The next moments passed in a confused blur for Twilight. The noise of the crowd was deafening. One moment she was staring at Najstariot's leg, the next her view was blocked by a horde of cheering fans. Twilight snapped her wings together and drew in even more tightly on herself, shaking as hooves, talons and paws thundered around her. Nothing was making much sense, but Twilight clung desperately to the last strands that remained of her rational mind. The match was over. She had won.
A strangely familiar gryphon appeared from nowhere, towering over much of the rest of the crowd. The gryphon asked Twilight something, clearly a question, but the exhausted unicorn couldn't make sense of the words. A loud squawk pierced Twilight's ears like a hot needle, after which the crowd seemed to calm slightly, drawing back.
"My friends," she mumbled into the ground. "Where are my friends?"
A long shadow fell across Twilight, and the crowd noise died away to a murmur. "We thank thee, Lady Gianna," the shadow said, in a passable impression of Princess Luna's voice. "Your friends are waiting for you in the stands, still, Twilight Sparkle," the shadow continued, kindly. "We should repair to the castle with all haste."
"Thank you," Twilight mumbled as she curled into an even smaller ball. She lowered her head to the ground, the still-frigid dirt alleviating some of the throbbing pain. Twilight heard a few more words pass between the gryphon and the voice that might have been the princess', and then everything went dark.
Twilight blinked as a soft, warm light washed over her. The half-frozen ground was gone, replaced with a soft bed and pillow. The crowd noise, too, had vanished, and all Twilight could hear was the soft crackle of a fire and the snores of sleeping ponies. As her eyes adjusted to the softer light, familiar stone walls and two rows of beds revealed themselves. She was back in the room at the castle she was sharing with her friends. She turned her head, grimacing at the painful effort, to see Princess Luna standing over her.
"How are you feeling?" Luna asked, gently.
Twilight hurt. Both her mind and her body had been punished well beyond anything she had ever experienced before. Every part of her felt bruised and beaten. Her forehead and horn were uncomfortably hot while her ears and hooves felt frigid. She pulled her legs in tightly and shivered.
"'m fine, princess," she lied.
Luna frowned. "You do not seem 'fine' to me, Twilight Sparkle," she said.
Twilight shivered again. "Just a bit cold," she mumbled. "Horn hurts."
A soft glow surrounded Luna's horn, and she leaned down to gently touch Twilight's side with the tip. Twilight shivered, partly from the cold, partly from apprehension, then hissed softly as gentle warmth flooded through her. The pains dulled, as did the cold feeling in her extremities. The painful heat in Twilight's head and horn faded as well. She nickered softly as sore muscles unwound and the throbbing in her head abated.
"That should allow you to rest," Luna said.
"Thank you, princess," Twilight said, absently, sleep already beginning to overtake her. She watched through one half-closed eye as Luna smiled and turned to exit the room.
"Princess?" Twilight asked as her eyes closed completely.
"Did I do alright? Are you proud of me?"
A third voice spoke up in the darkness, warm and familiar. "You did wonderfully, Twilight. We are both so proud of you."
Twilight smiled gently as she was swallowed up by sleep.
"Twilight?" a voice said.
Twilight groaned. "Go away, Spike," she said, petulantly, swinging a hoof absently in the direction of the voice. Instead of brushing a flexible dermal plate, however, Twilight's hoof collided with something soft and hairy, drawing a small squeal in response. Blinking her eyes open, Twilight saw Fluttershy standing next to her, rubbing her shoulder.
Twilight sat up sharply. "Oh, Fluttershy, I'm so sorry!" she said, suddenly awake.
The demure little pegasus smiled weakly from behind her mane. "It's alright, Twilight," she said, even as she shied back a step. "You were tossing and turning. How are you feeling?"
Twilight leaned up, gracelessly shoving her mane back with one hoof. She was still sore, but more the sort of soreness that comes after strenuous exercise, rather than feeling as though she had been beaten within an inch of her life. "Better, thanks," she said.
Fluttering her wings and stretching her forelegs, Twilight looked around. Everypony else was apparently already awake. Pinkie was somehow playing cat's cradle with Spike, cheerfully oblivious to the little dragon's unnerved expression. Rarity and Applejack were sitting on AJ's bed, softly discussing something that seemed to revolve around Applejack's hat. Rainbow Dash was lying on her front on her bed, quietly reading a paperback novel that lay open in front of her. Finally, Twilight saw Trixie once again lying in front of the fireplace, quietly looking into the flames and away from everypony else.
Leaning over, Twilight asked Fluttershy in a whisper, "Trixie's still here?"
"Oh, um, no. Well, not exactly," Fluttershy replied, whispering as well. "Actually, I woke up when Princess Celestia brought her back. She went to watch your match after all."
"But what's she doing back here?"
"Well," the pegasus said, raising a hoof to her mouth. "She said that the princess was arranging a new cart for her but she needed to stay here for another-"
"You know, Trixie can hear you both," an acerbic voice spoke up from near the fireplace. Everything stopped as all eyes turned to Trixie, who still had her back turned to everypony else. Fluttershy squeaked in embarrassment.
"Oh, Trixie," Twilight said, abashed. "I'm sorry, we were just-"
"Yes, yes, you were just. I know. Everypony is just." Trixie glared over her shoulder. The expression on her face was not one of anger, but rather of exhaustion and resignation. "Trixie is tired of ponies being just. If you have something to say to Trixie, say it."
Twilight just looked at the blue unicorn for a moment. She felt her earlier anger rising again, and grimaced as the blood pounding in her ears made her headache start to return. She bit back a nasty comment and tried to keep her face neutral. Trixie watched her with a hard expression. "Well, I just wanted to say thank you!" Twilight finally said, in what she hoped was a pleasant tone.
The tension in Trixie's face eased, leaving her staring blankly at Twilight. She opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it again. Finally, she turned to look back at the fire, silently.
With a small frown, Twilight leaned over the bed to her saddlebags, which were tossed carelessly on the floor next to her. The dull throb in her horn reminded Twilight to be sparing with her magic, so instead she stepped down to the floor, carefully. She flipped the bag open with her hoof and reached in to grasp Trixie's notebook awkwardly in her teeth.
She trotted up next to Trixie, book held in her teeth. Twilight attempted to say something around the book, then dropped it to the floor. Trixie turned her head to look, first at the book and then at Twilight.
"Thank you, Trixie," Twilight repeated, softly.
Trixie looked down at the book again, then turned away. "You're welcome," she finally said, into the fireplace. "I'm glad somepony got some use out of it."
"Not just for the book," Twilight said. She gingerly lay down on the rug in front of the fireplace, and Trixie shifted over to give her room. "Thank you for trusting us when you needed help."
Trixie's expression grew sour again. "It's not like I had much of a choice. If that idiot hadn't stolen my cart, Trixie would already be on her way away from here."
Twilight could feel the throb building behind her forehead again. "So," she said, willing herself to continue speaking pleasantly, "you'll be here for today anyway. And Fluttershy said you needed to stay off that leg. Would you like to join us for lunch before the award ceremony?"
A cloud passed over Trixie's face and she looked as if she was going to begin yelling. Twilight felt all of her abused muscles start to go taut. After a moment of silence, however, the blue unicorn seemed to sag and she simply lay back down, resting her muzzle on her front hooves. "Fine," she said quietly, then went silent.
Twilight, too, lapsed into silence, and the two unicorns lay on the rug, both looking into the fireplace. The flames danced in front of Twilight. They reminded her of the flames that had danced in her mind after she had touched Zlatan's power, and to a lesser extent Spike's. There was power here, too, in the hypnotic flames. It tickled her horn. It was nothing like anything she had felt before, but maybe that was because she had been getting more practice at drawing on other sources of power the past few days. She could almost reach out and touch it...
"Twilight!" a worried voice shouted, cutting through the darkness. Twilight blinked, her eyes watering from the pounding headache, and a yellow blur in front of her resolved itself into Fluttershy's worried face, looking at her through a long, black tube. As Twilight's vision cleared, the dark tunnel broke up and faded, and she saw her other friends all looking at her with concern. Even Trixie seemed worried, though she had moved to the other side of the room to give Twilight's friends room.
"What happened?" Twilight asked, thickly.
"You just fell over on your side," Fluttershy said, her wings twitching in agitation.
Twilight clambered to her hooves, dizzily. Her headache was already abating. Spike, the pegasi and the earth ponies all seemed somewhat relieved. Rarity, however, seeing that Twilight was alright, let her look of concern change to one of mild anger.
"Twilight Sparkle, what in Equestria was that?" she asked, sharply.
"What was what, sugarcube?" Applejack asked, perplexed.
Rarity looked over at Applejack, then back at Twilight with an accusatory look. "She just tried to use her magic. For something quite large, too." She looked over her shoulder. "You felt it too, Trixie, did you not?"
Trixie nodded back, with a mild expression.
"Well, Twilight? Would you mind sharing what was important enough to knock yourself for a loop like that?"
Twilight blinked. She had just been watching the fire, hadn't she? "I didn't do anything!" she protested.
Rarity sat down, her expression hardening. "Twilight Sparkle," she said, her voice quiet and brittle. "Just because I am not a... a very powerful magician like you and Trixie, don't think you can treat me like an idiot."
Blinking, Twilight leaned back, raising a hoof in protest. "Rarity, I'm not treating you like an idiot! Really, I didn't do anything! I was just watching the fire, and..." And what? There had been something there, in the fire. "I don't know what happened."
Trixie snorted and walked back over to sit down next to the fire. Rarity simply shook her head, her expression returning to one of concern. "Twilight, please be careful. These last few days have been very taxing for you and I am just worried that you are going to hurt yourself. We all are." Twilight watched a chorus of quiet nods come from their friends.
After a moment, Twilight nodded, with a small smile. "I will, Rarity, I promise." Her smile grew a bit broader. "Besides, Amarok was the last match. There's nothing left but the awards ceremony this evening!"
Somehow, miraculously, the tension in the room finally eased after this. Conversations resumed and the tension behind Twilight's eyes finally eased. Even Trixie was eventually immersed in a low conversation with Rarity that Twilight couldn't quite make out, but seemed to be hat-related. Twilight walked back over to her bed, quietly, and sank back down into the mattress. She was still feeling worn out from earlier, but maybe before they headed out for lunch it wouldn't hurt to take a short...
"...turnover? Come on, Twilight, wake up!"
Blinking, Twilight sat up. She was still groggy, but felt much better than she had earlier. Spike was standing next to the bed, holding a small paper bag. "We brought you back some lunch," the little dragon said, offering the bag up.
Twilight reached up to rub her eyes. The shadows on the wall had moved significantly. How long had she been out for? Her friends were still milling about, getting settled back down in the shared room.
"What time is it?" Twilight asked, groggily.
"Just after four," Spike said as he hopped up on the bed to sit next to Twilight. "We tried to wake you up to go with us but you were out cold."
With a giggle, Twilight reached out to ruffle Spike's plates. "Well, now you know how it feels."
Spike grinned and set the bag down. "Yeah, yeah."
Fluttershy came up next to the bed, behind Spike. "Are you going to be alright for the award ceremony, Twilight?" she asked, softly.
With a quick nod, Twilight leaned down to nose the bag open. "Mmhmm!" she mumbled, around a large apple turnover. "Mm fmming m- Mmph." Twilight bit off a big piece and dropped the turnover back in the bag. "I'm feeling much better now, thank you," she said thickly as she chewed. "It's in about an hour, right?"
"Yep!" an exuberant voice exclaimed, as Pinkie bounced over to Twilight. "This is so exciting! I told you you were the best unicorn ever, Twilight! And you are! And you're gonna get an award that says so!"
"That is not what the Cup says," Trixie said from across the room, with a snort.
"Oh. Well, it should!" Pinkie looked thoughtful, then gasped. "I know! We'll have a 'Best Unicorn Ever' party when we get back to Ponyville!"
"But what about your other unicorn friends, Pinkie?" Rarity said, pointedly.
Pinkie screwed up her face for a moment, then grinned broadly. "Then we'll have lots of guests of honor! Because really all of my unicorn friends are the best unicorns ever!" A moment later, Rarity, Twilight and Trixie found themselves swept into an impromptu group hug by the syrupy earth pony.
"Trixie... can't breathe..."
Later, a small procession exited the castle by the service entrance. The award ceremony was being held at the grand ballroom, and could be seen easily from where they stood. Twilight grinned broadly, and the group began walking to join the line to enter. Soon, with smart salutes from the guards, they stepped inside.
The grand ballroom was once again appointed as it had been for the opening ceremony, rows of tables with cardboard place cards. Many of the tables were already occupied, and as they entered Twilight could see many ponies and other creatures she recognized. Gianna, dressed in a few pieces of ceremonial armor that seemed entirely out of place, had a table with a small entourage of gryphons. Another table had a creature that looked very like Zlatan, but diminutive, barely larger than a pony. Off to the side, near one of the windows and away from all of the tables, Amarok sat up, red eyes watching the entire room sharply.
After a moment, Rarity called out that she had found their table. Twilight and the rest joined her, finding a large table with eight places and a neatly lettered place card reading "Twilight Sparkle and Group, Trixie and Group". Trixie groaned and rolled her eyes, but nevertheless found a spot like the rest of the group.
Looking around from the table, Twilight saw more beings she recognized. Here, Shahnaz was speaking a female ghul in a silk shawl. There, a unicorn roughly Twilight's age that had been near her during the trials sat with her parents, talking and laughing.
A giddy feeling began to creep up the back of Twilight's neck. In just a few minutes, she would be receiving an award that just five days ago would have seemed completely out of reach. She had competed with and bested some of the most powerful magicians in the world. After this evening, in comparison even the celebrity she already 'enjoyed' would be nothing at all.
Just for a moment, at this time and in this place, that seemed okay. Twilight found herself grinning hugely.
"T-t-twilight! Twilight!" Pinkie's keening voice cut through Twilight reverie, and the unicorn looked over at her friend, alarmed.
Pinkie was leaning heavily on the table as her legs wobbled underneath her. "M-my knees! My knees! They're super-duper pinchy!" Everyone but Trixie became immediately alarmed. Trixie opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. All of Twilight's friends looked quietly past the purple unicorn, notwithstanding Pinkie's epileptic shaking, as a long shadow fell across the table. Twilight turned.
Standing over the table, fiery mane flowing in a nonexistent wind, stood Najstariot in her imposing pony form.
"Y-your majesty," Twilight stammered.
"I would like to speak with you after this ceremony is over, Twilight Sparkle," said the dragon queen, emerald eyes drilling into Twilight's.