The Heart hung in place, still as water in the dead of night. The dim light it emitted was barely enough to make a shadow on the purple unicorn, let alone shine against her face. Sunset stood a yard behind her, staring at the failed artifact they had put all their faith into. A brittle voice soon spoke to her, trying to get her attention, but only causing a chill to run down her spine. What am I supposed to do? Her tears clouded her eyes, blinding her to the hundreds of dark black plumes that flooded like a vast, broken ocean. The Heart was becoming hard to see as more tears fell, and so was the purple unicorn.
The voice called out again as if it were from a distance. It called out once more, this time cutting across her thoughts like scissors through paper. Several soldiers were breaking the line, and several others were falling from her grasp. She turned around faster than her eyes could keep up, ignoring the sea of black plumes. Princess Cadance stood on all fours, no longer kept up by Rarity and Fluttershy. The nostrils of her muzzle were flaring sharply. She couldn’t hear what this princess was saying, too deaf to the world around her, but she heard the tone. The deep, guttural tone this princess held sounded so close to that what she remembered Princess Celestia sounded like whenever she was angered.
Sunset’s eyes turned back to the soldiers that were now rising to their hooves. That deep voice, that fierce lilt. It commanded her. A surge of adrenaline brought all her magic back. She lifted the soldiers to the ceiling once more along with any that had charged forth. She would not break twice; she was determined to hold the line. Even as Twilight Sparkle laid on the ground, covering her head with her hooves, Sunset refused to move. She watched as Princess Cadance stepped past, her knees weak as she walked. Every step she took seemed like an eternity, and an eternity Sunset felt she could hold. The princess didn’t even stop to check on the cowering unicorn, her focus was too narrow for anything other than the Crystal Heart. Her fiancé, the Pie sisters, the liberated ponies. All the fighting that was surrounding the castle didn’t matter to the princess. She was as determined as Sunset.
It was then that a light so iridescent arose from the Crystal Heart, brought forth by Cadance’s magic. It did not come from her horn, however, but her own heart. Sunset heaved a sigh as she let go of the soldiers, dropping them to the ground. The light pierced their armor, snapping the helmets from their heads. But these freed soldiers were not knocked unconscious. That’s when Sunset noticed the aura emitting from the Crystal Heart, a small bubble that surrounded the underside of the castle. “This is your city, your home! This is your very heart! Use what you love to save this city, just as I have used my love to save you!” the princess barked.
The soldiers dropped their heads, bowing to Princess Cadance and the Heart. Whether they were crystal ponies or taken members from Celestia’s guard, their love filled the Crystal Heart with joy. Sunset thought of her own friends, in this world, in the one she came from, and her own human friends who she deeply missed. All the love that came from everyone made the Crystal Heart begin to spin once more, but this time it did not stop. Instead, it spun and spun until the wave increased inside and released from beyond the underside of the castle, stretching out and purifying everything within its magical blast. The soldiers that had fought Shining Armor, Pinkie Pie, and Maud, had their helms tossed off by the aura.
Each pony that was hit with the magical love began to shine with crystal energy, turning them half-transparent. The wave did not stop however, breaking against any pony under King Sombra’s control and releasing them from his evil grasp. As it reached the edges of The Crystal Empire it was forced to stop, hindered by the large crystal obelisks that were the city’s walls. So instead, the city became a dome of light, piercing the clouds above and returning the starry sky. Though outside the city was still desolate, the inside was free and pure.
“You did it!” Twilight claimed, her eyes fixed upon Princess Cadance.
“We did,” the princess corrected.
Helmets flew into the air around the castle, thrown by the cheering ponies who had been burdened into wearing them. No one was more happy than Shining Armor, however, which was obvious when he wrapped his forelegs around his beloved like a vice grip, his eyes full of tears. Sunset had never seen a stallion cry before, at least not where she hadn’t been the cause. But everyone seemed to have some sort of happy emotion, side for the two Pie sisters. The uproar of happiness rang against the crystal of the city, trembling the very ground they stood on.
“You think we caught King Sombra in that blast? What’ll it have done to him if it had?” was the first thing Applejack asked as the Elements crowded around the Crystal Heart.
The energy of the Heart slanted against the crystal walls of the city, it was still trapped like they were. Sunset wondered if the breaks in the wall were leaking out magic from the Heart, or if it was able to prevent any of Sombra’s army from reentering the city. Regardless, Sombra’s desire to have his troops retreat to defend the castle had backfired, and most of his strength removed. But surely he had not stayed within the empire to help. “The walls are still up,” Maud had said and Sunset understood what that meant immediately. They had saved the city and those within the walls, however, the walls shouldn’t exist at all if Sombra had been caught. The spiked crystals of dark purple and burgundy that were strung up the sides of the castle had disintegrated with the blast, leaving nothing of the evil king’s magic besides the dark helms and cold armor, and of course the obelisk walls.
“I’m not sure the blast would have done much good even if he had been caught in it. He’s no longer shadows, his body’s reformed. At most, it may have weakened him by preventing his use of magic,” Princess Cadance described. “We must find him immediately. He cannot be allowed to regroup and plan a counter.”
“He’s gone to the camp,” Twilight replied. “If he was outside the walls then he wouldn’t want to be attacked by the flank. His only option would be to charge Princess Celestia in the middle of the night.” Twilight turned to Sunset. “We have to go after him, we have to save the camp.”
“How will you defeat King Sombra?” Maud asked.
“With the Elements of Harmony, of course,” answered Twilight, confidently.
“The Elements that we don’t have a complete set of…” Sunset reminded her. “We’ve got a second to breathe. We should re-”
A hollow, raspy voice rang out, cutting Sunset off. A grey stallion without his helm was rushing up from the road that led to where Sombra had breached his wall. As the stallion drew closer it was clear he had been running the entire way, sweat pouring from his face and glistening like the crystal he galloped on. He panted so fast that Sunset thought he was going to hyperventilate before he could even speak. After he took a moment, the grey stallion spoke with short words. “Soldiers. Preventing entrance. Sombra attacked camp. Crystals surrounded. No reinforcements.”
Shining Armor stepped in front of the guard. “At ease. Just tell us what happened, slowly.”
“Right,” the stallion said, taking a deep breath. The back of his hoof was just as stained with sweat as his flushed cheeks and wrinkled brow. “King Sombra attacked the camp, surrounded it with crystals. It’s a dome, an evil dome, opposite of the empire. And his soldiers are preventing anyone from coming close to either his dome or ours. The Wonderbolts managed to defend long enough so that I could get this message to you.”
“Where is King Sombra now?” asked Shining Armor.
“Disappeared. Not long after he sealed the camp. We believe he’s inside, hiding amongst our troops and Princess Celestia, but we have no way of getting a message to her or anyone inside. It’s just a guess though, Princess Celestia would have burst that crystal bubble of his if he wasn’t inside.”
“That might be true if the camp is not in a sealed crystal,” Princess Cadance countered with her own experience. “If it is truly like a dome I would assume she’d have no trouble taking it down. If they are encased, however, it would not be so easily done, even for her.”
“We do not know King Sombra’s power. Princess Celestia has only dueled him slightly, never taking more than parting shots, and neither has found each other’s limit,” added Twilight.
Sunset rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Then why don’t we just go and find-”
Cut off once more, a loud thundering and cracking interrupted Sunset mid-sentence. The ground below shook and rumbled, throwing off the balance of some ponies and sending others into walls. In the distance, beyond the great barrier made by the Crystal Heart, the obelisks rose higher than ever. They clung to the edge of the Heart’s barrier, never spreading past, only rising against it like moss on a stone. The two openings that had been made, one by Sombra and the other by Pinkie Pie and Maud, also rose with the rest of the wall, but remained shorter than the others. The crystals did not cover the whole of the barrier, stopping halfway to the top.
“He’s going to trap us all in the hopes of weakening our lines of defense. He’s desperate,” Shining Armor said. “And he’s trying to make us desperate.”
“He didn’t do a very good job,” Rainbow Dash replied, hovering in the air. “A pegasus can just transport ponies in or out.”
“Even Sombra grows weary,” argued Sunset. “He’s still just a pony. He’ll probably attempt to finish the enclosure soon. We should head out and find him. Even if we don’t have all the Elements, if he’s weakened we may not need them.” She looked around at her fellow friends, noting the lack of a certain Element. Maud and Pinkie were making their way back through the crowd, but Sunset levitated them up and reeled them back like hooked fish. “Where do you two think you’re going?”
“We’re going to make a path through the wall,” Maud answered while Pinkie struggled within the magical grasp. “Then we’re going to do the same to the camp’s wall.”
Sunset settled the two mares back on the ground. “It would take hours to take down one of those tall pillars.”
“Yes,” was all Maud answered.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” Princess Cadance intervened. “If you tear down a piece of that giant crystal, it may tear a hole in the barrier or crush somepony. That might be what King Sombra wants.” She stared down at the grey-furred earth pony. “Though if you’re bent on leaving, I may know of another way. A way King Sombra used.”
Maud remained blank-faced even as she answered, “Making a hole is easier.”
“The Elements should stick together, Maud. Perhaps we could take Pinkie with us?” Sunset asked.
Pinkie’s expression soured as she frowned, looking to Maud and shaking her head. “My sister doesn’t want to be apart from me,” Maud said, understanding the pink pony’s mute refusal.
She doesn’t stray from Maud. She doesn’t talk. What in the world happened to Pinkie Pie? Sunset’s eyes dragged to Rainbow Dash and the chunk of metal that sat on her back, grimacing at the thoughts that poured into her mind. “Then I must command you both to come with us,” Sunset said, turning back to Maud. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll plead and beg. We need Pinkie Pie, and that means we need you.”
Maud stood silent for a long while. “Begging would be funny,” she finally spoke, “but not needed.” Pinkie leaned her face close to Maud, her expression confused. “We’ll come with you,” Maud answered much to Pinkie’s shock and refusal. “It will be fun.” Pinkie perked up at the word fun, eventually giving in to her sister’s want.
“If everything is settled, I may have a better way to get you out of the city.” Princess Cadance beckoned for Sunset and the others to follow. “It may help in finding how King Sombra moved quickly with his army.” She gave a passing nuzzle to her fiancé, leading Sunset, the Elements, and Maud back into the castle. They went up the steps, down the halls, back to where they had freed the princess. They passed by doors that no longer held the crystals Sombra had conjured, nor did the hum ring in Sunset’s ears. Even the crystal rubble that trapped Princess Cadance had now become pebbles and dust.
Princess Cadance halted in front of a rug that sprawled towards the fragmented prison. “I witnessed a few times the hidden secret within this room,” the princess said. The rug flew up as if a gust of wind had taken it, flinging itself towards the pile of pebbles. A hatch of metal and wood revealed itself beneath where the rug had laid. Princess Cadance drew it up and open, exposing stairs that led down into an abyss. “I must return to Shining Armor and help the ponies of The Crystal Empire. There is a darkness down here that you must overcome. Go now, help free Princess Celestia.” She gritted her teeth, hesitantly, and then said, “Defeat King Sombra for me.”
Twilight and the others bowed while Sunset simply smiled, turning her head back to the unbridled darkness. Sunset didn’t like the look of it. The chill vanished once they had placed the Crystal Heart, but Sunset could feel the frost fluttering against her muzzle, coming from this rampant dark. She took the first step into the depths, taking a glance at her surroundings. The crystal stairs were a clockwise spiral leading down into seemingly nothingness; it was too far and too dark to see the bottom. Each step caused her to tense, feeling the frost rub against the soles of her hooves. It didn’t get any easier the deeper she went. She forced herself to stop looking back at her friends, as each time she did she felt envious of Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy and their wings.
“How about we tell some jokes?” Sunset inquired. The journey down the stairs would be long, that much she could feel. It would be best if we try to get Pinkie and Dash’s Elements before charging headlong into battle.
“That might be a good way to get Pinkie’s Element,” Twilight replied. “Right?”
Sunset nodded. Gaining Pinkie’s Element wasn’t her only reason, however, as the darkness left everyone a bit skittish. Even Rainbow Dash refused to go any further down into the pit without them with her. Though it was dark below, each step was visible even without a light spell. It was like the darkness was pushed down by their very presence. That worried Sunset. “I’ll go first. How did the skeleton know it was going to rain?” She paused for dramatic effect. “She could feel it in her bones!” As she cackled to herself, she looked back to see the reactions of Pinkie and Maud. The two sisters remained unfazed, but the groans and eye rolls from the rest of the Elements distracted her. “Guess I’m the only one with a funny bone...” she muttered.
Sunset’s poor attempt at humor did not dissuade the rest from trying, but nothing made the pink pony laugh or crack a smile. It didn’t help that every time someone laughed the sound echoed against the circular walls, resonating a menacing screech like a raven’s caw.
Sunset forced a smile to her lips at every joke. Some of them were particularly funny, but not all. Though they didn’t succeed in making Pinkie Pie laugh, it did help in passing the time. Once the bottom became visible, Rainbow Dash glided down to the floor while the others trotted as quickly as they could to catch her. It wasn’t dark, not like it had appeared from above. A light spell was still not needed to see on the ground floor, which caused murmurs of curious fear. “It feels like we traveled a lot further down than the foyer of the castle,” Rarity remarked as she stared up at the entrance they had come from. Her breath could be seen with every word she spoke.
“I don’t like the look or feel of this place,” Sunset whispered, a chill running down her spine and buzzing in her ear. There was a single door that sat to the left of the stairs. It was the sole thing in a room that felt smaller than it appeared. Everyone filtered out at the bottom, looking around and finding nothing. Only the single door. Sunset trotted closer to it, examining the purple wood and golden knob and the crystallized frame that held it. For some reason her lip and chin trembled, forcing her to bite down to stop their shaking. It didn’t help.
Everything spoke to her at once, telling her not to open the door. Little whispers in her ear begging her not to look at what was inside. I have no choice, she told herself, knowing they needed a way out of The Crystal Empire. She reached up with her hoof to touch the knob, but then thought better of it. Instead, she grabbed the knob with her magic and twisted, pulling it open. A light blinded her for a moment before she reopened her eyes.
She came face to face with a ghastly sight. It was a reflection. A reflection from the statue in Canterlot High School’s courtyard, and a reflection of herself. It frightened her even though she knew it was herself, but it looked nothing like her. She touched her cheek, brushing against the crimson skin, and stared into the black eyes. Her hair stood like a beehive atop her head. A demon, she mouthed, still wearing the darkened Element of Magic atop her head.
A cackling laugh broke Sunset from her reflection, causing her to turn around. The high school was in ruins, the world around her was shattering and tearing into Equestria. She rose to her feet, staring up at another demon. “Midnight… Sparkle?” she said, almost a whisper. Purple wings fluttered from above, landing in front of her. It was definitely the Twilight Sparkle of the human world turned demon, Sunset would never forget the face.
“Join me, Sunset Shimmer,” the monstrous alter ego said, extending her hand. “We shall destroy everything, together!”
“No!” Sunset Shimmer pushed away. “I would never do that!”
“Oh, but don’t you see?” Midnight Sparkle raised her hands above her head. “You already have!”
Canterlot High School fell to the ground in rubble followed by the rest of the world. Cracks in the air split open, tearing apart the fabric of reality and ripping it asunder. The worst part of all was the sounds, every tear in the air echoed like ripping paper. The statue that she pressed against crumbled around her, disappearing into dust and blown away by a gale of wind. Nothing was left aside for a dusty plain and Midnight’s terrible laugh.
She threw her hands in front of her face, covering her eyes with all her might. When the sounds of wind and laughter subsided, she pulled away and found that she was staring at hooves instead of hands. She slammed the purple door closed with a resonating boom, breathing a sigh of relief to be rid of that nightmare. I beat Midnight Sparkle with the power of friendship, just as I was beaten by the power of friendship. Neither demon will ever return.
Cries from her friends made her realize she had not been the only one to see something horrible. A split second of sorrow remained on Maud and Pinkie Pie’s faces, while Rainbow Dash held her ears. “Everyone, it’s okay!” Sunset yelled, attempting to get everyone’s attention. “It was just more of Sombra’s lies, attempting to dissuade us. A trap! None of it was real!”
“It was awful, just awful!” Fluttershy cried, holding her tail against her chest like a foal.
“W-What did you see, Sunset?” Applejack asked. She didn’t even look up from the ground as she spoke, covering her eyes with a hoof.
Sunset gritted her teeth. “I saw…” She hesitated, taking a moment to pause. “I saw a triumph,” she finally answered, making sure no tears remained in her eyes. “The dark magic attempted to make me relive my greatest failure, but instead it showed me my greatest achievement. I once won someone over with the magic of friendship, helping them turn away from something horrible that they were about to do. Just as it had been for me. That’s a triumph, that’s a victory.”
She didn’t have to force a smile, it was already there. “This was clearly a trap meant to stop anyone from going any further. Sombra doesn’t want any of us to succeed, and that proves Princess Cadance was right. There’s got to be another secret around here that allowed Sombra to leave the city unnoticed.” She turned back to the door, the purple in the wood had darkened to almost black, and the knob had changed to a circular handle. Open it once, shame on me, open it twice, you must think I’m a newborn foal. She shook her head and looked around the room, commanding everyone to do the same.
Her words seemed to do the trick as everyone’s fears subsided. Maud and Pinkie tapped the wall and listened to the crystal while Twilight and Rarity attempted what magic they could. “There’s gotta be somethin’ we’re missin’. Somethin’ that can’t be seen by the naked eye,” Applejack said, pressing her ear to the ground.
Licking her lips and tasting the salt from her own tears, Sunset felt her lips were chapped. The cold brushed against her nose as she stepped to one side of the room, but eased as she drew closer to the staircase. As she placed one hoof on the bottom step she realized the hum was back as well as the cold. The hum was easier to follow compared to the chill. It was faint, but she could barely hear it underneath the staircase. She knew she was on the right trail when the little hairs on her neck stood up. “Everyone, stop moving,” she commanded. With everyone silent, she listened hard and listened long.
It was underneath the stairs. Squatting, she flopped over to lay on her side and then rolled onto her back, dangling her hooves against the wall. “Uh, what are you doing?” Rainbow Dash asked, but was hushed instantly. Sunset stared up at the underside of the staircase, looking and listening for something specific.
“I may not have paid much attention to learning about the world around me,” she hastened to say as she extended her hoof. A single, small, plum colored crystal protruded from one of the bottoms of the stairs. Pushing on it, the crystal folded to one side. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice the little things. Like the noise Sombra’s crystals made.” Pressing the crystal flat, a sudden rumble shot out and a section of the wall moved apart.
Sunset tumbled back to her hooves and stood up, the others crowded around the door that had mysteriously appeared. “Someone close their eyes just in case it’s another trap,” Twilight ordered. Fluttershy was the first and only volunteer.
It was a much larger door than the other, the height and width was big enough for Princess Celestia to walk through unhindered. Twilight levitated the handle up and pulled, dragging the hefty door open. Frozen winds poured into the room, blowing around everyone’s hair and dragging snow onto the floor. Once it was fully open, Sunset knew they had found what they were looking for.
They weren’t connected to the castle of The Crystal Empire anymore. Frozen rocks, snow, icicles, and darkness. It was a cold cave. This was the route Sombra used to sneak troops into the battlefield, though it wasn’t large enough to walk more than three ponies at shoulder length. “I can’t believe it! Sunset, you’re a genius!” Twilight claimed as she lit her horn. “We’ve got to find out where this leads. Maybe we’ll run into King Sombra on the way?”
“I hope so. He’s got a lot to answer for,” Rainbow Dash said, clapping her hooves together.
Sunset smiled with a certain wistfulness. While everyone trotted into the dank cave, she stared back at the door that had haunted them. For a second, she thought it moved, and that worried her enough to push after her friends. Casting a spell, she lit the caboose and felt the snow crunching under her hooves. “We can’t be too far underground, right?” she wondered aloud, staring at the ice covered stones that made up the walls.
“Snow shouldn’t be here,” Maud answered. “This is mostly a dolomite and marble tunnel, yet icicles are hanging from above like a glacial cave. There should be stalagmites and stalactites instead unless the exit is right ahead.”
The stout tunnel eventually filtered out into an open cavern. Ice covered the stones and snow dropped down from a crack above. To the left sat a frozen waterfall, which fed into the iced over river that ran the length of the cave. Wherever it led it did not matter, as it was iced over as well. On the opposite side sat another tunnel that had a fatter opening than the one they entered from. “That’s the sky!” Rainbow Dash shouted, gliding up to the crack in the ceiling. It was a long crack, but not wide. Try as she might, Rainbow Dash couldn’t even reach her hoof through the opening.
“You were right, Maud. This isn’t a glacial cave,” Twilight commended as she stepped down the slope into the heart of the cavern.
“I know. I know a lot about rocks,” Maud replied, following behind with her sister in tow.
“At least we’re close to the surface. Surely that means Sombra could have led parts of his army through here. There’s another cave across the ice.” Sunset trotted down the slope and took one look at the frozen water, deciding it was more of a creek than a river. “Let’s see where that tunnel goes. It could be our way out,” she said, taking a jump over the ice and landing without ever touching the frozen water.
As Sunset trotted up the opposite slope she heard Rainbow Dash say, “You can fly, Fluttershy!” When she looked back, most of the ponies had already crossed the frozen gap aside from Fluttershy and Applejack.
“Oh, right,” Fluttershy said in a shaky voice. She flapped her wings and crossed the gap, giving a sigh of relief once she reached the other side.
“That-a-girl!” Applejack shouted before she too jumped the gap. When she landed she was careful not to put her weight on her bad hoof.
“You made that seem like it was nothing, Applejack!” Fluttershy gawped.
“That’s because it was nothing,” Rainbow Dash snorted, throwing her hooves in the air.
Sunset remained silent, simply shaking her head in response. I wonder if Princess Twilight ever had any trouble like this.
Twilight ushered them into the next tunnel, the width was must larger but eventually tightened, forcing them to walk single file. What little snow it had was turned to a slosh of mud and slush. Drops of water hitting stone echoed louder the deeper they went. A chilly wind seemed to suck them towards their destination as if to beckon them. But then it turned against them, slashing at their faces like tiny wind whips. They pushed ahead, making their way through the strong breeze only to find the reason behind its fierceness.
Another cavern, larger than the one before, except this cavern did not have a frozen river in the middle. This cavern held a crevice large enough to swallow a battalion of soldiers whole and still be hungry for more. The ravine sat the same way the river had, with their slope digging down and rising on the opposite side. Except the slush of snow had formed a thin layer of ice atop the slopes, like how sleet forms from cold rain. They had discovered the smoothness when Rarity had stepped forward and started to skid down towards the hungry crevice. She was saved by Rainbow Dash, who had to fight strong gales just to reach her in time.
The gap continued its blasts of wind, striking and pushing them backward. “I’m not so certain King Sombra brought his troops this way,” Twilight said. “There’s no way he could get across this gap with an army, nor can we.”
“Darling, I’d hate to point out the obvious, but don’t you think he just used one of his crystals to bar the gap?” Rarity stated, her breath was still short from her almost traumatic fall.
“That’s right,” Fluttershy agreed. “It’s a shame he didn’t leave it up. Perhaps we should head back?”
This has to be the way, I just know it. Determined, Sunset glared at the other tunnel on the opposite side of the cavern. “I’ll levitate everyone across,” she declared. “Then you can levitate me across, Twilight.”
Twilight grabbed onto Sunset’s shoulders, giving a small shake. “Are you insane!? That strong wind will tear through your spell in an instant!”
“It won’t,” Sunset said, smiling reassuringly at the purple mare. “I’ll send you across one at a time.”
“Let me scope out the other side first,” Rainbow Dash said, and without waiting for a reply she burst off across the cavern. Even with all her flying experience, the strong gusts sent her up higher than she anticipated, knocking her back to the slope with her friends. “Okay, I scoped it out,” she said without missing a beat. “This way is impassable.”
Sunset held a hoof to her chin, staring out at the gap and listening to the winds. The Elements and Maud had turned back, but she quickly stopped them. “We can just teleport across!” she suggested. “We’ve got to find out where this cave leads, it might help us in finding Sombra. Teleporting everyone shouldn’t be too hard.”
“For a trained unicorn it’s not hard at all,” Twilight argued, “but I’m not talented enough to teleport everyone across, and you’re not skilled enough.”
But Sunset disagreed. “You’re the Element of Magic, Twilight. If there’s anypony that could do it, it’s you.”
Applejack volunteered first. “I believe in you, Twilight. I know you can do it.”
Reluctantly, Twilight did as her friends bid, her horn sparking with magic. The earth mare disappeared in a burgundy flash. The others watched the other side of the gap, waiting with knots in their throats. The earth mare reappeared quicker than a single heartbeat, her tail to the tunnel. “I told you, Twilight!” Applejack exclaimed, though it was muddled by the wind.
Feeling confident, Twilight quickly followed with another three teleports. Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Fluttershy gathered around Applejack, cheering the unicorn on. After finishing up with Pinkie Pie and Maud, Sunset teleported herself across, wanting to prove she could at least do that. “Alright, now let’s hope there’s not a third gap to cross – or if there is then it better be made of lava,” Twilight said after she had arrived on the other side as well.
“Hey, maybe then we can go with my idea about levitating. I’ll even levitate myself across!” Sunset said with an exaggerated snarky tone.
“Well, you’d need a lot of energy and skill in order to levitate yourself, not to mention years of training and-” Twilight paused. “Oh. That was a joke, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes it was,” Sunset replied and turned to the Pie sisters, hoping to see their reactions.
“Hilarious,” Maud said with her usual droll before continuing into the cave.
It wasn’t the reaction Sunset was hoping for, but she and the others followed along regardless. The slush of ice eventually turned to snow the deeper they went. Somehow, even without the treacherous winds, it had become far colder. “Another crack must be up ahead,” Rainbow Dash noted, “or a way out.” The light snow became a winter wonderland, covering every rock and stone of the tunnel, masking any misstep in white. The light brought on by Twilight’s horn eventually shined upon another obstacle blocking their path.
“Oh come on!” Sunset yelled as she threw her hooves in the air. It was not another river or gap that stalled their progress, but a cave in. Stones of all sizes sat as rubble, preventing them from going any further. A few mindful gaps near the top illuminated lightly, though nothing could really be seen.
Rarity’s hoof rose as she spoke up. “Do you think King Sombra did this? Maybe he knew that somepony would try and find this route?”
“We were this close to getting out of here!” Sunset held her hoof up as if to show a measurement, but nobody seemed to understand. “Every time we get closer to our goal it just gets snatched away from us. It’s like this world doesn’t want us to succeed, it just wants disharmony to rule!” She clobbered the closest stone, struggling against it with her own weight.
“Um, Sunset,” Twilight called.
Ignoring the purple unicorn, Sunset continued, “And what’s worse is that even if we do get out of here, we don’t have the last two Elements of Harmony. How am I supposed to help time if everything is so complicated!?” Sunset slumped against the rubble, holding her hoof to her forehead. “Like the Element of Laughter isn’t hard to understand! You make ponies laugh. Jokes, gags, humor. The Pinkie of my world makes it seem so easy, but in this world it’s a great big no, you have to have to have your doctorate in comedy, and a license to prank!”
“Sunset…” Twilight repeated, more haughtily this time.
“How’d we even get the Element of Magic before the Element of Laughter!? That makes no sense! There’s the joke right there, played on me by this world!” Sunset sat up and pointed at Twilight. “And don’t say I’m not giving this world a chance. I’m trying here, but it’s hard when we literally come up against a brick wall!”
“Sunset!” Twilight shouted. “We have two ponies who can break down rocks!”
Sunset slumped against her hoof, an elbow on a rock. “Oh. Right,” she realized her mistake.
A few low, throaty laughs echoed within the tunnel, sending a chill down everyone’s spine. It was soon followed by a voice, one that none of them had heard before, except for Sunset. “Maud?” it said, causing everyone to turn to the grey earth pony. Pinkie was staring at her sister with a look of confusion, brought on by a small, coy smile on the elder sister’s face. “Y-You laughed,” Pinkie said, her voice soft-spoken like that of Fluttershy’s.
Maud’s half-smile stayed as everyone gathered around to stare. Pinkie suddenly started to gyrate, her whole body shook as tears began to pour down her pink cheeks. “You laughed!” she yelled, penetrating everyone’s eardrums with an abrasive echo. “It’s been so long!” She wrapped Maud in a hug, nuzzling against the part of her head below the ear. But she suddenly let go and pushed off, looking as though something was wrong.
And then it came forth. From her eyes light poured, illuminating the rocky tunnel more than Twilight’s light spell could ever hope to do. It flowed down to her neck, channeling a golden hem around her throat and forming the cyan balloon in the center. When the light dimmed, the pink pony exploded with joy. The pink, poufy hair Sunset recognized had returned, albeit a bit shorter in the back. “Like a seatbelt!” Pinkie screamed, causing Sunset to fall to the snowy ground, bellowing with laughter. No one else seemed to understand, but the laughter was contagious enough that all the Elements joined in.
“I’m not quite sure what we’re laughing at, but that’s five down at least,” Applejack stated, wiping a tear from her eye. “We’ve still gotta get out of here, though.”
“I’ve got it!” Pinkie Pie sang, slamming against the cave in and busting down the large stones with ease. It was as if the years of remaining quiet had been broken, releasing the pent-up energy all at once. Without Maud’s assistance, Pinkie tore down the blockade in seconds. A cool breeze rifled against the group as the pebbles slid to the ground. As Pinkie pushed forward, the other Elements followed out into the cold air.
Sunset pushed herself to her hooves and shook the snow from her back. “I’ve never seen you laugh before. Or smile, for that matter,” she said, staring up at the grey mare.
“I wasn’t laughing at what you said. I was laughing at what you meant,” Maud answered in her usual monotonous vernacular, her smile gone. “Pinkie Pie would never have gotten her Element of Harmony if I had not.”
“When we were kids, she could make me laugh and smile all the time. Even more so once she got her cutie mark. Overtime it became harder, however, and then the war came. I stopped laughing, and so did she, but she never wanted to part from me just in case I did one day laugh,” Maud explained, still staring out the cave entrance. Her eyes slowly dragged back to Sunset. “I figured that’s what she needed, and it was.”
“T-That’s so sweet,” Sunset said, tears in her eyes.
“I’m blushing,” Maud replied, clearly not blushing.
“C’mon you big softy.” Sunset wiped her eyes clean and trotted over the pebbles with Maud. Gusts roared as they stepped out into the gentle darkness. The storm wall was just above the ridge behind them, bellowing and raging in its solace. It was not the storm that caused Sunset’s heart to pound, but the lack of light that emitted from The Crystal Empire. Though the clouds around the empire had departed, the dome of light it had created was covered in plum colored obelisks bigger than any skyscraper in Manehattan.
The city sat in this distance, left of where they exited from with Celestia’s camp to the right. Of course, the camp was only visible due to the small breaks in the clouds that allowed moonlight to pour through. The clouds had never parted before, however, and that’s when Sunset realized Celestia’s camp was no longer contained. The dome that the grey soldier had described seemed to have exploded outward, like a baby lizard break from an egg.
Some of the Elements shouted their questions aloud, asking each other what might have happened. But Sunset knew the reasoning, there was only one possible reason. The sight of moving crystals and blasts of orange and yellow magic confirmed her suspensions. The magical blasts were aimed at these crystals, striking at whatever was causing them to rise. “That’s got to be Princess Celestia and King Sombra!” Sunset yelled. “Come on!” She threw herself down the incline and the others trotted after her as quickly as their hooves could take them.