"Twilight, did you see that?" Nolux turned to the unicorn, only to find her friends head bowed in thought. For the first time since they had met, Twilight didn't answer. Somehow, that struck the zebra. Even when she was angry, direct, even nearly cruel, Twilight had never once failed to respond when Nolux spoke. This... stillness, like she was withdrawn from the world, it was far more alarming than anything the stone edifice could contain.
"Twilight!" Panic edged the voice of the mare, the sharp tang of fear lending it an edge that it would never have otherwise contained. Yet still, the mare didn't react, she didn't even seem to have heard Nolux's plea. Her brow furrowed, as if in an attempt to drag some lone memory from the depths of the path, a memory which feared the light of day.
Then her eyes opened and her head lifted. Her gaze passed over Nolux, focusing on the castle. And suddenly, she was glad that the unicorn had no attention to spare for her. Even that glance, looking past her at the castle beyond, had been terrifying. There was nothing on the mare's face, only that same calm mask. But within the eyes, something stirred, almost like some deep emotion struggled with the unicorn, only to be held firmly in place.
Then Twilight's horn flared with a brilliant light. The normally violet hue of the magic was lost in the outpouring of energy, lost into a silvery white luminescence as brilliant as the noon sun. There was a similar light, this time a globe of blinding energy, which appeared several inches above the ground, heat pulsing out from the sphere in time with the throbbing light. There was the sharp cloying scent of ozone, and the light, and heat, vanished. In their place, a pink pony with a fluffy, curly mane and tail was held suspended. Then, just as the brilliance faded, she fell.
Pinkie landed on the ground before Twilight with a grunt, the air knocked from her lungs as she impacted. The soft grass kept her from any real damage, but at least for the moment, Pinkie couldn't say anything. Neither could Twilight. She just stared at the Party Pony in shock, violet eyes wide and mouth slightly agape.
Nolux was however under no such constraints. "Twilight. If you would be so kind, who is this, why are they here, and what in the name of the Holy Ancestors did you just do?"
"Yeah Twilight, what did you do? I knew you could do some super duper cool magic stuff, but that was even cooler than I remember!" Pinkie had regained her breath, and bounced from the ground as if nothing had happened. Still hopping, she turned to Nolux, smiling with white teeth the apparent size and shape of tombstones. "Who are you? Oh, I thought I knew the only zebra around her. Guess not though. Do you rhyme too? Oh! Can you make a rhyme with orange? I tried that with Zecora once, but she gave up. I think she cheated, she added a word and then rhymed boat with coat. Oh, but maybe you're one of Twilight's new friends? I'm Pinkie Pie, and I love to see you smile. Come on, show your Auntie Pinkie those pearly whites."
For a moment, Nolux stared at the mare, still bouncing in place before her, the white smile drawing her eyes with it. Her head bounced in time with Pinkie, and after another long second, Nolux let out a fillyish giggle which swiftly became a choked laugh. Below Pinkie, Twilight's face showed a clear annoyance, only making Nolux laugh harder.
"Pinkie. Get. Off." Purple light, now returned to its usual half murk, enveloped the mare, and her hooves paused a moment before they would have once more landed on the unicorn's back. "Now, why are you here? How did you find me?"
"Find you?" Pinkie asked, suspended upside down in the air by Twilight's spell. "I didn't find you. I didn't have to. I just waited for you. I was going to throw you a Super-Awesome-Welcome-Back-Twilight/Clean-And-Fix-Your-Scary-Castle-In-The-Woods Party, but I ran out of banner to write on. So instead, I just made it a Super-Awesome-Welcome-To-Your-New-Scary-Castle Party. I have all the cakes and cupcakes and punch and balloons laid out and a bunch of other stuff too. You want to come and see?"
"Twilight, is she always like this?" Nolux strode forward a step, cocking her head to the side as she stared at the Earth Pony. There was something funny about her. Something... different, but Nolux couldn't quiet put her hoof on it.
The annoyed unicorn sighed, ending the spell and letting Pinkie drop once more to the ground, albeit much more softly this time. "Yes. Now Pinkie, what are you doing here. Where are the others? Is, the Princess with you?"
Nolux looked over at Twilight, catching the stutter in her voice. That's what she's afraid of, isn't it? This Princess. She was afraid, she was here.
"I simply do not see why it is appropriate for you to approve of Red Gala's irrigation proposal, while denying my bid for shipping lanes." Luna hung her head, closing her eyes and breathing slowly. Once more, a pony from the seemingly unending line before her had an issue with her policies.
"As I told you Carnation, there is a definitive need for irrigation, with the erratic weather. A shipping right to you simply to send flowers about is of far less importance than ensuring that everypony can eat." The golden mane scythed through the air as the pony flipped her head to the side, the long straight hair the same color as ripe grain whipping about. An annoyed huff came from the mare as she paced away from the throne, an expression bridging the gap between a snarl and a pout clearing a path before her. As she watched yet another tantrum, Luna sighed heavily.
"Sister, I need you."
"Beg pardon, Majesty?"
"Oh, hello Fancy Pants. I apologize, I was thinking." Before her, the stallion stood, seeming almost to be missing a part of himself without the elegant Fluer draped over his back. Now though, he wore only the black suit he had tailored for court, the golden chain of a watch looping perfectly into a pocket. He stood the very picture of aloof arrogance, as if none of the proceedings could possibly be of interest. He was, without a doubt, the greatest ally the Princesses had among the nobles.
"Well, if you are quite finished woolgathering, I have a proposition before we close for the evening." He was a very clever pony, Luna could almost hug him for that. Now she only had to listen to him and then she would be free.
And then I will have several very harsh, very direct words with my dear sister. The blue eyes flashed and darkened, the hue nearing black as Luna once more fought back the tide of anger, frustration, and fear.
Now, why bother fighting it? You know that you are correct, and that your sister has unleashed evil. Why not stop her? Unless... maybe there is still a part of you that wants her to come to harm?
Be quiet, you senile crone. I do not have time to argue with you while talking to the nobles. The soft touch of that creature's mind departed, like a feather falling from her back, only noticeable when it was gone. Luna was the Princess of the Night, and the Mistress of Dreams. By her very nature, she was a past master of the mind, both her own, and others. She could invade any mind she chose to, up to and including spying on her sister's deepest thoughts. Acshina though, she was something else. She was too old, too powerful, too different. Luna had tried, tried so many times she had literally lost count, to break the mind of that vile thing, but not once had she even been able to locate the mind.
But crones are wise dear child. Though I suppose I shall depart. Your sister is far more entertaining at the moment.
"And so, Princess, I petition the crown for a sum of no less than ten thousand bits, to match my own contribution to the education system. As I stated, both I and the crown can easily afford the cost, while our future may not be able to account for the massive damage such rampant under-funding is causing our foals."
"I shall need time to consider. Perhaps you would care to join me for luncheon and tell me more of this plan?"
Steam curled from the cup before Luna. Within the cup, swirling herbs, their scarlet hue a striking contrast to the midnight black of the tea. Even in the warm afternoon, the fireweed sent curls of heat radiating from the cup. Across the blackened iron table, Fancy Pants placed a cube of sugar in his coffee. Luna remembered the vile brew, she had tasted it soon after her return. Apparently, in her absence, it had become very popular, though the bitter tang and caffeine combined on her pallet in a horrendous fashion.
"Please Majesty, how may I help you?" Fancy Pants leaned in closer to the Princess, lowering his voice. There was little chance that their voices would carry in the hedgerows, but the overgrown foliage could also hide ponies virtually next to them, and they would have never known. White marble statues dotted the Garden, hidden artfully within the overgrowth, just enough to hide the full splendor from view, not enough to lose yourself within. "I simply ask that you tell me what ails you. And Princess Celestia."
"Please, I... My sister has not given me leave to speak of her difficulties. I am not allowed to tell you, though I do wish a favor from you."
"Anything Majesty." The haughty, bored look left his face, and Fancy Pants sat there, calm calculation evident. She was grateful that the stallion was an ally of the crown, without his aid the political camps within court would have attacked her long ago.
"I need you to incite more fighting. I need them to be distracted, at least for several days."
"There are those who enjoy the game of deceit, and betrayal of course. However, some may find it to their mutual advantage to ally themselves, in an effort to overcome a greater foe." His tone was casual, and he glanced at his coffee as he took a sip from the china cup. But before that, his eyes had flashed like singing steel, anger lighting them with a pale sheen.
"White Mane, Jade Helm, and Bountiful Harvest?'
"Quite, Majesty. They seem to have scented blood, and like beasts, they are seeking it out." The three ponies were as close to evil as a pony could become. They were rude, selfish, hedonistic, spiteful, and corrupt, but they were also filthy rich, influential, and had the support of fully more than half of Court between them. They were horrific, their only redeeming factor was that they spent more time bickering than accomplishing anything. they could cooperate though, Luna had seen them do so twice since her return. Once, they sought to divert a tax which would have penalized all ponies, including the crown, above a certain income level, while the second time, they had forced through a petition which effectively let them line their pockets from any stipend the crown issued, such as those to schools. And young unicorn librarians without any family.
"Will you be able to disrupt whatever they are planning? I need to adjourn session for the next week, but I would like at least some time before they know. And if you are able to occupy them for the duration, I would be most grateful."
"My command is but your desire, Majesty." Fancy Pants bowed slightly over the table, drank the last of his coffee, and departed. As he did, Luna leaned forward, resting her head on the cool metal table. She sighed, and a tear fell onto the iron, easily lost on the polished surface.