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It started with intruders.
Or, more accurately, it started in the library. Andromeda allowed her to spend a few hours every day there, which Rarity was appreciative of. Better the library than her gloomy room-slash-prison.
She turned the pages of her book in slow motions, her ears flicking at the sound the pages made when they brushed together. Truth be told, she wasn’t all that interested in the content of the book. The castle’s public library had no novels or books about things that would bring Rarity joy. They were all just complicated books on science and magic and… well, nothing else at all. Topics that spoke to facts and figures, but nothing that could help Rarity understand just how everything had gone from a wonderful realm helmed by a wonderful alicorn to… to…
Her eyes involuntarily flicked to Andromeda, the fearsome empress of the new dictatorial empire formerly known as Equestria.
Andromeda was sitting by a table, reading from a large, old, dusty-looking tome. She’d been doing that recently. Not the reading, but sometimes lingering in the public library when Rarity was in the area. She almost never spoke to Rarity, though. She was just there, minding her own business, coming and going, but there.
Twilight had a name for it long ago. Alone but Together. Her little affectionate term for the times she needed to focus but wanted to be in Rarity’s company, but for the life of her Rarity could see no reason why Andromeda would want the same—she certainly made no signs of enjoying Rarity’s company.
And that was the thing, wasn’t it? This wasn’t Alone but Together. It wasn’t even Together but Alone. It was just Alone. Alone with a ghost. Or a nightmare. Maybe both.
“What do you want?” Andromeda asked suddenly, startling Rarity. She didn’t even look at the unicorn. She kept reading, her eyes lazily gliding over her book, unimpressed.
“Nothing,” Rarity quickly replied. She cleared her throat, attempting some measure of awkward small talk. “How’s your book?”
“Mind-numbingly boring,” Andromeda replied, as casually as if she was noting the weather. “Reading is a waste of time. There’s nothing reading can teach me I don’t already know.” The large book closed with a great thud. “However, it is useful at reminding me I could be doing other more important things.”
If that wasn’t haunting proof enough that Twilight Sparkle was gone, Andromeda’s listless black eyes certainly were, turning up to stare at Rarity.
“Well, I think reading is wonderful,” she replied hotly, compelled to defend the practice in Twilight’s honor. She looked down at her book—which she had not thought boring ten minutes ago, by the way—and lovingly patted it with her hoof. “One may know everything, but refreshers are never overrated.”
Andromeda said nothing, her attention drawn instead to a guard who’d just entered the room. Stoic as all of Andromeda’s guards were, he saluted her and spoke.
“Empress, Commander Wingflight has an urgent matter he’d like to discuss with you.”
Andromeda arched an eyebrow. “What matter?”
The stallion hesitated, his eyes darting towards Rarity.
“You may speak in front of her,” Andromeda continued, thankfully not seeing Rarity’s surprised expression and her subsequent frown at trying to figure out what that meant regarding their… whatever it was they had.
The guard, too, seemed shocked, but he cleared his throat and continued, “Rebels were spotted on the perimeters of an old fort.”
Andromeda stared at him. “And they were caught?”
He swallowed. “No, Empress.”
“Then catch them.” She looked back to her closed book, opening it again. “And tell Wingflight that he’d be wise to remember I have more important concerns than rebels poking at abandoned ruins. Leave.”
But he didn’t. And when he didn’t, Andromeda looked back at him, frowning.
“You are still standing there,” she pointed out. “Are you deaf?”
The guard flinched. “I—No, Empress, it’s just—The old fort—Commander Wingflight thought you should know it was the Ancient Fort.”
The name meant nothing to Rarity, and it seemed like the same was true with Andromeda, who simply kept staring at the guard.
“I see.” The empress stood up, her wings rustling at her side. “Tell the commander to prepare an expedition to the site. Five days should be enough. I want to be back before the end of the month.”
The guard blinked. “A-An expedition?”
“You’re leaving?” Rarity asked next, apparently voicing her shared thought with the stallion. In all the time she’d been trapped in the castle, she’d never once seen Andromeda leave the premises. “For five days?”
Andromeda’s sight fell on Rarity. “Don’t worry. I may be gone, but your chances of escaping the castle will remain as nonexistent as always.”
“I wasn’t thinking of escaping,” Rarity exclaimed, indignant. “I was just surprised you’re leaving for so long.”
Andromeda tilted her head to the side. “Interesting. Afraid you’ll miss me, Rarity?”
Rarity snorted. “Please. Don’t flatter yourself,” She paused. “Can I come, as well?”
“You want to come?” Andromeda asked, actually shocked. “On the expedition?”
Rarity nodded. “Very much so.”
Andromeda stared at Rarity, torn between being fascinated and indignant. “Why would I allow you, a prisoner, to come on an expedition?”
Rarity smiled pleasantly. “I’m going to be frank with you, Andromeda.” She closed the book with a resounding thud. “You’re right. Every single book in this library is excruciatingly mind-numbing, so I was hoping you’d be magnanimous enough to allow me a brief change of scenery lest I go back to plotting ways to kill myself out of sheer boredom.”
Andromeda looked at her for one, two, three seconds before smiling. “Rarity,” she said, “for once we agree on something.” She looked at the guard. “Have Rarity’s escorts prepare themselves to come with us on the expedition.”
The carriage curtains were drawn.
Andromeda had closed all of them the second she stepped in, right before taking her seat diagonally from Rarity on the opposite seats. Rarity felt like she should have been offended, or slighted in some way. What, she wanted to say, am I not significant enough for the empress to want to engage?
But she didn’t say it. If Empress Andromeda wanted silence, silence she’d get. She did wish, however, that she could see out the window. It was probably some sort of security measure—something to prevent Rarity from figuring out where she was and where they were headed—but it was boring.
The trip would take a day, a guard said, so she settled in and simply listened. Listened for sounds beyond the wheels rolling, the guards shouting orders, the screaming silence inside the carriage, and she quickly found she could hear nothing beyond that.
She’d occasionally glance at Andromeda, trying to ascertain if she was as bored as Rarity felt, but the alicorn didn’t seem to be bored. She didn’t seem to be anything, really. She seemed empty, but in a way Rarity had never seen before.
She took note of her breathing. The alicorn would breath in, hold for five, and then exhale for about five. In for five, out for five. It reminded her of Twilight’s anti-anxiety exercises, in fact. Unlikely that she was doing that, of course, but it was funny, the mere idea that someone so far gone as Andromeda could feel anxiety of all things. That she still retained habits from someone she was so long ago.
So Rarity followed along, because it was honestly something to do. She closed her eyes, and in unison with… with the ghost of Twilight Sparkle, she breathed in, held for five, and exhaled for five. Again and again and again until she drifted off, thinking of Twilight.
She was jolted awake hours later when the carriage finally came to a stop. Her eyes fluttered open, catching the dim moonlight filtering from under the curtains. A yawn involuntarily escaped her lips, and for the first time, she spoke.
“Are we there already?”
Andromeda didn’t bother replying or looking at her. She instead drew her curtain just enough so only she could look out. She stared out into the unknown, and for a fraction of a second, Rarity felt like she saw distress in Andromeda’s eyes.
But it was gone just as fast as it came.
“You are to stay here until I tell you,” said Andromeda, and with that, she opened the carriage door, stepped out, and shut it tight.
Rarity took the opportunity to finally peer out her curtains and found they were at what was clearly an abandoned decayed town. Crumbling buildings could be seen all around, in various stages of disrepair, with foliage and nature reappropriating them with the passage of time. A terrible thought occurred to her, but she couldn’t but be relieved she couldn’t see… bones. Bodies. Signs of some kind of massacre. Not that she’d heard yet of Andromeda’s armies killing anypony, but it was still a relief. A relief that maybe Twilight’s soul hadn’t been so tainted yet.
Was this what the rest of Equestria looked like, though? Decayed and dilapidated, stripped of all life? Or were there still towns out there, with ponies living the lives they could under the rule of Andromeda? Maybe Ponyville was still out there somewhere, thriving as it always had, the town that survived Discord, and Chrysalis, and Tirek, and so many more threats. Surely if any town could survive, it was her home.
Maybe somewhere out there, an Apple family pony was still growing apples, tending to farms, drinking cider when the time was right. Stars, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Eventually, a guard came knocking.
“You may exit the carriage now!”
Curious and eager to stretch her muscles, Rarity promptly exited the carriage and looked around. Several tents of varying sizes had been set up already, and about two dozen guards were filed in three lines before Andromeda, who looked right at home barking orders.
“I want perimeters set up around the entire area!” she was saying, stomping her hoof on the ground. “If the intruders are still here, find them and bring them to me.” She then noticed Rarity standing by and gestured to the second largest of the tents. “Our detainee will be staying in that tent. Make sure she is attended to.”
While the soldiers saluted, Rarity awkwardly nodded her head. At least detainee is an improvement over ‘prisoner’.
As Andromeda continued to bark instructions, Rarity took the opportunity to have a better look at the town, only half-hearing what Andromeda was saying. Maybe she could go investigate later, if she was allowed. Her eyes scanned the surroundings, past the houses, all the way until Andromeda’s voice faded to the background when her eyes landed on a castle in the distance.
There it stood, towering over the ruins, falling apart just as everything else, banners and flags ripped and dangling, colors faded, windows shattered, but still supported by an enormous crystal tree, partially hidden by the large fallen shattered crystal emblem that once looked like Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark.
Rarity had always known she was in the future. She thought she had known, rationally, at least, that her past world was gone. Sure, she’d cried. Sure, she thought she’d mourned, and she had in a way. But she’d never seen it. Never actually had to see with her own two eyes that, indeed, her old life had died in the blink of an eye.
There it was, the castle she’d called home, in this town she’d called home, and there was nothing left. Nothing. Bloody nothing.
So swallowing in the primal scream scratching at her throat, she turned around, went straight to her tent, curled up into a rudimentary bed, and wished she were as dead as Ponyville and her friends.
She did not emerge from her tent for an entire day after. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to see it, any of it. Not the remains of the Boutique, or Sugarcube Corner, or the market, or nothing.
Gods above, they really were dead. Not just her family or her friends, but her heritage. Her home.
I shouldn’t have come, she thought like a loop, curled up in bed, tears clouding her eyes. A throbbing physical pain wrapped her chest, like she was bleeding from the inside. And maybe she was, because this kind of heart sick truly, genuinely felt literal. I’m a fool, I’m a fool, I’m a fool.
Nopony had bothered to check up on her. Certainly, food had been provided, but it was just left there on a table, and nopony even seemed to care all she’d done for almost a day was stay in bed. Another reminder she was insignificant. She meant nothing in this world, and nothing meant a thing to her.
Except for Andromeda. Stupid, damned Andromeda.
It was on the dawn of the second day that Rarity decided she’d had enough. She emerged from her tent, and ignoring the protests of the guards, furiously pushed her way into Andromeda’s tent. As expected, Andromeda was there, seated by a war table, idly moving some markers around.
Her eyes only barely lifted to look at the unicorn. “We haven’t found the intruders yet.”
“Do I look like I give a bloody damn about the intruders?” Rarity spat out.
This drew Andromeda’s full attention. “It doesn’t seem like you do, no.” She smiled, and it was sickeningly polite. “What do you give a ‘bloody damn’ about, then, Rarity?”
“I want to go back to your castle. I’m sick of this place. I’ve had enough,” Rarity continued, completely done.
Andromeda raised an eyebrow. “You’re sick of this place? How can you’ve had enough of it when the only time you’ve left your tent is right now. Wasn’t it you who said—”
“I don’t owe you any sort of explanation,” Rarity hissed. “Have your guards take me home, Andromeda. Now.”
“Considering your position, Rarity,” Andromeda said, calmly, “I would watch what I say if I were you.”
“Or what?!” Rarity snapped. “You’re going to have me executed?” She smiled dazzlingly and bowed. “I would welcome it. Your threats don’t work on me.”
Andromeda remained composed, her eyes fixed on the irate unicorn. One, two, three seconds passed, and her gaze lowered to her map, meticulously re-arranging the falling pieces.
“Very well. I’ll have a few of the guards escort you home after they’re done with their rounds.”
Rarity relaxed, surprised by the allowance. “Good. Good!” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you.”
She turned to leave when Andromeda continued speaking.
“I don’t blame you for leaving.”
That made Rarity turn back. “Pardon?”
“This place,” Andromeda said, bored. “It’s so unimportant. It’s one of the most insignificant of the ruins from the past. There’s nothing remotely interesting here, including that gaudy destroyed castle.”
The words spewed out of Rarity’s mouth unbidden.
“How dare you?” she hissed, as enraged as she was indignant. “Take that back.”
She still didn’t bother looking up. The bitch. “Why? It’s true.”
Tears bordered Rarity’s eyes. How dare she? If there wasn’t a smidgen of a chance that Twilight was still in there, Rarity would throw herself at her.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she spat instead. “I’m going exploring.”
Andromeda didn’t even bother replying, allowing Rarity to march right out of the tent, her aching heart thrumming in her chest. That beast of an alicorn couldn’t be Twilight Sparkle. She refused to believe it. No version of Twilight Sparkle would ever speak of Ponyville that way and believe it.
She looked towards the castle, ravaged but still standing. Still there. Refusing to collapse. Her home, and she would be damned if she wasn’t going to pay her respects—even if she was the only person in the entire realm who would.
The castle doors creaked heavily when she opened them, years of dust and dirt blowing out. Her hoofsteps echoed with every step into the main hall, intermixing with her gasp. Not a gasp from the pain of memories, but from the state of the interior.
Andromeda hadn’t been lying when she said it was destroyed.
The entire place looked as though it had been completely and utterly ransacked. Banners were torn to shreds, not from decay, but literally ripped apart. Chairs were thrown on the floor, smashed into bits, and suits of armor Rarity knew were for decoration were blasted into pieces. As were the walls. Not blasted, per se, but they were pocketed with scorch marks of varying degrees, as if destructive magic had been blasted all over without rhyme or reason.
What in Celestia’s name happened? Rarity thought, horrified. How could it be that the rest of Ponyville looked like it had just fallen prey to time, but the castle had been attacked?
She kept moving further into the bowels of the place, and everywhere she went, she’d find the same scene. Rampage and destruction, most seemingly of magic origin, destroying everything there could be. What were they looking for? How could Twilight have allowed this?
She ascended further into the castle, and it was at the very top that she found something different.
The throne room.
The throne room was intact. The desk next to the walls was whole, touched only by dust. The multicolored scrolls on the wall bearing the colors of Rarity and her friends continued to hang, not a single scratch tainting them. And then the thrones… They were perfect. Dusty, yes, but still there in the best condition they could be after thousands of years. Everything was carefully preserved.
Except, Rarity realized as her heart sank, for anything to do with Twilight.
Her banner was destroyed, blasted to shreds until it was unrecognizable. And her throne? It had been turned to rubble, scorched with magic blasts until the stone was black.
“Find anything interesting?”
Rarity turned to find Andromeda standing by the entrance.
“Who did this?” Rarity asked immediately, the desperate words tumbling out of her mouth.
Andromeda shrugged. “I don’t know. No history exists of this castle or this place. I’ve tried finding it, but there is no literature. And, well”–She gestured to the hallway outside—”Clearly whoever attacked this place did not want there to be any history left.”
Andromeda walked past Rarity and stood before the destroyed throne. “There were six rulers here, evidently.” She poked at one of the scorched broken remains with her hoof. “This one must have been their ruler. A unicorn, I surmise. They were probably killed, and the others were taken as prisoners. Or executed.”
“How can you not know?” Rarity demanded, desperate. “You’ve lived for millennia! Surely you’d know something about what happened here!” She slammed her hoof. “Isn’t this your domain?!”
Andromeda remained silent, fixing Rarity a hard stare. As if pondering the unicorn. As if making a choice.
Which she did.
“When I said I don’t know what happened here,” she said, carefully, “I meant that more than literally. My memories of this battle were wiped,”–she gestured to Twilight’s throne—” presumably by them.”
Rarity swallowed. Hard. “Your… Your memories were wiped?”
Andromeda nodded. “Yes. I’ve proven the fact, which is why I surmised the leader was a talented unicorn. Not talented enough to defeat me, obviously, but they at least succeeded in wiping my memories of my victory. A final act of revenge, or something petty like that. They always resort to pettiness when they know they’ve lost.” She tsk’d, annoyed. “They succeeded in wiping more than just the battle too. I struggle to remember anything before this incident.”
Truthfully, Rarity was at a loss for words. Because that didn’t make sense. Twilight Sparkle had been the most powerful magical being in Equestria. Nopony could have the power to wipe her memories. It was impossible. Which meant…
It meant Twilight Sparkle had done it to herself.
“What do you mean you struggle to remember ‘anything’?” Rarity stammered, horror growing in waves. Choking her and drowning her. She gestured to the other thrones; the ones belonging to the ponies she and Twilight loved the most. “What about them? Do you remember anything about them?”
Again, Andromeda shrugged. She shrugged, and Rarity wanted to throw up. “No. As I said, I assume I must have executed them first, and then their leader.”
It was like Rarity’d been stabbed, but for real this time. It sure felt like it, at least, a physical pain so sharp it was hard to even think.
It made sense. All that destruction in the castle, all of it, was magical. Powerful magic of an alicorn, who’d destroyed her legacy save for… for these five thrones.
Before she even realized it, she dropped to her hindlegs, her hoof at her mouth, tears flowing freely from her eyes.
Andromeda frowned. “Are you weeping over the death of my enemies?” she asked, if only a little indignant.
“No,” Rarity managed in a choked sob, and she spoke nothing but the bleeding truth as she said, “I’m sad. It’s sad they took your memories away.” She covered her face with her hooves, choking over every word. “I… It’s…”
Why? Why, Twilight? Why?
Rarity’s eyes opened behind her hooves, and she looked up. Had she heard incorrectly? “You… You what?”
“I said I understand,” Andromeda repeated, and Rarity was shocked to feel sincerity coming from the empress. She looked back to the throne, her brow furrowing. “I don’t particularly like coming here because of it. It…” A pause, and her voice softened. “It feels unpleasant in a way I don’t like feeling.” She raised her hoof and placed it on the chest section of her armor plate. “The first time I came here, I thought a hidden traitor had cast a heart-attack-inducing spell.”
“Are you sad?” Rarity asked, quietly.
Andromeda was silent a moment. “I suppose so. I’m saddened that traitor took away my memo—”
The sound of Rarity’s hoof slamming against the floor interrupted her, and Andromeda looked at Rarity to find angry tears now flowing down her eyes. Angry, angry, furious tears, her teeth gritted as she slammed her hoof again and again.
Andromeda raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you now?”
“I’m angry,” Rarity explained, her heart bleeding with pain. “I am so very, very, angry, Empress. I’m so angry at the pony who did this to you, I think I might die.”
Andromeda had the audacity to smile mockingly. Damn her. Damn her, and Twilight too. “Why, Rarity, I didn’t realize you cared so much about me.”
“I don’t,” Rarity spat, venomously. Then her tone softened. “I don’t care about you.”
And with that said, she got up and left the throne room, leaving Andromeda alone to her thoughts.
What a strange unicorn, thought the great Empress, turning her attention back to the thrones.
She hadn’t been lying earlier. She loathed this place. She hated the pain in her chest that never left. It was the reason she’d come, too. If rebels or such ilk had been snooping around, maybe she could torture a cure for her pain out of them.
In any case.
She made a move to leave, her eyes lazily gliding over the remaining thrones, until her heart stopped when her eyes did the same, fixating on a familiar symbol on one of the thrones.
“Impossible,” she whispered, alarmed.
She rushed to the throne, staring at the symbol as if expecting it to change somehow, but it didn’t. There, right before her very eyes, were none other than three blue diamonds she knew to be Rarity’s cutiemark.
She stepped back, her mind racing. It couldn’t be, she wanted to say, but… but hadn’t Rarity kept claiming for months on end that she’d traveled through time? And her reaction to the castle? To the destroyed thrones?
Fury overwhelmed the Empress. Not just at the fact that a traitor had somehow escaped her just punishment, but that Andromeda had housed her. Fed her. And perhaps most infuriatingly of all, actually began to tolerate her.
Rarity’s throne exploded, crumbling to pieces, magic energy fizzling out from Andromeda’s horn as she watched, enraged.
She’d kill her. Have her executed, as she should have been millennia ago. Traitor. She’d actually tolerated her! Liked her, even!
She spun around to observe the emblems on the other thrones, and was somewhat relieved she recognized none of them. Good! Excellent. At least they had died—hopefully miserable deaths, too.
She looked back to Rarity’s throne, furious to find she felt betrayed. By a bloody prisoner….
A bloody prisoner who’d escaped… and if she’d escaped, likely with the help of her leader, then…
Her eyes flickered to the leader’s destroyed throne. If Rarity had escaped, there was a chance that so had the leader. She’d need to find any information she could on her; rally her army to scour the nation and make sure she was well and truly dead.
She marched to the crumbled throne, her magic crackling loudly as the scorched, blackened pieces levitated and spread on the floor in an orderly manner. She inspected them one by one, trying to find some sign of the leader’s symbol. She went through almost all of them to no avail, until finally she landed on a larger chunk, covered in dust and blast powder.
Carefully levitating up, she used her hoof to clean off the dirt and dust, a splash of magenta appearing inch by inch by inch, until finally the symbol appeared, almost miraculously preserved in its entirety.
Empress Andromeda didn’t say anything.
She simply stood there, deathly silent, everything around her fading away as she stared at the leader’s cutie mark, grappling with the surprising fact that rather than anger like with Rarity, all she felt was an oppressive, wounding heartache.
And she didn’t know why.
Artwork by the amazing Maxi and creator of this AU.