• Published 2nd Dec 2012
  • 14,644 Views, 189 Comments

Crucible - Luminary

Equestria, beset by the changeling invasion, must deal with a dawning golden age. Without Celestia.

  • ...

Three - Rarity: Obligation

Rarity levitated the last piece of her burgeoning creation over the heads of the raucous and half-panicked crowd. The crowd parked outside of the vaulting gold-shod doors of Celestia’s chambers. Somewhere at the very front, a pair of Royal Guards fought against the jostling demands of the wave of mixed ponies. The white unicorn hummed a working tune happily as she stacked a clerk’s briefcase behind a low pedestal which had recently hosted a large decorative urn, which in turn was behind a table she had levitated from its spot against a nearby wall. Her magic pulled down a set of thick red velvet drapes from the edge of a nearby window, which she hung over the collection of increasingly tall items. A spell transmuted the whole affair into a graceful, flowing covering over the lot, giving the cobbled together items the look of a refined podium with steps leading up to the top.

With a suitable vantage in place, Rarity unhurriedly climbed the makeshift steps and stood on the tabletop, her hooves nearly at the height of tallest stallion. The unicorn furrowed her brow into a look of disapproving anger she’d seen Celestia unleash while visiting the Court of the Sun a week previous. She raised her muzzle to give a further impression of looking down on the crowd from on high. She cleared her throat in a quiet, lady-like manner. It wasn’t even within twenty decibels of the noise of the crowd.

Still, the closest few ponies, a noble, a palace servant and a guard that really should have been helping his comrades, looked back over their shoulders at her. That caught the attention of the ponies near them, who followed their gaze. A wave of quiet rolled over the crowd of hundreds packed into the hallway. Even the pegasi hovering over it turned in the air to look at her.

Behold the power of proper preparation, presentation and poise, ponies! Rarity fought back the urge to break out into mad, maniacal cackling at her suddenly acquired attention. That would be the rather wrong attitude, and she only had a few seconds before focus would drift and the noise would resume. She brought out the big guns, with a calibre that put Pinkie’s Party Cannons to shame.

Her icy eyes looked down her muzzle at the crowd. Her words were cultured, but she made sure they were no warmer. “Do you care nothing for your Princess? She lies injured. Her city is in the grip of panic, and you gather here to howl like wolves outside of her door? For shame! Attend to your duties. Calm your friends and families. We will make Celestia proud of us in this dark hour, or by her name we will die trying.”

She gave no room for quibbling. One or two tried to speak. A mere shifting of cold eyes upon them made words die there, unspoken. She knew she had won when the fringes of the crowd began to drift away. It became an awkwardly slow, shuffling tide away from the doors in short order.

“Please stay behind, Guardsponies,” she added almost as an afterthought, once she saw a few of them creeping away with the crowd.

Within a few minutes she actually had a dozen royal guard lined up in front of her in ranks. She fought down that urge to laugh in a distinctly unladylike way once more. She gave herself the gift of allowing herself to remain on her podium, however.

“Gentle stallions. If you would, I believe you four in the back row should perhaps go help the pair at Her Highness’ door.” She signalled groups with short motions of her hooves. “Then you two a ways down the left hallway. You two the right. The rest for the central one.” She couldn’t enumerate her satisfaction when they all started to move without further word. It only got better when one in front saluted, which seemed to get all the rest of them doing it too.

Her moment of glory was somewhat interrupted by the even, applauding tap of metal shoes against marble. Rarity turned on her pedestal to see a pink alicorn behind her, giving her a flat, questioning look. The guards bobbed their heads in small bow as they passed her.

Rarity gave a weak, nervous laugh. “O-oh. Princess Cadance! How nice to see you. Have you been there long?”

“Long enough to catch the important parts. And to see you ordering the Royal Guard around as if, you know, you had some authority to do so.” Rarity’s perch gave her the proper vantage to see the guards flinch at Cadance’s words. One almost tripped over his own hooves. The unicorn couldn’t blame him for a second. She was nearly about to collapse in gibbering terror when a genuinely bright smile appeared on Cadance’s face. “It was pretty great. A little terrifying, in a ‘changelings can obviously just walk in here posed as anyone and order the guard out so they can replace Celestia’ sort of way. But mostly great!”

* * *

“Twilight! Darling, can you hear me?”

Rarity tapped on the strange glassy surface of the magical bubble that encased her unicorn friend. Twilight floated in the center of it, eyes wide and glowing solid white. Lightning sizzled and crackled against the magenta barrier around her in every direction. Honestly, it looked like a pegasus-magic novelty she had seen once. A tiny, furious storm cloud caught in the center of a glass sphere. It too would unleash lightning in all directions. She almost wished that it would be attracted to her hoof like it had been with that flashy trinket. At least then it would hint at some glimmer of awareness.

With a sigh the white unicorn placed her hoof lightly on the floor, trying her very best not to stir up any of the ash or char that covered nearly the entirety of the courtyard. With light steps she turned to address the equally pale stallion nearby. “I daresay, Captain, that both you and your sister look completely dreadful. Has Princess Luna left her sister’s chambers yet? Apparently Princess Celestia had been able to snap her out of this when she was a foal. Perhaps Princess Luna could do the same.”

There was no response from the rather ragged looking Captain of the Guard for several seconds. Enough for Rarity to think he hadn’t heard her, but eventually he shook his head. “No. She’s been in there for...” The stallion seemed to be at a loss. “... for a long time anyway. Hopefully she’ll come out soon. I don’t know where Twilie gets it. I’ve been having to match her magic to magic for hours, and she’s shown no signs of stopping. If it wasn’t for Cadance...” The stallion shook his head again, far more grimly.

“Yes, say no more. I well understand. Sometimes I believe she should be the one with my name. She truly is a singular example of a unicorn.” The white mare lifted her muzzle, so as to spare a moment to consider the sky. Fiery orange and blood red. Fitting for such a day. The sunset had lingered for hours. She could understand why Shining Armor was having such trouble with the time. “And it’s nearly ten in the evening. The sun has just stopped on the horizon. Rumors had already begun to spread as I was arriving. This will just make it worse.”

Rarity watched the Captain’s brow furrow. The weariness in his eyes was all too clear. It was a wonder the stallion was still standing, let alone containing the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. Word is that he had been Celestia’s living target in practice before that. Such a shame that Twilight hadn’t introduced him to her brother when they first met. She might have had a chance of beating out Cadance. Honestly, there was a stallion like this at Court, and I was chasing Blueblood of all ponies. Rarity was shaken out of her thoughts as Shining Armor spoke again. “Goddess damn it. That’s all we need. I have to do something, I’m surprised there isn’t a panic in the palace already.”

Well, it was clear to Rarity that the stallion wasn’t in any condition to be worrying about anything further. That just wouldn’t do. Well, let it never be said that Rarity is some useless layabout courtier! The unicorn mare stood a little taller, and turned gracefully to face the Captain more fully. “Well, we can’t have that happening, hmm? Captain Armor, I just so happened to share your concern, and have thought to remedy that. I’ve drafted a letter to be sent out, and would like to attach your name to it. A bit of information to cut short the wild speculation. Celestia of Equestria has been injured in an accident, but is alive and recovering under the care of Princess Luna. Once one of the princesses can be spared the time and strength they will resume the turn of days. Etcetera etcetera.”

The weary Captain frowned slightly. “That’s a good idea. But I’m not sure if we should be telling them that Celestia is hurt. We only just managed to keep Celestia’s last injury off the front of the Equestria Daily, and there were too many people there to stop the rumors. Celestia’s been our guardian for a thousand years. Ponies are going to freak out to hear she’s been injured twice in less than a month.”

Rarity arched a brow. She kept the Captain locked in that look until she was sure he was about to start squirming. Judging him sufficiently softened up, she offered her rebuttal. “Honestly dear, you’re too tired to be thinking straight. Ponies could have reached halfway across Equestria, all carrying news that Celestia has fallen. A pegasus at the end of a series of relay messengers could be telling some watch post all the way near Gryphon territory about it as we speak. Trust me, I know. The commandant of Featherlight has a commendable taste for formal wear for a stallion, and I’ve had to rush articles there for diplomatic functions by pegasus before. I would think it’s too late for anything but a properly softened truth.”

The stallion, to his credit, did think about it for a time. But as Rarity knew he would, he eventually nodded his consent. But of course he did. There are more tools in a Lady’s repertoire than the simple flattery everyone considers. An enlightened stallion requires rational discourse. The bone-weariness helps. “Excellent then! I’ll set one of the scribes to polishing and sending the message at once. Honestly, without the Princesses and the Captain of the Guard the whole government just gallops in circles and dithers about. I’ll check in on the Princesses afterward, and see if I can get Princess Luna to spare a moment before you just collapse.”

Shining Armor inclined his head in assent. “Thanks, Rarity.” With that her turned back toward his sister. His horn took on that Sparkle family sheen as he strengthened the shield. Rarity was no expert at the arcane, but she was rather sure the way the magic fizzed around his horn was a very poor sign. He raised a hoof to the side of his head, wincing. “Ugh. And see if you can find Cadance for me?”

* * *

As it turned out, both of Rarity’s post-letter tasks were located in the same spot. Cadance was pacing, like a caged tiger, back and forth in front of the half dozen guards stationed outside of Celestia’s room. Crowding the hallway behind her were a dozen ponies in doctor’s coats or nurse attire and what had to be half a ward’s worth of equipment from Canterlot General Hospital.

“... Ooh, and don’t think that Shining won’t be introducing hoof to dock once I’m done with the lot of you.” Cadance was all but growling at the guards as she prowled in front of them. Their composure in the face of an angry princess was admirable. They were stone-still, excepting the occasional nervous shift of eyes. “Any of you had foals? Yeah, I know you did Steel Crest. Don’t you look away from me! He’s lucky because he’ll get the chance. I swear to Celestia the rest of you are getting gelded. Unfortunately he also knows what its like to deal with a filly. I’m not some age old alicorn with a thousand years of saved up patience. Yeah, I’m a pissed off winged unicorn full of plot-kicking hormones.”

Rarity took a moment to thoughtfully ponder the Princess’ style. Perhaps she would offer some pointers later. Cadance was letting her anger get a little too hot. Proper menace was cold. Like everything about a Lady, a bit of mystery added effect. A glacial stare would have the stallions imagining far worse scenarios than Cadance could paint.

Oh dear. Well, chivalry is not something Rarity simply accepts. She gives, also.

Rarity broke into a perfect two-step trot to enact the guards’ rescue. Perhaps she should have been quicker, to ensure they all had the important bits attached when she arrived, but a certain propriety must be maintained. Besides, it was all sort of funny.

Cadance had herself muzzle to muzzle with one of the younger guards. Her wings were flared in hostility. The team of doctors didn’t dare speak up, but they cheered her on with approving glances. “Yeah, remember flirty, cheery Cadance? The one who brought all you ponies dinner and booze after you when you came off shift with Shiny? She is so far gone that you couldn’t find her with a team of pegasus spotters. Coincidentally they’ll be using those to find your-”

Cadance!” Rarity found her voice raised rather louder than she’d like. She even stomped a hoof for the emphasis the sound provided. The fine white marble that the palace was so painstakingly crafted from made for an acoustically perfect, sharp strike. “Ahem. I mean, Princess Cadance. This is hardly proper for a Lady of your stature.”

The young princess spun in place. She locked Rarity into a look that could kill. If that was what the guards were enduring, the marshmallow unicorn was rather surprised that there were anything more than piles of pony ash covered in bubbling molten armor still left. Perhaps there was something to be said for that more fiery intimidation? Still, the fashionista lifted her muzzle slightly, seemingly impervious to the glare. The Princess showed her age somewhat when that unimpressed look had her scrambling to explain her poor behavior. She pointed an accusing hoof back at the guards. “These... these colts won’t let the doctors in. They won’t let me in.”

“Yes, well, no doubt they’re following some order from Luna to allow nopony in. Am I right, brave sirs?” All six guards nodded with eager relief, seemingly in perfect time. It was all Rarity could do not to laugh. That wouldn’t be right. The poor dears were already having to endure the tirade of an angry young goddess. “There you have it, then. In any case, your husband is in dire need of your skills. I’m afraid there’s not much left in him. I shall take up the charge of intimidating the guards in your stead. Will that do?”

The demigoddess seemed to be ready to argue for a moment. However, some of the tension visibly bled out of her. Her flared wings folded back at her sides with some effort. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll do. Sisters! I don’t know what got into me. I’ve been taking in way too much fear and panic today. I can’t keep up, but the palace would be a madhouse without it. I’m not even thinking straight anymore.”

Rarity couldn’t say she had any idea what Cadance was talking about, but it hardly seemed like the time for lengthy explanations that could be put off until a later day. “Yes, well, it has been an absolutely horrid day for all involved, I must say. I’m sure all of us will be feeling silly tomorrow about how the lot of us have been acting. One can only imagine what the Princess will say when she recovers.”

Cadance fixed her with a strange look. Nothing disturbing or negative, simply like she was looking deeply, peering into her. It helped to remind Rarity exactly what sort of pony she was dealing with. Celestia had the same quality. Rarity had spent hours in front of the mirror trying to capture the Sun Princess’s knowing smile, to no avail. The smile the pink princess gave her after a moment or two was far more open and brilliant. “Oh, now that’s a lie. You’re an island of calm. You’ve been spreading that wherever you go today. I bet you’ve kept a dozen ponies from tearing out their manes.”

Rarity gave a little toss of her head, which put a bit of spring into her own mane. “Oh, now, really Princess, it isn’t so grandiose.” Rarity affected a suitable amount of modesty. “I’m just a designer. I’d like nothing better than to descend into a nice, comfortable panic myself. However, there’s simply a way a pony of refinement should act. With poise and grace in the face of hardship. As an example.”

The young Princess broke out into gales of unstoppable laughter. At least up until she was laughing so hard she gave a little snort. That made her fall onto her haunches, so she could bring her hooves to cover her muzzle in embarrassment. Rarity wore a distinctly affronted look at the laughter. Before she could express that in words, Cadance removed one of the hooves from her face to wave it apologetically. “Nonono. I’m not laughing at you. Really! If the Sisters let me name a Duchess or something, you’re at the top of the list. But, honestly, have you met the refined ponies in this city? Or any city? They should act like that, but they don’t. If they were half the ponies you are, I would say the Princesses should abdicate and let the aristocracy run things.”

Rarity could feel the heat of a blush creep down her muzzle. She turned her head slightly to try to hide it. It was a fruitless endeavor. Rarity well appreciated her brilliant white coat, but it made her reddening cheeks practically luminescent. "Well, you’ve made my week, Princess, and it was already a wonderful week before today. Thank you. However, you have a handsome, ailing husband to care for, and I have to try to convince the guards to pass a word to Princess Luna.”

Cadance rose back onto her hooves, clearly trying to pretend that her last movement never happened. “Thanks Rarity. I think I needed a bit of sanity really badly today. Twilight has made some really amazing friends.”

Rarity made a shooing motion with one forehoof. “Think nothing of it, Princess. If a cool head is what’s needed, then its the least I could provide.” The white unicorn started toward the guards, prepared to bat her eyelashes outrageously to ask for one teensy, tiny favor in passing a massage. What she found instead was the guards stepping aside. The horns of two of them glowing to open the double doors.

“Princess Luna said to allow only the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony to enter, ma’am.” The one Cadance had called Steel Crest offered, by way of an explanation.

From behind Rarity came the sound of shod hoof striking stone. “WHAT?” Cadance's voice was coloured with outraged disbelief. It also had enough volume to make a passing imitation of the Royal Canterlot voice. “I’m a Princess!

* * *

The smell that poured from Celestia’s chambers was an unpleasant mix of fearful sweat, burned fur and charred meat. To say it made Rarity uneasy to walk toward was rather an understatement. It was like nearing some Tartaran battlefield.

“Cadance? What art thou doing out there? Come in.” Luna’s voice, wearied and lacking its usual vitality ghosted out through the doorway.

“Yeah, what am I doing out here?” Cadance muttered pointedly to the guards after a quick reversal of direction to enter the room. She gave them each a glare until they looked away uncomfortably, each in turn. She seemed satisfied with that, but still mumbled something about ‘extended Windigo patrols in the arctic’ as she passed by. Rarity followed closely behind, though she had to force herself to take each step. She was tense enough that the door closing behind her nearly made her jump.

It was worse than the white pony was expecting. Cadance seemed to share her opinion, judging by how she fell back onto her haunches again.

Celestia was covered with open red wounds and spots of charred black. Before Rarity turned her gaze away and shut her eyes tightly, she could swear she noticed large bits seemingly missing. She didn’t dare look back to confirm it. She could hear the unpleasant sounds of gagging from the Princess beside her as she obviously struggled to hold her stomach. “Oh, dearest Celestia!” Rarity wailed, all thoughts of proper poise lost.

“There’s doctors outside. I have to get them. Oh... oh Celestia, is she even alive?” If anything Cadance sounded even more panicked than Rarity felt. Considering the snow-white unicorn felt like her heart had leaped its way into her mouth, while the rest of her sunk into a pit, it was saying something.

“Peace, little ponies,” Luna reassured, voice haggard but remarkably calm. “Thine Princess looks a fright, and She dwells near death, but She is no mortal thing. Not all of Her is simple blood and flesh. And only that part was grievously wounded. Soon Her flesh shall be turned over to those skilled to heal it.” There was a sound of rustling fabric. “You may look. I have covered Her.”

Rarity seemed to work up the courage to do so before Cadance. Celestia’s body had been covered to the neck with her white sheets. Little droplets of red blood were already beginning to soak through in places. Rarity walked forward, barely sparing so much as a glance for the drooping moon goddess leaning against the bedside nearby. The unicorn climbed up onto the edge of the bed with her forehooves to look upon the broken alicorn.

Her horn was fractured all along its length, and all but missing anywhere beyond halfway up. The edges would have been sharp if they hadn’t been so charred. Much of the fur on her graceful face was burned away to reveal red, scalded skin below. Somehow her mane had remained untouched, but it barely seemed like hers at all. Celestia’s mane was the envy of every filly and mare in Equestria. It had driven fashion for a thousand years, defining long, flowing curves and curls, like Rarity’s own, as the ideal of beauty. It was unmoving, and flat rose pink. Rarity’s eyes blurred with tears. “Oh Celestia.” She reached out, cradling the goddess’ head delicately in her hooves. She might not have been as close to the monarch as Twilight, but like every other pony in Equestria, Celestia had a special place in her heart. She was like the common part of every family. The wise protector and advisor, ever vigilant, ever kind, ever loving.

Rarity had read old letters from her great, great grandmother talking about meeting the monarch. Her great grandfather had the honor to serve high in Her Majesty’s Royal Guard. Her grandmother had served in the palace in her youth. The stories she had told Rarity about the Princess in her foalhood had defined every thought about how a proper Lady should present herself. Rarity knew that she would one day present her own foals to the Princess to meet. Celestia was history and future. She was Equestria. And, upon the bed in front of Rarity, she lay broken. Despair welled up in her, somehow both vastly deep and hot at once. There was no use trying to control it. A sob escaped Rarity with startling suddenness, before she buried her face against what fur there was on Celestia’s cheek.

“We can only hope to one day be worthy of that, dearest Cadance,” Luna said in a subdued voice, as if afraid to cut the thick silence of the room. “Hast thou ever seen more poignant proof of what She hath wrought? But then, thou knowest better than us, does thou not? I can but watch. Thou must feel, also.”

Rarity didn’t see Cadance’s reaction of course, but she could hear a wet sniff, the youngest alicorn’s voice shaky. “I- I can tune it out a bit, if I try.”

“Thou can, as we have endeavored to teach thee. But thou shouldn’t. Instead remember. Never forget what it doth mean to be a true Princess of Equestria.”

* * *

It took Rarity a good while to recompose herself, much to her embarrassment. The two alicorns did seem to actually understand, however, which softened the blow. It was a comfort too, on a level she didn’t want to consider too much. Perhaps Equestria would be in fine hooves even if Celestia were to...

She refused to think about it.

“My apologies for my behavior, Princess Luna, Princess Cadance.” She knew they would forgive her, so she paused and was rewarded with comments about it being a small matter. She allowed the two younger royals a smile. To business then. Rarity might have adored adding a bit of melodrama to life, for spice, but this was neither the time nor the place. “The reason I came was to ask for a moment of your time, Princess Luna. Princess Celestia was able to snap Twilight out of her... state before, when Twilight was a foal. I was hoping you would be able to do the same.”

“Twilight Sparkle’s magic still runs out of control? It has been hours.” Luna seemed annoyed when the topic of time had come up. “It’s unnerving not being able to judge the time, with our moon locked away.” She shook her head. “We simply can’t spare the energy to wrestle with the sun. It would be a great strain even in the best of times to intrude on Celestia’s domain. It takes all of our power and will to hold Celestia’s spirit to Her body to force Her to begin to mend. Simply keeping Her alive as we excised the dead and cooked flesh wa-”

Rarity felt ill. Cadance was clearly no better off. Both of them raised warding hooves almost at the same time. Rarity choked out the words first. “Please, Princess, we can’t take the details.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, within an hour, perhaps less, we shall be ready to turn her over to mortal healers to begin to bolster said flesh. Until then I dare not leave her side, even during my short respite. Spirit is closest to our aspect, though perhaps one day Cadance shall eclipse us in that. For now, however, nopony else could catch and hold Celestia’s soul within her. It has nearly broken us to do as much.”

“Well, Shining Armor is quite near to that point as well, trying to contain his sister,” Rarity interjected. Almost immediately Cadance looked toward the doorway in concern, as if pondering leaving at that moment to tend to her husband in such dire straits. Rarity held up a hoof. “Princess Cadance, darling, that was a poor choice of words. I don’t think it’s that immediately dire. But it’s been almost ten hours. The poor stallion is exhausted. Especially after enduring Celestia before that.”

Luna blinked in confusion once more. Rarity found it both endearing and a little disturbing. Celestia always seemed to know everything. Luna clearly didn’t bother with that mask, and it certainly made her seem more approachable. Rarity had to admit that she could use a bit of reassurance in the infallibility of the divine right now, however. “Our Sister? Did She accidentally strike Captain Armor while battling our mysterious enemies? And certainly Twilight must be down to nearly nothing after such a time. No unicorn could sustain such a fury as we witnessed for long. Once she has exhausted herself, she’ll collapse.”

It was Rarity and Cadance’s turns to look confused. “Enemies?” Rarity ventured. “Well, certainly that’s possible. Something made Celestia’s spell fail horribly, from all reports. And doubtless the same drove poor Twilight into that state. But there wasn’t a battle. Supposedly Celestia and Twilight were to practice war magic. A rather impressive demonstration by Celestia went terribly wrong. Why, I saw some of it myself. I was having a lunch date with Fancy Pants and his charming companion and a beam of golden light carved a swath across the mountainside. I must tell you, it had me heading toward the castle in a hurry, making sure I remembered the way to the Elements!”

Luna was contemplative for a few moments. “It must have been a spell most dark. Something warped Celestia’s access to Her sun. Her own fires are what did the damage. It cooked my Sister from the inside.” She ignored the cringing of the other two. “When we arrived we noticed Twilight had placed her own enchantment, no doubt trying in vain to counter the effects. We wish there had been time to study it more closely, it might have given clues as to the nature of what brave Twilight fought, but there was no time. Celestia was mere breaths from demise. None but an entity of the highest order could do such a thing, or a coven of many of lesser skill. Twisting both Celestia’s power and Twilight’s is beyond the ken of most of our known enemies.”

“If I may, Princess? Perhaps I should check on Discord’s statue? I admit, this isn’t quite chocolate rain and other tacky nonsense like that, but turning a pony’s powers wild does have a certain chaotic flair, no?” Not that Rarity had any particular desire to go near that thing. However, it was too disturbing a thought to ignore outright. Well, at the very least it earned her an approving smile from the weary goddess of the night.

“Well thought, Lady Rarity! Discord would need to be subtle to hide from our senses, but it can’t be ruled out. Thou must remember never to make assumptions about our eldest foe. His face is ever shifting. Though he was grandiose if nonviolent last time, we have seen him subtle and cruel as well.” Luna looked to Cadance. “As for thou, Cadance. Order the guard to scour the courtyard for the residue of outside magics. It may be a lost cause, given the wildness of Twilight’s display, and Celestia’s own powers washing out anything else, but we must not discard any chances. Then have messages sent out across Equestria to stem the surety of panic. Tell all that Celestia is recovering and they must be patient for me to regain the strength to lower the sun, and that all is well otherwise.” Rarity had to admit that Luna had a rather crisp, to-the-point way of ordering ponies about. It was almost militaristic. Doubtless a thousand years in the past it was the best way to get unsophisticated ponies moving. Though it wasn’t really any less effective now. The fashionista had to nearly quell the urge to salute. Luna continued, “we believe we can spare the few moments needed to send Twilight’s familiar a letter to have him gather the remaining Elements. We can’t be too careful. Then thou will tend to Twilight Sparkle, Cadance. Calm her mind, and her magic will follow. Thou art better suited to the task than I. Now go, I must send the message and tend to my sister. Have the doctors prepare.”

“I’ve already had that message drafted and sent, Highness. It has likely already left the palace en masse. I’m afraid I rather overstepped myself, but the palace is in total disarray. Nothing seems to be getting done. It was bound to be far worse in the rest of the kingdom.” Rarity offered meekly, rather hoping the Princess wouldn’t think that she had made too great a faux pas. “As for the other Element Bearers, if they aren’t here in the next few hours I shall be very surprised. They wouldn’t sit on their haunches upon hearing that Princess Celestia had been injured. And if Rainbow Dash isn’t bucking her way through that door...” Rarity waved a hoof in the direction of the red-curtained balcony doors. “... before the rest are halfway here, I think the shock might kill me.”

Thankfully, Luna hardly seemed angry. Perhaps just somewhat incredulous. “And thou art supposedly a fashion designer?” Before Rarity could speak, the dark alicorn raised a weary hoof. “Yes, yes. Thou art a Lady. We find it hard to disagree. If ever we need to appoint a new Duchess, we shall think of thee first. Thou can be sure of that.”

Rarity beamed. Poise, Rarity, poise and grace. “How kind of you to say so as well,” The white unicorn managed, in her very most collected tone. She mentally congratulated herself on holding back her desire to gush or faint or hop around screaming ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ in a very Twilight mode. Princess Cadance apparently didn’t share her mantra of propriety. The pink alicorn had been giggling gleefully ever since Luna had echoed her earlier words.

Briefly, a thought passed through Rarity’s mind. How had she known what I was going to say, about being a Lady? She hadn’t been able to spend much time getting to know the Lunar mare. The only thought she came up with was: It must be a goddess... thing.

Luna gained a flat, if vaguely amused look. “As for the boisterous Rainbow Dash, we shall set a guard out on the balcony to greet her. ‘Tia would not want Her door ruined. At least not without being awake to watch the grand entrance.”

“There’s just one thing, Luna,” Cadance mentioned after she quieted her laughter. That previous humor helped to even out the annoyance that threatened to creep into her tone. “I’m not sure if the guard is exactly going to be snapping to attention if I start giving out orders...”

The dark goddess, who heaved herself up onto tired hooves, gave the younger alicorn another puzzled look. “But, thou art a Princess.”

* * *

“Thank you gentlecolts. It pleases me to no end to see that chivalry is alive and well. To be willing to put yourselves in harm’s way to escort a mare into such danger... it warms a pony’s heart.” Truthfully, the three stallions that had gone with Rarity to check on Discord’s statue had been nearly as scared as she had been. Doubtless it would have been worse if they knew Discord as she did. How could any normal pony not be terrified when potentially walking into the lair of a being that may have struck down a goddess? That everything had been entirely normal had been a relief, to say the least. The statue had just been sitting there, cold and dead. “Especially you, dear Gilded Vine.” Rarity placed a kiss on the young unicorn servant’s cheek. He reddened under his pale yellow coat, a not unattractive look. He had simply been nearby when she had asked the guards for the favor of their escort, and he had insisted he help. “Such bravery and verve! Without so much as the armor or spears of these fine guards. I shan’t forget it, I promise that.” She gave the trio a radiant smile and turned to head toward the Soldier’s Yard. The three watched her go.

Gilded Vine fell back onto his haunches once Rarity had moved safely around a corner, and eyes could be unglued from the sight of her departure. “Wow,” the stallion said, a note of awe in his voice. A forehoof was raised to his cheek, where the remarkable mare had kissed him.

One of the pegasus guards gave the unicorn a good natured, congratulatory rap on the shoulder with a hoof. “No kidding. Lucky kid.”

* * *

“As weak as you can make it, Shiny. Its hard to get anything through it. Its like trying to see through a mountain.” Cadance had a hoof against the magenta bubble holding Twilight Sparkle. Her eyes were closed to block out the distraction as she tried to flex her own tenuous alicorn magic.

Despite the impropriety of it, especially in front of Cadance, Rarity helpfully leaned her shoulder against Shining Armor’s. He gratefully leaned back, allowing the smaller white unicorn to take some of his weight. How he was even on his hooves, the fashionista had no idea. He seemed to practically be an earth pony in his stubborn endurance. “I’ll try. Trust me when I say that Princess Luna’s theory about Twilie nearly being out isn’t exactly rock solid. I don’t know, maybe she’s weaker. But she’s tiring out a low slower than I am, so it’s impossible to tell. If I make the barrier too weak, she’ll just shred it apart.”

Shining Armor’s horn glowed in that familiar hue that Rarity knew so well from her friend. A glowing mist seemed to pour off of the bubble, it grew more translucent. Sound began to bleed through it, albeit as a strange sizzling drone whenever a bolt of Twilight’s magic would slam into the opposite face of the shield. The surface wobbled precariously, but it didn’t crack. Rarity resisted the urge to dive for cover. After all the praise she had received from the Princesses, she would stare down a charging manticore if necessary to show that it was well earned.

Truthfully, that worry was a fine distraction for the Element of Generosity. After the day that he had, Shining Armor could use a bath. The scent of a worked stallion had a certain base appeal, but Rarity was a refined mare, above such things. Even so, the warmth and solidity of his presence was distinctly pleasant. Such an unfabulous, unworthy thought. Rarity promptly squashed said thought down and mentally stomped on it.

“Rarity! Cool it already. I’m trying to concentrate.” Cadance all but growled, without so much as opening her eyes to look back at the unicorn. Rarity froze in sudden mortification. Had Cadance known what she was thinking? If she wasn’t sure Shining Armor would topple, she would have gone to dig herself a grave to fall into and die of shame right at that moment. Well, after finding a suitable casket. Something pristine and white, maybe. Properly bejeweled. She didn’t want to die in the dirt. Her face went as white as the pelt covering it, at first, then turned a rosy scarlet right after. Cadance, for her part, just voiced a wordless sound of exasperation.

Cadance placed her hoof back down on the ground, and seemed to be trying to collect herself as she turned to face the other mare. Shining Armor was about as puzzled as one could manage to be, when as drained as he was. Rarity withered under Cadance’s gaze. “Sorry. This is just, really, really hard. And it’s totally okay, promise!” Cadance reached up to trace an ‘X’ shape across her chest with her hoof. “Trust me when I say I’m the mare best experienced to understand the allure.” She gave a wicked little smirk at that. “But for now just try your best to avoid any strong feelings, okay? When I’m concentrating, they get really loud.”

Rarity, head still held somewhat low, nodded. The embarrassment lingered, but there was a sense of grateful relief too, when the Princess proved to be understanding toward her horrible, uncouth lapse. Cadance gave her a flat look. The unicorn offered a forced, embarrassed little laugh and hurriedly wracked her brain. Eventually she settled on closing her eyes and trying to think of her trips to the spa. Of the mindless relaxation of soaking in warm coat-restoring mud, or getting all the knots worked out of her by Aloe and Lotus. In that little slice of serenity, she barely noticed Cadance murmuring to her husband that the little aside was nothing to be concerned over. The strange reverberation of a metal shod hoof against solid magic heralded the young alicorn’s return to her task.

Rarity, behind her, allowed her eyes to open once she was confident in her peace. She attempted to keep that detachment, but a bit of curiosity creeped in as she watched Cadance work. There wasn’t much to see, but clearly something was going on.

“She’s terrified. Confused. Everything is just going in circles and she can’t break out of it. I’m not even sure she can think.” Cadance’s voice was distant. Clearly she wasn’t sparing any real attention to keeping her husband and Rarity informed. Certainly there was nobody else to speak to. Cadance had the courtyard cleared before she began, except for a trio of Life Flight pegasi mares with their equipment and pony-sling in the far corner, ready to whisk Twilight off to Canterlot General if necessary.

Cadance’s sides expanded as she appeared to take in a deep breath. Her wings spread out, curling somewhat around one side of the bubble, as if to catch something. With that breath, the spells flinging themselves against the barrier slowed and weakened. By the end of the second deep inhale they had stopped completely. A third found Twilight sinking back toward the floor.

Twilight Sparkle collapsed against the cobblestones unmoving, like a marionette with the strings suddenly cut. The purple unicorn’s horn was hot enough that the very tip glowed in a lazy red light, like forge-heated metal. It left a trail of thin smoke as she fell.

A far less dangerous glow from Shining Armor’s horn dismissed his spell, shattering it into glowing motes and sparkling lights. The effort made the stallion sway in disorientation. “Twilie!” Rarity watched helplessly as the stallion made it all of two steps before, predictably, the exhaustion of ten hours of spellcasting caught up with him in a rush. Shining Armor stumbled, fell beside his sister, and didn’t rise.

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