“Say what now?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight tried to look over at her guard for a moment, but her eyes couldn’t quite leave Trixie. Not after saying something like that. “Crudely put, but I agree. ‘Say what now?’”
Trixie pulled a newspaper from a pocket in her cape and showed it to Twilight. “Did you not sign a warrant for my arrest? It says so right here.”
Twilight grabbed it with her own magic and started to read aloud. “The Hoofington Post has learned that newly minted Grand Mage Twilight Sparkle has issued her first arrest warrants in a crackdown on dissent. Our paper has obtained copies of these, and first in the list is magician and illusionist Trixie Lulamoon, most famous for… This… This is libel! I never put out these warrants! I haven’t put out any warrants! Where are they getting this garbage from?”
“You mean you didn’t demand the Great and Powerful Trixie turn herself in?” Trixie fidgeted with her hooves, scraping them together. “The paper was a lie?”
Twilight stuffed the paper in her saddlebag, crumpling it with her hoof. “Trixie, I am so sorry.”
“We are?” Rainbow snorted.
“We are!” Twilight snapped. “Truly. I never meant for you to make a trip all the way here like this. I’ll get you a room in a hotel and a train ticket home. Don’t worry about this. I’m going to investigate and demand they print a front-page retraction letter. This is libelous against both of us!”
“No!” Trixie yelled, looking around the plaza, eyes darting every which way. “I mean, no, there’s no need! Heh heh. Trixie will just… just get out of your mane now. Forget Trixie was ever here.”
“Um, are you okay?” Spike asked, scratching his head. “You’re acting a little… odd.”
Trixie’s head whipped around back towards Twilight, but not quite making eye contact with her either. She was looking behind them.
“Trixie?” Twilight asked, waving an arm in front of the mare’s face. “You there?”
“Yes! Yes, Trixie is here. But she must be going.”
“Um, okay?” Twilight looked her right in the eyes, but she was still transfixed on something else. There was also the faintest pink glow on her iris. “Well, if you need help, the offer still stands.”
“Thanks! Gotta go! Bye!” With that, she turned and ran. Not a trot or walk, she was using a full-bore gallop as if the tide of the river Styx was lapping at her fetlocks.
“Anypony else get a weird vibe from that?” Spike asked, rubbing his arms. “I mean, like, really weird?”
Twilight turned around and looked behind her, trying to find anything suspicious. “She was staring behind us. Can anypony see anything off? I can’t.”
The other two looked as well.
“Nada,” Spike said.
“Negative. Want me to fly around?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight paused and sat, considering her options. “No, I want you to find Trixie. Something’s up here, and I want to find out what it is. If you see her, try to get her to come to the castle. Spike and I will follow on hoof.”
“We’re really going to try to help her?” Rainbow scratched her head. “After she dissed all of Ponyville?”
“Yes, Rainbow, we are.” Twilight groaned.
Rainbow hovered in front of Twilight. “Even after she saw you at that Canterlot show and she tried to turn you into a turnip as part of her act?”
Twilight pushed her lightly to the side and started to walk. “Lucky for me, I know spells to prevent ponies from turning into plants, but yes, we are, Rainbow.”
Spike cut in. “Even after she publicly called you ‘Celestia’s harlot’ at a press conference and—”
“Yes, all of that!” Twilight yelled. “Look, I’m not her biggest fan, but somepony must have gone to an awful lot of trouble to get this newspaper article printed, and I want to find out who and why! Right now, she’s our best lead, and she’s clearly terrified about something that isn’t me. I can only assume she’s in some kind of trouble! So get moving! Arrest her for something if you have to! Go!”
“Ugh. Fine. At least I get to arrest her.” Rainbow took off into the air, thunder rolling in her wake.
Twilight turned to her other guard. “Spike? You go down La Rue De L’Argent and cut across that alley to the north. See if you can head her off. She might not know Canterlot as well as we do.”
“Roger!” He saluted, taking off down the avenue at a run.
Twilight, however, ran right where Trixie had gone, but wasn’t going as fast as she expected. Earth pony leylines must still be damaged. I’m going to have to be careful of that. Now, where did she go?
As she neared a corner, she spotted a half-wrecked flower stand with a pony picking up pieces and flower bits, looking rather distraught. Looks like she turned here.
She banked right down the road, hoping that the high hoof traffic would slow the show mare down a bit. Her legs pumped ever harder without adding much to her speed. She didn’t feel any fatigue set in from the exertion. Good thing for Trixie I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. I’d never be able to do this before my training.
The road led out of the market area to one of the denser sections of the city with much narrower streets and taller buildings. Despite the lack of stalls, Twilight spotted fresh scraping on the pavement at three more intersections leading right, left, and then right again into a shady alley.
As she rounded the corner in her own slide, she spotted the mare in question. Trixie had her horn blazing with magic and was reared on her hind legs.
She was also facing away from Twilight.
“Trixie? Are you okay?” the Grand Mage called out. “What’s going on? Are you in tr—?”
A wall of fire swallowed Trixie whole, knocking Twilight backwards and onto her side while smoke and soot engulfed the air.
No! Twilight scrambled to her hooves. Her legs rushed towards the blaze, leaping over the flames in a grand jump. A wave of scorching heat hit her skin, but was followed by soothing cold as her armor deployed automatically. When she landed, Trixie was behind her, unconscious on the ground. The flames left a circle of untouched pavement around them, at least for the time being, and both mares were currently “safe” within that border. Safe was a relative term, however, as Trixie’s body had been riddled with cuts, and an obviously broken leg, as evidenced by the protruding bone of the compound fracture. Shards of pink magic lay scattered about, the remnants of a failed shield spell.
Twilight’s head snapped left and right, looking for the source of the blast, but found nothing. Her synapses fired into overdrive as she activated her magic sight, taking in the current situation. This much fire must be from a unicorn attack spell. Somepony is definitely after her, and they are close. But I can’t see them behind the flames. I—
Twilight’s body rocketed off to the side as a pair of unseen hooves kicked into her, knocking her into the adjacent wall. Her jaw and head slammed into it an instant later, splashing the taste of blood on her tongue. She opened her eyes, looking around for her attackers with such focused intent that time itself seemed to slow. However, nopony could be found. There was nothing but concrete, flame, and soot.
There was nothing there, though the hairs standing up on the back of her neck said otherwise.
Her horn lashed out with random energy strikes. Each bolt was weak, attempting to mark her target without destroying everything around her. The blasts hit the walls and ground, adding new little scorch marks to what was already blackened by smoke. Bolt after bolt shot out, all passing through nothing but air.
Twilight stopped, looking around more carefully. There’s nothing here? How—?
A new series of strikes slammed into her face, impacting the weaker part of her armor and knocking her back into the wall. More hooves punched into her stomach and neck, and others punched her head left and right, pain roaring through her until she finally fell to the ground.
What…? What happened...?
A wave of cold washed over her, dripping down her bloodied face. Her left eye was already swelling, too, and her magic sight had failed completely.
Wait… That cold… It’s water!
She wrenched her gaze to the sky, pushing aside the pain. The sky was dark but not from just smoke. It was a storm cloud. The firefighters are already here!
The rain started to come down in a sheet, and Rainbow flew down from the cloud, landing next to her. “Twilight! Are you okay?”
“Rainbow,” she coughed, barely able to speak. “Run…”
More water poured down, dousing the flames somewhat but mostly just preventing their spread. Yet there was something else, something subtle in the downpour. Nearly invisible and lasting only for the barest moment of time, Twilight could see the water bounce off something.
Something that looked like a pair of hooves.
Twilight put up her forelegs to shield herself from the coming blow, and the two hooves punched into her, landing with nothing more than a “pmoofm” into her armor. It forced her back a little, but it didn’t hurt.
She lashed out with her own hooves, punching away her attacker’s and then launching into a series of blows against an invisible body in front of her. More rain started to sheet over a pony form, giving her a clear target to which she attacked time and time again.
“Rrrrrrrraaaaaaghhhhh!” Her forehooves lashed out, striking as fast as she could pump them, hitting its jaw, its stomach, anything that presented itself as open, which was all of it. Then, as she pulled back for one last strike, a new feature stood out on the figure in the rain.
Magic blazed from her in a powerful telekinetic stream, striking the figure directly on its horn. A wave of distortion melted into the air, carrying with it a ripping explosion and bits of alicorn as the body fell limp to the ground. Whatever spell that was around it immediately faded, revealing a blue unicorn stallion in a grey suit with a white mane and tail.
Twilight spat a glob of blood on the ground. “Ha!”
“Twi, little help here!”
Rainbow was blocking a series of blows with another ghost, barely visible in the downpour. She wasn’t even able to counter the attacks, only brace herself at the last moment to absorb the blow like Twilight had.
“Hang on!” Twilight fired up her horn again, pushing magic into a stationary lance, much like her telekinetic blade. Magic circles materialized around the thaumic rod, spinning in opposition and painting her power with strokes of burning darkness.
Meanwhile, Rainbow was doing her best, though the ghost wasn’t letting up or taking hits. Twilight winced at her friend’s pain and tried to speed up, but this spell needed a very specific rhythm. One more solid hit landed in Rainbow’s gut, doubling her over and dropping her to the ground.
Twilight’s eyes flared with magic, the thaumic flames radiating with an energy she could feel as it licked at her ears. Her vision focused on her target. Silence flooded her ears as the magic shot forth, piercing right into another horn causing it to shatter in an explosive blast. The pony figure stumbled and wobbled then finally fell in a heap on the other. Its invisibility spell no longer powered, she could see him in the rain like the other. A blue stallion in a grey suit, with a white mane and tail.
Exactly the same as the other.
“What—?” Rainbow coughed, dry-heaving on the ground. “Ugh. What the hell happened there? Did we just get our flanks handed to us?”
A young, soprano voice echoed in Twilight’s head. “I would have used a different—”
Twilight looked down at her torc and raised an eyebrow.
We’ll talk later. Twilight spat blood out of her mouth and rubbed her throat. “We’re doing better than they are. Thanks for the rain.”
Rainbow looked around. “Not like it’s doing anything. Look at the fire! It’s not going out!”
Twilight closed her eyes and readied a spell. “Magic fire cannot be put out by normal water. At least not easily. Magic water, on the other hoof…” She fired “Sender’s Shower” on the wall ahead of them, sending a small waterfall down on the flames, dousing them for good. “Rainbow, are other fireponies on their way?”
“Yeah, Guard’s been called. I think—”
Alarm sirens cut Rainbow off as easily as they sliced through the air, warning all of Canterlot to get to cover. The sound of hooves rumbling for safety could be heard even in the relative seclusion of the alley, and the sky was becoming a bright violet.
“Wait, is that what I think it is?” Rainbow asked, pointing.
“Yeah, I think so, but I’m going to make sure.” She sparked her horn and teleported onto the roof of the nearest building. The clouds overhead appeared to warp and shimmer, and a magic circle of metropolitan scale filled the sky with stunning speed. The runes were already inscribed in it. Her brother had said it was an entire magic book’s worth of knowledge carved into the sky, and she believed it. When the circle was finished, it expanded and spun around. The whole process took less than fifteen seconds, and in the end, there was an enormous shield around the entirety of the city.
Rainbow put her ears back in awe. “What do we do?”
Twilight looked over at the fallen enemies and teleported back down. “We stay right here until Shining and the Guard come help.”
“How long is that going to take?”
A bolt of black lightning dropped from the sky, the thunder loud enough to hurt her ears and blow their manes back.
“Twily! Are you alright?!” Obsidian said after appearing, leaping to his sister. “Holy hell. You look like crap. What happened?”
“They happened.” Twilight pointed a hoof at the two bodies. “Appeared right out of nowhere. Literally! They were using some kind of invisibility spell. Not even my thaumic sight could see them. They really hurt us until I got an opening.”
Obsidian looked over at them and snorted then wrapped a barrier around them. “Do you know them?”
Twilight sneered at them. “No. But I’m betting Trixie over there does. She needs immediate medical attention. Can you help?”
Shining cast a shield spell and slid the rectangle underneath Trixie, lifting her up. Slowly and carefully, he levitated her over the two bodies on the ground. “Absolutely. I just need to get her over to the main street, and the paramedics should be here in a minute.”
About halfway down the alley, with the group following carefully behind them, the barrier began to flicker.
“Um, Shining?” Twilight asked, looking at it. “What are you doing?”
Obsidian stopped the barrier’s movement and looked over it too. “I’m not sure. Something’s disrupting—”
The barrier flicked again and failed, collapsing in a shattered heap, and Trixie’s battered body hit the floor.
“Shiny!” Twilight yelled, stomping her hoof. “Come on—your shields are better than that!”
Obsidian held up his forehooves. “I swear, that shouldn’t have happened.”
“Then what was—?” Twilight turned around to point at the beaten stallions on the ground and froze.
“Everypony see what I see?” Rainbow asked in a hush.
“Yeah.” Twilight swallowed.
Obsidian was hushed, too. “They had blown out horns. They should be out for hours or even days! And now…”
“They’re gone.” Twilight finished, still staring at the empty space where they had been, shield still in place. “Shining, area shield, around us, now.”
He didn’t have to be told twice. In under a second, a shield sprung up around them, and in the moment following that, reinforced. “There. Now at least they shouldn’t be able to get through. And I can move it as we go. Let’s get going.”
The group slowly continued down the alley, the shield moving at a relative crawl. Eventually, they reached the main street, now devoid of other ponies.
“Can’t go any faster, Shining?” Rainbow asked, tapping the barrier.
He shook his head. “Not with this solid of a shield around so many ponies, and with my attention split on carrying the injured. Also, it’s Obsidian now. Twily and Cadence are the sole exceptions for using my old name.”
The swift clomping of boots came up behind them. “There you guys are! I’ve been looking everywhere!”
Twilight turned around. “Spike! Are you okay?”
The dragon wiped off a scuff mark on his armor. “Got jumped by a couple stallions. Idiots tried to attack me with ice. I’m a friggin’ purple dragon. I could swim in liquid nitrogen. Idiots. Then they tried to be smart and went and turned invisible.”
Rainbow, Obsidian, and Twilight all looked at each other.
“Did they have white manes and tails?” Twilight asked.
“And blue coats?” Rainbow added.
“And a grey suit with sunglasses?” Obsidian finished.
Spike looked at them and tilted his body a bit to one side. “How did…?”
“Get in here,” Obsidian demanded, opening a hole in the shield.
Spike ran through, and it closed up behind him the instant he was clear. “Well, yeah, as I was saying, they went invisible, and started hitting me. Guess they weren’t used to fighting dragons. When I get the wind knocked out of me, it comes out as flames. Turns out, invisible doesn’t mean fireproo— Whoa, what happened to Trixie?”
“Those goons happened.” Twilight grumbled. “And don’t look now, Shiny, but I think your shield is about to crack again.”
“Son of a—” Obsidian put up another barrier under Trixie just as the other one failed. “Why does that keep happening?”
“Hmm…” Twilight squinted at the mare, and pulled at her horn to reactivate her magic sight. The answer was obvious immediately. “Aha! Well, who would’ve thought.”
“What’s up, Twi?” Spike asked. “She a changeling with anti-magic armor or something?”
Twilight cringed a bit. “First off, no, and that would be terrifying. Second, she has two networks of leylines. One’s for unicorn magic, and the other’s for earth pony magic! She’s a hybrid!”
Rainbow tried to hop into a hover but bounced off the shield. “Ow. Wait, Trixie’s an earth pony?” She said, rubbing her head a little.
Twilight nodded, dismissing her enhanced sight. “Looks like it. Earth pony hybrids can be hard to spot since they don’t always look any different from pegasi and unicorns.”
“At least I know why the shield is failing. Here.” Obsidian’s horn grew a little brighter, and the shield under Trixie began to shimmer a little more. “Now it’s earth-pony resistant. Shouldn’t fail again.”
The group resumed their slow march towards the castle. “Good. Time to start planning. First things first, we need to get her to the medical wing of the castle and put her under lockdown. Think you can help with the ponypower needs there, Shiny?”
“Of course.” Obsidian’s voice was so deep it was practically a growl. “Sable Seer! Arcane Edge! Show yourselves!”
Two Night Guards appeared from a shadow in another alleyway, trailing smoke and bowing before their leader.
The unicorn mare spoke for them. “What is thy command, High Cardinal?” She was not only wearing the Night Guard armor but a black blindfold over her eyes as well.
Obsidian’s stride was still slow but unyielding. “Sable, I want you to coordinate with the soldiers sweeping the city. Whoever set off that explosion did so to attack this mare and my sister. They are using highly effective invisibility spells and are too dangerous to attempt capture. No holding back.”
Rainbow’s wings spread out to her sides. “Whoa, are you sure that’s—?”
Obsidian cut her off. “Unfortunate, but I can’t see a way around it.”
Twilight’s mouth went agape too. “Shiny?”
He shook his head. “This is a matter of national security, Twilight. Or should you have put that dragon you found in irons instead?”
Twilight’s pupils shrank down to dots, and her ears went back. “Well, I mean, if I could have…”
Obsidian’s face grew ever more grim. “If. Just like with you in Wintervale, holding back will only get my ponies killed. Sable, get moving. Arcane, round up three more Night Guards. Make sure at least one is a Paladin. They are going to protect our injured citizen while the doctors heal her.”
The two Night Guard spoke in unison. “Thy command is the will of the Moon.” Their orders received, they moved back into the shadow as one whisp of smoke and vanished.
“Doctor Suture. I am pleased to see you again. Although, I wish it were under better circumstances.” Luna ruffled the feathers in her wings a little. “Tell us, how fares this maiden?”
Twilight fought a snort. Maiden. Right.
The doctor held up a chart in his magic, looking through it. “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that she’ll live, and her current injuries will heal just fine, given time.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. “I am guessing that your use of the phrase ‘current injuries’ is a hint as to the bad news.”
The doctor sighed and took out some x-ray photographs with his magic. “The bad news is that we can’t use healing magic on her to speed it up. We tried, but it just doesn’t have an effect on her.”
“I’ve heard of this before.” Twilight chimed in. “Ponies use overdoses of healing magic to get an artificial high causing them to become resistant. Eventually, healing magic just doesn’t work on them anymore.”
The doctor took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m afraid this poor mare wasn’t abusing—she was being abused.” He put the photographs up on the lightboard and switched it on. “Her x-rays show dozens of serious injuries, most sustained within the past two or three years and healed with powerful magic. Multiple fractures to her legs, ribs, even vertebrae. There’s evidence of old cuts, burns, blunt impacts, all manner of damage. You have to examine closely, but I think she’s used a coat growing potion to restore her hair to cover dozens upon dozens of scars.”
“I’m amazed she lasted as long as she has,” Twilight said, reviewing the images. “Some of these wounds look like they could’ve been fatal had they landed in a slightly different spot.”
Luna’s eyes narrowed. “Which means either she was exceptionally lucky, or they were trying to incapacitate her rather than kill her. They could have incinerated her in that attack, but they did not. Why?”
Twilight pulled out her notebook and started scribbling. “I intend to find out. Doctor, when will she be awake?”
The doctor put his glasses back on and looked again at the chart. “Head injuries like this are always iffy, but if things go well, she might be awake as early as tonight. If not, it may be substantially longer.”
“Keep us appraised, doctor. You are dismissed.”
As the stallion left, Twilight and Luna both ducked into an empty room next to Trixie’s, closing the door behind them. The Princess applied a shield on the walls and door.
Luna took a deep breath. “There, now we may speak freely. Twilight, are you certain that the rain only fell on your attackers when they hit you? It fell through them before that?”
Twilight nodded. “Absolutely. It’s like they weren’t even there until then.”
Luna winced. “Damn.”
“I take it you know something.”
She nodded. “Indeed. One of the things stolen from our library during the attempted coup was knowledge of a very old, very powerful form of illusion. One so great it can fool all of a pony’s senses, but it can also feedback onto the caster. That’s why the rain revealed their forms eventually; the caster must not have been able to handle it. I’d imagine they were also stunned when you defeated their projections.
“But, what was taken in the raid was incomplete. This… This does not entirely make sense. If it is Lady Optika’s magic, from what they managed to steal, it should have been decades before they unlocked the secrets, and that is only if they knew exactly what to look for. On top of that, to even train in the use of this magic should have taken a generation! Maybe two! Foals were supposed to practice at this from the moment they could speak!”
Twilight scribed the notes into her book. “So either they were impossibly talented, came up with it independently centuries before its time, or something else. Who’s Lady Optika?”
The pain in Luna’s eyes made Twilight flinch again. “One of the pre-Discordian alicorns. A true master of illusion magic. Changelings are amateurs next to her. She created her entire capital city with nothing more than a manifestation of her willful illusions. But that’s neither here nor there. Time is short. I want you to track down the paper that printed this article. See if you can figure out where they got the information from. If we do not hurry, they may make witnesses ‘disappear.’”
Twilight stopped writing. “Is there any way to break through the illusion? Without some means of doing that, we’re sitting ducks.”
“Yes. Well, maybe. Bring an anti-candle. I have some in my chambers. They destroy most illusion spells quite effectively. If this were truly Lady Optika at her prime, they would be useless, but we may yet luck out.”
After a few last scribbles, Twilight bowed and went to leave through the door. “I’m on it!”