"I see a light!" Twilight perked up, spotting the first light coming from a source besides themselves in what had to be hours. Her tiredness was evident in her voice; again, time had gotten away from them, and she was running on fumes.
"Really? Heavens, I thought we'd never see daylight again..."
"I hope it's not daylight..." She swallowed, extinguished her horn, and approached the light with caution. Rarity followed suit, sticking close behind her. The light was in a long, thin line, running from floor to ceiling; she guessed it was a door left ajar. If they were reaching inhabited rooms, they must have been further up than she thought. She could tell Rarity was similarly exhausted - the spells she was using to cover their tracks were only half-working, and as she approached the light, she dropped to her hands and knees to mask the awkward clack of hooves on stone. Hesitantly, her friend followed suit.
She could hear some intermittent, dull thumps from the room ahead. Visual details were still obscured by the veneer of light's meagre width, but it sounded like hoofsteps on a soft rug. By the pattern, she'd guess it was pacing; a few in rapid succession, then a pause, then another few quickly following, and another pause. She held her breath and leaned in, listening out for words; a mutter, a curse under their breath, anything. She almost gave them away entirely when her hand slipped on something loose on the floor.
Rarity caught her before she fell flat on her face, but she couldn't stifle the gasp of surprise. The thumps stopped. They didn't even allow themselves to breathe. The three seconds of airless terror lasted entirely too long; they shakily relaxed when they heard the mutter come from inside the room, and the pacing resume.
"Gah... too early in the morning for this." The voice sounded male, and just as weary as Twilight did. She sincerely hoped that he was being ironic. Still trembling, she felt around for the thing she slipped on. A loose tile maybe? It felt a bit too soft for stone though. The gap into the room was just a few feet away, but the light was dim and diffuse enough that it was practically useless. There was maybe a single candle inside, and while it was enough to see their faces by, finding the nuisance object remained a matter of touch.
She felt herself slip in the same way, but she was ready for it this time, and deftly scooped up the offending article in the same motion as her recovery. It was much too light to be a stone... she quickly identified it as a book, even before she turned to put the bulk of the light on it. Before proceeding, she sat back against the illuminated wall and closed her eyes to cast. Rarity, can you hear me?
"Tw-" Before she could make any real sound, Twilight clapped a hand to her mouth. Don't say, think.
"L... like this?"
Yes, that's it. Okay, the spell is working. This way we can keep talking.
"Good plan. What did you find?"
It's a book, I'm not sure what it's doing out here... she took a moment to examine it in the best light she could. Magic of the B... hey, wait a second, this is mine! I recognise these uh... these saliva stains...
I was wondering where this was yesterday, I meant to cross reference the ritual described in the Apple of Discord with this, but I couldn't find it, and I was going to look again when we got back from Trottingham...
"But what's it doing here?"
I... I don't know. On the one hand it's kinda lucky, but on the other, highly disturbing. Somepony took this from the library while we were at the ruins, and I'll bet they were with Blueblood...
"That doesn't explain why it's out here in particular. As much of a pig as he is, I doubt he's careless enough to leave it on the floor out here."
Unless... unless he's hiding it. I don't know... but this does tell us that he may know a lot more than we thought.
She went quiet for a moment. The pacing from inside continued, occasionally broken up with an intermittent, indiscernible grumble.
"Is this thing still on?"
Yeah, I'm just reading.
"Here? Can you even see?"
Barely. There's no time though, I need to speed through what I meant to read up on. Let's see, ice, ice... ice heart, eternal frost... ice prison! This sounds like the one. 'The ice prison ritual binds the spirit of the target to a lump of crystal, condensed from the astral energy that binds the planes, and the target ceases to exist in the physical plane. The strength of their binding is, unlike most ice variants of blood rituals, not tied to the integrity of the sigil, but the physical condition of the crystal and the value of the sacrifice. The exact relationship these variables have to each other is not well-studied, due to the rarity of this ritual's performance.'
Okay... this seems like adds up. At the end of the story, Discord was sealed in the Apple entirely before Clover threw it into space, but it must have been damaged when it fell back to earth last year, which allowed him some influence outside the crystal. I'd say what we saw of him back in the forest was just projections and phantoms, and that he's biding his time to trick someone or something into breaking the crystal.
"I suppose... He certainly seemed off his peak the other day if the story is anything to go by. It sounds like he could have wiped out Hippaea in a heartbeat, but... it was like watching Opal playing with a mouse."
Exactly. This is something that is, when not stuck in a crystal made of pure astral energy, very powerful and very bored.
"Psst!" Applejack whispered. "Don't this look familiar?" She held up the old book; it showed signs of wear, but at the same time, it didn't look like it was about to fall apart. Zecora leaned over her shoulder to inspect it.
"Hmm... a volume called 'Magic of the Body'... I believe Miss Twilight owns a copy."
"That's mighty fishy if y'ask me... whatever Blueblood's doin' with this, it can't be good." The farmer tucked it underarm, and set to checking out the drawers. Meanwhile, Pinkie was busying herself with investigating the armchair thoroughly; picking the cushions off, looking under it, opening the cushions, turning it upside down... the responsible adults in the room didn't stop her as long as she wasn't being too loud, because at least she wasn't going to cause problems. So when the light thumps and impact noises came to a sudden stop, they knew something was wrong. Maybe she'd found something by chance? Or just gotten herself stuck somehow? Instead, they saw her poking her head out of the chair, looking very sternly at the end of her nose. Her ear flopped rapidly back and forth over her face, her eyelids fluttered just as intensely, and the chair rocked briefly as something around her knees twitched violently.
"Ear flop... eye flutter... knee twitch... that means... look out for opening doors!"
"Look out for opening d... opening doors?" She cast a glance at the door, then shared an alarmed look with Pinkie, and they both bolted for the bookshelf. Zecora wasn't watching long before Applejack grabbed her and started pulling her through the gap while Pinkie held it open. The book wedged in the gap and slipped out of the farmer's hand when she tried to force it through, landing somewhere on the ground in the dark corridor. She didn't bother trying to find it again - it would be pointless to try - but at least Blueblood wouldn't be able to find it in here. With an eye on the twitching door handle, Pinkie squeezed herself through the gap and pulled it shut behind herself. Or at least, she tried, she couldn't get it all the way closed without losing her fingers, and didn't have much time to be thorough before the door squeaked and swung open. The three hurried away down the corridor without chancing a look back.
The schling of metal sliding against metal alerted Jetstream to an arrival. He looked up from his desk to see his guards part their glaives to allow the visitor into his office; Spitfire, looking like she'd been caught halfway through getting dressed. She had her armour on up as far as the waist, but above that she'd only managed a tank top and goggles. She stopped in front of the desk, stood to attention and gave a salute. He waved it off with a slightly lazy salute of his own.
"At ease. Take a seat." She was only too happy to oblige, pulling a chunk of wall over and throwing herself at it cross-legged.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes, I need to talk tactics with you, Captain. Ordinarily I'd send for Wing Commander Dash, but as you very well know, she's gone AWOL."
Jetstream just glared at her. "Anyway... in light of recent events, plans have changed. We need to move on the offensive much quicker than anticipated." He cleared some papers off the map on the table; a detailed plan of northern and central Equestria, plotting every road, river and wind current from Trottingham to Cloudsdale, and the same distance east and west. Some small lumps of cloud served as models: groups of them sat at different points over the map. "Trottingham has fallen, and the horde will be able to close the distance to Canterlot in a matter of hours when they decide to advance. Scouts report that they have spent the night regrouping and are currently en route, ETA 0540 hours. We can't mobilise quickly enough to meet them halfway, but intelligence also reports that while Canterlot's physical defences are strong, their garrison is weak, and if we send a vanguard to capture it before the horde reaches it, we may be able to commandeer their defences. As your unit is likely to lead this vanguard, do you expect this plan to be feasible?"
Spitfire blinked, playing the words back in her head. "I'm sorry sir, did you say, capture Canterlot?"
"Yes I did. The declaration of secession was more of a declaration of no confidence. I have no intention of withdrawing Cloudsdale from Equestria. If we don't present a united front to the horde, we don't stand a chance against them, but time has run out on negotiations. If we can't broker unity, we have no choice but to force it."
"Sir..." She chewed her knuckle. The plan was ludicrous, but she knew she had to be rational in her counterargument, lest her concerns be dismissed as bleeding-heart nonsense. "Pardon me sir, but attacking our fellow ponies seems a bit counterproductive. What if you're underestimating Canterlot? All we're doing then is distracting them and ourselves."
"You witnessed the performance of the city guard at Trottingham. This is the standard of Equestrian armed forces on the ground. The Wonderbolts could probably take Canterlot by themselves if they wanted to."
"Then... what about morale? This kind of civil conflict is going to kill confidence among the troops."
"This is a necessary measure for our survival..."
Spitfire snapped. She threw herself to her hooves and cut him off mid-sentence. "This is insane!" Jetstream responded by rising, and very slowly reaching for his sword.
"You would do well to watch your mouth, Captain Spitfire, because I can very easily have you replaced..."
"You can go through every one of the Wonderbolts and not one of them will give your hair-brained plot the time of day!"
"Enough!" At the sound of the sword sliding free of its sheath, she backed up to stay out of its range. "Guards!" The sound of the two guards at the door turning to reprimand her didn't thrill her either. Still, she didn't hesitate to prove Jetstream's assessment of her ability, by quickly liberating one of the guards his weapon, stunning him, decking the other with the handle, and flinging them both back out the door by bracing herself in the doorframe and swinging a high kick to each of their chests. They'd be down for now, but there'd be more soon. Turning back to the desk, she was just in time to parry a swing of the commander's sword. She let the blade shave the wood of the glaive's handle, sacrificing the weapon's integrity to redirect the momentum of the attack. Spying opportunity, she let it go, destabilising him. She grabbed his shoulder in one hand and the dagger on his left hip in the other, and spun around behind him, holding it to his neck. "Heheh..."
"What's so funny?" she snorted.
"You think this is helping your case? This can only end with spilt blood, yours or on your hands."
"It'll be yours if you're not careful."
"Heh... you hear that?" She paused. True enough there was a noise; it sounded like wings. "Reinforcements."
Paf. The ceiling outside the office burst open, and another figure half-dressed in Wonderbolt uniform landed on his knees. Soarin had his bow already out, and within a second had an arrow drawn, pointed at the hostage situation. By the time he was able to analyse it, he paused, letting the bow slack slightly.
"Shoot, dammit!" Jetstream growled. Spitfire gritted her teeth as Soarin pulled the arrow back again... but an idea sprung to mind.
"No, shoot him!"
"I order you to shoot her!"
"And I order you to shoot him!" Soarin blinked, shifting his aim back and forth. At a distance of only a couple of lengths, he had a perfect shot at his target... if only he could decide who his target was.
"If you kill me, you'll never make it out of here alive! You'll be marked ponies!" Jetstream barked. Spitfire just glared.
"Soarin if you shoot me, so help me Celestia I will haunt you so bad..."
"Just get on with it!" He bit his lip, still anxiously moving his bow between them. With no context, this was just a question of trust. He knew he didn't have all night, so he inhaled deeply, and opened his fingers.
Whoosh, thud. A forehead split open as bronze parted bone, spitting a jet of blood from the entry wound. After a murmur of disbelief, a body crumpled to the floor limply. Soarin lowered his bow, panting and trembling. He gasped when Spitfire threw her arms around him in a hug, equally shaken. But, they didn't have time to waste.
"So... what was that about?"
"I'll explain on the way. We need to get the others and get out of here."
"I knew it! Seize them!" The sound shook the two unicorns back to reality. The 'door' was pulled away - it was just a tall bookcase pressed against a gap in the wall, now thrown to the ground in haste. In the now blinding light, they could just about make out a pair of guards advancing on them, with a unicorn guard behind blocking up the corridor behind them with a barrier. A furious looking Prince Blueblood flicked his forelock out of his face, and his scowl twisted into a smirk. Knowing better than to resist, Twilight frowned and dropped the book on her lap, while she was roughly pulled into the room and shackled. Rarity was a little more offended by her treatment, but soon settled down, following her friend's example. "Well, well. Of all ponies, who should we find crawling around in the dry wall but the faithful student, Twilight Sparkle!" With a deft hand movement, he pulled his sword from his belt and put the point to her chin. In an instant, the humour drained from his tone. "That's the strangest arbitrating I've ever seen."
"I know you're up to something, Prince." The guards got a little jumpy when her horn lit up, but quickly calmed when they saw that all she was doing was lifting the book. Blueblood gave the horn a light backhand, and snatched the released book from the air with his own levitation.
"You would do well to choose your words and your spells carefully, Sparkle. Remember who's house you're in. The fact that you're even here could be construed as a declaration of war by Ponyville."
"I'm amazed you even know what 'construed' means."
Blueblood reacted almost instantly with another backhand slap across her face. "Don't test me!" It stung, but it was worth it. He turned his sword to Rarity next. "And don't you try anything either, you miserable harlot!" She pouted in offence, but kept quiet. She wasn't about to spend the next month wearing a pound of blush every day to hide a bruise.
"So is this the part where you tell us all the details of your evil plan and then leave us unsupervised in an overdesigned death trap?"
Rarity leaned in and whispered through gritted teeth, "Twilight please, stop... saying words..."
Blueblood just snorted, gave them a scornful look, and sheathed his sword. He nodded in the direction of the door, his gaze running over every guard in the room, prompting them to follow him out.