• Published 31st Mar 2012
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This Platinum Crown - Capn_Chryssalid



Only one mare can claim the Platinum Crown of Canterlot.

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Chapter Seven : To Go So Far

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(7)

To Go So Far

- - -

"Now, correct me if ah'm wrong," Applejack dryly observed, watching as Rarity bolted away from her supposed duel. "But is she high tailin' it outta here? It ain't just me, right?"

"Is she allowed to DO that?" Rainbow Dash scratched her mane in confusion. "That can't be legal. Can it? You can't race outside the bounds of the course!"

"Wow." Fluttershy was still following her friend as she left the courtyard entirely, escaping into the ruined section of the Everfree castle. "She's fast. Look at her go."

"Isn't there a ref?" Dash continued, still confused. "Some kinda rule keeper or somethin'?"

"Oooo!" Pinkie Pie bounced in place, her excitement making it all but impossible to remain still. "Monee looks really mad."

Twilight coughed into a hoof to get their attention.

"As a matter of fact," she explained, "it is not against the rules. Once the duel begins, there is no limit on the distance at which to fight, or how to fight, or how long you take to fight. All unicorns begin the duel on the same hoofing, with no armor or weapons, but after that literally anything goes. The only restriction is that one duelist must not physically touch the other with their own body."

"But she just ran away!" Dash objected, gesturing towards the field of battle hard enough to nearly knock the unicorn-mask off her face. Said field of battle now had only one occupant: a surprised and confused looking Lady Antimony. The Baroness' mood, however, was quickly shifting from confusion and surprise towards indignation and anger.

"H - how dare you!" she finally snarled, galloping after her opponent and into the castle ruins. "Get back here this instant!"

The five Elements of Harmony present watched her go, unable to follow. Soon both the Baroness and her fashionable quarry were out of sight, lost amid the tangle of ruins that had once been Celestia and Luna's bastion in the Everfree. All was quiet... for about three seconds. Then the crowd of Ponyville tailgaters let out a collective groan of anger and disappointment, their promised entertainment for the evening - and the reason for their long excursion through a wild forest - now robbed of them.

"Uh-oh. We're losing the crowd." Pinkie Pie glanced back at the ponies that had followed her through the forest. It was her party after all, and if a party went south, ponies tended to pick on the poor party planner.

"I guess there's no avoiding it," she decided, fishing a microphone out of her curly mane. "I'll have to buy some time with my standup comedy routine."

"Oh, good!" Dash hung her head with a sigh. "I'd hoped to end the night with an angry riot followed by a stampede."

"Um, is this alright, Twilight?" Fluttershy asked, eyes still on the castle and worry in her voice.

"Everypony just sit still and wait!" Twilight raised her voice, causing Dash - and Pinkie, who she had been trying to stop from putting on an emergency one-mare show - to stop and turn to her.

"Running into the castle like that. It's actually a really good idea!" The librarian continued, eyes narrowing at the sprawling rubble and foundations that had once been a royal palace. Pointedly, Princess Luna, the towering projection of Duke Cruciger, and the one unmasked Terre Rare Mage-guard were all focused on the castle.

"Rarity can't teleport, but Lady Antimony can," Twilight reminded them. "She's also outclassed when it comes to illusions, experience, and even raw power. Running into the castle ruins breaks line of sight and gives her a chance to catch Antimony by surprise. It also limits how freely she can teleport."

"So this is a good thing!" Applejack smirked and yelled towards the castle, "Quick thinkin' sugarcube! Go get 'em!"

"The downside being..." Twilight added, as her friends gave her a concerned look. "If she gets in over her head, or if she gets hurt, then she's all alone."

- - -

Sweet merciful Celestia, what was she doing?!

Rarity could hear the pounding of her heart in her chest as she rounded the corner at the top of the stone staircase, ducking into a low crouch to better sneak out of sight. It could well have been adrenalin, or even her imagination, or more likely some combination of the two, but she could have sworn the old castle ruins had appeared far less creepy and imposing from the outside. Her ears twitched at the sounds of creaks and groans from the crumbling masonry, the howling, hissing wild blowing in from collapsed ceilings and broken windows. The ground was littered with fallen chandeliers, shards of glass and twisted loops of rusted iron.

The duel simply had to be at dusk, didn't it? What other time of day could fill the ancient palace with a menagerie of lengthening shadows like the stripes of a zebra, etching across bare surfaces of stone and chipped plaster. The thought of that same stone between her and her opponent failed to provide much sense of comfort, not after seeing Antimony project an ordinary cupcake - straight out of Sugarcube Corner - through a bloody pillar and out the other side.

Rarity closed her eyes, took a quiet breath, and focused.

Behind her eyelids, she could see Antimony's feat, no doubt made with the calculated intention of cowing the noblemare's opponent. She recalled the spin of the cupcakes: clockwise. Were they all spinning in that direction? Rarity knew she had a good memory and an eye for detail. Normally this was directed towards fashion and her boutique. This time it would help her hold her own. Ideally.

Yes: clockwise. All five had been moving clockwise. Antimony had also orbited them around her clockwise. Most likely, her magic also projected more strongly to the right than to the left. Just as a pony could be left-hooved or right-hooved, unicorn horns were also oriented to spiral left or right. This had subtle effects on magic, even Rarity's own. She filed that observation away.

Next.

Breathing calmly, she played back Antimony's killer cupcake trick. The spinning must have meant to impart energy to the projectile without actually moving it in any direction. Speeding up while staying still. Twilight's lesson came back, as did images of her fellow unicorn using teleportation and momentum to increase her speed. Was Antimony that good? It was an unknown factor. She would have to test it to be sure.

Next.

Antimony had demonstrated the power of her enchantment spells back in Ponyville. She had turned little Scootaloo's feather into a razor blade. She had given a hardcover textbook the weight of a soap bubble.

"Should I wish it," she had explained. "A feather can become as heavy as an anvil. A pillar of stone can become as malleable as jelly. Water can be as hard as glass. Straw as slippery as oil."

The cupcake. It had been turned diamond hard. The duel was not yet à outrance. She wouldn't use it against her, punching holes in her body, even if given the chance. To kill an opponent in the initially harmless first phase of a magical duel was dishonorable. At the same time, she could use the cupcakes to demolish or destroy anything used as a barrier. To disarm Antimony, to have a chance of beating her, Rarity knew she needed some sort of counter to that combination of enchantment and raw power.

Creeping along, Rarity grimaced at the dust on her hooves and coat. Even if she escaped the humiliation of defeat-via-pastry, she would not emerge from this contest unscathed. It was doomed to be a dirty affair the moment she ran into the castle ruins.

Edging closer to a broken pane of glass, part of what had once been a magnificent stained glass window, she discarded two more fragments of crystal before finding one just the right size and color. Applying a little transformative magic, Rarity imagined the end result. Her transformation spells were peculiar and finicky, based on her desires and impressions. Most importantly, she could only make something that she felt looked more appealing than it had been before. She could easily turn a block of wood into a pony sculpture, but it was much harder to a wooden sculpture into a block of wood, for example.

It was not exactly the best skill for making a weapon or tool.

Still: this time it worked out. She only needed to turn the glass into a mirror. With a poof of displaced air, Rarity soon had a small rectangular mirror with a delicate iron handle. Moving quickly and quietly away from the window, she paused only to collect a few more pieces of glass, wrapping them in a magical field with the glow toned down to minimum. Her skill with magic also included crystals of all sorts, together with fabric.

Peeking around a corner on the second level of the castle's dilapidated foyer, she tried to catch sight of her opponent. Lady Antimony must have entered by now. Rarity had rather suspected that the more experienced duelist would expect that she was laying some sort of trap. Yet, it perhaps would have been expecting too much for the noblemare to blunder inside, hooves clattering and voice taunting.

No: instead, Antimony would be stalking, quietly.

Rarity moved into a long bath of shadow behind one of the hall's eight huge pillars, reaching from floor to collapsed ceiling. Ears twitched, hearing the wind, but nothing else. Rarity's five cupcakes still floated close by, each one faintly colored by her magic. Familiar colors. Colors that faded as she tried to remain unseen. The glow was comforting, almost as if her friends were somehow still along side her, helping in what ways they could. In fact: they were with her. In spirit, if not in body. Comforted and emboldened, she took another peek around a corner.

Was it possible Antimony simply hadn't followed her?

Was it possible she was still outside, in the old palace courtyard, waiting?

Rarity shook her head, not believing it. Lady Antimony was patient, but the impression she had given before was not of a mare who would stand idly by. She would follow. She had followed. She was out there, somewhere, in the growing darkness of the setting sun. Rarity scanned the long dark room, craning her neck to better get a look around the foyer.

A pair of glowing eyes stood out within a pool of darkness.

A second later, and the pillar shattered, spraying Rarity with rubble as something fast and spinning drilled effortlessly through thousand year old masonry. Throwing herself to the floor and rolling - ignoring the dust that now covered her mane as well - Rarity heard a whirring, droning sound as two more spinning killer cupcakes slashed blindly at the pillar and the floor. A cloud of dust kicked up, and the fashion designer had to squint to keep it out of her eyes.

'She's coming!'

There was a deafening crash as four hooves cracked the floor, heralding the arrival of Rarity's opponent. One of her hind legs was tucked in, as she landed too close to the old stone railing. Muscles tensed, and the railing broke, Antimony's hoof slamming down hard. Her eyes were still glowing, like two red lanterns in the darkness, the pupils barely even visible.

Rarity scrambled, instincts kicking in. She had seen her beautiful and slothful cat, Opalescence, once turn into a ferocious killer at the sight of a toy mouse. Something in the shape alone had gotten to her head, turning finicky house cat into cold blooded killer. She had ripped the toy mouse to pieces, to Rarity's shock. She had to fight not to look into those glowing eyes. Not even for an instant. Making eye contact with Lady Antimony would be as good as giving up.

Back on all fours, she rounded the balcony and jumped straight down to the lower level, twisting as another screaming cupcake missile curved to follow her. It came close to hitting as she ducked behind another huge beam... but swerved rather than flow through. Rarity didn't miss seeing it. The cake floated in the air, not spinning, before slowly starting up again.

There was no time to be thankful for testing her theory.

A burst of magic engulfed her tail like a vice. Twilight's training kicked in, and Rarity reasserted her control over her body. The magic struggled to hold, but lost cohesion. A few hairs drifted in the air as Rarity tore free, spinning around as she emerged from behind one pillar and on her way to the next. Her horn glowed with effort as she lifted a dozen pieces of debris from a dozen fallen chandeliers and hurled it all upwards at the second floor of the foyer, where she could see Antimony's glowing eyes peering down at her.

A pair of buzzing missiles and a blast of overpowering force intercepted the swarm of bent iron and faded crystal, effortlessly smashing it apart. Another two continued to pursue the fleeing mare from Ponyville, blowing holes in the floor and walls as they tried to flush her out into the open. Antimony could only either use them to destroy the obstacles or to actually hit her opponent - where they needed to splatter, not punch through - not both. No doubt she had designed this move to the defeat 'blocker' type duelists Twilight had described.

So she upped the ante.

Each flying cupcake missile suddenly became two, then four and then EIGHT missiles.

Rarity braced herself, a veritable swarm of incoming cupcakes hovering overhead. As one, they began to slowly spin. There was barely enough time to clear her throat, tense her legs, and utter two words: "Oh dear."

Sixteen of them angled in for the kill.

But - but not all of them were real.

Rarity's eyes tried to track them as she began to run, but then she corrected her mistake. Twilight had drilled it into her with tennis balls: she could not use, could not trust, could not rely on her eyes in a fight with Lady Antimony. So, with nothing to lose, Rarity tore her eyes away from the incoming hailstorm and reacted purely on instinct, letting her magic guide her movement and her reactions.

Four incorporeal cupcakes tore through her body, one passing into her at the left flank, one at the right rear hock, one the chest, and one the side of her face. She ignored them, raised a hoof as she spun in midair, her horn burning bright and hot. An angled telekinetic field deflected the only real cupcake in the barrage, altering it's course just enough that it whizzed by and missed her ear. Even then, only because she flattened her ears at the last half second.

"Ooooh?' Antimony finally broke her silence, still perched atop the broken railing on the second floor. "Was that a fluke, or do you really have some skill?"

Eight more cupcakes screamed as they flew by, whipping around and mixing with sixteen more, moving out of formation and into wild, erratic zig-zag paths. Rarity gritted her teeth as she rolled past another of the castle's foyer pillars, the sound of buzzing and smashing stone surrounding her. Some cupcakes - distractions - were pulverizing the once beautiful colonnades and the faded decorative trumeau around them. Others were moving in, and a few were swooping slowly and dramatically.

Rarity's magical senses screamed a warning: feeling the intrusion into her personal space of another unicorn's power. The image of tennis balls, not one, but all five of her friend's attempted coordinated strikes, hit a trained nerve. They were converging in on her from all sides, and Antimony was too strong...! She could possibly deflect one when it wasn't diamond-enchanted, but -

Rarity's blue eyes widened as an insane thought offered some small chance of escape.

Jumping and flipping her tail, hard, she avoided the two missiles from below. Catching her tail on the lip of a broken stone vase, she then pulled herself down, hard, avoiding the one from above. That left only two, coming in from the left and right. Watching intently, Antimony smirked, knowing she had her opponent trapped. There was no physical way the younger unicorn mare could escape, no matter her acrobatics.

Rarity held out her hooves.

The cupcakes hit - but didn't splatter. It wasn't a victory by virtue of humiliation unless the pastries actually broke on contact and splattered the opponent's actual coat, no matter how little. Annoyed and confused, Antimony's horn glowed, just a bit, and she pushed them harder. Forced onto her hind legs, Rarity's hooves skidded roughly off the floor and her back slammed into the wall. She still had her front legs out, hooves up and stopping the cupcake missiles.

"How are you...?" Antimony began, and narrowed her eyes.

The leading edge of each cupcake was still hard. Too hard to break on contact. Diamond hard.

And covering Rarity's hooves were glass slippers, the crystal enhanced and made gemstone hard. Not only had she transmuted crystal into protection for her hooves, she had triggered the diamond-based spell Antimony had been turning on and off in her own weapons. It was not the most elegant solution, a point driven home when the two cupcakes began to spin more fiercely. Rarity's legs quivered in strain.

"You're actually much stronger than you look," the Baroness commented with a sinister chuckle. "I don't terribly mind breaking your legs if you insist on using them like that. Maybe you should stop?"

The force behind the killer cupcakes doubled, and then tripled.

Rarity's legs buckled and she cried out, but falling back, she also pushed the missiles into the wall behind her. The pair crashed into the stone, sending spiderweb cracks spreading in every direction. A thick cloud of dust fell, shrouding the area. By the time two more spinning cupcake missiles swept down, slicing into and dispersing the cover, their victim was gone.

Still standing on the second floor of the foyer, Lady Antimony huffed.

"She's quick." The noblemare slowly looked around the vacated foyer. "How annoying."

Jumping down, the Baroness pursued.

- - -

Soarin glanced up at the wreck of the Princess Hesperus' flight balloon and tried to imagine how it would have looked just a day earlier, cruising through the sky. Zeppelins were awkward compared to a pegasus, of course, but then even an enchanted chariot could only carry so much. Large airships were a commercial necessity and some of them were actually graceful in a 'flying whale' sort of way. The Princess Hesperus must have looked pretty cool once, the bits of gold glittering in the sun flanked by heraldic streamers and stylized patterns etched into the envelope.

It was just a deflated mess now.

Shaking his head at the loss, he went back to work. The Vice-Captain wanted an independent search of the starboard underside of the airship, where it met the underslung cabin section. Needless to say, what the Vice-Captain wanted, the Vice-Captain got. When she didn't, she raised her voice. More than usual, anyway.

As for why Soarin had to do it and why now, it probably had something to do with the red coated pegasi that had moved in less than an hour after the wreckage and survivors had been found. Soarin saw one of them on the exact same mission he was on: a pretty mare with a dark coat, rimmed glasses and a serious expression. She had some kind of orb tucked under her front right leg. Her body above the waist sported the distinctive red uniform preferred by the guard units of the northern territories; she even had little epaulettes on her shoulders! Her body below the waist looked good, too.

"Hey there!" the Wonderbolt flew over, putting on his winning-est smile.

The mare stole a look at him, snorted and went back to using the orb to project some kind of light at the airship remains. Clearly, she was playing coy.

"The name's Soarin," he smoothly continued, as if he hadn't noticed the brush off.

"I know who you are, sir," the uniformed mare replied, still intent on her job.

"Since it looks like we're doing the same thing, I hope you don't mind if I stick close by... Miss...?"

The pegasus guardpony didn't respond at first.

"Drizzle," she finally said.

"Drizzle?" He stole a look at her cutie mark. Sure enough there were three very plain looking raindrops. "You don't strike me as the weathermare type."

"That isn't it," Drizzle corrected, tucking the orb back under her leg as she flew. "I don't make weather. I just enjoy it."

"You enjoy it?"

"Hurricanes. Tornados. Hailstorms. Thunderstorms. The wilder and more destructive they are, the more I enjoy watching them." She shared a sunny smile with him as she glanced back. "I just love it when a rainy day clouds out the sun, don't you?"

Momentarily speechless, Soarin hovered in place. "Uhmm..."

"Of course you don't," the mare stated, and resumed her scanning of another part of the crashed airship. "So what do you want?"

"Well, I'm supposed to be looking for anything suspicious," he explained, putting away his charming voice in favor of his professional tone. He was a Wonderbolt, after all. "What brought down the airship, specifically."

"Sabotage."

"Excuse me?"

"I said it was sabotage," Drizzle replied, not even bothering to look in his direction. "Which is unusual, yes, but nothing warranting the Wonderbolts interfering in Duchy affairs."

"Hey, hey," Soarin protested. "We're all on the same side here. We all want to find the Prince."

Drizzle speared him with a critical, insulted look.

"With all due respect, Sir Wonderbolt, this is our territory and thus it is our business. On whose orders are you even out here?"

"I don't know," Soarin admitted. "But even if I did know, I doubt I'd be at liberty to say. Now, you said it was sabotage? That was what we heard, too, but... are you sure?"

"The Princess Hesperus has a double reinforced envelope. A pegasus like yourself, or even a griffin, could cut it from stem to stern without compromising the inner helium storage chambers. Additionally, due to the nature of a rigid airship, it would not easily deform even if pressure were compromised. I have identified and recorded two points of failure in the hull that could not be caused by malfunction or... sadly... natural weather phenomenon. Given eye-witness testimony from the survivors of the crash, it was clearly grounded on purpose."

"Very likely," the red-uniformed guardpony concluded. "The same party responsible for the sabotage is also responsible for our missing Prince."

That made sense, though Soarin knew he would have to double check everything before reporting back to his CO. Captain Thunderhead himself was here, deeply enmeshed in dealing with the local guard commander sent to secure the wreck. No pony would be bothering him anytime soon but it just reinforced how serious the situation was becoming. It also meant the Vice-Captain was bound to be working everypony extra hard. Soarin took another long look at the crash.

Not long after Spitfire had found it, she had also caught the eye of the survivors on the ground. Thank Celestia, the entire crew had escaped unharmed and uninjured. The ship had descended slowly, giving plenty of time for ponies to get rides off-ship. Supposedly the Prince himself had helped to slow the descent with some sort of spell, teleporting ponies to the ground in the process. That was before he and his guard escorts all disappeared.

Celestia knew where the Hell he was now.

"We have dedicated tracker teams looking for His Grace even as we speak," Drizzle assured him, flying off to make another survey of the crash from another angle. "Earth pony trackers, unicorn mageguards and pegasus spotters. If he lives, we will bring him home. If he doesn't... then we'll still send him home."

"You Terre Rare guards don't lack for confidence," Soarin remarked, appreciating the flirty flick of her tail and the contrast of her dark coat against her red uniform. "Mind telling me how you got here only an hour after we did?"

She chuckled as she flew off.

"We have good eyes and sensitive ears, Sir Wonderbolt."

- - -

Moonlight streamed down from the broken lattice of what had once been an atrium dome and into a dried up reflective pool. Creeping vines and weeds had taken over the garden that could have once grown in the open area, covering patches of debris and turning a collapsed wall into a tangled mess thick enough to use to climb from ground to unstable roof. An old cockatrice nest lay abandoned, sculpted of broken shards of stone and masked by a thick spider web.

"Are you sure she's around here, Twilight?"

"I'm pretty sure. Its better than waiting around."

"If you say so! Hey, Rar-it-eee! You hiding round here? You are still alive, aren't you?"

"Pinkie!"

"What?"

"Of course she's alive. And if she wasn't, how would she even answer you? Anyway, just keep calling. Rarity! Rarity!"

"Rar-it-eee! Come out come out wherever you are!"

From where she hid behind a splintered window frame, Rarity could see her two friends in the atrium below. Twilight had her head up, scanning the roofline; Pinkie was just behind and to her left, looking around seemingly at random. A particularly large spiderweb momentarily distracted her long enough for her to 'eep' and jump back at the sight of its designer: a particularly large and nasty looking Everfree Weaver Spider. Rarity chuckled to herself but kept quiet. She could giggle at a ghostie, but Pinkie Pie did not like nature's vast array of 'creepy crawlies.'

Maybe... maybe they were the real thing?

"Twilight! Pinkie! Please don't move from where you are!"

The two ponies stopped on the verge of leaving the atrium only to turn around. They looked around, having heard their friend's voice, but still unable to actually see her. Twilight lit her horn to provide additional illumination in the dark.

"Rarity?" she asked, moving closer to the center of the open area and into the dried mess of the ancient reflective pool. "Rarity? Where are you?"

"I'm... here." Cautiously, she peeked out from the broken and partly collapsed window. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you two, really, but just what is going on? You shouldn't be here."

"I know," Twilight replied, and motioned for her to come down. "Assistance is against the rules, but I don't think anypony will mind us coming to get you."

Rarity shook her head, not understanding. Carefully, she jumped down from the open window.

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Monee went back to waiting in the courtyard!" Pinkie explained with a giggle. "I think she got sick of chasing after you."

"While a duel doesn't observe strict boundaries, there are grounds for disqualification," Twilight continued after Pinkie finished. "You need to head back. Also... well, everypony is kind of waiting there..."

Rarity sighed. "I do hate to disappoint them, but, Twilight, you know very well I can not just go back into that place and fight Lady Antimony. Not out in the open. Didn't you tell me not to play by another pony's rules?"

"Yesss, I guess," Twilight demurred. "But there are still some rules that you have to stick to. For example, we're not really 'helping' by telling you what's going on. So we're just kind of bending the rules and not breaking them."

"Yep!" Pinkie agreed with a happy bounce. "Don't worry, Rarity! You'll do fine-"

Pinkie Pie blinked, pausing mid-sentence, as a bright pink cupcake passed clean through her cutie mark. Her torso shimmered, like a mirage.

Rarity immediately jumped back, the ground at her feet exploding into little blossoms of dust.

'Twilight Sparkle' made an irate tsking sound as several concealed cupcakes floated out of Pinkie Pie's illusionary body. Violet eyes took on a vicious gleam and her grin broadened, revealing teeth. She laughed, still in perfect imitation of the real Twilight's voice.

"I'm impressed," she admitted. "You saw through my little Pinkie Pie imitation?"

"Actually," Rarity replied, backing away as an illusionary Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy perched on the broken edge of the roof. The two looked down with cold disdain.

"I didn't see through the illusion at all," she said with a small shrug.

"But you attacked...?"

"If that had been the real Pinkie Pie I hit, then it just would have been a matter of saying 'I'm sorry.' It was as simple as that," Rarity explained with her own small grin. "I didn't have much to lose by being sure."

"How calculating," the fake Twilight remarked with a hint of admiration.

"I'm not above taking advantage of little things like that."

"Of course, that you isn't the real you either," the false Pinkie Pie said with a sinister chuckle. "A proper illusionary pony also mimics the effect her hoofsteps on the ground. You need to practice more."

Rarity's horn glowed, and she vanished in a ball of bright light.

"I'm sure I'll get the chance!"

A bat soared overhead as the atrium collapsed, blazing streaks ripping apart the inner walls and facade. A brief chase followed, ending with the six illusionary Elements of Harmony coming together back in the desiccated reflecting pool. The fake Twilight looked up, taking notice of the flying rodent. The others retreated into the shadows.

- - -

A single black bat silhouetted against the half moon before circling around and down. Flying past broken rafters and crumbled beams long since decayed by time it finally landed on the broken remains of buttress. Webbed, winged arms clawed as it crawled to the edge, large eyes blinking and watching the ruined gallery below. Huge ears twitched, listening.

It was pitch black, but Princess Luna could see and hear everything.

Rarity's heartbeat stood out from where she hid behind a row of cracked obsidian urns topped by a fallen statue. The remains of ancient, enchanted tapestries drifted in the cold night air having resisted almost a millennium of abandonment. Rarity had been running from Antimony for a half hour now: an impressive feat in and of itself. For almost that entire time, she had been on the defensive, hampered by being unable to risk meeting Antimony's eyes with her own and struggling to counter the other mare's power. It was extremely rare for a duel to last longer than five minutes, much less almost an hour

"You'll be worn down if you keep this up," Luna thought, her real body still sitting in the courtyard where the duel had began. Her eyes were closed, but she didn't need them to see. "Do you really think something like 'that' will work?"

- - -

Antimony, despite the power of her eyes, found herself straining to see in the dark.

Moving silently, she searched for magic, feeling the ebb and flow of it in the air. It was faint, like a distant and unfamiliar scent. It was the only way to keep chasing down her opponent. There was no theoretical limit on the length of a magical duel. It was possible that Ponyville's resident dressmaker was of a mind to so stretch out the contest as to make her inferiority in magic moot. Sooner or later, one of them would tire and need rest. Did she think to make this a war of attrition? It did make a certain amount of sense.

"How unseemly you are," Antimony broke her silence. Hooves clattered against the broken ground. She raised her voice to be sure she was heard. "Lady Rarity! Is this really some strategy on your part... or is it just fear?"

There was nothing a cornered mouse could do to a lion; there was no need to keep chasing her around these damned ruins. There was no need to flinch from so meager a threat.

"Are you afraid of me, dressmaker?" she called out, stepping boldly and fearlessly into the open. "Come! Face your fear! I shall give you opportunity to strike, if that is what you wait for! Come! Coward!"

Antimony's glowing eyes searched the seemingly empty gallery, her patience dwindling down.

"I have been gentle with you until now. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to swat a fly without killing it?"

Rearing up, she tossed her mane and growled. The five spinning cupcake missiles that orbited her lashed out in every direction, blasting through walls and cover. A flicker of movement betrayed her opponent, and four of the projectiles pulverized the three heavy stone urns on the left side of the gallery. Even as she did so, however, Antimony noticed the floor.

The floor was moving.

The floor was not the floor.

As she focused on it, the illusion unraveled, revealing a ream of violet-blue fabric formerly disguised beneath dust and rubble directly underhoof. The illusion had been so simple, so basic, that the fabric itself must have been physically buried under the debris. Two coils of it twirled and surrounded the Baroness before snapping taunt like a helix shaped bear trap.

Antimony vanished in a flash of light.

'She provoked me into attacking... so she could spring that trap?'

Antimony reappeared closer to the entrance just in time to turn. Two cupcakes were mere inches from the tip of her nose. Beyond them, an alabaster hoof and leg finally led to Rarity herself, the seamstress having finally emerged from cover. Yet there was something wrong with her appearance. Something wrong with her mane. She - she had cut it.

She'd cut her mane and used it; turning it into -

Rarity's twin cupcakes slammed into Antimony's face. Through Antimony's face.

Rarity tumbled through the illusionary noblemare, gasping in surprise and tucking in to land on her side and roll with the abrupt loss of contact. It wasn't enough to protect one of her cupcakes as it surged forward and into the ground, splattering into an unsalvageable, gooey mess and leaving a pink streak along the stone floor. The dressmaker turned duelist only allowed herself to tumble a single body-length before springing back up and onto her hooves. Two long sheets of fabric swam, serpent-like, through the air to wrap protectively around her.

Antimony emerged from the far side of the gallery, smirking confidently.

"You aren't the only one who can set up traps," she lectured. "But I never expected that you'd mutilate your mane like that..."

Rarity stood tall, the short cropped remains of her mane blowing in the breeze. The long violet tresses had been cut haphazardly and desperately with little more than a sharp piece of glass. What was left had less body and volume than even Rainbow Dash's mane and an even more spiked appearance. Her tail swished behind her, still intact but charged with fashion conscious magic. Rarity snorted, and a ripple of that same magic ran up her mane and past her ears, transforming the ragged cut into a more proper and modest curl.

"In Reinice they call this: tessuto di crine," she explained with a determined smirk. "Haircloth, in common Equestrian."

The two purple reams of fabric coiled around her shoulders, animated by her magic.

"How unfortunate," Antimony replied, her horn beginning to glow with menace. "To go so far... to accomplish so little!"

She willed it, and her cupcake missile barrage began where it left off. The air filled with swarming, buzzing cupcakes, some diamond-hard and some soft enough to splatter. Rarity charged into the shoals of illusionary projectiles, skidding and jumping as they converged on her. Like before, she only tried to dodge a few: the real ones. The illusionary cupcakes she let pass through her.

Antimony teleported again as a cupcake, glowing neon cyan blue, passed through the space she had occupied a moment before. Just like before, the moment she blinked she also created an illusion of herself appearing in another spot. It was one of her signature tricks: very few unicorns could multi-task spellcasts, and virtually none could parse the casting of a difficult spell like teleport with another spell in parallel. Those that tried risked disrupting their star field in the moment of transition, to less than pleasant effect.

She watched, eyes narrowing as Rarity turned and attacked the most obvious of the two of the illusionary Antimonys. One copy was not her limit either. If need be, she could produce a half dozen illusionary copies of herself with every teleport. Yet. Yet why could Rarity see through the illusions around her cupcake missiles and not see through the teleport duplicates?

Antimony watched as Rarity acrobatically spun through another barrage.

Her haircloth fabrics managed to block two of the cupcakes intended to impact her while letting the illusions pass through. There was no doubt about it, not anymore. She could anticipate, clearly, which cupcakes were real and which were not. How troublesome.

It was time to up the ante.

Antimony's horn glowed, and a dozen pieces of rock levitated off the floor. A little bit of magic, and the old stone shimmered, replaced by an illusion of one of Sugarcube Corner's cupcakes. They began to spin. If Rarity could see through illusions, then...

"What will you do now, dressmaker?" Antimony asked and gestured to her with a hoof. "How long can you last? Don't think you can afford to make even one more mistake!"

Rarity didn't respond as she struggled to catch her breath and keep her eyes away from her opponent's face. Again, though the effort was doomed to prove futile, she charged.

More of the projectiles descended, but this time the illusions were joined by the disguised rocks. Rarity jumped, twisting and letting one of her horse hair fabrics block two missiles from the left. They deflected off the enchanted fabric, made all the stronger by the fact that it was literally a part of the dressmaker's body. She landed, blocked a third cupcake projectile from hitting her in the face -

And then fell to the side as something hard and fast slammed into her right side.

Antimony smirked at the gasp of pain she heard. That one. That one had not passed through her.

Still, Rarity rolled on her back and bounced back onto all fours. She was tougher than she appeared. Most unicorn mares, especially those non-nobles unaccustomed to battle, would be mewing and crying in the dust after just one blow of that power. Rarity was already breaking into a gallop, horn lowered. Perhaps she had some earth pony blood in her?

Antimony teleported again, back to the other side of the room. Four of her stood at each corner of the ruined castle gallery, each wearing an identical look of smug, confident disdain. Rarity scrambled, diving out of the way of more of the erratic killer missiles that filled the darkness of the hall. High speed rocks pulverized the ground at her hooves and the broken pedestal she briefly hid behind. Leaping out of cover, she yelped as another disguised rock slammed into her right shoulder, sending her sprawling.

Only the last second interposition of purple cloth protected her prone form from being hit further.

'There! She can sense the cupcakes, but not the rocks with the illusion overlay. There's something about my spellwork that's tipping her off... that's allowing her to read my moves.'

Predictably, Rarity tried to fall back: to escape from the room.

'Another tactical withdrawal? As if I would allow a cornered rat to run.'

Rarity, her sense overpowering her urge to escape the crossfire, stopped before the apparently unguarded exit. It was good that she did. Skidding to a stop, she prodded the seemingly open aperture with a hoof, confirming that it was in-fact rock solid. Had she run right into it, she would have introduced her face to solid rock. Shoulders slumping in grief, Rarity spun, blocking another cupcake missile and diving away from a second. More illusion cloaked rocks bombarded the floor around her; one even clipped her ear.

"That's right," Antimony gloated with a laugh. "You didn't notice it, did you? What's wrong? Lost track of the exit? Maybe if you feel along the walls you'll find it. Eventually!"

More projectiles stitched through the air and, again, Rarity attacked the wrong Antimony. It was probably her best bet to try and attack the one that had taunted her, but it was foalish to assume her ears, too, couldn't be deceived. Her reward was a blow to the cheek, hard enough that the illusion around the rock-missile wavered for a split second. Forcing herself back onto her hooves, Rarity winced and broke back into a gallop. Still, she was slowing, as fatigue and demoralization wore her down.

'Soon.'

Predictably, Rarity turned on the last Antimony - the real one - by simple process of elimination. Filthy and bruised, she charged and launched her cupcakes, twirling one long coil of haircloth fabric around them to prevent deflection. It was a nice move, and that fabric in particular was a fascinating bit of magic. There were very few materials that could hold up against her enhanced cupcake barrage. Still, it was futile.

Antimony teleported.

As she reappeared on the other side of the room, and every corner of the room, she couldn't help but chuckle. In her haste, the poor dressmaker had splattered yet another one of her cupcakes. Only three remained, whereas she still had all five. More to the point: Rarity had landed right in her trap. This little game was finally at its end.

"You're done," the Baroness announced, craning her neck to get a good look.

Rarity hissed in frustration as she tried to raise a hoof -

Only to have it stuck to the floor, the stone turned into gray tar. It was not wise to have landed where her opponent had been standing. A pony could never tell what was enchanted and how. That was the wonder of it. That was the terror of it. Rarity's own transformation spells were rather interesting in their own way, but lacking in comparison.

Stuck to the floor, at least for the moment, Rarity looked up with wide, shocked eyes. She knew it, too: that she was, for the first time, rendered immobile. There would be no more dodging. Desperate, and with no other options, she did just what Antimony expected her to do.

She launched attacks at every Antimony she could see, all at once.

It was a shame they were all a ruse.

The real Antimony emerged from an invisibility spell, like a shimmer in a shadow. There had been no teleport. The flash had merely been cover for an invisibility spell instead. Without hesitation, her horn glowed and she struck. Rarity squawked in surprise, instinctively covering her face. For what little it was worth.

One cupcake and then another splattered against her torso and the back of her head. She screamed, knowing that she was beaten. That she had been humiliated. That she had lost.

The duel was over.

For good measure, Antimony directed five cloaked stones up and into the pinned mare while dissolving the stone-to-tar enchantment. Blown clear off her hooves, Rarity spun through the air to end up pinned against a wall. Spread eagle, she hung there, one of the projectiles pinning her legs to her sides. Like a speared insect.

"At last," Antimony remarked with a relieves sigh. "At last I have you. A little beaten and bruised, perhaps, but I doubt even your friends will object much. Like a mouse under a lion's paw."

Rarity looked up, but still not enough to make eye contact. Her long lashes batted as she blinked, wearily. Her chest rose and fell as she sucked in breaths of air. Yet, both her face and her chest dripped with sticky, splattered cake. Proof of her failure. Proof of her weakness. Proof that she could never be Duchess - that she could never rule alongside Equestria's Prince or any other.

"Even... even a mouse under a lion's paw..." she struggled to say, and her face sagged. "Can still bite back!"

"Eh? You've lost. Don't think you-"

Antimony's words stuck in her throat as Rarity's face peeled away. No. No! It wasn't her face! The illusion over her bright blue fabric faded, the white melting into nothingness to reveal the real color and texture beneath. The same was happening around her body. Her haircloth had been wrapped around her, disguised as the same color as her white coat. But -

But the fabric used in the attack -

'Illusions?!'

Which meant that the cupcakes Rarity had attacked with were also -

"Illusions!" Antimony realized, rearing up as three cupcakes, disguised cleverly as pretty little bits of broken statuary, shot up from beneath her. Despite her own shock, and even a tiny iota of panic, the Baroness couldn't help but admire the move. The desperate move!

Thinking just like her opponent, Rarity had allowed herself to jump into a trap. Maybe she had planned it, or maybe she had just thought quickly, but she had good instincts. There was no way for her to tell which Antimony was the real one. Just like before, JUST like then, she had allowed herself to fall into a trap to find the one who set it. This was her gamble: to give her opponent an opening she couldn't resist!

'Like me. She thinks... like me...!'

Except.

'Except...! You, Rarity...!' Antimony's smile widened, and she thrust her face forward and into one of the trio of cupcakes that converged on her. 'You are weaker than me!'

The cupcake passed through her eyeball, through her face, and out the back of her head. Without even disturbing the unsullied lavender mane. Spinning around, one of her hooves swept up a dollop of liquid-enchanted stone and splattered two of the cupcakes behind her, wreathed in blue and yellow magic. The last cupcake, still glowing with a purple aura, she forcibly enveloped in her own magic. It took only a moment to fully wrest it from her exhausted opponent's telekinesis.

Breathing heavily, less from exertion and more from excitement, Antimony licked her lips.

"That was good! Really. I mean it. That was good!" she enthused, grinning at the still pinned Rarity. The other unicorn was struggling to escape the five stones that had her spread on the wall.

"No pony," Antimony continued in a more sedate voice. "No pony has come that close to tagging me in a long time. Your body is tougher than it looks. You have good instincts. Training alone could never account for you giving me this much trouble."

"But!" she concluded, trotting up closer to the beaten mare. "That was it, wasn't it? Your last trick. Your last.. gasp."

"I don't..." Rarity finally replied, closing her eyes and groaning. "I don't understand... how did...?"

"How did it miss?" Antimony finished, and allowed herself a small happy sigh. "It's unfortunate, but you made a mistake. You've been avoiding my eyes this entire time, and you knew to expect illusions. You figured: if I can just make the real her appear, then I'll have a chance. Your mistake was in assuming you ever saw the real me."

Rarity's eyes opened, cautiously. "What?"

"I'll show you, out of courtesy." Antimony stamped one of her front hooves. "Did you notice it?"

Clearly, Rarity didn't.

So, the Baroness then used her right front hoof to pick up a piece of rock. Except... except the rock she picked up seemed to float in the air, as if by magic. Antimony's entire body then appeared to shift around it, higher, and then around to the other side. Closer and then further back. Only the rock remained in place, immobile.

"All this time," Rarity said, seeing it at last. "All this time you were like that?"

"Those ponies who meet my eyes experience instant and certain defeat," Antimony explained, casually flicking the rock to bounce off of Rarity's exposed midriff. "You are far from the first to think they can guess where I am by watching my hooves or my tail or my mane. The fact is that, from the start, you never knew if you were attacking an illusion or an illusion covering the real thing."

Antimony's eyes narrowed and her horn glowed.

Rarity winced in pain as the stones pinning her in place pressed harder. Her back against the stone wall of the castle gallery she gritted her teeth and tried to keep conscious. For a few seconds, Antimony was silent, letting her power over her opponent speak for her. The stone behind Rarity was unyielding. The stone began to twist, ripping white hairs from her coat and leaving the skin beneath red and raw.

"After all that scurrying around, I have half a mind to break your legs," Antimony remarked with alarming coldness in her voice. "Do you know what they used to do to ponies who broke their legs? I think it is time to give up."

"Give up?" Rarity asked, and forced out a laugh. Blue eyes squinted out beneath her long lashes. "Last I checked... you lost all your cupcakes..."

Antimony frowned.

It was... true. The cake-splattered mess that was Rarity's haircloth lay on the floor. It had protected the mare itself, leaving her coat frustratingly unblemished. This phase of the duel could not end until either one opponent had become humiliated by cake or if both had exhausted their supply of pastries. Antimony glanced back at the one cupcake left: one of Rarity's, still faintly glowing purple even within the older mare's own magical field.

"No pony would be able to tell this was your cupcake and not mine," Antimony explained, hovering the paralysis-laced baked good before Rarity's eyes. "But... I would know. And you would know. Unfortunately for you, I have no interest in winning dishonorably... or in leaving my opponent anything but completely crushed under-hoof!"

With a flick of her chin, Antimony sent her opponent flying.

- - -

"Auntie? It was you, then, all along."

Princess Celestia had thrown back her hood, though she still wore the cloak against the cold northern wind so typical of Whinnychester. In just one spell, she had teleported herself and her two guards entirely out of town and into the countryside. He had later noticed, after the fact, that Celestia had also teleported away her injured royal guard. She had done this while observing and chasing his own long-distance teleport spell, while bringing two ponies with her. He still couldn't imagine how she multitasked that. Just teleporting other ponies with oneself was difficult enough.

The two royals rested now on the thatched roof of a farmhouse. The town could just barely be seen in the distance, further down the slope of the valley. Smoke from a train idled at the station. The very same one Blueblood had planned to make use of. That plan, it seemed, was no longer viable. The ponies chasing him had not been traitors in the secret employ of the Terre Rare.

They had been his Aunt's own royal guards, obeying their first and greatest oath: to serve and obey her and her alone. He snorted.

"I can't believe..." he continued, running a hoof through his blond mane. "It was you the whole time? You had my poor Princess Hesperus brought down?"

Celestia exhaled, enjoying the cool air. Her mane waved freely, reflecting the fading light of her sun as it began to set. It was almost surreal seeing her lying comfortably on a straw roof instead of a throne or pillow. Her presence here raised only questions, and not just the ones he had dared to ask about his airship and his would-be pony-napping. Prince-napping. Whatever. Just what on Equestria was the Princess doing so far from Canterlot?!

"I am sorry for breaking your airship, nephew," she answered, still looking out to the distant horizon. "I know it meant a great deal to you."

Below them, within the farmhouse itself, her Royal Guards were assembled. Including the few Blueblood had injured in his various escapes. He felt a little bad about it now. It was yet another reason why he disliked violence. He supposed, before the events of the Gala, he would have been fine simply moving on and trying for forget that fact. Now, he knew he would have to at least make some token apology. The guards, in the end, had been doing their duty. He could not fault them for that.

"I do suppose the ship itself doesn't really matter. Much," he added that caveat. "But ponies could have been hurt. Ponies under my employ and my protection. You had me convinced there were Terre Rare spies on my staff!"

"Oh, but there are Terre Rare spies in your staff!" Celestia informed him with a sunny smile. "My own spies, too."

Blueblood's face fell, his jaw going agape. "What?"

"Exactly why your ship needed to actually go down in a crash, and why you actually needed to be pony-napped," she explained, matter-of-factly. "But then I was sitting there, back at the palace, having arranged all this. I was running the whole plan around in my head and then I remembered that you somehow picked up some rather unusual skills a few months back around the time of the Gala. There was every chance that the few guards escorting you would be unable to keep you safely and convincingly contained."

Celestia winked, mischievously.

"It was a delightful excuse to come myself and get out of town for a while!"

Blueblood was still agape.

"Unbelievable," he muttered, and groaned. "Or maybe I should say: unbelievable but typical."

"So," he began to work out the rest himself. "So you sent that letter, knowing it would prompt me to leave as soon as I could. You must have sent another letter, one I didn't see, telling your guards when to take down the airship and where. You probably also told them to make sure nopony was hurt, which was why they waited until after the ship was down and everypony was safe to turn on me."

He snorted as it all began to make sense.

"They made it look like sabotage, because it was genuinely sabotage. This whole mess also occurred right on the border with Whinnychester - a border of a province controlled by the Duke of Connemara. A Duke married to Lord Cruciger's daughter, in a territory run by the Terre Rare. Everypony will suspect their involvement and no pony will blame you for sending guards to scour the countryside."

"They dispatched their own guards within the hour. Very prompt, actually," Celestia observed with a chuckle. "Luckily, my guards found you first. Of course they would, since they've been on your tail this entire time."

"You overlooked one thing, though!" Blueblood glared at his benevolent, immortal aunt, finally betraying his upset with her. "I need to get back to Ponyville. Lady Rarity...!" He saw her glance at him with one inquisitive eye. "You must be aware of it. Rarity is being baited! They'll want to get her out of the way before I return!"

"I am aware of this," Celestia replied, looking away, seemingly without concern. "Her duel is set to begin tonight, in fact."

"Tonight? Hells! Then you know I have to intervene!" Blueblood stood up as if to leave.

"I went through all this because you can not intervene!" Celestia suddenly turned on him, expression serious rather than serene. "I will not see a repeat of what happened twenty years ago! Nephew," she said, her expression softening. "What do you think you can do? Abdicate? Fight for her? Maybe you think you can come to some agreement with Cruciger? Or broker some secret deal with Lady Antimony?"

"I... I'm not entirely sure what I can do," the Equestrian Prince admitted, lowering his head with a pained look. "But I know I can't do nothing. I just can't. I have allies in the court. I can assemble a coalition perhaps? Something. Anything!"

Celestia favored him with a warm smile and extended a wing to ease him back down. Blueblood's legs froze for a moment, resisting, because the will to fight left and he fell back onto his stomach, his legs tucked under him. Raising a hoof to his forehead, he ran it anxiously through his mane. He was clearly and unabashedly panicked, frightened and unsure, but not for himself.

"Two hundred years ago," she said, breaking the short silence. "Your great ancestor, Blueblood the forty seventh... died in a war. He was a great stallion, and I loved him as I love all my family, no matter how distant. He would have been a wonderful father, too. He left two daughters as heirs. Twins."

Blueblood eyed her warily, knowing the story, though never from her point of view.

"Even when they were born, there were great differences between the two sisters," Celestia continued. "Differences more than skin deep. Arsenic, the oldest by a matter of minutes, had great power. I could feel it radiate from her small body even as a foal. Blue Belle did not have this gift. She was strong, as all of the Blueblood line are, but nothing exceptional."

"The genealogists argued and debated but could not decide which to invest with the succession. For the first time in a thousand years, the heir was not a unicorn. You know exactly why they feared the consequences of a non-unicorn inheriting the responsibilities of the Blueblood line. The timing could not have been worse. In the end, the scholars and nobles came to me... and I..."

Celestia closed her eyes and sighed, sadly.

"I gave the order to deprive Lady Arsenic of her right to carry the Blueblood name. I tried to soften the decision, I did, but her fall from grace quickly became palace gossip. I couldn't stop it. I saw... a darkness grow in her. A darkness that only grew worse as Blue Belle parleyed her status as heir to engage in year after year of revelry and festivities. What I saw in her reminded me so much of my own sister. I felt I had to do something. This..."

She opened her eyes to see her nephew.

"This," she repeated, her voice heavy with sadness. "Is why you are engaged to Lady Antimony. As you well know. This is why, when you were young, my two precious nephews dueled over the future of their mutual bloodline. I still remember them playing in the palace green as colts. It seems, in the blink of an eye, the darkness that so clouded Arsenic took her grandson."

"I tried to bring them together, as family, but instead it all turned to argument and... and that horrible duel." She shook her head, still heartbroken by the infighting that plagued the two branches of her closest family. "Blueblood, my precious little pony, please believe me when I say I am sorry this had to happen to you. Since that time, two hundred years ago, I have tried to prepare. I have tried to find a way to satisfy everypony."

"Auntie, please. You don't have to apologize," Blueblood replied, shaking his head and motioning for her to stop. "All that matters to me is fixing things. Now. Here. History and bad blood can stay in the past, for all I care."

Celestia's smile returned, and with it her warm glow.

"Would that history could stay in the past. But believe it or not, a compromise between the families can still be arranged," she assured him. "But not by your rushing in like a white knight riding a dragon! Rarity and Antimony must face one another, and you must not be there. Before you see either, there are things you have to know..."

"You're saying there's nothing I can do?" Blueblood pleaded, not wanting to hear it. "Auntie, please, you can't tell me that. There has to be something!"

She leaned over, close enough to touch her horn to his, like a mother would a foal.

"You really love her, don't you?" she asked, amused. "I'll admit I am a little surprised! I half expected that if you two met that there would be a bit of a... scandal."

"Many things happened that night that I don't think any pony could have expected," Blueblood cautiously replied. "But yes: I think I... I think I do love her."

"Good!" Celestia declared, as the sun set, and a distant duel began. "Then believe in her."

"Believe in her?" he asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "That's it?"

"It isn't as easy as it sounds! But, sometimes, even I have to just sit back and hope things work out." Princess Celestia, Equestria's immortal goddess of the sun, chuckled. "Prince or Princess, unicorn or Alicorn. What happens tonight is out of our hooves. So believe in her."

- - -

Rarity crashed through the weakened iron frame of a window. Her limp form hit the ground of the courtyard, bounced, and then rolled to a stop. It felt for all the world like being finger-flicked by a dragon. For a moment, she blacked out, but tenacity and humiliation forced her to regain her senses. Eyes wearily opened and Rarity saw her legs sticking up comically in the air.

Dirty.

Her perfect white coat was so dirty. So filthy. It was disgusting.

It would take an entire day at the spa to even begin to fix things. Such was the curse of a white coat: it stained so much more easily than Applejack's earth orange or even Fluttershy's butter yellow. Particles of dirt that got under the coat stood out even to the casual observer. She would need a full body brushing and a cleansing bath, followed by a restorative soak, then another bath to remove the last of the loam and crud. Even her hooves were positively filthy, and that was saying something when a pony had trotted through a forest hours earlier without even getting them muddy.

Then there was her mane! Oh, her poor, precious mane!

What had she done to it?

Cutting away at it to make that tessuto di crine. She must have lost her mind; she must have suffered from some temporary insanity! Even the cloth itself was gone now, the magic in it spent. All that was left was a mangled, unseasonably short mane. Rarity wanted to cry. If she was lucky she could salvage enough to copy Lyra's look. Maybe with more body perhaps.

"Where...?" asking the question drove home another problem.

Her face hurt. Her legs hurt. Her entire body hurt.

Why? Why did her body hurt?

Rotating her legs, Rarity saw circular red bruises just below the hoof. She remembered: slowly spinning stone, pinning her to a wall, pressing hard enough to threaten to break bone. She remembered. She remembering being hit, again and again, by those rocks, each one disguised by an illusion to resemble a small tumbling cupcake. By Celestia, after today Sugarcube Corner would probably resemble an arsenal. Rarity rather doubted she would ever regain a sweet tooth in any form.

Rolling onto her side, she saw distant shapes and faces. Her ears twitched and she heard voices, too. It slowly came to her - she was back in the courtyard. Antimony had thrown her through a window, out of the ruined castle, and all the way back into the courtyard!

It was all over then.

"My, but it has been ages since I defenestrated anypony!" a now familiar voice prompted Rarity to at least try and get back onto all fours. "You really should try it sometime. It is quite empowering."

Something cold and sweet smelling pressed against her cheek, eliciting a numbing tingle.

"Come now," the voice continued, cruel and persistent. "You aren't quite done yet. Our audience wants to see the finale, and you have one last line to deliver before you walk off the stage."

Painfully, Rarity rolled onto her stomach and got her hooves under her. Legs wobbled and shook, like those of a newborn foal, as she forced herself upright. Just inches away, left on the ground, was her fifth and final cupcake. The one that glowed with a purple light. Twilight. All the others were gone. Antimony had dumped it unceremoniously on the sparse grass of the castle courtyard.

Barely any magic left, Rarity floated it into the air before her.

Antimony was already waiting, close to where she had stood when the duel first began. The Baroness of Mareseilles appeared calm, collected and almost indifferent to the slow advance of her opponent towards her. Rarity's vision blurred for a moment, but she kept on her hooves and stumbled forward. Antimony tossed her long lavender and orchid violet mane. She seemed none the worse for wear, as if she had managed to chase down her quarry in the ruins of that damned castle without so much as a scratch or smudge.

She simply stood and waited for Rarity's last, futile, humiliating attempt to ward off the inevitable. Past her, Rarity could see the impassive projection of Lord Cruciger, still seated. The unicorn guards from the Terre Rare family may as well have been projecting an image of a statue for all the emotion Antimony's father had in him. Princess Luna was more animated, watching everything closely from where she sat between two stoic Night Guards.

Rarity stumbled again, her legs wobbling in strain.

She paused, having seen one side of the field, and turned briefly to see the other. There was still a crowd: the revelers from Ponyville who had followed her earlier in the day were silent. Watching. It was hard to pick one or two individuals out from the blur, which was a shame. More than anything, Rarity would have liked to see her little sister, her parents, her good friends... even if they were looking on in pity. She shook her head, dispelling the melancholy thoughts. Besides, there was one other.

One other pony...

Why wasn't he here?

Rarity slowed to a stop, the single cupcake left in the duel floating uneasily by her side. Slowly, haltingly, it began to descend until it finally rested on the ground. Very slowly, the overmatched dressmaker raised her eyes. Antimony was only a few paces away, literally within kicking distance if a pony still had the energy to try it, which Rarity doubted she did anymore. Instead, she raised her head, proudly.

And looked Antimony right in the eyes.

"Do it, then," she dared.

The other mare's expression darkened at the show of defiance.

For the first time since Cheerilee's classroom, Rarity met the noblemare's hypnotic gaze full on. In the span of a heartbeat, something tightened in her chest - the air in her lungs turning to concrete. The side of her vision blurred black until it was impossible to percieve anything but Antimony's burning red eyes, like a pair of suns, their coronas melting and merging into an enveloping cascade of fire. Rarity blinked, her heart clenched, and all sensation fled from her mortal frame.

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