• Published 30th Mar 2013
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Sunset of Time - The Albinocorn



Sunset Shimmer: Princess Twilight Sparkle's most faithful student. After bearing witness to the End of the World, she travels back in time to destroy the Dark Regalia and save her future. But a ghost from the past has other plans...

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Act Three: Easy is the Descent—Chapter XV: Memories Awake

Chapter XV: Memories Awake

What?”

“But, why?”

“Twi, ya can’t be serious?”

“Told you they wouldn’t agree to this,” Sunset said with smug satisfaction.

Her small hospital room was crowded with her colorful friends, most of them sporting bandages in various places. The sight of them, in spite of their jubilant faces, had made Sunset’s heart sink and greatly diminished any feeling of victory she had harbored.

Still, their determination was to be admired. The second Twilight had told them she wanted them to return to Canterlot, they broke into a clamor of protest.

Twilight stamped a hoof against the floor, demanding for silence. “Girls! Girls! Please, just listen!”

As everyone quieted down, Applejack finished with, “Why in Equestria would you want us to go back to Canterlot now, Twi? Ya know we work best when we’re together.”

“Yes, that’s… true.” Twilight hesitated, her eyes flicking about the room. “But, the Tempest Crown needs to be placed somewhere safe. I think it would be wise if a full party delivered it to the Princesses while someone scouted ahead.” Twilight put on a forced smile.

Applejack just raised an eyebrow high. “And you just happen to elect yerself as the one to keep going? Knowing that Vesper Radiance seems to have a vendetta against you? And not knowing where the last piece of the Regalia is?”

The corners of Twilight’s mouth flicked downward. “Well, no, I just—“

“What’s the real reason, Twilight?”

She stood paralyzed by everyone’s gaze, her smile completely fading like the illusion it had been. She lowered her head to the floor until it looked like she was bowing to all of them. “Sunset,” she began, “you said you couldn’t let me fight Vesper alone… well, I can’t let any of you fight her on my behalf. I don’t want you girls to keep trying to defend me; not from her or griffons or anything else. I just want you all to be safe.”

After a long pause, Applejack said, “Amazin’.”

Twilight looked up at her, stray tears running down her face. “What?”

“It’s amazin’ how even when yer bein’ selfish, ya still manage to be selfless.” Applejack smiled.

“What?” Twilight repeated louder.

“Seriously, Twi,” Rainbow said, taking over for Applejack. “You’re our best friend, but you need to get it through your thick egghead skull that we’re sticking with you no matter what. But besides that, we’re not just doing this for you. Vesper Radiance is threatening all of Equestria; heck, she’s threatening the entire world! In case you haven’t noticed, we live here too!” She poked Twilight in the shoulder. “Yeah, we fight together as friends, but we’re fighting for Equestria, not just for you, Princess.”

Rarity nodded in agreement. “Twilight, we all appreciate your concern, and I’d be more worried if you didn’t show a little bit of apprehension. But we’re all adults here. We knew perfectly well what we were getting into when Princess Celestia gave us this mission. And yes, a lot of things have not gone as planned, and yes, most of us have sustained a few injuries. But that just means we have to be more careful from here on in. We have to fight smarter, not harder, and most importantly we have to stick together.

“I… I know,” Twilight sniffled while Spike ran a claw through her mane. “You’re probably right. It’s just… I saw how badly she was hurting all of you. If Sunset hadn’t helped me with that shield spell, then you could have…”

Applejack handed her a tissue. “Twilight, we’ve faced danger and doom more times than a rattlesnake shakes its tail. Now, Ah’m not sayin’ we’re all used to it, but Ah am used to pressin’ forward even when things get tough. Like Rarity said, we’ve just got to buck up and stick together. And you’ve got to trust that we can handle ourselves.”

Twilight’s eyes enlarged to saucers. “No, no! I do trust you girls, I do! It’s Vesper Radiance I don’t trust. I know all of you can fend for yourself, but she’s… she’s…”

Rainbow waved a hoof. “Yeah, she can shoot super spells and is a bit touched in the head. And yeah, we may have taken a little beating. But you can’t expect us to turn tail and run away just because we got hurt; that’s probably what she wants! And at least we know now so we won’t be caught off guard if we run into her again.”

“Implying that we’ll actually run into her again,” Rarity said.

A shadow crossed over Sunset’s face. “Trust me, we’ll see her again.” The scene of Vesper sinking beneath the waves in a frozen tomb sat firmly in Sunset’s mind, but in her heart she knew it was too good to last. A mere freezing spell wouldn’t subdue the power of the Alicorn Amulet.

“But, Rainbow is right,” Sunset continued. “We’ve seen firsthoof just how strong Vesper is, so next time, we’ll be ready for her.” She looked at the medical tube attached to her arm. I hope.

Twilight sat up straight and took in a deep breath. “You girls are right. We need to work together; that’s how we’ve overcome every obstacle so far.” She folded her ears back. “I’m sorry for trying to get you girls to go home. I guess I was being a little selfish thinking you were just fighting for me. I’m sorry.”

Pinkie slid over and wrapped a hoof around Twilight’s shoulder. “Aw, that’s okay, Twilight. That big meanie just got you confused. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have friends, so she wanted to make you feel as lonely as she is.”

Sunset leaned forward in her bed. “How’d you know that?” It was scary how Pinkie had identified part of what Sunset had been feeling when she first saw her vicious doppelganger.

“It was in her eyes. You know, past all the crazy.” Pinkie wiggled her hooves around and spun her eyes in their sockets.

“Crazy eyes aside,” Rarity said, “now that we’re all on the same page, the question remains: where do we go from here?”

Twilight used a wing to rub her chin. “I haven’t had a chance to give it much thought. Going back to Canterlot is a valid option to keep the Crown safe in the meantime… But, it feels like a step in the wrong direction. I’m pretty sure we’ve exhausted all our resources regarding any history of the Regalia that was recorded. And if Vesper already knows where to go, that would put us way behind her.”

Applejack hummed in quiet meditation. “So, we’re lookin’ for those horseshoe thingies now, right?”

Sunset nodded. “The Obsidian Hoofguards.”

“Right. Well, Ah’ve been thinkin’ about an old bedtime story Granny Smith used to tell me and Big Mac. And the more Ah think about it, the more Ah think it just might give us a clue to where those horseshoes are.”

“Anything will help at this point,” Spike said.

Applejack took her hat off and placed it against her chest. “Well, the story goes like this… One of my ancestors, Bumper Crop was his name, was picked to go on an important mission by Duke Puddingcup. He and eight other ponies were supposed to carry a statue up to the north. The entire thing was black and grey, ‘cept for the red gemstones on its hooves. Apparently, this mission was so secret, not even Princess Celestia could know about it.

“So Bumper Crop and his team hauled that statue all the way to the Frozen North. But the entire trip seemed to be cursed! One by one, the crew died off from illness, accidents and even bandits!” Applejack gave her hat a forlorn look. “My ancestor was the only one to complete the trip. Nopony knows what happened up in the north. When he came home, he just said that the Crown owed him a debt… and that there are things no mortal pony should ever see,” Applejack ended in a cryptic whisper.

Twilight got up and began pacing the room. “Hmmm. A mission so secret, not Even Princess Celestia could know… given by Duke Puddingcup. If my facts in history are right, Puddingcup was a close descendant of Chancellor Puddinghead. That fits with the overall lore the Princesses told us…”

“But what does a statue have to do with the Hoofguards?” Spike asked.

Sunset shifted under the confining sheets. She had only been here a few hours and was ready to leave. “Well, if the part about the red gemstones on the hooves of the statue is true, then it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that just maybe, they weren’t on the statue itself, but on the Obsidian Hoofguards the statue was wearing.” She gestured to the crown under her bed. “Think about it. Both the Alicorn Amulet and the Tempest Crown have a red jewel on them.”

Rainbow shrugged a bandaged shoulder. “That makes sense, I guess. But why put them on a statue?”

“Seems like a pretty good idea to me if you don’t want somepony else to wear it,” Rarity said.

“Yeah.” Twilight looked up at the ceiling. “But what do you think he meant when he said there are no things a mortal should see?”

Applejack placed her hat back on her head. “Don’t know. If he did say anything, it wasn’t passed down.”

Twilight pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes in thought. After a moment she shook her head and said, “Regardless, this might give us something to go on. Good work, A.J.”

Rainbow gave a sarcastic clap. “Yeah, good job, A.J! Now, is there any way you could be a little more specific when you say your ancestor went to ‘the north’? That could be anywhere!”

“Sorry, Dash, that’s all I know.”

“Well, we can’t just go digging around in the snow until we find something,” Sunset said. “There has to be another legend or myth we can cross-reference to narrow our search.”

“What about the Crystal Empire?” a small voice spoke up. Everyone turned to acknowledge Fluttershy, who had remained quiet ever since she had come into the room. “If the Hoofguards were hidden over a thousand years ago, and the Crystal Empire went missing for a thousand years…”

Rainbow jumped into the air. “Then their library is full of ‘recent’ books and stuff that could help us!” She dove and embraced Fluttershy in a tight hug. “You’re a genius!”

Twilight smiled. “Well then, I guess we’re all taking a trip to the Crystal Empire.”

It had been a tough negotiation with the medical staff, but Sunset had watched as Twilight managed to convince them to discharge the group that day. The ponies and Spike walked out of the hospital in the late evening, making a brisk trot for the train station. It had been agreed that none of them wanted to travel by airship ever again.

They arrived at the station just as the sun set the horizon on fire and stretched shadows across the world. The spacious interior was bathed in orange and red, reflecting off the polished marble and giving it the appearance of melting glass. Unlike the rest of Los Pegasus in the evening, it was surprisingly quiet.

Twilight stopped to read the nearest timetable and hung her head with a soft sigh. “There’s no train that goes directly to the Empire from here. The fastest one makes stops in Hoofington and Tall Tail.”

“Well, it’s better than nothing,” Sunset said before yawning. Apparently, being half-conscience wasn't equivalent to being asleep. It dawned on Sunset that most of them were only running on a few hours of sleep dragged out over the last two days.

“So, when does the next train leave?” Rarity asked.

Twilight looked across the list and jumped back, her eyes bulging out of her head. “In ten minutes!” She broke into a run for the ticket counter, sliding to a stop just before she hit it. “Sir, we need eight tickets for the next train!”

The ticket salsepony looked up from his magazine, staring at Twilight before a look of realization flashed across his face. “Right away, Your Highness!” He turned, reeled out eight tickets from the dispenser, and handed them to Twilight. “Um, that’ll be four-hundred bits, Your Highness,” he said with uncertainty.

Twilight took the tickets with her magic and hurried for the turnstiles. “Don’t worry, it’ll be covered by the royal treasury!” she called back.

Everyone followed her onto the platform, where a lone train waited. The engine purred with life, and smoke climbed from the smokestack.

The conductor stood at the doorway, checking his pocket watch. He was only disturbed by Twilight shoving the tickets right under his nose. He snatched them with his hooves, glaring at a sheepish Twilight before inspecting each of them. When he was finished, he gave a curt nod and allowed them passage.

“Twilight, you only just became a princess last week,” Sunset said as they stepped into the compartment. “Do have access to the treasury yet?”

Twilight chuckled nervously. “I really hope so.”

Like the station, the train was quiet and relatively empty. Ponies were scattered about through the compartments keeping to themselves. Near the back of the train was a completely empty compartment, where the group wasted no time in getting comfortable. They threw themselves onto the plush couches, sighing and yawning in relaxation.

“If we never have to come here again, it’ll be too soon,” Rarity said with a huff.

The train gave a shrill cry and lurched forward, gathering speed as it departed from the station and rattled down the track. Sunset looked out the nearest window and watched as the world was set to fast-forward. She could see the ocean sparkling with the last light of the sun in the distance and the bumpy hills that separated her from it.

Was Vesper still trapped beneath the waves? Or had she already broken free? Sunset looked at her faint reflection in the mirrors surface and wondered who she was staring at: herself or Vesper? She squeezed her eyes shut and curled up on her bed, experiencing another moment when her body was tired, but her mind was awake with buzzing questions.

Talking was kept to a minimum with most of it coming from Twilight and Spike as they decided what to put in their letter back to Celestia. Even with the silence, Sunset found it hard to stay consistent with her thoughts. They jumped from one question to the next, exploring possible answers and scenarios before breaking off into another one.

When the sun had completely removed itself from the world, an attendant with pillows and blankets came around, distributing them amongst everyone. After a round of ‘good nights,’ they turned out the cabin lamps and tucked in for bed. Only the light of the moon served as a guardian against the shadows.

Sunset laid in bed, a sliver of moonlight falling across her face. The trained rattled beneath her, giving an occasional jolt or bump. However, Sunset never felt queasy from it, and she silently thanked Rarity again. Yet there was an uneasiness swishing around in her stomach. It had been there ever since the cave and had only gotten worse since, like a knot that had continually tightened.

She turned onto her side, her hair falling like a burning curtain over her eyes. She parted it with a puff of air and stared out at the moon. Her mind was heavy, thick with thoughts and questions. Yet, with all of them muddled together and incoherent, it was almost like her mind was blank. Just a thick fog sitting in her head.

Sunset rolled over again, listening to the even breathing of her friends. What did they think of her now? How much did they trust her? How much did she trust herself? Sunset flipped over and groaned into her pillow. Knowing she wasn’t going to get to sleep, she quietly got out of bed and reached for the saddlebag Twilight had placed in between the two of them.

After slowly undoing the belt loop, Sunset reached her hoof inside and brushed against something cold. High-pitched laughter greeted her ears, and her entire body convulsed. She snapped her hoof back and hugged herself tight, laughter and voices crying out for power still echoing in her mind.

The Crown had called out to her. And something inside of her wanted to respond. The Tempest Crown was meant to be worn by her! Its powers were hers to wield!

Sunset brought a hoof across her face, forcing those thoughts to the back of her mind. She looked up at Twilight’s sleeping form and found that her back was to Sunset. Taking a deep breath, she reached into the bag again, her hoof sliding down the side with trepidation. She felt the rough texture of rope and tugged on it, fishing her out her prize.

The hourglass gleamed like gold in the moonlight. Sunset put it around her neck and felt a little bit of peace return to her. She could hear the sand slithering down into the bottom bulb and see the intricate designs that decorated the exterior.

It was a step in the right direction, but Sunset still felt the knot in her stomach. Her episode just then had only made matters worse. She looked to the floor and watched the moonlight shudder along with the train. Air, she decided, would be good for her. Maybe staring at the stars in earnest would put her at ease.

With the quietness of a mouse, Sunset tiptoed down the compartment and opened the door, a blast of cold air greeting her. She quickly stepped out and shut the compartment door, stranding herself outside on the back railing of the train, away from her sleeping friends. She leaned against the cold metal bars, listening to the train rattle on in the night. The wind pressed against her, sending shivers through her body.

On both sides of her, the dark outlines of the trees rushed past, blurring together, making it impossible to tell where one tree ended and another began. The night air was cool and smelled of foliage tinged with engine smoke.

Sunset looked up at the glittering stars overhead, counting all the constellations she could find. It was done half-heartedly though, and Sunset stopped after naming only a few. She rested her head on the bars and sighed. She had been wrong. Not even the stars could clear her head.

“...So what are you? A changeling, an automaton? Or did Celestia miss me so much that she made a clone of me?” Vesper’s words danced around in her mind, fueling the turmoil in Sunset’s heart.

“Who am I? Is my name really Sunset Shimmer, or is Vesper just trying to screw with my head?” Sunset bit her tongue, trying to think. She had seen baby pictures of herself in her parent's house, and there were no gaps in her memory. She had to be Sunset Shimmer… right?

“She’s lying, she has to be lying,” Sunset tried to tell herself through clenched teeth. But Vesper had claimed to be Celestia’s former student, something that aligned with the foreign memories inside Sunset’s head. Could they both be correct in thinking that they were both Sunset Shimmer?

“How is that even possible? There can’t be two of me! Augh!” Sunset yelled in frustration, throwing her hooves up and slamming them down on the steel platform. “What is going on?” Sunset wanted to scream louder, but didn’t want to wake her friends and give them more cause for worry. She could already tell they were a little wary of her. She couldn’t blame them; she was wary of herself now. Her own thoughts and emotions had begun to betray her.

The sound of a sliding door behind her caused Sunset to seize up. Despite her desire to be alone, somepony had heard her shouts of frustration. The door closed and Twilight appeared on the railing next to Sunset. The two of them just sat next to each other, staring up at the stars.

“Having trouble sleeping?” Twilight asked.

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry if I woke you.”

Twilight casually waved it off before putting her hooves on the railing and resting against them. “You know, looking at constellations is a good way to get your mind off things.”

“I tried. It didn’t work,” Sunset said moodily. “And I know what you’re doing Twilight.”

“Sunset, you can’t keep everything bottled up—”

“I’m not keeping anything bottled up, I just don’t want to talk about it—”

"That’s practically the same thing. Just talk to me—”

“There is nothing to talk about—”

“Why do you keep doing this, Sunset—”

“Don’t know what you mea—”

“You try to keep everything to yourself!” Twilight finally raised her voice. “Why can’t you just tell me something without me having to force it out of you? Why don’t you just talk to me?”

“Well what do you want me to talk about?” Sunset yelled. “Where should I start? The fact that I have no idea what’s going on anymore? Or should we discuss the other Sunset Shimmer running around and killing off ponies just because? What do you want me to say, Twilight? I’m more confused than you are! How am I supposed to stop a psychopath when she looks just like me? You said she could be lying about being Sunset Shimmer, but what if she’s not? Twilight, I have memories, okay? Dreams and memories of being Celestia’s student and being raised by her! I’ve been having them ever since I came here; but they can’t be right because I’m supposed to be your student!” Sunset didn’t know when the tears had started falling down her face, but they were coming in rivulets now.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore, Twilight. I don’t even know who I am anymore. What if she’s right? What if I am just a changeling? What if everything I know has been a lie this entire time? Twilight, I don’t want to be a bug! I hate bugs! I want to be me!”

Sunset was caught between sobbing and hyperventilating as the epiphany sank in. She dropped onto the floor, no longer able to support herself on her hooves. All of her emotions poured out of her, everything she had been building up since the night she had told everyone the truth, and then some. Anger, confusion, sorrow, and fear all manifested itself into tears that poured down her face like a broken dam.

She always hated crying. It made her feel weak and not in control of her emotions. Now that she had started, Sunset found that she couldn’t stop, just like her first day with Twilight after the nightmare.

There was the familiar sensation of soft, feathery down wrapping around her, pulling Sunset into a tight hug. The warmth of Twilight’s wings only made her cry harder, and she pressed her face deeper into Twilight’s fur.

Twilight held onto her, rocking her back and forth. “Shh, Sunset, it’s okay, everything’s okay,” Twilight whispered in a soft, reassuring voice. “You’re not a changeling.”

“H-how d-do you k-k-know?” Sunset mumbled into Twilight’s chest.

“I don’t,” Twilight said with an apologetic smile. “But even if you were a changeling, it wouldn’t matter to me. It wouldn’t matter if you were an automaton, or a clone, or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you are on the outside...” Twilight lifted a hoof and placed it on Sunset’s chest, over her heart. “To me, Sunset Shimmer is the girl on the inside, with a heart of gold, willing to do anything to help her friends, who is really good at magic and makes me proud to call her my student.”

Sunset’s lower lip trembled and she broke into a fresh fit of tears, throwing herself into Twilight’s embrace again. Sunset’s entire body was shaking—from fear or the cold, she couldn’t tell which. The hot tears flowing from her eyes kept her face relatively warm, however, and once again, soaked Twilight’s shoulder. Every time Sunset thought she was nearing the end of her session, another wave of tears seemed to hit her, and she continued to cry into the night with Twilight constantly consoling her.

Even though Sunset had come clean about her current feelings, a sensation of guilt still persisted. She remembered back to the night she and Twilight were on the deck of the airship. As much as she knew it would hurt her, Sunset knew she couldn’t find peace until she told Twilight all of the truth, even the part she, Sunset herself, had tried to deny for so long.

Regaining the use of her vocal cords, Sunset said in between sobs, “I hate her, Twilight.” She decided not beat around the bush and just rip the bandage off.

She felt Twilight squeeze harder. “I understand, Sunset. I don’t think I’ve ever met a pony I dislike so much either.”

“No, not Vesper…” Though Sunset wouldn’t deny the deep harbor of hatred for her other. “I-I’m talking about… Celestia.”

Twilight pulled back and looked at her, dumbstruck. “What?”

Sunset broke their engagement and turned away from her. “I hate her, Twilight. I hate her so much. I don’t know why, I just do. Every time I see her, every time I think about her, I just get this feeling of loathing and… and there’s… a voice. A voice that says horrible things about her, and I believe them. She wronged me, Twilight. She did something and I can never forgive her!”

Sunset was breathing deep by this point, her rant finally over. The truth now hung in the air and all she could do was wait for Twilight to pass judgment on her. After only a few seconds of silence, Sunset could take no more. She wheeled around, expecting to find Twilight glaring at her in shock or anger. Instead, Twilight’s focus wasn’t on her at all. She was facing the door, staring at it like she could see through it.

“You know,” she said testily, “I would think my friends would know better than to eavesdrop on others.”

Sunset’s ears twitched and sure enough, from the other side of the door, she heard Pinkie hiss, “See, I told you she had princess ears!”

Another voice, that Sunset identified as Applejack, said in a panicked tone, “Pinkie wait, don’t open—”

The door burst open, and five ponies and a dragon spilled out onto the platform in a colorful, jumbled heap. They all looked up at Twilight, each with an expression of guilt.

Twilight wore an unamused frown, her hoof tapped against the metal landing. “Somepony mind telling me what’s going on here?”

Applejack forced her way out from the bottom of the pile. “Aw shucks, it’s partly my fault, Twi. Ah saw Sunset get up to go outside. Ah had just decided to go see if she was okay when Ah saw you follow her, so Ah decided to give y’all some privacy.” She shot a sour expression at Rarity. “Then this one here got up and started skulkin’ about the door trying to eavesdrop on y’all’s conversation!”

“I was not eavesdropping,” Rarity protested. “I was listening with concern.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Anyway, Ah got up to tell her to go back to sleep and stop being a nosy fusbucket—” Rarity clucked her tongue “—but we accidentally woke up R.D. And, well, it kinda just spiraled out from there.”

“We’re sorry, Twilight,” Fluttershy bowed her head, becoming the picture of innocence. “We didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but when we heard Sunset crying, we started arguing whether or not we should interrupt you two to show our support. Oh, not that you need help cheering somepony up when they’re down, we just thought, maybe Sunset might want some more friends. Oh, not that you aren’t enough…”

Rarity took over, much to Fluttershy’s relief. “I think what Fluttershy is trying to say is, we’re here for you, both of you, whenever you need it. I know this must be terrible on you, Sunset, and we just wanted you to know that, no matter what happens, you have our friendship.”

For the third time that night, Sunset found tears running down her face. Her heart felt heavy with emotion, but now, they were all positive ones: joy, appreciation, love… friendship. Yes, she had had friends before, but not like this. This group before her was special. The magic of friendship had never felt like this to Sunset before.

She wiped her eyes with a hoof. “Thank you. All of you guys are amazing, and the fact that you care so much… it means a lot."

Twilight looked across her friends with a warm smile. “Could guys give us a few more minutes? We’ll be back inside soon. Promise.”

They all nodded and retreated back inside, Pinkie giving them one more encouraging smile before closing the door.

Sunset looked over at Twilight. “They really are wonderful.”

“The best of the best.” Twilight looked down at her hooves, her face becoming more sullen. “So… all this time you’ve… hated Princess Celestia?”

Sunset could only nod.

“Was that the real reason you didn’t tell her about why you came here? What you were trying to do?”

“That was a good portion of it, yeah… Are you mad?”

“Well… a little,” Twilight said truthfully. “Mostly because you kept it a secret for so long. But,” she looked up at Sunset, her expression softening, “I’m sure there’s an explanation for all of this out there somewhere. Something that explains Vesper Radiance, your feelings against Celestia, everything. We’ll find it, I promise.”

With a loud sniffle, Sunset finished cleaning her face and nodded again. "Yeah, we will." And Sunset already knew a great place to start.

The two returned inside, greeted by their waiting friends. After assuring everyone she was alright, Sunset told them she was tired and wanted to just go to sleep, which couldn’t be closer to the truth. There was only one pony who could help her find all the answers she wanted

Sunset opened her eyes and found herself standing back in the open field she had been in the night before. The last rays of sunlight could be seen settling down on the western horizon, and Canterlot began to shine with dazzling lights.

Her mane whipped around her face as a gale picked up, sending ripples across the grass. Sunset shut her eyes as the wind rose into a mighty hurricane before stopping just as quickly as it started. When she looked again, she was face to face with Princess Luna.

“Sunset Shimmer, I am glad to see you are unharmed,” Luna said in a neutral tone that gave Sunset the impression that it was more of a formality than anything.

“More or less. Thanks to you though; if you hadn’t woken me up when you did…” Sunset moved a hoof to her throat.

Luna gave a genuine smile this time. “I am glad I could be of help. And now, I wish to help you even further, if you are willing, that is.”

Sunset fidgeted, recalling Luna’s offer to dive into her deeper subconscious. Sunset was sure that she would find some unsettling truths lurking there, and despite her overwhelming desire to know what those truths were, she couldn’t ignore the part of her shouting that it was a bad idea.

“I can see you are still indecisive.” Luna regarded her.

Sunset sighed and gave a nod. “I’ll be honest… I’m terrified of what we’ll find. I finally saw Vesper Radiance and she… she looks… just like me.”

Luna turned for Canterlot and strode across the large field. “Well, Twilight neglected to mention that in her letter. Although, I’m sad to say I figured as much.”

With Luna’s longer legs and quicker gait, Sunset had to trot to keep up with her. She made a mental note to thank Twilight for her sensitivity on the situation before asking, “What do you mean? You knew who Vesper was the whole time?”

“I had deep suspicions. But I could not confirm anything. I chose to believe that you indeed came from the future, that you were born and raised many years from now and had tutelage under Twilight Sparkle.” Luna came to a stop on top of another hill. “But my sister told me of another story shortly before I met you. She had a student named Sunset Shimmer who had practically grown up under Celestia’s wing. They had a falling out many years ago, not too unlike the one I had with her,” Luna whispered with sorrowful eyes.

Sunset sat down in the grass and stared at the mountainside city. Despite their walk, it didn’t seem to have moved any closer. “Yeah. Vesper mentioned being Celestia’s former student.” Sunset’s eyes narrowed. “But wait, you said this happened years ago? She looks the same age as me.”

Luna held a wing to her forehead. “I was afraid of that as well. Celestia said that you were the spitting image of her student before she vanished. I spent hours trying to research how such a phenomenon could be possible. Nopony saw the first Sunset ever again, and then you appear along with a hooded figure who wants to become an alicorn. I knew under it was the Sunset of old, but I could not find anything that would explain the coexistence of you two.” Luna looked up to the twinkling stars overhead. “Two ponies; yet you carry with you memories of the other.”

Sunset slouched over and folded her ears against her head. “I want to know what it means, but…” Sunset looked down at her hoof, wondering if there was a carapace underneath or if it had been crafted from artificial materials. “Maybe some things are better left unsaid.”

“Sunset.” Luna bent her neck down to regard her. “I know you are afraid, but you cannot let those fears control you. Yes, sometimes the truth is scarier than the unknown, but could you honestly say you would be happier not knowing the truth?”

“No, I guess not. If me and her are connected somehow… or if I’m not who I think I am, I guess I should know. Know your enemy, know yourself and all that, right?” Sunset tried to laugh and clear the butterflies out of her stomach, but it came out more strangled than she had intended.

“Do not worry, Sunset, I shall be with you every step of the way,” Luna said warmly.

“Great.” Sunset looked around. “So how exactly do we start?”

“These are your memories, Sunset, even if you do not remember them. They still exist within your mind. You just need to find a way to access them.”

“A way to access them,” Sunset said to herself. She was not very familiar with the concept of lucid dreaming. She was sure the only reason she was so aware right now was because Luna was here. How could she find memories, let alone ones she couldn’t properly remember?

“Concentrate, Sunset,” Luna encouraged. “Think about what you know and what is familiar to you. What’s the best way to find something you need to learn?”

Sunset gasped, a smile crossing her face. The second the thought entered her head, a fine mist appeared around her and Luna, obscuring the environment around them. When it cleared, they were no longer in a grassy knoll. Instead, high vaulted walls surrounded them with a glass skylight overhead letting in ribbons of afternoon sunlight.

The room was circular, with books lining all of the walls in an orderly fashion. A red carpet was rolled out underneath their hooves, with mustard yellow swirls in the design. To Sunset, it looked like one of the rooms in the Canterlot Castle Library: one of her favorite places to study.

She walked over to one of the shelves and pulled out one of the books, reading the cover. “‘Early Foalhood,’” she read aloud. Just holding the book recalled distant memories of her father pushing her on the swing set, or her mother putting on a puppet show with magic.

Placing the book back, Sunset selected another one titled, First Friends. Sunset remembered some of her early days at magic kindergarten and meeting her best friends who she would lead into trouble time and again. She grinned at the warm memories as she put the book back where it belonged.

“These are all mine,” Sunset concluded, quickly taking peaks at more of the covers and feeling the memories pour through her. She looked at Luna, sitting in the middle of the room and watching with interest. “Umm, aren’t you going to help?”

Luna shook her head. “These are your memories, not mine. I have no right to touch them. I am merely here to guide and observe, and if need be, protect.” She lifted a hoof and gestured towards a door at the other end of the room. “Though, I suggest checking through there.”

Sunset put back the book she had been holding and approached the wooden door. There was no handle or lock to it. It was like it had just been added to the wall as an afterthought. Yet there was a cold, almost lonely presence coming from the other side. Sunset hesitated, stopping just in front of it and staring with wide eyes. The ground began to shake, and Sunset looked down, realizing it was only her legs trembling.

Luna stepped up behind her. “We all have fears, Sunset. But it is our duty to face those fears, or they will continue to haunt us.”

Taking a deep breath, Sunset pushed the door open, the cold air slapping her face. She pressed forward, stepping into the grey shadows of the next room. It looked exactly like the other one, except there was no light emitting from anywhere other than the door behind her. The glass ceiling depicted the sky as night, and the torches had not been lit.

Sunset took a step inside, stopping as a cold giggle reached her ears.

“Look who’s decided to come for a history lesson.”

A darker shadow appeared before Sunset, materializing in the blink of an eye. Its outlines were distinguishable now, and it was with great pain that Sunset recognized it as herself.

There was a sound of magic being charged behind Sunset, and she turned to see Luna baring her teeth at the shadow.

“Begone, creature! You are not welcome here!”

The shadow waved a dismissive hoof. “It’s my mind too, and I’ll go wherever the hell I please.” It snickered, vanishing as Luna fired a spell at the spot it had been standing. “Spoilsports. Ah well, you’ll come around to side with me anyway, Sunset. I’ll just let the memories speak for themselves.”

Maniacal laughter filled the room, reverberating through Sunset’s ears. When it finally faded, Sunset found the use of her legs, and she wobbled over to the nearest bookshelf. No more distractions or interruptions. It was time to learn the truth.

She picked a book out, feeling the dusty cover against her fur. The Orphanage was the title, and faint, flickering memories trickled into Sunset’s head, hazy and distorted.

Luna appeared over her shoulder. “Open it,” she said with soft command.

Sunset flipped it open to a random page. Instead of words, there was only a picture. Just one that filled both sides of the page. The longer Sunset stared at it, the more it seemed to be moving. She was looking at herself, or at least a younger Sunset, sitting on a small cot and wiping her eyes like she had been crying. The image began to grow larger, encompassing all of Sunset’s vision until…

Sunset Shimmer sat on her bed, trying her best not to cry, as the older filly across from her finished packing her bags. The room they shared was a small one, enough only for two beds and two dressers. The walls were painted horribly bright colors though, as if they could make up for the cramped space.

Biting her lip proved to be ineffective as Sunset burst into a fresh wave of tears. “It’s n-not fair!” Sunset pounded the overly-springy mattress.

The other pony looked over at her and smiled sadly. She walked across the creaky floorboards, and wrapped Sunset in another hug.

“Oh, Sunny, please stop crying. You’re going to make me cry again.”

“It isn’t fair, though!” Sunset sobbed. “Y-you’re leaving m-me. Now I d-don’t have anyone to play with or read m-me bedtime stories!” She pressed her face into her friend’s yellow coat. “Lemon Heart, why haven’t I been adopted yet? I’ve been here almost my whole life.” Sunset couldn’t even remember the faces of her parents. Just the never ending smile of Ms. Sunshine.

Lemon Heart squeezed Sunset tighter. “I promise you, Sunny, some family is going to walk through that door and eat you up like candy someday. You just have to give it a little more time.”

Sunset pulled her head away and wiped a few tears from her face. “Do you really think so?”

“I know so,” Lemon said brightly. “And I promise you, I’ll write as often as I can.”

“That’s what Cloudy said too,” Sunset crossed her hooves in a pout.

“And didn’t she?”

“Yeah, once!”

Lemon ruffled her mane. “Then I’ll write to you as soon as I get settled in, okay?”

Sunset nodded. “Okay.”

They hugged one last time, and Lemon whispered into Sunset’s ear, “You’re special, Sunset. And someday, everypony will see it.”

There was a knock on the open door, and both girls turned to see Ms. Sunshine standing in the doorway, beaming brightly at them. “Aww, that’s so cute! I really hate to break you two up, but Lemon Heart, your new family is ready to go. You don’t want to keep them waiting do you?”

Lemon Heart nodded her head and squeezed Sunset one last time. “I’ll write soon, I promise!” She grabbed her bags and followed Ms. Sunshine out the door, leaving Sunset alone.

She sighed, wanting to believe that Lemon would write to her, and she probably would. Once… maybe twice. Just like Cloudy. Just like Whistler. And just like Periwinkle. Lemon would write a letter telling how great her new family was, all of the new friends she made, and all the adventures she had already been on. Then, Sunset would never get another letter.

Maybe this time will be different. Maybe Lemon won’t forget me.

Sunset reached under her bed, pulling out one of her many books. She sighed again, opening to a bookmarked page. It was best not to get her hopes up….

Sunset pulled herself out of the image, watching as it shrank back onto the page and slowed to a stop. In the back of her eyes, Sunset could still see a few faint memories of the other Sunset’s time in the orphanage. They were short and fleeting, but Sunset could tell, her other had only received a hooffull of letters before they stopped coming.

She looked up at Luna, still standing over her shoulder. “Did you see that too?”

Luna nodded. “I did. And with it, I am already beginning to put pieces together.”

“Really? I mean, it was informative, but I don’t think it shed that much light.” Sunset closed the book and put it back on the shelf. She frowned and looked back to Luna. “Wait, what exactly did Celestia tell you?”

Luna shook her mane. “I have a growing feeling she did not tell me everything. Even if she had, it would be better to see everything firsthoof. Find a book about your tutelage under her. That is what we should focus on.”

Sunset made a small hmph but decided Luna was right. She moved down a row and pulled out a book titled Lessons. Flipping it open, Sunset saw a depiction of herself in the middle of a regal hallway. Once again, the picture began to move, becoming larger and larger until it was all Sunset could see.

Sunset walked down the pristine corridors of Canterlot Castle with her head held high and a spring in her step. From her back, books, notes, and quills rustled together in her saddlebag. She hummed a happy tune, ignoring any of the castle staff that waved or said, “Good afternoon.”

Ascending a flight of steps, she arrived at a set of large, purple doors. She knocked once before pushing them open and sticking her head inside. “Princess?”

“Ah, there you are, Sunset. Come in, the tea just got here.”

Sunset pushed her way through the gap in the door, shutting it softly behind her. She crossed the carpet to join Princess Celestia at the small table in the back, coming to a rest on the soft pillows that had been laid out.

“How was your day at school, Sunset?” Celestia asked. She raised the silver tea pot and poured generous amounts of tea into two cups. She then added two spoonfuls of honey and sugar to one before pushing it towards Sunset.

Sunset lifted the cup with her magic and blew the layer of steam off the top before taking a careful sip. As always, the tea had been prepared just the way she liked it. “It was good,” Sunset said after a few more sips. “I passed my test on pre-Equestrian law and trade.”

Celestia raised her own to her lips and took a short draught. “Very good. I know you had some trouble with that particular section.”

“Pfft, it wasn’t so bad.”

Celestia chuckled. “There’s no need to be so prideful, Sunset. We all have our shortcomings.”

Sunset shook her head and looked at Celestia with endearment. “You don’t, Princess.”

Putting her cup down, Celestia said, “Even I am not infallible. I have made errors that have taken years to fix.”

They both entered their own realms of thought while they drank their tea. Sunset looked at Celestia with all of her elegance and poise and knew she was probably exaggerating. Celestia was perfect.

“So, have you interacted with any of your classmates?” Celestia asked.

“No,” Sunset said flatly, bracing herself for her weekly lecture on the importance of friendship. Why Celestia continued to try, Sunset would never know.

A closing of the eyes, a soft exhale of breath. Constant predecessors to whatever lecture Celestia was about to give. “Sunset, why don’t you want to make any connections to your peers? You can’t spend the rest of your life alone.”

“I’m not alone. I have you.” Sunset’s look of serenity faltered under Celestia’s withering gaze. “I’m sorry, Princess, I just don’t see any gain in making friends.” Not when they’ll just leave and forget about you.

“But, Sunset, there’s so much to be gained from making friends. Don’t you want to meet other ponies who share like interests?”

Sunset took another drink of her tea while she mulled over an answer. It wasn’t as if she had never tried to make friends. She had done so once on Celestia’s behalf, just to make her happy. Yet Sunset loathed the company she found herself in. Even at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, outside of class, hardly anypony wanted to talk about advanced spell casting or rune lore. Nopony was as invested in learning as she was.

No, social interactions were a waste of time. From then on, Sunset had decided there was only one pony worth talking to.

Celestia inhaled deeply and looked at Sunset with her wise, loving magenta eyes. “I know opening up to others can be difficult, Sunset. But please, just promise me you’ll try.”

Sunset dipped her head. “I promise.”

“Thank you.” Celestia leaned over and nuzzled her across the cheek. It was hard for Sunset to fully enjoy it with the guilt eating at her from within.

When they finished their tea, the entire tray vanished in flash of light, clearing the table. “Now, before we begin our study session, let’s work on your special talent,” Celestia said, adjusting herself amongst the pillows.

Sunset squealed in delight before putting on a serious face. She closed her eyes and tightened her focus, allowing her conscience to drift towards the astral plane.

She brushed against it, feeling the warmth of the solar mana streams as they flew by. Though she hadn’t tapped into any of them, just being close gave her a feeling of power.

“That’s it, Sunset,” Celestia’s soothing voice reached her ears. “Feel all the magic around you. Just feel it, nothing else yet.”

“It’s so warm,” Sunset whispered.

“Yes, but remember what will happen if you are not experienced in using it, or tap into it for too long.”

Sunset cringed. That was one of the first things Celestia had warned her about when they started this special training. If Sunset tried to use too much of the sun’s magic, it could, quite literally, burn her from the inside out.

Still, the fact that her special talent was being able to use the magic of the sun made Sunset shake with glee. Who else could say that they had that level of power? Only one, and she was sharing the room with her. It could only be destiny that Sunset would have a cutie mark so close to Celestia’s. They had a connection nopony else could imitate.

Feeling the thrum of power rising through her, Sunset vowed to be just like Celestia someday. Powerful, regal…

And immortal.

"I'm finding this unhelpful," Sunset said as she snapped the book shut, placing it on the shelf.

"Truly? I am finding this quite informative. Perhaps you are only looking for what you want to see, and not the whole picture."

Sunset growled at Luna's cryptic words but held her tongue and reached for another book, hoping it was something actually informative.

"Cadence," Sunset whispered the title, staring at the crystal heart on the cover. She could feel her anger pulsing just by looking at the name.

Luna perked her ears up and leaned over Sunset's shoulder. “Well, this one seems to be very promising.”

With renewed hope, Sunset flipped the book open. Perhaps this time she’d get a straight answer and learn where all this hate came from.

Sitting in her tower, Sunset looked out the window, watching the clouds lazily roll by. Below, Canterlot was a model playset sprawled before her, complete with moving pony pieces. Someday, it would all belong to her; the ponies would look at her the same way they looked at Celestia. She was the rightful heir, after all. That’s what Celestia had to be grooming her for.

She rested her head on the windowsill, trying to indulge in the springtime tranquility. She held that position for only a few seconds before pacing about her room in agitation. She wasn’t supposed to be in here in the first place! She was supposed to be studying with Princess Celestia!

Sunset puckered her face like she has tasted an extra sour lemon. “What could be so important that she had to cut our session so short? We had barely gotten started!” She flopped on to her bed and growled into her pillow. “Okay, calm down, Sunset.” She took a slow, meditative breath. “She does have an entire country to run.”

I know, I just hate having our time interrupted. Celestia was the only pony who understood her, connected with her. She was the only pony Sunset could trust would never leave her. Every second they spent together was precious time, even when Celestia was nagging her to make friends.

Sunset felt a familiar warmth blossom in her heart. Yes, Celestia was perfect. Kind, caring, generous…. She was… she was almost like…

Knock, knock, knock.

Sunset jumped up from her bed. “She’s back!” She practically threw herself across the room and swung the door open. However, whatever greeting she had died in her throat upon seeing her guests.

Celestia stood looking radiant as ever, smiling at Sunset like she had just brought her a magnificent gift. The gift in question stood next to her, wearing a shy but inviting smile of her own. She was pink—disgustingly so in Sunset’s opinion—with a three toned mane of gold, pink and purple, the last color matching her soft eyes. But what really drew Sunset’s eyes were the wings on her back… and the horn sitting on her head.

“Who is this?” Sunset’s voice was tight, and she used all of her strength to keep a straight face in Celestia’s company.

“Sunset, I would like you to meet Mi Amore Cadenza. Miss Cadenza, this is my special student, Sunset Shimmer.”

Mi Amore Cadenza stuck a hoof out. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said pleasantly. “You can just call me Cadence, though. I know my full name is a bit of a mouthful.” She let out a sound of clinking crystal cups that Sunset realized was her laugh.

She stared dumbly at Cadence’s hoof then looked to Celestia. “She’s an alicorn.”

Celestia gave Cadence a thoughtful look. “Yes. She’s done something that’s never been done before. She performed a great deed, and from it, fully learned and understood the value of Love. As a result, Harmony deemed her ready to ascend.”

Ascend? Sunset stared at Cadence with wide eyes. Ponies could do that? Sunset had always figured Celestia would one day name her a princess and that would be it. But if one could become an alicorn… did that place this Cadence above her?

“So… is she a princess?” Sunset asked.

“Yes,” Celestia said, dumping a bucket of ice water in Sunset’s stomach. “Or rather, a princess-in-training. There is much she needs to learn before she is ready to lead a kingdom.”

Sunset turned away, feigning interest in the scenery outside as her neutral mask cracked. “I see. How very interesting.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. I think you could learn a lot from each other. Perhaps you could show her around the castle, Sunset?”

Sunset grumbled something, which she assumed Celestia mistook for a yes. The door closed a second later, and Sunset was stuck with this… interloper.

She turned around, putting her pleasant face back on. “So, Cadence, was it? Tell me more about yourself. Just how did you become an alicorn?”

Cadence pulled up some carpet and sat down. “Well, there was this witch who was stealing the love out of the village I lived in. She had an amulet that increased her powers and her hatred.” Cadence looked down at her hooves with a forlorn expression. “The spell never directly affected me, but, seeing all my friends and family being drained of their compassion and love hurt just as bad.”

Sunset resisted the urge to gag and just nodded politely.

“So, I knew I had to do something to stop her. I marched into the woods to confront her on behalf of everyone I loved.” Cadence looked up, triumphant sunshine on her face. “And when she tried to use her amulet on me, it just increased my own powers of love. I broke through her enchantment and released all the emotions she had stolen. And after that, I even helped her change her ways and learn to love. The next thing I knew, I was in this really weird place, and Princess Celestia was telling me I was ready to move on to something much greater.” She pointed to her horn. “Then this appeared, and well, that’s it.”

Sunset sat on her bed, mulling Cadence’s words over. She had become an alicorn by loving someone? No, that couldn’t be it; that was far too simple. Her eyes wandered to the crystal heart on Cadence’s flank. “What does your cutie mark mean?”

“Oh, this?” Cadence looked at it fondly. “It represents my talent of helping ponies find true love. I help bring up all the positive emotions ponies have for one another or create a little spark between them to help get things moving along.” Cadence put a hoof to her mouth and giggled. “My mom calls me her ‘little cupid’ because of it.”

“Adorable.” Sunset resumed her thinking, noting the constant theme of love Cadence had surrounding her. Her cutie mark represented it, she could practically feel it from other ponies, and she reformed some evil witch because of it. She had ‘fully learned and understood the value of Love.’ Cadence had mastered it. “And now, you’re a princess,” Sunset said aloud.

Cadence nodded. “I guess so. Princess Celestia said she’d just call me her niece to reduce the shock of another alicorn to the public.”

Sunset’s body tensed up, paralyzed by the toxin of Cadence’s words. “What?” she asked breathlessly.

“I know. Everything’s happening so fast, I can’t really believe it either. Just thinking about everything that’s happened in the last week makes me dizzy.”

Sunset barely heard her, her ears still numb from the previous statement. Niece? Cadence got to be Celestia’s niece? Does becoming an alicorn make you royalty and family? Sunset began to hyperventilate. She had been here for years. Celestia had practically adopted her! Why wasn’t she considered family? Was she just Celestia’s ‘special student’? No! She had to be more! Celestia was hers!

“Sunset, are you all right?”

Calming her breathing, Sunset gave Cadence a cold glare. “I’m fine.” She hopped off her bed and opened the door. She knew what she had to do. Yes! It was clear now. Celestia was testing her, giving her pieces to a puzzle she had to solve on her own. She needed to prove herself worthy of Celestia’s full, unconditional love! She needed to master her special talent! No, she needed to master all magic! Then she would ascend and join Celestia’s family!

“Wait, Sunset, where you going?” Cadence ran out of the room watching Sunset tread down the hall.

“The library. You’ve answered all of my questions sufficiently.”

Cadence cocked her head to the side. “So, does this mean you’re not going to show me around the castle?”

Sunset closed the book, feeling the same loathing the other Sunset had felt all those years ago. It was unsettling, but at least she knew why now.

“Ah, so that is where young Cadence came into play,” Luna said, looking partially amused.

Sunset regarded her curiously before her history caught up to her. “Oh right, you weren’t free yet when any of this happened.”

“Not yet, though the seal was due to break quite soon. I imagine then, my sister was trying to groom this Sunset Shimmer into being the wielder of the Element of Magic.”

“Well, we can see how that turned out, can’t we?” Sunset ran her hoof across the volumes of books, gleaning fragments of memories and feeling from their spines.

“Perhaps so. But I am still curious to see why and how events came to play out as they have.” Luna looked up at the night sky through the glass ceiling. “I strongly suspect the tale Celestia told me was… selective.”

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Sunset spat.

“Curb your anger, Sunset.”

Sunset paused and drew a deep breath, clearing out her disgruntled emotions. She looked at the book she had stopped on and narrowed her eyes in confusion. Not only could she feel and see nothing from it, the title had been completely scratched out. “Look at this.” She pulled the book out and presented it to Luna.

“Most curious. It’s as if great length were taken to suppress this memory.”

Sunset brought it to the table and flipped it open. “Time to find out why.”

Book after book. Spell after spell. Sunset had devoted every second of her free time to learning magic. She would live it, she would breathe it. She would become one with the astral plane if that was what it took to become an alicorn.

She didn’t see Cadence very often now. The first few weeks of her stay in the castle had consisted of her trying to spend time with Sunset. Remembering Celestia’s words on friendship, Sunset indulged her just once.

The second Cadence had started talking about a cute stallion she had seen at school, Sunset had bolted.

She was now holed up in her spot in the castle library, surrounded by stacks of books. Footnotes and diagrams were scattered about in disorganized piles and she had long since forgone trying to keep everything in order.

Somewhere across the castle, a clock chimed twelve times. Sunset rubbed her eyes, wondering where the hours had gone.

With a loud yawn, she stood and departed from the library, using her horn to light the dark corridors. None of the night guards bothered her. Most of them were accustom to seeing her return to her room at this time of night.

She turned the last corner to her room and smacked into a wall of pink while a bright light nearly blinded her.

“Oof! Oh, Sunset, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there! Are you all right?”

Sunset got up and squinted at Cadence. A direct glare was all but impossible with the amount of light her horn was exuding. “Ugh, what are you doing up this late?”

“I was thirsty and wanted a glass of water.”

“Why not just ask one of the servants?”

Cadence blushed. “I didn’t want to bother any pony… and I kinda wanted to try out this illumination spell.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Of course.”

Cadence gave her a wary look. “What are you doing up so late?”

“Studying in the library.” Sunset walked around her and continued for her room.

“Again?” Cadence hurried to catch up to her. “Sunset, I know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

“Really now?”

Cadence moved in front of her and halted Sunset’s progress. “Yes. And becoming an alicorn won’t help you earn Celestia’s love. You already have it, Sunset.”

“And how do you know?” Sunset asked venomously. “Because your special talent said so?”

Cadence moved a hoof to her chest and took in a deep breath, pushing it away as she exhaled. “Listen to me, Sunset, I know what you’re going through. I was an orphan like you until another family found me and took me in. I know sometimes it feels like they’re waiting for you to do something extraordinary, but trust me when I say Celestia loves you unconditionally. She loves everypony—”

“But I’m not just everypony,” Sunset hissed. “Our special talents are almost identical, as are our cutie marks. Out of thousands of students, she picked me to be her apprentice. She told me I had the potential to be a princess. She’s waiting for me to unlock my true potential. Then she’ll accept me with open hooves, and I’ll be the inheritor for the throne!” She tried to walk around Cadence, but was stopped by a gentle hoof on her shoulder.

“Please, just talk to her.”

The two stood frozen in time for a moment before Sunset shrugged her off. She didn’t want to be lumped together with everypony else Celestia supposedly ‘loved.’ She was the princess; it was her job to ‘love’ them. No, Sunset wanted to stand on a tier higher than the rest. And she would do anything to reach it.

*

What was she missing?

Sunset continued her circular pacing, wondering how long before she created a rut. She paused to look at the tower of books next to her and shook her head. She had gone over every magical spellbook in the library, practiced day in and day out, practically mastered each individual concept, yet nothing happened!

Raising her head to the star-filled heavens, she let out enraged scream and knocked her pile of books over. She had done everything she could possibly think of. She even practiced her special talent without Celestia’s supervision and disintegrated half of the carpet in her room.

Maybe… maybe it’s hopeless. Maybe I’m doomed to be forgotten. Sunset shook her head. No, that was quitter talk, and she was no quitter! There had to be something she missed! Maybe she just hadn’t practiced hard enough or maybe…

Sunset’s eyes widened. Or maybe I just haven’t mastered every branch of magic. She moved down the row of books, leaving the comfort of the only lit brazier in the library. With a thought, she activated a night vision spell and continued on her way. At the very back of the library was a bolted black door with a faint golden aura around it.

The dark tomes. Guarded more zealously than the books in the Starswirl the Bearded Wing, the room before Sunset contained all of the most powerful and dangerous spellbooks known to ponykind.

Sunset wrung her hooves. Was she really going to dive this far to become an alicorn? Some said these books could drive a pony mad.

But if I can overcome it, it’ll prove I deserve to ascend!

It was Sunset’s last hope. She closed her eyes and layered her magic on top of Celestia’s. The enchantments were old and starting to fade yet still provided a challenge to disable. Sunset chewed her tongue, working for several long minutes before the spells faded away. She undid the bolt and carefully slipped inside.

Lighting her horn, Sunset found herself in a very small room with only one bookcase. There couldn’t be more than ten books in total, all of them frayed or bound with strange, fleshy material. She steeled herself and picked up the first book. It had no title, just the picture of a pony’s skull.

The moment she opened it, she could hear whispers filling the room and a foul air chilling her fur. She blocked them out, forcing herself to read on. The writing was almost illegible, and the pictures that accompanied them grotesque. Still, there was something about the book that compelled her. She no longer had to force it and just kept reading, feeling as if the whispers were giving her additional notes. Yes, this was the information she had been seeking! With this, she could rule Equestria! She could—

“Sunset!”

The book dropped from her magic, and all of the whispers and cold air instantly vanished. Before she could do anything else, Sunset found herself hoisted into the air, unable to move in the thick web of magic. She was carried out of the room, watching as it was sealed tight and coated with a new array of enchantments. Only afterwards was she deposited onto the floor.

“What in the name of Equestria were you thinking, Sunset?”

Sunset looked up at Celestia, reading her angry and disappointed expression. Yet, just underneath it, she could see fear and concern waiting to burst forth.

“I’m sorry, Princess, I was just—”

“You know how dangerous those spells are! Why would you deliberately seek them out?”

Sunset’s mouth felt stuffed with cotton and her stomach filled with hot led. She had never seen or heard Celestia this upset before. “I…” Sunset got to her knees and bowed as low as she could. “I’m so sorry, Princess Celestia. Please, forgive me.”

Celestia pulled Sunset forward and draped her wings around her, enclosing her in a world consisting of just the two of them. “Sunset, of course I forgive you. But I want to know, why? You know better.”

“I… wanted to learn every branch of magic,” Sunset confessed.

“Including the forbidden arts? Sunset there are very few ponies across all of history who have read some of those books without losing a piece of their sanity or being lured in by darkness. The only reason I keep them is for a countermeasure against such forces.”

“I’m sorry. I just… I wanted…” Sunset sniffled and buried her face into the pillow that was Celestia’s chest.

Celestia looked down at her. “Wanted to what? Prove something? Make me proud? Sunset, I’m already proud of you. I always have been.”

“No,” Sunset mumbled into Celestia’s soft fur. “I wanted… I wanted you to love me.”

“What?” Celestia leaned down and nuzzled Sunset’s mane until she looked up. Their eyes met and Celestia said, “Of course I love you, Sunset. Don’t ever think otherwise.”

Sunset felt her eyes begin to tear up, and she hid her face again. “Princess… every friend I tried to make left me… my birth parents never even wanted me. I don’t make friends because I don’t want to be left alone again.”

Celestia’s face softened into a sympathetic frown. “Sunset…”

“But you’re immortal. You can’t leave. Of all the ponies in the school, you picked me. It’s destiny that we’re together; it has to be. So please, just promise me… promise me you’ll never leave me.”

Celestia’s embrace tightened, burying Sunset deeper in the warm, feathery cocoon. Celestia rocked her back and forth and said, “I promise, Sunset.”

Sunset cringed at her words. It wasn’t enough. It was just Princess Celestia comforting her. But Sunset wanted more. She wanted to know, she wanted Celestia to know...

The words came out barely above a whisper as Sunset’s voice would go no higher. She doubted if Celestia had even heard her, but the Princess slowly unfurled her wings and pulled away so she could look Sunset in the face.

Her eyes were wide with surprise and wonder. “Sunset… did you—”

The library door burst open, and the sound of galloping hooves filled the building. A messenger colt came skidding to a halt in front of them, panting heavily. “Y-your highness.” He held up a scroll. “Urgent news from the frontier. The buffalo are stampeding the settlements again.”

Celestia stood up, taking the scroll in her aura. “Understood.” She looked back at Sunset, her expression unreadable. “We… we’ll finish this conversation later.”

Celestia and the messenger colt departed the room, the door slamming shut behind them. Sunset sat alone in the library, tears streaks running down her face as her own words played back in her ears.

“I love you, Mother.”

Sunset closed the book, reading the title that had reappeared on the front. “Mother. She called Celestia her mom.” Sunset pressed a hoof against her head. This went against every dark feeling that had been screaming at her since her journey had begun. They had all called Celestia a terrible pony. A liar unfit to rule Equestria. Were they simply misguided feelings Sunset had picked up from her trip through time?

No. They still belong to her. Celestia never did give an answer. Maybe they all stem from this? She looked over to Luna, who had her face scrunched in displeasure.

“Sister, you neglected to mention this tiny detail during your recount.” Luna snorted and tossed her mane.

“So, you don’t think she reciprocated those feelings?”

“On the contrary. I believe she did, making whatever happen between them that much more difficult to bear.”

Sunset faced the bookshelf, searching for something that looked relevant. She reached her hoof out and nearly tumbled through the shelf, catching herself at the last moment. “What the heck?”

The room had gathered an otherworldly fog, and all of its contents began to fade into the mist. The skylight and floor had vanished, replaced by a blank, white canvas.

“It seems you are waking up, Sunset.” Luna’s voice echoed distantly through the mist. Sunset wanted to reply, but found she had no mouth to do so with. In fact, her entire body had vanished.

“Worry not. When next you dream, I shall return.” The entire dreamscape turned white with haze that blurred Sunset’s thoughts as well. On the other side of it, she could hear Twilight calling her name, gently shaking her to awaken.

The cabin was stuffed with mounted heads of various creatures, both sentient and non. Sunset Shimmer found it horribly tacky but paid it no mind. She sat at the captain’s desk, two holographic images sitting in front of her.

The red pony walked over to the white pony and they hugged before the white one vanished. A purple one appeared in its place, and the red one attacked it mercilessly.

Sunset found the spectacle wasn’t as enjoyable as she thought it would be. She dispelled the image and spun her chair around to look out the large window behind her. It gave a fantastic view of the grassy plains and emerald forests they were flying over.

It entertained Sunset for but a moment before she slouched in her chair. Her hoof brushed across her Alicorn Amulet, and she let out a pained sigh. How long had it been since she had thought about that word? About those moments in her life?

“Do you ever think about them… Celestia? Do you ever think about me?” Sunset’s horn glowed again and a full scale image of Celestia’s face appeared before her. “I think about you all the time. Look at what you’re forcing me to do,” Sunset pouted.

She leaned forward in her seat. “You know, I say I hate you, but I don’t really mean that.” She put on a savage grin, showing off all of her teeth. “I still love you, Mother! That’s why I’m doing all this! You’ll finally be proud of me! I’ll show you you don’t need Twilight Sparkle or anyone else. Just me…. Always me.”

The knock on her door ended her reverie, and she canceled her spell. “Come in,” she said, thoroughly annoyed.

Razor opened the door and crossed the threshold before bowing. “We’re nearing Hoofington, Yer Majesty.”

“Is everything in place?” Sunset asked, not bothering to meet him face-to-face.

“Aye, everything’s ready.”

“Good. Be aware, Razor, this is your last chance. If you fail… well, let’s just say not getting paid in royal gold will be the least of your worries.”

“Understood, Yer Majesty.”

Sunset ignored the disgruntled undertone and allowed him to leave before her grin returned. “Well then, Twilight Sparkle, let’s see what’s more important to you: your friends or your subjects. By day’s end, I’ll have my crown and the pathetic Wannabe in my hooves, while Twilight and her friends lie dead before me.” She stood up and approached the window, seeing Canterlot appear in the far distance, the rising sun making it glow like golden fire.

“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m going to clear the entire board now before I come home. Just sit in your lofty bastion and watch as it unfurls. Our dance will come at the end, when there is no one to interrupt us! Hehehe… ahahahahaha…” She threw her head back.

Hahahahahahahaha!”

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