• Published 7th Oct 2012
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Dusk's Dangerous Game - Airstream

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Who is a Player? Who is a Pawn?

Twilight lay undisturbed in the garden of stone near the throne room, her eyes closed and horn glowing softly. Once a week, she came in to this room alone, and spent several hours in meditation, the crystal around her neck floating slightly as she accessed its magic. Though many thought she was simply taking time to clear her mind, those close to her knew that her mind was anything but inactive while she was inside the petrified garden. A small spark of purple fell from her horn, and in Twilight's mind, the garden began to take on color and substance once more, the trees sighing, the birds chirping, and the stream that flowed through it burbling with life once more.

Twilight arose from her seated position, noting that her physical body was left on the ground, the only thing in this garden that resembled stone. She was a bit early, but then she always was. Her meetings had caused quite a stir when they had started last year, but most of the ponies under command had accepted the fact that they would continue from now on. Finding the usual bend by the river, she settled down once more and waited. She did not have to wait long.

"Good afternoon, Twilight Sparkle." a voice said from behind her.

Twilight didn't turn her head, instead choosing to manifest a tea set like she normally did. "Good afternoon, Celestia. Tea?"

The projection of the Alicorn came into view, settling down across from her and grasping the pot with her magic. "Please, allow me to pour. I'm pleased you were able to make it. Your projection is getting stronger, you are improving."

Twilight nodded, accepting a cup. "You know me, always seeking to improve. I find the practice relaxing."

The Princess of the Sun smiled beatifically. "It can be very relaxing, yes. Many a year I've spent in this garden. Imagine my surprise when you popped in one day. I had always thought this to be a private construct."

Twilight sipped at her drink delicately. It was Earl Grey this time, bitter and invigorating. "I imagine being in the physical location helps. Especially with all of the wild magic running around the Everfree, that's bound to have some interesting effects."

Celestia likewise drank. "Indeed. I don't suppose you'd be up to coming to Canterlot in order to discuss the problem further?"

Twilight laughed. "I'm afraid most of my notes are here at the castle. Of course, I'd be more than willing to give you a private report if you wished to attempt passage to the Regia. I'm sure the forest would be more than accommodating."

Celestia chuckled good-naturedly. "Can't blame me for trying. I am curious, however. How are you? Personally, that is. You're essentially leading a small nation, that can't be easy for you."

"It's all about delegation, really. I give us a direction to go, and other ponies figure out the how of the matter. Most of them are extremely competent, I rarely need to involve myself. As for my personal problems, they are many and mundane. I wouldn't want to bore you with them."

The Alicorn set down her cup, pouring another. "I hardly find your problems uninteresting, Twilight. And to be honest, I adore the mundane. I wish for nothing more than the comfort of routine. Please, enlighten me."

The unicorn sighed, setting her cup to one side. "Well, I have to admit, it is lonely being at the top. Tarantella helps with that, of course." Celestia winced at this. Twilight allowed herself a small grin. "She really is a wonderful pony, Tara. We are both quite fond of each other. Very much in love."

Celestia snorted. "Yes, yes. You're dating a mare, what else?"

"Well, you've sort of limited my options when it comes to love. And I do love her, truly. But I can tell that makes you uncomfortable. So onward we move. Let's see...Spike has started growing again. Very rapidly, in fact. I suspect the latent magic around here has something to do with it. He can hardly fit inside most of the smaller rooms, unless he concentrates on maintaining a good emotional balance. He lives up in the old Pegasus barracks in the southern aviary. And Golden Radiance has been busy updating the defenses on the Regia's defenses, adding another layer. I've lost track of how many layers that is. That's really all of the news I've got for you. What of my friends?"

Celestia smiled. "I visited Ponyville the other day, but I imagine you knew that already. After all, you're working with Changelings. While I was there, I visited Pinkie Pie and Applejack, though Fluttershy was out. I can't help but wonder why you haven't tried to capture her, she certainly spends enough time in the Everfree."

Twilight waved a hoof. "She never goes past a certain point. My followers have strict instructions not to harass her past that point, though we certainly keep an eye on her."

Celestia nodded. "That is good to hear. As it is, I spent a few hours in Ponyville yesterday. Applejack and Barley Scotch are doing well, most of the orchard has grown back after that fire your soldiers set." Twilight said nothing. The issue had been discussed at length, and both parties were acutely aware of the unintentional nature of the event. Celestia continued. "And more good news, they're expecting another foal! And just as Honey Crisp is starting her second year at school, too. If I recall, that's the age Applejack was when Applebloom was born."

Twilight smiled. "That's right. Applejack was seven when Applebloom was born. And that's wonderful news. What about Pinkie and Allspice?"

"Well, the bakery is doing a brisk trade, and they might open up another branch in Hoofington soon. That young mare Twist and her husband Snips appear to be the favored candidates for the new branch. And little Rosemary is doing just fine. She's just now coming into her horn, and even Pinkie is finding her hooves full. Rarity has come back to her boutique for a quick visit, and young Silver Spoon seems to be handling herself well in the absence of her teacher. I'm sure you're keeping well informed as to the whereabouts of Rainbow Dash and her Solar Wing."

Twilight's face soured. "That mare is more difficult to pin down than the Changelings, I swear. And yes, we're keeping informed. As much as we can. And my family?"

Celestia poured her student the last of the tea. "Shining Armor is doing well. He's been expanding the Guard, which I have to say is an excellent idea. He shows great promise as a commander. Your parents, of course, are still worried to death. They really only want you back home safely."

Twilight smiled sadly. "I wish I could speak to them. That's a bit difficult at present, of course. But I'd appreciate it if you could tell them I'm alright."

"You could always tell them yourself, Twilight. There's a scrying pool behind the throne, you know that."

"And scrying pools work both ways, which is why I had it drained. I'm young compared to you, Celestia. I'm not an idiot."

"And I'm hardly going to tell your family that I've been in contact with you for almost a year. I do you this courtesy because you were once my faithful student, and I hope that one day you'll be so again, Twilight Sparkle." the monarch said.

Twilight got to her hooves. "You do me this courtesy? If I knew how to ensure that we would not speak here, I would do so!"

The monarch did not bother to rise. "You could meditate in a thousand other places, Twilight. Nopony is forcing you to do so here, so why do you continue?" There was silence from the young unicorn. She shook slightly. Celestia pressed her question. "I am curious, Twilight. I do not wish to discourage you, but I feel that I must know. Why do you continue to make contact with me?"

Twilight's voice was rough and low. "Because...because you are the only way I have to pretend that I don't have to do this. You and I drinking tea in a garden...it's like I'm a filly again and everything is normal like it can never be again. You're the last little bit of my old life, and as much as I hate you for what you've done, I can't just abandon you, because I want my old life back." Her horn sparked again, and she allowed one tear to fall before cutting that emotion off entirely.

Celestia now rose, attempting to comfort her onetime student. "Twilight..."

The unicorn spoke sharply. "This conversation is over. Thank you for the company." And with that, she vanished, leaving the ruler of Equestria alone in the garden of her mind.

Twilight rose to her hooves in the real world, stretching the kinks out of her legs and back. Though hardly any time had passed in her mind, she estimated at least four hours had passed here in the physical world. Opening the door to the private garden, she trotted out of the stone sanctuary, nodding to the two guards on duty. Heading away from the throne room, she worked her way to the Mage's Tower, following the newly polished silver runes towards the familiar door. Knocking softly, she waited for it to open.

The creature that opened the door was one that hadn't been seen on the surface of Creation for millennia. Though its kind all took different forms, this one had chosen the form of some sort of ape, if apes had a mouth filled with needle-sharp teeth and claws strong enough to punch through metal. This was a demon, and it worked as a scribe for Golden Radience. When it spoke, its voice belied its fearsome appearance, kind and cultured.

"Good evening, Ms. Sparkle. Are you here to see the Archmage?"

Twilight nodded. "Yes, I am. Could you get her for me, Balthazar? I need to speak to her about a certain book on meditation magic."

Balthazar bowed low. "Of course, Mistress. One moment." And with a puff of smoke and a low rush of wind, he was gone.

Twilight reflected on the nature of the demon while he was gone. They had been very surprised to find several hundred of them, bound to the library, when they had been renovating the castle. Even more surprising was the fact that they were in fact pleasant, polite, and friendly to a point. Of course, they were also fearsome fighters when necessary, and absolutely devoted to their instructions, which up to that point had been to prevent the removal of books from the library. When Twilight had questioned them, she had wondered why they had not attacked her. Balthazar had been the one to point out that she had not taken books from the library proper, but from the office of the Archmage, which was not expressly ordered to be protected. He had cheerfully reassured her that if she had attempted to remove the books from the library shelves, they would have cut her to bloody ribbons. But she hadn't.

The demons were bound to the library, and would only return to their plane if the library and its contents were entirely destroyed. They had assured Twilight that they didn't really mind, that they had actually began to think of this place as home, and that they enjoyed the different things this world had to offer. Twilight wasn't so sure, but she was willing to take them at their word on that.

Her reverie was interrupted by the return of Balthazar. He smiled and offered one claw. "She will see you, Ms. Sparkle. If you would take hold?"

Twilight grimaced and took the proffered appendage. The world around her became pitch black and very tight, crushing the air from her. She felt cold, then hot, and then tingled all over as if her enter body had gone numb. She got a very distinct sensation of everything moving sideways, and then with a pop, the world rearranged itself.

The room she was in defied the traditional expectations of an Archmage's quarters, to a degree. The room was well lit, the books resting on well cleaned shelves of mahogany. No skeletons hung from the walls, which were decorated with bright swathes of fabric in many colors. An intricate Gryphonian carpet occupied much of the floor, save for a small bronze summoning circle set into the stone. A cheerful fire burned in a small hearth, and aromatic steam wafted out of a tarnished copper pot hanging above the flames. The focus of the room was a large wooden desk, at which sat a papery unicorn, who set down her quill and smiled at Twilight.

"Hello, my friend! Balthazar says you have some questions regarding that mediatation book I loaned you."

Twilight nodded. "Yes. It's rather...private. Could we talk alone?"

Golden Radiance turned to the demon. "Balthazar, you are dismissed. Please, take some time to yourself, so long as you cause no mischief."

Balthazar bowed. "Mistress." And with that, he vanished once more, leaving only the faintest smell of burned wood in his wake.

The paper construct eyed her expectantly. "You visited her again, didn't you?"

Twilight nodded miserably. "I couldn't help myself. I keep telling myself that it's just a game to keep her off balance, but I came to a realization during our discussion. I'm using her as a placebo for my old life, as a coping mechanism, and I don't know how much longer I can keep up the charade."

Golden Radiance sighed. "I can tell you two things. The logically beneficial thing for you to do, or the emotionally healthy thing for you to do. Which would you like to hear?"


"Very well, then. Logically, you should continue seeing her. You glean valuable insight from your conversations with her, and it's come in handy more than once. It is a valuable intelligence resource, and one we should pursue. Emotionally speaking...well, you know my opinions on the meetings you have. Were it up to me, I'd have you stop contacting her at all. It's not good for you. But it is very good for us."

Twilight pondered this for a moment. Both sides of the argument made sense, of course. And she knew that same time next week, she would be appearing in the garden again, ready to engage in "teatime" with her mentor and enemy once more. And it hurt every time, true. But the intel was invaluable, scant though it was. Which reminded her.

"Celestia told me that she visited Ponyville. I remember getting the report, do you have a record of when it came in?" Twilight asked, all business once more.

"Yes, word reached us at twelve minutes past four. Three hours later she had gone. We had somepony tracking her the whole time, but they were loath to get too close. Celestia has developed quite a reputation among the Changelings, as I'm sure you've imagined. Regardless, we had eyes on her for the duration of her visit. Why?"

Twilight processed the information. A moment later, she spoke. "She was there for three hours, and accounting for sunset around this time of year, she left approximately one half hour before it was due to begin. However, I also recall that she arrived in Canterlot, a mere ten minutes of leisurely flight away, well after dark. About nine o'clock, if memory serves. The only question to ask is..."

"Where did she go?" Golden Radiance asked herself. "The same delay each time. At least two hours. But where does she spend them?"

Twilight trotted over to a nearby map, one marking ley line convergences in Equestria. The biggest was under Canterlot, of course. At least, the one Celestia was able to access. Truthfully, the biggest convergence was right under Twilight's hooves, sealed beneath the castle. Twilight traced over the map, following the graceful paths of magic. "Where indeed?"

Twilight returned to her quarters that evening a dejected mare, having come no closer in her quest to gain advantage over her teacher, or even having a bit of insight as to her plans. Her rooms were big, yes. The bathroom alone was larger than her basement, and the basin for washing easily as deep. The bed was newly made, the covers fresh and turned over. Normally she would be in her study, but tonight was a night for quiet contemplation, she felt. Moving to a small wooden chest, she unlocked it, sifting through its contents.

The items inside would resemble so much junk to any other pony, but to Twilight they were treasures she guarded more carefully than any dragon. Most items had been quietly removed from Ponyville, without the knowledge of its residents. Most she had collected personally. A withered leaf, plucked from the branches of an ancient tree housing a library, a sky blue feather she had counted herself lucky to find, caught from midair after it had fallen from the plumage of a passing Pegasus, who had been so preoccupied with her patrol over the town as to fail to notice her friend's disguise.

A brown paper bag from Sugarcube Corner lay on one side. She had been nervous about that, but Rosemary had been keeping Pinkie preoccupied, so Allspice had gladly sold her a single cupcake with chili sauce, which she had savored outside. That had been the first and only time Twilight had been able to see the new foal, she had planned her trip around the first birthday of the newborn. Following tradition, one unicorn to another, she had muttered a hasty blessing on her way out of the shop, feeling it catch hold of the infant filly. And she had left a large enough tip.

From that selfsame library, she had quietly teleported past the barriers in place, both magical and mundane. Her copy of "The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide" lay in the bottom of the box, its edges tattered and scorched, though she had repaired its broken spine. But what was inside was her real prize.

Photography was expensive, prohibitively so, and so it had been shortly after Twilight's greatest victory, the restoration of Luna, that the group had agreed to chip in for a group photograph, ordering six copies. There was very little in the way of material possessions that she treasured more than this picture. She in the center, Applejack and Rarity flanking her. Applejack's eye was closed in a confident wink. Pinkie Pie had literally climbed up Rarity's back to wave at the camera, and Rainbow Dash was hovering, as per usual. Fluttershy, of course, was the only one really holding still for the shot, hooves tucked in demurely, with a shy smile on her face. They all looked young, Twilight realized. Young, and happy, and...

"Cara Mia? Are you in here?" a voice called from behind.

Twilight started just a bit, jolted from her reverie, before relaxing at the sound of Tarantella closing the door behind her. Servants could move through the quarters, yes, but everything that happened behind that door was private.

The grey Pegasus moved in beside her, settling down and looking at the picture. After a brief silence, she spoke. "You miss them."

Twilight nodded. "So much, Tara. And more every day."

"You are aware, the weekly meetings with Celestia are probably not helping."

"I know. But they are a necessary evil. They've given us an unprecedented level of access into her whereabouts. She still trusts me, for some odd reason. I thought she'd be feeding me misinformation, but it seems she genuinely doesn't realize what she's giving me."

"That's a problem for another time, love of mine. You've been working yourself far too hard these past few days. And you still owe me several favors, I believe, from the other night. One for your 'divine spark' of inspiration, and the other for not coming to bed on time. You and I will speak more on the matter after we have finished."

Twilight pretended to think about it. "Well, I did have work to do tonight..."

"Twilight, caro idiota, that was not a request. You and I are going to bed. That's final. I'm going to hit that spot between your shoulders that makes you go limp if I have to, and I shall drag you under the covers if necessary."

Twilight laughed, setting the picture back inside the box. "Molto bene, il mio amore. Cominciamo."

She hardly had time to finish locking the box up before she was seized and hauled bodily onto the bed, landing amid soft sheets and cotton pillows. Tarantella kissed her fiercely, and she whispered words that made Twilight shiver all over before beginning. "Ora, harlota poco. Tu sei mio."

Soon enough, Twilight had all but forgotten the events of the day in the arms of her lover.

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