• Published 26th Jan 2014
  • 4,493 Views, 513 Comments

The Heart of an Author - Oroboro



Mystery. Love. Magic. Murder. Truth. These are all important elements in the murder mystery Fluttershy has written, and is now asking Twilight to read. But she struggles to solve the mystery in which it turns out she's the protagonist.

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Chapter 14 - Shattered Hopes

The incessant ticking of the clock echoed through Twilight's ears as she sat in the lounge, her gaze distant.

Her heart was numb; it felt like a block of ice weighing down her chest. The world seemed to blur around her, as if she were viewing everything through a fishbowl. It all felt unreal. Any minute now, Rarity would appear out of nowhere, ready to explain how this was all just a cruel joke. They'd all scold her of course, something like that would be in poor taste, and in the end, all walk away having learned a valuable lesson about friendship.

But that was never going to happen, was it?

Rarity was dead. There was no denying it. She had seen her battered form with her own eyes, felt her cold and lifeless flesh beneath her hooves. Somepony had savagely beaten her to death, and if her medical knowledge was up to snuff, likely kept going after the fact, to the point where she was a barely recognizable mess.

Who could do such a thing? Who would do such a thing? Equestria was meant to be better than this...

Twilight shook her head to attempt to clear her thoughts, and then glanced up at the other occupants of the room. Pinkie Pie was curled up on the couch, not saying a word, and Rainbow Dash paced back and forth, her teeth clenched as she tried to hold back her tears.

Applejack and Fluttershy were in the next room over. Applejack had needed to be alone for a while, but Fluttershy was unassuming enough to keep an eye on her just in case while still giving her space. Sweet Celestia, Twilight couldn't even begin to imagine how Applejack must feel right now.

"Why..." Rainbow Dash muttered, her voice tinged with both anger and sorrow.

That was the question they were all wondering, right? But there was nopony around who could offer an answer.

"Twilight... you know something, right? You have to…"

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash, the pegasus's eyes brimming with tears. Of course. She was a princess, after all. She was the beacon in the darkness that everypony could count on when things were at their worst.

“Somepony murdered Rarity,” Twilight said flatly. Her own bluntness surprised her, but the part of her that could give empathy and understanding to a grieving friend seemed to be temporarily broken.

“Of course somepony murdered her!” Rainbow Dash snarled, wheeling on Twilight. “I don’t know what you saw in there, but it certainly wasn’t like she tripped and fell down the stairs! Why? How? Who!?”

Twilight lowered her gaze to the floor, shaking her head. “I don’t… I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t fight,” Pinkie Pie mumbled softly, her voice absent its usual volume.

Rainbow Dash deflated, sinking back into a chair. “You’re like, a detective, Twilight. A good one. Isn’t there anything? Even if it’s just a hunch? Point me in the direction of the pony I’m supposed to clobber.”

“I think Applejack gets first dibs on that,” Twilight muttered. A gnawing dread began to worm its way into her heart. She did have a hunch, of course, but the idea of even considering it was just preposterous.

The pony she had just seen go into a near catatonic shock when she discovered the corpse of her lover. The most honest and dependable pony she knew. One of her best friends.

The pony that had been fighting with Rarity just last night. The pony who got drunk and claimed to have a hazy memories of last nights proceedings. The pony who was more than strong enough to do something like that in a fit of rage. The pony who was most likely to be able to get into her lover’s room without a key.

Applejack.

The very idea of suspecting that one of her friends was capable of doing something so horrible made her sick to her stomach. But the possibility was still there, and it seemed like both a simple and rational explanation for it all.

But not everything added up. While the scene certainly resembled a crime of passion, the envelope switcheroo with the keys and the red paint on the door suggested some degree of premeditation. Indeed, why draw such explicit attention to the crime in the first place? The usual method would be to hide the body and cover it up, not flamboyantly announce it to the world. Was somepony trying to frame Applejack?

"The shield I put up last night..." Twilight said, breaking the long silence. "It's still intact, so that means nopony from the outside should have been able to enter the mansion."

"What if they were here before you put up the shield?" Rainbow Dash asked, raising an eyebrow.

Twilight nodded. "Technically possible. Though the idea that a strange pony has been hiding out here this whole time..."

"Can we confirm that real quick?" Twilight asked as she studied the board. "I'm confident in my own magic, but with the game you've set up I'd like to see that made official."

"That I can grant easily enough. You are quite talented after all, it's a reasonable assumption." Golden Wish leaned forward, once again casting her colorful brand of truth magic. "Nopony can pass through a magical barrier created by Twilight Sparkle without breaking it."

Twilight continued to stare at the board. "Hmm..."

Of course, there was that strange legend Fluttershy had told. And the letter she had received with the key had quoted a part of that grisly epitaph. Was there really a murderous alicorn spirit haunting the place? Or was that just what somepony wanted her to think?

There was of course, somepony else that seemed to play a large role in this, and Twilight needed to have a long talk with her once she could fully get her head on straight.

"Um, excuse me..." Fluttershy interrupted, poking her head in the door. "I'm going to take Applejack to see Princess Celestia. She really needs somepony to talk to."

Twilight frowned. The fact that Princess Celestia wasn't already down here with the rest of them was already rather strange. But she knew all too well that being a princess wasn't the same as being omnipotent. If nopony had told Celestia what had happened...

Twilight didn't have the heart to face her mentor just yet. "That should be fine, Fluttershy. Please ask that she come down once you guys are done, there's a lot we need to discuss."

Fluttershy nodded and turned to go, but Pinkie Pie stood up suddenly, moving towards the door on unsteady legs.

"Mind if I come too?" Pinkie Pie asked, trying to force a pained smile.

Fluttershy nodded and she pushed the door open further. Twilight could see Applejack standing behind it, looking like she was already dead. Her heart tore open anew as she watched the three of them head off down the hallway.

"What now?" Rainbow Dash asked once they were all out of sight. "Does anything even matter at this point?"

Such a defeatist question was certainly unhealthy, but Twilight found herself echoing that sentiment. What was even left at this point? Revenge? Justice? Closure? Whatever path still lied ahead of them, their happy lives had been irrevocably shattered by an act of wanton cruelty, and nothing she could do would put all the pieces back together again.

But still, she had to do something.

"Rainbow Dash, what do you know about the legend of Golden Wish?"

Rainbow Dash blinked, raising an eyebrow. "That story Fluttershy told last night? I heard what you heard, so that's about it. Do you really think it has something to do with...?"

Twilight shook her head. A strange legend, a creepy portrait, a grisly epitaph, and what Applejack had confessed last night. It all seemed to add up to something... But just what sort of nightmarish fantasy had they all found themselves a part of?


Fluttershy stood outside of the door to Celestia and Luna's room. Compared to the last time she had visited, the engraved wood exuded a far more intimidating aura, and she felt herself shiver involuntarily.

"Fluttershy..." Applejack mumbled, pulling her hat down over her eyes. "I know what we talked about and all, but I just don't think I can go through with this right now."

"Come on, now, Applejack!" Pinkie Pie said, perking up visibly. "It's just Princess Celestia and Luna. We both know they aren't that scary!"

Applejack shook her head, glancing at Fluttershy as an odd expression crossed her face. "It just doesn’t make any sense…”

"Dealing with this... for all of us..." Fluttershy trailed off, swallowing and squeezing her eyes shut. She scrunched her face as if she was trying to avoid losing her breakfast. "Princess Celestia will have an answer. She has to."

Pinkie Pie nodded vigorously. "She always does! Except for all those times she doesn't, I guess."

Applejack let out a sigh. “Fine.”

Taking a deep breath, Fluttershy reached up and knocked on the door. "Um, Princess Celestia? Can we come in? It's an emergency."

A long silence passed without a response and Fluttershy had begun to reach for her spare key when she finally heard a voice call out from inside.

"The three of you may enter."

The voiced sounded muffled and unfamiliar. Fluttershy glanced back towards the others and frowned. With a shrug, she turned, opened the door, and entered the large study.

None of the lamps in the room were lit, and the room felt still. Fluttershy stepped forward hesitantly towards two dark shapes in the corner. "Um, Princess? Is that you?"

The shapes moved forward, and Celestia and Luna stepped out of the shadows. The two sisters stared forward with blank, uncomprehending eyes, their movements were slow and jerky.

Pinkie Pie shivered violently, her hair standing on end. "Uh, girls? We should probably go."

"Now now, why are you all in such hurry to leave? You only just got here.”

A voice filled with a sweet poison echoed across the room, causing the three mares to take a step back. Golden lights began to fall like snow from the ceiling; only a few at first, but the room was quickly ablaze with a flurry of glimmering motes which coalesced into the shape of an alicorn that stood in between them and the doorway.

“It’s… you’re…” Applejack stared up at the figure looming over them, her body trembling.

“Applejack!” Golden Wish exclaimed cheerfully. “It’s been ages, how have you been? Have you been enjoying my gift?”

Applejack closed her eyes, shaking her head and muttering to herself. “This isn’t real. I didn’t… It can’t be.”

Pinkie Pie leaned in uncomfortably close to Golden Wish, staring her down. “And just who are you supposed to be, hmm?”

Golden Wish threw back her head and chuckled jovially. “You’re right, I suppose introductions are in order. I am known as Golden Wish. Master of this mansion and the arbiter of your fates.”

“You’re not… Rarity… I didn’t…” Applejack sunk down to the floor, covering her head with her hooves.

“You. What did you do to the princesses?” Fluttershy asked, her voice quiet but firm.

Golden Wish looked down to regard Fluttershy, her smile turning sour. “Ohoh. You should really mind your manners when addressing one such as me, little mare. As for the princesses, I’ve decided that the roles they were playing in this story weren't suiting me, so I’ll be re-purposing them soon enough.”

“Hey! Nopony talks to Fluttershy that way!” Pinkie Pie said, growling as she stepped in front of Fluttershy. “Why I oughta go get Twilight and—”

“Twilight?” Golden Wish snorted derisively. “Don’t make me laugh. Just what could your precious princess do to stop me even if she were here? Isn’t that right, Twilight?”

Golden Wish turned her head towards the ceiling, as if she were addressing something none of them were aware of.

Pinkie Pie narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like you.”

“Rarity.” Applejack said, standing up slowly. “My wish, for Rarity, a chance, a happy life. Now that’s gone.”

Golden Wish turned to Applejack, her smile returning. “And I’m very sorry for your loss. Tragic, that. I’m afraid my gifts don’t come with a ‘nothing bad will happen’ guarantee.”

Applejack shook her head, tears beginning to stream down her face. “Right now… I don’t even care if you’re the one who did it. I just… want her back. Give me my Rarity back. I’ll give anything.”

“Applejack…” Fluttershy said softly, turning to her friend with wide eyes.

Golden Wish’s smile turned cruel as her eyes began to sparkle. “Well well. Such a thing would be within my power. But if love must be born in blood, what do you think life costs?”

Applejack went pale and averted her eyes.

"Of course, I'm generous to loyal customers, so I'll give you a two for one special. I'll leave the choice up to you."

Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie glanced to each other, back towards Celestia and Luna, the two still staring forward aimlessly, then back to Applejack, who looked as if she were about to throw up.

"So what you're trying to tell me..." Applejack shuddered, swallowing involuntarily. "If I want Rar back, I have to sacrifice two of my friends."

Fluttershy shook her head, tears brimming in her eyes. "If it would bring Rarity back, I would gladly... But Applejack, how do you think she would feel about it?"

Applejack bit her lip, cursing under her breath. "Why would you even ask something like that of me... What kind of monster are you?"

The surrounding air grew icy as Golden Wish narrowed her eyes. "You should choose your next words carefully. My gifts are only available to those who offer the proper respect."

With a pained glance, Applejack turned to her friends, offering up a weak smile. "Sorry, you girls."

Pinkie Pie returned a large grin, her eyes wet with tears. "It's okay, Applejack! We understand."

Applejack spun to face Golden Wish, lowering her head to the floor. "Sorry for any disrespect. I want what you have to offer. Nothing would make me happier to see her smile again. But I can't pay your price. The lives of my friends aren't mine to give."

Raising her head, Applejack met her gaze, eyes burning with determination. "But I'll offer you all I have. My body, my friendship, my love. Erase every scrap of me from this world if you must."

Golden Wish stared at Applejack in silence for a long moment, her expression flat. "You offer not your life, but memories of you as well. Rarity would come back, not to you, but to an empty hole in her heart and no knowledge of how it got there."

"It's the fairest trade I can rightly offer, and is probably what I deserve, besides."

With a long sigh, Golden Wish raised a hoof to her forehead. "That... would be equivalent. You surprise me, Applejack. I was expecting another decision made selfishly. This puts me in a tight spot."

"We'll miss you," Fluttershy said softly, placing a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "But I trust that you know the right thing to do."

Golden Wish sighed again, shaking her head. "You've really sucked the fun out of all this, and I hate to say it, but I'll have to refuse your offer."

Applejack blinked, taking a step back. "What do you mean you refuse? You said it’s an equivalent trade, right?"

Closing her eyes, Golden Wish lit up her horn, a golden glow shimmering across the room. "It's more than a reasonable offer. In another circumstance, I would probably accept it. But I'm afraid that's just not how this story is written."

"You're not making any sense!" Pinkie Pie said, her voice a low growl.

"A tragic heroine, sacrificing herself to bring a loved one back from the dead. It's got a certain poignant resonance to it."

Golden Wish looked up, her eyes ablaze as her face contorted into a twisted sneer and her magic pulsed across the room. "But this story is about selfish fools and the poor choices they've made, and those who suffer because of it. If you refuse to stick to the script, that's fine, but..."

The light from her horn began to shift and discolor, coalescing into twisted shadows that vaguely resembled the shape of ponies.

"The ending won't change!"

"You rotten snake!" Applejack snarled as she backed away from the shadows closing in around them. "You never planned on granting me anything from the start, did you!?"

Golden Wish threw back her head and laughed, her cackle echoing off the walls. "Guilty as charged. Oh, but watching you squirm is so much fun!"

Fluttershy stared, face to face with the shadow before her, the burning embers of its eyes reflecting off her own. "You're nothing more than a bully," she said, addressing the alicorn without taking her eyes from the predator before her. "About as sophisticated as a little filly on the playground who offers something in mock friendship only to snatch it away and laugh at their own cleverness."

"Maybe you're right!" Golden Wish said, her twisted grin seeming to grow impossibly wide as the shadows shifted around her. "We all play the parts written out for us. You should know that all too well, my dear, sweet, timid little Fluttershy!"

The shadows pressed in ever closer, and the girls backed into each other, nowhere left to go.

Applejack's eyes darted fiercely across the room, trying to take in every minute detail. "I don't know about you girls, but if this is what we're dealing with, I don't think I'll be throwing my life away after all."

"That's right!" Pinkie Pie said, crouching low. "Let's show this meanie just who she's messing with!"

Golden Wish raised a hoof. "Kill them. And make it messy. Twilight will have quite the sight when she discovers this crime scene!”

The shadows pounced, and the three ponies sprang into action. With a terrified shriek, Fluttershy sprang up into the air to hover at the top of the ceiling. Applejack and Pinkie Pie planted themselves and twisted to buck their hooves out in opposite directions.

With a sickening crunch, their hooves met the bodies of the leaping shadows and sent them sprawling across the room. The pair of earth ponies were able to dash through the holes created by their counter-offensive to opposite sides of the room to avoid being surrounded.

"Fluttershy, the curtains!" Applejack cried out as she rolled away from the swipe of what seemed to be a shadowy claw. One wrong move and that thing would tear her open, spilling herself all across the floor.

Fluttershy dashed over to the windows, hoping fervently she had correctly interpreted Applejack's meaning. She used her teeth to pull loose the long braided cord that served as a drawstring for the curtains.

One of the creatures took notice, sprouting wings and charging upwards at Fluttershy with a whistling howl. Its fangs glinted in the golden light cast by the shimmering motes. Fluttershy screamed and dropped to the ground, wings clamping tightly to her sides. The impact was hard, but she managed to roll over in time to see the creature diving straight for her.

“Fluttershy!” Pinkie Pie cried out as she leaped forward to tackle the winged shadow in midair. Her momentum slammed the beast into the ground, and after standing, brought her hooves and her full body weight down on its prone form before leaping back to a safe distance.

“You okay?” Pinkie Pie asked, smiling weakly.

“PInkie Pie, you’re…” Fluttershy trailed off, her eyes drawn to the streak of red across Pinkie’s flank.

“A little help over here!” Applejack barked through clenched teeth. Pushed back into a corner by two of the shadows, she seemed to be fighting a losing battle. Swinging a long hat-rack at the advancing creatures, she desperately tried to keep them at bay.

Summoning what scraps of courage she still had left, Fluttershy quickly gathered the rope she had dropped and took to the air. She made a pass over Applejack’s position and tossed the coil of rope to her. “Here, catch!”

Applejack threw the hat-rack at the shadows and leapt over them, catching the rope in her teeth. She charged across to the other side of the room, working on fashioning a makeshift lasso as quickly as she could. When she finished, she spun around to take stock of the situation. Three shadows were still standing, and they were advancing on her friends.

Pinkie Pie stumbled, her back hoof wet with blood. The shadows sensed their chance and prepared to pounce on the retreating pony, but Fluttershy swooped down to land in between them and unleashed her fiercest stare.

“I won’t let you hurt her!”

The beasts balked under her intimidating gaze, but their killing intent was true, and they snarled and began to advance again.

"Ain't gonna be no more of that!" Applejack cried as she took advantage of the brief distraction to throw her lasso. It caught around all three of the shadows, and she pulled it tight. The entrapped creatures howled in protest, but Applejack grabbed the rope and dragged them out into the hallway. The sounds of a well placed buck and of a bundle of shadows tumbling down the stairs were like music to her ears.

“Phew. Your pets ain’t so tough,” Applejack said, wiping the sweat from her brow. With a fierce scowl she turned from the hallway and addressed the room. “Now listen here, missy. You and I are going to have a long discussion on what happened to Rarity and what you’re going to do about it, but this time it’s going to be on my—”

The door slammed in Applejack’s face, enveloped in a golden glow. She heard the key turn in the lock with a loud thunk.

“Whoops,” Golden Wish said, pulling the key back out and floating it in front of her. “You can stay out there for a while. In truth, I only wanted to deal with these two, anyway.”

“Hey! Open this door!” Loud, repeated thumps came from the outside of the door as Applejack tried to buck it open, but the sturdy wood didn’t want to budge.

“Oh, this belongs to you. I hope you don’t mind if I borrowed it,” Golden Wish said sweetly, reaching out with her magic and tucking the key into Fluttershy’s mane.

Fluttershy swallowed and backed away. If the danger before had been an adrenaline filled fight for her life, the danger that surrounded her now now felt like an icy, cruel inevitability that was closing slowly around her heart. “Applejack,” she muttered weakly through the door, “go get Twilight. Quickly!”

“But I can’t leave you two! Not like this!”

Golden Wish threw back her head and cackled wildly. “Yes, Applejack! Go get your precious Twilight Sparkle. Maybe she’ll be able to stop me in time! Better hurry though, I work fast!”

With a curse that was halfway a choking sob, Applejack galloped off down the hallway, leaving the others to their fate.

“Now then, she was right. Those pets were pretty useless. Fortunately, I have the perfect replacements in mind,” Golden Wish said, her gaze falling on the two princesses, still standing motionless in the corner.

Pinkie Pie stood up tall, her legs wobbling but her eyes defiant. “I’m not scared of you.”

Golden Wish snorted, then closed her eyes and focused her magic, her horn glowing blindingly bright. “You may wish to reconsider that in a moment. There’s still room for this dance to get even crazier, so lets introduce some new characters!”

Dark smoke began to twist and rise around the two princesses, obscuring them from view. Golden Wish’s horn grew even brighter as she scrunched up her face in concentration, sweat dripping down her brow.

With a deafening boom, a corona of magic exploded across the room, knocking both Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie to the ground.

As the smoke cleared, Fluttershy stood back up, her mouth falling open as her eyes fell upon the princesses.

No. The ponies that stood there were not the princesses. In their place were two white unicorns, one whose mane and tail seemed to be ablaze, the other's radiating an aura of ice and snow.

“We live to serve you, master,” the two said in unison, bowing low.

“It’s perfect!” Golden Wish said, giggling. “What do you think, everypony? I’ve replaced those boring, useless sisters with creations of my very own. Why don’t you introduce yourselves? You should get to know the ponies that are about to kill you, right?”

“I’m Flauros! It’s nice to meet you two!”

“... Cryos”

The two unicorns fired up their horns, their auras flaring up and bathing the room in a chaotic mix of heat and cold.

“Well, then,” Golden Wish said, turning to face her victims once more. “Do you have anything else you’d like to add before we finish this?”

Pinkie Pie giggled, shaking her head as she leaned on a nearby table for support. “I feel sorry for you.”

Golden Wish narrowed her eyes. “What.”

“You sure like to laugh a lot, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work! Laughter is something to be shared with friends, with family, with the ponies you love. A cruel laugh at another’s expense might feel good for a while, but it’s just a hollow, fleeting thing. True laughter stays in your heart, and will keep you warm no matter how dark and cold things get.”

Golden Wish snorted, her nostrils flaring. “You’re just trying to stall until Twilight gets here, aren’t you? For your insolence, you get to die second! Flauros!”

“Yippie!” Flauros cried out, jumping into the air. With a wicked glint in her eyes, a spiraling flame shot up her horn and she reared back, firing a massive cone of flames straight towards Fluttershy.

Fluttershy screamed, and Pinkie sprung into action, far quicker than her wounded state should have allowed. She kicked the wooden table up into the air, grabbing it and throwing it and herself in front of Fluttershy, using the table as a shield.

Wood was a poor defense against the might of fire, and the heat licked around at both ponies. Fluttershy crouched low, coughing as the smoke began to pour around them, and Pinkie Pie stood firm, braced against the infernal onslaught.

“Does it matter?” Pinkie Pie asked, shouting loud enough to be heard over the roaring flames. “Even if you get what you want, do you think you’ll be happy, if you do it like this? Does your future hold real laughter? True laughter? Or will your heart be as empty as this room will be once you’re done with us? I know I can’t stop you. And even if Twilight figures things out afterwards… what do you think the result would be?”

“Pinkie…” Fluttershy said, her eyes wide as she looked up at the pony defending her. The flames slowly died down to a trickle before stopping, and Pinkie Pie sagged, the table falling outward and cracking in two as it continued to burn.

Pinkie Pie sunk to her knees, panting heavily. “It’s okay, Fluttershy. It won’t be that big of a deal in the end, right? Even if it has to be like this, can I at least get one last smile before I go?”

Fluttershy nodded, her eyes brimming with tears, and she forced herself to smile for her friend.

A blast of icy magic struck Pinkie Pie from across the room, and Pinkie’s final expression was made eternal.

“Not so funny now, is it!” Golden Wish sneered, her face an ugly mask of glee. “And now for you, you self-pitying little twit. It sure was brave, how your friend stepped up to save you like that. Isn’t that always how it goes? Poor, weak little Fluttershy. Everypony is always there to step up and give you a hoof, because you can’t stand up for yourself.”

Fluttershy shook her head, backing away slowly. “I can’t stand up to you. Nopony can, you’ve made that perfectly clear. But just because I don’t have the power to stop you doesn’t mean my heart is weak.”

Standing up as tall as she could Fluttershy spread her wings and looked Golden Wish directly in the eyes. “Do your worst.”

“Tch.” Golden Wish spat on the ground. “You ponies make it awfully hard to get in good one liners. Very well. Maybe your ever vaunted ‘kindness’ will bring you truth in death.”

Golden Wish raised her hoof. “Flauros.”

There was the hum of magic, the roar of fire, a scream, and then silence.

Twilight stared forward, her eyes distant, and her heart an empty void.

“Well! That was quite a show, don’t you agree? Your friends certainly are a feisty bunch. Oh, but doesn’t that throw a wrench into this mystery, hmm? What could you have possibly just witnessed? How can this all be explained? Go on, Twilight, give it a shot!”

Twilight bit her lip and looked away.

Golden Wish frowned, the annoyance plain on her face. “Hey… I’m talking to you. Your friends just got murdered horribly. Pretty good fight scene though, right? Don’t you have anything to say? Maybe more threats, or swearing revenge?”

Twilight shook her head, and kept her gaze low.

“Tch…”

The door burst open with a loud bang, and Applejack rushed into the lounge, panting heavily. “Twilight, you gotta…”

“Applejack? What’s going on? Where are the others?” Twilight asked, leaping up from her seat. Applejack looked even more ragged than before, and her eyes and voice both seemed hollow and devoid of life and hope.

Applejack shook her head, clearing her throat. “Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. They’re…” Applejack paused to swallow, closing her eyes. “They’re in danger.”

No.

“Where!?” Twilight and Rainbow Dash both called out at the same time.

Applejack took a deep breath, shuddering slightly. “Princess Celestia’s study. Ain’t much time before…”

Twilight teleported immediately, wasting no time. Her friends were in danger. Still reeling from the loss of one, was this tragedy about to multiply? But what could possibly be…

Trying the door, Twilight found it locked, and she banged on it loudly. “Fluttershy! Pinkie Pie! Are you okay? Say something!”

Just a few hours ago she had been doing the same thing with Rarity. The nightmare that had awaited her then… did she even want to open this door?

There was no response, and Twilight fired up her horn. She wasn’t going to waste her time with keys. She could feel the door resisting her power, it must have been enchanted. But she was an alicorn princess, and she wasn’t about to let a bit of wood stop her. She doubled her strength, and as the mansion groaned in protest, she tore the entire door frame from the wall, dust and splinters showering the area.

The smell of smoke assaulted her and Twilight paused, coughing as dust blew up around her before she leapt inside, ready to face whatever was waiting for her.

Which turned out to be nothing. At least, she didn’t see any ponies. The carpet squished under her hooves as she walked forward, bewildered. The wall and the floor were scorched with flame, and a burnt table lay in pieces. She could smell the ash and char, but everything was damp, as if somepony had extinguished the fire with a lot of water. Small piles of ash were scattered about, as well as some bits of melted metal.

“Princess Celestia? Princess Luna?” Twilight called out. The study was otherwise pretty sparse. Twilight poked her head into the adjoining bedrooms and bathroom, but saw no sign of any ponies, nor any sign of the destruction that had wrecked the main study.

“Is this even the right place…?” Twilight wondered out loud.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash called out, zooming in through the door. She skidded to a halt as she noticed the burnt room. “What in Equestria? Where are the others?”

Twilight shook her head. “I don’t know. This was all I found when I got here.”

“There,” Golden Wish said, tapping her hoof on the table. “All the pieces are set up. Are you ready for round two?”

Twilight lowered her head, staying silent.

After a minute Golden Wish let out a sigh. “If you’re going to just give up, that’s fine, but there can’t be a game unless both players play.”

“You…” Twilight muttered softly.

“Oh? What about me?”

“Who are you, really? What’s the real purpose of this game? Why are you doing this? Why are you showing me this? Why am I here? Do you even know? Can you even tell me?

“Who are you?”

Author's Note:

Thanks to Kalan, JeffCvt, and Sereg for editing!

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