• Published 16th May 2016
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A Shimmering New Year - EchoWing



Sunset Shimmer and her friends struggle to deal with recovering from Anon-A-Miss as they move forward. New friends and a doctor, thankfully, can help them along.

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Chapter Six - Welcome To Our Nightmares

A world away from the growing trouble at Canterlot High, the town of Ponyville was in the midst of a bright summer’s day, residents going about their business without a care in the world.

“Okay Twilight, you’ve got this.” One was the usual exception, as Twilight Sparkle practiced her breathing exercise for the third time within the span of fifteen minutes before going over her checklist once more. “Research notes? Check. Compiled data from the human world gathered by Sunset? Check. Notations regarding the Chest of Harmony? Check. Notations regarding the Crystal Mirror and its prototypes as copied from Star Swirl’s notes and research? Check.”

“Cupcakes? Check!”

“Nachos and cheese dip? Check!”

“Whoo? Whooo!”

Twilight turned from her gathered materials and list to find that Pinkie Pie, Spike and Owlowiscious had gathered close by with a fully-stocked snack table, drinks at the ready. Her annoyance was quickly replaced by a relieved smile as she noted, “Thanks for your help, Pinkie. With everyone else being busy with one thing or another, I’m just glad somepony was able to help with the Princesses’ visit.” She turned to Spike and Owlowiscious and added, “Not that I don’t appreciate my two faithful assistants’ usual diligence.”

“Aw, you don’t have to thank me, Twilight!” Pinkie waved a hoof and noted, “I just hope Rarity’s having fun with her new apprentice and Rainbow Dash is having as much fun coaching the foals on their routines for the Equestria Games Flag-Waving ceremony!” She then paused and noted, “Wow that sounded expository. I feel like I need to mention how we’re going to be visiting the castle soon for initial clean-up and book retrieval…and something else too.”

“My new comic books are due in the mail on Friday?” Spike offered.

“That’s it! Done for now!” A gentle knock sounded at the door, and she cheered as she bounded to the library entrance, “I’ll get it!” The door opened as she happily called, “Greetings and salutations, your Highnesses!”

Luna chuckled as she and her elder sister entered the library, Celestia ducking her head as she did so. “Good day, dear Pinkie Pie. It’s most pleasing to see you.” She offered a hoof, which Pinkie accepted, only for the pink mare to receive a mild shock. Her hair frizzier than normal, the party pony giggled with Luna as the princess revealed her newly-acquired joy buzzer and grinned. “I believe the current parlance is ‘got ya’.”

“Yep! You got me good!” Pinkie shook her head and her mane returned to its normal frizz. “You’re getting better, Luna!”

“More like she’s getting back to where she was long ago,” Celestia noted with a proud smile. She then turned her attention to her former student. “Hello Twilight.”

“Hello Prin…” She caught herself and amended, “Hello Celestia. Hello Luna. Thank you both for coming.”

“Some quiet time with you when Equestria is not endangered is not something we seek to put aside, Twilight.” Luna poured herself some coffee from among the drinks and asked, “Now then, forgive me if this seems brusque, but perhaps we can get down to business?”

“Of course.” Twilight gestured to her research and began, “As both of you know, I’ve been researching the Crystal Mirror and how Star Swirl created both it and its prototypes. Sunset’s helped, if only as a sounding board, but it’s only recently that I’ve gotten into anything serious.” She then turned to Celestia and asked, “But before I go any further, I have a question that I need to ask.” She turned regretful and added, “But there’s no good way for me to ask it, so…”

“Is there anything that I haven’t told you concerning the mirror portals?” At Twilight’s silent nod, Celestia sighed. “I suppose that’s a fair question to ask, given that I haven’t always told you the whole truth.”

“You do have the habit of keeping your cards close to your chest, Celie.”

Celestia didn’t have to see her sibling to know that she was smirking, but the sour expression she wore at that remark faded as she leaned in close to her former student and spoke reassuringly. “I knew that Star Swirl was continuing to research the mirrors, yes, but I wasn’t aware of the full extent until very recently, when I discovered the bridge mirror and met mine and Luna’s human counterparts for the first time. I’ve formed my own theories regarding his work, yes, but those theories could very easily have been wrong, and I thought it wisest to keep them to myself.” She smiled and asked, “Perhaps what you’ve done will be able to confirm one or two of them?”

Twilight smiled eagerly. “I can hope so, at any rate.” She turned back to her research and noted, “One thing that surprised me was the fact that he made the bridge mirror in the first place. According to his notes, each mirror he made after the first one was intended to test a safety measure of some kind, to be implemented into a final, improved mirror without the flaws of the original.”

“You mean that whole universe-warping-and-merging stuff?” Pinkie offered.

Twilight rolled her eyes with a smile. “Yes, that. And as an added measure, each one was locked onto a particular world rather than being able to link to any number of them, with all but two being linked to worlds that he and Celestia visited using the original prototype.”

“The human world is obviously one of those exceptions, but what of the other?”

“That was a world he planned on visiting using his Mark II mirror, but plans changed.” Twilight waved a hoof over an open journal and explained, “He abandoned work on that one after a version of himself visited from that world. The two briefly exchanged notes, but there hasn’t been any interaction since and work on the Mark II was abandoned.”

“No doubt due to concerns about thaumic backlash.” Celestia glanced over the notations and reasoned, “Having two portals linked between two worlds would have no doubt hastened any anomalies rather than prevent them.” Her eyes widened in surprise as she asked, “The other Star Swirl emerged from the statue of himself? The one in his Athenaeum?”

Twilight nodded as Pinkie brought over a plate of cupcakes. “And here I thought he was just a little bit narcissistic. Want some, Princesses?”

Celestia and Luna accepted the offerings, and the former continued. “What became of the materials?”

“From what I’ve read, he used them to make the bridge mirrors.” Twilight accepted a cupcake herself and held it aloft with her magic as she continued, “By the time he got to his Mark VII, he was ready to test all of his safety measures. The time dilation that Sunset described and the thirty moon cycle were all a part of it.”

“Why construct the bridge mirrors in the first place, however?” Luna sipped from her cup and continued further, “The only reason I can conceive of for such a thing is that he wished to maintain contact with someone.”

The youngest princess among them nodded. “An older man by the name of Eifion. He and Star Swirl got on like a house on fire thanks to shared interests. According to Star Swirl’s journals, Eifion was a glassmaker and an amateur alchemist, but Sunset hasn’t been able to confirm anything about him either way.”

“Given the long period of time, this is no surprise.”

Twilight nodded at Celestia’s remark. “And it was after meeting him that Star Swirl started to tweak the mirror. He infused it with a number of spells, all working in combination to transform whoever passed through the portal so that they would fit in on either side.” She turned sour again as she continued, “And this is where things get a little troublesome to read. At least, for me.”

Spike scowled. “This is the part with the dragon, right?”

A nod. “According to his notes, after he modified the portal so that it would transform its user into a human and give them appropriate clothing, he modified it again specifically to turn dragons into dogs.” She bitterly added, “He was even happy about it. I had to look up some of the words he used and…” She shuddered, then looked to the elder ponies and asked, “Was he really that much of a specist?”

Celestia bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but yes. In those days, ponies lived in fear of dragons, and not without reason. Fear, rational or no, can lead to hate very rapidly, and there’s little trouble in it becoming casual hatred.”

“I’m not saying dragons can’t be scary, but…” Twilight looked to Spike and added, “They aren’t monsters. And they certainly aren’t deserving of the slurs he used against them. And regardless, he had no excuse to trick a dragon into crossing the portal and then trap him there forever.”

“No, it does not, but…” Luna sighed. “It was a different time. As you well know, even now, ponies are more afraid of dragons than they are accepting of them. Star Swirl’s feelings were clear to us on them, and while we didn’t agree, we were among the minority.”

“Well regardless of his prejudices, it was still horribly irresponsible.”

“Agreed,” the Princess of the Moon continued. “Nopony is without their flaws, as you well know given my situation. They should not be excused, but nor should they be focused upon. And grousing about it now will do little good.”

Twilight accepted that with a nod. “I suppose. Still, he was one of my heroes for a long time. He’s still amazing, but it’s like finding an ancient Greco-Roamin vase with a crack in it. It’s still old and amazing, but the flaw is so obvious.”

“If it helps you feel better, Twilight, I doubt that Eifion felt any different about Star Swirl’s actions.”

“I suppose, but I’ve got no way of knowing.” Twilight flipped through the pages of her copy of Star Swirl’s journal to reveal nothing but blank space after a point. “It looks like Star Swirl used a concealment spell on all his notes. Most of it has worn off by now, but there are still a number of entries that are blank. They won’t be visible for months yet.”

“Huh?” Pinkie glanced over the journals curiously. “Why’d’ja copy the spell along with everything else? That’s kinda silly.”

The young alicorn sheepishly answered, “I was in a rush.” She sighed and admitted, “Still, this gives me a very good base to work from. There’s even a small chance that, well…” A hopeful smile crossed her face as she offered, “…That Sunset might be able to come home before the full thirty moons go by.”

A soft smile formed on Celestia’s muzzle as she gently wrapped a wing around her former pupil. “I wondered why you were so eager for this, especially given our current situation with the Tree of Harmony.”

“Well, I’m stalled on that until I get answers for my letters around Equestria.” Twilight turned somber as she added, “And I feel like I owe it to her after…”

“After her recent troubles.” Celestia hugged her closer and assured her, “Twilight, nothing about the Anon-A-Miss incident was your fault. If not for you, we would have potentially lost Sunset as well as the bridge mirrors and realm.”

“And that neglects to mention the true culprits behind the incident.” Luna approached and chipped in, “I doubt they will ever contemplate doing something of this nature again.”

“Still, I left her in their care. I thought that being with them could do for her what it did for me. I’m not saying it didn’t do her any good, it obviously has, but if I’d known this was coming…”

“Whoa, Twilight, snap out of it!” Spike rushed over and gave her a hug. “You made the right call! Sunset wasn’t ready to come back and face Celestia, and besides, she still had to fix her mistakes back at Canterlot High. And you had no way of knowing what would happen afterwards.”

“And I know human me is probably still feeling really bad about what happened deep down.” Pinkie nodded her head towards Luna and noted, “I mean, I still feel pretty bad about how I treated Princess Luna her first Nightmare Night.” She turned to the princess and noted, “Seriously, I thought you were in on the joke. Took me forever to realize you weren’t, and I’m really sorry about it.”

“All has been forgiven since, dear Pinkie Pie.” The alicorn’s attention turned back to Twilight as she noted, “Still, do not burden yourself with needless guilt. Take me at my word that it does you little good.”

“Right, the Tantabus.” Twilight gave Luna a thankful smile. “I’ll try to remember that, thank you.” She put the thought aside and noted, “Anyway, there’s something else that I think merits our attention regarding the human world. Interestingly enough, the Anon-A-Miss incident helped to bring it to light.” Twilight collected the papers that Sunset had given her earlier in the day and opened the folder. “You see…”

“Princess Twilight.” Heads turned immediately towards a familiar grey stallion lacking a mane and tail and dressed in jacket and fedora. “There is an issue which requires your attention.”

Twilight recognized their unexpected visitor immediately. “Seventh Moon!” The Observer made a small nod as she fully turned to face him. “What’s going on?”

Pinkie let out a theatrical gasp and rushed in close to the grey stallion. “If you’re here, then it’s gotta be serious! Is the multiverse collapsing? Did something nasty come here from an alternate reality? Are –?!” He simply placed a hoof to her mouth to silence her, which prompted her to muffle, “Rhht. Srry. Gw wn.”

The stallion uncorked her mouth and then turned his attention back to Twilight. “Highness, you have established a means to signal you if anyone has entered the bridge realm, correct?”

“Yes, of course.” Twilight indicated a set of bells dangling from the ceiling. “Sunset helped me to set them up not long after we moved the bridge mirrors here. They worked perfectly.”

“Until today. Your system has been disabled, and the bridge realm was entered from this world, by somepony not of this world, within the last twenty minutes.”

Alarmed expressions crossed the faces of everyone else present, before Celestia’s turned absolute. “Then we’d better have a look for ourselves. Seventh Moon, what can you tell us…?” The Observer had vanished, and she groaned. “You’re right, Luna. Things like this are frustrating.”

-

“Places, everyone, places!” There was rampant activity all throughout backstage as models, dressers and designers alike all rushed about for last minute touches. In the midst of it all, impassive as a rock, was Prim Hemline, her attire as severe as her expression. She frowned as she looked about and asked, “Now where is that one…?”

“Here I am!” She turned as Rarity approached. “Do forgive me, I had a bit of a rush getting these together.”

The older woman tittered in disgust. “Honestly, Miss Rarity, such actions are unbecoming of you.”

Rarity sighed apologetically. “I know, I’ve no excuse for my tardiness…”

“And even less excuse for those!” Prim Hemline dramatically pointed towards Rarity’s designs. “I don’t know what you call those scraps, but I’d hardly call them worthy of high fashion!”

“What? But…!” Rarity turned back and screamed as her outfits, resplendent and impressive and the product of many hours of work, wore away and fell to pieces before her very eyes. “No, no, this isn’t how things are supposed to be!”

“Really, Rarity?” She turned to find another girl standing nearby, her hair done up in the back with a headband and a scarf tied around her neck secured by a badge depicting three buttons of differing color. A sneer was on her face as she taunted, “Did you really think that a small-town girl like you could make it in the big city? It takes more than those rags to do it, m’kay?”

Before Rarity could protest, a malevolent laugh sounded from overhead as the spotlights shown upon her and her designs. “Another dream gone down the drain. Or is it the garbage chute?” A crown materialized in front of her as the voice continued, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just another one you’ll never have.” A familiar amber hand took hold of the crown as Rarity stumbled back, and its owner came into view with a wicked expression on her face and set the crown upon her head. “Just like this one!”

“Sunset!” Rarity fell to the ground as Sunset transformed into the demonic form she’d taken the night of the Fall Formal. “Darling, please! This isn’t you!”

“Says the girl who threw me away like scrap fabric!” Sunset went aloft as Prim Hemline and the scarf-clad girl looked on. “You were so generous to your rival, and it backfired! So why take the chance again?! Well, this time…!”

“Why did we have to die?” At the demon’s surprise, Rarity turned about to see a number of cats and dogs of varying ages arrayed behind her, their backs to her as their large representative softly whimpered, “Why did we have to die?”

Rarity herself was surprised at this until she looked up at a familiar, pained face, another demonic Sunset hovering behind her. “Fluttershy?”

“Rarity!” The young animal lover rushed towards her as the fashionista got to her feet, the rest of the tableau around them fading away as they embraced. “Oh my goodness! I’m so glad to see you!”

“And I you, dear!” The embrace ended, and Rarity quickly looked her over. “Are you real, dear? Please tell me that you’re real!”

“Um, I think so.” Fluttershy looked herself over and noted, “I mean, I don’t think that I’m not real. And I’m pretty sure that you’re real, but you never showed up in my nightmare. Just Sunset and, well…”

“Well, you’re real enough for me.” She then softly held her friend’s shoulder to comfort her. “Oh darling, you would have nightmares like that. As confusing as that was, it was still rather heart-wrenching.”

“Speaking of confusing, who were those two women behind you?” The yellow teen turned uneasy as she noted, “I don’t think either of them were very nice.”

“Well, one of them certainly wasn’t.” Rarity dismissed her own nightmare and noted, “Regardless, that isn’t our concern right now. The bigger issue is, where are we?”

Surrounding them at all sides was a vast expanse, seemingly devoid of light and warmth aside from the immediate area around them and a stark contrast to both the backstage area of Rarity’s fashion show and the front entrance to Canterlot High. The ground beneath their feet appeared solid enough as Fluttershy lightly prodded at it with one dainty foot. “I don’t know. The last thing I remember was being in the hall with Sweetie Belle…”

“And then passing out.” Rarity looked about thoughtfully and considered aloud, “Fluttershy, this may seem like a bit of a leap, but I think the two of us are in some sort of shared dream state.”

“Is that possible?”

“Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains no matter how improbable must be the truth. Or so I’ve been told.” She took hold of Fluttershy’s hand and explained, “The two of us passed out at the same time, and we both saw into the other’s nightmares. That’s the only thing which makes sense. And given what we’ve seen since the school year began, well…”

“I guess it’s possible, with all that in mind.” Alarm spread across her features as Fluttershy wondered aloud, “What about Sweetie Belle, or the rest of the school?”

“I don’t know, darling, but something tells me that we might be among the select few facing this, if not the only ones. Which makes it all the more imperative that we not lose sight of one another.” She smiled encouragingly and added, “If nothing else, there’s strength in numbers.”

Emboldened by her friend, the shy girl nodded and smiled. “Yes. But what do we do now?”

A scream rang out, and Rarity called, “Despite my better judgment, I say we run towards that! Come along, Fluttershy, the game’s afoot!”

As her friend dragged her along, it took everything Fluttershy had to keep up as she whimpered, “Oh dear! Whatever this is, I hope someone’s taking care of us in the real world!”

-

“There you are, gentle now.” Sunset Shimmer’s prone form was gently moved into Flash Sentry’s waiting arms with Amethyst Star’s assistance. “You’ll take care of her, right?”

“Of course.” Flash smiled at the girl in gratitude before he turned around and entered the teacher’s lounge.

As the door swung shut, Sparkler turned to the other students gathered and tried her best to get comfortable. She gravitated towards Roseluck and her father as she wondered aloud, “They’ll all be okay, right?”

“Too soon to tell, and I’ve no idea what could cause the six of them to faint like that.” The teacher looked to the other students and amended, “And I dread to hear the possibilities they could bring up.”

While Vinyl Scratch sat against the wall opposite them with her head bobbing softly to the music from her headphones, the other students to be sequestered outside of the teacher’s lounge stood on the opposite side of the door and soon had their attention on them. “You three do know about what went down at the Fall Formal, don’t you? That’s got to have something to do with it.”

Dr. Turner gave the gold-skinned girl a critical look. “That’s a rather quick assumption, Miss Pizazz. I assume that all of you were there for it?”

“I wasn’t,” Violet volunteered. “And from what I’ve heard, I’m both glad and sorry for not being there.”

“The rest of us were though, and if we ever see anything that crazy again…” Pixel paused as the three before her took on baffled expressions, and then turned about as Vinyl jumped to her feet, headphones and sunglasses off. Photo Finish’s reaction was similar as her glasses went off in shock.

Trotting before them with purpose in their steps was a pair of ponies. One was taller than the other, with opal eyes and a curly mane colored cerise and violet with arctic blue highlights, clad in a beige cloak with swirling patterns. Just visible at a distance was a jagged scar across her right eye, and the horn emerging from her forehead was clear as day. The second pony was smaller, with wings as well as a horn, and strongly familiar to all of them, from her violet eyes to her multicolored mane to the star-shaped mark upon her flank. The two stopped only for the door to swing open, and the larger of the two mares to give them a smirk. “Sup?”

Jaws practically dropped to the floor, and Pixel eventually managed to raise a hand and wave vacantly. Vinyl’s shock was short-lived, however, and her shocked expression turned to an excited one as she grinned and gave the pair a quick salute, as if to wish them luck.

That prompted a smile from the smaller of the two ponies as they entered the teacher’s lounge. Once the door closed shut behind them, further footsteps sounded as Granny Smith returned from wherever she’d gone to notice the stunned looks on everyone else’s faces, before noticing the expression on Vinyl’s. “Did Ah miss somethin’?”

The music lover chuckled. “I love this school.”

-

“…And we got them in here as quickly as we could.” Principal Celestia looked to her counterpart and noted, “That said, it’s a good thing you and Luna were meeting with Twilight. If nothing else, this saves us some time.”

“Indeed.” The princess’s gaze went to the five unconscious girls, all laid out on the floor of the bridge realm beside one another. As her sister continued to go over them with her magic, the alicorn continued, “Now, do you have any certainty about when they all passed out?”

“Unfortunately, no, but…”

“Principal Celestia!” Heads turned as Flash entered the pocket dimension, Sunset prone in his arms. “Doctor Turner…Twilight?”

“Flash!” The young alicorn approached and carefully took Sunset up in her magic. “Here, let me take her.”

Noticing that the teen was staring at her and her sister’s counterparts, Vice Principal Luna loudly cleared her throat. “Flash? You were saying?”

He shook his head. “Oh, right, sorry.” He approached his two superiors as the Crusaders entered, Pinkie Pie carried between the three of them. “Doctor Turner found her with the two new girls at the foot of a staircase near the gym. They’re waiting outside with everyone else, but something tells me they didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Your instincts are as sharp as those of your counterpart, Flash Sentry.” Princess Luna swept over the human Pinkie with her magic as Dr. Hope checked over the girl’s vitals and her pony counterpart and Spike watched with concern. “Each of them has been pulled into a state of REM sleep.”

“That’s the state of sleep in which mammals, humans and ponies included, engage in vivid dreaming.” Dr. Hope turned her attention away from Pinkie to Sunset as she explained, “It’s a perfectly normal part of the sleep cycle. Hell, it’s unhealthy to be deprived of it. But going into it this quickly after passing out isn’t normal.”

“So this is some kinda magic, right?” Scootaloo looked from Rainbow Dash’s prone form towards Twilight and asked, “So why just them? Why not anyone else?”

“Because they were targeted.” Her examinations finished, Princess Luna looked up from the prone girls and grimly declared, “I’ve checked each of them with my magic, and I recognize the taint that has fallen upon them. How this has happened I do not know, but it matters not. What does matter is that we need to address this issue, and swiftly.” She looked about and ordered, “Arrange them in a loose circle about me, and leave a space for Twilight. Her help will be needed.”

“Luna, this isn’t what I think it is, right?” Twilight nervously did as she was told, Rainbow Dash being laid out at her right and Applejack at her left with their heads pointed towards the center of the circle. “I thought steps had been taken to prevent this happening again!”

“Evidently, the steps we took were not thorough enough.”

As Luna stepped into the center of the circle and those not involved in the procedure moved to one side, Apple Bloom looked to Spike and asked, “Mind fillin’ us in? What’re they talkin’ about?”

“I guess Sunset hasn’t had the chance to fill you guys in on all the details yet.” He looked to Flash and asked, “What about you?”

“I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on, based on what Sunset’s told me about Equestria and Princess Luna.” He turned to Dr. Hope and asked, “What I don’t get is why you’re here. I’m glad you’re helping, but…” Something caught Flash’s eye behind the psychologist, and he called out, “Guys! Company!”

Heads turned instantly towards the entrance back to Canterlot High, where two more alicorns now stood after having entered the bridge realm. A few looked upon the taller one and thought her slightly familiar, even if they couldn’t place exactly how. They had no such trouble with her compatriot, who prompted those who had crouched down to jump to their respective hooves and feet and most to gasp or cry out in shock, one in particular the loudest.

“What the hay?!” Twilight exclaimed.

Before them with the unknown alicorn was a second Twilight Sparkle, seemingly identical to the one among them in every way. Her compatriot laughed and gently nudged the second Twilight, who blushed and meekly waved before she approached. “You all probably have a lot of questions. I’ll give you all an umbrella answer that time sliding is involved and leave it at that. I think you’ll all agree that there are more pertinent matters…” She took on an authoritative tone as she gestured to the unconscious girls among them and finished, “…so let’s just return to the business at hoof, hmmm?”

Uncertain glances were exchanged among the gathered natives, but the unknown alicorn got no other response.

She took that as an affirmative. “Excellent. Princess Luna.” Her attention turned to the Princess of the Night as she continued, “You are about to mount and expedition with Twilight Sparkle here into the shared dream state, correct?”

Luna glanced about, and nodded. “That I am. You see, these six have been targeted by something most unsavory.”

“So I am aware. I can confirm that it’s a fragment of the Nightmare.”

Flash visibly winced as Spike and Pinkie Pie gasped, while the remaining humans shared frightened expressions that only grew worse with those who knew what they were facing. Luna, Celestia and the Twilight they knew all looked equally dismayed, but none moreso than the Princess of the Night. “Nightmare… so, it is as I suspected.”

The alicorn leaned forward. “You are going to need some extra defense against it. That is why I am here.”

The local Twilight shakily raised her hoof towards her counterpart. “And…this other me? Wh…”

“She is only here to observe. You need not worry about her presence.” The alicorn then turned her attention back to Luna. “I bid that you take me with you, Princess Luna.” She pointed at the six on the ground and said with an intense glare, “Their lives and your success are going to depend on it.”

Luna remained silent, sweat forming upon her brow as she weighed her options, before she stood at her full height and made her decision. “I don’t know who you are or how you came to be. How you…” She motioned to the ornate mirror leading back to Canterlot High. “…broke the rules, or how…” And to Twilight. “…she can even exist.” She paused, and then nodded. “But if you are here to help, then we’ll take it.”

The alicorn gave a polite bow. “Thank you.”

The princess gestured towards the Twilight she knew. “Take a spot next to her.”

Principal Celestia adjusted her jacket and turned to the others. “Alright, alright everyone, let’s back up and give them some space.”

While the unfamiliar Twilight moved to one side with Spike, Pinkie and the humans, the alicorn did as she was told and joined the local Twilight in the circle. Once both had laid down, Princess Luna lit her horn. Many white tendrils of magical energy threaded out of it and made contact, first with the six unconscious girls and then with the two alicorns, who slipped into unconsciousness themselves.

The bridge realm fell into silence save for the soft whirrs of magic as those present waited with baited breath. Sweetie Belle’s attention was soon locked on Spike and the pony version of Pinkie as she asked, “Okay, so what’s going on? What’s this Nightmare thing, and why’s it got Princess Luna and Twilight so worried?”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about,” Pinkie assured her as Celestia and Dr. Hope started to whisper among themselves. “Just something that almost caused disaster for Equestria a few times is all.” She patted the ground with one hoof. “Get comfy, and me and Spikey will fill you all in on the details.”

-

Rainbow Dash was not the sort of girl to admit to being scared, or to having nightmares. Ask her about the night of the Fall Formal and facing down Sunset Shimmer, and she’d adamantly tell you that she wasn’t scared for one second. Worried, maybe, but scared? Of course not – she was too awesome to be scared.

Of course, what one says and what one truly thinks are two very different things. In truth, the young athlete had been plagued by one nightmare off and on for a while, which had only become more prominent since the Anon-A-Miss incident. She hadn’t spoken of it, mostly out of shame, but it had nonetheless stuck with her. And as she looked up at the bleak face of a massive, imposing church, she found herself saying two words.

“Not again…”

The doors creaked open before her, and she found herself slowly going inside, formless masses of mourners at either side as she approached the main altar. Upon it rested an ornate coffin, draped in the familiar red white and blue of the flag, with framed photos on either side.

“No. No, please don’t let this be what I think it is.”

“Don’t let it be what, Rainbow Dash?” She looked up to see Sunset hovering over her, her demonic form standing out all the more within the hallowed setting. “Someone else you abandoned? Someone else you failed to be loyal to? Someone else you claim to care for?”

As her accuser landed on the coffin, Dash found it in her to back away. “I was angry! Besides, none of this is real! She’s not gone!”

“Oh, but she is! Just like I almost was!” Sunset’s magic enveloped her as the coffin opened up. “But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to make up with the dearly departed. After all – you’re going to join her!”

“No!” The coffin glowed from the inside with unholy, hellish light as she was pulled in closer. “I’m sorry, Sunset! I know I screwed up! Please, don’t…!”

The doors flew open behind her as a pair of familiar voices cried, “Rainbow Dash!” She turned back to find Fluttershy and Rarity charging to her aid, the former declaring, “Hang on, we’re coming!”

“Guys!” The church and everything within it aside from the three girls faded away as her friends took her in a warm embrace. “What the hell is going on here?! What is all this?”

“We think we’ve somehow been pulled into a shared dream,” Rarity explained. “Each of us is in some sort of nightmare. But the instant one of us interferes in another’s, it vanishes. Speaking of, do I want to know who died?”

“No one did,” Rainbow corrected her. She then softly amended, “Not yet, anyway.” She shook her head and turned attention elsewhere. “So what’s caused this? Magic or something?”

“What else could be causing it?” Fluttershy shivered and hugged herself tight. “Whatever it is, I just hope we can get out of it.”

Rainbow smiled and laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Hey, whatever’s doing this is up against us, right? Of course we’ll get out of it.” She started looking around and added, “But we gotta find the others first. No way are we getting out of this without…”

“NO!”

They turned as one towards the familiar yell and realized together, “Applejack!” before rushing off in its direction. The mindscape around them quickly shifted into the roads leading to Sweet Apple Acres, the familiar farmhouse and drive before them and the familiar form of their friend at the door, seemingly begging to be let back inside.

“You done left us, Applejack,” Granny Smith’s voice drawled from within. “Ain’t a home for you here no more.”

“Nope. Best be gettin’ on.”

A malevolent cackle filled the air, and Sunset appeared between the three girls and Applejack. “How does it feel, Applejack? How does it feel to be tossed away by the ones you love, for doing nothing!”

“Applejack!” The dream-Sunset turned to them in shock before she faded away, Applejack looking past it towards them. The rest of the dreamscape faded away as she got back to her feet and Fluttershy took her into a tight embrace. “Oh thank goodness!”

“Wha-? Gals, what’s…” Applejack took sight of the shifting landscape around her. “Alright, what the heck’s goin’ on here? You three ain’t shown up in this bad dream before.”

Before anyone could answer, a gleeful cry rang out. “GIRLS! IT’S YOU!” All four heads turned as Pinkie Pie came charging towards them and took them all in a massive bearhug. “Omigoshomigoshomigosh, I’m so glad to see all of you! Usually you aren’t in my bad dream!”

“Pinkie! Ah don’t care if this is a dream or not, you’re squeezin’ awful hard!” Her cousin nervously laughed as she released them from her iron hug, and Applejack took a second to catch her breath before continuing. “Okay, so all’a us are stuck in some kinda shared dream. But why ain’t you seein’ some kinda horrible nightmare?”

“Duh! I’m a lucid dreamer!” She pointed back the way she came and explained, “Plus, I kinda resolved what my nightmare involved in real life.” The girls looked to find Maud standing in the distance, waving Pinkie on as she stood over a battered and beaten version of Sunset in her demonic form. “Like I said, Maud wasn’t happy with me over how I reacted to Anon-A-Miss, but the next morning, we sat down and we talked about it. Disappointing her is, like, the scariest thing I can think of, but I know she loves me and that she’ll always have my back. Even in a nightmare. Sunset showing up was the only real difference this time.”

“Yes, she does appear to be a recurring theme in all of these.” Rarity sighed. “Lingering guilt over our role in the Anon-A-Miss affair, I’d say.”

“Yeah, but what caused this?” Rainbow looked among her friends and asked, “I mean, even if she wanted to use her magic, Sunset wouldn’t be able to pull something like this off, right?”

A familiar scream reached their ears, and Fluttershy realized, “If she did, I don’t think she’d be part of it!”

“Dang right! Come on, y’all!” Applejack took on a determined gaze and charged forward, the rest of the girls following close behind. “We ain’t leavin’ her behind again!”

-

It was just the way Sunset remembered it, perfect in every detail. The stars, the wind, the light chill in the air of an early autumn evening, the outside of the front entrance to Canterlot High behind her and the portal leading back to Equestria in front. In short, all the pieces of the puzzle that made up a night that would be burned into her memory forever.

After all, one doesn’t easily forget one of the worst nights of one’s life.

“This isn’t happening.” Sunset looked about, anxiety growing upon her face. “No way is this happening.”

“There she is!” She whipped back to see what looked like the entire student body of Canterlot High, joined by several of the faculty, pouring out of the school and surrounding her with evil intent. And right at the head of the pack were her friends, rage in their eyes and Rarity at their head. “Kill the demon!”

“Wait, stop! I’m not…!” And then the sound of the portal behind her going active reached her ears, and Sunset turned back as its surface shimmered in magical light. “Oh no.”

With split second timing, she brought her arms in front of her to defend herself just in time as a familiar crown shot out of it straight towards her, only to rebound off her arms. The crown flew back several feet, only to fly back towards her seconds later like an angered insect determined to sting.

“No!” She batted the crown off with one arm, and kept batting it away as best she could. “I’m not going through this again! I can’t! I won’t!” But one mistimed punch away led to a tiny bit of the crown ending up in the tiny crack between her fingers and palm, and the crown inched its way in as if it had a mind of its own. Sunset tried to shake it off, only for her other hand to go towards it against her will. “No!” Both hands were clasped upon the crown, already shifting into the demonic claws from that night, and it slowly lowered onto her head even as she struggled against it.

But the struggle was all for naught as it made contact and she was enveloped in powerful magical energies, black and opal light surrounding her as her body was warped and twisted all over again, the memory of the painful transformation revisited once more. As it subsided, and she opened her eyes and realized what had happened, she screamed.

And things went from bad to worse.

“There!” Trixie dramatically declared. “Her true form is revealed once more!”

“Let’s get rid of her before she turns us into demons again!” Snails called.

“Before she brainwashes us all again!” Derpy cried out.

“Before she tries ta kill us again!” Applejack bellowed at the head of the crowd, many now carrying torches and pitchforks for good measure.

“No! Please, I wouldn’t!” Sunset’s protests fell on deaf ears as the crowd advanced, and she ran back to the Wondercolt statue and scraped at the now closed portal, as if begging to be let back into Equestria. “Twilight! Princess Celestia! Please, help!”

“They aren’t coming for you,” her own voice echoed back. She crumpled into a fetal position at the foot of the statue, arms and legs and wings curled as tight against her as she could get as her eyes screwed shut tight. “They abandoned you. They’ve left you to…”

“Get away from our friend!” The sounds of the angry mob faded away, replaced by worried footfalls as Rainbow Dash’s voice called out to her. “Sunset!”

“Stay away!” Sunset held out one trembling hand and pleaded, “Don’t come any closer! Please!”

“Darling, it’s us!” Rarity’s tone was reassuring as she continued, “We’re here. And we’re real.”

“I know.” She pulled the hand back in as she sobbed, “Why do you think I’m telling you to stay away?”

Her hand was caught before it could be fully pulled in, and she looked up to find Fluttershy’s eyes looking right into hers, tears beginning to well up. Pinkie’s hand joined Fluttershy’s as the party girl added, “We’re not gonna do that.”

Sunset looked among the five of them, genuinely surprised at what she was seeing, before she turned away, still not quite believing it. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I’ve no clue how all six of us ended up in the midst of a shared dream, but as for being with you…” Rarity smiled and explained, “We heard you cry out, dear. We knew you needed us, and we came for you. And before you say ‘better late than never’, yes, that’s exactly what this is.”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Sunset bitterly spat. Within microseconds of them escaping her lips, she grimaced and curled up tighter, her hand pulled away from Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

“And you don’t deserve to be curled up on the ground like this, now come on.” Rainbow Dash approached and offered her hand. “Get up. You’re better than this.”

“Am I? All of this is my fault.”

“Sunset, that ain’t true and you know it! You’ve got no blame fer what happened because’a Anon-A-Miss…”

“Not that!” She sprang to her feet, spread her arms and wings wide and declared, “This! Don’t any of you get it?! This is my fault!” Her arms dropped to her side and her wings collapsed inwards as she continued. “And it was years in the making. Ever since I lost my parents.”

“And that ain’t yer fault neither. No more than it’s my fault Ah lost mine.”

“No, but how I reacted was my fault.” The Crystal Mirror shimmered into view beside her as her memories played upon its surface. “What little family I had left took me in, and I shunned them. They got me into a great school, and I didn’t even thank them, just latched onto Celestia and didn’t look back. And then when she denied me what I thought was mine, I turned on her in spite and ran here like the spoiled brat that I was, and tried to get what I wanted here. And then the Fall Formal came…”

“Yes Sunset, we remember all of that. We were there for…”

“Then why haven’t you figured it out?!” Sunset snapped at Rarity’s soothing tones, before calming down for a second and continuing on. “That morning after, that week after, I thought things had finally turned around for me. That I had a chance at real happiness, at making a better life for myself with all of you and Twilight and everybody and everypony else at my side.” She raised her hands up to examine them as she noted, “But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t far from my mind.” She lowered them again and continued, “None of you know what it was like for me after that. All of you had something magical afterwards, something wonderful. Me, I was stuck wondering if I was a ticking time bomb, or if the floor would go out from under me at any moment. Turning into a monster again, going back to what I was, that terrified me to the core. Still does.”

“Because if you did, then you’d lose everything all over again.”

A nod at Pinkie Pie’s summation. “Yeah.” A scowl formed upon her face as she added, “And then Anon-A-Miss happened, and all my nightmares came true.”

“Yeah.” Dash’s tone was somber as she admitted, “We screwed up. We know that. We should’ve stuck by you, but instead, we threw you to the wolves. And there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it either.”

Rarity’s voice was equally somber as she chipped in. “I still think it’s a miracle that you’d even consider forgiving us, let alone actually doing it.”

A sad smile formed on Sunset’s face as she turned to look at them. “You want to know the truth? I wanted to forgive you, all of you. Despite all that, I wanted you in my life. These last few months with you have been the best ones in my entire life, even with practically the entire school glaring daggers in my back every day. I don't want that to end. I don't want to be alone again.”

“But?” Fluttershy whimpered.

The smile faded as Sunset turned away again. “But what about next time?” She raised one hand and asked rhetorically, “What happens if something gets stolen from the school, or from the shop I work at?” Another raised as she continued, “What happens if some important school event gets sabotaged and trashed in the span of an afternoon?” She spread them wide to indicate the dreamscape around them and asked, “What if something crazy happens involving magic?! Who do we know who’s a thief? Who’d commit petty acts of vandalism? Who knows anything about magic?!”

“Sunset, we know you ain’t doin’ this!” Applejack pleaded. “That ain’t who you are no more.”

“And we’ve known since we found you that morning after the Fall Formal, since we heard your story.” Rarity approached and added, “We wouldn’t have brought you into our homes or our lives if we thought otherwise.”

A tense silence held among them, until Sunset’s voice became the pin drop that ended it, and she lowered her arms, turned to them and asked the question that had held in her mind for longer than she cared to admit.

“Then why did you abandon me?”

No one answered, not immediately, until Applejack took her hat off and held it limp in one hand and bluntly said, “Because we’re terrible friends, that’s why.”

A shocked gasp drowned out muffled sobs. “Applejack! How can you say…?”

“Because it’s the truth, Rarity!” The farmgirl threw her hat to the ground as she asked, “How else do you explain all the crap we’ve done, all the time we spent apart? Yeah, fine, Sunset pushed our buttons and pushed ‘em good, but it’s our dang fault for how we reacted! Same as it was when our sisters did what they did!”

“She’s right.” Rainbow Dash’s tone was abnormally quiet as she picked up where Applejack left off. “We could’ve avoided all that if we’d just been a little smarter. But instead, we turned on each other, and turned on Sunset. And we almost lost each other.”

“Just like we almost lost Sunset.” Pinkie’s hair deflated instantly as Rarity bowed her own head in shame.

All throughout this, sobs had grown until Fluttershy finally spoke up again. “You’re not the monster here, Sunset.” Tears were flowing down her face as she finished, “We are.”

And at that soft, pained cry, Sunset looked among her friends, their pain and anguish clear as day and a reflection of her own. The only one who dared to meet her eyes was Fluttershy, the kindhearted girl openly weeping as she did so. Months ago, she would have looked upon this, laughed, and not given it a second thought.

But that was then. This was now. She gently raised a hand and softly beckoned, “Don’t…”

But that was all she could get out before something reached out behind her and grabbed hold, tendrils of eldritch energies taking a tight grasp around her right arm, legs, wings, waist and neck.

“Sunset!” Before she could call for help, her friends rushed to her aid as Fluttershy took hold of her free hand. The rest got as tight a grip as they could, fingers tight around her wrist and arm as if their very lives depended upon it, or one life in particular. “Don’t let go! Please, don’t let go!”

Before Sunset could in any way react, another tendril lashed out from behind her and sent the girls flying backwards as she was pulled into a swirling mass of energy. Fluttershy was the first to recover as she got to her feet and cried out as she rushed to the mass. “Sunset!” But as she made contact…

“I can’t believe I shared my bed with a monster like you, you… you monster!”

She staggered back, stunned at what she’d felt and seen as each of her friends rushed up and attempted to do what she’d done.

“Release her at once, you…!”

“Give her back!”

“Let Sunset go, you icky purple cloud thingie!”

“Ah want my friend back, you oversized…!” But Rarity’s demanding finger, Rainbow Dash’s punch, Pinkie’s frantic clawing and Applejack’s kick produced the same results as Fluttershy’s desperate charge, and the four soon found themselves crumpled on the ground, trying to process what they’d just seen. “Did… did all y’all see…?”

“Yes.” Rarity looked up at the mass and realized, “Yes, we did.”

Fluttershy looked up in terror and whispered, “What can we do now?”

Author's Note:

My apologies for these horrible cliffhangers, but this felt like a natural one for the time being, so here we are.

No references this chapter, just a lot of continuity and strong hints about what's to be revealed next chapter. Astute readers should be able to make some good guesses about what's coming, and I'll do my best to answer your questions as quickly as I can.

EDIT ON 10/3/2017 - Added in some stuff to improve continuity between this story and RQK's Reflections.

FURTHER EDIT ON 10/11/2017 - Further additions and editing cleanup.

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