• 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 IX: Marauders

Chapter IX: Marauders

Rarity’s hooves were caked with dirt, and thanks to her snow white coat, it was easier to see on her than anypony else. Her mane was disheveled, and her face was scuffed up from where she had tripped while fleeing from the assaulting griffons.

Had a mirror been present, Rarity probably would have smashed it at the sight of her reflection.

However, Rarity’s mind was not on her appearance. Instead, she was thinking of the survival of herself and Fluttershy, as they tried to outrun the hunting griffon overhead. The two mares had successfully avoided running into any trouble up until the rock spire had collapsed. They proceeded towards the demolition site hoping to find some of their scattered friends, only to be cut off by a gleeful Eliza.

“Ooh, look, two more ponies to murder!”

Rarity and Fluttershy had quickly taken off in the other direction.

Eliza had let out a delighted screech and shot into the air, keeping the two ponies within her shadow at all times, laughing as they tried to flee to safety.

Rarity picked up a rock with her magic and flung it over her shoulder. Her aim went wide and missed Eliza by a good distance. Eliza responded in turn by pulling out one of her knives and hurling it down to her prey. Rarity watched from the corner of her eye as a tuft of her mane fell away from her, the knife embedding itself into the ground a few inches from her hoof. She let out a terrified scream and ran faster, Fluttershy close behind.

They came around a bend, only to find a wall of rock at the end of their path. Rarity slid to a stop and turned around, only to have Eliza drop out of the sky in front of her. Rarity began taking large steps backwards, Fluttershy clinging to her, shaking in fear.

“Rarity, what do we do now?”

Sadly, Rarity didn’t have an answer for her. She wasn’t as good at advanced magic like Twilight was. Sure, she could handle herself in a fight, but these griffons were armed and specifically trained for combat. All Rarity could do was keep backing up until she and Fluttershy were practically against the wall. Mice trapped by a sneering cat.

Eliza pulled out the rest of her knives, grinning madly. “Now then, which one of you should I kill first? The sniveling coward” —She eyed Fluttershy— “or the ugly hag?” She ran her knives together and pointed them at Rarity.

“Ugly…” Rarity’s eye twitched. “You… would call a lady ugly… to her face?” Her voice was unusually even and barely above a whisper. A spark of fury flashed through her eyes, and she began grinding her teeth together. Fluttershy instinctively took two steps to the side.

Rarity’s horn lit up, the ground around her trembling and cracking as stones and pebbles of all sizes began tearing themselves free and flying at Eliza. “Let’s see if anyone thinks you’re pretty when you look like swiss cheese!” Rarity roared, peppering Eliza with sharp stones.

The knives clattered to the floor, as Eliza raised her arms to shield her face. Rocks continued to fly and pelt her, cutting past her feathers and digging into her skin. She covered her front with her wings, trying to block the oncoming hail storm of stones. Rarity refused to let up her assault. It was not only retaliation for the scathing comment Eliza had made, but also her only means of defense.

Fluttershy, wanting to be helpful, picked up a few rocks of her own and began timidly throwing them at Eliza. They weren’t as powerful as Rarity’s magically propelled projectiles, but one would occasionally make it over Eliza’s wings and hit her head with a satisfying thud.

Unable to fight back, Eliza took to the sky, squawking in anger and pain as the rocks continued to fly after her. Behind her was a trail of torn feathers and drops of blood.

Rarity didn’t stop until Eliza was a speck in the distance. The ground in front of her had transformed into a gaping depression that stretched down for several feet. Rarity held a hoof to her forehead and swooned, falling against Fluttershy.

“Dear me, that took more energy than I thought,” Rarity mumbled.

Fluttershy supported her friend with a comforting wing. “Are you alright?”

“Oh yes, I’ll be fine, just a little winded is all. The only time I cast magic close to that caliber is when I’m in my workshop, and I’ve never used it for such… brutish manners before.” Rarity sighed and pushed herself back onto her own legs. She ran a hoof through her mane and began to pout seeing her signature front curl missing.

“That horrid bird completely destroyed my mane! She’s lucky throwing rocks is all I did to her! Why, if I ever see her again I’ll—”

“Umm, Rarity,” Fluttershy meekly interrupted. “I really think we should move, in case there are more of them still around.”

Rarity took a pause from thinking of all the ways she could enact revenge for her damaged hair to regard Fluttershy’s concern. She was right; if there were more griffons close by, Rarity wasn’t sure she could repeat her rock barrage without overexerting her magic.

“You’re right, Fluttershy. We should find and help our friends so we can get out of this infernal desert.” More than anything, Rarity craved for a hot shower and some food. Her stomach gave a low rumble in agreement. “Let’s just hope we aren’t too far from civilization.”

Rarity led Fluttershy out of the stone alleyway, and was immediately bowled over with heavy force. Rarity rolled with the assailant for a few yards before she landed on her backside, blindly flailing her hooves in front of her.

“Unhand me this instant, you barbarian! I have a black belt—”

“Rarity—ow! Rarity, quit it!” a voice drawled.

Opening her eyes, Rarity saw Applejack looking down at her with a surly expression. She was covered in small cuts and bruises, and Rarity could see a few red marks that looked like they had come from a hoof rather than claws, causing her to blush.

“Applejack, oh my goodness, forgive me! I thought you were… someone else.”

Applejack untangled herself from Rarity and stretched herself out. “Well, Ah guess Ah should apologize for runnin’ into ya. Ya came outta nowhere and kinda surprised me.”

Rarity stood up, not bothering to dust herself off. It didn’t matter at this point. She was filthy and unkempt, and only a shower and a spa could help her now. “Regardless, I’m just glad to see a friendly face.”

“Rarity, Fluttershy!”

For the second time in what couldn’t have been more than two minutes, Rarity found herself being tackled by a fast moving object, only this time, she was lifted into the air instead of being dragged to the dirt. She was ten feet off the ground, locked in an embrace with Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash.

“I’m glad you girls are alright,” Rainbow said, hugging them tightly.

“Likewise, Rainbow, but you know Fluttershy and I can handle ourselves in a pinch.”

Rainbow lowered them down to the ground as Sunset Shimmer trotted over to join them. “I know you can. I just…” Rarity saw Rainbow and Sunset share a look. “It’s just been a really crazy day, and I’m glad you guys are fine,” Rainbow finished, giving one more tight hug to Rarity and Fluttershy.

Rarity could tell something pretty terrific had happened to shake up Rainbow enough for her to wear her heart on her sleeve. Rarity wanted to inquire what, but decided against it. Perhaps some things are best left unsaid.

“Well, as always, I’m glad to see all of you as well.” Rarity’s eyes landed on the cut running across Rainbow’s forehead. “Though not as hale and hearty as I could hope.”

Applejack huffed. “Sending trained mercenaries after us. This Vesper Radiance girl really means business.”

Fluttershy gasped. “Oh no, they wanted to kidnap Twilight! Has anypony seen her? Or Pinkie and Spike for that matter?”

There was a sound like cannon fire and a plume of dust snaked into the sky from some of the rocks nearby.

“No, but I think I might know where we can find them,” Sunset said, a small smirk on her face.

Twilight Sparkle didn’t enjoy fighting if there was a reasonable solution that could be found without resorting to violence. That wasn’t to say she was a pacifist. She knew combat spells—dozens of them. After the changeling invasion, she had doubled her studies on the subject, with Celestia’s permission of course. If there was a peaceful solution to a problem, she’d try and take it. However, that hardly seemed to be the case at the moment.

After Rainbow had dropped Pinkie onto the griffon that had been stalking her, Twilight had hit him with a simple, but powerful, blast spell. Pinkie had jumped off, leaving him to be thrown backwards across the dirt.

From atop Twilight’s back, Spike had given a cheer of victory, only to have the griffon get back up, drawing a large knife.

Twilight tried to prepare a powerful stun spell, but the griffon rushed her at amazing speeds, catching her off guard. She jumped back as he slashed at her, unbalancing Spike and forcing him off her back. He fell to the ground and quickly scrambled to his feet, watching as Twilight casted minor spells that bounced off the griffon’s sharpened knife.

“Come on, Twilight, you can take him!” Spike cheered.

Twilight knew he was right, but she was having a hard time concentrating on high level spells with a knife being swung at her.

There was a loud popping noise, and Twilight’s vision was filled with bright colors and flecks of paper as a wad of confetti and streamers smashed into the griffon’s side, sending him back to the ground.

Looking over, Twilight saw Pinkie standing with her party cannon, a proud smile on her face, while smoke trailed out of the cannon’s mouth.

Twilight returned the smile before turning back to her dazed opponent. Igniting her horn, Twilight watched as the streamers came to life, wrapping their prey in a thin cocoon. She stopped and admired her handiwork, Spike and Pinkie coming over to join her.

“Wow, you girls got him good,” Spike said.

Before Twilight could thank him, the air was filled the sound of shredding paper. The trio took a step back, watching as the confetti egg fell apart, the griffon emerging like a hungry baby chick.

Twilight inwardly facehoofed. Right, streamers tend not to make the best prisons. She charged a sleep spell, but the griffon moved once again with ferocious speed, leaping from his place on the ground and grabbing Twilight by the horn, disrupting her magic. He tossed her towards the canyon wall where she slammed into it with her side, several sharp pains running through her body. Before she could get up, something heavy landed on top of her, knocking the air from her lungs. Twilight heard Pinkie whimper in pain before Spike’s voice reached her ears.

“Hey, leave them alone!”

Twilight craned her neck in time to see Spike let out a small jet of emerald green flames, singeing the griffon’s tail.

The griffon yelped and quickly batted out the flames before retrieving the knife he had dropped. “All right, you first, runt!”

Brandishing his reclaimed weapon, he advanced towards Spike, whose cheeks began to bulge, a precursor to the second spout of fire he released. However, instead of searing its target, the flames coalesced into a ball of smoke before turning into a scroll, which was shortly cut in a half with the flick of a knife and sent scattering on the wind.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Spike said with a nervous squeak. His assailant gave him an unamused look before bringing the blade down. Spike flinched, twisting his body and raising his arms in a final defense.

No!” Twilight screamed, forcing Pinkie off of her back. But the blade had already fallen.

There was a sound of metal striking against metal, and the griffon’s knife rebounded off of Spike, unbalancing the mercenary and causing him to stagger back.

Spike blinked and looked up, seeing the griffon’s stunned face. He looked down at the side where the knife had struck him, only to see a tiny scrape no bigger than a paper cut.

“Whew, thank goodness for thick scales,” Spike breathed.

Pinkie let out a similar sigh of relief from her place on the ground. Twilight, however, was not so satisfied.

She could hear the blood roaring in her ears and the magic surging through her entire body. Her breaths came out in furious snorts, and her eyes became eclipsed with pure magic, glossing them with white light. Lightning danced around her horn, crackling intensely as pure energy converged at the tip, building into a bright sphere of light. A ray of magic burst forth and struck the griffon in his side before he could fully realize what was happening.

There was a blinding flash of light and the sound of a knife clattering to the dirt. When the light faded, where the griffon had once been was an armadillo, looking quite terrified.

A purple aura wrenched it off the ground, lifting it high into the air. Her eyes still white with fury, Twilight slammed the armadillo into the hard packed earth.

“You.”

She lifted it up and brought it back down.

“Don’t.”

She slammed it into the wall.

Ever.”

She brought it to the other wall.

“Touch.”

She lifted Pinkie’s party cannon over.

Him!”

She forced the armadillo into a ball and shoved it into the cannon mouth, aiming it at the back wall. There was a loud blast of an actual cannon, and a large crater appeared in the cliff face, the armadillo at its center. After a flicker of purple light, the armadillo vanished, replaced once more by a griffon.

Twilight allowed her anger to cool before she rushed over to Spike, wrapping him in a tight embrace. “Oh, sweet Celestia, I’m so glad you’re okay, Spike!” Twilight tenderly nuzzled his cheek, a few tears escaping her eyes.

Spike returned the hug in earnest but said, “Twilight, that was awesome! Do it again!”

Pinkie gave an uncertain look towards the smoking crater. “Is he going to be okay?”

The griffon gave a feeble twitch.

Twilight lifted Spike onto her back, moving away from the demolition site. “He’ll be fine,” she said impassively. She stopped and looked back at him, feeling a twinge of guilt in her stomach. “Probably.”

“Twilight, Pinkie, Spike!”

Turning her head back, Twilight was delighted to see her friends rushing towards her, though some of that joy diminished when she saw the bruises on them. Still, Twilight found herself in the middle of a large group hug, assuaging all her concerns. Her friends were all safe.

“Whoowee, sugarcube,” Applejack said as the group broke apart, her eyes landing on the crater. “Don’t tell me you did that.” An impressed smirk crept onto her face.

Twilight gave a noncommittal shrug. “Yeah, but it was justified. He tried to hurt Spike and—”

“He did what?” Rarity cried, rage written on her face. “That brute! Why, I’ll—”

A purple aura wrapped around Rarity’s tail and held her back. “Don’t worry, Rarity, I think he’s learned his lesson.”

The loud cry of an eagle split the air as Razor and Eliza flew overhead, both of them carrying an injured crew member. The latter was covered in numerous cuts and abrasions, giving her a mottled appearance. Twilight grimaced as she spotted the griffon Eliza was carrying was missing half a wing.

Razor swooped down and peeled the last of his teammates from out of the wall, swinging him over a shoulder. “Alright you brats, you got lucky this time, but next time, I swear your heads will be decorating my cabin! If the desert don’t kill you first that is.” With a final cry, the griffons jetted off, leaving the ponies alone in the dry desert.

“Yeah that’s right, you better run!” Rainbow called after them. “Next time, think twice before messing with us!”

“Please don’t antagonize them,” Fluttershy said meekly.

Rainbow scratched the back of her head. “Right, sorry.”

Applejack breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, Ah don’t know ‘bout you girls, but Ah could use a nice drink right about now. Pinkie, where are the water canteens?”

Pinkie blinked, tapped a hoof against her chin, and said, “Uhh, I hid them for safekeeping.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Hid them where?” she asked slowly.

“By a rock.”

There was a collective groan from the rest of the group.

“Don’t worry; I know which rock, sillies! Just follow me!” Pinkie hopped along the stone floor, leading everyone out of the canyon.

Twilight sighed, but a smile make its way onto her face. It’s good to be together again.

Lucky for everyone, Pinkie had an excellent memory when it came to where she hid anything. The group had found the canteens hidden behind a small group of rocks near where they had first hid from the griffons. There were three in total, and everyone took turns drinking out of the first one until it was empty.

After that, Sunset and Twilight decided that it was best to try and conserve as much water as possible, as any spell to add more water to their supply was going to be difficult under the circumstances.

Everyone now sat in the shade of one of the taller cliffs, sharing some of the details of the battles they each had just gone through. Sunset and Rainbow joined in; however, both of them, along with Applejack, had decided it was best not to mention the time travel escapade.

The sun was in its decline now, sinking in the afternoon sky. The temperature slowly waned with the ebbing light, and a cool breeze began to blow through the rocky area, much to the party’s relief.

There had been a brief moment of calm relaxation and reflection after everyone had finished their stories. It was Fluttershy who spoke up, asking the question that was no doubt on everyone else’s mind. “Umm, so, does anyone know how far we are from Los Pegasus?”

Sunset leaned against the rock and sighed. “Honestly, I don’t think we’re even halfway there yet.” She had studied several geological maps of Equestria, and gauging the area they had crashed in with the amount of distance they had already walked, Sunset knew they were somewhere in the heart of the desert, meaning they still had a lot of ground to cover.

Rainbow nodded in grim agreement. “Yeah, when I was up in the sky, I still couldn’t see the Los Pegasus Hills, and I was pretty high up.”

Unfortunately, this only served to dampen everyone’s morale.

Twilight loosed a breath, running a hoof through her mane. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to get up early and try to get there as fast as possible.”

Rainbow sat up straight. “Wait, tomorrow? Why don’t we just start right now?”

“Because this is probably the only form of shelter between here and the city. Otherwise, we’ll just be sleeping in the sand,” Twilight explained.

“Oh. Yeah that’s a good point.”

Applejack slumped down next to Rainbow. “Ah know it seems reasonable, but it just feels like we lost a whole day. And then we have to spend most of tomorrow walkin’ the rest of the way. By the time we get there, Vesper Radiance could be long gone.”

Rarity crossed her hooves. “You almost have to hand it to her. She certainly knows what she’s doing.”

Sunset huffed, flicking a pebble across the dirt. “Let’s not start giving out compliments to the mare who’s trying to kill us.” She closed her eyes, resting her cheek on a hoof. This is exactly what I was trying to avoid. We’re falling behind now, and if she gets the Tempest Crown, we may never catch up! Sunset could almost hear Vesper’s soulless giggle playing in her ears.

“Do you think Princess Celestia knows we never made it?” Fluttershy asked.

Twilight facehoofed. “Spike burped up a letter during the fight, but it got damaged and lost. I promised her I’d send her a letter when we got to Los Pegasus, and since I never did, she must know we’re in some kind of trouble.”

“But we don’t have anything to use to send a message back to her,” Spike said dejectedly, tracing a claw in the dirt. “Unless one of you girls has a piece of paper on them?”

They all shook their heads and sunk further into the dirt.

“Well, unless the Princess sends another letter, Ah guess we’re on our own,” Applejack said.

They all sat against the rock, contemplating their circumstances and watching the shadows grow longer as the day came to an end. When Rarity inquired about what they would do for dinner, no one had the heart to answer her.

The sun hit the horizon, and the ponies stood up to make camp for the night. It wasn’t a difficult feat. They cleared the space of any small rocks so they would have suitable bedding on the hard ground, which they then placed into a circle. Twilight used her magic and created a fuel-less fire that was contained within the boundary of rocks.

While the daytime brought an oppressive heat, the night was the exact opposite. A frigid gale surrounded Spike and the ponies, keeping them as close to the fire as they could get. Twilight’s enchanted flame kept a wide perimeter warm against the cold night, but the girls couldn’t help but shiver when the wind whipped across their coats.

Growling stomachs made the most conversation that night. Eight bellies rumbled with a want for food to which none of their owners could appease.

Tired, hungry, and feeling rather dejected, everyone decided to call it an early night, save for Rainbow who volunteered to keep an eye out in case the bloodthirsty griffons returned. Applejack offered to take up a shift after her, and Pinkie volunteered to help as well.

They gathered in a circle around the campfire, trying to get into a suitable sleeping position on the uneven earth. Sunset picked a spot next to Twilight, lying down on her back, the hourglass resting on her chest. If Spike and Pinkie’s snoring was anything to go by, Sunset knew most of her friends were already asleep. Turning her head, Sunset saw Twilight lying on her back as well, staring up at the bright stars hanging in the sky.

“Hey, Twilight,” Sunset said softly.

Twilight turned her head. “Yeah?”

“I… I just wanted to say, I’m sorry.”

Twilight frowned, looking puzzled. “Sorry? what for?”

Sunset wasn’t entirely sure herself; she just felt like it was something that needed to be said. She worked her mouth, trying to put her uncertain thoughts into words. “I don’t know, I just feel like part of this is my fault. I dragged you all into this.”

“Sunset, don’t be ridiculous. We would have had to deal with this sooner or later. I think it’s better we’re trying to stop things now than not knowing about it until the last minute. You gave us a chance to make things better.”

“I know, you’re right, again.” Sunset sighed. “I just feel that if it weren’t for me, you all wouldn’t be stuck here in the desert.” Her stomach gave a loud growl. “With no food.”

Twilight waved a hoof. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it out of here. We’ve been in worse situations before.” Her own stomach gave a growl. “Though I’ll admit, I think in most of those situations, we had food.”

Both of them started laughing, trying to keep their voices down as to not wake their sleeping friends. After they had finished, Twilight said, “Hey, Sunset, I have a question.”

“Hm?”

“Well, about your special talent… you said it took you years of training to master it. I was wondering, who trained you?”

“You did,” Sunset said like it was the most casual thing in the world.

Twilight raised her head up. “I did? How could I train you? I don’t know how to tap into the sun’s power.”

Sunset shrugged. “Well, I guess you learn sometime between now and then, because you taught me everything I know.” Sunset turned onto her side, giving Twilight her full attention. “Why do you sound so surprised?”

“I don’t know, I just thought it was something only you could do.”

Sunset shook her head. “Any unicorn can do it, Twilight. Granted, it’s difficult. Very difficult, but it isn’t impossible. That’s why it’s my special talent. It just comes easier for me.” Sunset paused, putting an example together. “It’s like… Pinkie. Her special talent is throwing parties to make ponies happy right?”

“Right.” Twilight nodded.

“Well anypony could do that. She just does it really well and enjoys doing it.” Sunset spotted Rainbow soaring overhead. “Though I doubt there are many ponies who could pull off a Sonic Rainboom. Regardless, your special talent is magic. You could probably learn what I can do in a heartbeat.”

There was a pause before Twilight asked, “Do you think you could teach me?”

Sunset gave an undignified snort as she tried to muffle her laughter. “You want me to teach you?” She saw Twilight nod fervently. “I’m flattered, Twilight, but I don’t know if I’m the teaching type.”

“Aw come on, Sunset. It would be kinda poetic,” Twilight half joked. “You teach me so I can teach you in the future.”

Sunset smiled, rolling onto her back again. “Sure, why not? After this is over, before I go home, I’ll give you some lessons.”

Twilight didn’t answer for a while, making Sunset think she had drifted off to sleep. When she did speak again, it was quieter, and laced with worry. “Sunset… what exactly happened last time, do you know?”

Letting out a slow breath, Sunset shifted on her back, trying to get more comfortable. The conversation was about to take a solemn turn, the least Sunset could do was not feel like she was lying on cement. “The history books… are pretty vague really. Vesper Radiance just showed up out of nowhere and attacked Canterlot. She hurt Princess Celestia and Princess Luna pretty bad before you and everyone else showed up and locked her away. Why?”

Twilight squirmed a little, using her wings as a cushion against the hard ground. “I just had a thought. What if… what if this is how everything went last time. What if you coming back didn’t change anything, and we’re just playing into destiny?”

“The Cloudsdale Library was still around in my future. It’s horrible that it’s gone now, but it’s proof.”

“Proof that we’re changing history,” Twilight finished.

“Destiny isn’t set in stone,” Sunset said, surprised by the strength of her own conviction. “Anything can change.” When Twilight didn’t answer this time, Sunset looked over and found that she had fallen asleep. “Sweet dreams, Twilight.”

Sunset looked back up at the ocean of stars above her. We’re all free to choose our own path, and in turn, help the world choose its path. I’m going to help create a better future, one Vesper Radiance won’t be a part of! She clutched the hourglass lying against her and held it up over her head. The sand had all gathered in the bottom bulb, pressing against the glass. Looking at it, Sunset couldn’t help but smile.

Today, she had proven that it can work more than once. While her plan had been dangerous, half thought out, and consisted mostly of luck, just the very fact that she had been able to time travel again gave her hope. She could still go home. Back to her friends, back to her parents, back to Princess Twilight.

Though she supposed staying here in this present wouldn’t have been a bad thing at all. In fact, she could get quite used to living in Ponyville. It was quiet, quaint, and full of friendly ponies. Not to mention all of the time she would get to spend with Twilight and everyone else.

No, my place is back in the future, Sunset decided. And they’ll all still be there; we can always reminisce about old times.

A figure quickly flashed across the clear surface of the hourglass, jolting Sunset into an upright position. She twisted about, trying to see if anyone was behind her, but everyone accounted for was on the ground asleep. She peered back into the hourglass, hoping to catch another glimpse of the apparition. It had looked an awful lot like…

Sunset glanced over at Twilight who was snoring peacefully. Shaking her head, Sunset laid back down, closing her eyes. Time for bed, Sunset, before you start hearing voices again. She shuddered, grateful that hers was the only voice currently occupying her mind.

Princess Twilight opened the door to her private office and sharply pointed with a hoof, directing Sunset inside. The look on her face was one of the scariest Sunset had ever seen, and it filled her heart with dread knowing that the look was directed at her.

Sunset seated herself on one of the throw pillows, afraid to look up at her teacher. Instead she continued to stare at her hooves, unable to think of anything she could say to justify her actions. The truth of the matter was, she couldn’t. No matter how she tried to spin the tale, she was still at fault, and the guilt was eating her alive.

Twilight took a seat on the other pillow across from Sunset, a small tea table in the middle. To Sunset, it was as if an impassable barrier had been constructed between them. She had never disappointed Twilight before. Not like this.

There was a long, agonizing silence between the two ponies, Sunset still unable to bear looking up into Twilight’s disapproving eyes. The only noise in the room was the sound of an old wall clock, its hands ticking away the seconds at an increasingly slow rate.

Finally Twilight said in a curt voice, “Explain.”

Sunset fidgeted. “I can’t.”

“Yes you can. Now explain.”

Wringing her hooves together and still looking at the carpet, Sunset tried to tell her tale. “Blueblood and his stupid friends were following me around, making fun of me and asking me stupid questions. I got tired of answering and told him to quit acting like a pompous… butt.” Sunset had actually used something more explicit, but felt like she was in enough hot water as it was. There was no sense in making things worse. “He got mad and said, ‘Shut up, you flaming-headed know-it-all,’ and well…”

“You thought magically disabling his vocal cords was a justifiable punishment,” Twilight finished, her voice still hard.

Yes, Sunset thought. Aloud, she said, “No.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“Because… he made me mad,” Sunset said weakly. She knew her argument was poor, but it was all she had. She wasn’t even entirely sure why she did it, she just knew it felt good to see the horrified expression on Blueblood’s face when he discovered he couldn’t speak. The feeling had been short lived, however, as Twilight had walked around the corner just moments after, allowing Blueblood’s friends to tattle.

Twilight’s voice was dangerously calm. “So he made you mad, and you retaliated by doing bodily damage to him.”

“It wasn’t really bodily,” Sunset tried. “I mean, I didn’t actually touch him.”

Sunset jumped as Twilight’s hoof slammed against the floor. “Sunset, you know better than this!” Twilight finally raised her voice. “I taught you better than this! Some bully teases you and you lash out with your magic? That’s worse than if you actually hit him! You can’t allow yourself to be goaded like that; other students look up to you.”

“Yeah, and I just showed them not to take any crap from Blueblood!” Sunset immediately clapped her hooves over her mouth, her eyes finally finding Twilight’s face, which had morphed into one of complete shock. Twilight’s expression mirrored what Sunset was feeling. She had never spoken out of turn with the Princess before.

“I’m so sorry, Princess,” Sunset said hastily, tears coming to her eyes. “I-I didn’t mean it, I was just… I don’t know where—” Sunset stopped when Twilight closed her eyes and held up a hoof.

“Sunset, breathe.”

Sunset obeyed, taking a deep breath, and exhaling. Twilight motioned for her to do it again, and Sunset repeated the process several times before Twilight put her hoof down.

Opening her eyes, Twilight asked, “Now please, Sunset tell me, do you feel any regret for your actions?”

“Yes,” Sunset nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes. Despite the moment of satisfaction she had gotten from seeing Blueblood in distress, she felt absolutely guilty for her behavior.

Twilight seemed to sigh in relief. “Good,” she said, her voice softening. “So you know what you did was completely out of line?”

Sunset nodded.

“Good. We’ll discuss your punishment later.”

“Yes, Princess,” Sunset said, abashed. She got up from her pillow and started for the door, sulking.

“Wait.” Sunset turned around and saw Twilight gesture to a spot on the floor next to her. Sunset walked around the table and sat down next to the Princess, who pulled her into a feathery hug.

“Sunset, are you feeling alright?”

Sunset blinked, unsure of what Twilight meant by the question. “Yeah, I guess so. Why?”

“Because, as much as Blueblood gets on your nerves, you’ve never attacked him before. I just want to make sure everything is alright.”

“Everything is fine, Princess. I guess I just got fed up with him making fun of me. But, I know it was wrong and I promise I won’t do it again.”

Twilight looked down at her with soft eyes. “I hope you sincerely mean that, Sunset. You’ve been given amazing power, and you have to use it responsibly. If you had put more force behind that spell, you might have permanently damaged him.”

Sunset went rigid. Despite the anger she had been feeling, she had no desire to cause lasting harm to Blueblood, just scare him enough to teach him a lesson. “I’m sorry, Princess Twilight. I didn’t know.”

Twilight hugged her tighter. “I know you’re sorry, but you need to be careful. You’ve been given incredible amounts of magic with a unique gift and…”

“And what?”

“Well,” Twilight hesitated. “One day… you might have to make a choice, Sunset, of how you use those powers. You can either lash out and attack in anger and hatred… or you can use your abilities to defend those you care about in love.”

Sunset sat in the fold of Twilight’s wings, taking in her words. Attacking in hatred, or defending in love. Of course she’d choose to defend her friends and family. That was the easy choice.

Wasn’t it?

The fireplace in Celestia bedroom crackled noisily, illuminating the surrounding area in a soft orange light as shadows danced on the walls. Philomena sat on her perch in one corner of the room, her head tucked under her wing in slumber.

Celestia sat at her desk, knowing that she too should probably asleep. Yet once again, her mind was too troubled to take a rest. She furrowed a brow, her quill tapping against the wood of her desk, while a half-finished letter sat in front of her.

She had sent a letter to Twilight hours ago, and had yet to receive a response. The lack of reply from her student was troubling. Twilight always responded to her letters, posthaste. Celestia wanted to send another one, but paused when she thought of the possible situation Twilight could be in.

Perhaps sending a letter would only disturb her, or make things worse. If Twilight and her friends were stalking Vesper Radiance or in a similar situation, sending a letter via dragonfire could potentially jeopardize them.

Celestia stood up and walked away from the parchment. “Stop acting like a worried mother hen. Twilight is a grown and powerful mare, she can handle herself.” Still, Twilight was also very prompt and had promised to send a letter initially when she reached Los Pegasus. Celestia was left to question whether or not Twilight could send a letter back.

Growing restless, Celestia exited her room, the two guards at her door saluting as she walked by. The halls of Canterlot Castle were dim, with only a few torches lighting the corridors. Celestia navigated her way through the castle, occasionally running into the night guards on their rounds. Eventually, Celestia found herself in one of the high towers. One of Luna’s favorite spots to meditate and enter the dreamscape. Sure enough, the balcony door was wide open, and Luna was sitting out on the veranda overlooking the city.

Celestia sat down by her side, patiently waiting. Luna’s eyes were closed, and she was as still as a statue, her conscious residing within the realm of the sleeping world. It unnerved Celestia at times. Luna stood so still, it seemed not even the wind touched her. Every feature seemed to be frozen in time, every hair and feather. Only her mane continued to move, eternally caught in an unseen wind.

Luna’s eyes opened, blinking slowly before she turned her head and regarded Celestia. “Judging by your expression, I am safe to assume that Twilight has not responded.”

“No,” Celestia said with a shake of her head. “I know I shouldn’t be worried, but sometimes I can’t help it.”

Luna stretched her wings out, shaking the stiffness out of her body. “Well honestly, I would be concerned if you did not wonder about her welfare. But fear not, Sister, I have seen Twilight and her companion’s dreams. They are safe.”

Celestia let out a relieved sigh. “Do you know where they are?”

“Unfortunately, no. But by the state of their dreams, they are in no immediate danger. I would venture to guess, however, that they did not reach their intended destination.” Luna narrowed her eyes. “I believe they were sabotaged.”

“By Vesper Radiance, no doubt,” Celestia agreed. “Her intelligence gathering is… impressive to say the least.” She stood, turning towards the balcony door. “I will have a talk with the employees of Canterlot Air Dock to confirm our suspicions.” Celestia looked over her shoulder. “Is there any way you can reveal the identity of our villain through your dreamwalking?”

Luna scoffed. “Unless she constantly dreams of ruling Equestria with an iron hoof, then no. And even if she did, I still couldn’t guarantee it.” She gave Celestia an amused smirk. “Do you know how many ponies dream of sitting on the throne? Besides, I would anticipate that she has wards around her mind.”

Making a small noise of disappointment, Celestia started back to her room for some sleep. She knew trying to find Vesper Radiance through Luna’s dreamwalking ability would be too easy, but it was worth a shot.

“However,” Celestia heard Luna speak slowly. “I may know her true identity.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” Luna nodded, standing up and heading for the door as well. “But, I require more evidence before I can make a confident claim. I shall be in the library if you need me.” Luna opened the door and made a right down the corridor, leaving Celestia alone to her thoughts.

I hope you aren’t thinking of the same pony I am, Luna. Because it just can’t be possible…

The rising of the sun had given birth to a horrid heat. It was dry, it was suffocating, and the wind only served to blow the biting sand across the marauding ponies as they dragged themselves across the desert. Far behind them was the island of rock that had been their shelter, the only place of reprieve within the maw of the desert. In the distance loomed the Los Pegasus Hills, small green bumps rising out of the earth.

Step by step, Sunset trudged along the shifting dunes next to a bedraggled Twilight. Close behind were Spike and the rest of the girls, each of them dripping with sweat and covered in grime. They didn’t say much. Each was silently cursing the unforgiving heat bearing down on them. Even Spike had to agree that it was unusually warm.

Their trek had begun shortly after sunrise, with the intention to make it to the city by dusk. By the distance they had traveled and the position of the sun in the sky, Sunset guessed that they were about halfway there, and making good time.

“Uhh, girls?” Pinkie called.

Sunset and Twilight turned around and observed Pinkie shaking one of the canteens; a faint sound of sloshing water could be heard from within. They only had two left and were trying to make them last.

“I think we’re gonna need some more,” Pinkie said.

Twilight grunted and eyed Sunset. “Your turn.”

Sunset shook her head. “I’m pretty sure I did it last time.”

“And I’m pretty sure I did it last time. So it’s your turn.”

Rolling her eyes, Sunset allowed her magic to yank the canteen out from Pinkie’s grasp. She was running out of strength to argue and decided it really didn’t matter who did it in the long run.

Holding the canteen in front of her, Sunset simultaneously used her magic to reach up high into the sky where there was more moisture, albeit a still small amount. Since the air that blew across the desert was bone dry, Twilight and Sunset had to try and siphon whatever moisture they could find in the atmosphere above them. However, they had quickly learned that it was a long way up before they could find even the smallest amount of liquid, and with their lack of energy, Twilight had rejected the idea of a molecular replication spell that would multiply their current supply of water.

Sunset knew there was even more condensation higher up, but was too exhausted to reach. And not wanting to spontaneously combust, she was forgone on the idea of tapping into her ability. Huffing in concentration, Sunset gathered what liquid she could find, gathering it into a blob of water, and bringing it down from the sky. From the corner of her eye, she caught Pinkie looking at the water like it had been directly sent by the Maker. With a roll of her eyes, Sunset funneled the water into the canteen before taking a large draught from it and handing it back to Pinkie.

Pinkie frowned and swished it around again, hearing that it was only half-full.

The spell wasn’t incredibly difficult to cast, but Sunset’s empty stomach, coupled with the blistering heat, didn’t exactly make spell casting easy. Ignoring pain of hunger in her stomach, Sunset continued walking, prompting the rest to follow.

The sounds of growling stomachs and groans occupied their otherwise silent journey. Sunset’s own gnawing hunger and frequent use of magic was providing a strain on her mind as well, as she could feel a nasty headache coming on.

“Ah’m so hungry, Ah could eat an entire buffet all by myself,” Applejack said, dragging her hooves through the dirt.

“Please,” Rarity scoffed, “you do that on a regular basis anyway.”

“Hmph, at least Ah don’t try to starve myself trying to look pretty.”

Rarity puffed her cheeks, turning slightly red. “I do not starve myself. I just don’t feel the need to eat like a pig, unlike some ponies.”

“Hey, Ah work a lot, Ah eat a lot. Ain’t no shame in eating a decent home cooked meal.” Applejack looked into the sky, licking her lips. “Why, Ah bet right now, Big Mac finished buckin’ all the Zap Apples from the trees, and is havin’ Granny bake ‘em up into pie right now.”

Rainbow rubbed her stomach. “Man, a pie sounds good right now.”

Applejack’s mouth began to water. “Ah can almost taste the Zap Apple Jam... and Zap Apple Fritters, and Zap Apple Tarts, and Zap Caramel Apples…”

“Applejack, you’re not helping!” Sunset yelled. But Applejack continued to list off a variety of apple based pastries, lost in her own world. Sunset suspected that, despite her hat, the sun had finally fried Applejack’s brain.

“Look, food!” Pinkie cried, racing ahead, leaving everyone to stare after her in confusion.

“Pinkie wait,” Twilight cried, “it’s just a mirage!”

Pinkie grounded to a halt and frantically looked around. “Where’d it go? It was right here!” With a devastated look, she backtracked to the group. “It looked so real….” she murmured.

Oh no, Sunset groaned. It’s spreading.

No sooner had she finished that thought, Sunset saw Princess Celestia calmly walking across the desert. Sunset paused. “What the…” Turning her head, she saw a younger version of herself sitting atop a very regal looking bed and reading a large book.

“Sunset, dear,” Celestia said, “it’s such a lovely day outside. Why don’t you go out and socialize?”

Young Sunset flipped a page. “Oh uh… sure, I will. Just as soon as I finish this.”

“Uh, Sunset, what are you staring at?”

Sunset snapped her head towards Twilight who was watching her with intense curiosity. Sunset turned back, only to see that the mirage had vanished.

“I have no idea,” Sunset said.

As the day wore on, so did everyone’s nerves. Rarity and Applejack had reverted back into pointless arguments, while Rainbow tried to stop them by simply chanting “Shut up, shut up, shut up” over and over again. Meanwhile, Twilight continuously muttered what Sunset could only make out as ramblings under her breath, and Pinkie sang half-finished songs before pointing to some mirage and running after it, only to cry in despair. Sunset would have counted herself among Fluttershy and Spike as one of the few sane ones, but unfortunately her own hallucinations didn’t help her case.

If it weren’t for the headache threatening to split her skull in half, Sunset would have put a silencing charm on Applejack and Rarity a long time ago. Their constant fighting was driving her crazy! As hard as she tried tuning them out, bits and pieces still came through.

“...And ya still gotta have everythin’ just so. All nice and pretty and perfect,” Applejack said.

“Oh not this again,” Rarity said with a roll of her eyes. “For your information, I know how to loosen up when the occasion calls for it.”

“You were tryin’ to sweep up the dirt last time we went campin’.”

“Well is it so wrong to prefer things be tidy, at least in some small degree?”

“Ughh, will both of you please shut up?” Rainbow begged. She had grown tired of flying and instead lagged behind them, forced to listen to every word of their conversation.

“Or, you could mind your own business, Dash,” Applejack suggested.

“Agreed, stop listening in on our conversations.”

“You’re walking right next to me, it’s kinda hard not to!”

Sunset leaned over to Twilight. “Should we do something?”

Twilight looked up from her self-whispers and looked over to the bickering trio. “Nah, they’ll be fine.”

“Uptight nag!”

“Uncouth lout!”

“Both of you shut up!”

Seeing them yell at each other, Sunset wasn’t quite as sure. Twilight had blown it off like it was nothing, but Applejack and Rarity were looking like they were ready to rumble, with Rainbow claiming dibs on the victor. Sunset kept her head turned back, watching as they bared their teeth at each other.

Applejack’s lip trembled and a chuckle escaped her throat. Rarity held a hoof to her mouth and let out a loud snort of amusement, while Rainbow simply threw her head back and bellowed in laughter. In an instant, all three of them were leaning against each other, laughing like somepony had told the funniest joke in the world.

“See, told you,” Twilight said to an open-mouthed Sunset.

“But, I don’t understand,” Sunset said to the laughing trio. “You girls looked like you were ready to kill each other.”

“Aw, sugarcube, we all knew we didn’t mean any of that stuff we said to each other. It’s just the heat talkin’. Besides, none of can stay mad at the other for long,” Applejack said, punctuated by a playful punch to Rainbow’s shoulder.

“Yeah, we’re best friends; we’re not going to let one argument come between us. Already learned that lesson,” Rainbow said.

“Indeed,” Rarity nodded. “It doesn’t matter what we say to each other, and sometimes what we do to each other. As long as it was in jest, or we apologize, at the end of the day we’ll still be friends.”

“Wow,” was all Sunset could say. She and her friends had gotten into a fight once. It had taken them a week to make up. Yet, these girls could make up in a heartbeat and act like nothing happened. They truly were the Elements of Harmony. Their friendship was stronger than anything Sunset had ever seen.

Sunset looked back at Twilight. “And you knew the whole time?”

Twilight weakly nodded her head. “Yeah, it’ll take more than some sand and sun to break my friends up,” she slurred.

“Are you alright?”

Twilight shook her head. “Let’s just hurry to Las Pegasus, then I’ll be fine.”

In front of them, the base of the evergreen hills were now clearly visible. Shapes of buildings could be seen scattered across on its face, sloping up to where a solid cloudbase that looked a lot like Cloudsdale sat at the top.

The group resumed their march with Applejack calling out to Pinkie, who had run off screaming, “Water!” She jumped and slid into the dirt before popping up and yelling, “Why?” She then slumped over and did not get back up.

“Uh-oh,” Applejack said, her eyes widening in concern.

“I’ll… I’ll go get her,” Fluttershy panted. She stumbled as fast as she could over to Pinkie, swaying slightly as she did. She began shaking Pinkie and calling her name repeatedly upon reaching her. The others followed suit, reaching the two just in time to see Fluttershy pass out as well.

“Fluttershy!” Rainbow yelled, rushing over and fanning her with a wing. “Come on, wake up!” She used her other wing to fan Pinkie as well, in a vain attempt to awaken them.

Applejack reached over and removed the canteens Pinkie had been carrying around her neck. She opened one up and poured a little on Pinkie’s face, getting no response. “This ain’t good. We got two unconscious ponies, and now we’re runnin’ low on water.”

“I can make more,” Twilight said, gesturing for the canteen. “Give it here.”

“You sure that’s a good idea, sugarcube?”

“I’ll be fine,” Twilight insisted, taking the canteen in her magic. She scrunched up her face, sweat visible on her brow, as she tried to keep her concentration together. The purple aura around her horn sputtered out like a dying candle, and Twilight fell to the floor, the canteen spilling the remaining out next to her.

“Twilight!” Spike cried, rushing over to her.

“Somethin’ told me tryin’ to do magic while overheated was a bad idea,” Applejack admonished, hurrying to Spike’s side. “Now what do we do?”

Rainbow stopped her fanning. “Maybe I can fly the rest of the way and get help! It doesn’t look too far.”

“Darling, are you sure you can make it?” Rarity asked. “Maybe somepony should go with you?”

Sunset tried to take a step forward to volunteer, but found the world began to rapidly spin around her, distorting colors and shapes and blurring them together. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.

“I’ll go with her,” Spike said, sounding like he was at the end of an incredibly long tunnel. Sunset could no longer make him out through her muddy vision.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and Sunset heard a muffled, “Are you okay?” from an unknown voice before she found herself feeling very light and floating away towards the sun. For a brief moment, she was flying, feeling her headache vanish and her stomach full of food. Sunset felt well rested and energized, and soared through the sky on invisible wings. The next thing she knew, she was falling, while the world melted away, dissolving into nothingness around her. Sunset felt herself hit the sand and slipped into unconsciousness, thinking she heard someone call her name.

Sunset slid across the cold, polished floor, slamming against one of the crystal pillars lining the side of the massive room. She slumped over, unable to move her bruised body. She closed her eyes and tried to draw on her magic, but still found the gripping pressure on her horn. She looked up and eyed the blue, spherical ornament lying some distance away.

“Damn that suppressor,” Sunset wheezed, her warm breath visible in the freezing air.

A loud roar brought her back to the moment at hand. She could see the beast looming towards her in the reflection of the crystal tiles, its monstrous footsteps echoing throughout the cathedral sized room. Sunset forced her head up, looking the monstrosity in its eyeless sockets.

The dragon-like beast loomed over her, letting out another roar, its breath smelling of rotting flesh. It flexed one of its sinewy arms, raising a bony claw over its head, prepared to deal a final blow.

“Not yet,” Sunset struggled to find her voice. “I can’t die here… I’ve come too far… I refuse to die here!”

The beast brought down its claws, time slowing to a halt as they came down. Sunset refused to look away. She would see her end.

“Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset turned her head, catching a glimpse of dark figure, before the world shattered like glass. The scenery and the beast burst into shards, and Sunset felt herself falling away into darkness….

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