The alleyway was cramped and dim, forcing Sunset, Shining Armor, and the Elements to go single file. It was like the gaps of the cul-de-sac, but this eventually led out into a backstreet between homes. Sunset eyed the house they had left behind, the curtains rustled slightly. The cold was worse than it had been within the home; she could see her breath again. The ground felt like ice, making the snow outside the empire seem like an open refrigerator. Every unsheltered step spiked a new set of hairs to stand up on her neck. She had forgotten the feeling of goosebumps. The winter in the human world was mild and rarely contained snow. This world’s climate seemed to have a mind of its own.
Strands of hair had clumped together, frozen by her sweat. She pushed them out from in front of her eyes as she waited to cross a gap between the crystal homes. They all had to be cautious and mindful of the gaps, wary of any soldiers that might be standing around in the front yards. The roofs of the houses held a small eave, disguising them within the shadows. The backstreet wasn’t as small as the gaps, though they were cluttered with debris and jutted crystals. As she crossed the gap and waited to cross the next her eyes wandered to one of these crystals. It seemed to give a low hum, she noted, staring into the dark purple hue of her reflection. Another gap crossed and she forgot all about it. Nothing seemed more important than finding Pinkie Pie.
The backstreet eventually became an L-curve which Shining Armor led them down. Sunset took a few steps back before this curve to see where the castle lay, eyeing the top tower just above the home’s roof. They were closer than before but an open street now blocked their path. There were many open streets between them and the castle, and the wilted foliage and shrubbery gave no cover for them to hide. Even the protruding dark crystals provided more cover. Shining Armor gave the signal to head across and they followed with quiet care. He crossed with Twilight and then held a hoof up, halting the rest in their place – a set of soldiers were patrolling the street they had crossed. The soldiers passed unaware and Shining Armor gave the go ahead for the rest of them to cross, Sunset leading the caboose.
They were making good time; even closer to the castle than before.
Just as they pushed their way into another backstreet, a green flare shot off. Its magnificent glow radiated down, brightening up the entire east side of the city with shimmering green. Sunset, Shining Armor, and the Elements crowded around the alley, watching and waiting. Just as Shining Armor predicted, soldiers began pouring down the crystal streets heading for the direction of the flare. Sunset held her breath. “As soon as the soldiers pass it’ll become a race to the castle,” he had told them after they had exited the home. Once the final soldiers passed it was the time to throw off their caution, to no longer worry about noise or being seen. Taking the back way as far northwest as they could, they burst out through the gap into the open air of the street.
They headed down the road and straight past remnants of once great shops a thousand years lost. They poured out onto a long stretch of road that led to the castle, but Shining Armor stopped them before they could go any further. Sunset saw his reasoning. Dozens of black helms patrolling amongst the castle grounds. He pushed everyone toward a shop and they crowded against its aquamarine wall. Rainbow Dash glided up to the tip of the shop, straddling the roof for cover. She was quick and nimble, Sunset noticed. That’s no surprise for Rainbow Dash. When she came back down she told of the soldiers’ movements. A battle had been fought just recently and many of Sombra’s soldiers were dragging ponies off to somewhere more northwest than she could see. These soldiers didn’t even seem to care for the flare.
“The reformation camp,” Shining Armor declared after listening to Rainbow Dash. “If the group that attacked the castle failed then that’s where they’re being taken. That’s where many ponies have been taken… That’s where Pinkie Pie might be.”
“We’ll need to check there before we storm the castle. Without Pinkie Pie, we’ll have no chance of winning,” Sunset said. In truth, Sunset had no desire to see the reformation camp. There had already been enough disturbing things she had seen of this world without one more. Whether she saw it or not, she knew it would be gone with Sombra’s defeat, and there was little reason to see more of a world she would not be staying in, aside for the fact that Pinkie might be there.
Shining Armor was hesitant, however, he agreed in the end and they made their way around the circle of shops. Heading northwest, they kept the castle to their left at all times. As they moved Sunset noticed how cold it had gotten the closer they drew to the castle. Most of the vegetation had wilted, which she had seen before, but even the stumps were the only thing left of trees. Upon reaching the last line of shops outside the reformation camp, the found the reasoning for the timber’s removal. “Catapults,” Twilight Sparkle mumbled, putting a vile word to what everyone could see.
The northwest quarter, which previously had been homes and shops, was now replaced with a flat landscape where ponies in chains worked to process minerals. Crystals were cut down and taken to be formed into helmets and armor, while the wood was a fresh idea. The catapults were still being built but looked close to being finished. The ponies that weren’t meant to mine or build were forced to wear the helmets, and then were sent off to battle. Sunset studied the chained ponies, hoping to see a pink mane waiting to be free, but none matched the friend she knew.
“We should head down there,” Applejack suggested. “We could free the ponies, destroy those catchamapults, and draw in more soldiers from the castle.”
Rainbow Dash clopped her hooves together. “Yeah! We could do some major damage to whatever King Sombra has planned!”
“No,” Sunset disagreed. “I don’t see Pinkie Pie down there. Finding her is more important. We’d be putting ourselves at a disadvantage if we went down there. Not only are we already cut off from our escape route, we’d only be making unnecessary commotion. We’d have a better chance if we just head for the castle and fight our way in.”
“The ponies down there could help us in the fight,” argued Twilight. “Not to mention freeing them would help our cause in the long run.”
“Listen, none of it matters as long as we get the Elements of Harmony. We can worry about them later, but right now we have to think of our own cause.” Sunset turned back, heading into the shadows of the alley. She didn’t see the stink-eye Twilight gave or the shrugs from the other Elements. Shining Armor had remained silent.
They doubled back to the end of the alley where Twilight refused to go any further. “How do we even know that Pinkie Pie is in there? We didn’t even get a chance to look thoroughly through the ponies that were taken. Maybe she’s been bucketed? I say we take our chances and try and find her in the reformation camp.”
“I didn’t see her and I’m the only one who knows what she looks like,” Sunset bossed. “If we take on the castle we can remove one of their main bases and allow our troops to move easier. Going back to free those ponies does nothing if they are just recaptured along with us!”
“Oh, you didn’t see her in those two seconds we spent looking out into the camp? What a big shock!” Twilight sarcastically responded. “Well I’m not going to believe she isn’t there just on your word and eyes. I’m going to stop their production, free those ponies, and destroy the catapults! If she’s there, great, if not, at least she won’t be sent there!” She stomped her hooves. “Who’s with me?”
Sunset listened to the murmurs of the other Elements. Twilight wasn’t making sense, couldn’t they see that? They were just seven few against a whole of soldiers, and even that number dwindled with the injured Applejack and the fainthearted Fluttershy. Saving ponies was the right thing to do, but not if it would end in failure. Her eyes shifted to Shining Armor who stared intently at the castle. “What do you think, Shining Armor?” she asked, hoping that he would be the voice of reason to his baby sister.
Instead, he convinced her. “Every inch of me yearns to break into the castle, but as captain of the Royal Guard, I’d say Twilight’s option would be the best decision. The ponies we free could serve as a distraction or help for ransacking the castle, not to mention crippling King Sombra’s ability to convert more into his dark army.”
It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to persuade any of them, she concluded after studying their faces. “Fine. I’ll give it a chance.” She tilted her head back and pushed her shoulders forward. I just have to hope that I missed Pinkie Pie within the crowd.
“Good.” Twilight turned and began to walk back down the alleyway. “It was always Prince Sunburst’s idea to break down the camp ever since we found out about it. I’m going to make him proud,” she declared.
The thought of seeing Sunburst proud left a scarring image in Sunset’s mind. His half-closed eyes always made her think he was sleepy. This world’s Sunburst seemed far more awake and wide-eyed, she’d give him that. I won’t have to deal with it anymore once the Elements of Harmony are reunited. I can go back to my timeline and consider this all one bad nightmare. She breathed a heavy sigh as they walked, the cold chapping her lips.
Crossing the street and creeping down low to the ground, they scouted the reformation camp. While sitting shoulder to shoulder, they looked down on the camp from their slope. Sunset once again eyed over the ponies in helms and those in chains, looking for the familiar pink fur of the Element of Laughter. None of them bore the party pony’s cutie mark nor the accurate shade of pink fur. This is just a waste of time. We’re all going to get caught, she envisioned. Twilight and Shining Armor slid down the short incline and crouched behind a pile of crystal rubble. But I can’t let them get captured. Even if it means making Sunburst happy. She glanced with her peripherals at Rarity and Fluttershy. They need me just as much as I need them.
Sunset was the last to sit atop the slope, watching the soldiers patrol the edges of the camp. Even more were being made every minute. The Elements and Shining Armor made their way towards the chained group of ponies, crouching from one pile of crystals to the next. One of the soldiers was heading towards her – she ducked her head down, allowing the black plume to pass by unaware. But the soldier continued on, heading towards the back end where her friends sat in hiding. Her fear was about to come true. That’s when Sunset formed an idea. A most brilliant idea. Skidding down the slope, she rushed up behind the soldier that hadn’t seen her and bit down on their tail, yanking as hard as she could. The soldier fell on their rump and stumbled to get up. “Over here bucket-head!” she yelled at the top of her lungs as she took off, charging through the center of the camp. She screamed with giddy laughter as the soldier chased her, garnering even more attention from the other soldiers.
Soon the camp was filled with galloping hooves. Soldiers came in all directions to chase after Sunset while she attempted to dodge their best efforts. She had halted the production of more soldiers and the catapults, as anyone with a helmet on barreled after her. With her magic, she lifted the wheels off loaded carts and flooded the ground with the mined crystals inside. Some soldiers fell into these traps while others completely avoided them. She sprinted the entire way to the other side of the camp, attracting more and more soldiers as she went. She couldn’t even count them all – there was no time to look back. The crystal wall that surrounded the empire stood in her path, blocking her escape.
Soldiers came from all three sides as she was forced to press against the towering wall, facing the oncoming enemy. Holding her breath, she counted to ten as they charged at her. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Closer they came, dozens upon dozens of black plumes blowing in the wind. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
The soldiers slammed head first into each other and the wall. As they moved and shifted, pressing their weight down on each other, a honeyed laugh gathered their attention.
Sunset stood on the other side of them, her hoof to her mouth as she continued to laugh at the disorganized pile she had created. Turning her tail to them, she gave a little shake and trotted off. It wasn’t long before some of them stumbled to their hooves and clambered after her. Unfortunately, they were met with a much larger resistance than just Sunset. “Tag, you’re it,” Sunset said as she passed the Elements, Shining Armor, and a few scores of angry ponies who had no longer been chained. Had the soldiers not been removed from their emotions, they would have been quaking in their helmets.
“Great work, Sunset,” Applejack commended, giving the unicorn a tap on the shoulder. “That was mighty clever thinkin’ on your part,” she added after all was said and done. The soldiers had their helmets removed without too much force from those previously enslaved. Those too weak to fight helped in moving the now unconscious ponies around, agreeing to watch over them until they were awake. “Guess Twilight was right in havin’ us come down here. Don’t suppose she was also right about Pinkie Pie, was she?”
Sunset took a hasty glance over her shoulder at the purple unicorn. “No. Pinkie Pie isn’t here.” She looked back at Applejack. “This was a waste of time – but I am glad something good came of it. I haven’t seen so many angry people staring at me since the time I turned into a demon. I’m just glad that their anger wasn’t aimed at me.” She chuckled.
“Haven’t really heard you laugh since Manehattan.” Applejack’s smile sprang to her mouth. “I was gettin’ a little worried, honestly. I-I knew the fightin’ was bad, but I don’t really know what I expected fighting to look like. I was hopin’ you wouldn’t feel the same way.”
Laughter. “We need to find Pinkie Pie,” she reminded Applejack, cutting off the earth pony’s sentiment. “She’ll be at the castle.” Her head swiveled to the other Elements and the group of freed workers. “Alright, we need to take the castle next. We better get moving before one of the patrols gets wind of what has happened here,” she declared.
“That’s right,” Shining Armor announced. “We’ll be storming the castle. Anyone who wants to help is welcome to join us. Otherwise, head southeast towards the broken wall. There’s a rendezvous point in one of the homes.” Many of the ponies huddled up in front of Shining Armor, raising their hooves in salute. Shining Armor turned and nodded to Sunset before taking the braver ponies up the slope.
“Everyone else ready to head off?” she asked the Elements before realizing Twilight was already on the move. The purple unicorn had settled in behind the ponies who were following Shining Armor. “Twilight? Twilight!” Sunset called out and rushed up beside the mare. “Hey, you alright?” she asked as the other Elements followed after.
Twilight eyes flickered with irritation and impatience as she looked sideways at Sunset. “No. I’m not alright. What you did was reckless. It may have ended well, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have gone wrong.” Her tone was deep as she spoke. “I need five minutes to clear my thoughts so I won’t snap at you.” With that, Twilight marched ahead to her brother’s side.
“Geez.” Sunset halted. “What was that about? We went back and helped free the camp, yet she’s still mad at me for some reason?” She stabbed the air in the direction of Twilight.
“It was pretty reckless,” Fluttershy spoke up, hanging her head low as she said it. “Maybe she was worried about you, but she doesn’t know how to say it.”
Sunset stood silent for a moment. Could that be it? I’ve never had to deal with someone like that before. What would Twilight do? Her eyes began to water, causing her to blink rapidly. “I-I suppose,” she said as she began to move. “Should I apologize?” she asked aloud, to Fluttershy and to anyone who would answer.
“Heck no!” Rainbow Dash answered as she swooped down in front of Sunset. “You just helped save all those ponies by buying us time to free them. Let her be mad or worried or whatever. That’s the best thing to happen in this war since we tore down a piece of that crystal wall!”
“That was only a few hours ago…” Rarity chimed in.
Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, not a lot of good things have happened.”
That settled it for Sunset. With a curt nod, she trotted faster than the other ponies that marched on the castle, heading for the front of the pack. Twilight was walking alongside her brother, her face staring at the ground. “Hey,” Sunset spoke first, coming side by side with the purple mare. “I know you wanted to be left alone but I’m not sure why. What’d I do that’s got you upset?”
Twilight sighed, it was obviously exaggerated by her haughty tone. “You almost cost us everything with that little stunt. We were perfectly fine until you decided to become the center of attention. For a moment I thought you were going to break out into song.”
So she wasn’t worried about me. Her stomach felt pained and her heart ached. I thought we were finally getting along. “Well I’m sorry that I felt the need to draw attention away. I’m sorry that I put my safety at risk so that you all could free these captured ponies! How selfish of me!” she rushed and slurred her speech. Her brow had pushed together at some point, straining the bridge of her muzzle. “I thought maybe I’d save the day, but apparently I should have been a big coward like some sort of prince.”
It was obvious the jab had struck its target when Twilight halted in place, her cheeks were burning red and her eyes almost protruded from her skull. “Prince Sunburst is the most loyal, intelligent, and well-mannered stallion I know!” Twilight yelled. “He has spent all his time trying to help the war effort, while you just showed up out of nowhere and have done nothing but undermined him! He is nothing but the opposite of a coward, and I will not sit idly by while you insult him!”
“P-Please, darling, keep your voice down. I’m certain Sunset did not mean any insult,” Rarity pleaded, having appeared almost out of nowhere.
Insult? Sunset realized her mistake made from frustration. “So I guess you think the Friendship Games are silly too?” the human Rainbow Dash’s words echoed in her mind. Her friends were enamored with their school pride, and Crystal Prep tarnished that every year. She hadn’t meant the insult but it was given nonetheless, nor did she understand how important losing had been to them. This Twilight is just as passionate about Sunburst as Twilight is about Princess Celestia back in my world, she recognized.
“R-Right,” she agreed with Rarity, lying. “I mean, Shining Armor is a prince in my world, after all,” she said, attempting to dig out of the hole.
“Are you insulting my brother now, too?” Twilight accused. Shining Armor looked at Sunset with a bit of fetid confusion. He and the other ponies had stopped in the street, the castle in view, all bearing witness to the angered unicorn’s screams.
“No. No! Of course not,” Sunset continued to backpedal with her words.
“Break it up you two, we’ve got an even bigger fight coming our way.” Rainbow Dash pushed between them and pointed to the open street. Two dozen blackened helms had gathered in front of them, blocking their path to the castle. They had heard the commotion caused by Twilight and had come to investigate.
It was colder than before, a chill with no wind. Crystals suddenly shot up from the ground around them and encircled them in two yard high walls. The only part unhindered was the path directly in front of them, toward the soldiers. But as they were forced to stare headlong, the soldiers parted. The ponies around were becoming panicked. It wasn’t the amount of soldiers that struck fear into their hearts – it was the deep, dark, menacing laugh. The evil stallion that this world’s ponies feared more than anything, the king of terror, darkness, and little foal’s nightmares. He stood before them. His mane as black as any helmet, his cloak as red as the tip of his horn, and his grin as smug as any two-bit magician’s.
His reasoning for appearing was unclear. His hoof extended and his soldiers marched, but then he turned his back to them. Just as suddenly as he appeared, he disappeared. The chill dissipated with him.
Rainbow Dash had flown up out of the trap and started to fly after the evil king, but Sunset had called her name, halting the blue pegasus. For a moment, it looked like Rainbow Dash’s desire would supersede her loyalty. But as the freed ponies and Shining Armor charged Sombra’s soldiers, Rainbow Dash helped by flanking the stragglers. “This is your fault, you know!” Twilight had yelled, turning Sunset’s focus away from the fighting. “If Prince Sunburst were here, we wouldn’t be in this mess! We’d have that evil king in chains right now!”
A tightness in her chest caused Sunset to reel back on her hind legs and stomp forward. “I am so sick of hearing about that obnoxious stallion!” Sunset yelled in reply. “When I knew him he was just a simple halfwit who could only levitate objects around! What a gifted stallion! I was levitating objects at half his age and learning counterspells while he was still in diapers!”
The roar of the unchained and Sombra’s soldiers clashing would not overpower their yelling competition. Even Shining Armor’s indistinct orders were no match over Sunset and Twilight’s bickering. “Don’tcha think you two could put this aside for later? They’re kinda gettin’ overwhelmed here!” advised Applejack, pointing with her good hoof at the sea of ponies.
“How dare you!” Twilight shouted, ignoring the earthen mare. “All you can do is levitate objects! You have no more skill than he did, and he was only a colt at the time! Even I’m better than you!” She threw her head back and flung her horn forward, blasting a spell so powerful that it sent four soldiers flying from the crowd.
“I’ve been gone from Equestria for years! This isn’t even my world! You can’t compare me to him. In my Equestria, he’s probably a nobody living in who-cares-where, drawing up useless spells,” argued Sunset.
“That’s right, this isn’t your world!” Twilight said with a face wrinkled in anger. “We don’t want you here! Your original world didn’t even want you, that’s why you fled to a human world, isn’t it!?”
Rarity had said something that Sunset couldn’t hear past her own rage. She tried to come up with a response but failed with “You know what!” Her lips moved faster than her brain, however. “The Tree of Harmony picked me! It picked me to fix this timeline after it was ruined by somepony I’ve never even met! And even if I could fix it, which I’ve been trying to do, I’m not even sure it’d be worth it! This world is absolutely terrible! The only good thing about it is you guys, and I can’t even say for certain that this world will even exist when I'm gone!”
“Except it does exist! Just because this isn’t your timeline or world or whatever, it doesn’t mean that we’re any less real! You even live in a world where your friends are humans. How can you say we don’t exist!?” Twilight said, her voice cracking as if she were on the verge of crying. “I’ve lived my whole life a klutz and a weakling, striving to be as helpful as I can. All the years I’ve been alive, all the memories I have, they were made before you even came to this world!” Twilight’s anger finally broke, tears pouring down her cheek. “We matter! What happens here matters to us! If you were truly our friend, you would have already known that!”
A knot caught Sunset’s throat. She’s right. Ever since I found out what the Tree of Harmony wanted I’ve been so focused on solely bringing the Elements together, thinking that’s all that mattered. She wiped her runny nose as she recalled the things she had said and thought. “It’s not like any of this matters. If I return to the past, would this timeline cease to exist?” she remembered thinking. I didn’t care about Manehattan’s problems. I didn’t believe this world really existed. It shouldn’t exist, but it does. She shifted her vision to the fighting. The soldiers and ponies were back and forth on which side was winning. This is their home, she thought as she turned back to Twilight. This is my friends’ home.
“I-I’m sorry,” Sunset uttered. Her eyes clouded with tears as she stared at her friend. “I-I’ve been so selfish… I thought I was helping by just getting the Elements together. I kept thinking, none of this matters just get the Elements, and I ignored the world around me.” Her head hung low. “This world has the same people I care about in my world, in my Equestria. Yet, even knowing that, I still let myself ignore the happenings of this world. I let myself believe that was what was needed of me, and I didn’t stop to think of what that truly meant.” Sombra’s soldiers seemed to have the upper hoof as they dogpiled Shining Armor. “I was wrong, selfish, and a bad friend. I now know what the Tree of Harmony wanted. It wanted me to help this world get back on track, not just with Sombra, but with the ponies who live here too. I’m sorry. I let you down.”
Twilight’s frown subsided, giving way to a waning smile. She rubbed the tears from her eyes and gave a nod. “You’ve taught me a lot about friendship. I’m glad I could teach you something too,” Twilight said as Sunset held out a hoof. Twilight was hesitant at first, but Sunset pulled her in close, wrapping her in a hug. They stood for a moment before Sunset wiped the tears from her own eyes and pulled apart. “Alright, enough with the waterworks,” Twilight shouted. “Let’s show King Sombra what the magic of friendship can do!”
Turning her focus to the battle, a smile gleamed her face. Sunset’s horn lit up with sparks of magic while Twilight’s did the same. Using their combined magic they ripped through the soldier’s armor, tearing off the brainwashing helmets. The floor became littered with helmetless, unconscious ponies. The ponies that were already freed watched in awe as the soldiers fell around them. Just as quickly as it began, it was finished.
“We did it!” Sunset shouted and elbowed the mare next to her. “I can’t believe it!”
Twilight didn’t respond.
Murmurs and gasps from her friends forced Sunset to instantly turn around. Their eyes were locked on the other unicorn, as were hers once she saw Twilight floating. White light poured from her eye sockets. Sunset knew what it meant, but it wasn’t any less surprising. The white light edged across Twilight’s forehead, up to her horn and around her ears. As the light faded it was replaced by a golden hemmed crown. Nine light blue rhinestones sat beneath the magenta six-pointed star. With the Element of Magic atop her head, the light faded and her eyes opened. The first thing Twilight saw was Sunset staring back at her.
“So that’s what it feels like,” Twilight noted vaguely.
“Like a seatbelt?” Sunset asked.
A quizzical brow arched over Twilight’s right eye. “A what?”
“Never mind.” She wrapped the mare in a hug. “I’m so sorry for being so blind.”
“It’s alright now. We were both being pretty stubborn. Here I was thinking the Elements were just a foal’s tale – guess the jokes on me.” Twilight lifted the crown from her head. “Though it’s pushing my bun down and hurting my head.”
“Here, let me get that,” Sunset said, levitating the beads from Twilight’s hair bun and dropping her bangs down to her forehead. A few strands of hair shifted from one side due to their frizzy nature. “There, now that looks more like the you I know.”
“Twilight!” Shining Armor yelled as he came closer. “You two were amazing! And would you look at that? My baby sister’s an Element of Harmony! I’ve never been more proud.” He wrapped a hoof around her. “You two really put up a wallop! Not since the changeling invasion have I seen such a powerful magical force!”
“It was so inspiring,” Fluttershy added.
Rainbow Dash uppercut the air. “You really let ‘em have it!”
Twilight pushed a hoof to her mouth, hiding her blushing cheeks. “You guys…”
“That was amazing!” Rarity yelled. “I wish I had gotten a crown too,” she whined, her eyes fixed upon the headdress.
“I’d hate to cut the congratulations short, but we’ve got to get everypony inside the castle before that awful King Sombra comes back with more of his soldiers,” Applejack advised.
“The castle…” Shining Armor stared at Applejack, his eyes shook within their sockets. He turned his focus to the entrance of the crystal castle. “Cadance,” he whispered and then galloped toward the closest door.
The ground began to rumble, forcing the stallion and everyone else to stop and look. They all felt it – an earthquake. The sudden tremor seemed to have started out of nowhere. It was then Sunset saw it, on the southern horizon. Crystals pouring up from the ground, heading more and more south before eventually colliding with the crystalline wall. It was Sombra, Sunset knew. What’s he doing? she wondered, but Twilight seemed to realize what had happened. “He’s leaving! He’s heading south, for Princess Celestia’s camp!” Twilight yelled, her voice sounded like it was falling out of her with each word she spoke.
“The southern wall has fallen? Why would he do something like that?” Fluttershy asked.
Rainbow Dash flew up into the sky but came back down as quick as she had gone up. “Soldiers! He’s bringing his entire force back across the city line. And they’re heading here!” She threw her hooves toward the unconscious soldiers around them. “There’s no way we’ll be able to defeat them all, even with the ones we freed!”
“Everypony!” Shining yelled. He had galloped back to the crowd. “Let’s get them into the castle! We’ll bar the door!”
The emancipated ponies rushed to the castle while those who were unicorns lifted the ones knocked out from the fight. When everyone was inside, Shining Armor closed the doors. The Elements helped settle in the comatose soldiers while Sunset assisted Shining with sealing the door. “That should do it,” Shining Armor said. “We’ll deal with them once we get the Crystal Heart and Cadance.”
“I’m not so certain we shouldn’t go after King Sombra,” Twilight said, stubborn with her love for her mentor. “They’ll need our help at Princess Celestia’s campsite.”
“I actually have to disagree.” Sunset stepped forward in-between Twilight and Shining. “If he’s sent a portion of his army after us, he’ll have less to fight Celestia. If we can find the Crystal Heart and activate it, it may save those ponies within his control. We might be doing more good for the base camp by getting the Heart rather than charging in as the cavalry.”
Everyone silenced themselves and looked to each other. The looks they gave to one another were filled with fear, concern, and most of all, determination.
“We’re with you, Sunset,” Twilight said, her lips moved with a smile.
Sunset nodded. The ponies who had been freed stayed behind with the ones who were still asleep. They were meant to guard the door for as long as they could should the enemy break Shining Armor’s magical seal. Sunset led her friends up the only set of stairs within the foyer. Much of the features and décor she recognized. It was almost as if nothing had changed between this world’s castle and her own world’s. There had been no time for Sombra to embellish in a redecorating process. Random patches of sprouting crystals hung from the ceiling and walls. Whether it had been placed there due to fighting or was simply Sombra’s anger relieving itself, Sunset could not tell. The crystals were sharp and reflected the light from her horn, and a faint hum still rang with a low oscillation. It gave the dark castle an eerie feeling.
Stairs and long halls were a common theme for castles of this magnitude, but many of the rooms were sealed off. Crates filled with helmets and armor, broken chairs and tables, and the occasional crystal blasted door told them where they couldn’t go. They climbed the steps as quickly as they could, but the further up they went the darker the rooms became. Shining Armor and Twilight lit their horns as well, adding to Sunset’s. Each hall, every corner, it reminded Sunset of her last and only visit. As they walked, she envisioned herself running. “Sorry it had to be this way, princess,” she remembered saying in a deeper tone.
The humans of Canterlot High School had forgiven her, Princess Twilight Sparkle had forgiven her, but even so, she could not wipe the memory from her mind. Even as her eyes glanced atop this world’s Twilight and her Element of Magic, the memory was only made stronger. It seemed so long ago. This world was proving that she didn’t have all the answers, either. It only made her question what she had truly learned from her human friends. They had forgiven her, befriended her. She even helped in the sirens defeat.
But would she ever truly be forgiven for her lust for power? Or was it simply her own self that could not forgive?
Nothing was said as they ascended the castle. Heavy panting and the galloping hooves were the only noises to be had, until a loud banging echoed against the crystal walls. The trembling sounds snapped Sunset from her depressing reminiscing. “Any idea what that sound could be?” she asked, breaking the lull of conversation.
They soon found the cause of the racketing disturbance. Five of Sombra’s soldiers stood outside the throne room, bashing on the door with a battering ram made of crystal. Before they could plan an ambush, a soldier dropped their section of the ram and turned to face them. The other soldiers were not as quick, and the sole aware soldier was thrust away by Sunset’s magic. Another two were slammed into headfirst by Shining Armor, while the last two were taken care of by Twilight and Rarity – their helmets flying off in different directions.
Rarity then levitated the makeshift battering ram into the air. “It’s a shame they didn’t have magic; something King Sombra really shouldn’t have overlooked,” she noted. “However, I am curious as to what exactly they were after.” With a swift knock against the outside edge of the right door where the hinges were, the door flipped to the side and landed on the ground. “Tada!” She twirled the battering ram in the air before slapping it to the ground and leaning against it.
“Way to go Rarity!” Applejack raised her hoof in front of the unicorn. “Once this war is over, if you need a job I could sure use you down on the farm.”
Rarity reluctantly hoof-bumped the country mare. “I’ll just stick to making clothes, thank you.”
Sunset shook her head, smiling to herself before entering the room. Her horn illuminated away the darkness much more than she expected. She quickly dimmed the light and rubbed her eyes, taking another look. A crystal column sat in the middle of the throne room, mirroring anything that shined against it. But even with its reflected shell, it could not completely hide what was held within its gemstone skin. A pony of pink and magenta sat within the crystal structure, unmoving and unaware. Next to the pony, another crystal was trapped within. Its cyan color did not match up with the outer shell of dark purple.
She came closer, noticing the column was uneven and misshapen. Large chunks of crystal sat around on the floor, torn from the sides of the crystal pillar. Dust was all over the place in the area where the crystals had been cut from. “Hey guys, come check this out,” she said, staring up at the pony in the crystal.
One of the Elements called out, “Sunset, behind you!”
In a split instant of seeing a figure in the reflection of the crystal and the yell from one of her friends, Sunset had been tackled to the ground. The pony struggled to hold Sunset down, pushing her on her back and pressing down on her forelegs. “Y’know, yelling behind you doesn’t really help when they’re literally about to pounce!” Her eyes darted over to the door where another figure stood in the path of her friends. She then tried to raise her head to catch a glimpse of her assailant, but their face was clouded in darkness. She could see that there were no green slats for eyes, however. “Get off me! I’m on your side!” She didn’t give the shrouded pony a moment to respond, lifting them up off with her magic.
As she drew to her hooves, she saw the other pony stand at attention for Shining Armor who saluted in return. “You can put the other one down, Sunset. I think we’ve found who you’re looking for,” Shining Armor claimed.
The pony at the door turned around, her grey fur darkened by the lack of light. “Maud!?” Sunset said, startled. She accidentally released her magic, dropping the other pony on accident. “Oops.” She quickly turned to help the other pony up. Straight pink hair flowed from side to side as Sunset helped the pony to her hooves. “Well, would you look at that. I was right all along, you really were here.”
“Captain Armor, why are you here, and who are these ponies?” Maud asked, her voice remained its monotone vernacular even in this world.
“Looking for you,” answered Sunset. “Well, you.” She bumped the shoulder of the other pony.
The pink haired mare looked at Sunset with a tilted head and squinted eyes and then walked over to stand with Maud. “Why would you be looking for my sister?” Maud asked.
I still haven’t figured out a way to not sound crazy when explaining this, Sunset lamented.
She didn’t get the chance to answer, however, as Twilight Sparkle stepped up to the challenge. “Princess Celestia has seen fit for us to find her. Your sister is one of the Elements of Harmony, she’s needed if we’re ever to have any hope of defeating King Sombra.”
Maud and Pinkie Pie stood blank faced. If shock had been their reaction, no one could tell. Of course, having met Maud before, Sunset knew the emotions of the rock-loving pony would never bleed through to her face. But even then, it was a surprise Pinkie showed no reaction either. “Princess Celestia sent us here. If she required my sister then why would she do that?” Maud replied. Was it accusation in her question, or curiosity?
Sunset simply smirked. “Princess Celestia? Yeah, why would she do that?” she asked in a condescending voice as she leaned against the crystal column. “It’s not like she can always be one step ahead in literally everything, right?” Her eyes looked to the pony inside the crystal. “Or maybe, just maybe, she pushes you to do things that she cannot do herself, hoping that when everyone pulls together, that we can accomplish something great. All the puzzle pieces just seem to fit together after that.”
“That was very well-spoken of you, Sunset,” Twilight complimented, a tear in her eye. She walked up to the crystal pillar with Shining Armor, her reflection staring back at her. “Everything is in place, whether Princess Celestia had meant to or not. I’m really glad you convinced me of all this, Sunset. Without you, none of this would be possible.”
“As much as I’d love to take all the credit, I couldn’t have done it alone. We’ve still got a lot to get done. Plus, if you say any more kind words it’s likely to go to my head." Sunset snickered. "Let’s get out of the way of these two, shall we?” Sunset stepped away from the crystal and raised a hoof in the air, aiming for Pinkie Pie or Maud to hoof-bump her. Pinkie Pie and Maud walked past her and she was left hanging. “Okay…” she whispered to herself, dejectedly lowering her hoof.
Everyone crowded around to watch the earth ponies go to town on the crystal, chipping away at the shiny pillar. They worked both sides of the prison, though the first to plop out was the Crystal Heart. It slid down with pebbles of crystal, skipping against the floor and sliding into a wall. “I’ve got it!” Rainbow Dash yelled, darting over to where it landed. Pinkie and Maud then began to work the same side, busting out the back legs of the princess and working their way from there. Shining Armor was breathing more heavily than the two workers, obviously anxious for his beloved to be released.
A chord was finally struck deep within the crystal, resonating it enough to shatter all the way through. Maud lifted out the comatose princess before the column collapsed, placing her in the forelegs of her fiancé. “Thank you, so much,” he said to them, holding the catatonic princess against his chest. “There was no way I could have done any of this without all of you.”
“Hey, we’ve all got to help support each other in this world. Isn’t that right, Twilight?” Sunset asked the purple unicorn, giving a wink.
Twilight pushed a hoof to her mouth and giggled. “We’ve got all the Element bearers, the Crystal Heart, and Princess Cadance. I’d be lying if I said I’m not surprised we got this far. What exactly is our next objective? Get Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie their Elements or figure out where to place the Crystal Heart?”
“Th… The bottom,” a voice called out, frail and soft in its words.
Everyone looked around the room, searching for the source of the voice. “Cadance!?” Shining Armor shouted. It had been the weakened princess, too hapless to open her eyes to speak.
“My prince… The Heart… The bottom of…”
Taking one of her forelegs, Shining Armor hoisted her onto his back, carrying her like a foal. “The Crystal Heart it is. Outside, bottom of the castle. That’s where we need to take the Heart. We passed right by it on our way in.” Without waiting, he turned and rushed out the door.
“You heard the captain. Everybody march!” Rainbow Dash ordered, tossing the heart to Twilight. She tore after Shining with Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rarity hot on her tail.
“I suppose that means us too,” Sunset said, smiling at Twilight. “What about you, Pinkie?” She trotted over to the pink mare and her sister. “Will you come with us? You’re an Element of Harmony, the Element of Laughter. We really need your help.”
Pinkie didn’t answer. Her sullen mouth kept its frown and her dogged eyes spoke more than she did. “My sister doesn’t talk much,” Maud answered for her.
“That’s a bit odd for the Element of Laughter,” Sunset noted.
“Is it?” asked Maud, her voice unchanged.
“The Pinkie I know is loud, obnoxious, and extremely friendly.” Sunset’s lips curled into a frown. “I suppose that’s just another difference in this world compared to my own.” Her eyes drifted up to the manes of the two. The backside of Maud’s neck was trimmed into a mohawk, while Pinkie’s was a bit the same, though much longer in the front. It was a bit odd to see the party pony without her eccentric poufy hair. These hairstyles are a bit off-putting. I wonder what the Rarity of my world would say if I came back with a haircut like theirs.
“I don’t understand,” Maud replied. “But we’ll help, for now.”
“Come on then. We’ll talk more about the Elements of Harmony after we get the Crystal Heart in place,” Twilight said.
Sunset trotted up next to Twilight and turned her head back to the two. “You guys ready to rock Sombra’s world?”
“Your pun is duly noted,” Maud said as she passed by them.
They made their way through the castle, crossing halls and taking stairs. Sunset could feel it in her heart, the end was nigh. She wasn’t ready to be parting from these six. Not after everything she had done to help and everything she had been taught. Pinkie had been found, it was only a matter of time before her Element would be obtained along with Rainbow Dash’s.
But all of this was done by her own hooves. She had found the Elements, she had crossed the world, and she had braved the horrors of a mindless army. Even through her failures, her inability to take in the world around her, she was able to help. She felt proud.
In the human world, it had taken all her efforts just to discover the reasoning behind the weird magic taking place at her school, and even then it wasn’t quite clear. Nothing’s been making sense recently. The words ‘time’ and ‘help’ burned in her brain, and she knew she could feel pride in what she had done. Her eyes peeked at the purple unicorn trotting next to her, the image of Midnight Sparkle floating beside her. She couldn’t help but laugh.
“What’s so funny?” asked Twilight.
“I don’t know!” she answered. “I just feel giddy all of a sudden.”
“I feel it too.” Twilight looked forward to Maud and Pinkie. She then began to run faster, forcing Sunset to speed up as well.
The four sputtered into the entrance of the castle where the others stood around, staring at the door. The liberated ponies were pressing against it, while others waited for it to burst. Shining Armor had already given Princess Cadance to Fluttershy and Rarity to hold. “We’re here. What’s the plan?” Sunset asked as she looked around the room. The unconscious ponies had awoken and prepared themselves to fight, some even wearing the army given to them while under Sombra’s control.
“We’re going to open the door. Me and the rest of the guards will flood out and push the enemy back, allowing you two time to place the heart,” answered Shining Armor. “We only get one chance at this.”
“I’m ready for another fight,” Rainbow Dash said, slamming her hooves together.
“If we only have one chance then we’ll make it count! We’re all in this together.” Sunset then turned to Rainbow Dash. “You hearing this, loyalty? Together!” She raised a hoof into the air which Dash promptly bumped with her own hoof.
Twilight shook her head. “I have my own fears, Sunset, but you’ve convinced me at least. I’m ready whenever you all are.” She raised the Crystal Heart and gave an anxious smile.
“That’s the spirit!” Sunset replied. “Well, sort of.”
“Shining… Be careful,” Cadance said, her limp body desperately hanging onto Rarity and Fluttershy.
He gave a nod, though his face didn’t show any signs of worry. Side for Cadance, none of them looked concerned. Even the unshackled ponies seemed undeterred by the imminent danger. “Ready,” Sunset said, and the other ponies repeated.
The door was blown up by a blast from Shining Armor’s horn.
The first wave of black helms was pushed back by some of the freed ponies, which allowed Shining Armor to bowl through the crowd with his barrier surrounding him. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Maud were out the door with the rest of the ponies, pushing back any soldier that stood beneath the castle. Applejack guarded by the door, watching and waiting for the area to be clear. “Go now!” she yelled once the middle was safe. Sunset threw herself out the door. The soldiers were almost limitless compared to her own allies. She waved a hoof and Twilight followed out, racing through the open zone to the middle of the ground.
At the very center point of the castle sat a crystal point the size of a pin. It was broken down by all the fighting or perhaps had been smashed by King Sombra himself. Regardless, Sunset threw her back to it while Twilight placed the Crystal Heart. Sunset guarded against soldiers that began to break the line, levitating them to the ceiling before they could get close enough. With the Heart in the meager space, the crystal began to reform, pressing towards the Heart. Twilight stepped back, allowing the Heart to spin in place.
The light from the Heart flickered as it sped up, twirling faster and faster. Sunset looked back at Twilight who had put a hoof to her face, blinded by the emanating glow. More soldiers pressing through had forced her focus away. Even so, she could tell that the light suddenly darkened. “What’s happened!?” she yelled to Twilight, drawing another four soldiers to the ceiling as she repeated the question.
The Crystal Heart had come to a complete stop. “It… It’s not working!” Twilight cried out, causing Sunset to turn back to the pedestal. “What should we do!?”
She couldn’t believe her eyes. The Heart stayed motionless and cold. The plan has failed. She couldn’t even see Shining Armor, Rainbow Dash, or the Pie sisters anymore. They were lost to the crowd of blackened armor. “I don’t know,” she replied, her voice as quiet as Fluttershy in a crowd. I don’t know…