• Published 2nd Feb 2015
  • 1,614 Views, 32 Comments

The Meaning of Harmony - KatonRyu

Sunset Shimmer returns to Equestria and gets sent on a mission to bring harmony to Equestria. Light SunLight in later chapters.

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Once More With Feeling

Author's Note:

It’s been a long time. Not as long as before, but still long. Lots of things have been going on, from games I wanted to play, to series I wanted to watch, to my rekindled interest in fencing, but I’m back with a new chapter. Not much to say about this one, so please let me know what you think, and enjoy!

Sunset was staring at one of the Forge’s crystal formations. Behind her, her friends were discussing the journal entry. They were talking about the legendary oasis of Zerzura and the water dome of Hippocampus, but none of it mattered much to Sunset. The desert had already been next on Twilight’s planning anyway, and while an underwater Forge wasn’t something she would have thought of, Sunset figured that they would have found it eventually anyway by the simple expedient of asking around with the locals.

The one thing that mattered to her was the mention of Atonement. The way the author had described it, there had been a group of ponies who believed that Atonement was an aspect of Harmony. The Elements had never failed without it, so most likely they had been wrong…but for some reason Sunset had latched onto the possibility and she couldn’t get it out of her head.

But the truth was, she wasn’t really trying to get it out of her head. In either world, she was the only member of her group of friends who wasn’t an Element wielder. She had figured she had made her peace with that, but the possibility of another Element had reawakened her old envy a bit. She couldn’t help but fantasize that she was the bearer of the Element of Atonement. After all, hadn’t she spent a great deal of effort on making up for all the things she’d done wrong before? Or perhaps, this very line of thinking would disqualify her right off the bat. Was her atonement real if she’d only done it to get an Element of her own? Wasn’t that just more of the same greed which had led her down the dark path she’d been following until the very Elements whose power she sought brought her back to her senses?

But still…the thought of finally being a real part of the group was one she relished. She supposed that it was a bit selfish to think like that. Her friends were always there for her in either world. Saying that she didn’t really feel like a part of the group would be selling them short, but still the feeling was there.

“Sunset? Are you…are you okay?”

When she heard Twilight’s voice, Sunset realized her horn had been sparking. When she was younger that used to happen all the time whenever she felt annoyed by something, but it was a habit she’d long grown out of…or so she’d thought. She sighed and turned towards Twilight. She looked into her friend’s worried eyes and felt a wave of guilt at her misgivings washing over her.

“I guess,” she said. Her voice was flat, still reflecting her inner struggle.

Twilight took a step closer to her. “If something’s bothering you…you know you can always talk to me, right?” she asked.

Sunset smiled faintly at her, or at least tried to. “Thank you,” she said. “But we should probably get to work on the Forge. That’s why we’re here, after all.”

In reality, she wanted nothing more than to tell Twilight the whole Atonement thing was bothering her, but she knew that Twilight, much like the author of the journal, didn’t really think it was significant. Worthy of study, certainly, intriguing, most definitely, but not immediately relevant. Because of that, Sunset didn’t think it was worth discussing the matter now. There was no way she could explain why this was so important to her without coming off as being incredibly selfish.

“If you say so,” Twilight said hesitantly.

With a last, worried look at Sunset, she walked back over to the others to get them ready for the activation of the Forge. Sunset looked at her and wondered how Twilight was feeling right now. Like her, she hadn’t been sleeping much because of the nightmares, but unlike her, she was the one who would be doing the activation of the Forge. She wondered how Twilight managed to keep herself together so well through all of it. Was it solely because she was a princess?

Sunset realized that, despite being friends, she didn’t really know all that much about Twilight from before she was a princess. Usually when they corresponded through the enchanted journal, they were talking about Sunset’s experiences at CHS, and occasionally Twilight would describe some of her royal duties or adventures with her friends, but it never really went into her personal history.

But now wasn’t the time for such things. The Forge had to be activated. Twilight was just done instructing the others, and Spike reluctantly stepped out of the fog barrier so his presence wouldn’t interfere with the spell. Applejack looked apprehensive as she made her way to the center of the Forge. Since this was the Forge of Honesty, she’d act as a focal point this time. Sunset assumed her position beneath one of the blue crystals in its obsidian holder. Twilight looked at each of her friends in turn and then closed her eyes. Sunset took a deep breath and relaxed as much as she could, to make it easier for Twilight to draw on her magic. Soon, she felt the gentle warmth of Twilight’s magic, and she allowed her own to move with it, to energize the magical markings and formations around her.

As before, the magic snaked its way across the ground towards Applejack, whose body began to glow orange as the magic flows converged inside her. The orange glow began to overtake the magenta aura, and shortly afterwards it reached the edge of the dome. Sunset felt a spike of cold, much more intense than before, being driven into her chest and she gasped in pain. There was a flash of light and Sunset fell to her knees, gasping. Her magic felt deadened and heavy, as if it were the very thing keeping her down.

She stared at the softly glowing patterns on the ground, but she felt no elation that the Forge was active. The pain had been worse. The exhaustion felt worse. She knew that once she stepped out of the Forge’s protective dome of fog, she’d feel worse still. This was only the second Forge they’d activated. At this rate, her body would give out before they even got to the fifth Forge, let alone the last one. She struggled back to her hooves and looked at Twilight, who looked like she’d just faced a horde of angry ghosts.

“Are…are you okay, darlings?” Rarity asked, looking from Twilight to Sunset.

No, Sunset thought. “Yes, we’re fine,” she said. She did her best to ignore Twilight’s troubled look.

Sunset’s legs felt encased in lead as the group slowly walked away from the Forge. She’d cast the energizing spell on Twilight before leaving the Forge’s barrier, and doing so had almost brought her to her knees again, but she’d managed to stay upright. Now, in silence, they were making their way back to their campsite at the edge of the uncharted territory. Sunset was warily scanning the trees for signs of Will-o’-Wisps, but so far she hadn’t seen any. Every now and then, she shot a look at Twilight, both to see if she was still holding up, and out of a slight feeling of guilt.

Unbeknownst to her friends, Sunset had taken the journal with her. She was sure her friends, Twilight most of all, wouldn’t take kindly to taking something like this away from its rightful place, but Sunset felt it still held more answers; if not for their quest, then just for herself. After all, who knew what might still be written inside it about Atonement? Sunset knew, however, that she wouldn’t be able to read in the journal that night. For one thing, she was far too exhausted and afraid of the nightmare that was sure to come to really focus on it. Aside from that, there was no way she’d be able to take it out without one of her friends noticing, and she really didn’t feel like explaining herself to them.

On and on they walked. The eerie silence around them began to feel oppressive. Had it been this quiet on the way to the Forge? Sunset couldn’t remember. Was it just the exhaustion making her paranoid? Was it the lack of sleep of the past days? Her eyes went from tree to tree, but nothing sinister appeared. No alluring blue flames gleamed between the branches.

“We’re almost there,” Twilight said faintly, probably more to herself than to her friends.

“Yep, just a bit further,” Spike said encouragingly.

Sunset smiled faintly at the concern in his eyes. Twilight really was lucky with such a devoted assistant. She wondered if she’d gone down the same path if her test had been to hatch Spike’s egg. Maybe his optimism and devotion would have kept her on the right path. But then, if she hadn’t gone down that path, would she have ever met her friends? Would she have ever met Twilight?

She was still thinking about alternate histories when they finally arrived back at their campsite. With a sigh of relief, Sunset shrugged off her saddlebags at the spot where Twilight and Sunset would pitch their tent for the night. Just like the last time they’d activated a Forge, they’d chosen a spot a bit removed from the campsite to protect their friends. Unlike last time, though, this time they knew how to get the tent up without the use of their magic.

“We’re almost getting competent at this,” Twilight said as she surveyed their work.

“Heh, compe-tent,” Sunset said, then coughed and blushed when she realized just how bad that pun was. Twilight chuckled. “Just pretend you didn’t hear that,” Sunset said, still as red as the streaks in her mane.

“Don’t you mean ‘pre-tent’?” Twilight asked innocently.

Sunset groaned, but then she smiled. If she’d had hands, she would’ve playfully punched Twilight in the shoulder. She looked at Twilight’s mischievous smirk and felt a trace of the same warmth she usually felt when their magic mixed, as if it somehow radiated from her eyes despite the fatigue Sunset saw in them. Sunset quickly looked away.

“Come on, let’s go get something to eat,” she said.

But in her mind, for reasons she could only guess at but which she eventually put down to her own exhaustion, she still saw Twilight’s eyes, almost as mesmerizing as the glow of a Will-o’-Wisp.

Slowly, Sunset traced her magic into the air. Dinner had slightly revitalized her, just enough so she’d be able to set up the shield. Her heart was racing, but not because she was afraid she’d mess up the spell. No, this was a different fear. The fear of going to bed that she’d felt for several nights now. With every passing moment it seemed to grow stronger. The worst thing was that a part of Sunset was morbidly curious about what was going to happen this time. Would she be able to reach her friends this time? Would she be able to hear the voice Twilight described in her last nightmare? She feared what the answers to those questions would be, but she felt that she was going to find out soon enough. With a last burst of magic, she finished the shield.

“I hope it holds,” she said to Twilight, who stood behind her.

“We’re far enough away from our friends…I think,” Twilight replied. “Not…not that I don’t think you can do it, it’s just, the nightmares, the magic, it…”

“I get it,” Sunset said with a smile. “Don’t worry, I don’t think you doubt me.” You’re probably the last one who would, she silently added in her thoughts.

Twilight sheepishly returned the smile. “Well…” she said, her face growing apprehensive, “I guess…we should just try to get some sleep, then.”

She stepped into the shield and entered the tent, and Sunset followed her in. A few moments later, the tent was dark. Even now, Sunset heard no sounds from the swamp around them. It was odd, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t a swamp be alive with insects, frogs, and whatever else crawled around here? Why was it so quiet? Odd, so odd…

The moon was bright and the sky cloudless. Sunset stood in a large clearing in the forest, bathed in the pale glow. Her magic, for now, was calm, but her mind wasn’t. On the opposite end of the clearing she spotted a group of ponies who seemed to be in conversation. Slowly, she began to walk towards them. She wasn’t sure why she was moving so slowly, but she had a feeling that, if she would start to run now, something terrible would happen.

She felt pinpricks all over her body, as if the moonlight was somehow burning her. Her magic faintly stirred within her. She heard the voices of her friends, carried on the breeze. Somehow she heard the sounds clearly, but couldn’t make any sense of them. Closer and closer she got, and now her friends noticed her, beckoning her to come closer.

Now, suddenly, Sunset felt that she should run. She couldn’t explain it, she just knew that she had to. When she reached them, she heard it, at long last. A voice spoke, but the sound was silent, and yet painfully loud. It was everywhere and nowhere. It filled every cell of her body with revulsion and terror. It was as if the darkness became tangible and touched her very soul. It only said one thing, one name.

“Twilight Sparkle.”

Everything ended in an unbearably bright flash of magenta light.

The first thing Sunset became aware of was that she was no longer in a tent. The second thing was that she felt like the time she went to the beach with her CHS friends and got a horrible sunburn because in Equestria she’d never needed sunblock. The third thing was that the four massive trees she was looking at had very angry heads with green eyes.

She shot a quick glance next to her. Twilight was already on her hooves, wings flared and staring at the hydra with a mix of determination and fear. Sunset looked at the trees behind which the rest of her friends had their tents, and she saw them in the shadows, eyes wide at the peril of their friends.

Rainbow Dash wanted to fly over, but Sunset shook her head to warn her off. It wouldn’t make sense for her to endanger herself. To her unending relief, Rainbow Dash heeded her warning. Sunset turned back to the hydra, which was still regarding her and Twilight with the full attention of its four heads, each bigger than a pony.

“Ever dealt with a hydra before?” she asked.

Twilight didn’t take her eyes off the hydra when she replied. “Once, but it was smaller than this one, and I didn’t exactly ‘deal with it’ as much as ‘ran away’.”

Sunset nodded slowly, like Twilight keeping her eyes trained on the hydra while she did so. She was trying to come up with a plan to defeat the hydra, but before she could even begin to think of something, the hydra attacked.

Its leftmost head shot towards them, maw wide open. Mustering all the strength in her sore body, Sunset threw herself out of the head’s path.

She landed in a soggy patch of swamp and felt herself beginning to sink, so she quickly cast a cloud-walking spell to regain her mobility. She was not a moment too soon, as the head that had attacked her before came down once again.

Sunset leapt backwards and to the right, hoping that the hydra wouldn’t notice her friends, still hidden in the shadow of the tree branches only a short distance away from the fight. To her right, Twilight was dodging two of the other heads. Why wasn’t she flying? Did she forget about her wings?

Sunset had no time to worry about Twilight, as the last idle head of the hydra now began attacking her as well. The swamp made it hard to move freely, even with the cloud-walking spell, and she didn’t want to get too far from Twilight to prevent the hydra from going after her alone.

At the same time, she had to take care not to draw its attention to her hidden friends. She saw a magenta flash from the corner of her eye as Twilight fired a horn beam at the hydra, which the monster easily dodged and countered.

Once more the hydra attacked, and this time Sunset jumped forward, ending up beneath the hydra’s neck where she was temporarily shielded against an attack from the other head. She hear the discharge of another horn beam. What was Twilight doing?! Didn’t she know that horn beams weren’t going to work? Even if she’d manage to hit it, at her current level of magic it would just about singe its scales and make it even angrier.

The hydra raised its head, depriving Sunset of her momentary hiding place. She had to come up with something, and quick, or she’d be hydra food. Last time she’d fought a hydra, she’d used solar magic to blind it for a short time and then tricked it into attacking itself, after which it retreated.

This time, she couldn’t do something like that. The hydra wasn’t focused solely on her, so any attempt to blind it would only get two heads at best, and tired as she was she wouldn’t be able to pull it off twice in succession.

Again, she jumped aside when the hydra attacked. It was getting more and more accurate with its attacks, and she knew that the second head watching her was learning her jump timing. If this went on, they’d eventually coordinate to attack together and grab her.

Wait, coordinate! That was it! Sunset’s heart raced as she called up her magic and reached out to her friends.

“Everypony, listen to me,” she said, speaking into the minds of her friends now, “We need to work together to defeat it. Twilight, Rainbow Dash, go into the air and draw its attention. Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, see if you can use any of the vines around here to tie it up. Fluttershy...try to talk to it and calm it down.”

She saw her friends shooting each other confused glances for a moment, but then they sprang into action. Rainbow Dash flew up and began weaving between the four heads, giving Twilight a window of opportunity to take off as well and join her. Rarity used her magic to tear down several vines from the surrounding trees and tied them to some stones according to Applejack’s instructions, then divided them between Applejack, Pinkie, and herself. Fluttershy hesitantly flew closer to the hydra, while Sunset, now free from being attacked for a moment, looked at the sludge around the hydra’s legs and called on her magic to draw it further apart, causing the hydra to sink in deeper. Using her magic, she then increased the stickiness of it, preventing it from moving away.

At the same time, vines weighted with stones were slung around the four necks of the beast. It wouldn’t be at risk of choking since the necks were so massive, but it would definitely be hindered in its movements by the ropes. Rainbow Dash gave Twilight a signal, and both of them backed off from one of the heads to give Fluttershy some room to talk. Sunset couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she hoped it would work.

If Fluttershy couldn’t talk the hydra down, the last option Sunset had left was to try and create a self-sustaining mirror of the hydra, and that spell was difficult enough at the best of times. To pull it off, she’d have to call Twilight down to help, which would leave Rainbow Dash in the air alone distracting the heads.

“Come on, Fluttershy…” Sunset muttered as she tightened her sticky trap a bit more.

She’d also managed to ensnare the hydra’s tail by now, so it was quite stuck for the time being. Sunset knew, however, that no amount of sticky swamp was going to trap a hydra for very long. She looked up, and saw Fluttershy gesturing to Rainbow Dash and Twilight, who fell back. All four of the hydra’s heads now focused on Fluttershy. After a short conversation, Rainbow Dash flew over to Rarity, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie, while Twilight landed next to Sunset.

“You can let go of him,” she said. “Fluttershy has convinced it…sorry, him, that we’re not here to steal his territory. He’s going to head back into the swamp, under the condition we leave here immediately.”

Sunset breathed a sigh of relief. “You don’t need to tell me twice,” she replied, and undid her magic so the hydra could move. Rarity, meanwhile, used her magic to cut the ropes around the four massive necks.

A few moments later, the seven ponies plus Spike, who’d remained in the camp during the skirmish with the hydra, had their tents packed up and were watching the hydra retreat back into the swamp. To Sunset’s unending relief, her saddlebags, which contained the journal, had survived the explosion of magic. She and Twilight were definitely going to need new sleeping bags and a new tent, however.

“Hey Fluttershy, if you’re able to talk to hydras, how come you didn’t talk to the one that chased us in Froggy Bottom Bogg?” Spike asked once the group had started walking again.

“Um, I just panicked and ran with the rest of you,” Fluttershy said softly. “He wasn’t very nice about it when I came back, either. Or, well, three of his heads weren’t.”

“Besides, if you’d talked to him then, we never would have found what the actual doozy was, would we?” Pinkie Pie asked.

Sunset had no idea what they were talking about and shot Twilight a questioning look.

Twilight shook her head. “It…involves Pinkie Pie and her rather unique way of telling the future, and I have no idea how to explain this,” Twilight said.

Sunset, however, had understood. “Ah, Pinkie Sense. Yeah, I tried figuring that out for myself. Didn’t have much luck and after somehow being hit with several flower pots over the span of one week I gave up trying to figure it out and just went with it,” she said.

Twilight chuckled. “Glad I’m not the only who tried finding out how it worked, then.”

Sunset smiled, but then grew serious again. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about,” she said.

“Sure, what is it?” Twilight asked.

Sunset frowned. “When we were fighting the hydra, all you did was fire horn beams at him. Why? There are a lot of ways to fight hydras, but using horn beams really isn’t one of them,” she said.

Twilight sighed. “It’s really the only offensive magic I know. Ever since my brother’s wedding I tend to rely on it whenever I’m facing strong creatures. I used it when I fought Tirek, too, although I did have the powers of all the alicorn princesses at that time.” She looked up at the sky. “The Ursa Minor that attacked Ponyville was a baby, so I was able to put it to sleep and carry it back, but a full-grown hydra is something else. I was hoping raw power would work.”

“Except that right now, we don’t have raw power because of the nightmare and the activation of the Forge,” Sunset pointed out. “And even if you did have all of your power, you wouldn’t have used it. You still wouldn’t want to hurt the hydra. So, again, why the horn beams?”

Sunset looked intently into Twilight’s eyes to see her reaction. Twilight looked back at her unhappily, clearly debating with herself whether or not to reply. Eventually she relented.

“It’s because I froze up,” she said. “I’ve been in close calls many times, and usually I get some time to think about what to do, how to handle it. Now, a hydra was bearing down on us from the moment I woke up. All I could think to do was put out a lot of power and hope to chase it off that way. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking we would have been done for. I’m not a fighter, Sunset. I study magic because I love learning about its workings. I love learning about the concepts that drive it, and which shape such a large part of the world around us. I love discovering new things about the various types of magic, the strengths each kind possesses. I like tinkering with spells to see if I can come up with new applications for them, if I can maybe mix them up in some way, but my interest in the destructive side of magic is purely academic. I don’t like to destroy things, certainly not through magic. If I’m put on the spot and I have to fight, I’ll resort to the one outing of raw power I know how to perform, and that is the horn beam.”

Sunset thought about what Twilight had said, gazing off at the tree line while she did so. She understood Twilight’s motivations and marveled at how different they were from what hers had once been. Every spell she learned, she had intended to use to become more and more powerful, to gain the admiration of everypony around her. She had seen magic as a useful tool, something which could be honed into a fearsome weapon if properly handled, but she had never given much thought to why it worked the way it did. She learned magical theories solely for their practical uses, not to better understand the forces that drove them.

She’d also extensively researched how best to weaponize various kinds of magic to be as effective as possible in combat, should it ever be necessary, to the point where she had sought out records of famous wizard duels to find out what kind of spells they had used.

“Do you know what the horn beam was originally intended for?” Sunset asked Twilight.

A plan was forming in her mind, but she wanted to introduce it properly, and for that she was going to need an example. Twilight shook her head.

“It was a siege weapon. It’s a simple spell with a simple, destructive effect. It was meant to break down fortifications by concentrating a large amount of power on a small area. It was never intended for pony-to-pony combat because it’s far too easy to nullify it. You can dodge it, but even that would be a waste of energy.”

Sunset looked at all of her friends now, who had been listening to the conversation with rapt attention.

“Rainbow Dash, could you check the skies around here? I need to be sure there is nothing living flying around.”

Rainbow Dash cocked her head curiously, but she flew up and did what Sunset asked.

Sunset, meanwhile, turned back to Twilight. “If the skies are clear, I’m going to stand a short distance away. Then, I want you to fire the strongest horn beam you can manage at me. I promise you, you’re not going to hurt me with it.”

A collective gasp went through her friends when she said that, and all of them began talking over one another to make it clear that they thought Sunset’s plan was madness.

Rainbow Dash landed next to the group and said, “The sky is completely clear as far as I can tell, but you’re entirely nuts if you think you can just take a full power horn beam from Twilight. She might be weakened, but still.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t plan on taking it. I’m going to deflect it. That’s why I wanted to know if the skies were clear. Trust me, I won’t get hurt. I just want to make it clear that the horn beam has one very specialized use, and fighting isn’t it.”

Sunset walked away from the group and turned around a short distance away, well within the range a normal wizard duel would be fought. She turned around and expectantly looked at Twilight.

“She’s lost her mind, Twi. It’s the sleep deprivation. I wouldn’t do it, if I were you,” Applejack said with a concerned look at Sunset.

“Applejack is right, darling. You mustn’t go along with this,” Rarity agreed.

Twilight didn’t reply immediately. She was looking at Sunset, conflicted, trying to figure whether or not she should go along with what appeared to be complete madness.

“Maybe you should do it,” Fluttershy said softly.

Everypony turned towards her in surprise. “Fluttershy, darling, whatever makes you say that?” Rarity asked.

Fluttershy stepped closer to Twilight. “Because…I think that Twilight thinks Sunset is right. And you’re afraid that if she is…you might let us all down if something happens again.”

Twilight’s eyes widened and she looked at Fluttershy.

“How can you possibly know that?” Rainbow Dash asked incredulously.

“I know what it feels like to be afraid,” Fluttershy said simply.

“You’re right,” Twilight said, so quietly that Sunset could barely hear it despite not being that far away from the group. “I am afraid. Sunset saved our lives today. It was her plan that allowed Fluttershy to get close enough to the hydra to talk to him. What if next time, we’re not so lucky? What if I do something wrong and our failure dooms Equestria?” She stood up straighter and raised her head. “I will not let that happen.”

She looked at Sunset, and Sunset smiled when she saw the fierce, determined look in Twilight’s eyes. Twilight stepped forward and looked at Sunset. Without warning, magic swirled around her horn and a massive blast of magic shot towards Sunset, who flicked the barest spark of magic against it, shaping it into a reflective ramp. The horn beam hit the ramp and shot over Sunset’s head into the empty sky above, where it soon became a tiny pinprick of light.

Sunset’s friends were staring at her, slack-jawed. “That was amazing!” Pinkie Pie shouted happily, and she began mimicking the actions. “It was like, WHOOSH, and then it just went, ZOOM, into the sky, and…”

“We get it, Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash said with a chuckle.

Sunset had walked over back towards her friends and said, “I just shaped a little bit of magic to deflect it. Most creatures with affinity for magic can do something like it. I know you can handle yourself extremely well when you have time to prepare, so…if you’d like, we can discuss combat magic while we travel. It’ll allow you to come up with solutions for a lot of scenarios and you’ll be able to improvise more easily in situations like this one, and it will help me develop my own skills as well.”

Twilight was still a bit pale after seeing her strongest attack negated like it was nothing, but she nodded firmly and said, “I’d like that. Let’s talk while we make our way back to Artax’s Folly.” She looked at her friends. “I think we should all get involved, though. After all, we did defeat the hydra together.”

Her friends wholeheartedly agreed with that, and as they began their journey back to Artax’s Folly, a discussion began about how best to defeat the various dangerous creatures they might yet encounter on their adventure.

Sunset was staring out of the window of the train as it raced westwards. In the distance, she could see the Macintosh Hills, but as beautiful as it was to see the shadows on the mountainsides beneath the clear blue sky, she couldn’t really appreciate it. All the way through the swamp, the conversation about battle tactics had continued and kept Sunset’s mind busy, but after describing the hydra encounter and the Forge in great detail to Marsh Lily, Sunset’s thoughts began to dwell on the nightmare she’d experienced that night.

As she’d feared, she’d finally seen her friends in it. She’d heard the evil voice that Twilight described. What was most unsettling to her, though, was the fact that this time the nightmare had ended far more abruptly than before. In the earlier nightmares, she’d always been able to feel the crystallization beginning, but this time the ending had been instantaneous. Worse, her body still felt lightly sunburnt, though nowhere near as much as it had in the morning. At the very least she and Twilight had been able to buy a new tent from Marsh Lily, so wherever they would camp tonight they’d have something over their heads…if it could withstand the magic.

Time after time Sunset’s thoughts went back to the voice and the blinding flash of light after it. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Twilight didn’t look much better than she did. Sunset felt tired, and ordinarily she might have tried to get some sleep, but she was terrified that she’d have the nightmare and destroy the train, so she forced herself to stay awake throughout the journey towards the desert. She knew that she’d be a bit more awake once they started walking again, but she didn’t think she’d be able to push the thoughts of her fears back as easily as before. The hydra attack had been pressing and scary enough to be a distraction, but unless they were headed straight into a fight in the desert that wouldn’t happen again.

The sound of the train on the rails was rhythmic and constant. It didn’t help Sunset’s tired mind at all, and several times she had to shake her head in order to stay awake. When the cart with food and drink came by, she got herself a cup of coffee, but even that was barely enough to keep her awake.

At long last, the train began to slow down late in the afternoon. The station where they would be getting off was on the very edge of the desert proper. On some windy days, it was even in the desert, as the sand would get blown far past the rails. Usually the Pegasi kept it within its borders, however.

The nearest village would be another stop further on, and so there was nothing in the vicinity of the station but sand. Long ago, it had been built to supply a gold mine, not far into the desert, but the mine had long since run dry and been abandoned. The station was left intact for ponies wishing to explore the desert, but not many did.

With screeching brakes, the train came to a halt in the small station. Sunset and the others were the only ones getting off the train. The orange rays of the late afternoon sun gave Sunset some much needed energy, but she still felt a bit light-headed from all the lack of sleep and that morning’s rude awakening.

“So what’s the plan?” Rainbow Dash asked once they’d exited the station and stood staring at the vast expanse of sand in front of them. “The desert is pretty huge, so I doubt we’ll find Zerzura today. Besides, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beat. I say we get our tents set up here, get some dinner, and then get up early in the morning.”

“I second that,” Applejack said.

One by one, the others agreed as well. When Sunset’s turn to speak came, she hesitated for a moment.

“I…well…” She angrily shook her head. “Yeah, okay. We’ll make camp,” she said reluctantly.

Walking through the desert was going to be difficult enough by daylight, let alone in the pitch black darkness of the night. It wasn’t like Sunset wasn’t completely beat, either. All that mattered to her was not going to sleep.

Dinner came and went without much fanfare. The day’s rough start had taken its toll on everypony, and soon all of them had retreated to their tents. All of them, except Sunset. She sat next to the fire, staring into the flames as she often did since their quest began. The flickering light and the heat kept the fear at bay, but only barely.

Whatever she did, it was imperative that she kept staring into those flames, as if the fire would burn away the nightmares all by itself.

She had no idea what time it was when she heard Twilight say, “Sunset? I know you’re afraid. I am, too. But…you really need to get some sleep.”

Sunset wanted to ignore her. She wanted to keep staring into the flames. But somehow, it seemed like her magic responded to Twilight’s voice without her permission, and the flames shrank and extinguished.

Sunset tried to hold on to the traces of the heat, but they dissipated quickly in the cold desert night. Reluctantly, she got up and turned towards the new tent she shared with Twilight. Twilight stood in the opening, casting Sunset a concerned look, and stepped aside to let her through.

A few moments later, Sunset sat on her sleeping bag. She didn’t want to get inside it and get comfortable. If she did, she would fall asleep and the nightmare would return.

“You know…” Twilight said hesitantly. “If…if you think it would make you feel a bit better…why don’t you just…move your sleeping bag over here? Right next to me?”

Sunset thought for a moment. Would it help? She thought about the warmth she felt when their magic interacted, that faint sense of bliss. And if she was honest with herself, she knew fully well she wasn’t going to last through the night without falling asleep.

So, in response to Twilight’s question, she levitated her sleeping bag closer so that it touched Twilight’s. She settled into it a bit awkwardly despite her fatigue, but soon she’d found a comfortable position. The tent was completely dark, but she felt just how close Twilight was to her.

“Well…good night, I guess?” she whispered.

“Yeah. Good night,” Twilight whispered back from right next to her.

Sunset closed her eyes. The last thing she thought before falling asleep was how comfortable she felt.

Sunset stood in the clearing, looking at her friends. As before, she began walking over to them, slowly at first, then faster when her friends spotted her. She reached her friends, and the demonic voice said Twilight’s name…and then Sunset’s body was suddenly filled with warmth, and instead of exploding outward, her magic settled down, and Sunset knew what to do. She cast a spell, one she didn’t know the name of, nor what it did, but she knew it was the right one, and the spell reached Twilight, whose eyes opened in surprise and focused on Sunset. Twilight began to smile. “Thank you,” she said. And then it was like the clearing was engulfed in a white fog, which felt so soothing…

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