Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Swift Wings of Mercy

“Spike! Where are y— Oh, there you are. Thank goodness!” Twilight rubbed her neck at the scratching in her throat. Yelling in the dry, dusty air hadn't done her any good, especially given that her brother hadn't really been hiding.

“Is it safe yet?” Spike peeked from around the edge of the broken bay doors of the pirate base. “I'm pretty sure everypony’s evacuated the base. What's going on?”

Twilight shuddered as she felt a  terrifyingly visceral length of smoke snake  up her spine. Even though Twilight knew there wasn't anything physically there, the shiver still put her on edge. “I'm not sure there's an active threat, but whatever is down there, only you can deal with.”

Spike pointed a claw at his chest. “Me? Why me?”

“Come on, I'll show you, just don't freak out. It's…” Twilight winced. “I was going to sugarcoat it and say ‘freaky,’ but that just doesn't do it any justice. This way.”

She walked alongside Spike, making sure her side was touching his wing the whole time to be certain he was still there. Her stomach was lurching and her spine crying out from the cold by the time they arrived in the chamber, and Spike was faring no better.

“T-Twilight, what is this?” he said, whimpering in a voice Twilight hadn't heard since he was a baby.

“Evil,” she spat. “That's about all I know — and it's far too dangerous and risky to study it further. It must be destroyed, thoroughly. Burying it isn't enough. We need dragonfire, and you're my best and only source. Torch it.”

“O-okay. Here goes nothing… Sure hope it doesn't explode.” He sucked in a breath, and brought his fire. Green flame smothered the wall, filling the air with a corrosive heat.

Twilight took a step back, waving her hoof around even though it was pointless in such a confined space. The heat warped the air while pieces of magic from the wards broke off and burned. After a few seconds Spike lost his breath, as did Twilight.

“No…” Twilight didn't dare use her magic sight, so she stepped closer to the hellish script on the wall. “That's not possible!”

The script was still there, and the piece Spike had hit was barely smudged.

“Spike, hit it again!”

He huffed a couple times, then opened up with a flame brighter than Twilight had ever seen from him. It was a thin, focused jet of fire that should have melted the stone it touched. Yet, in the end, only a single one of the hundreds of wards put in the cave wall had even eroded.

“I…” Spike gasped. “I don't think I have anything left right now.”

Twilight rubbed her forelegs. “You sure? I don't like just leaving this be.”

“I'm sure,” he panted. “Asking a dragon to keep going after they're empty is like asking a pony to keep going to the bathroom — it just doesn't work that way. We have limits!”

Twilight folded her forelegs and glared at the wall. “That complicates things. Spike, return to camp and use whatever flames you have left to summon Luna. She needs to see this immediately.”

“On it. Might take a few minutes.” Spike dashed out of the chamber, leaving Twilight alone with the red script.

“What are you?” Twilight closed her eyes, listening to the sounds in the distance, then pushing them away to be alone with her thoughts. This is too strange to only have a normal pony involved.

Aurora ‘nodded.’ “It does seem improbable that a normal pony, even one as brilliant as Shifting Current, through research of what's known at large, could arrive at such knowledge. Even those with full military access would certainly not be capable of whatever this is.”

Exactly. Twilight furrowed her brow. Which limits the number of potential sources considerably. There's Discord, but he's a remote possibility given his imprisonment.

Aurora grew cold, her metallic form chilling Twilight. “Dragons?”

Twilight sighed. That does seem the most probable. But I'm not looking forward to having to confront one of them. Even if I did have concrete evidence, there's plenty of them that won't see anypony less than a full alicorn as anything more than a snack. I've pulled off some amazing things in the past year, but going up against an adult dragon who isn't a moron is seriously pressing my luck.

That being said, there are other possibilities. One is the changelings. Current intelligence says they have something of a shared consciousness. If that's been unbroken for long enough, they may have knowledge of magic lost after the Chaos War. Perhaps some that they can't use, but can share with ponies that they may have some influence over.

Aurora hummed and shook her head. “That doesn't fit their M.O. Nothing in recent interactions suggests anything of the sort. I do admit they may be playing at a feint, though. It's a lot easier to maintain a conspiracy of thousands if they all share a hive mind. But it just doesn't feel right.”

Twilight opened her eyes and focused in on one set of the runes. Then that leaves only one other possibility I can think of: the unknown. Some force we're as yet unaware of, and thus cannot accurately prepare for. I don't know what's more frightening: that, or dragons. Give me an idiot mob boss or psychopathic changeling queen any day.

“Stars and stones!”

Twilight turned to her head to find Luna walking in, every bit as stunned as she herself had been moments ago. That does not bode well.

“Who did this? I felt it from kilometres away!” Luna asked.

“I don't know. The notes have Shifting Current's name on them, but I'm hesitant to believe he was capable of this. Which only makes it more terrifying. Spike could only remove one of them before running out of fire. I don't even know what it really is. The spellwork is just too dense.”

Luna nodded. “Dragonfire was the right call. Now we know how bad it is.” She pointed a wing at the desks and papers. “Let's get everything out of here and put a shield around the entrance. Nopony other than us and Spike enter.”


“Rainbow! Change of plans!” Twilight poked her head into the chow tent, finding Rainbow sitting at a table, rubbing her forehead. “You okay? I have news.”

“Not so loud,” Rainbow whimpered. “Headache.”

“Are you okay?” Twilight whispered. “You don't look so good. Do you need to go back to the sick bay?”

“I'm fine. Just a migraine.” Rainbow clenched her eyes shut. “Stop talking.”

Spike poked Twilight on her shoulder and whispered, “She doesn't look fine. I'm getting Luna.”

“Go.” Twilight focused her Sight on Rainbow while Spike ran off. Her wellspring is normal. However, there's an unusual amount of thaumic contamination in the air, which could be masking something from me.

“Let's see…” Luna moved like living smoke in behind Rainbow, her voice soft as a bird’s wing flap, with Spike close behind. Her horn was already lit, and a magic circle quickly closed around Rainbow, who didn't seem to notice a thing.

The spell fired waves of light over her, each one lighting up an area of her head in red.

Luna craned her neck around the mare, looking at various angles before walking up next to Twilight and lowering her voice even more. “I do not have my sister's skills with healing, but I can say that there's something there. I dare not speculate on what, nor dare I try healing her. Head injuries are often… complicated.”

“I can hear you, you know.” Rainbow grumbled. “And I'm fine. Just give me some medicine.”

Twilight, something else is up. Look around.”

Twilight darted her eyes to and fro, and Aurora was right. One pony was sitting next to an evidence crate, sweating far more than he should have been given he was in a climate-controlled area. Another was hovering over a trash bin, as if he was anticipating losing his lunch. A mare came over to join him, and another was passed out cold. Dozens of ponies were looking sick as diamond dogs, even the medics.

Twilight tapped Luna's shoulder. “Princess? Get Tia. Like, now.”

Luna looked up and gaped. “That power in the cave… worse than I thought. You're right, I'll get my sister.”

Luna vanished in a twinkle of light, and returned a moment later with her sister. Both were standing in the middle of the makeshift base, horns alight.

Luna's spell was cast first, furiously racing towards the butte before blooming and washing over it like a tsunami. As it splashed on the rock and drained into the ground, a blue done was left over the butte, sealing it off completely.

Celestia’s magic was next, at first only looking like a white flare climbing into the sky. A few seconds later, it exploded like a Summer Sun Celebration firework, showering everything and everypony around them in little white sparks. Every pony that the sparks touched started to glow with a faint white light.

“Attention, my little ponies!” Celestia announced, not quite using the Voice. “This area is under quarantine for the time being. The spell I cast a moment ago should make it safe for you to be around others, but we must make haste. I will be teleporting all of you to various hospitals around the world for treatment. Please come together in groups of no more than twenty, and I will move you one batch at a time.”

Rainbow just groaned.

Luna huffed, striding over to them. She grabbed hold of Rainbow’s chin with her ethereal mane and forced her eyes open to meet her gaze. “You, on the other hoof, are going with me to Canterlot Medical. Immediately. Or I use the Voice.”

Rainbow blinked, then rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

Light enveloped them, pulling them together and through time and space. When it faded, Twilight found herself and her friends standing on a relief etched into the stone floor of the Canterlot Hospital Emergency Room.

“Wow.” Spike whistled. “Good aim.”

“There's a core stone in the tile that makes for an excellent guidepost in the teleportation stream.” Luna waved to the nurses. “Priority one. I require a doctor to look over Rainbow Dash immediately.”

They didn't waste time with a bow, and instead pulled over a gurney and loaded Rainbow onto it, despite the pegasus’ grumbling. They wheeled Rainbow over to an empty alcove labelled “Exam Six,” and a unicorn doctor with glasses came striding in before they even had the curtains pulled.

“So, Your Highness, another pony you let skip in the line?” The mare smirked.

To be that glib, Twilight thought, she must be familiar with Luna. Perhaps Night Guard have been patched up by her?

“A head injury, Doctor. Potentially serious.”

“Potentially. Uh-huh. I see.” She pulled out a small flashlight with her magic and forced Rainbow’s eye open.

“Hey!” Rainbow batted at the light. “Get that thing out of my face!”

The doctor grabbed onto Rainbow's head with her magic and shined the light directly down Dash’s pupil. “Sensitivity to light, check. Pupils are dilated. Any other pain?”

Rainbow struggled, but it was futile. The doctor was obviously practiced in holding combative pegasi. “Yeah, like I told them, I have a migraine!”

“I'll be the judge of that. Lie back and hold still or you'll get a tetanus booster with a giant needle to go with your exam.”

Rainbow scoffed and flopped back on the bed in her best Rarity impression. “Whatever. Do what you have to do so I can go.”

The doctor lit her horn and a spell similar to Luna's wrapped around the pegasus, this time moving horizontally across her. This one, too, lit up her head in red.

“Hmmm.” The doctor tilted her head and tweaked the spell, focusing on with a smaller circle. Each pulse narrowed down the circle a little more, until a large portion of it was inside Rainbow’s cranium. Finally, the border changed symbols and flashed red.

The doctor didn't flinch, but Twilight could tell that  her heart had skipped a beat. An instant later, the mare mashed a large brown button on the wall.

“Attention!” a voice over the intercom sounded. “General surgeons to OR 4. Prep cart to Exam Six. Repeat, surgeons to OR 4 immediately. Prep cart to Exam Six.”

Twilight's heart jumped, too. “What is it, doctor?” Even Rainbow was starting to shake in fear.

“Rainbow, listen to me.” The doctor looked her in her now-wide eyes. “We're getting you to surgery. You have a fusiform brain aneurysm that’s large and ready to burst.”

Rainbow’s pupils turned to pinpricks. “What?!”

“As it stands, since we caught it now, your odds of survival are about eighty percent. Complications are probable. If it bursts, your odds of survival are much lower. We need to treat you right away.” Nurses with a cart filled with tools and medicines rushed in and started stripping Rainbow of her armor. “Say what you need to your friends. We don't have much time.”

Rainbow was ready to burst into tears. “I… I…”

Twilight leapt forward, pulling Rainbow into a gentle embrace. Spike followed suit.

“Wha-what do I do?” Rainbow sniffled. “This can't be happening!”

The bottom of Twilight's stomach fell out, and the tears seeped through even though her eyes were closed. “It'll be okay, Rainbow. We love you. I'll be right here waiting. I know Loyalty can pull through.”

“Twilight, I…” Rainbow choked and sobbed. “I love you guys, too! I'm sorry! I'm sorry I was so rude today! I’m sorry!”

“It's okay; you weren't yourself.” Twilight squeezed her tighter. “It'll be okay. I promise.”

Spike pulled back and wiped away his tear before it touched either of them. “I'm sorry for complaining so much, Rainbow. But, hey, you're in Canterlot! If anywhere can heal you, this place can!”

“Wait!” Luna stepped forward, leaning down to press her horn against Rainbow’s foreleg. With a flick, the anti-poison wards on Rainbow’s skin glowed and shattered, leaving bits of magic fizzing out in the air. “The anaesthesia should work now. But I have something to say as well.

“Rainbow, you are an excellent soldier. One could scarcely imagine a better bearer for the Element of Loyalty. Whatever happens, it's been an honour. And, thank you.”

Rainbow wiped away eye fulls of tears, nodding while a nurse put in an IV.

They all walked to the OR, Twilight keeping eye contact with the shaking Rainbow until she vanished behind doors she couldn't follow through. Even a Grand Mage dare not trot into a clean OR against protocol.

The next hours were excruciating ticks of the waiting room clock, spent in silence between Spike and Twilight huddled alone on the marble floor. They’d lost track of how long they'd stared at the austere walls and random medical posters. Spike had cards they tried to play, but it devolved into working together — slowly — on solitaire. Each little flip of a card flailed uselessly against the mechanical hands of the timepiece, begging it to move faster.

“Twilight?” a new voice said after some time. A dusty Trixie walked into the room, still sweaty from the heat of the desert. “Luna told me what happened. I'm so sorry. Rainbow doesn't deserve this, but she's a survivor. I think she'll pull through.”

Twilight sniffed. “Thanks. It means a lot.”

Trixie flopped down next to them. “I'm your friend. Stars, I'm your guard now; the only one not on medical leave, even. I'm here for you. No matter what it is. Trixie owes you nothing less.”

Twilight pulled her into a hug. “I stopped keeping track a long time ago. Thank you, Trixie. I know I can count on you.”

“Always. Oh, speaking of: here.” Trixie reached into her bag and pulled out some Alpine Cola cans and some energy bars. “I figured you probably didn't get anything to eat.”

Twilight smiled and peeled back the wrapper of one of the bars. “I'm… not all that hungry, but… yeah, I should eat.”

Spike had already scarfed his down.

Twilight ate gingerly, slowly picking apart the oat chunks and chewing each one to pass the time. Long past that, Twilight lost count of how many rounds of the card game “War” her guards had played. Trixie, surprisingly, lost more often than not.

“Lady Sparkle?”

Twilight looked up to a nurse who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

“I'm here to let you know the surgery is going well. The Princess has relieved the aneurysm, and they're getting ready to patch Rainbow up.”

Trixie’s eyes went wide. “The Princess?!”

The nurse nodded. “Yes, Her Highness insisted on doing the operation personally.”

Twilight mentally facehooved. Of course. There's probably a standing order to inform her of any major injuries to the Bearers ASAP so she could step in for the good of the nation. If nothing else, this boosts Rainbow’s odds considerably. There's no better healer than Princess Celestia.

Spike picked up his cards. “How long until we can see her?”

“If all goes well, it should only be a few more hours. I'll check back when we have an update.”

Twilight stood up on her numb, sleeping legs and forced them into a slight bow. “I appreciate it. Thank you for your service.”

“All part of the job.”

Twilight let herself fall down after the nurse left, then rolled over to get the pins and needles out of her legs. “The Princess is here. Rainbow will be okay.”

Trixie looked over to the doors of the room. “You have a lot of faith in her.”

“She's like a second mom to me. And she's the best doctor in Equestria. She has thousands of years of practice and access to medical knowledge lost to the Chaos War. If anypony can save Rainbow, it's her.”

“Makes sense. But…” Trixie blushed. “I suppose it's you I have faith in most. You saved me when you could have, by all rights, thrown me in a dungeon to rot. I've never known such kindness.”

Spike shuffled the deck. “You still haven't spent any time with Fluttershy.”

There was a knock at the double doors. “Lady Sparkle?” A stallion poked his head in, revealing Prince Blueblood. “I heard about your guard. You have my sincerest sympathies — nopony deserves such a malady. I do hope Auntie can heal her.”

Twilight put her ears back. “Thank you, Your Highness. I appreciate you coming all the way down here to say that.”

Blueblood cleared his throat. “Actually, there was another issue I had to discuss.”

“Called it.” Spike shared a chuckle with Trixie.

Twilight rolled her eyes and pushed herself up off the cold floor. “While I suspected as much, I also know you wouldn't time something like this unless it was important. Let's find an empty room. Spike, Trixie? Stay here in case there are any updates.”

It didn't take them long to find an empty ward room, though they had to convince a sassy nurse from the Bittish Isles they weren't ducking in for a “quick snog.”

After getting a drink of water to wash down the bit of vomit that found its way up after the nurse’s accusation, Twilight eyed the papers folded under Blueblood's suit. “I take it you have something for me?”

Blueblood nodded and produced the folder. “Duchess Demesne of Manehatten. Don't let her low-key nature in the Council fool you. She's sharp as a Neighponese blade — and decidedly not a fan of Celestia and Luna, much less of myself.”

Twilight pulled out a picture of the Duchess. She was a heavy-set earth pony with a dark chocolate coat and maroon mane. Her demeanour was stern, though not as cold as that of Bismare. She wore a modern blue pantsuit and stood before her desk in her office. Behind her were large windows with a view of one of Manehatten’s monster skyscrapers, the pride and joy of the Duchy.

Twilight put the picture back in the pile. “I take it removing her won't be as easy as Esteem...”

“To say the least. Don't waste time even trying it in one go. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I think I have the first few steps. The rest of the documents are a series of routine police reports. If you read only one or two, they're standard changeling sightings. Things police departments across Equestria fill out, supposedly investigate, and ,most often, stuff in a cabinet somewhere, never to be seen again.

“Some time ago, though, the reports started to be taken very seriously in the city of Manehatten, right when they significantly increased in number.”

Twilight's blood ran cold. “That's a serious threat. A large number of changelings in a hard-to-defend city like Manehatten could spell thousands of deaths in the unlikely event of an open attack. Even if it's just an infestation, we could be looking at a steady stream of missing and captured. There are military assets within range of there, too. What's RGIS doing about it so far?”

Blueblood put on a smile devious enough for Luna to be proud of it. “That's just it — Duchess Demesne hasn't reported it so far. She's supposed to, but that might make her seem weak, and though she's smart, she has thousands of other nobles in her Duchy that would love to see her fall. She'll hold off until she cannot deny it any longer, then claim her subordinates were trying to take care of it on their own. This gives us an opportunity.”

Twilight picked up the bundle of files. “If I go in now, and put a stop to the changelings without her being able to take credit, she looks like a fool. Have you informed Celestia?”

“Not yet. I—”

Twilight gave him a light whack on the head with the papers. “And just how am I supposed to do this without telling her? We don't hide stuff from each other! That's not how it's supposed to work!”

Blueblood huffed. “RGIS is compromised, and we still don't know how.”

“So? She's the Princess, and I'm the Grand Mage. I act on her say-so.”

Blueblood stepped forward, towering over her. “No. You are Grand Mage. Your authority gives you power to act on your own whims, stopping only when Celestia contradicts you.” He stepped back, and held up his forehooves. “But I cannot force you. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Are you a Grand Mage, wielder of the powers of the cosmos, or just a tool for Celestia to use as she sees fit? I'll leave you to decide.”

Twilight broke eye contact, and held the twisted knot in her stomach. By the time she could look back at him, he was already gone.

“What do we do?”

She curled herself up on the ground, tucking in her tail. “I wish I knew. In a way, Blueblood is right, but on the other hoof, communication is key to trust. Celestia must be able to trust her Grand Mage, especially since we have so much power. I… I feel like I need a nap. I'm just so tired.”

“Twilight?” Trixie poked her head in the door. “Are you okay? I saw the Prince leave.”

Twilight opened her mouth to say yes, but only wound up shaking her head. By the time she remembered to blink, Trixie was laying beside her.

“Do you need me to chase him down and drag him back here? It is technically my job to protect you now.”

Twilight put her ears back. “No, I need… I need advice, and for once the pony I turn to most for it I can't consult. Blueblood, he… he told me about an opportunity in Manehatten.”

Trixie's mane bristled. “If there's bits involved, you should tell him to—”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Twilight leaned in to Trixie, pushing some of the weight on her heart onto her friend. “There's reports of serious Changeling activity there, which Duchess Demesne hasn't reported to the Council yet. If we can put a stop to it before she reports, it'll be a major victory.

“But he doesn't want me to tell Celestia. He says RGIS has a leak, and if she gets involved, there's no way we'll pull this off.”

Trixie laid her head on a hoof. “Couldn't we tell her and just get her to not tell anypony?”

“Possibly. But everything Celestia does is followed closely by dozens of ponies. She never has time to herself. Eventually, my actions will be revealed, and keeping secrets from her closest aides like that could, at the very least, introduce morale problems. At worst, it could lead to political ramifications of their own. What if the Council uses that action to justify more ‘oversight’ of the military? We'll lose key authority over it to them.”

Trixie whistled softly. “And if we act on our own, all the blame — or praise — is on us.”

“Exactly.” Twilight grimaced at the bitterness of her memory. “In trying to convince me, Blueblood asked me if I was a Grand Mage, or just a tool of Celestia’s. I hate it when he's insightful, but I think he might be right this time.”

Trixie giggled. “Pfft. What a jerk!”

“I know, right?” Twilight shared in Trixie’s giggling. “But that just makes all this harder. Worse, we have to let Luna know where we're going because she's the only one who can get us there quickly. Otherwise we'll be on a train for a day.”

“True, but from all I've heard, I think we can trust her to be discreet. The question is, when do we leave?”

Twilight stood up and stretched, her joints creaking in protest. “Not until we see Rainbow. Once she's out of the woods, you and I will head out, and Spike can watch over her.”

“I guess this is what it was like when I came back from Zebrica.” Twilight stared at the sleeping Rainbow, unable to swallow the lump in her throat. “But, she's alive. That's what matters most.”

Rainbow was covered in a warm blanket, snoozing away. Below her neck, it was mostly as she always was, aside from the IV in her leg. Her head, however, was totally shaved, and she was completely bandaged above her eyebrows. Her muzzle was inside an oxygen mask, and each breath left steam on the plastic for just a second before vanishing.

Spike stepped up and sat next to Rainbow’s bed, then unpacked his things to stay near her. “She helped me a lot when I was getting my wings. Seems right to return the favour.”

Trixie put her ears back. “Any word on the prognosis?”

“Sort of.”

Twilight and Trixie jumped together from the sudden, new voice coming from behind. When they turned around, Princess Celestia, still in surgery scrubs, was stepping into the room. I swear, she's every bit as good as Luna at doing that. Is sneaking up on subjects an alicorn thing or something?

Celestia loomed over Rainbow, checking her vitals and bathing her in healing magic. “I was able to fix the aneurysm before it could do any substantial or obvious damage. However, we won't know what side effects she'll have until she wakes up.

“Proper procedures in this era would have been extremely risky given the aneurysm's location, so I used some lost artes. One was chronomancy. Essentially, I used that to reverse the aneurysm into nonexistence, then used another spell to reinforce that area of her blood vessels. Although effective, it can lead to… Shall we say, odd mental complications, most of which are temporary. It'll be some time before we know for sure.”

Twilight gingerly stepped forward next to her mentor, watching each of her movements. She could only guess at the makeup of the spells, but such was the gulf between them on the subject of medicine.

It was another hour before Rainbow opened her eyes.

“T-Twilight?” Rainbow whispered. Her eyelids had only barely raised, but it was enough to see the darkness behind them. Her pegasus friend was awake, but there was a dead stillness about her, and none of the light that was once there.

“Hey there,” Twilight said through some tears. “You made it, Rainbow. You're okay. We stopped the aneurysm.”

“Don't try to speak, Rainbow.” Celestia fired a another shower of healing magic over the pegasus, covering her subject in golden light. “It'll take some time for the anaesthesia to wear off. Don't fight it, go back to sleep. You're safe.”

Rainbow nodded, closed her eyes, and was out instantly.

Twilight nudged Celestia on her leg. “Was it that bad?”

Worse. Put your fears aside, my student. I'm now confident your friend will be okay, given time. What she needs now, more than anything else, is rest.”

Twilight nodded and tried to do as she was told, but there was one fact she could not budge, even with all her might. “Princess, I have a thing in my investigation that I need to follow up on. It's… something of a hunch. Would it be okay if Trixie and I left to pursue it?”

Celestia regarded her with a raised yet stern eyebrow that twisted Twilight's gall bladder into knots for a moment. “Of course, Twilight. Whatever you feel you need to do. I assume Spike will be staying for the time being?”

Spike flourished his deck of cards.

“Then I see no reason why not. I'll check in on Rainbow from time to time as well. She should be up and about in a few days.”

Twilight bowed to the ground, and Trixie followed her lead. “Thank you. I'll update you when I have something more substantial. Come on, Trixie, let's see if my ‘hunch’ is worth anything.”