Chapter Sixteen - Falling Apart
Curious eyes scanned formulas far beyond their understanding. “What do these do?”
“Promise to keep this secret?” As if that would get any answer but an eager nod. “What’s to stop me from taking a pegasus form and channeling magic through my wings to fly?”
“Nothing, really. I’ve seen you do it.”
While true, that deserved a roll of the eyes. “Okay, yes, but that was much more difficult for me than it is for pegasi. The point I was trying to get at is magical typing. Unicorns have unicorn magic. Pegasi have pegasus magic. Dragons have draconic magic. So on and so forth. Each responds differently when set to a purpose, some more readily than others. Pegasus magic, for instance, is well-attuned for flight. Unicorn magic, unhelpful thing that it is, can emulate pegasus flight if you do all the work yourself. Earth pony magic would actively resist being so shaped.”
A moment passed in silence for dramatic effect.
“But what if there was a way to untype the magic you generate?”
When Twilight returned to her lab, she found Spike, Pinkie Pie, the lovers, and Flash all sitting around one of her workbenches contentedly playing cards. Poker, it looked like. The three bearers among them got along just fine, which came as no great shock. Likewise Trixie’s absence didn’t surprise her given what she knew now. Still, a bit of reclusiveness was a far better start than knives in the dark. Last night would have given Trixie all the opportunity she’d have needed if that were the route she intended to take.
Sweetie Belle’s absence, however, was more keenly felt. Even if she’d decided to occupy herself with her homework, Twilight had the impression that she’d rather do it with company than in solitude. Then again, they’d only known each other for a couple weeks. Perhaps she liked peace and quiet when she needed to think.
Through sheer force of will, Twilight sat down at the table and asked to be dealt into the game despite all of the science surrounding her. Numerous beloved projects beckoned to her with their siren’s song. She could just pick them up and continue wherever she’d left off. It would be so easy. It would be so fun.
The sacrifices she made for Celestia…
“So did you get what I asked for?”
Twilight, bemused, looked up from her cards. Spike asked for something? Thinking about it, she did vaguely recall making a detour on her way to Canterlot. Reaching into her subspace storage, she withdrew one of her lab flasks. That didn’t belong in there, so it must be what she was looking for. What was in this again?
Seeing chips passing begrudgingly from everypony but Pinkie Pie to a very smug looking Spike jogged Twilight’s memory.
“Oh, ha ha. Very amusing.” Twilight labeled and set the flask aside elsewhere in the lab. She could probably find an actual use for some water from the Stream of Silence some other time.
“I don’t – the mountain – the flask – the distance–” Lost for words, Bon Bon settled on, “How?”
Twilight let out a small huff. Distance and elevation didn’t really mean much to her, only headings. And how much attention did it really take to fill a flask from a stream? “I had more important things on my mind at the time.”
“Something about screwing up something or other?” Spike scratched a claw along a cheek as he tried to recall whatever he’d overheard of Twilight’s freak out earlier today.
Pinkie Pie did her usual thing and asked how they could help. “It’s what friends are for,” she added when Twilight first tried to put her off.
“While true,” Twilight allowed, “it’s best I keep it to myself.” She didn’t want to self-sabotage by setting everyone up to distrust Trixie. Really, Twilight had no idea what to do about her. Confronting her without a plan wouldn’t go over well, so what option was there but to leave her be for now? But on the subject of Trixie, Twilight asked, “Where are our missing members, by the way?”
“Trixie went upstairs to practice her act,” Lyra replied, meaning she’d left the lab for more open pastures above ground. “I helped Sweetie Belle head up a little later to watch.”
This first test of trust had come much swifter than Twilight had expected. If Trixie was going to do anything, she’d have done it last night. She repeated that to herself, determined not to leap to an unnecessary rescue and screw up even more than she already had.
“She said she’d ‘flame’ if she needs to be picked up.”
At least Sweetie Belle had thought through whatever she was doing enough to have a way back to shelter if Trixie abandoned her. Twilight highly doubted she’d actually gone to watch Trixie practice. If somepony had displayed such open hostility to her own beloved mentor, Twilight knew she would have leapt to Celestia’s defense at that age even if she knew it would cause more problems.
Maybe I should at least check up on – no, this is going to happen eventually. I just have to trust Sweetie Belle not to push too far.
That was easier said than done. A dozen divination spells just to peek in on them leapt to mind. It would be so easy. If she took her time, Trixie might not even notice. And really, Sweetie Belle was her responsibility. Everyone here was her responsibility on some level, of course, but Sweetie Belle was especially so as both her student and a minor under her care.
If something bad was going to happen, surely Pinkie Pie would know before it occurred.
Twilight just needed to relax. She even had a distraction actively at work in front of her. Poker wasn’t her game, but she was doing well enough, relatively speaking. She couldn’t tell if Pinkie Pie was cheating or not. Pinkie Pie wasn’t winning, but she assumed so regardless. That mare had different priorities which might or might not include victory. It made playing against her extremely frustrating. No one doubted Lyra’s guilt, however. Every verbal slip made, Honesty picked up on.
But despite these disadvantages, both Spike and Flash had massive piles of chips in front of them. Twilight had some awareness that Spike, at least, sometimes played cards with Shining when he was off duty. All of the Royal Guard likely participated when they had the chance. It was probably why, she later learned, the two had suggested the game to begin with.
The remainder of the afternoon slowly passed into evening, and soon it came time to prepare dinner. Pinkie Pie happily volunteered both herself and Twilight for the task.
“Wait, what?” Twilight had little time to protest before Pinkie Pie all but abducted her. She hadn’t been winning or even close to it, but that wasn’t the point. “Pinkie, I’ve never cooked before in my life!” If anypony said otherwise, they were lying. And potions didn’t count. “I have literally paid you to do this for me.”
Heedless to all warnings, Pinkie Pie said, “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you how!”
The kitchen was largely built out of repurposed lab equipment. Some personal implements Pinkie Pie had brought herself, although where they’d been up until now remained a matter of intense scholarly debate. To talk her out of making rock soup – a suggestion she would no doubt follow through on if not appeased – Twilight acquiesced to taking an active role in the production of a far more palatable vegetable stew. She had no idea what she was doing or why, merely blindly following instructions, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Soon enough, they finally set the stew to simmer for the next hour. Pinkie Pie, lacking most of the base ingredients involved in baking, settled on throwing together a fruit salad for a side dish. That was a simple enough task for Twilight to replicate, even if she made them ‘too orderly’.
Looking up from her work, Twilight found Pinkie Pie leaning into the counter and staring at her. She cocked her head to the side. “What?”
“You still have three and a half marshmallows of worry.”
Twilight blinked. “What?”
“Do you have cupcake in your ear again?”
Twilight pressed her ears flat against her head. “I do not. Now what are you on about?” With Pinkie Pie visibly winding up for a long, rambling explanation, she quickly added, “I don’t need the whole story.”
“Fine.” A bit of playfully exaggerated petulance made its way into that response, but it vanished immediately after. “In my continuing crusade to bring smiles to everypony everywhere, one mare continues to frown. A deep-seated fear has its icy grip upon her heart. She worries, for her student has run off into the cold, dark night with a suspicious sorceress from Silver Shoals.”
Eyebrows raised, Twilight asked, “Trixie is from Silver Shoals?” As far as she knew, that was a retirement community.
“Don’t try to distract me with your silver tongue!” Pinkie Pie leaned further forward into Twilight’s personal space and, with one eye closed, said, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Right…” Twilight coaxed Pinkie Pie back to her own side of the counter with a light press of magic. “What exactly do you think I’m worried about?”
“Well, you’re scared-worried, not protective-worried or jealous-worried, so you must think Trixie is dangerous dangerous, not just negligent or out to steal your protégé, but not a meanie pants since you’re not spying on her or fighting her.”
Faced with that particular blend of logic, Twilight found herself reluctantly following along and ultimately accepting that Pinkie Pie knew what she was on about. She always did in her own special way. With a sigh, Twilight decided to tell just enough of the truth to give her some context.
“Trixie is powerful, has some grudge against me, lacks any real ties to this group, and Sweetie Belle is a vulnerability I’m not used to managing with a knack for getting into trouble.”
“Oh, all the time!”
Twilight quirked an eyebrow. There were less reassuring words, she supposed.
Pinkie Pie, to her mild credit, seemed to realize this a few moments later. “But I’m sure this time will be different!”
“Really!” Pinkie Pie insisted. “All Trixie needs is a warm welcome party from all her new friends! And that includes you.”
Somehow Twilight doubted that would fix everything or even anything. Not that she had any better ideas at the moment or any reason to stand in Pinkie Pie’s way. She’d not comment beyond a halfhearted attempt at a smile. In hindsight, this whole conversation, this attempt to reassure her, must have been why Pinkie Pie had conscripted her into kitchen duty. It hadn’t exactly worked, but it was a nice gesture.
“I should probably go bring Sweetie Belle back inside.” To forestall any objections, Twilight added, “Supper will be done soon, right?”
As Twilight pushed power into her horn, she added, “Thanks for trying, Pinkie,” and then teleported away.
So absorbed in recounting the final moments of her glorious victory over the dreaded ursa major, Trixie almost failed to notice the unwelcome magic scanning the surrounding tundra. She paused only a moment in her story, recovering quickly, and outright ignored the expansion to her otherwise enthralled audience of one. The lingering presence of her magic, dancing about in epic illusions to bring the tale to life, prevented Sweetie Belle, clearly untrained in such matters, from noticing when her mentor blinked into place only a short few steps behind her.
At last, they came to the moment of truth. The ursa major thought it had Trixie right where it wanted her, but in truth, it had only sealed its doom. When it advanced for the killing blow, it realized too late that she’d used her illusions to lure it into a trap. It’s paw found no purchase where it’d thought there to be ground. With a defiant roar and one last vain attempt to snare its prey, it tumbled off the cliffside. Flailing, slashing, grasping at nothing, it plummeted down toward the ground ever faster. A great crashing and a thundering boom echoed throughout the mountains seconds later.
Thus was it done. The beast had been slain.
Sweetie Belle applauded and cheered as Trixie took a bow.
In the background, Twilight Sparkle wrote in the air, ‘It didn’t die.’
That brought Trixie up short. Surely not. Even a pegasus would have trouble surviving an impact of such magnitude.
‘Celestia dealt with it. They’re easier to dump in the middle of nowhere than to put down.’
Well, so long as somepony had resolved the situation in the end, Trixie supposed it didn’t really matter who. She’d still saved the village and outwitted the beast. The story just had a little epilogue now which she’d leave out.
“That was amazing!” Sweetie Belle wore such a wide, endearing smile that Trixie had a hard time being properly dismissive of her. “You must be the best illusionist in the world.”
Trixie smirked and somehow resisted glancing up at Twilight Sparkle’s reaction. That would give the game away too early. “It’s good you properly recognize the Great and Powerful Trixie’s amazing abilities. Please go on.”
Unfortunately, such was not to be. Twilight Sparkle spoke, drawing a startled reaction from her student. “Alas, I am betrayed.” She scooped Sweetie Belle up into a light hug and kept her within arm’s reach once finished. “But you may be right. My specialty is magical theory, not illusions.”
Because of course Twilight Sparkle assumes she’s automatically the runner up.
With a now nervous smile, Sweetie Belle said, “Trixie was just telling me about her adventures.”
“Yes, I saw. Very impressive, Trixie. If I were in the show business myself, I’d hire you on the spot.”
“She also told me about the Canterlot Derby.”
Twilight Sparkle had a blank look on her face for a few moments before recognition finally surfaced. “Oh, yes. Celestia had me organize the safety measures a few years ago when she went to Saddle Arabia. It’s a complicated song and dance amongst society. That’s what always happens when a bunch of nobles get together, of course, but put their foals into direct competition like that, and it becomes more about who has more wealth to throw at their cart and can afford the best engineers and sorceresses. Once in a while, some nopony wins, but–”
Trixie very loudly cleared her throat.
“Hmm? Oh. Uh… Point proven?”
“No offense,” Sweetie Belle began, “but I liked Trixie’s version of it better.”
Twilight Sparkle chuckled. “Yeah, I’d imagine so.”
“She also told me why she doesn’t like you.”
For a time, the only sound was the wind and the skittering of loose snow upon it. It took Trixie a few moments before she realized that the conversation hadn’t ground to a halt. Stars forbid Twilight Sparkle feel a little awkward or repentant. No, instead, it’d merely changed mediums.
“Well, not everything,” Sweetie Belle said in response to whatever Generosity had picked up from Twilight Sparkle. “But enough.”
There was another moment of silence.
“No, really. She–” Sweetie Belle froze. “She’s what! But–” The filly spun from Twilight Sparkle to Trixie, stared fearfully for a moment, and then took a few wary steps back into the shelter of her teacher’s legs. A little coaxing brought her back out a short while later. “Who is Sun–”
A moment passed.
Trixie was beyond tired of being left out of the conversation. “Excuse you, but there is a third pony present.”
“Right. Sorry.” That might very well be the first apology Trixie had ever heard pass from Twilight Sparkle’s lips.
Regardless, it was not enough, not nearly. Trixie couldn’t let this blatant attempt at taking a fan from her pass unchallenged. “What lies did you tell her about me to scare her away?”
Twilight Sparkle facehoofed. “None. That doesn’t even make any sense. You and Sweetie Belle both have an Element. I need you two to be friends.”
“So you claim, but for all the proof you’ve given me–”
Both mares looked down at Sweetie Belle.
“Trixie, I’m sorry for how I reacted. I was, um…surprised to hear–” A raspberry glow held Sweetie Belle’s mouth closed so only incomprehensible mumbles could escape her.
“This is maybe not the best time for that, Sweetie Belle.”
When the glow of Twilight Sparkle’s magic faded, Sweetie Belle said, “When I let Apple Bloom and Scootaloo not talk to each other, their grievances became so much worse than they needed to be.”
“We can discuss this later in private,” Twilight Sparkle said with a hint of command behind her voice.
“Oh, I think not.” Trixie refused to allow Twilight Sparkle to slink away into her lab to find some more palatable lie to share. “Tell me what you told her, or I’ll abandon this train wreck of a fellowship here and now.” That was, perhaps, a dangerous threat to make, but Trixie didn’t care anymore.
Twilight Sparkle closed her eyes and then indulged in some strange breathing exercise. Once finished, she calmly asked, “And why would you do that with so much at stake?”
“Perhaps I’d rather watch the world freeze than suffer you.”
The wind howled in the silence that fell.
“Sweetie Belle,” Twilight Sparkle began with far too much seriousness in her voice, “I need you to get everyone into the test chamber. You’ll be safe there.”
“Your command?” Niian asked.
Sweetie Belle’s confusion melted away in an instant. “What? No, I can–”
“You’re in the way.” A tiny flux of Twilight Sparkle’s magic sent Sweetie Belle back underground into the lab as she said the words.
“So that’s how it is, is it? The great Twilight Sparkle isn’t getting her way, so she resorts to force to impose her will upon everypony around her.”
Twilight Sparkle heaved a long sigh. “Her heart is in the right place, but I doubt Sweetie Belle has ever encountered somepony with issues as deeply rooted as yours.”
Trixie bristled, but her greatest rival ignored the reaction and continued on.
“I don’t want to have this conversation yet, because I have no idea what to say. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m so far out of my depth here, I’m drowning. Can we please just head inside and put this off for another day? I really don’t–”
“Speak plainly!” Trixie had no idea what Twilight Sparkle was babbling about, nor did she care.
“Fine. Luna told me you were her student.”
All manner of foul emotions surged through Trixie.
“That’s all I told Sweetie Belle.”
Anger. Jealousy. Fear. Resentment. Indignation.
“She won’t tell anyone.”
But all of them centered around just one.
“I personally don’t care.”
“I’ll happily help put Luna back on her throne.”
It always came back to this.
“I just want her to leave Celestia alone.”
She was never good enough for anypony.
“That’s all I want.”
Not her mother.
“All the Elements will do is make her let go of her grudge.”
Not Twilight Sparkle.
“But I need you to make them work.”
Not Princess Celestia.
“Please. It’s what’s best for everypony.”
Not even Luna.
“Her. Celestia. Equestria.”
She would prove them all wrong.
“Enough!” Trixie snapped Niian from her neck. “Staff mode.”
Trixie had no more patience for entreaties. “You and me,” she said. “A magic duel.” Niian fell into her waiting arm, once more as its name suggested and ready for battle. “Here and now with our full powers.”
By the set of her jaw, Twilight Sparkle grit her teeth at the challenge. “Why? Luna wouldn’t want–”
“I don’t care what she wants!” Trixie snapped. She pointed Niian straight at Twilight Sparkle. “Fight me, or I’ll beat you down until you finally retaliate.”
That did the trick.
“Fine. Wait here for my return. I need to collect a few things to give you the fight you want.”
At the Old Castle, Twilight stood before the Element of Magic with a heavy frown. She didn’t see a way forward that didn’t involve her overwhelming victory over Trixie. If she held back, she’d only further anger Trixie. If she made it a close match, she’d be doing this again tomorrow. But if she crushed Trixie’s pride, what would that get her? Hard-earned respect? Broken acceptance? More bitterness and spite? A Luna to her Celestia?
“I know you’re not going to approve,” Twilight said to Magic, “but I don’t know what else to do.”
Magic, of course, offered no alternatives.
“Without you, Trixie might even be able to beat me. The Night Guardian Staff is no joke. I’m sure you remember it. Luna used to keep it at her side.”
She might have just imagined it, but a foreign feeling of recognition and reluctant acceptance flashed through Twilight.
“Well that was…unexpected.” In hindsight, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Celestia had said that the Element’s ‘didn’t like her’ and that they ‘had a mind of their own’. “If my mind isn’t just playing tricks on me, thank you for understanding. I promise I won’t do any lasting damage to Laughter’s bearer.”
Twilight placed Magic upon her brow. Immediately, it’s strength flowed into her to mesh with her own. The rush of power was as electrifying as it had been the last time she’d worn Magic. Why had she ever continued to make the sacrifice to part with her Element when she had a perfectly good substitute now? Duty? Responsibility? Obligation? Who cared for such trivial things?
Through Magic, Twilight summoned Laughter from wherever Trixie had left it and locked it away from her. It would keep the Old Castle safe from the Everfree Forest in Magic’s place.
With that done, Twilight polymorphed into the alicorn form she’d been wearing in her dreams. She gave her wings an experimental flap. As expected, without pegasus magic coursing through them, they fell far short of providing the lift necessary for true flight, but they would suffice for combat with a few additional spells. They were certainly the best choice of the options available to her. Regular pegasus wings, were she a world-class flier, would arguably give her slightly more maneuverability, but she’d grown used to the oversized ones characteristic of the alicorn species.
One all too fleeting minute was all the time Twilight budgeted to accustom herself to her wings in the real world. Lyra would be able to hold Trixie off long enough in the off chance she tried anything, Twilight was sure, but she’d rather not keep Trixie waiting longer than necessary.
“All right, partner. Next stop, Canterlot.”
Twilight quickly built up the power necessary for the long, single jump all the way home.
If anypony ever thought Twilight had let those amongst her Evening Guard off lightly with a slap on the fetlock and a job opportunity, Moon Dancer would be the first to stand in their defense after the report she’d just heard. The Staff of Sacanas, so named for its creator long before Discord, was a vile thing. It no doubt once had legitimate medical uses millennia ago, or something to that effect, but now all it did was interfere with a pony’s magical channeling to drain power for its wielder’s own use. Starlight had at least another week to look forward to in the hospital to recover from the thaumic burns she’d given herself overcoming its effects.
“Tempest, I’ll be glad to hear the rest of your report in a bit, but I want to lock this thing away in the vault before some charming but naive rogue or treacherous vizier steals it.” Maybe she’d read too many novels, but Moon Dancer didn’t want to take any chances with something this dangerous.
The walk from the archmage’s office to the vault was blessedly short and likely by design. The usual guards stood at its doors and saluted upon their approach. Tempest got one or two dirty looks, but nopony moved to stop them from entering – or from attempting to enter, if they were impostors, which they were not.
Moon Dancer inserted her horn into the lock and applied the necessary magic to open the vault. Gears turned as counterweights fell and pulleys spun. The enchantments sealing passage glowed in bright acceptance, and the doors parted with a heavy grinding of stone against stone just long enough for Moon Dancer and Tempest to pass through.
“Ow! Not that tight.”
Moon Dancer hadn’t expected to find anypony else in here, much less Twilight, but coincidence was, by nature, a strange thing. Without waiting, Tempest shot off toward the voice to pay homage to the not quite princess she’d sworn herself to.
A barely comprehensible voice, like one trying to speak through closed teeth, said, “This isn’t exactly easy, Twily.”
And Captain Armor as well. What are they doing here?
“Your Excellency, do you require assistance?”
“Oh, Tempest, perfect timing. His Highness here doesn’t remember how to put on armor now that he has ponies to do that for him.”
Moon Dancer arched her eyebrows as she approached the room containing those three. What she saw inside, however, gave her pause.
As though a painting had leapt from its canvas, both winged and crowned, a warrior goddess on the eve of battle stood flanked by her two attendants. Idle power radiated from her without care or concern as they labored to don her enchanted armor. The mortal prince had his teeth on a strap beneath her wing while the hardened soldier deftly moved to secure its opposite. Half worn, the remainder of the armor sat waiting upon its stand.
Moon Dancer shook off the feeling of intruding upon history. She entered the room but kept her distance and did her best to stay out of the way. “Twilight? What’s going on?”
“Nothing much. Trixie picked a fight with me, so I’m going to teach her why I’m listed beside Celestia on the Alicorn Accords.”
Oh, this couldn’t end well for anypony.
“Speaking of,” Twilight continued, “if you get any reports of magical disturbances in the Frozen North, feel free to ignore them.”
“Sweetie Belle, I’m telling you there’s nothing to worry about. Whatever conflict Trixie and Twilight had brewing is over.”
For the filly’s peace of mind, Lyra cast a scrying spell again to check up on the former. As far as she could tell, there’d been no grand battle nor anything of the sort. The two had, if perhaps not sorted out their differences, then at least deescalated tensions with words rather than horns. Trixie had stayed behind to continue practicing her illusions while Twilight had left for Equestria. That was a bit of guesswork on Lyra’s part with Flash’s help, as Loyalty acted only as a compass, but she assumed Twilight didn’t have another secret lab south of this one in the Frozen North.
Lyra canceled her spell. “It’s still just…Trixie…”
Through the corridor, Pinkie hopped by with a huge pot bouncing atop her head while somehow not falling over and spilling its contents. The lid covering it clanked with every landing, and the steam that escaped in a trail of little bursts revealed how hot it all remained.
Lyra grasped the pot in her magic. While Pinkie was Pinkie and her mane probably acted as insulator, she shouldn’t have to do…whatever it was she was doing. They’d set the kitchen up adjacent to the dining room, Lyra recalled. Nopony needed to transport anything more cumbersome than snacks anywhere.
When questioned, Pinkie replied, “I’m taking our supper to the test chamber now that it’s done, silly.”
So that was what this was about. Lyra sighed and conceded with a simple, “Fine.” Resisting Pinkie’s whims rarely turned out well. She reached out toward the dining room with her magic and teleported the table, tableware, cushions, and the salads already laid out to their temporary new home. After that, she teleported the pot of delicious smelling stew there after them.
“There. I moved everything. Now why don’t we–”
A tidal wave of magical flux erupted from above ground. Nopony with a horn could possibly miss it.
“–run and hide from whatever creature from the abyss crawled its way onto dry land.”
Once the initial wave of power died down and the sting left Trixie’s horn, her senses returned to her. It took no effort at all to spot Twilight Sparkle gliding down from the sky on a pair of fake alicorn wings. The armor she recognized from the newspapers after that ridiculous war with the griffons, but the crown was as new as it was pretentious. In the absence of any other explanation, she assumed it was the Element of Magic.
Twilight Sparkle landed without leaving the slightest impression in the snow below her perhaps ten hooves away from the illusionary Trixie she’d left in her place. She had confidence in her abilities, and even at the true distance between them, Twilight Sparkle oozed magic. The noise from that should cover up the remote chance she had of noticing the trick.
“I’m ready whenever you are.”
In the back of her mind, Trixie noted that her jaw hurt as though she’d been grinding her teeth. “Perfectly worded,” she had the illusion say. At the same instant, Niian leapt into action under her direction with a snap-casted spell.
The earth shook. Loose bits of stone and dust fell from the ceiling. A weak shield from Lyra kept it out of their food, not that Sweetie Belle had much of an appetite at the moment.
“Oh, come on!” Flash cried. “That should have hit!” He sulkily swallowed a spoonful of stew. Dinner and a show, he’d called it. “Illusionists are dumb.”
“No, the one over there. She’s right there!” Somehow, despite watching an illusion of an illusion, Pinkie always knew where Trixie was even when she was outright invisible instead of merely misdirecting the senses.
Spike, unconcerned and clearly a little bored despite the legendary clash of titans playing out before him, commented, “She should stop playing and just end it already. Trixie isn’t going to thank her for dragging out her humiliation.”
This caught Flash by surprise. “Wait, she’s playing with her? You mean she’s even better than this?” His eyes shone with admiration.
“Well, yeah,” Spike replied. “I mean, it’s not like some showpony who never even finished her education is going to actually challenge her.”
Except Trixie wasn’t just any showpony. Sweetie Belle wanted to explain, but she couldn’t. Archmage Twilight had asked her not to say, and this whole mess was her fault to begin with. She shouldn’t have called Trixie out on not being the greatest modern spellcaster. She shouldn’t have unintentionally given her the idea for this battle. She should have done more to prevent it. She was supposed to help, not ruin everything.
Beside Sweetie Belle, she heard Lyra mumbling, “This is just like home. Equestria isn’t supposed to be like this. I came here to get away from this madness,” while Bon Bon comforted her marefriend with soothing words, cuddles, and nuzzles. Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure what that one was about. She’d have to investigate what language Lyra used in her thoughts later to find out where she’d come from.
An explosion tore apart the sky where Archmage Twilight flew. In other circumstances, Sweetie Belle would have gasped from worry, but this fight had long since drained her emotionally. All she could muster up was some mild, internal worry and a little confidence that her mentor couldn’t fall to anything less than an alicorn.
“What are you waiting for?” Pinkie said as if either Archmage Twilight or Trixie could hear a word of the commentary. “That explosion didn’t hit her.”
Indeed not, nor had any of the others. If she didn’t dodge or counter the magic, the archmage merely teleported to safety.
“Pinkie, who are you rooting for?” Flash asked.
“Both of them,” Pinkie replied. “Duh.”
Archmage Twilight hurled a magical blast with far too much power behind it to do anything but scramble out of its path. It slammed into the ground, seemingly without a target. Perhaps Trixie had been there, or perhaps it had been part of a larger plan to draw her out. Regardless, while the group remained safe in the test chamber under what Lyra had termed siege wards, the miss still shook the earth hard enough to spill some of Sweetie Belle’s nearly untouched bowl of stew.
In a separate thread of conversation, Bon Bon asked, “Hey, Spike? Question. Has Twilight secretly been an alicorn all along?”
Sweetie Belle picked up some very bitter thoughts about Princess Celestia without context from Spike before he pushed them away and replied, “She’s not an alicorn.”
It was true. The Element of Magic, rather than a species change, let Archmage Twilight throw power around without any concern for her own reserves while Trixie had to fight smart. Maybe Spike had actually had a point when he’d claimed that she was only playing. When else would she get a chance to cut loose and test her limits like this against somepony who could take it?
Not that it made Sweetie Belle feel less guilty for provoking this disaster.
When she finally finished this fight, Twilight needed to compose a treatise concerning how much she utterly loathed battling spellcasting assistants. This had quickly become the single most frustrating duel of her entire life. The Night Guardian Staff could compose the most realistic of illusions able to fool all senses in the time it took to blink. It even managed to incorporate magical fluxes into them to deceive her ability to perceive magic. Such was the work of minutes or even hours, not moments!
Worse, every time Twilight found an oversight to exploit, Trixie managed to quickly redesign her illusions to plug the hole. Then the Night Guardian Staff incorporated the modifications into their combined spellcasting. It certainly didn’t help that it was equally fast with every other spell she taught it, including her beloved and insufferable pyrotechnics.
Worst of all, illusions as a whole ranked amongst the least magic-intensive and most efficient spells in existence. Despite their complexity, Trixie could keep this up all day. Turning this into a battle of attrition would just become a test of who could stay awake the longest.
A momentary flux of power was all the warning Twilight received. She beat her wings, sending her soaring skyward just in time to avoid another explosion. The heat wouldn’t hurt her, but the concussive force could daze her for long enough to end the fight if it overcame her protections. Annoyingly enough, Trixie had actually managed to pop her emergency teleport a few times early on before she found her rhythm.
Twilight caught the thermal the explosion generated beneath her wings to build more speed in her flight, thereafter weaving her way between Trixie’s subsequent attacks. It took more time than she’d have liked before she managed to determine the most probable approximate point of origin for the explosions, but she found it.
All right, let’s see if fluid dynamics are part of your illusions yet.
Twilight kicked up a light, uniform wind, for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from a natural breeze. She then cast a few divination spells to measure the air velocity downwind. The results, to her careful delight, showed an obstruction in the area. As the terrain below was relatively flat with no sign of her opponent, that meant one of two things.
First, Trixie’s illusions could, perhaps, account for the passage of air. If so, then the real Trixie would be invisible to such detection, leaving this to be a trap.
Second, Twilight had found her target.
Well, worse-case scenario, I waste a bit of time and smash my way out of a trap with Magic.
After a few more measurements to triangulate Trixie’s location, Twilight teleported right behind her and immediately fired off a short beam of pure power. It dispelled everything in its way via sheer brute force. A few measly illusions wouldn’t weaken it. Shields wavered before it. It would poke a hole through hundreds of spells before it ran out of steam. Fighting with so much magic at her disposal was just unfair.
And it worked!
Trixie’s invisibility illusion shattered under the assault. She let out a startled grunt as the force of the beam sent her flying and, with any luck, knocked her out.
Elated with her success, Twilight rushed to follow up before Trixie could escape again, but it was no use. A surge of power not quite Trixie’s carried her away as another explosion crashed into Twilight and popped her emergency teleport.
Far away and once more in the sky, a scream of frustration tore from Twilight’s mouth. “I hate spellcasting assistants!”
That was it. It was time to stop playing nice. Twilight had a new plan.
Step one required her to erect an anti-teleportation ward a few leagues in diameter. Setting up wards mid-combat was usually a nonstarter, but this game of cat and mouse limited Trixie’s ability to interfere without exposing her position and thus getting pinned down in the effort.
Step two consisted of bombardment spells to blanket the earth. That ought to make it easy to find Trixie. If Luna had a problem with that, tough. Trixie had started this. If she didn’t know how to protect herself, that was her teacher’s own fault.
Besides, Twilight intended to give Luna a piece of her mind when she next went to bed anyway.
Trixie had never before felt so validated for her chosen scholarly pursuits in her life. She was really doing it! She had Twilight Sparkle on the run! Barring a few close calls, she was winning this fight. Sure, she’d been a little cautious – not nervous or apprehensive – when her archrival had shown up as an alicorn – even if just a fake one – prepared for war, but it didn’t matter. Sooner or later, Twilight Sparkle would make a mistake she could capitalize upon. She couldn’t dodge explosions and traps forever.
The ambient magic shifted and disrupted Trixie’s subspace storage, causing all of her things inside it to burst out of containment.
“Warning: area dimensional anchor detected.”
Annoyed, Trixie muttered, “Yeah, I got that,” as she tidied up the tricks, props, and artifacts dotting the snow. It seemed Twilight Sparkle had somehow managed to set up a ward in-between taking pot shots at the ground in a vain effort to hit her. No matter. I don’t lean on teleportation like a crutch as she does. The loss of access to other dimensional magic was even less of a concern.
As a quick check, a light hop carried Trixie several hooves into the air. Her mobility enchantments were still working properly, so if it became necessary, she could still dodge attacks. She suspected Twilight Sparkle had snuck something else into the erected ward, but without time to analyze it, she would just have to be careful.
Oddly, in the meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle had ascended into the sky high enough to hover over what remained of the cloud cover in the sky. It hid her from sight – at least in the visible spectrum – but that was about it. Unless she intended to drop things using all that gravitational potential, Trixie didn’t see the point. Perhaps she would conjure a blizzard?
Trixie snorted. As if a little snowfall could find me.
Regardless, if Twilight Sparkle was going to put that amount of distance between them and give her so much time to work with, Trixie had a way to finish this. Twilight Sparkle wasn’t the only pony who got to play with lost, ancient magics. So far away, she could safely unleash the spell which, in the infancy of its reconstruction from the fragments she’d found as a filly, had gotten her expelled.
Trixie planted her staff in the snow. She didn’t need the distraction when working such intricate magic, nor did she wish for its assistance at her moment of triumph.
“Niian, create a duplicate of me to mirror everything. And amplify my voice.”
Showing off might not have been the wisest choice, but Trixie was a showpony at heart. Winning meant nothing if it couldn’t be done in style.
Trixie first constructed a fairly standard metamagic spell to contain any magic which passed through it. That would power her attack in due time once it’d collected enough ambient magic. As it charged, she billowed her cape with a bit of wind magic for style. Then while she weaved the magic for her ultimate attack, she recited the entirely unnecessary verbal components that had come with it half out of respect for its original creator and half just because it set her blood on fire.
“Darkness blacker than black and darker than dark, I beseech thee.
“Combine with my deep crimson.
“The time of awakening cometh.
“Justice, fallen upon the infallible boundary, appear now as an intangible distortion!”
Niian interrupted Trixie’s moment. “Warning: large magical buildup detected above.”
Trixie didn’t care. If Twilight Sparkle wanted to pit their final attacks against each other, she couldn’t conceive of a more appropriate way to end this.
“Dance, dance, dance!
“I desire for my torrent of power a destructive force!
“A destructive force without equal!”
A gleeful smile stretched across Trixie’s face wide enough to hurt.
“Return all creation to cinders, and come from the abyss!”
Trixie scooped up Niian and pointed it skyward as she tied the spell into its power source.
It started as a pinprick of blinding light far above, a tiny point of energy with density far surpassing the sun’s. Then it expanded. In a blink, it covered the entire sky. Clouds vaporized. Snow melted. Even the sun itself faded into nothing, the light of day proving no match for its own.
It was so beautiful.
The blast wave hit moments later. Niian shielded them against it, the scalding heat, and the subsequent pull of negative pressure toward the epicenter of the blast. Trixie just watched the sky in awe. She’d known it would work. The theory behind it was sound. The mechanics, well tested. But she’d never before had the opportunity to cast the spell in the waking world.
Alone within Princess Celestia’s office, Moon Dancer passed off a written summary of the Evening Guard’s latest field report. She suspected the choice on what course of action to pursue would usually fall under Twilight’s purview, but she’d not signed up to make foreign policy decisions.
“‘The Storm King’?” Princess Celestia arched an eyebrow as she read, and just a hint of her amusement revealed itself in her smile. “It inspires a certain sense of awe, I admit, but his old name suited him better. No matter.” She set the report aside. “The EIS can continue surveillance as is. If he intends to march his army on one of our allies, we will do what we must.”
That sounded sensible as a matter of international relations, but Moon Dancer pressed the point of greater concern. “What about the threat to you and Twilight?”
“With the Staff of Sacanas in our possession, he could hardly use me as a magical battery.” A bit of a smirk entered into Princess Celestia’s smile now. Unsaid was that he would need to subdue her first. “And while everyone knows she’s secretly an alicorn” – she rolled her eyes – “in all honesty, Twilight would be of little use in the unlikely event of her capture.”
Princess Celestia’s expression turned thoughtful as she made a pleased hum. “That said, this does create some intriguing possibilities. Perhaps we can experiment with the staff together tomorrow. It would be good to know its maximum load.”
The ability for Princess Celestia to willingly lend out her own power to others did, in fact, sound incredible. Moon Dancer certainly wouldn’t begrudge her a little sleeping in if she wanted somepony else to cycle night and day for her. How often did that sort of opportunity arise? Once in a lifetime? A generation? An era? It was likely the latter, and Moon Dancer hoped she didn’t miss it.
A flash of light appeared beyond the horizon in the window behind Celestia. A moment later, a strangled cry escaped Moon Dancer when she realized which direction it’d come from. Canterlot had the advantage of a high elevation, but it should not be possible to see anything in the Frozen North from here. Even the superstorms the area created were lost to the distance between them.
“Is something wrong?”
Moon Dancer chuckled nervously. Much like foreign policy, lying to Princess Celestia wasn’t what she’d signed up for. She scrambled for something to say that didn’t involve the bearers fighting amongst themselves, and thankfully, she came up with an actual good excuse. “I, uh, hope you’re not expecting me to be your sparring partner. I have zero combat training.”
If Princess Celestia caught Moon Dancer in the lie, she didn’t call her on it.
Twilight shook her head as she stared up at the gaping hole in the sky where there used to be clouds. How Trixie thought she could completely hide the buildup of magic necessary for such a spell in so short a time, Twilight would never comprehend. The payoff was impressive, to be sure, but it’d made it so easy to find her.
“Well, Trixie, I have to admit that probably would have burned Spike, nevermind me.”
Unconscious on the ground, face first in the snow, Trixie had no snippy response.
“There are reasons why we don’t usually use big, flashy spells like that, you know. Luna must have taught you that. Between yours and mine, you completely missed me teleporting down here.”
Trixie rolled over for better access to air under the direction of Twilight’s magic. The thin layer of ice already forming from meltwater atop the snow snapped and crackled as their weight shifted.
“Even if I’d blocked my own teleportation, my ward was mine to control. If you thought I was stuck up there, well, obviously not.”
Such simple little errors in judgment too often became a pony’s downfall. But by the same token, Trixie’s mistakes were easily corrected. If they ever fought seriously again, she likely wouldn’t repeat them.
“And you.” The Night Guardian Staff levitated closer under Twilight’s direction. “She lost. I’m not going to hurt her. Behave yourself, and just let her rest.” After a few moments, she added a more tentative, “Please?”
Twilight cautiously released the suppression she’d put the staff under. When it didn’t immediately wake Trixie or try anything else, she let out a sigh of relief and then thanked it for its cooperation. She didn’t know if it understood her, but a little possibly pointless politeness wouldn’t hurt anypony.
“What do I do now?”
Sweetie Drops surveyed the table around her. Flash and Spike were toasting the archmage’s victory. Pinkie had already finished with that and moved on to something involving crayons. In her experience, it would result in a party of some sort, hopefully not a victory party. Trixie would probably blow up if she stumbled upon that, both figuratively and perhaps literally.
On the other side of the table, Sweetie Drops whispered quiet nothings and gentle reassurances into her marefriend’s ear while rubbing her back and offering the occasional comforting nuzzle. She’d not been able to prevent Lyra’s panic attack, but she had managed to keep her love from bolting or lashing out any anypony. No, Trixie was not a seapony. No, neither was Equestria’s archmage. No, neither of them were here to drag anypony back to Aquestria. No abyssal horrors had crawled up onto dry land. Everything was going to be okay.
Sweetie Drops didn’t so much believe that last part after today, but she and Lyra could face the looming threat of Nightmare Moon together once they’d gotten through this lesser challenge.
To Sweetie Drops’s left, across from Spike and at what should have been the archmage’s right if it weren’t for this blasted fight, Sweetie Belle had fallen into a deep funk. It was, judging by the gloomy look on her face, worse than that time Rarity had yelled at her for being in the way. Sweetie Drops didn’t know what that was about. Her idol had won, after all. Now wasn’t the best time to ask, however, with Lyra still pulling herself together.
Careful not to let it slip out into reality, Sweetie Drops heaved a long sigh internally. She’d been on missions that had gone to Tartarus faster and harder, but none of them had held the same stakes as this one. Still, she’d do everything she could to make this one end successfully. Right now, that involved comforting her love and hoping Lyra didn’t have any lasting mental scars from this.
The trip back to the lab with Trixie and the Night Guardian Staff in tow was thankfully uneventful. Twilight knew Canterlot would have dozens of reports of the battle by now after that last attack. With any luck, Celestia’s nonappearance meant Moon Dancer had kept the information from getting to her.
When Twilight arrived inside, she conjured up a cloud and tossed Trixie onto it with a cloudwalking spell. She neither knew nor cared right now which room Trixie had taken for a bedroom. If somepony else wanted to drag her off to wherever she belonged, that was just fine by Twilight. If not, that, too, was fine. Twilight honestly couldn’t care less at this point. Onto a nearby lab bench, she deposited the Night Guardian Staff and dumped the rest of Trixie’s stuff onto the ground.
Thus unburdened, Twilight made her way through the compound until she came upon her bedroom. She kicked the door open, slammed it behind her, tossed her blankets aside, and finally collapsed onto her bed. Both physically and magically, she had energy to spare. Emotionally, however, she was exhausted. Today had drained her of all but the last dregs of her ability to pretend everything was going to be okay. She just wanted to sleep and forget, so she did.
Twilight’s dreamscape formed around her without her involvement or permission.
Right. Luna. Twilight heaved a tired sigh. What are the odds she hasn’t already heard about my fight with Trixie?
Only those without hope sought its comfort. With no reason to expect any better luck than she’d had over the past couple weeks, Twilight decided to await Luna’s arrival rather than seek her out. Such was one of the few petty power moves she’d picked up from Celestia and actually bothered to remember, and she certainly felt petty right now.
While she waited, Twilight contemplated the statue of Discord, a recreation of his prison, only a few steps away from her. She’d built it outside and hadn’t had time to either store it or remove it before awakening. It would probably be best to keep it on hoof in case she ever needed it again in the future. Perhaps she’d turn it into the centerpiece of a fountain when she had the time.
For now, however, Twilight had, if Celestia was any measure, a faithful teacher to deal with whose student she’d just laid low and humiliated.
When Luna first appeared from the door to Twilight’s tower, she moved with purpose and with her lips pressed into a thin line but as yet displayed no apparent anger. That boded better than expected. Whether it be by design, nature, or a symptom of her relative isolation, Twilight found she showed her emotions to those around her far more freely than her sister.
Twilight spoke first. “Shouldn’t you be with Trixie?”
“If my presence were welcome.” Luna made no effort to hide the hurt and worry behind those words. “What happened?”
In all honesty, Twilight was unsure. “I didn’t hurt her,” she first assured Luna – not physically, at least – before relaying the events leading up to Trixie’s demand for a fight. The explanation spilled forth without interruption, neither question nor comment. When she finished, Luna gave her a resigned sigh. “What?”
“It’s not my place to say. I only ask you to show Trixie patience. She’s had a difficult life, and we both had a part to play in that.”
Twilight had read enough novels in her short life to know she should insist on a proper explanation. Privacy was all well and good, but whatever Luna had opted not to reveal was clearly an explosive issue – pun not intended – which needed careful handling. “It’s probably going to become even more difficult if I don’t know what I’m getting into.”
“Such is unavoidable, unfortunately. This was a long time coming, and she can no longer kick the can down the road.” A long, tired sigh escaped Luna. “Her demons are her own to confront. I made my own attempt to help her, but I got to her too late and merely exacerbated her struggle.”
So she’s not going to tell me anything. Twilight had hoped for more but got what she’d expected. “And when would the right time to help her have been?” Perhaps Luna would at least answer that.
“Anytime before her expulsion, most likely. Of course, that’s what first drew my attention to her.” Luna offered nothing more than a helpless shrug once she’d said her piece.
But that information, provided she acquired a little more context, had actual value. When she woke, Twilight would have to ask the EIS to perform a background check on Trixie for her to find out what had changed upon her expulsion. Beyond the obvious, of course.
At any rate, now that they’d gotten all that out of the way, Twilight had words for Luna. “You gave Trixie a spellcasting assistant.”
An evil grin grew on Luna’s face. “I did,” she said without a hint of shame. “Did she give you a run for your money?”
“You trained a monster!”
Luna laughed. “Thank you for the compliment. Tell me truly, how close was the battle?”
Twilight huffed in answer. With a little prodding, she said, “Your Lulamoon blew it at the end. Until then, it was the single most frustrating fight of my life. Her illusions were so…” The exact right word escaping her, Twilight settled for an appropriately frustrated growl. “Without Magic on my side, she might have been able to wear me down.”
“Ah, you have no idea how proud I am to hear that.”
“Your pride is directly proportional to the pain in my flank.”
“Yes, yes,” Luna said dismissively. “Trixie and I labored for years to make ‘combat illusionist’ a viable style. That entire school of magic is normally too cumbersome for the fast pace of battle.”
Strictly speaking, there were a number of smaller scale illusions essential to high-level engagements, but Twilight resisted the urge to nitpick. Most illusions did require far too long in general to lay down when every second counted. Of course, the Night Guardian Staff changed the rules. What it lacked in creativity, it made up for in computational power.
“How wonderful to hear all that work was not in vain,” Luna continued with a delighted clap of her hooves to which Twilight just scoffed. “One can never be sure in dreams.”
That sounded wrong to Twilight’s ear. “You never tested her in the waking world?”
“A bit,” Luna admitted, “but we fell out with each other shortly after she retrieved the Night Guardian Staff.”
Luna said nothing more on that subject, and the regret so clear in her voice and on her face kept them silent for a time. Twilight ignored the little voice of sympathy in the back of her mind and took solace in what that revealed. It seemed this division between the two, unless they were playing some vastly complicated game with her to fool Honesty, existed entirely on Trixie’s end. Perhaps, then, not all hope was lost for Celestia’s freedom if Trixie had actively rejected whatever overtures of reconciliation Luna had already made.
“Does Trixie truly still introduce herself as Trixie Lulamoon?”
But there was that. Twilight didn’t know if it provided evidence for Trixie’s continued love for her mentor or if it came from a place of spite. One never really knew with wayward students. Regardless, Twilight answered the question honestly. She saw no reason not to.
Luna fell into a pensive, faraway stare for a time. From the variety of expressions that passed over her, she didn’t know what to make of it either.
Then without warning, Luna broke into a wide grin. “Today is campaign night.”
Twilight ears perked up at the news. Six to eight hours of uninterrupted immersion in another mare’s life and problems sounded like just what she needed right now.
“But you’ve gone to bed early.”
“I’m happy to stay the whole session,” Twilight said wholeheartedly. The waking world, as far as she was concerned, wasn’t her problem until tomorrow morning. “If I drop out before we’re done, I’ll just put myself back to sleep.”
Luna nodded, pleased. “Of course. But to pass the time until the others are ready, might I make a suggestion?”
Curious, Twilight arched an eyebrow and replied, “What did you have in mind?”
“Well…” Extending an arm just so, a staff teleported into Luna’s grasp. Although it didn’t look too similar to the one Trixie had wielded, they both shared a night motif that made the identity of the artifact all too obvious. She rolled her shoulders, and her wings shifted. “You’ve faced the student. How would you like to face the master?”
A matching grin grew on Twilight’s face. She dreamt up a duplicate of her armor and skipped the difficult process of donning it by willing it directly onto her. Next, she teleported them to the top floor of her tower. This, she decided, would be her portal room to other spaces within her dream. She crafted one of a simple circular design much like the entrance to her dreamscape in the tower’s ground floor. It would take them to an endless space with randomly generated terrain. Perhaps in time she would refine it more, but for now she merely covered it with water, grass, and bare rock according to height.
“Impressive for the work of minutes,” Luna said once they’d passed through the portal. “Mathematics truly has come a long way since my banishment. I recall when I would sculpt landscapes largely by hoof. What algorithm did you use?”
“Just Perlin noise.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Luna nodded immediately. “Simple, but effective. Now then, shall we?”
Twilight quickly banished the portal back for the safety of her theoretically indestructible tower. “One question first. My dreamscape has no limit on personal magic use. I’d rather this not devolve into us mindlessly flinging magic around. What limits shall I impose?”
“Upon us both equally, I presume?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “If this is to be anything but a foregone conclusion.” She knew better than to fight alicorns directly as a puny mortal.
“Then let us spar with whatever you are used to. Ambient magic included.”
“You sure you can handle being so reduced, Your Divine Highness?”
Luna laughed. “Why do you think it was my sister who got slapped with the Alicorn Accords?”
That was a fair point, Twilight admitted as she adjusted her dream in this space accordingly. “This does mean only unicorn magic, you know.”
Twilight resisted summoning a copy of Magic. She might need the advantage to compete with Luna’s centuries of experience, but she would first try without it. “Anything else?”
“Only this. En garde!”