• Published 13th Oct 2011
  • 17,568 Views, 1,168 Comments

The Quiet Place - Aynine

Twilight fights against sinister manipulations, struggling to overcome a deep-seated darkness within. As she battles to preserve everything she cares about, she will sacrifice anything necessary to succeed. But the price of victory may be herself.

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Chapter 23: Hollow

Author's Note:

12/25/2013 - Merry Christmas, and enjoy! :D I think I did rather well on this one.

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 23: Hollow

The earth angrily shook to life as a burst of energy crashed into it, scarring the land with a crater and spitting debris into the air. Water from the nearby lake raced to fill the empty space, and Telos ran a hoof coolly through his mane as he watched the dust from his attack disperse. The sun was sinking and bathing the valley in its majestic orange glow. He cast a glance towards the horizon and snorted.

"The sunset brings back memories, does it not?" he called out as he began to walk along the bank of the lake. "It was not easy finding you. No... but we were never ones to shy away from challenges, from things perhaps forbidden from us."

Aurelius shook dirt from his mane, frowning as he dusted the rest of himself off. "I'm impressed, Telos. You've regained quite a lot of your strength. I'll bet you're still a lot stronger than I am right now."

Telos stopped rounding the lake when he was opposite of his enemy, and peered down into the water. They shimmered with the orange glow and reflected back the constantly distorted image of his face. "She always believed in the natural order of life," he said.

"Speak up if you mean to speak at all!" shouted Aurelius.

"She would want the current order to be untouched by your poisonous will! I fight in the name and honor of your sister, and I shall uphold the crown of the present! Our era has ended, Aurelius, and so shall our status with it."

Sharp ripples echoed across the water. The lack split as an invisible force crashed into the bank where Aurelius stood sending water and mud spraying from the impact point. Another crater formed and the lake waters once again raced to fill it and recede back to its center. The prince had taken flight, but the rush of air from the explosion had sent him higher than he intended, jostling in the air, struggling to regain control. Telos aimed a hoof at him and smirked. "You were never a good combat strategist..." he muttered.

Two beams of energy raked the ground this time passing beneath the water and abruptly surging into the sky as they hit the far bank. Aurelius growled, igniting his horn and ceasing his flight. He plummeted to the ground, narrowly missing as the beams crossed by one another. They continued up for a moment, but arced and curved back down to cross into the prince again. He flipped over and held his wings out, slowing his descent, and loosed a massive fireball from his horn into them. He barreled one last time as the explosion above him forced him into the ground at high speed.

The force being too great to land on his hooves, Aurelius slammed into the earth with a shout. He climbed to his hooves, wincing slightly before collecting himself. "Not bad, Telos. You certainly haven't lost your touch over the ages we've spent locked away." He sneered and began stepping backwards, putting distance between him and the lake. "You of all ponies know that attacking me alone is a death sentence."

"We are already dead, Aurelius," said Telos.

"Speak for yourself, you fool. If you are dead, then come to me as another minion."

Aurelius laughed while the sage glowered, death reflecting in his eyes. The prince stomped a hoof and the lake tided towards Telos leaving no water behind in the bed. Standing tall, Telos whirled around and pushed both of his forehooves towards the wave while muttering a spell. The tide reached his bank and prepared to crush him, but as it fell towards him a wall of flames ripped from the ground and burned it away in a matter of seconds. The area distorted in a steamy haze as the last of the water evaporated.

"I never thought I would live to see the day when you would use water as a weapon," remarked Telos. "You always prided your fire." He guided his forehooves past him, pivoting as the steam vanished and more water appeared. As he twisted, a new wave formed from the steam and saturated ground, gathering strength and volume until he completed his turn. It charged back across the empty lake bed. Aurelius attempted to take flight again, but the water suddenly warped into a snake and surged towards him at triple the speed. Nearing him, the end twisted into a funnel and pulled him in, twisting, flowing high into the air before crashing down and driving the prince into the earth. There was nothing to soften his impact and the water continued to drill him down, dispersing a short while later.

Aurelius gasped and coughed, visible scratches on him now, and he growled as he saw his blood staining the mud. Climbing to his hooves, he caught his breath and shook himself of most of the sediment. "Your powers never cease to amaze me, but you already know that such weak attacks are nothing to me. Join me Telos, and together we can accomplish what I've already started." He offered a hoof, some of the lesser lacerations on his body healing.

Telos scoffed. "Your despicable, hypocritical blood pact with the dragons—I remember. Anything for power, isn't that right? Even sinking so low as to take another's or paint yourself in innocent blood for it."

"Swallow your own words, old friend. An earth pony capable of magical wonders. Now, I wonder... How could one such as yourself be capable of magic, let alone becoming one of the mightiest mages of our history?" Aurelius sneered and scrubbed a hoof through his dirty mane.

Telos scowled and pulled his hood back slightly. "Nothing but the ramblings of a rabid animal. You despised me for being of common blood, too impure for your sister, yet you polluted your own. The powers I have are your very retribution! Make no mistake, Aurelius, I would throw my life away again and again if it meant preventing you from distorting this world." The earth quaked to life at his words, fluttering his robe, and he cloaked himself in a light aura.

"Then watch as I take your life from you a third time," cooed the prince.

Spreading his wings, Aurelius stood up and pressed his forehooves together, closing his eyes and focusing. He loosed a rising cry as his body began to shine white, and Telos stared at him in awe, his jaw hanging open and his head slowly tilting back, hood falling off. The whiteness took over his form and grew into a shell over him, expanding and growing larger. The sage formed a weak shield in front of him and crouched as the light exploded, a rush of wind and dirt blasting his way. The thick dusty haze around where the prince had stood obscured his view, but two crimson wings peeked out from the sides of it.

"Hahahaha... I suppose you have never watched me transform before, have you?" asked a heavy, almost growling voice. The wings beat twice and most of the dusty haze cleared. Two large red claws planted themselves on the edge of the lake embankment, their talons digging into the earth. Aurelius grinned, flexing his muscles and stretching his wings, the sheen of his scales glimmering in the fading sunlight. "It has been eons since I last used this form. It feels great after having spent all that time maintaining that rotted coil of before. I have you to thank for that miserable state."

Telos forced his awe away and scowled, his stomach twisting at the prince's new form. "Dragon Prince Aurelius, the shamed lord of the sun. You know that your draconic blood will not be of any aid to you against me," he called out. "Astra refused to believe that you would bind yourself to the vile dragons of our age. Even now, after all of your sinister manipulations, the Brood of this one continue to aim for peace and harmony, the same that she believed in."

"Sinister manipulations? Hahaha. Those are words best left for a mirror, Telos. I wonder how much you truly know..."

"I know that you're nothing more than a pitiless creature."

"Even if a pawn like you does not respect me, I shall have you respect my power with your dying breaths, you insolent whelp!" seethed the dragon.

Aurelius propelled himself from the embankment with great force, his large wings unsettling loose debris and carrying it in his wake. Telos mouthed an incantation and forced his hooves forward, lightning exploding from the air before him. It arced and struck one of the dragon's wings, but it was too late. Aurelius twisted slightly and crashed into the ground, one hand balancing him as the other seized the sage in its hateful grasp. Squeezing his hand shut, his eyes widened before he released it.

"I see that your memory is still hazy. If it were so easy to kill me, then you would have done so before I sealed us for millennia. Once again your arrogance reigns king over you, Prince Aurelius."

The dragon spun around to see Telos standing on the lakeside behind him, weaving another spell. Ice split from the air over the lake bed, honeycombing and racing towards Aurelius. The sage moved and swayed his hooves and it split further, casting its area wide into a net, then it thinned away as it cascaded over the dragon's body. The area around him darkened and a localized blizzard erupted around him, a violent storm of hail and snow. Aurelius slammed his hands down and roared; the vibrancy of his scales increased momentarily. The arcane winter ended and his scales returned to their normal color.

"These scales of mine are impervious to such pathetic magic. Why are you holding back, Telos? Aren't you here to kill me?" He rose up and extended his wings, casting a shadow over the sage. "My body alone is a testament to my power. No dragon would form a blood pact with a pony that couldn't rip their heart out."

Telos glared at him defiantly, staring back with anger, with hatred. He clenched his teeth until his jaw ached. His eyes wandered away from the arrogant dragon and to the fading light of the sunset. A blue shade was casting over the lake and it would only be minutes before the world was bathed in the shadow of the night. "Astra had me promise her that I would not kill you, but I fear that it will be the one promise that I shall never keep."

"You always speak as if you have the power to kill me. Your magic is strong. I'll give you that. However, I'm sure you have wondered if it's truly enough. Fight me to the end, Telos, or are you afraid that I will reunite you with my beloved sister?"

The sage glowered at his inflection. "A monster like you never deserved her as your kin—never deserved her mercy!" The air around him slowly swirled about, gently billowing his cloak. In a flash he vanished and appeared beside the dragon, his aura thickening into a burning white energy pulling away from his form. He clasped his hooves, and Aurelius leaped backwards, gliding backwards and putting cautious distance between them. "Tomb of the Divine!" The spell came to completion and a sphere exploded out from the sage, moving to the center of the distance between them and expanding until it held both fighters in its area. It cast a blue shade over them, yellow lightning streaking across its borders, crackling and jumping about.

"What is this?" growled the dragon.

Telos chuckled as he slowly stepped forward, and the sphere's border behind began to recede slowly. "Do you not recognize it, from the last moments of your free life as an alicorn? Indeed... this brings back many... pleasant memories." A streak of lightning snapped as it arced from the sphere's surface and tore through one of the dragon's wings. "I will enjoy this."

Aurelius snarled as he stared at the blackened flesh, the hole inciting memories. "This spell... I remember now." He curled his tail up beside him and frowned. "It's no surprise that you would doom yourself to kill me. The altruistic Oracle, never too prideful to throw his life away for the greater good. If you wish to die for a purpose, then die right now and be gone from my consciousness."

Blasts of magic blanketed the dragon and he used a wing to shield himself from most of them. It distracted him from the sphere's enclosure, and he roared as it receded onto his back. He lurched forward and gained some room, but his blackened scales were a grim sign that his draconic form could not shrug off the spell. Magical backlash from the sphere tore at his body again and again, a wince and a groan following each one, and then a step closer towards Telos.

Telos gave him a satisfied stare. "Now that you are a dragon, I have been wondering if you would be willing to eat a pony. Would that be cannibalism, I wonder?"

"That is what you think about in a moment like this? Hah. Come closer and find out..."

"Astra, forgive me," he whispered to himself. "Lunar Blessing!" Telos raised both forehooves towards Aurelius, then chopped them down in tandem. The dragon grunted, resisting the colossal force, but was soon pressed against the ground in submission.

"Powers... of the moon! You damned fool. Why do you keep trying?" Slowly, he began to force himself off of the ground, rising up inch by inch. "It was all... lies. It was always... a lie..."

"Die in peace... old friend..." Telos panted, pain clinching his chest and climbing into his head, pulsing like an internal quake. He coughed as the exertion wore his magic thin, but pressed on against the strain. He layered his magic over and over until the dragon could barely raise his head from the ground.

The sphere shrank, scathing Aurelius's body and marring his scales with black burns and streaking parts with bleeding flesh. He roared, bolstering his resistance, but it did little to dull the pain or lessen the strikes. The size of the sphere forced him to crawl to Telos, but as the area within ran out his impending doom had finally caught up with him.

In a flash, the spell ended in a cascade of explosions, tearing the lake bed apart and cratering the land around. When the lights faded, all that was left was the dragon's ravaged form; chunks of flesh were visible where scales had once been, and blood ran between ones that hadn't been destroyed. He looked as if his body had bites taken out. As he heaved in breaths of air he scanned the vicinity, but most of the ground was as blackened as his own flesh, the grass having been reduced to ash.

"Where are you?" he called hoarsely. His form shined white and shrank back down to his alicorn body, but the injuries he had sustained in his dragon form mirrored over, littering him with similar burns and missing flesh. Blood flowed down his face and sides, and he collapsed to the ground. "You're a damned fool, blinded by the past. That's all you are!"

Telos sat on a cushion in darkness. He opened his eyes, then after a few moments, pulled the cushion to his mouth and screamed into it. It was cut short as he broke down into a fit of agonizing coughs, falling limply forward and rolling onto his back, heaving in labored breaths. Fiery pain surged through him from hoof to head, crippling him further with a pounding migraine. He moaned as the pain peaked for a few seconds, then he went still, the rise and fall of his chest and the harsh sound of his breaths the only signs of life. I am too weak now. I cannot... use more than a few powerful spells before the strain becomes too much. I am a fool to have even used such powerful magic there. Several moments passed before he regained enough strength to stand. Grunting, he hoisted himself off of the floor of his chambers, and hobbled towards his bed in the dark. He stared into the void where he assumed his bed was and threw himself blindly onto the mattress with as little effort as possible, thankful he didn't miss. This battle draws near too quickly. Will there be enough time?


A quill scratched feverishly across a parchment as Twilight watched it, only offering it half of her attention in that immediate moment. The other half was drawn to thoughts of Nightmare, noting how strange it was that she was no longer there in her mind, no longer with her. It left her hollow and sometimes apprehensive when alone, always unsettled. Sometimes she wondered if she never should have jumped into that light, what it would've been like if Celestia had been chosen as Nightmare's new host instead. She shook her head to herself. No, it would have chosen me no matter what after... A rustling from behind Twilight broke her split concentration and the quill slipped off of the parchment, scrawling a large line off the paper.

Trixie had sat up as she awoke, her eyes still closed, and unleashed a noisy yawn, smacking her lips. She rubbed her eyes before opening them, and was greeted by the expectant eyes of her lover. "Good morning," she mumbled, rubbing at a light blue night cap on her head.

"Good morning, Trixie. I'm sorry, did I wake you?"

"Not at all. You must've gotten up early," she said as she peered past the alicorn and to the parchment. "What's that?"

Twilight whirled around and frowned, the quill having smeared ink onto the desk. "Telos had me compile a list of materials and ingredients he needs for teaching me something. He didn't say what, but this list..." She levitated it to Trixie and watched her confusion grow as she read further down. "I've never used even half of these myself, let alone heard of the last ones." The parchment moved back to the desk and the quill scribbled the last few that were missing.

"It's nice, you know," started Trixie. Twilight gave her a wondering look. "To wake up with you here." She beamed and kissed Twilight on the cheek causing the alicorn to blush. "So, how are you going to get all of these?"

"I'm sending this to Zecora. She's the only one I can ask. I'm a senior archmage and even I wouldn't know where to begin with some of these. The royal vault contains mythril, but Luna is in charge of that. How do you even grind it down to dust?" she exclaimed as the note levitated between the two.

Trixie snickered. "I love it when you get flustered." She grinned as Twilight blushed. "Zecora... Isn't she the zebra from... uh... really far away that lives in the Everfree Forest?"

"She's a master alchemist and has extensive knowledge of far away lands and resources. If there's anyone who would know about these it's Zecora."

Trixie removed her night cap and moved to a large mirror and began to brush her mane, pulling out the tangles and smoothing her silvered hair while Twilight watched. "So, what's he teaching you?" she asked while meeting Twilight's reflection.

"Well, based on what I do know of these, it's probably some high level magic, but I can't even begin to imagine what it could be. It's going to take a few days for most of these to arrive."

Trixie rolled her eyes and turned around. "Sometimes I wonder if you like magic more than me," she pouted, adding a comparatively sad and adorable face.

"What if you're the most magical thing in my life?" cooed Twilight as she stepped to the magician and leaned up to her ear. "The spell that always has me bound," she whispered. Trixie's ears perked up, and she nibbled one before being shoved backwards onto the bed.

"Is that a figure of speech for hoofcuffs?" the magician asked seductively.


Twilight and Trixie walked down the castle corridors quickly, their cloaks fluttering behind them. "Ohhh," moaned Twilight, "I completely forgot what time Telos wanted us to meet him tonight." She halted at an intersection and glanced down each corridor, hoping she might run into the stuffy sage being late as well. Her eyes rested on a fully clad unicorn knight standing alone and staring at a stained glass window. Twilight continued down that corridor, passing the knight as they stared at a window depicting Nightmare's redemption. It never gets less weird seeing that, she thought. She glanced over her shoulder one last time before rounding a corner, still hoping to see Telos, and the knight was gone. "Wasn't there a..." She shivered as the corridor suddenly grew cold.

"What?" Trixie asked as she stopped to catch the bewildered alicorn staring back.

Twilight shook her head and continued walking. "Nevermind."

They arrived in the royal garden late in the evening, the moon watching over the night from a great distance. The air was cool, thick with a dampness that made Twilight feel almost sticky being outside. She frowned as she stepped off of the main path and onto the grass. It was slick with a light dew, and she hoped they wouldn't be staying out in the humidity for very long. Walking towards the rear of the castle, they came to a short set of stone stairs that led to a lower terrace. Carved bushes lined the open areas as they branched out in neatly trimmed hedge walls. Two small tables sat opposite each other across the wide stairs along with a few chairs, but they hadn't been disturbed.

They found Telos on the lower terrace of the garden, secluded on a far reaching path while he worked over runes, glyphs, and containers holding materials. Twilight recognized some of them from the list she sent to Zecora. She froze as her eyes rested on a plate depicting a large rune in the center. Why is that here? she wondered fearfully. It was the same rune that was engraved on the waypoint in Draconis. Her stomach churned as a memory flashed into her mind. Blood... so much blood... She took deep breaths and closed her eyes, focusing on just that for the moment. My blood. She shuddered and swayed a hoof out as she exhaled, the feeling leaving her.

"Are you okay?"

She opened her eyes to Trixie staring at her with concern. "Yes. Just a little light headed is all," she lied.

Telos looked up and glanced to them as he smeared something on the grass. "I was beginning to wonder if you two would ever show up. Your punctuality is faltering, Archmage Sparkle."

"Sorry, Telos. I had to make payments for those materials."

"It is alright. Preparation for this is tedious, so you would have likely had to wait on me. I've already informed the guards that I have reserved this area. We should not be disturbed." He stood up and stretched, then surveyed his work.

"What exactly are all of these for?" asked Twilight as she investigated a few of the more exotic items present.

"Some of them are for my personal use. The princesses require others for the reforging of the staff and purposes I do not know. However, the majority of them are for you."

"For me?"

"I intend to teach you astral projection." Twilight's eyes widened and Trixie gasped.

"That... The archmagi have been researching how to create that magic for centuries. Normally, I wouldn't even say it was possible, but... you've already broken several major magical laws," remarked Twilight with fading skepticism.

"How is that even possible?" asked Trixie.

"In my time, magic was closer to an art form, and though specializations from your cutie marks were no less common, many unicorns chose to train and vary their magic beyond just their innate talents. Archmage Lulamoon, you would be an excellent example of a unicorn with varied magic as a natural talent, thus making your skills more potent and your ability to learn new magic less restricted. However, imagine if the vast majority of unicorns sought such diversity, even if their magic could not be as powerful."

Twilight imagined Rarity as an archmage. The idea amused her, but her imagination mocked her with an image of a battle hardened version of the white unicorn. "So, there was more development of powerful combat magic. But still, astral projection has been chalked up to cosmic or even fringe magic."

Telos chuckled and sighed, seemingly at the same time. "I developed astral projection on my own. I did not need such a powerful spell becoming widely known, even worse if those loyal to Aurelius learned how to use it, or knew how to counter it, and that is why research halted on it, eventually becoming lost and forgotten, it appears."

"Were ponies with naturally strong and diverse magic more common?" asked Trixie. She lifted her cloak and nodded towards her cutie mark. "Like me?"

The sage shook his head. "They called unicorns like you naturalists. You were sought after by the royal army, or hunted by the vile dragons before your powers could fully manifest and your potential calculated." Trixie shuddered. "Eventually, they became a stigmata of the unicorn race. Lesser unicorns and ponies, so to speak, refused to interact with naturalists, fearful that they may be targeted and murdered by the dragon's hunting force."

The blood drained from Trixie's face, and Twilight put a comforting hoof on her back. "Can you also teach it to others?" she asked.

Telos glanced between the unicorn and the alicorn, frowning. "No," he replied simply. "We do not have enough time for that, and your alicorn traits and innate strength will expedite the process of learning how to use it."

Twilight stepped closer and watched as Telos adjusted the positions of some of the runes. Afterwards, he dipped a hoof into a container of a dark colored dust and smeared it across the rune in the center. She watched in silence as his hoof slid across the surface, coating it in a blue substance. She swallowed hard as she remembered her own blood pouring across the stone of the waypoint. "What... what is that rune?" she asked.

Telos looked up as he finished and wiped his hooves together. "An ancient dragon rune. It is used as a binding rune for preventing spells from bleeding or changing into something other than the intended creation. Some dragons say it means seal, but some of the more powerful ones translated it as meaning curse."

"Curse?" Twilight walked slowly around the ring of runes and materials, studying the draconic rune intently. Telos moved around, painting lines between the smaller runes and ensuring they were aligned the way he wanted.

"Nefarious things can be done with it, and the backlash from using one incorrectly can kill weaker unicorns and even some adolescent dragons. The most powerful dragons have scales strong enough to resist it, but it is still a mortal wound. I heard a rumor once that a naturalist had been captured and forced to use one, but the backlash of the experiment burned out his magic, rendering him mute forever." Telos paused for a moment. "A fate worse than death for a unicorn," he muttered.

She stopped on the opposite side of Trixie and surveyed the setup as Telos finished the final line. All of the runes were now linked with various colors that overlapped, and all of them linked to the central draconic rune. The magician gave her a look of uncertainty as she gazed at the rune again.

"The unicorns of my time hit a wall in their pursuit of astral projection. The first attempts at such a spell bore tragic results. Ponies had their minds split or disrupted. The strain on the body and mind could be too much and cause their magic to burn out and leave them as muted unicorns, or worse." He grimaced and motioned towards the center. "These runes prevent that from happening, but I did not find a use for them until long after the idea of astral projection had been abandoned."

"H-how do you do that?" asked Twilight, exchanging nervous glances with Trixie.

"You will require these." Telos reached a hoof to the base of his hood. He hesitated for a few seconds, then pulled his robe off.

Twilight and Trixie gasped and stared at his body in silence, taking in what they saw. Dark blue lines ran wild over his body in winding, curvy patterns; from knees to neck, he appeared tattooed with the strange glyphs. Since they had seen him for the first time over three years ago, Telos had never removed his robe or shown his cutie mark.

"If that's your cutie mark, then what's your special talent supposed to be?" Trixie asked in wonder.

A full moon stuck out against his sandy colored coat, but it held two shadows fading and curving down behind it towards his hocks. It was a strange mark for an earth pony, but given his even stranger magic Twilight thought it suited him. Her eyes took in the full view and her heart sank as she began to see a pattern in the runes painting the rest of his body.

"Curse..." she muttered aloud as the gears in her mind processed it.

The sage hung his eyes to his robe on the grass. "I see that you recognize the style of these glyphs. Indeed, they are a curse mark for those that use them, attempting deadly magic that is better left forgotten." He turned to Trixie and forced a grin. "Perhaps I'm always shadowing the moon." He looked up to it and his grin shifted into a genuine smile. "I think it's my destiny to forever be enchanted by Astra and all that she did for the world. Perhaps I am meant to uphold her legacy."

"So, I'll need those tattoos to use astral projection." Twilight removed her cloak and shook her body.

"I am afraid that I know of no other way. Perhaps with enough time I could discover another method, but that is a luxury I have been tracking. We do not have as much of it as I originally thought."

"Can these tattoos be removed?" asked Trixie.

"As long as you wish to use astral projection you will require them, but I won't lie to you. They could be permanent." Telos ran a hoof along one of the marks on his other foreleg and let his brow droop.

"I'll find a way when this is all over," said Twilight.

Telos motioned to the draconic rune. "Stand in the center when you are ready."

Twilight moved in between the other runes and raised a hoof to step on the center plate. She hesitated and stared at it nervously, retracting her hoof. She looked up to Trixie with her eyes full of fear and doubt. The magician gave an empathic wince and nodded. Twilight raised a hoof again, but this time towards Trixie. I didn't even say goodbye back then... I made you promise me you would save her instead. She stepped onto the rune and closed her eyes. I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that.

Telos crouched down and laid his forehooves on the edge of the circle of runes. "You will want to stand back," he said to Trixie. "The feedback from this was catastrophic when I used it on myself."

The magician backpedaled several meters and stopped. She glanced around and grumbled before moving even further back. "Why not do this in the magic crypt?" she asked, her mouth twisting distastefully on the words.

"I do not know if it will work in one," he replied. He turned his head with a serious look in his eyes. "I have only done this once before, and I do not wish to risk Archmage Sparkle's life on an uncertainty." Trixie's eyes widened, but he turned his head back to Twilight. "I am afraid that this will be quite uncomfortable."

"Nothing will ever hurt more than getting these," she said, spreading her wings and then furling them back up.

The garden seemed to shudder at first, then rumbled as furious tremors came, rustling the plants and jostling several of the runes. Trixie's horn lit up and a barrier formed as the runes began to glow different colors, slowly shining brighter and brighter against the night. The runes reached full brightness and flashed, blinding Telos and Trixie. One last quake shook the garden, as if the earth itself rejected the magic; the alchemy circle and lines connecting the runes left blackened burn marks in the grass.

Twilight's wings burst open and she grunted as pain surged throughout her. The rune beneath her appeared with a mirror image just above, and she opened her eyes and looked up just before it floated down, its pattern—and many more—appearing all over her body. She screamed as they burned into her flesh, a glowing blue pattern spiraling and crossing around her abdomen, up her neck, and down her legs. The pain began to fade after a moment and she collapsed onto the now-blank plate below her, flesh still stinging where the glyphs were. The glow in the glyphs on her body lingered for a moment before fading to a dark tint.

"Twilight!" Trixie dashed to her side and pulled her to her chest, cradling her. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine now," replied Twilight in a hoarse voice, moaning afterwards. Her chest expanded and shrank to steady, heaving breaths. She opened her eyes into a wince as the pain became more manageable. Shakily, she stood up on her own, gnashing her teeth, finally rising to standing on her own and shot a glare at the sage. "Quite uncomfortable?" she quoted curtly. "Next time I'll choose the hot iron," she finished with a growl.

"My apologies. My memory of this spell has faded with time." Telos shook his head. "In any case, it is done, however..." He glanced around at the royal garden. Shrubs and decorative plants had been set ablaze by the magical discharge and they were quickly spreading and devouring the grass in their dancing orange flames. He swayed a hoof and water coalesced in the air, tiding over the flames in a sweeping motion. "Your princesses will not be appreciative of the state of their garden. Your natural magic should be capable of mending some of the damage."

"I can't... use my magic... right now..." said Twilight, sucking in pained breaths. It didn't help lessen the pain, but it somehow made her feel better to try. She noticed the garden was now arid. Faded memory my ass, she thought bitterly.

Telos shook his head. "Not you,"—he pointed to Trixie—"her."

"Me? Can't you fix it without even breaking a sweat?"

"I cannot mend nature nor attune myself to it. My magic may be powerful, but it is still unnatural, even to myself," he explained. "As it stands, I have exhausted most of my magic for the evening on this ritual."

The magician eyed him incredulously. "You sure don't look like it."

"I am not a unicorn. I do not suffer the same symptoms of magic exhaustion as one."

Trixie rolled her eyes. "Fine."

Twilight nodded to her before stepping away from the runic burns. The magician stood up and ignited her horn with a green aura, but before she could begin the distant rumble of hoofsteps headed their way. In a matter of seconds several royal guards stacked up behind the alicorn while a few additional pegasus guards flew in overhead.

"Archmage Sparkle, are you alright?" said one urgently, stepping ahead of the rest. "We felt earthquakes and heard a scream."

Twilight frowned and glanced away briefly. "I'm alright. We're conducting magical experiments and there was an accident." She caught the guard leaning past her to glimpse the burned garden and quickly stepped in front of him. "Nopony was injured, and the garden will be fixed before we are done here."

"Are you sure everything is alright?" he said, still trying to catch a glimpse past the alicorn.

Twilight turned to Telos and Trixie, both nodding her way. "Yes, we're fine. You may return to your normal duties."

With a nod, the guard spun around and barked orders to the others. It wasn't long before they dispersed and the lower terrace was empty again. Twilight rubbed a hoof against her chest and groaned. So much for secrecy.

Trixie's horn glowed with a green aura again and she dug her hooves into the grass until she could feel the soil beneath. Closing her eyes, she let her magic mix with the earth, the glow from her horn growing to give her body a light green aura. She tensed for a moment, but soon new blades sprouted from the ashes of the previous layer, filtering through as a new, unkempt layer.

"You could do better," commented Telos as he investigated the new blades of grass.

Trixie huffed and gave him an indignant glare. "It's better than you."

"Telos is correct." The other ponies whirled around as Luna stepped into view, seemingly out of the distance of the night. She carried a questioning look while she examined Trixie's repairs to the garden. Frowning, she glided down the terrace steps and moved closer. Twilight shivered and threw her cloak back on, but not before the princess caught a glimpse of the glyphs wrapping her body. "So... that is what is necessary," she said. Twilight couldn't be sure if the princess spoke with disapproval in her voice, or regret.

"Princess Luna. What are you doing here?" asked Trixie nervously.

The princess slowly drifted her eyes between the ponies, then returned them back onto the magician. Twilight wondered if she took joy from watching her fidget and squirm under her gaze.

"I bear the finished shaft, reforged of mythril once more." Her mane roiled for a moment and then produced the staff into the aura of her magic. It appeared as little more than a dull grey pole in the dark, but it maintained all of the intricate carvings and sculpts of the original. Everything was exactly as the original. "All that remains now is the mounting of its spire." Twilight gazed at the staff, but all her mind saw was a way to speak to Nightmare, to hear her voice again.

"Perfect," said Telos without looking at the shaft. "It will be a while longer before I can complete the staff again."

Twilight broke out of her trance with a start. "You can't attach Nightmare Moon to it right now?" she asked, disappointed.

"I am afraid not, Archmage Sparkle. This is not a simple staff with a simple spire. It requires a ritual to bind its new spire as it contains a soul, and I have spent much of my magic already. Much like your body is now a conduit for astral projection, so too is the staff a conduit for your power, and the spire a conduit for your souls."

The thought of Nightmare becoming a catalyst for her power was chilling, but she had been growing so eager to reacquire her link to the Id that the delays were becoming agitating. Without Nightmare, she felt incomplete. She watched as Luna handed the gem and spire back to Telos, her gaze growing hollow the longer she stared at the gem.

"I'll be able to talk to her once it's finished, right?"

"Yes," replied Telos.

Twilight fidgeted, trying to avoid looking at the gem again. "And I can bring her back if I found her a new body?"

The sage nodded cautiously. "Yes. I could remove her and place her into your body again if... that is what both of you desired."

Twilight stared at the ground, blankness on her face, pondering the idea of sharing a body once more. "When this is all over," she started, lifting her eyes back to meet Telos, "I want you to do that... if she is willing. I don't... I don't like the idea of her being alone in the staff," she finished softly.

"What about us?" interjected Trixie, jealousy ringing in her voice. "Won't that be a bit... you know... invasive?" She wore a pouting expression as she half-glared at her.

Nightmare's presence the last time had caused too much confusion, and she wondered if it would repeat. "Don't worry, Trixie," she said, offering a reassuring smile. "I promise I'll make it work without her getting in the way of us."

The magician crinkled her mouth before nodding. "You better."

"Will binding the spire to the staff repeat the destruction displayed here this evening?" Luna asked as she threw a hoof to the mangled garden. "Your magical experimentation, rituals, and spellwork must be conducted elsewhere. I cannot risk the image of serenity on the castle grounds again."

"No, Your Majesty. Binding it does not require as much magic, and I will make sure no harm is caused to anything or anyone. You have my word," said Telos.

"Very well." She lifted a hoof and prepared to turn, but halted. Her eyes flowed back to Twilight and lingered. After a moment of deliberation, she broke the silence with a question, turning to Telos. "You can maintain powerful barriers, yes?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Can you construct a cloaking barrier among them?"

"Yes, but why do you ask?" Telos gave her a suspicious look while the other mares eyed Luna with surprise.

The princess sized Twilight up, her eyes glazing in anticipation of something. It made her nervous and she adjusted the neck of her cloak.

"Once the staff is complete I wish to test Twilight's abilities," she said simply. "Personally." She spun on her heels and ascended the stairs, walking out of earshot without glancing back.

Twilight stared after her, dumfounded. "Test my abilities? We haven't sparred since..." She trailed off into deep thought. When was the last time we sparred?

Memories of her training to become an archmage popped into her mind. It wasn't until most of her training had been complete before the princesses insisted that they sparred with her. At the time, she felt they were worlds apart in power, and it had been strange battling with them like rivals. Now, the thought seemed ridiculous. Telos explained that they would be weak from the rites, but it only seemed to ring true with Celestia.

"It's been years since I've sparred with Luna. Isn't she still weak from the rites?"

Telos had taken to watching the moon while she sifted through her memories, and his attention had become divided. "Perhaps." He turned to her and offered a more complete answer. "I do not know how long it takes for alicorns to recover their powers from such a ritual. Perhaps it is a few more years, or perhaps a few more centuries. Or perhaps, Luna is simply confident in what powers she has already recovered. I'm very interested in observing, should you accept her request, that is."

Twilight found herself gazing at the moon, determination growing inside of her, and doubt. For every ounce of enthusiasm and wonder she felt about dueling the princess, she felt an equal amount of apprehension and worry—worry that Luna might be resentful or angry should she win or injure her. After few minutes of musing, she turned to the sage.

"I'll accept."

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