• Published 22nd Jul 2012
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Rites of Ascension - CvBrony



Twilight makes a new spell and starts the gears of fate with her ascension to alicornhood. (Writing started before Season 3.)

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In Plain Sight

“Think she'll be okay?”

“I think so.” Twilight yawned and stretched, fighting her own exhaustion. Whatever happened today, she needed a long appointment with her cloud bed afterwards. “Freaky though her father is, nothing I've seen or heard indicates that he is a danger to her. Frankly, I feel it's the opposite. Odds are that anything trying to get to her in the next few days will be in a world of hurt.”

“Hmmm.” Trixie peeked through the curtain again, peering out through the narrow slit at the far edge of the window. “And all the illegal stuff in her room? The Tommy Gun? Aren't we going to arrest her?”

Twilight snorted back a laugh. “She's the daughter of two mafia bosses who no doubt have connections and leverage everywhere. Arresting her would cause more problems than it solves. Besides that, I know her. I highly doubt that she's a significant threat to the public at large.”

“If you say so.” Trixie hugged her belly. “Just makes me nervous. Like we're leaving ourselves vulnerable.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “We're about to try to lock ourselves in with a changeling.”

Trixie laughed. “Good point.”

Twilight peeked through the other side of the window, and waited. This was the toughest part of a trap: waiting. It was almost certain that their target would enter via the front doors, which the apartment overlooked. Based on where Vinyl’s club was, she'd likely approach from a highly visible angle. So they knew the where, but not the when.

Some coffee would be great right now. Twilight smacked her lips. I wonder if I can plunder Octavia’s stash. She's a musician; they basically run on caffeine. I can leave some bits behind in compensation…

“Twilight, twelve o'clock.”

Twilight blinked and focused in. Far below, Twilight spotted the unmistakable neon-blue mane and purple sunglasses. “That's Vinyl. We got her.” She switched to her magic sight and locked on to the wellspring. “Normal unicorn wellspring, at least as far as I can see… which means she’s definitely a changeling. I know Vinyl; she’s a lot more powerful than she looks. There’s no way her wellspring is so bog-standard.”

“Uh, she's stopped…”

Twilight let go of the magic sight, and let herself meet the purple lenses. She felt a mental knife in her chest — ‘Vinyl’ was looking right at her. “Damn, I think we've been made.” Somehow, Twilight could feel Vinyl's eyes narrow.

Trixie lit her horn. “Craaaaap…”

“Yep, we've been made!” Twilight powered her horn while her target turned and ran. A crucial couple seconds and ten pounding heartbeats later, Twilight tore through spacetime. Her vision smeared and streaked as her teleportation spell crashed into the ward intended to capture the changeling. Her heart felt as if a sledgehammer was smashing into it, but she would not be stopped. Small explosions rippled through the air around her, Twilight’s arcane senses interpreting the magical feedback as a sound like glass and metal cracking and shattering .

A moment later, Twilight was outside the window and falling.

Pavement crumbled and burst under her armored hooves from the landing, sending a shockwave through her joints. Shards of glass-like magic—parts of magic circles that had been broken—fell around her. They evaporated as soon as they hit the ground, leaving no physical debris.

“Stop!” Twilight relit her horn as “Vinyl” disappeared around the corner. With a thunderous crack, Twilight magically launched herself through the air. Pink, purple, and black streaked behind her in a rainbow, leaving stardust in her wake. She flew straight ahead, paying no heed to gravity.

Vinyl was dead ahead now, and Twilight was closing despite her quarry being in a full gallop. Inside the changeling’s body, the wellspring grew brighter in the same muted blue-purple color as before. In the next moment, green light consumed it, and a changeling took flight.

Two more cracks of thunder, and Twilight slammed into the ground ahead of the changeling. Concrete flew into the air, peppering both of them with rocks. She watched the changeling tumble in the air, but her smirk faded as it took control of its flight again. “Oh no you don't!”

The changeling took off with a burst of speed, dragging small bits of debris in its wake. A shrill buzz from its wings took over the air.

Twilight hit the ground, galloped twice, then jumped back into the air. A teleport later, she was back in the race. Ponies with shocked faces blurred by her as she teleported twice more, rushing through the air. She caught up to the point where she could count the holes in the hind legs of the changeling, and then it turned.

Her eyes followed it into an alley, but her body kept going. The world spun around, boxing her head and ribs as she tumbled. She gripped the ground with her hind leg, and kicked herself back in the other direction. She quickly initiated a teleport, then another, to bring herself into the alley.

Twilight landed on her hooves, and slid to the end of the alley as she saw what was in her path. Before her was a sea of ponies, packed to standing room only. Every spare bit of space on either side of the road was positively crammed with earth ponies and unicorns. The only reason pegasi weren't there is because they were on low-hanging clouds. However, what really had Twilight's jaw agape and her eye twitching was what was in the middle of the road. “You have got to be kidding me.”

A blast of music from a band removed all doubt: this was a parade.

“You have got to be kidding me!” Twilight screamed and kicked in frustration, knocking a few bricks out of the building next to her and earning more than a few strange looks.

She switched to her magic sight, but all she saw was a sky’s worth of lit dots. Sighing, she turned and marched off back down the alley. “A parade. It had to be a parade. Here. Now.” Twilight smacked herself upside her head. “Duh. It's freaking Emergence Day. Of course there’s a parade! There's going to be parades all day and celebrations all night.”

I can't think of a more perfect changeling hiding spot.” Aurora was hiding a laugh, which would have earned a look from Twilight if she had a body for it to be aimed at. “I think it's safe to say we lost it.

And it's already getting close to the end of the day. Twilight thought. We're going to need a fresh approach, since the hive knows I'm here now.

Trixie ran up to them, short of breath and panting. “Bad news, Twilight. There's ponies everywhere. I couldn't cut it off.”

“Yeah, I know.” Twilight's leg stomped another crack in the pavement. “Just had to be the anniversary of the formal truce between earth ponies and pegasi. We really picked a great day to be looking for a shapeshifter.”

“What do we do now? That was our best lead. And your friend is off in Canterlot.”

Twilight closed her eyes, took in a breath, and let it out slow. “I have a few ideas. First, though, we need to leave a note for Octavia. Then… then we need to get some food and find a place to think and settle on a new plan.”

Trixie rubbed her foreleg like a shy debutante. “Shouldn't we be a bit more rushed on this? We just confirmed a changeling presence.”

“A presence that's likely been in place for a while. I don't have any evidence to suggest we're looking at an imminent large-scale attack, and I'm not worried about casualties since changelings almost never actually kill ponies. Much better to keep them around and suck love from them.”

Trixie covered her mouth to hide a snort.

Twilight just rolled her eyes but didn't hide her smile. “Oh, grow up.”


“You sure it's this way?” Twilight asked, following Trixie down the theatre district of Manehatten in the late afternoon. Unlike the strong mix of backgrounds in Central Park, the ponies here were mostly rich, or at least upper middle class. The sheer number of fancy dresses alone made her bare coat shiver with self-consciousness. Even her armor torc didn't quite feel the same as having a dress to fit in.

On top of that, the evening life was just getting started. Manehatten never slept, but it was most alive in the hours just after sunset. Encircling the theatres near them were nightclubs and enough restaurants to feed an army. It was to one of those restaurants that they were headed.

“I'm sure.” Trixie reaffirmed. “Trust me. I looked up every restaurant hidey hole of every mob organization in the city when I was desperate for a loan. Octavia’s dad runs an organization on the rise, and was my second choice.”

Twilight's ear twitched. “I'm almost afraid to ask, but, what made you choose the organization that you did?”

“Honestly? I thought Tailored Trade would turn me down. Not enough money in it. I was small potatoes. The Scomparsas family was known for making smaller loans. I sure paid for it in the end, though.”

Twilight’s throat ached in sympathy to the tears she knew Trixie was fighting. “Well, don't worry about that anymore. I'm certain Shining took care of it.”

“Ha!” Trixie tilted her hat forward. “Working with you, I have all new reasons to worry. But they're good reasons. Causes worth worrying over.”

“That's the spirit! Come on, let's go contact Octavia, then go find us some trouble.”

“Oh, I'm sure if we sit still it'll find us.”

They walked into a large park area that was a bit of a shortcut through the block. It was mostly lush grass with some sparse maple trees scattered about, and a little artificial pond near a picturesque gazebo and bridge. The main attraction, though, was the center of the park, where an outdoor theatre capable of seating a few thousand ponies stood. It was famous for the dome’s futuristic solid steel look and the frequency and variety of shows.

The sun had just dipped below the horizon as they marched through the scattering of ponies that were either waiting to get in or hanging around the periphery to listen for free. One group on particular, though, made Twilight tilt her head in curiosity.

It was a small gaggle of mares, each dressed like a teenager’s idea of Luna's Night Guard. None got the uniform right, but that was probably the point given the customization on each costume. Nearby was an earth pony stallion paying keen attention to them; he had a utility belt and a yellow shirt with “SECURITY” stenciled in black on it.

Trixie was staring at them, too. “What's with the fan squad?”

“Fan squad?” Twilight blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I was in entertainment long enough to recognize dedicated fans when I see them. They're here for somepony, or something.”

One of the mares squealed hard enough to box Twilight's eardrums. “There he is! There he is! Bloodmoon, over here!”

Bloodmoon? Twilight followed their gaze, and she enough, as the crowd parted a little, she saw the pegasus standing there, still clad in his Night Guard armor.

He shot them a wink.

Twilight had to hold Aurora back from deploying from the sonic attack of all four mares screaming their lungs out. Trixie had covered her ears early, evidently seeing it coming.

Bloodmoon looked up, and his eyes went wide. “Lady Sparkle!” He made a beeline for her, then dropped into a bow. “I didn't expect to see you here. Do you require my assistance? Are you in trouble?”

Twilight giggled and motioned for him to rise. “No, and always, in that order. What are you doing here, out of curiosity? And what's with the fangirls?”

“Oh, don't mind them.” Bloodmoon ran a hoof through his crimson mane. “Luna allows us time off to rest and recover from the rigours of our work, so each month I come to a show here. It seems some young ladies have figured out my little schedule.”

“Come on, he's right there!” One of the mares, this one with a pixie cut of a mane, yelled at the security guard. “We won't cause trouble, we just want to meet him, that's it!”

“Speak for yourself, girl,” the one with pigtails and glasses said, biting her lip.

“No accosting the VIPs, period,” the guard barked back.

Twilight smiled and turned back to Bloodmoon, speaking with a soft voice. “It seems you're quite popular. That's part of the plan, isn't it? Come to shows regularly, get fans, show ponies that you aren't monsters or Nightmare Moon's storm troopers. Luna ends up looking better in the end.”

“Surely I have no idea what you'd mean by something so sneaky.” Bloodmoon gave her a wink.

“Uh-huh.” Trixie smiled and rolled her eyes. “Of course.”

“Oh, Bloody!” A stock stallion earth pony, this one dressed in a frilly suit, waved at Bloodmoon and ran up to them. “There you are!”

Who's this? Twilight looked over at the mares as the new stallion approached, and they all looked pale as ghosts. And why’d he use that awful nickname? Wait…

“Oh, Danish, it's been too long!” Cardinal Bloodmoon pulled Danish into a deep, full kiss. The kind of kiss lovers made after a long time apart to reunite their hearts and souls. “How are you, darling?”

Twilight smirked and looked over to the mares.

The earth pony nearest the tree grabbed hold of it and started banging her head into it over and over. “Why!” Bang! “Does!” Bang! “This!” Bang! “Always!” Bang! “Happen!” Bang! “To!” Bang! “Me!”

The second did a Rarity-like faint, falling over backwards-minus the couch. “This is awful!”

The third flopped to the ground and covered her head with her hooves. “This is a catastrophe!”

The fourth, the one with the glasses and pigtails, was smiling and giving her tail a happy swish. “This is better!

Twilight and Trixie both broke into snickers as the two lovers went off to see the show, and the fan girls left wanting so much more.

“Well, that was a nice diversion.” Trixie waved to Twilight to follow her. “Hopefully Octavia is still at the restaurant by the time we get there.”

“Should be.” Twilight trotted up next to Trixie as they turned a corner down towards another street. “That or back at her apartment.”

“Hmmm.” Trixie took in a breath, and hesitated as they reached the road they were looking for. “How do you want to play this? It's going to be a big deal if the Grand Mage is seen going into a mob hangout. Ponies could assume corruption.”

“Good point.” Twilight fished around in her saddlebags for a manila envelope. “Anypony asks, I'm conducting a search.”

“Sounds like a plan. It's the third place on the right, the fancy one with the patio seating.”

“The one that looks totally packed?”

“Yup.”

They arrived at The Nosh, which was apparently trendy to a fault. There was a line going out the door, despite the ample seating. The sign on the wall said the maximum occupancy was three hundred. Twilight did a little math in her head and guessed at a probable hour and a half wait if they were getting a seat like any normal visitor.

Twilight eyed a route through the crowd and to the reception desk. “Okay, heads held high, and just roll with whatever I go with.”

“Gotcha.”

Twilight marched into the line, weaving her way left and right, cutting through the line like a fish through water. Unlike the work camp a few days ago, the ponies around her essentially ignored her. One had to get their name on the list before getting a seat, after all. Unless, of course, one were the Grand Mage.

“Excuse me.” Twilight looked the mare at the desk directly in her eyes, holding her envelope in her magic.

The mare sighed. “Search or arrest?”

Wow. I guess she's used to officers showing up with warrants. “That depends. Let's start by talking with your boss — Tailored Trade. I have reliable information that he's here.”

The mare sighed and pointed to the far back of the restaurant. “See the big guys by that door? Go talk to them.”

Oh, fun. Twilight motioned for Trixie to follow, and they made their way through a sea of diners enjoying what actually looked like good food.

“Interesting.” Trixie whispered. “I’m actually kind of surprised. This isn’t a money laundering operation like I've ever seen before at Scomparsas’ setup. Those places will serve you ten-bit stale crackers.”

Twilight’s stomach growled at the scent of a Hollandaise sauce that looked so delicious she would likely eat an old boot if it was served with a side of it. “They could still have overpriced wine, and even if not, everypony needs to eat. It's not like the wealthy to eat out every day, after all.”

Trixie “hmm”ed an agreement as they arrived at the door. Two minotaurs with hands that looked like they could crush coal into diamonds were standing guard over an otherwise unassuming door painted the same light blue as the wall.

Twilight cleared her throat. Here goes nothing. “Good evening. My name is Lady Sparkle. I have an urgent matter to discuss with Octavia, and I've been told she's here.”

The minotaur on the left reached over to the door and gave the handle a turn, opening it to reveal a small hallway. “Last door on the right, ma'am.”

Twilight blinked. Huh. Did not expect that. “Thank you.”

Trixie followed as they walked in and the door shut behind them. The hall was relatively unremarkable, save for the somehow-even-larger minotaur guarding their target door. He was standing in an area wider and taller than the rest of the hall; the minotaur probably had to crawl through in order to take his post.

However, this one, too, opened the door without a fuss, and they stepped into a room of luxury worthy of Canterlot. Marble floors and pillars, water features, plush cushions and seating, and even a sunroof all gathered to anoint the wealth of a stallion who made millions off the suffering of others.

Then again, Twilight thought, there's plenty of ponies that do that legally, too, which is just as depressing.

The man himself stood up. “Lady Sparkle. Welcome to my restaurant. I do hope you bring good news.”

Octavia was next to him, and her mascara was running in a river of tears. Nearby was a wastebasket filled to overflowing with tissues.

Twilight put her ears back. “I'm sorry, Octavia. She was a changeling, and the drone sensed my presence long before it could walk into my trap.”

Octavia wailed and sobbed into a pile of silk napkins.

Looks like the weight of things hit her. Twilight swallowed. “I still think the real Vinyl is alive. Changelings almost never kill their captives. What I have to do is find their hideaway and rescue her, along with anypony else they may have captive.”

“Sounds good.” Tailored Trade stood as solid and strong as a soldier in his prime. “What do you need from me?”

Trixie tapped Twilight on the shoulder. “Uh, should we have told him about the—”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “I just chased a changeling down a crowded avenue. I'd be shocked if the newspapers weren't printing a special edition right now.”

“Ah. Good point.”

“As for what I need from you, Mr. Trade, I'm afraid there's little to discuss. The political ramifications of—”

“You don't have foals, do you, Lady Sparkle?”

Trixie twitched a bit, lowering into a combat stance.

Twilight held up a hoof to stop her. “No, I don't, and I don't see how that's relevant.”

Tailored Trade nodded a bit and sighed. “No, I suppose you wouldn't, then. So let me educate you.

“When you have a foal, your mind undergoes… changes. You literally become a different pony. Priorities shift around, and everything you thought you cared about moves aside and makes way for one thing: them.”

He pointed his hoof at his crying daughter. “These creatures made my filly cry worse than I've ever seen, Lady Sparkle. And you tried to bring back her happiness. It didn't work, true, but I firmly believe it was an earnest attempt, and you've made your intentions going forward clear. So allow me to me make my own intentions clear.

“I intend to see her smile again. I'll do whatever it takes to reach that goal, and neither you nor a bunch of insects are going to stand in my way. Now, I'm offering to work together, to do things your way. If you say no, I'll be doing things my way, no matter how messy that may be. Do you understand?”

Twilight sucked in a breath, closed her eyes, and time slowed.

The political assessment isn't good. If anypony catches wind of us working together, both Celestia and myself will suffer catastrophic damage to our public support.

That's long-term. In the short term, what I'm looking at is the nastiest gang war in history. An all-out hunt from his enforcers could see hundreds of casualties in collateral damage alone. As much as I can see he inspires discipline in his employees, they're still freaking goons. They won't care if innocents die.

What's more, the changelings in this city are still largely an unknown factor. While they don't usually kill, I've no doubt they would if they have to, like when faced with an army of killers hunting them down.

So, lives of innocents and the guilty alike, versus the standing of myself and Celestia. Like that's even a choice.

Twilight opened her eyes. “Okay, Mr. Trade. We'll work together — to an extent. For now, please hold your ponies back. I still have a few plans. If those fail, I'll be in touch.”

He clasped his hooves together. “Out of respect for you and the Crown, I will be patient. However, that patience has a limit.”

Twilight hit him with a glare backed by a flare-up of her wellspring. “As does mine.” Before he could respond, she continued, “But prudence dictates caution and common sense. First and foremost, Mr. Trade, your ponies should start getting a bit nosy. Find out if anypony they know is having unusual relationship problems or are experiencing symptoms such as unexpected sleepiness, memory loss, or persistent headaches. Should you suspect a changeling, attempt to capture only, not kill. We need information first and foremost.

“If you succeed, contact me via telegram at this address.” Twilight pulled out a page of her notebook and scribbled a note on it, then passed it to Tailored.

“Consider it already done,” he replied, pocketing the note. “Anything else?”

“Yes, and this is most important. Your ponies? They should be in groups of three or more. They should never be alone or in pairs. If a changeling is in your organization, a pairing will leave the non-changeling vulnerable. But they have a hard time messing with the minds of two ponies at once, so trios offer more safety.”

He stroked his chin.”I was thinking as much myself. I'll see to it immediately.”

“Good. And Octavia?”

Octavia looked up from her napkins, and a sliver of her eyes was all it took to speak of true despair.

Twilight took a step closer. “Octavia, I am going to get Vinyl back, one way or another. I promise.”


Twilight stopped in the small park, and turned up her nose. Not that there was anything wrong with the park, it just wasn't what she needed at the moment, which was privacy.

“We could take Luna up on her offer.” Trixie pulled out the letter the Princess had given them. “I'm sure the Night Guard would offer sanctuary.”

“More than that, if we needed it.” Twilight's neck itched, and she moved Aurora’s torc form back and forth over it. “But I don't know how long it'd take to find them. I doubt they're hiding in plain sight in a city this dense.”

Trixie shrugged. “That's our problem, though. Dense city, no privacy.”

“And I'm sure the clock is ticking at this point. There's no doubt in my mind that not only are the changelings aware of our presence, but so is the Duchess. How to find a quiet spot… I just need to think laterally.” Something tugged at the depths of Twilight’s mind, pulling her eyes to an old, modest skyscraper. “Or vertically!”

Trixie took off her hat and looked at the same skyscraper as Twilight. “You could soar up there easily, but that'll take a big chunk out of my wellspring. And we'd risk attracting unwanted attention if we barge in there with our metaphorical badges.”

“All true, but look at the sign. That building is a hotel, and an old one at that.” Twilight smiled and wished she had a hat like Trixie’s to tilt like a badflank. “Come on, I’ve got an idea.”

They marched on through the late evening, now with a semi-dark sky no longer lit by the sun, but instead the cumulative light output of the city that never sleeps. They were in a part of Manehatten that was both old and new. Some of the skyscrapers were so young they weren't even finished yet, but they rested on the foundations of older towers. Others were among the first to reach for the sky, and those without a historical marker were just waiting to be replaced by something larger and newer.

The hotel they'd aimed for was one of the latter type of building, but it stood with stately, gothic resolve as the bigger neighbours moved in. An Equestrian flag wafted around in the air a few stories up, where the floors became progressively less wide as one approached the spire at the top.

“Uh-huh, thought so.” Twilight marched to the glass doors and found a veritable crowd waiting to be checked in. After tipping the door pony, she leaned over to Trixie and whispered, “Act like we've already checked in and we're just going to our room, like we belong here.”

Trixie chuckled. “You're talking to an entertainer, remember? Acting is my thing.”

The two walked past the line, weaving through the small crowd. Trixie even stopped to pour herself some coffee. The place was decorated for what luxury was twenty-five years ago, with gold trim, plush carpets, marble tile, and needlessly elaborate designs on the wallpaper. At the back of the lobby were two large elevators, which were just where Twilight wanted to be.

She pressed the button with the up arrow on it, thinking about its small size and how they must have been grandfathered in over the regulations mandating they be large enough for non-unicorns to easily push. This was one of the first buildings with large scale elevators, which only made the hairs on Twilight's back shoot up at attention. Freaking ancient elevators are creepy.

The doors dinged and opened, revealing a rather sad-looking teenage stallion. His face was wrinkled with enough sadness to make him look almost elderly. “Going up, ma'am?” he half-asked, half-moaned.

“Er, yes, please.” Twilight stepped in, Trixie close behind.

“Floor?” He groaned.

Crap. I was just going to go to the top floor penthouse, but that might raise suspicion with this guy… Although, the way he looks, I could probably toss him off the building only to get a “thank you”. “Twenty-fifth, please.”

The words felt like a lie, since she wanted the twenty-eighth floor, and were a weight sitting in her stomach as the elevator started. It wasn't the pseudo-dishonesty that tasted foul on her tongue as much as who she was saying it to. When a quick glance at his flank revealed a cutie mark with a lever on it, things became clear. He'd been laid off and made obsolete by the new control crystals that have started springing up all over Equestria and that would eventually take his job here, and anywhere else he'd ever think to apply. Poor guy. Who gets an elevator-operator cutie mark?

“Here we are.” The stallion radiated depression as he spoke and the elevator came to a stop. Trixie was out of the doors as soon as they opened.

Twilight put some bits in the guy’s pocket. “Elevator repair training. Think about it,” she said, stepping off into the hallway as the doors closed behind them.

The hall was far less depressing than the elevator, and had similar decoration as the lobby. It gave Twilight the feeling of being wrapped in a blanket, likely because it was the kind of decoration her mother adored. If nothing else, the deep carpet did muffle their steps, and made the whole place that much quieter.

After a couple turns, they found a rather bland door under a red “EXIT” sign.

“Bingo.” Twilight leaned against it, and started up the stairs. “Now all I need is roof access… like that door there.” They'd arrived at another bland door at the top, and Twilight could hear the wind around them.

Trixie batted a lock on a chain blocking the door’s lever from working. “That's kinda problematic.”

Twilight put her hoof on the lock, then closed her eyes. She reached out with her mind and felt the high wind on the other side of the door, the wide open sky, the freedom it promised with a kiss of ice.

Click!

Twilight pulled off the open lock and gingerly took the chain off, trying her level best not to make too much noise. “Twilight two, locks zero!” she whispered to Trixie. “Come on, we've got work to do. Put up a stealth shield. I don't want anypony nosing around us if I can help it.”

“You got it. One ‘I'm not interesting’ dome coming up.” Trixie lit her horn, weaving the complex magic of photon manipulation. An orb of fuzzy, translucent blackness formed between them, growing a few dozen centimetres every second.

As it passed Twilight, she weaved an additional spell into Trixie’s. It glowed briefly, then was subsumed into the other. When it was done, they had a hemisphere of a shield around them that followed as they moved out onto the roof.

Twilight sat down when they reached the center of the roof, and looked up at the muddy shield. It didn't totally obscure them, as that wouldn't do for her purposes. It also wasn't a combat shield; anything tossed at them would pass right through it. What it did accomplish was make them hard to see, and anypony that did see them would be hit with a suggestion that they weren't interesting and that the observer’s attention was better spent elsewhere. Such spells danced directly on the line between sometimes forgiven and get-added-to-the-garden-level banned, but the military special forces were allowed to employ them. As such, so was Twilight.

Trixie sat down opposite Twilight. “What exactly is your plan?”

Twilight smirked, then held her forehooves out in front of her. “First things first. Calibration matrices. You, too.”

Trixie shrugged and held out her forehooves as well.

Moments later they each had a complex magic circle in front of them. They consisted of several concentric rings with symbols between them, and a large open area in the middle.

Twilight gave her circle a spin. “Okay, time to make some magic.”

Trixie narrowed her eyes and raised an eyebrow at the same time, then pulled out a granola bar to toss at Twilight. “Booooooo!”

Twilight just chuckled. “You can blame Celestia for that one. She put it in my head.

“Anyway, my plan is to make a changeling detection spell. I got a good look at the fake Vinyl with my magic sight; her wellspring looked like that of a normal unicorn.”

Trixie looked around her, apparently for a clue to grasp on to. “How does that help us? Wouldn't that be bad news?”

“Maybe.” Twilight drew a rough graph in the air with her magic. “Wellspring size and elemental alignment in the populace as a whole are highly variable, especially among unicorns. But for any random individual, that set of variables will fall somewhere on a known probability curve.

“For instance, nearly half of all ponies have a ‘normal’ wellspring size. What that actually means is that the size of their wellspring is within one standard deviation from the mean. To have a wellspring size exactly at the mean, or at least so close it's hard to tell otherwise, is a little rare.

“The fake Vinyl also had a fairly common elemental alignment that was a bit… muted and evenly mixed. For unicorns, that's actually pretty uncommon. Almost all of us have three to four primary elemental alignments and several more that are in the background, but one is usually dominant. Still, it’s not unheard of or even super rare.

“However, I saw something interesting when the changeling ran away. When it called on its power, the wellspring flared to life, and regenerated all its magic evenly across its profile. The color didn’t change.”

The light dawned in Trixie's eyes. “That is weird. Usually the dominant one regenerates magic faster.”

“Right! I'm guessing your everyday drone doesn't, or can't, do anything different than just mimic that average wellspring, regenerating the elemental types evenly.

“There are, no doubt, some ponies in this city that really do have bang-on normal wellsprings that are evenly spread and regen more or less evenly, but only a few dozen. If there's a significant changeling presence in this city, any pony this filter finds will, more likely than not, be a changeling.”

Trixie started filling up her matrix with symbols. “Gotcha. Then all we have to do is test any targets this finds.” She paused a moment. “We do have a means to do that, right?”

“Yes.” Twilight added a few symbols to her own matrix. “A low-strength, wide-angle thaumic beam from your horn can disrupt their magic and reveal them for who they are. It'll sting a bit, but we only need to wash it over their leg or something, and there's no permanent damage. They'll be right as rain in a minute or so.”

Twilight started assembling the detector spell, bit by bit in her matrix. “Trixie, I need you to start a thaumic emission spell to create a background to test against. Keep it low volume so you don't exhaust yourself, and so it stays invisible.”

“On it.”

Twilight pulled together her thoughts, combining them in the matrix.

The magic circles they were using functioned as a sort of test. They were useful when trying to determine what, if any, effect a user’s particular thaumic profile would have on a spell, and what changes they might have to make to get it to work. The common spells that most ponies knew, however, needed no such adjustment, and thus the technique was lost to most unicorns about four years out of high school.

They had other uses, however, and here it was to judge how the environment around them would affect each piece of the spell as they put it together. When the first component was ready, Twilight put it through the paces. What face she made at the result, Twilight wasn't sure, but Aurora silently made her wish for a camera known.

“Trixie, are you having a problem with interference in your calibration matrix?”

Trixie leaned to the side, eyes wide in surprise. “You too? I just spent the last five minutes trying to find the problem in my circles. I thought it was just me screwing up.”

Twilight shook her head. “Nuh-uh. And the odds of both of us screwing up in the same way are minuscule. Our environment must have a contaminate that the background doesn't.”

Trixie looked up at her barrier and squinted. “Did I mess up the barrier spell?”

“I don't think so. And I don't smell or see any thaumic contamination or miasma where we're at.”

Confirmed.” Aurora said. “If it was here, I should be able to detect it. What we are in is just normal Manehatten pollution. There's nothing that should affect the spell.”

Twilight stood up and whipped her head around, switching to her magic sight. “And there's nopony nearby. Not even in the top couple floors of the hotel. But there has to be something. Spread out, look around and under everything. There could be something hidden from my sight.”

“It would have to be very close to both produce interference at that level and not be rather bright in your sight.”

True. Which means… Twilight brushed away the dirt and debris on the roof, cleaning the tiles underneath her. They were packed close together, with only a minimal barrier of grout between them. “Trixie, back up. I need to try something.”

She grabbed a tile with her magic, pulling on the entire side of it like a giant suction cup. She wiggled the aura on the edge to sneak underneath it, and pulled. The tile came apart, but most of it was removed. Underneath wasn't just the normal adhesive. Between that and the tile was a muddy blackness not unlike Trixie’s barrier, but much thicker and darker. The smell of must gave away what it was.

Twilight tossed the pieces of tile aside. “Murkyr. Perfect for hiding something you don't want found, and it even blocks my Sight. Hang on while I blast this.”

She pushed magic into her horn, pressing it into a tiny point, then fired at the murkyr. The beam hit a barrier of sorts, but it soon broke like sugar glass, and the murkyr evaporated into the air.

Underneath was another mystery, and it sent a shiver down Twilight's spine that clumped into a bit of ice at her dock. A dark green ooze, nearly solidified, was present under the murkyr. There was just a few thin lines of it, but deep inside was the thin, nearly imperceptible glow of magic.

“Trixie, help me pull up the other tiles. There's more to this; I know it.”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

The two went to work, and in minutes the hotel roof was bare, and the murkyr dispelled. Underneath it all was a three-meter-wide magic circle of green that turned Twilight's nerves into ice.

Trixie took off her hat and wiped her brow. “There have to be at least a dozen symbols in this I don't even recognize, let alone comprehend. And I've also never seen a circle created from… whatever this is. It's.. it's like a sticky, jade amber. Some kind of custom gem substance, maybe?”

“No,” Twilight said, putting her hoof over a symbol she'd never seen before. “I don't know how it got here, or what the spell is doing, but I know what it's made of.”

Trixie hugged her hat and mumbled into it. “I take it by your expression I don't want to know…”

Twilight looked her in the eyes. “It's blood, Trixie. Dried. Changeling. Blood.”

Author's Note:

Hey all! I got bad news and good news.

The bad news is my backlog is almost dry.

The good news is that I have a new writing setup to test. I got a decent-quality laser keyboard, which is a device that uses a laser to project the image of a keyboard on a flat surface. My plan is to project it on a piece of flat cloth covering some furniture foam. I actually have all the individual parts to this already…

But I can’t test it just yet. I’m away from home, visiting in-laws. I won’t be home for at least a couple more days.

(This also means that I wasn’t able to focus on editing quite as much as normal, so this chapter could also see minor updates in a few days.)

In principle, though, there’s no reason this new keyboard idea shouldn’t work. We’ll know for certain in a week or so. If this does work, I might be able to go back to writing a whole ton each day, rebuilding the backlog very quickly. If it doesn’t… I’ll probably go curl up in a fetal position and cry or something. And then modify the approach or find something new and try again.

Wish me luck, and thanks again for sticking with me!
-Cv

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