Sleeping in the same room as Pinkie and Applejack more or less precluded the possibility of sleeping late, so the morning came far too early for Twilight. Even having gone to sleep immediately after Celestia brought her to the castle, she felt as though she had barely slept at all, and was certainly not ready to face a day of duels.
The room Luna and Celestia had put the friends up in looked as though it had been guard quarters or barracks at some point in the past. The polished white stone of the walls and floors was colorfully decorated, with multicolored garlands and beautiful tapestries on the walls and warm, woven rugs on the floor keeping sensitive hooves away from cold stone. Two long rows of beds were lined up against the walls, and a cheerful fireplace crackled at the far end of the room.
"Mornin', Twi", came a familiar drawl from across the room. As far as Twilight could tell, Applejack was already wide awake and was sitting stretched-out across her bed, her hat still draped over a post at the headboard. The orange farm pony grinned over at Twilight. "Ready to go show some o' them other magicians what real magic looks like?"
With a groan, Twilight shoved her head under her pillow. "It's too early," she said, muffled by her mattress and pillow. "This must be what Spike always feels like in the morning."
A third, hyperactive and sugary voice piped up from the bed next to Applejack. "It's not too early!" Pinkie said, also sounding up and raring to go. "I'm always up this early! Mr. Cake says, 'Early to bed and early to rise'... Um... I don't remember how the rest of it goes but it ends with ice cream."
"Ice cream? Pinkie, I don't think that saying has-"
"Twilight!" Pinkie interrupted, speaking in a stage whisper that was somehow even louder than her normal voice. "You should keep it down, we don't want to be rude meanie-ponies and wake everyone else up!"
Twilight groaned again and extricated her head from her pillow, then looked at the other beds. On the other side of the room, next to Pinkie and Applejack, Rainbow Dash was lying sprawled across her bed, dead to the world. To Twilight's right, Rarity was curled up daintily under the covers, while in the next bed Fluttershy chewed on her mane in her sleep. The only sign of Spike was a small round lump buried under the covers on the bed to Twilight's left.
"C'mon," Applejack said softly as she got up. She flipped her hat onto her head before walking to the far end of the room and settling down on the rug next to the fireplace, away from the sleepers. Pinkie bounced out of bed and over to join Applejack, and after a moment Twilight dragged herself from her bed to join her two friends.
"Anyway, Twilight, what I was saying is that me and the Cakes are up this early most days!" Pinkie spoke as she warmed her front hooves by the fire. "We have to get up early to start the baking for the day at Sugarcube Corner!"
"You mean 'the Cakes and I', right, Pinkie?" Twilight asked, stifling a yawn.
"You said 'me and the Cakes'," said Twilight, primly. "But you meant to say 'the Cakes and I'."
Pinkie blinked in confusion. "But, Twilight, I work at Sugarcube Corner, not you! You work at the library, remember?"
"I don't think that's quite what she meant, darlin’." Applejack drawled.
Pinkie giggled at her friends. "But the Cakes don't work at the library, either, sillies! Twilight, you mean you and Spike. Oh!" Pinkie Pie's eyes lit up. "Maybe we should trade some time! Spike could help out at Sugarcube Corner and I could come help at the library!"
‘Skeptical’ was insufficient to describe the look that crossed Twilight Sparkle's face. "You want to help out at the library?"
"Sure! Cause then we could take a break and go to Sugarcube Corner!"
Just then, a bright yellow pegasus ambled up to the three friends, awkwardly attempting to pull a few strands of pink mane from her mouth as she walked. "Good morning, every..." She made a spitting sound as she extricated the last of her mane. "...one."
"Fluttershy!" Twilight greeted her friend exuberantly, grateful for the opportunity to escape the Pinkie Pie conversational vortex. "Good morning! Sleep well?"
"Oh, yes, I slept fine, thank you," came Fluttershy's typically soft response. "It was so nice of the princesses to let us stay here."
"It was. I always liked this part of the castle," Twilight said, stretching out over the rug on her side, keeping her delicate wings away from the fire. "And it makes me feel better that we can all stay together."
Fluttershy nodded, ruffling her feathers. "Oh, me too. It's so fun having everyone together like this. And I'm glad we can support you, Twilight. You did so well yesterday, it would be a shame if you were all alone worrying about the results."
"Darn tootin'!" Applejack agreed vehemently, drawing a smile from Twilight and a small squeak from Fluttershy. "Speakin' of," she continued, "we should go get some breakfast and see if we can't find out about them results. See who Twi's gonna be facin' first."
"Shouldn't we wait for the others?" Pinkie asked. "Or maybe we should wake them up!" She began drawing in a deep breath.
"Pinkie!" Twilight hissed, leaving Pinkie with puffed out cheeks and a quizzical look. "Let them sleep. I know Spike won't be up for another hour, and even if I did make it to the ladder matches, the first match won't be for hours. There's plenty of time."
"And Rarity and Rainbow Dash both sleep late any day they don't have to be up early for work," Fluttershy added.
Pinkie Pie let out her breath with a gasp. "Oh, okay!"
The four friends quietly exited the room, Twilight leading the way down the familiar halls of Canterlot castle. “It’s been so long since I’ve been down the back ways of the castle like this,” she said, cheerfully. “You know, many of these rooms,” she gestured at adjoining doors, “have been mainly unoccupied for years, like the quarters Luna put us up in. They’re old military barracks...”
She carried on with her history lesson as the group walked down the corridors, Fluttershy hanging on her every word. Applejack followed disinterestedly while Pinkie Pie played with a paddleball set, and soon the group exited the castle through a side entrance.
“...brings us up to the year 480. Oh, and here we are!” Twilight said cheerfully as the group walked out onto the castle grounds. “So, breakfast!”
Canterlot had no shortage of good places to eat, and so Twilight decided to visit one of her favorite cafes from when she lived in the castle town, a small, quiet place near the castle with...
“-the best daffodil and daisy sandwich ever!” Pinkie exclaimed as she devoured the aforementioned meal in a single bite. “Thank you, Twilight!” The four friends were sitting at a table under an awning outside the cafe, enjoying a chance to eat and relax before the day’s events.
Fluttershy nibbled at her dandelion salad more daintily. “Yes, thank you for bringing us here. It’s all very tasty.” She smiled brightly at Twilight and sipped her tea.
Twilight was also smiling brightly and was about to respond when she noticed two young unicorn fillies on the sidewalk whispering at each other and pointing toward her in just about the least subtle way imaginable. They were each wearing some tasteful, understated jewelry and one had a thin shawl draped across her withers. Obvious locals, Twilight deduced.
“Can I help you?”
The two fillies jumped at having been caught out, and they looked at each other before advancing timidly. “Like, you’re Twilight Sparkle, right?” the first asked, nervously.
“Yes,” Twilight responded, slowly. Applejack glared suspiciously at the two fillies across the table.
“Oh, cool!” the young unicorn exclaimed, relief washing over her. “We weren’t sure it was really you.”
The two promptly shrieked, causing Fluttershy to vanish under the table, and began bombarding Twilight.
“You were so awesome yesterday!”
“How did you make those wings?”
“Are you seriously Celestia’s personal student?”
“Did Discord really turn you into a newt?”
“What are you gonna do when you win the cup?”
“How did you beat Nightmare Moon?”
The two fillies looked at each other, then looked back at Twilight and shouted in unison.
“Is it true about you and Princess Luna?!”
The barrage was interrupted by Applejack slamming her hoof down on the table. “Now just hold on there a minute! What in tarnation is all this about?”
With a wince, Twilight set her hoof on top of Applejack’s. “Easy there, AJ.” She then looked over at the two young unicorns. “Please, girls, one question at a time?”
One pawed awkwardly at the ground. “Sorry, Ms. Sparkle,” she said, in a small voice. “You were just really cool yesterday and you’re this big hero...”
“Yeah!” her friend piped up. “Like, there’s all these rumors going around? About how you beat Nightmare Moon and Discord? And, like, totally exterminated a dragon that was going to burn Canterlot to the ground?”
Pinkie Pie blinked. “An extermination mission? Twilight, when did we do that?”
With a sigh, Twilight held up a hoof, holding off any more of the young fillies’ - and Pinkie’s - ramblings. “Girls, first off, a lot of those rumors aren’t true. I didn’t do anything about the dragon, and it certainly wasn’t going to burn Canterlot to the ground. He was just snoring lots of smoke.” She looked around for a moment, then under the table at Fluttershy, who smiled sheepishly and climbed back into her chair. “Fluttershy convinced him that he needed to sleep somewhere else.”
“Um, it wasn’t much. Really. I just asked nicely...” Fluttershy mumbled, trailing off into an inaudible squeak.
“And as for Discord and Nightmare Moon,” Twilight went on, “I didn’t beat them by myself at all. If it weren’t for my friends standing with me, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. It wasn’t me that beat them, it was the power of friendship!”
The two fillies looked at Twilight, not in disappointment, exactly, but certainly confusion. “So,” one of the fillies asked, quietly. “Do you think you’ll beat Shahnaz this morning?”
“Shahnaz?” Twilight asked, blankly.
“Like, yeah? Your first opponent today? It’s on the schedules and everything!” The other said in surprise.
“I don’t know, I’ll do my best.” Twilight smiled weakly. “It was very nice to meet you girls, um...”
The filly brightened up suddenly. “Oh, yeah, like, I’m Fizzy, and this is Galaxy.”
Galaxy nodded. “It was nice to meet you too, Ms. Sparkle.”
The two young fillies walked away, whispering quietly to each other. Just as the ponies were beginning to tuck back into their breakfasts, a pair of shrieks broke the silence from down the street.
“Oh my gosh we just met Twilight Sparkle!”
Applejack shook her head while Twilight gently laid hers down on the table. Fluttershy squeaked and snapped her wings in tightly.
“Oh, I remember!” said Pinkie Pie suddenly. “That was after the time we tried to make waffles in the bounce house!”
The ponies finished their meals hurriedly, breakfast largely forgotten after learning that Twilight’s first match had been posted. They left some bits on the table and left, heading back toward the square near the gates, where the schedules were posted.
Pinkie Pie bounced excitedly down the stone sidewalk. “Twilight, I knew it! I knew you did great! And you did great!”
Above her, Fluttershy fluttered along, beaming. “This is so exciting! Do you know anything about your opponent?”
Twilight Sparkle shook her head as she hurried along, as well. “I don’t know who this ‘Shahnaz’ is, but it sounds like a ghul’s name. Other than that, I have no idea. Anyway, I’m trying to keep my hooves on the ground. My opponent could be just as good a magician as I am.”
With a snort, Applejack looked over her shoulder at her friend. “Twi, you ain’t had your hooves on the ground since we left the cafe.”
Twilight was flying along, about a foot above the ground, her butterfly wings beating furiously. She smiled awkwardly.
“Well, okay. Maybe I am a little excited.”
About two hours later, Twilight found herself standing once again on the grass of the competition field. Since the previous day, the enormous field had been partitioned into a number of smaller fields with covered bleachers on either side. The chalk rows had been swept away, replaced with a simple line across the center, dividing the rectangular field into two squarish halves. Twilight knew that in the adjacent fields, other wizards were getting ready to compete as well, but she was more concerned with what was happening on this field.
Twilight stood down at the far end of one half of the field, and she could see to her right a private box down in front, toward the middle. Princess Luna and her friends were there, all of whom - Luna included - were already cheering for her. Pinkie had gotten a giant foam hand from somewhere and was waving it wildly. Twilight smiled gratefully and waved back.
At the other end of the field, her opponent. Shahnaz was a ghul, about Twilight’s age, with striking and well-tended brown and black fur. He wore a tasteful purple vest and a large ruby pendant around his neck. While Twilight was nervously looking for her friends and assessing her opponent, Shahnaz sat cross-legged on the ground, eyes closed, a large number of gems of various colors and sizes arranged around him. Twilight could see some sort of arcane significance in the gems, but she could not immediately discern their purpose.
A hush fell over the crowd as, directly between the two competitors, a burst of green energy flashed and faded, leaving behind the familiar green-and-red form of Najstariot. She smiled winningly at the crowds and bowed her head gracefully in the direction of Princess Luna, who returned the gesture, stiffly and formally.
“Good morning, and welcome to the first round of duels in the young adult brackets!” The shapeshifted dragon’s voice boomed, much like the Royal Canterlot Voice that Luna had (largely) broken herself of the habit of using. “On this field, we have two highly placed competitors! To my left, Shahnaz, recently graduated from Ifrit Academy and widely considered to be the most promising young wizard in his class. He placed very well in yesterday’s trials and we expect great things from him here and in the future.” She turned and faced the young ghul, who had risen to his feet and stood with his paws clasped behind his back. “We are honored by your presence, sir.”
The young ghul bowed, and replied, though Twilight couldn’t hear what he said. A polite round of applause and cheers went through the crowd, with a small contingent of ghuls in the boxes at the far end of the bleachers to Twilight’s left cheering a bit more vigorously. Twilight clapped her hooves politely.
“To my right,” Najstariot turned again, this time facing Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle, student to Princess Celestia herself, bearer of the Element of Magic, recent hero and defender of Equestria. She placed first in yesterday’s trials for her bracket.” Her eyes narrowed and she smiled thinly as she stared directly at Twilight. “We will be watching you closely as well, Twilight Sparkle.”
The ad hoc stadium exploded in cheering and applause, including, causing Twilight to flush with embarrassment, from her opponent. Roars of approval, applause, stomping, various cheers, and, Twilight noted with a blush, even a voice yelling “Marry me!” She wished she could crawl under a rock and hide.
Najstariot walked to the right, stopping to the side in front of Luna’s private box. “Competitors!” She roared. “Come to the center!”
Shahnaz stepped from his circle of stones and walked toward the center line, and Twilight did the same, her ear twitching.
The ghul spoke first. “Good morning, Twilight Sparkle,” he said. His voice was unlike Al-Dhi’b’s, smooth, with an educated Trottingham accent and just a faint, exotic trace of Ghulic underneath. “I am honored to be competing with the savior of the world.” He extended a paw.
Twilight swallowed and raised a hoof, timidly. “Um... Good morning. Nice to meet you, too, but I’m really not...”
Shahnaz smiled, carefully keeping his pointy, canine teeth covered. “You are too modest. The rumors don’t do you or the service you and your friends have done for us all justice. I hope to learn much from you today.”
Shaking his paw, awkwardly, Twilight tried and failed to smile in a way that didn’t look like a rictus. “I... I... Good luck to you too,” she stammered.
The two opponents returned to the opposite sides of the field, and Najstariot stepped back to the center, this time facing the other bleachers. “Competition will begin on my mark. Competitors may use any spells at their disposal, but may not physically injure their opponent. The objective is to exhaust your opponent; when a competitor yields or can no longer cast, their opponent shall be declared the victor. If either competitor should refuse to compete, they shall be considered to be exhausted. If either competitor should cross the center line into their opponent’s territory, they will forfeit the match. In addition,” the dragon queen said, pointedly turning to face Twilight. “If I feel either competitor is not using their full ability, I reserve the right to declare the match forfeit.”
What did she mean by that, Twilight wondered? And why was Najstariot looking at her? She was certainly going to compete to her full ability, but she had been doing that since the beginning...
The dragon queen stepped back from the center of the field, and her booming voice called out, “Begin!”
Time seemed to slow for Twilight as, from across the field, beams of blue energy lanced from a pair of large sapphires in the circle around Shahnaz. An instinct that Twilight didn’t even know she had caused her to fly straight up, away from the beams. She could feel them pass by, sweeping slowly up after her, not physically cold but enervating even at a distance. Spells to simply drain Twilight’s energy, they would end the match before it had even begun.
Twilight retaliated, swooping up, then around toward the center line of the field in a graceful arc, her horn glowing purple as she approached. One of the sapphires glowed a matching purple and spun, its beam swinging around toward Shahnaz. The beams died as the ghul dropped the spell. Twilight dropped to the ground on all four hooves, using her telekinesis to wrestle the gem around, keeping Shahnaz from reestablishing his spell.
Instead of fighting Twilight’s telekinesis, however, the gem at Shahnaz’s throat glowed and a large ruby next to him thrummed with energy. Twilight could feel the ground rumble at her feet. She flew up, dropping the sapphire, just as a huge root tore its way free from the ground, snapping up in an attempt to entangle Twilight. The root thrashed around, trying to wrap around the flying unicorn’s feet.
Swooping away, Twilight came in on another arc, lowering her horn and flying directly at the thick root. She tore across the root with her horn and swept down to the ground as the root, afflicted with Twilight’s powerful banishment, fell heavily to earth.
Shahnaz’s gems began glowing in quick succession. A telekinetic push here, a small, localized earthquake there, even an increase in gravity that kept Twilight from flying away. The purple unicorn batted each spell away, dispelling them and shielding herself. Ultimately, none of Shahnaz’s spells had managed to even rustle her mane.
Twilight panted, swallowing hard after dispelling the gravity increase, and then she understood the trap she had wandered into. Shahnaz wasn’t trying to hurt her, that was against the rules. Other than the Drain spell, his spells, on their own, would shake her up but not much worse. However, while he was using simple earth magic that he could cast easily, Twilight was using Shield spells and Banishments, and those were draining. She was flying around, too, to evade his ground attacks, and that was just as tiring. He was letting her exhaust herself.
Twilight relaxed as the large ruby thrummed once again, and this time a stone hand reached from the ground and grabbed her. The hand shook her unnervingly, and Twilight carefully kept calm instead of dispelling the hand in a panic. Instead, she shakily gathered her thoughts, and cast something she knew very well and could cast easily at the hand itself: A Come-To-Life spell.
The hand suddenly opened, dropping Twilight, and she grinned as she shook the dust from her mane. Her hypothesis had been correct, the spell that Shahnaz was using through the ruby focus was a form of object enchantment, and most object enchantments didn’t work on things that were already living, animated things, like, for example, the subject of a Come-To-Life spell. The giant stone hand tore itself free from the ground, landing on its fingers as if it were some sort of giant spider, and began scuttling over toward Shahnaz.
In a panic, the ghul quickly reorganized a few gems and began channeling energy through them. A powerful gust of wind blew the gems away from him before he was able to ignite them. Shahnaz bolted away from the spot he had been sitting as the giant hand-thing stomped up to him, and the ghul began running away from it. The gem on his neck started to glow as he began to cast what Twilight recognized as a Banishment spell. She was confused by this, much as she had been at the trials the previous day; why did other magicians seem to find banishing so difficult?
Shahnaz succeeded in his Banishment spell, and, with a sound like a wall collapsing, the stone hand collapsed into rubble. The ghul, breathing heavily, loped back to his gems, his pendant glowing as the gems rearranged themselves back into a circle. Twilight reached out with her telekinesis but was rebuffed, the gems ringing in a crystal tone as she failed to get her hold on any of them. She flew back, quickly, putting as much room as possible between her and Shahnaz.
All of a sudden, the ground beneath Twilight exploded with life, the grass beneath her growing almost instantly into a morass of long grass stalks, much taller than her, a living picket. She swooped up and forward to the front edge of her side of the field as the enervating blue beams came after her again.
A blue door, with frame, suddenly appeared in front of Shahnaz and his gems, blocking his sight of Twilight and the beams of the blue gems. Twilight laughed; she had used the silly door-summoning spell mostly to make a point when Spike was obstinately insisting she do something, but she’d never thought it had any practical use before. There was a beat, then the door opened from the “inside” and the beams traced back out.
It was too late. The beams were still searching where Twilight had been, not where she was. In the short moment the door had been shut, the unicorn had flown up and to the side, near the bleachers, and prepared a spell. A meandering row of musical notes swept out from Twilight’s horn and right through the open door. Shahnaz was unprepared for this; the magical music seeped easily in through his ears and into his mind. He yawned and sat back on his rump, fighting unsuccessfully to stay awake. After a wavering moment, he lay down with a loud snore, the blue beams dying away and the grass on Twilight’s side of the field returning to normal. Twilight settled back down to the ground.
Najstariot looked over the field with an unreadable expression, then walked out to the center. “Well done,” she said to the unicorn, in a soft, neutral voice. She turned to face the crowd and announced, like a crack of thunder, “The match is over, and Twilight Sparkle is the victor!”