“Twilight? Twilight? Twilight Twilight Twilight Twilight Twilight! Twiiiii–”
“Isn’t this exciting?!”
For the umpteenth time, Twilight Sparkle groaned as she brought her fingers to gently massage her temples. Princesses’ orders or no, long trips with the overly bubbly baker were not exactly easy, especially in their present circumstances.”
“I still can’t believe it, can you?!” Pinkie beamed as she and her mane of bubblegum curls bounced in her seat. “This is, like, the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in like, ever, even more than that time when Princess Celestia sent us on a trip to the Ivory Tower to act as diplomas!”
“Diplomats,” the young scholar corrected.
“That too!” Pinkie grinned. “That was super exciting too! Man oh man, I can remember it like it was just yesterday…”
“Pinkie, it was just yesterday,” Twilight sighed as she contemplated jumping out the window and taking her chances with experimental flight charms. “So please, can you try and calm down? Just a little bit?”
Pinkie Pie did as she was asked and sat down hard in her seat, but her puffed cheeks, strained lips , and white-knuckled grip on her cushion gave clear indication that another explosive outburst was due in… probably thirty seconds. It wasn’t much, but Twilight would take what she could get.
In that brief interlude of silence, the purple-haired scholar used the time to quickly review their instructions. After Ironside’s dramatic declaration, things had tumbled forth at such a rapid pace, she’d hardly had a moment to process since.
Equestria was going to war. In order to gain them access to Nul’s prison, the entire might of the Royal Guard was being marshalled towards the Jotun Passage in the frozen tundras of the north. There, they would open the Hel Gate, channel Nul’s foul corruption into the narrow choke, and hold fast till the Elements of Harmony could enter through the Tartarus Gate to do their work.
Even in the most ideal of conditions, their chances of victory were slim, which is where the Ponyville six came into play. Alone, Equestria couldn’t hope to come out victorious, but perhaps they didn’t needed to stand alone. In pairs of two, the girls had been sent out as official envoys to bid aid from the three great powers in the world: the Ivory Tower, the Griffon Imperium, and the Dragon’s Enclave. Alone, Equestria would snap like a brittle twig, but together? Together, they might just make it.
“I still can’t believe we get to go out like this,” Pinkie Pie squealed as what little of her self-control shattered like fine-spun glass. Honestly, Twilight was impressed; Pinkie had lasted a whole eight seconds longer than expected. Fortunately, Pinkie was precluded from an any further shenanigans as a gentle lurch notified the pair of their descent. Looking out the portside window, Twilight gasped as her eyes laid eyes upon the greatest center for magical research and development anywhere in the known world: the Ivory Tower.
Standing a thousand feet tall like a pillar to support the heavens, the Tower gleamed pure white as the sun sparkled off pristine, marble walls housing research that had advanced mankind over the last eight-hundred years. Of course, that wasn’t to say that everything was contained within the tower, per se. As the airship made its slow, circular descent, Twilight was greeted to views of the surrounding plains where dozens of small villages dotted the open plains. From one, the telltale golden smoke of rune crafting rose from smokestacks of thaumaturgical furnaces. From another, explosions of fire and geysers of stone fountained into the air as others sought to further their knowledge of the primal elements.
As far as the eye could see, the country of magic spread and increased the world’s richness of knowledge and insight. For such an avid bookworm as Twilight, it was almost too much to handle.
“Sooooo?” Pinkie Pie intoned with the smuggest of smug expressions on her face. “Isn’t this exciting?”
“Erm, yes, Pinkie, it is,” Twilight replied after an awkward cough to clear both throat and thoughts. “But remember, we’re here on important business, not vacation.” At this, the curly-haired girl frowned.
“Well why can’t it be both?”
Before Twilight could elaborate on how delicate diplomatic negotiations with the fate of all mankind hanging in the balance should be separated from playtime, a gentle bump signaled that their airship had arrived.
“Miss Sparkle? Miss Pie?” an armored guardsman called as he peaked his plumed helmeted head inside. “We’re here.”
And just like that, the butterflies that Twilight had been working to ignore for so long suddenly exploded into gale-force action. It was really all she could do to follow the guardsman and the bouncing baker out the airship hatchway and onto one of the open fields next to the tower proper. Though several magicians, wizards, and conjurors looked on in curiosity, Twilight hardly noticed as dozens of thoughts careened their way inside her skull like soda-addled chipmunks. How should she act? What should she say? Were there certain protocol and customs she should know about? Celestia had assured her there was no need to worry, but she had experience here. Hay, she hadn’t even let Twilight check out some books beforehand. What if she messed up? What if she–”
“Holy moly guacamole, would you look at that!”
Following Pinkie’s pointed gaze, Twilight gapes as a circle of stone rippled and separated from the Tower wall to form a disc of polished marble that gently floated down towards them like a feather on the breeze. Such subtle manipulation of material integrity and gravitational forces. The scholar in her was itching to figure out how it worked, but the nervous wreck quickly wrested control as she saw that the stone disk brought company.
Two of guests were acolytes, clear by the simple grey robes they wore. But they didn’t matter. I mean, not that they didn’t matter matter, but it’s just that the third person sort of made everything around him seem insignificant in comparison. It didn’t take an expert to realize that the leader was a mage of the highest order. From his flowing grey beard reaching to his knees as the aura of wisdom he seemed to exude like a halo, he was one who had clearly devoted lifetimes to unravelling the secrets of magic and seen those truths firsthand. But discerning eyes, in this case an amethyst pair that slowly increased with exponentially growing awe, realized that–
“Hey there, I’m Pinkie Pie!” Pinkie Pie beamed as she bounded forward to greet the newcomer. Or, she would have, had Twilight not taken her to the ground in a truly spectacular diving tackle beforehand.
“Pinkie, what do you think you’re doing?!” Twilight hissed as she sat on her squirming friend. “Don’t you know who that is?”
“Uh, probably the person we’re here to meet, duh?” Pinkie frowned
“And do you know just who person actually is?” Twilight continued.
“Um, Abbot?” one acolyte asked in tentative confusion. “Are these the Equestrian emissaries?”
Had Pinkie known anything of Ivory Tower lore, she would know that the robes of its initiates came in nine distinct colors, grey for the new initiates and eight others representing the eight major branches of arcane learning. Aside from those robes, the initiates wore no adornments to show their dedication to the mystic arts. But one was exempt from such rules. Clad in simple grey like the acolytes, the old man standing before them wore a golden medallion inscribed with the eight pointed star, the one symbol of authority granted to the sage who presided at the peak of the arcane tower and above all eight houses.
This was Abbot Apocrypha, leader of the Ivory Tower, master of the arcane arts, and quite possibly the greatest mage in the entire world.
“Celestia told me her representatives would be unusual,” the elderly mage mused as he stroked his flowing beard. “However, I never would have guessed they’d be quite so colorful.”
“Your abbotship! Sir!” Twilight squeaked as she scrambled to her feet and bodily dragged Pinkie Pie along with her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to–”
Whatever words of contriteness she would have said were quickly lost under the merry rumbling of Apocrypha’s chuckles.
“My dear Twilight, there’s no need for apologize,” he smiled as eyes, so deep and vast with profound knowledge, twinkled like a schoolboy's on holiday. “Colorful antics are what keep the mind young and spritely, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I… guess so?” Twilight hesitantly nodded before pausing in confusion. “Hold on a second. You know who I am?”
“But of course!” Apocrypha laughed aloud. “After all, I’ve been you’re fan for quite some time now.”
Twilight’s heart skipped a beat. No, wait… nope, full-blown cardiac arrest.
“You’re… a fan… of me?!” she gaped as if Luna had just announced plans to colonize the moon. Maybe more so.
“Indeed I am,” the abbot nodded. “Your theories on stabilizing distortions in the space-time continuum for instantaneous transmission of matter are truly inspired. I’ve been following along your publications ever since!”
Twilight looked up at the abbot for a moment and blinked a time or two. She then turned to her curly-haired friend and blinked twice more.
“Pinkie, I need to you pinch meeyowch!” Before she’d even finished, Pinkie Pie, as if by some mysterious precognitive power, delivered a hearty pinch right to Twilight’s soft, bookworm backside, who cried as her surprisingly robust bookworm legs propelled her a good three feet in the air.
“It’s not a dream!” Twilight grinned as tears from both happiness and a very tender bottom welled up in her eyes. “Best. Day. Ever!”
“I know, isn’t it?” Apocrypha smiled. “Now, I’d love to discuss your ideas some more, but first, I believe we should–”
“WAIT JUST ONE MINUTE!”
Twilight blinked. No way. It couldn’t be. That voice…
A burst of smoke. A flash of light. And when it cleared…
“So, Twilight Sparkle,” the newcomer grinned from beneath a star-spangled conjurers cap and flowing white hair. “We meet at last.”
“Oh, hey, it’s Trixie!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Hello!”
“I’m sorry, Miss Trixie,” one of the acolytes nervously called as he hurried forwards, “but you can’t be–”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie goes where she pleases!” the aforementioned great and powerful Trixie called out as yet another series of lights flashed in kaleidoscopic frenzy around. “Now, Twilight Sparkle, it’s time for us to – ouch!”
Starry hat crumpled as the abbot popped the errant mage’s gourd with his staff.
“Trixie!” Apocrypha called out sternly as a parent would a wayward toddler. “What have I told you about accosting our guests?
“But… but your abbotship!” Trixie pouted with big, pleading pony eyes and a lower lip that trembled like a well-set pudding. “Trixie has been training for so long in order to challenge Twilight Sparkle to another magical duel on fair and equitable terms, and you always say to never let an opportunity to achieve your goals pass you by. Surely, you wouldn’t deny me my dreams of a rematch when they’re so close at hand?”
The abbot paused to stroke his beard in sagacious thought.
“Dear me, I do say that, don’t I?" he murmured. “But Trixie, we can’t just…” Though he wanted to say more, those big, soulful eyes and that trembling lip mean that whatever words he intended ended in a weary sigh.
“I’m really sorry about this, Twilight,” Apocrypha apologetically shrugged as he turned back to the appropriately confused mage. “But it seems like we cannot progress until this matter is settled. If it’s not too much trouble, would you be willing to meet Trixie in a magical duel?”
“Well, I, uh…”
“She accepts!” Pinkie Pie cried out in Twilight’s stead. “You just name the time and place, and we’ll be there!”
“Marvelous!” Trixie cried out in reply. “There is no need to wait! We’ll have our rematch right here, in this very spot!”
“You’re on!” Pinkie roared. “Bring it!”
“Oh, it has been more than brought!”
And before Twilight could make heads or tails of the situation, she found herself in the middle of large circle of mages who’d somehow accrued in the odd minute or so since Trixie’s appearance, the beginnings of an eager-eyed audience that only proceeded to swell with each passing moment. With a quick wave of Apocrypha’s staff, two great pillars of earth rose underneath the feet of the two duelists and carried them fifty paces apart where deep trenches filled with water to form impromptu moats.
“Alright,” the abbot called with a voice magnified tenfold to reach the sizeable crowd. “Standard rules apply. First to knock the other from their foothold shall be the winner. Trixie, are you ready?”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is always ready!” she crowed.
“Twilight, are you ready?”
“Well, yes, but–”
Without a moment’s pause, Trixie withdrew her wand and waved through a series of intricate gestures with the swift deftness of a pianist dancing across a keyboard. Before Twilight’s slowly widening eyes, a massive earthen golem arose from the ground. Standing twenty feet high from sunken head to thick, clubbing feet, the ground trembled as the giant began to shamble forth.
Acting almost by instinct, Twilight whipped her wand forth and summoned tangling roots from beneath the ground to bind the golem’s advance. However, the lack of robust plant-life meant that the roots were about as useful as overcooked spaghetti for binding purposes, and the golem snapped through them with nary a hitch as it continued the advance.
Undeterred, Twilight changed tactics and instead, scooped up great clumps of earth from the field, condensing them and shaping them till soil floated as crafted pylons as dense as stone. These, she flung with great gusto at the oncoming golem and rods struck construct with thunderous crashes as huge, cratered dents exploded on its soil-based body. Twilight continued, hurling freshly formed missiles until the golem crumbled to the earth in a shower of loose debris.
But Trixie wasn’t finished. Wand flashing again, Twilight openly gaped as she repeated the same spell, but twice over. Two more golems arose and together, they lumbered forwards like twin waves of unstoppable earthen force.
Time for a change of tactics. Transitioning from the strong, full-bodied motions of earthen magic, Twilight instead began the delicate, floating gestures to control the air. Letting the earthen rods fall back to the ground, the purple-haired mage conjured forth a raging whirlwind. Arrested by the buffeting gale, the earthen giants faltered in their steps and Twilight gained valuable breathing room to prepare her next spell.
Flicking her wand with fierce force and blinding speed, Twilight summoned forth an array of fireballs and fired them at the constructs’ stumpy legs. An instant before contact, the whirlwind disappeared and allowed the flaming projectiles to strike true and blow apart the appendages in explosions of earth and fire. The giants tottered for a moment, arms milling about in as they fought to keep balance. Fortunately, gravity was the same cruel, unrelenting mistress it always was, and with bellowing roars of crumbling stone, the golems tumbled to the earth in an avalanche of broken dirt.
“Impressive, Twilight Sparkle!” Trixie called from across the field, needing no magic to aid her naturally projecting voice. “As expected of my greatest rival!”
Twilight wanted to respond, but thought better of it as she instead took the moment to catch her breath. The spells themselves hadn’t been that complex, but having to do them in such quick progression with no pre-drawing of mana left her as winded as the time she’d sprinted up the town hall steps at her first meeting with the marshal.
That moment was all she got, because before even her breath had fully returned, Trixie was conjuring again. Only this time, instead of a humanoid golem, the motions brought something much, much bigger. Rising from the earth like the kraken’s tentacles from the deep, Twilight’s jaw dropped lower than Spike’s attention levels in hour seven of proper book maintenance training as no less than eight snaking pillars rose from the ground. Rising to two times the height of the golems, Trixie summoned forth a titanic hydra from the earth that raised its multitude of heads and shrieked to the heavens.
Twilight could only stare. How? How was Trixie doing it? To move that much earth would take ridiculous quantities of magic, and by ridiculous, she meant absurd to the point of stupefying impracticality. And yet there Trixie was, grinning triumphantly as her monolithic beast approached with ground shaking steps.
With little time to think, Twilight rapidly conjured fireballs till it they numbered the eyes of a peacock’s tail feathers behind her and launched them in a relentless barrage at the oncoming beast. The fiery blasts struck the beast, but even when it managed to blow a crumbling head from the body, another would simply rise to take its place.
Then inspiration struck her. Just as she had with the clods of earth, Twilight took a few precious seconds to compress the flaming orbs, adding small vortexes of air around each one till they were spun down into blazing disks of whirling fire. These, Twilight launched at the earthen hydra and sliced it apart faster than it could reform. Once more, the construct crumbled into rubble.
But the hydra wasn’t the only one to crumble. With nary a moment to breath, Twilight’s legs buckled under her as she fell heavily to one knee. If she’d been tired before, then she was exhausted now, as the feat of manipulating no less than two dozen spells at once really began to take its toll. And yet still Trixie would not relent. Smiling in triumph, the white-haired mage began the arcane gestures to summon another golem, one that Twilight would no longer have energy to fight off. Soon it would be upon her and–
… Hold on a second.
With eyes trained to spot inconsistencies from two theses away, Twilight frowned as the whirligigs of her mind began process facts that just didn’t make sense.
How the hay was Trixie still looking so puffed up and proud after such massive exertions? Granted, she was always looked like a strutting rooster, but moving so much earth should have put a damper on even her spirits at least. And why earth? Sure, constructs were impressive, but not nearly as flashy as was her usual modus operandi. Her choice of technique was curious in itself, but it was the results that had Twilight puzzled like a badly syntaxed sentence.
That much displaced land mass should have left them fighting in a massive crater, and yet now that Twilight looked – really looked – she could see that wasn’t the case at all. Sure, there was debris and rubble strewn about and pockmarked with craters from her desperate assaults, but still relatively flat, all things considered. How was it that the terrain remained so unaffected despite the equivalent of three golems and a hydra’s worth of dirt being tossed about?
Amethyst eyes flickered over to Twilight’s opponent as she stood there proudly in her sky-blue robe wand flickering away, and–
And Twilight knew what she had to do.
As Trixie summoned yet again, this time a golem in the form of a dragon that dwarfed even the hydra, Twilight summoned a few, remaining fireballs as she prepared her final stand. Laughing in triumph, Trixie commanded her minion to advance. The few remaining blasts bounced pitifully off its mighty earthen hide as steadily closer it drew. Raising hands high, Trixie prepared to give the final order, to bring her dragon’s claws into the pillar and send Twilight tumbling into defeat–
–before crying in alarm as her footing crumbled and sent her tumbling into the water below.
“Stop!” Apocrypha called. “The duel is over, and Twilight Sparkle is the winner!”
With noise greater than the roars of battle before, the crowds rose into thunderous applause as with a weary grin, Twilight raised a hand and waved to the sea of cheering faces that had exponentially increased to a roaring, thundering mass. Slowly, the earthen pillar lowered to the ground and brought the triumphant girl to where a grinning Apocrypha and Pinkie Pie waited.
“Oh my goodness, that was the most super awesomest, most spectacularly funtastic things I’ve ever seen!” Pinkie cried out as she seized her friend into an organ-bruising hug. “I loved the part where you blasted apart that huge rock monster thingy, and then there was the time you blasted apart that other huge rock monster thingy, and of course, who could forget when you blasted apart that other huge rock monster thingy! Oh boy, that was the best!”
“Indeed, what she said!” Apocrypha agreed with hearty, drumbling chuckles.
“Thanks, Pinkie, your abbotship,” Twilight grunted, not from any displeasure, but from a physical incapability of doing otherwise from within the confines of the embrace. “But actually, I can’t take credit for that. I didn’t actually blow anything apart, rock monster or otherwise.”
Here, Twilight finally managed to take her first full breath since the duel’s start as Pinkie Pie released her so that she could fully gape in confusion.
“Say what now?” she gasped. “But, but I saw–”
“What Trixie wanted you to see,” Twilight finished. “It was all an illusion.”
“How did you know?”
The three turned to spot a dripping wet Trixie standing a few feet off, an odd look on her face as asked in tones much more suited to normal conversation.
“It was all too easy,” Twilight began before catching her words with mild alarm. “Not the duel, I mean. You really had me going there. But when I saw you doing that much magic without breaking a sweat, I felt something was off. Then I noticed the ground wasn’t changing as much as it should have given your spells, and when I noticed your colors, it all came together.”
“You mean her wardrobe is magical?!” Pinkie Pie gasped. “Wow, talk about fancy dud!”
“No, Pinkie, they’re not magical,” Twilight said with a weary smile. “But they do tell me that Trixie’s part of the Illusionist and Conjuring circle, the group that specializes in creating lifelike images that can fool even the most trained eyes.”
“But how did you get me at the end?” Trixie pressed on. “I made sure to block your line of sight. There was no way you could have hit me with a spell in the midst of all that confusion.”
“Not a normal spell, no,” Twilight agreed. “But teleportation’s a whole other deal.”
“Teleportation? Really?” Trixie blinked in surprise, to which Twilight nodded.
“While it looked like I was fighting your dragon, I actually used the time to set up coordinate matrix over the battlefield. Once I confirmed that the space your dragon occupied was mostly empty air, I focused in on the space your pillar was and just… shifted it. The whole thing came tumbling down like the golem without a leg and you came down with it.”
Trixie stared at Twilight, her lavender eyes wide in surprise at the other’s pronouncement. For a moment, it was unclear how she’d react as her mask became a blank slate devoid of any indication of emotion.
Then Trixie laughed.
“Well said, Twilight Sparkle!” she called out loudly, clapping the sweater-vested scholar atop the shoulder as laughter continued to ring forth. “As expected of the rival of the Great and Powerful Trixie, you truly are an impressive magician!”
“You were really good yourself,” Twilight smiled back. “Optical illusions are one thing, but to mimic the haptic feedback of spell impact with such precision is really amazing! You’ve gotten a whole lot better since we last met!”
“Yes, well, um…” Trixie coughed as she quickly brought a hand to cover her mouth and most of her face. “Just what you’d expect from a magician of my caliber, is it not? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have many great and important things to attend to. Farewell!” And with that, a puff of smoke exploded, only to quickly fade away and reveal Trixie’s quickly retreating form.
Twilight blinked. That had… certainly been odd.
“She really does like you a lot, doesn’t she,” Apocrypha smiled to a very confused Twilight.
“Er… she does?”
“Oh my, yes,” he nodded. “Ever since she’s come here, she hasn’t stopped talking about what a fantastic mage you are and how she’ll one day be just as good as you. Her marked growth in her studies and general aptitude are largely due to the tremendous respect she has for you which – if I’m perfectly honest – looks like quite lady crush, if you ask me.”
“She totes wants to be your biffle,” Pinkie nodded sagaciously. “Like, super totes.”
“Um… wow, okay,” Twilight blinked as a paradigm shifting factor entered into her running Trixie calculations. “Well, in that case, I guess I could meet up with her once we–”
“Come now, don’t be such a ninny!” Apocrypha laughed as he gave her a quick nudge with his staff. “Friendship is a magic that should be nurtured at every opportunity.
“But… what about our negotiations?” Twilight blinked. “We still need the Ivory Tower’s cooperation with Equestria for the upcoming battle.”
“Oh, that?” Apocrypha smiled. “I’m sure Pinkie and I can work something out.”
“Yeah, Twilight, sheesh, don’t be such a worry wart,” the curly haired partier grinned. “Now go on, before she gets away!”
As Apocrypha and Pinkie both urged her on with oddly identical smiles, Twilight could only sigh in defeat as she quickly broke into a jog after the retreating figure.
“Hey, Trixie!” Twilight called from across the field. Trixie stopped and turned around.
“Huh? Twilight Sparkle?” she blinked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“So… I…” The purple-haired scholar took a moment to catch her breath after her brief but still tiring run. “So… I was thinking. It’s my first time at the Ivory Tower and all, and I’d love to have a look around. I was wondering if you could take me on a tour? I mean, if you’re not busy or anything?”
“… Nonsense!” Trixie cried out as a beaming grin split her face from ear to ear. “I, the Great and Knowledgeable Trixie, shall give you a tour the likes of which the world has never known!”