The two groups of Knights reunited back at their hotel after having checked the sites (they were not attacked by anyone, nor had any other unforeseen incidents occurred) and they shared the information they had gathered. The eventual conclusion was that Rarity had been right about the artifact enhancing rituals.
"Which means there is one thing we can be certain about whoever is responsible for these incidents: One of them is a mage of great technical skill, because that kind of ritual is not something an average mage would be capable of doing." Trixie mentioned.
"Anything else we need to worry about?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"Considering the ability of our enemy with magical rituals, we also need to be wary of the possibility that they may use some of those powered up artifacts as pieces for powerful rituals." Trixie said "So Trixie would suggest that we prepare all our anti-ritual tactics, just in case."
"And what are we going to do next?" Fluttershy asked.
This time, Sunset was the one who answered "Since we now have a relatively clear target, it's time for your empathic tracking to be useful again."
Fluttershy remembered the Shards of Chaos case and understood what the plan was. The next several minutes featured she and Pinkie Pie carefully drawing the magic circle to perform the empathy ritual ("fighting rituals with rituals!" Pinkie said), Twilight could have done it more easily, but the two were also knowledgeable enough to do this, specially Fluttershy, since she was the only truly essential part of the set up. A map of the nearby areas was also easily provided, with Rainbow Dash flying to a nearby library to request it.
Of course, the situation wasn't exactly the same as the last time. Searching for Artifacts was even more imprecise than searching for Shards of Chaos. Rarity was a specialist, so she used her impressions of Artifacts in general, and the impressions of the ritual sites in particular to serve as one of Fluttershy's supports for the ritual.
"And while some of them definitely were, not all of those artifacts were created using the simplified creation method, given that there are reports from over two months ago, so it won't help as much." Rarity said.
Trixie was the other support. She had her own impressions of the ritual sites from her research spells, which were added to by Applejack's own understandings, communicated via the Eyes of Truth.
Even with all those elements together, it would have been impossible to succeed were Fluttershy the same as she was during the last time she used the empathic search. However, even discounting her training, she was much stronger than at that time, and soon the magic succeeded.
"What exactly are we looking at?" Rainbow Dash asked, pointing to the several red dots of varying sizes and designs that had appeared on the map.
"Okay... We are dealing with twelve different Artifacts here." Fluttershy started explaining "Two of them are what I would classify as 'support artifacts'. They seen to have connections to every other Artifact, one of them having much stronger connections than any of the others. They also seem to have connections with the land itself, probably formation magic." She closed her eyes and concentrated "There is also one Artifact that 'rules' over the others. It has one-sided connections with every other Artifact and can draw power from them... And it can also resonate with the support Artifacts and every other one at once to use even more powerful formation magic... And they are all drawing large amounts of power from another source."
With every word Fluttershy spoke, every other Knight grew paler and paler, as they understood enough about artifacts and formations to know what kind of power could be brought to bear by that kind of setup.
"Artifact Formations... Clearly our current enemy doesn't think small." Rarity muttered.
"Then, considering the formations, Trixie believes we have two targets, which we'll have to tackle in order, given that one is blocking the way to the other." Trixie started to think of plans "The first are the defense formations, along with whatever resistance there is in that place, which will probably involve Artifact wielders. The second is the power source that we need to cut off. Considering the lack of information, a rigid plan wouldn't work well..." Trixie paused thoughtfully "As such, it would be better to set a number of goals, which we'll try to fulfill as it becomes convenient."
"It would definitely be better to destroy whatever Artifacts we can, whenever we can." Rarity said "Being able to reduce the power of their Artifact formations will certainly be great."
"Same thing goes with the formations." Sunset said "Using our means to destroy them would reduce the resources of our enemy. And if there is a chance to get through the defenses and cut off their power source, that would definitely be a priority."
"In this case..." Trixie was still thinking "Trixie expects that our best option for avoiding most of the possible plans of our enemy would be an alpha strike from a sufficient range, followed by a sweep with formation breaking attacks. After that we should act as needed."
They all agreed with the plan, so they started their final preparations before the mission.
To avoid complications, the place they teleported to was two kilometers away from the location of the enemy base, and they crossed another kilometer by walking, to stand in the best spot for their ranged attacks.
And they had a lot of time to prepare.
Applejack wasn't very good at ranged attacks, so she teamed up with Rarity and Trixie in their combination. The former was the center of the combination, using her ruler swords to create a multi-elemental attack, while Applejack added magic to aim at the weak spots and Trixie added an illusion to fool defensive measures.
Rainbow Dash condensed a harmonic tornado into a ball. Sunset created a mini-sun and started cramming more and more power into it.
Fluttershy used the Soul Offering spell to give part of her power to Pinkie, who created a super-chaotic sphere and charged it to the very limit of what the spell could handle.
And Spike cast the most powerful destruction spell he knew and enhanced it with Magic Charge.
"Triad Magic: Grand Elemental Missile!"
"Great Sun Destruction!"
"Draconic Art: Magic Charge!"
The five attacks flew through the air and exploded into the barrier. Obviously the defense measures activated, but there were so many powerful attacks in such a short period of time that there was no way for the defenses to avoid being overwhelmed, and an immense explosion carved an opening in the formations.
The response to that didn't take long to show up. A monster that seemed to exude power burst from the ground and advanced towards the Knights.
It was a monster that would be considered pretty strange normally, but since the Knights all had ample experience with chaotic creatures, that particular monster didn't even make the top 30 of the weirdest they had ever seen.
It was a creature with a round body, three heads and three legs. The legs were nothing like pony legs, and their obvious flexibility put one to mind of tentacles. The heads had three eyes and a mouth, and each eye was tricolored. Each mouth had three big fangs among a multitude of smaller teeth. The heads were faintly reminiscent of pony heads, except their angles were sharper, making their faces look like triangles.
The body kept up the theme of threes. There were three sulcated lines running horizontally through it, and three triangular symbols acted as sort of tattoos on the flesh of the thing.
Rarity understood what that was instantly:
"An Artifact! An autonomous one!" She shouted to the others "It's connected to two more Artifacts!"
Every Knight there was well-versed enough in magic to understand the implications. Their enemy had apparently made the autonomous artifact create a monster based on the number three, to take advantage of the law of similarities with the triad of Artifacts.
And then the fight started. The monster jumped towards them, charging power in each of his mouths, and the Knights rearranged themselves, Spike, Sunset, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, who were the toughest, took the position of the vanguard, with Pinkie just behind them and the other three in the back.
The fight was complicated and hard to describe. The monster had a variety of ways of attacking, using blasting spells, spells to create other monsters (always in groups of three) as well as other, weirder effects (like a spell that reversed gravity briefly). And it also used its tough body to its advantage, swinging it around using the legs as pivot, and even using it to smash down.
And there was one factor that complicated things: The Knights were constantly aware of the possibility of being ambushed, and were deliberately holding back most of their power to prepare for any eventualities. Applejack in particular was even less focused on the fight, instead keeping watch of the area around to prevent any sneak attacks.
As such, the battle turned out to be surprisingly even. Trixie's constant illusions kept the monster confused, Sunset and Rainbow Dash attacked him unceasingly to force him to spend energy defending, Fluttershy had activated her old Manticore spirit and was doing hit and run, Pinkie Pie was keeping him off-balance by changing the terrain, Spike was using his dragon arms to block whatever attacks seemed dangerous, and Applejack was keeping an eye for any weak points they could use to wrap up the fight quickly.
It was tense, and concentration heavy, but the fight didn't really take a lot out of them given their experience and how much they were holding back. Specially because it took only thirty seconds for Applejack to find what she was looking for.
"Sunset!" She shouted, and the unicorn turned to look at her.
Applejack passed on the information she had gotten via her gaze and then returned to looking around. Sunset backed off a bit and started charging her magic. The other Knights stepped up their efforts to cover for her, and after a few seconds...
"Double Magic Enhance: Scarlet Missile!"
The spell Sunset shot was particularly restrained in regards to design, being a bullet shape of red energy, surrounded by white rings. It vibrated slightly as it flew through the air with deceptive slowness. It was a spell that had been made for a single purpose, and that was clearly demonstrated by the fact that, when it hit the monster, the spell drilled into its body without any issues.
The monster roared and exploded with energy to try and defend against the attack, but it was already far too late. The spell had been specifically designed to target the weaknesses in the body of the thing, caused by the fight and the imperfections in the artifact linking, and mercilessly cut through everything before hitting the core artifact and completely destroying it.
The monster roared once again, before breaking apart into innumerable motes of light... That formed a spell circle above the area.
"Hah!" Pinkie shouted, clapping her forehooves together.
She released a chaotic shockwave that completely destroyed the circle before it could activate. The Knights would not fall into a trap that easily.
But the enemy was even trickier than they had imagined.
An instant later, eight new ponies appeared on the battlefield. Seven of them appeared right beside the Knights with the exception of Spike, and another instant later, they had vanished again, taking the Knights with them.
Spike forcefully kept calm and considered things as he looked at the last new pony, a unicorn stallion with green coat and mane and who was carrying a cube Artifact using telekinesis.
He had been the only one not to be teleported away, presumably because the enemy had prepared for Twilight and not him, because that kind of forced transportation would be difficult to do without extremely defined parameters. That last enemy was probably the one who was supposed to teleport Twilight away, and presumably deal with her.
In that case, the best way he could help would be destroying the power source of the enemy, after getting through that opponent.
He raised his arms and prepared for battle.
Rainbow Dash looked at her opponent. He was an earth pony stallion with a red mane and yellow coat, with a leaf cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a wheel floating in the air beside him.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like a plain. She knew she would have to defeat him in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that his Artifact was apparently sealing off all weather magic, to the point where she couldn't even fly.
This was going to be troublesome.
Fluttershy looked at her opponent. She was a pegasus mare with a blue mane and gray coat, with a boat cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a tower floating in the air beside her.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like a mountain. She knew she would have to defeat her in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that her Artifact was apparently sealing off her empathy completely, making most of her abilities impossible to use.
This was going to be troublesome.
Pinkie Pie at her opponent. He was a pegasus stallion with an orange mane and black coat, with a quartzite cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a trident floating in the air beside him.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like a desert. She knew she would have to defeat him in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that his Artifact was apparently sealing off all chaos magic, to the point where even doing chaotic teleports was impossible.
This was going to be troublesome.
Rarity looked at her opponent. She was a unicorn mare with a pink mane and coat, with a lamp cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a shield floating in the air beside her.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like a forest. She knew she would have to defeat her in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that her Artifact was apparently sealing off her connection with her own Artifacts, making it impossible to use them.
This was going to be troublesome.
Applejack looked at her opponent. She was an earth pony mare with a green mane and lilac coat, with a door cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a mandala floating in the air beside her.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like a frost plain. She knew she would have to defeat her in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that her Artifact was apparently blocking off the sight of the Eyes of Truth, making it difficult for her to use any of her abilities.
This was going to be troublesome.
Trixie looked at her opponent. She was a pegasus mare with a blue mane and brown coat, with a ball cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a horn floating in the air beside her.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like an empty city. She knew she would have to defeat her in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that her Artifact was apparently preventing illusions from being formed, making most of Trixie's spells useless.
Thankfully, she was prepared for that sort of thing.
Sunset looked at her opponent. She was a unicorn mare with white mane and coat, with a flower cutie mark. There was an Artifact shaped like a mirror floating in the air beside her.
They were currently in a closed space shaped like a cave. She knew she would have to defeat her in order to escape, which was complicated by the fact that her Artifact was interfering with energy flow, making big spells difficult to form and Trance Mode impossible to activate.
Sunset grinned, this was going to be fun.