• Published 10th May 2019
  • 5,856 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.

  • ...

II: Of Monsters

Twilight’s ear flicked. Her head shot up, ears swiveling. Was that a hoofstep she had heard, the shifting sigh of the rubble settling around her, or merely another imagined disturbance?

You’re like the helpless rabbit afraid of crossing the fox. Pitiful.

She ignored the comment like the hundred others the Other had sneered at her that day. Or was it still yesterday? It was impossible to tell among the broken bones of Canterlot, where the sun and moon had abandoned the streets centuries ago and the slightest sound could draw sharp fangs and hungry maws.

There were no singing songbirds to mark the morning and no calling crickets to welcome the night, and often Twilight would find herself blinking in confusion, wondering how long it had been as each waking bled across the blurry borders of fitful sleep into the next. At first she had tried counting seconds, but the sound of the numbers growing ever larger in her head had nearly been enough to drive her to tears. Even then, how could she know if her count was accurate?

No, the only thing she had to measure time by was her meals, each one stolen from the city in the basements of collapsed homes or among the sagging walls of whatever towers still stood. She always waited until she was hungry to eat, because that was the only way she could think of to keep the time in between consistent.

She had eaten five meals since arriving in Canterlot. She didn’t count what she had done upon first arriving, because that, of course, was not a meal. The mushrooms that she sometimes found in damp places weren’t very filling either, but she took some comfort in the process of preparing them.

Not hearing anything else, Twilight returned her attention to the iron pan that she had nestled among the loose bricks of her current sanctuary. She thought that maybe it had been a clothing store, if the color-drained rags hanging from the racks in the main room were any indication. More importantly, part of the ceiling had collapsed over a circular cashier’s booth in the back, creating a small cave accessible by a single crawlspace. Thus it was that Twilight was able to muster the courage to light her horn, cringing at the soft tinkle of her magic, and inject a little more energy into the pan.

It took forever to cook mushrooms at this pace, as she applied heat sparingly and never put in so much energy that they might sizzle. But at the end of it, she could take her time and savor the bland, dry taste of unseasoned, undercooked mushrooms. She relished it.

Don’t lie to yourself, little flower, the Other hissed. It tastes of sand and bleached bones. We cannot live on these stolen scraps.

It tastes amazing, Twilight insisted, glaring up at herself. Perhaps if she forced enough sternness into her gaze, she could convince at least one of the voices in her head.

The Other laughed. Twilight wished that she could laugh, or shout, or even cry without clamping a hoof over her mouth. She desperately needed such release.

Twilight shook her head and looked back to her pan, feeling the air above it with her frog. I’ve cooked mushrooms hundreds of times in my life. It’ll taste fine. If I could just find a little seasoning, it would be better.

Guessing that they were about done, Twilight levitated the shriveled little things out of the pan and began slipping them into her mouth. The heat was good, and her sharp teeth sliced through the tender flesh easily, but the taste was of cardboard. She grit her teeth, resisting the urge to shout in frustration and fling them all into the dust. What was wrong with her?

You know what’s wrong. You need meat.

Never again. Was she getting skinnier? It was hard to tell in the dim light she allowed from her horn, but her legs seemed thinner than before. Perhaps it was just the shadows messing with her head.

The Other allowed her to finish eating in silence, something that she was grateful for. She ate slowly, telling herself that she did it for her health and not because of the taste, and still the food was gone too fast.

Her mind wandered as she cast a small spell to clean the pan of any residue. She wrapped it in thick layers of tattered cloth and tied it to her back with a frayed rope. She had come to Canterlot for solace, and yet her waking moments were dominated by apprehension, doubt, and fear. She always woke up with bags under her eyes and an ache in her hooves.

The rubble groped at her coat with sharp spurs of rock as she crawled out of her refuge and into the dry air of the clothing shop. She refused to travel in the open streets, but they weren’t needed to navigate the shattered urban sprawl of the city. Lavender light, dim as a dying candle, pushed the walls of darkness back as she braced herself to travel once more.

The buildings had lost distinct shape long ago. The ruins all ran together now, forming a network of half-unformed rooms and sunken roofs. She crept through these at a snail’s pace, sending out small pings to ensure that the next room was empty before crawling through, jumping at every distant howl and screech. She had been lucky enough not to cross paths with any changelings yet, and she thanked Celestia for that small fortune.

She should reach the castle today, she was almost certain. What distance had been crossed in harrowing minutes when she fled Canterlot now took infinitely longer, but if her memory was correct then she was now traversing the inner arm of the merchant’s quarter. There would be a brief sprint across open ground through the gardens, and then she would be there.

She wasn’t sure what she would do once she got there. Still, it was a plan.


Rarity blinked, looking up from her tea. Fluttershy was eyeing her from across the table with obvious concern. “Oh, I’m sorry, darling. Did you say something?”

“Well, um, Pinkie was asking you about the cookies.” Fluttershy tipped her head to the side, where Pinkie Pie was watching with a goofy grin.

“Oh, yes, of course!” Rarity levitated one of the cookies off the pile in the center of the table and took a bite. She let out a petite hum of appreciation before swallowing. “Delightful as always, Pinkie, dear. I don’t know how you do it.”

Pinkie’s smile grew taut at the edges. “The same way I always do, silly filly!”

Rarity answered with a polite titter even as she mentally chastised herself. “Of course. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

They were in Pinkie’s guest room at the Titus estate, sharing tea and cookies over a small round table while a cool breeze carried the sounds of construction and labor in through the open window. Whereas Rarity and Fluttershy were seated on cushions, Pinkie was sprawled out on her belly in the middle of her bed. Her hind legs were splayed limply behind her, their stillness made all the more eerie by the energetic movements of her front half, and Rarity couldn’t help but steal quick glances at them whenever Pinkie looked away.

But she should have known better than to refer to them so directly. Pinkie had obviously needed help to bake the cookies. Her tail was always flat and dull now, regardless of her mood, and her mane had never quite reached its original vibrancy.

A heavy silence had settled into place over the room. To Rarity’s surprise, it was Fluttershy that broke its hold.

“What’s happened to us, girls?”

Rarity blinked. Pinkie’s smile stretched wider. “What do you mean, ‘Shy?”

“It’s just—I—why don’t I feel anything?” Fluttershy looked down, holding a hoof to her chest, where her heart was hidden. “So many terrible things have happened, and I don’t feel anything. Sh-shouldn’t I be upset?”

“What do you mean, darling?” Rarity leaned forward and touched the pegasus’ trembling hoof.

“It’s s-so much,” Fluttershy whispered. “Rainbow’s eye, Twilight’s mind—” She turned to Rarity and Pinkie in turn. “Your independence, and y-y-your legs. I th-think I’m n-n-next.”

Pinkie’s smile waned. She looked as if she wanted to spring out of bed and rush to Fluttershy’s comfort. “Oh, Shy.”

“I c-c-can’t feel it anymore, girls.” Fluttershy’s shaking grew stronger, sapping the strength from her voice. “I used t-to be so—so scared. So sad. I think m-my heart filled up and broke. I’m s-sorry. I’m s-so sorry.”

Rarity shot out of her seat and rushed to her friend’s side. “Shh, it’s okay. Whatever could you possibly have to apologize for?”

“W-w-we’re all falling apart.” Fluttershy sucked in a breath as she buried her face in Rarity’s shoulder. “I don’t even k-know what’s d-d-doing it. I want to h-help but all I can do is cower and cry, and now I c-can’t even do that right!”

Rarity flinched at the loathing in Fluttershy’s normally demure voice. She ran a hoof through Fluttershy’s mane, whispering small words of comfort. At the same time she lit her horn, grabbing Pinkie’s hind legs in her magic and helping her come to Fluttershy’s side. They passed several minutes like that, sometimes exchanging concerned glances as their friend wept between them. There was nothing they could say to comfort her, and so they consoled her instead with the silent support of their bodies.

Fluttershy’s sobs grew quiet at last. Pinkie gave her a little squeeze before asking, “Are you alright?”

Fluttershy took a deep breath. Her voice was quiet, barely audible, but firm. “I’m a monster.”

“You know that’s not right, darling,” Rarity chided softly. “How could you ever think such a dreadful thing?”

“You don’t understand,” Fluttershy said. “Neither of you do. You face the world, you cry for it, and you only come back stronger.” A heavy sigh rocked her body as she looked up, her mane falling away to reveal the wet trails dripping down her cheeks. “I don’t deserve to be here with you girls.”

Pinkie tightened her grip on the pegasus. “You’re right.”

Fluttershy sucked in a shaky breath. Rarity raised a brow at that, but Pinkie pressed on.

“You don’t deserve to be here,” Pinkie continued. “All the fun and light’s been stolen from the world, and you of all ponies deserve better.”

Rarity realized she was holding her breath. She didn’t quite feel comfortable enough to let it out yet. Careful, Pinkie.

“But we’re all in this together,” Pinkie said. “And I know that I’m happy to have you with us.”

Heavy silence draped over the three mares. Rarity could sense Fluttershy weighing Pinkie’s words from behind her flowing pink mane. She wanted to say something more, but how could she? She dared not even move, lest the slightest mistake nudge her friend past the beckoning threshold of despair.

At last, Fluttershy spoke. It was quiet, barely piercing the silence, but it carried a fragile hope that made Rarity sigh in relief.

“Thank you, girls,” she said, peeking around her mane with the smallest of smiles. “I, um, think I’ll be okay.”

“Woohoo!” With the moment of crisis behind them, Pinkie wasted no time in shouting the silence away. “Now help me back up so we can get back to your tea party!”

“Oh, well, it’s not really, uh, my tea party,” Fluttershy said, blushing as she supported Pinkie back to the bed. “You made the cookies, and Rarity made the tea.”

Sensing her moment to help lighten the mood, Rarity waved the notion away with a melodramatic scoff and flip of her mane. “Nonsense, darling! You’re the one who arranged this little banquet, and it’s you we have to thank.” She added a warm smile. “I think we all needed a break.”

Pinkie, who had already stuffed her muzzle full of cookies, gave an exaggerated nod. “Mmhm!”

Fluttershy didn’t let out the giggle that Rarity had been hoping for, but her smile grew more genuine. As Rarity poured herself more tea, she decided not to push the matter. She would take any victory she could find.

Where Twilight had expected solid rock, her hooves instead swept through open air. Her heart dropped out of her chest as her body swung down into the gap, and she failed to resist the urge to let out a rising shout of alarm. Her back smacked against the ground before she even truly realized she was falling, forcing a grunt of pain from her lungs.

She smacked her hooves over her muzzle so hard that the sting made her flinch. Above her, the Other’s floating face formed into a toothy grin. You’re just adorable sometimes.

Quiet! Twilight remained totally still as she listened to small bits of rubble settle around her. A faint changeling screech echoed in the distance, answered seconds later by others. Was that in relation to her, or just the changelings communicating amongst themselves like normal? If it was possible to tell just from sound, she didn’t know how.

Slowly, cautious not to make more noise, Twilight rolled onto her belly, pushed herself off the ground, and sent out a few pings. No immediate danger jumped out at her, but she was surprised by just how large the room she found herself in was. Peering up with a lit horn, she confirmed that she couldn’t see the ceiling. Her lips pursed in thought.

She had been crawling through the far more confined remains of a fallen tower, and after a sudden drop found herself in a large, unusually intact room. Looking around and pushing a little more magic into her horn, she caught a glimpse of a rotten bedframe. The sheets were faded, but the design was familiar enough to elicit a gasp of recognition. White stars on a pale blue background, with a single line of four ethereal colors running across the top.

Her vision blurred a watery red as she approached the ragged bedsheet and ran a hoof over those four colors. She closed her eyes and rested a cheek against the fabric, yearning for happier times. It hurt to be so close. How could the frayed threads still be so soft when everything else had turned dry and brittle around them? How could only this one part of her home persevere when everything else had died without her? It would have hurt less to find the sheets ripped to shreds.

Crying over bedsheets now? You infuriate me.

Oh, give it a rest. Twilight couldn’t muster the energy for anger, but exasperation was both easy and satisfying. Everything infuriates you.

False. Weakness infuriates me. Weakness within our own body doubly so. I know that you have a strength inside of you, little flower, desperate to get out. I catch glimpses of it when you play at commanding us, when you refuse to let us do as is required to achieve our goals. And there is nothing more infuriating than watching us waste away while that strength cowers behind your foalish ideals!

Twilight blinked. When she pulled her head off the old bed, ignoring the red stains where her tears had fallen, she saw the Other leering down at her in barely restrained fury.

Our goals?

Have I ever sought anything less? The Other chose to let her mouth move with her voice, and it made her spite abundantly clear. Have I ever done anything but attempt to protect our allies? To destroy our foes? I know where I stand, little flower, but you restrain me with your hesitation. I hate it.

Twilight shook her head as she turned away from the bed. We’re in the castle now. I need to find the Archives. Feeling more comfortable within the castle walls, Twilight used her hornlight to find a door to the hall. After a quick spell to oil the hinges and a brief application of force, it swung open in silence. The Other was waiting for her on the other side.

Ah, denial! Your other despicable half shows itself. For in those brief moments where you aren’t refusing to do what is necessary, you instead insist that there is nothing to do at all!

Twilight grit her teeth as she stalked deeper into the castle in search of a landmark to get her bearings by. You’re my despicable other half.

Your attempts at wit don’t make your lies any more seductive, foal. You know I speak the truth. What purpose does it serve for one of our nature to insist on this self-inflicted ignorance?

A familiar intersection appeared from the darkness, and Twilight took the rightmost path. If that was what remained of the crest of the First Guards, then that meant that the castle barracks were to the left, and that meant—

Twilight licked her lips. Her hooves pushed her faster. The Other haunted the corners of her vision.

It’s almost impressive, from a certain perspective! You pride yourself on reason, and yet you avoid it at all costs if it breaks your fallacious reality. How many times have I stopped you from driving us to destruction, blinded by your refusal to accept the real? I would ask how you sleep at nights, but I already know you rarely do.

Here the wall had collapsed into a pile of bricks on one side. The shattered corpses of two wooden doors could just be seen jutting out from the rubble, displaced from their proper place by the weight of the stone. Twilight frowned as she sent a ping out and failed to find a way past the collapsed doorway. Teleporting past it would be trivial even in her current state, but the pop of a teleportation spell could travel a long way in the ruins of Canterlot, and who could know what creature might be enticed by the unusual noise?

She glanced up and down the hall and considered looking for an alternate route. She might be able to find another way in, unobstructed by rubble, that would make less noise. She had a decent idea of the servant paths, and if those were blocked off then she could try going up a level to see if the ceiling had fallen in. Or—

With a flash of anger, the Other surged inside her, coiling her magic around its dark claws. A red-tinged flash of purple overtook her and, with a loud pop, Twilight found herself inside the royal kitchens of Canterlot Castle.

The Other was waiting inside with a bloody sneer. Is it so much to ask for even one display of confidence?

“Wha—” A shiver ran down Twilight’s spine as she wrested control of her magic back. Heat blossomed in her breast as she marched up to the Other with fire in her voice. “Don’t do that!”

Why not? it jeered. You would have just wasted our time trying to satisfy your feeble anxieties.

Twilight let out a loud, sharp laugh. “Waste time? Look around! We have nothing but time!”

No, we do not! The Other snapped its fangs in her face with the words, causing her to flinch back from the rancid stench of its breath. Despite your clever ignorance, we are starving! You may be able to delude yourself into crawling through this old castle searching for backdoors while our body wastes away, but I. Am. Hungry!

Twilight hesitated. Was that desperation she heard? “How? You don’t have a body.”

We share a body, you foal! the Other spat. We share a single hunger, a single thirst, and a single pain! And if you don’t stop lying to yourself long enough to accept that we’re starving, then we will both die!

Twilight looked away. She tried to keep her voice firm. “I know that we’re hungry! Why do you think I brought us here?”

The Other spoke slowly, each word dripping with venom. You brought us to a pony kitchen! We need fresh meat, not dry flowers nested in stale bread!

“Y-you’re wrong,” Twilight said. She lit her horn bright, illuminating the dusty cupboards, broken jars, and battered pots of the kitchen that once fed her and so many others. “I just need to find something more nutritional, and a better way to cook it.”

The Other didn’t answer her with words so much as a guttural scream.

Twilight ignored it. She had gotten very good at ignoring things in the past few days.

“Please wait in here. Mr. Rich will be along to see you shortly.”

“Wait, what?” Rainbow asked. She stopped in the threshold of the open door as Applejack and Sea Sabre walked through it, tuning to face the brightly clad servant directly. “I thought we were going to see him right now?”

The servant gave a slight shake of her head with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Rich is entertaining company right now. He’s been looking forwards to speaking with you, though, and will join you as soon as he can! Is there anything I can get you in the meantime?”

Rainbow flicked her tail irritably, stepping into the room. “Whatever, it’s fine.”

Applejack faced the mare properly before tipping her hat with a sincere smile. “Don’t mind her, sugar cube. We’ll sit tight.”

“We apologize for the inconvenience!” With a small curtsey, the servant shut the door behind them. Her hoofsteps faded into the distance.

The room was like many of the others that could be found within the Rich Estate, which was to say that it was too large to take in with one eye, offensively colorful, and mostly occupied by odd furniture and art. Soft orchestral music drifted around the room from an unseen source. Sounds like something Twilight would like.

“I can’t believe he’s blowing us off like this!” Rainbow groaned. “We had an appointment!”

“Y’all ain’t never missed an appointment, Rainbow?” Applejack joked. Rainbow shot her a glare, and she held her hooves up placatingly. “Calm down, filly. I’m sure he’ll come see us soon enough.”

Sea Sabre marched over to the bookshelves that lined one of the walls, grabbed a small book, and made herself comfortable in the cushioned nook of a wing-shaped sofa. “He’ll see us when he’s ready.”

Rainbow snorted. “And when’s that, huh?”

Sabre didn’t look up from her book, but she did give a quick shrug. “When he gets bored of his current company, or when his scheduler annoys him enough. Whichever comes first.”

“Great.” With a heavy sigh, Rainbow flapped her wings and dropped her flank into a plush seat shaped like an upturned velvet hoof. Applejack spent a few seconds leering at the third and only remaining seat in the room, a wide circular sofa with a curved central backrest modeled after a large, squat unicorn’s horn, before opting to just lean against the wall and pull her hat over her eyes.

Rainbow didn’t understand how other ponies could be so comfortable with anything as pointless as waiting. She considered herself a mare of action. Whatever the endeavor, whether it be a physical feat to perform, a new skill to master, or a rival to best, she took comfort in the application of effort. She used to always know where she stood. She was Rainbow Dash, pegasus extraordinaire, future greatest Wonderbolt in history, the mare who could do anything.

Yet it seemed that all she could do in the future, when ponies needed her more than ever, was wait. She had spent every dive on the sidelines listening to Twilight confront monsters and watching Applejack learn to load torpedoes and make repairs. She had needed rescuing from Gava, and the monster possessing Twilight hadn’t even spared her a glance when it swatted her away back on Altalusia. The days of travel aboard the Argo were made easier with her daily practice sessions with Sea Sabre, but now that she had finally arrived at Heighton and was given a chance to do something, she was forced to wait.

She flicked a glance Applejack’s way. How does she do it? How could the cowpony close her eyes and sit still when Twilight needed their help? Rainbow scanned the room for a clock, but all she saw was art on the walls. She began to tap a hoof. Maybe she should just go find Twilight herself. She could get to Canterlot with a couple hours of flying, and Sabre would probably let her borrow some dive gear. She could have Twilight back in Heighton before the sun rose tomorrow. Maybe then she’d be able to get a full night’s sleep.

Don’t be stupid, Rainbow. Splitting up even more is the last thing you all need.

Rainbow began chewing her bottom lip. She wouldn’t be a slave to her impulses, but she had to do something. So she settled for the thing that had kept her sane in similar situations before: griping.

“Ugh, how much longer?” She asked.

Applejack peeked out from under the brim of her hat. “Y’all know we ain’t got any clue more than y’all do, right?”

“And I’m sure you know that we don’t have time to be waiting on pansy rich ponies that don’t keep appointments!” Rainbow snapped. “We’ve been here forever!”

“It’s been ten minutes,” Sea Sabre said. She had been sitting almost as still as a statue for that entire time, her flank cushioned among the soft velvet of one of several thick sofas arranged around the room.

“Might as well be ten days,” Rainbow grumbled.

Applejack was watching her with a thoughtful look. It was a look that Rainbow knew well, and she looked away in the hopes that her old friend would be able to take a hint. No luck. Applejack pushed off of the wall and sat down at Rainbow’s side, completely ignoring the lack of space on the little seat.

“How ya feelin’?”

“I’m fine, AJ.”

“Oh, yeah? Guess that’s why y’all’ve been pacin’ around the ceiling like a junebug who can’t find a window?”

Rainbow cocked her head, turning to face her friend. “I’ve been sitting right here the whole time.”

Applejack nodded as if that was exactly what she just said. “And you’ve been bouncin’ yer hooves and twitchin’ yer wings, too, but I ain’t talkin’ bout just today.”

Rainbow didn’t bother to try hiding her eye roll. Her ears twitched at the sound of hooves passing out in the hall as she took a sudden interest in Sea Sabre’s book. Narrowing her eye, she could just make out the title. Myths of the Wildlands.

“C’mon, sugar cube. Look at me, will ya?”

What was the author’s name? It was too small for her to read. A part of her wondered if she would have been able to read it if she still had both eyes, and she couldn’t help but flick her tail at the remembered image of a sneering Gava standing over her, framed in red. Her wings shifted as she imagined the weight of her blades resting against their feathers. She’ll get what’s coming to her. I’ll make sure of it next time.

“Rainbow Dash.”

“Would you give it a rest, already?” There wasn’t much room to spare with two ponies on the little seat, but Rainbow found some to scoot into anyways. “I don’t want to talk.”

“So y’all keep tellin’ me, but guess what?” A coarse-furred orange hoof grabbed Rainbow’s cheek and pulled her face-to-face with Applejack, drawing an irate growl from the pegasus. “I don’t care. Last time I had a friend actin’ all strange, she would always tell me she didn’t want to talk. Guess where she’s at now?”

Rainbow already had her mouth open for a biting retort, but the words took the heat out of her fire. She pulled her muzzle out of Applejack’s grip and looked away anyways. “That’s not gonna happen to me, AJ. Magic’s got nothing to do with my issue.”

Too late, Rainbow realized her mistake. She could practically hear the grin on Applejack’s face. “Oh, so ya admit y’all got an issue, then?”

Rainbow threw her hooves up in exasperation. “Fine! Whatever. Point is, I’m not gonna go crazy and jump into the ocean or anything like that. So I’m fine.”

“There’s more to bein’ fine than not gettin’ possessed by magical critters,” Applejack said. “And I sure as hay ain’t lookin’ to learn the same friendship lesson twice, so I’m not droppin’ this until y’all talk to me. So talk!”

Rainbow blew a loud raspberry. She smirked as she saw Sea Sabre briefly shake her head at her book. “Okay, why don’t we bet on it?” Rainbow turned to face Applejack, stretching the smirk into a cocksure grin. “If you can beat me in a race, then I’ll talk. If I win, you have to leave me alone.”

“Rainbow Dash, I am not gonna race you through the halls when we’re both somebody’s guest!” Applejack let out an exasperated sigh. “Let’s just do a hoof wrestle, and we’re on.”

Rainbow tossed her mane. “I want to race.”

“What, ya don’t think ya can beat me in a simple contest of strength?” Applejack asked. “Nah, I get it. I’m a pretty strong mare. I guess if a race is what you want…” She stood up, beginning to stretch her hind legs.

Rainbow grit her teeth. She couldn’t just turn down a clear challenge to her strength like that, and Applejack knew it. “Fine, hoof wrestle! Pony up!”

Without another word, the two mares scooted off of the tiny hoof-shaped chair, turned around, and squared off. Rainbow made a show of flaring her wings, taking to the air to stretch her forelegs out before couching one elbow in the soft cushioning of the hoof chair. Applejack didn’t stretch, but she did give a small chuckle and pull her hat back before locking fetlocks with her opponent.

Rainbow had made sure to arrange herself so that she could see Sea Sabre in the corner of her right eye, and she smirked as she saw the laconic pegasus put her book down and begin to watch with a benign expression. “You ready to get beat, AJ?”

Applejack blew a lock of mane out of her face. “Filly, I ain’t here to put on a show.”

Rainbow snorted. “Three, two, one, go!”

In an instant, Rainbow’s world narrowed down to just her and her opponent. She clenched her jaw as she tried and failed to hold in a groan of effort, her foreleg shaking with the strain of holding back defeat. Her shoulder began to ache, and she spared a moment to make eye contact with Applejack and offer up a cocky grin. The cowpony responded with a forced smirk.

Rainbow winced as the pain in her shoulder flared up, and Applejack seized the opportunity. Rainbow could only watch as her hoof was forced to the side and down into the soft folds of the seat.

Applejack reared up with a whoop of celebration. “That’s a wrap, sugar cube! Y’all owe me a heart-to-heart!”

Rainbow stuck her tongue out in disgust as she climbed back to her hooves. “Blegh, fine. Whatever.”

Her ears flicked at the sound of the doors opening behind her, and she turned around to see Crazy Rich walk into the room, wearing a set of clashingly colorful robes with a beaming smile.

“Ah, Sabre, welcome back!” He turned his gaze onto Rainbow and Applejack, absent of any glimmer of recognition. “And my guests from the past, as well!”

Rainbow flicked her tail. “You don’t remember our names?”

Crazy let out an amiable chuckle at just the perfect pitch to curl Rainbow’s lip back. “You’ll have to accept my apologies, my friends, but I have many names to remember, and it’s been over a month since our introduction! Tell me, Sabre, how’s your crew?”

To the untrained observer, Sea Sabre rarely displayed any emotions besides sternness, disappointment, and the rare glimpse of approval. But to Rainbow’s more seasoned eye, she could see the sign of irritation in how one of her ears angled ever so slightly. “I sent you reports.”

“Yes, of course!” Crazy’s smile held firm as he sat on the horn-motif chair that Applejack had been using before the hoof wrestle. “Aura would summarize them for me from time to time. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read your latest letter. Perhaps you could fill me in?” He paused, glancing around. “Is Miss Sparkle here? I had been expecting to speak to her.”

“Well, too bad!” Rainbow snapped, drawing a startled gasp from the earth stallion. She glanced towards Applejack, expecting chastisement, but her friend only gave a curt nod. “Twilight’s gone, and that’s why we’re here!”

“Gone?” Crazy repeated. He looked to Sabre with detached curiosity. “What happened?”

“We’re not clear on the nature of the incident,” Sabre droned. “Current theory is an advanced case of depth corruption.” She paused, as if weighing her words. “We suspect that she may have transformed into a newborn wyrd.”

“Hold up,” Applejack said. “What in tarnation is a wyrd?”

“Sort of a catch-all term,” Sabre explained. “Divers use it to describe the type of magically potent, violent creatures that dominate everything under the surface. I’ve never heard of a pony becoming one outside of sailor gossip, but—well, Twilight is an extremely powerful unicorn, and far from normal.”

Rainbow stomped a hoof, but the thick rug somewhat dampened the impact. She tried to make up for it with her voice. “She’s not a monster! She just needs our help!”

Crazy looked between the three mares in turn before turning back to Sea Sabre, who gave a curt shake of her head. “We have reason to suspect that Twilight fled back to Old Canterlot. Her friends wanted to pursue, but I respectfully advise against sending my team back to a site we barely escaped from with our lives previously.”

Rainbow glared daggers at the side of Sabre’s head. She stomped up to her mentor, fur bristling, speaking in a barely restrained hiss through clenched teeth. “Whose side are you on?”

Sabre kept her eyes on her employer. “My team’s side. Always.”

“You—how—” Rainbow’s attempts at speech devolved into a low growl. Her whole body began to shake, her jaw clenched so hard that it hurt. How could Sabre be so calm? How could she talk about Twilight that way without even blinking an eye? There were times where Rainbow had admired her stoicism, but at that moment she wanted nothing more than to tackle the other pegasus and pummel her until she was forced to display an equine emotion.

A hoof tugged on her shoulder, but Rainbow smacked it aside. Applejack’s soft voice whispered into her ear. “I know y’all’re upset, sugar cube, and I am too, but we ain’t gonna catch any flies with vinegar.”

Rainbow rounded on her with a fresh surge of anger. “Would you quit with the stupid countryisms?” she hissed. “Twilight’s out there, and she needs us, and I don’t have anything but vinegar right now and—ugh, you’ve got me using them now, too!”

Crazy Rich, to his credit, at least seemed to have the decency to look anxious when he spoke. “I’m sorry, friends, but if Sabre says that it’s too dangerous, then I have to take her advice into consideration. Maybe we could meet again after I’ve had some time and—”

“No!” Rainbow was in front of Crazy so fast that the stallion tripped over his robes and fell onto his flank with a cry of shock. She jabbed a hoof into his chest, hard. “No rescheduling! You decide right now! I’m not! Waiting! Another! Second!”

“Rainbow Dash!” Rainbow kept her gaze fixed on Crazy’s as Applejack pulled her back. “Beatin’ on him ain’t gonna change his mind!”

“It will if I beat hard enough!” Rainbow’s wings pumped against her sides as she struggled to escape the farmpony’s iron grip.

Crazy Rich scrambled backwards, voice shaking. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. Sabre, I’ll have Aura schedule another—”

“Luna!” Rainbow shouted, cutting him off. “We have Princess Luna!”

Crazy paused halfway to the door. Seconds passed in silence before he tore his frightened gaze from Rainbow’s and looked to Sabre. “You found an alicorn?”

There was the ear twitch again. “It’s in my reports.”

Rainbow just barely held back a scream of frustration, drawing Crazy’s attention back. “Talk to me, not her!”

Crazy’s eyes darted between the two pegasi, one the very image of stoicism and the other still fighting to escape Applejack’s hold. Tentatively, he picked himself up off the ground. “Well, that’s, uh, fantastic.” He licked his lips, speaking with obvious care as he took slow steps backwards. “I would c-certainly love to speak with her.”

Rainbow Dash could see the path before her now. Her desperate anger dimmed, giving way to intense focus. “Let go, AJ. I’ve got this.”

“Y’all ain’t gonna go crazy again?” Applejack didn’t bother to hide her skepticism.

“No, no. I’m good. Thanks.”

“Don’t make me regret this, ya hear?”

Slowly, Applejack relinquished her grip. Rainbow advanced on Crazy, keeping her pace at a measured walk. He seemed to have trouble holding eye contact with her.

“Do you remember Fluttershy, Crazy?” she asked. His mouth stammered open, but no words came out, so Rainbow kept going. “She’s the other pegasus, remember? She was in a magical coma when we arrived, and Twilight found a way to wake her up.”

Crazy’s back bumped up against the door. To his credit, he didn’t reach for the handle. “I r-remember.”

“Luna’s in the same kind of coma,” Rainbow said, almost coming close enough to bump muzzles before stopping. It wasn’t exactly a lie, as Rainbow figured that magic comas must all be more or less the same. She was aware of her lack of magical know-how. Either way, she would have told any lie she needed to if it would help her save Twilight. “Twilight’s the only one that can wake her up. Get it?”

“Ah. Yes.” Crazy stole a glance towards Sea Sabre. “I see.”

Rainbow stepped in the way, angling her head to keep her one eye in front of his. “Don’t you want to be the pony who introduces a living Princess Luna back to the world, Crazy?”

The conflict in his eyes was obvious so close up. He flicked his gaze past her to Sea Sabre, then back, and then between them several more times.

“Okay,” he said. “Do it, Sabre. Find Twilight and bring back Luna.”

Rainbow let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding as a cold wave of relief washed over her. She stepped back, folding her flared wings back against her sides, and gave Crazy a little smile. “Thank you.”

Sea Sabre’s voice came from behind her. “Respectfully, sir, that’s an extremely dangerous assignment. I’m not comfortable sending my team in there as we are now.”

Now that Rainbow had vacated his personal space, Crazy’s confidence seemed to be coming back to him. He straightened out his robes with a hoof and put on a smile that sat somewhere between excitement and apprehension. “I understand, Sabre. I’ll be sure to raise your budget accordingly, of course!” He knocked a hind hoof against the door behind him, and it opened to reveal a trio of servants waiting with bright smiles. “I trust you’ll do what you need to do. Just make sure to let me know ahead of your return so I can make proper preparations to welcome a living Princess!”

He dipped his head to Rainbow Dash and Applejack in turn, all signs of nervousness having been replaced by his usual energy. “Good luck, all!”

He stepped out of the room, and one of the servants shut the door behind him. Sea Sabre let out a small grunt.

Rainbow turned around, meeting Sabre’s stern gaze with one that she hoped was equally hard. “I’m sorry, Sabre, but I can’t just leave my friend hanging.”

Sabre’s wings twitched. She was already walking for the door. “We’re doubling our training. Usual time, in the yard.”

She didn’t wait for a response before marching out into the hall and closing the door behind her. Rainbow heaved a deep sigh and looked to Applejack with a weak smile. “Did I go too far?”

“Tarnation, Rainbow,” Applejack said. “Y’all got some hellfire in ya.”

“Heh, yeah.” Rainbow turned to the door, grimacing as she listened to Sea Sabre’s measured hoofsteps fade away. “And I think Sabre might be planning on showing me hers.”

Once again, the Other said, I must admit an appreciation for the sheer tenacity of your foalishness.

“Shut up,” Twilight hissed. She kept her eyes fixed on the mushroom patties, checking them, the old pan cradling it, and the fire underneath once again. “It’s almost done.”

The kitchen of Canterlot Castle’s west wing was completely sealed off by rubble. Twilight knew this because she had checked it herself, with all the usual thoroughness she prided herself on, and so she had decided that it would be safe to cook with a real fire. The stoves were broken, of course, but most of the cooking utensils had survived thanks to preservative spells placed on them centuries ago. It was cozy, almost, with the warm light of the fire and the heat trapped by the surrounding stone. If not for the Other’s steady mockery and the growing sense of desperation, Twilight might even have been able to relax.

But she could not relax. Dozens of cooking books were arranged around the kitchen, fetched on expeditions to the archives and then organized by author, style, and scope, but that had been at least two wakings ago. The order had since given way to chaos as Twilight had systematically worked through each book, trying the advice contained within, before discarding it as worthless. The bright colors and friendly pictures of Filly’s First Fried Foods now sat side-by-side with the strict, tiny-font methodology of Advanced Cooking Theory, Ninth Edition, and so it was for countless others.

No matter how hard Twilight looked, she could not find a good cookbook. Every instruction set led to that same ashen taste and the same scorn from the sinister voice in her head, and she was beginning to wonder if she had gone mad. Surely the castle would have at least one text on cooking with usable knowledge? But no, they didn’t. Twilight knew this, because if it did, then she would be able to make a mushroom patty taste like food.

She was running out of options. Before her now was the last book she had taken from the archive, which she had grabbed only in a bid to appease the Other: The Carnivore’s Cookbook, Equestrian Edition by Gustave le Grande. It included vegetarian recipes designed to satisfy a carnivore’s taste, as well as some traditional griffon dishes for the more adventurous pony. Twilight didn’t consider herself adventurous, and so she had skipped past those. She didn’t eat meat, after all.

And yet here we are, working from a tome written to satisfy carnivores.

“It’s probably just as bad as all the others,” Twilight muttered. Was it time yet? She had cast a spell to alert her when the proper time had passed, but maybe she had missed it. “There’s no reason to expect this book to be any better than the rest.”

The Other stepped into sight on the other side of the cooking fire. The light cast long shadows over its face. Your books aren’t the problem, little flower.

“No, they have to be the problem,” Twilight insisted. “I don’t know what else it could be.”

The alarm spell went off, and Twilight levitated the pan off the fire, sliding the mushrooms onto a ceramic plate decorated with suns and moons. She took a deep breath to draw in the scent. Her mouth didn’t water as she had hoped.

Her ivory fork and sapphire-encrusted knife shook in the grip of her levitation as she cut a bite-sized piece free. She lifted the fork to her open mouth, but couldn’t bring herself to bite. Perhaps it would be better to just go find more books. She didn’t eat meat. Monsters ate meat. Why was she even trying this?

The Other took control, levitating the fork fully into her mouth. She bit down almost without thinking, wincing at the bitter, familiar taste.

Red tears welled in her eyes even before she swallowed. The pan fell to the ground with a clatter loud enough to make her wince. “I don’t understand. I’ve tried every spice in the castle and it all tastes the same! What am I doing wrong?”

You know what’s wrong. The Other leered down at her with an imperious frown. It’s just a matter of acceptance.

“No. No, no, no.” Twilight fell onto her side. It can’t be right. Can it? She felt so weak. “It’s not. I can’t. Not again.”

Do you want to die? Is that what it is? The Other shook its head and snorted. No, I know that you wish to live, despite your many attempts to foil our continued survival. So why will you not do what is required to sustain us?

“You’re wrong,” Twilight whispered, and this time she wasn’t so sure if she believed it. “There’s another way.”

The Other’s lip curled back, revealing bloody fangs underneath that glistened in the flickering firelight. No, there very much isn’t. Have you already forgotten our arrival in these wretched ruins? It was meat that saved us then, and it is meat that will save us now.

“I still regret that moment.” Twilight pulled her hooves tight around herself as she shivered. “It was a mistake. The mushrooms here are edible.”

Yes, we know that now, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. A sinister smile graced the Other’s face. The transformation would have happened eventually, little flower. It was always just a matter of time.

Twilight rolled onto her back, shaking her head at the ceiling. “No, I could have—I should have held you back. And I’m not letting you trick me again. I don’t need meat. I won’t let you turn me into a monster.”

What does it mean to be a monster?

Twilight frowned. She looked to the Other, who had taken up a position directly on top of the cooking fire. The glowing embers framed its face in a soft orange. “A monster is… a villain. A bad pony.”

The Other laughed. Defining one word with another? We know better than that.

Twilight flicked her tail, but she knew it was right. She rolled onto her belly and looked down at her hooves, deep in thought.

Let me help you. The Other leaned in close, whispering directly into her ear. Are all griffons monsters?

Twilight’s brow furrowed. “Gava is a monster.”

Not what I asked. The Other had moved to her other ear. It spoke slowly. Deliberately. We’ve met griffons besides her. Were they monsters?

Twilight’s eyes widened as she turned to face her doppelganger’s grinning face. Its smile somehow grew even wider.

Your memories are my own, yes. It’s hazy, but I remember another griffon, long before. What was her name? Gilda? Haughty and bullish, perhaps, but was she a monster?

Twilight bit her lip. “No.”

And did Gilda eat meat?

With a sigh, “Like all griffons, yes.”

The Other hummed with exaggerated thoughtfulness as it sat down in front of her. Gilda the griffon ate meat, and she was not a monster. So we know that eating meat isn’t what makes a monster, don’t we?

“It’s different,” Twilight insisted, looking away. “I’m a pony.”

The Other didn’t care where she looked. It remained in the center of her vision, even visible when she blinked, as it curled its lip back. We are no mere pony.

“You’re wrong!” Twilight hissed, and a violent shiver wracked her body. “I’m a pony!”

The normal pony doesn’t have sharp teeth, nor does it cry blood. Red tears began to run down the Other’s cheeks as it opened its mouth to display its fangs. They are fragile creatures, and prone to breakage. We are a thing beyond them—greater than them! Though not yet by very far.

“I’m a pony,” Twilight repeated. “If I’m not a pony, then I’m a monster.” She sucked in a shaky breath and forced her words out through clenched teeth. “I’m not a monster!”

Do you really think it’s so simple? You are blooming into something more, my delicate little flower, the Other whispered. We are no more a monster than the griffon who hunts for survival. Won’t you embrace it with me? Let us soar to new heights, and together we can recreate Equestria as it is meant to be. We can make it right again.

The Other’s voice turned cold. Or you can reject us. We will starve down here as you stuff us with foraged plant matter cooked to perfection, and Equestria will truly be lost, all due to your dull insistence on eating only one specific kind of dead thing. Unfortunately, the choice is all yours.

Twilight just shook her head. She squeezed her eyes shut, falling onto her side and curling up into a ball. Her heart pounded in her ears like a giant drum, drowning out her thoughts, and her voice began to crack between whimpering sobs. “I d-d-don’t want to! I—why w-won’t you just let me b-be a pony?”

Hush, now, little one, the Other cooed. Twilight stiffened, going quiet with a shuddering gasp, as she felt the chill of its body wrapping around her and the cold tickle of its breath against her ear. We will always be a pony, my dear blossom, but a pony greater than any before us. Evolution is a thing to be celebrated, is it not?

Seconds passed in agonizing silence. Gradually, Twilight’s heart began to slow down. She opened her eyes as the quiet cackling of the fire droned in the background. She was a pony. She would always be a pony. Thestrals ate meat and had fangs, but they were still ponies, weren’t they? And yet— “I don’t want to be special.”

It is not a choice. You are special, and you always have been. Do you think your dear Princess chose you without thought?

“No.” For the first time in recent memory, Twilight was able to say something without doubt.

The Other cocked its head. Then why?

The question hung in the air for a long, heavy moment. Twilight opened her mouth to speak several times, only to close it without a sound. Why had the Princess chosen her? As a filly she had assumed that she had been picked for her magical ability, but the idea seemed so naive once she got older. Magical prodigies were born once every few generations, and Celestia had never taken any of them on as personal students.

And so as Twilight got older she had decided that the Princess must have had some purpose for her, some unseen plan, and that it would all be explained to her once the time had finally come. When she met her friends and rediscovered the Elements of Harmony, she felt as if that purpose had become clear.

But what if that wasn’t it? What if when the time had come, Twilight wasn’t there to fulfill it?

Twilight licked her dry lips. She climbed up to a sitting position, holding her legs close. “I… need some time to think.”

The Other, unseen, answered her with an amused hum. Take all the time you need.

Twilight could feel its presence recede into the back of her mind. It was watching as it always did, yes, but from a distance. For a moment she simply sat there, suspecting some ploy, but it seemed the Other truly was giving her some space to think. She had been granted a sense of privacy that she had been beginning to think she would never experience again.

With a heavy sigh, Twilight stared into the smoldering fire and let her mind drift. She thought of her home, of Owloysius floating in a waterlogged library, surrounded by tattered books, blood, and the mangled corpses of the ponies he had killed. She thought of her parents and her brother and her neighbors and her old friends from Canterlot. She remembered Lily Quick’s journal, and the dead mare’s account of the ponies being swept away by waves strong enough to demolish buildings. Ever since she first woke up in the nightmare ruins of Canterlot, every day seemed to bring with it a new loss, or knowledge of an old one she hadn’t even been aware of.

Would she ever be able to bury her parents? Would she even recognize them if she found the bodies, or would she just gingerly step past as she had with every other skeleton she had seen in the past three weeks? Had they wondered the same things about her when they were still alive, or had they held out some hope that she would somehow save them all?

She shook her head, dislodging the distracting thoughts. Guilt was always lingering in the back of her mind, and she could contemplate it at any time. Right now she needed to confront the question that had haunted her ever since she tore a chunk of dry meat off the corpse of a changeling with her bare teeth. The memory made bile rise in the back of her throat even as her mouth watered. Was she a monster?

The crackle of the fire brought her back to old lessons received in the very same castle, back when it was warm and bright and full of life. She remembered when a delegation of griffons had arrived for dinner, and Princess Celestia had had her cooks arrange a feast of meats in their honor—chicken, duck, fish, and pig. Twilight had cried when she saw all the bodies splayed across the massive dining table, dressed in fragrant spices, but the Princess had been quick to take her aside and calm her down.

There’s no need to be afraid of carnivores, Twilight,” the Princess had said, wearing the same kind smile she always did when it was just the two of them, away from all the courtiers, bureaucrats, and reporters. “Every life ends one day, and they help the bodies return to nature once the spirit moves on.

But what if the animals don’t want to die?” Twilight had asked. “Doesn’t it hurt them? What if they want to eat me?

Oh, my dear little pony.” Celestia had pulled her into a tight hug to quiet her sobs. “Every animal on that table died naturally after long, happy lives. Carnivores aren’t monsters. They’re just another beautiful part of the harmony of our world.

And so Twilight had dried her tears, straightened out her dress—with some help from the Princess—and returned to dinner. She still couldn’t bring herself to look at the griffons eating, but she didn’t cry and she didn’t have any nightmares afterwards of being hunted by hungry diplomats. As she grew older, she had grown more comfortable with the concept of carnivore diets, until eventually she could exchange formalities with visiting griffons over dinner without a second thought. Because carnivores weren’t monsters. They were just… another part.

But could Twilight bring herself to join them? Changelings howled in the distance, their shrieks muffled by the heavy stones of the castle, and she couldn’t help but shiver at the sound. She was a unicorn, and even if carnivores were natural, she didn’t eat meat. It simply wasn’t done.

Then again, that changeling she had scavenged hadn’t suffered any more because of her. The sound of death had become a regular occurence in the wake of Canterlot’s passing, and hadn’t she always taken a certain pride in discarding old ideas when new information came to light?

Another memory came to her, of a conversation over tea in the once-verdant gardens that surrounded the castle. Celestia had been sending Twilight on some errand, and Twilight had been anxious as always about the prospect of failure. She didn’t remember what the task had been anymore, but she did remember her mentor’s kind smile, and the soft words she had spoken.

You’ve never failed me, Twilight, she had said as she lowered her cup back to the table. “That’s why you’re my most faithful student.

Twilight blinked. There was no wind in the ruins of Canterlot, and so her world was deathly silent. The embers of what was once her cooking fire were beginning to dim. How long had she been lost in thought?

Celestia’s voice echoed in her head. “My most faithful student.

Twilight had failed her mentor one too many times already. Would she really doom herself, doom Equestria, over her own stubborn ideals? Just because I need meat doesn’t mean I’m not a pony anymore. As long as I don’t hurt anybody, I’m not a monster.

The Other was right, as much as she hated it. Formative years spent carefully training rational thought had cursed her with a scholar’s mind, and so with one theory discarded she brought up a new one: she was not a monster. She was a pony who ate meat. If she didn’t obtain it, then the last hopes of Equestria would die with her trapped within this ancient crypt.

She made her choice.

Her stomach growled, yet she felt as if one of several great weights had been lifted from her withers. She looked up with tentative relief and met eyes with the Other, watching silently from across the room.

“You’re right,” she breathed. “I need meat.”

The Other smiled, revealing bloody fangs.