This is a side story for The Night that Never Ended. It should not be read before chapter 17, both for context and spoilers.
Rarity's hooves pounded as she ran, eyes wide and mouth panting as she galloped blindly. Before and around her was a solid wall of darkness, even the ground beneath her feet was lost to sight.
Away, away! Run away!
The words echoed in Rarity's mind, but her exhaustion took it's toll as she stumbled over her own hooves. The ground must have been stone, because she could feel the loose gravel and sharp edges cut against her flank as she slid, whimpering as she came to a stop. Even with her head resting on the ground, she could see nothing but pitch darkness in front of her.
Get away, get away!
She urged herself to stand up, though she couldn't quite remember why. There was something horrible behind her, she knew, and she had to escape. Her muscles tensed as she pulled her legs in, but she lacked the strength to even pull them beneath her, let alone run any further. As she lay there, paralyzed, the echoes of terror resounded through her mind, slowly growing dimmer.
It was several minutes, or at least she thought it was, before she coughed and groaned. Lifting her head weakly, she squinted her eyes as she tried to peer into the darkness.
Wha-... where am I?
She could remember running, collapsing, and running again. Something had been chasing- no, not chasing, but something bad had been back there. Something she desperately needed to get away from.
She shivered, and as her body recovered and her adrenaline wore off she began to realize how cold it was. In fact, once she started noticing it, the temperature only seemed to drop more. Forcing herself to roll over, she cautiously tried to push herself onto her hooves again.
Rarity rose from the ground, coughing and shivering in the cold. She looked around herself to no avail, finding impenetrable darkness in every direction. Alright, think now Rarity, what's the last thing you remember?
She had been running, but before that... there was some dim memory of recognition. A feeling of home maybe, or comfort. Then confusion, and terror... try as she might, the unicorn couldn't remember anything else, and with some despair she stomped her hoof.
Looking around one last time, Rarity sighed. Every direction was identical, and she wouldn't even know up from down if she couldn't feel the stone under her hooves. With a start, Rarity realized that wasn't quite true, and an experimental shift of her weight confirmed her hunch. The ground, though mostly even, was sloped ever so slightly downward, just enough that an eye, or rather an ear, for balance would be able to pick it up. With a tentative step, Rarity began plodding downhill. All other options being the same, she might as well give herself the comfort of a slightly easier journey, after all.
It was impossible for Rarity to tell how much time passed before she noticed a light. Though she thought she had only been walking for a minute or so, her hooves ached as if she hadn't rested properly in days. Regardless, when she saw a small orange glow in the distance, she halted cautiously. Squinting her eyes to make sure she wasn't just imagining things, Rarity leaned forward. The light vanished for a moment, and Rarity's heart sank until it reappeared a moment later. When she shook her head in confusion, it reappeared and disappeared several more times, blinking erratically. Rarity raised a hoof to brush the hair out of her face, glaring at the diminutive speck of light. "Well?" she asked the darkness, "are you real or not?"
She knew she said it. She had felt her throat form the words, but no sound came out of her mouth. Taken aback, her hair bobbed in front of her face as she lifted a hoof to her mouth. The same hoof immediately smacked herself in the forehead when she realized why the light had been disappearing. My mane was bobbing in front of my face. By Celestia, Rarity, pull yourself together.
She began trotting towards the light, her energy renewed by the sight. As she walked, she experimented with speaking to herself at first, then singing, and eventually guttural gibberish. No matter how articulate or loudly she tried to speak, however, no sound came out of her throat.
In a way, the most alarming thing about this was how un-alarmed she was. The more she thought about it in fact, the more everything seemed to be just slightly off. She still didn't know where she was and couldn't remember how she got here, but she was more curious than worried. Even the light on the horizon was simply intriguing. The darkness around her wasn't threatening, it simply was. Although she couldn't place exactly why, some sense of memory told her that this was far from the norm.
Her only accompaniment on the journey was the sound of her hooves clopping on the stone. Despite the monotony, she found herself approaching the distant light rapidly. As she grew closer, she could make out more details. There were murky silhouettes of something in the distance, obscuring the light from direct view. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't make out what they were until she was nearly on top of one, only then appreciating their size. A dark wall rose two stories above her, and as Rarity moved to avoid it the dimmest reaches of light splayed across it.
To anypony else, it would have been pitch black. To Rarity, who had just come from complete darkness, it might as well have been broad daylight. The object was a wooden building, two floors high, and completely unremarkable. It felt somehow familiar, but also unimportant, like a tree that she had often passed but never truly noticed. Turning her gaze back towards the light, she saw another building several dozen yards away. Rarity trotted toward it, curiosity overcoming caution, and the same feeling of familiarity crept over her. Still, however, the light beckoned her ever onward, and she walked around the side of that building as well.
More buildings appeared as Rarity trotted, coming into greater and greater detail as she progressed. Some were stores and some were homes, but all were uniformly nondescript. There was an uncanny lack of detail about them that Rarity couldn't put her hoof on, like they were the backdrop of somepony else's dream. As she walked they became more frequent, and before long she wasn't walking from one building to another so much as trotting down roads and alleys.
With restless thoughts she walked alone. She found herself on a narrow street of cobblestone without a distinct memory of arriving there, but the light pouring out from around the corner comforted her. She knew, through obvious, self-evident knowledge, that she had arrived.
She trotted eagerly out of the alleyway, the buildings around her abruptly ending. Instead, her eyes squinted at the blinding display before her. Even shielding her eyes with her hoof, Rarity winced as she looked over the crowd of ponies before her. In the naked light she saw hundreds, if not thousands, of ponies. Their backs were turned to her as they gazed toward the white light, and Rarity could just make out the shape of a raised stage around the glare.
The crowd rippled with movement, and as Rarity's eyes adjusted she could see the ponies more clearly. Some stood at rapt attention and others whispered to each other, but their words were hushed and indistinguishable. Without willing herself too, Rarity found herself walking through the mass of ponies, an overwhelming feeling of familiarity assaulting her. Like a word on the tip of her tongue, she just couldn't quite place where she had seen this all before. A gentle pulse of light drew her attention back to the stage, and she pushed past a pair of mares as she made her way forward.
I know this, she repeated to herself over and over. I've seen this already. The light will dim and something will come out. And then I'll know, but I won't know. Ughh, I don't even know what that means! She tried to cry out in frustration, but her mouth made no noise and nopony near her seemed to acknowledge her presence. Even ones she bumped into rather clumsily simply moved aside and continued their conversations, oblivious to her presence.
The nagging feeling of familiarity grew as she approached the stage, but the nearer she grew the denser the crowd became. Nudging her head between a brown earth pony and blue pegasus, she pulled her body through but found it immediately blocked by a wall of bodies. Ineffectually shouting in frustration, she was prepared to resort to brute magical force when the light gently pulsed again.
She lifted her gaze as the crowd fell silent, the brightness of the light burning a sun spot into her eyes. The light quickly began to dim, and though Rarity still had to shield her eyes she could now see the stage revealed. A white unicorn stood front and center, the light radiating from her horn as her fabulous purple mane fell luxuriously around her shoulders. She surveyed the crowd with a cold stare, but her smile was inviting, even triumphant.
That's... me? Rarity stood agape at the pony, realization flooding to her. She was in New Ponyville. She was home. The ponies around her became names and histories instead of just faces, and she recognized the two mares she had pushed past earlier as her friends. The crowd cheered, the guard behind her doing so especially loudly, and Rarity lifted her gaze again.
"Ponies of New Ponyville, as you all know, last night our patrols successfully subdued and captured two insidious Shadowbolt agents!"
And then Rarity knew it. How could she have forgotten? She had captured two agents of Nightmare Moon, and had set to do... something today. As the other her on the stage, a concept Rarity was having trouble wrapping her head around, continued, more and more came back to her. She was going to let the crowd decide. This was justice, this was what the ponies wanted.
There was a Shadowbolt on stage now, her cracked goggles and torn mask hanging around her face. Big Mac was stepping up behind her, and something else tugged at Rarity's attention. She found herself turning her head over her shoulder, examining the guard pony behind her. The blue pegasus's chest was swollen with pride as he cheered. As her own memory returned as the events around her played out, Rarity found it unnecessary to watch the stage. She knew that this guard's eyes widened at the moment that she tore the mask off, knew his mouth dropped slightly agape, and could see Big Mac kick backward at the same time as the shadow fell across Soaren's face. Yes, that was his name, she could remember now. As the body sailed just inches over her head, she found she could remember everything.
She knew she was actually unconscious, that this had all happened before. She knew that the captain was going to break free, and she knew that Soaren would later kill himself. None of this dulled the pain in her chest as she beheld his face for the first time. The throng of ponies pressed around them both as the crowd surged onto the Shadowbolt, but Soaren fell to his knees anyway. Rarity struggled to keep sight of him over the rampaging crowd, his face indescribably vacant.
And then his face changed, and Rarity suddenly knew things she hadn't before. The light will dim and something will come out. And then I'll know, but I won't know. The face that was once Soaren continued to contort, the features sliding around like they were suspended in liquid. Rarity barely had time for disgust at he grotesque display as the features coagulated into something she impossibly recognized. Spitfire's mother looked down at her daughter.
Rarity choked out a gasp. How did she even know what her mother looked like? Before she could reflect on the question, the face changed again. Now her husband looked down, his mouth open in shock. Now her child, purple eyes wide and pleading. The light and crowd around Rarity seemed to fade as she, Spitfire, and the ever changing faces of her life sat in the darkness, Rarity's breathing growing faster and faster. This is justice, her own voice from the past rang in her head, she deserves this. They all deserve this. Rarity recognized her own thoughts and realized, with horror too great for her to put into words, that that had been exactly what she was thinking at this very moment when she had stood on the stage. Even now, she sounded so sure, but she had never seen their faces.
Now Spitfire's sister looked down. I had no idea she had a sister, how could I-, but the face was gone again, replaced instantly by another relative. The scene went on, the faces of Spitfire's life literally flashing before Rarity's eyes as the Shadowbolt was pounded by invisible hooves. Even long after life must have left the body, faces flicked by at lightning speed, their expressions passing too quickly for Rarity to see. Even if Spitfire deserved this, they didn't. Soaren didn't. Nopony does. I wasn't only dealing with some Shadowbolt's life. And now Soaren is gone too. To see one's friend killed right in front of them, to have cheered for it? Rarity couldn't even fathom the pain Soaren must have felt, but she lifted her chin anyway. The shifting apparition kept it's eyes locked on the lifeless body before it, but Rarity did her best to make eye contact. Whispering as steadily as she could, she found her voice restored.
"I'm sorry... I'm so sorry."
When Rarity opened her eyes again, she saw only the flank of a red pegasus as it stomped. The roar of the crowd returned in a rush as Rarity stood, tears welling up in her eyes. Her chest panged with shame as she thanked the heavens that she could no longer see either of her victims, but another pulse of light grabbed her attention.
She turned back towards the stage, thinking herself dead to whatever horror could possibly come next. Another prisoner had been led onto the stage, and Rarity's heart skipped a beat as realization hit her. This isn't how it happened. She escaped! The captain escaped! Why is she up there!?
But despite her mental assertions, the uniformed pegasus collapsed on the stage with a grunt. The... Rarity up top spoke again, then bent down and tore off the second mask.
It all happened too fast. There should have been time to do something, anything, to intervene. Rarity heard herself gasp from on stage, but the sound was nearly lost beneath the crack of Big Mac's buck. The battered mare angled downwards immediately, her unfocused eyes locking onto Rarity's. They held no accusation, only grim acceptance, as if they had long since given up on her mercy. In that instant, as the captain's bruised eyes made contact with hers, Rarity knew exactly how Soaren had felt.
The next thing Rarity knew, she was running. Ponies pressed in from every side, trying to get to the center of the bloodbath, but she struggled against them. She was terrified she'd be pulled in with them and began thrashing spasmodically with every hoof and limb she could, tearing herself from the crowd desperately. Buildings flashed by in a blur as she screamed soundlessly, nearly blinded with tears. She maneuvered around corners and doors until even the buildings began to fade behind her. Running headlong into the comforting darkness, she cursed the light that had drew her into it's false embrace.
She had been so sure of herself. That wasn't justice. That was brutality. How could I have ever... oh Celesia, what did I do? I just want to... I want to take it all back. The weight in her chest grew heavier with every frantic step, seeming to laugh at her. A take back, a second chance, a do-over like this was some kind of fillyhood game. I bet Soaren wants a do-over too. What extreme arrogance, to even try making amends after what I've done.
There was another choice, a deal that she seized as soon as it came up. The very air around her began to shift as she ran, the roar of the crowd fading into a soothing silence. She could forget. She could put the past behind her as if it never happened. After all, she knew now that this was only a dream. She shouldn't... what right did her own mind have in making her suffer like this? With grim determination and heaving breaths, she willed herself away from it. Away from the captain, Rainbow Dash, New Ponyville. Away, away! I want to forget it ever happened. I never want to think of this again! She looked longingly ahead as she passed the last building, remembering the numb memory she had felt when first awakening in the darkness. Awakening? No, more like-
The darkness welled up around her, comforting her and shrouding her troubles. Still Rarity galloped, her flank heaving as sweat dripped down her side. Wait, what was I saying? Rarity's hooves pounded as she ran, eyes wide and mouth panting as she galloped blindly. Before her was a solid wall of darkness, even the ground beneath her feet was lost to sight.
Away, away! Run away!