Knights of the Realm

by Kinni

First published

Sunset, Trixie and Twilight were chosen as Celestia's apprentices, but they also choose to become Knights, protectors of Equestria. They are prepared for that, but Equestria is probably not prepared for them.

Princess Celestia has trained her three apprentices, Sunset, Trixie and Twilight, to become the newest generation of the Knights of the Realm, protectors of Equestria. Their abilities and morals are unquestionable, and they're also perfectly willing to become the heroes Equestria needs. However, something had to give, and in the process of turning them into the future Legendary Heroes, those three ended up becoming particularly eccentric in their methods and quirks. This is the start of a very silly era of heroes.

The Eccentric Knights

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Celestia looked at her three new apprentices. Sunset Shimmer, with her amazing magical potential. Trixie Lulamoon, with her perfect illusions. And Twilight Sparkle, with her extremely unusual magical affinity.

All three of them had shown remarkable potential in the magical tests conducted all over the world. And it was likely they would become amazing mages under her tutelage.

She only had one question: Was she willing to risk putting them on the path of a Knight of the Realm, even with all the danger that was implicit in that path?

She thought of her sister, and decided that the answer was yes.

"Hello, little fillies." She said in her most welcoming voice "Do you have any idea what I'm going to teach you?" She wanted to encourage them to be independet as much as she could. There was a limit to how much she would manipulate someone, and she wanted them to be able to tell her no.

"You're gonna teach us magic?" Said Sunset. As she was a year older than the other two, she seemed to be taking the lead at this point.

"That's right. But I am going to teach you something even more important." She answered with a smile.

"More important than magic?" Twilight asked, somewhat incredulous.

"Indeed. In the past, there were ponies, and even some non-ponies, who swore to defend the land of Equestria from any possible threats. They've trained to become the best versions of themselves they could, so that they could be the best defenders possible." She said, letting her admiration for those long-dead heroes pass through her voice.

"The best versions..." It was clear little Trixie was interested in it.

"That's it. They were the strongest, smartest, most noble and most courageous individuals in all of Equestria. Do you want to learn to be like them?"

"Yes!" Sunset jumped at the chance.

"I also want to." Trixie said after thinking for a few moments.

"If I can..." Twilight gave her opinion after a much longer pause.

"That's good, because I can't just turn you into Knighs. To become a Knight, you need to apply yourself and work hard. You need to endure difficulties and learn hard lessons." Celestia noted how each of the fillies reacted to which part. She was going to give it her all to make them as great as possible.

-

Six Years Later

Celestia looked at her three apprentices, now teenage mares who already had their own jobs, lives and friends. She decided this was the best time to see if they were really going to be the Knights she was hoping to make them into.

"So. You three have found jobs and lives of your own. Do you still want to follow the path of a Knight? I can guarantee it's only going to get harder from here on out." She told them in a serious voice.

The three glanced at each other, seeming to have an entire conversation with just their eyes. They had really become close to each other in those last few years. Apparently, the lessons on camaraderie and team work and all the other stuff were sinking in.

"Well." Trixie said "From what we could gather about the work of Knights, we're not going to be on missions all the time. And Trixie can do special new shows after every mission, telling the tales of courage and valor, and showing any new tricks she picks up." She did a flourish with her hat before finishing "There's no reason for Trixie to give up."

Twilight came next "While my work as a magic teacher doesn't have the same flexibility of schedule as Trixie's, I can still go on missions if I organize myself properly." She smiled "No problem. And besides," She looked to her cutie mark "I can't really exercise my real talent by teaching foals, anyway."

Sunset just shrugged "You know, helping you raise and lower the sun is a nice gig and all, but... It's just too calm for me, I want to be able to do more exciting things." She nodded "And I guess that means we are all going to get some extra training soon. Who wants to try to work out some more Special Combinations?" She asked the other two with a cheerful voice.

"I do!" Twilight answered "Oh, this is going to be awesome, I know there will be a lot of new study materials and I'll have to plan a lot of new speeches based around what I learned and..." She kept going on about all sorts of speech variations for different situations, and about the best ways to give a speech depending on who or what you were fighting, and some other things Celestia didn't catch.

"Don't forget that we will need to make even more new strategies, and have cool names for all of them. We need to be able to dazzle our opponents with our strategical acumen and our amazing use of amazing spells." Trixie put in her own two cents.

And then Celestia couldn't get in a word edgewise. The three of them started bouncing ideas of each other, and getting more and more excited, and she got some alarming snippets of conversation like "can make it colder than absolute zero" and "and then the illusion becomes a real magic circle" and "I figure it could blow up a mountain".

The princess started getting a headache. She thought it may have been a mistake to let her apprentices read so many old epic tales about Knights of the Realm. Things could end up being even more hard to handle than they already were. Her apprentices were dedicated, but perhaps their dedication was bleeding off in weird directions.

Still, she figured this was just a phase, the three were going through. They would mature soon, so there was no need to try to douse their enthusiasm unnecessarily.

Yes. This was definitely the right decision.

-

Four Years Later

Celestia's eye twitched. She wondered if there was anything she could have done to affect this outcome. Perhaps she had been a little too hard on her apprentices, who sunk down to new levels of... eccentricity in order to handle the pressure. Perhaps she had been far too subtle with her indications that perhaps they should not try to emulate literary epic heroes quite so closely. Perhaps she could have gotten their parents a lot more time with their fillies, because they frequently only had each other and it was clear their behavior fed upon their shared bond to grow like a parasprite infestation.

But no, perhaps nothing would have worked, and destiny really wanted this. Perhaps this was the price she would pay for the salvation of her sister, seeing the start of a very silly new era of heroes. But still, they were her dear apprentices, and deserved to be treated as such.

"So. You three have surpassed every single prediction I could make about your growth." In many different meanings, she thought "Your bodies are strong," As the guards have found out "your minds are sharp, your morals are inviolable, your teamwork is legendary," Perhaps too legendary "Your will is magnificent and your magical abilities have reached a standard that I've only seen a few times in history." Thank the World "On all accounts you three are ready for the last step." She paused for a moment, knowing this was an important statement "To become true Knights of the realm, you only need to complete a special Knight mission. And I am ready to give one to you." She took a deep breath "Even knowing that you may die trying to fulfill it, do you still want to take part in this mission, to perform a service to the land of Equestria and become true Knights?" She already knew the answer, but if she was going to innaugurate a new era, she was going to do it right.

Twilight was the first to step up, she then stood in her rear legs and started declaiming, in a way that wouldn't look out of place in a very melodramatic stage play "For the years I've trained, for the ancestors who brought me to life, for the heroes who inspired me and for this world so bright..." She made a slight pause, for effect "I promise that I shall never waver from the path of a Knight, no matter what horrors I face or what dangers I confront." She put her hooves back on the floor and bowed heavily, causing tens of clones of herself to appear all around the room and bow along. Multicolored and multisize clones. They disappeared before Celestia could start having flashbacks "I accept whatever mission you feel adequate to charge me with." She said, as she raised her head back.

Trixie was the second one, and stepped forward in perfect compass with Twilight stepping back, which made her remember all the time they took to train their Team Movements "The Great and Powerful Trixie is not the type who will back down when things are tough." Her horn glowed, creating a spiral staircase which she started climbing as she talked "And her honor will not allow her to decline doing any missions that might help others." And suddenly Trixie seemed to be teleporting with each step, going up and down the stairs randomly "Specially not when it might make a great story to be told for generations!" Suddenly, Trixie was by her side, having replaced herself with an illusion, seamlessly "And that is how Trixie feels." She took off her hat with an elegant bow and went back to her previous spot. The Princess was happy she didn't try to project her speech to everyone in the castle.

Finally, it became Sunset's turn "All this power I was born with..." She lowered her head "I want to believe it was meant for something. I want to believe my talent is something that will make me loved instead of feared. I want to believe that this...!" She started charging an improbable amount of magic. Celestia didn't even react, way too used to this kind of thing "Is something that will have a positive effect in the world!" She released her power in a blast upwards, annihilating a good portion of the roof of the castle.

Sunset returned to her previous spot, before using a spell to fix the damage.

Celestia's eye stopped twitching. She said:

"Then, let's go to the operations room, in order to explain your mission."

-

It wasn't a big journey. A teleport and then walking for a few more rooms. She heard with a single ear as the three unicorns congratulated each other on the "awesome speeches". The Princess decided to get it over with quickly. She conjured a map of Equestria with an illusion.

"Here," She pointed to a spot on the map "Is the current territory of the Mad King Sombra. He used to rule over the Crystal Empire, until Princess Cadance, in the act that earned her ascension, managed to take control of the Crystal Heart and banish him." She sighed "But she wasn't able to save my sister, whom he has been using as his top enforcer for the last thousand years, transformed by black magics into the form of Nightmare Moon." She showed an image of the Nightmare "He set up in the region of Barb, enslaving its inhabitants and creating a special field of darkness that prevents alicorns, but specially me, from coming near."

She stopped for a moment, before showing an image of Sombra "Your mission is threefold, in order of importance. You must save the ponies that are under the control of Sombra, rescue my sister from his mind control and defeat him, to prevent him from simply trying to take over somewhere else."

Trixie looked at the map "We'll need records about this place, the population, resources and everything."

Celestia floated the relevant papers over to her, having already expected this.

"So, has anyone tried to get in?" Sunset asked.

"Yes, a company of royal guards invaded to try and save the population, but none of them managed to return. The barrier also seems to cut off all communication." Celestia informed her.

"In that case, I think I should set up a connection with Spike. It should be able to sidestep the barrier and allow for communication and delivery of resources." Twilight said "Do you have the information about the magical properties of the barrier?"

Celestia floated a page to her, and she got out a scroll and started making calculations. Trixie also looked at the page.

"Trixie will need to get close to the barrier to confirm, but this also seems like an alarm system. She'll have to think of someway for us to be able to enter without tripping it." She explained.

Sunset started wondering about the possible defences, including magical traps and the possibility the guard contingent was also under mind control and would fight them. The other presented their own points and the planning proceeded.

Celestia smiled, despite everything, she had complete faith in their ability.

-

Three Days Later

"So, I guess we're as prepared as we're going to get." Sunset said, as she looked at the bags the three were carrying.

"And I've already made the special connection with Spike." Twilight said, somewhat sadly. The small dragon had not reacted well to not being able to go with Twilight in such a dangerous mission,

"Now we just need to teleport close to the barrier and initiate out mission." Trixie said, trying to change the subject.

"Good luck, my students." Celestia said "I hope to see you victorious soon."

The three smiled at her, then they got up on their rear hooves and started posing.

"For the glory of the Knights!" Shouted Twilight.

"For the protection of the innocent!" Shouted Trixie.

"For the good of the world!" Shouted Sunset.

"KNIGHT FORCE, MOVE OUT!" The three shouted, their poses coming into synch, then disappeared in three pillars of light.

Celestia sighed, not being surprised by that. Then she was relieved to note that she still feared for the safety of her apprentices, instead of being too numb.

"I just hope they don't traumatize my sister..."

Meeting the Resistance

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The three of them had set their destination well, and appeared only a few meters away from the barrier. It was very intimidating from so close up, a dark dome constantly cracking with purple lightning all around its surface, the barrier itself expanding and contracting chaotically, like it was trying to expand and devour everything around it, the entire area around it completely devoid of life due to voracious magic needs of the dome sucking out all the energy from the earth.

"Dibs on breaking the barrier!" Sunset announced immediately.

Trixie looked at her "That will depend on what exactly is anchoring it, but considering your usual specialties, it's very likely you'd end up doing it anyway, Sunset."

"Just making my interest clear early, is all." Sunset answered.

Meanwhile, Twilight was making a small speech "For the sake of the stolen life of this land, I swear I will do everything I can to make this barrier be ended." She recited solemnly.

"First, let the Great and Powerful Trixie prepare our stealthy entry into the enemy territory." Trixie proclaimed, and went to work.

Sunset looked as Trixie started to fiddle with the barrier, knowing this would take a while. She turned to Twilight "Anything interesting to mention?"

"I've already thought of how to make our introductions when we actually meet other ponies in this first mission."

"But I thought Trixie would do the introductions?" Sunset tilted her head.

Twilight shaped the earth into two confortable chairs for her and Sunset to sit "She's going to introduce us when we meet enemies, but I convinced her to let me make the introductions to normal ponies."

The two of them kept talking, going back through their spell lists one last time to guarantee they knew exactly what the others could do. It wasn't really necessary, given they had already done so before coming, but you never knew when the inspiration for a new spell variation would strike. Sunset was particularly good at adapting under pressure.

Trixie didn't take that long to come back, now with a small ribbon on her mane. She showed two more ribbons to her partners "Here, put those in your manes. It should work to disguise our magic signatures enough that the barrier won't react. It will also make it harder for us to be caught by general magical detection."

"And Sombra will obviously have something much better than than general magical detection anywhere important, right?" Sunset said, as she was tying the ribbon to her own mane.

"He's still not ready for us." Twilight stated definitely.

The three of them walked up to the barrier, Sunset passed through without hesitation, Trixie held her hat in telekinesis as she went and Twilight took a deep breath before going through.

Inside the dome was like a whole other world. The sky was dark and full of even more of the purple lightning that could be seen fron the outside. What light could get through was weak and gray, as if passing through a heavy fog, and it was clear the envinronment suffered for it: There was no sign of any small animal or insect moving through the hills, the grass seemed to lack colors and the trees seemed to lack leaves.

Trixie took off her hat to an imaginary audience and said something about "starting the show", but Sunset wasn't able to understand it perfectly.

"Right," Twilight said "since I haven't felt anything like a magical alarm reacting, it seems that our ribbons worked perfectly." She turned to the other two "As planned, I'm going to gather information in the town" she indicated the town they could see in the distance "And then we decide on the next step."

The other two nodded, and Twilight's horn shined, then she took a step and seemed to stretch, before disappearing.

"Let's get to walking." Sunset said, starting the trot towards the town.

-

Twilight more or less understood why neither her partners nor her teacher understood when she explained how she did those kinds of things, but it still seemed so simple to her. Find a place to go, like that cloud, sense the light reflecting off her own body, redirect it to the destination, then change places with her own reflection. After all, the reflection was very similar to her.

Still, she was in her element as she moved from place to place, barely using any energy, while simply teleporting to the town would spend a lot of energy and cause enough ripples to allow a powerful mage to detect them even with the ribbons.

Finally, she reached the town, first standing on the side of a buiding (using an application of viewpoint manipulation so basic it barely warranted mention) then jumping to just under the earth, right in the middle of the town (by convincing the ground it was malleable enough to stretch).

Looking from underneath the earth, Twilight observed the town. It was easy to see that the ponies weren't happy. They kept to themselves and avoided making eye contact with each other. The streets were silent because there was no conversation, no peddling of wares and the ponies even seemed to try making the least possible amount of noise while walking. And of course, it seemed like they had been right about the fate of the guards. There were a few of them, here and there, moving robotically and with unfocused eyes. They were obviously brainwashed.

After observing for a while, Twilight noticed that one of the ponies on the street (a blue stallion with an orange mane and a lantern cutie mark) seemed to be slowly passing near every single other pony. Sensing that something was up, she swam towards that pony (having to hold her breath) and managed to catch him whispering:

"Tonight, at the Crafters home."

Bingo. It seemed like Twilight had found the resistance. She went around until she found a mailbox with 'Crafters' on it and managed to perceive the fact that the house that mailbox belonged to had a significantly large basement, probably the place where the meeting would be held.

She left the town and waited on the outskirts until her fellow disciples of Celestia arrived. She explained what she had found, and noticed that the day was getting close to ending.

"We should definitely meet up with the resistance. They should have information that would be very good to have." Sunset said.

"The night is cold here, so cloaked ponies will probably pass by unremarked. What about simply going to the meeting?" Trixie proposed, with a mischievous smile.

The other two agreed, and soon three cloaked unicorns were making their way through the streets, without attracting the least attention from the guards or other ponies (it helped that the ponies were deliberatedly staying away from each other). With a small spell to increase hearing range, they discovered the "password" that the members were giving to the mare who answered the door (long live the princess). And they were able to inflitrate the house and be led into the basement without any problems. Trixie was barely able to stop herself from giggling.

The basement was big enough for a large congregation of ponies, there was a small stage at the back, and the three of them took positions at the opposite end of the room from the stage. More and more ponies entered, to the point where it was becoming pretty full, but then a mare with a white coat and purple mane stepped onto the stage. The meeting started with simple reports of recent happenings, and Trixie waited to see when Twilight was planning to introduce them.

It turned out that she was only waiting for the right straight line. When the mare asked if anyone had anything extra to say, Twilight answered:

"I have something to declare!" said in a perfect stage voice, which immediately attracted the attention of everyone in the room.

Twilight's horn glowed, grabbing the concealing cloak in telekinesis, Trixie followed suit, and saw that Sunset did the same. Then, in perfect synchrony, the three of them threw their cloaks to the air (Sunset made them disappear, since they were only magical constructs).

"Under orders from Princess Celestia, we, her three apprentices, have come to free this land from the tyranny of Sombra!" Twilight continued, reinforcing her point with large gestures.

"Who... who are you?" The mare on stage managed to ask.

"I'm glad you asked that. Here!" She indicated Sunset by pointing with both forelegs to her side without actually turning "Is Sunset Shimmer. Among Celestia's three apprentices, she is the strongest!"

Sunset recognized the cue and gave a step forward before charging enough energy to make her whole body glow.

"Here!" She did the same thing, this time pointing to Trixie on her other side "Is Trixie Lulamoon. Among Celestia's three apprentices, she is the cleverest!"

Trixie knew it was time to show off. She reared up on her rear legs and cast an illusion spell strong enough to put images of Trixie and her name all around the room.

"And I!" Twilight indicated herself, rearing on her rear legs and tilting backwards "Am Twilight Sparkle. Among Celestia's three apprentices, I am the most mysterious." Her tone had become less boisterous on the last few words.

Twilight fell backwards, into a hole that appeared suddenly. Then she reappeared falling from the ceiling in a completely different part of the room, falling on another temporary hole. And that continued, with Twilight eventually falling sideways through the room before suddenly appearing back at her starting point.

"And we are here to help." She said, in a small but well projected voice.

Trixie approved completely of this introduction, but before she could say so, they were besieged by all kinds of questions and demands. It took a while for things to settle down, and the three had to do a lot to be recognized as truly being what they said they were, but eventually things calmed down enough for them to be able to actually talk with the leader of the resistance.

"My name is Ranger Time." She said "This group was formed to try and find out any weaknesses on Sombra's control of this region, and we have a lot of useful information." She looked downcast "We just haven't had any way of actually using it."

The three knight candidates were beside her on the stage "Just tell us and we'll do our best." Said Sunset.

Ranger smiled and nodded, before starting "First, Sombra never leaves the castle. He sends some kind of illusion that goes to inspect the town and the work camps, but we found out the thing had no smell and didn't leave any traces even when it should.

"Second, the castle is a leftover from an old noble that lived here. We have a map of it, and we updated it based on the testimony of the ponies who were sent there to work on renovations. We don't know what kind of magical defenses the castle has, but they are potent.

"Third, Sombra has access to 40 brainwashed guards who were sent here some time back, 17 pegasus, 14 earth ponies and 9 unicorns.

"Fourth, there are three work camps where Sombra forces us to work in order to produce for him. The first is the mine, where we harvest precious gems. It is supervised by one of Nightmare Moon's avatars, an unicorn who specializes in darkness magic. The second is the king's field, where he forces earth ponies to exhaust themselves growing food in those miserable conditions. We don't know what he uses it for. This place is supervised by the earth pony avatar, who seems to specialize in manipulating silver. The third place is the factory, where pegasi and unicorns are forced to charge jewels with their magic, before they are shipped to the castle. This place is supervised by the pegasus avatar, whose specialty is unknown, but her cutie mark seems to imply something related to lightning.

"Fifth, Nightmare Moon spends most of her time in the castle, but sometimes goes to the town or the work camps."

The mare finally stopped talking, and the three apprentices huddled up, discussing all sorts of possibilities and plans. Trixie was the expert in that kind of thing, but the other two weren't slouches either, and kept putting forth reasonable suggestions and ideas.

Eventually, they had the beginning of a plan, and turned back to Ranger Time.

"We have a plan." Trixie said "And if things go right, by this time tomorrow this entire region will be free."

The Plan

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Celestia was thinking about her apprentices when Spike ran in. More specifically, she was thinking that perhaps the test of the Samsara of one hundred lives had been a little too harsh. She could remember how she justified it at the time, but in hindsight those reasons didn't seem quite enough of a justification, even if Trixie had ended up gaining new insights into illusion magic from that test.

"Princess! Princess! They have sent a message for you!"

Celestia grabbed the scroll in Spike's hands and read through it "Hmm... They are requesting the names of every member of the guard company for debrainwashing purposes. And Twilight wants me to send one of her old cardboard cutouts of herself. They've joined up with the rebellion and will try to remove Sombra in a single day."

Celestia thought about it. It was slightly reckless, but Sombra was very good at adapting when he had time to prepare, so that could be the only chance of actually completing all their missions.

She sent Spike to get the necessary papers and teleported the cutout to herself, She would not leave her apprentices hanging.

-

"Okay, now that we have all the names, you need to get the unicorns from the resistance to make spell papers using this plan" Twilight showed a scroll "And putting the names on the spell papers on the right parts. This should be able to free the guards."

Ranger Time looked at the scroll and thought about the plan "But who gets the spell papers?"

Twilight blushed "Ah, sorry, I forgot about that part, you should make four complete sets. Three for us and one to stay with you guys just in case."

That seemed reasonable. She looked around and saw that the other two apprentices had figured out ways to entertain themselves. Sunset was playing with a magic cube that had way more moving parts than any other she had even seen, and Trixie was putting on a small magic show.

Ranger went to give the orders to the people they had available, and when she came back, the mare saw that Twilight herself had found something to do, and was apparently teaching magic to a filly unicorn. She smiled, those three heroines that Celestia sent really made people feel at ease. Apparently, the plan was going to start two hours before sunrise(or what passed for sunrise inside the barrier anyway), so they were going to sleep soon.

She went back to organizing things.

-

Candity had a simple job. She just had to get close to the castle and deliver that cardboard cutout. Her night vision was good enough to go through the first part of the path, and then the eldritch lights coming from the castle did the rest of the job. When she got close enough, Candity dropped the cutout of that Twilight Sparkle unicorn. Then she watched in amazement as the thing seemed to unfold in itself and turn into more or less a normal pony, who began trotting towards the castle.

Apparently, she was going to serve as a decoy, keeping Sombra attention on the castle by tripping his alarms while the three were going to attack in the mine. It seemed simple and unlikely to go terribly wrong. They had clearly thought of everything.

Candity suddenly felt a sense of dread and started to run back to town.

-

In Sunset's opinion, the journey through the mine was terribly boring. Okay, Trixie and Twilight were apparently having to concentrate a lot to get through all the alarms and traps without being discovered, but Sunset really didn't have enough ability to help the two with that work, and was just "keeping watch", which pretty much meant trying not to fall asleep out of boredom. Really, when they were discovered, Sunset was mostly relieved.

She didn't really think they would be able to sneak attack the avatar of a princess, anyway.

"Who goes there? How have you gotten here without being detected?" The unicorn with a shadow cutie mark demanded to know.

She was actually rather intimidating, with a cloak that seemed to be made of living shadows, a vibrant grey coat and silver mane and a sharp helmet that seemed to be made more for intimidation than actual protection. The heavy feeling of dark magic coming from her didn't reduce her intimidation factor any, either.

Sunset could tell, Trixie had been waiting for this opportunity. She shot fireworks into the ceiling and took a pose with her forelegs to the air.

"From all over the lands of Equestria, three fillies were gathered!" She stomped the ground "Chosen among countless others for their great magical potential!" She raised her head to the sky "Trained and tested by Princess Celestia herself to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Knights of the Realm!" She did a somersault in place and created glowing plaques with the names of the three to appear above them "Sunset Shimmer, Master of the Magic Enhance! Twilight Sparkle, Master of the Magical Sign! AAAAAND... Trixie Lulamoon! Master of the Perfect Illusion!" She made the plaques explode in a shower of sparks and did a pose. Sunset and Twilight doing matching poses they had worked out during Pose Training.

There was a beat.

"What?" The avatar asked, flabbergasted.

"Not going to repeat my performance." Trixie stated sharply, then she shot a beam at the unicorn and the battle was joined.

A barrier of semisolid shadow erected itself to block the attack on the unicorn, then tendrils of darkness shot towards the three knight candidates, hoping to skewer them. Sunset did a magic-assisted jump backwards, Twilight did one of her weird teleports, wavering out of the path and Trixie vanished, revealing that had just been an illusion. Sunset took a brief moment to remember how annoying that had always been in their spars, before Twilight did her own attack.

"Soap slip!" She cried, creating a bar of soap that sped along the ground, hoping to trip the enemy.

The shadow user was surprised for a moment, but still managed to bring a tendril to spear the soap bar. That was a really versatile defence, it seemed like brute force was necessary, and thankfully that was Sunset's specialty. She quickly charged and cast a spell.

"Magic Enhance! Comet Dash!" She announced, forcefully enhancing the spell at the cost of a significant portion of her magic. But the results made it more than worth it.

The small but powerful fireball she had cast became a solid ball of earth covered in fire, and shot itself at the shadow unicorn at nearly supersonic speeds. The impact released a terrifying sound and the shadows seemed to explode, sending bits of themselves all over the area and sending the unicorn flying to the wall.

That one had always been one of Sunset's favorites.

-

7 years before

"Teacher! Teacher! Look what I did!" Sunset was jumping in place and waving to Celestia.

The Princess took a look at what used to be the south wall of the east wing of the palace, now a complete ruin.

"I figured out another cool spell with Magic Enhance! And if I take a little longer, I can even cast it normally!" She stop, thinking hard "But what would happen if I used Magic Enhance on that spell? I'm sure it would make an even cooler spell!" She decided with a nod.

The Princess was trembling. She must have been really proud of her student, Sunset deduced.

-

The avatar didn't reach the wall. With a yell, an amazing amount of shadow matter flowed out from her, forming a stretchy cushion to absorb the impact. Then she unleashed a moving wall of shadow matter directly at Sunset and Twilight. However, the purple unicorn smiled when she heard the voice she had been waiting for.

"Perfect Illusion: Mana Break!" Trixie announced, from where she was hidden directly above the enemy.

The showmare had always said the two of them made for amazing distractions to help her perform.

The unicorn avatar screamed a second after the spell hit her, her wall losing cohesion. Twilight could sympathize, Mana Break was a spell that played havoc with the body's ability to detect and manipulate its own mana, due to sending an overwhelming amount of contradictory signals. It was extremely hard to counter, though Sunset had some success simply releasing unfocused bursts of magic, so Trixie quickly teleported out of the probable blast radius.

"WAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" Came the incredibly loud shout, and the body of the enemy shook in a grotesque movement, just before shooting out an entire rain of shadow fragments everywhere.

Thankfully, Sunset had already charged up a shield spell. It took form, a thick hexagonal shield that was also concave.

"Magic Enhance: Bunker Shield!" And the shield thickened even more, growing and gaining more facets and an additional layer.

Trixie and Twilight immediately took refuge behind Sunset, as the barrage started hitting the shield with the sound of canonballs hitting metal plates. Trixie looked to Twilight and glanced in the direction of the enemy. The purple unicorn immediately started charging the spell that would put an end to the fight. Trixie also charged up a spell of her own.

Seconds later, the barrage stopped, and the two apprentices were already waiting for it. Trixie teleported Twilight directly in front of the avatar, who was momentarily recovering from the exertion of too much magic at once, exactly the weakness of this kind of uncontrolled magic.

"May a half-life spring up from a full one..." She chanted, finishing the preparations for the spell.

"Chaos Magic: Life Divide!" The beam of the spell hit directly in the horn.

Two eyes appeared on the horn, and then a tail, and arms and finally the horn completely turned into a squirrel, which jumped away, leaving the unicorn's head bare.

After a second of silence, their opponent started becoming fainter and fainter, until she disappeared. While a normal unicorn would survive the same spell, an avatar is an entity created from magic, which can be disrupted with a large enough shock.

The three apprentices of Celestia had been successful in defeating one of Nightmare Moon's avatars.

Then, they immediately started running towards the exit of the mine, knowing that now Nightmare Moon would know she had lost an avatar, and Sombra would discover of the existence of intruders. They cast speed spells to reach the exit faster, knowing they would be able to escape before the alicorn's arrival unless she teleported. That was also why they had took the time to disable everything when coming in. And Twilight was already preparing a teleportation trap, which would at the very least give them time to get away.

-

From the top of the castle, a massive beam of energy shot directly towards the mine.

-

Trixie saw the beam of energy first, and recognized it as a forced movement spell, using the mine itself as a focus. She didn't have time to do any more than that before the spell activated.

The three unicorns got shoved right back through the mine, straight into a circular chamber, which sealed itself soon after.

Trixie saw the runes on the wall activate and recognized the unforgettable magic interference of anti-teleportation wards.

Then she felt the charging of magic energy right underneath her feet, an amount that was rapidly growing. She exchanged alarmed glances with her partners.

It seemed like the plan needed adjustment.

The Plan Needs Adjustment

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Twilight looked as Sunset took a deep breath. The power obsessed unicorn was volunteering to take care of the situation, and neither of the other two made any move to stop her. There were situations where finesse was required, but that was most definitely not one of them.

"OVERDRIVE!" Sunset shouted.

Her body seemed to explode with a burst of magical power that was so overwhelming, Twilight had to fight not to instinctively take a step backwards, even though she knew she was under no danger from her partner. Then Sunset charged a spell for two entire seconds, time that seemed almost too long considering the steady charging of power of the trap beneath their feet, which already had a considerable amount of mana gathered.

The spell she cast took the form of an arrow of energy that seemed made to be shot out of a ballista. A particularly large ballista created to deal with magically reinforced castle walls.

"Double Magic Enhance: Bunker Buster Blast!" And the arrow grew by a factor of 1.5, but more importantly, the energy it consisted of seemed to deepen and become wilder and denser. The very air seemed to crack and burn around the arrow.

Over the years, Twilight had managed to understand more or less how Sunset's Magic Enhance worked. It was not simply overloading a spell, since it actually changed the very structure of the magic. Instead, Sunset seemed to be able to touch the very concept of enhancement, forcefully making a spell into a better form guided by her own thoughts, since the spells tended to become bigger and more destructive, instead of more focused and easier to control. It bypassed the need for a longer casting time to create a better spell, and the price was a significant power expenditure.

But power was something Sunset had in spades.

All those thoughts passed through Twilight's mind in the instant before the arrow shot at the wall, and were blown away by the sheer impact as it hit. And then the arrow exploded with a deafening sound (their prepared ear protection spells activated themselves) and the whole room trembled, as the effect of the spell annihilated every single one of the wards around them with the transferred force. It was a perfect expression of Sunset's specialty.

But even for her, it would be impossible to charge such a spell quickly without the use of an Overdrive, and that had a price.

Sunset collapsed unconscious.

Twilight and Trixie ran over to her and quickly charged a combined teleportation spell, feeling like the trap was about to release its own spell at them. The three unicorns disappeared from the room.

-

Moments later, the trap room erupted with a massive spike of energy, spreading through every available space, literally frying the rock walls.

Less than ten seconds had passed from the moment the trap activated.

-

Trixie already knew what she was going to see when the teleport concluded, but she still winced at the sight of the ribbon she had given Twilight disintegrating as the magical feedback of the teleportation passed through it, knowing her own ribbon was in the same state, and Sunset's had already been reduced to nothing back at the trap room.

And of course, the spatial disturbance of such a hasty teleportation was pretty much a beacon to their location (which was why they had chosen an open field next to the mine, instead of going directly to the town) which meant Nightmare Moon would be coming right about...

"Intruders, prepare to be destroyed!" And the corrupted alicorn appeared right on cue. Trixie quickly decided on a strategy.

"Hello, Princess Luna!" Trixie cheerfully called out to her "Sorry for killing your avatar! It was nothing personal, okay?"

The enemy blinked, seeming to have been thrown off by this sudden change in the script. Trixie charged a spell, concentrating in being as distracting as possible. Sunset was currently too unconscious to stay in a battlefield, and Twilight was the best suited to take her to safety, which meant the job of keeping the alicorn's attention fell squarely on Trixie's shoulders.

"Perfect Illusion: Sea of Silhouettes!" She shouted, creating an army of illusory replicas of herself, which flew right towards the mind controlled Princess Luna.

The Alicorn screeched and created a globe of darkness around herself with a quick spell, swallowing up the replicas in an instant.

Trixie felt Twilight and Sunset disappearing, and smiled as she charged another spell. She had a solo fight with a corrupted alicorn to deal with, and even though there was no audience, the azure unicorn intended to make it a hell of a show.

-

Ranger Time was startled when the two unicorns appeared right beside her. She was in a depression five miles from the city that the apprentices of Celestia had chosen as a fallback location. The mare became even more concerned upon seeing Sunset unconscious and not seeing Trixie with them. She asked almost unwillingly:

"What happened?" She hoped the answer wouldn't be what she feared.

"Sombra got us with a fairly clever trap." The purple unicorn said "Sunset had to Overdrive to help us escape, and we lost stealth. Trixie is distracting the Nightmare."

Ranger relaxed visibly. From Twilight's tone of voice, things weren't as bad as they could be. She might have been simply trying to make her fell better, but it didn't seem to be the case. Still, she was curious about something:

"Overdrive?" She asked.

Twilight shook her head slightly "First tell me if there's important news for us."

Ranger was embarassed, but she shook it off "The guards have been recalled to the castle." She wanted to have more information, but that was the only message she had received ever since she took position at the start of the plan.

"Okay. In that case will need to use plan variation 4c. So I have time to explain things before Sunset wakes up." The purple unicorn nodded. Then she started talking with a lecturing tone:

"You know how sometimes ponies force their magical reserves too much and they get weak and unable to use magic for a while?" She waited for Ranger to nod before continuing "That's the result of drawing more energy from the soul than your body can handle. The soul reduces the production of energy to discourage the pony from doing something that could cause serious harm.

"Overdrive is a controlled way of pulling extra energy from the soul, an entire burst of energy. But the consequences are harsher, as you can see." She motioned to the fallen unicorn.

Ranger nodded thoughtfully, so this was the kind of thing apprentices of Celestia learned... She returned to the present upon hearing a small groan.

"Oh!" Twilight said, smiling broadly "Sunset is waking up, which means she should soon recover completely and regain her magic."

The unicorn giggled, which Ranger Time thought seemed inappropriate to the situation. Then she went back to talking.

"Which means I can't stay here anymore, it's time for the next part of the plan." She turned to her companion and charged a spell.

"Chaos Magic: Flying Route!" She declared, and hit the flame-maned unicorn with the spell.

The body of her fallen companion started shining, and then floated into the air and started gaining speed.

"Go, Sunset Missile!" Twilight yelled, her hoof pointing forward, before teleporting and ending up standing atop Sunset's quickly accelerating body.

"Riding into the Danger Zooooooone!" She shouted, quickly flying off.

Ranger Time went speechless for a moment, before saying the only thing she could in this kind of situation.

"Those mares are weird."

-

The dark magic corrupted, mind controlled version of the Alicorn of the night and moon was familiar with all kinds of negative emotions. She was constantly engulfed in rage, her despair flared up whenever she was left alone for too long, envy was an old friend, and shame was constantly coming from the untouched parts of her soul.

Still, all of those were currently being choked out by a much simpler emotion: Annoyance.

Gah! That thrice damned unicorn is the most aggravating opponent I've ever faced! Eveything I use, she manages to dodge, teleport out of the way or turn out to have been an illusion all along! And while her spells don't cause any actual damage, they still hurt! From which layer of Tartarus has this demonic fly come?!

-

In a small hospital in Manehattan, Doctor Delivery felt a strange sense of indignation for a moment.

-

The Nightmare saw and felt the illusionist mage charge another spell, she blasted the entire area (which was already looking like a post-apocalyptic land) with an overwhelming amount of magic, while still holding a dimensional lock spell.

And the unicorn somehow managed to create a platform and ride on the edge of the shockwave without being injured, before blasting her with another of those painful attacks!!

As the Alicorn tried to work out some combination of attacks her opponent wouldn't be able to evade, her attention was caught by a throughly unexpected sight:

At the extreme edges of her large sight range, there was a glowing yellow unicorn flying through the air, with a purple unicorn standing on her back. The corrupted princess experienced another unusual emotion at the time: Utter bafflement.

Gahhh! And then the unicorn hit her again! She was going to kill that Tartarus forsaken creature if it was the last thing she did!

-

Sunset was annoyed. Ever since childhood, she was always aware that Legendary Heroes were experts at riding things into battle, be they dragons, spirits or their own directed power. So, the three of them had trained to be able to ride anything for the moment where this would become relevant.

And in the end, it turned out Twilight was the first out of the three to ride something into battle, and had done so by turning her body into a riding board. And it seemed like she had been planning something like this for awhile, considering what Sunset had heard after awakening.

Thankfully, she was fast approaching a viable target for her current frustrations. The earth pony avatar of Luna was in sight, and she still hadn't noticed their approach. This could only mean one thing, and she moved her head to signal her passenger.

"PREEMPTIVE ATTACK!" The two shouted at once, and Sunset charged her own spell, Twilight following in a practiced way.

"Duo Magic: Spiral Cannon!" The two cast, releasing a spiraling blast of solar energy with great explosive potential (courtesy of Twilight's chaos magic increasing the volatility).

The avatar felt the attack coming at the last moment and moved, accelerating faster than should be possible for an earth pony and still being hit by the shockwaves and leading edge of the explosion.

Twilight jumped out of Sunset's back, who felt the flying spell running out and mobilized her magic to spread over her body and cushion her fall.

Then, the earth pony flew in their direction, and Sunset could see that she was covered in some kind of silver armor. Twilight created a wall in the way, and it didn't even slow the silver mare down.

Sunset used a mana reinforced hoof to block the enemy, then had to quickly move to the side as a piece of the armor flowed into a needle-like blade trying to stab her. She quickly charged and cast a close-range explosion to get some space, and then Twilight came through creating an iron net that actually managed to trap the opponent for several seconds before she formed rotating saws to cut through her restraints.

Neither of the two unicorns had been idle during that time, though. Twilight captured her again, inside a jelly-like substance that couldn't be as easily cut. As for Sunset...

"Magic Enhance: Solar Laser!"

She had been preparing her finishing move.

A laser was a good way to put it, it was a focused orange blast that went straight through the enemy's body.

She screamed, then collapsed, the silver armor flowing away, and the body shimmered out of existence like the other. Another of Nightmare Moon's avatars had been destroyed.

It seemed easier than the previous one, but that was only because her abilities weren't suited to this kind of fight, and the fact they attacked first and wounded her a bit, and didn't give her time to recover. That was how Sunset saw the situation anyway.

-

The Alicorn emitted a sound that was half shout half grunt, as she felt another of her avatars be destroyed, and with it, even more of her power was sapped. She still wasn't having any luck with that damned unicorn, who seemed to somehow always know what she would...

Even though the Nightmare was far from sane by any measure, she still had enough presence of mind to deduce what was actually going on when the idea got in her head.

Ignoring the next painful attack (always painful, always distracting, never causing any real injuries) she cast the strongest and most comprehensive spell against mental influence the rules of her mind control allowed her to.

And the unicorn disappeared. The unicorn that had been fighting her for several minutes without getting any real injuries herself, who seemed able to evade any attacks she threw.

Nightmare Moon screamed in explosive anger and teleported to the site of the death of her second avatar.

-

Perfect Illusion: Shadow Opponent was a flawed spell, in Trixie's opinion. The manipulation was too blatant and too easily countered, which was bad when the real worth of the spell was in its ability to last long without any maintenance by the caster, while other illusions could only last for a moment and still have a big impact.

Still, for some situations, it was definitely the perfect spell.

She relaxed and her two partners teleported to her position, cancelling the spell she had up specifically to conceal the spatial disturbances of teleportation, rendering them impossible to follow. It was just in time, as she felt her other spell being broken.

She looked at the two, who had sent a message as soon as they destroyed the avatar, and received news of her position in return. Now, the enemies knew nothing of their positions, which was just how Trixie liked it. After all, it was hard to do an amazing entrance if everyone already knew where you were.

"So, what's the situation?" She asked.

"The guards have been pulled to protect the castle." Twilight said "And my roaming eye tells me Nightmare Moon went to protect her last avatar."

"Then it's time for us to attack the castle directly." Sunset stated.

Trixie didn't contradict her. The show was getting closer and closer to the climax, and they were still on schedule, regardless of the problems.

She couldn't wait.

Attacking the Castle

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The three apprentices of Celestia took three small bottles filled with red liquid from their three bags.

Those three bottles contained one of the most useful potions they had packed for the journey. It was specially designed to alleviate muscle fatigue, which was a problem after long or intense periods of activity without rest.

They drank the potions, and talked while waiting for the effects to appear:

"Let's throw a rock at the castle. If it's big enough, we can crush a lot of wards and trip many traps early." Sunset proposed.

"The main problem with that is knowing where the guards would be, so that we don't hit any of them by mistake. Twilight, can one of your roaming eyes check for us?" Trixie asked.

"Sure." Twilight replied, conjuring a small blob with an eye and sending it towards the castle.

"What kind of combat spells do you think Sombra knows?" Sunset asked.

"Considering his obvious connection with the castle? He definitely has a lot of prepared traps and tons of ways to draw extra power from the envinronment. Not to mention the special jewels and food he receives. Safe to say, we won't be able to outlast him." Trixie answered.

"Remember that fighting him directly comes only after we rescue Princess Luna. Otherwise he would sacrifice her in an instant, the moment he felt himself to be in danger." Twilight said with her eyes narrowed.

The three of them kept discussing the possibilities of their final push for a few minutes.

-

The castle of Rongarde looked as peaceful as the castle of an evil sorcerer could ever look. It was still in the morning, which seemed to lighten the view of the threatening architeture, make the dead fields around it seem less wrong and prevented the eldritch lights from being seen.

But this relative peace was about to be broken, as an enourmous chunk of earth that had been ripped from the ground and compressed into an extremely heavy and dense sphere, flew through the air at high speed and hit the front entrance of the castle.

The impact was monumental. The shockwaves alone caused windows far away to break, and the part that was directly hit exploded in all directions, each of the pieces causing even more mayhem in their trajectories. Dozens of spells hit the projectile at once, many doing nothing due to being designed for use on living things, and many others having only a limited effect due to the sheer mass of the object in question.

Sunset shed a single tear, out of appreciation for the scene.

The guards started going to the blast zone, and that was when the three apprentices teleported in.

The guards quickly gathered to their full number and prepared for combat. Despite their mind-controlled states, they still had enough presence of mind to fight using the group formations and strategies they had used previously.

Sunset wasn't worried. The three had trained for this kind of thing.

-

Celestia decided that having the three fight an entire batallion of guards while under magic suppression was probably going a little hard on them, in hindsight.

-

Sunset immediately cast a barrier breaker blast at the middle of the formation to make the enemies scatter, and then the three apprentices ran into the confused ranks. Sunset used a combination of magic enhanced close combat techniques and medium range blasts of solar energy to deal with opponents trying to attack from a distance. Her shields were taking a beating, but they could take it. Twilight only made the battlefield more chaotic by randomly rearranging parts of it and animating others, to the point where some soldiers were attacked by giant mouths made of stone, she refused to stay in a single place for more than a moment. Trixie had the most refined fighting style, denying sight to her opponents via a cloud of mist and using countless visual and auditory illusions to make them attack each other.

And worst of all, at least in the perspective of the soldiers?

The three just would not. Stop. Talking.

"Blast, blast, blast! Special delivery!" She threw a guard at a group "Receive the might of the specialized close combat/magic hybrid style developed by me! Sunset Shimmer!" She bowled over a group of soldiers with an aura-covered, boosted onrush.

"And neither the days of suffering, nor the terrifying tests could prevent us from following in their footsteps! Because for every setback, we grew stronger! Every day moving forward a little bit more, in the hope of reaching this stage! And that is why..." Twilight kept going, her speech uninterrupted by all her spells and movements.

"Let me show you guys a trick! Now you can hear each other... Now you can't!" And a deafening sound drilled into the ears of the guards who had the misfortune of being in the area of effect of Trixie's spell.

To make a long story short, the guards were soon wishing things would just end already...

-

Twilight looked at the forty guards collapsed on the floor, groaning. Satisfied that they had gotten all of them, she reached into her bag and took out her copies of the spell papers and threw them at the guards. Letting the built-in similarity spells lead the right papers to the right guards.

In a matter of a few seconds, all the guards had been relieved of their mind control.

Them Twilight and Trixie ran forwards and started casting spells, as the castle itself started fighting them.

It couldn't be helped. The room they were in had no surveillance due to a combination of the effects of their projectile and the spells Trixie was using, but there was no way for them to prevent Sombra from noticing his mind control spells breaking.

Twilight animated parts of the wall and ground to shift into barriers, and saw that Trixie was hitting the very walls with her illusion spells, to confuse the targetting systems of the lasers, stone fists, flying blades, fireballs and all sorts of other attacks that were raining down on them from the less damaged sections of the hall.

Sunset wasn't helping, because she had another part to play at that moment.

"Magic Enhance: Adrenaline spike!" She cast, sending a wave of light to flow into the bodies of the guards.

All 40 guards blinked and got up, looking to the unicorns that had beat them up and freed them.

"Red Cosmos Company, you have new orders!" Sunset started, in a drill sergeant voice "Retreat to the town and escort the civilians out of the barrier!"

They looked at her without comprehending for a few seconds, so she gave another order:

"Now! The civilians are the priority! Go, go, go!" She shouted, and that finally got the guards moving and out of the castle.

Sunset looked at them for a moment and then went to help her partners in their endeavor.

-

"Nightmare Moon! Come to me!" Sombra demanded.

A few seconds later, the corrupted alicorn appeared.

"How have you not destroyed the intruders yet?!" He demanded.

"They are very good at evading me. They even managed to kill my avatars." She answered in a monotone.

Sombra snarled, then calmed down fractionally.

"I guess I'll just have to make sure they can't run away, right?" He nodded to himself "It's been long since the last time I've actually fought.”

-

The idea in Trixie's mind was simple. They needed to reduce the variables Sombra could use against them. That was why they sent the guards to escort the civillians to safety, taking away two sources of potential trouble all at once. For the same reasons, the three were moving slowly through the castle, with Sunset completely wrecking any structures with her destructive spells and Twilight making any traps and wards useless by spreading her chaos magic everywhere, turning every single surface and object into more chaotic constructs that were running wild.

That was why, when Sombra appeared together with Nightmare Moon right in front of them, he had to take two entire seconds to charge before dropping anti-teleportation stones all around the area (having had to seek power from the more distant, undamaged parts of the castle), instead of doing it instantly.

That was why Trixie had time to charge and attack the Nightmare with an attack of her own, which was innefective but sufficiently distracting.

That was why Sunset could blast Sombra with a spell that almost went through his automatic protections, given they were weakened by the mess his castle was becoming and that room already was.

That was why Twilight could get close enough to do her job.

"Chaos Magic: Sidestep!" She shouted, touching Sombra with one of her hooves.

Then, both her and Sombra disappeared.

It wasn't teleportation, not really, and it meant Sombra was out of the picture for the moment. It was time to do their second mission.

While Nightmare Moon was still in shock over the situation, Trixie extended a hoof to Sunset. This battle would require perfect coordination. She still remembered Sunset teaching them how to Dance.

-

5 Years Earlier

"And with this, you two should be good enough to deal with things in case the enemy challenges you to a dance-off." Sunset nodded, looking at her partners.

The two exhausted and disheveled unicorns splayed on the ground could only groan.

-

But even outside of a dance-off, this would still be useful in managing perfect coordination during an extended battle. The two fell into a practiced ballet routine, and started talking without stopping the dance, switching off speakers for every sentence.

"Princess Luna!" Flip and twist "For the sake of our master!" Spin "Your sister Princess Celestia!" Jump and catch "We will free you from this evil influence!" Stop, point at the Nightmare.

After all, introductions were important.

NM gaped "Are you well?" She asked, baffled (which was fast becoming a familiar feeling).

"I'm feeling pretty good, actually, thanks for asking." Sunset said casually, charging a spell.

"Likewise." Trixie said, doing the same.

"Duo Magic: Chasing Thunder!"

-

Sombra was getting more and more irritated. That purple unicorn had pulled him into a chaotic sub-dimension, isolated from most of his power. And she was evading every single spell he used with her chaotic teleportation. And even though he was already trying to unravel the magic powering that dimension, he wasn't having much luck, chaos magic was difficult to deal with even in the best of cases, and this was far from it. And the last source of anger?

The purple unicorn kept talking nonstop.

"And that is the nature of this world. The result of thousands of hours of effort in trying to mix spatial and chaos magic. But even with that, I wouldn't be able to fuel this world without having trained my magic capacity via..."

Even spells capable of hitting the entire limited space they were in didn't work. She just made the red matter of the walls flow over herself as a shield.

He just needed a little more time to finish a spell to prevent her teleportation from working. He knew enough about chaos magic to do it...

-

One of the most useful parts of the chaos magic was that, while effects needed to be paid in equivalent energy, she could choose which effect to pay for. As such, while dodging all of Sombra's varied spells and attacks would usually take a lot of energy, since she was only doing it to keep making her speech, without attacking or charging any other magic, the cost was pretty much non-existent, as it was following the effect of "continue making speech".

Considering how much mana it took just to keep her Sidestep going, this was a relief.

Still, Sombra was a centuries old threat and a masterful mage. She wasn't that surprised when he managed to stop her flashes.

She immediately stopped her speech (she had already said all she wanted, anyway) and focused in controlling the Red Matter. She sent a wave of sharp tendrils into the opponent, who, surprised by the sudden shift from defense into attack, almost didn't get his shields up in time. However, he then retaliated with a homing blast, that Twilight blocked by bringing up a barrier of Red Matter, then she started skating and surfing all around the space (even on the walls and ceiling) via a controlled wave of Red Matter. All while sending multiple types of attacks at Sombra from all directions.

Suddenly, she felt him creating a magic formation, and had to blast it with chaotic magic to prevent it from activating. Sombra was adapting, and she tried to channel Sunset, increasing the rate and power of her attacks to give Sombra less of an opening to counter. He also started teleporting around the space and using varied attacks, having adapted remarkably quickly to the unique conditions of the Sidestep.

The battle had gone 3D, and Twilight felt her careful control of the Red Matter start to slip, as the strain of so many spells in a draining situation took its toll on her. The Red Matter started acting more and more wildly, thrashing all around, while the tendrils, barriers and etc that Twilight created started taking on weirder and sharper forms, almost seeming to come alive. Even surprising the Unicorn Warlock.

Then Twilight realized, that since Sombra was the only pony in range, she didn't really have to restrain herself so much. She could indulge in some of her deeper urges...

Her manipulations lost all semblance of control, the whole small world seeming to become thousands of ever-changing creatures, some coating Twilight in a chimeric, shapeshifting barrier that ate all magic nearby, and some pursuing Sombra in a whirlwind of claws, teeth and weird appendages, seeking to rip him apart. As for Twilight herself?

"HAHAHAHAHAHA!" She cackled. Her eyes adopting a disturbing shine that seemed completely at home in this monstrous envinronment.

It had been a while since she had so much fun.

-

Sunset, Trixie admitted, was a really great dancer. That was why she could teach them, after all.

That was half of what allowed them to stay ahead of the incredible onslaught of attacks Nightmare Moon was sending their way. The other half being the amazing combinations of illusions and brute force attacks the two of them could use.

The battle moved all over the castle, and every part they went through was completely levelled. In fact, that was part of what they were trying to do in the battle as well, denying Sombra the magical resources he could get from the castle. It took a few minutes, but the battle managed to completely destroy the castle, with magic deflections, last-minute teleportations and convincing illusions all playing a part in causing Nightmare Moon's own attacks to cause the most damage to the envinronment.

And even with this, Trixie sighed in her head, the barrier was still standing. It looked like Sombra himself really was the anchor of the spell. So much for the easy solution of getting Celestia to come and help hold her sister down while they did their job.

It was all up to them.

She communicated the plan to Sunset with a long-suffering glance and was answered with an eager grin. She took over their defense completely, weaving complex illusions and telepoting at high speed as Sunset prepared the spell that would be the key to their strategy. And she had to purposedly allow NM to have a free shot that was only dodged by a hair, just to put her in the perfect position when Sunset finally unleashed her magic.

"Multiplicity Magic: Solar Chains!" And the sixteen magic circles she had set up in the last two minutes all glowed, forming an even bigger circle and releasing huge yellow-orange chains that actually managed to hold onto her.

Sunset immediately threw Trixie at the sky, and the showmare did two spells at high speed while the Nightmare was distracted, one to put an illusory version of herself at Sunset's side and one to hide her own body as she flew up into the air and over the alicorn.

Nightmare Moon exploded with power, managing to shatter the chains, but necessarily reducing her defenses to the minimum, which was when Sunset's prepared spell hit her, destroying the rest of her defenses and stunning her for a brief moment.

And at that moment, Trixie landed on her back an activated the prepared spell on her necklace, ready ever since two days before:

"NIRVANA REBIRTH!" And directed the spell precisely into Nightmare Moon's head.

-

Sombra had many preparations in case someone tried to free his servant, the worst of which were spells that would destroy her mind if it seemed she was being released.

Nirvana Rebirth got around and then broke those spells by the simple expedient of destroying Luna's mind first.

For a small, terrifying moment, Luna felt herself empty of all experiences and thoughts, but then the second part of the spell kicked in.

Feeling a call to her soul, Luna re-experienced her entire life. Somehow both at an accelerated pace and redoing every experience in full fidelity.

When she finally got to the present, Luna collapsed to the ground, her dark magic bleeding off of her in a fast stream.

-

Trixie wasn't completely surprised when Sombra exploded out of the empty space with a shout of rage, but she did relax slightly when Twilight shimmered into view beside her, looking somewhat wild eyed, but no worse for wear. Sombra grabbed the unconscious Luna with his telekinesis and made an ultimatum:

"Surrender, or I will kill her!" He said, with a voice full of anger.

The three shared a glance that communicated much. If their special glance-based languaged were to be translated, this glance would be found to contain the following conversation:

(Sunset: That's a bluff, isn't it?
Trixie: More or less. He seems angry enough to do it, but it's not that easy to kill even an weakened Alicorn, he's trying something else.
Twilight: He must be planning to use our hesitation as an opportunity to gather power.
Sunset: Then, we don't hesitate, let's save Luna and get him with a Twin Annihilation.
Trixie: He's mobile enough to be able to dodge it. So Twilight will need to hold him down for it.
Sunset: But then it won't be a real Twin Annihilation...
Twilight: I'll see what I can do. Let's show this bastard [untranslatable glance-based pun])

And Sunset took a step forwards and started charging a spell, attracting Sombra's attention.

Trixie used the distraction to quickly charge her own spell, and sent it camouflaged on the waves of the power Sunset was emitting. The spell exploded right next to Sombra's horn, distracting him from his telekinesis spell (but not harming him, a spell powerful enough to do that wouldn't be able to be camouflaged). Twilight did her part creating a hole right underneath Luna, who dropped inside it and ended up behind the three unicorns.

"You..." Sombra started, but Sunset choose that moment to let a small bit of power from her charging escape, distracting him again. Because she was really charging a lot of power.

Trixie used the distraction to charge up her own spell, which was quick since she hadn't used a lot of power on her spell.

"A perfect illusion fools the world itself..." She did her chant.

"Perfect Illusion: Magic Circle!" And casted her spell.

There are spells so complicated they can't be used without special preparations even by the most talented of mages. Magic circles are frequently used to cast those spells, since they can hold the "spell script" and even help gather the power needed from the envinronment.

Trixie's spell circle was good enough to hold such a spell script and gather magic from the world, even though it was just an illusion. It was a very special spell.

However, her spell circle couldn't complete the spell, since it wasn't real enough to serve as an anchor.

"OVERDRIVE!" Sunset didn't care about that.

Trixie released the thread of the spell, allowing Sunset to take it over.

"May the righteous fury of the sun descend...

"Magic Enhance: Solar Annihilation!"

In the instant before the spell would have failed due to the lack of an anchor, Sunset enhanced it, becoming that anchor.

That was a spell complicated and powerful enough that Sunset could not cast it normally.

It was enhanced further.

A mini-sun appeared in between them and Sombra. Even with Sunset directing most of the heat towards him, it was almost unbearable for the three. And the warlock made to teleport and evade the attack.

Twilight prepared to release the spell she was charging, but then Sombra was hit by a massive lightning bolt, courtesy of a pegasus that suddenly appeared in the sky.

Trixie smirked. The last of Luna's avatars, now just as free of corruption as her, and completely uninjured, had appeared. She had wondered about it when Nightmare Moon didn't call the avatar to herself during their battle.

Sombra's automatic defenses managed to keep him from frying, but he couldn't dodge as the sun was thrown at him.

That was when the extent of his preparation became apparent. He summoned countless jewels, and drew power from them and the land. He cast countless pre-prepared protection spells, and poured every scrap of power he could muster into them. Countless layers of defense manifested themselves in the moment before impact.

The shields resisted the power of the sun for one, two, three seconds.

But there was a limit to how much power he could draw on such short notice. The shields broke, and the rest of the power of the spell hit him.

And yet the warlock was still standing when the spell ran out. He raised his jewels, resolving to use everything to destroy his opponents.

But the fight was already over. Twin Annihilation was one of the ultimate combination attacks the three had worked out, one with each of them in the lead.

And Twilight could do her part in the attack, since she hadn't needed to waste her magic holding Sombra. She dropped the spell structure, while keeping the charged energy.

It was good, since the alternative would be Trixie and Twilight overdriving a lot more than recommended to defeat him before he overwhelmed them.

Speaking of that...

"OVERDRIVE!" Twilight did enough of an Overdrive to obtain the necessary energy fast enough that Sombra couldn't stop her.

"Cause and effect shift under my command...

"Causality Sign: Double Effect!" And Twilight performed the last spell of the fight.

And before Trixie's eyes, the ultimate form of Twilight's chaos magic was realized: Conceptual Manipulation. And Sombra was hit with the same amount of energy that went through his shields in the previous attack.

"AAAAARRRRRRGH!!!" His scream was deafening.

"COMBINATION ATTACK: TWIN ANNIHILATION!" The three announced as loud as they could.

Sombra's last resistance was broken and his body was utterly consumed by the solar flames.

This was confirmed by the barrier breaking and letting the sun shine down into that region with no hindrances for the first time in years.

Twilight and Sunset fell down unconscious.

Trixie watched as the pegasus avatar flew over to Luna, and helped her stand. Her attention was then taken by the appearance of Princess Celestia.

Trixie did a small head bow (she was too tired for anything else) and Celestia said:

"My faithful apprentice, it's good to see you've been sucessful. How are your partners?"

"They didn't Overdrive that much, so it's fine. Sunset should be waking up any moment now, and Twilight in two minutes. Now if you'll excuse me. I need to lay down for a bit."

And Trixie proceeded to do so. To the amusement of her teacher.

-

Celestia approached her sister with joy in her heart. But Luna spoke before she could.

"Sister... I'm sorry... The darkness... It's my fault..." She had tears in her eyes.

Celestia didn't let her go any further, and wrapped her in a hug.

"Enough, sister. You can think about that later. You can atone later. For now, I just want to enjoy having my sister back."

And Luna started to cry, hugging the sister she had been separated from for so long.

Proclaiming the Knights

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There was a large crowd of ponies present to watch this historical moment. For the first time in centuries, there will be new Knights of the Realm on the lands of Equestria. Sunset, Trixie, Twilight and Celestia were on stage, the first three doing only an extremely casual bow, to represent their elevated status as heroines.

On the front of the crowd, the ponies closest to the stage were very significant: Ranger Time and the rest of the town ponies, plus the guards and their families, who were very grateful to the apprentices of Celestia for saving them.

And Speaking of Celestia, she was obviously the one who had the duty of making the speech and officially proclaiming the three as Knights.

"My faithful little ponies... I have watched you grow for the last ten years, and I could see the effort you have made, the tests you have passed and your dedication to the cause of good.

"And yet, I have never been as proud of you as I am now. You have managed to rescue every single pony who had been suffering under the hoof of Sombra, the civillians, the guards and even my own sister.

"Your feats of heroism and magic are some who will be talked about for eras, and I have no doubt that this is only the beginning of a whole series of grand tales, as you protect this realm from threats.

"As such, it is my honor and pleasure to proclaim you three as Knights of the Realm, great heroines of Equestria!"

Celestia floated three silver tiaras into the heads of her three apprentices, and the crowd went wild, as the three waved at them, now officially Knights.

After the noise died down, Celestia began talking again.

"Since the position of Knight means the greatest duty in the world, it also brings with it some privileges.

"First, you may choose any official title to be designated by, so long as it doesn't encroach upon existing titles.

"Second, you will have absolute adminitrative authority anywhere in Equestria while in a mission, in order to make it easier for missions to be completed.

"Third, you are now second only to the alicorn royalty of Equestria in terms of social status. The nobility will have to act respectfully towards you, and not vice-versa.

"There's a few other things, but those are the most important for now. And it falls to me to end this ceremony, and start the celebration!"

The crowd went wild again, and the party started. Celestia looked at her apprentices, the guests of honor, blending in with the partying ponies in their own individual ways (Trixie, by doing another epic recitation of the adventure, Twilight by dancing with dozens of ponies at once via her clones and Sunset by going on stage and singing, showing her skills). She thought that whole thing made the situation of the previous day almost worth it.

Almost.

-

1 Day Earlier

Luna approached her sister, with a somewhat awkward expression. Celestia honestly thought it was better than the guilty expression she had been showing often in the past days.

"Sister?" Luna asked.

"Yes?" Celestia said with a smile.

"I have something to ask about your apprentices."

Oh. The solar alicorn had been afraid of that. She thought of how to explain to her sister how things had gone out of control, how she didn't want to smother their personality, how the three seemed to become even more motivated on preserving their view of the world upon encountering difficulties...

But before she could say anything, Luna continued:

"Can I have their autographs?"

Celestia's thoughts ran to a stop like a meteorite hitting a planet. She answered the only way she was able to:

"What."

"They were so cool!" Luna exclaimed, with literal stars in her eyes "First there was that illusion, and then they started dancing, and..." And Luna continued with a disorganized but still fairly detailed account of her experiences with the trio, her voice becoming more and more excited.

Oh no... It's just like I feared... Celestia thought. They were only the beginning... The madness is spreading...

Celestia maintained her usual smile in front of Luna's enthusiasm, but inside her own head? She was screaming.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

-

It was the day after the proclamation of the new Knights of the Realm. Luna heard a knock in the door to her room.

"You may enter." Luna said, wondering who it was, it didn't seem to be her sister...

She got her answer when the door opened.

"You are Spike, the dragon companion of Twilight Sparkle, aren't you?" She recognized.

"Yes I am, princess Luna." He said, with a certain stiffness.

"What business do you have you me?" She said kindly.

The small dragon took a deep breath and looked at her in the eyes.

"I could never join Twilight and the others on their trainings." He started "First I was too young, then I was too scared. Celestia taught me a few things so I could serve as an assistant but..."

He extended his hand forward.

"After having to stay here while they went in a dangerous mission, I've decided that I am more afraid of not being able to be there for them, than I am of the trainings and the dangers themselves.

"I asked Celestia if she would train me to become a Knight like them, but she said you would be a better choice to help me. Would you do it?"

Luna looked at the dragon and saw the determination in his eyes. She thought of how her sister had raised those great Knights, and she thought of the possibility of them needing help in a mission.

There was no question of her answer. Luna walked over to Spike and put her horn upon him.

"I hereby accept you, Spike, as my apprentice. Under my training, you will become a true and valorous Knight of the Realm!"

A dragon knight would be really cool, after all.

Sombra Arc End

Next: Apprentices Arc

First Night and First Day in Ponyville

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The three Knights got out of the flying carriage.

"So, Ponyville." Sunset said "Seems like a quiet place. Just right for a base of operations where we can relax and recover in between missions."

"And it's really close to Canterlot, too." Twilight said "Princess Celestia did well in choosing it."

The three decided on a place to meet up on the next day, since it was already getting late and they should go get their accomodations set. Then they went their separate ways.

-

Sunset and Twilight left the mayor's office half an hour later, with all the documents necessary to take up habitation on the library. Twilight was somewhat more excited about the idea than Sunset.

"Can you imagine? All those books to organize, and all that time to research!"

"Hmm."

"And it will be the perfect place for me to teach the unicorn foals!"

"Hmm."

"It's sad that Trixie won't be with us like old times, but she really likes that wagon, and we can call her for a sleepover once in a while!"

"Hmm."

"I hope Spike is doing well in his apprenticeship with Princess Luna. Perhaps I should send Teacher a letter asking about it?"

"Hmm."

And that continued until they got to the library.

"Okay. First of all, we need to unpack our bags. And then..." Twilight, who had been looking at one of her checklists, paused when she heard snoring.

Sunset was down on the couch, already asleep.

"Or you might go to sleep and leave everything for me to do..." Twilight sighed, then she smirked and repositioned Sunset at the edge of the couch with her telekinesis before going on her way.

A few minutes later, while she was arranging things on the top floors, she heard a "bam!" sound and grinned.

-

Trixie took only a few minutes to draw the magic circle.

Everyone who knew about magic circles would understand that, while that wasn't particularly exceptional, it was still pretty good, specially considering the level of complexity of that particular circle.

The education of Princess Celestia's students was broad.

After finishing, Trixie took a few moments to relax and return her mind to its best condition. That wasn't actually necessary, but Trixie loved her wagon, and would avoid risking it without reason.

Then, she activated her magic, connecting the magic circle in front of herself with the perfectly equal magic circle that was in Canterlot, under her wagon (already prepared earlier in the day).

It took a few seconds, but the wagon appeared in front of her and Trixie finished the spell, breathing deeply to recover from the exertion before walking inside and closing the door.

-

The next day, Sunset woke up an hour before the scheduled dawn. She did her usual morning routine before leaving the library and concentrating.

She slowly charged her magic, building it up for thirty seconds before activating her spell.

And she teleported straight to Canterlot.

Specifically, it was one of the few locations in Canterlot castle without any anti-teleportation wards, which was specifically created so that Celestia's students could get to the princess quickly.

She trotted along until she got to Celestia, in the same place where she usually raised the sun. The Alicorn smiled at her, and then the two started charging magic.

As the time for dawn got close, they wove their magic power together, and then raised the sun.

Sunset was always humbled by the experience. The sheer power used to move that star was something awe-inspiring, and she was proud of being able to help, even a little. It was a secret dream of hers being powerful enough one day to move the sun all by herself, allowing Celestia to sleep in.

After the spell was complete, she almost dropped in exhaustion. It was the first time since the mission that she had done her job, and it made the fact she wasn't recovered yet painfully clear.

After recovering, she went with the alicorn princess to have breakfast, before saying her farewells and leaving to return to Ponyville.

-

Twilight had already reorganized a lot of the library, that had become a little messy over the time it had not had a dedicated librarian when the time came for her to receive her first student in Ponyville.

"Come in!" She said, upon hearing a knock in the door. A gray unicorn filly came in.

"Hello. Dinky, isn't it?" The filly nodded "You have come at exactly the right time. Come here." She brought Dinky to a small desk in front of a blackboard "You can call me Twilight, or just teacher. Before we start, tell me about every spell you have done in the last few weeks."

The small unicorn was awkward at first, but Twilight was experienced, and soon had Dinky doing a very detailed (if hard to parse) account of her experiences with magic. Then, she was doing basic spells like light and telekinesis in some simple but effective exercises, as Twilight examined Dinky with her own magic to obtain a detailed understanding of her proficiency.

It wasn't a long class, and soon Twilight had sent the filly off and was alone at home again. Sunset was still outside, doing her daily exercises.

The unicorn teacher started to plan the next classes, making several annotations about Dinky's skills and hashing out possible self-study routines in case she had to go on a mission unexpetedly.

Then, it would be back to reorganizing.

-

Trixie set up her stage.

In recent years, she had often foregone the physical stage in favor of creating an illusory one, just to show her skill even more and make the show better. However, it would be better for her not to strain herself at that point, so the stage was a necessity.

Still, she put up an illusory sign with a countdown to the start of the show, designed to build up anticipation. And the show would start at three in the afternoon, the best time she had found for a show in a small town like Ponyville.

As the time went on and the countdown passed, she saw many ponies coming and going, and those ponies would spread news about the show until the time came.

The crowd that gathered as the countdown came closer and closer to the end gave Trixie a smile. This would be her first show as an official Knight, and having it be in a small town with a limited audience gave the show itself an air of exclusiveness that she liked.

Eventually, the countdown reached zero, and the conversations around the public were reduced to almost nothing. Trixie took a step forward and began her show.

"This is a story that began a thousand years ago, with two sisters who ruled over the night and day." She showed illusions representing the two alicorns.

"This is also a story of three fillies who dreamed of defending their land and fighting for good." She showed illusions of three very specific cutie marks spinning around each other.

"And this is a story about a great villain and his schemes over the ages." She showed a menacing silhouette of warlock Sombra.

"Ever since that villain came into being, many heroes rose up to fight against him." Lights appeared in front of Sombra "Most recently, one great heoine managed to rescue the people he had been ruling for generations." One of the lights shined brighter, revealing the cutie mark of a crystal heart.

"But one of his biggest victims was still trapped even after that." And the lights disappeared, giving place to an image of the alicorn of the night, chained in a connection with Sombra. Then, the two disappeared, replaced by an image of the alicorn of the day and the three cutie marks of her apprentices.

"However, her sister had a plan, and she raised those three fillies into becoming something beyond simple heroes. Into inheriting a legacy that had not been seen on Equestria since ancient times."

And the alicorn silhuette disappeared, while the cutie marks turned into the silhuettes of the unicorn mares "The legacy... of the Knights."

She waited for a moment, letting that introduction sink in. Then it was time to start the real show. She charged up a more complex and powerful illusion, and covered the stage and audience in a replica of the dark dome of Sombra's territory.

"Sombra had taken over an entire region of our land, and condemned all the inhabittants to a life of slavery inside a prison of darkness, where there weren't many differences between night and day." Illusions of a guard company, with their features obscured, ran above the crowd of ponies, before being caught in chains of darkness "Even the guards sent to try and save them ended up as prisoners."

Soon, the illusions started getting more elaborate. An image of the castle with Sombra overlooking the region from there, Nightmare Moon flying around in the air, while the guards were moving robotically further down.

"Of course, heroes appeared to oppose Sombra and find ways to free the people." The silhouette of a certain resistance leader appeared, moving behind the guards stealthily "And when the Knight candidates came for their mission, they teamed up with those heroes of circunstance." Then, illusory versions of the three apprentices of Celestia appeared and moved together with everything else.

Trixie proceeded to tell about the battle with the unicorn avatar of Nightmare Moon, and the subsequent trap they fell into "But even after escaping the trap, they were not out of danger, for the mind-controlled alicorn was ready to destroy the intruders. Sunset had to be carried away by Twilight, while the great Trixie distracted the opponent!" As she said that, she started a battle with the illusion of Nightmare Moon, warping the stage herself with magic to present the reality of the alicorn's attacks.

She maintained her illusion and battle while also showing the battle against the second avatar "And it was then that Nightmare Moon discovered she had been fighting an illusion all along!" The Trixie on stage disappeared, elliciting awe from the spectators, as she had seamlessly teleported and replaced herself with an illusion previously.

She reappeared together with the illusions of the other apprentices and proceeded to perform and narrate the battle with the guards and the following attack on the very structure of the castle, as well as the appearance of Sombra himself on the battlefield.

"And Twilight managed to drag Sombra into a chaotic subworld, where he wouldn't be able to interfere with our attempts at saving his last prisoner." She then recreated the battlefield, an entire illusionary castle which was see-through, as well as the silhouettes of Sombra and Twilight, having their own battle in a separate world "And thus began our dance of battle, as we made sure that no part of the castle would survive intact!" The battle proceeded, with the castle illusions being destroyed little by little, and Trixie and the illusions moving everywhere, even among the crowd, including the public in the spectacle.

And once in a while, Trixie and most of the illusions turned into silhouettes, as she showed the battle between Sombra and Twilight with more detail, including how the very space in which they were fighting began to warp.

"And Luna was finally free, but Sombra wouldn't allow us to win so easily, and started gathering all the magic he could while holding her as a hostage." She then showed and narrated the maneuver used to save Luna from his grasp "And to finish him off, we joined our powers together in combination: Trixie's illusion magic circle created a spell, Sunset's enhancement made it stronger, and when the Warlock managed to survive even the sheer power of the Sun of Annihilation, Twilight warped causality itself, to cause the attack to take effect again." She showed a less graphic version of the destruction of Sombra, since there were children present.

"And with Sombra dead, light could finally shine again!" And the grand finale, she unmade the dome of darkness and created an illusion reproducing the monumental change from night to day, before letting the sun go out to reveal it was just an illusion, and the real sun was currently behind a cloud (weather magic).

Trixie was hit by the deafening noise of the applause, and gave her thanks to the audience.

It was good to be back.

-

Sunset was doing what she would classify as "light exercise". She knew very well that most ponies, and even her fellow Knights would disagree with that assessment, and the only ones who would agree would be some extreme athletes.

She was galloping around the town with weights strapped on her back. Once in a while, she would stop to do a few sets of core exercises, while at the same time practicing her spells and quick-casting. It was a routine created to maintain her body in perfect condition, as her fighting style involved physical combat to a much greater degree than the styles of her partners.

Still, it was much less than what she usually did. It wouldn't do to strain herself before she recovered after all.

Sunset stopped to drink some water and caught a glimpse of a pegasus doing a similar exercise routine in the sky.

She approved of what she saw. It was clear that mare understood about exercise methods, and was dedicated enough to work up to that level.

Sunset took an extra moment to return her breathing to normal and went back to her exercise.

-

It was lunch time and Twilight decided to eat out. She ended up in a store called Sugarcube Corner.

She went to the counter, which was manned by a pink earth pony mare.

"Hello. Good afternoon." She said "Can I have two strawberry cupcakes?"

"Sure, that'll be ten bits." The pink pony answered, extending her hoof to get the cupcakes on the other side of the store "Oh, you're Twilight, one of the knights, aren't you?"

"Yes." Twilight said, as she paid the bill and went to sit on one of the tables "How did you know?"

"I was on Trixie's show and she made illusions of the others." The earth pony said, her smile broadening on thinking of the show "You were the one who could do all the weird things!"

"Weird things? I guess you could say tha- wait a minute..." Twilight looked straight at the cashier "Did you just warp space to get the cupcakes? Was that chaos magic?"

"Chaos magic? I don't know, I just reached for it?" The pink mare seemed honestly unsure.

Twilight got up and walked back to the counter, the cupcakes held in telekinesis above her head "Oh, that is just amazing! You... I mean, what is your name?" Twilight blushed, having finally remembered her manners.

"I'm Pinkie Pie. Nice to meet you!" She did a little spin and a nod.

"Nice to meet you too." Twilight couldn't help but smile "But back to our conversation. It's the first time I've found somepony else who had chaos magic."

"Really?" Pinkie tilted her head.

"Yes. I had to work out entirely based on old tales and Celestia's recollections of having met others." Twilight put a hoof in her chin "Could you tell me about what you can do?"

And thus the conversation entered high gear. Twilight almost forgot to eat as the two compared their respective abilities, with Twilight being interested on the Pinkie Sense while Pinkie thought being able to make clones would be cool. But soon the unicorn realized there was a lot of untapped potential on the pink earth pony, and her will as a teacher made Twilight unwilling to leave things like that.

"Hey, Pinkie, want to learn something cool?" She said casually.

"What do you mean?"

"Could you try putting your hooves in two places at once to open a path between them like it's a door?" It was still a casual request, even though most ponies probably wouldn't even understand what she was saying.

"You mean... like this?" And as she moved her hooves, a door in space in between two separate points of the store was created "Cool." Pinkie said.

"And the best part is that anyone can go through it." Twilight said, using a spell to close the spatial door "How about you become my apprentice? There's so many things you can learn!"

"Apprentice?" Pinkie blinked "But I'm not a unicorn."

"But you have chaos magic like me. And there's a lot of things you would be able to do with adequate instruction. And I could also learn more about my own powers from teaching you." Twilight outlined her reasons, then looked at Pinkie, leaving the decision in her hooves.

The earth pony thought about it for more than a few seconds, before smiling at Twilight "Okay. That seems like fun."

Twilight smiled as well, and the two grasped their hooves together for a moment, to seal the deal "Then, from now on, we shall learn everything we can. First, we need to set up a schedule..."

Looking for Apprentices

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That night, the three Knights were meeting up at the library.

"So, how did your day go?" Twilight asked with an eager smile.

Sunet sensed mischief and Trixie also seemed to but they didn't have any reason to not answer.

"Nothing really special." Sunset said "I went to help raise the sun, did my light exercises to confirm my physical state and thought off a few ideas about new spells to research."

"Trixie's day was magnificent!" The blue unicorn said "She did her first show as a knight and it was a complete success! She's already thinking of the next cities to make shows on."

Twilight nodded with her eyes closed, in a way that had the other two already bracing themselves to what she would do.

"My day was also pretty good." She said, in an entirely too casual way "Did some organization. Opened up a few new research avenues. Got an apprentice. Ate some really good cupcakes... It was really productive."

It took a few seconds for Sunset's mind to process what she had heard, but when it happened...

"Wait, you got an apprentice?!"

"Somepony you can actually teach?" Trixie was just as surprised as Sunset.

"Yup! She's an earth pony that actually managed to develop some sort of premonition abilities even without training." Twilight had a broad smile "I can't wait to see what kinds of things I can teach, and learn from her.

"Ah, and I almost forgot. She wanted to throw a party to welcome us to the town. Could you make some time in the weekend?"

The other two thought a little and answered in the affirmative, before asking for more details about this new development.

So Twilight started talking about how they met, and about how she had already helped her create portals, and the kinds of things she was planning to teach...

And her two partners kept glancing at each other when she wasn't looking, communicating silently.

-

Later on, Twilight had decided to go to sleep early to prepare for the next day, but Trixie and Sunset had important things to talk about.

"We are totally getting apprentices of our own." Sunset said in a tone of voice that made discussion impossible, not that Trixie actually wanted to discuss.

"Yes. It would be a shame if Trixie's magnificent skills in illusion magic were lost to the future generations. Okay, she did record them in scrolls which are now in the secret library, but Trixie still wants to have someone to discuss the finer points of illusions with." Trixie admitted "Also, it would be cool to create an entire legacy of users of Perfect Illusion."

"I don't know about a magic legacy, but creating something like a martial arts school, only for my special combat style... That would be amazing!" Sunset shared Trixie's excitement "I just need to find the perfect student to develop my methods, someone who shares my passion about power!"

"Someone who shares Trixie's attention to detail and understanding of the ways of manipulating perception!" Trixie agreed "Then Trixie'll be able to teach them the finest points of the reality/illusion dychotomy neither of you ever managed to understand." She looked at Sunset.

"And I'll be able to teach them how best to hone their skills towards the ultimate, absolute power neither of you are interested in." sunset looked back "And then we'll see which of us is able to raise the most outstanding disciple."

"We certainly will." Trixie grinned, sure of future victory "We'll need to set up a proper Disciple Competition, with very clear rules." Trixie was already thinking about similar events in the old stories, and ways to manipulate the competition in her own favor.

The two talked for a little while longer before separating, with Trixie going back to her own house to sleep.

-

The next day, Trixie woke up early in order to set things up. She sat herself down in the central plaza of the town and created a very large and exageratedly colorful (even in her own opinion) sign, which contained the message she wanted to send to the nearby ponies:

(THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TRIXIE, MASTER OF ILLUSIONS, KNIGHT OF THE REALM OF EQUESTRIA, FAMOUS SHOWMARE, APPRENTICE OF PRINCESS CELESTIA, DEFEATER OF SOMBRA, SAVIOR OF LUNA AND FUTURE LEGENDARY HEROINE [because the legends are still being written], IS LOOKING FOR AN APPRENTICE TO LEARN THE GREAT AND MYSTERIOUS ART OF ILLUSIONS. THIS IS AN UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY IN HISTORY, FOR THE SECRETS OF THE SECRETIVE ART OF ILLUSIONS ARE ENIGMATIC, AND VERY FEW MASTERS ARE WILLING TO EXPOSE THEIR OWN METHODS. COME AND SEE IF YOU'LL BE THE ONE TO ENTER INTO THIS MARVELOUS WORLD!)

Yes. The message was perfect. All she had to do was wait for the inevitable line up of potential candidates.

Well, people did in fact line up, but things didn't go exactly like she expected.

"Hey, are you going to do another show?"

"Not soon, and the next will probably in another town. Was that the only reason you entered the line?"

-

"Could you do a magic trick?"

"Sure! Here it is:" Trixie made the stallion's horn disappear for a moment "So, are you interested in performing magic tricks?"

"Not really, but thank you."

-

"Do ya think Ah could get a cutie mark in illusions?"

"You never know, try the trick written here and we'll see."

...

"Bummer. No cutie mark."

"How did you set the coin on fire?"

-

"Here, miss Trixie, a package from Manehattan."

"You didn't have to enter the line to bring me a package."

-

"Can you teach me how to read minds?"

"No."

"Ah. Not interested, then."

-

"Could you make me beautiful for my date tonight?"

"Trixie thinks you should go to the spa instead."

-

And it just went on and on.

Trixie was getting tired.

-

Twilight and Pinkie Pie were in the library for the first lesson of the latter's apprenticeship.

"Right." Twiight started after the two of them had gotten confortable in their chairs "The very first thing to think about when you have an affinity for chaos is just how much control you can afford to lose."

"Lose... Control?" Pinkie seemed curious and... somewhat scared. Twilight was already predicting her answer.

"Chaos magic is naurally wild and can be used more easily when the user doesn't have complete control of their own actions. Letting your restraints slip and your hidden side come to the surface gives you a boost." Them Twilight looked at Pinkie with what she imagined was the same kind eyes Celestia had when she explained it to her "So, you need to understand what you would do without control, and if you should use it or not, and when."

Pinkie was silent and hesitated for several seconds, but Twilight simply waited until she was ready.

"I just... I just can't." The pink mare said, looking down "I can't lose control at all."

"Then it's decided." Twilight answered simply, causing Pinkie to look at her in wonder "This is something only ourselves can decide. Chaos is a dangerous form of magic that needs to be used responsibly. If you don't think you should release the restraints, then no one else can force you to. That just means you have one less potential source of power."

"Ahhh... That's good then." Pinkie's mood had already recovered "What other sources of power are there?"

"Many, many others. So many I can't really explain them because it would take too long and ruin the schedule I prepared for this class." Twilight showed a piece of paper held in her telekinesis "But absorbing energy from the envinronment is a common one, and you can also try to use more of the energy of your soul via special methods. Of course, each method is very personal and I would only be able to guide you towards them, not actually teach you how to do stuff."

"Is power really important?" Pinkie asked.

Twilight giggled "Don't let Sunset hear you asking that. But you've actually hit the nail right in the head. While you need power to do anything, there are many ways to do great things by using less power. Chaos magic is full of workarounds." Twilight lectured.

"That makes sense, I've done things like that."

"I'm sure you have. Chaos magic is pretty instinctive. But let's go to the next topic of discussion: Desires, hopes and dreams." Twilight smiled slightly.

"I love talking about this!" Pinkie jumped in place, staying frozen in the air for a bit and smiling at Twilight.

"Right." Twilight cleared her throat "The main thing to understand is that every magic, not only chaos magic, depends on what kind of pony you are, what is important to you. It's only that Chaos magic is affected by this most directly. In my case, I love learning, I wish to be a Knight that protects Equestria and I value my friends the most. Those are the things I would consider the most central to myself."

"For me..." Pinkie thought for a bit "I love my family and I love making other ponies happy. My wish is that every pony, minotaur, yak, donkey and all others in the world be able to smile." She said, looking into the distance in thought.

"Understanding yourself is the first step, and it will help in making your magic manifest more easily." Twilight then brought out a small book titled Basic Calculus "And the last thing we will need to focus on is Math."

Pinkie froze in place, as she had been in the middle of a movement, this left her in a very awkward position. Twilight simply waited for the earth pony to recover.

Pinkie, with the rest of her body still frozen, moved her head in a particularly jerky manner, like she was a robot whose joints needed to be oiled. She then opened her mind and spoke with a hoarse voice "What? Why?"

Twilight explained patiently "One of the most important aspects to chaos magic is a sense of timing. Even while just relaxing, I'm still aware of time to the tenths of a second, and while doing difficult spells, I start counting time in terms of hundreths of a second, or even faster. This kind of sense of time is ncessary to be able to use chaos magic perfectly. That is the first reason. The second reason is that understanding numbers, it becomes easier to understand underlying reality, so that you can understand all kinds of knacks to warp it. You don't need to in order to use chaos magic, but it simply makes things a lot easier and more convenient. So, I'm going to have to ask that you study this book in between classes."

Pinkie looked at her in absolute horror.

-

From all the legends she had read, Sunset was sure of one thing above anything else. The fact that there were heroes all around the land, hiding within the populace, just waiting for the chance to prove themselves and burst into history.

In that case, all that she had to do was give them a chance to prove themselves, a chance to show what they were made off, and what better than a challenge to do that?

AS such, Sunset spent the day walking around Ponyville, holding a sign that said:

(DO YOU WANT TO PROVE YOUR STRENGTH? DO YOU WANT TO PROVE YOU WILL AND CAPACITY TO BE A HERO? KNIGHT OF THE REALM SUNSET SHIMMER CHALLENGES EVERYPONY TO TRY AND RESIST ONE OF HER SPELLS WITHOUT MOVING. WHO WILL TAKE THE CHALLENGE?)

It didn't take long for a pony to take the challenge, a green earth pony stallion with a red mane. But the result...

"Force Push!" Sunset shouted, creating a wave of force that threw the poor pony twenty meters away.

"Ah... It seems like I may have overdone it slightly." Sunset said embarassed, and galloped after the stallion to see if he needed help, while the ponies around looked at her in utter horror.

After that, ponies were very reluctant to try their luck against the Knight. She was still sure she would find somepony who would be able to surpass the challenge, but that certainty...

-

"Argh!" A muscular pegasus screamed as a gravity spell brought him crashing into the ground.

-

"No no no! I give!" A lilac unicorn mare surrendered easily after beginning to get overwhelmed in the magical hoof wrestling match.

-

Slowly started to slip away...

Sunset didn't really expect anypony to be able to resist the force of her spells. She was the strongest unicorn in Equestria, and a specialist in pure power. But what she really wanted was for one of the challengers to actually come back and face her again despite being outmatched.

At least this much will was necessary to become her apprentice. The same kind of will that creates heroes.

It was then that Sunset realized what she was doing wrong. Heroes appear when necessary, when the situation forces normal ponies into going above and beyond what could be expected of them. Her challenge wasn't important enough for that, since it was just a way to demonstrate strength.

The unicorn Knight burned her sign with a fireball spell and started to trot back home, in a bad mood.

It seemed like she would need to think more about that.

-

That night, the three Knights met back up on the library again, and Twilight listened closely as Trixie and Sunset explained they had tried to find apprentices of their own and failed.

"And I understood that it's hard to find hero-level ponies without having the benefit of a dangerouus situation where their qualities can shine through." Sunset finished her story with that.

"In Trixie's case, it's just that she didn't realize how hard it is to find ponies with the right specialty in such a small place. It was practically a miracle that you managed it." Trixie said.

The two of them were in a bad mood, so Twilight decided the best thing to do would be to make them think about something else.

"Okay. You two didn't manage to do what you wanted today, and will need to rethink your approaches... But brooding about it won't solve anything." Twilight waited a bit, as the two slowly considered her words "And by the way, we should be completely recovered in two or three days. So it would be best for us to start planning our new team training sessions, and thinking about spell research again." Twilight nodded, and the other two became more interested "After all, what have we learned from our first mission that can makes us better Knights?"

That did it. Both Sunset and Trixie had thought about those things for the last days, and really wanted to talk about them.

"Our power still isn't enough. It's good enough for most opponents, but this time our biggest advantage was being able to use Overdrive to charge spells very fast. And this is not the kind of thing we can repeat too often."

"Trixie agrees, but we also need better ways of tracking magic flow and formations so we aren't caught in that kind of trap again. Also, our combination magic was good, so we should try and develop more of it."

"My spells didn't have that much of a direct effect, so I think I should try and develop better offensive spells." Twilight offered "I think perhaps invoking the state of destruction of an object..."

Soon, the three were discussing animatedly all their new ideas and developments, as well as making up new cool arias and chants to use, as well as outlining possible new team attacks.

Twilight smiled upon seeing that the other two had completely forgotten about their earlier bad moods.

Finding Apprentices

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Pinkie tilted her head to the right. Then she tilted her head to the left, so much she became horizontal. Then she jumped to the ceiling and tilted her head upwards (downwards). Then she sat on the floor and crossed her front legs, closing one eye. Then she leaned forwards, opening the eye and closing the other one. Then she grabbed the book she had been looking at and fell backwards, with it open.

The cakes, who had been watching that sequence of actions, finally couldn't stop themselves.

"Pinkie, what are you doing?" Mrs. Cake asked.

The pink earth pony looked at them, then walked over to the two and showed the cover of the book to them.

"You're studying calculus?" Mr. Cake asked "Why?" He said after Pinkie nodded.

"Well, I met that Twilight the Knight yesterday and she said I had the same type of magic that I do and she even taught me something cool I didn't know I could do, so she asked me to be her apprentice and I accepted, but she said I should learn this kinds of things and gave me this book, but I'm not getting what this is all about and I don't want to disapoint her and our first class is today and there's so many things it would be cool to know but I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to understand what she wants to teach and I'm trying to make it fit into my head but nothing is working and..." Pinkie said breathlessly.

"Calm down!" Both Cakes said forcefully.

Pinkie took a deep, deep breath. She held it for long enough that her chest visibly inflated, before letting it out.

"Okay, Pinkie. What exactly are you having trouble with?" Mrs. Cake asked kindly.

"It's just... I know how to do normal calculations, like everything I need to help work the counter and all the little numbers you use when actually baking something. But this... Diferential and Integral stuff... Everything you do needs a bunch of equations and formulas, and even if I look at the examples, I can't actually work out how to do any of the problems. It's just too far out, I can't understand what's supposed to be happening..." Pinkie looked down.

The Cakes looked at each other, then Mrs. Cake took over.

"Pinkie... You said you are going to meet that Twilight today, so why don't you talk with her about it?"

Pinkie looked conflicted "It's just... She gave me this book, saying I should study it 'in between classes', like she expects me to get it easily... And I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint her... I don't want that." She looked down sadly.

That made everything clear. The two more or less understood how Pinkie's mind worked, so they knew what to do in this situation. Mr. Cake was the one to talk.

"Pinkie... Did you say to your teacher that you never had any experience with that?"

"I... No, but..."

"And apparently this involves that magic thing. Isn't it possible that she understood it easily and simply thought you would be the same? Or even, she might have done it this way just to check how well you do without instruction, so she can tailor her classes accordingly." This time it was Mrs. Cake who talked.

"Could be, but..."

"And she is your teacher. You can talk to her about what is giving you trouble and she will help, or even find someone else who can teach it to you. Or some other alternative. If you're not making any progress, the right thing to do is inform her of your problems so that you can work on it together." The mare continued.

"Together..." Pinkie closed her eyes for a moment, and then smiled "You're right! I can't just keep brooding and forcing myself. I'll just wait until our class and talk about it!" Her smiled broadened "Thank you!" She hugged both of them and then left, saying something about going back to work.

The Cakes smiled and went back to their own matters.

-

Trixie had, after a lot of thinking, decided on a new, more subtle strategy. She was going to walk around town under an illusion. And not only that, the illusion would only serve to hide what she was wearing, a particularly ridiculous emsemble including a tutu, a clown horn and a multicolored shirt. This way, if anyone were to see through her illusion, that pony wouldn't be able to resist giving some sign of it. But Trixie thought the chance of that happening was low. More probable would be someone managing to detect the magic emissions of the illusion itself, or realize that her coat wasn't moving or receiving the light quite right. Trixie had purposedly made the illusion less perfect than she was used to, but it would still take someone with talent to detect it.

Trixie went wandering around the city of ponyville without any specific destination in mind.

Well, that was not quite right, Trixie was aiming to be seen by as many ponies as possible, and the places she went were based on this principle. She entered every store she could see, deliberatedly followed concentrations of ponies and kept going back to the main plaza every so often.

It was in one of those visits to the main plaza that she hit paydirt.

There was an orange mare with a blonde mane next to a counter selling apples (just set up, apparently), she was with her back to Trixie, talking with three fillies (one of them being very familiar to the unicorn from the previous day) who then walked off together. Trixie was planning to buy an apple, since she was feeling a little hungry, but as soon as the mare turned to her, her eyes widened and she exclaimed:

"What the hay are ya wearing?!"

-

"Good job!" Twilight praised, and Dinky released her spell, making the small statue fade from the garish blue it had been into its original gray color "With this, your light manipulation spells are doing pretty well." Twilight looked at the clock on the wall "And it looks like we are going to have to end things here."

She helped Dinky collect back her stuff before leaving, and marked the lesson on her checklist, noting that the next lesson planned didn't need adjustment.

The next thing in her schedule was spell development, which she was excited for, because she was getting closer and closer to completion in her current project.

The idea had been born due to the necessity of using more powerful spells easier and faster. Prepared spells had problems in that they were prepared, and as such were rigid and couldn't be easily adapted to the situation, together with the fact that there was a limit to the number of them you could have all at once.

With chaos magic, the first problem could be nullified, which would make the second a non-issue. Chaos magic was naturally the enemy of this kind of rigidity, and the day before, she had managed to fuse two separate spells together to make a new spell with their combined powers, which would be as powerful as their combined energy.

The idea was that she would have two prepared spells, and fuse them together with a new spell done at the time, creating a powerful combined spell that she could turn into whatever effect was needed at the time. The production name was Merged Spell. Both prepared spells would also be weaker than the max she could muster. Not just because it would require less upkeep to maintain them, but also because, even if she could merge the spells, she would never be able to control the resulting energy maelstrom (that was more Sunset's thing).

All that in mind, Twilight spent the next two hours imprinting the prepared spells inside her body. Casting wasn't actually all that slow, despite the fact that she was writing magic circles to perform the spells with the greatest possible precision. What actually ate time was the unicorn trying to stabilize the spells, which was difficult for anyone, but specially someone who had such an unruly type of magic. And stabilized, in this case, meant they were active in ways that wouldn't break containment as long as she gave them maintenance often, and the energy upkeep was low enough that it wouldn't significantly affect her recovery speed.

Reading all that makes it seem complicated, but it was far more complicated than what could be explained here. Prepared spells were already a rather difficult magic even for specialists and without any of the additional complications Twilight had to face.

Still, it was done, and the purple unicorn streched a little. That had been good progress, even if there was still some issues to be worked out. So Twilight decided to go to the kitchen make a lunch.

However, before she could get there, Twilight received a letter.

It was from Spike, and he was just writing to say that everything was okay, that he was making progress under Luna's lessons and that Princess Cadance had come to talk with the night Alicorn a few times and seemed nice.

Twilight smiled, making a note to write back later, and went to the kitchen.

-

Sunset was walking down the streets, lost in thoughts about the best way to try to find somepony to be her apprentice. So she almost didn't react when the blue pegasus landed right in front of her.

She did react, and her aura defense did activate, but since she wasn't in any actual danger, the activation was small and didn't show any visible signs.

"What is it?" Sunset asked, already in serious mode "Is there somepony needing my help?" Because the pegasus had come fast and apparently needed to talk to her, which possibly meant an emergency.

"Nothing so dramatic." The pegasus rubbed her head, apparently embarrased, before looking at her in determination "I heard about your test of strength, and I want to show what I'm made off!"

Sunset blinked, then sighed and prepared a force spell. Upon seeing the pegasus brace herself, she lanched the spell, sending the mare flying.

The unicorn was about to go check on her, when the blue pony got out from her uncontrolled flight and came back to land in front of her.

"Again!" She shouted, hitting her chest with a hoof "I can do it!"

Slightly bemused, Sunset used the spell again. And the result was the same, including the blue mare coming back asking for more. Sunset then started varying the spells, firing off every powerful but non-harmful spell she had in her arsenal, with the pegasus managing to take all of them and keep coming back for more.

Sunset's eye twitched as she continued her barrage of spells. What had that pony been doing on the day before? She then stopped the spells for a moment.

"Hey. What's your name?"

The pegasus took a moment to recover from the sudden change before answering "I'm Rainbow Dash, the most awesome pegasus you'll ever see!"

-

There was only one thing Trixie could do in this situation. She removed her illusions, letting everyone in the plaza see what she was wearing.

"Trixie is wearing thse clothes to show that you can't always trust what you see!" She took a moment to let the ponies around process that, before leaning closer to the earth pony mare and asking:

"What's your name?"

"Applejack." She was nonplussed.

"Okay, Applejack, Trixie'll need to talk to you later, when and where would be a good place?" Trixie didn't let up or give the mare time to recover.

It worked, as Applejack mentioned the Sweet Apple Acres and a time three hours from then. The first part of Trixie's challenge was complete, and she decided to turn her discovery into an improptu show, manipulating her own clothes and those of volunteers with illusions (including touch based illusions) while moving through the plaza.

It was fun while it lasted, but eventually Trixie declared the end of the show, took off her costume and teleported it back to her wagon before asking around about where Sweet Apple Acres was. She then sat on a bench to wait until the appointed time, while at the same time thinking about how she would convinve Applejack to become her apprentice, which would be the second and last part of her quest to obtain an apprentice.

She ran several scenarios through her mind during that time.

Eventually, the time came closer, and Trixie trotted to the specified place, not having exactly a plan (as she didn't know enough about her target to make one) but knowing enough about convincing people to make a fair attempt.

She easily found Applejack, who had apparently been waiting for her.

"So, I guess you want to know why Trixie was wearing that getup under illusions and why she called you here?" Trixie asked simply, to make the rest of the conversation flow better, and the earth pony answered with a nod.

"It's simple. Both things are related. Trixie was using that illusion to try to find somepony to be her apprentice. And she called you here to ask you to become that apprentice." Trixie said, looking directly at Applejack's eyes.

"But why?" The mare asked "Ah don't know anything about illusions, and Ah'm not an unicorn."

"You may not use illusions, but you do understand them." Trixie remembered something from one of the stories she had read together with the others "In order to understand truth, it's necessary to understand what illusions are, the same way it's necessary to understand truth in order to create the best illusions." Trixie shook her head slightly "Your Eyes of Truth are a magnificent skill, and helping you take them further is more important than simply teaching somepony how to create illusions." Trixie was absolutely serious.

Applejack was conflicted "Ah-Ah can't. There's always a lot of work to do in the farm and ah wouldn't have time to learn seriously."

Trixie was undeterred "If that's the case, Trixie will help with the farm to give you enough time. This is important enough."

Applejack was clearly taken aback "Ya'd go that far? But... Ah already can see through illusions, so why do you need to train me more?"

Trixie smiled "You may be able to see through normal illusions, but take a look at this!" Trixie charged her magic "Perfect Illusion: Cloak of Light!"

And Trixie disappeared right from under Applejack's eyes.

"What?! How did ya do that?"

"That is an illusion designed to work on a deeper level." Trixie said from the air, before cancelling her spell. Seeing as Applejack still seemed hesitant, she decided to deploy her final argument:

"If your ability turns out to be needed in the future, it would be bad if it wasn't developed enough."

Applejack looked at her, and then made her decision.

"Okay. Ah will learn with ya."

"Trixie will teach you as best as she can."

-

"Okay, Ranbow Dash." Sunset started, deciding to skip any unnecessary talk "I want you to become my apprentice. If you think you're awesome now, you should imagine what you would be capable of under my tutelage."

"Apprentice?" Rainbow Dash could barely believe what she was hearing "As if you're awesome enough to become my master!" Rainbow Dash crossed her front legs.

"Excuse me?" Sunset was almost insulted, it was almost like that pegasus didn't even know who she was "I happen to think being a Knight of the Realm of Equestria is plenty awesome enough for anypony."

"Tch. Okay, that is cool." Dash admitted "But if I become subordinate to somepony, I wanted it be one I respected personally... Like the Wonderbolts!" The blue mare opened her wings wide with a broad smile on her lips "I have seen their stunts and they're awesome! But I didn't see what you three did to save Princess Luna. Maybe you're cool but not awesome, do you get what I mean?" Dash waved her right foreleg in the air, hoping to make herself understood.

Sunset understood perfectly, and that exchange made her certain she wanted that pegasus as an apprentice. She knew exactly what to do "Oh, so you need to see how awesome we are in person, don't you? Then there is only one way. Let's do the reverse of the challenge. You give me your best shot and I won't move an inch."

Rainbow rose to the challenge "Let's do it! I will make you eat those words." She flew into the air, gaining distance for her own attack.

Sunset readied her aura, manifesting it in the most defensive state possible, and cast a few protection spells. It was probably overkill, but she wanted to make a point. Then she felt an immense amount of power coming from the direction Rainbow Dash had flown towards.

Looking there, Sunset could see that the pegasus had created a multi-layer (five or six, it kept shifting) lightning cocoon. And then she flew in Sunset's direction, and from what the unicorn could sense, she was dragging literal tons of air along.

It seemed like the Knight would need to get serious.

"THUNDEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEER..." Rainbow Dash called, as she got closer and closer.

Sunset used five different anchoring spells, then used the three strongest shield spells she could get up in the time remaining.

"DASH!" And contact was made.

In the brief moment of impact, Sunset felt like she was being hit with a mountain. A mountain covered in lightning.

Then, she was immediately assaulted by the feedback of her three shield spells breaking like so much glass. The unicorn poured every scrap of magic power she had access to into her aura defenses, and held on to the anchoring spells with pure will.

After an interminable period of time (two seconds), the attack finally ended, and she saw Rainbow Dash dropping right in front of her.

The pegasus raised her head, and Sunset spoke with a shaky voice:

"See... I didn't even move an inch."

Rainbow's voice as just as shaky.

"Okay... I will admit that you are awesome..."

Sunset sat down and the two of them waited for their bodies to recover from the exertion. Sunset was cringing, thinking of what Twilight would do when she saw her friend had gone against doctor's instructions.

(The ponies who had witnessed that tremendous magical clash vacated the premises, seeing that the show was over.)

A few minutes later, the two were recovered enough to talk seriously.

"You are awesome indeed, but..." Rainbow Dash started. Sunset only barely stopped herself from yelling 'oh, come on!' "Are you sure you can help me? After all, you are not a pegasus."

Sunset sighed "The learnings of the Knights of the Realm are wide." She pointed her hoof at the pegasus "And I'll show you. Start flying around in a circle."

Dash complied, curious, and Sunset used a spell.

Instantly, Dash's speed doubled, and she felt incredibly light and strong, but it only lasted for a few seconds. The pegasus flew back down to Sunset.

"Right. That is cool, but it's still an unicorn spell."

"Indeed." Sunset admitted "But I used this specific spell because it was originally invented based on a pegasus method of magic control."

"Seriously?" Rainbow Dash asked, excited.

"Yes. And it's those kinds of things I can teach you. I can assure you that Rainbow Dash the pegasus will become much more awesome if you accept." Sunset was tired, but she put all her remaining ability to convince into those words.

Rainbow Dash finally caved "Okay. I will study under you. I want to become the most awesome pegasus possible before entering the Wonderbolts."

Sunset smiled, then imagined Rainbow Dash rising on the ranks of the Wonderbolts and passing down her own way of doing things. This made her smile even wider.

Two More Apprentices

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Trixie, as one of the Knights of the Realm who had been trained (and trained herself) for the position for years, naturally had a quite good situational awareness most of the time. However, walking back to her wagon after speaking with Applejack was quite a special case. Trixie was currently recovering from a mission in a safe space, she had also gotten tired from the effort of trying to convince Applejack (which was mostly keeping her composure and not allowing cracks in her determination to appear) as well as using a somewhat powerful illusion, and finally, she was relieved from actually suceeding in her objective. All that could explain why she ended up tripping and falling into a mudpool as she was walking back.

"Argh!" Trixie said, getting up "Trixie is filthy!"

She immediately got out of the pool and started using spells to clean herself off, but after getting rid of the excess, Trixie got an idea.

"Trixie's seen a spa around here. She could go there to clean this whole thing and relax for a bit."

She nodded to herself, that seemed like a good idea since she didn't have anything else pressing to do.

Now, where was the spa again...? Trixie remembered, and started towards there.

-

Twilight was drinking a cup of coffee as she heard a knock on the door. Pinkie was there.

It didn't take long for the earth pony to be ushered into the house and offered her own cup of coffee. But it was when Twilight asked casually where they should start on the class that the script changed.

"Actually, I have something I need to say to you." Pinkie answered seriously.

"Oh? What?" Twilight inquired.

Pinkie put forward the math book like she was making an offering "I don't understand!"

Twilight took a moment to process what the mare was actually telling her. Then she made the adequate question.

"So... You mean you can't understand anything about the mathematical concepts of diferential and integral?" She asked carefully.

"Yes! That's exactly it! I don't understand!" Pinkie explained animatedly.

"Well..." It was a complicated problem for Twilight, she was a teacher yes, but a teacher of basic magic and didn't have any experience teaching adults, much less teaching math. And it just had always seemed so simple for her...

But before Twilight could finish her ponderings, Pinkie Pie's body suddenly shook, performing a series of localized spasms that were completely non-natural. And after it finished, the mare adopted an expression of horror.

"Was that your Pinkie Sense?" Twilight asked, already focusing for a possible situation.

"Yes! And Fluttershy is in trouble!" Pinkie exclaimed.

"Where do we need to go?" Twilight asked. She would have offered to go by herself, but probably only Pinkie would be able to track the pony in danger.

"Everfree forest. Near the edge. That's all I can tell you." Pinkie said, concentrating hard.

That was enough for now. Twilight charged a teleport and suddenly the library was empty.

-

Sunset got home and opened the door, already in pre-flinch mode. But when she didn't hear Twilight, the unicorn slowly entered the library.

"Twilight, are you here?" She asked in a raised voice.

There was no response, and Sunset relaxed slightly. It seemed like her sentence had been delayed.

-

Trixie quickly got to the spa. She entered the building like a conquering heroine returning from a mission... or at least how the stories said such would enter someplace. Trixie had first hand experience with the fact that conquering heroes usually had to be carried back home after a mission, due to overdoing things, but making an illusion of herself being carried into the spa would send the wrong impression. Trixie simply decided to emulate the stories in this point due to the fact that she didn't want to show any weakness from being dirty. Heroes were inspirations to everypony, after all. It wouldn't do to let a little bit of dirt get her down.

The fact that she had considered all those things while she was walking towards the door was proof that the Knight really were ponies who didn't follow the standard.

Still, going back to the story, Trixie entered the spa and walked towards the reception, and besides the counter pony, there was also another unicorn inside, a white mare with a purple mane and a three diamond cutie mark. The mare noticed her, and ran over.

"Oh dear... What happened to your coat?" She asked, sounding completely horrified.

Trixie knew how to answer that "Even the greatest of heroes are still flawed!" She flipped her hat "Despite all of her skill, not even Trixie is immune to possibly losing focus and tripping into a mudpool." Trixie announced grandly "But Trixie remains unbowed, no matter what harms may befall her!" She reared up on her back legs in a galant pose, before coming back down.

The white unicorn nodded "It is certainly important to remain confident in the face of setbacks, but since you're here, you must be looking for a full treatment to recover from such a dreadful experience." She looked at Trixie in understanding.

"That certainly seems like an attractive idea, though Trixie hopes it won't take too long, she wants to go back home early." The azure unicorn remarked.

"Oh, this may be a problem." The pony on the counter entered the conversation "You see, miss Rarity has made a reserve for a full treatment that will start in five minutes, and considering how long it takes..." She trailed off, seeing as the two customers had understood.

"Oh my, this simply won't do." The white unicorn, Rarity, stated with determination "Vera, my dear, isn't there a special doubles option for the full treatment? Couldn't you change my reserve so that Dame Trixie can share the treatment with me?" She stopped and looked at Trixie "Only if she is okay with it, of course." The unicorn smiled.

Trixie couldn't think of a problem "Trixie is okay with that if it is a possibility."

Vera looked at them "I think it should be alright. We'll have to grab more of the products on short notice, but the day is slow and I can help."

"That is perfect then, thank you darling." Rarity did a perfect high-society style bow.

Trixie paid for her part of the doubles ticket (noting that it was cheaper than a normal ticket) and then Rarity caught her attention.

"I see that you are exactly like the rumors said, and how I expected from that show." She then tilted her head to the right "But could you tell me about your fellow Knights? I want to know more about the newest heroes of Equestria."

The Knight smiled, that mare certainly wanted something, even if her interest seemed casual, still, there was no reason to lose a chance to expand the tales of the Knights further, so she started talking about Twilight's studious nature and Sunset's love of challenges.

Rarity was a good listener, and an engaging conversationalist. They were still talking while receiving the treatment from the spa ponies.

-

The two ponies appeared next to the Everfree forest, and Pinkie ran in, closely followed by Twilight.

Seeing the earth pony running to the rescue, Twilight decided that the first thing she would teach Pinkie Pie would be how to easily use the chaotic movement style. Then, shaking her head while still running, she started casting spells on the path itself, using her chaos magic to examine the route they were taking and also to repel the threats that, while small, would be able to interfere with their ability to proceed with their mission.

Besides that, Twilight was also casting several small protective spells on herself and Pinkie. Subtle things capable of protecting from inhaling dangerous substances, or from being disabled by extreme noises or smells, or even from gaze-based attacks like those from a cockatrice. And that was not even mentioning the more general protections spells against heat, eletricity and normal force.

Twilight Sparkle had researched about every kind of monster and dangerous place she could over her years as Celestia's apprentice, since she knew there was a high possibility that the three would end up going to any of those places and/or fighting any of those creatures. Due to that, she was extremely clear about the dangers of the Everfree forest, from the possibility of monsters like cockatrices and manticores to dangerous plants like the poison joke and the black apple tree. The unicorn knight believed in being prepared, and even though there were always going to be things one couldn't prepare for, there was no reason to not prepare for those you could.

Still, their journey over the relatively small section of the Everfree forest they had to cross was fairly smooth sailing. Which made sense, since she was throwing chaos magic around, and that kind of magic was associated in nature with some of the nastiest and most annoying natural phenomenons in the world, like the endearing mushrooms and the poison joke itself.

Thinking about it, Twilight let a relatively small part of her concentration slip, thinking about all the cool things she could do with her own chaos warped plants. She could carry seeds around which had a variety of effects, and simply make them bloom when necessary to really give her opponents grief. Too bad warping life itself was one of the hardest feats to perform with chaos magic, and was simply too time consuming for her at that point. She could make such cool things were it not the case... Like a flower whose spores could make people tell the truth, so she could extract information from her opponents! Yes, that would be aweso-

Her thoughts were suddenly cut off when she came upon view of the exact problem they were coming to face. It was a group of trees whose branchs were growing and moving recklessly. Their target was a butter yellow pegasus with a pink mane, and the branches had joined up to form a cage around her. A cage that was contantly growing smaller, while extra branches kept attacking the mare and trying to knock her out of the air.

Well, this is something I wasn't prepared for. It looks like some random chaotic effect, even if an effect of this magnitude wasn't supposed to happen so far from the center of the forest, but chaotic magic did often ignore expectations with the glee of a foal with a new toy.

Pinkie then ran in and managed to warp inside the cage, before starting to bash away some of the branches attacking the pegasus (Fluttershy, from what she had said before). Twilight decided that, since she obviously could already do chaotic movements, Pinkie should instead learn to be able to do them freely instead.

The Knight kept moving forward and charged her magic, while being prepared to use a merged spell if it became necessary. It looked like her apprentice was a heroine, and as a Knight of the Realm, she wouldn't allow a heroine to suffer while she was present.

-

"... And that is how we trained our bodies to be able to recover from any type of poison or similar that may affect us. This also made all three of us unable to become drunk, but really, we wouldn't want to anyway. One time Twilight accidentally got drunk due to a training accident and suddenly all three of us had been turned into modern art. Let me tell you, Trixie didn't like being a modern art piece, and judging by the fact that we got an entirely new kilometer deep hole, Sunset didn't like it either.

"Really, it would have been easier to use this kind of body manipulation magic if we were earth ponies or even pegasi, but it still works well." Trixie finished the latest part of her story.

Since she didn't hear any commentary, she opened her eyes to see that not only Rarity, but also both of the spa ponies (Aloe and Lotus, from what Rarity had called them) looked completely horrified.

"What? Is being unable to get drunk such a big deal?" Trixie didn't understand their reaction.

"No Dear, that is not what we are concerned about..." Rarity spoke, having recovered "Instead, it's this ridiculous 'training' you speak off. Causing this kind of painful damage to your own organs... I cannot imagine being able to do such things while being only sixteen..." She seemed somewhat nauseous.

"Oh, that? It was nothing. The real hard training was the will stuff." Trixie assumed a thousand yard stare, and her audience decided they had better not ask.

-

Celestia suddenly got the feeling that putting the three in complete sensorial deprivation for a week had been going too far.

-

Still, Trixie had been completely satisfied with the special treatment given to her by the spa. She would have to return one of those days, maybe she would even make a habit of going there after every mission. She could tell that all that relaxing made her much closer to actually recovering completely.

All good things had to come to an end, though, and eventually their session at the spa was finished. Trixie got back her hat and cape, and Rarity made a small proposal:

"Would you like me to take care of those?" she pointed at Trixie's clothes.

"Take care?"

"I am somewhat of a local specialist in clothing, and I could help with returning your things to a pristine condition." Rarity said with a slight smile.

Trixie looked at her for a few seconds... And then a few more seconds... Eventually Rarity caved.

"Okay. I will admit I am not being completely selfless here. I also want to make a few additions and modifications to your emsemble, because I think it could be made even more fabulous if you had themed additions for special occasions." Rarity put a hoof to the air teatrically "And having one of the Knights wearing one of my pieces would result in such a great exposition of my work!"

Trixie smiled, she actually liked the white unicorn, and felt that it would be interesting to get to know her more. As such...

"Then let's go, I want to see some samples of your work before actually deciding."

Rarity smiled at her, and then led her through the streets until they got to Rarity's boutique.

They got there pretty quick, but there was still enough time for Rarity to talk about many of the ideas she had for possible versions of Trixie's clothes. Though Trixie thought Rarity acted kind of weird when she asked about the best materials and cuts to burn and explode for distractions. Wasn't that one of the most important parts?

Once inside, Rarity began to do her magic, in both senses of the word.

Trixie actually considered it a show. Rariy was manipulating every single fiber in her clothes all at once, making them vibrate to remove every last bit of dirt, patching some parts that had become ragged due to the previous mission and even (after consulting with Trixie to make sure it was okay) removing some long term damage that had been patched wrong over the years. It was truly magnificent.

Rarity gave the cloak and hat back to Trixie, who inspected them. And that was when Trixie became certain of what she had to do.

"Ms. Rarity Belle, I would like to you on as my apprentice." Trixie said politely.

"Huh? What?" The fashionista was stunned "What brought this on?"

Trixie gathered her thoughts for a moment, wondering about how to explain.

"As a mage who seeks the highest peak in the art of illusion, Trixie is always at risk at falling out of line with reality itself." She said in a solemn manner "In order to protect herself from such a fate, Trixie has set up several ways of reminding herself of the real world. The many flaws in my cape and hat were so minute and complex that they were almost impossible for anyone other than me to fully detect or replicate, and Trixie's soul remembers them, so if she tries to do it herself, even unconsciously, it will be immediately detected."

"Really...? But... You said..." Rarity was confused.

"As such, this was something of a test. Trixie wanted to see if you would have the eye for detail needed to fix it. Don't worry, she can put the flaws back easily, it will not be a problem." Trixie flipped her hat and put it back, and did the same with the cape "Trixie is interested in seeing if she can see what pathways your magic will take with some help in developing it. She is sure it will be magnificent." Trixie then looked Rarity in the eyes "Of course, if you don't want to, Trixie would still like to buy some clothes made by you. This kind of talent is rare."

Rarity was almost completely speechless, but she still had a question in mind.

"Weren't you looking for an apprentice to learn illusions? You didn't mention anything about it."

Trixie could understand what she was wondering about.

"Actually, Trixie got another apprentice earlier today. She is an expert in truth, something that is opposite but also complementary to illusions. It's not exactly what Trixie had in mind, but it is a talent she wants to help grow. The same way, you are a talent Trixie wants to see developed, she is sure you would do well with illusions, considering your sense of detail and she may even teach you a thing or two. But your path is different, and Trixie is interested in seeing how it will develop. It is going to be a surprise, but Trixie thinks it will be worth it."

Rarity stopped, she thought, and she decided.

"I will accept to become your apprentice, Dame Trixie."

"Glad to have you."

-

Twilight moved quickly. There was one way to easily reduce the pressure on the two ponies who were inside the cage of brances, and that was to attract the attention of the branches themselves.

Thinking about Trixie, and how she would use such a distraction to great effect, the Knight charged a spell and aimed at the ground.

"Chaos Magic: Earth Shift!" The spell hit the ground and spread out under all the enemy trees. The ground itself started turning to stone.

If there was something trees hated, it was somepony messing with the ground, so Twilight immediately became the target of a prodigious number of branches, removing a lot of the pressure from the pair of ponies.

And that wasn't all, as Pinkie Pie's approach seemed to have revitalized Fluttershy, who started attacking the branches that tried to sneak up on Pinkie from behind.

And suddenly Twilight couldn't look anymore, because the branches were upon her. However, she had begun charging her next spell as soon as the first one completed, and it was already ready.

"Chaos Magic: Black Trap!" And the spell hit most of the branches, but could only affect some of them. It was a high stakes spell, but the results were good enough to justify it.

Because the branches that were affected started to attack and hinder the other branches. Because the spell, at its heart, was based on messing up with friend/foe recognition. Still, even with the effect being more than enough to stop the attack of the branches, Twilight had to go to the next step soon, because the spell also wouldn't last for very long.

Twilight shifted to a new position to the northwest of her previous one, in order to get away from the screen of branches, so that she could see what was the situation with the other two.

The situation hadn't changed in the two and a half seconds she had lost sight of them. They were still managing to hold on and fight against the remaining branches, which meant Twilight had the perfect opportunity to help them escape, while most of the branches were still tied down due to her previous spell.

So, Twilight decided to channel the old saying and fight trees with more trees. The fact that those trees were full of chaos magic actually helped.

"Chaos Magic: Growth Outbreak!" With a blast of magic, she made a three grow inside the cage of branches, separating them with sheer force of growth, and opening a breach.

"Escape through here!" The Knight shouted to them, and started blasting the attacking branches to give the two a chance to escape.

They didn't need to hear it twice, both Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie moved through the opened hole, and Twilight kept the branches off them until they passed her, before following them while still keeping an eye on any possible dangers.

It didn't take long before they got too far for the branches to follow them.

When the trio finally stopped, with Twilight saying the danger had passed (she still kept an eye on the other possible dangers that could appear at any moment in the forest), Fluttershy started breathing heavily from the exertion. Pinkie Pie was better off, but she certainly didn't seem as bouncy and ever-moving as she usually was. This kind of danger situation really took a lot out of ponies who weren't used to it, so Twilight wasn't surprised.

After the pegasus recovered, Twilight decided to try and figure out how things had gotten to that point.

"Hello." She said in a friendly manner "My name is Twilight Sparkle. You are Fluttershy, aren't you?"

The pegasus was somewhat hesitant, but soon answered.

"Yes, I am."

"Okay." Twilight said "So, could you explain what you were doing inside such a dangerous forest?"

"Ah, it's not dangerous at all..." Fluttershy seemed somewhat unconfortable speaking "To me, anyway..." The last words were barely above a whisper.

"Oh, could you explain that?" Twilight asked, noting that Pinkie Pie seemed to be almost vibrating with the need to talk. But she was clearly holding herself back, perhaps understanding that communicating with Fluttershy needed to be done with care.

"It's just... Ms. Zecora told me about the plants I needed to avoid... And to never go in too deep..." Fluttershy seemed to brighten up a little before the next words "And I can talk with the animals."

"Really?" Twilight looked at her cutie mark. That was a rare ability, especially for a pegasus.

"Yeah! Most of the 'dangerous' animals are actually quite nice when you get to know them." Fluttershy nodded confidently (in comparison to her usual), clearly this was a subject close to her heart "And the ones that aren't... Well, we have an understanding." Fluttershy said mysteriously.

"Hmm... I can understand. This kind of event happening so far from the center of the forest is really unlikely." Twilight nodded.

"And I can't talk to plants." The pegasus said sadly.

Twilight somehow didn't like seeing her like that, so her next words were fairly instinctive.

"Would you like to?"

"Eh? What? I..." Fluttershy was confused.

Twilight opened her mouth to say it was nothing, but then she actually thought of it. She thought about Fluttershy's unusual ability, what her words about being able to walk in the forest implied, and how she bravely defended Pinkie Pie when she came to rescue her. She decided to give it a shot.

"Hey Pinkie, what do you think about having a fellow disciple?" She asked the earth pony.

"Yuppers! That would be amazing! You want Fluttershy to be your apprentice?" Pinkie did a hop and supported herself with her front hooves, while keeping her back legs in the air, like she was a circus performer.

"That's right." Then she looked at the pegasus "What do you think? With some instruction from me, you could be able to talk to trees. Do you want to be my apprentice?" She said softly.

"I... I like trees..." Fluttershy said, that seemingly being the only part she could respond to. Twilight was patient and waited for the answer.

"I... I do." Fluttershy finally spoke, seeming to have mustered all her will to do it.

-

Sunset sighed when she heard the door opening and Twilight's voice. She had been tense for so long it had basically already run its course. Twilight's arrival was pretty much a relief by that point. She wasn't even scared anymore.

Sunset walked to the front entrance.

Twilight heard her coming "Sunset, you will not believe what happe-" Then Twilight saw Sunset and immediately realized what had happened "Sunset Shimmer, did you overload your magic again?!"

Oh, now the fear was back. How wonderful.

Those were Sunset's last thoughts as Twilight was advancing upon her.

Interlude: Luna's Confession

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Spike walked to the training ground. One thing that had become completely clear over his apprenticeship with Princess Luna was that she didn't like to be predictable. He could never be sure exactly what kind of training he would be receiving each day. One day, the Princess would put him under extraordinary magical pressure, enough to crack his scales, and order him to fight back with his own soul. Another day, he would sleep and pass through nightmarish trials in the dream world, utterly convinced it was all real until she finally allowed him to wake up. And another day, he would have to deliberatedly try casting spells beyond his own level, under Luna's supervision, in order to improve his magical control and will. The only thing he could be sure of was that the training would be tough, and he would come out of it stronger.

Still, even with that said, he was surprised to reach the scheduled place and not see the night princess. Instead, he saw her pegasus avatar, Lightning Chaser.

The dragon had thought the avatars were weird and puppetlike at first (Luna had quickly recreated Silver Soul and Dark Moon, the avatars who had fallen in battle to the Knight candidates), but Luna had explained that they were actually a lot more lively and free than they seemed, but they still had to recover completely from the influence of the combination of Sombra's mind control, her own use of black magic and simply not being able to actually express themselves for such a long time. Luna even told him that avatars have all the rights of a normal pony (and showed the relevant laws in several books), and she lets them have their own lives with no more interference than a particularly skilled and important royal guard would receive.

"They are part of me, but at the same time are their own ponies. The same way, I am a part of them, separate but connected."

And time showed that she was telling the truth. Silver Soul showed herself to be a jokester who also loved to cook and frequently made weird culinary experiments (there were a lot of new ingredients she didn't know about due to being isolated during Luna's stint as Sombra's slave), Dark Moon actually reminded him of Twilight and the others with her constant bragging about "the powers of darkness", so much that he intended to introduce them to each other and watch the show, and she was also quite smart and liked to tell stories. Lightning Chaser was the one who was most similar to the way they were before, and that was only because of her no-nonsense personality and a sense of duty that reminded Spike of Shining Armor, Twilight's older brother.

"You got here two minutes late." She said "What happened?"

"Erm..." Spike hesitated, she was always pretty hard to speak to "I was studying mystical forms and lost track of time." Then he decided to ask "What happened to Princess Luna?"

"Her meeting in the Crystal Empire has finally been set, and she had gone there." The pegasus said without much of an inflexion.

"Ah." Spike knew what that was about, so... "What is going to be the training today?"

"You need to be pushed harder in order to truly tap into your potential powers as a dragon. So, today we will be fighting seriously." That said, Lightning started to gather her namesake around herself, charging her own fur to the point where she began to glow.

Spike knew there was nothing else to say, and didn't want to be simply blasted while trying to talk, so he put his left arm up and tried to summon whatever energy he could muster in order to at least not lose too quickly.

The avatar charged like a bolt of lightning, and then the dragon was too busy trying to keep himself conscious to think about anything else.

-

The expression overcapacity is frequently used for situations in which an event venue contains more ponies than its specifications were supposed to allow. This word could technically be used to describe the state of the commercial plaza of the Crystal Empire, in front of the stage that had been erected there, however, it didn't seem entirely adequate. Perhaps if a few other adjectives including the word "over" were added it would represent things better, like overburdened, overloaded and overkill. But even then, perhaps you would need to add another adjective that doesn't quite fit but gives the right impression, like overemcumbered.

The only ponies who had more than the explicit minimum of space to themselves were the foals, mostly due to riding on their parent's backs. Even with the high number of multistage stands that had been constructed for the event, even with the pegasi sitting on their prepared cloud stands, even with many ponies looking from the windows of nearby buildings, there were just too many ponies in a single place. Even Luna, one of the immortal Princesses of Equetria, had rarely seen that many ponies all at once.

Before stepping on stage, the night alicorn looked to her sides. To one side was her dear sister, who had never stopped believing she could be saved, and had even trained those great knights for the purpose. On the other was the young Princess Cadance, whom Luna had met when she was still Nightmare Moon, and who did the impossible, surpassing life and magic to defeat Sombra. The princess still remembered with awe the scene of that small pegasus, having lost both her wings and one of her legs, but still grinning with the confidence of victory. Obviously, she had recovered with the ascension.

But all that was unimportant at the moment, she had a confession to make.

"Ponies of the Crystal Empire... I stand before you today because there are some things you should know.

"You know me as Nightmare Moon, the alicorn servant of King Sombra, who served as his enforced during centuries in which he oppressed you.

"You also know me as Luna, sister of Celestia and the Alicorn of the Night, who was mind-controlled by Sombra and only recently released from his yoke.

"However, what you don't know is how Luna turned into Nightmare Moon. And the most basic answer to that was envy. I was envious of my big sister, because the ponies seemed to love her day, while they didn't care about my night.

"I desired to force ponies to acknowledge my night, and for that I sought power in black magic. It is a kind of magic that is dangerous even at the best of times, and my feelings were too mixed up and confused for that to be anything but one of the worst possible times.

"I lost control and became Nightmare Moon, and in my madness, would have banished my sister and brought about eternal night. But before I could do that, Sombra managed to bring me under his control.

"The greatest truth is this, were it not for my weakness, for my having fallen into madness, I would never have ended up under his sway, and he wouldn't have been able to enslave you for so long.

"I may not have done it out of my own will, but in the end, it is still my fault. As such, I have come into the presence of you, the ponies who were most harmed due to my actions, to confess and receive your judgement."

Having said her piece, Luna went silent, and looked over the crowd, waiting to see what their reaction would be.

For the most part, the reaction was silence. The ponies looked at each other with a variety of expressions, and all of them seemed to have something to say, but none of them felt brave enough to speak in this kind of momentous occasion.

In this kind of silence, the sound of the clearing of a throat rang like thunder.

Everyone looked at the talker. It was a very old mare, who was sitting in one of the stands relatively close to the stage.

After clearing the throat she started to speak. At first her voice was too low to hear, but Cadance helpfully used a spell to amplify the sound and she started again.

"You say it is your fault that Sombra was able to take control, but while that may be true, I feel like there are some things that should be brought up before any decision is reached.

"You may not know it, Princess Luna, but even as Nightmare Moon, as the enforcer of the terrible King Sombra, we still had a lot to be thankful to you."

Somehow, the silence found a way to become even heavier and thicker, before the old mare resumed speaking.

"You were the one who did the job of tracking down, capturing and punishing rebels. But due to your actions, many ponies managed to avoid an even worse fate.

"You took them and tortured them with nightmares, but the ponies were then returned to their families. You may have put spies in their minds to prevent further rebellion, but you left them alive, something that Sombra wouldn't do. He would make examples of them.

"And it's not just that. You also took charge of the punishments for other offenses. And again, you let ponies live and stay unmaimed, things Sombra wouldn't do. Even when you were under Sombra's control and the black magic's influence, you still cared for us ponies.

"But above all else, there's one thing I think should be considered. You say it's your fault that you got caught by Sombra and made us suffer, but I say the pony that suffered the most under Sombra was you. There's no need to punish you any further."

The ponies gathered on the plaza considered this, and tried to decide how they felt about it. But somepony else had something to say. It was a small red filly with no cutie mark.

"I... I don't understand all that complicated stuff... But you did something bad and you're sorry, right? Then I forgive you."

The effects of those small words were, if anything, even greater. Soon, more and more ponies started saying "I forgive you", and the chorus spread through the crowd.

Luna couldn't stop her tears from flowing.

First Lessons

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Trixie entered in the library with her characteristic level of subtlety.

"Trixie has arrived!" She shouted, while creating a series of mini-fireworks to explode around her.

But before she could get to the second part of her entrance, Trixie was stopped by the sight that greeted her inside the library.

It was Sunset. She was chained to the wall a few meters above the ground, with heavy manacles on her legs and thick chains around most of her body. There was also a full complement of heavy-duty medical instruments somehow glued to the wall, some of them visibly connected to Sunset, like an IV. While others didn't have any visible connections, like something that seemed kind of like a heart-lung machine, but was obviously not one. And to top it all off, she also had a magic seal in the shape of a paper scroll wrapped on her horn.

"Good evening, Trixie." She said in a much more casual voice than would be expected given the situation "I ended up setting Twilight off."

The aforementioned unicorn choose that moment to appear from another room.

"Welcome, Trixie!" She greeted her, before pulling out two cushions for her and Trixie to sit with Sunset nearby.

The showmare decided that there was nothing she should be concerned about. While most ponies would probably be thrown off by an unexpected situation, Trixie and her partners had an extremely high level of willful acceptance of everything around themselves, which had been cultivated through their years of training (Twilight's often weird powers causing trouble had been a pretty big part of that). This was part of the reason why they were so skilled in both magic and their knight work.

"Trixie has managed to obtain not one, but two apprentices today." She said, smiling at them.

"Oh..." Twilight said "I also got a second apprentice today. She's a really cute pegasus called Fluttershy who can talk to animals and walks casually throught the Everfree Forest." The unicorn smiled.

"And I have managed to get an apprentice for myself. She is a pegasus called Rainbow Dash who wants to become a Wonderbolt." Sunset added, not wanting to be left out of the conversation and still managing to sound terribly casual (a very remarkable feat, considering her situation).

"This certainly seems to have been a fruitful day for all of us." Trixie said, trying and failing to match Sunset's casualness "Trixie'll tell her story first." Trixie never gave up on a chance to make a show, which was only compunded by the fact that, even though she had accepted the situation with aplomb, that didn't mean she didn't want to know exactly how things had proceeded to that point.

"Trixie walked through the town while wearing weird clothes hidden with illusions, trying to find somepony with the requisite attention to detail to be apprenticed to a master of illusions..." She stopped for effect and saw the other two lean forward slightly "But it turns out that what she found was something much rarer and more difficult to see... An actual pony who has undeveloped, but still powerful Eyes of Truth."

Her two partners were surprised, that kind of special ability was something truly extraordinary, and considered as such even in the stories.

"The holder of such an ability is an earth pony farmer called Applejack. Trixie managed to talk with her alone, and even though she was stubborn, Trixie eventually managed to convince her to become an apprentice and develop her ability." Trixie then paused again, to let that part of the story impact, before adding "But it turns out Trixie's initial wishes would end up being fulfilled in a most unexpected manner." She built up anticipation for the next part of the story, and saw that she had the full attention of her audience.

"In a way that Trixie herself could only call destiny, she would end up crossing paths with her second apprentice after accidentally tripping and falling into a mudpool." She did a small movement to attract their eyes to her conspicuously unmuddied body "Causing Trixie to necessitate going to the spa to clean herself up.

"And there, Trixie met a unicorn seamstress called Rarity." This time there was a longer pause "We shared a special treatment at the spa and she showed interest in the stories of the Knights." Trixie smiled mischievously, to get her partners to wonder about what kind of stories she had told about them "And Rarity offered to help Trixie with her clothes in the boutique she owned.

"It was there that Rarity's talent was discovered... As she managed to unweave every single detail of Trixie's Pattern of Reality." Upon that revelation, Twilight and Sunset pretty much gaped at their partner, knowing exactly what that signified "And Rarity was perfectly willing to become Trixie's apprentice when the whole situation was explained to her." Trixie finished with a flourish.

Sunset, deciding to be the next, started telling her story "I didn't even had a plan. Not that I didn't want one, but I was still thinking about it." She then tilted her head in confusion "And it turns out my previous attempt was the right thing to do after all. Rainbow Dash came to me, having heard about the challenge I had made, and simply kept going again and again to try and beat it.

"Of course, I wanted her to be my apprentice, but she had reservations. I managed to get her to see that she could learn cool stuff with me. But I had to do somethingicrediblystupid" She said quickly, upon seeing Twilight glaring "And allow her a free shot that I overloaded my magic in order to keep from moving at all." She blinked "That mare was pretty strong, her attack was much more dangerous than I expected it to be."

"Well, leaving that aside." Twilight said, still miffed "My story is actually the most dramatic. Pinkie Pie suddenly got a sense that Fluttershy was in trouble, and an aproximate location." Twilight stopped for a moment, seeing that the two had gone rigid upon hearing about it "Yeah, her ability really is something else. Anyway, we teleported to the edge of the Everfree Forest and Pinkie guided me to the place.

"It turned out that trees were attacking Fluttershy, and they had even created an actual cage of branches to trap her." Twilight made a motion with her hood in emphasis "Pinkie Pie warps inside the cage and... Well, the rest isn't actually that dramatic. I distracted most of the branches, grew a tree to open a path and the two escaped." The unicorn nodded "I got interested in her ability to talk to animals, and managed to get her attention with the possibility that she could extend that to talking with plants. And like I already said, she walks through the Everfree Forest casually on a regular basis, apparently."

"Looks like I'm the only one who has just one apprentice. Well, it's more time for myself, anyay." Sunset said.

"But I'm having a problem with Pinkie." Twilight waited for the two to pay attention before continuing "She said she didn't understand the calculus book I lent her, and I don't know how I can teach it in a way she would understand."

Trixie looked at her partner "Twilight... Did you think of asking Princess Celestia for help?"

Twilight looked at her for a moment and facehoofed "Argh. Of course, I could simply ask her to get me in contact with some specialized teachers... I think I just got too caught up in thinking 'she's my apprentice and I have to help'."

"Well, you know how it is, sometimes you just miss some things." Sunset said "That's why we have partners."

That resolved, the three went back to talking about their new apprentices.

-

Over the next few days, the ponies that became the apprentices of the Knights of the Realm had their first lessons:

-

"What is this necklace about?" Rainbow Dash asked, seeing the necklace of paper tags that Sunset had on her neck.

"This is something Twilight put on me to detect if I'm using too much magic." Sunset said with a rigid smile "I shouldn't do that while I'm still recovering."

"Ahh... That's not going to cause trouble with my training. Right?"

"Not at all. It's you who is going to do the really exhausting things." Sunset paused "But first, in order to help ground this training session, I have a question for you."

"Okay. What do you want to ask?" Rainbow Dash didn't get what she was trying to do.

"What is the main similarity between pegasi and earth ponies?" Sunset questioned with a smile.

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to answer... And closed it again. She really thought about it. The pegasus knew that this question had something to do with what she would be learning, and considering that...

"Both can enhance their bodies with magic, isn't it?" She hit upon the answer.

"Close." Sunset said "It's more like both tribes do this naturally, while unicorns can also learn it but it is not natural." Sunset waved the distinction off "But you've gotten the spirit of it right. The main difference between them is that while earth ponies have a general physical enhancement, pegasi actually have a whole suite of specialized enhancements that are activated independently."

Rainbow Dash thought that felt like it was right "And that means...?"

"That means you can maximize the effect of your enhancements by understanding and controlling each of them separatedly. They're all basically natural magical formations inside your body that you instinctively pour magical power into to do your feats. Getting full control of them would make it a lot easier and more efficient." Sunset then smiled maliciously "So the first exercise of today is trying to get in touch with the formation that deals with weakening the effects of physical shocks. And that means you will be flying straight into the ground at full speed."

Seeing Rainbow's suddenly worried face, Sunset thought it was just desserts for getting her in trouble.

-

"And I'll be getting some help with teaching you math in the next few days. For now, we're dealing with something very pressing, doing the chaotic movements consistently." Twilight finished her explanation.

Pinkie Pie tilted her head to the right "What is chaotic movement?"

"That's when you use shortcuts most ponies can't see." Twilight explained simply.

Pinkie gasped "But you can't just do that whenever you want! Things aren't always lined up right..."

Twilight smiled "That's the kind of thing training helps with. Like, it may seem that things stopped lining up, but if you change the angle from which you view them... You can use them normally."

Pinkie nodded slowly, trying to understand what she could mean by that, then she remembered something "Ah... You said we had to figure out ways to gain power... And I though, how about emotions?"

Twilight stopped for a moment and then looked up "Using emotions as power is... complicated. Technically, everypony can do it, and does it without even knowing, because emotions are a part of the self. But it is mostly an instinctive thing that can't really be used for more than a single spell before the extra power disappears." Upon seeing Pinkie's expression fall, she continued "However, there are ponies who mastered the way of emotions to such a level that they don't have those problems. It is a hard and dangerous road, and the more power you wish to access, the worse it gets... Still, it can be used relatively safely at low levels, which may be all you really need. Let's pencil it down for further discussion."

Pinkie was smiling again, thinking that her new teacher really knew a lot.

-

"Applejack, the first thing you must know about what you're going to learn in this apprenticeship is that to see truth, you must understand truth, and to understand truth, you must understand the world itself, from the most basic framework of reality to the highest of the concepts. So, a lot of the things Trixie will tell you won't help anything unless you really think and meditate about them, and try to understand them from your own point of view. You must seek the truth with your soul for it to develop the best means for piercing the false." Trixie talked in a serious and straightforward manner, knowing that her apprentice would respond better to that kind of treatment.

"Ah, get it. Ya ken point the way, but Ah have to do the work mahself." Applejack nodded, if she was going to do this, she would do it seriously "So where do we start?"

Trixie smiled slightly "We start with one of Trixie's favorite subjects, magic itself." She cleared her throat "Magic is simply the ability to use the power of one's soul in order to affect the world. No matter who it is, everybeing that has a soul can do magic in a way or another." She paused for a moment, letting Applejack parse this "And the soul is the self, so everything that affects the self will affect magic as well, even things that you wouldn't expect can be incredibly important. To make an example, Trixie would say that language is incredibly important for magic. As for how important... Applejack, what do you think of the fact that I call my specialty magic Perfect Illusion?"

"Ehh... It seems like a little bit too boastful, if ya want mah honest opinion." Applejack answered.

"Boastful..." Trixie said in a careful tone "It is indeed boastful, but it is in fact an oath. The words Trixie uses to call her magic, the name she gave it... It is a restriction. Princess Celestia and Trixie discussed this a lot when she was younger, because using those kinds of words is dangerous. If Trixie doesn't continually strive for perfection in her illusion magic, she will lose control of it, and consequently, of her own self. You may call it boastful, but it is still on a controlable level. If Trixie called it Absolute Illusion, on the other hand... Let's just say that it is very easy to become exactly the sort of thing the Knights fight against." The unicorn said softly.

Applejack had to fight not to stare at the showmare. And she felt like she was beginning to understand exactly what kind of ponies the Knights had to be in order to serve as the protectors of Equestria. She engraved this moment in her heart, predicting that it would become important for her magic in the future.

-

"Animals are connected to nature, just as plants are. This forms a conceptual connection between the two. Connections are important to magic, and I think you would do well to keep that in mind." Twilight told Fluttershy.

"Hmm..." The pegasus frowned slightly as she thought "So, that means that if I want to talk with plants, I just need to think of the fact that they are part of nature just like animals?" She thought that seemed a little too simple.

Twilight blinked "Ah? No, actually that would be a pretty hard thing to do, since it would mean interfering with a concept directly. It's not impossible, since it would just be a small interference, but it is definitely not first step material." She tilted her head to the right "I actually mentioned it just because even knowing that this connection is possible would help you make it even if you take other paths."

Fluttershy thought about it, she was a little embarassed by her mistake, but Twilight hadn't laughed at her about it, so she decided to ask "Then what kind of paths can I take?"

The unicorn smiled broadly "There's quite a lot of them, but the best results can be achieved by choosing the path that is most suited to you. That is one of the reasons why I asked so many questions about you." She put a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder "And considering how much you care for the animals, I think the best option is the route of empathy." Twilight did a spell that created a small billboard with the word 'empathy' to appear above Fluttershy's head "Empathy is an understanding of others, and as such is already well-suited for communication. You care for your animals and try to understand them, so you need to extend that care to the plants. But to really care for them, you need to understand them, and as such your first task will be to try and think like a tree."

Fluttershy couldn't help but smile, this was exactly the sort of thing she liked doing.

But she hoped Twilight would dispel the "empathy" billboard sometime soon.

-

"You said you wanted to help me achieve my potential... But is there really clothes-based magic that you could teach me?" Rarity asked Trixie.

"Trixie could teach you Gemcrafting, or really, general magic crafting. That could be good, but she was actually thinking of starting with something more basic and seeing where that leads us." Trixie said.

"More basic... You mean, like my telekinesis?" Rarity remembered Trixie praising her talent in multitasking with telekinesis.

"That's half of it. Trixie means your ability to create in general. Constructing your results in your mind before constructing them in reality. This ties into your eye for detail as well." Trixie paused to see if Rarity was still following her words "Every single thing in the world is made of a combination of parts, and the concept of Building, or Crafting can be used in all sorts of interesting ways." Trixie suddenly disappeared, with Rarity being startled when she showed up again at her side "Imagine, if you will, having the ability to turn even the most common materials into the most wonderful and marvelous objects..."

Rarity understood what Trixie was doing, but she couldn't help but think about what she could do without the limitations of materials.

Perhaps she would be able to create wonders that would stand the test of time and be remembered for eras in the future...

-

One day, Sunset woke up, feeling like the time had finally came.

She checked herself with magic, and saw that she was right, her body had finally recovered completely.

Charging her magic with gusto, Sunset sent messages to Trixie and Twilight (she could have just called Twilight, but what would be the fun in that?). She thought that it was time for them to show their apprentices how the Knights were as a trio.

Knight Spar

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There was a small field outside of Ponyville that was commonly used for gatherings of ponies. That day was no exception, but the specific ponies who had been gathered there for a meeting were quite different from the usual.

"Trixie and her apprentices have arrived!" Trixie announced, appearing suddenly from under a multi-layered illusion. At her sides were Rarity (who was manipulating a huge number of tiny rocks in her telekinesis) and Applejack (who blinked twice and then started rubbing her eyes, saying "urgh, Ah could not see through the illusions in time").

Soon after, Sunset telported in, causing a small explosion to appear around her, before repairing the damage to the ground with a quick spell. Rainbow Dash dived down from a distance at incredible speed, somehow managing to negate her inertia enough to stop completely as soon as she hit the ground, in an amazingly precise landing.

Then, Twilight shimmered into view, and Pinkie Pie appeared like she had just taken a step into the place and the step somehow covered a huge distance. Fluttershy flew in, gliding slowly through the air.

"As the teachers, we should introduce ourselves first." Twilight said "I am Twilight Sparkle. Teacher of basic magic, apprentice of Princess Celestia and Knight of the Realm of Equestria." She smiled as she looked to the gathered ponies.

"Here is the Great and Powerful Trixie Lulamoon." Trixie did a teatrical bow "Showmare extraordinaire, apprentice of Princess Celestia and Knight of the Realm of Equestria."

"And I'm Sunset Shimmer." Sunset finished with a casual tone "Assistant in sun-raising, apprentice of Princess Celestia and Knight of the Realm of Equestria." She smiled slightly "I know our introductions may seem similar, but we have literally lived together for half our lives and choose the same career path. It would be stranger if they weren't."

With that, the ice was mostly broken, and Rainbow Dash decided to shatter the rest of it by going next.

"The name's Rainbow Dash." She said in a voice full of confidence "I'm the fastest pegasus alive, a weather manager and in the future, a Wonderbolt!"

"Ah guess Ah'll go next." Applejack began with a calm voice "My name is Applejack. Ah'm a farmer from the Sweet Apple Acres, and Ah guess Ah got something called eyes o' truth?"

Suddenly, Applejack felt an immense existential pressure coming from her teacher, who was grumbling something like "introducing the ability needs work" and "remedial lessons are in order". She looked to the other two Knights, who were looking at her in slight disappointment (Twilight mouthing something that could be interpreted as "didn't even put the required capital letters"). The farmer suddenly felt like she had commited a grievous mistake somewhere, and would suffer the consequences later. Her fellow apprentice decided to take the focus off her.

"I am Rarity Belle. I work as a seamstress and fashion designer and have been chosen as an apprentice by Knight Trixie, and my dream is that my designs will be famous in all of Equestria." Rarity said in a smooth voice.

"I'm Pinkie Pie!" The aforementioned mare exclaimed, almost as soon as Rarity was done "I'm a party planner and baker. And Teacher Twilight choose to teach me because I can use chaos magic like her!" She then produced from her mane a hand drawn picture of herself and Twilight, with the words "chaos magic buddies" on the bottom.

The ponies present very deliberatedly did not stare at Fluttershy, for varied reasons (some knew her, some had enough social know-how to understand why it would be a bad idea, and some had heard from Twilight). So the pegasus did not have much trouble doing her own introduction.

"My name is Fluttershy... I'm an animal caretaker and I'm studying with Twilight to be able to talk to trees." She said in a somewhat low voice.

"Okay," Twilight said, seeming to have taken the role of leader of the meeting "Since this is a good chance, do you have any questions for us? I think it should be a good opportunity to see our differing viewpoints in practice."

"Actually, I have one." Pinkie Pie put a hoof in the air and started waving it "Why do you keep breaking things with your magic and then fixing them? Is this some kind of special training?"

"Actually, no..." Sunset said, with a doubtful expression "The whole 'destroying things' matter is because keeping my power unrestrained works well for preventing me from losing touch with my Magical Origin... But fixing everything later is because Princess Celestia made very, very sure that I learned to fix what I break." She did a deep, full-body shudder "Very sure..."

Rainbow Dash decided to say her own question before they could start thinking too much about this.

"What I wanted to know is, which of you three is the best mage?" She said with her characteristic eagerness.

"Trixie." Sunset and Twilight deadpanned, while Trixie said proudly.

"Oh." That was weird "That was an unexpectedly simple answer." Said Rarity.

"Don't get us wrong." Twilight said "We're not simply letting her have the lead position."

Sunset continued the explanation "It's just that, while I only managed to develop my Magic Enhance a few years after becoming Celestia's Apprentice, and Twilight's Magical Sign came even later, Trixie was already using Perfect Illusions while only ten years old, and she simply refined her magic and developed her aspects during this time. A few years headstart is no joke." She sighed.

"And here I thought saying this kind of stuff was a sure trigger to a fight." Dash joked.

"Oh, were you hoping for that...?" Twilight said teasingly.

"Actually..." Trixie considered "We haven't had a spar in a while." She looked to the apprentices "What do you think about seeing a semi-serious fight between Knights?"

The five agreed with the proposal, with varying levels of enthusiasm, and the three Knights started setting up the arena. They went to a less frequented location in order to avoid interruptions and started drawing on the ground, creating a complex, multilayered magic circle which they then activated, causing small light streams to come out of of it and infuse the three.

"This is for safety," Twilight explained "This special circle is connected to the minicircles created inside of us, and if it detects that we are about to receive a major injury, we are teleported out of the battlefield."

"This seems like it would be fairly useful for fights." Rainbow Dash decided.

"It's not as great as it might seem. We need a lot of preparation to make it work, it only works for a limited time in a limited zone and can be disrupted very easily." The chaotic unicorn answered.

Everything ready, the three Knights positioned themselves at equal distances from each other, and the apprentices went to a safe distance in order to watch.

As expected, Sunset made the first move.

"Magic Enhance: Solar Missile!" And her sphere of light extended and became denser and hotter, before flying in Trixie's direction.

The showmare teleported out of the way of the attack and reappeared in two different places at once, meaning that one of them was an illusion (or both were illusions, and the real one was concealing her presence). Twilight always felt this was the hardest part of fighting Trixie, you had to split your attention between many things at once, becasue there was no way of knowing which parts were dangerous. The fact that she also had to pay attention to Sunset only made it worse. Still, it was only the beginning of the battle, and she had enough concentration to spare to be able to think all those things, while she prepared her own attack.

"Chaos Magic: Living Earth!" She blasted the ground, which started shifting up and down in irregular patterns, aimed at restricting the movement of the opponents. Twilight's regular strategy was based upon controlling the envinronment.

On the other hand, Sunset's regular strategy could be described with only two words: Overwhelming Power. As such, she decided to hit two birds with a single stone, and charged her magic a little longer than usual, while struggling with the shifting ground and having to keep an eye on possible Trixie interruptions. All that to be able to use a powerful enough spell.

"Magic Enhance: Flying Earth!" And the sphere of power she had gathered shot into the ground, before releasing a huge explosion, that completely ripped apart the structure of Twilight's spell, as well as caused bit of earth to fly all over the battlefield. Trixie was good, but even her would not be able to manipulate her illusions to take all that into account so fast.

However, Trixie would not simply allow herself to be caught.

"Perfect Illusion: Shadow World!" One of the two Trixies announced, and suddenly a deep darkness fell into the battlefield, completely denying sight.

Sunset thought of banishing the darkness with a spell, but only for a moment. In the following moment, she used a small, omnidirectional force spell centered on herself, and was rewarded with the feeling of a small object being destroyed.

Twilight, on the other hand, almost got to feel the pain of a sharp stone fragment piercing her neck. She managed to chaotically shift forward, even blinded like she was, but the distraction made her subsequent spell take a little longer to charge.

Sunset realized that Trixie had probably sent that attack sneakily during the first stage of the fight, and attacking while she was blinded, and just after Sunset had used a lot of magic in her attack was exactly the kind of thing she would do. However, Sunset had detected the attack, and Trixie should not have enough power for any big spells for at least four seconds, which was a huge amount of time in a battle like this.

Two seconds later, Twilight finished casting her own spell.

"Chaos Magic: Exploding Golems!" She called, and earth golems suddenly appeared all around the battlefield, trying to grab anything they could get their hands on.

Trixie cast a hasty spell on the closest golem, confusing its its targeting system, and moved away using the rest of her magic in a shield to try to resist the explosions. Yet, she realized her position was becoming more and more untenable.

Sunset, on the other hand, was caught by a golem. However, by that time, Sunset had already charged her magic for three seconds. It was more than enough.

"Magic Enhance: Eruption!" And then, the entire battlefield was utterly annhilated by a flaming eruption coming from under the ground. Sunset rode on the edge of the explosion, freeing herself from the golem as it was destroyed. Her two partners didn't have energy enough to do anything, and were teleported out by the magic circle. Sunset flew to the air, and then came back down, victorious.

"OW, OW, OW!" She started jumping in place "BURNING HOOVES, BURNING HOOVES!" Sunset threw herself to the ground and started casting spells on her own hooves.

Twilight and Sunset had teleported to her, as soon as she started yelling, but soon realized that everything was fine.

"That was an experimental spell, wasn't it?" Twilight surmised.

"Yeah." Sunset answered, already feeling better "I still haven't completely worked out the heat transference problem. But just a few burns doesn't count as a major injury, so..." She ignored the stink eye Twilight was giving her.

"Hey, you guys!" Meanwhile, Trixie was talking with the apprentices "We're going to rest a little bit, so if you want to talk about us behind our backs, this is the best opportunity!"

Pinkie Pie laughed, and the others followed suit soon after. Then they started speaking with each other, exactly the way Trixie had planned.

The rest of the day was considerably more normal, but the apprentices ended up becoming friends with each other, which was the main goal of that exercise anyway,

Letter to Celestia

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Time passed, and the apprentices got more confortable with their situation, and started learning more about their teachers.

-

In the house of the Apples...

"Ya really wanna know how it is to learn with Trixie?" Applejack asked her sister.

"Yeah. Ah did try the test to become her apprentice but failed. Ah wanna know how it is for you." Applebloom said.

The farmer mare thought about it "Well... In a word... It's weird."

The filly rolled her eyes "Ah already know that, sis. Ya been saying that word a lot the past few weeks. Can't ya be a little more specific?"

"Okay, let's see if Ah ken explain this... Ah never know what she's gonna do next. One day Trixie explains some important magical concepts and has me repreat what Ah understood by mahself the next day. Another day she has me reading old stories and trying ta tell which parts are lies. Another day Ah have to try ta look through the earth ta see the core of the world, or look at the sun ta see the soul of princess Celestia. Or she simply does some advanced illusions that Ah have to try ta see through as fast as possible. Not ta mention that whole thing about properly introducing the Eyes o' Truth." Applejack looked at her sister with a pressured expression "Ah cannot figure out what she's planning!"

Applebloom raised an eyebrow "Have ya considered that perhaps she might be winging it?"

The farmer mare considered that for a few moments...

"Dangit!"

-

In the Sugarcube Corner...

"So... Did the thing with the calculus get solved?" Mrs. Cake asked her tenant.

"Yupperoni!" Pinkie nodded eagerly "There's this whole method of keeping numbers on your head at all times, but I actually understand how to do the math now!

"And also, I've already learned all sorts of cool things! Look at this!"

Pinkie Pie then proceeded to split in two, and one of them went to the kitchen and started doing the preparations for the next day.

"Cool, ain't it?" The pink pony asked.

The Cake mare seemed to be somewhat ambivalent about this development.

"It is somewhat cool..." She allowed "But how did Twilight even teach you to do something like this?"

"Oh, we did a lot of things! Like when she said I needed practice with seeing things from a different perspective, so she did that spell to make me walk upside down the whole day! Do you remember?"

"Yes, I do..." Mrs. Cake had thought that was weird even for her tenant.

"There was also timing training, which means moving my hoof at exact time intervals that Twilight chooses randomly. And I mean in terms of hundreths of a second." Her smile became smaller "It is pretty hard..." Then she recovered "And there's also training in meditation to understand myself. It was boring in the beginning, but I managed to discover all kinds of fun things inside of me! And it's always different so it's a surprise!"

The older mare blinked. Meditation really wasn't something she would usually associate with her tenant, but before she could finish her thought, the copy Pinkie Pie came back from the kitchen and stepped into the other Pinkie Pie without missing a beat. Being caught off guard by that new development, she could only say:

"It seems like you are in good hooves."

-

In the spa...

"Aloe, Lotus, there are some things I need to get off my chest, so please don't mind me if I ramble a bit." Rarity said while in the middle of her usual spa visit.

"Sure, miss Rarity. We're here to serve." Aloe said with a smile.

"Okay... where do I start... It's just that being Trixie's apprentice is a little different from what I expected. There's the magic learning and conceptual theory, that is a little hard to wrap my head around, but still manageable, but somethings she does are simply too weird and unexpected!" Rarity's tone had become noticeably loud "She has this whole obsession with having me give 'cool' names to the spells I learn and the pieces I create, and her tastes are difficult to please without going gaudy..." Rarity took a deep breath "And then there's the 'training', like asking me to create the gaudiest, most overdesigned and complex dress I can, then coming back a week later with every piece and having me recreate it from memory... Or when she kept using her telekinesis to interfere while I was in the middle of a delicate piece and having to focus twice as hard to nullify her influence... Or even trying to create an entire dress using only water for everything, which means having to hold every part of the design in my head and exert telekinesis to keep them whole constantly, even as I'm designing the other parts... I've never been able to do this one."

The unicorn shifted her head from side to side "I mean... It's rewarding because I can actually feel my magic becoming better and more focused, and I keep getting ideas for better and better designs so I can tell all that training is working but... It's just so tiring... In many different aspects... The training is hard but it becomes even harder with Trixie constantly telling weird stories, or doing weird spells like the one that felt like she was everywhere in the boutique at once... And her insistence in practicing chants to get the right cadence for every kind of unlikely situation..." Rarity closed her eyes and let out a huge sigh "There's just too many things to retort, and I lose my balance."

She sighed again, then smiled.

"Thank you. I really needed that." She said.

"We're happy we could help." Lotus said with a smile.

-

In Fluttershy's house...

"So, Fluttershy, how's it going being Twilight's apprentice?" Rainbow Dash asked her friend.

"Oh, it's wonderful!" She said excitedly "I can already tell at lot more about what my animals are thinking and feeling, and I'm even managing to understand trees a little! ... How about you, how's your training?" She asked in a lower voice.

"Ah, training is eas-" The mare suddenly did a full-body shudder "hard, very hard."

Fluttershy blinked "That doesn't seem like the kind of thing you would say."

Dash showed a rigid smile "Teacher Sunset explained to me that the training needed to be hard to push me to my limits and actually get results. So everytime I said the training was easy, she kept increasing the intensity.." She then shook her body and forced herself to break out of the flashbacks "But really, there's nothing too out of the ordinary about the trainings, just things to make an awesome flier even more awesome! Like being able to use my pegasus magic more easily, or increasing the resilience of my body via the training of the use of the body magic formations, or improving my senses and concentration so I can react faster." She nodded, forcing herself to think only of the results.

Fluttershy considered "That seems nice. My training is more like carrying as many animals as possible and trying to understand everything their feeling throughout the whole day... Or being buried under the ground for a night with some life-preservation to keep me alive to become closer to the earth... Or having parts of my body turned into plants for... I don't really know." Fluttershy smiled in an embarassed way "Twilight is nice, but sometimes I don't understand what she is thinking."

Rainbow Dash boggled for a moment before recovering "I think all the Knights may be a little weird." She thought about her own training once more, and her tone became a lot more tense "Rarity told me a little about how her apprenticeship with Trixie, and it's also not normal. As for me... Sunset seems to have some kind of obsession with destruction and power. Everything is measured in those terms. She measures my resilience by comparing the amount of power from her spells I can withstand with the amount of destruction she could cause with those same spells. She asks me to keep destroying harder and harder things with applications of my weather magic... And she trains my concentration by making me dodge a ridiculous amount of magic projectiles..." She put her hooves over her face.

"I'm tired." She said.

Fluttershy could only smile awkwardly.

-

And a few days even later, Princess Celestia received a letter.

Dear Princess Celestia

I am writing this letter to inform you of how the studies of my apprentices, and those of Trixie and Sunset are doing.

Starting with mine, Pinkie Pie's abilities are becoming more and more stable by the day. She can reliably do her movement and positional manipulations, and her Pinkie sense precognition can now be used consciously for certain things. I am also getting closer to replicating her ability to store things in her mane. But perhaps her greatest achievement lies in her capacity of manipulating spells in progress, specially chaos based spells. Her ability to manipulate the raw energy used by the spells is something amazing, and I think she stands a good chance of being able to master emotion magic.

As for Fluttershy, while she may not have the same variety of achievements, what she has been able to accomplish in these last few weeks is amazing. Her ability to communicate with animals has gotten to the point where complex concepts can be passed between them via just glances. And she can already communicate with plants reasonably well, a little more and she'll reach the point of being able to converse with an entire forest at once. I don't know what will be the next goal after that, but I'm excited to think about it.

According to Trixie, Applejack is quickly mastering the various aspects of the Eyes of Truth, being able to see a lie and determine which type it is, as well as seeing through physical objects and being able to see magic connections and other formless things. And her ability to see through Trixie's advanced illusions is growing by the day. Trixie hopes to have Applejack learn how to see through distance as the next topic.

As for Rarity, her learning has been a lot less focused, so there's quite a lot of things she learned how to do. But some of the most important would be taking her multitasking to an exceedingly high level (and it's Trixie who says that, and you know how high her standards are), her ever-growing mastery of restoration spells, and her ability to exert power in an incredibly minute scale, to the point she has the potential to learn spells capable of messing around with the building blocks of reality itself.

Finally, there's Rainbow Dash. Sunset says that she was already rather powerful just with her normal training to be a wonderbolt (and you know how Sunset is about power), but Sunset's training is taking her to a whole new level and helping her be able to use her skills more easily and consistently, which was a problem for the pegasus, apparently. Sunset says Dash can now accelerate from a lying position to her max speed in only a few seconds, and she's able to create tornadoes that can destroy houses fairly easily. And her resilience is enough that even with Sunset's destruction capacities, she is still a "tough nut to crack" in Sunset's words.

All in all, teaching these apprentices has been a great experience for all of us, and I am beginning to understand what you must have felt over our training.

Hope to see you again soon.

Your faithful student

Twilight Sparkle

"Hmm... It seems that my apprentices have found a way to distract themselves. That is good." Celestia said to herself. She had been worried that the three would not be able to deal well with the time in between missions, so it was nice to see that it wasn't a concern.

She started pondering what to write in return, when her magical senses caught something that completely derailed her train of thought.

Oh, no. She thought. Discord is free.

There were two things she could do about it, and after sending a message to initiate a state of emergency, she wrote a short letter to her apprentices, and sent it hurriedly.

She managed to do it just in time.

-

By a stroke of luck, at that moment all three of the Knights and their apprentices were together for a meeting. That resulted in all of them receiving the news at the same time when Twilight received the letter.

"Oh, it's a letter from Princess Celestia! It says... Discord is free, your new mission is defeating him." Her cheerful tone disappeared completely halfway through her statement.

She dropped the letter and looked to her partners, who looked at her with grave expressions.

"Who is Discord?" Applejack asked, realizing that their behavior was very far from the usual.

Twilight sighed, but remained tense "Discord is one of the most powerful threats to Equestria that ever existed. He is the spirit of chaos, and his abilities in chaos magic are powerful enough to overshadow the princesses." She took a breath "Two thousand years ago, Celestia and Luna managed to defeat and seal him, but only with the help of two Knights of the Realm of the time and three other brave heroes."

As she spoke, the apprentices were filled with tension, realizing that this was something incredibly major. Trixie was preparing to take command to get them moving to hash out some kind of plan, but Pinkie's body contorted in a way that would have been humorous at any other time and she spoke two words "He's coming." before everything went chaotic.

The clouds shifted, adquiring the consistency of jello and raining chocolate milk, bits of earth started rising to the sky and laughing, and the very wind itself started tasting like brocolli. In the distance, the mares could see that even more random things were happening in the town. Then, a gigantic portal opened above the city, and a claw started forcing itself through it.

"Hi!" Came a voice from behind them.

The eight ponies turned around and came face to face with the legendary being. He has the head of a pony, a deer antler on the right, a blue goat horn on the left, one long fang, different-sized pupils, a snake tongue, a goat beard, and white bushy eyebrows. He has the right arm of a lion, the left claw of an eagle, the right leg of a lizard, and the left leg of a goat. In addition, he has a bat's right wing, a Pegasus' left wing, a horse's mane, and a dragon-like snake's tail with a white tail tuft. He waved his right arm, causing a wave of raw chaos magic to shot towards them.

"Chaos Magic: Redirection!" Twilight cast, releasing a spear of energy that hit the wave, causing it to turn into a variety of objects, like balls, birds and blenders, which flew of in several different directions.

"Oooooh...! So it was true! I couldn't quite believe that Celestia had actually taken an apprentice who could use chaos magic..." Discord smiled "She never seemed like the fun kind of pony."

Twilight suddenly had a flash of insight. There was a way of turning this to their advantage, to allow her partners a better chance against Discord. So she spoke:

"Many things have changed since the last time you've been free, Discord." She began, without particularly planning her words "The true nature of chaos has been discovered, and your brand of it is just outdated." She said with a grin.

"Outdated?!" Discord snarled "Like such a magnificent force such as me could become outdated..." He opened his mouth and exhaled a banner saying "always in fashion".

"If you really believe this, then you will accept my challenge. Your way of chaos against mine!" Twilight announced.

She received harsh glances from her partners, but their non-verbal communication managed to estabilish that her plan (though Trixie thought it was far too simple to be called a proper plan) really was the best chance they had, even if it yook some discussion.

"Hah! You are going to regret messing with me!" Discord announced, shifting to wear a shirt saying "I accept".

"If that is the case..." Unexpectedly, Pinkie Pie decided to intrude on the conversation "Then I will also take part in this duel, since I am Twilight's apprentice!"

Twilight looked at her, Pinkie looked back with a smile. Twilight sighed and thought that having heroes around was tiring. While that was going on, the other ponies left the future battlefield, going to do their own part in the plan.

"An apprentice, hmm?" Discord put his claw to his chin "I've always wanted one. Guess I'll take her." And shifted right behind Pinkie Pie, touching her head with a finger.

The earth pony froze and started to lose her color... before getting herself moving again in a flowy way. Then she shook her head and hit the side of it with her hoof several times, until a black mist came out of her ear "Argh... That was unfun..." She said, as she went back to normal colors.

Discord gave a "huh" and Twilight casually cancelled the spell she was planning to use to free Pinkie Pie and reformed it into a sphere of magic she shot in Discord's direction.

The fight had already began, and though Pinkie had managed to overcome Discord's first trick, the battle would be a true trial for both of them.

Twilight hoped she could hold out long enough for the others to figure out a solution.

Split

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"Pinkie, use the slipstream!" Twilight alerted her apprentice, that being the only instructions she could possibly give for the duel, considering exactly what kind of duel it was.

Discord opened with creating a monster that seemed to consist entirely of mouth and setting it upon Twilight, but before the unicorn could do anything against it, Pinkie proved that she had listened.

"YEEEEHAAA!" Suddenly, she was riding in one of the monster's teeth, somehow avoiding being cut by its extreme sharpness and controlling the beast despite it having no nerves or anything else that could potentially be exploited by a rider to control a living ride. She turned the mouth back against Discord, who turned it into glass and shattered with a summoned hammer, creating an entire shower of glass shards flying towards the ponies.

Twilight was the one to deal with that attack, turning the glass shards into bouncing balls, that bounced off the ground and shot back towards Discord at a much greater speed. She was also using slipstream.

The slipstream was the name the unicorn gave to one of the discoveries she made about chaos magic. Said simply, it took less energy to affect something with chaos magic if it "followed" the use of a higher amount of that same amount of magic. It was actually fairly complicated and confusing, but that was the gist of it. And Discord was using a lot of chaos magic, more than enough for them to be able to fight without using that much magic.

That was important, because while the two could do all those things by themselves, they would rather not wear themselves out by using too much magic too early, since this was a fight where the main goal was to last as long as possible.

So the fight continued in the same vein for a few more exchanges, and the preferences of the three involved in the battle gradually became clear. Discord, with his immense age and power, was attracted to big and flamboyant displays, as well as making references to things only he would understand. His spells were full of strange mechanisms, weird languages, ancient beasts, and tended toward the big and loud end of the spectrum. Twilight on the other hand, was an expert in mystery and orderliness, reversing spells in unexpected ways as well as making order itself the punchline used by her magic, like when she made a swarm of bees do a synchronized dance routine. Traces of the influence of her partners could be seen in her manipulation of position for unexpected attacks and in her quick escalation of small spells. The fact that she also started reciting a speech about "the true nature of chaos magic" and everything she had gone through to learn it also helped. Finally, there was Pinkie Pie, who didn't have nearly as much power to spare as either of the two, so focused on creating the greatest effect by changing the least possible. However, it could easily be seen that the root of her chaos magic tended towards fun, with all the party themed effects and her trying to make friends with a lot of the spells Discord used.

Still, a fight between specialists in chaos magic would never be able to remain static for long, and it was Discord who decided to change the script. By turning a statue Twilight was making spin into himself, he got close enough to touch her horn. The unicorn quickly gathered all the power she could to repel him, but on such short notice her hasty defences couldn't help but buckle under his overwhelming power. And her horn disappeared.

"Oh, how sad... What will the little unicorn do without her horn?" The spirit of chaos asked mockingly.

Twilight Sparkle glared at him, then she extended her hoof to Pinkie, who took a party hat out of her mane and gave it to her.

Twilight stuck the party hat in her head, and it glowed, gathering magic.

Discord was unable to react before Twilight blasted him with a spell that split him into the several animals his body parts belonged to. He quickly reformed himself, only to be hit with one of Pinkie's party cannons, getting the battle going again.

-

Fifteen Minutes Earlier...

The six other ponies, who had left the area to allow the fight to proceed unhindered, got to a safe distance before stopping.

"There's no time for politeness, so I'll be quick." Sunset said, with a serious face "Me and Trixie have received our mission. Do you want to help?"

"Of course!" Rainbow Dash didn't even hesitate.

"I agree." Rarity was only a little behind "I may not be a Knight, but I will do what I can."

Applejack and Fluttershy (the pegasus with an uncharacteristic fierceness) also agreed to do what they could. Sunset nodded.

"Right then. Trixie, how are the princesses?" She asked.

Trixie cancelled the spell she had been using "Seems like Discord trapped them in Canterlot."

Sunset considered that "Then we have two objectives to try to accomplish while Twilight and Pinkie are giving us time. We need to rescue the princesses, so that they can give support, and we need to fix as much of the chaotic effects as possible around Ponyville, since less chaos nearby will weaken Discord." She then looked at her partner "Trixie, you should take your apprentices and go to Canterlot, since you can probably use your illusions to conceal when the princesses are released. Do you have any better ideas?"

Trixie shook her head "No. This seems like the best use of Trixie's talents." She turned to her apprentices "Applejack, you should try to use your Eyes of Truth to find the centers of magical activity, since those are the places the princesses will be trapped in. Rarity, Trixie'll show you a spell based around returning things to a 'whole' state that will serve to deal with smaller chaos effects. But!" She said suddenly "If you think of other ways to help, don't hesitate."

Applejack and Rarity nodded at this.

"Right. So Rarity, keep an eye on this spell formula..." Trixie started casting a spell while deliberatedly writing the formula visibly and slowly.

Meanwhile, Sunset had turned to the other two "Fluttershy, you should be able to use your empathy to find distressed ponies, which will definitely be near the biggest sources of chaos around. Take me to them, and give whatever support is necessary. Rainbow Dash, you will have the most important job." She looked at the blue pegasus with an extremely serious expression "Keep a safe distance from the fight and be ready to rescue the two of them if they get in trouble."

Rainbow Dash replied "I understand." With a completely serious expression and went flying to do her job.

Fluttershy closed her eyes and focused for a few moments before pointing out a direction, then the two set off.

After Trixie finished demonstrating the spell, Rarity tried and failed to reproduce it, but a bit of additional instruction by the blue unicorn allowed her to suceed on the second try.

"Then, let's go." Trixie said, and charged up a lot more than usual, because teleporting three ponies took a lot of energy.

And with a sound that was much less elegant than Trixie's usual teleports, the three ponies disappeared.

-

Twilight had the opinion that things could be going a lot worse.

Her thoughts were because of her apprentice, Pinkie Pie, who turned out to have the right abilities, mindset and level of skill to remain standing in a fight against the Spirit of Chaos, Discord.

At the beginning of the battle, Twilight kept a lot of her attention on the pink mare, ready to help the party pony in case it was necessary. But over the course of their duel with the draconequus, she started to relax her vigilance more and more, as Pinkie kept getting out of dangerous situations under her own power. Her abilities were entirely suited for the task, as she had a lot more ease in manipulating her own body in chaotic effects than Twilight herself. Pinkie could split herself in two to evade a cut, flatten herself in response to being crushed, easily reversing the process, or simply disregard injuries by turning them into jokes, acting like she was an actor who was only pretending to be hurt. Not to mention her skill with the chaotic movements and the fact that her Pinkie Sense could predict Discord's most dangerous attacks.

As for her mentality, the simple fact that Pinkie Pie was keeping her cool even though this was only the second time she had been in a dangerous situation was already enough to estabilish her will as firm. Pinkie seemed to be able to maintain a belief that things would be alright, and was more than ready to make an effort so that would come to pass. Most ponies would be overwhelmed by the pressure of the situation, lose sight of their objectives or simply lose focus. But Pinkie had spendidly avoided all those pitfalls and was doing impressively.

Finally, there was the question of Pinkie's skill. Because even with the right mindset and abilities, it would still be useless if she could not apply everything correctly. And the earth pony proved to be a prodigy, managing to use the right abilities at the right moments, advancing and retreating based on the situation of the fight and even observing Discord himself to figure out when the flow of the duel would change. She was clearly growing during the fight, being able to react a lot faster than the beginning, and she even started doing her own (sort off) speech, about how she was going to throw Discord the best party he had ever seen.

But still, there were limits to everything, and the draconequus finally managed to find Pinkie's.

She had just managed to make him choke with a confetti bomb, and Discord actually created a portable spatial distortion in between his hands to retaliate. Twilight gasped when she saw that, and immediately activated both of her prepared spells to execute the mix:

"Merged Spell!" She shouted, willing her magic to go fast enough.

While she was doing this, Discord had managed to enlarge his spatial distortion to the point it became a house-sized sphere of whirling chaotic energy and threw it at Pinkie.

The party pony tried to use her chaotic movement to dodge, but that technique was, at its heart, a manipulation of space, and the very nature of Discord's attack caused enough disturbance in space that she couldn't find a path to move through, despite her unusual skill at the technique.

And the distortion swallowed her up.

She wasn't hurt by it, but the effect of Discord's attack could be compared with the spell Twilight had used against Sombra during that battle, Sidestep. But a comparison was all that could be made, because Discord's spell was on a completely different level. It created a cage of space around the pink pony, isolating her conceptually from every connection with the world, with a brute force approach that simply left no room for any clever tricks.

But Discord wasn't the only one who could use brute force.

"Freedom is the wish of all things...

"Open Sign: Release Magic!"

If Discord's spell had been conceptual isolation, Twilight's counterspell was conceptual acceptance, drawing all of existence (locally) into itself and rejecting nothing. This time, it was Discord's magic that buckled under the strength of an opponent's spell, partially due to the power of the merged magic and partially due to the conceptual advantage. The cage of space that had already left the world was forcefully brought back into reality and dissolved into its component parts, which were absorbed and used as additional energy for the spell to deal with the parts of the magic that weren't physical.

Pinkie was dumped on the ground, dizzy.

"Should make a party for escaping from that nasty spell..." She said groggily, before shaking her head and refocusing.

Twilight sighed in relief and got back to the fight. But inwardly, she was very concerned about how things would go from then on. She had no more prepared spells, and while Discord probably wouldn't use such a powerful and dangerous attack again all that soon (it would be too much like repeating a joke), having lost that trump card meant the unicorn had much less room for maneuver.

She hoped thing were going better for the others.

-

Despite the danger of the situation, Sunset could not help but have fun.

"Magic Enhance: Explosion Chain!" She cast, creating a series of explosions that destroyed a huge golem that had been preparing to swing a fist at her.

And why should she not be? While her partners would probably try to be elegant and disable the chaos effects with complex spells, Sunset preferred to simply smash them with pure power. Not that it was completely mindless, because it was only Sunset's experience in handling chaos effects that allowed her to target her magic effectively, but it was very far from being complicated enough to impair the unicorn's enjoyment of the situation.

Even the fact that she had to keep Fluttershy safe while she was fighting only played into the scenario, as protecting somepony who was precious to her partner while she was away was a common ocurrence in the old tales.

After the destruction was complete, Fluttershy flew into the remains of the golem, pulling out a green foal.

"Are you okay? Don't worry, everything is going to be alright." The pegasus conforted the crying foal for a bit, then put him on his hooves "You need to leave this place, go back through there and you will be able to escape." She pointed out a direction and the foal thanked her and went.

Then, Fluttershy closed her eyes and concentrated before pointing in a new direction "This way!" She took to the air, but fhew slowly enough for Sunset to overtake her with her magic enhancement.

They still had a lot of work to do.

-

Meanwhile, Trixie's group was going through the streets of Canterlot.

Not that they could be recognized as such just from seeing them. When they got there, Rarity had expressed annoyance with the fact that her first visit to Canterlot happened when the city was twisted in that manner. Buildings had distorted proportions and weird structural gaps, the rivers were flowing through the air, and twisted into crazy routes that made them look like rollercoasters, the trees had started walking around and taking pieces of the buildings to eat, and even the ground had distorted to the point that all kinds of sharp cliffs, spiralling depressions and other geographical oddities were popping up, making getting from point A to point B an arduous task.

The group of Knight and apprentices had completely different tactics from Sunset's duo. This was because their goal wasn't to remove every source of chaos they could find, but was instead to reach the princesses and free them. The three ponies tried to avoid as much as they could of the chaotic creatures that were running around the place, with Applejack using her Eyes to see the best paths to get closer to the castle, Trixie using her illusions to distract the creatures and lure them away, and Rarity using her telekinesis to help the group move through the difficult terrain. Besides that, Applejack kept trying to see further away to locate the exact position of the princesses (she had already realized that they were in the direction of the castle), Rarity was using the spell Trixie taught her to deal with the monsters that got too close and Trixie was using remote vision spells to monitorate both the space around them to avoid possible ambushes and the fight between Discord and the pony chaos wielders.

As expected, Trixie had the hardest job. Even just keeping watch of the surroundings would already be the hardest job, due to the amount of focus it took to keep the stability of the spells and make sense of the distorted space, but Trixie was also looking at Discord, so that she would know if the situation changed and they had to quickly change their plans. Trixie was continually thinking of all the possibilities of things that could happen, and their responses to them.

"Ah got it." Applejack suddenly spoke up "Both princesses are in the same place, one of them towers in the back of the castle, in one of the lower floors."

Trixie nodded "Good work, let's go there. But there's a place we need to stop by in the way."

"Why do we need to stop somewhere?" Rarity asked.

"To create an illusion big enough to cover the entire city, Trixie will need access to the magic formation." Upon seeing their blank looks, Trixie explained "The magic formation is a special place where the Knights can harness the power of the city itself. It was created so that Canterlot could be defended from powerful threats."

The two apprentices nodded in understanding, and they went back to the task of moving through the city, it didn't take long for them to get to the place where the magic formation was put.

"Trixie..." Rarity asked slowly "Was there something about chaotic creatures being attracted to big concentrations of magic?"

She said that because, on the circle that delineated the space of the formation, countless monsters were gathered, creatures of all kinds of shapes and sizes, all of them seeming completely unwilling to leave.

"Trixie seems to recall something like that from her studies, yes." The blue unicorn answered in a blank tone.

"Ah guess things could not really be that easy, right?" Applejack said what they were all thinking.

-

Twilight was currently facing a difficult decision.

She was already beginning to feel tired from the continuous effort of the fight. She could still keep going for a while, but her focus and reaction speed would start dropping. And from what she could see, Pinkie Pie was only slightly better. Worse still, from the flow of the battle and Discord's movements and expressions, she could guess that he would use another powerful attack very soon, and she couldn't be sure of being able to deal with what he would do, considering his abilities were very unpredictable.

She would then have to Overdrive, leaving Pinkie facing Discord alone for far too long.

No, she had to do something else instead, even if it was very reckless, she couldn't simply leave Pinkie in danger. So she opened her mouth and called her apprentice:

"Pinkie! Grab two of the red potions!"

Pinkie saluted and warped to the library. It was good that she had already shown her apprentices where she kept the spare potions, just for fun. Twilight kept Discord's attention on her by using a sequence of three spells that were an entire level stronger than what she had been using before, since trying to preserve her strength didn't matter as much anymore.

The earth pony reappeared very quickly, carrying the two bottles, Twilight grabbed one of them with telekinesis and spoke:

"Drink the other one."

Both ponies quickly drank the red liquid and felt their muscles relax. This should give them enough endurance to keep fighting at a high level for while still, but this would not be enough to deal with Discord. So Twilight spoke a few more words to her apprentice:

"Stay on the edges, I'm going to release all my restraints."

Pinkie looked at her in shock, then nodded at Twilight's expression and moved away. The unicorn closed her eyes, and a few meters away, Discord stopped what he was doing (turning a gust of wind into a fish) upon sensing something coming from her. Twilight went to the depths of her mind and looked at the representation of her determination and self control, heavy golden chains that seemed to contain an entire identity, and were holding a small kaleidoscope of chaotic colors. The unicorn focused on the kaleidoscope and it grew, utterly shattering the chains, and kept growing and growing to the point it swallowed up Twilight's consciousness, and nearly every bit of space on her mind.

Outside, Twilight's shadow seemed to shift, and then it smiled. Twilight herself brought her hoof to her mouth and giggled.

"Hi, hi, hi..."

Unrestrained

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Trixie quickly realized that their only chance to actually get close enough for her to use the magic formation was by reducing the number of enemies. She also realized that the fact that the enemies were completely distracted by the energy of the formation was the best advantage they had in that situation. So, the Knight decided to use a spell that would take a while to charge. As she was charging, she gave some instructions to her apprentices.

"Trixie is going to lure most of the enemies away, then we'll just have to break through. As long as Trixie can get to the center and access the formation, she will be able to deal with every one of them."

"Seems simple enough." Applejack said distractedly, as she was still looking at the mass of monsters with her Eyes of Truth, having said there was something she wanted to try.It didn't take that much longer for the spell to be completely charged.

"Perfect Illusion: Desire Drive!" She cast the spell, and used a complicated process to send the spell formula beyond the crowd of creatures and far enough away for it to make a difference. This was complicated due to the amount of chaos magic in the air, but Trixie had experience dealing with that sort of handicap.

When the formula reached far enough away, the spell activated, and suddenly it was like a powerful wellspring of magic had appeared in the location of the spell. The nature of Desire Drive was to simulate the desires of the targets, and the chaotic monsters obviously wanted to absorb a pure source of magic. There was a stampede of the weird, mismatched creatures, as most of them left the formation to go after this new tasty magic, the spell having worked as well as could be expected.

However, it was still only most of them. A few of the creatures, specifically the ones that were nearest to the center, simply couldn't be lured away so easily, due to being in the process of absorbing a great deal of magic all at once, and Trixie didn't really expect that to work perfectly. So there was only one thing left to do.

"Charge!" Trixie shouted, and started galloping in the direction of the center of the formation, before adding "I just need to get to the center and we win, cover me!"

The other two were already galloping right alongside her, and they quickly got the attention of the monsters.

The first monster in their path had the appearance of a small sphere with incredibly long and spindly limbs, ending in hands. It did not have any visible sensory organs, but it somehow managed to detect the approach of the ponies, and turned to "face" them (it did not have a face).

"I got it!" Rarity shouted, and the three kept going forward for a bit more, before the monster took a step forward, apparently preparing to do something.

It did not have the chance, as its hand was coming down on the floor, Rarity activated her telekinesis, and twisted the limb to land awkwardly and make the monster lose balance, and then she gave a terrifying telekinectic push to the sphere, making the other three hands leave the ground as the creature fell to the ground.

The three went past the monster, only to be faced with two other obstructions to their path, in the form of a cricket-like being, with a crown of tentacles and a gigantic bunny head connected to a bouncing spring.

Trixie charged up her magic, without stopping her galloping, this would be a difficult spell, even if she only needed to distract the two for a few seconds.

"Perfect Illusion: Point of View!" The magic split in two, with each of the parts going to the head of one of the creatures. It wasn't quite using two spells at once, and more like a spell doing two things, but it was the sort of thing even skilled mages would struggle to replicate in those kinds of conditions.

The effects of that spell were at once, simple and complicated. They were simple because they only changed the perception the monsters had of the ponies, where instead of running straight at them, the monsters saw the ponies change direction to their sides (the left monster saw them moving to his right and the other saw them moving to his left), but it was complicated because Trixie had to modify the spell to deal with the weird senses of the chaos creatures.

The two moved, each to one side, leaving a path in the middle open, which the three ponies passed through.

And finally, right on top of the center of the formation was the biggest of the chaos monsters. Its body was shaped like a raft made of tree trunks, it had three hads, each one with different mismatched faces, featuring bug compound eyes, dog muzzles, shark teeth and several other features. And supporting this big body was an amount of legs that could not be easily counted, all of them the same, but pointing at different directions. Then, a previously invisible mouth opened in the middle of the body, and the creature roared in challenge, at the ponies that were coming at it.

Applejack accelerated, easily overtaking and distancing herself from the two unicorns, showing that she wanted to deal with that thing. Trixie still charged up a spell, just in case.

The earth pony attained a speed that would be considered respectable even by professional athletes, and the monster tried to bite down on her with each one of its three heads, but Applejack's quick movements to the left and right allowed her to dodge them. The farmer got under the monster and her agility was tested even more as she dodged dozens of kicks by constantly jumping between the ground and the top of different feet, ducking and at one point, actually running on the side of one of the legs. And then, she got to a specific point, looked up with eyes that were shining with magic, jumped, spun in the air, and bucked the creature.

The chaotic monster released an unholy screech, and then cracks start appearing in its body. Light came out of those cracks, which expanded more and more, until the entire monster was glowing with a yellow light. The creature contorted itself and finally exploded in a multidude of sparks, releasing a gray pegasus mare who fell to the ground, groaning.

Trixie had not stopped galloping during all of this, and had gotten close enough to see Applejack with a wide smile. Her own questioning expression seemed to have gotten through to the mare, who explained:

"Ah did it! Ah saw the weak spot with mah own Eyes! Then it was just hitting it with mah earth pony magic." She said proudly.

Trixie got it, and smiled at her as she passed by the farmer. She was almost at the center-

And appearing out of thin air, a chaos creature who looked like a pyramid with three wings dived down at her. Trixie hardened her defenses with her charged magic, knowing she didn't have time for an actual spell...

And the pyramid was hit by a shower of small fragments of rock, disrupting its trajectory and making it crash without hitting Trixie.

The blue unicorn risked a glance backwards and saw a hole in the ground, with Rarity wheezing by its side, apparently having exhausted herself doing whatever she did. Trixie looked forwards again and galloped the last few meters to the center of the formation. She realized, during those last few seconds, that Rarity should have used her telekinesis like thousands of tiny shovels to excavate the earth and throw the pieces of ground at the monster. It was a very impressive bit of magic, specially on such short notice. The unicorn Knight realized how good her apprentices were, and decided she should show off a bit to reward them for their new advancements.

She got to the right spot and used her magic senses to connect with the formation. Then she "unlocked" it, to be able to actually use the power of the entire formation all at once. The way to do so was one of the biggest secrets her position afforded her to know. Immediately, she could feel the extreme power of the formation, ready to be used.

"Amplify Domain..." She whispered, and drew upon the formation to be able to execute the spell. It was actually not a very complicated magic, being something Sunset developed, because the only effect of the spell was increasing the range in which the user could directly exert their energy.

But the magnitude of the spell was immense.

Trixie's Domain expanded to cover the entire magical formation, and kept expanding, to the point where even the chaos creatures which had been lured by her previous spell were included in it. While normally, to affect long distances with magic, it was necessary to form a spell and then "throw" it, which had the risk of the magic decaying on the way if the distance was too large. But that was only because normally, one's own Domain only covers a few feet away from their bodies. But now Trixie could directly form a spell anywhere her expanded Domain reached.

Now that she could use the enormous power of the formation, the biggest limitation on what spells she could use was how complex the spell formulas she could use were, since simple spell formulas simply couldn't hold too much magical power, and Trixie wanted to use as much of the overflowing power she had access to as possible.

So Trixie's first use of the magical formation was complex yet elegant. Creating a formula that would target every single one of the chaos beings, would compensate for the interference of the chaos magic in the air, and would use exactly enough energy to dispel the chaos magic, leaving the ponies inside unharmed. As she wrote the formula, the mental strain was noticeable, but far from her limit. It was simply the most efficient way of dealing with it.

And the most stylish.

The apprentices looked around as they saw small points of light appear on the bodies of every single chaos creature they could see. And before they could do anything about it, the points of light started shining brightly, and every one of the creatures started shrinking, their forms losing their special features, and their presences becoming more "real" for a lack of a better term. Every single one of them howled, roared, screamed and gave off all sorts of noises that could be imagined, in a terrifying cacophony of noise.

But eventually, everything stopped, leaving only a bunch of ponies groaning on the floor, disoriented. Applejack and Rarity looked at their teacher, completely stupefied by that display of power.

But Trixie quickly got them moving:

"Can you gather the ponies and bring them here?" She asked.

The two hurried to comply, and Trixie started a new spell. She had rescued all those ponies, so there was a need for a place where they could be safe while she and her apprentices were busy saving the princesses. Thankfully, removing so many chaos creatures from the place had cleared the air significantly, so her next spell was significantly easier:

"Perfect Illusion: Keep Out!" She cast, creating a field around the space of the magical formation and imbuing the field with a very powerful enchatment designed to keep out bad influences. In this case, it was made to prevent chaotic creatures from coming close by presenting an illusion of absolute order, something that was inimical to their being.

By that point, Applejack and Rarity had come back with the freed ponies. They were fairly afraid, but seemed to have taken some confort in the presence of a Knight. Trixie decided to reassure them:

"You should be safe here, Trixie has cast a spell to keep the monsters out. We are going to rescue the princesses next."

The ponies were relieved, and Trixie started on her next spell, which would be the hardest of all of them, because it would cover the entire city. She spent an entire minute composing the spell formula:

"Perfect Illusion: Fake Reality!" And the spell spread from her, to englobe the entire city of Canterlot, taking root despite all the wild chaos magic around due to the sheer overwhelming power she had drawn from the formation and poured into the spell.

But at its heart, it was a very simple magic. It was made to present, to anyone who would look, that there was nothing interesting going on in the city. Discord was connected with chaos everywhere, and this would be enough to allow them to save the princesses and remove the chaos he had wrought on Canterlot and reduce his powers without him being aware. It wouldn't work under normal circunstances, but he was fairly distracted at the... moment...

Trixie saw, via her remote vision, Twilight removing her restraints. She looked at her apprentices:

"We're getting out of time! It's not going to be confortable, but Trixie can use the power of the formation to overcome the interference of the chaos magic and teleport to the castle. Come close!"

Applejack and Rarity saw that Trixie was more serious than they had ever seen her be. They moved without discussion, and the unicorn Knight quickly created the spell formula and activated a forced teleport.

The ponies still there could only wait and hope...

-

Pinkie Pie was a cheerful pony who always believed that things would go alright, but she couldn't help but show a worried frown. That's because her teacher had told her what happened the last time she released her own restraints completely.

Half of Canterlot had been destroyed.

She felt helpless, knowing that Twilight had been pushed to this point because she wasn't strong enough to help. But still, Pinkie decided to do whatever she could, even if it was only trying to point the chaotic unicorn in the right direction.

Discord was waiting impatiently to see what the purple unicorn would do. Despite how much they had angered him, the spirt of chaos honestly felt that he hadn't had so much fun in more time than he cared to count. There seemed to be no end to their tricks, and he was looking forward to what that unicorn would do. In fact, he actually started to seriously think about taking both of them under his wing, to think of the chaos they could wreak-

Suddenly, a gigantic hoof stepped on him.

Twilight giggled, and it could be seen that one of her legs was halfway through a small portal that had appeared from nowhere "Tag, you're it!" She removed her leg from the portal, and the hoof that had smashed Discord also disappeared.

The draconequus unflattened himself "Oh you..." He took a step in Twilight's direction.

And a hand closed around the Knight "Got you!"

He got hit with a snowball "Sorry, try again!" Twilight shouted at him, from the complete opposite direction.

Discord opened his hand. In it was a paper saying "I O U an unicorn Knight".

The spirit of chaos realized that he would have to actually make and effort this time.

And thus began the highest stakes game of tag ever since the last time the three Knights (only apprentices at the time) had decided to run one of their "special tactical simulations". And if there was an event that could earn the title of "chaotic battle", it was that confrontation between Discord and Twilight. Her power had escalated enough that she could perfectly match him even though he was using "big attacks" all the time now. He trapped her in a conjured prison, complete with guards and other inmates (all Discord), and she responded by befriending one of the inmates and organizing a break out in less time than it took to take a breath. He grabbed the entire city to be able to grab her in his hand, and a bunch of Twilights showed up, wailing about "Twilight's death" (she had indeed closed her eyes and become stiff), and took her away to organize a funeral (Discord pressed fast-forward in his remote to make this go faster). He pulled out a picture of Twilight, touched the unicorn in the picture and declared her to be it, and the Knight in the picture reached out and touched him, saying "Tag, you're it again!".

The fact that she was still using the party hat as a horn only made the situation weirder.

And the earth pony seemed to be unwilling to simply leave things to her teacher, she had challenged Discord to a game of "I Spy". And since she didn't have the same level of power that let Twilight contest with Discord, Pinkie Pie instead was using her smarts. Like when she said she spied something beginning with "E", and Discord brought out a weird, two-headed and five-legged creature which he called an equanicuderas. And Pinkie said that wasn't it, and Discord brought out a sealed envelope containing Pinkie's signature that the thing she had spied was an equanicuderas, but by that point she had replaced the equanicuderas with a bunch of rocks shaped like a rabbit.

And things went on like this for a few exchanges. But it turned out that, and this surprised Discord, it turned out that unrestrained Twilight was even less patient than him.

"Bored now." She said, and then her party hat shined, and suddenly all three of the participants in the battle were inside a conjured classroom, with Twilight at the teacher's desk while Discord and Pinkie were sitting on tables for students.

"Class, today we are going to learn why Discord should stop causing so much chaos so thoughtlessly." She announced.

Pinkie froze, and slowly turned to look at the spirt of chaos... before sighing in relief. He had taken a pose of complete attention and seriousness. It seemed like he wanted to see where she was going with that. The earth pony's heart was beating wildly, because there was very little she could do if things went south. Still, she kept listening as Twilight talked, and she actually already knew many of the reasons, because of the unicorn's lessons about the nature of chaos. She talked about how chaos without purpose was totally boring, how chaos was itself because it was unexpected, and would lose that if it was all chaos, all the time, she talked about how an excess of chaos magic would eventually harm the very structure of the world, causing it to collapse and preventing any more fun from being had...

"But still, all that is secondary." Twilight said "There is one reason which is even more important than all of that put together."

Pinkie Pie and Discord both stared. The pony because Twilight had never talked about an even bigger thing than all that, and Discord because he could feel everything was just the set-up and he was about to see the punchline.

"Because it would make Fluttershy sad." Twilight said solemnly.

There was a moment of absolute silence.

Then Pinkie Pie nodded. Indeed, making Fluttershy sad was something that would have extreme metaphysical consequences. And it was something incredibly obvious, so there had been no reason for Twilight to mention it to her.

Discord, on the other hand, had a different reaction.

"Who is Fluttershy?" He asked in a questioning tone.

Twilight stared at him in disbelief.

"Who is Fluttershy...? You actually don't know who Fluttershy is...?" She muttered "Then, allow me to enlighten you!"

The classroom exploded, and with a shine of her horn, Twilight erected a gigantic monument in the form of a stone tablet, and on that tablet was an image of Fluttershy.

"She is Fluttershy!" She pointed "Can you see it? Can you see how cute she is?!" Twilight's words resounded through the entire town and even inside the Everfree "Look at her eyes! Could you bear to make them sad?!" Twilight was speaking with an immense conviction.

-

Meanwhile, in another part of Ponyville, Fluttershy was blushing heavily. She had seen that gigantic image of herself and was hearing the words Twilight was saying, and she simply froze on the spot.

Sunset took pity on her and grabbed her with telekinesis and kept going.

However, despite her apparent stoicness, inwardly she was thinking about how she would tease her partner about it later.

-

Rainbow Dash was looking at everything that was happening from the sky, so she obviously understood everything that was going on, including the context.

She facehoofed. The pegasus knew the Knights were weird, but this was still unexpected.

Rainbow didn't think she would mention this part when she retold the tale later.

-

In the city of Canterlot, Trixie was currently fighting a castle again.

She hoped this kind of thing wouldn't become a routine, castles weren't opponents she could dazzle with her tricks, so it felt a little empty to fight them.

Just from the fact she could have such thoughts in the middle of a battle was enough to realize things weren't going badly. She was actually also keeping up her remote vision spell still, so she saw the scene.

Even as she kept thinking of possible outcomes for this situation, a small part of her mind was thinking about how she would tease her partner about it later.

-

Discord put a hand on his chin.

"Hmm... I think I remember her. She was one of the ponies that were with you earlier... She should still be near..." He turned and started making a gesture... And was interrupted by a book to the face. And not just any book, but a door sized book.

"Hey, I still haven't finished! Don't lose focus!" Twilight shouted at him.

"Tch." He pointed at the book and turned it into a squirrel "Where was I..." He was completely disregarding the unicorn.

"Looks like a book is not enough." Twilight was frowning, but she suddenly smiled "Better use the whole library, then!" And a familiar tree library appeared in the air next to the unicorn and threw itself at the spirit of chaos.

Pinkie winced when she heard the sound of things breaking from inside the library. Twilight wouldn't be happy when she came back to her senses. And her unrestrained state was becoming more and more unpredictable.

The party pony hoped the others would come back soon.

Rescue

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The reaction to the sudden arrival of Trixie, Rarity and Applejack to the castle was immediate. It couldn't be different, since Trixie had utterly destroyed what passed by "wards" for a chaos master like Discord (mostly, things that turned you into a fish if you tried to pass through) in order to actually enter the castle with a teleport. It was loud and obvious, which would be fine if the team was serving as a distraction, but they were in fact the only attack force. Attracting all the attention was a problem, but one they would have to surmount. Trixie knew this would happen, but decided that it was better than wasting any more time.

But anyway, the reaction was immediate, and the first threat they faced was a bunch of paintings throwing themselves at them. And that wasn't all, because the subjects of the paintings started coming halfway out of their portraits, and they started charging magic (most were unicorns, but the earth ponies were managing a glow from their hooves and the pegasi from their wings). Both Rarity and Applejack knew that Trixie wouldn't be able to use a big spell so soon after that teleport, so the farmer raised a hoof and hastily charged magic before bringing it down and making the floor shake, making the earth pony and unicorn portraits stumble. Then Rarity activated her trusty telekinesis and one-upped her, fouling the pegasi portrait's wings and at the same time pulling on the hooves of the others, making all the chaos portraits fall to the ground.

Upon seeing that, Trixie didn't hesitate. She started galloping in the direction of the portraits while charging magic, and released her spell before they had a chance to get up.

"Perfect Illusion: Space Warp!" But instead of hitting the portraits, Trixie targetted the castle itself, taking advantage of the great amount of chaotic energy that had subsumed it to make the castle itself think the ponies should be a few rooms ahead (the maximum she could get on such short notice). This was essentially tricking the castle into chaotic teleporting them. Upon having a moment to breathe, Trixie called Applejack, who focused on her Eyes of Truth again and indicated a direction. The Knight and her apprentices resumed their movement through the castle, and it took more than half a minute for the next layer of defenses to hit them, enough time for Rarity to ask about something.

"Trixie dear... What's that floating sphere you have there?" Rarity was referring to a sphere of light that was floating beside the showmare.

"That's my way of being able to use big spells easily." Trixie said proudly "It's the Sphere of Charge, a special magical construct that can contain a big amount of magical power for me to use at any time. I actually finished creating the construct today, but didn't have a chance to charge one with magic, but the magical formation made it easy to do so now."

"Ah get it." Applejack said "Then Ah guess there should be a reason why ya haven't got more than one of those."

"Very perceptive of you, Applejack." Trixie sighed "This thing is actually fairly hard to control and takes a lot of concentration to maintain. I can't do more than one yet."

Their response to that would have to wait, because the three were attacked again, this time by a squidlike creature apparently made out of tons of pieces of armor fused together awkwardly. It moved on seventeen tentacles and quickly got up close to them. However, this time Trixie was completely ready to deal with problem, and she charged up a spell to show Rarity and Applejack that she would field that one.

"Perfect Illusion: Mistaken Movement!" And this time she attacked the opponent directly. Trixie would have moved them forward again if she could, since time was of the essence, but chaos magic resisted doing the same thing consecutively, so it would be very hard and tiring to force the castle to comply. Instead, Trixie decided to simply make the obstacle in front cease to be one, and her spell was designed to hinder the target's ability to control its own movements. Which would be specially effective on something that had such a complicated way of moving.

And it worked, the chaotic squid fell on its side and started twitching, unable to get its "legs" back under itself. The three ponies passed it from the side opposite to the legs and kept going.

And that was when the castle decided to stop being cute and actually start attacking by itself. Floor and ceiling bent and met each other like a closing jaw, the walls started growing hands, hooves, horns and weirder apendages to try to grasp, crush, skewer and generally harm the ponies, entire sections of architeture set themselves on fire, vomited acid or started freezing up. It was much harder for Trixie to deal with than the comparatively straightforward castle defenses of Sombra, and she would have been totally unable to do it were it not for her experience dealing with Twilight's chaotic spells, which meant she could predict what the castle was trying to do by feeling the energy, and she could interfere with the chaotic magic effects via her illusions. The fact that the "mind" behind all those attacks was fairly simple and couldn't easily deal with the interference made it easier.

She couldn't have done it by herself though. Having to deal with the continuous stream of attacks from the castle would take away her magic faster than it could replenish itself, and Trixie would probably have to use her Sphere of Charge in a single powerful attack in order to temporarily disable the castle and give her the chance to keep going. However, she wasn't alone, Rarity and Applejack perfectly understood that their best role in this battle would be to buy Trixie some time to recover. They took turns doing so, since neither of them was skilled enough to deal with the threats presented by the castle without exhausting their own magic reserves, and the three ponies settled in a rhythm that went Applejack, Trixie, Rarity, Trixie again and back to Applejack, maximizing their effectiveness.

Rarity was mostly using her telekinesis to deal with things (removing pieces of the ground to act as shields, breaking supports to bring down parts of the roof, holding back things that were thrown at them), but also managed to make good use of the anti-chaos spell (she was getting a lot of practice with it), and even managed to take some basic unicorns spells a lot further than she would have believed possible, like when she transmutated an attacking carpet into salt, and when she used her gem-finding spell to fly towards a candelabra. Applejack, on the other hand, was a lot more limited on what she could do, having to keep manipulating the envinronment by using her Eyes of Truth combined with her own innate earth pony magic to locate weak points both structural and magical, and she soon discovered that the excess chaos magic all around made it so it was actually easier to do complicated shapings of the earth than it would be to simply break things. Applejack kept the ground under their hooves moving to make them faster, created her own earth apendages to counter-attack and even created cannons to shoot at whatever was a threat. She was actually feeling like a unicorn.

While Trixie, of course, was the MVP. Each of her spells had a much bigger effect than either Applejack or Rarity could do, allowing the three ponies to cross for a bigger distance before the castle "recovered" and sent the next attack after them. Trixie's illusions seemed to have no end to them, creating countless copies of the three to confuse the targetting of the attacks, making parts of the castle read as "intruders" and be blasted by the defenses, increasing the effectivity of her apprentices by using a spell that made them believe they could do more, actually giving them the ability, creating a temporally ally via a spell that made the chaos magic think it would be a good idea to "give them a fighting chance"... Her two apprentices understood more and more why Trixie was one of the protectors of the realm.

Still, all three of the ponies were getting more and more tired, it was mostly their sheer determination to save the princesses that kept Applejack and Rarity from weakening, and even with her special training, Trixie was starting to have trouble concentrating. Her mental fatigue was, in fact, the biggest issue. She was still looking at the chaotic fight and having to maintain her Sphere of Charge, not to mention all the complicated spells she was doing. Thankfully, they managed to reach the end before getting to their limits.

"Almost there!" Applejack shouted, then she stomped on the ground, making it break and forcing Rarity to use her telekinesis to help make their descent into the lower floor more soft. She also quickly cleared away the cloud of dust formed by their landing, allowing all three of the ponies to finally see their goal.

Celestia and Luna were trapped together, which really made it easier to use one single spell to free both (as Trixie had planned). That was the good news, the bad news was the fact that Discord seemed to have given special attention to the construction of their prison. The whole room was a single, massive chaotic being, and it made every other chaotic being they had seem before seem straightforward. The ground and walls seemed to have the consistence of a tongue and were constantly contracting and relaxing like a beating heart. The walls on their sides were full of eyes and other facial features, as well as windows, lamps and nails. The ground was full of leg-like tendrils, made of rocks, water, glass and all sorts of other materials, and containing claws, fangs, knives and other threatening, pointy things. The wall in front of them was the place the princesses were trapped in, and protuding from it were tentacles made from all sorts of small animals and objects connected together, and each tentacle seemed to have its own magic.

This was such an impossible creature that it was only the energy it was constantly draining from the princesses that kept its existence stable.

Trixie assessed the situation quickly, and gave her apprentices some very simple instructions.

"Give me time to charge this spell, and this will be over."

Then she started galloping on the direction of the princesses, charging magic at the same time.

Applejack and Rarity were only a step behind, and they took their focus to the limit, knowing their teacher was trusting them to protect her. Just before they got to the tendrils, Applejack overtook Trixie and pushed her magic down, to beyong the floor of the room until she found actual ground she could manipulate. That earth was brought upwards and formed a barrier around the charging ponies, a barrier that had an arrowlike tip and kept moving at the speed of the galloping ponies like a high-speed tank, and started to plow through the tendrils. Rarity, for her part, used her telekinesis to the very limit, both forcing the tentacles to point in other directions and throwing bits of stone at lethal speeds to try and damage them. She couldn't get all the tentacles, but Applejack's earth tank managed to resist the attacks it had to. This lasted for a few seconds.

And Trixie finished charging her spell.

"In the middle of chaos, my route is firm..."

And Trixie teleported.

She only went a few meters forward, enough to be able to touch the wall with the princesses, but doing so at the very heart of the chaos Discord had created made it the hardest teleport the azure unicorn had ever done in her life. Even Twilight's teleportation counter-measures didn't force her to go to such lenghts to bypass them. Trixie had exhausted every scrap of power in her body, and it would take more time than she had to recover enough magic to do anything impressive.

But she didn't need to wait, because her Sphere of Charge was still there. And as soon as the teleportation sinished, Trixie started a new spell.

"Those divided will fall..."

A spell has three components. The first is the very will to change the world. The chanting done before using certain spells was a way to focus the will to allow greater feats of magic. The second was the energy needed for the spell, and Trixie could use the energy she had prepared. The third was the structure of the spell, the spell formula that directed the magic.

This was the part that gave Trixie trouble.

Despite being taken by surprise, the tentacles on the wall reacted quickly enough that the Knight only had seven tenths of a second to build her spell. Usually this would be far more than enough, but this was the last defense Discord had put to keep the princesses contained. This was a creature of chaos so powerful and complex it resisted any normal methods that could be used on others, so Trixie had to do something particularly special.

The showmare Knight expanded her awareness and wrote the spell formula as she took in the state of each part of the creature. It would be impossible if she didn't have experience with Twilight's chaos magic, and even then, there were some things she had never seen before and had to work out counters to from first principles. The formula kept getting more and more ridiculously complex, adapting to affect every part and every effect and every scrap of energy of the creature. Trixie abandoned her remote viewing spell, knowing she simply had no way of maintaining her concentration on it while creating that spell.

The azure unicorn experienced a subjective time of minutes during the small window of time she had, simply because her sheer concentration made her hyper-aware of every thousandth of a second. Creating that spell was like a journey through several dangerous lands, and by the time it was over, Trixie felt slightly different herself. But she didn't have time to think about it.

"Perfect Illusion: Chaos Break!"

And the stored magical power Trixie had been carrying exploded into the horrendously complicated spell formula Trixie had just put together, and then expanded, infusing itself in every single bit of the creature, where the spell took effect.

Chaos Break was a complicated spell, but simple to explain. It made half of the creature perceive the other half as being made of pure order, its very opposite. And did this for both halves. The monster attacked itself in the most basic of ways, spending an insane amount of magic in a fruitless attempt to remove the other half, which was doing exactly the same thing. The thing dissolved, dumping the ponies in another room. Trixie saw that the princesses were free.

That was when the pain hit.

"AAAAARGHHH!" Trixie screamed, holding her head.

It was like something was splitting her head open. Doing such a complex spell so fast had strained Trixie's mind more than anything she had ever done. Trixie tried to endure the pain for two excruciating seconds, before she felt wings coming around herself, and realized there were no enemies present, so she didn't have to act tough. Trixie let tears come to her eyes and sobbed quietly while her teacher did her best to confort her.

Meanwhile, Princess Luna was talking with Rarity and Applejack.

"So you are some of the apprentices I've heard so much about. Your actions really are worthy of heroes." Luna said praisingly.

"Thank you, your highness, you are too kind." Rarity said politely,

"That was just what Ah had to do, Princess." Applejack said her own piece.

"It seems like you have been pushing yourselves hard. How do you feel now?" Luna asked, casting a spell to remove fatigue.

"That's amazing! Thank you, Princess!" Rarity felt like she could do the entire adventure all over again.

Applejack had similar thoughts, and she saw that Trixie was receiving the same treatment from Celestia.

"Hello, Princess." Trixie said when her headache became easier to bear.

"Hello, to you too, my student." Celestia said "How are things going?"

Trixie felt well enough to reestabilish her remote vision spell, and her blood ran cold.

"Princess! You have to send us back, now!" Trixie shouted, and joined her magic with Celestia's in a practiced way, making a hasty teleportation spell that sent the three heroic ponies back to Ponyville.

Celestia knew things were bad because of how Trixie had acted, so she made her decision quickly.

"Luna, go free this city from chaos, I'll see what I can do to help against Discord."

Luna nodded and teleported out, and Celestia did a remote vision spell of her own, hoping things would not end up in the worst case scenario.

World Create

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If the first part of the chaotic battle with Twilight in an unreleased state was her in an evasive mood, and the second was her in a teaching mood, the third and current part was Twilight in an agressive mood.

And Pinkie finally understood completely the reason why Twilight had told her to remain "at the edges". The chaotic unicorn followed up on her "throwing tree" gambit with turning the entire battlefield into an abyss of darkness that started to suck up everything around it. That strategy managed to actually force Discord to pay attention to her, but the earth pony had to repeatedly chaotic teleport on top of clouds to avoid being sucked up herself.

It seemed that the Knight had completely forgotten the notion of "fire control".

And that set the tone for the next few minutes of combat. Discord made the abyss spit back out everything it had sucked and threw it at Twilight, only for the unicorn to turn all that matter into a coordinated strike team composed of a weird hybrid of rhynoceros and elephants, who spat out multitudes of sharp horns from their trunks, blanketing the area on deadly projectiles. Pinkie had to party cannon herself onto one of the rhynophants and tame it to escape danger, and kept using her new mount, as she knew things would get even crazier from there.

And in fact they did, the spirit of chaos responded to that attack by turning all the projectiles around into wind-up toys capable of firing laser beams, which he set upon Twilight's own troops.

And things kept escalating from there, with Twilight's wave of sharp teeth, rain of lightning fish and a hydra made of portals clashed against Discord's mountain of hands, volcano of iron dentures and winged fish wielding a dimension cutting sword. Through all that, Pinkie had no chance of actually getting involved, and simply did her best to try and avoid injury.

But Pinkie Pie still had enough awareness remaining to see something that seemed particularly out of place, even in that kind of weird battle. It was when Twilight created dozens of copies of herself, each one with a different color scheme, and set all of them to attack Discord. One of them (with a grey mane) disobeyed that order, and floated off to observe the battle from a certain distance, but neither Twilight nor Discord seemed to have even noticed that something was wrong. And that copy seemed to be immaterial and completely impossible to affect, since all kinds of attacks and types of energy passed through her without having any effect.

And there was a lot of those. Twilight's self duplication gambit had managed to achieve something which had seemed impossible previously, and actually put the spirit of chaos on the backstep.

Twilight seemed to have completely given up on well-realized attacks and was simply using pure chaos magic shot by each and every one of the copies. Instead of reaching their target and activating like normal spells, Twilight's blasts of magic distorted the world around them even as they travelled through the air, causing random transformations, bending space and even releasing blasts of magic with their own effects all around.

This seemed to be too much for Discord, specially due to the fact that the unicorn's focus was entirely on him, to the point that Pinkie could actually breathe easy (though the sheer amount of offensive chaotic power in the air was making her sick in a methaphysical sense[which was as weird as expected]). But then the party pony looked at her teacher and saw something worrying.

Her form seemed to be wavering slightly like a mirage. Pinkie rubbed her eyes to try to clear them, but it kept getting more obvious. And then her colors started getting dangerously vibrant and shiny. And then her body started vibrating.

And yet, Twilight kept laughing while she and her copies launched attacks, seemingly completely oblivious to this change.

Pinkie Pie felt, through her Pinkie Sense, that something very bad was happening, but she was incapable of sensing what exactly it was. She was thinking about interfering with what was happening in some way...

And that was when the gray Twilight acted.

Putting her fron hooves forward, she flew incredibly quickly to Twilight's main body and fused with it. Twilight suddenly stopped laughing and moving, and the same happened with her copies. Then every single copy was sucked towards Twilight and fused with her, along with every single spell they still had in effect, creating a huge maelstron of chaos that spun around the unicorn and was sucked up.

Finally, Twilight's body returned to normal, she stopped wavering and vibrating, and her colors went back to normal. Then she fell to the ground, groaning.

"Nrgh..."

Pinkie didn't even think about it, she shifted to Twilight's position and tried to see what was wrong, but there didn't seem to be any injuries in the unicorn's body, and her Pinkie Sense was telling her that Twilight wasn't at risk.

"So, you've finally hit your limit on the Chaotic Release." Discord said in a victorious tone "It was very strong, and it is rare for anypony to return to normal instead of exploding when the technique ends... But you've still lost."

Pinkie Pie looked at him fiercely, she was preparing her mind to fight Discord one-on-one.

Yet, he seemed unperturbed.

"With this, I will take my prize. Both of you will be my apprentices from now on." He pointed two fingers at the ponies, and did something completely unexpected.

He started charging magic.

It took only a second, but it was still more than he had ever done in the fight. And from that, he shot two arrows made of black light at the ponies.

When Pinkie Pie saw the arrows, her Pinkie Sense practically screamed "RUN AWAY!" at her. So, the party pony held Twilight and chaotically jumped as far as she could. Despite carrying another pony and being already tired, her distance reached thousands of meters.

But it didn't matter.

The arrows seemed to shift, and they simply moved the same amount as she had. And they were moving fast, too fast.

The earth pony didn't have any option except try to shield Twilight with her body, even knowing it would do no good.

-

"Magic Enhance: Grand Arrow Shot!" Sunset shouted, using her fastest spell, creating a powerful arrow of light that contained all of her will to take down Discord's magic. It was a phenomenal feat of magic.

But it just wasn't fast enough.

-

Trixie, Applejack and Rarity appeared near the battlefield. The unicorn Knight immediately started charging magic. She saw from his comments that Discord was trying to control the two ponies, so she started thinking of spells to break that control.

-

Rainbow Dash dove.

She cursed her own lack of luck. Pinkie's teleportation had put her too far away from the pegasus. Even with maximum speed, she simply wouldn't be able to reach the ponies in time.

The entire world seemed to slow down as she accelerated, until Rainbow Dash touched a very familiar barrier, which stopped her from going faster.

But she still wasn't fast enough to reach Twilight and Pinkie. So she ignored the pain in her body as she pushed her magic harder than she ever remembered doing. Her teacher had put her in charge of saving the two if necessary. Rainbow Dash wouldn't disappoint Sunset, Rainbow Dash wouldn't break her promise, Rainbow Dash wouldn't let those two heroes be hit.

The pegasus willed her body to move, and in that moment, she forgot everything and the only thing left in her mind was reaching her goal.

And faced with such an extraordinary will, the barrier broke, and suddenly Rainbow Dash accelerated beyond anything she had ever felt, overtook the arrows, grabbed the two ponies and flew into the sky, seeking safety.

-

Neither Rainbow Dash nor her passengers were in a position to see the effects of the pegasus' movement, but Sunset, Fluttershy, Applejack, Trixie and Rarity were. They saw a beautiful explosion of planar rainbow energy, and each one of them had different thoughts about it.

Fluttershy was nostalgic, remembering the first time her friend had done it. Sunset was proud of her student finally managing to surpass her "wall". Trixie was thinking of how amazing it would be in a show. Applejack could see the sheer purity that Rainbow had when she managed it, and thought this was something she would never forget. Rarity thought that Rainbow's last-second rescue and the explosion were magnificent.

But those thoughts were soon replaced when the edge of the expanding rainbow circle reached the spirit of chaos.

"NGAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

His scream was horrifying and chilled the blood of all who heard it. And when they could see the result of the sonic rainboon having passed through him, they were completely shocked.

Discord's body had become distorted, with each distinct part seeming to have grown of shrunk in proportions, and there were deep cracks running through the whole thing, leaking some sort of fluorescent and multicolored liquid.

The spirit of chaos started breathing heavily and seemed to struggle to move his own hands, but when he got in position to do another spell, a beam of light suddenly struck him.

He turned in shock as the light disappeared and bands of light appeared on his arms and legs. Then his face became angry and he seemed to blow up, creating a short-lived cloud of dust that cleared to show that his proportions were back to normal. But the cracks in his body were still there, same with the bands of light.

Sunset, Trixie and Twilight(who, along with Rainbow Dash and Pinkie, had heard Discord's scream and looked in his direction) immediately realized what was going on. Princess Celestia had taken the opportunity to hit Discord with a spell to seal his chaotic movement, preventing him from running away after being weakened by the attack.

But Discord wouldn't make that easy. Seeing that this was a fairly unoptimal situation, he did the best thing he could and ran into the Everfree Forest, ignoring the rain of spells Sunset was unleashing on him, before waving his hand and causing every tree in the forest to grow and create a barrier to prevent others from following him.

Rainbow Dash landed next to Sunset, letting her passengers off, and Trixie and her students also moved there. The three Knights knew that time was of the essence, so they had a conversation via looks:

(Sunset: You saw that right, Trixie? Can you reproduce it?
Trixie: Yes, I can. Think we can do a World Create?
Twilight: We can, but we'll need to Overdrive too much to get enough power, even weakened like he is, Discord will not go down to a half-hearted attack.
Trixie: Then I'll need your help to create the spell formula. I forced myself too much on my mission, and making a complex enough illusion would already be difficult even if I was 100%.
Sunset: That's okay, but we need a way of getting Discord before he can reach the source of chaos magic in the middle of the forest and recover.
Twilight: I and my apprentices will deal with that.)

"Fluttershy." Twilight looked at the pegasus seriously "Discord has made the forest reject us so he can get to the center unopposed and recover." She watched as the animal caretaker took on a look of defiance upon hearing that "I'll need you to talk to the entire forest and get it to accept us, so that me and Pinkie can move us in and intercept him."

Fluttershy seemed hesitant for a moment before nodding "I'll do my best."

Sunset teleported them close to the forest and Fluttershy approached one of the trees and touched it before closing her eyes and focusing. It took only a few seconds for all the ponies around to start feeling the amount of magic Fluttershy was using to try and complete her mission. Sunset actually opened her mouth to say something about it but Twilight silenced her with a look (not a communication look, just a normal one).

Her faith in her apprentice proved to not be misplaced. Fluttershy's body started to shine brightly and then the trees returned to normal, opening a passage for them. Fluttershy started breathing heavily from the effort, but was still okay.

"Fluttershy only loses to you among all the ponies here in terms of magical power." Twilight explained quickly, before nodding to Pinkie Pie. Both of them focused and took a step, moving through the forest at chaotic speed and carrying the rest of the ponies with them.

They reappeared in a rather deep part of the forest, next to a river in a position that would allow them to easily spot Discord as soon as he made his way through the trees.

Wasting no time, the three Knights adopted a triangle formation and started casting, slowly creating a ridiculously complex structure that Rarity only faintly recognized as a spell formula.

But Discord turned out to be faster than expected, and he got there before the three were ready to unleash their magic, if barely.

But at this point, Fluttershy's emotions overflowed. She had been seeing all the bad things Discord did, all the homes that were distorted, all the ponies that had been turned into monsters... She thought of all of that, and in the moment where Discord was surprised to see the ponies he thought he had outrun before him... The pegasus Stared at the spirit of chaos.

It could only be described as the eyes of ten thousand disappointed mothers concentrated on a single point, and Discord was frozen to his spot out of pure conceptual shame. and it worked for three entire seconds, practically an eternity under the circunstances. Specially because the Knights were ready after two.

"OVERDRIVE!" All three shouted, releasing an immense amount of magic from their bodies, more than they had ever used with that technique, enough that their combined magical power started to distort space around them.

But it was put to use quickly.

"Everything that exists can be faked...

"Perfect Illusion: Harmony World!" Trixie shouted, and the magical formula created by the Knights lit up as she channeled her magic through it, allowing for the impossible to occur via Trixie's own will and abilities.

And the effect was colossal, for an entire world appeared around Discord. It was a small world but it possessed everything a world needs to exist, its own laws, a diferentiation between spaces, as well as a firm structure. Creating even such a small world was supposed to be impossible for ponies, but it was only an illusion, so Trixie could barely do it.

And the law of the world was harmony.

If Discord could have, he would have grimaced at such a thing appearing around him, but it was only an illusion of harmony, instead of the pure stuff, so it wasn't harmful for him.

But the Knights were not done yet.

"With trust, nothing is impossible...

"Soul Offering!" Sunset shouted, using one of the spells she was most proud off. Having so much magic power, the yellow unicorn had hit upon the idea of sharing some with her partners so that they could perform spells beyond their regular capacity. That was the first time she had actually used it in battle, and Sunset was surprised over the fact that even that first use had to be done in combination with an Overdrive.

And it wasn't just power. As Twilight received the technique, she could feel a veritable connection between Sunset and herself, as the Soul Offering was not an hyperbole, and the powerful Knight had put her own essence under the mercy of the chaotic unicorn.

This was the main reason why this spell was so powerful.

"The boundaries of the world move under my will...

"Boundary Sign: Reverse Boundary!" And it was a sign of how monumental was the spell Twilight was attempting, that even with Sunset's Overdrive in addition to her own, an amount of magic power that could be described as obscene, Twilight still barely managed to cast the spell.

But she did manage, and the effect was worth the cost, for in the area occupied by Trixie's illusion, an entire concept shifted, and the boundary between reality and illusion... flipped.

Turning an illusion of a world of harmony into the real thing.

"COMBINATION ATTACK: WORLD CREATE!" The trio of Knights shouted.

The world lasted for only a moment before Trixie's power was unable to keep such a thing in the world, but it was more than enough.

Discord didn't even have time to scream, as his form exploded into thousands of pieces of chaos magic, that flew off in all directions, causing a commotion to all that were looking at the sky.

But neither the Knights nor their apprentices had any time to think about it, because the effect of the Overdrive hit and the three fainted.

Decision

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Twilight groaned as she woke up. Her body felt like she had just gone fifteen rounds in an all-out magical battle with Sunset, without use of her chaotic magic. She was afraid of going inside her own mindscape because she knew it would be a mess after going no restraints for so long that she had to be stopped by her final counter-measure, the Shred of Self. Still, the unicorn wanted to know how things had gone, so she forced herself to open her eyes and focus.

Her apprentice, Fluttershy, was there.

Feeling better after seeing that things seemed to be fine, Twilight asked "How long was I out?"

The pegasus hesitated for a bit before looking at the unicorn and answering "Three days." Fluttershy waited a moment for Twilight to process that before continuing "Sunset awoke yesterday. Trixie awoke earlier today. She was blind, but Princess Celestia said it was temporary. Something about straining her mind too much?" Fluttershy said the last bit in an unsure tone.

Twilight looked around the room and noticed that it was one of the guest rooms of the castle. It had a nice bed, a big drawer, an elegant table, innofensive decor and big windows with pretty curtains. It was nice, but pretty impersonal. Then Fluttershy spoke again.

"When you're feeling good enough to walk, go to the meeting room green leaf." Fluttershy seemed to be determined "There's something we have to talk about with you three."

Having said that, she left the room, and Twilight could only think about what would be the reason for this "talk".

Still, the Knight was in a great physical condition due to her training, so it didn't take long before she was walking. And then she got to the meeting room. Twilight found that both Sunset and Trixie (the latter with eyes closed and a magic-binding ring on her horn) were in the room, sitting at a table.

Twilight walked over and sat with them before speaking:

"How's your condition?" she asked casually.

"It's as you can see." Trixie answered "I should recover my sight in two or three days, but any use of magic could aggravate my condition, so I have to use this thing." She sounded somewhat annoyed, but only that.

"I already had a good day of recovery since waking up, but I'm not up for anything more than small spells at the moment." Sunset reported "Can't complain when I look at you two, though."

The purple unicorn gave her partner an acid look, before speaking "Even using basic telekinesis is difficult at the moment, but there's nothing specially wrong."

The three fell into silence while they contemplated what had happened. This had been a much more dangerous and difficult mission than their first one, and it really highlighted the fact that as strong, versatile and well-prepared as they were, the three Knights were far from being perfect. There was a lot of luck involved in their recent victory.

"Any idea what was up with that Sonic Rainboom?" Twilight asked Sunset "I didn't know they could release harmonic light."

"Usually they can't." Sunset said in her own variation of the "teaching" tone "They reflect the magical signature of the pegasus, and you know how rare it is to have harmonic magic." There were very few of those even in Celestia's long memory.

"And Rainbow Dash doesn't have it." Twilight finished the thought "Which makes that magic even stranger."

"I ran a few tests. Dash can now do the sonic rainboom more or less at will." Sunset took a deep breath, struggling with the concept she was about to explain, even now "It was a magical shift. Rainbow Dash somehow instinctively created a pattern shifter in her magic that made the sonic rainboom come out in the form of harmony magic." She finished it all in a single breath, like ripping off a bandaid.

Trixie wished she could see Twilight's reaction to that, since her own had been an amazing jaw drop, and she knew the chaotic unicorn was even more interested in this kind of esoteric magic theory. At least her voice (sounding really offended) was still funny.

"That's absolutely ridiculous." Twilight looked like she thought someone was playing a prank on her.

"I know. She can do it whenever by remembering the sensation, but the mechanics are so complex I don't think she will be able to shift her magic into anything else useful." Sunset finalized her report, hoping that Twilight would regain calm soon.

"Of course they're complex!" The purple unicorn looked about ready to go on a rant "Shifting magical patterns is something that defines fringe magical theory. It's not the sort of thing you should be able to do instinctively!" Twilight stopped and took a few deep breathes, trying to calm herself down.

Thankfully, her attention was taken by the doors opening, and the five apprentices entering the room. The three unicorn Knights waited until they were seated and Rarity started to speak.

"I know you're curious about why we called you here, so I'm going to get right to the point." She looked at the other apprentices and they all nodded, Rarity nodding in response "We talked with each other and with the Princesses, and we thought about things a lot... And we came to a decision, we want to become Knights."

The Knights were completely speechless, and Rarity kept on speaking "We thought about how we were able to help but not enough, how you three forced yourselves beyond your limits to protect everypony... There were a lot of reasons, but the point is that we decided to take on the responsiility of Knights. We even thought of ways we can become strong enough to be able to help." Rarity looked up "I heard from Princess Celestia about the artificers, those who create powerful magical instruments, both to help other heroes and to strenghten themselves, and the idea of creating things appeals to me. I would like to follow that path." She bowed slightly. Fluttershy was the next to talk:

"I thought a lot about what empathy means, and about how my magic works, and I think I should be able to do wonderful things if I follow the path of empathy." Fluttershy smiled slightly with her eyes closed. Then Pinkie Pie spoke:

"You said simply learning a little of emotion magic would be enough for most purposes, but becoming a master of it." Pinkie was uncharacteristically serious "You said it was dangerous, but I feel like this is the path I want to tread." She finished while looking at Twilight, and smiled. Applejack was next:

"Ah read a lot of the stories about other ponies who had the Eyes of Truth." She said, not forgetting to put in the proper emphasis "If Ah ken learn how to do a least a few of those things, it should be enough for mah magic to be useful. Following the path of mah antecessors is something that feels right." Applejack looked directly at her teacher. Rainbow Dash took her turn:

"I don't know about all those complex things." She said simply "But I know I can get stronger and more able to deal with the kinds of threats a Knight faces. I'm nowhere near my limit yet. That's the path of Rainbow Dash!" She opened her wings and threw her front hooves to the air. Then Rarity took back the conversation.

"As you can see. And Princess Celestia said we should ask this to you personally, so here we are. Will you accept us not just as apprentices, but as Knight apprentices?" Rarity looked at her teacher expectantly, which was mirrored by the other apprentices.

The three unicorn Knights looked at each other in a slight panic (except Trixie, who merely tried to convey panic in the direction she knew they were in), but quickly got themselves under control, and Sunset decided to speak for them.

"You seem very sure, so I'm only going to ask this once." She said seriously "You'll have to train harder them you ever imagined, you'll take on a huge and weighty responsibility, and you'll face untold dangers, all for the sake of Equestria and those who live in it. Knowing all of that, are you willing to become Knights?" She finished.

"Yes." The five ponies answered without hesitation.

Their teachers looked at each other (again, Trixie was an exception, this time tapping her hoof on the ground to indicate excitement) for a few moments and grinned, then Sunset made it official:

"Then, we accept you five as Knight Apprentices." She spoke in a happy tone.

That was a historical day for the land of Equestria.

Apprentices/Discord Arc End

Next: Squires Arc

Interlude 2: Cadance's Ascension

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There was once a little pegasus filly called Cadance.

Like many foals her age, she got really worried about getting her cutie mark, and like many parents, hers weren't able to help in any way other than say that it would come in time.

Cadance tried many things while looking for her own destiny, until one day she read a story about a beautiful magical jewel.

That jewel was called the Crystal Heart, and it had been created to unite the hearts of all the ponies in the Crystal Empire. The pegasus filly found that wonderful, and looked for every single story she could find about the Crystal Heart.

She learned in wonder about the group of artificers that had joined up in order to create it with the goal of ending a period of great strife in the empire. She read in excitement the account of the Crystal Heart uniting the entire empire to such a degree their combined power managed to repel the Spirit of Chaos, Discord. Her heart was filled with sadness upon looking at the story of the rise of King Sombra and his corruption of the Crystal Heart into a tool of domination over the crystal ponies.

Before Cadance realized it, her cutie mark had appeared, and it was shaped like the Crystal Heart.

Her parents were happy for her, even if they didn't realy understand what that mark meant.

Years passed, and the filly became a teenager. Cadance got a job helping manage the weather of their small town to get some money, but her most loved activities were related to the Crystal Heart.

She compiled stories of that artifact into a single book, she did little street shows where she told tales about it, she even did painting, sculpture and other art forms at an amateur level, just to create her own depictions of the Crystal Heart.

Still, the knowledge of the fate of the jewel haunted her, she had repeated dreams where she saw the Crystal Heart close by yet infinitely distant and impossible to touch, even thinking about King Sombra and his iron grip on the Empire and the Crystal Heart filled her with despair.

One day, things simply got to be too much. Cadance had become an older teenager, only a year or two from becoming a young mare, and she had spent half her life feeling helpless. The pegasus wrote a letter and mailed it to her parents, knowing this could be the last thing they ever heard from her. The contents of the letter were simple:

Father, Mother

I'm going after my destiny.

Goodbye, I love both of you.

Cadance

After that, Cadance flew to the train station and took a train to Rantail, which was the closest she could get to the crystal empire by train. She ate a meal in the town and got a lunch for later.

Then she flew in the direction of her goal, stopping once night fell, in order to sleep. She woke up, ate the lunch she had brounght and went back to flying, soon coming into sight of her destination.

It didn't take long for her to invade the airspace of the crystal empire, and soon many pegasus guards flew up to intercept her, but Cadance would not be discouraged by something so small. She simply accelerated and crashed through any pegasus that tried to interfere with her path. Her determination was so great that she was managing to force her pegasus magic much higher than she had ever done before, and even when the guards tried throwing lightning or shooting arrows at her, the magic in her body simply repelled them.

And then, after two minutes of flying at maximum spped, Cadance's will was strenghtened even further upon seeing her goal, the crystal heart, at the top of one of the castle's towers.

But things would not be that easy, because halfway in between her and the Crystal Heart, the air suddenly shimmered and there appeared the pony that had been the reason why Cadance had suffered so much over the years. The sorcerer unicorn, King Sombra.

"So, just a little pegasus and you were unable to stop her? You're going to be punished for this later." He spoke, his voice echoing all around.

He looked at Cadance with an expression of annoyance before shooting a spell at her, and the beam of magic was blood red and seemed to radiate menace. Every single instinct told her to dodge, but that would mean going farther away from the Crystal Heart. Even if she returned to the path later, Cadance felt like she would be betraying her determination if she let anything make her waver.

So she kept on her unchanging path.

The spell hit Cadance like lightning, she felt like her body was burning and her vision swam, but still, she remained on her unchanging path. This seemed to infuriate Sombra, and he charged a spell that was even more menacing, a dark sphere that radiated hate.

"Let's see how you'll fly without wings!" He shouted before shooting the spell at Cadance.

That was a terrifying curse that hit Cadance's body like a scythe. It was a spell specifically created to remove the wings of pegasi and make sure they would never fly again, and it had enough power to overcome three pegasi at once.

But somehow, Cadance wasn't immediately overwhelmed. Her determination to reach her goal had grown to such a degree that she brought out more and more magic from her soul, regardless of the fact that her body couldn't handle it. Cadance's muscles started to tear from the sheer excess of magic passing through them, her mind was suffering stress comparable to weeks without sleep, and her body started to feel more and more numb as the nerves died. And still Cadance kept resisting the curse, with the single-minded obsession of reaching the Crystal Heart, something she would give even her life for.

(I need my wings... To get there... I need... Do I really need them?)

And in that moment, Cadance's wings were cruelly severed, but she barely spared a thought to the notion of having lost an essential part of herself, as an instinctual manipulation of the wind via her pegasus magic kept her in the air and moving towards her goal, and passing Sombra's position. This was the only thing that mattered. Cadance felt that the only thing in the world was getting close to the Crystal Heart.

Sombra could barely believe that stubborn pegasus was still flying and had completely ignored his attempts at stopping her. His face darkened, and he decided to stop playing.

"COME!" He called, and there was no doubt about who he wanted.

Nightmare Moon, the slave alicorn, teleported to his side.

"KILL HER!" Sombra pointed at Cadance, and the corrupted alicorn turned and charged a powerful spell, that would never stop until the target was dead. It was a spell that put the entire being of the caster against the defences of the target, and as an alicorn, Nightmare Moon had an overwhelming advantage in that kind of struggle.

A purple beam lanced out from her horn with such violence that it felt like she should have been hurt by her own spell, and the attack reached Cadance without any possibility of being dodged.

Not that she would have dodged even if she could.

The killing spell hit the barrier of Cadance's will. The pegasus drew a colossal amount of magic from her soul to be able to face against the alicorn. In fact, she drew such an immense amount of magic, so recklessly, that it would be difficult to be certain whether it was the enemy spell or her own rampaging magical power that caused the most damage to Cadance's body.

Because it was her body that suffered, as couldn't be different when facing an actual alicorn. As the struggle went on, her muscles were ground like flour, her bones shattered, and the nerves burned, one of her rear legs fell off and her organs shrivelled inside her body. All that happened in less than three seconds as Cadance kept moving, and she was getting closer and closer to the Crystal Heart. The pain was beyond description, enough to break minds, but Cadance remained focused on her goal.

Yet, her body reached a limit, even if her will didn't. Cadance's nerves burned and she lost all her senses, keeping on her route only by focusing on the part of her soul that sought and resonated with the Crystal Heart. And then her heart finally stopped and her brain shut down, incapable of taking the strain.

Nightmare Moon's spell cut off, knowing that it was over, as Cadance's soul cried out from within the crypt of flesh her body had become, incapable of affecting the world any longer, separated from the world of death only by a thin line that was almost imperceptible. And yet, the last part of Cadance's consciousness that remained refused to give up, and managed to trigger a miracle.

The last cry of the soul, born of all the years of obsession with the object that was almost in reach, from all the understanding and her dreams about the power to connect people... It was heard.

Even though the Crystal Heart was under Sombra's control, a part of it remained that could hear Cadance's cry, and it responded.

It wasn't anything special, Cadance was losing altitude due to the stopping of her pegasus magic, and wouldn't be able to reach the Crystal Heart, but it pulled on her body slightly, changing her trajectory enough that her hoof just barely managed to touch it.

And then, Cadance's soul had a way of affecting the world again, even if it was limited.

The Crystal Heart was connected to every single one of the ponies of the empire, but Cadance's small bit of influence wouldn't be able to do much, so she choose only to transmit a few words to them.

"Ponies of the Crystal Empire, for long you have suffered under King Sombra. I have only one question to you all... In your heart, do you accept him as your ruler or do you reject him?"

Those words sounded on the soul of every single pony on the crystal empire, and before any of them had the chance to think about it, their instinctual responses were transmitted back to Cadance.

"I Reject Him."

The whole empire was united in that thought, and Cadance's soul channeled the power of that union in a way that could be compared to surfing a wave the size of the sun. All the rejection of the citizens of the crystal empire was fed directly to the Crystal Heart, and Sombra's connection to it... Was completely annihilated.

The magical feedback of that action hit sombra like a train, and he was stunned for an entire three seconds, and as such, was unable to interfere with what happened next.

A pure magic emerged from the depths of Cadance's soul, born from the sheer perfect expression of her destiny in what she had just done. But that wasn't all, that magic connected with the Crystal Heart, and from there with the hearts of every citizen of the crystal empire. The magic grew upon that connection, and then returned to Cadance's body, making a wonderful transformation happen.

Cadance's destroyed body was remade by the magic, every single part of her received the soothing attentions of that power and regenerated in ways that would be impossible even for the greatest healers in history. But that wasn't all, for Cadance's soul had changed significantly, and her changed soul meant that she needed to have a different body that would be in synch with it, same as the way her old body had been in synch with her original soul.

Cadance felt the substance of her body change, turning into something much more resilient and better at channeling magic. She felt her wings grow back bigger than they were before. She felt a horn grow on her forehead, a solid, powerful horn that felt like it could channel the magic of an entire world. And she felt countless other changes that she couldn't properly identify. Cadance opened her eyes, and saw that she had become an Alicorn.

It was at that point that Sombra recovered, and Cadance decided that she could leave self-examination for later.

"Sombra! Your end is now!" She shouted at him, then channeled the amazing powers of the Crystal Heart, which were now hers to command, and she was better able to use them than Sombra ever could.

Cadance didn't know any unicorn spells, so she simply channeled her desire to destroy the sorcerer unicorn into her magic, and created a wave of pure magic that barreled towards the false king with the inevitability of the rising sun.

But he still had something to rely on.

"PROTECT ME!" He ordered Nightmare Moon, who teleported in front of him and set up an spherical barrier.

The magical powers of Cadance and Nightmare Moon crashed on one another. Cadance wasn't using a proper spell and was a newborn alicorn, but she had the Crystal Heart as support, so they were surprisingly even. This could end up as a legendary magical confrontation.

But it didn't happen, Sombra ordered her to protect him, instead of trying to defeat Cadance. Nightmare Moon used the magical reverberation of the struggle to force her barrier, along with herself and Sombra, to take off and fly out of the crystal empire, and far beyond the reach of Cadance.

The new alicorn looked at the retreating figures and took back the magic of the now useless spell. Then she looked around and saw that many ponies had seen what happened, and more were coming out of their houses. A lot of the ponies were looking at her expectantly.

She was thinking about what to say when she felt something familiar in her new senses. Immediately, she talked through the Crystal Heart to ask the ponies to wait a bit, then she flew out of the crystal empire, and met two familiar pegasi, a stallion and a mare.

She smiled at them "Hello. Father, mother. I did find my destiny."

Her parents didn't know how to react to that, so they simply hugged their daughter, happy to see that she was alive.

Basic Training

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Over the next few weeks, the Knights started the training of the new Knight candidates. But before learning the true secrets of the profession and training in their own specialties, the apprentices had to go through some basic training, and the Knights split that training in between themselves. First it was Sunset with the physical training.

-

"Today, as part of your basical physical training, you'll have to pull those carts around Ponyville twenty times." The unicorn said, while pointing to five carts.

Four of the five apprentices looked at Sunset like she was crazy. Those carts had obviously been enhanced by magic, because otherwise it would be impossible for them to resist being crushed by the absolute cornucopia of random items that were piled up on each of them. The weight of those carts could be seen just by looking, and it was definitely unreasonable.

As expected, the only pony who didn't doubt that Sunset Shimmer was serious was her apprentice, Rainbow Dash. Who had immediately taken off and flew towards the cart that bore her name... Only to be stopped in midair by her teacher's telekinesis.

"Don't worry, Dash. You'll have your own special challenge." Then she forced the pegasus to the ground and charged a bit before casting another spell.

Rainbow Dash's body was immediately enveloped in a black mass that kept getting smaller and smaller... Until she struggled against it and managed to start walking to her cart, even though the mass had compressed itself to a point where the outline of every part of her body was easily visble, though she was struggling.

"That's right. You'll need to do this routine while resisting my crushing spell." She looked at Rainbow Dash as she strapped herself to the cart, then turned her head to the other apprentices, who had still not moved "Do you think I made the carts too light?" She asked doubtfully "But I thought I had put in the right amount..." She summoned an anvil, a safe, a bed, a wardrobe and a chest "Stop me when it is enough." She made to put the new weights on the carts...

"STOP!" The apprentices shouted and ran to strap themselves to the carts. Sunset nodded in satisfaction.

-

Sunset looked at the Knight apprentices who were fainted on the ground, completely insensate.

They had been subjected to a sucession of spells designed to test their resilience to its breaking point, including heat and cold spells, sensory overload attacks of all kinds, and forced movements that put extreme stresses on their muscles, bones and joints. The simple act of using magic to protect their own bodies from destruction caused ridiculous levels of fatigue that eventually knocked them out.

Of course, Rainbow Dash had gotten her own special course, and since she preferred things to be awesome, Sunset had put her own little special touches on the RD versions of the spells. The heat spell was a mini-sun that kept trying to suck the pegasus within itself, forcing her to fly to avoid it. The cold spell was used when Dash was several thousand feet in the air, icying up her wings and making her fall. The sensory overload attacks took the form of manifested figures atacking her. And the forced movements were done via manifested energy chains, many of which actually got inside her body to grip at things there.

Sunset had been very precise about how much she should push them. And so, after the first of them (Pinkie Pie) woke up (around an hour after they had fallen unconscious), it only took three minutes for every single apprentice to be back up. Sunset started to talk.

"The first session went well." She started charging magic "So it's time to start the repetitions."

The five looked at her in horror (Except Rainbow Dash, who was resigned).

-

"What." Rainbow Dash said in a flat tone. Even knowing her teacher, this seemed to be a little too much.

To explain what caused her to say that, it was necessary to know the context of the current exercise the apprentices were undertaking.

Essentially, they were being chased by arrows of magic that would pierce them (without causing injury, but very painfully) everytime they slowed down from their maximum speed.

However, Dash's special version of the training included having her wings bound so she could not fly. And considering her ability to break the sound barrier, maximum speed for her was something entirely different from the others.

Thankfully, Sunset seemed to understand her concerns "Don't worry. I changed the spell so you won't need to reach maximum speed." But after Rainbow sighed in relief, Sunset went on "But you'll need to stay pretty close to supersonic." Rainbow Dash froze "Better apply all that you've learned about wind control. Now, run." Sunset started charging a spell. RD took off.

-

After that, Twilight took over to train their minds. The apprentices thought this would be easier.

It wasn't.

-

"In order to get through this challenge, you'll need to block out the noise enough to understand and then recite the sequence of numbers said in my voice." Twilight's voice spoke, but none of the apprentices could hear it. Their minds were overwhelmed by a cacophony of noise, courtesy of one of Twilight's spells.

Voices, screams, animal sounds, and all other kinds of noises imaginable were resounding in their minds, impossible to stop conventionally, not mattering how much they tried to block their own ears. It was pure agony.

In fact, it had already been sometime since the start of the training, and yet the ponies were unable to focus on anything other than their own pain. Twilight had already left, after doing a spell that would repeat her instructions periodically. She was sure the apprentice Knights would eventually manage to capture her words and then complete the training.

She just knew it would take a while.

-

Twilight ignored the screams of the apprentices as she explained to them what was going on "We are currently inside my mindscape. I've fixed up a lot of it ever since the fight with Discord but it still not perfect, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to train you against some of the weirder kinds of mental attacks you could face in the future."

The five could hear and even understand what she was saying, but they barely cared. They were already using every scrap of will they had to resist the influence of the mindscape.

It wasn't working very well. Applejack was currently looking at a warped space that seemed to contain the entire history of Twilight's life, being enacted all at once and with every character being in the same physical spot. Rarity's body had split into hundreds of pieces, each one being carried by a shadow in the form of an animal and being taken further and further away from each other. Pinkie's body parts were uncontrolably and continuously transforming into a variety of animals while she could feel everything. Rainbow Dash had gotten into some form of localized time loop where she kept flying forward but being shifted backwards and losing her memory of the event. And Fluttershy was somehow experiencing the memory of the feelings Twilight had during her battle with Discord.

The purple unicorn looked at the apprentices and took note of the parts of her mindscape that still required repairs.

-

Applejack remembered herself.

She looked at her four fellow apprentices and saw that they shared her opinion. This was awful. Their faces full of shame were enough to understand.

The training seemed simple in theory. Twilight would use a spell designed to make the target forget their own history and identity and the apprentices would try to resist and retain all they could of their own minds.

But the feeling of losing parts of yourself was already bad, but the feelings of shame from having forgotten what was important to them really made this something they would rather do almost anything else instead of repeating.

Twilight started to charge magic again, and Applejack focused on her family, for she would do everything to avoid forgetting them.

Her mind was set.

-

After that, Trixie would train them in the control of the soul. They knew enough to understand that this would be even harder than Twilight's training.

They still weren't prepared.

-

Rarity was fighting an urge to say very unladylike things about Starswirl the Bearded.

The reason? Because he was the one who invented the spell that was currently torturing her.

Essentially it was magic designed to give the target a self-awareness of their own body, so that they could better manipulate their magic to avoid injury.

Pretty nice in theory. But Trixie was using it to train their magic channeling, which meant conducting magic via a part of the body until it got to the point where any more would break the point of fatigue and cause actual injury. And then conduct magic via another part of the body.

At the beginning it wasn't so bad, but the exhaustion from each part of the body started to pile up, and she could feel it perfectly in full definition due to the spell. And she still had to do the same thing to each and every part of her body before the routine was ended.

The white unicorn managed to keep her mouth shut. But it was close.

-

Trixie was satisfied with the dedication of the five. They had already reached the point of being able to conceptualize their own wills to create ponyfications of their magic, which was a fairly important step in the path of a mage.

As such, she rewarded them by making them face her own ponyfication in a soul battle.

She faced all five at once, because their own soul warriors were still fairly unstable and weak. But solving that was one of the reasons why they were doing this.

Attacks in a soul battle didn't hurt, but they forced the target to acknowledge themselves in full, which meant facing their own selves in a very raw way.

So Trixie didn't get surprised when the five excused themselves after the first session. And neither when they showed dread before the start of the second.

She was expecting that.

-

As soon as the energy sphere exploded Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and used magic to reinforce her defenses.

She still got some pretty deep and painful cuts on her face. And then the magic circle she and the others were practicing in activated and reversed the injuries.

The pegasus cringed and started to make another energy sphere. The idea of this training was to help the apprentices learn how to gather and control large amounts of magic.

The problem was that such a level of compressed magic was very unstable and dangerous, so Trixie had "helpfully" provided them with a magic circle to fix the injuries they would inevitably get over the course of the training. And forcing such a large amount of magic out pretty much made them feel extreme levels of fatigue, but the magic circle also had the effect of not allowing them to fall asleep until they had in fact reached their full limits.

At that point, both she and the other apprentices were united in a single thought.

When would their suffering end?

-

Later on, the three Knights were having a meeting in the (restored) library.

"So..." Sunset Shimmer said carefully "Don't you think we are taking it too easy on the apprentices?"

Trixie and Twilight looked at her and at each other and at her with complicated expressions.

"You have a point." Trixie admitted "Trixie knows we agreed that it wasn't necessary to bring them up to a Knight standard so fast, and instead we needed to raise their basic abilities enough for them to be able to handle the real training. But still..." She let the idea hang in the air.

Twilight picked it up "But we really could have pushed them harder than this. I think we are having trouble trying to put our feelings aside and be the harsh teachers needed to train Knights. I wonder if the reason the Princess wanted us to teach them ourselves was because she wanted us to learn about this..."

-

"Teaching those three was already enough for me. I couldn't go through that again." Celestia said, after her sister asked her why she wasn't helping train the new Knights.

The night alicorn didn't understand what her sister meant to say with that, or why she seemed tense.

-

"This is certainly something we should reflect about..." Trixie said "But Trixie actually has an important announcement to make." She smiled.

"You mean..." Sunset prompted her, giddily.

"The five are ready. Tomorrow, we can start on their advanced training." Trixie told them.

The other two jumped up and cheered. The fun part was finally about to start.

Advanced Training

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Fluttershy woke up. She took a moment to realize that she was in her bed instead of lying down in one of the practice fields. The pegasus got up, ignoring her aching body, and did her usual morning routine, including doing all the tasks necessary for the animals. It took a lot less time than it did before she became Twilight's apprentice, because now she could instruct the animals well enough for them to help.

After that, and after assuring her friends that she was fine, Fluttershy took off towards the usual meeting place.

Her animal friends had once again tried to convince her to stop going through that training, considering how much she seemed to be suffering with it.

They just couldn't understand how it could be worth it. And it wasn't strange that the pegasus wasn't able to explain things to them, because she barely could understand it herself. But Fluttershy had no intention of giving up. All those terrifying trainings were serving as a grind on her own soul, but what was grinded away wasn't identity, courage or anything that she actually wanted to keep, instead she felt like momentarily her being was cleared of doubt, fear and those kinds of things.

It didn't take long for them to come back, but Fluttershy started feeling more and more like they weren't as important and central to her sense of self as she thought, like her purest version was someone who wasn't held back due to them, and like she was getting closer to that version in her struggles.

There was no way she would give up on that.

And she didn't know their reasons, but from what she could feel from her fellow apprentices, they wouldn't give up either.

Her will focused, she kept going.

-

Rainbow Dash was the first to get there, as always. But this time all three of the Knights appeared together (In one of their team poses, just to remain in practice) which meant that this time they wouldn’t be getting the standard lessons.

The rest of the apprentices showed up one at a time, and the Knights waited patiently until they were all ready before Sunset started talking.

“All three of us are very proud of you girls.” She smiled “You have endured this harsh and unfamiliar training, and your basic skills have reached a standard beyond any ordinary ponies. With this, you are qualified to start the advanced training.”

The five apprentices cheered, Fluttershy even managing to reach a volume that was particularly out-of-character for her. They knew that things would probably get even harder from then on, but the simple fact that they had received such recognition from their demanding teachers meant more than even themselves thought possible.

Trixie waited until the celebration had died down before speaking up.

“Since you’ve been training your souls recently, our first new lesson should feel familiar to you.” She waited a moment to let them focus on her words “Today you start the training to learn the technique of Overdrive.”

The reactions to this news varied. Rainbow Dash was eager, knowing this meant the ability to do a lot more awesome than normal. Fluttershy was hesitant, since she remembered the results from when the three had done it to stop Discord. Pinkie Pie was curious, figuring this was a part of the secrets of the Knights they had heard about. Rarity was determined, understanding that this was something she had to learn if she hoped to become a Knight. And Applejack was calm, believing that she just had to deal with things as they came.

Nodding at them Twilight took her part of the explanation.

“Essentially, what the Overdrive does is using a direct focus of will in order to instanteneously draw a large amount of magic from the soul.” She made a diagram of a pony and their soul appear “The will part is simple and well-known. Heroes are frequently born when normal ponies become particularly determined for some reason, só their will allows them to ignore the stress and damage they are causing to their own bodies and keep drawing more and more magic from their souls, to perform extraordinary feats.” The diagram changed, showing waves of magic coming out of the soul and parts of the pony’s body blackening “Of course, this also means they suffer significant injuries in the process.”

The diagram changed again, turning into a unicorn who could be recognized as Sunset by the cutie mark.

“The key to the technique is actually your magical control. As you know, chanelling magic via every single part of the body instead of focusing on a single part will give you more time before you reach the limits of the body.” This time, the soul in the diagram gave off small arrows of magic that spread themselves equally throughout the entire body “To use Overdrive, you need enough control over your magic to be able to channel it through the entire body even while drawing a huge amount all at once.”

Then the diagram changed yet again, showing Sunset’s brain “And for the part of actually drawing huge amounts of magic at once, this is where the direct focus comes in.” Inside the brain appeared an immensely complex compacted formula, similar to a magic formula, but different “You need enough mental discipline to be able to create this focus formula that will interact directly with your soul and pull out a precise amount of power. With enough training, you’ll be able to judge exactly how much power to pull, and how to adjust the formula instantly to draw the exact amount needed.”

Then the diagram changed yet another time, showing Sunset flexing her muscles.

“Finally, even with all of that, you need to have a body strong enough to be able to draw a significant amount of magic power without causing serious injury.” Twilight made the image vanish “You haven’t gotten to the Knight standard in physical training yet, nor soul or mental training, but it should already be enough to control and use small Overdrives to practice. Any questions?”

Rarity raised her hoof "This seems a little... too simple, darling."

Twilight nodded "It really seems like that, doesn't it. But that is misleading." Twilight returned to her lecturing tone "Similar techniques have been created by many groups throughout history, but all of them were flawed in some way. Sometimes there wasn't enough focus on the training of the body. Sometimes the mental focus was too complex, or not versatile enough, sometimes the technique for channeling magic wasn't up to par." Twilight sighed "This Overdrive is the result of countless years of research and development dedicated to making it reasonably safe to use."

The white unicorn could tell that Twilight had strong opinions about that.

"Anyway." Sunset said "We should start already. First you need to memorize the focus formula." She created five of the formulas in the air, which them started to shine with a glow of heat "Thankfully, I have a good spell to help with that. Be ready, this is going to be unpleasant." Then she shot the five formulas directly at the heads of the apprentices.

We draw the curtain over the scenes where the apprentices learned firsthoof the true meaning of a "headache".

-

But the Knights had decided that it would work better to teach several things at once to the apprentices, including:

-

"And that's why it's important to learn about mental defenses." Twilight said, finishing a frankly horrifying lecture on the dangers of not having protection against mental intrusion.

The apprentices looked a little sick, specially because the purple unicorn had said all that in such a bland tone that it felt like she didn't place appropriate importance on how scary that all had been.

"You don't need to worry too much." Twilight reassured them "Perfectly protecting your mind is actually relatively easy, to the point that even ponies without the mental strength of Knights learn how to do it, like the Princess's special researchers, as well as important ambassadors." She saw they were still hesitant, so she kept going "That's because it's your mind, so you have full control over it. Simple barriers don't cut it because by their own nature they can be overcome with enough power, so the trick is creating a defense that can deal with all sorts of trickery attackers might use, taking advantage of your full control and your particular tendencies."

The five seemed to have calmed down, and some of them (notably Fluttershy) even looked interested, so Twilight kept going:

"Sunset for example had a mind that's like a galaxy, full of black holes, stars releasing blasts of radiation and other dangers, and the information is hidden within distant and well protected planets. Trixie has a world of mirrors, where illusions abound and it's easy to lose sight of who you really are and actually give up information to her. As for myself, my defenses are like my mindscape once its been messed up, and to find anything there, you need to make sense of a lot of things."

The apprentices shuddered.

"Try to think of something that works for you and then we'll practice." She started charging magic "Don't worry, I have memory charms to make me forget anything embarassing I find out."

They failed to be reassured by that.

-

As well as other useful stuff like the domain expansion. And of course...

-

"As Knights, you'll need to be prepared for anything. As such, I'll teach you purely physical combat. For most, it will mean selecting an appropriate martial art for you to learn and giving you the opportunity to train it to the right standard." Sunset Shimmer said to the apprentices.

Rainbow Dash raised her hoof"I already train in a martial art, taekwondo."

"In that case, you'll just need help altering it to become perfectly suited to your body and capabilities, and experience using it in the level of combat the Knights are involved in." Sunset answered smoothly.

"What are the styles of ya three?" Applejack asked, curious.

"Well, I actually studied lots of martial arts, which is why I can help choose for you, and I use whatever is appropriate for the occasion. Trixie has something of her own invention, that revolves around understanding the flow of movements of the opponents to attack when they are vulnerable. And Twilight's... thing, is something irreplicable where she can jump in the middle of opponents, flail around and somehow get an advantage." She looked at Pinkie "Maybe you will be the same way, but we'll have to see." The two earth ponies nodded.

"So first, I'll have you try and attack me physically in whatever manner seems most natural to you, so that I can understand your preferences and strengths." She looked at her personal apprentice "Dash, you go first."

A few minutes later, Twilight came to bring the five to their next training session, and saw they were all lying on the ground, unconscious. She looked to her partner.

"Are you sure you're not still annoyed that Trixie used the magical formation before you?" She asked pointedly.

Sunset put a hoof behind her head "Perhaps a little..." She said, sheepishly.

-

But of course, the most important part was their individual training.

-

"Hey, Dash. What's biting you?" Sunset asked "Sometimes you look a little frustrated in training."

The pegasus looked at her, opened her mouth, closed it again and thought for a little while. Then she started talking with a small hint of hesitation.

"It's like... I can feel there's something I should be able to do when I get close to my limits... But everytime I get there, it feels like there's something missing and I can't do it."

Sunset took that in and thought about how to respond to that.

"These things tend to work out eventually." She said "Keep trying but don't get too hung up on that, maybe you just need some more battle experience or something."

Rainbow nodded thoughtfully.

"And how are the Rainbow Punches coming along?" Sunset asked innocently.

Rainbow Dash grinned at her "I'd say they are coming along really well."

Sunset grinned back.

-

"And what are you having trouble with, exactly?" Twilight asked her pegasus apprentice.

"There's just so many options!" Fluttershy whined cutely "I keep thinking of all sorts of ways to use my empathy magic. I could reproduce the abilities of my animal friends, or read the intentions of opponents, or ask objects to do things for me..." She looked a little desperate "I don't know what to focus on!"

Twilight put a hoof on the shoulder of her apprentice "Calm down a little..." She waited a bit "You don't need to get too worried about choosing perfectly. There are no emergencies going on, and you'll have time to try a few of them. Choose one randomly and get going."

Fluttershy took a deep breath and smiled at her "Thank you. I think I'll do that." She looked thoughtful for a moment "I think I got a good name for my empathy abilities." The pegasus had thought hard about it, since Twilight had been very insistent that a cool name was absolutely crucial to any ability,

"Really!" Twilight smiled disturbingly broadly "What is it? What is it?"

Fluttershy was mostly used to the antics of her teacher, so she simply answered "Empathy Drive."

The pegasus saw that it was a good one because Twilight's smile somehow became even broader.


-

"How is your development going?" Trixie asked Applejack.

"Mah ability ta see weakpoints is getting better, but Ah still have a long way ta go before it becomes reliable." the earth pony answered.

"Seems nice. Trixie hopes you manage it soon, because the next topic is something she can help a lot more easily."The unicorn closed her eyes in thought.

"Ya mean trying ta see the opponents intentions? That really seems like something ya would help a lot with." Applejack agreed.

And then, Trixie finally finished the spell she had been charging for the last five minutes.

"A perfect illusion exists on all levels...

"Perfect Illusion: Dark World!" Trixie cast the spell.

Applejack focused, looking for the weakpoint in this new, complex illusion.

-

Pinkie Pie was training her emotion magic under the careful supervision of Twilight.

She focused on her joy and tried to transpose the feeling into the same physical space her magic took. She was getting closer and closer to it, but also closer and closer to reaching her limits in terms of concentration and endurance.

Suddenly, she felt a change, and chanelled her magic into a stomp.

After a moment of thought, she raised her hoof and a ballon that had appeared below it flew up to the sky.

"Congratulations!" Twilight cheered.

Pinkie smiled, then adopted a questioning expression.

"Twi, I remember you mentioning something about dark magic being based on negative emotion..." Twilight looked at her intently "Then, is what I'm doing light magic?"

"NO." Twilight said with great vehemence.

Pinkie was surprised, and looked at her teacher questioningly. Twilight explained:

"Emotion magic is based upon turning emotions into power, both positive and negative emotions, without any difference." She looked serious "Dark and Light magic is based upon synchronicity." She took a deep breath "This means that these magics warp the soul in favor of the type of emotion, forcing a connection between the soul and the emotion, creating a feedback loop that creates power, but makes it harder and harder for the user to remember the original state of their soul, until they become unable to change back." Twilight looked down "Doing so with positive emotions is in fact even more dangerous, because you end up desiring to use it more."

Pinkie looked ill at the thought of soul warping magic.

"Light magic is a lot less used than dark magic, because every one who used it in history ended up losing control. Some dark magic users managed to avoid that fate, which is one of the reasons why Luna thought she could handle using it."

Pinkie nodded and decided to go back to practice.

She understood Twilight's reaction now.

-

Trixie enjoyed watching Rarity's creative process.

The white unicorn was holding several books containing ilustrations and information about magical weapons and artefacts created by masters, looking at each of them and also making, modifying and unmaking several models, some of weapons, some of armor and some of other kinds of artefacts. And once in a while she also took a piece of paper and wrote a design on it.

The pile of designs was already significant.

But eventually Rarity slowed down and put everything away, breathing hard. She looked at Trixie.

"Seems like you have a lot of ideas." The showmare pre-empted student.

"Yes. A fabulous amount! And I already know what's the first project I want to create." She smiled "There's only one thing missing..."

"What?" Trixie asked, knowing that was what Rarity wanted.

"I need to learn a lot about wind spells to be able to enchant the materials correctly." Rarity said with a slight smile.

Trixie shook her head and started drawing a spell formula in the air.

She would have to look in the library for the advanced book of spells later, but she knew enough to start.

-

And so, time passed. And the Knights felt like their apprentices were ready to take their training one step further.

Scenario Training

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"I have good news." Sunset was the first one to warn her apprentice.

"What?" Rainbow Dash was suspicious.

"We are going to run you three through a special training scenario tomorrow." Sunset was smiling broadly.

"Special training scenario? What is that like?" The pegasus was sure it would be something weird.

"Well..." Sunset tried to decide which story to tell.

-

3 Years Earlier

Sunset groaned as she woke up. Looking around she saw that Twilight was already up (since she was the one responsible for the training scenario this time) and Trixie was already stirring.

Then she saw where they were, and that actually made her pause for a moment.

The three unicorns were inside a sphere of magic at the top of a pillar of crystal. Looking around she could note that they were in the western most room of the west wing of the castle, which was usually used as storage.

She could only note that, however, because she was very familiar with the castle, given that most of the room was submerged in lava.

The vapor wasn't very thick, so she could recognize the top edges of the room and their distinctive design, as well as the uppermost parts of the wall carvings.

The other notable thing in the room was a series of floating platforms going from next to their pillar all the way to a window in the eastern side of the room. Some of them were moving (including one who was briefly diving in the lava before going back up), some were disappearing and reappearing, some were spinning and flipping in all sorts of weird ways and some were keeping perfectly still.

Among the ones who were perfectly still were some platforms which had obvious traps, such as arrow-launchers, flame throwers and crushers, as well as some platforms which seemed completely ordinary but probably had hidden traps. And all platforms didn't have a common design, varying greatly in shape and size.

Also, Sunset could tell there were anti-teleportation wards running.

Seeing that Trixie had already awoken and taken note of the same things as her, Sunset turned to Twilight and asked the most pertinent question:

"Is this real lava?"

The chaotic unicorn shook her head "Nope, it's just boiling Kool-Aid. Lava turned out to be too temperamental to reliably contain, not to mention all the issues with toxic gases." Then she smiled "But I increased the boiling point by five times."

Trixie thought about it "So it's not as hot as the coldest lava, but still enough for heat transfer to be an issue, forcing us to divert more power to our aura defenses. and have less remaining to deal with the normal challenges."

Sunset had more pressing concerns "Are there any lava monsters?"

Twilight became thoughtful "None in this room, but I've memory charmed the knowledge of the other rooms from my mind so that it would be a surprise, and I know I would vary the challenges from room to room." She did a circle with her hoof "I only know that our goal is to get to the easternmost room of the castle."

"Trixie has to admit, this all seems very interesting." She congratulated her partner.

"Then we just have to leave this protection sphere for the challenge to start, right? Let's go!" Sunset was eager.

-

"That kind of thing." Sunset concluded, having finished her recollection.

Rainbow looked at her with her mouth opened "How did you even survive to be twenty years old?"

Sunset Shimmer almost laughed "Pft. Can you imagine the headlines? 'Princess' students die in training accident'. How uncool would that be!"

Dash imagined it "Yeah, you're right, it would be pretty uncool." She admitted.

"Right?" The unicorn laughed "I'm just excited to see how much all of you learned. I know about you, but the others are keeping the progress of their apprentices as a surprise."

Rainbow Dash grinned "I don't know about most of them, but me and Rarity were training together these last few weeks, and you're not going to be disappointed by her."

"Now I'm just more excited... And there's still an entire day of waiting!" Sunset complained.

-

1 Day Later

The five apprentices walked into the area of their newest trial.

In terms of appearance, they hadn't changed much. But only a fool would believe they were still the same ponies as before their Knight training had started.

Their steps were firm and sure, without the least hesitation, and their muscles were relaxed in a way that indicated a readiness to react instantly to any unexpected situations. Still, a more obvious sign was their eyes, sharp and taking in every bit of the environment without missing a beat, as well as glowing with an inner light of power ready to be unleashed.

Those five ponies were like a crystal clear river that seemed calm due to a lack of indications of movement, but was in fact flowing at a terrifying speed and would destroy anything that tried to disturb it.

Also, on her back, Rarity was carrying a huge saber that seemed to weight as much as she did.

"What do ya think is going to happen?" Applejack asked the other four.

"Well, considering their personalities, I would guess that they would divide the scenario in three stages, each for every one of them, and Sunset's stage should be the first, and a relatively straightforward combat challenge." Rarity put forward her opinion.

-

The three Knights were watching everything via a combined remote viewing spell.

"She's got you pegged." Twilight teased Sunset.

"Guity." Sunset admitted, then looked to Trixie "Looks like you taught her well."

"Trixie was lucky to have a talented student. Now pay attention, things are about to start." Trixie shushed them and the three focused.

-

"Looks like there's nothing ye-" Applejack cut herself off midword with a magically charged stomp to the ground.

The earth split and fragmented in front of her hooves, and screeches could be heard from under the ground, and them, beyond the area she had affected, the ground started to move and dozens of creatures jumped out.

They looked like a cross between foxes, koalas and bears, and were slightly larger than the average adult pony. Running on their rear legs, they advanced towards the five ponies, who prepared to meet them (both Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy took off to the air, and the others braced themselves).

The five apprentices knew that they should not spend magic unnecessarily, and this was very early in the training scenario, so it would be a good chance to test their physical combat abilities.

Dash was the first to attack, diving into one of the biggest concentrations of monsters and hitting one of them with a hard kick, making it fly and tripping those behind him.

Rainbow Dash was still using taekwondo, but had trained to fuse her weather control abilities with the attacks, and that first kick had been enhanced by a focused blast of wind. Combined with her already being pretty strong before, and having trained almost exclusively in pure combat applications, the pegasus had been the first of the apprentices to be declared ready to start sparring with the Knights. She still mostly lost, though.

Rarity dodged a tackle with a spin and attacked the offending monster with a precise hoof strike to the temple, before sidestepping out of range.

Rarity had been chosen to learn wing chun, a style focused on grace and mobility, due to her eye for detail that allowed her to understand the flow of a battle. She had been unanimously chosen as the best tactician of the five apprentices, and was already commanding them with simple gestures in this fight.

Pinkie appeared behind the enemy crowd and extended her hoof in a powerful strike to the center of mass of one of the monsters, injecting her chaos magic directly into the body to disable him instantly and distracting a lot of the monsters with her sudden actions.

Pinkie had, surprisingly, not been a problem in terms of martial arts. Sunset had taught her kenpo, due to its combination of agility, flexibility and power. The fact that she had learned how to channel her magic via strikes (being an earth pony helped, since they were used to channeling magic through their hooves) turned the party pony into a downright menace in the battlefield, with only Sunset and Rainbow being able to consistently defeat her in spell-less fights.

"Empathy Drive: Animal Spirit!" Fluttershy shouted, and the image of a falcon seemed to overlap with her for a moment, before (phantom-like) wings and claws of energy appeared in the appropriate places in her body.

She flew just above the monsters reach, using quick attacks to harass them.

In contrast with Pinkie, Fluttershy had been a problem in terms of martial arts. Her animal spirit abilities simply made her physical capabilities vary too much for a single style to be able to work for everytime. Instead, Sunset had worked with her in the sense of making use of the animal instincts she picked up and adapting them to work with her own body and the strategies of the others.

Applejack stood unmoved, and threw the first three monsters to reach her over her head with enough strength to break bones.

Applejack had taken quite well to the hung gar style, full of firm stances that gave her an extraordinary defensive capability, making it so that it became very hard to dislodge her from a spot when she didn't want to leave. Her eye for weak points only made her harder to deal with, since any enemy would have to be careful of counter-attacks.

The five acted like a single unit, with Applejack being a bastion of stability that could give the others time to breath, Rarity's quick orders controlling the battlefield while easily dealing with attacks, Fluttershy causing havoc and attracting attention from the enemy ranks, and Rainbow and Pinkie being able to move incredibly fast and attack decisively to break any attempt from the enemies to muster an overwhelming amount of force.

To sum things up, the monsters didn't have a chance.

-

Sunset was smiling smugly.

"Okay, you don't have to brag." Trixie said in a mock-annoyed tone "You really did teach them pretty well."

"Look, the second wave is coming!" Twilight warned, and the other two turned back to see what the apprentices would make of it.

-

Suddenly, from the distance, tens of flying monsters approached. They were similar to the previous ones, except replacing the fox part with bat, and they had disproportional bat wings. Their wings beat strongly as they approached making an endless screeching noise.

Rarity all but grinned, as she took the saber from her back and raised it above her head with telekinesis. Rainbow Dash (who was flying around quickly to deal with the last monsters of the first wave) saw it and grinned. Then Rarity opened her mouth and made her speech:

"If the pegasi are the rulers of the sky, then consider this an invasion of territory! All the air shall bow down to me and obey, because this is... The Wind Ruler Sword!" The sword started to shine.

In a change so subtle that even the skilled and well trained apprentices barely noticed, the sword seemed to have become the center of all wind currents in the area.

"Fall down and leave my domain!" Rarity shouted to the flying monsters "Wind Slash!" She made a slash motion with the sword.

Suddenly, blades of wind formed out of the air and slashed through multiple monsters each, cutting away heads and wings with such precision and speed that it took only seconds for the air force to be completely decimated.

-

Sunset Shimmer and Trixie Lulamoon had tears in their eyes.

"They grow up so fast..." Trixie said.

"That was beautiful..." Sunset declared, before turning to Trixie "You have got to let me borrow your apprentice for a spar very soon."

"Sure, just don't hurt her too much." Trixie accepted.

Twilight looked at the two of them and shook her head in bemusement. Then she recovered her focus, as the last part of the first stage started.

-

Are you serious, Sunset?! Was what Rainbow Dash was thinking as the earth shook and shifted to form a pony golem the size of a castle.

Applejack ran forward and started forcing her magic into the earth to interfere with the golem's footing, and then screamed "Neck!"

The other four understood immediately, and the first to attack turned out to be Fluttershy, who flew up on top of the golem, changed her spirit to a rhynoceros and started ramming the back part of the neck.

Rarity sent a few wind slashes into the neck that didn't have too much of an effect, and then changed her tactics when the golem tried to step on Applejack, forcing mini-tornadoes into existence to shift the trajectory of the hoof.

Pinkie Pie also got on top and started injecting chaos magic on the neck via her strikes, but neither her nor Fluttershy were making progress too fast. Rainbow gathered a great amount of wind and started hitting the neck as well, making more progress, but still not enough.

The earth pony golem turned and brought his tail to bear on Rarity and Applejack, while also waving a hoof to try and get rid of the three others.

"Send me up!" Applejack shouted, and Rarity catapulted her using wind, allowing the farmer to turn and charge a lot of magic for a big applebucking kick, straight into the weakest part of the tail, breaking off a lot of it and disabling the attack.

But Rainbow Dash could see that things weren't going well, and decided to finish it up fast. She flew into the sky and back down at an amazing speed, breaking through the sound barrier and unleashing a sonic rainboom.

But instead of allowing it to spread like usual, she forced the energy of the explosion to follow a linear path, straight into the neck of the golem.

Pinkie and Fluttershy had left the area as soon as they saw what Rainbow was going to do, and so they weren't hurt when the big explosion wave hit the neck and obliterated it, making the head and body fall to the ground separatedly.

-

"Good decision making." Trixie praised "It was really better to do a big attack early than allowing more time for the golem to cause problems and making all of them exhausted."

Sunset nodded, satisfied with the performance of her apprentice "Let's see how they deal with your trial."

-

The five barely had time to catch their breaths before the rest of the golem disappeared and a dark dome erected itself around them, turning day into night.

Then five mirrors appeared around them, each reflecting one of the apprentices.

Fluttershy was looking at her reflection when it suddenly murmured "sleep", and her mind was invaded by a copy of Fluttershy, giving the body the order to slee-

Gulp

And the copy was eaten by a gigantic mouth.

Fluttershy blinked as the mirror broke, and she saw the other mirrors do the same thing by the corner of her eye.

-

"That didn't even slow them down?" Trixie looked at Twilight, incredulous "How did you even train their mental defenses this much?"

"I don't really remember much, but it must have been very demanding." Twilight answered, with a hoof on her chin.

Trixie and Sunset facehooved.

-

But while the first part was done, Trixie's task wouldn't be that easy to complete, for hundreds of mirrors appeared forming a cilinder around the apprentices. Then images of Trixie appeared in each of the mirrors, charged magic, and shot blasts of light at the apprentices.

Rarity immediately raised a barrier of wind around them.

Applejack shouted "Only some of them are real!"

Rarity understood that, but as the blasts of light hit her barrier, even the illusionary ones were so perfect that she kept putting power on their parts of the defence, power that was wasted, making her drain herself faster.

Applejack was looking everywhere with urgency "So many cores... where's the central one...?" Then she had an idea "Everypony, close ta me! Each one protects a side!"

They did it. The other four huddled around Applejack, giving Rarity the ability to reduce the size of her barrier and her mana consumption. Pinkie Pie put her front hooves forward, keeping ready for anything. Rainbow Dash created a barrier of lightning and tried to keep it stable and Fluttershy changed to a turtle spirit and simply endured.

It took ten seconds, but Applejack finally found the main core of the illusion.

"There! Dash!" Rainbow turned to her and looked in Applejack's eyes, suddenly seeing an image of a certain point of the mirror barrier several meters in the air "Go!"

Rainbow Dash went, she took a moment to decide to use a certain attack, and then accelerated to nearly sonic rainboom speeds.

"Rainboom Punch!" She forcefully accelerated her hoof with all wind magic she could, making it briefly break through the sonic barrier, and creating a directed rainboom shockwave that destroyed the core of the illusion.

All the mirrors and the dome shattered, appropriatedly, like glass.

-

"Oh, oh, now it's me! It's me!" Twilight jumped up and down, and her partners focused on the scene.

There was just one step remaining.

-

The apprentices barely got two seconds to catch their breaths before another change came over the field.

The change was heralded by an enormous flow of chaotic energy, which Pinkie recognized as being on the level of the energy Discord used for his "serious attacks".

That was probably a bad sign.

But before anyone could do anything about it, the world turned upside down and then mirrored itself.

Twilight Sparkle was merciful, and gave the apprentices five full seconds to get used to trying to coordinate themselves after this extreme flipping of the point of view. Which, of course, didn't come with a corresponding shift of the way they moved, meaning they had to do everything in reverse.

After those five seconds, an image of a clock with 01:00 appeared, and it started counting down, 59:00, 58:00...

And then a variety of monsters appeared from thin air and started to attack.

There was no time for strategy, so they just reacted. Rainbow Dash flew towards the enemies and started attacking with full strength and speed, bowling down enemies with the sheer shockwave of her weather magic enhanced attacks, Rarity created a small tornado and threw it at the biggest concentration of enemies she could see before being forced to surround herself with floating wind blades and use them to slash at enemies close by while she kept moving, Fluttershy switched animal spirits so fast she looked like a kaleidoscope, moving around and attacking anything that got close, Applejack was staying on one spot and using her eyes to quickly see the weakpoints of enemy formations and attack them, and finally Pinkie Pie was using the slipstream to become the greatest asset in the fight, turning monsters back into chaos particles, teleporting around to save her partners from danger (detected with Pinkie Sense) and once even blocking a particularly large fusion monster by making a ball of elemental surprise and throwing it at the monster, where the ball exploded, resolving into a minotaur with red clothes and hat as well as a cross necklace which punched the monster before disappearing (it was very surprising).

-

"What." Trixie and Sunset chorused, looking at Twilight.

"Well, I'm not really sure." She shrugged "I know she put the idea of surprise via a randomly resolving spell inside a common elemental ball spell matrix..."

Sunset and Trixie looked like she had skipped a few steps in her explanation, but that was usual for her.

"But I don't understand how she can do it so easily and fast, and without spending excessive energy." She finished.

The other two decided that it was one of those chaos magic things.

-

But of course things could not be simple.

When the counter reached 45 seconds remaining, the ground tried to eat them.

It would have succeded were it not by Fluttershy successfully Staring at it at a crucial moment (she had gotten better at controlling the Stare, but it was still hit or miss). But then they had to deal with the ground being an enemy in addition to the monsters. And when it got to 30 seconds remaining, space twisted to the point where the apprentices kept being teleported randomly from place to place, including inside the ground's mouth (thankfully, Rainbow Dash was fast enough to save anyone from being eaten). And when it got to 13 seconds remaining (a dirty and effective trick) the chaos magic tried to invade their bodies and shapeshift them forcefully, so they had to channel magic to resist that while also dealing with everything else.

At the end, the five were completely exhausted and their bodies were full of light wounds, but they were still standing.

The three Knights appeared in front of them.

"Congratulations!" They chorused.

The five sat down on the ground and tried to recover for a little bit before they could become happy about it.

"Don't you think that last challenge was a little out of proportion?" Rarity asked Twilight.

"Don't be silly. It was the climax, so of course it was harder." She answered with a grin.

Fluttershy was the next one to talk:

"So, how did we do?" She asked.

"Well, while there are some improvements to be made..." Trixie said with a glint in her eyes that promised further training and made the apprentices cringe "You were good enough that the decision was unanimous. You are ready to go on a mission and try to get proclaimed as Knights."

This time, there was no other option. The five cheered, hugging each other and crying in happiness.

How appropriate that in the next day, the Knights would receive a new mission.

Arrangements

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The five apprentices were called to see Princess Celestia with high expectations. The Knights had been called earlier in the day and seemed very excited when they came out, so the five had their own ideas about what the alicorn wanted to talk with them.

After the usual greetings, Celestia didn't waste time:

"I had a mission to give to the Knights, but they told me some good news." She smiled "They said you were ready to go on an actual mission."

"Yes!" They responded at once, seeing the implied question.

"If you accept to go on this mission, you shall officially receive the title of Squires. Are you willing?" Celestia was serious.

"Yes!" They repeated.

"You shall have one day to make arrangements to be able to leave for what may be weeks of time. Are you sure?" The princess asked carefully.

"Yes!" They said for the third time.

"In that case, let me call back my apprentices so that I can brief you on this mission all at once." She nodded and thought of the conversation she had earlier in the day.

-

"Are you sure your apprentices are ready for a mission?" The alicorn of the sun asked "They've only been training for a few months."

The three unicorns glanced at each other and decided to let Twilight field that question.

"Yes." She said "And there's lots of reasons why this is possible." She made a number 1 appear and started counting "First, they weren't exactly average to begin with. Applejack already had the Eyes of Truth, Pinkie could use her chaos magic instinctively, Fluttershy had managed to push her talent to be able to communicate with the unusual animals at the Everfree forest, Rainbow Dash had trained herself to great levels and Rarity was extremely skilled in telekinesis. They're not just talented, like we were when you brought us in, they're adults who have refined their talents over years."

The number changed to two "Second, while we had a very broad magical and moral education in addition to everything else and only started the serious Knight training four years ago, besides the all-rounder Knight training, their learning has been very focused to give them tools to fight as soon as possible. This would be ill-advised if we hadn't already seen how trustworthy they are in the battle against Discord."

Three "Third, they haven't really reached such a high level. Rarity's abilities are strong but they still consume too much magic, Pinkie still hasn't gotten more than a small fraction of the potential power of Emotion Charge, and all that. They still have fairly big limitations, to the point that I would not send them to missions alone, but together, and with all that we've managed to teach them... Even without us being there, I would still trust them to succeed."

Four "Fourth, they actually have some true battle experience in a critical situation. Me and the others felt that it became easier to grow stronger after returning from our first mission, because the experience made our souls develop slightly in a way that helped turn our magic into battle power. They also had this kind of development, which was a lot more significant for them, since they still had such a big part of their potentials still untapped."

Five "And fifth, possibly the most important factor is that they have the most important quality for a Knight. A heart that never gives up. It's the same for heroes, since Knights are pretty much heroes that are trained to be able to deal with anything, but having seen their reactions to the battle against Discord, we are certain that even in a terrible situation, they will still press on and find a way." Twilight finished her lecture and looked to her teacher.

Celestia nodded slowly "If that is your judgement, I shall believe in you."

-

"I need you to investigate and deal with the problems on the the city of Belemoor and its cavern." Celestia summed things up.

"You mean the place where the Amulet of Threshold is sealed?" Sunset recognized "That really is bad news. What exactly is happening?"

"It started just with suspicious movements around the cave, but then some of the posted guards started being attacked, civilians were kidnapped by disguised figures that the guards needed to fight in order to rescue them and some other odd incidents also occurred." The Princess closed her eyes "I sent guard captain Armor to investigate the situation, while Luna sent Spike to help the guards and gain experience."

"He did send a message that he was off on a training mission..." Twilight remembered "So he was with BBBFF..."

Trixie had more pressing concerns "Since you told us to 'investigate', Trixie assumes we're not just going in horns blazing and seeing what falls down from the tree."

"You are correct, my student." Celestia praised "In fact, part of the plan our data analysis division worked out involved all eight of you going to the city under disguises and starting from different places." Then she turned to two of her listeners "Applejack, Rarity, considering the two of you have younger sisters, having them together with you would sell the cover more effectively, but that is your choice."

"But isn't this dangerous, Princess?" Rarity asked carefully.

"This has been taken under consideration. The guards in the town have been reinforced to protect the civilians, and I've already plan to send two guards together with you in order to reduce the chance of leaking information, and the guards could protect them." She smiled "There's also the possibility of giving them emergency escape spell scrolls, just in case."

Applejack thought about this "Ah think that seems fair, but our sisters are always together with another filly and wouldn't want ta be separated from her."

The sun alicorn considered this "I think we could include her in the entourage pretending to be another younger sister, but that would require parental permission."

Rainbow Dash raised her hoof "I know her, so I could take that place. And I should also talk with her parents."

Seeing that there didn't seem to be any more questions, Celestia informed them of the specifics of the plan and gave the eight two days to make their own arrangements to be able to leave their homes for a while. Rarity had to finish all her outstanding orders, Applejack and Fluttershy had to find people to take care of their daily jobs (they were helped by the castle) and all that.

Eventually, all of the Knights and Squires went back to Ponyville to prepare for the mission. So Celestia called a specific guard from the castle (chosen after a careful screening process) in order to give the news that he would be accompanying the Knights in their mission.

His name was Bunker Breaker, and his reaction to the news was... unexpected.

"YEEES!" He actually cheered, forgetting for a moment that the princess was present "Ah, sorry Princess." He said awkwardly.

Celestia suddenly had a terrifying thought, and hoped she was wrong "You haven't offended me, my little pony. But what brought this on?"

"Well..." He hesitated, before taking the plunge "It's just that all members of the guard are fans of the Knights, but I am lucky enough to be chosen out of all of them." He smiled.

The princess' heart went cold, she barely could get herself to ask the next question "When you say that all members of the guard are fans of the Knights, what exactly do you mean?"

"Oh, you know that most ponies who become guards love the stories of Knights that protect the realm." Bunker was already relaxed, seeing that Celestia was taking things well "And then there were all the stories captain Armor kept telling about his sister and her friends.."

Why, Shining Armor... I believed in you... A part of Celestia managed to think.

"But then there was the fact that they managed to save Princess Luna and a company of guards and that really increased their popularity." The guard continued, oblivious "And then the battle against the legendary Discord..."

Celestia managed to inwardly admit that it made sense in retrospect, even if most of her was going through a silent panic attack.

"Ah, you don't need to worry, Princess." Bunker reassured her "I can be professional. It's more the night guard who are the real die-hard fans anyway, since it was their princess who was saved."

The Princess remembered that the second guard sent was planned to be a member of the night guard, but only in a distant way, while her immediate focus was on the words "die-hard fans".

"You are dismissed. Go prepare yourself for the mission." She managed to say.

Bunker saluted and left. Celestia then decided to see just how much she had missed, and used a remote viewing spell to look at the living areas of the night guard.

She choked. There was so much merchandise. There were posters, plushies, cutie mark stickers and coat dyes for cosplay, story booklets, dioramas...

How had all those things been produced without her knowledge? She looked at the brands, and discovered that a constant was the Piffle Toy Company, so she decided to go straight to the top.

Seeting up a meeting with the director of the company would be difficult for most ponies, but she was the Princess, so he was only too happy to accommodate her, and it only took a couple of minutes before she could ask him when and how these things had been approved and produced.

He explained that a member of the company approached the Knights on Ponyville after their first mission, representing a group of companies that planned to release all kinds of merchandising, and her three apprentices had been all too happy to accept, insisting they didn't need money and that a good portion of the profits should be given to charitable causes, with Trixie even offering to write up the stories of the missions and remove all sensitive information, so they could make the story booklets.

Why are my apprentices so efficient about those kinds of things...? Celestia moaned internally, before thanking the director for his time and teleporting back to the castle, as there was still something she needed to check.

Even with the Knights giving their okay, the castle should still have received a report of the negotiation, so they could decide if they wanted to veto it. Celestia went to the archive room, looking through the documents with a strange sense that she already knew what she would find.

And that sense proved to be true, as she found the relevant document and looked at the signature on it, before casting a spell to prevent any sound from leaving the room and raising her front hooves to the air before shouting.

"LUNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

Venus, Warrior of Love

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The group of ponies who were going to go on the mission met each other on a certain residence on the outskirts of Ponyville.

The member of the night guard who was chosen to go with the Knights was a pegasus mare called Night Time, who, outside of her enchanted armor, turned out to have a dark green coat and mane. Bunker Breaker, for his part, was a unicorn stallion with a light blue coat and grey mane.

As soon as she saw them, Night Time asked the Knights for their autographs, clarifying that she wouldn't be able to do it once they were undercover. Bunker Breaker, seeing the logic in this, followed suit.

Twilight Sparkle, Trixie Lulamoon and Sunset Shimmer were happy to comply. And soon after, Princess Luna appeared, and used her transmutation magic to alter the appearances of the Knights, Squires and Sisters. She only scrambled their colors and changed their features a little, but it was already enough to throw off anyone attempting to identify them.

After that, she wished them good luck and used a powerful spell to teleport all of them to several different places, so they could use the normal travelling systems to get to the town.

-

And so it was done. The thirteen ponies getting reunited just before the last leg of the voyage to the town, and maintaining their own covers, pretending to not know each other.

Things went according to plan until they got to the guard checkpoint, where they found no guards.

The Knights and Squires had a glance based conversation, but while the Knights had taught their apprentices how to read the language, they were still at a basic level in terms of actually speaking it:

(Twilight: And of course we couldn't even get to the town before something happened.
Rarity: This strange.
Trixie: I agree, none of the reports mentioned checkpoints being emptied of guards, so this is something completely new.
Rainbow: Will fight?
Sunset: If we're attacked, we'll have to try keeping our covers as long as possible to obtain informartion.
Pinkie: Danger!)

Suddenly, a group of cloaked figures appeared out of thin air and rushed towards the undercover ponies.

There were twelve of those figures attacking. Four of them were flying and the others were running, but they managed to maintain a perfect formation.

Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash immediately moved to protect their sisters. If anyone was going to be captured by the group, it wouldn't be the foals.

Bunker Breaker and Night Time almost reacted on instinct to move up and receive the attacks, but they had been ordered to act like civilians unless ordered otherwise by the Knights, so they suppressed their reactions and pretended to be frozen.

Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy moved backwards in apparent fear, letting the three Knights in front, since they would be the ones most likely to be able to deal with any abnormal situations.

Sunset charged a particularly small and unfocused fireball spell (it was difficult, since that was going against her nature) like she had never been in combat before, just to test the reactions of the enemies.

Twilight and Trixie flinched back without actually moving, keeping an eye on the cloaked figures from the corner of their eyes.

As expected, Sunset's spell didn't cause any trouble to the enemies, the four flyers (apparently pegasi) accelerated slightly and flapped their wings, combining their wind manipulation to easily block the weak spell.

But it was then that things stopped following the script.

A huge bolt of lightning struck the earth in between the attackers and the "civilians". The cloaked figures stopped (maintaining formation) and the undercover ponies didn't have to fake their surprise. The lightning lasted for almost an entire second before fading and revealing something even more unexpected.

It was a very pretty pegasus mare, with a light purple coat, orange mane and a cutie mark of lightning forming the shape of a heart. She was slightly crouched and with her head down, but then she got onto her rear legs and raised her head, opening her eyes to reveal they were colored silver. She pointed to the cloaked figures with a hoof and spoke with a musical voice that still managed to be strong and heroic.

"Halt, evildoers! As long as I am here, you won't be able to harm even a single hair of those citizens! For I am Venus, Warrior of Love!" She posed in a manner reminiscent of the more graceful martial arts and a great amount of small bolts of lightning exploded out of her body, forming a short-lived (but very impressive) sphere of lightning.

The reactions to that announcement varied. The undercover guards and squires were completely baffled and unable to react to such an unexpected situation, specially considering that they still had to pretend to be civilians. Trixie allowed some relief to appear in her face, since she was playing a civilian who was happy to have a protector appear, but inwardly she was thinking about the possible repercussions of the appearance of that "Venus" and what it would mean for their mission, while also judging how good the entrance had been (pretty good, but she had kept her back to the audience too much). Sunset and Twilight noted how attractive the pegasus was, but managed to project confusion due to the quickly changing situation (they were not as good as Trixie, but still were good actresses) and Sunset was analysing the power Venus could have based on what she had shown so far, while Twilight tried to figure out the exact mechanics of her movements.

As for the attackers, they were stunned for a moment, but showed their training by shaking that off and attacking the new interloper.

The four fliers went up and attacked with flying wind slashes, mostly aimed up to prevent their opponent from dodging up. Four others (probably unicorns) released spells directly at Venus, while the other four overtook them and stepped forward to act as a defensive line.

It was a particularly well thought out and executed formation, that would cause real trouble to most opponents.

But Venus barely cared.

With a flap of her wings and a flash of lightning, she moved diagonally at super high speed and low altitude, completely avoiding every attack. Then she spread her wings, which flashed with lightning and forced them together in a violent motion directed at the pegasi opponents.

"Venus Love Thunder!" She shouted, her wings creating a visible soundwave that hit the flyers and threw them into disarray.

And she didn't stop moving, immediately flying towards the ground bound enemies with lightning quickly charging on her body. Venus then focused the lightning into a spear held in the middle of her front legs and dived into the middle of the enemy congregation.

"Venus Lightning Dive!" And an explosion rocked the earth and the two closest enemies were sent flying, while the others were staggered, but it only lasted a moment before four blast of magic came screaming in Venus' direction, and two other attacking figures took out bows from their cloaks and fired arrows at her.

Another diagonal flash and Venus evaded all attacks, before creating a whirlwind in between her wings and throwing it at the unicorns.

"Venus Love Wind!" She announced, before spinning in the air and accelerating towards the pegasus, which had already recovered from their stunned state and were trying to create a turbulence in the air to make her crash.

They weren't fast enough and Venus broke through the turbulence zone before accelerating even further and putting her right rear leg in front, and gathering cold air around it.

"Venus Freezing Kick!" She hit one of the pegasi and instantly enhanced the cold air with a flap of her wings and a heavy injection of magic, freezing his wings and dropping him to the ground.

The other three pegasi accelerated towards her, trying for a tackle, their formation well suited to intercept most dodging patterns. But Venus' answer to that was quick and powerful: Spinning her front hooves, she gathered part of the cold air still around and fused it with the humidity in the air to create spheres of hail, which were small but extremely hard due to the speed of the freezing and Venus' control. She threw the spheres at the flying opponents and reversed direction, flying back towards the magic users and archers.

The pegasi were hit and wavered in the air, but managed to recover and try to pursue her, but Venus flashed forwards, accelerating and easily leaving them behind. The archers shot at her, while the unicorns set up a barrier to stop her advance and block any attacks. She ignored them and landed next to one of the earth ponies she had staggered with her lightning (who was already trying to get up) raised him over his head (with some help from her wind manipulation) and threw him at the barrier.

"Venus Love Throw!" And the ballistic pony hit the barrier with a painful thud, making the unicorns cringe from the feedback and making him unconscious.

And the Warrior of Love reached the barrier with a great amount of lightning swirling around her right front hoof.

"Venus Lightning Punch!" The attack was devastating, and it annihilated the barrier, causing such a ridiculous amount of feedback that two of the unicorns outright fainted and the other two had to fight to remain upright. And she didn't waste such an opportunity, moving in their direction with barely a beat of hesitation and landing before focusing a huge amount of magical power into wind manipulation, and with a wave of her hoof, she hammered the two remaining unicorns with a blast of high pressure air, making them fly and fall unconscious.

"Venus Wind Tackle!" She didn't forgot to announce it either.

The remaining earth ponies wouldn't simply let her get away with that, and the two of them that weren't still trying to recover from her earlier attack advanced on her with the grim determination of taking her out even if they got hurt in the process. Venus flew at one of them with a kick aimed at his forehead.

"Venus Wind Reversal!" But before she could get close enough to be grabbed, the powerful pegasus stopped in mid air and then flew backwards, accelerating violently and surprising the pegasi that were trying to get her from behind. She grabbed one of them and stunned him with a quick but overpowered lightning bolt, before carrying him along as she flew towards another earth pony, which was already almost recovered from the lightning attack.

"Venus Love Suplex!" She carried the pegasi into a crash straight on top of the earth pony, enhanced with more wind manipulation, which rendered both of them unconscious.

Now there were only two pegasi and two earth ponies still combat capable, but they were well trained and didn't give up, advancing towards Venus in a square formation.

That would be a good moment to use subtlety, but it seemed like that word wasn't part of Venus' vocabulary, because instead she accelerated with a strong wing beat and headed directly at the enemies, creating a barrier of air and lightning which strenghtened itself quickly in the few seconds the warrior of love had left before collision.

The enemies did everything right. The earth ponies stopped and braced themselves, bringing every bit of magic they could put forward, the pegasi did a loop to gain the maximum possible speed and using their own weather magic to create similar barriers to improve their resilience and power at the critical moment.

"Venus Grand Ram!" And yet Venus' attack made it all for naught, as even their combined strength was unable to resist the overwhelming power she could bring to bear, and they were sent flying as she broke through their formation like it was made of glass.

And the purple pegasus would not lose such an opportunity.

She spread her wings and looked down at the four enemy ponies, who were stunned by the collision but quickly recovering, and decided to nip that little problem in the bud. She spread her wings and gathered four strands of lightning on them, which grew and grew to slightly alarming levels, and them she raised her right front hoof before pointing it down.

"Venus Quadruple Lightning!" And she announced her last attack with an extra dash of relish.

The four overpowered lightning bolts perfectly followed the routes Venus had set for them and hit the four dazed cloaked figures in a manner that seemed extremely painful, causing four mini explosions and rendering the last four enemies unconscious.

And then, Venus showed that she was inexperienced, because she just stopped in the air, like she didn't know what to do now that all enemies were defeated, like she hadn't planned things out quite that far. But it soon turned out to be a moot point, as something unexpected happened to the limp bodies of the cloaked figures.

Beams of light erupted from many parts of their bodies, at first only a few small ones, but they multiplied and grew, until they were all fused and every single body was emitting a huge pillar of light that kept getting brighter and brighter until the bodies couldn't be seen anymore. And then the light flashed and disappeared, together with all of the cloaked figures.

Pretty much every single pony present could feel the magical viabrations and recognize what had happened as the cloaked figures being teleported away. But all of them had different thoughts about it, and about the fight between Venus and them.

The Warrior of Love herself was thinking about what she could have done better in the fight, and speculating about where the opponents had been teleported to. Sunset was trying to engrave the entire fight into her memory, since it had been amazing, but she was also thinking of ways to defeat Venus in a fight and ways to integrate her techniques into Rainbow's style. Her apprentice had similar thoughts, but also felt that putting her own name into every attack was a little uncool. Trixie was trying to figure out how the cloaked figures had been trained and by whom, to be able to display such an amazing teamwork, and what it could mean. Her apprentices Rarity and Applejack were divided in thoughts, with the unicorn focusing more on what Venus had done and what could be her goals while the earth pony had realized the true nature of the cloaked figures, and was starting to make a few disturbing conclusions about the whole situation. Twilight tried to figure out where the teleportation was going but failed, and then started analysing Venus' abilities, realizing something important about them. Fluttershy was feeling slightly overwhelmed by the amount of love she could feel radiating from the powerful pegasus, while Pinkie also realized some of the same things her teacher had about Venus' powers, even though she couldn't understand them as well. The guards were mentally berating themselves for not being able to follow their roles perfectly, and thinking of how they would explain what had happened to Shining Armor.

But then Venus decided to land, turned back to the group and smiled at them.

"Don't worry, citizens! I shall protect you from those threats, but for now I must be off. Venus, AWAY!"

She called upon a massive lightning bolt which hit the spot where she was standing and lasted for quite a few seconds before disappearing and revealing that Venus had also vanished.

There was a beat.

"Well, that was bracing." Trixie turned to the others "It seems like we are safe now, but I'm going to send a message to the guard office to ask for an escort, and also ask why there were no guards at the checkpoint when we got there."

The others nodded, seeing that Trixie was still in character and acting so that they could continue their mission. She sent a message and then it only took a few minutes for a group of guards to arrive, including the guard captain, a stallion with a white coat and a bicolor light blue/dark blue mane, Shining Armor.

Twilight managed to avoid greeting him, but decided she would give him a big hug once everything was over and done with.

And the male unicorn did his part well, managing to avoid letting on that he knew them, or that he knew they were coming. He simply acted like a professional.

"I am sorry, everyone." He said "The guards who were supposed to be here were attacked and we only just found them tied up in one of the warehouses. But I'll take responsibility and lead the entire group to the hotel you'll be staying at."

Sunset took the job of exchanging pleasantries with him, saying that they understood and would follow his instructions as best as they could.

The rest of the way to the city was pretty uneventful, but as they got there and started walking through the streets, Trixie realized that Applejack was becoming more and more tense (it was well-concealed, but Trixie was her teacher and a master of illusions, so she could see it). So the showmare started a common conversation with the farmer about how she expected the hotel's accomodations to be, but also sent a message to her via eye language.

(Trixie: What is the matter?
Applejack: Not now. Pony lot.)

So she wanted to wait until they were in a place without that many ponies, since she wanted to really talk about it, Trixie understood.

Eventually, they got to the Aplacam Hotel and checked in on their rooms, which were pretty much side by side with each other. Then they gathered in a single room (Sunset's) before Trixie started casting lots of spells to prevent eavesdropping.

"So, what have you discovered with your eyes of truth?" Trixie asked.

Applejack sighed "Ah saw that the cloaked figures that attacked us were actually changelings." The room fell into a dead silence at that "And when we got to the town, Ah saw that almost every single pony in the streets in this town is a changeling is disguise."

As soon as everypony worked out the meaning of this, they all realized that this mission had just become a lot more complicated.

Planning

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"Well... This is... Unoptimal." Sunset said.

"Knowing that actually helps a little." Trixie put in "Instead of a strange shadowy group, we have changelings, who have more well understood methods and goal. But still, this is indeed a sticky situation."

"I think we should talk about what we managed to learn from that fight, just so we're all working with the most complete information." Twilight said.

Everyone nodded in agreement, except for the fillies, who were mostly just excited to be able to see the Knights and Squires doing their thing.

The chaotic unicorn decided that, since she had made the suggestion, then it was her who should go first.

"Venus was powerful, but I could see this was mostly because she was using emotion to fuel her magic." Twilight turned to her pink apprentice "Pinkie, you should have realized that too."

The earth pony nodded "Yeppers!" Then she tilted her head "Does that mean she has learned emotion magic like me?"

Twilight shook her head "No. It didn't feel like she was using the directed magic that characterizes the true nature of the Emotion Charge." She put her hoof in her chin "Considering a feel hints, like her cutie mark and the fact that a lot of her attack names contain the word 'Love', I would make a guess that she simply has an affinity for the emotion of love, and can use it as a power source more easily than most ponies can use their emotions." She nodded "Like I said, using emotions to power magic is common, and true emotion magic is simply a directed, stable and general way of doing so."

Fluttershy raised a hoof to the air "That seems to be right, I could feel that pegasus radiating love like she was a fountain." She opened her eyes wide "It was slightly awe-inspiring."

Sunset waited to see if anyone else had anything to say about that before putting in her own two bits "Venus hasn't had any kind of martial arts training." Sunset raised her front hooves and imitated some of her movements as reference "She's naturally graceful and that translates well, but her movements are still unpolished, like she was just getting by on natural talent. There were gaps others could exploit, and I'm sure the changelings she fought would have done so if it wasn't for the fact she had enough power to be able to compensate for those flaws."

Rainbow Dash decided this was the best time to make her own contribution to the conversation.

"I recognized some of the weather magic tricks she used, so she probably has experience in weather control." She spun one of her hooves "But there were a lot of things that could be improved, so she either didn't really go into serious weather control work or she is deliberately holding back. I'd guess it's the first one, but that is only just a feeling. However, she definitely trained to be able to integrate her weather magic in combat, because she was fast, and doing those things in the middle of fighting is harder than it looks." She put her front hooves behind her head, lying down in the air "And to appear and disappear like that, she must be flying up and down from the clouds, hiding in them."

Trixie waited to see if Rainbow Dash had anything more to contribute, and seeing that the answer was negative, she added her own observations:

"We can be sure that this is Venus' first appearance. Otherwise I don't know how we wouldn't have heard about her. Even if she did her heroism in the most remote corners of Equestria rumors would have made their way to us." Trixie tapped a hoof on the floor "The data analysis team sure wouldn't have missed it. And this would explain her apparent inexperience, in that it didn't seem like Venus knew what to do with the enemies after having defeated them."

Applejack was the next one to talk "Ah may be mistaken, but from what mah eyes saw she seemed ta be on the up and up. Like, it didn't seem she was faking being concerned about us and wanting ta protect 'citizens'."

Rarity put in her own observations "I've been thinking about who Venus might be, and why she appeared for the first time here. It's possible she heard about the ponies being attacked and decided this was the best place to make a debut as a heroine. Maybe she was even inspired by our very own Knights and trained herself to become good enough to do it, the timeline makes sense at this point... But her actions of appearing from nowhere to help people and then disappearing again make me think that maybe she already knows about the changeling infiltration and doesn't want the guards of the city to get too much information that could be used against her." Rarity had a thoughtful expression "But I don't know how she would have realized it."

Fluttershy had an idea "Well... Changelings eat love, don't they? Maybe her connection to love allowed her to feel something?"

"That seems to be a plausible theory, but let's just keep this in mind." Trixie looked at the guards "Anything you want to mention?"

Bunker Breaker answered "Just that I could recognize the strategy of the cloaked figures as following the same doctrine as the battle tactics of the royal guard. But considering that they are changelings, there are no question that they would be able to steal and implement those tactics to such a perfect level." Night Time nodded, showing her agreement.

"Anything else anyone wants to put in?" Trixie asked the room in general.

"Actually..." Everyone turned to look at the speaker, who turned out to be Scootaloo "What's going to happen to us, now?" She indicated herself and her partners in crusading, before looking at Rainbow Dash "You told my parents that I would be taken to safety as soon as the danger got too great, and I'm sure my friends' sisters feel the same way. So what are you going to do now that you know what the threat is?"

Applebloom and Sweetie Belle thought about it, they didn't want their adventure to end so soon, but they had promised their sisters that they'd obey the instructions of the grown-ups, so they looked to Applejack and Rarity and nodded slightly, putting the decision on their hands.

"It's not as bad as it could be." Sunset said, feeling like she needed to give direction to what the others were thinking "If the enemy was someone like Sombra I would definitely send the foals back without hesitation, but the Changelings aren't known for killing or hurting innocents, since they need ponies alive and healthy to serve as their love batteries. Still, another layer of protection wouldn't be unwarranted, considering that we know some of the things to expect." She looked to her chaotic partner "Twilight, you said that Fluttershy had worked out long distance empathy?"

The purple unicorn nodded with an expression of understanding "Yeah... That would definitely be good. Fluttershy, you know what to do." She said to her apprentice.

The pegasus nodded and pulled out three feathers from her wings, which she gave to the three fillies "Hold onto these. This will serve as a connection between me and you and will let me feel your emotions, so I'll know if anything happens to you." She smiled slightly "I can also communicate with you via them. The reverse is harder, but if you have something you really need me to know, try to think of me and speak in your own mind as loud as you can."

The three took their respective feathers and nodded, smiling because they wouldn't have to go back home so early.

"Of course, this is all just guarantees. We won't simply let the three exposed to danger if we can help it." Sunset said "Now that this matter is decided... Twilight, when are they going to come?"

She thought about it "I sent the message to Spike with a black ribbon, meaning that he should not let anyone except himself and my brother see it. So it would take a little while before they actually read it, and then they would have to come here in secret, which would definitely be hard, but considering that I sent the message as soon as we got here... Maybe only a few more minutes."

In truth, it only took two more minutes after that, during which the ponies tried their best to relax (watching the Cutie Mark Crusaders playing pattycake was a particularly popular activity, specially after they somehow managed to make one of the beds collapse). Then there was a knock in the door and they looked at Twilight, who nodded, feeling that Spike was right outside via their connection.

They opened the door and let the two enter. Shining Armor had used some sort of disguise spell to hide his horn and change the colors of his coat and mane, while Spike... seemed to be only an indistinct dark shape in the air. Then the two cancelled their respective disguises and revealed their true forms, Shining Armor being as before, while Spike was still the same as before, except he seemed to stand a little straighter and step more firmly.

Twilight saw her big brother and her pseudo younger brother, and since it had been a long time since her last encounter with either of those two (longer in the case of her BBBFF), she decided to hug them. This presented a conundrum, since she didn't know which of the two she should hug first, but the unicorn solved the conundrum in a very Sunset manner, by grabbing both of them with her telekinesis and bringing them together so she could hug the two of them at the same time.

"Hello, sis." Shining Armor said, trying his best to return the hug, despite his awkward position.

"Hi, Twilight." Spike did the same thing.

After they separated, Sunset and Trixie greeted the Captain with a casual "hi" and then greeted Spike in a closer manner, Sunset saying "How does it go, little dragon?" and rubbing his head with a telekinetic hand while Trixie said "It seems like your training is paying off" and putting him on her back.

"Oh, you mean that spell?" Spike answered Trixie "It's just something Luna made me learn that is supposed to make me 'inconspicuous like a shadow'. You haven't seen anything of the real awesome stuff I can do now." Spike said proudly.

After that, the two newcomers were greeted by every other pony in the room, mostly in a simple polite way, but the crusaders swarmed around Spike, asking questions about dragons while Night Time asked him how Princess Luna was. Meanwhile, Bunker Breaker saluted the captain, as dictated by the usual military behavior.

After everything was done, Shining Armor and Spiked were filled in on everything the undercover agents had discussed before their arrival.

The unicorn guard captain was grim "Well, this really explains a lot of things, but it also means we are in a delicate situation."

"I'll say..." Spike agreed "Having to deal with an entire town of changelings when you have very little manpower that isn't a changeling? It's complicated alright."

"How can the changelings even infiltrate so easily, anyway?" Rainbow Dash asked "Aren't there counter-measures against them?"

"There are, but the abilities of the Changelings are just very hard to deal with." Shining Armor answered "When they capture ponies to replace, they put those ponies to serve as love batteries and the caretakers of those ponies can read their minds for any information their disguised agents need to be able to fit in, and pass that information through the swarm network. And the agents can request information from it at any time." The unicorn shook his head "The only weakness is that the swarm network has a limited range, so the captured ponies must be nearby, at most only a few kilometers from here."

"This has potential." Rarity said "We just need to find a way of finding the base or bases of the Changelings and then we could formulate a plan of attack to be able to free the captured ponies and reduce our numerical disadvantage." She put a hoof in her chin "But we'd better do it without alerting the changelings, otherwise we won't know what they'll do."

"Well, we three Knights can stealth it up and try to obtain information by going to places without being detected. That is a possibility to consider." Sunset mentioned.

"Seriously?" Rainbow Dash was incredulous "I can see Trixie doing it, and perhaps Twilight, but you can also be stealthy?"

"It's not my specialty, and Trixie is definitely the best of us at it, but all of us received really comprehensive training, remember?" Sunset argued "Really comprehensive."

Twilight smiled fondly "I remember that training. It was in the form of a game that the Princess played with us called Hide and Sun." The non-Knights twitched, already realizing where this was going "It was kinda like hide and seek, except that every time she detected one of us the Princess would throw a mini-sun at them."

Sunset took over the explanation, also smiling in remembrance "Celestia would win when none of us could move anymore, and we won if at least one of us was still moving after seventy two hours of the game."

Trixie gave a little more information "The Princess won most of the time, but it was always really fun, and it also managed to train our resistance to hunger, because it is difficult trying to grab a bite in the middle of such an intense competition." She closed her eyes and smiled like the others "We always cheered pretty hard when we won."

The others who were hearing this account were horrified, but not exactly surprised, they had learned to expect things like that every time one of them mentioned anything related to their training. However, they were also united in a single thought:

So this wasn't anything like Hide and Seek at all!

-

"Why did I even conceive of actually playing Hide and Sun?!" The sun princess exclaimed, front hooves on her face "Why did I think it would be a good idea? I must have been more stressed out than I realized..."

Her sister was confused, she had just asked about ideas of new training methods for Spike, since Celestia had experience in training great apprentices, so she didn't expect that kind of reaction.

-

"Let's shelve the idea for now." Captain Shining Armor decided to bring the discussion back on track "We know they are the changelings, and they are probably trying to steal the Artefact hidden in the cave. So how likely are they to be able to do it?"

"Very unlikely." Sunset said "The protections on the cave are particularly heavy-duty, and practically impossible to sneak by. They would have more luck trying to get pass everything by force, but that would alert pretty much any remaining guards in the city." She looked at Shining Armor "And they know you would make things hard for them in that case. And even if they tried, there should be so many traps among the protections that a good bit of their fighting force would be rendered unable to fight before they even got close to the Artefact."

"That means we probably still have some time." Trixie said, then continued "Perhaps we should try the old 'tourists misreading maps and going to places they shouldn't' routine, and spread in teams, with one sensor each, like me, Applejack and Fluttershy and see what we can dig up."

"We should probably try to include Venus is our plans." Fluttershy said.

She took four more of her feathers and gave two each to Spike and Shining Armor.

"One of those is for each of you, and the other is to give Venus if you have a chance. Having a point of contact with her can only be helpful."

The two nodded and took the offered feathers.

"What are your resources?" The guard captain asked "The message said you would bring everything you need, but I'm not seeing anything here."

"Ah, it's all in my mane." Pinkie Pie answered simply.

"What." Both Shining Armor and Spike chorused.

"That's one of her natural uses of chaos magic that I helped develop." Twilight said, proud of her apprentice "There's a chaotic space inside her mane that is... pretty huge, but hard to accurately measure because of its nature." She pointed to her own mane "I've been trying to replicate, since it's pretty useful, but I can only hold a small box worth of items so far. While Pinkie still has space left even if she's carrying Rarity's sword, a few potions, spell papers, a container with a lot of magic and all sorts of other things."

A few moments were taken for everyone who didn't know to recover from the revelation.

After that the actual planning discussion started. Everypony (and Spike) had their own ideas and contributions to make about plans, counter-plans and safety plans, and it took a long time before they managed to hash out something they were happy with, but it was done

After all that was done, Sweetie Belle got curious and asked Sunset "Where did you even play Hide and Sun? It seems like it would be really dangerous just to be near it."

Sunset smiled at her "The Great Canterlot Quarry, of course. Same place we did anything dangerous."

Pinkie Pie remembered something "Wait, didn't that place get condemned like a year and a half ago? Maud told me about it, it was big news among the rock farmers."

"Oh, yeah." Twilight confirmed "That was one of our failed combination attacks. We were trying to create a sun that absorbed energy instead of releasing it, but it turned out we didn't particularly understand all the finer points of trying to reverse fundamental physical constants and ended up irradiating the whole place with completely new forms of radiation, making it freeze so hard it actually broke through absolute zero and came out the other side into some kind of pseudo-plasma, and causing all sorts of continuous uncontrolled magical phenomena, because we managed to mess up the dragon pulse in the area." She seemed slightly contrite.

The others didn't have anything to say to that, except that they kinda felt bad for Princess Celestia having to put up with the three.

Interlude 3: Dual Ascension in the Middle of Chaos

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A long, long time ago, longer than the memory of any living beings except for a few immortals, two unicorn sisters lived in a village of ponies.

In these days, being a pony was hard and dangerous, because there were countless threats that were powerful enough and willing enough to cause their extinction. Many evil beings, dangerous artefacts and nocive phenomena wandered through the world causing pain and terror to any who had the bad luck to cross their paths. Many powerful, intelligent species ended up disappearing from the world in those days.

Those two unicorn mares knew about it, and ever since their childhood, the two had wished to be able to protect their families, friends and their way of life. As such, they hoped their talents would turn out to be powerful and useful so they could help protect their village.

That was not an uncommon notion, and the numerous small pony gatherings managed to survive long in that harsh world thanks to the many ponies that worked hard to protect them.

It wasn't different with those two. They eventually discovered within themselves the talents of Sun Magic and Moon Magic, respectively, and as tradition, took on new names to reflect her talents, becoming Celestia and Luna.

They learned all they could from their elders, developing their magic and shaping it to become the strong warriors the village needed for its survival, and the two soon proved their determination, as before they were even out of their teenage years, Celestia and Luna had surpassed their teachers and become the greatest mages and warriors in the village.

From them on, they took on the responsibility of their power with an impressive dedication. Always being the first line of defence against threats such as monsters and raiders, as well as frequently scouting around for bigger threats that they would need to relocate their village to avoid, thing that happened three times during their years as guardians.

The job of protecting their village pushed them to their limits and almost broke them several times, but they grew stronger due to it, and kept on living their lives day by day, because what else could they do in such uncertain times?

But one day, they were faced with something completely out of their experience:

A Battle of Titans.

-

Discord was the Spirit of Chaos.

But despite, rightly, being considered a dangerous villain by pretty much every single civilization which had ever met him, Discord was actually far from being the existence which caused the greatest harm in the world.

After all, things wouldn't be any fun if he was alone in the world, or if the world itself was destroyed. And as such, he actually used a lot of restraint in his dealings with other beings, relatively to some of the greatest evils, of course.

Case in point was the entity he was currently facing.

Once it had a name, but it had forsaken all identity in a mad quest for power and was only known as the Nameless Abyss of Darkness. Once it had been a part of some species, but was now only a living (if you could call that life) maelstrom of darkness.

And it wanted to devour the entire world, covering all existence with its darkness.

Discord obviously opposed that. After all, the world was his toy and he wouldn't simply let any random monster destroy it when it wanted.

And so they fought.

And despite his colossal power, the Spirit of Chaos actually found himself matched by Nameless.

Discord clapped to make pieces of his opponent be scattered all over the world, but in every dark spot Nameless regrew and joined together, Discord summoned an infinite army of wind up toys to eat every single portion of the maelstrom, but they were all eaten from the inside, Discord banished the Abyss to a world of pure light, but the Darkness devoured all the light leaving only more darkness behind, and broke out of the world by chasing the darkness in Discord himself.

And Nameless wasn't only defending, it kept trying to consume Discord and every single spell he used, desiring to smother such a powerful being that would leave a lasting darkness behind. It started to take in more and more darkness from all over the world, growing bigger and bigger, with the goal of filling every empty space in existence and leaving Discord nowhere to escape.

Seeing that he had no other guaranteed way of defeating the opponent quickly, the Spirit of Chaos decided to do something he didn't really like.

"CHAOTIC RELEASE!" He shouted.

And even though Nameless was powerful, he was completely one upped by Discord at that moment, as the Spirit of Chaos removed all of his restraints.

Every single being and every single piece of matter in the world, became Discord.

"Ha, Ha, Ha!" Discord laughed from his uncountable mouths.

And every single Discord attacked the Abyss at the same time, with countlessly varied attacks that hit the enemy all at the same time, in total defiance of the laws of space and time.

But even in the face of such overwhelming assault, Nameless remained in existence, his soul anchoring itself to the wound in reality his existence was, thus remaining in the world despite every single bit of darkness having been annihilated.

But Discord wouldn't be stopped by such a method. He laughed again and used a colossal amount of power to briefly take control of the essence of the world, which he decided to channel through the sun and the moon who were in the sky.

Accelerating both to relativistic speeds, he made them crash directly at the wound in the world, forcefully healing it and leaving the damaged soul of Nameless to disperse.

But even Discord couldn't use such a large power without consequences. His body started cracking apart, and he instinctively disabled his Chaotic Release, returning to a more stable state and falling to the ground, his energy spent.

However, he then looked up and realized something terrible. Perhaps due to a last curse by Nameless, perhaps due to his own excessive power lacking control in his unrestrained form, or perhaps due to a combination of both factors, the sun and the moon hadn't returned to their usual orbits after he released them. In fact, they seemed to be speeding up... and falling.

Realizing that such a catastrophe would destroy the world, Discord attempted to get them back under control, but his power failed him, being too exhausted to exert enough power to stop something like this.

He watched in despair, deciding to never again use his unrestrained state, because it had made his own worst fears come to pass.

-

Celestia and Luna were the first to wake up from the groggy state after turning back into themselves from being Discord. This was not due to any particular strength of theirs, but because of their connection with the sun and the moon.

While most other beings in existence were still trying to remember how to open their eyes and stand up, the two unicorn sisters had seen the out of control celestial bodies rushing through the sky and slowly descending. And they understood exactly what would happen if they crashed into the land.

So Celestia and Luna reacted the same way as they would react to any other threats to their home, and tried to solve it, first by using magic on the Sun and Moon.

The feedback of trying to use their meager powers to stop the out of control celestial bodies gave them a terrible headache and almost knocked them out, and the two saw that this wasn't going to work.

And them, almost at the same time, they had a crazy idea. Perhaps instead of trying to use their own powers to stop the sun and moon, they could connect with them and make it so they would stop themselves.

Using only intuition, they wove new spells to connect themselves directly with their celestial bodies, and were instantly flooded with power.

It was beyond painful, and both of them screamed as they tried to control the power beyond anything they had ever experienced.

Their bodies started to be burned away by the sheer amount of energy passing through them, but the two refused to stop their spells, knowing this was a battle for the fate of their village, and only having some idea of what it meant for the world, as their minds couldn't concentrate on much.

-

Discord felt the two ponies trying to save the world and undo his mistake. He wished he could help them, but he was unable to, and he understood very well that their efforts would simply not be enough.

Still, their determination to not give up even as their weak bodies were destroyed by the power they were trying to wield moved him, and he decided that he should do something to honor it.

He couldn't help the two, but he could make it so he wasn't the only one who knew of their desperate battle. And with a spell that took all of his remaining power, he tried to connect their minds with that of every single other intelligent creature.

His power wasn't enough for what he had in mind, but he managed to connect them to every pony in the world, and he decided that was enough as he passed out.

-

And at that moment, every single one of the thousands of ponies could feel the plight of the sisters, and their determination, and not knowing what else to do, they started cheering the two on, even if most of them didn't even know their names before the ponies of their village, which were also in the connection, revealed them.

And the sisters felt every single pony in the world cheering them on, and realized the immensity of their task for the very first time.

Finally, their bodies couldn't handle any more of the power and exploded.

But for a moment, before they could drift away, their souls were free of the confines of flesh, and in a final effort, used every single scrap of will they could muster to move the energy and force the sun and moon to stop.

They did.

And then Celestia and Luna's souls exploded with light, as new bodies constructed themselves around their souls, bodies that were utterly different from what they had before, and yet, completely right.

That was much cheering on that day, even after the spell broke and the connection of the ponies vanished. Celestia and Luna hugged each other in content, but then they started to discuss things.

They had felt how many ponies that were in the entire world, and they now felt responsible for them.

Perhaps it was fate that the two had become so much more powerful just after that, as they decided they had to protect all ponies, instead of just the ones in their village.

They would gather every pony in the world under their protection, and as they had done before, Celestia and Luna would act as protectors against every threat.

Investigations

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The group of guards (mostly changelings) who were escorting the four ponies to the cavern of Belemoor couldn't help but overhear snippets of conversation... But they were unable to interpret what they heard, mostly because it was too disjointed.

"... and the latest album by the Marvelous Mares was pretty good, but I think they phoned it in some of the later songs..."

"... really wanted to go to that party. It has a lot of reputation as one of the best shindigs in the whole marezona..."

"... and then the goalkeeper totally missed when he jumped for the ball and turned what should have been an easy victory..."

"... totally ended in a cliffhanger and I'm gonna have to wait another three weeks before the next issue comes out..."

Of course, that was on purpose. The four ponies who were being escorted were actually Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo. They wanted to pass the impression of being only ordinary tourists, so they had used a weird but effective counter-espionage technique. While normal conversations had a certain rhythm to them, that could be followed to the point where eavesdroppers would be able to understand the gist of things by focusing their hearing during the crucial parts, what the ponies were doing was far from ordinary conversation.

Each of them was in fact doing a monologue about whatever came to mind, and talking past each other. With this, even skilled eavesdroppers would see that the conversation didn't follow the patterns of a group making united plans, while talking in code for example would lead to them understanding the flow of the conversation and being able to gleam valuable information despite not understanding the code. What the four were doing read only as random jabbering, and it truly was, but any important comunication could be done via eye language (except to Scootaloo, who didn't have training to follow any plans that required such secrecy) and the spies in the guards would get the impression that their charges were harmless.

And this technique was so easy to do that even Scootaloo could contribute, despite her being a completely normal filly.

They were already getting pretty close to the cave, and the four couldn't help but remember about their part in this plan:

-

1 Day Earlier

"Somepony needs to check on the cave of Belemoor and the protections around the Amulet of Threshold." Twilight said "We need to figure out the most we can about the state of the defences, what are the methods the changelings are trying to use to get around those protections, if they already started trying to do so or are waiting until they get an even stronger grip on the situation, and how long we can expect the defences to hold." She sighed "Since I'm the best at simple magical analysis, and I made sure to read all the documents relating to the cave, I'll have to be part of the group. But who else is going to go?"

Trixie, as usual, had some cogent points "We have to think about the level of danger of each operation. You might be really good at doing analysis without being noticed, and you might not be getting close to any sites with a high possibility of containing hidden changeling bases, but considering it is most likely their target, the cave will probably be watched with great intensity, and being trapped in such a place would be a bad situation." She moved one of her hooves, thinking about it "In that case, it will probably be best if you were to go with a group capable of making fast escapes even in the worst case scenario."

"In that case..." Sunset intervened "I think you should send along Pinkie Pie, because an expert in chaotic shifting is very difficult to trap," she pointed at the earth pony "Rainbow Dash, because she's fast and strong enough to break through any ambushes," she pointed to the pegasus "and Scootaloo, because she's light enough that Dash can grab her and carry her out of danger." She pointed to the filly "There's also a need to maintain the cover as sisters, and the fact that having a foal along will reduce their wariness."

Scootaloo raised her hoof "And there's also the emergency teleportation thing."

Sunset nodded "That is also a factor, but I'd prefer if this was an absolute last resort." She closed her eyes for a second "You three should also take one of Fluttershy's feathers, and in fact everyone should have one of them, for us to be able to remain in contact with her even in the worst case scenarios."

There were no objections to this arrangement, and so it was done, and soon all of the ponies present had one of the feathers of the empathic pegasus.

"Dears..." Rarity spoke after they were done with that "I can barely believe it, but you never actually told us what this Amulet of Threshold is capable of doing. What would the Changelings want with it?"

"Oh..." Twilight rubbed her head "I think we got distracted." She sighed "To put things simply, the Amulet of Threshold allows the user to create magical thresholds with special rules on them, like strenghtening all your allies and weakening the enemies. Since the changelings are a very large and well coordinated group, having the amulet would give them some really big advantages, as you might expect."

-

While that group of four was heading to the Belemoor cave, another group of four was doing a long trail around the village, with the goal of seeing the envinronment of the surroundings.

Those four were also being escorted by a group of guards (again, mostly changelings, the changelings had done a pretty through infiltration job) and they were also using the same technique to prevent from arousing suspicion. However, their mission was fairly different, and that was reflected in their members.

They were Trixie Lulamoon, Applejack, Applebloom and Bunker Breaker, and the filly had been drilled fairly severely in not letting on what she knew about the operation. Her part in the plan consisted of complaining that she was tired, with Bunker Breaker 'deciding to be a gentlestallion' and offering to carry her.

It was necessary because, different from the first group, they would have to go off the beaten path to be able to complete their task. And when the group was passing near a pretty hilly area (not a part of the trail) Trixie started the operation.

"Hey! Want to see a trick?" She asked her travel companions, but acted before they could answer.

Trixie's horn glowed and she started shooting multi colored sparks to the air. That was a fairly simple fireworks spell, and Trixie would never consider it a trick worthy of note, except that her real trick was the performance she was about to give.

One of the sparks "accidentally" shot out without a lot of power and couldn't fly too far before coming back down on top of Trixie's body, where it started to smoke, because Trixie had used a more dangerous version of the spell, that was based on fire instead of just light. And then her coat caught on fire.

"AHH!" She screamed and started running wildly "I'M ON FIRE! I'M ON FIRE!"

The pegasus guard took off and flew directly at Trixie, before gathering water from the air into a sphere.

"Don't worry, I can-" The guard started saying.

"HOT, HOT, HOT!" Trixie screamed and contorted her own body, throwing her rear legs back and "accidentally" bucking the pegasus on the side of the head. Such a hit while unprepared caused the guard to lose consciousness and fall to the ground.

The unicorn apparently didn't even notice what she had done, she went back to running around (going to a direction in which there were no guards) and screaming "SOMEPONY HELP!".

The two earth pony guards took off, trying to catch Trixie to be able to smother the flames. However, she was fast, and they had been a certain distance away from her, so it took seven seconds before the first of them managed to catch up. He was just about to grab Trixie when:

"Water! Water!" She screamed, and used a spell to try to shoot water from her horn to douse the flames. She missed her own body completely due to the awkward position, and the jet of water was shot out with such volume that it managed to hit the eyes of the guard, blinding him, as well as his hooves, making him slip and fall. The other earth pony guard that had been running after Trixie was tripped by his suddenly falling partner, and fell to the ground as well.

Finally, one of the guards, an unicorn (who wasn't a changeling), and had been following behind the earth pony guards at a sufficient distance not to be tripped, managed to get his wits back together and hit Trixie with a homing ice spell, that immediately doused the flame (which had already spread to most of her back). The unicorn let herself fall on her side.

"Oh, thank you!" She praised the guard, before trying to get up and grimacing "Ah, I think there are some burns on my back." She turned to the guard and asked "They don't feel that bad, but could you look anyway?"

The guard did so, carefully inspecting the burned area while Trixie did her utmost to avoid moving her back (making lots of funny faces and gestures that kept the guards' attention on her. The unicorn pronounced his veredict:

"It's really not bad, mostly it just burned your coat and only a small patch of skin was affected. How about this?" He used a spell on the burned area.

"Ohh..." Trixie said, as the white lines of the spell moved through her injury and brought relief "That feels much better. In fact..." She slowly stoof up "I can move okay, now! What was it?." She asked.

"Just a small first aid spell, miss. Mostly it protects the place form further harm and reduces the pain." The unicorn stallion answered.

"Thank you! Thank you!" She shook his hoof and smiled.

"Right..." Another guard (this one a changeling) spoke "if there isn't anything else, and if everyone agrees, we should return to doing the trail."

"I have no objections." Said Bunker Breaker.

The filly on his back said the same thing, and Trixie also agreed.

"Wait..." Another of the guards said "Where's miss Diamond Cutter?"

Diamond Cutter was the fake name Applejack had been using (her disguise had a diamond cutie mark), and the guard had a pertinent question, because in the time everyone had been distracted by Trixie's "accident", the farm mare had completely vanished.

"Sis?" Applebloom asked "Did my sister disappear?"

Everypony looked around frantically trying to spot Applejack in the distance or something similar, before one of the guards remembered to look for traces and managed to find a few hoofmarks going straight into the hilly area nearby.

"Did she get scared and run off?" One of the guards wondered.

"Maybe she simply wandered off without realizing it." Another put forth his theory.

"Regardless," The unicorn guard put in his own two bits "We can't just stay here while she's missing. One of us needs to go find miss Diamond Cutter and bring her back."

"I'll go." Another guard (who was a changeling, and actually they were all changelings except for the unicorn) volunteered, before setting off.

"Well..." A guard said "We should get going. They will eventually catch up with us."

The group, now missing two members, returned to walking the trail, except the tourist ponies were all looking concerned.

But of course, all of them, especially Trixie, were grinning on the inside as the first phase of their plan had gone off without a hitch.

-

1 Day Earlier

"This area here is very suspicious." Trixie said, putting a hoof in a certain point in the map "It's a place where very few ponies walk around, but all those hills would serve as a great place for Changelings to excavate tunnels where they can hide a base."

"Ah guess if Ah can get close enough ta the place, Ah would be able to see if there's any hidden bases there." Applejack said.

"Indeed, but the problem is actually getting there." Twilight pointed out "The closest a tourist can get to that place is a trail that passes somewhat close to the border of the area. But because of the problems, there's always a group of guards protecting the tourists that to outside of town."

"This is a smaller problem than you'd expect." Trixie smirked "Trixie just needs to use her magnificence to completely steal the attentions of the guards for long enough for you to escape the group. And then you'll be able to do your recon before they track you down to bring you back."

"Are you sure?" Rarity doubted "I don't think the guards will be interested in watching a magic show enough to lose track of everypony. They are well trained. And their changeling members have really good coordination."

"Who said anything about a magic show?" Trixie said smugly "Guards have to help other ponies, so Trixie figures she'll be able to catch and keep their attention by setting herself on fire. And after that it's just preventing them from saving her for long enough."

Fluttershy raised a hoof "Are you sure, Trixie? Setting yourself on fire... seems pretty dangerous."

"You don't need to worry, Fluttershy." Trixie waved her concerns off "Trixie may not have an aura defence as powerful a Sunset's, but she has enough fine control to be able to limit the damage of the fire and suppress the pain." The unicorn shrugged "It wouldn't be the first time Trixie had to do something like this."

Sunset and Twilight nodded, though the later did so with a sad expression.

The others in the room thought about asking for details but decided they probably wouldn't like them.

-

And at the same time the other two groups were doing their missions, yet another group of ponies was on a mission of their own.

They were Sunset, Fluttershy, Rarity and Sweetie Belle. Different from the other groups, they didn't have a group of guards escorting them, and the reason for that was because they were only wandering throught the town, so the guards posted all over the town would be enough to protect any tourists doing this kind of thing.

The four were also using the anti eavesdropping measures to seem just like normal tourists, but in their case the most important part of what they were doing was related to the manner in which they were moving around the town.

It seemed random, with one of them pointing out something interesting every so often and the group rushing to get there, but in fact the four had poured over a map of the town until they managed to find a route to be able to go over most of the area of the town.

Sweetie Belle was mostly enjoying herself, this was still a place different from usual which she toured together with her sister, but the three mares had fairly important jobs.

Sunset Shimmer, since her perception abilities weren't good enough to help with the current mission, was simply keeping an eye on the surroundings to be ready to act immediately in case of trouble.

Rarity was using some fairly subtle spells to improve her perception of the magical energies of the place, in order to be able to discover anything interesting that could be seen in the village.

Fluttershy had the most complicated work, she was keeping her empathic senses open to try to detect anything she needed to know, but was also surreptiously catching the small animals of the village and asking if they knew about anything unusual happening there.

Searching the town was an important step in their plans.

-

1 Day Earlier

"We should also search the town, just to make sure we can predict any unwelcome surprises." Sunset said.

"I guess me and Fluttershy are the best suited for this." Rarity decided "I should be able to notice any special hidden spells while she ask the animals of the town."

"I-I think I can also feel the emotions in the air enough to be able to detect sneaky things." Fluttershy said uncertainly.

"If you could do it, it would be good." Twilight agreed "Also, you said you felt a lot of love radiating from Venus. Do you think you could detect her?"

"... It's possible." Fluttershy spoke after a moment of uncertainty.

"So, I guess we need to make a route throught the city to be able to check everywhere." Sunset concluded "Who has a map?"

-

Meanwhile, Night Time was bored, waiting inside the room.

"I know my part of the plan will come only once night falls..." She said to herself "But this is still so boring..."

Results

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And after a walk that was frankly too long, Twilight's group finally got to a place where they could view the entrance of the cave.

It wasn't just a hole in the ground, in fact it was far from it. The entrance of the cave was taken up by an arch built directly into the rock. It was a big arch, enough that ten ponies could confortably walk together into it side by side, and twelve pegasi could confortably fly into it forming a pillar, one above the other. The arch itself was a magnificent creation of silver and gold, detailed with intricate patterns that called boundaries to mind. Those patterns were done in a variety of styles, some of them engraved, some painted on, some even made by adding "nails" (that was what they looked like) in a pattern.

The areas of the cave around the arch also weren't bare, being painted with representations of important scenes in the history of the Amulet of Threshold that was kept in the cave, and those paintings were done in a variety of styles, by a variety of artists. Some of them were naturalistic and seemed almost like pictures that could have been taken at the time, but others were so stilized that even with knowledge of what the painting was representing (thankfully provided by plaques under each one of them), it was still difficult to understand exactly what you were looking at. (One of the paintings made Scootaloo stop in surprise, since it was a representation in comic book style sequential art of a particularly action packed event. The pegasus filly took a moment to wonder about the possibility of a painting cutie mark.)

But they could not simply keep admiring the outside of the cave. Eventually the group of tourists decided they had seen enough and slowly entered into the actual cave, still being escorted by the four guards.

And they saw that the interior of the cave was even more magnificent than the exterior. In fact, it was so amazing that even if none of the four tourists were actually there for 'touristing', they still couldn't help but be amazed by what they were seeing. That was a crystal cave, with the walls and ceiling being completely covered in the crystals. The crystals were unpolished, but their variety of sizes, shapes and colors created an incredible scene within the cave, with their light reflecting of each other and making beautiful reflexes that changed colors every time the viewers moved their heads.

And the natural beauty of the place was only one part of its charm. Since that cave was the location of the Amulet of Threshold, the town turned it into a museum of of magical artefacts. Obviously they couldn't get other magical artefacts just for the purpose of showing them off to tourists, but they had many replicas, pictures and scrolls about famous artefacts. This all could seem strange, considering this place was supposed to exist to keep the Amulet of Threshold out of the wrong hands, but this just showed how much the magical protections in the Amulet were trusted, that ponies were allowed to get so close to it on such a large scale.

And Twilight definitely didn't need to do a lot of "pretending" to be a tourist, considering how much magical artefacts were intertwined with stories of famous Legendary Heroes and Knights, which was exactly the kind of thing the three apprentices of Celestia had liked to read when they were younger (and in fact still liked to read). For example:

"Oh! That's a reproduction of one of the paintings made by the master Bernlion regarding the legendary battle of Knight Revolution against the Black Claw! It was said he got so close to the battle that he only escaped death by luck. The original is in one of the art galleries of the Griffin Republic, considering this is an important part of their story too.

"Ah! And that's a model of the Broken Catedral, the building sized artefact that the followers of the Shadow Ruler tried to use to force him into our dimension, only to be stopped by the Adventurers Six, a group including a minotaur, a seapony, a pegasus-dragon hybrid, a doe, an earth pony and a diamond dog. Definitely one of the strangest and broadest groups of heroes in history.

"And that's... A plaque mourning the Knights of the Scarlet Dream, a powerful group that was brought to an end by The Flames of Annihilation, one of their own members, and perhaps the most famous Fallen Knight in history." Twilight put a hoof in her heart and closed her eyes, somber.

But still, even with all of that, the chaotic unicorn didn't lose sight of their real goal, and soon she got in sight of it.

It was an opening into a corridor connected with the main cave. That opening had its own arch which was pure silver, much smaller, but with more complicated engravings. There were images of the Amulet of Threshold in several different styles adorning the walls around the arch. Right outside of this corridor was the closest any tourist ever got to the amulet, and the reason for that was obvious enough to be its own attraction.

"So... The invisible barrier that prevents ponies from getting close starts here?" Scootaloo asked, getting close to the arch and extending a hoof forward into the opening.

She couldn't extend it completely because of the barrier. It wasn't like a solid wall, but seemed to push back with exactly the same amount of strength it was being pushed. The pegasus filly put more and more strength into the barrier, including firming her rear hooves and pushing with both front hooves, and even flapping her wings to try and get the greatest amount of impulse possible. But nothing worked.

That was the first magical defence of the Amulet of Threshold, there to gently discourage normal ponies from trying to get closer. It was fairly casual, and far from heavy-duty, but the amount of power needed to break through it was more than what any normal pony could casually use. And if you actually managed to get through it, that just meant you were going to face the serious defences.

Of course, neither Rainbow Dash nor Pinkie Pie were normal ponies, but they obviously didn't want to break the barrier, so the two mares restricted themselves a lot as they played with it. Pinkie Pie doing a running start and jumping on the barrier, only to have all her momentum negated in an instant and Rainbow Dash pressing on every point of the barrier by using her flight to get there.

Twilight seemed to be only watching the others have fun, but in fact she was doing her mission, and the whole reason why the other three were playing with the barrier was to give Twilight a reason to just remain close to the barrier without being suspicious. They couldn't just keep doing this indefinitely, but Twilight Sparkle was good enough to be able to check everything before the guards started getting suspicious about the amount of time the tourists stayed there, even though she had to be careful to prevent any of them from detecting her use of magic.

The chaotic Knight carefully passed her magic through the magical formation that kept the defences powered like she was using a brush. It was a very delicate and complicated process, considering the sheer complexity of the spells she was analyzing and the various traps that were put there to prevent exactly the kind information gathering she was attempting, which were difficult to avoid even though she knew about them more or less, but Twilight enjoyed it anyway. She always felt like magic should be like this, precise, mysterious, powerful and dangerous.

Twilight Sparkle was looking for traces of magical tampering on the spell formations, to see if the changelings had already started trying to get through and how far were they in that case. It didn't take long before the unicorn scholar realized that yes, somepony had come through there and left some traces. But annoyingly, whoever did it was a particularly skilled mage, she kept going further and further and only finding the barest traces of foreign magic, not enough to understand what was the purpose of the mage who did it.

So she kept going deeper and deeper, to the point where she would have taken too long to do it, were it not for the fact that Twilight was pushing her mind to the limit and experiencing time at a fairly different rate from normal, enough to count every thousandth of a second, a state necessary for the working of the most dangerous and precise spells. She finally found a bigger concentration of the magical traces so she only needed to search-

Suddenly, she stepped on a tripwire.

Twilight's mind went on overdrive, her superior thought processes were disengaged and she made several quick jumps and connections even faster than she could have consciously thought of it. Her mind didn't put it all in a nice, easy to understand way, but what she discovered was something like:

Magical tripwire. Trap. Not defence formation. Foreign. Foreign mage. Waiting for intruders.

And in the ridiculously small period of time before the tripwire could actually activate and make the alert, Twilight slammed it with a burst of raw chaos magic, which confused the tripwire for long enough for her to weave a spell around it and stop whatever it was about to do, before forcefully returning it to an untripped state and erasing every trace of her passage she could find.

Then Twilight went back to the real world, she had to warn the others.

"Well, let's go." She said, the signal that she was done with her part.

It had only taken slightly less than ten seconds.

The rest of her group looked at her, and she used that moment to pass on a message to Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie via her glance.

(Twilight: Don't need to respond. The enemies wanted us here, they didn't try to break the defences, they wanted to lure ponies who would check it and be caught by the magical tripwire deviously hidden inside, so they would be alerted. I think they want to use us to get the Amulet.)

The two Squires froze almost imperceptly for a moment.

That really was something important. And alarming.

-

Applejack ran as fast as she could, only stopping once in a while to Look at things with her Eyes of Truth.

She was moving in a previously decided route to be able to check the biggest possible area as fast as possible, since they didn't know how much time it would take for her to get results, if it was even possible. The route also made it more difficult for pursuers to follow her, since it never left Applejack out in the open for long.

And all of those precautions worked, because before the pursuing guard could get close enough to see her, Applejack found the Changeling base.

Looking through the rock itself, she saw dozens of Changelings and hundreds of normal ponies trapped in cocoons. She searched for, and found, the hidden entrance of the base, and she memorized every single aspect about it that she could, just in case any of it became relevant.

But eventually, the guard did manage to reach her, and Applejack waited until he got close before talking.

"Ah, thank you! I didn't know where I was going!" She spoke in the most convincing manner she could.

"Okay." The guard said "You just need to follow..." He got stopped by the appearance of a group of four flying cloaked figures that were approaching fast.

Applejack turned to them, trying to figure out what the changelings were attempting, and she got her answer as the guard turned back to his true changeling form and blasted her in the back of the head with a spell.

The farmer mare could have used her aura defences to protect herself, but the highest priority plans didn't call for that. She let herself be knocked unconscious, but not before sending a message to Fluttershy via her feather. A message consisting of a single word.

-

Rarity was doing an important job. She had to determine which of the ponies in town were in fact disguised Changelings, she specially had to determine which of the guards had in fact been replaced by Changelings.

Applejack could have done this easily, but she was occupied with a more important mission, so Rarity had to use a fairly complex method to be able to identify the Changelings. It relied on the fact that, while the Changelings could actually change everything about themselves, including their own internal energy, doing so took far too much energy and concentration, so it wasn't done casually.

Even so, it was difficulty to test whether any given pony was a changeling or not, specially doing so in a way that wouldn't be harmful if the target wasn't actually a changeling. It was even harder to do that without the changeling perceiving what was being done.

But of course, there was a spell for that. And the reason why the changelings were still a major threat despite such a convenient spell existing was because the spell wasn't actually convenient in the least. It was based upon the principles of radar, generating a wave of magic that bounced on the internal magic of the target, returning information about what kind of magic it was.

As might be expected, doing such a thing was fairly noticeable, usually because the skin of the target was forced open to allow the passage of the magic, which was why casting spells directly on living beings was difficult. Doing such without causing harm and without allowing the target to feel what was happening took such a frightening amount of precision that, among the Knights, only Trixie had been able to master the spell. (She had bragged a lot to her partners when her apprentice managed the feat.)

The fact that Rarity could do so made her the perfect pony to execute this part of the plan, she was using the spell on every pony she could see (which was most ponies in town, due to their route) and surreptiously writing the details on a spell paper inside her knapsack (using telekinesis to write without seeing was far easier than what she was already doing), that spell paper was connected to a similar one which was being held by Captain Shining Armor, as well as copies for every member of the team, just in case.

In contrast with Rarity's success, Fluttershy wasn't really accomplishing much.

It wasn't unexpected. Trying to figure out plots from large-scale emotion sensing was pretty much purely theoretical stuff, and she was only able to distinguish certain trends, like feeling that something huge was being prepared... Which wasn't surprising at all. Likewise, talking with animals produced only information the Knights had already been able to deduce, such as weird gatherings of ponies who should have no connection, and ponies being kidnapped right out of their rooms.

The empathic pegasus was feeling pretty down, even though the others had warned her that this part of the plan was a long shot. However, she suddenly felt something that completely wiped those thoughts out of her mind. She felt an unforgettable emotional signature. She felt Venus.

For a moment, she doubted her own feelings, because that emotional signature wasn't radiating love like she had seen Venus do, but Fluttershy understood why that pegasus would want to be a little lower key inside the town.

The animal caretaker was thinking about possibilities of taking off to go after Venus, but that turned out to not be necessary, as their normal route took the group closer and closer to that signature, until they entered a cafe, where Fluttershy finally saw her goal.

It was a pegasus mare with a gray coat and blue mane, she her cutie mark was a cut tree branch and she wore glasses, but Fluttershy would not be fooled by that disguise. She quickly said "Venus" to her companions using eye language and slowly approached the mare, who was sitting on one of the tables.

"Hello, how are you?" She asked in a friendly manner, with a smile.

"I'm well, thank you." Venus responded politely.

Fluttershy approached a little more and whispered a few words "The Knights request your help."

Venus froze. That wasn't surprising, because the words Fluttershy had spoken were literally legendary, being part of quite a few old Knight stories. This was the way the Knights requested help from stranger ponies, and frequently it lead to the ponies in question making their mark in history as heroes. That was the first time those words had been spoken seriously in centuries. The Knights could have asked the help of their apprentices like this, but they weren't really "strangers" so this ended up being the first opportunity for that line to be used on their generation.

Fluttershy quickly took a feather off her wings and put it on the table, before whispering again "Keep that with you."

After that, she returned to her group and they continued on their usual route, leaving the cafe again and walking once more through the streets.

It didn't take long after that before Fluttershy received a message from Applejack, that message consisted of the word "Jackpot."

She stopped for a moment and caught the eye of Rarity and Sunset, before sending a message of "A5", the particular variation of the plan they had worked out for this situation.

The two nodded in understanding, and Rarity wrote A5 on the spell paper and put in an extra burst of magic to catch the attention of the ponies who had the papers.

Everypony was warned that the plan was going to start.

Tempest of Destruction

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Captain Shining Armor felt a small burst of magic coming from the spell paper when the message appeared, so he knew it was going to be something important. It only consisted of two characters, but that "A5" pretty much decided his course of action.

"Spike, we're going. Applejack has been taken to their base." The unicorn told his dragon partner.

"So we're going to teleport directly inside?" Spike asked, while he was climbing on top of Armor.

"Yes." The captain said, before sending a message to all of the guards on the town that they should be on high alert. Just to make it harder for the infiltrated changelings to act.

After that, Shining Armor focused on the particular spell paper held by Applejack in order to make that teleport. It was way easier than it normally would be to invade an enemy base, because the changelings used concealment as their main point, and creating wards to restrict teleportation would make for some very noticeable magical emanations.

Then, after managing to get the specific coordinates, he gathered his magic for a few seconds and teleported both himself and Spike.

The sudden arrival of an unicorn and a dragon (even if a small one) was surprising enough for the changelings nearby to stare at them in shock, and Shining Armor made good use of that moment of confusion. Having charged more than necessary, he didn't have to wait and was able to immediately cast a powerful spell.

It was one of his most proud creations, magic that manifested hundreds of small, circular shields that could be sent flying to ram his enemies. During the moment it took to make the spell formula, Shining Armor assessed the situation on the base, because the targets of his first spell weren't going to be the Changelings.

No, instead he aimed at the cocoons that were trapping so many innocent ponies.

"Hundred Shield Barrage!" Shining Armor shouted, shooting out his multitude of shields with a powerful ferocity.

They were all perfectly aimed, so they hit the extremities of the cocoons and burst them open, releasing the trapped ponies without injuring them.

But by this point, the changelings had overcome their shock, and they had only one answer to an enemy suddenly invading their base. As soon as the cocoons were broken open, the air was already whizzing with dozens of attack spells, all aimed at Shining Armor.

However, if they thought he would be defenceless after using a big spell, they had underestimated his partner.

Spike extended a hand forward and shouted "Draconic Aura!"

And in a manner similar to Fluttershy's Empathy Drive, a dragon arm made entirely out of aura overlaid itself over Spike's real arm. And it was the powerful arm of an adult dragon. However, while Fluttershy's Animal Spirit techniques were mostly hazy and spectral, Spike's dragon arm was solid and looked almost real, with only a more vibrant coloration and a certain wavering around the edges betraying the fact that it wasn't entirely a solid object.

But it was more than enough.

"Right Arm of the Dragon!" Spike announced, and swept his special arm through the air while spinning in a circle, blocking every single one of the attack spells.

Shining Armor knew what Spike was going to do, so his next move was already prepared. Reaching into his knapsack with telekinesis, he brought out hundreds of small spell paper slips, each one with a fairly specific energizing spell.

The freed ponies were still unconscious, because the Changelings kept them from being a problem by maintaining them unconscious with their magic. And that was the reason for Shining Armor to be carrying those paper slips, since their spells would allow the trapped ponies (and Applejack, who hadn't been put in a cocoon yet) to regain consciousness.

Yet throwing all the spell papers on the unconscious ponies was not an easy thing to do. Shining Armor simply didn't have the multitasking ability necessary for doing all of it at once, so the captain had to slowly shoot bundles of them at the freed ponies little by little, which would take a while. So, to help him, Spike went on the offensive.

Sweeping his arm through the air, he moved to attack the closest changelings, who mostly managed to dodge out of the way, except one who was caught by Spike's Dragon Hand and then used as a projectile against the Changelings on the other side of the unicorn captain.

The distraction was good, and most of them started trying to attack him, leaving only a few spells aiming at Shining Armor, which were easily blocked with small energy shields even while he was focusing on his current task.

And Spike still wasn't done showing off things he could do with his Dragon Arm, grabbing the floor, he used the arm to throw himself towards another group of changelings. This was the fighting style he had developed over his training with Luna, the Draconic Aura was a magic that brought forth his potential, and thus the Right Arm of the Dragon was a tool as powerful as a real arm of an adult dragon. Spike could use it for mobility, for powerful attacks and even for defence, as the changelings kept releasing spells or attacking physically but were blocked by that arm, which they couldn't even scratch.

And at that point, the ponies who had been hit by spell slips were getting up, so Shining Armor started giving orders:

"Guards, protect the civilians! Everypony else, be careful!" He shouted, and the awakened ponies started running to gather together, which caused even more chaos in the changeling base. Applejack, who had been the first pony who received a paper slip, used that confusion to run towards an exit she had seen in her earlier recon of the base, slipping away to rejoin the others.

And yet, despite that everything was going fine, Shining Armor couldn't stop himself from sighing internally, even as he continued to free the rest of the prisoners.

That was because according to Applejack's initial findings, and Rarity's further information gathering, the number of prisoners inside this base was far too few. Which meant that the Changelings should have another base hidden.

The unicorn captain wrote the simple message "B2" on his spell paper, to pass on the message to the others. Hopefully, they would be able to deal with that as well.

-

It happened almost simultaneously.

The three groups of ponies that the Knights formed were attacked by changelings disguised as guards. Without any provocation, like they had simply received a signal, the Changelings attacked.

The group of Twilight, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo had already left the cave and had gone most of the way back to the town when the Changelings suddenly dropped the only real guard among them with spells before turning to attack their charges. They did it in a quick, professional manner, to the point where, if the Knight and Squires hadn't been on edge already, it would have been rather hard to react in time.

But they did react, and seeing that the jig was most likely up, counter-attacked without caring about maintaining their cover. With Rainbow Dash attacking with weather magic boosted physical blows, Pinkie Pie using her own attacks that injected chaos magic on the bodies of the enemies, Twilight Sparkle with her powerful and weird spells and Scootaloo cheering them all on (okay, that last part may not have been entirely necessary), the Changelings didn't have a chance.

But of course, it was't only those changelings they had to worry about, and soon more changelings came flying, without bothering to disguise themselves. Understanding that things had boiled over, the four did as planned for this kind of situation, and started a running battle, while trying to get to a certain point in the border of the town, their fallback location where all of them would gather back together.

In the same way, the reduced group of Trixie, Bunker Breaker and Applebloom was attacked by the changelings after they knocked out the real guard, and the same way they had to keep fighting, Bunker Breaker using his high power spells and Trixie confusing the enemies with illusions, and because they had less firepower available, the decision to fall back was taken even before the changelings reinforcements arrived.

And as for the group of Sunset, Rarity, Fluttershy and Sweetie Belle? Their situation was the most chaotic, because they were in the middle of the city, so there were a lot more Changelings available to try and block their path. And the real guards that tried to help were overwhelmed by the sheer numerical superiority of the Changelings. Fluttershy mostly defended Sweetie Belle, using the most resilient animal spirits she could muster, while also carrying her, and Rarity, without her Sword, was forced to rely on actual wind spells, but was sufficiently proficient on them to help. Sunset, of course, was the main reason why they managed to resist, with the great power of her spells breaking through encirclements and blocking dangerous attacks.

And eventually, all three groups managed to gather at their fallback location, and combined their abilities to be able to deal with the attacks of the changelings more easily. They even had time to pass on important information to each other, like the fact that Venus was now on their side. And seeing the situation, they reversed the transfiguration spells to return to their normal appearances.

Still, before they had the chance to set in motion the next stage of their plan, Pinkie Pie suddenly had a strange body contortion, fruit of her Pinkie Sense.

She caught the eye of Twilight with the word "Danger", and the two instantly agreed on a course of action, releasing their powers and joining them.

"Duo Magic: Chaotic Dodge!" Both of them shouted, and the entire group got shifted over fifty meters away from their previous position.

It was just in time, for the place they had been in was suddenly struck by a multitude of enormous black lightning bolts.

The place was completely annihilated, and from the middle of it came the pony responsible. He was a pegasus with a black coat and black mane, his eyes were black and even his cutie mark (a black lightning bolt) barely stood out. After a moment, he shot towards the group, flying at a ridiculous speed.

"Bunker, take care of the fillies!" Sunset shouted, taking hold of him and the three fillies and throwing then (lightly) a far enough distance away that they wouldn't be affected by the fight.

Twilight created a barrier made out of countless colored rubber balls and sent them at the pegasus "Is he Tempest of Destruction?" She asked to the world in general "But he should have died centuries ago!"

Twilight wasn't expecting an answer, but got one anyway.

"Magical construct!" Applejack's voice sounded, as she ran in and joined the others, who smiled upon seeing that she was alright. But her words caught their attention, and a quick conference via their eyes brought everypony up to speed on what exactly was going on.

(Rainbow Dash: Who pegasus?
Trixie: Who is that guy? He looks like and has some of the same abilities as Tempest of Destruction, an old foe of the Knights who had the goal of destroying the world's surface to "reach the power within" or something, no one was ever sure, he wasn't that talkative. He was defeated and killed by a Knight of the era, Flurry Storm, the Whirlwind. But apparently, this is just a magical construct, even though all my senses are telling me he is real, is that right, Applejack?
Applejack: Yes.
Sunset: If that is the case, we are dealing with a phenomenally advanced magical construct, and it's fairly probable that our meta Tempest may have access to more of his abilities, like the lightning clones. If that is the case, I'll handle the real body, and you handle the clones.)

Sunset's words proved to be prophetic just a moment later, when Tempest spread his wings and summoned black lightning which coalesced into fourteen pony-like featureless dark figures, which cracked with energy. Sunset, bringing her plan to action, charged magic and teleported, appearing a dozen meters above the black pegasus.

Before he could react, she shot down a powerful fireball. The clones scattered, before rushing to attack the rest of the Knights and the main construct summoned powerful winds onto his right wing and used it to block the fireball and subsequent explosion.

But that had only been a distraction, and Sunset, while falling towards the pegasus, smiled as she finally had the chance to test her newest technique. Activating a magical formation hidden inside her own body, she drew a huge amount of ambient magic towards her own body, and mixed it with her own natural magic in an insanely complicated and finicky process that created an energy mix far greater than the sum of its parts.

"TRANCE MODE!" Sunset shouted with glee, and then her magic exploded into a yellow corona which enveloped her body, vibrating with undiluted power.

Seeing this, the Tempest of Destruction immediately formed a small but powerful hurricane around himself to act as both attack and defence, and it was just in time, because Sunset Shimmer started strong.

"Double Magic Enhance: Destruction Beam!" She shouted, and spent a huge amount of magic to turn a normal combat spell into a ridiculous expression of rushing power, comparable to a ferocious river, which was so powerful it cancelled out all her momentum of falling and reversed it, propelling Sunset upwards.

But Tempest had been a powerful foe of the Knights of his time, and that copy of his was similar enough that even something like this wouldn't catch him off-guard. With a beat of his wings and a wave of his hooves, he turned the entire hurricane into a tremendous rush of air, which hit the Destruction Beam with enough force to make it explode early, and also propelled the pegasus himself away from the danger zone.

With a ferocious smile, Sunset teleported. She kept her momentum on purpose and appeared right behind the black stallion, flying backwards and with her head tilted to point her horn at him.

"Double Magic Enhance: Grand Spear Rush!" She shouted, turning her horn into the center of a magical red spear which sped towards Tempest together with the unicorn herself.

Turning back so fast he made the air crack, the black pegasus raised a hoof and instantly covered it in heavy, concentrated and ominous black lightning, much stronger than whatever he had used before. He met the red spear with his lightning covered hoof.

There was a crack, and the world itself seemed to slow down and become less real due to the sheer power of the explosion that resulted, and both combatants were sent flying away from the point of impact.

While Sunset was engaging the Tempest of Destruction, the others had to deal with the lightning clones. And it was not easy, because the clones didn't have to obey the normal rules of movement, and while they didn't move at the speed of lightning, they were still insanely fast, enough that only Rainbow Dash could fully follow their movements.

That was a problem, because the Knights and Squires could tell that being hit by one of those clones would not be a fun experience, and they were outnumbered. Still, the ponies did what they could. Fluttershy changed into an eagle animal spirit, and used its natural abilities to enhance her own control of the wind to support Rarity, who had already received her Wind Ruler Sword back from Pinkie Pie, and was using multitudes of wind slashed to keep the enemies back.

Twilight Sparkle was using chaos magic to generate tons of weird constructs to appear and disappear around her, protecting herself while keeping an eye on the others. Trixie had hidden herself in illusions, and was carefully weaving all sorts of special illusions to try and determine what sort of senses those clones had. Pinkie Pie was shifting all around the field in chaotic teleportations, attracting most of the attention to herself and barely keeping ahead of the enemies. Rainbow Dash kept them at a distance by using her own lightning, trying to find some way of destroying them. And Applejack had covered herself in an armor of earth, which even the black lightning had trouble penetrating, and she mostly kept to herself, watching the distance to see if there were ambushers coming.

There was a standstill for several seconds, an eternity in battle terms, but then Trixie understood the truth.

"They're reacting to our attacks by dodging and they also try to get closer to us, that's all they do!" She shouted to everypony.

It was normal that the clones were like this. Their true purpose was to act together with the original body, and alone they were much smaller threats. As such, Trixie quickly came up with a plan.

"Pinkie, bring them to a single place! Rarity, with me!" She shouted, before catching Rarity's eyes to inform her of the plan.

Pinkie Pie did as she was told. She stopped for a moment before releasing a burst of magic and creating ten copies of herself, who started jumping in place and succeeded in attracting all of the fourteen lightning clones, but when her copies were about to be hit, they all disappeared, Pinkie herself also shifting away.

That was enough, Trixie and Rarity joined their magic and called out their own combination attack.

"Duo Magic: Hidden Wind Blades!" They shouted, Trixie making her horn glow and Rarity slashing with her sword.

Suddenly, hundreds of wind blades appeared in the air, so many that even with their speed, the clones barely managed to move to the openings in the onslaught. And then they were hit, the visible wind blades being just illusions designed to funnel them into the true attacks, hidden by illusions.

However, while they were staggered by the attack, the lightning clones didn't disperse. But Twilight was on the case, having already moved to attack in case it was needed.

"Chaos Magic: Wavering Air!" She cast.

And a pulse of chaos magic fused with the air and rushed into the clones, causing magical vibrations that hit the clones hard, with the intent of destabilizing them.

Even that wasn't enough, but the clones became unable to move for even longer, and Rainbow Dash used her lessons from Sunset and attacked with overwhelming power.

"Sonic Rainboom: Split!" She shouted, crossing the barrier of sound and forcefully taking control of the resulting explosion of energy.

Gathering all of it in a ball, she struck it to make the ball split into fourteen blasts of magic, and in that case, she had made her Sonic Rainboom harmonic, thinking this would have a better chance of destroying the clones.

She was right.

"Break!" Dash shouted, as the blasts of harmonic magic hit the clones and struggled against their own magic. But they had already been hit twice with powerful attacks in close sequence, and ended up being overwhelmed. The black lightning forming the clones broke apart with a sound of shattering glass.

Meanwhile, Sunset's fight was also in its closing stages.

During their first mission, Twilight had called Sunset the strongest of the Knights, and this fight was a good demonstration of why.

It wasn't just that she could use a lot of magic, or that she could use powerful spells quickly via her Magic Enhance, because most unicorns simply wouldn't be able to do what she did with it. If all Sunset had was power, Trixie and Twilight would easily defeat her, because they had very special and dangerous abilities and the wisdom to use them, but Sunset had just as much wisdom, and also understood her own strengths very well.

Her learning of Trance Mode was a good example. That was a very powerful ability that many strong battle mages had used in history, and Sunset had only recently managed to achieve it, despite having trained in it for years. And she did it because she knew how well it would synergize with her skills. And besides even that, Sunset's battle sense was simply incredibly acute.

All of those things together made Sunset Shimmer the strongest of the Knights. Twilight could have a multitude of unpredictable attacks, but Sunset's battle sense allowed her to react quickly to any threats. Trixie could have clever plans, but Sunset could use her own powerful steps with enough forethought that simply outplanning her was extremely difficult.

And Tempest was the first opponent to let her really cut loose in true combat, and her Trance Mode allowed her to use Double Enhance so often it was like she had infinite magic.

The Tempest of Destruction was a powerful opponent, but Sunset slowly began overwhelming him with her non-stop powerful attacks, and she kept teleporting around without a pattern, sometimes close and sometimes far, using a variety of spells to the point where the black pegasus was unable to predict her attacks and had to just react, and manipulating her momentum with spells to the point where her movements were even more unpredictable.

Finally, feeling his clones being destroyed and knowing he was on a losing pattern, Tempest deliberately defended an attack just enough to avoid being knocked out and gathered all his power for a single, powerful, unmerciful attack. He released a veritable wall of black lightning, and added a twist to the magic to distort space and prevent teleportation.

Sunset wouldn't run away from a contest of power, but she also wouldn't be stupid about it.

"Double Magic Enhance: Grand Rush!" She cast, and enveloped herself in a powerful cloak of magic, before rushing towards the weakest spot on the wall, shifting the cloak into a piercing form.

She burst through the black lightning, her defensive aura flaring at maximum potential, just barely managing to overcome the destructive effects of the lightning.

And she was fast, though partially because he has exhausted himself with his attack, Sunset was fast enough to reach Tempest and grab onto him, before starting to charge a very ridiculous amount of magic, enough that the air itself started warping.

Obviously not liking where this was going, Tempest let out some of his black lightning to hit Sunset directly, but his hasty attack wasn't enough to overcome Sunset's boosted passive defences, and she managed to keep her charge going for the little time left before she finished, and released Tempest before shooting.

"Triple Magic Enhance: Annihilation Nova!" She shouted, and a colossal sphere of multicolored magic grew in the air, swallowing the black pegasus before exploding with such strength that Sunset would have been seriously hurt had she not teleported away at the last moment.

She appeared among the others, and they watched as the explosion ended and there was no trace left of Tempest.

"Amazing!" Twilight praised "You defeated a legendary villain!"

"Thanks. But there was something wrong, I think this magical construct was less perfect than we thought, because that fight felt too easy."

Before they could respond to that, a female voice cut in.

"Congratulations. That was an impressive battle." There was only a small trace of mockery in the voice.

They looked around for a moment, before Applejack shouted:

"She's invisible!"

"Indeed, little wielder of the Eyes of Truth." The voice said, before coming into view.

She was a changeling, and yet seemed to be more. Her legs were longer and more elegant, the colored part of her barrel was longer and shinier, the tail was longer, and besides the tail she also had a mane, contrasting with the other changelings, both were teal-colored. Her eyes had actual pupils, her wings were bigger than those of normal changelings, and she had a twisting, jagged horn, also bigger than normal.

She was Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings.

All of the ponies prepared for combat.

"Oh, no. You shouldn't do that." This time her voice was definitely mocking "After all, you wouldn't want anything to happen to them, would you?"

Her horn glowed, showing an image of three very familiar fillies trapped in a cell.

Hidden Plan

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The ponies looked at Fluttershy.

"They're okay." She said.

That meant two things. The first was obvious, but the second was only heard because of what she didn't say. Since she hadn't mentioned it, the ponies realized that the fillies should still have their escape scrolls, which meant they had more options than in the worst case scenario.

"Then I guess I was right." Twilight was the one to speak with Chrysalis "You did lure us here to help break through the defences in the Amulet of Threshold."

"You are correct." She answered simply.

"Was it you who created a magical construct imitating Tempest of Destruction?" Trixie asked, trying to get as much information as possible.

"No. I wasn't even sure it was a magical construct until now." The Changeling Queen shook her head "But I did receive a message telling me that the Knights had arrived, so whoever sent me that message may have been the same being who sent the construct." Then she set her eyes in a glare "But if whoever it is thinks it can use me to get the Amulet for them, they don't know me!" And she got calm again "So thanks for destroying that construct, it will make it easier to prevent others from interfering." She charged some magic "Now, since you know what you want, there's no need for more talk, I'll see you at the cave." And she teleported away.

The Knights and Squires weren't stupid enough to believe they wouldn't be watched, so instead of talking, Twilight just used her eyes to pass Fluttershy the message that she should check on Night Time.

The pegasus did so, sending a message that amounted to "What's the situation?" and waiting for an answer.

-

Night Time's role in the plan was the most mutable of all, because the Knights knew that the results of their other plans, and the reaction of the changelings to them would be hard to predict.

As such, instead of an actual plan, she had a set of objectives with different levels of priority, and one of the most important could be described as "keep an eye on the fillies".

This was made easier by the fact that her specialty was stealth, one of the reasons why she had chosen to join the Night Guard. The way it worked was difficulty to explain, partly feeling air currents to know the positions of others, partly flying silently and being good at making use of shadows to hide.

Of course, that wouldn't be enough to hide in the city when it was almost to the end of the afternoon, and with so many ponies (and changelings disguised as ponies) around. But she also had something extra.

As the member of the Night Guard chosen to participate in this mission, she had received a single-use blessing from Princess Luna. And when the Changelings started to attack, she decided it was the perfect time to use it.

Reaching inside herself, she activated the blessing, and focused on the "Night" aspects of Princess Luna, which was helped by her own affinity with the darkness. With a raging flow of magic, the pegasus turned into a living shadow.

She went around the city observing, trying to gather information on the movements of the changelings (another objective) before she saw the crusaders and shifted her attention to them.

It was because of this that she was able to see when Bunker Breaker and the fillies being attacked by a huge group of changelings. The unicorn fought bravely, even valiantly, to the point where Night Time had to admire him, but even with his powerful large scale spells, there were just too many Changelings, and their coordination was too good, and eventually he was knocked out and the fillies were captured.

Night Time thought about going to help him, but there were still too many changelings, and she had received all the updates about the situation, and knew that finding the other changeling base was a priority. She wouldn't have stayed hidden if the crusaders were in danger (though in this case, they probably would have used their escape scrolls and it wouldn't have been an issue) but they were simply carried together with Bunker's limp body.

Night followed the group as they moved to the east of the town and then a little to the south, before disappearing inside an almost invisible hole in the floor.

The night guard knew there should be too many magical countermeasures for her to attempt to sneak into the base, but finding it was already a good outcome. She was thinking about trying to pass the information when Fluttershy contacted her, asking for information.

Night Time thought about it before focusing and trying to send the information she had. She settled on the short message "Fillies captured, found base." followed by the coordinates of where she was "3245 meters east of the town and 782 meters south."

After a few moments, she received a message saying "Received message..." Followed by her own message, without any flaws. So she didn't have to worry about not having been understood.

And then after a few seconds, she received instructions "Wait for reinforcements and support their attack."

She could do that.

-

Fluttershy passed on the message "Found base" to the three Knights, and they quickly had a conference via glances to decide the best course of action. Soon, Sunset told her what message to pass on to Night Time, and then they had to actually go to the cave.

The eight ponies focused their magic together for a shared teleportation spell, and then they appeared right outside the cave.

There were dozens of changelings waiting for them, and a few of those changelings detached themselves from the group and "escorted" the Knights and Squires to the inside of the cave.

-

The Cutie Mark Crusaders hadn't really struggled upon being captured by the Changelings. That was because their sisters (and Rainbow Dash) had made clear that their safety was the first priority and they were expressly forbidden from doing anything heroic "unless there was no other choice". They also had special escape scrolls hidden inside their bodies (one of the latest developments by the research and development part of the Knight Support Group which worked at the castle), and could simply teleport away whenever they wanted.

There were two reasons why they didn't do it.

The first was that, despite being unable to contribute a lot, the three had participated in the planning session, and the possibility of them being taken prisoner was brought up. One of the conclusions reached was that having the Crusaders pretending to be incapable of escaping would be the best situation, since the changelings would have to commit resources towards watching them, and they would drop their guard thinking the Knights would be unable to defy them.

Of course, that was only in the case that the Crusaders weren't put on cocoons and had their minds read, so the three were ready to teleport away as soon as it looked like that would happen.

The second reason was that, soon after they were brought to the cell, they heard a message from Fluttershy asking "How are you?", and they managed to send back what amounted to "Captured. In a cell. Escape ready." And afterwards, they received another message saying "Stay there unless it becomes dangerous. We have a plan."

And that was that. The three fillies wouldn't simply disobey an order by the Knights in the middle of a mission. But still, they were young, and excitable, and easily bored, so without much else to do in that cell, they decided to strike up a conversation with the changeling who was guarding them.

"Hi, what's ya name?" Applebloom asked straight out.

The changeling stared at them in surprise, he could not believe the fillies would be bold enough to actually talk with one of the enemies who captured them.

"Come on, tell us! It's so boring here." Scootaloo insisted.

"Ah, sorry mister Changeling. We forgot to introduce ourselves first. My name is Sweetie Belle." The filly unicorn spoke with an apologetic voice.

"Ah, I'm Scootaloo." Her partner said.

"And Ah'm Applebloom." The third member of the group finished "Could ya tell us your name?" She asked more politely this time.

The changeling was still somewhat nonplussed by the situation, but eventually he spoke.

"I'm... Thorax."

-

When the Knights and Squires got to the same barrier Twilight had examined earlier in the day, Chrysalis was waiting for them.

"Good, you are already here. I hope you won't disappoint me by taking long with this." She said, with a smug smile on her face.

They didn't rise to the provocation "Trixie," Sunset called "You deal with the first layer."

The show mare approached the barrier and examined it for a little bit using her magic. Making a decision, she started charging magic, and kept doing so for a few seconds.

"Perfect Illusion: Small Sandbox!" She cast, shooting a spell at the barrier.

As might be expected, Small Sandbox wasn't the kind of spell that simply did the obvious. In this context, the word sandbox indicated an isolated world, like a sandbox where a foal was imagining adventures. The purpose of the spell was to isolate the magical defense systems and slow them down, but more importantly, it would prevent them from raising an alarm that would alert the Princesses (Chrysalis certainly would feel if that happened, and she wouldn't be happy.

The spell hit the barrier and made it visible, before it started changing colors wildly and wavering, before the barrier finally became invisible again, but instead of revealing only a dark corridor behind it, they could see tons of magical writing, seals and floating balls of light, revealing the true form of the closest defences of the Amulet of Threshold.

Trixie sat on the ground, panting "Isolated and revealed" She said in between pants. Sunset called for Pinkie, who grabbed a potion from her mane and threw it to Sunset, who gave it to Trixie.

She looked at Trixie drinking the potion before charging her magic with a flare of power.

"Right! My turn now, Magic Enhance: Magic Piercer!" She shouted, and a powerful arrow of magic appeared in front of her, similar to the one from when she used Bunker Breaker Blast to escape Sombra's trap. The arrow flared with a red shine before flying at the barrier and piercing it without losing speed, moving on to the revealed magic formations and causing havoc by striking them.

She looked back at Trixie "Rest for now, we'll need your help for the deeper defences." She turned to her other partner "Twilight, you take the lead."

The purple unicorn nodded and moved forward. And the three of them tried very hard not to stare at Chrysalis and give away the game.

That sequence of events had seemed to be perfectly innocent, but they had a hidden plan, and the fact that Trixie wouldn't cast spells for a while was an essential part of it.

After all, Perfect Illusion: False Life was a very powerful spell, but it couldn't actually cast magic.

-

The trick had been simple, but its execution was exquisite.

Everything actually started when Trixie charged magic. She had actually cast two spells at once at that moment. Both Small Sandbox and False Life. It was difficult to use two powerful spells at once, but Trixie wasn't considered the best mage among the Knights for nothing, her spells were incredibly optimized, spending very little energy and needing relatively simple magical formulas in comparison to what they could do. So, Trixie was able to get enough magic to do both spells as well as draw both magical formulas just by taking a few more seconds than she would usually need to use one of her special spells.

It was difficult, but achievable.

However, instead of using both at the same time, she used Small Sandbox and kept False Life in reserve, ready to be unleashed at any time. Holding a spell like this was also rather difficult, but it wasn't as difficult as her next part of the plan.

Sunset going near her to give a potion was planned. Trixie, despite being tired from the effort, wasn't as tired as she made it seem, which meant Sunset's actions seemed natural. After the show mare drunk the potion (better safe than sorry) the solar unicorn gave Trixie an opening by flaring her magic more than necessary, making it harder to sense that the blue unicorn was surreptitiously using more magic.

That was the hardest and most exacting part of the plan, Trixie had to use that opening to teleport away (writing the teleportation spell formula while still holding another spell) and immediately activate False Life to replace herself and prevent Chrysalis from noticing that one of the Knights was doing something she shouldn't.

This was stage magic. It was Trixie's specialty. And it was no wonder she managed to do it perfectly, for Trixie demanded perfection of herself in every spell, and her meticulousness was exactly what was needed for this kind of extremely precise performance.

Trixie appeared in the midpoint in between the cave and the city. It was a place that was guaranteed not to have changelings nearby, and more to the point, it was the place where Trixie had to be in order to continue the plan.

She laid on the ground for a bit, recovering from the strain of her recent feats, then charged a new spell slowly and deliberately, since it would need to be pretty large scale for what it needed to do.

"Perfect Illusion: Fake Reality!" She cast, covering the entire area from where she was to the cave itself.

Yes, the same spell that had seen use in their previous mission had returned.

Paying very close attention to be sure everything had gone well, Trixie then contacted Fluttershy to inform that everything was ready. Soon after, she received a message saying "Five seconds." So she waited for the required time before teleporting right to her False Life illusion, cancelling it at the same time, and trusting that her partners would cover up the magic she was doing with their own.

-

Fluttershy was following the others as they kept walking through the corridor leading to the Amulet of Threshold. Twilight was using her magic to change the nature of various sections of the corridor to make their magic circles impossible to activate, Pinkie Pie was warping in and out, deliberately activating defences and releasing burst of chaos magic to affect the environment as she moved, Sunset was destroying every place magic started to gather with her offensive spells, Applejack was looking to see if there were any hidden traps Trixie's spell hadn't revealed, Rarity was keeping her senses open to see if there were any suspicious flows of magic and ready to protect the others with barriers of wind, Trixie was just walking along and Fluttershy was using her empathy to see if Chrysalis was preparing to do something bad to them (or if she discovered their hidden plan).

Suddenly, Trixie caught her eye, saying "I'm back. It's time."

Nodding inside her head, Fluttershy reached out with her empathy to send messages to two very specific ponies. To Venus, she gave the coordinates Night Time had found and instructed her to attack the base. To Shining Armor she sent the same message, with the addition that it was time to "call in the reinforcements".

-

The plan of the Knights was simple. Having the changeling base attacked while Chrysalis was distracted, and keeping her from being informed by casting Fake Reality upon the area, isolating her from any real communication.

With this, the Changelings wouldn't be able to consolidate their forces, and could be defeat easier, being too split up. And the Changelings wouldn't be able to stop them by using the hostages, since the fillies could simply escape whenever they wanted.

And then there was the matter of reinforcements. When the identity of the threat was discovered, Shining Armor sent a message to Princess Celestia requesting that a battalion of guards was readied to act as a rapid-response force, since this was one of the situations in which military power could help. When he received Fluttershy's message, the Captain sent a message to the Princess, requesting that half the battalion be sent to the town in order to restore order, and the other half be sent to the target coordinates to assist them in taking the changeling base.

Princess Celestia herself would use mass-teleportation spells to send the guards.

With that done, Shining Armor teleported himself and Spike to the location of the base, where Night Time revealed herself (her blessing having run out) and pointed out the entrance. The captain put a beacon there to tell the others where to go, and then the three invaded the base.

-

At that moment, the process of putting Bunker Breaker into a cocoon was finally completed. But harvesting love from him wasn't the main reason for that. It's just that the mind magic of the changelings worked a lot better if the target was fully restrained by a cocoon, and they wanted to search his mind in order to discover the plans of the enemy.

However, there was one thing the changeling responsible for "information gathering" didn't know, and that was the fact that Bunker Breaker had received a blessing from Princess Celestia. He had not unleashed that blessing while defending the fillies because he felt that would only delay the inevitable, but upon having his mind attacked, even though he was unconscious, the blessing activated automatically.

He couldn't shape what he would receive, so the situation and his subconscious were responsible for what would happen, and as the energy of the princess spread through his body, Bunker woke up.

And then the cocoon exploded in fire.

The changelings nearby looked around until they managed to see what had happened, and they were the first to witness the guard enveloped in flames, and looking fairly pissed off.

Then he started casting siege spells that were also covered in flames.

The changelings nearby did not have a good day.

-

"And we haven't gotten out cutie marks yet, but it definitely is going to happen soon!" Scootaloo declared.

Thorax just looked at them. The three had managed to tell the story of their entire lives up to that point, including how they had joined together and tried to find their cutie marks. And there was something in that story that caught his attention.

"So you just... try things? You don't have someling to tell you what your destiny is?"

"Ya can't!" Applebloom declared, somewhat angry "Nopony can tell ya what your destiny is, ya just have ta search for it, ta decide what is gonna define your life!"

Those words clearly had an effect on Thorax, he turned away from them and walked as far as possible without actually leaving his post.

But he couldn't get the words out of his head.

"Decide..."

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"Chaos Magic: Energy Maelstrom!" Twilight cast.

A purple ray of light was shot from her horn and hit one of the walls, which had been gathering energy in strange patterns in preparation for something. However, Sparkle's attack turned all the energy into a maelstrom, denying the efforts of the formation and eventually exploding, causing damage to the wall.

The first dozen meters of defenses the group had to go through were relatively easy to deal with. Only relatively, because most ponies would find even those defensive layers an unpassable barrier. But after that, they left the corridor and got into an open area, that was when the real trouble started.

"Wind Sword Style: True Slash!" Rarity shouted.

This time, instead of creating wind blades, she used the wind to push herself forwards at an incredible speed while also coating her blade with a multitude of sharp winds. She slashed with her enhanced sword while passing through a snake-like magical construct, managing to cut it in half despite the hardness of the pseudo scales.

The defences in that open area were incomparable to those from earlier. Not only were they powerful, but they were also tricky. There was no easy way of defeating them. Some of the defenses absorbed magic shot at them, others were able to nullify extreme sudden changes like the chaos effects, others only appeared after they had already dealt with all obvious defenses in an area and passed through it, appearing without warning, and some even seemed to change to adapt to what was throw at them.

"Rainboom Triple Punch!" Rainbow Dash shouted, advancing forwards.

She accelerated to near sonic speed and repeatedly crossed the sound barrier with three rapid punches, which were enhanced by the winds just to prevent Rainbow from breaking her hooves in the process. The three directed rainbow shockwaves flew towards a cannon that was gathering a ridiculous amount of energy and struck it, making half of it explode.

And the defences were varied. Some created powerful magical constructs to attack the intruders, others shot all sorts of spells at them, others created formations that changed the area itself, making fields that were harmful to any being who was caught on one of them, others still were extremely tricky mechanical traps, which couldn't be predicted by magic flow, since they didn't use magic.

"Empathy Drive: Shared Reality!" Fluttershy cast.

She extended her empathy towards Sunset and Applejack, who had been caught in a dangerously powerful sleep spell, and were almost losing consciousness. Her spell forcefully brought their awareness up to her level, cancelling the effects of the spell that had hit them, and allowing the two to avoid a dangerous trap designed to attack those caught by the sleep spell.

But even in this kind of situation, the Knights and Squires weren't actually fighting with their full strength. It couldn't be said that they were holding back, but the eight certainly weren't pushing themselves to their limits. And it was easy to understand why, because not only did they need to buy time for the others to defeat the changeling base, but the protectors of Equestria were also very aware of the upcoming fight against Queen Chrysalis, so they were saving their strength to have something to unleash when needed.

And while they didn't know that, their friends would need all the time they could get.

-

The blessing of a princess was powerful, but it had a limit. Bunker Breaker, after several minutes of heavy spellwork, was finally reaching the limit on his blessing.

It had a ridiculous effect, considering that he managed to fight by himself despite starting at the heart of the Changeling base. But part of it had certainly been because of his own specialty: The siege spells he cast were already quite powerful enough to cause large scale havoc in the area of impact, having an advantage in this kind of fight where there were a lot of enemies bunched together and there was no chance of hitting any allies. Having Celestia's blessing boosting his attacks only made this even more pronounced.

But even with that, he would have been unable to handle things had he stayed in a single place and allowed the changelings to gather their strength towards him. No fool, he kept moving around, without even knowing where he was going, just to try and keep himself fighting and causing trouble for the changelings for as long as possible, since he knew this was probably the best he could do to help the others.

Thankfully, his luck was good, and he ended up getting close enough to the entrance to be able to attract the attention of Shining Armor, Spike and Night Time, who were invading.

He laughed as they got close, stopping to blast some of the closest changelings who were pursuing him, them Shining Armor's shields started battering them, and Night Time threw a huge amount of ice shards in their direction, both of them managing to defeat the advancing changelings.

"Anything to report?" Shining Armor asked, once he got close enough.

"I got out from a cocoon thanks to the princess' blessing, but there weren't any other cocoons there, so that should have been the 'interrogation' room." Bunker said simply "I ran around for a good bit before reaching here and caused a lot of havoc so the changelings are trying to unite to catch me, and the blessing is running out."

"Understood. Follow behind me and use your spells as needed." The captain gave the order and immediately started moving forward again, to go after the new wave of changelings that was approaching.

Things soon settled on a rhythm. Shining Armor and Spike met the changelings from the front, with their shields and Right Arm of the Dragon, respectively, helped by the fact that they could both block their ranged attacks as well as attack. Bunker Breaker (who had lost his blessing soon after joining with them) and Night Time stayed on the back, using ranged attacks and also dealing with any changelings that tried to sneak up on the group from behind.

But eventually they got to a more open area, rather than the corridors of before, and that was when the Changelings proved how much trouble they could be as opponents.

After all, this was a true changeling base, different from the simple warehouse they had attacked before, this place was much more well-defended and the changelings there had a lot more tricks to use.

Some changelings tunneled through walls and floor, attacking from unexpected directions. Some changelings joined with others in formations, fusing their powers and attacking with powerful spells. Some changelings used their transformation skills as camouflage, and moved stealthily towards the group, to attack from close range. But what was definitely the hardest aspect of fighting changelings was their ability to share information via the network.

While their usual tactics were effective in the beginning, the more time passed, the more the changelings adapted and started countering their skills. Despite their power, Shining Armor's shields were being broken more and more often with combinations of multiple piercing-type spells, forcing him to reduce his offence and put up extra defensive shields. Spike's Right Arm of the Dragon was fast and powerful, but in an open space, the changelings were capable of avoiding it with quick flight movements after their brethren had seen him attack so many times, which forced Spike to be more conservative with his movements to prevent them from getting too close. Both Bunker Breaker's siege spells and Night Time's combat-adapted weather magic were things the changelings had seen before, and had counters for. Shining Armor and Spike had separated in order to prevent the changelings from focusing their forces too much, while Bunker Breaker and Night Time were almost glued to one another, his long range attacks together with her short range skills being barely able to respond to the multitude of threats.

They wouldn't be able to resist for much longer, Spike had already been forced to tank a few attacks with his body (which was thankfully tough enough to take it), but in this critical moment, help arrived.

"Venus Love Charge!" A purple and orange pegasus, Venus herself, appeared from behind and flew straight into a conglomeration of changelings, body wrapped in multiple heavy layers of lightning. As soon as she touched the group, all the lightning disappeared in a tremendous explosion that created a shockwave powerful enough that even the group of heroes had to struggle not to be bowled over by.

After that, she flew towards them, taking advantage of the momentary respite their unexpected attack had given the group of the captain.

"You are a really welcome sight." Shining Armor said "Things were getting pretty rough."

"Then you are going to like this next part." She grinned at him.

Almost immediately, he heard a very familiar sound, of dozens of hooves moving in single step.

"Guards! Support the captain and the others, fight against the changelings!" A voice resounded, and dozens of members of the guard moved in, attacking every changeling they could see.

Shining Armor grinned as well "Let's do it!" He shouted, and the group went back to the fight.

-

"We, Changelings, have our destinies decided for us ever since we are born." Thorax had eventually been convinced to talk with the three fillies "Queen Chrysalis is our absolute ruler, and each changeling is tested repeatedly to discover their specialties. Then they are trained and put on their rightful positions, ready to do their work as members of the hive."

"Well..." Applebloom tried to put her feelings into words "Ah figured since ya were so dependent on love, that the feelings of the changelings would be taken seriously."

"Feelings? There is no need for feelings. Only the will of the queen." Thorax tried to say with confidence, but doubt crept into his voice.

The cutie mark crusaders had almost completely forgotten that Thorax was supposed to be an enemy, they just wanted to try and defend the way they saw the world. Scootaloo put in a question, given Thorax's words.

"Well, does that mean the plan to get the amulet was only the idea of the queen, and the rest of you don't really want to hurt ponies?"

Thorax took a moment to understand the question "Want? The changelings don't have wants, only the will of the queen exists, and the need to feed." But traitorous thought swirled through his head, like 'Of course I don't want that. So many changelings are being hurt...' and he recoiled, expecting to be punished. But it didn't come, the battle keeping the attention of the managers of the network strictly on fighting the intruders, while Chrysalis, who would have been able to hear and understand what he was thinking even in that situation, was completely blocked from that part of the network.

"Well, I figure that once the Knights defeat Chrysalis, you will need to think about what to do then. Maybe you could ask the princess to see what she thinks? If you don't really want to hurt anypony, I'm sure she won't turn you away." Sweetie Belle said innocently.

No... Chrysalis...? What to do then...? No more fighting...

The ideas kept rising to Thorax's head, without opposition. Even as he tried to remind himself that this was against the changeling rules, Thorax still could not help himself. And to make matters worse, he could feel through the network that the fighting in the base was getting more and more serious, and he felt sadness upon so many changelings being hurt and still unable to stop fighting.

The crusaders watched as Thorax seemed to struggle with something, feeling like they shouldn't interfere now that he was thinking about it.

-

The battle between the ponies (and dragon) and the changelings was reaching a fever pitch. It was no longer a small scale conflict, but had gained airs of an actual war. The pony side had split itself into dozens of smaller groups, some of earth ponies carrying spears and shields and meeting their opponents with force, some of pegasi flying through the air to flank opponents and defend against other fliers, some of unicorns galloping through the area and acting as mobile artillery with varied spells, and some mixed groups performing their own special duties. And their elites had beein invigorated by the appearance of reinforcements. Shining Armor was looking at the entire battlefield and using his shields strategically to deny enemy advantages, Venus was using all her varied attacks and focusing on causing as much mayhem as possible in the least time, and Spike had taken on a more defensive posture, protecting the most vulnerable among their own fighters.

In contrast with the ponies' shouted commands, the Changelings fought in an eerie silence, but no less intense because of it. A lot of their strategies were similar to those of the ponies, since the changelings were experts in imitation, as well as the stealth and formations of before, but the main threat of the changeling force was their absurd level of coordination. The changelings instantly reacted to protect their vulnerable members and attack the weakened portions of the enemy force, the changelings could sometimes miss with a long range attack, only to reveal the true target was a pony fighting another changeling in another part, surprising him with an unexpected attack, the changelings' magical formations could be joined or left at any time, allowing them to adjust to the needs of a constantly changing situation.

The battle could really go either way at that point, so Spike decided to reveal his last hidden card.

Spitting out a small black fireball to his hand, he held it for a moment before focusing and making the fireball grow and become far more menacing.

"Draconic Art: Magic Charge!" And then he threw the fireball at a concentration of enemies, who were unable to react in time due to the unexpectedness of the attack.

That wasn't very well polished, but the skill was able to "charge" the magic to the same point he would be able to potentially release it in the future, borrowing the same principles of the Right Arm of the Dragon.

That was a fairly good moment to use that ability, since none of the Changelings had seen it, and the surprise would help a lot in that crucial moment.

So that was why they also decided to unveil something.

Jumping on each other and forming a pile, a huge group of Changelings held each other and started glowing, and then the glow started to get bigger and bigger as more changelings joined the pile, that also started to get higher and higher, until finally it became too bright to recognize the pile of changelings before the glow suddenly disappeared.

And revealed the form of a dragon.

"Focus your attacks!" Shining Armor shouted, and every single available pony focused their attacks on the dragon, including him, Venus and Spike.

In the face of such an overwhelming offense... the Dragon staggered, then put his head backwards and prepared to breathe fire.

"Defence!" The captain shouted again, before putting up the strongest shield he could muster, a multilayered, lotus-like construction.

"Venus Love Barrier!" Venus shouted, and forcefully took every available drop of moisture in the room to create a layer of ice on every single part of Shining's shields.

Every other pony who could help in the protection did so (and Spike, who put his arm as a final defence) and then the attack came.

The backlash was amazing, and almost knocked Shining away all by itself, but then the dragon just kept breathing fire without stopping, and the effort of trying to maintain the barriers was growing.

"Hey." Venus called to him, also suffering from trying to keep the barriers cool "Have you ever heard of combination attacks?"

Armor could still talk, so he answered "My sister told me about them. Apparently most of the time you need a lot of planning, but sometimes things just click..." He got what she was trying to say "Do you think...?"

"Can't hurt to try." She answered with a smile.

Finally, the dragon stopped attacking, and everypony could drop their defences, it was then that the two acted.

"Combination Attack!" They shouted.

Shining Armor created an incredibly dense and solid barrier in the shape of an arrow.

"Grand Barrier..." He started.

Venus summoned a multitude of lightning bolts and started layering then around herself.

"Venus Love..." She started.

"LIGHTNING BREAKER!" The two shouted with all their strength, and sent their attacks together.

Just a moment before impact, the lightning seemed to fuse with the shield.

And then it hit, forcing the dragon backwards for several dozens meters. He managed to stop himself, but then his image started wavering, and cracking, and then it shattered into hundreds of changelings.

But even with that, they would not give up, and the remaining changelings, still so many, returned to their attack.

-

Eventually, things got to much for Thorax. Both his doubts, and the pain of the changelings he could feel from the network were only increasing, and there was just nothing he could do.

He ran away, moving towards his fellow changelings. In his mind, a single word kept repeating itself: Why.

Why were things like this? Why did they have to suffer like this? Why did they have to fight to get something that would only lead to more fighting?

The words of the three fillies kept swirling through his mind. Decision, peace, feelings...

When he got to the battlefield, everything suddenly became clear, and then his voice resounded through the entire changeling network.

"Brothers and sisters of the hive! How long have we hidden ourselves and fought against the ponies? The answer is that it's been too long! Queen Chrysalis was supposed to be our leader and protector, but how many of us have been hurt just today for the fullfilment of her plans? The answer is that it's been too many! Why have we been forced into those roles we haven't chosen? We are not serving the hive, because that only serves Chrysalis! She is the reason why we suffer! Do any of you desire change? Do you desire something different? Do you desire peace, and love that doesn't need to be stolen? Chrysalis says that her way is the only one, but I shall reject that! Join me, and together, we shall CHOOSE!"

That message had gone through the network in only a second. The message was received by every changeling in range, and they all were faced with a choice. The managers of the network under Chrysalis tried to punish Thorax for his rebellion, but soon rebellious thoughts started appearing in more and more changelings. The words and feelings that Thorax had transmitted simply touched the heart of those changelings. Not all of them, but many, and they choose him.

Suddenly, every changeling staggered. By instinct, Shining Armor shouted "Stop!" and all the ponies stopped attacking. The changelings had also stopped, and they all turned to look at Thorax, who was undergoing an amazing transformation.

He grew to nearly the same height as Chrysalis. His colors changed, some of him was green, some was orange, some was blue and some was purple. Two new horns in the form of antlers grew from his head. And three jewel-like growths appeared on his neck. The size of his body, his wings and his tail, they had all grown equally, reaching proportions similar to those of Chrysalis.

But that wasn't all, a shockwave was emitted from his body, and many of the changelings who were hit by the wave also started changing. They didn't change as much as Thorax had. But some of their physical features shifted to be more similar to him, and more important, their colors also changed to become much more vibrant and varied than before.

King Thorax looked at his changelings and gave his first order "Help the ponies, defeat the Chrysalis loyalists."

And then mayhem started.

-

In their cell, the Crusaders were so preoccupied with trying to decide whether or not to use their escape scrolls that they didn't even notice when marks appeared on their flanks.

-

Chrysalis ws enjoying the sight of the Knights and Squires doing all the work for her, when she suddenly felt like a part of herself had been ripped out.

"AARRRRGH!" She screamed, and then realized that a lot of her changelings had left her, but the network still insisted they were there.

Chrysalis sent a pulse containing enough magic to annihilate an entire building (as Sunset would put it) and obliterated Trixie's Fake Reality spell. Then she saw what had happened and what was going on. With a sound that was halfway in between a roar and a snarl, she teleported to the base.

The ponies, having been alerted by her scream, immediately followed her, prepared for anything.

Fighting Chrysalis

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The sudden split in the forces of the changelings and the subsequent combat between the new faction and the old definitely tipped the balance of the scales of the battle in the direction of the ponies. And despite how surprising it was, they adapted pretty well, giving support to the new colorful changelings and taking advantage of the enemy confusion to reorganize themselves.

However, King Thorax was unable to help, because very little time after giving his orders, he found himself in a fight with Queen Chrysalis.

The start of the fight was particularly interesting, as the changeling king knew he was going to deal with her fairly soon due to his daring to steal some of her changelings from her. As such, when Chrysalis appeared with a snarl in a violent teleport that made the air scream, Thorax was already prepared, and immediately caught her with his telekinesis (his extra horns helped a lot with that) and pushed her up with full strength.

The result was that Chrysalis was slammed through the thick layer of the roof of the base, making a direct path to the outside. Thorax immediately teleported outside as well to continue the battle.

His first movement had been very deliberate. Knowing how angry Chrysalis was likely to be, he decided to force her outside to protect the changelings and ponies from the aftereffects of the battle, changing the battlefield to a place with no one to harm.

It turned out to be a fairly wise decision, as Chrysalis' next move after he appeared was to unleash a combination of unicorn and pegasus magic by creating a tornado made of fire that she threw at him.

Thorax could have simply blocked the attack, but that approach was too passive and would give too many advantages to Chrysalis, he decided instead to run at the tornado of fire, layering as many shield and cold spells on himself as he could on short notice, in order to pass through the danger zone to rush at Chrysalis.

Turning into a rhynoceros at the last moment, he tried to gore the monarch with this horn, but she teleported at the last moment and appeared behind him. And then, with a wave from up to down, a wickedly sharp scythe blade formed from her hoof and tried to cut him apart, but Thorax turned into a small hawk at the last moment and avoided the cut by a small margin with a desperate dive.

Turning back to normal after that, Thorax tried to use his telekinesis to pull her towards him and hit Chrysalis while she was disoriented, but having experienced his telekinesis once, Chrysalis managed to free herself with an omnidirectional pulse of magic before she got close enough. Then she shot him with a freezing spell to hold him before shaping a leg into a piledriver to hit him with.

But Thorax reacted faster than she expected, turning into an elephant to break out of the ice prison and hitting her with his trunk, but then Chrysalis' shoulders sprouted blades that cut into the trunk, forcing Thorax to revert, but he turned into a crocodile and tried to bite her, but Chrysalis turned her wings into spears to pierce both sides of the mouth of the crocodile...

And the fight went on, with both of the Changeling Monarchs using a lot of pony style magic but making a lot more use of their natural changeling transformation skills. Chrysalis preferred to mold parts of her body, while Thorax was better at full transformations. And it didn't take long for a pattern to emerge, Chrysalis was doing more and more damage to Thorax, predicting his moves better and being hit far less often.

Thorax was only a newborn changeling king, while Chrysalis was a lot more experienced, and as she managed to start getting control of her rage, Chrysalis could put her superior experience to good use, to the point that she was dominating the fight and could win at any moment.

And just as expected, she did. Hitting him with a binding spell that trapped him in a multitude of chains, Chrysalis then turned her front legs into an immense hammer, that she raised up, empowered with a violent amount of magic and then swung down like the blade of an executioner. Thorax tried his hardest, but he had only managed to get rid of most of of the chains (the spell suppressed his ability to teleport) before he was hit.

The newborn changeling king fell down like a meteorite, hitting the roof of the base and going through it in a vicious reversal of his first gambit in the fight, before crashing down in a relatively empty area of the battlefield and creating a crater.

But even as he felt the aches in his body, even as he looked at Chrysalis up above, preparing herself to finish him off, King Thorax wasn't worried.

-

Chrysalis charged her magic perhaps more than necessary, but that was exactly what that usurper deserved! She was ready to rain down annihilation upon him and scourge even his memory from existence...

A ballistic pegasus rammed into her.

-

Yes, King Thorax wasn't worried. From the beginning, he already knew that Chrysalis was an opponent too powerful for him to defeat. But he didn't need to defeat her. Different from her, he had allies who could help, powerful allies who could be counted on.

The Knights had taken over the fight.

All he had meant to do in that fight was wound Chrysalis enough, exhaust her enough, that the Knights and Squires would have a better chance of winning against her.

A group of his changelings came to stand around him, guarding his fallen form from whatever enemies could come. The changeling monarch then decided to tie up a few loose ends, and used the newborn network to send a message to a few of his changelings to go all over the base and free every single being that had been trapped for use as a love battery by the changelings.

And he sent another one of them in a special mission.

It didn't take more than two minutes, and the changeling returned with the Crusaders.

He smiled at them "Hello, you three. Thank you for your help."

The three fillies blinked and were unable to react for a moment, Scootaloo was the first to recover "You're... Thorax?!" She exclaimed.

"Indeed I am. And congratulations on your new cutie marks, by the way." he spoke calmly.

"Wha- new?" Applebloom spluttered.

The three fillies looked at their flanks.

The subsequent squeal of joy knocked out Thorax for a moment.

"Okay. Those marks are cool, but what do they actually mean?" Sweetie Belle asked.

It really wasn't clear just from looking. All three marks were pretty similar, featuring the same tri-colored shield (red, pale grayish rose and grayish purple) with two shapes inside it and each other. Applebloom had a heart inside of an apple, Sweetie Belle had a musical note inside of a star and Scootaloo had a lightning bolt inside of a feather.

"Well," King Thorax started, attracting their attention "You helped me see the path, helped me fulfill my destiny, achieve my best... Maybe your marks are for helping others find their destinies."

The three looked at each other, Applebloom grinned "Well, I think that sounds like a lot of fun, but what do you say?"

The other two grinned at her.

"CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS, HELPING OTHERS!"

-

Trixie knew that Chrysalis would try to kill the newborn changeling king as soon as she got the chance, so the unicorn decided to prevent her from getting that chance. Thankfully, the fight between the two had given her enough time to charge one of her Spheres of Charge by using the magic container Pinkie Pie had brought. So, as soon as Rainbow Dash hit Chrysalis, Trixie prepared and cast a particularly powerful spell.

"This place is no longer part of the world...

"Perfect Illusion: Isolated World!"

This was one of Trixie's costliest spells. Even with the support of the Sphere of Charge, the show mare still had to spend two whole seconds charging to obtain enough magic to actually cast it. The wave of magic spread to an area that would become the battlefield, one containing only the Changeling Queen and the eight ponies.

And then, it fooled the world itself. It forced the world to think of that area as something that wasn't connected to itself, thus separating the arena from normal reality.

It had limits, only being able to fool the world for two minutes and needing the caster to be on the same patch of isolated world for it to work. But its virtues were equally apparent, it didn't need to be sustained, leaving Trixie open to do other things, and it was very hard to dispel by any means other than simply waiting it out.

It was the perfect spell for that situation.

Chrysalis barely spent a second stunned before casting a spell that threw several magical arrows at Rainbow Dash and bucking backwards with a leg shapeshifted into a spike, almost goring Pinkie, who had shifted behind her and attempted a punch.

"Wind Sword Style: Wind Cage!" And Rarity turned all the air around Chrysalis into a rushing maelstrom keeping her pinned.

But it didn't even last half a second, as Chrysalis shapeshifted her wings to triple their original size and gave a mighty flap, disturbing Rarity's control of the wind with sheer strength. Then Fluttershy reached her side, having ran over with a cheetah animal spirit, before trying to claw her. But Chrysalis grew separated armor plates to defend herself, before making a scorpion tail out of her own and trying to sting Fluttershy.

"Chaos Magic: Hungry Earth!" Twilight's spell got there just in time.

Striking the ground, it created dozens of huge mouths made out of earth that attacked Chrysalis, one of which managing to bite down on the tail. Dismissing that transformation (she had done the same for every transformation as soon as it served its purpose) Chrysalis released a burst of magic from her body that destroyed all the mouths, but during that time, Twilight and Fluttershy had joined hooves and prepared a spell.

"Duo Magic: Chaotic Butterfly!"

They released a dozen butterflies made out of swirling, chaotic energy, that flew towards Chrysalis. She jumped and flew to the air, releasing a blast of magic to destroy the butterflies. Sunset teleported right in front of her, already using her Trance Mode, and cast a powerful spell at point-blank range.

"Double Magic Enhance: Solar Sphere!"

A mini-sun that was still twice the size of the Changeling Queen hit her without giving her a chance to react. Causing an explosion that Sunset had to dodge by teleporting away. However, once the light faded it revealed that Chrysalis had only been scratched, due to increasing the thickness of her scales at the last moment. But she didn't look happy.

"Blast it! Why do they always throw suns at me?!" She shouted "See how you like it!" And she cast a spell that created a red sun double the size of Sunset's, and threw it at her at high speed.

The unicorn tried to teleport away, but suddenly Chrysalis' telekinesis squeezed her horn painfully, breaking her concentration.

"Merged Spell!" Twilight cast as fast as she could "Effect Sign: Reverse Target!"

And suddenly it was Chrysalis who was about to be hit by the sun. But she teleported at the last moment, appearing next to Applejack already slashing at her with a scythe blade coming from one of her hooves. The farm pony punched out right at the base of the blade, the point her Eyes told her was the weakest, managing to break the scythe. She charged magic into her hoof for a punch at Chrysalis' weak spot, but she grew spikes all over her body and shot them at Applejack like arrows. But Rainbow Dash suddenly appeared and carried the earth pony away from danger, dropping her off next to Trixie, before coming back at high speed.

"Rainboom Punch!" She shouted, punching beyond the sound barrier to create her special blast of magic.

Dash followed the blast with her hoof, forcefully putting more magic into it before the hit. But Chrysalis sprouted an immense claw from her shoulder that grabbed both the blast and Rainbow's hoof at the same time. The terrible impact made the claw crack, but it held, and Chrysalis reduced its size to bring the pegasus closer and try to gore her with her shapeshifted horn (it had three extra spikes), but Sunset teleported close and blasted Chrysalis with an overpowered fireball, stunning her for long enough that Rainbow Dash managed to charge herself with lightning to shock the changeling and escape.

"Duo Magic: Truth Seeking Arrows!" Both Trixie and Applejack shouted.

A dozen arrows of light shot themselves at Chrysalis, who teleported to avoid them, but the arrows teleported together with her, so Chrysalis grew a wide and thick shield from her right foreleg and blocked them...

And the fight kept going. With the Knights and Squires slowly realizing to their horror that, despite being weakened by the fight with Thorax, Chrysalis was still more than strong enough to take control of the fight. They used every single trick they had, combined attacks, sudden teleports, illusionary duplicates, Rainbow Dash acting as transport, Applejack pointing out weaknesses, Rarity's wind attacks, Pinkie's shifting, Sunset's brute force and all else they had trained together. But despite all of that, Chrysalis was getting increasingly close to taken one of them out of the fight, which would break the careful balance that let them face her. And they were tiring fast.

"Triple Magic Enhance: Grand Solar Seeking Blasts!" Sunset cast.

She created two dozens homing blasts of solar magic that attacked Chrysalis. But expending so much magic at once had been a mistake and Chrysalis didn't fail to take advantage of it, shifting to pegasus wings, she shed dozens of feathers that glowed with power and attracted the blasts of magic. At the same time, she teleported right in front of Sunset... And screamed.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!"

The point-blank blast of powerful sonic magic broke through Sunset's boosted aura defences, cut into her body, caused internal injuries, made cracks appear in her bones and even shattered her internal magical formation, forcing her out of Trance Mode. Blindly, Sunset teleported away, trying to get time to patch herself up, and then shouted to the others.

"She's too strong! You five need to distract her!"

The five immediately understood, and Applejack took the first step, shouting to Chrysalis:

"Hey, Chrysalis! How's the family?"

The changeling queen immediately remembered about her recent loss, and snarled before flying towards Applejack, spells ready. But Rainbow Dash immediately flew over and grabbed the farm pony, flying at high speed and shedding feathers charged with lightning to slow Chrysalis down. The changeling broke through the feathers and summoned an entire plane of fire, ready to slam them, but then Pinkie was on top of her, punching with both hooves on her back and driving chaos magic inside her body, breaking her concentration (it tried to warp her insides into something useless, but her magic suppressed the effects automatically).

Chrysalis formed spikes to pierce through Pinkie, but she had replaced herself with a plushie version, which subsequently exploded into a shower of acid confetti. The confetti started eating through her scales, until she set herself on fire and burned it all away in a single blast. Then she noticed that an absolutely gigantic blade of wind had formed above her.

"Wind Guillotine!" Rarity shouted, making the blade drop.

Chrysalis turned her wings into a huge claw that snapped closed on the blade, breaking it but not preventing Chrysalis from being buffeted and cut by a huge blast of wind. When she recovered, the changeling saw Fluttershy right in front, Staring at her. But she only got stunned for a tenth of a second, before waving her right foreleg upwards while turning it into a pseudo-flyswatter, hitting Fluttershy and making her fly, before Rarity manipulated the wind to bring her out of harm's way.

And that was all that was needed, because the Knights were ready.

They had activated a fairly powerful Overdrive and prepared a combination attack.

"Power and precision, united in a single spell...

"Perfect Duo Magic Enhance: Ultimate Seeking Arrow!" Sunset and Trixie chanted and cast together, creating an arrow combining the best of their specialties, an attack covered in illusions that would prevent any detection, and powerful enough to cause heavy damage to anything.

But that wasn't all, because Twilight still had her part to do.

"Magic refined and perfected...

"Ideal Sign: Grand Enhance!"

That was their third ultimate combination attack, the one that had Twilight taking on a lead position. And her role was simple but effective: Using her conceptual magic, Twilight took the already masterful attack from her partners and enhanced it into an ideal state.

"COMBINATION ATTACK: SUPREME ARROW!" The three shouted, as the arrow became golden and then disappeared, seeming to hit Chrysalis almost instantly.

She gave a horrifying scream as the arrow pierced her body. And then the hole left by the arrow started shining with a light of pure destruction, and cracks started appearing on her body, and more light started to leak out from those cracks, until Chrysalis was shining brightly.

And then she exploded. Her entire body seeming to disappear due to the sheer power of the event.

The three Knights fell unconscious. Then their Squires relaxed... Until Applejack blanched.

A black hoof emerged from under the earth, and it pulled its owner out of the ground.

Revealing Queen Chrysalis.

Rise of the Squires

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The hearts of the Squires were cold as they stared at the changeling monarch, who gave them a wicked smile but didn’t seem to be in a hurry to attack them. And the five understood why, as there was only a little bit of time remaining before Trixie’s spell ran out and Chrysalis was able to leave.

Applejack was the first to find her words, because she had finally understood “Ya… Ya split off a piece of yerself and left it ta take the blow and be destroyed in yer place.” The words came with difficulty “But how, how did Ah not see it?”

Chrysalis chuckled in dark amusement “I have seen many with the Eyes of Truth, and you are not even close of achieving the full depth of this power. Simply put, you were not good enough to do it.”

Shame and anger wrestled inside Applejack, but she remembered Trixie’s teachings. She remembered when Trixie told her to not let her mind and her sight be clouded.

The farm pony understood. Truly understood for the first time the depth of deception that could be found in the world. She understood how far she still would have to go in order to truly be able to see the perfect truth.

And with that understanding, she suddenly saw more.

“She’s weakened!” She shouted to the others, before breaking into a gallop in the direction of the changeling.

Yes. Chrysalis had been weakened by using such a dangerous method, which was the reason why she held off on trying to attack the Squires, preferring to make them think they had no chance.

Applejack saw through this deception, and realized that Chrysalis now had only around one third of the power she exhibited during the fight with the Knights and Squires. And she realized with a measure of horror that she now was at around ten percent of what should be her full strength. Which meant that even the terrifying battle capacity she had showed in their earlier fight was only around thirty percent of what she should be able to do in her peak state.

But there was no time to consider that, as Applejack reared up for a punch while bracing against the earth and using considerable amounts of earth pony magic as support. Chrysalis again created spikes on her body to forestall or redirect the attack, but Applejack’s new insight was still good, and she realized that, deciding then that the time for concerns over her own body was long past.

She punched directly on top of one of the spikes, cracking it and making Chrysalis gasp from the transmitted force, at the cost of a deep and painful cut right in the middle of her hoof. Channeling her earth pony magic to be able to step firmly even with that, she prepared another punch, but Chrysalis didn’t play along, jumping and flying away, now that Trixie’s spell was almost over and the isolation of their part of the world would be over. She didn’t really need to fight them, anyway.

-

Pinkie was angry.

If this was in the past, she would have tried to suppress her anger, but after learning a lot about emotion magic, she managed to realize that anger wasn’t necessarily a negative emotion. It could be a drive, a sense of indignation over an injustice that led her to trying to fix it.

Her anger flared when Chrysalis mocked Applejack, and Pinkie decided that she didn’t mind being angry for a friend.

Her emotion magic responded, and Pinkie discovered something essential.

She had never been able to harness more than ten or fifteen percent of the power of her emotions, but now she realized that it had been because her emotions were too diffuse, and the true path forward in the path of emotion magic was focusing on a single emotion at a time. Her anger had made every other emotion seem less important, and that focus made her able to draw an astonishing forty percent of the power of her emotions.

Power flooded through her tired body, and she felt more than revived, she actually felt stronger than ever. She looked as Applejack attacked Chrysalis, already knowing what she had to do, and making a decision when the changeling queen went flying and Trixie's spell ran out.

Chrysalis was not going to run away that easily.

Pinkie allowed her power to explode, ready to be used, causing a red glow to emanate from herself. With a grin, she stomped the ground, and released more magic than she ever had in her life.

"Chaotic Arts: Inescapable Arena!"

A circle of red grew from her, and encompassed all the area of the former spell.

And then, the skies and the earth around them became red and faded, and the flying Changeling Queen disappeared at the edge of the spell, only to reappear in the opposite edge. She looked at Pinkie Pie in disbelief.

"It's rude to leave a party in the middle." Pinkie laughed.

-

Fluttershy had despaired for a moment. With the Knights unconscious, who could possibly defeat Queen Chrysalis?

She stopped, surprising herself, with the realization that the answer was them. The Squires. They had to do it.

Fluttershy was tired, even with her abnormal magical capacity, the almost continuous use of powerful spells, including pushing herself to the limit in the latest fight, had made magical exhaustion start to creep into all her muscles.

However, the pegasus realized that being tired didn't necessarily mean being weaker. She could pull just as much magic from her soul as always. It would just be harder, it would hurt, it would cause internal damage. And none of those things would dissuade her from fighting.

More than that, the entire situation had heightened her focus, to the point where Fluttershy dared to try something she had never been able to achieve before.

Her talent was talking to animals, but most ponies didn't realize that this included things that most would consider monsters.

And she was going to channel the power of one of them, a manticore in this case.

Fluttershy's Empathy Drive was based on a connection, and for the Animal Spirit version, this meant that she had to not only understand the animals in terms of their characteristics, but she also needed to connect with them in terms of feelings.

This wasn't only things like hunger and pain, but also the interconnection of bees, the playfulness of bunnies and the stoutness of bears. Which were characteristics in a more metaphorical sense.

But for something as strong as a manticore, connecting with only a single characteristic simply wasn't enough to allow her to channel their power. Which was one of the things that kept her Empathy Drive from being a completely unfair ability.

Fluttershy had always felt that, in order to channel the power of a manticore, she would need to focus on three specific characteristics, which corresponded to the animals the manticore appeared to be a fusion of. She would need the majesty of a lion, the power of a dragon and the trickiness of a scorpion.

Any one of those things would have been beyond her reach before her training with Twilight, and even now they were spotty enough that she preferred to use other animals, who she had a greater ease in, but she had two reasons why she felt it would be possible now. The first was her newfound confidence, gained in this overwhelming situation.

The second was the fact that she had been fighting Chrysalis for those last few minutes. Her empathy had felt a lot from Chrysalis, and the Changeling Queen had majesty due to being a queen, trickiness due to being a changeling, and her power was also undeniable.

Yes. Chrysalis embodied the same three characteristics that Fluttershy was trying to embody herself in order to channel a manticore.

Fluttershy thought about Chrysalis' more positive qualities. She associated Chrysalis' power with Sunset, who also wielded great power, and associated her trickiness with Trixie, who was also a particularly tricky individual. But most of all, she tried to focus on how the different aspects of Chrysalis' being existed in harmony with each other.

With this she started to feel as if herself had those qualities. She felt the majesty of a ruler, commanding those around and fearing nothing. She felt a sensation of overwhelming power under control, power she could unleash at any moment to chance the face of reality. And she felt how tricky one had to be in order to survive in a world of falsities and trickery, where it was impossible to make sure that you weren't dancing on the hoof of another unless you completely hid your inner self.

"Manticore!" Fluttershy shouted, and the aura appeared around her. But it was much stronger and more real than any other animal aura she had done before, and seemed like a slightly translucent manticore with Fluttershy only barely visible inside.

She flew, the wind barely serving as an inconvenience even as she accelerated at an extreme rate. With a roar, she swung her paw in order to slash Chrysalis in half, managing to score wounds on her barrel even as she reinforced her armor. Then, instead of pressing on the attack, Fluttershy dodged backwards with a sharp movement by flapping her wings, having predicted Chrysalis' subsequent attack via the stab of a hidden blade sprouting directly from her abdomen.

The fight was only just starting.

-

When Chrysalis revealed herself to still be alive, Rarity knew that simply fighting the way she had been doing previously wouldn't work.

Attacking as artillery was useless against an enemy who could get close to her in an instant to attack. And Chrysalis would do it, because Rarity's wind attacks were now the greatest firepower their team had to try to deal with the changeling queen.

In fact, Rarity actually had a way of increasing her mobility. It was a spell inspired by the way she felt upon seeing the magnificence of Rainbow Dash's flying ability. And she had worked together with the pegasus in order to make it work. But after having to be rescued from terrifying crashes by the quick pegasus multiple times, the white unicorn had decided that it was too dangerous.

"Wind Wings!" Rarity shouted, and in an instant she managed to feel her entire body just from the touch of the nearby air. Rarity took control of every single aspect of the wind around herself, and created wings made out of wind to focus her powers before taking off.

Rarity had decided that it was worth it at this point despite the danger.

Just losing focus for a moment would lead to her crashing into the ground and sustaining heavy injuries from the immense speed she was moving. But in this kind of fight, losing focus for a moment would be a deadly mistake regardless of what she was doing.

Rarity shot into the air, feeling the rush of pressure while almost instinctively reducing its effects on her body. And looking from a distance, it would be difficult to recognize her as anything but a pegasus due to her movements.

Taking the skies as her domain, Rarity released a huge blade of wind to hit Chrysalis just as Fluttershy retreated from the other's attack. And Chrysalis had to fly sideways in order to barely avoid this devastating attack.

And the unicorn was only accelerating, ready for anything.

-

It had been a long time since Rainbow Dash felt like she was too slow.

She wanted to protect all of her teammates, and their previous fight had showed that even her reactions weren't enough to do so.

But Rainbow Dash decided that this was just because she was constantly speeding up and slowing down, which took time.

So obviously, her instincts told her that the obvious solution was simply to maintain a constant high speed forever, being able to reach anywhere in their arena in an instant.

The fact that she didn't need to turn much due to the wrap around nature of Pinkie's arena made that something that could actually work.

So the pegasus accelerated to two thirds of the speed of sound while the others were attacking, and noticed that even maintaining just this speed while fighting already took too much energy.

Rainbow Dash decided to train later in order to deal with that issue.

As soon as Chrysalis dodged Rarity's attack, Rainbow Dash hit her with a high speed punch and got away before the changeling queen even had the chance to counter-attack.

This was the beginning of the last phase of the battle.

-

"Pinkie!" Applejack shouted, while running towards Chrysalis "Multiple impacts!"

The other earth pony immediately got it, Chrysalis should be better at dealing with single strong blows than she was at dealing with multiple weak ones, perhaps due to the nature of her strengthening. So Pinkie shifted forward, seeing the world like the place she wanted to go was only a step away. With a snarl, she stomped the ground, mixing her earth pony magic with her chaos magic, forcefully turning all the loose earth into dangerously sharp shards of crystal, volatile due to an excess of chaos magic inserted at the last moment.

Pinkie threw all of them at Chrysalis, who turned to the side and shifted a wing into one similar to that of a dragon, blocking all the hits with some difficulty. That was because Chrysalis wouldn't commit common mistakes in a fight against multiple opponents, and was now facing Fluttershy, coming towards her with a mouth open for a bite. The Changeling Queen's answer to that was flipping in the air to go upside down, bringing up her tail, turned into a kind of morning star with a blade instead of spikes, in a vicious, magically accelerated strike.

Fluttershy challenged that attack with sheer strength, bringing up her manticore head to clash against it to prove her superiority. She won the clash, but was stunned for a brief period. Meanwhile, Rarity, having heard Applejack's words and feeling like a surfer on the world's most dangerous waves, created several small wind blades to shot at the changeling, all the while trying to maintain the control of her flight. Instead of defending, Chrysalis created dozens of big spikes on her underside, ignoring the wounds made by the blades for a moment.

Then she teleported, appearing somewhat below and in front of Rarity, before shooting her with all the spikes. The unicorn, supernaturally aware of all the disturbances in the wind, did a forceful series of high speed turns that made even the air scream. She succeeded in dodging all the spikes by a hair's breath, but lost control of her flight and was forced to do a high-speed, blind teleport upwards, evading a crash but losing the ability to do anything but keep herself in the air for the next two seconds, due to the magical stress on her brain.

"GET OVER HERE!" Pinkie shouted, with a feeling that would not be denied.

She extended a hoof, willing it to reach Chrysalis despite the distance, and grabbing the changeling queen before slamming her to the ground in an eye-searing chaotic motion that seemed to ignore notions of space. And then Applejack was there, punching at the Queen's face and every other weak spot she could reach on short notice, knowing that Chrysalis would take advantage of any possible opening. But it still wasn't enough, and Chrysalis was able to shapeshift extra joints and length into her legs while enduring Applejack's multiple punches and Pinkie's own chaos magic infusing punch.

And Rainbow Dash came for another attack run, only for Chrysalis to use her new legs to grab her in a spiderlike grip and be carried away. Wasting no time, she bit right at Rainbow Dash's neck.

"GAAH!" The pegasus screamed, but her physical enhancements held and Chrysalis was unable to deal a critical injury immediately.

Having only instants to act, Rainbow Dash forcefully crashed into the ground, with a force that would break the bones of any normal pegasus.

Rainbow Dash wasn't a normal pegasus, but the impact still rattled her enough that she was briefly stunned, even as she escaped Chrysalis' grasp with a combination of the crash and a forceful application of wind manipulation.

Rarity sent even more wind blades at Chrysalis, her focus sharpened even further, managing to keep her flight going perfectly despite her attack. But Chrysalis refused to give ground, shifting her armor enough that she managed to catch every strike in the strong parts and avoiding deep injuries. And then she had to deal with Fluttershy, appearing suddenly with a slash of claws, managing to score a deep wound on the side of the Changeling Queen, breaking through even the hardened defences with the majesty of a king.

But Chrysalis had the same majesty, and she didn't shrink away from the pain, instead sprouting several vinelike tendrils, that snaked around the manticore aura and grabbed it, allowing Chrysalis to, in a wind-assisted, bizarro version of a martial arts throw, launch Fluttershy-Manticore away. And then Pinkie Pie got there in a shift, again turning the earth into projectiles and launching them, at the same time as another wave of wind blades reached Chrysalis.

Both attacks scored wounds on her flesh, and Pinkie advanced for another chaos-infusing punch, but Chrysalis sprouted a hand-like set of tendrils from her side, that grew and grabbed Pinkie, before separating from Chrysalis' body and glowing with magic that prevented the earth pony from shifting away.

And then Chrysalis screamed.

The sound was loud and carried magic that seemed to go through all defences and strike directly at the mind. Everypony was stunned, and that was bad news for Rarity, who lost control of her flight. She desperately tried to recover before hitting the ground, but a squeeze in her horn from Chrysalis' telekinesis left her helpless as she crashed.

"GAAAAH!" Rarity screamed, feeling her bones broken.

Applejack recovered from her stunned state at that moment, and she could see the situation with absolute clarity. Chrysalis was shifting a leg into a spear-like form to pierce through Dash's heart. The target was still trying to deal with her previous injury, Rarity was in no state to interfere, Pinkie was unable to escape her trap, and Fluttershy was too far away to reach in time, even though she had also recovered.

The farmer herself was too far away to render any help.

In desperation, she forced her eyes more than ever before, and realized that she just had to somehow get there in time, there was no one else who could stop Chrysalis. She needed...

"OVERDRIVE!" Applejack shouted, unleashing a phenomenal amount of magic.

And then she stepped forward, forcing herself with pure strength to cross a path no one else could see, walking through space to reach Chrysalis' position in a single step.

Chrysalis couldn't react to that unexpected movement fast enough, she had already committed herself to the attack on Rainbow Dash, and Applejack channeled every remaining scrap of power of her Overdrive into a terrifying buck, aimed at Chrysalis' chest, seeking her weakest point, the heart.

"AAAAARGHHH!" The Changeling Queen screamed, as she received a buck that would obliterate any tree. Applejack's last thought before falling unconscious was satisfaction that she had at least weakened the enemy enough to help the others.

Chrysalis was in bad shape, her entire body full of cracks which dripped blood, her self-regeneration unable to cope with such an injury so fast. Feeling her weakness, Fluttershy dived down to attack her, while Pinkie struck her forehooves together, creating a spark that she turned into a flame to destroy the hand. The Changeling Queen was still able to fight, and faced Fluttershy's bite with a piledriver punch from one of her legs, neither of them gaining an advantage. Pinkie Pie shifted to Applejack's side and waved a hoof, causing the earth pony to be covered in earth before disappearing, keeping her away from danger. Rainbow Dash took of in Chrysalis' direction, intending to help Fluttershy in close combat.

The Changeling Queen disengaged, flying in Pinkie Pie's direction, with a leg shifted into a spear to try and pierce her. The earth pony immediately realized that Chrysalis was quite capable of teleporting directly to her if she tried to escape, so she created flames again and shifted them into arrows with her chaos magic, hoping to cause as much damage as possible. Chrysalis still kept on her path, despite the additional injuries, but at the last moment Pinkie Pie clapped, producing a tremendous shockwave that changed the trajectory of the attack, making it pierce only Pinkie's abdomen, instead of her heart.

But that was still a heavy injury, and so Pinkie shifted away, disappearing completely, because she knew her main priority was keeping her Inescapable Arena running. Chrysalis turned to fight the approaching Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, and got hit in the back by many wind blades, courtesy of Rarity, who wasn't as out of the fight as expected.

"OVERDRIVE!" The unicorn shouted, unleashing her power.

"The wind cuts through everything..." Rarity chanted.

Chrysalis immediately shot a fireball at the unicorn, hoping to get her before she casted... And the fireball passed right through her, the Rarity in the field being only an illusion.

"Wind Sword Style: Great Wind Slash!" The voice came from everywhere.

Rarity suddenly appeared right to Chrysalis' side, her sword clad in a gigantic blade of wind. But the changeling queen reacted quickly, using every scrap of power remaining on enhancing her defences, to endure the attack.

With an impact like a localized tornado, the wind blade sent Chrysalis flying, blood coming out of every single one of her wounds, and even more cracks in her armor. But Chrysalis still managed to straighten herself out in the air, as Rarity fell unconscious from the overdrive.

And then Chrysalis was hit by Fluttershy's stinger.

That was the trickiness, as she hadn't used the stinger even once before, and now was injecting the changeling queen with the most concentrated and magically enhanced poison she could.

As a result, her defenses were down when Chrysalis screamed again.

Except this time it was much worse. This was the Banshee's Wail, the last ditch weapon of changeling royalty. Even Rainbow Dash who could completely focus on defense felt her bones rattle from the strength of the magical sound, and blood came out of Fluttershy's ears due to her proximity, before she collapsed.

Still, the worst effect was that the all-around attack managed to hit the hidden Pinkie Pie, disabling her Arena. And Rainbow Dash saw numerous changelings coming, attracted by the Wail, which also served as a general summon for the soldiers.

Chrysalis forcefully expelled most of the poison with a vomit and flew off towards her Changelings.

Dash knew that she was still not done, that she could recover enough if given love, so the pegasus realized that she had no choice other than to defeat her before she had the chance.

That was when she felt something click. She understood that this, this kind of do-or-die pressure was what she needed in order to use the special ability she had felt during her trainings. And she understood the nature of her ability, and grinned as she named it:

"Limit Break!"

Rainbow Dash took off, accelerating far faster than she had ever been capable before. Countless spells were shot at her from the changelings, but she barreled through them without missing a beat. Reaching Chrysalis, she broke every single tendril she tried to use against her with quick and vicious punches, before creating a hurricane on her fist and smashing towards Chrysalis' chest... and changing targets to hit her abdomen at the last moment.

The pegasus landed, as Chrysalis hit the ground hard enough to leave a crater.

"Wind Destroyer Hoof." She said simply, completing the name of what she had done.

"How..." Chrysalis asked with her voice weak, somehow being still alive "How did you know I moved my heart...?"

Dash didn't hesitate to respond "I didn't know. It was just instinct." She prepared to attack Chrysalis one last time, seeing as the Changeling Queen seemed to be holding herself together with sheer will, parts of her body falling off.

Then she collapsed.

"Hey!" She was still awake, but unable to move "What is this?!"

She tried to summon lightning to finish Chrysalis off, but saw that even her magic was impossible to access. This was the price of the Limit Break, she had went beyond her limits and her body was unable to handle it.

Rainbow Dash could only watch as the changelings landed around Chrysalis and joined their powers to teleport her and themselves away, with the other changelings soon following suit.

She sighed. At least she had hurt Chrysalis enough for her to retreat...

-

The next day, Princess Celestia was reading the report about the mission, and she put both forehooves on her face when she got to the part about Venus.

"It's already starting... Other heroes are being infected by that silliness... The dignity of the protectors of Equestria is getting further and further away..."

It took a while for her to recover.

-

One month later, the proclamation of the five new Knights had come. Shining Armor and Spike were sitting side by side, watching it and talking.

"Are you really sure you want to be a Knight?" Shining asked the dragon "You saw how hurt they got after that battle. And it's taken this long just for them to recover enough to be able to participate in the proclamation."

Spike nodded "Of course. If I can help make it so they don't have to get hurt quite as much, it would be worth even if I get wounded like that." Then he grinned at the unicorn "By the way... I've been meaning to ask..."

Shining Armor felt a little uneasy "Ask what?"

"What were you talking about with that Venus once she pulled you away from the crowd that day? Did she give you her contact information?" Spike asked teasingly.

"None of your business." Shining answered with a blush, then he tried to change the subject "And what about you? Did you try to ask Rarity out? I saw how you looked at her."

"It wouldn't work out." Spike answered in a resigned voice.

Shining thought this was a little strange "Why do you seem so certain of that?"

Spike sighed "It's a little complicated, but one of the things Princess Luna helped me train in was the dragon sense for ownership in all its forms. I'm not exactly a specialist, but I could tell that Rarity's heart already belongs to somepony.

The unicorn was about to ask for more details when the ceremony got into the climax.

"As such, it is my honor and pleasure to proclaim you five as Knights of the Realm, great heroines of Equestria!"

The two joined in clapping and their conversation stopped for that moment.

And this was the day where the legendary Eight Knights of the Magic Soul were truly formed.

Squires/Changeling Arc End

Next: Deer Arc

New Mission

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Two Months After the New Knight Proclamation

Inside a meeting room, two high-ranking members of the Wonderbolts were talking with each other.

"So..." Spitfire asked "What did you think of her? Will she work?"

"Well, she is certainly skilled, as you might expect from one of the Knights, but that's not really what you're asking." Soaring answered.

"Indeed. There was no way that part was going to be a problem." Spitfire mentioned.

"If you want to know if she's capable of working on a team without unbalancing everything..." Soaring nodded "Then the answer is yes." He made circles with a hoof "She did fairly well in syncronizing with others, and her attitude doesn't show any ideas of being better than the others or expecting any kind of special treatment. I guess the Knights really are as humble and approachable as ponies say."

Spitfire smiled "I was hoping that was going to be the case. I don't think there is going to be any problems with insubordination, given that she asked for my autograph as soon as it was remotely appropriate. And I think that, in the future, she should be able to help a lot in creating new performances."

"I guess we should give her the good news, then." Soaring said.

The two of them left the room to go to the waiting room were Rainbow Dash was waiting for the results of her test.

"Candidate Rainbow Dash." Spitfire started, with a neutral expression "We have analyzed the results of your three days in this testing camp."

The pegasus Knight had a mostly confident expression, but still wasn't able to rid her face of all small traces of worry.

"And the conclusion we have reached is..." She smiled "You have passed. Welcome to the Wonderbolts."

"YEEEEAH!" Rainbow Dash shrieked, unable to contain her joy, she spun in the air while pumping her forelegs up and down.

Spitfire waited until she was done celebrating, before speaking.

"Okay, so the first order of business will be..." She was stopped by a flash of light.

And as soon as the light faded, everypony could see that a scroll had appeared right in front of the rainbow pegasus. She took it and read it, before looking at Spitfire with a complicated expression.

"Well..." She started, stopped, then started again "It looks like duty calls. I'll start as soon as I get back from this mission. Unless I have to recover first. See you soon!"

Then she dived right through the cloud layer in the room, instantly fixing the hole as she passed through.

After a moment of silence, Soaring spoke:

"I guess we'll need to get used to that now that she's on the team."

-

Celestia's scroll had told Rainbow Dash to join up with the other Knights at the center of Canterlot, so that was where she went.

Reaching the fountain, which was the specific meeting place, Dash saw that Sunset was already there, but otherwise there were no other Knights present.

Rainbow greeted Sunset and the two settled down to wait for the others. They didn't have to wait long, as Pinkie Pie jumped out from inside the fountain only a bit later. Then Rarity teleported there, appearing together with a bunch of crates. Then Twilight teleported in bringing together Fluttershy and Trixie did the same together with Applejack.

"Ohh..." Trixie spoke as soon as she caught Rarity in her sights "Those crates... Does that mean everything is ready?" She asked the clothier unicorn.

"Indeed, darling." Rarity nodded "I have managed to finish the armors for all of us!"

"Amazeroonie!" Pinkie shifted right next to Rarity "Can we see them? Can we?"

Sunset decided to be the adult in this situation (the only pony around older than her was Fluttershy, who probably wouldn't do it) "That can wait until after we receive our mission." Then a scroll appeared next to her "It says here we should go to the Royal Center of Magical Research first, since they've got something new for us." Sunset shrugged "Guess the mission this time is not time-sensitive."

"Let's first teleport those crates to the castle's holding area." Twilight said, writing a scroll and teleporting it "Some guards can keep an eye on them so we don't have to keep carrying them around."

Rarity nodded, and both her and Twilight cooperated to send the crates to the right location via teleport. After that, the eight Knights took off walking, since the building they were headed to was fairly close by. They used the time to get updates on what the others had been working on during the time they were separated.

"Ah managed ta master Space Step." Applejack said proudly "Now Ah can use it whenever Ah want."

"That's a really nice thing, since you were the least mobile member in our last mission." Trixie mentioned.

"Besides the armors, I have finished building my second weapon." Rarity said in a mysterious manner.

"Let me guess. It's a sword." Rainbow Dash teased.

"Yes. I like swords." Rarity didn't deny it.

"I can see that. As for myself, I've been working to create a normal version of the Wind Destroyer Hoof. Something I can use without needing a Limit Break. It's going well." Rainbow Dash explained.

"Now my Emotion Charge is good enough to reach 50% whenever I want, and sometimes I can even get to 60%!" Pinkie exclaimed.

"That's pretty nice. If you get to 100%, you gain special abilities depending on what emotion you're using." Twilight recalled what was known about it "They're different for everyone, so I can't help more than that."

"And I... I finally managed to master Soul Mirror." Fluttershy said, once everypony else was done.

"Congratulations!" Twilight praised.

Further conversation was stopped, as when the eight were almost getting to the building where the Royal Center of Magical Research was located, Pinkie Pie suddenly had a small spasm.

"Problems?" Twilight asked, instantly serious. The Pinkie Sense was something that she had never been able to understand the mechanics of, much less replicate, but it was still an asset that could not be denied.

"Not exactly..." Pinkie shook her head a little more than necessary "It's weird, but I think what this Pinkie Sense is saying is that we should stay here and not get involved until everything is resolved."

"Until what is resolved?" Rainbow Dash asked, looking around "There doesn't seem to be anything in particular happening."

She had spoken too soon. Once her words finished resounding through the air, strange noises started leaking out from the inside of the building. Sounds of magical blasts, explosions, roars and several other sounds, which were more difficult to identify reached the ears of the waiting Knights. Rarity and Fluttershy smiled slightly at Rainbow Dash's abashed expression while Sunset shook her head. Then they started paying more attention to the sounds in order to try to discover what was happening inside.

They didn't need to bother. Only a few seconds later the closest wall of the building exploded, and after the resulting cloud of dust dispersed, the eight Knights had a pretty good view of what was going on.

There was an immense monster halfway out of the building. The monster could be compared to some of the weirder chaotic creatures the Knights had faced during the situation with Discord, as it was a monster with very little in common with any natural creature of the world. Specifically, this monster seemed to be a mass of flesh covered in deep fish like scales, with far too many tentacles, eyes and mouths, of many different shapes and sizes. However, that creature didn't seem to be a walking contradiction like the aforementioned chaotic creatures, instead looking like something that was designed to be able to live in the depths, due to multiple eyes giving it many forms of vision for an environment without light, and the multiple mouths and tentacles of varied styles could be used to catch and eat all sorts of varied prey. It looked like something that could actually exist somewhere.

Then some of the tentacles started spewing magic (being stopped in the air by some wards which were placed around the building), and everyone could see that it was a magic user too.

That was clearly a being that had evolved into being the peak existence in whatever environment had spawned it. So it was no surprise that it took even the Knights a moment to notice the pony holding onto it.

She was a unicorn mare with a light yellowish gray coat, a mane of brilliant amaranth with moderate purple and grayish violet highlights, dark purple eyes and a cutie mark of a waning moon with sparkles. She was also wearing a sweater and glasses. The three original Knights recognized her as Moondancer, chief of Celestia's Special Division of Extreme Magical Research, so they understood why the Pinkie Sense had told them not to do anything. The other five didn't know who she was, so they felt slightly on edge at the prospect of just watching what was happening.

Moondander was holding onto one of the bigger tentacles (in a part without any extra stuff) with her left foreleg, and she was using her right foreleg (surrounded by sharp rings of magic) to fend off any tentacle that tried to get nearby. With a flash of her horn, Moondancer created an energy shield around herself just before the monster started bombarding her with spells. Then, with another flash she conjured up a magical blade that started spinning incredibly fast and moved to cut the nearby tentacles. Then she started conjuring spheres of light that floated towards the sky before starting to shoot repeated blasts of magic at the monster.

Roaring, the monster started to shake its tentacle to force Moondancer off, but she clung on grimly for a few seconds, before using another flash of magic to conjure four magical chains connected with the ground that forcefully held that tentacle still. Then the monster started to attack the unicorn directly with tentacles and every bit of magic it could get, slowly breaking the magical shield. But Moondancer kept creating new shields faster than it could break them.

She kept conjuring more of the spheres of light, until Moondancer had enough for her next trick. Finally letting go of the monster, she used another spell to make all of the spheres of light join in a formation. They started dancing around each other, and releasing bits of magic that turned into more spell scripts.

And then the formation released a gigantic blast of energy, straight at the monster.

There was a horrifying shriek as the blast of energy completely covered the creature for several seconds. When it was over, the monster was still alive, but it clearly was in bad shape. Several of the tentacles had been destroyed, along with most of the eyes. The creature in general seemed to be covered in cuts and burn marks, and it was clearly stunned.

And Moondancer still wasn't done.

With a stomp to the ground, she made a magic circle appear around herself, and then she charged magic for a second before shooting at the building. The blast of magic activated another magical circle on the building, which was connected to Moondancer's circle by several lines of light. Then she raised her right forehoof to the air, and the light spheres in the sky started charging energy and spinning around each other in a complex pattern.

Then they shot a powerful beam of magic straight at Moondancer, who received it in her hoof and condensed all the power into a sphere, before pointing at the monster.

"Magic Ritual: Entropy Spark." She released a beam of energy with the consistency of pure light.

The light completely covered the monster, and it released a silent scream, since not even sound could escape from that light. The extremities of the monster started vanishing little by little, like they were being turned into more of the light. And this "unmaking" started spreading through the body of the monster faster and faster. Bigger sections of the monster disappeared at an accelerated rate, and then it finally vanished completely, and Moondancer stopped her magic.

She waited for a moment, seemingly checking whether everything was really over, then seemed to notice the Knights "Hello!" She waved at them.

The eight ponies came closer as she interfaced with the magic circle of the building again and started fixing what had been broken in the battle.

Being the one who was most familiar with the magical researchers, Twilight took the lead "Hi, Moondancer. So... Business as usual, I gather?"

The five newest Knights got a weird expression on their faces upon hearing those words.

"Yep. Nothing extraordinary. And you Knights are still doing well, according to the data Celestia sent us." Moondancer spoke without reservations.

"That's right." Twilight pointed to the five apprentices "These are our apprentices and the newest Knights of the Realm. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie who are mine, Applejack and Rarity who are Trixie's and Rainbow Dash who is Sunset's." Then she turned to the five to introduce the researcher "This is Moondancer, chief of Celestia's Special Division of Extreme Magical Research, who is based here." She pointed to the building, that was already almost completely restored.

"Hello to you guys." Moondancer did a little wave to the five.

"Hello!"

"Greetings."

"Hi!"

"Nice ta meet ya!"

"Hello..."

The five answered in their own ways, then Sunset spoke:

"That spell was pretty cool. What was it?"

Moondancer sighed "It's basically something that forcefully returns things to zero, via borrowing from the concept of entropy. But it is far from a complete product. Even I can only use it with the help of the Central Magical Circle..."

Trixie decided to get the meeting back on track "Ah, not that Trixie isn't enjoying this conversation, but Princess Celestia told us to come here to get the newest research you've been working on."

"Oh yeah. I almost forgot." Moondancer wrote a few complicated patterns in the air and then made them play a small song in conjunction with the movements of her horn. Then a small metal box which didn't seem to have any way of opening appeared in the air, before Moondancer pushed it towards Trixie.

"I'm sure you'll like this one. It's an analysis of the magical nature of space based on tests performed via more than three hundred different spells that affect space, and including every single spell variation we could find. This is pretty much a blueprint for learning about space." Moondancer said, proud of the work.

"I'm sure this will be very useful for us." Twilight assured her "Sorry for not having visited recently, these days have been busy."

"Don't worry about it." Moondancer smiled playfully "Just keep being awesome and us researchers will be happy." She then turned to the newest Knights "But you should come on over when you can. We are really interested in performing some direct experiments." And with that slightly ominous line, Moondancer teleported back inside the building.

There was a moment of silence.

"We can check that later." Sunset said "For now, let's actually go see what mission Celestia has for us this time."

-

Later, when the Knights were in a meeting with Celestia...

"The deer are acting up again." The princess said.

The three original Knights immediately got unwilling expressions on their faces "Ah. I knew this was going to happen someday, but I didn't think it would be this soon." Twilight whined.

"... Did we miss something?" Rarity asked "None of the information you told us to memorize mentioned anything about deer."

"That's no surprise." Sunset said firmly "We have focused on the real threats to Equestria. The deer aren't a threat as much as they are an annoyance."

"An annoyance at a level that the Knights have to deal with it?" Rainbow Dash asked "That seems weird."

The Princess decided to explain things briefly "Deer in general aren't a problem. It's just that they have a tendency to elect representatives that embody the worst of the power-hungry politician stereotype." She waited a moment for that to sink in "They do things like hinder Knight activities in their territory with bureaucracy, as well as manipulating diplomacy in an incredibly wily manner. All that to get extra concessions and more power."

"Right... And what are they doing this time?" Applejack asked, feeling a little out of her depth.

"It's the Challenge of the Knights." Celestia said "Ostensibly created to test whether the Knights are really capable of protecting Equestria, it can only be called when there are at least eight active Knights of the Realm that haven't gone through the test before. They go through nine challenges, one for each of them and a team challenge. Every challenge is, by design, rigged to give the deer side an advantage, and they will cheat as much as possible as well. If the Knights lose even one of the challenges, we will have to give the deer a part of our territory."

There was silence for a moment.

"Those... Those are some truly annoying conditions." Rarity mentioned "How did they get you to agree to them?"

"The boss deer of the time was just really, really annoying, okay? I just wanted him to shut up." Celestia sighed "Anyways. While they are annoying, the deer just aren't that much of a threat. The Challenge of the Knights was issued fifteen times so far, and the Knights never lost a single round. I believe you are more than capable of dealing with that."

Applejack looked at the original Knights, their leaders, who were currently commiserating about this being "the least glamorous part of the job", but eventually Sunset looked at the Princess and gave the answer for all of them.

"We won't disappoint you."

Deer and the City

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Before they actually set off for their mission, the eight Knights gathered in the storage room in order to finally wear the armors Rarity had made. And of course, she had to make a spectacle of it (Trixie approved).

"First..." Rarity announced, standing beside the eight crates while the others faced her from a couple meters away "IIIIIIIt's Rainbow's armor!" She lifted a bundle from inside one of the crates.

"Yes!" Rainbow Dash cheered, and dived down right next to Rarity.

The artificer unicorn didn't keep her waiting. Unwrapping the bundle, she revealed a set of armor pieces, which she started placing on Rainbow Dash's body with meticulous precision, all the while she was explaining stuff.

"For this, I have taken inspiration from the style of armor of the ancient Pegasus Light Brigade. It doesn't provide much protection on its own, but the spells on it are designed to ressonate with the energy of the wearer generally, and with pegasus magic specifically. The design concept is that it will strenghten everything you can do from the ground up."

As Rarity mentioned, it was a pretty light set of armor, except for the gorget part. For the rest of the armor, the pieces were thinner and covered less area, but they were put in such a way that the most critical points were properly protected. The whole armor was colored in variations of light gray and silver tones, and it gave a feeling of belonging to the sky, like the armor would be able to fly on its own. As soon as it was done, Rainbow Dash started flying around, doing flips and other difficult maneuvers, and exulting on the feeling of freedom it gave her.

"Awesome!" Was her veredict as she landed back on the ground "You're the best, Rarity!"

The unicorn smiled in appreciation and started runmaging on another crate with her telekinesis.

"The next one is..." She seemed to be enjoying the looks of anticipation of the others "Fluttershy!" She announced, taking a bundle of this new crate.

The pegasus herself flew over to Rarity, who started the same process on her.

"For Fluttershy, since most of the time she will be using Animal Spirit or similar abilities, I have decided to make the protection even less of a priority than Rainbow's armor. Instead, the concept is increasing natural affinity so that Fluttershy can use her empathy more easily. The spells on this armor act as kind of a middlepony, helping with any connection between the user and the target. Bond magic is difficult, so it mostly just helps a bit."

This new armor was colored in tones of green and blue, and most of the area was taken up by the connections in between plates, instead of the plates themselves. The pegasus in such an armor gave a feeling of belonging and approachability, like she fit perfectly in the world and accepted anything.

"Thank you." Fluttershy did a small bow of appreciation and went back to the others.

Rarity went on, taking another bundle from a crate "The next is Pinkie Pie."

"Oooooh... Incrediroonie!" The pink earth pony showed her appreciation, somehow appearing next to Rarity already dressed in the armor.

To her credit, the artificer recovered almost instantly "The spells in this armor were creating using a special artificer method of sleep-casting, since I don't understand enough chaos magic to do it normally. From what I can understand, they affect any magic around and increase the factor of chaos in it, which should help with any magic you do and hinder any enemy magic. The inspiration for the physical design is popcorn."

That was the weirdest armor yet, basically a fullplate with extra protrusions of varied size and shape that shifted freely all over the surface of the armor due to only being loosely conected with it thanks to small chains. The color was a pinkish red, and the constant shifting made Pinkie Pie seem like a being of chaos magic that couldn't maintain a single shape for long.

After that, Rarity called for Twilight, who walked forward politely to allow for Rarity's fitting.

"For Twilight I had to use the same method as Pinkie Pie, for the same reason. The spells on this one seem to help with changing its shape and properties, so you can manipulate it with your chaos magic. I also put extra spells to hold basic spells for using merged magic. The physical design is an adaptation of the clothes of an archmage."

That armor was dark blue with while highlights and seemed like an stylized, plate version of a wizard's robe and hat. Using it, Twilight seemed mostly like a magic knight, except that the runes on her armor gave an unknowable impression, giving a certain sense of mystery and hidden danger to the design.

"It feels... Magical." Twilight spoke dramatically, earning a few giggles.

Then, it was Applejack's turn, and she stepped forward without hesitation.

"For Applejack, I remembered our mission on the castle, so instead of trying to do something with the Eyes of Truth, which would be even harder than managing chaos magic, I decided to create an armor with magic focused on enhancing the natural earth-shaping magical abilities of earth ponies. With this, you should have a lot more options in combat."

Applejack's armor was almost completely normal. It was a red full plate similar to heavy infantry style armor, except that the part of the legs was incredibly overdesigned, with an excess of runes and extra layers of varied shapes. With this, Applejack felt like a titan of earth, connected to the ground in a profound and deep way.

"Ah feel like... like Ah can move a mountain." Applejack spoke, while trying to get used to her new sense of the earth.

After that, Trixie was the next pony called.

"For Trixie, I decided that the best way to help her style would be a magic armor that suppresses magical vibrations, making it easier to perform spells undetected. But similar to Twilight's armor, I also put an extra, a special part that can hold a Sphere of Charge for you to use any time you want. The physical design is just as you can see."

Trixie's armor was the weirdest, since most of it consisted of plates that were connected to her usual cape and hat, and replicated the design of those parts to the point it was hard to tell they were there. However, some armor parts were put on the underside of her barrel as well as her legs, just for some extra protection. All in all, it seemed like a subtle, plainsclothes type armor, that could also attract attention depending on what Trixie did, just right for the showmare.

"Trixie's magnificence is increased!" She declared grandly.

Obviously, Sunset Shimmer was the one chosen next.

"Sunset's armor has the simplest concept. Overwhelming power. The magic on the armor helps in power channeling, which makes it easier to use stronger spells. It is also designed to interface with the magical circle inside your body and make it easier to use Trance Mode. The physical concept is the old "sun knights" who served Celestia in the distant past and specialized in sun magic."

Sunset's armor was mostly a normal plate, with some stylized leanings similar to Twilight's own armor. But the main theme of the armor was the sun, the color was mostly orange-red, and the detailing brought to mind flames. There were also images of the sun on certain points. All in all, Sunset seemed like a Magic Knight as well, except one which also had a sense of overwhelming power and high temperature.

"I think I know how those villains felt every time they talked about 'unlimited power'." Sunset spoke with barely restrained glee.

And after that, Rarity put on her own set of armor.

"As for me, the armor is made to be able to ressonate both with my own telekinesis as well as with my swords. The magic in it will make it easier to control, reduce the cost and even lessen the burden on my mind. The physical concept are the armored dresses made by Artificer Magic Star, since they are the perfect fusion of elegance and functionality."

Armored dress was a really good description for it. It was a nearly seamless fusion of plate and fabric. It was colored light blue and silver, and using it, Rarity practically oozed elegance. The feeling the unicorn gave while wearing the armor was that of a fairytale knight, a feeling of unreality due to the sheer beauty of the ensemble combined with the obvious power it projected.

The Knights were still checking themselves over when Rarity spoke something strange:

"So beautiful... It's hard to resign myself."

"Resign yourself? What are you talking about, Rarity?" Trixie asked curiously.

"I read the stories." She said in a determined voice "I know that none of the Artefacts used by Knights managed to last for too long, simply because even the sturdiest of them can't handle the level of magical combat the Knights go through... And I know I'm still getting better, and will make even greater works later... But it is still hard to accept." She put her head down.

The other Knights simply had no way of consoling her. So the original three decided to change the subject by mentioning that they should be going. This brought Rarity out of her funk.

And despite quite a lot of grumbling about doing the Knight equivalent of "chores", none of them delayed much. There were many restrictions against teleporting inside Deer lands, so they had to teleport outside of the Emerald Green Forest and wait for Deer guides to slowly bring them towards the center city, where the Challenge would take place.

Thankfully, despite being slow, the travelling time was nice.

"And then, Trixie's apprentice managed to achieve the level of being able to see the 'paths' through space, but it was only the most basic and primal understanding, not enough to actually step through them and save her partner." Trixie narrated, while using illusions to reproduce the scene in a stylized manner "But she wouldn't allow such a small barrier to overcome her, so Applejack performed an Overdrive!" She did an exaggerated burst of light "Ignoring her limits as she pulled a burst of magic from her soul! And she stepped through space and she bucked the changeling queen in a critical attack!"

A bunch of deer were watching Trixie's performance with bated breath, while Applejack was trying to ignore all the eyes turned towards her. Trixie was telling the story almost as if she had been there at the time but this was mostly because the new Knights gave detailed reports about what happened while the others were unconscious. Very detailed reports.

As the performance got into the climax (with Rainbow Dash puffing up her chest proudly), even the other Knights, who had seen variations of that performance more than once, were unable to keep from watching Trixie's show with their full attention. And once it was finally over, there was no one in earshot, whether pony or deer, that didn't start clapping.

It turned out that the deer in general were fairly good hosts, and they liked the Knights.

They were travelling via a convoy of enchanted platforms, which moved through the forest at a speed somewhat higher than a brisk walk. And the deer guides were clearly very experienced and dedicated to the confort of their passengers. They kept their guests entertained every step of the way, with songs, books, games, interesting conversations and food. The platforms also had cushions and all sorts of amenities to keep the Knights rested and happy.

And that was not all, the platforms even kept making stops in interesting places to strech their legs in walks, take baths in clear rivers and appreciate multicolored flower fields. And the forest itself was also just generally beautiful and peaceful, due to the constant efforts of the deer. This was pretty much a first class experience that any rich tourist would pay big bags of bits for.

And even that was not all, the Knights were also well-received in the various villages they passed on their route, being asked to demonstrate their magic and having the local deer show their traditions and give them some of the best of the local food specialties. And why would the deer act so positively towards their opponents in the challenge? This could be understood by the words of one of the deer who approached them in a village:

"My sister is one of the deer chosen to do the challenge. She's amazing and has trained a lot, so I hope you'll show her and the others how good the Knights are, because seeing the strength of the Knights was always one of their dreams."

And Applejack could see that he was completely honest about that. The same thing about the other deer who approached wanting autographs, or who liked having the Knights over and tried to make everything confortable for them. As princess Celestia had said, it wasn't the deer in general who were the problem, but the simple fact they seemed naive enough to completely believe that this whole system based on the challenges was something that celebrated the Knights, showing to all that they were strong enough to protect the land.

The Knights were really, truly popular and the deer seemed to not mind at all their repeated defeats in the previous challenges, seeing the simple duty to test the Knights as an honor that put the strongest deer, the deer that were part of the challenge, as an important part of the stories and legends. Those deer seemed to be remembered more for their losses against the Knights than for their succesful accomplishments, and that was not in a negative sense. The stories of their defeats were told in a cheerful manner, with an emphasis in how much they learned from the great protectors who were admired for both their power and character.

It was really quite flattering, all in all.

Of course, with all of this, the Knights felt the journey go by very quickly, and soon they found themselves standing right at the entrance to the deer capital, Deervania.

As they entered, the Knights got astonished by what a beautiful place it was, and by the fact that even with such a big city, the deer were still able to make a perfect fusion of the deep forest with their own way of life. The city was a bustling place with buildings and streets in several different levels of height, with countless bridges connecting their various levels, and several buildings that were like islands, separated from all but a few small paths, as well as connections which bridged all sorts of different places. Their buildings were not only connected to the trees, they were part of the trees, with some alterations that seemed purely magical in order to make the vegetation accomodate the deer without killing it.

And it wasn't as regular as a normal city either. The habitations of the deer were a festival of colors and shapes, some snaking around tree trunks, while others were hanging below tree branches, connected by organic cables that looked too thin to handle the strain. Flowers and fruits grew from all sorts of unexpected places, making a decoration that also looked fairly tasty.

But despite their travelling experiences, the Knights weren't there as tourists, and after reaching Deervania, they were quickly taken to the main plaza, where the announcement meeting for the Challenge would be held.

The eight Knights stood in a stage surrounded by a crowd of deer. In the other side of the stage, atop a raised platform, the chief of state of the deer, Marching Water, stood.

"Hello, my brothers and sisters!" He started a speech "This is an auspicious day, because after far too long without any Knights of the Realm existing in the world, eight of them have appeared within such a short period!"

There was a cheer, Marching really knew how to work up the crowd.

"Eight! Exactly eight! This can only be a sign that our generation is blessed, because we have the chance to become a part of the legends!" More cheers "Today, we have here Sunset Shimmer, Trixie Lulamoon, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity and Pinkie Pie. These young Knights who have already proved their strength and their will!"

Pinkie Pie was getting a little restless from having to remain in a single place, so she secretly made a clone who started to run around the city with chaotic shifting.

"And tomorrow, we shall be witness to their power! Tomorrow, we shall test them in the Challenge of the Knights! We have prepared nine great challenges featuring some of our own strongest heroes, and I guarantee that we shall see some wondrous feats! May the Challenge be Legendary!"

The cheers reached a fever pitch, and Applejack was looking ar Marching water with a face of someone who had bitten bitter lemons. She had never seen a pony, or deer, that was as fake as him. It was truly a new and unpleasant experience for the holder of the Eyes of Truth.

-

As Marching Water had said, the Challenge would actually only occur on the following day, and it was already getting pretty late, so the Knights were subsequently guided to a small but cozy inn, where they would have dinner and sleep their last night before the challenges.

"Here is the food." The owner of the inn brought the food to the table the Knights had in the dining room. Since this was an unusual time for dinner, the ponies could eat in relative peace (there were some deer, specially children, watching them from the edges of doorways, but they were well-behaved enough to give them space), but before they began eating, Sunset sighed:

"Twilight?" She didn't need more than that.

Twilight activated a spell and sent a pulse of magic over the plates of food. They started glowing piece by piece and Twilight spoke:

"A few small poisons, a cocktail that would take effect around eleven hours from now and make us sluggish and unfocused. Just the kind of thing that the Princess warned us about." She sent a new pulse of magic, this time colored blue "Done, now it's safe for eating."

"I wonder what is the justification for trying to sabotage us even before the competition starts." Rarity spoke.

"Ah think they consider all of that ta be just part of the test." Applejack shrugged "When she gave us the food, I could see something like playfullness from her."

"That seems to fit. Let's just eat, put the usual wards on the rooms to prevent other problems and go to sleep." Trixie gave her veredict.

-

The next day, after breakfast, the Knights took another spelled transport in order to get to the arena of the first Challenge (apparently, each Challenge would have its own arena).

The place where they went was an empty space the size of the main plaza of Canterlot. It was empty because all the trees in that place had been removed with magic (they would be replanted later). All around the place were several raised platforms serving as stages for the deer audience to be able to watch from a safe distance.

The Knights were directed to a waiting place on one side of the arena, while the deer who was going to be fighting went to the other side together with his team to make the final preparations for the challenge. The Knights still didn't know what exactly the challenge was going to be, except that it would be one of the "single pony" challenges, since the team challenge was always the final one.

But they didn't have to wait long before Marching Water came to inform the Knights and the audience about what exactly the challenge would be.

The deer flew above the arena in a magical flying platform "It is time, brothers and sisters!" He started winding up the crowd again "The first challenge of the Knights is about to begin... And what would be better to start it other than a kind of battle that symbolizes the Knights better than anything else?"

With that said, the earth near the Knights started shifting, and moving, and then being displaced as something started slowly coming out. At the start it was impossible to recognize the mass, but as more of it was revealed, and the earth covering it started to fall off, everyone present understood what it was.

It was a pony. A house-sized, magical (there were runes vibrating with power engraved in it) wooden pony construct. With a lance in a slot on its shoulder.

"Of course I am talking about jousting!" Marching Water explained, and the cheering reached an amazing volume "Which member of the Knights is going to accept this traditional challenge?"

Rarity decided to ask the three original Knights, since they were the teachers and the others usually deferred to them:

"So, who should WHAT THE-" Her question was interrupted by the sight of the three.

They were fighting. And it wasn't mere play fighting. They were fighting so intensely that the other five Knights immediately raised their aura defenses and left for a safer position. Sunset was throwing around high-level destructive magic, Trixie appeared to be trying to make the others blind, considering the extremely bright spatial distortions and illusions she was creating, and Twilight had split herself into many copies who were releasing spells with all sorts of weird effects.

But such an intense fighting couldn't last long. In fact, the fight in its entirety wasn't even one minute long when Sunset made the deciding spell:

"Double Magic Enhance: Earth Breaker Ballista!"

And she shot a ridiculously large magical ballista bolt that created a big explosion and made the Knights stumble from the shaking of the earth.

When the resulting cloud of dust went down, everypony and deer could see Twilight and Trixie fallen down and groaning inside the resulting crater, and Sunset shakily walking towards the others.

"So..." She started, her horn shining menacingly "Does anypony else want to compete with me for the position?"

The five shook their heads frantically.

"Good." She smiled and started walking towards the pony construct.

The other five Knights, who were the apprentices of the other three, still could barely believe what had just happened. They were united in one thought:

'Was that really necessary?!'

The Hour of the Deer

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"Haha! It looks like the Knights are very hot-blooded." Marching Water commented "But that is how Knights should be! Don't you all think so?!" He asked the crowd.

They answered with a cheer. The deer head of state maintained the expression of a sports commentator, but on the inside he was gloating.

'Hahaha... This was an unexpected gain. After this kind of fight, those three will find it really hard to overcome our challenges. It would be better if the others had also been involved, but this is already enough. I can't wait to see the look on Celestia's face when she has to give up the territory rights!'

Outward, he kept his commentary "The rules of this Challenge are simple, the goal is to drop your opponent into the ground. But the most important part are the restrictions. In order to keep the spirit of jousting, no magic that doesn't directly affect either the rides or the lances is allowed. Let's see a great battle!"

The crowd cheered again, louder this time, and Marching allowed himself a big smile, he had a good feeling about this challenge.

-

Sunset was about to teleport to the back of the pony construct when Applejack called her attention with "Hey, Sunset." The unicorn looked back, and Applejack used the eye language to give the Knight the information she had got from her Eyes of Truth.

(Applejack: Ride Trap. Arena Traps.)

Sunset Shimmer simply nodded and then teleported to her position, before infusing both the construct and the lance with her magic in preparation.

Marching Water went back to narrating "And it is time for our very own challenger to take the field! An expert in wood magic with experience in hunting dangerous creatures, she has trained a great deal during the past weeks in order to master the art of jousting... Say hello to... Flower Field!"

A doe with light brown colors and dark green eyes walked into the arena to the sound of cheers. At the same time, another construct started coming out of the ground and she hopped onto it. As expected, it was a deer, and also had its own spear. Different from the rider, this one had antlers, which were wickedly sharp. She also started infusing magic on her construct.

But different from Sunset's use of magic, Flower Field's actions started actually changing the riding construct.

Its sides started growing more and more, and the enchanted wood itself seemed to shift little by little. Soon, it became apparent what the doe was trying to do, as a head with antlers was formed and started pushing out of the initial construct. Soon, there were two more deer constructs by the sides of the first one, each with their own lances. And that wasn't the end, as those new constructs suffered similar morphings to create more constructs, and this kept going until Sunset was face to face with an astounding twenty four deer constructs.

"And it appears that Flower Field has decided to use her specialty of wood magic to gain a bit of a numerical advantage! While Knight Sunset Shimmer seems to prefer to use a more traditional approach. But I think there has been enough preparation time, don't you agree? Let's start! Three, two, one... Go!" He announced, and both sides of the combat started running at each other.

Sunset was grinning, it had been worth coming to do this mission just for the chance to participate in an actual joust. And as soon as she got close enough, Sunset decided to start things off with a probing attack, charging a force spell into the lance and slashing at the doe.

Flower had her mount rear back to avoid the slash, and then six different deer constructs were attacking the pony at the same time, forcing Sunset to charge the legs of her construct with magic and jump above all of them, preparing to land right behind the main opponent, with the doe on top of him.

However, she wouldn't let such a thing happen so easily. Four of the deer constructs formed a ladder by jumping on each others backs, with the fourth then jumping forward to intercept Sunset. They clashed in the air, and the unicorn had to activate an acceleration spell to allow her ride to right itself before falling to the ground. But soon, she realized the real problem, Flower Field had manipulated the deer construct that hit her, making it sprout branches that started trapping Sunset's own ride.

And three other constructs moved towards her, one starting to sprout branches as well, while the other two sent their lances at Sunset. Wanting none of that, the unicorn channeled a rejection spell through her construct, destroying all nearby branches with a huge amount of transmitted kinetic energy. At the same time, she also channeled a heat spell through her own lance and used it to fend off the enemy attacks, while making her ride move away from the danger zone.

And suddenly she was surrounded by ten deer constructs, which joined in a ring and started generating branches at an alarming speed, while also blocking above her with their lances, ready to stab. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Sunset decided that the air was less well-defended than the ground. So she charged as many shield spells as she could into her pony construct and jumped out, forcing her way through the wall of lances.

-

'Perfect.' Marching Water thought, activating the trap in the construct 'Let's see how she'll deal with that.'

-

Simulating a critical hit from a spear, one of the rear legs of Sunset's construct got blown off.

That wasn't actually a surprise. Applejack had told her about a trap, and Sunset's magic had detected the trap and determined its purpose, even though it was somewhat concealed. She had even already set a spell in order to deal with that automatically, so this wasn't a problem either. The spell simply reconstructed the leg without reforming the magical trap from before.

This kind of thing was normal. The kinds of deer heads of state that caused trouble generally had a few things in common, and the most important was that, while they were pretty good at politics and diplomacy, they really sucked at those kinds of small plans and schemes, which was the reason why the original Knights had been more annoyed than worried at the prospect of facing off against one of them.

Sunset Shimmer returned her focus to the fight when one of the enemy constructs drove a spear into the ground, activating a hidden trap that sent a directed explosion at her. She charged a shield spell into the spear and used it to cut the explosion in half, protecting herself.

-

"Looks like Sunset is having fun."

"Ah, what?!" Rainbow Dash was startled from the sudden appearance of the voice.

Turning back, she realized that Twilight had been the one to speak, and both her and Trixie had sneaked up behind Rainbow and the other Knights at some point.

"How are you already up after that?!" Rainbow Dash asked, pointing at the crater they had left.

"Pft." Twilight seemed to think that was funny "Princess Celestia used to train us by having an all-out spar against her after having an all-out spar among ourselves. This is easy in comparison."

"Trixie really hopes she is indeed enjoying this, considering she stole out chance of fighting an actual joust." The showmare grumbled "Ah, but is seems like she has decided to end things already."

-

After cutting apart several more explosions, and having to deal with barriers made of deer constructs that could regenerate from damage, Sunset decided that it was time to end things already. But perhaps Trixie had rubbed off on her too much, because the Knight decided to do so by using what was perhaps the flashiest tactic possible.

"Burning Ride!" She announced with a feral grin.

Then she did something extremely ill-advised, and channeled a fireball spell through her own wood construct. As expected, this resulted in it catching on fire. Sunset controlled the flames enough that her aura defenses could handle the heat, and made the pony construct advance upon the enemies.

With this, the tables had changed. The fire kept any small branches from being able to entangle Sunset's ride, and she was able to bull through every single one of the deer constructs with unstoppable momentum.

Her own construct wouldn't be able to last long, not with the flames consuming it as they were, but this was a competition of throwing the opponent to the ground, not one of keeping your ride in one piece. Sunset got closer and closer to the main enemy construct, going after Flower Field who was on top of it.

Obviously the doe realized what she was trying to do and started gaining distance, but it was too late, Sunset had already gotten close enough. She channeled a rejection spell into her lance and held onto it, releasing the spell and launching herself with the propulsion, as her pony construct finally collapsed.

Flower Field tried to stab at Sunset using her lance, but the unicorn held onto her own lance and used it to block the stab while still moving forward. And then she used her final spell of the match, charging the lance with attraction magic and doing a swipe that glued the doe to the side of her weapon.

Still riding the momentum of her launch, Sunset dragged Flower Field through the air and pointed the lance downwards, together with the opponent.

With a flat sound, the weapon pierced the ground, the doe fell upon it due to Sunset cancelling her previous spell and the unicorn kept herself above the ground by holding onto the other end of the lance.

There was a moment of silence as everydeer processed that scene, before there a roar and a multitude of applause from the crowd.

To Marching Water's credit, he recovered quickly "Amazing! Knight Sunset has used an incredibly skilled maneuver in order to reverse her disadvantageous position! That's the kind of amazing stuff we've come to see! With this, the first round of the Challenge of the Knights ends in a victory for them!"

Meanwhile, Sunset had dropped down to the ground and offered a hoof to help Flower Field back onto her hooves. She accepted gracefully.

"Aah... That startled me. Suddenly abandoning your mount and flying at me..." The doe complained good-naturedly.

"Your control of wood magic is good, but you were not decisive enough. You tried to slowly corner me when an overwhelming offense would be a lot more difficult to deal with." Sunset advised.

After a few more words, the two separated and went back to their respective places.

-

The next arena for the challenge was reasonably similar to the first one. It was also an empty space from which trees had been removed, but it was smaller than the first one, and a circle slightly bigger than a house had been drawn in the center of it, and would serve as the actual arena.

Marching Water was still in his flying platform to announce things "The first challenge was traditional for Knights, but the second is something that goes beyond simple tradition. It's one of the most ancient struggles in history, the contest of pure strength... I am talking about Ring Out!"

He waited for the cheers to die down before continuing "The rules are fairly simple, the winner is the one who manages to throw their opponent completely out of the circle, and no magic is allowed except for body enhancement and manipulation! Who will the Knights choose for this challenge?!"

The aforementioned Knights looked at each other for a moment while the cheers kept going strong. But that was really no discussion...

"Rainbow Dash." Seven voices chorused, and the pegasus took off towards the circle... Before being brought down by Sunset's telekinesis.

"The rules don't permit flying." She said.

The pegasus sadly made her way to the circle with a walk.

From the other side, came a buck with a yellow coat and red eyes.

"It seems that Knight Rainbow Dash has been chosen to defend their honor, while the challenger is Strong Earth, an expert in earth magic. He is famous for his use of a golem exoskeleton to protect his village against the attacks of yak raiders. And the judges have decided to allow him to treat his exoskeleton as his body for the purposes of this challenge, which means we are going to see some intense fighting!"

While the crowds cheered, Rainbow Dash looked at Marching Water and wondered how he was able to say that with a straight face, specially considering that "the judges" basically meant him.

Still, there was nothing to do except go and win anyway to make his cheating useless, and Rainbow entered the circle with that decision.

Just like before, Marching Water allowed both contestants a few seconds to prepare before the beginning of the match. Strong Earth immediately created his exoskeleton, which was just a tiny bit bigger than the wood constructs of the previous match, and was in fact so big that one of its hooves was touching outside the circle.

Of course, he wouldn't lose as long as even a small part of him remained inside the circle, different from most versions of this game, where just touching the outside was enough to lose.

Anyway, Rainbow Dash used that time to focus on the natural magical formations inside her body, so that she would be able to get the highest possible effect out of her body strengthening. She also remembered her special combat lessons with Sunset, in order to decide what should be the best course of action to take in that battle.

"It's time. Let's... Start!" Marching Water announced.

Strong Earth attacked with a punch as soon as the voice resounded, and the speed was only slightly slower than that of a normal punch, which made it alarming for a hoof the size of a door. Not being a fool, Rainbow Dash elected to not try to test her strength directly against the enemy immediately, instead parrying the blow while doing a slight movement to the side.

The impact jarred her, but it wasn't an unreasonable amount of strength, so Rainbow Dash felt confident in running up to the body of the enemy in an attempt to punch, but she had to change her target at the last moment when the right leg of the enemy came in with a swipe at her. Focusing energy into her right foreleg while bracing with the other legs, the Pegasus blocked the swipe with a huge blow that managed to stagger the enemy for a moment, but her follow-up attack to the body barely made the earth golem slid back at all, and then she had to dodge a stomp from the other leg.

-

"It does not look like Dash is having fun." Rarity pointed out, while looking at the pegasus fighting.

"That's normal. She can't fly at the moment, so Rainbow should be feeling a little restrained." Fluttershy explained.

"She's a big filly, she can deal with it." Sunset showed her confidence in her disciple.

"What do you think she will do?" Fluttershy asked Sunset.

"Well..." Sunset considered "She can either do something smart, or something ridiculous. I know what is more likely between those two."

The others nodded, agreeing with her.

-

As noted, Rainbow Dash was not having a good time. She wasn't exactly losing the battle, but she wasn't making any headway either. Even her toughest blows were endured, and the skills of the opponent were too high for him to allow her to easily use some kind of trick.

Still, there were good news. After a few rounds, Rainbow Dash had become used to the attacks of the enemy, to such a point that she could devote a bigger part of her concentration to thinking. And she started thinking about her teacher, specifically her Trance Mode.

'She said it was done by taking magic from the air and mixing with your own magic to create a fusion energy that's more potent. Maybe I can use that to strengthen myself more.'

Without any better ideas, Rainbow decided to do it. The first part was gathering ambient energy from the air, which she instinctively did via an esoteric application of pegasus magic. Having suceeded in the first step, she went on to try and fuse this new energy with her own magic. That took a few tries, but eventually she managed to weave the energies together in harmony. Then she focused on the magical formations on her body and sent the resulting energy mix towards them.

An aura similar to Sunset's when she used Trance Mode appeared on Rainbow Dash. She felt her strength increase several levels and tested it by blocking the next punch of the golem with a stiff defence. The result was that the enemy recoiled while she remained completely unmoved.

"Oh yeah!" She cheered "That is what I'm talking about! I'm going to call this EX-Mode!" She shouted, before running towards the enemy.

Obviously realizing that this was a bad sign, Strong Earth attempted an attack with both forehooves at once, using every once of power he could draw from his magic. But it was far from enough, as Rainbow Dash responded with a punch that blew both his hooves to the air, despite having a lot less windup time.

And Dash soon got close enough to hit the body, and she stopped for a single moment, thinking of her martial arts lessons. One important thing was reducing the time your hoof remained in contact with the enemy in order to increase the impact. Otherwise, it would end up being more of a push than a punch.

But a push was exactly what she was interested in at the moment, and she drove her right forehoof into the body of the golem, using enough power to actually make his back legs leave the ground.

And she followed up with a left punch, making the enemy go even higher in the air, before bracing herself and twisting her body for a massive double-hooved strike that sent the golem flying.

Rainbow Dash deactivated her ability and waited until Marching Water had confirmed her victory before flying back to the others... Only to be greeted by both Sunset and Twilight glaring at her.

"What is the matter?" She asked.

The two looked at each other and Twilight spoke:

"Sunset, she is your apprentice, you deal with her."

Then she turned and walked away.

Sunset walked up to Rainbow Dash's side and put a leg around her shoulder, in a somewhat threatening manner.

"I saw that what you did was similar to Trance Mode. Could you tell me how exactly you managed to draw the magic from the air?"

"I.. I just... Reached out and took it?" Dash said, already realizing that this was the wrong thing to say.

"I understand." Sunset said in a voice that was calm but with angry undertones "You just instinctively did something incredibly difficult that usually requires a complex internal magical formation. And then you mixed both energies, another incredibly difficult thing that usually requires a huge amount of meditation to discover the perfect ratios and combination method. And then you just channeled the energy mix through your natural magical formations, one more incredibly difficult thing that usually requires a lot of trial an error to understand the interactions of the new energy. Is that right?"

"Yes." The pegasus said, wanting things to be over already.

Sunset removed her leg and pulled Rainbow's face to look right into her eyes.

"After this, we'll have a spar. No holds barred."

Rainbow Dash nodded and sighed as Sunset turned away.

"Oh, by the way..." The unicorn spoke, still with her back turned "That was awesome." And walked away.

Rainbow Dash had an awkward smile on her face, as she moved to join the others.

Deer Racers

View Online

After all that, they once again got on the transport platforms and moved through the forest to get to the next challenge arena. And it didn't really take long before they got there, and they saw that this time the fighting arena was very different.

This was an area that didn't actually need to have trees removed, because it just naturally didn't have trees. The reason for that was the valley-like hole in the ground, which would be very dark and foreboding at night, but during the day it could be seen that the hole wasn't actually all that deep, and it lead to some sort of underground river that wasn't slow and calm, but wasn't rushing and furious either.

All in all, it was still foreboding, but not as much as it would be at night. And connecting the two sides was a thin yet firm-looking rope.

The content of the match seemed pretty easy to guess, and Pinkie Pie piped up:

"Ohh! A circus hanging rope act! Can I do it? Can I?" She begged the others, specially the three leaders.

Trixie spoke in an apologetic voice "Sorry, Pinkie. But you know that buck is going to add all sorts of restrictions to try and give his side an advantage, and it won't be a lot of fun for you."

"Ah. But... But hanging rope act..." Pinkie whined.

"Don't worry Pinkie, I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun with your own challenge." Twilight was conciliatory "Trixie, it seems you already have a good idea of who should take charge for this one." She looked at her partner.

"Indeed. Trixie's opinion is that your other apprentice is the one most suited for this challenge." She responded.

"Me?" Fluttershy asked, doubtful.

"Trixie is positive of that. There is no way for them to know about Soul Mirror, so it should be an unparalleled trump card for this match." Trixie was absolutely certain, as usual.

"You can do it, Fluttershy. Show them your skill!" Twilight encouraged her disciple.

"Okay." Fluttershy nodded "I'll do it then."

But before she went forward, Marching Water still had to actually announce the contents of the Challenge.

"As you all can see, what we have here is a hanging rope. And I think this makes it obvious what kind of challenge we are going to have in this arena. I am talking about the Balance Duel!" He waited a beat "Both contestants will walk on this rope, and the loser is the first one to lose balance and fall to the river below. The restrictions are simple, no harming your opponent or the rope. And no flying either, since it would defeat the purpose" Another beat "Who will the Knights choose to represent them in this match?!"

Seeing her cue, Fluttershy flew up to the side of the hole, right next to the rope, before landing and waiting.

"It appears that Knight Fluttershy has decided to step up to the plate." Marching Water announced "And on the side of the challengers, we have a face that should be very familiar to everydeer who follows the entertainment news, and quite a few ponies as well!" He waited for a moment as a deer started walking towards the other side of the rope "I am talking about Living Leaf, of course! The famous performer who earned great merit with her rope tricks, and also defeated several villains!"

As her name was mentioned, Living Leaf got close enough for every one of the Knights to be able to see the details of her appearance. She was a doe with light orange fur and leaf-green eyes, and had a particularly small build.

"Hey, Fluttershy, catch!" Pinkie shouted, and threw a rope at the pegasus.

Fluttershy caught the rope and immediately understood what it was for. She had to bind her own wings, just to make sure. She took a few moments to figure out the best way of doing it, and then wrapped up both wings twice before doing a good knot. She returned her attention to the hanging rope just as Marching Water started talking again.

"Now that both contestants are ready, I'm going to count to three. On three, both of them should get onto the ropes so we can start the match. okay? One, two, three!" He announced, and Fluttershy and Living Leaf jumped on the rope on their respective sides.

Fluttershy almost lost balance right from the get-go. She hadn't exactly trained for this, after all. But just the general physical and mental training of the Knights was enough for her to adapt quickly and be able to stand on the rope with her legs together.

-

As soon as Marching Water saw Fluttershy almost fall, he smiled internally.

'This is too easy. Maybe allowing Leaf to manipulate the rope with her magic won't even be necessary. I wonder what will be the expression on the faces of the rest of the Knights when she falls?'

He settled down to watch the show.

-

Knowing that it was better to leave nothing to chance, Fluttershy immediately started her ability.

"Soul Mirror!" She announced.

Just like all of Fluttershy's techniques, Soul Mirror was based on Empathy. And in fact, it was much more dependant on it than things like Animal Spirit, which only used the empathy as a sort of "path" for the energy of her soul. This technique was exactly as the name implied, a mirror. And what it reflected was the very soul of the opponent.

The pegasus smiled and relaxed, before starting to walk on the rope with sure steps, like she did that sort of thing everyday. And Living Leaf, looking at her, could feel an intense familiarity from Fluttershy's new movements. Which was obvious, considering that the Knight was imitating the doe herself. And she obviously wouldn't simply let Fluttershy get close, thinking (rightly) that this would be a bad thing for her.

So Living Leaf charged magic into the rope, and suddenly multiple strands of it separated to attack Fluttershy.

Soul Mirror was an ability with limitations that were easy to see. While Fluttershy could copy Living Leaf's skills, she couldn't copy her abilities, and as such couldn't simply disable the attack by using the rope magic of her own opponent, as much as she felt that would be a cool way to fight. However, the strengths of that ability were equally apparent.

Fluttershy reinforced her muscles with magic and jumped high in the air, while still moving forward. Then she landed and proceeded to run on top of the rope, in a magnificent display of the doe's skills. She dodged more and more of the rope strands that Living Leaf was sending her way, sometimes with small movements and sometimes with jumps.

That was a demonstration of the true might of Soul Mirror. She did indeed copy the skills of her opponent, but it was through an active process based on connecting with the enemy. And that same connection could be used to completely predict the actions of the target.

Fluttershy considered it pretty cool, though she still would have preferred being able to disable the opponents with their own attacks. But the Knight was getting closer and closer to the doe, who was finally pushed too far.

"HAAA!" She shouted, and released a huge amount of magic all at once.

Understanding that she needed something undodgeable, Living Leaf had used her trump card, forcefully decreasing the temperature of the rope to near zero levels and allowing pure heat transfer to affect the entire arena and the air around it, creating an area of cold that could not be escaped.

The rope was immediately coated in ice, with the exception of the part the doe was on. The sudden blast of cold spread through the air with the speed and sound of an explosion. The sides of the hole also started freezing over, even though they were pretty far from the rock. The air itself started congealing drops of ice, due to the humidity of the river below.

Even that wasn't enough.

Knowing she wouldn't be able to evade, Fluttershy focused every scrap of power she had available on her aura defences. She might not be as flashy as Sunset, but she was close to her in terms of pure power, so that was a significant amount of energy devoted to shielding. But most importantly, while Living Leaf had tried her best to create an attack that couldn't be dodged, she had made it too diffuse, and the amount of cold the Knight had to endure was lower than it could have been.

The doe still refused to give up, she desperately prepared herself for another spell, planning to attack as soon as she recovered enough from the previous power expenditure. However, it was far too late. Fluttershy stepped forward once, twice, three times, using every bit of borrowed skill together with her own magic to avoid slipping on the ice, and she managed to get into range.

Then she simply Stared at her opponent. Why mess with what worked?

Living Leaf managed the amazing feat of enduring half a second under Fluttershy's Stare before her body froze and she fell down from the rope.

While Marching Water was announcing her victory, Fluttershy looked with interest as a deer hidden in the river used water magic to bring Living Leaf back up from the river, floating in a bubble of water. But that ended up being a mistake.

Fluttershy had disabled Soul Mirror to be able to use her Stare, and the lack of the doe's skill helping her made the Knight lose balance while trying to see what was going on. And she also fell from the rope.

Not wanting to take a bath after winning the battle, Fluttershy forcefully opened her wings, snapping her ropes, and she flew next to the opponent, smiling at her, before going back to the other Knights.

They were smiling a little too widely, and she felt embarrassed.

"That was great!" Pinkie exclaimed "I'm not even disappointed I didn't get to do it anymore, you were just amazing out there! I specially liked the part where you fell down and had to fly." Pinkie said without even a hint of mockery, which only made things worse.

Fluttershy blushed and looked down, embarrassed.

-

The fourth challenge arena was also relatively straightforward. It was a race track.

It was shaped like an O, and was full of sharp inclines and declines, and the terrain in general was pretty bumpy. Along the lines of the track, there were small crystals with runes engraved on them. In the empty area in the middle there was a double-sided crystal board. On the track, there was a very clear starting/finishing line, since it had a large demarcation and an actual arch.

"Oh, a race? That would have been fun..." Rainbow Dash whined, since she had already had her turn.

Marching Water was explaining the rules "In this race, we have anti-teleportation wards set up, and it is also against the rules to fly."

Rainbow Dash's changed expression "Well... It would still have been fun."

"And that's because this is actually an obstacle race!" Marching Water announced "All over the track we have put magical traps with a variety of effects, and our racers will have to deal with them while they try to cross the track. To prevent cheating, we have also put special crystals on the sides of the track. The racers will wear necklaces with crystals that will have to pass through the middle of each pair of crystals, crossing the whole of the track, to be able to be recognized as victorious."

"Hmm..." Trixie made a considering noise "Trixie believes that this is the perfect stage for her to create a real show."

"Are ya sure?" Applejack asked "Ah could use my Eyes of Truth to see the traps." She mentioned.

"Indeed. But Trixie believes they have something more than just the traps in store for us, but it won't matter with the strategy Trixie has designed." She said proudly.

"If you're sure, then go for it." Sunset said simply.

As Trixie walked towards the starting line, Marching Water went back to announcing "It appears that the Knights have chosen to send Knight Trixie to participate in this challenge. And on the side of the challengers, we have... Ground Tree!"

With that, the opponent also started making her way towards the starting line. She was a doe with a red coat and blue eyes, and she had a powerful build, being easily twice Trixie's size.

"Ground Tree should be known by many of you for being an expert in protection magic. She once defended an entire village from a flood all by herself!"

Both contestants got to the starting line and were given their necklaces as the crystal board lit up to show their names and head shots. Then the two started to charge some magic to prepare before the race started.

The doe was the first to finish, creating a shield magic that was shaped like a dome, leaving her back exposed. Trixie looked at her and charged for two more seconds before announcing her magic:

"Perfect Illusion: Detect Zone!"

And a pulse of magic was released from her body, expanding through the entire racing track and nearby before seemingly disappearing. And Trixie still wasn't done, she kept charging and casting spells of unknown purpose until Marching Water announced that the race was about to start, and then she focused on the track.

The announcement board lit up again, showing a countdown, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

"Start!" The announcement came, and both contestants immediately started running.

Ground Tree was fast. It wasn't at a ridiculous level, but she would be a pretty good contestant in a normal race. Trixie was also no slouch, combining her physical conditioning as a Knight with the use of telekinesis to force herself to go faster. At the beginning, the doe took the advantage, but the unicorn was only a little bit behind.

Of course, this was an obstacle race, and they soon reached the first obstacles. Ground Tree hit a spell that created a fast growing tree that tried to trap her... but simply barreled through it, her dome shield protecting her. Trixie hit a trap that caused several spears to rise up from the ground and try to skewer her. She used a spell to slightly shift their movements, passing through the gap resulting, but the effort caused her to slow down a bit, allowing her opponent to pull ahead.

Next, Ground Tree stepped on a freezing trap, that also didn't manage to affect her movements in any way, while Trixie stepped on an explosion trap, which she defended against by creating something like a board made of magic, that she used to ride on the energy of the explosion and actually end up slightly ahead of her opponent.

That set the pace for the next three minutes. Ground Tree kept up her level of speed unchangingly, none of the traps managing to get through her strong shield (none of the traps attacked her directly from behind, for some reason), while Trixie sped up or slowed down based on what traps she had to deal with, her needing to react quickly and use different methods for each of them. All in all, both of them remained pretty even, with the doe staying ahead slightly more often.

But they were almost reaching the finish line, and it was there that the cruelest trap showed itself.

It was actually Ground Tree who triggered it, but the trap had actually been set up so that it would be triggered no matter what. This was the true method that Marching Water had thought to prevent the Knights from winning. What that trap released didn't actually seem that bad from just appearance. It seemed like a sort of red mist that spread through the air and then just settled there, blocking the path forward. However, all those who were watching could see that the red mist was actually a lot more dangerous than it seemed, from the simple fact that the ground and air near it seemed to blacken and shrivel, like death itself was conceptualized on it.

Ground Tree understood how terrifying that thing was, and she turned her shields from a dome to a complete sphere, actually slowing down a bit to be able to reinforce her defences to the maximum possible. Trixie started casting all sorts of protection spells to the point where she began to shine just from the overlay of so many spells. Then they both plunged fearlessly into the mist.

A second passed, and then another. And a form emerged from within the mist. It took only a moment for her to be recognized as Ground Tree. All the deer who were watching immediately expected Trixie to emerge from the mist right after her. But it didn't happen. One, two, three seconds passed without the Knight appearing. And the doe managed to cross the finish line.

The reaction of the crowd was subdued, they couldn't believe what they were seeing, but that was the only subdued reaction. The crystal board immediately lit up to announce Ground Tree's victory, fireworks were shot into the air and formed figures of deer, colored lights formed patterns on the ground that also represented deer, and a victory music that was often heard in deer sporting events started to play.

As for Marching Water, he definitely wasn't subdued either.

"Incredible! My brothers and sisters, we are seeing a historical event! This is the first time one of the challengers has managed to beat one of the Knights in the Challenge! This is a complete upheaval!" He announced in an exceedingly excited voice.

The crowd was still silent. They could not believe what they were seeing.

And it turned out they were right.

"Are you sure?" Trixie's voice resounded through the area.

All eyes were drawn to the origin of the voice, a few meters beyond where Ground Tree had stopped, an empty stretch of track. Suddenly, Trixie seemed to materialize from thin air.

"Because I thought the finish line was over here." She said in a mischievous voice.

And then, right next to the Knight, the finish line appeared exactly the same way Trixie had done. And at the same time, the finish line Ground Tree passed through disappeared like a soap bubble bursting, and the crystal board that had announced the doe as the victor returned to the same state it had been during the race. Finally, the triumphant music cut off with a shocking suddenness.

A few quicker-witted deer had recognized that the "finish line" Ground Tree passed through had been in the wrong location for being truly the finish line, and then Trixie walked across the end of the track with an impish swagger.

The following scene was almost like a repeat of what had happened previously. Fireworks were shot into the sky, multicolored lights formed patterns on the ground, triunphant music began to play, and the crystal board announced the winner. But the patterns in the sky and the ground were representing ponies, and Knights, and the Princesses. The triunphant music was a famous piece which was frequently used in pony sporting events, and the crystal board announced the name and face of Trixie.

It took two entire seconds for the crowd to react, but then the silence was replaced by a monumental cheer, as their emotions which had been played with during the whole race finally had a release. Trixie bowed to the crowd, and amplified her voice with magic to thank them for the appreciation. Then she walked towards Ground Tree, who was still trying to recover from the sudden change of situation.

Trixie reached up to put a hoof on the shoulder of the doe "Your ability is amazing. Thank you for helping make this a show to remember."

Ground Tree sighed and answered her "You're welcome. But how did you do it? You were behind me the whole time!"

"Ah, the answer for that is simple." Trixie grinned at her "That was just an illusion!"

-

"I don't get it. What even happened there?" Rainbow Dash asked the others.

"I... Think I know what she must have done, but it is difficult to be sure when I was watching from this far away." Sunset admitted "I'm sure Trixie's apprentices will be able to enlighten us, though."

Rarity nodded "Yes, it was a magnificent performance, as she would say." She smiled "She made great use of her armor."

Applejack decided to explain everything "Basically, she completely bypassed the plans of the deer. Her first spell was actually Illusion Switch, where she put a very realistic illusion on her place and made herself invisible and hard to detect." She paused for a moment "And then she simply got on top of Ground Tree like she was a mount, it was surreal to see. I think she used telekinesis to reduce her weight and let the illusion deal with the rest."

Rarity took over for her "And then she simply manipulated her illusion based on what was going on. Manipulating an illusion is easier than making one, and she has enough control that the magic she was using was hidden by her armor, to the point where Ground Tree couldn't detect it even though it was so close." She shook her head in bemusement "And then she let herself be carried through the whole thing, and protected by her own opponent, and then she activated pre-prepared illusions on the finish line, to make it seem like it was earlier than it should have been, and on the arena itself, so that it would change based on what Marching Water would expect to see if Ground Tree won."

Applejack finished things off as Rarity took a breath "And then she just sneaked to the finish line and disabled all her illusions."

There was a moment of silence as everypony else processed this.

"Wow." Fluttershy summed things up.

Twilight chuckled a little bit "That's our Trixie. For most magicians, knowing their tricks would make things less wonderful, but in her case, it only makes what she does even more amazing."

After that, they waited until Trixie finished speaking with the doe and walked back to them.

The Knights were now halfway done with the individual challenges.

Filk 1: Art of the Forge

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Plate by plate, riveting together...

Twilight's vest, kneading out the pattern rune by rune.

Making sure the iron folds nicely.

Setting up the magic to attune.

Always gotta keep in mind my charge.

Making sure the channel's nice and large.

I'm forging Twilight's plate...


Drop by drop, filling in the molds.

Steel neckline, don't you know a weld in time saves nine?

Make so like earth is her squire.

Even though a lot it may require.

I'll work in all of these details.

For it will appear in tales.

It's Applejack's new plate...


Forging's complex, for Pinkie Pie something chaos.

For Fluttershy these effects.

Blend power and style.

[To Opalescence] Do you think it checks?


Something light, perhaps quite speedy...

Hook and ring, just perfect for her wing!

Making sure it guards lungs and heart.

Don't forget the gorget for the neck.

Even though it doesn't cover much.

Rainbow won't get in a clutch.

I'm forging Rainbow's plate.


Mold by mold, rune by rune.

Harmonizing, is this tune.

Plate by plate, granting strength.

Drop by drop, the right length.

And that's the art of the forge!

Deer Piece

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Trixie walked over to the rest of the Knights with an air of the cat the ate the canary (though Fluttershy would protest the figure of speech). Sunset and Twilight started clapping to her, and the other five soon joined them. Trixie bowed playfully.

"Thank you. Thank you. You all are too kind."

"Ya deserve it." Applejack spoke with a tone of finality "But there was one thing Ah don't understand."

"Speak, and Trixie shall enlighten you as far as she is able." The showmare said.

"How did ya know that ya would be able ta protect yerself using the powers of the enemy?" The earth pony asked.

"Oh, Trixie didn't know about that." The unicorn said simply, then continued upon seeing Applejack's surprised expression "Trixie's original plan was quite different, but once she saw how the abilities of that doe worked, Trixie decided to change things up." She touched her left shoulder with a hoof "After all, the original plan required much more physical effort, and Trixie's body is still hurting a little, so she decided that this was best."

"Haha." Rainbow Dash laughed "So that means this was pretty much a spur of the moment thing?"

"More or less." Trixie admitted "Trixie had vague ideas for things to do based on all sorts of situations, so she only had to bring a few of them together on a plan."

Everypony took in this new insight about how Trixie's mind worked. And then they had to get on the transport platforms again in order to go to the next arena.

-

After looking at the arena for the next challenge, everypony had a single thought:

'That is really small.'

And indeed it was. While most of the previous arenas could comfortably house a hundred ponies (though they would have to be able to fly in the case of Fluttershy's arena over the river), the present arena would reach its limit around thirty ponies in. It was again a circle drawn on the ground, except that there was no need to remove trees to make space for it, because it was small enough that it could be put inside one of the natural clearings of the forest.

Once again, Marching Water started announcing the challenge.

"I'm sure everyone present wants to know what this next challenge is going to be about, considering our arena doesn't give a lot of clues, right?" He started making suspense "Well, all those who are here know what weapons are, right? They are the tools created to allow their wielders to fight better, fight things they weren't able to fight before. Every civilization has their own weapons and variations on weapons. But if there is one weapon that can be considered the noblest of them all..." He paused for a moment "It is the sword."

The crowd started to roar, already understanding what he was getting at. He continued to speak "As such, it is with great pleasure that I announce the nature of this challenge... It shall be a duel of swords! A true battle of pure sword skill! A battle to honor the endless and limitless path of the sword!" Even he was starting to get affected by the atmosphere.

The other Knights looked at Rarity and saw that she had a disturbingly broad and out of character smile on her face. The kind of smile that would have been more at home on Pinkie Pie's face. Her eyes were literally shining with eagerness.

"Trixie guesses we don't need to wonder who to send for this challenge, regardless of whatever restrictions it may have." She nodded to her apprentice "Go show them what you're made off, Rarity."

Rarity hefted her Wind Ruler Sword in her telekinetic grip and walked to the inside of the circle, still keeping her gleeful expression on her face.

"Of course, this challenge also has its own special rules." Marching Water explained "But in this case, they are easy to understand. Neither combatant is allowed to use any sort of magic or abilities with the exception of what's necessary to manipulate their weapons. This shall be the purest contest of sword-fighting ability in the world." Then he looked to the circle "And it seems like Knight Rarity has been chosen to represent their side in this challenge. So, in this case, I should introduce the challenger!"

From the side of the deer, a buck came walking out. He had a green coat and golden eyes, but perhaps the most interesting detail was that he was actually carrying eight swords at once, in sheathes all over his body.

"The combatant we have here is Wing Cooler. He is widely considering to be the best sword user among all of the deer, who has gone on journeys in order to improve his abilities and ended up achieving numerous feats, to the point where the tales of his adventures became popular even outside of deer lands. He is the founder of the eight sword style, and many members of his dojo have come here to witness a fight between him and one of the Knights."

A few of the deer on the side the buck had come from piped up with cheers at being mentioned. Then both Rarity and Wing Cooler were facing each other, the unicorn with her sword held in a standard attack position, the buck having drawn his eight swords, who were lazily spinning around him in simple orbits, but together, they formed something that experts would recognize as a fairly amazing defense, with enough versatility to deal with all sorts of attacks.

"Now that both contestants are ready." Marching Water announced "It's time to... Start!"

Rarity decided to attack aggressively from the beginning, and sent her sword in a slash. Wing Cooler's swords were fairly small compared to hers (as in, they were normal sized), but he didn't let that scare him, being used to fighting. He sent three of his swords in a small formation and parried Rarity's sword to the left while he himself took a step to the right. And he didn't stop there, also sending two of his swords to stab at Rarity, one at eye height and the other at leg height.

The Knight obviously wouldn't let herself be defeated so easily. She brought her own sword back and used it as a shield, the handle pointed upwards. The two attacking swords tried to sneak around the defence but were beaten around by quick movements of the Wind Ruler Sword. However, that had only been a distraction, and from Rarity's right, the previous three sword defensive formation had sneaked around the long way to try and attack Rarity's back. At the same time, from Rarity's left, two other swords came slashing in out of rhythm arcs, denying the possibility of being blocked with a single strike.

Rarity's response to that was unorthodox. She struck the earth with the flat of her sword, creating a dust cloud that obscured the sight of her position. Wing Cooler immediately made his swords inside the cloud slash in a complex attack pattern, prepared to immediately strike at Rarity once he discovered her position due to one of his swords being blocked. However, it was not to be. Rarity was using the Wind Ruler Sword, and despite the fact she couldn't manipulate the wind with it due to the restrictions of the challenge, simply wielding the sword gave her a magical awareness of all wind in her surroundings, making it extremely easy to simply dodge every single sword. She charged out of the dust cloud together with her sword, prepared to attack the opponent who only had a single sword left to protect himself.

But Wing Cooler could also use unorthodox strategies. The jumped in the air and balanced himself in the handle of this final sword, like he was an acrobat, before flying up, trying to gain enough time for his swords to come back. But Rarity wouldn't make this easy for him. She jumped on the flat of her own sword and rode it like it was a board, getting closer to the opponent, before jumping off from the sword and allowing it to slash. Wing Cooler's response to that was also jumping off his sword, before using the handle to push himself downwards, increasing his falling speed and avoiding the attack.

That was when his swords arrived. He used four of them to press against the underside of his body and reduce his speed, so the impact with the ground was merely jarring. The other three were sent to attack the falling Rarity together with the sword he had been using to fly. They attacked four different points of her body, but the attack was simple and without any special movements to make it harder to dodge or block, since Wing Cooler was already reaching his limit with the level of precision that had been necessary for the previous feats. Because of that, Rarity was able to easily fend all of them off with a single slash, before moving her blade to slow down her own fall, showing the grace of her sword style.

That was when Wing Cooler decided to change tactics. He shifted to pure offense, by bringing all his swords back to float in front of him before making them slash at several different heights, angles and timings, all the while he moved just behind the blades in order to be able to provide the maximum possible amount of force to his attacks. And then the battle got several times more intense and hard to understand. Rarity choose to face her opponent using the exact same strategy as him, and that resulted in a chaotic mess of slashes, stabs, parries and quick movements as both sword wielders tried every single trick they could in order to hit their opponents. The buck attacked several different places all at once, while Rarity used the size of her sword and the power advantage of not needing to split her focus in order to retaliate with single slashes. Both of them started getting nicks and scratches from near misses, but that only seemed to inspire them to attack even more ferociously.

The crowd and even Marching Water himself had all fallen completely silent at the sheer degree of skill that was being shown in that fight, to the point that, when Rarity opened the range again with a helm-splitting slash and a jump backwards, several of them felt like they had been holding their breaths for a while.

And the reason why Rarity had done that, was because she understood that with the current tactics, this would become a simple battle of attrition, which wouldn't be very fun for those watching. Instead, she decided to reveal her trump card. It was something she could have used from the beginning, but Rarity was Trixie's apprentice, so of course she had to make things as dramatic as possible. And with a moment of concentration, she focused on her new sword, which would make its first public appearance at that very moment. And straight from within Pinkie Pie's mane, a sword came flying.

It was similar to Rarity's Wind Ruler Sword, with the same huge size and general shape, except that the runes on it were different, and the magic formations as well, and the sword seemed somehow more solid, like it had been made to resist anything.

"The earth upon where we all trod is the strongest support in the world! May this power be channeled by me, and the ground turned into my domain! This is the Earth Ruler Sword!" She announced.

Rarity slowly grinned. Of course she couldn't use the earth manipulation abilities of that sword in a contest of pure sword skill, but she had already tested the sword, and there was something special she could do now that she was wielding it. The same way the Wind Ruler Sword gave her a magical awareness of the air around her, the earth version did the same regarding the earth.

And so, Rarity actually brought the handle of the sword to her mouth before taking a step forwards.

"Clang!" Came the tremendous sound of clashing blades, because Rarity had suddenly moved 10 meters in an instant and Wing Cooler had barely been able to resist the attack from the sword held on the teeth of the unicorn.

And then she stepped again, going back to her previous position while slashing at her opponent with such strength that any normal blades would have been broken by the attack.

-

"Ah, she's Flash Stepping." Sunset recognized "This is usually an earth pony technique, since it relies on harmony with the ground, and even if an unicorn can have it, teleportation is just so much more convenient."

"How fast is she even going, anyway?" Applejack asked doubtfully.

"Not actually all that fast." Rainbow Dash said with the air of a conosseir "The impressive part is that she manages to go from zero to maximum speed and then back to zero in an instant and with extreme precision."

Twilight considered "First pegasus flight, and now earth pony techniques... Is she trying to become a budget alicorn or something?"

"That... Seems possible." Applejack admitted.

"It's the sort of thing she would do." Trixie agreed.

-

In the arena, the situation of the fight had completely changed. It wasn't enough that Rarity was now moving fast enough and doing sharp enough movements that it was difficult for the buck to even try to attack her, but Rarity still had all her telekinesis available since she was moving around with pure muscle power. So at the same time as Rarity was doing tremendously powerful straight line attacks at her opponent, her Wind Ruler Sword was also attacking with just as much ferocity and power as before. Wing Cooler was giving more and more ground, and he magical hold on his blades was getting less and less certain.

And instead of simply exhausting him, Rarity eventually decided to finish things off in style.

She got on her rear hooves and grabbed each sword in one of her forehooves. She prepared her attack while her opponent was trying to get his breath back now that her fierce attacks had temporarily stopped. She made both swords vibrate with her telekinesis and focused on her rear legs so that her step would be just as strong and precise even without using all four legs. She extended her forelegs to the sides, with the blades being horizontal.

"Two Sword Style: Horizon Cut!" She announced, and an instant later, the battle was over.

A terrifying sound of tearing metal swept through the area, and Wing Cooler went flying out of the circle, every one of his swords broken in pieces after he tried to defend from Rarity's latest attack. His body had a big cut through the middle. It wasn't something life-threatening, but the sheer shock of the attack had rendered him unconscious.

After her victory had been announced, Rarity walked out of the circle and went back to the other Knights.

"So... How much fun did you have?" Rainbow Dash asked eagerly.

"A lot of fun." Rarity answered with a smile "But perhaps it was too much. I don't think my body was quite ready for doing so many flash steps in sequence." She said, looking down slightly.

"Just rest for a bit, then." Sunset said "There's still time before the team challenge."

-

The next arena stage was also a place where the deer didn't need to remove trees. That was because the arena was set in a natural quarry. Marching Water quickly started explaining the challenge.

"When this place, full of high quality rock, was found by Slash Flower nearly two hundred years ago, she felt like she had found a buried treasure. And in honor of that, the challenge this time is Treasure Hunting!" He announced, then waited for the crowd to settle down a bit "But with a twist. In this quarry, we have spread thirty very special rocks with magical sigils, fifteen of them have the symbol of a pony, while the other fifteen have the symbol of a deer. These sigils will detect when the rocks are broken, and put marks on the sky to keep track of how many are destroyed. The first contestant to destroy all fifteen of his own marked rocks will win the challenge. It is forbidden to interfere with your opponent or their rocks in this challenge."

Having heard that, Sunset thought for a moment.

"Both Applejack and Pinkie Pie would do well in this." She concluded.

"Let Pinkie do it. Treasure hunting is a game, so she should have with it." Applejack graciously offered.

"Are you sure?" She saw the other nod "Thank you, Applejack!" Pinkie warped to her partner and gave her a back breaking hug (good thing the Knights were tougher than most ponies), before hopping to the mark on the ground which represented the starting point.

"It seems that Knight Pinkie Pie was chosen to represent their side in this challenge. And on the challenger side we have Glamour Sun!" Marching Water announced, and then kept speaking as the doe walked towards the starting point "She is an explorer of the underground caves that exist underneath our forest, and is famous due to her great power over earth magic."

Glamour Sun was a short and stout doe, with a yellow coat and orange eyes. She smiled at Pinkie when she got there, and then the two started charging their magic.

Pinkie Pie had discovered that her Emotion Charge worked better with a focus on a single emotion, but different from the fight against Chrysalis, she wasn't exactly angry at the moment, and it was difficult to force that emotion. However, some work allowed her to use Emotion Charge with other emotions without a problem, and in that case, she was using Joy.

Similar to the fight against Chrysalis, a colored aura of power appeared around Pinkie, but now that she was using joy instead of anger to power herself up, the color of the aura was pink instead of red. Meanwhile, Glamour Sun also powered herself up, except that she was more subtle, and the greatest indication of what she was doing was the pulse of magic that crossed the ground in the whole area of the challenge.

-

Marching Water was gloating inwardly again 'I don't know what that Knight things she will be able to do, but there is no way she will win. Glamour Sun can detect all her rocks immediately with her magic, and even if she manages to find the rocks fast enough, one of the pony rocks has a little surprise...'

Outwardly, he simply announced the start of the challenge "Three, two, one... Go!"

-

Glamour Sun immediately took off towards the closest of her own rocks, while Pinkie waited for a moment as she grabbed her mane with a hoof and pulled out a few strands of hair from it. She then threw the hair forward and activated her magic.

"Clone Technique, Go!" She released her power, and the strands of hair she had thrown turned into twelve copies of herself.

"Pinkie Squad, let's go!" All of them shouted, and then they blurred away, going in different directions.

-

"Can someone please tell me that Pinkie didn't easily duplicate the armor that I spent a lot of time into?" Rarity asked, fidgeting slightly.

"Don't worry, Rarity." Twilight reassured her "She only copied the form of the armor and used her chaotic powers to extend the effects to the copies."

"Ah." Rarity blinked "That actually makes me feel a lot better, thank you Twilight."

"Anytime."

-

But Glamour Sun still ended up being the first to break one of her rocks, which sent a pulse of energy that made a deer symbol (the exact same symbol it had on the rock) appear on the sky above the quarry. And then she moved a little further and broke another rock, adding another symbol to the sky scoreboard.

Then one of the Pinkie clones found a rock with the pony symbol in a hard to see hole, and hit it with a chaos-infusing punch that made it shatter, sensing a pulse of magic that made the pony symbol appear in the air near the deer symbols.

And then the challenge shifted into high gear. Glamour Sun could make a beeline for each rock, and she was pretty fast, but the Pinkie's were many and their ability to shift made their mobility extremely great. It was to the point that Pinkie would probably win easily were it not for the fact that the pony rocks were all in fairly well-hidden locations, half-buried inside the earth, behind bigger rocks and even sometimes in hidden holes. There was also the fact that they were all different shapes and sizes, to the point where it wasn't easy to search for them. Despite the doe's early lead, Pinkie quickly caught up, and she actually surpassed Glamour Sun when she hit her fourteenth rock.

She had already found the last rock by the time Glamour Sun was destroying her fourteenth rock. It was the biggest rock yet, more of a boulder than anything else. Pinkie hit it the same way she had hit the others... and failed to even make a dent.

"Huh." Was the only reaction of the Pinkie clone. She briefly wondered how much effort the deer had taken to reinforce the rock to that point, because it was roughly fifteen times as resilient as a diamond. She would need something special to be able to destroy it quickly enough, considering that Glamour Sun was running rather fast towards her own final rock.

"Everypinkie to me!" She shouted. And all other Pinkies appeared beside her.

Then they made a formation around the boulder and started charging magic, before moving forward and hitting the target with continuous attacks.

"ATATATATATATATATA!" They all shouted as they punched, creating a weird sound effect. The boulder started showing a few cracks.

Then they turned back and bucked the rock all at the same time, increasing the cracks and making the boulder leave the ground.

"Pinkie...!" They shouted while doing it.

Before the boulder started falling, they moved below it and kicked it even further upwards.

"Pie...!" Their voices joined and became even louder than before.

And then suddenly the group of Pinkie clones and the real Pinkie Pie were standing in the air above the rock, standing in a way that made it look like they had reverse gravity. Then all the Pinkie clones joined their forehooves and gave a boost to the original Pinkie, in a jump down directly at the boulder.

"COMBO!" She shouted, and hit the boulder with such strength that it completely turned into powder, instead of merely breaking.

Glamour Sun, who had already raised her hoof to destroy her last rock, looked over with a sigh.

Pinkie and the Pinkie clones briefly celebrated by themselves as she was declared the winner, before looking at the doe.

They had an idea.

The Embodiment of Scarlet Deer

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The Pinkie squad shifted to the side of Glamour Sun, and then Pinkie spoke with her:

"Break it, let's have some fun!" She encouraged.

Not understanding what Pinkie wanted, but willing to see it, the doe did as asked.

The last deer symbol appeared in the air, and Pinkie Pie looked at it before glancing back at Glamour Sun and grabbing her hoof.

"Let's go up there!" She said, indicating the symbols in the air with her other hoof.

Then she jumped, carrying the doe along.

Glamour Sun got startled by the suddenness of the Knight's actions, and tried to hang on for dear life as they went up. She didn't need to bother, as Pinkie Pie had a very secure grip on her, but it made her feel better.

Pinkie's jump wasn't nearly enough to reach the symbols in the sky, but one of the Pinkie clones also jumped up and gave a boost to her when she got to the apex of her jump. And when Pinkie reached the apex of this new jump, another Pinkie clone appeared, having needed to receive a boost herself to reach that height, and repeated the process to send the Knight even higher up.

And with this slightly ridiculous manner of movement, Pinkie Pie and Glamour Sun got higher and higher, with the doe eventually just relaxing and wondering what exactly the Knight was planning.

The two eventually got so high up that they could even touch the symbols in the air. And then Pinkie let her go.

She had an instant of panic before somehow landing on the air. Pinkie attracted her attention by waving a hoof and then "popped" one of the pony symbols. Glamour Sun felt a pulse of magic come out of it and head back towards the ground, and then she had a thought she just had to confirm.

"Did... Did that just made the rock come back?" She asked.

Pinkie nodded with an excited smile "Let's play!" She said, and waited.

Glamour Sun knew what she wanted, so she walked over to one of the deer symbols (knowing that Pinkie's magic wouldn't let her fall) and popped it, resulting in the same pulse of magic as before.

She giggled and shared a smile with Pinkie, and then the two started popping the rest of the symbols.

It was pure fun. With nothing on the line, both of them simply popped the symbols in the air for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Sometimes simply sticking a hoof into them, sometimes using kicks or other martial arts moves, sometimes walking into them with extra drama. And somehow there always seemed to be more symbols, so they kept popping them way beyond the original thirty.

But eventually, they got tired of it, and Pinkie jumped down with Glamour Sun, sticking one of her rear hooves outward once they were close to the ground and somehow slowing down the fall, before the two jumped back to the ground. They smiled and waved at each other, having become friends, and then they went back to their respective places.

-0-

After the Knights once more got on the transport platforms and were moved to the next challenge arena. And it was a return to the previous style of arenas, a large space from which trees had been removed. But it had a few special features of its own.

On the side near the Knights, there were two entrances to the underground on opposite sides of the field, to the right and to the left of where the Knights started. One of those entrances had a sign bearing the symbol of a pony while the other had a sign with the symbol of a deer. On the far side there were three of those entrances, two of them mirroring the other side by being near the edges and the last one being near the center, almost directly to the front of the Knights.

Marching Water didn't waste any time before explaining the newest challenge "Hello! We are here with the penultimate individual challenge of this Challenge of the Knights. And we have another very traditional game! You might notice that the challenge arena is underground this time, and the reason for that is because we are doing a labyrinth this time!"

This time there was a mix of cheers and mumbles "I know what you are thinking! You think that not being able to see what is going on inside the labyrinth will make things boring. But allow me to allay your fears. We have already thought of that!" He waited for a moment "Both contestants are going to wear special necklaces again, except this time the necklaces will reveal to us their position underneath the ground!" Now the cheering was undivided.

Applejack looked at the other Knights "I think this is a challenge appropriate to my skills."

"I agree." Twilight said "I'll have the last one, whatever it ends up being." Then she tilted her head thoughtfully "I wonder what kind of cheating the deer will do this time..."

"Let me check." Pinkie said.

-0-

Marching Water was gloating inside again 'They may have surpassed every single challenge so far, but this time they have no chance. Their entrance to the labyrinth has no path to any of the exits, and even if they make a path, every single trap inside is programmed to become much more intense when activated by a pony, and our own contestant can use her powers to find the quickest path out and follow it with great speed. This challenge is in the bag.'

-0-

"Ah, the usual. No path to the end, specialized traps, the opponent was chosen precisely to have an advantage..." Pinkie informed the others, and then turned back to look at them.

Applejack had gone cross-eyed "Pinkie. Would ya please warn me ta stop looking at ya the next time ya do something like this? And what have ya even done, anyway? Ah didn't catch it."

"I... I also don't know..." Pinkie Pie admitted sheepishly "Twilight, what did I do?"

Twilight Sparkle had tilted her head so much it was nearly horizontal "I'm... also not sure... I think you channeled some kind of concept, but I couldn't tell what it was." She blinked "It doesn't seem like the kind of thing you can do all the time."

“No, it doesn’t feel like I can do it very often.” Pinkie confirmed.

“But going back ta the Challenge...” Applejack decided to hurry things along, while she blinked repeatedly to try and recover from the previous shock to her Eyes “Ah think this is the kind of thing mah abilities will be able ta deal with relatively easily.”

“Then go forth and show then your power!” Trixie dramatically encouraged.

Applejack nodded and started moving towards the pony entrance of the labyrinth.

Marching Water noticed it, and he started announcing “And for the penultimate individual challenge, it seems like the Knights have chosen Knight Applejack to be their representative!” He turned his head to the other side, the deer entrance “While the challenger side is composed of a doe that I’m sure many of you who are here today will recognize! She is the leader of the Aurora team which specializes in playing all sorts of extreme sports and performing amazing feats of skill and courage! I am talking about Wind Shade!”

The cheers were particularly loud this time, as a doe with a red coat and golden eyes started walking up to the deer entrance to the labyrinth. She seemed to be completely used to getting attention, and kept pausing momentarily to wave or blow kisses to the crowd. Applejack felt like both Trixie and Rainbow Dash would get along well with that doe.

Eventually, both contestants reached a line marked on their respective entrances to the underground labyrinth. Auxiliary deer quickly went up to them and provided the necklaces, which started to glow faintly when they were put on, Applejack’s in orange and Wind Shade’s in red. Then, they looked at Marching Water, waiting for the announcement of the start of the competition.

He didn’t leave them waiting for long “It’s time, everyone! Time to begin the seventh part of our Challenge of the Knights! Let us see what they are going to show us of their power and skill! It is time to start! Three, two, one... Go!” He shouted, and both Applejack and Wind Shade quickly ran towards the underground.

Knowing that every second counted, Applejack immediately used her Eyes of Truth to see through the entire labyrinth. She took a moment to take in every passage, to take note of every trap, both what kind it was and its location, to understand the position of every wall and every doorway. Most of the time Applejack didn’t show much of what she had learned from Trixie, but her simple sense of paying attention to every detail and planning considerably before making a move definitely showed the influence of her teacher.

After taking in every detail, Applejack started to move while planning the best route possible to get through the labyrinth. Wind Shade could use her wind powers to recognize the best path, and her wind-boosted movement would definitely be fast, so the Knight knew that she should try to get as many advantages as she could get. The three original Knights could play around quite a bit on these challenges, but their newest companions simply didn’t yet have the detailed portfolio of trainings and abilities that allowed them to easily tackle most situations.

Applejack’s route was a weird path designed to go towards the most convenient exit while taking the straightest path she could manage except in situation where trying to do so would actually delay her. It avoided as many traps as it could without forcing Applejack to take on weird detours. It broke through three walls, because any other walls that could be broken through to create a straighter path for Applejack would take longer to break than the time she would gain by going through them. And most of the curves it had were quick redirections that didn’t take her far from the straight path.

All of this planning happened while Applejack was still moving through the first few meters of the path and was just about to reach the first triple intersection. She took a right path, as planned, and then moved left and immediately did a Space Step to completely skip a trap whose activation range almost reached the end of the corridor. That avoided, Applejack ran forwards to the next intersection, and ignoring both the right and left paths, she charged magic through her armor gave a series of punches to the wall in front, breaking it down and opening up a path where she could actually reach one of the exits.

While this was going on, Wind Shade was moving quite quickly through the labyrinth, following her wind sense to go through the quickest route to reach the east exit of the labyrinth. She was moving so fast that the first trap she passed through simply wasn’t able to hit her with its flame payload. Wind Shade ran through the corridors, at one point even running on the walls, due to being unwilling to slow down.

And thus their competition went. The crowd outside watched the ground since the light from the necklaces was showing their positions through the ground (it wasn’t bright enough to get through the ground, but special spells made that irrelevant). Wind Shade had a faster movement speed, but her route had to go through several curves and detours, while Applejack kept going mostly straight.

The Knight kept looking at her opponent through the walls just to be sure she had an advantage. Even with her superior route, Applejack still had to use Space Step several times to compensate for the great speed her opponent was showing, even though doing it repeatedly was still hard on the Knight. She even took advantage of an explosive trap by creating a very resilient earth board to absorb the shockwave and use it to increase her speed.

Applejack knocked out another wall, and created an armor of earth to endure a trap consisting of numerous wind blades. Then she got an idea and started manipulating the earth as she moved, forcefully creating a wave of earth that carried her through the corridors of the labyrinth. She increased the speed of it more and more, and rammed through every single trap on her way, before also ramming through the third wall, without needing to stop to break it down. Her speed eventually reached more than she had been able to do with her previous running and space stepping.

However, seeing as she was getting close to the end, Wind Shade revealed a new burst of speed, and even with her new mobility, Applejack predicted she wouldn’t be able to win.

So, Applejack recalculated. Now she had a way to get through walls without losing any time, so the best possible route was a straight line. Forcing her earth-shaping to the limit, she completely ignored the whole point of a labyrinth as she proceeded to take the shortest path. And she was getting closer and closer to making up for the difference.

For the final part, she did a much longer Space Step, getting the leading position and finishing the path in a single motion.

A second later, Wind Shade also came out of the labyrinth, to be greeted with the sight of the crowd cheering loudly again, and Applejack already outside. The doe simply smiled at the Knight, without the slightest trace of shame or sadness for her loss. Applejack walked over and shook her hoof firmly before going back to the other Knights.

“Have ta thank ya, Rarity.” She said, upon reaching them “This here armor really helped a lot. Being able ta use earth-shaping so easily is definitely something amazing.”

Rarity grinned and passed a hoof through her hair “Of course, darling. Every one of my armors is amazing. It’s just that there hasn’t been much of a need for their functions so far, so the true potential of most of them is still waiting to be unleashed.

“I can agree with that. I can’t wait for us to get a real mission, where I can put this thing through its paces.” Sunset said eagerly.

-0-

The arena for the last individual challenge was the weirdest one yet. It was actually an aerial arena, suspended over an area of trees. And it actually didn’t have even a single bit of solid ground, being consisted of eight markers in the air, connected to each other by white lines, and demarcating a zone shaped like a rectangular prism and with the size of the Grand Hall of Canterlot Castle.

Marching Water didn’t waste any time to start announcing the Challenge “Since this is the final challenge, all of us know which Knight is going to represent them for this duel. It shall be Knight Twilight Sparkle!” There were a lot of cheers “And I’ll explain this Challenge now. It is something that I feel like Twilight will be fairly interested in.” He waited for a beat “A long time ago, an ancient society of mages tried to invent a form of duel to settle differences in a way that wouldn’t result in destruction and injuries...” Twilight’s eyes went wide, understanding what he was getting at “What they came up with were the Spellcard Duels, matches of exquisite magical control and precise movement. And while those duels have went out of vogue for centuries, there are still enthusiasts who practice then as a sport.”

“And one of those enthusiasts is the challenger for this match! She is Aurora Star, five times winner of the International Spellcard Duel Challenge, and famous user of Astral Magic!” The cheer was somehow even bigger than the last time. The doe who came flying onto the field had a white coat and purple eyes, and seemed to be used to the attention, but not enjoying it to the same degree as Wind Shade did.

“For those of you who don’t know about it, allow me to explain the rules of the Spellcard Duel. Both contestants are forbidden from leaving the field and from blocking the attacks of the opponent. Every attack must be an automatic spell whose formula may not exceed five lines. Every spell pattern must have a safe spot. The spells may last for as long as the user wants, but they can only have a single spell active at one time. All spells only activate on contact. And finally, no spells are harmful, but must only change the color of part of the opponent, to show that they were hit.” Marching Water spoke without stopping.

“Guess I’ll be going.” Twilight said, and started walking in the direction of the midair arena, without seeming to care that she was walking on air.

She kept walking, somehow going faster and faster without seeming to actually move her legs any quicker. Aurora Star had stopped over on one side of the arena, and was floating there without a care, so Twilight walked over to the other side and started doing stretches while still neglecting to have any kind of visible support to stand on.

After a few seconds of that, she stopped, and Marching Water decided to announce the beginning of the challenge “So we are going to start this Duel in three, two, one... Go!”

“Star Sign: Starlight Blaster.” Aurora Star announced her first spell.

“Chaos Sign: Light Shifting.” Twilight responded with her own spell.

As might be expected, Twilight was quite a fan of Spellcard Duels. The way she announced her Magical Sign abilities was based on the format used in those battles. She had never actually trained for this, since a form of fighting that was specifically designed to be non-harmful simply wasn’t a priority for the Knights, but Twilight had always liked seeing the creative and beautiful spell patterns that the duelists used.

Considering that she was a champion and a veteran in those battles, and was facing against an actual Knight, Aurora Star didn’t waste any time with a probing attack. Her spell consisted of a huge blast of magic that took most of the space in the battlefield and itself shot off hundreds of small balls of energy that actually had a homing property.

But that didn’t give Twilight any pause. She was a Knight, and they are the kind who simply refuse to show any weakness. Her initial spell was both offensive and defensive, and the defensive part created a dozen illusory copies of Twilight made of light infused with chaos magic, which had been achieved by the Knight slightly merging herself with the light around (the armor helped in this point). They were far from being Trixie level illusions, but they were good enough to confuse the rudimentary targeting that Aurora Star could give her spell under the constraints of the spellcard. Thus Twilight could dodge the rest easily with her true body by moving along with the light (still refusing to simply fly normally).

The attacking part came in the form of more chaos-warped light, this time shaped into arrows that simply showered the entire stage to give her opponent few paths to run. But Aurora Star was a champion, and Twilight wasn’t the only one who could merge offense and defence. The answer of the doe was to simply fly in a certain way that everytime she was in real danger of being hit it was during one of the periods where her spell turned her immaterial and impossible to hit. They weren’t long periods, but they were enough.

Both of those defensive maneuvers could be considered as top-class within the universe of spellcard duels. And those kinds of things were the reason why they were considered great ways of testing the skill in magic of the duelists. Within the constraints for the level of spells that could be used, these kinds of effects were impossible without a thorough understanding of your own magic affinities and spell creation methods, the kind of thing that is prized among mages even more than simple power.

-0-

“That definitely isn’t a true Magical Sign.” Rarity noticed, and looked at Trixie “I know you can miscall even your greatest magic, but that’s only because it is based on illusions, so how is she doing that?”

Trixie answered simply “She isn’t miscalling. The name of her Magical Sign was derived from this kind of competition, so she can call spells for this competition in the same way of her Magical Sign, even if they are not true Magical Signs. It’s a loophole, basically.”

Sunset piped up “Still, this is really fun to watch, now I know why these things are popular.”

“It’s even better with the Eyes of Truth, believe me.” Applejack spoke, while focusing firmly on the fight.

-0-

Only twenty seconds after the confrontation began, Aurora Star decided to switch up her spells. Usually she would force longer confrontations to wear down the focus and mental strength of the opponent, but she (rightly) decided that trying to compete in those kinds of things against an actual Knight would be worse than pointless.

“Aurora Sign: Rainbow Shower.” She announced, cancelling her previous spell.

Her magic came out quickly, a necessity for that kind of battle, where the smallest opening and flaw was enough for a defeat. Six prisms which were slightly bigger than her appeared forming a circle around Aurora Star, and they started to lazily spin in that circle. Above her, something like a minisun appeared, but it was more like a big lamp than a true ball of fire. The light of that sun hit the prisms and was split into hundreds of rainbow colored bullets, which were spread over all of the arena both by the simple shape of the prisms and by their rotation. Obviously some of the bullets passed through the doe’s position, but it was simple for her to set them all to be immaterial while they were in range of her. The spell had no aiming capabilities, following the premise of simply attacking everywhere.

Twilight still maintained her spell for five more seconds, but it simply wasn’t that useful against that new attack. While she couldn’t go immaterial herself, Aurora Star’s prisms turned any attack that passed by them immaterial, and while she wasn’t covered by a prism, the doe simply dodged the bullets that came in her direction, because they were too predictable due to being a simple spray of attacks. And Twilight’s illusions weren’t useful against an attack that didn’t aim. So she changed things up.

“Chaos Sign: World of Chaos.”

Twilight’s speed at switching spells didn’t lose to her opponent. Her clones stopped being mere illusions, and they started creating balls of energy that spewed more bullets, which this time were shadow based, and harder to see. More importantly, zones of chaos started appearing in between the two duelists, and every time Twilight’s bullets hit one of them, those bullets started doing random (randomness determined by detecting solar radiation in a constantly shifting field, a common trick) short range teleports (while still mostly moving in the direction of the opponent). While Aurora Star’s bullets that hit the chaos fields simply had their routes scrambled, some still going forward, while others uselessly shot to the sides and some even turned back on their master.

Twilight and her clones started moving around the field, with the original dodging all bullets, sometimes helped by the chaos fields, though they also moved randomly and were hard to predict. Her clones were hit by bullets sometimes, but the only result was a plaque with the word “CLONE” in it appearing briefly over their heads. And Twilight could switch positions with her clones, so there was no way to tell which was the real one (unless you had some way of detection beyond normal eyes).

However, even that wasn’t enough to beat Aurora Star. Her spell was automatic, so she could devote most of her concentration to feeling out the magical fluctuations of the bullets that got too close. They could sometimes teleport straight through her prism shields, but she was able to tell where they were going by understanding where they would teleport towards in the moment their destination was set. This was an incredibly complicated trick, but it was sometimes necessary to deal with random attacks, which she had to face often in her high-level Duels.

And she was only devoting most of her concentration to it because simply defending wouldn’t give her the victory. Aurora Star was also thinking about which spellcard to use in order to turn things around. And she decided after only twelve seconds of having to deal with the enemy attack.

“Universe Sign: Galaxy Spin!”

She teleported to the absolute center of the arena and created another one of her “Suns” which collapsed into a “Supernova”. Instead of simply emitting light, it started shooting blasts of magic that turned any projectile they hit immaterial, and that was only the defensive part of the attack. She also created four spirals of light at the edges of the arena, which started to shoot great numbers of light bullets, and spiral around the arena. And even that wasn’t the end, she also created several small portals in front of the spirals that caught some of the bullets and redirected them to other portals which were aimed at Twilight and her clones.

That was a particularly intense attack. Even with her ability to shift places with the clones, Twilight Sparkle had no choice but to get closer to the center of the arena to survive, and she soon realized that the blasts from the “supernova” were also capable of hitting her for a win. So after a few seconds of dodging, the Knight decided to change tactics, and then smirked as a particularly fun idea came to mind.

This is really not necessary... But I feel like it.

“Merged Spell!”

She actually decided to use a true Magical Sign to finish the battle. It was completely unnecessary and would be very hard to do without going over five lines for the spell... But what would the Knights be if they weren’t willing to do unnecessary hard stuff?

She actually had to dodge for two full seconds after cancelling her previous spell before her final attack was ready.

“Material Sign: Dual Nature!”

But the result was more than worthy it. Twilight’s spell actually mirrored the material nature of everything in the arena. With this, every object would be at once material and immaterial, which made Aurora Star’s defenses completely useless, because any attack would at once hit and not hit. That spell didn’t include any attack capability, but it wasn’t needed, because the doe’s own attacks would be the greatest threat to her.

To her credit, Aurora Star immediately cancelled her own spell, but it was already too late, the Dual Nature itself kept the attacks going, as they could still exist even without existing. The doe flew away from her own supernova, but Twilight shifted right in front of her, distracting Aurora Star for a crucial instant before shifting away and allowing an attack to hit that she had kept her opponent from seeing with her own body.

Twilight immediately cancelled her spell, and Aurora Star’s entire coat turned hot pink.

The crowd went wild.

Deer Emblem

View Online

The cheers were specially loud and crazed. Some extra dedicated fans of Spellcard Duels even started shooting spells into the air that turned into all kinds of patterns of bullets, blasts and other kinds of magical projectiles. This was a scene that was usually only seen at the end of really high level Spellcard Duel Competitions.

This pretty much qualified.

Aurora Star looked around. She was familiar with this kind of scene, only she was usually not the one who wasn’t in her original color during it. Twilight Sparkle swam towards her, and the doe wondered what the Knight wanted.

“Could you give me your autograph?” Twilight asked, conjuring a notebook and a quill.

Aurora Star was so surprised that she almost fell from the sky “What? It should be me asking for your autograph!” She recovered quickly.

“Well, I can give you one if you want, but...” Twilight gave a little sigh before adopting a focused expression “I’ve always liked Spellcard Duels. I could never train in them because of my training to be a Knight, but I always had the habit of watching recordings of them when I have the time. Your matches are some of my favorites, and meeting you in person for this fight only reinforced my admiration. I’m happy it was me who ended up fighting you.” The unicorn smiled.

Aurora Star just looked at her. Then she grabbed the quill and started writing on the page Twilight’s magic was indicating “Let’s trade.” She said.

After she was done, Twilight conjured a piece of paper and wrote her own autograph on it, before passing it to the doe. Then she conjured a camera and took a photo of the two together (she changed Aurora’s Star color back to normal first), then she duplicated the photo and passed the copy to the doe.

Then she shifted back to the rest of the Knights. Neither Sunset nor Trixie needed to say anything, they just put their hooves on Twilight’s shoulders while grinning.

“That was awesome!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

“Darling, did you really need to go that far?” Rarity asked with a giggle.

“That seemed fun, maybe I should try to make an ability based on it.” Pinkie spoke in a halfway serious voice.

“Ah... Congratulations.” Fluttershy said with a smile.

“Welp. Ah learned a lot about magic just watching that. Maybe Ah should go to one of them spellcard duels sometime...” Applejack spoke with an air of doubt.

“Thanks, girls. Now all that is left is the team battle, is everyone alright for that?” Twilight asked.

They all responded in the affirmative. Rainbow Dash said she was at “120%” for some reason, Fluttershy said the training was harder, Sunset said their fight wasn’t that strenuous (both Trixie and Twilight glared at her), Trixie said she was ready to be magnificent, Rarity said she was eager to try out the full power of her Earth Ruler Sword, Applejack said she was solid like a rock and Pinkie Pie said she could do a party marathon.

With all that eagerness in mind, the Knights got on the transport platform for the last time, ready to take on the final challenge, whatever it could be.

-0-

The last arena didn’t seem to be much initially. The Knights saw a natural clearing with a small, rustic three floor tower. The space seemed fairly small... Until they saw that there were no crowd seating available around the clearing. Instead, there were floating cameras recording the clearing and sending the images to a special seating place far away. And the cameras were not only placed around the clearing, but they were also placed in several positions above the forest, multitudes of cameras, with some being even farther than the horizon.

Because the arena this time wasn’t just the clearing and tower, it was a significant area of forest. That was the biggest arena in all of the challenges.

Marching Water’s floating platform was far higher this time, and a floating camera accompanied him. That camera wasn’t transmitting only to the audience, but also to a magical screen right by the tower where the Knights were. The deer head of state soon started explaining the challenge, since there was no need to choose or announce the participants.

“It is time for the final challenge! It is time for the team challenge! Ever since the beginning, it has always been said that the true strength of the Knights was their ability to become stronger by fighting together... Today, we are going to see this by ourselves! And this challenge is also a very traditional method of combat. We call it... Castle Battle!”

He waited for a bit, knowing that the audience would be cheering “As you can see, the Knights are starting next to a tower. This tower is their castle, and losing it means they lose the battle. Each and every one of the deer challengers also have their own castle that they must defend. The Knights will obtain victory if they can take over, by which I mean enter and infuse their central jewel with magic, every one of the enemy castles. Accidentaly destroying one of the target castles counts as a defeat condition for the Knights”

He waited for a moment before continuing “And yes, that means the Knights need to take over the enemy castles while the deer only need to destroy the castle of the Knights. If the challenge isn’t at least this unequal, don’t you think the powerful Knights would be bored?” He waited for another moment, already foreseeing the response of the audience “And there is also another point! This is a timed battle. This challenge will only last for ten minutes, and if the Knights are unable to take every one of the enemy castles before the end of the time limit, this is also considered a loss for them!”

-0-

Marching Water was gloating more than ever ‘You have done well to reach this point, but I know you should already be tired and hurt, there’s no way you’ll be able to win this time!”

-0-

“So... Business as usual, then?” Twilight asked in a doubtful voice.

“He didn’t even restrict our magic use... I didn’t think anyone could be this overconfident.” Sunset was dangerously close to being flabbergasted.

“So, Applejack, what is the distance from the targets?” Trixie asked her apprentice, keeping her head in the game.

“Pretty far. And they are pretty spread out.” She started sketching out a diagram on the ground showing where the enemy castles where in relation to their initial position.

“Hmm... We have two objectives here, defending our castle and taking the castles of the opponents. Trixie thinks my apprentices should stay here and defend the castle. Rarity’s abilities can control the area effectively, and Applejack will see through anything sneaky they might try.” Trixie put forward a suggestion “Though since we have eight targets and only six other Knights available, that means two of us will have to take two targets each.”

“Let me and Rainbow Dash do it. She’s the fastest, and I have the quickest long range teleport.” Sunset offered “There’s no way we are going to fail.”

“Yeah!” Her apprentice agreed.

Trixie looked around to see if anypony had any objections, when no other ideas were forthcoming, she nodded and pointed at the diagram “So, Rainbow should first go to this one, and then fly to this one here.” She was pointing at different targets “While Sunset should start at this one and move to this one. This should be the best way to take advantage of your speed. The others don’t really matter that much, just choose whatever you fell like it.”

Trixie, Fluttershy, Twilight and Pinkie Pie choose their own targets, and then the Knights just had to wait for Marching Water to announce the beginning of the Challenge.

He didn’t leave them waiting for long:

“With all that said, I think it is time to start our final challenge! Ready... go!”

Rainbow Dash took off flying, quickly breaking through the sonic barrier with a rainboom and disappearing from view. Fluttershy called “Empathy Drive: Animal Spirit!” and choose an eagle spirit, before flying off at high speed, Pinkie Pie called “Emotion Charge: Joy!”, displayed the pink aura again and shifted away, and Twilight, Trixie and Sunset teleported away after charging their magic briefly.

Rarity looked at her fellow apprentice of Trixie “What do you think they are going to try against us?” She asked.

“Well, Ah was looking at our tower, and...”

-0-

Rainbow Dash flew. It was rare that she got the chance to really cut loose during a mission, so she appreciated the time where she could fly at full speed, as short as it ended up being (moving beyond the speed of sound made you get to places really quickly). It was a tower just as small and rustic as their own. The Knight dropped back down to subsonic speeds and made to enter via the front door.

But of course things couldn’t be easy. An immense magical circle activated when she was getting close and created a barrier of earth in front of the door. Rainbow Dash stopped and tried to see if there was an alternate route, and the barrier of earth started sprouting cannons that shot rocks at her at high speed continuously.

The Knight dodged them with a few quick movements and decided to just break through the barrier. Accelerating, she hit it with a powerful punch... which caused the entire tower to shake, because the barrier transferred the force of the punch to it. And the little bit of the barrier that Rainbow Dash managed to break reconstructed itself.

“Ah... So it is using the tower as a hostage.” The Knight realized the deal.

And then the earth barrier created a spike to try and pierce through Rainbow Dash, who was forced to retreat.

‘This is going to be annoying.’

-0-

‘This would be a lot easier if I didn’t need to keep the tower in one piece.’ Sunset thought to herself.

The unicorn Knight had quickly realized that the magical circle that was summoning swords and sending them to attack her, as well as creating a magical net of swords to block the path forward... Was actually connected directly with the foundations of the tower. Any direct attack on any of those things, or even on the circle itself would threaten the integrity of her target. And of course there were anti-teleportation wards on the tower to prevent Sunset had been forced to simply teleport around and passively defend while using scanning spells on the tower.

‘I can’t attack the circle... But maybe I can prevent it from receiving magic...?’

-0-

Trixie would freely admit that she was having a little trouble. The tower she had reached had some particularly troublesome defences, a powerful wind barrier that was like a tornado and prevented the showmare from even getting close. And her teleportation also couldn’t be used.

Thankfully, the more active part of the defences, consisting of wind blades that shot at her from time to time, simply wasn’t really threatening, because Trixie could simply confuse the targeting with illusions and conceal herself from view, so she had the chance to really focus on analyzing the target and think of a plan.

‘This magical circle is a weak point. I just need to figure out a way to use it.’

-0-

Fluttershy felt somewhat offended when she got to the castle that was her target.

The reason for that was the fact that the defenses of the castle were in the form of tree branches that snaked around the tower to prevent entry and some that tried to reach her to trap the pegasus. Fluttershy was offended because one of the biggest reasons why she had agreed to become Twilight’s apprentice was to be able to talk to trees, and now that she was dealing with having to fight an actual tree, she couldn’t talk to it because it was pretty much just conjured wood instead of an actual living thing.

'Still, those tree branches should be generated by some kind of magic circle. I guess this is a good opportunity to train my abilities.'

Fluttershy was still aiming for an ability capable of replicating the abilities of the opponents, but she had to work hard for it.

-0-

Twilight was suddenly reminded of her brother.

There was a reason for that. The tower had a magical circle that created special automatic protections to keep the Knights from going inside and completing the challenge. Those protections weren't that strong, but they had been connected with the support structure of the tower in a way that made getting rid of them a delicate and potentially time-consuming endeavor.

And those particular protections were in the form of layers of shield spells, together with special "ramming shield" spells that were shot at her if she got close. Twilight got reminded of Ground Tree, the competitor in the Race challenge, and thought it was fairly probable that each castle was being protected by magical defences based on the abilities of the competitors.

Still, this wasn't really very important at that point. What Twilight really had to be concerned about was how to get through the protections and finish her part in the team challenge.

-0-

Pinkie Pie bounced around happily. She hadn't expected this, but it turned out that she was getting the chance to take part in a hanging rope act after all.

The tower that she had chosen as her target turned out to be protected by countless strands of rope that kept trying to catch and bind her. Parts of the rope also kept releasing waves of cold or heat whenever she was in range.

However, none of it was dangerous to Pinkie. She could shift positions incredibly fast and use her chaotic abilities to slip through even the tiniest gaps. And since she didn't have to bother about going to a second tower, Pinkie could play a little with the ropes before doing her job.

She waved to the nearby cameras as she moved from rope to rope doing tricks.

-0-

"Ah... Looks like they are coming. All of them." Applejack spoke conversationally.

"All eight? That means they must have some sort of special defences in place to protect their castles. How do you think we should deal with them?" Rarity asked.

"Well... Ah guess they will be able to brag about being beaten up by the Knights for the rest of their lives. Perhaps we should leave a few scars for them ta show off?"

"I don't think that's quite what they want. Things should be natural." Rarity responded "So we should fight them normally, but not get too hang up about the possibility of leaving scars."

"Understood." She sorted her thought out for a moment "Flower Field coming from the north underground via tree roots, Strong Earth is coming from the east underground by controlling the earth, Living Leaf is trying ta sneak a few ropes unnoticed close ta the ground on north-northwest, Ground Tree is advancing from the north without any sneaking around and trusting her shields, Wing Cooler is coming from straight up above our tower, Glamour Sun is preparing ta act as artillery from long range in the southwest, Wind Shade is gathering speed and preparing to charge at our tower from up and southwest and Aurora Star is hiding right behind Ground Tree with immateriality activated and probably intending ta go straight through her and surprise us at the last moment."

Rarity raised both swords "Then we should focus, holding back to not hurt them too badly is hard."

-0-

Rainbow Dash tried to remember what Sunset had said about magical circle based defences. It was something like they could seem to be intelligent depending on how they were made, but in the end it was all programmed reactions, and if you did something unexpected they wouldn't be able to do anything.

With that, she got an idea. Rainbow Dash flew off for a bit before turning back and accelerating into another Sonic Rainboom, but instead of allowing the shockwave to expand, she gathered it in front of her like a digging drill. And she flew right into the ground, some distance away from the tower.

It was fairly unlikely that the magic circle would have been programmed to deal with attacks coming from below the ground, and understanding that, she went down a good bit before turning and moving towards below the tower and then going up and emerging inside.

After that, it was a small matter to activate the central jewel and take control of the tower. And after that, Rainbow Dash flew off to her next target.

-0-

Sunset understood very well the weaknesses of magic circles. The ones who drew magic from the air were simply incapable of sustaining large-scale phenomena for long. For those magic circles that had to create extremely powerful effects, the only way to get enough magic was by connecting them with special magic reservoirs via special channels.

The tower she was facing was obviously like that, so Sunset Shimmer decided that the best way to bypass the defences was by simply starving the magical circle of mana. And to do that, the simplest method was to destroy the magical channels.

She evaded the swords by teleporting high up in the air and creating a magical platform to stand on. Then she charged magic for a bit.

"Double Magic Enhance: Solar Bombardment!" She shouted.

And truly it was a bombardment. The multitudes of energy spheres that Sunset dropped around the castle didn't seem like much, but their destructive power was considerable, and their quantity was such that their effect became a lot more exaggerated. Sunset left the part of the magic circle alone, but blasted a ring of destruction around it, with holes that were dozens of meters deep.

The defences of the castle lost all power and Sunset simply had to walk inside to activate the jewel before running out and teleporting away.

-0-

The main problem facing whoever Knight tried to go against the magical circle was the fact that trying to damage it would affect the foundations of that tower that they couldn't allow to be destroyed.

However, Trixie had an advantage in that case by the fact that trying to damage it wasn't the only way she could deal with a magic circle.

"Perfect Illusion: Flux Control!"

The magic circle started inactive and activated when Trixie got near (probably due to the cameras detecting her), but that meant that there should be a way to make it turn inactive again. She just needed to detect the part of the circle that received this sort of on/off instructions and convince it to turn the circle back to off and not change it again.

And with Flux Control, she didn't even need to be all that precise. That was a magic designed to deal with magical programs and other similar things, and the effect was "convincing" the target off whatever she wanted. Trixie just needed to convince it that "it's time to be off for a while" and she was golden. It was somewhat more complicated than that, but not all that much.

Trixie simply strolled inside.

-0-

"Empathy Drive: Soul Mirror!" Fluttershy shouted, casting her magic.

Obviously, there were no deer around for her to use the Soul Mirror on, but magic was by nature versatile. With a little bit of work, she managed to aim her Soul Mirror at the magical circle itself. It didn't have a soul, but it had a complex structure of connections and instructions linked by magic.

Soul Mirror could only reproduce skills, not abilities. But that wasn't important in this case. Since the magical circle didn't have a soul, it couldn't truly have abilities. Fluttershy simply reproduced the way in which the circle was capable of manipulating magic to manifest and control wood. She couldn't simply affect everything at once, because it needed a direct connection with the physical structures around in order to create from them, but Fluttershy could affect things that were nearby, so she simply walked through the front door, using her superior magical power to suppress the original orders the magical circle was giving to the branches and force them to allow her passage.

-0-

Twilight had only used the stored spells in the armor for her Merged Spell, and could still use the ones in her body to perform another one and be able to use a Magical Sign for some impressive magic to get through the defences of the castle in a clever way.

However, she didn't feel like doing that.

She had already played properly in her individual challenge, which had been less than half an hour before. It was fun, but her mischievous side had appeared again, and she couldn't restrain herself too much or her chaotic side would be even more difficult to predict the next time she let it out to play. The fact that the previous time didn't result in too much damage was proof of the fact that allowing herself to act freely in defiance of conventions once in a while really (which she didn't really do too much before the Canterlot Destruction incident) made her chaotic side behave more. Simple things like pranking her partners and deliberately doing the opposite of what people expect.

After all, the nature of her magic was chaos, and just because she was a good pony didn't mean she had to be excessively stiff and uptight.

So, she created a stick and threw it.

Obviously, the defenses reacted, sending multitudes of shields after the stick, ready to destroy any possible threat. Twilight smirked and shouted a chaotically-charged word:

"Catch!"

And then every single shield that had gone after the stick fused together into a gigantic dog made of shields that caught the stick in his mouth. He ran back to Twilight and deposited the stick at her hooves.

"Good boy, good boy!" Twilight praised, rubbing his head, which made his tail waggle.

Then she took the stick again and charged it with a big amount of chaos magic before throwing it at the entrance of the castle.

This time no shields tried to break it, since the shields that composed the dog were technically going after it. The stick managed to enter into the castle unopposed and the shield-dog went bounding after it.

A few moments later the dog came back with the stick in his mouth. But there was something stuck on the tip of the stick. It was the jewel.

As Twilight activated the jewel to finish things off after the dog brought it to her, she reflected that there was no rule saying that she had to activate the jewel while it was still inside the tower.

-0-

Pinkie Pie was wondering if she could could get into one of Living Leaf's rope acts. She was sure the two of them together could do some very fun things. It was something to be considered.

Pinkie finally decided that she had already had her fill of fun and simply used her chaotic movement to slip through everything and reach the jewel.

Chaos magic was pretty hard to deal with, specially when you had to use automatic systems.

-0-

"Earth Sword Style: Rising Earth!" Rarity shouted, raising her Earth Sword.

In two different positions of the area, Flower Field and Strong Earth were surprised when huge chunks of earth flew up into the air, taking them away from their attack plans. They got very confused and alarmed and those chunks of earth suddenly shot up at high speed, cut certainly not as much as Wing Cooler, who had to deal with being hit by those two chunks of earth. Thankfully for the deer, Rarity was gracious enough to bring the earth back into the ground slowly.

Then she raised her Wind Sword and cast another spell "Wind Sword Style: Barrier Whirlwind!"

And an extremely dense and powerful whirlwind formed around the castle creating a multipurpose barrier that completely prevented most of the enemies from actually being able to attack. Wind Shade got caught up in the whirlwind and spun around rapidly before being thrown out at high speed, Living Leaf's ropes were shredded by the strong winds due to part of them having already passed through the point where the whirlwind was formed, and Glamour Sun's first few rocks were slowed down to nearly nothing by the barrier.

On the other hand, Ground Tree and Aurora Star simply got through the barrier easily, with the former using her own force fields to protect her while the latter couldn't be hit in her current immaterial state.

So Applejack got to work, she did a Space Step right in front of them and charged her magic before delivering a tremendously powerful punch on the big doe. Even worse, she used her Eyes to localize the weakest part of her barrier, so it was broken through relatively easily, allowing most of the power of the punch to hit the body of her opponent and send her right back into the whirlwind, which only made things worse.

Aurora Star went right through her and through Applejack, preparing to send a spell at the tower. The earth pony simply space stepped to in front of her and charged her magic again.

"Truth Seeking Blow." She announced flatly.

Her next punch actually reached through dimensions to hit at Aurora Star's actual body, also sending her flying (though she managed to keep her immateriality and avoid being also hit while passing the whirlwind).

Then Marching Water surreptiously activated a mechanism that caused a hidden trap in the Knight's tower to explode, destroying the foundations.

Applejack simply charged magic through her armor and stomped on the ground, using earth manipulation to restore the foundations of their tower. Of course she had already seen the trap. And Rarity also took the time to send a blast of high pressure wind at Glamour Sun, that she barely managed to dodge.

The defenders weren't going to be overcome so easily.

-0-

Rainbow Dash quickly got to the next castle, which meant that she got a front row seat for when it went flying into the sky.

'What.' She thought.

-0-

'There's just two towers left. But that means I can redirect all the energy of the other six into them. This should be enough to stop them from winning... Please.'

Marching Water was getting desperate.

-0-

Rainbow Dash flew after the tower, and immediately realized that her previous strategy wouldn't work again. The defenses were now covering everything in a cocoon of stone, including the underside, and simply breaking through would cause too much damage to the foundations of the building.

But then she had an idea. Rainbow Dash realized that she would simply need to prevent the castle from falling, so there was a way, but she would need to be fast.

It wouldn't be a problem.

"EX-Mode!" She shouted, and activated it to get the greatest amount of physical power she could.

"Wind Destroyer Hoof!" She announced.

This was the non-limit break version of the attack, but it was still pretty powerful. Rainbow Dash reached the floating earth cocoon and hit it dozens of times in a second before using a whirlwind punch to drill through the barrier and get access to the tower.

The transferred force destroyed the foundations, and the tower started to topple... But then Rainbow Dash flew all over and touched every single part of the foundations, injecting magic on them 'Just need to do it like Applejack does...' She thought.

And the foundations fixed themselves, allowing her to simply go in and activate the jewel.

Later, she would get another earful for somehow instinctively using magic shifting to imitate earth pony magic.

-0-

Sunset realized several things very quickly. The first was the fact that this magic circle used the magic specialty of Aurora Star, Astral Magic, given the amount of light bullets, lasers and other kinds of star based shots. The second was the fact that a huge amount of energy had been redirected and gathered into a reserve in the tower, so using her previous strategy would be useless, given that the circle wasn't drawing energy anymore.

Still, after teleporting around just outside the range of the anti-teleportation wards, Sunset thought of a new strategy that was able to deal with this new development.

"Trance Mode!" She shouted, getting into her most powerful form.

But that was just preparation.

"Amplify Domain!" She shouted, casting the special spell.

She expanded the domain in which she could use her magic directly to be able to cover the entire magic circle.

Her idea was something that appealed to Sunset in a deep level. She was going to forcefully take control of the magical circle itself, by fighting its magical defenses directly. It was going to be power against power, and even using the Trance Mode, this would have been impossible, considering the huge reserves of magic that could be thrown against her.

But that was the point. It could only throw magic against Sunset. It could only use the normal defense patterns that had been imprinted on the magic circle. If this was an actual enemy with this much power, just a competent level of magical skill would be enough to allow victory, but this wasn't a living enemy, it was only a simple program, and just because she liked to overwhelm her enemies with power, didn't mean that Sunset didn't know how to be clever.

Emitting magic at one place to get the defenses to react and then inserting magic in another place while they are occupied. Deliberately spreading her magic over a large area to find the weak spots in the formation, that it cannot shore up due to that not being part of the programming. Tricking the flow of magic into gathering at damaged spots that cannot hold much magic at once. Those and other tricks Sunset used to slowly overwhelm the defenses of the circle. Finally, it got to the point where the magical reservoir simply could not keep up, and Sunset took control, shutting off the defenses.

Activating the jewel was a simple matter after that.

-0-

'How...? That didn't even take ten minutes...' Marching Water could not believe what he had seen. But still, there was nothing he could do about it, except for...

"Finish! With this... The Knights of this generation have proven their mettle, and won this Challenge! The protectors are strong as expected!" He waited for a moment "And now... It is my honor and privilege to invite the Knights for a victory party!"

He was a diplomat after all. He had to play to the crowd.

-0-

A day later, Princess Celestia got a letter with a photo in it. It was a photograph of the eight Knights posing (in ridiculous poses, of course, why would you even ask?) together with eight deer.

'I would get worked up about them corrupting young heroes of the deer, but...' She considered logically 'Considering how much deer like Knights in general, that ship had probably already sailed before they even went there.'

She closed her eyes and meditated.

'They don't seem to have overdone things and hurt themselves either... At least they have this much sense. While things are peaceful at the moment, I have a feeling this is not going to last much longer.'

Deer Arc End

Next: Shards of Chaos Arc

Return of Chaos

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It should have been just an ordinary day for Spitfire. Taking the first year members of the group in a training exercise, checking for potential specialties and leadership potential, and doing reams of paperwork.

But instead, it turned out that Mauna Keep mountain, the place where they were training, was suddenly assaulted by what seemed to be a simple freak storm, but turned out to be a much more dangerous Freak Storm.

When the high-speed winds started, Spitfire ordered the members to assemble the fortifications they had brought in case of such an occasion, with the idea of simply waiting until the storm passed. However, the winds only became stronger and stronger, to the point where the fortifications were starting to break, so Spitfire ordered all the pegasi to join in a special defensive flight formation to try and escape from the area of effect of the storm.

It worked, despite things being touch and go for a bit, but they soon realized that the storm wasn't going to stop any time soon, and the town of Soledad's Harn was right in its path. And with how fast the storm was moving, there was no time for the town to be evacuated.

And they also realized that this wasn't just a common storm. The biped goblin-looking thing that was 30 meters tall shooting lightning all around with multiple limbs that he moved like a conductor to the movements of the winds was a pretty big clue. Even though they were prepared for many kinds of dangerous situations, that just wasn't the kind of freak weather the Wonderbolts were equipped and trained to handle.

But... Thankfully for the Wonderbolt leader, there was somepony else available who could deal with the situation.

One of the first year Wonderbolt members took off her uniform and spoke a few whispered words. Then, in a rush of magic, she was dressed in thin but powerful-looking magical armor.

She was Knight Rainbow Dash. And seeing her prepare like that, Spitfire calmed down a lot. If a Knight was there, that meant things would be okay.

Rainbow Dash called for their help. That was one of the benefits of Knighthood in Equestria, a level of authority where you can request help from any nearby ponies in case of need. Of course, considering the types of need that Knights have, the most common cases were requests from military or similar ponies or groups, so the Wonderbolts were a good choice.

"Wonderbolts!" She started a speech "Today, you stand to protect the lives of many innocent ponies! Today, you are going to go beyond anything you have ever done, for you won't be able to accept anything less! Today... You are going to be awesome."

She waited for a moment until her words had sunk in, then she gave actual orders:

"All of you, join together and make the strongest tornado you can! Move!"

They did it. Spitfire naturally took the lead and pushed herself in a way she hadn't done in years. Every single one of the pegasi put forth all their effort and pulled out every single scrap of magic they could possibly muster. Under the orders of the Knight, the Wonderbolts managed to reach levels of achievement that they definitely wouldn't have been able to in most circumstances.

The tornado grew, as the air itself hummed with the combined magical power of all the pegasi, the winds got stronger and stronger, and the immense amount of pegasus magic released in the air even caused the chaotic storm itself to react, "rearing back" as much as it was possible for something like a storm and gathering together to try to break through by force.

And even then, Rainbow Dash wasn't satisfied, as she watched from the side of the tornado, seemingly resisting the immense wind force without problem "Faster! You can do better than that!" She shouted, and released a pulse of magic into the winds of the tornado.

That pulse of magic touched every single one of the pegasi, invigorating them and allowing the group to push themselves even farther, but that was the least of the effects of that pulse of magic. The biggest effect was that it managed to briefly connect all of the pegasi in the tornado in a way that allowed them to pool their efforts, achieving a feat of teamwork that was far beyond whatever the Wonderbolts could have been able to do on their own.

And then, the winds of their tornado finally reached the leading edge of the chaotic storm that was threatening the village. And the shock of the sheer amount of ominous power they suddenly got in contact with almost caused the Wonderbolts to break away, unable to maintain their weather manipulation going. But they refused to stop. Each of them knew the others needed their help, and they didn't want to leave their companions helpless. That would have been the case even without the connection Rainbow Dash provided in between them, and that only made them even more dedicated to their task.

While the Wonderbolts did everything they could to resist the storm, Rainbow Dash was frowning. She already had suspicions, but the touch of the magic of the storm confirmed everything. What they were dealing with was chaos magic. Rainbow Dash immediately thought of Discord, before remembering how Sunset had said that sufficiently skilled mages could use chaos magic even if it wasn't part of their natural talent. Still, doing something like this certainly seemed like the kind of thing Discord would like. She supposed that the others would be able to tell her either way, but the main point was the fact that they had to deal with the situation, whatever was the cause of it.

Thankfully. Rainbow Dash was specially well suited to dealing with chaotic magic.

That was because of her magic shifting ability. During their encounter with Discord, Rainbow Dash had managed to severely wound him thanks to shifting her magical signature to harmony while doing a Sonic Rainboom, and later she figured out how to shift to harmony whenever she wanted.

This had some limitations. It was practically useless in one on one fights, because harmony depended upon a connection with others. The blow against Discord was only as effective as it was because every single one of the others was also trying to save Twilight and Pinkie at that moment, and because Discord was a true being of chaos, and more susceptible to that power. It had an average effectiveness when used to fight alongside her fellow Knights, because trying to focus their disparate wills into a useful amount of harmonic power in the middle of a hectic fight was complicated and somewhat predictable. But in a situation like that, where many individuals were focusing their wills in a single task and with a single objective... Then it was perfect.

Rainbow Dash had helped it along, sending a bit of harmonic magic to help the connection of the Wonderbolts and prepare the way for her attack, but now it was time for her to show what this kind of power could do in the hooves of somepony who was good enough to harness it. She saw that they were starting to be overwhelmed by the power of the storm, and that the source, that strange monster, was close enough.

"Retreat!" She shouted to them, and dived into the tornado.

She felt the other pegasi almost literally throw themselves out of the tornado, and then she used her pegasus magic to take control of it, forcing the winds to become even stronger by focusing them more and more, making the tornado smaller but increasingly dense, to the point where the air would have started to change into a liquid state due to the sheer pressure, were it not for the amount of magic coursing through it.

But that was only half of the equation. While Rainbow Dash was increasing the physical power of the winds, she was also harnessing the harmonic power from the focused efforts of the Wonderbolts. Using brief pulses of harmonic magic to direct it and fuse it with her will, Rainbow Dash was satisfied to see that the extremely dense tornado was also glowing with magic. So she waved her hoof upwards and the tornado actually started going down into a horizontal position. And with the way she was "holding it", the tornado was looking more and more like a spear.

The "goblin" clearly didn't like what she was doing, but it also clearly had no intention of stopping and trying to run away. The chaotic storm simply kept advancing, trying to sweep through the Knight with simple power. Rainbow Dash wondered if the monster even had enough intelligence to understand the concept of retreat, or if it was more like a living magical focus. Regardless, it wouldn't change the outcome.

"Harmonic Breaker..." Rainbow Dash started, focusing her muscles and magic for a single, powerful effort.

"Tornado Spear!" She shouted, throwing the tornado like a javelin.

The attack flew strangely slowly through the air, but there was a simple reason for that. The chaotic storm was using all of the power it could spare to prevent anything from getting close to the goblin "core". The tornado spear had to get through not only the simple physical power of the the storm, which had been building up for a while, but also the magical suppression of the chaotic energies that were at least intelligent enough to try and protect their weak point. Instead of a battle on the wind, this seemed more like a drill tunneling through the earth.

But there was no question to the ultimate outcome, as the Wonderbolts recovered and watched the titanically powerful magical attack slowly but steadily get through every single layer of defense the storm had in its path. They felt excitement for having had part in creating that scene, and they cheered when the goblin got pierced and exploded.

The storm dissipated into several high speed winds going in disparate directions, but the chaotic energy, now without a focus, turned into dozens of different bizarre effects on the environment, mostly creating a few short-lived monsters. One part of the wind got turned into some kind of wind monster that attacked the Wonderbolts, but Rainbow Dash flew in front of them and easily dealt with it.

As soon as she judged that the situation had came back under control, Rainbow Dash turned to Spitfire.

"I need to make a report and see what the situation is like in general, so you all should go back to base and keep an eye for more weirdness."

The Wonderbolt leader nodded at her, and Rainbow Dash flew off, quickly surpassing the speed of sound and flying from out of sight range.

-0-

Rainbow Dash got a message when she was nearing Canterlot that said to come back for a special meeting. This only increased her suspicions that the chaotic storm wasn't an isolated incident. She kept going and soon got to the same meeting room that everypony else used for that sort of situation. She soon realized that she had been the last one to arrive, and also that Fluttershy was the only other Knight who was wearing her armor.

"Knight Fluttershy, it seems like you were not the only one to have needed to fight recently." Celestia said, before turning to Rainbow Dash "Knight Rainbow Dash, I assume you have something to report, but first Fluttershy needs to inform everypony of what she told me."

The pink-maned pegasus cleared her throat and began her tale "I was going through the Misty Print valley, checking on the animals there... When I felt the presence of chaos magic in the air. Before I could decided whether it would be better to try to check it out or go back and get the help of the others... I heard a roar, and the hydra of that place came forth and tried to attack me."

She then stopped and shook her head before continuing "Ahm... But don't get the wrong idea. She is usually very calm unless somepony invades her territory. But this time, she was under the influence of chaos magic, which took the form of a minotaur-looking monster that was riding on her back." She blinked a few times "I knew that the hydra would cause a lot of damage if I just left without doing anything."

Fluttershy sighed "So I changed to my armor and used the manticore Animal Spirit again. I fought with the hydra for a few minutes, until I managed to attack the minotaur monster and destroy it. And then I could calm her down."

They all thought about that story for a moment, and then Princess Celestia nodded to Rainbow Dash, wordlessly asking her to speak.

"I was on Mauna Keep mountain together with a group of Wonderbolts when a storm came. It didn't seem like anything strange at first, only a fairly strong storm, but when it didn't pass and we had to forcefully fly away from it, it became obvious that the storm wasn't normal. I ordered the Wonderbolts to make a tornado and channeled it into a spear of wind empowered by harmony, since I could tell the power was chaos-based." She took a breath "The focus of the chaos was in the form of a kind of goblin thing and when it was destroyed, the storm dissipated."

Nodding, Princess Celestia then looked at Twilight Sparkle "With this new information, what we are facing here seems pretty obvious. Since this is your specialty, you explain it to them."

Twilight nodded, then cleared her throat and began to speak "Essentially, what we are dealing with here are Shards of Chaos. They are a phenomenon where a portion of chaos magic without direction fuses with a will of some kind instead of simply spending their energy causing chaotic effects. This only happens when the direction of the will drives the chaos magic into causing even more trouble, instead of doing something constructive. This renews and strengthens the chaos magic. Usually this is a rare occurrence, so for it to happen twice in so short a period..."

She sighed "The only possible explanation is Discord. The destruction of his body spread chaos magic all around the place, and I imagine that since he was destroyed by us, his influence on the chaotic magic made it so the shards of chaos created started activating at the same time, in order to cause more problems for the Knights, who would have to deal with them."

Celestia nodded "This all seems to hang together. But in that case, there shouldn't only be two Shards of Chaos activating, so do you have any idea of a way to track down the others before they cause too much damage?"

Twilight smiled "Actually. I have a perfect way of doing that. There's a special ritual I designed to take advantage of Fluttershy's empathic abilities for a tracking tool. And considering we have two specialists in chaotic magic here to serve as samples..." She looked at Pinkie Pie meaningfully.

Celestia agreed with the proposal, and soon Twilight had drawn a large magic circle inside the meeting room. In the middle of the circle was a map, and Twilight, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy joined their fore hooves in a circle around the map.

"Let's start." Twilight said, and activated the circle.

Six

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It didn't take very long. A pulse of magic spread out from the magical circle and expanded beyond the room, beyond the castle, beyond the city. The magical power was dispersed into uselessness, but it had only been used to kickstart the process. Trying to search all over Equestria using magical power had always been an impossibility, instead, Fluttershy's sense of empathy lightly touched all over that huge territory. It was so light a touch that it could do nothing in most situations, but when it made a connection with magic similar to that of Pinkie and Twilight, their connection was enough to send data of the location towards the map.

The trio of ponies had their eyes closed and could not see the results of their search as it was happening, but the other ponies in the room had no such restraints, and they used their superior senses to be able to see the map clearly despite not being able to remain inside the magic circle. They saw as red points started to appear on disparate locations. First one, then two more almost at the same time, then another one, yet another, and after a longer pause, a sixth one appeared.

They waited a few more moments as the spell ran its course, but no other red points appeared on the map, and the trio who had performed the ritual opened their eyes and shook their heads, before looking at the map.

"Come. It's already over." Twilight called the others, and they stepped over the inactive magical circle and crowded around the map.

For a few moments, they simply watched, silently trying to work out where each of the target locations were supposed to be. Celestia was the first to come to a real conclusion, so she cleared her throat and began talking:

"I can already tell that this is not going to a simple matter in any fashion. The closest Shard of Chaos is in the Rottweil Tunnels, territory of a particularly strong pack of diamond dogs. They are the Jeweled Commandos, famous for their skill with gemstone magic as well as their physical prowess." She said in an even tone "Also, there were no Shards on the Great Canterlot Quarry, and for that I am grateful."

"There is no way any Shards of Chaos can form there, the place is too chaotic, so any will of the type that could form one would end up split into pieces among the disparate chaotic energies." Twilight Sparkle, who was the specialist, pronounced, and Celestia accepted the explanation.

"Gemstone magic, huh? This could be interesting." Rarity said, already trying to think about ways of using that in her artificing.

"Ah'm more worried about what kinds of havoc a Shard of Chaos could cause in a place like that." Applejack commented.

"Moving on," Celestia decided to keep explaining "The next Shard of Chaos is in the southwest region of the Forest of Kalindor. This place is Zebra territory, and while they don't get to the same level of nature management as us, the Zebras have their own way of manipulating nature to act in harmony with it. It's a little similar to what the deer do, actually."

"I had a nice talk with a few of the trees of the deer about the nature magic. I wonder how the zebra trees feel about it..." Fluttershy mentioned.

"So that's what you were doing? I thought you were trying to Soul Mirror the entire forest." Rainbow Dash half-joked.

"Perhaps later..." Fluttershy muttered.

"Okay..." Celestia tried not to think too much about it "Almost at the same distance, but nearly at the opposite direction of the previous one in relation to here... It's the city of Saddleoak, a rare majority pegasus population that doesn't live in a cloud city. The reasons for that revolve around the fact that the city was built at the center of a weather configuration that caused all sorts of magical effects on the climate around the place. One of the biggest and best schools for weather magic specialists is located there, and they just need a lot of pegasi to keep things under control in general."

"Ah. A Shard of Chaos right in the middle of a city? That can't be good." Pinkie Pie said.

"I've already faced one chaotic weather condition today, why is this coming up again?" Rainbow Dash complained.

"Do you want a lecture about the most common types of chaotic energy effects?" Twilight teased her.

"No!"

"And after that... There's one on Lake Tsucara, which is a common tourist destination due to the clear waters and friendly aquatic life. It has one of the most famous underwater forests in the world as well, with the inhabitants of the place using them as their main source of food." Celestia kept going.

"And again normal ponies are in big danger." Sunset sighed.

"There is no way this won't somehow involve laser sharks or something, is there?" Applejack asked blandly.

"Water, water creatures, underwater plants... There are just so many ways the Shard could manifest..." Trixie said.

"Right... And about the next one, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this Shard is in the middle of the Arrankar Mountains, very inhospitable place, no ponies that can be in danger. The bad news is that I'm pretty sure the Shard is right on top of an old fortress used by Warlock Black Hooves, a mage expert in ice magic that was a great foe of the Knights of the Scarlet Dream." Celestia said in an apologetic voice.

"Yeahh... This is definitely going to be a thing." Twilight said.

"Must brush up on my fire spells." Sunset spoke blandly.

"Hmm... An old fortress used by a wizard... A'm sure it should have plenty of traps and hidden passages." Applejack considered.

"I'm not ready for this. The Fire Ruler Sword is still only a vague idea..." Rarity muttered.

"And the last one is in the quarry of Longborough, because chaos magic seems to have a strange affection for quarries." Twilight was nodding, Celestia sighed "And this place has everything. A pretty big and important river crosses nearby, there's a city of majority earth ponies that has a focus on earth magic research, there's a forest nearby where some interesting varieties of herbs grow, the quarry is connected to one of the biggest mountains in Equestria..."

"This makes it pretty much impossible to predict what the Chaos Shard is going to do... Not that it is much easier to predict the behavior of chaos magic at the best of times..." Trixie complained.

"I'm surprised more Chaos Shards didn't get into troublesome places like this... I guess since it hasn't been that long from when he lost his body, Discord's powers are still very diffuse, so even his will wasn't enough to warp the probabilities to a level where it would cause the most trouble for us..." Twilight made her contribution to the discussion.

'So... There's six places to go, and I think we should hit them all at once, but how do we divide things up?" Sunset had practical concerns.

"I think that in this situation, the best decision is getting a few reinforcements so that nopony has to go alone." Celestia said, then cast a spell "And we have just the right number."

"Who are ya calling?" Applejack asked.

"You'll see." Celestia said.

-0-

A few minutes later, those who had been called arrived. They were three ponies and one dragon, just enough to reach twelve individuals who could go to the mission. The dragon was obviously Spike, and the three ponies turned out to be old "friends" the original trio had met and fought in their first mission (well, they fought two of them). Yes, they were the three avatars of Luna, now completely free of any traces of the black magic that had infected them before.

Dark Moon was the unicorn, with a gray coat and silver mane. She didn't have a cloak of shadows anymore, but an actual black cloak with a hood that hid part of her eyes. Silver Soul was the earth pony, with a dark blue coat and yellow mane. She had a big saddlebag and a broad smile on her face. Lightning Chaser was the pegasus, with a light blue mane and a green coat. She walked in the stiff and ready manner of the guards, with her eyes looking forward at all times.

"Ah, Spike, how have you been?" Twilight immediately went to talk with the dragon and gave him a hug.

"Oh, you know the deal. Luna's been putting me through all kinds of difficult training so I get better faster... And it works, but the effort is... Very tough." He answered, while Sunset and Trixie gave their own greeting to him.

Meanwhile, the avatars were introducing themselves to the five Knight who had never seen them before.

"I'm Silver Soul! Nice to meet you!" Was the introduction of said pony, who insisted on shaking hooves with everypony in a way that reminded the others of Pinkie Pie.

"This one is called Dark Moon..." The unicorn spoke in a "spooky" voice, looking at the others from the corners of her eyes.

"I am Lightning Chaser." She said in a businesslike tone, seemingly trying to project enough seriousness to single-handedly counter all the silliness of the rest of the room.

The five Knights introduced themselves as well, and Rainbow Dash asked Silver Soul:

"You're the ones that our teachers fought in their first mission, right?"

"Right." She agreed, and Lightning Chaser raised a hoof "Except for her." She put the hoof back down "But none of us actually remembers it, since we were sunken too deeply on the darkness."

"And not the fun kind of darkness, either..." Dark Moon interjected.

"Exactly, it was the darkness of dark magic." Silver Soul said "Apparently I got taken out rather fast due to a surprise attack, while Dark Moon managed to last for a good bit of time." She looked at Lightning Chaser "And she apparently hit Sombra with a lightning bolt. It must be really sad to have done something awesome like that and not remember it."

"Hah. That would really be uncool." Rainbow Dash agreed.

The Knights got on well with the avatars. Pinkie kept making silly faces at Lightning Chaser, trying to get her to crack a smile, and Rarity somehow got into a conversation with Dark Moon about providing her with clothes to go with her "goth style".

But the fun had to end sometime, and Celestia pulled Spike for a few words.

"My sister has informed me that you are ready to become a Squire and accompany the Knights on a mission to receive a promotion to Knight." She said, stunning him "Are you willing to do it?"

He recovered after a few moments and put a hand over his heart "Yes, I am." He said.

"Then, you are now officially a Squire." Celestia smiled.

Everypony congratulated him, and then Rainbow Dash had a thought:

"Does that mean the avatars are Squires too? Will they become Knights?"

"No." Celestia and the three avatars spoke in unison.

Realizing that there should be a reason for that, Rainbow Dash asked "Why?"

Celestia sighed and began her explanation. "It comes down to the fact that they are connected with Luna. And Alicorns cannot be Knights, for there are some fairly important duties that are mutually exclusive between the two." She closed her eyes "The duty of the alicorns is to be pillars that support the pony civilization. As such, they must be simply guardians and cannot act recklessly in ways that could compromise their role as pillars. On the other hand, Knights have to act recklessly, doing things such as the Overdrives and magic that warps their own souls, because their role is to deal with the threats to Equestria, and so they manage to achieve great feats that go beyond what the alicorns could do due to being limited by their roles. But the price of that is having to take great risks, to the point where it is common for Knights to die by sacrificing themselves for the world."

The atmosphere became somber. They understood what she was saying, and each one of the Knights had come to terms with it in their own ways.

After that moment, Celestia got the attention of the others and proceeded to give orders:

"I have thought about it and decided which pairs to form and where to send each of them. I believe Sunset and Spike shall make a good pair for Longborough, since her power can deal with most unexpected circumstances and he is tough enough to survive said circumstances." They nodded in acknowledgement "Rarity and Silver Soul should team up for the Rottwell tunnels, because their abilities are well-suited towards fighting underground or against Diamond Dogs. Twilight and Fluttershy should go to Lake Tsucara, since Twilight's ability with chaos magic should help prevent problems and Fluttershy's connection to nature would help with many of the possible issues. Applejack and Dark Moon should go to the fortress in the Arrankar mountains, since Applejack's eyes can detect hidden problems and Dark Moon's darkness magic is powerful and versatile." She took a breath before continuing.

"Rainbow Dash and Trixie should go to the forest of Kalindor, since they combine strength and trickiness well-enough to deal with the possible issues. And this leaves Lightning Chaser and Pinkie Pie to go to Saddleoak, and the combination of powerful chaos magic with weather magic should help a lot against possible chaotic weather."

Nopony (or dragon) seemed to have issues with that, so the pairs went off to plan and prepare.

The Duos Set Off

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Silver Soul was talking with Rarity while they made their final preparations. Rarity had put on her Armor and had her two swords on her back, while Silver Soul had taken a special artifact, a magical silver necklace containing a ridiculous amount of compressed silver. She could turn normal earth into a silver-like substance and use it in a pinch, but having actual silver was better.

"This is going to be great!" The avatar said "Luna will be pretty stoked to be going on a mission with the Knights, even by proxy, when she wakes up."

"And I'm sure she will be happy that her apprentice is finally coming into his own, as well." Rarity said, and looked closely at Silver Soul's necklace "It's rare to see an old artifact that is still whole this days."

"Oh yeah. The Knights keep breaking them." She said with a giggle, which turned into a snort when she saw the pained expression on Rarity's face "This one wasn't even made by a real artificer, it was a present Luna received from the Mage Association of Relemb." She became lost in thought "I actually married one of them in the following century."

Rarity got curious "How does the marriage thing works for avatars?"

"Oh? Ah, I guess you wouldn't know given that we've spent too long under Sombra's control." Silver Soul reasoned "Basically, we are treated like normal ponies for this. We can get married, we can have children, and neither our partners nor our descendants have any special privileges."

Rarity nodded, then thought of something "Partners? Do you mean..." She didn't complete the thought.

"Ah, I know what you mean. Me and Lightning only like stallions, but Dark Moon likes both stallions and mares." The earth pony answered.

"I understand." Rarity said, and then she asked "Could I take a closer look at your necklace?"

"Sure." Silver Soul said, and took it off before handing it to Rarity.

"Hmm... Some very interesting space compression spells... Based around material elemental affinity for the silver element... It's a very well-done piece of magic, nothing exactly out of the ordinary, but to execute it so well in so little space is praiseworthy." Rarity muttered a few more things, then looked up at Silver Soul with a smile "What do you think about an addition to it?"

Silver Soul's grin was all the answer she needed.

-0-

Fluttershy was checked over by Celestia in order to make sure she was in top-shape before going. She didn't even bother to remove the Armor. Twilight put on her own armor and busied herself with charging it with the merged spell components and retesting the shapeshifting properties of it.

When the Princess was done, Twilight and Fluttershy spent a bit of time going over their combined techniques (as teacher and pupil, they had quite a lot of those), making small plans for general situations (trying to make specific plans against problems caused by a shard of chaos was a fool's errand and reading every bit of information they could get about Lake Tsucara.

"Ah, and have you developed any new techniques since the last time we talked?" Twilight didn't forget to check. Developing new techniques was one of the official Knight pastimes, after all. (Sunset was the one who decided that, she reasoned that it must be true considering all the varied techniques they showed in the stories. Twilight and Trixie agreed with the idea.)

"Ah yes. I pretty much finished one earlier today." She said casually.

Twilight looked at her "And... What is it?"

Fluttershy looked back, approached Twilight, put a hoof on her shoulder and said "It's a secret." With a teasing smile.

"Awww." Twilight complained, before recovering "I just hope we don't have to use the emergency system."

"I agree." Fluttershy said.

The Knights and Spike still had their Fluttershy feathers that could connect to her, and the avatars received feathers as well. However, this time the distance in between the groups was far too large for Fluttershy to be able to maintain complex communications with the others (she had said she would be able to do it eventually, once her abilities developed more), so they had worked things out to only call her in case of emergency, so that she and Twilight could direct reinforcements to the right place. Simply shoving emotions at the feather would be enough, and Fluttershy wouldn't be able to receive any more than that, anyway. She could also sense if the holders of the feathers got extremely distressed, such as receiving big injuries or worse, which would call for the same reaction.

"Well... I guess everything is ready." Twilight said, and Fluttershy nodded, so the unicorn prepared their teleport spell.

-0-

Applejack and Dark Moon didn't really have a lot of things to do before going. Applejack had to wear her armor, but otherwise there was not much to do. So Applejack decided to ask for details about Dark Moon's powers.

Big mistake.

" [...] And so, by being swallowed by darkness, I become one with darkness and as such darkness becomes one with me. Like this, I can chance the darkness like I change myself, and make it solid as well as turn it into the greatest attack and defense, manipulating the world around via the darkness channeled by my dark soul [...]" Dark Moon just kept going on and on.

Applejack had heard the word "darkness" so many times already that it didn't sound like a real word anymore. And the avatar was still going.

"[...] For the true meaning of this darkness is the space that swallows all light. With this, I can devour anything by sucking it into the darkness-"

"Dark Moon." Applejack interjected.

"Yes?"

"Ah think Ah understand yer darkness powers more or less." She spoke with a voice that brimmed with forced calm "Ah think we should use the remaining time before we have ta go by planning our general approach."

"Hmm... I still had a lot more to say, but I guess this is indeed important." She sounded a little disappointed, but nodded "What do you mean by general approach."

"Since we don't know what we are going ta find, specially because we are dealing with chaos magic, we can't make any detailed plans. Instead, it would be better ta define a general approach, how best ta work as a team in regards ta mobility, attack and defense." Applejack's voice had returned to normal "There is also the matter of quickly passing information that Ah gain with my eyes, so that ya can understand the situation at all times. I have a way to do it, but it needs eye contact."

"Those are indeed factors that we have to plan for." Dark Moon spoke in a thoughtful voice "I guess most of the defence and mobility should be taken care off by me, since it's easier to use than your earth magic."

"Ah think ya should pay attention ta the matter of long range attacks. Ah can do them, but earth magic really isn't suited for this." Applejack pointed out.

Their discussion continued, and Applejack managed to keep things mostly on track, even if she was still hearing the word darkness far too much.

-0-

"And you don't need to worry too much about diplomatic issues. Because Knights have a lot of leeway for simple faux passes. It would be different if you acted like a jerk or committed an actual crime, but there's no chance of that." Trixie was explaining to Rainbow Dash what she expected of her, considering that they weren't teacher and student and didn't have as much experience together as those pairs.

"You sound like Sunset. I thought you would be a lot more demanding of precision and stuff, to make your plans work right." Rainbow Dash said.

"That's Rarity. You're thinking of Rarity." Trixie joked "That also has its place, but micromanagement is always a crapshoot, much less involving a pegasus like you, and much less in a situation involving Shards of Chaos. If Trixie really needs to give you specific orders, she'll just create an auditory illusion to give you the instructions at the perfect time."

Trixie had put on her armor while Rainbow Dash was getting treated by Celestia, though that was mostly unnecessary. She hadn't been in an actual fight, and had simply channeled her magic at a slightly high level to be able to perform what she did. Still, it was better to be careful about those kinds of things.

"So, what do you expect?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"Trixie expects that we will find a few welcoming zebra who will be completely surprised when the forest turns against us and will need to be protected. She expects having to rescue zebra from the bowels of chaotic creatures, and also expects some kind of chaotic arena, maybe an underground world or a place made out of a combination of uncountable trees." She stopped for a moment "But don't count on it too much."

"Okay... I agree that seems probable... By the way, that thing about Rarity... Is there a story there?" Rainbow asked casually.

Trixie smirked at her knowingly "Actually, there is indeed a story. Trixie put her apprentices through a few exercises to test for their potential skill in command. Applejack did well, being able to see through the heart of the matter and make snap decisions. But Rarity... She gets too bogged down in details and isn't able to react properly when things don't go as planned."

"Ahh... I can see that." Rainbow Dash agreed.

"Speaking of that... Did Sunset do something similar with you?" Trixie asked.

"Yeah. And she said that my best style of leadership would be going in front following my instincts and allowing the others to act according to the situation." The pegasus said in a level voice.

Trixie looked at her "Somehow, Trixie is completely unsurprised by that."

-0-

Pinkie quickly put on her armor, and when Lightning Chaser asked if there was anything important she needed to know, decided to explain something important about her Emotion Charge:

"I managed to reach a level where I can use 80% of the power of my emotions but I can't go up any higher because it always feels like I'll lose control, and to even reach this point I need to slowly elevate the power of my emotions so I can't start with full power." Pinkie spoke in two breaths.

Lightning Chaser was grateful for the quick and direct sharing of information, and decided to ask something.

"Could you help me with something? I have some experience with using my magic to deal with chaotic effects, I even helped fight Discord once. But it has been a while, and I think it would be best to refamiliarize myself with it."

Pinkie agreed, and they went to a place where they could do it.

"Okay. Do it." Lightning Chaser asked Pinkie Pie.

The Knight charged the air with a high amount of chaotic magic and threw it at the pegasus, who allowed it to settle around her and start causing strange reactions as it shifted the nature of the air repeatedly. After a few seconds of this, Lightning Chaser started using her magic to create black-colored versions of her namesake, forcefully breaking through the restrictions of the chaotic magic.

While she looked at Lightning Chaser's techniques, Pinkie could not help but remember something.

"Hey, this black lightning you use looks like the same type of lightning magic that I've seen Tempest of Destruction using during that mission, so is there some kind of connection? Is this just what happens when you get really good at lightning? Can you do lightning clones too? Did you know him?" Pinkie unleashed a series of questions that would put most ponies out of balance.

But Lightning Chaser wasn't most ponies. She broke the entire chaotic field, dispersing the magic, and then started calmly answering Pinkie's questions:

"Yes, there is some connection, but only in the sense that he copied the black lightning from me. No, this is not just what happens when you get really good at lightning, it's a special technique that grants the attribute of destruction to the lightning. I can't do lightning clones, that is one of the techniques he created himself, but I can use colored lightning of different types with different attributes, which he never managed to do. I do know him, but we never had a lot of contact, mostly he faced Knight Flurry."

"I got it..." Pinkie thought for a moment "Do you want to hear details about how Sunset annihilated him?" She said with a smile.

Lightning Chaser couldn't help but crack a smile at that. She quickly schooled her expression back to neutral, but Pinkie cheered internally.

"I would like that, yes."

-0-

"So, little guy, it's you and me. I hope you cover me from danger when I'm busy with other things." Sunset said.

"I really hope my abilities are enough for this mission. There is so much that can go wrong..." Spike said.

"That is how things always are when you are a Knight. You must face all enemies and threats without knowing whether you are strong enough or if your abilities are suited to it. You trust in your companions and keep going no matter what, and if nothing else works, you start being reckless." Sunset did a small speech about it.

"... I guess you're right... I can't really just keep worrying about things. I need to relax and deal with things as they come. I need to remember how much I've trained and how much stronger I've gotten since I started. Master always says that remembering my training would help gain confidence." Spike said.

"That's the spirit. And I also seem to have heard something about you being able to fly now." Sunset grinned at him.

"Yeah. I finally got to the point where I can use the draconic aura to form wings. It really..." Spike seemed to have difficulty expressing himself "It really was something that made all the effort worth it. I've been dreaming about flying for a while."

"That's cool. I just never found a true flight spell that was right for me." Sunset sighed "Teleportation works well most of the time, and in a pinch I can improvise something... But flying is still one of my weak points."

"Then, I could carry you flying so that we can join our forces." Spike suggested.

Sunset grinned again "We could call it Draconic Weapons Platform! A flying weapon that blasts everything nearby!"

"... Why do I feel like this is not a spur of the moment thing?" Spike asked.

"Because it's not. I have something similar with Rainbow Dash. The Rainbow Weapons Platform!" Sunset declared.

"That makes sense."

-0-

A kilometer from the Rottwell tunnels, a circle of light suddenly appeared on the ground. If one were to have good sight, it would be possible to see letters shifting rapidly within the light. The circle got more and more solid, and the light got brighter, until the point where, like an explosion without sound, everything reached the peak for a moment and then vanished.

In the place of the circle, there were two ponies. A white unicorn and a blue earth pony. Rarity then spoke:

"Ahhh. Teleporting so far still wears me out a little, specially with a guest along." She smiled a bit.

"Do you need a moment or...?" Silver Soul asked.

"The walk towards the cave is already enough for me to recover my breath." Rarity said, grabbing her swords with telekinesis and making them float.

Silver Soul nodded and the two started walking in the direction of their objective. They still hadn't gone three hundred meters before Rarity sighed.

"What?" The earth pony avatar asked.

"We should have already been intercepted and asked about our business, according to what I've been able to gather about the Jeweled Commandos." She answered "The fact that they haven't done that yet means that something has disturbed their usual patterns badly already."

Silver Soul thought for a moment and nodded. She then activated her necklace and coated herself with a layer of silver. Preparing for any unexpected surprises.

The two moved quickly but calmly, covering the rest of the distance to the entrance of the cave in a short time. Nothing jumped out to attack them, but as they got closer to the cave, Rarity got more and more certain that this wasn't going to last for long, because there was something inside the cave that was interfering with her magic. Even with the power of her Earth Ruler Sword, she could barely feel the earth of the cave, much less control it, and the air was the same. This was definitely something that could be called enemy territory.

When the two actually got inside, Rarity saw that if she was close enough to the earth or air that she wanted to control, she could overcome the interference, so things weren't in the worst case scenario. Still, the unicorn quickly focused herself to the limit, knowing that things could get hairy in a hurry.

The cave was dark (unnaturally so, the light coming from the mouth of the cavern was being smothered somehow), and Rarity quickly cast a small night-vision spell. Silver Soul, being one of the avatars of the princess of the night, clearly wasn't hindered by the darkness. And the two had an instant to see what they were going against before the attacks started.

The interior of the cavern was full of towers, four meter tall structures which seemed roughly made, as if in a hurry. The towers created barriers that formed a winding path through the cavern. Each tower had a big gemstone on top, and they were extremely well-cut and flawless, as well as not having the normal color variance of natural gemstones. Instead, they were solid and vibrant colors all the way through, some red, some green, some yellow, some blue and yet other colors. Those beautiful gems made quite the contrast with the rough towers.

However, their beauty was slightly undercut for Rarity and Silver Soul when they started shooting spells at them.

Rarity immediately activated her wind wings and flew into the air. The ceiling of the cave was only seven meters tall, but it was still enough space to maneuver, because Rarity had trained a lot in flight techniques ever since the fight against Chrysalis. Silver Soul released a wave of silver to create a barrier against the spells.

The two immediately realized that simple defense or avoidance wouldn't even be enough to survive for a minute, because those were clearly not ordinary spells. Some of them were homing, and some were area of effect based, meaning that Rarity's ability to dodge was compromised. Meanwhile, Silver Soul had problems because some of the spells were piercing, capable of going through her barrier, while others caused disruptions in the magic she was using to control the silver in the first place.

And that wasn't all. There was a ridiculous variety of spells being used against them, to the point where it was only possible because each jewel could release several different spells, and they shot fast. Some spells were heat or cold, others were lightning, some were pure kinetic energy, while others were projectile based, some spells were explosive while others released a pseudo-acid.

The two shifted their focus to attack, Rarity deliberately flying close to the nearest towers, knowing that the spells would have to hold back to preserve them. Silver Soul surrounded herself in a sphere of silver and bulled forward, also approaching the towers.

"Wind Slash!" Rarity cast, releasing a cutting slash of wind and sawing two towers in half.

"Silver Stab!" Silver Soul followed her lead, creating a spear of silver and gouging a huge hole right in the middle of another one.

The towers crumbled, but the jewels teleported away to nearby towers, and kept up their assault. Silver Soul suddenly alerted:

"MOVE!" And jumped away, while Rarity did a sharp dodge in the air.

The earth under them exploded, as a Diamond Dog jumped out from it and slashed right where Rarity had been previously. Then, he was hit by a dozen spells in quick sequence, but instead of harming him, the spells seemed to buff him, with magical barriers appearing, his claws gaining an edge of red light, his legs shining green and other things that were less visible but could be felt happening.

After that, he advanced on his opponents, while the towers kept attacking them with their spells.

Rarity landed on the ground beside Silver Soul, knowing that this would be difficult.

-0-

Twilight and Fluttershy appeared five hundred meters away from Lake Tsucara, in the southwest side. And it was immediately obvious that things weren't right.

The numerous ponies running away from the lake and screaming as well as the multitudes of tentacles constructed from algae sweeping around the area were a pretty big clue.

The main priority of the Knights was always helping others, and so their first move was explicitly for this purpose, and it was Fluttershy who made it.

"Empathy Drive: Grand Search!" She cast, releasing a pulse of magic that spread over the entire area.

That was the base spell that had been turned into the ritual used previously. In such a limited area, Fluttershy could expand her empathy to be able to sense every living being in range, which also made her able to find every single innocent that was in danger. More than that, she could also touch Twilight with her empathy to give her the same information.

And Twilight Sparkle was quite capable of doing something about it.

"Chaos Magic: Interference Pulse!" Twilight released a pulse of magic of her own.

But this pulse was fairly different from Fluttershy's. It was actually designed to interfere with any bit of magic that it encountered. Fluttershy had to deactivate her Grand Search while it passed, before reactivating it. But it was worth it because of the effects of that spell.

All of the tentacles that were dragging ponies towards the depths of the lake were acting due to the influence of chaos magic. It was difficult to interfere with them for most ponies, but Twilight was an expert in chaos magic herself, and so, even having to spread her magic through a very large space, the effects of her magic pulse "stunned" all of the tentacles, preventing them from moving for a while and also causing parts of them to fall off, as the lowered efficiency of the chaos magic meant that the laws of physics had the final say over some structures that were far too fragile to work normally.

And that was only the opening act.

"Empathy Drive: Animal Spirit!" Fluttershy charged her magic "Manticore Edition!"

And once more she channeled the spirit of the manticore. Fluttershy flew right to the closest ponies in danger and slashed through the tentacle that was threatening them. Twilight did a chaotic shift and started casting spells all over the place, creating small earth monsters that turned the battle into a war. The two moved forward towards the lake and kept with their attacks, saving more and more ponies in the process. This was helped by Fluttershy's Grand Search, which gave her a constant awareness of everything, which she shared with Twilight.

The two kept getting ever closer to the lake, and the stunned state of the tentacles couldn't last long. As such, the opposing chaotic magic quickly honed in on the two of them as the biggest threats and sent a lot of tentacles at them, and not only that, but smaller monsters that also seemed to be at least halfway plant based started crawling out of the lake and attacking.

But it didn't help. Twilight and Fluttershy cut through them like they weren't even there, and even the biggest tentacle vines were barely slowing the two down.

Without hesitation, both of them plunged into the water, and finally they were faced with something that was actually challenging. The whole underwater forest attacked them all at once, and with the support of the water taking most of the burden of keeping the vegetable structures standing, the rest of the chaos magic was free to increase their size, thickness, number and ferocity. The fact that they were closer to the source of the chaos magic also helped. Twilight and Fluttershy also had to worry about keeping up the magic they were using to breathe underwater, which was basically creating a pocket of air on their muzzles and drawing air from the water into it.

They defended themselves from the multitude of tendrils, claws, spikes and teeth that were thrown at them. The two were trying to rescue four ponies who had already been dragged down into the lake, so they didn't stop to fight, instead simply rushing through as fast as they could. Twilight created a chaotic vortex of water around herself as a defense and attack, while Fluttershy simply kept going with her Manticore Spirit.

Luckily, the chaotic effects seemed to want their victims alive, so the tentacles who got them had encased the underwater ponies in bubbles which also put them in stasis (according to what Fluttershy could feel). The two broke through the crowded waters and managed to reach the endangered ponies one by one, allowing Twilight to teleport them to safety after destroying the bubbles.

And then, the Knights had one last thing to do. They needed to deal with the chaotic forest that was still attacking and would still be a danger to the innocent ponies. This was a problem, because they couldn't just destroy the forest, given that the livelihood of many ponies depended on it.

However, they didn't really need to, because the two were actually perfectly prepared to deal with that situation. They joined their hooves and charged magic for a second, while the numerous attacks got closer and closer to them.

"Duo Magic: Power Gift!" They called.

Fluttershy was connected to every living being in the area due to her Grand Search, and that included the chaos warped forest. So with Twilight's help, she poured energy into the core of the plants and used it to utterly supplant the chaos magic that was controlling them, returning everything to normal.

Fluttershy and Twilight then had a short conversation via empathy that ended with the two of them flying back out of the water.

"Is there anyone who is still missing?" Twilight asked, after having cast a spell to enhance her voice.

There was a rush as ponies around the lake called for their families and friends, trying to find each other. The Knights watched as most of them had success on that endeavor, but in the end, five ponies still remained missing.

"They must be inside the underwater tunnels." Fluttershy said.

"Yes. The tunnels that shouldn't exist." Twilight was resigned.

Because Fluttershy had noticed that the bottom of the lake had disappeared, as an underwater cave network appeared, a place that could be called a subworld, given that it was apparently created entirely by the chaos magic warping the place.

And they would have to go in.

-0-

Applejack and Dark Moon appeared in the snow-covered cliffs of Arrankar Mountain and immediately had to use their aura defenses to protect against the cold. Heavy winds blew through the air, carrying with them such cold that even thick insulating clothing would only extend the time before a pony without sufficient magical abilities fell to hypothermia.

Thankfully, both of them did have sufficient abilities, and knowing that they were going to a place like this, they had already prepared and even cast spells of protection against the cold on themselves, spells that reduced the burden that their aura defenses had to take to keep the two warm.

After a moment to get used to the situation, Applejack used her Far Sight to confirm the position of the Fortress. And that was the first sign that things weren't right.

The fortress was at the same time magnificent and scary. It was perched at the top of a particularly sharp incline. The walls were solid and dozens of meters tall, with their tops being covered with wicked spikes. The design of the walls was composed of strange, beautiful, complex and varied spiral patterns, that seemed to change whenever they weren't being watched. The gate was a steel structure that seemed to meld perfectly with the stone around it, and was an arch with an iron grid inside it, which seemed to lack any visible means of opening. And there was no moat, but around the fortress there were three circles of nasty looking runes.

All of this was well and good, but the important was what wasn't there. There was none of the wear and tear that would be expected for a place abandoned to the elements for centuries. There was also none of the damage from Black Hooves famed final battle against the Knights of the Scarlet Dream. Both of those things had appeared in the most recent pictures of the place (taken by an extreme adventurer pegasus called Rising Star who made a living by taking pictures of dangerous and inhospitable places). Which meant that something was very wrong.

Applejack couldn't be sure of what was happening, because she would need to get closer in order to actually see through everything (she still hadn't been able to combine Far Sight with the other capabilities of the Eyes of Truth), but they simply wouldn't get anywhere by just standing there, so Applejack informed Dark Moon of what she had seen and then the two started making their way towards the fortress.

The walking was calm for about three minutes, and then Applejack called:

"Stop."

Dark Moon did so and looked at the Knight, wondering what the problem was. Applejack explained by drawing a sphere of earth from the ground and throwing it forward.

As soon as it touched the ground, the sphere was skewered by eleven spikes of ice that suddenly surged out from the ground in a burst of magic.

"Magical trap." Applejack declared "Another thing that should not be working right now."

Dark Moon nodded and the two returned to their walk, the avatar went into battle-ready mode, coating herself in darkness, just in case, but Applejack's Eyes were doing pretty well with spotting the traps, and she could disable them safely, sometimes by throwing things, while others she had to shift the earth to break the hidden magical runes (there were different types of traps). They made steady progress.

And finally, the two got close enough to the fortress that Applejack could see the truth of it.

"Memories..." She realized.

But before she could elaborate, there was a reaction from the fortress, or rather, from above it, as a pony appeared in the air over the fortress. It was an earth pony stallion with gray mane and white coat, except for his hooves, which were black as coal. He was most definitely Warlock Black Hooves.

"So... You have come here to bring and end to me?!" He spoke in an angry voice "You shall see the true power of the cold of death!"

That said, he charged magic, and the whole fortress did the same, and from within the fortress, a gigantic ice sculpture of a minotaur appeared and jumped towards Applejack and Dark Moon.

-0-

Rainbow Dash and Trixie teleported already inside the forest. They kept their eyes and ears open as they walked through the trees, going in the direction of the zebra "village" that was closest to the place where the Shard of Chaos had been detected. They got into sight distance of the buildings and... Didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

Feeling obscurely disappointed, they walked into the town, which was a somewhat loose collection of buildings in a certain area. And the two could quickly see what Celestia had meant when she talked about the zebra acting in harmony with nature. The terrain of the forest was bumpy, but instead of flattening it for the convenience of easily coming and going, the zebras had chosen to follow the same strategy of the trees of the forest (which grew in all sorts of weird configurations and angles, according to the uneven terrain) and simply adapted to the place.

Houses were shaped according to the terrain they were in, with some shaped like triangles that hugged upward slopes, others were located at the bottom of depressions and were built in a way that the entrances were on the "ground", like they were a basement of a house that was now missing. Some houses supported themselves in configurations of trees, something like tree houses which had supports on the ground, while others simply took the trees as part of themselves, like a house under a tree where part of the walls was made from the roots of that tree. And with those configurations, entrances, exits, windows and all those parts had an immense variation from each other, with the zebra putting ramps, bridges, spiral stairs and all sorts of other things to facilitate their movement around, creating situations like a door being situated right above a deep depression, and so connecting straight to a bridge that led to another high ground. No two houses were the same, and Rainbow imagined that the zebra foals would definitely get a lot of fun just walking around the place.

As for the inhabitants of the town, there was also nothing strange there. Almost all of them were zebra, though one or two ponies could be seen as well as a donkey. As such, while they got some stares due to being strangers, most of those who saw them didn't really seem overly concerned. And after a minute of walking through the town, they seemed to have been recognized, and a zebra mare with red earrings on both ears and a blue ring on her neck, as well as a cutie mark in the zebra style that seemed to depict some sort of fruit came to talk to them.

"Knight Trixie, Knight Rainbow Dash?" She walked up to them, looking the two up and down "Why are you two here? Did Knight Rainbow come to watch Knight Trixie's show? But I didn't hear anything about this."

Trixie assumed the lead "Actually, the two of us are here on official Knight business. By the way, what's your name."

The zebra seemed surprised "I'm Medaka. And that seems serious. Do you need any help?"

Trixie shook her head "Not at the moment. We'll just take a look at things slowly for now."

Medaka nodded and left them to their business, Rainbow turned to Trixie "Shouldn't you have asked if there has been anything strange?"

"No. If there was, she would have mentioned it, now that we are here." She closed her eyes for a moment "More importantly, I've been running a spell to detect chaos magic ever since we got here. The level of chaotic energy in the air is higher than normal, but not that much higher, and not at a level that would make things happen. We should keep going and see if we find anywhere that has a higher level of chaos."

Rainbow Dash nodded and the two kept walking around the town. It was a fairly peaceful way to spend half an hour, and Rainbow only didn't get bored because her instincts were telling her that something was definitely not right around there. Still, they didn't find anything, so Trixie decided to change tactics, and so they went to speak to Medaka again.

"Could you tell us about any particularly interesting places on the town?" Trixie asked.

Medaka nodded "Yes. I know of a perfect place, come with me, it's not far."

And she took them to a place that was somewhat separated from the main collection of buildings that composed the town. Five minutes of walking through the forest led them to the thing Medaka wanted to show.

It was a tree. But it wasn't just any tree. This tree was thicker than any of the others, with more and bigger branches, as well as more leaves on them, the roots were also big, to the point they could be faintly seen where they were just below the ground.

"This is the Colonara tree. It's an old tree that mutated over the years until it became like this. The roots of this tree go farther down than any of the others, to the point she can actually draw water directly from the underground river that supplies this entire part of the forest." Medaka said proudly.

Trixie walked in front of the tree and checked for chaos magic. The results were immediate, it had a much bigger amount of chaotic energy inside it, to the point where it should be doing something. And that made it even stranger that the tree didn't seem to be doing any different from normal, the chaotic energy seemingly inactive.

Wanting to get to the bottom of this, Trixie tried a spell to analyze the tree directly... And immediately had to cut it off, getting a headache from the backlash.

"Medaka..." She said slowly "Why does it feel like this tree is only a part of something much bigger?"

"That's because it is." The zebra spoke carefully "This whole section of the forest is something like a colony, every living being is connected to every other living being and they all share everything. It's like they are all part of a single organism."

Rainbow Dash blinked and Trixie sighed.

'A single organism, huh? I have the feeling we have just gotten to the main issue here.' Trixie thought.

-0-

Pinkie Pie and Lightning Chaser teleported in just a few meters away from the entrance of Saddleoak.

"And then Sunset was like 'Annihilation Nova!', and she made this huge ball of energy, like whoa! And it was so huge she had to teleport away to escape her own attack, like oops!" Pinkie was telling the story.

Lightning Chaser didn't react outwardly, but Pinkie could tell that she was smiling on the inside.

And then the wind picked up suddenly and a vortex of air appeared in the sky. It gathered clouds onto itself and quickly turned into a colossal storm cloud.

Both Pinkie Pie and Lightning Chaser thought about going after it but decided not to for different reasons. Pinkie Pie realized that there were no traces of chaos magic on that sudden phenomenon, and she remembered Celestia talking about the weird climate of that place. Lightning Chaser, on the other hand, looked around and saw that the ponies around them didn't seem to be worried about that situation. Both of them decided to wait and see, but prepared themselves to interfere if things got out of hand.

Soon after the storm appeared, a squad of six pegasi flew from the city and took a formation just below the storm, flapping their wings and molding their magic in a way that managed to intercept most of the force of the winds and rain that were coming from it.

"Pinkie. Is this something normal for this place?" Lightning Chaser asked.

"It seems so. There's no influence of chaos magic around anyway. And it doesn't look like they need our help." She answered.

It certainly looked like they had things in hand. The storm was getting smaller and smaller, and the pegasi kept moving around it in an expert manner, taking care of the most troublesome areas. And then Pinkie felt a warning from her Pinkie Sense and, from within the center of the remaining mass, a purple lightning appeared, and the storm seemed to implode in itself, before splitting into a dozen individual, chaotically charged clouds.

"Time to go!" She said to Lightning Chaser, before starting her Emotion Charge.

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The pegasus avatar immediately flew into the sky, where the pegasi team was bravely trying to deal with this new development, but their concerted efforts were not being very effective, for the individual clouds ran away as soon as they were making some progress, with another "fresh" cloud moving to take their place. She flew as fast as she could, and charged black lightning on her wings.

Pinkie started to run on the air, going directly up to the storm and using chaotic shifting to speed up. Even so, Lightning Chaser got there first, and speared the closest cloud with a huge bold of black lightning. The storm itself seemed to roar in response, and she screamed "Form a barrier!" to the six pegasi, knowing that things were about to get rough.

And she was right. The eleven remaining clouds joined together and formed a giant griffin made out of chaos clouds, who swiped the air, causing a powerful wind to slam into Lightning Chaser and the six pegasi. She managed to block the wind with a shield of white lightning, though she had to retreat a few meters in the air, the pegasi were thrown kilometers away, though their shield protected them from injuries.

But the chaos weather griffin had miscalculated. It used to much power with that attack, and Pinkie Pie was more than ready to exploit such a flaw. She shifted right in front of the griffin...

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"Chaotic Arts: Burst Magic!" And released a burst of chaotic energy that was so tremendous it actually managed to make all the clouds that composed the griffin waver in and out of existence for a few moments... Revealing a point of light in his lower part.

"There!" Pinkie shouted, and Lightning Chaser didn't dawdle.

She created another bolt of black lightning shot it straight through that light, and with a mournful sound, the griffin disappeared.

Lightning Chaser flew to Pinkie's side "This is just the start, isn't it?" She asked.

Pinkie nodded "Yes. And the worst part is, I could fell that the chaos magic that did this came from somewhere inside the city."

-0-

Sunset Shimmer and Spike appeared next to the quarry and the Knight immediately started charging magic, for she had felt a big amount of chaotic energy in the air, similar to what happened when Twilight had time to spread her magic too much in their spars. Her action was proven correct moments later, when several stone golems appeared from the quarry and came straight at the two.

"Magic Enhance: Comet Dash!" She cast, shooting her magical projectile straight at the closest golem.

"Draconic Aura: Right Arm of the Dragon!" Spike was only a beat behind, as he created his aura and punched the next goblin.

The following minute was a flurry of violence. The golems were big and strong, but that also made them good targets, and the Knight and Squire were more than powerful enough to take advantage of that. They destroyed enemy after enemy, and there were none left after a bit.

The two kept looking around, ready for another wave, until Spike said "River!", having managed to see something even from far away. Sunset nodded.

"Draconic Weapons Platform!" She called, and jumped into the air.

Spike didn't wait, he jumped into the air as well and used his magic.

"Draconic Aura: Wings of the Dragon!" He called, and two big, powerful-looking wings appeared on his back and allowed him to float in the air. Sunset landed on the left wing, and Spike took off, flying fast towards the river.

Sunset soon could see what Spike saw. Fishlike water golems were jumping out of the river and going after a bunch of fisherponies, who were trying to run away. With Spike swooping right over them, the Knight went back to shooting powerful spell after powerful spell, destroying the enemies with high efficiency.

After they were all gone, Spike changed directions and flew towards the city, saying "More enemies!", and this time there were a lot more ponies in danger, as several earth golems which looked similar to rabbits had spawned inside the city limits. The duo resumed their sistematic annihilation of the chaotic monsters, but even after they were all gone, there was no time to take a rest, for the next wave of enemies appeared in the forest. They were wood golems which looked like walking trees, and Sunset couldn't use fire magic due to the risk of a forest fire.

That barely slowed the two of them down. Sunset switched to using more impact based spells and just kept up her powerful attacks. After a short period of time, the wood golems were all gone... And then Spike changed directions again, this time to the mountain.

"Oh, come on!" Sunset shouted, even as she prepared for a new round of fighting.

This time the chaotic monsters were different, they were arms coming out of the earth that kept extending more and more. Sunset was already beginning to get tired of having to destroy those kinds of things repeatedly, but the situation finally changed when one of the arms was destroyed by a flurry of wind blades.

Sunset looked around and saw who was responsible. It was a beautiful unicorn mare with dark green coat and sky blue mane. She was riding a wind current and had a zither made out of pure magic floating by her side (her cutie mark was of three musical notes).

"Do you need some help?" She asked.

Chaos is Varied

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The diamond dog was soon revealed to be one fairly troublesome opponent. Not only was he fast and strong, he was also unnaturally coordinated with the spell towers and had a huge amount of resilience, both from the shield spells layered upon him and from his ability to dig into the ground as both cover and mobility enhancement.

No matter if it was elemental slashes, or a physical slash enhanced by flash step, they weren't able to get through the defenses of the enemy, and Silver Soul's manipulation of her element didn't have any better luck. It didn't help that the both the diamond dog and the towers were very magically aware, and trying to charge more powerful attacks led to the combatant retreating into the ground while the towers attacked with the intent of disrupting whatever was being done.

Rarity, even while having to deal with all of the varied spells that were being thrown at her and a fairly skilled and fast combatant that was heavily boosted by magic (and that she couldn't really hurt considering that the chances of some kind of manipulation via chaos magic were almost one hundred percent), still had enough focus to be able to think.

Specifically, she was thinking that this situation was quite bothersome, but also in a particularly important lesson that her teacher Trixie had drilled into her. The lesson was that the most perfect something seems, the most likely it is for that thing to have some huge hidden flaw.

And she was thinking about this gem magic. Not only were there different gems which were capable of different spells, but the same gems could use multiple spells as well. And they were not only simple things, but had a big variety in terms of effects and process as well as being capable of aiming. Besides that, the gems could escape from bad situations and were even capable of discriminating targets to be able to change from attacks into buffs depending on what was being targeted.

It really was far too good, and so there should be a hidden flaw somewhere, and Rarity had her own suspicions about what kind of flaw there could be in this gemstone magic. But she wanted to be sure, so it was time to take a calculated risk.

"Cover me!" She shouted to Silver Soul, returning both Ruler Swords to her back and running in the direction of the tower closest to the wall.

She had chosen a good time and a good place for it. The diamond dog was on the other side of the battlefield and too far away to easily interfere, even with his boosted speed. But even so, such was not an easy task. The towers focused more on the opponent that was coming closer, and the amount of spells sent in her direction was fear-inducing.

So this was a moment for Rarity to show, once more, why the Knights were so respected. The amount of physical training all of them had to do was no joke, and even though it wasn't her specialty, Rarity had taken well to it. She moved with an astounding speed, specially for a unicorn who was using only her muscles instead of any magic, but the most impressive part was her courage. She was moving closer without stopping, dodging sharp projectiles, area explosions and extreme temperature changes by the barest of margins, running and jumping without the least hesitation, with ferocious and yet graceful movements. She had to use her perception to read the magical pattern of every spell that shot at her and react appropriately.

And yet, even with this, she would have a lot more trouble if Silver Soul didn't immediately start moving in her direction and shooting silver spikes to intercept as many of the spells as possible. Even with this kind of help, Rarity didn't quite manage to get to the end with pure muscle power. There were still twenty meters left before the tower and she realized that she couldn't dodge and keep going forward the same way.

'Well, nothing to it then. It's a little hard to do this without the help of the Sword, but...'

And at the last moment, Rarity enhanced her body with just a touch of magic power, just enough magic power to do what was needed without messing up what she was preparing.

Then she pushed off the ground in a Flash Step, completely escaping the danger zone and reaching her goal in a single movement. At that moment, Silver Soul stopped and turned to rush at the diamond dog and prevent him from interfering, now that he was also getting closer. Rarity had asked the avatar to cover her, and that was what she intended to do.

The Knight only had a few moments before the towers retargeted, but she didn't need more than a single one. There was a reason why she had refrained from using more than a touch of magic during her advance up to that point.

'Amplify Domain.' She thought.

And with this she extended the range of her domain to cover the jewel in the closest tower. And so she could feel them, the diamond dogs that were directly connected with that jewel as well as all the others. That was the weakness of this kind of gemstone magic, they were controlling the gems from far away, and that control could receive interference.

Rarity had plans for other situations, but she had been really hoping that "direct control" was the right answer, because the plan for that situation was her favorite. After taking an instant to understand every single part of the magical pattern they were using...

"RULE!" She shouted, channeling magic through the gem.

She reproduced it perfectly, in every detail. And she used it to take over all of the gemstone towers in that particular "room". Obviously the diamond dogs on the other side didn't want that to happen, but she was close while they were far away from that place, she was fast while they were slow to react to the sudden change, and more importantly, she was full of stored magic while they had been continually using theirs.

Also, it would be annoying if they could keep trying to take back control, so Rarity broke the magical channels that could led to the "central" of the dogs. That done, she used her new control of the gems to disable the spells that had been put on the diamond dog they were fighting.

"Restrain him!" She called to Silver Soul.

The avatar heard her, and she started sending threads of silver to wrap around the dog. He moved to break out of them, but Silver Soul kept close to him and kept making more and more threads, slowly making it so that it was getting harder for the dog to evade by the minute.

Eventually, he tried to jump into the earth to escape, but without having to worry about being harassed by the towers, Silver Soul could put everything into trying to restrain her opponent. Weaving a rope of silver, she wrapped it around the leg of the dog and threw him into the air.

That was pretty much the end of it. Without being able to use the ground to aid his movements, even slashing with his claws all he could, it was impossible for him to avoid being completely engulfed in a prison of silver, up to his neck, without being able to do anything to escape.

Rarity walked near him "Are you willing to talk now?" She asked.

He growled at her, but that was all.

"Okay, I think I have an idea of what this is, but it'll take a bit of effort to be sure." Rarity said, then closed her eyes and sent a controlled pulse of magic into the diamond dog's head.

He immediately used his own internal magic to try and fight her off, but two things were working against him: The first was the fact that he wasn't particularly skilled in simple magic manipulation and defenses, the second was Rarity wasn't trying to harm him (which would allow the dog to defend himself instinctively) and instead only trying to find anything that shouldn't be there.

This was a feat of magic that demanded absolute precision, but Rarity had that in spades.

And after only half a minute of that, she found what she was looking for. It was a small and almost unnoticeable bit of magic, a mere fragment of chaotic energy. And she destroyed it.

Then she withdrew her magic and looked the dog directly in the eyes before asking "Could you tell me what happened?"

He seemed to struggle with himself for a few moments before opening his mouth and speaking:

"Dogs digging. Found big gem." His voice was gravely "Needed to protect big gem from others. Wanted to steal it. But... How would they know about jewel? Why did we need to seal cave from others?" He looked like he was trying to answer a difficult problem.

"It was not your fault. I think that gem combined with a shard of chaos from Discord. There was chaotic energy in your mind, which must have made you and every other dog paranoid." Rarity said.

His face was down "Then... Other dogs. Still controlled."

"Do not worry." Rarity reassured him "I am Knight Rarity, and I have come because of this. I promise I'll rescue your friends and destroy the shard of chaos. I'll even do my best to prevent the jewel from being destroyed, but no promises." She made a signal to Silver Soul to release the dog, and then looked at him "Do you want to come with us to help? What's your name?"

The dog looked at her for a moment and said "Named Ein."

-0-

Without waiting any longer, Twilight and Fluttershy dived back into the lake and swam into the chaotic space tunnels, the pegasus restarting her Grand Search and Manticore Spirit in order to be prepared for anything.

Still, the chaotic space was large, and for the first few minutes, the two didn't find anything dangerous. So they had time for a conversation via Fluttershy's empathy.

'This is a lot bigger and more dangerous than the shard of chaos I destroyed earlier.' Fluttershy said.

'There is a simple reason for that. Shards of chaos, even those of such a powerful being like Discord, don't really have a lot of natural power.' Twilight explained 'Their instinct is to gain extra power via creating chaos. You and Rainbow Dash managed to get two of them before they gained a lot of power, but let's say Rainbow Dash wasn't there: That chaotic storm would have swept through the city and caused a lot of damage, increasing the power of the shard.' She stopped for a moment 'In this case, the shard managed to gain power fast because there were a lot of ponies nearby for it to attack."

'That makes sense.' Fluttershy said 'I guess that means Applejack and Dark Moon aren't going to have much trouble, considering how isolated their shard is.'

'I wouldn't say that.' Twilight cautioned 'Magic in general is difficult to predict, chaos magic even more so. I can think of ways to create a big effect without using a lot of chaos magic, so it's difficult to say what that shard could do, specially if it managed to find some kind of hidden magical artifact.'

Fluttershy agreed with that assessment, and the two kept going in silence for a few more seconds before the attack.

It was completely unexpected. Specially for Fluttershy, who was using her empathy as a radar. A huge green clawed hand came scything out of the wall of the tunnel in a slash designed to cut them apart.

However, both Twilight and Fluttershy were Knights. It would take more than a simple surprise attack to bring them down. Fluttershy brought both claws of the manticore forward to protect herself, while Twilight simply turned part of the water into a crystalline shield.

Both of them were forced an entire meter back and realized that the hand was quite literally just a hand, not connected to any arm. They counter-attacked, Fluttershy with a rushing headbutt and Twilight by sending piercing crystal shards after it. But the hand seemed to have completely adapted to the environment, and it dodged by moving through the water without any resistance, better than any fish, like it was made of literal light.

Twilight realized that this must be a chaos monster made by using one of the captured ponies as a core, and as such, it was imperative for them to destroy it and rescue the pony. She passed a quick plan to Fluttershy via empathy, and charged a bit of magic in preparation.

Fluttershy dived at the monster coming slightly from above. Both of them slashed at each other, ending in a tie, but the monster was pushed back towards Twilight, exactly as planned.

"Chaos Magic: Water Chains!" The unicorn cast.

Their synchronization was perfect, which was to be expected from a teacher and a student who were also literally connected via empathy. The chains of water formed at the perfect position to snag the opponent and make it immobile. There were literally a dozen chains, holding the hand not just physically but magically. It was a spell that had no attacking component, being used purely to restrain.

And Fluttershy took advantage of that by accelerating and literally diving through the hand in a piercing rush, boosting herself with a big amount of magic (too much, was Twilight's opinion. She needed better control) ripping out a bubble containing an earth pony stallion as she passed.

And that was when another surprise attack happened. In the same way as the hand, a weird chaotic version of an octopus seemed to materialize out of the closest wall and rush at Fluttershy.

The pegasus knew what the priority was, so she threw the bubble to Twilight and raised her protections as much as possible to take on the attack.

Twilight charged a teleport spell as fast as she could, looking at the situation and getting ready for anything.

It turned out that Fluttershy's defenses were useless, because the new monster didn't want to harm her. It wrapped the tentacles around the aura form of her manticore mode and started dragging her deeper into the tunnels, moving at high speeds.

Twilight finished her spell, teleporting the victim to the outside of the lake, where the other ponies would be able to help them. As soon as she was finished, Twilight started charging a new spell at the same time as she moved forward, trying her best to remain in Fluttershy's range despite the speed at which she was being carried away.

"Chaos Magic: High-Speed Route!" She shouted.

A variation of the flying route, this spell forcefully accelerated Twilight to speeds that even Rainbow Dash would consider respectable, but there was a price to use it, specially underwater. It didn't have any way to deal with the pressure of moving at such speeds, which forced Twilight to spend a lot of energy with her defensive aura.

And the next fifteen seconds passed in a blur, as the Twilight raced to keep up with the extremely fast octopus. Fluttershy kept attacking to destroy the tentacles and try to free herself, but they were constantly regenerating, and even with all the power of the manticore spirit, she still wasn't able to free herself from its grasp.

And then, they got to the end, and Fluttershy could feel exactly what was waiting for them in that last room. As such, she quickly made a decision to take a risk.

"Magic Burst!" She shouted, forcefully disrupting her own animal spirit spell.

The rushing, explosive energy of the disrupted spell tried to go out of control, but Fluttershy forcefully channeled it into not attacking the center of the octopus, where the innocent pony was located. She grit her teeth not to cry out as her body burned in pain due to the sheer effort.

But it worked. The chaotic monster was finally destroyed, and the innocent pegasus filly was unharmed. They lost speed and Twilight managed to catch up at the next moment, immediately activating a prepared teleportation spell to send the filly to safety.

Then the two had to spend even more magic to swim away in opposite directions in a sharp dodge, as a huge spike lodged itself at the point where they had just been.

So the two finally had to face their final challenge for this mission. A chaotic creature created by a fusion of three innocent ponies with all remaining chaotic energy that the shard of chaos had, along with the shard of chaos itself.

The very arena of the fight was the definition of chaotic. It was a warped space in the form of countless bubbles of existence that wove around each other, mixed together, reflected each other and simply existed in a state of superposition that you would need an entire, thick book of mathematics to explain. The easiest way to describe was a honeycomb composed of honeycombs that were somehow all inside each other in a loop.

Fluttershy closed her eyes and decided to simply use her empathy to guide herself rather than try to make sense of that mess, while Twilight was actually making notes of ways she could use that arena against the very chaos shard that was creating it.

As for the chaotic creature itself, it was a being that could only thrive in the ocean depths that the chaotic space was emulating. It looked like three different creatures fused together. The first was a sort of centipede that served as the bottom part of the monster. It had a segmented body where the proportions were wrong, because every segment had different sizes. And the legs were shark-like monsters, many of which were already being released to go after the Knights.

The middle part was a cylinder of ice inside of which there was a huge fire. The cylinder was full of spikes, that the fire and ice combined to shoot via steam pressure, which was exactly what had been the first attack. As for the top part, it was a strange biological piramid, which was full of eyes that soon started to fire slow lasers at the two. And at the tip of the pyramid, there was a red crystal that seemed to radiate chaos itself. It was also most likely a trap.

As both of the Knights charged their own magic, Twilight had time to wonder about how her other apprentice was doing.

'Well. With the amount of power she can muster, I don't think she's going to have many problems.' Was the conclusion.

-0-

The minotaur came out swinging with a stomp, taking advantage of his heavy weight, but Applejack was already prepared to deal with him. With a shout of "Attack the head!" to her current partner, Applejack channeled her magic into the ground via her armor and raised a mound of earth to hit the side of his leg and force the stomp to miss the target.

Dark Moon had already jumped into the air, riding her own manifested solid darkness which flew through the sky with as much ease and mobility as an actual pegasus. She flew right towards the head of the monster, who brought a hand up to slap her out of the sky.

"Darkness is unstoppable! Dark Rush!" She shouted, and coated herself in a thinner layer of darkness that wavered like and aura.

The spell made her accelerate, and Dark Moon faced the slap by simply making it a contest of strength. And even with the sheer weight of the huge hand, the ice was the thing that broke in the confrontation with the darkness. It was rendered into thousands of pieces and Dark Moon barely slowed down.

But before she could actively attack, Black Hooves made his second movement. Again charging power along with his fortress, he cast a spell that created a deep black cloud above the fortress, and that cloud started to hail extremely dense and hard bits of ice. Still, this wouldn't discourage Dark Moon, who simply shaped part of her darkness into a pseudo-umbrella and kept going.

The minotaur still had one hand left, and attacked with it to prevent the unicorn from reaching his head, but Applejack (who had made herself an armor of earth to deal with the hailstones) rammed into the minotaur's right leg, unbalancing him and making his attack miss.

Dark Moon finally got close enough for an attack, which she had been charging for the last few seconds. And she shouted it eagerly:

"Darkness is everywhere! Dark Blast!" And threw a sphere of darkness at the enemy's head.

It hit, but didn't seem to have caused any impact initially, but after a moment, the minotaur's head exploded from the inside, and his body fell to the ground. Yet at that moment, Black Hooves was finishing another spell, sending a multitude of birds made of ice, of all sorts of shapes and sizes to attack.

Applejack knew that they weren't making any progress, and soon the opponent would be able to build up enough power to overwhelm them. So she decided to change strategies, and shaped the earth into a ramp as she ran upwards and in the direction of the fortress.

"Let's get inside!" She shouted to Dark Moon, who dropped down to her level and flew beside her.

"What's the deal here?" She asked.

"The shard of chaos managed bring life ta the memories of Warlock Black Hooves and his fortress. It's like a powerful illusion, ta the point where it can use the mechanisms of the fortress ta draw energy from the dragon pulse like the warlock used ta do in order to power all this." Applejack explained.

"What do we do?" Was the next question.

"The Warlock is the center, if we can destroy him..." She left it in the air.

That was the point where the two had to defend themselves against the birds. Dark Moon showed the true flexibility of her darkness magic by creating tendrils of darkness to attack the birds, shields to block their path, and all that while still flying forward just as fast. Applejack on the other hand, had a different tactic.

"Space Step!" She shouted, and stepped hundreds of meters forward, arriving inside the grounds of the fortress. Then she focused her earth magic and got to work. In the fight against Canterlot Castle, Applejack had been able to create amazing feats of earth manipulation despite a lack of training for that, or an artifact that could help, thanks to the existence of the chaos zone. Now she had both, and while this place didn't qualify as a true chaotic zone, the nature of the memory magic meant that it would serve.

And now she could do a lot more.

Huge amounts of earth came out of the ground and covered Applejack, before expanding to double the size of a house, and then start to form a shape. A bird-like head, a pair of wings, and four legs ending in claws. It a a griffin made of earth, and after being made, it flapped its wings and took off, mocking several of the laws of aerodynamics in the process.

The earth griffin flew towards Dark Moon, at the same time as Black Hooves was finishing yet another spell, a huge cone of cold energy that even her darkness powers would have difficulty defending against. But the earth griffin managed to block the attack with its body. And the ice birds also weren't having any luck with getting through the layers of defense it had.

So, Applejack could focus on trying to take down Black Hooves, and she somehow decided that the best plan was to grab Dark Moon and throw her at the warlock.

The avatar laughed as she accelerated even more with her powers, cutting through the air and approaching the surprised warlock "Darkness devours everything! Dark Abyss!"

And the darkness shaped itself into a mouth that swallowed the warlock whole.

Dark Moon flew forward a few more meters before stopping and looking back where the warlock had been and saying:

"This is the meaning of the power of darkness."

Applejack on the other hand, was focusing her sight as much as she could, having figured out that something was wrong as soon as the attack was finished.

And so, she was not entirely surprised when, in a rush of wind, the warlock appeared again over another part of the fortress, condensing out of the air like snow.

"You think this is enough to destroy me?! Outrageous!" He shouted, casting another spell that created eight manticores made of ice that joined the birds in attacking Applejack and Dark Moon.

There were another few seconds of quick combat before he cast one more spell, that summoned cold spirits who flew through the air and tried to invade the bodies of the duo to freeze them to death.

He was obviously getting stronger with time, but Applejack had seen enough.

She hadn't been wrong in her assertion that the warlock was the center of everything, the shard of chaos was definitely inside his body. The problem was that the memory magic was acting like a secondary core, forcefully keeping the warlock alive and the fortress working, and incidentally also preventing the shard of chaos from being destroyed. And the worst part was that the memory magic was tied to the place itself, being powered by the memories of the warlock, his experiences in the fortress and his final battle.

And destroying the place simply wasn't a realistic option. Due to the combination of the magical defenses which were at full strength and the simple sturdiness of its construction (most of it still remained even after a titanic battle with an entire group of Knights, after all) not even Sunset would be able to do such a thing.

This was a truly troublesome magic. And made Applejack remember one of the most tiring lessons she had ever received from Trixie.

-0-

2 Months Earlier

There was a rock on top of Applejack, that rock was incredibly heavy and impossible to move. No matter what magic she tried to use, or what movements she tried to make, it was all useless and she couldn't get rid of the rock. She was slowly being crushed, and when she got to her limit, the weight of the rock reduced itself to allow her to recover before going back to normal.

But still, she knew that were it not for that, she would be crushed to death. The fact that the rock was an illusion would make no difference.

"Why can't Ah... Break... This illusion...?" She asked with labored words.

Her teacher, the one who was controlling the illusion, answered.

"This is not just an ordinary illusion, because Trixie has actually tied it to the world itself. The illusion affects the world and the world supports the illusion. That is the true meaning of a Perfect Illusion. Normally you'd still be able to destroy one of those by breaking the connection between reality and illusion, but in this case, Trixie has made the ties to the world a lot stronger than usual. Simple power isn't enough, unless you are willing to use enough power to rip apart existence itself." Trixie looked at her apprentice seriously "Finding a way to deal with this kind of illusion is the next step in your path towards mastering the Eyes of Truth." She said in a firm voice.

-0-

As both she and Dark Moon had to deal with the new threats Warlock Black Hooves had created, Applejack reflected that this situation would be problematic... for most. But her teacher had trained her well.

She already knew what to do.

-0-

Surprisingly, even after those incredibly foreboding words, nothing happened immediately. It seemed like that particular Shard of Chaos was significantly more patient than most chaos related things.

So that meant that the Knights had some time to prepare. Trixie asked Medaka:

"Could you tell me everything about this place? The nature of the connections, the types of living beings that are part of it, the space it occupies, the geography of the underground river... Everything you can think of."

And the zebra explained things, she explained a lot. Trixie seemed to be understanding everything, while Rainbow Dash's mind was struggling as it heard things like 'colony tissue fusion', 'multiple independent cnidaria construction' and 'sinkhole dropping'.

Still, Rainbow Dash had to keep listening to what was being said. It was weird, but Sunset had determined that part of Rainbow Dash's amazing instincts had to do with her subconscious. She could absorb information that her conscious mind couldn't interpret but her subconscious was capable of acting upon. Sunset had a theory that Rainbow Dash's magic shifting was possible because of her subconsciously memorizing magical patterns.

But still, Medaka did speak a lot. To the point where Trixie conjured a glass of water for her to recover at the end of it.

"So, what is the plan here?" Rainbow Dash asked, while the zebra was drinking.

"Okay, it's obvious that the shard of chaos is somewhere inside the underground river, so first of all, we should go to the closest blowhole and-"

She was interrupted by a violent shaking of the earth.

"What's happening?" Medaka asked in a panic "This place doesn't get earthquakes!"

Her question was answered once the ground started literally rising into the earth, carrying all the trees and individuals with it. Rainbow Dash immediately flew into the air to try and take in the entire scene and understand what exactly was happening.

What she was was that a huge amount of land in the shape of a turtle shell was being raised in the air by millions of thin tendrils of earth. And then it started to walk. And as it passed through more land, it started sucking up the matter underneath and becoming even bigger.

Trixie sighed "Okay, change of plans. First, Trixie will have to limit the damage of this thing."

It would be better to do that quick, So Trixie didn't hesitate and called upon the power of the Sphere of Charge that was stored in her armor. It was a lot of power, and Trixie had to take an entire second to create a spell formula that could take advantage of such a big amount of energy. She could have done it faster, but it would cause unnecessary strain to her mind.

"Perfect Illusion: False Perception." She stated, casting the spell.

Trixie had figure that the shard of chaos had shifted things around so that the system of beings that composed that part of the forest became only a single being, which also had taken on the inorganic parts of the place of which all that life depended and made it a literal part of the resulting creature.

This was a pretty annoying situation, but that also meant that Trixie could affect the entire thing like it was a single being, and that was the meaning of the spell. The land creature clearly wanted to walk around and suck up more matter from the rest of the forest in order to grow ever larger, so Trixie's spell was aimed at preventing it from doing so.

The illusion was channeled through the nearby tree and spread through the entire "body" of the monster, and after a moment, it stopped walking and started moving backwards. What the creature was "seeing" (its perception was somewhat complex, due to being a creature of chaos made of many different things and beings all at once) were parts of itself returning to the land it had left, forcing it to go back and retrace its steps in order to get them back.

"This should keep it in a loop for a while." Trixie said, satisfied.

Rainbow Dash landed next to her and spoke:

"The underground river is different from before, the water is flowing through the sky itself while going in and out of the earth from above and below. It's very weird, but I found the closest place where we can go in."

Trixie was about to answer when suddenly a pulse of chaos magic was emitted from within the chaos creature and suddenly the minds of the Knights were attacked.

-0-

Everything was one with the chaos. Why should you be lonely and separated? All become one, bigger than the sum of its parts...

That was the message that the chaos magic was carrying to try and make its targets into another part of the creature. The chaos magic that went inside Rainbow Dash's mind found an endless sky with an ethereal version of the pegasus flying around it. The chaos magic formed itself into words to be heard by that inner self, and flew over to it. Except that the ethereal pegasus was very fast, so the words needed to make themselves faster and faster to be able to reach it, but even that wasn't enough, so they kept going faster and faster and faster and faster and faster and faster and faster and faster-

-0-

"Huh, mental attack." Rainbow Dash spoke blandly.

"Yeah, it is an interesting approach." Trixie considered.

"HAHAHAHAHA! CHAOS!" Medaka laughed, her eyes turned into multicolored swirls.

She rushed up to Rainbow Dash and tried to punch her, only to be dodged easily. The pegasus Knight then gave a punch of her own, this one successful.

"Get a hold of yourself!" She ordered, infusing harmony magic into the blow.

The zebra staggered, rubbing her head with a hoof and said in a pained voice "Owch... What happened?"

"Chaos magic possession." Trixie said blandly "And Dash, this should have happened with the other members of the town as well, you should go there and deal with it."

Rainbow Dash took off, and soon Trixie could see in the sky the glow of the sonic rainboom (harmony edition) and smiled, thinking to herself that having somepony who could use harmony magic, even in a limited capacity, really made things easier.

"We're not going to let you power up as you want so easily." Trixie spoke with a smile as she looked at the ground, like she was addressing the shard of chaos directly.

A few moments later, Rainbow Dash landed next to Trixie "Done." She said "I put in enough harmony magic in the air that they are going to be safe for a while."

"And her?" Trixie pointed to Medaka.

"I injected her directly, so..." Rainbow Dash said.

"Okay. I guess we should go, then." Trixie nodded, then did a high speed teleportation and ended up riding on Rainbow Dash.

"AH! Not you too!" Rainbow shouted.

"Fly forward, my steed! Into the depths we go!" Trixie announced grandly, and Rainbow Dash had no choice but to take off, going directly into the entrance to the underground river she had seen before.

-0-

"Inside the city... That does make everything more complicated." Lightning Chaser said grimly.

Pinkie nodded, and then one of the pegasi from the team that had tried to stop the chaotic weather phenomenon shouted at them from the distance, flying as fast as she could in the direction of the duo.

30%

"How do you think we should best deal with it?" Lightning Chaser asked the Knight.

"Hmm..." Pinkie thought "The chaos changed that weather, that means this chaos guy likes weather things, so I think that trying to attract him by making some interesting weather would work well." She said.

Lightning Chaser nodded, and flew off. The pegasus that had been coming closer during it finally reached Pinkie.

40%

"What's going on here?" she asked.

"Knight mission. A bunch of mischievous bits of chaos magic are causing trouble everywhere!" Pinkie exclaimed, then giggled "Mischievous. That is a fun word to say, mischiieeevooous..."

The pegasus blinked "Ah... Anything we should do?" She asked.

"Just keep yourselves safe and pay attention to any possible weird things so that you can alert us." Pinkie said seriously.

"Okay..."

60%

At that point, Lightning Chaser had reached an altitude she judged sufficient to minimize the problems that would inevitably arise when the chaos magic got its hooves (or tendrils, or whatever, she wasn't sure) on the weather manifestation she was about to create.

The avatar focused on her magic and started manipulating the air around, making big portions of it spin little by little and create a zone of turbulence that was similar to a hurricane. She started putting more and more strength into it, and forcing the winds to spin around themselves in multiple separate paths forming something similar to a sphere made of a multiplicity of winds spinning in every direction. And anypony who looked at the sky from the city would be able to see it, since the winds were strong and wild enough to actually distort the light passing through them.

And then a pulse of chaos magic warped through the air and entered into the hurricane.

Pinkie closed her eyes as she tried to track down the place of origin of that pulse.

70%

And Lightning Chaser saw as her wind manipulation ripped itself away from her control, and changed incredibly suddenly. The whole thing acquired an orange tone and two eyes appeared on opposite sides of the "sphere", but the true biggest change was that the wind seemed to change to the consistency of jell-o, without changing its speed and direction of movement one bit. This meant that the wind caught on fire due to the attrition, while giving a screech that sounded like a swamp trying to whistle.

And then it started to drop towards the city, picking up even more wind in the process and getting even bigger, turning into an ersatz meteor/hurricane that was capable of cutting anything in its path and kept drawing all the dust in the air in its direction.

Lightning Chaser wouldn't simply let the chaos do whatever it wanted, especially considering that she had been the one to create the seed weather that the chaos had distorted. So she dropped after the eyed flaming jell-o wind hurricane meteor and flapped her wings to accelerate as much as possible, trying to get close to the chaotic weather event despite the heavy turbulence that followed it.

At the same time, she charged a lot of magic and used it to start creating her response to this threat. Given her name and talents, it wasn't surprising that her choice was lightning, but instead of using the same black lightning from before, Lightning Chaser was actually focusing a lot more power in order to create purple lightning, which had the reverse effect from the other. While Black Lightning represented destruction, the purple version represented creation.

When Lightning Chaser had accumulated enough of her namesake in order to do what she wanted, the meteor was still fifteen seconds away from impacting the city. That was the advantage of getting up so high before doing her job. So the avatar was almost leisurely as she threw a torrent of lightning the size of a river down into the direct path of the meteor. In the instants before impact, the lightning formed itself into a web before forcefully creating a wind dead zone.

The moment of impact started with a blinding flash of light as the purple lightning magic competed with the chaotic magic over the control of that specific area of sky. Like a negative meeting a positive, the two forces canceled each other out at a fast rate, causing reactions due to the sudden disappearance of energy, such as shockwaves that completely smothered the fire of the meteor.

The moment of impact ended with a rush of wind as the web, that had stretched itself to its breaking point, actually ended up breaking, letting a much weakened and smaller concentration of winds pass through. But that had been enough, Lightning Chaser simply channeled her magic through the remnants of the purple lightning in order to control the wind of the area directly, completely annihilating the rest of the chaotic energy and its effects.

At the same time, Pinkie Pie opened her eyes and smiled. She had managed to get the scent of the chaos shard, and looking above, she saw that Lightning Chaser didn't need any help and had already dealt with the bait. So Pinkie charged a bit of magic (it was actually a significant amount for the standards of most people, but Pinkie had reached such a high level on her emotion charge already that this level of power expenditure barely registered) and shapeshifted the air above her into a huge sign, saying:

'FOUND IT. FOLLOW ME!'

Along with a drawing of Pinkie's face. That done, she waited until the avatar had seen her message before letting it disappear and starting to walk towards her destination. Her current partner soon flew down to her level, so Pinkie accelerated, shifting forward repeatedly to the point where the pegasus had some trouble keeping up.

But it didn't take long. Soon they reached their destination... Saddleoak's Special Weather Magic Academy.

"Just as expected." Pinkie nodded.

80%

But before they could go in, another pulse of chaos magic came from inside the academy and fused with the air in a kilometer long area around the school. The effect of this new bit of chaos... Turned the air red.

"What was that in aid off?" Lightning Chaser asked, seeing that the magic really wasn't doing anything else.

"The shard is trying to use all the chaos in the air as a smokescreen to be able to escape." Pinkie realized "Not gonna happen." She stated.

Then, Pinkie, who had already reached her current limits in terms of Emotion Charge and was covered in a pink aura of power that seemed almost solid due to the sheer amount of energy it consisted of, charged a lot of magic and prepared a spell of her own. Then she slammed her hooves on the ground and declared it:

"Chaotic Arts: Bring on the World of Chaos!" She spoke with relish.

The effects of the spell she used couldn't be described as a simple pulse of magic. Instead, they were more like a wave of magic that was nearly solid, enough to cause all ponies who were caught up in it to stumble. Lightning Chaser was the closest pony to Pinkie, and she could feel something like an impression of the Knight as she cast the spell.

She was also the first witness to the effects of Pinkie's technique, as after the wave had expanded to the same size as the area covered by the red air, the effect actually started, expanding from the ground under Pinkie's hooves and outwards, changing the entire area.

And what a change it was. Pinkie calling the effect a world of chaos wasn't overstating things. The air became multicolored and formed several shapes of warped objects and animals. Those shapes shifted and changed, mixed and matched, making more and more weird configurations in the mist.

Still, none of that prevented any from seeing the ground and the buildings which were also being affected by the magic. The ground started to sway like waves in the ocean, some of it also distorting itself to create mounds, spiraling paths and other types of rough terrain, and other parts went even further and completely detached from the ground to make flying platforms.

And the buildings were the parts that changed the most. The school itself bent and flowed until the separate buildings and their rooms forced themselves into a misshapen tower, which started to wobble from one side to another while the outside part of it started spinning around the main tower, like a wheel.

And while the other buildings didn't go that far, they each seemed to be trying to outdo each other in terms of ridiculousness. Some shifted their proportions to grotesque levels, like a completely flat building that still contained all the matter it had before. Others preferred to simply do things instead, like one that started jumping on top of other buildings while singing (somehow). There was also one who turned into a real, biological elephant. And every place Lightning Chaser looked, there was another unexpected things to see.

But in the end, this all lasted only a few seconds. Then Pinkie Pie slammed her hooves to the ground and said "Okay. Done now." releasing another wave of magic.

And suddenly everything was back to normal. The avatar almost stumbled out of sheer whiplash due to the enormous change, but a small part of her still managed to take note of the fact that the red air had also disappeared.

"What..." She managed to utter, without even being able to put a questioning tone in her voice.

But Pinkie didn't answer her, instead pointing to a pegasus stallion that was flying through the air and shouting "There! It's him!" And vanishing into a chaotic shift.

-0-

Sunset had only one thing to say to that question.

"I wouldn't be against it."

The unicorn seemed to consider this for a moment "Then it's settled. My name is Aura Music, do you know what is going on around here?"

Sunset answered quickly, not knowing when the next wave of chaotic creatures would spawn "A shard of chaos magic has come here and is causing trouble. Also, considering how the first few chaos events were very similar, and happened in different places, I can bet this isn't just normal chaos shenanigans, but there's somepony actively manipulating the shard."

The unicorn (and Spike) were trying to digest this revelation when Sunset continued "I can tell you're a user of music magic. How good are you?"

Aura Music grinned "If I say I'm the second best in music magic, nopony will dare call themselves the first!" She declared grandly.

Then Spike shouted "Problem at the river again!"

"Then let's put it to the test." Sunset said, and Spike went flying, followed by their new ally.

It didn't take long for them to reach the river, and following the tendency of the events, this time the threat was even more elaborate than ever. There was only one monster created, but that monster was really big, the size of three building forced together. The monster was made of water and had the shape of a catlike head and two square hands that weren't connected with the body.

Sunset immediately hit it with the most powerful fire spell she could muster, making a good bit of water from the head part evaporate. But that was when it became obvious why the monster hadn't bothered leaving the river, as it simply replaced the lost water with more coming from the river. Then she had to dodge a swipe from one of the hands.

Aura Music was the next one to try. With a flow of magic, she made her zither play a short melody that was beautiful yet ferocious, seeming to contain a hidden power that harmonized with the magic itself. The unicorn then grinned beastially and shouted:

"Grand Sound Vibration, Annihilate the Universe!"

It was a very overbearing and exaggerated name (even Sunset thought so), but it couldn't be said that it was entirely undeserved. The magic rushed through the air as a directed sound wave, and it forcefully spread and covered all three of the parts of the water creature. And not only covered, but the music magic forced its way through the very chaos magic that was animating the water and infected every single droplet.

And then they all vibrated. The pure energy contained on the droplets of water caused them to vibrate at high speed, the aqua monsters breaking apart due to the violence of those vibrations. But even that still wasn't enough, and the monster started reconstituting itself.

When Sunset released a spell that shot like a laser towards the part of the "left hand". And after it passed through, something seemed to have happened, as all the water on the thing dropped back into the river. Aura Music looked at the Knight questioningly.

"You exposed the weak point." Sunset said simply "But this isn't going to work. Whoever it using the shard is trying to gather power and hiding until them. You felt the chaos magic, can you use your music magic to search?"

Aura Soul thought about it "I can, but trying to search this entire place would be like a frog trying to drink an entire lake. It's too much. That's not my specialty."

Sunset pointed at herself "I can take care of the issue of power. With some care, my Magic Enhance can be used on your search spell. What do you think?"

The unicorn grinned "This would be like giving wings to a tiger! The difference between normal and enhanced spells would be like the difference between heaven and earth! Let's do it!" She extended her wind current a little to her side.

Sunset teleported to her side and activated her Trance Mode, put her hoof on Aura's shoulder and started charging magic.

The music mage concentrated for a few seconds with her eyes closed, before opening them and shouting:

"Grand Sound Search, Cover All Existence!"

And the spell activated, but before its effect could start, Sunset did the equivalent of smothering the spell formula with her own magic, forcefully preventing its activation. She didn't have the same level of harmony with this new pony as she had with her original partners, so a difference approach was needed. She couldn't hold the spell like that for long, but it was long enough.

"Quadruple Magic Enhance: No Hiding Place!" She shouted.

Then a wave of beautiful sound resounded through the entire nearby area. And if the previous sound spell had seemed powerful, this one carried the feeling of being able to crush the entire world, such was the power it had. There was absolutely no way to prevent oneself from being caught by it, it was a true and unrelenting search spell. But the real value of the magic was only shown when it found the target.

Suddenly, all the energy of the spell that was covering the area seemed to shift, and in an instant it converged in a single point, somewhere to the west of the city, where a gigantic arrow appeared in the sky to point out the result. There was truly no hiding place for the target, and the arrow carried such power that it was almost impossible to destroy.

"There!" Both Sunset and Aura shouted, and Spike went flying in the direction of the arrow, with Aura Music carrying Sunset only a little bit behind him.

At their speed, it would only take a few seconds for them to reach the arrow, so naturally, that was when things went wrong. Sunset suddenly turned back and shouted:

"Triple Magic Enhance: Blast Shadow!"

And she shot a cone of energy. It was big enough to be able to block Spike's fully adult form if he were already able to achieve it. And it was just in time.

With a violent sound, something hit the cone of energy. Sunset staggered from the pressure of whatever it was, but it didn't last for long. Blue beams of energy that had been deflected by the cone hit the ground around where the three were. And the parts of the ground which had been hit... vanished. Like they had simply stopped existing.

Sunset dropped her spell and the one responsible for the attack was revealed.

It was a minotaur. He was fairly tall, and his top half was colored red, while the bottom half was dark blue. His eyes were silver colored and shining, and he was standing on a portal in the air.

Sunset immediately recognized him. Mostly due to the portal. This was Claw Marked, the annihilation of space, an ancient enemy of the Knights of the realm of the generation of Knight Aurora Dream, the Devourer of Existence. He was a particularly powerful mage who could use space and time magic, but rarely used the latter. The reason why had become obvious for Sunset after reading the research about space magic Moondancer's group had compilated (it also involved time, since the two were connected), time magic was absurdly dangerous.

The guy was obviously another magical construct, made by the same mastermind who had created the Tempest of Destruction they faced in the Changeling case. Considering that it was very likely that he, like the other one, wasn't as powerful as the original, hopefully this meant she didn't need to worry about time magic at all.

Sunset thought all of those things in instants, then she made a snap decision.

"Spike!" She shouted "Go deal with the shard! Me and Aura Soul will take care of this one!"

Spike hesitated for a moment, he was going into an unknown situation without backup. But he remembered Sunset's words. Going into situations where he couldn't be sure whether he would be able to do anything was just business was usual for a Knight. And Sunset was counting on him. The dragon flapped his wings and accelerated.

Sunset shot a powerful fireball at the opponent, just trying to get some more time to think. She looked at Aura Music, who simply nodded at her, as if saying that she wouldn't back down at this point.

"Hey, do you want to become a Knight?" She asked casually. Many Knights were originally heroes who were later chosen by the princesses and trained to become even stronger. They had planned to offer the possibility to Venus when she turned up again.

"I can't." She answered simply.

And yet, this simple answer brought Sunset's mind into an overdrive (but not an Overdrive, of course).

Claw Marked retaliated with a swipe that sent a line of space magic into them, and Sunset again had to use a spell to deflect part of the magic. But even as she was doing that, Sunset had a series of thoughts that went through several logical jumps, but could be reasonably expressed like this:

'She can't. Not that she won't, or that she prefers not, but she can't. Just today I heard about how avatars can't become Knights. There could be other explanations for not being able to, but there's also the matter of Venus, who appeared very conveniently, like this one. They are both separate species like Luna's avatars, but from where could they have come from? Celestia never felt the need to create avatars. Cadance. Cadance was having meetings with Luna and could have learned from her. Cadance is the alicorn of Bonds. Her possible avatars use love and music magic. It all fits together.'

She didn't have proof, but Sunset felt that she was right. As Aura Music used another of her ridiculously named attacks to retaliate, Sunset decided to leave that for later.

Still, a part of her couldn't help but be glad of her luck. Sunset felt that if it was simply a question of defeating this magical construct, she alone would be sufficient, but of course, just defeating the construct would leave the mastermind completely free from reprisal, and they couldn't have that, could they?

With the help of this new ally, the chances of success of their special plan had gone up a lot.

Identity of the Enemy

View Online

After that, there was only one other thing to do before the trio walked forward towards their target. Rarity grabbed three of the gemstones which were the focus of the magic and shaped a bit of earth to create a holding place for them which she could easily carry on her back. One was red, one was green and one was purple. As she was doing this, Rarity also talked a bit about what she had understood of the magic used:

"This is a really functional sort of magic. You put energy inside those gems, which also contain all the formulas for the varied spells they can use. Like this, you can essentially use powerful magic from a distance and with a much lesser cost for the users." She stopped for a moment "But the best part is that each of those gems can draw energy from the environment, and they are able to easily share energy with each other, so if you have enough of those gems together in a system, it is functionally the same as having unlimited power, because you can draw in enough energy to recover whatever you are spending."

Ein nodded "Knight is smart. All those are right."

"The most impressive part is the delicate craftwork necessary to engrave the multipurpose magic formulas in the gems." Rarity said, then they started to walk towards the next room "But dear, is there anything else we should know before we go towards the end?" She asked.

"There is one. Gin is Boss of the Group. Gin is Strong, he fought with Ursa Major and tied." Ein answered "And that without gem help."

"So, a truly strong opponent, isn't it?" Rarity raised an eyebrow "I suppose I shall have to focus my efforts on dealing with him, then."

After that, they left the first room where they had been fighting, going through a short corridor before coming out inside of another room with more of those towers. Except this time there were a few differences from before. Most notably was the fact that some towers were joined together, with their gems also connected by threads of magic, while other towers had gems with more than one color.

As expected, the magic attacks were even fiercer in this room, partially because it was closer to the "command central", making it easier for the dogs to control, but mostly it was because of the new gems. Some of them targeted other towers and strengthened them with spells, others had multiple effects at once due to the mixing of more than one gem type in a single tower, fast spells that were also piercing, area of effect spells that also slowed down the opponents...

And this time, there were two diamond dogs who came to attack. They were just as skilled in hit and run tactics as Ein, but they were also really good at supporting one another, and the spells cast by the towers to buff them were also stronger, including even a special shield spell that had an acid property, trying to melt anything that came in contact with it.

However, none of that mattered. The gem magic used by the dogs was really good, but Rarity was now carrying the gems of her own to use, and while she wasn't an expert in them, her magical skill and ability in controlling artifacts made it so the Knight could display the strong points of that particular magical method with great might.

Rarity faced the overwhelming attacks of the towers by being even more overwhelming than them. She used the gems in her possession to shoot spells at a much higher rate than they could do before, and combined those spells with her normal attacks using the Ruler Swords of Wind and Earth. Not having to fuel most of the magic she was using, Rarity showed at the same time power and control, using an onslaught of attacks intelligently in order to open up a path to reach the towers.

Doing that, she could disable the towers one by one, also draining the magic of their jewels in order to restore the power she was spending at an incredible rate. As for the enemy dogs, knowing the nature of the spells they were utilizing, and having the gems as a focus, it was easy to disable their buffing spells, and then Rarity just restrained their arms and buried them in earth up to their necks, reasoning that it would be easier to simply deal with the shard of chaos itself more quickly instead of trying to cure every single diamond dog individually.

As for Silver Soul and Ein, they pretty much just acted as supports, Ein was pretty good at Earth Magic, and together with his normal physical abilities, he had both short and long range covered in a similar way as Silver Soul's silver manipulation. The two of them found a good rhythm, first hindering the enemy dogs while Rarity was busy, and later by intercepting some of the spells of the towers.

After all the towers in the room were disabled, Rarity recharged the magic in her gems and the three proceeded forward again. The next tower room ended up in the same way, despite the fact that now there were some tower combinations completely dedicated to powering up other towers, as well as fusions of three gems, and even towers that shot spells that created traps on the ground, as well as three diamond dogs attacking at once. Rarity had a bit of trouble adapting to the changes at first, but soon that room was also completely conquered.

Of course, that was when Ein said that the "big gem" was in the next room, which should be the last line of defence.

The three stopped for a moment in order to readjust themselves to the best possible states, and then walked the rest of the way towards their final challenge.

It was immediately clear that this would be different from any of the previous fights. Instead of dozens of towers, there were actually only ten towers, formed into a diamond formation. The walls to the sides of the towers were angled, in a way that made it impossible to go around them in order to get to the prize behind the towers, which was their target.

It could only barely be seen from the position the three attackers were in. The gem was shaped like a diamond and had the size of a wall. It's color was a kaleidoscopic combination of nearly every color one could think off, and which seemed to change depending on the angle it was watched from. Besides the towers, there was something else protecting the gem, it was a multicolored and multilayered shield spell, which seemed to be getting power from the cave itself.

And despite being in a smaller number than in the previous rooms, the towers in that room gave a bigger sense of intimidation. First, because the diamond formation was truly a Formation, with lines of magic connecting the towers, and more lines connecting their gems. The gems themselves also seemed brighter and more real than any others, despite being only single colors gems, having furious auras of energy. But most importantly, the power of the Formation was being directed slightly above the towers, into a vortex of magic that the trio could feel in their very souls.

And then there were the diamond dogs. Ten of them, all silent and with sharp eyes, their postures ready to pounce. Their leader, Gin, was easy to see. He was twice as big as an ordinary diamond dog and had a silver fur and bright green eyes.

Both sides saw each other at the same time, but the first to make a move was Rarity. She activated all three of the gems she was carrying and shot two blasts of magic, straight at her partners.

Those were her own special versions of the gemstone magic buffing spells the diamond dogs used. Both Ein and Silver Soul started shining with a golden glow, and Rarity yelled "Attack the towers!" at the same time as Gin began to move.

With a step that sounded like an explosion, Gin launched himself right at Rarity at insane speeds. The Knight brought her Earth Ruler Sword to bear and it clashed with the fist of the opponent.

Rarity didn't budge, and Gin also wasn't forced back, but their collision released a tremendous shockwave that made both of Rarity's partners fly a few meters to the sides. Their buffs protected the two, and they landed standing and immediately rushed towards the towers, while the other diamond dogs moved to try and intercept them.

And the vortex of magic above the towers also started bombarding all three intruders with continuous spells. That was how the final battle started.

Rarity shouted "Wind Slash!" and brought her Wind Ruler Sword in an attack on the legs of her opponent that was too low for Gin to block with his hands. He dealt with that by crouching and protecting his head and chest with his left arm, before clawing forward at his opponent.

The claw was so strong that the air itself screamed at its passage, and the cutting edge of the attack actually extended two centimeters past the actual claw. Rarity used a forceful application of wind magic to throw herself backwards. She took a moment to send another layer of buffing spells at her partners before Gin did another forceful step forward trying to run her through, forcing Rarity to do a sideways flash step to evade. Her previous position exploded into shards from the attack, and then the Knight had to deal with an encirclement of spells from the towers. She ripped a heavy ring of earth from around herself to use as a makeshift shield, and used the resulting smoke cloud to conceal her next move, a flash step directly at Gin, using her Earth Ruler Sword like a jousting lance.

The diamond dog managed to forcefully grab onto the sword with both hands to stop it, and then he stomped the ground, using his earth magic to send a wave of earth at Rarity, who responded by breaking it with a burst of earth magic, but that had only been a distraction, and he suddenly released the sword and did a powerful overhead strike with both claws, forcing Rarity to flash step to dodge again as the missed attack created a veritable line of destruction on the ground.

Having gained a few moments to breathe, Rarity sent yet another layer of buffing spells to her partners, who had almost reached the towers as well as shooting a multitude of earth spheres at the other diamond dogs to keep them from attacking her partners from the back.

Then she had to deal with the fact that the controllers of the towers (which were probably hiding somewhere nearby) decided that trying to get through the buffs of Silver Soul and Ein would be useless, and instead decided to focus their efforts on the Knight. An onslaught of spells was shot not only at her, but around her as well, creating barriers to the sides in order to prevent any easy ways to dodge.

"Wind and Earth Style: Tornado Stones!"

So she countered instead, sweeping both swords and creating her magic, an indoors tornado that was loaded with stones, and using it to trigger the spells of the enemy early. But then Gin appeared behind her, already slashing with such power that the shockwaves were digging a deep trench on the ground, having aimed at the exact space of time in which Rarity couldn't use a spell again.

The unicorn responded to that by jumping at her tornado, deliberately getting caught in the winds to dodge Gin, then she stood on one of the stones and jumped out, managing to land a few meters behind the diamond dog.

And then she smiled, as she saw the maelstrom of energy distort and finally dissipate. Her buffing spells were pretty good at protecting their targets, but they had another effect which was their true aim, they created interference on the channels of magic used by the towers.

And then Rarity brandished her Wind Ruler Sword and charged it with as much magic as she could get on short notice (quite a bit, she wasn’t top tier in magic capacity among the Knights, but the Knights were truly above the norm, in comparison with normal ponies she was ridiculous) showing a fierce grin on her face as she created a blade of wind that was twice as big as her own (already huge) sword.

“Wind Sword Style: Great Maelstrom Slash!” She shouted, and launched her attack… which the enemy dodged in an explosive movement.

“Support Version.” She added, in a mischievous voice “Now!” She shouted.

Then, three things happened in close succession. First, the attack compressed itself to the size of a pony and slowed down as it moved in the direction of the towers. Second…

“Silver Armor Activate!” Silver Soul shouted, channeling magic through her artifact necklace.

There was a wave of silver as most of what she had flowed towards Ein. The silver engulfed him and shaped itself around his form, turning into a Knight-style armor with runes that hummed with power. That was the special mechanism Rarity had added to the necklace. And then the wind shot that Rarity had created merged with the armor to become an extra barrier.

And the third thing was that the newly barbed diamond dog ran through the towers at amazing speeds, before jumping towards the literal final barrier.

The shard of chaos understood what was happening, and every bit of magic it could draw from the environment was forcefully turned into attacks that mirrored the spells used by the gem magic of the diamond dogs, bombarding Ein with a variety of magic.

But even if it was only temporary, Ein was still using an armor created by an artifact altered by a Knight and powered by an avatar, and had an extra defense spell made by that same Knight, not to mention that the diamond dog himself was very strong and very determined. He weathered all the force and pulled back a fist, commanding the silver to gather in it, making a house sized mass of silver shaped like a pile bunker.

And he struck.

The noise was indescribable, as Ein’s attack smashed through the barrier and, a moment later, crushed the gem and the shard of chaos inside it. There was an explosion of light…

And every single diamond dog present collapsed.

Moving like the wind, Ein managed to reach the side of his boss Gin in seconds.

“Gin. Gin, you okay?” He asked.

There was no response for a moment, and then a big hand touched Ein’s shoulder.

“Good dog. Best friend.” Gin said.

Soon, all the other dogs were also up, and it didn’t take long for the situation to be explained to every member of the group (Gin sent dogs to free those that Rarity had buried) and the Knight was listening with interest to one of the dogs talk about the processes used to craft their magical gems.

“It is a pity that the jewel ended up destroyed, though.” Silver Soul commented in the Knight’s earshot.

“Ah.” Rarity said “I knew I was forgetting something.”

Then, she walked up to the fragments of the jewel. Everyone else watched with interest as the Knight pulled out her Earth Ruler Sword and concentrated for a few seconds, charging magic. And then she shouted:

“Restoration!”

And in a scene that could only be called beautiful, the fragments of the destroyed jewel floated into the air, from the biggest shards to the smallest pieces, which danced around each other, spinning in the air to reach their proper positions, before joining little by little with soft movements, creating a melody of the sounds of their touches.

And then it ended, the jewel almost completely free of any traces of having broken previously. It was still multi-colored and still beautiful, though the lack of the shard of chaos made it lose the previous color shifting effect.

The cheers that resounded through the cave were deafening.

-0-

The first priority of the duo of Knights was finding a way to avoid the attacks of the submarine chaotic creature. Twilight simply started warping from place to place to dodge all the varied attacks that were thrown in her direction. While Fluttershy, on the other hand, simply waved a hoof and created an extremely resilient defensive sphere around herself that managed to tank everything. She had simply used her Grand Search to make a “suggestion” to the chaos magic itself. (Both her teacher and fellow disciple were users of chaos magic, so she had experience enough to be able to do something like that.)

During the first round of attacks, Twilight and Fluttershy discussed the situation. As before, the biggest problem the two of them faced was the fact that their opponent was a chaos monster created around innocent ponies, and as such they needed to be careful in their attacks in order to avoid harming them.

‘I think I can keep it busy to give you time to set up.’ Were Fluttershy’s thoughts.

‘Really?’ Twilight asked.

‘Yeah. It’s time to show the surprise.’

And the pegasus focused inwards. Similar to when she used the manticore spirit, Fluttershy had to focus on more than a single trait to be able to reach a state where she could unleash the power of this spirit. And the traits she focused on were power, solitude and multiplicity.

“Empathy Drive: Animal Spirit.” She announced “Hydra Edition!”

It was a monumental magic. Even Fluttershy’s great magical capacity was hard pressed to be able to activate and keep it going. And the most obvious reason for it was the size. The hydra shaped energy construct that Fluttershy manifested around herself was even a little bigger than the immense chaotic monster, and it was just as ferocious and majestic as a real hydra.

With a roar, Fluttershy-Hydra attacked, crossing the chaotic space in between herself and her opponent in a movement that would probably disorient her thanks to the almost constant changes in direction and perspective, except that the Knight was still with her eyes closed and orienting herself via empathy.

The hydra bit down on all three separate parts of the monster, a rain of attacks washed against her skin, but she refused to let go, enduring everything without even reacting.

Twilight had to take a moment to look at her student’s achievements, and then she herself got to work. Thinking back to her fight against Discord together with her other apprentice, Twilight used the slipstream method, and spread her magic around all of the chaotic space.

The Fluttershy hydra was taking most of the attention from the chaotic monster with her huge size and refusal to let go, so Twilight only had to warp to dodge a few stray threats while she concentrated on her magic. Fluttershy was still running her Grand Search, which meant that Twilight had complete knowledge of the positions of the three innocent ponies inside the chaos monster, and that was what she used for her working.

Manipulation of space was one of the cornerstones of chaotic magic. There was a reason why “warping” was the most common indication that a particular pony had that ability. Twilight, as a masterfully trained mage who had explored her chaotic magic for years, was particularly good at it.

And to activate her magic, she did a small song.

"There are some here who should not be part.
There are some here who don't belong.
Could you free the things apart from here...
By the time I finish this song?"

And then three ponies were suddenly floating right next to her, enveloped in protective space magic.

"You did it!" She cheered, quickly charging magic and teleporting the three innocents to the outside of the lake.

The reaction from the chaotic creature was immediate. With a screech that could be clearly heard even outside the lake, all three parts of the monster ripped themselves away from the fangs of the Fluttershy hydra in a movement that warped their proportions to a ridiculous level. And it didn't stop in just escaping, the body of the creature warped itself even more after that, all three parts fusing together nauseatingly and combining into a single mass of disparate parts and materials crudely forced together, a true being of chaos.

This being of chaos then roared in a multitude of voices, releasing a wave of magic that caused the chaotic space they were in to start to collapse, intending to bury both Knights in the "Space between spaces" of the breach caused by its actions. Fluttershy acted quickly to avoid it, using the hydra heads to bite down on the edges of the space and forcefully keep it open.

But then the creature pounced upon Fluttershy hydra... only to warp at the last moment and attack Twilight instead.

On the face of it, this was a smart move, considering that the hydra spirit made Fluttershy very resilient, and there was no way to tell if even a full power attack would be enough to dislodge her from her task, while the unicorn seemed to be a much weaker target. However, that particular unicorn was Twilight Sparkle, one of the three original Knights of the Realm of the generation, direct apprentice of Princess Celestia and veteran of dangerous missions.

She was a pony that would not be easy to take down at all.

“Chaos Magic: Space Link!” She shouted, and created a portal in front of herself as a shield.

The attacking tendrils of the monster which were aimed directly at her ended up going into the portal. A moment later, two tendrils managed to sneak around the portal, but that moment was all Twilight needed to warp away again (She canceled her portal, cutting away the tendrils which had gone inside).

“Merged Spell!” She used her trump card, seeing that Fluttershy would not be able to resist forever and needing something with enough punch to deal with such a powerful foe.

“Water Sign: Subsume the World!” She cast.

The spell was truly worthy of its name. All the water in the cave seemed to come to life all at once, turning from just a passive medium for the battle into an active participant, and its presence in the battlefield overshadowed Fluttershy hydra and the chaotic monster combined. And not only that, but it also overshadowed the chaotic world itself, breaking down the barriers between the many interconnected spaces and turning them all into a single underground lake.

And even that wasn’t all. The water expanded and devoured the very magic that had been sustaining that chaotic space, taking its place. The world of chaos was now a world of water, and Fluttershy did not have to keep holding it open on her own. But while Fluttershy was relieved by the appearance of the water, the chaotic monster very definitely was not.

It screamed, but the scream was completely smothered by the water, the same water that was subsuming everything in range, every bit of matter and every bit of magic, with the exception of Twilight and Fluttershy. And that meant that the chaotic creature itself was swallowed up and consumed by the living water, the Shard of Chaos releasing great amounts of magic to create varied effects in the hopes of escaping, but without any success. The multitude of colors and sounds were veritably kaleidoscopic as the shard of chaos was finally destroyed.

After a few moments where the water tried to find more things to devour within the specifications of the spell (Twilight was very careful not to let things go out of control) it finally calmed down and Twilight and Fluttershy canceled their respective spells. The lack of the chaos magic and the results of the battle had ended up with the two Knights standing at the bottom of the lake, only it was much deeper now.

The two allowed themselves to mostly relax and then slowly swam out of the lake, only to be greeted with a crowd of ponies, headed by the five they had saved from within the chaotic space.

"Hurray for the Knights!" One of them called " Hip hip hurray!"

"Hip hip hurray!" It was echoed by everypony else there.

This was just another chapter for the Knights of the generation.

-0-

The power of the warlock was increasing more and more. Before Applejack could put her idea into practice, he had used another spell to create another ice minotaur, only this one was obviously a lot more powerful, made of much thicker ice and animated by a lot more magic.

This wasn't just an impression, Applejack in her earth griffin form raised up into the air and dived down at immense speed at this opponent, to the point where the simple weight of her "armor" was enough to turn it into the kind of projectile that could bust down magically reinforced fortress walls, just because of the speed.

And yet, when they clashed, despite the terrifying sound and shockwaves of the collision, the ice minotaur only had a few scratches, which were quickly mended by the magic. And then Applejack had to channel a burst of magic through her earth griffin in order to deal with the cold spirits that were trying to get inside and affect her. Dark Moon was having to keep moving incessantly in order to deal with them and with the ice birds, not to mention that the two were slowly being worn down by the constant need to use magic to deal with the cold and the hail.

But still, things hadn't gone out of control, and Applejack wouldn't be forced into using an Overdrive to deal with the situation. She put her plan into action by first shouting:

"Moon!"

Dark Moon took a moment to be able to turn and look at her, and Applejack looked through the "eyes" of the earth griffin construct directly into the avatar's eyes.

Message sent, Applejack pulled away from the ice minotaur towards Dark Moon. And the unicorn flew to take her place in fighting the construct. She proceeded to unleash the full power of her darkness into the construct, taking advantage of her smaller size to fly all around it and avoid its attacks, all the while giving a speech about the powers of darkness (the exact same speech she gave Applejack, even. Down to the cadence and tone, clearly she had practiced). The warlock directed a greater number of ice spirits to attack her, trying to finish things quickly, but that was exactly what the Knight had hoped he'd do.

Applejack didn't really listen to Dark Moon's speech, she had heard it all before, not to mention the fact that she currently had better things to do. So she looked all around the area, using her eyes of truth to pierce the memory magic and see the true and real state of the fortress and surroundings, she took in every detail and established them all as Truth within herself.

This had taken a bit of time, but the distraction provided by Dark Moon was enough for Applejack to do all that she needed. And now that everything was done, the Knight decided to do things a little theatrically, as a sort of tribute to her teacher, since it had been her lessons that allowed Applejack to reach such a level.

So, the Knight manipulated her earth magic to bring herself to the top of the head of her griffin construct. Then she pointed directly at the Warlock.

"Warlock Black Hooves!" She shouted "Ya are a being that should not still exist in this world! Yer time has passed and ya have already been defeated, and the only reason ya still stand is due ta the chaotic magic bringing this memory to life! Ya are just a memory of the past, an illusion! And Ah... Will destroy this illusion!"

At this point a few ice birds were almost touching her, but Applejack had already said everything she needed to say, so she simply took a Space Step, directly arriving right in front of the Warlock.

She pulled a hoof back for a punch and called:

"Truth Seeking Blow: Imagine Breaker!" And punched him in the face.

She charged the punch with the Truth of the area that she had confirmed earlier. But she wasn't trying to destroy the illusion directly, in fact, her target was not even the illusion at all.

She was actually targeting reality itself.

Applejack's ability was based upon reminding the world of its true form and convincing it to reject the illusions itself.

The results of the punch were tremendous. A powerful light shone from every inch of the fortress and the area around it. Everypony who was at least decent at magic sensing would be able to tell that a ridiculous amount of power was being used all at once, and the resulting effect wasn't really a spell, because even the most complex and advanced spell formulas would be hard-pressed to contain so much magic.

After a moment it was over, and all the traps and magic protections of the fortress disappeared, the fortress took on the damaged and weathered look it should have had, and the hail, the minotaur and the other creatures, and finally the Warlock itself also disappeared. Leaving behind the Shard of Chaos.

Applejack punched it.

Afterwards, the Knight started to fall towards the ground, there was no way she could fly with earth magic without the support of the memory magic. But she wasn't worried, this kind of height wasn't nearly enough to leave her seriously hurt, and even if it was, Dark Moon was already diving to catch her.

"Wow!" The avatar said after having caught Applejack "That was awesome! Ahem... I mean... So, the memory returns to the darkness, just as it should be..."

Applejack only smiled.

-0-

When Rainbow Dash got into the path and entered the river, she decided that she didn't really want to get soaked, so the Knight used her wind manipulation to create a cloak of air around herself to block the water. It was a somewhat precise feat of magic, but nothing draining for a Knight. And of course, she did not include Trixie in her protection, because turnabout was fair play.

Of course, Trixie simply used a spell to do something similar and avoid the water as well, because of course she did.

Rainbow Dash, as she was going through the underground river, thought about how weird it was to be flying underwater. It was a different experience than flying through the air, instead of pushing the air around through her wings to propel herself forward, Rainbow Dash was using the air to push the water around backwards, making the whole air cloak move forward. This meant that she did not have any feeling of rushing air at all, which was weird.

Still, she just kept moving forward, taking care not to expend too much energy and focus on accelerating, since she needed to be prepared for any kind of sudden change to the situation. But the first unexpected thing that happened was instead due to her passenger, Trixie, who cast a spell.

It did not seem to do anything, but Rainbow Dash soon got an explanation for what had been the deal when Trixie used another spell to whisper a few words into her ears.

"It was trying to use an illusion to make us go the wrong way. Tch, trying something like that in front of Trixie is like asking for a humilliation."

Rainbow Dash nodded inwardly and kept going for a little bit more, then she felt a magical emanation coming from forward, probably from the Shard of Chaos, but again nothing seemed to happen. Trixie sent words to her again.

"The Shard is rearranging the path forward, to keep us from finding it. But Trixie can use her magic to find the right path, just follow the arrow."

Then, Trixie cast a powerful spell that swept through the entire area, and almost as an afterthought, it also put the image of an arrow on Rainbow Dash's mind.

The pegasus followed the directions of the arrow when the tunnel started to split between multiple parts, the path was weird, and frequently she had to squeeze through small gaps or do repeated sharp turns to be able to follow the indications of the arrow. At one point, the path was truly too small, and she had to use a punch to widen the gap enough to be able to pass.

"We're almost there." Came another message "Things should get a little more intense now."

Her words proved to be absolutely correct. Since trying to mislay the Knights was not working, the Shard of Chaos resorted to flat out attacking them. Roots, rocks, leaves and all sorts of other materials from the area were turned into weapons that tried to skewer, crush, pierce and cut the Knights.

But the two would not be defeated so easily. Trixie used spells to create illusionary copies of herself and Rainbow, to force the enemy to split apart its attacks. While Rainbow Dash used her weather magic go manipulate the water around herself into the form of weapons and shields to deal with the attacks.

And things kept getting harder and harder, as the Shard of Chaos was spending more and more energy to try and fend the Knights away, to the point where it was beginning to warp the materials into weird shapes and behaviors. But then they burst into view of the Shard, which was floating in the water and connected to everything around it by red lines, and it did a final struggle by collapsing the tunnel, trying to bury both Knights alive.

"Rainboom Punch!" Rainbow Dash accelerated and delivered a hit straight at the Shard, destroying it.

And then, Trixie teleported both of them out of the tunnel, without the Shard of Chaos to mess up the space, there was no reason she couldn't do it.

Of course, the reason why she did as such wasn't just for them to escape from the collapsing tunnel. She also knew that with the Shard of Chaos gone, there would be nothing sustaining the tendrils of earth, which meant the entire thing would fall to the ground.

Rainbow Dash understood that perfectly once the teleport finished and she saw herself right underneath the small landmass. And it was reinforced when it began to fall. Trixie got down from her back, and Rainbow understood what she should do.

"EX-Mode!" She shouted, activating her ability, thus increasing her strength.

The Knight quickly flew up to the falling landmass and started pushing against it, making it slow down. Yet, it wasn't enough, and she started using her wind manipulation to create currents to help reduce the speed of her target.

She did manage to make the landmass fall slower, but it still wasn't enough to prevent it being a catastrophe, but thankfully, Rainbow Dash wasn't the only Knight present.

"Perfect Illusion: Element Ruler!" Trixie shouted, and cast her magic.

Her magic did similar to what Rainbow was doing and manipulated wind currents in order to made the air act as a brake on the landmass. Except that he efforts were far more large scale. A true whirlwind, just as big as the landmass itself, was formed by her spell, and it was that effect that managed to finally slow the area to a relatively safe level. Trixie's spell had actually worked by convincing the winds that the conditions to create that kind of phenomenon were present, via illusions.

And so, both Knights kept going until the thing had almost landed, and then Rainbow Dash flew and grabbed Trixie to bring them both away from the landing zone.

The two looked at the results.

"Well. This place will need some reconstruction efforts, but Trixie believes this counts as a success." Trixie said.

"Was it just me, or was this really easy?" Rainbow Dash asked "I mean, the whole 'colony drop' thing was a little tiring, but apart from that..."

"Trixie thinks we just had a rather good matchup for this mission. Trixie's illusions could contain it easily, and your harmony powers restrained what it could do." Trixie answered.

"I guess sometimes we just get lucky." Rainbow decided.

-0-

The pegasus stallion who was pointed out by Pinkie Pie was completely surprised by the situation.

"Ah... What?"

He stopped in the air, startled, upon seeing both an Earth Pony with an aura of power and a strong-looking pegasus moving towards him. But before any answer to his question could be given, if indeed somepony was willing to give an answer, something else happened.

Above the wings of that pegasus, two new wings sprouted, only they were made of some kind of dark red energy and were five times the size of his normal wings. With a pulse of magic the winds around the pegasus went wild, and both Pinkie and Lightning had to stop their advance.

"What?! What's going on?!" The pegasus shouted, panicked, his wings and legs flailed about, but he was unable to affect his situation in any way, as the red wings flapped once, in a jerky, unnatural way, and he began to fly upwards quickly, with the winds becoming even more furious and clouds filled with lightning appearing around him.

"Ah, it seems like the Shard of Chaos tied itself to his subconscious." Pinkie Pie nodded knowingly "This really is something uncommon."

After that there was no time to keep talking, as the clouds shifted, turning into the consistency of jelly, and they started spewing globs of themselves over the city.

Realizing that she definitely did not want those things to be hitting the city, Pinkie shouted "Clone Technique!", creating dozens of clones of herself, which started warping repeatedly and destroying the globs with punches.

It was not as easy as that made it sound. Those globs were charged with not only a whole bunch of undirected chaotic energy, but also lightning, which served as a direct medium for the chaos magic to channel itself into whatever it hit. Several of the clones were destroyed when the channeled chaos magic turned them into balloons, or made them melt (like chocolate) or warped the air around them into fire. However, a lot of the clones managed to resist the changes, and absorb the chaos magic, showing how skilled Pinkie Pie had become in creating clones, and how much power she had to provide them. She also kept replacing the lost clones, so she was not losing ground, but the energy costs were not low.

Meanwhile, Lightning Chaser kept trying to approach the pegasus or attack the chaotic wings with lightning, but both ideas were foiled by the wind manipulation of the chaos shard. It had already created an incredibly confusing zone of contradictory wind currents, that appeared to contain something like half a dozen whirlwinds spinning in different directions and angles. And those winds were actually also capable of redirecting her lightning from the distance she could reach.

Pinkie Pie quickly realized that this was going nowhere.

"This is going nowhere." Pinkie said. She had seen that even with her preventing the chaotic attacks from striking the city, the battle that they were fighting was disrupting the routine of the city enough that the Shard of Chaos was managing to get back whatever power it spent, and even a little bit more, and was constantly replenishing her chaotic clouds. So she sent a clone to talk with Lightning Chaser.

"Do you have any strong attacks that can break through those defenses and destroy the chaos shard?" The Pinkie clone asked.

"I do. But it takes a bit of time to set up, and it doesn't discriminate targets." Meaning that pegasus would be hit as well, were the unspoken words.

"I (Pinkie) have (has) a way to deal with that." The Pinkie clone assured her, before going back to the original.

And just after that, the original Pinkie Pie clapped her forehooves together and charged some magic, before shouting.

"Chaotic Arts:" At that point, every single clone was sucked back into Pinkie's body "Chaotic Aura!"

And then her aura exploded. That was the only way to describe what had happened. The pink aura of power from Pinkie's emotion charge expanded to the size of a house, and it acquired an appearance of solidity and strength.

The globs of chaotic cloud were still falling, but Pinkie already had a counter for that. She shaped her solid aura into a huge mouth, that extended in a tendril to devour every single one of the clouds.

Seeing that, Lightning Chaser flew up to do as planned, reaching a much higher point than the pegasus had (the poor pegasus had pretty much given up and was only holding still and hoping the two would be able to help him) and started to charge magic at a rate that very few ponies were capable of.

Obviously, the Shard of Chaos didn't like where this was going, so it turned to go after the avatar, but...

"I want a hug!" Pinkie shouted, and somehow jumped towards the pegasus, shaping her aura into two legs.

She hugged the area of extreme wind phenomena, bringing the whole thing with the pegasus in the middle towards her "chest" (really just the front part of the aura).

Lightning Chaser didn't even hesitate. After having charged her power, she started spreading her magic into the nearby clouds via strands of colored lightning, except those strands were a lot denser and longer than normal lightning. First she created a line of red lightning, then black lightning, then blue, purple, yellow, green and orange. It was a true rainbow of lightning. And it created colored clouds charged with the lightning.

Meanwhile, Pinkie was keeping the Shard of Chaos busy by messing with its weather magic via a gigantic fan made out of the energy aura.

Lightning Chaser then fused the various clouds together and forced the resulting mass to shoot lightning of its own. The result was a sphere of multicolored lightning that started descending towards the pegasus. While it was in the air, the sphere shifted to become a powerful looking hand, which seemed to contain enough power to break through anything.

At the last moment before impact, Pinkie forced a thread of aura inside the chaotic wind world of the shard and coated the pegasus with her aura via it.

The attack was devastating. It hit the wind like the collapse of a mountain and the energy contained inside the attack unleashed itself like the wrath of a thousand storms. It annihilated every single fragment of chaotic energy that the Shard of Chaos could output, and even snaked right into the pegasus' body and overwhelmed every possible defense the Shard could use, destroying it directly with complete momentum.

But Pinkie's aura prevented the pegasus from being hurt at all in the process.

The stallion fell unconscious when it was over, but he was completely unharmed. And while both she and the avatar were descending, Pinkie asked Lightning Chaser:

"So... Does that little number have a name?"

"Yes." Was the answer "It is called Seven Colored Sky: Lightning Retribution." She shook her head "I don't usually put names on my attacks, but since I am fighting beside a Knight, it is traditional."

Pinkie grinned at her.

-0-

Spike was flying pretty fast, so it did not take long for him to find the target. Thanks to his enhanced senses, he saw the target before she saw him. She was a unicorn mare with a lilac coat and mane, and the cutie mark of a wheel. She was standing in a green field to the east of the city.

She was releasing bursts of chaos magic from her chest to try and remove the sign that was pointing her out, but as previously stated, this had been created by a particularly powerful spell, and it would take much more effort than that to get rid of it.

Due to his speed, he was almost upon her by the time the unicorn finally saw him. She snarled and waved her right foreleg violently, shaping the earth in front into an egg like golem that had dozens of legs around its body and jumped straight at the dragon.

Spike turned and slashed with his wing, borrowing the speed from his flight. Upon being hit, the golem was rendered into thousands of pieces, completely destroyed.

"What are you doing?!" He shouted at the unicorn "Do you realize the consequences of wielding a Shard of Chaos?!"

"Shut up!" The unicorn shouted back at him "I will not give up on this power, no matter what anypony says!"

She then released a huge burst of power that made the earth underneath her rise up in the form of a tree golem that had a trunk-like body and four arms.

"I am Peppermint, and I will take control of my own destiny!" She shouted, as the golem grew, and it grew to the point where it was easily a match for Spike's promised "adult form".

The golem threw one of its arms at Spike, making it extend like a whip. The Dragon Squire knew it would be hard to dodge with his big wings, so he canceled that spell and let himself fall, his smaller profile being a much harder target. The attack missed him, and before he could fall all the way to the ground, Spike had already prepared his next move.

"Draconic Aura: Arms of the Dragon!" He shouted, and the aura of arms of his adult version appeared, looking even more solid and real than the last time he had used them.

He stopped his fall with th left arm, and punched at the golem with his right arm, but that golem was obviously leagues above the egg golem he had easily destroyed. Using three of his arms, the golem managed to stop Spike's punch, and it attacked with the last arm.

Spike pushed off the ground with his other arm, throwing himself to the air before coming down above Peppermint with a double claw slash.

That was when the chaotic nature of the magic the unicorn was using began to really show itself. With another burst of power, the earth golem remolded itself backwards, in a truly bizarre fleshlike fashion. Spike's attack hit the ground, carving deep furrows into it, and then the golem flowed forward like a wave, trying to engulf Spike. He pushed off the ground with both arms to jump away and decided that it was time to change strategy.

Cancelling his draconic aura again, Spike charged magic as he started to fall towards the ground.

As he finished his next spell, Spike remembered the words of his teacher. She had said that his tendencies, likes, desires and all that was close to his heart was the best source of power and what he should focus on. And it had not taken long for Spike to sum up all of that with a single word: Dragons.

His draconic aura and magic charge were based upon his potential power as a dragon, but this newest ability was different, and focused upon his identity as a dragon. To be precise, it asked the question of: What if he had been born a different kind of dragon?

"Draconic Self: Earth Wyrm!" He shouted, and changed.

His body lenghtened itself a little, but his limbs grew twice as much, resulting in a strange lanky appearance, the tail also disappeared. The claws of hands and feet grew larger and sharper, and his eyes also changed, getting some kind of transparent protection pellicle. Finally, his scales shifted around, changing from a streamlined appearance into a configuration that seemed to favor protecting the back and arms.

All this takes some time to describe, but the change was nearly instant, and was finished before Spike could hit the ground. And he did not actually "hit" the ground, but dived into it as easily as if it was water, and then moved through the underground with the speed of flight.

He was far too fast for Peppermint to react. In instants, he had traveled the whole path up to right below the golem, and then moved upwards, digging into the golem. The digging abilities of this form were magic assisted and incredibly strong. As he dug upwards through the golem, he shaped his magic to make the nearby parts of it crumble as well, instead of simply making a tunnel, he was trying to destroy the golem from the inside.

He was fast, but when the unicorn realized what was happening, she acted decisively. Detaching the head of the golem and making it jump off, just in time to avoid an invasion by Spike. And then she retaliated, releasing another burst of magic that transformed the earth of the golem into wood, not just the head, but the body as well, and she controlled the wood to fuse the head back into the body, manipulating the branches of both parts into crushing Spike.

But the Dragon Squire still had not shown the full might of his ability.

"Salamander!" He shouted, and changed again.

His appearance was now more similar to his original form than to the wyrm figure. He now had two additional crests to the sides of the first one, and they were somewhat pointier. His tail had become longer and larger, and the color of his scales had changed to a deep red.

With a shout he released a powerful fire from his body, burning the wood golem that had been trying to strangle him.

Peppermint screamed, but then she released another burst of magic and took control of the fire itself, and made the golem explode.

"Gaargh!" Spike screamed, as he was thrown through the air due to the sheer force of the explosion. Cracks appeared in his scales, due to the power of the attack, and the unicorn simply made the parts of the fire that had been scattered come back together into a cohesive golem form.

'Why is she getting stronger?' Spike thought, and then realized that there was something else he needed to worry about.

He hadn't noticed it during the fight, but there was a line of weak chaotic energy going all the way to the city.

'What is she doing with that?' He asked himself, but stopped, deciding that defeating her was the most pressing matter.

And when he looked, Spike saw that Peppermint was partially merged with the golem.

"Stop! You're losing yourself!" He shouted at her.

"Hahaha! This power is amazing!" Was her only response, and her golem threw a bunch of fireballs towards Spike.

They weren't really dangerous, and that really convinced the dragon that Peppermint was losing control, she seemed to have lost sight of what was happening in the battle.

Spike knew that, as a Knight, he would have to kill in order to defend Equestria, but this wasn't that kind of situation. He did not think that unicorn was the kind of threat to Equestria that needed to be destroyed. And in that case, he would have to do his best to save her.

"Diamond Scale!" He shouted, and changed one more time.

This new appearance had the same long tail of a salamander, but his crest was back to normal. His legs became thicker and he got a little shorter, but the biggest change was that his scales turned into a diamond hard material, and his color turned to silver.

He had an idea, but for that he would need to be tough.

Peppermint threw more fireballs at him, but she was clearly more interested in general mayhem, since she kept setting all the nearby grass on fire. Spike ran in her direction, ignoring the fireballs that kept splashing onto his body. And once he got close enough, the dragon used a spell to throw himself right at the unicorn.

While previously, Peppermint had managed to defend herself incredibly well, this time she was too addled due to the chaos magic to react when Spike approached and held onto her.

The fire golem wasn't an active defense, but just remaining in contact with it was already forcing Spike to spend a lot of energy to keep himself unharmed by the heat. If it were an adult Diamond Scale, they would be able to resist even diving in lava, but Spike was still a child, so his version was a child as well, and didn't have the same amount of natural resilience.

Still, he was more than strong enough for what he was trying to do.

Using a series of pulses of magic, he managed to find the exact location of the Shard of Chaos within Peppermint's body (a little below the heart), and then he charged magic to his index finger and promptly pierced the chest of the unicorn and the shard of chaos at the same time.

"Gah!" Peppermint coughed, and the golem started to crumble due to the destruction of the shard.

Spike held onto the unicorn and jumped off, charging magic again for a final spell.

"Heal!" He shouted, and used all the power he could muster.

There were many kinds of healing spells, and the only one Spike had learned was the kind that helped the patient's body restore itself. But it would have to be enough.

The two landed, and the next few seconds were a blur for Spike as he kept pouring power into his working. And at the end, Peppermint had changed.

"Ahh... What's going on...?" She asked.

She had become flat like a pancake. Like a two dimensional version of a pony. Spike was guessing that this was a reaction of the chaotic magic in her body to the healing spell he had used. But she was alive, so everything else could be dealt with. He had seen the three suffer worse accidents due to Twilight's own chaos magic, so it wasn't like this was unrecoverable.

"Guess I'll just wait here, then." He muttered, before starting to talk with the unicorn.

-0-

Seeing that direct attacks were not working well, Claw Marked changed his tactics. He closed the portal he was attacking from, disappearing at the same time, and reappeared diagonally down and right from the duo, and also several meters upwards. From there, he created two dozen stone sized portals and started to shoot lasers from them.

"Grand Sound Shield, Block Everything in Existence!" Aura Music shouted, casting a spell.

With the melody of her zither, an invisible barrier blocked the lasers that Claw Marked was shooting, and even continued blocking from every direction when the minotaur sent the portals to attack from multiple angles. Sunset took advantage of this time to plant a rune on the ground.

Claw Marked then combined the lasers of several portals into one big laser, that managed to pierce through the barrier of sound, forcing Sunset to teleport herself and her partner upwards to avoid the attack. Then she told Aura Music "Cover Me!" reactivated Trance Mode and teleported right next to the minotaur magical construct.

"Double Magic Enhance: Great Seeking Spheres!" She cast, creating half a dozen spheres of power that Claw Marked barely managed to evade by jumping into his portal again.

But of course, they were seeking spheres, and when the minotaur reappeared at the other side of the field, they simply turned back and flew at him again. Sunset used that distraction to form three more runes, while Aura Music charged her magic for a new attack.

"Grand Sound Wave, Smash Through All!" She shouted, and released her magic.

It was an indiscriminate attack, and Sunset was forced to teleport outside of the radius of it, but Claw Marked had even more trouble, he had used close range space manipulation to make the seeking spheres blow up, but that left him open to be hit by the sound wave, and it actually visibly harmed him, breaking his aura defense and making him spit out blood, but he was clearly not out of the fight yet.

Opening another portal, he dropped through it straight over Aura Music, and channeled space magic into his fist in order to try and punch a hole through her. The avatar quickly sent a magically charged bolt of sound to try and deal with the punch, and was halfway successful, the space magic was broken but Claw Marked still managed to punch her right in the face.

She was stunned by the attack, but before Claw Marked could follow up on it, Sunset teleported into the scene and hit him with a punch of her own, making him fly away. Instead of following up, she planted another rune on the ground, and the minotaur took advantage of the distraction, throwing a portal like a disc to try and decapitate her.

But by that point, Aura Music had recovered from being stunned, and she took over the defense with another bolt of magic music to deflect the portal. Then, she counter attacked by creating several blades of wind and throwing them at the minotaur construct, just to get a bit of time.

"Any plans?" She asked the Knight.

"Just need to make a few more preparations, and then he will be finished." Sunset answered confidently.

"Then this mage shall do her best to make sure your preparations aren't interrupted! This I swear with the heavens and earth as my witness!" Aura Music got fired up again.

She decided to go on the offensive, and played a small melody to make her wind current stronger and faster.

She reached up close to the minotaur construct and actually decided to use her magical zither as a melee weapon, batting at her opponent, who blocked with a fist filled with magic. But blocking was the wrong way to deal with that weapon, because Aura made another note sound out, channeling the vibrations right into his body.

He forcefully separated himself from her, trying to resist the vibrations that were trying to tear him apart from the inside. She kept on the offensive, even jumping fearlessly through a portal that he had just used to try and escape. Still, he managed to recover enough to actually try and deal with her, even if he had to avoid directly blocking the zither that she was still using as a weapon.

The close combat lasted only a few seconds before Claw Marked managed to use a portal to send Aura Music away, but that was enough for Sunset to finish setting the runes she needed. And she had also charged enough magic to do something that would have been completely impossible were it not for the fact that she was currently in Trance Mode.

"Attack after me!" She shouted to her current partner in combat, and then she started her plan.

"Triple Magic Enhance: Great Spatial Scramble!" She cast, releasing a pulse of magic that spread through a wide area, and while it did not leave any visible changes in the world, all who were nearby could feel that things had become different.

Aura Music felt like there was some kind of static in the air, something invisible and intangible that could still somehow be felt, like the buzzing of a fly that you could not see nor hit. Claw Marked, on the other hand, was much more connected to space, so his reaction was to hold his head in pain, as if he had the worst headache in the world.

And that was only half of Sunset's move.

"Double Magic Enhance: Restraining Chains!" And she cast another powerful spell just after finishing the previous one.

To do that, she had needed to hold a second magical formula on her mind at the same time as she was doing another spell. Trixie was better at that kind of thing, but as long as the formulas weren't too complex, Sunset could also do it if she tried. Golden Chains materialized around Sunset and threw themselves at the minotaur, who was too stunned to react and was caught by them.

The first spell had scrambled space on a magical level, preventing the use of teleportation or portals. Of course, the real Claw Marked would not have been sealed so easily, but that copy was far weaker as simply could not deal with such a quick change in the situation. The second spell had restrained the minoutaur construct, but two big spells in quick succession had completely wiped Sunset out, and it would take a few seconds for enough magic to recover for her to fight.

But thankfully, Aura Music had followed Sunset's instructions. Barely a second after the chains had done their job, her wind current had brought the unicorn right next to the minotaur construct. She charged more magic than she had ever done in that fight, and played a note in her zither that seemed to carry the feeling of approaching death.

"Reaper's Whisper..." She whispered, and unleashed a sound that only Claw Marked could hear.

That was something that could be called a true Death Spell, a magic that attacked the connection between body and soul directly. It bypassed any physicality, and the only defense possible was the power of the soul itself. The minotaur used every single scrap of magic he had, and his limited will of a puppet, leading to a struggle of several seconds.

And perhaps Claw Marked could have survived had that spell been used in the beginning of the battle, but by that point he had used too much energy, and been injured twice, and without the powerful will of a true warrior, he simply couldn't hold out. His body turned into motes of light and started to disappear...

"Activate formation!" Sunset shouted, and activated the runic formation she had prepared during the battle.

The runes glowed with a brilliant light and shoot beams of power that connected with the motes of light from Claw Marked's body. The connection made, Sunset activated the last part of the circle.

"Origin Search!"

That was a magic that did exactly what the name advertised. The Knights knew that the mastermind would certainly send more constructs after them, but they didn't plan on simply allowing such a one-sided situation. This spell was a way to go after the mastermind directly.

The spell tracked the origin of Claw Marked right to the point where he had been created, in an operation that took several seconds. She quickly realized that there were no anti-teleportation wards on the place (probably because it would be really suspicious) and so getting there would be a simple matter. Sunset had already recovered most of her magic, and so she teleported right there:

"See you later!" She shouted to Aura Music, right before disappearing and reappearing elsewhere.

Quickly she saw that she was inside some kind of old, underground palace, that seemed to have fallen into disrepair. Knowing she would probably need some help, Sunset used a special spell to summon her fellow Knights. It was quite a convenient spell, that allowed even those that couldn't teleport to come towards her, and the seven other Knights quickly accepted the summons, knowing that this was probably important.

Naturally, this was when things started going wrong.

-0-

Suddenly, just after Sunset got an answer to her summons, her magic was disrupted. The feeling she got was of mirrors, so whatever it was had to do with illusions.

'It still felt like the teleportations worked, so I guess they must be somewhere in this place.' Sunset thought.

Looking around, she saw the passages warping and reshaping themselves as illusionary magic was cast.

"Well, that's going to be a bother." She said out loud.

"Indeed."

Sunset turned back and watched as Trixie walked into sight. The two ponies sent magical probes at each other, and went through a complex process to make sure that the other one was indeed real and not another illusion. Trixie was the one who designed this process, so the reliability was high.

"And you barely even notice the illusions." Sunset said, smirking.

"This mage is indeed good, and can even use the real to trick like an illusion, but they are not Trixie." The showmare responded, and started walking to a certain direction.

"How long do you think it will take for Twilight to find us?" Sunset asked, walking after Trixie.

"It will still take a little time. She always did have problems with the most complex illusions." Trixie answered "As for the others, Applejack can see through illusions, but this mage will definitely have ways to deal with that, so Trixie thinks Rainbow Dash is the most likely to find us first, because of her instincts."

"I think it will be Fluttershy, that empathy thing is very useful for those kinds of things." Sunset gave her opinion "Where are we going?" She asked.

Trixie smiled "As Trixie has said, this mage is good, but she is better. They did a good job hiding it, but Trixie still can tell from where the illusion magic is coming from."

After that, the two proceeded in silence, preparing themselves for any kind of possible ambush, but still, they managed to go in peace until their target, which was seriously strange.

"Ahhh... That is annoying." Trixie said.

This was because they had found the source of the magic. It was a big mirror, and Trixie could tell that it had been created specially for that kind of job, which meant their mastermind was completely out of reach by that point.

"Hehehe..." A female voice came from the mirror.

Suddenly the image of a pony appeared there. She was a unicorn mare with a heliotrope coat and a pale blue mane, and she had a cutie mark of mirrors.

"I admit you were clever to be able to find this base, but I, Radiant Hope, am not so stupid as to be caught that easily." She spoke in a smug voice.

"Why are you sending those constructs against us?" Sunset asked directly. It was worth a shot, since opponents that felt they had the upper hand had loose lips.

"Hehehe..." She laughed in an annoying manner "Why, it is simple. It was an order from my master Sombra, of course."

Sunset had an expression of bewilderment "You mean he prepared to the point where he had an apprentice who would avenge his death?"

"Hehehe... You know nothing. Master Sombra gave me this order personally. You think he is dead? Master Sombra is immortal!"

The shock of those words almost made Sunset miss the sudden pulse of magic coming from above, but she managed to send a powerful blast of pure magic in that direction with amazing speed.

But even with that, she couldn't change the outcome.

-0-

Twilight had to scramble a lot of the illusions with chaos magic to be able to find her way. Feeling remnants of Trixie's magic in the air (probably left on purpose) she followed them, since her partner was the best suited for dealing with illusions. Despite the work she had to do to keep following the path, there were no surprises until she found the two.

Twilight was still some distance away, so she couldn't hear what they were talking, but she saw the unicorn in the mirror, and she definitely saw when Sunset suddenly attacked upwards.

And she saw when the whole area in front of her, including her two partners simply... Disappeared.

The place had become an open area, and there was now an earth pony stallion with a white mane and grey coat in the middle of the emptiness. He was turned to the other side and did not appear to have noticed her.

'No...' A thought flashed through Twilight's mind 'No, I can't feel them anymore.'

Sending her magic in a powerful pulse, she realized that both Sunset and Trixie were just... gone.

'No... I won't... I won't let this happen!' She shouted within herself, and then she ignored all notions of carefulness.

"Overdrive!" She shouted, and her body exploded in more power than she had ever brought out with the technique "Merged Spell!" She shouted again, and fused the mix of energies from her body (she had used the spells on her armor before) into the rushing power she had already gathered.

'Still not enough.' She thought, as the earth pony turned to face her "Overdrive!"

And the power that already had reached a ridiculous level instantly grew by another order of magnitude. The power Twilight was holding was so great that the space around her started to warp, the ground changed to ice and small chaotic creatures were born from the air. The earth pony leapt at Twilight, using the same magic that he had used before to make everything around his path disappear.

"Time Stop." Twilight said.

The earth pony stopped in the air as the time in the entire area was stopped. Twilight looked up at him, tears in her eyes as she continued her magic.

"Time Reverse..." She seemed to struggle to say the words.

And like a tape being reversed, everything that had been turned to nothing was restored in reverse order. Twilight seemed to be under a great burden, but she didn't stop until everything was done. Sunset and Trixie were back, and there were no signs that anything had happened.

And both Twilight and the earth pony had become wispy and ethereal, as if they were no longer part of the world.

"We shall wander FOREVER!" She shouted, bringing the magic to a close.

And both she and the earth pony that had been responsible for all that... Disappeared completely.

Resolution

View Online

There was silence for a few moments as Trixie and Sunset struggled to process what had happened.

"I'm going to send a message to Celestia." Sunset said, breathing heavily to try and calm down.

"Okay...." Trixie said, doing the same thing "Trixie will make sure Radiant Hope can't interfere with anything here. It seems the connection was broken, but..." She didn't finish her statement.

Sunset did what she said, while Trixie ran a few diagnostic spells. Fluttershy appeared soon after, and she instantly realized that something was wrong.

"What happened?" She asked carefully.

"I don't..." Sunset started speaking, before stopping and taking another deep breath "I don't want to have to repeat myself, so it's better to wait until the others get here."

Fluttershy could feel that the emotions of the two were in extreme turmoil, to the point where she was surprised that they were still in control of themselves, even if it was obvious that they were not okay.

Over the next minute, the rest of the apprentices arrived. Rainbow Dash got there first, and feeling that things were tense, simply waited by the side of her teacher. Pinkie Pie came later, and was about to try and cheer the two up when Fluttershy looked at her and shook her head. Then Rarity got there, and saw that something was very wrong just from the faces the two were doing, so she also waited. Finally, Applejack got there, and her eyes widened as she looked at a seemingly empty part of the room.

And then Princess Celestia teleported in. By her side was the dragon Spike, and held in her magic was the unicorn Peppermint, who was still in a 2D state.

All the Knights straightened themselves up when the princess arrived, and Sunset and Trixie even managed to relax a fraction.

"Hello, my Knights." Celestia said with a serious expression "I have already received Sunset's report about what happened here, and so I will have to extend this mission of yours to include a rescue of Twilight."

"What happened with her?" Fluttershy asked "Sunset said she would explain when we were all here." She looked at the unicorn.

Celestia looked at Sunset and Trixie with kind eyes "I think it would be better for me to explain." She cleared her throat "Perhaps the biggest magical lesson that can be learned is that the most powerful magics have the biggest consequences, and in order to save Sunset and Trixie, Twilight completely ignored this lesson and used a particularly powerful time magic." She realized that Applejack wanted to speak "What is it, my little Applejack?"

"Ah can see it." She said, pointing to the same empty space as before "It's like a subword, a place only barely connected to reality."

"Indeed." Celestia agreed "Twilight has been caught in the gears of time, and it's hard to say what are her chances of coming out, or even what her current situation is, but there is still a connection that can be exploited to reach her, and so you have a chance to help."

"What do we need to do?" Sunset asked "Neither me nor Trixie understand enough about time and space magic to be able to open this path."

"That means we need to bring a pony who does know enough." Celestia said simply, and cast a small spell to send a message.

It did not take long for another pony to teleport in, and it was a pony who was familiar to everypony there (except Peppermint, who was currently too unconscious to count), it was Moondancer, chief of Celestia's Special Division of Extreme Magical Research.

"Of course," Trixie realized "it was her research on space magic that allowed Twilight to do that."

"What's the situation?" Moondancer asked "The Princess simply gave me an emergency summons, so I came here as fast as possible."

She had clearly been in the middle of working on something, since there was some kind of slime on her hooves and parts of her coat were burning with some kind of magical fire that did not cause harm to her. The situation was explained quickly, and the researcher went up to the "connection place" and started doing a few diagnostic spells.

"Hey, Applejack." She called "Could you help me here?"

The Knight went over to her "What do I do?"

"Just tell me what you are seeing, since the Eyes of Truth will be able to understand the nuances better." Moondancer said.

And so it was done. The other Knights simply tried to relax and recover from their exertions while Moondancer and Applejack worked out a way in. Celestia had teleported away, saying she needed to help Peppermint, but Spike was still there, and commiserating together with Sunset and Trixie, who had recovered to the point where they were almost normal, but a tension could be seen in their bodies if one looked closely.

It took an entire hour of work, as Moondancer kept creating more and more runes on the ground, the walls and even the air, and connecting them in fairly complex formations that looked like spiderwebs of light and energy. Applejack was focusing as much as she could to see any small changes on the connection, and providing the researcher with every bit of information she could gather about the way the space was folding and the flow of energy.

"Okay then." Moondancer said loudly enough to attract attention "Almost done. This ritual will use the power of the dragon lines around this fortress, together with the bonds you have with Twilight in order to open a path to her." Everypony else walked towards the center circle she was indicating, while Moondancer was still doing calculations and redefining variables on the magical formation.

Sunset then looked at the dragon "Spike. You will have to stay here."

"What? Why?!" He asked forcefully "I also want to help save Twilight!"

"Moondancer will have to stay here to keep the path open for us to come back, so she will need to be protected, which is a job for a Knight. The mission still isn't over yet, but you pretty much qualify. Besides that, your bond with Twilight will also help us to come back once we get her." Sunset explained patiently "And we will come back, make no mistake about that. We will tell Twilight exactly how dumb she was to go that far, you will greet her once we are back here, and she will be there to watch your Knight proclamation." Her voice had taken on a tone of determination.

Spike looked like he still wanted to argue but could not find any way to refute those arguments. He took a moment to look at Moondancer, who was doing the final checks on the formation, before nodding "Okay. I'll trust you girls, and complete my own mission."

Sunset smiled at him, and the Knights moved to the points in the formation that Moondancer indicated.

"Okay everypony..." Moondancer started "It's time to start this ritual!"

She made her horn glow and then the web of magical formations started to shine little by little, spreading outward and getting stronger and stronger, until every one of the Knights could feel the enormous amounts of energy that it was pulling from the dragon lines.

"It's time! Charge the formation with your magic!" She shouted to them.

Sunset, Trixie, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie unleashed their powers to the maximum they could, creating actual rivers of energy that flowed into their parts of the formation. Sunset started her Trance Mode, and Pinkie Pie did an Emotion Charge, both of them far surpassing the amount of power any of the others were providing (though Fluttershy made a good showing).

The point in the center of the formation started to darken and waver as space bent around itself. The distortion grew... but then it stopped growing.

"Not enough power..." Moondancer said "Well, this is going to mess things up for later, but I'll have to overdraw from the dragon pulse!" She cast another spell, and then the air became electric with energy while the ground started to shake wildly on the outside of the formation.

The point in the center grew into a sphere, dark as the limits of space, the existence twisted itself, breaking apart and creating a hole in the world that seemed to lead everywhere. The shaking grew worse, and the roof of the underground palace started collapsing, opening the place to the light of day, the roof over the formation fell but was devoured by the spatial distortion before it could hit the Knights.

And then the distortion, that was now a hole in space shaped like an infinity symbol, again stopped growing.

"Still not enough power..." Moondancer muttered, then she looked at Sunset and Trixie and got an expression like she was about to do something extremely distasteful.

"Sunset, Trixie!" She called "There's not enough power to open the path!" And then she closed her eyes and focused.

The faces of the two Knights lost all sense of the calm they had before, and their eyes acquired a disturbing glow.

"Not enough..." Trixie said, in a voice that was like a volcano right before eruption.

"Power...?" Sunset finished, in a voice that combined outrage with a touch of insanity.

The two looked at each other, as if trying to confirm that the other had heard the same thing, and for a moment, both of them gave off an impression of a shared sense of will.

Then, as one, they roared:

"UOOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRGHHHHHHH!"

And like a dam had been broken, the two unleashed such a level of extra power that even an alicorn would consider dangerous.

They were no longer like a river, but instead a geyser of power that threatened to slip control and scour the very earth with destruction. This was such a pure power that it seemed like the world itself was in harmony with it. Moondancer struggled to channel all of that power into the formation, even if she had previously prepared herself.

While that was happening, Pinkie looked at the two of them with surprise 'They're emotion boosting... I didn't think it was possible to get so much power from your emotions without an emotion charge...' She thought.

Fluttershy was also surprised 'Their love and concern for Twilight is overflowing... Those emotions are so powerful...'

The distortion in space grew even more. The infinity symbol split into thousands of identical symbols overlapping each other, the color managed to become even darker and it hummed in a way that all who were nearby could feel it in their very souls. Finally, the distortion became an actual hole leading into light.

"Go!" Moondancer shouted, and the seven Knights jumped into the opening, going to rescue the last of their number.

Twilight and Darkness

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The passage through the opening in time and space felt different for most of the ponies who went through it. Sunset and Trixie barely felt anything, as their concentration was entirely on Twilight Sparkle, and on focusing their determination to save her. Applejack got a headache, as her Eyes of Truth got glimpses of realities far beyond what she could comprehend, but she refused to close her eyes to the truth. Rarity focused on her armor, trying to see if the passage would harm it in some way, because she did not want to have the equipment of any of the Knights fail them at a critical time.

Fluttershy was still focused on the emotions of Sunset and Trixie, while Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash were the only ones who were simply enjoying the ride for the kind of unique experience it was. That wasn't because they weren't serious about rescuing Twilight, but instead it was because the two understood very well that worrying about things unnecessarily would only wear them out, and would not help with rescuing their friend.

And it was really something to enjoy. The feeling of moving through space was slightly similar to moving through water, except that you did not need to hold your breath and there was always a sense of energy in the air. The sights were kaleidoscopic, a multitude of images mixing together in beautiful patterns that were ever changing. And the sounds weren't overshadowed by those sights, and they felt like a harmonic orchestra of natural sounds that came from all sorts of distances and instruments but managed to fit together neatly, and they gave off the idea of light and magic itself, not to mention the fact that they seemed to be slightly different for every listener, because it echoed with the sounds of their own being.

The time they passed in that crossing seemed to be at the same time very long and very short, as appropriate for a place bent around time. The ponies could remember taking in every single detail of the passage, which should have taken a while, but they also remembered that the whole crossing occurred in the short space of three breaths. Regardless, they finally reached their destination, which they were sure off because the place felt like Twilight.

The seven Knights appeared from thin air in an alley with buildings similar to Canterlot, walking out of the alley, they realized that the similarity was not mere coincidence, because they were in a city that was remarkably similar to Canterlot, but to Trixie's detail oriented eyes, it simply was not even close to being a passable imitation. Buildings were in wrong places and angles, some parts were too close or too far together, others simply did not exist in the original city in any form... And that was just the subtle stuff.

As for the things that truly brought home the fact that this wasn't anything like a real city, there was the fact that several parts seemed to be replicated multiple times in different locations, the fact that some buildings were only two dimensional cardboard cutouts, and most importantly, the fact that the space of the place bent in such a way that moving forward for a certain period of time would take you right back to where you started, but different from similar effects, there was no visible limiting line to the place, so one could look to the distance and see their own bodies in the distance in all directions, endlessly repeated, which meant that the many instances of the space were arranged like a honeycomb.

And that was only the space. Even more unsettling than it were the ponies.

Because of course there were ponies, except they did not seem any more real than the city itself. There were earth ponies, unicorns and pegasi, of varied colors and frequently wearing small articles of clothing in the Canterlot fashion. They walked (or flew) in and out of places and even traded words with each other... but they were off in many ways.

Again, Trixie could tell exactly everything that was wrong. And while it was harder to see than the problem with the buildings, it was no less problematic. The first point was that the ponies were somehow too homogeneous. The variation in their body types was limited, as were their colors, and even looking at many different cutie marks, you could not find one that did not have a simple design. They also walked together in an unconscious rhythm with very few deviations, and the words they spoke with each other were statements that were repeated by other ponies with the exact same cadence in different situations.

And then there were properties that the place and the ponies shared with each other. The most important was that both were intangible for the Knights. Neither simply touching nor using spells were they able to affect anything at all, and none of the ponies seemed to be able to perceive their existence. They were like ghosts haunting a place, except that the place and ponies they were haunting seemed more like the ghosts of the equation, due to their limited appearance of life.

After two minutes in which the Knights saw all of that, Trixie started talking.

"This place... Is mostly Canterlot, but there are lots of famous locations from other cities, and even some from Ponyville." She nodded "It seems like this city was made by Twilight's awareness and thoughts."

"Yeah." Sunset agreed "Look, there is the library." She pointed to a fairly good replica of the tree library where both she and Twilight lived.

"But if this whole thing is Twilight, then what about that villain you mentioned?" Rainbow Dash asked "He should be here, right?"

She had barely gotten the words out when the earth began to shake. She gave a sheepish look to the others, and then the seven prepared themselves for trouble.

It did not take long. Soon, a section of the "main street" erupted in light and was completely annihilated. From the center of the annihilation zone something like a portal emerged from the empty space left behind. And this portal swept across the area sideways, depositing a pony in the middle of the destruction.

That was the pony that Sunset and Trixie had seen at a glance just before Twilight disappeared with him, the same earth pony stallion with a white mane and gray coat. But this time they could see a few more details:

The most pertinent was the fact that the stallion did not appear to have a cutie mark, but also his eyes seemed to be simple black pits that still managed to pass on an impression of menace. The seven Knights were alarmed by the sudden appearance of such an enemy, but their alarm did not last long, because their physical and magical senses told them that this new figure wasn't any more solid than any of the other ponies in the city, and the same way they could not affect the ponies, they were also unable to be affected by anything the "blank stallion" could do.

And of course, he did not seem to be able to see them, and instead began terrorizing the city. He could simply make a throwing motion and whatever was in the direction he was pointing exploded into light and was annihilated, like he was throwing some sort of invisible destruction spell. His movements were strange and jerky, seeming to pass through space regardless of how his legs were moving, and his "jumps" did not disturb the air, earth or space in any way, despite his speed of movement.

The "ponies" of the city reacted to the appearance of that monster, running away and screaming, still not being terribly convincing pony illusions, since their panicked movements looked far too smooth and the lack of variety in their sentences was highlighted by the situation. The Blank Stallion moved in a random pattern, apparently trying to cause as much destruction as he could with his powers. But he only remained unopposed for around ten seconds, because that was when Twilight appeared.

Stepping out from the library-home Sunset had pointed out earlier, came "Twilight Sparkle". That name deserved quotation marks because, despite looking a lot more detailed and real than any of the "civillian ponies" (to the point where anypony would be able to notice their fakeness by looking at one of them and her side by side), there was still a sense of shallowness to the pony that appeared, like it was an actress who could perfectly copy the appearance, voice and mannerisms of Twilight but missed the spirit of the character in some manner.

"You won't get away with this, you monster!" Twilight Sparkle shouted at the blank stallion, then she cast a spell at the ground under her feet.

The spell created a construct for Twilight to stand on, it was a gigantic paper airplane, and she released a pulse of magic to send it flying forward towards her opponent. The airplane flew fast through the air, and soon it was close enough for the two to attack each other.

Blank opened hostilities with another one of his invisible annihilation spells, but Twilight sensed it coming in some way and took a prodigious leap of the airplane before it was destroyed. At that point she was just above Blank, so it was her turn to attack, which she declared with a shout:

"Chaos Magic: Rain of Frogs!"

And with a burst of magic, the surrounding skies were filled with frogs that dropped towards Blank. He did a longer version of his earlier movements in order to leave the impact zone, and his decision was proven correct moments later, when the frogs started landing on the ground and exploding like bombs.

But it would not be that easy to avoid Twilight's attack, for the rain of frogs drifted to aim at Blank's new position, giving him only a few seconds to try and escape. Instead, the stallion waved both hooves, his annihilation spell hitting the closest frog and expanding in a sphere much bigger than any previous spell of his, that managed to block and annihilate all of the frogs that were falling towards him.

That gave him a moment to breathe, and he made full use of it, charging magic in both forehooves and slamming them together, creating a plane of light energy the size of a building and shaped like a disc that he threw at Twilight, who was still in the air, simply ignoring gravity, before appearing away from his previous position to evade the next round of frogs.

The disc flew and spun through the air, and Twilight looked at it with a face of extreme concentration, charging magic to prepare for her next move.

The next thing that happened was a magical exchange so fast it could be called instantaneous. The disc of light stopped in the air and Twilight threw a blast of pure magic at the center of it and moved behind the blast. The center of the plane of light was destroyed and Twilight moved right into the gap, and then the rest of the plane exploded into a huge sphere of annihilation, but Twilight's destruction of part of it had created a small empty space in the center of the sphere that Twilight took refuge in.

That had been an extremely precise movement, because the space of time between the plane of light stopping in the air and exploding was less than a second long, but it was something that was worth doing, because the explosion of the plane of light actually disturbed the surrounding space, in a way that would make it impossible to teleport or shift. And since Twilight's pocket of space wasn't affected by the explosion...

"Chaos Magic: Earthen Army!" She shouted, while the explosion started disappearing.

And just after the explosion vanished, but just before the spell was completed, Twilight shifted forward and appeared just above Blank. The spell sunk into the earth and started creating numerous creatures of varied description, but Twilight knew he would just run away again if that was it, so she actually attacked him physically, starting with a weird upside down mule kick.

Blank blocked, but Twilight followed up by pushing off of the ground with her forehooves and twisting as she went over his body and hitting his side with a leg.

The next few seconds were extremely hard to follow. Twilight kept jumping and twisting all around while raining blows on Blank and charging magic, which prevented him from simply appearing away, so he had to contend both with Twilight's continuous attacks and also the earth golems, which forced him to divert magic to his blows to destroy them as they came and avoid being overwhelmed.

And then he changed tactics, forcefully bringing out enough energy to make Twilight and the closest golems retreat a step, he drove a spear of annihilation into the ground, which he actually manipulated to cause an explosion instead of simply removing things from existence. He used the power of the explosion to fling himself upwards and out of reach of the golems.

But Twilight would not let him escape so easily, she jumped along with the explosion to move side by side with Blank, and then revealed the other reason why she had been charging magic.

"Hunger Sign: Devouring Mist!" She shouted, casting the most powerful spell of the fight.

And her body released a pulse of black mist, something that usually wouldn't be inclined to pulsing, but chaos magic did weird things. The black mist covered everything around, including Blank, showing that it had a higher thickness than normal mist and was somewhat "swampy".

"GROAAAAARGHHHHHHHH!" Blank roared in pain.

A sphere of light ripped itself out of the mist, and its screams showed that it should be Blank himself, despite the fact that the sphere was smaller than even his head had been. The sphere flew all the way back to the point where Blank had appeared and vanished in a quickly appearing portal.

The black mist dissipated, and Twilight reappeared. She charged magic again and released a pulse of magic that restored the city to its previous state, before Blank had appeared. Nodding, she flew back into her home, and a few seconds later, the civillian ponies came out from where they had hid and then simply went back to their normal routines as if nothing had happened.

The Knights looked at each other.

"Okay, thoughts on what we have just seen?" Trixie asked.

"I think Twilight and that guy are still fighting somehow, and that was a representation of that." Rainbow Dash said, in a rare thoughtful manner.

"That guy... Do any of ya know who he is? Because he is a construct... Though Ah can see he is somehow different from the others... Ah don't understand how." Applejack said.

"I know a lot about old heroes and villains, but I can't think of anypony with similar powers and description." Sunset said.

Fluttershy waited to see if any of the others had anything else to say, before calling their attention with a cough.

"Twilight is here." She said, and immediately the others got more focused "I can feel her heart in every one of the ponies in the city, except that stallion... But I can't feel where her soul is. She could be inside any of them."

There was a moment of silence as they considered that.

"This place, and time magic... Is just weird." Rarity said.

The group spent a few more minutes talking about specifics of what they had found out and deciding what they should do to try and save Twilight, but they were surprised by a familiar shaking of the earth. The seven stopped and watched as the blank stallion appeared again, attacked the town again and was fought off by Twilight again, in the exact same manner as before.

"A time loop..." Sunset muttered after it was over "So that's how she has trapped him."

"And what does that mean for out plans?" Rarity decided to be practical.

"Nothing much, but I have a few ideas about how this place works that I need to test." Sunset answered.

More details didn't seem to be forthcoming, so the seven returned to their previous discussion and decided what they were going to do, and split up to do it.

Trixie started walking through the streets, trying to figure out how the spatial lines worked, Applejack started looking around to see if she could tease some more information via the use of her Eyes of Truth, Rarity checked the buildings with her magic, Fluttershy approached the ponies and tried to feel their emotions, Rainbow Dash flew off in a random direction hoping to find something by luck, and Pinkie and Sunset went off to one side to make a few tests using their magical specialties.

And so it went. Time was extremely subjective on that place but it felt to the seven like they spent a few hours doing their work before Sunset sent a signal upwards to gather everypony back towards her.

"So, anything important to report?" Sunset asked.

"Actually, there was something..." Trixie started "The fight has happened dozens of times, and while it seemed like it was always the same in the beginning, it has actually been slowly changing." She sighed "Blank is now surviving the devouring mist and attacking back, forcing Twilight to use Heat Mirage to take him out."

"Blank is getting stronger. But Twilight is not." Applejack said simply "If this keeps going, she will eventually be overcome, and that would be bad."

The others revealed what they had figured out about the place and the situation, but for most of them, there was nothing particularly noteworthy to report. But then Sunset started talking:

"I discovered why we haven't been able to affect this place."

The others (except Pinkie, who already knew) became attentive instantly.

"This place is a time loop, and it works as a different level of existence separated from us. But Pinkie and I worked out that we are slowly starting to get dragged into the level of the loop. This means that we are beginning to become able to affect things, but if it goes on for long enough, we may become just as trapped in this loop of time as Twilight and Blank." Sunset said grimly.

There was a moment of silence before Trixie said what they were all thinking.

"It's just one thing after another, isn't it?"

Twilight Time

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There was a moment of silence.

"Okay." Trixie said "We need some concrete information if we want to make any plans that have a chance of succeeding." She looked at her fellow apprentice "Sunset, send Trixie the information you've collected, she will make a prediction."

While the apprentices looked blank at those words, Sunset had an interesting reaction. She hesitated for a period of time so small most ponies would have missed it, but then nodded and started a spell, while looking at Trixie with slight concern.

The spell finished, and she sent a small beam of magic into Trixie's horn. The unicorn looked focused for a moment but then relaxed and looked at Rarity.

"Rarity. Pay attention to this. Trixie intends to help you create your own version of this spell in the future." Having said that, she returned to what she had been doing earlier.

Trixie closed her eyes in a clear sign of focus and started casting spells repeatedly, creating magical symbols in the air. She was also muttering a lot, and Pinkie and Fluttershy thought that she looked a bit like Twilight while she was doing that. The symbols filled the air around her and started moving in strange patterns and shifting little by little, adopting new shapes and colors that got ever more complex.

The sheer size of the formation of symbols also kept growing as she added more and more of them to the pattern, soon the formation grew to the size of a fully three dimensional house, and it was dense enough with symbols that it started getting harder to see Trixie through them.

But they could still see her, and they saw that Trixie was looking more and more strained as she weaved her complex web of magic. None of the others dared to talk, fearing to break her concentration, but their concern about what was happening was obvious, specially if one looked at Sunset.

And then Trixie finally finished the first part of what she was doing.

"Multiplicity Magic: Perfect Database!" She shouted, and stomped the floor, making all the symbols light up.

Lines of light connected the symbols together in a true web of magic, and then they all fused together into a beam of light that gathered right above Trixie's head, turning into a sphere made of thousands of incredibly small symbols. And then Trixie charged magic again, but this time for fifteen entire seconds, gathering so much magic that it gave the feeling of more power than an Overdrive.

"Perfect Illusion: Prediction Formula!" She shouted, releasing a powerful pulse of magic.

The idea behind the spell was simple, by creating a model of the world and inserting into it all the variables involved in a situation in order to literary predict the future. As might be expected, this was an extremely difficult thing to do, and even though Trixie just wanted to predict parts of it, and the fact that the place they were in was remarkably isolated, this was something that took a lot of effort.

As demonstrated by the fact that, as soon as the pulse of magic disappeared together with the entire formation, Trixie collapsed on the ground.

"Trixie!" Sunset shouted, moving to her partner's side to check in on her.

"Trixie is okay." The unicorn said in a weary voice "But she is not going to be up for any heavy spellwork for a while." She got back on her hooves "But the results were worth it." She stated "The temporal cascade is accelerating at a constant rate. According to Trixie's calculations, we have one hour before we are swept up enough in the time loop to be able to affect things without needing to use too much power, but thirty minutes later we would be too linked with the loop to the able to escape it."

"That's not a large time window." Rarity said, seemingly just to try and prevent another awkward silence.

"Right. That means we can't waste any of the time we have." Sunset took charge "We should prepare as much as possible during the next hour."

"Trixie will prepare a few spell circles to help compensate for her strain." Trixie announced.

"That's good, I'll do something similar." Sunset agreed "Dash, you should charge as much magic into a cloud as you can, to prepare to use big spells." The pegasus nodded "Do you have any ideas for Rarity or Applejack?" She asked Trixie.

"Rarity should probably help Trixie with the circles, but Applejack is a different case." She looked to her apprentice "Do you think you can use your Eyes of Truth to keep an eye on things and make sure the escape route is clear?"

"Yeah, Ah can." Applejack nodded.

"Then that is decided." Sunset said "Now there's the other two." She looked at Pinkie and Fluttershy.

"I think we should focus on trying to find Twilight, even if we have to check every one of those ponies." Pinkie said "I think a combination of my Emotion Charge and her empathy should be enough to make a Twilight sensor!"

"Yes..." Fluttershy agreed.

"Okay. In that case we all already have our tasks." Sunset summarized "Let's go!"

And so it was. Trixie, Rarity and Sunset were writing out large amounts of spell circles and runes on the ground and walls for later use, preparing spells which would be sufficiently versatile to deal with most situations (they would improvise in case those weren't enough), Rainbow Dash flew into the sky and created a cloud to inject with magic, in a way she had previously trained with Sunset (the goal of the training was getting her used to handling large amounts of magic, and those were large amounts of magic even by Sunset's standards, so it didn't need to be said how much power she could gather), Applejack was patrolling the part of the city closest to where they had come in, which was the place with the biggest magical gap, their planned exit point, and making sure they would be able to use it when needed.

As for Pinkie and Fluttershy...

"Duo Magic: Empathy Search!" The apprentices of Twilight announced, weaving their magic together.

They were going through the boring and unenviable task of checking on every single one of the ponies in the city. The simple aspect of making sure they weren't going to check the same one more than once already took some effort (Fluttershy had to empathically "mark" those she went through), but even more than that was the simple fact that there were a lot of those ponies, enough to test even the endurance of the Knights, both in terms of magical capacity as well as the simple will of managing to keep going with the same spell dozens of times.

But they kept going, and every one of the Knights did their best in the hopes of being able to rescue the last of their number. The situation of the battle was changing faster and faster as Blank kept getting more powerful, and by the time the hour was done, Twilight wasn't able to defeat her opponent any more, and barely managed to survive each "loop" of fighting by using her magic defensively.

The preparation time felt like it was way too short, but when the hour was over, Twilight's disadvantage was so obvious that they didn't dare to hesitate.

"Triple Magic Enhance: Grand Nova!" Sunset shouted, casting her magic.

She had already entered Trance mode, and so even such a powerful spell did not take long to charge, and the effect was impressive, creating a cone of magical power that was powerful enough to be a threat even to an actual mountain. But of course, Blank had gotten remarkably strong, so even that wasn't enough to break through his defenses.

The stallion simply stopped his attack on Twilight and forcefully created a concave barrier out of his light magic, which exploded when hit by the attack, making most of the energy of Sunset's spell vanish, at the same moment, he also created a disk of magic and threw it at Sunset.

Rainbow Dash detonated it with an overcharged lightning bolt from above to help her teacher, before shooting a dense sphere of lightning at Blank. At the same moment, Sunset and Trixie had finished their spells, and surprisingly, so did "Twilight", who was apparently aware enough to coordinate with the Knights.

"Triple Magic Enhance: Seeker Bombardment!" Was Sunset's spell, and it created dozens of magical missiles that attacked Blank from all sides.

"Perfect Illusion: Fog of War!" Was Trixie's spell, which she could only cast with the help of several magical circles activating at once. And the spell made it so that Sunset's missiles seemed to multiply, also changing patterns and timing, making it nearly impossible to know which were the real attacks to be blocked and when.

"Chaos Magic: Thousand Needles!" Was Twilight's spell, and it created a thousand needles that pierced towards Blank while carrying an explosive power, mixing seamlessly with Trixie's illusions.

This had actually been an attack pattern that the three had worked out, and it was devastatingly effective even against such an opponent. Even though Blank extended his magic to annihilate most of the enemy spells, he simply had no way to create a truly perfect defense, and so a few of the attacks slipped through the gaps.

By the time the triple offensive had ended, Blank had been reduced to a head which was supported by a thin "cloud" of light magic. But then the situation took a drastic turn, as the stallion who had always been silent up to that point suddenly roared.

"UROOOOOOAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!" The sound was loud enough to shake the space itself.

And Blank's light magic devoured his head and then shined brightly for a moment, before retreating and revealing that his body had been completely restored. But even that wasn't the worst part.

The worst part was that the pony closest to the battlefield suddenly screamed as his body was overtaken by the light magic, which faded to reveal that he had turned into a perfect copy of Blank.

-0-

There was an important reason why Applejack wasn't directly involved in the fight against Blank. She had to remain next to their exit point and prevent it from closing in case of a sudden change, but she still helped with the battle by providing information to the others.

And she was the first to realize what was happening.

"He's taking over Twilight's spell!" She shouted.

The second Blank moved to the side of the first one and then both of them started to throw dozens of light spheres at their attackers, who once more had to turn their energies towards defense to resist this sudden assault.

But Applejack could see that the situation was even worse, because Blank's magic was already slowly taking over the other artificial ponies.

-0-

Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie had just finished checking the last pony in the loop when the fight started.

"Why...?" Fluttershy asked "This was the last one, so why haven't we found Twilight yet...?" Her voice was full of sadness.

Pinkie put a hoof on her chin, in thought "Maybe we missed something since the start." She looked at Fluttershy "Are you sure Twilight is in one of the ponies? I have a feeling things aren't so simple. This is how chaos magic works."

"But she has to be inside one of them!" Fluttershy declared with certainty "Which means..." There was a moment of silence as Fluttershy thought about Pinkie's words and arrived at a revelation "That's it!" She shouted "She is indeed inside those ponies, but her soul is shifting between each of them so fast we can't detect her!"

Pinkie nodded, thinking that this seemed right "So what do we do?"

Fluttershy blinked "Well..."

But before she could finish her thought, Blank roared and she saw him taking over one of the ponies.

"He's taking over Twilight's spell!" Applejack shouted at that moment.

"Oh no..." Fluttershy began, and then blinked "Wait, this could actually help." She flew over and grabbed the pony they had previously checked, dragging him back towards Pinkie "With less places it can go, Twilight's soul will be easier to catch. Pinkie, try to keep this one free from Blank's influence." Pinkie saluted and started injecting magic into the body of the pony, trying her best to fight off the power of Blank "We can rescue Twilight!" She shouted to the ones currently fighting "Just hold him off for a bit!" Hearing that, Trixie, Sunset, Rarity and Rainbow Dash started fighting with even more ferocity "Applejack, could you..." Fluttershy stopped talking as she turned back and saw what Applejack was doing.

The worst situation had occurred, and the opening in the time loop was trying to close. Applejack was physically and magically holding it open, but it was clear that she would not be able to hold forever.

"Guess I'll have to do it myself." Fluttershy muttered.

Then she started charging magic while at the same time visualizing her goal.

Twilight. Her teacher Twilight. Twilight's personality and her magic. Twilight's body and soul. Everything that Twilight was appeared in Fluttershy's mind, as she reached deep inside herself to call her empathy to its highest levels.

She would not fail.

-0-

"Wind and Earth Style: Dust Storm!" Rarity shouted, slashing with both swords.

Her spell created a thick cloud of dust that blocked the sight of the many Blank copies and also blocked their constant bombardment of light spheres, since it forced them to detonate when they touched the dust. Rarity focused herself as much as possible to keep her defense up as long as she could, because any extra time she was able to give for the others to prepare counted.

Initially, the four Knights (plus the fake Knight) maintained a strong offensive, trying to prevent Blank or his copies from gaining any advantage they could build upon.

"Perfect Illusion: Forgotten Mist!" Trixie shouted, unleashing the full potential of the magic circles.

"Chaos Magic: Hidden Space!" Twilight shouted, warping space with her chaos magic.

Trixie's spell created a dense mist that blocked the awareness of every single one of the Blank copies, while Twilight's spell manipulated space to hide the Knights. Rarity's spell finally broke and she lowered her swords, breathing heavily to try and recover from the immense exertion she had went through. The Blank copies immediately started throwing more and more magic at the mist, slowly breaking it apart, while the original Blank created a gigantic spear of light magic and started stabbing into the manipulated space, making it unravel little by little.

The advantage of the Knights had not lasted long. As more and more Blank copies appeared, even their combined power and skills were slowly overwhelmed, to the point where now they were fighting completely on the defensive. Were it not for Fluttershy asking for time, they would have already tried something reckless to try and reverse the situation.

"Duo Magic: Enhanced Harmonic Blast!" Rainbow Dash and Sunset shouted, mixing their magic together.

As soon as Twilight and Trixie's defense finished being destroyed, the two were already ready to unleash their own technique, which started with Rainbow Dash gathering most of the remaining magic in her cloud and forcefully turning it into part of a harmonic rainboom, that Sunset subsequently enhanced. Their attack was a veritable drill of power, that crashed into Blank's spear of light and managed to destroy it.

The only reason why they were still able to survive in front of dozens of Blank copies was the fact that none of the copies were as strong as the original Blank. But Blank was still getting stronger at an appreciable rate, and they would have no way of holding on for much longer.

Thankfully, it was then that the situation changed.

A pulse of very familiar magic swept through the space, and the copy Twilight nodded and disappeared.

But most importantly, the fight stopped immediately as both sides turned to look at the origin of that magic. And there she was, right beside Fluttershy and Pinkie. Twilight was back.

Twilight Return

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Fluttershy was focusing like she had never focused before in her life, even during that terrifying fight against Chrysalis. She was thinking about Twilight. Her smart teacher who had showed her the path to doing such amazing things in the world of magic, who was courageous and strong, but most importantly, kind.

She thought of Twilight's smile and her laugh, as well as her voice. Fluttershy believed that the two of them had a deep connection, so she just... needed... to find it... And her will passed through all barriers following that connection.

There!

It was like trying to reach out from the ground and catch a falling star that crossed the sky, but Fluttershy's magic reached through the overwhelming distance, refusing to give up. On the outside Pinkie saw Fluttershy glowing with an aura of power as she channeled extreme amounts of magical power in an attempt to make the impossible possible.

Because what was magic, if not the will to change the world?

But even with that, even with all of her power, Fluttershy could not quite reach it. She was ready to bet everything on using an Overdrive when a miracle happened.

The "falling star" reached out to her.

After all, if they had a true connection, why would Fluttershy have to do all the work?

The two touched, and Fluttershy was almost overwhelmed by joy, but her work wasn't done yet. With a herculean effort, the pegasus firmly embraced Twilight's essence and started pulling herself back through the (infinite yet short) distance back to her body. And even though she had a natural connection with her material form, the return path was even more difficult, partly due to having to keep holding Twilight, and partly due to weariness from her earlier effort.

But again, she wasn't alone this time. Twilight's will joined with her, and pushed along with her own power to help them cross the final barrier. It was difficult to say how long that final journey took, but it was something the two of them would always cherish.

And suddenly, it was over. Fluttershy was back in her own body... And Twilight was right there beside her.

"Twilight..." Fluttershy whispered, as if to try and convince herself of the reality. This was really Twilight, the true Twilight, with everything that she was.

"Fluttershy..." Twilight replied, looking at her with tears in her eyes and positively radiating joy to Fluttershy's senses. She looked like she was going to say something else, when suddenly...

"Gaarrgh!" Twilight vomited blood and collapsed on the floor.

"Twilight!" Fluttershy screamed, and Pinkie screamed right along with her. Fluttershy reached out with her empathic senses to discover what was wrong....

Pain. Overwhelming pain in the whole body. Magic was impossible to reach.

Twilight was hurt. Hurt badly and Fluttershy didn't understand what was wrong and she didn't know any healing spells and-

"Twilight!" Sunset and Trixie shouted in unison, from the other side of the area.

Fluttershy turned to them, getting over her panic due to the reassurance of their presence, and then Pinkie Pie sent her a message via the feather connection 'They'll help.'

She understood perfectly. The original Knights had received a much broader and deeper magical education than the newest ones, they would be able to help.

"Switch!" Pinkie shouted at the two, and then she and Fluttershy took off towards Blank.

-0-

When Pinkie Pie shouted switch, both Sunset and Trixie understood perfectly what the plan was. Both of them started preparing teleports to get to Twilight's side, but the strange properties of that place hindered them, and the teleports were slow enough for Blank to get over his surprise and start an attack on them.

But he had evidently forgotten that Trixie and Sunset weren't the only Knights he was facing, and the two trusted Rarity and Rainbow Dash to keep the situation under control.

They weren't wrong to trust.

"Rarity!" Rainbow Dash shouted, flying down to the ground at supersonic speed "The circles!"

The other Knight nodded and pierced her Earth Ruler Sword into the ground at the same time as Rainbow Dash struck the earth. The two unleashed their magic power into the soil... and broke every single one of the previously prepared magical circles.

Twilight was already back and they just needed to escape, so there was no reason to hold back anymore. These circles would become useless, but the result would be worth it.

The broken circles disturbed the dragon pulse in the area, which was already pretty strained due to the state of constant battle of the time loop, and it discharged an insane amount of magic energy into the air. Usually it would explode immediately, but Rarity had use her magic on the ground an controlled every single bit of the disturbed magical power, though it was a strain even for a pony of her particular capabilities.

Instead, the power was channeled in a line of magic towards Rainbow Dash, who grabbed hold of it, focused it and finally released it in a way to create the greatest possible effect, instead of most of the power dissipating harmlessly like it would usually happen.

"Double Arts!" Rarity and Rainbow Dash shouted "Broken Circle!"

And their combined attack took the form of not a wave, but a veritable tsunami of power unleashed right in the direction of Blank and his copies. They had to abort their attacks as they tried to deal with this ridiculously overpowered menace, and Trixie and Sunset managed to teleport while Pinkie and Fluttershy got enough time to reach their place on the battlefield.

This gave the duo some time to breathe, and they managed to see that the city had changed completely, now looking like some strange, dark and rocky abyss with crystals scattered around. They wondered if this place had been made by Blank's memories, and whether that meant he had taken over the spell completely.

-0-

As soon as they reached Twilight's side, Sunset and Trixie shared a quick glance to communicate about where each of them would work to be able to divide their efforts.

They used their magic in a trained way, managing to avoid any mistakes despite their worry about their partner. They quickly scanned her body and got to work on the most critical places, their medical knowledge coming in handy to understand what to prioritize. Which was important, because there was a lot of stuff wrong.

Lacerated muscles, torn ligaments, internal bleeding, generalized stress fractures on most of her bones, but worst of all was the heavy organ damage, specially in the heart and liver.

The two original Knights worked in perfect coordination, focusing on the critical areas to ensure Twilight's survival, not caring about completely fixing anything since time was of the essence and they could hopefully deal with everything else later.

Their state of concentration was so high that both of them were aware of every millisecond that passed, and so their work seemed to last an eternity, even though it was barely five seconds until Twilight partially recovered.

"Ah... You two..." Twilight spoke with a raspy voice "I don't feel good."

"Of course." Trixie said, her voice was harsh but unable to conceal her relief in seeing that Twilight seemed better, and she didn't stop her spells either "W