You’re not evil, you— Darkness burst. Eyes stung. Eyes?
Wind pulled on feathers. The world was a turmoil. Blue and green. Blue and green again. The pull became tearing as the wind started to roar in her ears. It hurt. Stop!
Cadence’s wings spread, catching her fall. Her muscles burned as the roaring and tearing ceased. She took a gasping breath. The green was below, the blue was above. Everything was alright. She took another breath, slower: Flowers, the scent of summer, from the meadow below, thick and sweet. She was back. Everything was not alright.
She held the breath and went into a dive. The roaring in her ears returned. She pulled up at the last second to land, but her knees buckled and sent her crashing. Green, blue, green, blue, green and blue again. Her tumbling stopped in a field of flowers.
Reality hurt. She closed her eyes. The crash had knocked the wind from her, but she didn’t trust herself to breathe again. Her lungs turned to fire. As she fought the feeling, other fires appeared before her inner eye. Balls of it flying across a night’s sky. Burning houses. Burning corpses. She lost the fight and gasped for air. The exhale was a strained wail. Keep it together, Cadence!
Halfway through the second inhale the bubble of pain and regret inside her burst. Its contents seeped out, scorching her guts like acid. She screamed. She tried to throw up. The scorching crept up her spine, into her head, dissolving her thoughts. She tried to resume her mantra as the visions of her crimes overwhelmed her.
You’re not evil— Ponies roared in anger. Ponies screamed in pain. Bones cracked. Foals cried. You’re not— Faces contorted in hatred. Lightning flashed. Glint of steel. Red mist as it hit its mark. Stop! Twilight Sparkle’s wide eyes. The panic, the misery in her face as she banished Cadence, a Princess of Love gone mad. Please, stop…
You’re not evil, you just went mad. You’re not evil, you… Visions relented after a while, but the scorching remained. She knew how to kill it. She had learned to endure the torment of nothingness. But she was back.
She tried to focus her attention outwards. She had to try a few times before the blades of grass stopped looking like licking flames, the chirp of birds stopped sounding like desperate screams. At last, the ground in front of her snout came into focus. She watched a procession of ants.
A mind free from words and a vision free from carnage gave room to doubt: Did she deserve to return to this world? Would ponykind accept her, or would they shun her?
She sobbed. Her vision blurred, and she blinked and shook her head furiously. She needed to see. She needed to hear. She was back.
The ants… would they accept a queen that was at fault for the death of… how many… how—You’re not evil, you just went mad. You’re not evil, you…
When she could see the ants again, she started to count them. One, two, three, four… Maybe these ants would accept such a queen. But they were ants… could ants hold grudges? fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… What about Flurry? Flurry… would she even want to see her?
She snorted. twenty four, twenty five… Who would want to see this pile of self-pity? thirty. She stopped counting. They would surely accept anyone back as long as they served the colony. A flicker of hope ignited. That’s it. If she was to ever earn some semblance of forgiveness, it would be by serving ponykind.
When she managed to pry her gaze off the ants, the sunset cast the clouds above her in a pale red. She rose on shaky legs, and spotted the pinnacles of Canterlot in the distance. A new resolve strengthened in her. She’d offer Equestria all she’d got. And for that, she’d have to face Celestia.
Night had settled when she reached the city, but it still bustled with life: lit windows, full taverns, commotion on the streets. Laughter and the clinking of glasses sounded from below as she flew towards Canterlot Castle. It was wonderful to see Equestria in bloom, recovered from the spell she’d cast in her moments of madness.
The castle’s courtyard was lit, the fountain running and the greenery in full bloom. She landed well outside the gateway to avoid alarming the guard: She’d expect him to flinch, maybe even shout for reinforcements… then again, who knew how much time had passed? Maybe she was but a legend for this generation of ponies.
She approached the entrance to the palace, her hooves clicking gently as she walked on the cobblestones. The guard didn’t show signs of recognition. He didn’t even acknowledge her existence until she was but a few feet away. When she was close enough to see his face in the glow of the wall light, she stopped in shock.
The wrinkles around his eyes had multiplied and gotten deeper, but there was no mistaking the scar. She’d been but a foal when he’d told her the story behind it. How he’d tripped while chasing his brother across their family acres, finding the only rock within miles to bump his chin on.
“Star Sentinel, is that you?” The shapeless void of her banishment… it had felt like an eternity, but Twilight had been merciful after all. The thought ignited a long-abandoned hope in her: Would she see Shining again?
“Princess Cadence.” He bowed. “Yes, that’s me. It is good to see you.” He smiled, but it seemed mechanical; it didn’t reach his eyes.
Cadence’s innards turned to ice. She’d been about to fling herself at him, overjoyed at a friendly face, longing for a bit of pony closeness… but she did not deserve it. Of course, ponies would resent her. She herself was. Regaining ponies’ trust would take a long time.
“I’m sure that Princess Celestia will want to talk to you.” He continued, ignoring the grimace on her face, the result of a struggle between shame, misery, and the effort to keep up a smile. He turned and went inside the castle, silently expecting her to follow him.
She fell into pace a few steps behind. They went up staircases and through corridors towards Celestia’s chambers: all familiar, exactly as she remembered them. She wanted to ask him how he’d been, how things had developed since she’d been gone, anything to hear a pony talk… but she endured the silence.
When they arrived at the entrance to Celestia’s chambers, he bowed and left without another word. Cadence took a deep breath, then knocked.
She pushed the door open. Celestia’s chambers had not changed: Roomy and luxurious, but without pomp. The large bed with its numerous pillows was deserted. The door to the west balcony stood open, a translucent curtain billowing in the archway. Moonlight cast the shape of Celestia into relief. She had not turned around.
Cadence took a hesitant step forward, the clicking of her hooves cold and sharp on the marble tiles. She saw first Celestia’s ears, then her whole body twitch. Celestia cocked her head just barely enough to look into the room. “Cadence.” Her tone betrayed no emotion. Was the eschewal of her title a sign of familiarity, or had they stripped her of her royal status?
“Princess Celestia. I…” Celestia still showed no intention of facing her. All she did was glance at her from an angle. She had not expected this. Wrath, disappointment, even the faintest hope of a bit of concern… but not this indifference.
Cadence dropped to her knees. “I’m sorry.” Her voice cracked, and she had to sniff and swallow a few times before her throat allowed for words again.
“I have reflected on my failures during my banishment. On my false accusations, on my false… perceptions. On my terrible, terrible deeds. I… I can’t.” Cadence’s voice forsook her once more. She looked up at Celestia, but the princess was still but a blurry outline on the balcony. “I cannot forgive myself, so I cannot ask you to. Please, let me atone for my sins by helping Equestria. There has to be something I can do.”
Cadence lowered her gaze again, waiting for an answer. Celestia did not reply. Seconds passed, turning into lifetimes. Through the silence, the wind carried up sounds from the bustling city where ponies lived and laughed and loved. At last, hoofsteps. The curtain seemed to whisper as it scraped over the stone tiles. Then, her voice: “Your actions have cost ponies’ lives.”
Cadence raised her head. Celestia stood right in front of her. There was no anger in her eyes. No sadness. No sympathy. Nothing.
“I cannot forget, but there is no capacity in me to hold a grudge. Helping Equestria. There is… no…” Celestia’s eyes went wide as some emotion flashed across her face, but it vanished before Cadence could make sense of it, giving way to a mask of indifference once more.
“No. You may be of use. You will seek out Twilight Sparkle tomorrow. She will fill you in and assign you a task.”
What had it been? Had that been… anger? Had her request been presumptuous? “Th-thank you, Princess.” Cadence said.
Celestia had walked half the distance towards the balcony again before Cadence noticed she’d been dismissed… wordlessly, without a second glance. She felt as though something sharp stung her in the chest, and the corners of her eyes burned.
“P-Princess Celestia? May we talk?” Cadence tried not to sound whiny. She tried. “Please, I’ve been… alone.”
Celestia stopped, but didn’t turn towards her. “Talk.”
“How is my daughter? Is she well? What about Shining Armor?” Cadence tensed up as she realized the answers to her questions could break her.
“Flurry Heart and Shining Armor are with Twilight Sparkle. They’re all in Ponyville. I am sure you will see them tomorrow.”
A sob escaped Cadence, but a smile of relief followed. The first real smile. “Oh thank—” She hiccuped. “Celestia.” She tried to laugh, but it still sounded like sobbing. She blinked away a few tears and looked up again, only to find Celestia’s face inches from hers. Cadence gasped and recoiled. Not only had she been too close for comfort, but Celestia’s features still betrayed no emotion. Like… like a husk. Or a moving corpse.
“Yes, you may help Equestria yet,” Celestia said.
Cadence’s heart was in full gallop. Something was wrong. What had happened in her absence? Celestia stood motionlessly, waiting. When her breathing had steadied, Cadence continued: “What happened after my banishment, Celestia? I fear…” She closed her eyes and took deep breath. “I fear my curse was very specific to my magic. How did you dispel it?”
“Yes, the love inversion spell you cast claimed a lot of lives before we found a solution. Lovers stabbing or battering each other. Foals torn apart by their parents. My most devoted guards managed to corner me, and I personally had to—”
“Please!” Cadence wailed, “Please stop.” The images and sounds assaulted her again. She tried to push them away. You’re not evil, you just went mad. You’re not…
It might have taken minutes, it might have taken hours. When she’d regained control and was able to perceive the world around her again, Celestia still stood on the exact same spot. “I’m sorry. Please, just the solution for now,” Cadence said.
Celestia continued: “Twilight tried Friendship magic, but it didn’t work. We barricaded ourselves in the Royal Library and worked for days. Luna found a spell in one of Star Swirl’s old notebooks, but it was unfinished. Twilight managed to finish it. We tested it on a few guards who were besieging us at the time, and it worked. Combining our power, we increased the area of effect to encompass all of Equestria.”
She went silent. Cadence waited a few moments before speaking up. “And Equestria returned to normal?”
Celestia twitched at the last word. “Yes, normal. Well…” Her left front leg started shaking very slightly, but it grew stronger as she continued talking. “There were some side effects. Ponies… struggled with… “ Her words came in pressured bursts. “with… Purpose.”
The shaking in Celestia’s left leg was violent now. She tried to stop it with her other leg, but it didn’t work. Her mouth opened as to say more, but no words came out. A part of Cadence wanted to run and shout for help. Her heart raced, but her legs wouldn’t move.
“P-purpose?” Cadence croaked.
Celestia closed her mouth and shook her head. The shaking in her leg stopped at once. “Please ask no more,” she said. “I’d rather leave some thoughts and memories unexamined.” She turned towards the balcony again. “Twilight is much better at this. She has Smarty Pants. She will tell you everything.”
Celestia stopped her walk towards the balcony, stomping her front hoof a tad too loudly as she came to a halt. Cadence got the message.
“Go now.” Celestia said. “You may use the guest chamber. I assume you still know where it is.”
“I do.” Cadence bowed deeply, then left the room on shaky legs. When the door had shut behind her, she took a few deep breaths before commencing towards the guest chamber. She’d expected to be shaken by this meeting, but for different reasons. There was something wrong. Terribly wrong. Maybe Twilight would know, maybe—Luna!
The thought struck her like lightning, and she almost stumbled. She hadn’t even asked… should she go see her? That is, if Luna wanted to be found… No. Luna would find her if she wanted to see her. If she was to visit Cadence in her dreams this night, what would she find?
Something curdled inside her stomach. It made breathing hard, and she broke into a cold sweat. She’d been looking forward to sleeping; banishment had known no sleep. But now? Not so much.
She pushed the door to the chamber open. It, too, was as she remembered it: Spacey. Elegant. Simple. The bed looked soft and comforting, but she went around it and opened the window. Propping herself up with her elbows on the window sill, she leant out and took in the fresh, cool air.
Twilight would know. Yes, she’d probably already worked out the specifics. If it had to do with Cadence’s spell, she might need a bit of her magic, but she would know. She might even say ‘Cadence, I’ve been waiting, I’ve got a job for you.’
Cadence chuckled. Yes, everything would be alright. Everything would be…
She listened to herself chuckle. The gleeful expression of happiness from a… a killer. Disgusted, she stopped. Twilight wouldn’t even want to speak to her.
Flurry, Shining. Would they want to speak to her? She’d said so many terrible things, even before she’d lost all control. They probably thought she hated them, even though she loved them so, so much. Why didn’t they realize?
The feeling swooped down on her like a raptor. It’s wings were hurt, it’s talons rage. They tore right through her. They were her daughter, her husband! She could sense the insanity in her thoughts. She tried to stop them. Not Twilight’s! How could she! Why did they— Stop!
Her face stung. She struck again. She looked at her hoof. The pain helped her focus, but it was the blood she'd drawn that reminded her why she couldn't allow herself to have these thoughts. There was blood on her hooves at all times. Why did they prefer Twilight, she'd asked? Even if it had been true and not just part of her madness, hadn’t she just shown why? She was a madpony. A tyrant. What have I become…
This time, she did not fight the self-pity. It was much safer than the alternative. She threw herself on the bed, and the faint creak it made cut through the silence. It made her tense up and hold her breath. The creak was too loud, the night too quiet. Something was wrong.
She pricked her ears, got up as stealthily as she could, and tiphoofed to the window again. Glazed rooftops reflected a pale moon. Cobblestone streets did the same. No lanterns. No lit windows… not a single one. She heard a cricket, but no talk, no laughter, not a whisper or a cough. The city had gone deadly silent.
Cadence awoke to the laughter of foals. Sharp sunlight stung her through closed eyelids. She groaned, and buried her head in pillows. If Luna had visited her, or if she’d dreamed at all last night, she couldn’t remember. As she tried to doze off again, something cramped up inside her, and a low, gurgling sound came from her stomach.
Right. With a body came hunger. She obeyed the command, and sat up straight. She imagined herself sitting with Celestia at her usual morning banquet. It would be a good opportunity to ask Celestia about the curfew. Although it had spooked her last night, there was probably a perfectly reasonable explanation. Then again… stone-faced Celestia? No thank you. Ponyville wasn’t such a long flight, and Twilight would know, too. There’d be time to catch up on breakfast when she got there.
Cadence stood up, stretched, and launched herself out the guest chamber’s window, setting course south-west. The city beneath her was showing little sign of activity this early, but the smell of freshly baked pastries wafted up and made her regret the decision to start without having a bite.
The flight passed quickly. Past the walls of Canterlot, the landscape was dominated by fields and small groves of trees, interrupted only by the train tracks connecting the city and Ponyville. The activity had dispelled her hunger for the most, and it only came back just as she spotted the pinnacles of Twilight’s castle towering over the small settlement.
Cadence flew over the outskirts of Ponyville heading straight for the castle when she saw Twilight in a street not far off. She went into a dive and landed right next to her.
Twilight’s head snapped around. Cadence froze: Fool! Twilight might still think she was hostile. If she struck first, Cadence would be no match for her. She shrank back, sat on her haunches, and raised both her front hooves: “Wait! I’m not going to attack you.”
“You’re not?” It sounded monotone, only half like a question.
Cadence looked up. There was no surprise in Twilight’s face. No fear. No anger. Not her, too!
“No, I’m… “ She took a few moments to find the right words. “I’m sorry for all the things I’ve said and done… all the accusations towards you, and my absolute frenzy. I realize you had no choice but to banish me. I cannot change the past, but I… I want to do all I can to contribute to Equestria’s well being now that I’m back.”
Cadence waited a moment for Twilight to react, but she just stared. Cadence’s heart sank. “I know my actions were terrible, and you might never forgive me, but please accept my help. Celestia said you were working on something important, and that I might be of service.”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, you might.”
Cadence hesitated for a moment, waiting for another comment. In vain. She continued: “Celestia said Flurry and Shining were with you, is it true?” The slight shaking in her voice betrayed the fragility she was trying to hide. She had not right to be fragile if Equestria needed her.
Twilight nodded again. “They’re at the castle. I will lead you to them, but I have to go to Sugarcube Corner to have breakfast first. I’m already more than a minute behind schedule.”
A pang ran through Cadence before she could catch it. Who was Twilight to deny her seeing her daughter and husband right away? She raised a hoof to the bruise on her cheek, pricking it with the tip. The stinging helped. Who was she to make demands… the cold indifference Celestia and Twilight punished her with wasn’t more than she deserved.
“I’m going to accompany you,” Cadence said.
Twilight set off without another word, forcing Cadence to catch up with her. Ponyville was as busy as Cadence had always known it. Several ponies nodded at them, some raised their hooves in greeting. Cadence tried to smile and nod back, but Twilight didn’t pay them the slightest bit of attention.
“So…” Cadence was determined to break the ice somehow. “Are you meeting friends there, or why are you so worried about running late?”
“No,” Twilight said. “It’s just good to have a routine. It defies Purpose.”
Cadence bit her lip. That word Celestia had such trouble talking about. Cadence thought better than to try and tackle the topic directly this time. “Celestia seems unwell. Purpose is giving her trouble, too.”
Twilight stopped and looked at Cadence: “Did she look sick?”
“Thinner than usual, sunken cheeks, frail mane—”
“No, nothing of the sort,” Cadence said.
Twilight continued walking. “Means she’s eating. No reason to intervene.”
“Eating? Like, uh… did she stop at some time?” Cadence asked.
“You know alicorns can’t starve,” Twilight said.
Cadence wanted to say something beginning the with the word ‘but’ when they reached their destination. Twilight pushed the door to Sugarcube Corner open and went straight to one of the tables.
“Sorry I’m late, Pinkie,” Twilight said.
“No problem,” a voice chirped from the kitchens.
“Muffin?” Twilight asked Cadence as she sat down on the other side of the table.
“Sure,” Cadence said. Now that Twilight was facing her, she noticed she had what looked like a gray ball of wool tucked under her wing. Also, she’d put a translucent crystal shard on the table that showed some sort of fluctuating text.
“Two muffins please, Pinkie,” Twilight said, looking down at the thing.
“Oki doki loki! Wait, two?” Pinkie Pie’s face poked around the corner from the kitchens. “Cadence!”
In two leaps, Pinkie Pie was across the room and locked her in a hug. Cadence was so overwhelmed, she barely managed to return it. “You’re back! You know what that means, right? A party!” Pinkie conjured a pile of confetti from who-knew-where and showered her in it. Cadence couldn’t help but laugh.
“I mean, it’s been centuries, no eons, no forever since we had a party!” Pinkie said. She still had both her forelegs raised above her head when her gaze wandered to Twilight. “Oh, muffins. Right.” She dropped to all fours and pronked back to the kitchen.
Still smiling, Cadence turned back to Twilight, only to realize that she’d leaned across the table and was examining her closely. “Did that make you feel happy?” Twilight asked.
“Y-yes, I think so,” Cadence said. Was Twilight trying to deny her that?
“Hmm.” Twilight sat back down and tapped on the crystal shard lying on the table.
“What… what is this?” Cadence asked.
“Something like a notebook, just without real paper and ink,” Twilight said. “We’ve… well, I’ve made several technical advances in your absence. Mainly to deal with the repercussions of your rampage.”
Cadence twitched. Twilight was right of course, but she might’ve put it less bluntly. Her eyes fell onto the gray ball of wool under Twilight’s wing again, but before she could ask more questions, their muffins arrived, and with them came another Pinkie assault.
“So how was banishment and all? Was it dark and cold, or dark and comfy, or dark and cold-comfy or comfy-cold?”
“Uhh, there was no temperature, so… comfy, I guess?” Cadence chuckled apologetically.
“You know I’ve always wondered, because that one time when I was catering for an event in Canterlot Castle, I mixed up the hazelnuts with chickpeas for a recipe, and when Celestia had a bite she looked me straight in the eyes and her brow furrowed and all and I was like ‘whoa, I’m a goner now,’ but in the end she was just like ‘oh, curious taste, quite curious,’ but that other time, I…”
Pinkie did not need a conversational partner but for the occasional ‘hm’ and ‘hmhm’, so both Twilight and Cadence finished their muffins without exchanging another word.
“But then he was like ‘yeah, totally’, and I was like ‘nu-uh!’, and he was like ‘yeah, totally’, and I was like ‘nu-uh!’, and he was like ‘yeah, totally’, and I was like ‘nu-uh!’, and he was like ‘yeah, totally’, and I was like ‘nu-uh!’, and—”
“Pinkie Pie,” Twilight cut in. “Go back to the kitchen, I’ll check in later again.”
“Oki doki!” Pinkie smiled, unfazed by the rude interruption. “Bye Cadence, see you around!” With that, she went back to the kitchen.
"Sorry", Twilight addressed Cadence. “That happens sometimes.”
“What do you mean?” Cadence asked.
“The loops. Nevermind, let’s head to the castle now.”
They stepped out of Sugarcube Corner into a town brimming with life. Ponies were laughing, bartering, pulling carts of produce, all beneath a blue sky and a sun that would have been a tad too hot if it were not for the mild mid-summer breeze that wafted through the streets, carrying the scent of flowers and freshly cut grass.
Cadence closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she came to, Twilight was almost around a corner and out of sight. Cadence took flight and landed beside her. This time, Twilight didn’t even look at her. After a few more steps and the promise of a walk in silence, Cadence’s patience was up.
“Look, Twilight, if you want me to help, I need to know more. Celestia said ponies struggled with Purpose, and that it was a side effect of the spell you cast… or I cast. I don’t know. She also behaved very strangely. You do, too. I don’t really know what to make of any of this.”
“Right, let me fill you in,” Twilight said. “The Star Swirl spell we used was experimental, so it was a risk. It did what I thought it would: it got rid of the hatred your spell had generated from ponies’ love. It wiped much more though, and unlike your spell, it also affected alicorns. We didn’t know what it was at first. Ever tried to define something in pony psyche that’s gone missing from the whole population at the same time? Tricky.
“What I gathered is mostly from literature from before the incident. There has been no Purpose in literature since, of course. ‘Emotions’ is a term I’ve come across in my studies a lot, but it’s vague and very complex at the same time. There seem to be remnants in us alicorns. They’re pretty unhelpful. Here.” Twilight stopped in her tracks in the middle of the street, lifted one of her wings slightly, and levitated the gray ball of wool she’d been holding on to towards Cadence.
Cadence took the ball. It had lost most of its original shape, but the two buttons were familiar. She remembered sewing them back on herself in front of a crying filly. She also remembered the joy and laughter of the same filly when she'd fixed the doll. The memory put a smile on her face. It seemed like a lifetime ago. “That's Smarty Pants, right?” She looked up at Twilight, then leaped back in fright.
Twilight’s eyes had swollen and tears streamed down her face. She was clearly crying, yet her expression was as neutral as before. The sight made Cadence’s coat stand on edge. “You see it, right?” Twilight asked. “It blurs my vision, and my snout is clogging up, too. It’s called crying, supposedly an expression of either anger, happiness, or sadness. Smarty Pants makes it go away. I have no idea why.”
Cadence gave back the doll. She looked away from Twilight, at ponies walking past them. None of them took notice of the crying Princess in their midst. They were talking among themselves, laughing, smiling…
“You see,” Twilight said. “When this went missing, ponies stopped going out, going to work. They stopped mating, and eventually stopped eating. When we asked them why, they always asked: “What for?”. That’s why we called it Purpose.”
Cadence looked around at the bustling Ponyville. “Wha… what about Flurry and Shining?”
“Oh yes, of course. Everypony was affected. They lost it ages ago.”
Cadence imagined her daughter: stone-faced, unable to laugh, crying without relief. A burst of adrenaline shot through her, and she turned and dashed for the castle without another word.
“They’re in the throne room,” Twilight shouted after her.
Cadence launched herself at the castle doors. She’d expected them to put up resistance, but she fell right through, tumbling across crystal tiles. When she came to a halt, she needed a moment to orient herself. While the outside world was enjoying summer, the castle seemed to be trapped in winter. Sweat turned icy cold on her coat, and no sun caught on the crystal interior, its wan purple glow the only source of light.
Heart beating in her chest, she went up the stairs into the throne room. The dimensions of the room were hard to judge in this unworldly lighting. She stepped inside, her echoing hoofsteps the only sound.
By one of the great crystal panes, she saw the outlines of a pony figure. “Shining, is that you? It’s me, Cadence!” She took a few steps forward and lit her horn to have a better look, and let out a wail of surprise and grief.
Flurry Heart stood unmoving, like a statue. She was but a skeleton, her thin skin almost translucent to the shine of Cadence’s horn. Her ribs and hip bone cast shadows of their own. She’d lost all of her coat and mane, and her aqua eyes were sunken and cloudy, but open. In an instant, Cadence was beside her.
“Flurry, it’s me. Mommy.” Cadence raised a hoof to her daughter’s chin and stroked it. Her eyes did not move. She did not even breathe. Cadence wanted to shake her, but she looked so fragile. “Mommy is here, please wake up, sweetheart. Please wake up. Please wake up! Wake up!”
“I don’t think she’s sleeping, actually. It’s more like a rigor. We can't check if she's dreaming though. Luna is in a similar state. We didn’t find a way to rouse her, either.”
Cadence turned to her as Twilight entered. At a tap on her crystal sheet the room lit up with purple light, and she sat down on her throne, not deigning to even look at her or Flurry Heart once.
“She’s not even breathing, by Celestia! Is she even alive?! Look at me! Tell me!”
Twilight looked up at her. “Hysteria, is it? Alicorns cannot die a natural death, so I don’t know what else she could be. Please, continue trying, but I’ve tried along with Shining for years and years.”
“Shining… you said he was—”
“Just here.” Twilight pointed.
Cadence followed her outstretched arm, and gasped. “No!” She ran towards him. Shining looked unchanged, but lifeless, just staring into the room without recognizing her. “Not him, too!”
“Oh, no, no. He’s just turned off.” Twilight said, not taking her eyes off her crystal sheet.
“I thought her father’s face and voice might have an effect on Flurry, but it didn’t. Without you two around, he isn’t needed. I can switch him on for you, if you want.”
Cadence stared at Twilight. “Switch? I don’t… but he’s just… like her. What—”
Twilight looked up at her. “Stop stammering and think, Cadence. Shining Armor was a normal pony. A unicorn, yes, but mortal. How would he survive losing Purpose?”
“What do you mean… s-survive?” Cadence started shaking. “H-how long has this… this loss of Purpose been… been going on?”
“Well, we spent seven days in the library until we found the spell. Another two until we managed to cast it. That makes…” Twilight bit her lip. “365,242 days, more or less exactly. I don’t remember if it was morning or afternoon.”
Twilight examined Cadence’s face. “Is that horror? Matches the description at least. Very interesting.” She went back to tapping on the crystal sheet. “I didn’t really have a say in the matter. The thousand years are part of the banishing spell. No way to change that variable.”
“But… the ponies. I knew the ponies.” Cadence pleaded. She needed something to cling on to. She was drowning.
“Of course you did,” Twilight said. “The replicas populating Equestria are based on the last generation, but ponykind has actually been extinct for more than 980 years now. I built them for Celestia. She couldn’t stand the emptiness. Pretty convincing, aren’t they? I told you I’ve made huge advances.”
Cadence held a hoof to the bruise on her face. It felt cool and soothing. A buzzing drowned out Twilight’s words. Buzzing that filled first her ears, then her entire head. A fog thick as cotton engulfed her, calming her, making her numb. She let go.
Twilight went on: “Their emotions are probably quite unrealistic still. You'll be a lot better at catching that than I could. We can start reworking the Love and Friendship submodules right away if you're up for it.”
Seconds passed in silence as Twilight waited for an answer. At last she looked up at Cadence. At the third lifeless statue in her throne room.