• Published 13th Oct 2011
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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 6: Into The Looking Glass

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 6: Into the Looking Glass

Large raindrops thudded against the glass panes of the window repeatedly, their assault momentarily blurring out the view of the world outside. The sounds didn't bother the lone observer staring blankly out into the heavy downpour. Twilight paid no attention to what was actually occurring in front of her, instead choosing to use it to distract her vision while her mind wandered. Hundreds of thoughts flowed through her head, most subconsciously, but one in particular bothered her in the immediate moment.

"I'm sure he's fine," chimed in Trixie. "He's a dragon. He can handle himself."

The reassuring words did nothing to quell the worry hanging over Twilight's mind. She sighed and pulled herself away, forcing away the feelings in her heart in favor of the logic and certainty her mind attempted to cast. Even still, the feeling would remain in some form until she received more news. "He's still a young dragon. It's already been a few months since he last sent a letter, Trixie. I mean, I know he's probably fine, but what if-"

"What if what?" interrupted Trixie as she closed the gap between them. Twilight cast the floor a sad look. "Why don't you study, or research something that could help... or maybe we could go out?" Twilight looked up and back to the window before turning to Trixie with an incredulous look. "Hey, the rain is always romantic..." came the innocent reply.

"I guess Rarity was starting to rub off on you." Twilight brushed past Trixie and made her way to a personal bookshelf. Since achieving her archmage status, assisting the princesses directly, and taking on an apprentice, she was given a lavishly furnished chamber within the castle. Included were a princess-sized bed, a personal balcony, a small study and various other comforts. All of that, and free access to any part of the castle at any time. "Hmm..." she mumbled to herself.

Trixie's ears perked up as she whirled back to her master. "I know that sound. You're on to something."

"Maybe..." Twilight ran a hoof over several book spines as she skimmed their titles. After going over a shelf, her magic pulled each one she had selected free and laid them out across her desk, some springing open. "It might not work for Spike, but it could be useful later."

With her interests piqued, Trixie moved over to the desk and began browsing over the chosen subject matter. "What, exactly?"

Twilight turned from the bookshelf and displayed a toothy grin. "A way to teleport longer distances using less magic." Quills, ink, and parchment levitated from the desk and began laying out on the floor. The books on the desk levitated and floated passed her eyes with specific sections opened up.

"You know, I really don't know how you can read like that..."

"Shush! I know this will work." The quills dipped into the ink and began working in tandem to draw something out. Occasionally, Twilight would glance over one of her books to make sure there wasn't any critical mistakes in her telekinetic guidance.

Trixie stared intently at the parchment until one neared completion. Her eyes widened as she realized what it was. Smacking the quill away and taking up the paper, she held it up to her master. "Runes? How can you adapt a rune to specific magic? How can you even use this to help you? Spike is all the way in Draconis. Are you going to just mail one to him?"

The questions, particularly the one regarding its practicality for the purpose she implied, caused the archmage to burst into laughter. "No, no, no, Trixe. This will still have plenty of other uses."

"I can see how it would make you lazy if you place them everywhere." Trixie flipped the parchment back around and held it in front of her, rotating it in an attempt to discern which angle it was meant to display. "How do these work anyway?"

The parchment was tugged out of her hooves with Twilight's magic and laid back out to be finished in greater detail. "Silly, Trixie. They act as beacons or receptors for your magic. You create them to respond to a specific magic, like a frequency." The books all snapped shut simultaneously with a dull boom and shelved themselves. Twilight didn't even turn around as they ordered themselves perfectly.

"So... What else can you do with them?"

"I'm glad you asked!" Twilight conveyed her glee through a toothy grin, but it faded as quickly as it came. "Hold on, I'm going to need larger parchment and some more books to continue my research. Let's go to the library." Dashing out of her chambers, Twilight ran into Rainbow Dash around the corner knocking them both to the ground in a heap of tangled ponies.

Laughter rang from behind as Trixie appeared with a vain attempt at covering her mouth and suppressing it. "Maybe teleporting is safer!" she mocked innocently.

Dash stood up first, rubbing her head with an eye closed and advancing towards Trixie. She extended a foreleg and slipped it under the collar of Trixie's cape, yanking firmly to lead her on. "I'm here for you, actually. Princess Celestia want us," she said with the all the sweetness an annoyed growl could convey.

"Hey, let go!" Trixe attempted to smack the hoof away, but she was tossed onto the knight's back unceremoniously.

"Since I can't teleport, and it could be dangerous for you to go alone, I'm going to carry you to Princess Celestia." The unicorn caught her bearings before jumping from Dash's back. The knight whirled around, frowning at Trixie and standing up.

Trixie returned with a glare and shook out her cape. "What is the meaning of this?" She folded her forelegs across her chest and tapped a hoof on the marble floor.

"I've been assigned to be your escort. We're traveling to the borderlands to scout out an area for an outpost. Now, I really don't feel like waiting for you to take your sweet time, so we leave in ten minutes."

“Why don’t I come along?” Twilight asked in a vain attempt to bring back the cheery calm. The two stubborn mares harrumphed and turned away from each other. Twilight let out an aggravated sigh. “I’m going to see if she needs me, if only to keep the peace between you two.” As she moved past the pair, she shot each one a disappointed look.

“Lead the way, escort.” Trixie stuck out her tongue as Dash rolled her eyes and trotted to catch up, Trixie trailing just behind her.

The clacking of their hooves echoed mournfully to the silent tension that Twilight found herself caught in. Each step made the hairs on the back of her neck prick, and every time the knight and the magician crossed glances, she nibbled on her lip. These two better not try to hurt each other. They rounded several corners and walked down as many corridors before stopping just outside of the throne room. The massive, ornate doors were cracked open with a bright light pouring out into the darker hallway.

Dash brushed past the unicorns and paused just before stepping into the golden light. She adjusted her baldric fastidiously and smoothed out her mane as best she could. Twilight opened her mouth to question the unusual care for vanity, but Dash marched into the room before she could find the best words.

“Huh. I never expected that from her,” remarked Trixie, her eyes having picked up on the same out of character habit.

“She’s probably just trying to look more presentable after your scuffle.” Twilight found that harder to believe now that she had said it. Dash almost always looked like she had spent the day flying around at high speeds, even if she hadn't. How do pegasi keep their manes smooth with all their flying? she wondered.

Trixie slid past her and into the room, making sure to slow down and brush her tail along Twilight’s muzzle seductively. “Better... hurry up,” she teased, licking her lips.

Twilight blushed hard as she watched her move beyond the doors. After shaking her head, she made her best effort to collect herself before entering. She squinted to the magnificent radiance of the throne room's chandeliers and stained glass windows. It wasn’t night, but the heavy rain gave the skies a gloomy overcast and brought out the light within the room. Anyone could’ve mistaken it for the early evening from inside the throne’s contrasting brightness.

Dash knelt on the red carpet before Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and another knight Twilight wasn’t familiar with. They were standing and clad in similar armor as other higher ranking officers. It was just as polished and clean, but no other unique features compared to any other knight beyond a dark blue baldric. However, this knight possessed something most others didn’t: a tower shield. The knight in question was a pegasus as well with clothed wings furled tightly at their side, but they wore a standard casque with its grated visor pulled down.

The oddity of the knight lied in the fact that tower shields were notoriously heavy and bulky. Where a pegasus could easily maneuver and counter utilizing a buckler or heater shield, tower shields were too heavy to move swiftly or fly at high speeds. I’ll look into that later.

Twilight entered into the conversation a bit late, catching the tail end of the mission. “And so you will be going to help scout and secure the area and make sure Miss Lulamoon is safe during this,” said Princess Celestia. Her eyes caught Twilight joining them. “Oh, Archmage. I didn’t know you were going to join us.”

“Hello, Celestia. I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help.”

Celestia shook her head softly. “Not this time, Twilight. These two are simply scouting a location before the workers and soldiers come in.”

“But the Borderlands can be dangerous, Princess. I’d really like to go.” Twilight caught herself sounding more desperate than intended. She bit her tongue. “I’m sorry. But perhaps an archmage would be a safe addition to the mission.”

Celestia chuckled lightly before tilting her head the knight beside her. “I assure you, Twilight. There is no need and they will be fine. Knight-Captain Dash is more than adequate.”

“Don’t worry, Twi. I’ve got this.” Dash turned and smiled. “I’ll make sure she comes back in one piece.”

“Actually”--Trixie coughed--”it’ll be the other way around.” She smirked and lifted her muzzle higher.

Yeah... I’m sure.” Dash looked at her disbelievingly and turned to walk away, but the other knight coughed. Dash turned to them, then to Trixie and Twilight. “Go pack. I'm already ready to go.”

Twilight nodded and led Trixie out of the throne and back to their chambers. She couldn’t help but wonder about the knight. They seemed familiar, but their entire body was covered in either armor, an undergarment, or both.

“Hey... Hey!” Twilight snapped her head up to Trixie’s voice. “You’re spacing out on me.” She hadn't realized she was standing around while Trixie was gathering her things.

“Oh, I’m sorry," she started. "Did you know who that was?”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “Princess Celestia, or Rainbow Dash?” she countered jokingly.

Twilight shook her head. “No, the other knight in there.”

Trixie shrugged and began moving about the room, her horn glowing and placing things in a small saddlebag, small enough to hide beneath her cloak. “Who knows? I barely know anypony’s name around here, let alone the name of some mysterious high ranking knight. If they’re assigned to be my escort, I’ll learn their name. Until then,” she stopped and took in a breath, “I think I’d just like to focus on other things.” A simple, blue staff floated over to her and stood up.

Twilight looked at the silent weapon, worry flickering in her eyes. “It’s not too late to ask Celestia to have me come along.”

Trixie unfastened her cloak and set it on the bed. The top drawer of a large oak dresser opened and a dark purple cloak floated out and landed in her hooves. “You’re worrying over nothing again, Twilight. An archmage’s apprentice and a knight-captain should be more than a match for anything out there.”

“But-”

Trixie whirled around putting on the cloak, snatching her staff, and pressing a hoof softly to Twilight’s mouth in a single, fluid motion. Twilight blinked in surprise and forced herself not to flinch beneath the surprisingly soft touch. “You worry too much,” Trixie whispered before closing her eyes and leaning in to replace her hoof with her lips.

Twilight relaxed and leaned in to kiss her back. Her heart calmed to her lover stroking her mane with the same gentle hoof. “I’ll be fine," she soothed. "Just work on your teleportation research while I’m gone, okay?” Twilight nodded and watched as Trixie put on the saddlebag and moved to the door. She stopped and waggled her tail. “Well, aren’t you going to walk me out?”

------------------------------------------------------

“Princess,” started an armored unicorn knight, “Why would you choose Commander Hooves to succeed me in our order?” The knight turned their head to the side, and removed their helmet revealing a blue and white mane, its colors evenly divided over a lighter blue coat. “Am I not good enough anymore?”

Celestia frowned and another knight appeared stepping out of the shadow of the throne. “It’s not about that, Colgate,” said the other knight. They stood up and removed their own helmet before taking off their shield and setting it down beside them. Derpy offered a sympathetic look to the unicorn.

“Is it because I’m not trying to recruit anyone for our order like you? Is it because...” Colgate’s voice began to quaver as she stepped closer to the throne. “Is it because I’m not a pegasus?” Celestia opened her mouth to speak, but Colgate continued her advance. “Because if that’s the case, then why even recruit me?”

In a flash of white Derpy appeared in front of Colgate and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “We are always a part of this order. Where we stand in rank or race doesn't matter.”

Colgate stood up and smacked the hoof away. “Then why are you the Paladin and always by Her Majesty’s side if we’re equal?”

Derpy opened her mouth to speak, but Celestia spoke instead. “This is not a matter of trust or power. Paladin Derpy Hooves is merely in constant communication as to Knight-Captain Rainbow Dash’s progress. While she is the Element of Loyalty--an aspect I do not doubt--I must still know of her temperament.”

A heavy sigh followed on Colgate’s part as the tension in the room eased. She stared at the dancing shadows near the windows of the room. Lightning sparked the sky to life and peaked the light for a moment, followed by a boom of thunder and the shadows returning again. “I’m sorry for not trusting you when I’ve sworn to. But ‘Paladin’?”

“It is a title for the brightest knight,” Celestia replied plainly. Derpy turned to face her. She cocked her head slightly, almost too slight to see. “Do you feel you are a more guiding light?” Colgate opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. “That is the title. Paladin is merely an honorific. Where and what it embodies beyond that is wholly within the bearer’s will,” she finished with a nod to both knights.

“Colgate. I don’t care if you surpass me by miles, or vice versa. You’ll always be my friend and equal.” Derpy offered a warm smile to her words.

The words soothed the unicorn and she stepped forward and gave Derpy a hug. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I doubted you. Maybe I'm just... jealous.”

Patting her on the back, Derpy let loose a breath of relief. “You’re still my superior in experience.”

“Will that be all, Commander Minuette?” With a content nod, Colgate separated herself and turned to leave. Derpy returned back to the throne in a flash and replaced her helmet and shield. “I think enough time has passed for you to depart the castle and watch over Knight-Captain Dash.”

“Are you sure this mission is a good idea for a test? She doesn’t wield a holy sword and Trixie isn’t even an archmage. They will probably encounter at least one dragon in the borderlands.”

“This is where the will of the Paladin shapes the title. I know you’ll figure it out.” Celestia and Derpy exchanged nods before the knight disappeared in a trail of light extending out of the throne room. A shocked guard entered the throne room just after with a look of total disbelief etched onto his face.

“P-Princess! Did you see that?!”

Celestia shook her head, suppressing a chuckle.

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The trip to the borderlands was an excruciating journey. Jungles and marshlands paved the way of the direction they were traveling, and many adventurers had befallen the perils of wild beasts and the extremes that the elements could provide in the past. A knight-captain and archmage's apprentice were more than a match for any dangers, and equally as prepared for the journey, or as much as they had hoped to be.

Rainbow Dash’s athleticism and physical training made the journey on the land a comfortable, scenic tour of the wilds, though the humidity gave her a longing for the skies, soaring and keeping herself cooled. She refused to carry Trixie, citing her armor and Trixie’s own weight as being too much for even her mighty wings to carry, emphasizing the magician in that regard. The jestful words earned her a singed tail from Trixie. Afterwards, she would only glower back at the knight’s sincere attempts at reconciliation.

Trixie’s body had not adapted to the rigors of the environment, faring little better than a lazy tourist. While not particularly out of shape, she was not one to take long walks without being beside her master. Every branch and root of the first dense thicket reached for her legs or clawed at her face. Occasionally she would trip over them and earn a laugh from her escort, much to her chagrin. After getting tangled, she muttered a curse and threatened to burn down the forest on top of Rainbow Dash if she did not begin bushwhacking the path.

The laughter died down in the knight’s throat and she wiped her eyes of welling tears. “You’re a real riot, Trixie. But really, you just need to get out more.” The voice was full of life yet ingrained into Trixie’s mind like nails on a chalkboard. Every word out of the knight just aggravated her more.

“Either you carry me this instant or cut the path before us,” she growled, “or I stay right here and you finish this little mission by yourself.” She fell to her haunches and folded her forelegs across her chest, giving a harrumph and offering only the side of her face.

Dash shook her head and put up a front of feigned terror. “Oh, no! Vicious pony-eating weeds from the jungles!" She adjusted her voice to that of a mock hero. "Fear not, fair Trixie, for I shall save you!” Brandishing her broadsword, Dash exaggerated her march to the front and began wildly chopping the entangled foliage out of the way. After clearing several yards ahead, she turned and rolled her eyes. “Hurry up, they might grow back!” she called back innocently.

Rising to the challenge of tolerating Rainbow Dash’s presence further, Trixie trudged on behind her, gnashing her teeth. The broadsword effortlessly sliced through the thicket and they advanced to a misty swamp. Trixie’s first steps caused her forehooves to sink unexpectedly into the mud. It wasn’t until she was falling face first into the muck that she realized Dash was hovering in the air in front of her and ready to burst into laughter once more.

With a panicked squeal cut short and a spray of mud, Dash nearly lost control of her wings and fell in herself. Trixie peeled herself out of the muck and glared death at the knight. She reached up in a vain attempt to grab her out of the air manually. When Dash pulled away, her horn ignited into a fierce glow and dragged the pegasus only inches above the muck and to her face. “You will carry me to the outpost location. You will not utter another mocking word. And you will find me a cloud to bathe with. Do you understand?” she growled.

Dash’s giddiness faded even before she began to nod. It didn’t matter, though, as Trixie plunged the pegasus into the muck completely. She brought Dash's head back out to witness her humiliation, and ensure she didn't suffocate. Trixie didn’t even crack a smile to the sweet revenge, but she grinned inwardly to herself. Dash pulled herself free of the muck and shook her wings clean enough to fly. Grumbling and muttering words at the magician that even Twilight would take offense to, she found a lonely cloud above the swamp.

She paused in the air and peered around at the surroundings. “Whoa...” she mumbled. The expanse of the marsh beyond the thicket was much bigger than the maps she studied had suggested. Darkness began to overtake the horizon, the stormy gloom receding to its sweeping presence. It was going to be a cold night if they remained in the swamp or marshes, but there was little in the way of cover to stave off any chilling night winds. Shaking her head, she guided the cloud back to where she and Trixie had their jabs at each other. The magician stood on a solid path beside the muck with an impatient frown on her face.

“That took you long enough,” she shouted.

“Yeah, yeah. Put a sock in it.” Dash turned and bucked the cloud into raining. Trixie took the time to remove her cloak and individually clean every garment and belonging with her magic. Once she finished cleaning, she rung them out and put them back on, though the slightly damp clothing clung to her form.

Dash struggled with removing the grime from the insides of her plate armor. She thanked her lucky stars she chose not to wear a helmet for this trip. Once she finished, she lifted off and grabbed Trixie’s torso.

“H-hey, what are you doing? Let go of me. I'm still drenched and I'll freeze in the air.”

“Too bad. We’re flying now unless you want to freeze to death in the winds out here. It’s going to be night soon.”

Trixie sighed in defeat. “You better not drop me.”

“I’m still considering it.”

***

Burning chars of wood crackled and popped, occasionally spitting a hot ember from the fire at the ponies staring absently into it. Trixie found herself shivering next to Rainbow Dash, each sharing her cloak and the pegasus her wings. Dash’s teeth chattered and her armor was useless against the biting cold of the night winds. Even after carrying the unicorn ahead for several more miles, she succumbed to the additional weight in the middle of nowhere. The skinny, sparse trees that crawled from the depths of the marshlands were a poor excuse for shelter, and she was forced to dig down a small hovel for them to share.

Dash held her hooves to the tiny flame they called a campfire. Its warmth barely fought back the cold to heat the edge of her hooves, but it was enough. Her armor rattled to her shivers, the weak clanging a constant reminder that she could’ve ignored her pride and prepared better. “C-c-can’t y-you... y-you know. M-make a big-g-ger f-f-fire or s-s-something?” she stammered with the chattering of her teeth. Her chilled face and lips barely let her get the words out even with great effort.

Trixie twisted her neck to see around them into the darkness. There was nothing but the unmoving shadows and a light mist to fill the void-like dark. Her skin crawled as she imagined what could come from the shadows, even if it were merely harmless sounds or critters. “If I m-make a bigger f-fire, it m-might at-tract m-more at-at-atten.... dragons,” she forced herself to say, struggling with her words. "I th-thought something m-might be f-following us."

Dash pulled her hooves and hugged herself once more. “I’ll t-take m-my chances w-with th-the dragons.”

With a cautious eye to the darkness, Trixie nodded and sparked her horn. The flame plumed into a ferocious inferno before settling into a warming bonfire. It took several minutes for their chills to leave them, and several more to cast away their shivers altogether, but Dash found herself thanking the magician for her natural gifts.

“Did you know,” Trixie started while gazing into the fire, “unicorns develop affinities for certain elemental fields of magic?” Her head tilted to Dash with an expectant look.

“Yeah. Supposedly ponies can be blessed to resist certain elements, sometimes making them weaker to another.”

Trixie removed her staff and set it in front of her before the fire. The dancing flames lit up its dull blue design with an orange tint. “Supposedly every pony has a natural affinity for at least one element. What’s yours?”

The question took Dash by surprise. She paused for a long while, debating whether to answer that or not. She turned her head away and looked into the night. “Pegasi have a natural affinity for lightning, I think. Why?”

“My natural magical affinity is lightning, primary to water and more arcane focuses. But Twilight seems to have an affinity for everything.” Her tone slipped into regret, at least as far as Dash could tell.

“So? She’s the Element of Magic. She’s supposed to be the very spirit of magic itself, or something.” Her head turned back to Trixie, studying her face. A deep longing held fast to the unicorn’s features.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her use all of the elements. Fire encompasses all flame; Nature is life and tuning into it; Water covers ice and the atmospheric aspects; Lightning can be created, but utilized naturally; Arcane focuses the mind and remains neutral.”

“Thanks for the magic lesson, Trixie, but what does this have to do with our affinities?”

Trixie turned back to him, her confident expression returning. “An archmage must learn to use them all to an expert level. But I’ve heard there’s also cosmic magic--what Celestia and Luna use--and dark and light elements. Have you ever seen Twilight use the latter two?”

Without blinking or pausing to answer, Dash gave a casual, “No.” She shook her head. “I’m sure she knows how to use them, or has studied them. You’re asking a pegasus about obscure magic stuff, you know.”

Trixie gave an empty chuckle. “Yeah. Maybe it’s all just above my level.” She shrugged and sighed, then rubbed her eyes. The night and travel began bearing down on her in full force. With a loud yawn, she laid down beside her staff. “I’m going to get some sleep. I don’t think we’ll need a lookout afterall.”

The idea of a lookout put her at ease, though. She forced her eyes shut to prevent her creeping anxiety from keeping her awake. The fear of what could be in the darkness of the borderlands clawed at the inside of her eyelids. It took a half an hour before the calm of sleep overtook her.

Dash remained awake, sitting up and staring into the fire, not ready to succumb to the loving embrace of sleep just yet. She wondered to herself about Trixie’s information. Dark magic. Like Nightmare Moon? Does that make Celestia light and Luna dark? It’s just an element, right? She rubbed at the back of her neck and stretched. A crack of a branch came from the darkness behind and startled her. In a rising whirlwind of finesse, she snatched up her blade and shield and took on a defensive stance.

“Is somepony there?” she called out into the dark just low enough not to wake Trixie. Her eyes strained into the creeping black of the night, unblinking. Her nerves began to kick into overdrive. The beating of her heart became an intense drum, droning on louder and louder, faster and faster. To her relief, a lizard scampered by the fire and off elsewhere into the night. Dash wiped cold sweat from her forehead and replaced her armaments. She turned to sit down, but the ground rumbled and quaked suddenly.

The knight spun around, this time failing to pick up her shield. She met the receiving end of a massive hand, claws raking through parts of her armor and sending her flying into the darkness. A gust of air following the swipe blew out the fire and scattered ash into the air where Trixie was sleeping. “Look what we have here. Silly little ponies wandering where they don't belong. What are you doing here, so far out of the safety of your lands?”

Dash hit the ground and skid several more yards, the soft ground preventing additional harm on impact. Her body ached, and she instinctively placed a hoof to her head. Pain pounded against the inside of her skull, and she could feel blood running down the side of her head. She staggered forward several steps before realizing she was unarmed. Frantically glancing into the darkness, she was unable to focus through the black surrounding her. Every shadow lurched at her, every throb of pain made the image more difficult to process. Dread set in as she couldn't even focus enough to find the massive shape of the dragon somewhere in front of her.

“Trixie, wake up!” she screamed. Bad idea. The dragon began trampling his way towards her. I can hide. He can’t see me in the dark, she reassured herself. She leaped to the side and dropped to the ground, her legs happily obliging to no longer support her weight. If her heart was pounding before, it drummed and threatened to drown out the sounds of reality. She concentrated in a determined attempt to regain visual focus or control of her nerves. Her body and torso rejected all effort with a backlash of spiking pain, and she hung her head, her chest heaving in breaths of cold air.

“Come here, little knight,” taunted the dragon. His deep voice drilled into Dash's mind. She wanted more than anything to beat his face in, to put him down. “Hiding in the dark like a scared little rat, are we?” He trudged past where Dash lay still. Sweat began to trickle down her face as she focused on the beating of her heart to keep herself still. Tilting his head back, the dragon loosed a massive plume of fire from his mouth. It burned into the air for a moment, lighting up everything in the vicinity. “There you are.”

Shit. Dash forced her body to obey her, adrenaline trumping pain briefly, to rise and beat her wings. She pushed with all of her might to fly back and retrieve her armaments; to grab Trixie and escape into the black skies. What she imagined as record breaking speed through effort and sheer willpower only resulted in flying speed that would make only Fluttershy proud. The dragon whirled around and whipped his tail into her back, sending her speeding back towards the camp. She slammed into the ground near the smothered fire and began losing consciousness. “Trixie run... He's... too... strong,” she murmured before all faded to black.

The unicorn stared in silent horror from her spot away from the camp. Her escort’s battered form of steel and flesh lay in a heap several yards in front of her. She was crouched down, her stuff clutched tightly in her hooves beneath her. The dragon stomped its way to the defeated knight and blew a triumphant flame to illuminate his victory. “So frail. Do they really think they can win a war against us?” He chuckled, the low rumbles of his voice filling the air with a sickening dread.

Trixie’s heart raced, her face pouring cold sweat. What do I do? I can’t slay a full grown soldier dragon! Even an Ursa Major would struggle to hold their own against one. She looked around frantically for something, anything, to help her cause. Nothing but the shadows stared back at her. The dragon lowered himself and opened his mouth, preparing for the execution.

“Get away from her!” Two bolts of frost crashed into his side and forced him to side step to regain balance. “You’re going have to get through me first!” When the dragon turned to face her with an angry expression, her heart sank. Suddenly her resolve faltered beneath the glare's tide of true despair. Her horn and staff spire shined to life and she poured all of her magic into a barrage of icy attacks.

“Damn unicorn,” grumbled the dragon. The barrage sprayed into him freezing scales and flesh, and halting his advance.

Freeze, freeze, freeze, damn you! Trixie’s horn dimmed and she ran out of magic. Damn, if only I had some sleep I could probably scare him off. Making her last stand, Trixie aimed the staff at the dragon. She began mouthing an incantation. A cold blue light flourished around her and she finished her spell. “Eat this!” The spire burst a trail of frost at the dragon’s chest and the force of the cast sent her flying backwards. Exhaustion overtook her immediately and she failed to stay awake long enough to see the result of efforts.

***

I hope I make it. I shouldn’t have been so careless! Derpy sped through the darkness as a glowing figure in the night. She raced onwards with her sword pointed in front of her, a white needle piercing its way through the black. She rushed up in time to see a frost spell strike a dragon in the chest. It crystallized over the crest of his underside and he winced before clawing off the surface layer. Her eyes scanned the darkness and immediately noticed the unharmed Trixie below. However, she soon looked across to the critical form of Rainbow Dash.

“Another little snack coming right to me,” said the dragon sharply. “You ponies don’t know how to pick your fights wisely.”

A royal soldier, out here? Damn!

Derpy dropped down to the ground and brandished her tower shield. The dragon roared and breathed a massive flame towards her. Her head shot up at the unexpected change of tactics. Her form flashed away briefly and she appeared in front of Trixie’s body. She removed her left foreleg from the enarmes and planted the shield into the ground, standing protectively over the unicorn and bracing against the wall of metal. The backside was reinforced with a resistant cushion to reduce impact and resist temperature change. The dragon flame flowed into the shield and spread around them like a parted burning river. Sweat trickled down her face as the heat dispersed when the flame ended.

“What the--”

The dragon’s words were cut short when Derpy appeared again, shield and all, to slice off one of his arms. He roared in pain before she skidded to control and propelled herself towards the other. He attempted to raise his other arm away from the incoming attack, but it was cut through just the same. His cry of pain only grew louder and angrier. A tail swipe came from Derpy’s left and she raised the shield. The entire force of the blow was absorbed and she countered by slicing the end of the tail off.

Utterly outmatched and fatally wounded, the dragon fell over to his side with a grunt. “M-mercy,” he begged with pure fear in his eyes. Derpy unequipped her shield and swung her sword through the air to remove the blood attached. The dragon trembled beneath her look. Her eyes were hidden behind the bars of her helmet’s visor, but he could still feel the gaze that would soon decree a final judgement. “P-please!”

Derpy disappeared into the darkness for a moment and returned with Rainbow Dash’s sword. “I'm sorry it came to this... Rest peacefully in the stars,” she whispered. The dragon's eyes widened in terror and he loosed a screech as the blade was plunged into his neck gingerly, sawing halfway through, and then being left protruding from the large wound. The thick bones remained intact and the blade was dug in deep enough to ensure a deathblow.

Derpy sighed and shook herself in an attempt to remove excess blood from her body. A drawn out yawn followed a mournful sigh. She set about to restart the small fire that had been going earlier, doing her best to increase its size with the scarce materials nearby. She undressed Rainbow Dash and tended to her wounds with care. Every time the cyan pegasus winced beneath her delicate touch she tried not to flinch herself, from empathy or fear of waking her. Afterwards, she placed her shield near her and laid Trixie out on the opposite side of the fire. Satisfied with her work, she glanced at the dead dragon. Peaceful...

She loosed another yawn and glanced up to the sky. Only a few, large stars glittered on the black canvas and did nothing to quell its consuming maw. Flapping her wings, she lifted off and scouted from the air for several minutes before finding a small hill nearby. It was better than nothing for keeping a close eye on the camp, but it would be hours soon and she’d have to return to her cautious distance. I promise I won’t let that happen again. I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash. The mist of the marsh thickened over the next few hours and she decided it would safe to take the time to rest before dawn.

------------------------------------------------------

“Mission accomplished, Princess,” said Derpy as she saluted Princess Celestia.

“Was there any trouble?” she asked with a hint of deliberation. “Knight-Captain Dash appeared to be quite injured upon her return.”

Derpy swallowed hard and glanced around. They were alone in a conference room with the door shut, but the thought that anyone could be listening still bothered her. A large rectangular table sat in the middle with maps and documents scattered across it. With a solemn nod, she tilted open her visor. “I was careless and I didn’t get to her in time,” she started. “She wasn’t injured too badly and I did what I could for first aid, but there was no way to know a royal soldier from the Brood would be near there!” Celestia blinked at the sudden outburst and Derpy caught herself. “I’m... sorry,” she said lowering her head.

“I know that you never mean her to come to harm. You are the best chance she has and I know you’re trying hard to get her there quickly. Please don’t be afraid to take a step back.”

“I... know. I just want to be there with her when she crosses this finish line, with me right by her side every step of the way.” There was a moment of pause before she collected her thoughts. “I won’t let either of you down.”

“I know you won’t. Please do not do more than you are capable of. Celestial Knights-to-be are guided by many, not just one.” Celestia stepped closer and sighed when Derpy didn’t react to her words. She placed a soothing hoof on the pegasus’s shoulder. “You don’t need to do this to show you love her.”

“But!” she protested, if only to try. Anything she could say to counter the statement died in her throat. After a moment, she nodded and smiled. “Thanks, Princess. You’re right.”

“You’ve been working hard and I need you elsewhere soon. Let the archmagi take over for now on long distance missions.”

“Alright, but what about Commander Minuette and Punch?”

Celestia pursed her lips and looked over to a book open on the table. “Luna cannot give her blessing often. Twilight Sparkle is beginning trials for teleportation runes. If these prove useful, she can watch over her when you cannot.” Derpy glanced to the same book briefly. She opened her mouth to speak but was briskly cut off. “Colgate can go for short distance, but I don’t want to tie her up with this. She does not bear the same... subtlety that you do.”

“I understand.” Derpy shut her visor and saluted. “I trust all of you, Your Majesty.” She snatched up the book and slipped it beneath her tower shield. “I’ll study this and do my best.”

Celestia smiled and nodded slowly. “I know you will. It’s nice to have help in making a better world for Equestria--for all.”

Derpy nodded and opened the door. A waft of cool air swept into the room. “I’m glad I can be a part of it.” With that, she was gone and the door closed quietly behind her.

Celestia’s eyelids lowered and she exhaled heavily. Sometimes I wonder about all of this. Her eyes trailed over to one of the maps spread out upon the table. She gave a thoughtful examination of a red cross marking the borderlands where the mission had just been conducted. She lay her hoof upon the mark of the new outpost, staring intently at the line marking the border to the Brood's lands. Are the Rites really the best option...?

Author's Note:

2/24/2013 -- Final, delayed a week due to net being down.

--Manually line spaced some of it. Import feature is breaking again.

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