• Published 17th Mar 2017
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In the Absence of Twilight Sparkle - MyHobby



Twilight Sparkle isn't the only human learning magic, as Sunset discovers when she is invited overseas to visit a school run by Starlight Glimmer. She appears to have good intentions, but Sunset's doubts rise when a magic-powered murderer strikes

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Persona Non Grata

Sunset Shimmer stepped into the dark room, and made it in a few steps before Dr. Twilight flicked on the overhead lamps. Many corners of the room were still cloaked in shadows, but many others held blinking lights and a faint yellow glow.

The first thing to draw her eye were the two large vats of glimmering golden liquid, each easily able to hold a human within. A third presumably lay beneath a thick blue tarp. Various monitors produced readouts at the base of each of the glass cylinders. “So… are you canning fruit or brewing alcohol?”

“I’m attempting to synthesize a healing liquid from back home,” Dr. Twilight said, brushing past the vats without a glance. “So far, results have been inconclusive.”

At the back of the room resided a large metal box, dotted with widgets, doohickeys, and lights. Pound for pound, it seemed to be a replica of the magic scanner Twilight had in her home.

The doctor laid her hand on it. “Here it is. My pride and joy. Building this did a lot to help me understand how magic works in your world.” She offered Sunset a small smile. “Well, in our adoptive world.”

Sunset Shimmer flicked the “on” switch, and the device came to life. She began to unspool the copper wire she’d carried on her shoulder. “This looks about right. Like, exactly what we were looking for. I’m almost surprised you didn’t think to modify it with an antenna.”

“Hard to think of everything when you’re the only one thinking.” Dr. Twilight shrugged and took a seat in a nearby office chair. “Anything I can help with?”

“Where’s the main input?”

“Round the back. Check for a loose plate. I always just sent the data to the printer.”

There was just enough space for a Twilight Sparkle to squeeze between the rear wall and the back of the machine. Unfortunately, Sunset Shimmer was just a bit taller and a bit… well, long story short she didn’t quite fit. “I need a hand with this. Not enough room.”

Dr. Twilight rolled her eyes. “Curse of the beanpole.” She hefted herself upright and took the offered end of copper wire. “What’m I doing with this?”

“Dovetail the wires with the copper connectors, then seal them with electric tape.” Sunset Shimmer turned the machine off to prevent any sort of electro-magical disturbances. Dr. Twilight made short work of the task. “Yeah, like that. The connection look secure?”

“As secure as we can manage.” Dr. Twilight brushed a cobweb from her button-up shirt. For a brief second, Sunset caught her staring intently at the vats across the room.

Sunset let her curiosity get the better of herself. She approached the cylinders and reached out a hand. “It’s actually really pretty. Kinda like a lava-lamp—”

Dr. Twilight's hand caught Sunset’s wrist in a firm grip before she could touch the glass. Sunset acted on her first instinct and jerked her hand away, leaving her skin to be scratched by the nails in the doctor’s tightly-bound fist.

Sunset hissed, grasping the scraped skin and seeing a small amount of blood leak out between the cracks.

Dr. Twilight covered her mouth. “Oh, gosh! I’m so sorry! I’ll—I’ll get antiseptic—”

“It’s just a scratch…” Sunset frowned at the minor injury. She heaved a sigh. “Seriously.”

“I’m sorry, I just…” Dr. Twilight glanced at the vat, then rubbed her forehead. “They’re still in a prototype state, and I don’t know how they’ll react to Equestrian magic. I didn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Sunset shook her head and gave the doctor a tiny smile. She held up her white-and-red-streaked wrist. “Mission accomplished?” She turned away to hide her annoyance. What could she have possibly done to hurt the experiment? “But I’m pretty sure we both have the same magic, Twilight. It’s just that the ambiance is different in this world.”

“I’m sorry. I… I really don’t want to take a chance.” Dr. Twilight rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’ll try to be more verbal next time.”

“Please. My wrists beg you.” Sunset made her way to the scanner’s main screen and began to dial in the data her Twilight had used to scan for portals to Equestria. With any luck, there’d be one in the vicinity of the Highborn Isles. If not… they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. She tugged her shirt sleeve back to prevent the faint bleeding on her wrist from staining the cuffs. “Now we just wait for the folks on the roof to let us know the connection’s complete.”

“And then…” Dr. Twilight glanced to the ceiling, her glimmering eyes taking on a distant glaze. “Still more waiting.”

“Hurry up and wait. That’s generally how these things work.”

Dr. Twilight sent magic flowing from her fingertips to unspool the copper towards the door to her lab. She tilted her head to urge Sunset to follow her.

Sunset hazarded a guess. “Not a fan of having visitors in your lab?”

“I like to think of it as my private space, so no.” Dr. Twilight Sparkle folded her hands over her stomach and bounced on her heels. “There aren’t many secluded spots on this tiny island.”

“I’ve noticed.” Sunset’s hand went to her phone, situated as it was in her pocket. She wanted more than anything to speak with her Twilight. Or maybe Shining… nah, she wasn’t quite ready. Although, given what was happening around them, it might be her last chance to talk with him for quite some time.

Except that he had gone with Twilight to the other world, on a mission to find out just what was up with the doctor.

The doctor in question lowered her head slightly. “I am sorry for dragging you into this. I thought the school was low-key enough that you’d fly completely under the radar.”

Sunset closed her eyes. Stress leaked down from her shoulders to her fists, congealing as a faint tongue of flame radiating from her hands. She quenched the fire with her next conscious thought. “I knew what I was getting into. I knew the Highborn Isles were in the middle of a really painful time in history. But I came anyway.” She shook her head, staring at her smoldering hands. “I think the allure was too great for my better judgement to kick in.”

Dr. Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You liken it to jumping through the mirror fifteen years ago?”

“Maybe…” Sunset winced as she pushed the painful memories from her sight. “Look, I know I have a habit of jumping from bad situations to worse situations. I’m not even sure how to avoid it. It just seems to follow me. No matter what I do, every time I chase a dream… it ends badly.”

“I know—” Dr. Twilight clicked her tongue. She steeled herself with a shallow breath and plunged ahead. “I know that feeling. It’s the same thing for me. When I was young, I wanted nothing more than to learn at Sombra’s school and become a great mage. I wanted to support my family. Save my brother. Instead, my first spell ended up killing my parents.”

The words struck Sunset right in the heart. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine…”

“I was admitted into the school, but under the close watch of King Sombra himself.” Dr. Twilight let out a rueful, baleful laugh. “I was his personal student, but partially to protect the other students from me.” She wiped tears from her eyes. Not large, weeping tears, but more a faint aftershock of an old sorrow. “When your Celestia returned to him, I thought for sure she would help us protect the world from the dark Queen Celestia and Luna. I was wrong then, too. When Sombra sacrificed himself, my entire world turned upside down.” The doctor’s lopsided grin didn’t reach her glowing, tired eyes. “I was honestly trying to get to your world in the first place. Just to find somewhere I belonged. I ended up here instead. Life’s funny like that.”

Sunset bit her lower lip. “I guess we’re very alike in that regard. Both fleeing from a world we thought was unfair. Both seeking paradise and finding… this one.”

“Not quite paradise, but I’ve found good people here.” Dr. Twilight rested a hand on Sunset’s shoulder. “Good people who will stick by me to the bitter end.”

Sunset laughed. “It’d better not be bitter. We’ve worked too hard for this.”

Starlight Glimmer ran up the staircase from the indoor courtyard. She shouted as she neared the back room of the school. “Double Diamond and Skyhook got everything set up! We’re ready to begin the scan!”

Sunset Shimmer swirled around on her heel and marched double-time to the control panel. She activated the pulse, and the machine began its heavy mechanical chug. “Come on, baby, do your stuff.”

Even though it was the dead of night, the students of the school gathered in the courtyard in varying states of either dressed or pajamaed. Starlight ran back to the railed overhang to get a vantage point on them all. She leaned on the guardrail and addressed the students as a whole. “I’m sorry, everyone. I have terrible news. All attendees of this school are soon to be declared enemies of the state.”

The uproar was instantaneous and deafening. Sunset could hear it clearly from Dr. Twilight’s lab. She walked to the door and leaned on the frame, watching the vaguely-familiar faces twist in worry and anger. It took a solid minute for Starlight to regain their attention, but a flashy spell from Dr. Twilight assisted in that.

Starlight’s version of the threat was condensed, but comprehensive enough. After a brief speech, she came to the core conceit. “The only way we can see out of this, getting away with our freedom intact, is to travel to the world that Sunset Shimmer came from fifteen years ago. She knows the leadership there, and they will no doubt offer us safe passage to anywhere we could hope to go.” She took in a shuddering breath, her knuckles going white against the railing. “It’s either go with Sunset, or live in prison for the rest of our lives. You’ve got a few hours to decide. I suggest everybody gets some rest, because we might have to move at a moment’s notice.”

Chrysalis rushed up to Dr. Twilight and touched her arm to get her attention. “Just got a message. You need to look at it.”

The doctor opened her mouth in apparent protest. She glanced between Sunset and the scanner behind them.

Sunset gave her a firm nod. “I’ll watch the scanner. You go ahead and take care of whatever.”

“That’s not…” Dr. Twilight’s cheek twitched. She grasped Chrysalis none-too-gently on the elbow. “Good idea, Sunset. Just… please promise not to touch anything in the lab. I have some very sensitive equipment.”

Sunset flashed a double thumbs-up, grinning like an idiot to showcase a tiny amount of levity. “You got it! Good ol’ dependable me.”

“Alright.” Dr. Twilight cast one final glance into the lab. “I trust you.” She left with Chrysalis, heading to the right side of the second floor and disappearing in the computer lab.

Celestia hiked up the stairs, escaping the rambling, confused crowd to reach Sunset. “So, how’s it going? Can you really get us to another world?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out.” Sunset gave Celestia a grin, one just as plastic as the one she’d given the doctor. “It’ll work out. Sure it’ll work out.”

Celestia gritted her teeth. “You’re not filling me with confidence.”

“It is difficult for one to give something one does not have.” Sombra’s gray-haired visage loomed close to Celestia, his expression as brittle as his clipped tone. “I suspect this is but a last-ditch effort on your part, Mrs. Shimmer.”

“Got it in one, Doc.” Sunset walked into the lab to make sure the device was functioning properly. Celestia and Sombra gave chase. “I’m pretty sure it’s an only-ditch effort, unless either of you can fight an entire nation’s police force?”

Celestia threw her hands out. “What do I look like? The queen?”

“I am surprised the betrayal came from Fancy Pants rather than Dulcimer.” Sombra folded his arms and cupped his chin in one hand, gazing out the door to the lab. He rubbed his goatee gently as he patently ignored both women’s barbed comments. “I have found him to be a dark individual, capable of more than he lets on.” He sighed, turning his cool blue eyes down. “But I thought the opposite of Fancy Pants, and look where we find ourselves.”

Celestia tied her hair out of the way and sat in Dr. Twilight’s office chair. “At least we’ll get off easily. Sunset and I’ll be deported, and you’ve got connections that go all the way up. It’s the rest of these poor people I’m worried about.”

“If Fancy Pants is willing to attack the school while I’m still here…” Sombra narrowed his eyes, his heart nearly visibly breaking. “I am not certain of anything anymore.” He knelt before her, his crystal-coated leg clanking against the floor. “But I do know one thing… Where you go, I go. Where you stay, I stay. I will not leave your side this time, Celestia.”

Celestia pressed her lips tight. “Sombra, I can’t—”

“If my life is truly to change, then I shall change it for the better in this, the last way I am able.” Sombra took her hand in his. “I’ll not make the same mistake twice.”

It took both of Celestia’s hands to match Sombra’s for sheer size. She clutched his close to her chest, looking him in the eye with tears running down her cheeks. “Sombra, I need to be honest.”

“Yes,” he said, his expression unflinching, his voice steady and deep. “You do.”

Celestia stood up and walked away from him. Sunset was left feeling useless as her friend and mentor walked past, not sparing her a glance. She had to focus on watching the monitor and give the two of them what little privacy she could afford.

“Celestia, our dreams were beautiful,” Sombra said. “We’ve helped so many young people find their way. But…” He clenched at the heart of his long jacket, shutting his eyes against the sight of his dear one retreating. “There is nothing in my life that is worth losing you.”

Sunset’s eyes opened wide. Shining’s face sprung to mind immediately. His warm smile. His kind, inviting eyes. His strength of heart. No, she thought. No force of magic in the world would be worth losing him. Part of her wanted to shout this to Celestia, to tell her friend not to lose sight of what truly mattered. But she kept quiet. It was a choice Celestia had to make on her own.

Celestia hugged herself tight as she neared the vats of golden medicine. “Sombra, as much as I… care for you…”

Sombra let a silent moment pass before he spoke. “I love you with all my heart, Celestia. So if you chose to return to your life, I will welcome it all the same as if you stayed with me. It is, after all, your life.”

Celestia gently covered her face with a hand. “Oh, Sombra…” She jolted, her head coming up. She stared at the tarp, her open hand suspended before her head. “What on Earth?”

Sunset groaned under her breath at the broken moment. “Stay away from the experiments. Dr. Twilight doesn’t want anybody contaminating them.”

“Experiments?” Celestia’s tear-stained face turned to Sunset with a look bordering on horror. “Sunset… what is this? It looks… alive.”

Sunset tilted her head to the side. She saw the tarp, but more importantly, she saw a sliver of the cylindrical vat beneath it. A strand of gold, like a gilded threat, trailed through the yellow liquid. She eased herself closer, mesmerized by the graceful dance it performed, like a spiderweb tugged by a breeze. She sucked in a breath. She’d seen something like it before, but only in textbooks.

Equestrian textbooks.

She raised a hand alight with magical power, and used a spell to nudge the tarp aside. It came away easily enough. The strand of golden thread was joined by countless others, all formed vaguely in the shape of a stick figure. At its center was a beating golden heart.

Sunset sucked in a sharp breath, grasping her throat as the rushing air rasped at it. “Oh my God.”

Celestia was joined by Sombra, whose face had grown only more severe. “Sunset?” Celestia said. “What is it?”

“F-fairy strings.” Sunset coughed. She felt light-headed. Fear ran up and down her spine helter-skelter with the thundering beat in her chest. “Fairy strings pulled from a person. A dead person.”

Sombra’s mouth dipped open. “What are you saying?”

Sunset Shimmer turned away from the three tubes, one filled, the others awaiting fresh victims. “When those are pulled from someone’s body, they leave the rest of the person dehydrated; almost mummified. And unmistakably, irreversibly dead.” Sunset happened upon a worse truth than that, her heart threatening to explode into pure fire. Anger seethed at her pores. Fire blazed from her fingernails. “Sombra, the doctor killed your sister.”

Sombra’s cool, stony expression shattered in a volcanic eruption. “She what?

“Is that what you truly believe?”

The three of them spun to face the woman at the door. Dr. Twilight Sparkle gazed dispassionately at them, her hands behind her back. “If you are truly willing to believe the worst of someone without solid evidence, are you really worth having as friends?”

This time, Sunset couldn’t have extinguished her hands if she had wanted to, so bright was the fire in her heart. “You killed someone to get those fairy strings. You just try and explain the coincidence.”

Dr. Twilight’s eyebrows rose ever-so-slightly. She gave the three of them a sardonic smile. “Hmm. Good point. I really am suspect number one, aren’t I?”

Sombra’s right hand roared with power. A craggy spike fashioned itself into a solid-crystal sword. He swung it overhead, its keen edge on a fast-track to split Dr. Twilight’s head in two.

She took half a step to the left and avoided the strike completely. She flicked two of her shimmering fingers and ripped the sword right out of Sombra’s hand. Her next flick cracked his prosthetic down the middle and sent him tumbling like a bag of rocks to the floor.

Sunset opened her hand wide and sent fire roaring towards the doctor. She was met with a whirlwind that caught the fireball and reformed it into a puff of superheated smoke. While Dr. Twilight cast the attack aside with one hand, her left hand pointed two fingers right at Sunset’s chest.

Lightning coursed through Sunset’s body, blasting her across the room. She hit an invisible wall before she could hit the magic scanner. Dr. Twilight opened her hand palm-up and set Sunset face-first into the ceiling.

With her other hand holding Sombra against the floor, Dr. Twilight smirked at Celestia. “Will that be enough, or do you have something to add, princess?”

Celestia glared pure hatred at Dr. Twilight. “You b—!”

“Ut, ut!” Dr. Twilight glanced at the ceiling. “Sunset has a thing about cursing.” She sighed, flipping Sunset over so that she could look into the other woman’s eyes. “It’s not as bad as you think. Trust me. We have to work together if we want to get these people to safety.”

Sunset spat, but due to the spell, the saliva dripped back up into her own face. “I’m not helping you with anything, murderer!”

Dr. Twilight Sparkle scoffed. “So all these people are going to pay the price because you think I’m a bad person? That’s some kinda justice, sister.”

Sombra’s voice was hoarse with rage as he shouted. “Is that Raven? Is that my sister in your prison?

Out of the corner of her eye, Sunset saw Celestia edge towards Sombra’s discarded sword. She bent down while the doctor was focused on Sunset and Sombra, grasping the handle in both of her slight hands.

Sunset forced herself not to bring attention to Celestia. She attempted to conjure another fireball, but it was extinguished by the doctor’s powerful spell. “Spill it, Twilight! You murdered Raven, and you tried to murder other people, too! You’re going to fail! We have so many people coming to beat the ever-loving tar out of you—!”

Celestia lunged at Dr. Twilight. The sword went right through her neck.

The doctor flickered, discolored, and vanished in a cloud of sparks as the illusion dissipated.

Celestia gazed in disbelief, looking down at the sword for any sign that she wasn’t crazy. She straightened up at the sound of Dr. Twilight’s voice from the doorway. “Very poor decision, Celestia.”

Principal Celestia gasped as lightning struck her, shattering the sword and sending her convulsing to the ground. Sombra’s scream became all the more venomous.

Dr. Twilight strode in, her hands aglow and her expression irritated. “Alright, now that we’ve all got that out of our systems, why don’t we sit down and have a nice chat?”

Another voice hailed from behind the doctor, belonging to Starlight Glimmer. The headmistress of the school stood gap jawed at the sight of three bodies strewn before the doctor. “Twilight! What the hell is going on?”

Dr. Twilight rolled her eyes. “They attacked me and I subdued them.”

Sunset Shimmer looked to Starlight Glimmer. It was possible she was mixed up in all this, she knew it. But if there was the faintest hope that she wasn’t… it might be their only hope. “She’s a murderer! She’s the one who killed Raven! We have to stop her!”

With her willpower running at its maximum, she sent all the magic she could into her right hand. She used the spell to jolt the tarp from the hidden glass cylinder, revealing the fairy strings. “There’s your evidence! She killed to get those fairy strings!”

“What?” Starlight Glimmer’s voice was small. Helpless. Strangled. She stared at the fairy strings with wide eyes, her hands shaking. “But… but you never left the Isles…”

Sunset felt hope swell in her heart. “She has help! My family’s already been attacked! Help us, please!”

Starlight covered her mouth and stumbled away from the vat of fairy strings. She shook her head and looked pleadingly to the doctor. “Twilight… Twilight, please tell me she’s lying. Tell me it’s not true.”

Dr. Twilight lidded her eyes. “It’s not true. Do you believe me?”

Starlight Glimmer leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. Her tremors grew more frequent as she began to hyperventilate. “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

The hope in Sunset’s heart died as Starlight Glimmer all but passed out. “You can’t get away with this, Twilight.”

“I have to,” Dr. Twilight said, lowering Sunset to a standing position. She pressed her hand against Sunset’s forehead. “Or all of this will have been for nothing.”

A pulse of magic entered Sunset’s brain, and she fell into pitch-black unconsciousness.

***

Twilight Sparkle’s ears fell back against her head. “A… a monster?”

Edgy Spike bobbed his head noncommittally, even if his tone of voice was just as firm as before. ”She lost everything she valued. She broke Sombra free just to cover her escape from our world.”

“But not before taking my eye.” General Care seethed. “As you can imagine, I’d like to return the favor.”

Edgy Spike lifted his head, his forehead furrowed with worry lines. “When we discovered this portal, we thought we could go after her, but couldn’t get out of the cave on the other side. We’ve been stationed at this outpost to guard this portal in case she ever tried to come back.”

“But why did she leave?” Princess Twilight said, her eyes already studying the map laid out on the table. “From what you’ve said, all of this world’s problems started after she left. It sounds like she just broke Sombra out to spite you.”

Edgy Spike stood up, his back to the princess. He looked over his shoulder with a bleary look to his eyes. “She was already being hunted down for… for the other crimes she committed.”

The sound of lively magic filled the room. When Shining Armor moved to stand up, he was stopped by General Care’s hoof on his shoulder. She took in a deep breath to lower her blood pressure just a titch. “Don’t be alarmed. This is just the boss’ way of getting around these days.”

A spiral of sparkles swirled towards the table’s head, their lights growing brighter by the second. Celestia narrowed her eyes, but soon nodded in understanding. Twilight was left to wait in silence as the new arrival completed their spell.

There was a pop, a flash, and a mare appeared in the chair. Her curly mane was swirled with greens and blues, and she was backed by two translucent wings. Two piercing green eyes were framed by large, round glasses, which were wide enough to nearly touch the curved horn on her forehead. Rather than hair or skin, she was covered from head to cloven hooves in a black, hard chitin.

General Care bowed until her nose touched the ground. “Queen Chrysalis. Welcome back to the border.”

“Thank you, General.” Chrysalis pushed her glasses further up her nose. “I came as soon as I received Spike’s missive. It’s good to see you again, my friend.” She reached out and touched Little Spike’s claw, giving it a gentle, loving rub. “You’re looking lively, Spike! Have you been finding gemstones more easily lately?”

Little Spike found himself at a loss for words, only able to give the queen a limp shrug. He glanced at Edgy Spike and pointed at Chrysalis. “Huh?”

Edgy Spike shuffled up to the queen and gave her a gentle hug. “I think we have some explaining to do.”

Chrysalis looked between Edgy Spike and Little Spike, realization dawning slowly, but assuredly. “I see. Well, I do think introductions are in order.”

She cleared her throat, spread her wings, and adjusted her oversized glasses once more. “I am Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings. We were once a nation bordering Equestria, but have since merged in order to give the displaced Equestrians somewhere to go without the influence of Sombra or Cadenza the Tyrant.” She looked to Celestia with a pained frown. “And you are visitors from another world.”

Edgy Spike bobbed his head. “The one King Sombra often spoke of.”

“I see, then you are his—” Chrysalis clicked her tongue to cut herself off. “Another time, perhaps. The king was a good friend of mine as well, Princess Celestia. I wish things had worked out differently.”

Celestia steeled her jaw. “I believe we can work together to make the world right again.”

“Oh dear.” Queen Chrysalis covered her mouth with a pristine black hoof. “I do wish I shared your certainty. As it is, it is simply taking all we have to keep our people alive.”

Edgy Spike eased close to her. “If I may?” He whispered in her ear, and she listened intently, nodding occasionally. He backed away, his piece said, and Chrysalis pressed her hooves together.

“Perhaps… we can help each other.” Queen Chrysalis glanced at the assembled visitors, briefly focusing on Twilight herself. She shrunk beneath the queen’s gaze. “We both have problems, and we may very well have the solution to each other’s problems.”

Big Mac squirmed in his seat. He muttered in Twilight’s ear. “Not sure I like the sound o’ that.”

Twilight gave him a crooked smile even as her skin crawled.

Princess Twilight spoke up first. “We wanna know as much as possible about Dr. Twilight Sparkle. From what Edgy Spike says, she’s a very dangerous individual. We should make it a priority to hunt her down.”

Chrysalis glanced at her Spike and blinked owlishly. “‘Edgy’ Spike?”

“Long story.” Edgy Spike waved her off and pointed at the map. His claw landed dead-center on the castle at the heart of Equestria. “And we want to seal Sombra back in his castle, until either we cure him, or he just can’t hurt anybody anymore.”

General Care cracked a predatory grin. “You’re proposing an alliance, eh?”

Little Spike looked to his two princesses. “Don’t think we could ask for better than full cooperation. And heck, I know I wanna help these guys out.”

Edgy Spike flexed a scarred bicep. “Heroics. Comes standard with dragon blood.”

“You…” Little Spike snapped his claws at his counterpart. “You get me.”

“Unprepared heroes are dead heroes.” Shining Armor turned to look at Princess Celestia, and completely missed the tears that sparkled in Chrysalis’ eyes. “Do you vouch for these people, Your Majesty?”

“Yes, I knew Queen Chrysalis for many years.” Celestia smiled across the table. “I think it extremely prudent to put our hope in the hooves of the Knight of Love.”

Chrysalis’ fangs scraped her lower lip. “I’m afraid you will not be putting your life in my hooves, but the lives of my people in yours.” She glanced at the window, and saw only endless seas of dust. “If I know these storms, we have several hours until it abates. When it does, this outpost will surely be attacked by the forces of Cadenza the Tyrant. I intend for us to have evacuated by then; we can’t stand against her army.”

“Abandon the outpost?” General Care stomped a hoof. “But we need to guard the portal! It’s why you stationed us here in the first place!”

“The outpost will fall, General. With or without the troops.” Queen Chrysalis touched her horn to Care’s forehead. The General stood her ground for only an instant before returning to her seat. “And I’d rather have you alive than dead.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Care said, fidgeting with her hooves. “I let my anger get the better of me again.”

“Wait.” Little Spike raised a single digit. “That means the portal is going to be closed off to us unless Sombra’s sealed and you can fight back against… um, Cadenza.”

Edgy Spike shrugged. “You could try to sneak out before her army gets here.”

Shining Armor shook his head, pawing ruefully at his pistol. “I don’t think we’re equipped to deal with numbers that could overrun this base.”

“And that sandstorm is deadly,” Celestia said. “We can’t go back just yet. We need to move forward.”

All eyes turned to Princess Twilight. Her mouth was a grim line as she looked over the map, making note of the marked position of their outpost in relation to the castle. She looked to Big Mac, Shining Armor, and Twilight Sparkle. “I’m sorry we ended up dragging you three into this mess. You shouldn’t have to risk life and limb like this.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow. “Actually, I’m ex-military. Danger’s pretty much a fact of life.”

“I work with the police force,” Twilight added.

“An’ I…” Big Mac looked between the two of them. “Well, I’m the one dating a wizard. Sorta comes with the territory.”

Princess Twilight gave them a lopsided grin. “Alright, Queen Chrysalis. What’s your plan?”

Queen Chrysalis moved a marker from Northern Equestria to the castle. “Spike?”

“Yes?”

“Yeah?”

Chrysalis closed her eyes and visibly sucked in a breath. “Edgy Spike? Take a message.”

Edgy Spike produced a breath of smoke, swirled his claws within, and reformed it into a pen and paper.

“Tell Princess Lulamoon that we have two alicorns to assist with the spell. Have her meet us at the agreed rendezvous point near the castle gates.”

“Actually,” Princess Twilight said, raising a hoof. “Princess Celestia is kinda—”

“What she means to say is that my power has diminished.” Celestia touched a wing to her former student’s back. “If you require alicorns to seal Sombra, I won’t be able to help.”

“Alright…” Queen Chrysalis glanced at Edgy Spike with a hesitant breath. “The spell only required two alicorns to cast it, correct?”

“It only took Celestia and Luna to cast it last time, yeah.” Edgy Spike scraped his teeth together. “You really wanna use the same spell all over again?”

“It worked.” Queen Chrysalis stood up and walked to the window, folding her delicate wings across her back. “And it will continue to work so long as nobody breaks it again.”

Edgy Spike winced. He rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re right, of course.”

Queen Chrysalis nodded. “Send the message, Spike.”

As he did so, Chrysalis turned back to the table. “The proposal is this: We have a spell that, with the power of two alicorns behind it, can seal Sombra in his castle. Nobody can go in. Nobody can go out. With your help, Princess Twilight, you and Princess Trixie can recreate the spell and cut our troubles in half.”

“Sure thing…” Princess Twilight’s right eye twitched. “Princess Trixie?”

“The Knight of Humility,” General Care said.

“You guys run on irony, or what?”

Queen Chrysalis cleared her throat to regain control of the room. “The problem is that the spell was created by Dr. Twilight Sparkle, and she did not share her notes with anybody. They have been lost to us for quite some time.”

Twilight grimaced, her eyes drawn to the castle that lay before her on the map. “Where are her notes? Are they even in this world?”

“Yeah,” Edgy Spike said. “In her lab. We abandoned it after she set Sombra loose.”

Shining Armor stood up and walked around the back of Twilight’s chair. He put his hooves on her shoulders. “And just where is this laboratory?”

“Where else?” Edgy Spike crossed his arms over the chipped and dented scales on his chest. “The heart of Canterlot Castle.”

Celestia’s eyes grew wide. “Where Sombra lives?”

General Care growled. “Where Sombra haunts the populace each day.”

“We do not need to face him,” Queen Chrysalis said. “In all the time he raged within the confines of the sealing spell, there were two people who he would never, ever hurt. Two people he loved more than life itself, who he lived with for five long years, even in his demented state.”

Twilight Sparkle swallowed hard. Edgy Spike had a familiar look on his face, one that had often appeared on her Spike’s face when he missed her. Whenever she came home at the end of the day, the sadness melted into joy the instant she stepped through the door. Nothing cheered Spike up more than a hug from her.

Edgy Spike looked like he missed his Twilight more than anything.

“It’s Twilight,” she said. “It’s Twilight and Spike. His student and her friend.”

Shining Armor’s hooves grew more heavy against her shoulders. “No.”

Queen Chrysalis bowed at the neck to Twilight. “I’m afraid you do bear an uncanny resemblance to the wayward doctor.”

“I won’t allow it.” Shining Armor trotted around the table to confront the queen face-to-face. “I’m not letting my baby sister infiltrate an enemy stronghold by herself!”

Princess Twilight followed him. She reached out a wing to touch his shoulder. “There’s no way I can write a sealing spell that powerful in a matter of hours. We need the doctor’s notes, or we’re going to—”

“Why can’t you go?” Shining took a step towards the princes, nearly butting noses with her. “Can’t you do some sort of magic trick that makes you look shorter and less… wing-ish?”

“Polymorphing was never my strong suit.” Princess Twilight let out a warm breath and turned her head aside. “If only Luna were here…”

“She won’t be alone, sir.” Edgy Spike stood tall, green flames leaking from the sides of his mouth and his tail waving aggressively behind him. “I’ll protect her with my life. Even Sombra won’t be able to touch her.”

“Shining…” Twilight Sparkle brought a hoof to her big brother’s foreleg. “I don’t think there’s any other way. Not with the world like it is right now.” She flicked an ear to Edgy Spike. “We just gotta go in, grab the notes, and get out, right?”

“Pretty much.”

Big Mac sat at the table, his forelegs in his lap. He rubbed his hooves together as his mouth twisted into a confused frown. “Y’sure there ain’t no other way?” His expression turned dead-serious as he looked Twilight in the eye. “Y’sure you wanna do this?”

Shining Armor gritted his teeth. “Mac, help me out, here!”

“I can make my own decisions, Shiny.” Twilight walked away from him until she reached the queen. She was a head shorter than the changeling, and had to crane her neck to see through her enormous glasses. Still, she managed to match the queen eye to eye. “It looks like we’re stuck with each other.”

Queen Chrysalis raised a regal foreleg and gestured for them to follow her deeper into the fortress. “Thank you for your service. General Care, prepare the evacuation belowground. We’ll need to cave in the tunnels behind us. The rest of you, we’re headed for South Equestria. We have somebody imprisoned there you’ll need to talk with.”

***

The beep of monitors at the hospital faded into the background as Wallflower Blush lay cuffed to her bed. She had long ago grown bored of the limited television channels and their endless reruns of reality survivalist shows. It was hard enough to survive reality without a camera crew, thank you very much.

The door opened, and Wallflower groaned. “Captain Care, I really doubt you’ve found a lawyer at ten-o’-clock at night.”

“Oh, I’m not the captain.” Neighsay walked into the room carrying a heavy, metal briefcase, wearing his usual long overcoat. He rubbed his smartly-trimmed goatee and gave her a sad smile. “And I’m certainly less than a lawyer.”

“Neighsay!” Wallflower clapped her free hand over her mouth. She continued in a quieter voice. “How did you get in? The cops are crawling all over the place.”

“The police can’t catch what they can’t see.” He raised his hands, and the door shut of its own accord. “And they can’t open what I have sealed.”

A crimson glow radiated from the doorhandle; Neighsay’s handiwork. Wallflower lifted her cuffed hand. “Great. Now let’s get out of here.”

Neighsay sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, Wallflower. There’s only one plane ticket back to the Highborn Isles.”

Wallflower’s mouth popped open. She first considered shouting an expletive, but none really came to mind. Only confusion. “What?”

He placed the briefcase on a small, wheeled table and opened it. A jar lay within, filled with glistening, glowing fairy strings. “I harvested Night Glider earlier tonight. Unfortunately, I was forced to kill Party Favor as well.”

Wallflower sighed, some of the tension leaving her back. “Oh. Alright. The job’s done, then.”

Neighsay’s lip curled at the corner. “I’m afraid not.”

“But… but that’s three people.” Wallflower tried to sit up in bed, but her damaged ribs forced her down. “Raven, Night Glider, and Party Favor. Three sets of fairy strings.”

“It has to be three different sets of fairy strings for the spell to work.” Neighsay produced white gloves from the briefcase and slipped them on one finger at a time. “Both Raven and Party Favor had Ethereal magic. Night Glider had Sky magic. We still need Earth magic.” He produced an empty jar from the case and placed it near Wallflower. “You are the only Earth mage of sufficient weight, build, and talent to meet Dr. Twilight Sparkle’s needs.”

“No…” Wallflower struggled against the cuff, but felt a sharp pain within her torso every time she moved. The bandages on her arm came loose as she shuffled away from Neighsay. “No, she promised we’d be the first to ascend when she perfected the spell! She promised we’d have a place—”

“I’m sorry, Wallflower.” Neighsay reached his hands out. “We ran out of time.”

“Stop it!” Wallflower screamed at the top of her lungs. “Somebody help me!

Neighsay brought one hand to her forehead, and the other touched her chest right over her heart. Her screams grew louder, then were cut off as the spell began.

His eyes glowed. The power radiated from his hair and fingernails. Gilded veins appeared just beneath Wallflower’s skin as magic coursed from her heart throughout her body. With a gasp from Neighsay, the fairy strings rose to the surface.

***

On the other side of the door, Chief Care Carrot oversaw the positioning of a battering ram. “Get the door down!”

Every time the ram contacted, a crimson glow spread out like waves from the impact point, but no damage was evident in the heavy door. “Can’t that thing hit any harder?”

“We’re giving her all she’s got!”

“Keep givin’ her!” Care Carrot spoke into her walkie-talkie. “Any evidence he was even there?”

“Negative, ma’am. Just the two mummified bodies. No sign of a break-in, no alarms tripped.”

It was ridiculously similar to the situation at Party Favor’s home. Every entry they had tried was barred with a crimson glow. Once it faded and allowed them entry, all they found were the sordid results.

“Well, at least we’ll catch him red-handed here.” Care slammed a fist against the wall in time with the mechanical battering-ram’s strikes. “Throw your back into it, you piece of tin.”

There was a flash as the spell over the doorway was extinguished. The ram tore into the door like a strongman through balsa wood. Care shouted for the officers under her command to move, and drew her sidearm. She leaped through the doorway and scanned the room.

The hospital room was empty, save for the mummified corpse handcuffed to the bed.

Chief Care swore. Loudly. “Get our people down a floor! Did we finish locking down the hospital yet?”

Caution still had his pistol trained on the empty room. “Tight as your—”

“If you finish that sentence…” Care Carrot marched through the halls with her officers in hot pursuit. “I doubt it's going to do any good against a guy who can open locks with his mind!”

***

Far below, a short distance away from the parking lot, Neighsay gently hefted the briefcase. Wallflower’s heart and fairy strings were stored beside Night Glider’s, cushioned for the passage overseas. He placed a wide-brimmed hat on his head to block his face from view—it had been close, but no footage of him had been captured.

His plane was leaving in minutes, and would arrive in the Highborn Isles in about twelve hours. Once there, he would deliver his payload to the doctor, and she could commence with her ascension.

And maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t be the next poor soul on the chopping block.