• 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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Chapter XVI: On Wings of Condemnation

Chapter XVI: On Wings of Condemnation

The fog before her eyes dissipated into nothingness, revealing the real world once more. Beams of light from the compartment lanterns hit Sunset’s face and made her eyes sting and water. She sat up in bed, her messy hair forming a protective curtain from the glaring lights.

She stretched and yawned, feeling well-rested in spite of the vivid dreamwalking she had partaken in last night. Brushing her mane back, she saw Twilight across the compartment, putting her saddlebags on.

“Come on, bedhead,” Twilight said with a chuckle. “We’re going to get some breakfast before the train leaves again.”

Sunset put a hoof to her stomach, aware of the roaring vacuum that demanded food. “Yeah, breakfast sounds good.”

Twilight walked over to another bed and poked the large lump nesting beneath the blankets. “Come on, Rainbow, it’s breakfast time.”

“Are we in the Crystal Empire yet?” a voice slurred.

“No, we’re in Hoofington, and we have a few hours before the train starts rolling again. You might want to eat something now, because it’s a long ride to Tall Tale.”

There was a drawn out pause in which the lump did nothing. Then, a blue hoof emerged from its cocoon, followed closely by a body that rolled onto the floor. Rainbow laid there for a second before standing up and smacking her lips loudly.

“Guess I’m not the only one who isn’t a morning pony,” Sunset said as she tried to tame her mane with her hoof.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Please, Rainbow has trouble getting up no matter what time of day it is.”

Rainbow yawned again. “I’ll think of a comeback after I eat something.”

“Then come oneveryone is waiting for us outside.” Twilight led the way down the train, though while they walked, Sunset couldn’t help but wonder why all the lights had been left on. Twilight had said it was morning, right?

She got her answer when they all stepped outside: the sky was indeed blue, patchworked with large, fluffy clouds. However, the sun itself was obscured by a large mountain face in which the village took refuge under. An immense shadow blanketed the ground, keeping the entire town and some of the surrounding woodlands in its grasp.

Everyone met up at the platform exit and exchanged good mornings—the level of enthusiasm varying with each pony—before heading off into town. Hoofington reminded Sunset of Ponyville in many ways: the thatch roofs and white stone buildings, cobblestone streets, ponies peddling their wares on the main thoroughfare. The atmosphere was subtly different though; it didn’t have that same open feeling that Ponyville had given Sunset. Perhaps it was because of the dreary shadow she was constantly walking in.

They entered a small tavern and squeezed into the largest booth they could find. Unable to fit comfortably, Rarity pulled an empty table and a few extra chairs over. A waitress approached when they were all settled in and took their order, happy to accommodate anything for Twilight.

Twilight fidgeted when she told the waitress to put everything on the ‘royal tab’ after everyone had put in their order. When the mare left, Twilight slumped in her seat, sighed, and leaned her chin on a hoof. “Remind me to make personal trips to each pony and place we’ve freeloaded off of.”

Spike gave her a confident thumbs-up.

Sunset hated to imagine what they would have done for food, board and transportation without Twilight’s Princess status. Scavenging for food, tucking themselves into the warmest alleys and caves they could find and dragging themselves through the wilderness of Equestria…. Or maybe they could have just asked Princess Celestia if they could borrow money? Though, Sunset wasn’t sure if Spike was able to burp up solid gold.

Conversation was limited, leaving Sunset to continuously reflect over what she had seen last night. The scenes repeated in her head over and over again, along with one crucial word: Mother. This other Sunset had latched onto Celestia, wanting to be accepted as family. At its root, it was a simple and pure wish; Sunset couldn’t imagine her life without her mom and dad. Yet the wish was drowned in obsession and desire. The other Sunset hadn’t just loved Celestia: she’d coveted her, wanted her all to herself.

The idea baffled Sunset. If the Sunset from her memories loved Celestia so much, then where did this raging inferno of hate spawn from? The past Sunset had held Celestia on the highest pedestal. If that Sunset was the same one from the cave, then what had happened between her and Celestia? And where did she herself fit into all of this? The questions swam around in her head, making her even more confused then before she had gone dreamwalking.

She glanced over at Twilight, who was engaged in polite conversation with Applejack. Sunset recalled their tearful discussion last night and knew it was a bad idea to keep all of this to herself. She would have to tell Twilight—tell all of them what she had discovered. But she knew she needed the whole story first. There was little point in dragging everyone else into her confusion.

Sunset ate her breakfast with gusto, having only had hospital food in the last twenty-four hours. She was second to finish her hay and spinach omelette, coming in right after Pinkie who had practically inhaled her food. Aside from utensils scraping against plates and the occasional slurp, breakfast was a quiet affair; a nice change of pace after so much madness.

“Do you know how much time we have before the train leaves, Twilight?” Rarity asked politely when their meal was complete. “I wouldn’t mind taking a quick tour of Hoofington while we’re here.”

Twilight shook her head. “Sorry, no time for sightseeing. The train is supposed to leave at eleven.” She craned her neck over the booth to look at the clock on the wall that read ten-thirty. “In fact, we should be heading back right now.”

They pushed out of their chairs and filed out of the tavern, each of them thanking the waitress as they left. The shadows outside had reclined with the climbing sun, if only by a small margin. More ponies were milling about, leisurely going about their day.

“Well, it’s probably for the best anyway,” Applejack said. “The less time we spend in one place, the less of a chance we have at runnin’ into you-know-who.”

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me! I know this one,” Pinkie said, tapping a hoof against her head. “Umm, super good with magic, really evil, starts with a V…”

“Vesper Radiance,” Rarity hissed.

“Oh, then I must be thinking of somepony else.”

Rainbow took Pinkie’s head and jerked it in the direction everyone else was looking in. Pinkie then let out a large gasp and jumped backwards.

Vesper stood in the middle of the road, her black cloak still wrapped around her. All of her past injuries, however, seemed to have disappeared.

“I told you before, that isn’t my name.” She paused and looked thoughtfully into space. “Though, I suppose it has a nice ring to it. Poetic almost.”

“You!” Rainbow jumped into the air, cringing slightly at the burns on her back, and dove at Vesper, only to go straight through her.

The image rippled and faded out for a moment before correcting itself. “Did you really think I’d let you take another shot at me? This is just a projection, featherbrain.”

Rainbow rolled around and bared her teeth. “What? Too scared to face us again in person?”

Vesper held her back to her but extended a hoof. “Don’t worry, Rainbow Dash; your deaths will come soon enough. But honestly, why don’t we try settling this civilly first? I’m sure we’re all reasonable ponies.”

“Reasonable?” Sunset said, outraged. “You’ve tried to kill us on five separate occasions so far! You turned three ponies into brainless puppets and you foalnapped and practically tortured Fluttershy!”

Vesper held her gaze for a moment, her face unreadable. “Why is it every time you open your mouth, my hatred for you grows ever stronger? This little imitation of me you’re doing is really quite insulting. Hurtful, in fact. I insist that until you learn how to be me better, you shut up!” Her eyes drifted over to Twilight. “Besides, I was really just talking to the princess.”

Twilight lifted her chin. “Why should I listen to anything you have to say?”

“Because, Twilight Sparkle, I have a deal to offer you, and you’d be wise to hear it out before you shoot me down. Give me the Tempest Crown—”

“Never.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Vesper waved a hoof. “You didn’t let me finish. Give me the Tempest Crown and little wannabe over there—”

Twilight’s frown twisted into a snarl.

“—Or I’ll blow Hoofington to pieces!” Vesper finished with a skip.

What?” Twilight reeled back.

“Yer bluffin’,” Applejack challenged.

“Oh no, I assure you, my threat is quite real.” Vesper turned her head to the mountain. “Right now, there is an airship full of wide-ranged explosives docked just on the other side of the mountain peak. With one command, I can move it into position and have them dropped over this pitiful little dirt town.” She leaned forward, a feral grin on her face. “How does that sound, Your Highness? I think a smoldering crater might actually be an improvement.”

“That’s disgustingly low, even for somepony like you,” Rarity said with contempt.

“Well, it could all be avoided rather easily if the fair princess just hoofs over what I asked for. Honestly, a little trinket and one pony isn’t much compared to all of these innocent lives.” Vesper gestured to the surrounding town. A few ponies had stopped to view the developing scene from afar. “What say you, Princess?”

Twilight folded her ears back and her eyes darted rapidly between the sparse crowd, Vesper and Sunset. “I… I…”

“Oh no, you’re right. This is a lot to just throw on you,” Vesper said in a sickeningly sweet tone. “Tell you what: I’ll give you until the stroke of noon to make your decision.” She pointed up to the mountain. “I’ll be waiting in the summit cave. If you’re not prompt, I might do something… regrettable. Oh, and speaking of which, since we’re gambling with so many lives, it’s only fitting that everypony knows what’s going on, right?”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “What are you—”

But Vesper had already vanished, leaving the group momentarily confused until her face appeared above their heads, enlarged for the entire town to see it.

“Attention, Hoofington,” her voice echoed. “You may not be aware. but you have royalty among you. Princess Twilight Sparkle has graced you with her presence. However, she’s in possession of a very dangerous artifact, as well as harboring a criminal who has decided to masquerade as me. She now stands in a precarious position of delivering both objects to the cavern near the summit of the Smokey Mountain, or else a rogue airship will drop its haul of bombs on your poor, defenseless village. Surely she would choose your lives over one insignificant pony and a crown, correct? I know you’ll all help her make the right choice, seeing as it’s your lives on the line.”

She looked directly down to Twilight. “Oh, and don’t even think of contacting Celestia. I’ve got wards to alert me to any communications or attempts to escape. You can flee if you really want to, just remember all the lives you’ll be condemning if you do. Only an hour to go, dear Princess.” She gave one last malicious smile before her image vanished.

Sunset winced, finally realizing just how hard she had been grinding her teeth. “I don’t care if she does look like me. I hate her with every fiber of my being.”

“Look, there she is!”

Sunset looked around, seeing a crowd beginning to circle them. The ponies looked more frightened than angry, but Sunset could still sense their desire to be rid of her.

“Princess, you’re going to turn her in, right?”

“You can’t let us die!”

“Please, do something?”

“Isn’t she wanted by Princess Celestia anyway?”

The seven ponies and dragon retreated until they were backed against one another, surrounded on all sides by the panicking mob.

“Twi, you might wanna do something before they get angry,” Spike said with urgency.

Twilight nodded and swallowed. She stomped her hoof on the ground, trying to get them to settle down. “Everypony, please listen! I know you’re all scared, but there’s no reason to panic.” She gestured to Sunset. “This Sunset Shimmer is not a criminal. It’s just a setup by the mare threatening you.”

“That doesn’t change the fact she’s trying to kill us!”

“Yeah, you can’t pick her over all of us!”

“We should call Celestia!”

“No! You heard her—she’ll just blow us up faster!

As the mob started to close in on them, Twilight shouted, “Please, please! Calm down, everypony! I promise you, no one is going to get hurt! I won’t let Hoofington get destroyed, I promise.”

The crowd didn’t seem completely relieved, but they began to disperse slowly, giving Twilight pleading looks as they turned away.

Meanwhile, Twilight turned back to the group. “And I’m not going to sell out any of my friends either. Or give Vesper this crown.”

“Well, Twilight, that doesn’t give us a lot of options,” Sunset said. “We can’t ask for help. And if you refuse to do it, I’m sure the townsfolk will take it into their own hooves.”

“Twilight, I admire your confidence, but I think Vesper has us in check,” Rarity said grimly.

Twilight sat down and closed her eyes. “Yeah… maybe.”

“Whoa, time-out,” Rainbow said, crossing her hooves. “We can’t give up that easily!”

“No one said we were giving up, Rainbow,” Twilight said quietly.

Rainbow looked at her with bright eyes. “Ha, I knew it! You’ve got a plan, right?”

Twilight shifted, biting her lip. “Well… I’ve got… something.”

“Something?”

“Something is better than nothing,” Pinkie said cheerfully.

“Yes,” Twilight said slowly. “But, it’s dangerous… really dangerous… and requires a lot of luck.” She looked at all of them with a determined gleam in her eye. “But it also requires all of us working together. Which is something we do extremely well.”

“We’re all ears, Twilight,” Fluttershy said with surprising confidence. Everyone nodded in agreement.

Twilight beamed at them. “All right then. Here’s what we’re going to do…”

They walked slow, eating up as much time as they could. Twilight held a hoof against her eyes, blocking dust that had kicked up from another strong gust of wind. The sun had finally peaked over the mountain, but heavy clouds had begun to move, threatening to swallow up the entire sky. She could already feel the moisture in the air as the grey gloom circled overhead.

She and Sunset trekked their way up the mountain path, their journey quickened by Twilight’s familiarity with it. It seemed like just yesterday that she and her friends had climbed it to relocate a dragon and his polluted snoring.

Their journey was a quiet one. Sunset gave Twilight furtive glances but otherwise said nothing. Twilight marched stoic and steadily, doing her best not to show fear or worry, hoping that her plan would work. She realized she was asking for a lot; if everyone got out of this alive and they caught Vesper Radiance, it would be nothing short of a miracle.

The mouth of the cave loomed as they crested the last slope. The inside no longer glittered with gold, all of it having been removed when the dragon migrated. Without the sparkling gleam of thousands of coins, the cave looked grim and foreboding. Twilight led Sunset into the maw, the light of day quickly fading behind them.

Vesper was waiting at the back of the cave, along with Razor, and was looking quite smug.

“Knew it,” Sunset murmured under her breath. Twilight shushed her and stepped forward, quickly examining all of her surroundings.

“See? I told you she would come, Razor,” Vesper said, her voice dripping with superiority. “Of course, you didn’t have much of a choice did you, Princess? Those panicking little ponies down there would have forced your hoof one way or the other to make sure they saved themselves. But that’s life, isn’t it?” The corners of her mouth folded into a sneer. “Ponies are willing to sell each other out for their own survival. Toss their fellow equine away if it means they themselves can live to see tomorrow. Their lives are nothing more than items to barter and trade with, right, Twilight? So much for friendship.”

“You don’t know anything about friendship,” Twilight said scathingly. Behind her, the wind began to howl outside. The sun had been completely eclipsed now, leaving only an ocean of deep grey in the sky.

Vesper tilted her head to the side, still sneering. “You’re right: I don’t. Nor do I care. Friendship is a convenient lie this poor country was founded on. In the end, ponies are still selfish by nature. The only truth in this world is power. And magic is power! Surely you can agree to that much?”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. She could feel her contempt for Vesper rising by the second. This girl was once Princess Celestia’s student? Impossible. Twilight shook her head. “I didn’t come here to discuss philosophy with you, however wrong yours may be.”

Vesper clucked her tongue. “Pity. You seem like a smart filly, Sparkle. I was hoping to pick your brain a little before business, but if you insist on ditching your ‘friend’ so quickly, then so be it.” She pointed her hoof to Sunset. “You,” she snapped. “Start walking forward. Nice and slow.”

Sunset gave Twilight one more uncertain glance, then walked to the center of the cavern. Razor approached her, a length of iron chains in his claws. They met in the middle, and Razor tied the chain around Sunset’s horn, coiling it until it was completely covered and resembled just a lump of metal links.

“It’s not as effective as an inhibitor, but since I couldn’t get my hooves on one with such short notice, it will have to do,” Vesper said, her eyes never leaving Twilight. As Razor led Sunset back to the end of the cave, a silver dagger drew itself from underneath Vesper’s cloak and positioned itself underneath Sunset’s neck. “Don’t worry—” Vesper smirked at the fear in Twilight’s eye “—I’m not going to kill her yet. I have some questions I want answered first. Now, the Tempest Crown, please.”

Twilight eyes flitted between Vesper and Sunset. She tried to keep her breathing as calm as possible using Cadence's technique only without the hoof movements. It was enough to keep her focused, but not enough to stop her from panicking on the inside. She levitated the crown from inside her bag and held it aloft.

Vesper’s eyes gleamed with avarice. “Now, right in the center of the room. Good girl.” As Twilight released the crown, Vesper’s red aura surrounded it and brought it to her hooves. “Finally. Now, Princess—” she looked up at Twilight with crimson eyes “—bear witness to the first part of my ascension!” She lifted the Crown, jammed it on top of her head, and took in a sharp, shuddering breath.

Nothing happened.

She stood in place, her look of triumph slowly melting away. Rage erupted across her face, and she shouted, “What’s going on? Why isn’t it working?”

Twilight took quick aim and fired at the suspended dagger, knocking it away from Sunset’s throat. The spell then rebounded and struck Vesper across the cheek, causing her to stagger back. As she did, the crown toppled from her head and landed on the cave floor with a clatter, a crack running up the center ruby.

“What?” Vesper’s eyes bugged out of her head as she scooped up the broken crown, paying no attention to what was going on just a few feet next to her.

As soon as Twilight had repelled the dagger, Sunset ducked low and delivered a powerful buck to Razor’s chest, sending him flying across the cave and into the back wall. Sunset then rushed forward and slammed her front hooves into Vesper’s side, launching her across the floor.

“Nice work, Applejack,” Twilight said, hurrying to her side.

“Thanks, Twi,” Sunset said with a drawl. “Now, could ya change me back to normal? This whole thing is still weirdin’ me out.”

“Just a second,” Twilight said, watching as Vesper climbed back to her hooves.

She looked over at the broken crown, just a circlet of metal with some wood taped to it, and issued a small laugh. “An illusion. Like many other things in my life, it was just an illusion.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what you were trying to accomplish, but all you’ve done is sentenced Hoofington to death!” A red spark shot out of her horn. Over Twilight’s head, the spark raced, vanishing into the stormy sky.

“Razor, get up, you useless bird!” Vesper barked. She took a step toward Twilight and Sunset, her horn sparking with aggression.

Twilight emitted a tiny spark of her own and watched from the corner of her eye as the illusion around Applejack melted away. Applejack then pulled off the mass of chains sitting on her head, a wooden cone falling out of the center.

“Yes, let’s all dress up as Sunset Shimmer,” Vesper said in a low, threatening tone. “It’s not like she needs her own identity or anything. It’s not like everything else was stolen from her. I don’t care how many illusions you cast, Sparkle—I will find that replica and the Tempest Crown!”

“Yer gonna have to get through us, first!” Applejack said, running a hoof against the ground.

Razor had finally gotten to his feet and joined Vesper by her side. “That, we can arrange.” He drew his sword.

“Applejack!” Twilight called as her horn released a piercing, resplendent light that flooded half of the cavern. She heard Vesper and Razor yell , then she dimmed the luminescence to see them stunned, their hooves and claws trying to rub spots from their eyes.

Applejack pulled her face from the ground and—with the chain trailing behind her—ran at Vesper. She tackled her adversary with full force and rolled across the ground until they hit the back wall. Applejack maneuvered behind Vesper and pulled the chain around her horn as Vesper began bucking and firing off random spells.

Twilight ducked under one of them as she charged at Razor and released a powerful bolt of her own. Though still blinded, he swung his sword haphazardly, managing to deflect Twilight’s attack. In the interim of Twilight’s next spell, one of Vesper’s loose flares crashed into the ceiling, raining rocks between Twilight and Razor.

Rolling away, Twilight managed to avoid being crushed by a larger chunk of stone. She shook her mane free of the excess rubble and stared into the veil of dust that had risen. Nothing had been blockaded, and she could still hear Applejack’s scuffle with Vesper, but the smoky wall was thick and impenetrable to the naked eye.

Twilight took measured steps backwards and waited for Razor to emerge. Instead, a red jet of light streaked towards her and grazed her cheek, despite her wild leap. Before she could measure the wound, Razor came down at her, a ball of fire in his claws.

I forgot they could do that! Twilight threw her shield up in a panic, avoiding the flames but still feeling the sweltering heat.

Razor transitioned between slamming his sword against Twilight’s shield and hurling fire at it. Twilight was confident in her ability to maintain her defense, but it was doing nothing to help the overall situation. She snuck a glance behind Razor where the pile of rock lay. With careful subtlety, Twilight lifted the biggest rock she could find and levitated it closer. Her face knotted with determined application as she fought to keep the shield up while giving the rock one last burst of concentrated magic. It shifted from a slow cruise to a lightning-propelled bullet and smashed Razor in the back of the head, sending him to the ground in a crumpled heap.

Twilight dropped her shield and raced over to Applejack, who had successfully wrapped part of the chain around Vesper’s horn, though she was still able to produce weaker versions of her spells.

Filthy vermin! Unhoof me this instant!” Vesper screeched, flailing her hooves at Applejack’s face.

Applejack kept Vesper pinned down with her hooves while the chain hung in her mouth. She would yank the chain to the side any time Vesper tried to shoot at her, but the act of trussing her up had come to a slow crawl.

“Keep her down, A.J.!” Twilight took the chain in her aura, leaving Applejack to put her full weight against Vesper. Twilight wrapped the chain a few more times around Vesper’s horn and pulled it tight before chaining up her front hooves.

Vesper writhed and squirmed when Applejack stepped off her, but was able to produce nothing more than a spark. She panted and her eyes blazed in Twilight’s direction. “I hate you!”

“I can live with that,” Twilight said tonelessly. She cast a thin purple veil around Vesper’s head and watched her drift off to sleep.

“Well,” Applejack began as she wiped the sweat from her brow, “Ah can honestly say, Ah didn’t think it would work this well.”

“We’re not done yet, though,” Twilight said. She dragged Razor over and used the remaining amount of chain to tie his claws together. “I actually wish she had brought a real inhibitor ring, but my sleep spell should keep her inactive until everything’s over.”

A roar like a manticore made both of them jump and rush to the cave entrance. Above them, they sky billowed with black clouds, and buckets of rain poured down. Another roar filled the sky, followed closely by a tongue of lightning. The wind picked up into a mighty gale, and Applejack had to keep a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder to keep her from flying away.

“Do you think it’s working?” Applejack yelled over the tempest.

“Let’s hope so!”

Sunset stood near the foot of the mountain, the clouds above her starting to funnel and form together. A thin sprinkle was already falling.

She blinked.

When she opened her eyes, she fought against every instinct to scream as she found herself being dragged against the howling wind. She flailed her hooves, eager to land on something solid. Rain lashed against her face and stung her eyes, turning the world into a blur of colors until it was practically nonexistent.

She blinked again.

She was standing at the aft end of a polished, black wooden deck. A griffon stood at the opposite end, his back turned to her. Sunset took in all of the deck with rapid speed, forcing herself to commit it to memory. As the griffon turned around, Sunset teleported.

Feeling the dirt beneath her hooves again, Sunset opened her eyes and found Rarity staring at her with anxious wonder. Spike stood next to her, a coil of rope wrapped over his shoulder.

“Did it work?” Rarity asked.

Sunset nodded. “I saw the deck. I couldn’t have been there more than five seconds, but I think it’s enough for a safe teleport back.” She turned her attention to the mountain looming before them, two pairs of eyes following her. They all stared in anticipation, Twilight’s instructions echoing in Sunset’s head. Wait for the first flash of lightning, or whatever Vesper will use for a signal.

“How do we know Vesper will even use a visible signal?” Spike asked, seemingly reading Sunset’s thoughts.

“Well, Twilight did say this plan required some luck,” Rarity said evenly.

Sunset swallowed the worry that had climbed up her throat. “Hopefully, Pinkie will have finished her part, so even if we do get a late signal—”

Her words died in her throat when a red flare burst forth from the cave mouth and curved up into the clouds. Sunset gestured for her two friends to draw closer. “Are you ready?”

“As we’ll ever be,” Rarity said as she squeezed her eyes shut.

Sunset focused on the snippets of the deck she had seen, piecing together the mental image until she felt it was stable enough. She loosed her magic and felt the distortion of space take hold of her. It only lasted a second before she landed on something solid. Her vision returned to her just in time for to see a large, red tuft of her front wave drift to the floor.

“Dammit, I spliced it,” Sunset muttered. She looked over at Rarity and Spike, both of whom seemed okay.

Rarity looked at the fallen lock of hair, then to Sunset. “Oh, dear, you didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

“No, it was just the hair, I think.”

“Be thankful it wasn’t your tail,” Spike said bitterly, pointing to his bandages.

Hey! How did you get on here?”

Eliza looked away from the steering wheel and reached for her knives. A second griffon stood next to her, drawing two daggers. As Sunset and Rarity braced themselves, Lume flew in from the opposite end and landed on the lower deck.

“I just saw the signal! We gotta move!” he called to Eliza, the rising wind almost drowning his words out. His eyes then fell to the trio in front of him, and he drew his sword. “You little brats! This is our airship!”

Hold!” Sunset roared. She eyed each griffon in turn with as much venom as possible. “You dare raise your weapons against your princess? I am the real Sunset Shimmer and these two are my hostages, or are you as blind as you are stupid?”

Lume paused, casting Sunset an uneasy glance before looking up at Eliza. Eliza narrowed her eyes, her knives still raised. Only the wind made any noise, moaning against the ship’s black balloon tethered over everyone’s heads.

“Nice try,” Eliza said finally. “Gaven!” she snapped to the griffon at her side. “Weigh anchor: we’ve got Tartarus to raise. Lume—” she sneered at Sunset “—help me take out the trash.”

“Aye.”

Lume jabbed his sword at Rarity, who twirled just out of its reach. Spike then jumped in front of her and unleashed a small emerald blaze, enough to keep Lume from advancing any further.

Sunset focused her attention on Eliza; she caught the three airborne knives and sent them back with full force. Eliza ducked under them, tightly tucking her wings in. She then pounced from the upper deck, swiping her other set of knives at Sunset as she came down. Sunset slid to the side, the deck having become slick from the battering rain.

Eliza swiped her claws again as she landed, missing Sunset by a hair’s breadth.

The entire ship shook, rocking like a leaf in the autumn wind.

Eliza slid all the way to the railing and held on for dear life. “What’s happening?”

Lume pressed himself against the deck, a few meters from where Rarity and Spike were huddled. “It’s the wind! It’s like we’re caught in a hurricane or somethin’!”

Nice job, Rainbow, Sunset thought. She fought against the wild gale, lighting her horn and emitting three spells. The first one hit herself, while the other two were aimed at Rarity and Spike. She gave them a curt nod which they returned, then stood up.

Their movements looked slow and uneven, like they were wading through honey. Sunset crossed the deck to meet them, her hooves more accustomed to her sticky charm.

Before she could make it across, a wet mass of grey and white feathers flopped out of the stormy black sea and onto the deck. All eyes fell on him as he clambered to his feet.

“Th-there’s something out t-t-there!” Gaven said, his beak chattering, though Sunset couldn’t tell if it was from fear or the cold. He was, however, sporting a black eye that hadn’t been there when he had left.

“What do you mean ‘out there’?” Eliza asked, regaining her balance.

She didn’t have to wait long for an answer. A rainbow blur swept across the deck, and in the next second, Eliza had vanished.

“What in Tartarus’ name was that!” Lume yelled.

“That wasn’t a what, that was a who, silly!”

A pink hoof reached over the railing and pulled itself onto the deck. Pinkie was sopping wet, her mane lying straight across her head, yet it miraculously poofed out again when she stepped under the shadow of the balloon.

“Sunset, your sticky spell was so cool! I got to walk all around the bottom of the ship and everything was upside down! It made my head feel funny though…”

Lume roared with anger and lunged at Pinkie, but Rarity yanked him off course by grabbing his sword in her magic. He slid across the deck and slammed into Gaven, sending both griffons to the floor.

“Pinkie,” Rarity asked slowly, “did you do what we told you to do?”

“Of course I did.” Pinkie nodded. “I don’t think I’ve ever chewed so much gum before in my life!”

“Good job, Pinkie,” Sunset said. “Now, go down with Spike and help him finish the mission. Rarity, take the wheel.”

“Just so we’re clear, I have never piloted an airship before,” Rarity said with a tinge of annoyance.

“Doesn’t matter, just try to take us away from Hoofington.” Sunset put a forcefield around Lume and Gaven, watching them struggle and pound against it, trying to break free.

Now, here comes the part where we pray we don’t get blown up, Sunset thought grimly.

The interior of the ship was made from a lighter wood than the black deck. The first room Spike and Pinkie found themselves in was a small, square room with a door that must have led to the captain’s quarters—judging by the decorative feathers around it—and a staircase that led deeper into the bowels of the ship.

Spike held a claw up to his lips and pointed to Pinkie, who zipped her mouth shut, locked it and put the imaginary key in her mane. Spike rolled his eyes and led the way down the stairs, Sunset’s sticky charm helping him maintain his balance against the ships fretful rocking.

The stairs curved and led out to a narrow hallway with doors lining each side. At the end of the hall were two more griffons, and just behind them, a ladder that no doubt led to the cargo hold.

“Auugh! What’s going on up there? We’re not under attack, are we?” the bigger griffon asked.

“Something like that,” Spike said, sizing up how much corridor space they were taking up.

Both of them turned, looking at Spike and Pinkie like they were ghosts. “How’d they get in?”

“I don’t know, Vin,” the smaller one said. “But, I know how they’re getting out.”

He pulled a hunting spear from behind his back and lunged at them as the ship lurched to the side. He slammed into the wall while Pinkie and Spike just moved with the motion of the boat.

Vin held a talon to his temple. “Flint, just go see what’s going on outside. I’ll handle these two.”

Flint gave a disgruntled look to Vin before following orders. He leaped over Spike and Pinkie’s heads, though he did try to take a vicious swipe at them. Pinkie ducked and aimed a leveled kick at his chest, which he narrowly avoided. With one last scathing look, he hurried up the stairs.

“So, a dragon and a pony walk into a griffon airship.” Vin drew two swords. “I can’t wait to hear how this joke ends.”

“Oh, I love jokes!” Pinkie exclaimed. She gave Spike a sheepish look. “Sorry, I wasn’t suppose to talk, was I?”

Spike shrugged. “Well, they know we’re in here now, so…”

Pinkie nodded. “Right. So, anyways, knock knock!”

Vin gave her a nonplussed look. “You haven’t got any brains at all, have you?”

“You’re suppose to say ‘who’s there’,” Pinkie said with exasperation.

Vin just charged forward, running his swords against each other.

Pinkie reached into her mane. “Okay then, straight to the punch line: smoke bomb!” She pulled out a white ball and threw it against the floor, filling the hall with a thick cloud of vapor.

Spike seized his chance and scaled up the wall and onto the ceiling, running right over Vin’s head. He came to the other side of the corridor and dropped down the ladder, descending out of the smoke.

His reptilian eyes pierced the darkness, and he counted at least a hundred barrels of explosives, each one taller than him. They took up the entire room, skulls and crossbones painted on each barrel. Taking a step forward, Spike felt a groove in the floor, and knelt down to see the outline of the compartment door. He looked over his shoulder towards the wall, where a lever rested.

I hope Pinkie did her job right. He took the coil of rope from around his shoulder and shuddered. Now, I just have to do mine. He started unraveling the rope, leaving one end near the base of the ladder while he navigated his way in and out between the barrels.

“You can do this, Spike. Everypony’s counting on you.” His voice started to tremble. “And if you mess this up, we’re going to go boom.” He kept the rope as far from the barrels as he could, an extremely difficult feat when they were packed so close together.

When he was near the end of his rope, he draped the remains over the closest barrel and tucked the end into a tiny opening in the wood. He retraced his steps back to the front of the room, straightening out the rope as he traveled. He picked up the other end and placed his other claw on the bottom rung of the ladder.

“Here goes everything.”

He hissed out a tiny ember, just enough to set the rope aflame. He dropped it to the ground and watched the flame travel down the makeshift fuse, hissing like a snake.

“Time to go!” He scrambled up the ladder and back into the hallway where the smoke had cleared. Pinkie and Vin were nowhere to be found. Without hesitation, Spike ran up the stairs and burst onto the main deck, where a cacophony of events were going on.

Lume and Gaven had escaped from Sunset’s shield and were both fighting her on the middle of the deck. Vin was trying to get rid of Pinkie, balancing on the guardrail like an acrobat. Flint was battling Rarity for control of the ship.

Spike waved his arms and yelled. His voice was lost in the din, however, and his friends were too caught up in their battles to notice him. He knew his fire would be all but useless against the pouring rain.

That left him with only one option: something stupid.

Rushing up the stairs to the higher deck, he briefly observed Rarity holding Flint off with a crude iron bar she had stripped from the rigging. At the opportune moment, Spike charged and jumped with all his might, throwing his arms around Flint’s neck.

“What the—? You little runt, get off!”

“Spike, what are you doing?” Rarity cried.

“The bombs are gonna go off soon! We need to leave, now!” Spike yelled.

No sooner had the words left his mouth that Flint grasped Spike and flung him off the edge of the ship. He could just hear Rarity call his name over the roar of thunder and the wind rushing through his ears.

He tumbled and twirled in the stormy dark abyss. Above him or below him—he already couldn’t tell—the black airship grew smaller and smaller. He fanned his arms with a futile hope that he would learn to fly within the next few seconds.

He soon gave up and turned his back on the world below, his eyes resting on the floating behemoth, its large wings still propelling it forward. He watched its underbelly glow redder than hot coals before the entire thing was consumed, like it had been sucked into the raging inferno that was its stomach. It had only taken a second; there and intact, then only a blazing kaleidoscope of fire and smoke that merged with the storm.

Spike brought his claws to his eyes, blocking out the image and, subsequently, the dark thoughts that came with the exploding airship. They can’t be gone… they just can’t be.

Then, instead of falling, Spike felt himself flying forward at breakneck speeds. The world rushed past him in a dull blur, and the wind forced water from his eyes. Before he knew it, he was sitting on the mountainside in front of the cave, albeit completely dazed.

“Spike?”

Twilight had been watching the sky with Applejack when Spike appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Twilight caught a glimpse of the multichromatic trail left behind.

"Spike?"

Spike shook his head and looked up at Twilight. “Whoa. That was… fast.”

Twilight gave him a gentle hug then asked, “Where are the others? Why aren’t you with them?”

Spike’s eyes widened. “You mean… they aren’t with you?”

A moment of silence passed between all three of them as they exchanged grim looks. They’re fine. Just a temporary setback, Twilight told herself.

Off to the side, debris from the burning wreckage fell out of the sky. Nothing but wood scraps and pieces of the balloon were left.

Twilight’s heart jumped to her throat. No… they can’t be…

There was small pop not too far away.

“Ow! Dammit, I’m so done with teleporting for today!”

Twilight rushed over to the spot, closely followed by Applejack and Spike. In a small clearing, Sunset, Rarity and Pinkie sat; all three were a little singed, and Sunset was nursing one of her front hooves, but they were alive.

Applejack let out a holler of delight. “Y’all made it! Ya nearly gave us heart attacks!”

Sunset lowered her hoof, tentatively rolling it. “Yeah, we got out—quite literally—at the last possible second. I missed the first time and had us almost fifty feet from the ground, so I had to teleport us again and nearly twisted my hoof on reentry.”

Rarity spotted Spike and let out a squeal. She rushed over to him and took him in a strangling embrace.

“Oh, Spike, you’re okay! I was so worried when that horrible griffon threw you overboard!”

What!” Twilight yelled.

“Don’t... worry... Twi,” Spike managed to gasp, Rarity practically choking him. “Rainbow... saved me before... anything bad happened.”

“Which reminds me, where are Rainbow and ’Shy?” Applejack asked.

“I’m right here,” a small voice answered.

Fluttershy, true to her name, fluttered down from sky, landing with her back legs first before gingerly touching down with her injured front ones.

“So, did we win?”

“Ah think so.”

Applejack clapped Fluttershy on the back, nearly knocking her forward. “You and Dash made one heck of a storm up there. Hay, even without Pinkie gumming up their cargo hatch, they probably never would have made it to the town.”

“Well, better safe than sorry,” Twilight said. “Speaking of the griffons, did they… I mean, it wasn’t just our lives in danger. I hope—”

“They sent one down to the cargo hold, but I’m guessing my gum worked because he came back screaming and they all flew off,” Pinkie said.

Twilight let out a tight breath. “Good. Maybe we scared them off for good this time. Now, where’s Rainbow? I’d like to get on the train and take a nap as soon as possible.”

“Hear, hear,” Sunset cheered.

Much like Fluttershy, Rainbow descended from the sky with slow even flaps of her wings. Her smile, if at all possible, was even cockier than normal—like she had just won the title of Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Twilight’s eyes flickered to the dark crown on top of Rainbow’s head and wondered if that was a serious thought running through Rainbow’s mind.

Her fears were confirmed when Rainbow spoke.

“Pathetic land ponies! Behold what The Legendary Rainbow Dash can do! From now on, you will call me the Queen of the Storms! I’m now the fastest pegasus, not just in Equestria, but the world!”

She threw her hooves up and cackled in a way that reminded Twilight of Ahuizotl.

“Oh no,” Fluttershy said with a squeak. “She couldn’t control it after all.”

“Twilight, what do we do now?” Pinkie whimpered.

“You will all bow to me! That’s what you’ll do!” Rainbow commanded. “And then, you’ll—” she gave a loud snort “—a-and then you’ll—”

Rainbow gripped her sides and burst into gales of laughter. “You-you guys should see your faces! Ahahaha!” She fell onto the ground and rolled on her back.

“Rainbow, that wasn’t funny!” Applejack aimed a kick at her side.

“Ow! Oh, come on, A.J., it was too good to pass up.” She stop laughing at the look Applejack gave her and shrugged. “You’ll laugh about it someday.”

Twilight walked up to her. “So, the Tempest Crown really didn’t influence you in any way?”

Rainbow pulled it off and handed it to Twilight. “Well, it was whispering to me how I could be the greatest flyer ever and millions of ponies would chant my name, but I mean, come on: we all know that’s gonna happen someday anyway. I don’t need a crown to tell me I’m awesome—I already know that.”

Sunset blinked. “So her giant ego stopped her from becoming an egomaniac? Sure, I’ll buy it.”

Twilight secured the crown inside her saddlebag, trading it for Applejack’s hat which she took back with relish. “Well then, mission accomplished. And as an added bonus…”

She gestured for the others to follow her. Laying at the mouth of the cave were Razor and Vesper, still chained and unconscious.

“Can I hit her? Just once?” Sunset begged.

“No,” Twilight said defiantly.

“Aw, come on, Twi. Think about all the stuff she did to us,” Rainbow said, edging closer to Vesper.

Twilight yanked her back. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m not going to let you stoop to her level. We’re going to contact Princess Celestia so she can lock her up.”

“Fine.” Sunset and Rainbow slouched their shoulders.

Twilight lifted Vesper and Razor in a stasis field and started down the mountain. She couldn’t help but smile a little. With Vesper locked up, maybe they wouldn’t have to go looking for the Obsidian Hoofguards. And maybe they’d finally get an explanation as to why there were two Sunsets.

“Incoming!” Pinkie screeched.

Twilight threw herself forward, losing her grip on the prisoners in order to avoid the massive fireball. She rolled onto her back and looked up at several griffons swooping down towards them, half of them with fire in their claws.

Summoning fire of her own, Twilight tried to hold them off, but they seemed less interested in she and her friends, and more interested in the sleeping figures lying just a few feet away. Twilight tried to erect a barrier, but a blast of fire knocked her further back into a wild shrub.

Lume and Vin swooped down and grabbed Razor, with Vesper hanging on like more of an afterthought.

Rainbow flew after them with Sunset providing magical support, but Eliza kept both of them at bay with a wild barrage of fire.

Twilight struggled out of the shrub, which had been set ablaze along with much of the mountainside. She spotted the fleeing mercenaries steadily shrinking as they headed over the mountain and cast one more spell to try and catch them.

An expansive purple net appeared over her head and flew after them, quickly closing the distance.

Eliza turned over in midair and threw more fire at it. The net fizzled, but remained firmly on their tails.

“Faster!” Eliza yelled.

Twilight grit her teeth, determined to catch Vesper if anyone. The net was almost around her prey, closing in inch by inch.

With a loud yelp, Twilight jumped forward and lost her concentration. Something so hot it had almost felt cold licked Twilight’s back leg. Behind her, the flames of the shrub had spread and were currently crawling their way across the soil. Twilight put it out with a quick gust of wind, then looked back at the mountain peak.

Vesper and the griffons were gone.

Sunset finished extinguishing another fire and sighed. “We almost had her.”

Rarity dumped a pile of dirt on another. “Well, considering the day we had, we should be grateful things still turned out this well.”

“True. But I would have really liked to see Vesper imprisoned,” Twilight said.

“Any bets that the griffons will finish her off for us?” Rainbow said half-hopingly.

Sunset stirred to the sound of chains rattling. Her head still felt heavy, as if weighed down by her dreams. Only when she was fully awake did she realize it was the nest of chains encircling her horn.

She was dangling over the open sky, suspended by her shared imprisonment with an unconscious Razor, who was being carried by two more members of the Deathwing. On both sides of her were the rest of the team, flying with grim expressions. Sunset could only guess where their ship was.

They’ve failed again. Why am I not surprised? Why have I been allying myself with the likes of them anyway? All they did was buy me some time, and precious little at that!

Sunset released a soft growl. Friends are useless, servants are pointless. Truly, I can only rely on myself.

She raised her eyes to her entombed horn, then to her now-former lackeys. None of them had yet noticed her return to consciousness. She raised her hooves to her horn, carefully feeling around for where the chain began. The rattling crashed against her ears like a tsunami, but against the wind, it seemed like the griffons heard nothing. Still, she was careful about her progress.

She was no fool; she knew they would no longer want to be in service to her. The road had only three endings: one where they tried to flee—inexcusable—one where they tried to kill her off—laughable—and then her own ending… No doubt, the only reason they hadn’t reached the end of that road yet was because she was chained to their captain.

She pushed the chain through one of the links, then slowly brought it down under another. She could feel it unraveling—the pressure beginning to lift away.

Get them before they get you. That’s how life works! Sunset grinned viciously. Oh, she was going to get Twilight Sparkle, all right—she and all of her precious friends. The replica would die first. Slow and painful. That was a promise.

The chain began to unravel, clanking and moaning while it uncurled from around Sunset’s horn. A surge of magic rushed through her, and her smile threatened to split her face.

“What are you doing?”

Sunset looked up at Razor’s scarred face, suspicion and wonder with just a hint of fear marring it just as much as the physical wounds.

Her horn bubbled with darkness, and black mist clung at her eyes. “Firing you,” she said with savage glee.

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