• Published 2nd Dec 2012
  • 14,639 Views, 189 Comments

Crucible - Luminary



Equestria, beset by the changeling invasion, must deal with a dawning golden age. Without Celestia.

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Four - Trixie: Reinvigoration

A leaf-green earth pony filly ran through the forest with frantic speed. Thorns and branches slapped against her muzzle and chest, leaving her criss-crossed with tiny bleeding cuts and scrapes. There was no avoiding it, for life crowded in and bitterly fought for every inch of space in the Everfree. It didn’t keep her from barrelling through the densest brush she could find. The buzzing wings of her pursuers sounded closer than ever. The filly screeched as a bolt of emerald light blew apart the trunk of a pine tree in front of her, causing it to topple over into her path. She veered off to one side in a panic. It was getting hard to be sure of the way back to town. Under the trees, barely any of the red light from the unnaturally long sunset reached the ground. She did her best to head toward what light she could see. Home, and hopefully safety, was in the direction of Celestia’s bizarrely stuck sun.

“LEAF! LEAF SWIRL, WHERE ARE YOU?”

Hope blossomed in the filly’s chest as she heard her herd-mate call her name. She arrowed toward the source of that yell with renewed energy. She couldn’t help but break into relieved tears when she rounded a stand of leafy trees and saw the grey-blue form of Storm Front hovering a short ways above the ground, hooves around her mouth, preparing to call for the filly again. With the ruddy light making all the greens appear black, even her depleted colour stood out. The pegasus mare winged toward her, landing with barely a flutter to slow herself down. She kept her wings flared aggressively, but her eyes wore a look of concern. “Leafy, what happened?”

The younger pony threw herself down at the pegasus’ hooves, wrapping her forelegs around one of her herd-mate’s. Leaf Swirl was so thankful and relieved that she peppered the mare’s hoof with kisses. “Oh thank you thank you thank you!” She breathlessly gushed.

The pegasus gave a slightly embarrassed laugh, though her pale green tail gave a flick. “C’mon now Leaf. Save it for the bedroom. Did you get lost again?”

The earth pony’s eyes went wide as she realized she had neglected to mention the most important part. She shook her head quickly. “Ch-Changelings!”

Leaf Swirl knew better than to expect panic from the daring Storm Front. She was part of the team that kept Everfree weather where it belonged. Breaking apart wild storms and braving the stuff that would wing up out of the forest took a certain unshakeable courage. True to form, the pegasus breathed a dismissive huff, flared her wings, and crouched down to prepare to spring into the air. The green filly couldn't help but beam when the older mare actually spared a moment to nuzzle her and whispered, “No overgrown bug is getting my Leaf. Stay somewhere safe.” Leaf could only credit superior pegasus vision when Storm chose the perfect course, then vaulted up like a shot, to intercept a black changeling drone as it came over the top of a tall pine. Forehooves slammed into the pony-sized monster with an audible thud of impact. The changeling flipped and spun out of sight off behind the trees. Leaf Swirl didn’t wait for it to land. She scrambled away in the opposite direction, heading for the side of the clearing closer to town.

The earth pony anxiously searched the treetops for her favorite herd-mate. With some relief she saw another changeling spin briefly into view, as if propelled by a powerful buck. Her pegasus arced into sight after it to give it a taste of her forehooves as well. Leaf suppressed the urge to cheer the mare on. Those changelings were presumably hitting the ground nearby, and she didn’t want to attract attention.

Storm Front spun in a showy circle and pointed off somewhere out of sight. “Let that be a lesson to y-ACK!” A lance of verdant magic slammed into the pegasus’ side. Thankfully, it was a glancing blow along the barrel and the bolt continued on without exploding. A bit of smoke trailed from Storm Front’s side and she spiralled down into the cover of the pine trees near Leaf.

The younger green mare all but leaped forward, preparing to cushion Storm’s landing with her own far more durable form, if necessary. The pegasus’ wings came through in good shape however, and she fluttered lightly to the ground. “Oh Celestia, Storm!” Leaf nuzzled the mare’s side, near to the injury. She was quick to breathe a sigh of relief. Aside from a bit of burnt fur and a long, thin trail of scalded pink skin, the larger mare seemed all right. Still, the earth pony didn’t count herself as an expert on magical injury. “Maybe we’d better get you to the hospital?”

Storm Front waved the idea off with a hoof. “Barely touched me. You can rub a bit of your herbaly ointment stuff on it later.” The pegasus, standing tall and proud, trotted past Leaf Swirl in the direction of the town. She didn’t ignore the filly, however. Rather once she was past, she gave her a lidded, coy look, and flicked her tailtip against Leaf’s nose. “I also accept repayment in love, kisses and... ahem... favors.”

Storm laughed fondly when Leaf Swirl fell in behind her with a cheerful, prancing trot, a silly, besotted look painted onto her face. “Oh Leafy. I swear you’re my favorite. But sometimes you just make it too eas-AHH!”

For the second time that evening Storm Front had her words interrupted by violence. A sudden flash of blue and violet shot from the bushes to her left. There was a dull thud as the pegasus took her turn being the one introduced to a pair of hooves to the barrel. The younger pony squeaked and fell back onto her rump in shock, gold eyes wide. Not even waiting for the pegasus to get up, an aura of pink light scooped Storm into the air and launched her into a tree twenty paces away. She hit it with a woody crunch.

Leaf Swirl made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob. “S-Storm!” The filly looked from her broken mare to where the attacker had been, but found nothing. She scrambled up onto terror-shaken hooves and took off at a full gallop toward where the pegasus lay. Leaf had never felt so happy in her life as when that seemingly broken collection of grey-blue feathers and fur began to rise up to her hooves.

“Leaf! Run home. Don’t stop or look back!” the ailing pegasus commanded, panting hard as she worked to stretch out her wings. Pegasus wings were tough, and they were likely in better condition than the rest of her. Clearly the older mare intended to get up into the air as quick as possible, and get off the injured foreleg that she held up off of the ground.

The earth pony dug her hooves into the loamy earth to force herself into a stop. “N-no!” she called in denial, even as her body unthinkingly began to obey her lead mare. “I’m not going to leave you here!”

“Buck it. Go, idiot!” Leaf cringed to the side as something screamed past her, trailing a fountain of white sparks. Storm Front had to move far more drastically. She pushed herself off on her good legs and beat her wings to throw herself to the side. The projectile struck the tree behind the pegasus mare and exploded in a bright, flashing detonation of silver stars. It finished the job that the pegasus’ body had started. The tree groaned and fell over, the lower branches burning where those motes of pale flame touched.

Storm wasted no time in bolting up into the air. Her flight was a bit shaky. Clearly something was causing her pain as she flew, but she wasn’t letting it slow her down. That much alone saved her. Several small, dark thunder clouds formed overhead out of nothing. With no more than a second’s warning, bolts of lightning began to strike down from those clouds. The pegasus made for a nimble target, weaving this way and that. Lightning blackened the ground and knocked branches from trees as those bolts directed themselves unerringly toward her. Each bolt spent the energy in its respective cloud, leaving them to puff away in turn.

“Leaf Swirl! Go! I need room to fly, and if you stay, I have to keep close to you!” the pegasus pleaded, when she had a second to spare after the electrical barrage.

The green filly blinked away the frozen horror that kept her in place as she watched the mare dodge those deadly strikes. Tears in her eyes, she nodded her head and began to gallop toward town. Or at least she tried to. A cloud of dense violet smoke erupted in front of her, making her again dig her hooves into the soft, leafy soil to skid to a stop.

The cloud yawned open and out stepped their attacker. Leaf’s first reaction was incredulity. It was a wizard. The very stereotypical picture of every wizard, from every play, from Starswirl on down. Her wide-brimmed purple cap was pointed. Her cape had stars on it. Enormous, garish stars. Everything had stars on it, in fact, including her flank. “I’m afraid not, evil changeling! The rescuee must stay here, to observe the amazing life-saving skills of the Great and Powerful Trrrrixie!” The rather dainty looking azure unicorn wizard struck a pose, throwing open her purple cape, forehooves in the air. A pair of fountain fireworks ignited somewhere in the cloud to either side of her, filling the air with luminous spheres of many colours.

Doubtless the new mare was going to continue, but a sudden anger swelled up in the normally meek Leaf Swirl. She leapt forward and smacked a forehoof right into the showmare’s muzzle. “Stupid unicorn!” The filly shrieked in outrage. Leaf had never exactly been a physically powerful filly, especially not for an earth pony. All she managed was to shut the unicorn up and to make her stumble back onto a more stable stance, with a hoof to her muzzle and a surprised look on her face. “You were trying to kill another pony! She just saved me from the changelings!”

“She... what?” Trixie stammered, edging back from the angry filly. “Surely you’re mistaken? Trixie heard you yelling about changelings. She came to find you with a dull look, following like a zombie-pony, clearly under this one’s spell a moment later.”

That particular description of it made Leaf wilt in sudden embarrassment. Storm Front had no such issues standing in her way. She landed hard in front of Trixie, making the unicorn jump back in alarm. “She’s a fillyfriend, you bucking foal,” the pegasus snapped. “I was out here looking for her when she showed up with changelings snapping at her hooves.”

Trixie raised her hoof back to her face, this time to cover it. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. This has not been Trixie’s day. Here I thought I was going to get a chance to use my new powers to do a good deed. And thus get somepony off my back about charging those colts for my autograph.” The unicorn lowered her head contritely, at which point her horn glowed brightly once more. A battering ram of pink energy took the pegasus dead center in the chest, sending her bouncing and skidding across the forest floor, until she finally came to an abrupt rest in a patch of dense brambles.

Trixie stomped a hoof down in triumph and raised her head high, eyes closed to give the impression of cocky ease. “Behold, unbelievers, the incredible acting talents of Trixie!” she trumpeted in glee. Though in expectation of what followed she peeked open one eye in time to ignite her horn and levitate the pouncing Leaf Swirl to a mid-air stop. The green filly’s legs reached and flailed at air, trying to get at the unicorn.

“Stop! Stop! You’re a pony. She’s a pony!” the filly screamed, stating the obvious, somewhere between rage, terror and sobbing hysterics.

Trixie trotted along toward the fallen, unconscious pegasus, carrying the thrashing filly aloft in the air behind her with ease. “Oh ye of little faith. Your doubt will make Trixie’s victory all the sweeter!” When she neared the pegasus, she lowered her horn, as if to deliver the coup de grace.

At which point a grey-blue hoof slammed hard into the unicorn’s muzzle. Trixie went down like a sack of bricks, groaning.

Somehow the pegasus forced herself to her hooves once more. Her pelt was ragged and bloodied. Even those graceful wings Leaf Swirl so adored were oddly flared, with primaries snapped and bent. She limped toward the filly. Her voice was labored, as if it hurt to draw enough breath to talk. “We... gotta get out... Leaf. C’mon. She must be one of them. Ponies don’t... don’t kill ponies.”

“Oh sweet Sisters. Storm! How are you still walking?” The filly rushed forward to offer her shoulder to lean on. She’d even carry the larger pegasus if she had to. Pegasi didn’t weigh much. She hadn’t even gotten close when red-pink fire engulfed her lead mare. Leaf’s heart seemed to stop in her chest, as she looked on in horror. The fire appeared to burn the pegasus black. Her feathers and mane were consumed in an instant. The flames ate great holes out of her graceful limbs.

Instead of her beloved Storm collapsing in front of her as charred bones, the fires just stopped. Instead of charcoal there was shiny, barely scuffed black chitin. Huge, glassy, blue-green eyes met hers with shock, staring at her from above. The creature was nearly half again as tall as she was.The eye contact lasted only a moment. The wounded creature that was once her Storm bolted for the nearby brush as fast as its apparently less than grievous injuries would allow it. Translucent wings buzzed to carry it over the bushes and out of sight.

Trixie was gathering her hooves under her. “Ugh. Trixie should have been able to capture that one. But you just had to keep loving it, didn’t you? Do you have any idea how tough that makes them?”

“S-she really was a changeling? You saved me?” Leaf Swirl all but fell over her own words. In her shock, her mind didn’t quite seem to be working right.

Trixie brushed off her cape as she stood. “Hmph. Was there ever any doubt?”

* * *

Trixie trotted with a happy enough step through the woods. Her horn was glowing, keeping four battered black Drones levitated up in the air behind her. They were easier to carry than they looked. Changelings didn’t weigh all that much, it turned out. It was unfortunate that the larger, smarter Raider had gotten away. That meant no reward and thus no high-class trip to Las Pegasus for two. The creature wasn’t going to be a threat to anypony for a while, at least. Besides, the best part about being Trixie, besides the Greatness, was the fans.

Leaf Swirl all but pranced beside her, her hooves barely seeming to touch the ground at all. Trixie thought the adoring look on the filly’s face was far less pathetic when it was focused on her rather than a changeling, as it turned out. Odd that.

“You barely even look tired! Couldn’t we stay back there and wait?” The earth pony reared up briefly on her back hooves and boxed her forehooves out some. The aggressive stance looked a bit silly on such a willowy pony. “I bet we could show a few more of ‘em not to try to play a trick on ponies!”

Trixie glanced back more fully. The earth pony was starting to creep her out a little. What was there to be so cheerful about? It wasn’t as if she had glorious victory to savor, like Trixie did. She was just chased by a bunch of changelings in a bid to set her up to have her lover replaced. “No, little hayseed. Trixie thanks you for pointing her to the ones that were playacting fighting your changeling. Also for watching Trixie’s back while she dispatched the ones that came to help them home. But the hive won’t just keep sending tiny trickles of minions to retrieve them. This ridiculously long day has been generally terrible, and being buried under a hundred changelings wouldn’t make it any better.”

“It hasn’t been so bad. If you spend any time in the Everfree, you get used to being chased by scary things.” Turning attention to the lingering sunset had a sobering effect on the filly. At the very least she stopped extravagantly raising her hooves with every step. “Why hasn’t the sun set, anyway?”

“Ahh, yes, Trixie heard you had been out in the forest for a long time. I’m not sure how you survived both the Everfree and the changelings. Since you’re out here to begin with, it obviously isn’t through making good decisions.” Trixie was about to scold herself for falling back on habits of easy cruelty, but decided against it.

Really, how much can I be expected to take? Who enters the Everfree without half the army or the magnificent might of a unicorn like me? With changelings ravaging Equestria no less.

"In any case,” Trixie breezed on, ignoring Leaf Swirl’s frown, “the news is sketchy. Rumors. They say that Celestia has been injured in another attack on Canterlot.” Injured or killed, but Trixie didn’t repeat that part. The Everfree wasn’t the place to nurse a pony through the standard wave of crying that came with the news. “Some are saying that Luna is making some mad grab for power. But then, it would probably be night by now. That one is stupid. Twilight Sparkle has apparently been enspelled into some kind of madness and shredded half of the castle before being contained. Perhaps Trixie will catch the train later, now that she thinks about it. It would be a fitting reunion to breeze in, break the dark enchantment, and save Twilight’s flank.”

There was silence for a minute or two. Trixie didn’t interrupt it. Leaf Swirl’s eyes had gone all misty at the mention of Celestia’s injury and the unicorn had the feeling that if she said anything the filly’s resolve would crack. She’d had more than enough of that back in Hoofington. There had been so much wailing and crying in the streets that the city’s weather team could probably take a few days off from rain duty. The green pony must have been a very pious thing to be harder struck by Celestia’s injury than her fillyfriend’s capture.

“So, you know Twilight Sparkle? What’s she like?” Leaf Swirl ventured, once she had composed herself some, and was willing to talk again.

“She was...” Trixie took a moment to ponder the question. “... modest? Shy? But she was bold when it counted. Some idiots had woken up an Ursa Minor, and Trixie was facing it all alone at the center of Ponyville. Her best spells didn’t do anything other than make it angry. What can anypony do against a beast the size of a barn? It was the end. There was no way to run from that thing. It would have scooped Trixie up after two steps.” The blue unicorn gave her potential fan an encouraging look. “Like you, Trixie seemingly faced a seemingly insurmountable foe! She had to choose between death on her hooves, like a mare, or cowering like a foal. Like you, Trixie was about to leap into action. In your case, you were lucky Trixie wasn’t really a foe after all.” She brought forth the unconscious drones in a line, rocking them back and forth, and let them drift forward, to illustrate her next words. “Twilight Sparkle lifted the monster up, as if it didn’t weigh as much as a train, enspelled it to sleep, and levitated it miles away to its cave, without so much as lifting a hoof.”

Trixie stopped, and turned to face the filly that followed. She reared upward dramatically, telekinesis giving her cape an impressive flourish. Glinting motes of pink light swirled up around her from her hooves. Her voice rose to a grand, sweeping pitch. “You’ve seen a small fraction of the mettle of the Great and Powerful Trixie! Doubtless you heard of her defeating the Beast of Hoofington years past! She carries in her the blood of Starswirl the Bearded, in a line a thousand years unbroken! She is doubtless the most powerful unicorn alive!” Trixie dropped back to all four hooves. The lights went out, save for the gentle aura around the floating changelings, letting gloom creep back in. “Or so Trixie thought. Sparkle made her look like a foal lifting her first teacup. As you began to see, things have changed.”

The unicorn, without another word, began back toward Hoofington once more. Leaf Swirl blinked herself out of her trancelike attention and gave chase to catch up. “Wow. She sounds pretty impressive, I guess. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the newspapers and stuff, when they talk about the Element Bearers. It seems so unreal. Oh! Now that you mention it, I do remember you! I mean, I was just a foal back then. But the monster was eating ponies, right? Dragging them into the sewers?”

Trixie frowned. She couldn’t have been much younger than this filly back then. She didn’t like the implications vis-a-vis her own age. “A foal? I thought you said that changeling took the form of a herd-mate. Aren’t you a little young to be in a herd?”

“No. Aren’t you a little old not to be?” Leaf shot back, defensively.

Trixie sputtered in irritation. The nerve! How did she know that Trixie wasn’t? In the end she decided to raise her muzzle up with lordly disdain. “Trixie has very refined tastes. She won’t be part of anyone’s harem.”

Leaf scowled in return. After a moment she wilted somewhat and raised a forehoof in surrender. “Whatever. I don’t want to fight. I can’t wait to get back to the real Storm Front, and all the rest. Mock if you want. Call it old fashioned. But there’s nothing like knowing that there’s all those ponies who care about me, waiting to welcome me back. To make sure I’m okay. It’s like a family. You’ll like the real Storm Front. I’ll introduce you. The changeling did a great impression. She’s all bold and strong and fearless. You have a lot in common.”

Trixie stopped abruptly in her tracks. Leaf Swirl walked right into her, sending her stumbling forward a step or two. The filly wasn’t much of an earth pony, but even so, she was all but an oncoming landslide compared to a unicorn. Trixie recovered with as much grace as she could.

Oh, sweet Luna, no wonder she wasn’t upset about her lover. How can this girl not know? Why do I always have to break the horrid news?

Trixie considered just letting others deal with it, letting them be the shoulder to cry on. It’s what Old Trixie would have done. If there was one thing that Hoofington had taught her, however, it was that she needed to strive for being a better pony. Also, she didn’t know if she could endure more nagging after the autograph thing. Maybe it was mostly that.

“Little hayseed...” Trixie paused, and started again, reaching up to place a forehoof on the filly’s shoulder. It was awkward, but it wasn’t as if Trixie was well practiced in offering comfort. “Leaf Swirl. Your herd will be in Hoofington, waiting. Storm Front won’t be. We haven’t gotten one of the replaced ones back yet.”

Eyes wide, pupils shrinking quickly to pinpricks, Leaf Swirl stared at Trixie. “D-dead?” She squeaked. Obviously it was all she could manage. The word set tears to gathering in the filly’s eyes.

Almost surely. “Maybe not,” Trixie answered, just a bit angry at herself for the cowardly softening of the truth. She would rather deal with a dozen changelings than one inconsolable, bawling filly. “Raiders, those bigger changelings, don’t have to necessarily kill to rip out a pony’s memories. That one was pretty impressive, even for a Raider. The biggest Trixie has seen. Chances are your Storm Front was more or less intact after the... process.” She didn’t even consider detailing that. “They’ll have shoved her in some pod in the Hive, probably playing out some happy memories of herd and home, so the hive can collect love from her.” Which would wither her down to a soulless husk in a few weeks, or less, depending on how hungry they are.

“Well, why isn’t Princess Luna or the Element Bearers or the Army kicking in the door of the hive to save my Stormy!?” Leaf shouted, a rather poor idea in the Everfree. She shoved her face into Trixie’s, as if blaming her for the whole affair. Trixie flinched away, taking hurried steps back.

“They would if they knew where it was! They think it’s somewhere in the Everfree! They’re searching, but tracking an army of subversive shapeshifting love-eaters wasn’t exactly on the West Hoof syllabus. I’m looking too, but the forest is huge, and thick and deadly,” Trixie whispered, suddenly rather nervous about making noise.

“W-well, do better!” Leaf’s voice broke somewhat, but it was still far too loud for Trixie’s liking. It wouldn’t exactly be tactful to enspell her muzzle shut, but Trixie considered it anyway.

“Doing better seems like all I’m doing these days!” But then, it wasn’t exactly a time to be dipping into the philosophy of self improvement. The unicorn changed tracks quickly. “You’re some kind of forester-pony?” She asked, leaning to one side to inspect the wind-blown leaves of Leaf Swirl’s cutie mark.

The question seemed to knock the younger pony off of her angry rant. She looked puzzled as to where Trixie was going with the question, but she obediently answered. “Um... yes? Sort of. I’m a herbalist. The Everfree is full of all sorts of magical plants with amazing properties. The forest really isn’t so bad if you know what to watch out for, and keep an eye out and don’t let your... guard... down...” The green filly’s words slowed to a stop, she stared over Trixie’s shoulder, eyes returning to that all too common widened state.

“Well, maybe you could offer the Army some advice,” Trixie began, oblivious. “They could surely use a hint of talent and... and there’s something terrible creeping up behind Trixie, isn’t there?”

* * *

General Bright Sunshine shucked her helmet down on the table dominating the center of her tent with a relieved sigh. She turned a small knob on the lantern at the center with her mouth, making the tiny barely-there flame leap up into a far brighter one. The mare set herself in front of her mirror and began to mouth open the straps of her armor. Her attendant, Private White Shield, an unexpectedly beige earth colt, trotted in a moment later, and true to form, immediately started scolding the mare on the very opposite heights of his lowly rank. “General, honestly! Let me do that.”

Sunshine rolled her eyes, albeit good-naturedly, at the familiar pattern that they’d fallen into in the last year. She left off her attack of the straps and rose back up onto all four hooves. With a familiar rattle of hinged steel the general stretched her yellow-orange wings upward to full extension, to get the razor-sharp blades strapped to their leading edge out of the way of Shield’s work. As she often did, she took a bit of satisfaction in how the colt’s eyes followed the display without any input from conscious processes. Seemed like more and more non-pegasi each year were wise to that particular sight. Maybe the last few years of Hearth Warming Eve plays had been really good, and inter-tribal unity was on the rise?

Still, not bad for an old nag, Sunshine thought with playful self-recrimination. She knew it was an exaggeration. She was comfortably middle aged, which entailed rather less years than it did for the other tribes. Pegasi lived fast, but rarely long. One that continued beyond the middle sixties was practically a wizened elder of absurd age.

Sunshine shook out her sunflower-yellow mane a little in the companionable silence of the daily tradition. She was eager to get the armor off, however. Everypony was tired. The lengthened day had all but tricked everyone into working late. Though undoubtedly many, like her, had used that work as an excuse not to think about what the extended hours meant. Still, despite the time, nearly midnight, she knew she wouldn’t sleep until the messenger pegasi she sent to Canterlot returned with solid news. The fact that she hadn’t received any official briefs from the capital was ominous in itself. She had been worried enough that she had sent pegasi scouts on a shorter trip just to spot the mountain and ensure the city still perched on it intact. At least that much had been confirmed.

Once the last of her barding and underpadding had been stripped away, and the girth strap of her wing blade harness was unbuckled, Sunshine herself went to work unsecuring her blades. The first time Shield had tried to do it for her, she had almost cut his throat with a shocked, reflexive twitch. Her first attendant had been a pegasus, and she hadn’t thought to warn the newer earth pony away from taking off that bit of equipment. Apparently education on wings among other tribes went only so far as teaching them how to spot a turned-on pegasus. Which was typical.

Unlimbered of all that steel and bronze, Sunshine took a luxurious moment to roll her shoulders and stretch her wings out until her feathers quivered from the strain. Of course, after removing all armor and weapons of war, that’s when the alarmed shouting started in the camp.

A peek outside of her tent flap had the General covering her face with a stretched wing and groaning in martyred dismay. “Oh Celestia. Why do you test me so? White Shield, bring that letter from the table. The one with the gold seal.” Sunshine steeled herself and left her tent to face her trial.

* * *

Trixie stood in front of the General with a cheery, innocent smile on her face. She had set herself right in the middle of one of the causeways leading toward the center of the camp. A dejected looking young green mare was behind her, her short, ragged tail hanging limply, and her head low. Tents lined the way. Most of the ponies inside were sleeping, but a small crowd of soldiers was starting to gather, curious. They had heard of, or seen, the blue unicorn before. “General Sunshine! What a pleasure to meet you again!”

“Miss Tricky,” the General began.

“Trixie!” The showmare corrected, her smugly cheerful demeanor faltering instantly.

“Apologies, Miss Trixie, Might I ask what the meaning of this is?” The general motioned with a hoof toward the collection of pink auras in the air behind the blue unicorn.

“Ahh, Trixie collected four more Drones while she was taking a casual evening stroll in the Everfree. Or more accurately on a relaxing detour to save a fair filly maiden. She happened to remember there was a bounty should anyone capture a changeling.”

“Not that.” Sunshine could keep her from voice from descending into a growl, but her wings spread with aggression to match her anger.

“Oh! This is a manticore.” Trixie used a tone that one would take with a foal., as if she was going to spell the name out next, educationally. The unicorn levitated the enormous, if limp, winged, stinger-tailed leonine creature forward. “Trixie was going to see if the Hoofington Zoo wanted one. Why, did you want it?”

The General glared, allowing herself a private fantasy wherein the intensity of said glare made the unicorn burst into flames spontaneously.

Said unicorn looked up innocently, her eyes widening as if in sudden realization. She levitated the seven wildly struggling, armored pony soldiers gently down on the ground in various orientations. Coincidentally none of those positions included being gracefully placed on all four hooves. The two placed flat on their backs in the mud seemed particularly vexed. “Trixie would forget her head if it wasn’t the source of so much excellence. Yes, they were worried I was a changeling when I came out of the forest. Since even Chrysalis herself surely can’t match the rapidly increasing magical talents of the Great and Powerful Trixie, she thought to provide a demonstration! But Trixie sometimes forgets the little people. She’s working on that. It’s her one flaw.”

Sunshine made a cutting gesture with a hoof to the recently released mares and stallions, to keep them from pouncing on the spellslinger. A few pointed looks and a moment or two of waiting had dropped the gathering crowd to four. Trixie, Sunshine, Shield and the green filly following the showmare, whom the general addressed next.

“Miss Leaf Swirl, I presume?”

“You remember the name of someone you haven’t even met, but not Trixie’s!?”

Sunshine ignored the unicorn’s outraged shouting. “We’ve had a lot of people worried about you. My patrols have had your description since we started scouting the Everfree.”

The filly’s head lowered all the more, ears flattening. She was obviously nervous. Her words came out in an overly quick stream. “I’m sorry, General, Sir, Ma’am. I’m pretty hard to find when I’m out there. I might have passed by your mares a half dozen times. You don’t investigate noises or anything when you go out there. You hide or go some other way. Nobody was saying anything about the changelings in the Everfree when I left a week ago. I figured, where would be safer from them than the most dangerous place in Equestria, where there’s nopony for them to eat?”

“Safe and Everfree don’t belong in the same sentence. How did you survive out there?”

Leaf Swirl shrugged listlessly. “I’ve been sneaking into the forest since I was a foal. I got my cutie mark out there. The place has a certain sense and rhythm. If you know it, it’s not so bad at all.”

“Earth pony silliness is hardly required to travel the Everfree in safety!” Trixie’s horn ignited, flicking her cape into a dashing ripple. She looked from under the brim of her hat at the General. “One can also employ the talents of the most magical unicorn in all Equestria!” After a few dancing swirls of light erupted from the ground around her, and the chords of her music played, the mage let her cape settle against her back. She closed her eyes serenely. “Starting in the morning. Or eternal-sunset equivalent. Trixie is tired. One hundred bits per hour. Plus danger pay if she’s forced to save quivering soldiers from manticores or such.”

Certainly at least one pony was impressed. Leaf Swirl perked up a little bit. The shadow of a worshipful smile edged onto her lips. “It’s worth it. She hit it with a tree!

“Only three quarters of one, and I think a few termites might have gotten at the trunk a bit,” Trixie offered with false modesty.

Sunshine grit her teeth in frustration. She wore the pained look of someone with a mounting headache. “White Shield. Give Miss Dixie her...”

“Trixie! Trixie just said it like a hundred times!”

“... letter. Then go to Warrant Officer Tipped Scales to get the current bounty for four Drones. All Equestria thanks you for your service, Miss Trixie. Except for, I wager, those that have had to listen to you. Miss Swirl, I’ll have some of my ponies escort you home.”

Trixie ignored the insult magnanimously. She would find some new way to repay it next time. She couldn’t repeat the levitating soldiers thing again. Or announcing herself with an image appearing in every reflecting surface in the camp. (She’d heard she’d even appeared in a few bowls of soup in the mess tent with that spell!) It was a shame that levitating the General’s tent out of the camp to the edge where Trixie had been standing had to be a one shot. It was a lot of effort anyway, with keeping the floor stiff and going slow enough not to wake the general. It would have to be some new amusement. Her fans in the camp would expect no less.

“That won’t be necessary. I’ll escort my rescued damsel myself, thankyouv-” Trixie went silent after she’d levitated the carefully folded letter from the earth pony’s offering lips. She stared with a certain wonder at the gold sunburst sealing it. “The royal seal,” she whispered in awe.

“Probably the last thing to come from Princess Celestia’s desk before this.” Sunshine motioned with a wing in the direction of the motionless sun. “I would ask you to treat it with more respect than you treat those fighting on Her Majesty’s behalf. Now, good day, Miss Trixie.”

Trixie spared no attention for the departing General, though Leaf hurriedly called out her thanks. The unicorn, after making sure there wasn’t mud on her hoof, reverently brushed the thick paper of the letter with it. It was a soft, unbleached yellow. She could see the hint of gold leaf along the inner edges. She even, after making sure only Leaf was really paying attention, brought the letter toward her nose to breathe in the smell of it. Paper, ink and a hint of something warm and summery.

Leaf Swirl was looking over her shoulder curiously, and more than a little impatiently. Nopony could resist getting a peek at anything from Celestia. Trixie savored the moment. She carefully worked her magic under the gold wax, to free the seal without breaking it, and lovingly unfolded the letter to read it by the light of the red sun.

- - - - -


To Beatrix Lulamoon
The Great and Powerful
The Wise
Magus of the Realm
Slayer of the Beast of Hoofington

This is the third letter I’ve found myself writing you in your lifetime, my little pony. Each time your list of accolades and titles grows longer. Soon you’ll be eclipsing Celestia, Sol Invicta, the Lifegiver, Ruler of the Principality of Equestria, Heir to Unicornia, Bearer of the Earthen Scepter, Dictatora of Pegasopolis, Marshal of the Armies, High Seat of the Order of the Sun, Duchess of Everfree, etcetera.

To that effect, I think I will dub you Changelingbane. I’ll have to think up a suitable ceremony, but feel free to amend it to your introductions until then. I think it’s suitably dramatic.

I was surprised to hear that you’ve once more taken up the life of the hero in Hoofington. You must have been barely a filly when you received my first congratulatory letter, along with your diploma and the titles of The Wise and Magus of the Realm for graduating from my school. The next was barely a year after when you slew the Razorbear that had found its way from the Everfree into Hoofington. Unfortunately I missed your time as a travelling performer. I understand the Beast got somewhat remodelled in the telling? It was hardly a necessary change. A Razorbear might not be the size of my palace, but it’s a formidable creature that costs far more Equestrian lives than the sleepy, reclusive Ursas.

Twilight Sparkle tells me that I have a rather compulsive habit of offering lessons, but given what I hear from Hoofington of late, it seems you already learned the one I might offer. Instead I will make a plea. Stay safe, my little pony, while on your worthy quest.

Your Princess thanks you for each of the precious lives you’ve saved. If there were more ponies of your quality, the burden of the Crown would be light indeed.

Signed,

Princess Celestia of Equestria

Sol Invicta, Ruler of the Principality of Equestria, et al.

PS. Twilight would no doubt like me to tell you that the surviving belongings from your coach are in storage at her library.

PPS. Please go easy on General Sunshine. Pegasi are so short-lived as it is. I’d prefer it if you didn’t give her a stroke. (Though I will remember you if ever Luna sleeps in a tent pavillion.)


- - - - -

Trixie watched the pastel pile of somehow happy yet crying ponies from a distance. She had to admit, it was just disgustingly cute and heartwarming how the group had practically dogpiled Leaf Swirl in relief when she and Trixie were spotted approaching the herd’s home. There were six of them still, counting Leaf and the group’s blue stallion.

It was hard not to smile, but Trixie managed to at least twist it into a look of vague self-satisfaction. That part wasn’t too hard. She allowed herself a well-deserved pat on the back for the rescue. Admittedly she had gone out trying to find Storm Front, whom the herd had worried had gone into the Everfree looking for Leaf. She hadn’t volunteered that information. As far as Trixie was concerned, the more time the filly had before having to face the guilt that she was an indirect cause for the whole tragedy, the better. Getting both back would have been nice. Still, judging by what she saw and was told, Trixie got the feeling that Storm Front would have wanted the innocent filly saved instead of her anyway. She seemed like a good head mare. Protecting the ones they love was the central thing to that old-fashioned type.

Trixie was just about to make a quiet escape when Leaf managed to wiggle out of the technicolour pile to bound toward her. She stopped nearby, and after wiping her tears off on the back of her foreleg, she managed a shaky, if sunny smile for the magician. “Thanks for everything, Trixie. Um... maybe we’ll go out to the Everfree again? I think what you said about helping makes sense. There aren’t exactly many guides for the forest. Stormy would do it for me.”

She did, in fact. Old Trixie might have been cruel enough to say it. The New and More Powerful Trixie reached up to ruffle the filly’s mane fondly. “Trixie is sure of it. She can’t fault your bravery, but be careful little hayseed. If you run into trouble, you do your earth pony thing and blend in, understand? The Great and Powerful Trixie may be able to work feats of battle-craft beyond imagination, but not many others can. If Trixie is not there to protect you next time, you consider your herd first.”

The green filly gave a shy little nod to that. “You’d be a pretty good head mare, know that? I mean, if you ever wanted to be. You could, um... you know...”

Before the filly could offer her the keys to her house, Trixie worked a bit of spellcraft to materialize two faux-gold tickets out of thin air. Or rather, she briefly rendered them invisible, levitated them from under her collar, and released the spell with the appropriate application of sparkly effects to make it seem that way. Teleportation and matter creation were hard. Misdirection was easy. She tucked the tickets in behind one of the filly’s ears and gave her cheek a little nuzzle. “Trixie needs adoring fans more than a gaggle of lovers, my little admirer. She does shows at the amphitheatre on Fridays. Come see her there and offer a cheer if you’re feeling grateful, and up to it. If you feel very grateful, bring the whole group. Trixie only has those two free tickets, and could always use more bits if you’re forced to buy four more.”

* * *

Trixie was humming a happy tune as she turned the key to unlock her house door. It was a sad sign of the recent times that people had actually begun to use them. Not that Trixie herself was worried about changelings, all considered. However, there was still...

“Yeee-aaah!” Came a high-pitched battle cry as Trixie walked into the door. She didn’t bat an eye. She just ignited her horn, wrapping the leaping snow-white pegasus in a pink aura, stopping her dead in the air.

... Sweet Relief to consider. Not every mare could have a Princess dubbing them Changelingbane. Not that Sweet really needed the protection either, truthfully, for various reasons. But appearances had to be maintained.

“Mark my words, Trixie Lulamoon! One of these times I will get the upper hand! Then I’ll be wearing the hat in this relationship, and you won’t be allowed to go out wandering into the Everfree to leave me worrying all n-”

Trixie, not missing a note in her tune, levitated her hat off her pale-maned head and shoved it down onto the pegasus’ yellow-haired one. The hat was somewhat too large for the smaller mare and covered her orange eyes to the muzzle. Before the pegasus could scoop it off, the unicorn flipped her over in the air, so her hooves were above her, and her wings were fluttering uselessly. She kissed the now upside down mare hard enough to practically bruise her lips. White legs kicked, went stock-still and straight, then finally seemed to lose all their strength to a melty, jellyish relaxation. Satisfied, the magus pulled her muzzle away, levitated the pegasus above a nearby couch, and dropped her onto it with a soft ‘pompf’. She let the gold-sealed letter drift down to land under the pale mare’s chin after. Walking out of the room with an unhurried four-beat gait, Trixie resumed her humming as if she hadn’t paused at all.

“What I meant was ‘Welcome home’! OHMYGOSH! Is this a letter from the Princess!? Is she okay?” Came a call in that oh-so-sweet voice from the next room.

Trixie found herself smiling as she came to rest in front of her writing desk. She dripped a quill in ink and set to work, writing a few quick thoughts into the margins of an article from the Equestrian Journal of Arcane Energistics verbosely titled ‘A Study on Practical Use of the Arcane Potential of Interpony Harmonics, by Twilight Sparkle’. Trixie had crossed out that absurd title and penned ‘The Magic of Love’ below to replace it days ago, surrounded by the sappiest heart her peerless artistry could manage. Below it ‘by Trixie Lulamoon’ had been added as an afterthought, after scribbling out Twilight Sparkle’s name.

Sparkle theorized, but Trixie was a worldly mare. Magic was something that needed to be put into practical use, or what was the point? Thus Trixie had her advantage. The ‘why’ of her increasing powers had been a mystery. She owed Sparkle to some small degree for explaining it. That the blossoming of a silly crush, over a mare who had saved her from her ill-fated shortcut through the Everfree, had become her salvation from the mediocrity of second place would have been unthinkable a year before. But it had.

Twilight sat in some library and pretentiously pondered, writing obscure papers that maybe two dozen ponies would read, and fewer would understand. Trixie acted, and Hoofington, and the Goddess of the Sun herself, sang her praises.

The weight of the heavy pouch of bits under her cape was a fine reward, Trixie thought, but better still was the knowledge that it had been so easy. A warm, fuzzy feeling in her heart had turned into a magical fire that could swat aside the feared foe that had invaded the Royal City itself.

The encounter in the forest had been more proof that she wouldn’t long have to labor under the disgusting title of Second.

Leaf had been right. The overlong day hadn’t been terrible. Trixie decided that it had been generally excellent, after all.

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