Sunset of Time

by The Albinocorn


Chapter XIII: Against the Rising Sun

Chapter XIII: Against the Rising Sun

Rarity had lost all sense of time wandering across the city, constantly heading closer to the blue light reaching into the sky. Judging by the yawns she was now producing every other minute, she guessed it was quite early in the morning yet not early enough to see the dawn breaking over the eastern hills.

“Oh, I would j-just kill for a quick nap right now,” Rarity said, stifling another yawn.

From atop her back, Spike stretched and let out a yawn of his own. “I know what you mean. I’m exhausted.”

The two had been meandering around for what felt like forever, navigating their way through the maze that was Los Pegasus. Even as the blue pillar drew closer, it felt like they were moving at a snail’s pace.

Exhaustion hugged Rarity, covering her entire body and slowing her movement. She realized she hadn’t slept since the horrible outing in the desert almost twenty-four hours ago. Her weariness reminded her of the state she would find herself in after working on her dresses the night before a deadline. Only, this tiredness seemed to run through every bone in her body rather than just her mind and horn.

Still, Rarity pressed on, having had enough of the city and the griffons that were so determined to do away with her. She just wanted to find her friends and leave.

She heard Spike yawn again, trying his best to stay vigilant. She admired his fortitude but wouldn’t hold it against him if he fell asleep. Then again, he had already proven tonight he was much tougher than he looked.

The duo exited the main city and entered the Strip; the beacon pulsing from the top of a tall pyramid-shaped building.

“Whoa,” Spike said, eyes wide with amazement at the lights and sounds around him.

Rarity tutted. “Focus, Spike. We aren’t here for merrymaking. Besides, you’re too young for most of the things that go on in casinos anyway.”

“Are not. Besides, all they do is gamble, right?”

“Well…” Rarity was saved from answering his question when she turned the corner and saw Pinkie Pie hopping up and down on a trampoline, juggling swords while she told a story to the enraptured audience in front of her.

The sad part is, this doesn’t surprise me at all anymore.

“And then I said—oh! Hey, Rarity. Hey, Spike! Look what I can do!” Pinkie said, jubilantly.

Rarity approached her, shaking her head in disbelief. “Pinkie, I should know by now not to ask this, but what are you doing?” Her nose twitched as a rather foul scent began to assault her nostrils. She jumped back, covered her nose and shouted, “Sweet stars above, what is that horrid stench?”

“Oh that.” Pinkie giggled. “Funny story. See, one of the mean griffons chased me into the sewers and I had to hide in the water to get the jump on him and afterwards, I climbed back up and found myself here, so I thought, ‘oooh, I always wanted to gamble—”

Spike let out a triumphant, “Hah, I knew it!”

“—so I tried to go into the casino, but they wouldn’t let me in because I smelled funny and had no money, so I decided I’d become a street performer to raise some bits! See, here’s my act!”

Rarity rubbed the side of her head, groaning. “I knew I shouldn’t have asked. Pinkie—” she pointed towards the pyramid “—did you not notice the big, glowing light in the sky?”

Pinkie turned her head. “Oh hey, now that you mention it, that does seem kinda conspicuous. It looks like Sunny’s magic.”

“Exactly. Now put the swords down so we can leave.”

“Right.” Pinkie continued to bounce up and down, a small frown marring her normally happy expression. “Uhh, actually... I didn’t put much thought into how I was going to end this.”

Spike gave her a level stare. “You’re stuck, aren’t you?”

“Uh-huh.”

Rarity facehoofed again before igniting her horn and levitating the swords away from Pinkie, placing them gently on the ground around her.

Pinkie somersaulted off the trampoline, landing on her back hooves before taking a bow to her applauding audience. “Thank you, thank you, you’ve been a wonderful crowd!”

The ponies tossed her a spatter of shining bits, which Pinkie scooped up and hid in her mane. As the crowd dispersed, she bounced over to Rarity and Spike, smiling from ear to ear. “I like this city! We should come here more often!”

Rarity gagged at the smell wafting off Pinkie and took large steps back. “First, I’m in the opinion of never coming back here. And second…” Rarity pointed her horn at Pinkie and released a large, pink cloud that quickly enveloped her.

As Pinkie waved the cloud away, Rarity took in a deep breath and sighed in satisfaction. “Much better.”

Pinkie sniffed the air and started to bounce up and down excitedly. “Wow, I smell like fresh cut spring flowers, spewed across a babbling brook with a hint of lemon! I didn’t know you could do that, Rarity!”

“Twilight taught it to me. Saves me a bundle on perfumes.”

Spike frantically waved his claws around. “Girls, we need to focus!”

“Oh, right!” Pinkie made an obstinate smile. “To the big light thingy!”

There was a stunned stillness, in which the four ponies could only hear their own heartbeats, and Sky Chart thrashing about inside of his magical prison.

Sunset ground her teeth and stomped her good leg in frustration. Why would Vesper Radiance just steal Fluttershy away? What purpose could she possibly have? Sunset had only known her for a short time, but Fluttershy had been nothing but kind. To know that her life was now hanging in Vesper’s hooves… Sunset could only imagine how the others felt.

“But, why?” Applejack spoke up, a small quiver in her voice. “Why take her? How did this happen?”

Rainbow launched into an explanation. “I saw Fluttershy being attacked by one of those stupid griffons after I got rid of the one that attacked my room, so I flew over and took care of him. Then, I brought Fluttershy to an abandoned cemetery to hide, and while we were there, both of the griffons I thought I had taken care of came back. So, I told Fluttershy to stay there while I handled them, but when I came back, she was gone! Then a squirrel told me that some evil pony had shown up and taken Fluttershy away—”

“A squirrel told you?” Sunset cut in, eyeing Rainbow skeptically.

“It was a game of charades!” Rainbow snapped. “Anyway, I flew off to search for her and I found Vesper had her unconscious! I tried to chase after them, but I hit some stupid force field that’s around the city!”

Curious, Twilight looked up. “There’s a force field around the city?”

Sunset followed her gaze, looking up at the clear sky. She didn’t see any obvious signs of magic, but she doubted Rainbow would make something like that up. She fired a single pulse into the air, watching it race higher and higher. Sunset narrowed her eyes while it steadily grew smaller… until it collided with something in midair, leaving a brief red flash in its place.

“A perfectly concealed force field,” Sunset murmured, ashamed that she was impressed with Vesper Radiance’s level of magic. “You’d never know it was there until you hit it.”

“When did she put that up?” Applejack asked. “What’s she trying to keep out?”

“Nothing,” Sunset said, shaking her head. “She’s trying to keep us in. I think she wanted us to have a death match with the griffons, making sure neither side could leave until one was dead.”

“Can you break it?” Rainbow asked desperately. “Fluttershy is somewhere on the other side of that thing, and we need to find her.”

“Don’t worry, Rainbow,” Twilight said in a strong, calm voice. “We’ll find her. If Sunset and I put our magic together, we can smash that shield and track down Vesper. We’ll save Fluttershy before anything bad happens, I promise.”

“Well then, what are we waiting for?” Rainbow asked with renewed vigor.

“Slow yer role, sugarcube.” Applejack held up a hoof. “We still need to find Rares, Pinks and Spike first.”

Sunset pointed towards Sky Chart, crouched in a striking position and baring his sharpened canines at them. “And we should probably do something about him first.”

Applejack took a few slow steps closer to the protective barrier encasing Sky Chart. “Is… is he really a…?”

Twilight tapped her hooves together, fidgeting and twitching ever-so-slightly. “I really, really want to say no, because zombie ponies can’t exist. But…” She gave a nervous gulp. “We all saw him get hit, right?”

Everypony nodded. No matter how long she lived, Sunset knew she would never get the image out of her head: Sky Chart being struck in a flash of angry red, screaming in pain before falling to the distant ground. Even if the initial blast hadn’t killed him, the fall almost certainly had.

Death was the only way to explain Sky Chart’s appearance: his greying feathers, matted fur, and dying skin. His sunken eyes and the fact that only the whites were visible. Add to it, his newly sharpened teeth and the moans and hisses he constantly made. There was very little else that made sense.

“Well… what else can we do with him?” Rainbow asked, but by the creeping dread in her voice, she already knew the answer.

Sunset sighed. “There’s really only one thing we can do… put him out of his misery.”

Applejack gaped at her. “Are you sure that’s the only way? And besides, he’s already dead… can somepony… die a second time?”

“Like you just said, he’s already dead, so we technically aren’t killing him,” Sunset said with a careless shrug. “We’re just stopping his corpse.”

Twilight nibbled on the inside of her lip. “I don’t know, Sunset. Something about this just doesn’t feel right.”

“Ah’m with Twi on this one.” Applejack nodded sagely. “We still gotta show respect for the dead, or, undead in this case.”

Rainbow pawed at the ground, giving furtive glances to the zombie. “I don’t know, girls, Sunset might be right. I’ve read some comics where the only way to stop a zombie is… you know… cut its head off.”

With a sigh and a facehoof, Twilight said, “Rainbow, you should know better than to believe a comic book. And even if that were true, I’m not going to maul an innocent civilian.”

Sunset lit her horn. “Then lower the shield and I’ll do it for you,” she said with a chill.

No!” Twilight stamped her hoof. “Sunset, how could you say such a thing?”

“Twilight, I admire your moral high ground, I really do, but he’s already dead!” With a single glare from Twilight, Sunset immediately powered down her horn and folded her ears. What on earth had come over her to make her act that way? She opened her mouth to apologize, but the words seemed to stick fast in her throat.

Moving her hoof to her chest, Twilight took a deep breath before exhaling and bringing it away. “Okay, listen, the only way for something like this to be possible is for there to be a very powerful enchantment on Sky Chart’s body. If I use my magic, maybe I can find it and undo it.”

“What happens then?” Applejack asked.

“In theory, he should go back to just being, well, dead. But, at least then someone can give him a proper burial.”

Sunset cleared her throat, no longer trying to meet Twilight’s eyes. “Uh, yeah. That should work.”

 “I’ll need you to take over the shield, Sunset, so I can focus on the spell.”

“Yes, Twilight,” she said formally, bowing her head. Sunset found herself as a foal again, being reprimanded by her Princess. It sent both waves of nostalgia and shame burning through her body.

She took over the magical dome, the aura changing from violet to teal, while Twilight closed her eyes and scrunched her face in concentration. Sunset gave a quick, meaningful glance to Applejack and Rainbow: a silent order to keep watch.

Sky Chart continued to ram against the walls of Sunset's shield, making her wince every time. While she was fairly sure her wound had stopped bleeding, she wasn’t so sure about the amount of magic she should be exerting at the moment. As grateful as she was about her limited use of magic in scaling the pyramid and… dealing with Carrow, she was sure she had still used too much. Sunset was beginning to question how far she could push herself before succumbing to her physical limit.

In the meantime, she held fast, not wanting to disappoint Twilight a second time that night. As long as she did her job right, she could fall back the Princess’s good favor again. Of course, Sunset knew she would still need to apologize.

I’m just going to chalk that outburst up to the lack of blood going to my brain. Her lying to herself was starting to become a bad habit.

“Incoming!”

Sunset’s eyes widened and she jerked her head to the right, narrowly avoiding a shaft of light. The magic missile continued onwards into the wall behind her, scattering the crowd of wide-eyed tourists that had begun to congregate again.

Returning her gaze to down the block, Sunset’s blood ran cold as she beheld two more shadows shambling up the road. A shivering claw stroked her spine as she felt the wrongness emanating off of them. It was a feeling akin to the one when she had first looked upon Sky Chart. And as the shadows stepped into the light, she knew why.

Dirty, mottled fur clung to their dried out skin. Several stab wounds marred their front, trails of dried blood running down their chest, adding to their savage appearance. Much like Sky Chart, their pupils were gone, leaving only blank, white marbles in their eye sockets.

They were both unicorns, and by the lines on their face, Sunset would have guessed they were both middle aged. The one on the left was female, her once orange coat washed out by death’s cold touch, and her yellow mane disheveled. Sunset identified the male’s coat to have once been a midnight blue color with a deep red mane, both fading to grey.

There was a light pressure in Sunset’s heart, and a wave of dizziness washed over her. The spell sputtered in and out for a moment before Sunset caught herself, redoubling her focus. But the sense of vertigo persisted, growing worse as the two unicorns drew closer. An intense hatred began to burn in her breast, filling her head with thoughts of revenge and suffering.

Rainbow and Applejack sprung into action, galloping up the street to intercept the two new oncomers. “Remember,” Rainbow yelled, “don’t let them bite you!”

“Rainbow, ya need to stop readin’ those darn comics!” Applejack snapped.

Sunset looked over to Twilight, who had peeked an eye open to watch momentarily before she went back to probing the magic around Sky Chart. Sunset hoped Twilight would find something soon. She was beginning to doubt how long she could hold the shield.

Another magic blast whizzed over Sunset’s head, singing the very top of her mane. She watched Rainbow swoop around and tackle the female unicorn to the ground, being extra careful to avoid her mouth. Applejack, meanwhile, had taken up her rope again and was trying to truss up the other zombie. Rainbow’s paranoia must have had some effect on her, for she was also trying to avoid being bitten.

The female unicorn stopped snapping at Rainbow and simply aimed her horn, firing a blast into her side. Rainbow flew off, roughly landing some feet away on the hard pavement. The unicorn got up and continued to advance towards Twilight and Sunset, firing more spells all the while.

Sunset created a thin shield to protect herself as darkness crawled along the edge of her vision. She fell to one knee, losing her balance along with her sight. She could feel her magic hold over Sky Chart’s prison rapidly slipping, no matter how hard she tried to hang on.

“I think I’ve almost got it,” Sunset heard Twilight whisper. At least, it sounded like a whisper. All of the city noise had been reduced to a mere buzz.

It was like being pinned by Carrow all over again, only Sunset was sure she wasn’t going to have a dark miracle this time around. Desperate to try though, and wanting the satisfaction of hitting the horrible mare in the face, she fired one last weak spell, just as her shield and wall around Sky Chart vanished. She felt herself hit the ground as her vision went totally black…

Knock, knock, knock.

“H-hello. Can I help you?”

“I certainly hope so. Is this the home of Midnight and Morning Glory?”

“Y-yes it is. I’m Morning Glory. Um… do I know you?”

“Such a shame. You really don’t recognize me? I’m heartbroken.”

“Honey, who’s at the door—ah! I-I don’t believe it! It’s you!”

“See? At least a father bothers to remember his own daughter, unlike you, Mother!

“Mother? Then that means… you’re… you’re…”

“Sunset! Sunset, wake up!”

With a pained groan, Sunset opened her eyes, Twilight’s worried face filling her sight. Her horn throbbed, sending ripples of pain into her skull. She smacked her lips, her mouth feeling bone try and her tongue like sandpaper, as if she had gone back and spent another day in the desert sand.

“Are you okay?” Twilight asked, holding a hoof out to her.

Sunset took it and was pulled to her hooves, falling back to a sitting position as another round of fatigue hit her. “Ugh.” She held a hoof to her head, trying to get the world to stop spinning. “What happened?”

“I think you overexerted yourself,” Twilight said gently. She pointed at the makeshift bandage around Sunset’s shoulder. “Sunset, how bad is that wound?”

“It’s not too bad… but, it did bleed a lot.” Sunset turned away, cringing in guilt at Twilight’s shocked expression.

“Why didn’t you say something? I wouldn’t have you casting magic if I knew how hurt you were!”

“It’s fine, really. I don’t even think that’s the reason I passed out. It was…”

Twilight leaned forward. “It was… what?”

“Nothing,” Sunset said firmly. “It was nothing. You’re right, I shouldn’t have been casting magic.” She stood up, trying to get a feel for her legs again.

“Sunset—”

“What happened to… you know… them?” Sunset interrupted.

Twilight gave a disgruntled sigh and pointed to the distance. Sunset followed her hoof and found Applejack and Rainbow, along with—to Sunset’s relief—Rarity, Pinkie and Spike, all of them standing next to three unmoving bodies. Taking a few cautious steps, Sunset found that there was no feeling of dizziness when she neared the two unicorns.  

“What happened?” she asked Twilight again.

“I broke through the enchantment around Sky Chart just as you passed out. After that, I just replicated the same spell after Applejack tied each one up,” Twilight explained, keeping a concerned eye on Sunset.

“How long was I out?”

“Not too long. About ten minutes, really. Rarity, Pinkie and Spike showed up just as we put down the last… corpse,” Twilight said after a little thought.

They approached the rest of the group, entering into what should have been a joyful reunion. Instead, it was submerged under worried frowns and anxious glances. Even Pinkie seemed devoid of her usual enthusiasm.

“I’m glad to see you’re alright, Sunset,” Rarity said with a pained smile, her eyes flickering elsewhere.

Sunset nodded. “You too.”

Spike kept his eyes on the bodies, like he was waiting for them to get back up again. He wrapped an arm around Twilight’s front leg. “I c-can’t believe you actually fought off zombie ponies while we were gone.”

Twilight huffed. “Technically, they weren’t zombies; they were just animated corpses.”

“Seriously? Is there even a difference?” Spike gave her a look of disbelief.

“Girls, focus!” Rainbow yelled, throwing herself into the air. “Who cares if they were zombies or not? Fluttershy’s been foalnapped and we need to go save her! Now!

Applejack stomped a hoof in agreement. “Rainbow’s right. We got bigger things to be concerned with! Now, the question is, how are we gonna find her?”

“The tracking spell Princess Celestia mentioned, remember?” Twilight tapped her horn. “As long as Vesper has been using some magic, I should be able to find a trail we can follow. I just need to take down this shield around the city…”

“Why do you keep using singular vernacular?” Sunset asked, arching an inquisitive eyebrow.

“Because you need to recover,” Twilight said matter-of-factly. “You’ve already cast enough spells with that injury.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “It’s not that bad, really. Twilight, you can’t take out the shield on your own. Besides, as long as we pool our magic together, I’ll be fine.”

“Sunset, I really don’t think—”

“Twilight…” Sunset gave her a pleading look. “I can do this.”

They held each other’s gaze: Sunset desirous, Twilight aversive.  She gave a defeated sigh, hanging her head. “Alright, Sunset. If you really think you can.”

A determined light filled Sunset’s eyes. She nodded her head and said with a steadfast resolve, “I won’t let you down, Twilight.”

“I know you won’t.” Twilight smiled. “Now, we need to get to…” She whiffed the air a few times before sticking her tongue out in disgust and taking a gigantic step backwards.

It took only a second for everyone else to follow suit, holding their noses and fighting off the urge to vomit. “What in tarnation is that horrible smell?” Applejack cried.

“Don’t look at me,” Pinkie said defensively. “Rarity made me smell like fresh cut spring—”

“I think now that the spell is gone, the bodies have continued to decay properly,” Twilight interrupted in a nasally voice.

“So, are we just going to leave them here?” Spike asked, pinching his nose.

Rainbow shrugged, keeping a far distance. “Well, what else are we supposed to do with them?”

“It’s out of our hooves now,” Sunset said, continuing to retreat. There was a silent albeit reluctant agreement amongst all of them. They had far more pressing manners to attend to now.

As they followed Rainbow back to where she had first encountered the barrier, the sky above them began to turn pink with the first morning light, rising in the east behind them. The stars slowly faded away with the sun peeking out from behind the green hills.

Under the shifting pallet of the sky, the inner city of Los Pegasus was caught in the absolute calm before the start of a new day; the streets were completely devoid of life aside from the sleeping drunkards huddled up in their corners.

They moved with a quick gait within the hard shadows of the tall buildings enclosed round them, fixed in laconic tenseness, but spurred on by a joint drive. Still, just as Sunset was starting to think the lack of conversation was too much to bear, Rarity spoke in a soft tone that managed to carry quite far amongst the city's stillness.

“So… does anyone know who those other two ponies were along with Sky Chart?”

“Midnight and Morning Glory,” Sunset answered, sullen.

Rarity gave her a curious glance. “Do you know them?”

“No, but…” Sunset stopped, her skin crawling at the concept that had formed in her mind. “I think… those were Vesper Radiance’s parents.”

Everyone stopped and gave Sunset a horrified expression, Applejack in particular looking sick.

“She… she did that to her own kin? That’s… that’s….” She pulled her hat over her face, shaking her head in disgust. “Ah didn’t think Ah could hold this much contempt for a pony.”

“Wait.” Twilight held up a hoof. “What makes you think they were her parents?”

Sunset didn’t give an immediate answer. She started walking, trying to find something to change the topic. “It’s just a feeling I have,” she said aversively.  

“What kind of feeling?” Pinkie asked, her voice still lacking its usual cheer. “Is it like a Pinkie Sense feeling?”

“Uhh, sure.”

While Sunset knew Twilight didn’t buy it, it at least stopped more questions from coming her way. They continued along the sidewalk, still moving in a western direction. Sunset wondered just how large the circumference of the shield was.

Looking up, she watched Rainbow hold her hooves out in front of her, blindly feeling the air. “It was around here somewhere… I think.” She jabbed her hoof out a few times, inching forward before repeating the process.

Pinkie was the first one to run into it, too focused on Rainbow’s antics to look where she was going. Her face pressed against pseudo-glass surface, the red outline visible for all to see. Beyond the barrier was a straight street that ran to the city docks, and just past that, a light fog that veiled the open ocean.

Spike and the other ponies gave Twilight and Sunset a wide berth as the two stepped closer to the wall of energy. They stood side-by-side, horns softly glowing with power.

“Are you ready?” Twilight asked, still sounding apprehensive.

Sunset gave a firm nod. “Yeah. Let’s do this for Fluttershy.”

Twilight’s look of unease melted away, replaced by a strong look of conviction. Together, they lowered their horns and fired their respective beams of magenta and teal. The two threads of light burst forward and converged at a single focal point, harmonizing into a pure white ray that continued forth and clashed with the force field.

Sunset could feel the strength of the barrier trying to resist and repel them. She bared her teeth in concentration, refusing to lose to Vesper’s horrible power. Come on, magic, don’t fail me now! 

“Just a little bit more, Sunset!” she heard Twilight yell over the hum of their combined energy.

Happy to oblige, Sunset poured more magic into her attack, the radiant stream growing even brighter. A noise could be heard over the thrum of energy, faint at first, but quickly growing in volume. At first, Sunset thought it was the shield cracking, but soon she could hear it much more closely, and the sound made her heart jolt.

It was a sinister giggling.

“Oh no—aghhh!” Both Sunset and Twilight were flung backwards like rag dolls, hitting and rolling across the street, coating themselves in black gravel. Sunset groaned, her horn and skull throbbing once more. She found somepony quickly helping her up, dusting off the dirt and rocks.

“What in Equestria happened?” Rarity asked, sweeping her tail across Sunset like a feather duster. Turning her head, Sunset could see the same thing being done to Twilight by Applejack.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Sunset confessed. She looked up at the force field, the red outline fading back to nothingness, having completely rejected her and Twilight’s efforts. “That thing must be stronger than we thought.” She motioned for Rarity to stop and approached the boundary line. Twilight soon appeared next to her, tapping the wall and examining it with a critical eye.

“Either she was already powerful before, or the Alicorn Amulet is giving her a serious boost,” Twilight said, rubbing her chin.

Rainbow swooped down next to her, horrible anxiety scrawled on her face. “You can still break it, right? Tell me you girls can still break it!”

“Calm down, Dash,” Twilight said firmly. “We can still break it. It’s just going to take a little more time.”

Sunset nodded. “Brute force isn’t going to get us through. But this is a big shield, which means there has to be weak points around here somewhere.” Sunset gestured to the shield as a whole. “All we have to do is find one and focus our energy on that.”

A proud look from Twilight was Sunset’s reward. “Good thinking. You search high, I’ll search low.”

“Roger!” With that, both mares steeped themselves in concentration, their magic spreading out around the barrier, probing it for any signs of weakness.

As her magic brushed against the pulsing energy, Sunset was astounded at the work that went into making it. Vesper hadn’t made her shield half-heartedly; she had thrown in all the fixings. Sunset could feel the various types of repulsion spells interweaving within the fabric of magic. Nothing, not even dragon fire could make it in or out. The shield was so well designed, Sunset wouldn’t have been surprised if Los Pegasus was invisible to anyone on the outside.  

Again, Sunset loathed commending Vesper Radiance for her magical prowess, but she had to give credit where credit was due. Still, everything had a weak point, no matter how finely crafted it was. Her magic ran across the ethereal fibers, feeling where they frayed in some areas, though not enough to where they could be unraveled. Being immersed in Vesper’s magic, Sunset could feel the emotions that had been present when the spells were initially conceived. Impatience, frustration, and anger were prominent, but what Sunset felt the most was something that screamed louder than all of them combined, bleeding into every corner of the protective field.

Hatred.

Such an intense hatred on a level that Sunset didn’t think anypony could ever feel. It bubbled like an ugly, open wound, left to fester. It was an all-encompassing hatred for a world that had rejected her, but beyond that, Sunset could feel three ponies Vesper’s hatred was primarily targeted at: Princess Celestia, Princess Cadence, and Princess Twilight Sparkle.

Sunset shuddered at the feeling, not just because it was such a vile and horrible emotion, but because of the familiarity behind it. She had felt something near that level of hatred for Celestia, and now, when she thought about it, she could feel loathing and jealousy for Cadence rising up in her as well.

But where Vesper felt rage and venom for Twilight, Sunset only found a beacon of light shining on the paragon that was her teacher. Twilight represented all that was good in the world. She was the Princess of Friendship, and under her wings, Sunset found tutelage in magic and friendship. She loved Twilight with all her heart; she was like an older sister to Sunset, a best friend.  The very idea of hating her was laughable. But, it did bring up the question of why?

Why did Sunset still feel such contempt for Celestia? It had been agreed upon between herself and Twilight that Celestia had not put out the wanted poster calling Sunset a criminal. The issue had been resolved, so why did the feelings linger? It was the same with Cadence, which confused Sunset even more. Much like Celestia and Luna, she had only met Cadence a hoofull of times back in the future, and all of them had been nothing short of pleasant. Yet, just the thought of her face sent a jolt of anger circuiting through Sunset’s heart.

Wrapped up in her thoughts, Sunset almost missed the frail binding in the magic she was supposed to be disabling. It was, Sunset guessed no bigger than a quarter, but it was certainly there.

“Twilight, I think I found it!” she said excitedly.

Within the field of red, a purple spark appeared next to Sunset’s blue one. She could feel Twilight inspecting the chink in the armor before saying, “Yes, this should do it. Good work, Sunset! Now, just focus your energy right here.”

Sunset complied, feeding her magic into finally unraveling the force field keeping them contained. She found it was like trying to untie a series of particularly stubborn knots, woven together to make an even bigger and more unyielding knot.

And this is supposed to be the weak spot.

Together, she and Twilight pulled and tugged at the magic, feeling it unravel in their combined efforts. When the shield began to make noise again, Sunset was positive it was the sound of it breaking, rather than Vesper’s malicious and mocking laugh.

She opened an eye, overjoyed to see what her effort had done. Cracks ran up all along the dome, now fully revealed for the entire city to see. Sunset was reminded of the time she and her friends had knocked a baseball into one of the castle windows. It surprisingly didn’t break, but was left looking horrendously fragmented. Chipping noises could be heard coming from it as tiny pieces began to fall off.

Then, like somepony had taken a bat to it, the force field shattered into thousands of red shards, quickly blown away by an unseen wind, leaving Los Pegasus free once more.

The group cheered in jubilation, while Sunset bowed her head, taking slow, deep breaths. She didn’t realize how light headed she would feel after channeling magic for so long. She looked up at the path before them leading out to the water, the morning fog slowly burning off as the sun climbed over the hills.

She felt a hoof rest on her back and found Twilight smiling at her. “You good?”

“Yeah.” Sunset nodded, smiling weakly. “Told you I could do it.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry I doubted you,” Twilight said, her tone soft and apologetic. “I was just worried about how you would feel afterwards.”

Dizzy and slightly nauseous. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” Sunset reassured.

“Alright, so what’s the plan now?” Rainbow asked.

Twilight took a deep breath, her horn beginning to glow again. “Now, I’m going to track Vesper Radiance so we can find Fluttershy, and if we’re lucky, the Tempest Crown.” She glanced over to Sunset. “You can take a break this time. I think I can handle this one.”

Sunset didn’t protest. Even she agreed that she needed a break. She needed to be rested for whatever came next. She watched on as Twilight closed her eyes, focusing on the lines of magic that floated through the astral plane.

“Well, she’s been carrying Fluttershy around. I can see the path her levitation spell left. It goes all the way to the docks and then…” Twilight trailed off, frowning.

“Then what?” Rainbow pleaded.

“I’m not entirely sure… but, I think I can feel something out in the ocean.”

“The ocean?” Rarity asked. “How far out are we talking?”

“I don’t think it’s too far out. It’s a little faint, but I definitely feel something. If I’ve studied Equestrian geography well enough, there’s an island out there that I think is close to Vesper’s signature.”

“Well then, what are we waiting for?” Rainbow was in the air again, her eyes on the horizon. “Let’s get a boat and go after them!”

“Oh sure,” Rarity said, her voice lined with sarcasm. “Let me just get out my boat renting money.” She looked around. “Oh wait, I don’t have any.”

“Rares is right, we’re kinda broke.” Applejack frowned.

Spike looked towards Pinkie. “What about the money you got from performing?”

Pinkie blew a short raspberry. “Do you know how much renting a boat costs? Way more than I made!”

“Who said anything about renting one?” There was a rebellious glint in Rainbow’s eye as she spoke. “This is an emergency! Let’s just commandeer a boat and bring it back later!”

“Rainbow, that’s stealing,” Twilight said with a disapproving glare.

“No, it’s commandeering. Didn’t you just hear me?”

“Rainbow, I’m sure if we just asked—”

“No, Twilight!” Rainbow shouted defiantly. “We don’t have time for that! I’m all for you using your princess powers, but we need to hurry! Fluttershy is in danger! All of Equestria could be in danger right now if that island is where the Tempest Crown is hidden! The longer we wait, the closer that witch is getting to the crown, and the closer Fluttershy is to… to…” She choked up and fell to the ground. Her voice strained and she looked at Twilight through watery eyes.

“Please, Twilight. It’s all my fault. I was supposed to be protecting her and I let her get captured. It’s all my fault, and if something happens to her…”

Twilight stepped forward, wrapping her hooves around Rainbow. She was quickly joined by everyone else, including Sunset, who could feel the pain radiating off of her. They huddled together, comforting Rainbow as she tried not cry, but was failing miserably. The waves of empathy were so strong, Sunset couldn’t help but shed a few tears herself.

“I promise you, Dash,” Twilight said gingerly, “everything is going to be fine. We’re all going to get through this alive, you’ll see. But you’re right. This is no time for formalities. This is the time for action. We have to reach Vesper Radiance and Fluttershy as soon as possible, no matter what.”

“Twilight is right, Rainbow,” Rarity spoke up. “Despite what a lot of ponies think, Fluttershy is tough. She’ll hang on until we get there. And then we’ll rip Vesper Radiance to shreds,” she added darkly.

Twilight raised her head. “No, we’ll bring her to the princesses so she can face judgment for her crimes.”

Rainbow said hoarsely, “You’re a princess too. Technically you could judge her and let us dish out punishment.” She grinned weakly.

The group hug ended, Twilight smiling back at her. “Glad you’re feeling a little better. Now come on, we’ve got a friend to save!”

“Uhh, girls,” Spike interrupted. “Even if we do get a boat, who’s gonna steer it?”

The ponies gave each other confused stares until Sunset raised her hoof. “Well, we could just use a come-to-life spell on the boat.”

Twilight beamed at her.

The docks ran parallel to the open water with an odd number of wharves that jutted out over the briny bay. Waves gently lapped at the pony-made wall separating land and ocean, the only sound to accompany the few dock workers who were already up, shuffling around the harbor.

The ponies wandered down the cobblestone path, the salty sea air gently blowing across their coats and wafting the pungent smell of seaweed across their noses. The wind blew from the north, sending shivers through their bodies. Walking in the shade of the tall warehouses didn’t help either.

Boats lined the water, varying in size, shape and color. From small sail boats, to large pleasure cruisers, to even a few old fashion sailing ships. Looking up at the tall masts and flags, Sunset thought of the stories she had read about adventures on the high seas. Swashbuckling and stealing treasure and passionate romance.

She shook her head, keeping her concentration. There was no time to daydream. Still, she had never been on open water before, and was a little excited that this was going to be her first time, regardless of the reason.

Leading the group, Rainbow finally came to a stop at a manageable looking boat: a small, white sailing yacht, powered with a motor as opposed to an actual sail. It had a small open deck up front where the wheel sat, and a single cabin in the back. Overall, it looked just big enough to fit all of them comfortably.

One by one they hopped on, Twilight coming aboard last so she could undo the rope keeping the yacht tethered to the pier. As the boat began to drift away, she walked up to the helm, the magenta glow around her horn starting to encompass the boat as well. “Alright, ponies, let’s—”

“Hey!” All heads turned to see a burly stallion running down the street towards them. “That’s my boat! Where do you think you’re going?”

“Sorry, sir!” Twilight shouted in her best regal voice. “But we are commandeering this vessel for official royal business!” With a flick of her horn, the engine kicked to life, spurring the boat forward out to sea. “We promise, we’ll bring it back soon!”

“Wait! Come back here! The Princess stole my boat!”

His yells of protest grew quiet as they pushed forward into the thin veil of fog still hovering over the water. Once they were clear of the harbor, Twilight flashed her horn again, and the boat increased its speed, skipping over the rocky waves.

They soon broke free of the fog and Sunset’s eyes grew wide as she beheld the vast, infinite ocean stretching before her, seeming to spill off the edge of the world. The blue water rippled on either side of the boat as it cut across, leaving foamy folds in its wake. The skies above glew in the light of the dawn, the horizon brightening from its dark blue color to an azure that matched the water.

The romantic imagery quickly wore off on Sunset as she grasped onto the railing for dear life, bouncing up and down with the boat. Despite not having eaten anything since dinner, her stomach was beginning to rebel fervently against this trip. It was like riding that horrid train all over again, and she now knew why she loved airships so much.

She leaned over the rail, preparing to be sick, when she turned her head and found Applejack not to far down from her, also looking green.

Applejack caught her eye and said, “Ah can usually stomach bumpy rides—” The boat gave a powerful lurch and Applejack held a hoof over her mouth, trying not lose her lunch. “But this is ridiculous.”

Sunset could only nod in agreement and tilt her head over the side again. She had only been there a minute before a cool sensation ran over her body and her stomach mysteriously quieted down. Standing tall, she looked back over to Applejack who was looking just as confused, albeit less green in the face.

Rarity strode over to them, looking quite pleased with herself. “I assume this is the first time either of you have traveled by boat?”

They both nodded.

“I figured as much. My mother and Sweetie Belle are also prone to seasickness, so I learned this handy little spell that helps curb it. Useful, no?”

“Thanks, Rarity,” Applejack said, tipping her hat. “Yer a lifesaver.”

The trip continued uninhibited, the rough waves no longer having an effect on Sunset. Light reflected against the water, making it glitter like polished sapphire. In the distance, a small island appeared, looking more like a jagged rock with a few limp palm trees on top.

“Land ho!” Pinkie cried.

Twilight slowed the boat down as they neared the island, letting it come to rest in the shallows. There was a chorus of splashing water as they disembarked onto the island. They waded through the low tide, Rarity making disapproving titters all the while.

A small, muddy beach wrapped around the front end of the island, decorated only by small hermit crabs and driftwood. The smooth, grey rock sat in front of them, silent and immovable, though rather featureless, like the rest of the island.

Rainbow flew over to Twilight who was focusing on her magic. Before Rainbow could ask, Twilight pointed down at the ground. “She’s… somewhere beneath us,” Twilight said hesitantly.

There was an agitated scowl on Rainbow’s face before she said, “Alright, you heard her! Start looking for a way down!” She flew up to the top of the rock, scanning the island with her aerial view.

Sunset followed Rarity and Applejack around the perimeter of the island, while Pinkie began to dig in the sand, burrowing faster than the crabs. Spike and Twilight walked to the face of the rock, no doubt looking for a secret passage.

The three walked along the edge of beach, following the granite wall all the way around to the back, the waning tide washing against their legs. They had come about halfway when their search yielded something promising.

“Well if that ain’t an entrance, Ah don’t know what is,” Applejack remarked. They all stared at the jagged crevice desecrating the otherwise perfectly flawless stone. It was a narrow and low entrance with ocean water still spilling out of it.

Sunset quickly called the rest over. She looked into the endless dark, the wind howling a haunting melody from deep within. Everyone else soon gathered, and seven faces gazed together into the haze.

Fluttershy!” Rainbow yelled, only to be shushed by Twilight.

“We don’t want to give Vesper Radiance any reason to hurt her,” she said in a hushed voice. “We have to stay quiet.”

Everyone nodded and followed in after her, sloshing through the ankle high shoals. The welcoming light of day quickly vanished, plunging them back into a darkness thicker than the night and that carried on for what seemed like forever. Even the light from three active horns did little to lift the shadows.

Just as Sunset thought they had walked into some perpetual limbo, a set of new lights appeared ahead of them. The long tunnel opened up to an entrance chamber of sorts with two torches lined against the far walls. In front of them sat an open stone door, a set of wings carved on either side and old Equestrian writing scrawled over the archway.

“‘Only the blood of the sky ponies may open this door,’” Pinkie whispered in a trance-like state. “‘Beyond is a test of your speed and agility. Past this maze of stone, the Tempest Crown awaits. But beware the ocean’s tide, for like the sky’s wind, it favors nopony.’” She stared enraptured by the words before saying in her cheerful voice, “Nope, I don’t get it!”

“It means we have to get to the end and get out before high tide,” Rainbow clarified. “And since the door is already open…” She took a deep, shuddering breath and growled, “If she’s hurt, I swear I’ll…” She didn’t finish, choosing instead to soar into the cavernous maw.

“Rainbow, wait!” Twilight hissed, chasing after her. The rest followed in procession, galloping into the unknown.

Just hang in there a little longer, Fluttershy, Sunset thought. Vesper Radiance, your game ends here!

Fluttershy floated forward, hoovering just over the ground, not wanting to put pressure on her cut leg. She looked down at the deep wound again, blood coating the entire bottom half of her hoof. She was beginning to feel light-headed and sleepy, but with the dagger at her back she knew she couldn’t rest.

She couldn’t remember much of what happen after Vesper Radiance had pulled her from the tree. Just bits and pieces that stuck out amongst the rapid panic that had flooded her mind at the time. She remembered a red light scattering bones, the feeling of teleportation. Most of all, she remembered screaming for Rainbow Dash. Then all went black.

Waking up had been an entirely different experience…

“Wakey, wakey, Fluttershy. Time to prove you aren’t completely useless.”

Fluttershy’s eyes opened slowly, blinking several times in an effort to tell the difference between the inside of her eyelids and the darkness that smothered her. She cried out in pain as something kicked her in her side, pushing her across the flooded stone floor.

“Hurry up! We don’t have all day! Very tight schedule to keep. Now come here.”

Getting to her hooves, Fluttershy looked around first, noting that she was within some cave. The only light came from two torches and the red flare coming from Vesper’s hood. “W-where am I?”

“The resting place of the Tempest Crown,” Vesper said impatiently. “It’ll be yours too if you don’t cooperate.” She took a step forward, her black cloak drifting soundlessly through the swill. A long, silver dagger materialized next to her and pointed itself at Fluttershy.

Fluttershy let out a squeak of terror, backing herself up until she hit something solid. Looking behind her, she found a tall stone door, a pair of wings etched into it. She looked back to the unicorn approaching her. “W-what are you g-going to do?”

“The door requires a blood payment. Pegasus only. Quite ingenious actually, trying to stop any other race from getting their hooves on the crown. But that’s why I have you, dear Fluttershy. Now, give me your hoof.”

Quivering against the door, Fluttershy hesitantly began to reach her hoof out, compelled by the terrifying aura Vesper gave off. Her brain told her to just cooperate and give the mare anything she wanted. It might be the only way to survive.

But that… that’s not being brave.

Fluttershy’s eyes took on a steely resolve, and she stomped her hoof against the ground. “No.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said no.” Fluttershy’s voice was hard and unwavering, the timid pony now gone, replaced by the one who could stare Discord in the eye and refuse to flinch. “I’m not going to help you do anything. You’ve hurt innocent ponies, destroyed cities, sent griffons after my friends and foalnapped me. All just for some stupid jewelry!” Her voice grew louder, and with every point, she took a step closer to Vesper Radiance.

“You think you’re so tough? Well, you’re not! You’re just a scared pony hiding behind that Alicorn Amulet! What do you think gives you the right to treat other ponies anyway you want, huh? Now you listen to me, missy, you’re going to—”

It came so quick, Fluttershy didn’t register it until she was already on the floor, her jaw aching. A hoof pressed against her face, and with every breath, she sucked in a mouthful of water as well, coughing and spluttering as it filled her lungs.

“Shut. Up.” A voice hissed in her ear. “You want to know what gives me the right? The fact that I’m better than all of you worthless trash piled together! I am the light that shall shine brighter than the sun! I am Equestria’s true princess, denied her throne by Princess Twilight Sparkle,” she spat. “And as your princess, you will show me the respect I deserve! You should be grateful I have need of you, otherwise, I’d let your blood paint these walls and run into the ocean!”

Magic yanked Fluttershy’s hoof out from underneath her, and she cried loudly as the dagger carved into her skin, a stream of blood gushing out. Vesper threw her forward, and Fluttershy’s bloody hoof ran down the break between the two halves of the door.

The entire cave groaned loudly, the doors swinging open to let the ponies pass through. The water that had built up at the entrance flowed forward, down the slim passage.

Fluttershy held her hoof to her chest, fighting back the tears that burned her eyes. She had never in her life felt pain like this. Something sharp poked her in the back, scaring her into the air. Unfortunately, the phantom-like dagger just followed her, still positioned at the base of her neck.

“Word of advice,” Vesper said airily, “the less you protest, the longer you’ll live...”

It was with that last warning that Fluttershy reluctantly complied, following her tormenter through the endless corridors of stone. Several times they had run into a dead end, and twice Vesper had simply stopped halfway down a tunnel, ordering Fluttershy to turn around.

Time no longer existed in this underground world. For all Fluttershy knew, they had been wandering around for days. It certainly felt that way. It felt even longer since she had last seen the light of the sun.

Fluttershy could admit to herself that she was scared of a lot of things. But right now, every one of those things paled in comparison to the true terror she was feeling. She was never going to make it out of the cavern. She was going to die without ever seeing her friends again. She would never go on picnics, or cheer at competitions, or see the new baby bunnies that would be born soon. She started to weep as quietly as possible, relieved that Vesper was too busy whispering to herself to notice.

Girls, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry we’ll never get to spend time together again. I’ll never forget any of you. You too, Spike. No matter how big you get, you’ll always be my friend. And Sunset, I know we haven’t known each other long, but I feel a bond with you that’s just as strong as the one I have with the others. I hope you can still save the future without me…

Just thinking about all of them made Fluttershy almost believe she could hear Rainbow calling her name. She knew they would try and come for her, but this time… they might not make it.

“Augh!” Vesper’s outburst nearly caused Fluttershy to drop out of the air. “Curse this damnable maze! I have had enough of this!” The light from her horn intensified, blinding Fluttershy, leaving her only able to hear the sound of a mighty cannon.

When she lowered her leg from her face to look, all she saw was a massive burn mark on the wall, and Vesper panting heavily, a thin trail of smoke rising from the front of her hood. Fluttershy kept her distance, refusing to say anything. Partly out of defiance, but mostly out of fear.

Vesper finally took a large breath and said calmly, “Come, Fluttershy. We’re almost there.”

Fluttershy was so stunned by her complete shift in emotion, she forgot to fly after Vesper until her dagger gave a sharp poke in the back of her neck.

Surprisingly, the maze’s exit was only a few turns away, the narrow passages opening up to another large room similar to the one they had started in. Another door barred their passage, engraved with a similar set of wings.

“Figures as much,” Vesper murmured. “You pegasi are such a savage race. Give me your hoof, Fluttershy.”

It wasn’t a request. Fluttershy felt herself dragged down to the ground, landing at Vesper’s side. She whimpered, holding out her bleeding leg.

“No. Give me your other one.”

“What? Why?” Fluttershy cried in a panic.

She didn’t get a response. Vesper just brought the dagger around and sliced into Fluttershy’s good forehoof, eliciting another loud shriek of pain from her. Fluttershy was then pushed forward, her freshly bleeding hoof pressed against the door.

As it slid open, Fluttershy sobbed. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Vesper strode past her, cloak billowing in the strong breeze that came from deeper within the cave. “Because, I want you to feel the pain my heart has felt…”

The long tunnel continued to slope downward into the shadowy abyss. Their hooves splashed in the shallow surf, each pony being careful not to slip down the uneven surface.

When the path leveled out, Sunset found three passages were lined in front of them, separated by thick stone walls. Everyone fanned out, inspecting the mouth of each hall.

“Which way now, Twi?” Applejack asked.

Twilight stared blankly ahead, her tail twitching in agitation. “I don’t know… her magic is all over the place. It’s like… she didn’t know where she was going.”

“Guess not even she could figure out how to get through in one run,” Rainbow said, a smug edge to her voice.

“Yeah, and how are we supposed to do any better?” Spike asked, bursting Rainbow’s bubble.

Sunset stepped forward, drawn towards the far right corridor. There was something familiar about all of this. The sensation tugged at her soul, giving her a sense of déjà vu, like the kind she had felt approaching the Cloudsdale Library, only it was much stronger this time. She had been here before, she was sure of it. The memory itself was faint and hard to reach, like she was grasping sand, but it was there.

She pointed down the hall. “We have to go this way.”

Spike gave her a dubious look. “How do you know?”

“I just… I do, alright? Gut feeling.”

Pinkie walked over, putting her hooves just beyond the wall marking the start of the maze’s split. “Hmm, I think Sunset is right. With the other corridors, I get really faint prickly feelings all over. But I don’t feel anything for this one.”

“Well, it’s not like we have anything else to go on.” Spike shrugged his shoulders. With no objections, Pinkie and Sunset lead the way, the group plunging into the maze.

The stone tunnels were carved in straight, angled paths running only horizontally and vertically. At every intersection they came to, Sunset would stop and wait for the strongest feeling of nostalgia to lead her down a path, and Pinkie would confirm whether or not it was safe.

Once, they had come across a skeleton of a long forgotten adventurer, his bones left bare and rotting. Sunset knew they were taking a large gamble coming down here. The tide had hit its lowest point hardly an hour ago, and soon, the water would begin to rise again. They had to rescue Fluttershy, stop Vesper from getting the Tempest Crown and escape all before high tide. Or else they would all end up like the skeleton.

They arrived at another crossroad, and all eyes fell on Sunset. She looked up and down both paths, feeling which way her soul pulled her. She wasn’t sure if she liked relying on this sensation, not when it reminded her of the hateful voice in the back of her head.

She finally pointed right, and Pinkie bounced a few steps ahead of her. She hemmed and hummed loudly, trying to discern if the path was correct. She gave a quick shake of her head, saying, “Nope. This way is bad.”

“Are you sure?” Sunset challenged. She looked around and found a suitable rock and tossed it down the path, watching it skip along the watery floor. A plethora of steel needles jutted out from every direction, smashing the rock into dust before melting back into the walls like they had never been there in the first place.

Everyone gaped for a moment before Sunset said, “I think we should go the other way.” Afterwards, she didn’t dare question Pinkie’s mysterious power.

Onwards they traveled, their actions quickly becoming routine at every fork. During a particularly straightforward path, Sunset found Twilight falling in step with her, giving an all too familiar look of worry.

“Sunset, you seem to be getting a lot of ‘gut feelings’ lately,” she said in a hushed voice, trying to keep anyone else from eavesdropping.

“Yeah, so?” It came out more defensively than Sunset would have liked.

“Well… I’m getting a gut feeling you know more than you’re letting on.”

Sunset flinched at the accusation before hanging her head in shame. She should have known better than to think Twilight would just let things be. She cared too much, something Sunset loved about her, but found it smothering at other times.

She sighed. “That’s the problem, Twilight. I don’t know. I don’t know where these feelings are coming from, they just feel right.And yet terribly, terribly wrong. When Twilight didn’t answer, Sunset asked, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“No.” Twilight shook her head. “You’re a lot of things, Sunset, and crazy isn’t one of them. Trust me.” There was a thin pause in which Sunset wondered what was going through Twilight’s head to make her frown as deep as she was. Twilight spoke again before she could ask. “So, you have no idea where these feelings are coming from?”

“Not really. They just… it feels like déjà vu. Like I’ve actually come to this place before. But I’m positive that I haven’t.”

Twilight folded her ears. “I see. Well, Sunset, I… honestly don’t know what to say.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. Maybe I’m just tired,” Sunset weakly joked.

“Yeah.” Twilight cracked a smile. “Maybe.”

They walked together in silence, Sunset dragging her hooves through the water. “Twilight,” she said after a while. “I’m sorry about earlier. With… you know… the zo—enchanted corpses.”

Twilight waved a hoof. “Don’t worry about. It was a tense situation. None of us really knew what to do.”

“Still, you were right. They were innocent and didn’t deserve to be treated the way I was going to handle them.”

“Yes, but…” Twilight looked away, uncertain. “If I couldn’t break through the enchantment, if I couldn’t find a peaceful solution… maybe that would have been the best way...”

“Girls, look!” Pinkie cried.

The stone maze finally came to an end, letting out into an antechamber with another open door. There was another path dipping down into nothingness, where a soft wind channeled out, singing a mournful song. None of them hesitated, following the slope down to the lowest level of the cavern.

The last room was the largest of all, matching Canterlot’s throne room if it had been molded in a dome shape. Glowing crystals were embedded into the sides of the walls, allowing artificial light to illuminate the room.

The wind had grown from a soft breeze to a strong bluster, caused by the raging whirlwind, stretching to the ceiling on the opposite end of where the ponies stood. On and on it spun, whipping endlessly, yet seeming to repel the water on the floor. Sunset could see the silhouette of something small within the whirlwind, and was willing to place a bet that it was the crown they had been chasing after. But right now, her focus was on the two mares in the center of the room.

“Fluttershy!” they cried in unison.

Fluttershy lay across the ground, just a few feet away from Vesper Radiance. Layers of dried blood coated her hooves, broken by the fresh trails that continued to bleed from her open wounds. Her ears twitched, the only telltale sign she was alive.

Twilight’s horn flared to life, and Fluttershy vanished in a purple flash, reappearing safely on the ground behind her.

“Ugh, go ahead, take her back,” Vesper said with disgust. “She’s served her purpose to me anyway.”

Rainbow scooped Fluttershy up in her hooves, gently shaking her. “C’mon, ‘Shy, wake up, please!”

Her eyes fluttered open and she gave a weak smile. “I knew you would come after me.”

“Of course we would,” Rainbow said, her voice cracking. “We always will. Now just hang on, we’re gonna get you some help.”

Fluttershy nodded, closing her eyes and slipping into a peaceful sleep. Rainbow handed her to Rarity before bolting into the air, supreme fury on her face.

You!” she bellowed, flying at Vesper Radiance like the truest arrow. “I’m gonna kill you!”

A flash of red collided with Rainbow’s blue body, and all watched her corkscrew through the air and land in a heap near the entrance with a new gash on her head.

“Rainbow Dash!” Pinkie yelled, rushing to her side.

Twilight, Applejack, Sunset and Spike quickly took up a defensive position around the four ponies kneeling behind them. In a low, rigid voice, Twilight said, “You will pay for all of this.”

“Oh? Does the pretty, purple princess have a fire in her eyes?” Vesper asked in a mocking tone. “Do you hate me, Twilight Sparkle? Mad that I can abuse your worthless friends so easily?”

Twilight fired a large pulse of magic in response, contempt disrupting her normally calm face.

Vesper leapt backwards, gracefully twirling through the air. She softly touched back onto the ground, crossing one amber hoof in front of the other. “Well, I can see why my servants had trouble with you. You aren’t as weak as you appear. I’ll have to make note of that.”

“Why?” Twilight took a step forward. “Why do all of this? What do have to gain?”

“Seriously? You’re going to ask me why?” Vesper laughed softly. “I had thought it was obvious. I want to be an alicorn. I have to be an alicorn,” she added in a desperate voice.

Sunset narrowed her eyes, a spark of anger lighting her heart. “Are the lives of innocent ponies worth becoming an alicorn? Do they mean nothing?”

“You keep your mouth shut, you miserable abomination!” Vesper screeched. Sunset took a step back, her entire body beginning to tremble as she felt the waves of malevolence Vesper was radiating. “Out of eight targets, the least those filthy griffons could have done was kill you!”

Applejack pointed an accusatory hoof at her. “You set up those posters calling Sunset a criminal, didn’t you?”

Vesper didn’t respond at first, choosing to merely observe them from the confines of her hood. When she did speak again, it was soft and almost lost on the wind behind her. “You… you fools really think that thing is who she claims to be?”

Twilight hesitated, her horn dimming as she looked with uncertainty between Sunset and Vesper. It vanished with a quick shake of her head, determination returning to her eyes. “Yes, this is Sunset Shimmer—“

No, it isn’t!” the mare screamed, her voice echoing all around the room. “I don’t know who you think you are…” Her hoof reached for her hood, pulling it down and letting her crimson and gold mane fall across her neck, a single bang draping in front of one of her teal eyes.

“But I am Sunset Shimmer!”