• Published 19th Sep 2015
  • 2,675 Views, 53 Comments

Broken on the Wheel - billymorph

Trixie lost everything to the Alicorn Amulet. But, after Trixie is tricked into becoming the new host of the Nightmare, she is the only mare who can save Equestria from eternal darkness, if she wants to.

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Chapter 1

“Urgh, how much longer is this going to be?” Raz said, with a pitiful groan. I shot a glare over my shoulder, a task not made easy by the thick harness tying me to my wagon. Raz was lying on the step, his hooves lit up by waves of magic as he tried to massage them. The nameless little village, and Ornery Wheelwright, had been eaten up by the miles of the road and there was little to see beyond lush fields and the occasional bright splotch of a farmer working their crops.

There was a certain serenity to being on the road; it reminded me of my childhood. You had a task. You had a means to accomplish that task. All that was left was putting one hoof in front of the other until that task was done. There was some great irony in how hard I’d fought to avoid that daily grind becoming my life, just to run straight back the moment things got tough.

“My hooves are killing me,” Raz continued, but I paid him little heed. In the day and a half we had been travelling he had managed to pull the wagon for about sixty minutes. Seventy, if one were inclined to be generous, which I wasn’t. Raz was not a working pony. When we were foals his sole claim to exercise was being able to go from a standing lurk, to a blind gallop, faster than a pegasus struck by a thunderbolt. Not that his desperate escapes ever took him far. The hundred yard dash was, in Raz’s opinion, a sport for foolish ponies who didn’t have a good hiding spot prepared.

“How come you don’t have a mini-bar in here anyway. If I was one the road I’d...”

I tuned the stallion out. At least Raz’s skills as a consummate whiner hadn’t atrophied over the years. In thirty-six hours he had changed his coat colour based on: attractiveness to farm maids, ability to repel bugs, the fact that he didn’t get to use green often enough and to keep the sun off his head. I’m quite sure there are Changelings that don’t use disguise magic as much as Razzle Dazzle when he’s bored. How he avoided a lynch mob during the bug hunts I have no idea.


I jumped, the harness jangling. “No. I don’t know how long it’s going to be.”

Raz rolled his eyes at me, and brushed a lock of now blond mane out of his face. “See, I knew you weren’t listening. I said, I can see the city.”

Neigh Orleans was not a city that drew the eye. It lacked the grand towers of Manehatten or the singular location of Canterlot. The ancient charm that Trottingham had fought so hard to maintain had been sacrificed to gods of commerce in Neigh Orleans. Marsh and floodplains surrounded the city, which was a mere earthy blur on the horizon. There were no ancient city walls and we were approaching from the wrong angle to see the Grand Harbor. There were more inspiring cities for a filly to pin her dreams on, but all those years ago I had not been given much choice.

“Ah, it’s good to be home,” Raz said, with a sigh. “There’s this lovely new bar on Westmare Avenue that I have to show you. It has the cheapest mixers in the city. Of course they’re selling sparkles out of the back room, but it’ll be a month or two till anypony catches on and they get busted.”

I rolled my eyes. “We’re not even in town yet, and you’re already inviting me to a drug den?” I said, teasingly. “You really haven’t changed, have you Razzle?”

“Ha! Just wait until you see the mares they have waiting tables. You’ll soon overlook the sparkles for a glance at that. I wonder if they do hoof rubs.”

A deep sigh escaped me. My horn flashed as I lifted Raz from the wagon and dropped him onto the ground. “There, maybe if you actually have some dirt on your hooves they might believe your sob story.”

Raz did not start walking. “Oh come on Trix’!” he yelled after me. “I only need a couple hundred yards of dirt to pull that kind of con. It must be twenty miles yet!”

Three miles later the flagstoned road gave way to proper poured asphalt as we entered the city proper. Neight Orleans didn’t really begin. Empty fields became scattered cottages, cottages clustered together to become villages, villages blurred together until you suddenly realised you were walking down mainstreet. An eagle-eyed unicorn, such as myself, might spot the sudden ring of tombs that surrounded the city proper, but the bright coloured mausoleums blended into townhouses with nary a ripple.

“Ah, it is so good to be home,” Raz exclaimed, clapping me on the shoulder. “Let’s never go into the countryside again. It’s an unnatural place.”

A fond smile spread, unbidden, across my muzzle. It was surprisingly good to be back on the old stamping grounds. We were on Waterway Boulevard, a grandiose name for a Riverside street, a chunk of the city that was a slum before the first leavy went in. Riverside bordered the river on one side, with all the stink of stagnant water, raw sewage, rotting fish and seaweed that implied, and, without warning, became the warehouse district on the other.

Carts and barges coming from the north would pull up in Riverside filled to the brim with grain, textiles and other staples of life. If their owners knew which frogs to grease, the cargo would then wind its way through the labyrinth of twisted streets, to the harbour and across the sea. If they were unwise, the cargo would disappear into Riverside never to be seen again, along with the guards, the barge and any loose change within a three block radius. The joke ran that Riverside didn’t have a problem with crime, they were well practised at it.

It was the kind of place that consumed ponies, one of those patches of darkness that the light never seemed to be able to shift. Riverside was Neigh Orlean’s own Everfree Forest, wild and untamed no matter what ponies tried to do.

It felt like home, and I hated that. The buildings loomed over me, boarded up windows and cracked façades somehow twisted by nostalgia into smiling old faces. The bright colours that the city was famous for were faded and covered by years of grime, but I could read the street from a single glance. There was the house of family who’d fallen on hard times. There was the front for a seedy fence. There was a squat for a gang, with a sentry half asleep on the front step. Dark alleys best avoided and shortcuts for the filly running from a leadhoof, or worse, revealed themselves to me. I felt myself relax into the half forgotten rhythm of life on Riverside.

“Heads up,” Raz muttered. “Trouble, eleven o’clock.”

I glanced down the street, which seemed to be emptying with alarming speed. No immediate danger presented itself though so I glanced over my shoulder at Raz. The three stallions tailing us spotted my gaze and broke into a trot.

“Why did you look?” Raz hissed, glaring at me.

“You said eleven o’clock. That’s in front of us, you idiot.”

“I meant the other eleven o’clock.”

Great. I was going to be killed because Raz didn’t know which way up to tie his watch.

Magic surged around us and one of my wagon wheels locked solid against the axle. I came to a lurching stop, the breastcollar digging into my chest as I strained against the sudden dead weight.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't Scepter's lapdog." The stallions sauntered up to us. They were a hard-bitten sort. Two were earth ponies, probably brothers, and the colour of river mud. They had the build of professional brawlers and the twitchy walk of a pony getting desperate for another fix of something. Their unicorn friend was the brains on the outfit; he wore a green slip of silk around his neck and strutted, rather than walked, towards us. It was funny just how much like a Canterlot noble he looked. Sure, his mane and tail were rat-like and it was clear he had never had a square meal in his life, but he still had his nose turned up high, as if deigning to acknowledge us.

I christened him Ratline, and hated him in an instant.

"Funny, I thought Sledge told your sort to keep out of Riverside," Ratline continued, stepping between Raz and I, his muscle looming over us both.

"It's a public highway," Raz said, his usual light tones suddenly subdued. "Are we really going to start something?"

Ratline laughed. "Your boss already started something. This is just another consequence. Scepter needs to learn about consequences it seems." He shot a glance my way. "Who's the circus reject."

Me eyes narrowed. "My name," I said, dropping into my booming stage voice. I ignored Raz's sudden horrified look. "Is the Great and Powerful Trixie!" I reared up and slammed my hooves down on the road. Magical fireworks crackled around us, in all colours of the rainbow.

Ratline seemed less than impressed. "And word on the street was that Razzle was trying to find a powerful unicorn. Looks like he just settled for the loudest braggart he could find."

I cocked my head to one side. "Excuse me? Trixie is not some mere back parlour performer. Her skills are unmatched by any unicorn alive, even the alicorns tremble at her name.” Though, not for reasons that I cared for.

A derisive snort met my boasts. “Sure, I believe you,” Ratline said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Lumps, crack this bitch’s horn.”

My instincts had clearly atrophied, my first thought was amazement that anypony could be called Lumps. A hoof came whistling through the air towards my head and, at the last second, I craned my neck, rolling with the blow as it clipped my cheek. Mana pooled in my horn as I reeled back, held on my hooves by the wagon's tack, and I unleashed it in a wave of force, aimed low. The unfortunately named earth pony never saw the blast coming. The blast of kinetic power swept his legs out from under him and a meaty thud was the only sound he made as he hit the ground face first.

Amidst the confusion Raz took to all four hooves and accelerated away, running like he'd just lifted a hundred bits. The other thug, who I named Bumps in my head, accelerated after him, a mere half length behind, and I watched in horror as my only ally fled. Once, just once, I would like a knight in shining armour on my side.

Ratline rounded on me, his horn ablaze as he tried to gather a spell. Thugs like him only knew a couple of charms, but what little magic he had would be brutal and hit like a plough pony. My magic wreathed the harness, as I fought a dozen tricky buckles to get free, but I was too slow. Just as the last catch came free Ratline let loose with a bolt of red lightning. I hurled myself out of the way, but the spell homed in and caught me in the flank.

For a moment the entire world vanished behind a red haze of agony. Sky and earth flipped and the metalic taste of blood flooded my mouth. It lasted for just an instant, but that moment of agony stretched into infinity as I writhed in the dirt, screaming.

“Argh!” The harsh bark of pain cut through the haze and the spell vanished, leaving phantom hooves running over my flanks as my muscles spasmed wildly. A flash of blue filled the sky above me and again the smack of hooves on flesh echoed through the street. Groaning, I stumbled to my hooves, clutching my aching head.

A thestral hovered over the fallen Ratline, holding his hooves close to his chest in a boxer’s guard as Lumps circled around him. Seeing a thestral in broad daylight was surprising enough, let alone one leaping to my rescue. He had a lithe form, with a royal blue coat and the well carved muscles of a professional athlete. His wings were broad, the leathery flaps of skin in constant motion as he ducked and weaved around the Lump’s slow swings.

Bellowing in rage Lumps charged at the stranger, but the thestral danced up and over the blow. With a quick, double-hoofed buck to the back of the head, he drove Lumps to his knees.

“Well that was fun,” he said, dropping to the floor, grinning from ear to ear. His smile only widened as he turned to me. “I’ve always wanted to play the gallant hero. My name’s Astral Thunder, nice to meet you.” Whistles rang through the streets, along with the shriek of whistles as the police finally got their hooves out of their asses. “Whoops. That’s my cue to leave. If anypony asks, you never met me, you don’t know why you got jumped and you haven’t heard anything about Scepter.”

He leapt into the sky; within a few flaps he had darted into the shadows of an alleyway and was gone.

I groaned, slumping back to the ground. My head was pounding and the world seemed to have tilted when I wasn’t looking.

It was a fine welcome home to Neigh Orleans.

I ended up in the police station on Poplar street. It was an old haunt of mine and had not improved in my absence. The paint was still peeling off of the walls and graffiti dotted every bench and chair. The ponies of Riverside didn’t care for the leadhooves and the feeling was mutual. I’d visited cemeteries with more colour and cheer, and the ponies eyed me with wary suspicion even though I wasn’t wearing cuffs.

When you got right down to it, the only difference between under arrest and waiting for an interview was how polite the response you got when you asked to leave. That, and the waiting room had a water cooler. I was very grateful for the watercooler, if nothing else but to soothe my pounding headache. Magical attacks aren’t things you can just walk off, especially if you’re a unicorn. If you’re lucky you just get a nasty horn ache and need spend a few days in bed. Judging from the metaphorical hot poker between my eyes, I’d be getting that on top of all the scrapes and strains I’d picked up thrashing on the floor.

Still, I wasn’t under arrest. It made a nice change.

“Well, well.” The unicorn at the door was a familiar face. Bright Shield was a huge stallion, built like a wall and with a dark grey coat that seemed to blend into any background. If it wasn’t for his solid stance and proud smile I would have dismissed him as mere hired muscle. That wasn’t a mistake I was willing to make twice, though. “If it isn’t Trixie. What have you managed to get yourself into this time?”

I rolled my eyes, shifting on the low bench to try to find a more comfortable position. “Clearly I’m a travelling showmare, brutally set upon by the cruel denizens of this wretched city.” I gave a dramatic toss of my head, brushing my mane out of my eyes and fighting back a wince. I had to ease up on the sudden movements. “May I have your name, my brave champion?”

“So you’ve learned to ham it up while you were away, at least?” He took a seat next to me and sighed. “Damn it all, Trixie, I didn’t expect to see you back in Neigh Orleans. I thought you went straight.”

I echoed his sigh, dropping my head between my hooves to rest on the cool boards. “I did go straight,” I said, glaring at a loose tile. “I am now the Great and Powerful Trixie, didn’t you hear?”

“I heard. I also heard through the royal line that the Crown was taking special interest in any case involving one Trixie Lulamoon.” I winced. Great, my infamy was growing. “Which means there’s probably going to be a whole lot of paperwork on my desk. The wife is going to kill me, but that’s justice for you.”

I sat up too fast and had to fight against the room’s sudden spin to stay upright. “Surely that doesn’t count if Trixie is just an innocent victim?” I protested. “Sergeant, I can–”


“What?” I did a double take.

“Detective,” Bright Shield said, tapping his badge.

“Really?” I shook my head. “And here was I thinking they’d never get you behind a desk.”

Bright Shield waved me off. “Bah, there’s plenty of younger ponies to keep the streets clean, or as much as we can these days. The brass needs keen eyes as much as it needs all hooves on deck.” His voice was oddly lifeless as he spoke, as if echoing what others had told him. It was a sad day when they put a stallion like Bright out to pasture. In the years I’d known him, I’d never seen Bright more alive than when he was a mere pace away from collaring a criminal.

“What do you mean, these days?” I said, frowning.

Bright Shield shook his head. “The city’s gone mad, Trixie. There’s always been the rough fringes, but it’s practically a war out there. The gangs are fighting, not just little scuffles, but full on battles in the streets. Word is a small time artefact smuggler went from a twelve pony operation to ruling half the underworld. I don’t suppose the name Scepter means anything to you, Trixie?”

My face went blank. “Never heard the name before,” I lied, too smoothly.

“Right...” Bright’s eyes narrowed. “How about that thestral who laid out two ponies? Did you happen to see him?”

“No, I had just had my soul flayed, so I wasn’t paying too much attention.” I shrugged. “I’d shake him by the hoof if had, though. After all, he was doing your job.”

Bright didn’t rise to the bait. “No he didn’t. There’s a nasty colony of them moved into town. They’re throwing their muscle around towards some dark end. If any of them helped you, they did it because it helped them. You sure you didn’t see anything?”

“I already said no,” I pointed out, snappishly. Goddesses, what had Raz managed to drag me into this time?

“Trixie!” Bright barked, making me jump. “You may be the victim, for once, but this is not some cutpurse racket.” He slammed his hoof on the bench, glowering at me. “Ponies are dying. Lots of them. And I don’t want to see you turn up in the river.”

A bitter chuckle escaped me. “Why Detective, I didn’t know you cared.”

Bright’s glower softened. He stood up, with a tired sigh, and made his way over to the watercooler. “Want one?” His horn kindled as he filled one of the ceramic cups, then another.

“You’re stalling,” I said, simply. “Though, yes.”

I accepted the mug into my aura and took a deep draught.

Bright groaned as he sat down next to me. “True." He took a sip from his own up. "Trixie, do you remember how we met?”

A shudder passed through me. There had been a lot of biting and kicking involved. “Vividly.”

“Did you know you were my first collar?” Bright said, taking a seat next to me. “Trixie Lulamoon, unicorn of no known family, age fourteen, suspicion of theft of the first degree. It was a proud day to be a policepony. Of course, I was less pleased when I found you’d lifted my wallet during processing, but I always kept an interest. I was never happier to hear you’d gotten your own stage.” He sighed, a fond look on his face. “I always said, ‘that pony wasn’t born to be a thief’, and I thought you had proved me right.”

I said nothing. Did it say something about my friends that my enemies had been happier to hear of my success?

He fixed me with his piercing glare and dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. “I’m going to give you a bit of advice, Trixie. Run. You’ve got a fancy cart and a load of talent. Whatever you’ve done to get caught up in this madness, whatever they might be paying you, it isn’t worth it. Get out of Neigh Orleans. Now, before it’s too late.”

He stood, suddenly every inch the professional officer again. “Anyway, you’re free to go ma’am. Thanks for your assistance.”

“What?” I stared for a long moment, then shook myself and lept to my feet. “What about notifying the Crown?”

Bright shrugged. “I’m sure they wouldn’t be interested in such a minor scuffle. Besides, you were the victim after all. No need to waste Their Majesties’ time.”

“Thank you,” I said in a whisper.

“Don’t make me regret it, Trixie.” Bright shook his head. “Stay safe."

He walked away, leaving me alone in the waiting room.

I waited for a long moment, half expecting the bad cop to arrive at any second. After no pony presented themselves, I sighed and shook my head. My hornache was building again; magic was going to be fun for a few days. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had to power through, but it was going to be unpleasant. Wandering over to the water fountain I poured myself another cup and held it against my head.

What in tartarus’ name was going on? Neigh Orleans was not my favorite city to visit, not by a long shot. It was not, however, a town where a pony was murdered in broad daylight just for walking down mainstreet. Then there was the thestral. As a personal rule I never talked to the police about a friend, and saving my life put him firmly in that category, but thestrals were always a sign of trouble. Their entire breed had stayed loyal to Nightmare Moon after her banishment, and not all of them had accepted Princess Luna’s orders to disarm.

“Trixie! There you are.” Raz sounded far too upbeat for his own good, and had his voice pitched in a ludicrously feminine range. I glared at him as he trotted over. He’d stolen my colours, with a silver coat and azure mane which now trailed almost down to the floor. Between a pair of eyelash extensions and a strategically fluffed coat, he pulled off the tom-colt look rather convincingly. “Come on, stop cooling your hooves and get moving, we’ve got places to be.”

“And who are you supposed to be?” I said, arching an eyebrow.

“Right now, your sister Moxie. Now come on, I’ve got a kid watching your wagon and, to be honest, I wouldn’t trust him with a half bit.”

“You look nothing like my sister Moxie,” I muttered, though followed Raz as he made a break for the door. His nervous trot was barely under control and I was very tempted to set off a firework off behind him and see how fast he took off. Or perhaps I could just set fire to his tail. There were some nasty, arcane fires that burned even under water. They wouldn’t stop until there was nothing but a treacherous skeleton left, still screaming–

“Trix, your eyes are glowing red again.”

“Gagh!” I rubbed my eyes with both forehooves, trying to banish the images from my head.

Raz rolled his eyes. “What is up with that?” he asked, sounding as casual as if he were commenting as to a new hat.

I shuddered. “Trixie does not wish to talk about it.”

“You’re also talking in third person again. You only do that when you’re dodging the question.” He glanced over his shoulder and winked at me. I began to wonder just why I’d thought frying him alive was a bad idea. “So what set you off that time?”

“I was wondering the best way to set your tail on fire,” I growled. A passing policepony shot me a worried glance, but didn’t stop.

“Ha! You wouldn’t be the first to try.” Raz frowned, rubbing a hoof on his chin. “Actually, I think you were the first to try.” He shook his head, as we reached the main hall of the station. “Anyway, we’re wasting time. Let’s get out of here, I haven’t been around this many leadhooves since I crashed the Police Ball.”

I rolled my eyes. I was somewhat amazed Raz had even dared set hoof in the stationhouse. He was not the bravest of stallions, for all his guile.

Leaving was surprisingly simple. The mare at the front desk had a small mountain of forms for me to fill out, but my story was easy enough to remember. I hadn’t seen anything. I didn’t know why I’d been attacked. I didn’t know who had attacked me. I didn’t even leave my name on any of the forms. The policepony pursed her lips as she read over my responses, but said nothing. Somehow, I doubted she got many straight answers out of the typical pony through the doors.

“Come on, come on, come on,” Raz said, bouncing on his hooves.

“We’ll let you know if we need you for another testimony,” the desk sergeant assured me with a smile. “I hope the rest of your stay in Neigh Orleans is more pleasant.”

“Trixie hopes so too.”

Taking my time I made my way to Raz, who near leapt out of the doors and onto the street. “You know, they can arrest you just as easily out here,” I said, following him at a far less suspicious pace.

“I don’t like feeling trapped,” Raz said, a shudder running down his back. “Come on, your wagon’s just around the corner.”

I glowered at him as he trotted away, but followed. “I’m still waiting for an apology, by the way.”

“Huh?” He had the gall to look confused.

“For your help back there. You took off faster than a diamond dog hearing a dinner bell when things got serious.” I don’t really know what I’d expected. Raz had never been a fighter. It wasn’t even the first time he’d saved his own skin and left me to face the music. It still hurt, though. Twilight’s friends never...

“Jeeze, Trix, that guy was like three times my size! What was I supposed to do, turn him blue? I went and got help, wasn’t that enough?”

My eyes narrowed. “Yes. A thestral. What in the Princess’ name are you doing with one of those ponies?”

“Heh, heh, heh.” Raz let out a nervous chuckle. “Umm, actually...”

We rounded the corner and my heart leapt in my throat. My wagon was sat by the side of the road, marred with dirt from the road but still blessedly intact. I breathed a sigh of relief, just glad it hadn’t been abandoned at the side of the road to be picked over by more of Ratline’s slippery hooved friends. An earth pony colt glanced up as we approached, sizing up with the eye of a pony trying to work out the exact number of bits in my purse.

Two thestrals landed on the roof of the wagon with a heavy thud. The kid glanced up, back at us, and then took off like a rocket. The bat-winged ponies were a heavyset pair, brothers at a guess and their yellow eyes fixed on Raz and I. For a moment I considered running; few ponies lived full and happy lives after crossing the servants of Nightmare Moon. I wasn’t going to lose another wagon, though.

“I’m going to give you one warning,” I growled, magic gathering around my horn. “Get the buck off my property.”

The pair smirked. “Hear that, Nighty,” one said, elbowing his brother. “The sunkissed wants to tell us what to do.”

My aura went red in an instant. “What?” the word escaped my mouth in a sibilant snarl. “What did you call me?”

“Uh Trix...” Raz tried to interject, but I ignored him.

Nighty grinned, revealing pony-rending fangs. “Sunkissed. A sun-loving fool. One of Celestia’s pathetic little ponies.”

Rage swirled around me as my magic built to a crescendo. The hum of a barely constrained spell singing in my ears. “I am nopony’s,” I snarled.

“Ooo, the little unicorn thinks she’s scary,” Nighty continued, clasping a hoof over his heart in mock terror. “Perhaps you’d like to come up here and say that? Oh wait, you can’t fly.”

“Seriously, there’s no need, we’re–” Raz tried again, but my anger was in full flow.

“Perhaps you’d like to come down here and find out just how terrifying The Great and Powerful Trixie truly is?” I cocked an eyebrow at them. “Unless you’re even more chicken than a pegasus.”

I touched a nerve there. Nighty’s eyes narrowed and he spread his leathery wings. It was the mistake I was looking for. Unicorn magic is often underestimated, and underused for that matter. Ponies see nothing more than the fancy lights and the strange effects and don’t bother to dwell on the how and the why. A clever unicorn could, with some imagination and some experimentation do anything she set her mind too, and that including wiping the smirk off an annoying thestral’s face. Magic struggled to affect ponies; they were inherently magical creatures and that carried its own measure of protection, especially against ponies who didn’t have the depth of power the alicorns could boast. It was more than capable of moving the air around them, however.

A blast of wind blossomed into existence beneath the thestral’s wings and slammed into him like a hammer blow. With a strangled squawk of surprise the pony was picked up and hurled into the sky, quickly becoming just a pale grey dot in the distance.

“So, I’ll say it again,” I said, turning my ire on the surprised brother. “Get off my wagon.”

“Why you–” He leapt from the wagon, keeping his wings furled and I poured more magic into my horn, readying a lightning bolt. The sound of beating wings suddenly echoed behind me and I whirled, losing my spell towards yet another thestral. I recognised him a moment too late.

“Whoa!” Astral exclaimed, as my spell fizzled in the air before him. “Easy there!” He landed hard next to me. “Don’t worry, Trixie, we’re all friends here.”

Friends was probably a strong term considering I'd just tried to boil his eyes out with a lightning bolt, but I held my tongue. It wasn't like my lightning spell could harm a kitten without the alicorn amulet anyway.

“Cousin, she–” the other thestral cut in, hurrying over.

Astral held up a hoof. “Is the pony I sent you to look after, Storm” he said, shooting me a warm smile. I did not return it. “Where’s Night Thunder got to?”

Storm glared at me. “He's... on a scout around.”

“Ah, good, good.” Astral turned back to me, beaming. It was an odd smile, warm but forced, it took me a moment to realise it was a deliberate attempt not to show his fangs. “And it is very good to meet you Miss Trixie in less stressful circumstances. I’m sorry to leave you to the tender mercies of the law, but it would have just made everything far too hard to explain if they’d found me there. I hope my cousins haven’t been driving you too far up the wall.”

“Trixie was handling things,” I said, at last letting the magic fade away. A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over me and I fought to keep from stumbling. It wasn’t the bone deep weariness of overchanneling, just too much magic too fast, the unicorn equivalent of a nasty stitch. It was a painful reminder I didn’t have half the magic I once wielded.

“Sure, I always throw lightning bolts when somepony’s driving me up the wall.” Astral laughed, waving off my glare. “I kid, I kid. No need to give me a new electric manestyle, Trixie. I can call you Trixie, right?”

“Or The Great and Powerful Trixie.”

“Very well, oh Great and Powerful Trixie.” Astral took my hoof and kissed my coronet. “And you can call me Astral Thunder. Or the Devilish and Sexy Astral if you wish.”

Over my shoulder Storm made a gagging noise.

“Don’t push your luck,” I said, with a sigh, pulling my hoof back. Astral wasn’t bad looking, but my mother had warned me about thestrals. Then again, when had I ever listened to my mother?

“Well, I had to try.” There was an annoyed grunt as Nighty finally made his way back and landed next to us, he shot me a deadly glare. “Ah, see anything on your scout around, Night?” Astral asked, without a trace of irony. Night opened his mouth to protest, but his brother elbowed him in time.

“No,” he growled. “Nothing.”

“Excelent. Well in that case, Storm if you want to harness yourself in, we’ll all head back to the mansion.”

“Hold it right there,” I cut in, stepping between them. “Nopony touches Trixie’s wagon, and we are not going to any mansion.”

Astral frowned. It was the first time I’d seen his sunny smile break. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d already know. We’re here to take you to our mutual employer.”

“Trixie does not have an employer,” I said, tersely. “Especially not in Neigh Orleans.”

“Um, actually Trixie...” My glare snapped to Razzle as he spoke, and he swallowed the lump in his throat. “This job I was talking about, I may have already said yes to it.”

“Trixie has not,” I shot back, arching an eyebrow at him.

Astral put a wing around my shoulders and smiled, showing the full extent of his fangs. “You’d be amazed how little some ponies care about quibbles like that. I’m afraid our employer has need of a unicorn of your talents and he is accustomed to getting what he wants.” His cousins stepped up beside me, hemming us in. “So, how about we get moving before Scepter starts getting angsty. It will make all our lives much easier.”

A sigh escaped me. “I suppose Trixie will have to agree.”

The mansion was up in the city heights, far above the stink of the docks and the grime of several thousand ponies living in close proximity. It was not the grandest stage I’d ever walked. The building was merely three stories tall and lacked even a single turret or marble façade. A Canterlot noble would have turned their nose up and called it a ‘pocket chalet’ and, to be fair, even for Neigh Orleans it was on the small size. Still, it was a mansion. It was the seat of Scepter’s power, whatever power it was he wielded, and I felt no small trepidation to step across his threshold.

It was far too late to run, though. Astral and his cousins lead me through the mansion’s halls at a steady clip, never taking their eye off of me. I found my eyes drawn to the odd lack of decoration on the walls. A pony says a lot with their home but Scepter seemed not to care. Everywhere I looked there were empty rings on old tables, light coloured squares on the panelling where portraits had hung and a distinct lack of any kind of cleaning going on.

On the road you could spot a noble family in financial trouble in a heartbeat by the little things they’d let slide, like keeping up with the Canterlot fashions. New money was just as easy to spot, they always had the latest everything and everything was inlaid in gold. Scepter’s mansion should have fallen into that last category, in fact, a year ago it may well have. Since then, though, it had been stripped bare by what looked to be the most thorough team of looters I had ever seen.

“Friendly place,” I said, as we passed another set of barren rooms.

“Beats some of the dumps we’ve been to.” Astral grinned and jabbed Nighty with his foreknee. “Remember those caves up in the Mountains of Light? Those were a fun place to stay.”

“I almost got eaten by quarray eels,” the stallion growled. “Which you swore could not jump.”

“Technically, I said ‘fly’; you took that to mean they couldn’t get off the ground.”

I glared at the pair. “So what can Trixie expect from this ‘boss’ of yours?”

“Oh, Scepter’s a great pony,” Astral said, slipping back into his easy grin. “Though, maybe he needs to take that stick out of his plot every once in a while. You’ll be fine; he’s ruthless, but he needs you, and if you’ve got half a brain you can use that.”

It took me a long moment to realise he’d given me some useful advice. His cousins picked up on it sooner. “Astal, remember what your father says about running your mouth,” Storm said, in a low growl.

“Father wouldn’t trust a filly-scout with a wagon full of cookies. Come now, Storm, we’re all on the same side.”

Storm shot me a suspicious look. “That remains to be seen.”

“If you don’t want Trixie to be here, then she’ll be happy to leave.”

He grunted, and we descended back into silence, broken on by the thud of hooves on boards. “You know, you haven’t actually told Trixie what it is you want her to do,” I said, after a short while.

“I’m sure Scepter will enlighten you,” Astral said, with a smile that promised butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Though, it is important to us, I can assure you of that.”

My eyes narrowed. “How important?”

“It would help my family a lot. Scepter would kill for it.”

He paused before an unremarkable door and knocked. “Boss, The Great and Powerful Trixie is here to see you.”

An aura encompassed the door handle and the door creaked open. Oil seemed to be in short supply in the mansion as well. “Well? Come in then,” a waspish voice cut through the hall.

I paused a moment at the threshold to draw upon that inner wellspring of showmareship. The ego and drive of The Great and Powerful Trixie was not always to my advantage, but it made facing down a mob boss that much easier to stomach. With an arrogant flick of my mane I strode into the room.

Scepter was not quite as I expected. Given the number of dark and brooding bat-ponies he’d surrounded himself, I’d expected a Count Tackular knock-off. Instead, Scepter was a butter-yellow unicorn, with a mane the colour of lemonade. He was not particularly well built, nor that well kept, though his wealth was made obvious by the bands of gold that wreathed the base of his horn and the well-tailored suit around his chest. His eyes were the only thing that set him apart from the average pony. They were hard, a piercing blue that seemed to cut through me like a diamond through glass. I fought down the urge to shudder.

“So, I hear you have a job for The Great and Powerful Trixie?” I demanded, falling back on bravado to steady my nerves.

“Indeed I do,” he said, rising from behind the desk. He held out a hoof and we shook. “I’ve heard many things about you, Trixie. The second most powerful unicorn in Equestria, according to some.”

“They’re liars then,” I said, matching his gaze. “Trixie is the most magical unicorn.”

“Well then.” A predatory smile crept across his face. “I’m sure Miss Twilight Sparkle will be very disappointed to hear that.”

“She’s an alicorn now; Trixie wins by default.” I waved the accusation off. Many lonely hours on the road had been spent preparing that comeback.

Scepter chortled. “Oh, that is a very good point.” He winked and nudged with an elbow. “No use us mortals comparing themselves against the princesses, is there? Please take a seat. Can I offer you a drink? It’s a bit early for something strong but my doctor doesn’t dare chastise me these days.”

“Bourbon if you have it.”

“Ah, a mare after my own heart.” He laughed at his own joke. With an easy economy of motion he strode to a small, but extremely well stocked, drinks cabinet and began to pour out two glasses of bourbon. “I must apologize for the welcome you received to our fair city. I would have asked some of my friends to escort you through the rougher patches, if you’d only written ahead.”

“Trixie was more than capable of handling it.” I rubbed my still aching horn. “It was a lucky shot.”

“Indeed?” He passed me the drink. I took a sniff and had to blink tears out of my eyes; he certainly wasn’t buying the cheap stuff. “I guess even the most powerful of us have their off days.”

I ignored the slight, instead giving the office a once over. It seemed to have escaped the decimation the rest of the mansion had suffered. The carpet under my hooves was rich and dozens of expensive looking relics lined bookshelves and sideboards. Some of those relics seemed to have lept straight out of a Daring Do novel and the itch in my horn suggested they were no less powerful than those fictional finds.

“Ah, I see you’ve an eye for the ancient,” Scepter observed, and took a sip of his own drink. “It’s remarkable what those long forgotten cultures achieved. So much power locked in stone and metal; it’s almost humbling in its own way.”

“Trixie was under the impression that producing these was what killed many of those ancient ponies,” I said, repressing a shudder. At least he hadn’t somehow managed to get his hooves on the Alicorn Amulet. I wasn’t sure what I would do if it crossed my path again, but I doubted the end result would be pleasant.

“Building superweapons does seem to hasten a culture’s demise, I’ll admit.” Scepter laughed. “Though who’s to say if that’s a cause or an effect. I sometimes wonder what the modern pony would do if given such power. All we have left are the trinkets and the few relics that never possess the power they once promised.” His gaze lingered on a golden chalice for a moment. “I think you’re well acquainted with how high the costs such a pursuit can be.”

I tossed my head. “Trixie is not hearing much about this job.”

“Ha! To the point, I like that.” Scepter clapped his hooves together. “I am putting together a ritual. Tonight, in fact, at sundown. I need a sixth unicorn to power the circle, my previous choice proved unreliable and your good friend Razzle Dazzle promised me he could find somepony to fill their shoes on short notice. Here you are.”

“Six?” I echoed. Six was a powerful number. There were six Elements. Six founders. Thirty six unicorns had been needed to raise the sun and Canterlot had been carved from the mountain by six nobles. Six ponies, united in purpose, could move metaphysical, and physical, mountains. It was hard to imagine what a crime boss could need such power for. Nothing pleasant came to mind.

“Would you believe that it a healing spell?” Scepter raised his glass for another sip.

“Not really. How much?”

“One thousand bits. Cash.”

My ears shot up and I fought down the urge to immediately double the figure. It was never a good idea to dicker with crime bosses, Scepter could always decide paying me was more hassle than dumping my body in a ditch. Besides, a thousand bits represented more than a months earnings, maybe even three months with how slim my show’s pickings were.

“There are a lot of doctors that would charge you a lot less,” I said, trying to keep my tone level. I took another protective sip of my drink, and managed to drain it dry.

“There aren’t many doctors who can do what I’m asking. So, are you interested?”

“What–” I gritted my teeth and bit the bullet. Was this an offer I couldn’t refuse? “What would you say if Trixie was not?”

“I would be extremely disappointed to hear that.” His eyes flashed with barely constrained menace and a chill ran down my spine.

“It’s fortunate that Trixie is more than happy to help then,” I said, with indecent haste. “What do you need her to do?”

Scepter held up a hoof. “First things first, Miss Trixie. I need you to prove your credentials. What, many I ask, is your special talent?”

I tossed my head, pointing my nose towards the ceiling. “Why, Trixie is the most magical unicorn in all of Equestria,” I proclaimed, slipping fully into my showmare persona. “That is her talent.”

“Well it certainly isn’t false modesty,” Scepter said, raising an eyebrow at me. “Still, what does that mean?”

“Anything you can do, the Great and Powerful Trixie can do better.” I matched his gaze. “Just try me.”

The grin that spread across Scepter’s face was an evil thing that should have been left strangled in the cradle. “Really?” he drawled. “Well, that is a talent. Do you want to know what my talent is, Miss Trixie?” He stood, showing me his flank. The cutie-mark was of an ancient wheel, rather reminiscent of those on old earth pony chariots. “Time. As I said, artefacts are my passion, the older and more valuable the better. I have, I dare say, the best eye in the business for the rare and valuable. No pony can match it.”

“Trixie can.” The words escaped me before I could stop them, and Scepter’s grin widened.

“Well, let us arrange a little test then.” He winced as his magic kindled, and a maelstrom of objects whirled around us. From boxes, shelves, off of chair cushions, and one from a lock box, they rose into the air. Priceless treasures and powerful artefacts whirled around my head and I cast around, trying to keep track of them all. Before I knew what was going on a trio of treasures landed on the desk, each on a velvet cushion. “Tell me, which of these is the most valuable?”

I froze. Ah, well that was a problem. The three items were each unique in their own way. The first was a necklace, wrought iron at a guess and crudely shaped into the image of the rising sun. It thrummed with power and I could almost hear it whispering promises of greatness in the back of my mind. I pulled away sharply and turned to the next artefact. It was a helmet, sized for a large unicorn but otherwise smooth and unadorned. There was no particular magic to it and I would have dismissed it as a curiosity if it hadn’t been the only object I’d seen under lock and key. Finally, a golden crown was by far the most ostentatious, with a ruby set in the centre the size of my hoof. I did not look to closely, the spells were worn but sticky even at a glance. I could imagine a foalish pony becoming enamoured all too easily.

“So, what do you think?” Scepter’s grinned like a timberwolf with a filly between its paws. “I’ll give you–”

I jabbed my hoof at the helmet. “That one,” I said, cutting him off.

He started, his eyes widening in shock. “How...”

“It was the only one in a locked box.” I was unable to keep the smug smile off of my face. “Does this mean Trixie passes your test?”

Scepter scowled.“Almost,” he spat and tapped the silvery metal with a hoof. “Lift it. No tricks, like lifting the cushion. Just levitate the helmet as high as you can.”

I met his gaze and cocked an eyebrow, but elicited no responses. Shrugging I kindled my horn, letting my aching magic flow into the metal. With a contemptuous flick of my head the helmet– did nothing.

Frowning, I probed the helmet with my arcane senses. Some hoof-raised university pet like Twilight Sparkle would have had a name for the odd ‘slipperiness’ of the metal, I knew nothing more than it was like gripping soap in my field. Likewise, there had to be a clever way of avoiding the effect but I didn’t know it.

My horn blazed as I forced power through it. My grip went from tentative to crushing, yet the helm didn’t even wobble. Setting my forehooves on the table I brought my horn as close to the petulant piece of armour as I could, the room cast into harsh light and deep shadow from the magic pouring from me. My head throbbed as I strained like a filly trying to lift a marble, the pain doubling and redoubling behind my eyes. Still, I fed the furnace of magic before me. Sparks began to fly. Crystal dust and magelights bursting into existence as my mana began to spill into the real world. The helmet didn’t wobble.

As I grit my teeth together the room went red. Rage filled me, leaping into the gaps where my magic washed away into the yawning void that was the helmet. Eddies in reality began to form, the tell tale sign of a unicorn unrestrained. Objects lifted themselves into the air. Geometry warped at the edges, creating eye bending illusions and twisting singularities. At the centre of the maelstrom of magic the helmet sat, completely unresponsive.

Laughter echoed in my ears, mocking and mad in equal amounts. Twilight wouldn’t be beaten by a lump of metal, so I refused to be either. An explosion of power raced down the length of my horn and the helmet wobbled, slightly.

My power escaped my control in an explosion of sound and magenta fire. I collapsed back into my seat, sweat matting my coat, hyperventilating.

Scepter, for once, seemed lost for words. “Huh,” he said at last.

I tried to lever myself upright, but gave up as the world spun around me. “What the buck is that thing made of?” I demanded.

“It’s known as star-steel. It’s impervious to magic.” Scepter picked the helm up by the tip of his hoof. “Well, more or less it seems.”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie–” I took a deep, shuddering breath. “–cares not for such trivialities.” I drew myself up to my full height, biting my tongue to bring the world back into focus. I hoped there would not be another test, the world was going grey around the edges. If I had a light spell left in me I’d be amazed. “Does this mean she passes?”

“Oh yes, you certainly pass.” Scepter’s grin was predatory once again. “If fact, I want you at my left hoof. Astral!”

There was a knock at the door and the thestral let himself in. He almost did a double take when he saw the helmet, but fought it down to a mere flick of the eyes. “You called?”

“Trixie, Great and Powerful, here will be joining us this evening. Please find her a suite and make sure she wants for nothing.”

“Everything went well then?” Astral trotted over to me and, putting a shoulder under my breast, heaved me onto my hooves.

Scepter smiled. “Perfectly. Tonight is going to go just as planned.”

I couldn’t help but feel a chill run through my bones.

Suite turned out to be a grandiose term for a stripped out guest room with nothing but a mattress for comfort. Still, I was in no state to critique the interior design. Magical exhaustion is tartarus’ own curse, complete with headaches, nausea and the overwhelming desire to curl up into a ball and sleep for a week. After demolishing a cheap triple hayburger, of course.

My ear flicked as the door creaked open. I didn’t move, keeping my eyes shut and my frame relaxed as I dug into my magic reserves.

“Trix, you still alive in there?” Raz called out, creeping through the doorway.

I released the spell and grumbling, “go away Raz.”

“I brought soup.”

Raising my head I glowered at the stallion, now blue maned and black coated. “Leave the soup, then go away.”

“Come on Trix, you can’t stay in bed all day.” Raz dropped his plot onto the end of the mattress, doing his best to bounce me clear. “Besides, Scepter will be sending his goons soon. The sun’s setting, we need to get ready from this ritual.”

“Joy.” I plucked the soup from his aura and winced as I threw a cooling spell at it. My horn felt tender, like somepony had been pounding on it with a tiny hammer, but the spell still worked. I proceeded to drain the soup in a couple of deep gulps.

“Here’s your bowl.” I hurled it into Raz’s chest, rocking him back on his haunches. “Now go away.”

Raz sighed and hung his head, his ears drooping. “You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”

“Trixie does not concern herself with such trivialities,” I snapped. “Leave.”

“Oh come on!” He threw up his hooves. “Don’t give me the ‘Great and Powerful’ act, Trixie. I’m sorry, okay? What else can I say?”

Glowering at him I lay back down on the bare mattress. “That you have an escape plan and a team of attractive stallions waiting outside to spirit us off into the night.” A sardonic chuckle escaped me. “Actually, let’s just skip to the attractive stallions.”

Raz rapped his forehooves against the ground, not meeting my eye. “Um...”

“That was a joke, Raz,” I growled. “Scepter told me you were looking for me.” And it hurt more than I could say to accept that. “Trixie hoped, she really hoped, that you weren’t playing an angle. That this time you were actually acting as my friend and not just conning her. It was clearly too much for her to expect from you.”

“Oh will you give it a rest with the rutting third person?” Raz exclaimed, throwing up his hooves. His horn flared and I was yanked upright. I stared at him, struggling to fit an angry Raz into my worldview. It was rather like being cursed out by a bunny. “Grow up will you! So you’ve had a crappy day, I have had the month from tartarus! The entire city has gone mad and this was my one shot, my one shot at getting through this nightmare with my hide intact.”

“Great, so instead of doing what any sane pony would do you dragged Trixie–” Raz scowled. “–fine, me, into this mess with you. Did you not hear when I said that I’m an inch from being banished from all of Equestria? No, you just heard that my dream is in the toilet so you thought, ‘wow, this is a great time to get Trixie into an evil scheme’.”

“What happened to you Trixie?” Razzle demand. “Three years ago this wouldn’t have phased you. Heck, you would have suggested it as a great way to finally finish your so-called ‘grand project’.”

My eyes narrowed and I felt magic begin to course down the length of my horn. “You are on very thin ice.”

“How did that work out for you, Trixie?” Raz began to pace, sparks shooting from the tip of his horn. “How was your dream of being a travelling showmare? I kept an ear out, you know. From what I hear your precious magic show was five parts bluster, two parts bullying and one part actual magic. No wonder when you ran into a Princess she drummed you out of town.”

“That’s it!” I roared, slamming my hooves down. A wave of magic raced from me, but Raz threw up a glittering shield that rebuffed the attack. “I did not get drummed out of town. I was attacked by a star-bear! It was two stories tall and only a pair of idiot foals could expect anypony to deal with the monster. Expect, of course, for the oh-so-perfect Princess in training Twilight Sparkle. Of course she could slay the beast, and tear down my rutting dream along with it!”

“So you just gave up then?” Raz demanded, his own magic burning phosphor bright at the tip of his horn. “That’s not the Trixie I knew. She wouldn’t have just given up!”

“No, she would have come up with some way of getting even,” I snarled, my horn flashing red. Raz skidded back a half pace as his shield buckled. “She would have bartered her sanity for power and conquered a small town. Do you understand, Raz? I almost crippled a dozen ponies. I broke every rule of magic imaginable. I was a mon–”

Raz’s magic winked out. Unrestrained my spell picked up the pony and slammed him against the wall driving the air out of his lungs.

“Raz!” I screamed. The magic vanished and he slumped to the floor. I galloped to his side. “I didn’t mean to... I just wanted to...”

“Urgh.” Raz rolled onto his back and held a hoof to his head. “When did you learn to buck like that, Trix'?”

I drew myself back, held a hoof to my chest, took a deep, steadying breath and tried to act unconcerned. “Trixie learned– argh!” I batted myself on the muzzle. “I mean, I’m really sorry.”

Raz chuckled. “Heh, you know I think that might actually be the first I’ve ever heard you apologize.” He shook himself and struggled back to his hooves. I just hung my head, a deep sigh escaping me.

“Oh come on,” he said, holding a hoof against his horn. “No snappy comeback, even for little old me?” Raz batted his eyelashes at me.

For once he didn’t get a rise. “Raz, didn’t you ever wonder if there was a reason I wanted to stay on the straight and narrow?”

“I figured that you got the fear of Celestia drummed into you, in person.” Raz snorted at his own joke, I just sighed. “Seriously Trix, thing’s aren’t that bad. It’s just a spell.”

I shot him a contemptuous look. “Raz, we’re about to perform a six pony spell, at sundown, for a cult of thestrals. If we get out of this without anypony being turned possessed, cursed, banished to the moon–or all three–then we’ll talk.”

“When did you get so cynica–”

A knock on the door cut Razzle off. Astral did not wait for an answer, the thestral strode into the room, strutting as if he owned the place. “I hope I’m not interrupting. But you two lovebirds really need to get your tails in gear if we’re going to get this ritual done. You can discus Trixie's tragic past later."

I scowled at him. “Have you been eavesdropping?”

“It’s not really eavesdropping when you’re shouting loud enough to shake the walls,” Astral pointed out, smirking. “Still, we need to get going.” His tone darkened, and he fixed us with a steely gaze. “You cannot be late.”

"I don't take well to threats," I proclaimed, drawing up to my full height.

"It was more of a statement, really." Astral said, shrugging and three of his biggest cousins shouldered their way into the room. "Now, let's go."

I glared at Razzle. "Trixie reserves the right to say ‘I told you so’."

"Duly noted."

Not a word was said as we were hustled towards the cellars. The ritual made itself felt long before I laid eyes on it. The magic lay heavy in the air, a great cloying wealth of power that made my hooves spark on the stone. My horn felt like somepony had put a sparkler at the base and I had to bite down on my tongue to keep spells from slipping out. Even the thestrals seemed to feel the power in the air; they were jumpy, keeping their weapons close to hoof and snapping at every little sound. Astral was the only one who seemed to be able to keep his nerves in check, though didn’t seem to be able to stop smiling.

I felt like I was in a Daring Do story, descending into the bowels of the earth at the behest of a pagan god. I even had the cultish tribesponies at my side, even if I’d never call the batwinged ponies that to their faces. As the magelights faded away I was suddenly all too aware of the tales of live sacrifice and cannibalism that clung to the thestrals even after all these years. Even Princess Luna had decried the rumours of cannibalism during the Nightmare War, but who’s to say they hadn’t learned a new trick over the centuries.

Darkness pooled around my hooves, making every step a struggle. Light seemed a distant memory. I was dimly aware that I could cast a spell to guide my path but... it was gone, crushed by the gloom. I found myself with my eyes fixed on Astral's tail, hoping against hope that it wouldn't vanish, leaving me alone in the crushing dark. Sounds were deadened by the darkness and smells faded away, overwhelmed by the scent of mildew and decay. There seemed to be nothing to the world beyond Astral's hoof-falls and my own pounding heart. Time ceased to have any meaning. We could have walked thirty yards, or a hundred miles, there was no way to tell.

After an eternity in darkness, I stepped into the ritual chamber like a castaway staggering back onto the mainland. Not that there was any light, but there was so much magic in the air it made little difference. The ritual chamber blazed black with power, outlining every jagged surface in violent lightning. Four horns awaited us, already burning with power and the metallic stink of magic filled my nose.

"Ah, Trixie and Razzle." A spark, a radiant burst of light, blazed suddenly before Scepter. Both Raz and I shied back, the tiny chip of sunlight blinding after the oppressive void. "Come, take your places, Trixie you are at my left hoof."

Four ponies stood in the spell circle. The circle itself spilled over the chalk that marked its physical boundaries, it was a huge thing, meters across and detailed in runes that seemed to twist away from my eyes, as if they didn't want to be observed. Six large lobes sat equidistant from each other at the cardinal points of the circle, with Scepter surrounded by the thickest knots of runes. Ritual magic was not my forte, but even a blind earth pony could feel the menace in the air. At the very centre of the tangle of runes and magic sat Scepter’s silver helmet, seemingly unconcerned by the titanic energies coursing around it.

"I..." I began, though I had no idea if I wanted to protest or just ask for a lemonade.

"Step forward unicorn!"

I shrieked and whirled. A thestral, in his early twilight years judging by his fading coat, loomed out of the shadows, an ugly scowl on his face.

"To your place."

Two dozen slitted eyes regarded me from around the room, the barely constrained menace crackling in the mana drenched air. As my eyes adjusted to the spark of light, I made out the perfectly still forms of a dozen Nightmare’s Children. The thestrals seemed to deserve their name, there in the utter blackness, more than they ever had beneath the sunlight, or moonlight for that matter.

“Come on, Trix,” Raz whispered, nudging me. “No turning back now.”

I tried to swallow the lump in my throat, but it didn’t seem to help. Raz nudged me into my position next to Scepter and, numb, I allowed myself to be lead. He took up his position in the circle, bracketing me.

“Kindle,” Scepter said, his voice echoing through the spell.

I lit my horn, completing the circle and bathing us in the eerie twilight of magic. Across the circle from me was a slight mare with a vicious scar across her cheek, who glared at me as if I’d killed her first born. She was flanked by a huge stallion who kept glancing at Scepter for reassurance and a nervous looking colt who looked barely old enough to earn his mark.

Power began to flow from my horn, as the ritual demanded and I acquiesced. Cold, deep and draining--like ice water--trickled down from my horn and through my quivering frame. The ache in my head returned within moments and stars danced before my eyes as my magic was sucked away. A deep sonorous chant was taken up by the thestrals, and dark visions began to flash before my eyes. I couldn’t tell if they were part of the magic or my mind playing tricks on me in the dark.

“Please don’t be evil,” I begged in a whisper, trembling as still more magic poured from me, my breath coming in short, ragged gasps. “Please don’t be evil.”

“Lady of the Darkness, we call upon you!” Scepter boomed, as raw power crackled around him. With a sweep of his horn the ritual caught upon the helm. With a scream it shot into the air, tearing a great black rent in the air along its path. “Mother of Monsters, we beseech you!”

My breath came in a short sharp bursts, my horn going red as I dug as deep into my reserves as I dared. A single dark hoof pushed its way out of the hole. It was not black, even black is a colour, it was a hoof made of complete and utter void.

“Mistress of Illusions, step free from your bonds!” Scepter roared, slamming his forehooves down. The circle exploded, power washing over us like a wave and the colt let out a strangled scream as lightning crashed around us. I flung a leg before my eyes, feeling my coat burn and freeze all at once as the wild magic eathed all around us.

“Rise! Rise, Queen of Nightmares,” Scepter screamed. “We summon you, NIGHTMARE MOON.”

The roar of lightning reached a crescendo and went utterly silent. I lowered my hoof, my stomach tied in knots. There, stood at the very centre of the circle and silhouetted by cooling spell-fires, was an alicorn. Her coat was as dark as the blackest cave, her slitted eyes a piercing green and it seemed the very air was freezing at her touch. The helmet settled onto her head with a pulse of escaping magic, and all became still.

“Rut,” I swore, breaking the silence.

Princess Celestia was going to be banish me to the moon.