Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Reception Of The Cold

Twilight sucked in her breath, letting it out slowly to drain her nerves as the train finally came to a stop. She knew Moscolt was in a bad way, with the looming threat of starvation hanging over them and an active riot in the northeast turning into a full-on rebellion. Celestia's approval rating was rather low in the city, especially when compared to her ratings in other large population centers. As a representative of the Crown, they probably wouldn't be all that happy to see her. After all, the Crown was where the bit stopped. 

She held her breath, and with her guards behind her, slid open the train car door.

A giant crowd of ponies, from all classes of society, immediately cheered. Those near her set off party poppers that launched a ton of confetti, and a band in the back started playing the national anthem while everypony sang. 

Or, you know, they could throw a party for me. That works, I suppose.

As she walked through the crowd, her guards kept the general throng away just enough to give them a bubble to move through. That didn't stop her from giving hoofshakes and bumps, giving quick hellos to everypony she could. One thing she couldn't help but notice, though, was the gauntness of the ponies. It wasn't even confined to the lower classes. She noticed several nobles she had met in the castle years earlier, and they were now definitely thinner than they had been back then. Some even had goiters — easily curable with iodized salt.

Things are even worse than we thought.” Aurora was on the verge of tears as the crowd switched to the Stalliongrad anthem.

From what Prince Blueblood told me, the Duke is a prideful old stallion. Odds are he waited too long to ask for help. But we're here now, and we've thinned the numbers of the snow crabs enough that food should be able to reach the city reliably without having to have the Grand Mage in the lead. 

Speaking of the Duke… 

Twilight arrived at the back of the crowd as they started singing "Katyusha," and saw they had literally rolled out a red carpet for her. At the end was the Duke himself, standing before an extra-large chariot.

Whatever colour he had — possibly a blue-green — had long been dulled by old age. It was now a mostly a shade of grey, and his mane and long, poorly kept beard were a pure white. He was quite tall for a stock pony, and lanky as the summer days were long. Unlike many of the dukes, Rasbuckin wore very traditional red robes that were common a couple hundred years ago.

“Lady Sparkle…” Even his voice had an old-fashioned quality to it, including a wariness that made it seem like his voice itself had long been tired of speaking. “You have saved our city, and with it, the ideals of Claddin and his system. We are grateful beyond words. This will be written in the history books about Moscolt. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.” 

He held out his hoof in a bow, and she put her own hoof on his for him to kiss.

She had to hold back a shiver from the gesture. It was somewhat old-fashioned, but the age difference alone made it rather creepy. It could also have been the minus-thirty weather, though that was a major sight better than what she had just been in.

“It was my honour to serve, Duke Rasbuckin. When Equestria needs me, I am there.”

“I would wager there are no ponies that need your help more than ours, to my great shame. We have much to do. Please, come with me.”

The group filed into the chariot, and it moved down the road as soon as the door was closed. The charioteers were armed earth ponies in uniform, rather than pegasi.

The roads were strewn with potholes, and there was a lack of ponies around. There were some, but certainly not what one would expect from a major city. Security, however, was present on every single corner. Large, armed stallions were dressed in uniform and checking the papers of random civilians.

“Umm…” Spike was looking out the window next to her. “Aren't checkpoints like this a violation of the Equestrian Compact?”

Twilight pointed to a plume of smoke in the distance. It was tinged orange from fire. “Emergency. Martial law is clearly in effect. Duke, how much of the city is in rebel control?”

The Duke stroked his beard. “About fifteen percent, but it fluctuates hour to hour. Our police are stretched to the limit. The law limits our military. They must not engage civilians, even rebels. The system forbids it. But they can help keep order outside the combat area.”

“Have you tried negotiations?”

The Duke coughed like he was ready to choke on something, even though he wasn't eating or drinking. “Unimaginable! We cannot tolerate such violence!”

“Fastest way to end it.” Cloud Burner folded his forelegs. “It's not pleasant. But you have to weigh it against the cost of ongoing unrest. This isn't a normal situation or a sports riot.”

“Claddin's ideals are absolute. I cannot, in good conscience, entertain such extremists.” 

Twilight stifled a sigh. Blueblood's analysis seems to be on the mark. Old. Stubborn. But a stickler for his particular code.

Mercifully, they'd arrived at the Duma building, ending the current conversation thread. They went straight to the Duke's office, and the guards let them in. 

“I'll be right back,” said Rasbuckin. “Please do have a seat.”

The group complied, each finding a seat among a large number of comfy chairs. Twilight, naturally, was in the center.

“Hey.” Trixie played with one of the two pens on the Duke's desk, each equidistant from the middle. “Anypony else think there's something odd about this room?”

Twilight gazed around. The room had gold-painted walls and a pair of very tall, dark wooden bookcases filled with tomes and pictures. Two lamps were on either side of the large desk, and the room had a large, ornate red rug oriented exactly in the center of the floor. 

She took another look at the bookcases. The pictures on either side were exactly the same. “Oh, I see. The room is symmetric. The Duke must have a case of obsessive compulsive disorder.”

The doors went ka-chunk and the Duke strode in with a pile of papers. “My apologies for the delay, but this is important enough to keep fully confidential.” He took his seat and promptly started distributing a form. “Please read and sign these authorization forms. It’s really just a formal notice that you are operating within the Duchy.”

“Oh. Joy.” Rainbow melted. “More paperwork.”

“Documentation is the difference between chaotic stagnation and organized advancement,” the Duke responded. 

“Claddin’s seventh maxim.” Twilight filled out the form and turned it in. “Been a while since I heard it. I can’t really say I disagree.”

Rasbuckin’s eyes lit up. “You read the right books.”

Spike chuckled. “She reads all the books.”

Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but gave up and shrugged. 

“Twilight wouldn’t tell us how bad things were from the message she got. Too many ears.” Rainbow turned serious. “Oh. That’s bad.”

“How did —”

Twilight cut him off. “Don’t worry about her. The message stated you found both an Element of Harmony and a potential link to the Titans?”

The duke sighed and shuddered. “Yes. A worker noticed unusual activity at an abandoned warehouse adjacent to an old grain storage facility. It was due to be demolished next year and rebuilt.

“The police arrived, and spied on them from a skylight. They took this picture, confirming the presence of the Element of Honesty.” He slid the picture to the group.

“Unfortunately, the culprits fled when reinforcements arrived. We think there were about five to seven ponies in total, but we can’t be sure. Only one was captured.”

Twilight’s ears shot up. “You have a prisoner? I want to interrogate them immediately.”

“That’s the problem.” The Duke broke into a sweat. “We sent notification to the castle, but attempted to begin the interrogation ourselves right away. We took him to a shack out on the lake. During the questioning, he… an earth pony... transformed…”

The group exchanged glances. 

“Continue.” Twilight leaned forward.

Rasbuckin swallowed. “He… screamed a name, then collapsed into a ball of black tar. Tentacles sprouted out and lashed at us. One of my personal guards cut it down, and it caught fire. It was so hot it melted through the ice. Whatever’s left of him is at the bottom of the lake.”

“That…” Twilight gnawed at her lip. “That does sound like a Titan’s, err, skin, for lack of a better term. What was the name he screamed?”

Rasbuckin slid a paper towards her, and she picked it up and read it aloud.


A shiver ran down Twilight’s spine like a buffalo stampede. She wasn’t alone, as her entire entourage visibly shook. Rainbow and Spike literally vibrated out of their chairs. 

“That’s why I wrote it down.” The Duke wiped his brow. “Every time we say it, that happens.”

“Understandable.” Twilight pulled out a map of the city. “Mark down where that warehouse is. I'm afraid dealing with the rebels will have to wait. This takes priority.”

The Duke exhaled. “I understand. Do you require any assistance?”

“Not at this time. In fact, I would ask that you keep this as quiet as possible. We can't let this get out.”

“Of course.”

Possibilities and plans flooded Twilight's mind, each clashing in battle before sloshing together into a general unease. It's the northwest under rebel control. Our destination is to the northeast. Odds of running into resistance fighters are moderately high… depending on how smart they are.

The train depot is in the southeast, and the single most important commodity in the city right now is the food there that's being distributed. If I were them, I'd try to secretly disrupt the distribution of food. Hungry ponies will quickly lay blame upon those in charge.

However, Rasbuckin might be a stubborn old goat, but he's not a complete idiot. He'll know that's exactly what the rebels would plan and would take countermeasures. The police force here is known to be corrupt, but only within certain limits. It's corrupted to serve his vaunted “system.” It will protect the system, and the food.

The rebels will know this, and if they're smart, they'll use the opportunity to gain ground in the city. The duke won't like it, but he's between a rock and a hard place on this one. The police will protect the food in the south, and the north will be sapped of strength. Which means no matter what we do, we'll be noticed. But will we be a target, or will they avoid us? Hmmm…

“Rainbow?” Twilight came to an abrupt stop in her pace and spun to face her captain. “I need you and Cloud to go back and get my chariot. Spike, go with them. I want you three to keep a lookout for ponies that decide they want to approach us, and be ready to open fire with the cannon. We might need a show of force.”

Rainbow snapped off a salute. “You can count on us! Come on, Spike, spread those wings! We'll tow you through the air; it's faster.”

Spike pumped his fist and tried to remain calm, but his eyes were shimmering. The three quickly flew off.

“And me?” Trixie asked.

“By my side. Those three have their biggest tactical advantage in the air. We have it through coordinating our spellcasting. Come on; we've got a cold walk ahead of us.”

Naturally, “cold” was a bit of an understatement at minus thirty degrees Centigrade — before factoring in wind chill. The city, however, was built for it. Every couple of blocks, each side of the street had warming stations, which were basically little glass sheds with firedust-powered radiative heaters inside. They were activated by the press of a button, and were free for anypony (or even non-pony) to use at any time. Moreover, the city had an “open lobby” law. All commercial buildings and apartments had to have a lobby that ponies could seek shelter in temporarily during business hours. If a citizen was getting too cold, they could loiter in the warmth for a while to protect themselves, and the businesses could not throw them out just for being there.

The buildings themselves were rather drab, but that was by modern tastes. Most were made a century ago, and put up with stunning speed. As a result, many of them had the exact same design, all produced en masse for the sake of getting it done ASAP. To help counter this, many exterior walls were clad with murals, and only maybe thirty percent were transparent propaganda. Duke Claddin was a weirdo, but his “system” turned a frozen backwater into an economic powerhouse to rival Germaney in just a few decades. 

When they finally reached the north side, things started to take a turn. Though she was still in a residential and commercial area rather than industrial, scars of the uprising were beginning to show. Chunks were missing from some walls, and a few alleys had police tape that had yet to be cleaned up. At one particular intersection, a cafe had a front entrance that had crumbled. The stories above bore char marks, and the dining area was mostly filled with shattered debris.

“How many innocent ponies died here?” Twilight switched to her Sight, but found very little of the dark ooze that was the telltale sign of a violent death. “Interesting. Either the area was cleaned thoroughly, which seems to be impossible given the debris, or casualties were avoided somehow.”

Trixie caught up to Twilight’s side. “I've actually been reading about the Winter Revolt in some newspaper specials, and from what I hear, that's been common. Storefronts, factories, machines, they either steal the valuables, set the place on fire, or blow it up. But they avoid killing ponies.”

“Huh. My intelligence reports focus more on the casualties that do happen. Score one for the free press, I suppose.”

The newspaper story Trixie talked of played out as they walked north, told in the debris of broken machines and burnt factories. There was very little in the way of holes from mounted guns. Most of the fires had long since burned out, but in the distance, to the northeast of the city, the sky was orange and black from flame and smoke.

“How much farther?” Trixie shivered and sneezed before pulling out a some hankies and blowing her nose. “I'm about ready to turn into a Popsicle.”

“Oh, we have somewhere warm, if you need.” 

Twilight froze mid-step, mouth open as her reply to Trixie croaked and fell off her tongue. About a dozen and a half ponies rounded the corners and converged on them. Trixie jumped around to cover Twilight's rear, so they had eyes on all of them.

They all wore something white on their bodies. Scarves, sashes, hats, shirts: each of them had one item that was pure white. They moved to clear a path for one particular pony. He was tall and lanky, with a green coat and white mane. His thin face wore a smile under his stubble.

“Well, well, well. I always knew it was only a matter of time until the Grand Mage showed up.” As Twilight sat down, she got a closer look at him. He had a scar on his left temple, and the twin guns on his back had one barrel that was bent. “Quite frankly, I thought it would be sooner. Might’ve been easier to kill us all when our numbers were less.”

“Twilight!” Spike's voice crackled over the radio. “We're in position for a surprise takedown on the leader. Give us a signal if you want us to nail him.”

Twilight shook her head. “You don't rate as a high enough threat to top my ‘to do’ list, and even if you did, I'd try to settle things without violence if possible. Wantonly killing isn't my M.O. 

“But since you're here, I can only think of a few reasons you’d want to show yourself. One is that you want to be theatrical before attacking, but that doesn't fit with what I already know about you.”

The stallion broke out into a laugh. “Oh, no, that's not the plan at all, Your Highness. Ol’ Jack's not stupid enough to directly attack a pony that takes on pirates for fun.”

“Jack?” Trixie tilted her head. “Odd name.”

“Short for ‘jackrabbit.’” He gave her a grin. “Among other things.”

“In that case,” Twilight continued, “You're here to tell me something. Possibly to ask for help.”

Jack started clapping with wide, deliberate clops. “Told you guys she was smart. You're right, I am here to ask for help. Well, sort of. I'm actually here to warn you that we got a big operation planned, and I honestly doubt you can do anything about it.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “I'm about to say ‘challenge accepted.’”

He held up a hoof. “But, maybe we don't have to. Maybe we can work something out.”

“You're holding this city hostage.” Twilight eyes blazed with heat. “I don't like hostage takers.”

“Hey now,” he said, rubbing his mane. “We don't kill unless we got to. We will do it if it's needed, but I'm hoping it's not. All I'm asking is for a chance to negotiate with the Duke. You tell me you'll make that happen, our plan gets put on hold, and we all walk away from here.”

“That simple?” Twilight asked.

“Yup. What can I say? I'm a simple guy!”

“Done.” Twilight held out a hoof. “I'll get you your chance to negotiate. Understand, though, that I can't guarantee the negotiations will succeed.”

Jack gave her hoof a bump. “Deal. You heard the lady, everypony! We're on break. Let's go find someplace not frozen.”

Twilight and Trixie stood still, ready for the other horseshoe to drop as the group filed out as quiet and quickly as they came. They waited a few moments after the last one vanished from sight before relaxing.

“Spike, you watching them leave?”

“I was. A big cloud of fog overtook them, and they vanished. The fog was opaque to the scope. They probably slipped into one or more of the buildings. Want me to investigate?”

“That's okay; let them go. I technically don't have much hard evidence against them, so there's no point wasting time on that. Besides, I anticipated their visit.”

“You did?”

“Kinda. I knew they'd notice us. That's one of the reasons why I wanted you in the air. The Kitalpha has enough firepower to make them think twice once it opens up on something.

“But since they're willing to be reasonable, I'll let them go for now. Besides, I got a good look at their leader. Might help RGIS.”

Trixie poked her shoulder. “I don't like it, Twilight. Their offer to negotiate might be a trap.”

“Oh, don't worry. I'm cynical enough to suspect that, too. We'll prepare, just in case. For now, let's keep moving. We're almost where we need to be.”

“Think this is it?” 

Twilight tilted her head. “It looks like it. Only one way to know for sure, though. Come on, let's go take a look.”

The building was old and mostly made out of brick. The roof was maybe three stories up, and half of it had a series of triangular slopes jutting up. There were also two large smokestacks rising for maybe two more stories out of the structure.

There was a big door on the side, but it was chained shut with a lock bigger than Twilight's head. Another entrance on the side was boarded up. Fortunately, neither was what she was looking for. Her real target was the metal spiral staircase on the side of the building, which only had a barely-locked gate to stop her.

“Hey, Twilight. We've got wards.”

Twilight looked at where Trixie was pointing, and sure enough, some orange wards were dimly glowing in the bricks. “That's weird. Normally only sensitive industries bother with those, and nopony usually spends money on those for an empty building. Think you can break them?”

“Me?” Trixie’s hat fell off. “Can't you do it?”

“Of course. But I'd rather see you do it. I can't just handle everything myself. I have to promote your growth as well.”

Trixie picked up her hat and stuck it back on her head, making sure to tuck in her ears. “Okay, I guess. Give me a few to read them all.”

They’d circled the whole building before Trixie was ready, which was the right thing to do as the wards all turned out to be interconnected. They were also relatively simple individually, and some were literally scratched into the brick instead of properly inscribed. The back side had four grain silos that were a sneeze from falling over, and infested with mold. 

“Okay, I think I’m ready. I’d keep the structural wards if I could, but I think I have to break them all.”

Twilight nodded. “Very good. I agree; they’re interdependent. Now, how do you break them?”

“Ivaran interference pattern. Simultaneous engagement.” Trixie lit her horn and started putting mini-wards into strategic points in the existing structure. “Am I doing this right?”

Twilight smiled. “Yup! I’m proud. You’ve learned a lot in these last months.”

Trixie’s cheeks turned red. “Th-thank you.”

It took a few minutes, but eventually Trixie managed to embed several more tiny spells into the structure of wards over the building. Each was a little sledgehammer waiting for her signal. When she gave it, each one burst and punched the wall, leaving cracks in some of the bricks. The wards flashed with energy for a moment before overloading and going dark. 

Trixie swallowed. “I hope that doesn't topple this place.”

“In a decade or so? Maybe. But Stalliongrad brick structures like this were built tough. It should be fine for the next few hours. Come on, let's see what we're dealing with.”

The duo traipsed around to another side of the building and opened a rusty gate that blocked a black, iron, spiral staircase. Even Twilight had to angle her barrel a little to climb up; how stallions were supposed to use it was beyond her. The roof had tarps over much of it, but the skylights on the triangular slopes were uncovered. 

Twilight pulled out the photo she got from Rasbuckin, and lined it up with what she saw down below. There was a table down inside the building, and it's size and location matched the picture. “No question, the Element was here. Let's take a look.”

She pulled power into her horn and teleported down, poofing into existence in the middle of the building. Her vision blurred, then snapped back into focus. “Um, something happened there…”

Trixie was beside her in moments and rattled her head. “What was that?”

“I lost a second or two when I came out of the teleportation. It felt… familiar, somehow. Did it happen to you, too?”

Trixie rubbed her cheek. “You know what? I think it did. What was that?”

“No idea. Let's look at what's here; maybe we'll find a clue.” Twilight made a beeline for the area where the Element had been, and switched to her magic Sight. There were traces of silver and gold magical auras on the table, adding more evidence to the pile, but very little otherwise. The other “hotspots” couldn't even be called such, as they barely had anything to them.

“A hammer and sandpaper…” Trixie picked up the implements from the table. “Not exactly the secret lab in Manehatten, is it?”

“Actually…” Twilight locked in to what Trixie had found, then tab through a quick inventory of the area. “I think this is a lab. Not high-tech like that one we found in Manehatten, but a lab nonetheless. And that's not sandpaper. Here, let me show you.”

She took the hammer and scrap of “sandpaper” from Trixie, and placed the latter on her armoured fetlock. Sorry if this hurts, Aurora. She brought the hammer down on her leg, and a shower of sparks burst from the impact. It sounded a bit like quiet fireworks. A few more hits spread hundreds of sparks over the floor. 

“Hehe, that tickles!”

Unlike most sparks, these didn't fade right away. They were all still glowing in an arrangement of gold, dark violet, and red. 

“Pretty.” Trixie spread them around with her hoof. “So that helps you determine what kind of magic is in something, right? Those sparks match your magic profile, and Aurora was made from you.”

“Exactly! And it's cheap. This place was definitely operating on a budget. The scoring paper is like ten bits.” Twilight tossed the hammer aside and reached for a box in the corner. She plopped it on the table and opened the lid, revealing a series of implements that resembled large tuning forks. Each was the same size and had a handle on the end meant for either mouth or magic gripping. “Watch this.”

She pinged the fork against Trixie’s armor and held it up so both could listen. The ringing pulsed in an uneven pattern, something like in a telegraph. “You hear the loud bits? It's reacting to the strenta gates in the spells in your armor, pulsing along relative to where they are in the specific spell I hit. The set in the box has a fork for the vast majority of known symbols. A box like this might be a few thousand bits, but you can find them used for much less. Or steal them from a big high school or something.”

“So they were trying to figure out the magic inside the Element?” Trixie's coat went pale. “If they pull that off, what can they do with it?”

“Pfft. ‘Figure out the Elements of Harmony’ is something I could spend centuries on and probably never finish. It doesn't use magic as we know it. This is amateur hour, which is what really scares me.

“The technical capability of the Majestics is much higher than this. Did an Element get away from them? Were they unable to get whatever infrastructure they have to Stalliongrad? This raises all kinds of questions and I need to get to the bottom of what's going on here. 

“Get Spike down here and then spread out through the building. Try to find anything that might be linked to another location. We need to know where these bandits ran off to when they were chased. We find them, we find our answers.”