The testing grounds for the young adult magicians had been established near Canterlot, beyond the major spectator camps. The area itself was a large, flat field that had been staked out with fence posts and marked off with chalk in a long series of rows. On the side of the field facing the castle and tent city was a long, covered set of bleachers. In front of the bleachers was a large raised platform with a set of ramps leading up and a lectern toward the front. The bleachers were already full of spectators as the competitors began to walk in and line up, one to each chalked out row, each of which had a name card with a competitor's name resting in the soft, tended grass.
Twilight slowly walked along with a thinning group of competitors, looking at each card until she found one labeled "Twilight Sparkle". She split off from the group and took her position and was rewarded with a glare from the familiar pony to her left. The competitors had been sorted alphabetically, and so Twilight Sparkle was, naturally, right next to Trixie. Why couldn't any of the other participants have a name starting with Ts or Tu?
"Hi again, Trixie," Twilight said with a forced smile and equally forced cheerfulness. "It sure is a..." She looked up at the dense cloud cover before continuing, lamely. "Nice day for a magic competition."
Trixie's glare could have melted steel. "I am already sick of running into you, Twilight Sparkle," she snarled. "But Trixie certainly won't have to deal with you for much longer. You'll be out and heading back to Ponyville by tomorrow morning at the latest."
Straightening up, Twilight looked back at Trixie, sternly. "I think I have a very good chance of placing quite well in this tournament, thank you very much."
Eyes widening in anger, Trixie reared for a moment then came down heavily on her front hooves. "Placing quite well?! That's it?! That's what you're here for? What kind of a unicorn are you?" She nearly shouted, "You don't deserve to be here with Trixie!"
Twilight was taken aback by Trixie's violent reaction but didn't have a chance to respond as a booming voice came from the direction of the stands, pounding into Twilight's head. "Everyone!" The familiar voice reverberated across the field and Twilight turned to see that the raised platform and lectern were now occupied with the unmistakable green-and-red form of Najstariot, the dragon queen. "Welcome to the first day of the Moonstone Cup tournament!" A round of applause went up from the spectators while many of the competitors shuffled in place, some excited, some nervous, some - like Trixie - impatient to get on with the tests.
"This first day of competition, you will demonstrate the extent of your skills as magicians. You will have no opponents but yourselves and many of you will discover, as so many have for hundreds of years, that you are your own most powerful opponent. Your power, knowledge and creativity will be put to the test and the best among you will go on to the next day of competition."
The shapeshifted dragon went on to talk about the first round of competition, a simple test of control and versatility using a number of small projectiles which had been set out at the end of each row next to a small target. Most of the competitors found this test of telekinesis relatively painless and Twilight was no exception. She launched her projectiles with deadly accuracy at the center of the target, some lobbed in gentle arcs, others fired like sling bullets. After a short time the cluster of marks on Twilight's target was one of the smallest and tightest of the entire field. Most of the other competitors had done quite well as well, and with a thunderous call from Najstariot the round was ended. Each of the competitors placed their projectiles back at the end of the row.
The next two rounds required little more exertion from Twilight. First, transmutation. The projectiles were named as transmutation targets. Twilight thought of Spike with a smile, and her horn glowed brightly. A matching glow surrounded the projectiles and with a pop they transformed into a set of baby dragon-sized formal attire, a top hat, dinner jacket, a pair of tiny polished Oxfords and a diamond-tipped cane. She let out a long breath and her smile brightened as she thought she heard Spike's cheering voice from somewhere behind her.
Transmutation was also the first point at which the true range of Twilight's competition was made real to her. Trixie's spell transformed her objects into a swarm of brightly colored butterflies. Twilight saw the azure unicorn smirking out of the corner of her eye while she cast her eye across the other results. There were plants, animals, birds, household items. One of the aspiring young wizards roughly halfway down the field had even transformed her objects into a bronze statue of an oddly familiar-looking gryphon. The field was awash in color and movement.
Twilight was rudely knocked to attention by the sound of Najstariot's unfathomably powerful voice announcing the end of the round. At the same time, the various transmuted objects all lost their magic and transformed back into the objects they started as. The unicorn felt a twinge of disappointment that she wouldn't be able to give the suit to Spike.
Next, teleportation. Twilight dove into this trial with all four hooves. She effortlessly ping ponged down the length of her row, vanishing and reappearing, first on the ground, then in the air, sometimes seeming to be almost in two places at once. After a minute of this Twilight returned to the end of her row on the field. She sat and took a deep, satisfied breath, glancing idly around at the other competitors’ attempts as she waited for her balance to return. Nothing she saw could compare to the acrobatic routine she had just accomplished. If she did this well with the rest of the competition she'd be at the top of the starting rankings tomorrow for sure!
After each competitor finished their short teleportation routine Najstariot stepped up to the raised platform again. "Competitors!" The dragon queen's voice seemed to echo from every surface, reverberating in Twilight's skull which was still spinning from her exertions in the previous round. "In this round, you will demonstrate your abilities with object enchantment. You will each be provided with a simple target for your spells. All types of enchantment are allowed, but please keep in mind principles of good sportsmanship and do not use any spells that would directly affect or harm your fellow competitors or any spectators." The clarion voice silenced as a pair of royal Canterlot guards began walking down the long row of young mages, placing a single white bean in front of each.
With a muted grumble, Twilight realized that her plan for this round, to simply use her mind-bending Want-It-Need-It spell that had proven so powerful in Ponyville, was not going to be acceptable. She mentally kicked herself for not thinking that such a spectacularly dangerous spell would have no place around this many ponies. What to do... A basic Come-To-Life spell would do little to a single pinto bean, and creating a Mérenxican Jumping Bean was not going to win this tournament.
Looking around furtively, Twilight saw other competitors casting a bewildering array of spells on their beans. Some had cast simple Glow spells, making their beans into light sources. Not impressive, although the quality of the light these beans shed was unassailable. Others had used Come-To-Life spells and sent their beans rolling, hopping, and in one case dancing across the field. Next to her, Trixie was weaving something meticulous around the bean, slowly wrapping it in a web of thin threads of azure energy. Twilight could not begin to discern what her would-be rival was trying to do but it was bound to be ostentatious.
She turned her head, looking into the stands, trying to see if she could see her friends. You'd think, she told herself, that a rainbow-maned cyan pegasus and a white unicorn with a bright purple mane would be easy to spot, but she could see no sign of Rainbow or Rarity let alone any of the others...
Rarity. Of course. Twilight grinned and began focusing on the bean. She had never tried putting a detection spell on an object before, but it seemed like it should essentially be a reversed Want-It-Need-It spell combined with a detection spell for whatever one happened to be looking for. Thanks to Rarity, Twilight Sparkle already had a detection spell that she'd had to piece apart and reconstruct in her head: Rarity's Gem-Finding spell. Her horn glowed with a guttering purple light as she began to weave the composite spell around the bean.
And then the sky exploded.
A roar came from the spectators as Twilight desperately tried to hang on to the somewhat tricky spell she was weaving. She glanced around quickly, trying to find out what was so fascinating and had nearly blinded her.
The sky was filled with glowing trails, as if left by a swarm of particularly artistic fireflies. The trails spelled out a single word in elaborate cursive writing: "TRIXIE". Trixie's bean was screaming through the sky impossibly fast, trailing a blindingly bright blue afterimage that it traced over and over, leaving the showpony's name burned across the overcast sky and everypony's retinas.
Twilight was committed to her own spell and so she turned back, sweat beading on her sides. A gem-detection bean wouldn't impress anyone after Trixie's showy - and, Twilight had to admit, technically impressive - stunt, but maybe with some slight modification the basic idea could be salvaged. She carefully broke some of the strands of power she had woven around the bean, building new patterns inspired by what was going on above her. She poured as much power as she could into her violet-wreathed bean and then released her hold.
For a moment nothing happened, and then with a slight pop the bean was gone. There was a ping sound next to her and Trixie stumbled slightly as Twilight's bean ricocheted sharply off the emerald clasp of Trixie's cloak.
"Oh, really, Twilight Sparkle," Trixie spat, contemptuously. "That's just pathetic, even for-" She stopped awkwardly as the gem at her throat began to glow a brilliant, clear green.
Another ping and a gasp from nearby, and another unicorn competitor who was wearing a tiara found the largest stone in it beginning to glow brightly. Another and another, and soon a whole chorus of crystalline tones rose from the spectator stands as the bean found the largest concentration of stones and began skipping from gemstone to gemstone, infusing them each with a small amount of magic, just enough to power a simple Glow spell.
Twilight sat down, panting, a spark or two spitting from her horn as she took an available moment while the dragon queen appraised. Judging by the applause from the stands it was clear that the spectators had their two favorites of that round, though real evaluation and scoring would be up to Najstariot alone. She noted that Trixie seemed to not even be winded. How could she exert herself like that and not be entirely exhausted?
As for the dragon queen, she looked across the field at the various beans, up at the glowing sign in the sky and across the spectators' stands at the shimmering gems, many of which were already beginning to fade. She stepped forward on the raised platform again, apparently satisfied with what she saw. Her clarion voice called forth again, battering at Twilight's senses. "A wonderful performance from all of our competitors!" she boomed. As Najstariot spoke, all of the enchanted beans simply stopped. The sky faded, beans fell to earth, a few vines shriveled and died back.
She paused and the competitors watched as their beans returned to them, rolling across the ground to stop at their feet. "This next round should be short and will test your skill at banishment and dispelling. Simply remove the enchantment I have placed on your bean. You will be gauged on the speed, precision and overall execution of your banishment."
With that, the row of white beans began glowing a threatening red and floated into the air. They pulsed softly in unison, as if they were connected to some monstrous heart. Twilight was relieved at having a simple test; perhaps this was intended as a low-power test to give the competitors a chance to rest. She leaned down and tapped her bean with the tip of her horn. It simply stopped. It stopped glowing, floating or doing anything other than being a perfectly ordinary bean, and fell to the ground with a dull plop. Twilight sat down to wait for the next round and took a quick look around.
All around her, her fellow competitors were struggling with their beans. The red glow was wrapping threateningly around horns and beaks, throwing sparks as it fought strenuously against the various attempts to banish the animating force within. Twilight blinked in confusion and looked over her shoulder at the stands and the judge behind her. Najstariot was staring back at Twilight, shock etched deeply across her normally flawlessly sculpted face. Twilight quickly looked forward again, perturbed.
Twilight's attention was drawn back to Trixie next to her as her ersatz rival was the second to cleanse her bean. It was not the clean banishment Twilight had used. Trixie's horn glowed malefically, the tendrils that reached out from the bean now held fast by Trixie's own threads of energy. With a cry, Trixie ripped the animating force from the bean. Breathing heavily for the first time, Trixie absorbed the energy from the bean, the slowly fading red glow looking like drying bloodstains on her horn. At the moment the bean was ‘dispelled’, even from her safe distance Twilight could feel the power from Trixie's horn rake across her mind with a promise of oblivion. Trixie hadn't dispelled or banished the magic on the bean. She had quite literally killed it. Twilight suddenly felt sick and very, very alone.
Twilight slumped to the ground, trying to ignore the unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach as she thought about the next round. Summoning was never something Twilight had practiced extensively. She was skilled at teleportation, both moving herself and moving other people and things, and that solved most problems that asked for summoning. Unfortunately, the problem here was to demonstrate one's facility at summoning specifically. In principle, summoning was not drastically different than teleportation except that the target was not located on the physical plane, which complicated things somewhat.
Once the banishments were complete, Najstariot announced the next round to the exhausted competitors. Twilight stood up, still wracking her brain for an effective summon spell. She looked to her left at a loud snort from Trixie who was pawing the ground aggressively. Trixie was already gathering power around her horn when she noticed Twilight looking at her.
With a smirk, Trixie narrowed her eyes at Twilight. "Oh, yes, please, Twilight Sparkle. This is the part Trixie has been waiting for. Watch in amazement!"
While the other competitors were beginning the laborious process of working up a summoning spell, Trixie was already deep into hers, blue energy beginning to gather in a sphere in front of her. Twilight turned her attention back to her own spell with a grimace. What should she summon? What could she summon? Some calm part of her mind chuckled and suggested it should be something that wouldn't scare Fluttershy, which would narrow the field somewhat.
Thinking about her timid friend suddenly made it all come together for Twilight. Fluttershy and Applejack would both approve of something that she had the raw material for all around. The grass under her feet, the nearby woods, even her discarded bean from the last two tests would serve as a summoning focus for a plant elemental. Twilight grinned and began focusing energy into the bean again, using it as the central focus to build the plant elemental's body around. The bean skin cracked and split as shoots came out, growing and forming ersatz limbs while small fragments of grass and wood bound together to form a tail and head.
A small part of Twilight’s mind that wasn’t deep into the summoning spell idly noted a sharp crack and a whiff of ozone next to her. She paid it no heed and continued the laborious process of drawing the alien being into the plant “body” she had prepared. The plant elemental grew and grew. From a body barely larger than a bean it grew to be slightly smaller than Twilight Sparkle, a perfect pony made of grass and tangled wood. The plant creature regarded Twilight with a silent curiosity. It then turned its head slowly to face toward Trixie’s row on the field when a sharp shriek came. Twilight swiveled her head as well, in alarm.
Facing Trixie was Trixie! The two ponies were physically identical, the same color, the same cutie mark. One was dressed in the purple and orange costume Trixie had worn the entire competition while the other wore no clothes.
"What... Where am I?! Who are you?!" The doppel-Trixie was clearly terrified, looking around at the magicians near her and especially at her mirror image. She then spied Twilight who was staring, dumbfounded, and relief washed over her face.
"Twilight, love! Oh, thank Celestia! What's going on here?! Who is this?!"
Twilight nearly swallowed her tongue. “I... What?” she managed to choke out.
Heedless of Twilight’s discomfort, the duplicate Trixie ran over to stand uncomfortably close to her. “Twilight, Trixie wants to know what’s going on! Who is this other pony who looks like me?”
Trixie stalked up to the edge of her row, angrily glaring at Twilight. “What did you do to Trixie’s spell?!” she screamed. “Couldn’t beat the Great and Powerful Trixie so you decided to cheat? Is that it?!”
Twilight shook her head and recovered her senses enough to edge away from the extra Trixie. “I didn’t do anything to your spell!” she protested. “Maybe-”
The Trixie standing next to Twilight interrupted, haughtily. “The Great and Powerful Trixie?! Trixie hasn’t called herself that since before Trixie returned to Ponyville!” She paused and then scowled angrily, moving closer again to Twilight, possessively. “You impostor! Are you trying to steal Twilight from Trixie with this pathetic disguise?!”
Trixie’s eyes grew wide and a slight blush came to her cheeks. “S-steal Twilight?! Just what are you insinuating about Trixie?!”
The argument grew more heated as the two Trixies batted verbal barbs back and forth. Twilight was unable to get a word in edgewise around the volleys of “Trixie this” and “Trixie that”. She continued to shy away from the Trixie that was laying claim to her personal space, and then looked up as a shadow fell across the trio.
Najstariot stood nearby, towering over the three ponies, still unnoticed by any but Twilight. “Enough!” her voice boomed, deafeningly, and the two bickering Trixies stopped. They both looked up at the dragon queen, stunned.
“Nam-tar ud huc kalam-ma ri-a,” said the plant elemental, evenly.
After the competition, an exhausted Twilight dragged herself toward the stands to meet her friends. The unsettling doppel-Trixie that was fixated on Twilight had been sent back to wherever she came from and Trixie had ignored Twilight for the rest of the trial. The physical augmentation round ultimately turned out to be both one of the simplest and the most difficult; Twilight used the spell she had found to give Rarity wings. She had very nearly passed out doing it, but it had worked and she was still wearing the limp and lifeless butterfly wings when the competition broke for the day. She found her friends waiting for her to the side of the wooden bleachers, and was promptly tackled to the ground by Pinkie Pie.
"Twilight, you did so great! We were watching the whole time! That thing you did making all the gems light up was so pretty!"
Twilight smiled wanly. "Thanks, Pinkie. Could you maybe let me up?"
Pinkie moved away and offered Twilight a helping hoof to her feet. "Sorry, Twilight. It was just so exciting to watch! I thought magic contests would be boring contests where ponies read books at each other but it wasn't like that at all!"
"You did do wonderfully, Twilight," said Rarity, warmly. "There were lots of good magicians in the tournament but everyone could plainly see that you stood out from the rest. Especially from that... Trixie. And those wings look at least as smashing on you as they did on me."
"Well, thanks, Rarity. I just hope I don't run into Trixie again," Twilight sighed. "Her summon was kind of upsetting for both of us."
"Sugar, if'n you do, I'm sure you'll give her exactly what she deserves," Applejack said with a grin.
"Twilight, you rock," Fluttershy offered, quietly, to a general chorus of agreement.
"Thanks, everypony," Twilight replied, some of the tiredness leaving her smile. "We should probably head back to the castle. I’m exhausted"
A strong, familiar and welcome voice spoke up. "Then spare your hooves, Twilight Sparkle," Princess Luna said kindly as she materialized next to the group. "I have come to convey thee to the castle. As thy sponsor," she said with a wink, "it is my privilege and prerogative to offer you and your guests lodging and hospitality for the entire tournament. My sister also sends her regards."
Relief washed over Twilight's face. A meal and a warm, comfortable bed sounded just perfect, early in the evening thought it might been. "Thank you so much, princess."