Sunset of Time

by The Albinocorn


Final Act: Lessons Eternal—Chapter XXI: Stand Up

Chapter XXI: Stand Up

 

“There’s two Sunset Shimmers?” Shining asked, pausing his brisk walk to run a hoof down his face.

“Yes,” Twilight said through clenched teeth. “And you just tackled and imprisoned the wrong one!”

Shining held his hooves up. “Hey, in defense of my guards, they look exactly the same!” He let out a tired sigh. ”What else was I supposed to do, Twilight?”

Twilight sighed in equal measure. “I’m sorry. I’m not mad that you did your job. It’s just…” Twilight fished for the right words.

It was Rainbow who reeled them in. “There’s kind of a lot going on right now, and Sunset being arrested again really isn’t helping things.”

The six mares and dragon stood behind Shining Armor and two of his guards in the central hall of the palace. It had taken them half an hour just to get beyond security to see Shining and explain what had happened.

Twilight imitated her brother and ran a hoof down her face, a groan rising from her throat. Sunset imprisoned again and probably angry and upset. And Cadence! Attacked in her own throne room! The more Vesper Radiance roamed free, the more ponies got hurt.

If only we had captured her earlier, none of this would be happening. This is all my fault. Celestia gave me this mission, and I’m completely failing it!

A hoof landed on her shoulder, and Twilight looked up into Shining’s stern but reassuring eyes.

“I know what’s going on in that smart head of yours. This isn’t your fault.”

“But if we had stopped her—”

Shining clapped a hoof over her mouth. “I’ve seen first-hoof how dangerous she is. She slipped through my barrier spell like it was nothing. I’m not going to blame this on you because she bested you before.”

Twilight looked away. “She shouldn’t have bested me—bested us,” she said, drawing her mouth in a thin line. “She shouldn’t have gotten this far.”

“Twi, relax,” Applejack said. “We’re gonna stop her. Remember, we still got the crown. We’re one for one, so even if she does get those horseshoes, she’s still a piece short.”

“Yeah,” Pinkie chirped. “We’ll stop big-meanie-pants. Then we can all go home and have our victory party!”

Twilight forced a smile. I hope all of us can go home. Her thoughts turned to Sunset, sitting alone in the dungeon below. Hold on just a few more minutes.

“Shining, can we see Cadence?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s about time I checked up on her myself. Come on, the infirmary is this way.”

The group made their way down an adjacent hall and up a flight of stairs. At the top was a wide room with several beds and a view of the field the ewes grazed in.

Cadence lay on the bed closest to the entrance with several nurses hovering over her. They all stepped back as Shining and Twilight approached.

“Cadence,” Twilight said with a breath of relief. Other than the wound to her shoulder, she looked fine. “I’m so sorry about what happened. Are you feeling okay?”

Cadence smiled at her and raised her uninjured foreleg. “Twilight, you silly filly. Why are you apologizing?” When Twilight drew closer, Cadence pulled her into a light hug. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

Shining looked over at the nurses. “Is she all right?”

The head nurse nodded. “There’s no signs of any curse or lingering effects to her overall health. The blast was just very powerful and damaged the nerves in her foreleg.”

“Can you fix it?” Twilight eyed the table with odd crystal instruments next to Cadence’s bed.

“Yes, but it’s going to take some time. She won’t be going anywhere for a while.”

Cadence leaned back against her pillow and closed her eyes. “For the best I suppose. I can’t even feel my leg.” She looked at the decorative chandelier hanging over the center of the room. “Sunset Shimmer… I knew she was driven… I knew she wanted all of Celestia’s love and attention… but now…. She’s beyond desperate now.”

“You have no idea,” Rainbow said under her breath.

Cadence looked at Shining. “Do you have any new leads on her?”

“Uhh, sort of. We caught… well… it’s a long story. But we’ll find her, don’t worry.” He leaned over and gave her a tender kiss. “Just stay here and rest.”

Twilight reached over and gave Cadence another hug and a kiss on the cheek before they all waved goodbye. The nurses escorted them to the door and politely shut it behind them.

Shining led them back downstairs, then through another corridor that progressively sloped downwards. The candelabras became more spread apart the further down they went.

“So,” Shining said, “I’m guessing you have some sort of plan, right?”

Twilight nodded. “We need to go to the library and find any books that have information on the Obsidian Hoofguards. Then, we’re going to find them and destroy them.”

“Volcano!” Pinkie called from the back of the group.

Twilight ignored her. “We just need to get to them before Vesper does. The goal right now is to just keep them out of her hooves.”

They came up to the dungeon entrance: a gold threshold with a transparent blue field inside it. Twilight’s ears flicked up, and her eyes ran across the odd doorway.

“The door nullifies any magic that crosses through it,” Shining said, sating Twilight’s curiosity. “It’s like inhibitor rings, only less invasive.” He gestured to the guards standing on either side of it.

They saluted and reached for a button, simultaneously pressing them to deactivate the door. Twilight didn’t notice the faint humming it gave off until it was gone. The hall was eerily quiet, even with the collective breathing.

Twilight took a step forward after her brother, then jolted to a stop. A shard of ice cut through her heart as a voice, small and distant, screamed for help. It had all happened in a fraction of a second, but the scream’s echo rang in her ears.

“Twilight?” Spike poked her shoulder. “You okay?”

“Huh?” Twilight looked down at him. “Oh, yeah. I thought I heard… never mind.”

They moved on to the last cell. Through the bar, Twilight could see Sunset huddled in the dark corner, her head toward the wall.

Shining unlocked the door and cleared his throat. “On behalf of the Crystal Guard, I would like to issue a formal apology for wrongfully imprisoning you.” He coughed into his hoof. “It was just… due to your identical appearance, my guards mistook you for… the other you.”

Sunset’s eyes locked onto him from her spot in the shadows. She stood up and stared before offering him a thin smile. “It’s okay,” she said slowly. “You were just doing your job.”

“You’re okay, right?” Twilight asked.

Like she did with Shining, Sunset stared blankly at Twilight for a few seconds before answering, “Fine.”

Twilight could still feel the wall of ice Sunset now guarded herself with and moaned inwardly. I knew this wasn’t going to help, but it might have actually made things worse.

“Well,” Rarity said, cutting the tension, “perhaps we should move onto the library now?”

Sunset nodded and smiled again, showing all her teeth. “That sounds like an excellent idea.”

“You call this ‘narrowing it down’?” Rainbow asked, staring at the rows of books in front of her.

“Well, would you rather go through the entire library?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow mumbled something then flew up to the higher shelves to poke at more books.

Twilight motioned a hoof to the rest of the group to fan out amongst the crystal library’s back section, dedicated to folklore and history. This was it; the answer to where the Obsidian Hoofguards were buried was hidden somewhere in the multitude of pages surrounding Twilight.

She pinned her ears back. Rainbow had a point: even narrowing it down, looking for a single book detailing the Obsidian Hoofguards could take days. And who knew where Vesper Radiance was right now.

Twilight pulled a book at random and looked at the cover: Genealogy of the Royal Family. She sighed and put it back. Would the crystal ponies even have any record of the Hoofguards? It had been entrusted to the earth ponies to hide. Would they have asked help from another tribe?

Hmm. But earth and crystal ponies do share many similarities. Perhaps they felt a close enough bond to ask for assistance? After all, according to Applejack’s story, they did bury it up here in the snow and ice. They would have needed somepony to guide them through the tundra.

Twilight ran Applejack’s story through her head again. Duke Puddingcup was Chancellor Puddinghead’s great-great-grandson. She cross-referenced dates and did some basic math. Yes, the Empire was definitely still around during that time, but under whose rule?

She picked up Genealogy of the Royal Family again and flipped through its pages, keeping a close eye on the dates.

Please let them have buried it before Sombra. Please, please, please! Her ray of hope grew dimmer and dimmer with every page turn. She sucked in a breath as she flipped to the last ruler before Sombra took power.

A small squee of relief passed through her lips when she saw the dates align with the ones in her head. If she was correct, then the Obsidian Hoofguards had been buried under the supervision of the last Crystal Princess. All they had to do was find the most recent history books.

She pushed the book back into its place and rushed out of the aisle to spread the good news. She slid to a stop across the pristinely polished floors as her eyes fell on the librarian’s desk near the front.

Or…

Twilight teleported across the library, reappearing with a pop in front of the desk.

The lilac librarian looked up from her desk and let out a yelp, nearly falling out of her chair.

“I’m so sorry, Miss Amethyst,” Twilight said in a low voice. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The ageing pony readjusted her glasses and took a deep breath. “That’s quite all right, Princess. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“Actually, yes, there is.” Twilight looked from side to side giving a wary glance to the other readers in the library. “Do you know anything about the Obsidian Hoofguards?”

Despite her whispering, it seemed all of the crystal ponies heard her. Each one of them seized up and stared at her with the same fearful and hopeless expressions they had given her when she had asked them about King Sombra.

Amethyst scooted her chair back and gave Twilight and unconvincing smile. “I-I’ve never heard of anything like that. Why would you assume I know such a thing? Nothing like that has ever existed.”

Twilight raised a consoling hoof. “I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”

Apparently, this was the wrong gesture, because Amethyst dropped to the floor and threw her hooves over her face. “No! Please don’t send me back to the mines, Your Majesty! I can’t dig anymore!”

“What happened to her?”

Sunset crept up next to Twilight and observed Amethyst’s shivering with a detached look. “She looks like she’s seen a ghost.”

“She might as well have,” Twilight said. She walked around the desk and knelt down. “Miss Amethyst, no one is going to send you back to the mines.” Twilight stood up and looked at the other crystal ponies on the brink of a nervous breakdown. “That goes for all of you. No one is sending you anywhere. Please, just go back to what you were doing.”

The effect was not immediate. Many of them stayed in their paralyzed state, continuously giving Twilight and Sunset looks of terror and mistrust.

Twilight turned back to Amethyst. “It’s going to be all right. You don’t have to tell us about them if you’re not ready.”

Amethyst looked up from her hooves. “W-why do you want to know about them?”

“Another bad pony is after them, and we need to find them first.”

“I... I see.” Amethyst stood up and Twilight helped her to her chair. By now, the rest of Twilight’s friends were gathering around the front desk.

“I suppose I can tell you, Princess,” Amethyst said. “You did help save the kingdom once already.” She took a shuddering breath. “You see… King Sombra was looking for the Obsidian Hoofguards while he was in power.”

Twilight exchanged grave looks with her friends.

“At first he had us split between the crystal mines and special units looking for the Hoofguards. But near the end, he became obsessed with finding them.” Amethyst shrank in her chair. “We dug and dug all over the mountains and valleys looking for the resting place. He… tortured many of us thinking we knew the location and were refusing to tell him.”

“The Hoofguards were buried under your last ruler,” Twilight said. “Did any of you know where they were hidden?”

Amethyst was silent. “The ones who went to help… never said a word. I was just a filly when they brought that statue here, but I could feel how evil it was. We all could.” She reached under the desk and pulled out a piece of parchment. “Four ponies went out into the tundra. When they came back, they handed the librarian a book and never spoke of it again.” She scribbled on the parchment and slid it to Twilight. “King Sombra never did get through the entire library.”

Twilight looked down at the paper. Row 229. Shelf 7. No title.

“Thank you,” Twilight said. “We’re going to find it and get rid of it once and for all!”

Amethyst smiled. “Bless you, Princess Twilight.”

Twilight smiled, then turned and led her friends to the addressed row. It was in neither the history nor the folklore sections. Instead, row two-twenty-nine contained collections of various encyclopedias of incredibly large size. Shelf seven was the highest.

“You’re up, Dash,” Sunset said, pointing to the top.

“On it!”

“There’s no title on it, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find,” Twilight called.

Rainbow flew down the aisle once, then came back with nothing in her hooves. She flew down again with a discerning eye, yet when she returned, she still had nothing. “Uhh… are you sure you read that right? ’Cause I’m not seeing anything.”

Twilight looked at the paper again and checked the row number. “Yes. This is it, I’m sure of it.”

Rainbow carefully drifted down the aisle and came to a stop dead-center. She reached a hoof out and very carefully dislodged a book crammed in between two encyclopedias.

She flew down and presented to Twilight a very thin, black book that looked more like a pamphlet. “No wonder Sombra never found it,” Rainbow said.

“Well, if ya wanna hide a tree, use a forest,” Applejack said.

Twilight took the book over to the furthest table and carefully laid it down. She removed her saddlebag, sat down, and gently flipped the book open, cringing as she saw the paper inside.

It was water-stained and falling out of the binding. The words were smudged and almost illegible.

“It looks positively ancient, even by the Crystal Empire’s standards,” Rarity said, taking a step back from it.

“Probably to make it harder for anypony to read it,” Sunset said.

“Well, it’s working,” Twilight grunted, squinting her eyes to make out the words. “It seems to be a journal entry of some sorts. ‘The… the un-undead… beast of… the ice.’ They must be talking about the Frostlich. ‘Cry… Crystal… arium?’ Crystalarium?”

“What’s that?” Spike asked.

“Hold on, let me keep reading.” Twilight scanned further down the page. Her eyes strained against the damage page. “Most of it is completely unreadable... but there’s a drawing of the statue in here.” She turned the page. “And… numbers.”

Rainbow leaned over Twilight’s shoulder. “Numbers? What for?”

“I think they’re coordinates. Quick, someone go find me a map!”

Rainbow sped off and returned ten seconds later with a map of the surrounding region.

Twilight held it up in front of her, bobbing her head back and forth between it and the book. She summoned a pencil and began making light traces on the map. Her heart beat faster as she drew the lines together and penciled in a dot.

“I… I think I know where to go.”

“All right!” Sunset punched the air. “Let’s go!”

“Right now?” Fluttershy asked.

“Uhh, yeah. We don’t want Vesper getting there first, do we?”

“Well, no,” Rarity said. “But it’s starting to get late and it looks like it’s going to be something of a trek. Don’t you think we should get a fresh start in the morning?”

“Ah’m with Rares on this,” Applejack spoke up. “Besides, you’ve seen how well guarded this secret is. There’s no way Vesper knows where to go yet.”

Sunset stared at them all, then a lax smile crossed her face. “You’re right. There’s no way she could figure it out so soon. We should rest up and tackle this tomorrow.” She shared her smile with Twilight. “Good job.”

Twilight beamed, feeling some of the ice between them melt. “Thanks.” She closed the book and passed it back to Rainbow. “Hide this again. The next time somepony finds it, the information will be obsolete.”

Rainbow saluted and darted off.

Twilight reached down for her saddlebag, but a hoof gently halted her.

“Don’t worry,” Sunset said. “I’ll carry it this time.”

“Are you sure?”

Sunset smiled as she scooted it onto her back. “It’s just to the palace. I don’t think it’ll do anything between here and the next block.”

The entourage exited the library, Twilight having stowed the map away with the Tempest Crown.  Outside, Shining Armor was waiting for them.

“Did you find anything?” he asked.

Twilight nodded enthusiastically. “We know where the last piece of the Regalia is.” She pointed out to the hills east of the Empire. “First thing tomorrow, we’re going to go find it.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Shining ruffled her mane. “My little sis. Only here for an hour and she finds some ancient, dangerous treasure.”

Twilight playfully swiped his hoof away. “Shiny! You’re embarrassing me!”

From her peripheral vision, Twilight saw Sunset twitch.

“You okay?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah, totally!” Sunset said with a chipper smile.

Twilight gave her a cautious look. She hadn’t noticed it before, but there was something different in Sunset’s eyes. Like she was holding something back. Gears started to turn within Twilight’s head, but Rarity stepped in front of her.

She looked over Sunset like she was a dress. “Darling…” Rarity pointed up to Sunset’s mane. “That front bang of yours… didn’t you splice it off when we teleported onto the griffon airship?”

Sunset’s eyes crossed as she stared up. “Uhh… well…”

A magenta beam knocked Sunset off her hooves and across the street. The surrounding ponies screamed and dispersed, locking themselves within their homes.

Shining drew his sword and moved in front of Twilight and Rarity. “Vesper Radiance.”

Vesper stood up and frowned. “I can’t believe I forgot that. And I can’t believe you noticed it.”

Rarity gave her a cold glare. “An artist always has an eye for detail.”

Vesper held a hoof up to her mouth and giggled. “No matter.” Her horn sparked red, and the Alicorn Amulet shimmered into view around her neck. “I got what I wanted.”

Both Twilight and Rainbow rushed from behind Shining, Twilight charging her horn and Rainbow with a hoof pulled back. Both of them were thrown back by a crimson barrier halfway across the street.

“I will not be denied this time!” Vesper shouted. She took the Tempest Crown out of the bag and held it over her head.

Shining ran forward with Applejack and delivered a hard buck to the shield, but to no avail. Shining switched to attacking it with various spells, while Pinkie and Spike joined Applejack in trying to break it down.

Stand back!” Vesper roared. The shield exploded outwards, tossing everyone onto the steps of the library. “And witness the first part of my ascension!” She placed the crown upon her head.

A ruby light immediately wrapped around her body and lifted her up into the air. It centered around her midsection and spun faster, creating two new appendages that protruded from her shoulder blades.

Twilight got up and fired spell after spell in desperation, only to have them rebound in random directions. She stared on in abject horror as the wings fully formed on Vesper’s back: long, feathery, amber—like the rest of her coat.

The light faded, leaving Vesper to hover over the street, gently beating her wings.

“Hee...heee heeee. Hahahahahah! Aahahahahahahahaha!” She rose higher into the air and spread her wings out to the fullest.

“She… she can fly already?” Twilight asked, aghast. Her own wings fidgeted. “But she’s only had them for two seconds.”

Vesper looked down at her. “It’s like I said, Princess—an alicorn who can’t fly is truly pathetic.” A ball of energy coalesced at the tip of her horn, and she hurled it down.

Twilight’s and Shining’s shields overlapped one another and repelled the magic, but Vesper quickly followed with another… and another.

“Come out, come out, little ponies! Come bow before your new princess!”

“You’re no princess of ours!” Shining growled.

“You won’t be saying that after Cadence is dead!” Vesper turned and jetted towards the palace.

Both shields dropped simultaneously, and Shining was halfway down the block before Twilight could blink. She teleported, ending a few yards behind him and broke into a run.

“Heavy Storm!” Shining bellowed, his voice ringing throughout the entire city.

Three guards appeared on the palace balcony, materializing as if from thin air. Each were armed with a crystal bow, and quickly lined Vesper in their sights.

Fire!”

A volley of arrows flew from the balcony. Raising her head higher, Twilight saw another volley come down from the top of the palace spire. That’s not going to stop her. But it should distract her!

Vesper paused in mid-flight to throw a shield around herself. The arrows embedded themselves within, falling to the ground when the shield vanished. As the archers drew another set of arrows, Vesper charged her horn.

Twilight fired her spell, a single, pinpoint blast that hit Vesper right between her shoulder blades. She cried out and fell out of the sky. Her hooves flailed as she tried to get her wings to work again.

A magenta sphere solidified around her, carrying her to the ground and dragging her in front of Twilight and Shining.

“Don’t even think of trying your little trick this time,” Shining said confidently. “It sealed from every side.”

Vesper just watched him with a calculating smirk.

Twilight took a step forward, opposing the smirk with a carved scowl. “Where is Sunset?” she asked slowly.

“I’m right in front of you, Princess.” Vesper’s smile widened.

Twilight pressed her teeth together. “You know that’s not what I mean.”

“Hmm? Oh, the replica!” Vesper giggled. “Yes, I had quite a fun time with her.”

Rainbow flew up from behind and banged a hoof against the force field. “Where is she?”

Vesper pressed her muzzle up against it. “Where indeed?”

“Where is she?” Twilight screeched.

“Ahahahahahahahaha!” Vesper fell back and held her stomach. Her laughter bounced around the bubble. “By now, Replica is dead! Buried out in the snow with nopony to comfort her!” She stood up and pressed her face against the shield again, staring into Twilight’s eyes. “I hope she cursed your name with her last breath.”

The ground vanished from underneath Twilight and she fell into an bottomless chasm. That voice… that cry for help… It had been Sunset’s. And she had ignored it. She had fallen for Vesper’s trick and mistaken her for a friend. She couldn’t tell the difference between the real Sunset and the fake one.

And now the real one was…

“Dead.” The word struggled out of Twilight’s mouth. “I… I…” She had failed to keep her promise to Sunset. She hadn’t even come close.

“Let her out of that bubble!” she heard Rainbow yell from far away.

“Rainbow Dash, I can’t do that,” came Shining’s voice.

Let her out so I can pulverize her!”

“That’s okay, Dash. I can escape on my own.”

“What do you mean?”

"Hehehe… the sun is out, Captain.”

Twilight regained enough of her senses just in time to see Vesper’s eyes vanish in a pool of white light. As Twilight threw a shield around herself and her friends, Vesper roared, detonating the shield encasing her. The force was enough to push Twilight back, but her shield had withstood the attack.

Vesper launched herself into sky, and, with a triumphant laugh, bolted east with map in hoof, leaving a red-and-gold streak behind her.

Rainbow swore at the top of her lungs and broke into the air as well, but Rarity called to her before she could make it very far.

“Rainbow, stop! You can’t go chasing after her on your own!”

Rainbow spun around and screamed, “She killed Sunset!

She killed Sunset, Twilight echoed in her mind.

“I… I know that.” Rarity turned and wiped her face with her hoof. “But… but we need to stick together. You know what she’s capable of.”

Death. One of my friends is dead.

“What do we do now?” Pinkie asked, her mane lying flat against her head.

What do we do now?

“I’ll get a host of guards and we’ll go after her before she can reach those Obsidian Hoofguards,” Shining said.

“No,” Twilight said in a tight voice.

Shining looked incredulously at her. “No? What do you mean ‘no’?”

“We… we’ll go after her.” Twilight made a weak gesture to her friends. “You need to stay here and guard the palace—guard Cadence.”

“Okay, I agree we’re going to need to keep a strong defense around her, but if you think I’m letting you go out there alone—”

“Shining Armor, listen to me.” Twilight’s voice was completely neutral. “You just saw what she can do—”

“Which gives me all the more reason to—”

“Listen!” Twilight screamed. “You’re going to need every guard you can muster to stay here and defend the Empire! We’re going to go after her and try to stop her! But if we fail and she gets the Hoofguards—if we don’t come back—then you’re going to need every last guard to try and stop her!”

“Twi…”

Twilight’s unwavering and cold eyes drilled into Shining’s. Shining took a step back and swallowed hard.

“You’re… you’re going to come back, right?”

Twilight nodded. “I...”  She held her tongue back. “Yes.”

Shining closed his eyes. “I really don’t like this, Twily. But you always know what you’re doing. Come on, at least let me give you some snow gear. It’s going to be freezing out there.”

Twilight followed him without a word. In fact, none of her friends said anything. All she heard were sniffles and a few muffled sobs. Yet Twilight had no tears. Just a beast clawing at her chest, eating away at her heart; a beast born of guilt and fear, frustration and hate.

I’m glad… I’m glad we don’t have the Elements with us. I wouldn’t have used them this time. Because…

Her face morphed into vengeance itself. The words escaped her, just soft enough so only she could hear them.

“I’m going to kill her…”

“You’re staying here!”

“No, I’m not! I told you, I’m coming with you!”

“And I said no, Spike! You’re staying with Shining where it’s safe!”

“Nowhere’s safe, Twilight! And you can’t keep treating me like a kid! I wanna go help too!”

Twilight and Spike faced off against one another in the central hall of the palace. Both of them donned unflinching faces, resolute in their desire to defy the other’s orders.

“I know you want to help,” Twilight said evenly, “but it’s too dangerous. I’m not going to risk it.”

Spike crossed his arms. “This whole journey’s been dangerous. You can’t just tell me to sit out now. I wanna help you stop Vesper too.” He dropped his arms and his eyes started to water. “I wanna help finish what Sunset started.”

Twilight softened, verging on breaking into tears herself. “Spike, I—”

“I can’t just sit here while you all go out and fight. I need to know if you girls are okay. And I need to help any way I can.” He gave Twilight the biggest eyes possible. “So please, Twi?”

The word ‘no’ sat on her tongue, but moved nowhere. She wanted so badly to tell him to stay in the palace. The less targets Vesper had, the better. But those eyes… and his determination. Twilight yielded, knowing she couldn’t baby him forever.

“You stay by me at all times, okay?”

Spike nodded fervently. “Deal.”

Shining stepped from around the corner, a bundle of clothes in his magic. He presented them to Twilight and said, “You know, if Cadence wasn’t injured, there’d be nothing that could stop me from going too, right?”

Twilight slipped the light-blue cloak around herself and wrapped the scarf around her neck. “I know.”

Shining turned to Spike and smiled apologetically. “Sorry, Spike. All we could find for your size was a scarf.” He handed it to him.

Spike took it in his claws and nearly fell over. “This is a scarf?” He unbundled the long roll of fabric, and a sword clattered to the ground. “What?” Spike picked it up with both claws.

Twilight stared open mouth at the sword, then at Shining. “You can’t give him a sword!”

Shining ignored her. “Keep them safe, all right?”

Spike gripped the sheath tight and nodded.

Twilight held up a hoof of protest, but changed her mind before the words left her lips. If a sword would help protect Spike, then who was she to say anything?

Their friends met them in the entrance hall, dressed in cloaks and hoods, boots and scarves. Their eyes were red and puffy, and they moved like a funeral procession.

To her own discomfort, Twilight had not cried yet. A few tears had been shed, but her brain wouldn’t allow her to stay on the idea for longer than a few seconds. She knew Sunset was dead—her mind just refused to let it sink in any further than it had.

Twilight was grateful. Giving into that thought, staring at it without any filter… it would only drive her to despair. She had failed. Not only had she let one of her friends die, she had broken her promise to Sunset.

Her train of thought jerked to the hike through the tundra. It was going to be long and would eat up the rest of their daylight, but Vesper was probably there already, digging through the snow.

Another distraction Twilight’s mind provided for her was trying to formulate a plan to stop Vesper. Time had already shown it was pointless to hope the Frostlich would stop her. The fact that Twilight and her friends had to fight Vesper and an undying dragon made her dizzy.

Until Spike had delivered a message from Luna upon entering the palace. A letter with three simple words that filled Twilight with hope.

Celestia is coming.

Much of a breath of fresh air as it was, Twilight felt shame bubble within her. Her mentor coming to their aid was the best thing any of them could ask for, yet it was another strike reminding Twilight of her failure. Celestia had asked her to stop Vesper Radiance, and Twilight had been unable to do so. Now Celestia was on her way to do the deed herself. Would she be disappointed in Twilight? Angry?

Twilight shook her head, knowing where that particular train of thought led. It didn’t matter at this point. Twilight knew she and her friends just needed to keep Vesper occupied until Celestia showed up. Then it would all be over.

Vesper Radiance…

Twilight’s entire body gave a violent shudder. Was this what Sunset had been feeling? Unabated, unbridled loathing for one being? Vesper’s laugh and unsympathetic smirk when she delivered the news of Sunset’s death sent both chills down Twilight’s spine, and a burning drive through her heart.

Nothing would have made Twilight happier than to be the one to strike Vesper down—to wipe that cruel smirk off her face. Yet when she imagined Celestia doing it instead, part of her was relieved.

It had been a silent walk to the eastern edge of the city. The sun was still out, but everypony had hidden themselves inside, save for the guards.

Shining came to a stop when the crystal path gave way to the sloping grass field. He looked down at Twilight. “Guess this is as far as I go. When you guys get beyond the border, I’m putting the shield up. Though I doubt it’ll be much help against her,” he said, pinching his face like he had swallowed a bitter herb.

Twilight leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. “Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”

“So I pray. But I’d still feel better if you took some guards with you.”

“I… we can’t.” Twilight pretended to stare out into the distance. “It’ll just slow us down. And give her more targets.” And I won’t let her kill anyone else on my watch!

Shining sighed. “Twilight, I know what’s going through your head again—oof!”

Twilight silenced him by throwing her forelegs around his neck for one last hug. “Thanks, BBBFF. We’ll come back, I promise.”

Shining rubbed her back. “All right. We’ll be waiting.”

They broke apart and gave each other another wave. Shining gave a wink to Spike, who had the sword strapped across his back.

Twilight led her friends up the hill, the Frozen North spread out before them. The green pastures extended for a mile before becoming a sea of ice and snow. As the ponies and dragon crested the hill, a blue wall rose up behind them, completely encasing the Crystal Empire.

The warm magic that flowed from the Crystal Heart immediately ceased, exposing them to the bitter chill of the North Wind.

No turning back now, Twilight thought.

She took a few steps forward.

“Twilight,” Rarity said. She opened her mouth to ask the obvious question, but it never came, to Twilight’s relief. Instead she asked, “I know we’re supposed to keep Vesper distracted until Celestia arrives, but I was hoping you could divulge your… plan to the rest of us.”

“I don’t have a plan,” Twilight said warily.

“Then perhaps we could make one? You know, talk it out together?”

Rarity’s smile and pleading eyes warmed the broken pieces of Twilight’s heart, but Twilight turned her head away. “No. There’s nothing to…”

“There’s nothing to talk about...”

“It’s nothing, Twilight, really.”

“Please, Twilight… I just want to be alone right now.”

The wind was sucked out of Twilight. Every rebuke, every defensive answer made sense to her now. This crushing weight in your chest… was this what you were feeling, Sunset? Twilight knew why Sunset had put off telling her hidden feelings. Because to acknowledge them, Twilight would have to stop. She would have to sit down and take inventory of every piece of her heart.

And if she stopped now, Twilight wasn’t sure she could start again. If she sat down, she wouldn’t be able to get back up.

Rarity put a hoof on her shoulder. “Twilight, we’re all here for a reason. We’re all going through the same thing right now. We can lean on each other.”

Twilight looked into Rarity’s eyes and found the same pain, the same heartache, the same broken pieces. Rarity was right: they had each other to lean on. They would catch Twilight if she fell. They would help her stand up.

But Twilight didn’t feel like falling down; not yet, not when they had a job to do. Even with all of her friends by her side, she could not stop to mourn Sunset now. She wanted time. She wanted to think back and know Sunset hadn’t died in vain.

Twilight squeezed Rarity’s hoof. “I promise we’ll talk when this is all over. I just… I just need to keep moving right now. We all do. For Equestria… and for Sunset.”

Pinkie nodded, hair straight and face grim. She stuck a hoof out. Fluttershy followed, laying hers on top of Pinkie’s. Then Rainbow Dash; Applejack; Rarity; finally, Spike. Twilight laid her hoof on top, her heart swelling at the sight of her friends.

“For Sunset!”