• Published 1st Feb 2019
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The League of Sweetie Belles - GMBlackjack



A team of multiversal explorers comprised of alternate Sweetie Belles explore fanfic worlds and beyond!

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Still Standing (Sunshine and Fire, Part 2)

Author's Note:

IMPORTANT: I made a mistake last chapter and forgot to include the last scene! Go back and make sure you've read the final scene with Celia and Cinder, because it's IMPORTANT! It beings with "there was blood." Sorry for the inconvenience, my mind is a demented squirrel sometimes.

Suzie didn’t like the situation.

They were back at the Matriarch’s lair. Sweetaloo was, somehow, still talking with the Matriarch and showing no sign of stopping. She also showed no sign of noticing the four of them had returned and were trying to figure out how to escape.

Her wormhole device still had a portal keyed to the outside. She would use it to escape herself, if needed. If they could only get her to use it…

But any sort of message would likely draw the Matriarch’s attention, so she, Luna, Rainbow, and Burgerbelle were sitting in the darkness, thinking over their options. Luna held the Rock of Ages in her hoof. They were lucky—apparently, so long as it was within the Matriarch’s mountain, it still ‘belonged’ to her, and thus she wouldn’t notice its power seep from her until they were gone.

The problem here was how to get out. They had to cross her lair. With the gem. And get out with their lives.

“I’m still the fastest flier,” Rainbow whispered. “It’s mostly a straight shot from here to outside.”

“She’ll catch you,” Suzie hissed.

“Not if I’m really fast and you all provide a distraction.”

“I’d rather not be roasted!” Suzie hissed.

“You can fight her,” Burgerbelle commented.

“I do not have my adult body or reflexes and my weapons are too large for my hands. And if you’re suggesting the other thing, no. Just no.”

“Then I can take her,” Burgerbelle said. “A memefest is all it takes to bewilder a dragon long enough for a pegasus to fly out.”

“And the rest of us?” Luna asked.

“Wormhole.” Burgerbelle pointed at Sweetaloo.

“How do we get that?”

“Teleport it off her,” Suzie said, a smile slowly forming. “She’ll already know we’re here, we don’t need to be stealthy at that point…” She turned to Burgerbelle. “Do it.”

“Okay.”

And suddenly Burgerbelle was at Sweetaloo’s side.

“WAUGH!” Sweetaloo shouted, jumping into the air—inadvertently flapping her broken wing. “Wh…”

“Hmm…” the Matriarch narrowed her eyes. “A Flat. Burgerbelle, perhaps?”

“Yes ma’am!” Burgerbelle said. “And I’ve got a little present for you!”

“Burgerbelle what are you doing!?” Sweetaloo shouted.

“Comedy at it’s finest,” Burgerbelle reported, pulling a banana cream pie out of nowhere. She threw it at the Matriarch.

She burnt it to a crisp with her fire.

A sad trombone noise emanating from somewhere.

“What was the point of that?” the Matriarch asked, on high alert now.

“Thinkfastdistraction!” Burgerbelle shouted, pulling out an air horn and pressing down on the button. Even the Matriarch had to recoil and put her claws over her ears.

Rainbow took the opportunity. As little more than a burst of rainbow color, she shot through the lair, entering the exit tunnel. She knew the exact way out, so none of the side tunnels were going to confuse her.

Luna teleported the wormhole device to herself and activated it, opening a portal to the outside of the mountain. She jumped in—teleporting Sweetaloo through with her magic.

The Matriarch let out a roar of rage. “THIEVES!” She attempted to follow them through the portal—but Burgerbelle hit her on the head with a frying pan, sending her to the side. Before the Matriarch could try for the portal again, Luna teleported everyone else out.

The instant they were on the other side of the portal they returned to their proper ages. The feeling was somewhat disorienting for everyone who wasn’t Luna or Burgerbelle. Suzie’s clothes had been tied around a much smaller body, ripping easily when she returned to her proper size. Putting them back on, she found her sleeves and legs were basically trashed. “...Great.”

“...I just thought of something,” Burgerbelle said.

“Yeah?”

“Why didn’t we teleport Rainbow Dash through the wormhole with us?”

There was a poignant pause.

Suzie facepalmed. “AUGH! This is why we should plan more!”

“Have faith in Rainbow Dash,” Luna said. “The Element of Loyalty will come through.”

“S h e_b e t t e r,” the dark dragon said, sitting behind them.

“She has the Stone of Ages in her hooves. She will come through.”

“...Can we help her?” Sweetaloo asked.

Luna spread her wings. “I can.” She flew into the entrance to the mountain—a beautiful cavernous opening with dual waterfalls. She flew at top speed into the cavern along the perfect path. It took her about a minute, but she eventually ran into Rainbow Dash.

“Go!” She called to the rainbow filly—who was clearly tiring from using her tiny wings so exhaustively. “I will hold her off!”

“Thanks a ton!” Rainbow shouted, continuing on her way.

Ten seconds later the Matriarch arrived, breathing out immense bellows of diamond-white fire.

Luna raised a shield, comically plastering the young dragon against an invisible barrier. “You will not pass.”

“WHY HAVE YOU BETRAYED ME!?”

“Desperation,” Luna admitted. “I am sorry, however worthless that is, and I do believe black and ugly out there is a terrible person, but I feel as though I have no choice.”

The Matriarch used her flame to envelop herself and jump to the other side of Luna’s barrier. “You will doom this world!”

“I pray that is not the case!” Luna called after her—finding it impossible to keep up with the dragon. She unleashed a few beams of magic attacks, but she could feel her power draining in this place. She needed to conserve energy.

Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

She also felt like her wings were about to seize up.

“PEGASUS!” the Matriarch shouted from directly behind her, opening up her mouth to consume her.

“N o.”

The dark, disgusting flames hit the diamond sparkles of the Matriarch—the burst from the black behemoth enveloping Rainbow first and teleporting her onto his head.

“T h e_s t o n e,_n o w!”

Rainbow dropped the crystal without an argument, dropping it in his claws.

“YOU FOOLS!” The Matriarch shouted, charging out of the mountain pass. Even without her treasure increasing her stature as a dragon, she still increased in size a hundredfold due to her age alone. “YOU’VE DOOMED THIS WORLD!”

“T h e y_h a v e_d o o m e d_y o u.”

He had already been the size of a mountain. Now he had more than doubled in stature, so large that parts of him were shrouded in the haze of the atmosphere. He opened his mouth to chow on the old Matriarch’s neck.

“STOP!” Suzie shouted. “YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS!”

The black dragon looked down to see Suzie holding the bomb in her hands.

“We completed our end of the deal. You’re going to help take out Queen Celestia,” Suzie said. “But you are not going to exact pointless murder on a dragon who has already lost.”

“S h e_w i l l_n o t_a c c e p t_t h i s.”

“I think she will,” Suzie said, glancing at the translucent dragon. “Because she knows what the Merodi are and what we do.”

The ex-Matriarch studied Suzie closely. And then, with a nod, she turned back to her cave. “I’m keeping the mountain. Anyone who objects can fight me for it. Otherwise, do what you will.” She walked in, not giving any of them another look.

There was silence outside the Backwards Mountain.

“...So, who’s ready to go fight a war?” Burgerbelle asked.

“...V e r y_w e l l.”

“What is your name, anyway?”

“I t_w o u l d_b e_p o i n t l e s s_t o_t e l l_y o u.”

“...Apples.”

~~~

“You can do it, Twilight!”

Twilight Sparkle couldn't do it.

She was standing on the roof of a griffon building, looking out at the war taking pace below. Her friend Fluttershy and her number one assistant Spike were at her side. She had recently saved them and the griffon royalty from a bunch of pony infiltrators. The griffon royal family was moving to safety with a small group of soldiers… and Twilight had stayed behind to try one last time to save the Griffon Kingdom from the pony invasion.

She was going to use the sun and stop the army. It was so close—moved directly overhead by the Queen to burn the griffons into submission—she could feel its power. She could touch it with her magic.

But she couldn’t use it. Her horn had three overglows on it and she still couldn’t use that immense power right at the edge of her perception!

“C’mon!” Spike cheered.

“You traveled back in time,” Fluttershy said. “This should be easy.”

“It’s… harder than it looks…” Twilight muttered. “...Anything from Celestia?”

Spike shook his head. “Nothing…”

The war raged on in the distance. The griffon army was losing cohesion, and soon the Capitolium Leo would be overrun with an actual army instead of just a few sneaky assassins. And there’d be no hope of aid left from the griffons. They would be destroyed.

...They were mostly destroyed already. She wasn’t sure why she was trying.

“WOAH!” Spike shouted.

“Spike what is i-”

“Don’t think too hard about this,” a familiar voice said, laying a hand on her shoulder. This confused Twilight immensely since the voice shouldn’t have had a hand. “Astromechanical magic needs to be done without thinking. You must put force and intent behind it but don’t try to do any complex arithmetic or the thaums won’t have an uninterrupted passage through your horn.”

“Wha…”

“Just do it! You want to control the sun don’t you!?”

And that did it. Twilight snapped into the sun. Of course, Seren had offered some help with a few magical conduits—but she was sure Twilight would have done it on her own, with time.

It was just that the less time she spent struggling, the more lives were saved.

A beam of immense solar energy cascaded down from the sun, impacting a nearby mountain and razing its tip clean off. Slowly, but surely, Twilight brought the beam down toward the army.

And then she slowed. Paused… and cut the beam. “I… I can’t do this…” she said, trembling, tears rolling down her face. “I can’t… there’s so many ponies out there with lives…”

“They’re killing each other!” Seren shouted. “Just…”

“No! It’s wrong, it’s… it’s bad enough I had to kill that assasin, and he was attacking me! Those soldiers out there… Most of them have no idea…”

Seren bit her lip—she didn’t think she could get anything out of the sun fast enough to take over for Twilight. She had to do it.

“Twilight we don’t have time for a moral problem!” Seren shouted. “I… Look at me! I’m a kid!” She raised her staff and shot a beam of light into the army, killing a few ponies. “If I can do tha-”

“Who are you and what in Celestia’s name happened to you!?”

“There is no time to explain!”

“No! No there isn’t! We’re leavi-”

“STOP. BEING. SO. SELFISH!” Fluttershy shouted at the top of her lungs.

Twilight stared at her in disbelief. “Wh-”

“Are you really going to let an entire nation burn to the ground because of your own perverted conscience!? You have the chance to save thousands of lives, Twilight Sparkle! And you’re throwing it away because you don’t want to have a blemish on your pristine picture-perfect good-girl record! GET YOUR HOOVES DIRTY, TWILIGHT! YOU NEED TO KILL THOSE PONIES. YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO THINK. Just do it.”

She was a bubbling mess now. “F-fl-flutter- I c-can’t c-”

“SELFISH!”

“I…”

“You’re so proud you can’t even let yourself suffer! You have to let others suffer for you! Is that what you want to be? Because if it is, why are you even bothering trying to make friends?!

“FLUTTERSHY!” Twilight shouted, standing up perfectly tall, her horn glowing with four layers of intense magic. The sun’s beam began anew—this time in the middle of the pony army.

It took seconds for her to slide the scorching flames across the ground and incinerate nine-tenths of the pony army, reducing the land under them to black ashes. At the sight of such an attack the remaining soldiers panicked and spread out—a few even praying for forgiveness from Queen Celestia for whatever horrid sins they had committed against her.

Twilight dropped her magic, bawling, and fell into Fluttershy's hooves. The pegasus allowed her hard exterior to break—tears flowing down her own face as well. Spike joined in on the wordless hug, latching on to Twilight’s hind leg.

Seren stood, awkwardly, wiping tears from her own eyes.

...She may never have understood why people feared causing death so much. It was a thing that needed to be done, right? It had happened all the time in her home world. Use the power of family to kill the bad guys and their armies. Sure, there may have been a few good guys in there, but it was what was needed.

Always.

Right?

Seren sat down and pulled her legs to her chest, waiting for Twilight’s hug to end.

It started raining ash. A few important-looking griffons landed on the roof, unsure of what to do with the crying mares and the anthropomorphic child-wizard.

Somehow, this awkward pressure, the need for something to be done, broke Twilight out of her tears enough to speak. She refused to let go of Fluttershy, but she managed to look at Seren. “...T-thank you. I… ...Who are you, and why are you here?”

Seren was more than happy to explain everything she knew.

~~~

Nira liked to think of herself as powerful. As a mare who commanded armies of darkness and could lay waste to cities, and it was her gift to the masses that she only used her powers for good ‘heroic’ acts. Or that’s what Suzie and the others told her they were, anyway. ...And what she told herself when she wasn’t being all that honest.

She took great pride in being a powerhouse that’d terrify even the most rugged of soldiers. Superheroes would bow to her will if she so desired.

The local Luna grabbed all of Nira’s bloody tendrils with her magic and sent them right back at Nira, embedding her several feet into the sandy dunes. With a roar she tore herself out of the sands with one of her signature screaming explosions, forging the grains around her into dark glass.

“That’s it,” Nira growled. “I don’t care what pathetic little story you’ve got, I’m tearing you down!” She lit her horn and created a glyph in the middle of the air, brimming with the colors of a bloody sunset. It forced itself onto Luna’s mind with the intent of tearing it from the inside out.

Luna created a shield of moonlight riddled with solar spikes and dissipated the glyph with ease. One of the solar spikes tore open Nira’s side, but she was hardly one to care about a little injury when she could create more bloody tendrils from it. The coagulated mess of her blood twisted into a minor tornado, appearing as an extra limb dangling above Nira that ended in a powerful eye. “Your soul cannot hide from me…”

“It isn’t,” Luna said, flatly. There was a mixed pulse of energy from her, twisting both the night and the day, pushing Nira’s coagulated limb back. The eye was enraged by this and focused itself onto Luna’s soul, attempting to rip it from her physical body.

This proved to be useless since even a soul mage of Nira’s caliber would have difficulty severing the connection of a being so old. The magic energies cut through the eye, dissipating Nira’s spellwork. To add insult to injury, luna kicked Nira into the ground so hard that only her head remained above the sand.

Luna pointed a magic needle between Nira’s eyes. “Sever the connection between you and your friend or you die.”

“...Fine,” Nira muttered, cancelling the soul connection between her and Seren. “Now what?”

Luna encased Nira in a bunch of chains and magical seals, ensuring she wouldn’t be able to move her legs, much less cast a single spell. The alicorn found it appropriate to tie Nira’s discarded cloak around her like a bow.

“...Funny,” Nira muttered.

“In ways, perhaps,” she deadpanned.

“So, gonna question me?”

“No,” Luna said, simply. Without another word she teleported herself, the unconscious Celestia, and Nira to somewhere on the opposite side of the planet. It was still day here, somehow, even though the sun wasn’t visible in the sky. Luna wordlessly teleported around a few more times—much faster than she had been when Nira and Seren were watching her, letting Nira know full well they hadn’t hidden from her for even a second.

Eventually, Luna teleported next to her goal. Before them was a monstrous silvery rock that was curved on the underside, brittle on top. The round side held numerous craters, while the rough edge seemed to have no rhyme or reason to the mountains or canyons. Nira was sure it was glowing a soft white color—but it was somehow darkening the area of the planet around it, resisting the ever-present light of the sun.

It cast no shadow not because of the sun, but because it itself was a silvery shadow.

“...Is that the freaking moon?”

“What remains of it,” Luna said, face as impassive as ever. She teleported one more time, placing them in midair next to one of the inverted craters. In front of them was a building, somehow still standing despite hanging upside down for centuries. It vaguely resembled a cathedral, though without windows and with simplified stone architecture. The front door was solid rock, marked with a familiar looking starburst.

Wordlessly, Luna opened the door and dragged Nira in with her.

There was a loud THUNK as the doors closed behind them.

~~~

As big as Equestria was, it had a habit of being abandoned desert in almost every location that wasn’t a major settlement of some kind. So it was easier than one would think to move a small army of dragons into the nation without anyone noticing. Virtually the entire army was stationed on the Griffon border to help with the war effort, and what was left was mostly around Everfree City. So it was not difficult in the slightest to find a path through the abandoned desert that would lead the dragons right to a mountain little more than an hour’s fly from Trottingham.

They would cross over a grand total of three major roads. And if there happened to be anypony on them while the dragons were crossing, well… It would be unfortunate for them.

The ponies and dragons who couldn’t fly were being carried by the larger dragons—and this included Swip, balanced between the claws of two female orange dragons. She was still a complete mess but this didn’t keep her from constantly complaining. The dragons sure wanted to drop her, but they didn’t dare. Her visual sensors had been fixed and she was their best way to know if anyone saw a few-hundred dragons moving across an open desert.

Big Black and Ugly was not flying, but he was somehow fast enough that he could walk along with the rest of the flying reptiles. He only slowed when they came to a road—at which point he would carefully step over the stone path so to not leave a trace of his presence. Sure, he was leaving lake-sized footprints in the sands, but nopony was going to go investigating those.

Rarity was riding a blue male dragon with the rest of the ‘small ones’—Luna, Rainbow Dash, Suzie, Squiddy, Sweetaloo, and Burgerbelle; though Rainbow and Burgerbelle regularly vanished to explore the rest of the dragon flock. Or ‘fleet’, as Swip had called it.

Currently she was looking at the rest of the ‘small ones’ talking excitedly about the heist. Rainbow was telling a clearly embellished tale of how she escaped the jaws of the dragon Matriarch through her cunning, wit, strength, and of course assistance from Luna at the last possible second. Even though the others knew she was full of it, they were laughing and playing along. Even Luna was smiling.

All Rarity could do was look on them and sigh.

She hadn't done anything to get the Rock of Ages. There had been no reason for her to be there—Sweetaloo had ‘talking to the Matriarch’ down, and making the other team any larger would have been foolish. So she got to sit and wait while they performed the heist of the century. Granted, she wasn’t a thief—that was Rainbow Dash’s turf—but still, she felt… more than a little useless. It wasn’t the first time she had felt this way, either. Ever since they had left her estate, well… what had she really done? Talked to some people, she supposed. Not much beyond that. She had never been a mare of action…

“You look like shit,” Squiddy said, sitting down next to her.

Rarity looked at the strange squid-creature at her side, still not quite sure what to make of her. In the few hours they had known of each other’s existence, Rarity had found the inkling, grumpy, brash, and generally not worth talking to.

“Don’t be silly, we won,” Rarity said, putting what she hoped was a reassuring smile on her face.

It clearly wasn’t. “I sat out too, you know.” She held up her injured hand. “I’m pretty useless without this.”

“When we get to Celestia we can get you fixed up.”

“Yeah. Sure. Not the point. You’re beating yourself up for not being useful.”

Rarity huffed. “So? If I am it’s my business, not yours.”

“It’s my business if I say it’s my business.”

Rarity gawked. “Why, I never!”

“I’m doing the same thing too, idiot.” Squiddy muttered. “I’m trying to empathize here!”

“...You’re not doing a particularly good job.”

“No shit.” Squiddy turned away from her, arms and tentacles folded.

Rarity suddenly felt horrible, as though she had driven a spike through somepony who had just been trying to help. “...Squiddy…”

“What?”

“I apologize for being so rough.”

Squiddy sighed. “...Why do I have to surround myself with people who are so forgiving?”

“Hmm?”

“Everywhere I look, ponies, ponies, ponies. Magic of Friendship, love, tolerance, blah, blah, blah…” She tightened her free hand into a fist, falling silent.

“Squiddy, you’re a hero. You spend your entire life going to places I could never imagine so you can help others. That’s more than most of us do.”

Squiddy nodded slowly. “But I’m still angry.”

“Maybe you have a right to be?”

“At myself?”

Rarity considered this. “I mean, unless you did something stupid.”

Squiddy’s reaction indicated she had done something stupid.

“I-I didn’t mean…”

“Yeah, you did,” Squiddy said, sagging. “No matter how much I try I’m never going to make it up, and I’m just so frustrated with that it… it…”

Rarity carefully put a hoof on Squiddy’s shoulder, using all her willpower not to squirm at the unnerving give of her flesh. “No one ever makes up for the things they’ve done. You don’t have to keep trying.”

“It’s called mercy,” Suzie said, looking to Squiddy with a motherly care in her eyes. “You can never do anything to take back the mistakes you’ve made. There is no balancing act anyone can win. But the good news is you don’t have to—you’re forgiven, Squiddy.”

“You weren’t on the other end,” Squiddy muttered.

“And do you think, even if you did make it up, that they would forgive you?”

“...No.”

“Then what are you fighting for?”

Squiddy glared at Suzie—but her expression quickly softened. “Suzie, we know how this is going to go. I’ll reluctantly agree with you, perk up for a while, talk to Sweetaloo a bit, but I’ll eventually return here. Like always. It doesn’t get fixed.”

Rarity wasn't entirely sure of the context, but she figured she had some insight. “Does it have to be?”

Squiddy looked at her with narrow eyes. “I don’t know, can being perpetually angry at everything be considered a virtue?”

“No, but you’re exaggerating. You’re not perpetually angry. I’ve known you for all of a couple hours and I already know there’s more to you than that.” She smiled warmly. “You have the heart of a hero, no matter how rough it is.”

Squiddy laughed bitterly. “Yeah, sure. Makes sense. But I’ll just go back…”

“But you’ll know there are people who love you regardless,” Suzie said, pulling the inkling into a hug. “And while that’s not as good as change, it’s still something.”

Squiddy wordlessly wrapped her arms and tentacles around Suzie. Rarity opted not to participate in the hug. She couldn’t imagine having those tentacles wrapping around her, ready to strangle… but she could look at the two of them and smile.

We didn’t really talk about being useless… but I don’t exactly feel useless anymore.

“You guys are not going to believe this!” Swip called.

“What?” Luna asked, suddenly alert.

“I’ve got a pony on the upcoming road.”

“WHAT!?”

“But, get this! It’s Applejack!

“What!?” Rarity cocked her head. “She was at the oracle’s with Celestia. She should have teleported back…”

“She’s walkin’, and there’s no princess with her.”

Luna spread her wings, picking up Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Suzie. She teleported the four of them down to the road.

“Oh thank heavens!” Applejack shouted—clearly dehydrated, exhausted, and desperate. “Ah… Ah need…”

Luna may not have known complex healing spells, but she could conjure water and give it to Applejack. The earth pony took it readily, saving her body from heatstroke. “Ah… Ah…”

“What happened? Where is my sister?” Luna demanded.

“Your sister was an idiot!” Applejack shouted, suddenly filled with vigor. “She was told, by the oracle, that Trottingham was going to be attacked, but went to free the other you from the sun instead!”

“Trottingham attacked?” Rarity gasped.

“Other me in the sun!?” Luna spurted.

“That’s what that was…” Suzie told herself.

“Ah’ll explain later—we don’t have time! Luna, we have to warn Trottingham!”

Luna nodded, activating a teleportation matrix around the five of them. They jumped the rest of the way to Trottingham, arriving in the desert outside the city.

They could see smoke rising out from the city’s dome. It didn’t cast a shadow, making its rising billows all the more unnatural and unnerving. Luna swore she could hear ponies screaming even though they were far too distant to make out specific noises.

“Oh no…” Rarity said.

“I’m gonna teach them a lesson!” Rainbow shouted, rising into the air.

“No!” Applejack called, voice cracking. “Don’t!”

Rainbow stared at her like she had lost her mind.

“We won’t be able to do anything!”

“...We can do something…” Luna growled, spreading her wings. “I can make them regret ever being born…”

“If we can see smoke, that means they’ve already destroyed the underground and have moved to the upper levels!” Applejack sputtered. “Anypony who would have gotten away is already long gone.”

Rainbow folded her wings up and landed in the sand. “But… But… How did…?”

“Ah don’t know, the oracle just told me they knew! Or told Celestia. The entire thing’s kind of a blur to be honest since she was hijackin’ my body to do the prophesyin’.”

“...What do we do…?” Rarity asked, horrified.

“We regroup,” Suzie said. “We have a mountain—we bring the dragons there. If the Queen has already figured out that location, we will take care of whoever’s there with our army and move to a new location.”

Applejack noticed the human for the first time. “And you might be…?”

“Captain Suzie Belle, League of Sweetie Belles. From another another universe. I’ve heard a lot about you and your underground, Applejack.”

“Ah bet you have.” She turned to stare at the smoke on the horizon. “...This is Celestia’s fault.”

“She…” Luna bit her lip. “I’m sure she had her reasons.”

“She said there’d be time,” Applejack deadpanned. “Quickly free you from the sun and then go warn Trottingham. She never came back.”

“Never… came… back?”

“Somethin’ went wrong. Ah can’t tell you what, because Ah was unconscious at the time, but Ah woke up alone and that was that.”

“Did you learn anything else from the Oracle?” Rarity asked.

“Ugh… it’s hard to remember a lot of it… Uh…” She rubbed her head. “Twilight and her friends are going to survive. Ah guess that means us. The Queen will be defeated? Maybe? The entire plan’s going to fall apart…”

“I’ve got bad news,” Suzie said, frowning. “Whenever me and my team arrive in a universe, we tend to ruin prophecies. It’s impossible for most Oracles to take into account more than a few universes.”

“So great, the trip was useless and we’re down a princess!?” Rainbow shouted.

“It wasn’t useless…” Applejack muttered, looking at Luna. “Ah learned some things. The Queen’s doing this by choice. This ain’t no Nightmare Thingy.”

Luna’s expression was unreadable. “Celestia admitted as much to me in private.”

“And you’re the reason this world is wrong.”

Luna’s impassive exterior cracked. “W-what?”

“The other you abdicated the throne a thousand years ago. That’s apparently what made all… this!” She gestured at the sun.

“How could my abdication have doomed the world?”

“Ah don’t have a clue!”

“Girls!” Rarity said, inserting herself between the two of them. “We can argue about this later, right now we need to get the dragons to the mountain and reassess our situation. Applejack needs to hear about the Merodi and we need to find out what happened to Twilight. Okay?”

Applejack didn’t take her eyes off Luna. “...You’re right. Let’s go.”

Luna swallowed hard. She focused her magic and returned them to the ‘dragon fleet’, turning Applejack over to Suzie and Rarity to get caught up. She herself took off toward the center of the reptilian mass, needing a moment to herself. Away from the others.

Her abdication…

She had come so close to making that decision in her world. But she didn’t. She had been too afraid, to conflicted… never even mentioned it to Celestia.

But she couldn’t imagine how it would turn her sister into a flaming tyrant. Celestia had ruled Equestria alone for a thousand years without her! What was it about abdication that was different than Nightmare Moon?

She didn’t have the answers to these questions. But she wanted them badly.

Maybe I can ask… no, demand answers from my other self

~~~

Blink had saved twelve before her powers were at their limit. When she said she couldn’t take anymore, one of them chose to run off and try to save some himself. He died.

So there were eleven plus herself. They had walked out, intangible, while the Underground burned around them. The unicorns of the secret police had mostly left at that point.

There was no sign of Celia or Cinder. Blink didn’t like that, but she didn’t see anything she could do about that.

They walked through the city walls and out into the desert. A few minutes of walking and Blink allowed the true intangibility to drop, replaced with just the general ‘unimportance.’ Emerald had directed her to a mountain where they could meet up with any other survivors and figure out the game plan. Naturally Blink thought the mountain would be compromised, but Emerald countered that every cell could be compromised. They had to try.

It had taken several hours, but they eventually arrived. The mountain itself was barren, dry, charred. It wasn’t even sandy, making the ground underhoof even harsher and more unforgiving than the dunes. Luckily they didn’t have to walk along the stone long, for they entered the expansive cave system and went to the center.

They were the only ones there. Maybe they had just gotten out first. Or maybe none of the others had survived.

Emerald, Glint, and Chequy were all that remained of the Apple Underground ‘leadership’ in Trottingham. Brightsmile had been found dead, and all the others had just been picked up more or less randomly. Blink was the only unicorn in the bunch. They had already ordered three of their number to spread out and bring messages to the other cells. Now… they argued back and forth about what to do next but didn’t seem to get anywhere.

On the way here Blink had explained who she was and what she represented, but given that she was alone and unable to contact any of her friends, she wasn’t of much comfort to them beyond ensuring they would survive.

Everyone was in dire straights. Their leader and the Celestia from another world were missing, both missions to recruit the griffons and dragons hadn’t returned, the main cell was destroyed, and Blink couldn’t contact any of the other Sweeties.

Cinder was captured. Captured. Not dead, Blink told herself. She would have been taken away by the secret police, probably to Everfree City if the police had any idea what she or Celia were. Where the Queen was…

“I can walk right in there and shank her in the back of the neck,” Blink said, suddenly. “No pony would be able to stop me and I don’t care how immortal she is, if I stick a metal plate in her neck and made tangible that head is coming off.”

The Underground stared at her.

“...Are you sure that is wise?” Chequy asked.

“Nope, but I’m not sure there’s a better option.”

“She would be able to sense you,” Glint said.

“You don’t know that.”

“She seems to know where we’re going to be before we get there,” Emerald said with a chatter of her teeth. “She may not need to see you to sense you.”

“Won’t know unless I try.”

“And then you’d be throwing your life away without using your powers to help those who need it,” Glint said.

Blink groaned. “You’re right… You’re right… I just… I just want to get them back.”

“We all have ponies we want back,” Emerald said. “...But we can’t just rush into things. We… we need to wait to see how everything went. We may have lost most of the Underground forces, but the griffons and dragons may still aid us yet, and there are other cells. Hope is not lost.”

“We just have to wait,” Glint added.

Blink sat down and nodded. “Okay… okay. We’ll wait.”

They didn’t have to wait very long. One of the pegasi who had been standing guard outside flew in. “The dragons! They’re coming!”

Emerald brightened up considerably. “Really? How many!?”

“At least a hundred, and that’s just the big ones!”

Quickly, all the ponies in the caves scrambled out to see a fleet of dragons coming their way, the multicolored scales bringing powerful beauty to the desolate, monotone desert surrounding them. Most of them flew in the air, but one tremendous black behemoth walked along the ground. One of the lead male dragons picked up speed and landed before the ponies. He was easily large enough to devour all of them with minimal effort.

But he wasn’t the one who needed to talk to them.

It was the ponies on his back.

Applejack, Luna, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Suzie, Squiddy, Sweetaloo, and Burgerbelle… all jumped down and met up with each other.

“Applejack!” Emerald shouted, pulling her leader into a hug. “You just keep coming back, don’t you?”

“Eeyep.”

“...Trottingham…”

“Ah saw. That’s… not our only problem.”

“...Where is Celestia?”

“That’s the problem…”

Luna stepped down and looked at Glint. “We got the dragons.”

“I see that.”

“Any word from Twilight Sparkle?”

“None.”

As the couple hundred dragons started landing around and in the mountain, Suzie ran over to Blink. “Blink!”

Blink grinned cockily. “What, did you think I’d let them get me? Pssh, they wish.”

“I never doubted.” Suzie’s smile quickly faded. “Where are Celia and Cinder?”

Blink’s own grin vanished. “...Captured, I think.”

“Where?”

“Everfree City.”

Suzie’s expression clouded. “Good thing we’re running that place into the ground soon…” She looked toward the horizon in the direction she thought Everfree City would be. “...We’re coming for you, Tyrant.”

Blink’s grin returned. “That’s what I like to hear.”

“...I hope Cinder’s okay.”

~~~

Cinder woke up in a jail cell, alone. She was on her hooves, ready to face whatever was in front of her.

That turned out to be Daylight Sparkle, so naturally she sent a torrent of fire at the mare. Unfortunately there were a series of magic-absorption bars between her and Daylight, preventing any of the flames from escaping.

Daylight twitched. “I’m only going to say this once. If you use the Queen’s holy fire again I am going to kill you outright.”

Cinder believed her, losing all violent tendencies in an instant. She scooted into the back of the windowless—yet bright—cell. “O-okay…”

“These bars are one way,” Daylight said, grabbing Cinder with telekinesis. “So I can do anything to you while you are as helpless as the filly you are.”

Cinder tried to be strong. She tried to find the inner fire she’d had when fighting Daylight earlier, the gall to stand up and refuse. Instead, all she did was start crying.

This seemed to bring joy to Daylight. “Good… Your friends have proven a little difficult, but you are nothing more than a normal unicorn. You’ll be easy…”

And then everything went white and fluffy. Cinder felt her awareness retreat into her mind, forced by a magical burst of power. There was nothing but a foggy expanse, herself… and Daylight.

“Tell me who you are.”

Cinder was helpless to resist. A series of scenes from her mind played past them. The face of her sister looking down at her with fires in the background. Crusading with her friends. A few of the times Equestria was attacked. The day she met Blink and the rest of the League… and a handful of her adventures since then.

Daylight was shocked—she had not expected to get so many memories at once. She found herself scrambling to absorb them all, paying particular attention to the later memories.

Cinder found herself looking at the first one. The image of Rarity looking down at her, fire reflecting in her eyes…

She didn’t remember that. And it wasn’t the day the school burned down—she could see that elsewhere. Why was this here…?

“Focus,” Daylight demanded, twisting Cinder’s mind until there was pain. “Show me... Merodi Universalis.”

They shot to her memories of Celestia City. Daylight’s jaw dropped at the seemingly endless city. The technology completely baffled her, as did the seemingly endless number of races. The memory shifted to the League itself, with the hundreds of white unicorns running around and talking happily.

“...Scared?” Cinder asked—terrified herself.

“...No. The Queen has you trapped. The Merodi will not be coming here.”

“They’ll notice we’re gone.”

“The Queen has a plan,” Daylight said, and that was the end of it. She didn’t need to see much more of Cinder’s memories to know the might of the Merodi was more than enough to squish her entire universe almost effortlessly. She brushed it aside. “Show me those who came here with you.”

Celia showed up first, but before anything could be said about her Daylight dismissed the image immediately. She spent some time on Blink, watching her slip in and out of visibility—somewhat concerning. Squiddy was of no consequence, same with Sweetaloo. Burgerbelle baffled her.

“Is this a joke!?”

“T-there are are lots of universes that don’t work like yours and mine…”

Daylight sneered, taking a few minutes to examine Burgerbelle’s antics before deciding it was pointless. Suzie was studied as a leader, but beyond that she wasn’t considered a threat.

Seren and Nira concerned her greatly. Their absolute mastery over their magic… The darkness of Nira… The complexity of Seren… Cinder wasn’t sure how she knew this, but she knew Daylight felt jealous of their power.

And then there was Swip, who broke Daylight’s calculating expression with her weapons alone. It wasn’t until she caught the memory of Swip falling through the sky that she relaxed. “Queen Celestia has destroyed her.”

“No,” Cinder said.

“How can you know? There are no memories here of that.”

“It would be anti-climactic.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Everything.”

The memory shifted to the conversation she’d had with Nira and Blink not too long ago. Explanations of ka, the story, and everything around them…

Cinder could feel the Tower manifest behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

Daylight wasn’t lucky enough to be looking the same direction she was. The unicorn looked up at the impossibly tall structure, jaw hanging open. “Wh-wh…”

“The Dark Tower,” Cinder said, impassively. She felt the roses scraping against her hooves even though they were nothing more than mental constructs. “The center of everything.”

Daylight tore herself out of Cinder’s mind, grabbing her head and grunting in pain. “What… what did you do!?”

“N-nothing!” Cinder said, back in full panic mode. “You just found the Tower!”

“I… No! You did something!”

“You were there!”

Daylight narrowed her eyes, a vein popping in her forehead. “You… What does this mean?”

“N-noth-”

“Tell me the truth or you die.”

Cinder gulped. “Uh… There’s a story.”

“And who am I in this story?”

“...A villain.”

Daylight, for the smallest of moments, fully believed everything Cinder said. A dark shadow passed over her features as a cold sweat began to form.

But then she dismissed it.

“You’re just insane,” Daylight decided. “Worthless.” Before Cinder could say anything to bring this into question, Daylight teleported away.

Cinder decided now was the time to have a good cry. She was alone, all her secrets had been torn from her mind, Celia had been poofed, who knew where Blink was, so many ponies had died back at the attack, and here she was trying to be a hero.

She knew she was a hero. Just… not the kind she had attempted to be back there. Even with the power of the sun, she was still just a kid. Just a kid who…

...apparently could cry with two voices?

She perked her ears up, realizing she was hearing the sound of someone else crying. She pressed her ears to the left wall, picking up on what sounded like a little girl pouring her heart out.

“H-hello?” Cinder called.

The tears on the other side only increased at the sound of her voice.

“I-I’m not here to hurt you!” Cinder promised. “I’m trapped just like you are!”

“I want my sister!” the child yelled. “Where is my sister!?”

“I… I don’t know. Was she captured with you?”

“Y-yeah…” the child managed to get out before losing control to her emotions once again.

“Then she’s in here somewhere with us. We’ve just got to find her. And to do that…” Cinder wiped her own eyes, taking a moment to examine her cell for the first time. “We need to get out of here.”

The cell contained a small cot and a bucket. That was it. There were three stone walls and a set of one-way magic bars. She still had all the fire she could want at her disposal, but they wouldn’t pierce the bars.

An idea occurred to her.

Maybe I don’t have to pierce the bars…

Throwing caution to the wind she shouted at the left wall. “STAND BACK!” She encased her horn in ‘Celestia’s Holy Fire’ and unleashed a solid beam of intense heat at the stone surrounding her. For the first few seconds, nothing happened. But, eventually, the wall began to crumble. She had expected it to melt from the intense heat, but instead it started shattering like a thick cracker, falling to red-hot rubble at her hooves. She took a few steps back—but kept shooting through the wall. Just under a minute later, she broke through to the other side.

It was, as expected, another cell, exactly like the one she was currently in. She saw the occupant reaching for the hole.

“Waiwaiwait, its’ ho-”

The other prisoner didn’t seem to mind the heat, jumping through the hole and landing in Cinder’s cell—tears streaming from her face to the ground.

Cinder gawked—this wasn't a filly. This wasn’t even a pony. It was a strange creature barely half her height with two legs and a head—no arms to speak of. Her eyes were a pale green and her hair a soft pink-purple with curls at the ends. She looked up at Cinder with large eyes, proceeding to nuzzle her leg. It seemed like she wanted to hug, but didn’t have enough limbs to do so.

Cinder obliged, pulling the strange creature in. As she consoled her, Cinder couldn’t stop staring at the small, jagged crystal in the thing’s forehead.

It didn’t take her much to figure out who this was and what was going on. She almost couldn’t believe it...

“...What’s your name?” she asked, anyway.

“...Goshenite.”

“Well, Goshenite, don’t worry. We’re gonna find your sister, okay?”

“O… Okay…” the tiny creature said, nodding slowly.

“Stand back,” Cinder said, pointing her horn at the back wall. “We’re busting out of here…”

~~~

It couldn’t really be considered a victory in any other way besides “hey, we still exist.”

The Capitolium Leo was in shambles, the griffon army had been decimated, and the ash raining from the sky made it impossible to truly be happy. A few griffons had tried to celebrate winning against all the odds, but none of it felt right. It should never have gotten to this point.

Twilight Sparkle felt this more than anypony. She had been the one to bring the victory. She had killed more ponies than she could count. When she’d fought the assassins earlier, she had promised herself she’d keep track. That she’d remember every single one. She’d counted one. Two were these ashes drifting through the air, coating the entire city of Capitolium Leo.

Everyone seemed to know she was no longer in the mental state to manage the politics of the griffons. Fluttershy and Spike had gotten that taken care of. They would get whatever of the griffon army could be spared to try to attack Everfree City before the ponies could reassemble and try this again. That sounded like a lot… but it wasn’t going to be. The griffon armadas were small, now. Their morale was low. And they had just seen her kill an entire army.

She looked up at the sun, wondering why the Queen hadn’t brought it down on them out of rage. Twilight almost wished she would. ...But that wouldn’t fix anything. And maybe the Queen knew that…

Twilight knew she had done what needed to be done. Fluttershy had been right, refusing to do so would have been selfish. She had been ready to give her life for these Griffons. She needed to be willing to give up her peace as well.

It was worth it. But she wasn’t sure she could live like this. Not with the ashes of thousands of ponies on her.

She looked down. Seren—that strange, strange being from yet another world—had been spending the last hour creating a gigantic magic circle that would teleport “every griffon you need to the place you need, assuming you gave me the right coordinates.” Twilight was sure she had, and even in her stupor the unicorn has found the anthro’s intricate magic circles fascinating. The circles were done, now, and all the griffon soldiers were standing on top of it, waiting for the signal to teleport to the mountain. Seren was almost ready—just charging a little longer.

Twilight briefly wondered if these Merodi really could solve all their problems after the Queen was defeated, or if it was just false hope.

“We’re going to go soon, Twilight,” Spike said, walking up to her. “You should get ready.”

“I am ready,” she said, breathlessly.

“...You don’t look ready.”

“...I may never be ready again,” Twilight admitted, wiping her face. “But that doesn’t mean we get to stop.” She forced her head up high and walked into the circle with the rest of the griffons. Taking a moment, she turned to see King Humphrey at the edge of the circle. He had already given the speech to his soldiers about what they were going to do. Twilight waved to him, and he nodded curtly in return.

He was thankful. All the griffons were. They were treating her like a hero.

She had never felt further from a hero in her life. She had technically succeeded at her mission—secure a Griffon alliance. Even more than that, she had saved the Griffon Kingdom from complete collapse. She had done everything asked of her and then some. And the result was ash.

As Seren started channeling the magic, Twilight's sorrow turned to anger. Deep, brooding rage. How dare the Queen set up the world like this? Create a kingdom where the right thing was mass murder!? Why did she keep the sun here? She could have moved it away after Twilight’s initial use of it, but no, she didn’t. Had she wanted her army to burn? Or did she just want Twilight to suffer as part of her plan?

Twilight decided it didn’t matter.

That Tyrant was going to pay. Twilight wasn’t even sure she deserved to have the Nightmare removed from her at this point.

The realization that she thought this shocked Twilight, tearing her out of her anger. She looked at the ground in a mixture of shame and disbelief.

“You’re finally understanding,” Fluttershy said, looking at her closely.

“Understanding what?”

“What this world is.” She looked out at the field of ash in the distance. “Suffering, hardship, death, and tyranny. And now you know what it really costs to do anything about it.” She turned to fix Twilight with an unreadable expression. “Is it still worth all this?”

Twilight had to think for a moment. It took her a bit to realize her mind was going in circles and getting nowhere. She was just going to have to go with her gut.

“Y… yes. It is.”

“Good. Next time, you might not have me around. You’ll have to do it yourself.”

“I… I think I’m g-going to… to kill the Tyrant.”

“Even if she is just the Nightmare?”

“M-maybe?” Twilight said, sweating. “I…” She stopped short. Fluttershy was smiling. “Wh…”

“Maybe… just maybe…” Fluttershy said, turning away.

“Maybe? Maybe what?”

“Maybe you actually have what it takes in you.” She pointed at herself. “...Just as I realized I had when I told the Griffons what they were really doing to themselves.”

“...I guess…” Twilight looked up at the sun. “I guess we found ourselves here, in a way.”

Fluttershy nodded.

Seren completed the mass teleport. Hours after the battle of Capitolium Leo ended, most of the remaining army was whisked away to the desert outside a tall mountain. Almost instantly, a small white dragon shot out of the mountain, a familiar orange mare on her back.

“Hey Applejack,” Twilight said weakly.

“You look like you've been to Tartarus and back.”

“I”ve been Tartarus,” Twilight breathed. “Where’s Celestia?”

Applejack frowned. “We… we dunno. She went to free this world’s Luna from the sun and didn’t come back.”

“...What!?” Twilight gasped.

“Oh!” Seren waved her hands. “I completely forgot to mention! That’s how I found you guys—I saw the letter arrive and followed it to you! I can take us right to he-”

Twilight stared at her in disbelief. “W-what? What’s wrong?”

“Something severed my connection to Nira,” Seren said, haunted. “I… I don’t know where she is!”

“We need to go find her!” Twilight shouted.

“Yeah. We do,” Applejack admitted. “But we also need a new plan. Everyone, in the mountain. We’re gonna figure this out.”

~~~

Luna walked through the upside-down halls of what Nira was calling the ‘moon temple’. Nira and Celestia were dragged along as little more than dead weight. Nopony had said anything for a significant amount of time.

“...Nothing to talk about?” Nira asked.

“No.”

“No gloating? No ‘evil plan’ mantra? Nothing?”

“No.”

“Not even a tragic backstory?”

“I made the foolish mistake of allowing my sister to rule alone,” Luna deadpanned. “I told her she was perfect. She believed me. Now the world is dying and I must set it right.”

“Short and to the point. I like it.”

Luna nodded—though if it was in agreement, Nira couldn’t tell. She took it as an opportunity to give her own story. “I was born to the Darkness. It gave me free will because it found my struggles amusing. After decades of that I was saved by a robot spaceship and began exploring the multiverse.”

“Yours was longer.”

“I didn’t have to mention the part about the robot spaceship, but I felt like it. It’s not like there are rules to this or anything.”

There was silence once again.

“So what exactly does walking around an abandoned moon base have to do with defeating Celestia?”

“The Elements of Harmony are here,” Luna said flatly.

“Ah, a retelling of a tale as old as time. Let me guess, Nightmare purging?”

“No. Already did that.”

Nira blinked. “Already did that? Lady, I’ve seen a lot of Nightmare Moons and Daybreakers in my time. It doesn’t just not work. She should have been in the sun, not you!”

“This world is different, then,” Luna said, coming up to a familiar looking display. A dry fountain with five stone arms, each one holding a stone sphere. A star-shaped stone sat in the middle, just as dead as all the others.

Usually it takes friendship to reignite these things, Nira thought to herself. And it was a this point she realized why Celestia had been dragged all the way here. In this world, the Elements might still be attuned to their Celestia. If they felt a familiar essence paired with Luna… they might reawaken.

“Clever,” Nira said.

“Thank you.” Luna lit her horn and drew power from both herself and Celestia, creating a ball that melded together the night and the day. She placed it over the Element of Magic.

A small part of the lowest tip returned to a crystalline shape as it absorbed the energy, but the rest of it remained stone.

“This is going to take a while,” Nira observed.

“Naturally.”

“So, you’re going to defeat Queen Celestia. What then?”

“Nothing.”

“Riiiiiight.”

“I have no desire to rule. I will subdue her or kill her, and then the ponies of the world can do what they want.”

“Oh, sure, that’ll be stable.”

“I can do nothing for them. I am not going to become her.” She focused her magic again, transforming another part of the Element of Magic to what it needed to be.

~~~

Applejack raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Y’sure you can be the Element of Laughter?”

“Absolutely, no doubt about it, affirmative, guaranteed!” Burgerbelle struck a pose that could best be described as ‘overly anime’. Rainbow still found this funny and giggled.

“Ah suppose you’ll do,” Applejack admitted, looking out at the other Elements. Rainbow and Rarity seemed fine, Fluttershy looked as not-fine as always, and Twilight looked broken and desperate. She pursed her lips. We don’t exactly look like that great of a team…

“We need to go find Celestia,” Twilight said, suddenly. “We need to get her from the… other Luna.”

“Twilight, we don’t know where she is,” Rarity said with a sigh. “Seren’s using something inside of Swip to try and find her, but we haven’t gotten anything back yet.”

“We… we should be looking or… or something…”

“Seren’s doing all we need to do,” Applejack asserted. “The moment she finds anything, you bet your hooves we’re going, Ah don’t wanna have to deal with a dark Princess later if Ah can help it.”

Twilight nodded slowly, looking down at the ground.

“Twi?”

Twi looked up at her with tears in her eyes.

“Ya did good.”

Twilight pulled her into a hug. “Th-thank you.”

“We’ll get her back, dethrone the Queen, and end the eternal day. We’re already closer than we’ve ever been.” She looked up at the rest of the Elements of Harmony, nodding slowly. “And we’re gonna be with her every step of the way, Elements or not. Right?”

“Heck yeah!” Rainbow shouted, grinning.

“Absolutely,” Rarity added.

“Too late to turn back now,” Fluttershy said.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Burgerbelle said, several neon-green images of the word YES! appearing around her as she did so.

Spike looked up to Twilight and smiled. “See? It looks bad. But you’ve still got it.”

Twilight laughed, hanging her head back. “I… I guess we do, huh?”

“Yep. We do.” Applejack released her. “That Queen’s going down.”

“Right,” Twilight said, resolute.

“Now Ah just gotta go convince the armies in our cave that.”

“...Good luck,” Twilight encouraged.

With a curt nod and a wave, Applejack set out to address the entire rebellion—pony, griffon, and dragon alike. The cave was absolutely full—mostly with dragons, which was somewhat alarming considering the largest dragons couldn’t fit in a cavern even this size. The apparently nameless black behemoth had one of his heads in the cavern, snaked through the largest entrance. It was uncomfortable, but he wanted to be there when anything happened. There were very few ponies—a few Apple Underground members had found the mountain, and with Luna they had managed to contact the other cells, but most of them had been scattered by Daylight Sparkle’s mission. The griffons, while more numerous than the ponies, looked ragged and worn out. The only other item of notice was Swip sitting in the back, currently being carefully disassembled by the Sweeties to salvage weapons and other devices. Occasionally Swip would shout something indignant, but otherwise she assisted with their efforts.

“Ah’m not gonna lie,” Applejack announced, her voice carrying throughout the cavern. “This hasn’t exactly gone as planned. The Griffon army has been demolished, the Underground was dealt a heavy blow, and we currently don’t know where Princess Celestia is.”

There was a lot of murmuring around the cavern.

“However, that does not mean we’re through.” Applejack stamped her hoof. “We have with us not only a dragon armada, but the new Matriarch himself. Matriarch, would Ah be correct in sayin’ you could take the Queen with Luna’s help?”

“I_w o u l d_n e e d_n o_h e l p,_p o n y.”

Applejack hated the way he spoke with every fiber of her being, but he was beyond useful at the moment, so she had to put up with it. “Good. In that case, with Princess Luna and the Matriarch, the Queen’s taken care of. And while we do have less of an army than we were hoping, we have new allies who bring with them weapons and devices from distant worlds.”

Suzie held up Burgerbelle’s megaphone to respond. “We’ve got lots of guns—designed for both pony hooves and fingers, so the griffons should be able to use them as well. We’ll give them only to the best of the best warriors, making them even more terrifying on the battlefield. Furthermore, I, Captain Belle, am a trained military strategist. I will be sure to use every resource we have at our disposal to bring this Tyrant down.”

Applejack nodded with a smirk. “And we’re still hopin’ we can get Princess Celestia back in addition to all this, so we might end up with even more than what we were expectin’. Hope isn’t lost, everyone. You call these setbacks? The original Luna’s army was wiped out and her existence was erased from most of the histories. We aren’t even close to that yet. The Queen doesn’t even know we have an army yet! We’re going to take her by surprise and make her pay for what she’s done to this world!

“Some of us are here because we’ve suffered. Others are here out of a sense of honor and obligation. Some because we have no choice, and still others just because they think it will be fun or worthwhile. It doesn’t matter why you’re here, in the end, what matters is that you are. And that, if we stand together despite all our differences, we will be able to fight as one and end the eternal day! Who’s with me!?”

She got a lot of cheers from the griffons, ponies, and Sweeties. She was more than a little surprised to see a few cheering dragons too—before they shut up, noticing most of their colleagues weren’t cheering.

As the cheers died down, Applejack switched topics. “We’ll be moving out soon. It might be in a few hours. It might be in a hundred hours. The point is, we’re not going to sit around long, so we’re going to have to whip ourselves up into a proper disciplined army fast. If you thought being in this mountain was going to be a break, think again. We’re going to train. We’re going to prepare. And, at the drop of a hat, we will attack.” She narrowed her eyes as if sizing up the crowd. “And when that time comes, we will be ready.”

~~~

Cinder and Goshenite had noticed a surprising lack of guards. This was both relieving and concerning for a multitude of reasons. It had been pathetically easy to pop out the back end of the cell wall and circle back around until they were looking at the front of the cells again. The only ponies they had seen that weren’t prisoners had been a single guard standing at the top of the stairs leading to the dungeon.

Goshenite had taken to riding on Cinder’s back and trying not to cry too loudly. It was somewhat difficult for her to stay on since she had no arms to speak of—but Cinder was able to adjust for her comfort. Even though the unicorn was extremely on edge, the lack of constant guard presence let her relax a little.

Currently they were checking cells for Goshenite’s sister. It was pathetically easy to find her—she had been on the other side of Cinder’s cell. Had they broken through that wall they wouldn’t have even needed to circle around.

She was a similar being to Goshenite—two legs and a head—though she was significantly larger, about as tall as Cinder herself. Her jagged crystal was in the same location, though it was more crescent shaped and was accompanied by a very curly purple haircut.

“Sis!” Goshenite shouted, running into the bars. “Siiiis!”

“I was wondering how long you two would dally around,” she said, no trace of emotion in her voice. “Perhaps I should have said something. But what would have been the point? This fortress is impassible anyway.”

Goshenite summoned a sawblade around her crystal and tried to cut through the bars—to no effect. “Moganite! I’ll get you out!”

“Your efforts are fruitless, dear,” Moganite deadpanned. “The bars may allow magic through from your direction, but your sawblade is inadequate.”

“I’m here too,” Cinder said, lighting her horn on fire. “I can burn right through the ground.”

“You could. Knowing our luck, though, we’ll just be noticed at the last possible moment and killed for our trouble. Such is the way.”

“Man, you’re a pessimist.”

“What exactly did you expect?” Moganite asked, raising an eyebrow. “She’s a crying emotional wreck who can barely understand herself, much less other people, what did you think the other half would contain?”

“...I didn’t think about that?”

Moganite sighed. “It’s always terrible, being out here.” She walked toward the bars. “I wish I could say it was nice meeting you Cinder, but it wasn’t.”

“Moganite… why do you always have to say these things?!” Goshenite said through her tears.

“Because people insist I need to keep talking, dear…” Moganite hung her head. “...I’m sorry I put you through this every time, Goshenite. It should always be the last.”

Goshenite de-summoned her sawblade and put her head to the bars, nuzzling Moganite. “I forgive you… You can’t do it yourself…”

Cinder saw a smile from on Moganite’s lips for the first time. “Surprise, surprise…”

And then their bodies became light. Goshenite’s form latched onto Moganite’s and pulled it through the bars, bypassing the one-way rule with outside magic. Their two crystals locked in place, one within the other, snapping together like puzzle pieces. The combined form attempted to place two of their legs on an upper body at first, but this was quickly removed in favor of a tall, graceful quadrupedal form with a brilliantly curled pastel mane.

Celia sparked into existence, a sad smile on her face. “...I do have to apologize for Moganite, she can be… herself.”

“Woah…” Cinder said, eyes sparkling. “I mean, it was obvious you were a Gem the whole time, but wow, that was something to watch…” She noticed Celia was wearing a light-blue sash over her chest.

Celia chuckled. “I am a thing of beauty, or so I’m told.”

“So, wait, does this mean you’re both a Sweetie Belle and a Rarity?”

“Yes, and I know you have a million questions, but right now probably isn’t the time. We need to get ourselves out of this mess.”

“Ah might be able to help with that.”

Celia and Cinder turned to the adjacent cell that contained a bruised and battered—but big—earth pony. Cinder recognized him immediately. “You’re a Big Mac?”

He only seemed sort of confused by this. “Eeyep.”

“...The resistance was the Apple Underground,” Celia recalled from her time in Trottingham. “We probably should release him even if he can’t help us.”

“All right.” Cinder lit her horn. “Stand back, rocks are gonna blow.”

“Or I can just teleport him through the bars,” Celia said, teleporting him through the bars. “It allows magic from outside, might as well take advantage of it.”

“Oh.” Cinder let her fire dissipate, disappointed. “I guess you can just teleport us out, then?”

“Something tells me no,” Celia said, glancing at Big Mac.

The stallion nodded. “Anti-teleport surrounds the dungeon. And the rest of the palace.”

Cinder blinked. “We… we’re in the palace.” She paled. “The Queen is probably really close.”

“And there is no way we can face her as we are,” Celia asserted. “We must regroup with the others. And that means escape. Big Mac, I take it you know of a way out?”

“There are some tunnels rarely used by anypony. Ah can take you to ‘em if you can take out the guard.”

“Oh, the one at the top of the stairs?” With a smirk on her face, she trotted over to the stairs and cast a simple sleep spell. The already tired guard slipped and fell down the stairs, falling into an unconscious lump at Celia’s hooves. “Done.”

Big Mac nodded, trotting up the stairs. Even though he had clearly been tortured recently, he still moved with power and force. He was, and always would be, a survivor. They were lucky they had found him.

“Hey, let us out too!” one of the prisoners called after them.

Celia glanced at Big Mac. “Any of them trustworthy?”

“No idea.”

Celia turned back. “Apologies! We’ll liberate you once we’ve taken care of the Queen!”

The prisoner laughed. “Oh, you’re a bunch of idiots then. Nevermind, don’t want to be saved.”

“Just you wait…” Cinder said with a grin.

The three ponies left the dungeons and found themselves in a long hallway without doors, windows, or any signs of life. There were torches lighting the path, telling that they were far from the light of the sun in here. They encountered a single guard on the way—one in the middle of changing shifts—and he had been quickly silenced with a razor-top to the face.

Eventually, they found a stairwell. Big Mac carefully opened the door, relieved to find nothing on the other side but an underground river that smelled rather disgusting.

Cinder blinked. “A sewer!? But don’t you need every ounce of water you can get?”

“The Queen provides,” Big Mac grunted.

“Detestable…” Celia commented. “But useful for us.”

“...What are you guys doing here?”

The three of them turned around to see a Pinkie Pie with straight hair in a jester’s outfit and some kind of magical collar around her neck.

“Pinkie…?” Cinder asked.

Pinkie looked at her with knitted brows. “I… don’t go by that here. I haven’t gone by that in… a long time. I’m Diane. Or, well, just the Fool, but you know, that’s more a job than anything.”

“Take her out,” Big Mac said.

“I’m more tempted to take her with us…” Celia said, examining the mare. She looked happy, sure, but she had bruises and she was trying not to keep her weight on one of her back legs.

“Yeah, that’s not allowed,” Diane said, rubbing the back of her head. “I don’t know what’ll happen if I try to leave but I think it’s really, really bad.”

“But will you let us go?” Cinder asked.

Diane looked at them, frowning for a moment. “...Yeah. I’m not a guard, it’s not my job to keep you in here. Or report you. Or anything. I’m just the Fool!” She giggled, standing up on her front hoof and bouncing back. “I hope I don’t see you in here again!”

“Same,” Celia said, waving as she bounced out of sight. “...She’s important.”

“She’s just a Fool,” Big Mac muttered.

“That’s what they say about all Pinkies,” Cinder said.

The three of them entered the sewer system, closing the door carefully behind them. The walkway was barely large enough for Celia to stand on without falling into the sewage itself. Luckily, she was not the sort of mare to stumble, and she was able to keep up with the other two. Eventually, they came not to a door, but to a ladder that led straight up.

Big Mac checked a series of scratches at the base of the ladder. “This one’s still safe. Mark was left yesterday.”

“Clever,” Celia admitted. The three of them climbed up the ladder and popped out hole in an abandoned stone building devoid of any furnishings. It was so dusty it was hard to believe there had been a pony here yesterday to leave that mark.

Carefully, Big Mac led them out to a back alley where the light of the day almost blinded them. “Walk naturally,” he said. “And hide that crystal. Cover the flank, if you can.”

Celia did as instructed, forming it into a horn—and she went and gave herself a fake cutie mark that matched the gemstone in her forehead. Cinder tried to act natural, but she was more than a little skittish. Big Mac furrowed his brow, trying to figure out how to blend in with a couple of unicorns.

“I can treat you like a worthless slave, if that will help,” Celia offered. “Just tell me where to go ahead of time.”

Big Mac nodded, giving her instructions to the a market and then the city gates. He proceeded to droop his head to the ground and start limping.

“And let me never hear you question me again!” Celia declared with enough gusto that Cinder almost believed her. “Come on Cinder, dear, we don’t want to let Red Tamale here make us tardy, do we?”

“Not at all, uh… mom!”

Celia smiled encouragingly at this display. The three of them set out into the endless day, looking to get even further from their prison.

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