• Published 10th May 2019
  • 5,864 Views, 685 Comments

Sunken Horizons - Goldenwing

Twilight glared at her reflection standing among the ruins. "You know you're a monster." It only smiled, revealing bloody fangs.

  • ...

I: Of Betrayers

We’ve rested long enough.

Twilight opened her eyes. The soft sand of the sea floor clung to her coat as she rolled onto her back and looked up at the pale purple glow of the shield dome that surrounded her.

She took in a deep breath. It was stale and damp, filtered from the ocean through the arcane fabric of her shield. She thought back to her first dive, when she had rested on the ocean floor much as she was now, listening to the ticking in her ears, feeling her own breath hot on her cheeks, and watching the bubbles drip out of her dive suit and up into the darkness above.

The bubbles. Twilight leaned her head to the side, eyeing the steady stream of bubbles drifting off the outer surface of the dome. How she wished that she could close her eyes and let the peace of sleep take her once more. Perhaps she would sleep a thousand years and wake up in the Equestria she’d known as a filly. She had traveled such a length of time before, hadn’t she? Surely there was a way back.

Foalish fantasy will accomplish nothing, little flower.

Of course she didn’t have the luxury of such dreams. Equestria was still depending on her, and every second she spent here added to the deep well of guilt within her. More urgently—as selfish as it felt to think—her friends were no doubt searching for her. She couldn’t let her friends find her. Not until she had fixed herself.

You were broken when I found you. It is I who is doing the fixing.

Twilight let out a small groan as she pulled herself out of the clinging sand and stood up straight. It had been three days since she’d eaten anything, and she felt it in the ache of her muscles. It was only by the virtue of her magic reserves that she remained alive.

You’re welcome.

Twilight’s horn glowed as she cast a simple compass spell, and she oriented herself northwest. Her mind lingered on the old charts that she’d seen Star Trails plotting paths on. It had been three days since she left Altalusia. Assuming that her memory of the coordinates and scale were correct, and that she had taken accurate measurements of her travel, she should have reached her destination by now. She must have overshot it last night.

She pulled more magic into herself, sighing as her horn took on the weight of her body. The purple shell of magic stayed with her as she floated off the seafloor, releasing a rush of bubbles in its wake.

Twilight called the framework of her teleportation spell to mind. Her lips curved into a frown as her magic remained static, refusing her commands.

I will not be ignored!

Twilight clenched her teeth. Hot tears began to burn her cheeks as she pulled at her magic harder, willing it to obey her. Pain began to build in her mind, but she pressed on. It was her magic.

It is our magic, and you cannot ignore me!

Twilight cried out as the pain overwhelmed her. She dropped back to the soft sand of the ocean floor, biting back sobs. “Go away.”

You would die without me, the Other whispered. You lack the strength to survive the ocean on your own.

“Maybe I would rather die than be like this,” Twilight hissed. Violent shivers ran through her body. “You hurt my friends.”

We both know that failure is not an option. A firm hoof touched Twilight’s cheek, and she looked up into her own eyes, framed in red tears. The Other looked down on her, its mouth set in an unmoving frown even as its voice echoed in Twilight’s head. I did only as you requested.

“You promised!” Twilight shot to her hooves with a scream. “You said you wouldn’t hurt them!”

They interfered! The Other drew itself up high, its ethereal voice echoing in the depths of Twilight’s mind. As did you!

With her magic locked away, Twilight did the first thing that came to mind—she reared up and tried to stomp her dark reflection’s face in.

Twilight yelped as she fell through the open space in front of her and smacked her face against the hard surface of the dome. A deep-throated growl escaped her as she scrambled back to her hooves, spinning around to see the Other. It was standing in the middle of the little dome, lips twisted into a sneer.

You missed, little flower.

Twilight’s entire body was shaking. The tears were still flowing, but the pit of despair in her gut was tightening, boiling over and seeking escape. Her horn began to glow.

That’s it, the Other goaded, stepping closer. It met her fury with open-mouthed hunger, a long, slithering tongue hanging limp from between bloody fangs. Let it out. Can you feel it yet? Hit me with all the hatred you’re holding inside yourself!

For uncounted seconds, Twilight stared into the bloodshot eyes of her grinning likeness. Her magic pulsed inside her, begging for the catharsis of escape, and she couldn’t help but let out a shuddering sigh as she reached for it.

The memory of steady green eyes came to her. Twilight squeezed her eyes shut, looking away and shaking her head. The Other could stop her from using magic whenever it wanted, and had done that very thing not a moment before, yet it was allowing her access again. It wants me to lose control.

“No.” Twilight took a deep breath, thinking of her friends. She thought of Applejack’s quiet commiseration. “I won’t do it.”

The Other scoffed. Its voice whispered in the back of her mind. Perhaps not now, but in time.

Opening her eyes, Twilight sought refuge in purpose. “We should get moving. We must be nearly there now.”

Ah, so we finally agree on something.

Twilight couldn’t help but grimace at the invasive thought. Her horn lit, and she twisted her magic into the familiar form of a teleportation spell. With a crackling pop, a tingling static, and the brief sizzle of boiling water, Twilight threw herself across the depths.

“We’re not going to Canterlot.”

Rainbow Dash narrowed her eye, regarding the other pegasus coldly. “What did you say?”

“We’re not going to Canterlot,” Sea Sabre repeated, meeting the glare without hesitation. “We aren’t prepared.”

“Prepared?” Rainbow stomped her hooves against the floor of the cargo hold, filling the expansive room with the resounding clang of her outburst. “Who cares if we’re prepared? Twilight needs us!”

“I care,” Sabre countered. The two pegasi were seated on thin mats up against one wall, their wingblades gleaming beneath them from the fresh polishing that they applied after each practice session. A thin lather of sweat marred both their coats, a testament to the strain of their training. “I won’t send my team in there unprepared.”

“What’s changed?” Rainbow demanded, her voice cracking. She stood up, stretching her aching legs, and began to stalk across the room as she spoke. “You went down there before, when you found us, and everything was fine. And now you have me, too!” Rainbow rounded on her mentor, jabbing a wing at herself. “We’re better prepared!”

Sabre shook her head. “Circumstances have changed. We’re returning to Heighton.”

“Buck Heighton!” Rainbow shouted. “Twilight needs us!”

Sabre’s voice rose to match hers. “Rainbow Dash, listen to me!”

Rainbow stiffened, cowed by the familiar tone of the order. Sabre had broken out her commander voice. It was the one she used to let ponies know that they had crossed over the threshold from civilian to military, and she no longer had the patience for argument. Rainbow felt her body instinctively snapping to attention, conditioned by long days of training.

“My job is not to be your friend!” Sabre advanced on Rainbow as she spoke. “Mr. Rich pays me to run this ship for him, and my only other responsibility is to the safety of my crew!”

Rainbow kept her eyes forward as she opened her mouth. “My—”

Sabre pressed on, cutting her off. “I did not bring them down into the ruins of Canterlot looking for you nor anypony else! I did not bring them to Ponyville, nor the Serpent’s Eye, nor Fellis, nor Altalusia for any reason other than the whims of my employer!”


“Twilight Sparkle is not my friend,” Sabre said, her eyes hard. “She was my commander, and she is now a threat to my crew who you are asking me to chase. I am not going back to Canterlot just because you think she might be hiding there.”

Rainbow swallowed. She angled her head to the left to ensure that Sabre could see her eye clearly. “Am I your friend?”

Sabre held her gaze for several seconds before speaking. “Rainbow Dash, you’re a talented and passionate mare. Given some additional training and discipline, I would be glad to have you on my team.” She paused. “But I would not yet consider you my friend.”

Rainbow looked away to hide the disappointment in her remaining eye. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Sea Sabre sighed. “You know my priorities.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rainbow shrugged, keeping the other pegasus on her blind side. “I don’t need your explanation.”

Sabre stepped back into view. Her gaze had softened now. “Talk to Mr. Rich when we get to Heighton,” she said. “You’ve seen how he is. He might want me to help you find Twilight. Either way, I’m not going after her without making extra preparations. This crew is outfitted for salvage, not bounty hunting.”

Rainbow scowled. She tossed her mane, letting it fall over her eyepatch. The long hairs tickled at the scars on her face. “It’s not bounty hunting.”

“There may not be a bounty, but we’ll be hunting someone who doesn’t want to be found,” Sabre said. “Someone dangerous.”

Rainbow sighed. She walked past Sabre, back to where her wingblades were set out on a simple cloth, and began to wrap them up. Sabre followed in silence, doing the same to her own, much older set.

The simple ritual was a brief relief from the thoughts that had haunted Rainbow’s mind for the past four days. She still had the bruise from where Twilight had struck her at Altalusia. The screams of dying soldiers woke her up sometimes at night, paired with the scent of fresh blood. She’d fought in that battle as much as any pony had. She’d finally felt like she was making a difference. And yet no matter how many times she cleaned and polished her wingblades, she still saw the same red stains.

She wondered if Twilight had been conscious when she burnt those soldiers alive with her magic. She wondered if Twilight would feel any less guilty even if she wasn’t. She wondered why, even now, she still felt so angry.

Sabre cleared her throat beside her. “You ready for lunch?”

Rainbow nodded as she picked up her bundled wingblades. “Sure. Just let me stow these.”

She spread her wings, jumping up to the miniature cloudhome she’d been steadily expanding along the top of the cargo hold. She had never practiced much with cloudcarving as a youth, and the sparse interior of her room often made her miss her home more than anything. She placed her wingblades on a rack she’d made special for them. Making cloud hard enough to hold objects was a long process, and it had taken her a few tries to get it right, but she didn’t have too many possessions anyways. It worked out.

Rainbow lingered inside the little room and scratched a hoof against the soft cloud floor. Her wings shuffled against her back, aching to fly. Maybe someday, once things finally settled down, she’d have the time to discover the final fate of Cloudsdale. She could feel the tug calling to her. She knew it couldn’t be around anymore, so why did she still feel it?

I wish Shy had come along. She missed their talks, but she understood. Fluttershy didn’t feel safe on the Argo, and Pinkie Pie needed her. Still, talking to Applejack just wasn’t the same.

When Rainbow glided down to the floor of the cargo hold, Sabre was waiting for her in the doorway. With a nod and the hiss of steam, the two pegasi stepped out into the hall.

Rarity grimaced as she looked down on the land below. The guest room she’d been staying in had been ruined during the fighting—collapsed in the wake of one of the tremors—and Titus had instead granted her a suite of her own on the second floor. It was larger, with a spread of three rooms, and adorned with valuable wooden furniture carved from the island’s trees. It also had several windows and a pair of balconies that overlooked the surrounding countryside.

It was on one of these balconies that she now stood, watching as villagers and soldiers alike toiled in the wake of Twilight’s rampage. The outer wall had been mostly repaired, although there was still one worker steadily replacing the iron spearheads at the top. A crew of sweating ponies paused to eat bread in the shade of one of the great columns after spending the hours since dawn repairing the walls of the mansion. A pair of well-dressed mares, hired from outside Titus’ demesne, hunched over wide drawings spread over a simple wooden table.

Many of the villagers had brought children with them, either to help or to supervise, and the laughter of the younger ones could be heard in the distance as they played games of soldier in the burnt out and shattered fields outside the walls. Rarity shivered as she remembered walking through the land and hearing children pretend at fighting to the death in the very same fields that had harbored a real battle not even a week prior. Even back in Ponyville, foals had played at being Royal Guards, but those usually involved chasing down criminals or rescuing stranded ponies. When did foals begin dreaming about hurting ponies instead of helping them?

The gentle flutter of wings from above brought her out of her thoughts. She turned, forcing a smile, only for it to falter as she saw the object hanging from Fluttershy’s hooves. “Fluttershy, dear, what are you doing?”

Fluttershy landed on the balcony next to her with a tired sigh. “Oh, Rarity, I didn’t have any choice!” She squeezed the injured bear cub against her cheek and gave it a gentle nuzzle. Rarity took a step back as it let out a high-pitched growl. “We couldn’t find his parents, and none of the other critters were willing to take him in!”

“He doesn’t look very happy to be here, darling.” Rarity grimaced as the cub wriggled out of Fluttershy’s hooves and rolled onto its back. Tiny claws, no less sharp for their size, waved through the air.

A wan smile graced Fluttershy’s face as she scratched at the cub’s belly, ignoring its claws. “Of course he doesn’t. You wouldn’t be happy if you had lost your home either, would you?”

Rarity’s breath hitched as she looked away. Her roaming eyes happened to fall on a young filly holding a bucket of water. She watched the filly pour some of the water on a freshly turned soil pile and receive an encouraging pat from a mare with brown stains worked into her coat. The mare grabbed a shovel before leading the filly to the next burnt husk of a tree, and then Rarity couldn’t see anymore through the wet blurriness in her eyes.

“No.” Rarity’s throat burned as she forced the words out. “I’m not.”

“O-oh.” Fluttershy’s voice wavered. “Um—”

“We should g-go inside.” Rarity spun in place and trotted back into the relative safety of her bedroom. She collapsed against her bed and, her image now safe from wandering gazes, allowed herself to sob in earnest.

Even through the tears, Rarity could see the redness forming around Fluttershy’s eyes as the pegasus hesitated on the balcony. A bird was nestled in her mane, nursing a broken wing. “Rarity—”

“Don’t look at me!” Rarity’s voice cracked as she turned away and buried her face in her hooves. Oh, what had happened to her? She’d been keeping it all in so well, even when she’d seen that little unicorn filly in Fellis, and now one off-hoof comment had shattered her.

“Rarity, I—”

“I’ll talk to Titus about the bear,” Rarity said. “Would you—c-can you close the door?”

Several seconds passed before Rarity heard the balcony door close. She let out a shaky sigh when the sound of wingbeats outside followed soon after.

Rarity slumped onto her side. She didn’t even have a picture to cry over. A powerful sob wracked her body as she thought of her mother teaching her how to brush her hair, and her father ignoring her fashion advice, and dear little Sweetie’s misguided attempts at cooking. She thought of Applejack’s description of the remains of Ponyville, and wondered if she would even be able to recognize their bones.

She squeezed her eyes tighter, shaking her head and letting out a moan. Why would you think about that, you silly girl?

She shouldn’t have snapped at Fluttershy. The other mare had gone through all the same things she had, and she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. There was just so much happening, and she was helpless in the face of it all! Rainbow Dash and Applejack were out there trying to find Twilight, and she was trapped in her gilded prison like the damsel in a fairy tale, breaking down over innocuous questions!

What right did Titus have holding her here? Her lip curled back as she recalled the way he had spoken to her when she was preparing to leave. “Ye won’t be goin’ any further than I can throw ye without my permission, Countess.” Oh, how she hated his voice!

But of course he had the power, didn’t he, if not the right? The dungeon tower had been wholly untouched during the battle, and those bandits were still relying on her. With every passing day, the opportunity to take it all back drifted further away. How could she change her mind after letting those ponies live in hope for nearly a week? She couldn’t. She could almost feel the noose tightening around her throat.

And what of the other pony in Titus’ dungeon? The anger began to boil inside her as she thought of Ana’s face. Scoundrel! When Rarity picked herself up off the ground, the tears had stopped flowing. The tightness in her chest had been joined by a tightness in her jaw.

She burst out into the hall without even a glance in the mirror. Servants and laborers ducked out of her way with wide-eyed expressions as she barreled past them. Whitehorn opened his mouth to say something as she passed him in the parlor, but he wisely thought better of it.

The door to the dungeon stairwell let out a loud bang as she slammed it open. Her hooves clip-clopped against the stone as she climbed, and the echoing reverb drove her on like a jeering crowd in the back of her mind. By the time she reached the top of the tower, she felt nothing but fury.

She shoved the trapdoor open and climbed out into shadowy confines of the dungeon. The imprisoned bandits jumped in alarm at her arrival, their faces each taking on different mixes of hope and fear, but they were not whom she came for.

Rarity twisted to face the one cell which didn’t have an opening at the back. The space had been bricked up, preventing the flight-capable occupant from simply jumping to her freedom, and the resulting shadow made it impossible to see the unlit center of the cell. It was only when Anatami moved, her golden eyes glowing like beacons in the dark, that Rarity was able to fix her with her gaze.

You.” Rarity’s voice shook as much as her body. She advanced on the traitor’s cell with deliberate steps. She kept her voice calm, but she didn’t hold back any of her fury. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Ana regarded her with a cool demeanor that only fanned the flames in Rarity’s chest. “I was wondering when you’d show up.” She went to lie back down, but stopped as Rarity lit her horn.

“Why?” Rarity demanded. “Explain!”

Ana narrowed her eyes. “What’re you gonna do with that horn?” The pale blue light illuminated her cell, highlighting the scrapes and bruises on her matted coat.

“I’ll—I’ll—ugh!” Rarity reared up, slamming her hooves against the bars. She reached out with her magic, dragging the thestral to the edge of the cell through brute force. “I could have you killed!”

Ana’s eyes widened for a brief moment as her hooves slid across the floor without her permission. She recovered quickly, meeting Rarity’s gaze with strained coolness. “I believe that’s already the plan, Countess, though I hear you’re staunchly against execution. Perhaps you could save my neck like you did for them?”

“You don’t deserve it,” Rarity hissed.

“And they do?” Ana shot back. “They’re bandits who would’ve killed your companions and turned you in just like I was planning. If anything, they’re less deserving of mercy than I am.”

“Shut up!” Sweat began to drip down Rarity’s forehead as she struggled to maintain her magical grip. “We trusted you!”

“That was your first mistake,” Ana said. A coy grin came to her face. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to trust a thestral?”

A deep, guttural growl rose out of Rarity’s chest. She pulled Ana back and began to slam her into the bars, forcing her words out through clenched teeth. “Don’t—you—talk about—my—mother!”

Her heart pounded in her chest as she let the dazed prisoner fall to the stony floor, but she gave her no time to recover. “You don’t deserve the right to speak of her! She was a kind pony, a caring pony, and she certainly never taught me to doubt the word of a stranger just because of the shape of her body!”

Ana looked up at her, and for a moment Rarity thought she saw a flash of guilt in her eyes. It was gone in an instant, replaced with the same sneering grin. “I guess I have her to thank then, huh?”

Rarity’s hind legs dropped out from under her. “What is wrong with you?” The tears had began flowing again, and she hated the way her voice quailed. “Don’t you feel even a shred of remorse for the pain you’ve caused? We gave you a bed to sleep in! We defended you when the ship captain didn’t want to take you on! We—” Rarity sucked in a breath. “I made you a dress!”

Ana’s grin faded. She rubbed at her fresh bruises as she turned away. “It was a nice dress. But you should have known not to trust someone like me.”

Rarity choked out a biting laugh. “Is it too much to ask for an apology, Ana? Is that even your name, or is that just another lie?”

“I have nothing to apologize for,” Ana said. Her ears drooped as she spoke. “I was doing what I had to to get by. You wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand!” Rarity shouted, glaring through the tears. “We never did anything to you, and your barbaric partner hounded my friend until she broke! It’s your fault that all this happened! Do you hear me? Your! Fault!”

Ana’s ears snapped up, and she rounded on Rarity with a snarl. “Don’t you talk about my sister like that!”

“Your sister?” Rarity echoed, her smile growing more strained. “You dare to bring up my family after what you’ve done to me, and have the nerve to snap at me when I mention your bloodthirsty monster of a partner? She’s not even your sister! She’s a griffon!

Ana bared her teeth. The two mares stared each other down, one smiling through her tears while the other shook in silence, before Ana looked away. “You couldn’t understand.”

“Falling back on that again, coward?” Rarity stood back up as the weakness in her legs passed. “Tell me that you’re sorry! If you have even an ounce of decency in you, apologize for betraying us and hurting my friends!”

“I won’t apologize to you,” Ana said. She turned away fully, sitting down facing the wall. “The plan should’ve worked. If your friend hadn’t turned into that monster and nearly ripped the island apart, then we’d all be long gone already.”

Rarity glared at the back of Ana’s head, breathing hard. A motion to the side caught her eye, and Rarity turned to see one of the bandits waving for her eye. In her anger, it took her a few seconds to remember the mare’s name to be River Pie.

“S’not worth it, Countess,” she said. “Ye can’t trust ‘er kind.”

Rarity exhaled a long, slow breath. The fire in her breast flickered and faded as she looked back to Ana once more. “I have nothing against her kind,” she spat. The thestral remained still, facing the bricked up window as stiff as a statue.

The bandit mare was right. All the shouting and crying in the world wasn’t worth it. Anatami had shown her true colors, and she would suffer the consequences of her actions. Perhaps Rarity would even be there to watch.

Opening the trapdoor with one last glimmer of magic, Rarity began the winding climb down the tower. The echoing of her steps only made her feel even more empty inside than she already did.

With a sigh, Twilight let herself drift downwards. She frowned as her hooves came to rest on hard stone.

She wanted to look, but she was so tired. Several seconds passed as she stood in place, head down, mustering her energy. Her horn had gone numb an hour ago, along with her lips. Perhaps a quick nap, and then—

We would not wake up.

Twilight jumped, her eyes fluttering open. A circle of sand had been blown away by the shockwave of her teleportation and subsequent air dome, revealing the crumbling remains of bricks underneath. The edges had been worn down so much that some of them resembled weathered rocks more than anything crafted by pony hooves. A tarnished breastplate, only the last stubborn flecks of gold still clinging to its dented surface, caught her eye.

It’s a road.

The Other tugged on her magic, and she allowed the spell to be cast. Thin streams of magic, imperceptible to the physical senses, raced out into the depths in eight directions. One returned.

We’re nearly there. One more jump.

One more jump. Twilight steeled herself, spreading her stance. Oh, how she wanted rest. But to rest now would be to fail Equestria, her friends, and the Princess. Every second she wasted, the weight only grew heavier.

Clenching her jaw in anticipation, Twilight called on her magic. The pulsing ache in her horn immediately flared into a lance of pain that left her breathless and brought tears to her eyes, but she pressed on. Failure was never an option.

The magic wouldn’t come. It simmered deep inside her, just out of reach. She cried out as the pain in her horn began to burn hotter, piercing into her skull like knives digging at the base of her horn. Desperation began to join the tears of pain.

“C’mon, Twilight. Oh, come on!” Her voice shook as she egged herself on. “Just one more! For the Princess!”

She felt the Other watching her, judging her. It didn’t say anything, but it didn’t have to. It thought she was weak. It thought she was vulnerable. It saw an opening, but it didn’t say anything, because it too could feel her thoughts, and it knew that it didn’t have to.

“Help me,” Twilight growled.


“Help me!”

Its smile was a thing felt more than seen, like a snake slithering in one’s bed at night. What do you need, little flower?

“I need your help!” Twilight spat. The light of her horn began to flicker, and with it, the shield protecting her from the crushing water of the depths began to shrink. “I said it! I c-can’t do this without you!”

Well, if you say so.

The surge of power came with such ease that Twilight found herself wondering if the Other had been intentionally reserving some final pool of energy for this very purpose. The world flashed purple, and Twilight collapsed onto the shattered stones at the base of the Canterhorn.

Relief flooded her, tempered by disgust. She had made it, and yet she had given in.

There is no shame in using our full potential, little one. Whenever you shut me out, you’re only hurting yourself.

Twilight’s heart pounded in her chest. The air dome was far smaller than it had been before, barely extending past her legs. “We aren’t there yet.”

She blinked, and the Other was looking down at her with a warm, fanged smile. We can do it together.

Twilight didn’t have the energy to justify any protest, so she merely pulled herself back to her wobbly hooves. When her horn lit, the sound of the magic sparking into being was echoed by another that seemed to come from every direction. Her hooves drifted off the ground.

Time passed in a blur. Even with her and the Other working in concert, no concentration could be spared on internal musings or thoughts beyond the strained arcane ping to ensure she was still on course. The mountain face crawled past at a snail’s pace, marred by deep cracks and the clinging remains of architecture. On two occasions, Twilight sensed something watching her, and she had just enough presence of mind to tense up and then sigh in relief when the strange attention moved on. Her bubble of air shrunk smaller until her hooftips tingled with the energy of the barrier and her breath grew strained with the difficulty of breathing.

When Twilight finally emerged from the water, the air in her bubble was so stale that her first breath of Canterlot felt like a spring breeze. She stumbled forwards, collapsing onto cold stone and shivering as the water dripped from her coat and formed a small puddle beneath her.

A shaky laugh escaped her. “We did it.”

She didn’t need to open her eyes to see the Other’s grin. We did it.

Twilight flinched. Her laugh cut off with a sharp gasp, and she pushed herself off the ground with a shake of her head. What was she thinking?

Is something the matter, little flower?

“Yes,” Twilight growled, pushing herself into an unsteady walk. “You.”

The Other’s grin twisted into a scowl. And here I had thought you were finally beginning to understand.

“I’ll never understand you,” Twilight muttered. “And I never want to.”

Twilight’s horn flickered on. She was in the same tunnel that Sabre had led her through to escape Canterlot so many days ago, the water rippling quietly behind her in her wake. Her horn cast a dim light over the tunnel as she hiked up the smooth path. Her eyes drifted over the walls, taking in the details that she hadn’t had the presence of mind to notice during her flight from Canterlot so long ago. How long had it been? Three weeks? She could barely remember anything about her first day in the future except for—

Twilight’s knees buckled. Spike had been down here the whole time, hadn’t he, trapped in the echoing darkness? She had promised to come back for him, and yet she’d been so focused on the problems before her that she’d barely spared him a thought since leaving.

The Other’s voice hissed in her ears, dripping with false sympathy. Oh, how could you ever be so cruel to your dear, dear friend?

“Shut up,” Twilight muttered. She shook her head and quickened her pace. “I don’t need you pointing out all my mistakes too.”

She heard another set of hoofsteps clopping against the stone, and turned to see the Other walking beside her. Do I sense another thing that we agree on? Blood dripped from its lips as it bared them in a sinister smile.

“I came back, didn’t I?” Twilight turned back to the darkness yawning before her, but the Other was waiting for her there as well, looking back at her with that same smile.

You came back out of your own fear. Everywhere Twilight looked, she saw the Other walking, always facing her with that same sneer. You cannot lie to yourself, little flower. We have fled here with our bruises and our scrapes so you could take refuge in isolation, not on some noble quest.

“It’s your fault.” Twilight squeezed her eyes shut as her whispers echoed into the darkness. “I wanted to stay with my friends, but it’s not safe for me to be around them. Not as long as I’m… like this.”

And so what is your plan, then?

“Why do you even bother asking?” Twilight looked up, meeting the Other’s leer with a heated glare. “I thought you already knew everything about me?”

Oh, but then where would I get my fun? The Other’s forked tongue flicked out as it let its maw hang open. Its mouth remained still as its words continued. You are my only company, after all.

Twilight rolled her eyes. She didn’t have the energy to play its games. “I haven’t eaten or drunk anything in three days. I need to find food and water.”

Ah, a hunt for prey.

Twilight’s only response was a dismissive grunt. She had no intent of justifying the parasite’s games any further. An ethereal chuckle drifted through her mind, but no more words came.

Whereas before it had been only her horn that ached, the physical strain of the long uphill walk was beginning to take a toll on her body as well. She licked her lips, wondering how long it had been since she’d eaten anything. She had evaporated and condensed sea water on the first day for drinking, but had been too wary of running out of energy to carry on afterwards. She would have to find sustenance as soon as she reached the city proper. She didn’t know what she would find, but there must be food somewhere. She licked her lips, thinking of rolling over a chunk of stone and finding a collection of fresh mushrooms.

She distracted herself from the dryness of her mouth by turning her attention to the tunnel itself. The walls were smooth, and not smooth like what would be left in the wake of an underground river. It was too straight, too consistent, to be anything of natural origin. If she had her bearings right, and it was entirely possible that she didn’t, then the tunnel drilled through the bulk of the Canterhorn before coming out on the side opposite the city.

Who could have created such a path, and for what purpose?

Something flashed in the darkness ahead of her, and Twilight slapped a hoof to her mouth to stifle a yelp of alarm. She stood frozen, eyes fixed on the little green glimmer of something that hovered at the very edge of her hornlight, just a few inches above the ground.

Seconds passed, and nothing happened. Were those eyes looking back at her? Was she being watched? She dropped her hoof and opened her mouth, pushing out a hoarse, “Hello?”

Her whispered greeting only made her feel even more exposed. Twilight glanced behind her and jumped at the sight of the Other watching with a judgmental sneer. Well?

Twilight gulped as she looked back to the glimmering eyes in the dark. With a thought she redirected the small pool of magic in her horn, transforming the gentle lavender aura into a sharp cone of light. The world seemed to shrink in as the light drew back from the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, focusing instead on the unknown before her.

A gasp escaped her as she saw the changeling lying still on the hard tunnel floor. It lay on its back, mangled limbs bent at unnatural angles, as its glassy eyes reflected the light of her horn.

Twilight released her magic, plunging herself into total darkness. What had she been thinking, marching into the changeling-infested ruins of Canterlot with a giant, glowing purple beacon on her head? She was lucky that the first changeling she saw was already dead. She wouldn’t have stood a chance if a living scout had discovered her and alerted the swarm.

Well, perhaps you wouldn’t have, the Other whispered. But I would have gladly taken over.

Twilight shivered as she hunched down, channeling the barest trickle of magic into a series of pings all around her. Her horn let out a dozen dim pulses as the weak spells were cast, returning to her with valuable information of her surroundings. She was near the mouth of the tunnel, only a few dozen steps away from Canterlot proper. There was no sign of any movement or life aside from herself.

She still didn’t feel comfortable risking a light, and so she crept forwards in total darkness, feeling with her forelegs for the body. How many of the mutant changelings had come to stalk the dead city in the past centuries? There could be one hiding behind every chunk of rubble, and she wouldn’t know until it pounced.

You are weak. The Other’s bloodshot eyes watched her, the only thing visible in the otherwise total darkness. It is we who are the predator, not they.

I’m no predator, Twilight thought back. Her breath quickened as her hoof bumped against the limp body of the changeling.

We are the most dangerous monster in these ruins, the Other hissed. No number of drones could oppose us!

Shuffling around the corpse so as to put her body between it and the rest of the city, Twilight leaned in low and lit the barest spark of magic at the tip of her horn. She cringed at the thought of something sneaking up behind her, and risked lighting her horn ever brighter to send a few pings out towards the city before focusing back on the changeling.

It must have been dead for some time, its exoskeleton having caved in at multiple points and giving way to sprouting growths of red-spotted, purple fungus. A few holes on its chest were rougher than the others, stained with green blood and ragged around the edges. One of its legs was twisted all the way around and completely gone below the knee. Twilight couldn’t help but shiver as she was reminded of the dead scholars she’d found in Ponyville. The overwhelming scent of fresh blood, engraved into her memories, drifted through her mind.

Trying not to get too close to the cadaver, Twilight focused her attention on the fungal growth. She didn’t recognize the species from any of her reading, although admittedly she had never taken a very great interest in fungus aside from a brief phase as a filly. The thick, droopy caps made her mouth water, and for a moment her growling stomach had her considering the risk of eating them without knowing if they were poisonous.

These pitiful growths will not give us the sustenance we need, little flower, even if they’re safe to eat.

Twilight looked up to meet the Other’s gaze. There’s nothing else.

The Other’s stern frown twisted into a leery grin. No?

Twilight’s gaze flicked back to the corpse for a few confused seconds. Bile rose in the back of her throat as she realized what was being suggested. You’re insane.

You’re a fool, the Other countered. She could feel its chill hooves wrapping around her in a parody of a comforting hug. The meat of this changeling is life, presented to us on the brink of death. Would you rather spend our final hours scouring the ruins for some miracle apple that has survived for hundreds of years?

Twilight shook her head, closing her eyes. I’ll find something.

The only thing we’ll find is more meat, and if we’re lucky, more strange fungus.

No! I’m not doing this! I’m not a monster!

Twilight stiffened as a hoof slithered under her chin, raising it up. She opened her eyes and looked into the cold gaze of the Other. Not a monster, little flower, but something better. I can help you. It smiled, its bloodstained fangs catching a light that came from nowhere. This changeling has no further use for its body, but it can be the difference between life and death for us.

Twilight took a shuddering breath. Her eyes burned, but she was too thirsty to cry. There must be another way.

Are you willing to gamble on that? the Other asked, cocking its head in mock innocence. Who will carry on our quest if we die here? Who will save your precious past?

It was right. Its words made Twilight’s skin crawl with revulsion, but she couldn’t deny its logic. She cursed herself as she looked down at the corpse. Why couldn’t she be more emotional? Why couldn’t she cling on to her ideals of what it meant to be a pony for a few last days wandering the ruins of her hometown? Why did she have to push herself through every hardship and past every moral line in this vain quest of hers? Why do I have to be the one responsible?

Her mouth itched as the Other’s influence wormed its way around her teeth, sculpting the flat molars into a set of fangs suitable for rending flesh. She ran her tongue over the sore tips, feeling fresh bile rising as she felt the sharp edges hidden behind her own lips.

I’ve done my part, the Other whispered. No meat will poison us now.

The expectation in its voice was louder than any spoken demand would have been. The growling of her belly reminded Twilight of a stalking manticore as she grabbed one of the changeling’s legs in her hooves. Squeezing her eyes shut, she opened her mouth and bit down.

The crunch was equal parts terrifying and invigorating. Stale blood dripped into her mouth as she chewed, horrifying her with its thrilling taste. The meat was spongy and dry, and it was the most magnificent thing she had ever eaten.

And she hated it.