The train sped through the countryside, heading toward arguably the most important city in Equestria.
Inside, ponies moved about, going on with their daily lives. The servers trotted to and fro, pushing trolleys filled with food both sweet and salty. The engineer kept an eye on the unwinding track, while his assistant threw more coal into the engines of the train. The mothers shushed their loud foals, and the fathers read their newspapers.
Change usually went like that, didn’t it? Unnoticed by all save for the one experiencing it. One could be drowning in a sea of faces, and none would stop to help because only the one drowning knew they were drowning.
A story was told inside that train. An ancient story, nearly as old as the princess it was about and just as unknown as her location. An ancient story only a few knew, for it was a story passed down in the form of old letters.
A mare sat alone in a cabin, a bundle of letters beside her, kept intact by unicorn magic of old. She’d discovered their existence a week prior, the morning of a wonderful sleepover, and insisted they be given to her by their keeper.
The letters were all from a single stallion, addressed to his brother.
The first letter, written in rushed calligraphy as if the writer had been overtaken by the need to express himself, spoke of a library he’d found in the forest a few weeks back, and of the beautiful princess inside it. Pages and pages were dedicated to her. He spoke of her beauty, of her wisdom, and of her smile. He spoke of her two magic chandeliers, her only companions in her lonely existence. It was her, he insisted. She was the princess of legend.
The second letter, written nearly a year later, was more relaxed, but still held that fascination for the princess. While before he wrote of her with a reverential air, his words dripped now with familiarity. He spoke of the princess fondly, like his life revolved around seeing her, spending time with her, making her smile and making her laugh.
He confessed, almost with shame, that he dreamed of the day he could address her only by name, when he would be her equal and perhaps even more. He feared the princess did not feel the same way, but if he freed her, maybe she would be more inclined to give her heart away. He would go see the reigning princess, and wondered if his brother might go with him.
The third letter, still addressed to his brother, was written nearly four years later. He spoke of many trivial things at first, of the farm, of the family, of the village. Eventually, once formalities had run out and with them the excuses for his lack of correspondence, he spoke of the princess.
It had been four years since he’d last seen her, and he’d not been able to find the library, nor had the princess let go of his heart. Ponies said he’d lost his mind. He could hear them whisper when he walked by, calling him the mad pony of the Everfree Forest. He wished so terribly that he had left himself a way to find the library; maybe trained a beast to lead him, or made a trail of rocks and bricks. He wondered if she thought of him still. He thought of her still, nearly every other hour, and he went into the forest to look for her every other day.
The fourth and final letter was written decades later by a now-aged stallion, addressed to his long-gone brother. He started it off saying that writing to the dead only fueled the family’s belief he’d gone insane, but how could he not? How could he not write, when the weight of his brother’s death still dragged him down? Who knew timberwolves could end a life so quickly? Maybe if he hadn’t insisted they go look together… Maybe… So many things he wished he could change.
He spoke of his brother’s daughter, and the beautiful granddaughter she’d borne. He was fond of her, and they spent many a day talking when he wasn’t in the forest. Yes, dear brother, he still looked for her. What would she think of him if she could see him? She, as everlasting and breathtaking as life itself, and he, an old and lonely stallion who could barely see and barely walk. He spoke of the granddaughter again.
They had talked a few days ago, her sitting on his back while he walked through the farm. She’d asked him if he went to the forest because of the princess, and he said nothing. She then asked him if he went because he still loved the princess, and he smiled and said nothing. Lastly, she asked him if the princess ever loved him back, and finally he replied saying he hoped very dearly she didn’t. A lifetime without her had caused him endless grief, and he would never wish an eternity of such a thing on her.
Long after the mare finished reading the letters, while she and her five companions trotted past the many shops in Canterlot’s Moon Quarter, the letters resonated in Rarity’s mind. An otherwise pleasant train ride had been tainted by their melancholy, and she’d found herself missing Twilight more than she already did.
Silly, wasn’t it? Missing her after only being apart for a day. She could scarcely imagine the pain Fritter Cobbler went through if his feelings were as honest as his letters claimed they were. She was grateful Twilight had not fallen in love with him, and though she told herself this was because she wouldn’t have wanted Twilight to suffer, she knew it was mostly because she couldn’t stand the idea of… well… being a replacement.
“So, where are we supposed to meet this feller?” Applejack asked, looking away from the window of a clothing shop.
“I’m supposed to meet him next to the statue of The Lonely Mare. It’s somewhere in the Knowledge District,” Rarity replied, rereading the letter she’d received from the guard a few days back. She stashed it inside her saddlebags and turned to Fluttershy and Applejack. “He doesn’t know you’re all here, so I’d rather speak to him alone first. Wouldn’t want him to change his mind all of a sudden if he sees six of us.”
She looked around and noticed the fillies gawking at a nearby toy store, which luckily happened to be next to a café.
“Why don’t you wait for me there?” Rarity suggested, motioning toward the café. “I shouldn’t be long.”
“Do you have everything?” Fluttershy asked.
“I do!” she exclaimed, patting her heavy saddlebags.
Considering they’d be meeting with Princess Denza, Rarity made it a personal mission to bring along as much evidence as she could carry—despite Twilight’s protests. Photographic evidence of everything, be it the library or the princess; one of Pinkie’s dream journals, complete with semi-accurate drawings of Princess Luna; Cadance’s last letter to Twilight; and, finally, Celestia’s and Luna’s crowns.
The crowns were her pièces de résistance, which she hoped would prove her claims beyond a shadow of a doubt.
As she trotted toward the Knowledge District, her mind wandered back to Twilight and Fritter Cobbler. Truth be told, Twilight barely spoke about him. She obviously meant a great deal to him, but had the feeling been reciprocated? Maybe they hadn’t been of the romantic nature, but still… It must have been terribly sad for both of them.
Eventually, Rarity stepped into Knowledge District’s main plaza. While she did not find a statue resembling a lonely mare, she did become reacquainted with the dragon statue atop the library from months ago. The first time she’d seen it was under the light of the moon, and now, under the light of the sun, she was able to admire it in all its splendor. The winged dragon looked much less imposing now. Was it because of the light, or was it because of what happened in Rainbow Falls? Ever since she’d met Seeker and Taegar, huge beasts weren’t so terrifying anymore.
She flagged down a passing pony and, after inquiring about the whereabouts of The Lonely Mare, was told the statue could be found inside the library’s foyer. She thanked the pony and made her way to the building, walking next to a tour group headed in the same direction. The tour guide spoke with great enthusiasm as his group and Rarity followed him up the stairs and into the grandiose library.
“Right, right! Please gather ’round, everypony!” the guide called, walking up to the middle of the foyer and ignoring the loud shushing a passing employee threw his way. Once his group and Rarity had done as he’d asked, he smiled and threw his forehoof in the air, gesturing to the statue behind him. “Here she is! Canterlot’s lonely princess!”
Rarity felt her heart nearly stop.
The familiar third lost princess lay on the pedestal in a painfully familiar pose: a book in between her hooves and a fascinated smile on her face. Only the tourists gazed at the statue with awe, whereas librarian-ponies walked by without care for the statue. It was baffling, really, to think how many ponies have passed by that statue daily without knowing… without sparing her a thought… without…
“As with the other statues, this one is also rumored to depict one of the lost princesses of legend,” the guide continued, pointing to the inscription at the base of the statue. “Though it’s actually called The Faithful Student, the locals famously call it The Lonely Mare. Any idea why?”
A colt excitedly lifted his hoof and spoke up, “Because ponies who read lots of books are boring!”
…Boring? Rarity thought, looking incredulously at the foal.
Twilight Sparkle, who knew everything about anything, who was so passionate about her love of knowledge it was contagious, who was both mysterious and frightfully clever… was boring?
Indignation bubbled within Rarity, directed at the foal and at many other ponies who actively participated and spread the terrible nickname given to Twilight’s statue.
Twilight was fascinating because she thought everything was just as fascinating. Because the world and all its wonders, all its quirks and rules and phenomena were incredible to her, and she translated that feeling to ponies around her. She could see an entire world, a galaxy, a universe in pages of books Rarity found empty. Through Twilight’s eyes and words, Rarity had seen the world in a whole new light, where things that seemed dull years ago now felt new and vibrant and extraordinary because that’s how they were to Twilight.
Because she herself was extraordinary in more ways than the obvious.
“Good guess, but I’m afraid that’s not the answer!” the guide said, laughing at the colt’s suggestion. “If you recall, the two other statues of the princesses each had a small foal with them. This princess, however, is completely alone.”
The words, spoken so casually, pierced into Rarity’s heart like a dagger.
The lonely mare, guarded by the statue of her long-gone friend.
Rarity thought back to a time when that princess was completely alone. Images flooded through cracks in her memory of a Twilight who never shared what she thought; who silently analyzed and over-thought; who was detached and distant as a defense mechanism against abandonment; who never smiled, having lost any reason to do so. In that moment, it felt like that Twilight had been an entirely different pony from her Twilight Sparkle.
Her Twilight Sparkle laughed at Sweetie Belle’s antics and made snappy remarks at Rarity’s blunders; her Twilight Sparkle no longer feared being left alone or forgotten; her Twilight Sparkle got terribly upset when Rarity fell asleep mid three hour-long lecture, but cared enough to cover the unicorn with a blanket; her Twilight Sparkle had a brilliant smile, and an enchanting voice, and shining eyes, and a warm laugh that all combined made Rarity feel things she’d never felt before.
The tour guide and his group continued on, allowing Rarity to step toward the statue and brush her hoof against it. It was intoxicating to pretend for a moment that she could touch Twilight; to imagine marble turning into warm fur; to pretend she could feel Twilight’s heartbeat.
“This is why they didn’t believe you.”
Rarity turned around, finding a fully armored Rift Shield standing next to her, looking at Twilight’s statue.
“The guards from the castle. This statue is the reason they didn’t believe you,” he elaborated, taking off his helmet. “They think these statues are supposed to be historically accurate representations. Nopony in Canterlot thinks this is what they really look like, so when you waltzed up with a photograph of an alicorn identical to the statue everypony knows, they thought you were treating them like idiots.”
“That doesn’t excuse their behavior,” Rarity dryly remarked. “Representation or not, they shouldn’t have dismissed my claims so easily, and they most certainly shouldn’t have made their judgment based on what the statue looks like.
“But, I suppose what’s done is done,” Rarity concluded, before turning to him properly and smiling. “Hello, Rift. All ready to take me to the princess, I presume?”
“Hah! Straight to the point, eh?”
“I fear so, yes. There are many things to discuss with the princess and, as I recall from your letter, you also wished to ‘go over my evidence,’ did you not?”
The pegasus nodded, his brow furrowing. “Yeah, so I hope you brought as much as you could,” he said, voice losing its playful edge.
Rarity harrumphed. “I did!” she replied, and thought that would be a wonderful opportunity to flaunt her two crowns. “Just a moment…”
She opened her stuffed bag and ruffled through it, searching for the crowns which had been wrapped in paper and fabrics to avoid damage. In her search, she happened upon her necklace, and she took a moment to inspect the crystal, relieved to find it glowed not at all.
“There’s something else I need to talk with you about, too,” Rift continued, and something about his tone of voice sent a chill through her. When she glanced up, he was staring at her, looking like the bearer of terrible news.
Her saddlebags all but forgotten, Rarity straightened herself up, disconcerted by his sudden seriousness. “…And what might that be?”
Rift looked around. “No, not here. It’s not something to discuss in public where somepony might be listening.”
Rarity’s sense of unease only grew.
“…I see,” she replied. Thank goodness the Spirit didn’t seem to be following her presently. She cleared her throat, deciding there was no better time to make her confession. “There’s something I need to tell you as well.” She lifted her hoof toward where her necklace would have been. “I didn’t exactly come alone.”
Rift raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Rarity cleared her throat, and offered her most charming smile. “My friends know Princess Twilight, you see, and we thought it would be a marvelous idea if we all came to see Princess Denza! She might be more inclined to help us if she sees it’s not just one pony claiming to have found the princess of legend.”
Rift opened and closed his mouth several times, before looking around. “Where are they, then?”
“Oh! They’re waiting for me at this lovely café in the Sun Court. I didn’t think it would be at all courteous to meet with you and bring along five ponies without prior warning. You’re doing us a tremendous favor, after all, and I certainly wouldn’t want to overstep my boundaries.”
“And they all know Princess Twilight?”
Rarity smiled, and a group photo of everypony who’d attended the sleepover levitated out of her bag and toward Rift Shield. “See for yourself.”
Rift took the picture and whistled. “You really are the real deal.” He looked back at Rarity and hoofed the photo over. “Fine. Go get them, and then go to the castle and ask for me. We’ll take it from there.”
Rarity nodded. “Fabulous! I won’t be long, then.” She turned around, with the intention of trotting off, but stopped and turned to him again. “Before I go… that ‘thing’ you need to talk with me about? Nothing bad, I hope?”
Rift only smiled and, before trotting out, said, “I’ll see you later, Rarity.”
Rarity watched him go, dread crawling up into her heart.
Some time later found the six ponies walking up toward Canterlot Castle. The younger ones were thrilled, oblivious to the anxiety the older ponies carried.
“Maybe Princess Denza can’t meet with us for very long?” Fluttershy said, another suggestion thrown into the proverbial basket of figuring out what Rift Shield meant with his grave request.
“I suppose that could be it, but… the way he said it… I’m nearly certain it’s something serious,” Rarity said, though dearly wishing she was wrong.
“Rarity’s right, Shy,” Applejack continued, frowning at the pegasus. “What he said about not speakin’ round ponies ’cause they might be hearin’? That ain’t something you say unless it’s serious.” She turned to Rarity. “You don’t think the Spirit’s followin’ us, do you?”
Rarity sighed. “I don’t know. When I was with Rift earlier, my necklace wasn’t glowing, and I sincerely doubt the Spirit would be foolish enough to waltz around Canterlot right under the royal guard’s noses.”
“Unless he’s working for the princess…” Fluttershy murmured.
“Fluttershy!” Rarity scolded, coming to a stop. “You too? I can’t believe this!”
“I don’t think she’s evil,” Fluttershy quickly said, trying to defend herself. “But… everypony keeps saying she is…”
“It’s a possibility, Rarity,” Applejack filled in. “You can’t go around blindly believin’ in anypony just ’cause they’ve got a fancy crown and sit on a throne.”
Rarity groaned, stamping her hoof on the ground. “I’m not a fool, Applejack. I’m very well aware not everypony can be trusted, but I can’t blindly follow what an infamous professor and an ex-Wonderbolt tell me, either! Yes, granted, there is a possibility Princess Denza isn’t as benign as we think, but if she is, we’d be wasting the opportunity to have the entire Equestrian Army helping us! I may be able to find Twilight’s books on my own, but what about Celestia? What about Luna?”
Applejack sighed, defeated. “I guess you know what you’re doin’, sugarcube. But I kinda wish you’d wear the necklace instead’a keepin’ it in your bags like that. Don’t see how that’s gonna help us none.”
“Darling, if what Professor Awe said is true, then this castle is littered with chaos magic, and my necklace will hardly be an effective warning. Besides, don’t you think that waltzing around with a necklace that glows green with varying intensity would attract some undue attention?”
“I suppose that’s true,” Applejack conceded.
“Come on, you guys!” Scootaloo called, waiting with the others near the entrance of the main gates. “We’re gonna go in without you if you don’t hurry up!”
Rarity and the others caught up to the fillies, putting the conversation off for another moment. Two guards were posted on either side of the gate, and much to Rarity’s relief, they turned out to be different guards than last time. Not that she was afraid or concerned about them, mind, but she couldn’t promise she wouldn’t have chucked the crowns at them.
These guards were far more polite, as well, letting the mares in without protest and even urging them not to miss the three o’clock tour of the gardens.
A wide array of ponies idled by the castle entrance. Servants were walking about, their excited smiles no doubt due to all the juicy gossip they have collected; merchants and nobles were arguing loudly about policies and politics, and tourists gawked at the massive building, their cameras flashing brightly with each photo taken.
Some of them, in fact, were busy taking pictures of a certain royal guard, who was having a grand time posing and flashing them smiles. So much for keeping others away!
“Well, this is convenient,” Rarity said, gesturing for the others to follow her.
As she approached, Rift noticed her and waved cheerfully, trotting away from the tourists and toward her.
“Ah, Lieutenant Rift Shield! These are the friends I mentioned,” she said, gesturing to them.
Rift nodded, smiling. “Hello! Nice to meet you all.” His smile faded, and he looked around apprehensively. “Where is Sweetie Belle? We need to get going.”
“Sweetie?” Rarity looked around and realized that Sweetie was already at the castle’s doors, peeking inside. “Sweetie Belle!”
Sweetie, alerted by her sister’s shout, rushed back to join them.
“S-sorry!” she blurted out.
“Really, Sweetie! How do you expect Lieutenant Rift Shield to feel comfortable leading us through the castle if you’ll be running off like that?!” Rarity chastised, shaking her head at the remorseful filly. The stallion already looked stressed enough.
“I said I was sorry…” Sweetie whined piteously. “I just wanted to look inside already.”
“And it’s a good thing you did,” Rift said, “since we’re going in through a much more fun place!”
Rarity blinked. “We are?”
“Oh yes! We’re going in through the hidden entrance!” he exclaimed, and only the adult mares didn’t gasp with excitement. “I thought it might be entertaining for the fillies.”
“Oooooh! Is it, like, all dark and scary?!” Scootaloo asked, clearly already sold on the idea.
Rift nodded. “It is!”
“That’s not good…” Fluttershy squeaked. “Maybe we should take the normal entrance…? I’m sure it would be much more fun.”
“I agree,” Rarity quickly said. “It seems entirely unnecessary to complicate everything in such a way, and I would feel more comfortable if we went the proper route, please.”
Rift frowned at Rarity. “You’re no fun, are you?” he asked, and his tone of voice rubbed her the wrong way. “And besides!” he added, smiling again. “You’re the one who came here with five ponies without telling me. Do you want to wait three hours plus lunch break for the paperwork to be done?”
“Well… A few hours isn’t too bad.”
“Oh, please, Rarity!” the fillies begged.
“Come on, Rarity!” Rift insisted. “You went up against dragons, didn’t you? What’s the worst a secret entrance can do?”
Rarity frowned, mulling it over for a bit before making her decision. “Fine. But if I don’t like it, we’re coming back and waiting those three hours.”
Huge grin on his face, Rift Shield trotted off. “Follow me!”
The three fillies at his hooves, Rarity, Applejack and Fluttershy reluctantly followed behind. Rather than heading toward the doors as Rarity had hoped, Rift led them through the outer gardens, not even giving them enough time to appreciate the scenery.
Eventually, they ended up on the other side of the castle, staring at the lower part of the massive east tower. Rarity blinked once, twice, thrice at the doorless white wall in front of her, and then looked up to find a tiny closed window several yards above them. She hummed and turned to the stallion.
“I sincerely hope that laughably minuscule window isn’t the secret entrance you mentioned.”
Ignoring her comment, Rift approached the wall and narrowed his eyes. “Which one was it…? It’s been so long…” He lifted his hoof, almost as if to touch one of the bricks, before stepping back. “Ah-hah! There we are.”
Turning around, he smiled to Rarity and gestured to a slightly discolored brick. “Magic, please!”
Rarity looked back and forth between him and the brick, unsure of what to do. When one of the fillies cleared their throat, she trotted forward and gingerly brushed her hoof against the brick.
“What spell am I supposed to use?” she asked awkwardly, glancing back at Rift. “I am afraid I am not familiar with any spells that reveal secret doors.”
Rift shook his head. “A brush of magic should do. The pathway was designed so that even fillies could use it.”
Rarity turned back to the tunnel and conjured the simplest spell every unicorn knew—levitation, aiming directly at the brick in question. Just as soon as the magic made contact, a loud creaking sounded off from inside the wall, and one by one, the bricks began to disappear.
She stepped back, mesmerized, until there was a door-shaped hole in front of her and the others. Without thinking, she stepped toward it, finding she could see absolutely nothing but infinite darkness. It reminded her of the library’s tunnel, in a way, save for the fact that the princess awaiting her at the end of the tunnel wasn’t her favorite one.
When she turned to Rift, he was smiling at her. “Ladies first.”
Rarity raised an eyebrow, and though she felt inclined to point out it wasn’t exactly very chivalrous to have her lead the way into a dark tunnel, her instincts told her to rise above it. Besides, by that point, she could hardly say dark tunnels frightened her.
And while everything about the situation gave her a bad feeling… the sooner they got it over with, the sooner she’d meet with the princess.
Lighting up her horn, Rarity stepped into the darkness, followed by Fluttershy, the three fillies, Applejack, and finally Rift guarding the rear. The moment they were all inside, the entrance closed, submerging them in darkness. She was grateful that her hornlight was strong enough to guide all of them, because even though she sincerely appreciated Sweetie’s meager light spell, it really wasn’t doing much at all.
She walked on, and the air was unusually silent until out of nowhere, a torch on the wall lit up, startling everypony—save for Rift, who chuckled at the gawking mares. The show wasn’t over as seconds later another torch lit up, and another, and another, and another until the endless tunnel now lay illuminated before them.
Rarity turned back and noticed Apple Bloom pointing at a spot on one of the grimy walls. She trotted toward it, and found drawings carved upon the wall, which she recognized as cutie marks. A radiant sun, so perfect in its design as if a master artist had carved it; a blue crystal heart, with a magical aura around it; a crescent moon, drawn slightly above and larger than the sun; and finally, not one, but four attempts to draw a perfect star with surrounding smaller stars.
Oh Twilight, Rarity thought, endeared, ever the perfectionist.
It made her smile to picture Twilight sitting inside the dark tunnel, frustrated by her attempts to recreate her own cutie mark.
Rift Shield cleared his throat. “This tunnel was once used by the princesses in case of emergencies. Like the time of the rat and lizard infestation,” he said, the latter statement drawing a hearty chuckle out of him.
Sweetie frowned. “I’ve never heard of that legend…”
Rift simply smiled. “There are many things you don’t know, but I promise you will soon. You wanted answers after all, didn’t you?” he said, and then gestured toward the tunnel. “Come on, we don’t have all day!”
And so they trekked on, the conversation turning toward other more important matters.
“So, Rift, what is that you needed to tell me?” Rarity asked, eager to find out what warranted seclusion from the rest of the city.
Rift Shield smiled. “Hm? Oh! You’ll see! Patience is golden, Rarity,” he said with a smile. “You’d better focus on what you’ll say to the princess for now!”
“Do you think she’ll like us?” Apple Bloom asked, joining the conversation.
“Don’t see why she shouldn’t, sugarcube,” Applejack replied. “She’s the princess, ain’t she? She’s supposed to be nice to all of us.”
“Wouldn’t it make her tired to be nice all the time to everypony?” Sweetie asked. “I wouldn’t want to be nice to Diamond Tiara after how mean she is to us.”
“Being nice all the time is boring,” Rift Shield agreed, completely missing the stern frown Rarity shot his way. She understood trying to relate to the fillies, but she’d expected better of him considering his job.
“Well, Sweetie, that’s why you’re not a princess,” Rarity said, smiling slightly at Sweetie’s indignant gasp.
While Sweetie listed the reasons why she’d be a perfect princess, thank you very much, Rarity looked back toward the path. It felt like they’d been trotting for a good while now, and her hooves were starting to tire. It didn’t help that not only was the path going uphill now, probably taking them to the upper levels of the castle, but the magic torches were few and far between, forcing them all to once again rely on Rarity’s illumination spell.
Finally, in the distance, she noticed a large wooden door. The way out, perhaps? She certainly hoped so.
“I see a door!” she called out to Rift, who was still at the rear of the group.
“Already?!” he called back. “That was faster than I remember.”
“Oh! We’re there, then?” Fluttershy asked, sounding very much relieved at the idea of getting to a nicer area.
“No,” Rift Shield replied. “There’s still some climbing to do, but—”
Without letting him finish, the three fillies sat down on the floor, whining piteously.
“But we’ve been walking, like, forever!” Scootaloo complained. “And I can’t see anything!”
Despite her desire to meet Princess Denza as soon as possible, Rarity couldn’t keep herself from taking the little respite presenting itself. With a sigh, she sat down like the fillies, taking off her heavy saddlebags.
“Well, we can take a little break and then continue,” she suggested, looking around at the walls for any other drawings the princesses might have left behind. “You don’t mind, do you, Rift?”
Rift, however, did very much seem to mind, his brow furrowed as a show of the fact. “Hm. But we have to be quick. It’s not smart to stay here long, and I won’t be going with you.”
“You won’t?” Rarity asked, surprised.
“Why not?” Fluttershy asked, sounding almost alarmed.
“I have to get back and go through the main entrance. It won’t be good for me if I’m seen wandering around the area we’ll come out of.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. A guard will be waiting for you and will escort you from there.”
“Wouldn’t want to make him wait long, would we?”
“Duly noted,” Rarity said. Though she really didn’t like the idea that Rift wouldn’t be accompanying them, the last thing she wanted was to get him into any trouble after everything he was doing for them.
“Did ya bring the snacks I gave you?” Applejack asked, approaching Rarity’s bags. “Nothing like a quick bite to pick these fillies up.”
“Yes, they should be there somewhere,” Rarity said, hoping said apples were still in a somewhat edible condition. She watched as Applejack ruffled through her saddlebags, but rather than take out apples, the farmer simply stared at the bag for a moment before frowning, closing it and then standing up straight.
“You know, it’s the darndest thing, but I’m suddenly feelin’ mighty sick.”
Rarity blinked at her. “Pardon? You feel sick?”
Applejack nodded. “Eeyup. Feelin’ downright sick. I don’t know why, but it ain’t good,” she said, lifting her hoof to check her temperature. “Might not be such a good idea for me to see the princess. Maybe we oughta go back.”
“Oh dear,” Fluttershy said. She turned to Rarity. “If she feels sick…”
Rift trotted over to Applejack, seeming less than pleased. “You don’t look sick to me,” he said after looking her over.
Applejack was resolute. “Well, that’s fine an’ all, but I know what I feel, and what I feel is sicker than an apple with a worm livin’ in it,” she continued. “’Sides, I just remembered I didn’t bring an apple pie for the princess, and I don’t want us Apples to look bad. I know Granpappy Jonagold will come for me at night if’n that happens.”
Rarity bit her lip, suddenly uneasy. “I…”
“I’m real sorry, Rarity, but I think we should go back,” she insisted. After Rarity threw her a pained expression, she gritted her teeth. “Can I talk with you for a minute? I don’t think you’re really understandin’ how scary Granpappy can be.”
One look at Rift’s face told Rarity that any further delays would be unacceptable, but Applejack’s expression was a thousand times more disconcerting.
“Very well,” she said, more and more apprehensive by the second.
She watched as Applejack picked up her saddlebags and led her into the tunnel, away from the others. When they were at a distance that Applejack found acceptable, the mare dumped the saddlebag on the floor and looked at Rarity.
“What’s wrong?” Rarity asked, trying to remain calm. “Something is wrong, isn’t it?”
“I reckon ‘wrong’ don’t begin to describe it,” Applejack said carefully, her voice barely above a whisper. “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me when I say something don’t feel right.” Applejack glanced around before turning to her again. “You need to look at your necklace.”
To say dread drowned Rarity would be a light way to put what she currently felt. Rarity stared at Applejack in complete silence for one, two, three seconds before glancing at her saddlebags on the floor. She didn’t want to open them. She had to, of course, but she didn’t want to.
Prompted by Applejack, Rarity steeled her nerves and finally opened them, heart pounding against her chest, and there, right on top of everything, was her necklace—glowing a light shade of green.
Her first thought was that there were three fillies with her, possibly in danger, along with two dear friends. Her second thought was that the only pony who knew anything about Discord was miles away in Ponyville. And her third thought was interrupted by Fluttershy’s voice.
“Rarity? Applejack? Are you all right?” Fluttershy asked, having trotted over to join the two mares. She looked deeply concerned, and the serious expressions she was greeted with did little to calm her nerves. “Rarity, if Applejack is sick, we really should—”
“I ain’t sick,” Applejack whispered.
“Fluttershy, I need you to stay calm,” Rarity began, already feeling she’d started to lose her composure. “I need you to be calm, act as nonchalant as you can, and look inside my saddlebag, please.”
Fluttershy did as bidden, and the small noise that came out of her mouth could only be described as a muted terrified scream. She then took a deep breath, smiled faintly and asked, “Can we get out of here now?”
“No,” Rarity quickly replied.
She looked back down at the necklace. Truth be told, it seemed glow just as much as it did in the Everfree Forest. It wasn’t glowing nearly as brightly as it did in Heart’s Haven, and…
“Fluttershy, do you remember what I learned from Professor Awe back in Rainbow Falls?” Rarity asked, and when Fluttershy blinked at her, she turned to Applejack. “The professor I told you about, Applejack. The one living in Hollow Shades. I happened upon his notes on chaos magic, and it mentioned that Canterlot Castle was plagued with it.”
Fluttershy gasped. “Like the forest!”
Applejack frowned. “Wait, so you mean you-know-who ain’t here?”
“I don’t think he is, no,” Rarity said, relief slowly finding its way to her heart. “The necklace is simply react—”
Rarity stopped mid-sentence, her attention caught and her panic returned tenfold. Rather than the dim green, the necklace’s glow was now as bright as a torch. Fluttershy’s panicked expression returned, whereas Rarity and Applejack simply star—
“Are you all done?”
The three mares let out a piercing shriek, jumping away and facing Rift Shield, who had apparently grown tired of waiting.
“…All right. I’ll take that as a no,” he said wearily. “We really don’t have all day, you know?”
Rarity couldn’t bring herself to speak, and it seemed neither could the others. They all stared at him with terrified eyes, and it was as though Rarity’s mind had gone completely blank. She only reacted when Rift Shield’s eyes lowered toward the saddlebag.
“Rift!” Rarity shrieked, immediately closing her bag and letting out a very nervous laugh. “Rift! Darling, dearest! So sorry, so terribly sorry, you spooked us! Didn’t he, girls?!”
Applejack did and said nothing, while Fluttershy shook her head so hard it seemed like it might come off at any moment. He narrowed his eyes at them, to which Rarity only smiled wider.
The stallion seemed unamused. “We have to keep going,” he said. He then smiled and added, “The princess is waiting.”
And, without another word, he turned around and trotted off toward the fillies.
As soon as he was gone, Rarity turned back to her saddlebags, opened it, and was dismayed to see it had returned to its former dim glow.
“What do we do now?” Applejack asked, going straight to the point.
Rarity felt sick.
She looked toward the others, unable to think of anything else but the fact that the… the creature talking to the fillies wasn’t Rift Shield, but…
Rarity looked away, her hooves rising and cradling her face because she’d fallen right into his trap, hadn’t she? She had willingly and foolishly walked alongside him into whatever he was planning, and Twilight wasn’t here, and… and…
And if she was alone, she would risk it. If she was alone, and no life but hers was at stake, she would risk going against him. She would take her chances fighting him, somehow avenging the damage he’d done to Twilight and the others, but she wasn’t alone.
“We can’t fight him,” Applejack said, as if she’d heard Rarity’s thoughts. “And I don’t think he’s gonna let us backtrack, either.”
It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense anymore, and the more she tried to somehow rationalize and find a solution, the less she was able to because she’d walked right into his trap.
“But… he said he can’t go with us…?” Fluttershy whispered, her voice trembling. “Maybe Princess Denza will know he’s here and she can stop him…”
Rarity closed her eyes, trying to think back. She vaguely remembered something she’d read in Twilight’s book about the castle having a spell to ward off Discord and his magic.
“Our best option right now is to do as he says,” Rarity finally said, looking up. “One of Twilight’s books said he can’t go into the inner levels of the castle. All we have to do is just go through the door, and find a way out from there where he can’t get to us. I don’t think it would be very wise of us to risk angering him, unless we’d like to be the ghosts of the dark tunnel, would we?”
When the other two agreed that would be a dreadful thing to happen, Rarity picked up her saddlebags and they trotted off, joining the Spirit and the three fillies.
“Ready!” Rarity said, throwing them the brightest smile she could muster.
The Spirit nodded. “Good! That only took an eternity,” he said, and Rarity awkwardly laughed at his remark before falling silent.
They continued their path toward the door, the three older mares walking faster than the fillies for once. Once they’d reached the door, the Spirit spoke up.
“Here we are! Time for you to meet Princess Denza!” he exclaimed, grinning widely at the cheers his statement elicited from the fillies.
“Indeed!” Rarity said, quickly opening the old creaky door with her magic and practically levitating the fillies past the threshold, barely giving them a chance to say goodbye to “Rift.” “Thank you ever so much for your help!”
“Goodbyenicemeetingyou,” Fluttershy squeaked, practically running to the other side of the door.
“Thank you kindly,” Applejack said civilly, nodding her head and quickly crossing to the other side.
“Good luck!” he said, smiling brightly.
Rarity looked at him and offered her loveliest smile. “We don’t need luck, thank you,” she said before turning around, crossing through the door and closing it tightly behind her.
The second the door was shut, Rarity slid down against it, burying her face in her hooves again. What were they to do? They couldn’t go back the same way, in case he was still there, and she very much doubted a guard was truly waiting for them. She had no idea where the real Rift Shield was, and only now did she curse herself for not having even tried the communication spell with the broken necklace.
She wished Twilight was there.
She wished it desperately, that somehow she’d open her eyes and be back at the library with Twilight.
“Rarity?” Applejack’s voice came. “You better look at this.”
Slowly, Rarity lowered her hooves and stood up, her eyes landing on the winding path and what everypony else was staring at. She trotted forward past the group and found the tunnel littered with dozens of floating translucent protective spheres.
“What… What are they?” Fluttershy asked, stepping back.
Rarity approached one, and was surprised to see a shape-shifting rock inside the sphere. It turned into a cupcake, a tiny violin, a snowball, and then a rock, repeating the pattern over several times. She looked up and realized one of the torches on the wall was also encapsulated in a protective sphere, which contained the tiny fireworks ceaselessly shooting out of the flame.
And yet… And yet the magic wasn’t like any protective barrier she’d seen. It looked fragile, terribly fragile, as if it would burst like a bubble at the softest touch.
“This is it!” Excitement welled up inside her despite the predicament. “The spell that limits chaos magic! Professor Awe was right! And don’t touch it!” she scolded, using her magic to snatch Scootaloo’s hoof away from one of the bubbles.
“But why is this here?” Apple Bloom asked. “Is…” She rushed to her sister, latching onto her leg. “Is the Spirit here?!”
Applejack and Rarity shared a concerned look before the earth pony turned to the three fillies, having shaken Apple Bloom off her leg. “Now, girls, I don’t want you runnin’ off scared, but… Rarity’s necklace here sniffed out somepony real bad, and we best all be very careful.”
The three fillies went white, their desire to play with the magic bubbles having obviously vanished. As much as Rarity would have liked not scaring them with the truth, they couldn’t risk the fillies doing something careless as a result of being kept in the dark.
With the stern warning of not touching absolutely anything, they continued down the dark path, avoiding more and more bubbles of magic. Eventually, they reached another large door, which Rarity very slowly and carefully opened, hoping no pony might be on the other side. Peeking outside, she was relieved to see nopony there, prompting her to open the door wider and trot in along with the others.
When she stepped into the expansive hallway and looked around, Rarity felt a chill down her spine. When she thought of a castle, she usually imagined a lively place with sunlight filtering in through the windows, staff and attendants rushing around to get things done, but this…?
No sunlight could enter, hidden away by the curtains drawn over every window. Dimly lit torches were the only source of illumination, and the meager décor consisted of two kneeling suits of armor on either side of four of five doors, and even more of the magic bubbles.
There was a statue in an alcove as well, which Rarity approached carefully. It was an armored unicorn stallion, standing tall and proud, one of his forelegs raised. There was a symbol on his chest plate, which vaguely reminded Rarity of the star in Twilight’s cutie mark.
Much like the princesses’ statues, there was an inscription on the base of his, and yet, unlike theirs, it was not a title, but a phrase.
I will find you again, in this life or the next.
Curious. Considering the other statues, she would have expected it to be of Princess Cadance, and yet…
“Didn’t Princess Twilight have a brother?” Fluttershy asked, having joined Rarity.
“She did, yes,” Rarity said, and now she did truly feel melancholy settle into her heart, the inscription taking on an entirely different meaning. A terrible realization seeped into her mind, of Twilight’s brother spending his entire life looking for his lost little sister, much like Fritter Cobbler had.
Rarity stepped back, finding she no longer wanted to dwell on such things. She turned around and continued her inspection of the hall, leaving the others to continue admiring the statue. Rather than head toward the rooms, she continued on to the end of the hallway, reaching what she dearly hoped would be the exit. To her misfortune, however, as soon as she put her hoof on the handle, she heard two voices on the other side, apparently having a conversation.
She quickly stepped back, unsure of how to proceed. Going through that door would mean facing the guards and being seen as what they unwittingly were: intruders.
After returning to the others and instructing them to find another way out, she trotted all the way to the other side of the hall and approached one of the doors flanked by suits of armor. To her surprise, she saw Princess Luna’s cutie mark painted on it, prompting her to open the door and find a spiraling staircase leading up.
Smothering her curiosity, she closed the door and moved away. She saw Fluttershy going toward one of the other doors, and upon joining her, both found a blazing sun drawn on the door.
“These are their rooms,” Fluttershy urgently whispered, and now did the placement of the statue make sense.
Rarity tried the handle of the door but found it locked. Resigned, they moved to the next door, which boasted a familiar star-shaped cutie mark. Immediately, Rarity tried the door and a smile warmed her lips when the handle turned and the door swung open.
They stepped inside, finding a massive room filled with empty bookshelves and unused telescopes and ancient devices. Paintings hung on the ceiling, depicting the princesses of old, some featuring Twilight and the stallion from the statue in the hallway. It was strange to think that, once upon a time, Twilight Sparkle lived here.
Much like in the hall and the secret passageway, bubbles of magic also floated around the room, again containing objects that had been polluted with Discord’s magic.
The only things that stood out, however, were the maps and diagrams plastered over most of the walls, depicting glowing stone orbs and their suspected locations. On the desk, Rarity found the remains of three of these orbs.
“What are these?” she asked, finding nothing even remotely remarkable about them, and yet…
And yet, even though the orbs seemed identical, one of them in particular drew her attention, as if something within it spoke to her.
Mesmerized, she approached, and just as she brushed her hoof against it, a wisp of light shot out from the orb and toward her saddlebags.
Her subsequent yelp drew the attention of Fluttershy, who’d been inspecting one of the telescopes.
Without bothering to reply, Rarity quickly opened one of the bags and… and found nothing out of the ordinary. All the objects were in their place, the necklace above them all still glowing a dim green.
“Find anythin’?” Applejack asked, trotting into the room and looking around. “Hoo-wee! Looks like somepony moved out from here.”
Rarity turned around, heart beating in her chest. “W-what?”
“I’m askin’ if you girls found anything?” she repeated, and then frowned. “You doin’ okay, sugarcube?”
“I…” Rarity wearily rubbed her forehead. What was the wisp, what were the orbs, why would Discord disguise himself as Rift, why… “None of this makes sense.”
Applejack blinked. “None of this makes sense? What do you mean?”
“I mean that it doesn’t!” Rarity exclaimed, gesturing wildly. “Discord, for starters! Why did he lead us here?! If he really is working with Denza, why not just take us through the main doors! Why go through the trouble of such a back-alley solution?! Why pose as Rift Shield to get us into the castle when the real Rift was going to do just that?!”
“Maybe it has to do with what Rift wanted to tell you?” Fluttershy suggested, gulping. “Maybe it’s something bad…” Her ears lowered and she stepped back. “We shouldn’t have come here. We can’t even ask Princess Twilight for help, and why would he have taken us here if it wasn’t for something bad, and…” Fluttershy buried her face in her hooves.
Applejack sighed. “I don’t know either.”
“That’s the problem!” Rarity continued. “We don’t know! We don’t know anything about anypony! I mean, what, he wanted to take us on a tour of their bedrooms?! Depress us over the statue in the hallway?! Nothing makes sense!”
They turned around and found Apple Bloom by the door.
“Come quick! We found something!”
Rarity exchanged glances with the other two before they all followed Apple Bloom into the last room, which Rarity assumed belonged to Princess Cadance the First.
Except, rather than a bedroom, it looked like a nursery no foal had played in for centuries.
There was a bed, yes, and a large framed painting of Princess Cadance, her husband, and Twilight, but everything else looked as if it belonged to a child. And yet, the toys were all perfectly organized, and the sole crib next to the bed was coated with a heavy layer of dust. It made sense in retrospect, didn’t it? Why would any of the reigning princesses want to disturb the room of Princess Cadance?
“Rarity, look!” Sweetie urged, drawing Rarity’s attention away from the crib and toward a nearby desk.
There was a most peculiar setting on it: an ancient-looking book with a music box encased in a protective bubble right above it.
“Is it one of Princess Twilight’s books?” Scootaloo asked, poised to grab the book at any moment.
Rarity furrowed her brow, taking a closer look. “Predictions and Prophecies, no author. No, this isn’t one of them. I’m fairly certain all the books had an author, but…”
But she couldn’t deny the title was intriguing. The book was the only thing that stood out in the room, and if Princess Cadance had been reading it, then surely it must be of some importance, wouldn’t it?
Maybe… Maybe this was what Discord wanted them to see?
“Well, there ain’t any way out of here,” Applejack said, moving away from the desk. “Either we make ourselves known to the guards, or go back through the tunnel. Maybe the Spirit got plumb tired of waiting and left?”
Rarity bit her lip, still wondering about the book. “I suppose it’s worth a shot…”
Though she could at least try and take the book? Twilight might find some use for it.
She lit up her horn and carefully surrounded as much of it as she could with magic, trying to avoid touching the protective bubble. The fillies were all watching intently, almost as if Rarity were about to perform a magic trick, which she technically was. She’d have to be fast, she expected.
She took a deep breath, focused her magic, and then, in one swift motion, pulled the book from below the bubble. Everypony stood absolutely still, watching as the bubble floated in mid-air for a few moments before, to their horror, popping and allowing the music box to fall with a loud thud.
Nearly half a minute went by, everyone staring at each other and the music box in muted horror, waiting for something to happen. Finally, just as they all started to relax, the music box popped open and began to play a soft melody, two plastic fillies chasing each other to the rhythm.
“Well, that could have go—”
Her sentence was interrupted when the music stopped and a large cylinder appeared, attaching itself to the music box and giving the impression of a very odd phonograph.
Rarity stepped back. “Oh no.”
The music box began to play again, but this time, the music blasted out of the speaker, forcing everypony’s ears to clamp down against their heads.
“Rarity!” Sweetie shrieked, pressing her hooves against her ear. “What did you do?!”
Rarity didn’t bother replying, instead desperately trying to turn off the music box only for it to become even louder each time she tried.
“Quick! The door!” she yelled. “Close the door!”
Fluttershy rushed to do as told, while Applejack went to the desk where Rarity was now considering levitating the music box and simply chucking it out the window.
“Give it to me!” Applejack commanded, taking the music box in her hoof and throwing it to the ground, where it continued to play. Before Rarity could question her action, the mare stood up on her hind legs and then crashed her forelegs down on the music box, smashing it to pieces, the music finally dying out.
“There,” she said, everypony else simply staring. “Now what?”
“Now we leave,” Rarity said, thankful that ordeal was over. She quickly stashed the book inside her saddlebag before galloping toward the closed doors, opening them and jumping back with a squeak.
On the other side were four very stern-looking guards, their weapons drawn out and directed at her. They weren’t her real concern, though, since right in between them was the reigning princess of Equestria herself, looking down at Rarity with an indecipherable expression.
The stare-down did not last long, mostly because, in her panic, Rarity had no trouble slamming the door shut in front of the princess, and then slamming her own body against it. When she looked back, she found her companions all gaping at her.
Fluttershy was the first to react.
“Did… Did you just close the door on Princess Denza?”
“Yes,” Rarity replied, doing a splendid job at hiding how horrified she was. “Yes, I did.”
The door suddenly shook against her, the guards demanding to be let in.
“Well,” Applejack said, sitting down on her hindquarters. “I sure am going to enjoy the dungeons, I reckon.”
Rarity let out a piteous whine, wishing she could somehow teleport all of them back to Ponyville. Alas, she was not Twilight Sparkle. With immense reluctance, she detached herself from the door and turned around, ready to face the music.
Immediately did the door open, revealing to Princess Denza and her guards five terrified ponies and one absolutely charming unicorn.
“Ah, Princess Denza!” Rarity said, smiling brilliantly. “What a delightful surprise meeting you here!”