Captain Shining Armor felt a small burst of magic coming from the spell paper when the message appeared, so he knew it was going to be something important. It only consisted of two characters, but that "A5" pretty much decided his course of action.
"Spike, we're going. Applejack has been taken to their base." The unicorn told his dragon partner.
"So we're going to teleport directly inside?" Spike asked, while he was climbing on top of Armor.
"Yes." The captain said, before sending a message to all of the guards on the town that they should be on high alert. Just to make it harder for the infiltrated changelings to act.
After that, Shining Armor focused on the particular spell paper held by Applejack in order to make that teleport. It was way easier than it normally would be to invade an enemy base, because the changelings used concealment as their main point, and creating wards to restrict teleportation would make for some very noticeable magical emanations.
Then, after managing to get the specific coordinates, he gathered his magic for a few seconds and teleported both himself and Spike.
The sudden arrival of an unicorn and a dragon (even if a small one) was surprising enough for the changelings nearby to stare at them in shock, and Shining Armor made good use of that moment of confusion. Having charged more than necessary, he didn't have to wait and was able to immediately cast a powerful spell.
It was one of his most proud creations, magic that manifested hundreds of small, circular shields that could be sent flying to ram his enemies. During the moment it took to make the spell formula, Shining Armor assessed the situation on the base, because the targets of his first spell weren't going to be the Changelings.
No, instead he aimed at the cocoons that were trapping so many innocent ponies.
"Hundred Shield Barrage!" Shining Armor shouted, shooting out his multitude of shields with a powerful ferocity.
They were all perfectly aimed, so they hit the extremities of the cocoons and burst them open, releasing the trapped ponies without injuring them.
But by this point, the changelings had overcome their shock, and they had only one answer to an enemy suddenly invading their base. As soon as the cocoons were broken open, the air was already whizzing with dozens of attack spells, all aimed at Shining Armor.
However, if they thought he would be defenceless after using a big spell, they had underestimated his partner.
Spike extended a hand forward and shouted "Draconic Aura!"
And in a manner similar to Fluttershy's Empathy Drive, a dragon arm made entirely out of aura overlaid itself over Spike's real arm. And it was the powerful arm of an adult dragon. However, while Fluttershy's Animal Spirit techniques were mostly hazy and spectral, Spike's dragon arm was solid and looked almost real, with only a more vibrant coloration and a certain wavering around the edges betraying the fact that it wasn't entirely a solid object.
But it was more than enough.
"Right Arm of the Dragon!" Spike announced, and swept his special arm through the air while spinning in a circle, blocking every single one of the attack spells.
Shining Armor knew what Spike was going to do, so his next move was already prepared. Reaching into his knapsack with telekinesis, he brought out hundreds of small spell paper slips, each one with a fairly specific energizing spell.
The freed ponies were still unconscious, because the Changelings kept them from being a problem by maintaining them unconscious with their magic. And that was the reason for Shining Armor to be carrying those paper slips, since their spells would allow the trapped ponies (and Applejack, who hadn't been put in a cocoon yet) to regain consciousness.
Yet throwing all the spell papers on the unconscious ponies was not an easy thing to do. Shining Armor simply didn't have the multitasking ability necessary for doing all of it at once, so the captain had to slowly shoot bundles of them at the freed ponies little by little, which would take a while. So, to help him, Spike went on the offensive.
Sweeping his arm through the air, he moved to attack the closest changelings, who mostly managed to dodge out of the way, except one who was caught by Spike's Dragon Hand and then used as a projectile against the Changelings on the other side of the unicorn captain.
The distraction was good, and most of them started trying to attack him, leaving only a few spells aiming at Shining Armor, which were easily blocked with small energy shields even while he was focusing on his current task.
And Spike still wasn't done showing off things he could do with his Dragon Arm, grabbing the floor, he used the arm to throw himself towards another group of changelings. This was the fighting style he had developed over his training with Luna, the Draconic Aura was a magic that brought forth his potential, and thus the Right Arm of the Dragon was a tool as powerful as a real arm of an adult dragon. Spike could use it for mobility, for powerful attacks and even for defence, as the changelings kept releasing spells or attacking physically but were blocked by that arm, which they couldn't even scratch.
And at that point, the ponies who had been hit by spell slips were getting up, so Shining Armor started giving orders:
"Guards, protect the civilians! Everypony else, be careful!" He shouted, and the awakened ponies started running to gather together, which caused even more chaos in the changeling base. Applejack, who had been the first pony who received a paper slip, used that confusion to run towards an exit she had seen in her earlier recon of the base, slipping away to rejoin the others.
And yet, despite that everything was going fine, Shining Armor couldn't stop himself from sighing internally, even as he continued to free the rest of the prisoners.
That was because according to Applejack's initial findings, and Rarity's further information gathering, the number of prisoners inside this base was far too few. Which meant that the Changelings should have another base hidden.
The unicorn captain wrote the simple message "B2" on his spell paper, to pass on the message to the others. Hopefully, they would be able to deal with that as well.
It happened almost simultaneously.
The three groups of ponies that the Knights formed were attacked by changelings disguised as guards. Without any provocation, like they had simply received a signal, the Changelings attacked.
The group of Twilight, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo had already left the cave and had gone most of the way back to the town when the Changelings suddenly dropped the only real guard among them with spells before turning to attack their charges. They did it in a quick, professional manner, to the point where, if the Knight and Squires hadn't been on edge already, it would have been rather hard to react in time.
But they did react, and seeing that the jig was most likely up, counter-attacked without caring about maintaining their cover. With Rainbow Dash attacking with weather magic boosted physical blows, Pinkie Pie using her own attacks that injected chaos magic on the bodies of the enemies, Twilight Sparkle with her powerful and weird spells and Scootaloo cheering them all on (okay, that last part may not have been entirely necessary), the Changelings didn't have a chance.
But of course, it was't only those changelings they had to worry about, and soon more changelings came flying, without bothering to disguise themselves. Understanding that things had boiled over, the four did as planned for this kind of situation, and started a running battle, while trying to get to a certain point in the border of the town, their fallback location where all of them would gather back together.
In the same way, the reduced group of Trixie, Bunker Breaker and Applebloom was attacked by the changelings after they knocked out the real guard, and the same way they had to keep fighting, Bunker Breaker using his high power spells and Trixie confusing the enemies with illusions, and because they had less firepower available, the decision to fall back was taken even before the changelings reinforcements arrived.
And as for the group of Sunset, Rarity, Fluttershy and Sweetie Belle? Their situation was the most chaotic, because they were in the middle of the city, so there were a lot more Changelings available to try and block their path. And the real guards that tried to help were overwhelmed by the sheer numerical superiority of the Changelings. Fluttershy mostly defended Sweetie Belle, using the most resilient animal spirits she could muster, while also carrying her, and Rarity, without her Sword, was forced to rely on actual wind spells, but was sufficiently proficient on them to help. Sunset, of course, was the main reason why they managed to resist, with the great power of her spells breaking through encirclements and blocking dangerous attacks.
And eventually, all three groups managed to gather at their fallback location, and combined their abilities to be able to deal with the attacks of the changelings more easily. They even had time to pass on important information to each other, like the fact that Venus was now on their side. And seeing the situation, they reversed the transfiguration spells to return to their normal appearances.
Still, before they had the chance to set in motion the next stage of their plan, Pinkie Pie suddenly had a strange body contortion, fruit of her Pinkie Sense.
She caught the eye of Twilight with the word "Danger", and the two instantly agreed on a course of action, releasing their powers and joining them.
"Duo Magic: Chaotic Dodge!" Both of them shouted, and the entire group got shifted over fifty meters away from their previous position.
It was just in time, for the place they had been in was suddenly struck by a multitude of enormous black lightning bolts.
The place was completely annihilated, and from the middle of it came the pony responsible. He was a pegasus with a black coat and black mane, his eyes were black and even his cutie mark (a black lightning bolt) barely stood out. After a moment, he shot towards the group, flying at a ridiculous speed.
"Bunker, take care of the fillies!" Sunset shouted, taking hold of him and the three fillies and throwing then (lightly) a far enough distance away that they wouldn't be affected by the fight.
Twilight created a barrier made out of countless colored rubber balls and sent them at the pegasus "Is he Tempest of Destruction?" She asked to the world in general "But he should have died centuries ago!"
Twilight wasn't expecting an answer, but got one anyway.
"Magical construct!" Applejack's voice sounded, as she ran in and joined the others, who smiled upon seeing that she was alright. But her words caught their attention, and a quick conference via their eyes brought everypony up to speed on what exactly was going on.
(Rainbow Dash: Who pegasus?
Trixie: Who is that guy? He looks like and has some of the same abilities as Tempest of Destruction, an old foe of the Knights who had the goal of destroying the world's surface to "reach the power within" or something, no one was ever sure, he wasn't that talkative. He was defeated and killed by a Knight of the era, Flurry Storm, the Whirlwind. But apparently, this is just a magical construct, even though all my senses are telling me he is real, is that right, Applejack?
Sunset: If that is the case, we are dealing with a phenomenally advanced magical construct, and it's fairly probable that our meta Tempest may have access to more of his abilities, like the lightning clones. If that is the case, I'll handle the real body, and you handle the clones.)
Sunset's words proved to be prophetic just a moment later, when Tempest spread his wings and summoned black lightning which coalesced into fourteen pony-like featureless dark figures, which cracked with energy. Sunset, bringing her plan to action, charged magic and teleported, appearing a dozen meters above the black pegasus.
Before he could react, she shot down a powerful fireball. The clones scattered, before rushing to attack the rest of the Knights and the main construct summoned powerful winds onto his right wing and used it to block the fireball and subsequent explosion.
But that had only been a distraction, and Sunset, while falling towards the pegasus, smiled as she finally had the chance to test her newest technique. Activating a magical formation hidden inside her own body, she drew a huge amount of ambient magic towards her own body, and mixed it with her own natural magic in an insanely complicated and finicky process that created an energy mix far greater than the sum of its parts.
"TRANCE MODE!" Sunset shouted with glee, and then her magic exploded into a yellow corona which enveloped her body, vibrating with undiluted power.
Seeing this, the Tempest of Destruction immediately formed a small but powerful hurricane around himself to act as both attack and defence, and it was just in time, because Sunset Shimmer started strong.
"Double Magic Enhance: Destruction Beam!" She shouted, and spent a huge amount of magic to turn a normal combat spell into a ridiculous expression of rushing power, comparable to a ferocious river, which was so powerful it cancelled out all her momentum of falling and reversed it, propelling Sunset upwards.
But Tempest had been a powerful foe of the Knights of his time, and that copy of his was similar enough that even something like this wouldn't catch him off-guard. With a beat of his wings and a wave of his hooves, he turned the entire hurricane into a tremendous rush of air, which hit the Destruction Beam with enough force to make it explode early, and also propelled the pegasus himself away from the danger zone.
With a ferocious smile, Sunset teleported. She kept her momentum on purpose and appeared right behind the black stallion, flying backwards and with her head tilted to point her horn at him.
"Double Magic Enhance: Grand Spear Rush!" She shouted, turning her horn into the center of a magical red spear which sped towards Tempest together with the unicorn herself.
Turning back so fast he made the air crack, the black pegasus raised a hoof and instantly covered it in heavy, concentrated and ominous black lightning, much stronger than whatever he had used before. He met the red spear with his lightning covered hoof.
There was a crack, and the world itself seemed to slow down and become less real due to the sheer power of the explosion that resulted, and both combatants were sent flying away from the point of impact.
While Sunset was engaging the Tempest of Destruction, the others had to deal with the lightning clones. And it was not easy, because the clones didn't have to obey the normal rules of movement, and while they didn't move at the speed of lightning, they were still insanely fast, enough that only Rainbow Dash could fully follow their movements.
That was a problem, because the Knights and Squires could tell that being hit by one of those clones would not be a fun experience, and they were outnumbered. Still, the ponies did what they could. Fluttershy changed into an eagle animal spirit, and used its natural abilities to enhance her own control of the wind to support Rarity, who had already received her Wind Ruler Sword back from Pinkie Pie, and was using multitudes of wind slashed to keep the enemies back.
Twilight Sparkle was using chaos magic to generate tons of weird constructs to appear and disappear around her, protecting herself while keeping an eye on the others. Trixie had hidden herself in illusions, and was carefully weaving all sorts of special illusions to try and determine what sort of senses those clones had. Pinkie Pie was shifting all around the field in chaotic teleportations, attracting most of the attention to herself and barely keeping ahead of the enemies. Rainbow Dash kept them at a distance by using her own lightning, trying to find some way of destroying them. And Applejack had covered herself in an armor of earth, which even the black lightning had trouble penetrating, and she mostly kept to herself, watching the distance to see if there were ambushers coming.
There was a standstill for several seconds, an eternity in battle terms, but then Trixie understood the truth.
"They're reacting to our attacks by dodging and they also try to get closer to us, that's all they do!" She shouted to everypony.
It was normal that the clones were like this. Their true purpose was to act together with the original body, and alone they were much smaller threats. As such, Trixie quickly came up with a plan.
"Pinkie, bring them to a single place! Rarity, with me!" She shouted, before catching Rarity's eyes to inform her of the plan.
Pinkie Pie did as she was told. She stopped for a moment before releasing a burst of magic and creating ten copies of herself, who started jumping in place and succeeded in attracting all of the fourteen lightning clones, but when her copies were about to be hit, they all disappeared, Pinkie herself also shifting away.
That was enough, Trixie and Rarity joined their magic and called out their own combination attack.
"Duo Magic: Hidden Wind Blades!" They shouted, Trixie making her horn glow and Rarity slashing with her sword.
Suddenly, hundreds of wind blades appeared in the air, so many that even with their speed, the clones barely managed to move to the openings in the onslaught. And then they were hit, the visible wind blades being just illusions designed to funnel them into the true attacks, hidden by illusions.
However, while they were staggered by the attack, the lightning clones didn't disperse. But Twilight was on the case, having already moved to attack in case it was needed.
"Chaos Magic: Wavering Air!" She cast.
And a pulse of chaos magic fused with the air and rushed into the clones, causing magical vibrations that hit the clones hard, with the intent of destabilizing them.
Even that wasn't enough, but the clones became unable to move for even longer, and Rainbow Dash used her lessons from Sunset and attacked with overwhelming power.
"Sonic Rainboom: Split!" She shouted, crossing the barrier of sound and forcefully taking control of the resulting explosion of energy.
Gathering all of it in a ball, she struck it to make the ball split into fourteen blasts of magic, and in that case, she had made her Sonic Rainboom harmonic, thinking this would have a better chance of destroying the clones.
She was right.
"Break!" Dash shouted, as the blasts of harmonic magic hit the clones and struggled against their own magic. But they had already been hit twice with powerful attacks in close sequence, and ended up being overwhelmed. The black lightning forming the clones broke apart with a sound of shattering glass.
Meanwhile, Sunset's fight was also in its closing stages.
During their first mission, Twilight had called Sunset the strongest of the Knights, and this fight was a good demonstration of why.
It wasn't just that she could use a lot of magic, or that she could use powerful spells quickly via her Magic Enhance, because most unicorns simply wouldn't be able to do what she did with it. If all Sunset had was power, Trixie and Twilight would easily defeat her, because they had very special and dangerous abilities and the wisdom to use them, but Sunset had just as much wisdom, and also understood her own strengths very well.
Her learning of Trance Mode was a good example. That was a very powerful ability that many strong battle mages had used in history, and Sunset had only recently managed to achieve it, despite having trained in it for years. And she did it because she knew how well it would synergize with her skills. And besides even that, Sunset's battle sense was simply incredibly acute.
All of those things together made Sunset Shimmer the strongest of the Knights. Twilight could have a multitude of unpredictable attacks, but Sunset's battle sense allowed her to react quickly to any threats. Trixie could have clever plans, but Sunset could use her own powerful steps with enough forethought that simply outplanning her was extremely difficult.
And Tempest was the first opponent to let her really cut loose in true combat, and her Trance Mode allowed her to use Double Enhance so often it was like she had infinite magic.
The Tempest of Destruction was a powerful opponent, but Sunset slowly began overwhelming him with her non-stop powerful attacks, and she kept teleporting around without a pattern, sometimes close and sometimes far, using a variety of spells to the point where the black pegasus was unable to predict her attacks and had to just react, and manipulating her momentum with spells to the point where her movements were even more unpredictable.
Finally, feeling his clones being destroyed and knowing he was on a losing pattern, Tempest deliberately defended an attack just enough to avoid being knocked out and gathered all his power for a single, powerful, unmerciful attack. He released a veritable wall of black lightning, and added a twist to the magic to distort space and prevent teleportation.
Sunset wouldn't run away from a contest of power, but she also wouldn't be stupid about it.
"Double Magic Enhance: Grand Rush!" She cast, and enveloped herself in a powerful cloak of magic, before rushing towards the weakest spot on the wall, shifting the cloak into a piercing form.
She burst through the black lightning, her defensive aura flaring at maximum potential, just barely managing to overcome the destructive effects of the lightning.
And she was fast, though partially because he has exhausted himself with his attack, Sunset was fast enough to reach Tempest and grab onto him, before starting to charge a very ridiculous amount of magic, enough that the air itself started warping.
Obviously not liking where this was going, Tempest let out some of his black lightning to hit Sunset directly, but his hasty attack wasn't enough to overcome Sunset's boosted passive defences, and she managed to keep her charge going for the little time left before she finished, and released Tempest before shooting.
"Triple Magic Enhance: Annihilation Nova!" She shouted, and a colossal sphere of multicolored magic grew in the air, swallowing the black pegasus before exploding with such strength that Sunset would have been seriously hurt had she not teleported away at the last moment.
She appeared among the others, and they watched as the explosion ended and there was no trace left of Tempest.
"Amazing!" Twilight praised "You defeated a legendary villain!"
"Thanks. But there was something wrong, I think this magical construct was less perfect than we thought, because that fight felt too easy."
Before they could respond to that, a female voice cut in.
"Congratulations. That was an impressive battle." There was only a small trace of mockery in the voice.
They looked around for a moment, before Applejack shouted:
"Indeed, little wielder of the Eyes of Truth." The voice said, before coming into view.
She was a changeling, and yet seemed to be more. Her legs were longer and more elegant, the colored part of her barrel was longer and shinier, the tail was longer, and besides the tail she also had a mane, contrasting with the other changelings, both were teal-colored. Her eyes had actual pupils, her wings were bigger than those of normal changelings, and she had a twisting, jagged horn, also bigger than normal.
She was Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings.
All of the ponies prepared for combat.
"Oh, no. You shouldn't do that." This time her voice was definitely mocking "After all, you wouldn't want anything to happen to them, would you?"
Her horn glowed, showing an image of three very familiar fillies trapped in a cell.