Nightmare Moon was apparently right not to be worried about them. Twilight spread her wings, lowering her head submissively to the guards. “I’m not going to resist.” Nightmare Moon’s plan seemed obvious to her now—she probably hadn’t teleported more than a few feet. She wanted to see if Twilight would reveal her true motives now that she was arrested.
But just being arrested was nothing she was afraid of. Maybe we can win over Rarity once we’re in jail. Or maybe we can escape when Nightmare Moon isn’t paying attention.
The soldiers escorted Twilight through the open doorway, where Applejack had acquired a few angry guards of her own. Only a few, though like Twilight she wasn’t resisting.
They were led through the castle, with servants and thestral dignitaries alike stopping to stare as they passed. At least the soldiers were following the Alicorn’s instructions—they kept their weapons pointed at Twilight every moment, but so long as they kept walking, there were no threats, no prodding. Like they were pretending to be her escort instead of her captors.
“This is your plan?” Applejack asked, as they reached a thick steel door leading down. There had been only a rusty stain here in Twilight’s world—apparently Nightmare Moon had reinforced the dungeons. “Get thrown into a dark room? Doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to fix much of anything from down here.”
They weren’t thrown anywhere. The very first cell in the dungeons was different from any Twilight had ever seen. The room was richly furnished, with plush carpets, a comfortable bed, a sitting area, and even a few musical instruments. But it still had only a slit of a window looking up, just barely wide enough for moonlight to stream in. It was lit only with the dull purple glow of the crystals that illuminated the rest of the castle.
It also had thick bars along the outside wall, and Twilight could feel the dull hum of magic through them as she got close. It was an anti-magic field, the sort that would stop a unicorn from targeting any spell through to the other side. So no teleporting out when they’re not looking.
One of the guards opened the door for them, saluting her. “Will your maidservant be sharing these quarters with you, ma’am, or should we prepare a separate cell for her?”
Probably a plain stone floor and a pile of straw, Twilight thought. “My friend will be staying with me.” She strode through the open gate, keeping her head up as best she could. She couldn’t let them see her weakness. Applejack followed, and she heard the gate smash shut behind them a few seconds later. A complex mechanical clicking sounded in the lock, and most of the guards left. Only two remained outside her door, including the one who had opened it for her.
“I’m instructed to provide you with anything you might need,” he said. “Don’t hesitate to ask, or anypony else who is on duty. You are the guest of the princess.”
Twilight resisted the urge to laugh. Some guest, kept in magical isolation. The comfortable conditions were part of the prison just the same as anything else. These were the wartime practices of an ancient Equestria, where nobles were often powerful mages. Even if they weren’t, they would one day return to their lands. It was better not to make an enemy while they were captive.
Twilight settled roughly down into one of the chairs, then concentrated. She still didn’t have the strength for any serious violence with magic. Certainly breaking out of this cell would be doomed. But she could still target things inside it. There was a brief pressure against her ears as a bubble of silence formed around her and Applejack.
“There.” She stomped one hoof loudly, but the soldiers didn’t turn around. “It’s working. We can talk.”
Applejack settled into the seat across from her. “So this is it, huh? Just… locked up? Not quite what I imagined after what you showed me.”
“I’m going to get us out of here,” Twilight said, a little annoyed. “I’m lucky Nightmare Moon didn’t just want to kill me. She seemed like… the sort of pony who would.” She glanced up then, through the tiny window up into the gloom. “It’s got to be nearly day soon, right? Can’t believe I’ve stayed up all night…”
“You weren’t listening?” Applejack rolled her eyes. “Twilight, there is no day anymore. Princess Nightmare promised an eternal night, and… that’s what she gives us. A night that lasts forever.”
Twilight rose from her chair, hurrying over to the window to stare up. While the strange angle made it awful for looking in at the castle, she could see the sky clearly enough. See as the moon set in the west, and the sun finally rose.
Except it didn’t. There was no wave of light and warmth from the east. There was a few seconds pause, and then the moon returned, as though night had just begun.
Twilight stumbled back, eyes wide. She’d been suspecting something like this for at least an hour now, based on what ponies had said. It wasn’t like she had forgotten Nightmare Moon’s promises. This was the Equestria she wanted.
“How does anything survive?” she asked, stupefied. “The climate… you still need warmth into the system, even with pegasus ponies regulating weather. All the plants need sunlight. Without that, they’d die, then we’d all starve.”
Applejack glanced nervously out the cell door, as though expecting the guards to turn and arrest them again. But Twilight’s silence spell was still working. “I don’t know the details, Twilight. There were ponies who thought that. And… things were hard the first year. But we found a way. Nightmare Moon… I’m no unicorn, but it’s something she did. Changed the plants… changed the light… something. I dunno. It’s not like it used to be, that’s for sure. Needs even more ponies tending to keep crops alive. Like those crystals at the farm, those help. But there are never enough to go around.”
Twilight stopped her mind from running wild with the possibilities for how Nightmare Moon had somehow maintained the climate—or at least enough of it that ponies hadn’t all died. Absent anything else, that was probably a fascinating bit of spellcraft, and a testament to Nightmare Moon’s power.
I’m not going to beat her by understanding those spells. I need to get my friends together. The more she saw of this world, the more irreconcilable it seemed to become. It was barely even fit to keep ponies alive anymore, and she didn’t want to think about what had happened to the creatures that didn’t have pony magic to help them.
She had to undo Starlight’s spell, no matter what it took.
“Ponies have been living like this for years?” Twilight asked. “Wait, let me guess. About… five years now.”
Applejack nodded. “Yeah, that about tracks. Granny, uh…” She coughed, looking away. “Didn’t make it through the two-year winter. Lots of ponies didn’t.”
“We haven’t lost, Applejack,” Twilight said, crossing the distance between them and settling a reassuring wing onto her shoulder. “I know this looks bleak, but don’t be afraid. This isn’t the way Equestria is meant to be. Time magic can be undone. In my Equestria, Granny Smith is alive and well. She was there for Apple Bloom’s cute-ceañera. She’ll be there for her graduation. And she’s a mean hand at cards.”
Applejack sniffed—it didn’t seem like Twilight’s reassurances were actually helping her. But after a few seconds she nodded, pulled away. “I know, Twi. I know that world is out there, somehow. Maybe… we can make it real again. But I’ve never had the mind for magic. You tell me it’s possible, and I trust you, but it doesn’t feel like it could be. Not when we’re locked up in a cell, no way out, Princess Nightmare furious with us… what’d you say to her, anyway?”
“Just the truth. I told her I wanted to unite Equestria again, defeat Sombra and Chrysalis. Told her there was time travel involved, but… that was about it. I don’t know what set her off…”
“Could’ve been anything. Princess Nightmare… She’s not like what we used to have. She’s strong, determined, ruthless…” She glanced at the guards again, but they still hadn’t reacted. Hadn’t turned around. Twilight’s horn was still glowing with the silence spell. “I guess those are all good things, what with Equestria getting invaded and all. But I’m old enough to remember what Celestia’s rule was like. When we had a night and a day. She could be harsh one minute, but she was compassionate too. Not like what we’ve got now…”
“She was,” Twilight agreed. “She is. Nightmare Moon isn’t… guess you don’t even know. Her real name is Luna—Celestia’s little sister. There’s a good pony underneath all that magic. In the real world, they’re supposed to be ruling together. Everypony loves them both. Princess Luna doesn’t want to be this way, not really. In my world we helped her see that, before she… did all of this.”
“Well we aren’t in your world,” Applejack said. “And unless you can—” But she trailed off, staring suddenly at the far wall. Twilight couldn’t tell what had attracted her attention—the sound isolation spell also kept sounds from outside their bubble getting in.
As it turned out, their cell had a side door, with its own set of locks and magical protections. It was open, with a single guard visible in the space behind. And hurrying in was… a pony who shouldn’t be here.
Twilight dismissed the spell with a flash from her horn, and abruptly the sound came back. “—knocked a few times, but you didn’t respond. I’m sorry to barge in on you like this, but the princess was insistent that I interrogate you both tonight. You know how princesses are. Well… perhaps you don’t know, but you don’t want to.”
Sunset Shimmer wasn’t a pony Twilight had seen very often—if anything, her memory of her far more often depicted a creature that walked on two legs and used not-magic machines and wore too many clothes.
This Sunset showed no more recognition as she walked in than Applejack or Rarity had done. Her eyes lingered on Twilight’s wings, darting back to her horn a few times, but she barely even seemed to see her cutie mark. “I hope you’re not suffering down here too much. The princess hasn’t used this cell for a long time—the nobility all fell in line a few years ago, so there’s been no more reason to take hostages.
Sunset shut the door with a faint glow from her horn. She had a set of saddlebags on, and Twilight half expected them to be full of torture devices. You’re another pony who was better after we had time together. Are you still planning to invade the world with an army of teenage zombies? Or did that already happen? Then again, Sunset’s own history was connected to Twilight’s. A change to the Rainboom would probably impact her somehow too.
“Sunset Shimmer,” Twilight interrupted, taking the offered hoof. “I already know that. I know you used to be Celestia’s apprentice, too.”
“Because you’re a time traveler,” Sunset said, with obvious doubt in her voice. “We’ll see about that.” She pulled over a chair, removing a set of scrolls and a quill as she did so. “The princess would probably want me to string you up on a rack or something. But I’d prefer to just have a conversation if that’s okay.”
“We like that better,” Applejack said. “Nobody here’s done anything worth getting strung up.”
“Princess Nightmare will decide that,” Sunset said. As Twilight looked at her, she realized that the unicorn had changed more than some others—she’d bleached the stripe of yellow in her mane, so that it was white instead, and muted the colors of the rest of it. So you look more like your master, I bet. You already have a sun on your flank, you probably don’t want to be reminding ponies what you are. “But I’m sure you’re right. I recognize you, Applejack. You sell supplies to the castle kitchens. Or… I think it must be your sister who usually makes the deliveries.”
Sunset levitated a flint and steel from her pouch, and lit the lanterns on both tables. The room filled with a gentle orange glow, a sweet relief from all the purples and blues for Twilight’s beleaguered eyes. I probably should’ve noticed those sitting there.
“That’s right,” Applejack said, looking a little disconcerted at the mention of her sister. “We do, ah… sell our best crops to the castle.”
“And I’m sure the princess is grateful.” Sunset turned away from her, eyes settling on Twilight again. “But you… you’re the conundrum. An Alicorn who claims to be a time traveler. Princess Nightmare said you came here to… unite Equestria again, is that true?”
Twilight nodded. “That’s right. Ponies shouldn’t have to live like this. They shouldn’t be enslaved by changelings, or by a tyrant like Sombra.” Or by Nightmare Moon.
Sunset nodded, though her expression was barely even paying attention. “And tell me—how did you become an Alicorn?”
Twilight swallowed, looking away from her. “In my timeline—the way Equestria was meant to be?”
Sunset Shimmer nodded. “Obviously. Whether you even exist in this one, you certainly aren’t an Alicorn here. You must have done something different. What secret method did you find? Did you go through the mirror portal, perhaps? Assuming you know what that is. You do know what that is, don’t you?”
“I do.” Twilight rose from her chair, backing up a few steps. Her horn glowed, and she summoned the silence spell around them as she had done with Applejack. Unlike the earth pony, Sunset Shimmer had magical senses of her own, and she instantly sat upright, watching Twilight in surprise. “It’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you. I just don’t want anything we say being overheard.”
“Of course.” Sunset pulled her chair a little closer, all suspicion abandoned. Her expression was desperate, hungry. You aren’t going to be a very good interrogator for Nightmare Moon acting this way. “You wouldn’t want just anypony to know. They might abuse the knowledge. Equestria is in enough danger without mad Alicorns rampaging across the countryside.” She chuckled weakly, not looking away. “So what is it?”
“Why ask me? You work for Nightmare Moon now, and she’s an Alicorn. Why can’t she help you?”
“I’m sure she will,” Sunset said, not sounding like she believed it even a little bit. “But her timeline is… esoteric. The dangers facing Equestria are real, and they grow every day. We need every asset to protect ourselves. Another Alicorn is exactly that. You’re that, I mean. But I could—Nightmare Moon’s chosen servants could be that. For the benefit of her kingdom.”
“If you really care about her kingdom, then listen to me.” Twilight closed the distance between them in just a few seconds, meeting Sunset’s eyes and glaring at her. “Equestria isn’t supposed to be this way. An evil sorceress named Starlight Glimmer changed the past—everypony’s past, including yours, Sunset. We’re supposed to be living in an Equestria where Princes Luna rules alongside her sister Celestia. An Equestria where you did explore the world on the other side of the mirror portal, and… learned incredible magic there, for yourself. A world where Sombra was beaten, Chrysalis was driven away, where even the dragons recognize us.”
Sunset remained silent for a long time, thoughtful. And where some of the others had reacted with skepticism, Sunset eventually nodded. “That sounds like you’re trying to promise everypony… everything they’d ever want. Except our princess, who would probably hang you if you said it like that.” But Sunset Shimmer didn’t sound like she intended to hang them, or even to share what she’d just said.
“You’re honest, farmer,” Sunset went on. “You have a reputation for it, if I remember. Is this story why you’re here?”
Applejack nodded. “This pony, Twilight… she told me what she told you. Things about my life she couldn’t have known. Then she took me to this… thing. I looked through it, saw a glimpse of her world. I may not know much, but I know that was a better place to live than here. Maybe the way things ought to be.”
Twilight froze, waiting for Sunset’s judgement. This unicorn was the one interrogating them—what if she told Nightmare Moon that their magic would effectively dethrone her?
“That would be interesting,” Sunset said. “That world sounds like a better one than this. I would like an Equestria with fewer wars. More chance for research that way, without the world being constantly overturned. It might be there could be an arrangement between us, for the good of Equestria.”
“Yes,” Twilight said. “Whatever you want, yes. But you should probably know what I want first. How the time travel works.”
Sunset nodded to her to continue.
“I need to reunite six specific ponies at the site of the artifact Applejack mentioned. Applejack herself is one of them. The, uh… princess’s steward is one too. There are three more. Once all of us are together, we should be able to cast the time-travel spell, sending me back in time to fix all of this.”
Sunset Shimmer winced at the mention of Rarity. “That’s not going to be easy for me to get you, uh… Princess Twilight. Princess Nightmare is fond of her, and she would be difficult to replace. Even getting her to release you will be tricky. And difficult. For me.”
She leaned in close, lowering her voice to a whisper. “But I might be persuaded to put myself at risk. An expensive risk demands an expensive reward. I think you know what I want.” Her eyes settled on Twilight’s wings again.
Twilight considered that a long time. In some ways it didn’t matter—this world wasn’t real, and it would just be reset anyway. But more than that, the method Twilight had used to become an Alicorn couldn’t be repeated by just anypony. Even the most powerful spellcaster who ever lived had failed to complete the spell.
Twilight stuck out one hoof. “Alright, Sunset. If you can get Nightmare Moon to let us go, and to let us take Rarity with us… then I’ll tell you everything. But I have to be honest—the secret isn’t easy. You might not be able to figure it out. You might not even be able to find it. But I can tell you where it is.”
“Done.” Sunset Shimmer took her hoof, then shrugged her bags back on. “If you didn’t have a pony like Applejack to vouch for you, I’d never trust this deal. There’s just one more thing.” She stopped, removing a scroll and unrolling it for her. It was a map of the local area, centered on the castle. “I need you to draw the location of this artifact. My neck will be on the line as well as yours… letting you go, I mean. So I need to verify what you’ve told me. Just in case.”
Twilight marked the area the map was, and soon enough the unicorn was hurrying away, a look of triumph on her face.
Only when she was gone did Applejack finally look up. “You sure about that, Twi? You’re gonna give away the secret of being an Alicorn to her?”
Twilight nodded. “It’s not some necklace you can just put on. Honestly, I don’t think this Sunset stands a chance of figuring it out. And by the time she has a chance, we will have fixed Equestria.”
“Right,” Applejack said, sounding like she didn’t believe it for a second. “But… and I don’t mean this as an insult to you, but… are you sure that’s the way we ought to be doing things? I mean… trading away our future in the present for one day fixing everything? What if we fail along the way? Then every little decision like this might make things even worse. The world doesn’t need one Nightmare Moon… do we need a Nightmare Sunset too? Maybe the princess was doing the right thing by not sharing her magic. Even if I’m sure she had real selfish reasons for it.”
“You’re right. We can’t just… Since you’re the one who’s from here, how about this. From now on, I’ll let you decide if something like this ever happens again. I’ll honor your decision if you think it’s worth it. But we have to do this one—there might not be another way out. Honestly, I think she was going to try and get the information out of me one way or another. Might as well trade it, before she just takes it for free.”
Applejack grumbled, but she didn’t argue. Twilight dismissed the spell, and finally took the time to request a meal from their guards. True to their word, they rushed to obey, and within a few minutes they were eating something fresh from the castle kitchen.
It wasn’t half as good as anything Twilight had eaten in Canterlot, but at least it was food. They ended up sharing the gigantic bed, after Twilight carefully hung their borrowed clothes in the wardrobe to avoid wrinkling any of them. Whatever happened with the princess, she didn’t want to fight her exhausted and drained.
They woke without incident, other than a feeling of general grogginess from Twilight as a bell sounded throughout the castle. The window still looked like the middle of the night, and at first she rolled over to cover her eyes with a wing.
Then she remembered. She wasn’t in her castle—she wasn’t even in her reality.
They had a few hours to wait, hours that Twilight tried to spend productively. After another castle breakfast, she had her own little interrogation with Applejack, learning what she could about royal affairs and the timeline that had built the current Equestria.
Just as Nightmare Moon had risen to power at about the time she remembered, the same was true for Sombra and Chrysalis. Sombra had returned to take power in the Crystal Empire a few years after Nightmare Moon, somehow acquired a body of his own, and began conquering the nearby villages.
“That was when Cadance… well, you probably know who that is.”
“Yeah,” Twilight muttered, voice wistful. “My babysitter. And my sister in law.”
“Not unless you’re related to King Sombra,” Applejack said. “Because that’s who she married. Story is it was everything she ever wanted, but…” She took another glance at the edge of the shield spell. “Well, nopony really believes that. And anyway, she failed. Sombra wasn’t satisfied just marrying into the royal line. He wanted to have all of Equestria too. He might’ve won if the changelings hadn’t attacked.”
“But instead, nobody wins,” Twilight finished. “The three factions are in a stalemate, fighting over border territory and getting lots of regular ponies killed.”
“Yeah,” Applejack finished. “That’s about the whole thing. Until you got here, I thought it might be that way forever. But you’ve got a way to end that. One that even King Sombra’s magic can’t stop.”
“Not all the princesses’ magic together could prevent it,” Twilight said. “That’s how we got here in the first place. There’s nothing to dispel with time travel. It was just… always supposed to be so expensive that it couldn’t happen.”
There was motion at the far end of the room, and Twilight fell abruptly silent. She dismissed the bubble spell in time to hear the bars creaking as it swung open.
Sunset Shimmer stood there, along with a large escort of guards. The side door again, not the large front door. “The princess had decided to grant your request,” Sunset said. “Come with me.”