“Twilight, darling, stop fidgeting!”
Twilight brushed a stray lock of mane from her face for the thousandth time that journey, twitching slightly as the train jolted it straight back out of place. Rarity rolled her eyes at Twilight’s frustration, tutting even as she used the motion to surreptitiously check her own immaculate reflection in the window. “I’m sorry, Rarity, I just... I’m so nervous! I can’t believe Princess Celestia wants to present me at this year’s Meeting Of Minds! Do you have any idea what this means?”
Rarity sighed and rattled off a sing-song recitation.
“The collective leaders in Equestrian knowledge will spend the entire night judging your every word! How they see you now will affect your entire future as it relates to magical study, and you’re simply not sure you’re ready! Oh no, oh no, you wonder if the Princess could possibly be persuaded to put it off for another year! What if you get it all wrong and have to spe-”
She cut herself off and smiled as Twilight laughed, the tension visibly draining from the fearful student. “That bad, huh? You’re right, I’m... I’m worrying too much.”
Rarity looked her friend in the eye. “Of course you are. That’s what you do, darling. But we both know you’re that by the time you’re finished with them, you could knock those crusty old ponies down with a feather.” She tossed her mane with a flourish. “And you’ll look fabulous while you do so.”
Twilight nodded hesitantly, feeling better despite herself. She glanced to where their luggage lay braced to the wall. “Thank you again for the dress, Rarity. I really need to make a good impression, and it was so good of you to make something at such short notice.”
Rarity’s hearty chuckle echoed in the otherwise-empty train car as she settled back onto her haunches.
“Oh, Twilight, you make it sound like it was hard! No, it’s only the best for my friend on her very important day.” She fluttered her eyelashes. “Especially a friend who is getting me into the palace at the height of the Canterlot social season.”
“Rarity, you know the Princess would let you do whatever you wanted in Canterlot, right? She gave you that room the week before my birthday, remember?”
Rarity waved a hoof dismissively. “One cannot simply ask for such a thing, Twilight! It has to be offered. Haven’t you read any books on etiquette during your studies?”
Twilight narrowed her eyes briefly at Rarity’s unthinking jibe, then sighed. She knew her friend didn’t mean anything by it and, besides, Rarity was right. She didn’t know much about etiquette, which was why the coming event frightened the life out of her.
As Rarity nattered on about who she hoped would be attending and how much she appreciated Twilight’s help in procuring her invite, Twilight gazed down at her hooves.
I really don’t know if I’m ready for this.
“Really? Quasi-magical phenomena in decaying ambient matrices? Please, do go on.”
Please, don’t go on.
She nodded with feigned interest at the wrinkled unicorn - the Grand High Thing Of Some Society Or Other - standing before her, appraising the probable cost of his sumptuous robes for the thousandth time in another desperate attempt to assuage her boredom.
And oh, she was bored. Twilight had insisted that, no matter Rarity’s other plans, she attend the Meeting Of Minds with her, and Rarity had naturally complied. She could see how much it meant to Twilight, and the poor girl was killing herself with worry. It was the least she could do to be there for her.
If only supporting her friend didn’t mean having to interact with the most utterly tiresome group of ponies she had ever had the misfortune to meet, including - she shuddered - The One From The Gala.
As the frighteningly-moustached unicorn droned on with an enthusiasm matched only by the monotony of his delivery, Rarity once again cast a quick glance about the room.
The Meeting Of Minds was in full dreary swing. The Tower of the Elements’ Great Hall had been repurposed extensively for the event, filled with tables, decorations and a makeshift stage. To Rarity’s discerning eye, the set-up did not seem particularly impressive. Learned ponies from all over Equestria were gathered to discuss matters of magic, science and philosophy, and this was the best they could manage?
Her thoughts and, blessedly, the unicorn were interrupted by Twilight Sparkle, looking as elegant-yet-reserved in her dress as Rarity’s meticulous designing could achieve, emerging from the milling crowd and nodding respectfully to Rarity’s conversational captor as she trotted closer. “Grandmaster Folio, it’s an honour to meet you. I’m sorry, but could I borrow my friend here? I have something very important to tell her before my, uh, presentation.”
The unicorn shook his head slowly and happily rasped, “Be my guest, young Sparkle. The night is yours, after all! I look forward to hearing what you have to say at the podium.”
Twilight’s eye twitched almost imperceptibly, a twitch that Rarity noted with sympathy.
“Yes, I, thank you. I’ll do my best!” Twilight let out a short, brittle laugh before walking stiffly back into the crowd, beckoning for Rarity to follow her. With a quick curtsey, Rarity bade a relieved farewell to Folio and followed her friend to an alcove below one of the great windows that lined the hall.
Before Rarity could cast a critical eye over the gleaming representation of herself looking down on them, Twilight had started whispering urgently. “Rarity, I’m really not sure I can do this. I’ve barely got anything prepared, it was such short notice! What if I get my speech wrong? What if I can’t even think of anything to say? They’ll think I’m an idiot!”
Rarity sighed. Wishing she knew more about the academic world to more easily comfort her friend, she placed a placating hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Twilight, you and I both know you’ll be perfectly fine. Just think of it as... another speech in the town square! Think of many of those you’ve given, hmm?”
Twilight ran a hoof through her mane thoughtfully, looking unconvinced. “I don’t know, Rarity, I’ve never given a speech in Ponyville that would dictate my entire academic career. There’s so much at stake here, I do-”
Rarity interrupted her with a loud tut and removed her hoof from Twilight’s shoulder, pointing up at the window above them. An image of they and the other Bearers of the Elements of Harmony standing against Discord, the light of their bond sealing him safely away, loomed brightly over them. “Surely you remember this, Twilight? We were locked inside ourselves by Discord, and it was you and your faith in us that helped bring us back. You believed in us so strongly... why not turn that belief towards yourself for once?”
Twilight’s mouth twitched, her warm smile battling with the uncertainty that plainly still gripped her. “I... guess you’re right... I don’t know. I think I need some time alone.”
Rarity nodded as Twilight turned to leave, and prepared to turn her attention back to the party. Before Twilight re-entered the crowd, she looked back and smiled properly, beaming at Rarity with a conviction that took her quite by surprise.
“Thanks, Rarity. I’m really glad you came.”
The faintest hint of a flush crept into Rarity’s cheeks as Twilight scurried away, and she coughed daintily.
Yes. Well. Quite.
Gathering herself, she trotted back into the party proper. Hopefully this time she could find somepony younger than a century.
The crackle of the turning page was the only sound in the echoing library. Twilight stared down, willing the text to be anything more than a distraction, but her worries persisted and the book remained just a book. Sighing and pushing her attempted escape route away from her, Twilight took in her surroundings for the thousandth time, the tight, sweeping arches of the library’s ceiling making it feel small, cozy... safe.
Sheesh, Twilight. You’re giving a presentation. You’ve given hundreds of presentations. What’s so special about this one?
She stared blankly at the wall for a moment then slumped in her chair, her head thumping onto the table with a thunk.
Yeah. Good job lying to yourself.
It wasn’t the presentation, or the assembled luminaries of Equestrian knowledge. It was the faith that Princess Celestia had, once again, placed in her student. So many times the Princess had trusted in her, Twilight Sparkle, to deliver, and so many times she had failed. Oh, of course she had gathered material for her friendship reports from the parasprite fiasco, the Gala, and, well, the tardy friendship report. But no matter whether she had salvaged the situation, she had still let the Princess down and, in the process... herself.
Rarity’s words crept up from her mind.
“...why not turn that belief towards yourself for once?”
Twilight looked into the polished surface of a gleaming bronze globe and her reflection looked back, clad in the dress that Rarity had so painstakingly constructed at such short notice. Twilight’s eye was drawn to the brooch her friend had used to complete the ensemble. She hadn’t had time to look at it closely yet...
A muffled sound - no, several - made Twilight’s ears prick. She turned away from the globe, her passing reflection leaving her alone once more. Quiet thumps and groans were coming through the door, and Twilight crouched nervously. Was that... a fight? There was a guard outside, yes, but who would be so crazy as to attack somepony in the middle of the pal-
The door crashed open and two ponies stumbled in, locked in a combative embrace. Twilight ducked behind a bookshelf quickly, trying to assess the situation. Part of her cried out at her for not leaping into the fray, but her rational mind shushed it as a petulant child, insisting that to intervene without thinking could only cause trouble.
As she peeked through the gaps between creaking tomes, she realised with shock that both ponies were guards, strapping white-coated stallions in the ornate armour of the Royal Guard. The grappling unicorns rolled across the floor, sending chairs flying and smashing tables with the weight of their battle.
One soon gained the upper hand, however, and threw his opponent to the floor. With a well-placed kick, he freed his grounded opponent from consciousness before shaking himself off and breathing deeply, recovering from the scuffle. Twilight opened her mouth to call out, but what happened next chilled her to the bone.
In a flash of green light, the victorious combatant assumed the appearance of his opponent and sniffed, the faintest hint of green tinging his eyes briefly as he did so. Twilight stuffed a hoof in her mouth to cut herself off, but a squeak of air escaped and the changeling’s gaze snapped to the bookshelf that obscured her.
It began to walk slowly toward her, eyes roaming the library for signs of movement. Twilight held her breath. One changeling was barely an effort, but where there was one, there could be hundreds. Safer to stay hidden and inform the Princess so a proper search-and-remove could be mounted.
The changeling stalked closer, crouching low now as it scanned the room with whatever arcane sense the insectile race employed. It was standing right in front of her now, casting its shadow across the mere inches that separated them. It was so close she could smell it, its flawless magical disguise reproducing even the stallion’s musk.
She couldn’t hold her breath for much longer. Any second now she would have to let it out, and at this distance the changeling would certainly hear it. The faux stallion leaned closer to the bookshelf, its gaze travelling slowly down toward the largest gap between books, the gap through which Twilight realised she could easily be seen...
“Rarity! It's so wonderful to see you!”
Rarity's gaggle of unwanted admirers turned their collective heads and, upon witnessing the newcomer, nodded cordially and respectfully. Rarity, recognition swiftly dawning, span as quickly as dignity would allow and dropped into a low bow. “Princess Celestia! Where are my manners?”
Princess Celestia laughed, beckoning Rarity to stand. “Oh, come now. I think we've been through far too much to be standing on protocol, hmm? Stand, please!”
Rarity stood, relishing the stunned faces surrounding her with the slightest hint of guilt. “Why, thank you, Princess. I confess that I get a little confused when good etiquette is bad etiquette.”
Celestia chuckled again and nodded to Rarity's gaggle of newfound acquaintances, lifting a wing slightly to draw her to one side. “If you would excuse us, gentlecolts?”
A respectful rumble of assent replied, and the two unicorns stepped away. Once they were lost in the crowd, so far as the tallest pony in the room with a shimmering varicoloured mane and a faint aura of twinkling light could be considered 'lost in the crowd,' Celestia turned to Rarity and glanced nervously about her. Rarity leaned closer, propriety forgotten in the face of curiosity. She could understand Twilight's trepidation at the night's events, but what could possibly be bothering Princess Celestia herself?
“Well, now we’re alone... Have you seen Twilight?”
There was a moment of silence, broken by Rarity laughing brightly as Celestia raised an eyebrow. “She's in the library, Princess. She is, ah... working through some nerves.”
Celestia sighed with relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I thought... I don’t know what I thought. My student has always put great pressure on herself. She believes I haven't noticed, but... well. You’ve seen it yourself. I think perhaps this presentation might have been too much.”
Rarity winced inwardly as she attempted not to recall the number of times the Princess had arrived to find Ponyville in ruins, and Twilight's not-so-sensible reactions.
“Twilight cares about you very much, Princess, and she's terribly afraid of letting you down.”
Celestia nodded. “Indeed. Perha-”
The windows exploded.
Glass of all colours rained, filling the room with a rainbow of refraction. Cries of surprise and fear from the stunned gathering filled the hall. Celestia quickly stepped forward to shield Rarity with her body. Her aura flared and a translucent magical shield formed above the Meeting of Minds, the falling glass sliding harmlessly along it to the ground.
But even as one threat was removed, another loomed. The unicorn guards lining the hall within the shield suddenly reared and, with a hundred bursts of magic, quickly trapped every academic in the room in bonds of light. Celestia's wings flared in anger as she effortlessly shrugged the treacherous guards' attempts to restrain her magically. Rarity could almost feel the power radiating from her.
And then it stopped.
Celestia blinked as her aura faded and the magical shield she had erected collapsed into nothing. The energy that had crackled visibly in the air only moments before seemed to drain from her, and she stepped back in surprise as the treacherous guards turned to face her.
An imperious cackle echoed through the great hall, a cackle that sounded eerily familiar. Rarity stepped out from behind the Princess and scanned the room quickly.
Celestia looked down at her, eyebrow raised. “Do you know who is doing this?!”
Rarity glanced about her as the guards moved in. “I have an awful feeling that I do...”
A shower of rainbow-tinted fireworks erupted from the floor before them, the pops and bangs playing an explosive ditty as blue smoke billowed from nowhere. A shadow coalesced within the cloud, and reared triumphantly. With a flash of light the smoke cleared to reveal a blue unicorn, a unicorn Rarity knew all too well, clad in starred hat and cape and clutching a strange metal rod in its teeth.
“Cowuh, pififul profeffors!” The unicorn stopped, removing the rod and slotting it into a purple saddlebag holster. She coughed and ran a hoof through her mane before continuing. “Cower, pitiful professors! The Grrreat and Powerful Trixie has arrived!”
The sound of smashing glass, as though every window in the great hall had shattered at once, entered the library. The changeling's ears pricked. To Twilight's immense relief, it turned to leave, heading out of the library on some inscrutable errand. No doubt it considered the room secure now that the guard was unconscious and impersonated.
But what were they doing here?
Twilight crawled from her hiding place and trotted urgently to the fallen guard. Kneeling, she checked his pulse. Still alive, thank goodness. She tentatively shook him, but he remained unrousable and she stood back, biting her lip. She'd read many things about treating the wounded but so far as she could tell he was suffering from nothing worse than the blow to the head and a few bruises, and she wasn't confident enough to do anything about those.
Plus, though she was loath to admit it, she had things ultimately more important to tend to.
Ears straining to pick out more sounds from the great hall as she worked, Twilight dragged the unconscious pony out of sight, to give him a chance to hide should he wake up before she got back. Once he was squared away behind the bookcase that had so recently hidden her, she made for the door.
Peeking her head around the frame, she glanced down the corridor outside. The changeling was just rounding the corner, disappearing into the depths of the palace. Twilight narrowed her eyes and crept into the arched hallway.
Changelings in the palace. The Princess had to be warned.
But how? Any member of the guard could be one of the shapeshifting beasts, any pony. For all she knew, the Minds themselves were changelings, the entire event subverted by Chrysalis' forces.
She pulled up her mental map of the palace but, no matter where she looked, she could see no route without guards, no path without ponies. An image of the great hall filled with changelings captured her imagination. She saw Rarity captured, the Minds rounded up, the Princess trapped in a hideous cocoon hanging from the balco...
Of course! How could she have forgotten? She ran through the maths quickly, judging distance and power and effort in record time, pushing her lightning intellect to the limit.
She could do it.
Probably. It was just a matter of ensuring the materialisation signature wasn't too bright...
Twilight checked her surroundings once more. She was alone, and couldn't be interrupted. She began to concentrate, willing the spell to build within her. The magic came when called and, moments later, she vanished in a flash of light.
“Please, just... stop.”
Rarity harrumphed, tossing her mane contemptuously at Trixie's words. “I'm sorry, but if you're going to take such high-ranking ponies hostage, you simply must provide better service!”
Trixie's expression was incredulous. “You're hostages, you silly unicorn! I will treat you in such manner as I desire!”
“Oh, come now. Even diamond dogs were better at this than you. At least they knew how to fetch a glass of sparkling water.” Rarity smiled to herself as Trixie rolled her eyes and turned away to check the Minds were behaving.
Jibing aside, Rarity couldn't help but be worried. The guards that had subdued the crowd had since revealed themselves as changelings and were prowling the edges of the crowd ensuring nopony tried any, as Trixie had so eloquently put it, funny business.
The situation looked grave. Trixie was in control, and Celestia seemed powerless to stop it. Trixie seemed able to disable the Princess' abilities and, indeed, Rarity had been unable to summon any surreptitious magic herself. As to how she had procured the loyalties of the changelings... who knew?
And so Rarity had settled into the routine she had utilised the last time she had been kidnapped. If one made enough of a nuisance of oneself, one could be afforded certain privileges. And with privileges came opportunity.
“So... Trixie, was it?”
Her captor groaned and spun around. If a cape can flow irritably, Trixie's did so. “Yes?”
“I wonder if you've given thought to the feeding of us all? I mean, Shining Armour hasn't even arrived to listen to your demands, and who knows how long this could go on for?”
“Right now, I have more important things tha-”
“More important? Surely not! What use are we as hostages if we starve? I really feel you haven't thought this through, dear.”
Trixie gritted her teeth. “Listen, you infernal... Do you want me to turn your mane green again?! Because I will turn your ma-” Trixie was interrupted by a burst of purple-tinted light on a balcony overlooking the great hall. Her changeling minions' gleaming eyes snapped up to the balcony and Trixie turned away from Rarity with a sneer. “Oh, what n...” Her eyes widened in surprise and delight. “Oh, yes.”
Rarity followed Trixie's gaze up, and she gasped in dismay. Twilight Sparkle was peering over the rail, shaking her head clear of the disorienting effects of teleportation. Rarity glanced behind her and saw the concern in Celestia's eyes, silently agreeing.
What was Twilight doing here? She had been their wild card, their one chance to negate Trixie's advantage, and she had ruined it by revealing herself.
Trixie, meanwhile, seemed ecstatic. “Twilight Sparkle! How magical to see you!”
Twilight's mouth dropped open as she took in the great hall's captured academics, grinning Trixie, subdued Celestia, massed changelings... “Rarity! Princess! Trixie... what have you done?”
Trixie laughed contemptuously. “I have proven myself, Twilight Sparkle. After my humiliation in Ponyville, I wandered Equestria, unable to find an audience. Ponies talk, Twilight Sparkle, and the topic of the day was 'run Trixie out of town.'” Trixie stopped for a moment, gritting her teeth. Rarity swore she could see the hint of a tear in the corner of her eye. “But look at me now! No longer a travelling showmare, hawking parlour tricks. Now, with the aid of this device, The Great and Powerful Trixie is in command!”
She lifted the curious rod she had entered with from her saddlebag with her magic, holding it triumphantly above her. Twilight stared blankly at the short metal cylinder. There was a moment of silence, and Trixie rolled her eyes. “Oh come on. Have you never encountered such a thing in your precious books?”
Secretly, Rarity agreed with Trixie. An artifact that even Twilight's research had not encountered must be rare indeed.
Twilight shook her head. “Trixie, I don't know what you're talking about. Why can't we ju-”
“Silence!” Trixie shouted Twilight down, eyes narrowed. “This relic, The Rod of Ephemera, allows me to cancel magic at will, and more. Using its power, I have severed the changelings' link to their queen and made them my own! With an army of shapeshifters and the power to neuter my enemies' abilities at a stroke, who can challenge me? Even Princess Celestia lies powerless at my hooves!”
Twilight's expression was anguished, and Rarity knew her well enough to understand why. Twilight had never intended to humiliate Trixie. She had merely done what she could to save the town from Snips' and Snails' mistake. But in doing so, she had destroyed a pony's life and driven her to endanger her friends, her peers, and the kingdom itself.
Twilight leaned over the balcony, calling out to Trixie desperately. “But don't you see, Trixie? This isn't you! You want to prove your power, but none of it is yours! You're just... taking! The Rod, these changelings... you're just stealing worth, not trying to build it for yourself!”
Trixie clenched her teeth as Twilight spoke. “S...Silence, Sparkle.”
“I'm sorry for what happened to you in Ponyville. I'm so, so sorry. But you can't let it drive you to... well, this! Instead of showing us who you are with... with relics and stolen armies, why not show us who you are with you?!”
“Enough!” Trixie angled the Rod toward Twilight, and a pulsing aura flared into being around it. “You will never understand!”
A beam of magical light erupted from the Rod's tip, blasting the balcony with blue fire. Twilight shrieked in fear as the balcony crumbled, and she was lost in a cloud of dust and rubble. Rarity cried out in horror as Celestia gasped and struggled to stand, her magical bonds preventing her from flying to her pupil's rescue.
The smoke cleared, and revealed a blackened crater where the balcony had been, the corridor beyond now leading into empty space above them.
Rarity snorted in rage, snarling at the cackling Trixie. “How could you?! She only ever wanted to help, and you have destroyed her! You... you monster!”
Trixie turned and trotted to Rarity's side, still chuckling. “Calm yourself, Fashionface. Nothing is as it seems, and your precious Twilight Sparkle is alive and well.”
Rarity blinked. How? How could Twilight have survived that? Even Celestia was bowing her head in sorrow. If the Princess of Equestria was assured of Twilight's destruction, how could it have gone any other way?
Trixie laughed again, relishing her prisoner's confusion. “It would not be right for Sparkle to die, my little hostage. I have plans for her, plans that have yet to emerge.” She leaned in close and whispered into Rarity's ear. As she spoke, Rarity's eyes widened in shock.
“You... can't mean...”
Trixie stepped back, smug as ever. “Oh yes.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Rarity grinned, her affected airs dropped. “Then I certainly hope you're prepared.”
Twilight blew another dusty lock of mane from her eyes, focusing intently on the book before her. She needed to read. She needed to read fast.
Her escape from the balcony had been narrow indeed, the teleportation taking hold the very moment she had felt the stone drop from beneath her hooves. The spell had taken her back to the library, a lucky consequence of desperation.
The seconds ticked away as she skimmed through the text as quickly as she dared, drinking in every word. Every moment she spent here was a moment where Trixie was in control.
At last, she was done. She stood up, resolute, and slammed the book shut.
It was time.
She gathered her magic, and concentrated. The spells she had to cast were many and complex, and she only had one chance. This would be the most difficult magical act of her life, and the fate of Equestria depended on it. She took a deep breath... and begun.
As the room was filled with flares of magical power, the dancing light cast flickering shadows over the book she had determined would save them all.
Resolving A Hostage Crisis: An Action Hero's Guide – For Dummies
Trixie's eyebrow raised questioningly. “What... do you mean?”
Rarity chuckled. “Oh, Trixie, you simply have no idea, do you? You've just insulted, threatened and directly attacked the most powerful...”
“Horsenpower's Strengthenising Charmage... check.”
“Adamantaur's Defensium Sorcelry... check.”
“...and, most importantly, studious unicorn in Equestria.”
“Star Swirl's Ludicral Improbabilitinator... check.”
For the first time, Trixie looked uncertain. Her eyes flicked to the Rod of Ephemera and she gulped. “Yes... well... and?”
Rarity looked at the Princess, who was smiling warmly. Of course Celestia had come to the same conclusion. There was nothing to worry about. She turned back to Trixie and re-affixed her grin with such intolerable smugness that Trixie took a step back.
“And you've given her the run of the library.”
Twilight gave the knot in the flowing red bandana one last magical tug, satisfied with its tightness around her forehead. She stepped up to the door of the library, feeling the vast energies of her magic rippling through every atom of her body. She grinned.
“Let's do this. I can do this.”
She slammed a hoof into the door. The ancient oak was ripped from its hinges and shattered against the opposite wall. Twilight stepped out, crackling with energy. She looked down the corridor, toward the great hall. It was somehow wider now, grander. Star Swirl's Ludicral Improbabilitinator was taking effect, twisting reality into a paradigm of her choosing.
A group of changelings, almost twenty strong, was gathered nearby.
Trixie must be fully in control for them to be to walking around undisguised.
They spun to face the thunderous crash, and Twilight set herself. The magic roiled within her, spells amplifying spells, magic feeding magic in an impossible loop of infinite generation.
The changelings charged. Twilight galloped forward, faint purple light streaking behind her. The changelings leapt, extending their claws. At the last moment, she ducked and slid beneath them. As they sailed over her in disbelief, she kicked off the ground into the chitinous belly of a changeling, sending it flying into the roof. Twilight thrust out her hooves and kicked two more the ground, where they crumpled in dazed heaps.
The changelings passed her and landed, scrabbling to face her as she fell back to the ground lightly. The mass of insectile death charged again.
The battle was over in seconds. Twilight's enhanced abilities far outstripped what little strength the changelings could summon. A purple blur of kicks and spins and flashes of magic, she subdued the beasts with ruthless efficiency. The dust cleared, and she stood amidst the unconscious changelings looking down at herself in surprise.
Wow, these spells are more effective than I tho-
A bolt of searing light interrupted her thoughts, shattering the flags at her hooves. She hopped back, her gaze snapping to the bolt's origin.
Emerging from the many doors situated along the grand hallway's walls were more changelings, firing flashes of green fire in her direction as if from nowhere.
That's odd. They couldn't do this last time...
Even as she pondered, she was galloping onward, ducking and dodging through the hail of incoming lasery death. More changelings poured in, clinging to the walls and ceiling to get a better shot. As the fusillade intensified, Twilight skidded to a comparative halt, a plan quickly forming.
Her horn flared, and a tiny sphere of distorted space popped into existence. A bolt struck the bubble and immediately froze, its twisting flames locked in stasis. Twilight danced among the blazing rain, gracefully twisting and leaping as she cast spell after spell, trapping hundreds of beams In a sea of time bubbles hanging before her.
The changeling's fire slowed as their strange intelligence seemed to realise something was amiss. Twilight ceased her balletic display and touched down gently. In her mind, she calculated and cast on the fly, modifying the momentum and trajectory of the stilled fire. The changelings backed away.
Twilight cut the spell. At once, the wall of frozen fire erupted back into life, a wave of blazing power rolling back along the corridor to engulf the changelings. To Twilight's surprise, the fire passed over them to no great effect, doing nothing more than knocking them unconscious even as it dissipated behind them.
They're only trying to stun... What is Trixie doing? I have to get back to the great hall.
She took a step forward.
The wall to her left and the ceiling directly above her burst inwards, showering her with rubble that she deftly deflected with controlled magical bursts. From the debris emerged two hulking shapes, arms outstretched. Twilight rolled out of their path and the shadows connected, their fists' impact sending a shockwave through the corridor that itself sent waves of dust rippling through the air.
The twin behemoths stood, drawing themselves to their full height. As one, they flexed, posing grandiosely. "Trixie says you ain't goin' nowhere, pony."
Twilight just stared.
Minotaurs? Trixie has minotaurs?!
The two monstrous creatures charged, gleaming horns low. Twilight focused, blinking out of existence to reappear above and just ahead of them before planting a mighty double-kick squarely in the head of both minotaurs. They immediately halted, Twilight supported between them.
There was a moment of silence. The minotaurs very slowly turned their heads to face her, apparently unaffected by the kicks. Twilight smiled awkwardly.
“Um... I'm sorry?”
The minotaurs grabbed her and threw her at unimaginable speed along the corridor. She desperately twisted in midair and hit the far wall with all fours, her impact leaving a deep crater in the thick palace wall. A shudder ran through her body as she took the impact, but she recovered quickly. She bunched the muscles in her legs and kicked off again, rocketing back towards her dual opponents who were themselves pounding toward her, every footfall shaking the wide corridor.
The second before colliding with them, she teleported again, this time maintaining her momentum. She slammed into the wall behind them hoof-first, then kicked off just as she had before. Blurring with speed, she hit the minotaur on the left directly in the small of the back with a flying kick of meteoric power.
Time seemed to stand still. Then reality caught up, and the minotaur shot along the corridor, mirroring Twilight's previous trajectory. With a rumble that shook the palace to its foundation, it hit the centre of the crater Twilight had left perfectly. The beast's eyes were wide, and its tongue lolled from its mouth as it lapsed into unconsciousness.
Twilight and the remaining minotaur eyed each other warily, each unwilling to make the opening strike. It was clear that what the minotaur had in strength, Twilight had in versatility. They circled, searching for an opening.
Their stand-off was interrupted by a metal cylinder, belching flame, shooting between them before exploding violently against the opposite wall. Twilight followed the trail of smoke the cylinder had left and gaped.
Missiles?! Are you kidding me?!
The Ludicral Improbabilitinator was in full effect. A group of changelings had spilled from Celestia-knows-where and was toting a collection of gleaming weaponry, all of it pointed at Twilight. With a deafening series of fwooshes, the horde fired. As the rockets spiralled toward her and the minotaur leapt, seemingly heedless of the incoming ordinance, Twilight's mind went into overdrive.
She could take the minotaur, and she could at least deflect the missiles, but the situation in the corridor was rapidly getting out of hoof. Star Swirl's masterpiece of a spell was a fickle thing, as dangerous to the user as it could be to her enemies. It looked like the odds were turning against her.
The missiles neared, and Twilight focused. Her magic gripped the warhead nearest to her and she telekinetically steered it closer to her. At the last moment, she somersaulted onto the missile's body and pulled a sharp turn, banking out of the path of the explosive swarm.
Twilight surfed her metal mount through the nearest stained-glass window, shattering the twenty-foot-high wall of colour into glittering rain. She rocketed into the sky above Canterlot, casting a sharp silhouette against the midday sun. She tweaked the missile's course, arcing gracefully back toward the palace with fire in her eyes and at her back. She would save the Princess, she would stop Trixie, and she would give a really good speech.
So focused was she on her goal, the dragon took her completely by surprise.
A deep silence filled the great hall, broken only by the occasional tapping of Trixie's hoof.
Rarity glanced about the room, trying desperately to find something to do beyond wait to be rescued. Even the changelings looked bored, relaxing against the walls nonchalantly and hissing to each other casually.
A jaunty, tuneless whistle made the entire room turn their heads. Suddenly the centre of attention, Princess Celestia's whistle slowly died, and she gave a faint cough.
The room lapsed back into tedious silence.
The colossal dragon swept up from beneath her, mouth open. Twilight banked urgently, narrowly avoiding the beast's razor teeth. As the dragon flew past, she used the few seconds' opportunity to view it clearly to appraise it as a threat. To her surprise, she realised its left side was covered in what looked like metal plating, the sun gleaming from the polished surface. One of its eyes had been replaced with a bright red orb emitting a targeting laser that even now tracked her movement. Its wings were tipped with wicked-looking blades, and the final third of its tail was... was...
Even in the midst of her deadly situation, Twilight threw up her hooves in exasperation.
“A chainsaw?! You're kidding!”
The dragon roared in response, twisting to face her and plummeting into a dive. She angled out of its path but the monster was faster than she thought, staying on her tail as they flew above Canterlot. The two minotaurs, one sporting a violent purple bruise on his head, burst from the window she had recently shattered, clutching the handles of their jetpacks tightly.
Okay, cyborg dragon, flying minotaurs... fine. This could get complicated.
The dragon's eye laser zeroed in on her, and the dragon opened its mouth again. Twilight heard the roiling flames build within its throat even as the air rushing past did its best to deafen her. With a belch of vast proportions, the dragon unleashed its deadly breath. The ball of flame, large enough to swallow ten Twilights, barreled toward her.
The minotaurs had caught up by now, their smoke-spewing jetpacks affording them greater speed and maneuverability than Twilight's makeshift craft. They looped around to her sides, pulling large metal cylinders from what seemed like mid-air.
The Improbabilitinator is getting out of hoof! I have to wrap this up quickly.
The minotaurs fired, twin balls of searing plasma erupting from their cannons before merging into a giant green ball of fiery death that almost matched the dragon's flame. The minotaurs tossed their weapons away and circled to Twilight's sides, coming in for a pincer attack.
Twilight began calculating desperately. Above her, swooping in to block her ascent, the dragon. Behind her, a ball of blazing dragon flame almost mirroring the plasma bowling toward her from the front. To her sides, two glowering minotaur rocketing toward her. She gulped. She couldn't fly down or she would be endangering the citizens of Canterlot, so the only option remaining was...
She summoned the magic, but this time it didn't come. She tried again, but still the spell just wouldn't come together. The Ludicral Improbabilitinator was working its double-edged magic once more.
Okay, so, a hero wouldn't just teleport, so I can't teleport. Thanks, Star Swirl. I guess I have to get... interesting.
The plan formed almost as soon as she had decided to make it. As the menage a murder closed in on her, she closed her eyes, steeling herself for what was to come. The plan felt right. She took a deep breath, the roars of her attackers and howling of the wind fading from her mind as she cleared her mind of everything but the plan.
She jumped off the missile.
Her faithful steed shot into the ball of plasma, vaporized before it could explode. Twilight fell, conjuring an impressive length of magical cord and hurling either end towards the minotaurs. The cord's tips knotted themselves into lassos and, as they reached their targets, looped themselves around the minotaurs waists, darting and weaving like snakes through their attempts to fight off the whipping extensions of Twilight's will.
The minotaurs visibly realised they were about to collide, and angled sharply downwards in a panic. The magical cord stretched further up and hooked itself behind the dragon's horns. The minotaurs desperate dive yanked the dragon downwards, the fearsome reptile yelping in pain as it was pulled into the path of the twin fires. Dragon, flame and plasma collided in an explosion the likes of which Canterlot had not seen for thousands of years.
The dragon, armour scorched and scales sizzling, fell out of its dive, stunned by the force of the explosion. The minotaurs had drawn level with Twilight now. Twilight, mane streaming behind her like a purple parachute, grinned. Her horn flashed, and the cord tightened, swinging her opponents toward her at speed. She spread herself wide, slowing her descent just enough.
The minotaurs crashed into each other, heads connecting with an audible thonk. As the two beasts were caught In a tangle of limbs, horns and rope, Twilight landed deftly on their unconscious forms, and began to magically retract the cord, drawing her up the dazed dragon's head. With a mighty heave both magical and physical, she swung the minotaurs forward and above its long snout, looping around to land in between its horns. The cord slid itself down into the dragon's mouth. The plan was complete.
Twilight stood up shakily on the dragon's head, gasping. She had done it. Two fireballs, two minotaurs, a missile, and a cyborg dragon – all under control. She stomped a hoof hard, rousing the dragon from its stupor, and yanked on her makeshift magical reins. The dragon roared, unable to utilise its whirring tail with Twilight on its head. Twilight yanked harder, and the dragon found itself turning to face the palace, Twilight forcing it into a screaming dive.
The dragon's eyes opened wide. Twilight leaned down to its ear and shouted over the raging wind.
“I'm very sorry about this! I have to conform to the paradigm, you see!”
The dragon tore through the air, and the palace drew closer. Only few seconds now...
Rarity rolled her eyes as Trixie made a strangled noise of intense frustration. “What is taking her so long?! I don't have the time to wait for this blasted amate-”
The wall closest to her, blessedly free of ponies, exploded, showering the room in dust and sending everypony scrambling. A colossal dragon, half-metal and whining in defeat, was embedded in the palace wall up to the wings. The beast clung to the flags tightly so as not to fall, and hostages and captor alike stared in abject confusion.
Twilight Sparkle, still clad in her tattered dress and humming with power, leapt from the dragon's head, a purple missile of vengeance and rage. Trixie shrieked in terror and raised the Rod of Ephemera, but Twilight was too fast. She hit the ground directly in front of Trixie, gathering power in one hoof, then leapt straight upwards, catching the unicorn in a twirling uppercut of bone-cracking strength. Trixie sailed through the air, losing her magical grip on the Rod, and came tumbling back to the ground with a thud several feet away. The Rod spun lazily through the air and clanged to the floor at Twilight's feet.
There was a moment of terrible silence.
Trixie staggered to her hooves, blood trickling from her nose. She glared at Twilight, deprived of her advantage with only changelings to defend her.
Rarity held her breath, sensing the rest of the room do the same. This was Twilight as they had never seen her, at full magical strength and willing to use it to its utmost potential. Trixie spoke.
“I've been waiting a long time to say this, Twilight Sparkle.”
The silence dragged on, Twilight looking down at Trixie impassively, her expression unreadable. Trixie opened her mouth to continue...
And broke into wide smile. “Congratulations!”
Streamers and fireworks erupted from where she stood and she threw her forehooves high, and the entire room burst into rapturous applause, their magical bonds falling away. Rarity joined them, taking great pleasure in watching Twilight's mouth drop open in utter surprise. Celestia rose from where she had been seated and trotted to her student's side, hugging her close with a wing.
“I am so proud of you, Twilight Sparkle. You have passed with flying colours!”
Twilight tried to talk, but could only evict a hoarse “I... what?” before falling to her knees.
Celestia beamed at her exhausted student. “Why, your entrance exam! For centuries, the Meeting of Minds has been nothing more than an excuse to test their newest members. What better way to ensure their hearts are true and their power great than to see what they would do to protect their friends?”
Trixie had joined them by now, and Twilight gaped at her supposed rival. “So... you... you're a Mind?”
Trixie laughed proudly. “Of course I am, Sparkle. Why, I may not have as much conventional power as your freakish self, but my capacity for illusion is unmatched in all of Equestria!”
Twilight blinked. “Illusions... You mean... none of that was real?”
Grandmaster Folio had joined them too, a fact that Rarity secretly lamented. “To an extent. The Rod of Ephemera – which, by the way, lost you points. Did you not even pay attention to its name? - has the power to create illusions of breathtaking verisimilitude. Take a look at your balcony, for example.”
Rarity followed Twilight's gaze to the balcony, pristine and undamaged. A changeling, now revealed to be a Canterlot guard, waved brightly. Twilight glared. “So... the ponies that were actually changelings were actually ponies?”
Folio beamed in response. “Indeed! And none of your dangers were ever truly of any threat!”
“Even the dragon?!”
Celestia coughed. “Well, yes... and no. We were not expecting you to use Star Swirl's Ludicral Improbabilitinator. Our precautions couldn't stand up to such a powerful spell.” Her expression softened. “Which only proves that I have been right about you all along, my dearest student! Now all that is left is your speech, and you shall be a member of the Minds!”
Twilight seemed to still be struggling to take it all in, and Rarity could sympathise.
“But... but the damage to the palace...”
Celestia chuckled. “Oh, Twilight. What's the cost of a few repairs against one the finest minds I have seen in several thousand years? You have earned this, Twilight Sparkle. You have repaid all the faith I have ever placed in you. Truly, congratulations.”
Twilight looked to Rarity, who smiled warmly. “I'm so proud of you, Twilight. They told me while you were fighting and, well, I could hardly say no once they were underway, could I? Now, I believe you have a speech to deliver!”
Twilight nodded blankly, and turned to walk slowly to the podium which had somehow survived intact, absentmindedly grabbing the Rod as she went. The hubbub died down as the assembled Minds turned their attention to their newest member.
Twilight stood at the podium, staring down at them. She said nothing for a moment, and Rarity feared she still wasn't ready. But, to her delight, Twilight shook her head briefly and smiled at the crowd.
The young unicorn closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath... then began.
“Fillies and gentlecolts of the Minds. I have been invited here today to give a small speech and, apparently, take an insanely elaborate test in order to be considered for admittance to your organisation. And, um, wow. You guys really know how to set a test.”
A ripple of laughter moved the crowd, and Rarity felt her heart melting with pride.
“It is truly an honour to be here and, uh, well... here is my speech.”
She coughed delicately.
“This is a hostage situation. You are all imprisoned in this room until such time as I see fit to release you. I would prefer if everypony surrendered peacefully, but would warn you that I have the Rod of Ephemera and an active imagination, and I am not afraid to embarrass. I suppose I should also mention that I am currently infused with enough magical enhancement to rip a mountain in half. Please stay calm while I contact my brother and issue demands. Thank you.”
Magical rope once again appeared, ensnaring the collected ponies at once and sending both Rarity and Celestia stumbling to the floor. Twilight stepped down from the podium and strolled over to them.
“Um, sorry about this. The spell hasn't worn off yet, and I have to conform to the paradigm. And the paradigm says that even heroes go bad.”
She trotted away, calling for a megaphone.
Rarity wriggled in her bonds before giving up and sighing. It had a been a long, long day, and it looked like it was about to get longer. She met the Princess' eye and smiled wanly.
“Another captor, another capture. How can the same thing happen to the same girl twice?”