"Blueblood? Are you there?"
Cadance walked as softly as she could, wincing a bit at the intense cold on her bare hooves. She'd left behind the delicate little slippers she'd grown accustomed to wearing; after she'd lost a pair while flying over the Everfree, she'd decided that appearances weren't quite as important as practicality. Now, though, she was having mixed feelings on the matter; on the one hoof, she could have had some protection against the cold; on the other, they would have clacked even more loudly on the time-worn flagstones.
Calling this place "creepy" was a severe understatement. She couldn't quite tell how old this castle was, but it certainly predated Equestria. As she walked, she passed empty rooms full of furniture so ancient that the mild breeze she stirred nearly crumbled them to dust. Nopony had lived here for a very, very long time. And yet, she'd seen light from within. She'd seen hoofprints through the snow.
She knew her cousin was here, somewhere.
The sound of a heavy hoof hitting stone made made her jump. She spun around, crouching into a defensive stance as she searched for the source of the noise. A moment later, a large shadow stepped into a beam of fading sunlight. A unicorn stallion, with a white coat and golden mane, his features all but concealed in darkness.
"Cadance?" he asked, and the princess couldn't help but wince inside when she heard the mixture of hope, sadness, and longing.
"Blueblood? Blueblood, you're alright!" She stepped towards him, thinking to wrap him in a sisterly hug, but he made no move to respond. "Blue, where have you been? We've been looking for you for weeks! Are you okay? Please, say something!"
"I'm fine," he told her, all emotion suddenly absent. "What are you doing here?"
"I've been helping with the search," she explained nervously, brushing back a cream-colored lock of mane. "So have Celestia and Luna, when they can. And half the royal guard. Even this teacher in Ponyville and her coltfriend organized a search party."
The princess blinked at him. "Because we were worried about you."
"Because... because you're family, Blue. We love you. We thought... we thought you might have... "
"Tried to kill myself?"
Cadance winced. "Well... "
She looked up sharply. "You what?"
"I did," Blueblood repeated, his posture slumping as he let out a great sigh. "I realized how worthless I was. That I didn't matter. That I didn't add anything to the world. That nopony really cared about me."
"Don't be stupid. Celestia cares about you. Luna cares about you. I care about you."
She blinked again. "What?"
"Why do you care?" he said again, anger starting to creep into his voice. "We're not 'family,' Cadance. Not really. We're both just royal orphans that Celestia took in. I'm not related to any of you. We don't have any ties of blood. Why would you care?"
"Blue, I care about you because I know you're a good pony. You've got a good heart. You just... need help. And, well, maybe when you come home... "
"Home?" he laughed darkly. "I am home, Cadance. Take a look around. Lovely, isn't it? I admit, it could use a little fixing up, but it's nothing some hard work and elbow grease can't get done."
"Blue, what are you talking about?"
The prince chuckled again. "I've learned a lot since I've been gone, Cadance. About myself. About who I am. About Celestia."
Cadance just stared at him as he began to pace, passing in and out of the small circle of light her horn illuminated. "I've learned that we've all been lied to, Cadance. Oh, I didn't want to believe it, but all the evidence is right there if you'll just look. All those books we used to read, all that history they taught us, it's all just... just a myth. A filly tale to hide the truth."
"Blue, you're scaring me."
"I'm sorry. It's all very fresh to me. Maybe I'm being a bit too intense."
"It's okay," she said reassuringly, placing a hoof on his foreleg. He paused in his pacing and looked at her, an old, deep hurt in his eyes.
"I can't go back, Cadance."
"You can't live out here on your own, Blue."
He flashed a mirthless grin. "Oh, I won't. I believe I have two choices. Three, if I can muster the courage."
Cadance stared at him. He didn't elaborate. Instead, he changed the subject. "I met a mare while I was in Ponyville, you know."
"Oh? That's great, Blue."
He smirked again and shook his head. "She was taken. But she was... she was so beautiful, and kind, and caring, and compassionate. She commanded respect just by virtue of her being... well, her. She reminded me a lot of... a lot of you, Cadance."
She offered him a sincere, if uncomfortable, smile. "That's... very sweet, Blue."
He looked into her eyes. She felt herself almost falling into them; they held so very much pain, and sorrow, and unattainable hope. It was standing at the edge of a black hole. "I love you, Cadance."
She closed her eyes and looked away. "Blue, you know I... I mean... I love you like a brother... "
He ducked his head and turned away, falling completely into shadow. "Yeah."
"Blue, I'm sorry, but I can't... "
She felt tears running down her cheeks, cooling so rapidly that they almost froze before they fell. She'd forgotten how cold she was, and the realization brought an uncontrollable shiver down her spine. Blueblood looked up. "Come on. I've got a fire going upstairs."
They went in silence, walking carefully up a crumbling old stairwell to the keep's third floor. Dim, flickering light filled the corridor, and the air warmed as they approached Blueblood's appropriated bedroom. She was surprised to see how intact the chamber was; aside from a broken wardrobe that was currently acting as firewood, everything seemed more or less serviceable. "How is everything so well preserved?" she asked.
"This was the capital of the most advanced unicorn kingdom in ancient times. Castle Arctus. There's still quite a bit of magic embedded here, though most of it's worn away over the centuries. I suppose the king had the strongest enchantments on his personal belongings."
She nodded absently, not really paying attention as she settled by the warming light of the fireplace. The sun was sinking over the distant horizon, and the air was becoming increasingly frigid. As she warmed herself, she felt Blueblood's gaze lingering on her, drinking in how she must look in the firelight. He had probably dreamed of this scenario for years.
She couldn't suppress a shudder.
"I'll add more wood," he volunteered softly.
She shook her head. "I'm fine. I just... it was just a draft."
Silence fell again. Eventually, Blueblood's longing eyes moved away from her, and she let out a relieved sigh and started to relax. This was not going as she had expected. She'd hoped to find her wayward cousin... brother... whatever, give him a shoulder to cry on, and then bring him home safely. She couldn't have dreamed that she would find this hollow, lonely colt who seemed so intent on just... not being. Not being around. Not being anything.
She started a bit when one of Blueblood's hooves struck the stone. "I'll be right back, Cadance."
She watched him leave the bedroom. She noted that, oddly, he seemed to be able to find his way around without needing any light. Just one more mystery to ponder.
What should I do? she wondered. She wanted to bring Blueblood back safely, but... she really didn't want to stay here. And it was definitely too dark and too cold to try flying back home. She was stuck until morning, and that was if she went back alone; Blue couldn't fly, and the trip back on hoof through the Everfree Forest might take a week or more. And while she loved him, she truly did, she... really didn't want to be alone with him for that long.
Her ears perked up. She thought she heard voices from down the hall. But Blue was the only other pony here, wasn't he?
Moving as quietly as she could, Cadance crept into the corridor. Yes, there were definitely two voices. One was Blue, but the other she didn't recognize. It sounded like a male pony, but carried with it some sort of... hollowness? Echo? She couldn't quite explain it.
"... am I supposed to do?" said Blueblood, his words becoming more distinct as she neared.
"As I told you, grandson. You have two choices."
"But she doesn't love me!"
"Then you have one choice."
"I can't... "
The second voice hissed for silence. "Outside."
Cadance tried to hide, but she couldn't have moved fast enough. Blueblood appeared in a nearby doorway, staring at her with sadness and regret.
"Blue? Who were you talking to?"
"Cadance... please go back to the room."
"Blueblood, I'm not-"
She didn't get a chance to finish. A stone the size of her head suddenly levitated up and hurtled towards her. She ducked just enough to protect her skull, but took a hard blow to her back instead. The strength in her legs gave out, and she fell to the floor, fighting back sudden tears of pain. "Blue, what are you... "
But the prince was facing somepony else. "What are you doing?!"
"This is for your people, boy!"
"Don't hurt her!"
"She's getting away!"
He turned to look, and found Cadance crawling away as fast as she could on the cold stone floor. Her rear legs were responding only vaguely to her commands, so she was pulling herself forward by the hooves, scrambling to reach the stairs.
"Cadance, please, don't run!"
The princess gave a wordless, terrified sob and lunged for the stairs. She hit them with too much momentum, and went sliding down the first several, scraping her legs and chin on the jagged rock. She didn't pause to examine her wounds, but kept moving as fast as she could, desperate to get away.
She rolled out onto the second floor and cast about for someplace to hide. A rotting door hanging ajar revealed another large bedroom, this one filled with several inches of snow thanks to the large, open patio on the other side. There. If she could just reach it, could just get her wings to support her weight...
Hoofsteps thudded on the stairs above. Cadance gritted her teeth and pulled herself forward. She slammed open the door so hard that it fell off its hinges and onto her rear legs; she hardly noticed the impact. She just kept pushing, kicking, flapping her wings, anything she could to build momentum... and then her hooves went right out from under her as she hit a slick patch of ice underneath the snow. She let out a whuff of breath as her chest made sudden, hard contact with the ground, and struggled to suck in air while regaining her hooves and still moving forward.
She hazarded a glance behind her. Blueblood had reached the door. He was looking at her with desperate, terrified eyes. She snarled and kept pulling herself towards the balcony. She was almost there...
Something tugged at her rear legs. The sudden pressure on her spine sent a flame of agony across her body. She looked back again to see herself surrounded by a growing field of turquoise energy. With a desperate shriek, she fired a blast of raw force at Blueblood; the blow knocked him off his hooves and dissipated his telekinetic grip. With a final, desperate burst of effort, she reached the balcony and leapt off.
Her wings wouldn't respond.
She let out a panicked cry as the ground rushed up to meet her. She hit hard, the nearly thirty-foot drop only slightly softened by the snow below. Dazed and hurting, she glanced back up and noticed that her wings were enveloped in that same turquoise glow. A moment later, Blueblood appeared on the balcony, limping slightly but intact, his horn glowing to match his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Cadance. I truly, truly am."
"You didn't need to hurt her," Blueblood told the spectre of King Azure as the two stood side by side in the castle's ancient throne room.
"I told you, grandson. You had two options. Make her your queen, and use her power to fuel my spell... or make her your slave and do the same."
"She might have come around... eventually."
The dead king grunted noncommittally. "Regardless, it's easier this way. Trust me. Better a terrified servant than an unconvinced partner."
Blueblood sighed and looked away. "How long will it take?"
"Not long. I've been preparing this ritual for nearly three thousand years, after all."
The prince nodded and trotted over to the cage in the center of the room. It was as ancient as everything else here, and made of solid gold, yet had somehow remained undamaged and untarnished. It sat in the center of a chalked ring, which was in turn surrounded by various arcane glyphs that Azure had instructed his grandson to draw. Four braziers stood around the edge, each lined up with a corner of the cage. And in that gilded prison lay Cadance, her beautiful, multicolored mane spread out around her, her expression peaceful in unconsciousness. She hadn't been hurt too badly. She'd be okay. Eventually.
"I am ready," Azure called.
Blueblood nodded and backed away, his eyes never leaving his beloved princess. Azure began his chant, his hollow voice growing with volume until it boomed off the castle's walls.
"Ancient spirits that predate the world,
"I offer the power of this girl,
"Of noble birth and purest heart,
"To tear these spells that bind apart.
"Break these bonds, set me free!
"Who shall oppose Tyranny?
"O masters of death, o generals of sin!
"I ask only the chance to have revenge!"
The braziers began to flicker and dance as a sudden wind began to rise and whip about the chamber. Azure cackled with maniacal glee at the sight, and then launched into his chant again. With each repetition, the wind grew stronger. After three, the chalked runes on the floor began to glow with a cold, blue energy. After six, the flames in the braziers turned the same shade. After nine, Cadance began to stir from her torpor, and her eyes widened in sudden terror as she realized what was happening.
"Blueblood!" she screamed at him. "Don't do this! Don't do this! Please!"
"I'm sorry, Cadance," he replied, shouting to be heard, "but this is for the best! I love you, but my people need me!"
"Blueblood! This isn't... this can't be good! Don't you see what's going on?! Don't you see that this sorcerer is-"
"Ancient spirits that predate the world!
"I offer the power of this girl!"
"It'll be okay, Cadance! You'll be okay! You won't have your powers for awhile, but you'll be alright eventually!"
"O masters of death, o generals of sin!
"I ask only the chance to have... REVENGE!"
Lightning flashed out of the braziers and struck the cage.
Blueblood's eyes went wide with horror.
When the light faded, she was gone.
"What have you done?!" he screamed, rounding on Azure.
"What needed to be done, you fool! To bring back my kingdom! To bring back my power!"
Blueblood lowered his head charged the dead king. Azure smirked at him for a moment, and then, with a flick of his horn, launched the prince across the chamber. He slammed hard into the wall; a second gesture sent him smashing into and then through the opposing one. The world swam dizzily around Blueblood as he tried and failed to stagger back to his feet; inside the chamber, the winds had reached a fever pitch. The blue light of the flames and the runes grew brighter, blindingly so, and the prince could barely lift a hoof to shield his eyes.
And then, darkness.
It was silent. Blueblood was alone, blind, and suddenly very cold. He couldn't move his head without feeling as if he were about to throw up. He couldn't think of Cadance without doing the same.
Oh, Celestia. What had he done?
He lay there in the rubble, and he cried. He cried like he hadn't since he'd been a foal. He could hardly gasp in breath between the wracking, wrenching sobs. Cadance, he repeated like a mantra, oh Celestia, Cadance.
An eternity later, when he finally had no more tears left to shed, he rolled over and began struggling to stand. He broke away a few patches of ice that had formed on his face from his tears and his snot. He staggered up, head still spinning. He noticed, for the first time, a dim, blue light permeating the air around him. It seemed to be coming from outside. He left the throne room. He limped through the courtyard. And then, as he stood atop the ruined castle walls, he looked down on Arctus City.
A legion of the skeletal dead, blue flames glowing where their eyes should be, stared back at him. And one, clad in a burgundy robe and with a tarnished silver medallion around its neck, somehow managed a mocking smile.
"You've found your destiny, boy," Azure Throne told him. "Congratulations."