“I trust this will suffice, Lady Sparkle.”
As Twilight returned the chief’s small bow and stepped into the chambers, the faint scent of smoke wafted into her nostrils. Rich, earthy stone and bronze adorned the walls, lit by a pair of crackling torches with a number of fire-control runes engraved in them. It wasn’t quite a true suite, but was more a single, large room for many purposes. On the right, a series of hammocks hung in place of beds. The left had a kitchenette, the center a dining area, and far away from the door what amounted to a living room sat underneath a huge, wide, glassless window.
There was also a bookshelf.
“Yes, this will do nicely. We’ll see you at dinner?”
“Of course,” the chief said with a bow. “I must take my leave now, though there are guards down the hall should you need anything. Please, enjoy your stay.” The door latched with a click as he closed it behind him, leaving Twilight and her companions alone, theoretically.
Twilight wasted no time in placing security barriers along all the walls, the window, the door, and even a mirror. After all were in place, she focused on tuning each one in sequence and turning them from a bright purple wall into a sheen that was only barely visible.
“I don’t think the gryphons usually do spying, Twilight.” Rainbow stiffened and scowled, mimicking gryphons standing at attention. “It wouldn’t be honorable!” she groused like the chief.
“Just because the gryphons wouldn’t doesn’t mean others wouldn’t as well. I’m not so worried about what the gryphons are up to here. Honestly, they seem to be on the level. Or, at least, the Prince does. Everypony else, though?”
“Yeah, good point.” Spike opened up some cabinets, inspecting them for anything suspicious. “Trixie was attacked by ponies, not gryphons. Yet we think the illusionists are operating here. I don’t think they’re doing it with the gryphons’ permission.”
“Exactly. If they’re here, I’m betting the gryphons don’t know about it. We might wind up having to tell them, but unless it’s necessary, don’t breathe a word of this to them. Also, don’t write about any of this. Not while we’re here.”
“Write?” Trixie asked. “What do you mean?”
“Gryphons have crazy awesome vision.” Rainbow pretended to hold up binoculars to her face. “Like, ridiculously awesome. You know how this place is a coliseum? The fights take place from the valley below, up to the sky above, and the gryphons can see all of it. They see it as well as we would see something five meters away. If you write something down, not only could they see it over your shoulder, but they could see it in the little grooves your writing makes on anything you put under the piece of paper. Like, the next in a stack of seats, or the table you were writing on.”
“And they can zoom like a telescope,” Twilight added. “So try not to write anything sensitive while you’re here. Instead, use whispers. As good as their eyes are, their ears can’t hold a candle to ours. Non sensitive stuff is fine to write, though. I know Spike brought a crossword puzzle book.”
“No writing classified stuff, got it.” Trixie saluted, though it was somewhat sloppy compared to those of the Royal Guard. “What happens if we have to fight them?”
“Don’t.” Twilight replied with the sternness in her voice that she didn’t expect. “Seriously, I don’t think any of us are going to be able to win a fight with a higher ranking gryphon.”
“Ahem!” Rainbow practically hacked up a hairball her cough was so fake.
“Okay, Rainbow might win. Maybe. At least, she stands a better chance than any of us. If they try to fight, surrender. Any gryphon trying to harm a pony that has legitimately surrendered will almost certainly be torn apart in a few seconds by any other gryphons standing nearby.”
Rainbow chuckled and then drew an invisible line across her neck. “Yeah, nothing cheeses off a gryphon quite like seeing a bully about to kill someone.”
“Wouldn’t that be tarnishing the pride of the Evening Guard?” Spike asked.
“Yes and no.” Twilight began to pace around the room, her hooves clicking softly on the stone. “It would be, at least initially, but once it’s discovered there was no reason for the fight, and the gryphon was the aggressor, the shame would be heaped upon the gryphon. Ultimately, you would be held up with pride for having a cool head in a tense situation. If you absolutely must to defend your life, be efficient. Especially you, Trixie.
“You see, gryphon wellsprings aren’t like ours. When they use magic, they don’t draw on them. Instead, their wellsprings gather the ambient magic around them and use that to perform whatever task they have in mind. They do this for everything, from flying to offensive spells.”
“Empty night!” Trixie’s pupils shrank to pinpricks, realizing the implication. “Which means that whenever a unicorn isn’t absolutely, perfectly efficient in the spell, she leaks magic into the environment, wasting it, which means…”
“That’s right. Any magic you don’t use in the spell, they can absorb and use against you, and that’s on top of what was already in the environment. Now, not all gryphons can cast spells, but unless they’re wearing a mage’s uniform, you can’t tell which ones can and which ones can’t just from a glance. So, always assume that they can.”
“Also, always assume that they can just cut you into pieces with their giant swords.” Rainbow made a few slicing movements with her forelegs. “Or just beat you into a bloodied pulp. Remember, each and every gryphon is either in or has been in the military. Well, almost all of them. But like, ninety-nine percent. Seriously, it’s like, compulsory. By swordpoint compulsory.”
“Ugh. So what’s the plan then?” Trixie climbed into one of the hammocks, her left rear leg hanging out. “Just hang out here for a while? Shouldn’t we be going out looking?”
Twilight shook her head. “I don’t want to do that just yet. It would seem suspicious. Let’s use tomorrow as an excuse. The Prince will give us a tour, and you and Rainbow will be out ‘looking for threats.’ We’ll pull a few radios from the Princess’s chariot and coordinate. The charioteers that brought us here will be on standby, though I don’t know if they’ll be useful in a fight against these illusionists, given that only you and I can break their illusions. We’ll have to play it by ear if it happens.
“For now, let’s take a nice break.” She lifted up Stellar Horizon’s book and gave it a little shake. “After all, I’ve got something that needs reading.”
“To our honoured guests, that the peace between us may last for all time.”
“Hear, hear!” Their steins were raised and toasted over a vast table made of a single piece of solid, polished wood. To Twilight’s surprise, the gryphons started chugging their drinks as fast as they could. Twilight followed suit and brought her own slightly smaller — yet still oversized for her — stein to her lips.
After a quick drink, the Prince bowed to the table and said, “I know that ponies do not have our fortitude for alcohol, so I do not expect you to—”
Twilight kept drinking.
“Um, Twilight?” Spike asked.
The amber liquid flowed down Twilight’s throat, sweet notes of honey and flowers dancing on her tongue and mingling with the notes of smoke from the torches lighting the hall. I sure hope this spell works. Out of breath, she set down the stein and exhaled. “This is good stuff, I have to admit.”
Trixie, Rainbow, and Spike sat at their seats, slack-jawed and silenced.
Twilight put her ears back. “Um, I can explain…”
“My, my. That I did not expect,” the Prince said, stroking his beard. “Perhaps tonight will be more interesting than I suspected.”
“Well, I am kind of cheating a little.” Twilight picked up a napkin and wiped her mouth, the aroma of the mead tingling her senses once more. “I used an anti-intoxication spell when I was in the restroom.”
Rainbow exhaled in relief. "Whew! I thought we had a changeling there for a moment. Although, I'm not sure if changelings actually eat solid food or not..."
“Hmph.” The chief ruffled his feathers. “A dishonest Grand Mage? I suppose I should have expect—”
“Not dishonest. Dishonest would be to challenge someone to a drinking contest and use the spell to win. Simply to use it to avoid intoxication in a social setting, and to admit to it, is merely being cautious, if not courteous. Do not use such harsh words for our guests, Chief." The Prince snapped his talons, summoning the first course and mercifully dampening the awkwardness smothering the room.
"My apologies again, Lady Sparkle," the chief said with a small bow of his head. "I've often been criticized for my quick tongue. I prefer to think of it as a type of earnestness."
"It's okay. I honestly think it's kind of cheating myself, but I don't think I would've been able to take more than a few mouthfuls without the spell." Twilight took another gulp of the mead as the first plate of the dinner was placed in front of her. It was a small dish of some kind of noodle, most likely wheat-based, if her knowledge of local flora was anything to go by, plus a pinkish-red sauce of some kind. Shortly after, three small bottles of condiments and a bowl of shredded cheese joined them.
Hmmm... What's this? Twilight picked up the first one and took a whiff of something vinegary, yet robust. Not quite what I'm looking for. The next was creamier, yet pungent with a hint of something that may or may not have been mushroom. Nope, not that one either.
"I think the next one is the one you want, Twi," Spike said with a wink.
Aha! "Thank you, Spike." Twilight picked up the bottle and sniffed to confirm its strength, then turned it upside down.
"I would be careful with that, Lady Sparkle." Princess Freya picked up her own bottle, holding it delicately in her talons. "This is called Embersia, named after fire embers, and it can be very—"
Twilight shook the bottle and promptly dumped the entire contents out on the noodles.
Sauce and starch wrapped around her fork, then made their way into her mouth and down her throat, leaving behind a furious, smoky heat. “This is good stuff!" she said after a swallow. “I don't suppose I could get a crate of this sent to the castle?”
"Another safeguard spell, perhaps?" Prince Ragnar gave his beard a stroke.
"Nah, she just likes spicy things." Spike’s own bottle of whatever the spicy stuff was also half-empty, along with one of the others. "So do I, really, but when you can breathe fire I suppose that's expected."
"Back when I first moved to Ponyville I accidentally poured hot sauce in a cup and drank it straight." Twilight dabbed her mouth with a napkin. "Ever since then, I've been eating spicier and spicier things. I even have Spike beat at this point."
"Feh!" The Chief shook out his wings while Twilight marveled at his ability to say that without any lips. "This is a transparent attempt to curry favor with his highness. No mere pony could be capable of eating Embersia like that without the aid of a spell."
"Twilight can." Spike raised his hand. "I was there. I watched her descend into capsaicin madness."
"Same." Rainbow raised her hoof.
Enok pointed talon at Trixie. "Then why is she working on such a spell?"
Trixie didn't even look up from her notebook, instead choosing to wave off the chief and continue her scribbles. "Quiet, I've almost got it figured out. Anything Twilight can do, I should be able to do."
"Mistaaaaake…" Rainbow muttered, giving the mare an eyeroll.
"It is remarkable, but I don't think it's anywhere near impossible, Chief." the Prince said.
Enok grumbled. “I’m not so sure, my Prince.”
"Unless you're just jealous, Enok. What you think, dear?" The Princess gave her husband a wink.
"Well now, there's a theory." If Twilight didn't know any better, she’d have described the Prince’s smile as mischievous, perhaps even Celestia–like.
"Please. I have nothing to be jealous over."
Enok’s eyes widened and darted to the little bottle, freezing for only an instant before he reached out and dumped its contents onto his plate.
At the same time, a spark from Trixie's horn had Twilight switching to her magic sight just in time to see the structure of the spell. A damage soak? But that won't—
"Ha ha! Trixie has done it!" She too dumped over the bottle and heaved a helping into her mouth just as the chief finished swallowing his.
Spike shoved his hand into his pocket, pulled something out, and slammed it on the table hard enough to bounce the plates. "Five bits says Trixie runs out of the room screaming before Enok!"
"Spike!" Twilight glared at him.
Two forks clattered on their plates, dropped as their owners covered their mouth and beak.
More bits hit the table from a cerulean hoof. "Ten says Enok runs first!"
"Rainbow!" Twilight yelled, reorienting her glare while Trixie squeezed tears from her eyes and pounded her hoof on her armrest, and Enok twisted his head almost entirely backwards while rocking back and forth. At this rate, we're going to cause an international inci—
An even larger thud rang out from the end of the table, the wood all but cracking under the strain of the Prince’s fist. "Fifteen more on Trixie running!"
"Dear!" Based on her husband’s reaction, Freya could probably give Shining lessons on how to intimidate someone.
"I can’t take it anymore!" Trixie screamed, falling to the stone floor, sending her stein of mead clattering across the floor.
"Come on, Trixie! You can do it!" Rainbow flapped her wings in a small hover. "We believe in you! Or at least I do! And that’s what’s important!"
Enok had already finished his stein and was getting slapped away from the Prince’s.
"Pride comes before a fall, chief." Ragnar guzzled the entire contents of the stein in a few quick gulps, denying Enok any hope of more liquid.
Twilight imagined that if the chief had teeth to grind, he probably would have cracked one by now. She also imagined that Trixie would have a mighty headache from banging her head on the table leg like that.
<<Damn it!>> the chief swore in one of the few profanities Twilight could recognize in their language, tearing out of the room and leaving a rush of wind behind him.
"Wait for Trrrriiiixxxxiiieeeeeee!" Trixie screamed, running after him in a full blown gallop.
"Yes!" Rainbow leapt into the air, doing a somersault under the vast, tall ceiling. "What am I? Element of Loyalty! L-O-Y-A-L-T-Y! That's why I win every time!"
"Yeah, yeah. Take your money." Spike tossed his coins to Rainbow. "And here I thought the birds were immune to capsaicin."
"We are, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other substances that taste spicy to us." The Prince turned to Twilight. "I must say, Lady Sparkle, I like your guards! A breath of fresh air compared to Celestia’s stuffy Day Guard."
"Wanna trade?" Twilight grumbled.
"Much as I would find that interesting, it’s fairly obvious that political circumstances wouldn’t allow it."
"What a shame." Twilight's eyes launched volleys of disapproval at Rainbow and Spike, but they were too busy arguing amongst themselves to notice. "Rainbow, get going and make sure nothing happens to Trixie."
"Heh. Sure thing. I mean, she did just win me thirty bits!" Rainbow flew off after them.
The Prince rubbed his hands together like Bon Bon during Hearts and Hooves day. "So, what should we wager on next?"
“Hey there, how are you doing?” Twilight stepped past Rainbow and Spike guarding the door and poked her head into the guest suite, finding Trixie laying on a bed alone, with a glass of water and some baking soda. There was a privacy shield on the window, and her armor manual on her lap.
“Miserable,” Trixie groaned, turning over to face Twilight. “Their doctors gave me some milk and antacid, but I think I’m going to need some aspirin, too. My stomach is killing me. Trixie is never eating spicy food again.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad, I think. After I first overdid it, I came to like it!” Twilight stepped into the room, approaching slowly and with a smile on her face. “And the Prince seems pleased about how things went. I tried to apologize, but he just laughed. Said it was about time Chief Enok got hoisted by his own petard.”
“Not to mention myself.” Trixie rested her head on her hooves and lowered her ears as Twilight moved closer. “I bet you enjoyed watching that.”
“Not at all, Trixie.” Twilight climbed into the hammock next to the showmare’s, letting it swing as one of her hind legs dangled. “I admit, I was mostly concerned about diplomatic issues, but I was also concerned about you.”
“Trixie will be okay. My stomach is getting better, though I imagine I have a long appointment with the toilet tomorrow.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Twilight looked her straight in her tired, bloodshot eyes. “I mean, you only did that to beat me at something. I understand why you're jealous, and I accept it. But Trixie, I never meant to lord anything over you, and I’ve never meant you any harm.”
“I know. And honestly, it might have been easier for me if you had. It would have been so simple if you insulted me back, responded to my barbs in the media, or had been as snooty as Blueblood. I could hate you and be done with it.
“But I can’t do that. You’ve been nothing but kind to me, saved my life, given me so much. Yes, you've done a couple of insensitive things, but your intentions have always been pure. Still, I thought I had something tonight. I thought I had caught you doing something dishonest, and I thought I could finally show you up, Even if it was the something so…” Trixie’s eyes froze for a moment, and then rolled with her body as she shifted onto her back. “Immature. Pedantic. I really am a loser, I guess.”
“Nopony is saying that, Trixie. I do wish you had exercised more restraint, but I understand where you’re coming from.”
"Then why is the Captain trying to get rid of me?"
Twilight’s head jerked back in surprise, and her tail twitched. "Rainbow? I find that hard to—”
“Not that captain. The other one. In the Royal Guard.” Trixie rolled back onto her stomach, curling up and hiding her nose behind her tail. “He keeps telling me to keep my things packed, even though I don’t really have much of anything. My cart is still back in Hoofington in the woods somewhere. And Trixie knows he’s been talking to others to get her moved. She— I, overheard him calling me a ‘security risk’ to some general who keeps giving me a look of disgust every time I see her.”
Twilight's eyes narrowed into slits. "Which general?"
"I’m not sure. Tall, blonde, flowy robes, rose in her hair…"
“Gemstone. That’s Gemstone Quartz. I’ve never met him, but my brother says he’s as big a fop as Prince Blueblood, but with the magic power to actually mean something in a fight. He’s supposed to be the second most powerful of the Generals, and leads the largest number of unicorn mages.”
Trixie raised an eyebrow. “‘He?’ That’s supposed to be a stallion?”
Twilight shrugged. “Apparently.”
“I mean, I suppose I never actually saw his, you know, through all the robes. But still, Trixie could've sworn that was a ‘mare looking down on another mare’ look.”
“The generals apparently have a lot of latitude in terms of how they dress, as long as they get certain insignia on their clothes.” Twilight lit her horn and pulled out her journal and pen. “The question is, why is Quartz working with Captain Strike on this? Strike I could see doing this, if for no other reason than because he’s a jerk. But Shiny seems to think that Quartz is one of Celestia’s loyalists. It doesn’t make sense.”
“And how do we stop it?" Trixie pulled a pillow over her head. “I feel like I'm being thrown to the wolves."
“Hmm.” Twilight closed her eyes, the political chessboard laid out in her mind. Square after square grew dark as unknowns filled the board. Damn. I still don’t have the connections, the political capital. I need more allies… No, what I need more of are friends…
“Do not interrupt them. Friendship is not only important for harmony, but is especially important to my student, who is your superior. If they wish to take time to mend their fences, we should allow it.”
“For now, make that little trip to the unkempt village that you love so much, and rest easy, as you have a new friend in high places.”
Okay, so it isn’t hopeless yet. I would prefer not to have to rely on Blueblood, which leaves one option. Twilight hopped off the hammock and held Trixie's hoof with her own. "Trixie, if they throw you out, here’s what you do. Come and get me. Just head straight for wherever I am. I can take care of it."
“W-What if they throw me out of the castle and I can't get to you?” Trixie sniffled. “I don't think they’re going to run this by you first.”
“Then make a break for Ponyville. Take the train, a chariot if you can get one, or just run there as fast as you can. Get to either the library or Sweet Apple Acres. Either my parents or the Apples will shelter you until they can get word to me, and each has a Royal Guard watching undercover every single second of the day. They will not stand by if the Illusionists attack, and once I get there, I’ll be able to override the Captain’s orders.”
Twilight leaned in close and put her foreleg over the mare’s back. “I know we’ve had our differences, but I consider you my friend. I won’t abandon you. Trust me.”
Trixie bowed her head. “I do trust you. It’s funny, because I know I shouldn’t. At least, I would think I shouldn’t, but I do.” She looked down at the gem in her armor. “It’s been decades since I’ve had a friend…”
Twilight smiled. “Then I’m glad you found me when you did.”
"As am I. Even though at the time I thought for sure you had something terrible planned for me..." Trixie looked off to the side of the room, clutching her leg and staring into a mirror. "Twilight, I have something I need to ask you."
"Yes, I..." Trixie clenched her teeth, steeling herself. "I need to tell you. This mission is a trap.”
Twilight put her ears down. “A trap? For me?”
“No. For me.” Trixie shivered and sniffed. “It’s how it always goes. Some hope gets dangled in front of me. But it's a trap. Just to show they're in control. Every single time…” Tears dropped down her cheeks and to the floor.
“Whatever you have planned, they know it already. They're going to take me away.”
Twilight pulled her into a hug. “I won't let that happen. I promise you.”
“I want you to let them.”
Twilight gasped. What?
“I've been running so long I don't remember what it's like to not be afraid. To not have to wonder about every corner. If it's going to be the last one I turn. I can't do this anymore!”
Twilight let her go, trying to see her eyes, but they wouldn't open.
“I have one hope left: the counter spell. If it fails, I won't let them take me alive. But if it works, what do I even do? Keep running until they figure out how to beat it? There's no way I can win by myself. I don’t even know what to do! I need you to tell me there’s a way...”
Twilight pushed Trixie’s chin up and squeezed it, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “Trixie, listen to me. There is a way. Starting tomorrow, no, starting right now, they're on the run from us.”
Trixie's lip quivered.
“You've been fighting so long and losing. What you need, more than anything, is a victory. I'm going to give it to you. Here's what we're going to do.” Twilight checked the privacy shield once more, making sure all was intact. “We're going to work all night on your spell. It'll be better than ever. Then, you're going to take point in the search. When they confront you, you'll tear them and their little parlour trick to pieces while I shut down their amplification crystal. I bet it'll be easier to detect than ever while they flail about, trying to keep their advantage.
“Once that's done, Rainbow will fly you out so fast they won't even have time to react, and then they'll be completely exposed. Ripe pickings for hundreds of gryphons.”
Twilight gave her another hug. “This isn't a trap for you. This is a trap for them. I'm going to see to it.”
“Twilight…” Trixie squeezed her hard enough to pop a few joints. “Thank you… Friend…”
“You're welcome, Trixie.” Twilight sighed and looked into her friend's purple eyes. "Don't worry. We'll get these guys. All you have to do is promise to stay with us and never give up."
"Trixie will! And I'll do even better than that!" Trixie scrambled to her armor locker, took out a boot, and tossed it at Twilight. "Abusing my stomach isn't all I've been doing tonight. I've also been reading the manual for this stuff. This armor is incredible! A reactive shield, customized components for an earth unicorn, and take a look at the bottom part of that piece."
Twilight turned the part around, looking at the fetlock piece. "There's a new enchantment here. Did you do that?"
"Yes! It included a few slots for customization. Trixie can use it to mix my earth pony and unicorn magic!"
Twilight scratched her chin. "There's room left. Maybe we can use this to give the Illusionists an even better surprise."
Twilight pulled down the privacy shield. “What’s up, Rainbow?”
Rainbow’s poked her head in through the doorway. “The Prince is here for you.”
“The Prince? Odd.” Twilight walked to the center of the room, keeping her head held high. “Send him in, Rainbow.”
The door swung open the rest of the way, revealing the large form of Prince Ragnar. His light metal armor was replaced with softer clothes in hues of blue, white, and purple. Gold irises locked on Twilight, shifting and dancing to view her in a clarity Twilight couldn’t even comprehend. One thing she could be certain of, however, was the dark gravity that had consumed the chamber.
“I take it this isn’t a friendly visit.” Twilight glanced over at Trixie for an instant, finding her already off the hammock and collected, ready for a fight.
“Not quite friendly, no. But not hostile.” The Prince reached down to his side, taking out his sword and placing it on the ground with the handle facing Twilight.
“Then what are you here for?” Trixie asked.
“I need to speak with the Grand Mage, alone, and off-record.”
“Not happening, pal.” Rainbow flared out her wings. “If you have something to say, say it here where I can see you.”
“Rainbow! Manners!” Twilight pounded a hoof. “Let me deal with this.” She turned back to the Prince and cleared her throat. “My sincerest apologies, Prince Ragnar. However, given the degree of the threats against me, my Captain is not unwarranted in her caution.”
“I can appreciate that, Grand Mage Sparkle. However, I can assure you, I have extraordinarily compelling reasons for you to join me.”
“Rainbow!” Twilight snapped again. “Very well, Prince. Where would you like to meet?”
“You do not know the way. Follow me, and I will take us someplace safe.” The Gryphon bowed his head, turning around and walking out the door.
“Are you sure about this, Lady Sparkle?” Trixie asked, stepping up to her.
“Yes. Rainbow, Trixie, Spike, take a walk outside and enjoy the scenery. I’ll be back soon.” Twilight marched past the door, following the Gryphon in his swift wake. In a dark and cold of the winter night, the Coliseum’s torches glowed blue, painting the tan stone in an altogether new light. Paintings of kings long past looked down upon her, while empty suits of armour guarded great stone archways.
Based on the sheer number of stairs they had climbed, Twilight assumed they were somewhere near the top of the superstructure when they finally came to a lone room with nothing in it but a single stained glass window. The figure in the window quickly caught her attention.
“Stellar Horizon.” The name left Twilight’s lips on reflex, as there was no mistaking it. His gentle jawline, azure coat, ethereal mane depicting a sunrise, and cutie mark with three stars over an upward facing crescent.
“The very same. He saved this city, and though he is long dead, his actions still ripple through time to the present day.”
“I’m assuming the choice of this room isn’t coincidence.” Twilight tapped on her torc. “You should know, he may be my predecessor, but that was seven hundred years ago, and by all accounts he had far more experience than I when he earned the title.”
“Yet, Princess Celestia deemed you worthy, and I respect that opinion. However, first things first. I need to know I can trust you. What I tell you here, you cannot tell anyone. Not your friends, not your personal guard, not even Celestia.”
Twilight turned her back on him, but kept one ear trained on his position. “You’re asking me to betray those I hold dearest to me. You had better have a damn good reason for even suggesting such a thing.”
“As I said, I have a compelling reason. The geas.”
Her ear twitched. “I’m listening.”
“For as much information Celestia’s RGIS can collect, it is leaking like a sieve. It is not in our nature to do much spying, yet even this news has reached our Royal family. If you tell Celestia, she will no doubt inform your soldiers, and this is one piece of news that I cannot risk getting loose. But its nature means that I am compelled to share it with somepony from Equestria, and given your position, I can think of no one better than you. If you agree to the terms.”
Twilight clenched her teeth while her mind ruminated on the possibilities. “I don’t like this, Prince Ragnar, but I’m willing to agree to your terms under one additional condition.”
Twilight turned her head back towards him. “If this poses an imminent danger to Equestria, I am telling Celestia. She narrowed her eyes and focused directly into his. I don’t know you that well. To me, your trust is not worth the lives of my ponies. Period.”
“That is acceptable. Come, look at this.” The Prince reached into his pocket and pulled out something that looked like a heavily enchanted jewelry box. Inside was a lone photograph. “I’m afraid I cannot risk giving you a copy, but when you see what’s on it, you will understand my caution. Be careful, this—”
Twilight lit her horn on instinct and reached out with her magic. “Yowch!” Magic from the photograph lashed out at her, sending a shock back through her head and crashing her into the wall.
“My apologies, but I tried to warn you.” The Prince bowed, placing the picture on the floor in front of her.
“Apologies? That hurt!” Twilight sucked in air through her teeth. “What was that?”
“My… additional apologies. As gryphons, we assume a certain resilience to pain. Though you are Grand Mage, I should be mindful that there is a cultural difference at work.” He bowed again. “But, as I said, I tried to warn you. This photograph has been Touched.”
“‘Touched?’ You don’t mean…” Twilight rubbed the base of her horn while peering down. The image was of a lone dark room, a single pedestal, and a book with a magic aura so strong that it wasn’t just visible; the photograph itself was still soaked in power. “That’s a grimoire!”
The Prince nodded. “And it is in possession of King Morvana. This picture was taken in her personal vault.”
Twilight swallowed the lump in her throat. “Princess Celestia doesn’t even keep grimoires in her personal library. They are so powerful, they have to be made by tearing out pieces of your wellspring to use as ink. To even open one you have to be in total isolation, because just reading the words can trigger spells spontaneously, no matter what your race is. If you skip a word, or even misinterpret a meaning, the spell can backfire in an explosion, or warp your mind to the point of insanity. Only the greatest of unicorn mages can even hope to control one, let alone write one.”
“Which is precisely why I am so concerned.” Sparks jumped around the Prince’s talons as he picked up the picture with a silver-lined neckerchief and put it back into the box. “Morvana’s decisions as of late have become more and more irrational. The other royals and I fear she is being influenced. The revelations of this evidence suggest it may be from the book, but news of a geas being used on ponies forces us to entertain other possibilities.”
“If it’s that bad, can you challenge her for the throne? The Chairpony informed me of some of your succession rules. Surely there is a way to unseat her if—”
“There is, but it requires a ground shaking event. Something so overwhelming that every gryphon and every aerie views it as repugnant. Questionable, I’m afraid, just doesn’t cut it.”
Twilight scratched her chin. “And the combat ritual? Could you succeed there?”
The Prince turned to his left, staring off into space. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”
“Charlemane was right. She has something, doesn’t she?”
The gryphon’s head snapped back front and center.
“Something so powerful that you don’t have a hope of winning. If that’s the case, perhaps we should work together. With Celestia’s magical knowledge, and your forges, we could— ”
“Please, Lady Sparkle, do not insult me by suggesting such dishonesty again. All armaments using the challenge must be of gryphon make, exclusively.”
“My sincerest apologies.” Twilight bowed low. “I didn’t mean to insinuate anything, and I was unaware of the rules. I am the element of magic, and for me, friendship and cooperation are always preferable.”
“I can appreciate that you were merely offering to help. But as I said, that is not an option.”
Twilight lifted her head back up. “Then perhaps there some other way I can help.”
The Prince winked at her. “Perhaps. If, during your travels, you should find proof of undue influence on the throne, then we could take appropriate action. Only if you run into something. I can’t ask you to deliberately search for it.”
"I think I can keep an eye out."
Twilight slunk around a corner of the hall, ready for anything. Her spell hadn't detected anything, but she was on her own at the moment, and didn't want to take chances. Fortunately, no gryphon saw her attempt to hide behind a display case of transparent glass.
"I'm overthinking this. I need to trust that Trixie's spell will work." She took in a deep breath and sauntered, taking in the paintings, statues, and other art in the palace. "This actually is quite lovely."
What's up, Aurora?
"I can't shake a bad feeling about this city. I want to help keep you safe, and I have an idea to help."
Twilight gave Aurora a mental pat on the head. Sure thing! What did you have in mind?
"One of my abilities is self-metamorphosis. Like when I changed to accommodate your saddlebags. I can also add enchantments to myself, but it's difficult and time consuming. Doesn't feel that good, either."
Neat! Twilight pretended to stare at an empty suit of armor. But I don't want you to hurt yourself on my account.
"It does hurt, but only for a while. I can take breaks whenever I want, too. After it's over, I'm... Better. I can be more useful. And I think I've figured out something I can do quickly. Well, in a day or so, anyway.
"If you let me absorb one of the radios, I can reverse engineer it and integrate it into myself. You'd be able to use one whenever I'm deployed, and nopony could take it away from you without taking me away, too, which is impossible as long as I'm deployed. But you won't be able to use it until I'm done."
Twilight clapped her hooves together. Wow! That's really amazing! Yeah, I'd be happy to trade a radio for a while to be able to do that with you! Are you sure you want to endure the pain, though?
"Yes. Being able to protect you is my only motivation, and I think this is a way I can be better at it. And... I'm glad you think I'm amazing."
Don't ever think anything less of yourself, Aurora. You're not just my armor, you're my friend. I'll get you that radio when we're back in the room.