Twilight rounded the corner, passing through the hall where Luna had painted her impressive motif on the ceiling. A few doorways later she found her way to the Castle Gardens, wandering down the paths of marble and grass to all the more secluded, private areas. There, a pony sat in wait for her under the grey, overcast sky.
Said pony stood up at her arrival, and gave her a slight bow. “Lady Sparkle. I half expected you to refuse my invitation.” Prince Blueblood motioned for her to join him at his private table next to a group of his servants, some of whom were there to attend to his meal, while a few others were farther away playing their instruments.
“I was giving serious consideration to saying no. The last time you invited me someplace it didn’t exactly turn out too well.” She hesitated to sit for a moment, checking the chair for a trap before letting her flank touch it.
“Childish games. We were twelve! I’d like to think I’ve grown since then. In fact, I’d like to think it would be hard not to.” One of his servants came over to him and began brushing his mane.
Another came up to Twilight and offered the same to her, but she turned it down with a wave. “Honestly, I’m kind of surprised you’re out here at all.” She leaned over the edge of the table, confirming that it was indeed over the cold grass. “You don’t normally let your hooves touch dirt, if I recall correctly.”
“Only in the gardens,” Blueblood said, somehow managing to make himself look proud while saying it. “But I didn’t invite you here to trade old barbs that should have long been buried. Everypony!” He clopped his hooves together twice. “Some privacy, if you will.”
Twilight watched as their audience left, leaving her to hold her forelegs against her body, and not from the chilly, early winter air. If he does something, I’m not sure I’m recovered enough to fight back…
“Tell me, Lady Sparkle, have you been keeping yourself appraised on recent events?”
“If you mean the war, yes.” She tightened her scarf, putting her mouth behind it. Celestia’s been keeping me out of loop on the few things lately, though, but I think that’s just so I keep my mind off of them while I get better.
“Actually, I was thinking of things more… Domestic. Here.” He reached down into a bag and gave her a copy of a newspaper whose headline read ‘Unrest in Cloudsdale Intensifies.’
Twilight picked it up in her magic, careful not to tear it to shreds. “I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad. I had heard of a few issues, unemployment and the like…”
“Well, just recently Cloudsdale Armories announced a series of layoffs, and has advised investors that they will miss their earnings benchmarks. Don’t you find that strange? In the middle of a war, an arms manufacturer is saying that they are going to miss their estimates.”
“That tells me that the weapons going to Zebrica actually are manufactured by Cloudsdale Armories. With Luna putting pressure on the Wavu, they aren’t making as much money.” Twilight rested her head on a hoof. “I had hoped that they were actually counterfeit.”
“I agree with your assessment. Unfortunately, this means that things are only going to get worse. Cloudsdale Armories accounts for over 20% of Cloudsdale’s employment. The weather factory, which is owned by a subsidy of CA, accounts for another 30%. If they close those factories, we’re going to see riots that make these protests look like campfire singers.”
“What are you suggesting?” Twilight folded the paper and handed it back to him. “That we back off of the Wavu?”
“Hardly!” Blueblood chuckled. “I’m only saying to expect the unrest. For instance, what do you think of our current Council?”
Twilight opened her mouth to speak her mind, but caught herself on the first syllable, thinking back to the training her mother gave her about nobility. “Honestly, such words aren’t meant for polite company.”
Whatever his true feelings, Blueblood’s face wasn’t giving Twilight any clues. “I believe things are more nuanced than that, Lady Sparkle. However, like all politicians, in the right circumstances they turn into sharks, and right now, they are circling. The victim, in this case, is one of their own: Duchess Artfeather.”
“The Duchess of Cloudsdale? Last I heard, she does own a majority of Cloudsdale Armories… You think she’s involved? Rather, the Council thinks she’s involved?”
“Personally, I would say that it is an absolute certainty that she’s involved. But the Council is very careful about moving against its own. To act against a Duke or Duchess without absolute, concrete evidence invites drastic repercussions.
“Now, the Duchess hasn’t been seen in the Empyreal Hall for almost 3 months. She certainly has a good excuse, given the issues that are present in her duchy.” Blueblood held up the paper again. “Eventually, however, she will have to make an appearance, and I honestly have no doubt that she will eventually be facing dire charges.”
“As she should, if all this is true.” Twilight leaned forward, assuming a more aggressive stance but also being careful to avoid getting too close to the stallion. “The question is, though, why tell me this? I know you’ve apologized, but you have to admit there’s still a lot of history between us.”
“History… Yes…” Blueblood paused still for a moment, putting the paper away in his bag. “Lady Sparkle, might I take another moment of your time? To show you something deeper in the garden?”
Twilight backed up in her seat, looking around her and expecting the other horseshoe to drop.
“I promise, no whoopee cushions, no itching powder—”
“Or chairs rigged with electric shock spells!” Twilight snapped.
Blueblood held up his hooves in surrender. “All I want to do is talk. Please?”
Twilight sighed. I have every right to say no… But I imagine I’ll hear it from Tia if I do. “Fine. Lead the way.”
The Prince bowed gracefully, then led them into the hedge maze behind him.
In truth, this area wasn’t much of a maze. It was more of a pathway; it still took them several turns to reach Blueblood’s apparent intended destination: a statue of a pair of unicorns staring into each other’s eyes, their horns meeting at the tips.
The stallion stopped at the statue, sitting down and holding his hoof to its base, cluing Twilight into the significance of the location. She could see him mouth the words “Hello Mother. Hello Father.”
Twilight swallowed, the lump suddenly growing in her throat. “This is… This is where they put your parents to rest, isn’t it? After the airship accident… After the Valentia’s engines exploded.”
“If you believe it to be an accident. Neither Cadence nor I are convinced. Not that we have any evidence to the contrary, despite our best efforts.” He took in a deep breath and sighed, lowering his head in a supplicating bow to the grave. “I miss my parents, Twilight. I miss them more than you could imagine.
“I know you don’t think much of me, and to be honest, I can see how in your eyes that’s justified. Regardless, I want you to know this: I believe in the nobility, in the idea of it, but I also believe that while nobles are rulers, the reverse isn’t always necessarily true.”
He dropped all the way to the ground, burying his chest and belly into the snow-dusted grass and laying his head on his forelegs. Despite the fact that he was taller and more massive than her by a grand amount, he looked for all the world like a foal.
“My parents taught me that truth. We nobles are served by our ponies, pampered and slaved over. That’s fine. We should enjoy these benefits to their fullest, yet we must also be mindful that any ruler can get that. To be a noble, one must give back. If one of our ponies is sick, we must see to their health. If they seek work, yet cannot find it, we must find it for them. If they fear thieves, we must ensure their safety, and punish the wicked. If an enemy army marches to them, we must protect them. That is the code of the noble. Of the just. Of the righteous.”
Blueblood sat up, taking in another breath and snarling. “And that is the code that Artfeather has abandoned, along with too many of the Inner Council! Politics being what they are, Auntie isn’t in a position to rectify this. At least, not easily. Quite frankly, neither am I.”
Though the little voice in the back of her mind was screaming for her not to, Twilight relented to her emotions over her better judgment and sat down next to him. “Blueblood. I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t know—”
“How would you? I thought you unworthy. Even after Nightmare Moon and Discord, I wasn’t entirely convinced, so I pushed you away.”
“Seriously?” Twilight glared at him. “You seriously thought—”
“I am admitting to my mistake, Lady Sparkle.” Blueblood scooted over to his right like he was dodging something. “Your actions in Zebrica convinced me otherwise, and I truly apologize for my past behaviour. Auspicious birth or no, you are a noble. In law and spirit.
“What’s more, we share a common problem: the Inner Council. As such, I am proposing an alliance. If you like, I can be your eyes and ears, just as I am for Auntie Celestia, and can act in your stead, seeing as I have two votes compared to your none.”
~* Your future actions will earn you no loyalty from those you benefit, only courtesy.*~
Charlemane’s words echoed in Twilight’s mind like a siren. “I already have ponies like that in the Council: my brother and Cadence.”
“The Prince and Princess of the Lost. A duchy without borders, without a tax base. The Duchy of Canterlot, while not the richest in absolute terms, is certainly the richest in per capita wealth. While I agree it is all well and good to have your siblings on your side, you would be surprised what moving a bunch of bits at once can do.”
Twilight groaned through her clenched teeth. I really hate to admit it, and I feel dirty doing so, but he’s still right. “My question is, then, what do you get out of this? Politicians don’t normally make an offer like that without some kind of quid pro quo.”
“I’m not looking for any such thing, and certainly nothing as base as what you might be imagining. But if you need a selfish reason from me, here’s one: The Council seeks to undermine Celestia’s authority, and with it, mine, and for that matter, yours. Helping me helps us all.”
A chill and shudder went down Twilight’s spine. Actually, I wasn’t imagining anything base, but thank you for the lovely image. “I suppose I can agree in principle, but I still need more details. What, exactly, are you asking me to do?”
“Nothing, yet. Regrettably. The truth is, I’m still not able to move against Artfeather. But here’s the rub; the really sticky, nasty, thorny issue we have to get around. Right now, the Council is preparing to devour one of their own. If they do, the rest of them come out smelling like roses. Heroes! Paragons of self-policing! But if the Grand Mage were to make a move first…”
Twilight looked up at the statue, uncertain of what to think of making a political deal at a gravesite. “I think I see what you’re saying. If I catch Artfeather, then the Council would be taking the weight of the blame. The question is, then, how do I do that?”
“You can’t. At least, not yet.” Blueblood stood up and shook off the light dusting of snow and dirt he had accumulated. “If there are any two things the nobility has grown very proficient at, it’s talking profusely while saying nothing, and creative accounting. None of the Council’s own investigations, nor mine, nor the RGIS’s can find definitive proof of the Duchess’s wrongdoing. The good news is that it buys us time, seeing as Celestia doesn’t want you back in the field just yet.
“For now, make that little trip to that unkempt village that you love so much, and rest easy, as you have a new friend in high places.” He turned and made his way to one of the exits. “I will have one of my servants alert you if I find anything.”
After he left, Twilight folded her forelegs while fighting the growing headache in her temple. “Why do I feel like I need to go spend a few hours in that rainstorm shower…”
There were certain strands of logic in the world that seemed completely natural. For instance, one would assume that a pony with a very large wellspring could be highly effective in battle just based on that simple fact. When said pony had the largest wellspring outside of the eternal sisters, the logic only seemed to be reinforced.
Combine that with an adolescent dragon and the former captain of the Wonderbolts, and an inexperienced pony would feel completely at ease following that train of thought. This could be especially true if the pony they were facing had a wellspring only a fraction of the size of their opponent.
Such a pony would be wrong.
If they needed any evidence to prove that they were wrong, they would only need to look at the fact that, at the particular instant of time in question, the pony with the massive wellspring, the dragon, and the pegasus were all battered, bruised, and in midflight arcing away from their opponent after a particularly nasty, simultaneous strike.
The little bits of dried grass, snow, and dirt that had shoved their way into Twilight’s mouth as she landed only served to add to the pile of evidence labelled exhibit A.
“Ugh… Ow…” Spike groaned, huffing and puffing as he forced himself up in the snowy hills outside of Ponyville. “When, exactly, did we lose the plot here?
A shockwave of wind, mist, and snow burst forth from where Rainbow had landed. Up and over the pegasus arced her flight, taking to the supposed safety of the sky. “Keep hitting him! He has to have a weak spot!” She stopped before her target, spreading her wings out in a hover. Her pinions danced and fluttered in place, arcs of rainbow-coloured lightning dancing in between them. Thunder cracked through the sky as the electricity raced down to its target.
Each bolt hit true, but was only gathered up by the stallion’s shields. The unicorn waved his hoof, grabbing the electricity against all logic and common decency to science.
The lightning again roared across the sky, this time finding its way back to the pegasus. The resulting explosion knocked her clean out of the air in a spectacular crash.
Twilight spat out the dirt and worked the blood from her mouth, then pawed at the ground while drawing her telekinetic blade. She rushed forward, slashing at her target.
Her enemy's own telekinetic blade appeared in a fountain of dark flames, the two swords clashing together and sending sparks to the ground. Over and over she pressed her attack, reaching out to wherever he would be vulnerable, but finding only another blade to block her path. Still, she was doing something she’d never done before: push him back.
“You’re slashing too much.”
Up and backwards she jumped, pulling an entire backflip as the tip of his blade neared her horn. Twice more she flipped, followed by a roll to get out of the way of the piercing magic.
“Thrusts are a thing too, you know.”
“Kiiiiyaaa!” Spike ran in from the left, his halberd looking to skewer itself through the stallion’s chest cavity.
With a single step, the stallion moved out of the way, and swung his right foreleg out, smashing Spike’s face with a hoof and knocking him down.
“Spike!” Twilight dove in, thrusting the tip of her blade forward.
The image of the Night Guard stallion blurred, giving way to the backdrop of barren trees, falling powder, and grey skies. A wave of fluffy snow exploded from the ground, tracing a line from where he had been to a place behind her.
Twilight froze, seeing the eerie glow of the violet blade pressed against her armoured neck. Flames from its edge licked up at her chin. Dang it…
“Too slow, Twily. You’re telegraphing. Don’t let the enemy know what you’re up to. Ever.” Obsidian Armor extinguished his blade and stepped away. “Don’t give them a fair fight, and don’t expect one in return. Let them wonder how they lost when they reach the Summerlands.”
Twilight rubbed her hoof against her neck, feeling Aurora’s tough plating in place. “I honestly thought I was improving…”
Rainbow and Spike were limping back towards them, both beaten as soundly as Twilight had been.
“Tell me about it.” The pegasus rubbed her side and winced. “I always knew you had to be tough to make it in the Guard, but I didn’t realize there was such a difference between Captain of the Wonderbolts and Captain of the Royal Guard.”
“Well, don’t take it too hard. Not to toot my own horn, but I always did excel in the combat tests.” Obsidian waved his hoof to a pony in the distance. “Cady! I think we’re done for the day!”
The pink dot in the distance started to gallop towards them, eventually taking off at a glide and landing just as smoothly. “That looked painful. Did anypony hurt something?”
Spike stumbled over to her and sat down in the snow. “Only my everything.”
“Here, let me help.” Cadence raised her horn up into the air, lighting it and bathing them all in a shimmering white light. A magic circle soon appeared in the snow, and each of their injuries started gathering little pinpoints of light.
Spike flopped over on his back, making half of a snow angel. “Seriously man, did you have to be that rough? Maybe we should get an LT or something to do this…”
Obsidian shook his head. “No, it’s better that it’s me. When you fight an opponent that is near your level, you have to give it your all. The potential for serious injury skyrockets. Since I’m more than a match for you three, I have the ability to hold back; fight only hard enough to teach.”
Twilight used her magic to pull gently at the gem in her armor, giving Aurora a signal to undeploy. The plating took on its signature glow, vanishing into the torc. “I honestly don’t know if I’m learning anything. I could actually beat Luna’s golems…”
Obsidian chuckled. “Yeah, well, I don’t have the ability to control an army of golems with my mind like she does. I’m not an alicorn. So, you have to fight me directly, and I’m not about to just let you hurt me. Don’t worry, I do think you’re getting better. Just keep in mind to look for thrusting opportunities as well as slashes.”
Rainbow spat out a mouthful of feather she had preened from her wing. “Would’ve been easier if my lightning actually did anything…”
“And that’s exactly why we’re commissioning the new mounted guns. You can’t redirect their bolts like I did with yours. Speaking of, are you okay?”
Rainbow flapped her wings, watching the healing magic at work. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just, ow. Seriously.”
“It doesn’t look that bad.” Cadence narrowed the healing field, compressing it down to two areas over Spike and Rainbow. “Shining sometimes comes home with bigger injuries from his morning training. I’m not worried.”
“Bigger injuries? Morning training? Dude.” Spike collapsed the shaft of his halberd and latched it onto his back. “Just what the heck do you do?”
“Practice. Every single day, I grind my weaknesses into dust.” His flaming mane flared up a little as he said it. “A captain of the Royal Guard must be ready for anything.” He shot Rainbow a look. “That being said, it’s a little different with you… and maybe me, now, too.”
“Um, how, exactly? We’re both supposed to protect—”
“Protect those under our care, yes. But…” Obsidian pulled Twilight into a small hug. “Twily here is like a captain herself. It’s true you’re supposed to protect her, but just like in Zebrica, you’re going to encounter things that only she can handle. Our job is to deal with the small stuff so that she, or in my case, Luna, can focus on the big things.”
Though she hardly moved, Rainbow almost looked stricken, as if her soul itself had been blown back in surprise. “I never thought about it that way…”
“Me neither…” Twilight whispered. “Is it… Is it kind of the same thing between me and Celestia? I deal with the small stuff, while she deals with the big things?”
Cadence shook her head and applied a little bit more focus on Rainbow Dash’s side. “I’d say you’re both dealing with a large things, it’s just that you’re dealing with two different types of large things. She focuses on policy decisions and the long term consequences of them, while you focus on the more immediate.
“Originally, Grand Mages were supposed to have more responsibility on the former. However, the Equestrian Compact changed over the years, and this balance changed along with it.”
Obsidian took off his helmet, shaking the snow off of his shoulders. “Also,I rather doubt that Celestia is interested in sharing the responsibility for those policy decisions. I don’t think it’s about a base desire for that power, but more of fear from too many unknowns.”
Cadence brushed her mane off to the side. “In other words, Auntie needs to learn to roll with the punches a little bit better. Not everything needs to be planned out a hundred years in advance.”
“Not that Luna is any better,” Obsidian grumbled. “I know that’s sacrilege for a Night Guard member to say, but still. If Celestia over plans, then I think Luna under plans. Fortunately I have some experience working with Celestia, and I think the Night Guard’s starting to find a nice balance between things. We have the leaders of the Wavu nicely bottled up, and we're about to transfer the op to RGIS. Wavu agents can’t clear their throats without us knowing about it.”
“So why not take them out?” Spike thumped his fist in his palm. “I mean, if you got them cornered, why not?”
“Ah, but that’s another area where you have much to learn, young Dragon,” Obsidian noogied Spike’s head. “Criminal organizations are not like snakes. If they were, you could take out the leader by chopping off its head, leaving the rest to die.
“In reality, if we do that, we simply get a million more little snakes. What’s worse, each one suddenly starts to turn on the other, vying for power to become the new leader. Like a hydra trying to eat itself. Unfortunately, innocents always get eaten along with the criminals.”
Spike snapped his fingers. “So by keeping the leaders in place but contained, you still stop the weapons smuggling, but avoid a gang war. I get it.”
“You have learned much.” Obsidian gave him a bow.
“Speaking of learning…” Twilight motioned at Spike, who pulled out her notebook from his pocket. “How did you do that thing where you just appeared behind me? I ask because I’ve seen it a few times before. You did it, I’m pretty sure Luna did it, I think both you and Charlemane did it in the Council, and Phantasm did it too. It’s honestly starting to get annoying.”
“That quick movement thing?” Rainbow rotated her shoulder and lifted her wing to give Cadence better access to her injury. “That’s called Passage. Spitfire can do it too. No clue how she does it, though.”
“She’s right.” Obsidian moved to the centre of the group, lighting his horn for a spell. “I’ve heard pegasi have trouble figuring it out, but to make up for it they can fly. Of course, very few ponies in general are able to do it. For Earth ponies, it’s a bit of an art. For we unicorns, however, it’s a science. Watch.”
The spell spun around his horn and fired, and a bright light shined outward from the centre of his being. Around all those present, a large magic circle formed at about chest level, rotating around them. In addition to inscriptions in the circle itself, large hexagonal nodes appeared tied into the spell.
“What you’re seeing is a shadow representation of layer four of my shield matrix. Twilight, based on what you know about my shields, and what you see in the inscriptions, can you guess what this layer does?”
Twilight nodded her head immediately. “Yeah. It controls the shield’s hardness.”
“Got it in one. Now, as I said, this is a shadow representation. It’s taking my three-dimensional shield and projecting it into a two-dimensional plane for easier understanding. This is the spell I use when I’m tuning my shields. I can see every little detail on the spell, and change what I need accordingly. For Passage, I use a different layer.”
The circle faded out as if it was being outshone by something else, only to be replaced by a new circle. This one, however, was far larger and more complex, taking up not just a ring around them, but the whole spherical space, swallowing the entire group.
“Whoa…” Spike reached out and put his hand through the sphere, phasing it through like it wasn’t even there. “Pretty!”
“Wait, if this is a shadow…” Twilight jumped back in shock, bumping into Obsidian’s chest. “You have a fourth dimensional shield?”
“Exactly. This layer manipulates mass, velocity, time dilation, and other factors. And since it’s fourth dimensional, it cannot be damaged by normal attacks, although nor can it defend against them as a conventional shield would. Using this, and a number of other layers, I can move at extreme speeds for very short bursts, and recover easily afterwards.”
“Geez…” Rainbow eyed the matrix, darting around from spot to spot. “Okay, I don’t know what any of the symbols mean, but there’s like, a jillion of them. And they’re really, really tiny.”
“And therein lies the difficulty.” Obsidian shut off power to his horn, bringing the illusion to an end. “I can’t just give you the spell, Twilight. It wouldn’t work. I have to fine tune it to my exact thaumatic profile, and update it every few weeks for it to keep working. Changing it to work for you would basically involve a complete rewrite, and even then, using it in combat before you’re ready would be disastrous.
“You have to understand the movements, the flow of fighting. Start using this now, and you’re just as likely to Passage your way into impaling yourself on an enemy’s sword as you are to avoid him.”
Twilight grumbled to herself as she scribbled furiously in a notepad. “That’s all well and good, but what do I do if someone else is using it? I might as well slap a target on my flank if I face somepony with that.”
“It’s not foolproof. Use your shields, use your armor, and anticipate based on what you know so far.”
“That’s it?” Twilight grabbed her foreleg with a hoof. “I’m suddenly feeling kind of exposed here, Shiny. And not just because of my thin coat.”
“Hmmm…” Shining lit his horn again, recasting the spell. “There is one thing you could use… Although I’m hesitant to recommend it by itself. It would take a lot of tweaking, but here.” A new magic sphere layer appeared around them with a vastly different structure from the previous one.
“A sensor spell?” Twilight asked, writing down the details of one of the hexagonal nodes. “And the firing mechanism… How many layers did you condense down into this?”
“Fourth dimensional matrices are tricky to write, and even trickier to manage, but you can fit a lot into them. Take a look.” Obsidian pointed with his hoof at the sensor node. “See how this is hooked into all the other nodes? This is called Lead, a subdiscipline of Passage. In my version, I use it to dilate time when the spell detects someone else using Passage or something similar to it. It gives me a chance to react, but it’s also tightly integrated to the rest of my Passage layers.
“Twily…” He leaned down, bringing his head to eye level with hers and putting a hoof on her shoulder. “Be very, very careful what you do with this knowledge. I think I’m giving it to you before you’re really ready. That’s why Luna purposefully didn’t teach you about it. It’s why we try to keep this a secret until we know somepony is ready, and warn them against using it if they discover it early. It is incredible how easily this can backfire on you. Don’t use it unless you’re absolutely sure you’re ready, and never, ever use it without a shield active. At least then, in the worst case scenario, the shield will absorb the bulk of the damage for you. Promise me.”
Twilight put down her notebook and reached up to her brother, pulling him into a hug. “I promise, BBBFF.”
“Thank you.” He gave her a squeeze with his foreleg. “Come on. Let’s go to Bon Bon’s and warm up for a while, then I’ll help you get set up with your own shield matrix. Sound good?”
“Sounds good. Come on, everypony. Let’s take a break.”
“Oh, thank Celestia!” Cadence ran towards the town and took off into a glide, Rainbow shortly behind her. “I am going to drink a gallon of hot chocolate!”
Obsidian snorted back a laugh. “Luxurious pegasus coat softer and fuller than any pony I know, wind controlling magic, natural temperature resistance, and she’s still always cold.”
“Girls.” Spike, the purple, cold-proof, ice dragon shrugged. “Whaddya gonna do?”