Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

What We Get Ourselves Into

“How did your meeting go?”

Twilight turned her head to see Trixie coming in beside her as they made their way through the castle halls. “Very well. I think that our newest Duke will be on our side in most things. He's also taking the job, and the presence of Titans, very seriously. How did your ‘meeting’ go?”

“I don't know him as well as you do, but I think it's safe to say Spike's still sulking, but slowly coming around. He also said that a pony came by looking for you and said Intelligentsia wants to talk. She's in the Night Guard area of the War Room.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at that. “Odd that she'd be in there… though I have to say, I haven't been there yet myself. Well, best not to keep her waiting. Come on, let's go.”

Trixie blinked. “Me too?”

“Yup. You're a member of my Guard now, so you need to know what I'm doing and why. And Rainbow is coordinating what I need back at the pirate base, so you're all I have here.

“After we're done with that, though, I want to visit Rose, see how she's doing. Hopefully she'll be awake and lucid soon and I can ask her some questions.”

“You're the boss…” Trixie chuckled. “You know, I never imagined I'd be saying those words to you. The me from a year ago would think me insane.”

“A little over a year ago, I never imagined I'd be Grand Mage.” Twilight pulled open the door to the War Room portal and stepped inside.

“Royalty A—”

“As you were,” Twilight said, pre-empting the guard on duty, striding through the room as ponies went back to work.

She passed the alcoves and cubbies, rounded the square hall in the back and punched the button for the elevator.

“And just why is that mare wearing Evening Guard armor again?”

Twilight grinned like a madmare at hearing the voice behind her. She couldn't help it. That was just the tiny leak of a grin compared to ocean of smug satisfaction being held back by an epic dam of training and etiquette from growing up in Canterlot. Something had to give.

“Captain Strike.” Twilight had to sit down to hold back the snicker. “Why would it be unusual for her to be wearing it?”

“Why would it be usual for her to be wearing it? She's the target of an internal investigation.”

Twilight's smile vanished, and she snap-turned to see a Captain who just realized he screwed up. He had already shifted his weight back, and Twilight leaned into that. “I wasn't informed of this. What, exactly, it's she being investigated for?”

Captain Strike adjusted his tie, possibly to loosen it up around the lump Twilight hoped he had in his throat. “Intelligence obtained in a background check revealed that her family has had extensive ties to the Nightmare Moon cult. In other words, terrorists.”

Trixie’s eyes went wide. “Whoa.”

Twilight motioned towards her friend. “Well, she seems surprised at that. But given what I know about her background, you're going to have to come up with some hard evidence that she is involved with them.”

The Captain scoffed. “Hmph. The investigation is ongoing. We've been able to confirm that her grandmother was a member, and that her mother most likely had involvement as well.”

Twilight was about to say something, but Trixie put a hoof on her shoulder to balance herself. “Trixie?”

“Sorry. A whole lot of stuff in Trixie's childhood just started to make a disturbing amount of sense.” She straightened herself, and glared at the Captain. “But I ran away from home before I even had my cutie mark. Getting beaten by a drunk mother can drive a filly to that.

“Regardless, I never knew of their involvement, and I haven't seen them since I left. I have never had contact with the cult. Do whatever background checks you want.”

Captain Strike lowered his voice. “Are you sure about that? There's a long period where you had no permanent address, and after your humiliation, you were in dire straights. If you have something to admit, now is the time.”

Trixie shook her head. “My life belongs to Grand Mage Sparkle. If I had ever been involved with the Nightmare Moon cult, I would tell her. I owe her everything.”

The Captain took a step back in shock. “Your life belongs to… You didn't…”

Twilight stepped in between them. “If you have any further questions for Specialist Lulamoon of the Evening Guard, you can direct them to my lawyer. Also, I will be expecting that regular updates on this ‘background check’ be delivered to my quarters. Who knows, maybe you might find something that I can use to track them down.

“But if you hinder her from carrying out her duties as an Evening Guard, or otherwise harass her ever again, you can expect a court-martial. Dismissed, Captain.”

The Captain straightened his tie again, and bowed. “Yes, Your Ladyship.”

Twilight waited until he was out of sight before mashing the elevator button again, and the doors opened right away this time.

“Twilight, thank you.”

Twilight softened her face back into a smile. “It was my pleasure, Trixie. Let me know if he gives you any more trouble, or if you can remember anything of use to track down the Nightmare Moon cult.

“For now, let's go see what Luna's little command center in the War Room is like.”

The “War Room” wasn't an entirely appropriate name for where they were. It wasn't a singular  room, but an entire ten-floor complex built inside Mount Canterlot. The bottom level, labelled with Luna's cutie mark on the elevator button, was reserved exclusively for the Night Guard. The crescent moon button even lit up with a foggy glow when Twilight pressed it.

Trixie sat while the lift dropped down. “I hope they don't mind us just dropping in. Princess Luna seems like a pony who plays things close to her chest.”

“Eh. We'll be fine. If Intelligentsia is there, they’ll be expecting us.”

The lift came to a halt, and the doors opened to an extremely gruff-looking acolyte eyeing them.

Twilight eyed him right back.

He smiled and nodded, stepping aside to let them through.

The Night Guard’s headquarters was unlike the rest of the complex. Gone were the warm colours of beige paint and brown wood. Blues mixed with and into dark greys took center stage in Luna's domain. No fluorescent lights were to be found anywhere, and the magic torches with purplish-blue lights kept things darker than any other office building would dare to have them. Carpet was nowhere to be found, leaving bare stone to be the star of the show on the floors, walls, and high ceiling.

Despite being for the Night Guard, most of the ponies inside were from RGIS. Only a couple wore the dark armor of Luna's personal forces. A quick listen to one of the ongoing conversations confirmed Twilight's suspicion: they were there to coordinate efforts to stop threats to the Princess.

The center had no alcoves, and instead had a large table in the middle. Oddly, there was no paper or cloth map on it. Instead, behind it, on the wall, was a massive stained glass window. Light shown through it, projecting an image of Equestria onto the table. Looking at it was like looking at the world from far, far above the clouds.

One of the Night Guard unicorns moved a piece of the window with his magic. The piece moved through the other parts of the glass as if they were liquid,. He moved a second piece, and then it was the solid. The whole thing was mutable, changing the continent on the table as a god would shape the earth.

The pieces moved, though, weren't mountains or plains. Rather, they merely highlighted certain areas. At least, that was all they did until he cleared out an entire third of the map. Piece by piece, he quickly assembled a new map, this one of the terrain of Manhattan.

Trixie whistled. “Now that's some serious magic.”

“Luna is very good at aesthetic manipulations.” Twilight scratched her chin. “But it's unlikely this can be accurate at a low level.”

The stallion at the window smiled. “You'd be surprised.” He picked up a nearby red-handled paintbrush and wiped it a few times over one piece. Each time, the area zoomed in, eventually looking like a photograph of the city taken maybe a few hundred meters over the tops of the skyscrapers.

Twilight blinked. “Huh. Let me guess, the pieces of stained glass are mated to various pictures rather than actually painted a particular color.”

“I've no idea how it's made, ma'am. I just know how to use it.” He pointed to a door to Twilight's right, which was one of four on the side walls. “Intelligentsia is waiting for you in there.”

“Thanks.” Twilight pressed the panel on the door. There was a hiss, after which the door  slid open. Inside was a sleepy Intelligentsia at a mahogany desk, and a mountain of papers. Trixie came in behind Twilight and closed the door.

“The one universal constant of government: paperwork.” Intelligentsia yawned. “The Captain is on my back to finish my backlog, so giving responsibility for your protection detail up to Feint Indication just replaced one kind of work for another.”

Twilight's eyes twitched and she started putting the documents in a slightly more organized pile. “I could order you to go to bed again, if you need.”

“Let me get through some of this first. It's not going away anytime soon. Besides, we have some business to address first.

“To start us off, we're going to be moving our non-potato pirate to a hidden location as soon as we're confident we have somewhere the Majestics can't get to, even if he has a geas still on him somehow.

“Speaking of, the presence of the geas on the pirates is a firm link to the Majestics. Also, remember that pony we found killed by the Templars? The one we sent you to San Palomino to find links to in the first place? I can buy that he was meant to be a distraction for you. If he was successful in luring you to the other side of the country, Farriér might have been able to sort his crap undisturbed.

“But when he was intercepted by the Templars, beaten to death, and left for us to find, the Majestics probably labelled Farriér as ‘expendable.’ It all fits.”

Twilight pursed her lips. “I really hate being used like that. But I doubt they foresaw me leaving the base intact, or getting Badlands before he could be neutralized.”

Trixie flicked her hair. “Well, with Earthen Pride coming in as the new Duke, I think that a lot of the shady shenanigans in that Duchy are going to come to a swift end.”

Twilight started ruffling through Intelligentsia’s papers. “That's something, at least. Do we have anything more from the pirate base?”

“We will, I promise you that. But we're sifting through a literal mountain of evidence, so it's going to take time. We’re going to be sending a lot of it out to other Duchies for processing, as San Palomino is not anywhere near up to the task by themselves.”

Twilight looked back in the general direction of the desert she'd been in. “Yeah, about that. There was team of Crown agents I placed under suspicion and observation. Did you hear anything about that?”

Intelligentsia adjusted her glasses. “Yes. Squeakers is actually a friend of mine, so I had to recuse myself of any direct involvement in the investigation. I did, however, make sure to get updates on it.

“The officer in charge of the investigation swooped in and took a lot of her evidence from past investigations away and arranged for Luna to teleport it  to Manehattan—arguably the best forensics team in existence for re-evaluation. If there was any shady business, the labs in Manehattan will find it. But from what I hear, they haven't found anything yet.”

Twilight's stomach churned at the pain on Intelligentsia’s face. “Gen, I'm sorry. But you know I had to.”

“I'm honestly still in shock about it.” She sipped from a cup of cold coffee. “I know her. She'd never do something like that, unless…”

“Unless compelled.” Trixie finished for her. “Either by geas or some other means.”

“Yeah.” Twilight dropped her gaze down to the floor. “I'm honestly feeling the same way about Babs. Just, hoping she wasn't involved, too. But we’ll get to the bottom of it. It's all exposed now, so it's just a matter of time.”

Intelligentsia sighed. “True enough…”

Silence fell over the trio for a long, painful series of breaths. Only after they had time to feel the depths of their unsettled hearts did a sound break their focus. It certainly helped that the sound was a perfectly out of place “meow.”

All three mares blinked, and Twilight added a flat “What?”

“Neutrino!” Intelligentsia reached under the table and pulled out a jet-black cat. “How did you— wait, look who I'm talking to. It's not even worth asking.”

Twilight's internal mental committee members all stood up and yelled “Kitty!”

Trixie cooed and inched closer to the feline. “Aww, you have a cat?”

“He's not mine.” Intelligentsia plopped the little thing on the table, and he proceeded to lick his leg. “He's the unofficial mascot of the Night Guard. This is his home, and he's the stealthiest cat in the world. He's not supposed to be let out of Luna's floor unsupervised, and yet, he's made it as far as her quarters undetected. I guess that's why they named him ‘Neutrino,’ but damn if his propensity to show up in random spots isn't unnerving.”

Twilight held out a hoof to pet him, but froze a few centimetres away. “Does he bite? He is the mascot of the feared Night Guard.”

“No, he's actually one of the sweetest cats I've ever—”

Twilight pulled him into a cuddle and scratched his widdle head, and Trixie had a turn not long after, earning them both some adorable purrs. The verdict was in: this tom was a total cuddleslut.

Twilight took Neutrino back and gave him another cuddle. “Speaking of the Night Guard HQ, what are you doing down here instead of up on floor one?”

Intelligentsia waved at her stacks of documents. “Like I said, the Captain has been riding my rear lately. I'm pretty sure he has it out for me, since my career has been linked to your brother's. So I became friends with Cardinal Stiletto, and she lets me down here when I need some quiet time to work.”

“Ha!” Trixie tilted her hat and leaned back in her chair. “Big, bad Dual Strike is afraid of the Night Guard.”

Intelligentsia smirked. “More that they can deny him access to this level and there isn't a thing he can do about it but whine.”

“Hehe.” Twilight hid a giggle behind a hoof. “Well, let me know if he gets to be more than you can handle, and I'll run interference for you.”

“Your brother told me the same thing.” Intelligentsia pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “Apparently his best friend, Arctic Snow, knows Dual Strike really well, and is skilled at getting under his skin.”

Twilight smiled, and in her mind, it looked just like Celestia’s. “Oh? I'll have to remember that nugget for later.

“Last thing, then. How are you coming with choosing the ponies to take over some of your duties?”

Intelligentsia picked up Neutrino and held him in her embrace. “Well, I told you about Feint. I'm still struggling with the other two. It's just… I'm not sure, actually. How to put it in words.”

Trixie chuckled. “Oh, but I do. You're the best, and you can't stand seeing these foals screw up things that are so important. You can't let go.”

Intelligentsia glared. “I should be mad at you, but you called me the best, so now I have to just be mildly irritated.”

Trixie leaned back in her chair. “It's a gift!”

“She has a point, though, Gen. You have to let some things go.” Twilight laughed at herself and slapped her cheek. “And I'm a huge hypocrite for saying it, because just a bit ago I struggled to do the same thing, but it's true all the same. You're a First Lieutenant, which means managing the ones who do the grunt work, not taking it all on yourself.

“Ultimately the decision is yours, but you have to decide. Do you want to stay at your current rank and embrace being a leader? If so, you'll have to give up being an analyst first and foremost, and be a manager of the ones doing the work. If you just want to be an analyst, I can make it happen, but that means giving up your rank.”

Intelligentsia sighed. “I know all that. I just didn't want to have to face it all laid out. But now that you've said it, I don't have a choice.”

“Let us know sooner rather than later.” Twilight pushed away from the desk and stood up with a stretch. “Or Celestia will choose for you. Come on, Trixie. Let's go visit Rose.”

Twilight turned the corner with Trixie close behind, and came to a stop in front of the double doors leading to the Castle's hospital. She'd have just gone right through, but Celestia was sitting in front of them.

“Hello, Twilight. I thought you'd be by to visit your new friend, so I thought I'd meet you here. How are you holding up?”

Twilight bowed. “About as well as can be expected. But if you're here, does that mean something is wrong with Rose?”

Celestia shook her head and smiled. “Not at all. In fact, I was going to offer an opportunity for her. As I understand it, she led a desperate, one-mare fight against the pirates assaulting the mine you were visiting, and she was under your employ at the time. Is that correct?”

Twilight nodded.

“I see. Please, follow me.” Celestia pushed open one of the doors with a wing, and the trio stepped through, walking down the halls.

Twilight couldn't help but notice the path to Rose's new room was completely empty, save for a few Day Guard. When they finally reached the room, across from a suspiciously empty nurse's station, Celestia stopped and stood outside it.

“Twilight, there's a special place we have hidden away that's dedicated specifically to treating soldiers of Equestria who suffer a great burden in service to the Crown. It's nestled inside a steep mountain range, far away from all contact with the rest of the world.

“There, our heroes may recover in peace and safety, and with the best mental health care in the world. It's especially built for psychiatric treatment to aid those suffering from harm to the mind, as I believe has happened to Ms. Rose. If you approve, I will take her there.”

“Of course!” Twilight peeked through the door’s window to catch a glimpse of a sleeping, but bound, Rose. “She deserves it, I think. And, hopefully, if they can find a good treatment for her, we can use that knowledge to help others hurt by Everfree Elixir.”

“My thoughts exactly. Come, they're expecting us.” Celestia pulled open the door, and the trio stepped inside to gather around the sleeping mare. Light washed over them, and when it left, they were standing on a decorated marble floor.

The Seal of the Royal Sisters was embellished on a circular emblem, inside of which was a starfield made of gemstones. The border was actual gold, and the marble beyond it, of quality seen only in the palace itself.

Crystal pillars not only held up the ceiling, but glowed and hummed with a kind of music that plucked strings in Twilight's soul. It was as if somepony had injected her with anti-anxiety medication, and every tense bit in her muscles melted instantly.

Ahead of them was a waiting room, though calling it that was an insult. There were chairs and cushions, yes, but also a small stream running through it. The gentle gurgling of water only made things even more relaxing. A bamboo bridge covered it at one point, and Twilight found herself walking across it.

At the far end of the room was a ledge of a wall barely as high as her knees, and the rest was all window. At least, it would have been had there been glass there. Instead, it was simply open, and outside was a frigid land she'd never seen before. It stretched out to the horizon, and in every direction. There was nothing but more dark, frozen mountains made of naught but rock and snow and glacier. They were high up, and the facility was attached to a particularly tall mountain, as she could see over most of the others. The air was cool and crisp, but not near as cold or thin as it should have been.

Twilight surmised the wards on the place had something to do with that, as she could feel their energy without even trying. Magic saturated the air, and not just from the protections placed there by the princesses. Even standing under a vent belching warm air, she felt a slight chill dancing along her skin. “We're over an ice krene, aren't we?”

“Indeed.” Celestia finished signing some paperwork and gave the clipboard to a nurse in pink scrubs. “There, she's signed in. She'll be safe here; nopony other than myself and Luna know where we are. In fact, I personally bring supplies here via teleportation once per week, and the staff live on site. She'll have round-the-clock care, and I have hoof-picked every single pony that works here.”

“Trixie likes it.” Trixie took one of the candies from a dish on the nearby nurse’s station. “I would vacation here if it didn't mean being injured or having my mind nearly destroyed. I've seen resort hotels that weren't this nice.”

“I appreciate you doing this, Tia.” Twilight watched as the nurses carted Rose away, presumably to a room. “I know she wasn't military.”

“Perhaps, but she was with you at the time, and acted heroically. Hopefully she'll be awake and lucid soon, and you can visit her then. I’ve also passed your theory about her pills along to RGIS, and I understand Luna took an interest in the case. As I understand it, we already have solid leads. We should have the fake doctor who supplied Rose with the poison captured at the end of the day.” Celestia extended a wing to signal them to stay close, and lit her horn. “For now, allow me take you wherever you feel you need to be.”

“The pirate base.” Twilight took a spot next to Trixie and Celestia, and prepared herself to be plunged into the desert’s heat once again. “Now that the situation is stable, I want to help hunt for evidence.”

Not to mention see what's behind that wall…

Obsidian put away his intel report, stuffing it in the bag built into his armor. “This is the place. Moon Petal, scout around. Sable, with me.”

Moon Petal took off, and the blindfolded Sable lowered her head into a bow.

“As you command, High Cardinal,” Sable spoke with her usual smoky voice. “How shall we interact with the target?”

“I see no reason to give a fake doctor any leeway. We have a legal warrant to seize everything and arrest him and anypony associated with his enterprise. Restrain him at first sight.”

Obsidian eyed the building in front of him, nestled at the foot of a butte. Aside from the tin roof, it was well constructed for something in the desert of San Palomino. It was easily eighty kilometres away from the nearest settlement, and the terrain had hills everywhere. “Odd for a supposed doctor's office to be so far off the beaten path. Good place to stay out of sight.”

Sable Seer huffed. “He thinks he's outside the reach of our Sovereign, safe to harm her subjects to make a profit.”

Obsidian strode to the wooden door with the “walk-ins welcome” sign. “Let's educate this scumbag.” He pushed the handle, but it failed to click, and the door stayed put. “Oh, gee, locked. However shall we proceed?”

Sable tilted her head. “Cardinal? Are you well?”

Obsidian sighed. “One of these days, Sable, I'll teach you the ways of humor.”

“Cardinal, I found something.”

Obsidian put his hoof to his ear. “Go ahead, Petal.”

“There's a scout overlooking the building. He's eyeing you, but I don't think he's being employed by the good doctor.”

“What makes you say that?”

“His gear. I've seen Nightmare Night costumes that scream ‘pirate’ less than this. He's also armed with a flare gun, but that would be useless from this angle. Nopony in the office would be able to see a flare fired from there.

“Cardinal, I think we just interrupted a raid. Somepony knows what this guy is up to, and wants his supply. Five bits says an airship or pegasus raid is en route to crash our party.”

“Even better!” Obsidian licked his lips. “Taking out a drug dealer and a pirate gang? Must be my lucky day. Let them come, Petal. Hopefully they'll surround the place to give us a target rich environment.”

“And if it's an airship?”

“Then I have some new spells to test their defenses. After it's over, scare the scout away so he can spread the word: piracy is a dying industry in San Palomino.”

Copy that, Cardinal. Go get ‘em!”

Obsidian grabbed hold of the door, pulling and twisting on it. The hinges cried out in warping agony, and the frame exploded into splinters as the door broke free of its place.

“Cardinal,” Sable said, eyebrow raised. “That door opens inward.”

“Not anymore it doesn't.” He tossed it aside and trotted into the lobby. Credit where due, he thought. Sure looks like a doctor's office. Inside was a room lined in wood panelling, thin carpet, and a musty odour. Cheap metal chairs circled the perimeter, and a coffee table resembling a solid block of painted wood even had old magazines piled on it. In the corner was another door next to a window that revealed a nurse's station.

“What is going on out there?! Who—” A mare with her mane in a bun and glasses necklace poked her head through the window. “What did you do to the—”

Obsidian lit his horn. “Diamond Light.” A magic circle flashed into life in front of him, shaped not by any conscious effort on Obsidian's part, but by the sheer speed with which the spell was cast. Before it had even achieved full brightness, golden panels of shimmering glass burst forth from under the mare, covering her in the sharp panels.

“Wha-ah…” The mare struggled to speak, her sharp inhale cutting her chest on the restraining spell.

Obsidian held up the relevant paper. “Warrant. Night Guard. You're boned. Stay put.”

The mare was still in a state of stock when he grabbed hold of the other door and yanked that one out, too, with similar results.

“Cardinal, I believe that one was unlocked.”

“It sure is.” He winked. “Come on. Let's see what the doctor has to say for himself.”

Behind the doorway was a small hallway with several other doors labelled as exam rooms, and the walls had the same dark wood panelling as the waiting room. One door had a stallion’s head poking out, and the bowler hat and moustache fit the warrant description perfectly. A quick “Yipe!” later, and said head zipped back into the room, followed by a “click.”

“Oh, come on.” Obsidian trotted to the door and wrapped his magic around the handle. “I'm basically a professional at breaking down doors at this point.”


Obsidian sighed. “What is it, Sable?”

Sable smiled and tapped the wall next to the door.

“Oh, good idea! See, you're getting it!” Obsidian lit his horn, and eyed the piece of wall.


One square barrier plunged into the wall, cutting clean through it like a blade.


Three more followed suit, forming a square containing a chunk of wall that was now detached from  the rest. Another barrier slammed flush with the cutout, crashing in like a wrecking ball and leaving a passageway into the room.

Obsidian took a few steps inside. “Eh, what's up, doc?”


Twenty little bolts of energy screamed out in a cone, hungry to rend flesh off bone and shred internal organs like tissue paper. The flew through the air, sights firmly set on Obsidian Armor’s chest. One by one, they arrived a hoof length away, shimmered on a glowing plane of hard light, and vanished.

Obsidian turned up one side of his lips in a smirk. “Ye-ah, that's not going to work. You didn't think I wouldn't put up my barriers before going into enemy territory, did you?”

The pegasus doctor dropped his rear to the floor, mouth agape as the cannon on his back smoked. “H-how?”

“How did I get in? Through the wall, dummy.” He shot another barrier into the mechanism of the doctor’s gun, sabotaging it permanently. “After all, some damn fool locked the door.

“Now then, Sable, if you would?”

Sable opened a cabinet to reveal a pile of white-painted glass pill bottles. She poured the contents of one out on the countertop, spilling around a hundred little white pills. “Description from the warrant is accurate.”

She took out a small bottle of water, and sprinkled some of her indicator powder into it, followed by one of the pills. It fizzed like baking soda in vinegar and quickly dyed the water purple.

“Confirmed: this is powdered Elixir.”

Obsidian chuckled. “Wow, you're so boned.”

The doctor was shaking so hard the bowler on his head was audibly knocking on his head. “H-how did you find… Nevermind, I'm dead. Farriér is going to have my hide.”

“I wouldn't worry too much about him at this point.” Obsidian pulled out a pair of sealing hobbles and put them on the doctor, then pulled the gun off of him. “My little sister burned him to ash. If you don't want to share his fate, come along quietly.”

He stayed quiet as he was led out, followed by the nurse. A few minutes later, they had a stack of pill bottles ready for transport as evidence, and the Elixir and the two suspects were locked behind a soundproof, two-hoof-thick shield dome, mercifully complete with a chilling spell to counteract the heat.

“Cardinal, smoke signal confirmed. Royal Police are en route to take control of the scene. ETA thirty minutes.”

“Got it, Acolyte Moon Petal. Hang back in case—”

Cardinal, the scout fired an IR flare. I don't think he sees me, but there are two wings of pegasi inbound from the canyon, plus an airship. It's an old model, detached airbag type.”

“Copy that. Neutralize the scout for the fight, then stay hidden for a flank attack in case it becomes necessary.” Obsidian lit his horn and backed up to where his two prisoners were bound, with Sable close behind. He modified the spell, putting up a dome of a shield around them all. “Sable, be ready with suppression fire.”

Sable reached behind her and pulled her silver bow off her back. It was a solid piece of metal, with a single gem focusing core in the middle, and no string. For her purposes, no string was necessary, nor charge in the crystal. “Ready to engage.”

Moon Petal came to light next to the enemy scout without making a sound, and could have even if her Night Guard armor didn’t enhance her stealth abilities. Without so much as a bothered pebble, the wind of her wings died out, and there were no clinks of metal as she took out a pair of hobbles. A quick lunge and a snap later, the scout was caught by the hind legs.

“What the?”

She flopped on him. Bodies made contact, belly to back, cloth to armor plating.


“Hiya!” She gleefully jammed her words in his ear while kicking away the flare gun.

He squirmed like a caterpillar in a bird’s mouth. “What, what are you—”

“Naughty naughty!” Moon Petal pulled out a rag and tied it around his mouth. A warm, familiar thrill traveled down her body as he fought back, trying to buck her or smack her with his wings. “Aw, yeah,” she moaned. “That's the stuff!”

Muffled yells desperately cracked his voice box, and Moon Petal could feel it happen, each little wiggle a sensual protest against inevitability that made the mare giggle like a school filly.

“You know just how to treat a girl, I see!” She clamped down hard with a foreleg around his neck. “But the main event hasn't even started yet.”

He blew a contemptuous snort out his nose, and motioned his head to her Cardinal below.

“Oh, you think your little pirate friends are going to save you? Sorry, but they're never going to make it past us. That stallion down there? Did you think him a nobody?”

Moon Petal felt his sweat start leaking out on her chest, and could see the hot nerves light up in his ear. She laughed, and put her mouth next to his ear. “That there isn't an Acolyte like me. That's the Prince of the Lost.”

His heart pounded against her, like it was fighting to get her off him, too.

“That's right, little pirate. You're up against not just the Night Guard, but the High Cardinal himself. The most talented combatant of Equestria since Grand Mage Stellar Horizon. The only non-alicorn to ever defeat Grand General Blueblood in single combat. The stallion nicknamed ‘The Invincible Shining Armor.’”

She smacked her lips, feasting on his shaking fear. “He hates that nickname, but I can assure you, he lives up to it. And we have VIP seats! So watch, so you can tell everypony you meet, never to cross the Sovereign Princess of the Night.”

Spirits, hear my plea: show me the battlefield.

Sixteen dots of blue lit up in the mind-eye of Sable Seer, complete with trajectories, along with one large ship and the colour of sadness. Do not worry. I know you can't hurt the ship very well. The High Cardinal will take care of it. Now, who is their leader?

One dot became the colour of anger. I see. Do not target her. The Cardinal will want to take that one alive. The dot blinked in acknowledgement.

The leader landed in front of them, brandishing a cored cannon on her back. The other fifteen dots had similar weaponry. The ship came to a stop well behind the pirates, three large cannons aiming at the Night Guards in a broadside.

I see. Red bandana on her head, peach coat, blond hair. No, I do not recognize her.

“Well, look what we have here!” The mare licked the left cannon on her back. “A whole pile of Everfree pills, courtesy of Farriér's corpse and the good doctor. And some high-value hostages as a bonus!”

The pirates all laughed, as did Obsidian.

The Cardinal took a few steps towards the barrier. “I see no reason we can't be civil about this. Come, let's discuss the terms of your surrender.”

There was a beat, then all the pirates broke into uproarious laughter.

“Us, surrender?” The enemy was bowled over with laughter.

“I accept!” Obsidian beamed, and the laughter died. He scanned the crowd, meeting the eyes of all of them. “After all, you're hopelessly outmatched. No shame in surrendering to save your lives. If you surrender, I will guarantee your safety. If you don’t, odds are none of you will be leaving this alive.”

The enemy mare stepped up to the shield. “Are you stupid? Try counting. You're outnumbered thirty to two. One word from me and those guns dust you and this barrier.”

Obsidian smiled. “So you're the captain, I take it?”

She spat on the shield. “Damn bucking right I'm the captain. Ain't I boys?”

The pirates howled in unison.


“Good to know.” His horn pinged with a single twinkle, and waves of energy rippled through the shield, spinning around them in a dance. A second later, the pirate captain was inside the perimeter.

“Wha-ah the the buck? Oh, clever trick.” The pirate pointed her gun at them. “Not that it's going to do you any good.”

Raise. Aim. Fire. Total elapsed time was zero-point-one seconds, according to the spirits. Sable stood, bow raised and smoking, and the enemy's gun barrel melted and twisted.

“What…” The captain scooted back, bumping into the barrier. “How did…” The colour of anger flashed on the mare's face. “You two have some nerve. Doesn't matter. We still outnumber you, we still outgun you. Surrender, or we light you up.”

“You don't understand what's going on here.” Obsidian flashed his rank lapel at her. “My name is Obsidian Armor. I am the High Cardinal of the Night Guard. I am ten times more powerful than all of you and your airship put together, and if you test me in combat, I will kill you. All of you. This is your final warning.”

The Captain licked her teeth. “All I see is a law man that needs to be put in his place.”

Feuerviper.” Obsidian’s horn twinkled again, and a snake of violet magic burst out of the ground, coiled around the captain, and sank its fangs in.

Most ponies would scream at the pain of the spell, or even pass out. Sable turned her head ever so slightly in respect for the mare who stood there and took it without so much as a yip.

“That all you got?” She spat at them in defiance, but it fell short, and the pain was laid bare in her voice. “I've been tortured by Farriér. You're nothing. Boys, educate him.”

Gun fire flooded the desert in a hailstorm, each bolt bouncing off the shield like they were rocks tossed by foals. Heavy blasts from the ship put cracks into it, but not enough.

Obsidian sighed, and lit his horn. Violet magic turned to navy blue, and the sound of a monster could be heard outside the shield and under the ship, etching a magic circle in the desert with its claws in the span of a couple seconds.

Gothic Blade.”

The sunset vanished and the ground under them all turned jet black as a sword of purest violet flames erupted from the circle, splitting clouds miles above the ground before anypony could even flinch at the heat. Thunder overtook the desert valley, and two huge pieces of what was once a single ship fell to the ground, with one side detonating, only to have its explosion devoured by the sword. All of the fire magic in the earth had been sucked out through the circle, sacrificed to make the blade, a skill very few had ever mastered.

While the pirates were staring in shock at the vanishing blade, Sable aimed her bow upwards. Spirits, concussive rounds, full spread. Dozens of little stars shot out of her bow, soaring miles into the sky and raining down just as fast. Little pops and booms dug small craters in the desert sands, and the pirates scattered like foals.

“Stay focused, damn you all!” The captain screamed over the cacophony. “Get him, he's right there!”

Obsidian Armor vanished from where she was pointing.

“Where’d he g—”

Six more pirates unlucky enough to have lined up in a row were falling down, likely all dead before their slayer reappeared at the other end of the line.

Three other pirates got a line on him, and pressed the fire bit on their guns.


A blank barrier appeared between Obsidian and the guns, swallowing up the bolts. The High Cardinal put his hoof on the barrier. “Shred.”

Bolts spewed out from the shield, mauling all three pirates in their path.

Three of the remaining five pirates backed up into a group of four, flank to flank, to cover every possible angle of attack. They didn't realize the fourth was Obsidian, horn lit, eyeing them over his shoulder.


A tsunami of blue light crashed over them, reaching higher than a mountain and blasting the charred forms of the pirates over the butte behind them.

The remaining two pirate pegasi took off and flew for their lives, never looking back. Thus, they didn't see it coming when two bladed barriers sliced through their gun packs like melted butter. The force still knocked them out of the air, and when they still tried to fly, they ran headlong into a barrier wall that sprang to life just inches from their nose.

Feuerviper.” Two more snakes of power burst from the ground, wrapping up the pirates as they fell and crashed into the desert below.

Obsidian turned and trotted back to the dome, dispelling it as he arrived. He towered over the pirate captain, lowering his head to get his eyes as close to the mare's as possible. “I. Warned. You.”

The mare was frozen in fear, mouth open, eyes locked in the wreckage of the ship even as tears started to fill them.

Sable put away her bow. She could taste the anger of Obsidian Armor, so bright was his outline of rage. The spirits themselves were weak with terror. “Orders, High Cardinal?”

“Check for survivors. Triage protocol. Save who you can. Hopefully the smoke and light put a sense of urgency into the Royal Police teams, which means they should be here in a few minutes. If we're lucky, we'll have a half dozen survivors. I managed to avoid instant-killing cuts on a few of them, but they'll still bleed out or die from shock if we don't get help here soon.”

The pirate captain whimpered. “Y-you…” Tears streamed down her face, and she never turned away from the wreckage. “W-who, or what, are you?”

“I told you,” he growled. “I am High Cardinal Obsidian Armor, Guardian of the Night.”

Twilight wiped the sweat off her brow and checked off the next item on her checklist, silently thanking the engineers that designed the Bellerophon with showers. If she had been without one during the last few days out in the desert, she doubted she would have been able to stand her own smell by now.

“Um, Twilight?”

She turned around, finding a sheepish Spike with his wings drooping at his sides.

He bowed his head, avoiding looking her in the eyes. “I'm sorry, Twilight. You were right, I should have stayed out of the battle. Or given the sword to somepony to give to you.”

Twilight grabbed him and pulled him into a hug. “You're forgiven, Spike. I was just mad because I love you. We'll work on this together, okay? Like I said, you'll always be my number one assistant.”

Spike sniffled and nodded.

“Okay.” Twilight let go before she got his acidic tears on her. I’m standing in the middle of the San Palomino desert at noon. Last thing I need right now are acid burns to go along with the sunburns. “Want to help me organize the evidence to have it shipped to Manhattan?”

Spike nodded. “Okay. How much is left?”

“We honestly haven't been able to mo—” Twilight cringed and fell to the ground, her muscles locking her in place as hooks that didn't exist plunged into her skin all up and down her legs. It was as if her nerves were being pulled out of her body to use as strings on a marionette.

“Twilight? Twilight, are you okay?! Answer me!”

“AAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHH!” Twilight cried out with her mind, and her armor deployed over her skin. There was a click, and air was pushed in through Aurora’s new filter. Slowly, Twilight's world of crimson pain faded away, replaced by one with medics looking for latches on her armor.

“What… What happened?” Twilight rubbed her head through her helmet. “That hurt… I've never felt anything like that…”

“I don't know!” Spike's voice was muffled. Aurora had almost completely sealed her off from the outside world. “You just collapsed and started screaming!”

“Lady Sparkle, how do we remove your armor?” One of the medics waved to get her attention. “We need to make sure you're okay!”

Don't! Aurora mentally grabbed onto Twilight. I feel it too. Something… Something is wrong here! I don't know what, but it's… It's just wrong!

Twilight wobbled up on her hooves. “I'm not taking my armor off. I think it's the only thing protecting me. Quick, what changed here? I need a status report from all divisions, stat!”

One by one, ponies in charge of various areas reported in with nothing out of the ordinary. Then, one report came in over her radio.

“This is the basement sector. We've broken through that wall, Lady Sparkle. I think we found a chamber of some—”

“Get all your ponies out of there, now!” Twilight broke into a gallop for the inside of the base, popping through teleportations to get over the large rocks and skip whole flights of stairs. Her armored hooves banged on the metal without remorse, and found the drill team standing around looking confused. “I said get out! Move your flanks, go, go, go!”

They scampered off, and Twilight faced the red light coming from a hole at the end of the tunnel. They had dug carefully and professionally where she had told them to, building structure into the hole. Had they not, it would have collapsed in on them.

Maybe a collapse wouldn't have been so bad, if they had gotten out in time. Twilight swallowed, and inched forward. There was only a small hole at the end, perhaps the size of a grapefruit, but it was enough to peek inside. As she did, the pain returned, albeit muted compared to before.

She reached out with her magic, only for it to fizzle on the rocks. Her heart pounded, and even with Aurora trying to cool her, she was sweating bullets. She raised a hoof and punched the hole, widening it. Next was digging into the soil and rocks, pushing debris aside until she'd entered the chamber.

It was fairly large, at least the size of a small house. There was a large work desk at the far end, with papers and designs pinned to a cork board behind it on the wall. Further papers were strewn about everywhere, as were half-finished metal devices and doodads. A lone light was still functioning over the desk, likely powered by a simple crystal core.

She stepped to the desk, looking over some of the papers. The writing was chicken scratch, but too consistent to be from hoof or mouth. It had to have been from a horn. At the top of one page was a name, which she spoke out loud.

The light flickered and failed for a second, then came back on. Writing, every bit as incomprehensible as what was on the papers, appeared on the walls in a blood red font. It was everywhere, even in the ceiling and floor. They weren't runes or wards, but a single word, repeated over and over. It was then Twilight realized that it wasn't merely bad horn writing, but a foreign, unknown alphabet of a maddening tongue.

Worse, even though she'd never seen it before, or could hope to make a guess as to where it had come from, an ache, or perhaps itch in the back of her mind told her what the word was.