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    Princess Denza did not say anything at first. She looked beyond the mares, into the room, and then back at Rarity, still completely and surprisingly silent.

    “Your Highness! We’ll take care of the intruders!” a senior unicorn guard exclaimed, enveloping everypony’s hooves with magic, almost like he wanted to hoofcuff them. “Please return to the throne room until the area is secure!”

    “Secure?!” Rarity protested. “Have you even looked at us?! I have children with me!”

    “We’re not bad guys!” Sweetie exclaimed, terrified. “I promise!”

    The guard opened his mouth to reply, but Denza was quicker.

    “Windy, please make sure nopony else is in the other rooms, and then escort our guests to the throne room,” she said with a smile and turned to walk away. “Inform the secretary that all my appointments for this afternoon are canceled too. Thank you!”

    “But—! Your Highness!” the guard protested. “They infiltra—!”

    Thaaaank you!

    The guard gritted his teeth and turned to Rarity, lessening his magic grip on them. “Come on. Don’t try anything, or I’ll take you to the dungeons.”

    As Rarity learned later from the guard, the intrepid gang of Ponyvillians had infiltrated a highly restricted section. This explained the five additional guards summoned to escort them.

    It seemed like, despite everything, Rarity would get to prove Twilight’s existence after all.

    As they trotted along, everypony in complete silence, Rarity tried to go over what in Equestria she’d say. She didn’t feel confident enough to reveal that the Spirit had brought them, but reasoned that the princess would have been expecting them anyway due to Rift.

    Glancing back, she noticed everypony looked as nervous as she felt. The three fillies were uncharacteristically subdued, their fantasies of a visit to the castle crushed now that they were being escorted around like criminals. Fluttershy, too, was perturbed by the situation, and only Applejack was able to offer an encouraging smile.

    She hated the feeling, honestly. She loathed feeling so ill at ease when about to meet the princess she’d grown up her entire life admiring, and respecting, and adoring. Ever since the idea had been presented to her, that Princess Denza was not what she seemed, Rarity’s psyche had struggled to accept it, and now… Well, the princess’s reaction was hardly that of a terrible pony.

    The path through the castle’s many corridors and halls seemed long and tortuous. She wished time would stop and she could take a day to prepare. But, time waited on no pony, and certainly not on her.

    The doors to the throne room loomed in the distance and the courtroom alongside it with the Lady Justice of Equestria ready to decide their fate.

    Tick, tock.

    When they reached the doors, one of the guards stepped forward and knocked three times. He stepped back, and after a moment, the door swung open. Beyond it lay a spectacular hall with kaleidoscopic sunlight filtering in through stained glass windows.

    It was divine, Rarity thought, but much like the hallway before, it felt haunting. Most of the curtains were drawn, and dim light illuminated the chaos bubbles spread throughout.

    Guards were posted along the length of the hall, their eyes fixed on Rarity. Now, more than ever, she felt like an intruder, as though her actions had breached some terribly secret group and she was being forced to meet their leader.

    She and the others were ushered in, slowly trotting down to the end of the throne room, where Princess Denza awaited them behind a large desk and a group of four guards, standing as if to create a barrier between the princess and her subjects.

    The guards escorting her came to a halt several lengths away from the princess, and their lifted forelegs prompted Rarity and the others to do the same. When they’d stopped, the four guards posted before them moved, dividing into duos and placing themselves on either side of the large wooden desk. The curtains near the end of the room were drawn, but even so, Rarity could clearly see the alicorn.

    Princess Denza was beautiful.

    This was an undeniable fact, whether she truly be wicked or not. The pale cerise-colored alicorn stood in front of her golden throne, her long multi-colored mane held back by her simple yellow tiara. Back in the hallway, in the spur of the moment, Rarity hadn’t noticed an ethereal glow surrounding the princess, bewitching in its strangeness.

    Most of all, though, what truly made her beautiful in that moment was her expression.

    Rarity was used to seeing the princess in very different settings. Parades, inaugurations, all sorts of events where she was the center of attention, smiling with delight at everypony who addressed her. Always laughing, always joking around with her husband, always cheerful.

    But now?

    She wasn’t angry, or at least she didn’t seem to be. “Curiosity” was the word that jumped to Rarity’s mind. But it wasn’t the curiosity one would expect of a foal or of Twilight facing a new wonder. It was a sort of guarded curiosity, and Rarity supposed such a thing could be expected when faced with ponies who’d somehow made their way into a restricted area of one’s abode.

    Nevertheless, looking so serene and regal, Rarity couldn’t help but continue to think highly of her monarch.

    And yet…

    And yet the uneasiness did not leave, and though her eyes saw nothing but beauty in the princess, her… her instinct, so to speak, told her that something was still not right at all.

    But what?

    “Princess,” one of the escorts said, levitating Rarity’s saddlebags into the air and placing them on the desk. “This is the only thing they had with them.”

    “The door to the observatory wasn’t closed properly,” another guard added. “And they went inside the library. The…” He glanced at them uneasily before continuing. “We don’t know if they interacted with the orbs.”

    Do they mean the stones on the desk…?

    Princess Denza did not say anything at first, eyes resting on Rarity and the others and then lowering toward the saddlebags. Rarity gulped, remembering the magic wisp that had left the orb. Oh dear, had she unwittingly stolen… whatever that was?

    “What are your names, my little ponies?”

    Rarity blinked, taken aback. It wasn’t an odd question, by all means, but it certainly wasn’t the one she’d been expecting. She’d been prepared for something more along the lines of “why were you in my castle?” or “why did you slam a door in my face, and why shouldn’t I exile you for it?”

    “R-Rarity, Your Highness,” she replied, smiling politely. “And these are my friends, Applejack and Fluttershy, and my little sister Sweetie Belle, and her friends, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. We’re from Ponyville.”

    Princess Denza hummed, apparently uninterested in the saddlebags. “Ponyville? I’m very fond of Ponyville! They make the best apple pies there, and the cider is delicious!”

    “Thank you kindly, Your Highness,” Applejack said, smiling pridefully.

    The princess opened her mouth to speak, but stopped, her eyes fixing on something beyond Rarity. The unicorn turned around and was mortified to see her little sister raising her hoof as though they were in school.

    “Yes, little one?” Princess Denza asked.

    “Rarity’s really sorry she slammed a door in your face, Princess Denza!” Sweetie blurted out. “She didn’t mean it! Promise!”

    “Sweetie Belle!” Rarity gasped, appalled. She turned to the princess, sure that her face must have been aflame. “Though she’s right, Your Highness! I am truly, deeply, extremely, very, very, sorry.

    Princess Denza laughed softly. “It’s all right,” she said and then winked. “I have that effect on a lot of ponies.”

    And Rarity couldn’t help but smile, feeling much more comfortable.

    How could anypony claim the princess had ill intentions? She was perfectly lovely so far!

    “I have to ask, though,” she continued, “why exactly were you inside those rooms? They’re restricted, and my guards are usually very good at keeping ponies out of there.”

    “Yo-Your Highness,” a guard stammered. “We—”

    “Don’t be upset, Windy. You know I’m a tease,” Princess Denza said, smiling at her guard. “I learned from the best, after all!”

    The guard cleared his throat. “Yes, Your Highness.”

    Princess Denza turned back Rarity. “Well?”

    Rarity felt a blush creep up her cheeks. “I… Well, we, er… We wanted to speak with you,” she said lamely, the proper words to express herself making themselves scarce.

    “You managed that pretty well, then,” Princess Denza replied, and her amused smile remained on her lips. “Sneaking into the castle is one way of avoiding the paperwork and long lines. You must have something really important to tell me if you’d resort to this.”

    Silence fell as the princess—and the others, it seemed—waited for Rarity to reply and reveal all. But she couldn’t, so instead she asked about something else. Something that seemed important and, judging by the guard’s comment, was.

    “The orbs,” she said, her eyes falling on her saddlebag. “What… What are they? Why were there diagrams of them all over the room?”

    Princess Denza leaned back slightly, and her smile faltered. “Oh! They’re relics. Old things. I look at them sometimes, trying to find out their secrets,” she added, winking again.

    “Rocks don’t have secrets, Princess Denza,” Scootaloo pointed out, almost chiding the princess for her silly statements. Rarity had half a mind to scold the filly for it.

    Princess Denza laughed. “Some do!”

    “But… but those aren’t rocks, are they?” Rarity continued, undeterred. Because those diagrams were plastered all over Twilight’s room, had her mark all over them, and Rarity knew Twilight didn’t research anything that she didn’t find important. “Princess Twilight was researching them.”

    The name struck something inside Princess Denza, and though the princess’s smile vanished almost immediately, the guards stood taller, and Rarity’s nerve cracked, she plowed on.

    “Those rooms. Those were the rooms of the Princesses of Equestria, were they not?” she asked. “The ones from the myth.”

    Princess Denza’s smile returned. “Myths don’t come from nowhere, little ponies. And I should hope they were once alive, because I wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case!” She cleared her throat, as if moving the topic along, and asked, “Now, what did you want to ask me?”

    Rarity once again hesitated at speaking the truth, until a thought occurred to her.

    “But, Your Highness,” she said, taking a step forward, “weren’t you expecting us?”

    And now it was the princess who seemed taken aback, blinking at the mare. “I… was?”

    “Yes,” Rarity continued, even though the princess’s reply was anything but encouraging. “We were told by one of your guards that he’d arranged for us to meet you…?”

    Applejack nodded. “Yessir! Even saw the letter an’ everything,” she said.

    Princess Denza frowned. “Who? What was his name?”

    Again, the sinking feeling returned, but Rarity pressed on, “Rift Shield, Your Highness. He’s one of your lieutenants, I believe. A pegasus.”

    Princess Denza’s narrowed eyes widened, just like the eyes of the guards next to her.

    “We met him several months ago,” Fluttershy chimed in. “He was very nice, and he asked us to keep collecting evidence on the princesses.”

    “That’s impossible,” a guard said, stepping forward. “Rift Shield isn—”

    The princess’s outstretched hoof silenced him, and he stepped back, gritting his teeth.

    “Rift Shield told you he’d arrange for you to meet me?” she asked, and when Rarity and the others nodded, her frown returned. “Lance Fire, go and find Rift Shield, please. Tell him about this and that I expect to see him right away.”

    It seemed like Rift Shield held some matter of importance in the princess’s view, though Rarity didn’t know if this was for better or worse. She’d be finding out soon, she expected, watching a guard gallop toward the exit.

    Nevertheless, all that mattered was the dawning realization that, apparently, Rift Shield had never intended Rarity to actually meet the princess, which put Discord’s intervention in a whole new terrifying light—whatever his intention was, that is.

    “What is your business with me?” Princess Denza asked, and though her voice was not hostile on the surface, Rarity could tell the time for games had come to an end. She was no longer addressing a playful mare, but the Princess of Equestria.

    All of the warnings against Princess Denza came rushing back to her, from the professor and from Rainbow Dash and even from Applejack to some degree. She tried to think of Twilight, of what she would do, and all she could think of was how happy Twilight had been upon knowing Princess Denza was alive and knowing Rarity would see her.

    If Twilight believed in her, then she ought to give the monarch the benefit of the doubt, shouldn’t she?

    “I found the princesses,” Rarity said, finally, steeling herself. “We found the princesses.”

    No emotion could be found on the princess’s face.

    “You found them?” she asked, slowly, almost tentatively. She didn’t seem skeptical, or amused, or anything at all. It was terribly disconcerting. “All of you?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Applejack said.

    “All of us,” Fluttershy echoed when Applejack elbowed her.

    “And you’ve found all three princesses?”

    “No,” Rarity replied. She wished she knew where Princess Celestia was! “Just Princess Luna and Princess Twilight.”

    “Where is Princess Luna?” Princess Denza asked, and at that, Rarity faltered.

    “I… Well, I’m not sure exactly, Your Highness, but she’s somewhere near Hollow Shades. I was there, and I saw her in my dreams, and—”

    “Your Highness…” a guard said, looking back and forth between Rarity and the princess. “I don’t think—”

    “Veil, I understand your concern, and I appreciate it, but Rift must have had his reasons to bring these mares into the castle,” Princess Denza said, smiling kindly at her guard. “It’s only polite for us to find out what that is, isn’t it?”

    “…Yes, Your Highness,” Veil said, nodding and turning back to Rarity.

    “I brought proof, Your Highness,” Rarity quickly said, feeling uneasy at the guard’s apparent discomfort at having her there. “It’s in my saddlebags!”

    Princess Denza smiled, nodding at Rarity before gesturing to her guard. “Veil?”

    “Yes, Your Highness!” he exclaimed, trotting toward the table and opening up the bags, shooting a mortified Rarity a very hard stare as he pulled up the book she’d, er, borrowed from the nursery room. “This was inside Princess Twilight’s library. Why is this in your ba—

    “Veil, we already have plenty of books in the library. One less doesn’t hurt us,” Princess Denza said, and if she was angry at the apparent theft, she did not show it. “Continue, please.”

    Veil did as commanded, putting the book down and then continuing his inspection of the bag. Next, he extracted Pinkie’s dream journal, flipping through the pages with a confused expression.

    “It’s a dream journal!” Sweetie informed him.

    “There’s a mare who knows of Princess Luna, and she records her dreams of her in diaries like this,” Rarity continued, and before she could stop herself, added in a voice with just a touch of acidity, “She’s come to Canterlot several times asking for help, but has never been treated as anything more than a charlatan.”

    Princess Denza hummed, her eyes moving to her guards, brow furrowing slightly. “Oh? Regardless of whether her evidence is real or not, I’m surprised to hear she’s been treated that way.”

    Veil cleared his throat and continued, pulling out the brightly glowing necklace and giving it a brief look-over.

    “Magic spell to make it glow?” he asked, but before Rarity could answer, he put it aside and continued his search.

    The snacks Applejack packed came next, and when he reached inside again, Rarity held her breath at seeing him extract Princess Luna’s crown.

    True, it could have looked better, and despite Rarity’s best efforts at polishing it, it still looked like an ancient, rusted old crown. Then again, that was what it should probably look like if she wanted a chance at the princess believing her.

    “This…” He drifted off, and his eyes rose up to the princess.

    Before he could continue his sentence, the crown was enveloped in the princess’s own magic, which she used to levitate the crown toward herself. To Rarity’s dismay, she said absolutely nothing about it, though her eyes drifted off toward Rarity every few seconds.

    “Wait, there’s…” Veil dug into the bag again, and now he extracted Celestia’s crown. “What… What happened to this?”

    “The dragon tribe in Rainbow Falls gave it to me,” Rarity explained, watching as Princess Denza took Celestia’s crown in her magic as well, carefully inspecting it. “A remnant from Princess Celestia’s fight with the Spirit. And Princess Luna’s crown we found outside Princess Twilight’s library.”

    “Where is her library?” Princess Denza asked, looking at Rarity carefully.

    “Th-the Everfree Forest near Ponyville, Your Highness. I found it while searching for my sister on Seeking Night.”

    And again, Denza fell silent, though Rarity could have sworn she’d gotten paler.

    “Do you have Princess Twilight’s crown here too?” Veil asked, moving the conversation along.

    “No. I couldn’t bring it,” Rarity said.

    “Why not?” Princess Denza asked.

    “He made it a part of her. The Spirit, that is,” Rarity explained. “It’s the Element of Magic, you see, and she believes he did this so it would be useless against him.”

    “I see,” Denza replied, lowering the crowns onto the table. She fell silent for a moment, her eyes fixed on the six ponies. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

    “Wa-wait, Your Highness,” Veil interrupted, muzzle buried inside the saddlebag. “There’s more! There’s…” He pulled back out, and with him came several photographs and the letter from the original Princess Cadance. The letter did not interest him, falling onto the table, but the photographs? His wide eyes were glued to them, and he too had gone somewhat pale. “This is… This is…”

    The photographs of Twilight and the library were levitated away from him, and the princess looked through them, her eyes growing wide like his. Next, she took the letter and, letting the photos fall to the table, opened it up and began to read. Once she’d finished, she carefully folded it and placed it next to the other objects.

    “Princess Denza,” Rarity pleaded, taking another step toward her. “Please, we must help them.”

    “Rift Shield brought you here?” Princess Denza asked instead, as if she cared little for helping. “Is that why you were in the Princesses’ Hallway?”

    Rarity hesitated. “…No, Your Highness.”

    No?” Princess Denza asked, and it felt like the room’s temperature had lowered.

    Rarity held her ground. “We… He was supposed to take us! I even have a letter to prove it, like I said!” she insisted, pointing to her saddlebag. “He asked me to meet him at the castle, and he’d escort us to you, but we… Well, we found him outside the castle in the gardens, but…” Her voice drifted off, because even then it was hard to admit they’d been tricked. “But now we’re quite sure it wasn’t him.”

    “Wasn’t him?” Princess Denza asked. “Why would you think that?”

    “Well, for starters, he didn’t take us through the main entrance,” Rarity explained. “He guided us to a tunnel that connects to the Princesses’ Hallway, as you called it, and that’s why we were there.”

    “But who is this pony?” the princess insisted, looking more stern by the second.

    “The Spirit, of course,” Rarity replied, almost as if it were obvious. “Though… I confess I don’t… I don’t truly understand why he led us to you, when Rift was supposed to take us to you regardless. But, we’re positive it was him!” She gestured to the necklace. “My necklace serves as a detection spell! Princess Twilight cast a spell on it, and it glows varying shades of green depending on how close he is to us!”

    “It was glowing… very… very brightly,” Fluttershy added.

    Princess Denza didn’t say anything for the longest time. She simply put the letter down and stared at Rarity in utter silence, as if a mask had been placed on her face, shielding whatever she really thought.

    “Yo-Your Highness?” a guard asked, taking a step toward her.

    “Please escort our guests out of the castle,” Princess Denza said quietly, levitating every object back into the saddlebags and then passing it to a guard to carry.

    “Wh-what? Why?!” Rarity demanded, thrown off by the sudden change of attitude. “You don’t believe me?! What else do you want me to bring to you?! There are literal protective magic bubbles all over this castle!”

    “It isn’t a matter of whether I believe you or not,” Princess Denza interrupted, her voice calm and collected. “That doesn’t matter. I’m sorry you went through the trouble of coming here, but I can’t help you, and I have to ask you to leave.”

    Could… Could it be true? Had everypony been right?

    Did Princess Denza really have so little desire to help find the princesses?

    “But… you’re the princess!” Rarity protested, slamming her hoof against the ground.

    “Ye-yeah!” Scootaloo called out. “Don’t you want to help them?!”

    “Please! And Princess Twilight really wants to see you! She’s your family!” Sweetie added.

    Only Fluttershy and Applejack remained silent, and when Rarity’s eyes met Applejack’s, the mare simply lifted her hoof and adjusted her hat.

    “You are our leader!” Rarity pleaded, turning back to the princess. “You are supposed to help! You, of all ponies!”

    And for a moment, it seemed like the princess’s mask cracked, and she flinched. “I know. Please leave. I’m sorry, I really am. I cannot help you.”

    But, Prince—!

    “Please,” a guard interrupted, loud and clear, “the princess has given orders.” He gestured to the others and one by one they encircled the mares. “Please, follow us to the exit.”

    “I will not!” Rarity snapped, now feeling almost enraged. She had come all this way only to be sent back home?! “Is this really what you choose to do?! Turn a blind eye?! I believed in you, Princess Denza!”

    And the princess said nothing.

    Rarity gritted her teeth. “Very well,” she hissed, no longer caring that she was addressing the monarch of her kingdom. As far as she was henceforth concerned, the only ponies worthy of royal titles were all trapped as ghosts in different parts of Equestria.

    “Let’s go,” she said, turning around and marching off, ignoring the protests of the fillies. She tried hard, very hard, not to look back and hurl a few choice remarks at the Princ… at Denza, knowing it would only provide brief satisfaction.

    If the Spirit’s intention had been to show Rarity what a horrid pony Denza was, then he’d succeeded.

    Once outside the throne room and after the doors closed behind them, one of the guards gave Rarity her saddlebags back without a word and without asking for the “borrowed” book back. Curiously, she noticed he was avoiding her gaze, almost shamefully so.

    As he should, too, Rarity thought viciously, accepting her saddlebags and putting them on with a huff. It turned out that the Princess of Equestria was just as rude as her guards. She was only glad Professor Awe hadn’t been there, or else he’d have surely laughed at Rarity’s naïveté.

    “Please, follow me,” a guard said, gesturing for them to follow.

    And they would have, if a certain pegasus stallion in arctic blue armor hadn’t come galloping into the hallway.

    “Rift!” called a guard. “Where were you?!”

    Rift, if that was the real Rift, ignored his companion and instead stopped before the six Ponyvillians, blood draining from his face. He looked terrified. No, that wasn’t the proper word. He looked horrified to see them there, and frankly he should have, considering the choice words Rarity had for him.

    “You… Please, tell me you didn’t meet with the princess,” he said, breathing heavily, looking at them wide-eyed. “Please!

    Rarity harrumphed. “Oh, we did, but I can assure you I wish I hadn’t!”

    Rift stepped back. “No. No, no, no.” Before he could be questioned, a series of expletives left his mouth and he rushed toward the throne room, slamming the door open and stepping inside after barking orders to the others. “Don’t let them go anywhere!”

    The guards hesitated. “But, Rift—”

    “I said don’t!” he snapped, closing the door behind him.

    And now the ill-at-ease sensation returned full-force. Rarity stared at the closed throne room door for a moment before turning to the guards and finding every single one of them intently avoiding her gaze.

    “I knew it,” Applejack said. “I knew I had a bad feeling about all this.”

    “What’s going on?!” Rarity demanded of the guards, but again, they remained silent, only briefly glancing at her before again staring at absolutely anything else.

    “Did… Did we do something wrong?” Sweetie Belle asked, tugging on Rarity’s forelegs.

    “I… I don’t know,” Rarity replied.

    Minutes later, the grand doors opened again, and Rift Shield came out looking as pale as a ghost. He carefully closed the doors and turned to Rarity, seemingly at a loss for words.

    “Rift,” Rarity said, as authoritatively as she could despite her now steadily growing fear, “what’s the meaning of this? What’s going on?”

    “I’m sorry, Rarity,” he replied, taking off his helmet. “I am.”

    “S-sorry?” Rarity asked, stepping back, ears flattening against her head. “Why are you sorry? Why are you sorry?!” she demanded when he did not reply.

    All emotion was gone from his face, as though he were a terminally ill patient learning of his fate. “I… I thought if I kept you away… If I didn’t tell you, then maybe you’d…” He drifted off, though he never broke eye contact with her.

    If there was such a thing as dying of fear, Rarity was quite sure that would be the way she would go any moment now. Her heart slowed to a stop, and everything else in the room faded to a blur save for Rift’s eyes. Positions had changed, it seemed, for now she was the ill patient sitting on a chair, and he was the doctor ready to give the horrible prognosis.

    “Tell me what?” Rarity asked, her voice cracking. She didn’t want to find out what he’d done, what she’d done, and something deep within her wanted to run away from whatever he had to say, but in a game of chicken, Rarity was not the one to blink first. “Tell me what?!”

    He stepped back, almost startled. Or afraid? Of her? Of what he was about to say? She couldn’t tell, but either option was terrible, wasn’t it?

    “I… I didn’t want to tell you because even doing that might have…” His voice cracked, much like hers, and he fell onto his hind legs, his helmet falling and colliding with the floor, clanking loudly. “I’m sorry, I…” It was terrifying to see him at such a loss for words. “We don’t know anything about it—! It might spread from pony to pony, or anypony who works for her, or we don’t know! I thought if you never knew about it from me, then maybe it wouldn’t spread to you…” He drifted off again and then repeated two familiar words Rarity was beginning to loathe. “I’m sorry.”

    “Spread?” Rarity asked, ignoring his apology because she felt angered now, panicked, faced with this terrible judge too afraid to give his own damning verdict. Every second he delayed only intensified her already asphyxiating dread. Every apology he stammered only enraged her more. “Spread what to me?! What are you talking about?!”

    It was another guard who spoke up.

    “The curse of Princess Cadance.”

    Rarity said nothing, even as she heard gasps of horror around her. Rift said nothing, as well, his gaze fixed on hers. It felt, for a moment, like time had come to a stop, the guard’s words looping in Rarity’s head like a broken record.

    Cadance’s curse.

    As his final act of villainy, he cast a curse upon her, proclaiming that neither she nor any of her bloodline would be able to find the trapped princesses.

    Miss Rarity, I’ve read thousands upon thousands of variations of the legend. This one says it only affects her lineage. This one says anypony who speaks her name is cursed as well. Those two claim whoever works under her is affected for life.

    Cursed? There isn’t any curse! That’s just some phony excuse they made up so they wouldn’t look bad not doing anything while others did the job for her.

    “But there is no curse,” Rarity said and her voice felt so frail, so soft, like she was about to die, because if there really was a curse and it had just passed to her, she would. She stepped back, shaking her head, balking. “Th-there is no curse! That… That was an excuse! It’s an excuse! It is! Isn’t it?!”

    “I’m sorry, Rarity,” Rift said, and he sounded more sincere than she’d ever heard him, and she felt sick.

    “No. No.

    Trembling, she turned to the guards, who again kept their gaze away from her, with the shame they shared with their lieutenant.

    “Look at me!” she barked, and she tried hard not to let tears sting at her eyes. When they obeyed, she demanded, “He’s lying, isn’t he?!” and then felt faint when they lowered their gazes.

    Please,” she begged, needing to be told there wasn’t a curse because now she wasn’t so sure herself.

    “Leave,” Rift Shield finally spoke up, his voice commanding.

    Rarity turned to him, taken back. “Wh-what?”

    For the first time, he acted properly. He stepped forward, now more intimidating than she’d ever seen him. “You say you don’t believe in the curse? Then don’t believe in it because that might help us all,” he said, carefully, almost threateningly. “Don’t let go of that belief, and take the first train to Ponyville, and if you pray, I don’t know and don’t care to who, you pray to them that you are able to find the library again. Pray, and if you don’t, you better start now.”

    And she obeyed.

    Without a word and without protest, she turned and left with the others trailing behind. They didn’t dare speak as they left the castle, nor did they speak when they crossed the city. Rarity walked, yes, but it was an external force that moved her body, that kept her going, because she felt nothing at all.

    She hadn’t even truly processed that she was inside the train until her saddlebags fell to the floor, their contents spilling over. Everypony was sitting in the cabin, but it was as if she were alone, for nopony moved to clean up or even showed a sign of having noticed.

    It was Sweetie who, eventually, rose to pick those things up, and she wore what Rarity could only describe as a broken but earnest smile. She carefully placed the items back in the saddlebags, informing them all that nothing had been damaged, which was good because Princess Twilight would be mad otherwise when they saw her back home, and… and… and her sentence died out, her voice breaking as tears welled up in her eyes.

    “Are we cursed?” she asked, her voice quiet. “Does that mean we’re never going to see Princess Twilight again?”

    Rarity couldn’t bring herself to reply. To say they wouldn’t would make it real, but to say they would… Well, she wasn’t entirely sure that would be the truth.

    So, instead, she lifted her hoof, beckoning her sister, and Sweetie obeyed the wordless request, burying herself in her sister’s embrace, and though her sister sniffled beside her, Rarity could not relate. All emotion had drained out from her, as if she was nothing but a living ghost now and, oh, wasn’t that terribly fitting?

    It was, wasn’t it, for the silence that followed her felt much like the Grim Reaper looming over her, ready to deliver his final service. And yet, even then, as she sat motionlessly in the train car, holding her little sister, she was not allowed the quiet he was supposed to bring, for the silence was loud, so deafeningly loud.

    It was the longest train ride of her entire life.

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    1. A Deer
      Feb 3, '23 at 12:09 pm

      The suspense in this chapter is done so well. The way information is forced from the characters to us through Rarity’s POV works wonderfully. And how her numbness is described felt very real. That sort of caught in a fog or suspended in time feel of it.

      I want to say more on Princess Denza but I’m afraid of accidentally saying spoilers. I’ll save the comments for a later chapter. But I’ll say the curses from Discord are pretty dastardly. Great job on coming up with them.

      Now I know what’s coming next and I’m ready. Spoiler alert – I’m not ready. I’m not ready at all. Please save me.

    2. Zanna Zannolin
      Sep 20, '22 at 8:28 pm

      reading this chapter again was like getting hit by a BUS. i started reading and then i remembered. i realized. i KNEW WHAT WAS COMING. and i was like NOOOOOOOOOOO but i. i had to keep going. and it only gets WORSE from here on out dear god i’m going to pass away. pain and suffering and death.

      literally im just lying here in a post-chapter shock like “oh god that happened” i feel like someone DIED. also looking back now i’m like man i wonder why i didn’t catch onto the denza thing earlier like the cutie mark being covered in the postcard, the capes, the way she’s glowing, wow i’m dumb lmao. but i shall restrain myself from speaking of that until it becomes relevant.

      i do love how you write denza like while she’s incredibly sad she also makes me laugh like the “thaaaaank you” just made me bust out giggling and i can’t even explain why. it’s just so casually lighthearted when everything is blowing up in your face and you can’t help but laugh at it.

      the reveal of cadance’s curse is done Perfectly like even when you know it’s coming it clubs you over the head like a shovel. rift’s shock and terror and inevitable despair and the way it dawns on the rest of them and the NUMBNESS and sweetie belle breaking down….that GOT TO ME. it HURT. just the realization that you’re not immune to bad things. that maybe just by trying to help you lost your shot at ever seeing someone you love again. what hte fuck man. i’m distraught.

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