Chapter Twenty Eight - Perpendicular Perspectives - Between Rivals


Ugh. Just – just ugh.

Sunset was painfully adorable. Little five-year-old Sunset had an even more uncontrollable appetite for butterscotch than I did. My mouth was still watering at the memory, but the aftertaste was gone. And I still didn’t know why Sunset and I liked it so much.

Well, besides the obvious reason. Butterscotch was scrumptious.

But a love of butterscotch wasn’t all I had in common with…with Mother.

A shiver ran through me. That… I didn’t think I could call Sunset that, at least not yet. M-maybe later. After I’d had time to…settle.

So…so Sunset and I. Sunset had been as magic crazy of a filly as I’d been at her age, just with a lot less raw magic to throw around. But what she’d lacked in pure power, she’d more than made up for in enthusiasm. Whatever had happened to her – my – our magic must not have been a proper reset.

Granted, Sunset had still been crazy strong for somepony who had literally just turned five. She’d been a huge wingful of trouble if the memory I’d just seen were a representative sample. But she’d only been stronger than her parents, not giving alicorns like Cadance trouble the way I had.

And all of that, I’d – I’d taken away. Sunset was gone. Her parents had never found out and had never had a chance to say goodbye, let alone a chance to protect her.

Luna hadn’t had a choice, but that – that was still so terrible for Sunset’s parents. I’d never forgive myself if I let Spike, or Shining, or Mom, or Dad, or Cadance die without even being there to try and stop it, let alone Luna or Twinkleshine.

I looked back up at the window one last time before departing, gazing at Sunset’s parents. My right wing came forward to brush a tear out of my eye. If they were still around, maybe they’d be interested in a grandfilly who took a lot after her mo…their daughter.

How old would they be now? Between this memory and Sunset’s death, there’d been roughly thirty years. Then if they’d had Sunset at twenty-five, they would’ve been around sixty when she died. Now twenty-ish years later, they’d be about eighty.

Well…maybe Sunset’s mother would still be alive. Mares tended to live longer and marry younger. I could cast a spell to make her young again, and then maybe I could…could…what? W-would she even want me around? I hadn’t exactly been involved in – in Sunset’s assassination, but…

I let up on the pressure on my lip and shook the thought away for some other time. I wasn’t even sure meeting Sunset’s parents could end in anything but pain on both sides. If the same thing happened to me and Spike, I probably wouldn’t want to get to know New Spike. It – it would hurt too much to see so much of my cute little dragon in the new one.

I took a deep breath to clear my thoughts. I wouldn’t lose Spike now, especially not just after ascending and gaining access to dragon magic as an alicorn. I could finally properly teach him how to use his magic. Just knowing the theory without any actual practice was kind of like asking a blind mare to describe an elephant.

But that wasn’t what I should be thinking about. I owed it to Sunset’s parents to at least give them the choice of having me around. One memory wasn’t much of a sample size, but Sunset’s family had as much love as mine; they deserved an explanation, if nothing else.

My brows scrunched together. ‘Family’, that word was setting off little warning bells, but my mind wasn’t telling me why. I loved Mom and Dad and Shining, and they loved me. None of us were the kind of ponies who’d go around saying adopted foals were less spec…ial…

I stopped, one hoof slowly rejoining the other as my thoughts slowed to a halt.

“I’m adopted,” I said, testing the words to make sure they still sounded right when spoken.

Okay, so I was adopted somewhere around or before the age of two. That was fine. But how had it happened?

One explanation was I’d gone through Equestria’s orphanages and had been placed with Mom and Dad. It wasn’t exactly normal to leave a two-year-old filly on an orphanage’s doorstep, but it was possible.

But no. There was no way that was what had happened. Disregarding that the memory I’d watched had jumped from Sunset to me in my bed at home – the adoption process was not that fast – that was too random, too chancy.

And even if Luna had a pony inside the system placing me, it’d leave a suspicious paper trail for a Flare to be a orphaned filly who had no idea who her parents were, one left on a doorstep after Sunset’s demise. Words Chrysalis had said to me on at least one occasion came back to me, if perhaps not her exact ones.

‘If a situation has too many coincidences, it was almost certainly engineered.’

Knowing everything I did now, the events of my life felt contrived at a mere glance, or at least the initial conditions leading to them did. But they hadn’t felt that way to me before – or to Celestia. Luna had seen to it that my existence had the appearance of a statistically unlikely event, rather than an unnatural event.

Beyond even that, if Luna had intended to use me at all, she would’ve made sure I ended up somewhere…somewhere meeting some specific set of criteria I didn’t know. But certainly I’d been placed with Mom and Dad non-randomly.

If Luna had let me go wherever chance took me, I could’ve ended up anywhere, like out in the countryside raised by a…a deer, or in a factory raised by a minotaur, or literally anywhere raised by anything but a unicorn. I’d have still had all the magic of a Flare, but I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

And in the wrong environment, I might not have even developed an interest in magic at all; inheriting quirks and personality traits from Sunset would only do so much. And if I weren’t interested in magic, I wouldn’t have been able to learn everything necessary to get all the way to Mona and the Elements. Luna couldn’t afford to have that happen.

Although to be fair, being raised by a zebra wouldn’t have been so bad. Zebra magic was pretty interesting, even if I hadn’t picked up a book on it in years. There’d been too many other things I’d needed to study recently, especially dragon magic.

I spared a quick glance back at my cutie mark. I had the exact same special talent as Sunset, even if my cutie mark looked different. That couldn’t be coincidence.

As I’d guessed earlier, whatever had been done to my magic hadn’t been a proper reset to a newborn filly’s state. My magic hadn’t been reverted back to a blank state, ready to be molded by use and by Filly Me’s developing interests. I probably hadn’t had a chance to have any special talent but magic.

Not that I didn’t like magic. I loved it with all my heart! It was so fascinating, and it could do anything with enough hard work.

I stopped walking to stare at my cutie mark for a second or two. It was just…not having the capacity for choice in my special talent was…unpleasant. What if I’d really liked…cooking or something? I’d never ever have gotten it as my special talent.

Of course I hadn’t had an interest in anything but magic. But if I had, I should’ve at least been allowed the option to pursue that interest all the way to ascension. That hypothetical path in my life had been denied to me. The point was moot, but it was just – just unpleasant.

But that wasn’t the point! I’d ended up non-randomly as Twilight Sparkle, daughter of Night Light and Twilight Velvet. Why them? Why not just leave me with Quartz and take me to some forsaken tunnel in Diamondia, vanishing for all intents and purposes from the face of Equus?

It would’ve been easy. It would’ve been safe. Luna hadn’t had to give me a family.

So why had she? It’d be ridiculous to assume I just ‘got lost’. And no matter how bad Quartz was with foals, he could have made it work. Or if he didn’t want to, then somepony else loyal to Luna could have raised me in seclusion.

And even if she’d considered it a possibility, there was no way Luna would have planned for me to meet and grow to personally hate Celestia as a filly. That would’ve been an outrageously dangerous risk to introduce into her plans.

Ugh! This didn’t make any sense! This wasn’t like Luna at all. What could’ve been going through her head?

I was grateful, of course. I’d had a wonderful foalhood, and I couldn’t find a better family in Equestria.

But it was so strange. With the amount of work necessary alone just to explain away the appearance of a random filly in my family and to forge documents like my birth certificate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Luna had done the changeling thing and had replaced another pony with me.

It took moment for my head to wrap itself around that statement.

“Oh ponyfeathers,” I whispered, an uneasy feeling growing in my stomach.

That was Chrysalis’s mystery orphan. I could admit a tiny probability the orphan she’d been talking about was me, but between her and Luna’s reactions and words, the overwhelmingly more likely scenario was one in which I’d replaced another Twilight Sparkle.

Okay, okay, just take a deep breath, Twilight, even if there’s no air here. Everything was going to be okay.

Alright. Alright, so I’d taken another filly’s place. That wasn’t so bad. I only had two or three memories from that age, and other ponies would fare no better, including the other Twilight Sparkle. Where you were born was already randomized; rerolling after about two years wasn’t a big deal, given that there’d be few – if any – memories from before the reroll.

I’d…I’d feel better about it if the switch had been made when I was younger, but – but two wasn’t so bad.

And Luna had said the orphan – that Twilight Sparkle was happy. That was the important part. She probably had her own warm and loving family now, her own life, her own dreams, her own name.

I took one more deep not-breath and continued forward.

Luna had probably been right when she’d said the other Twilight Sparkle should be left alone. Unless Twilight Sparkle ascended too, the integral of all the happiness her original family could bring her over her lifetime was probably worth far less than all the baggage we’d – I bit my lip – I’d bring with.

I craned my neck back briefly to stare at the inky blackness above me. Maybe the other Twilight Sparkle would enjoy a second family with an estranged sister. Or maybe my entire family should just stay out of her life completely.

Sighing, I said, “I guess if I were her, I’d want the choice.”

But only if she already knew she was adopted. There was little sense in opening that can of worms if her parents had never bothered to be honest with her; they might have a good reason. I’d be the worst pony in the world if I just walked it, revealed that secret, and then ruined or soured her relationship with her parents forever.

Honestly, I didn’t understand why ponies sometimes made such a big deal of adoption. As Cadance would say, it was the bonds that mattered, not the blood. Everything that made a family, everything that mattered, wasn’t found in genetics. It was found in the time spent together and the resulting love and affection.

I stopped beside the next window bearing Sunset’s image and turned toward it. In a word, it looked like fluff: something that had been important to Sunset but not to anypony else. The window depicted her about my age in what looked like the Canterlot Archives reading a book, although no title or words were legible.

Briefly, I considered skipping this one, but I quickly reconsidered. It was these small day-to-day memories that would really show me what kind of mare Sunset was. Each memory only took a few seconds to watch anyway. I might as well take a look.

Perhaps… Perhaps it might even give me a dose of soothing normality – er, normality for an alicorn’s apprentice. I could really use that right now.

I touched my hoof to the window.

And then I took it off.

“Yep, fluff,” I concluded with a smile and a nod. The memory had been total and complete nonsense about a spell Sunset had learned and had gotten really excited about – one I’d learned much younger than her – but it’d been the good, happy kind of pointless nothing, the kind of productive afternoon of little regard that left a warm feeling of success and purpose in your barrel.

Honestly, it’d been so long since I’d had one of those days. Struggling with the elements for half a season had pretty much precluded them entirely.

I took a moment to enjoy the feeling and to hum the chorus of a catchy little song Pinkie Pie had taught me at some point. This was exactly what I needed right now. I’d be happy for Sunset’s happiness and enjoy all of my similar memories her happiness had evoked while I could.

I could picture it now: an evening sitting curled up next to Shining by a roaring fireplace home in Canterlot with a book about magic, Mom and Dad close by and sharing a story of their foalhood.

With something just short of a bounce in my step, I set off toward the next of Sunset’s memories. The next pair of windows had one from me and one from Dash, and the one after that had two of Dash’s. But the third one off, that pair had one of Sunset’s memories, if I remembered correctly.

No, I needed to stop referring to these windows as memories, because they weren’t. None of Sunset’s memories were mine anymore; they were gone forever. However it was conjuring these visions, the Æthereal Realm just couldn’t tell the two of us apart.

And besides, all of these windows had too much detail to be memories. They were more like…like…like glimpses into the past.

My jaw dropped as my eyes widened. Oh. My. Gosh! That might actually be it! I knew time magic existed, and I knew it could go backward into the past. Maybe that was what was going on here. Maybe this was another branch of time magic at work.

If so, that was even more exciting than just the prospect of revolutionizing education!

I was practically dancing as I strode forward. Time magic might as well be an entirely new field of magic, and I had the opportunity to pioneer it, writing my name into history alongside Star Swirl’s.

Oh. Oh! Oh wow! And if I managed to figure out this particular subset of time magic, I could make alicorns truly unkillable. I could set up a spell that would respond to ‘malfunctions’ in our memory to give back anything lost immediately. That was just – just – just wow!

Well, no, I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself. There were probably other, very complicated and ridiculously difficult ways to kill an alicorn, but it’d still be a huge step forward, a removal of a critical weakness.

But that was an exciting future problem to work on! It wasn’t something I could do right now, just something to look forward to.

And I supposed it also depended on my guess being correct, which might not be the case. That would be pretty disappointing…

Well anyway, for the time being, it was a little too inconvenient to call these windows portals into the past or anything similar. It was far too much of a mouthful. I could just keep calling them memories, I supposed. It was terribly inaccurate, but it was succinct. It’d do for now.

I passed the pair of windows just before the two with one of Sunset’s memories, discovering I’d remembered the ordering of memories correctly. I gave myself a little mental pat on the back.

Hmm… I wondered if there were a pattern to the memory selection. Not what memories, that was, but rather whose memories were placed in particular locations. As a rough estimate from the windows I’d seen already, I suspected there were approximately an equal number of memories from Dash and myself, and a little less of Sunset’s. But then Sunset’s memories were all much older than mine, so maybe they would be more common further…along…

Oh, stars. When Cadance had given me her guess on how long it’d take to walk to the end of this path, she hadn’t included all of my…um…baggage. It was going to take forever to get out of here.

No, no. I should think on the bright side. For once, this actually simplified my options without compromising them. I’d already decided not to rush through my ascension, and I didn’t expect that decision to change; Dash’s own ascension had ruined that option. But now I physically didn’t have the option, so I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

That was something. I needed to be optimistic about the little things, or I’d go mad today.

“Ah…” I came to a stop in front of the next of Sunset’s memories.

Well, this was probably going to crash the good mood I’d finally managed to regain again, but I wasn’t going to skip it. So far as I knew, I only had this one chance to get to know…Mother – the word didn’t feel so bad this time – and I wasn’t going to disrespect her by only watching her good memories.

Before touching the window, I whispered to myself, “Whatever happens isn’t real. I’m not injured. I probably can’t even bleed here. This won’t actually hurt.”


Oh, dear Celestia, why had I ever agreed to do this? I might as well be facing down a mad goddess with nothing but some broken trinkets.

I stood perfectly still, my eyes locked with two of my opponent’s – my opponent who was not a baby like the thrice-cursed report had said.

Seriously. Feed Cerberus? Sure, I could do that. Tartarus wasn’t dangerous so long as you didn’t try to take anypony out.

Talk to the sea serpents and ask them to ease up on the tidal waves? Why not? They were polite enough so long as you didn’t insult them.

Track down the current locations of the star beasts? Simple enough. They slept all day, every day, so it was easy enough to stay safe around them.

Stop a stray baby hydra from causing any more damage? No problem. Babies of any species were simple and easy to deal with, even if they were carnivores. And since I was me, I came with a number of enchantments cast on myself to protect me from mishaps like being hit in the face by a tail and being sent flying.

But this, this was not a baby. This was a fully grown hydra thirty times my height and thousands of times my weight with more than enough teeth to swallow me in what might be called one bite as easily as a dozen.

The hydra’s eyes narrowed, twenty-three eyes fixated on me and me alone. The twenty-fourth was swollen shut.

The snarl of the head that swollen eye belonged to sounded especially enraged, although that could just be the pure mortal terror talking. Ponies tended to do a lot of stupid things when terrified, like hearing things that weren’t really there, or trying to hide somewhere obvious, or freezing up instead of galloping away screaming.

Everypony else was doing it. Why couldn’t I? I just had to open my mouth, move my legs, and gallop faster than I’d ever galloped before.

A thunderous boom deafened me, and I managed to shriek and jump in place.

My hearing recovered from that terrible roar just enough for me to hear almost as well as I felt the thudding of the hydra’s claws as they beat against the ground, propelling the beast ever closer to me.

I couldn’t tell anymore if I was quivering or if I was just being shaken in time with the ground.

How? How did I beat something like this? Hydra magic primarily expressed itself as incredible regeneration. Even if I went so far as to chop off a head, it’d grow back in a second.

Thousands of white daggers flew at me, accompanied by the stench of flesh both rotting and – and not.

Oh, Celestia, I c-could still see short blue hairs stuck between it’s teeth, hairs I-I-I’d been too late to save.

No. No! No. No! I didn’t want to die!

My vision jumped as I teleported, changing from death to a view of the town around me, and then finally to the sky above as I lost my hoofing on the damaged roof I’d landed on.

The sound of wood snapping and splintering came. The building gave way beneath me, sending me crashing down as it crumbled above me.

Just before being crushed beneath stone, wood, and who knew what else, I teleported blindly to anywhere but here.

I landed roughly on my hooves, collapsing face-first into the ground as my left foreleg buckled beneath me.

Utterly failing to put pressure on my bad leg, I teleported again a short distance away, reorienting myself to stand on three legs.

And just in time, I averted my head from a veritable splash of dirt, grass, and rock. The hydra’s tail had crashed into the ground where I’d stood but moments ago.

Drawing air in with a deep gasping breath, I teleported once more to avoid another round of teeth. This time I moved myself much further away to ease up the pressure on me.

I wiped the dirt remaining on my face away with magic, getting a clear view of the bucking hydra hurtling toward me once more.

Twelve heads, twelve pairs of eyes, twelve brains: there was no way the hydra was going to lose track of me long enough for me to catch my breath.

At – at least not without leaving town. A-and th-then it’d just go back to e-eating other ponies.

I couldn’t leave until everypony else was far enough away!

Dammit! Bucking condemn this creature and all its kind to Tartarus!

I screamed some nonsense as I unleashed a burst of magic, my ears pinned to my head in a vain attempt not to hear the sounds that followed what I’d just done.

I teleported again to dodge whatever was surely coming for me in retaliation.

Upon arrival, I quickly found the hydra again. The head it’d lost had already grown back.

And it was far too close to me for comfort. My last teleport had put way too little distance betw–

My vision blackened as something crashed into me, hurling me first into the air and then straight into a building headfirst soon after.

When I came to, I found myself spinning in the air, a horrible pain near one of my hooves. I couldn’t tell which one.

For the briefest moment, I saw what was waiting for me below: teeth.

And – and I could barely feel my horn, let alone think.

This couldn’t be it. It wasn’t fair. It wouldn’t be right.

No, it wouldn’t be the end. Or if it was, I couldn’t go alone. The hydra would eat dozens more ponies if I didn’t stop it.

Everything I could muster in the time I had left, which was far from everything I had, I shoved out my horn and toward the hydra.

First, the world exploded in reds and pinks and browns and greens, and then it exploded in pain.

I was peppered with bits and pieces of hydra even as my magic flared out of control. In the back of my mind, I really, really hoped that didn’t do anything worse to the town and its residents than the hydra had.

And now I was left tumbling to the ground from far higher up than I ever wanted to fall.

I didn’t know what I actually sounded like, whether my words were coherent or not, but I cried, “Please land on my hooves.”


“Sunset.”

I heard somepony call my name from kilometers away, but my mind was elsewhere, as were my eyes, and my nose, and my tongue. All I could do was stare at the bloody mess I’d landed in, the bloody mess that was me.

The pieces of hydra that had managed to work their way into my mouth were especially dizzying. I’d never had meat before, not even at that meal I’d sat in on with the griffins. Every time I took a breath, a little bit more of it oozed down my throat.

“Sunset,” the voice called again, but this time it had a pair of white wings and hooves with it. The touch sent me back into panic, but no matter how hard I struggled and no matter what magic I tried, I couldn’t get away.

“Sunset, please calm down. Everything is over. You are safe.”

Safe. Safe. The word echoed back in my mind. Yes, I was safe – from the hydra, if not from infection and whatever held me. And everypony else was safe too. I’d – I’d killed it. Blown it up. Annihilated it. Torn it to shreds. Vaporized it. Disintegrated it.

I…I wasn’t even sure what I’d done. I-I just – just hadn’t wanted to die.

The terrible grip that held me grew stronger and more secure than ever, and I was left with no choice but to settle down.

“Sunset, can you hear me? Please give me some response.”

I nodded. Maybe if I did, whatever had me now would lose interest and let me go.

The creature sighed as if bored, perhaps making up its mind to stop playing with its food.

“Please forgive me. I would have been here sooner if I had known what awaited you. I should have been here sooner. I had kept my eye on you, but I…” The voice trailed off for a moment. “No, I have no excuse. I should have been here for you. I cannot believe I allowed a fully grown hydra to come so close to devouring you.”

This was it. A horrible pain shot through one of my legs. The sound of bone grinding and popping came with it. I’d just lost a leg for sure…although it didn’t hurt as much as I’d thought it would.

“Sunset? I know this must be hard for you, but I need you to talk to me so I can help you.” A second passed before the voice added, “Princess’s orders?”

At last, the voice clicked. My brain restarted, and I whispered the word, “S-Sunbutt?”

“Yes, Sunset, it’s me.”

“O-oh.” But she wasn’t mad. She always got mad when I called her that, or at least as mad as she ever got. Was it really her? “That – that report was wrong.”

“I know. I gave it to you without thinking to investigate myself first. I promise I shall never again let a mistake like this happen. You are far from ready to be facing such horrors.”

Far from ready? Did that mean I was going to be ready? Was I… “Am I going to – to kill things for you?”

I wanted to sniff, although I didn’t dare; the smell of blood around me was already overwhelming. But the silence that had fallen between Celestia and I was crushing. If she didn’t say something–

“Ow…”

“Apologies,” Celestia whispered, “my healing spells have gotten a little rusty. You need to see a real doctor after we finish here and clean you up.”

That didn’t answer my question at all. If the answer was no, she would have just said it.

She would have. She would have. She would have.

So…so that m-meant–

“My phoenix, Philomena,” Celestia began, off on one of her lecturing tangents, “has been a source of comfort and companionship for me for nearly nine-hundred years now. She is a cheeky little prankster, and I love her to death for it.”

Celestia hesitated before adding, “If perhaps for the wrong reasons.”

That subtle change of tone, I knew that and what it meant. I managed to look up at Celestia’s eyes for a moment before her magic coaxed my neck back straight. They had that horribly distant look again, seeing something only she could, something she wouldn’t ever share with me or anypony else.

“Please try not to move, Sunset. Healing spells have never been my forte, and I haven’t done this for anypony in centuries. I would hate to accidentally sever a nerve or cause any other subtle damage.”

Even in the circumstances, my mind tried to figure out who the last pony Celestia had done this for was. Other Flares in history, her other students, tended to get into lots of trouble, but it sounded like this was…more intimate…for Celestia. If they didn’t get this kind of attention, too, then who would? Why me?

Did Celestia see me as…a love interest? No. That didn’t feel right. She didn’t look at me like that, and our hugs and nuzzles never felt like that either.

So was I…family, perhaps? Maybe that was just wishful thinking. But then maybe that was literally true. Maybe Flares were alicorn descendants. I didn’t have one scrap of evidence for that, but–

No, that couldn’t be right either. Every other Flare would be her family, then. Maybe we could be related some other way. Or maybe she considered me more of a–

“Owwwww,” I whimpered.

“Apologies again. I pulled your soleus muscle a little too tightly.” Celestia’s magic pulled my hindleg uncomfortably straight for a few seconds before she released it.

“But as I was saying, Philomena is not a person. She is clever, she has a sense of humor, she can be trained from repeated stimuli, but she is not a person. She has magic, which gives her a weight no simple fish or insect could have, and there are ponies who would not see her die. Yet she does not know herself, she does not learn, she has no language, she cannot grow to be…more. Or less.”

“Like the hydra?” I asked.

“Yes.” I heard that slight annoyance in Celestia’s voice that popped up whenever I short circuited one of her carefully prepared lessons. “Sunset, my dear little pony, whatever else you take away from today, what you did was beyond doubt the right thing to do.”

What? “Y-you’re saying I should have just killed it and left? D-do you w-want me to – to – to–”

A hoof pressed gently against my muzzle.

“Sunset, please leave the future in the future for your own sake. How can you expect to be at peace thirty years from now if you cannot accept where you’ve been but thirty minutes ago?”

I supposed that made some kind of sense. And Celestia would know better than me how to treat trauma.

“Has it really been that long?”

“No, not quite. But I felt the parallelism appropriate.”

I grimaced to hide my expression. “How much longer until I can take a bath?” I asked quickly, but not too quickly. Celestia had just let slip something important, and I didn’t want to call her attention to it.

Note to self: find out what was going to happen in thirty years.

“The only thing I have left to heal is a few minor internal injuries,” Celestia replied. “They will take perhaps a minute or two. Then the two of us can go visit the royal hot springs in Tall Tale.”

A trip to the hot springs did sound nice, but I didn’t really deserve it after today.

“Sunset.” Celestia’s magic brought my muzzle up to look her in the eyes. “You did do a right thing today. If you had not acted, dozens, perhaps even hundreds of ponies would have died. The hydra would not have stopped to consider the moral ramifications of its choice in lunch.”

“But I could’ve done something! I could’ve done something differently. And I flared again! I thought I was past that.”

Glancing about, I wondered how much of the damage I saw was my fault.

Celestia waited to respond a little longer than usual. “Flares will be with you your entire life, Sunset. I told you that I expect you can reel them in now before they leave your control, but I should have explicitly mentioned how difficult the task remains, especially under stressful situations. And you are still years from attempting to utilize a flare for your own spellcasting.”

Oh…

Celestia’s magic for once formed into a spell I recognized: a simple ventriloquism spell.

“Sergeant Iron, please inform Captain Rune Armor I shall be leaving ahead of schedule with my student.”

And with that, Celestia’s horn then lit up brilliantly, summoning an enormous amount of magic at a breathtaking rate and funneling it all into a teleport.

My eyes slammed shut, though not in time to avoid the flash of white light accompanying the familiar yank of being dragged instantaneously from one place to another.

The horrible smells I’d been subjected to were replaced with the entirely new horrible smell of sulfur. And the general background noise of ponies and guards was replaced with the babbles and crashes of flowing and falling water.

The taste remained though.

When I finally managed to blink my vision back, I found myself in a hot spring just as Celestia had suggested. Or rather I was next to one and standing on my hooves, not actually in one.

“Where–”

I was cut off by an entire bathtub’s worth of hot water being dumped on me.

After giggling, Celestia said, “Sorry about that. Bad timing. But we need to get as much of this off of you first as possible. We don’t want to soak in it, after all.”

Before I could protest, a shower turned on and buried me under even more water. A split second after, Celestia’s magic took a brush of some kind to my coat, and unless I was mishearing, it was a soapy brush.

More than a little mortified, I tried and failed to wrest the brush from Celestia.

“I’m a grown mare, Sunbutt. I can wash myself.”

“Perhaps, but just enjoy the pampering.” The playful tone fell out of Celestia’s voice as she continued, “I know you probably feel like you do not deserve it, but you do.”

No, I didn’t. I had so much blood on my hooves. Literally still, too. Some of it had dried and needed to be scrubbed off. I didn’t feel like a hero, and it sounded like I was going to be doing this again…

“I said what you did was right, not that it was the best thing you could have done,” Celestia admitted, rather reluctantly. “You could have picked the hydra up and carried it away. It might have caused a flare depending on how much the hydra could strain your magic, but you would have made it outside the town first.”

Ugh… That was true…

“Or perhaps you could have trapped it in a large hole in the ground to deal with at your leisure.”

Nooooo. Just how stupid was I?

“Or if you want to subdue a hydra physically, bludgeoning damage is the orthodox method.”

I fought off the urge to bang my head against the ground. I should have figured that out. The hydra’s eye had swollen shut and had stayed swollen.

I should’ve been more observant. I should’ve. Everything was all my fault.

Celestia lectured on, saying, “If you could have spared it and kept everypony safe – yourself included – that would have been more right. If you want me to sit here and lecture you on all the things you could have done, it is within my power.”

A pair of wet, but still soft, white wings found their way around my muzzle.

With the utmost seriousness, Celestia said, “But nopony is perfect: not you, and especially not me. Things are ever so much clearer in hindsight than in the heat of the moment. Resolve to be a better pony in the future, but do not blame yourself for being anything less than perfection incarnate.”

I blinked against the force Celestia had put behind those words, unable to form proper thoughts. It sounded like they were just as much meant for her as they were for me, and the hard look behind her eyes only emphasized that.

“I’ll try,” I finally managed. Even if I succeeded – I glanced down at what remained of my blood-matted fur – the nightmares would come either way. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

Celestia smiled at me just a little bit, although it didn’t look much like a happy smile. She gently rubbed my cheek with a soapy hoof as she said, “It breaks my heart to see you like this, Sunset. I think we should find you something else to do, something less adventurous. Maybe someplace where you could finally make some real friends.”

“No!” Not this again. Why did Celestia have to avail herself of every opportunity to pitch the ‘friends and simple life’ bit? “I want to help you! I want to pay you back for – for everything! And I want to help Equestria, too.”

“The reins of Equestria are a terrible burden, and there are many other ways you can help others. Sunset, you should not feel obligated to take on the most difficult tasks yourself. There are plenty of–”

Hugging myself as tightly to Celestia as I could, I mumbled, “Uh-uh,” into her coat. “I want to help. I just – I just want to know if I…if I’ll have to k-kill. I-I’m not sure I can.”

Celestia pried me off of her just enough to lock eyes with me, probably staring straight into the core of my being. After one uncharacteristic false start, she mumbled, “As you wish,” before speaking clearly once more.

“Sunset, I will never ask you to kill anything or anypony.”

That horrible pit in my stomach grew even deeper. I knew how to spot a runaround after suffering nigh on two decades of them. She wouldn’t ask, but Celestia didn’t explicitly ask for a lot of things. So much of what she said to ponies was never put into actual words.

“So I will…”

I sniffed, and I regretted it instantly. I descended into a hacking fit until Celestia was kind enough to magic away whatever had gotten caught in my something or other.

“Thanks, Sunbutt” I mumbled. My nose felt a thousand times cleaner, and the smell of sulfur that I’d all but forgotten had redoubled in intensity.

“Ah, I think I heard some of your usual fire back in your voice,” Celestia teased, or at least I thought that was what she was doing: trying to lighten the mood and all that as she scrubbed away at one of my frogs. “But please refrain from referring to me as ‘Sunbutt’.”

Ignoring her request completely, I asked, “Am I right? Will I? Please, please just give me a straight answer.”

One of Celestia’s rare frowns appeared, and it was an astonishingly long five or so seconds before she found words to reply with.

“Sometimes, Sunset, we encounter situations in which there are no good options, where every decision leaves somepony worse off. As a ruler…”

I nearly gasped as Celestia stopped mid-sentence and started over.

“As a ruler, I sometimes have made hard decisions, and although I possess the unparalleled fortune to have had somepony else fight most of my wars for me, I have had to do things I would wish otherwise as the pony behind the crown. I still have nightmares from some things I’ve been forced to do. I – I’m afraid I am no more naturally suited to certain aspects of my role than I believe you will find yourself to be.”

Celestia paused a moment – both in her ministrations and her speech – for a breath and to turn her head upward and away from me, not quite staring at the noon sun, yet she had to be looking nearly directly at it.

“But with practice comes expertise and a sense of familiarity. You learn how to minimize the damage done by others, as well as the damage you cause. Sometimes. Sunset, I will never ask you to kill, but someday, to save yourself and others, you may find yourself with no other choice. I cannot promise you otherwise.”

Her eyes once more returning to mine, Celestia added, “If that day comes for you, I hope you can find the inner strength to make the best decision, not just a right decision. I sincerely hope the path you are choosing for yourself will not break you.”

I’d – I’d just stepped on a land mine, hadn’t I? What exactly was Celestia not telling me?

“Now then,” Celestia said, rising to her hooves and gently pushing me off her, “I think the two of us could use a proper bath now. A good soak and good company should do wonders. I know today has been horrible for you; I shall do everything I can to help you through it.”

Should I take that as, ‘Don’t ask about my past,’ or should I take it as, ‘You need some time to recover from your own emotional trauma before we talk about mine’?

Maybe it was supposed to be both… That wouldn’t surprise me at all. History was the only class Celestia never taught me herself. I didn’t think she liked history.

Or in other words, she didn’t like her past.

Dammit…

“Alright,” I finally agreed. I felt…pretty good physically for how bad of a shape I’d been in before. I was sore all over, but everything was functioning as it should. And as far as I could tell with a quick once-over, every last hint of what I’d done today had been removed from me.

I took Celestia’s extended hoof, and she lead me into the hot springs only a dozen steps away.


“Ah!” I jumped away from the memory in front of me as if I’d been struck. “What on Equus was that?”

Getting to know Sunset implicitly meant getting to know Sunbutt, too. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the vague, conceptual idea was something I’d already understood. That wasn’t what bothered me.

“How could she say those things with a straight face? Banishing or killing Luna – it doesn’t matter which – neither are the best decision or even just a right decision!”

Maybe Celestia could’ve been speaking of some other matter, but I couldn’t believe it. She – she had the nerve to…to…

Why was I even upset? No, that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t that I shouldn’t be upset, but rather that I shouldn’t be surprised. Of course Celestia would say those things. Even if she believed she was evil, she wouldn’t just come out and say it.

But maybe I was overreacting from that other part of the memory.

A shudder ran through me. The sensation of Celestia’s hooves and magic running all over me was still fresh in my memory.

It – it felt so wrong. So – so violating. It hadn’t been me she’d done it to, but I’d felt it all. And it just felt so…so awful.

And doubly so since Sunset had enjoyed it underneath the embarrassment, which meant I’d enjoyed it, too. The memory was trying its best to tell me that was nice, soothing, and relaxing, completely at odds with how I felt about it.

I sighed, frustrated, as I turned away from the memory. The next of Sunset’s memories was only two windows down and across the way. That would get my mind off of this.

Besides setting me off just a bit and, ugh, the touching, that last memory hadn’t been that bad. Sunset was a big old crybaby. Hydras weren’t people, as Sunbutt had said. It wasn’t nice to go around killing them, but, well, they didn’t have any moral weight. They were just brute beasts.

Well…the mere memory of Sunset’s condition after everything was horrifying. Just recalling it sent a shiver through me. Being bathed in blood was…not exactly a pleasant experience. And the smells…

Ergh. Okay. Maybe Sunset wasn’t a crybaby. She’d had a nice, comfortable life, much like my first eight – six years. After all that, eight-year-old me would’ve been crying and hiding under her blankets, begging her big brother to stand guard at her bedside. Sunset running off to Celestia for comfort was the same thing, in principle.

And, well, it was silly, but part of me couldn’t help but envy Sunset’s innocence and naivety, regardless of however jaded she’d become before the end. Being sheltered enough to actually care about a hydra that had eaten ponies must’ve been…nice. Not practical, but nice.

I let out a long, heavy sigh. Luna didn’t much believe in sheltering ponies. It was for the best, in the end, but the thought of being that innocent was a lovely daydrea–

“Ah!” I’d nearly bumped into Dash while I was lost in thought. This was definitely not where I’d left her earlier.

“Hey, Twi.”

Alright, Twilight, you could do this. You just had to play nice. You had plenty of distractions from Dash now. You could be civil. She didn’t even make fun of you for not paying attention to where you were walking.

“Hello, Dash. Has Cadance stopped by?”

“Nope. We haven’t bumped heads recently.”

I nearly bit my tongue as I clamped my mouth shut. I’d just pretend to laugh and move on.

But where was Cadance? I would’ve expected her to be back by now after failing to find Sunset. Unless I was missing something, there wasn’t that much ground to cover in the Æthereal Realm.

Oh well. We’d catch up to her soon enough. Certainly she wouldn’t have left; that’d go directly against her orders from Celestia.

But for the moment, there was something that needed to be said, unfortunately.

I took a deep breath to prepare myself. “Dash. I…apologize for how I acted earlier. I’m trying to deal with a lot of stuff right now with varying levels of success, but that is no excuse to have hit you, intentionally or otherwise.”

Much to my surprise, it hadn’t been as hard to say those words as I’d expected. That was…good.

“What, that? Psh. Don’t worry about it. It didn’t even faze me.” Dash stopped for a brief chuckle, although it didn’t really have her usual gusto. “I wonder if it’s this place or if you’re really just that weak.”

While I would usually make some quip in return or ignore her, Dash’s voice sounded just a little strained, like I’d interrupted her during something emotionally important. Her jab had come with less energy than usual.

This was the prefect chance to practice being friendly. If I could be friendly with Dash, I could be friendly with anypony. And if Dash’s problems distracted me from my own, well that was just a bonus.

“Alright, Dash, what’s wrong?”

“Wrong? Nothing’s wrong.”

I raised an eyebrow to that. Not being able to look me in the eye wasn’t helping her already flimsy case.

“Well, what about you?” Dash poked me in the chest with a hoof. “You stomped off all on your own after punching me. Are you done throwing a fit? Are we cool now?”

Oh, please, Dash. What world were you from that you thought that would distract me from my question?

“Not really,” I said. There was little point in denying the truth. “But I’ll try to be more…mature.”

Ugh, I couldn’t believe I’d just said that and mostly meant it. At the very least, alienating Dash in any way certainly would be immature and lacking in foresight right now.

“Speaking of which,” I continued, “thank you for not running off earlier. That was very mature, and I’ll try to think better of you in the future.”

Dash just looked at me like I’d just told her the world was ending. Finally, she asked, “Okay, where’s the real Twilight?”

“That would depend on what you mean by ‘real’.”

Oh, stars. The words fell out of my mouth before I even understood what I was saying.

“Huh?” Dash cocked her head to the side. “There’s only one you.”

Well, there were two Twilight Sparkles, there was Sun…Mother, and then there was Pupa pretending to be me. An argument could be made that the being known as Twilight Sparkle was more of a vague idea than a specific pony at this point.

How awkward.

“Equus to Egghead.”

I batted away the hoof Dash was waving in front of me. “Yes, there’s just me. Anyway, we were talking about you.”

“What, that again? Twi, you worry too much.”

That was a far better denial this time, Dash, but coming from you, usually it’d be laced with a jab.

“No. As today has shown, I obviously don’t worry enough.”

I had to be the responsible pony on the Nebulous; amongst our group of misfits, the only other person I could count on to be levelheaded was Chrysalis, and who knew what she got up to on the side.

“I’ve had enough of unattended stuff blowing up in my face. What’s wrong?”

“Whoa. Easy, Twi, easy. I’m totally fine. Really, it’s nothing.”

It’s nothing? So there is something.”

Dash muttered something to herself.

“Well?” I pressed.

“Fine. I’m just worried about Flutters is all. Aren’t you worried about Spike and Twinkleshine?”

“I’ve already done the best I can for them. It will only hurt those two if I distract myself with worrying about them.”

Not that I wasn’t worried about them. I just tried not to think about it. My ability to worry and panic was already stretched to the breaking point.

And that was when I noticed the window behind Dash. It depicted her crying – no, sobbing on Fluttershy, who was locked in both Dash’s forehooves and wings. They both looked as young as they’d been in Dash’s memory I’d watched earlier, although they both had their cutie marks.

“What’s that about?” I asked, hoof pointed at the memory in question.

“N-nothing!”

Dash tried and failed to fly behind me. Instead, she rushed behind me on her hooves, and then pushed me forward and away from the memory, step by step.

Grunting under the effort of pushing me, Dash said, “We should be getting back to Princess Cadance, right? You were explaining…stuff, right? Let’s go.”

Oh, no, no, no. This was too good to ignore. After years of Dash poking fun at me for one thing or another, I’d finally found something Dash would be mortified for me to know. It was petty of me, sure, but it was a petty act of vengeance, and that was absolutely delicious.

Although at the same time, I didn’t actually want to watch whatever memory was held in that window. I’d had plenty enough mood swings already and had more to come without living through something bad enough to make Dash openly cry so hard.

Ugh… When I put it like that, maybe I shouldn’t pressure her about this. But then I did need to know if Dash was going to be a liability for reasons beyond the obvious in the coming hours, for Fluttershy’s sake if not Dash’s or mine.

I sighed to myself. This was the last thing I wanted to do right now, but I had to, ugh, comfort Dash.

“Alright,” I began, “we can walk and talk if you want.”

“Twi, it’s really no–”

“It’s not nothing, Dash,” I interrupted. “This is a critical moment in all our lives. Yours. Mine.” I turned around to look Dash in the eyes. “Fluttershy’s.”

For a moment, it looked like Dash wanted to say something, but she closed her mouth and looked away.

“I need as much relevant information as I can get to make decisions off of. What’s bothering you?”

Dash shrunk into herself. “Twilight, I – I really don’t… I…” Her voice falling to a whisper, Dash finished, “Okay. Just watch it. It’s short.”

And of course Dash wouldn’t just tell me what was wrong. She was going to make me find out from firsthoof experience. Wonderful.

I really didn’t want to do this, but I approached the window anyway. A wingful of different worst case scenarios ran through my head, but I couldn’t imagine anything worse happening to Dash than today had been for me already.

I swore, if I found out that Dash was my long-lost sister or if she were secretly Sunset’s love foal…


“Hey, Fluttershy!” I called out from a half-dozen clouds away.

The filly in question was quick to look up at me, although she remained firmly rooted on her cloud, as far from the edges as always.

When I finally landed next to her, Fluttershy gave a weak hello in her usual whisper.

“What gives?” I demanded. “Why did your mom tell me to stay away from you?”

“Oh. Um… I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“What?” I took to the air again, hovering just a couple hooves off the ground. “You don’t know! How can you not know?”

Hiding behind her mane, Fluttershy whispered, “I’m sorry, Dash. I just don’t.”

“Great. So I stick up for you since kindergarten, and your mom just tells me to get lost. What the buck!”

“I – I’m sure she didn’t mean it.”

“Ha! Please. The message was totally clear.”

Ugh. The mere memory of Fluttershy’s mom telling me to not get near her daughter just – just argh!

“I would still like to spend time together, Dash. If – if you want to.”

“What? Of course we should hang out.”

Who even listened to their parents’ advice on who to be friends with? If mine had their way, I’d be hanging out with the eggheads instead of cool people like Gilda and…well…nice ponies like Fluttershy.

Fluttershy sighed in relief. “Oh good. Oh, and congratulations on getting your cutie mark! And the Sonic Rainboom! It was beautiful.”

Beautiful? Beautiful! “Please, Fluttershy. It wasn’t beautiful. It was awesome! I’ve never gone that fast before. I don’t think anypony has ever gone that fast before!”

“But the Sonic Rainboom is a legend. I’m sure somepony has gone almost as fast before.”

Well, I supposed that made sense. But almost as fast wasn’t as fast. And I was going to figure out how to go even faster! I just had to figure out where to practice without getting another…um…what was it? A cease and detain order? No, that didn’t sound right.

Whatever. Those stupid noble ponies didn’t know what they were talking about. How could a Sonic Rainboom be anything be awesome?

“Well anyway,” I began, “what have you been up to?”

“Oh, nothing as exciting as you. I’ve just been trying to glide. Or, well, more work up the courage to try, I guess.”

“Seriously?” After Fluttershy nodded, I gave her a hearty slap on the back. “And about time, too. You and I can finally go flying together. We can work on all sorts of stunts. I suppose we can start you on the simple stuff, like barrel rolls. But we’ll get up to the cool stuff fast enough!”

“Um, I don’t think I’m ready for the kind of stuff you do, Dash. Just gliding is hard enough.”

“Oh, come on, Fluttershy. It’s easy. Here, look.”

I put on a little speed, just enough to do tricks with just gliding.

With the perfect angle on my wings, I redirected all my velocity straight up. At the peak of my ascent, I did a half backflip to point my muzzle straight down, and as I fell, I spun myself around like a top.

And finally just above the cloud bank, I pulled up at the last second. Leveling out and flapping my wings once to bring myself to a dead stop, I halted in front of Fluttershy, right side up and exactly where I’d started.

“See? Easy. That was all gliding after the first few flaps. I went up into a hammerhead turn, and then I just adjusted my wings to give me some torque. It’s like second grade stuff.”

“I know…”

Shoot. “I’m sorry, Fluttershy. I didn’t mean – well, I mean, not everypony can be a great flier.”

“It’s okay, Dash. I know I’m not meant to fly more than a hoof or two off the ground.”

I gave an exasperated sigh. How could any pegasus say that? There was seriously something wrong with Fluttershy. She fulfilled her weather magic requirements in school with fog of all things. Who even took those classes?

Oh well. I’d figure out how to get Fluttershy into the sky eventually.

“Speaking of which” – for once, Fluttershy’s voice was utterly clear and passionate – “I went to the surface a couple days ago, and it was heavenly. There are so many wonderful animals down there I’d never seen before. There were butterflies, and bunnies, and dozens of birds of all colors. And there were squirrels, and these strange green things that lived in the lake. Oh, and there was this adorable brown animal with a long flat tail and big buck teeth.”

“Er, yeah. Sounds fun.”

Whatever made her happy, I guess, and she did sound happy for once. I’d never understand what Fluttershy saw in birds and bugs, but there must be something.

“Oh, yes! It was the most fun I’ve ever had.” Fluttershy looked at me with one of the biggest smiles I’d ever seen on her. “I’d love it if you’d come with me sometime, and I’m sure all of my animal friends would love to get to know you.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said hesitantly. Spending all day on the surface with boring fuzzy animals didn’t really sound like my kind of thing, like, really didn’t sound like my kind of thing. “So is that why you’re working on gliding? To go down?”

“Mhm,” Fluttershy hummed with a nod. “Balloon tickets up to Cloudsdale are so expensive already, and my allowance isn’t that much. I could see my furry friends twice as often if I only had to pay one way.”

I’d say Fluttershy should have her parents fly her back up if I didn’t already know she’d be terrified of that. Honestly, I didn’t see much future in her gliding down either, but maybe she’d finally find a bit of courage. Celestia knows she had plenty enough fears she could use it for.

“Just take somepony with you if you try gliding down, Fluttershy.” Even if it had to be me. “I mean, better safe than sorry. Even pegasi wouldn’t want to fall from this high up.”

Fluttershy just smiled. “You don’t need to worry about me, Dash. I’m sure my butterfly friends would catch me again if I fell. But then I wouldn’t want to trouble them. Hmm… Maybe I should ask somepony to help, but I wouldn’t want to bother anypony else either.”

Something clicked in my head, and it was not. Cool.

“Fluttershy…what do you mean by again?”

“Oh, nothing much. I…well…you see…” Fluttershy wilted under my gaze and pawed at the clouds. “During your race, I sort of fell off the cloud I was on.”

“You – you fell off?”

“Uh-huh. It was my fault, really. I didn’t brace myself for how you fly.”

I could feel my face paling as my stomach threatened to return my lunch to me. I messed up my magic holding me aloft and fell to the clouds.

“Dash!” Fluttershy rushed over to me, her hooves running all over me, probably looking for injuries or sore spots. “Are you alright? Does anything hurt?”

“I-I’m fine. You – you said butterflies caught you? Like, those tiny little insects with colorful wings?”

I couldn’t see her head behind me, but Fluttershy probably nodded. “They were ever so kind to help me. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”

Oh dear Celestia! That eep I’d heard at the race starting line, that’d been me pushing Fluttershy off of Cloudsdale!

And – and Fluttershy could hardly fly. It was mean and only bullies actually said it aloud, but it was true.

And Fluttershy had been knocked off Cloudsdale into the open air where she’d be terrified.

And her wings always locked up when she was scared.

And once she got going fast, she wouldn’t be able to stop.

And that meant that I’d – I’d–

This time I really did throw up. I’d tried to hold it in, but this – this was too much. The thought was so dizzying, I couldn’t even keep my balance sitting on my rump.

“Dash! Oh no, oh no. Please speak to me! What should I do? What should I do?”

I reached out weakly with a forehoof and grabbed Fluttershy before she left. Any moment now, she’d run off to go find help.

“Fluttershy…” What did I say to my best friend I’d all but killed? “I-I… I – I’m so sorry.”

No. No, that wasn’t enough. The words were right, but they felt empty and made me want to throw up again.

“Please don’t worry about me.” Fluttershy hopped back in front of me, her voice still laced with worry and distress. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Fluttershy’s lower lip tucked in slightly, the same way it always did when she was about to try something she didn’t think she could do. She turned around, lowered herself onto her barrel, and then sank a little bit into the clouds.

“If you can, please climb on my back, Dash. I’ll carry you to a hospital as fast as I can.”

Oh my Celestia, Fluttershy, care about yourself for once in your life! I pushed you to your death! Why did that not matter to you?

No wonder her mom had told me to stay away! What – what had I done?

I did crawl onto Fluttershy, but only to give her the biggest hug of my life.

“Um… Dash, I can’t get up like this.”

“I’m so sorry, Fluttershy! I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s really not your fault. But, I mean, if it means so much to you, I forgive you. Not that you need to be forgiven though.”

I drew in a huge, wheezing breath.

The only words I could find were more stupid apologies. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I won’t ever let it happen again. Never ever.”

I – I’d stick with Fluttershy for the rest of my life if that was what it took to keep her safe and happy. I owed her more than I could ever repay. I’d never let her be put in that kind of danger ever again.

Not ever.


“Oh, stars,” I said to myself, my hoof slowly, soundlessly sliding off of the window it’d rested on. This was not something to make fun of. “Dash, Fluttershy…she’ll be fine.”

“I know. No thanks to me.” Dash’s voice sounded a bit hollow. “You’ve gotten us this far, Twi. I trust you. You will get us out of this safely.”

Ugh. No wonder Dash hadn’t run off earlier. I didn’t remember my exact words, but I must’ve accidentally hurt her a lot earlier.

And that…didn’t feel as good as I’d thought it would, not in this context. I just felt sick to my stomach, like I’d taken Fluttershy hostage myself somehow.

I turned away from the window and back toward Dash. Unfortunately, I could only think of one thing that would make me feel better right now. Maybe she was enough like me…

“Dash,” I began, lifting the mare in question’s muzzle up with a hoof, “there’s a way that you might be able to help save everypony.”

Eyes widening, Dash asked, “Really?”

“Well, maybe.”

This wasn’t a real plan, but it was a marginal improvement to any plan I came up with. I found Dash’s learning style to be low-quality, but it could work here. If she could just sort of ‘feel’ her way to casting pegasus spells, then maybe if I described the feeling of casting a unicorn spell together, she’d be able to share her magic with me after we left the Æthereal Realm.

The biggest problem with that – besides how unlikely it was for Dash to succeed – was the fact that I was never on the needing more magic side of cooperative spellcasting. I didn’t have the feelings and sensations memorized as well as Dash would probably need.

“So when we finish our ascensions,” I began, “we’ll probably need to make a fighting retreat.”

“Are – are you sure?”

“Am I sure about what?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just…” Dash glanced around, and eventually her gaze fell onto the next window of – of Mother. One that had Celestia on it, too. “Is the princess really that bad? I mean, she always seemed really nice at big festivals like the Summer Sun Celebration and stuff. And when I’d go watch movies that had boring news reels, she didn’t seem all that bad in them.”

Sighing first, I replied, “Dash, I told you before. The ability to be a good ruler doesn’t make a pony good, especially when you want a stable eternal rule.”

“I know, I know, but she’s done a lot of good stuff for ponies. And she holds, like, open court or something. The thing where anypony can come in and make requests or bring up issues and stuff. I don’t think any other countries do that.”

“Well” – I fruitlessly tried to call upon my magic for visual aids – “not every governmental structure admits open court. The zebras are more tribal, which allows them something extremely similar, but dispersed. The griffins have this sort of honor duel thing. The minotaurs are big on the concept of a republic, in which a pony would bring their issues to the lowest level and let them work their way up – in theory. The deer are–”

“Twi, I don’t need a lecture on sociopolitics or whatever.”

I – I was pretty sure ‘sociopolitics’ wasn’t a word, but I didn’t know, so I couldn’t call Dash on it. Still, she was right that I’d wandered off topic.

“Okay, but the point is governments have to be responsive to the citizenry at some level. They fall apart otherwise. And open court has been a tradition of Equestria since the Everfree Castle was built.”

“The what now?”

Ugh. I had a lot of work cut out for me undoing all the damage Sun – Celestia had done to world history.

“Equestria’s capital used to be in the Everfree Forest before it became dangerous and wild.”

“Oh. Well, what about that private school for unicorns? I heard the princess runs herself ragged making sure it gives the best education to those that deserve it but can’t…”

It took me a few seconds to realize I’d sunk into a glare.

“Right, um, nevermind.” Dash looked away and continued, “But still, the princess doesn’t seem that bad.”

I sighed. I could see why this was so important to Dash. If Celestia turned out to be good, then Fluttershy wouldn’t be in any danger, and from Dash’s perspective, she wouldn’t have broken…that promise I’d just watched in her memory.

“Dash, Celestia tried to kill her sister in cold blood, and if we hadn’t interfered by draining the elements, she’d have succeeded this time for sure.”

And we weren’t even in the clear yet. It was still very possible for Celestia to win if we let our guard down, especially since I still had to escape from her after my ascension was finished. I still had no real plan for that beyond hope for the best…

Removing the pressure from her lip, Dash asked, “But what if she regrets what she’s done? What if… Um… What if maybe the princess just thinks she has to follow through?”

“And why would that be?” I asked. If Dash had some magical insight into Celestia’s character that both Luna and I had somehow missed, she should feel free to share it.

“I…don’t know. But maybe it was just an accident.”

Just barely, I reined in my urge to bite Dash’s head off before it showed on my face.

“I mean, I nearly” – Dash gulped – “I nearly killed my wife when we were fillies. St-stuff happens, you know?”

I shook my head, feeling my anger drain away. Dash was just trying to help in her own way, her thoughts colored by her past. I couldn't blame her for that at all.

Yes, sometimes ‘stuff happened’, but the probability of complex events occurring at random was for all purposes zero. The elements accidentally going off while Celestia just happened to be threatening Luna with them after Luna had finally broken and lost control of her anger, for example, was a hypothesis not even worth considering.

Trotting off down the path toward Cadance, I said, “Come on, Dash. We need to get going.”

“Yeah.” Then a second later, Dash said, “Yeah, alright.” Once Dash had caught up to me, she asked, “So how can I help?”

Oh right. I nearly forgot about that.

“Well, as I said, we’ll likely need to make a fighting retreat. When we get back, you’re going to have a lot of magic as an alicorn. Being an alicorn is going to be a lot different than being a pegasus. Part of that is having a horn.”

“You’re not going to try and turn me into an egghead, are you?”

I rolled my eyes and ignored that comment. Dash could probably learn unicorn magic the same way she learned pegasus magic, if with much more difficulty.

“I’m just going to try to describe how to share your magic with me. If you can make it work, we can cast spells together.”

“So I’ll be fighting with you side-by-side?”

Eh… I was going to be doing almost all the work, but Dash had a real grin again. I supposed it couldn’t hurt to say yes.

“I’m letting you know in advance this probably won’t work. But if it does, then yes.”

“Awesome!”

Dash leapt into the air, and promptly came crashing back to the ground, falling onto her barrel.

“Stupid no magic Æthereal Realm,” Dash grumbled.

Okay, now this, this was funny.