• Published 19th Feb 2017
  • 1,867 Views, 23 Comments

Control Freak - Pascoite

The nightmares started… Twilight can’t remember just when. But they’ve gotten worse and worse, and why won’t Luna help, and now they’ve even stopped bothering her. That scares her more than any nightmare ever did.

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Chapter 3: Immovable

Twilight Sparkle had spent all day alone in her old room, and nopony had come by. Luna was the one who had suggested that they talk, but nothing. Had she shuttled Celestia off somewhere so she couldn’t interfere? What was Luna playing at?

The stars all leered down at her, and Twilight glared back, for what little good it might do. Further down, many other points of light shone from around town, but one by one, they winked out, leaving only streetlamps and the occasional insomniac’s candle illuminated. One other source, though—from Luna’s study across the courtyard. A shadow paced back and forth behind the cloth that obscured the windows, but the half-spread wings and long horn betrayed its identity. Back and forth, over and over again, rather like a goldfish in its little enclosure, too stupid to realize it’d been in that same spot countless times.

The figure paused and parted the heavy drapes. Could Luna see her? It was quite dark in Twilight’s room, but she imagined Luna could see in the dark very well.

Poor Luna. She really did try. A nostalgic grin sneaked across Twilight’s face before she had a chance to stop it. Teaching her to control her voice, coaching her in how to speak… helping her to keep her temper in check. She’d been kind of… adorably inept back then. A good student, eager to learn, but as soon as she thought she’d absorbed what she needed, Luna went back to strutting around as if Twilight were just another subject.

Twilight’s grin faded. Luna was never going to get it. She had already given up the greatest power she’d ever possessed, and all because she’d rather play her little divide-and-conquer games than stay focused. Just like a foal who, enamored with a shiny key, holds it up to the sunlight while the incoming tide buries the dingy old chest containing the real treasure. On her second try, no less. Twilight had bested Luna once already. And what stood, here and now in this shadowed room, was something more than just Twilight.

She caught her head sagging toward the windowsill and shook her lethargy off. No sleep. She couldn’t afford it, not during the night, at least. Not with Luna still awake. She’d wriggle her way into Twilight’s dreams, twist her thoughts, give her some more of those terrible nightmares. Those… No, they weren’t that bad. She’d been very blunt to Rainbow Dash, but her friend needed to hear it. And she’d taken Pinkie by the neck, but… she wouldn’t shut up. She didn’t hurt Pinkie, in any case. Just a little fun.

What had been so bad about those dreams? Twilight remembered feeling upset, but not why. She slapped a hoof against her forehead and winced from the impact, but at least the pain brought a moment of clarity. Luna was working something subtle. Twilight couldn’t figure out what yet, but she would.

She couldn’t count on any help from Celestia, though. Luna wouldn’t allow it.

Twilight sneered. Luna. Always in the way. Twilight probably wasn’t strong enough to challenge her yet, but give it time. Luna wouldn’t dare harm her, anyway. Not when Twilight had Celestia wrapped around her hoof. But for now… Twilight couldn’t stay here.

This place—maddening. Too many voices, too much bustle. Even at night, attendants, guards, staff, scurrying through the hallways. The city slept, but never Canterlot Castle. She needed… space. Space to think, space to be alone.

Like the library. Twilight’s jaw relaxed, her mind flooding with images of cheery candlelight, musty books, a cup of hot cocoa, and the ebb and flow of the subtle magic which had sustained the old hollow tree and now resonated through the crystal walls of her new home. Well, maybe not cocoa in this warm weather.

Spike would be there…

Twilight giggled in spite of herself and nibbled on the tip of her hoof. She could see it now: “Twilight, can I get you some tea? A daisy sandwich? That book on your nightstand? Whatever you want. I’m just so happy to have you home!” She could envision his face lighting up, the way he’d always crowd against her when she’d been away. She had to smile along with the phantom Spike there in the dark. Of course, he wouldn’t come right out and tell her he wanted to see whatever gift she’d brought back for him. First, the small talk—he’d ask what had happened…

He’d ask. The ghost beside her let out a whimper and directed glistening eyes up at her. “Twilight, you had me so worried! You never told me what was wrong, and you left so suddenly. Please, Twilight. What happened? Did Princess Celestia help?” She couldn’t tell him. She couldn’t admit—that word again! There was nothing to admit. Nothing.

But he would ask. They’d all ask. Pinkie, that silly mare, always bouncing around with a goofy grin. Twilight had to laugh, but… Pinkie was so irritating. Try getting some peace and quiet around her. Rainbow Dash. Bold, fun, true. And a nuisance. On a rare occasion, she might pry an intelligent thought from her head. Applejack, the straight shooter, tells it like it is. But to be honest, she could shut up about her farm. Everypony works. Everypony. Some ponies just have other things going on in their lives, too. Fluttershy could simply blend into the wallpaper, and nopony would notice. Useless. And Rarity. She’d had her chance.

In place of Spike, Rarity’s crystalline eyes hovered in the starlight, watching her. Those beautiful eyes—they twinkled, and Twilight could see herself in them again, could see… her own green eyes again, with purple mist trailing from their corners. Twilight jerked her head over to the wash of moonlight on the stone wall near the window. I-I’m sorry, Rarity! I

No matter. Celestia couldn’t keep Twilight here in this room smelling of dust and mold, whatever promises she might have made. Celestia sure seemed to have taken a shine to her. The corners of Twilight’s mouth twisted back upward as she chuckled into the shadows. Perhaps she could use that to her advantage.

No! That’s not the way it happened! Twilight shook her smile off and threw it into the room’s farthest, darkest corner. She… she needed to clear her head. She needed to get away from here. This room, this castle, this city… They constricted her thoughts, wrapped their coils around her mind. Squeezing.

In a flash, Twilight saw the room as if through another’s eyes, at a distance. Out the end of a tunnel, or… the top of a well shaft. She only had time to suck in half a gasp before it was gone. Right back into herself, in this infuriating place!

She pressed her hooves into her temples and opened her mouth to scream, but held back at the last moment and glared at that window across the courtyard. This was exactly what Luna wanted. The light extinguished—it was still well before midnight, so no way Luna was going to sleep. Some other duty… She might even be on her way here.

Twilight jerked to her hooves, then rushed out of the room and down the long staircase to the ground-floor entrance. She opened the door a crack and peered outside. Two guards on patrol in the street: the same pattern as when she used to live here. The princesses were nothing if not predictable. Minute after minute she listened, gauging the guards’ speed and location from the echoing hoofsteps. One had just rounded the corner to the north, and the other wouldn’t walk by again for three more minutes. She counted off another fifteen seconds in her head for good measure, then was out in the street, running. Running for the main gate, running for freedom, running for… she didn’t even know what, she realized as her breath came in ragged gasps. For some semblance of control, maybe.

The large city gates had closed for the night, leaving only the small pedestrian door. No way could she slip through that undetected. Twilight had already made up her mind: no levitation and no flying, or she might be seen against the moonlit sky, and no teleportation, or the flash of light might give her away. But she had to risk it once—she didn’t have any other way.

She pressed her body against the thick stone bulwark that ran around Canterlot’s border and gritted her teeth. No windows nearby, no pedestrians around, no direct line of sight to the guard post at the gate. She probably wouldn’t find a safer spot to try. About twenty hooves straight out should do it. Twilight fixed her mind on the view outside that wall, outside the city, as if she could touch it, pull herself toward it. The smell of old masonry, the green leaves outside, the taste of damp night air. Then came that familiar warm surge, and… that same view sat in front of her, a few branches out of place and the stars not quite how she’d imagined them, but she was free. Free.

Shuffling hoofsteps sounded from atop the fortification, and Twilight’s heart raced. She ducked into the scrub, stayed motionless, held her breath until her lungs burned, but nopony called out a challenge or raised an alarm. Two flashes of light, a split second apart, on either side of the barrier, and nopony had seen.

Her smirk led the way into the darkness as Twilight picked her path through the forest, her pace quickening the further she got from the city. She needed to reach Ponyville before daybreak. Earlier, if possible.

The moon still hung high in the sky when Twilight emerged from the trees beside the well-rutted carriage track from Canterlot. She hadn’t passed any wagons, but it hadn’t cost her much time on the uneven ground, either. She trotted past the first few buildings and made her way toward the library, and when those leafy boughs finally sheltered her from the moonlight, her heart leapt. Home!

Stretching up as high as she could, Twilight peered in the ruined window and craned her neck toward the blackened remnants of the stairs, and then even that melted away into the shadows. Right. Not her home anymore, not even there anymore.

She trotted on to her castle and around to the back corner, where the living quarters looked out over the countryside. The main room was dark—no surprise there—but she couldn’t detect a flicker from upstairs, either. Spike hadn’t left a light on for her, just in case? Had he given up waiting, or had Celestia replied to say she wouldn’t be back tonight? Twilight’s shoulders slumped. She hoped he would have done it anyway, if only as a show of faith in her. As much as she’d like to blame Luna, Twilight had watched her all day, and she’d never left that study.

So it was really Spike, on his own. He’d accompanied her since the beginning of her magical journey, and—and she wanted him there by her side for all of it. She shook her head and wiped her cheeks dry. She needed to figure this out. But not here. It—it didn’t feel like home right now. She knew where she needed to go. It’d all work out. A-after she’d had time to think.

She left the castle behind. Other buildings slithered past, all dark and lifeless and looming over her. Carousel Boutique, its creative spark extinguished for now, lost something when it wasn’t in constant motion. Sugarcube Corner, utterly alien in its silence and locked doors, hunkered down for the night.

A sudden urge to rush up and knock on that door tugged at Twilight’s shoulder. In seconds, she could say everything would be okay and hug Pinkie—the possibility sucked at Twilight’s mind like a parasite. She deviated a few steps from her path through town, but no. Pinkie would want to ask questions, too.

Twilight fought down a low growl in her throat and took a deep breath to regain her focus. She needed quiet. She didn’t need to deal with anypony. With an extra urgency in her step, she continued on her way out of Ponyville.

By the time dawn broke, Twilight was panting and shoving through the underbrush along the Everfree Forest’s edge. She took a moment to stop and pluck some wild raspberries from a thorny vine and gulp them down. Sour! She spat them out immediately. For a moment, she stood there, seeds and red juice falling in clumps off her tongue. But… she was hungry. She hadn’t even thought about it before, but now that she did, her legs shook. Nothing around—just trees and dirt and those unripe berries and… She stomped a hoof. Nature sure could be useless. She wolfed down every disgusting berry in sight and concentrated on tasting as little of it as possible.

On her way again, along whatever road lay ahead, some invisible force pulling her more strongly the further she got. She could feel it now, like rope around her neck, but… it had been there the whole time. Barely, but she recognized its presence now. After taking only a moment to drink from the river and devour a scant patch of dandelions, she prodded her weary legs into a gallop once more, across the shallow rapids, over a deep gorge, and finally into the ruined castle on the far side.

Twilight stumbled up the stairs, her warped vision skewing and twisting the next step and the next… Out into a big room. She tripped on a loose paver, banged a knee on some debris, now the room was sideways! Stinging on her shoulder against the cold floor. She’d fallen. Not sideways, just… down. Back on her hooves, not walking, sliding as it pulled her, dragged her toward—

She collapsed onto the dais that long ago held the royal throne.

Dawn Ember paused halfway up the long stone staircase leading to Princess Twilight Sparkle’s old room. Well, current room too, she guessed. She’d played down her reaction when Princess Luna mentioned her name, but no way would she miss a chance to meet a legend like Twilight. One of the greatest spellcasters ever, and yet approachable, or so she’d heard. She’d even seen the bedroom before, preserved as a tribute ever since Princess Twilight’s coronation. Yes, a tribute, not a tourist attraction. Some ponies just assumed they could commercialize whatever, but Princess Celestia never would have allowed it. As if she could stop the ponies selling souvenirs and celebrity star maps.

Not much to be done about it, though. Ember continued up the stairs after looking out one of the narrow windows for the clock tower on the far side of the castle. Almost eleven-thirty. Maybe Princess Twilight had gone to sleep already.

Ember knocked lightly at the door and watched the light from a nearby sconce dance across the polished wood. “Princess Twilight Sparkle?” she said in a hushed voice. She waited a moment, but no answer.

Without a sound, she opened the door a crack and peered into the blackness, a yellow blob of leftover torchlight still flooding her vision. “Princess?” she said again on her way in, but after a few paces, she sat on the floor. Not awake, apparently, and no need to bother her. She turned to leave and—

“Twilight is not here.”

Ember jumped and held a hoof to her racing heart. “Princess Luna?” Her eyes still hadn’t adjusted, and she couldn’t see her mentor in the dark. No, in the middle of the room—a faint glint of diffuse moonlight off Luna’s horseshoe.

“I had hoped to speak with her, but she has left.”

Ember had only heard that tone of voice from her once before, when she’d failed a trigonometry test that had caught her completely unprepared. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“No need to explain. We all have our heroes, and Twilight makes for a good one.”

Princess Luna strode over to her, and Ember imagined that even in the dimness, the Princess could see the blush on her cheeks clearly. But soon enough, something else crept into Ember’s consciousness. Something sour, dark red. Something she’d felt before. She knew what would come next.

“What do you sense?” Princess Luna sat directly in front of her and stared implacably ahead. Ember had long since learned how to read her, though. That warmth behind the features, the same care as a mo—

As a mother.

Ember closed her eyes and brought a weak glow to her horn. But her thoughts didn’t drift immediately toward the room’s acerbic flavor.

The purple light drifting through the cabin’s windows complemented the yellow glow from the hearth. Chanterelle had gathered a number of canvas pouches and was spreading the herbs, roots, and fungi they contained over several metal trays, which she then set on the bricks to dry. One batch in front of the fire, and another coming off to be tied up in neat little bundles and stashed in the bins by the door.

Ember watched her mother intently, taking in the deft movements of her hooves, the timing, the placement, and more than anything else, the sweet, pungent, earthy aromas curling up from each tray. Every little gesture drew Ember’s eyes along with it, like a puppy on a leash.

With each glance down at a much younger Ember, Chanterelle smiled a little bigger. “You see that one, dear?” she asked, pointing at a gnarled, fibrous root. Ember leaned forward to peer at it and nodded. “Ginseng. It’s good for making tea, and it helps with a number of chronic health problems. And that bark over there—”

Ember scrunched up her nose and reached for it, then hesitated, held back.

“Go on. You won’t hurt it.”

Ember took a strip in her hooves and turned it over several times. The color, shape, texture, all pretty… ordinary. She gave it a sniff.

“That’s willow bark,” Chanterelle said. “Pain reliever and fever reducer.”

After one more close look, Ember bit off a small corner and held the remainder against her cheek while she chewed. Her horn lit up, but faintly, barely enough to penetrate the room’s darkness. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Yeah. It feels slow and… cold. That makes sense. But it turns black and red.”

Chanterelle squinted back at her. “Black and… red?”

Ember knit her brow and shook her head. “I don’t know. That’s just how it looks when I close my eyes.”

His pipe puffing away in regular rhythm, Fennel’s eyes sparkled when Ember looked up at him. “It can be good for your heart but bad for your stomach,” her father added.

“What about that?” Ember asked as she grabbed a small stalk of yellow flowers. She smelled it, but it didn’t seem like anything special. Might as well try a bite—

“Don’t!” Chanterelle shouted. “Spit that out!”

One more chew, and Ember blew it into the fire and screwed up her face. “Bitter!”

“That’s foxglove,” Chanterelle said, reaching for her nearly empty cup of water. “Here. Rinse out your mouth and don’t swallow. Spit it back in the cup.”

With an “ecch!” Ember obeyed and wiped her hoof across her tongue.

“Too much is poisonous, but a little bit is a valuable heart medicine.” Chanterelle held a hoof to her chest and chuckled. “Just ask next time.”

Ember pointed at the platter sitting in Chanterelle’s lap. “What are those?”

“Morel mushrooms. What do you make of them?” Chanterelle held one out to her.

Ember broke off a piece, and when Chanterelle nodded, she gave it a chew and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like anything. What does it treat?”

“Hunger,” Chanterelle answered with a laugh. “Mixing them in a preparation of milk and flour makes a wonderful gravy. They’re for dinner tomorrow.”

Ember smiled back. It was rather tasty. The flavor reminded her of… of… Her drooped eyelids popped back open.

“Looks like some little filly is about ready to get some sleep,” Fennel remarked through a smoke ring. He reached a foreleg around her and corralled her over to a cot against the wall.

She lay down facing the fire, and Fennel draped a wool blanket over her. Nice and warm against the evening chill, with the fire’s radiance playing on her face. Warm, and just listening to the crackle and pop from the hearth, and the insects humming outside. The one place in the world where she felt safe. Safe and warm and calm.

Ember grunted and nearly spit on the floor. But that wouldn’t get rid of the taste.

She never liked it when Princess Luna asked her to do this—to use her magic on a pony. It worked only by analogy, though. Tastes, colors, whatever impressions she got and could compare to ones she’d felt before, from the magic inherent around her.

The day after Fennel had first found her, when he’d taken her to the nearest city, Vanhoover, to ask about missing pony reports, that was how she knew. She knew that after they’d camped overnight, throwing that yellow rock in the fire’s ashes would get the timberwolves off their trail. The thing had made her nose hurt—orpiment, Fennel had called it—so it stood to reason that something with an even more sensitive nose might soon find it couldn’t smell anything else for the rest of the day. And that poor sketch artist at the police station, with a case of food poisoning. They’d all laughed when a filly told her to eat her charcoal stick. All except Fennel. And now it was a common treatment for poison.

With any new touch, smell, taste, she was lost until she had a known quantity for comparison. But this sour taste, this dark red… She’d encountered them enough times, whenever Princess Luna asked her to help track down a rogue magic-user. But never before so strong. She almost choked on it.

“What do you sense?” Princess Luna asked again.

“Same,” Ember said, wrinkling her nose. Princess Luna nodded. So she already knew. Why involve her, then? Nature was one thing, ponies quite another.

“I suspected as much,” the Princess replied. “But I need to know where she went.”

Even worse when Princess Luna ordered her into bloodhound mode. The land and the plants welcomed her, meditated quietly with her. They wouldn’t keep up if she rushed them.

Princess Luna’s stony gaze said plainly that she didn’t have time to waste. Unfortunately, time meant little to the air and the wood and the stone floors. “It might take a while,” Ember said. The pungent, warped magic hung thick in the room like molasses. Finding a faint draw in there, a small afterimage of the caster’s mindset, was like picking out one gnat among the swarm and following it. If only Copper were here. She could use his strength.

“Whatever time you need.” Princess Luna blinked and tightened her jaw. “But when you find it, I go alone.”

That suited Ember just fine. She sniffed the air again, tasted her lips. Already a musty odor, like moss, but out of context, it meant nothing. She grimaced, but not at the sensations rolling through her mind.

Using magic against a pony…

A ray of late-afternoon sunshine had finally crept that last infinitesimal distance to pry its way through Twilight’s eyelids. She pushed herself up onto her haunches and squeezed her eyes shut even harder. How long had she been asleep? And no dreams…

Twilight at last glanced around the room at the crumbling stonework, the openings where ornate windows no doubt once covered gaping arches, the blocks piled into a crude seat beside her, and—her eyes flicked back to a hint of movement. A bit of pink swaying in the breeze, and some of the pale yellow light bathing the far wall took on a distinct shape.


The bile rising in her stomach, Twilight glared at the intruder, but when Fluttershy continued standing there like another of the stoic pillars, Twilight settled on the stack of rocks that had been a throne. No—would be a throne. Her throne, in the wild, away from all those other ones in her old castle. Alone. This place needed a little attention, sure, but it would gleam with its former majesty again. All of the Castle of the Two Sisters would, and then she’d have to think of a more apt name for it.

Twilight blinked a few times, then spoke as if addressing an irksome peasant. “How did you know I was here?” she asked while inspecting her hoof. She reclined on her velvet cushions and surveyed the rich tapestries and gilded fixtures adorning the walls.

“Some of the animals told me,” Fluttershy replied, at least in Twilight’s estimation. She’d only made out a few syllables of that mumble. Her mouth still hanging open and her chest still tensed to coax a few more words out, Fluttershy raised a bent foreleg, but then averted her eyes and snapped her mouth shut.

Twilight had only caught a brief glimpse of Fluttershy’s eyes, but they weren’t that usual malleable softness that would adapt itself to whatever everypony wanted them to be. That gaze had been hard, callused… resolute. The plain stone surrounded them once more, all the finery torn away by that starkly real moment. Twilight’s heart raced.

“Just go away,” Twilight growled, her ears folding back. Fluttershy didn’t budge. Her forehead creased, but she remained stock-still, staring at a spot on the floor in front of her. “Nopony likes you, you know. They’d say something, but you just melt into the background, and they forget you’re even there.”

Fluttershy blinked and examined the floor a little further to the left, and her feathers puffed out. Curious… Birds did that when threatened. Did pegasi, too? It didn’t make her look intimidating—just fat.

“Do you even realize what I could do to you?” Twilight got to her hooves again, but the longer that waif refused to back off, the more Twilight’s teeth gritted. “Just go away!

Still Fluttershy stood, her perked-up foreleg quivering. She swallowed hard and let her mane fall across her face, but little flecks of tempered steel gleamed in that gaze from behind the pink cascade.

Twilight’s own eyes glimmered, and one side of her mouth curled up. There were other ways of getting to Fluttershy. Fun ways.

One flash of purple light later, and Fluttershy reappeared far above, against the ceiling. Her eyes shot wide open, and she yelped as she plummeted and flailed her legs. Like that would do her any good. Halfway down, she fought off the vise of fear that Twilight knew would be clamping her wings to her sides. Fluttershy flared them out and swooped away as best she could, but still grazed her knees on the floor and went tumbling.

“Just run away, Fluttershy. It’s what you do best.” Twilight’s chuckle was lost in the scrabbling of hooves against loose stone.

Fluttershy stood once more, her knees shaking badly, and snapped her wings back to her body. A spasm surged through her chest, but then there was that firm jaw again, jutted out to hold back tears, common sense, words that she couldn’t say. Now she showed some spine? Not even Fluttershy would be predictable anymore. Very well, then. The thing about spines—they break.

“What’s it going to take to get you to go away?” Twilight shouted. “I just want to be alone in the quiet!”

Fluttershy only gulped and stared at Twilight’s hooves, her sentry post resumed.

Twilight’s horn blazed once more, and an immense dragon filled the room, the setting sun’s rays gleaming off his metallic scales like fire and scattering in iridescent patterns on the walls. He swung his long neck around and thrust his snout within inches of Fluttershy’s mane.

She held her ground. Somehow. She collapsed onto the floor, covered her head with her hooves, and whimpered like a pathetic foal, but she held her ground. As Fluttershy trembled in the dust, the dragon roared in her face, a blast of hot, sulfur-scented breath sending her mane streaming back. But there she stayed, gasping for air and losing the battle against the sobs that wracked her chest. In the ensuing silence, she peeked with one eye to see the illusion dissipate.

Twilight laughed. The tear streaks on Fluttershy’s muzzle, her struggle to remain soundless, simpering on the floor—but neither would she move. Twilight’s grin bent out of shape under the weight of that simple fact. She squinted at the cowering figure and shouted, “Why won’t you just go? You’re not wanted here!”

One leg at a time, Fluttershy propped herself up on unsteady hooves, her jaw clenching. “I’m not leaving. If you want it quiet, I think you know I can do that better than anypony—” she punctuated her statement with a sharp nod “—but I’m not leaving.” She wiped the dampness from her cheeks and finally returned Twilight’s stare.

Twilight ran up to her and jabbed a hoof toward the door. “Get out!” she screamed. The tight line of Fluttershy’s mouth broke again as her lower lip puffed out and she blinked away fresh tears. “Go on! Cry! See what good it does you,” Twilight spat.

Her voice coming out in a squeak, Fluttershy leaned forward and hooked a foreleg around Twilight’s neck. “I’m not crying for myself.” Tremulous lips moved to Twilight’s ear, and Fluttershy whispered, “I’m not crying for me. It’s for you. Something’s horribly wrong, and I don’t know what.” She pulled Twilight tighter into the hug until their cheeks rested together. “I still love you, Twilight. You’re my friend. Spike told me you went to see Princess Celestia, but he didn’t know why. We’re all worried.”

Twilight gasped and ripped herself out of Fluttershy’s embrace. She shoved her friend away as hard as she could, fell to her haunches, and scrambled backward. “Stop it! How dare you talk down to me!” She recoiled and grimaced, her eyes squeezed shut. “Why won’t you leave?” Twilight yelled. Her horn sparking to life again, she gripped Fluttershy’s wing joints with her magic and slammed her to the wall. The impact wrenched a dull cry from Fluttershy’s throat.

The floor just out of reach, Fluttershy struggled against the purple glow for a moment, then let her body go limp. A few teardrops stirred up minute dust clouds on the ground as she gave up any pretense of holding back. “I’m… sorry…” she keened in spurts through her crying. “I’m sorry I… couldn’t… help you…”

Twilight’s eyes began to gloss over, and a white fog obscured her vision of that pegasus with her back pinned to the stone blocks. The mist wrapped close around her, warm against the encroaching evening coolness, safe from any threat, calmed from her fury at Fluttershy’s interference.


And it was all gone. Twilight whipped around to where Luna had soared in through a gaping hole in the ceiling. The storm subsided, its rage abated—no, refocused. Luna had dogged her relentlessly, allowing her no rest, waiting for an opening. And for what? Some petty unvoiced grudge. At least Twilight agreed on one thing: she’d had enough.

“Put her down!” Luna kept her wings fully spread, blotting out the low sun and casting Twilight into shadow. “Somehow, I knew you would be here. This place—” she wrinkled her nose and waved a hoof around at the ruins “—always seems to draw us.”

Twilight sneered back and let Fluttershy slide down the wall, but kept hold of one of her wings. She twisted it slowly, her grin broadening with each passing second until Fluttershy cried out.

Twilight winced at the sound of that plaintive wail and nearly gagged.

How could she…? No. She shook her head. Why couldn’t she think? What was Luna doing to her? This place… always seems to draw…

“…Us?” The word echoed as if somepony else had spoken it, reverberating down… a well? She could imagine it, the spot of light at the top of the gloom, but… gone now, and—she shouldn’t have taken her eyes off Luna. She looked back—her heart skipped a beat. The princess stood nose-to-nose with her.

“Leave Fluttershy alone. I will not ask again.” Luna’s tone was measured, controlled, as if she were stating a simple fact. But those eyes—they blazed like stars, glowed like something from a nightmare, bored into her to where she couldn’t breathe. She… couldn’t…

Twilight pried her gaze away from Luna and sucked in a deep breath as she glared at Fluttershy and released her. Gingerly rubbing a hoof at her wing, Fluttershy dropped to her haunches. And didn’t leave.

“Us?” Twilight croaked again through her suddenly parched throat and turned to look somewhere vaguely near Luna’s face.

For a long minute, Luna stared back wordlessly, nightfall beginning to obscure her features and make her blend in with the other long phantoms creeping in from the room’s corners. Then, after a false start, she spoke. “Another time, Twilight Sparkle. For now, you will return to Canterlot Castle with me.”

And what are the odds we make it all the way there? Twilight thought, a smoldering ember reawakening deep inside. She lunged, head lowered, and a white-hot beam lanced from her horn.

Luna braced her shoulder against Twilight’s rush and conjured a shield on reflex, but not before some of the attack had found its mark. Grimacing at the wisp of smoke rising from the charred coat on her side, Luna flung Twilight’s magic aside and cast a stream of her own energy.

A dozen strands of midnight spiraled toward Twilight, and she managed to sidestep them—mostly. A single one had brushed her leg and sent a shock through her—no, from her. The glow surrounding her horn arced down to that tendril during the brief moment they were in contact and wrenched the stored-up magic from her. Her knees buckled.

Just from that half-second… To be totally stripped of her magic, even for an instant. Her power, her identity, her life, gone. Was—was this what it felt like to be one of those filthy earth ponies?

Another half-second went by. Luna, of course, had not stood idle. Twilight’s legs jerked out from beneath her, and she fell to her side with a heavy thud.

More and more of those strands of night’s essence snaked up from the hoof they had snared and intertwined around her body, pressing, squeezing, glowing white as they tore her magic away. A cocoon of starlight, but… cold, dangerous. She thrashed against it, but the threads only tightened against her and crushed the air from her lungs. Twilight’s mouth hung open, trying to gasp, trying to scream.

Luna leaned even closer, their muzzles almost touching. “You will return to Canterlot Castle with me.” Luna’s voice had taken on a hollow, echoing quality, and Twilight’s skin… buzzing, numb. Sparks danced in her sight. “Whether you remain conscious is up to you.”

Twilight bared her teeth, twisted her shoulders one last time. Lungs burning, getting lightheaded, everything… going black.

Dawn Ember would have waited in Princess Twilight Sparkle’s room, but something told her she’d be out of place and in the way there. Besides, she wouldn’t have any idea how long it would take to find her and bring her back.

If, she might have interjected, but Princess Luna had no glimmer of doubt in her eyes when she’d left. Ember loved the Princess. She really did, like nopony else—well, not any more than her parents, she guessed, but different.

She really loved Princess Luna, but sometimes, her teacher could sure scare her. And all this dark magic business… Ember might end up hating herself for it later, but she’d follow Princess Luna anywhere, do whatever she asked.

Why even think about that now? It wouldn’t accomplish anything, and it rarely did any more than make her cry. Ember returned to staring out the window of her bedroom.

If she’d gone back to the laboratory, next to Princess Luna’s study, maybe she could see when… No. The laboratory faced the wrong way, so she wouldn’t have a view of Princess Luna’s return to Princess Twilight’s tower chambers. If in fact they went back there. And Ember didn’t exactly feel like being around her mentor’s things right now.

She loved Princess Luna, but she didn’t like her when she got like this: obsessed, cold, rigid. Much like whatever target she was hunting down. And Princess Luna didn’t like herself either, during these times. That hurt the worst.

It had taken hours, until well after daybreak, to give even as much as a direction to Princess Luna. But she hadn’t needed any more than that.

So Ember had returned to her small apartment to get some homework done, except that there it sat on her desk, untouched. This part of the castle also faced the wrong way, so she wouldn’t notice when Princess Luna—

Against the sunset, and just in time to raise the moon… Ember couldn’t tell in the poor light what Princess Luna had clutched in her hooves, but it didn’t take much imagination to guess what—who.

The Princess didn’t head toward Twilight’s room, either. Her eyes burned like watch fires as she settled onto the battlements on the far corner of the castle and beckoned a few guards toward her. She—she was shaking. Rage? Fatigue?

It didn’t matter which, Ember supposed. She should have told her teacher not to go. She should have refused to help.

And yet she knew she never could have made herself do either, not in a thousand years. So there stood Princess Luna, trembling, as the guards took her burden from her. But not the real one. Not even Ember could do that, as often as she’d tried.

It—Princess Twilight, she corrected herself—lay motionless in the guards’ levitation spell, with dark, glowing strands crisscrossed over her. This was bad. This was really bad.

And it was all Dawn Ember’s fault.

She still had another day before she needed to complete her assignments. So she spit out her pencil and started toward her mentor’s study. She would have to coax Princess Luna out from the huntress’s guise, and then sit with her, for as long as she needed. For as long as they both needed.

Author's Note:

Coming March 5: Chapter 4: Assumption of Guilt