“Well. Holy crap.”
“Took the words right out of my mouth, Spike.” Twilight stepped out of the chariot to find the largest gathering of gryphons she had ever seen. They were in the sky, they were on the clouds, they were on the ground, all swarming over the city like bees in a hive, and every single one but the youngest fledglings were much bigger than she was.
“Hey, Twilight!” Spike grabbed Twilight’s shoulder and pointed off to a kiosk. “There’s a t-shirt vendor! And they have pony sizes!”
“Aw, crap. Now I actually have to get Charlemane a T-shirt. Or rather…” Twilight pulled out some coins from her bag. “Spike, do me a favour and get an extra-large, would you?”
“Sure thing, Twi!” He grabbed the coins, gave a salute, and ran off.
Good lackey. You’ll get a gem biscuit when we get home. Twilight rolled her eyes at herself and groaned. Okay, that was a little mean. But it is nice to have my number one assistant here and happy to do things for me. I should get him something at some point. It’s not like I don’t have the money.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” the Prince chuckled, stroking his beard. “Gryphons from all over the Empire come here to test their mettle and watch those being tested. Legends are written, scores are settled, the very course of the nation is sometimes set right here.”
A shadow passed over Twilight as an enormous flock blotted out the sun. Rough, high-altitude winter winds pierced through her still-regrowing coat, stinging her eyes but carrying with them the scent of food and the sound of cheers and laughter. The light and shadow slowly alternated as clouds traded positions in the sky.
“Would you care to join us in the royal booth, Lady Sparkle?” Princess Freya asked. “The view is quite spectacular, even for ponies.”
“I’d be delighted to! Spike, are you ready?”
Spike, still next to the booth, waved a t-shirt in the air.
“He’s ready,” Rainbow said before leaning in to Twilight, whispering, “Trixie’s almost in position.”
“Good, keep in radio contact.” Twilight whispered back before tapping on Rainbow’s helmet. “After you, Your Highnesses,” Twilight said with a bow.
The group walked through to one of the exterior entrances, this one just as massive as the other she’d gone through earlier. Though it had fewer guards, it did have one additional feature above the doors: a ledge, much smaller and harder to see from her angle, which was protected with gryphon Honor Guard.
“I’m afraid the door to the booth requires flight, Lady Sparkle.” The Prince offered his outstretched claw, palm up. “If you like, I would be happy to carry you and your young dragon assistant.”
Twilight and Spike shared a look. “No need, Prince.” Twilight lit her horn as Spike grabbed hold of her shoulders. “We have this one.” There was a flash, and they were up at the doors, standing on red carpet and staring down two surprised honor guard pointing swords at Twilight’s chest.
Twilight didn’t move a muscle, save for the ones needed to smirk.
“Whoa, easy there, guys!” Spike held up his hands in surrender. “This is the Grand Mage, here. We were invited, see?”
“Well, then! That I did not expect!” Two pairs of massive wings beat down on the air below them, as the Prince and Princess soared through the air to meet them on the ledge. “Passage, perhaps, but actual teleportation? That’s a rare gift!”
“Actually, it was one of the first spells I truly mastered.” Twilight shooed away the swords of the guards with her hoof, and they relaxed and returned to attention with a grimace as Rainbow came in for a landing behind them. “Celestia’s had me working on it since I was a filly.”
“A talent worthy of the title Grand Mage, no doubt. Come, the games await.” Princess Freya led the procession through the doors, cheers and blinding light raging through the opening.
“Olga! Olga is the victor!”
Twilight could just barely make out the Equish words from the translation announcer over the roar of the crowd and the Gryphonic announcer. “Sounds like they’ve already started.”
“Indeed. The games start early in the morning, and continue until nightfall."
The small hallway – at least, small for the coliseum – spilled out into an open-air booth as wide as Canterlot Castle’s main reception hall. Food and drink was laid out on tables, with luxury seats meant for gryphons lining the edge. Six Honor Guards armed with crossbows larger than Twilight on each side of the entrance lined the back wall of the booth, their eyes constantly scanning the skies.
Over the edge of the seating row was a lush, green valley devoid of snow even in winter. It was large enough to house several Ponyvilles quite comfortably, while the stadium seating in between the mountains could probably have accommodated millions of gryphons. In the center stood a sharp, pointed tower as tall as the highest spires of Canterlot from which the referees made their judgements.
There was simply nothing else like it in all the world.
“Oh, snacks!” Spike ran off to the buffet table like he hadn’t eaten in days.
Twilight giggled. Yup. One of the most amazing structures in the world, and he runs off for food. Then again, he is a growing dragon…
“Okay. I know where we should be spending our next vacation.” Rainbow coughed and cleared her throat, play-hacking and leaning over to Twilight. “So, um, can I —”
“No, Rainbow, you cannot go to the betting window.” Twilight sighed as she walked over to one of the guest seats. “Seriously, that gambling habit of yours is going to catch up to you one day.”
“Hmmm…” Rainbow sat and pun on a mock ‘serious thinking’ face. "Nope! I’m just way too fast for that."
"It has nothing to do with speed! It’s all about statisti —"
"Can’t hear you. Too busy winning!" Rainbow pulled out a betting slip.
100 Kroner – Olga
<<Odds>> 6:1 <<against>>
"Uuuugh." Twilight facehooved. “Whatever. Just, stay here from now on. You can pick up your winnings later.”
"Awesome!" Rainbow did a little loop in the air, then settled down into the seat to the right of Twilight.
“My husband has a point, Lady Sparkle,” Princess Freya said, sitting down next to Twilight in the royal couple’s chairs. “Your guards are quite lively!”
"You’re right, Princess. I do need to implement a new discipline program." Twilight flopped her forelegs onto the railing in front of them, resting her head and gazing towards the dozens of tiny specks fighting below. Seriously, they can see this?
"Here, these might help."
Twilight felt something hard tap on her shoulder, and looked over to see Freya offering a pair of binoculars. “Ah, thank you!” She took them in her magic and put them to her eyes, noticing the faint glow of magic on the lenses. Wherever she looked, the image would zoom in or out, always finding the perfect depth of field and focus. “I’m going to have to buy a pair of these at some point.”
"I can have some sent to Canterlot Palace, if you like." Freya said.
"Can it come with a case of that hot sauce I had yesterday?"
Freya laughed heartily, gently slapping the chair’s armrest. “Of course! With my compliments.”
“Hmm? What is it?” Rainbow pressed a hoof against her helmet and whispered. “Uh-huh. Yeah, that’s not good.”
"Rainbow?" Twilight’s right ear swiveled towards her guard. "Something wrong?"
"Definitely. Trixie said that the detection spell is being scrambled. She stepped out into the stands, and now it’s going crazy, getting pings all over the place."
"That’s not good. Tell her to keep moving, and to try to find a pattern or refine the spell."
"Gotcha. Should we get moving?"
"No, not yet. I don’t want to make a scene in front of our hosts if we don’t have anything definitive. Right now, all we know for sure is that there is something here. We need to find out what, and where."
"Is there something wrong?" Freya asked.
“Hmm? Oh, no. Rainbow and I were just talking.”
“So quiet. It amazes me how you ponies can hear even the smallest detail.”
“It amazes me how you guys can see that,” she pointed down in the valley, and waggled the binoculars, “without any of these!”
“Technically, we do have them.” She pointed to her iris. “They’re just built in.”
“I guess we both have things we can be envious of. Still, eyes like that would be crazy useful.”
“As would the nose of a dog, or the balance of a cat. We are all born with a certain lot in life. It’s all about what you do with it.”
Freya pointed down to the fighters below. “Right now, we’re watching the Tier 3 Challenge matches.”
Spike plodded up behind them, arms full of plates heavy with food. “What’s Tier 3 mean?”
“I’m glad you asked!” Freya smiled like a school teacher. “There are three categories of matches: challenges, where two gryphons with a grudge settle things with a fight, sanctioned matches, when governments or other organizations within the Empire cannot come to an agreement and they decide to fight it out, and spectacles, where well-known fighters compete for glory for themselves or their team. The last one is really part theater, and the participants have personalities as large as their swords, but the fights are real.
“Now, each category has five tiers, with tier 5 having the most skilled and dangerous combatants. Some matches are for individuals, while others are fought with teams. Sometimes a lower tier team will challenge a single higher tier fighter. Oh, and the challenge matches also have a fledgling tier, for teenagers.”
“For teenagers?” Spike asked while chewing on some kind of cheese pastry. “Isn’t that dangerous? I mean, they could kill each other down there.”
“It’s possible, yes, but very rare. There are healing enchantments within the valley to help prevent fatalities, and death matches have been banned for centuries.”
“Enchantments?” Twilight nearly dropped her binoculars. “How did they get enchantments to cover an area of that size? I mean, I suppose one of the princesses could do it, but still, that’s impressive!”
“It’s actually a fairly simple trick. We engraved them into a few thousand stones, and buried them just under the soil throughout the valley.”
“Huh. Simple, but nonetheless effective. I’m going to have to remember that…” Wait a minute. Trixie was getting more pings than she could count? What if the stadium’s enchantments are affecting her spell? But then, I’m not getting anything up here… Better safe than sorry, I guess.
“Something wrong, boss?” Rainbow asked.
“Yeah,” Twilight whispered. “Tell Trixie to try to filter out the stadium enchantments. Anything in the stands, and the binoculars some ponies might be using, and the healing runes buried underneath the valley. It’s possible something might be interfering with her spell.”
“Is something the matter, Twilight? You keep whispering to your guard captain.”
"Oh, no," Twilight chuckled, doing her best to look sincere. “Just discussing a few things. Rainbow is a little nervous about the gryphons up in the clouds, is all. Normally, for ponies, the air space above royalty is generally kept clear, or at least guarded.”
“We could have them moved out, if you like. It’s no trouble.”
“No, I couldn’t ask you to do that for me. It’s a different culture, and besides, I like to pretend at least once that not everything is out to get me.”
“As a fellow Royal, I know exactly what you mean.”
“I don’t,” said a new voice behind them.
Spike, Rainbow, Twilight, and Freya all turned to face the gryphoness newcomer. She wore a full set of rose-colored armour, and carried a pike with a tip made out of cut gemstone. Purple colour accented her eyes, talons, and the tips of the feathers on her head. More important, however, was the crown upon her brow.
“Honestly, if you’re that scared, maybe you should go home with the ponies. This place is for Gryphons, not cowards.”
“Gilda? What are you doing here?” Rainbow spat.
“What am I doing here, dweeb? This is the Royal booth. I have a right to be here. You, do not.”
“Princess Gilda, neither I nor my guests will be spoken to that way in my own home.” Freya’s eyelids cracked open ever so slightly. “Hold your tongue, or I will remove it.”
“Pffft.” Gilda brushed off her shoulders. “I’d like to see you try. Oh wait, you can’t. Morvana would —”
Freya snapped her fingers, sending a crack through the air like a whip.
All six of the honour guards behind them stood to attention and brought their weapons forward.
"You will find, young one, that there is nothing I cannot do in my home. Speak that way to me or my guest again, and you'll be facing me in the arena next. Am I clear?"
The two locked eyes on one another, fighting out a silent battle of stares. To a gryphon, every slight movement, every swaying feather, every errant twitch was a thrust, parry, or slash in a war of will. Twilight had no hope of cataloguing each hit, but it was clear who would be the victor.
Gilda huffed, snapping to Dash a silent message Twilight didn't need to be a gryphon to figure out, then took to the skies with a few mighty flaps of her wings.
We'll be watching you, too, gryphon. Nobody hurts my ponies.
"I'm terribly sorry about that, Lady Sparkle." Freya snapped her fingers again, and one of the guards rushed to get her a stein of mead. "I honestly have no idea what Morvana was thinking when she accepted that disgrace back into her family. One of many mysterious moves from the King as of late."
"What else has she done?" Twilight fought with herself to keep from dragging out her notebook. This was off the record.
"Off the top of my head? Antagonized the Equestrian military, which is a fool's endeavour given the sheer size of your populace. She sided with that idiot Malkia in your recent war, and has been sending patrols to chase a phantom enemy no one has ever seen in the frozen wastes to the west."
"Between Gryphonhelm and Stalliongrad? That is strange." Twilight won the battle against the notebook but lost to her pen, picking it up and chewing on the end. "That's nothing but tundra, snow and lichen."
“Exactly. It’s making us wonder about her sanity, but we need more than that to challenge her without a physical contest.”
Spike let out a burp smelling of pastry and sulfur. “Uof. Hey, Twi, that thing Celestia gave us is beeping.” He pulled out the box from his pocket and fiddled with one of the knobs. “Reading valance oh-point-seven.”
Twilight pulled out a black notebook and tossed it to him. “That’s not that high, really, but we could be onto something. Hop down to the stands and start taking readings. Depth first search.”
“Depth first? Really? Ugh.” He held his belly and sighed. “Figures you’d make me run up and down the stairs.”
“Yeah, yeah, biped, I know. I just have a hunch.”
“Okay, but I want some wraps from Bon Bon’s when we get back to Ponyville.” Spike stretched of his shoulder and stepped up on top of the railing.
“What is he do –”
The dragon leapt off, dropping the nearly four stories straight down onto an aisle between the seats with a great bang of metal armour on marble tile. Some poor gryphon nearby was actually startled enough to drop his caramel apple.
Twilight coughed under her breath. “Umm… I can pay for the tile. Honest.”
Freya leaned towards Twilight, her huge eyes looking like they could swallow the mare all on their own. “Okay, Lady Sparkle, I was willing to entertain your excuses up until now, but there is clearly something going on. As the ruler of this aerie, I must know if what you are doing poses a threat to my citizens.”
Twilight looked over to Rainbow, who simply shrugged and said, “Your call, boss.”
“Off the record?” Twilight asked.
“That depends on your response. I have a duty to my populace, just as you have one to your ponies.”
Twilight took in a deep breath, willing the adrenaline in her system to subside. “Our intelligence believes there is a subversive group of ponies operating in the city. They possess illusion magic capable of fooling even gryphon eyes.”
Freya jerked her head back. “Surely, you’re joking!”
“I’m afraid not. Worse, their magic leaves behind a miasma trace when used frequently in one area. A pony working for you was poisoned by this same kind of contamination recently.”
Freya took a thoughtful sip of her mead. “That’s rather circumstantial and flimsy evidence, Lady Sparkle. Surely this could be something else. Your own factories produce such pollution.”
Twilight raised her eyebrow. “True, but to my knowledge, no such facility exists in Gryphonhelm. He lived and worked here for years, and his symptoms are consistent with long term, low level exposure.”
“I see your point. So, you are here to look for these ponies. Tell me, what will you do if you find them?”
The answer stopped on its way out Twilight’s mouth to punch her in the jaw and send a tendril of ice down her back. The response was automatic, tactically correct, and delivered with as much confidence as Luna herself, but all the same it made her nauseated. “I'll have to kill them.”
Twilight wasn't wondering how wide a gryphon’s iris could stretch, but she had just found out. “I… Had heard you were the Element of Magic, a member of the Elements of Harmony. And yet, such words... I admit I’m stunned.”
“I always prefer peaceful solutions, and friendship over antagonization, but in this case I must go all out. Trixie and I are trained to combat them, but their illusions are extremely dangerous. They are more projection of will than trick of light, and are able to take on mass, texture, even scent. We know of no effective means of fighting them without unicorn magic. If your soldiers encounter them, tell them to retreat. They will die if they do not.”
“Assuming your intelligence is correct, you mean. Also, such orders will be fairly ineffective, Lady Sparkle. Our people do not run from those in need, or those who challenge us. Also, you are not making a case to keep this secret.”
“If I can’t keep this operation under wraps, you can tell the leaders of your security forces. But we’ll be able to tackle them better if we keep their nature a secret. I don’t want to panic my ponies.”
“Or cause them to lose more faith in the crown.”
Rainbow tapped her hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Spike is reporting in. He says the contamination gets worse as he goes down the valley.”
Freya blinked. “He’s… Reporting in? Where?”
“From down there,” Twilight said, pointing, then adding when she saw Freya's confusion, “New, classified tech. He’s in constant contact with Rainbow. Trust me.”
Freya sighed and let her wings droop. “I want to, Twilight, but you’re asking a lot right now.”
“Trixie?! What did you say? Slow down, I don’t copy!” Rainbow pressed her earpieces with a hoof on her helmet. “Twi, we gotta go. Trixie is under attack!”
Twilight stood up and fed magic into her torc, transforming it into armor. “Tell Spike to hold position. Rainbow, go fly to Trixie, try to pull her out of there. I doubt their illusions can keep up with your speed. I’m going to destroy their projection crystal. I bet I know where it is.”
“And what do you need from me?” Freya stepped in between Twilight and her guard, spreading a wing. “This is my aerie, my city, my citizens. But if the attackers are who you say they are, you have more experience with this threat. So, what do you need from me?”
Twilight swallowed, mulling the options for a moment. “Evacuate the area. The illusions could fool gryphons into attacking one another. Best to get them all out.”
“It will be done.”
“Rainbow, go!” Twilight shouted, prompting the pegasus to salute and take off like only she could. Freya joined her in the air a second later, followed by the guards from the booth, leaving the Grand Mage alone with her hunch on where the crystal was: the tower in the center of the valley, miles away.
“Aurora, you there? You know as much about magic as I do. What’s your assessment?”
“I agree with your prediction, but to project over such an area, it would need to be a massive instrument.”
“Precisely.” Twilight put her hooves on the rail and stared down the valley. The sheer height and distance made her legs weak and brain dizzy. “What better way to influence a government that makes policy decisions via combat than to use illusions to give one fighter an advantage without them even knowing it?”
Twilight channeled her magic, feeding it into a basic shield matrix. Each layer was a pale shadow of the little masterpieces her brother, Obsidian Armour, used. Despite this, the last layer was something special. She had yet to master the complex set of spells required for Passage, but helpful though that would be, it wasn’t what she needed here. No, what she needed now was to be able to fly.
Since she didn’t have wings yet, she’d use the next best thing, another gift from her BBBFF. The special shield layer by itself wasn’t enough, but it helped take care of some of the math for her. With a calm breath, she charged her new teleportation spell, took hold of the reins of physics, and pulled. Mass, inertia, velocity, speed, they were all bent to her will.
When she sparked back into reality, the ground below her was a blur of red-hued motion, the winter wind was ripping at her ears with needles, and ten thousand gryphons were staring at her with slack beaks.
Hang on, Trixie. Time to see how well they fight without their toys.
It was a subtle thing, sometimes. That burst of air a pegasus could summon to help her fly wasn’t always as dramatic as some ground-bound ponies seemed to assume. At least, it wasn’t for the better flyers. The weaker ones didn’t know how to do it like she did, and the results were always evident to those who knew what to look for.
Gryphons had similar magic for flight. They couldn’t manipulate clouds nearly as well as pegasi, but they could still summon the same currents.
That was how Rainbow knew that Freya was an expert in the air. Her motions were slower and more deliberate than a Wonderbolt’s, but they were every bit as smooth and professional. Plus, if Gilda was afraid to fight her, then Rainbow knew she had to be seriously fierce.
What was most troubling, though, was that Freya turned away from where Trixie was supposedly fighting. This meant that Rainbow was going on without support against unicorn magic she had trouble even fathoming.
But then, that’s why my name is Rainbow ‘Danger’ Dash!
A siren blared as she banked to the left, soaring over the crowd, which was now starting to leave their seats and fly off into the sky. Guess she went to pull a fire alarm or something.
The current changed just ahead of her. It was subtle and slight, like it should be, except for one thing: she wasn’t the one who changed it.
Instinct took over, pushing her wings forward in an attempt to brake, and did so just in time for the blade to swing down in front of her head, leaving a yellow streak in the air. A drop of something ran down the pegasus’ nose, leaving behind a familiar, metallic taste on her lips.
Rainbow tumbled backwards in a loop, coming to rest in full view of her attacker: Gilda.
“What in Tartarus are you doing, Gilda!?” Rainbow would have stomped her hoof had there been anything directly under her. “I don’t know what your problem is, but I don’t have time to deal with you right now!”
Gilda twirled the pike in her hands, spinning the massive weapon like a baton while its crystal blade crackled to life. “What I’m doing? You three are the ones assaulting the city!”
Rainbow would’ve frozen stiff at the accusation if doing so wouldn’t cause her to plummet. “You have got to be bucking kidding me.”
“Three gryphons are dead, a room of priceless artifacts is destroyed, and your friend is somehow flying into the arena in full battle armour she got from who-knows-where. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out.”
“No, but only an idiot would think attacking ponies with diplomatic immunity instead of listening to them is a good idea!”
“Take your diplomatic immunity and shove it up your ass! That garbage doesn’t count if you’re attacking us!”
Rainbow ran magic down her pinion, sending sparks of spectral electricity and clouds of smoke behind her. “So, this is how it's gonna be, huh?”
Gilda twirled the pike once more, then aimed it squarely at Rainbows head. “Yeah. It is.”
Lightning popped and buzzed behind the Captain, eager to be unleashed through the air. “Last chance, Gilda. Get out of my way.”
Rainbow took in a deep breath, tasting the freezing, bone-dry air around her. One of the scattered clouds overhead slowly passed under the sun, darkening the sky. Off in the distance, dots of gryphons fluttered about, no doubt wondering why they’d been evacuated. If they came to Gilda's aid, she’d be in serious trouble. Right now, though, the only thing that mattered was what she was: loyalty. Trixie was under attack, and for all of that mare’s faults, she was still a friend. That could mean only one thing.
It was Gilda who was in trouble.
“Alright then.” Rainbow licked her lips and locked her gaze right on her enemy’s eyes. “Bring. It. On.”
“Hello?! Hello!? Argh! Why isn’t this thing working!? Worthless piece of junk!” Trixie bolted down the corridor inside the stadium city, the walls and floor made of stark, undecorated concrete instead of ornate marble. Maintenance halls apparently didn’t rate any funds for aesthetic appeal. Much of it, though, glowed pink as her magic warned her of illusions, and it was clear that the city’s wards and healing magic weren’t causing it. Worse, they had already shorted out, or perhaps overridden, the camouflage shield.
“Focus, Great and Powerful, focus!” Trixie slid to a halt, panting and sweating in the overheated “tunnel.” It seemed to stretch for a mile ahead of her. “Come on, the exit should be here somewh—“
She froze solid after turning her head behind her. That’s not where I came from. That’s exactly like… She swung back around. Like what’s ahead of me...
Silence. No roar of a crowd. No trumpets sounding a new fighter in the arena. Not even the drip of a leaky pipe or the hum of a vent.
This wasn’t an investigation. It was a trap.
“Hmph,” Trixie sneered, and lit her horn, then put on her magician’s hat just so she could pull down the rim. “Just as I thought. Well, guess what, I’m ready for you this time.”
Yet more power flowed out from her wellspring, reaching out in a sphere around her until it turned into a ball of thaumic light. “I’m not going to run from you anymore! Rivelare!”
The concrete walls shattered like glass, the crashing splinters of magic falling around her in a storm. What was left wasn’t hallway, and the warnings of illusions were gone. Instead, she was a darkened museum filled with display cases of weapons and armour of gryphons long passed. There was carpet in place of concrete, plus marble walls, rich wood accents, and hanging flags of coat-of-arms, all wrapped up in the smell of fresh paint and the roar of the crowd outside.
In the middle of it all, there he was. A stallion in a suit and sunglasses, with a light blue coat and white mane.
“How many years has it been?” Trixie made no effort to hide the bile spewing forth in her voice. “Alone, running scared of you while you chased me. Tricked me. Tortured me. Dangled opportunity in my face only to pull back the curtain and reveal some fresh new Tartarus. I don’t even know who the buck you are!”
Nothing. The stallion stood silent, motionless as the statues around her.
“You don’t have to say anything. I don’t care to hear it, really. But if you do speak, Trixie guarantees you…” Magic burned through her horn, swathing the room in pink light. “Those words will be your last!”
She lunged forward as the blast wave turned the windows and cases into debris, scorched the wood panelling, and burned a line straight to the stallion, shattering the illusions he had tried to make around him. Yet, he had dodged. How, Trixie wasn't sure, but she didn't care. After all, that wasn't the only new trick she had learned. If it was the last thing she did, this stallion would die today.
She readied her next spell while she dashed toward him, a different kind of magic pounding out of her hooves. Upon reaching him, she swerved to his side, magically gripped the floor, and kicked off into a perfect ninety-degree turn. The stallion jumped away, just as Trixie had planned.
A spell lanced out of her horn as she executed the same maneuver again, this time adding in a backflip. Not a single one of her hooves was on the ground when her enemy dodged.
Once again, this was just as planned.
The spell hit the wall behind him. If one had the foresight to look, and had very quick eyes, they would have been able to see the magic circle form, right before the wall exploded inward, shaking the ground and launching debris and shrapnel at the stallion and knocking him clean off his hooves.
Yes! Wait, calm down, GP, this isn’t over yet.
Sure enough, the stallion rose again, nonplussed but covered in dust and cuts.
Cuts which bled crimson.
Her warning spell told her there were still no illusions active, which meant the cuts were real. This stallion was flesh and bone and magic.
This stallion could, and would, die.
"Monster! Get it!”
Trixie kicked off the floor and rolled to the left just in time for the gryphon’s flail to hit where she had been standing, and smirked at the stallion, whose face was looking less and less amused. His tricks were old hat at this point. It was time to turn the tables.
“Rivelare!” The spell spread outward all around her, reaching and searching to find an illusion to crush into thaumic waste.
“I got it!”
Pain. Cutting, razor-sharp pain sliced through the left of her neck, another gryphon’s longsword having punched through her armor and cut open her skin. She reeled back, holding her neck as blood trickled down.
The stallion grinned as the three gryphons approached her without a trace of triumph on their faces, as if unaware of the successful attack.
My spell! It didn’t work! But wh— Her eyes gave her the answer. She could see no pink of her warning spell. He’s using a different class of illusion!
Blood welled around her armoured hoof before spilling to the floor, and Trixie nearly choked at the sight. Keep it together, GP. It’s not spurting. The armour stopped most of the blow.
The three gryphons swung and lunged with sword, flail, and dagger, but they seemed strangely hesitant, letting her dodge when it just shouldn’t have been possible. Whatever they were seeing, it was the first time Trixie had seen any of the race truly scared.
Then Trixie’s rump hit the wall. They were cornering me! She locked her eyes back on the stallion. Two can play that game. Magic rushed out of her horn and surrounded her, pushing her through a plane that shouldn’t exist, through a hole too tiny to measure, and back out again.
She had done it: teleportation.
One swift rear kick later and the illusionist stallion was on the ground.
“Get it! It’s attacking that pony!”
That’s right, come get me! She jumped and stomped down on where the stallion’s head was, only barely missing as he rolled aside. Just a little closer…
She chased after the stallion, closing as much distance as she could while he punched and kicked at her, the gryphons closing on her own tail all the while. Her horn lit up and fired three bolts behind her, though they were unaimed. They weren’t supposed to hurt, after all. They were supposed to get the others to shift their focus. “Riflettere e spargimento!”
Monsters appeared all around her. Horrors too grotesque to exist, masses of black matter with arms and tentacles and arms on tentacles. Each was a perfect copy of the others, and most importantly, the stallion now looked exactly the same as her.
“Stay back! I’ve got them!” The dagger-bearing gryphon yelled, spreading his wings to shield his compatriots and lifting his small blade to the heavens. “Blå bølge!” Magic streaked to the knife’s edge, covering it completely before the gryphon swung it down and let it loose. A burst of blue-white power flew out from the blade, heading directly for the stallion.
“Tch.” Though it was the first word Trixie had ever heard from any of the Illusionists, that wasn’t what she was focusing on. The stallion had lifted a small, collapsible baton from his suit pocket and expanded it out until it sparked to life with a nearly ultraviolet hue.
One swing. That’s all it took. One single swing and the gryphon's wave of magic was redirected back at him with what must have been double the original force. When it hit, the creature was knocked through what was left of the museum wall and just kept going, flying out into the suburbs far away and below, never once spreading his wings. He probably never even noticed the illusory monsters had vanished.
The next gryphon fared no better. It may have thought it dodged the first swing for a split second, but the stallion was only repositioning himself for the real swing upwards into his gut, powering him through the ceiling to points unknown. The third managed to swing his sword three times at something vaguely resembling its attacker’s direction, which, while not nothing, wasn't near enough. The stallion literally climbed up the gryphon’s chest, flipping over him and delivering a blow that saw a head removed from shoulders, followed with another to the back that sent the body directly at Trixie.
The whole thing took less than five seconds.
Fur and feathers whizzed past her body as Trixie shifted herself to the left, ready to re-enter the fight, but the stallion wasn’t there.
Trixie turned her head and held up her forelegs in time to see the purple starburst flash in front of her eyes and the enemy’s baton.
Wind left her lungs. Pain slammed into her back. Air rushed passed her head, followed by hard concrete slamming into her after another burst of purple light. The sound of hooves landing nearby forced her up, sending blood to flow down her skull and into her eyes.
The gryphons had been convenient to the stallion for a moment, but after she had turned them on him, they had been reduced to nothing but a message: There was nothing that could protect her from them.
“So be it,” she snarled. “Come and get me. I hope you’ll be satisfied with a corpse!” Trixie reared up on her hind legs and slammed her hooves into the marble, cracking an area the size of a small building while the armour on her legs glowed orange. “No more running. This ends now!”
The stallion smiled. “Yes. Yes it does.”
Twilight had never flown before. At least, she hasn’t flown at such an incredible speed on her own before. Also, technically, she still wasn’t flying, just falling with far more control than normal. Regardless, whatever it was she was doing, it was ridiculously fast and headed in a general direction that would best be described as “down-ish.” This was quite problematic seeing as the ground was rather upset that she managed to escape their intimate appointment back when she first started her ascension.
It’d just have to go on being disappointed.
Another flash of magic undid the physics-defying catapult of a spell she performed at the top of the valley, bringing her to a dead stop mere inches from the ground, with barely a cough worth of sound as she touched down on the grass.
“Twilight. I’m detecting elevated thaumic contamination.”
“You can sense that?”
“Yes. It tastes… Smells? Like bitterness. Or maybe mustard. I’m not quite sure. Since I don’t have a tongue or nose, I experience taste and smell second-hoof. But it is here. Valence is two-point-something. Estimated lethal dose for a pony with an average wellspring is twelve years’ exposure. Gryphon fatalities would still take longer than their average lifespan, even accounting for their type of magic use.”
Twilight whistled her approval. “You got all that so quickly? Guess we didn’t need Spike’s doodad.”
“… I didn’t want to make him sad. He makes you happy. Also, it's probably better at finding very low levels of the contamination.”
“Fair enough.” The taste of sweet grass permeated through to Twilight’s tongue, carried on the warmer air of the deep valley. The wind was calmer here, but it was anything but silent. A distant alarm and the flutter of thousands of wings made their way to Twilight’s ears. Most important, though, was what her eyes could, or rather couldn’t, tell her. Purple hues all over the edge of her vision warned of potential illusion use, though she couldn’t tell how accurate it was. Based on what it was telling her, everything was an illusion.
Moreover, the spire ahead of her was enormous, and still quite some distance away, and well beyond the range of a simple teleport. Even if she could go that far, the power consumption of the spell could drain even her massive wellspring. Her “cannonball” teleportation spell could get her there in a hurry, but without a better idea of the scale, she ran the risk of teleporting too close to do so again to correct her flight arc, or worse, running into one of the groups of gryphons still fighting it out in front of her. “Aurora, can you tell me how far or how tall the tower is? I’m betting that’s what we need to hit. If I can get inside I might be able to find the crystal.”
“My ability to process visual information is the same as yours. Your eyes are my eyes.”
Twilight pursed her lips. “I’m going to have to go off the angle and make a guess.“ She sparked her horn back to life, programming the spell to catapult her forward. “Gotta hurry, Trixie is—“
A thud resonated through the ground, violently shaking her legs and core, though she still managed to hold her spell ready and stable in her horn. A shadow towered over her, one sporting wings the size of Celestia and an improbably large warhammer. Bits of dirt flew by, kicked up from the massive gryphon’s landing.
“Well now, what’s this? It has been years since a pony was brave enough to storm the field and challenge me!” The broad face of the beast smiled and laughed, his orange-tipped pinions and face feathers shaking in delight.
“Uuh, I did?”
“Of course! To step onto the field of battle uninvited can mean only to throw down a gauntlet to the Battlemaster of the Gryphonhelm Arena, Aldrik, the Unstoppable! I accept your –“ His eyes went wide; very, very wide. “That armour! Surely, it cannot – it is! The Grand Mage of Equestria! Oh, strålende dag! This shall be immortalized in song!” He lifted up his hammer over his head, which made a “whoosh” as it flew up.
Twilight cleared her throat in a bit of a Fluttershy impression. “I don’t suppose we could take a rainch –“
The hammer came down, and Twilight let loose her spell.
In the distance, as she flew backwards and towards the spire, Twilight could see the earth itself crack open where the gryphon had struck. “Sweet Celestia! Dammit, gotta get to the—“
She’d changed direction again. That was her first thought. She was going back the way she came, with at least as much speed as before. The second thought was that she’d been kicked. The third, that she’d been hit. The fourth, that her spine had been crushed and broken free of the hip. Only that could explain the pain in her backside. Nothing else could be it.
Through her tears, she could still see in front of her. There was blurry grass and blue sky, plus the stadium and mountains. That was all there was. Then, there was the gryphon, and his hammer ramming into her stomach.
And there was pain.
She had been rolling in the grass, that was what she knew next as one of her forehooves pushed her back up, seemingly of its own accord. The sky wasn’t there as much, anymore. It had been replaced by a translucent purple sphere around her that was riddled with cracks.
“Twilight! That’s the biggest cored weapon I've ever seen! We can’t take another hit like that!”
“I…” She coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood. “I… Know…” Somehow, she moved her hind legs beneath her and pushed up, standing again, if only just. The only reason she wasn’t in several crushed, splotchy pieces was because her shield matrix, given to her by her brother, had absorbed most of the blow.
"I can heal you a little, slowly, but I won’t be as strong as normal if I do.”
“Do it,” she said, voice cracking under the strain and horn lighting up once more. “I don’t plan on being hit again. We’re dead if I fail, anyway.”
“Una Salus Victus?”
“Una Salus Victus.”
The gryphon appeared before her. No warning, no sudden attack. Just a static rush of air to announce that he was already there, complete with a frown on his face worthy of being put on a painting somewhere. “So disappointing, Grand Mage. I thought at least, of all the ponies, you would be worthy. Perhaps none of you have the strength I crave. Do not worry, I will go easy on you from here on out so that you may save face.”
“My apologies, Aldrik,” she coughed out.
Her heart beat. That was a phrase one would take for granted. After all, she was still standing, and still breathing. One would assume that her heart was beating, given that information, but it was woefully inadequate to describe what had just happened. Her heart beat, and her eyes opened.
“Get ready, gryphon.” She took in a breath. There was no struggle, no sense of danger or weakness. Just, breath. “I’m going to end you now.”