Thunder rumbled through the Ghastly Gorge, but this was no storm.
A great bloated mass broke through the mists. Glowering eyes and a leering grin marked the face of an enormous whale, its features all wrought in white orichalcum. The wrathful cetacean seemed to be floating upon a bed of soot and fire. Only a closer inspection would reveal a craft slung below the dirigible's belly.
The Noblesse Oblige was the mightiest airship in Unicornia's fleet. The prow was an armored wedge sweeping aside the spires of rock that were a hazard to lesser craft, and its sides bristled with cannons firing relentlessly into the surrounded cliffs. Through thunder and black powder haze came the frightened shrieks of the Quarray Eels under assault.
Standing proudly at quarterdeck, his face a grim but approving mask, Prince Blueblood of Unicornia watched the sailors of the Noblesse Oblige scurry about their duties.
Cannon fire slowed as the warship passed out of the gorge, and old castle ruins set in the mountain's face becoming visible on the starboard side. Orders were passed along and the Noblesse Oblige made berth at a spiraling tower that had weathered the ages better than the rest of the environs.
Prince Blueblood disembarked. His poise and demeanor were stately, looking on with a steely gaze while his unicorn guards secured the area. He approached a crumbled wall, where upon a single cloaked and hooded figure was perched.
"What have you found, Countess?" Blueblood inquired. "I pray you bear hope that my dear Princess Rarity yet lives?"
The cloaked figure leapt from the wall and, with an ear-splitting shriek, spread tawny wings to glide smoothly to the ground. Pinions like fans of knives folded under cloak and a taloned hand swept back the figure's hood.
"Oh, I found plenty, dude," replied Countess Gilda. The griffon's aquiline head swept a haughty gaze across the assembled unicorns, daring any to stumble over the tracks she was following. "Good thing you've got an ace tracker like me on the payroll."
"And what have you gleaned?" the Prince demanded once more.
"Couple a ponies were really going at it here. A pegasus and an earth pony, from the looks of things. They were all over the place!"
"Who won? How did it end?"
"Seems like the loser flew the coop." Gilda crouched beneath a half-crumbled archway, lifting a single blue feather before her sharp eagle eyes. She paused to inspect it, but -- upon realizing the prince still waited anxiously -- cast aside the feather and resumed. "The winner followed those hoofprints into the caverns. Want to split up, track them both?"
"The loser is nothing. Only the princess matters," Blueblood decreed. He looked out over the cliff, seemingly deep in thought. "The lands north of this mountain are under the domain of Pegasopolis. I know not what mischief is afoot this day, but I fear that the blasted pegasi are behind it."
"If those lame-o featherbrains don't already hold your princess captive, they soon will."
"Never!" Prince Blueblood addressed the captain of the Noblesse Oblige, "The Countess and I will lead a detachment into the caverns after these brigands. Ready the ship to depart, but wait for our signal that we have recovered Princess Rarity. We have the might to threaten the air superiority of the pegasi, but let us not tip our hoof just yet. We must all be ready for whatever lies ahead."
"This could be a trap, ya know," suggested Gilda.
"Of course it could be," the Prince replied. He gave a habitual toss of his long blond mane. "But I always think everything could be a trap, which is why I am still alive."
In hot pursuit of Trixie and Rarity, the Pony-in-Black burst out of the caverns where they opened up in the foothills of the mountains.
The land was verdant but wild, rolling hills crowned with scrub, sloping down on the westward side to the Everfree Forest. The forest was a dangerous place said to be filled with all manner of monster, but just beyond this northernmost arm lay the frontier of Pegasopolis.
Cresting the hill, the Pony-in-Black found the two unicorn mares seated calmly at a large flat stone. Assorted provisions had been arrayed upon the makeshift table: bread, fruit, and a pitcher of apple cider. It was a strangely picnic-like scene.
Princess Rarity was resplendent in her autumnal gown, even with the grime accumulated since her abduction, but she sat straight as a board with a blindfold around her eyes. At the princess' side, Trixie's horn was alight with magic, maintaining a knife leveled at Rarity's throat.
"So," the blue unicorn began. "It is down to you, you meddlesome maverick, and it is down to me, The Great and Powerful Trixe." She took a sip of cider and watched the black-clad stallion take a few cautious steps forward. "If you wish Her Highness dead, by all means, keep moving forward."
The mysterious masked pony raised a placating hoof. "Let me explain--"
"There is nothing to explain," Trixie interrupted. "You're trying to foalnap what Trixie has rightfully stolen."
"Perhaps an arrangement can be reached?" offered the Pony-in-Black, continuing his approach.
"There will be no arrangement," the unicorn countered, pressing her knife into Rarity's neck. "And you're killing her."
The princess' gasp of pain finally brought him up short. "Well, if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse."
"That would seem to be the case," Trixie admitted. "Trixie is no warrior, so one can hardly hope to compete with you on the field of battle. Likewise, you have no hope in matching the guile of The Great and Powerful Trixie."
The Pony-in-Black's disbelief was disguised only by his mask. "You're that smart?"
"Let Trixie put it this way: Have you ever heard of Star Swirl the Bearded? Clover the Clever?"
"Charlatans. No unicorn in history ever has and ever will compare in terms of cunning and majesty to The Great and Powerful Trixie!"
"Really? In that case, I challenge you to a battle of wits."
"For the princess?" Trixie wondered. The Pony-in-Black nodded. She swallowed hard and tried not to look nervous. "To the d-d-death? Well, ah, if that's the way it's going to be, fine. The Great and Powerful Trixie never backs down from a challenge."
"Good, then pour the cider!"
Trixie lowered the knife and used her telekinesis to refill her goblet of cider, and pour out another for the black-clad stallion. She quickly leaned back from the stone table as he sat down opposite the two mares, not trusting him anymore than he was likely to trust her.
The Pony-in-Black produced a small ampoule of some milky fluid from the pouch on his belt. Without a unicorn's magic of his own, he instead snapped the neck off with his teeth and held out the small glass vial for Trixie to inspect.
"Inhale this, but do not touch," he instructed.
Trixie gave it a cursory sniff, casting a glance of arrogant disinterest over the unusual substance. "Trixie smells nothing."
"What you do not smell is concentrated manticore venom. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more potent poisons known to ponykind."
The Pony-in-Black nimbly swept up the goblets in his forelimbs, not spilling a drop of cider, and turned his back. After a moment, he placed both drinks back on the table and spit the empty ampoule of venom into the grass. Nothing untoward could be seen in the goblets of dark amber beverage.
"All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink -- and find out who is right and who is dead."
"But it's so simple," Trixie insisted. She tucked a lock of her silvery mane behind an ear in what she hoped looked like a casual gesture and not a nervous fidget. "All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: Are you the sort of pony who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's?
"Now, a clever pony would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. The Great and Powerful Trixie is not a great fool, so Trixie can clearly not chose the cider in front of you. But you must have known Trixie was not a great fool; you would have counted on it! So Trixie can clearly not chose the cider in front of her."
"You've made your decision then?"
"Not remotely! Because manticores are nocturnal predators, as everypony knows, and nocturnal predators are the most devious. Devious enough to know that they must defy expectations in order to hunt successfully, just as you are trying to defy Trixie's expectations, so Trixie can clearly not choose the cider in front of you. But somepony as devious as you would account for Trixie herself being one to defy expectations, so Trixie can clearly not choose the cider in front of her."
"That's hardly conclusive."
"This is hardly a challenge! You've beaten Trixie's giant, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could have put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so Trixie can clearly not choose the cider in front of you. But you've also bested my pegasus, which means you must be exceedingly clever, clever enough to understand your own mortality, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so Trixie can clearly not choose the cider in front of her!"
The Pony-in-Black's eyes narrowed, barely perceptible behind the slits in his mask. "You're trying to trick me into giving away something. It won't work."
"It has worked, you've given everything away! Trixie knows where the poison is!"
"Then make your choice," the stallion snapped.
"I will, and I choose..." Trixie suddenly gaped, open-mouthed, and thrust a hoof at the canopy of trees over the stallion's shoulder. "Oh my goodness! It's an Ursa Major!"
The Pony-in-Black spun around fearfully. An Ursa Major, a giant spectral bear known to inhabit the Everfree Forest, was a threat to everypony, no matter the circumstances. But as the stallion's back was turned, Trixie used her telekinesis to deftly switch the places of the two goblets on the table.
The Pony-in-Black faced the unicorn again, annoyed. "I don't see anything."
"Oh, it just ducked right back out of sight. No matter," Trixie added, chuckling under her breath.
"What's so funny?"
"Trixie will tell you in a minute. First, let's drink. Trixie from her own goblet and you from yours."
Both ponies lifted their goblets and toasted ironically, as if daring the other to drink first. They both took a deep draught of the cool apple concoction.
"You guessed wrong," the Pony-in-Black said with a smirk.
"You only think Trixie guessed wrong. That's what's so funny!" she crowed. "Trixie switched the goblets while your back was turned! Ha-ha, you foal! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is: 'Never get involved in a land war in Guoxia', but only slightly well known is this: 'Never going in against The Great and Powerful Trixie when death is on the line'!"
The unicorn mare's shrill laughter echoed over the rolling hills... then cut off abruptly. Trixie's body froze up, the color drained from her blue coat, and a fizzle of silver sparks shot out of her horn. Stiff as a board, she fell over.
The Pony-in-Black admired his handiwork for only a moment, then leaned over to release Princess Rarity from her bonds. She seemed quite perplexed now.
"Who are you?" Rarity asked, peering at the black-clad stallion, but unable to catch his gaze.
"I am nopony to be trifled with. That is all you ever need know."
The reluctant princess shivered, looking over the corpse of her previous captor. "To think, all that time, it was your cup that was poisoned."
"They were both poisoned. But as the Great and Powerful Trixie would put it, only a 'great fool' would leave the house with a pocket full of poisons and not dose himself with the antidotes for all of them first. She'll have plenty of time to consider that wisdom while she waits for the paralysis to wear off," he added pointedly.
"You mean she isn't dead?"
"Manticore venom doesn't kill. They much prefer live prey," he explained. The cool frankness of his tone made Rarity wonder if this Pony-in-Black could be counted on to be as discerning. "Let's be off then, Your Highness. We still have a long way to go."
In the caverns beneath the mountain, Prince Blueblood and his unicorn guards surveyed the damaged limestone gallery. As with the last battle site, there was much evidence, but no bodies.
"What manner of pony could do such a thing?" the prince wondered. "Giants, surely."
Countess Gilda looked up from the scuffed tracks she'd found. "I've got the trail again, dude. We ain't far behind. And don't call me Shirley," she said, beak clipping off the words in irritation.
"Then let us make haste! For there will be great suffering in Pegasopolis if my princess dies."