For the first time ever, Rainbow was starting to get sick and tired of flying. To be fair, though, she had just winged it pretty much halfway across Equestria in less than a day. First Ponyville to Canterlot, and now most of the way from Canterlot to the distant Frozen North.
And it was frozen, indeed. Even during the height of summer, Rainbow found herself soaring over frigid tundra, eventually giving way to sheets of featureless snow as far as the eye could see. And flying just beneath the cloud cover, Rainbow was subjected to every mercilessly cold gust of air the arctic landscape could throw at her. The tips of her feathers were slowly building up a layer of frost. Sooner or later, that frost was going to turn into ice, and then it would be like flying with cement on her wings. In other words, very difficult.
But though her wings weighed her down and grew increasingly uncooperative from the dual threat of exhaustion and the elements, she forged on. It was the weight on her heart that burdened her the most. First Applejack, now Twilight… Whoever was behind this was going to get such a beat-down when she found them. The only thing that kept her from turning around and rescuing Twilight was their last conversation, and the look on Twilight’s face. She was smart, smarter than Rainbow for sure. Twilight wouldn’t be taken easily. Rainbow was sure she had a plan up her eggheady sleeve. Applejack on the other hand…
…Come… Come save me… ya hear…?
She’d made a promise, an unbreakable promise. Whatever else was going on in Equestria – whatever else the Court or whoever was responsible was trying to do – it would all have to wait. Unless the perpetrators felt like walking themselves into her hoof. That would work, too.
I’m coming, bugbrain. One way or another, I’m coming to rescue you. I just… I just need a little more time…
Abruptly, the air around her changed. The icy fangs in the wind vanished instantly, replaced instead with a much more temperate coolness. A sudden warm updraft caught her wings, much to her relief. She let the thermal blow her upwards, taking the strain off of her overtaxed wings. The driving frost dissipated, clearing Rainbow’s vision. And even though the clouds still hung low and oppressive overhead, she found herself greeted by a welcome sight: the sprawling, luminous vista of crystal homes and buildings, all clustered around a towering pillar of glowing crystal. The Crystal Empire… She’d finally made it!
Rainbow squared her shoulders and set her jaw.
Time to get some answers.
Deep within the Crystal Palace, Rarity quickly trotted down a cavernous hallway. The exquisite decorum was, for once, overlooked as she hastened down the lengthy hallway at a quick - but not unsightly - pace.
Fluttershy flapped along behind her. In her hooves, a bundle of carefully folded, faded silk cloth bulged with a rectangular shape. Just visible through her hooves was a single, bright blue heart wreathed with golden wings - a fine embroidery fit for royalty, even if it was a little threadbare and faded.
The duo came to another intersection and paused. A cross look flashed over Rarity’s features at the sight of four identical pathways branching off in every direction.
“Oh confound it… Pardon my language darling,” she added sheepishly, noticing the shocked look Fluttershy was giving her. “I just don’t see how anypony is expected to get around such a huge place as this! If and when Applejack gets a proper castle, remind me to install as many signs and directions as equinely possible.”
She looked up and down all the corridors splayed out all around her, and whined impatiently. “Oooh… was it three rights and a left…? A right and three lefts?”
Fluttershy fidgeted a little in the air. “Um… Rarity? Aren’t those the directions to the guest suites?”
Rarity started to scoff… then a look of dawning horror took hold. She sputtered, trying to find the right words that weren’t a string of even worse profanities, then groaned. “Well that’s just wonderful! How are we supposed to get to the library to meet up with Cadance now?” She kicked at the defenseless rug in anger.
“Well… Maybe they can help?”
Rarity looked up curiously towards Fluttershy. She was pointing down one of the adjoining hallways – towards a pair of ponies moving away from them.
Neither seemed to be dressed as guards, nor were they maids. Rarity frowned at them, something niggling in the back of her mind. That one on the right, in particular. Her tall stature and sparkling silver mane was definitely eye-catching. But why did that seem so uncannily familiar…?
Vanity felt wound tighter than a coiled spring. Letting Her Highness break into one castle had been stressful enough, but to breach two in the same day? She was sure that she had a perfectly good plan behind these risky actions, because Vanity was fairly sure that Aconita had not completely gone insane. But there always was the possibility…
Regardless of her mistress’s motives, here she was, striding down one of the innermost corridors of the Crystal Palace. Years of practice and training meant she could keep a perfectly nonchalant façade, but on the inside, she was chewing her nails.
But what could she say that undoubtedly Her Highness wasn't already keenly aware of? That the risk of a second bold breaking and entering in the same day was ridiculously dangerous? That she was needlessly putting herself in harm’s way?
Queen Aconita, however, would hear none of it.
Even as they walked side by side, Vanity chanced a sidelong glance at her queen. She’d served her faithfully for… all her life, really. Her earliest memories were of her bringing Aconita her meals. Her role may have changed dramatically over the years, but her understanding of the enigmatic queen had not evolved nearly as fast. What she’d done to deserve becoming Aconita’s most trusted agent, she’d never know, but she knew that even her lofty position would never place her close enough to know Aconita’s mind. She could speculate based on past experience, however.
Her Highness had discovered something in Canterlot, something so important that it had altered her plans completely. Of this, there was no doubt. And judging by the look in Aconita’s eyes, her mind was hard at work devising… something. Not that Vanity had the privilege of ever knowing until the moment Aconita’s plotting came to fruition, but she was used to that.
Plans within plans… Aconita was like a spider. Ever weaving, ever building… And whatever her masterwork might be, Vanity was far too simpleminded to ever grasp its scale. She’d come to terms with that. But this sudden bout of risk-taking… What could be driving Aconita so? Vanity had learned long ago not to waste too much mental power on trying to unravel the tangle that was Aconita’s scheming. But while Vanity was not and could not be Aconita’s mental equal, she had to admit that she did have some skills at her disposal.
Breaking into the Crystal Empire had been laughably easy. Too easy. Considering the history between her kind and the princess of this land, one would think that precautions would be abundant. Yet, there’d been none. Not one sensory spell, or ward, or even some homebrewed folksy deterrent, like burning sage or some such nonsense. The gates to her kingdom were practically thrown open wide to her kind. And that did not bode well. Surely Princess Cadance wouldn’t just leave her guard down.
Aconita would not hear of Vanity’s concerns, of course. So, she would just have to be on guard and follow Her Highness’s lead.
Still, she had more than ample concerns.
“My lady,” Vanity said, speaking up for the first time in hours. Aconita glanced slightly her way, just enough to show she was listening. “Is it wise to reuse the same disguise so often? These ponies are dull-witted, yes, but sooner or later…”
She was, of course, referring to Aconita’s insistence on reusing the same conspicuous form since she’d arrived in Equestria; that of a tall, dark mare with long, strikingly silver hair. It was not subtle at all and considering the boldness of her actions, continuing to reuse it was bordering on brazen disregard for safety.
“It is fine, Vanity,” Aconita dismissed. “It still has a use, I think.”
Vanity tried not to frown. Plans within plans…
Rarity slunk to the side of a pillar, one of many lining the hallway. She peered around it only far enough to peek out with one eye, exposing no more of herself than she had to.
“There’s definitely something off about those two,” Rarity whispered with confidence.
Fluttershy crept along behind her, looking apprehensive. Not at the unknown duo, but instead eying Rarity herself. She could see the glint in her eye. A mystery was afoot. Oh dear…
Rarity stroked her chin, thinking. “Hmm… well, they obviously aren’t guards, seeing as they have no uniforms. Maids or any other staff are out, as well. Hmm…”
“Maybe they’re guests, too?” Fluttershy offered. She was far, far less intrigued by the mystery pair.
Rarity hummed for a moment, then carefully crept out from around her hiding place, darted across the hall, and assumed a new position. A moment later, she took hold of Fluttershy and levitated her over as well.
“I thought of that,” she said while Fluttershy righted herself. “But when last we retired to our rooms for a quick nap, I remember seeing guards posted at only two doors: yours and mine. That would lead me to believe that nopony else was occupying the remaining suites. Which, my dear Fluttershy, can only mean one thing!”
“… That they just arrived?” Fluttershy offered.
That put a kink in Rarity’s stride. She faltered, considering that. “I… suppose that is a possibility. Oh! But when we arrived, Cadance had us escorted! These two are alone!”
Fluttershy bit her lip. Not because what Rarity was saying might have made sense, but because she wasn’t exactly okay with this entire situation. Should they really be suspicious of every single pony they met? Fluttershy knew that changelings could be anywhere, but… was seeing bad ponies in everypony really such a good thing? “Um… maybe we should just… ask them?”
Rarity paused again, pulled up short. She blinked, then blustered quietly. “Well… I… I suppose we could try that, yes.” She tried not to sound miffed, and did an admirable job of it.
Fluttershy sighed with relief. It really didn’t do to be suspicious of everypony.
Aconita glanced down at Vanity, who kept pace with her. She was looking dead ahead, but there was a razor sharp glint in her eye now.
“We are being followed,” she informed her liege.
“Yes, I know.”
Vanity glanced at her for an instant, than away. She did not question her further and instead fell into a very reserved silence indeed.
With much chagrin – and a slight feeling of a spoiled foal being denied a favorite treat – Rarity trotted out from her hiding place. Perhaps she had gotten a little carried away with the thrill of a mystery. But there really was something nagging at her about that mare ahead of her, something more than just her detective novel sense going off.
The whole time she trotted up behind the slow-moving pair, she pondered it. Dark blue coat, silver mane, tall stature. Was she perhaps seeing a little too much Princess Luna in her? Yet that didn’t sound right to her. There was something else, something way more pressing.
Dark blue coat… silver mane…
It hit her like a slap to the face. In the wake of the Summer Sun Celebration, had Rainbow not given them a description of her captor? A blue-coated, silver-maned, tall mare who wasn’t actually a mare?
The realization brought her to a dead halt and her heart to a frightened stutter. Just ten feet away from her, she’d come to realize, was a changeling queen, and likely, the very orchestrator of all the bad things happening in Equestria. And she’d nearly just blundered right up to her without a clue!
“Um… Excuse me…”
If Rarity wasn’t already white, she’d have just turned a very pale hue indeed. In her shock, she hadn’t noticed Fluttershy glide past her. Not until she’d called out, that is.
Worse, the disguised queen heard her.
Rarity watched, her pulse hiking up even more, as the tall, beautiful mare stopped, then turned to look over her shoulder with one steely eye.
Fluttershy had no idea. She hadn’t the foggiest clue who – or what – she’d just gained the attention of.
Vanity couldn’t believe it. Amazingly, unbelievably, two of the very ponies responsible for thwarting Her Highness Queen Chrysalis were standing right in front of her. Fluttershy and Rarity, she believed their names were.
Yes… the description matches.
And they’d just trotted right up to them, oblivious as can be! The opportunist in her couldn’t believe her luck!
But the realist/pessimist wasn’t nearly as jubilant. She’d read the invasion reports – everyone with any standing in the hives had. Six young mares, neither soldiers nor military experts of any caliber, defeated an entire swarm flight. An entire flight! At least a hundred drones, if not more, neutralized by a baker, a farmer, a weather pony, a tailor, a vet and a librarian. It’d taken a full third of the attacking force to subdue them, where otherwise the swarm had been met with barely any resistance of note.
Worse still, whatever information they tried to glean about these mysterious powerhouses amounted to little bits of daily observation and overheard gossip. Anything more official was elusive, even misleading at times. The pink one, for example, has simultaneously been connected with a rock farm – as ludicrous as that sounded – a troop of traveling gypsies, a defunct government experiment to harness the “power of Discord”, and no less than six families with extensive military and political ties rivalling the highest noble house in Equestria, three of which did not even exist.
Honestly, it reminded Vanity so much of trying to spy on a fellow changeling hive that it wasn’t funny. Not one bit. Because at the end of the day, it meant one thing; they knew next to nothing about what any of those six mares were really capable of if pressed into action, and that whatever higher power was shielding them knew their tricks, and was not to be trifled with.
And now here they were, face to face with two of them without a few thousand drones to better the odds. Granted, it was against the two most nonaggressive of the bunch, but still… Vanity was ill-inclined to find out just how nonaggressive they were.
The yellow one – Fluttershy – approached nervously, looking very unsure with herself. It could have been a ploy – Vanity wasn’t about to dismiss any possibility when it came to this one. Give them a puppy-dog face, then when they’re close, rip their throats out. A classic maneuver. Vanity would even be impressed if she tried it.
As she approached, Aconita turned around to face her. So, Vanity had no choice but to do the same, all the while noting every escape avenue in her immediate vicinity.
It was as she was taking stock of every door along the hallway that she noticed the look on the white one’s face.
What should she do? Rarity fretted on that very question for far too long. If she made a sudden grab for Fluttershy, how would Aconita react? As far as she knew, not favorably.
The most important thing at that moment was to get Fluttershy away from Aconita without making her suspicious. On top of that, there was the little matter of there being a changeling queen loose in the Crystal Palace. How that could have happened was a question for later, but when the time came, she’d be pondering it very long and hard.
Like she was trying to figure out how to save Fluttershy’s life.
Rarity cleared her throat as quietly as she could, and composed her expression into a carefully cheerful façade. She was used to putting on airs to win over prospective backers and charm potential customers. The only difference here was that failure to be convincing could result in a very swift end – and not of the financial kind.
Be calm, be collected… No need to fret, darling. You’re only dealing with a cold-blooded mastermind intent on Equestria’s defeat. There’s nothing to it! I hope. Just be charming! Dazzling!
She flashed her best smile and trotted forward, only a few strides behind Fluttershy. By now, the fraudulent pony had turned herself around to face the two of them. She really was tall, and slender as a model. Rarity had whole lines of dresses that would like absolutely stunning on her. But those eyes… they were cold as steel, and sharp as a dagger. Currently, she had her attention on Fluttershy, which Rarity counted as a small blessing. She wouldn’t have noticed Rarity’s realization.
Well… here goes nothing.
She knew. The white one most certainly knew. Vanity had seen the look of dawning comprehension before she’d wiped it away and replaced it with a smile.
As far as Vanity was concerned, this was now a worst case scenario. They were made, behind enemy lines, and with no clear cut avenue of escape out of the castle and no backup to count on.
In truth, Vanity had braced for the white one to sound the alarm. So when she instead broke into a smile and approached, her alarm went straight into overdrive. Could she be trying at a ploy? To goad Her Highness into a false sense of security before attempting to eliminate her herself? She certainly didn’t look the type, but neither did she look like one to face down the best the Court had to offer and live to tell the tale.
Was there the possibility that Aconita hadn’t noticed yet, either? There was a very real possibility, in fact. Too real to be ignored, even if the chances were a million to one. The situation was quickly spiraling out of control, setting Vanity on edge. If it was up to her, this entire encounter would be over with by now.
But it wasn’t, and the only thing that kept her from jumping to action preemptively, like any drone would in this situation, was a life-time’s worth of experience shadowing the one beside her. When it came to Aconita, the smallest actions could have the largest implications. To anyone else, turning around to meet an approaching group would mean nothing. But what Vanity saw was the spider spinning its web…
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Rarity said with a false tone of cheer. “My friend and I seem to have gotten a little turned around, and we’re on something of a tight schedule. I swear they add a new wing every time we come to visit!”
She laughed – alone.
“I hate to be a pest,” she went on, undaunted, “but could we possibly trouble the two of you for directions?”
Aconita’s expression didn’t shift one iota. Rarity had seen stone busts with a greater range of emotion. It made it nigh impossible to decipher whether or not she was being as convincing as she prayed she was.
Then, Aconita opened her mouth. “Might it be the library you are looking for?” she asked.
Rarity faltered, but quickly quelled a series of warning bells chiming off in her head. “W-why yes indeed! What gave me away?”
For the first time, Aconita’s features moved. Her eyes shifted off of Rarity and towards Fluttershy’s front, and the bundle of fabric tucked against her chest. For some reason, that look made the hair on the back of Rarity’s neck stand on end.
“I was hoping to find my way there, myself,” Aconita said. “You see, I have recently stumbled upon something of a conundrum. Perhaps,” she added thoughtfully, “you two can help me.”
Rarity stifled the urge to swallow. Her throat was feeling oddly dry all of a sudden.
Fluttershy, meanwhile, cocked her head thoughtfully. “You want us to help? Um, well… I’m really sorry but, there’s something really important we need to do first. But, um, maybe… after?”
Aconita glanced at her – and the book – again. “I’m afraid that won’t do. You see, my time is precious as well, and I have not the luxury to waste it.”
Fluttershy fidgeted, looking helpless. She glanced toward Rarity, then frowned at her. Rarity suddenly realized that her smile was getting a little big.
“Oh!” she said loudly, jumping, “Well, how about we find the library together?”
A plan was starting to come together in Rarity’s mind. Cadance would be in the library – and undoubtedly, so too would Shining Armor and a healthy contingent of bodyguards. If she could just get Aconita there, maybe their combined efforts could subdue her. Maybe she had a chance of getting out of this in one piece after all!
Aconita pondered her proposition for a moment.
Please, please, oh please Celestia, say yes…
“Very well,” Aconita said after a brief pause.
The relief nearly knocked Rarity on her rear. But she had to stay composed, at least for a little while longer. “Splendid! Then—”
“On one condition.”
Rarity paused mid-sentence. “And… that would be?” she asked, trying not to sound nervous.
“You answer my question,” Aconita said simply.
Rarity blinked. “That’s… all? I mean – certainly! Ask away!”
Aconita raised an eyebrow, causing Rarity to flinch internally. Dial it back, darling, dial it back…
“Very well, then,” Aconita said. “Then answer me this: where is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza?”
Again, Rarity hesitated. That seemed like an oddly simple question. What could she be up to?
“Oh,” spoke up Fluttershy. “Well, she was going to meet us in the library.”
For the first time, a smile grew across Aconita’s face. And it was perhaps one of the more unsettling ones Rarity had ever seen, even if it was small. “Then it seems we are indeed going in the same direction.”
Rarity smiled – externally, at least. “Then let us be on our way!”
And pray to Celestia Shining Armor’s as protective as I hope…
What was the white one up to? Vanity pondered the entire conversation as they all turned to trot down the hallway together. There was no mistake that she’d somehow recognized Aconita for who she was, but now the big question was what she planned to do about it.
Was she planning on springing a trap on them? Perhaps, placing her hopes on Mi Amore Cadenza’s guard detail, or perhaps the capabilities of the alicorn herself? Rarity seemed far too eager to guide them in that direction for there to not be something up her sleeve.
And Aconita, interestingly enough, seemed much too eager to go along with her. Surely the same risks had crossed her mind as well. Yet she was still going? Once again, Vanity found herself entertaining questions about what had brought on this reckless behavior in her queen. What had she found in that castle?
The new group set off together, but Vanity made sure to lag just a step or two behind. Not far enough to rouse suspicion, but enough so that she could keep an eye on these two infamous mares with as little movement as possible. One wrong move – one hoof out of place – and she’s see to it that there were two less ponies trotting around the castle.
Rainbow bounced off the side of the Crystal Palace like a ping pong ball. She reached up to massage her bruised shoulder and throw the window she’d just tried to barge through a dirty look.
As it turned out, even the windows were made of crystal. Go figure.
Where in the hay do these ponies FIND all this stuff?
Rainbow continued to scowl while rubbing her shoulder. She sized up the towering palace while glancing around for a chink in its armor. So far, she’d worked her way from the top to the middle, with absolutely no success. Every window? Bolted shut. Ever door on every balcony? Locked up tighter than Applejack’s cider cellar.
Even though the rumbling thunder overhead gave plenty of reason why, Rainbow still felt unjustly thwarted. Could just one thing go her way today?!
And then the rain squall hit.
“Really?!” Rainbow shouted at the sky. Thunder rumbled contemptuously back. Rainbow let out the loudest “ugh!” of her life and turned to leave. She had to find a way in, sooner or later. Applejack was counting on her! Applejack…
“Hurry,” said a voice from an unseen source.
Rainbow paused. Over the beating rain, she thought she’d just misheard. But then she turned her head, and to her disbelief, she found the door she’d just bashed into swinging outward towards her.
Rainbow wasted no time in jumping through the opening, into the pleasantly warm and very dry interior of the Crystal Palace.
She found herself in a small, unlit room. White linens draped unused furniture all around, turning the room into a sea of tents. From somewhere in the darkness, a clock ticked the time away.
Rainbow shook herself like a dog, ridding herself of the clinging icy rain, then straightened up. “FINALLY,” she exclaimed in complete exasperation. “Ugh, you have no idea how long I’ve been stuck out there!”
She turned around, smiling appreciatively. “So thanks for letting me in,” she said.
When she turned in the direction of the voice she’d heard, however, she found only a small table with an unused vase sitting on it. Rainbow frowned, then looked around. But in the darkness, it was hard to see anything at all. “Uh… hello?”
Across the room, the door squeaked. She whipped around, just as it swiftly closed, leaving itself only barely ajar. “Hurry!” called a voice from the other side, a mare’s voice.
Rainbow blinked, then quickly crossed the room and burst out into a large, well-lit hall. An empty hall.
“What the hay…?” she said, looking around.
It was as she turned her head to look over her shoulder that she just caught sight of movement. Far down the hall, just in front of a huge stained glass window, she just thought she saw somepony dart around a corner. All she witnessed was the faintest blur of pink, and then it was gone.
“Hey! Wait up!” Rainbow shouted, then zoomed off down the hall. Whoever this pony was, they were fast, that was for sure. When Rainbow rounded the corner, she once again found the hallway deserted. But this time, there was only one way to go: further down, and somehow that mysterious pony had completely outstripped her pace and was nowhere to be seen, again.
So, frowning, Rainbow set off as fast as she could in pursuit of her unknown benefactor.
The walk through the castle was probably one of the most nerve-wracking times in Rarity’s history, and being no stranger to excruciatingly tight deadlines, that was saying something.
On her left at all times was Aconita, an enemy of Equestria. Despite her hard countenance, she seemed rather at ease, much to Rarity’s relief. She continued to cast her gaze further down the hall, and while her stride was quick, she did not seem to be in too much of a rush, despite her earlier claims.
Rarity’s charade must have paid off, then. It gave her a private feeling of accomplishment to pull the wool over the eyes of a changeling, but she constantly reminded herself that she was far from out of the woods.
In the back of her mind, she worried nonstop. Why was Aconita here, of all places? How had she been allowed to break in? And why did she want to know where Cadance was? Could she be under orders from Queen Chrysalis to finish what she started?! That didn’t sound like something that monster would do, but one could never be too sure. But what else could be done? Rarity could lead them on a wild goose chase around the castle and pray for some kind of intervention, but how long would that take before Aconita got suspicious?
The answer was always the same, no matter the question asked; Rarity didn’t know. And that uncertainty was starting to kill her. Hopefully, it wouldn’t in a more literal sense.
She made the best of her situation, though. The entire time they walked, she continued to hold up a one-sided conversation, more talking at Aconita than with her. Anything and everything that crossed her mind that was worth chatting about. Fashion, gossip, weather, amusing anecdotes and anything else she could think of.
“And then he finally told Fancy Pants,” Rarity giggled, “he said, ‘Monsieur, you can take the coffee, but leave the tarte tatin alone!’”
Fluttershy started giggling profusely, which of course brought Rarity to greater fits of laughter. “Oh, I love that story,” Fluttershy laughed.
“It is a classic,” Rarity giggled, then turned her attention casually in Aconita’s direction.
Nothing. Not so much as a grin. Not even for her Fancy Pants story? I don’t think that’s ever happened before.
Rarity stifled her frown and lapsed into silence. She’d thrown everything she had at this mare, yet she’d summarily ignored every single word she’d said…
“And did he?”
Rarity gave a little start and turned. To her surprise, she found Aconita looking at her with those sharp, unknowable eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“The tarte tatin,” Aconita indicated with a note of annoyance.
Rarity blinked, still feeling thrown for a loop. “Oh. Oh! Um, yes, I believe he did. And I doubt he’s ever been welcomed back to that particular establishment, now that I think about it.”
Rarity didn’t hide her frown now. Aconita turned away again, just as stone-faced as ever. But had she actually been listening the whole time? And not even Rarity’s big guns could get a single laugh, or any stirring of emotion out of her?
The longer Rarity spent in her presence, the more she felt this… wall around Aconita. A mote around a heavily fortified castle without means of crossing. It was like nothing she said or did could stimulate any sort of reaction. It was very disconcerting to see.
Try as she might, Rarity just could not make sense of this mare. She was so… blank. Rarity was usually very good at reading ponies; she had to be to figure out the absolute perfect attire for them. Not just color coordination, but personality and style, too. But this changeling… It was like there was nothing but a cold, calculating machine behind those eyes that saw the world only in numbers and values. Whatever expression she showed, it was calculated. The smile earlier? Fabricated in its entirety. Whatever this mare showed, whatever expression she bent her features into, it was all for some specific purpose, and not born from an emotional root at all.
Some part of Rarity found that very unsettling. But a vocal minority in the back of her mind just found it… sad. Aconita, she was starting to realize, didn’t feel anything. How could anypony live like that?
And then there was Agave, a scared yet hope-filled little filly who was so different from her mother. The wonder she’d had in her eyes. The fear, the uncertainty… And the way she’d described her mother to them all, eyes so full of terror, and something else. Something only a daughter could feel for a mother.
Rarity didn’t know what to make of it all. How could something so unfeeling be related to something brimming with so much heart? Could this be what Applejack is destined to become?
Well she for one wasn’t going to stand for it! One Aconita was more than this world needed, thank you very much!
Rarity turned to face forward. Heart full of determination now, she made to speed up a little when she noticed a change in the hallway ahead.
Instead of the uniform crystal walls continuing on in a uniform direction, on Rarity’s right, a divot appeared. That divot turned into a ceiling-high vestibule flanked by pillars as clear as glass. Between two, and hanging over the doorway was a banner bearing the coat of arms for the Crystal Empire, with a large open tome superimposed over it.
“Ah! Here we are!” Rarity said, putting on an extra dash of enthusiasm. She and Fluttershy were almost in the clear! “The Imperial Library! Well, it took us a while, but we made it! Now to find Princess Cadance!”
Rarity started to trot forward, more than ready to put this nasty business behind her, when something else caught her attention.
As she drew closer, she started to spot a number of ponies arranged in a half circle around the entrance to the library. The soft light from the overhead chandeliers glinted off of their crystal armor and the wicked edge on their more conventional – but no less deadly – steel spears.
Every single one of them stood at attention, alert and waiting. And the moment one spotted Rarity, he nudged his neighbor and whispered in his ear.
“That’s strange,” Fluttershy mumbled, coming to a stop beside Rarity. “What is everypony doing here?”
Behind her, Vanity stood tense and alert. But Aconita’s eyes narrowed as she took in each individual pony arrayed against her.
“Vanity,” she said in a soft undertone.
“Of course,” Vanity responded with a respectful bow. When she straightened up, she casually tilted her head to one side until her neck went pop.
By the time Rarity and Fluttershy were halfway to the blockade of guards, every one of them had turned to look in their direction. Some were even starting to break formation to arrange themselves in a better position to meet their new visitors.
Rarity and Fluttershy both approached with welcoming smiles until they were close enough to speak. “Good evening, gentlecolts,” Rarity said with much relief. “I do believe that Princess Cadance is expecting us.”
One of the guards approached, a scowl on his face. “I’m sorry, ladies, but there’s been a change of plans. As per Princess Celestia’s orders, the two of you are to be taken into protective custody. The two of you are to come with us immediately.”
Rarity blinked, taken aback. “I… Excuse me? Protective custody?”
Did that mean that Celestia knew of Aconita’s intentions? Had she been tipped off about her coming? That had to be it; what other reason was there?
Rarity scowled at the lot of them. “Well, you have atrocious timing,” Rarity huffed. “Where were you ten minutes ago?”
The stallion in front of her paused. “Beg pardon?”
“I’ve been expecting you,” Rarity prompted. When the guard continued to give her a nonplussed look, she started darting her eyes over her shoulder – in Aconita’s direction.
The guard frowned uncomprehendingly at her, looked up – and immediately caught an acidic green dart of magic between the eyes.
Arcs of green lights skittered across his eyes, over his temples, and around to the back of his head, where they coalesced and launched into the air again, striking another pony in the head before repeating the same process, over and over and over, faster than anypony could jump out of the way.
In under five seconds, a whole platoon of guards stood as still as statues, eyes glazed over with a green glow.
“That was not wise, little unicorn.”
Rarity felt a cold chill run down her spine. Behind her, four hooves thumped against the carpet, drawing nearer.
Fluttershy, totally confused, turned around, and immediately turned very, very pale.
“I wondered why you were so cordial. Perhaps you thought I had not noticed? I had hoped you were brighter than that. A pity; it seems the unicorn tribe’s famed intellect was just a legend after all.”
A shadow slid passed Rarity, and when she turned towards it, she gasped.
Aconita had shed her blue fur coat, though her silver mane remained. Now she stood before her in all her terrible, towering glory, her crooked horn still fizzling with residual magic.
She stalked pass them, barely turning an eye in their direction. Instead, she approached the mass of ensnared stallions.
“So allow me to make myself perfectly clear. You have something I want. Until such time that you don’t, you will continue to be cooperative. If you don’t…”
Aconita stopped in front of the first frozen guard. Her horn hummed to life, and as it did so, her fanged maw spread open wide.
From each stallion, a pink aura peeled itself away from their forms and drifted high into the air. Each found one another, combined into a single mass overhead, and then began to drift in Aconita’s direction. At the same time, she began to inhale.
In an astonishingly short time, the gaseous aurora was sucked down Aconita’s throat, until not even a mote remained in the air.
The stallions all groaned, and toppled limply to the floor. Physically none had changed, but each one had a pallid look about them.
Aconita let out a sigh of relish. Her eyes flashed as she turned around – literally flashed with a burning, fulminating green light.
“There will be consequences,” she finished.
Both Rarity and Fluttershy stared, ashen faced, at the heap of moaning bodies on the floor. “What… what did you do to them?” Fluttershy squeaked.
“Nothing they won’t recover from,” Aconita answered. “And if you behave, nothing you need concern yourselves with. I only drained them enough to be incapacitated.”
The tip of her tongue poked through her lips and ran from one side of her mouth to the other. “But it is a difficult thing, stopping short. I daresay next time, I won’t be able to muster such self-control.”
Rarity moved a little closer to Fluttershy, who instinctively huddled against her. Her heart continued to race fearfully, and she tried to suppress her trembling. “W-well then. What do you want with us?” Rarity questioned while trying to keep her voice even.
Aconita’s eyes lingered on them like she hadn’t heard her speak. For a moment, there was a spark of something new in those eyes; a predatory hunger, yearning to be sated. But it passed – not soon enough for Rarity’s taste – and the queen once more composed herself. But it obviously took some effort. “I have a question that needs answering. And what I need to answer it is Mi Amore Cadenza, and that book you’re holding.”
Fluttershy squeaked and looked down, as if only just then realizing she had her hooves full, and she looked at it like it’d just sprouted fangs and started snapping at her.
“Now then,” Aconita said. “Give it to—”
“Hey cheese grater! Heads up!”
Aconita blinked, turned, and just saw the streak of rainbow-colored lightning streaking at her face.
Her horn came to life, erupting with newly acquired strength. Green fire exploded forth, forming a wall of light in front of her face, just as two pegasus hooves crashed into it at mach one.
The sonic boom that chased Rainbow Dash down the hall was enough to blow Vanity clean off her hooves and flatten Rarity and Fluttershy to the floor. And even with Aconita’s newfound burst of strength, to her disbelief, the impact slammed into her with enough force to push her back across the floor, one foot, two feet, at last stopping almost a full body length away from where she’d started.
Rainbow’s tail wind blew past them, sending Aconita’s mane and tail aflutter.
“You,” Aconita said through tight lips.
“Hey,” Rainbow growled through a savage smirk. “You remind me of a nag I’m gonna punch.”
Aconita glared back. Her shield had held, but to her further astonishment, a long ragged crack ran diagonally across it. How did she do that? No pegasus should possess that much strength.
Rainbow pushed off of Aconita’s shield roughly, flipping backward a few yards before landing on the ground again.
When she landed, Aconita looked her over. In particular, she noted Rainbow’s unsinged hooves, despite them coming into full and prolonged contact with her barrier.
She scowled at them for a moment, then returned her attention to Rainbow’s face. She straightened up and turned towards her properly. “What do you think you’re doing here?” she asked.
“I could ask the same about you,” Rainbow remarked. “The Crystal Empire sure seems out of your way.”
“That,” Aconita retorted coolly, “is none of your business, little pegasus.”
Rainbow bristled. “Fine, be that way. Then let’s skip straight to the part where I mop every single floor of this castle with your sorry hide!”
Aconita glared, her horn sparking. “By all means. Try.”
Rainbow and Aconita squared off, hackles raised and stances at the ready. Aconita’s horn crackled ominously, a dangerously icy look in her eyes. Rainbow’s wings flexed, twitching at the air.
A short distance away, Rarity and Fluttershy both righted themselves and cast disbelieving looks in Rainbow’s direction. “Is… is that…,” Fluttershy muttered worriedly. “But… b-but what is she doing here? And…”
“And where is Applejack,” Rarity finished for her quietly.
Rainbow must have heard her, but she didn't react. Her ear twitched in her direction, but she did not turn to meet the searching look being drilled into the back of her head. And the more Rarity stared at her, the more she got the impression that Rainbow was intentionally hiding her face from her. “I’ll tell you all about it later,” she said without turning around. “You guys alright?”
Rarity frowned. Something in Rainbow’s voice bothered her. But she set it aside. “Yes, thanks to your timely arrival.”
Rainbow smiled. Some of the dark cloud hanging over her dissipated. “Best news I’ve had for a while. You two wait here; I’ll deal with Buggy Mcbugface.”
Aconita raised a haughty, highly annoyed eyebrow at her.
From the far wall, Vanity picked herself up from the very embarrassing plot-over-teakettle position she’d been left in. Then she zeroed in on Rainbow, who was facing the other way.
The telltale mane was a dead giveaway. Rainbow Dash herself was here now. And she was definitely not the nonaggressive type.
But what was she doing here? Reports said she rarely if ever left Queen Applejack’s side! Did that mean that she was here, too?
But currently, the most distressing thing on Vanity’s mind was what she’d just witnessed. That pegasus had just pushed Aconita back, even so soon after absorbing so much love. It wasn’t the sheer, unmitigated audacity of the act that bothered her, but rather the implications. How in the world could some pegasus do such a thing?
In front of her, the same question seemed to be rattling around Aconita’s head. She observed her barrier, even as it splintered and dissipated. She eyed Rainbow. Then, her entire demeanor changed at the drop of a hat.
“Curious,” Aconita said as she straightened up. Her expression arranged itself into one of speculative intrigue, her seething anger vanishing nearly instantly. “Tell me, Rainbow. How did you do that just now?”
Rainbow cocked her head and gave Aconita a questioning look. “Uh, it’s called a punch?”
“Not that,” Aconita said back. Again, Rainbow had expected annoyance, but her attitude remained unchanged. Worse, Aconita’s stare was starting to get uncomfortable.
With a flick of her horn, Aconita summoned an identical dome of hardened magic, the same one Rainbow had crashed into. Then, she deliberately angled it downward, until it came into contact with the carpet at their hooves.
Everypony heard the angry sizzling, and they all watched with wide eyes as the barrier ate clean through the fabric like it were made of acid, and then proceed to scorch and scar the hard crystal underneath.
“You touched this with your bare hooves,” Aconita pointed out. “And yet you are unharmed. How did you do this?”
Rainbow stared at the damage Aconita’s barrier had caused, then slowly panned down to her own hooves. She noted how they were uninjured in any way; not a single hair was out of place.
“I see,” Aconita said, causing Rainbow to snap her eyes back up. Aconita was still giving her that speculative look, and it was starting to annoy Rainbow.
“So you did not notice it, yourself. Interesting. Perhaps all the time spent mingling with Queen Applejack and her hive has… acclimated you to our magicks. Or… perhaps there is something else at work here.”
Rainbow really wasn’t liking the way Aconita looked at her now. It was like she was trying to dissect her with her eyes.
“That is the question I intend to answer,” said somepony else.
Aconita and Rainbow both turned in unison towards the doors to the library. They found the thick double doors parted just enough to allow a pony to step out. That pony now stood in front of them, looking more exhausted than anypony had seen her for a long time.
“Cadance!” Rarity cried out, sounding relieved. Then immediately she turned back towards Aconita, looking worried. “Um… maybe now is not a good time.”
“It’s okay, Rarity,” Cadance said calmly. “I was hoping Queen Aconita would be here.”
Rarity gave her a truly confused look in response. “You… I beg your pardon, but did you just say you wanted Aconita to be here?”
“Against my better judgment,” came a voice from over Cadance’s shoulder.
If anypony could look more tired than Cadance, it was her husband. Deep bags hung under Shining Armor’s eyes, and the traces of unshaven blue stubble darkened his jawline. “Call me crazy, but I doubt somepony like her would cooperate with us.”
Aconita raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. She just looked at Cadance, who met her measured stare with one of her own.
“Surely you had to wonder why it was so easy to slip into the palace,” Cadance pointed out. “Trust me. If I hadn’t wanted you in here, you wouldn’t be right now.”
Aconita tilted her head curiously, looking down her nose at Cadance. “Then am I to believe this is a trap?” she asked calmly. “Because as you said, your countermeasures are down. It would be foal’s play to escape right now.”
“No, it’s not a trap,” Cadance said with a shake of her head. “But there was no other way.”
“No other way for what?”
“To ask for your help,” Cadance said.
Rarity, Fluttershy and Vanity all gaped at her in disbelief. Even Rainbow stared, shocked.
Aconita’s normally immaculate façade slipped for the first time. Her eyes widened in a look of uncharacteristic surprise before she smoothed it out again. “And what makes you think I would do such a thing?” she inquired. “The Court may have its sights set on Queen Applejack, but let us not forget that Her Highness Queen Chrysalis still holds a grudge over her defeat at your hooves. And Chrysalis’ word is still the law of the Court. So then, what makes you think I would cooperate with you?”
Cadance’s expression didn’t falter. “Because I think you’re here for other reasons besides the Court’s or Chrysalis’ orders.”
“That is a very large assumption to make, little princess.”
Cadance nodded. “It would be. And if I were a changeling, I daresay I’d never see through you. But I’m not. And the one thing that gave you away was your daughter.”
Aconita gave her a searching look. “How does Agave matter here?”
Cadance continued to meet her gaze. “Tell me; how did Agave make it all the way from the south to Equestria on her own? She’s just a little filly! And to do so and happen to make off with one of the changeling people’s most prized secrets, without the Court getting to her first?”
Aconita pursed her lips.
Rainbow glanced at her, a frown on her face, then she looked towards Cadance. “Uh, Ca-”
The alicorn princess raised a silencing hoof without turning away.
“You let her go,” Cadance said. “You let her take the Corastone.”
Aconita’s eyes narrowed coldly. “And why would I do that?”
Cadance shook her head. “That, I don’t know. Maybe you wanted to warn Applejack vicariously through Agave. Maybe you’re making some sort of power play in the Court. Or… maybe you also wanted to know if there is a better way. I don’t know. But I do know one thing for sure. The Changeling Court’s objectives are not yours.”
Rainbow looked at Cadance, then over to Aconita. Everypony followed suit, and soon everypony, Vanity included, was looking at Aconita.
“What are you saying, darling?” Rarity spoke up at last, laughing nervously. “Isn’t she the one that attacked Ponyville a few days back?”
“No,” Cadance said. Aconita’s expression soured, then softened again. “Because changelings don’t make a big flashy show of things, do they?”
“Cadance is right,” spoke up Rainbow.
Now everypony turned towards her. Rainbow frowned, looking down. “It’s… it’s not the Court,” she said. “It’s somepony else.”
“Somepony… what?” Rarity said, quickly feeling turned around. “I’m sorry, but I am starting to feel like I missed something!”
Even Cadance gave Rainbow a searching look. “How do you know?” she asked.
Again, Cadance found herself subjected to that look from Rainbow. It wasn’t a glare, but… there was an accusation in those eyes. A very angry accusation.
“Oh,” Cadance said after a moment. “Then… you went to my house.”
Rainbow nodded. “So did Twilight and Applejack. Twilight’s the one that figured it out, but before we could get out of Canterlot…”
She trailed off, looking pained. She shook her head, then started again. “She said… she said you knew Carnation,” Rainbow said.
From across the room, Rarity snorted. “Pfft! Darling, how could Cadance know Applejack’s real mother? If that were the case, surely she’d have come forward with something like that a long time ago! Isn’t that right Cadance?”
She turned expectantly towards Cadance… only to get silence in response.
As the hush persisted, it was broken only by Shining Armor, whose eyes had turned extraordinarily sharp given is current condition. “Wait, what happened to Twiley? Where is she right now?”
While Rainbow explained the events on the train, Rarity continued to look at Cadance, who wasn’t meeting her gaze. “… Princess? Is… is what Rainbow said true? Did you… did you know Carnation?” she asked.
Cadance sighed and looked down. Rainbow trailed off, despite Shining Armor’s intense stare, and looked towards her too.
Cadance pinched her eyes shut for a moment, then nodded. “I… did, yes,” she admitted, at long last. “A very, very long time ago.”
Rarity’s eyes grew huge as her brain tried to process that new bit of information. Fluttershy, too, looked astonished, and at more of a loss for words than usual.
“So you admit it, then!” Rainbow shot. “You’ve been keeping this a secret all along! Why, huh?”
Cadance gave an irritated sigh. “I’m sure that conversation would have gone over well as it stands right now. ‘Oh hey Applejack, how’s it going? Oh, by the way, your mother exploited me to get to my family’s secrets for her own gain when I was a little foal! Neat, huh?’” She turned to give Rainbow a pleading look. “She’d just rediscovered her mother, Rainbow. What do you think it would have done to her?”
Rainbow glared. “Hey, she’s a lot tougher than you think! She deserved to know that you and Carnation were friends!”
Cadance nodded at that. “I know, and I agree. But I wasn’t going to just drop a bombshell like that on her and walk away with no answers to give!”
Cadance sighed, then dropped her gaze. “No… there is something I have to do for her first. Something I’ve been searching for for years.”
“And what would that be?” Rainbow challenged.
Cadance looked up. “Carnation’s legacy. The secret to how she regained her heart. And ultimately, the way we will save Applejack.”
Rainbow’s eyes grew huge. Everypony looked towards Cadance with looks of shock and surprise, but none were as profound as Rainbow’s.
“T-then what are we waiting for?” Rainbow said quickly, springing up. “Let’s do it already!”
Cadance nodded, then looked towards the floor. Her eyes came to a rest on a bundle of silk fabric wrapped around a book-shaped object, unceremoniously discarded in the commotion earlier. She started to light her horn, when somepony else beat her to the punch.
A bright green aura enveloped the parcel, then swiftly levitated it into the air. It darted upward, passed over Rainbow’s shoulders, and came to a rest in the airspace beside a towering changeling queen.
Aconita met Rainbow’s surprised look coolly. Her expression remained unchanged. Without a word, she strode off in the direction of the library, passed Cadance and a very wary Shining Armor, and silently slipped through the doors, followed only moments later by Vanity.
Cadance watched her pass, then broke into a smile. “Come on, everypony. We have a mystery to solve.”
The library of the Crystal Empire was dark. Most of the lamps had been extinguished, seeing as visitation hours were long since over. Only one table sat with a lantern in the center-most point of the aisles, where all the wings converged. Through the dim, flickering light, it was as if the many rows of bookshelves simply went on into oblivion, vanishing from sight into inky blackness.
The table, everypony soon saw, was strewn with papers, books, and half-unrolled scrolls. The sheer volume of reading material had spilled over in places and had come to litter the floor. Some of the parchment was brand new, still stiff and flat, aside from inked writing upon its surface. Others were crumpled and yellow with age. Some were nothing but torn scraps of paper with but a single line scrawled upon them.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” Cadance apologized sheepishly. “But I had to make sure it was all here, and I didn’t have time to organize.”
“I beg your pardon,” Rarity spoke up dubiously, “but all of what?”
For some reason, Shining Armor huffed and rolled his eyes. Cadance shot him a look, but he neatly avoided it. He was more preoccupied with keeping an eye on the two ‘ponies’ in the lead.
“All of the information I could piece together on Carnation’s methods,” Cadance said. She quickly stepped up to the table, and with a flick of her horn, she shuffled a number of sheets of paper into a neat pile, clearing a space. No sooner did she do so than Aconita deposited the silk-wrapped book in front of her, passing around to her other side as she did so.
Cadance gave her an appreciative glance, then returned all her focus on what lay in front of her“There. Now, thanks to all of you, I can finally do just that. I hope…”
Rainbow looked around skeptically. “Uh, not to be a killjoy, but… what exactly are you looking for in some old book?”
Cadance looked up at her. “This isn’t just some old book,” she said. “This is one of the only surviving copies of the history of the Crystal Empire - maybe the only surviving copy, given Sombra’s censorship.”
Rainbow gave her an even more confused look. “Yeah, okay, thanks for clearing that up.”
Rarity jabbed her in the ribs with a hoof and shot her a disapproving look. “Rainbow’s tactlessness aside,” she said, “I fail to see how the history of the Crystal Empire would have any bearing on the changelings.”
While most muttered their agreement, Aconita remained pensively silent and watchful. Only Shining Armor payed her any mind, but he rarely took his eyes of the deceitful creature in the first place.
Cadance gave them all a mildly annoyed look as she magically peeled away the silk wrappings. “Please give me one second, okay?”
Rainbow frowned, then glanced towards Aconita. “And… remind me again why we need her?”
Aconita gave her a chilly look, but again kept her comments to herself.
“In a minute,” Cadance said distractedly. She’d just pulled the last of the silken fabric away from the old book at the bundle’s heart.
And it was old. The wretched thing was curled like a dried leaf. The tome’s cover was so faded and stained that little of its original color remained. Only a few blotches of navy blue still clung to the surface. The rest of it was faded and brown with age, along with copious other unnamable stains acquired across countless ages. There was just enough left for everypony to make out a large blue heart wreathed in golden wings, but the title was long since gone.
Cadance breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of it. “Good. Still in one piece.”
Rainbow, however, gave it a dubious look. “And… the secret to saving Applejack is in that?”
Another jab in the ribs, courtesy of Rarity. Luckily, Cadance didn’t notice.
“Part of it, anyway,” Cadance said. “If I’m correct, there’s something in here I overlooked.”
As she talked, her horn started to glow. The pages in front of her very carefully started to turn, one by one, so as not to damage them. It was excruciatingly slow, and soon Rainbow took to pacing impatiently.
Rarity eyed her annoyed friend carefully, then turned towards Cadance. “Um… pardon my interruption, but… you said you've been looking into this for several years?” she asked.
Cadance nodded distractedly. “Well… ever since Carnation disappeared, actually. I’d only known her for a short while before that. She was my foalsitter, you see.” She paused, a distant look on her face. “My parents were always busy. Any time I saw them was when they had something for me to do. So… I didn’t really have any friends when I was little. Not counting the personable tutor. Then, one day she just… turned up.”
Cadance paused for a moment, then continued working through ancient page after ancient page. “It wasn’t hard for her to win over my parents. And… me, I suppose. She was my first real, true friend. Not at first, but… eventually.”
“What do you mean, not at first?” Fluttershy asked, speaking up for the first time in a long time. She had a concerned look on her face, like she was weighing whether or not to go give Cadance a big comforting hug.
Cadance gave a sad little smile. “Well… like I said earlier. Carnation used me. She was after my family’s legacy - the history of the Crystal Empire, which we’d kept safeguarded all these centuries. Once she got what she was after… she vanished.”
“That’s awful,” Fluttershy said.
Cadance nodded. “It was. But then, a few months later, she came back. But when she did, she was a completely different pony.” Again she slowed in her scanning to look up at the group. The magic of her horn and the glowing pages lit up her face in the darkness, more than the candle could manage.
“Carnation never told me what happened, or what she did. I was only a foal, after all; I doubt she thought I would understand. But… there was one hint she gave me, long ago.”
Abruptly the pages came to a stop, and Cadance put her hoof down on a page. “And here it is.”
Everypony grouped up, crowding around the table to peer at the open book. In so doing, Aconita and Rainbow Dash almost missed the fact that they were shoulder-to-knee. Almost. Cadance had to stifle a sigh when the two took a big step away from each other.
Personal space secured, Rainbow went back to peering at the book. What she saw only gave her more questions than answers.
“Uh… is that the Crystal Heart?” she asked.
“It sure is,” Rarity noted, sounding just as confused.
“I thought so, too,” Fluttershy mumbled.
“That’s right,” Cadance said. “This is the only clue Carnation gave me. All these years I’ve been trying to figure out what she meant by it.”
She looked down, looking lost in thought. “Had she tried to create a new one? Considering the properties of the Crystal Heart, and the changelings’ insatiable need for love, having a replica might just solve that hunger. But every time I tried to recreate it, it always ended in failure. Nothing I did worked.”
Then she looked up. “But then Agave appeared.”
She was looking at Aconita, who met her gaze with a sidelong look. Still she said nothing, reserving her words instead.
“She brought the final clue,” Cadance said with a smile. “The Corastone.”
She immediately went back to the book, nearly burying her nose in the paper. She squinted, trying to make out the faded writing. “As I said earlier, this book is probably one of the few surviving copies of the history of the Crystal Empire. What I didn’t say is that this, right here, is the first volume ever printed. In this book, it describes how the Crystal Empire came to be.
“In this book, it describes how a group of young ponies – who would go on to form the high houses here in the early Crystal Empire – found a mystical artifact deep in the Frozen North. Its power was so great that it cast aside the eternal snow and ice of this realm and created a vibrant bastion. Everypony who basked in the warmth of the Crystal Heart felt uplifted, their hearts filled with happiness and hope.
“But there is a passage here, in this version only. And it describes where the Crystal Heart was found in greater detail.”
Cadance put her hoof down again, indicating one faded, almost illegible line of text amongst many. “Here. According to this book, it mentions how six young stallions, seeking a land beyond the political turmoil of a fledgling Equestria, came to find shelter in a cave at the base of the mountains far to the north of here. As they entered the cave, it is said they spied a guiding light, which lead them deeper into the cave.
“They ventured so far in that soon even the wind of the blizzard that drove them to seek shelter could not reach their ears. There, in the deepest chasm beneath the mountain, they discovered a pile of ancient bones – and a glowing stone in the shape of a heart.”
Cadance straightened up, a sad look on her face. “Then… it really did end like that, after all.”
Aconita sighed ever so slightly. “So it would seem.”
Everypony else looked back and forth between themselves. “Uh… how what ended?” Rainbow asked.
Cadance looked back at her, seemingly surprised that she didn’t understand, then looked down. Instead of her speaking, however, it was Aconita that raised her voice.
“The story of our Maker, and the one that broke her heart,” Aconita said without inflection. “Queen Amora and Duke Crescendo.”
Cadance nodded. “According to the few changelings I talked with who remembered the legend, the Maker left the south some ten thousand years ago.”
“What the legend does not describe,” Aconita added, “was that Queen Amora – the first queen to ever live – left Tierra Del Sur in order to track down Crescendo. Finding him was her single driving obsession. And… it would appear she found him.”
Rainbow scratched her head. “Uh… you’re going to have to back up a second there. Who did what now?”
Aconita sighed loudly. Instead, Cadance spoke up.
“Here’s the short version,” Cadance said with a smile. “A long time ago, there was a kingdom in the far south ruled by a queen and her consort. Queen Amora was to be that queen, but on the day of her wedding to Duke Crescendo, he stole her inherited powers over the heart and fled to start his own kingdom, one where he wouldn’t be some trophy husband and little else. Or so the story goes.”
Aconita gave her an impressed look. “My, my. You certainly know a lot about our history.”
Cadance neatly avoided her gaze. “Let’s just say I’ve had some inside sources. Anyway, as the story goes, Crescendo’s act broke Amora’s heart, which caused her love magic to become twisted and corrupted. That transformed her into the first changeling queen – the Maker.”
Rarity turned pale. “I… get the feeling the name is all too literal.”
Cadance nodded somberly.
Rainbow frowned, however. “And… you think this thing that Crescendo stole… was the Crystal Heart?”
Cadance nodded, breaking into a smile. “Yes, that’s exactly what I think happened. Which means one thing.”
Everypony looked on, just as confused as ever. Everypony, except Aconita. Her eyes grew large as dawning comprehension struck her. “It’s a Corastone,” she said.
“Yes!” Cadance said excitedly. “The Crystal Heart is the first Corastone to ever exist! That is why I couldn’t recreate it; normal unicorn magic wouldn’t be enough.”
“Then, that stone,” Aconita said slowly, “is Queen Amora’s Corastone? Is that what you are implying?”
Cadance nodded, a glint in her eye. “I am. But there’s a problem, isn’t there?”
Aconita scowled thoughtfully. “Indeed. I detected no changeling magic from that artifact, or else I would have given it more attention. Which means…”
“It’s free of the curse!” Rainbow burst out.
“Exactly!” Cadance said, smiling ear to ear.
Then Rarity asked the question that brought the whole mood down.
Nopony had an answer for that. They tried, oh they tried to come up with something, but nothing sounded right in their heads. Until…
“The cave,” Fluttershy mumbled, softer the usual.
When everypony looked towards her, she fidgeted nervously and ducked her head. “Um… you said the cave was full of bones, right?”
Cadance nodded. “Yes, that’s what the book says.”
“Well… what if they aren’t just Crescendo’s,” Fluttershy postulated.
Cadance frowned thoughtfully. “So… you think that maybe… Amora succeeded in tracking down Crescendo?”
Fluttershy nodded minutely. “I mean, maybe, if you think so…”
Rainbow looked between them, down at the book, then straightened up. “Hey. Where is this cave?”
Cadance thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. Somewhere due north of the Crystal Empire. Nopony has ever found it, though.”
“Gotcha. Be back in a jiff,” Rainbow said, and before anypony could react, she zoomed away, sending carefully arranged documents and scrolls scattering on her tailwind.
“What does she think she’s doing?” Aconita inquired testily.
“Knowing her,” sighed Rarity, “something highly foolish.”
The good news was the winds outside the temperate bubble surrounding the Crystal Empire had not grown any colder. The bad news was that they hadn’t gotten warmer, either.
The moment Rainbow set off at full speed, the icy winds set about layering as much frost and snow in her feathers as it possibly could. But Rainbow forged on, dead set on finding a resolution to this question. She was so close… so close to knowing how to save Applejack.
Applejack… she hoped she was alright. She still had nightmares about the last time she’d done that teleportation spell and kicked off probably one of the worst nights they’d ever had. The sight of Applejack, lying in that bed, looking so scared and frail and helpless…
Suddenly, Rainbow got the strongest feeling that she was going in the total wrong direction. It was like her internal compass did a complete flip, and instead of flying north, she was actually headed south.
She slowed, looking around. No… no, the mountains ahead were in the right place. Their tall, jutting profile against a low cloud bank was the only real shape amidst the otherwise flat tundra. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was not headed where she needed to be headed.
Rainbow turned around, confused – and nearly got broadsided. “Whoa!” she cried out, nearly tumbling out of the air. Something large whipped past her, streaking by so fast that she barely even saw it.
Rainbow paused. That voice again. She turned in the direction of it, straight into a blustery squall of snow. She frowned, then sped off, even as every fiber of her being screamed at her to turn around. She was going in the wrong direction!
On she flew, headed north. Steadily, the mountains grew larger and larger, until they rose to monolithic sizes. Next to them, Rainbow was like a blue pebble, tiny and insignificant. In the darkness, only the iridescent snow cloaking the monstrous peaks gave them shape. And as Rainbow flitted past the first jagged peak, she came out from under the oppressive clouds. So massive were the mountains that they barred the storms from proceeding any further, like a giant dam of the sky.
Now the heavens opened up, revealing brilliant stars far brighter than anything Rainbow had ever seen. The sky was streaked across with countless, undulating bands of vivid green auroras that stained the world below a ghostly shade of emerald.
And the other thing Rainbow noticed was that the temperature seemed to plummet even further. Without the cloud cover, what little warmth there was fled into the sky, leaving the air a blisteringly arctic cold.
Immediately Rainbow’s teeth started chattering and she began shivering. She knew she couldn’t last long in this sub-zero climate. So, she’d just have to be fast.
Rainbow swooped low, hoping to use the mountains to shield her from the worst of the winds. Then, she set about looking for caves.
The problem was that the frozen mountain range was enormous. Coast to coast, in fact, spanning the whole breadth of Equestria. Miles of deep valleys, soaring mountain peaks, glacial fields, and Rainbow had to find one itty bitty cave in the whole place.
Maybe she’d been just a tad impulsive jetting off the way she did, now that she thought about it.
“I-it’s g-g-g-got to b-b-be ar-round h-h-her somewhere,” Rainbow chattered to herself.
She flew lower, relenting on her burning muscles. But so far, all she saw was snow, ice, and rock. Nothing even remotely resembling a depression, much less a cave, came into view.
But she wasn’t about to give up now. It could be around the very next bend! She forced herself on, grinding her teeth to keep them from chattering up a storm. Just around the next bend…
Something glided by over her head. Rainbow only saw the shadow, but it was distinct enough in the white landscape for it to pop out at her.
Rainbow spun her head around, looking blearily every which way.
A blur of motion in the sky caught her attention. Something was moving perpendicularly to her own trajectory, but before she could get a good look at it, it dove behind a shallow rock face, vanishing from sight.
Rainbow immediately changed course, banking hard. Something was definitely trying to lead her somewhere, of that she had no doubt. The only question now was who?
Hugging the ridgeline as close as she dared, Rainbow flew up it, sailed over the rock face, and peered down the other side.
And there, nestled in a bowl-shaped valley between two mountain ridges, was a black shadow against the snow. A cave. But once again, there was no sign of the fast-moving creature that had caught Rainbow’s attention.
Okay… this is starting to get a little spooky.
Rainbow clipped her wings and raced down the other side of the ridge. She swooped up the valley, then pulled herself to a halt right on a frost-encrusted slab of granite in front of a chasm entrance.
From where she stood, it looked little like a cave, and more like a gash inflicted upon the mountainside. Beyond the snowy rocks lining the entrance, Rainbow could see nothing but an inky black emptiness before her. Only the wind moaning amidst the frozen rocks made a sound.
Rainbow gulped, shivering in place. It was mostly due to the cold. Mostly.
She looked around, hoping maybe to find a different, preferably well-lit cave nestled amidst the rocks that didn’t give her such a bad feeling. But, of course, there was none. So very typical of her luck.
“W-w-well, g-guess there’s only one thing t-to do,” she mumbled to herself. She steeled her nerve… then looked up. Maybe higher up… She hadn’t checked up there…
There was, of course, no miracle cave to save her. She growled to herself and slapped her cheek. “Ugh, get it together Rainb-b-bow. It’s j-just a p-p-pitch b-black cave in a f-frozen wasteland. W-what’s the worst that c-c-c-could happen?”
She nodded to herself. Took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and plunged into the darkness.
Immediately, Rainbow was thrown into total blackness. She couldn’t see anything, not even her own hoof in front of her muzzle. Blindly she groped around until she found a wall. From that point on, her wing never left contact with its frozen, uneven surface.
Slowly, she crept forward, swinging her hooves around to pat the ground and wall in front of her. Inch by agonizing inch, she worked her way deeper into the frozen cave.
As soon as she was inside, her ears were assaulted by the sheer stillness of the cave. Nothing moved, not even a breeze. It was totally, jarringly quiet inside, the air stagnant and damp.
Rainbow found the cave working its way further back. Then, abruptly it veered to the left and started to slope down. When she rounded the corner, all light was gone. She could no longer find the cave entrance behind her, and sudden claustrophobia ate at her. It was so quiet, so still, so unbearable.
But somewhere down here, there was a clue to saving Applejack. Whenever she reminded herself of that, she cared a little bit less about the horrible darkness.
Down and down she went. It felt like she’d been crawling along for hundreds of yards, when some part of her told her it could have only been tens of feet. And it kept going down. Always down.
Twice she almost slipped on the frosty stones. But she never lost contact with the wall. She didn’t care if she scraped or bruised herself, so long as she never, ever lost contact with that wall. It was her only lifeline out of this place.
“Just a little further,” Rainbow said to herself. Her voice was a few octaves too high, but the sound of her own voice made her feel a little better. Except the sound of it pointed out how narrow the chasm had become. That didn’t help.
“Just a little bit longer. Then we’ll go save Applejack and forget this eeeeeever happened…”
And that was when a light appeared before her.
Rainbow wasn’t sure what was worse in that moment; the total blackness she’d been struggling through, or the faint, eerie blue light that glowed around a bend just ahead. Something about it made the choice a hard one.
Slowly she worked her way towards it, down a gap in the bedrock only barely wider than she was.
Rainbow reached the corner, gulped again, and stuck her head around. What she found was every bit as foreboding as she’d envisioned.
In front of her, the cave abruptly stopped. The chamber was wide and tall, its bottom slightly bowled. And scattered across the floor, neatly arranged in a small pile, was a cluster of ancient, ice-covered bones.
But it was not the bones that immediately caught Rainbow’s attention. It was the faint, eerie blue light swirling like a mist around the ceiling. It spiraled up and around, issuing from… from a desiccated boney horn attached to a skull on the floor.
Rainbow really didn’t want to go any further into that dusty chamber. She could see all she needed to see from the entryway. But something compelled her to step forward anyway.
And as she did so, she started to make sense of the mess of bones in front of her.
First, she noticed the skulls. Two, to be precise. A smaller, slighter one laid tucked under a thicker, broader one, as if seeking shelter from the cold. Time and rot had robbed the two figured of their poses, though. Most of the bones just heaped together in a hectic pile. But here and there among the ivory jumble, Rainbow saw a hoof placed across the side of a crumbling ribcage, and another resting upon a frost-crusted clavicle.
“They… were hugging,” she said aloud. “Then… if those really are Crescendo and Amora… that means…”
A voice was the last thing Rainbow wanted to hear at that time. She only shrieked a little bit, but luckily there was nopony around to hear it. Or… unluckily, as it were, because there was nopony around at all.
Still, her skin crawled; she could feel… something. Like eyes on her.
“Who’s there?” she said loudly. No pony answered, but she knew what she’d heard; a voice, faint as a whisper. And she could feel it without a doubt now. She was being watched.
…Get back here…!
Rainbow spun around. That had come from right behind her – she knew it had! But there was nothing. “Who’s there?!” she shouted, louder this time. “Stop playing around! You wanna say something, say it to my face!”
... Ah knew Ah could count on ya…
Rainbow froze, her breath catching in her throat. “A… Applejack?” she said in a small voice. There was no mistaking it, no matter how much she wanted to. That had been Applejack’s voice, coming from some nebulous point off to her left, amidst a deformed stalagmite. But again, when she turned to look, she found only empty space.
Rainbow’s heart quickened. Her last sight of Applejack – surrounded by fire, her body crumpled in pain – broke over her mind again like a fresh, ice cold storm surge. “Applejack! Where are you?”
Guess that’s my win…, whispered the voice again.
This time, Rainbow tracked it. She whipped around, nearly falling over.
The phantom stared straight back at her, nose to nose.
This time, Rainbow let out the loudest, most uncool shriek of her life. She jumped back, hit the wall, and slid down to the floor.
But the form did not disappear. It stood there, vaporous as fog, yet so very distinct. It straightened up, and Rainbow saw just how tall it was. It stood taller than two of her. Glowing bands of ethereal light undulated off of its shoulders, like ghostly rags in a slow motion wind. She had no face, only two points of light that flickered like sparks approximately where eyes should have been.
“Why dost thou disturb our slumber sweet,” whispered a voice that came from everywhere and nowhere. “O bearer of mine tainted chorus. What bringest thou to me?”
Rainbow, however, was too busy trying not to scream again to answer right away.
That was when another voice made its presence known, and it reverberated through the rock like an furious earthquake. “Depart, o bearer of the tainted chorus. Trouble our sleep no longer with thine presence.”
The ghostly figure turned slowly, its form momentarily becoming unintelligible. “Peace, my love. Dost thou not feel it?”
She turned back towards Rainbow. “There beats a heart pure of intent in this one. Perhaps hope burneth yet for this one.”
Behind the phantom, something cracked. Rainbow looked down, and felt herself grow even colder.
One of the skeletons was picking itself up.
“I feel naught but the curse borne by these hooves mine, my love,” the skeleton growled, spewing forth dust and flakes of frost. “I see naught but the sin borne of mine hubris.”
As it rose, the skeleton changed before Rainbow’s eyes. A hide of grey smoke fell upon the creature, shrouding much of it as it rose. And rise it did, to improbably heights, until the cavern could barely contain it.
Boney wings hung from the skeleton’s shoulders. Long, ragged pinions still clung to its surface, their color bleached white with the ravages of time. And as the skeleton turned to face Rainbow, she saw its face.
There was nothing but bleached white, cracked bone. A crown rested upon its head. Except, for some reason, it had been turned upside down, the long jagged golden spokes pointing downward instead. And the crown rested so low over the skeleton’s eyes that they blocked them completely, blinding the creature to all that was around it.
A mane of long, wispy white hair fell in tangled mats to the floor, and its tail pooled beneath its hind legs as it rose.
“Why dost thou seeketh us,” the skeleton demanded, anger evident in its distant, echoing voice. “Speak quickly, or leave us in peace.
Rainbow licked her lips. Suddenly, her throat felt very dry. “Um, well… you see… It’s about… about…”
The misty phantom tilted its ethereal head at her. “Pain fills this one’s heart. She yearns for another.”
Rainbow straightened up. “I… don’t really know what you just said, but um… are you two, maybe… Amora and Crescendo?”
The phantom’s head tilted to the side even more. “This one knoweth our names,” she commented curiously. “And she bareth the tainted chorus. Yet, it is not one with her. No… it belongeth to another. Perhaps it hath been entrusted to this one?”
Now the skeleton paused. Its blinded face turned towards Rainbow, jaw hanging loose. “She bareth it willingly?”
“So it would appear.”
Rainbow looked between the two specters uncertainly. “Um… if you two are Amora and Crescendo… what happened to you guys? How did you two end up here?”
Both the specter and the skeleton exchanged mercurial looks, neither one possessing much face to make an expression with. Then, the ghostly apparition turned towards Rainbow. “Knowist you our story?” she inquired.
“Then thou would know mine quest to find Crescendo. For many years it consumed me, giving rise to the tainted chorus that consumes mine children. After searching the width and breadth of the land, I turned my sights to the north.”
She once again turned towards the cadaverous entity beside her, who stood close at her shoulder. “Mine journey was a costly one. When I at last tracked Crescendo to this cave, my strength was all but spent. His had not fared much better.”
The skeleton turned with the clink of bones towards Rainbow. “The Crystal Heart would not listen to me. For all my transgressions my heart layeth with Amora. I thought to bare that torment for the good of mine future people. But… it was not meant to be. The Heart would not grant me my demesne. When the truth sank in, I sought exile, and spent the rest of my days here.”
“And so, this is where we remain,” the ghost finished for him. “In quiet solitude and reconciliation. Only in death hath peace found us both.”
“A peace upon which thou would intrude,” the skeleton snarled. “What hubris compels thee to disturb our sleep with the sins of our past? Leave us, little pegasus. Torment us with the tainted chorus no longer.”
Rainbow gulped, looking between the two figures. “You guys are barely making any sense. What’s a ‘tainted chorus’?”
Both the phantom and skeleton exchanged looks. Then, they turned back to face her. The phantom raised her hoof and pointed it in Rainbow direction.
Suddenly, an intense pain shot across her chest. Rainbow cried out, lurching forward as something tightened inside of her. Like a vice it bore down, until it felt as if her heart would be crushed to a fine past.
Then, she felt something wrench inside of her. Rainbow felt herself physically tugged forward as something brilliantly green burst out of her breast, slipping out of her like a mirage.
Immediately Rainbow’s hooves went to her chest, only to find it undamaged. Yet… something felt wrong. Terribly wrong, like something of vital importance had been pried from her. It was like breathing with only one lung, or knowing she only had one kidney. It was a feeling of intense loss that made her feel hollow inside.
She looked up, and was about to demand an explanation when she saw the thing floating in front of her eyes.
It was small and deformed, like a chunk of rock knocked free with a pickaxe. Barely bigger than Rainbow’s hoof, it floated in front of her: a chunk of brilliant emerald surrounded by revolving flakes and shards that orbited in every direction. It pulsed with light, thumping in a steady, two beat rhythm. Exactly like a heart.
“Wha… what is that?” Rainbow panted, eyes transfixed.
“A piece of the tainted chorus,” The ghost explained. “A shard of thine precious one’s heart that could not bear to be parted from thee. One that thou accepted willingly into thine own heart. Can thou not feelist its call?”
Rainbow continued to clutch at her chest. It felt like there was a hole inside her, and she was staring directly at the thing that was needed to fill it.
“Give… give that back,” she panted.
No sooner did she demand it than the apparition moved her hoof to the side. Abruptly, the nugget of pulsating green crystal flew at Rainbow’s chest and vanished from sight.
The moment it disappeared, everything felt right with the world again. She felt whole, complete once again.
Rainbow took a deep, steadying breath, then stood up. “Okay, what was that? How did that get inside me?”
“As I said,” the phantom said patiently. “It is a piece of the heart that yearneth most for thee, and that thee yearneth for in kind. Tis the tainted chorus that bind mine people to eternal hunger, to covet that which was denied me in life. It is a profaned parody of the magicks of old, perverted in totality. Yet, the piece thou wouldst hold is only an incomplete shell. The heart that hath been meant for thee was snatched away, stifled by a shadow most dark.”
The skeleton let out a low growl. “So long as this shadow holds dominion over thy dearest one, the tainted chorus shall drown out all else leaving her deaf to all but hunger.”
“Harken unto me, little pegasus,” The phantom said. “The shadow thou will face is a most sinister fiend, cruel and cunning without compare. Through thine dearest, it threatens to enact cruel vengeance upon all thou would hold dear and bathe the world in the chorus. It will put thou to task. And if thou let it, it will be thine end.”
The phantom then raised a hoof, as if offering it towards Rainbow. “But… if thou wouldst face this evil, if thou wouldst brave the darkness for thine dearest, thou needeth only turn to the shard left in thy care. Heed it closely, my little pegasus. Heed it closely.”
The phantom grew dim. The skeleton crouched as if about to lie down. And before Rainbow could utter a word, the dim light went out, and all was still darkness once again.
The Crystal Empire library had grown somewhat dull in Rainbow’s absence. Rarity and Fluttershy sat next to Cadance and helped her sort through her countless documents, or only to pass the time.
Shining Armor stood leaning against the corner of a book shelf, half shrouded in darkness. His eyes never wandered far from Aconita or Vanity, both of whom remained only a short distance away, and so far had not said a word.
Aconita, for her part, continued to watch Cadance with open curiosity. Much about the princess intrigued her, and there were many questions still on her mind. But, as time passed, she was starting to understand why Chrysalis had spared her, a very unorthodox choice indeed.
Even so, she maintained her skepticism. Ten thousand years was a very long time, and in that time, not one queen or changeling had ever broken their insatiable hunger for love. And many had tried.
She was not convinced that Carnation had been a freak occurrence. But if these ponies could actually replicate the process… Could it actually be possible? It was that distinct uncertainty that cause her to remain in present company. For the time being, at least.
Across the way, Cadance finished placing another piece of paper upon a spectacularly tall tower. “There. That should do it for now."
Rarity let out a breath of relief. “Goodness. You certainly have a lot of notes on this subject.”
Cadance blushed. “You think so? Well, I could never be too sure about what was valuable information, so I guess, over the years, I sort of… kept everything.”
Rarity gave Cadance a questioning look upon hearing that. “That reminds me. How long have you been conducting this research?”
Cadance smiled at her rather sheepishly. “Since I was a little foal. So… six, seven years old. But, well, until recently I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had some help but, well… changeling queens guard their secrets really well. So the ‘research’ was more or less just theories and fringe arcane science.”
Cadance looked down at the hodgepodge of documents, and gave them a nostalgic smile. “Actually, I almost gave up entirely. Until Chrysalis attacked, anyway. She caught me off guard, you see. As it turns out, Carnation was the exception, not the example of queen temperaments.”
Rarity winced sympathetically.
“But… when I found out Applejack was Carnation’s daughter,” Cadance went on, her tone dropping. “You know, I felt so ashamed for losing heart. Especially… especially after finding out what happened to Carnation, and the sacrifice she made for us.”
Rarity’s expression fell. She put a reassuring hoof on Cadance’s shoulder, who smiled weakly back. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’d sort of come to the conclusion a long time ago. Still, it was nice. To have closure, I mean.”
Fluttershy and Rarity exchanged sympathetic looks. Fluttershy moved to pat Cadance on the shoulder as well, when the library's double doors blew open and scattered the past hours work of reorganization across the library floor once again.
Rainbow stood in front of them, panting and shivering from the cold. Her eyes were huge. “I found it,” she wheezed. “And you will not believe what happened.”
Everypony listened intently as Rainbow recounted her visit to the frozen cave. They all stared at her, Aconita included, as she described the spectral and skeletal apparitions and what they had to say.
After a while, Rainbow finally fell quiet. By that time, a blanket had been produced, and she was currently shivering fitfully inside a cocoon of a fluffy comforter.
When she fell quiet, the room fell quiet with her. Everypony tried to process the information they’d been given, but it took a long time.
Eventually, Cadance turned towards Aconita, who was still lost in thought. “Have you heard of that term?” she inquired, drawing the queen’s attention. “Does this ‘tainted chorus’ sound familiar at all?”
Aconita shook her head. “Not remotely,” she said. “But clearly it was used in reference to a queen’s Corastone.”
Cadance frowned thoughtfully. “Well… what exactly does a Corastone do? I keep finding myself drawing comparisons between them and the Crystal Heart. But, instead of filling the hearts of those around it, they seem to work in reverse. Am I close?”
Aconita pursed her lips. “Not quite. It is with a Corastone that a queen controls her hive. With it, a queen can impose her will upon all of her subjects, effectively imprinting her morals upon every drone in her hive.”
Cadance looked troubled at that. “So… no drone is allowed a choice?”
Aconita glanced to her side. Vanity looked up at her without inflection. “No,” Aconita stated.
“Corastones sound awful,” Fluttershy mumbled sadly.
“Yeah, well, Applejack’s going to have one soon,” Rainbow said grimly. “And apparently, a piece of it got stuck inside me somehow.”
“Which might be a good thing,” Rarity postulated optimistically. “Maybe as long as hers is not whole, she… she won’t completely lose herself.”
Rainbow looked down at her front. “I sure hope so,” she said. While she did, she reached up to touch her chest. Somewhere under her hoof was a piece of Applejack, a small fragment that hid within her. It wasn’t much, but… this was something she could keep safe.
From across the table, Aconita stared at Rainbow. Cadance noticed, and glanced her way. “Your thoughts?” she inquired.
Aconita glanced at her. For a moment, she seemed reluctant to respond. Then, she looked back towards Rainbow, who had looked up in her direction, as well.
“This phenomenon,” she said after a pause. “A Corastone, if even just a piece of one, forming within something other than a crown… It is highly irregular. Some might say it is unnatural.”
Cadance turned towards Rainbow, who seemed to be trying to figure out if she was just insulted or not, then went back to Aconita. “Well, would you like to help me lay to rest a theory of mine?”
Aconita glanced toward her eyebrow raised. “More requests of cooperation? My, you certainly are an unusual one.”
Cadance smiled. “Call me an optimist,” she said, then reached under the table.
Everypony watched curiously as she rifled around, then pulled a small wooden case out for all to see.
The moment Aconita laid her eyes on it, she tensed. Cadance saw it as she carefully set the box down, magically undid the latch, and flipped the lid open.
There, resting on a velvet cushion was a spindly yet unmistakable changeling crown.
Everypony gasped at the sight of it, especially when she lifted it up into the air. The candlelight danced across the rubies affixed to the four thin spokes on the crown, drawing a very enamored Rarity’s attention.
“Where did you find this,” Aconita asked. Her tone was level, but there was an edge of guardedness to it now.
“It was brought to me, actually,” Cadance said. “By a drone, a long time ago. She never stopped to talk, and I never saw or heard from her again. But… somehow I believe it was Hyacinth. I could be wrong, but… that’s who I like to imagine it was.”
Cadance placed Carnation’s crown down on her hoof. Then, she turned and offered it to Aconita. To her surprise, the queen shifted away from it, as if it gave off a foul smell.
“You said a Corastone is kept within a changeling queen’s crown,” Cadance said. “So then, does that mean you can expose one if it were here?”
“Oh, you bet she can,” Rainbow interjected. “She showed me hers at the Summer Sun Festival.”
Aconita threw Rainbow a dark look that promised a thousand painful deaths, which the pegasus returned with a smile. Then Aconita turned, rather reluctantly, towards Cadance. “Yes, I can.”
Cadance smiled. “Great! Then—”
“But I refuse to do so.”
That pulled Cadance up short. “Um… why?” she asked.
Aconita turned her nose up, looking the other way. “In order to do so, I would have to connect myself to whatever lies inside that crown. Carnation’s Corastone and my Corastone would join together. And that would be… unpleasant, to say the least.”
Rainbow smirked. “What’s the matter? Big bad queen afraid of feeling things?”
The look Aconita gave her could have burned a hole through steel at a hundred paces. “Watch your tongue, little pegasus. I have seen atrocities committed in my lifetime that would turn every one of your pretty little hairs white.” Aconita turned away, her expression frigid. “Sometimes being detached from everything around you has its advantages.”
Rainbow scoffed, only to find several disapproving looks being thrown at her. “What?”
Cadance sighed, then looked back at Aconita. “I understand your hesitation, and I know you have no reason to trust me. But it is my theory that there is nothing inside this crown.”
Aconita raised a skeptical eyebrow at her.
“I know that it gives off a lot of energy,” Cadance said. “But most of it is residual. It’s been steadily decaying ever since it came to me.”
Aconita stared at her, looking highly reluctant. Then, she exhaled through her nose. “I have put plenty at risk for this foolish little inquiry,” she sighed.
Vanity looked on with big, worried eyes as Aconita swept the crown from her head, and to her underling’s immense surprise, proceeded to hand it to her.
Vanity took it reverently and without question. She cradled it with the utmost care, then turned to give Aconita a searching look.
The queen did not look back. Instead, she focused on lifting the small crown from Cadance’s hoof and floating it over towards her. It hovered under her nose, and for a moment she gave it a look like she expected it to lunge for her jugular.
Then, Aconita took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and her horn glowed even brighter.
The crown started to rattle and shake. It quivered in the air, faster and more violently with each passing second, until, all at once, the crown exploded.
Aconita braced, fully expecting an overpowering flood of emotion to rip through her, body and mind. Rainbow braced, fully expecting an eruption of fire to burst forth like it did when Aconita cracked open her own crown.
Instead, and very anticlimactically, absolutely nothing happened. The crown shattered into a hundred tiny little fragments, each one hovering in midair. But at the heart of the mass of shrapnel, there was only empty space.
Everypony let out a collectively held breath, Aconita included.
Cadance peered closely into the network of crown pieces, a bright glint in her eye. “So I was correct. There is no Corastone here.”
Aconita frowned, but kept her questions to herself. Instead, Rainbow voiced them for her. “So then… if it’s not here, where is it?” she asked.
Cadance leaned back, smiling. “I think that Carnation gave it to Applejack’s father,” she deduced. “Or maybe Applejack herself. And after what the ghosts of Queen Amora and Crescendo told you, Rainbow – that has to be it! The secret to Carnation’s success is that she gave her Corastone to somepony!”
“Somepony who would accept it,” Rarity added. “It seems to me like that is an important distinction. If it was that easy, this whole curse business wouldn’t be such a big problem for the changelings, now would it?”
“Great!” Rainbow said, her eyes gleaming fiercely. “So all we have to do is find somepony who can take Applejack’s Corastone and she’s as good as saved!”
She didn’t notice that Rarity and Fluttershy both exchanged a look and started giggling knowingly. Cadance, as well, stifled her laughter. “Um, Rainbow… Seeing as you have a piece of Applejack’s Corastone inside you already, don’t you think that somepony might be… you?”
Rainbow paused to think about it. Then brightened up. “Even better! I don’t think we’d find anypony good enough to carry it, anyway. Hey, what’s so funny?” she added irritably, noticing at last the two mares lost in a fit of giggles behind her.
“Nothing, nothing,” Rarity laughed, “Think nothing of it, darling! Now that that’s settled let’s go save your dearest one!”
“Yeah! Wai- hey! What are you trying to say?!”
Cadance smiled at the embarrassed mare, when she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned, and found Carnation’s crown whole again and resting on the table.
Aconita had turned away and was trotting off towards the door, her own crown back on her head.
“I suppose this is it for our cooperation,” Cadance said to her.
“Indeed,” Aconita said. “Don’t act so disappointed, princess. You got what you wanted, did you not? And so did I. That is all that matters.”
“What will you do next?” Cadance asked, then said, “Nevermind. You probably wouldn’t tell me, anyway.”
Aconita paused, then glanced over her shoulder. “You are correct. Besides, you will have enough to deal with besides monitoring me. Or have you forgotten already? The real culprits orchestrating these events are still at large. If I were you, I’d concern myself with them over me.”
Aconita turned, regarding Vanity. “Come. I have a wayward daughter to collect.” And together, they strode from the room without so much as a backward glance. The doors closed behind them, and they were gone.
Shining Armor glanced towards Cadance. “Do you really want to just let them leave? We’d probably be doing Equestria a service locking that one up.”
Cadance shook her head. “Aconita may not be on our side, but she’s not against us either. She does have a point, however. Whoever is behind all of this is still out there, and whatever their plan is, I don’t think it includes us bringing Applejack to her senses before she can do any damage.”
Hearing that, Rainbow turned away from Rarity’s teasing smile and looked towards Cadance. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s get going!”
“Hold on,” Shining Armor interrupted. “Aren’t we forgetting something?”
Everypony looked blankly back at him, much to his annoyance. “Twiley!” he said in exasperation. “She’s still in trouble!”
Rainbow smacked herself in the face. How could she have forgotten? Twilight was still in trouble. “Ugh, that’s right. And there’s no telling where she could be right now!”
Fluttershy fidgeted worriedly. “Oh, I hope she’s okay…”
Cadance, however, had a different opinion. “Actually, I think Twilight might be just fine,” she said.
Shining Armor rounded on her, a look of betrayal on his face. “What?! But she was foalnapped! How can she possibly be okay?!”
Cadance gave him a reassuring smile. “Two reasons. One, she gave herself up intentionally. That doesn’t sound like something Twilight would do if she didn’t have a contingency plan. And that brings us to reason number two: they took her to Canterlot.”
Shining Armor stared confusedly at her. “So what if they di—” And then it dawned on him. “Oh. Ooooh.”
Cadance smiled. “I get the feeling Twilight will be just fine. But for right now, we need to get moving, before whoever is behind this catches on to us. Lead the way, Rainbow; we’ve got a friend to save and an evil plot to foil!”
Twilight sat silently as the carriage trundled down familiar streets, now lit by streetlamps in the night. Periodically, the rays of passing lamps would illuminate the trio of huge stallions sitting across from her. Each one gave her a suspicious look, their weapons of choice laid out across their laps.
Twilight paid them no mind. She stayed politely quiet. The weight of the nullifying cuff on her horn bothered her, but she did not lift a hoof anywhere near it, for fear of what the thugs across from her would do.
But the longer her good manners persisted, the more her captors grew suspicious. Surely she had to be up to something, but the question was what. With that cuff around her horn, magic was impossible. And with those straps around her barrel and wings, flying was not an option either. Yet she continued to be so calm and collected.
All three stayed on high alert, ready for anything, until the carriage slowed to a stop at the side of the road. One of the thugs peered out through the curtains, then nodded. “Right. This is our stop, princess. Off you get. Any funny business and you’ll be buyin’ the farm if you know what I mean.”
“Of course,” Twilight said evenly. She hopped down from her seat and waited patiently as the lumbering oafs pushed the door open on one side. One stepped out, then motioned for her to follow. She did, even though one felt the need to push her for absolutely no reason. She threw him a reproachful look, then stepped out.
As she’d expected, she found herself standing in front of a grand old mansion. A towering hedgerow lined the whole property, obscuring her, her captors, and even their vehicle from prying eyes.
The drive itself was impressive. Flower beds lined the driveway, throwing splashes of brilliant color in every direction Twilight looked. Dead ahead, she found a fountain of a dancing pony, a jet of water erupting from its tilted back head.
“Come on,” one of the thugs grunted, shoving her from behind. “Best not to keep the boss waiting.”
Twilight didn’t say anything, and instead she started off up the drive. So far, everything was going the way she’d suspected it would. Really… after playing such a careful game, were these ponies really so stupid as to take her directly to the one in charge? She had to expect that there would be measures in place to make sure she didn’t get that information out. Perhaps they really would kill her. But she’d just have to cross that bridge when she got to it.
For the moment, what was most important to her was unmasking the villain behind so much pain and suffering. And if these idiots lead her right to that selfsame villain, who was she to complain?
In front of the mansion, she found still more guards. Not the kind adorned in armor, but rather the well-dressed sort in tuxedoes and dark sunglasses. Why they wore them at night, Twilight would never know.
They all watched her approach, none moving from their posts. Only Twilight’s ‘escort’ followed her.
Up the front steps she went, ignoring the eyes following her every move. She stayed focused on the elaborate front doors. And as she drew closer, they split open. And out stepped a familiar figure.
“So, it was you,” Twilight said as she approached.
She got a smile in return. “Deduced it, did you? As expected of the princess’s protégé! Ah, but where are my manners? come in! Come in! Make yourself at home!”
Bullion gave a wide, inviting smile. “You and I have much to talk about.”