The Worst of All Possible Worlds

by TheTimeSword

First published

Sunset Shimmer returns to Equestria only to find Twilight Sparkle battling a strange pony named Starlight Glimmer. Unbeknownst to Sunset, Starlight has altered the past, forcing Sunset to deal with reigniting her friendships all over again.

Takes place during the Season 5 Finale. (And hints of EqG: Friendship Games)


Sunset Shimmer has run out of space in the journal she uses for friendship reports. On a whim, she decides to return to her homeland for a brief visit and to get a replacement journal. Unfortunately for Sunset, a pony named Starlight Glimmer was busy enacting her revenge, catching Sunset in the crossfire and placing her in a different timeline than she expected. With no Elements of Harmony, no Princess Twilight Sparkle, and no clue, Sunset must reunite the main six, save the timeline, and find a way home... eventually.

Villain tag is updated periodically.

Arc 1: Chapter 1

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The school’s halls petered out students, many rushing to get to their lockers and grab their things. Echoes of shoes squeaking against the vinyl floors were overshadowed by the chatter amongst the schoolmates. The voices died down as quickly as they had come, their excitement for the day’s end pushing them to the exits. But not all were eager to leave just yet. One such girl of ketchup and mustard colored hair was more than happy to linger behind, insisting on spending as much time as possible with her new friend. “Thanks for the tour today,” Twilight Sparkle said as she pushed her purple bangs back, her books firmly in the other hand.

The girl with ketchup and mustard hair smiled and turned, slumping against a green metal locker. “Hey, I’m just glad they allowed you to transfer here,” she replied. “I’m also glad they put your locker right next to mine.” She twisted the knob on the lock, dialing in her combination.

Twilight Sparkle pushed her glasses further up the bridge of her nose and attempted to fiddle with her own locker. The combination lock popped up and she pulled the frigid metal door open, placing the books she held on top of other, larger books. She grabbed her backpack from the hook in the back and closed the door. Her eyes wandered over to the talkative girl who had suddenly become very quiet. She peered over her shoulder, past the slightly curly locks of yellow and red, eyeing the pen that was striking the pages with a light touch of ink. The girl must have felt the eyes on her as she twirled to face Twilight.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” Twilight immediately apologized.

“Don’t worry about it. Just finishing up a little message to a friend of mine. Gotta let her know everything turned out alright.” She slapped the book closed and placed it into the small pocket on her backpack. Pulling the bag over her shoulder, she shut the door of the metal locker and turned back to Twilight. “All done!”

As they walked, Twilight couldn’t help but let the curiosity get to her. “When you said message to a friend and let her know, what did you mean by that?”

A few strands of mustard colored hair fell forward as the girl halted in her tracks. “Right!” she suddenly shouted. “I suppose I better tell you about the other you from the world I come from. Same reason people keep getting you mixed up with someone else.”

Twilight pushed her glasses back into place. “R-Right, the pony world. There’s another me there? And you know her?”

“It’s kind of a long story. She’s the one that taught me the value of friendship. The journal I have actually allows me to communicate with her, but she hasn’t been answering for a while. I just wanted to give her a little update. We kind of called on her help during the games.”

“Two of me.” Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “Could you imagine two of me running around at the same time? That’d be insanity.”

“Hey, she’d be useful when it comes time for homework.” Pushing the door open, the condiment hair colored girl held it open for Twilight. The sun was low in the orange sky, casting shadows that dimmed everything in the courtyard, especially the marble statue that sat in the middle. A group of five lingered around that very statue, chatting with each other as they waited. “Hey, there are the girls!”

Twilight paced down the Canterlot High steps and turned back as she reached the bottom. “Aren’t you coming, Sunset?” she asked the girl with ketchup and mustard hair.

Sunset Shimmer was busily waving to the five friends she had come to cherish before turning her attention to the purple haired girl with glasses. “I’m just going to hang out here for a little while,” she answered. “I’ll see you tomorrow!” Her newest friend gave a nod before turning and leaving, waving her goodbye. “Don’t forget,” Sunset yelled, “Picnic tomorrow in front of the statue!”

“I won’t!” the girl with glasses yelled back before meeting up with those five other friends.

Sunset watched from the top of the steps as her friends disappeared around the corner of the high school. A slight breeze fell into the courtyard as she sat down, kicking her legs out onto the steps beneath her. She leaned to one side and pulled off the backpack, scraping it against the concrete as she placed it beside her. It slumped forward, weighed down by the journal that peeked out from the smallest pocket. Her eyes wandered down the spine of the brown book, skimming over the golden bindings that were etched symmetrically. Reaching down, Sunset pulled it into her lap and smiled down at the red and yellow sun that was plastered on the front of the journal.

Her smile stayed as she flipped through the first few pages, soaking in every memory, triumph, or plea that had been carved in her delicate handwriting. As she skimmed over each page, a sudden gust caused the pages to ruffle, shifting it all the way to the final pages of the journal. She pushed her hair from her face and looked down, noticing how packed in the paper had become. She quickly turned back a few pages, noting that each had been filled to the brim with questions and responses between her and the pony princess. She gave a quiet sigh and asked herself, “How’d it get so full so fast?” Her eyes must have been quicker than her brain as she found herself staring at the statue that sat in the courtyard.

As she sat, chewing her bottom lip and squinting her eyes, a brilliant idea formed in her head. An idea so brilliant that her face lit up with a gleeful grin once she thought of it. “Just a short, simple pop in. Say hello, grab a replacement, and then head home for dinner. That wouldn’t be so bad, right?” she talked to herself, boosting her own confidence with every word she uttered. It didn’t matter what she said though, her mind was already set. She shoved the journal back into the nylon backpack, zipping it up tight before she stood. Her reflection grew as she jogged up to the backside of the statue. Gently stroking a finger against the marble caused a rippling effect as if it were made of water, her reflection bending with each wave.

She sucked in air through her nose and released it through her mouth. Her heart pumped faster with every second she hesitated. Reaching out, she pushed both hands against the watery marble and felt her whole body follow suit. Her physique ached, twisted, and contorted, a feeling she hadn’t forgotten since the last time she had traveled through the portal.

When her eyes opened she was met by strands of red and yellow hair blocking her vision. She pushed them aside with her hoof, getting a good view of the blue crystalline room she stood in. “Wow. So this is the castle she got,” she thought aloud. Her eyes wandered around the shelves of books that cluttered the room. “Not bad. Not bad at all.” With her backpack still on her back, she pushed open the room’s sole door and stepped out into a brightly lit hall. It was a long hallway with more doors than she wanted to count. She wouldn’t have to, however.

A gasp rang out, followed by a voice. “Hey! You’re Sunset Shimmer!”

Sunset’s head swiveled to look into the eyes of the familiar pink pony. “And you’re most definitely Pinkie Pie.”

The pink haired, pink furred pony stood bipedal, pushing a cart with a frosted, three-layered chocolate cake. “It’s a pleasure to meetcha!” greeted Pinkie. Another gasp followed as she hollered, “I’m going to have to bake another welcoming cake!”

Another welcoming cake? Who’s this one for?” Sunset asked, pointing to the pink frosting.

“Twilight and Spike! They should have gotten home today from their trip to Canterlot,” she answered. “They’re in for a double surprise now that you’re here!”

Sunset placed a hoof to her mouth as she giggled. “Where is Twilight anyway?” As she finished her question, the sounds of heavy gusts and thunder echoed down the corridor. “What was that!?”

Pinkie raised her shoulders in a shrug before pushing the cart down the hall. Sunset kept a few paces back, listening intently on every creak, squeak, and clop made within the hall. A draft had come and gone as they walked, but was soon followed by a yelling of words. Sunset could only tell the last few syllables. “Don’t touch that!” The words felt confusing without context, but the context was soon there as the bellowing winds and echoes rattled the hall once more. In an instant, just like before, it was gone.

Pushing open the doors with the cart, Pinkie rolled into a brightly lit room. The pink party pony gave another shrug before biting down and taking a chunk out of the cake. Sunset rushed in behind her, giving a glance over the room, and asking, “No, seriously, what was that?”

After swallowing the contents in her mouth, Pinkie turned her chocolate covered face to Sunset. “Probably a time traveling portal opening up and pulling somepony into the past,” she answered before grabbing hold of the cart. “I’mma go bake another cake!” she added and began wheeling the cart backward.

Sunset shook her head, giving a smile as the doors closed. “Never change, Pinkie. Never change.” Her attention turned to the room she was now standing in, a circular table that sat directly in the center. Doors covered in crystals loomed around the outside. A set of chairs sat around the table, each chair marked with a different cutie mark. She curiously trotted over to the blank table, her eyebrows narrowed as she examined it in great depth. “I wonder if this is the table with the map she had told me about,” she murmured as she rose up, placing both forelegs onto the crystal.

Her hooves touching the flat surface triggered the map to appear, displaying all of Equestria within its circular border. A twinge of delight appeared as a smile, her eyes glittering against the world she had once lived in. But it wasn’t the only thing that had been trigged by the unicorn. Without warning, strong gusts of wind began pulling the mare up, causing her to shriek in fear. Her eyes shot up at the open portal, lightning shooting from its edges. The sounds of ticking echoed within her eardrums. Her body levitated from the ground as she struggled to reach out and grab hold of the table. The portal was too strong, however, and pulled the unicorn into itself before disappearing completely.

Though her body didn’t ache, or twist, or even contort, it still didn’t feel like a joyous run through the park. Instead, it felt more like a run through the park on a day with one hundred and seven degrees fahrenheit heat, even though the weatherman had said it would be in the seventies with a gentle breeze. Sweat poured from her brow as she peeled through the unknown. She closed her eyes in fear. Inside the tumbling dimension, a voice rang out, a voice of an unfamiliar. “You are about to find out,” that strange voice said, an eerie tone accompanying the ominous words.

As quickly as it began, the magical ride ended by spitting the amber furred unicorn onto a patch of rough grass. Her jaw skidded against the dirt as she moaned, spinning her eyes uncontrollably. The gusts hadn’t stopped, however, catching her attention. Just as she arrived, the purple furred alicorn left, departing back through the portal. “Twilight!” Sunset yelled, spitting out grass, dirt, and saliva. The bellowing wind must have been too much, the alicorn didn’t seem to acknowledge Sunset’s presence before the portal closed.

The unicorn clambered up to the map, staring up at where the portal had been. Her eyes shifted between the busted chairs, damaged table, and cloudless sky. Sky, the word repeated in her mind. Like a mouse trap being triggered, it clicked within her brain. “Where’s the castle?” her voice quivered as she asked. Broken bits of crystal from the chairs crunched beneath her hooves as she rose up, leaning bipedal on the edge of the table. Just like before, the map triggered, but this time it was different. The Crystal Empire extended farther south, beyond the normal lengths it had been moments ago.

As her eyes studied the new surroundings, six lights began to form over certain areas, followed by a brighter seventh light. These lights faded and altered, turning into six very familiar patterns, but the seventh revealed itself to be a tree. “Cutie marks!” she uttered as she examined the colorful lights. One was in Ponyville, a set of three apples. Two were in the east, in Manehattan, a set of diamonds and a set of butterflies. And three were in the north, close to The Crystal Empire. These last three held a set of balloons, a cloud with rainbow lightning, and one of a purple star.

It wasn’t the cutie marks that confused her but the white tree to the south of Ponyville. It seemed to glow brighter than the cutie marks and was oddly out of place compared to everything that surrounded it. It sat surrounded by forest, near bits of stone that rose up between the trees like some sort of castle. A sign? A message, perhaps?

Whatever had happened to her seemed to have an adverse effect on Twilight and the castle, or perhaps it was the reverse. Sunset took a step back from the table, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath through her nose. She could feel the odor of copper stinging her nostrils and burning her nose hairs. Centering herself, she opened her eyes. She felt good – for a moment.

Then the screaming came.

Then the pleading for answers came.

Sunset finally managed to center herself once more, this time focusing on the world that seemed to betray her understanding of what Equestria had become. “Oh-kay. Castle is gone, weird crystals shooting up from The Crystal Empire, and my friend’s cutie marks are strung about almost randomly. There’s got to be something here to help me discern what happened to me.” She pulled a hoof across the table and tapped the apples. “From Canterlot, this is Ponyville. Twilight’s castle is in Ponyville, so assuming the map remained in the same place while the castle vanished, it’s safe to assume I’m in Ponyville.” The closest cutie mark was right outside of town, the set of three apples. She knew exactly who that would be, or at the very least, she hoped she knew.

Her eyes shifted as she squinted down at the town. Without many options, she trotted toward the horizon, hoping to find the apple pony and gain some answers.

What she found instead was a deserted town that time had slowly demolished. It was clear she’d be lucky to find any pony. Wooden buildings with cracks and boarded up windows, tiles missing from roofs, and the ground bare of any grass. It wasn’t like the tales told through short descriptions within the journal from Twilight. “Roads of smiling faces eager to greet you,” she remembered. Her muzzle wrinkled as she became more and more disgruntled, eyeing every ugly building with a leer of confusion. “This has to be one elaborate prank. It just has to be.”

As she crossed over into the orchard, Sunset noticed the dreadful looking apple trees that seemed to mirror the state of Ponyville. The apples themselves looked to be pleasant enough, but the smoky air emitted over the orchard made everything unappetizing. She had assumed Sweet Apple Acres would be filled with lush green trees, fields of grass and flowers, and barns a shade of red that would make an apple jealous. Instead, the main barn was one big factory that spewed out product and smoke like how rain spewed from clouds.

One thing had remained the same, however. An apple never falls far from the tree, and the same goes for the Apple family. The orange earth pony hadn’t yet noticed Sunset’s arrival, but Sunset noticed her and the cafeteria worker outfit she wore. The golden mane Applejack had was tucked underneath a netted cap, while expressionless, dark beige clothes wrapped around her as if they were suffocating the happiness from her body. “Applejack?” she called out, unsure if it truly was the Element of Honesty.

The green eyes raised from her task to match Sunset’s. “Why does everyone seem to know my name today?” the orange mare asked aloud, obviously disgruntled by some past event.

“Hey there, I’m Sunset Shimmer. You probably don’t remember me too much but I’m the one that stole Twilight’s crown that one time.” Sunset extended a hoof, hoping for a pleasant greeting. “It’s kind of weird meeting you, again.”

An eyebrow raised on the earth pony’s face as she stared back. “Twilight? You mean that crazy mare that just passed through here a lil’ while ago? Check on the outskirts of town. There’s some weird map thing that she apparently brought in from another world or whatever.”

Sunset’s ignored hoof planted on the ground as she slumped forward, pressing her face closer to the earth pony. “Crazy mare? Weird map thing? You’re surely pulling my leg,” she nervously laughed.” “Don’t you go on adventures following the map’s destinations? And Twilight! She’s your friend! R-Right?”

“Yeah, she mentioned somethin’ about friendship, but apparently she’s from some other world where we aren’t at war with King Sombra. She must’ve been livin’ under a rock… or telling the truth. I don’t rightly know, or care.” Applejack turned away from Sunset and began walking towards the barn, but Sunset followed behind.

“King Sombra? War? But Sombra’s gone. Th-The Crystal E-Empire-”

“Gone?” Applejack halted and swiftly turned back to Sunset, her eyes as wide as wagon wheels. “Are you from that there other time too? Do I have to be worried ‘bout a hundred other ponies askin’ me these questions? I’ve got a lot of important work to do, I don’t need a queue formin’ and interruptin’ my schedule. Just because y’all ain’t got a war goin’ on doesn’t mean we can just stop what we’re doin’ for your sake.”

The words spoken by Applejack seemed to resonate within Sunset, giving her an understanding that it wasn’t a prank she was dealing with but something more. “You’ve got to help me! Do you know how Twilight left? What else did she say!?” Sunset threw her questions at the mare, thrusting her face closer to Applejack’s with every sentence.

Before answering, Applejack pushed the unicorn away from her personal space. “Why don’t you just go ask her yourself? I’m sure she’s still by the table.”

“No! She disappeared into the same type of portal I was brought through just as I arrived. I’ve got no way of contacting her or finding out how to leave,” Sunset replied as she ran a hoof through her hair. “Did she tell you at all why she was here?”

“Well, she did mention about some pony going into the past and changin’ things with that map of hers. I think she said Starlight Glammer? Glimmer? Somethin’ like that.” Applejack shrugged, and asked, “Another friend of yours? Or ours? Or whatever…”

“Not a name I’ve heard. Did she say anything about why your cutie mark shows up on the map?”

“My cutie mark? No. My cutie mark wasn’t on it when she dragged me up there to look at it. I was really surprised to see such a thing. The way she talked, I just assumed she lived under a rock or somethin’.”

“What about a white tree?”

“White tree?” Applejack snorted. “Now you really got me thinkin’ you hit your head. I ain’t ever seen a tree of white in this here part of Equestria. Except whenever it snows.”

“It’s true!” Sunset argued, stomping a hoof on the hard, barren dirt. “C’mon, I’ll show you!”

Applejack groaned and lowered her head. “Fine, just don’t drag me by the hooves like that last crazy unicorn.”

The grimy air and castle’s disappearance was beginning to make a lot of sense. It wasn’t a prank, not in the ordinary sense, and definitely not meant for Sunset. Perhaps the cutie marks and tree that had lit up on the map would give some sort of semblance or rationale to all the events. Unfortunately, the cutie marks and strange white tree had disappeared. “It was here, I swear it!” Sunset argued, trying to convince herself more than Applejack. “You were right there, and Twilight’s cutie mark was there!” She stretched her hoof out, pointing at the areas before placing both on the table.

As soon as her hooves touched the crystal surface, lights formed and shined before displaying the six cutie marks and the white tree she had described. “Well I’ll be a dragon’s fairy godmother! You were tellin’ the truth, that is my mark. And that’s definitely the cutie mark your friend Twilight had, though how she got up north so fast is beyond me. She must’ve been one powerful alicorn.”

“Twilight, my friend, she left through a portal. I saw her leave with my own two eyes! No, this must belong to this world’s Twilight.” She shook her head. “Another Twilight, just like the one from Crystal Prep,” she murmured before pointing to the south. “And what about this tree? This has to mean something!”

“I don’t really know what to tell you,” replied Applejack as she scratched a bit underneath her cap. “But whatever it means, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. I’ve gotta get back, those carts won’t load themselves.”

“Wait!” Sunset moved in front of the Apple. “You’ve had to have lived in these parts your whole life, right? You’ve surely been down into this forested area. Could you lead me to this tree? It’s been a long, long while since I lived in Equestria, and even longer since I visited anywhere south of Canterlot,” Sunset begged, almost groveling at Applejack’s hooves.

“You want me to guide you down into the Everfree Forest? If you hadn’t shown me my cutie mark, I’d surely be thinkin’ you’re a few eggs short of a full basket right about now. Even so, there ain’t no way you’re gettin’ me to go down there. That place is filled with some of Equestria’s worst creatures, even some o’ which would keep King Sombra himself up at night just thinkin’ about them.”

“Applejack, please. You’re part of this, I just know it. Maybe it has something to do with you being an Element of Harmony, maybe not, but we won’t know unless you take us there. It might be my only way home. Please.” If everything she’s said is true, I’ve got to figure out a way home. The tree has to be it, she assumed. I need you Applejack. Not just for your help, but because you’re a friend. Her eyes continued to beg the earth pony for help.

Applejack paused a few steps from the table and Sunset. She didn’t move or say anything for a good long bit. When she finally did, she asked, “Element of Harmony? What’s that?” That’s when Sunset saw it, the glimmer of curiosity within those big green eyes.

“Twilight didn’t tell you while she was here? You, her, and the other four are all Elements of Harmony – you’re the Element of Honesty. Nopony is more honest than you!” Sunset pushed, hoping to intrigue the earth pony just enough.

“Honesty?” repeated Applejack, “Honesty…” She looked to the ground, then the table, then back to Sunset. “That crazy alicorn-”

“-Twilight.”

“Yeah, Twilight. She said we defeated King Sombra in y’all’s timeline. Is that there part of them Element whatevers?”

Sunset nodded. “If you can take me to that white tree then I believe I can prove to you you’re the Element of Honesty. I just know it. Perhaps it might even reveal a few answers as to why I’m even here, or it could get me home.”

“Listen, I’ll help you find this here tree, but if nothin’ seems to come of it, can you promise to leave me alone afterward? The farms hard enough to maintain without all these interruptions.”

“If this tree has nothing to do with you or me, I promise you’ll never have to speak to me again,” Sunset lied. Regardless if she didn’t talk to this Applejack again, she wouldn’t stop herself from talking to her own Applejack. “However, if I’m right, we might be able to save your world and get me home.” Especially get me home…

Applejack smiled, the first time Sunset had seen her do so. “Smack two apple trees with one buck, I like the way you think, err… Sunset, was it?”

“That’s right, Sunset Shimmer,” she replied, extending her hoof again, this time Applejack welcomed the friendly shake.

They didn’t stand around long before heading off to the Everfree Forest. Applejack recalled the area where the tree on the map sat, detailing the Castle of the Two Sisters which sat relatively close by. As they traveled to the edge of the forest and into the overgrown woods, Applejack told the story of how her sister, Apple Bloom, once traversed the treacherous landscape all the way to the old castle. “It was all because of a truth or dare game played by some of her school friends,” she explained. “They were lookin’ for some monster or somethin’, instead she found the castle. I found her snoozin’ on the old throne that sat there, covered in dust and spiders. I was so worried, but exhausted too. Wound up snoozin’ along with her.”

As Applejack retold her sister’s adventure, the story reminded Sunset of a similar event Twilight had described within the journal. She made a mental note to check the journal once they had a moment to stop, then continued to listen as Applejack told stories she hadn’t heard. “Whoa. I’m going to have to tell my Applejack these stories once I get back to my own timeline,” Sunset remarked once Applejack concluded her tales. “She’ll get a kick out of it. Though I imagine I’ll have to explain a little bit more about the pony mannerisms first.”

“So, you don’t really live in this world in your own timeline? That’s why you introduced yourself thinking I was, well, actually, now I’m gettin’ confused again.”

Sunset giggled and gave a nod. “That’s right. I live in an alternate universe, a human world, which can only be gotten to through a magic mirror. That means two Applejacks. Now, if I can figure out how I got here, there might be three. Just think of all the farm work you’d get done with three of you.”

“To be honest, if I hadn’t seen my cutie mark on the map, I’d have you run out of Ponyville for how crazy that sounds. I mean, could you imagine three of me? That’d be a stubborn bunch, I tell you what.”

Sunset gave another nod, and said, “What irks me is how it all changed. If my Twilight told you that another pony went into the past and changed something, shouldn’t I have been changed with it? Multiverse theory might have been proven with this timeline, but I don’t know how Twilight pulled something like this off. It explains why she hasn’t been answering my journal’s call, though.”

“Yeah, I’m not exactly keen on bein’ a science project for you,” Applejack hastened to say as she pushed a fern leaf out of the way. “So if you could fix it and then not do it again, I’d be mighty thankful.”

I’d hate to try and explain the theory to her, Sunset mused. Applejack isn’t exactly in the honor roll at CHS. As she became lost in thought, she was suddenly pulled back by her tail and slammed to her rump. “Hey! Watch it!” she hollered, throwing a stink eye over her shoulder.

“I was watchin’, you weren’t,” Applejack attested, pointing in front of Sunset.

Sunset turned her head back around and then shifted her weight away from the empty ravine that she had almost tumbled into. “S-See? This is why I needed a guide,” she said as she clung to the earth pony.

Quick to regain her composure, Sunset leaned over the edge of the ravine and peered down. Whatever river had run its course through the Everfree Forest had long been depleted. The overgrowth that sprung up on its sides had remained unchanged regardless, leaving little visibility for any pony traipsing through the lush jungle. Applejack called out and pointed to the far side, the Castle of the Two Sisters barely seemed visible beneath the canopy of tree limbs and leaves. A bridge that had once been used to traverse the olden river had become decrepit and hung flat against the sides of the gorge.

“I don’t see high nor low of some white tree, and I don’t think we’re crossing here,” Applejack commented as she peered down the empty crevice. “Might be a farce.”

The earth pony was ignored. Sunset had caught a glimpse of the faint glow that struck a chord – her eyes wouldn’t drift from it, nor would her ears hear the loudest of horns. Her heart raced as she snapped off, trotting down the cliff side along a rickety, rocky path. Applejack was hot on her tail, calling her name every few seconds, but still, Sunset did not listen. Gravely sand brushed against her hooves as she made her way across the bottom of the ravine, pouring herself towards the glow that grew from a cave. The cave itself wasn’t something that could be seen from any angle from above. The sight startled the earth pony into being quiet. Sunset knew, however, that what was inside didn’t want to be seen by anypony else.

It might have had no desire to be seen by Sunset, but perhaps it realized that she would be its only option if it did not act. Whatever the cause, the Tree of Harmony glowed bright white. The bluish crystals that made up the tree only seemed like a reflection against the shimmers of pure white. As Sunset stepped forward, Applejack at her side, the Tree of Harmony finished its cry for help. The incandescent light faded and reduced to a small light at five branches. Sunset had seen the design somewhere, she knew the white tree on the map looked oddly familiar.

She tossed the backpack to the ground, pulling open the zipper and levitating the journal from the nylon bag. “You really weren’t lying,” Applejack murmured. Sunset looked up from the book for a moment, turning the pages at the same time. She didn’t answer Applejack, there was no need. Her eyes strained to search through the pages, but eventually, it was found. A rather shoddy drawing done by the Princess Twilight Sparkle of her world. “You weren’t lying. You were telling the truth,” Applejack repeated. After finding the image and the title of the tree, Sunset looked up with glee, but her mouth fell agape as Applejack drew close to the tree. “The honest truth.”

That horribly bright light returned, not from the tree, but from Applejack. Her eyes glowed white and she was levitated a yard off the ground, being held by magic coming from the Tree of Harmony. Wind flooded the cave, throwing the pages of Sunset’s journal and shaking the crystal branches. The white light suddenly twisted and formed around Applejack’s neck. And then it was gone. In its place, a gold hemmed necklace with a brilliantly carved apple of orange hanging in the center. Applejack floated to the ground like a delicate feather, her hairnet fell from all the excitement, brandishing her blonde mane against the radiance of the golden necklace.

“Applejack!” Sunset rushed beside the earth pony, staring at her magnificent glow. “Are you okay? How’d you get the Element? What just happened!?”

Applejack wasn’t just looking vibrant, it was obvious to Sunset that she felt it too. “I-I’m not entirely sure, but, once I realized you weren’t lyin’ about everythin’… it just sort of clicked.”

“Clicked?” repeated Sunset, perplexed. “What like… like a seatbelt?”

“A seat-what?”

Sunset tapped the amulet, and said, “Never mind that. I find it odd that the tree granted you this. It doesn’t look like the Elements are in this tree in the first place, though.” Her eyes glazed over as she studied all the branches of the great crystal tree. “Where did it get the Element in the first place?” she asked aloud as she went back to the journal.

“I’m not rightly sure, but I think maybe the tree knew me, maybe because of some time travellin’ thingamabob caused by you and that Twilight Sparkle. Could’ve been because I touched the map that it recognized me as a bearer.”

“I don’t think it’s any of those things,” Sunset replied, lifting the page that held the sloppy drawing of the tree into Applejack’s view. “This whole passage is of you – err – the other you, placing all six Elements of Harmony back into the tree. Not taking it. This tree,” she said, pointing up. “This Tree of Harmony doesn’t have the Elements. I think that means it’s giving them up freely, perhaps just by having you stand in front of it.”

“So, you think that because I stood in front of a tree, which doesn’t have the Elements, it decided to give me my Element anyway?”

“Uh huh,” replied Sunset.

“And havin’ realized that you were tellin’ the truth a few seconds prior to gainin’ this fancy necklace, regardless of being in front of an Element lackin’ Tree of Harmony, has nothing to do with it?”

Sunset attempted to grab for the collar of her shirt that wasn’t really there. “Well, when you put it like that, I suppose it might make more sense.” A single brow raised on Applejack’s face. “Okay, okay. You make a lot of sense. I suppose that means…” A hesitant pause came as a bit of movement caught her eye. At first, it looked like the darkness of the cave playing tricks against the light, but it couldn’t be when it happened twice in a row.

The branches had moved.

Not some, not all, but just enough to spell the word ‘help’ and ‘time’.

“Y’know, I might be biased because it may or may not have given me a pretty neat necklace, but I think you should do what the magical tree says,” encouraged Applejack, pleasingly.

Scouring the journal for any more information, Sunset looked up at the Tree of Harmony. “I suppose the tree is connected to the map, which would explain why the map is still here.” She unknowingly chewed on her bottom lip, trying to discern whatever the map could be telling her. “I suppose, if it meant returning the Elements to each of the six bearers, then that might be helping.” Her eyes met the earth pony’s. “And if your theory is correct, then just getting them to see their own Element might be the key to what we need to do to unlock their necklaces.”

“And then we could defeat King Sombra! Get you home too!” Applejack stomped her hooves like a giddy filly. “Who are these other Elements, anyway?” she asked.

“I’ll name them with their Element. Twilight Sparkle, of course, is the Element of Magic. Rainbow Dash is the Element of Loyalty, Rarity is the Element of Generosity, Fluttershy is the Element of Kindness, and finally, Pinkie Pie is the Element of Laughter. Huh. Wonder if that last one will give us any trouble?”

“And I, of course, am honesty. But, what are you?”

“Me?” Sunset pointed to herself, unsure of the question. “I’m not an Element.”

“Oh.” Applejack’s tone was a bit accusing as if to say that Sunset would be a perfect seventh Element. Or, at least, that’s what Sunset assumed.

Placing the journal back within her bag, Sunset zipped it closed and hoisted it onto her back. “I guess this means we’ll be heading off to find the others. It may not be fair, but you’re needed for this. I know that you had duties to fulfill and all, but-”

“Ah,” Applejack interrupted with a gentle voice and wave of her hoof. “You don’t need to convince me to help. A magical necklace is more than enough proof for my country eyes. Even if this was all some elaborate prank, I don’t think anypony would be callous enough to waste their time, what with all the war efforts goin’ on. And, well, it’s been a long time since I’ve had somepony tell me I’m needed for something bigger than cannin’ apples.” She smiled with a certain wistfulness, which Sunset noted and nodded.

Sunset could feel her chest swell with pride. It was an odd sort of feeling since she was already friends with an Applejack, but this one was different. Applejack didn’t know her, she didn’t know the awful thing she had done or her redemption within Canterlot High School. It was almost a fresh start for her and this new pony. Would it be that way for the others? For Twilight? Perhaps, even her old teacher? Would that old teacher still know her?

The words ‘help’ and ‘time’ lingered in her thoughts as they traveled back up the cliff and through the forest. Twilight had told this Applejack of a pony who messed with time, and it would make sense that the Tree of Harmony would want to correct that. She could help fix this timeline, but how would that get her home? After Sombra was defeated? After the Elements of Harmony were returned to the bearers? To the tree, maybe? The cloud of questions weighed her down, though she didn’t want Applejack to see her anxious fears.

“So, do you need to tell your family before we head off? I’ve got to consult the map and mark down where the others are at before we blindly tread into unknown waters,” Sunset explained with idle chitchat.

“I suppose that would be the right thing to do,” Applejack answered as they reached the edge of the Everfree Forest. “It won’t take me long. Catch you at the map, friend?”

“Alright,” Sunset giggled. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

Hastily, Sunset jogged back to the map. She knew Applejack wouldn’t take long, and she needed more than just the locations of the other Elements. Upon reaching the map, she tossed her backpack to the ground and ruffled through the contents, yanking out a pen and paper with her magic. Her eyes darted between the map and the paper as she drew the outline of Equestria. Every crystal column, city, and river that was between them and the Crystal Empire. As she finished the rough sketch, Applejack called out to her. She didn’t look up from her drawing, a simple wave was all she did to acknowledge the mare.

“That’s some talent you’ve got there,” Applejack noted as she peered over Sunset’s shoulder.

“I used to make star maps when I was a filly. Later on, I did a map of Canterlot. Some things you never forget how to do,” she replied as she scribbled down the point for each cutie mark. The map was a bit off compared to the one on the table, but there was little she could do using a regular ink pen on school paper. It wasn’t meant to be highly detailed anyway, Sunset knew. Though from Applejack’s face she could tell it wasn’t a very good drawing. It’s been a while since I’ve used magic to write or draw. I already miss my hands. What a disaster this has become, all for a replacement journal…

“I figure we could head for Manehattan first. I know Rarity, she used to live here in Ponyville. Grabbing her and-” Applejack pointed at the butterflies “-whoever this is, we can then take a boat up to here.” A small town sat to the east of some crystals but seemed to be a route to somewhere else along with The Crystal Empire itself. “From that there trail we could head for the other three.”

Sunset nodded. “I figured that was the plan. I don’t suppose we’d be lucky enough to have a train heading up that way, would we?” she asked, lifting her head from her map to look at the earth pony. She hadn’t noticed that Applejack had removed her work clothes or her mane’s ponytail. The blonde hair flowed prettily around the gold necklace, and a brown knapsack sat on her back.

“Already way ahead of you. Got us two tickets,” Applejack gloated, holding up the pair in glorious triumph.

Folding the paper in half and then another half, Sunset shoved her drawn map into her backpack along with the pen. “Then we’re all set.”

It wasn’t a long wait for the train to arrive at the Ponyville station. They only had to wait half an hour or so, which Sunset calculated was better than taking the bus on the interstate whenever Rarity wanted to go to the mall. And no worse than heading out to human Applejack’s farm. Of course, neither were ever as crowded as these train cars seemed to be. Ponies of all shapes and sizes and ages filled each car, all headed somewhere, but most likely their reasoning was the same. To help with the war effort. The green cushions on top of benches were only slightly more comfortable than that of the bus’s seats, however.

Being around ponies again was just as jarring as the altered timeline, Sunset felt. Lockers, lunch, school reports, gym class. The human world seemed so comforting now, she had forgotten all about her time studying under Celestia. “Without Sombra, what became of The Crystal Empire in your timeline?” Applejack asked, snapping Sunset from her thoughtful stupor.

“Oh, uh, well, it became an ordinary city. I couldn’t really tell you much of what happened after I left to live in the human world though,” Sunset answered to the best of her abilities.

“So, why’d you leave?”

Sunset took a deep breath, her eyes widened and then softened as she contemplated a way to shorten her story. “I used to be a student under Princess Celestia. I got mad over time, felt I wasn’t learning. Then, one day, I discovered something she had been keeping hidden. A mirror to another world. I just started living there, I took control. I felt… powerful.” Her eyes looked around the car, staring at each of the ponies that sat with their own worries and thoughts. “Things didn’t end on good terms with Princess Celestia. I’ve never gotten the chance to apologize to her for the way I acted.”

“Well, shoot. Celestia’s leadin’ the war effort. You’ve got time.” Applejack bumped her shoulder into Sunset’s and snorted.

Sunset grimaced, her brow pulled together at the very notion. “I hope we don’t run into her. I can’t imagine it not being an awkward reunion.” The image of Celestia flashed in her mind’s eye. Of course, she might not even know who I am if this timeline has changed that much, she alleged. It would be better that way.

Arc 1: Chapter 2

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Ponies pushed and shoved to get off the cramped train while Sunset took a moment to stretch her limbs. The overnight trip aboard the mildly comfortable benches were clearly not for sleeping. Rest had been a come and go experience what with the snores of other passengers, the common noise of the train, and her own anxiety of what they would soon face. Regardless of their sleeping arrangements, both Sunset and Applejack were wide awake, eager to find the next Element of Harmony. Neither had ever been to the city of Manehattan, neither had ever the need to.

Just exiting onto the train platform gave them an idea of what they would be dealing with. Skyscrapers, large bridges, bustling traffic of pony-drawn carriages, and shouts and shrieks in every direction. To Sunset, it was almost like being downtown, though it was much less muggy without the diesel bound cars and trucks. To Applejack, however, it was nothing like she had ever seen. The tallest building in Ponyville was the town hall, but even she could climb that and be back down with ease. To scale any of these buildings would mean a lot of planning, patience, and luck. Though falling from any of these giants would be less worrying since there seemed to be more pegasus in the sky than clouds or birds.

Sunset’s drawn map left a lot of desires to be had once they realized the markers were far too large, even for the gigantic city. “Where do we even attempt to start?” Applejack had asked, to which Sunset could not answer. As they trotted off the platform they came across a tourist board that was marked with destinations for travelers. It seemed outdated, perhaps only used prior to the war. Applejack raised a hoof and pointed to one of the names. “Manehattan City Hall.”

“If Rarity is here to help the war effort, then maybe Fluttershy is here helping in her own way too. Heading to the city hall might be our best option to find where ponies who are helping out can be found.” Sunset studied the street names for a moment, looking to find the best route. “Alright, let’s see if somepony can help us there. If not,” she paused and motioned to the docks on the east side of town. “I’m sure the bay will have ponies shipping all sorts of supplies out of Manehattan. Maybe somepony there might know them.”

Traipsing down the city’s streets seemed a lot more dangerous on hoof rather than hailing a cab. Every crosswalk had an older pony or foal crossing without paying attention to the signal, ending up with a cart screeching to a halt and some vulgar language being tossed around like it was nothing. It’s definitely like downtown, Sunset thought. There was a small difference between her city and Manehattan, however. People smiled at each other as they passed on the sidewalk, but in Manehattan, nopony smiled. Whenever she looked directly at Applejack she noticed how out of place she seemed to be. Not just because of her country personality, but because she smiled. It was a glow that Manehattan lacked. She wondered if it had always been this way, even before King Sombra’s return.

Once they reached city hall, Applejack noted how large and undamaged it was compared to Ponyville’s town hall. Large sets of marble steps lead up to the beige building. Six columns held a decorative purpose in front of the large open doorway, though most ponies used them as cover from the wind. Sunset pushed through the mahogany doors with Applejack on her tail. It was an endless flood of ponies entering and exiting the foyer of the city hall. The circular room was tall and wide with a welcome desk opposite the door. Flags hung down from above, and two sets of large doors matching the one they came through sat on both sides of the room.

Flashes of cameras and echoing voices sounded off in the middle of the foyer. “Mayor! Mayor!” a male reporter called out as he slammed past Sunset. He didn’t even apologize nor did he even attempt to acknowledge his mistake. Instead, like all the other reporters, he crowded around a pony that stood in the center of the congregating press.

“Please, I am not answering any questions today,” the mayor said, “But you can save them for the press conference tomorrow morning.”

As the mayor pressed through the crowd of paparazzi, Sunset and Applejack stood in her path. “Mayor?” Applejack called out, surprised to see grey haired pony she once knew in Ponyville.

For a moment, the mayor recognized her, but then the memory seemed to fade from her eyes. She quickly asked, “Do I know you? If you’re looking for a story, please wait until tomorrow’s press conference.”

Applejack shook her head. “It’s me Mayor, Applejack! From Ponyville?” Reporters soon swarmed the three with questions of who they were and how they knew Mayor Mare, all itching for a scandal or secret details.

It seemed to click for Mayor Mare upon the mentioning of Ponyville. She quickly called for them to follow her through the foyer, past the large reception desk where the reporters couldn’t pass. Sunset and Applejack followed her down two separate halls, both smaller than the last. City officials seemed to chatter around water coolers but broke up as soon as they saw the mayor coming. A frosted glass window atop a decorative auburn door was quickly opened by a unicorn secretary, to which the mayor led them both through. It was then closed by the same unicorn, leaving them undisturbed by the rest of the offices.

“You have no idea how good it is to see somepony from Ponyville,” Mayor Mare said, wrapping her forelegs around the fellow earth pony. “Manehattan is a growing nightmare compared to that rundown town. No offense.”

Applejack patted the mayor’s back before breaking off from the hug. “Yeah, it certainly looks like a hoofful. You got your own office though, that’s a step up from Ponyville.”

“Yes, well, the town hall in Ponyville pretty much was my whole office. And it didn’t come with the numerous difficulties that this one has,” she replied, motioning to the sole window opposite the door where only another building could be seen. She trotted around her desk that seemed too big for the small office and sat down in a chair that creaked like bending metal. “So, what can I do for Ponyville’s finest farmer and…” Her eyes drifted to Sunset. “Who are you?”

“This here is Sunset Shimmer,” Applejack introduced, smiling at the unicorn. “She’s uh, she has got a real good plan for helpin’ defeat King Sombra.”

The mayor’s desk seemed to move as she suddenly pushed against it. “Shhhush!” she hollered, waving her forelegs at them. “Don’t mention his name around here or you’ll start a panic! I don’t need more worried ponies on the city steps!”

“Why would that start a panic?” asked Sunset. It’s not like they don’t know about the war.

Mayor Mare sat back in her chair and turned it away from them, facing the window with the atrocious view. “The whole war has the city in panic. Everyone expected Princess Celestia to have won by now, but every day we hear more tales of her forward operating base being pushed back by King Sombra’s forces. Everypony knows that if they get overwhelmed, Manehattan will be the first to see the consequences of her loss.”

“That’s why we’re here. We’re looking for two ponies that will help us defeat him and put this timeline back on track,” Sunset pleaded.

“Timeline?” Mayor Mare spun her chair back around.

Applejack quickly covered Sunset’s mouth, holding her in a tight grip. “Heh, sorry ‘bout that. My friend here is just a little tired from the trip is all. But she is right, we’re looking for two other ponies that are somewhere within the city. A pegasus named Fluttershy is one, the other is Rarity who also used to live in Ponyville. She was a dressmaker, I think.”

“Rarity… Rarity…” The mayor tapped her desk as she pushed the name into her brain. She got up from her chair, still repeating the name, and pulled open one of the drawers from the desk. Applejack let go of Sunset who took a few moments to breathe as the mayor plopped a file on the desk, startling her. “Here we are. Yes, she runs a clothing charity over on the east side of the city, near the bay. I believe they give out clothing to homeless foals while also creating underclothes for Celestia’s troops. You can find her between Ninth and Horseshoe Avenue, though I don’t have a record of the name of her charity on this file for some reason.” She closed the folder. “As for this, Flutterguy, I don’t have anything on that fellow. Sorry.”

“That’s alright. It’s more than enough help. Thank you, Mayor,” Applejack replied.

“I’m glad I could be of some service to someone lately. Especially you, Applejack. You’ve more than earned it after all the times you and your family helped Ponyville.” Her smile faltered. “It’s a shame that you and I couldn’t have saved the town completely. Though I suppose neither of us are to blame for that.” She sighed. “Regardless, I’m sure you two can see yourselves out. It was good to meet you Sunset, and a pleasure seeing you again, Applejack. If you’re ever back in the city, let me know. We could do lunch.”

They said their goodbyes to the mayor and made their way out of the city hall. The reporters had long since vanished, making it easy to head back out into Manehattan. “Alright, Ninth and Horseshoe Avenue,” Sunset repeated the mayor’s directions. “That was surprisingly good luck that we ran into someone you knew.”

“Yeah, but, she’s right,” replied Applejack as she lifted her necklace to look at it. “A lot of ponies are unknowingly countin’ on you being right about this. Uniting the six Elements, bringing us together. If we don’t, or if we fail, a lot of ponies are gonna be in trouble.”

Sunset kept her smile from Applejack’s view and didn’t bother to answer. They hadn’t failed before in the alternate timeline that she came from, they wouldn’t fail here. Not if she could help it. “It’s this way. Here’s Horseshoe Avenue.” The street was made of dirt like that in Ponyville, which seemed a bit odd for the overly populated Manehattan. Fillies and colts played in the street, kicking a ball up and down the sides. No carriages traversed this part of the city it seemed, only wagons that were filled to the brim with supplies meant for the north.

“Is that it?” Applejack asked, pointing to a shop without a sign.

“No, this isn’t Ninth. This is Seventh Street. Should be three more.”

“You mean two more,” corrected Applejack.

They traveled two more blocks, passing Eighth Street, then Main Street. “No, I meant three,” she replied as they traveled past Main, reaching Ninth Street. She could feel her coy smile as she peered back at Applejack.

“Show off,” Applejack grumbled. “Well, then that’s gotta be it.”

On the corner of Ninth and Horseshoe Avenue, just like Mayor Mare said, sat a door with a white and purple sign over it. “Rarity’s Charity,” Sunset mouthed. The two-story brick and mortar was a lot less dazzling than Sunset would have imagined for her designer friend. Even the sign left something to be desired, the paint had chipped and the wood warped from rain.

“Before we head in, I’ve got a tiny question that’s been with me since we left city hall,” Applejack spoke up. “Rarity’s the, what’s it, generous Element? If she’s doing a charity to give out to ponies, shouldn’t she already have her fancy necklace? Shouldn’t she already know that she’s needed for somethin’?”

Sunset gave a shrug. She didn’t have an answer for the earth pony, she didn’t need one. The answer was either waiting for them inside or it wasn’t.

The bell over the door rung out as Sunset pushed it open, only to have it overshadowed by the dozens of sewing machines working all at the same time. Clothes were sewn together and then tossed in piles, left for another worker to pick up and prepare for travel. Most of the brown clothing had collars of cotton, while the blue was more often used for the back legs. There didn’t seem to be any other colors that Sunset could spot as they waltzed through the loud building.

At the furthest row of seamstresses sat a white unicorn. Her purple mane didn’t move under the amethyst colored bow as she stood up. The unicorn trotted to a door on the wall opposite from where they entered, closing it behind her. “That’s Rarity,” Sunset whispered to Applejack, who didn’t hear what she had said but nodded her head, acting as if she had. They walked after the white mare, passing by the rows upon rows of sewing machines. None of the workers even looked up from their fabrics to give a suspicious eye or question who they were. Sunset gave a knock and didn’t hear anything. She knocked again before pushing the door open.

“What is it Tape Length?” the purple haired unicorn called out, not bothering to look at the opening door. “Did you receive word from that cynical sheep groomer yet?”

“Rarity?” Sunset called out while Applejack shut the door behind them.

The unicorn turned after realizing the voice wasn’t that of her co-worker. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was expecting somepony else. What can I do for you two?” she asked, still levitating a pencil and clipboard that she had been working with.

“Well, shoot. That sure is Rarity, though the clothes are a bit off for yah.” Applejack stepped forward, giving a wave to the dark amethyst colored uniform the unicorn wore.

“Um, do I know you two?” she asked boorishly, squinting her eyes down her muzzle at them both.

Applejack gave a nod and said, “You know me at the very least. You used to live back in Ponyville. I’m Applejack, one of the Apple family at Sweet Apple Acres.”

Rarity seemed to shift from side to side as she stared at Applejack as if to judge the mare on the truth and the look of her. “Uh huh,” she said in response, her accent seemed more posh compared to Mayor Mare’s. She didn’t say anything more, simply judging the two in silence.

“We’re here because you’re one of the six legendary Elements of Harmony,” Sunset added, hoping this would be easier than dealing with Applejack or Mayor Mare.

With a raised eyebrow this time, Rarity repeated herself, “Uh huh.”

Sunset looked worriedly at Applejack, her hopes slowly fleeting with every silent second and curt reply. “And, well, we’re going to go defeat King Sombra with these Elements after we gather the full six bearers.” She pointed to Applejack’s necklace, thinking that would prove their claim. “See?”

Rarity closed her mouth and swallowed, taking a moment before she decided to answer them. “Listen, this is a donations office for the war effort. We’re not looking to be part of any weirdo cult at the moment so I must ask you to please leave.”

Of course it won’t be easy, Sunset mused as she slapped her hoof against her forehead. “I know how it sounds but you’ve got to believe us. You’re the Element of Generosity. We can’t hope to end the war without your help.” Or get me home.

“As nice as your friend’s necklace looks, nothing is going to convince me to leave my charity on some halfwit adventure. I’m not a soldier. I’m a seamstress with emphasis on stress. So again, I must ask you to please leave my establishment before I have to call the city guards.”

“Rarity, please. I know this is going to sound strange but I’m from another world where we aren’t at war with King Sombra. The Crystal Empire is a free city full of happy ponies. You, Applejack, and four others helped in his defeat. You helped in several villains defeats. There’s got to be something we can do to convince you to help us. Anything,” Sunset pleaded, inching herself forward till she had become face to face with the other unicorn.

The annoyed look Rarity had hadn’t changed even with Sunset’s words. “Another world? That sounds like a cult to me.”

Applejack slapped herself across the forehead. “There’s a reason I held you back at the mayor’s office, Sunset. You barely got me convinced that you’re from another time, and that didn’t happen till we went to the Tree of Harmony. Shoutin’ it to everypony we meet is gonna lead to some jail time or livin’ in an insane asylum.”

She hadn’t thought of it like that. Sunset had assumed that everyone would just believe her word as truth, but that wasn’t the case. Then, a brilliant, magnificent idea popped into her head. “That’s it! We’ll have to do something extremely generous for you, Rarity. Then you’ll be convinced by the necklace appearing right in front of your very eyes!”

“I get my own necklace for this cult? How exciting,” Rarity huffed. “Really now. If you could convince that stubborn Fluttershy to generously donate the wool she promised us, then I might believe you.”

The name sent a spark into Sunset. “Fluttershy!? Absolutely! You tell us where she is and we’ll get that wool for you!” Sunset stomped her hooves with a movement of delighted dance.

The sudden excitement radiating from Sunset caused Rarity to drop her clipboard and pencil. “Right, well, she’s on the outskirts of town I believe. To the east and north of the docks, most if it is orchards out there but there’s a sheep farm too,” she answered before levitating the fallen objects off the floor. “If you did this for me I’d certainly be grateful. I’d be able to mark a few things off my list if I had that wool.”

“A farm shouldn’t be difficult for me to find,” Applejack commended herself as she trotted over to the door.

“Awesome!” Out of force of habit, Sunset gave a quick hug to Rarity before rushing off behind Applejack. She didn’t get to see Rarity’s reaction, though if she had she would have laughed at the disheveled confusion on the unicorn’s face. After the two exited the building and stepped out onto the dirt road, Sunset said, “Well, that didn’t go as planned, but we know where Fluttershy is. We might be able to, uh, smack two apple trees with one buck?”

Applejack gave a snort and let out a long, single hoot. “That sounds about right.”

One had been found, now they needed to find the other. Convincing them both would be hard, Sunset now knew, but she believed it could be done. She had convinced the stubbornest pony she knew, after all.

They followed the road north and eventually reached the outskirts of town where buildings were spread apart and only held one floor. Sunset’s smile had stayed the entire walk. She had forgotten how fun it was just to spend time doing things with friends. Even though it wasn’t the friends she knew, gaining their friendship was just as exciting. For a moment, Sunset wondered if she had been forced to be here just so she could spend more time with the ones she cared about. Not that she minded if that had been the reasoning, but the words ‘time’ and ‘help’ still burned in the back of her brain.

Barns and country houses seemed smaller compared to that of Sweet Apple Acres, though the orchards that sat behind white picket fences were certainly equal in size to the Apple’s farmland. This land, however, held no apple trees. Instead, pecans and oranges seemed to be the highlight of Manehattan’s produce, presumably meant for the sailors and soldiers of the north. The smell of freshly trimmed grass permeated the air of the farmland, with working ponies still out and about, hoping to finish their chores before the sun set.

Once they were past the orchards and the grape fields, they stumbled into the farm animal territory. Pigs oinked as they passed by while cows ignored them, too focused on the fodder of the field they stood in. Neither of the mares seemed to be paying attention as a flood of sheep suddenly came bolting across the street, stopping them dead in their tracks. The sheep were carefully being herded across and into a large, long metal barn that had been repurposed for something else. “Looks like we found sheep,” Applejack stated the obvious.

Sunset asked, “Yeah, but do you notice anything odd?”

Applejack glanced over the sheep as they passed, noting the floppy ears, happy smiles, and white wooly coats. “Uh,” she started to say. She took another, harder look at the seemingly perfect sheep. “No?”

Rolling her eyes, Sunset pointed to a passing sheep’s fleece coat. “They all have their wool. Unshorn sheep. Rarity was complaining about the lack of wool she was receiving.”

“Oh, yeah! Maybe they’re goin’ into that there buildin’ to be sheered?”

The last few sheep crossed the road and filtered into the metal barn, pushing and shoving against each other as the steel doors began to close behind them. Just before the doors could shut, Sunset and Applejack pushed through the opening. Dim lights hung overhead providing the only light now that the doors had closed, making the white wooly sheep a bit grayer in color. The musky scent of sheep and hay wafted through the enclosed space. It was a tight barn, and the sheep were just a tad smaller than they were. Seven or eight sheep could line from wall to wall at most, and there were at least a hundred down the length.

“Hurrk,” was the sound Sunset made before she pressed a hoof to her muzzle, blocking her nostrils.

Applejack looked at her and chuckled. “Guess you don’t live on a farm in your fancy human world. This place smells like home.” Applejack then took a big whiff of the barn’s scent, causing Sunset’s stomach to churn.

“Let’s just find out why these sheep haven’t been shaved yet,” Sunset said as she stepped to the left side, hoping to push against the wall and the sheep.

“Winter is coming,” a sheep said, startling Sunset away from the wall. “It’ll be too cold for us,” another stated. “Yeah! We’re keeping our wool. Fluttershy said so! She’s so kind.” Many of the sheep began repeating Fluttershy’s name, baaing and bleating incoherently.

So that’s the reasoning. Rarity was already generous, now Fluttershy is being kind. This might be a lot harder than I thought, Sunset concluded as the sheep slowly simmered their cheering.

A voice then rose their cheers back from the silence. “What’s got you all so excited?” the voice questioned, echoing from the far end of the metal barn. Sunset could barely make out the pink of the pony’s head.

They pushed forward, pressing by the gentle livestock with ease. As they drew closer, the grey wool played contrast to the yellow and pink of the pegasus. The voice called out again, “Don’t worry little ones, you’ll be safe in here tonight and then tomorrow you can go back into the yard.” The pegasus hadn’t noticed Sunset or Applejack creeping up behind her. The dim light worked against her just as it had for them.

The pegasus was busily moving hay bales around and brushing off the coats of the closest sheep. As she set down a bucket near the herd, her eyes drifted up to some movement that was higher than the rest of the livestock. That’s when she finally noticed the two ponies that stared at her with their menacing faces hidden in the shadowy lights. Her scream resonated within the metallic walls of the building, forcing Sunset and Applejack to cover their ears.

“Fluttershy!” Sunset called out over the screaming. Pushing through the sheep, Sunset reached out and closed shut Fluttershy’s muzzle. “Enough!” she commanded in a deep, angry voice.

“Is it safe?” Applejack yelled, still covering her ears. Some of the sheep looked up at her with squinting eyes and terse looks while others snickered.

Pushing Sunset’s hoof away, Fluttershy asked, “W-Who are you? What d-do you want?”

“Relax, relax. We’re friends.” Sunset hadn’t thought of what she could say to the pegasus to get her on her side. According to Applejack, mentioning the different timelines was out of the question. “My name is Sunset Shimmer,” she greeted, “We have been looking for you, Rarity told us we could find you here.”

“R-Ra-Rarity?” the pegasus stuttered and wiped the sweat from her brow. “You’re not h-here to collect the wo-wool are you?”

“The wool, Rarity, and you, actually.”

Her answer looked to have puzzled the pegasus. “Please! Don’t tell anyone about the sheep! I beg of you!” Fluttershy dropped to the ground, pleading with Sunset. Hay and dirt clung to her tears and stuck to her face in the process.

Sunset stared down at the teary eyed pegasus. It had been a long while since she personally made her timid friend cry. A flood of memories poured into her mind. Yelling, slamming lockers, cornering her. There were a lot of things she had done to the shyest of her human friends, all of which she still regretted, regardless of being forgiven. Now, staring down at the sullen pegasus, Sunset wondered if she’d ever get to see that introverted friend again, to share a day at the animal shelter or a picnic with her friendly animals.

Placing a hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder, Sunset said, “We won’t tell, Fluttershy.”

The downpour of tears hadn’t yet stopped as she looked up at Sunset. “Y-You won’t?”

“It wouldn’t be very kind of us, now would it?” Applejack emphasized her question with a wink as she walked over and stood next to Sunset.

Fluttershy looked unsure of the two but was quick to regain her composure. “Oh, well, t-thank you.” She trotted past Sunset to slump down next to the sheep, wrapping her forelegs around one of them. “I don’t want to think of these poor souls being cold for the winter. It’d be just awful for them. I can’t even bring myself to pick up a razor.”

“We did promise to bring Rarity back their wool,” Applejack whispered to Sunset. “How’re we gonna do that now? We can’t really promise one thing and then do the other.”

The Element of Honesty was just as honest as Sunset had known her to be. And she was more often right about things than Sunset would want to admit; this being one of those times. Sunset watched as Fluttershy opened the metal door of the barn and trotted outside, the song in her step returned to what it had been prior to the screaming.

Taking a moment to breathe, Sunset levitated down her zipper and pulled the journal from the backpack. “What’re you doin’?” Applejack asked as Sunset flipped through the pages.

“I-I’m not the greatest when it comes to friends,” she admitted. “I’d like to say I’m pretty knowledgeable about it, but it’s only been recently that I’ve truly understood what friendship means. This book isn’t just history of what’s happened in my timeline, it’s advice for trying to make new friends, and keep old ones.” She eventually came to a page where she had asked about Fluttershy, to which Princess Twilight retold the tale of the Breezies. “Fluttershy was once forced to be unkind to some small creatures, which goes against her Element, but she did it so that they would be able to go home. Essentially, being unkind was the greatest kindness she could give.”

Applejack ran a hoof through her flowing mane, rubbing the back of her neck. Blonde strands of hair moved gently around her dirty hoof. She had remained silent for a moment, contemplating a reply. “So, we’re gonna roughhouse some sheep?” she finally asked.

“What? No. No!” Sunset scoffed and shook her head. “I’m going to convince her to come with us and give up the wool.” She trotted out of the barn and headed for Fluttershy, feeling less confident with every step. “H-Hey, Fluttershy. Can I talk to you? About King Sombra?”

The pegasus froze. She had turned to face Sunset with a smile but that quickly dissipated at the very mention of the name. “K-K-King Sombra!?”

“Yes. You see, when I told you I was here for you, I should have told you that I’m not from this world. I’m from an alternate world, in a different time where we don’t have a war with King Sombra. We live peacefully, in fact. When The Crystal Empire returned, King Sombra was defeated. Many villains were defeated, actually. One of them being myself.” She smiled at the thought of her demonized form. “But in every instance, you and five others had a hoof in the victory. And I think I’m here to help you six win in this timeline too.”

The pegasus had remained frozen. She was either blindsided by the amount of exposition or still traumatized by the mention of King Sombra, Sunset couldn’t really tell which. Her throat moved to swallow before she finally spoke up. “O-Oh,” was all she replied.

Sunset stood still, unsure of how to respond to such a simplistic answer. She could feel her cheeks burn as she realized that ponies really didn’t believe her. She now knew Applejack was right to say she’d be in an insane asylum if she continued telling everypony of her alternate world. Before she could say anything to prove she wasn’t crazy, a mocking laugh cut her off.

“Sorry! Sorry!” Applejack apologized, wiping a tear from her eye as she continued to chortle. “I can’t help but laugh at awkward situations.” She took a few steps and stood next to Sunset, placing a foreleg around the unicorn’s neck. “I know how it must sound, Fluttershy. I didn’t rightly believe it at first. But Sunset is definitely a time travelin’, universe hoppin’ pony from a different world. I wouldn’t have left my farm and family back in Ponyville if I didn’t believe her.” Giving a tap to Sunset’s chest, she added, “Apparently we’re all friends in her world, and I can’t help but get a good feelin’ from you, Fluttershy. So, when she says we can defeat King Sombra, I’m more than inclined to believe her.”

“I-I’ve never really had any friends before. B-Besides the sheep, of course,” Fluttershy nervously replied, rubbing one foreleg with the other while hiding behind a few strands of hair.

“Well, it’s never too late to have more. I’m living proof of that.” Sunset placed a hoof around the pegasus with Applejack joining in on the opposite side. “Though being friends means we shouldn’t lie to each other. I’m sorry to say but we really do need the wool from these sheep.” She watched as Fluttershy’s head sunk. “But I don’t think it’d be too much to ask if Rarity made them coats as well.”

The pegasus removed the brown bandana from her head, revealing her short hair. It seemed to be matted and shorter in places, which Sunset assumed meant she had cut it herself. “O-Okay. I suppose if you really want me to, I can start sheering.”

“That’s the spirit!” Sunset cheered.

Nothing more was said by the pegasus as she went to work sheering the sheep. Her smile had faded as the razor buzzed in her hooves. Wool fell to the ground to which she quickly swept into a basket. She then froze at the sight of the other two ponies who had begun helping with her work. “Y-You’re hel-helping me?”

Sunset threw a look over her shoulder, noting the disbelief in the pegasus’s eyes. “Of course. You didn’t think we’d force you to do it all yourself? What type of friends would we be if we were that self-centered?”

“Baaaaad friends,” Applejack replied, still focusing on the sheering process. It took a few seconds for her to notice the silence, to which she turned to see the unamused faces of Sunset, Fluttershy, and even a few sheep, which spoke for them. “Oh come on now. Someone was bound to make the pun eventually!” she argued before returning to the chore.

A smile pursed Sunset’s lips, hidden by her focus on the sheep. “I suppose helpful friends come with bad jokes in every universe.” She shut off the razor and turned back to Fluttershy. “Isn’t that right Fl-” Her mouth ceased to move as she saw the glowing eyes of the pegasus.

They had almost missed it, too focused on the sheep, razors and bad jokes. A necklace grew from white light. It wrapped around Fluttershy’s throat, the gold hem shining against her yellow fur. Once her hooves touched the ground the two rushed up to greet her, the Element of Kindness. “Oh, my,” Fluttershy whimpered as she opened her eyes and held her head. “W-What just happened?”

“You did it! You unlocked the Element of Kindness! How’d you do it?” Sunset tapped the pink butterfly that sat contained within the necklace.

Fluttershy rubbed her temple as she stared down at the piece of magical jewelry. “Uhm, I, well, it was when I saw how kind you two were, helping me and all.” Her eyes met Sunset’s. “I thought you were just saying those things to get to the wool, but when you started sheering the sheep with me, well, it just sort of clicked.”

Applejack snorted and said, “Hah! Told you that’s what it was like!”

Rolling her eyes, Sunset turned her attention back to Fluttershy. “This is an Element of Harmony, Fluttershy. With this, with six of these, we can defeat King Sombra and I can return home. Will you help us? Will you come with us to The Crystal Empire?”

The shy pony hid behind a few strands of her short mane for a moment before popping out her smiling face. “I couldn’t say no to somepony who has that match faith in me. Especially not somepony who’s a friend.”

Sunset wrapped her forelegs around the pegasus and squeezed, to which Fluttershy did as well. “Then I guess that’s two down, four to go. Maybe three if we can convince Rarity,” Applejack said. As Sunset and Fluttershy went back to their spots and picked up their razors, Applejack began to tap the ground with a hoof. “It used to be that smiles were come and go. Friends were something that I used to know,” she began to sing, tapping happily along.

But just by being near you has helped me grow,” Fluttershy picked up where Applejack left off. “I feel it in me, that something that I used to know.”

“Are you two seriously singing right now?” Sunset asked, interrupting their lyrical tirade. Fluttershy and Applejack both sang their answer, to which Sunset gave a smile and began to join in. She couldn’t stop herself. Her friends were happy, and that alone made her happy. It all seemed to wash away. The war, her troubles, everything. For a moment, this was what Sunset needed.

Arc 1: Chapter 3

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The carts creaked and shook as they halted in the street. The wool had been shaved, stored, and carted by the three, and Sunset knew that was three more things that she didn’t have to do. It was her hope that this show of generosity would be enough. Not just to convince Rarity, but to also bring forth the Element from within her. After releasing themselves from the carts’ harnesses they went inside the sewing shop. Most of the mares that had been busily working themselves to the bone had gone home for the day, leaving Rarity and one other worker to tend to the fabrics.

As they entered, the bell rang out, catching Rarity and the other mare’s attention. The workshop had gone silent for a moment, but not before the white unicorn shouted, “Fluttershy!?” The look on Rarity’s face was a perfect match to the look Sunset had on the day she arrived to the strange timeline. Rarity trotted past the sewing machines and across the room, staring intently at the pegasus. Her eyes drifted down to the gold hemmed necklace that sat around Fluttershy’s neck. “I can’t believe it. Does this mean you’ve managed to convince her to send us the wool?” she asked Sunset.

“Yep, even prepped it and brought it over, it’s in the set of carts right outside,” Sunset answered and then paused. She waited for the light to shine through Rarity’s eyes, for the necklace to form, and for Rarity to realize she truly was the Element of Generosity. Unfortunately, Rarity’s eyes, while appreciative, didn’t change. “A-And she’s also committed to coming with us to find the other three up in The Crystal Empire,” Sunset continued, still waiting for the light show to begin.

Applejack gave an inquisitive look to Sunset who in turn tried her best to ignore the earth pony. There was something wrong, Sunset knew that, but she couldn’t understand what it was. They had done everything right and it was all for naught. “Why didn’t she receive an Element yet?” asked Fluttershy, who apparently had been wondering the same thing they had.

Both Sunset and Applejack gave a shrug, but it was Rarity who had the answer. “My Element? What exactly is my Element?”

“Generosity,” answered Applejack.

The unicorn’s eyelashes fluttered for a moment before closing. “And you expected me to see how generous you two were?” she asked, opening her eyes to reveal blue, diamond sharp pupils. “That would make sense except for the fact that you need me for something. Doing something for somepony else when you want something in return isn’t very generous.” Her eyes turned on Sunset. “We’re friends in your world, right? Yet you don’t know what real generosity is.”

Sunset chewed her lip as she listened to the fellow unicorn’s lecture. Well, she’s got me there. “We weren’t completely off, though! We did promise that you’d generously make coats for the sheep to wear in return for their wool. That has to count for something!”

“How is promising something that you don’t have count as generosity? Darling, that’s almost the opposite of generosity. That’s taking something and giving nothing in return,” Rarity claimed, rolling her eyes once she finished speaking. She didn’t hesitate to turn back to the other mare that had ceased sewing. “Suri, dear, fetch me my clipboard.”

The magenta furred mare gave a nod and returned at once with Rarity’s clipboard and a pen. Rarity was quick to sketch something up, to which she gave back to the other mare. “Here, this is the design for the sheep coats. I’m leaving it up to you to see this done, along with the charity.”

“Wait, you’re coming with us?” Sunset asked baffledly.

“You’re leaving us? You’re leaving me the workshop?” The mare Rarity called Suri held the clipboard close, her eyes began to water.

“Rename the charity if you’d like, it’s yours. If we go to The Crystal Empire and win, we won’t need this place anymore. And if we lose, well, either way, I probably won’t be returning to Manehattan for a long while. Be kind, Suri Polomare.” She wrapped a hoof around the mare before turning back to the three. “Oh! Before we go, I better get cleaned up.” Before Sunset could ask anything else, Rarity disappeared to the back room, eventually returning with a clean and proper mane. The amethyst colored outfit was gone and replaced with a pink scarf that wrapped around her neck twice. She wasn’t as radiant as Applejack or Fluttershy, but she was more than prepared to be. “Shall we?”

As they stepped out onto the stoop, Sunset was still in a state of disbelief. “You’re actually coming with us? Even though you don’t have an Element?”

“Fair’s fair. I keep my word,” Rarity replied as she looked over at the three carts. “You apparently do as well. So if this really isn’t a cult, then you’ve earned my trust. I may not have an Element as you call it, but I’m more than willing to put up with your request until I do. Or until you are proven wrong, at the very least.” A half smile crossed her lips.

Sunset hadn’t expected Rarity to be so perceptive. It was a rather curious trait that she wondered if her own Rarity shared. The Rarity who lived in Equestria owned and operated businesses, so surely this was another, more intelligent side that had never come up during her time in the human world. It was just another thing on Sunset’s list to ask about once she returned to her own time.

“Okay. So. How is this ragtag group of gals getting to The Crystal Empire? Some sort of teleporting device in these marvelous little amulets,” Rarity asked as she gently tapped Applejack’s Element.

“Boat,” answered Applejack. “It’s the only way north.”

“Well that’s rather disappointing,” Rarity grumbled.

Travel hadn’t been a thought on Sunset’s mind. It was one of those bridges they’d cross whenever they got to it, but getting around in Equestria was a lot harder than just jumping through a mirror. Travel was quite easy for unicorns who had the magical prowess and skill to do so. Unless you’re a unicorn who’s a bit rusty. Sunset had been gone for so long that she had become out of practice with most of her rudimentary spells. Levitation is like riding a bike, but teleportation, energy beams, and illumination were a bit more advanced. It wouldn’t hurt to brush up on my magic, she thought, but there’s really no need. I shouldn’t be here much longer. Of course, she hadn’t accounted for the day and a half it took them to reach the northernmost port.

It was the last surviving outpost besides the main base, which was within The Crystal Empire’s territory. The small snowy city had wooden palisades surrounding it, and was much, much smaller than Manehattan. They had traded skyscrapers of cement for hovels of dirt and stone. Cottages had been built at one point, or perhaps appropriated for the war’s use. It offered a much-needed shelter from the blizzardy winds that shrouded the horizon to the west, though the air here was less than a mild breeze. Most of the other ponies that had also traveled by boat set off to join their battalions or find their captain. Sunset and the Element’s received several odd looks on the boat, and now were being subject to even stranger, more intimidating stares.

The cold frost seemed to make everyone a bit jittery or mean, or both. Even the nurses grimaced as they passed the cottages. Applejack urged them not to stop, they needed to make haste if they were going to head across the snowy wasteland and reach Celestia’s encampment before nightfall. With the menacing looks they were given, the others heeded Applejack’s words. As they reached the single gate of the port, they were stopped by two guards who were decked out in plated gold armor. They were different from the other soldiers, even though everyone wore the same type of armor, but their helmets were different compared to the rest. These held blue plumes while the regular soldiers had white or brown. Sunset knew the colors well, the blue meant they were part of the royal guard. These two guarded someone or something relating to royalty, that was for certain.

“Four civilians coming to the north, not even here to help with the effort, and they’re just going to head straight for the gate?” a stallion’s voice called from behind them. They quickly turned to face him, and Sunset acknowledged he was a higher officer than the rest. The plume that sat atop the white stallion’s helmet was made from his own mane and tail, giving the brush his own set of colors. This signified he wasn’t just part of the royal guard, but he was the captain, as only the highest guard could hold a helmet displaying his own colors.

For a moment, Sunset thought she recognized him but could not discern from where. “Um, hello there,” she stepped forward between the other three. “We’re actually looking for a few of our friends. We believe they’re at the main encampment. So, we’ll just be on our way.”

“Not so fast,” the stallion commanded as he removed his helmet. “I cannot allow civilians to cross the storm. You may get captured by King Sombra’s forces and forced to join them if you have not already joined them.”

“What do you mean, already joined them? Have there been other ponies who just showed up outta the blue and helped that evil stallion?” Applejack curtly asked.

“No, but we’re not taking any chances.” The stallion’s brow pulled together. “You’re going to have to come with me.”

“Wait, please.” Sunset stared at the eyes of the stallion, the light blue in his iris matched the streak within his hair. On a hunch, she pleaded, “Please sir, we have to cross. My friend Twilight Sparkle is out there and I need to find her.”

The name made the captain falter and step back. “Twilight… How do you know my sister’s name?”

“Aha!” Sunset shouted and pointed at the stallion. “I knew it! You’re Shining Armor!”

The other two guards came forward and surrounded the four mares. “Now you’re really going to have to come with me,” Shining Armor demanded, sounding all the more serious.

With no other choices, Sunset complied and they were taken to Shining Armor’s temporary quarters. It was in that cozy little cottage that Sunset explained everything. Her time travel, her human world, her reuniting of the Elements of Harmony. Applejack and Fluttershy backed up her story, showing off the Elements that hung around their throats. Shining Armor listened to their tale, hearing of the roles they filled and of Sunset’s timeline. For a moment, it appeared that Shining Armor would believe them, that is until he gave his answer. “I’ll escort you across myself. Princess Celestia can decide whether or not you’re telling the truth or if you’re simply out of your minds.”

Princess Celestia. It was a name Sunset dreaded to hear, the guilt she had still waning on her conscience. She much preferred the name Principal Celestia. She had no past confrontations with that Celestia, and she could only hope that the altered timeline had left none with this Celestia. If not, then she could only imagine what the alicorn would have to say to her. Would she accept her return, even if she was not from this timeline? Would she have her jailed, never able to return to her own time or world? It was only a matter of distance before she would find out.

They wasted no time. It was only her, the three Elements, Shining Armor, and the two royal guards that were making the trek through the snow storm. Shining Armor had said that The Crystal Empire was like an eye within the storm, creating a plentiful battleground that Celestia has held through strife and attrition. “Without Celestia and her army, I’d imagine most of Equestria would be covered in crystals,” he commented, attempting to speak over the gusts of wind. The palisade that surrounded the port were no longer visible once they had entered the storm. There was no turning back as far as Sunset was concerned.

The blizzard was loud and blinding, but Shining Armor had created a barrier around them, preventing the ice from freezing them solid as they walked. Still, the sounds it made covered the noise of Sunset’s hooves crinkling in the snow as they walked. She attempted to yell a response, but her voice could not overpower the wind. It was as if a thousand train whistles went off at the same time, striking against their eardrums worse than the snow that struck the barrier. Sunset wondered if the blizzard could keep King Sombra’s forces at bay as well, or if the storm was brought on by the evil unicorn.

Sunset pondered what King Sombra was truly like. She wasn’t there for his defeat and only heard of tale that was told afterward. Twilight’s assistant, Spike the Dragon, was the hero of the empire. After King Sombra’s defeat, it was Princess Cadance and her husband, Shining Armor, who ruled over the crystal city. What had become of the king after his defeat? She made a mental note to write down her unanswered questions, hoping to get answers once she returned to her own time. Now there’s a thought. Once we defeat him, Twilight can say she too defeated King Sombra. I wonder what Spike will think of that. She half smiled at the thought.

With a final push, they made their way out into a snowy clearing where light reflected off the untouched snow. If it had not been for the dark crystals and bellowing smoke, it would have been a peaceful sight. But the thousands of dark red tents in the distance and the crystals that jutted up in the north painted a very different picture for Sunset. As they continued toward the crimson tents and smoke, Sunset asked, “So, will Princess Twilight Sparkle be there? I need to talk to her as soon as possible.”

Princess Twilight Sparkle?” Shining Armor repeated with a mocking laugh. “My sister, a princess? Now there’s a riot. She’d turn down the position, even if she wasn’t a student under the prince.” He gave another laugh and shook his head. A glance at his eyes reflected a memory he was having, most likely of his baby sister, Sunset assumed.

“Prince? What prince? There’s another prince besides you?” Sunset questioned.

“Me? I’m not a prince. Well, not yet,” he said, “No thanks to The Crystal Empire popping up, nor the changeling invasion. Why? Am I already married in your world? Do you know my fiancée?” He stopped and everyone stopped with him.

She gave a nod. “Not that I was actually there, but that is ringing a few alarms in my head. So who’s the prince then? And how was the changeling invasion defeated?”

Shining Armor continued and so did the rest. “I’ll let you meet the prince yourself. He’s never far from Princess Celestia’s side. He was actually the one who managed to defeat the changelings by breaking through the changeling queen’s disguise. It was a lucky thing that I had become friends with him, otherwise, he might not have realized something was wrong. Princess Celestia awarded him after that. A keen eye, she claimed, and the power of friendship.” He gave a hoarse laugh and a cough followed.

The thought of a different prince soured Sunset’s mood. It would be more difficult to pull things back into place if there was a large enough difference between the two timelines. An unmarried Princess Cadance, no Princess Twilight, a war with King Sombra, and an unknown prince. It would curdle anyone’s mood to have so much be so different, yet familiar enough. But there was one thing that was the same, that much Sunset could see. It stood around her, traveling with her. Regardless how they came to be or what had changed them, she knew she could rely on them. Her friends.

Of course, there was one thing that worried her more than King Sombra’s rise, a new prince, or the changed events. That one thing was soon to be face to face with her.

As they drew closer to the camp, the crimson of the tents mixed with the snow, turning it purple – as if to give a bright opposite to the plum colored crystals of The Crystal Empire. Sunset was mesmerized by the gentle winds kicking up the purple snow and dragging it into the air. It was as if the breeze here didn’t even care about the blizzard or the war between good and evil. She envied it for a moment. At least it belonged in this world.

A short jog up an incline and they were inside the camp. Sunset also noted how much smaller the tents were than she had anticipated, but there was certainly a lot of them. She tried to count but gave up once she realized there were far more than a hundred, and that was just what she could see. Each tent seemed to hold two to three soldiers and was held up by metal rods and rope. Some of the soldiers looked at them as they passed, while others kept their chins buried in their chests. Everyone had remained silent once they had reached the camp, and Sunset knew this was the first time the three Elements had truly seen the war taking its toll. The sounds of horseshoes colliding as the soldiers trained echoed out, only interrupted by the occasional shouting. It was almost an unnatural sound.

There was a large tent that they were coming upon, followed by even larger tents. Blue plumes sat atop the helmets of those soldiers who stood around these tents. As they walked further, Sunset noticed how many of the blue there was and wondered if Celestia had brought the entirety of the royal guard with her. Was there even a single guard left in Canterlot? It wasn’t too long before she would be able to voice her thought, as the thing that worried her most stood only a few yards away.

They stopped at a rather large rectangle canopy. In it held a sprawled out crimson carpet, a table, nine chairs, six chests, a collection of books and tomes, a map of the north, pleasant food, and a single white alicorn that stared through a telescope with a frown that would make Principle Cinch jealous. The last one was what Sunset feared the most. The giant white wings and sharp horn were much more threatening when they were atop a pony who may or may not harvest resentment toward you. Shining Armor trotted ahead to greet the princess who seemed more focused on whatever was on the other side of that lens. As they stepped beneath the canopy and stood to the right of the table, Sunset heard her name. Shining Armor had said it, followed by Twilight’s name.

Neither of the names had drawn Celestia away from the telescope. Sunset assumed that meant she had never met the princess in this timeline. That or Celestia wanted nothing to do with her failed student. When Shining Armor motioned for Sunset, she trotted up closer but still maintained her distance. “H-Hello,” she said, her tone was anxious, but not completely lack of confidence. “I’m Sunset Shimmer. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The ears of the alicorn perked up at the name as if they had not heard Shining Armor say it at all. Removing her eye from the scope, Celestia tilted her head ever so slightly to peer at the unicorn, like a bird turning its neck to get a better look at its prey. But unlike a bird’s eye, Celestia’s were sharp and restless, not beady or lidded. Though her movement was like that of an avian, her ears moved more like a cat – twitching in one direction, then another, listening for every sudden sound. “Acquaintance? I suppose that’s all we are anymore,” she finally spoke with her deep, overbearing voice. The same voice Sunset had heard right before she ceased her apprenticeship.

It was not a drastically different timeline after all. There was one semblance of Sunset’s life, the single piece of her past that she wished wasn’t. Her second greatest failure. “O-Oh. I-I’m sorry, I didn’t know if you knew me in this timeline or not. Things here are a bit different than what I’m used to,” Sunset apologized, keeping her head low but still maintaining eye contact. Any confidence she had flew out of her like a plastic bag being carried by the wind.

The ears stopped, the eyes widened, and the mouth twitched with a flinch just for a moment. If Sunset’s words were the answers to a test, Celestia would have gotten an F. Out of all the things Sunset could have said, there was no way she would have expected sorry. “Timeline?” Celestia repeated the word and stepped toward the unicorn, facing her large, white body at the mare.

“Oh,” Sunset replied, a sparkle returned to her eye. “Yes. Yes! Out of all the ponies who have thought I was crazy, I have to believe you’d be willing to hear me out and know that I was telling the truth, without having to convince you!”

“Go on then,” acknowledged the alicorn.

Sunset nervously chewed her lip before centering herself. It was all or nothing. “I’m from another world, another time, where there’s no war with King Sombra. It’s a land of peace and was saved countless times by my friends. One of those friends even saved me from turning just as evil as King Sombra. But something happened recently, something relating to a map they use to help others. Now I’m stuck in this world, trying to get back to mine, and it’s not even the same one I live in!”

The alicorn glared over the unicorn, giving a suspicious eye as she listened to every word.

“And then I’m supposed to help this world even though I don’t know how other than uniting the Elements of Harmony. Supposedly that will get me home too, but I don’t even have confirmation for that! And it’s been so long that I’ve had to talk to you, even though I know it’s not the you that I actually know but it still makes me feel awkward and I know I’m startling to ramble but I just can’t help it…” Sunset poured her words out as quickly as she thought of them, eventually running out of breath. She forced herself to take a moment, panting like a dog.

“The Elements of Harmony…” Princess Celestia seemed to soften. Her shoulders rolled as she leaned her head back, though still staring down at Sunset, who stared back. “They’re all but gone. Trapped in stone and left in a place nopony can get to, part from me. Though not even I can bring them back from their rock prison.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about those. I was talking about these Elements.” Sunset extended a hoof and pointed at the three mares who stood off to the side, guarded by Shining Armor.

She could tell Celestia didn’t understand. For once, it was a surprise to see the teacher hold so little information. Whether it was a principal or princess, Celestia always seemed to know a little bit about everything – though not everything she knew was under her control. “They’re the Element bearers,” Sunset continued. “Rarity, the Element of Generosity, has not yet gained her Element. The other two have, however.” She pointed to the necklaces on Applejack and Fluttershy. “Applejack, the Element of Honesty, and Fluttershy, the Element of Kindness.”

Celestia stared down her muzzle at the trio. “Kindness and generosity. I know those Elements well.”

“What about honesty?” Sunset asked.

“That belonged to… someone else,” replied the alicorn as she turned her head to the battlefield.

Sunset was unsure what that had meant, though many things were different within this timeline. Something in her gut told her not to press the powerful alicorn for answers, especially when she required answers for different questions. “There’s actually six of them. Loyalty, laughter, and magic.”

“And what is your Element?”

Everyone seemed to expect an Element of Sunset, though she did not know why. Regardless of how much she had changed, the path she had originally trailed was not one that the Elements had a part of. At most, she was an action by the Elements, given friendship and support in its place. But in this world, every pony that she spoke to seemed to believe she was worthy. And every time she had to correct them, she felt like a liar or deceiver, giving them false hope without even being what she claimed to bring. “I-I’m not an Element,” she replied, lowering her head. “I’m just friends with them.”

“Friends? Sunset Shimmer has friends?”

“A few. One or two in my timeline, a few more in the human world I live in. It’s a work in progress.”

A smile creaked onto Celestia’s lips. “That sounds awfully different from the attitude you had when you left my apprenticeship.”

“Well, when the Princess of Friendship shows up in your world and beats the darkness out of you, you kind of start to listen after that. People tend to forgive you if you’re legitimately sorry.” Sunset shrugged.

“The princess of what?” Celestia asked, curiously.

“Oh, right. Well, Twilight Sparkle’s the unicorn who succeeded where I failed in my world. She also convinced me that the path I had been down wasn’t worth it. Twilight’s the Princess of Friendship, the Element of Magic, and she’s a good friend.” Either Celestia’s smile was contagious, or the mere thought of Twilight was enough for a smile to appear on Sunset.

“Did you just say Twilight Sparkle?” a stallion asked from behind her. “What do you want with my student?”

Sunset’s eyes almost popped out of her skull after she turned to the voice. A stallion stood by her three friends, light orange in fur and darker in mane. A long, dark orange beard strung from his chin, tied in the middle with a blue gem. Glasses sat on his muzzle, almost hiding the white stripe that went from between his eyes down to the nostrils. It wasn’t what he looked like or who he was that disturbed Sunset. It was that two perfect wings sat upon his back, while a book was levitated in front of him, kept up by his horn.

“I-I can’t believe it.” Sunset turned back to Celestia. “You made Sunburst your pupil instead of Twilight? Sun ‘I can’t tell the difference between an enlarging and shrinking spell’ burst?! Are you kidding me?” She threw her face to the air and shouted, “This is the worst possible timeline!”

The stallion stepped forward and took his place next to Celestia. “If there was anyone who would still hold a grudge about mixing up size spells, it’d be the traitorous Sunset Shimmer.” His eyes gleamed over her through his glasses that sat halfway down his muzzle. “And that’s Prince Sunburst to you. Not that I’d be as resentful as you, but I do like the irony here.” His smirk tilted the glasses slightly.

“This doesn’t make any sense. Even if I left, Twilight still should have become Celestia’s pupil. You were dropping out when I quit. How’d you become her student, let alone an alicorn!?”

“So you did say her name.” Sunburst pushed up his glasses. “Twilight Sparkle failed to prove her magical abilities in school, but I returned after you fled to try again. I made an impression when the others did not. She didn’t give up though, and after I ascended to prince status, it made sense to take her on as my pupil. Of course, a dear close friend was also very convincing, so it made sense to take his sister under my wings,” explained the prince.

Sunset grimaced at the thought of Sunburst ascending a throne. Shining Armor had backed up the truth in his words, however. He must have been the one to save Princess Cadance and Shining Armor’s wedding, she put two and two together. If that’s true, then I wonder how powerful he’s become.

A thunderous clop against the ground silenced the duo. “Enough,” Celestia demanded. “Guards, find a large enough tent and take our three guests so that they may get some comfort.” She motioned for the Elements to leave before turning her head to Sunburst. “Sunburst, please find your apprentice. She is of great use to us if Sunset Shimmer is to be believed. I also require some privacy to find that out for myself.”

The guards took Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack away while Sunburst nodded, taking his leave as well.

They were alone.

“Sunset, tell me of this alternate universe that you live in,” Celestia requested, returning to her telescope.

“It’s a lot like this one, except there’s no King Sombra. A few minor role changes here and there. Most importantly, my friends don’t know each other in this timeline. Something happened. Something changed so that they wouldn’t meet or become friends; so that they would never be the Elements of Harmony,” Sunset explained her knowledge of the situation. “But I saw my version of Princess Twilight leave with her assistant.”

“Where?”

“Where? You mean where did they go? I don’t know. But they went through the same type of portal I went through, except theirs was atop a table in a castle. Well, there is no castle in this timeline, but the map, the chairs, they’re still there. That’s how I knew where to look for the Elements. Whenever I place my hooves atop the table I can see the Tree of Harmony and their cutie marks.”

For a moment, Celestia didn’t flinch or speak. Whatever sat on the other side of the telescope was more interesting than Sunset or the Elements, or at least, that’s what Sunset assumed. A slight hum echoed from Celestia as she removed eye from the lens. She then lowered its height and took another look. “Come over here. Have a look at this.”

Sunset did as she was told without hesitation as if she were back in her apprentice days. Celestia leaned back to allow her some room, though she kept her neck outstretched above Sunset’s head. Sunset could feel Celestia’s breath hitting the top of her head as she pushed an eye to the glass. What she saw wasn’t what she had expected.

Purple crystals of various shades were popping up around the western walls of the city. As each one rose, a stallion of black hair and red cloak seemed to be the cause. Sunset had never seen the stallion before, but could only assume that the royal regalia and crystal creation meant it was none other than King Sombra. Around him stood soldiers with black helmets and armor to boot, a dark army for a dark king. She pushed her eye closer, zooming in slightly to get a better look at the evil stallion’s face. As it focused, the king turned his head toward her and smiled, almost as though he could see her. She quickly pulled herself away, startled by the sight.

“Six chairs, I assume,” Celestia said, “For six Elements of Harmony, correct?”

Rubbing her head, Sunset tried to understand what she had just seen. “What? Oh, uh, yes. Six Elements,” she replied, the memory of the stallion’s red eyes staring back at her stayed with her for a moment.

“I would say your instincts are right. Bring the Elements together and have them unite around the map. An alicorn with great magic could take someone from this world and be placed in another, but an outsider would require a power much greater. The Elements of Harmony could be that great power.” Celestia slid herself back down to the telescope. “Was there anything else you’ve come across?”

Sunset wondered if Celestia wanted her to see the terrible, dark stallion. Perhaps it was crude payback for how she had left her teacher, or perhaps it was a simple warning. “Yes. The Tree of Harmony had the words, help time. Or time help. Whichever,” Sunset answered truthfully.

For the first time, Sunset’s words perked Celestia’s interests away from the scope. “You actually went to the Tree of Harmony? It communicated with you?” Sunset nodded in response. “That’s a bit of a shock,” Celestia said, tilting her head back to look at the sky. “Usually the Tree of Harmony only communicates with those who believe in harmony.” Her eyes drifted back down to Sunset. “Perhaps… perhaps you have changed from the days that I knew you as an impatient student.”

They were unkind words, but Celestia had never acknowledged anything she did was wrong. At least not to Sunset. And that fact alone made a teeth-bearing grin appear on Sunset’s face. Her cheeks swelled, her eyes glittered. Her reaction must have triggered something in Celestia, as the old teacher leaned down and rubbed her neck against Sunset’s. It had been so long but Sunset remembered the feeling well. The satisfaction she always felt whenever she made Celestia proud. It was a fleeting feeling, however.

“Ahem,” a loud, deliberate cough rang.

The prince had returned and with him his apprentice. Sunset was embarrassed for a moment, but that embarrassment soon transferred to another as the apprentice took a step forward and tripped over the only indentation within the rug. The purple muzzle of the apprentice scuffed hard, but she pulled herself up with a quick jolt. “I’ve brought Twilight Sparkle,” Sunburst introduced, ignoring the clumsiness of his student. There was no need for the introduction, however. Sunset knew who she was, and was more than eager to speak to her.

But something was different about this Twilight. The one she knew as a princess was confident, friendly, and eager to learn. The one she had met recently in the human world was less confident, still friendly, and even more eager to learn. This one had no confidence. Her hair was tied in a bun atop her head, her posture leaned closer to the ground, and she stood slightly behind Sunburst. When Sunset greeted her, she mumbled and bobbed her head. But worst of all, when Sunset asked of Spike the Dragon she received no answer. Whatever had changed, whatever had happened, there was no assistant to the purple unicorn.

In the human world, Twilight had a friend in Spike the Dog long before she became friends with the girls of Canterlot High School. Would this Twilight even be the same person without a Spike? Without any friends other than a prince and her family? Was the prince even her friend, or just a friend to her brother?

“Well, I’m Sunset Shimmer,” she introduced herself, unwilling to waste more time. “I know this sounds a bit odd, but I’m actually your friend in two alternate universes. Strange, I know, but you and five of our friends are really important to Equestria. I hope you won’t mind if we take a moment to talk.”

Twilight nodded, still hidden behind the prince. “Before I give you your leave to speak to Prince Sunburst’s apprentice,” Celestia interjected, “I have something to ask of you, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset lifted her head, pushing it until Celestia was in view, though upside down. “Uhm, what is it?”

“You seek a very powerful, very unique set of artifacts. These artifacts could potentially end our war with King Sombra, bringing peace to the land of Equestria once and for all. I know for certain they cannot be used for an evil intent, but I must ask, will you use them to win this war? Can I entrust you to do so?”

It was a bit off-putting to Sunset to hear such a demand, especially from an alicorn that had seemingly forgiven her just moments ago. It’s not like I can get them their Elements then whisk them away from The Crystal Empire with ease. I’ve got no other choice but to help out, she concluded. “I’ve brought two of the six north to the war. It’d be senseless for you to not trust me.”

Celestia grimaced once Sunset finished her words. A smile eventually came, along with the words, “So be it.” Sunset watched as the princess’s eyes sharpened and stared at the stallion. “Prince Sunburst, I must relieve your apprentice from her status as your helper. She is supposedly the Element of Magic. From now until this war is over, she will be in the care of Sunset Shimmer.”

“Princess Celestia! You can’t be serious,” Sunburst spouted, though not angrily. His voice was high, but he seemed more hurt than upset. “To trust a pony who deliberately left your side to seek a higher form of magic for her own selfish needs would be impractical, illogical even! Whatever you think she is, it’s probably just an act so that she may steal whatever magic comes of this!”

Sunset couldn’t help but laugh. The thought of Canterlot High’s students and teachers being turned into thoughtless cretins raced through her head. She had controlled them, but there were six others who opposed her, who knew power through magic wasn’t the way. “Oh trust me,” she spoke up. “I found a powerful magic. Turns out, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There’s something more powerful than the most powerful magic in any of these worlds.”

“And what’s that?” Sunburst asked, scoffing.

Friendship.”

Arc 1: Chapter 4

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“There is nothing more powerful than magic,” Twilight Sparkle said, adamant. She had stepped out to be beside her teacher. “There is nothing stronger.”

Sunset hadn’t expected a Twilight to argue against friendship. Before she could disagree, Sunburst laughed and said, “Actually, for once Sunset Shimmer is correct. Friendship is the strongest form of magic. If it hadn’t been for friendship, your brother and most of Canterlot would be changeling food. Had I not been there to see my friend’s illness caused by the changeling queen, we might be fighting a very different war right now.”

The purple unicorn quickly shifted her eyes to the ground. She mumbled something that Sunset couldn’t quite hear and then stood despondently silent. “Then it’s settled. Prince Sunburst, please take Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer to the tent with the other three. We’ll begin search for the other two Elements,” Celestia commanded. “What were their names, Sunset?”

“Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash,” answered Sunset. “According to the map, they’re somewhere here.”

“Very well. I’ll see to it that they’re found in our records and brought to you right away.”

She thanked the princess and followed after Sunburst. Things were slowly going her way, she felt. All the pieces that had been out of order or set aside were coming together. Getting the six Elements of Harmony to return to her map would be difficult, but if Celestia was right they were the only things she needed in order to get home. She wondered what Princess Twilight would do to aid in the four obtaining their Elements. Would she trick them? Convince them by talking to them? It was a weird thought to imagine what somepony else would do in her shoes, but that sparked an answer. “Put myself in their place,” she murmured to herself, then attempted to snap the fingers she didn’t have.

Upon reaching the tent, Sunburst held the drape open for the two mares to enter. Sunset was surprised to see such a luxurious pavilion in the middle of a war. Couches sat rounding the far side with a table close to the entrance which held fruit, crackers, and sweets. The middle was filled with pillows of varying sizes where the three friends sat getting to know each other. They perked up and greeted Sunset as she entered, but they all became quiet as Twilight and Sunburst spoke to each other.

“It’ll be just for a short while, Twilight. You’re not losing me as a friend or a mentor. This day has been coming for a long time, I always knew you’d be needed for something greater. You’ve just got to have faith in yourself like I do.” Sunburst spoke with a calm, wise voice, something Sunset hadn’t expected of the stallion.

“B-But…”

“No buts. You’ve spent these last few years learning so much magic from me, and now you’re going to learn about the one thing I’ve yet to teach you.” He placed a hoof atop her shoulder. “Past this one final test, for all of us.”

After Sunburst took his leave, Twilight turned to Sunset with fury, anger, and tears on her face. “Who are you to just come in and ruin my life!?” she asked with a high pitched crack. “I spent years slaving over all the magical studies I could find just so I could be of some use to Prince Sunburst! Now I’ve got to tag along with whatever half-cocked idea that you’ve somehow convinced Princess Celestia to be a good idea!”

That timid unicorn who lacked confidence seemed to have vanished, replaced by a fourth Twilight Sparkle, one whose temper was larger than any storm at sea. “I don’t know you,” she said as she stepped toward Sunset. “I don’t want to know you. I don’t care to know you.” Her eyes sharpened around the edges as she spoke. “I just want you and your little friends to g-” As she took another step, her hoof planted on a pillow that slid out from under her, causing her to trip and slam her chin on the ground in front of Sunset.

Sunset was quick to lend a hoof, but the mare pushed herself up. She rubbed her chin and looked away, but Sunset continued to stare with a bit of pity behind her eyes. “What happened to you in this timeline?” she blurted out her question, though she hadn’t meant to.

“Me?” Twilight growled as she glared back at Sunset. “What has happened is you. I was finally becoming something, but this stupid war and that awful King Sombra ruined it all for me. Now you’ve come along and ruined it even more!”

The words Twilight spoke brought Sunset back to a time long before she went beyond the mirror. The want for power and control, coupled with the want to be something. Those two things were all she had ever wanted. She could see a lot of herself within this Twilight, the irony wasn’t lost on her. It seemed that this world had a desire to make her relive the past. “In my world, there’s a Princess of Friendship. Her name is Twilight Sparkle. She’s a close friend of mine. It’s funny, I once thought she ruined my grab for power. Turns out, she showed me an even greater power.”

Twilight’s eyes shifted to the ground, a look of guilt on her face. “A princess? Th-that’s not possible,” she argued.

“Actually, I can verify that it’s the truth,” Applejack interrupted. The blonde mare sauntered to the side of Sunset. “My name’s Applejack, and the Twilight Sparkle that Sunset is talkin’ about is a mare I’ve met. She came to me explainin’ that this world was offset by somethin’ in the past. I thought she was crazy till Sunset came along and showed me the truth.” She tapped the necklace around her throat. “And you’re a splittin’ image of that princess. ‘Cept, y’know, without wings.”

Sunset nodded and smiled at the earth pony. “Celestia’s given her approval. We will soon have Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, and from there we’ll figure out how to get the last four Elements of Harmony we need.”

“Elements of Harmony? There’s no such thing,” Twilight dismissed.

“Uh.” Applejack tapped the necklace around her throat once more. “Beg your pardon? How do you explain this then?”

“A piece of jewelry? Wow. You sure convinced me.” Twilight rolled her eyes carelessly. “The Elements of Harmony are a mythical legend. It’s said that they were used by Celestia to defeat the Spirit of Disharmony, bringing an end to the Era of Chaos, but it’s just a folktale.”

Sunset suddenly felt like she was hit with a dozen bricks, knocking the very breath out of her. It was a thought that had struck her. A single detail she had overlooked invaded her mind. It was so obvious that she was unsure how she missed this one key element. It was the very reason she even knew of Princess Twilight’s crown. The Elements of Harmony, used by Twilight and her friends to bring down Nightmare Moon.

Where’s Luna? she asked herself. “Where’s Luna?” she repeated her question aloud, searching their faces to see the answer.

“Luna? Who’s that, darling?” asked Rarity.

Her mind was racing with questions. Had Luna become reformed? Was Nightmare Moon still around? Did so much change that not even Tirek or Discord got released? She had to find out. Rushing past Twilight, Sunset pushed through the tent curtains and slammed into a pony standing outside. Sunset fell on her rump, landing in the snow. She held her muzzle in pain, eventually taking a look at the pony she had run into. “P-Princess Celestia!” she muffledly stuttered.

“Are you alright, Sunset? Where are you off to in such a rush?”

“To find you!” she replied, staring up at her old mentor while still clutching her muzzle. Her words had become nasally from the hit, causing Celestia to crack a slight grin. The smile quickly evaporated as Sunset asked, “How was Nightmare Moon defeated!?”

If Celestia had ever wanted to play poker then the face she bore would have been perfect for the game, as even Sunset could not tell what the alicorn was thinking. She waited patiently, hoping that the news would be good, though every second of silence caused her to become more disheartened. “A thousand years ago I banished her to the moon,” Celestia finally gave an answer that sounded almost rehearsed.

It wasn’t the answer Sunset wanted. “And what happened when she returned?” she asked, her brows furrowed.

Sunset hadn’t noticed that the others stood within the tent’s curtains, but Celestia had. “She has not returned, nor will she,” Celestia lied.

Sunset knew it was a lie. There were a thousand things Sunset couldn’t do. Lick her elbow, save the chocolate center of a lollipop for last, wake up without at least one cowlick in her hair, just to name a few. But knowing when Celestia was lying? That she could do.

“But-” Sunset tried to argue.

“We’ve located the manifest for field operatives,” Celestia cut her off, changing the subject entirely. “It seems Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash are out on an important mission.” Celestia stepped past Sunset and through the curtain of the tent, the Elements scrambled to move out of her way. “We’ve sent out a scouting party to retrieve them. Regardless of their mission, the decree I’ve sent will bring them back. That I can guarantee.”

Sunset held her tongue. She felt relieved to know the last two Elements would soon be found, but the thoughts of Princess Luna weighed heavily on her mind. I’m not the cause for all this change, she told herself, but knowing how things turned out in her world, she could only feel remorse. Following Celestia in, she trotted over to the pillows in the center of the room and sat down. She watched as Celestia picked some grapes from the table and swallowed them down. I should make sure Principle Luna gets some appreciation when I return, Sunset reflected.

“Shouldn’t we be going and getting them?” Applejack asked, breaking the silence while Sunset wallowed.

“Absolutely not,” Celestia curtly replied. “If one of you four Elements were to fall into King Sombra’s control, we would lose all hope for bringing the Elements together.”

“P-Princess Ce-Celestia-” Twilight slowly stepped toward the alicorn, her hooves shaking as she walked “-Surely y-you don’t believe the Elements of Harmony truly exist, d-do you? I mean, I know the tale of Nightmare Moon’s defeat, b-but that’s just a folktale told to fillies and colts. If they truly existed, wouldn’t you have used them t-to defeat King Sombra?”

Celestia continued to eat. Crumbs of cracker fell from her mouth onto the wooden table. She didn’t look at the five, not even when she answered. “The Elements are real. Those necklaces are proof enough.”

“I-I see.” Twilight stepped back and closed her mouth, still visibly shaking.

“I’ll let you all know once Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash arrive.” Celestia’s eyes met with Sunset’s as she looked over her shoulder. Every word she couldn’t speak was understood by Sunset. Whatever had happened in this world, Sunset knew there was nothing she could do about it now. Bringing up old memories wouldn’t change that.

Celestia left without another word. Twilight collapsed to the ground, her sweat drenched the floor. Fluttershy and Rarity cushioned themselves next to Sunset while Applejack trotted to the tent’s drapes. “She’s got us guarded,” Applejack affirmed. “I guess we’re waitin’.”

The silence was deafening. Even with the tent’s opening, the sounds of war and training were not heard. After Applejack went and sat with the others, Twilight rose from her spot on the floor. She paced back and forth within the room, slowly growing on Sunset’s nerves. “Would you sit down,” Sunset mumbled, though she wanted to yell it instead.

“What’s my Element?” Twilight inquired, her pacing slowed.

Sunset groaned and pushed her face into a pillow. “Magic,” she replied, muffled by the cushion. A snort and a laugh caused her to lift her gaze. “What’s so funny?” she asked, eyeing the giggling mare.

“There is no way,” Twilight said through laughter. “Magic? I failed every attempt at magic I ever tried.” She wiped a tear from her eye as her laugh settled.

“But, your cutie mark!”

Twilight turned her rear to the four. “Well, sure, magic is my cutie mark, but that’s because I know a lot of different spells. I could give an entire lecture on the different types of mental magic, or teach students how to make inanimate objects animate. That doesn’t mean I personally can perform the spells. It’s why Prince Sunburst thinks so highly of me. I have to memorize these things, I’m no use otherwise.”

Shoving two pillows to her ears, Sunset groaned, “Please don’t say that stallion’s name.”

Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up as she let out an audible scoff. “I think you’re just jealous of him! You failed as Celestia’s student while he took charge. Even when he was told he would lose, or that he couldn’t do something, he did it anyway. Meanwhile, you ran off to some other world. And even then you still failed at your own goals!”

“You know what!” Sunset yelled, standing to her hooves and flinging the pillows off. Her anger seethed for a moment, she wanted to yell back, but couldn’t let herself. “You’re right,” she said, softer this time. “Even Sunburst has taken charge. We should too!” She marched over to the entrance and peered out the crack, eyeing the two guards.

“What are you talkin’ about, Sunset? We’re supposed to wait here till Princess Celestia finds the other two Elements,” Applejack reminded her as she tossed a pillow into the air and then caught it, repeatedly.

Sunset shook her head. “We’re going after them ourselves,” she hastened to say. “That’s what Princess Twilight would do. She wouldn’t wait around for someone else to do her work for her! She’d get out there, get a little mud on her hooves and save the day! Her and her friends!”

“Figurative dirt, correct?” Rarity questioned, giving a coy smile to Applejack who in turn tossed a pillow at the prissy mare.

Almost angrily, Twilight asked, “You’re not saying we should defy Princess Celestia’s orders, are you? That’s insane! I knew you were up to no good!”

“Celestia is clearly using reverse psychology. She knows the only way for any of you to gain your Elements is through becoming friends, and we’re not going to become friends by just sitting around here all day,” Sunset explained. “If you were such a good student under Sunburst, you would have learned a thing or two about Celestia.” Sunset gave a smug smile as she stared down her nose at the other unicorn.

It was odd to see Twilight lose confidence in herself, but Sunset knew this Twilight wasn’t like the two in her own timeline. This Twilight was angry. At the world, at the war and at herself. “I suppose Princess Celestia does sometimes do things that I don’t understand. B-But she wouldn’t lead us astray! What she says goes… Right?” She looked to the others who gave aloof responses.

Sunset placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. She could see the bags under the student’s eyes and a few strands of hair that had gotten loose from the bun atop her head. “Princess Celestia isn’t leading us astray. She wants us to win, and she knows doing it ourselves is the only way we can. Watch, I bet the guards are gone right now.” She lifted the curtains with her magic so that everyone in the tent could see out. The two guards were nowhere to be seen. “Well would you look at that.” Sunset sneered over her shoulder, happily gloating in her wisdom.

Just as she stepped one hoof into the snow, a stallion’s voice called out to her. “Planning on sneaking off, huh?”

She was quickly pushed back into the tent as Shining Armor entered. “W-What? No. No! Of course not, why would we?” Sunset lied, giving a nervous laugh as she looked back at the others, hoping one of them would help.

“Big brother? What are you still doing here?” Twilight wondered.

“You want me gone that quickly, huh?” His laugh was hoarse and dry. “I’m here making sure you five aren’t planning on heading for The Crystal Empire…” he paused, a frown on his face. “Without me, at least.”

Twilight became furious. “No! Absolutely not! I know exactly why you want to go and there’s no way I’d let you head to The Crystal Empire! Just look at you. When was the last time you slept? You sound awful!”

“I’m heading to the empire regardless if you’re going or not, but since you four arrived out of thin air, I figured it’d be best if we teamed up,” he said, ignoring his baby sister.

“Not that I’m against help, but why would you be going to The Crystal Empire alone?” Sunset curiously asked.

Twilight groaned and hung her head, taking a few steps away. Shining Armor’s smile faltered, his eyes showed him a million miles elsewhere. “There’s somepony I have to rescue.”

The other Elements stepped beside Sunset, all curious to hear what the stallion had to say. “Who?” Fluttershy voiced her soft-spoken question.

“My fiancée, Princess Cadance.”

Sunset could see the pain in his eyes. “How did it happen?” she asked. With Luna gone, it hadn’t even struck her as odd to not see Cadance around as well.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His eyes remained closed as he spoke. “After the invasion, we were determined to have the wedding, but due to the changelings’ ability to disguise themselves as ponies, it became increasingly hard to root them out of Canterlot. Months went by before we were truly sure they had all been captured or absconded. It was then that we heard word that The Crystal Empire returned after being lost for a thousand years. Cadance and I went north as soon as we could, delaying our wedding.

“When we arrived, we were met with King Sombra attempting to take back the city, along with the blizzard’s terrible winds. After we realized we were missing a key artifact to restoring the city, we went searching for it, leaving the city undefended. As King Sombra returned to his throne and became his physical form, we retrieved the only thing that could defeat him and restore balance, the Crystal Heart. Once we reached the outside of the castle we were met by some of the crystal ponies who had already been forced into wearing his brainwashing armor. But they were just a distraction. As Cadance went to place the Crystal Heart, King Sombra encased her in crystals and sent her sailing through the castle.”

“What happened after that? How’d you escape?” asked Applejack.

“Once I realized I could not take on King Sombra and his controlled soldiers, I activated the Crystal Heart. I had hoped it would take care of that evil king and save the city, but with his form returned to him he managed to encase it in crystal as well, sending it up with Cadance. It’s still working, however, as the storm retreated. Had I known it would not stop him, I wouldn’t have activated it…”

“You did the right thing,” Sunset said as she comfortingly patted his shoulder. “Without you activating the Crystal Heart, the storm would have taken the city and froze everyone in it. At least now we can fight for their freedom.”

“Then I suppose that means you’ll join me?”

Sunset’s eyes drifted to the purple unicorn who sulked in the corner. “What do you think, Twilight? Should we join him?”

The mare’s hair bun flopped back and forth as she perked up. “Y-You’re asking me for my input? Why?”

Seeing Twilight so unsure of herself reminded her of the human version she had recently befriended. “You’re supposed to be so smart, but did you ever think you shouldn’t be messing around with things you don’t understand!?” she remembered her yelling at the human Twilight after one of the competitions with Crystal Prep. She had been so angry at Twilight’s inability to understand the situation she had put them in. Now, she was putting Twilight through a dangerous situation without giving her a reason. Defeating Sombra, bringing out the Elements, returning home. Those weren’t reasons to help, they were just the end goals.

“Because, Twilight, you’re our friend. Friends listen to each other. I know friendship is difficult to understand, especially when you’ve never had friends,” Sunset answered. She stared at the floor, thinking of her time at CHS. “I probably know that better than anyone. I once turned into a demon after absorbing magic from one of the Elements of Harmony. I was defeated, and after that, all I wanted was some guidance. Listening to what others… listening to what my friends had to say, it made a real difference.”

Twilight stared over her shoulder at Sunset, a subtle frown below tear soaked eyes. “A demon?”

Sunset chuckled. “Yeah. Bat wings, mind control, dark magic; the whole shebang.”

“Well, I suppose fighting fire with fire would make sense,” Twilight replied with a slight lilt and giggle. “Or in this case, demon versus evil unicorn,” she added as she walked over to her brother and Sunset.

“I can’t really turn into a demon anymore, not that I’d want to, but I do know a few girls who can kick the pants right off of a demon. If Sombra knew what was coming, he’d be shaking in his boots right about now.”

Twilight held a hoof over her mouth as she laughed. It was good to see the mare smile, and Sunset could only assume it was a rare thing for her. “Alright. I’m not sure I entirely believe in this Elements of Harmony thing, but I won’t let my brother go out there alone,” she said, confidently.

“Then I guess you better get the lead out, sis. We’ve got to move before the guards realize something is up and return to their posts. Follow me around the tent and down the embankment, we’ll hit the snow before they realize we’re gone and be too far out for them to catch us,” Shining Armor explained the plan as he levitated the drapes open.

Sunset held caboose as they followed Shining Armor out of the tent and around the side, crouching behind barrels and boxes as they avoided other guards. They crossed through the sets of wooden spikes that pointed toward The Crystal Empire and slid down the incline. Sunset was last to hit the bottom of the hill and could hear alarm bells ringing just as she hit the bottom. The guards had either seen them leave or had inspected the tent, either way, they hadn’t gotten nearly as far as she wanted. However, they were quick once they reached the bottom, reaching the snowy gulch that had been formed through the fighting.

She could see The Crystal Empire in the distance with the towering pillars of plum and eggplant colored crystals furthering its defenses. It wouldn’t be easier reaching the city, that she knew, and the snow and soldiers that sat between them would make it all the more difficult. As they crossed through snowy hills and signs of war, Sunset noticed the sky was growing darker. At first, she thought she was just seeing everything in the same shade of purple as the crystals, but it soon became clear that night was upon them. The sun was already hardly visible past the wall of blizzard that encompassed the battleground, and now the city itself would become a silhouette in the night.

As they reached another hill Shining Armor stopped them and fell to the ground, commanding everyone to do the same. Sunset crawled up beside him, getting her first look at some of the fighting going on below. A large battle had commenced with hundreds of ponies on both sides. Celestia had sent a force forward and King Sombra’s forces retaliated with their own. Sunset assumed it was a diversion, possibly to give her scout time to find Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. They watched for a moment as the battle pushed west, waiting for their moment to go undetected down the hill. As they prepared to move they were surprised by an ambush from behind.

“Watch out!” Twilight yelled, but Shining Armor was quicker to act, surrounding them all in a lavender shield. The five soldiers pounded on the barrier, attempting to break Shining’s spell. “We’ve got to take care of them,” Twilight exclaimed, “Blast them away, brother!”

“We can’t hurt them! They’re still ponies under all that armor,” Fluttershy argued, restrained by her kindness.

“Fluttershy’s right. Knock them out or confine them, but don’t be excessive,” Sunset agreed, taking hold of two soldiers with her magic and pushing them into the ground. Their bodies and heads stuck out in the snow, making them look like nails that had been hammered.

Once Shining Armor released his barrier, Applejack tackled one of the soldiers and wrestled them to the ground while Shining slammed his head against another. The last soldier charged at Fluttershy, but Rarity used her wits, teleporting the pegasus out of the way and sending the soldier rolling down the other side of the hill. As the soldier rolled, a ball of snow formed around him, eventually plowing into several other of Sombra’s soldiers and encasing them all within the icy sphere. After Shining Armor and Applejack had restrained their attackers, the group rushed down the incline of the hill, remaining on the sidelines of the escalating battle.

They stopped at the side of a cliff where snow hung over their heads atop a drooping ridge. Tiny icicles stuck to the top. “W-We did it!” Sunset cheered, taking a moment to catch her breath. “This feels just like the time I went paintballing with Rainbow Dash, except, y’know, less bruises and more fear.”

“What’s paintball?” Applejack asked, “Is it like buckball?’

“I don’t know what buckball is, but probably not. And now that I stop and think about it, pretty much any sport I play with Rainbow Dash ends up with bruising. She’s really competitive.”

“Yeah? Five bits says she can’t beat me at buckball!”

As they spoke, a large boulder was pushed off from above, slamming down in front of them and covering them with a liberal coating of snow. “I still don’t know what that is, and I don’t care anymore!” Sunset snarled fiercely, shaking the snow from her fur. “We’re almost half way, let’s keep moving before we get squished!”

“Your perception is flawed,” Shining Armor argued, leaning his head out from the cliff side to view The Crystal Empire. “Celestia’s forces were pushed back over time, we’re only about a tenth of the way there. I remember when I and a few others camped out on the ridge above, preventing King Sombra’s forces from flanking the camp as they moved everything.”

“Then let us not waste any more time squatting here,” Rarity said as she finished shaking the snow from her scarf.

Shining Armor took charge, but this time Sunset followed beside him. They clung around the ridge and rushed between two other hills. The hill to the east became smaller and smaller as the hill to the west rose and continued its length, forming into a cliff side three stories high. As they followed the path, they were forced between a rock and a cold place, quite literally. The cliff side eventually broke and went north, but the blizzard raged mere yards away from the icy wall. The jutted ridge partially hung over them, touched by the wind and ice of the storm.

One of the Elements yelled “We must turn back,” though Sunset could not tell who it was. Even while not directly in the storm, the winds of the blizzard screeched like a thousand bats fleeing their cave to feast in the night. As they turned to return the way they had come, Shining Armor spotted a few black helms coming their way. It was either flee or fight, though both options would be putting them all in peril.

“Into the storm!” he yelled, casting a barrier around the group. They all clung together as they marched into the winds. Sunset kept the cliff side in her view. She never wanted to lose sight of it for fear of losing where they were within the storm. They marched for minutes, which felt like an eternity to everyone. It had been a brisk jog when they passed through the storm’s walls earlier in the day, but now they were walking toward the winds, fighting the flurry. As they trudged on, the cliff side eventually fell and they marched out of the storm onto the other side. The sky had grown darker than before but was still bright enough. Shining Armor released the barrier and the snow and ice that clung to it fell to the ground.

The cliff side that had blocked their way was climbable from this side. There were a few sunken indentations in the snow leading up to boulders at the very top, though no one was around to push them off. To the north, there were no more hills or ridges or cliffs. Instead, the opposite blocked their way. Craters lined their path the entire way up to a collapsed crystal that sat on its side only a few miles from The Crystal Empire’s walls. Both Sombra’s soldiers and Celestia’s guards were dogging it out in these craters or on the edges between. The crater that sat before them was empty, side for a few hoofprints.

They slid down the incline of the crater and trudged up the other side, The Crystal Empire looking just as far away as it had when they first left the camp. Sunset took a look back and could see the smoke in the distance, floating above the tall hills. It was growing harder to see, however, and would soon be impossible with nightfall. As they slid down another crater, they came across a soldier of Sombra’s without their helmet, a mare with purple hair and orange coat. Fluttershy and Sunset were the first to see to her, the others crowded around while Shining maintained the perimeter. “Do you think she’ll still be brainwashed without the helmet?” Rarity asked, discovering the helmet tucked into the snow a few yards away.

She levitated it up and wiped the snow away. The black plume was ruffled, the eye slits were grey, and the inside smelled like rancid sweat.

“We should just keep moving,” Sunset offered. “We don’t have the time to stand around and figure out what to do with her.”

“We can’t just leave her. If she isn’t controlled then she could help us. We might even be able to find out what she knows. It’s rare to recover somepony who still has the knowledge of their tactics and defenses,” Twilight argued.

Before Sunset could respond, Shining Armor called out, “There’s fighting on the next slope. Get up here.” They all rushed up the side and reached the top, the argument settled and forgotten before an answer could be decided. The next crater held three earth pony guards surrounded by seven of Sombra’s forces.

“We’ve got to do something! They’re outnumbered,” Applejack said and Shining nodded in agreement.

“No! We’re on a mission to find these last two friends of Sunset’s. If we put ourselves in danger, who will find them?” Twilight reasoned, but the Element of Honesty didn’t care. Applejack leaped down and slid into the foray. Shining Armor was quick to follow while the others stood on the sidelines.

I can think of a million reasons to not help them, and a million more why we should, Sunset bemused. It’s not like any of this matters. If I return to the past, would this timeline cease to exist? She didn’t wait to contemplate that last question. Taking a deep breath, she dived into the crater. Shining Armor had already taken down one of the soldiers while the three guard ponies helped Applejack. Sunset used her levitation spell to lift the straps off a soldier’s armor, causing it to trip over itself and land with its head stuck in the snow.

With the soldiers defeated, Sunset turned to Shining and Applejack. “That wasn’t so hard. I don’t know what Twilight was worried about,” she said, but they ignored her. Their eyes stared up the ridge as did the eyes of the three guard ponies. Her head swiveled to catch a peek at what they were looking at. “Oh Celestia,” she whispered, her mouth agape, though it still held the stretch of a smile.

Atop the crater levitated the Element of Generosity.

Arc 1: Chapter 5

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The incline was steep, uneven, and slick, but Sunset rushed up it with ease. She reached the top as Rarity touched down onto the snow with her new amulet pressing against her scarf. A brilliant purple diamond sat within the golden hem, matching the mare’s elegant mane. “I can’t believe it,” Twilight Sparkle quietly repeated those words. Fluttershy and Applejack crowded around the white unicorn to get a look at the latest Element to appear.

“What happened? How’d you get your Element?” Sunset inquisitively asked.

“I understand what the other two were talking about,” Rarity said, holding her head as she stumbled slightly. “It clicked. Like, I saw the way Applejack rushed down to help and it sent a spark through me. She didn’t have to do that, she knew the risk, and she did it anyway, selflessly.” Rarity shook her head. “I’ve never seen such bravery, such sacrifice…”

“Such generosity,” Twilight added. “So it is an Element of Harmony. They do exist!” She stepped closer and squeezed her head through the crowd, examining the necklace. “I can’t believe she was telling the truth.”

Sunset’s nostrils flared. “It’s a shame your Element isn’t honesty as well, we’d have four of six,” she mocked. The purple unicorn didn’t seem to hear her jab though. Sunset pulled back to allow the mare some more room to study the amulet, taking a moment to look out upon The Crystal Empire in the distance.

There was still a bit of distance till they would reach the city. Several obelisks made of crystal lined the empire and created an unbreakable wall, but several more had sprung up in various places around the war zone. Plum, rose, lavender – royal colors for objects made by a king. One of the crystal obelisks had fallen, however, and sat on its side a ways from the city. She wondered if that meant they were on the right path. That’s when she heard the voice of one of the guards.

“Captain, what are you doing out here?” the stallion had asked.

She looked down at the crater where the three guards stood, Shining Armor standing with them. Sunset slid back down the slope, treading in carefully next to him. “What’s the situation? Why are three of you out here alone? Were you separated from your battalion?” Shining Armor asserted his questions with superiority, to which the guards fell in line.

“Sorry sir, we are on a classified mission from Princess Celestia, and we cannot say more than that,” a mare said, stepping forward from the other two. A saddlebag sat on her back, she was the only one to have a bag, which Sunset found a bit peculiar.

“They’re the ones heading for Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie,” Sunset assumed. “Glad we stopped to save them, seeing as how their journey is now pointless.”

The female guard shot a stern glare at Sunset. “Sir, who are you out here with? Are these civilians?”

Shining Armor ignored her question. Instead, he levitated the contents out from the bag on the guard’s back, which was a single rolled up scroll. The other two guards stepped forward, ordering him to release it. “It seems there has been a change of plans,” Shining said, opening the decree. “Return to camp with a message to Princess Celestia. Let her know that we’ll need help to escape the city, and by the time help arrives we should have all the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.”

“You don’t have the authority to order us! We’re under direct orders from Princess Celestia herself. You need to give that back!” one of the stallions argued.

“And now I’m giving you different orders.” Shining Armor ripped the decree in half, then another half. “Return to camp now. That’s an order.”

The two guards stared at Shining with fire in their eyes. Sunset held her breath, wondering if another fight was about to be had and what Shining Armor would do if there was. As they stepped forward, the mare held them both back. “Understood, sir.” She then turned her head to the other two and commanded for them to move out. They did so hesitantly, shooting glares at Shining Armor, but followed her orders just the same.

After they were out of sight, Sunset asked, “Was that the right thing to do?”

“We’ll need all the help we can get.” Shining Armor looked up the ridge at the four Element bearers. “Getting the last two ponies you need won’t be the problem. It’s getting their Elements that will be troublesome. Just finding the two won’t be enough to defeat King Sombra. And then there’s getting into The Crystal Empire… I’d say having Celestia know what we’re up to is good enough for the time being, and reinforcements are always a boon.”

Sunset hadn’t formally met Shining Armor in the human world, it had only been recently that she had met the human Twilight Sparkle after all. She wondered if this is how the human version acted, or if the stallion in her timeline was as astute as this one. He was smart, brave, clever, and passionate. All the things she had seen within Princess Twilight. They’re definitely brother and sister, Sunset believed, a smile crossed her lips.

They climbed back up the slope when Applejack asked, “Are we headin’ in the right direction to find the other two Elements? What if Princess Celestia already has them back at camp?”

“They’re not,” Sunset replied. The Element bearers turned their focus to her, their worried faces had been contagious. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”

“Well, some of us were getting cold hooves. Literally and figuratively,” Rarity answered with a gentle, but nervous smile. “It just occurred to a few of us that finding the last two bearers, convincing them to join us, and then convincing them that they’re bearers of the Elements of Harmony might be a tad bit hard to do in the middle of a war zone.”

“Hey, we just got you your Element in the middle of a war zone,” Sunset pointed out. “We don’t really need to convince them that they’re a bearer of the Elements of Harmony. Them realizing their Element will be enough. We just need to get them to stick with us for however long that takes. And now we know that we’re going in the right direction.”

“We do? How?” Twilight asked, astonished.

The three guards had been heading north along the eastern side, same as them. “The guards we saved, they had the decree to bring Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie back. It’s not hard to figure out where they were going from here. We’ve just got to find out how far north they’ve gone,” Sunset answered.

As if on cue, a loud crashing rang out followed by the sound of glass scrapping. Light suddenly flooded onto them and the entire eastern gorge, breaking the night’s ever growing darkness. To the north, Sunset saw what had fallen. One of the smaller crystal that formed the wall of the empire had come collapsing down to earth, leaving an open gash within The Crystal Empire. She couldn’t see how far down it had been broken due to the crystal that had already fallen on its side, though it was now obvious what had brought on that one’s collapse. Something or someone was breaking into The Crystal Empire, and she could only make two guesses on who they were.

“What in tarnation?” Applejack hollered, holding her hoof to her eyes as she stared at the blinding light.

“The Crystal Empire is open!” yelled Shining Armor. As if a burst of adrenaline shot through him, Shining Armor tore off towards The Crystal Empire.

“We can’t let him go alone! Come on!” Sunset led the four after the stallion, following along the paths, taking care not to fall or slow where she could. The paths varied in size from where craters had been made, making it difficult to gauge where to place her hooves.

She kept her eye on Shining Armor, refusing to focus on anything else for fear of losing him. She could see the single fallen crystal coming closer and closer, the light of the broken wall slowly becoming more hidden behind it. Shining Armor was quicker than they were, having almost reached the crippled obelisk. The craters were growing smaller and smaller in diameter, but deeper and steeper. The pathways were also becoming thinner in size, restraining their ability to run.

In the distance, near the fallen crystal obelisk, she could see that the snowy ground had been made flat. “Hey! Wait up at the crystal!” Sunset yelled, hoping Shining Armor could hear her. It looked like he had as his muzzle leaned into his shoulder. Satisfied, she looked back at the Elements, making sure each had the steam to follow and not get left behind. Though they all appeared haggard, Twilight was the only one that seemed the worst off. When she looked back at Shining Armor she saw the stallion had reached the toppled crystal, only to be challenged by three of Sombra’s soldiers.

Before she could yell out to the others, Sunset was slammed into, pushing her down into one of the craters. She rolled down the embankment with the brainwashed pony that had pushed her, jockeying for position the entire way. With a stroke of luck, as they hit the bottom the soldier’s helmet flung off and the pony became unconscious. On her back, Sunset wiped the snow from her eyes and rolled to one side. As she opened them she became face to face with the soldier’s helmet, to which she screamed and threw herself in the opposite direction.

“Sunset! Are you alright?” Applejack yelled from atop the slope.

“Ye-yeah! Go help Shining Armor!” she yelled back as she stood to her hooves. “I’ll be right behind you,” she added. Reluctantly, the four disappeared beyond the edge of the crater. Her eyes peered back to the helm and comatose pony one last time before she attempted to tread after her new friends.

The slope was a lot slicker than that of the last crater, and more slanted as well. It didn’t help that nightfall had come to the north and that the light from The Crystal Empire wasn’t reaching inside the pit. Had the snow not been white, Sunset assumed it would have been pitch black. That didn’t stop her from sliding back down and tripping over the unconscious body of the soldier, landing face first into the snow. As she picked herself off the ground once more she looked at the steepness of the surrounding pit. A few heartbeats passed before she saw a dozen more of Sombra’s soldiers charging in the direction of the Elements and Shining Armor, passing by the crater unaware of her presence.

I can’t just sit here, she lamented as she tried to climb the snow. Her hooves slid against the ice, sending her back down with every attempt. I can’t just sit here, she repeated, staring up at the edge. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, centering herself. I must try. Her horn exploded with magic, and when she opened her eyes she found herself atop the crater, staring down at the other side. There was no time to celebrate, however, as her friends were surely in trouble. She could see the silhouetted fighting between the soldiers and her companions, uncertain of who was winning.

From behind her, another two soldiers had reared their ugly helmets. “Come on then!” Sunset yelled as she skidded to a stop, turning to face the two. She gritted her teeth in a grimace, drawing air in-between the gaps, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Before they could get any closer, a pegasus came from the sky and knocked the two down into a crater. Sunset looked up to see who it was but could not tell what was the color of armor they bore – they had been but a blur of speed.

After the pegasus had taken care of the aggressors, Sunset rushed to help her friends. By the time she reached the fallen crystal the soldiers had already been detained. “You need to turn back now!” she heard one of the pegasi say as she came closer. This guard wasn’t decked out in golden armor. Instead, they wore a blue, nylon uniform with dark blue helmets that held a light yellow thunderbolt on both sides. A visor was strapped atop the helmet, which Sunset thought a bit odd. She then noticed that only pegasi were wearing these outfits. “This is no place for civilians, we’re in the middle of an operation here!” another pegasus said.

“What’s going on here?” Sunset asked as she walked through the pegasi to get to her friends.

“Another civilian?” The loudest of the pegasi pulled her helmet off, revealing bright orange hair atop her yellow face. “I may only be a commander, but I don’t care if you’re the captain of the guard,” she said, turning to Shining Armor. “You brought civilians out onto the battlefield, and we don’t have time to foalsit you all.”

“You don’t have to. We’re heading for the empire. Is it accessible through the breach in the wall?” he said, confidently.

“You’re going inside?” the pegasus asked, though it was obvious she knew the reason why.

The fighting going on around them drew in more soldiers and guards, and now they were wasting time arguing. “We’re heading in on orders from Princess Celestia in search of two ponies,” Sunset lied. “We’re looking for Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. They are very important and we need to get them as soon as possible.”

The commander’s jaw dropped. “Rainbow Dash?” she repeated, questioning the name. Before saying anything more, she reached into her suit’s collar and pulled out a whistle that hung around her neck. She blew into it as hard as she could, forcing everyone to cover their ears. As soon as she finished whistling a pegasus came flying back, followed by another, and then another. “Rainbow Dash! Front and center!”

It was the third pegasus that had arrived that stepped forward. Sunset smiled at first, but as soon as she saw the metal wing her smile evaporated. The pegasus pushed her visor up and said, “Commander?”

“Princess Celestia has ordered Captain Shining Armor and this group of civvies to find you. Any particular reason why that might be happening?”

Rainbow Dash undid the strap on her jaw and pulled off the helmet. Sunset grimaced in shock of the half-mohawk she bore and the scarred ear. “Not that I can think of, ma’am. Unless they’re awarding me for my superior agility and overwhelming defense,” she smugly answered.

The commander turned back to Shining and Sunset. “Well, there you have it. Princess Celestia can wait. We’re in the middle of defending the opening we just made and every soldier in King Sombra’s control is on their way here to aid in taking it back. We do not have the resources to spread ourselves thin. I suggest you make for the wall or help us, but don’t get in our way.”

Sunset knew it would be pointless to try and convince the commander to relinquish Rainbow Dash, and if she knew Rainbow Dash at all she knew it would be pointless to try and persuade her from breaking rank. Loyalty. The word resounded within her head. “I’ve got this,” she whispered to Shining Armor before stepping forward. “Are you disobeying direct orders from Princess Celestia?” she asked as she levitated open her backpack. “Because I’ve got a decree right here with her signature on it stating that you need to resign command of Rainbow Dash, giving authority over to me.” She pulled out a rolled up piece of paper and levitated it over to the commander.

“A decree from Princess Celestia?” The orange haired pegasus attempted to swipe the decree out of the air, but Sunset held it back.

“Well? What’s it going to be? Are you loyal or not?”

The commander groaned and turned to Rainbow Dash. “You heard them, Dash. If Princess Celestia sent them here to find you and head through the wall, then it is probably the same reason we were sent here to tear it down in the first place. Make us proud.”

“Ma’am.” Rainbow Dash saluted the senior officer and then watched as her team took off, flying in different directions. Her head snapped back to look at the Elements. “What are your orders?” she asked as her eyes met Sunset’s. If she had some misgivings about Sunset, it was not shown by her voice or stance.

“We’re searching for the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, and you’re one of them. We’re looking for one more, an earth pony named Pinkie Pie. For now, stick with us – we’re heading into The Crystal Empire,” Sunset replied and then commanded everyone else to move out. Rainbow Dash didn’t even give a strange side-look to the explanation as she and the other Elements headed around the fallen crystal. As Sunset trotted behind Shining Armor stopped her.

“Where’d you get the decree?” he asked. “I tore it up!”

“Decree? Oh, you mean this thing,” Sunset smugly said, unravelling the piece of paper to show a crudely drawn map of Equestria.

He wiped his forehead with the back of his hoof. “Huh. I’m going to have to be more careful around you. You’re a lot cleverer than I first expected,” he complimented, though Sunset wasn’t sure if that truly was what it was.

As they stepped out from the shadow of the fallen crystal, Sunset saw the shine of The Crystal Empire within the opening. The crystal that had been part of the wall had collapsed forward creating a nice ramp into the city. Unfortunately, many battles raged between them and the broken wall. Sunset’s eyes watered from the wind as she stared out across the wounded landscape.

“May I speak freely, ma’am?” Rainbow Dash asked, to which Sunset gave a silent nod. “You’re all a bit slower than I am, so I suggest we wait for an opening and then try to book it.”

Sunset and the others agreed to the plan without hesitation. Once it was clear, the group rushed for the crystal ramp. The walls of the empire towered above with the burning light putting them on display for all the world to see. This almost feels like one of the late night football games, Sunset thought as she wiped her running nose. It’s late, it’s cold, and I’m surrounded by people who have more of a stake in what’s going on than I do. At least Pinkie Pie isn’t here to scream in my ear, though I certainly wouldn’t mind it compared to this.

The crystal hummed as they galloped up it, Rainbow Dash leading the way. Sunset could feel her face was red from all the running, her breathing becoming heavier with every step. She eyed past Rainbow Dash, staring at the two Sombra soldiers that stood in their path. Before the soldiers could do anything they were tossed off by some other pegasus. The group neared the unhindered opening, getting closer and closer with every step. As Rainbow Dash reached the apex another soldier appeared, to which she tackled and went over the other side into The Crystal Empire. “Rainbow Dash!” Sunset cried her name as they clambered to the edge of the crystal ramp. As she looked down her worry vanished, Rainbow Dash was already up and fighting another two soldiers.

While the Elements and Shining Armor hopped down to help the athletic pegasus, Sunset took a glimpse at The Crystal Empire. In front of them sat a few cul-de-sacs of houses which looked to be untouched by the war. In fact, most of the houses she could see were unused. It made sense. Brainwashed ponies don’t need to eat, sleep, or have comfort. There was little need for such things. In the distance, past the castle, she could see smoke clouds rising. The castle itself remained tall and untouched, except for the obvious evil crystals that Sombra loved to decorate with. She assumed everything else was the same. I never stepped outside the castle, only the interior. And that was only to steal a crown, she remembered.

The castle wasn’t the only place where crystals had sprung up. Smaller clusters had sprouted out within the city streets, infecting it like a plague. That’s got to be from Sombra’s first attack. Shining Armor said Celestia was pushed back over time, so there’s no way they could have gotten within the empire until today. It’s easy to see why Shining Armor was forced to flee. She hopped down onto the broken shard of the crystal wall and then hopped down again to the city’s floor. As she hit the ground a chill engulfed her, sending the fur on her neck straight up. “It’s freezing!” she complained. “Worse than out in the snow. How is this possible?”

The others had crowded behind the backside of a pink house. Though the area was mostly filled with housing cul-de-sacs, they sat behind those houses where it was more open to being seen. The soldiers weren’t smart enough to figure that out, however. The soldiers continued to press through the small gaps in houses, coming from the center of the cul-de-sacs. If the soldiers had followed the wall they would have easily seen Sunset and the group. “What’s going on?” Sunset asked as she came closer, attempting to keep her voice down. The three unconscious soldiers were still being sidled up to the house by Shining Armor.

“Soldiers. They don’t know we’re here, but there’s a group of unicorns cowering down behind the next set of houses. We’ve got to get to them and find out where the rockers are at,” Rainbow Dash answered. She didn’t even look back at Sunset, keeping both eyes on the gap between homes.

“Rockers?” Sunset inquired.

“Oh, they’re slang for our earth pony division,” Twilight responded for Rainbow Dash. “They’re used to take down crystals and rocks on the battlefield.” She then gloated, “Prince Sunburst was the one who saw the need for them and put together the task force.”

“Who’s the egghead?” asked Rainbow Dash, her head finally swiveling back to look at them.

“Enough,” Shining Armor said over his shoulder. The stallion had crept up to be beside Rainbow Dash. “They aren’t looking. Head for the next houses.” Past the gap and out into the open, they did as they were instructed. Keeping their heads low and their hooves quiet, they reached the next set of homes without incident. “What’s the situation?” he asked the guards as everyone pushed against the cyan home, hiding beneath the shadow of the eave.

“Captain Shining Armor?” the unicorn breathed, surprised. “Sir! As soon as we chipped the wall open the earth pony team rang barreling into the city. We lost sight of them as they headed for the castle. We attempted to chase, but you can see how well that turned out,” explained the guard.

“My guess is that’s Pinkie Pie,” Rainbow Dash said.

“Really? Are you certain?” Sunset asked, perplexed.

“Of course. I was part of the team sent up here to cut into The Crystal Empire, just like her. Wouldn’t be able to put a face to the name. But if we’re looking for an earth pony, my guess is she’s part of the group that ran off to the castle. It’s not like them to break formation, though.”

“Enough chatter,” Shining Armor interjected. “With the wall down there should be a huge herd coming in from the northwest to aid in defending their wall.” He pulled his head back in from the left corner of the house, the cyan crystal reflecting his coat of white. “We need a forward command base set up pronto. Any idea which of these houses would best suit establishing our needs?” he asked one of the unicorn guards.

“All the houses are abandoned, but maintaining a line to bring through more troops will be difficult if we stray too far from the wall. Any of the houses around will do, sir,” the guard promptly answered, motioning to the houses that sat around them.

Shining Armor nodded and then picked a house seemingly at random, shooting a bolt of magic at a window and smashing its glass. “Everyone through the window before more soldiers show up,” he commanded, leading the charge. He jumped through the narrow hole, wriggling his way inside with the unicorn guards following suit. Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack were next to go. Each made it through the hole but were followed by a loud crash, though not loud enough to alert any soldiers.

As Fluttershy and Sunset started to move Rainbow Dash pulled them back. “Soldiers, they’re staring this way. If we stay low they’ll pass over us,” she said, glancing between the gaps in the houses. She then turned her head and looked at the two, her bangs partially covering one eye. “We’ll have to be quick to not get… spotted…” Her speech had slowed as she became slack-jawed, staring intently at the yellow pegasus. “F-F-Fluttershy!?” she shouted, to which Sunset slammed a hoof to her mouth, trying to keep her quiet.

“You’re going to get us caught!” Sunset whisper-yelled. “I guess you two know each other? Save the reunion for once we’re inside!” She leaned past Rainbow Dash, pushing her body closer to the wall as she peered around the corner.

“What are you guys waiting for?” Twilight called out from the window as quietly as she could, the top of her forehead barely visible.

Sunset gave a nod and then motioned for the two pegasi to move. Darting through the opening, Rainbow Dash was first with Fluttershy flapping gently behind. Sunset squinted her eyes and wrinkled her nose, aiming for the opening and landing in darkness. The room was dark and became even darker after Shining Armor levitated a bookcase over to the window, blocking the opening. “Everyone okay?” she asked as she looked around the room while her eyes adjusted. The unicorn guards stood at the door, peering out through the curtains while Rainbow Dash sat whispering with Fluttershy on the only couch. Twilight and Rarity were crowded around Applejack. Nobody seemed to acknowledge her question. “Alright then.”

“We’ll set up here for a moment,” Shining Armor whispered to everyone. “Catch your breath, get some rest.”

The room was dark enough to taste the shadows on her tongue, but it didn’t last long. Twilight and Rarity maintained a dim light emanating from their horns. As Sunset came closer she saw their reasoning. “At least I’m not the only klutzy one around here,” Twilight said, causing Rarity to giggle. Applejack had jumped through the window and landed on a piece of the broken frame that Shining Armor had blown in. It slipped out from under her as she landed and forced her hoof forward.

“I’ll be alright,” Applejack told Sunset, though it sounded like it was meant to reassure herself. “I’ll be a little slower, but I won’t let that stop me.”

“Just so long as you don’t try to play the hero and tell us to leave you behind,” Rarity joked as she wrapped the leg with torn cloth. Rarity had used her own scarf to mend the earth pony’s wound.

“We’ve got some time before we head off so try to stay off it in the meantime,” Sunset suggested, seeing that Rarity and Twilight had everything under control. “Can I get you anything? Water maybe?”

Applejack shook her head, her blonde bountiful mane shifting with every shake. “No, I’m alright. I appreciate it though. I’ll be mighty sore in the morn, that’s for sure.”

Sunset raised a questioning eyebrow before nodding. Applejack was in good hooves, Sunset knew, and this gave her time to look around the rest of the home. Much of the others had remained in shadow. The guards had moved a table around and brought out maps and such, hoping to devise a battle plan and allow others to move into the empire. She could barely make out the couch Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash sat on, much less their faces. It was a relatively small home, the kitchen and living room open to each other while a simple set of stairs led up to a bedroom. The entry way was smaller and grew outward into the rest of the home. The floor held a single rug which covered the cold, crystal floor. Had it not been so dark, Sunset could have seen her own breath. Instead, she took a look out the curtained windows that sat beside the front door. The soldiers had all vanished, presumably still searching for them by the broken wall. Many other houses blocked her line of sight, but she could still see the castle towering in the distance over the crystalline roofs.

Grass and flowers also seemed to have dried up, possibly by the lack of pony attention. However, many of the buildings seemed unfazed by the war. There won’t be much of a reconstruction process, though I hopefully won’t be around to see it if there is, Sunset speculated. It still wasn’t clear whether her presence made the world exist or if this truly was an alternate universe, much like the human world. I should have focused on asking Celestia what she thought about it. She tapped her hoof against her forehead, angry with herself.

A few wheezes caused her to turn back to the rest of the room. Shining Armor had apparently pulled open a cupboard to get some dishes for something, but they had come flying down. Twilight and a guard had been there to prevent them from hitting the ground. She stepped back to the table and looked over what had been strung about it, though she could not tell what was written in the low light. The whispers of the two pegasus finally peaked her curiosity. She did not want to intrude, however. Her ears flicked as she eavesdropped. “Sheep huh?” she heard Rainbow Dash say in a low voice.

“Oh yes,” Fluttershy responded quietly, “But enough about me, what has happened to you? Your hair, your ear, and your wing. So much of you has changed…”

The wing. Sunset’s brain sparked as she heard the word. Her head tilted to have the two in her peripheral, glancing at the metal piece that was shouldered by the athletic pegasus. She had noticed it before but never thought to question it, assuming it to be another one of the failures brought on by this forsaken world. “The hair just sort of happened, long hair doesn’t really fit in the helmet and these darn bangs keep getting into my visor. But Commander Spitfire said I looked cool the first day I came in with the style. So, I just kept it ever since.” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “As for the ear-” She rubbed a hoof against the outside of her ear “-That actually happened during the changeling invasion.”

“Oh my!” gasped Fluttershy, placing her hooves to her mouth. “Were you there during the attack?”

“Nah, I wish,” she replied, giving a laugh and snort. “Was practicing for joining up with the Wonderbolts, trying to perform a trick that I haven’t been able to do since I was a kid. Ended up in a tree with still no trick. You remember the one, right? My never patented sonic rainboom?”

Fluttershy giggled. “I remember. I also remember you fighting against those mean old bullies that were picking on me. I never got to thank you for standing up for me.”

“I remember that too,” Rainbow Dash groaned, sulking at the mention. “I remember losing. I dropped out of flight school because of that day.”

“I-I’m sorry. I d-didn’t know you quit because of me.”

“I didn’t quit because of you. Sure, when you didn’t return I kind of thought… y’know, I had failed you. But I quit because I couldn’t handle being worse than those two awful bullies, I couldn’t even stick up for a friend.” Fluttershy remained quiet in response, but Dash was the first to break the silence. “H-Hey. Don’t think of me as a downer though. I still got into the Wonderbolts after all, even if it is for the war. Bet those colts are back in Cloudsdale workin’ janitorial at the academy.” She nudged an elbow into Fluttershy. “Serves them right!”

Sunset couldn’t bear to listen anymore. She was too curious for her own good. “N-Not to interrupt or tell that I was eavesdropping,” she began, “but I am a bit curious about your wing. Sorry if it’s a sore subject.”

“Eavesdropping?” Rainbow Dash repeated. “This house is so small I doubt any of us could prevent themselves from listening to each other’s conversations.” She patted the couch on her right side, Fluttershy moved further left. “C’mon, it’s a really gruesome story. Commander Spitfire hates when I tell it, but she isn’t here now is she?”

The thought of the story being gruesome turned Sunset’s stomach. “O-On second thought, perhaps I’ll leave it up to the imagination. Though I suppose some things never change, regardless of parallel universes.” The Rainbow Dash in the human world won’t stop sending me links to grim stories and pictures, she remembered. A scary image Rainbow Dash had sent of a video game glitching a man’s face still sent shivers down her spine.

“Suit yourself,” Rainbow Dash said, shrugging. “How about you ‘Shy? You wanna hear it?” Fluttershy shook her head and mumbled. “Well then somebody’s gotta tell me about this human world. I’m not a whole lot into science or alternate dimensions, but another me sounds really awesome.” She leaned back, placing her forelegs behind her head and crossing her back legs.

“I think a few of us would be interested in hearing more of this human world,” Twilight intruded, taking Sunset’s place on the couch next to Rainbow Dash.

“Hm. I suppose I could talk about it,” Sunset affirmed. “This gives me a chance to fill Rainbow Dash in on her place in all of this.” Sunset looked around at the unicorn guards and Shining Armor. The guards were getting some rest, though Shining still burned the candle at both ends, looking more fatigued than ever. “What would you like to know?” she asked as she turned back to the couch.

“Start from the beginning. Like, including your name,” Rainbow Dash answered.

“Oh, right.” Sunset gave an awkward smile, though no one could really see it in the darkness. “My name’s Sunset Shimmer. I come from an alternate timeline where the war isn’t going on and Equestria is at peace. There have been many monsters that have come to ruin that peace, but six ponies have maintained harmony. That’s you five, and six including Pinkie Pie. You six are the Elements of Harmony.”

As Sunset continued to explain her past, her present, and her purpose here, Rarity and Applejack joined in listening to the tale. Though they mostly listened to Sunset, Rainbow Dash interrupted several times with questions. Things like: “What are humans like?” and “What am I like in your world?” Sunset answered to the best of her abilities, but one question Rainbow Dash asked left her stumped. “If there are Elements of Harmony in our world and in your world, are there Elements in the human world you live in?”

That was an odd question to hear. They had ‘ponied-up’ before, but that had been without the Elements of Harmony. It hadn’t even been a thought to cross her mind, even when she herself ponied-up. “And what’s your Element, anyways?” Rainbow Dash asked, the question that was becoming all too familiar.

“I-I don’t really have an answer for that human world question. I’ll have to look into that. As for my Element – I don’t have one,” Sunset answered.

“She was apparently a demon,” Twilight added, nonchalantly.

“A demon? Cool!” Rainbow Dash sat forward and hopped off the couch. “Well, I’m not entirely sure I buy into this whole Elements of Harmony thing or me being part of it.” She extended her wings. “However, you’ve got Princess Celestia, Captain Shining Armor, and even Fluttershy convinced. That’s more than enough to get me to help you with your mission.” She smacked her hooves together. “So if you aren’t just a storyteller, how do we go about getting my Element?”

Sunset could see the sneer on the pegasus’s face even in the darkness. Whether it was the excitement of being part of something big or just feeding into her own egotism, Sunset knew Rainbow Dash was on board. “I don’t have an answer for that either. Once we get Pinkie Pie I’ll concern myself more with making sure each of you have your Element. So far, they’ve all just shown up on their own. It’s funny, this is actually how Princess Twilight defeated Tirek and gained her castle.” She unzipped the backpack and pulled her journal from the contents. Her horn sparked to light up, brightening up the entire house before she gained control and dimmed it low. She was quick to flip through the pages, turning it to face the five. “This journal was written into by Princess Twilight and myself, she spoke of the day she became princess along with the obtaining of her castle. She went through a lot of work to get to where she is.”

“Could we learn about our future with this thing?” Twilight asked, levitating the book closer to them.

“What’s a book going to tell us that Sunset hasn’t?” Rainbow Dash pushed her bangs from her eyes, giving an audible scoff. “We’re clearly the most awesome ponies in all of Equestria, and we’re going to go kick King Sombra’s butt! I’ve been dreaming of taking down that pompous crystal breather, and we’ll actually get the chance to do it!” She clopped her hooves together again.

Applejack chuckled. “I’ve got to agree with you, Rainbow Dash. Before his return, I was just a simple farm girl workin’ all day and lovin’ life. He’s ruined so many ponies lives, I almost feel a little giddy to be part of takin’ him down. Shoot, if I had known all this ahead of time, I would’ve been trainin’ more. It’s been a few years since anypony lived in Ponyville, and even more since somepony challenged me to an Iron Pony competition.” She lifted her foreleg, looking down at her stiff ankle.

“When this is all over, I’ll challenge you,” promised Dash.

“Oh my… I won’t know who to root for,” Fluttershy added.

There was a sense of pride in Sunset’s heart knowing she had helped these five become friends. She wondered what would become of this world once she was gone, and the fear of this world disappearing all together came striking once more. If I leave, will this world remain? I surely can’t stay, she contemplated. All this work to bring them together, to befriend them, and then I just leave? I suppose Twilight did that when she came to the human world. She left our friends, returning for her own. This world, what happens to it doesn’t really matter. When we defeat Sombra my work here will be done. Right?

It was a curious thought, but she did not have the luxury of weighing the pros and cons. “Alright. If everypony has rested up, we’ve devised a route and plan for The Crystal Empire,” Shining Armor spoke up. The Elements and Sunset crowded around the table as Shining Armor lit the room with his horn. “We’ve got a basic chart right here.” He pointed at a map with a few street names and descriptions of buildings, mostly detailing the east side of the city. “What we’re going to do is head through the alleyways and back sides of these houses until we reach the outer ring of what used to be businesses. We’ll have to make a break for it, maybe fight our way through to get to the castle.” He then pointed to the three guards. “These three are staying here to protect the rear. After we leave, they’ll give us five minutes till they shoot off a flare. The flare should be green, which means-”

“A safe house!” Rainbow Dash interrupted. “Green means that enemies are around but the ground is owned by Celestia’s Guard. All of the ones outside will be rushing in, just like we did during the Battle of the Dusk Gate!”

“Correct. All of King Sombra’s soldiers who are stationed in the city will come rushing and will be met with our own troops coming in for safety. We’re hoping that means we’ll get the chance to reach the castle without running too heavily into enemy forces,” Shining Armor explained. “There will still be some at the castle, I guarantee, but it won’t be nearly as bad.”

“And it also gives us an exit strategy should things get worse,” Twilight noted. “I think that’s a splendid idea. Perhaps Prince Sunburst has been rubbing off on you, big brother?” She ruffled his cheek and he smiled, but Sunset could only stick out her tongue in disgust.

“Everyone understand? We’re breaking off now,” Shining Armor said, direct and to the point.

Sunset quickly shoved her journal back into her backpack and zipped it up tight. The others gathered by the door, and once they all were there Shining Armor opened it and stepped outside. Sunset closed the door behind them and looked up to the sky. The castle’s blue hue stood like a beacon for the lit up city, but could not break the clouds that hovered overhead. There was no way of telling whether it was night or day, other than the exhaustion she felt. The others headed across the cul-de-sac, to the north, and she quickly followed.

Arc 1: Chapter 6

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The alleyway was cramped and dim, forcing Sunset, Shining Armor, and the Elements to go single file. It was like the gaps of the cul-de-sac, but this eventually led out into a backstreet between homes. Sunset eyed the house they had left behind, the curtains rustled slightly. The cold was worse than it had been within the home; she could see her breath again. The ground felt like ice, making the snow outside the empire seem like an open refrigerator. Every unsheltered step spiked a new set of hairs to stand up on her neck. She had forgotten the feeling of goosebumps. The winter in the human world was mild and rarely contained snow. This world’s climate seemed to have a mind of its own.

Strands of hair had clumped together, frozen by her sweat. She pushed them out from in front of her eyes as she waited to cross a gap between the crystal homes. They all had to be cautious and mindful of the gaps, wary of any soldiers that might be standing around in the front yards. The roofs of the houses held a small eave, disguising them within the shadows. The backstreet wasn’t as small as the gaps, though they were cluttered with debris and jutted crystals. As she crossed the gap and waited to cross the next her eyes wandered to one of these crystals. It seemed to give a low hum, she noted, staring into the dark purple hue of her reflection. Another gap crossed and she forgot all about it. Nothing seemed more important than finding Pinkie Pie.

The backstreet eventually became an L-curve which Shining Armor led them down. Sunset took a few steps back before this curve to see where the castle lay, eyeing the top tower just above the home’s roof. They were closer than before but an open street now blocked their path. There were many open streets between them and the castle, and the wilted foliage and shrubbery gave no cover for them to hide. Even the protruding dark crystals provided more cover. Shining Armor gave the signal to head across and they followed with quiet care. He crossed with Twilight and then held a hoof up, halting the rest in their place – a set of soldiers were patrolling the street they had crossed. The soldiers passed unaware and Shining Armor gave the go ahead for the rest of them to cross, Sunset leading the caboose.

They were making good time; even closer to the castle than before.

Just as they pushed their way into another backstreet, a green flare shot off. Its magnificent glow radiated down, brightening up the entire east side of the city with shimmering green. Sunset, Shining Armor, and the Elements crowded around the alley, watching and waiting. Just as Shining Armor predicted, soldiers began pouring down the crystal streets heading for the direction of the flare. Sunset held her breath. “As soon as the soldiers pass it’ll become a race to the castle,” he had told them after they had exited the home. Once the final soldiers passed it was the time to throw off their caution, to no longer worry about noise or being seen. Taking the back way as far northwest as they could, they burst out through the gap into the open air of the street.

They headed down the road and straight past remnants of once great shops a thousand years lost. They poured out onto a long stretch of road that led to the castle, but Shining Armor stopped them before they could go any further. Sunset saw his reasoning. Dozens of black helms patrolling amongst the castle grounds. He pushed everyone toward a shop and they crowded against its aquamarine wall. Rainbow Dash glided up to the tip of the shop, straddling the roof for cover. She was quick and nimble, Sunset noticed. That’s no surprise for Rainbow Dash. When she came back down she told of the soldiers’ movements. A battle had been fought just recently and many of Sombra’s soldiers were dragging ponies off to somewhere more northwest than she could see. These soldiers didn’t even seem to care for the flare.

“The reformation camp,” Shining Armor declared after listening to Rainbow Dash. “If the group that attacked the castle failed then that’s where they’re being taken. That’s where many ponies have been taken… That’s where Pinkie Pie might be.”

“We’ll need to check there before we storm the castle. Without Pinkie Pie, we’ll have no chance of winning,” Sunset said. In truth, Sunset had no desire to see the reformation camp. There had already been enough disturbing things she had seen of this world without one more. Whether she saw it or not, she knew it would be gone with Sombra’s defeat, and there was little reason to see more of a world she would not be staying in, aside for the fact that Pinkie might be there.

Shining Armor was hesitant, however, he agreed in the end and they made their way around the circle of shops. Heading northwest, they kept the castle to their left at all times. As they moved Sunset noticed how cold it had gotten the closer they drew to the castle. Most of the vegetation had wilted, which she had seen before, but even the stumps were the only thing left of trees. Upon reaching the last line of shops outside the reformation camp, the found the reasoning for the timber’s removal. “Catapults,” Twilight Sparkle mumbled, putting a vile word to what everyone could see.

The northwest quarter, which previously had been homes and shops, was now replaced with a flat landscape where ponies in chains worked to process minerals. Crystals were cut down and taken to be formed into helmets and armor, while the wood was a fresh idea. The catapults were still being built but looked close to being finished. The ponies that weren’t meant to mine or build were forced to wear the helmets, and then were sent off to battle. Sunset studied the chained ponies, hoping to see a pink mane waiting to be free, but none matched the friend she knew.

“We should head down there,” Applejack suggested. “We could free the ponies, destroy those catchamapults, and draw in more soldiers from the castle.”

Rainbow Dash clopped her hooves together. “Yeah! We could do some major damage to whatever King Sombra has planned!”

“No,” Sunset disagreed. “I don’t see Pinkie Pie down there. Finding her is more important. We’d be putting ourselves at a disadvantage if we went down there. Not only are we already cut off from our escape route, we’d only be making unnecessary commotion. We’d have a better chance if we just head for the castle and fight our way in.”

“The ponies down there could help us in the fight,” argued Twilight. “Not to mention freeing them would help our cause in the long run.”

“Listen, none of it matters as long as we get the Elements of Harmony. We can worry about them later, but right now we have to think of our own cause.” Sunset turned back, heading into the shadows of the alley. She didn’t see the stink-eye Twilight gave or the shrugs from the other Elements. Shining Armor had remained silent.

They doubled back to the end of the alley where Twilight refused to go any further. “How do we even know that Pinkie Pie is in there? We didn’t even get a chance to look thoroughly through the ponies that were taken. Maybe she’s been bucketed? I say we take our chances and try and find her in the reformation camp.”

“I didn’t see her and I’m the only one who knows what she looks like,” Sunset bossed. “If we take on the castle we can remove one of their main bases and allow our troops to move easier. Going back to free those ponies does nothing if they are just recaptured along with us!”

“Oh, you didn’t see her in those two seconds we spent looking out into the camp? What a big shock!” Twilight sarcastically responded. “Well I’m not going to believe she isn’t there just on your word and eyes. I’m going to stop their production, free those ponies, and destroy the catapults! If she’s there, great, if not, at least she won’t be sent there!” She stomped her hooves. “Who’s with me?”

Sunset listened to the murmurs of the other Elements. Twilight wasn’t making sense, couldn’t they see that? They were just seven few against a whole of soldiers, and even that number dwindled with the injured Applejack and the fainthearted Fluttershy. Saving ponies was the right thing to do, but not if it would end in failure. Her eyes shifted to Shining Armor who stared intently at the castle. “What do you think, Shining Armor?” she asked, hoping that he would be the voice of reason to his baby sister.

Instead, he convinced her. “Every inch of me yearns to break into the castle, but as captain of the Royal Guard, I’d say Twilight’s option would be the best decision. The ponies we free could serve as a distraction or help for ransacking the castle, not to mention crippling King Sombra’s ability to convert more into his dark army.”

It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to persuade any of them, she concluded after studying their faces. “Fine. I’ll give it a chance.” She tilted her head back and pushed her shoulders forward. I just have to hope that I missed Pinkie Pie within the crowd.

“Good.” Twilight turned and began to walk back down the alleyway. “It was always Prince Sunburst’s idea to break down the camp ever since we found out about it. I’m going to make him proud,” she declared.

The thought of seeing Sunburst proud left a scarring image in Sunset’s mind. His half-closed eyes always made her think he was sleepy. This world’s Sunburst seemed far more awake and wide-eyed, she’d give him that. I won’t have to deal with it anymore once the Elements of Harmony are reunited. I can go back to my timeline and consider this all one bad nightmare. She breathed a heavy sigh as they walked, the cold chapping her lips.

Crossing the street and creeping down low to the ground, they scouted the reformation camp. While sitting shoulder to shoulder, they looked down on the camp from their slope. Sunset once again eyed over the ponies in helms and those in chains, looking for the familiar pink fur of the Element of Laughter. None of them bore the party pony’s cutie mark nor the accurate shade of pink fur. This is just a waste of time. We’re all going to get caught, she envisioned. Twilight and Shining Armor slid down the short incline and crouched behind a pile of crystal rubble. But I can’t let them get captured. Even if it means making Sunburst happy. She glanced with her peripherals at Rarity and Fluttershy. They need me just as much as I need them.

Sunset was the last to sit atop the slope, watching the soldiers patrol the edges of the camp. Even more were being made every minute. The Elements and Shining Armor made their way towards the chained group of ponies, crouching from one pile of crystals to the next. One of the soldiers was heading towards her – she ducked her head down, allowing the black plume to pass by unaware. But the soldier continued on, heading towards the back end where her friends sat in hiding. Her fear was about to come true. That’s when Sunset formed an idea. A most brilliant idea. Skidding down the slope, she rushed up behind the soldier that hadn’t seen her and bit down on their tail, yanking as hard as she could. The soldier fell on their rump and stumbled to get up. “Over here bucket-head!” she yelled at the top of her lungs as she took off, charging through the center of the camp. She screamed with giddy laughter as the soldier chased her, garnering even more attention from the other soldiers.

Soon the camp was filled with galloping hooves. Soldiers came in all directions to chase after Sunset while she attempted to dodge their best efforts. She had halted the production of more soldiers and the catapults, as anyone with a helmet on barreled after her. With her magic, she lifted the wheels off loaded carts and flooded the ground with the mined crystals inside. Some soldiers fell into these traps while others completely avoided them. She sprinted the entire way to the other side of the camp, attracting more and more soldiers as she went. She couldn’t even count them all – there was no time to look back. The crystal wall that surrounded the empire stood in her path, blocking her escape.

Soldiers came from all three sides as she was forced to press against the towering wall, facing the oncoming enemy. Holding her breath, she counted to ten as they charged at her. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Closer they came, dozens upon dozens of black plumes blowing in the wind. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.

She exhaled.

The soldiers slammed head first into each other and the wall. As they moved and shifted, pressing their weight down on each other, a honeyed laugh gathered their attention.

Sunset stood on the other side of them, her hoof to her mouth as she continued to laugh at the disorganized pile she had created. Turning her tail to them, she gave a little shake and trotted off. It wasn’t long before some of them stumbled to their hooves and clambered after her. Unfortunately, they were met with a much larger resistance than just Sunset. “Tag, you’re it,” Sunset said as she passed the Elements, Shining Armor, and a few scores of angry ponies who had no longer been chained. Had the soldiers not been removed from their emotions, they would have been quaking in their helmets.

“Great work, Sunset,” Applejack commended, giving the unicorn a tap on the shoulder. “That was mighty clever thinkin’ on your part,” she added after all was said and done. The soldiers had their helmets removed without too much force from those previously enslaved. Those too weak to fight helped in moving the now unconscious ponies around, agreeing to watch over them until they were awake. “Guess Twilight was right in havin’ us come down here. Don’t suppose she was also right about Pinkie Pie, was she?”

Sunset took a hasty glance over her shoulder at the purple unicorn. “No. Pinkie Pie isn’t here.” She looked back at Applejack. “This was a waste of time – but I am glad something good came of it. I haven’t seen so many angry people staring at me since the time I turned into a demon. I’m just glad that their anger wasn’t aimed at me.” She chuckled.

“Haven’t really heard you laugh since Manehattan.” Applejack’s smile sprang to her mouth. “I was gettin’ a little worried, honestly. I-I knew the fightin’ was bad, but I don’t really know what I expected fighting to look like. I was hopin’ you wouldn’t feel the same way.”

Laughter. “We need to find Pinkie Pie,” she reminded Applejack, cutting off the earth pony’s sentiment. “She’ll be at the castle.” Her head swiveled to the other Elements and the group of freed workers. “Alright, we need to take the castle next. We better get moving before one of the patrols gets wind of what has happened here,” she declared.

“That’s right,” Shining Armor announced. “We’ll be storming the castle. Anyone who wants to help is welcome to join us. Otherwise, head southeast towards the broken wall. There’s a rendezvous point in one of the homes.” Many of the ponies huddled up in front of Shining Armor, raising their hooves in salute. Shining Armor turned and nodded to Sunset before taking the braver ponies up the slope.

“Everyone else ready to head off?” she asked the Elements before realizing Twilight was already on the move. The purple unicorn had settled in behind the ponies who were following Shining Armor. “Twilight? Twilight!” Sunset called out and rushed up beside the mare. “Hey, you alright?” she asked as the other Elements followed after.

Twilight eyes flickered with irritation and impatience as she looked sideways at Sunset. “No. I’m not alright. What you did was reckless. It may have ended well, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have gone wrong.” Her tone was deep as she spoke. “I need five minutes to clear my thoughts so I won’t snap at you.” With that, Twilight marched ahead to her brother’s side.

“Geez.” Sunset halted. “What was that about? We went back and helped free the camp, yet she’s still mad at me for some reason?” She stabbed the air in the direction of Twilight.

“It was pretty reckless,” Fluttershy spoke up, hanging her head low as she said it. “Maybe she was worried about you, but she doesn’t know how to say it.”

Sunset stood silent for a moment. Could that be it? I’ve never had to deal with someone like that before. What would Twilight do? Her eyes began to water, causing her to blink rapidly. “I-I suppose,” she said as she began to move. “Should I apologize?” she asked aloud, to Fluttershy and to anyone who would answer.

“Heck no!” Rainbow Dash answered as she swooped down in front of Sunset. “You just helped save all those ponies by buying us time to free them. Let her be mad or worried or whatever. That’s the best thing to happen in this war since we tore down a piece of that crystal wall!”

“That was only a few hours ago…” Rarity chimed in.

Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, not a lot of good things have happened.”

That settled it for Sunset. With a curt nod, she trotted faster than the other ponies that marched on the castle, heading for the front of the pack. Twilight was walking alongside her brother, her face staring at the ground. “Hey,” Sunset spoke first, coming side by side with the purple mare. “I know you wanted to be left alone but I’m not sure why. What’d I do that’s got you upset?”

Twilight sighed, it was obviously exaggerated by her haughty tone. “You almost cost us everything with that little stunt. We were perfectly fine until you decided to become the center of attention. For a moment I thought you were going to break out into song.”

So she wasn’t worried about me. Her stomach felt pained and her heart ached. I thought we were finally getting along. “Well I’m sorry that I felt the need to draw attention away. I’m sorry that I put my safety at risk so that you all could free these captured ponies! How selfish of me!” she rushed and slurred her speech. Her brow had pushed together at some point, straining the bridge of her muzzle. “I thought maybe I’d save the day, but apparently I should have been a big coward like some sort of prince.”

It was obvious the jab had struck its target when Twilight halted in place, her cheeks were burning red and her eyes almost protruded from her skull. “Prince Sunburst is the most loyal, intelligent, and well-mannered stallion I know!” Twilight yelled. “He has spent all his time trying to help the war effort, while you just showed up out of nowhere and have done nothing but undermined him! He is nothing but the opposite of a coward, and I will not sit idly by while you insult him!”

“P-Please, darling, keep your voice down. I’m certain Sunset did not mean any insult,” Rarity pleaded, having appeared almost out of nowhere.

Insult? Sunset realized her mistake made from frustration. “So I guess you think the Friendship Games are silly too?” the human Rainbow Dash’s words echoed in her mind. Her friends were enamored with their school pride, and Crystal Prep tarnished that every year. She hadn’t meant the insult but it was given nonetheless, nor did she understand how important losing had been to them. This Twilight is just as passionate about Sunburst as Twilight is about Princess Celestia back in my world, she recognized.

“R-Right,” she agreed with Rarity, lying. “I mean, Shining Armor is a prince in my world, after all,” she said, attempting to dig out of the hole.

“Are you insulting my brother now, too?” Twilight accused. Shining Armor looked at Sunset with a bit of fetid confusion. He and the other ponies had stopped in the street, the castle in view, all bearing witness to the angered unicorn’s screams.

“No. No! Of course not,” Sunset continued to backpedal with her words.

“Break it up you two, we’ve got an even bigger fight coming our way.” Rainbow Dash pushed between them and pointed to the open street. Two dozen blackened helms had gathered in front of them, blocking their path to the castle. They had heard the commotion caused by Twilight and had come to investigate.

It was colder than before, a chill with no wind. Crystals suddenly shot up from the ground around them and encircled them in two yard high walls. The only part unhindered was the path directly in front of them, toward the soldiers. But as they were forced to stare headlong, the soldiers parted. The ponies around were becoming panicked. It wasn’t the amount of soldiers that struck fear into their hearts – it was the deep, dark, menacing laugh. The evil stallion that this world’s ponies feared more than anything, the king of terror, darkness, and little foal’s nightmares. He stood before them. His mane as black as any helmet, his cloak as red as the tip of his horn, and his grin as smug as any two-bit magician’s.

His reasoning for appearing was unclear. His hoof extended and his soldiers marched, but then he turned his back to them. Just as suddenly as he appeared, he disappeared. The chill dissipated with him.

Rainbow Dash had flown up out of the trap and started to fly after the evil king, but Sunset had called her name, halting the blue pegasus. For a moment, it looked like Rainbow Dash’s desire would supersede her loyalty. But as the freed ponies and Shining Armor charged Sombra’s soldiers, Rainbow Dash helped by flanking the stragglers. “This is your fault, you know!” Twilight had yelled, turning Sunset’s focus away from the fighting. “If Prince Sunburst were here, we wouldn’t be in this mess! We’d have that evil king in chains right now!”

A tightness in her chest caused Sunset to reel back on her hind legs and stomp forward. “I am so sick of hearing about that obnoxious stallion!” Sunset yelled in reply. “When I knew him he was just a simple halfwit who could only levitate objects around! What a gifted stallion! I was levitating objects at half his age and learning counterspells while he was still in diapers!”

The roar of the unchained and Sombra’s soldiers clashing would not overpower their yelling competition. Even Shining Armor’s indistinct orders were no match over Sunset and Twilight’s bickering. “Don’tcha think you two could put this aside for later? They’re kinda gettin’ overwhelmed here!” advised Applejack, pointing with her good hoof at the sea of ponies.

“How dare you!” Twilight shouted, ignoring the earthen mare. “All you can do is levitate objects! You have no more skill than he did, and he was only a colt at the time! Even I’m better than you!” She threw her head back and flung her horn forward, blasting a spell so powerful that it sent four soldiers flying from the crowd.

“I’ve been gone from Equestria for years! This isn’t even my world! You can’t compare me to him. In my Equestria, he’s probably a nobody living in who-cares-where, drawing up useless spells,” argued Sunset.

“That’s right, this isn’t your world!” Twilight said with a face wrinkled in anger. “We don’t want you here! Your original world didn’t even want you, that’s why you fled to a human world, isn’t it!?”

Rarity had said something that Sunset couldn’t hear past her own rage. She tried to come up with a response but failed with “You know what!” Her lips moved faster than her brain, however. “The Tree of Harmony picked me! It picked me to fix this timeline after it was ruined by somepony I’ve never even met! And even if I could fix it, which I’ve been trying to do, I’m not even sure it’d be worth it! This world is absolutely terrible! The only good thing about it is you guys, and I can’t even say for certain that this world will even exist when I'm gone!”

“Except it does exist! Just because this isn’t your timeline or world or whatever, it doesn’t mean that we’re any less real! You even live in a world where your friends are humans. How can you say we don’t exist!?” Twilight said, her voice cracking as if she were on the verge of crying. “I’ve lived my whole life a klutz and a weakling, striving to be as helpful as I can. All the years I’ve been alive, all the memories I have, they were made before you even came to this world!” Twilight’s anger finally broke, tears pouring down her cheek. “We matter! What happens here matters to us! If you were truly our friend, you would have already known that!”

A knot caught Sunset’s throat. She’s right. Ever since I found out what the Tree of Harmony wanted I’ve been so focused on solely bringing the Elements together, thinking that’s all that mattered. She wiped her runny nose as she recalled the things she had said and thought. “It’s not like any of this matters. If I return to the past, would this timeline cease to exist?” she remembered thinking. I didn’t care about Manehattan’s problems. I didn’t believe this world really existed. It shouldn’t exist, but it does. She shifted her vision to the fighting. The soldiers and ponies were back and forth on which side was winning. This is their home, she thought as she turned back to Twilight. This is my friends’ home.

“I-I’m sorry,” Sunset uttered. Her eyes clouded with tears as she stared at her friend. “I-I’ve been so selfish… I thought I was helping by just getting the Elements together. I kept thinking, none of this matters just get the Elements, and I ignored the world around me.” Her head hung low. “This world has the same people I care about in my world, in my Equestria. Yet, even knowing that, I still let myself ignore the happenings of this world. I let myself believe that was what was needed of me, and I didn’t stop to think of what that truly meant.” Sombra’s soldiers seemed to have the upper hoof as they dogpiled Shining Armor. “I was wrong, selfish, and a bad friend. I now know what the Tree of Harmony wanted. It wanted me to help this world get back on track, not just with Sombra, but with the ponies who live here too. I’m sorry. I let you down.”

Twilight’s frown subsided, giving way to a waning smile. She rubbed the tears from her eyes and gave a nod. “You’ve taught me a lot about friendship. I’m glad I could teach you something too,” Twilight said as Sunset held out a hoof. Twilight was hesitant at first, but Sunset pulled her in close, wrapping her in a hug. They stood for a moment before Sunset wiped the tears from her own eyes and pulled apart. “Alright, enough with the waterworks,” Twilight shouted. “Let’s show King Sombra what the magic of friendship can do!”

Turning her focus to the battle, a smile gleamed her face. Sunset’s horn lit up with sparks of magic while Twilight’s did the same. Using their combined magic they ripped through the soldier’s armor, tearing off the brainwashing helmets. The floor became littered with helmetless, unconscious ponies. The ponies that were already freed watched in awe as the soldiers fell around them. Just as quickly as it began, it was finished.

“We did it!” Sunset shouted and elbowed the mare next to her. “I can’t believe it!”

Twilight didn’t respond.

Murmurs and gasps from her friends forced Sunset to instantly turn around. Their eyes were locked on the other unicorn, as were hers once she saw Twilight floating. White light poured from her eye sockets. Sunset knew what it meant, but it wasn’t any less surprising. The white light edged across Twilight’s forehead, up to her horn and around her ears. As the light faded it was replaced by a golden hemmed crown. Nine light blue rhinestones sat beneath the magenta six-pointed star. With the Element of Magic atop her head, the light faded and her eyes opened. The first thing Twilight saw was Sunset staring back at her.

“So that’s what it feels like,” Twilight noted vaguely.

“Like a seatbelt?” Sunset asked.

A quizzical brow arched over Twilight’s right eye. “A what?”

“Never mind.” She wrapped the mare in a hug. “I’m so sorry for being so blind.”

“It’s alright now. We were both being pretty stubborn. Here I was thinking the Elements were just a foal’s tale – guess the jokes on me.” Twilight lifted the crown from her head. “Though it’s pushing my bun down and hurting my head.”

“Here, let me get that,” Sunset said, levitating the beads from Twilight’s hair bun and dropping her bangs down to her forehead. A few strands of hair shifted from one side due to their frizzy nature. “There, now that looks more like the you I know.”

“Twilight!” Shining Armor yelled as he came closer. “You two were amazing! And would you look at that? My baby sister’s an Element of Harmony! I’ve never been more proud.” He wrapped a hoof around her. “You two really put up a wallop! Not since the changeling invasion have I seen such a powerful magical force!”

“It was so inspiring,” Fluttershy added.

Rainbow Dash uppercut the air. “You really let ‘em have it!”

Twilight pushed a hoof to her mouth, hiding her blushing cheeks. “You guys…”

“That was amazing!” Rarity yelled. “I wish I had gotten a crown too,” she whined, her eyes fixed upon the headdress.

“I’d hate to cut the congratulations short, but we’ve got to get everypony inside the castle before that awful King Sombra comes back with more of his soldiers,” Applejack advised.

“The castle…” Shining Armor stared at Applejack, his eyes shook within their sockets. He turned his focus to the entrance of the crystal castle. “Cadance,” he whispered and then galloped toward the closest door.

The ground began to rumble, forcing the stallion and everyone else to stop and look. They all felt it – an earthquake. The sudden tremor seemed to have started out of nowhere. It was then Sunset saw it, on the southern horizon. Crystals pouring up from the ground, heading more and more south before eventually colliding with the crystalline wall. It was Sombra, Sunset knew. What’s he doing? she wondered, but Twilight seemed to realize what had happened. “He’s leaving! He’s heading south, for Princess Celestia’s camp!” Twilight yelled, her voice sounded like it was falling out of her with each word she spoke.

“The southern wall has fallen? Why would he do something like that?” Fluttershy asked.

Rainbow Dash flew up into the sky but came back down as quick as she had gone up. “Soldiers! He’s bringing his entire force back across the city line. And they’re heading here!” She threw her hooves toward the unconscious soldiers around them. “There’s no way we’ll be able to defeat them all, even with the ones we freed!”

“Everypony!” Shining yelled. He had galloped back to the crowd. “Let’s get them into the castle! We’ll bar the door!”

The emancipated ponies rushed to the castle while those who were unicorns lifted the ones knocked out from the fight. When everyone was inside, Shining Armor closed the doors. The Elements helped settle in the comatose soldiers while Sunset assisted Shining with sealing the door. “That should do it,” Shining Armor said. “We’ll deal with them once we get the Crystal Heart and Cadance.”

“I’m not so certain we shouldn’t go after King Sombra,” Twilight said, stubborn with her love for her mentor. “They’ll need our help at Princess Celestia’s campsite.”

“I actually have to disagree.” Sunset stepped forward in-between Twilight and Shining. “If he’s sent a portion of his army after us, he’ll have less to fight Celestia. If we can find the Crystal Heart and activate it, it may save those ponies within his control. We might be doing more good for the base camp by getting the Heart rather than charging in as the cavalry.”

Everyone silenced themselves and looked to each other. The looks they gave to one another were filled with fear, concern, and most of all, determination.

“We’re with you, Sunset,” Twilight said, her lips moved with a smile.

Sunset nodded. The ponies who had been freed stayed behind with the ones who were still asleep. They were meant to guard the door for as long as they could should the enemy break Shining Armor’s magical seal. Sunset led her friends up the only set of stairs within the foyer. Much of the features and décor she recognized. It was almost as if nothing had changed between this world’s castle and her own world’s. There had been no time for Sombra to embellish in a redecorating process. Random patches of sprouting crystals hung from the ceiling and walls. Whether it had been placed there due to fighting or was simply Sombra’s anger relieving itself, Sunset could not tell. The crystals were sharp and reflected the light from her horn, and a faint hum still rang with a low oscillation. It gave the dark castle an eerie feeling.

Stairs and long halls were a common theme for castles of this magnitude, but many of the rooms were sealed off. Crates filled with helmets and armor, broken chairs and tables, and the occasional crystal blasted door told them where they couldn’t go. They climbed the steps as quickly as they could, but the further up they went the darker the rooms became. Shining Armor and Twilight lit their horns as well, adding to Sunset’s. Each hall, every corner, it reminded Sunset of her last and only visit. As they walked, she envisioned herself running. “Sorry it had to be this way, princess,” she remembered saying in a deeper tone.

The humans of Canterlot High School had forgiven her, Princess Twilight Sparkle had forgiven her, but even so, she could not wipe the memory from her mind. Even as her eyes glanced atop this world’s Twilight and her Element of Magic, the memory was only made stronger. It seemed so long ago. This world was proving that she didn’t have all the answers, either. It only made her question what she had truly learned from her human friends. They had forgiven her, befriended her. She even helped in the sirens defeat.

But would she ever truly be forgiven for her lust for power? Or was it simply her own self that could not forgive?

Nothing was said as they ascended the castle. Heavy panting and the galloping hooves were the only noises to be had, until a loud banging echoed against the crystal walls. The trembling sounds snapped Sunset from her depressing reminiscing. “Any idea what that sound could be?” she asked, breaking the lull of conversation.

They soon found the cause of the racketing disturbance. Five of Sombra’s soldiers stood outside the throne room, bashing on the door with a battering ram made of crystal. Before they could plan an ambush, a soldier dropped their section of the ram and turned to face them. The other soldiers were not as quick, and the sole aware soldier was thrust away by Sunset’s magic. Another two were slammed into headfirst by Shining Armor, while the last two were taken care of by Twilight and Rarity – their helmets flying off in different directions.

Rarity then levitated the makeshift battering ram into the air. “It’s a shame they didn’t have magic; something King Sombra really shouldn’t have overlooked,” she noted. “However, I am curious as to what exactly they were after.” With a swift knock against the outside edge of the right door where the hinges were, the door flipped to the side and landed on the ground. “Tada!” She twirled the battering ram in the air before slapping it to the ground and leaning against it.

“Way to go Rarity!” Applejack raised her hoof in front of the unicorn. “Once this war is over, if you need a job I could sure use you down on the farm.”

Rarity reluctantly hoof-bumped the country mare. “I’ll just stick to making clothes, thank you.”

Sunset shook her head, smiling to herself before entering the room. Her horn illuminated away the darkness much more than she expected. She quickly dimmed the light and rubbed her eyes, taking another look. A crystal column sat in the middle of the throne room, mirroring anything that shined against it. But even with its reflected shell, it could not completely hide what was held within its gemstone skin. A pony of pink and magenta sat within the crystal structure, unmoving and unaware. Next to the pony, another crystal was trapped within. Its cyan color did not match up with the outer shell of dark purple.

She came closer, noticing the column was uneven and misshapen. Large chunks of crystal sat around on the floor, torn from the sides of the crystal pillar. Dust was all over the place in the area where the crystals had been cut from. “Hey guys, come check this out,” she said, staring up at the pony in the crystal.

One of the Elements called out, “Sunset, behind you!”

In a split instant of seeing a figure in the reflection of the crystal and the yell from one of her friends, Sunset had been tackled to the ground. The pony struggled to hold Sunset down, pushing her on her back and pressing down on her forelegs. “Y’know, yelling behind you doesn’t really help when they’re literally about to pounce!” Her eyes darted over to the door where another figure stood in the path of her friends. She then tried to raise her head to catch a glimpse of her assailant, but their face was clouded in darkness. She could see that there were no green slats for eyes, however. “Get off me! I’m on your side!” She didn’t give the shrouded pony a moment to respond, lifting them up off with her magic.

As she drew to her hooves, she saw the other pony stand at attention for Shining Armor who saluted in return. “You can put the other one down, Sunset. I think we’ve found who you’re looking for,” Shining Armor claimed.

The pony at the door turned around, her grey fur darkened by the lack of light. “Maud!?” Sunset said, startled. She accidentally released her magic, dropping the other pony on accident. “Oops.” She quickly turned to help the other pony up. Straight pink hair flowed from side to side as Sunset helped the pony to her hooves. “Well, would you look at that. I was right all along, you really were here.”

“Captain Armor, why are you here, and who are these ponies?” Maud asked, her voice remained its monotone vernacular even in this world.

“Looking for you,” answered Sunset. “Well, you.” She bumped the shoulder of the other pony.

The pink haired mare looked at Sunset with a tilted head and squinted eyes and then walked over to stand with Maud. “Why would you be looking for my sister?” Maud asked.

I still haven’t figured out a way to not sound crazy when explaining this, Sunset lamented.

She didn’t get the chance to answer, however, as Twilight Sparkle stepped up to the challenge. “Princess Celestia has seen fit for us to find her. Your sister is one of the Elements of Harmony, she’s needed if we’re ever to have any hope of defeating King Sombra.”

Maud and Pinkie Pie stood blank faced. If shock had been their reaction, no one could tell. Of course, having met Maud before, Sunset knew the emotions of the rock-loving pony would never bleed through to her face. But even then, it was a surprise Pinkie showed no reaction either. “Princess Celestia sent us here. If she required my sister then why would she do that?” Maud replied. Was it accusation in her question, or curiosity?

Sunset simply smirked. “Princess Celestia? Yeah, why would she do that?” she asked in a condescending voice as she leaned against the crystal column. “It’s not like she can always be one step ahead in literally everything, right?” Her eyes looked to the pony inside the crystal. “Or maybe, just maybe, she pushes you to do things that she cannot do herself, hoping that when everyone pulls together, that we can accomplish something great. All the puzzle pieces just seem to fit together after that.”

“That was very well-spoken of you, Sunset,” Twilight complimented, a tear in her eye. She walked up to the crystal pillar with Shining Armor, her reflection staring back at her. “Everything is in place, whether Princess Celestia had meant to or not. I’m really glad you convinced me of all this, Sunset. Without you, none of this would be possible.”

“As much as I’d love to take all the credit, I couldn’t have done it alone. We’ve still got a lot to get done. Plus, if you say any more kind words it’s likely to go to my head." Sunset snickered. "Let’s get out of the way of these two, shall we?” Sunset stepped away from the crystal and raised a hoof in the air, aiming for Pinkie Pie or Maud to hoof-bump her. Pinkie Pie and Maud walked past her and she was left hanging. “Okay…” she whispered to herself, dejectedly lowering her hoof.

Everyone crowded around to watch the earth ponies go to town on the crystal, chipping away at the shiny pillar. They worked both sides of the prison, though the first to plop out was the Crystal Heart. It slid down with pebbles of crystal, skipping against the floor and sliding into a wall. “I’ve got it!” Rainbow Dash yelled, darting over to where it landed. Pinkie and Maud then began to work the same side, busting out the back legs of the princess and working their way from there. Shining Armor was breathing more heavily than the two workers, obviously anxious for his beloved to be released.

A chord was finally struck deep within the crystal, resonating it enough to shatter all the way through. Maud lifted out the comatose princess before the column collapsed, placing her in the forelegs of her fiancé. “Thank you, so much,” he said to them, holding the catatonic princess against his chest. “There was no way I could have done any of this without all of you.”

“Hey, we’ve all got to help support each other in this world. Isn’t that right, Twilight?” Sunset asked the purple unicorn, giving a wink.

Twilight pushed a hoof to her mouth and giggled. “We’ve got all the Element bearers, the Crystal Heart, and Princess Cadance. I’d be lying if I said I’m not surprised we got this far. What exactly is our next objective? Get Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie their Elements or figure out where to place the Crystal Heart?”

“Th… The bottom,” a voice called out, frail and soft in its words.

Everyone looked around the room, searching for the source of the voice. “Cadance!?” Shining Armor shouted. It had been the weakened princess, too hapless to open her eyes to speak.

“My prince… The Heart… The bottom of…”

Taking one of her forelegs, Shining Armor hoisted her onto his back, carrying her like a foal. “The Crystal Heart it is. Outside, bottom of the castle. That’s where we need to take the Heart. We passed right by it on our way in.” Without waiting, he turned and rushed out the door.

“You heard the captain. Everybody march!” Rainbow Dash ordered, tossing the heart to Twilight. She tore after Shining with Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rarity hot on her tail.

“I suppose that means us too,” Sunset said, smiling at Twilight. “What about you, Pinkie?” She trotted over to the pink mare and her sister. “Will you come with us? You’re an Element of Harmony, the Element of Laughter. We really need your help.”

Pinkie didn’t answer. Her sullen mouth kept its frown and her dogged eyes spoke more than she did. “My sister doesn’t talk much,” Maud answered for her.

“That’s a bit odd for the Element of Laughter,” Sunset noted.

“Is it?” asked Maud, her voice unchanged.

“The Pinkie I know is loud, obnoxious, and extremely friendly.” Sunset’s lips curled into a frown. “I suppose that’s just another difference in this world compared to my own.” Her eyes drifted up to the manes of the two. The backside of Maud’s neck was trimmed into a mohawk, while Pinkie’s was a bit the same, though much longer in the front. It was a bit odd to see the party pony without her eccentric poufy hair. These hairstyles are a bit off-putting. I wonder what the Rarity of my world would say if I came back with a haircut like theirs.

“I don’t understand,” Maud replied. “But we’ll help, for now.”

“Come on then. We’ll talk more about the Elements of Harmony after we get the Crystal Heart in place,” Twilight said.

Sunset trotted up next to Twilight and turned her head back to the two. “You guys ready to rock Sombra’s world?”

“Your pun is duly noted,” Maud said as she passed by them.

They made their way through the castle, crossing halls and taking stairs. Sunset could feel it in her heart, the end was nigh. She wasn’t ready to be parting from these six. Not after everything she had done to help and everything she had been taught. Pinkie had been found, it was only a matter of time before her Element would be obtained along with Rainbow Dash’s.

But all of this was done by her own hooves. She had found the Elements, she had crossed the world, and she had braved the horrors of a mindless army. Even through her failures, her inability to take in the world around her, she was able to help. She felt proud.

In the human world, it had taken all her efforts just to discover the reasoning behind the weird magic taking place at her school, and even then it wasn’t quite clear. Nothing’s been making sense recently. The words ‘time’ and ‘help’ burned in her brain, and she knew she could feel pride in what she had done. Her eyes peeked at the purple unicorn trotting next to her, the image of Midnight Sparkle floating beside her. She couldn’t help but laugh.

“What’s so funny?” asked Twilight.

“I don’t know!” she answered. “I just feel giddy all of a sudden.”

“I feel it too.” Twilight looked forward to Maud and Pinkie. She then began to run faster, forcing Sunset to speed up as well.

The four sputtered into the entrance of the castle where the others stood around, staring at the door. The liberated ponies were pressing against it, while others waited for it to burst. Shining Armor had already given Princess Cadance to Fluttershy and Rarity to hold. “We’re here. What’s the plan?” Sunset asked as she looked around the room. The unconscious ponies had awoken and prepared themselves to fight, some even wearing the army given to them while under Sombra’s control.

“We’re going to open the door. Me and the rest of the guards will flood out and push the enemy back, allowing you two time to place the heart,” answered Shining Armor. “We only get one chance at this.”

“I’m ready for another fight,” Rainbow Dash said, slamming her hooves together.

“If we only have one chance then we’ll make it count! We’re all in this together.” Sunset then turned to Rainbow Dash. “You hearing this, loyalty? Together!” She raised a hoof into the air which Dash promptly bumped with her own hoof.

Twilight shook her head. “I have my own fears, Sunset, but you’ve convinced me at least. I’m ready whenever you all are.” She raised the Crystal Heart and gave an anxious smile.

“That’s the spirit!” Sunset replied. “Well, sort of.”

“Shining… Be careful,” Cadance said, her limp body desperately hanging onto Rarity and Fluttershy.

He gave a nod, though his face didn’t show any signs of worry. Side for Cadance, none of them looked concerned. Even the unshackled ponies seemed undeterred by the imminent danger. “Ready,” Sunset said, and the other ponies repeated.

The door was blown up by a blast from Shining Armor’s horn.

The first wave of black helms was pushed back by some of the freed ponies, which allowed Shining Armor to bowl through the crowd with his barrier surrounding him. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Maud were out the door with the rest of the ponies, pushing back any soldier that stood beneath the castle. Applejack guarded by the door, watching and waiting for the area to be clear. “Go now!” she yelled once the middle was safe. Sunset threw herself out the door. The soldiers were almost limitless compared to her own allies. She waved a hoof and Twilight followed out, racing through the open zone to the middle of the ground.

At the very center point of the castle sat a crystal point the size of a pin. It was broken down by all the fighting or perhaps had been smashed by King Sombra himself. Regardless, Sunset threw her back to it while Twilight placed the Crystal Heart. Sunset guarded against soldiers that began to break the line, levitating them to the ceiling before they could get close enough. With the Heart in the meager space, the crystal began to reform, pressing towards the Heart. Twilight stepped back, allowing the Heart to spin in place.

The light from the Heart flickered as it sped up, twirling faster and faster. Sunset looked back at Twilight who had put a hoof to her face, blinded by the emanating glow. More soldiers pressing through had forced her focus away. Even so, she could tell that the light suddenly darkened. “What’s happened!?” she yelled to Twilight, drawing another four soldiers to the ceiling as she repeated the question.

The Crystal Heart had come to a complete stop. “It… It’s not working!” Twilight cried out, causing Sunset to turn back to the pedestal. “What should we do!?”

She couldn’t believe her eyes. The Heart stayed motionless and cold. The plan has failed. She couldn’t even see Shining Armor, Rainbow Dash, or the Pie sisters anymore. They were lost to the crowd of blackened armor. “I don’t know,” she replied, her voice as quiet as Fluttershy in a crowd. I don’t know…

Arc 1: Chapter 7

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The Heart hung in place, still as water in the dead of night. The dim light it emitted was barely enough to make a shadow on the purple unicorn, let alone shine against her face. Sunset stood a yard behind her, staring at the failed artifact they had put all their faith into. A brittle voice soon spoke to her, trying to get her attention, but only causing a chill to run down her spine. What am I supposed to do? Her tears clouded her eyes, blinding her to the hundreds of dark black plumes that flooded like a vast, broken ocean. The Heart was becoming hard to see as more tears fell, and so was the purple unicorn.

The voice called out again as if it were from a distance. It called out once more, this time cutting across her thoughts like scissors through paper. Several soldiers were breaking the line, and several others were falling from her grasp. She turned around faster than her eyes could keep up, ignoring the sea of black plumes. Princess Cadance stood on all fours, no longer kept up by Rarity and Fluttershy. The nostrils of her muzzle were flaring sharply. She couldn’t hear what this princess was saying, too deaf to the world around her, but she heard the tone. The deep, guttural tone this princess held sounded so close to that what she remembered Princess Celestia sounded like whenever she was angered.

Sunset’s eyes turned back to the soldiers that were now rising to their hooves. That deep voice, that fierce lilt. It commanded her. A surge of adrenaline brought all her magic back. She lifted the soldiers to the ceiling once more along with any that had charged forth. She would not break twice; she was determined to hold the line. Even as Twilight Sparkle laid on the ground, covering her head with her hooves, Sunset refused to move. She watched as Princess Cadance stepped past, her knees weak as she walked. Every step she took seemed like an eternity, and an eternity Sunset felt she could hold. The princess didn’t even stop to check on the cowering unicorn, her focus was too narrow for anything other than the Crystal Heart. Her fiancé, the Pie sisters, the liberated ponies. All the fighting that was surrounding the castle didn’t matter to the princess. She was as determined as Sunset.

It was then that a light so iridescent arose from the Crystal Heart, brought forth by Cadance’s magic. It did not come from her horn, however, but her own heart. Sunset heaved a sigh as she let go of the soldiers, dropping them to the ground. The light pierced their armor, snapping the helmets from their heads. But these freed soldiers were not knocked unconscious. That’s when Sunset noticed the aura emitting from the Crystal Heart, a small bubble that surrounded the underside of the castle. “This is your city, your home! This is your very heart! Use what you love to save this city, just as I have used my love to save you!” the princess barked.

The soldiers dropped their heads, bowing to Princess Cadance and the Heart. Whether they were crystal ponies or taken members from Celestia’s guard, their love filled the Crystal Heart with joy. Sunset thought of her own friends, in this world, in the one she came from, and her own human friends who she deeply missed. All the love that came from everyone made the Crystal Heart begin to spin once more, but this time it did not stop. Instead, it spun and spun until the wave increased inside and released from beyond the underside of the castle, stretching out and purifying everything within its magical blast. The soldiers that had fought Shining Armor, Pinkie Pie, and Maud, had their helms tossed off by the aura.

Each pony that was hit with the magical love began to shine with crystal energy, turning them half-transparent. The wave did not stop however, breaking against any pony under King Sombra’s control and releasing them from his evil grasp. As it reached the edges of The Crystal Empire it was forced to stop, hindered by the large crystal obelisks that were the city’s walls. So instead, the city became a dome of light, piercing the clouds above and returning the starry sky. Though outside the city was still desolate, the inside was free and pure.

“You did it!” Twilight claimed, her eyes fixed upon Princess Cadance.

We did,” the princess corrected.

Helmets flew into the air around the castle, thrown by the cheering ponies who had been burdened into wearing them. No one was more happy than Shining Armor, however, which was obvious when he wrapped his forelegs around his beloved like a vice grip, his eyes full of tears. Sunset had never seen a stallion cry before, at least not where she hadn’t been the cause. But everyone seemed to have some sort of happy emotion, side for the two Pie sisters. The uproar of happiness rang against the crystal of the city, trembling the very ground they stood on.

“You think we caught King Sombra in that blast? What’ll it have done to him if it had?” was the first thing Applejack asked as the Elements crowded around the Crystal Heart.

The energy of the Heart slanted against the crystal walls of the city, it was still trapped like they were. Sunset wondered if the breaks in the wall were leaking out magic from the Heart, or if it was able to prevent any of Sombra’s army from reentering the city. Regardless, Sombra’s desire to have his troops retreat to defend the castle had backfired, and most of his strength removed. But surely he had not stayed within the empire to help. “The walls are still up,” Maud had said and Sunset understood what that meant immediately. They had saved the city and those within the walls, however, the walls shouldn’t exist at all if Sombra had been caught. The spiked crystals of dark purple and burgundy that were strung up the sides of the castle had disintegrated with the blast, leaving nothing of the evil king’s magic besides the dark helms and cold armor, and of course the obelisk walls.

“I’m not sure the blast would have done much good even if he had been caught in it. He’s no longer shadows, his body’s reformed. At most, it may have weakened him by preventing his use of magic,” Princess Cadance described. “We must find him immediately. He cannot be allowed to regroup and plan a counter.”

“He’s gone to the camp,” Twilight replied. “If he was outside the walls then he wouldn’t want to be attacked by the flank. His only option would be to charge Princess Celestia in the middle of the night.” Twilight turned to Sunset. “We have to go after him, we have to save the camp.”

“How will you defeat King Sombra?” Maud asked.

“With the Elements of Harmony, of course,” answered Twilight, confidently.

“The Elements that we don’t have a complete set of…” Sunset reminded her. “We’ve got a second to breathe. We should re-”

A hollow, raspy voice rang out, cutting Sunset off. A grey stallion without his helm was rushing up from the road that led to where Sombra had breached his wall. As the stallion drew closer it was clear he had been running the entire way, sweat pouring from his face and glistening like the crystal he galloped on. He panted so fast that Sunset thought he was going to hyperventilate before he could even speak. After he took a moment, the grey stallion spoke with short words. “Soldiers. Preventing entrance. Sombra attacked camp. Crystals surrounded. No reinforcements.”

Shining Armor stepped in front of the guard. “At ease. Just tell us what happened, slowly.”

“Right,” the stallion said, taking a deep breath. The back of his hoof was just as stained with sweat as his flushed cheeks and wrinkled brow. “King Sombra attacked the camp, surrounded it with crystals. It’s a dome, an evil dome, opposite of the empire. And his soldiers are preventing anyone from coming close to either his dome or ours. The Wonderbolts managed to defend long enough so that I could get this message to you.”

“Where is King Sombra now?” asked Shining Armor.

“Disappeared. Not long after he sealed the camp. We believe he’s inside, hiding amongst our troops and Princess Celestia, but we have no way of getting a message to her or anyone inside. It’s just a guess though, Princess Celestia would have burst that crystal bubble of his if he wasn’t inside.”

“That might be true if the camp is not in a sealed crystal,” Princess Cadance countered with her own experience. “If it is truly like a dome I would assume she’d have no trouble taking it down. If they are encased, however, it would not be so easily done, even for her.”

“We do not know King Sombra’s power. Princess Celestia has only dueled him slightly, never taking more than parting shots, and neither has found each other’s limit,” added Twilight.

Sunset rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Then why don’t we just go and find-”

Cut off once more, a loud thundering and cracking interrupted Sunset mid-sentence. The ground below shook and rumbled, throwing off the balance of some ponies and sending others into walls. In the distance, beyond the great barrier made by the Crystal Heart, the obelisks rose higher than ever. They clung to the edge of the Heart’s barrier, never spreading past, only rising against it like moss on a stone. The two openings that had been made, one by Sombra and the other by Pinkie Pie and Maud, also rose with the rest of the wall, but remained shorter than the others. The crystals did not cover the whole of the barrier, stopping halfway to the top.

“He’s going to trap us all in the hopes of weakening our lines of defense. He’s desperate,” Shining Armor said. “And he’s trying to make us desperate.”

“He didn’t do a very good job,” Rainbow Dash replied, hovering in the air. “A pegasus can just transport ponies in or out.”

“Even Sombra grows weary,” argued Sunset. “He’s still just a pony. He’ll probably attempt to finish the enclosure soon. We should head out and find him. Even if we don’t have all the Elements, if he’s weakened we may not need them.” She looked around at her fellow friends, noting the lack of a certain Element. Maud and Pinkie were making their way back through the crowd, but Sunset levitated them up and reeled them back like hooked fish. “Where do you two think you’re going?”

“We’re going to make a path through the wall,” Maud answered while Pinkie struggled within the magical grasp. “Then we’re going to do the same to the camp’s wall.”

Sunset settled the two mares back on the ground. “It would take hours to take down one of those tall pillars.”

“Yes,” was all Maud answered.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” Princess Cadance intervened. “If you tear down a piece of that giant crystal, it may tear a hole in the barrier or crush somepony. That might be what King Sombra wants.” She stared down at the grey-furred earth pony. “Though if you’re bent on leaving, I may know of another way. A way King Sombra used.”

Maud remained blank-faced even as she answered, “Making a hole is easier.”

“The Elements should stick together, Maud. Perhaps we could take Pinkie with us?” Sunset asked.

Pinkie’s expression soured as she frowned, looking to Maud and shaking her head. “My sister doesn’t want to be apart from me,” Maud said, understanding the pink pony’s mute refusal.

She doesn’t stray from Maud. She doesn’t talk. What in the world happened to Pinkie Pie? Sunset’s eyes dragged to Rainbow Dash and the chunk of metal that sat on her back, grimacing at the thoughts that poured into her mind. “Then I must command you both to come with us,” Sunset said, turning back to Maud. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll plead and beg. We need Pinkie Pie, and that means we need you.”

Maud stood silent for a long while. “Begging would be funny,” she finally spoke, “but not needed.” Pinkie leaned her face close to Maud, her expression confused. “We’ll come with you,” Maud answered much to Pinkie’s shock and refusal. “It will be fun.” Pinkie perked up at the word fun, eventually giving in to her sister’s want.

“If everything is settled, I may have a better way to get you out of the city.” Princess Cadance beckoned for Sunset and the others to follow. “It may help in finding how King Sombra moved quickly with his army.” She gave a passing nuzzle to her fiancé, leading Sunset, the Elements, and Maud back into the castle. They went up the steps, down the halls, back to where they had freed the princess. They passed by doors that no longer held the crystals Sombra had conjured, nor did the hum ring in Sunset’s ears. Even the crystal rubble that trapped Princess Cadance had now become pebbles and dust.

Princess Cadance halted in front of a rug that sprawled towards the fragmented prison. “I witnessed a few times the hidden secret within this room,” the princess said. The rug flew up as if a gust of wind had taken it, flinging itself towards the pile of pebbles. A hatch of metal and wood revealed itself beneath where the rug had laid. Princess Cadance drew it up and open, exposing stairs that led down into an abyss. “I must return to Shining Armor and help the ponies of The Crystal Empire. There is a darkness down here that you must overcome. Go now, help free Princess Celestia.” She gritted her teeth, hesitantly, and then said, “Defeat King Sombra for me.”

Twilight and the others bowed while Sunset simply smiled, turning her head back to the unbridled darkness. Sunset didn’t like the look of it. The chill vanished once they had placed the Crystal Heart, but Sunset could feel the frost fluttering against her muzzle, coming from this rampant dark. She took the first step into the depths, taking a glance at her surroundings. The crystal stairs were a clockwise spiral leading down into seemingly nothingness; it was too far and too dark to see the bottom. Each step caused her to tense, feeling the frost rub against the soles of her hooves. It didn’t get any easier the deeper she went. She forced herself to stop looking back at her friends, as each time she did she felt envious of Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy and their wings.

“How about we tell some jokes?” Sunset inquired. The journey down the stairs would be long, that much she could feel. It would be best if we try to get Pinkie and Dash’s Elements before charging headlong into battle.

“That might be a good way to get Pinkie’s Element,” Twilight replied. “Right?”

Sunset nodded. Gaining Pinkie’s Element wasn’t her only reason, however, as the darkness left everyone a bit skittish. Even Rainbow Dash refused to go any further down into the pit without them with her. Though it was dark below, each step was visible even without a light spell. It was like the darkness was pushed down by their very presence. That worried Sunset. “I’ll go first. How did the skeleton know it was going to rain?” She paused for dramatic effect. “She could feel it in her bones!” As she cackled to herself, she looked back to see the reactions of Pinkie and Maud. The two sisters remained unfazed, but the groans and eye rolls from the rest of the Elements distracted her. “Guess I’m the only one with a funny bone...” she muttered.

Sunset’s poor attempt at humor did not dissuade the rest from trying, but nothing made the pink pony laugh or crack a smile. It didn’t help that every time someone laughed the sound echoed against the circular walls, resonating a menacing screech like a raven’s caw.

Sunset forced a smile to her lips at every joke. Some of them were particularly funny, but not all. Though they didn’t succeed in making Pinkie Pie laugh, it did help in passing the time. Once the bottom became visible, Rainbow Dash glided down to the floor while the others trotted as quickly as they could to catch her. It wasn’t dark, not like it had appeared from above. A light spell was still not needed to see on the ground floor, which caused murmurs of curious fear. “It feels like we traveled a lot further down than the foyer of the castle,” Rarity remarked as she stared up at the entrance they had come from. Her breath could be seen with every word she spoke.

“I don’t like the look or feel of this place,” Sunset whispered, a chill running down her spine and buzzing in her ear. There was a single door that sat to the left of the stairs. It was the sole thing in a room that felt smaller than it appeared. Everyone filtered out at the bottom, looking around and finding nothing. Only the single door. Sunset trotted closer to it, examining the purple wood and golden knob and the crystallized frame that held it. For some reason her lip and chin trembled, forcing her to bite down to stop their shaking. It didn’t help.

Everything spoke to her at once, telling her not to open the door. Little whispers in her ear begging her not to look at what was inside. I have no choice, she told herself, knowing they needed a way out of The Crystal Empire. She reached up with her hoof to touch the knob, but then thought better of it. Instead, she grabbed the knob with her magic and twisted, pulling it open. A light blinded her for a moment before she reopened her eyes.

She came face to face with a ghastly sight. It was a reflection. A reflection from the statue in Canterlot High School’s courtyard, and a reflection of herself. It frightened her even though she knew it was herself, but it looked nothing like her. She touched her cheek, brushing against the crimson skin, and stared into the black eyes. Her hair stood like a beehive atop her head. A demon, she mouthed, still wearing the darkened Element of Magic atop her head.

A cackling laugh broke Sunset from her reflection, causing her to turn around. The high school was in ruins, the world around her was shattering and tearing into Equestria. She rose to her feet, staring up at another demon. “Midnight… Sparkle?” she said, almost a whisper. Purple wings fluttered from above, landing in front of her. It was definitely the Twilight Sparkle of the human world turned demon, Sunset would never forget the face.

“Join me, Sunset Shimmer,” the monstrous alter ego said, extending her hand. “We shall destroy everything, together!”

“No!” Sunset Shimmer pushed away. “I would never do that!”

“Oh, but don’t you see?” Midnight Sparkle raised her hands above her head. “You already have!”

Canterlot High School fell to the ground in rubble followed by the rest of the world. Cracks in the air split open, tearing apart the fabric of reality and ripping it asunder. The worst part of all was the sounds, every tear in the air echoed like ripping paper. The statue that she pressed against crumbled around her, disappearing into dust and blown away by a gale of wind. Nothing was left aside for a dusty plain and Midnight’s terrible laugh.

She threw her hands in front of her face, covering her eyes with all her might. When the sounds of wind and laughter subsided, she pulled away and found that she was staring at hooves instead of hands. She slammed the purple door closed with a resonating boom, breathing a sigh of relief to be rid of that nightmare. I beat Midnight Sparkle with the power of friendship, just as I was beaten by the power of friendship. Neither demon will ever return.

Cries from her friends made her realize she had not been the only one to see something horrible. A split second of sorrow remained on Maud and Pinkie Pie’s faces, while Rainbow Dash held her ears. “Everyone, it’s okay!” Sunset yelled, attempting to get everyone’s attention. “It was just more of Sombra’s lies, attempting to dissuade us. A trap! None of it was real!”

“It was awful, just awful!” Fluttershy cried, holding her tail against her chest like a foal.

“W-What did you see, Sunset?” Applejack asked. She didn’t even look up from the ground as she spoke, covering her eyes with a hoof.

Sunset gritted her teeth. “I saw…” She hesitated, taking a moment to pause. “I saw a triumph,” she finally answered, making sure no tears remained in her eyes. “The dark magic attempted to make me relive my greatest failure, but instead it showed me my greatest achievement. I once won someone over with the magic of friendship, helping them turn away from something horrible that they were about to do. Just as it had been for me. That’s a triumph, that’s a victory.”

She didn’t have to force a smile, it was already there. “This was clearly a trap meant to stop anyone from going any further. Sombra doesn’t want any of us to succeed, and that proves Princess Cadance was right. There’s got to be another secret around here that allowed Sombra to leave the city unnoticed.” She turned back to the door, the purple in the wood had darkened to almost black, and the knob had changed to a circular handle. Open it once, shame on me, open it twice, you must think I’m a newborn foal. She shook her head and looked around the room, commanding everyone to do the same.

Her words seemed to do the trick as everyone’s fears subsided. Maud and Pinkie tapped the wall and listened to the crystal while Twilight and Rarity attempted what magic they could. “There’s gotta be somethin’ we’re missin’. Somethin’ that can’t be seen by the naked eye,” Applejack said, pressing her ear to the ground.

Licking her lips and tasting the salt from her own tears, Sunset felt her lips were chapped. The cold brushed against her nose as she stepped to one side of the room, but eased as she drew closer to the staircase. As she placed one hoof on the bottom step she realized the hum was back as well as the cold. The hum was easier to follow compared to the chill. It was faint, but she could barely hear it underneath the staircase. She knew she was on the right trail when the little hairs on her neck stood up. “Everyone, stop moving,” she commanded. With everyone silent, she listened hard and listened long.

It was underneath the stairs. Squatting, she flopped over to lay on her side and then rolled onto her back, dangling her hooves against the wall. “Uh, what are you doing?” Rainbow Dash asked, but was hushed instantly. Sunset stared up at the underside of the staircase, looking and listening for something specific.

“I may not have paid much attention to learning about the world around me,” she hastened to say as she extended her hoof. A single, small, plum colored crystal protruded from one of the bottoms of the stairs. Pushing on it, the crystal folded to one side. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice the little things. Like the noise Sombra’s crystals made.” Pressing the crystal flat, a sudden rumble shot out and a section of the wall moved apart.

Sunset tumbled back to her hooves and stood up, the others crowded around the door that had mysteriously appeared. “Someone close their eyes just in case it’s another trap,” Twilight ordered. Fluttershy was the first and only volunteer.

It was a much larger door than the other, the height and width was big enough for Princess Celestia to walk through unhindered. Twilight levitated the handle up and pulled, dragging the hefty door open. Frozen winds poured into the room, blowing around everyone’s hair and dragging snow onto the floor. Once it was fully open, Sunset knew they had found what they were looking for.

They weren’t connected to the castle of The Crystal Empire anymore. Frozen rocks, snow, icicles, and darkness. It was a cold cave. This was the route Sombra used to sneak troops into the battlefield, though it wasn’t large enough to walk more than three ponies at shoulder length. “I can’t believe it! Sunset, you’re a genius!” Twilight claimed as she lit her horn. “We’ve got to find out where this leads. Maybe we’ll run into King Sombra on the way?”

“I hope so. He’s got a lot to answer for,” Rainbow Dash said, clapping her hooves together.

Sunset smiled with a certain wistfulness. While everyone trotted into the dank cave, she stared back at the door that had haunted them. For a second, she thought it moved, and that worried her enough to push after her friends. Casting a spell, she lit the caboose and felt the snow crunching under her hooves. “We can’t be too far underground, right?” she wondered aloud, staring at the ice covered stones that made up the walls.

“Snow shouldn’t be here,” Maud answered. “This is mostly a dolomite and marble tunnel, yet icicles are hanging from above like a glacial cave. There should be stalagmites and stalactites instead unless the exit is right ahead.”

The stout tunnel eventually filtered out into an open cavern. Ice covered the stones and snow dropped down from a crack above. To the left sat a frozen waterfall, which fed into the iced over river that ran the length of the cave. Wherever it led it did not matter, as it was iced over as well. On the opposite side sat another tunnel that had a fatter opening than the one they entered from. “That’s the sky!” Rainbow Dash shouted, gliding up to the crack in the ceiling. It was a long crack, but not wide. Try as she might, Rainbow Dash couldn’t even reach her hoof through the opening.

“You were right, Maud. This isn’t a glacial cave,” Twilight commended as she stepped down the slope into the heart of the cavern.

“I know. I know a lot about rocks,” Maud replied, following behind with her sister in tow.

“At least we’re close to the surface. Surely that means Sombra could have led parts of his army through here. There’s another cave across the ice.” Sunset trotted down the slope and took one look at the frozen water, deciding it was more of a creek than a river. “Let’s see where that tunnel goes. It could be our way out,” she said, taking a jump over the ice and landing without ever touching the frozen water.

As Sunset trotted up the opposite slope she heard Rainbow Dash say, “You can fly, Fluttershy!” When she looked back, most of the ponies had already crossed the frozen gap aside from Fluttershy and Applejack.

“Oh, right,” Fluttershy said in a shaky voice. She flapped her wings and crossed the gap, giving a sigh of relief once she reached the other side.

“That-a-girl!” Applejack shouted before she too jumped the gap. When she landed she was careful not to put her weight on her bad hoof.

“You made that seem like it was nothing, Applejack!” Fluttershy gawped.

“That’s because it was nothing,” Rainbow Dash snorted, throwing her hooves in the air.

Sunset remained silent, simply shaking her head in response. I wonder if Princess Twilight ever had any trouble like this.

Twilight ushered them into the next tunnel, the width was must larger but eventually tightened, forcing them to walk single file. What little snow it had was turned to a slosh of mud and slush. Drops of water hitting stone echoed louder the deeper they went. A chilly wind seemed to suck them towards their destination as if to beckon them. But then it turned against them, slashing at their faces like tiny wind whips. They pushed ahead, making their way through the strong breeze only to find the reason behind its fierceness.

Another cavern, larger than the one before, except this cavern did not have a frozen river in the middle. This cavern held a crevice large enough to swallow a battalion of soldiers whole and still be hungry for more. The ravine sat the same way the river had, with their slope digging down and rising on the opposite side. Except the slush of snow had formed a thin layer of ice atop the slopes, like how sleet forms from cold rain. They had discovered the smoothness when Rarity had stepped forward and started to skid down towards the hungry crevice. She was saved by Rainbow Dash, who had to fight strong gales just to reach her in time.

The gap continued its blasts of wind, striking and pushing them backward. “I’m not so certain King Sombra brought his troops this way,” Twilight said. “There’s no way he could get across this gap with an army, nor can we.”

“Darling, I’d hate to point out the obvious, but don’t you think he just used one of his crystals to bar the gap?” Rarity stated, her breath was still short from her almost traumatic fall.

“That’s right,” Fluttershy agreed. “It’s a shame he didn’t leave it up. Perhaps we should head back?”

This has to be the way, I just know it. Determined, Sunset glared at the other tunnel on the opposite side of the cavern. “I’ll levitate everyone across,” she declared. “Then you can levitate me across, Twilight.”

Twilight grabbed onto Sunset’s shoulders, giving a small shake. “Are you insane!? That strong wind will tear through your spell in an instant!”

“It won’t,” Sunset said, smiling reassuringly at the purple mare. “I’ll send you across one at a time.”

“Let me scope out the other side first,” Rainbow Dash said, and without waiting for a reply she burst off across the cavern. Even with all her flying experience, the strong gusts sent her up higher than she anticipated, knocking her back to the slope with her friends. “Okay, I scoped it out,” she said without missing a beat. “This way is impassable.”

Sunset held a hoof to her chin, staring out at the gap and listening to the winds. The Elements and Maud had turned back, but she quickly stopped them. “We can just teleport across!” she suggested. “We’ve got to find out where this cave leads, it might help us in finding Sombra. Teleporting everyone shouldn’t be too hard.”

“For a trained unicorn it’s not hard at all,” Twilight argued, “but I’m not talented enough to teleport everyone across, and you’re not skilled enough.”

But Sunset disagreed. “You’re the Element of Magic, Twilight. If there’s anypony that could do it, it’s you.”

Applejack volunteered first. “I believe in you, Twilight. I know you can do it.”

Reluctantly, Twilight did as her friends bid, her horn sparking with magic. The earth mare disappeared in a burgundy flash. The others watched the other side of the gap, waiting with knots in their throats. The earth mare reappeared quicker than a single heartbeat, her tail to the tunnel. “I told you, Twilight!” Applejack exclaimed, though it was muddled by the wind.

Feeling confident, Twilight quickly followed with another three teleports. Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Fluttershy gathered around Applejack, cheering the unicorn on. After finishing up with Pinkie Pie and Maud, Sunset teleported herself across, wanting to prove she could at least do that. “Alright, now let’s hope there’s not a third gap to cross – or if there is then it better be made of lava,” Twilight said after she had arrived on the other side as well.

“Hey, maybe then we can go with my idea about levitating. I’ll even levitate myself across!” Sunset said with an exaggerated snarky tone.

“Well, you’d need a lot of energy and skill in order to levitate yourself, not to mention years of training and-” Twilight paused. “Oh. That was a joke, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it was,” Sunset replied and turned to the Pie sisters, hoping to see their reactions.

“Hilarious,” Maud said with her usual droll before continuing into the cave.

It wasn’t the reaction Sunset was hoping for, but she and the others followed along regardless. The slush of ice eventually turned to snow the deeper they went. Somehow, even without the treacherous winds, it had become far colder. “Another crack must be up ahead,” Rainbow Dash noted, “or a way out.” The light snow became a winter wonderland, covering every rock and stone of the tunnel, masking any misstep in white. The light brought on by Twilight’s horn eventually shined upon another obstacle blocking their path.

“Oh come on!” Sunset yelled as she threw her hooves in the air. It was not another river or gap that stalled their progress, but a cave in. Stones of all sizes sat as rubble, preventing them from going any further. A few mindful gaps near the top illuminated lightly, though nothing could really be seen.

Rarity’s hoof rose as she spoke up. “Do you think King Sombra did this? Maybe he knew that somepony would try and find this route?”

“We were this close to getting out of here!” Sunset held her hoof up as if to show a measurement, but nobody seemed to understand. “Every time we get closer to our goal it just gets snatched away from us. It’s like this world doesn’t want us to succeed, it just wants disharmony to rule!” She clobbered the closest stone, struggling against it with her own weight.

“Um, Sunset,” Twilight called.

Ignoring the purple unicorn, Sunset continued, “And what’s worse is that even if we do get out of here, we don’t have the last two Elements of Harmony. How am I supposed to help time if everything is so complicated!?” Sunset slumped against the rubble, holding her hoof to her forehead. “Like the Element of Laughter isn’t hard to understand! You make ponies laugh. Jokes, gags, humor. The Pinkie of my world makes it seem so easy, but in this world it’s a great big no, you have to have to have your doctorate in comedy, and a license to prank!”

“Sunset…” Twilight repeated, more haughtily this time.

“How’d we even get the Element of Magic before the Element of Laughter!? That makes no sense! There’s the joke right there, played on me by this world!” Sunset sat up and pointed at Twilight. “And don’t say I’m not giving this world a chance. I’m trying here, but it’s hard when we literally come up against a brick wall!”

“Sunset!” Twilight shouted. “We have two ponies who can break down rocks!”

Sunset slumped against her hoof, an elbow on a rock. “Oh. Right,” she realized her mistake.

A few low, throaty laughs echoed within the tunnel, sending a chill down everyone’s spine. It was soon followed by a voice, one that none of them had heard before, except for Sunset. “Maud?” it said, causing everyone to turn to the grey earth pony. Pinkie was staring at her sister with a look of confusion, brought on by a small, coy smile on the elder sister’s face. “Y-You laughed,” Pinkie said, her voice soft-spoken like that of Fluttershy’s.

Maud’s half-smile stayed as everyone gathered around to stare. Pinkie suddenly started to gyrate, her whole body shook as tears began to pour down her pink cheeks. “You laughed!” she yelled, penetrating everyone’s eardrums with an abrasive echo. “It’s been so long!” She wrapped Maud in a hug, nuzzling against the part of her head below the ear. But she suddenly let go and pushed off, looking as though something was wrong.

And then it came forth. From her eyes light poured, illuminating the rocky tunnel more than Twilight’s light spell could ever hope to do. It flowed down to her neck, channeling a golden hem around her throat and forming the cyan balloon in the center. When the light dimmed, the pink pony exploded with joy. The pink, poufy hair Sunset recognized had returned, albeit a bit shorter in the back. “Like a seatbelt!” Pinkie screamed, causing Sunset to fall to the snowy ground, bellowing with laughter. No one else seemed to understand, but the laughter was contagious enough that all the Elements joined in.

“I’m not quite sure what we’re laughing at, but that’s five down at least,” Applejack stated, wiping a tear from her eye. “We’ve still gotta get out of here, though.”

I’ve got it!” Pinkie Pie sang, slamming against the cave in and busting down the large stones with ease. It was as if the years of remaining quiet had been broken, releasing the pent-up energy all at once. Without Maud’s assistance, Pinkie tore down the blockade in seconds. A cool breeze rifled against the group as the pebbles slid to the ground. As Pinkie pushed forward, the other Elements followed out into the cold air.

Sunset pushed herself to her hooves and shook the snow from her back. “I’ve never seen you laugh before. Or smile, for that matter,” she said, staring up at the grey mare.

“I wasn’t laughing at what you said. I was laughing at what you meant,” Maud answered in her usual monotonous vernacular, her smile gone. “Pinkie Pie would never have gotten her Element of Harmony if I had not.”

“Oh?”

“When we were kids, she could make me laugh and smile all the time. Even more so once she got her cutie mark. Overtime it became harder, however, and then the war came. I stopped laughing, and so did she, but she never wanted to part from me just in case I did one day laugh,” Maud explained, still staring out the cave entrance. Her eyes slowly dragged back to Sunset. “I figured that’s what she needed, and it was.”

“T-That’s so sweet,” Sunset said, tears in her eyes.

“I’m blushing,” Maud replied, clearly not blushing.

“C’mon you big softy.” Sunset wiped her eyes clean and trotted over the pebbles with Maud. Gusts roared as they stepped out into the gentle darkness. The storm wall was just above the ridge behind them, bellowing and raging in its solace. It was not the storm that caused Sunset’s heart to pound, but the lack of light that emitted from The Crystal Empire. Though the clouds around the empire had departed, the dome of light it had created was covered in plum colored obelisks bigger than any skyscraper in Manehattan.

The city sat in this distance, left of where they exited from with Celestia’s camp to the right. Of course, the camp was only visible due to the small breaks in the clouds that allowed moonlight to pour through. The clouds had never parted before, however, and that’s when Sunset realized Celestia’s camp was no longer contained. The dome that the grey soldier had described seemed to have exploded outward, like a baby lizard break from an egg.

Some of the Elements shouted their questions aloud, asking each other what might have happened. But Sunset knew the reasoning, there was only one possible reason. The sight of moving crystals and blasts of orange and yellow magic confirmed her suspensions. The magical blasts were aimed at these crystals, striking at whatever was causing them to rise. “That’s got to be Princess Celestia and King Sombra!” Sunset yelled. “Come on!” She threw herself down the incline and the others trotted after her as quickly as their hooves could take them.

Arc 1: Chapter 8

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The cold was almost unbearable, and that meant King Sombra was close. Yet, even with the cold, there was warmth somewhere inside the camp. Sunset could feel heat radiating up and out as she stood next to the broken crystal dome. There was also something that caused her eyes to water, and when her snout began to tickle she knew it was smoke. As Maud and Pinkie cut their way through the remnants of the crystal dome’s wall, Sunset took a step back to see a fire rising within Celestia’s camp. The flames popped against the burgundy crystal, dancing in the moonlight.

The two sisters eventually caved in a section of the crystal, breaking a hole into the camp. As it fell, soldiers charged from the inside, their green slats for eyes glowing in the darkness. Pinkie and Maud tackled two of the soldiers, snapping off the helmets with ease. The other soldiers didn’t seem to notice or care, however, and they continued running away from the camp.

“Fire!” they heard someone yell as they crossed the crystal border into the camp. Guard ponies fought the armor-clad indoctrinated with all their might, wrecking tents and smashing against boxes during the chaos. Twilight tore off in one direction while Rainbow Dash and the Pie sisters headed for the fire. It was burning the tents to the southeast, a good distance from the tent Sunset had first met this world’s Princess Celestia. Though the fire was far enough away, the wind was causing it to spread quickly. “Where are we going?” Rarity called out, but that was answered once Twilight ducked into one of the larger tents.

Sunset followed suit, opening the crimson flap and entering the roomy tent. Shelves held scrolls upon scrolls, almost as if Princess Celestia had brought the entirety of the Canterlot Library with her. A plethora of scrolls of all shapes and sizes were being strung about by the purple unicorn. “Where is it?” they heard Twilight say as they came closer. “I know it’s here somewhere.”

“What are you looking for?” Sunset anxiously asked. “We need to go help Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Maud!”

Smacking her head against one of the shelves and knocking her crown to the ground, Twilight quickly turned to see the four of them. “Oh, it’s just you girls.” She levitated the crown back atop her head, rubbing the place she hit. “There’s a spell here – something that can conjure rain. The problem is I don’t remember the name, just how it’s cast. I’ve got to find it and get it to Prince Sunburst. He’ll be able to use it to put the fire out.”

“If yah know how to cast it then why don’t you do it?” wondered Applejack.

“Me? There’s no way,” Twilight hesitated, but then her face softened. Sunset was about to remind her of the cave and the teleportation spells, but the look the purple unicorn held told her she didn’t need to; she already knew. “I-I suppose, I could try,” Twilight finally said, a slight blush on her cheeks.

Sunset smiled. “We’ve really got to work on your enthusiasm. Come on.” She wrapped a hoof around the purple mare’s neck and pulled her out of the tent. The smell of smoke wafted over them, the fire growing nearer with every passing moment.

They trotted down a row and then cut through a patch of broken down tents, passing by guards and soldiers duking it out. The fire had already taken most of the southeast and was working northwest. Both the brainwashed and the free were running away from the flames, hoping to escape unscathed. Sunset felt her heart tighten as part of the crystal wall collapsed, sending fire shooting up into the air. As they came closer they found Rainbow Dash attempting to blow the fire back with her wings and getting bombarded with smoke, Pinkie Pie attempted to help by kicking snow into the air and onto the flames.

“Did you guys run into Prince Sunburst?” Dash yelled down at them once she saw they were there. “He went off in that direction just a few seconds ago. You shouldn’t have missed him.”

“Prince Sunburst!?” Twilight hollered back. Her head swiveled like a joystick attempting to look for him. “Which way?” she asked.

“There’s no time, Twilight!” Rarity nagged.

Sunset nodded in agreement. “Use the spell! It’s the only way to stop the fire. We’ll find Sunburst after it’s taken care of. I promise!”

Staring deep into Sunset’s eyes, Twilight drew her bottom lip between her teeth. She looks worried, Sunset thought, staring back at Twilight. Hoping to convince her, Sunset flashed a teeth-clenching smile. It must have worked as Twilight gave a nod and a smile of her own. Sunset took a step back to watch as the purple unicorn concentrated her magic into her horn, building up power for the spell Twilight could not name.

A sudden bolt of blue spewed out from the tip of the horn like dust, hitting the smoke that floated above the raging fire. The blue hit the black clouds, turning them grey and causing them to grow fluffier and larger. They grew and grew until they reached their max, releasing rain down onto the fire below. Pops and cracks rang out as water poured onto the inferno, turning the blaze into charred ash. Black liquid poured down into the snow, turning the area into a scarred mess, but it was no longer a threat to anypony’s safety.

“Way to go Twilight!” Rainbow Dash cheered.

“Don’t have time for congratulations!” Twilight yelled her reply, already tearing off in the direction Prince Sunburst had been said to be.

Sunset followed, weaving through tents in order to keep up. Some were collapsed, their wooden stakes unhinged from the ground, leaving rough outlines of bedrolls and benches. Twilight hopped one of the obstacles, landing on the other side with surprising grace. Sunset went around, however, and lost sight of Twilight behind a tent. She eventually caught up to her as the purple unicorn stood talking to Maud. But before Sunset could reach them, Twilight tore off again, running down the back length of the burned tents near the edge of the broken dome.

She was almost out of breath, feeling the heavy cold on her lungs as snow and black char clung to her hooves, causing her to slow. She refused to lose sight of Twilight again, though the darkness brought on by the loss of fire was making it all the more difficult. For a moment, she thought she had lost the unicorn after she disappeared around a pile of cinder twice her size, but the magenta star atop Twilight’s crown bounced beyond the wreckage. When it finally stopped, Sunset was forced to continue and circle back, and when she finally found Twilight hunched over, Sunset’s heart skipped a beat. “Twilight?” Sunset called, steam pouring from her mouth with every syllable.

Tears and gentle moans radiated from the purple pony. Something’s wrong, there’s someone there. Sunset couldn’t tell what it was at first. When she saw the body, she let out a gasp that sounded more like a hiccup. It was Prince Sunburst. He was covered in ash and rain, his fur charred black and his glasses were missing. “Oh no!” Sunset hollered, throwing her hooves around Twilight. “What happened!? Is he…”

“I-I don’t know,” Twilight replied.

Suddenly, Sunset’s question was answered. The stallion hacked up phlegm from his throat and opened his eyes. “T-Twilight?” he hoarsely spoke. “Is that…?”

“Yes! It’s me! It’s me, Twilight! Stay with us!” Twilight held his hoof to her cheek.

“N-No, the crown.” He coughed some more before he continued, “That’s an Element of Harmony, isn’t i-it? I always knew you were special, Twilight.”

“Try not to move!” Sunset told him. “I’ll go get help!”

“Help?” he questioned, pushing himself up with one hoof.

Twilight held him down, however. “Sunburst, please, you’re injured!”

His right brow arched, and then he laughed a deep, sore laugh. “No I’m not. I’m just a fool,” he replied, pushing himself to a sitting position. “I was triple checking the burning tents, making sure I hadn’t left anypony in the fire. However, when I did my third barrier spell, I hadn’t noticed smoke had been contained within my bubble.” He coughed. “Smoke inhalation. Nothing too serious, though I’m going to need a few moments to breathe.”

“Are you certain you’re alright?” Twilight worriedly asked. Tears still fell from her eyes.

“I’m afraid I’ll be no use in fighting King Sombra – though it looks like I won’t have to.” His eyes seemed to draw from one Element to the next as each of the bearers came trotting up. “I’m surprised he’s still left standing. You all should’ve been able to defeat him by now with all the Elements of Harmony you’ve gathered,” Sunburst added in-between fits of coughs. He raised his head to the sky, staring up at the grey clouds. “Wait, something’s not right. Is Princess Celestia still dueling with King Sombra? She said she was going to fend him off and then raise the sun!”

Sunset realized it was still night. They had traveled across a war zone, rested in a secluded home, released the crystal ponies, broke into the castle of The Crystal Empire, and escaped through a magic portal to a hazardous tunnel and out onto a cliff. Yet it was still night. “How long have they been fighting?” Sunset asked, but an explosion so loud overshadowed her question.

A beam of magic cut through the camp with crystals following behind, smashing to the ground and shattering amongst tents, or what was left of the tents. Everyone looked to the sky, and in the lingering moonlight, they could see a pony of white falling to the ground. “Princess Celestia!” Sunburst yelled just as she landed on top of one surviving tent, collapsing it in with her. But she had not been the only one, for the dark king fell with her. King Sombra did not lose his consciousness though, having managed to save himself from plummeting into the charred tents. He was quick to flee, raising another crystal platform and charging north out of the camp. Smaller crystal platforms were left behind as if he was a snake leaving his tail.

Sunset rushed to Princess Celestia’s aid with everyone else who had seen the terrible fall. To her relief, the white-furred princess had struck the tent where Sunset and her friends had lounged on pillows, the outlines of a couch and table still visible beneath the crimson fabric. “Princess Celestia!” Sunset cried, staring down at the dazed alicorn.

It seemed as though the princess had heard her name as her eyes drew slowly open, fluttering like butterfly wings. Celestia groaned and whimpered, stiffening her foreleg and rubbing her temple. “Ah!” she softly bemoaned. “Sunset Shimmer,” she said after the pain looked to pass, her pupils focusing. “I see you’ve returned – and with more bearers than Elements.”

“We’re still down one,” Sunset said, “but we won’t be for long! Are you alright? Can you get up?”

Princess Celestia put one hoof to the ground, attempting to stand. “I will try to hold King Sombra off for as long as I can while you attempt to get the final-” Her voice cried out as she slumped forward, her body refusing to rise.

“Princess! You can’t stand. Please, allow me to go in your stead. I’ll hold him off,” pleaded Prince Sunburst, but his coughing betrayed his words.

“No.” The white-furred alicorn stubbornly attempted to push herself once more. “He has refused to meet me on the battlefield every time before today, and now I owe him payback for that tricky maneuver of his. He is too powerful for you to face alone.”

“Then it’ll have to be us. These six can handle it even if we don’t have the final Element of Harmony,” Sunset answered. “I believe in them.”

“There’s seven?” Prince Sunburst replied, pointing at the grey-furred pony.

A scream came from the back. “This is my sister Maud!” Pinkie yelled, bouncing around the grey pony. “She’s not an Element of Harmony, though,” she added as she popped up behind Sunburst, startling the stallion.

“Well, regardless,” Sunburst started to say as he attempted to regain his composure. “Can you really defeat King Sombra without all the Elements?”

Sunset snorted. “Oh please. We’ve got the Element of Loyalty. She’s standing right there. Just because she doesn’t have the necklace doesn’t mean diddly-squat. You’ve got to have a little faith, Sunburst.” Sunset pushed past him, giving a sly smile. “Take care of Princess Celestia while we’re gone.” Her eyes turned to Twilight who stared wistfully back at her, and she knew she needed to say something more. Turning back to Sunburst, she said, “Celestia will need your powerful magic, Sunburst. Make sure she gets fixed up.” Her words seemed to bring Twilight some peace as the purple unicorn held her head up, smiling.

Sunburst eventually gave an approving nod, and when Princess Celestia did not offer a rebuke, Sunset led the Elements and Maud north through the entrance they had made – whether they were prepared or not. Sombra’s trail of crystal were easy to follow, and the whistling wind of cold air trailed along wherever Sombra seemed to go. Sunset could almost smell the sweat that the evil stallion emitted; falling from the sky would leave anyone disheveled and scared. There would be no escape this time. They were a pack of bloodhounds while he was a comely fox, and this fox had struck against their alpha – something no fox should do.

Perhaps he thought himself safe atop his crystal pillar, staring down into the battleground between him and the sealed city. He was anything but safe.

Pinkie ran clockwise while Maud ran counter-clockwise, both creating gashes at the bottom of his pillar. As the sisters met, Rainbow Dash dove from above and sent a back-kick against the pillar, causing it to slide off-kilter. The pillar fell forward and the evil king with it, both hitting the snow and causing an eruption of white to soar into the air. Before he could rise, Twilight unleashed a magical bubble around them and the king, locking them in together.

“Give up,” Sunset commanded the king. “You’re not going anywhere but Tartarus.”

“Forget that! Let’s clobber him some. It’s the least we could do to avenge all the lives he’s ruined!” Rainbow Dash disagreed, slamming her hooves together.

For a moment, it looked as if Sombra was going to speak. His strong jaw clenched as his face soured, but then a smile started to form. The white teeth seemed to glow, and everyone could feel the intensity the stallion emitted. Anger. The word filtered into Sunset’s mind, called out by a deep, dark voice. It was Sombra’s voice. Anger, it said. It burned her brain like fried eggs in a pan. The others seemed to feel it too. Angrier, it said. Who is the angriest?

As the words pained their minds, no one seemed to notice Sombra’s horn sparking with magic until it was too late. Anger, it screamed. The tip of the red horn burst with dark purple and green energy, hitting Rainbow Dash head on. While she fell to her knees, another blast popped Twilight’s barrier like a bubble and the stallion lurched from the center. Another pillar formed up around him as he rode off south, leaving another trail.

“Rainbow Dash!?” Applejack yelled as she came to the aid of the pegasus, having stood closest to her. “Are you alright? What’d he do to you? Did you hear him speak to you too?”

Everyone crowded around but were blown back by the pegasus’s wind. Rainbow Dash lost control of herself, snarling and growling. Her eyes had become green and were covered in purple mist. “He’s coming around again!” Pinkie pointed out while the others attempted to hold Rainbow Dash down. Sombra was in the process of making a U-turn, leaving crystal pillars behind as he strode towards them.

“Fight it Rainbow Dash!” pleaded Rarity while Applejack, Sunset, and Maud attempted to keep her from flying. “Whatever you’re seeing – it’s not real. We’re your friends! We’re here for you!”

Angry!” Rainbow Dash screamed as she squirmed and fought.

“Rarity’s right, Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy stood face to face, staring at the raging pegasus. Snot and drool fell from Rainbow Dash’s muzzle, brought on by whatever she was seeing. “Please, Dash! You’ve got to snap out of it!”

Before they could break whatever afflicted Rainbow Dash, King Sombra bowled through them, freeing Rainbow from their hold. A line of crystals left by the stallion separated them, cutting them off from each other. Rainbow Dash flew up into the air and turned, ready to dive-bomb the other Elements. “Maud, get these crystals down! Pinkie, Applejack, with me!” Sunset commanded as she rushed toward Rainbow Dash.

The blue pegasus swooped down, attempting to strike Sunset. With a teleporting dodge, Sunset grabbed the rainbow tail and swung the pegasus to her rump. Applejack and Pinkie hopped onto Rainbow’s back, putting all their weight into keeping her down. “He’s coming again! Another attack!” she heard Rarity yell from the other side of the wall. “I’ll meet him head on!” Twilight also yelled.

“Keep her down until I get back!” Sunset commanded Pinkie and Applejack before teleporting past the crystal. She reappeared next to Fluttershy who quickly pointed in the direction of the purple unicorn. Twilight was already charging headlong into battle, but she was slow enough for Sunset to catch with a few key teleports.

“How about a magical pincer maneuver, like Maud and Pinkie?” Twilight asked once Sunset pulled in beside her. Sunset hadn’t yet tried magical blasts but felt confident enough at that moment. She gave a nod, and they unleashed dual beams, striking the evil stallion’s pedestal as it came their way. While Sunset's magic was not nearly as strong as she would of liked, barely cutting a few inches into the crystal, it still did the damage she wanted. But King Sombra was not as dumb as they assumed, for as they drew around the sides, he turned left into the previous crystal path he had made, trapping Twilight between the two trails.

Sunset couldn’t believe her eyes, but then the realization struck and she called out, “Twilight! Twilight! Are you alright!?”

She had assumed Twilight had been squished, but a sudden spark of light appeared and so did the purple unicorn. “You really think the Element of Magic can be kept down by a simple wall!?” Twilight yelled in defiance.

Sunset gave a sigh of relief, only for another problem to arise. “Twilight! Sunset! She got loose!” Applejack and Pinkie yelled unison. Fluttershy and Rarity had met up with the two earth ponies and they all were running away from the angry blue pegasus.

A part of Sombra’s crystal trail suddenly caved next to Sunset and Twilight, and Maud appeared from the other side. “This way,” the grey-furred pony said, beckoning Sunset and Twilight along with the others. They poured through past the two trails and out into an open field, but Rainbow Dash flew over. The pegasus skidded to a stop in front of them, kicking snow into the air. In the distance, over her shoulder, Sunset could see the dark king circling around for another strike.

The grimace on Rainbow’s face was beyond words. Tears had formed in her mystified eyes, and her anger seemed to boil out of control. “I’m about to lose it too!” Sunset growled, stomping her hooves. “Rainbow Dash!” she yelled at the pegasus. “The reason you’re mad is right behind you! The reason I’m mad, why we’re all mad, is right behind you! We are angry, upset, frustrated, and most importantly, friends! We are your angry friends. Let’s be angry together!” She clapped her hooves together like Rainbow Dash always did.

“Darling, I think your way with words has left you. There’s no way that will calm her down,” Rarity denied. However, Rainbow Dash let out a snarl and roar, turning in an instant to face the oncoming stallion. “But, if there’s ever a time to be wrong, now would be it, I suppose.”

A blitz and blur of color streaked toward the stallion, striking the king off his pillar and sending him to the snow. In an instant, they could see Rainbow Dash landing on top of him, only to be struck by a rising crystal. The hit sent her backward into the snow, and the others rushed to help her. Before they could reach her, Sombra had regained his poise and set off on his magic crystals once more. This time he did not turn back, disappearing beyond the hills of snow. “Rainbow Dash, are you alright?” Twilight yelled and repeated once they had gotten close to the downed mare.

“My head feels like that time I dropped a watermelon from Cloudsdale,” Rainbow Dash replied as she opened her eyes, the clouded mist gone and her pupils resumed their natural reddish-pink. “I still ate it, though. The juice had soaked into the grass and there was an angry dude yelling at me.”

“Th-That’s nice Rainbow Dash,” Twilight choked her reply.

“Hey, what’s with the waterworks?” Rainbow Dash pushed a hoof to Twilight’s cheek, pressing a few tears into the fur.

The unicorn was quick to wipe the rest from her eyes. “You’re stubborn. I barely know you but I can tell you’re stubborn. I-I’m just glad you’re okay.”

“Rainbow Dash always picked fights back in Flight School,” Fluttershy commented. “She wanted to defend anyone who was being bullied. She wouldn’t back down.”

“I do have to admit, she is very gung-ho about fighting. Stubbornly so it would seem,” Rarity added her thoughts.

Rainbow Dash rolled to her side and then stood up, shaking the snow off her back. “Gee, thanks you guys. If my Element was stubbornness we’d have, like, three necklaces by now.”

“Don’t you see it Dash?” Twilight asked. “Loyalty is a form of stubbornness, in a way.”

“You lost me there,” Rainbow replied.

“Yeah, even you got me beat on how that would work,” Sunset added, and the others chorused their agreement.

Loyal to a fault is a phrase my mother used to call Shining Armor. It’s not something bad, specifically. Loyalty is a faithful commitment, something that you adhere to regardless the consequence or temptations. It’s a stubbornness to what you believe in.” A smile crinkled on Twilight’s mouth. “I’m stubborn too. Stubborn to my friends, my family.” Her eyes met Sunset’s. “Stubborn to my prince and princess, sometimes.”

“Alright, I get it. You want my Element of Harmony,” Rainbow scoffed. “Whatever you’re doing, it’s not working.”

Sunset tapped her chin and wondered aloud, “Is she too stubborn for it not to click?”

“Like a seatbelt!” screamed Pinkie Pie, causing a few other Elements to giggle and hoot.

“What are you guys talking about? I’m not that stubborn. It’s not like I can think really hard and it’ll all of a sudden become clear to me. And I’m not trying to force it away or anything either! I want to help, I want to defeat that rotten old King Sombra, but it’s just not working. You can’t blame me for not getting my Element when you guys don’t even know how it works either!”

Sunset let out a hearty laugh. “That’s actually pretty ironic. You’re loyal to your friends, you want to help them, but you’re only hurting them by being so loyal,” she put bluntly.

“That’s pretty harsh, Sunset,” Applejack noted, honestly.

“The truth can be harsh, but that’s not my point.” Sunset half-smiled at Rainbow Dash. “If we fail, if Sombra beats us, I can’t find it in myself to blame Rainbow Dash. She’s my friend, after all. I’m just as stubbornly loyal to all of you as Dash is to us. Even though we fight or argue, I’ll still be there for you just as I know you all will be there for me,” Sunset said. “That’s loyalty.”

Twilight nodded. “I know I can be stubbornly loyal, especially to Prince Sunburst. And I guess sometimes that leads to arguments with friends.” She gave a coy smile to Sunset.

“Pinkie is stubbornly loyal to me,” Maud mentioned. “She refused to leave my side when I joined the war effort. Does that count?”

“That super-duper counts!” Pinkie wrapped her sister in a hug.

“And I know I’m loyal to all of you. You all were the first things I thought about when I came to this world – even though I didn’t know you. I couldn’t put my trust and loyalty into any pony better than you six,” Sunset said.

“I’ve always been loyal, but I’ve never had somepony so loyal to me before.” Rainbow scratched the back of her head. “Aw geez, you guys are gonna make me tear up, then it’s gonna freeze and I’ll have ice stuck to my eyes… Alright, that does it. Group hug!” She reached her forelegs out, but before everyone could surround her, her eyes turned a white so bright it marveled the snow. Gasps rang at the sight as a golden hemmed necklace strung itself upon her collar. A bright red lightning bolt formed and sat against the blue of her uniform.

Everyone cheered as Rainbow Dash came to. “Rainbow Dash! You did it! What clicked?” Sunset asked.

Rainbow shook her head. “Clicked? I didn’t feel any clicking.” She gave a shrug. “The last thing I thought about was how cool it was to have some friends who would be there for me no matter what. It’s how I always imagined the Wonderbolts would be – the old Wonderbolts. To have ponies you could rely on no matter what.” Her eyes then shifted and rolled as though something did finally click. “Wait, is that what you guys meant? Now I get it! Why didn’t you say that before!?”

Twilight held a hoof to her mouth and giggled. “I’m pretty sure we did.”

“And it took you just long enough to get it,” Applejack sassed and motioned towards The Crystal Empire. “We’re cuttin’ it close, though. Looks like King Sombra’s makin’ good on another attack.”

The Element of Honesty had been right, for the evil king was aiming another attack at them. This time not alone. A few dozen helmeted soldiers were trailing along beside the king’s protruding crystal platform. It was a remnant of what was left outside The Crystal Empire's walls, the rest had most likely been inside when the Crystal Heart had restored balance to the city. Still, the remaining brainwashed vastly outnumbered their measly number of eight, and it was only made worse by the king who had brought down Princess Celestia.

“It sure was nice of him to give us enough time to get Dash’s Element,” Pinkie Pie noted with a giggle and a snort.

Sunset pushed forward to be in front, staring down at the oncoming battle. “Maud and I will target the soldiers and hold Sombra off long enough for you six to figure out how to use the Elements of Harmony.” She looked back at her friends, their worried faces giving little in confidence.

“That’s a very nice plan, Sunset, but we’re past the point of needing help,” Twilight said as she stepped beside the fellow unicorn, placing a hoof on Sunset’s shoulder.

Sunset was startled by the words. “What do you mean?” she asked.

A smile stayed on Twilight’s lips as she spoke. “You’ve gotten us this far and taught us just as much as we’ve taught you. Now it’s time for us to do what we were always meant to do.” She paused, her eyes turned back to the other Elements. “I’ve always lacked confidence, I’ve never really believed in myself. Friends have always been hard to come by, but you five inspired me to be brave. I believe in us, and myself. And I know that with that newly inspired confidence we can do anything we set our hearts to, because we’ve got the magic of friendship guiding us!”

Shouts from the other Elements rang out, and then light suddenly burst from Twilight’s crown, forcing Sunset to recoil and cover her eyes. The light grew brighter as it connected to the other Elements and created a circle of color that blew the snow around them. Rising up in all their harmonic glory, a rainbow whirlwind shot up into the air.

As soon as the evil king saw the tornado of friendship he halted his moving crystal, staring up with mouth agape at the beacon of light within the darkened battle-scarred landscape. In an instant, the wide-mouthed king held that same reaction that so many brainwashed ponies once had before their emotions were stripped away. But instead of holding it for a few short seconds like those ponies had, he would be holding that reaction for a millennia. Forever immortalized in stone.

But as luck would have it, stone would not be his prison for that millennia. The city he had once claimed rule over required its own set of vengeance.

The menacing king’s power was brought down by the Elements of Harmony, and so too were the strength of his crystals. The columns that had risen behind wherever he trailed was the first to crumble into tiny pebbles, followed by what remained of the crystal that surrounded the remnants of Celestia’s encampment. Then it was The Crystal Empire’s turn. The dome of obelisks erupted all at once, creating dust and releasing the wave of energy brought on by the Crystal Heart. The blast rushed the land, striking free the leftovers of the brainwashed ponies and destroying any residual crystals. But King Sombra was not lucky enough to crumble like his crystals.

Instead, the Heart saw fit as to coat him in crystal, turning his stony body into a brilliant blue and cyan crystalline statue – forever preserved in the thing that was dearest to him, crystals.

The king’s shiny new form began to glimmer and shine with light. That’s when Sunset noticed the clouds had departed, the blizzardy wall vanished, and the first ray of sunlight had struck the newly freed city. Dawn had never appeared more beautiful in Sunset’s eyes, her trial had finally come to an end. She assumed the rainbow mass would soon turn to her, sending her back to her own time, but it did not. Instead, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony returned to stand in front of the crystalline statue, their Elements no longer glowing.

“You guys did it!” Sunset yelled, greeting the six as they stumbled and reoriented their bearings. “You defeated Sombra!”

Twilight glanced at Sunset, then the statue. “The war… it’s… it’s over?”

It was silent for a moment, and then an explosion of joy rolled over the six. Sunset stood with Maud, watching and smiling as the Element’s hugged and cried. Pinkie made another sudden outburst and dragged them both closer, wrapping her sister in a hug first. “We couldn’t have done it without you, Sunset!” Pinkie claimed as she also hugged Sunset.

“That is the truth,” a voice agreed, and everyone stopped their celebration. The white alicorn stood towering over them, though she stood a yard away. Prince Sunburst was at her side. “I am certain you were not happy about being thrust into this world, Sunset, but I hope that has changed. Without you, none of this would be possible. Without you, we might have lost everything. I am also glad your rebellious nature has stayed, otherwise we’d still be sitting in camp.”

“You don’t mean what I think you mean, d-do you?” Sunset puzzled. “Didn’t you want us to go to The Crystal Empire?” She stepped toward the alicorn. “Surely it was one of those psychological stunts you loved to pull – like when I was your apprentice and you would order me not to study.”

“But I didn’t want you to leave. Nor did I want you to study. I wanted you to go and make some friends, which you refused to do.” Celestia’s voice was stern, as if she was reliving that moment all over again. But she gave a sudden sigh and smiled. “In the end, it does seem like you’ve made some friends.”

Turning her head, Sunset gazed back at the group she’d grown fond of. Their bright smiles and warm eyes staring back at her. “Not just any friends. Best friends.” She then turned back to the princess. “What are we to do now? What am I to do now?”

The princess’s eyes seemed to glisten as if she was about to cry. She stared at the statue of the frozen king for a moment, then the city behind him. “There’s a few things we must do; that we must have. A wedding, rebuilding of a city, and a celebration most of all,” she answered, and then stared down her muzzle at Sunset. “If you don’t mind, I would appreciate it if you stuck around for the latter, at the least. We’ll be celebrating you and the Elements, after all.”

There was no choice in the matter, though Sunset knew what she would choose if there had been. “Well, the Elements of Harmony didn’t send me home, so it’s not like I’m going anywhere.” Sunset trotted back to the Elements and Maud. “Not that I mind. It’ll be nice to see the world for what it is,” she added, giving a wink to Twilight.

And that was the truth. She didn’t mind for the first few days after the war had finished. But as the days dragged on and The Crystal Empire celebrated, the thoughts of her friends in the human world resurfaced. As she became closer to this world’s versions she realized how much she missed her own. There had been subtle differences between the two versions, but now it was more noticeable than ever before. Pinkie still became quiet from time to time, Twilight was still a klutz, and Rarity fussed less over her makeup, or lack thereof.

Still, Sunset held her tongue. There were others trying to find a way for her to return to her own time, and she knew she was in good hooves. I’ve already missed the picnic, she knew. I’ll have quite an adventure to tell everyone, at least.

But when time finally came when an answer was believed to be discovered, Sunset felt sad. “Are you certain you would not like to stay for the wedding?” Princess Celestia had asked her as they traveled through the decrepit Ponyville.

“No, my friends are probably losing their minds, worried where I’ve gone,” Sunset responded as they walked, rolling her shoulders and feeling the straps of her backpack. She wanted to stay for the wedding, she wanted more time with these six, but she knew she couldn’t. “Will this really get me home? Do you really think so?”

Celestia’s head held high as she glanced to Prince Sunburst, Princess Cadance, and Shining Armor. “I’ve had my best and brightest attempting to find a resolution for your time traveling problem, but it was Twilight Sparkle who I believe figured it out. You are not the only thing not of this time and world, and so you must both go back at the same time. At least, that is what she believes, and I’m inclined to believe the Element of Magic.”

That made enough sense to Sunset, and Celestia was rarely wrong. Still, it couldn’t be that easy, could it?

The white, dilapidated chairs still sat on the hill overlooking a lake, the table remaining undisturbed in the middle. “This certainly wasn’t here the last time I was in Ponyville,” Rarity commented, touching the edge with her hoof.

“What a peculiar thing it is. And you say this sits in a castle in your timeline?” Prince Sunburst asked.

Though she had not cared to speak to the prince originally, her time after Sombra’s defeat had helped in easing her attitude towards him. The awkward colt she had known now bantered with the best of them, and knew more than she had ever expected of him. He had been disheartened to hear he was not a prince in her timeline, but she had reassured him that he must’ve become something just as great. She made a note to herself to seek him out once she returned, to hash out the past just like she planned to do with her own Princess Celestia.

“I only saw it for a little bit on my arrival to Equestria, but the castle was elegant and majestic – and larger than I had expected for Princess Twilight,” Sunset answered. “Though her version was not as crumbled as this.”

Twilight had levitated a portion of the broken crystal chair that sat in the grass. “This is my cutie mark,” she noted, attempting to put together the pieces regardless of how chipped they were. “Perhaps my idea will work after all. Shall we give it a try?”

It was a simple idea, though it came to Twilight in the most unnatural of ways. After Sunset explained the details to her, Twilight went to work attempting to find some spell that might return time to its natural state. But nothing was all she could find. Until one night when she awoke, blabbering and disturbing everyone’s slumber within the castle at The Crystal Empire. She had fallen asleep during her search and awoke with a plan come to her in a dream. The Element bearers of this world needed to visit the map. I assumed we might have had to visit the Tree of Harmony, but I would never have thought of coming back to the map, Sunset thought.

“How do we know which seat is ours?” Applejack asked, peering at each chair.

“I don’t think it actually matters,” Twilight replied as she took her seat.

Rainbow Dash quickly took the seat next to Twilight. Her metal wing clanged against the table as she attempted to activate the map, but to no avail. Rarity took her seat opposite Twilight while Fluttershy sat between her and Rainbow Dash. Applejack sat next to Rarity, her flowing hair in a bun. Rarity had offered to trim it, along with anyone else’s, but everyone aside from Pinkie Pie had refused. The party mare had her poufy hair once more, though much shorter and cleaner. With Pinkie Pie last in her seat, everyone seemed to expect something to happen.

Sunset held her breath, waiting with sweat dripping down her face. Her stomach tied itself in knots like a pretzel. Princess Celestia stood next to her while Prince Sunburst and the soon to be married couple stood on the opposite side. “Was something supposed to happen?” Princess Cadance asked. She looked a lot healthier than the day they had found her in the crystal castle.

“Didn’t you say the table glowed when you touched it, Sunset?” Sunburst tapped the edge with his hoof.

“Yes. It popped up with a map of Equestria, detailing where the Element bearers’ cutie marks were. Why isn’t it showing?” Sunset lifted her hooves up and placed them on the crystal table, revealing the answer to her question. The holographic map burst forth, the six cutie marks atop one another and the tree not too far off. “Aha!” Sunset exclaimed.

The map was no longer filled with the crystalline horrors brought on by the evil king. And just as the map was fixed, so too were the chairs. The cutie marks that sat atop the map flickered and waved above the table, and then writhed against the crystal chairs. The broken bits of rubble levitated from the ground as if time was being reversed, restoring the cracks and ruins. The cutie marks on the back of the chairs pulsated after they were fixed, and the ground seemed to shake at the same moment.

It was then and there that everyone’s mouths fell agape at the sight of a green whirlwind opening above the table, followed by blackness at the center. Thunderous claps echoed loudly with clocks ticking in their ears. Winds burst forth, but only for a moment, and then they pulled back into the green portal.

But these winds did not even seem strong enough to pull a single strand of hair or fur atop any of the Elements’ bodies. Nor did it seem to affect Princess Celestia, Prince Sunburst, Princess Cadance, or Shining Armor. None of them were fazed by the opening portal, simply sitting or standing and gawping at the sight.

None of them – aside for the one pony who did not belong.

Sunset held onto the rim of the table with all her might, her back legs fully in the air and her backpack pulling with all its weight. “Thank you, Twilight! Thank you all!” she yelled before she was forced to let go. If they had said anything she had not been able to hear them before the portal swallowed her whole. A pain suddenly struck through her body and the backpack she wore felt heavier than ever. I’m going home, she thought as tears flowed from her eyes. The air seemed to be sucked right out of her lungs, and she didn’t feel warm or cold, or anything really.

A voice seemed to surround her as she closed her eyes, fearing what she might see. “Couldn’t convince her to do the impossible?” it said. “That’s too bad.”

And then the pain stopped and she felt the air return to her, smacking her in the face. I’m home, she believed, popping her eyes open. The air wasn’t the only thing to smack her face however, as she landed head first into a bush. She rolled onto her back and stared up past the leaves, quickly pulling herself out. But it was too late. By the time she looked to see where she was, the portal had reopened and the Princess Twilight Sparkle she knew from her world was heading through, Spike the purple dragon clinging to her with all his might. The portal closed behind them, leaving Sunset to gawk at the dozen floating black beasts that seemed to have been chasing her friend.

Changelings.

Arc 2: Chapter 1

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The black creatures were changelings, Sunset knew. She had never seen one before but had heard of what they looked like. They all looked the same even though they could alter their form. Black flesh hard as bone, holes in their limbs, and big blue lens-less eyes. They were terrifying, and they were defeated. How was it that they were here, floating above the map right in front of her very eyes? The map, she realized. It was just as how it looked the day she fell into the world wrought by King Sombra. The crystal chairs had crumbled pieces and the table had chips missing around the edges. And much like Sombra’s timeline, there was not a castle standing around it. She had hoped for blue crystal walls and a purple alicorn, but instead, she got thick trees and an open sky.

Sunset wanted to scream. To cry. But she could do neither with the changelings so near. Luckily, the flying changelings retreated, having failed to catch the purple alicorn. When the coast was clear, Sunset emerged from the bush that broke her fall, dusting leaves from her fur coat. She trotted over to the table and lifted her front hooves onto the edge. In an instant, a map of Equestria appeared. To her dismay, Canterlot seemed a tad stranger than she would have liked, though she could not be certain why. More importantly, she saw the cutie marks of her friends scattered amongst Equestria once more. Three close by, three in Canterlot.

A groan left her throat as she slammed her face against the table. This isn’t home. This isn’t my world. She gazed up at the sky, refusing to let her tears fall. It was hard to tell where exactly she was on the map, but she knew where the Everfree Forest was. Ponyville did not sit within the forest but in this world the wildlife had grown unruly, surrounding the town on all sides except for its north – the side that led towards Canterlot. The Crystal Empire was not covered in crystals at least, a small silver lining. She had no desire to return to the frozen north, though the humidity of the Everfree wasn’t much better.

Still, the sight of changelings worried her more than she would admit. She knew what was going on, though her heart attempted to deny it. Not another war, not another. Please, she begged, though it was pointless.

She almost sat down and cried, but the sounds of fighting scared away her dreary mood. The changelings would likely come back, and she did not wish to see why Princess Twilight had been forced to run. Steadily, her hooves moved on their own, taking her down the open path past trees and bushes. Thundering hooves and thousands of flies seemed to be all she could hear. It clouded her ears, preventing her from hearing a bush rustling in front of her path. When her eyes finally noticed the leaves jiggling it had already been too late. Two ponies came flying from the shadows, tackling her and sending all three of them rolling down a hill. The two ponies were caught in vines, but Sunset continued to roll down until she landed on a river’s embankment. The weight of her backpack saved her from reaching the rushing water and being swept away.

As Sunset rose to her hooves, shaking her head and fearing the brain damage she might have sustained, she realized who it was that had tackled her. They had broken free from their vines and had come down to meet her. Though the green paint masked them well, she knew who both of them were. “Pinkie Pie? Fluttershy?” she called out to the two. Their faces remained frowning as they growled at her. “What happened to the others? Where are your Elements of Harmony? Has King Sombra returned?” she asked each question but got no response. She knew she wasn’t asking the right questions. “Who are we fighting?”

“You should know, changeling. Chrysalis is your queen,” Pinkie Pie answered in a deep, guttural tone.

“We won’t be fooled by the likes of you,” Fluttershy added as they both stepped toward her.

“Chrysalis?” Sunset repeated. Chrysalis. The thought of an old villain returning curdled Sunset’s stomach, but the signs had already told her that this truly was another world and another time. She couldn’t believe it, she wouldn’t believe it. She was meant to go home! But then, out of shock or perhaps a concussion, Sunset fell face forward onto the ground. Mud covered her chin and she could taste the wet dirt as her body went limp. As her eyes closed she heard the two mares talking, but could not make out their words.

Dreams never came to her as she slept. It was not until murmuring voices startled her awake that she thought of dreaming. Her eyes fluttered as she opened them, but her surroundings remained a blur. When she tried to rub the sleep from her eyes she found that her forelegs had been tied together. Her shoulders ached and the room seemed sideways, and that’s when she realized she was slumped against the ground. Pressing her chin against her neck, she wrenched upward, lifting her head and slamming it against a wall. Her backpack scratched against stone, and she knew she wasn’t dreaming.

The room was not completely dark, and as her eyes settled she saw the flames of a torch on the opposite wall. Closer, a looming grey presence kept her focus. Her heart sunk and then jumped into her throat as the grey shadow moved in front of her, colorless and quick. It came closer, its eyes whiter than the snowy fields around The Crystal Empire. The creature pressed an appendage against her face, but Sunset dared not look, turning away in horror. Whatever it was touched her cheek and then pushed to the other. It traced her legs and neck, breathing heavily as it examined her body.

And then there was a glow.

Sunset thought it was something the creature had done, but as she looked at her belly and chest she realized it was her own body that glowed. As the glowing faded, a voice sprung out from the shadow. “Another one has come from the different life,” it said. “Perhaps she was sent to help our strife.” The shadow moved away and Sunset failed to see its face.

The one torch became many as the room filled with light, blinding Sunset for a moment. As she lowered her leg, letting her pupils take in the light, she realized the shadow was not alone. Ponies sat against the walls of the dank cave just like she did. How did I get here? That’s when the shadowed pony came closer; a zebra with green paint covering parts of her body. Her face was clearly unhappy, that much Sunset could tell. “Excuse me,” Sunset called out, her voice low and sore. “Where am I? Who are you?”

“My name is Zecora, and you are someone who should not be. Have you come with an answer to our desperate plea?” The zebra spoke in rhythmic cadence, something Sunset could barely understand.

“I-I’m not sure. My name is Sunset Shimmer, and the last thing I remember is Pinkie and Fluttershy-” Sunset answered as she studied the room, spotting the pink haired ponies now that the room was lit. “Those two,” she said, nodding to the two mares. “They’re my friends – in my world at least. I’m assuming this isn’t my world. And I also have to assume you have no idea what I’m talking about,” she said in an almost sarcastic tone.

The zebra named Zecora trotted towards Sunset and reached down to her forelegs. The ropes felt light and Sunset wriggled out, relaxing and shrugging her shoulders. “Twilight Sparkle spoke to me just a time ago, telling me of a world without our mutual foe. Do you know of this mare I said? Are you here to mend time’s thread?”

“You spoke to Twilight!?” Sunset hastily said, clutching the zebra’s shoulders. “You’ve got to tell me everything she said!”

Zecora dipped her head, a frown on her face. “It seems you were not sent to end our war, but what reason could you be here for?”

“I was sucked into a portal that sent me to a world where an evil stallion had taken over. Right when I arrived I saw my friend Twilight Sparkle leaving – the same Twilight you met. That was the last world, and it happened again when I came to this world. I’m not sure why, but everything is different compared to the time I came from. Please, you’ve got to tell me what’s going on!”

“It was a pony named Starlight Glimmer who ruined Twilight’s past. Back in time they went where the changes made became vast. You have experienced it twice now, and it surely won’t be the last,” answered Zecora.

Sunset rubbed her chin, thinking deeply on the rhymes. “I think I understand now. Adding that to what Applejack said in the last world, that means this… this… Starlight Glimmer, she went to the past and changed something drastic. I can only guess at what she could have possibly changed, though. How can Twilight have a chance to stop her?”

“Twilight has gone to the past but you have not? How is it you’ve traveled to our sorry lot?”

“When I first came through the portal all I did was touch Twilight’s map table. Getting here, I had help from the Elements of Harmony – but only after touching the table again. The table is what brought me here and it’s the only thing that’s the same, aside from the Tree of Harmony. I’ve never met this Starlight Glimmer, and Twilight probably doesn’t even know I’m here either. She’s always leaving when I’m arriving.” Sunset stood on all fours. “The tree wanted me to save the last world. And now it looks like I’m going to have to collect the Elements, again,” she sighed.

Zecora gave a nod. “All the things you speak of are very peculiar, but you might also be our rescuer. You spoke of saving the last world from Starlight Glimmer, but you may find this world much more grimmer.”

What happens here matters to us!” Twilight Sparkle had said. It was not the Twilight Sparkle of her world or the human world. It was the friend she had made in the heat of battle, the friend she might never see again. Sunset knew she couldn’t make the same mistakes twice, regardless if she’d never see that friend again. “I want to help in any way I can,” Sunset said, confidently. “But first, I’d like to be taken to the Tree of Harmony. It’s right next to the Castle of the Two Sisters – if you know where that is.” She then pointed at Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. “I’ll also need them, as they are both Element bearers. The Element of Laughter and the Element of Kindness.”

“Hold on Zecora, how do we know we can trust her?” Pinkie Pie objected. “Queen Chrysalis has ponies under their control who are not changelings – perhaps this one is a spy.” Pinkie threw her face against Sunset’s. “Are you a spy? Are you!?”

Zecora shook her head, and said, “I believe Sunset is here to help us. She will help bring Chrysalis to justice!” Hoots and hollers echoed the cave as ponies stomped their hooves. “I know the way to the castle of which you speak, but be quiet as a mouse, you must not squeak. The forest is filled with changeling invaders, and we must trek across many acres.” She nodded to Pinkie and Fluttershy, beckoning them away.

Pinkie Pie backed slowly away from Sunset, but not before lifting a hoof to her eyes and then pointing at Sunset, as if to suggest she would be watching the unicorn. She and Fluttershy followed Zecora to the crack of the cave while Sunset followed them, ignoring Pinkie’s idle threat altogether. Many of the other ponies she passed had weak smiles and green paint on their faces. She wondered if the changelings were a bigger threat than King Sombra’s army. She sidled through the small crack in the wall, following the other three. Sunburst suddenly popped into her head. “How are the changelings a threat, anyway? Didn’t Prince Sunburst defeat them?” she asked as they reached the outside air.

Prince Sunburst?” Pinkie repeated with a whisper. “Who’s that?”

Zecora pressed a hoof to Sunset’s mouth, silencing her. “As quiet as sand in an hourglass, the need to talk we must surpass.” Sunset gave an embarrassed nod.

They traveled south, that much Sunset could tell between the canopy blocked sun. For most of it, they followed a shriveled creek bed, passing through overgrown foliage and insect-filled brush. A flock of birds fluttered away from a tree and they all assumed they would soon be caught. They huddled beneath the shadows and waited, and when no one came they quickly scurried through a path of bamboo. They did not come face to face with the changelings at any point, even as they came to the open air of the ravine. Zecora ushered them down into the gorge, hoping to hide low enough from the blue sky above.

After marching in the dried, cracked mud for a while, Sunset recognized a rope bridge hanging over head. It had not fallen or broken like that of the last world, but it gave her a landmark to know where they were. And sure enough, a few yards back in the same place as the world before, there was a small cave that led into a bigger cave. In that bigger cave sat a tree of magnificent white crystal. The Tree of Harmony. It did not glow, it did not move, and it did not recognize Sunset’s presence, nor Pinkie Pie’s or Fluttershy’s.

Placing a hoof on the trunk, Sunset felt the coldness of the tree. “It wasn’t like this in the last world. It was almost happy to see me. What happened to the Tree of Harmony?” Sunset asked, not really to anyone.

“Maybe she really is a spy,” Fluttershy noted to Pinkie Pie who nodded in agreement.

Ignoring the pegasus’s comment, Sunset sparked her horn, lighting up the tree’s darkened features. It held no resemblance to the tree she had seen in the previous timeline. The branches were shorter, the center did not make a star, and it seemed depressed. “The Tree of Harmony in Sombra’s timeline did not display the Elements of Harmony, but it did have the magic to give the Elements to the bearers. This Tree of Harmony looks like it doesn’t have the magic to do, well, anything.”

After the war had ended and peace returned to The Crystal Empire, Sunset had gone to visit Princess Celestia with questions of the alicorn’s sister. It had been there that Celestia told her of Nightmare Moon’s second defeat and banishment. “After that, I returned the Elements of Harmony to the Tree of Harmony, no longer fearing the need to use them. I had thought to retrieve them to fight King Sombra, but I could not do that to the Tree of Harmony. I am glad it saw the need to give them freely,” Princess Celestia had said behind closed doors. “I am certain the tree did, in fact, have the Elements when you went to see it – simply hiding them from your view.” Celestia had smiled at the idea, and she was most likely right – as per usual.

The butterfly effect, Sunset recalled. If Twilight and this Starlight Glimmer changed the past, then a number of differences could have occurred. The thought sent her brain spinning, that or it was the aching headache caused by Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy’s roll down the hill. “I don’t think Princess Celestia returned the Elements of Harmony in this world. She must have kept them, perhaps in Canterlot. What are we going to do if we don’t have the Elements?” Sunset shook with fear, screaming her question at the frozen tree. “What am I supposed to do!?”

But it was Zecora who answered, “Perhaps their castle would give us an answer to what you ask? Princess Celestia may have left behind a message, riddle, or task.”

Sunset wanted nothing more to do than curl into a ball and cry, but she refused. This was another trial, the same trial, just different from the last. Get the Elements of Harmony, bring my friends together, and defeat the changelings. Is that what you want of me? Is this punishment? It was hard to stay positive, to want to help the world. Sunset knew it had to be her. Help time echoed in her mind, and she wanted to smash her head against the wall so she wouldn’t remember those beckoning words.

“I’ve spent so many days outside my own time. Away from my friends – my human friends. Why is it that I’m burdened to be here? To help? Why am I here?” Sunset groveled.

“I cannot answer the reason why you are here, Sunset Shimmer. But every day Chrysalis rules is a day the world grows dimmer. Perhaps you were chosen to save us and then some, perhaps to save many more worlds to come, or perhaps this is punishment for a crime in the land you are from. Whichever is true or none it may be, you are our salvation, deliverance, and key. It may not be fair and it may not be kind, but who you are is being defined.” Zecora patted Sunset’s shoulder, reassuringly. “Who are you, Sunset Shimmer? A selfless hero or a selfish quitter?”

Though Zecora spoke oddly, her insight was true. As much as Sunset wanted to collapse and wallow in her self-pity, she knew she was needed. “Honestly, Zecora. You might be right about one of those things. Perhaps I am being punished for something I did.” It hurt to think about, but she needed to say it aloud. “I stole a crown and tried to take over the world I live in – I turned into a raging she-demon. And if that’s true, if I am being punished-” She paused, staring over at Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy “-well I’m glad I get to help those who mean the most to me.”

The two mares looked strangely at her, but Fluttershy smiled and Pinkie Pie’s frown became, well, not a frown at least.

“We should check the castle. If Celestia took the Elements of Harmony then she must have gotten them from the Castle of the Two Sisters. That’s where the six from my world found them and beat back Nightmare Moon,” Sunset said.

Zecora gave a silent nod and they trotted out of the cave. Passing into the light, Sunset pointed to a crack in the ravine that allowed them to traverse the side of the cliff closest to the castle. Though the bridge still stood, the boards had long since rotted and the ropes looked like dental floss, scaring anyone from using it. After trekking the cliff, they spotted grey stone in the distance between more wild plants. “How is there this much foliage? It wasn’t this way in the last world. How could time change to have it so flush?” Sunset wondered as they walked.

“I must admit that was caused by me,” Zecora answered. “Nature hides us from all those who see.”

“From the changelings, right? What are they doing here? Are there many of them? What about Canterlot? Ponyville?” Sunset rattled off her questions.

Pinkie stopped them both, putting a hoof to her mouth and running it across. “Less talkie more walkie,” she whispered, and Zecora agreed.

The Castle of the Two Sisters was as large as a castle could be. The stone walls were just as grey as the stripes in-between the black of Zecora’s fur, but when the sun shined just right the walls almost appeared white. Of course, most of the castle was shrouded in green. Vines, moss, and thorny bushes that stretched upward seemed to be more prevalent than stone. The gate was open to them, both brown metal doors had their hinges rusted and laid flat on the floor. Dust had settled in where plant life had not. Sunset recognized that a lobby, or what used to be a lobby, had the same features as that of Canterlot’s lobby outside its throne room. A tree sprouted out to the right, however, and it had busted the roof open, letting more plants grow in the sun’s light.

Up four steps and they reached a hall that led to the throne room. The wilderness had not taken as much of this room as it had the foyer, though parts of the roof had collapsed inward and vines were sprouting in the cracks of stones. There were certain times of year that Canterlot High School had weeds sprouting from the sides of the cement bricks that the school was raised upon. Though the gardeners took care of the school with spray, Sunset wondered how much spray would be needed to remove this wildlife. She half expected to find a dozen rabbits nuzzling on the throne itself. As she approached, her heart was filled with discontent as no adorable bunnies were to be found.

With so much history being lost within the castle, Sunset almost forgot her worries and cares. Her mind clouded itself with thoughts of archaeology and paleontology and her love for history. She didn’t know if she had always loved the past or found solitude in the study after losing her lust for power. It didn’t matter either way. Her idea of power had been all wrong, but the desire was still there, and learning new things sufficed its greed. She didn’t mind – though some things she’d have liked to learn sooner. Like caring for the world, she remembered and became sad. She had lost three worlds now. The world she was born on, the human world, and the world she had saved and grew to care for. Would she ever see them again? Any of them?

Zecora called to her and Sunset quickly wiped the thoughts away, turning back to the rest of the throne room. “Coming,” Sunset yelled and trotted to the call, her hooves pressing against the torn burgundy rug that would have tied the room together had none of it been dilapidated. She found the three in the library, hundreds upon hundreds of books lined the shelves. Her sense of wonder returned and she was quick to pick one of the books off a random shelf. The green binding crumbled in her hooves and the paper showered the floor. She shook her hooves off, wiping the dust off before taking the next book with her magic.

This time it did not crumble, though the words had faded and one of the pages held a still living roach. That caused her to shriek and toss the book halfway out the entrance. The others had come to see the commotion, but only Pinkie had laughed when Sunset told them what had startled her. None of the books could help them, she realized. It had been her hope that Celestia would leave a note somewhere, where to find the Elements of Harmony or a way to defeat some unknown enemy. She wondered what had happened to Celestia in this timeline.

“Chrysalis – how much has she taken over?” Sunset asked Zecora. They were far enough into the castle that she hoped no changeling would be present to hear them talk. “How much of Equestria isn’t changeling controlled?”

But it was Pinkie who answered, “Everything as of today. Ponyville was the last safe haven besides our camp. She’d been too busy with The Crystal Empire and Manehattan to care about us. That was two months ago.”

“The Crystal Empire has fallen? Manehattan too?” Sunset was in disbelief. She remembered her own history. Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor married right after the changelings were removed from Canterlot, and then they headed north at the appearance of The Crystal Empire. In the last world, they had not yet married but the empire was upon them regardless. That means… “That means King Sombra was defeated by Chrysalis?” she spoke her thoughts.

“I have seen it in the green fire,” Zecora spoke up. “A heart of crystal spun below the spire. It beat the evil king and the snowy mire.” Zecora paused for a moment, thinking heavily. “But it was the changelings who had been so brave, undermining the king’s brainwashed slaves. The crystal ponies lost more than they gave, it was their love that the changeling army craves.”

Sunset felt sad at that. She had worked so hard to free The Crystal Empire from King Sombra’s grasp, and Chrysalis had defeated him along with claiming everyone else. It was almost sickening to think that they had traded one evil ruler for another. The changelings wanted love? Well, The Crystal Empire had plenty of love to give, and it seemed the Crystal Heart did nothing to stop the changelings. “How are we supposed to defeat them all with the Elements of Harmony?” Sunset wondered aloud. In the previous world, only The Crystal Empire had been affected by King Sombra, one single enemy to rule them all. But the changelings weren’t brainwashed – and they had to be everywhere.

“That is up for you and these two to find out. The magic between you will surely soon sprout,” Zecora answered, though it wasn’t much of an answer.

Still, Sunset felt at ease from the rhythmic lilts of the zebra. She had never met Zecora in the world where time was right, only reading her name once or twice from Princess Twilight when she described a magical potion she had drank that came from this zebra. There were many things in her journal that Sunset had forgotten, or read and thought nothing of. She made a mental note to read it through the next chance she got, but she forgot that note almost immediately when Fluttershy beckoned her attention.

The pegasus was a lot cuter in this timeline. A few piercings in her yellow ear and the long, braided pink mane did a world of difference for Fluttershy. She was threatening yet adorable, and the green paint played off her yellow fur quite well. Sunset told herself to remember to braid the human Fluttershy’s hair when she returned to her own world. She told herself to remember a lot of things, though. It was getting harder with every day that passed, and every moment had some new stimuli or something new to learn that it was starting to give her a headache trying to remember everything. That or the concussion from earlier had not yet subsided.

“It’s dark, but it might lead to something,” Fluttershy had said as Sunset came closer. Zecora and Pinkie Pie were still exploring the library, but Sunset pressed forward, lighting her horn as she went. The darkness gave weight to her light just like the grey bricks had given weight to roots. Wherever the path had led was lost to time. “Oh, well, I thought it might have helped. Sorry,” Fluttershy apologized, dropping her head slightly.

“Don’t give up,” Sunset replied. “You were very kind to try and help.” Sunset hoped that the Elements would still appear regardless of where they were in the world. These were the bearers after all. The Tree of Harmony wanted time to be fixed, so why would it make it harder? It wouldn’t, Sunset concluded. The Tree of Harmony wants me to fix time. There’s no way it won’t give the Elements freely as soon as the bearer understands their element.

“Over here!” A sudden call turned back their focus. Pinkie Pie had found a staircase along one of the walls, hidden behind a bookcase. The path was shrouded in darkness, but that was caused by the overgrown vegetation hanging down from its own weight. The sun passed through the tall grass and weeds, granting a flicker of light against a window that had not shattered. The glass pane was inside a worn down building that was detached from the castle across an open gap, where a wooden bridge had held its own against time’s wrath. The gap below was not long nor was it deep; falling no more than a story wouldn’t be trouble. Still, they each minded the broken boards and unsteady rope as they crossed, though Fluttershy hovered carefully over the bridge, refusing to be the reason it might have collapsed.

After they crossed and came closer to the building, Sunset recognized the symbols atop the door. Though the gems had lost their color, it was quite clear what they represented. The room they entered was dark and damp, the humidity had somehow gotten worse the higher they had gone in the jungle. The roof had been blown off by something unknown. But most importantly was the statue in the center of the room, five faded stones atop the statue’s arms. Each of the five orbs were broken open from the top, Sunset found. “They’re hollow,” she murmured, “and there’s only five.”

“This way I see, another room there may be,” Zecora said, pointing out another staircase. The stairs led outside, and a cracked stone walkway led them across to another building. It was larger than the last, and even more run down. The metal frames of windows hunched over from the pull of gravity. Pillars seemed to barely hold the ceiling, but at least there was a ceiling this time. At the end of the largest room was a pedestal with nothing on it. As the others looked around the room, Sunset examined behind the pedestal, discovering the sixth orb that had gone missing.

Unlike the orbs in the previous building, the face of this one had been crushed, leaving an imprint of where the Element of Harmony used to lie. As she examined it more thoroughly, the stone crumbled to dust and pebbles within her hooves. “Well, they were here at one point. Most likely used to defeat Nightmare Moon.”

“That’s the second time you’ve said that name, isn’t it? Nightmare Moon is just an old foal’s tale,” Pinkie Pie claimed, scoffing at the very notion. “Though I do miss Nightmare Night. It’s been a long time since we’ve had any real fun…”

“This might surprise you, but Nightmare Moon is real. She’s actually Princess Luna, taken over by jealousy of her sister, Princess Celestia,” replied Sunset.

“That can’t be true, can it?” Fluttershy wondered.

“We’re sitting in the Castle of the Two Sisters. Ever wonder who those two sisters might have been?” Sunset smiled. “In my world, you two and the other Element bearers returned Princess Luna to her normal state, releasing Nightmare Moon’s grasp over her. You also would have defeated Queen Chrysalis – but love saved the day instead. Though don’t ask me how. I think it had to be one of those been there to see it moments.”

Zecora seemed to like that as she bobbed her head and smiled as well. “Many things we could have learned from your world, had the evil changelings reign not unfurled.”

“I don’t know too many things about my world,” Sunset said, realizing it was time to tell them of the human world. “I actually live in a completely different universe where my friends are humans – these bipedal creatures with hands and feet. I suppose that’s another reason why I was chosen to help this timeline. I’ve got experience with other worlds.” She tried to smile, but it came out flat.

“That is where you became a demon, correct? Surely your world is not so perfect,” Zecora noted.

Sunset sat down in front of the pedestal, leaning her back against it. “You’ve got that right. Even after I was defeated, there are still things that I’ve had to face that came from this world. Demons, sirens, and one world shattering that was too close for comfort. But still, my friends are there. I miss them.”

The pegasus and earth pony looked at each other. “We’ll be your friend,” Fluttershy pitied, and Pinkie nodded.

“You two already are my friends.” Sunset chuckled. “If I befriend any more of you I’m going to have a hard time telling your pasts apart, though.” Her mind drifted back to The Crystal Empire for a moment. “Just because this isn’t your timeline or world or whatever, it doesn’t mean that we’re any less real,” she remembered the last world’s Twilight and her words. “Tell me something,” Sunset demanded. “Tell me of this world, of the ponies who live in it.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” Pinkie Pie answered. The party mare’s mane was a lot like the one Sunset remembered when she met the first Pinkie Pie right after coming to Equestria, albeit a bit more green was involved in this one’s. This Pinkie seemed far more down to earth than any of her counterparts Sunset had met. She wasn’t loud, though she was angry. She wasn’t clueless, though she was skeptical. A life forced into hiding would make anyone quiet, I suppose, Sunset bemused. But this Pinkie isn’t like the quiet mare of the last world, either.

“You two live in Ponyville in my world – let’s start there. Tell me of Ponyville, before the changeling invasion.”

Fluttershy looked to Pinkie Pie, who gave a shrug of her shoulders. “I didn’t live in Ponyville until after the invasion. Cloudsdale was taken over right after Canterlot,” Fluttershy described, her voice ached as if she was reliving the memory at that moment. “I’d imagine Cloudsdale is empty now.”

“Empty?” Sunset inquired, pushing her body forward at the word.

Zecora tapped her chin and then pointed at Sunset. “It speaks to me that she does not know, that changelings feed on love for their brood to grow. Queen Chrysalis invades each city like a weed, taking ponies back to Canterlot to feed.”

That didn’t sit well with Sunset. “Wait, hold on. You’re telling me that when she captures a city, she takes the ponies back to Canterlot? So, Equestria is essentially…”

“Empty,” repeated Fluttershy.

There was no resistance. There was no movement hoping to free the captured ponies. Those who had remained free were standing right in front of Sunset. An enemy so overpowering came to Equestria and crushed it gleefully. “But it took a while,” Sunset muttered, trying to piece everything together. “It wasn’t overnight. Ponyville was the last, which means there has to be ponies already inside Canterlot creating a plan to fight their way out. Possibly run by Twilight… Maybe Princess Celestia herself, or Princess Cadance?”

The other three ponies stood around each other, murmuring and staring at Sunset. The silence eventually made her realize that she was rambling to herself. “I think I’ve got an idea of what we can do,” Sunset said, calling to all three and motioning for them to close in around her.

“We?” Pinkie Pie repeated.

“That’s right. You two are coming with me. We’re going to Canterlot and we’re going to free our friends, and every other pony as well.”

Fluttershy dug her hoof against the cracked floor, staring down at the ground with her eyes covered by her mane. “I-I would like to save my f-family,” she whispered so low that Sunset almost thought she said fantasy.

“Mine too,” Pinkie Pie agreed. “Not to mention a few ponies I know stayed behind in Ponyville, like the Cakes. They’re probably captured now.”

“I know it’ll be scary, but you guys can’t keep hiding forever. At some point, Chrysalis will find you, and then it might be too late to put up a fight.” Sunset strode over to be between the two Elements. “I can’t force you two to do anything, but I plan on going to Canterlot and doing all I can to ruin the changelings. Having you two by my side would be a big help – not just as the Elements of Harmony, but as friends too. I know I can’t tell you two to just trust me, but I want you to know that I trust you both with my life. You’re the best friends I’ve ever had, in this world and the last.” And the next, though I hope that’s just my cynicism.

Zecora nodded. “Sunset Shimmer speaks the truth. Remove the changelings, scale and tooth.”

“I’m in,” Fluttershy said, sounding confident.

Pinkie Pie stared at Sunset, then Fluttershy. The dread written all over her face. “Fine,” she sighed. “I’m in too.”

Wrapping her forelegs around the two, Sunset pulled them close and held them. “Don’t worry. After seeing how you guys dealt with fighting King Sombra, I’d imagine Chrysalis is a piece of cake.”

“But we didn’t deal with King Sombra,” argued Pinkie Pie as she pushed away. The pink mare then trotted toward the door, the others soon following after an exchange of concerned looks.

As they greeted the sun, Zecora spoke up, “I must return to gather the others and bring them here. There are plenty of places we can hide in fear.” They said their goodbyes to the zebra as she disappeared into the tall grass beyond the bridge.

The two Elements murmured as they walked, following behind Sunset who escorted them out of the Castle of the Two Sisters. Sunset listened, hearing them wonder how they would get to Canterlot and how they would get inside. But it was clear to Sunset how they would proceed, they needed to hitch a ride. There was only one place for that. They needed to go to Ponyville.

Arc 2: Chapter 2

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Thorns pressed against Sunset’s rump causing her eyes to swell with tears. Her hooves held tightly against her mouth, keeping her from screaming and alerting the changelings. The outskirts of Ponyville sat just a few yards away from the bushes they had chosen to hide within, but Sunset’s had been filled with prickly thorns. Each one she removed with her magic made her thrash violently, but she knew better than to scream. The changelings had patrollers wandering around the edges of the town while others herded the citizens into cages, loading those cages onto carts. There were dozens upon dozens of carts and even more cages.

The town itself had been battered heavily. Several homes had their roofs caved in and their windows smashed, others had half broken doors that clung to the hinges. The town hall was the worst of all, though. Its roof had been blown up from the inside, leaving pieces of wood and shingles all around the town. The town of Ponyville had been ultimately and completely defeated.

They weren’t here to save Ponyville, however. Sunset had told Pinkie and Fluttershy her plan as they approached the reaved city. “They take ponies to Canterlot, right? That’s where we’re going. We’ll cling to the bottom of their carts and hop off before we get too close to Canterlot. From there we should be able to find our way through a secret passage at the base of the city. There’s a hundred hidden passages, just like the Castle of the Two Sisters. We’ve just got to find the right one.”

It sounded like a good plan, but Sunset had not expected so many changelings. Still, they had to try, and once the thorns were removed from her butt, she teleported herself and the two mares to the side of one of the blasted buildings. The patrollers didn’t ever look toward the inside of the city, and the ones herding ponies didn’t look to the outskirts. They were safe in the middle as long as they didn’t make noise, otherwise, they’d be the center of attention quite literally. Pinkie and Fluttershy hurried into the broken home with Sunset on their tails. They huddled around broken glass, staring out the window with their foreheads barely visible to the outside.

The home had been ransacked. Couches upturned, chairs kicked down stairs, even the refrigerator was left open. “There’s our way to Canterlot,” Sunset whispered, motioning toward three empty carts that sat beside each other. The frame of the carts were a bit high but the bars for wheels hung lower, giving them room to cling to the underside. They’d have to cling to one bar with their forelegs and kick their back onto the other. “You two are sure you can keep steady for this trip? If one of us falls off we’ll need to fight.”

“We’ll stay on. Though I am itching for a fight,” whispered Pinkie Pie, angrily. She clopped her hooves together, reminding Sunset of a rainbow-haired pony from the last world. It didn’t sit well with Sunset, the anger that Pinkie had wasn’t solely hers either. Fluttershy was more aggressive too, more than Sunset had ever seen of any Fluttershy in any world. Years upon years of terror can only lead to two different outcomes. Constantly afraid or constantly angry. A fight or flight response. She sympathized with them, though. The town of Ponyville didn’t deserve to be so battered, nor did the inhabitants.

After a patrol passed by the house, giving a lazy eye to the shadows inside, the three mares took their opportunity to reach the trio of carts. Sunset rushed the middle, digging her forelegs between the wood and the rail at the front of the cart, and kicking her back legs onto the rear. She faced the underside of the cart and immediately felt the pull of her backpack digging into her shoulders. She let go for a moment and undid the straps, pulling it and placing it onto her stomach. Pinkie Pie had already gotten situated, but when Sunset looked to Fluttershy she noticed that the pegasus was struggling. Getting into position wasn’t the problem for the yellow mare, it was that her hair hung low and touched the dirt below. “Your hair!” Sunset whispered as loudly as she could without attracting attention.

Fluttershy wiggled her head, attempting to position her mane in a way that didn’t show. She was forced to stop, however, as the changelings began utilizing their carts. The carts were rolled over to cages, and one by one ponies in cages were loaded into the wagons. The weight of the ponies in cages sunk the carts slightly, displaying Fluttershy’s hair even more prominently than before. Sunset eyed the changelings’ hooves and the cages, and that’s when she noticed an orange-furred mare with blonde locks of hair pressing her body to the bottom of her cage. She could see them, Sunset could tell, and when the orange pony knew that she had been seen her eyes drifted to Fluttershy’s mane as if to point it out.

With no other choice, Sunset lifted the mane’s knot from the floor with her magic, yanking it up to Fluttershy’s mouth and forcing the yellow pegasus to chomp down on her own hair. She couldn’t see Fluttershy’s reaction, but she felt bad regardless. At least we won’t be seen, she thought, giving a sigh of relief.

“Hey, you!” a changeling’s voice echoed out. Sunset’s heart jumped as she heard the words, believing they had been found. The same changeling rattled the bars of a cage, causing the pony inside to whimper. “Quit your whining! By the grace of her majesty, you’re getting to go to Canterlot. Be grateful!”

The same cage was then loaded into Pinkie Pie’s cart, the whimpering pony could still be heard as the cart closed and latched. Several carts had already been sent off, and with the last remaining ponies in these carts, the changelings had finished their invasion of the quaint town. “Patrol, head north ahead of these. Wranglers, get in position,” a changeling yelled. Sunset could barely make out the dark blue armor that the changeling wore, but he was clearly more important than the armor-less changelings that pulled the carts. “Let’s get back before feeding time.” The very phrase made Sunset gag.

When they began to move, several of the carts lined up side by side, and Sunset’s got paired with Pinkie Pie’s. The weight of her backpack on her stomach was painful, but she suffered through it. Pinkie was the opposite. Sunset could tell the pink earth pony was distressed, but couldn’t figure out why. Pinkie’s grip looked fine, being an earth pony she was stronger than both Sunset and Fluttershy combined. So why was she fretting? With a soft motion, Sunset garnered Pinkie’s attention and mouthed “What?” Pinkie grimaced in reply, shaking her head and then mouthing a word in response. Sunset almost groaned aloud but kept it in check. Seriously? This is not the time to be needing a potty break!

Sunset rolled her head the other way, hoping to avoid Pinkie’s antics. Several changelings walked beside the carts, but she could hear the sounds of buzzing overhead and assumed there were more than she could see.

The changelings were quick to move, having already entered onto the main road to Canterlot, leaving Ponyville behind to ruin. Sunset wondered if the changelings had utilized the train system, or if they had been making their own weather with Cloudsdale’s weather machines. It was odd to think about a completely different race taking over and using the world for their own purposes. Yet, that’s exactly what I was going to do when I went to the human world. Thoughts flooded her mind of the human world and her demon side. She quickly pushed the thoughts away, not wanting to compare herself to that of the changeling army. I wouldn’t be as bad as them.

As the road curved and sloped, Sunset lowered her head closer to the ground. She hadn’t been to Canterlot in so long she almost didn’t recognize the cream gold towers contrasting against the bluish grey of the mountain. Even in the last world, her time had been spent in The Crystal Empire, never bothering to head to Canterlot. Her heart ached. It pained for this to be the first time that she’d returned to the city, under so much conflict and terror. She had planned to visit Canterlot on her return to her time, hoping to reunite and ask for forgiveness from her own Princess Celestia. Oh gosh. I’m going to have to apologize to this world’s Celestia as well. Hopefully, she’ll know how to get me home this time.

The cart suddenly stopped, and so did the buzzing. Sunset could see dozens and dozens of changeling hooves trotting around. Behind their hooves were blockades of wood as high as an adult pony and the width of three. These blockades surrounded them, and a changeling shouted, “Gate’s closed!”

“Did the patrol make it through alright with the other wagons?” one of the changelings asked the gatekeeper.

“Aye, they sure did. Is the queen on her way? We had hoped to see her majesty with you,” replied the gatekeeper.

“She’s clearing out the pests within the forest,” another changeling shouted as they began removing cages from the carts. “Zecora and her brood. What I wouldn’t give to feed on zebra!” The changelings of the camp laughed and hollered and agreed. But it was soon silenced by the orange mare’s laughter. “Hey, what’s this one going on about? Hush up, will you?”

Sunset swiveled her head, searching and counting the number of changelings. She could see that the outpost was well defended, the wooden walls stretched entirely around the camp and into a part of the woods it sat next to. A ladder led up to a tree where she assumed a small roost had been built to keep watch. She wondered how many of these outposts had been built, and how many they’d have to pass through to get to Canterlot.

The orange mare’s laughter had ceased. “I just think it’s funny that you are callin’ anypony a pest. Have you looked in the mirror recently? You varmints need to wriggle back to your hive and sleep with the other maggots,” the orange mare claimed.

“Hush up, I said!” the changeling called and trotted over to the orange mare’s cage. His dark blue armor glistened in the sun. “You’ll be in a pod soon enough.” The pods had been placed against one of the wooden walls, enough to handle the remnants of Ponyville. “I think we’ll keep you to feed us on those cold nights,” the changeling said with a bit of dark laughter.

Sunset watched as the mare and the changeling bickered. When she looked back to Pinkie, she found that the pink mare had disappeared from her spot beneath the cart. Sunset dropped from her bar, landing with her back on the dirt, still holding her backpack. She rolled out and onto her hooves, throwing her backpack over her shoulder and turning her horn to the orange mare’s cage, tearing the lock off with her magic. And like an angry bull, the orange mare leapt from her confines, smashing the helmet off the changeling that she had riled up.

After turning to the cages on the carts and breaking their locks, Sunset turned her attention to the changelings. Some glided up into the sky, but Sunset dragged them back to the ground with a resonating thud. She tried to fight and search for the pink mare at the same time, but the changelings soon overran her focus. There were more changelings than there were prisoners, and Sunset was forced to fight two at once just to have a second to breathe. Her time in the world ruled by King Sombra had brought her magic out from retirement, and though she was not at her peak skill, these changelings made for weak opponents.

Outnumbered they had been until several changelings saw Sunset in action. The changelings who had been pulling the carts fled as fast as they could, leaving the patrols and guards behind. When all was said and done, and the remaining changelings thrown in cages and pods, the orange mare hooted and hollered with the other free ponies. Sunset quickly readjusted her backpack and found Fluttershy, who had helped in the fight more than any other Fluttershy would have done. Yet Pinkie Pie was nowhere to be seen.

“Pinkie? Pinkie!” Sunset yelled, panic filling her head with terrible thoughts. “Where’d she go!?” The ponies who were free stood around with puzzled looks, but none of them were Pinkie.

Her fear was soon relieved as the pink mare sauntered up to the closed gate. “I’m here!” Pinkie yelled, a delighted smile on her face.

Sunset rushed up to the gate and was about to open it, but the idea of changelings made her wary. “How do I know you’re the real Pinkie?”

“I mean, if you want to go check out the new lake I just made, be my guest,” replied Pinkie Pie, giving a short giggle.

“I’ll pass, thanks.” Sunset opened the gate and hugged the mare. “Wait,” she said, pushing herself away from the Element of Laughter. “Did you wash your hooves, at least?”

“Ahem-hem,” a voice rose up, cutting off Pinkie and Sunset. “I think we have more important things to worry about, like who in tarnation are you three?” The orange mare trotted up to Sunset, giving the meanest stink eye Sunset had ever seen.

“I suppose we do, Applejack,” Sunset greeted. Applejack’s face turned sour, her muzzle scrunched and her eyes narrowed. “I know, I know. How is it that I know your name, you must be wondering. We’d need a long while for me to explain that, but some of those changelings got away. We need to move out of here, and I need you to come with us.”

Applejack scratched her head. Her golden mane was cut short, barely reaching just below her chin. She didn’t look anything like Pinkie or Fluttershy. No piercings, green paint, or matted hair. Sunset assumed she lived in Ponyville and accepted that they would one day be invaded, and prepared for it. “Where are y’all headed, if I might ask?”

“Canterlot,” Pinkie Pie cut in. “Are you sure she’s one of the Elements, Sunset? I know Applejack. What in Equestria is her Element?”

Applejack’s eyes went wide. “P-Pinkie Pie? Is that you!?” The orange mare abruptly thrust her forelegs around the pink one’s neck, hugging her tight. “I didn’t think she was yelling about the pony I knew! I can hardly believe it’s really you! Uh, what’s with the moss?” Applejack stepped back to look at the green that now covered her hooves.

“I’d hate to break up the pleasantries, but again, we need to move out,” Sunset commanded and turned to the other ponies who had been imprisoned. “There’s still ponies living in the Everfree Forest. If you all make your way down there, avoiding Chrysalis and her soldiers, then find a zebra named Zecora. She’s got her group hiding out in the Castle of the Two Sisters. If you don’t head there, find somewhere hidden and wait. I promise to remove the changeling presence!”

Sunset’s speech roused the group of ponies, and those who believed her word of sanctuary headed south, back to Ponyville and the surrounding forest. Only Applejack remained of those who had been taken. “That’s a mighty fine speech, but I’d like to hear more about how you plan on doing that,” Applejack demanded.

“Right, right. I’ll explain on the way. Soooo.” Sunset extended her hoof to the gate, giving a big enough smile in the hopes to convince the earth pony.

Applejack sighed. “Alright. It’s not like I’ve got anything better.”

Fluttershy and Pinkie took charge, rushing into the grassy field that ran along the opposite side of the road. The field was large, but there were no signs of changelings hiding within or above. Regardless, they crept amongst the tall blades until they reached the northern tree line where they hid within the canopy’s shadows. “There’ll be more outposts around Canterlot’s entrance, I’d imagine. How do you suppose we’ll get inside?” Applejack asked once they were deep in the woods.

“We’ll reach the base of the mountain. If Canterlot is still Canterlot then there’s a few secret passages within the stone,” answered Sunset. “That’s how we’ll get in.”

If Canterlot is still Canterlot? What else would it be? Just… Who are you?” Applejack stopped dead in her tracks.

Sunset stopped as well and turned to face the Element of Honesty. The canopy of leaves left a few rays of light that shined against Applejack’s green eyes. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Sunset started to say, hoping that would sway the Element of Honesty. “I’m from another world, one where you and five others defeated villain after villain after villain. You six used the Elements of Harmony. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy are two of those Elements, like you. We’ve got to find the other three in Canterlot and get you your Elements so that we can bring Chrysalis down once and for all.” When she finished, Sunset clenched her jaw and sucked in air through her nostrils. She stared sharply at the earth pony in front of her. For a moment, she thought she saw the eyes begin to glow but it was just the sun’s reflection.

“Uh huh. Well, let’s get these Elements then,” Applejack reckoned, tapping her cheek with gentle strokes.

No Element of Harmony, Sunset bemoaned. At least she doesn’t think I’m crazy. Perhaps it’s a confidence thing. I have to be confident when I tell them I’m from another world. She gave a nod to herself, but Applejack nodded back, leading to a moment of awkward staring between the two before they continued north.

The weight of the straps of the backpack were becoming a nuisance. Whenever Sunset lifted a strap she could see where the fur was being pressed down. Pony anatomy and human anatomy don’t mix. That thought reminded her of her own human friends and the life they led, of school and monster attacks and nasty principles. They just don’t mix. She never had time to think about these things. At school it was work or social, never having a moment to her self. At night it was study and sleep, and she always made sure to get enough sleep. Having time to think was dangerous, but there was little else she could think about other than the changelings and the pain from her backpack.

Days had gone by in the Sombra timeline and she was unsure of how many had passed since she arrived in this world. Even now the sun was starting to set, ending another day. The sun is setting, the thought lingered and transformed. Princess Celestia raises and lowers the sun, but who is doing it now? Chrysalis couldn’t have amassed that much power. The more she thought about it the worse ideas came to mind until she had had enough of thinking. “Soooo,” she said with a quiet lilt. Talking was better than thinking. “Anyone got any jokes? Or maybe we could do some singing?” She remembered sheering sheep with Fluttershy, the memory bringing a smile to her face.

“Jokes?” Pinkie Pie said, enthusiastically.

“Singing?” Fluttershy chorused, just as enthusiastically.

“Sure. You guys are great singers, both in my world and the human world,” Sunset remarked. “And Pinkie’s jokes never get old.”

“Human world?” Applejack stepped beside Sunset, her brow furrowing as she said the words. “Uh, what’s that?”

“The world I’m from has a mirror that connects to another world where everyone I know is a human. Humans are these strange bipedal creatures with no magic.” Sunset used to feel weird about explaining humans, but time eroded that feeling. “I live in that world as a human. Though lately things from Equestria have been slipping through, and me and my friends are trying to catch them in the cracks. It’s funny, on a whim I decided to return to Equestria for a replacement journal, only to be caught up in something that placed me into alternate universes. It’s a good thing I’ve got hands on experience dealing with other worlds, eh?”

“Hands?” Applejack repeated the word.

“Hooves! Hooves on experience.” Sunset gave a short, awkward chuckle. “Sorry. I’m quick to relearn my magic and movements, but idioms take a while to unlearn.” Though hopefully I can figure out a way home before I need to do that.

Applejack smiled. “Well shucks, I could help catch you up on them. How about bite off more than you can chew? That one’s an Apple family favorite.”

“I once bit off more cake than I could chew,” Pinkie interjected. “It was this big chocolate and coconut triple layer cake with green and red frosting. The Cakes made it special for a wedding or something but then it fell through so they said I could have it so it wouldn’t go to waste but that’s when I almost choked on it. Mrs. Cake said that she could see the outline of it lodged in my throat but I thought that was just silly until I realized I hadn’t actually swallowed the cake I was just standing there running out of air. When I woke up Mr. Cake said that the first thing I asked for was more cake.” She took a deep breath and then gave a big happy grin, the first true smile Sunset had seen on the mare since she had met her.

“That’s a… That’s interesting, Pinkie Pie. But the idiom is supposed to be something that doesn’t translate from humans to ponies. Like, to hear something straight from the horse’s mouth.”

In unison Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Applejack stopped in their tracks and turned to face Sunset. Their eyebrows were furrowed, glaring at Sunset with unease. “What’s that one supposed to mean?” Applejack sternly asked.

“No, no! It’s a good thing, honest! It’s where you hear something from someone who is knowledgeable. Like hearing facts about animals from Fluttershy, or farm work from you,” Sunset explained, feeling the angry eyes on her slowly subside as she spoke. “Horses in the human world are really nice, too! On your farm, Applejack, you’ve got horses to ride.”

Groans of disgust rang out from the three Element bearers as they continued to tread through the forest. “Humans are gross,” Pinkie Pie muttered to Fluttershy who nodded in agreement.

When they reached the edge of the forest they found themselves on one side of a road. The mountain that held Canterlot sat just on the other side with another forest at its base. Sunset could barely make out some of the purple roofs of Canterlot’s towers behind the glistening waterfalls that trailed from the mountain. Parts of the roofs were black or green, but she couldn’t tell exactly what they were. The road in front of them led west to the gates and up to Canterlot, along with a changeling outpost. On the east side sat another outpost, but it was incredibly far away. Green flags with changelings designed on the front were displayed around both outposts, fluttering in the breeze proudly. As if they deserve to be proud.

“Alright, we can wait till nightfall and creep across the road. I don’t think changelings can see in the dark but neither can we so it’s fair,” Applejack devised a plan. “We might be able to camp out too, maybe find a nice hovel or cave in the mountain.”

Sunset immediately disagreed. “I didn’t roll around in the snow with Sombra’s soldiers just to waddle myself across a road in the dead of night.” She pointed to her horn and Applejack understood. “I’d teleport us directly into the throne room if my memory wasn’t so fuzzy on specifics.”

“Once we get across, where do we go?” Fluttershy asked.

“There’s a crack in the mountain, very small and very hidden. I used to explore the depths of the castle and found a chamber that led to a mine deep in the mountain. I never told Princess Celestia I had found it – but I think she knew. That was… That was near the end of my apprenticeship.” She missed her mentor. With the sun setting, she hoped this world’s Princess Celestia was alright. “I only found it trying to discover a way into the forbidden archives of the royal library. If I had known I’d need to sneak back in one day I would have paid more attention to the dark paths and mine shafts.” She shrugged. With a quick teleport, they were on the other side of the road. “Hopefully the changelings haven’t found it, otherwise we might be in for a fight again.”

“I’d be up for another,” Applejack said, and Pinkie and Fluttershy agreed.

Sunset frowned. She didn’t like the idea of her friends being gung-ho for fighting, nor did she like the idea of fighting in general. I’ll be more fit than Rainbow Dash by the time I return home. Her back and legs ached more than any time spent in a gym. Won’t she be jealous?

With the forest to their right, they pressed against the mountain in the hopes to find Sunset’s entrance. The sun wasn’t making their search easier, however, as the sun was setting on the side of the mountain where Canterlot sat, blanketing their own side in darkness. The trees and stones looked vastly different than what Sunset remembered, though having only a vague idea of where the entrance could be wasn’t helping either. “Do you think it could be covered?” Fluttershy asked, pushing a small rock and uncovering a gecko’s home. “Oh, sorry,” she apologized and lowered the rock.

“It’s got to be somewhere around here,” Sunset muttered. “I wish Pinkie and Maud were here. They’d just drill a hole.”

“Um, hello? I’m right here,” Pinkie responded. “What am I, dropped glitter?”

“Sorry. Different Pinkie.” It felt weird to say. I’ve met four Pinkie Pies and all of them like cake and rocks. “If you want to try digging a hole, be my guest.” Sunset continued to move, examining every inch they passed.

Pinkie Pie bit down on her tongue and stretched her hooves. “Everypony, stand back!” she yelled, wiggling her tail in the air. With the first hit against the stone, a fissure the size of two ponies concaved, opening into a darkened cave. “Oh wowie. I guess I don’t know my own strength,” Pinkie said, stupefied, staring down at her hooves with awe.

“It was covered!” Sunset exclaimed, examining the entrance. “Good job Pinkie Pie!”

“Talk about happenstance,” Applejack noted, scratching the side of her head. “Pinkie outta walk straight into Canterlot with luck like that. The changelings might beat each other senseless just tryin’ to attack her.” She chuckled.

Sunset was the first to dive into the darkness, sliding into the cavern on her rump. When she reached the bottom she lit her horn, casting a light spell that illuminated brighter than she had expected. “Crystals!” she shouted, and the ringing echoed and resonated against the light pink gems. “I had almost forgotten these were here. After Sombra, I was hoping to be done with crystals.”

Applejack was the second down. “Sombra? Who’s Sombra? He another one of the villains from your world? Or the, whatcha call it? Human world?”

“He’s from Equestria. He’s the one that made The Crystal Empire disappear. Sombra, Chrysalis, Nightmare Moon, and Discord,” she rounded the names off aloud.

Discord was in your world too?” Applejack said, shocked.

Sunset slid her light to Applejack. “You know about Discord!?” Before Applejack could response, Pinkie and Fluttershy came sliding down, crashing into the back of the orange pony. “Do you two know who Discord is?” Sunset asked them before they could stand.

Fluttershy shook her head. “Oh sure, he was lots of fun,” Pinkie replied from beneath Fluttershy’s wings. “I ate my own tail because of him.”

Applejack pulled her back legs from the pile, clinging to Sunset for support. “Princess Celestia used the Elements of Harmony to defeat him. I thought that was how you knew of them!” Her face then went grim. “Wait – are you really not from this world?”

I guess it wasn’t my confidence that convinced her, Sunset lamented. “Yes. I am.”

Applejack looked to the two other Elements who seemed to nod and agree with Sunset. “Well, alright, I believe you then. Not that I didn’t before, just, y’know, different reasonin’. Kind of thought we were gonna get them and have Princess Celestia use ‘em.” She shrugged.

Though Sunset wanted to chide the Element of Honesty for not being entirely honest, she knew it wouldn’t be of any use. There’s no going back, no second chances. As long as they’re with me we’ll succeed.

With her light still beaming ahead, Sunset led the three mares weaving past long, slender pink crystals. Some were purple, some were blue, but they all reflected both the light and the group of mares. Fluttershy screamed at one point, thinking she saw a changeling, but it was only her reflection. “They’re like funhouse mirrors!” Pinkie commented, sticking her tongue out at the reflection. “It’s been a long time since a carnival was around. Or a festival. Or a party.”

“Not much to celebrate if you ask me, besides the occasional harvest. Even so, not like it would matter in the long run,” Applejack stated, trudging on ahead of everyone.

“I’ve got to ask, Applejack. Why did you and your family stay in Ponyville when you knew the town was doomed?” Sunset rushed to be beside the Apple mare. “I had my assumptions, but I’m curious, to say the least.”

Applejack stopped.

Sunset thought the question might have angered the earth pony, but Applejack remained expressionless. “I’d like to say it was because it’s the only home I’ve ever known, or that I couldn’t leave my family, who refused to go. But it’s neither those things,” Applejack said. “I’d also like to say that it was to give those in the Everfree a chance to hide while the town was raided, but I didn’t stay there for that neither.”

“So, why did you?” Fluttershy asked.

“I gave up.”

“You what?” Sunset couldn’t believe her ears. There was no way Applejack would give up, not in a million years or a million universes.

“I gave up,” Applejack repeated, sounding like nails on a chalkboard. “There was no point in hidin’. Cloudsdale had fallen, Canterlot had fallen, even the cities that coast the Celestial Sea had fallen. I’d go down fightin’ – and we did – but there was no point in runnin’.”

“Then why did you join us?” asked Sunset. Applejack shrugged. “There’s got to be a reason more than that. You certainly didn’t stay for the Elements. So, what was it?”

The crystals of the cave seemed to glow in Applejack’s contemplation. “There really isn’t a reason. Either we’re going to get caught and I’ll be taken captured just like before, or we’ll find a way to beat ‘em. Our odds don’t look good for the latter, but I already accepted my fate back in the cart.” She slumped down, leaning against a pair of fallen crystals. “If I could, I’d run all the changelings out of Equestria. But I can’t. I’m just one pony. What’s the use in trying?”

That hurt to hear. This wasn’t an Applejack Sunset had ever known, but she couldn’t help but feel it was her own Applejack. She could see a lot of her human friend in this pony – and not just because they were the same person. Applejack was always down to earth, but this is straight up pessimism. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie gathered around Applejack, cozying up next to her with the same distraught looks on their faces as Applejack had. “The last world I was in, the one with Sombra, you all had hope,” Sunset murmured. “But there was still a chance for victory there, and we took that chance. Here, you all have already lost.” It hurt to say.

Applejack nodded. “That’s the way I see it.”

“But…”

The three Elements of Harmony looked up at Sunset Shimmer. The tears that poured down her cheeks struck the grey soil they stood upon. Her light flickered slightly as she stared back them. “I was sent here for a reason,” Sunset said. “I have a purpose. I-I’m supposed to… to help you…” Her sniffling echoed worse than the cracks of her voice. “I-I’ve got to try, to try and help. Princess Twilight… The last world’s Twilight… My Twilight… They’re all counting on me, even if they don’t know it. I told her… I told her…”

So many things had her want to cry, but Sunset had refused, knowing better than to give in. Seeing this world’s Applejack had broken that. The strongest person she had ever known had given up. She wanted to give up. “I’m never going to get to go home. It’s obvious now. Even if I get all six Elements together, it’ll just send me to another stupid world where things are out of whack. I should have stayed. I shouldn’t have entered through the mirror. Equestria isn’t my home anymore.”

Suddenly, Sunset felt warmth. The three Elements surrounded her, nuzzling their own tear drenched faces against her fur. She wrapped her forelegs around them as best she could, feeling the only love in the world that wasn’t being fed upon.

A voice then called out from the darkness. “Hello? Is there anypony there?” it said.

Sunset held the Elements close as the voice grew louder, the sound of hooves trotting against earth echoed amongst the pink crystals. “W-Who is it?” Applejack asked the shadows in a voice not so confident. The trotting came closer.

And then, from the darkest part of the cave came movement. All eyes shot to it, staring as the darkness rippled against the pink. “H-Hello?” the voice said. “I-I-I’m… Princess Cadance. Who are you?”

Arc 2: Chapter 3

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Where am I, were the first words Sunset thought. It was followed by, what is this place. The pain of opening her eyes kept her from keeping them open for more than an instant, and even then her eyelashes blurred the pieces of what she saw. Blue, blue feathers, rainbow hair. She could make out the colors, but not the form or shape. It hurt to look for too long, but there it was across from her, a pony she knew.

And yet.

And yet, she could not remember ever having seen the blue before. What had happened? How did she end up here, across from a blue pony, trapped inside of a cocoon? It still ached to think. It ached to remember the moment of sadness she had with her friends. That moment that was broken by the damaged and hungry princess. “Kept as a pet,” she remembered the princess saying. Sunset had known better. The changeling queen had disguised as the pink princess before. But that moment was gone, and she had been wrong. She had not known better. Even when the broken princess had asked, “Have you come to save me? Save us?” Sunset did not know how to respond. The princess had been starved of all information, forced to wander the darkness of the caverns, her magic had been drained to the point of exhaustion.

Sunset knew what that felt like. Not then, but now. It ached. The cocoon that surrounded her. It was cramped, and she had been kept in it for so long. How long? Too long.

And yet still, it seemed so recent. Her memories flooded back to her. They had taken the broken, pink princess back to the place she was kept, the chains still sitting where the princess had been locked. They searched from there, hoping, yearning for a secret path into the castle. Pink crystals mocked their very presence, mirroring their reflections as they moved from cave to cave. Tears clouded Sunset’s eyes at the time, but now her eyes were dry. There was no time for tears. Not even here, in this cocoon, where time was limitless.

There were other cocoons like her’s and the blue-feathered pony’s. Once, when Sunset had opened her eyes fully, she had seen the length of the hall. There were cocoons lining both walls, and even more at the ceiling. The ceiling, she remembered. That’s where she had seen the other princess. The only other princess.

When Sunset escaped the cavern with her three friends and the broken princess she had procured, they had stumbled into the darkness of Canterlot Castle. The moon was hidden by clouds, leaving no sight for them to be seen. There was no light from torches either, filling the quiet halls with looming darkness. They crept forward anyway, careful to hide their trots as they made their way through the castle. Sunset remembered the fear in her throat, but she no longer felt that. She had feared the changeling guards, even though they were few and far between. The patrols meandered aimlessly every so often, but her and her friends were smart. Not smart enough, she pitied. They eventually found themselves in the throne room. That was where the other princess had been. Princess. Princess Celestia. That’s right.

It was her cocoon that sat in the middle of the throne room on the ceiling, like a glorious sun. A grand prize for the queen of changelings to stare at as she sat atop her golden throne. Thankfully, the queen wasn’t there at that moment, allowing them to enter in the cover of darkness. The throne room was a mess with a few broken pillars that had yet to be repaired, though it was hard to see within the darkened room. There was plenty of darkness here in her hall too, though green light emitted from the bottom of every cocoon, making it almost unbearable to try and sleep. They wanted her to sleep though. It made it easier to feed, Sunset assumed, though she couldn’t have known that for certain.

She hadn’t seen any of the changelings since she was put into the cocoon. Tubes ran between the cocoons like veins carrying cells to the heart. There were no tubes on Princess Celestia’s cocoon, however. Sunset remembered the anger she felt when she saw her beloved mentor trapped. At the time, her rage poured through her magic as she attempted to bring the cocoon down and free the princess inside. Her beam of magic easily cut through the cocoon’s shell. The cocoons were very weak, but only when they weren’t draining you of your power. It ached to be drained, like a bruise being pressed against over and over, except it was all over the body.

Sunset had gotten plenty of bruises and scratches and cuts, all in the human world. She missed the human world. This world is rotten.

Rotten was a good word to describe the changeling queen as well. It was a word she remembered thinking the first time she saw the ragged queen. It had been just as she was almost finished cutting down the pod that contained Princess Celestia. When they had heard voices and canters, Princess Cadance and the three Element bearers beckoned for Sunset to stop. They had hidden behind the throne, begging and pleading for Sunset to hide. She eventually did as they bid, leaving the sun princess trapped in her cocoon. Her heart ached to stop, just like she ached now. If I had one more second I could have brought it down, she regretted. At the time, she had worried about being seen by the changeling queen, but in hindsight, it didn’t even matter. She had been caught along with her friends.

Here and now, her friends’ cocoons weren’t in view. There was no way of telling where her own cocoon even was. Canterlot was large, and the castle even larger. Her friends could be anywhere, and yet. And yet a pony she knew sat across from her. That gave her hope. Did it mean something? Was it fate? No, it’s happenstance. The blue pony had yet to speak, even when Sunset had called to her on that first day. Or had it been the second?

It was hard to remember what day was what. What day had she arrived to this strange world? What day had she been caught? All she remembered was that they had cowered behind the throne as the changeling queen took her seat. Words were exchanged between the queen and her underlings, though it was hard to remember exactly what was said. It was hard to remember everything and anything. There was a crack, she recalled. When the underlings took their leave, they had almost been crushed by Princess Celestia’s pod. It had fallen from the damage Sunset had done and cracked upon the floor, but it had not split open. “Guards! Guards!” she remembered Queen Chrysalis shouting, her voice filled with terror. A flood of changelings poured into the room, and then…

And then.

That’s when they had been caught and dragged out from behind the throne. The queen was furious to see them, and when she asked which of them had been the mastermind, Princess Cadance stepped forward. The changeling queen struck down the princess with a bolt of magic. “Guards, get another pod. We’ll host them both in the throne room from now on,” the queen had said, her voice so angry and so deep that it sent a chill down Sunset’s spine. Even as she sat in her pod, the voice was a terrifying memory. It ached to sit in the cocoon, but she was safe, for now.

Queen Chrysalis seemed to know that Princess Cadance wasn’t their leader, and that’s when Sunset was forced to step forward out of fear for her friends. But the Element bearers were taken away, stripped from Sunset like a bandage. Queen Chrysalis seemed almost pleased by Sunset’s actions, the horrid smile of her fanged teeth a grim memory. That was the last thing she remembered before the queen ordered Sunset to be taken to a special hallway. It was there that she was stuffed into the cramped cocoon she sat in now. The green light that shined from the bottom of the cocoon burned her retina at first, but over time she learned to shove her chin to her chest and cover her eyes with her hooves.

But it was hard to move, and not just because of the cramped space. Gel filled her cocoon, wrapping her from hoof to horn in thick clear goo. It was like moving in stagnant water, every quick movement was met with friction. It hurt to move. It hurt to sleep. And the taste was sickening. Her nostrils and tongue burned for a while after she had been contained, it slowly subsided over time. Yet somehow she breathed through it, feeling the air in her lungs. At first, it was hard to breathe, hard to accept the air while feeling as though she was underwater. Her body rejected it, and that was when she fell asleep for the first time. After that, it became easier. It still hurt to open her eyes even for a moment. It hurt to move, though there wasn’t much room to do so. Worst of all, it hurt to think. The idea of never going home weighed her down worse than the gel.

She wondered what Princess Twilight Sparkle would do in her situation. Would she fight? Would she try to talk to the pony across from her? Would she teleport out?

Teleport. The spell burned in her head like smoky words protruding from a roaring fire. She knew the spell, but couldn’t cast it. Something wasn’t letting her, and she assumed it was the gel. Everything was the gel’s fault. She wanted no blame for being here; for being trapped.

She had lost everything, and she wanted to give up. There were no signs of escape, no pony coming to save her. Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance wouldn’t be able to escape their pods, and the friends of this world had been taken away. There was only one pony she knew, and that pony was sitting across from her. “Rainbow Dash! Rainbow Dash!” she had screamed, cried, and thrashed on the first day. She tried again the second day. And the third. Or perhaps it had all been the same day? There was no way of telling.

Giving up seemed like the only option.

She had done her best and it was not enough.

That’s when a voice spoke to her. “You awake?” it said.

Sunset’s ears perked up, though her eyes remained closed. “Is that you, Rainbow Dash?” Her voice echoed within the cocoon, and for some reason that made her start to cry.

“You passed out again, or maybe it was me,” the voice answered. Sunset hadn’t remembered speaking to Rainbow Dash, she could barely remember anything now. “What’s your name?” asked the voice.

She needed to see the blue pegasus with her own eyes. Opening them in the gel felt like opening her eyes in a pool that had too much chlorine, but she did so anyway. Rainbow Dash had her head pressed against her cocoon’s glass. It wasn’t truly glass, Sunset knew, but there was no way of figuring out what it truly was made of. When Rainbow Dash saw Sunset open her eyes, the pegasus pulled back with her eyes closed and shoved her mouth against the glass. “Try to keep the gel out of your eyes, use the cocoon,” Rainbow Dash instructed.

Sunset closed her eyes once more and pressed her muzzle to the glass. “I’m Sunset Shimmer,” was all she said before pulling away and pressing her eyes to the cocoon. The blue pegasus took her eyes away and pressed her mouth.

“Rainbow Dash, but you knew that.” Rainbow Dash took a second to breathe. “Any word from the outside world? Where are you from?”

That made Sunset wonder. She could see several cocoons to the left and right, but some remained empty. The one to the left of Rainbow Dash held a small orange filly, while the one to the right held no one. Sunset took her eyes away and pressed her mouth. “Queen Chrysalis has won. She’s taken Ponyville, the last free town in Equestria.”

“Well, if I had any hope left I suppose it would be crushed,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Anything else? No resistance faction? Was really hoping the Wonderbolts hadn’t be captured and were planning something.”

“Not that I’m aware of. I’m not from this world, I came here by accident from another world where Chrysalis was beaten.”

“That was pretty dumb of you,” Rainbow Dash replied.

“Yeah…”

Rainbow Dash didn’t say anything more for a long while. Silence was as common as breathing for the hallway. “Sorry,” Dash eventually said. “I haven’t had anypony to talk to in a long time.”

“When did you get captured?” asked Sunset.

“Cloudsdale. Ever have a cloud follow you? We were the first encounter after Canterlot fell. Of course, we only heard Canterlot had been taken an hour before the changelings invaded. They brought down our weather controller in an instant, turning all of Cloudsdale into one big storm. Most of us hadn’t even heard the word changeling, much less knew what it was.” Rainbow Dash took a long breath. The sounds she made weren’t pleasant, but Sunset was feeling the same way. “What’s your world like? Can… Can you fly freely?”

The question hurt. Sunset wasn’t sure what to say. Equestria was her world, but not her home. “It’s peaceful,” she eventually answered. “There have been numerous foes who tried to break that peace, but the Elements of Harmony always beat them back. Enemies like Chrysalis and the changelings.”

“Elements of Harmony?” Rainbow Dash repeated. “I’ve heard of those. They were in the papers when Princess Celestia defeated Discord. Though I hadn’t heard of Discord or the Elements of Harmony before reading that. Did the princess defeat Queen Chrysalis in your world? Why didn’t she defeat her in ours?”

“It wasn’t Princess Celestia who defeated her in my world, it was you. You and the five other bearers of the Elements of Harmony.” Sunset didn’t feel like explaining Shining Armor and Princess Cadance’s part of the Canterlot wedding. It was too painful to speak, much less remember all the facts.

“Me? I’m not an Element of Harmony. Aren’t they rocks or something? I’m a pegasus if you can’t tell.” The slow slap of her wings extending made a short, echoed thunk against her cocoon’s walls.

“The Elements of Harmony were shaped into necklaces for the bearers. You’re loyalty. When I came to Canterlot, I came with three other ponies who are also bearers of their own Elements. I was hoping to find the remaining three and bring down Chrysalis, but now it looks like I’ll have to find them all over again.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t respond, and then a laugh cut the silence like an axe through a log. Sunset closed her mouth and shoved her eyes to the cocoon, Rainbow Dash had done the same. They both dragged their pupils through the darkness, trying to find the source of the laughter. Rainbow Dash couldn’t see the orange filly in the cocoon next to her, but Sunset could. Sunset could see the filly’s chest flutter as she laughed a deep, menacing laugh, and then the filly’s cocoon popped open. Goo flooded the floor like water, and the orange filly plopped onto the ground. The hallway lit up with green fire as the filly transformed into a tall, black, ghastly sight. “Now I understand what your little book meant,” Queen Chrysalis said in her booming, unmelodic voice.

“Queen Chrysalis!” Rainbow Dash shouted and sucked down gel. She coughed and coughed as Queen Chrysalis laughed and mocked the pegasus.

“Let me out of here!” commanded Sunset, pounding on the glass with what little strength she had.

“Not in a million years would I do that. Not when I now understand everything written in your little journal. The stories told of my defeat, of that wretch King Sombra, and so much more! And soon, you’re going to tell me all about how you came to this world.” Queen Chrysalis placed a black hoof on the glass between her and Sunset, rubbing the curve of the cocoon with gentle strokes. “Another world sounds like a mighty fine place to find more love – and another me would be simply divine.”

“Never!” Sunset screamed, staring at the changeling queen with all her anger, regardless of how bad it hurt.

Queen Chrysalis shrugged. “You will. Maybe not now, but soon. And I already know four of your little Element bearers. Soon I shall find who the other two are, and then you’ll tell me – or else.” She grinned a wicked grin, bearing down her fanged, sharp teeth against the cocoon. Her breath fogged against the shell, and then she was gone.

There had been no hope left in Sunset, but Queen Chrysalis had brought it back, albeit unbeknownst to her. Sunset knew she could use her knowledge to escape. She’ll need me. The bearers won’t know what to do, she schemed. But what would I even do if I escaped? The hope she had was slowly diminishing as that question played out in her head.

“H-Hey,” Rainbow Dash called out, her mouth against the cocoon and her eyes closed. “Sorry about that. If I had known that was what she wanted I would have just kept my big mouth shut.”

“It’s fine,” Sunset replied, though it wasn’t fine. Nothing about this world was fine. I was wrong. This is the worst possible timeline. There’s nothing worse than this, nothing worse than feeling hopeless. Sunset slunk against the back of the cocoon, though the gel made it difficult to do so. It ached to sit and ached to move, but she buried her face into the back of her forelegs. She just wanted to sleep.

But Rainbow Dash wasn’t having any of it – or was too oblivious to notice. “If you’re from another world, won’t somepony coming looking for you? Surely there are some friends who are missing you, right?” Rainbow Dash wondered aloud. “Why’d you even come here? Are you on a top secret mission? Or a master sorceress?”

Sunset didn’t answer. She didn’t want to answer. It hurt to answer.

Rainbow Dash persisted unwittingly anyways. “You’re a unicorn, right? These cocoons keep our magic drained – they had to do that to keep the earth ponies from breaking out. I’ve never talked to anypony in here that’s a unicorn, though. If you came from another world, then you have to be a strong unicorn, right? Are you an apprentice to Princess Celestia in your world? Are you training to become the next Star Swirl the Beardless?” It was charming, even though she had gotten some things wrong. Sunset knew not to lash out at her string of questions. Rainbow Dash had said it herself – Sunset was the first she’s talked to in a long time. “I was training to become a Wonderbolt before the changelings defeated us. I was so close to perfecting my finishing move.”

It was nice just hearing Rainbow Dash speak. Even as the tears fell, Sunset listened. “Y’know, I was the fastest flyer in the academy. Nopony could beat me. Not that many ponies challenged me. There was this one time my friend was being bullied about being a slow flyer, but some other ponies stopped it. After that, the bullying just sort of stopped and so did the challenges. Racing just isn’t fun when you’re not racing anyone but yourself.” Rainbow Dash let out a groan so thick Sunset thought she was choking, but then the pegasus continued. “I miss flying!” she shouted and pounded on the cocoon. “Flying is so much fun!”

“It’s alright,” Sunset replied, trying her best not to suck down the gel. “I’m sure fast flying is fun.”

“You have no idea!” yelled Dash.

I really don’t, Sunset mourned. The only time I could fly was to save the world from Midnight Sparkle, that or the time I tried to destroy it myself. She could almost see the reflection of her demon’s side. I almost wish I could transform right now. She slammed her hoof against the face, though her hoof moved stiltedly against the gel.

The hit was heard by Rainbow Dash who pressed her eyes against her cocoon, staring over at Sunset. “You alright?” she asked.

“No,” Sunset replied, growing accustomed to the taste of gel on her tongue. It reminded her of banana flavored candy – which doesn’t actually taste like bananas – combined with the taste of spicy cubed cheese that had been out for too long after a party.

“I’d say it gets better, but…” Rainbow Dash hesitated. “It doesn’t.”

Sunset knew it wouldn’t. Rainbow Dash didn’t say any more, and Sunset soon fell asleep. She assumed she was asleep, becoming lucid in her dreams, as she found herself dreaming of Applejack. Not the human Applejack or the one from this world, but the Applejack from the previous world. Sunset asked her what she should do about the changelings, but Applejack ignored her and went about her business, just as she had the first day Sunset arrived in the war-torn world. When Sunset attempted to grab the earth pony and make her listen, she found that she phased right through the orange mare.

It was ghostly, both figurative and literally. Sunset flew up into the sky, searching for something, but her mind couldn’t pinpoint what it was that she wanted. An answer, a friend, or perhaps a choice. She had made many choices during her time in Equestria, in the human world, and these ruined timelines. None haunted her worse than the human world’s, but she had accepted that she was wrong there. But was I wrong? I would have returned to Equestria at some point and made it better, preventing things like this from happening. She wanted to believe that was true, she wanted to believe she would make the right choice, even as a demon.

She woke up to the sounds of screeching. Not pony screeching, but the sound of a metal wheel that hadn’t been oiled. When she looked at Rainbow Dash, the pegasus was fast asleep. She thought to wake her to find out what the noise was, but her answer soon came into view. It was a purple-haired pony in a blue jumpsuit that pushed a squeaky cart. The white-furred pony levitated a towel and spray bottle from the cart, taking a moment to wipe off the cocoon to the right of Rainbow Dash. When she came to Sunset’s, she was almost startled by the wide-eyed look Sunset held.

“How are you not in a cocoon!?” Sunset asked.

The unicorn sighed and ignored Sunset, spraying the glass and wiping it down with a few squeaks. “What are you doing? Are you a changeling? If not, you’ve got to let me out!” Sunset demanded. The unicorn ignored her, taking a mop from the cart and dumping water on the floor. Digging in with the bristles to remove the gel from the floor, the unicorn struggled for a moment. “Rarity! Please!” Sunset tapped on the glass.

“How do you know my name?” Rarity was now the one wide-eyed, her mouth agape. She then shook her head, realizing what she had done. With haste, she looked down both directions, and then said, “You’re new here so you don’t know. I’m not supposed to talk to the ponies in the pods otherwise I’ll get in trouble. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.” With a huff, she tossed the mop back into the cart and trailed away, ignoring Sunset’s pleas.

It was hours before Rainbow Dash woke up. Sunset was startled by her voice but quickly asked about the purple-haired cleaning mare. “Pfft,” Rainbow Dash dismissed. “You think the changelings want to do the dirty work? Nah. They pull ponies from pods for certain jobs like cleaning and cooking. They also keep the smart ones out for expanding things, I think. They pulled a stallion from your pod the day they shoved me in mine. Haven’t seen him since.”

“Any rhyme or reason to where they stick us?” Sunset asked, but Rainbow Dash only offered a shrug in response.

“Hush up in there,” a voice called out, catching the mares off-guard. A changeling with dark blue armor and no helmet had suddenly appeared from the shadows of the hall. “I’ll have maintenance turn up the suppression gel if you don’t keep quiet. I’m not listening to you stave off your boredom while I’m on patrol. If I have to be bored – so do you.” He tapped Sunset’s cocoon with the brunt of his blackened spear.

Just as suddenly as he arrived, the guard disappeared down the long hall. “Do patrols come often?” Sunset asked Rainbow Dash after a long while.

“Yeah, every day around the same time. This the first time you’ve been awake to see ‘em?” answered Dash.

“I suppose they would keep guards around.” Sunset thought heavily on the patrol. There’s no use to escaping, though. Is there? But there’s no use in not trying to escape either. What are they going to do, stick me in a second cocoon? She chuckled silently to herself. “Chrysalis, cleaning ponies, and patrolling changelings. I think I can formulate a plan around that. I need time to think.”

“You’ve got all the time in the world, Sunset. We’re not going anywhere.” Rainbow Dash seemed relaxed in her cocoon, though there was barely enough room to stretch out.

Sunset closed her eyes, hoping dreams would help in coming up with an escape plan. Dreams never came, however. When she awoke, she found herself staring at the bottom of the cocoon where the glowing green light came from. It was pretty, though perhaps it was the stinging of her eyes that made her think that. A loud thump echoed and Sunset looked up to Rainbow Dash, but the blue pegasus was still asleep. There was another loud thump, followed by voices and moans. Two guards pushed into her view, a chained Applejack between them, and the evil queen behind them.

“Hello there, Sunset Shinner,” Queen Chrysalis greeted.

“It’s Shimmer,” corrected Sunset who stared at the queen even through the pain.

“Whatever,” the queen dismissed with a flick of her hoof. “Are you ready to speak about these other worlds of yours?”

Sunset looked to Applejack, knowing what might be coming if she said no. “Never,” she replied, regardless. “And if you think Applejack can sway me, then you’re out of your mind. I’d never endanger more worlds.”

Queen Chrysalis laughed a harsh laugh. “Oh, you mean to believe we’d harm this here earth pony? No, no, my dear. She’s here to watch.” The queen turned to her minions and said, “Do it.”

One of the changelings moved to Rainbow Dash’s cocoon and leaned down behind the pod. The light at the bottom faded and returned with a blue glow. A few seconds passed before Rainbow Dash awoke in terror. Her eyes opened wide and she gasped for air. Though nothing looked wrong, Dash started to holler and thrash. “Stop!” she yelled, pounding on the shell of her cocoon. “Stop it!” Sunset watched in horror of the unknown pain, wondering what exactly was going on.

Queen Chrysalis tossed a look over her shoulder, her teeth bearing down in what appeared to be a grin, but the green glow of the pods made the smile look terrifying. “More,” she slowly said to her underling, and so it was done. Dash’s hollering turned to bellowing and then to screaming.

“Sunset, you’ve got to do something!” Applejack yelled. “You can’t let this go on! Just tell them what they want to know!”

“Yes, Sunset. Listen to your friend.” The queen motioned to her underling who leaned behind Dash’s pod once more. The pegasus’s screams stopped, and so did her thrashing. Her pod went silent, the blue glow fading and shifting back to the dark lime green it had been.

“They’re going to do that to all of us, Sunset! They’ll do it to you too, but only after they’re through using us. Just tell them what they want to know! Don’t let them harm us!” pleaded Applejack, groveling on the glass of Sunset’s pod.

“I-I-” Sunset could barely see the earth pony, either because of the pain from the gel or from the tears she was shedding.

A heave and a cough echoed out, followed by a slam against the cocoon. It was Rainbow Dash. “T-That all you got?” the blue pegasus choked out, obviously bluffing. “Don’t give ‘em anything, Sunset. They already took our land, don’t give them someone else’s too.”

The changeling queen lashed out at Dash’s cocoon, slamming both of her front hooves into the pod and snapping with her teeth like a mad dog. “I’ll take whatever I please you feathered little monster! I’ll have what I desire, just like I took your lovely little world!” She turned back to her guards and growled out a command, tossing her nose into the air before turning and heading off the way they came.

As they left, Applejack did not look at Sunset or Rainbow Dash, instead choosing to stare at the ground. When they were gone, Sunset said, “That wasn’t Applejack.”

“The earth pony? You know her?” Rainbow Dash asked, and Sunset nodded in response. “How do you know it’s not really her?”

“You two are a lot alike. You’re both athletic, stubborn, and strong. In this world, however, you both have given up. Rightfully maybe so, but not so hopeless to give in to Chrysalis’s request. You took the pain, not in stride, but you took it. You refused to give in even if it resulted in another round of-” Sunset hesitated. “What exactly was happening to you?”

Rainbow Dash slumped her face against the glass, opening her eyes and her mouth. “The gel – it gives us nutrients, I think. I’ve never grown skinnier than the day they threw me in here, though I have lost a bit of muscle mass. But it’s not only that. It’s filled with something, something that burns. When it gets into your stomach it’s fine, but when it’s in your lungs it burns like sliding belly-first on dry wood. That sensation can be amplified by them, painful on the inside without damaging the out. If I had kept my mouth and nose closed up tight I might have been fine – remember that the next time those jerks come around.”

“Will do. You’d need to breathe eventually, though.” Sunset shifted her weight in the small cocoon, pressing her back to the glass. She crossed her forelegs, sucking in air through her nose. How can I breathe this stuff in when it hurts at higher levels? she wondered. And then a wicked thought crossed her mind, so wickedly delicious that she spun around and slammed her forelegs against the glass. “Rainbow Dash! Do you want to escape? I’ve got an idea!”

“You do!?”

“Yes – but I can’t explain it. When the time comes, just play along, okay?”

“When will that be?”

“Oh. You’ll know.”

Hours passed by, though time was convoluted when no sun could be taken for measurement. Sunset’s boredom was offset by Rainbow Dash, who enjoyed flapping her gums just as much as she loved flapping her wings. When Rarity came by a second time, Sunset attempted to coax her into talking, but the white unicorn held strong in her mission to keep silent. Rainbow Dash had told her that the cleaners are the lucky ones, but the look on Rarity’s face whenever she came by told a different story.

Rarity passed by more often than Sunset had expected. The white mare once came by and soon after Sunset fell asleep, only to be awakened by the wiping sounds against the glass of her cocoon. She had hoped to enact her plan soon, but she did not get her opportunity before Queen Chrysalis came around again. This time the queen brought Pinkie Pie, or the supposed Pinkie Pie. Sunset knew not to try and escape with the queen standing so close. Chrysalis was the changeling mastermind, and she would not be fooled so easily like her ilk. Of course, Chrysalis underestimated a pony’s resilience, especially when Rainbow Dash struggled through her pain.

After the changeling queen and her minions were gone, Rainbow Dash said, “I hope your plan isn’t to lull them into a false sense of security by tormenting me six or seven times. Not sure I can handle another one of those episodes. The taste changes whenever they do that. Limes and vanilla ice cream. Gross.” She spat, though the gel barely moved.

“Hopefully not much longer,” was all Sunset replied with. She made certain to keep herself awake for the next few hours, not wanting to miss the opportune moment to spring her trap. When Rarity came by again, Rainbow Dash was the one who attempted to talk to her, but it made no difference. “Just try to keep your head down for the next few days, okay Rarity?” Sunset had asked of her, and that made the white unicorn give a suspicious eye. But Rarity said nothing, and the two were alone once more.

Sunset hadn’t realized she had fallen asleep. When she awoke, Rainbow Dash was attempting to look down the hall. The sounds of clattering and tapping were coming, and when Sunset pressed an eye to look, she saw blue armor reflecting off the green lights. Sunset quickly tapped her cocoon twice to get Dash’s attention. She gave a wink and Rainbow Dash seemed to understand.

“Guard! Guard!” Rainbow Dash yelled, screaming at the top of her lungs.

The clattering came faster as the black creature appeared from the darkness. The dark blue helm reflected like a mirror. “What do you want, troublemaker?” he asked, slapping Dash’s cocoon with the brunt of his spear.

“She’s choking! Do something!” Rainbow pointed across to the other cocoon.

Sunset was kicking and flailing, clawing at her neck. “What the frass!?” the guard exclaimed, watching in horror. Sunset suddenly stopped, her eyes closed, and the last few bubbles escaped her throat and floated to the top of the cocoon.

“What are you waiting for!?” Rainbow Dash slammed her hooves against her cocoon. “Get her out of there!”

“I-I’ve got to go get Queen Chrysalis!” The guard threw down his spear and started to run.

“There’s no time!” Rainbow Dash said, causing the guard to skid to a stop. “You won’t make it to Chrysalis and back before she’s lost! You’ve got to do something! Be a hero!”

“I-I-I-I can’t j-just…”

“Do you really want to report back to Queen Chrysalis and tell her you could have saved her most important prisoner but instead chose not to!? Well, at least she’ll have a freshly emptied pod ready to go for you.”

Sunset couldn’t believe her ears. Rainbow Dash was a better actor than she could have hoped, and the guard was too daft to see it. She could hear the huffing and heavy breathing of the changeling as he walked up to her pod. A mechanical noise erupted from the inside and gel suddenly poured out onto the floor, with her included. The guard came close, lingering over her body, and said, “A-Alright, now I just have to-”

In an instant, Sunset opened her eyes, startling the guard more than she could have hoped for. With her magic, she lifted him into the air and spun him around, slamming him into her empty cocoon, his helmet flying off in the process. She quickly sealed the cocoon with the glass once more. Daze and confused, the changeling didn’t move or speak as gel filled the pod. “You did it!” Rainbow Dash cheered.

“We did it,” replied Sunset as she turned back to Rainbow Dash. Her eyes drifted to the tubes and knobs at the side of Dash’s pod, to which she fiddled with for a moment. Eventually, the shell opened and Rainbow Dash slid out with the containment gel. “You’ve got a real talent for acting, Dash. After we get your world back on track, maybe you should try joining a theater act.”

Pfft.” Rainbow Dash stretched her wings, sending the gel flying from her feathers. “If we set the world right, I’m trying out for the Wonderbolts like I should have in the first place. All those wasted opportunities because I was too worried I’d fail – well, I’d rather fail than be stuck for one more second in that pod.”

“If you don’t want to be cooped up any longer you need to do as I say. Can you do that?”

Rainbow Dash glanced Sunset over, a hesitant look upon her face. “I don’t have to go fight Queen Chrysalis all by myself, do I? ‘Cause as much as I’d like to wipe that smug smile off her stupid bug face, I’m not sure I can do it alone.”

Sunset shook her head. “No. I need you to do something that I know you won’t want to do. I need you to hide and not be caught a second time. No heroics or theatrics. Stay hidden, stay out of sight, and I’ll call upon you when I need you. Can you do that?”

“Okay,” replied Dash.

“Okay?” Sunset hadn’t expected Rainbow Dash to be so ready to cower. “Alright. Good. Good! Then I’ll find you when I need you.”

Rainbow Dash gave a nod and flew up to the rafters of the hallway, disappearing into the shadows. Sunset hoped she’d be able to find Rainbow Dash again when the time called. Her plan had worked, but in truth, there was no second part. She was out of her pod and that gave her a chance, but a chance to do what was the question on her mind. The hall was filled with cocoons in both directions, ponies trapped in almost every one she passed. As she came to the end of the hall she found an antechamber that was encircled with more pods, a table in the middle of the room held nothing but a cheap, gaudy centerpiece.

The changelings have everyone in Equestria, she remembered. And they’re all here in Canterlot. As she rounded across the large room of pods, heading for the only door, it suddenly opened to the light of the morning sun. Sunset threw herself behind a pod, hoping she hadn’t been seen. Creak creak creak, the sound rang out as the doors closed, darkening the room once more

“Rarity?” Sunset spoke up, seeing the white mare alone and with her cart of cleaning tools.

The creaking stopped, and Rarity stared at the freed unicorn with a wide-mouthed gape that only Pinkie Pie could rival.

Arc 2: Chapter 4

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Creak creak creak. Stop. Creak creak creak. Another stop. That’s how it had been for the last few hours. Sunset’s legs were growing cramped worse than they had been in the cocoon. Hidden behind the ragged multicolored curtain that covered Rarity’s cart, Sunset got to see more of Canterlot Castle. “I’ll let you out in my quarters,” Rarity had told her at the time, but it had been morning when they last spoke. Sunset had to remain as quiet as a mouse’s heart, never knowing where they were or when a changeling might be near. She would peek out from behind the curtain flaps every once in a while, the cloth was a dark purple, green, and blue, and only became slightly transparent against bright light. Thankfully, the changelings loved the dark, the castle was kept pitch black at all hours of the day. The only light that ever shone was the sun flowing through the windows within the outer halls.

Very rarely Rarity would reach in for a cleaning tool and bump up against Sunset. After the third time, Sunset had made sure to remain unstartled, having yelped the first two times. No one had been around to hear it, but Rarity batted her with a sponge regardless. There was nopony in the world who was taking more of a risk than Rarity; she had the most to lose. “Cleaning isn’t elaborately lavish, but it beats being in a pod,” she had said once while making her rounds.

Still, Rarity’s job required her to clean the entirety of Canterlot Castle’s cocoons. There were more not within the castle, meant to feed the lower ranked changelings, but Rarity had said those weren’t her concern. At one point during her routine, Rarity had to take her cleaning cart outside along the veranda of the castle. With no changelings in view, Sunset took a moment to feast her eyes on the city of Canterlot, wondering how much had changed.

The purple roofs were being painted to a shade of black matching a changeling’s carapace. The cream gold of the walls had been altered to a white so colorless it almost looked like the walls were made of chalk. This was the new hive, the new home to the changelings. Of course, the worst part was that some of the buildings had big, green additions stuck onto their side like some sort of wasp nest. The biggest green cocoon-like structure was on the side of one of the towers of the castle, almost spanning the length and matching the width.

It made her remember one of the many times she visited the human Applejack’s farm. Out there, wasps weren’t as common, but that was because they had a different type of wasp called mud daubers. Though they didn’t sting people, Sunset found them far more terrifying than regular wasps, as they kept paralyzed spiders within their flute-like nests as food for their larvae. They’re just like the changelings, except here we ponies are the spiders, she deduced, and a chill ran down her spine.

Of course, mud daubers didn’t steal an entire city and hoist their own flags upon the walls. Some flags were green with black stripes, others were black with the image of blue bug-like eyes in the center. Sunset had seen a new banner as well, a white banner with a tilted black crown in the middle. She did not know what that meant, but there were so few of them that she didn’t give it a second thought.

When they crossed back into the interior of the castle, Rarity took them down a passage with rows of windows. Changelings were stationed all within the hall but ignored Rarity and her creaking, squeaking cart. Sometimes she would hear them talk to one another, usually about feeding or sleeping. Once, she had heard a changeling say “Settlers”, but she hadn’t heard the context. They eventually passed the open doors of the throne room, giving Sunset a quick peek. She could see two pods, though neither faced the door.

Queen Chrysalis was not in the throne room. It was not until they passed into a hallway adjacent to their own that the queen was seen. Peeking through the curtain’s slit, Sunset could see a chain of ponies being led beside Chrysalis. “It was good of you to lead us straight to them. With these last ponies in pods, our control of Equestria is complete,” Queen Chrysalis said to a changeling next to her. “Go down to the feeding hall and pick out a pod as a nice reward, we’ll have someone bring it to your quarters.” The changeling thanked his queen, and Sunset recognized the voice. “Oh – but don’t pick the one with red and yellow hair – she’s special.”

It was then Sunset saw her, and her gasp would have been audible had she not covered her mouth. Zecora! The zebra had been taken captive. Sunset then put two and two together, realizing where she had heard the changeling’s voice. The outpost. The gatekeeper! We locked them in cages and their own pods, but they weren’t knocked out. They heard me! They heard me tell everypony to head to the Castle of the Two Sisters. It’s all my fault!

“Not so high and mighty now, are you Zecora?” Queen Chrysalis pushed the zebra to her side, giving a brutish laugh before turning away. Sunset wanted to tear out from the cart and throw Chrysalis in a pod just so she could see what it was like – and she almost did. Her anger pounded at her like a drum, aching to be set free. No. No! Calm. It was too soon to strike, Sunset knew, centering her thoughts. Her front hooves shook so much that she was forced to lay atop them.

And then the creaking stopped. Queen Chrysalis began walking down the hall toward Rarity, forcing the servile unicorn to stop, kneel, and wait. Queen Chrysalis didn’t even give Rarity a second look much less a first, passing by with a haughty step and a bug-like skittering. The queen exited the castle, vanishing against the setting sun.

Rarity returned to her duties, entering another hall with another extraordinary amount of pods, just like the one Sunset had been stuck in. Thankfully, it was the last hall for the day. As Rarity cleaned, Sunset sat and thought about the choices she had made and things she had said. With Zecora captured there’s no safe haven outside. Is there anything else I’ve said aloud besides the other worlds, the Elements of Harmony, and Zecora? What else have I blabbed about? There’s got to be something I’m missing. She could feel something missing, she could feel it in her gut. Chrysalis has my backpack and my journal. She must know all the names of my friends, right?

“Psst,” Sunset beckoned Rarity when she could see no changeling around. The pods Rarity cleaned were silent or had nopony in them, making it an opportune time to speak. The white unicorn quickly scampered to the cart and leaned her head in.

“What is it?” whispered Rarity, her sweaty brow was glistening in the green light.

“Start calling yourself a different name. Whenever someone asks, someone you don’t know, tell them something else.”

“O-Okay? Something else? I’ll try to remember that. Is there a reason for me to do so?”

Before Sunset could answer, the hallway suddenly erupted in a clatter of hooves. Rarity moseyed her cart to one side and returned to the washing of pods. A dozen changelings were examining each of the pods, carefully eyeing over each one. Queen Chrysalis was right behind them, growling and scowling at the same time. “Make sure they’re here,” Queen Chrysalis commanded with a shrillness in her voice that would make an ursa major cower. “I can’t believe you let those two escape.”

“I-I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” a changeling replied, following along behind the queen. It was the same changeling Sunset had locked in her pod after he had released her. “She tricked me, I swear it!”

“And you didn’t stop to think that you should get help? To come get me!?” Queen Chrysalis snapped, saliva flying from her mouth.

“I-I did, but the other one – the blue one – she convinced me to try and keep her alive!”

The queen turned and stomped, sending the changeling skittering. “Alive!? She’s worthless! We know who the six Element bearers are – we need them! YOU lost the blue one! I’ll have you working outpost duty north of The Crystal Empire for the next thirty years once we get it built!” Chrysalis then swung around, spotting Rarity who was bowing and waiting for them to pass. “You there, unicorn. What’s your name?”

Sunset almost chuckled. That’s some Pinkie level happenstance. Applejack would’ve blown her top.

“My name is-” Rarity hesitated, lifting her gaze to look at the queen. “C-Charity. Charity Belle,” she answered skittishly.

Queen Chrysalis snarled and turned away, following after the group of changelings as they searched the hall. “Find her! Find them all!” she yelled, “I want guards posted on these three here. Night and day. No breaks between shifts! She’ll come for them, I guarantee it!” Her words echoed down the hall even as the changelings and their queen disappeared into the darkness.

And as if nothing even happened, Rarity returned to cleaning the faces of the pods. When she continued down the hall, they found the three friends Sunset had brought with her. Applejack and Fluttershy sat across from each other on the bottom row while Pinkie Pie sat one above and three to the left of Fluttershy. True to her word, Chrysalis had placed two guards to watch over the three Elements. When Rarity attempted to clean the pods, the changelings motioned her away and she did as she was instructed.

It was another hour before Rarity was finished with her cleaning duty. By then the sun had set and the lights of Canterlot were popping up with green and grey hues. The castle remained as dark as it ever was. Even the steps up the castle to the other floors were barely lit, though it did not make things tougher for Rarity who seemed to be at ease in the routine. The only struggle she came across was levitating the cleaning cart up the steps – which was made more difficult by the weight of an extra pony. Luckily, the floor Rarity stayed on was meant for the servant ponies, where changelings were never seen.

There were several doors to several rooms along this corridor, but none of these were Rarity’s. The corridor eventually circled in on itself, along with an offshoot to another smaller hallway. Sunset recognized some of the names on these doors within the small passage. Things like ‘Butler’s pantry’, ‘Equipment room’, and ‘Janitorial Closet’. Rarity stopped at the latter and reached down underneath the curtain of her cart, grabbing a key in one of the compartments. For a moment, Sunset saw the tan walls and burgundy rug of the hall, seemingly unchanged from what the original inhabitants had put forth. With a mechanical snap, Rarity opened the door and rolled in her cart, shutting the door behind her.

After lighting a few candles, Rarity said, “Okay, you can come out.”

The room was drab for a Rarity, regardless of the world. A petite oak bed with grey polyester sheets, a half-metal end table with a missing drawer, a bookcase with nothing on it other than candles and cleaning supplies, and a patched up curtain covering a window. There were also hooks on the wall meant for cleaning supplies, but Sunset guessed that had to do more with what the room’s original purpose had been. Rarity’s bookcase sat at the foot of the bed with the window next to it. This wasn’t a room meant for sleeping or living, but that’s what the changelings had made it into.

Rarity moved the cart to be beside the door so it would be out of the way, though it took up a large portion of the room. There was so little space that Sunset was forced to sit on the bed. When she got closer to the window she noticed that it wasn’t actually meant to be a window. The wall had been carved into and then re-bricked. There was just a slight gap where moonlight could enter through. When Sunset peered through the hole, Rarity said, “They… They covered that with bricks after my first escape. I wasn’t really trying to escape – I just wanted to see the stars better. That’s when they started making me empty my pockets after breakfast.”

“Are you sure it’s alright for me to be here? Will the guards come looking in here?” Sunset asked after listening to Rarity’s rationalization.

“It should be alright – for now. Maybe just the night, though I’d imagine you’d want to do most of what you’re planning during the night. The Hive is less active during that time.”

Sunset raised a brow. “The Hive?”

“Oh!” Rarity covered her mouth and turned away embarrassed. “It-It’s been so long since I’ve talked to a pony. Canterlot. Canterlot is less active.”

“The Hive,” Sunset repeated. “There’s still so much I don’t know about this world. If you don’t mind, I’d like for you to tell me everything you know about Canterlot.” Sunset patted the bed, and Rarity sat down next to her. “But first, I’d like to thank you for helping me. I know you didn’t have to, but it was very generous.” She had hoped a spark would be caused by her words, but nothing happened.

Rarity shied away from the compliment, her cheeks glowing red. She didn’t look much like the Rarity from the last world – her hair was long, just as long as Fluttershy’s, though Rarity’s was tied in a strict ponytail to keep her bangs from her eyes. She bore no makeup, though Sunset assumed that was because the changelings didn’t let her have any. Besides the blue jumpsuit, she wore bright yellow rubber gloves – which sat on her cart now. The biggest change in looks were the bags beneath her sunken eyes, making her face look smaller, more drawn together. She looked as weary as Sunset felt.

“I should also tell you everything about me,” Sunset stated. “I’m from another world, another Equestria, where you and six others bear the Elements of Harmony and use them to defeat your enemies. Enemies like Chrysalis. The blue pegasus that was across from me is one – and the three pods that they didn’t let you clean are the others,” she shortened the explanation the best she could. “There’s still one other that I have yet to see.”

“I’m willing to help if Queen Chrysalis gets tossed in the dungeons. But-But I don’t wish to bet on a losing side.” Rarity pushed a hoof to her bottom lip, pressing it down. “If you catch my meaning.” Her eyes shifted, darting from the floor to Sunset and back again.

“Don’t worry, we won’t lose. You won’t have to do anything until we are ready to strike on Chrysalis. Rainbow Dash, that’s the blue pegasus, I’ve already instructed to hide until I call on her. You need to go about your duties until I can figure out how to draw out the Elements of Harmony,” Sunset replied, tapping her chin. “And I have to find this world’s Twilight Sparkle.”

“T-Twi-Twilight!? Twilight Sparkle?” Rarity pressed a hoof to her chest, her mouth fell open. “You can’t possibly hope to convince her!”

Sunset tilted her head. “You know Twilight? Is she here?”

Rarity wrapped her hooves around Sunset’s foreleg, and said, “She’s planning something. I’ve talked to her a few times – well, mostly just listened. She’s smart, clever, and she’s going to do something to break Queen Chrysalis. I’m not sure how, but I feel it whenever I see her. If she’s the sixth Element then you need to go to her and stop her, because what she’s doing will break any plans you come up with.” Rarity squirmed. “Twilight Sparkle is the head of egg management for the changelings.”

A weight was on Sunset’s chest, leaving her breathless and flush. She shook her head. “S-Sorry, I must have misunderstood. You said she’s the head of egg management? As in a nursery worker? For the changelings?” Why would Twilight help make more changelings?

“The big tower that’s part of the castle – the one with the largest of the cocoons – that’s the Hatchery. They’ve slowly ceased the need to create more changelings, and now that the war is finished and they’ve won, they won’t need to make more of themselves. They won’t need Twilight Sparkle. And she knows that. I can see it in her eyes every morning when we break our fast.”

The idea of hatching more changelings left a bad taste in Sunset’s mouth, or perhaps some gel was still lingering on her gums. Regardless, Sunset knew where she needed to go. If Twilight was truly hatching another plan to defeat the changelings, Sunset wanted in on it. It was more of a plan than she had this morning. “Is there a way I can meet with her alone? Where’s her room?”

Rarity thought about it for a moment. “In the morning I have to go down and join the other workers. We break our fast in silence, but Twilight is there and she always leaves first. We eat in the old barracks. The cleaning crew is allowed to wander the castle unguarded, and I think Twilight is too, but the barracks are guarded and there will be patrols now that you’ve escaped,” Rarity explained.

“Okay. In the morning, I’ll follow discreetly behind you. I should be able to sneak around and wait to follow Twilight to the Hatchery.” Sunset wrapped a foreleg around one of Rarity’s. “I promise you, if things go south they’ll never know you helped me. Just keep to yourself and don’t try to help me, alright?” This made the second pony she told she didn’t want help from, and she meant it just as much as the first. In the back of her mind, she knew they would help her. She wanted their help, to journey beside them just like they had done in the blizzardy north. Digging through snow and passing through alleyways. But this world was vastly different, and it called for different tactics.

“I appreciate it,” Rarity replied, her lips trembled around the words. “We should get some rest, dawn is fast approaching.” She crawled up to the headboard, pushing down the top layer of sheets. Sunset did the same, taking the spot closer to the window. When they both were snug beneath the covers, Rarity leaned to her end table and blew out the candle. They weren’t completely coated in darkness. A small amount of moonlight peered through the hole in the wall, past the gap in the curtains. It was a full moon, magnificent in its nightly glow.

Sunset stared at it for a while, unable to sleep. She had been sleeping for too long in the cocoon, and now she ached to stretch and move. The bed reminded her of the pod, it was small and cramped for one pony, let alone two. “If you don’t mind me asking,” Sunset whispered, “How’d you get a job as the changeling’s cleaning crew?”

The sheets pushed for a moment as Rarity rolled to face Sunset, her blue eyes barely visible in the darkness. “Well,” she said, breathing heavily on Sunset. She smelled of sweat and olives, and she was warm to the touch. “I was in Canterlot on a business trip, trying to make a name for myself. When the changelings took over, they captured me and started segregating us ponies by our races. The unicorns were offered special tasks. Cleaning, cooking, interpreting, and of course Twilight’s job. The earth ponies got the worst tasks – managing food for all the other ponies to eat, along with carpentry and whatnot. I’m not sure what the pegasi were for, there weren’t many here in Canterlot at the time of the wedding.”

“So you were just picked at random?”

“I volunteered as soon as I saw the cocoons. To be honest, I had never heard of changelings before that day. Their fangs and eyes scared me deeply, and I knew I didn’t want to be fed upon. I hope you don’t think of me as a coward.”

Sunset neighed. “I don’t. To be honest, I might have done the same thing had I been in your position. They’re pretty terrifying.” More terrifying than being brainwashed. “Do you know why Twilight was picked for her role?”

“I’d imagine it was because she’s Princess Celestia’s pupil, or was before the changelings came.” Rarity shifted under the cover, rolling back the other way. “You’ll have to ask her tomorrow if you get the chance.”

The Element of Magic was Princess Celestia’s student in this timeline, just like in my own, making this world closer to the original than the last. Yet still, Sunset could not piece together what had been the cause of so much change. Starlight Glimmer. Who are you and what have you done? She did not know the name, and that worried her more than if she had. Maybe she’s a student of Twilight’s who found a powerful spell? I can’t be the only person she’s advised on friendship, after all.

She stared at the ceiling for hours, wondering and attempting to process everything that had happened. She did not feel tired or sore anymore, nor did she feel anxious. The slumbering white unicorn next to her forced Sunset to remain quiet, even though she desperately wanted to voice her thoughts to somepony. I need my backpack back. I’ve got to start writing this stuff down. There was so much to remember, so much she knew she had already forgotten. The ponies she had met were the only things she would not forget, not be able to forget. Zecora, I’m so sorry. Before long, the darkness shifted and blurred as tears soaked her cheeks.

After she rolled her head against the pillow, drying her stained fur, she attempted to close her eyes to sleep. The sun came rolling into the sky not long after, cutting through the broken gap and patchwork curtain, preventing her from reaching dreamland. Sunset didn’t mind, though. She was glad to see the natural light. The white slumbering unicorn eventually stirred awake. When she saw Sunset, her eyes bulged, but then she remembered the night before. “G-Good morning,” Rarity greeted. Nothing was truly good in this world, but Sunset found pleasure in the words.

Sunset watched as Rarity prepared for the day. The blue jumpsuit hadn’t been washed, but Rarity put it on regardless. That led to a disgusting thought. If she doesn’t wash her clothes… then… Sunset was quick to vacate the bed after that. “I’ll be back for my cart as soon as breakfast is over. You won’t be here, will you?” Rarity asked once she was finished, which Sunset shook her head in response. “Alright then. Be sure to let me know when you have your Elements of Harmony, I would enjoy watching as you take down Queen Chrysalis.”

We will be taking down Chrysalis,” Sunset corrected. “If I need your help again, can I count on you?”

“I-I’m not so-” Rarity paused, her chin trembled beneath the frown of her lips. Her eyes were shadowed by the light of the sun, but the frown faltered and suddenly she was smiling. “Yes,” she said, breathing deep through her nose. “Yes, you can.”

Sunset knew she could, but it was nice to hear the words said aloud as well. Rarity left shortly after, leaving Sunset alone in the cramped room. She didn’t stay long. There were no sounds echoing in the hallway outside, giving her the courage to leave. She went down the way they had come, peering around every corner and checking her flank every few seconds. The castle’s passages were long and tedious to traverse, and the darkness left her struggling to remember where she had already gone. When she heard the sounds of metal on metal ringing from beyond a guarded doorway, she knew she had found the barracks. Scones were lit within the room, though Sunset dared not get close enough to peer inside, choosing to hide and wait.

From within the shadows, she studied the scowling changeling guards in their darkened green armor. Their eyes were bright regardless of where the light was coming from, a myriad of deep blue, much like any other changeling. Just as Rarity had said, the first pony who finished was a unicorn with purple fur. The changelings ignored the mare as she exited the barracks, and for a second Sunset saw the lavender star on the unicorn’s flank. That’s her, she recognized, though from the front the unicorn was unrecognizable to Sunset.

The purple unicorn turned and went down the hallway opposite from Sunset, trotting to the other end and up a flight of stairs. Sunset teleported to the other side, keeping her horn’s light hidden as best she could. She traipsed up the stony, grey steps, chasing after the shadow of the unicorn, always keeping a silent step behind. They walked and walked, all the way to the top. In her mind, Sunset was losing the layout of the castle. If I go back to that hall, I should be able to get to Rarity’s room, she figured, hoping she had not lost her way.

When she reached the final flight of stairs, she stepped up to a large doorway where she found it was unguarded. Beyond the doorway, the purple unicorn was already halfway down the enormous hall. Stain glass flooded the hall with a host of vibrant colors, though most of it was green, black, and white. When the purple unicorn reached the end of the hall and entered through a set of royal purple doors, Sunset knew it was safe to walk the hall.

She took her time, studying the glasswork as she passed. She knew exactly where this was. I’ve been here countless times. Greeting Princess Celestia, talking with her, studying magic with her. None of these windows show any of what I remember. One looked like the day of the wedding between Princess Cadance and Shining Armor, though it only had the two ponies as small figures, crying in the corner. The defeat of Princess Celestia was next, Queen Chrysalis standing over the white alicorn. Sunset crossed over many more, each detailing the war being had, until she came to the final one. There were still many other windows in front of her but they remained blank, meant to canvas the coming victories for the changelings.

The one she stopped at was still in the works. It held the changeling queen in all her might, a black crown much like the gold one Celestia wore sat atop her green, seaweed-like hair. Four places were depicted around her. Cloudsdale, Ponyville, The Crystal Empire, and a place Sunset did not recognize. Each had changelings working. Some tilling land, some building furniture, and some just smiling. “Why would Chrysalis need to fill Equestria with changelings when she has all the ponies here in Canterlot? Does she plan to act as though the changelings were the original inhabitants?” she whispered her thoughts, hoping that saying it aloud would give weight to the reason. It didn’t make sense to her, but nothing in this world made sense.

When she came to the purple door, Sunset was cautious to open it. Peering in, all she saw was green. Green everything. The floor, the walls, everything except for the dark grey metal stairs leading up to other levels of the Hatchery. The cocoon looked massive on the outside and was even larger up close. There were no guards on the main floor or up on the catwalks, and so Sunset let herself in, closing the doors as quietly as she could behind her.

The Hatchery was magnificent, she’d give the changelings that. Three levels with catwalks leading between them. The walls that weren’t directly attached to the stone of the castle were instead green hexagons that looked like honeycombs. Some of these honeycombs held white light while others were dark and empty. When Sunset came closer, she realized that the ones with light held tiny white ball-shaped webbings, and she remembered why this place was called The Hatchery. The hexagons that held light were few and far between, but the cocoon was massive enough to hold a thousand or two if need be. I guess if Chrysalis started losing her war she could have easily brought up new reinforcements, Sunset assumed, letting out a groan of disgust.

“Who goes there?” a voice echoed from above, shouting down at Sunset with a vitriol that rivaled Chrysalis’s. Before Sunset could answer or even draw her eyes to the voice, a pony appeared before her in a magical burst. “You should not be here,” the pony claimed, slamming their hooves on Sunset’s shoulders like a battering ram.

“T-Twilight?” Sunset squinted at the mare that stood in front of her. It was hard to believe it truly was Twilight. Her mane was gone, shaved to the roots of her skull, displaying a few magenta streaks between the darkened purple scalp. She wore a brown vest that looked to have a million different pockets, and dark green shoes pressed against her hooves so hard that her skin and fur rolled over the sides. Her tail wasn’t long, but compared to her head, it wasn’t short either. One of her front teeth was chipped, and her eyes were as sunken in as craters on the moon. By comparison, Twilight looked the worst of any pony Sunset had seen within this world.

“How do you know my name?” Twilight scowled. “Are you a changeling?” She didn’t give Sunset a chance to answer. A spell emitted from her horn, trapping Sunset in a bubble.

Sunset felt strangled for a moment, gasping for air. “S-Stop!” she yelled, but then she lit up like a full moon. The bubble popped, and Sunset fell to the ground gasping for air. “Wh-” she coughed and wheezed, trying to speak. “Wh-What was that for?” she spat her angry question.

“I had to make sure you weren’t a changeling in disguise. They try to trick me, to trick all of us.” Twilight’s jaw clenched as she looked around the room. “What are you doing here?” she asked, turning back to Sunset. “Are you here to cause mischief? I can’t let you. Not now. I’m close, so close. I need everything calm. They can’t look in here.”

“No, no.” Sunset pushed herself from the floor. “I was looking for you.” She glanced Twilight over once more, watching as the purple unicorn fiddled with her clothing and scratched at her forelegs. She’s unstable, Sunset concluded. I should pick my words carefully as to not alarm her. “I’m from another world,” she started to say, realizing immediately those were not the right words. Twilight gave a strange look but didn’t speak or mock her, so Sunset continued. “My world was altered by a pony going into the past. She changed it, spawning completely different worlds. This is one of those alternate universes.”

“Multiverse theory,” Twilight replied, a slight twitch in her eye as she spoke.

“Right.” Sunset had almost forgotten how smart Twilight was – regardless of the world. Human Twilight beat me during the Friendship Games, she remembered. At least I was right, having two Twilight’s would make homework a breeze. She shook her head and continued. “The world I come from is not at war with Chrysalis or her changelings. You and five others defeated her and other villains with the Elements of Harmony.” It was easier to claim the bearers had defeated Chrysalis, the semantics were only slowing her down.

Twilight backed away slowly, staring with her sunken eyes. “The Elements of Harmony?” She tilted her head back and forth for a moment, contemplating something and muttering to herself. “That could work,” she mumbled. “Come. Come now.” She teleported up to the catwalk on the third level, and Sunset quickly followed. Twilight led Sunset along the outer platform, examining the hexagons along the wall. She eventually stopped and turned to Sunset. “I’ll show you something, but you can never speak of it even if you’re caught. Do you understand?”

Sunset meekly nodded.

“I’m only showing you this because you sound crazy,” Twilight said. “Nopony believes a crazy pony,” she mumbled to herself, scowling all the while. Her horn lit up with magic and a hexagon opened. Sunset expected a baby changeling to be inside with soft white webbing and big blue eyes. She had been half right. Inside was a white sticky ball like the other hexagons, except Twilight opened this one.

A device the size of Twilight’s eye was pulled out, silver and slender. It was the shape of a cube, though it had holes on every side. Wires protruded from the top, and inside were even more wires and circuits. “I stripped copper from their weapons and armor, took rubber from my own shoes,” Twilight said as she opened one of her vest’s pockets, pulling out tweezers. She pulled back the latch at the top of the cube to get a better view of the inside. “It’s missing a power source. It runs on magic, but my magic isn’t strong enough.”

Is this what Rarity felt? “What’s it do?” Sunset inquired.

A giddy, menacing giggle leapt from Twilight. “It does what they’ve been doing to us for years. It drains their love,” replied Twilight, spittle flying as she spoke. “It takes it all, draining and leaving their bodies as magical-less husks. They’ll be powerless. It’ll hit all of the Hive, and when it does we’ll stomp on them like the bugs they are.” A clenched jaw formed the scariest smirk Sunset had ever seen.

Sunset pulled her head back as she grimaced internally. Either they’ve given up or they’ve got a desire to destroy. Fight or flight. The way Twilight acted was as disgusting as her plan, but Sunset couldn’t bring herself to speak her mind. Instead, she told Twilight of the ability to expel the changelings from Canterlot with the Elements of Harmony. That or turn them to stone. Even that’s better than making them turn into weak husks.

“The Elements of Harmony… yes. Yes! I can use that as a power source.” Twilight ignored Sunset’s idea, focusing on her own instead. “Do you know where I can find them? Tell me!” she demanded.

A weak sound left Sunset’s throat as she tried to stall for an answer, but she didn’t have to. The doors of the Hatchery suddenly burst open, the clattering of hooves and flapping wings spilled into the nursery. “Twilight! Twilight Sparkle!” the queen yelled, calling the purple unicorn’s name with a guttural growl.

Twilight turned as white as Celestia. “They can’t see you!” was all she said, and then Sunset found herself standing in a dark room.

It was a few inches larger than Rarity’s had been, all with the same commodities. There was no window in this room, however, and the bookcase had been torn to pieces. Of course, the most curious piece was not the decorations or furniture, but the small cube that had been teleported with her. She dared not light her horn to look at it for fear the shine would be seen through the cracks in the door. Instead, she cautiously peeked underneath the doorframe, her face to the floor as she attempted to see what might be seen.

The outside was shrouded in the same darkness that coated the rest of the castle, giving little help in determining where she was. This must be Twilight’s room, she assumed. Or somewhere Twilight will come to find me. I’ll just have to stay put to find out. If worse comes to worse, I can teleport myself back to Rarity’s room, or perhaps the Hatchery now that I’ve seen what it looks like. Her eyes then turned back to the slender cube of silver, wondering what should be done with it. I cannot let it be used. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anypony, not even the changelings. Not to mention that it might work on more than just the changelings. Sunset had no desire to have her magic completely drained.

She took the cube and tied a knot of hair around the inner wires, keeping it safely hidden in her mane. “At least Twilight will have to save me if she wants her gadget back,” she assumed as she crawled onto the bed. It was plush and comfy. She curled up into a ball, much like a dog, keeping her forelegs tucked beneath her chest. She had not felt tired the night before, but the running, stalking, and plotting had started to take its toll. Her eyes felt heavy, but even after she closed them she did not sleep. She would not let herself sleep. Keeping an ear open, she waited, hoping to be found by a mane-less purple unicorn in a brown vest.

Her assumption had been right. The hours that passed made her anxious, but hope kept her going. With a loud clunk, the lock turned and the knob wobbled. Sunset did not attempt to hide or feign away, knowing her fate would be sealed if it wasn’t Twilight on the other side.

At first, Sunset had been relieved to see the purple unicorn, but the Element of Magic was less so. Twilight slammed her hooves into Sunset’s chest, pushing her against the edge of the bed. Sparks of energy turned Sunset into a glowing cascade of light, covering the room in white. “So you are still you. Good, good.” Twilight released her grip and the light faded. “Always be suspicious. Even of me. Especially of me. Never know when they’ll send someone to trick you, or me, whichever.”

Sunset rubbed her chest, still aching from the pod that had been her prison. “R-Right,” she coughed. “What happened with Chrysalis? Why are you free?” That’s when Sunset noticed the bag atop Twilight’s back. “Hey!” she said, swiping at the vinyl. “That’s mine!”

Twilight recoiled from the swipe. “So you’re the escapee.” She shrugged her shoulder, freeing the strap of the backpack. “The queen has requested I look over some of your belongings, though it’s mostly just scraps of paper and writing tools. I’m not sure what she expects me to find – or why she asked me to do it.”

“She might be hoping that you can figure out the Elements of Harmony,” replied Sunset. “Your name is written all over my journal to Princess Twilight, after all” She unzipped the backpack, pouring the contents onto the floor. Her eyes quickly darted over the three books. One was a worn notebook with a bent binding, another was an extra unused notebook, and the third was The Superb Sorceress of Oys, a book recommended to her by Princess Twilight. Unfortunately, none of these three were the journal she had meant to replace. “Where is it!?” She examined each of the literary objects twice, then thrice.

Twilight levitated all the objects into the air, including the pens and pencils that had dribbled out as well. “The queen still has it. She said I might look it over soon. At first, I thought she meant to scold me or throw me in a pod, somehow having sensed your presence there. She knows that the Hatchery will soon go empty, and my work will be finished. Perhaps she plans to make me her pupil, just like how I had been to Princess Celestia all those years ago.” She shrugged.

“Well, she knows about the other worlds. Perhaps that’s true – perhaps she will use you to open the portal. She overheard a conversation of mine where I spoke of the world I came from and how you six can help me return to it,” answered Sunset. “She wants to harvest other worlds – and meet herself.” The thought was chilling. Two Chrysalis’s.

Twilight tossed the backpack onto her bed, her dull eyes examining the room. “Where is it?” she asked, prodding the bed. “Where’s my bomb?”

The word was as terrifying as it was serious. “I’ve got it,” Sunset answered, “but I can’t let you use it.”

Twilight’s lips curled, her eyes sharpened. “There’s no other option.” Her voice was stern but calm.

“Yes, there is.” Sunset stood firmly in front of Twilight, almost face to face and chest to chest due to their packed surroundings. “You want to use the Elements of Harmony as a source of energy – but they can be used for so much more, and in a kinder, gentler way. Turning them into vegetables for you to crush – that’s not right.”

“Kinder? Gentler? Not right!?” Twilight snapped, spit slapping Sunset’s muzzle. “You haven’t witnessed the horrors I have! The monsters that rule our sacred land, leaving it scarred and wrought with destruction. They don’t deserve mercy. They deserve to be torn from this world in the same way they tore us from ours!”

“The horrors you’ve seen?” repeated Sunset, thinking of the last world and the brainwashing helmets. “This world is awful, the changelings are awful, but it could be so much worse. An existence where you’re still you is better than losing yourself. You exist, Twilight.” She took Twilight by the shoulder. “You matter. What happens here matters. To you, to the others, and to me. You can’t fight fire with fire because you’ll be burning the whole world down in the process.”

Twilight slapped away Sunset’s hoof. “Don’t lecture me. I’ll have all the changelings be turned to stone before I let them escape punishment.”

There had been another that had turned to stone, then to crystal. Sunset had rejoiced on that day along with her friends. She was glad to see the king punished, but that had been one evil stallion amongst hundreds of mind controlled ponies. Turning the changelings to stone would be dooming the entire race. Could she live with that, regardless of how awful the changelings were? I was given a second chance after my power was taken away, she recalled. Her face saddened when she realized she was comparing herself to the changelings, again.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to try and find another way.”

Twilight scowled. She seemed to do that a lot in the short amount of time Sunset had known her. “I don’t care what world you come from or what you think you know,” Twilight replied, stepping in front of the door. “There is no better way. There’s only one way this can end, and that’s with the changelings’ defeat.”

What do I think I know? Sunset perplexed. What if this is the right way, the only way? “In my world, there was a better way. Your brother and Princess Cadance defeated the changelings with love, banishing the changelings from Equestria. They never returned. We can do the same thing with the Elements of Harmony!”

A sarcastic chuckle came from Twilight as if she found something amusing in Sunset’s words. “I was there, you know. I was at the wedding. My brother was tired and drained, but I believed Cadance’s words. I believed Queen Chrysalis truly was my foalsitter, not finding anything wrong with the way she acted. She was the perfect Cadance, every lie she told making me believe more and more that she truly was her. It wasn’t until retrospection that I saw the mistakes, the differences in attitude, the falsities, having ignored them all. My brother was happy, and that’s all that mattered to me.”

“In the last world I visited, Prin- …ahem, a stallion named Sunburst saw through Chrysalis’s disguise and helped defeat the changelings.”

“Who?” Twilight’s eyebrow raised, and then her eyes widened. “Wait, last world?” she repeated, glancing over Sunset with disbelief written all over her face. “How many other worlds have you visited?”

“Well,” Sunset said ambiguously, “Quite a few, technically.” She paused for a moment to witness Twilight’s wide-mouthed expression. “This world and the last world aren’t supposed to exist, but they do thanks to a pony named Starlight Glimmer. Then there’s my world, where Equestria is fine. And then the human world, where I actually live.”

Twilight fidgeted with one of her many pockets, eventually taking out a notepad and pencil. “I-I see. So multiverse theory isn’t just a theory anymore. You’re living proof.”

The idea of millions or billions of other universes scared Sunset more than she was willing to admit, especially since she had already been to the two worst worlds possible. “I suppose I am. Though the human world I live in isn’t a tear from some point in the past, it’s a completely different reality.” She scratched her cheek.

“I don’t know what this human is that you speak of, but it sounds angsty.” Twilight shook her head. “My point still stands, if you’re here then you can take us to a different world. Instead of fighting the changelings, we could just leave.”

Fight or flight. “The portal I came through doesn’t affect anyone but me. I clung to Princess Twilight’s table while those around it didn’t even feel a hint of wind.”

“P-Princess Twilight?” repeated Twilight. “You’ve said that before. I-Is that… who I think it is?”

It was becoming easier to tell her friends apart, but the names were still the same. This Twilight looked vastly different, she could have been called Twilight Snorkel and Sunset wouldn’t have batted an eye. But to this Twilight, she was still the only Twilight Sparkle. “That’s right. Princess Twilight Sparkle, with wings and everything. I’d bow to you, but I don’t bow to anyone in a vest that ugly.”

Twilight looked hurt for a moment. “What’s wrong with my vest?” she said defensively, but the sneer on Sunset’s face made her do a double take. “W-Well, I suppose for a princess…”

“You’ve spoken to Rarity, right? I’m surprised she let you dress like that. The changelings will pay for having worn down this world’s best fashionista.”

“So that’s how you knew where to find me.”

“That’s right,” replied Sunset. “And now I need to know where to find the Elements of Harmony. I was trying to find out from Celestia before – well, I don’t think I’m going to get a second chance.”

“Princess Celestia? You saw her? Spoke to her? How is she?” Twilight squealed her questions, almost sounding like a child asking about a celebrity.

The green pod that Celestia had been placed in was a lot like the one Sunset escaped from, and the aching pains that came with it could only be worse for the large alicorn. “She needs our help, but the only way to help her is to defeat Chrysalis. In my world, Celestia had left the Elements in the Castle of the Two Sisters. In the last world, she used them to defeat Nightmare Moon and then returned them to the Tree of Harmony.”

“And in this world… she kept them, didn’t she? She told me of her battle with Discord, I kept a record of almost everything she told me.”

“That’s right.”

Twilight rubbed her mane-less head, brushing against the magenta streak that remained. “Hmm. If I had to make a guess, then they’d be in her room. Kept in a box somewhere. But-” There was more that Twilight was going to say, but she hesitated, and Sunset noticed.

“Please, you’ve got to tell me everything. We need the Elements of Harmony.”

Twilight backed away. “I’ll help you as long as you give me back my changeling bomb. I won’t use it, but if things go south for this plan of yours, I need to know there’s a backup.”

That seemed like a fair trade to Sunset. The tiny silver cube slipped from the entanglement of Sunset’s mane as she unwrapped the knot she had tied around it. “In the mane? Clever idea,” Twilight noted, brushing over the coolness of her scalp once more.

“It’s just something I picked up from a friend.” Sunset tried to picture the Pinkie Pie of this world, covered in green paint, but all she could envision was the human Pinkie. Her bright smile, the little curl of her bangs, and her enthusiastic attitude. She wondered what her friends were doing. Had they gone looking for her? Stumbled into the mirror and found their pony counterparts? Were they on their own world saving adventure?

Sunset handed over the cube, and with a quick throttle of magic, the cube collapsed to become flat. Twilight then shoved the remains inside one of her many pockets. “Alright. As I said, the Elements of Harmony are most likely in Princess Celestia’s room. Except it’s not her room anymore,” Twilight said, “It’s Chrysalis’s.”

Arc 2: Chapter 5

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The hall was dimly lit much like the rest of the castle. Two chatting changelings walked by, giving a simple hello as they passed. Sunset didn’t answer them, keeping her eyes straight ahead. She was heading where Twilight had told her to go, though the directions she was given were useless in the dark. This was the side of the castle she had rarely been to, close to the dungeons of Canterlot. The entire castle was a dungeon now, holding as much of Equestria as it could. Still, the old dungeons held those deemed by Chrysalis to be the worst playthings, ponies truly despised by the changeling queen.

After waddling around in the darkness, she eventually came across the stone staircase that led down to the dungeons. The stairs were lit so bright that it almost blinded Sunset when she opened the solid door. The dark grey stone did not absorb the light like it should have, making the trip down all too happy for Sunset’s liking. Every step moistened the bottom of her hooves like morning dew on grass, almost causing her to slip at one point before she caught herself on the stone wall. She dared not use magic to teleport down, Twilight had given her specific instructions not to do so.

When she reached the bottom she found a changeling guard sitting in a chair, rocking with his back legs kicked up on a cracked ash desk. His face was covered in crumbs from the loaf of bread he was snacking on, a magazine in his other hoof. When he finally noticed Sunset, he brushed away the crumbs and said, “What? What’s the matter?” She did not answer, she could not answer; not yet anyway. “It’s the food ain’t it? What, you never seen us eat anything other than love?” He kicked his legs back to the floor, rolling the chair forward and standing on all four legs. “Not speaking, huh? You best be glad my shifts over, I don’t need your frass.” With the loaf in his mouth, he trotted past Sunset, glaring as he went up the steps.

The rest of the dungeon was now silent aside for the snaps of flames. Torches lined every wall, and yet it was still cold down here in the depths. “They keep the torches lit so that the ponies inside can see where they are,” Twilight had explained. “It’s a grim reminder that they’re not even worth feeding upon.” Sunset wondered who she might find down the hall of cells. From the entry to the dungeons, cells lined against one wall, while the other held the scones for torches. The only thing anypony would see from the inside was grey stone and shadows. Bleak, was the first word that came to her mind.

She didn’t have time to waste thinking about the ponies or the cells, though. A quick rummage through the cracked desk revealed a set of keys. Some were grey like the stone around her while a couple others were gold and silver. The magazine that the changeling had been reading still sat on the desk, a happy family with a white picket fence on the cover. “New homes, new life,” the tagline read, along with, “Visit for a week, bring the kids – Vanhoover.” There was no more Vanhoover, not in the metaphysical sense. Equestria was quiet, there was no more life in the world other than what had escaped the changelings.

Sunset took the magazine along with the keys, propping her head into view of the first cell. The big black iron bars held strong, caging in the emptiness. The second cell was occupied, a stallion of white fur and yellow hair. He shuddered at the view of Sunset, holding his forelegs to cover his face. Sunset tossed the magazine at him and he winced. When she said nothing, he lowered his guard for a moment, examining the cover. Afterwards, he began to read and she almost let herself smile, but moved on before she allowed herself the gratification. She wasn’t here to release any of the prisoners, not yet at least. She needed the Elements of Harmony, and being here was only step one. There was much she needed to do before time was up.

Most of the other cells remained empty, with a few containing ponies she did not recognize. She stopped at one that held a grey shadow cowering against a corner. Sunset almost spoke to her, calling to her, wanting to speak her name. “Zecora,” she needed to say it, to speak it, but couldn’t. She did not know who was listening, and if a changeling had heard her voice then the ruse would be over. No matter how much she wanted to apologize, or to let the zebra know everything was going to be alright, she couldn’t do it. She doesn’t deserve this. It’s all my fault she’s even here. The cell was larger than the rooms Rarity and Twilight had for their sleeping quarters, but the cell’s bed looked to be made of metal with cardboard sheets. A bucket in the opposite corner of Zecora was the only other thing in the cell. Soon, Zecora. Soon the world will be free.

The rest of the dungeon held ponies who had been here far longer as per the size of their manes or beards. They looked healthy for the most part, the loaf of bread had been proof enough that the changelings did not let them starve. No, these were ponies who wronged Chrysalis. They’ll survive until her contempt for them is gone. But it wasn’t until the final three cells that Sunset realized the ponies locked here weren’t just for Chrysalis’s wrath. The first she came across held a yellow pegasus with pink mane, the second held an earth pony with blonde hair, and the third was the pink on pink party mare. Sunset stopped at Applejack’s cell, her mouth gaping like a fish.

Applejack lifted her golden head up from her horrid bed, glancing at the shadow that loomed behind the black iron bars. “What are you looking at?” she said in a gruff voice.

Sunset didn’t know how to respond, not that she had the option to do so. The three in the pods are a misdirection; a trap. They’re changelings, she realized. These are the real Elements. With the three of the bearers here, that made her job easier and harder. When she stopped at Pinkie Pie’s cell, the party mare tossed her cardboard at the bars, but they were so light that they didn’t even reach. Pinkie reached for the bucket next, but Sunset quickly slipped away before she could throw it. Pinkie’s cell was the last cell, but it was not the last thing at the end of the dungeon’s long hall. A door with bars of metal like the cells sat locked with another door of the same type on the other side.

The keys jingled, echoing loudly down the hall like a symphony of bells. She attempted each key, banging on the metal of the open-barred door. She could see what was beyond the second door, and that was where she needed to be. Had she been able to use magic she would not even have needed the keys. “No magic,” Twilight had told her. “It’ll ruin everything.” She had gone over the reasoning twice just to make sure Sunset understood. Still, Sunset had a hard time believing Twilight’s magical prowess, especially after the pessimistic Twilight of the last world. She’s a princess for a reason.

The gold key clicked the lock and she pushed open the heavy door, leaving it open as she went to the next. Another set of searching and she found it was the silver key that unlocked this second door. The room she had worked so hard to get to was much smaller than she expected, no larger than three cells put together. Regardless, this was the armory just as Twilight had said. A vast plethora of helmets, spears, shields, and armor, all coated in black and dark blue, just like the changelings preferred. Some were dark green and some were brown, but they all resembled the same style.

Sunset donned a helmet with the darkest shading possible, matching it with a plate of chest armor. It was too large for her body, rubbing against her spine like an axe on a grinder. Of course, she preferred it to the pain of being trapped in a pod. With the armor on, she took a spear as well. The black tip was shaped like an arrowhead, though Sunset noted the resemblance to a changeling’s horn. It was a weapon that she didn’t plan to use other than to complete the ensemble. With her outfit organized, the first piece of the plan was finished.

After locking the door with the silver key, she tossed it as hard as she could through the bars and into the pile of helmets, losing it with a clang and a ding. She did the same with the golden key, though it only hit the wall at the far end. They could probably just teleport in and get it, but I doubt they’re smart enough, Sunset assumed. Pinkie had seen her toss the golden key, her pink muzzle protruding from between the black iron bars. She didn’t say anything as Sunset passed, only staring with a bewildered expression. I’ll be back for you three, she promised herself, shoving the rest of the keys into a slot on the underside of her armor.

They didn’t say anything, none of the ponies did. It wasn’t until she reached the first few cells before someone beckoned her. “Why did you give me this… this filth?” the white stallion complained, reaching out with the magazine and almost clonking Sunset upside the head. “Vanhoover is nothing as spectacular as foretold by lies within this. It claims it has a better beach than Fillydelphia and more attractions than Las Pegasus! The gall of such lies! I want the writer brought to the dungeons and placed in the cell next to mine just so I may berate him or her!” He clapped his hooves, leaving the magazine on the stone floor outside his cell.

“Grunt, making friends with the prisoners?” a voice echoed within the prison, startling Sunset so much that her helmet slinked forward, covering her eyes. When she pushed the lip up, she came face to face with a changeling her size. His big blue eyes were softer than the others, and his left fang was chipped. “You picked the wrong pony to befriend. Blueblood got placed here day one for calling the Queen ugly.” The changeling let out a laugh so violent that it shook Sunset’s helmet forward again. “Can you imagine the look on the queen’s face when this greasy-haired buffoon said that? Wish I had been there, that’s for sure!”

A nervous smile was Sunset’s response. “Greasy!?” the white stallion spat like venom. “My hair is the exact opposite of greasy! It’s filled with luxurious fragrances that make it smooth to the very touch and wavy without any wind!” Brushing a blue hoof amongst his locks, the stallion’s hair fell flat against his forehead.

While the changeling jibbed the prisoner, Sunset attempted to skulk against the wall and head for the exit. Her efforts were in vain as the changeling called out, “Leaving already? I’ve never seen you down here before.” Sunset stopped in her tracks, turning to face the changeling as he crossed to meet her. “Do something to make the upstairs mad? Or maybe you’re one of the newbies? I had heard the queen went up to the Hatchery, but I had assumed it was to look for those escaped prisoners.” He shrugged. “If you’re replacing Raptorial then all the better. I’m tired of his crumbs on the chair.”

When he turned his back to her she became quick as a gnat, taking her spear and armor up the stony stairs and fleeing into the darkness. She trotted as fast as her legs would take her, reaching another hall that linked to the throne room. It was not the throne she was looking for, but it helped in figuring out where she was. She continued till she was outside. There were easier ways to get to where she was going, but that meant she would have to speak. With no one around, she let out a cough. It sounded the same as always. Not yet, she decided.

A gorgeous full moon has lit up the world around her as she stepped out of the castle. It had been so long since she had breathed the fresh air of the world without being trapped behind a curtain. The coolness filled her lungs better than it ever had, tingling her hooves to the point that she felt lightheaded. As she trotted in the grass of the courtyard, passing changelings who ignored her, she found herself in the castle gardens. The full moon lit her path past a fountain that no longer flowed. It held stagnant water, not entirely clean to drink, but she needed the taste. She drank enough to keep a camel full for a year, and when the ripples of the water stopped she almost scared herself. The big blue eyes, disfigured horn, and pointy fangs, it was a startling sight for a pony who had never been a changeling.

“It’ll only last a few hours, possibly not longer than until the sun breaks,” Twilight had told her after casting the spell, transforming her looks to that of a changeling. “The voice will come later, it’ll sound like them. And you can’t cast magic, the disguise will vanish if you do. I learned that the hard way, but nobody was around to see it, thankfully.” It had been a surprise when Twilight had told her she could transform herself into a changeling. “Working in the Hatchery teaches you all about how a changeling works.” When Sunset asked if she could have learned it, Twilight had laughed and said, “Sure, if you’re willing to spend a year training first. Or in my case, years.”

Sunset wasn’t the unicorn she had been when she was younger, and her time in the human world had made her rusty, but she certainly wasn’t a novice either. Still, arguing with Twilight would have wasted time, Sunset knew. That’s time I can use to get the Elements of Harmony, she thought as she wiped her mouth dry with the back of her black hoof. Though the light of the moon aided in her navigation, she still found herself lost within the foliage. The maze had been completely rotted in some parts, however, the rotting bushes and leaves seemed to be an artistic choice. A statue of Chrysalis had been carved between the decayed foliage, thorny vines sprouting around the base of the sculpture. Hopefully, the real Chrysalis will soon be the same, she begrudged, wanting to lift the stone with her magic and shatter the queen’s smug face.

The gardens led out onto a brick way. To the right sat one of the many entrances to the castle, to the left stood an open gate tied to the steel fence that surrounded the perimeter. Her destination was the castle, but two changelings watched over the entrance. I’m just a patrolling guard heading back into the castle. Nothing more. Twilight had said the armor was meant to show authority, and that she could walk freely if she wore it. This would be the test of those words. As she drew closer to the castle, both changelings stared at her with disinterested looks. She thought she was in the clear as she reached up for the thick gold handle, but the other side suddenly pushed open. Five changelings all in armor poured out into the night’s air, shoving Sunset back onto the brick pathway. Before she could figure out what was happening another seven came rushing out, dragging her hooves away from the castle and towards the open gate. Her spear flew from her grasp, landing in the grass near the fence.

The changelings were chanting, chattering, and hooting. They shoved Sunset down the steps away from the castle, her helmet falling forward, covering her eyes. She tilted her head back to see, only to have a changeling yell in her ear, “Gettin’ some grub from the grubs! It’s Settlers night!” His breath caused her eyes to water.

Sunset didn’t know what he had meant, and she certainly didn’t like hearing about it. The spell Twilight performed wouldn’t hold forever, and the moon was ripe in the sky. Dawn would be upon her faster than she would have liked, but she had no choice but to wade into the city and hope to break away. The streets of Canterlot were silent aside from the crowd of guards. The changelings needed sleep too, and food.

Much of the city had changed. Cobblestone streets had gone into disrepair, walls were cracked and scorched, and the shop signs had been altered to fit the changeling vernacular. One read “feeding center”, which some of the guards left off to visit. When she tried to break away and ‘follow’, she was stopped and forced into a two story building. Her muzzle wrinkled at the violent smell, striking against her nose with the odor of old socks kept in a gym bag over summer break. It hurt to breathe, though the changelings that had brought her paid it no mind. They pushed her onto a bench between other changelings who had been sitting when they entered. Neither of the changelings she sat next to paid her any mind; they were too focused on the boards in front of them.

Settlers!” the guards she had entered with screamed as they sat down at their own tables. A board was suddenly tossed in front of her and a changeling sat down on the opposing side. The smirk he gave was terrifying. “New brood? Never seen you here,” the changeling said, his eyes just like any other changeling. His fangs weren’t protruded like others, though, and his horn was more chipped than she had seen from most of his kind. “Hope you know how to play, otherwise you just sat down at the wrong table.”

There were many mysteries Sunset didn’t understand of this world. Why was she here? Why had it changed so much? What had Princess Twilight and this Starlight Glimmer done to change so much? But a mystery was solved on this night. The mystery of what the changelings did for fun. “Since you’re new, I get to be the Settlers!” the opposing changeling said to her, placing down his black circles on the white squares. “Settlers!” a rowdy group yelled from the corner.

Sunset couldn’t figure out why they called the game Settlers. The black pieces were meant to represent changelings, while the red pieces were the enemy. It’s just checkers, though. The rules seem the same. When she realized what the game truly was, she knew she would win. But if I stay and play I’ll be forced to shorten my time disguised, she bemused as the opposing changeling moved his first piece.

A game was a game, and the changelings weren’t the smartest species in Equestria. Sunset assumed that was because of Chrysalis’s awful leadership, but regardless, she crushed the opposing changeling with a defense that forced him to attack, striking up three princesses before she even lost a piece. When the opposing changeling finally crowned his first piece, shouting “Queen me”, Sunset cleared another four of his pieces. Princesses and queens were the same, they could move in any direction, though she never remembered there being any mention of a queen in the original game. It’d be alicorn me, instead of princess or queen. Though princess and alicorn are basically the same.

It was at that moment she realized that the changelings were basically a demented race of alicorns. She almost let her guard down to feel sorry for them, but the changeling took one of her pieces. It was his mistake though, as she defeated her opponent swiftly and strongly. The changeling wretched back, groaning in his defeat and slamming his head against the table. “Settlers win!” the changelings yelled, and then Sunset understood. Both the changelings and ponies are settlers. One settled the land, another settled the settlers. It was oddly poetic, and disgusting. The changeling opponent begged for a rematch, but Sunset shook her head and stood up.

But the changelings wouldn’t let her leave that easily. The dark room full of Settlers players had seen her play, and any winner got the chance to feed on a prized pony, but only after they’d won against the champ. If I had just lost I would’ve gotten to leave. She made it her prerogative to lose against the supposed champ, regardless of who it was. Unfortunately, the changelings really weren’t letting her leave that easily. The champ was so bad that he lost three pieces within the first six moves. I didn’t even know you could do that.

It was her mistake, however. Once Sunset claimed her decisive and overwhelming victory, the spoils of war came flooding in. Supple ponies who were critically acclaimed were the prizes. A choice between a mare unicorn, a stallion unicorn, and a pegasus mare. Sunset wanted none, but if she did not choose she knew she would be under suspicion. With an indecisive pick, she chose the female unicorn who stepped forward dutifully. The dark bags beneath her deep green eyes told Sunset that this was a far worse job than Rarity’s. Still, when the unicorn closed her eyes, Sunset did her best to fake feeding.

She quickly shut her mouth and licked her lips, rubbing her stomach as if she had drained a gallon’s worth of love. The unicorn noticed, however, and so did the two remaining prizes. But the witless changelings remained unobservant, and that mattered far more than what the ponies thought. When one of the prizes went to speak, Sunset circled and snapped her blue, flimsy tail at them, heading for the door. That’s when the unobservant changelings became observant. One without armor blocked her path, then the shadows moved and another had stood next to him.

“I’ve never seen you before, though it’s rare you castle snobs come down to the terrace,” the unarmored changeling said, standing a few inches taller than Sunset. “There’s no way you could beat our champ Thorax that easily. What do you do, play Settlers all day? Meanwhile, we do all the real work!”

Sunset didn’t know what to say, but she didn’t have to. “You want to stand next to a door all day like some unicorn, be my guest and take my place!” A changeling with armor same as Sunset’s bulled over the room with his voice. Suddenly, four changelings clad in dark armor stood next to her, glaring at the unarmored. “We don’t even get to leave the city like you nincompoops!”

“Nincompoops!? Why I oughta!” lisped one of the unarmored changelings.

Before she realized what was going on, Sunset stood in the middle of an all-out brawl. She quickly ducked beneath one of the tables, crawling atop scattered checker board pieces. The table she was under was soon hoisted into the air, flying against a wall. The prizes had disappeared and helmets were flying off. When she saw her moment, Sunset rushed out of the establishment, though the fighting had poured out onto the street as well. The shutters on one of the windows exploded, an armored changeling appearing in the shrapnel of splinters and dust.

Non-combatants began to appear in the windows of their own homes, turning on lights and watching the commotion. The changelings are at each other’s throats, Sunset saw. How is it that this army took over Equestria? She didn’t stay to wonder for long. The street to the castle was swarming with castle guards and citizens who were joining the scrap. I’ll have to go around. Taking the long way, she passed by shops that had been repurposed where changelings and ponies alike were drawn to the sounds of fighting. The ponies stopped to stare as she passed, but the changelings ignored their own.

In the moonlight, with the newly donned colors of Canterlot, the world looked black and white. Even the color of the ponies were starting to fade to grey. She could not focus on where she was heading, but then she realized how much Canterlot had changed. The direction she had been heading was toward the main gate of the castle, but she had somehow ended up further down into the city. She found herself peering off the edge, the ground miles below. The trees looked black as they swayed in unison, the waterfalls seemed like melted silver, and even the fires of the outposts below were eerily white. When she looked up she saw how far the moon had sunk, and knew her time was running out. There were a few clouds that had not been there previously, but they did not interrupt the moonlit night.

She had no other choice but to head straight for the castle, regardless of where the roads went. There was a wooden cart that sat next to a dumpy shop which she used to clamber onto a roof. Trotting across the blackened shingles, she made her way from roof to roof. Each jump she made she thought would be her last, and several times she had to stop to fix her helmet. The closer she got to the castle the more she could see the fighting erupting beneath her. In alleys, they fought, on the streets, and sometimes she would see them float in the air, entangled in each other’s grasp. I wish this disguise would let me fly, she bemused before continuing.

The gates had been closed on all sides, though it didn’t really matter since it only prevented ponies like her from entering. Of course, there was no pony like Sunset Shimmer. When she reached the final building, she found that the raised ground that held Canterlot Castle was level with her roof. The fence that surrounded the castle had bars just far enough apart to jump through. And so she did, tumbling into the grass on the other side. Her helmet had jostled loose, but she was quick to find it.

The brawl that she started had consumed the city. But the castle grounds had seen none of it.

As she came back to the maze within the gardens, she checked the fountain once more, verifying she still looked like a changeling. After that, she made her way back to the door of the castle where she found that the guards had disappeared. They had gone to the gate to stare out upon the destruction, which was no fur off her nose. Releasing all the pods within the castle would be an interesting idea, she noted, but would prove fruitless without the Elements of Harmony.

In the darkness of the castle, everything was quiet. Sunset could hear her own breathing, the distant commotion of the town had been silenced by the thick marble walls. There were no changelings blocking her path to any of the halls or rooms. The kitchen was empty, the throne room desolate. It was the perfect time to free Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance. She wanted to help them, to save them, but she knew she couldn’t. Not if she wanted the Elements of Harmony. But Celestia might be able to tell me where the Elements are, she disagreed with herself. It wasn’t until a blip of light caught her eye that she settled her mind. Her disguise would be forfeit soon enough if Twilight was right.

It took her no time to reach the hall of Celestia’s chambers. It had changed, though only to accommodate the changeling queen’s tastes. At the end of this hall was a door guarded by two changelings who stared at her with malcontent. When she came closer, the one on the right commanded, “State your business.”

Sweat beat down Sunset’s brow as she gulped back her anxiety. “There’s fighting within the city,” she stated, her voice crackly, but was deep and stilted like a changeling’s. It was hard to speak with fangs. When the two guards did not seem to care about the fighting, she added, “Apparently there’s a, uh, blue pegasus that they caught – and they uh, wanted to claim the prize for themselves.”

The two guards looked at each other, and then the left said, “Well, I don’t want to be the one to tell the majesty.” He tapped the other guard with the brunt of his spear. “You do it.”

“Me!?” the right guard scoffed and shook his head so hard his helmet turned. “No way! Let the grub do it. They’re the one that came all this way.” The left guard seemed to be excited by that prospect, and both opened the set of doors for Sunset.

She gave a sigh of relief as the doors closed behind her. Even when one of the changelings yelled “Chump”, she did not mind. She stood in an antechamber, black banners on the walls, with a set of bright purple doors at the end. The crack between them showed little, and so Sunset opened one with a cautious tug.

With room enough to fit her head, she glanced a quick glimpse of the room. It was a small living space, Princess Celestia preferred practicality over luxury, and Queen Chrysalis didn’t seem to mind. It did not look quite like what Sunset remembered. The fireplace near the doors had always been there but the bed sat opposite the doors, and all the walls held carved shelves meant to store books or knickknacks that the princess adored. There was also a skylight above, which was letting in the first rays of color from the morning sun.

But there were no books. Instead, chests and boxes lined the walls beneath the shelves with all sorts of random objects. Even the fireplace held toys and half-broken junk upon its hearth. It’s going to take a while to sort through this place, Sunset presumed. As she stepped closer to the bed, beneath the light that poured from the window above, she saw something stir beneath the pink sheets. Queen Chrysalis. The green locks of hair covered the changeling queen’s face, her head pressed firmly against a feathered pillow. It was odd to see such an evil creature look so peaceful in her slumber. Sunset almost felt bad, but that’s when she saw another pair of eyes staring at her.

Behind the headboard and between a wooden chest sat a dark green pod. Inside, a pair of blue hollow eyes stared from beyond the glass. White fur held the skinny stallion, his cheek bones as prominent as his ribs, and his hair looked so matted that it matched Chrysalis’s flat bangs. Had it not been for the blue mane that accompanied the white fur, Sunset would have never been able to tell that it was Shining Armor who sat detained within the cocoon.

Her heart sunk for him, but he did not seem to want her pity. His eyes darted from staring at her to staring at the bed. He did it several times in rapid succession, and that’s when Sunset realized she was supposed to follow his gaze.

When she turned her head, she almost leapt from her disguise. Two green eyes sat poking from the sheet, staring up at her with a full set of fangs just waiting to pounce.

Arc 2: Chapter 6

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“Another one dared to try and steal my husband’s love?” Queen Chrysalis held the pillow to her chin, her hooves wrapped so tightly around it that the case poked through the holes in her legs. “You’re the fourth one this month,” she complained. “What will be your excuse, I wonder? Will you attempt to lie and say you were coming to tell me a message? Or perhaps you simply got lost trying to find the bathroom? That was a dreadful excuse, but it did make me laugh.” Her teeth were a pure white, the fangs sharper than needles. A bit of saliva ran down from her gums, dripping and coating the pillow cover.

“What’s it going to be, my little mimic?” Queen Chrysalis’s black hoof brushed Sunset’s head, playing gently with her ear. “A clever joke might save you.” She rubbed Sunset’s cheek, trailing down to her neck and chin. “If not, I’ll send you across the Celestial Sea to be eaten by dragons.” Her lips kissed Sunset’s forehead just below her horn.

At any moment Sunset’s disguise could be gone, and that would mean her life as well. She had never been so scared, never shaken so much. I shake when I’m anxious, not scared, she reminded herself, attempting to get her fear under control. Like the night I stole Twilight’s crown. Gosh, I was shaking so badly that night. My heart was pounding in my chest so quickly I thought I was going to pass out in front of the school’s statue. She hadn’t, though. She returned to Equestria and took the crown, only to lose it on reentry to the human world. All my hard work had gone down the tube all because I couldn’t stop shaking – but that was for excitement. Stealing that crown had been one of my greatest accomplishments. I still can’t believe I spent so long on that replica just so it could go to waste.

Sunset felt foolish for reliving her poor choices. But here she was, correcting this world’s poor choices, and it needed her more than ever. Queen Chrysalis is terrifying up close, she thought, staring into the big green eyes of the changeling queen. They weren’t like other changelings. The seaweed-like hair parting to both sides of her head. Sunset had never seen Queen Chrysalis this up close, much like King Sombra from the previous world. Though even that was after his crystalline imprisonment. Sombra certainly looked like royalty – Chrysalis was the opposite. The small, barely noticeable crown atop the changeling queen’s head looked more like it was a fungus growth than regalia.

“Another mute?” Chrysalis belittled. “I can’t believe it. I’ll be glad when the last grubs are ready for integration. The only nursery worker that seems to teach you grunts how to behave is that blasted Twilight Sparkle.” She snarled, smacking the helmet right off Sunset’s head. “Where’d you even get this set of armor? That’s for a higher rank than you’ll ever be.” She circled Sunset, glaring with her deep green eyes. “Who dared you? Sell them out and I may be generous enough to allow you to stay within the city.”

Generous. That was a word that made Sunset smile. It was quickly wiped away by the hissing sounds coming from the queen who wanted an answer, but Sunset had nothing to say. I really should take that improvisation class. I’ll have to ask Miss Cheerilee if she can get me in, or maybe Principle Luna.

“My queen!” Neither the queen nor Sunset had noticed the second changeling who had entered. They spared Sunset from thinking up a faulty answer for the changeling queen. “The whole city is rioting! We think the escapees are causing changelings and ponies alike to revolt!”

“What!? That little red and yellow haired weasel! I’ll seal her in the dungeons with her little friends when I find her! I’ll drain her of all the love she’s ever been given!” The green eyes burned within their sockets as the queen stormed off, forgetting the disguised Sunset’s punishment almost immediately.

The second changeling remained, however, and closed the doors to the queen’s room. “I figured you’d somehow muck things up,” the changeling said. “Just knew. Have to know. Have to plan for everything.”

From the way the changeling spoke it was clear to Sunset who it was, though the voice was startling, to say the least. Twilight had years upon years to practice her disguise, and it sounded more than convincing to Sunset. “Twilight! Thanks for the help. You have no idea the night I’ve been through.”

“No, I’ve heard.” The disguised Twilight stepped forward, her big blue eyes glistening in the light. “But now’s not the time to discuss your night’s rampage. Find the Elements of Harmony and let’s be done here,” she commanded.

Sunset nodded in agreement, but it would be no easy task. The amount of junk the queen of changelings had collected was astronomical. While Twilight searched one side, Sunset searched the other. She started by the fireplace, staring up at the hearth of broken toys. A log pony leaned against the marble with its muzzle broken in half and paint chipped. She examined each of the toys, though she was looking past them too – hoping for a secret button of Celestia’s. There had been nothing on top, and the bottom was proving fruitless too.

The night’s flames had gone out, leaving only ash behind. A log glowed dark orange when she prodded it with a fire poker, but it quickly darkened to brown and black. She played with the ashes for a moment, wondering if she could find a hidden latch or lever beneath. Her eyes turned up to the inside of the chimney as well. Rubbing her black hoof against the inner stone, she found a bronze bar with a tilted handle. She pulled on it and a metallic noise clicked for a moment. Probably just the flume, she thought. If she starts another fire she’ll get a room full of smoke. A petty victory is still a victory. Her lips tightened to a smile of amusement before moving on from the fireplace.

Without their magic, the two were forced to remove the clutter by hoof from the containers. One at a time, Sunset dragged out toys, comics, knick-knacks, utensils, and ornaments from the first chest. A large wooden spoon was taped to the back of a dragon, while a pony decked in armor had hooks for hooves. It was almost amusing to see what the changeling queen liked, but the terrible fangs came prodding back into her memory. When she looked at Twilight to see how she was fairing, the disguised unicorn sat staring at a stuffed grey toy with curly brown hair. Her eyes stared so intently that Sunset did not want to interrupt at first, but after finishing with her chest she found Twilight had not moved an inch, she felt the need to speak up. “Twilight,” she said flatly.

As if snapping awake, the disguised changeling jolted and turned. “What’s up?” she asked, tossing the stuffed grey toy back into the box.

“You spaced out there for a moment. Everything all right?”

“Yeah. Though I don’t even know what I’m looking for. I’ve never seen the Elements of Harmony.” Twilight returned to pulling things out from her side of the room, the floor between them was becoming cluttered.

Sunset reached into the next box. “They’re shaped in six cutie marks. Yours is a crown.” She paused her search. Her memory flashed, picturing the indentation within the white chalky sphere she found at the Castle of the Two Sisters. “Actually,” she said, “I’m not sure what they look like in this world. There should be six of them, and they’re gemstones. If you find something like that then let me have a look.”

“I’ve found plenty of shiny rocks, Sunset,” Twilight replied with a slightly perturbed voice. “I need sizes. Length, width, height. What colors are they? How heavy? Literally any description other than six gemstones.”

“If they’re Celestia’s they’ll be kept somewhere nice.” Sunset slammed her chest closed. “They may not even be in any of these, maybe Chrysalis hasn’t found them yet. Where would Celestia put them to hide them from being found?” Her eyes squinted, staring up at the carved shelving, the fireplace, the bed, and the big green pod that sat near the head of the bed.

Twilight was already staring at her brother’s cocoon, her expression blank. As Sunset came closer, Twilight started to speak, “You know me in your world, right? Have you ever met my brother? Have I ever talked about him?”

“In my world, I haven’t had the pleasure. In the human world I only just met you.” I hope the girls are taking care of Twilight. I wonder how they’re fairing without me. “I did meet him in the last world.” He was a lot of help. “You have a good brother, Twilight.”

“And I have a good sister,” the imprisoned Shining Armor said from behind the glass. Sunset had not expected the stallion to be able to talk or hear, and it startled her so much she landed on her rump. Shining Armor laughed at that.

“Do you know where the Elements of Harmony are?” Twilight asked, ignoring Sunset.

“I don’t.”

“Useless.”

Lifting her butt off the ground, Sunset found she had sat on the pony with hooks for hooves. Luckily it was not hook-side up, she thought, patting her cutie mark. When she turned back to the sibling’s conversation, Twilight was looking around nonchalantly as if she was ignoring the cocoon. “Shouldn’t we get him out of there? He looks half-starved.”

The stallion chuckled. It was rough and coarse, but it was a chuckle. “That’s my fault, actually. When I snapped from Chrysalis’s control, I was offered a place by her side. More as a pet than a husband, assistant, or prince, though. It was my mistake, I refused to eat, and so she threw me in a pod.” He moved and his shoulder popped. “It’s cramped, but at least I don’t have to see the atrocities happening in Canterlot.”

“Coward,” Twilight belittled.

“Twilight! How can you say that?” Sunset argued, “He’s your brother.”

“A cowardly brother.”

Before Sunset could respond, Shining Armor said, “She’s right. I am a coward.” He shrugged as if it were no big deal. There was no passion in his dull eyes. “I’d rather be known as a coward than the stallion who married Queen Chrysalis and allowed her to seize the realm.”

That irked Sunset more than it should have, but she couldn’t think of a response, so she let it go. She started to think of Rarity and how she had spoken of her volunteered job, and then of the prizes won at the Settlers game. Her eyes drifted over the clutter that filled the chests and boxes, wondering if these were prizes taken by the changeling queen, as well. “There’s nothing in these containers,” Twilight said, snapping Sunset from her thoughts.

“Check the shelves,” was all Sunset muttered before she climbed one of the boxes. Dust had settled in on shelving. A spider’s web sat in the back of the top shelf, reminding Sunset of Principal Cinch’s bloodshot eyes as she accused CHS of cheating. I’ll take overbearing principals over an army of changelings any day of the week. She wondered what a changeling would look like within the human world. Spike’s a dog instead of a dragon. Maybe the changelings are bugs. She pictured the changelings within a mud dauber’s flute cocoon, sending a shiver down her spine. Gross.

Her eyes peered to the right of the shelving, a calendar sitting pinned to the wall. Every day was marked off except for the last five days of the month. “Is this calendar correct?” she asked the room as she calculated the time difference from human days to pony days in her head. As she stretched to remove the calendar from the wall, she lost her footing and stumbled forward, landing on the bed. She smacked into the wall, knocking a set of books down from the shelf which clinked off her dark blue armor.

“No. It’s two days behind,” Twilight replied as she turned to the bed. “You’re clumsy.”

Sunset whinnied. No, the last Twilight was clumsy. She rubbed her horn and studied the covers of the books. “Hey, my journal!” she shouted, and Twilight was suddenly there to cover her mouth.

“Be quiet!” Twilight loudly whispered. “We don’t need the guards stumbling in and catching us. And we definitely don’t need to waste time. Your disguise is about to be up.”

Wrestling with her journal, Sunset shoved it beneath her armor, trapping it between the shoulders of the plate. She couldn’t pull her neck back anymore, but the book wasn’t going anywhere and that was more important. Small victories. “Help me lift the mattress up,” Sunset requested as she jumped down. Twilight obliged, and they both lifted their own corners.

Underneath sat a rectangular box with a glass face, a purple cushion on the inside held six indentations. “That’s it!” Sunset said, resting the bed’s corner on her head, pulling the box out with one hoof. They let the bed fall into place, and Sunset undid the golden latch, opening the empty case. “There’s nothing here,” she said, examining the four empty corners in great depth. “No, no, no, no, no! I can’t believe this!”

“It’s not the end of the world, Sunset. Now we can go with my backup plan,” Twilight said.

Tossing the case against the wall, the glass shattered into one of the open chests. “Your backup plan is to violently destroy the changelings,” Sunset huffed, staring at where she had thrown the case. “No. Your plan isn’t even a plan. It’s just destruction. Now we go with my backup plan.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yours? What could you possibly have in store?” She gave a loud snort. “Look, I was fine with helping you search for the Elements of Harmony since they could be used for my device, but if you’re going to-”

“We’re going to break out Princess Celestia,” interrupted Sunset.

That took Twilight aback. There was no way around it, Sunset knew. Freeing the only pony who might know where the Elements of Harmony were was the final and only option. “P-Princess Celestia?” Twilight repeated in a meek voice, possibly the quietest she had ever been. “You’re actually suggesting we go to the throne room and break out Princess Celestia!?”

“Absolutely. She’ll know what to do or where to find the Elements.” And if she doesn’t, at least she’ll be free. Princess Celestia had been the moral support during the previous world’s war with King Sombra. Manehattan relied on Celestia to combat the evil king, otherwise, all of that Equestria would have ended up like this world. Filled with despair. With the princess released, they’d be unstoppable. At least, that’s what Sunset hoped.

“I’m with you then,” Twilight said, hesitantly. “What kind of pupil would I be if I didn’t try to save my teacher? I used to be a pretty good student, though that may be a false memory. It’s been so long.”

“We should bring him with us.” Sunset pointed to Shining Armor’s pod. The stallion shifted but made no move to agree or disagree.

Twilight frowned at that. “He’s my brother and I love him, but he’d slow us down.” Twilight turned to the door and trotted away, not even allowing a discussion to be had.

I turned my back on a lot of ponies when I ended my apprenticeship under Princess Celestia. I know I should wish that I hadn’t given up, but I wouldn’t have learned so much about friendship if I hadn’t. She did not know if Twilight was making the right choice to leave her brother behind, but it was her brother, not Sunset’s. The stallion turned to face the back of the pod, no longer acknowledging Sunset’s presence. Her eyes sprung to the skylight in the hopes she would find clarity, but all she saw was the light of the morning sun being dimmed by a grey overcast that had begun to form. She sighed, knowing her conscience wouldn’t allow her peace. It was Twilight’s own words that echoed in her mind. “We matter,” Twilight shouted, though it was not this world’s Twilight.

She left the stallion in a pool of goo, the shell on the bed. She didn’t bother to stay to see the look in his eyes or hear a response, instead, galloping after Twilight with the intent on reaching the throne room. She did not expect Twilight to be standing at the doorway where the two guards had called Sunset a chump. The guards had vanished, leaving Chrysalis’s room unguarded. “Did you do it?” Twilight asked as Sunset came closer.

Sunset breathed in for a moment as she thought of her answer. “Yes,” she finally said. “I had to.”

Twilight wasn’t angry. A simple smirk appeared on her black lips, but her head turned away before Sunset could see it entirely. “Y’know, I often came to visit him. Hoping I could break him out and he could help me save the realm. I had told him starving himself was stupid, but he hadn’t listened. He gave up.” She turned back to Sunset, a sullen frown briefly touching her lips before dissipating. “I’ll never give up. The Elements of Harmony, Princess Celestia, my device. I’ll find a way to defeat the changelings even if it takes me my entire life.”

“Maybe that’s why we get along,” Sunset noted. “I’ve run into you in these several worlds, and you’re all basically the same when it comes to the desire to help.” She thought about the human Twilight and her desire to learn about magic. “Even when making mistakes, you’re eager to want to set things right. I wish I had that sort of willpower. It’s ambitious.” Sunset voiced her thoughts, “I’m actually pretty envious of you.”

“Y-You envy me?” Twilight responded, covering her mouth. “But you’re the one trying to save ponykind without destroying the changelings. That’s more admirable. Far more.”

Shrugging, Sunset trotted ahead, leaving Twilight to stew on her own thoughts. They made their way down to the gloomy underbelly of the castle once more, expecting to find changelings guarding the dark castle. The front hall’s windows were mostly blocked by the gardens, and the overcast was getting worse, but there were several changelings flying and fighting each other within the sky. “I’ve never seen changelings fight one another. Whatever you did must have set off a chain reaction. What exactly did you do?”

Sunset smiled. “I unsettled them.”

“Sounds ominous,” Twilight replied.

There were no guards at the throne room’s doors. The golden entrance remained closed, though the gold was less impressive in the dim light. They quickly pushed open one side, pushing it closed again once they were in. The throne room was deftly quiet, the darkness surrounded them like water. “We won’t have much time to waste, we’ll need to cut them down and teleport as quickly as possible,” Sunset stated. “I’ll cut them down myself, I think my disguise is about to wear-” A sudden glow sparked, blue flames bursting around her fur. Her red and yellow mane flowed to her neck as the holes in her hooves returned to a burnt orange coloring. “-off,” she finished saying.

“That’s fine with me. I suppose I can always claim that I was attempting to catch you,” Twilight snidely said.

Though she had transformed, Sunset still bore the armor she had taken from the storage room. The helmet was left back in the queen’s room, but she had worn the helm for so long that it pushed her mane down with a sweaty thickness. Luckily, her armor still fit her, and her journal dug heavily into her back, scratching against her fur. She ignored the pain. “Keep a look out,” she said as she went to work, though it wasn’t like Twilight could see more than a yard in front of them.

“I hope she actually knows where the Elements of Harmony are. I’d hate for this to be a folly pursuit, other than rescuing her,” Twilight noted, but Sunset ignored her.

The room was a bit chilly at first but was thrown off by Sunset’s magical beam. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for something to go wrong. Light suddenly filled the room, blinding Sunset so much that she was forced to stop. “What the hay?” she said, rubbing her eyes. When she reopened them, she saw a flood of armored changelings pouring into the throne room like a wave of tar. A dark, throaty laugh turned her focus from the guards to the throne where the evil queen sat cradled in the golden chair’s arms.

“Looking for these?” Queen Chrysalis continued her laughter as she levitated six gemstones into the air. One was cyan, another red. One was orange and another pink. A fifth was as purple as Rarity’s mane, but the sixth was different. The sixth was lavender, an oddly shaped six-pointed star that resembled Twilight’s cutie mark. Sunset had not expected the Elements of Harmony to be so different any more than she had expected Chrysalis to have them. “My, my. What wonderful little trinkets. I had never thought to find such beauties within Celestia’s room, but thankfully a journal told me all about them. It was easy to put the puzzle together, and it took little effort to find them.”

“Good thing too, now hand them over,” Sunset demanded with a stomp of her hoof.

“You dare give me orders!?” Chrysalis slumped forward, smashing against the throne with her own angry stomp. “I am the queen! You don’t have the right to tell me what to do! Guards! Seize her!” She then stepped one hoof off the throne, and said, “As for you, Twilight Sparkle. Yes, I know exactly who you are. I could smell your filthy odor when you came to help this buffoon out of her mistake.”

The disguised changeling smiled. “And now the game is over, it seems. Your fall will be sweet, my queen.” With the quickness of a fleeing rabbit, a blast of magic shot from blue flames aimed at the changeling queen. But the queen was quick too, rivaling the blast with her own and catching it, creating a shockwave of smoke. Twilight had returned to her normal form, though her shaven head and slimmer tail reflected what the changeling disguise had been. “Sunset, you get the guards, I’ll crush Chrysalis.”

There was no time to argue. The flood had broken loose but Sunset was quick to stop it. She froze each of the changelings within her magical grasp. They squirmed and fought, but none got loose. More seemed to try and squeeze by, only to be caught within her magic. The wall of changelings grew so much that none of the wall that held the golden doors could be seen past their writhing black bodies. I held back the brainwashed ponies in The Crystal Empire. I helped bring down the pillar Sombra rode. I broke free the caged ponies within one of your outposts. “I was Celestia’s student, not some timid unicorn. The years of training I had, the failures I faced. They made me who I am!” Her horn sparked, crackling with electricity. “Now let me show you what comes from having friends!”

Her magic felt like a strong wind, tunneling the changeling armada through the golden door, into the hallway, and out of the castle. The windows erupted as the hundreds of changelings were forced outside, shattering both the glass and Chrysalis's forces in one fell swoop. Sunset could feel the burden in her neck, her veins popping as she held strong. She did not let up her magic until the golden doors slammed shut, keeping the changelings from reentering.

When all was said and done, she dropped to her knees, taking swift breaths to calm herself. She had not been the only wind blowing, though. A beam of magic flew against the pillars near the door. Sunset turned to see the unicorn dancing with the changeling, exchanging magical blasts and strikes of their horns. They never took their eyes off each other. It was fighting like Sunset had never seen. Twilight almost looked happy throwing spell after spell at the queen. When Chrysalis attempted to grab at Twilight’s non-existent mane, Twilight did the same, except she was able to pull the queen down to the ground.

The queen countered, slamming them both to the ground instead. Sunset wasn’t going to let the purple unicorn have all the fun, however. As if she were at a rodeo, Sunset slammed down on Chrysalis’s back and grabbed the disfigured horn, holding on as the changeling queen bucked like a bronco. Sunset’s grip wasn’t sturdy enough, causing her to slip off and sail into the throne. Her little bull ride attempt had given enough time for Twilight to get up and strike the queen’s blind spot. The purple unicorn swung around to the opposing side, knocking the changeling queen over and blocking the path to the throne. “Get up and get out of here!” Twilight yelled to Sunset, refusing to take her eyes off the queen.

Chrysalis staggered for a moment, but her rage came forth. Spit clung to her fangs as she let out a guttural scream. “I’ll dine on your love for a century, Twilight Sparkle!” she yelled, gritting her teeth as she shot a blast of magic, only to be matched by Twilight. The monstrous queen used the smoke as a ploy, charging through and pinning her horn against Twilight’s, trapping the unicorn in a hornlock. The back and forth of their heads gave Sunset time to rise from the golden seat.

When she sat up, seeing the changeling and unicorn’s skirmish, she immediately wanted to help. But Twilight yelled, “Take the Elements!” stopping Sunset in her tracks. At her hooves, the six gemstones sat scattered along the steps. Sunset quickly gathered them up with her magic. The cyan stone reflected against her fur, turning turquoise, then teal, and back to cyan. When she looked up, the doors of the throne room had reopened and the flood of black had returned. “Take them and go,” she heard Twilight yell, though her eyes would not look away from the changelings.

The purple unicorn slammed her sternum into the changeling queen, knocking her into the other changelings. That’s when Sunset finally looked to Twilight. She stared down at the purple unicorn, the six Elements floating within her peripherals. For a moment, an audacious idea crossed her mind, rooting itself within the forefront of her thoughts. Celestia used the Elements of Harmony to take down Nightmare Moon, to take down Discord. Perhaps I… She hesitated, still staring down at her friend.

The flood of black grew larger, aiming for the purple unicorn, a green streaked monster at the head. Sunset knew she could do it, or at least try. The war would end, the world would be saved, and everything would be right again.

But the purple, mane-less unicorn with yellow teeth, an ugly brown vest, and horrible manners seemed to differ from Sunset’s thinking. As Sunset focused on the Elements of Harmony, thinking of her friends, her eyes glaring down at the sea of changelings, everything suddenly went dark.

Sunset panicked and tripped, falling face forward onto a strip of vinyl. She felt herself let go of the Elements of Harmony and one smacked against the back of her head. With a quick push, she stood and lit her horn.

Everything became clear to her as she stood in Twilight’s room.

Arc 2: Chapter 7

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The Elements of Harmony flickered and gleamed against the light of Sunset’s horn. They reflected the colors of the room, turning the bright gems into darker shades. Fight or flight, the words echoed within Sunset’s mind, realizing what had happened. She couldn’t help but smile, though it wasn’t a happy smile. Every bone in her body wanted to twitch and force her to teleport back to the throne room, back to save Twilight, Celestia, and Cadance – to save Equestria. As she stared over the Elements of Harmony, she knew she couldn’t. If she did, she’d be sacrificing everything on the off chance that she could even use the Elements or take down Chrysalis with her raw power. It wasn’t all bad, however. She had gotten her way, to say the least. The Elements wouldn’t be used to power Twilight’s awful device.

That’s when she noticed that her backpack sat on the bed, a parchment between the straps and vinyl. It wasn’t sealed, so Sunset unraveled and read what was written. Somehow Twilight had known what would happen. Paranoia planned every action and reaction, Sunset guessed, believing that if everything had turned out right, Twilight would have been back to destroy this letter. As she read over the words, a few tears stained the parchment, turning a few letters into black blobs. It wasn’t until the final two sentences that Sunset realized why Twilight had teleported only her from the throne room and not the both of them.

The last two sentences read: “Shining Armor knows about my changeling device, he’ll know where to find it, and once he hears of my capture he’ll go get it. Since we’re friends I won’t release him, as I know he’ll try to activate it, which leaves you to decide whether or not to use it.”

Sunset almost bit her tongue as she struggled with her mistake. “What happens here matters to us!” echoed within her mind, causing her to shake. She drew in air between her teeth, allowing her fears to leave her body, but still, she shook. Her legs wobbled, her shoulders tensed, and her neck couldn’t keep still. If that thing, that device, goes off, the changelings will be completely destroyed, and possibly us too. The changelings didn’t wipe out ponykind, they captured it – enslaved it, all at Chrysalis’s command. No matter how horrible Chrysalis is, the changelings aren’t her. I won’t allow Shining Armor to activate it, I don’t want to be the cause of so much destruction.

There had been enough devastation in this world and the last. In the previous world, there had been a happy ending, the sole evil king was overthrown and The Crystal Empire was freed. Sunset wanted another happy ending, for this world and for her. Of course, this world’s only hope was staring back at her in the dimly lit room, a natural glow upon their shiny surfaces. Something deep within Sunset had stirred in the throne room, giving her a desire to try and use them. But here and now, she remembered Twilight’s crown the day she had stolen it. I’ve learned a lot about friendship, but not enough to be the one to use the Elements of Harmony, she decided, only the bearers have that right. She did not think she would turn into a raging she-demon, quite the opposite, actually. The friendship map sent me here to these horrid timelines just like it sends Princess Twilight and her friends to solve friendship problems all over Equestria, without the Elements. The words help time flashed in her mind’s eye, and she nodded to herself.

There wasn’t much time to dillydally, guards would most likely be sent to Twilight’s room to investigate. Sunset no longer had her helmet, but the armor remained. It had hindered her ever so slightly in the fight, so she went to work removing the cuirass that encased her torso. The dungeon keys and her journal flopped onto the floor, to which she quickly picked up with her magic. As she shoved the keys into her backpack, she flipped through the pages of her journal. As happenstance would have it, she stopped on one entry from Princess Twilight that she found inspiring. “I was looking through a journal me and my friends used to write in for help on your topic, and I think I found some great advice from my lovable assistant. Spike wrote: ‘But today I learned how important it is to be honest with your friends when they're doing something that you don't think is right. A true friend knows that you're speaking up because you care about them.’ I hope that helps. Rainbow Dash can be pretty stubborn, but she’s a good friend.”

Sunset couldn’t remember why she had asked for advice, turning back a page to see the previous entry. The problem she was stuck on seemed so trivial to Sunset that she wondered if it had really been her that wrote it. I’ve come a long way, she thought happily. Thanks, Twilight. She closed her journal, shoving it in-between her notebooks. The last things she placed inside her bag were the Elements of Harmony, rattling cozy on top of the literature. With her straps secure, she tossed the backpack over her shoulders and gave a short sigh. The bed looks comfy, she thought, having been out all night. She knew sleep would be in short supply until the changeling queen and her army were brought to justice.

A twist and a turn and she was out the door. Justice would have to wait, and so would freeing her friends. Finding Shining Armor was more important.

Making her way through the maze of halls, she eventually found herself at the janitorial closet, more accurately known as Rarity’s quarters. She should still be working, Sunset mused but tried the knob anyway. When she found it was locked she decided to move on, but only reached a few feet before a delicate voice called to her. “Sunset?” A slight crack in Rarity’s door revealed a big blue eye, wide and staring. “Come, come quickly,” Rarity begged.

“What are you doing here? I figured you’d be in the middle of cleaning,” Sunset said after entering, making sure to keep her voice low.

“They gave everyone the day off,” Rarity replied. “Which actually means Queen Chrysalis has no desire to see any of the pony workers. Something’s got them riled up.” There were beads of sweat on Rarity’s upper lip and forehead. “I overheard some of the other workers say they’ll be forcing mandatory inspections and nightly guard checks. Canterlot is in chaos! And the thunderous roar I heard earlier – Sunset, what is going on!?”

“A lot of things,” Sunset vaguely answered. “But I have a more important issue to attend to. Twilight Sparkle’s brother, Shining Armor, he’s going to destroy the changelings. I’ve got to find him and stop him before he acquires Twilight’s device.”

“Destroy the changelings?” repeated Rarity. “Isn’t that what we want?”

Sunset shook her head. “Not like this. With the Elements of Harmony, we can root them out of Equestria. What Shining Armor wants is to root them out of existence.”

The look Rarity gave was brief, but it was there, a bit of vengeance flashing beneath her blue eyes. “If we get them out of Equestria, they’d just come back, wouldn’t they?” Her question was a dance around the words, but Sunset knew it was there. “Why not destroy them?” was really what Rarity was asking.

“They might – but not if the Elements of Harmony are there to strike them down. Destroying an entire species – it’s too much. The changelings could have done that to us ponies, but didn’t, choosing to keep you in captivity – even if it is for their own selfish needs.” That didn’t seem to convince Rarity, it was barely a reason Sunset had convinced herself of. She had no love for changelings any more than Rarity, but every time she thought of wiping out the changelings, she could only see her own self as a demon in their place. “If we use Twilight’s device, what’s stopping the next awful villain to come and rule Equestria? What’s stopping it from getting to the point where a device is created to combat the ponies who live here?” That’s a better argument, Sunset thought, proudly remembering her time spent as a filly in Canterlot’s debate club.

It had done the trick, striking a bit of fear in Rarity. “A-Alright, I understand. I’d rather not fight a second Chrysalis,” she said, “What do you need from me?”

Shifting her shoulders, Sunset lowered her backpack. “I’m not sure if Shining Armor would need all the Elements of Harmony to activate the device or just one, but just in case it is all six, I’m giving you yours.” Levitating the purple gem out, Rarity gasped and grinned, marveling at the beauty of the perfect purple stone.

“That sheen!” commented Rarity, taking the gemstone in both hooves. “It’s simply divine!”

Sunset had hoped that the stone would transform, but nothing happened. “Keep it on you at all times. Once I find and stop Shining Armor I’m going to gather the others, find Twilight, and we’ll bring down the changelings.”

Rarity nodded, a bright smile still on her face. As Sunset went to leave, Rarity stopped her, asking, “What if the Elements of Harmony destroy the changelings?”

It wasn’t a thought that had ever crossed Sunset’s mind. “I’m sorry?”

“What if the Elements of Harmony wipe out the changelings as a whole – like this device of Twilight’s,” Rarity explained further. “I mean, you’ve convinced me, but what if these, uhm, gemstones, what if they somehow link with the other bearers wishes? What if our desires take on the form of what you’re trying to stop?”

Sunset didn’t have an answer. All her time with her human friends had not prepared her for such a choice. All roads lead back to evil, she thought and found herself staring at the ground, thinking about when she became a demon. I shouldn’t compare myself to the changelings, said another thought, but then she asked herself, why not? Her eyes drifted up to Rarity who seemed entranced with the stone she had been given. “If I turned evil – would you do everything in your power to turn me back to good?” she asked her fellow unicorn.

Rarity fumbled with her Element, almost dropping it on the floor. “W-What kind of question is that?” she said, half flustered half confused. “Of course. I-I-I mean.” She stumbled with her words, thinking of what she might say. “We’re friends, and friends help each other,” she eventually answered, though her expression held hesitant until Sunset smiled, to which Rarity smiled back out of relief. “You’re not actually planning on turning evil, a-are you?”

“No,” answered Sunset. What am I trying to do? Build a treaty between the two species? Ponies and changelings can’t get along, can they? Even if they could, am I the right pony to try and bridge that gap? There were too many questions flowing through Sunset’s head and not enough answers. “I wish I had someone who went through all this to bounce my questions off of. The only one who could do that disappeared when I entered this world.” Sunset slumped against the door, her backpack pressing hard into her back. Shrugging it off again, she realized she did have someone with all the answers. “My journal!”

Flipping open a few pages, she glanced over the words of yesteryear, wondering where she might find an answer. “What a pretty journal,” Rarity commented, glancing from the other side. “I’d often attempt to get my sister to write in a journal, but I never really had the desire myself.”

“This journal is the whole reason I’m here. It allows me to communicate with Princess Twilight Sparkle – the Twilight of my world. Not that it does much good since she’s probably still trapped in these strange worlds like I am. Still, it holds the knowledge of past questions and answers, and sometimes that’s more important.” She flipped through a few more, seeing how heavily filled the pages were. “Funnily enough, it’s the reason I came back to Equestria, and now I have to hope it’ll help find an answer.”

“I’d be pretty sore with it if it brought me here,” replied Rarity, sneering at the book as if it were a living thing.

“It’s been pretty helpful. It’s how I know Shining Armor and Twilight’s plan to use her device to turn the changeling’s into loveless husks is wrong. I know it in my heart that it’s wrong.” She paused, glancing up at the white mare. “But… But what if you’re right? What if the Elements of Harmony do find it necessary to, well, completely remove the changelings from existence? They banished Nightmare Moon to the moon for a thousand years – but that might have been because Celestia thought that was best. If you six believe it is necessary to remove the changelings, well, do you see where I’m going with this?”

Rarity nodded. “You’re very kindhearted, Sunset. If it amounts to anything, you’ve swayed me.” Her lips tucked up, almost like a smile, but hesitant.

“Thanks,” Sunset chuckled. “I spent an hour around the changelings playing checkers, but they call it Settlers. It was odd, but they did it for fun and sport, like fillies and colts. The way they speak to each other, it sounds awful, derogatory to us ponies even, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil. They’re misguided. Even Chrysalis, with all her faults, still plays with toys like a child.”

It was clear Rarity had no response, so Sunset continued her search within the journal. But Sunset was wrong, Rarity did have a response, just not one that she expected. “Maybe you should just leave.”

“W-What?” Sunset stammered.

“I know that came off awfully rude, and I’m sorry for that, but perhaps you’re just meant to move on. You say you came from another world, but this isn’t the only odd world you’ve visited, correct? Maybe you can’t save this one.” Rarity shrugged. “I know it’s hard, but giving up sometimes is the best option. Your talk of this – this device – it was created before you even arrived. We might have been able to save ourselves with it, without your help. If that’s true, you might be destroying our only hope for a future.”

“Okay, if I play devil’s advocate for a moment and agree with you, it would explain why the Tree of Harmony did not ask me to help time in this timeline. It didn’t even glow in my presence. But would that really mean that it doesn’t want me to help?”

Rarity nodded. “Sometimes, Sunset, the hardest part is letting go. I did. I let go of my desire to create clothes, and I let go of my pride, allowing me to work this horrid, demeaning position. I’ve survived that way – and you said it yourself, the changelings could have wiped us out, but didn’t. Perhaps this was just the way things are meant to be.”

“And that’s where playing advocate stops,” Sunset replied. “Because there’s no reason for me to be here then. Jokes aside – happenstance doesn’t just put me here for no reason. I just happened to come through a portal from the human world right at the same time Twilight gets pulled through to different dimensions – to different presents? No. There’s no reason for that.”

Rarity took her time thinking about a response. Eventually, she said, “Maybe this was just meant to show you a lesson? Old fairy tales, legends, and folk stories always have magical lessons. Did you learn anything in the last world you visited?”

It was the same words that had been resonating with her ever since she entered this world. “What happens here matters,” Sunset answered.

“That explains why you’re adamant to save the changelings. ‘What happens here matters?’ You learned that in the world you saved, correct? Perhaps you are meant to find another lesson in this world. Sometimes, letting go is the hardest thing to learn.”

Though Rarity had said she was swayed, it was now Sunset’s feelings that wavered. “To be honest, when I first arrived in this world, I assumed I was being punished, being sent to other worlds to fix them like Princess Twilight fixed the human world – from my mistake.” Sunset thought for a moment on Rarity’s words. “It can’t all be happenstance.” She was growing to love that word. “Everything from Sombra’s timeline showed me that the world matters, regardless if it is not my world. In this world, however, everything is telling me to give up. Applejack, Chrysalis, you. Even Shining Armor gave up, and he’s the one out there trying to abolish the changelings.”

“Perhaps you should listen to it then. I’d hate to be a pessimistic lout, but it sounds to me like you’ll have another world in your roster to visit. It could be many more, for all I know.” Rarity’s face pouted as if to apologize for the negativity. “You say you’re being punished, but I don’t think you are. When I started making dresses I looked through all the sewing books I could get my hooves on. I don’t remember the author’s name, but one said ‘Learning is not a chore or a penance, it’s an excuse to do your worst and prove your best.’ I quite liked it, though their designs were simply gaudy. Still, what you see as punishment might not actually be that way.”

“Whoa,” Sunset replied, awestruck. “That’s the deepest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re really smart.”

“Oh, stop it.” Rarity blushed, covering her cheeks shyly.

Sunset folded her forelegs, contemplating the author’s quote. “An excuse to do your worst and prove your best,” she repeated the citation. “What happens here matter’s to us,” she repeated another quote from a very different circumstance.

“Who said that, anyway?” Rarity wondered aloud.

“A comedian.”

“Doesn’t sound like a very funny joke,” she remarked.

“No, but if she could see me now she’d be laughing till her jaw hurt.” Sunset missed that Twilight Sparkle, quite possibly more than she missed Princess Twilight or the human version she had met during the Friendship Games. “Funny thing is, I think you’re both right.”

Rarity’s brow raised. “I don’t understand.”

“She told me that, even though this isn’t my Equestria, things that happen here still matter, and she’s right. But you telling me to let go is also right. Obviously, if I let go things here will probably resolve poorly. If I continue to help, things also might end poorly, just in a different way.” Sunset rose from the floor. “Everything I do, everything we do, matters. We have to accept that our actions have consequences, and let go of the fear of doing nothing.”

“I-I’m sorry, I still don’t quite follow.”

“I’ve been comparing the changelings to myself – to my demon side – but I’ve been trying to fight that comparison. Every time, I claimed my evilness had been different, but what I should have been doing was comparing them to me. I matter, Rarity. I wouldn’t want to be wiped from the face of the planet, but I also didn’t want to be stuck in a cocoon for the rest of my life. Rarity, what do the changelings want?”

Rarity shrugged, wordless.

“They want to play Settlers. Some want to guard the castle while others don’t, they want what each other has, believing that the other has a better life. They want to feed on love so that they won’t starve. They want to live their lives as best they can without strife. None of those things are evil, Rarity.”

“That’s all good and whatnot, but what’s your point?”

“My point is – what does Chrysalis want?” Sunset smugly smiled.

Rarity went wide-eyed. “Dreadful things, I can only imagine.”

“She wants everything that her changelings don’t care about. They fear her. They fight with each other because they have nothing better to do. They have no lives to care for, nothing but their own, and their own is threatened by their queen.” She paused, staring intently at the white unicorn. “Rarity – thank you. You’ve helped me out a lot, I didn’t even need to search through my journal.” Sunset closed the book, shoving it back into her backpack.

“What are you going to do now?” Rarity asked.

“Well, I’m going to find Shining Armor and stop him from using that device on all the changelings.” She paused to pull her backpack onto her back. “Then, I’m going to gather the bearers to use the Elements of Harmony, hopefully taking out one specific changeling – the worst of all possible changelings.” She then wrapped Rarity in a hug, whispering in her ear, “This is not how the world should be, Rarity. I’m going to set things straight, and one day you’ll be able to make all those gaudy dresses from that author’s book.”

When Sunset parted from the hug, Sunset found a few happy tears falling from her face. She hadn’t realized she had started crying. “You’re crying, dear,” Rarity stated, and Sunset noticed Rarity too had started crying. After pointing it out, they both laughed at their own theatrics. “Please, be careful out there, Sunset,” Rarity said, wiping away her tears as Sunset opened the door.

“I will.” Sunset closed the door behind her, feeling almost serene, as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Of course, as happenstance would have it, the trotting of hooves and an ominous light came shifting down the hall.

Thinking fast, she teleported to the only place she knew was safe.

Green walls of hexagons around her and steel beneath her hooves, there was plenty of light within the Hatchery. Just as she had assumed, Sunset found herself alone. Chrysalis will have her army searching for me – she won’t have time to find a replacement for Twilight’s job, she presumed. It was also the one place where Shining Armor might run to, a place to hide and activate Twilight Sparkle’s device. There was no sign of him or the changeling destroying bomb. As she traveled along the top level, examining each of the hexagons that were lit up, she heard a noise. It was a constant thumping, though the cause was a mystery.

It wasn’t until she traversed to the door below, cautious as a rat in a lion’s den, that she found the source of the noise. The stain glass hall was so dark it turned any bright colors sour, and the thumping of rain echoed like a thousand wings flapping. It was difficult to see out any of the windows, but the illustrations made everyone pony or changeling look like they were crying. Even Chrysalis looks sad, she thought as rain shadowed and rolled down the queen’s eyes. As she came to the window that held Shining Armor and the changeling queen disguised as Princess Cadance, she stared into the blue of the stallion’s eyes. The rain did not seem to reach the glassed stallion, and his white coat seemed darker than she remembered.

That’s when Sunset yelped. The eyes moved and changed color! The window shook as a loud wallop struck a pane. For a moment, she thought she had been found by the changelings. “Sunset!” a voice called to her behind the glass, familiar and welcoming. “Come outside!” it called to her, and then the rain began to filter over Shining Armor, his white fur returned to normal.

Sunset came closer, trying to glance out but there was nothing to be seen. If it were a changeling, they wouldn’t have spoken to her. At least, that’s what convinced Sunset to teleport onto the roof of the stain glass hallway. The black tiles were slippery, and her fur instantly thickened from all the water. Her mane drooped down in front of her eyes so much that she had to use her magic to hold it back in a bun.

The sky had become covered in clouds, expanding across all of Canterlot in a dark grey pattern that prevented even the changelings from flying. There were many black specks down within the city that were running for shelter – the fighting seemingly simmered down. She took a few steps, the rest of the castle roof was much higher than the long gallery’s roof, but the slant of the shingles at the end provided housing from the rain. Sunset huddled underneath, taking another few steps toward the edge where the voice had spoken to her.

As she struggled to hold her footing, leaning over the side, she saw that there was nothing below aside from the grass and stone of the courtyard ground below. Even without a fear of heights, Sunset did not like staring down at the ground. Taking a step back, her hoof planted on one of the slicker shingles, causing her back legs to fall out from under her.

She slid for a moment, but her flank was stopped right at the edge, giving her another look down at the flat world below. “I’ve gotcha,” a voice said, almost sounding like a whisper thanks to the rain. Blue hooves were wrapped beneath Sunset’s forelegs, holding her like a marionette. In her panic, Sunset had released her magic, causing her hair to flop back in front of her eyes.

As she felt lifted, she asked, “Rainbow Dash? Is that you?”

“Who else would be floating outside a window in the rain?” the blue pegasus replied. Rainbow Dash plopped Sunset onto the taller roof of the castle where the edges met, forming a flatter surface. Rain puddled in the center. “The whole city has blown its top! Are they looking for you? Did you find who you were looking for?”

Rainbow stretched her wings out, covering both her head and Sunset’s from the rain. “It’s good to see you, Rainbow Dash,” Sunset said, ignoring Dash’s questions, giving a hug instead. “I found Twilight and lost her again – but I have a more important mission to attend to at the moment.”

“Can I help?” Rainbow asked as she held the hug.

“Absolutely.” Sunset pulled away and began to explain her plan. “The short version is that I’m looking for Shining Armor. He’s Twilight’s brother and fiancé to Princess Cadance. He’s got a magical device that’ll wipe out the changelings, and we need to stop him before he can use it.”

Like a dog, Rainbow’s head tilted to the left. “Stop him? It sounds to me like we should be helping him.”

“I’ve been running into that sort of belief a lot lately,” Sunset answered. “But sometimes the easier path isn’t the best.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “So, what? You want a one on one fight with Queen Chrysalis or something? I didn’t expect a unicorn to turn their nose up at something magic related.” With a flex and a smile, Rainbow nodded. “Count me in! I’ve been stretching my wings for two days gathering up these storm clouds, and my hooves are itching for a fight!”

It wasn’t exactly like Rainbow assumed, but Sunset didn’t bother to correct the pegasus. If they didn’t find Shining Armor, none of it would matter. “Do you know where Shining Armor might be? I thought he would have gone to the Hatchery – but I didn’t see him or the device.”

“He probably went to find his fiancée,” Rainbow said, offhandedly. Sunset hadn’t thought of that, however.

“You’re a genius!” Sunset wrapped her forelegs around Rainbow’s neck, hugging her with all her might this time. Rainbow’s wings shook, releasing a heap of water onto them, but Sunset didn’t mind. “He did everything to try and find Princess Cadance in the last world. He must have gone to the throne room to save her!” She released Rainbow Dash and clambered forward, but hesitated. “Except – he wouldn’t know she was in the throne room unless Chrysalis told him – and why would she do that?”

“She wouldn’t,” Rainbow answered, using her wings to cover herself, and only herself.

“Exactly.” Sunset’s horn sparked.

Darkness surrounded them instantaneously, but only for a moment. Light from Sunset’s horn reflected against the pink crystals, brightening them more than Rainbow Dash expected, but Sunset was prepared – her eyes closed. When Sunset opened them, she spun in a circle, looking past the slender quartzes in all directions. “Wha-What just happened? Where are we?” Rainbow blinked, trying to let her eyes focus, shaking her wings off from the rainwater. “I’ve never seen this place.”

“This is below Canterlot. Below the dungeons. Deep within the mountain itself. A dark place, worse than any prison,” Sunset answered, “This is where Chrysalis kept Princess Cadance.”

Sunset didn’t know if that startled Rainbow Dash or if a drop of rainwater trickled down her back, but the blue pegasus shivered for a moment. “You think Shining Armor is down here, somewhere?” asked Rainbow Dash.

But Sunset didn’t answer, choosing to spear forward and find out for herself. The pegasus followed behind in silence. Silence was what this place had in abundance, along with darkness and crystals. Even as rain flooded from the sky, nothing could be heard this far below. Even the trots they made were muffled by the soft dirt. They wandered between crystals, yet Rainbow said nothing, not that Sunset would have answered. She was too busy looking for Cadance’s chains and the white stallion. What she found struck her heart, pressing it into her throat.

Shining Armor sat in front of the chains, holding them in his hooves. His face was distraught – his eyebrows pursed up, his bottom lip quivered, and his eyes were so sunken in that not even the light of his horn could break through the shadow they cast.

As Sunset stared intently, Rainbow Dash had not yet noticed Sunset’s halt, slamming into the back of the unicorn and causing them both to fall forward. Shining Armor rose before they could, twisting to face them with his horn pointed, readying for anything. “Who are you?”

“Shining Armor, it’s me.” Sunset pushed up and out from under Rainbow Dash. “I was the changeling that broke into Chrysalis’s room – the one your sister had to save.” The stallion’s demeanor didn’t seem to change until she said, “I’m the one that set you free.”

It was then that he raised his head, his eyes weak, scornful, and bleak. “My sister is not with you, which can only mean one thing.”

“Chrysalis.” The word tore from Sunset’s throat.

He nodded. “And you’ve come looking for this?” He sidestepped, revealing a silver, slender cube sitting between the two grey, rusted chains.

“That’s right. I can’t let you use it.”

“I’d like to see you try and stop me.” He laughed low in his throat, and for a moment Sunset thought they might have to fight. But before she could call his bluff, he said, “It doesn’t work, though. I’ve already tried it.” He sounded defeated.

“That’s because it needs powerful magic in order to activate,” she replied.

Rainbow Dash stepped beside her. “I don’t think he’s got a powerful bone in his body,” she bluntly said, waving a hoof at the starving stallion.

“How powerful?” Shining Armor ignored Rainbow Dash.

“The Elements of Harmony would do the trick.” Sunset had no desire to tell him she had the Elements in her pack, they were useless without Rarity’s. “But more importantly, taking Chrysalis out is the main goal, not the changelings. Without her, the changelings won’t know what to do. They can be made docile.” Shining Armor didn’t move as she came closer, even as she lifted the cube with her magic. Perhaps he was too weak to stop her, or perhaps he wanted to hear what she had to say. “Chrysalis wants the world to be ruled by her brood, but they don’t want that. They’re like… children, almost. Violent, creepy little children. Some might even have good hearts.”

Shining Armor’s eyes drifted to Rainbow Dash, almost as if to ask, “Do you actually believe her?” But Rainbow gave a solemn shrug. He didn’t stop Sunset from pulling the cube open and exposing the wiring beneath, nor did he make a noise when she pulled out some of the copper tubes. It wasn’t until she lowered the cube to the floor and stared at it for a moment that he asked, “What do you plan to do with it?”

“This,” Sunset answered, smashing the cube beneath her hoof.

“I suppose it was just as well,” Shining Armor said, unsurprised. “It would have been a fool’s errand to try and find the Elements of Harmony to power it.”

“Actually, I’ve got them right here,” Sunset replied, tossing her backpack to the ground and opening the zipper, levitating the five gemstones out.

Shining Armor gasped. “You had them the entire time!?” he screamed, veins popping up on his neck so hard that the fur had risen, detailing the shapes.

Grabbing at the red gemstone, Rainbow Dash said, “They don’t look very harmonic.” She tossed it back to Sunset. “Is that a word? Harmonic?”

“These don’t look like the Elements of Harmony from my world if I’m perfectly honest. The only one that looks sort of right is this one.” Sunset levitated the six-pointed star higher than the others. “It resembles the one that Twilight’s crown holds.” The crown that I stole.

“Your world?” repeated Shining Armor. He could not remain angry for long – he was too hungry to waste unneeded resentment. “Twilight’s crown?” There was a twist to his mouth. “Who… are you?”

Sunset deposited the Elements of Harmony back into her bag, including Rainbow Dash’s. “My name is Sunset Shimmer,” she answered him, though she did not look at him. “I live in a human world, I was apprentice to Princess Celestia, and I’m good friends with Princess Twilight Sparkle.” She finally looked up at him, meeting his steely, bleak eyes. “And I’m your best bet of defeating Chrysalis.”

“Best bet, huh?” Shining Armor mocked. “If you say so. My hopes were dashed when I found Twilight’s device inoperable.” He shrugged, turning and staring back down at the rusted chains.

“I’m glad you didn’t use it. That device – it could have destroyed more than the changelings. It might have worked on all species. With the Elements, we can direct fire on one specific changeling. The queen of them all.”

“Sunset.” Shining Armor’s voice was meek. “Do you really believe we can win? Do you honestly think that we even stand a chance?”

When Sunset did not answer, Rainbow Dash spoke up, “Don’t listen to him, Sunset. I believe in you.”

Loyalty. Sunset nodded. Letting go is the hardest thing. It felt like time had stopped. An endless silence soaked the air. They all believe in me, all of the bearers. They all trust me. Sunset didn’t know what to say to Rainbow Dash, she didn’t have to say anything. The blue pegasus simply smiled, water still dripping from her bangs, soaking the soil.

“Shining Armor,” Sunset finally said after a long while, breaking the silence.

“Yes?”

“Twilight was wrong about you.”

“About me?”

“She called you a coward,” Sunset said, “And I know you’re not – which is why you’re going to do the bravest thing you can do.”

Shining Armor was skeptical, to say the least. “Which is?”

“You’re going to stay here.”

Rainbow Dash interrupted, “How is that brave?”

“Because, Dash,” Sunset said, “Everypony has one of two responses. Fight or flight. When you’re backed into a corner, when you’re capable of doing something, or when you just don’t know what to do, you’ll always rely on one of those two responses.” She turned back to Shining Armor. “You’re going to be brave and do neither. No matter how much you might want to save your fiancée, your sister, or your kingdom, you’re going to stay here and wait.”

Shining Armor’s lips curled into a frown as his brow furrowed. “You want me to do nothing, just like I’ve been doing this entire time? You’d consider that bravery?” he scoffed. “I’m a coward.”

“You and I both know that isn’t true. If it were, you wouldn’t have come down here to see your fiancée. You wouldn’t have found Twilight’s device. And you wouldn’t have tried to use it.” Sunset stared at him. “I need you to be brave. I need you to stay down here because you’d only get in our way. That’s the bravest thing you can do right now.”

His frown eventually subsided, and he nodded. Whether or not he’d do as he was told, Sunset could not be sure, but for now, she did not have to worry about him. “Come on, Dash,” Sunset said, twisting her body away from Shining Armor. As they started to trot away, Sunset took one last look at the shrapnel of silver that sat sticking out of the soil. Several words echoed in her mind, but none of them mattered.

Sunset let go of her fear.

Arc 2: Chapter 8

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Guards were roaming the halls in pairs, and every doorway remained watched over. Had it not been for Rainbow Dash’s stealthy flight skills, it would have been difficult to navigate silently among the changelings. They crossed into an antechamber, following far above two unwitting changeling patrols. The door closed behind the pair of guards, allowing Rainbow to drop back to the floor and set Sunset down. “Alright, we need to open up every pod in this hall,” Sunset said to Rainbow, speaking as quietly as she could. Finding Twilight wouldn’t be difficult, she would most likely be with the other Elements in the dungeon, but they needed a distraction – and to find Rarity.

They had yet to spot the white unicorn. In fact, they hadn’t found any of the workers. It had been Sunset’s first thought to return to Rarity’s room but found no hide nor tail of the Element of Generosity. The only ponies they had found were those kept in the green glow of the cocoons that lined the largest halls of Canterlot Castle.

With the hall silent, Rainbow Dash went to work opening each and every pod. Goo flooded into the hall, but Sunset had surrounded herself in a bubble, remaining on the ground to catch any pony that fell from the cocoons closer to the ceiling. Some woke instantly while others remained unconscious, only to be forcibly awoken by one of their fellow escapees. Goo slid down Sunset’s portal, blocking her vision, but she remained steady with her magic, not allowing a single pony to fall and injure themselves. She didn’t even have a moment to think, her concentration fully devoted to the safe care of the podded ponies. That’s why, when Rainbow Dash said, “Hey, it’s your friends!” Sunset did not register what that meant. It wasn’t until it was too late, the pods already opening, that Sunset screamed for Dash to stop.

The three disguised changelings burst from their gooey pods, green flames shooting off of them like lightning. One surprised Rainbow Dash, tackling and sending them both to the floor. The other two turned their focus to Sunset but were shocked to see the gathering of so many ponies within the hall. It was like an angry wave stood behind Sunset and she was the dam preventing the water from breaking through. The two changelings circled around, running past Rainbow Dash and their fellow decoy. “Where are you going!?” the sole changeling lisped through his fangs, struggling with all his might to keep Rainbow Dash immobilized.

“Ahem.”

Once the changeling looked to the beckoning voice, Sunset grabbed him with her magic, lifting him into the air. He was able to see the entirety of the hundred ponies that stood like statues. Stallions, mares, fillies, and colts. Even in the darkness, Sunset could see the terror in his big bug-like eyes. She trapped him in a different pod, goo flooding in to keep him fed, forcing him to watch as the rebels passed. Some glared at the changeling while others simply ignored him, but they all made their way to the end of the hall.

It was there Sunset turned to those that had been following. None had asked her any questions or thanked her for freeing them, they all seemingly understood their purpose. “There’s plenty of other halls in the castle,” she finally spoke to them, loud enough for it to echo down the line. “I need you all to free them. Everyone in Equestria is here in this city, most in this castle. We outnumber them twenty to one, if not more. Reclaim Equestria!”

With a boom as loud as thunder, a roar rumbled within the hall. Sunset knew their fury would sustain them, and they needed to keep that fire going, especially since the two changelings had run off to alarm their kin and queen. To most, any alerts would be a bad thing, but that’s exactly what Sunset wanted. As they transferred out into a hall that held no pods, Sunset pointed the freed in the direction of the next cocoon-filled corridor. She and Rainbow Dash would not be joining them. “Rainbow,” she said, motioning for them to both head off down a different conjoining hall. Sunset knew exactly where they needed to go, and it was not in the direction of the cocoons. The alarms had been rung; a distraction in place for the queen’s army.

Even in the darkness, Sunset was able to tell where the staircase was. Canterlot Castle had not changed as much as Chrysalis wanted it to, and Sunset had grown accustomed to the darkness, it was no longer such a maze. The light emanating from the cracks of the door was a good marker, one of the few areas that was ever lit up. The last time she came down here she had been terrified of her disguise disappearing. There was no need for petty secrecy now, however. Even the guard was surprised when two free ponies came trotting down. So surprised that he dropped his loaf of a bread. Even if he had been expecting them, he still would have dropped his bread when Sunset sent him smashing into the half-broken table, making it fully broken.

She was quick to pull the keys from her backpack, opening the first cell in the row. It just so happened to be the one with the white stallion who mocked the magazine she had given him. He had started to beg to be free but Sunset cut him off. “We’re freeing everyone!” she said, levitating the changeling into the stallion’s cell.

“Finally,” the white stallion trotted out, flipping his hair back. “I thought I was going to be stuck within this prison for the rest of my life. You have my thanks, ladies. My name is Prince Blueblood, but I’m sure you already knew that.” Blueblood bowed, graciously, and his bangs fell in front of his eyes.

Sunset remembered him from her life as a student to Celestia, but the smell reeking off him kept the reunion at bay. I don’t think I ever said more than three words to him anyway.

Rainbow took the keychain from Sunset and said, “Pfft, who’re you calling a lady?” With the speed of a terrified gazelle, the pegasus went to work releasing every prison cell on the block.

Many ponies poured out, but Zecora was one of the few Sunset pushed through to greet. She apologized profusely to the zebra, telling of everything that had happened, but Zecora replied in her whimsical vernacular thanking Sunset for releasing her. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Sunset Shimmer, you are making the world a better place. The changeling’s rule is but a simmer, I am sensing a change of pace.” It brought peace to Sunset, the words spoken by the zebra. All she could do was apologize and thank Zecora once more.

“There’s already a large group of ponies freeing the pods of the upper hall. If you make your way up there, try to join them. I’m sure you’d enjoy a little payback.”

“I shall lead whom will follow until I reach my limit, for this is a day that is truly kismet,” Zecora replied, nodding her head and leading forward a few of those who recognized her.

It was then that Rarity came forward. Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie trailed steadily behind her. “Rarity!” Sunset yelled, greeting the fellow unicorn with a hug. “We went back to your room and couldn’t find you. I was worried that they had discovered your true identity as a bearer of the Elements.”

“They took everyone, my dear,” Rarity replied, clearly trying her best to relieve any distress. “All the staff was shoved down into this stony hovel. It’s also where I met some friends of yours. Well, now ours.” She laughed a nervous sort of laugh and moved out of the way, the trio’s tired eyes staring at Sunset with hesitant expressions.

Sunset didn’t mind, hugging every last one of them and apologizing for not being able to release them sooner. “I wanted to help you out while I was disguised as a changeling, but it wasn’t the right time.”

“That was you?” Pinkie Pie replied. “I had no idea you had that sort of power!”

“It wasn’t me, it was-”

“Twilight, right?” Rarity interrupted. “I don’t suppose you’ve already busted her out of that cocoon, have you?”

“Cocoon?” repeated Rainbow Dash. “We didn’t see any cocoons. Well, not any that weren’t already hoisted on a wall.”

Applejack recalled the details, “They came down here with that them mare in a pod – they were gonna stick her in the cell next to mine but couldn’t find the keys, so they gave up.”

Sunset felt like kicking herself. Had she not taken the keys they would have had a full house of bearers ready to take on Chrysalis. “Well, hindsight’s twenty-twenty,” she mumbled to herself. “Do you still have your Element’s stone, Rarity?”

The white unicorn reached into her uniform, she was still wearing the outfit they had given her to clean in. That had been their mistake, but good fortune for them. “Tada!” Rarity grinned, the purple gem reflecting the fire from the torches on the opposing wall.

“You found them?” Fluttershy spoke up, her eyes gleaming over the gem. It was then that Sunset pulled out the remaining five Elements. “They’re so pretty. Can these really help defeat the changelings?”

Even though Sunset wanted to explain her idea of only taking on Chrysalis and hoping that the changelings could be made peaceful, there would be no time to strategize. A thunderous boom shook the world around them, sending dust falling from the ceiling and knocking a few scones off the wall. The entire dungeon rattled, the black iron bars of the cells resonated with a low hum, some even tilting closed. It came and went like a summer rain. “What in all of Equestria was that!?” Applejack hollered, having held onto Fluttershy during the unknown calamity.

“Sounds like the fun’s already started. No time like the present!” Rainbow Dash yelled, already speeding off ahead of everyone else. She disappeared up the grey steps before Sunset and the others even thought to follow.

They caught up surprisingly fast – but mostly because Rainbow Dash had stopped at the top of the stairs. The blue pegasus was staring up at the open sky. “I’m goin’ to assume there wasn’t always a giant gaping hole within the castle,” Applejack offhandedly remarked, and she was right. It was as if a cleaver had struck down from the sky on the castle, tearing through every floor. It was a small but long cut, not extending more than the width of the hall they stood in, and barely managing to reach halfway in length.

As they stared in awe, a changeling came falling out of the air, skidding to a stop in front of them. Atop the changeling’s black back stood Zecora, rain-soaked and grinning. “They made a mistake in bringing me to Canterlot, this is a battle that will not soon be forgot!” Her smile was smug and powerful. Sunset couldn’t truly believe it was her and wanted to ask if she had been the one to ruin a piece of the castle, but Zecora cut her off before she could speak. “I’ve also brought news of the changeling queen, in the middle of the city she can be seen. A cocoon is with her as she attempts to command, though her words float in the wind like that of sand.”

“A cocoon?” Pinkie noted aloud. “That must be your friend Twilight. We’ll have all the bearers in one place!”

Sunset nodded. “Let’s go – but first, Zecora, could you do me a favor?” Zecora smiled, ready to please. “Could you go and free Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance, then tell them where we are? They’ll want to be present.”

But Zecora laughed. “Ah, you are quite funny but I cannot have a chat, for you see, it is Princess Celestia who is the cause of that.” She motioned to the destruction and gave another set of heavy laughter. “An impressive sight I did behold, I am eager to see what will unfold!”

“Whoa,” was all that was chorused amongst Sunset’s friends, but Sunset did not share in surprise. She had seen what Celestia could do, almost beating King Sombra in single combat had the stallion not been tricky.

No more time was wasted now that they knew Celestia was free. Making their way through the castle’s gash, passing the crumbling rubble of stone and marble, and rushing out into the rainy courtyard, they headed for the closest gate. The hinges had been blown off and the metal bars that had been once locked were now smashed to pieces down the wet steps leading to the city. “My word! It’s like the day they invaded all over again!” Rarity remarked, gasping as a pegasus and changeling fell from the sky together.

“Yeah, except we’re the ones that are winning.” Rainbow Dash pointed to a group of changelings tied in a rope with earth ponies standing around them. “Looks like we took them unprepared just like they did to us!”

“With all this chaos, try not to get separated. If you do, remember the secret code word,” Pinkie Pie exclaimed over the sound of rain.

“What’s the secret code word?” Sunset asked, yelling just as much.

“Uh, duh! It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you!” Pinkie replied, rolling her eyes and shaking her head as she spoke.

They wouldn’t have a chance to get separated, Equestria was winning. Sunset hadn’t been accurate in her numbers – it wasn’t twenty to one, it was triple that. Had the queen not ceased the Hatchery’s production, then the ponies would surely have lost their initial battles. Instead, every pegasus spread their wings, maintaining air superiority while unicorn’s and earth ponies took care of the changelings on the ground. Storm clouds had been beaten back in some areas, but it didn’t even seem to affect the ponies like it did the changelings. They had worked so efficiently and so effectively that the street was cleared for Sunset and her friends. If there were any changelings in disguise, they were so outnumbered that it did not even matter.

Of course, pony morale went through the roof once Princess Celestia was seen flying above. Sunset caught sight of her at the end of a four-way street, all four routes were blocked off by ponies. The clouds had been parted over the center, sending a ray of light down on the surrounding fleet. It wasn’t until Sunset got closer that she saw the reasoning – no more than a dozen changelings sat in the middle. They were all decked out in armor, protecting their queen and the single cocoon. “There’s Twilight and Chrysalis!” Sunset shouted, pushing faster than ever as she and her friends crossed the line from rain to sun.

“I’ve already sent for reinforcements from the surrounding outposts! Soon they’ll arrive to tear down this little rebellion and you’ll be back in a cocoon! I’ll make sure it’s down in the pits so you’ll never even see your precious sun!” Queen Chrysalis was yelling as Sunset and the bearers trotted up to be beside Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance. The threat was laughable, especially due to the amount of ponies that surrounded the changeling queen and her queen’s guard.

Celestia acknowledged Sunset’s presence but said nothing. Their focus was the queen who was outnumbered and becoming more fearful by the second. “Give up Chrysalis. Your days of rule are finished,” Princess Cadance yelled in reply. “You made the mistake of bringing Equestria together, in more ways than one. Save yourself some pride and surrender.”

“I’ve got my hostage –” Chrysalis slammed a hoof down on the glass of the cocoon “– I don’t need to surrender so long as I’ve got her!”

“Twilight!” Sunset said, more loudly than she had meant to. Princess Celestia perked up, realizing now that it was her student that Chrysalis was lugging around. “We’ve got to get her out of there, she’s the Element of Magic.” Sunset turned to face her friends, but a glint of white fur and blue hair caught her eye. In the rain, she saw him coming.

It was Shining Armor. “Sorry, Sunset. I’m too much of a coward!” he shouted as he galloped toward her, passing by and throwing himself over the blockade of ponies and changelings. For a skinny stallion, his sprint and jump was impressive. He landed almost perfectly on the cocoon, but his legs fell out from under him, sprawling out on the glass. “I couldn’t sit in the darkness when the whole world was shaking!” he said as he slipped off to one side.

“You!” Chrysalis spat, but it was too late. The stallion ripped the shell off with his magic, sending goo spraying onto her guards. As Shining Armor grabbed Twilight and fled, the ponies that surrounded the changelings seized the moment and attacked the queen’s guard. Hooves and horns clattered, leaving the queen defenseless.

“It’s over, Chrysalis,” Princess Celestia said coolly.

While the fighting wore on, Sunset and the bearers crowded around Shining Armor and his unconscious sister. Twilight awoke after a second, still held in the forelegs of her brother. She smiled when she saw him, then froze, turned, and spat goo out onto the road. A few strands stuck to her mouth as she pulled away. “I guess we didn’t need my device after all,” Twilight said, noticing Sunset.

The liberated ponies had taken down the queen’s guards and prepared to strike on Queen Chrysalis. In a fit of rage, the empty cocoon was sent flying down the street behind Princess Celestia by the changeling queen. “You think this is over!? You think you’ve won!?” The queen went mad with her laughter, bellowing like the villain that she truly was.

“You’re completely surrounded by two princesses, the Elements of Harmony, and the entirety of Equestria bearing down on you.” Sunset stepped around Shining Armor and Twilight, levitating the Elements out from her backpack at the same time. “Twilight’s right, we didn’t even need her device to take you down,” she said, holding the gemstones in the air. “But just in case you decide to get funny with your surrender, we may as well be ready.”

There it is, Sunset thought as she stared at the pupils of the changeling queen. That moment of fear where you realize that all your hard work was for naught, beaten out by friendship. Sunset wanted to laugh just like the queen had, but she had figured that was too demon-like. There was only room for one villain in Equestria, and soon she would be down in the dungeons beneath Canterlot. Or, at least, that’s what Sunset hoped for.

Chrysalis wasn’t like Sunset though, as everyone in the intersection soon found out. “Oh, I’m not worried about your little Elements of Harmlessness,” Queen Chrysalis replied in an almost warm voice. “You see –” The queen tilted her head down and a small, silver cube floated from an entanglement of her hair “– You’re going down with me as far as I’m concerned.”

“T-That can’t be!” Shining Armor shouted.

“Why does everyone hide it in their hair!?” Twilight also shouted, sitting up to see it better.

“That’s right. You think I didn’t know you were building something? I know everything that happens within my castle, and I know that this little grey box is supposed to be my ultimate destruction. You didn’t intend for it to be used on yourself, did you?” Chrysalis bore her teeth in what would count as a smile. “I thought not. Such a dramatic turn of events. What a wonderful happenstance!” She laughed again, but it was cut off by a shout.

Sunset pointed at the queen. “That’s not how you use that word!” she yelled as if it were more important than anything else. She quickly realized all eyes were on her and switched to something more meaningful. “If you use that device, it won’t just destroy us, it’ll destroy you as well! Destroying your own species just to destroy us isn’t a victory!”

“Quite contraire! You claimed I’ve already lost, but I can make sure you don’t win either!” The queen began to charge her horn, a barrier encasing her as she went to work.

“The device doesn’t work without a powerful power source, Chrysalis,” Twilight explained. “No matter how much love you’ve absorbed, you’re not strong enough to defend and build up magic to activate it.” She turned to Sunset. “Let’s use the Elements of Harmony on her, I’ll be glad to rid this scum from the world,” she hissed resentfully. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack chorused her sentiment, they all seemed to want to bring their wrath upon the queen. All except for Rarity.

The white unicorn seemed to notice Sunset’s hesitant face upon hearing Twilight’s request. “The Elements of Harmony should be used to bring harmony to the world, not erase foes we don’t like from existence,” Rarity spoke the words that Sunset didn’t.

Twilight turned her glare at the white unicorn. “That’s the device I made,” she said calmly at first, and then exploded, “It’s either her or us! She’s brought this destruction upon herself!”

All the bearers’ eyes turned on Rarity, and it was clear the Element of Generosity was outnumbered. When she turned to Sunset, Sunset was staring at Chrysalis. “It’s alright Rarity,” Sunset said, she didn’t bother to look at the bearers. “I’ve been so caught up in trying to save this world, to make this world matter to me, to make it better. I’ve found what matters, though. It’s you all. I already knew that, though.” Sunset did not turn her head away from the direction of Chrysalis. She dared not.

The queen was charging her power, holding the whole world as hostage. Sunset knew Chrysalis was crazy enough to do it – she had been the same way once. She would have done anything to hold on to her demon power, though it had been a good thing that she lost it. It’d be good once Chrysalis was defeated too, and there was no other way than allowing the Elements to have at her. “In the previous world, the world was at war. Kind of like this one, but we were winning, more or less. All of you were given your Element of Harmony when you realized exactly what your Element was.”

Sunset turned to face them, though they were blurry from her tears. “I tried my hardest to get you to see your Elements in this world, but the Tree of Harmony didn’t care. It had no connection to your or the Elements, not like I did.” She smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile or sad smile, it was more that she was content. The fear that she had let go, though she should have been afraid of the destruction formulating behind her, it did not phase her.

“Every moment I’ve spent worrying about how to get you to use the Elements of Harmony, every time I came so close to figuring it out, I was thrown for another loop. I started to doubt myself; to give up. I wanted nothing more than to just quit and go home, and I still want that. As much as I care for you guys, as much as I want to help this world, I still can’t help the feeling of wanting to just, let go.” She paused, glancing over the mix of reactions from each of the bearers, even feeling the sad eyes from Celestia peering down at her. “But you all taught me something. Something that I’ve been trying to teach you.

“Twilight, you’ve shown me magic I never thought I’d see. Rarity, your generosity helped me more times than I can count. Rainbow Dash, you’ve been loyal even before you thought to call me friend. Applejack, your honesty is what helped me understand the hard times. Pinkie Pie, I can’t help but laugh at your loveable luck. And Fluttershy, the kindness you showed me, the willingness to be my friend, a stranger that you didn’t know, that was the moment I should have realized.”

Sunset stepped back, bowing her head and levitating the gemstones to each of the bearers’ necks. “I didn’t need to try and help you realize what your Element was. Instead, you represented each Element perfectly, teaching me what they truly meant. I couldn’t ask for a better lesson.” She lifted her head, witnessing as the gems transformed into white lights, spreading out into necklaces. “Thank you.”

No words passed between the Elements as they looked at their necklaces, glancing up at Sunset with tears in their eyes. Even as they held a group hug, the only voice that was speaking was that of Chrysalis who was murmuring about their destruction. Sunset had felt the spark of the Elements within the throne room but had not realized truly what that had been till everything was on the line. Even as she turned to watch the excitement of her friends tearing Chrysalis’s plan in two, she knew that it was for the best.

Just as Chrysalis finished powering the device, a rainbow of color swooped down upon the silver cube. In a dramatic twist of irony, much like how Sombra was turned to crystals, Chrysalis and the cube merged, turning the changeling queen into a silvery grey statue. It finished with the queen almost instantly. The tornado rainbow swirled around the queen and then exploded in six directions.

It was like a sonic boom, tearing a bubble of magic through Canterlot and forcing out any semblance of the changeling species with it. Though Sunset had not known it, it was much in the same way her own world’s changelings had been expelled from Canterlot. This, however, took everything with it. Changelings flew in every direction so high that they’d be several continents over, and the cocoons that had been added to the walls of the city went with them. The Hatchery uplifted, snapping off the royal tower like a tick, crumbling part of the slender building in on itself. Some of the smaller cocoons were simply shredded, releasing the goo inside along with whomever was still locked away.

Again, the Elements of Harmony had brought the world back to peace. Sunset had hoped for a less destructive end to an otherwise clean defeat, but as she basked beneath the sun, staring up at Chrysalis, she dared not think of the what if. Just let it go, it’s not what matters, she thought, unsure if she should be smiling. As her friends returned, landing in a whirlwind of color, she did not go to congratulate them. She could not. It had not been her victory – she was just the great uniter. The victory of King Sombra had not been her victory either, she now realized.

It was a surreal feeling. She was supposed to be happy. The changelings, however odd or horrible they could be, were simply thrown out of Equestria in one fell swoop. Sunset didn’t feel happy, though. The final decision had been completely taken from her hooves. She did not desire the hero’s spotlight, but, as she stared at the silver queen, she could not help but feel she had made a mistake somewhere down the line. Let it go, she told herself, trying her best to listen.

“Hello, Sunset,” a voice spoke to her, striking her from her inexplicable thoughts.

“Hello, Princess Celestia,” Sunset responded, though she did not offer any other courtesy. She had already been forgiven by one Celestia, and it was her own world’s Celestia that she wanted approval from next.

“You’ve done a mighty fine job, I must say. I… did not think that you would return. I feared-”

Sunset cut her off, “I’m not this world’s Sunset Shimmer.”

Princess Celestia’s eyes lit up. “Oh. I see. That would explain some things.” What she was really saying was, “That explains why you’re so friendly and helpful.”

“I’m hoping I can return to my world now, or soon, at least.” Sunset turned back to the silver queen, remembering the stone statue that sat in the courtyard and how badly she wanted to turn Chrysalis into the same thing. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to return to my world, though. As much as I wish I could. So, for a little while, I’d like to stay here. If you don’t mind.”

“You are more than welcome here, though I do not think I have to say it. You’ve done more than enough to earn your place. I’m sure you’re exhausted after how much you’ve accomplished. You even tried to save me. Twice!” Celestia chuckled.

It didn’t matter what excuse Celestia made for her reasoning as to why Sunset wanted to stay. Sunset had her own reasons. She had not stayed nearly long enough in the last world, barely taking the time to know the ponies who had been her friends in multiple worlds now. But, even that was an excuse. In truth, she suspected there would be another world in peril, and she had no desire to go unprepared. There had been many ponies who chorused the idea of multiple universes. Even if the next trip was her trip home, she wanted to be ready for the worst of any world.

The days after the battle that ponies were calling ‘The Battle for Harmony’ – aptly given by the word that spread through the city about how well the Elements of Harmony took care of the changelings – things started to settle down. Work was slow and meticulous, but everyone in Equestria was there to help rebuild the city. Some had returned to their home cities to judge the damages, but many remained. With so much help, Sunset was forced to move on from one thing to the next just to stay busy.

Wherever she went, however, the Elements were right beside her. “Fluttershy, you were at flight school the same time I was, right?” Rainbow Dash had asked as they were lugging wood logs down the main street. Though the remnants of the changelings had been destroyed, much of the city required lumber to help rebuild the stone that had been damaged. Incidentally, the majority of buildings that were in ruins all had checker pieces littering the floors.

“That’s right. It’s been so long I barely remember anypony. I wasn’t there as long as you were,” Fluttershy replied.

“Not much good it did it. I wonder if the Wonderbolts are forming up again.”

“We could use the Wonderbolts to spread apple seeds down in Ponyville to replenish whatever we lost. I’m sure they could make quick work,” Applejack noted, hauling the heaviest of logs.

It was nice to hear them hopeful for the future, Sunset thought, but it was odd to hear of a future that she would not be a part of. “There’s going to be a lot of things that will need righting.” Sunset dropped her logs down on the grass of the courtyard. She looked over at the gardens where two ponies were chipping down the statue of Chrysalis. It had been replaced with the silver statue, a marvelous decoration for the castle grounds.

Celestia’s hole in the castle had been easily repaired – one of the first things Princess Cadance and Shining Armor had started work on. “Not as much as you’d think, though. It’s mostly tearing things down and rebuilding them. I think we’ll complete it in a year so long as we don’t move winter in,” Twilight described. “It’ll be more of a hassle to move ponies back to their homes. After the wedding, Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor will be aiding in moving ponies.”

“Before turning their sights on The Crystal Empire, right?” Sunset asked. If the world was truly going to return to normalcy, then things needed to match up with what was right in her own world.

“That’s the idea,” Twilight replied. The purple unicorn had dropped her vest, ugly green shoes, and even was letting her mane grow out some – though she still remarked of how she enjoyed the coolness atop her head as she worked.

They all had been hard at work, and by the day the wedding had been set to be, the castle had almost been completely renovated. The wedding was not in the castle, however. It was held in the very spot where Chrysalis was defeated, a final jab at the changeling queen. Everyone in Equestria was invited, and it wasn’t hard to attend. There was nothing to be flashy about the wedding, not like Sunset would have imagined a Princess’s wedding to be. Cadance wore a white gown and Shining his superior captain uniform, though it looked too big for him, what with how skinny he had become.

Sunset had been asked to be a bridesmaid but had refused, leaving the spot open for the six Elements. She wanted to be prepared, sitting in the front row, waiting for the single changeling who thought they could act as vengeance upon the wedding. It had all been for naught, however. It was a short wedding, and Sunset appreciated that. Everyone was eager to be done with the last remnant of the changeling invasion. And so, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Shining Armor were married at long last, and no one was more ecstatic than the happy couple, though their honeymoon would have to wait.

During the nights, Sunset would visit with Zecora. The zebra had produced large quantities of the green paste that prevented a changeling’s disguise, covering the faces of every pony that stayed within Canterlot. Sunset had grown attached to the whimsical way Zecora spoke, and she had never met someone like her within the human world. Sunset knew she might not ever meet Zecora again, whether in her world or the human, and thought it best to learn as much as she could from the zebra. Of course, Zecora was happy to oblige. “Spend time in the Everfree Forest and you will come across me, that or it shall be I who stumbles upon ye.”

When she was not speaking with Zecora, Sunset was using her spare time to copy the journal that had been the cause of her plight. She hoped all the information she had learned from Princess Twilight would be helpful to the friends of this world. She did leave out a few embarrassing stories that happened to herself, but overall, it was a match for match copy.

She presented the copy to Twilight and the gang of friends who had grown even closer with each passing day, and they all accepted it warmly. Sunset, however, did not expect a gift in return. “It’s not a replacement for the one you have, but it might do good to write down some of your thoughts or notes about this world,” Twilight stated. “It might also help in writing down things in the next world you visit,” she trailed off. Many ponies had told Sunset that she would most likely be visiting another new world, but Twilight was the only one that was certain of it. “It’s just basic calculations,” she had muttered absentmindedly to Sunset, only to realize it had not been the right thing to say.

But everyone around Sunset had drawn to the same conclusion. Even Princess Celestia had figured it out as soon as she learned Sunset was not of this world and had visited another, different world. But none had an answer for how many worlds Sunset would have to face, or why. “It’s not a penance,” she would tell them, though. Only Rarity understood what that meant, and seemed delighted to hear Sunset say it.

A week after the wedding, Sunset finally decided she was ready to move on. She had not been gone from the human world as long as she thought she had, thankfully. Still, Sunset worried about what her friends might be doing to try and save her. “Remember, just send them my way,” she had told the friends of this world as they traveled through Ponyville. Much of the town was still in disarray, but the destruction had happened recently, which meant it was easily fixable. “They’re not used to this world, they’re not used to being ponies,” Sunset mentioned. I just hope they aren’t foolish enough to try and save me. That was her one fear, her only fear now. The fear of bringing whatever burden was facing her down on them, much like Princess Twilight had done to her – regardless if she had meant to or not.

“We’ll put them under intense observation to make sure they’re not changelings,” Rainbow Dash jokingly said. “But after that, I might challenge my clone to a race.”

“They’re not clones, Dash,” Twilight scolded for the fourth time, but the pegasus shrugged and flew on ahead once the crystalline table came into view.

Princess Celestia had remained in Canterlot with the newly wedded couple, leaving only Zecora and the bearers to see Sunset off. “I wish I could tell you more of the worlds you will soon face, but it is not in my fire to tell of other times and space,” Zecora had told her, also believing that Sunset would face many more trials. She had looked over the journal Sunset was copying and believed there could be an infinite amount of worlds that Sunset might face. That did not reassure Sunset, but it had already been a possibility that she knew she might face.

“I’m not looking forward to this,” Sunset complained, rolling her shoulders and feeling the straps weigh heavily on her back. “The portal gives some seriously weird vibes.”

“I can’t believe we’re actually going to see somepony disappear right before our very eyes!” Pinkie claimed. Her enthusiasm and laughter was slow to return, and her paranoia would most likely never leave her, but she was closer to the human Pinkie than that of the last world. Sunset had written all about the last world’s Pinkie and this world’s, making detailed observations about both. She even made a note, “An interesting psyche study would most likely come from studying Pinkie Pie.” She missed making notes, having forgotten most of the notes she had told herself to remember.

Twilight sighed. “Pinkie, you’ve seen me teleport like five times just today.”

“Oh, right. My bad!”

“Will the portal affect us?” Rarity happened to ask.

Sunset shook her head. They all stood around the crystal table and she lifted her front hooves onto the edge. The green trees and vines reflected the light of the hologram atop the table, they’d definitely need to beat back the Everfree Forest now that the war was over. “Don’t forget. The Tree of Harmony might need those Elements back some day.”

“We’ve got the journal,” Applejack assured, nodding.

“Be safe, Sunset,” Fluttershy said as she sat down, the other bearers following suit.

For a moment, Sunset clung to the table. She had changed her mind for a split second, wanting to stay with these friends that she had made. “Let go, Sunset,” Rarity had called out over the bellowing winds that did not affect her. Sunset did as she was told, but not before a few happy tears floated up into the portal.

Sunset felt light as a feather as she floated through time and space. She felt so light that she screamed – she couldn’t feel anything! Swinging her forelegs in front of her eyes, she could see them but not feel the weight they once had. That’s when she closed her eyes, hoping it would soon pass.

A voice washed over her. “See? You can’t stop me no matter what you do.”

Who is that voice? Sunset wondered, still praying that she would be standing inside a crystal castle, a mirror to her world only a few doors down. She felt the portal spit her out, more gently than she expected. Her legs had returned feeling and she heard the portal close but did not open her eyes. “Until I open my eyes, I’m nowhere. This is certainly my timeline,” she said loudly, her eyes squinted closed so hard it was starting to hurt. “I am in my timeline. This is my timeline. I am not-”

“From another timeline?” a voice interrupted. Sunset threw open her eyes and turned to see the legendary Nightmare Moon staring down at her. “Lost two, but gained one. Seize her!”

Arc 3: Chapter 1

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Though the hulking dark blue legend stood firmly in front of her, Sunset was in disbelief. For a thousand-year-old myth, she’s far less terrifying than that of her persona. Perhaps it was because she knew the truth of Nightmare Moon; of how she was really Princess Luna, Princess Celestia’s sister. Nothing of this fable was scary. The light azure helmet clashed with the black fur and violet eyeshadow, and her fangs looked like the triangle chips that could be bought from vending machines inside CHS. Having come from a world where Chrysalis and her needle-like teeth had controlled the entirety of Equestria, Sunset felt almost relieved to see what ruled this terrible world. “That won’t be necessary,” Sunset told the villainous alicorn. “I can’t leave.”

There had been an anger in Nightmare Moon’s eyes that spoke trouble. Something had brought her displeasure. “I’m sure that’s what the last little pony would have said had I given her the opportunity to try and trick me twice.”

“Last? I don’t suppose you mean Twilight Sparkle. A purple alicorn with a pet dragon?”

“That’s the one. Which means you also know of this time traveling ability.” Nightmare Moon motioned for the guards to intercept, to which they did so without a struggle. Sunset saw no need to put up a fight, allowing the guards to clamp down on both her forelegs. “Tell me how this portal works or else you’ll be spending a dozen lifetimes beneath Canterlot.”

Sunset had to laugh. “If I knew how it worked, do you really believe I would have teleported myself to a world where Princess Luna wasn’t redeemed? No, I’d leave that for the Elements of Harmony and their bearers.”

“The Elements of Harmony?” Nightmare Moon had her own laugh, and Sunset had to admit it was far more menacing than the rest of her. “They sided with Celestia, and I made sure to cast them away once she was defeated. Not to mention she’s been locked within the moon for years.”

“I wasn’t talking about Celestia – I said the bearers.” Sunset moved to unlock her forelegs from the guards, but they made no move to let her go. She grunted and huffed, giving up almost immediately. It’s a new world and I’m already tired of it, she thought as she teleported up onto the table. The sudden flash had spooked the two guards, and another pair were already clambering onto the table. “This map lights up whenever I touch it,” Sunset said, ignoring Nightmare Moon’s minions as if they were mosquitos. “It shows the bearer’s cutie marks,” she continued, motioning at the holographic map that appeared beneath her hooves.

Six cutie marks and a white tree stuck out compared to the rest of the map. Two were extremely close to the place she stood, Sunset noted, while the other four were also in close proximity to each other. Canterlot. A guard pawed at her from The Crystal Empire, which was thankfully not covered in crystals. Much of the world looked the same or as much as Sunset could remember from what she saw when the first portal had swallowed her. No changeling army or brainwashed soldiers. Just an eternal night.

“Interesting,” Nightmare Moon announced, glaring down at the unveiled map with her sharp, cat-like eyes. “A map of Equestria. These markings – cutie marks? And that-” She pointed at the Tree of Harmony “-Is that what I think it is?”

“These are cutie marks of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony,” Sunset replied, and was about to say more before one of the guards pulled her off the table.

The slam against the earth was jarring, and so was the pushing of her head against the cold grass. Sunset tried to struggle – and was about to use her magic when suddenly the guard’s grip loosened and she was able to push herself up. “That’s my cutie mark!” the guard said, their voice faltering.

“What!?” Nightmare Moon shouted and growled within the same breath. At the alicorn’s demand, the guard removed their helmet and undid the straps of their armor.

Sunset couldn’t believe her eyes – it was Rainbow Dash. The shaved mohawk looked very much like something Rainbow would do if she wasn’t friends with Rarity, which meant this world’s Rainbow Dash certainly wasn’t. When Rainbow Dash turned her flank to show off the cutie mark that matched the one on the table, Sunset noticed that her tail was trimmed neatly and her wings had been wrapped around her sides with white tape, though Sunset did not know why.

“You! What is this sorcery? Why does this involve a member of my royal guard?” Nightmare Moon demanded of Sunset, almost shouting her questions. The chilly, almost foggy air of the forest made the alicorn’s breath visible like that of a seeping miasma.

“I already told you – Rainbow Dash and these five other cutie marks are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. The Tree of Harmony accepts them as such, regardless of the timeline or how much it’s distorted,” Sunset replied, growing tired of explaining to deft ears. If she decides to throw me in the dungeon, perhaps she’ll put Rainbow Dash there as well. Regardless… She eyed the glowing Tree of Harmony. It had not glowed since the world where King Sombra had waged war. I should try and coerce a visit to the cave before I plan for any sort of imprisonment.

While Rainbow Dash threw back on her armor, Nightmare Moon pondered over the revelation. “I see. And these bearers who wield the Elements of Harmony – they defeat those they deem as evil? Could they be used to further strengthen my Equestria?” Nightmare Moon asked, her voice was chillingly calm. She was circling the table, her cat-like eyes never disturbed from their stare.

The gears clicked for Sunset. I could tell her I’m an alien and she might just believe me – so long as I’m willing to help her, she bemused, laughing within her own mind, remaining expressionless for the evil alicorn. “The bearers have defeated countless villains that have threatened the sanctity of Equestria. I could help in aiding that power surface, for you.” Sunset stepped toward Nightmare Moon, glancing up at the black fur that almost reminded her of Chrysalis.

“And why would you do that?” Nightmare Moon replied, a chastising tone spouting from her dark lips.

“You’ll never be able to use the portal or travel through time. The portal only affects me and no one else, that’s how it’s been the last two worlds. The Elements of Harmony on the other hoof…” Sunset paused, throwing up her eyebrows. “Well, uniting the bearers and sitting them on these chairs – that gets me home. If you want the Elements of Harmony, which could certainly strengthen your Equestria, we could arrange a deal.”

Sunset was lying, of course. There would be no way she’d willingly help a villain keep their hold on Equestria, but she had grown tired of wars, prisons, and fighting. Sticking heavily on the back of such a villain would give her an edge that opposing her could not. But Nightmare Moon didn’t need to know that. I’ve done worse things than lie, Sunset thought, believing her plan would be acceptable and patting herself on the back for the improvisation skills she thought she did not have. Maybe I don’t need that class after all.

Nightmare Moon looked to weigh her options heavily, her pupils twitching as they glanced between Sunset and the map. Then, those chip-like fangs bore a smile. “Just who are you?”

“My name is Sunset Shimmer.”

The name stung the nightmare, but instead of souring, the evil alicorn burst with laughter. “An ironic little thing you are. Very well, Sunset Shimmer, from this day forward we have a pact. If you begin to disappoint me, just remember that the dungeons are very roomy.” She paused, her smile turning sour. “And should you fail to bring what you have promised, there won’t be a universe that you could escape to that will be safe from the likes of me.”

I have my doubts, Sunset mocked but said nothing. A simple nod was all she gave as a response to the threat. “I’ll need my own room, access to a library, and of course the bearers rounded up. I’ll also need to visit the Tree of Harmony.”

“The latter will have to wait. I should like to meet these bearers before we proceed.” Nightmare Moon turned to the guard known as Rainbow Dash. “Let us return to Everfree Castle before making our way to Canterlot. When we get there, you will temporarily be relieved of your duties for an indeterminate amount of time. Instead, you will remain as a guard to Sunset, keeping a watchful and informative eye on her.”

Sunset didn’t enjoy being spied on but she knew that having Rainbow Dash close by would only be a boon to her plans. Of course, she did not know what her plans might be yet, but it was a good start. “Yes, ma’am!” Rainbow Dash saluted, and they began to lead Sunset away from the map. Taking a glance over her shoulder, her chin brushing the strap from her backpack, Sunset wondered what the differences would be within this timeline. Another war? Brainwashed citizens?

She did not need to wonder for long. The arch stone bridge they traversed allowed Sunset to see a castle she had discovered in another world, one that was ruined and covered in foliage. This castle was the opposite in every regard. Colors of blue, purple, and white mixed together, fires of cobalt lighting the way. It was the Castle of the Two Sisters, restored in all of its former glory, now renamed Everfree Castle. Sunset had not expected something so beautiful, and for a moment she became lost within herself.

The changelings had turned the world sour, destroying homes and rewriting cities. All the work she had done to prepare herself for the worst, all the planning and ideas she had gathered and written, it had been for naught. Even the magical training that she had done in her last few days of the previous world, it seemed almost pointless now. As she stood, wide-eyed and mouth agape, she realized that her entire strategy was now out the window. She had planned for the worst world possible.

What she got was the best of all possible worlds.

Sunset was nervous but not afraid. Nightmare Moon had remained quiet until they stepped inside the refurnished castle. “Welcome to the gallery of the past,” the alicorn said, extending a surprising welcome to the great hall. Sunset had been here before, standing next to a piece of the ceiling that had collapsed, where grass had sprouted up along the sides. Now, blue flame torches brightened the silky drapes that depicted the moon and ponies celebrating beneath. Glass windows let in the moon’s gorgeous cerulean rays of light. Everything was blue. The ceiling, the walls, the flames. Everything aside from the rug beneath their hooves – and even that was a dark burgundy with a dusky shade of bronze hemming. As they trotted up a short set of cyan steps, Sunset breathed heavily. Her body was in awe of the throne at which Nightmare Moon sat. A crescent moon was sculptured into the seat, and more banners depicting Nightmare Moon ranged the walls beside the windows. It was nothing like the dusty landscape she remembered.

Sunset found herself muttering and following the villainess across the great hall. Everything was spectacular, and she only wondered what the library of this place might look like. As they came closer to the crescent seat, Nightmare Moon took her place and Sunset was following her up, but the guards quickly intervened, pushing her back to the bottom.

The villainess did not mind the guards superseding, they were doing their duty, after all. “Have one of the castle guards go the half-mile into the woods and find that table. I want it guarded night and true night. Should the little world hopper escape our custody, I don’t want her fleeing this world.” She paused, grinned, and then said, “Not to mention anypony else that might come through.” Nightmare’s command was fulfilled immediately by one of her guards running off. It was not Rainbow Dash, however. The pegasus stood closest to Nightmare Moon compared to any other guard.

The alicorn then barked another command, “Gather up my staff, we’re leaving shortly. We’ll trudge through the true night if need be. I want to be in Canterlot before my beautiful moon rises to greet the new night.” Clearly satisfied, Nightmare Moon rose and began to make her way off the pedestal she had placed herself on. Sunset was going to follow the villainess, but again the guards stopped her. “I shall return momentarily. Do not wander far,” Nightmare Moon commanded. A few guards went with her, disappearing behind a solid spruce door, which was painted blue just like the rest of the castle.

Sunset was happy to oblige the hulking monster. The joy she felt for this world was almost impalpable, even the air felt clearer. The stench of the changelings had suffocated her even long after they had been expelled from Equestria, but this world only smelled like lavender and lilies. Even the guards were a fresh mint, though only a few had remained behind.

Rainbow Dash was one of those few, her purple armor hiding everything but the color of her fur and eyes. Sunset took a moment to examine the armor piece, half because she worried she might one day be wearing it as a disguise, and another half because she found it surprisingly interesting. Starting at the hooves, she noted how the design was reminiscent of the shoes Princess Celestia often wore, though much smaller. The armor, dark blue, purple, and mauve, had a gem at the center of the chest which looked like one of Nightmare Moon’s eyes. Sunset glanced to the other guards and noticed they all had wings. The tails, made of the same material as the rest of the armor, hid what their real tails looked like.

“How can you fly in that?” Sunset asked Rainbow Dash. “How can you even sit down?” She had blurted her questions willy-nilly, but there was little else to do except examine the tapestries again.

The pegasus stared with ruby eyes so sharp they might as well be able to cut an apple in half. They then turned, looking at the other guards, before focusing back on the unicorn. She did not answer vocally, instead, the wings of the armor began to flap and she hoisted herself into the air. As if to show off, Rainbow Dash slammed her butt down in front of Sunset, the metal tail crushing like rubber against her weight. “Satisfied?” Rainbow Dash growled as she stood back up.

Sunset glanced up at the helmet Dash wore, noticing the moon’s mark upon the helmet, just below the fin. At first, Sunset thought it was a fish’s fin, but the pattern resembled closely to that of the wings on the cuirass – bat wings. “I suppose,” Sunset replied, giving one last glance before backing away. Though I’m curious how those wings operate, she pondered, thinking of the taped wings that sat beneath the dark armor.

She let it go, for now, turning to glance over the draperies once more. She wondered how long she would be stuck within this world. Though she felt nervous, it was also exciting. There’s so much of the world to learn, and for once it might be peaceful. Taking a moment to feel slightly giddy, she unzipped her backpack and levitated the notebook her friends of the last world had given her. She had jotted down a page for the first world, which she aptly named the ‘Crystal War’ timeline, and one for the previous world, which she named the ‘Resistance’ timeline. On the third page, she held a pen at the top, thinking hard of what she could name this world. ‘The Night’s Hold’ came to mind, to which she started to write but then quickly erased it. ‘Nightmare’s Night’ was the second she thought of for this timeline, and she was quite proud of herself for the title, even if it was more simplistic. I wonder if this Equestria still celebrates Nightmare Night.

She scribbled down a few notes, making details specific of the armor that the guards wore, and then turned back to the first page. The Crystal War was mostly blank other than describing a few character traits and the appearances of her friends. At the bottom she had written, “What happens matters,” and, “We matter.” Staring over so much blank space, she began mentally kicking herself for not remembering more. That was when a voice spoke to her.

“Water?” The honeyed tone was so quaint compared to what Sunset was used to that she did not expect to see a familiar face.

“Ra-Rarity?” Sunset stammered. She had seen the cutie mark but did not know what to expect. The purple hair and tail were neatly wrapped in a bun, and the dark indigo outfit the white unicorn wore perfectly accented their color. This Rarity was the closest thing to normal that Sunset had witnessed from any of the worlds she visited.

Of course, this wasn’t a normal world, and this wasn’t her Rarity. “Do you want the water or not?” the curt question ripped from Rarity’s mouth like a broken fountain. She motioned for Sunset to take the crystal clear glass from the silver platter within her magical grasp.

Sunset did as she was instructed but made no move to drink it. “I can’t believe I found you so easily. Are you one of the staff working under Nightmare Moon?”

“No,” Rarity replied. “I do not have that privilege.”

“You do now,” a guttural voice said. Dark blue mist had poured into the room, filtering to the ceiling. Sunset had been too bewitched by the discovery of Rarity that she hadn’t noticed. The mist transformed into Nightmare Moon, or it had always been Nightmare Moon, Sunset couldn’t decide which. Either way, the villainess had returned. “It’s your lucky day, my sweet gallery’s manager. You’re coming with us to Canterlot.”

“As you wish, princess,” Rarity said, bowing her head. “I’ll pack my things immediately.”

Sunset wanted more than just a moment to talk with the fellow unicorn, but she did not get that luxury. “Another of your little bearers, what a small world it is.” For a moment, Sunset thought Nightmare Moon was surprised to find another bearer just like she was, but she listened to the tone of the alicorn’s voice over and over in her head. She knew Nightmare Moon had seen the cutie marks, and Rarity’s were quite visible. She was testing my reaction, Sunset realized, glancing up at the expressionless alicorn. There was a small curve to the edge of her lips right where they met her cheeks, and that’s when Sunset knew she was right in her guess.

“Where did you run off to?” Sunset asked, avoiding the talk of the bearers.

“I have an empire to run, and I was simply visiting Everfree Castle on holiday,” Nightmare Moon replied. “As chance would have it, I picked the right day for a bit of relaxation. A time traveler appears on my doorstep claiming Celestia beat me, then disappears and brings for another who is willing to help me utilize the Elements of Harmony. I did not expect to have to leave so soon. Preparations had to be made, letters sent. My citizens require me for every little thing, and somepony like you might become gossip.”

Sunset tilted her head and furrowed her brow. Obviously, a pony from another world would be unique, but she could not fathom why she would be gossiped about. The face she made was easily read by Nightmare Moon, who added, “Did you think I would hide you from my public? No, no. You see, there’s one thing they fear in this world.” Nightmare Moon leaned her head down to get as close to Sunset as she could, her grin was far more menacing up close. “The sun, my dear Sunset. They fear the sun.”

It was a cryptic message, and Sunset hated the idea of not understanding something. “Fear the sun?” she repeated. She didn’t understand, which made the question very convincing. “Surely there’s a group, somepony out there who hates your night.” She was overextending her plan and her beliefs, giving a small bit of insight into what she could possibly be planning. Not that she was actually planning anything, yet.

Nightmare Moon turned away, her grin still plastered on her face. “Somepony who hates my night? No. But there is a group – one that would pull you off the streets if you were heard saying anything negative about my rule. They’re a group of fanatics.” Her smile soured. “If they weren’t for my rule, I would have removed whatever zealots I’ve found. They’re the ones I must plan carefully for, and they won’t take kindly to your arrival.”

The evil alicorn hushed herself instantly when she noticed Rarity return with a couple of suitcases. A second later and one of her guards also returned. “It looks like everything is ready for our trip,” Nightmare Moon rejoiced, turning back to Sunset. “I do hope I didn’t frighten you. So long as you obey me, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with the extremists.”

Sunset did the one thing Nightmare Moon hadn’t expected – she laughed. “Zealots? Are you kidding? I’ve fought brainwashed soldiers and changelings, a crystal king and a silver queen. Zealots sound like a cakewalk.”

Whether Nightmare Moon was impressed or displeased, Sunset did not know nor care. Compared to sneaking through a blasted crystal wall, traversing half of Equestria, or disguising as another species, fanatics were nothing.

“Very well, let us take our leave,” Nightmare Moon replied, motioning them out of the great hall.

With all of her ideas and plans for this world seemingly in ruin, the trip to Canterlot was a good reprieve. Sunset had gotten her own flying chariot with Rainbow Dash as her guard. She did not see where Rarity was kept, and Nightmare Moon had her own palanquin, a giant monstrosity that kept her hidden from the world. It was dragged by five guards across the sky, while Sunset’s chariot required a measly two. Dash remained quiet the entire trip, and Sunset did not bother to voice her plans to the pegasus so soon. She’ll be loyal to Nightmare Moon, Sunset knew, one of the many thoughts she gleaned during the moonlit ride.

But thinking wasn’t the only thing Sunset did. Her eyes watched the world as they passed. Most of the earth below was covered in grey fog or thick clouds. When they sailed north over the town of Ponyville, the haze parted, and Sunset saw the town intact and lively for the first time in two worlds. Ponies went about their business, completely unaware of the presence flying over them. Though the sun was gone, they lived their lives. Shopping, eating, buying, and selling. Bright yellowish grey fires sung in the street lamps, forever on regardless of the hour. In the distance, Sunset could see the farmland known as Sweet Apple Acres. Pink leaves stood out in contrast to the green pine and oak that surrounded the farmstead, and the glow of cyan lit up the trees like Hearth’s Warming decorative lights.

That’s when her eyes turned upward, toward the moon, and she realized how low it had become. It dwindled in the west, cutting in half the unicorn-like face that had always been there. The last blue beams of moonlight stretched toward Canterlot, which they were fast approaching. It stood out from the mountain it was cut into, well above the grey clouds and mist. Sunset could see the first few off-white, rotund buildings sticking up past Nightmare Moon’s palanquin, and she held her breath as she waited to see the rest. As more and more came into view, it looked as normal as normal could be for a world without a sun. Banners of blue stuck out against the cream gold of the towers and violet roofs, and the city was lit with the same light blue fire that had been in the Everfree Castle. A perfect city that stood taller than any other.

The closer they came, the lower to the ground they went, passing below the fog and hitting the gravel road below. Sunset had not expected such a bump and had fallen backward into Rainbow Dash, who shrugged her back the other way. The dizzying experience left Sunset dazed for a moment, but she was quick to regain her senses just in time to see the black iron gates open to the city of Canterlot. The gate guards were decked out in the same sort of armor as Nightmare’s royal guard, but without the wings. Wings were saved for the ponies who stood watch in the guard tower, a one story, open-air imperial platform that stood just behind the black iron fence. There were more positioned at every gate, and they stood prominently compared to the rest of Canterlot’s buildings. Sunset made a mental note to write about the short turrets in her journal. It’s a shame the last world did not have them, maybe they could have beat the changelings if their defenses had been better.

Sunset was snapped away from her thoughts as she heard screaming. For a moment she worried, but then saw the ponies coming out of their homes and realized what it was. The blue rays of moonlight coated fillies and colts, mares and stallions, all who were screaming with delight. “Nightmare Moon! Nightmare Moon!” they shouted, waving flags and trotting in place. “Princess! Princess!” others whinnied, hoping to gain a look from their beloved leader. Some even whispered questions as they looked in Sunset’s direction.

This was the first time Sunset had seen Nightmare Moon since she boarded her palanquin. The villainess poured out in mist form, appearing suddenly atop the roof of her litter. She’s smiling, Sunset noted, staring intently as the alicorn waved to her public. This was the second thing that Sunset did not understand tonight, but it would not be the last. As they slowly traveled up the pale limestone road to Canterlot’s castle, every window as bright as lightning, Sunset glanced above at the dark sky. It’s darker than usual. Turning her head, looking past the guard known as Rainbow Dash, Sunset saw the moon had disappeared. “Where’s the moon?” she asked herself, wondering if it had set.

Rainbow Dash answered her with a fit of laughter. “Guess you really aren’t from this world. Welcome to the Forever Night. Night is over, and now it’s true night. The princess pushed her drivers into overtime, I guess she’s just as tired as the rest of us.” Rainbow Dash yawned, patting her open mouth.

There had been astrological differences between Equestria and the human world that had made Sunset’s head spin back when she first stepped through the magic mirror. Now, in a world where no sun shined, her mind almost collapsed in on itself. “Buh-wuh-huh?” was the unintelligible sound Sunset made, her jaw slacked to the side as she stared at Rainbow Dash. There was no mistaking it now. This world was vastly different from the last two. War and strife had torn those timelines to shreds, but here, the changes were entirely different and just as drastic.

A bout of questions pummeled Sunset’s brain, but they would have to wait. The caravan that Nightmare Moon had brought home ended at a side entrance to the castle where a guest tower stood in the grass a few yards away, light burning through the gigantic window of its study. When the giant timber door to the castle shot open, Nightmare Moon stepped onto the marble walkway. “Princess!” A shadow stood in the light, their hoof outstretched. It wasn’t until the pony stepped down the steps that their face became clear. “Everything is prepared for you and your new guest, as commanded. We’ve also prepared some delicacies should you be hungry, and your room is nice and toasty if you desire to retire for the true night.”

White fur, a gorgeous smile, and long blonde bangs – Sunset was stupefied. “Prince Blueblood?” she blurted the name.

The supposed prince was startled by the recognition, but it was Nightmare Moon who laughed. “A faulty title given by my sister to those she deemed ‘worthy’. No. I am the only one who has earned that title. This is my head of castle staff. Just Blueblood will do.”

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” the No-Longer-A-Prince Blueblood said, bowing, his bangs perfectly still. “If you require anything during your stay, please make use of our staff. We do our best to serve.”

Sunset did not remember everything of the Blueblood from her world, though the one she met in the Resistance timeline was fairly charming. She could smell the powder on this Blueblood, along with whatever fragrance he wore. He was perfectly pristine enough to be a prince, even without the title. But Blueblood was not her main concern. If there are no princes or princesses, what happened to Princess Cadance? What of Shining Armor?

It was just another question that would have to wait. “Call for my apprentice,” Nightmare Moon instructed Blueblood, and then turned to Sunset. “Come,” she commanded and Sunset obeyed, following closely behind the dark leader.

Unlike what the changelings had done, the castle in this world was far different. The size and shape remained the same, but the colors danced differently than what Sunset remembered as a filly. Perhaps they had not been the same in the Resistance timeline, the inability to see preventing an actual look at the décor, but it was clear this world’s Canterlot Castle was not Celestia’s home. Overhead, chandeliers of silver held a bluish white fire, a sort of different tone than the rest of the city. It reminded Sunset of the fluorescent lighting that CHS had when she first arrived in the human world – they had since changed to a light-emitting diode, otherwise known as LEDs.

At first, Sunset had assumed they were heading to the throne room and she would get to see the differences in style between Nightmare Moon, the changeling queen, and Princess Celestia. Instead, they reached something Sunset did not expect.

An elevator.

The metal doors pulled open, revealing a box filled with floor to ceiling mirrors. Nightmare Moon was the first to step through, and Sunset followed with Rainbow Dash and another guard on her tail. “An elevator in Canterlot Castle?” Sunset wondered aloud as she stiffened her shoulders, feeling the sudden movement of the lift rising.

“Have you never been in an elevator?” Nightmare Moon replied with her own question, but immediately cut to an explanation, “When I took over my sister’s position, I quickly visited every city within Equestria. It was Manehattan that I saw these beauties. In Fillydelphia I discovered indoor plumbing. My sister and I come from an age where the world was smaller. The biggest building we had ever seen at the time was The Crystal Empire’s castle, which stood much taller than anything we had within our city. Canterlot gave me the same experience, and I quickly understood why Celestia made it her home over the castle we had shared in what is now the Everfree Forest. I decide to remain here instead of the broken down Castle of the Two Sisters. After fixing it up, I made it into a peaceful remnant of the past, Everfree Castle.”

“I see. I’m actually not quite clear on the details of The Crystal Empire. I know you and Celestia defeated Sombra – but what happened with his return?”

“Who? Sombra? Sombra’s return?” Nightmare Moon snorted and giggled like a filly laughing over a dorky pun. “When The Crystal Empire returned, so did that stallion. He expected me and my sister, but he got something far more powerful. The moon was too good for him – I returned him to the darkness that he had come from. My sister is the only one who deserves a thousand years on the moon, which was no worse than the fate she bequest upon me.”

Sunset was only now realizing that she did not inquire as to the whereabouts of the evil king in the last world. Hopefully they won’t have to deal with him like that of the first world. They’ve had enough problems. “If you don’t mind me asking,” Sunset began to say as the doors of the elevator opened. “Is The Crystal Empire returned to its former glory?”

Nightmare Moon trotted out and turned left, a guard keeping to her right side. “You mean to ask if the Crystal Heart affected me, don’t you? You’re curious as to how the world sees me,” Nightmare Moon accused. Her cat-like eyes pulled to stare down at Sunset who trotted on her left. “Please, try not to lie. I only want the truth,” she encouraged, which was clearly a lie. Anyone with ears could tell that.

“I’m just trying to figure out how this world operates. Just so long as the ponies are happy,” Sunset dodged. She could feel Nightmare Moon’s words pressed against her like a club, ready to strike should she say something the villainess not care to hear.

It was then that Sunset recognized the hall that they had come to, a small corridor past a set of doors with another door at the end and to the right. Celestia’s room. They passed through the open doorway. No guards were kept here, and so no one would call Sunset a chump should she ever need to sneak into the bedroom. Both Rainbow Dash and the other guard suddenly stopped, taking their posts at the door where Sunset assumed no guards were kept, instantly ruining her last thought. She sighed, continuing to be beside Nightmare Moon as they walked into a room that would have been filled with toys and clutter had things gone differently for this world.

Instead, the room was much the same as Sunset remembered from her years under Celestia. The carved in shelving held a plethora of novels and novellas, the fireplace held white logs burning a bright blue aura of fire, and the bed that Nightmare Moon slept on was unsheeted, only a few plum colored pillows were kept near the rails. The furniture had been moved ever so slightly compared to that of the changeling queen. While the fireplace had remained in the same spot, sitting just to the left as she entered, the bed was now on the opposite side of the hearth.

In the place where the bed had been in the Resistance timeline, a metal trunk sat. It was black with a brown lock and brown hinges, the key still left in the slot. Other than that, nothing had changed so far as Sunset could tell. The skylight, which would have let the sun in, now only displayed the darkness of space and as many bright stars as could be seen in the firmament.

Nightmare Moon relaxed on her bed, leaning herself onto her side and resting her back legs off the edge. “My true night is here, the time once my moon is set. There is no day within this world, only night and true night. I had once desired to keep my moon risen for all of the time, but my citizens complained of the inability to tell the hour, and so I customized my system.” Nightmare Moon must have realized that Sunset had questions, for she continued the explanation, “If you know of my past, then you know I was jealous of my sister. Ponies played in her awful sunlight and slept whilst my moon rose. Now, they play and frolic in my moonlit nights, and sleep when it sets.”

“Surely you know what you’re doing is wrong. How can ponies live without the sun?”

“My sister locked me away for a thousand years!” Nightmare Moon snarled, albeit it was a tired reaction. “The sun only caused strife to the world. It made nighttime the time when darkness crept up in the world and ne’er-do-wells roamed the streets looking for victims. It brought unbearable heat, while my moon brings the ocean waves and comforting coolness.”

Was this the right time to ask? Nightmare Moon seemed to want to show all the good she had done for the world, but Sunset knew there was one thing Nightmare Moon could never claim was good. But is now the right time to question her about it? Sunset wondered. She thought for a moment and decided against it. I’ll ask somepony far less angry. Instead, she asked, “What about food? The weather? A world with no sun, it can’t be-”

“Livable?” Nightmare Moon hooted for a moment, her eyes resting. “I could answer that – but it would spoil the fun of seeing your reaction first hoof.” She shook her head. “No. You’ll answer my questions, not the other way around.”

“What questions could you have for me?” Sunset did not expect a quiz. Answers would not come easy.

“You know who I am, you know my sister. What am I in your word, the world you came from?”

That one was actually pretty easy. “You were redeemed by the Elements of Harmony. My friends took you down with their bond of friendship. It’s the same way-” Sunset stopped herself. She did not want to let on that she had once been a failure in the ways of friendship. “The same way they dealt with all the villains,” she was quick to adlib.

Nightmare Moon’s eyes popped. “All? Who exactly?”

“Well, there was you,” answered Sunset, “and I believe Discord was second or maybe third.”

“Discord? He returned? He would have been a fool to do so in this world – I would not have turned him to stone or sent him to the dark abyss like I did with Sombra.” The evil alicorn seethed for a moment, her mouth scrunching as she turned to stare at the fire.

“Well, he did in my world. Queen Chrysalis, the leader of the changelings, was also a well-known nemesis for my friends.”

Nightmare Moon shifted in her seat, curiosity creeping behind the pools of shiny blue pebbles. “What is a changeling?” she asked.

Sunset wanted to collapse to the floor at that very moment.

There had been many changes that she had not expected. So many instances of things growing separate from her base time. But this one took the cake. Twilight… What did you do? Sunset asked herself. She held a hoof to her head, feeling the room spinning. The hardest challenge Sunset had ever faced – more than sirens or rampaging magic – wasn’t even a problem on the backburner for this world.

“You seem exhausted.” Nightmare Moon sounded empathetic, but the evil grin she held told a different story. “Guards,” she called, and Rainbow Dash appeared. “Take Sunset to her room, and have someone on duty outside her door.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Rainbow Dash saluted. She then took Sunset by the foreleg, pulling the unicorn out into the hall. Sunset’s mind was still in a daze, and she felt like she had been slammed into by Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy all over again, tumbling down a hill of unknown factors and separate histories.

When they reached the elevator and entered, Sunset stared at the reflection of Rainbow Dash. “Dash…” she spoke softly, trying to keep her growing headache from kicking in. “Tell me something of this world. Something fresh, something I might not know.”

The pegasus’s eyes glanced from beneath the helmet, a hint of recoil beneath the soft cerise pools. “I don’t know what you don’t know. I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she evaded.

“Tell me… Tell me of the Wonderbolts,” Sunset requested.

Rainbow Dash did not falter. “They’ve been disbanded for years, ever since the princess took over. It’s difficult to fly in darkness, and it was unsafe for them to continue their daring shows.”

Sunset didn’t care about the Wonderbolts. She barely knew anything about the pegasus showcase other than the name sounded vaguely similar to the Wondercolts, and that the Rainbow Dash of the Crystal War timeline had spoken about it. Still, it hit hard. “There’s so many things, so much cause and effect,” she muttered to herself, already missing the changelings.

“Get over it,” Dash replied, shaking her head so much that the fin atop her helmet wiggled.

Sunset continued to stare at the pegasus’s reflection. She did not bother to reply or get angry. All she wanted to do was get some rest. The tired feeling that had been caused by an overloaded circuit in her brain was making her eyelids heavy. Her vision was blurrier by the minute and she was thankful to be led to a room, though she did not know which floor they had put her on. In the end, it didn’t matter, she could see plainly she was a few stories up just based on staring out from her room’s window.

Not even bothering to say goodnight, Rainbow Dash had closed the door, locking it from the other side. Sunset would have told her it was pointless – being a unicorn she could go wherever she pleased – but she did not have the ability to argue. Sunset wondered what the hour truly was as she patted the feathered comforter of the room’s queen-sized bed. After throwing off her backpack and closing the curtain, she pushed open the burgundy blanket and slid herself onto the silk sheets, resting her head on the coolest pillow she had ever felt. Her eyes danced around the room that was basically her prison.

The door was to the right near the end of her bed. The window was to the left in the middle of the wall, a small table that held colorful flowers sat beneath it. Two end tables were on both sides of the bed, to which the veiled orange canopy was tied to. She thought to release the straps, making it like a tent, but decided against it. There was a vanity on the opposite side of the room near the door, a mirror reflecting the tired expression she held.

When she flicked off the lights with her magic, the room was gone. She hadn’t closed her eyes but it didn’t matter. Whether they were open or closed, there was no color in the world for her anymore. Pure darkness.

The tiredness she felt suddenly disappeared. It was replaced with something she hadn’t bothered feeling since arriving in the new world. She hiked up the blanket to her chin, feeling her stomach curdle into stone. Every sound rang out like a horn. Trots, drops, doors, and snores. There had to be something coming for her, it could be right in front of her face and she wouldn’t know it. Canterlot Castle had been dark in the last world, but even that darkness was different. It swirled or twisted, her eyes creating the shapes of objects and basic coloring. Here, in this pitch-black world, there was nothing. Blindness.

As she sat in her bed, terrified of the world, it was ended by everything bursting to life around her. Golden flowers spread like wildfire across a grassy field, a knoll holding an indigo gazebo with her friends – her human friends – sitting at the benches. “What in Equestria?” Sunset spoke up, raising her hoof out of habit. “Am I dreaming?” she said, lucid, struggling to comprehend the world. “Or is this a nightmare?”

The golden flowers pushed out of her way as she galloped toward the gazebo. The smell of freshly cut grass wafted into her nostrils, tickling the hairs. Coming closer to the gazebo, she knew they couldn’t really be her friends, but it was the closest thing to them as she had seen in a long while. Dreams had not come pleasantly when she had been kept in her pod, and it took her a moment to realize she wasn’t in the changeling world anymore. “Nightmare Moon,” she said aloud and expected the world to turn into a black and blue nightmarish land. It didn’t, the sky was dark already. Her human friends sat around talking to each other, all perfectly calm and normal, or as normal as humans could be.

“Sunset Shimmer!” Pinkie screamed at the top of her lungs, rushing to grab the pony in her human arms. As lucid as she was, Sunset hadn’t expected the world to feel so real. And the arms of the human Pinkie Pie were as real as real could be. Grabbing the flesh and feeling the bone beneath the muscle, Sunset kneaded the skin. “You’re not a cat, silly,” the human Pinkie said, petting the unicorn’s mane.

“We’ve been waiting for you, Sunset,” the human Twilight said, her glasses dangling on the bridge of her nose. “All of us.”

“All?” Sunset repeated, and Pinkie Pie turned back to the entrance of the gazebo.

Sunset had been right, it was a nightmare.

The golden flowers had transformed into ponies. Not just any ponies, however. Closest to the gazebo, a Rainbow Dash with a metal wing stood beside a mane-less, vest wearing Twilight. There were more, much more. A hundred, a thousand, Sunset couldn’t tell. All were different, all from separate worlds, and all were staring at her. “Wh-What do you want?” Sunset asked.

“Aren’t we friends?” all the Rarity’s asked in response.

But it was all the Fluttershy’s who replied, “You’re supposed to be our friend, yet you left us all behind.”

That was when the arms of Pinkie grew tight. “You left us without saying goodbye,” the human Rainbow Dash growled, and the human Applejack repeated the same words, “You left us without saying goodbye.”

“I-I’m trying to get back to you!” Sunset claimed, struggling in Pinkie’s grip, her back legs kicking to no success. “I want to see you again!”

“What about us?” all the pony Twilight’s chorused. “Aren’t we your friends? Are you going to leave us too?”

“Twilight!” Sunset called, and all the ponies changed to Princess Twilight. “Help me!”

A knock awoke Sunset, her eyes adjusted to the dark room quickly. With her magic, she tossed open the curtain, pouring moonlight into the room. Sweat beat down her face as she threw off the strangling blanket, the weight of the comforter was even worse from the amount of perspiration that had soaked into it. Another knock caused her to roll off the silk sheets, which were soaked with sweat as well. “Coming!” she called, panting like she had just run a five hundred mile marathon. She clambered for the knob and pulled open the door, sending a wave of light blinding from the hall.

“Are you alright?” a feminine voice asked. “You’re whiter than my brother.”

“Your brother?” Sunset rubbed her eyes, yawning at the same time. “I’m fine. I just had a nightmare. That’s all.”

“A nightmare? That’s impossible.”

“There’s a lot of things I’ve seen that are-” Sunset opened her eyes, and then opened them wider once she realized who she had been speaking to “-impossible…” A purple unicorn stood in front of her. Dark grey glasses sat on the mare’s muzzle, her moderate violet hair pulled back into a bun. She wore an indigo-colored overcoat that stopped at her flank, with a pure white shirt underneath, Nightmare Moon’s eye sat pinned on her lapel. Her tail was trimmed so short that you couldn’t even see the rosy magenta streak in-between the purple. “Twilight?” Sunset croaked befuddledly.

“Oh, Nightmare Moon already told you about me then. Hello there.” The purple unicorn extended a hoof, her cuffs were pulled back revealing the white of the undershirt ever so slightly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Twilight Sparkle, Nightmare Moon’s apprentice – but I guess you already knew that.”