Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Mundane Made Magical

Twilight waited patiently in her corner, counting the seconds by the grandfather clock behind the bar.

She made it to all of seventeen before pulling out her book to begin writing updates in it, organizing everything she did and did not know about the case, complete with table of contents. She was also planning a glossary and index, but for now, she was back to encrypting the Starswirl spell from before along with some others from his books.

Around the time she finished transcribing the banishing spell, the door to the inn opened, sending her ears up in alert as she peeked from behind the pages.

“Hey, T— Er, Star!”

Her heart sank, followed by a wave of guilt for it. “Hey. How’s Spike?”

The pegasus plodded up to a seat at the table and flopped in it. “He’s doing fine. A little bored, but he’s got a nice camp set up just inside the woods.”

Twilight levitated a mug over. “Good, we’re going to need it. Inn’s full. Here, I got you a drink.”

Rainbow went to take a swig, but stopped. “Did you test it?”

“Oh! Right, sorry. Can’t believe I already forgot. Don’t tell Luna—she’ll put a laxative in my hot sauce again.” Twilight lit her horn, testing both mugs at once with a toxin-detection spell, causing the ale inside to glow white. “It’s just alcohol. Go for it.”

“Whoo!” Rainbow tilted the mug back and downed most of the beverage in a few large gulps. “Ahhh! Needed that. You know, not many ponies can make enough clouds to put out half a town like that.”

“Or so fast! You’re a credit to the Guard. Now, keep an eye on the doors.” Twilight went back to her book.

Rainbow put a hoof on Twilight’s book, pushing it down a little. “On the doors? Why? Are you expecting somepony?”

Twilight shook her head and motioned for Rainbow to lean in close. “I set up an anti-changeling spell. I think the ponies here have been replaced, and I’m hoping that they’ll trigger it and prove me right,” she whispered.

“What, like all of them?” Rainbow whispered back. “That’s weird. Don’t changelings normally just replace one or two ponies and feed off the love of their mates?”

“Normally, yes, but nothing about this case is normal.” Twilight flipped to the page where she had laid out her case notes. “I’m waiting for at least a few to go through those doors. Night’s coming quick, so it shouldn’t be too long.”

Rainbow leaned back. “Cool. Cool. What do we do if the town is full of changelings?”

Twilight froze a moment. “I hadn’t thought about that. Fight like Tartarus and escape?”

Rainbow chuckled. “Sounds like my kind of plan. Oop! Here comes somepony!”

Twilight and Rainbow tensed as a group of ponies walked in. Instead of turning into insectoids, they remained covered in soot. The mare and two of the foals had tears in their eyes, while the stallion and a son both looked utterly shellshocked.

“Does wanting to say ‘darn, just refugees’ make me a bad pony?” Rainbow asked.

Twilight sighed. “If so, we’re both going to Tartarus in a saddlebag. I was hoping for a dramatic reveal. But, the night’s not over yet. Let’s keep waiting. We might actually find something.”

“We’re not going to find anything,” Rainbow deadpanned.

Twilight looked around at the crowded room of ponies, all lifting large steins and filling their bellies with basic fare. “Yeah, I don’t see this as being a productive use of time. Definitely no changelings here. At least, if there are, they don’t come to the bar. We’re going to have to find some other way of figuring out what’s going on.”

Rainbow looked into her empty mug. “So what do we do?”

Twilight hopped off the chair and packed away her book. “Well, I’m going to go take a walk—look around the town some more. Think you could do a quick aerial reconnaissance? Maybe look around the mountains for caves?”

Rainbow nodded, prancing a bit on the hardwood floor. “No sweat. Meet you at the lake?”


The two trotted out the door, with Rainbow taking to the air the instant they got outside. Twilight did a quick check to ensure that her trap hadn’t simply been dispelled, and when she found it in place, she dispelled it herself. No sense in leaving it there even if nopony is likely to detect it.

Night had come, and the overcast skies left the town in complete darkness, save for some relatively dim street lamps and a few last embers glowing in the blackened remains of homes. The scent of smoke lingered in the air as an eye-watering reminder of the day’s events, and a slight chill had overtaken the town. This far north, autumn came earlier, and the faint crispness in the air hinted that it was on its way.

“What I wouldn’t give for some moonlight right about now.” Twilight yawned and stretched her sore, worn-out muscles.

For some time, she took stock of the damage in the tiny town, going around its circular roads and watching the ponies sift through the charred buildings. One always seemed to watch her intently, and often entire groups would look at her like she were a draconequus.

Twilight put her ears back, picking up her pace. “I wonder if this was how Luna felt that first Nightmare Night… No, I can’t compare this to her burdens.” She trotted down one last street, aiming for the exit nearest the lake. Just before turning the last corner, she found a family digging out a very badly burnt home. The stallion and mare were trying to pry apart fallen beams with their hooves, while a small foal slept in a carriage.

Twilight stopped and approached them slowly. When they didn’t seem to notice her presence, she lit her horn and heaved the beam up, lifting her head as her mental field pushed against it. She cleared the debris as it groaned and creaked, leaving a space large enough for a pony to get through to try to salvage anything left unburned by the fire.

When she was done, the entire family was staring at her. The stallion in anger, the mare in terror. Even the foal was eyeing her.

Twilight gave them a very slight bow and with a low, soft voice said, “I’m sorry.”

The family continued staring.

She wasted no time leaving the scene, jogging rather than walking down towards the lake, this time heading for the far end, away from the mountains. The small body of water quickly flowed back to the river surrounding the town, where another bridge sat at the tributary. Looking out, she saw the lights of small houses beyond the fields and even a few barns.

Well, there’s still at least some agriculture here. Let’s take a look. Twilight broke into a light gallop, which felt good despite her fatigue. She felt her hooves bite into the dirt with every drumming thud—slipping and sinking into the soft soil before the ground firmed to support her and drive her onward. She realized she could feel the clods she kicked up as they landed behind her. The earth fed its strength back up to her—more than it took her to run. I guess this is how Applejack feels all the time on her farm. No wonder earth ponies like dirt under their hooves.

Before long, she was laughing to herself, giggling and almost prancing as she ran, like she’d had a whole barrel of cider instead of a few sips. Despite that, her mind felt far clearer than it usually did without something to lock on to.

A few minutes later, she was beginning to sweat, feeling the coolness of the air even more as it rushed against her slightly damp coat. “Huh. Whew. I think I needed that.” She looked around her, the darkness of the night becoming ever more pervasive. “And I think I’m completely lost.”

Twilight cast an illumination spell on her horn. She turned her head left and right, looking around on the winding dirt path leading past small farm after small farm. Wonder what they grow here. Apples would probably tolerate the climate fairly well. She hopped off the path, trod up the small incline towards a field, and stopped right on the edge.

“What the buck is this?” She approached the field and brought a hoof to one of the ears, causing it to snap. “This has to be the saddest corn I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Before her was a corn field that could only generously be described as “modest.” What should have been far taller than her only reached her barrel, and the stalks themselves looked half dead and completely parched.

“This place has a perfect, crystal-clear mountain stream. Probably glacier-fed! They should have all the water they need! Not to mention I saw a ton of earth ponies here. Celestia, this place is probably ninety percent earth pony. There were, what, a couple dozen pegasi and unicorns, at most? Granted, that’s not a lot of pegasi, but that’s still more than enough to make sure there’s rain here from time to time! This doesn’t make any sense!”


She whipped her head around back and forth a few times before finally looking up at a pegasus rapidly approaching her from the air. “Rainbow?”

“Good thing you lit your horn like that! I’ve been looking for you!” She flew down, coming to a gliding landing. “I went over by the mountains like you said, right? Found this huge cave. There’s ponies still working in it!”

Twilight jerked her head up in surprise. “Now? I wouldn’t think this town is large enough to operate a 24/7 mine.”

“Yeah, that’s not all. I took a peek in, and it’s pretty dim. Looks dangerous, and some of those ponies? I know mining ponies get covered in dirt and all, but some of them look like they’ve been in there for weeks. Their coats were covered in so much dirt I couldn’t even tell what their coat color was!”

Twilight started to scowl. “Based on these crops, I’d believe it. Look at these, Rainbow! When was the last time you saw an earth pony grow something like this?”

Rainbow looked over at the plants and her rubbed her eyes to look again. “Holy… I haven't seen a plant this sad since the cactus the spa twins gave you!"

Twilight sighed. “Let one aloe plant die, and you never live it down.” She placed a hoof to her forehead. “And aloe aren’t technically cacti, but that’s beside the point. Something is going on here. Did you find anything else?”

Rainbow nodded. “Yeah. Near the cave entrance was this huge crate filled with hobbles. Like, the kind you see on criminals.”

Irons?” Twilight took out her book and started adding the new information. “Were there any on the ponies working in the mine?”

“Not that I could see, but it was so dark, and they were so dirty I might not have noticed them. You’re right, Twi. Something isn’t adding up here, and I’m not even good at math.”

Twilight added that bit of information to the list. “Dry, dying crops. Houses burning with no pegasi to…”

The book and pen dropped to the ground.

Twilight ran up to Rainbow and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Rainbow! Did you see any pegasi in the air? All the ones I saw in town were walking!”

Rainbow jerked her head back and away. “Um, yeah, but pegasi can walk too, you know.”

“Yes, but did you see any in the air? Before or after the attack?”

“Um, no, not that I remember. Does it matter?”

Twilight slumped back down to the ground and stuffed her book and pen back in her saddlebag. “This… this is serious, Rainbow. Remember that bartender? He served us using his hooves!”

Rainbow looked at the town then back at her. “So?”

“‘So?’ He was a unicorn! And I saw a unicorn stallion trying to pry away a heavy beam using his hooves too! What kind of adult unicorns would try heavy or delicate work with their hooves when they could use their magic? What kind of pegasi wouldn’t move rainclouds to help put out a fire? What kind of earth ponies can’t grow crops to save their lives?”

Rainbow’s eyes shrank with terror. “Wait, Twilight, you’re not saying—”

Twilight cut her off. “Yes, Rainbow, I am saying that. I think these ponies lost their magic!”

“Whoa.” Rainbow looked off towards the town. “Taking a pony’s magic? That’s like… Who’d do that? That’s like cutting off a pony’s wings!”

“Worse. It’s like killing the soul. These ponies should be dead! This is just so strange and needlessly complicated. Not only should ‘taking a pony’s magic’ be damn near impossible, there are also ways to defend against it. Ask Luna about how she slew Tirek—just… not over lunch. Still, if that’s what’s happening… Here, give me your hoof.” Twilight reached out and grabbed Rainbow’s foreleg.

Rainbow jerked her hoof away, covering it with the other one and staring at Twilight like she was a more demonic version of Ahuizotl. “Whoa, whoa, wait! Are you sure whatever it is you’re doing is safe?”

“Positive. I’m just going to look at you, not cast any spells.”

“Okay… If you say so…”

With Rainbow’s leg outstretched and in her hooves, Twilight pulled a bit at her horn and turned her magic sight on. “Everyone has a wellspring at the core of their being. It makes and stores our magic, and one thing I was able to take away from Starswirl’s book was that they are incredibly resilient but not invincible. Regardless, if Starswirl was right, they should be dead. Or will be, once the wellspring is completely empty and unable to make more magic.”

Rainbow shuddered a bit. “Um, that’s awful and all, but what is it you’re looking for? Am I sick?”

Twilight put her friend’s leg back down. “It doesn’t look like it. Your leyline is a light blue, just like your coat. All pegasi seem to have that color. Your wellspring looks normal too. For some reason, we are not dying. Which really makes me curious as to why not.”

“You’re not dying? Don’t tell me you’re disappointed!”


“Snrk! Heh.” Rainbow scratched her head, and started to form a devious grin. “Hmm… Would getting a closer look at one of these ponies with your magic sight help?”

“Probably. It depends on what’s actually going on and how obvious the issue is. Still, it seems a logical next step. I’d want them to be close, but I doubt they’re going to just let me stare at all their leylines an inch from their skin.”

Rainbow reached over and patted Twilight’s head. “Don’t worry your pretty little noggin about it, Twilight. Rainbow Danger Dash has it all taken care of!”

Twilight lowered her head and ears. “Why am I suddenly a lot more worried than before…”

“Why am I even more worried now…?”

Rainbow dismissed Twilight’s worries with a wave of her hoof. “Relax, this is totally going to work.”

“Work? This is crazy!” She stomped her hoof on the cloud, kicking up a small puff of vapor. “For one thing, what’s to say any of those ponies ever come out?”

“‘Cause I saw them do it. One of them even chased me away. I think they have some kind of patrol going.” She leaned over the edge and pointed at the cave entrance around a hundred meters below them, illuminated by a pair of oil lamps. “We just have to wait a few more minutes for the patrol pony to come out and then get to work!”

“I still don’t think this is—”

Rainbow grabbed her head and dragged it down to the edge of the cloud. “There he is! Go time!” She dove straight down off the cloud.

A couple seconds later, a rather familiar sound came to Twilight’s ears: the crashing thud of an out-of-control pegasus careening into an unsuspecting pony just minding their own business. Twilight held her face in her hooves. “Why did I let her talk me into this?”

“Eh heh! Sorry about that, guy! That trick kinda went nuts there! Guess I shouldn’t practice when it’s so dark.”

Twilight’s ear twitched at Rainbow’s acting. Not because it was bad, but because it sounded too good. Like she’d practiced it a lot.

“Oh no! It looks like you’re hurt! Sarge! We need your healing magic!”

That, however, sounded a hell of a lot more forced. Twilight sighed and peeked over the side with her horn charged then teleported down to the ground. When she reappeared, she was right beside a pony covered in a modest amount of soot. He was also clearly still out of it from having an over-excited pegasus slam into him at a high velocity.

“Oh, no!” Twilight tried to act and failed. Not that it mattered. She rushed right to him and lit her horn, creating a very simple illusion spell to light up the area around the unfortunate victim. It wasn’t an actual healing spell, and he clearly wasn’t seriously hurt, but it looked the part. “I’m so sorry! My idiot Corporal here just doesn’t know how to fly properly!”

Rainbow huffed. Twilight was pretty sure it was genuine but kept going, turning her magic sight back on once again. “Corporal! Get the bandages!”

“Right here, Sarge,” she grumbled, handing over a roll from Spike’s first aid kit.

Twilight took it in her magic and started wrapping the stallion’s hoof but didn’t really pay close attention to that. The pony's leylines and wellspring intrigued her far too much.

“Green and red…” Her special vision failed a second later, going back to normal. Twilight quickly kept the bandages going, making it look at least a plausibly bad job at actually trying to do first aid and let him go.

Then, their eyes met, and she saw his face as he shook off his daze.

The stallion started to buck and kick around them, thrashing and attacking wildly, kicking up small rocks and dirt with his hooves.

Rainbow took to the air, out of his reach. “Whoa! Whoa! Sorry, dude! Don’t freak out. We didn’t mean to hurt you!”

With Rainbow too far away, the hooves turned their attention to Twilight. Even though the stallion kicked the air in front of her a few times, Twilight didn’t move. She couldn’t.

An instant before another kick would have connected, a red blur zoomed at her, carrying her up and away from the stallion.

“Jeez, Twi!” Rainbow complained, carrying her back up to the clouds. “What, were you just going to stand there and let him kick your teeth out?”

Twilight inhaled sharply, her lungs taking in the cold air. “Yeah, sorry. I was just stunned. I think I know what’s going on, though. Put me down on the cloud, and I’ll explain.”

Rainbow circled around, coming to a hover above the grey cloud over the cave entrance, and set Twilight down gently. “Okay, spill it,” she said, landing herself.

Twilight swallowed, the dryness in the cooler air parching her throat. “Rainbow, that was the pony I captured.”

Rainbow blinked. “Wait, what? He was attacking the town, and now he’s working for them? Is this a worker rebellion?”

Twilight’s limbs and back shook like she’d been dunked in a tank of arctic water. “No. I wish it was that simple. You know how I said ponies have leylines? Well, those are a lot more vulnerable than wellsprings. Here, give me your leg again.”

Rainbow didn’t hesitate this time and put her foreleg out for Twilight to trace her hoof along.

“I can see your leylines, Rainbow. Like all pegasi, yours run mainly to your back, wings, and spine. But, all ponies have leylines to their hooves even though it’s only earth ponies that have large ones there. That’s why I thought I could use unicorn magic through them. Also, in my sight, the colors of the different tribes are different. Earth ponies’ are a light green. Unicorns’ are violet. That pony down there? Black, green, and red, going all the way up to his wellspring. Just like the miasma I saw earlier.”

Rainbow blinked. “So, he was a zombie?”

Twilight shook her head and started her trademark lecture pacing, staggering every so often as she continued to shake. “If you’re talking undead, no, I don’t think so. There’s never been any documented instance of actual undead in Equestria. I think somepony or someone used some kind of spell to attack these ponies through their leylines.”

“Um, why?” Rainbow leaned into her path but backed off when Twilight didn’t slow down.

“I can’t answer that just yet. The most important question is: what type of spell was it? There aren’t a lot of reasons to go messing about with a pony’s leylines. If you’re out to harm, there are plenty of simpler ways. So, I have to assume their odd behavior is either a desired outcome of the spell or a side-effect they can’t prevent. I have no probable conclusions to draw from the latter, but I have one for the former, and I don’t like it.”

Rainbow watched as Twilight’s pacing began to carve out a circular track on the cloud. “I kinda doubt we were going to like anything you figure out, Twi. Still, hit me. What’s going on?”

Twilight stopped in the little groove she had worn in the cloud and faced her friend dead-on. “I think we’re dealing with some sort of geas. Something to deliberately control these ponies’ behavior. Worse, because of their reaction to me at the lake, I think that whoever is doing it has some level of remote control over them. They might even be able to ‘see’ through their eyes, like a mini hive-mind. Something akin to what the changelings are, but maybe less complex or thorough. The bartender’s inconsistent behavior tells me the control isn’t that absolute.”

Rainbow slumped to the ground. “Whoa. Mind control. Isn’t that, like, comic book stuff? Can you unicorns really do that?”

Twilight cringed, looking sheepish. “Yes. It is possible, but the Princesses have banned it. Like, seriously banned. ‘Get-turned-into-a-statue-for-even-trying-it’ banned. I doubt there’s any documented way to do it left out there.”

“What about that library breach? Princess Celestia said the books they stole were dangerous. Could they have gotten it from one of those?”

“Hmm…” Twilight tapped her hoof on the cloud, focusing. “I kind of doubt it. If they thought something like that was stolen, Luna probably would have tried to teach us how to resist it. It’s a possibility, but I’m thinking something more foreign.”

“Zebra zombie powder?” Rainbow shrugged.

“What? No! Rainbow! That’s just a myth! Well, as far as I know, it’s a myth. I know that there are zebra potions that can make a pony susceptible to suggestions, but there’s no way to maintain exclusive control over them. Anypony can come around and get them to do stuff, and biting doesn’t spread it either. I also doubt the gryphons have anything like this. Any gryphon trying it would be torn apart by their peers three seconds later. They’d see it as an abomination.

“No, there’s only one race in Equus I know about that could possibly have easy access to magic like this. I can’t say for certain, because we know so little about their magic. But I want to find at least one more pony and see their lines before I jump to conclusions.”

“Attention! We know you’re up there! Surrender yourselves, and your lives may be spared!”

Twilight and Rainbow both looked at each other then over the side of the cloud. There, below them, an entire crowd of a couple dozen ponies had formed, all facing their floating platform. Some were completely covered in soot, but others looked like they were from the town.

Rainbow waved at them. “Hey guys, we’re kind of having a conversation here. Can you come back and threaten our lives after a few more minutes so we can spoil your evil plans properly?”

One of the ponies closest to the center of the herd responded, “No! You must surrender now, or we will act!”

“I think I recognize that pony.” Twilight smirked, keeping her voice low. “He’s the one I talked to who was using the bandages by the lake. I think I can get what I need from him.”

Rainbow tapped the tips of her feathers on Twilight’s back. “You sure? It’s not like we can reuse the same plan again with so many ponies here.”

“Eh. That plan was out of a Pinkie fever dream anyway.”

“Fever dream? Pfft. That was Pinkie on a Tuesday morning.”

“True.” Twilight folded her forelegs. “Hmmm…”

“What am I supposed to do if I run into one? I don’t know if I’m a match for something like that in a stand-up fight.” Twilight sighed, slumping down.

“They might not have heard of you specifically, but they know your rank.” Luna tapped on Twilight’s torc. “Thus, if necessary, you can use intimidation to force them to back down.”

“I doubt I can pull something like that—”

“However! To succeed in intimidating them, your resolve must be absolute! Your confidence unshakeable! Threaten, bluster, and scoff—give them no hint of fear, for even the slightest weakness will crumble the façade. Act as if they are so far beneath you that they could be squashed like an insect. That is the secret.”

Twilight nodded, giving her plan a mental stamp of approval. “Tell you what. When I get down there, start a downpour. I have an idea!”

Rainbow looked at the cloud under them, pressing it with a hoof. “Downpour? You sure?”

“Definitely. It’s time to use a little intimidation.” Her horn charged for a moment, and in a flash, she stood face-to-face with the ‘medic’ pony from before.

“Tell your friend to come down and surrender as well,” he said, pointing up at the cloud. Though his voice was old and waivery, it was still full of confidence.

Twilight smiled as the rain came down, drenching them all quickly. “Sorry, she’s busy dumping water on me. Well, on you too. But that’s not as important as the fact that she’s doing it to me.”

The old pony sighed. “Sergeant Hunter, it seems you do not understand the full gravity of the situation. You are outnumbered severely. You cannot run. We will not let you leave. A life in the mines is dangerous, yes, but it is longer than what you will have if you do not obey. We will not hesitate to use force.”

Twilight was going to try to use her sight again, but instead broke out in laughter. A deep, powerful laughter that she hadn’t experienced since her last Pinkie party—although that wasn’t too long ago. Even still, the laughter was boisterous and shook her belly.

“I am afraid I’m at a loss. You are cornered by a superior force. We intend to kill you if you do not surrender. Why are you—?”

“You? Kill me?” She smiled at him, letting her lips make it wider and wider before laughing again.

“That is the general gist, Sergeant, yes,” the old pony was starting to sound a lot more forceful now.

Twilight still just laughed at him. Pour it on, filly, make him believe it. “Oh, that is amusing. You ponies, without any magic at all, kill me?”

Every single one of the ponies went wide eyed and took a step back.

“That’s right. I know.” Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath in, sending magic into a telekinetic scrubbing motion on her horn then brought it down over the rest of her body while the water from the rain washed the dye away. “Let me explain something to you, worm.”

She showed off the true colors of her mane and body as she reared back on her hind legs. She added some sparks to the field, lighting her body up. “You shouldn’t call me Sergeant. Or Star Hunter. Those were both lies I told when I thought you were just being paranoid. My real name is Twilight Sparkle, Student of the Sun, Lady of the Court, and Grand Mage of Equestria.”

The telekinetic field finished clearing her tail, and she brought her hooves down in a massive stomp that belied her small size. “And you, dragon, are not a match for me.”

The stallion’s eyes flashed green and red, glowing with the same intensity as his corrupted leylines.

“Interesting,” an entirely new voice said—though it came from the same pony. This one, however, was much lower. “I would not have thought it possible for a mere pony to figure that out. How?”

Twilight restarted her lecture pace, but never let her eyes wander from the representative pony. “Pretty damned obvious once I thought of it. I mean, the reason you force ponies to work in a mine is to get gems and minerals. If a company isn’t getting them and is trying to burn the place down, who is getting what’s being dug up? Also, the only race I know of other than ponies that’s capable of using a geas spell would be the dragons. And dragons love minerals, especially gems. And if companies want what’s being dug up so badly they’re willing to risk incurring Cadence’s wrath, I’m betting it’s not gold or silver. No, what’s down there are charged gems, the kind used in cored artifacts. Crystals with that much magic are prized among dragons as a delicacy.

“But geas spells have serious limitations. I’m betting your wellspring is consistently pretty low. There’s also a strict limit on the number of ponies you can control directly, both in terms of your available magic and your ability to split your attention, which means the others are only following vague directions. That’s why the whole town isn’t here right now, just the couple dozen you can take control of reliably.

“On top of that, using a geas at all means others might notice what’s going on, so you went after the whole town and made them act xenophobic to limit exposure. But if you take on too many ponies overall, or give them orders too complex or contradictory, the whole thing collapses like a building made of toothpicks, and your victims break free. That’s why you started kicking ponies out instead of taking them over. Doing something like this to a larger town would be impossible. Either it would fall apart or it would drive you utterly insane.”

She stopped right in front of him, and leaned forward to whisper, “Am I right?”

The stallion smiled. “Almost.”

Blinding light and pain seared into Twilight’s midsection, blanking out all other sensations until a shocking cold washed over her body. She pushed herself up from the wet soil. “Ugh, what…?”

“Twilight! Twilight, look out!” Thunder and lightning arced through the sky, striking the ground ahead of her, right in the middle of the herd of ponies in front of her. “Send a flare! Get Luna here now!”

She looked at her body, and though her chest was in agony, her armor was deployed and protecting her, dulling the pain. Rainbow was dancing and jinking about the sky, firing lightning at her attackers.

A voice rang out right through the heavens, not spoken by any pony. “These avatars are not defenseless or without magic, Grand Mage! These tasty little morsels have my magic!”

He’s eating them!? Buck. Me! “Rainbow! Run! Fly! Get out of there!” Twilight started to scramble to follow her own advice, her hooves slipping on the slick grass as she finally got traction and took off down the hill. By the time she was halfway down, Rainbow had lifted her up and into the sky, flying far faster than anypony could hope to run.

When she looked back, she couldn’t see them. If they were following, they were already too late. The darkness of the clouds overhead simply squashed any hope of seeing and tracking anything, at least through normal means.

“Think we lost them?”

“Probably, but be prepared for anything. I don’t know if adult dragons have extra senses beyond normal sight and smell. If he’s capable of geas magic, he might be able to sense us with a spell. Head for our camp. We’ll regroup there, and run farther if we have to.”

A few moments of high speed flying was all it took to arrive at the base camp, which was now far too close to the town for comfort.

Spike spotted them as soon as they entered the campfire light. “Hey, guys, what’s up?”

“Bad news, Spike,” Twilight said as she landed, still clutching her chest. “I’m afraid I have to ask you to start running.”

Spike’s spines dropped and his jaw hung open. “Already? Couldn’t we wait until mission two until we have to send an SOS? Or mission three? Or at least after dinner!?”

Twilight quickly wrapped him in a hug. “Sorry, Spike, but we’re heading into some nasty stuff here.”

“Um, why aren’t we all just running like hell?” Rainbow thrust a hoof towards a direction very much away from the town. “I don’t think you saw it, but those ponies were slinging some nasty black-colored magic at me. Even the earth ponies! I think it would’ve killed you if your armor hadn’t deployed!”

Twilight rubbed her chest with her hoof, wheezing and flinching in pain. “Yeah, it might’ve. But he knows Luna is coming now and might try to flee. I can’t let this thing escape. What if it started eating other ponies? It has a geas, Rainbow! It could coerce an entire town to march straight into its mouth, and we would never know about it!”

“Um, what ‘thing?’”

Twilight’s eyes widened, and she fumbled for a response. “Well, you see, we ran into this—”

“A dragon. It’s eating ponies and mind-controlling the town into mining gems for it.”

Spike stared at the pegasus for a moment, and then his shoulders slumped. He took a sudden interest in his boots as he shuffled them along the dirt.

Twilight sat down in front of him and wrapped a foreleg around his back. “This dragon is doing a very bad thing, but he is not you. You are a drake, but you are my little brother. I don't want you thinking you are anything like him, okay?”

“I know. I know.” He threw his hands up. “Still, it sucks.”

She took him in a hug “Yes, it does, but right now, I need you to run and get Luna. I’m not a match for an adult dragon.”

Rainbow cut in. “Yeah, your bluff kinda fell apart back there.”

“True, but I can still confront and stall him. If Luna can get back here in time, she can put a stop to it. Which means I need you to run, Spike.”

Rainbow extended her wings and wiggled her primary feathers. “Want me to fly him? I can get there faster than he can run.”

Twilight shook her head. “No, I need you for something else. Since that bartender wasn’t completely under control, I’m betting that dragon has to split his attention with so many ponies under the geas. I need you to attack the townsponies. Keep them busy. Avoid using lethal force unless absolutely necessary, but keep them under pressure. Without magic, they can’t fly, so use that to your advantage. If you can distract them enough, I might be able to sneak into the mines—which is where I think this dragon is hiding—and get the drop on him. Clear?”

Rainbow snapped into a salute. “Crystal! I’ll give ‘em such a runaround they’ll be dizzy for weeks!”

“Great. Spike?”

He held up a red scroll and saluted too. “Ready! And, technically willing, but I’m going to grumble about my aching feet later.”

“Fair enough. Alright, guys, let’s save some ponies!”