the one on the table, but there was little she could do using a regular ink pen on school paper. It wasn’t meant to be highly detailed anyway, Sunset knew. Though from Applejack’s face she could tell it wasn’t a very good drawing. It’s been a while since I’ve used magic to write or draw. I already miss my hands. What a disaster this has become, all for a replacement journal…

“I figure we could head for Manehattan first. I know Rarity, she used to live here in Ponyville. Grabbing her and-” Applejack pointed at the butterflies “-whoever this is, we can then take a boat up to here.” A small town sat to the east of some crystals but seemed to be a route to somewhere else along with The Crystal Empire itself. “From that there trail we could head for the other three.”

Sunset nodded. “I figured that was the plan. I don’t suppose we’d be lucky enough to have a train heading up that way, would we?” she asked, lifting her head from her map to look at the earth pony. She hadn’t noticed that Applejack had removed her work clothes or her mane’s ponytail. The blonde hair flowed prettily around the gold necklace, and a brown knapsack sat on her back.

“Already way ahead of you. Got us two tickets,” Applejack gloated, holding up the pair in glorious triumph.

Folding the paper in half and then another half, Sunset shoved her drawn map into her backpack along with the pen. “Then we’re all set.”

It wasn’t a long wait for the train to arrive at the Ponyville station. They only had to wait half an hour or so, which Sunset calculated was better than taking the bus on the interstate whenever Rarity wanted to go to the mall. And no worse than heading out to human Applejack’s farm. Of course, neither were ever as crowded as these train cars seemed to be. Ponies of all shapes and sizes and ages filled each car, all headed somewhere, but most likely their reasoning was the same. To help with the war effort. The green cushions on top of benches were only slightly more comfortable than that of the bus’s seats, however.

Being around ponies again was just as jarring as the altered timeline, Sunset felt. Lockers, lunch, school reports, gym class. The human world seemed so comforting now, she had forgotten all about her time studying under Celestia. “Without Sombra, what became of The Crystal Empire in your timeline?” Applejack asked, snapping Sunset from her thoughtful stupor.

“Oh, uh, well, it became an ordinary city. I couldn’t really tell you much of what happened after I left to live in the human world though,” Sunset answered to the best of her abilities.

“So, why’d you leave?”

Sunset took a deep breath, her eyes widened and then softened as she contemplated a way to shorten her story. “I used to be a student under Princess Celestia. I got mad over time, felt I wasn’t learning. Then, one day, I discovered something she had been keeping hidden. A mirror to another world. I just started living there, I took control. I felt… powerful.” Her eyes looked around the car, staring at each of the ponies that sat with their own worries and thoughts. “Things didn’t end on good terms with Princess Celestia. I’ve never gotten the chance to apologize to her for the way I acted.”

“Well, shoot. Celestia’s leadin’ the war effort. You’ve got time.” Applejack bumped her shoulder into Sunset’s and snorted.

Sunset grimaced, her brow pulled together at the very notion. “I hope we don’t run into her. I can’t imagine it not being an awkward reunion.” The image of Celestia flashed in her mind’s eye. Of course, she might not even know who I am if this timeline has changed that much, she alleged. It would be better that way.