Today was certainly stressful, Adagio surmised, and it showed on the faces of nearly everyone around her. Sunset looked down for a number of reasons, her friends had all lost that morning's enthusiasm, their fellow Wondercolts shuffled about uncertainly, and even more than a few of those just spectating had a particular look on their faces, like they all knew, with how the day had gone, that something was coming to threaten their school again. Perhaps it was. She looked across the way at the Shadowbolts, their master, and Twilight, who quickly looked away when their eyes met.
Is she planning to do anything with all that magic, or take it home for analysis? Either way spells disaster if she doesn't know what she's doing.
When Luna and her Crystal Prep equivalent wrapped up something about the next event, Fluttershy frowned.
"I don't feel like playing these games anymore."
"But we have to play," protested Rainbow, "this is the last event!"
Rarity proved unsympathetic, making arm-motions to accompany her distaste for the situation. "It's a little hard to focus with all the magic-stealing and portal-opening."
Sunset in particular looked downbeat. "And I feel awful about what I said to Twilight."
"Especially since she obviously didn't mean to do all the stuff she did," Fluttershy helpfully added, "she's actually really nice." Sunset covering her face in shame and self-loathing made her shrink down and step off to the side as the others gave her unamused looks.
Watching this, Adagio was struck with indecision. She wanted to say or do something to remind Sunset that she wasn't the only one to occasionally struggle with this Guilt thing, reassure her with some measure of Compulsive Bitch Unity (working title), but knowing that Aria, Sonata, and the other Rainbooms would see and hear that moment of shared weakness made her hesitate. How did one commit comforting actions involving personal matters, anyway? If this was another thing Sunset had to wrangle since her conversion to Team Friendship, then Adagio felt a whole new kind of sympathy for her, but grew no closer to showing it before Applejack spoke up.
"Let's just get through this last event and prove we're not a bunch'a cheaters," she said while stepping over to rest a hand on Sunset's shoulder, "then you can go over and apologize." She offered a smile and won another right back, which Adagio silently made note of.
Shoulder-touching! That's the key! I can definitely do that.
She was tempted to invent a reason to be comforting just to see if she could demonstrate the skill herself, but looking around, noticed a distinct lack of the only other people that she could readily relate to. "Er... This may not be the best time, but has anyone seen Aria and Sonata?"
Rainbow pointed a thumb over her shoulder while turning her head. "They're right over-..." Quickly glancing about in search of them, she blinked twice, then frowned at Adagio. "Man, you might wanna put bells on those two."
"I've tried, but they always get their collars off eventually." It was fortunate that she hadn't been serious, because the Rainbooms collectively giggled at this. She kept looking around anyway.
Pleeeease don't be making a mess? Just until after this last event?
*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*
Around the back of the Crystal Prep side of the event area, Aria and Sonata kept low as they crawled through the bushes. To Aria's annoyance, Sonata had questions less than five minutes into the operation.
"So, why're we doing this again?"
"Because we're gonna snatch the necklace thingy, skip whatever magical meltdown is inevitably gonna come out of it, and be hailed as heroes for stopping that noise before it starts." And heroes, of course, don't get asked any questions about what they're gonna do with their shiny new magic-eater thing...
"But, if the magicy stuff doesn't actually happen, how would anyone know we did anything?" She bumped into Aria as the latter stopped dead. The silence and lack of turning around told her that Aria was doing one of those gimme-a-second thinking things.
"B... because, we'll have the necklace full of magic, and any idiot knows it would just blow up or something in this Twilight's hands. Now c'mon!"
They crept closer to Twilight while staying out of view in the bushes, but Aria was startled when her hand came down on something soft and fuzzy, which immediately yelped at her.
"Gah, what the-"
"Hey," Spike said while trying to keep quiet, "do ya mind? I'm tryin' to-"
Sonata finished the sentence for him. "Hide here and to stop Twilight from going bonkers with her glowy doo-dad?"
The purple puppy blinked twice. "Uhh... Yea, that. The way she's been holding it all 'My Precious' has me kinda worried."
Sonata smiled. "Cool beans, us too!"
"Oh. Then, um..." He didn't have anything further to offer as the three of them turned to watch Cinch approach Twilight.
"I've seen what your device can do, Twilight. Containing magical energy is fine, but have you considered releasing it?"
She had, but Principal Cinch probably wasn't aware of the biggest problem with that plan. "But, I don't even understand how it works!"
"But you'd like to," she countered as the other Shadowbolts closed in, "and since our opponents have already used it to stay competitive, I see no reason why we shouldn't do the same. Unless, of course, you have no interest in Everton? Though, honestly," she said with a surprisingly sympathetic tone, "I think there's more knowledge packed in that little device than any independent study program could offer."
And then she started to sing.
No parody this time, just a video for reference.
No one was more surprised than Spike. "Huh... Cold, stoic, stuffy Cinch is actually singing a song. This might be a sign that the world is ending."
"Nah," said Sonata not taking her eyes off the musical spectacle, "I think the tone of the tune fits her character."
"She's actually not doing half-bad," remarked Aria, "and I know a thing or two about manipulative singing. Cinch (that's the old lady, right? Okay, just checkin') is pushing Twilight's buttons by talking about what Twilight wants, other than that threat a second ago, how this benefits her." She made a sour face. "But man, her goons are messin' it all up! They're syncing just fine, but sending a really different message with all the pressuring talk!"
Sonata tilted her head. "Maybe they're trying to use what she wants and what she's afraid of at the same time?"
"Maybe, but mixed messages ain't exactly persuasive. If I were her, I'd have leaned all one way or all the other."
"Hmm... Do ya think the others sang to Sunset when they were puttin' the squeeze on her?" Aria turned to look at her in confusion. "I mean, we don't know exactly how the Rainbooms convinced her to go along with the Friendship Games, but do you think it was this bad?"
"What difference does that make? Peer pressure is still peer pressure, no matter how subtle!"
"Maybe, but is out-and-out singing at someone to do what you want the same as just kinda pushing them? Because something tells me the Rainbooms would never go this far. I won't say we should apologize, but don'tcha think we at least owe them a You're-Not-As-Bad-As-These-Guys? Part of our beef was that they were acting the same as the Shadowbolts, and now it kinda looks like that isn't true anymore."
For a long minute, Aria's mouth hung open. "I... M-maybe we could at least-"
Both were startled by a loud, magical noise, whipping their heads in that direction to see Twilight already opening the doo-hicky. As was not the rarest thing in the world for them, they spoke in unison.
*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*
A moment earlier...
We only want what we deserve, Twilight thought to herself as she stepped away from her chanting teammates, and I deserve this. I deserve some kind of result, some kind of benefit gained after all my struggles, and even if I can't write a proper lab report for it, even if I can't string together two coherent sentences about whatever comes from doing this, I'll at least have Crystal Prep's support.
Who knew? Maybe something good would happen. That blue girl gained the power of flight (and super strength, judging by her ability to tackle that botanical creature into the dirt), and since Twilight absorbed magic from her and those other girls, maybe she'd get superpowers too? Maybe she'd get super speed and/or some kind of x-ray vision or powerful scanning sense to find those flags, single-handedly win the last event, be hailed as Crystal Prep's champion, go on to learn everything there is to know about magic, and become the world's first archmage.
Shamefully induglent fairytale thinking, but if magic was on the table...?
Stepping forward, she carefully removed the spectrometer hanging from her neck, reaffirming in her head that this was what she wanted, that this was what she came to CHS for in the first place, that she'd be missing the opportunity of her life if she didn't do this, just like Cinch said. She could have waited until she got home, but if it made no difference in terms of safety or repeatability, why not use the Friendship Games as part of the experiment? They were already ruined by the plants and portals, right?
Yes, what she was doing was justified, and made perfect sense. All of the other Shadowbolts wouldn't be encouraging her to do this otherwise, would they?
She had her doubts as Sunset Shimmer, approaching from the Wondercolt side, gave her yet another stern look, but she focused on the spectrometer, pressed the release, glanced upward to give Sunset a glare of her own, and began to pull the spectrometer open. Her efforts were resisted, be it due to some kind of molecular bonding inherent to the magical energies, or her own fear and hesitation, but whatever the case, she felt the pressure lessen as she pulled harder, and in an instant, the spectrometer snapped open.
Immediately, light and alien sounds burst from the well of energy that had been stored in her device, radiating out in an explosion (for lack of better terms) that knocked everyone around her to their knees. Twilight found herself paralyzed (again, not sure if magic or fear) as she dropped the spectrometer, the orb of energy that had come from it pulling her up into the air.
Adagio didn't take her eyes off of this spectacle as Aria and Sonata ran over to her. "What. Did. You. Do?"
"It wasn't us this time," protested Aria, "we didn't do anything!"
"We were gonna, but-oof!" Sonata winced as she was elbowed in the ribs.
All present found themselves unable to do anything but watch as Twilight was slowly absorbed into the growing sphere of magic, even as she tried to tear herself away
Her agonized scream as the orb swallowed her made even Aria wince. "Ripped apart by magical energy cluster. Freakin' gruesome way to go."
In a flash, however, they saw that Twilight hadn't met her untimely demise from her own creation, but had taken on a very different appearance. Her wild, fiery-styled hair, dark, purple dress, irregular, elbow-length gloves, knee-high socks of similar make leading down to crystalline slippers that matched her floating spectacles and the twisted horn jutting from her skull all spoke of a very different Twilight Sparkle, but most keenly noticed were her massive, dark wings, which kept her afloat as she laughed maniacally.
"Welp," muttered Sonata, "we're boned."
"Maybe a bit," concurred Aria, not looking away. "think now's a good time to bail, Adagio?" She recieved no answer. "Adagio?" Turning her head, she found Adagio's eyes locked firmly on Twilight's new form as well, as well as a tiny blush and a wide, wide smile on her face. "Um... You got a plan for this, or-"
"Shh," she whispered back, "Mama sees something she likes..."
"You were right," Twilight declared to Sunset in manic tones, "I didn't understand magic before, but I do now!!" She stretched out a hand to fire a blue beam of light, detonating the horse statue that stood above the portal's pedestal.
Adagio grinned ear-to-ear. "Something she really likes!"
Aria facepalmed for reasons that weren't Sonata.
Twilight grinned with satisfaction as the aftermath of her blast stabilized a portal not unlike those she'd been seeing, and the rifts in reality only spread as the energy (MY energy!!) crackled through the ground. Well, she was more than happy to help that along (with MORE BLASTING!!).
The Rainbooms (and Aria and Sonata, who had to physically grab and pull Adagio along with them) leapt out of the way as Twilight opened another rift where they'd been standing. To the new Twilight's great delight, more and more cracks and openings formed in mid-air!
Helpy, helpy, HELPY!!
As she continued her assault and more portals opened, some actually took the cue to vacate the area.
"Hey," Sunny Flare barked at Cinch as she, the one that practically ordered this, started to slip away, "where are you going?!"
"Anywhere to avoid that, monster," she spat back, "and I suggest you do the same!"
Sunny didn't run, not while she knew that, technically, Twilight's new look was her fault too. Turning to look at her fellow Shadowbolts, the nervous, guilty looks on their faces told her they felt the same.
"Twilight," called Sunset with a dramatic arm-gesture, "you can't do this!"
"Why not," she asked, as much to be defiant as to actually hear an answer. One learned by questioning, didn't they? "There's a whole other world right there," she said before firing off another blast, "and it's filled with magic!"
Sunset dared try simple, straight-forward reasoning on the power-mad witch-girl. "But you're destroying this world to get it!"
Twilight's smirk said she wasn't bothered. "So what? There's more magic there," she said while charging up a bigger (AND BLASTIER!) blast, "and I want to understand it ALL!!" She fired at Sunset's feet as her former fear-figure again leapt out of the way, and BOOM, another big portal in the ground! Things were going optimally! Looking around, she caught sight of the frightened students, from her school and theirs, the girls that had looked down on her before now looking up with awe, and... the pretty cheerleaders. Two were frantically looking around as one stared back at her. The one she'd been in direct contact with twice now. Gazing at her. At her!! Twilight's mind wandered to strange places as she wondered what her new-found power meant in this situation.
"Look," Aria said while shaking Adagio, "I'm digging the cosmic tears and all, way metal, but-"
Sonata finished for her. "We're all gonna get eaten by Cthulhu!"
"Uhh, that, sorta! I know power gets you going, but if she rips up existence like this, I don't think whatever comes poking through the cracks to say 'hi' is gonna share your tastes!"
Loathe as she was to break her gaze from the floating figure, Adagio had to concede the point. "Right... So, in this situation, I guess we should...?" She looked at the students still standing around, then at Sonata, who immediately smiled.
Standing together, but away from the rifts, they launched into a cheer.
now is a good time to run!
So pick, up, your, feet,
or you'll sink into the street!
A few actually listened, but Applejack was the first to do the opposite of this, if only to get in there and pull up those who had already slipped and now hung for dear life.
"Oh, wait," Sonata mumbled, "I, guess we should, uh, being doing that instead? Like, actually helping?"
"Yes," muttered Aria through an embarrassed, hindsight-induced facepalm, "yes we should." As was habit, she turned an inquisitive look toward Adagio. "Why didn't we do that right away?"
Following a brief, awkward silence, Adagio blushed. "Why are you looking at me? Like any of us actually have a decent grasp on helping people?"
Putting aside the issue of their general, collective rottenness for later, they charged in to mimic the Rainbooms, who, judging by how Rarity fell while trying to extricate someone herself, could use the assistance. They were followed closely by five of the Shadowbolts, who proved to be naturals at pulling people away from potholes in time and space.
Holding Twilight's discarded gadget, Sunset initially wasn't sure what to make of the way it glowed after seeing it depleted, but her talk with Adagio gave her an idea. She looked at her friends, all five of whom lit up with magical energy despite also having been drained. And then she knew what to do.
"This isn't the way," she called to Twilight, "I know you feel powerful right now, like you can have everything you want. I've been where you are," she said with a sympathetic frown, "I've made the same mistake you're making. I put on the crown, and just like you, I was overwhelmed by the magic it contained, I thought it could get me everything I wanted."
"Oh, you're wrong," Twilight countered, "unlike you, I CAN have everything I want!!" (Even breakfast in the afternoon!!)
"No you can't! Even with all that magic and power, you'll still be alone! True magic comes from Honesty,"
Applejack emitted energy much like when Twilight's gizmo drained her, only this time without pain.
Pinkie next. As Sunset went down the list, Aria shuffled uncomfortably.
"Uh... Does anyone else feel kinda... weird?"
Frowning, Sonata held her stomach. "My guts are getting all shifty. I don't like it!"
"Quiet," Adagio hissed, trying to push her awareness of the unfamiliar stir from her mind, watching as the Rainbooms' energies homed in on Twilight's medallion.
"I understand you, Twilight," Sunset said while raising the object above her head as it began to levitate her off the ground, "and I want to show you the most important magic of all!" She threw it straight down, being rewarded with another flash of light and a transformation similar to Twilight's but with a very different result.
Her dress was much less imposing, colored in white and soft shades of pink, her white gloves and gold, fiery boots almost regal in their purity. She had a horn too, now, though without notches or spirals, her hair had risen like Twilight's and she'd gained a red stripe across her eyes, but once more, the most outstanding feature was her wings, which flowed out from her like a twinkling sheet of stardust.
"The Magic, of Friendship!"
"Um," Aria muttered as those around them took in these developments, "isn't that exactly what Twilight is using too? I mean, if she drained magic from the Rainbooms, the same thing Sunset did just now, then isn't she already kinda using the Magic of Friendship?"
Sonata shrugged. "Maybe the doo-dad converts it to negative energy or something? Somehow?"
"Maybe, but if so, shouldn't it have twisted Sunset too? Or does swift percussion just have a purifying effect? Seriously, is giving people super powers and weird outfits all Equestrian magic does to people it touches now? Because I remember when throwing a big ball of it straight at the floor was insanely dangerous."
"Yea," huffed Sonata, "so much for Arcane Safety class, huh Dagi?" No response. "Dagi?" She looked, again finding Adagio to be looking up with a warm blush and a big, bright grin.
Scowling, Aria bonked her with a pom-pom. "Will you stay focused, please?!"
Briefly refamiliarizing herself with the feeling of readily usable magic in her body, Sunset drew her energy into her fingertips as opposed to her horn, then fired a revised rift spell (One they told her she was CRAZY to study at all!) at the portals, sealing them as quickly as they'd come.
Twilight took offense, charging in with glowing hands and a murderous look, but Sunset pushed her back, then fired a beam that Twilight immediately countered, cackling like a loon as her power quickly pushed Sunset's backward. She was stronger, she'd taken in more energy, and she understood the principles of force relating to weaponizing this energy she now wielded! Victory would be hers, she could feel Sunset getting weaker, just like the spectrometer when it had been in her hands! She'd pull Sunset apart too, pull this whole world apart, and then-
The voice got her attention, because while she hadn't known it long, she knew it was the voice of her faithful puppy, the only friend she'd ever really had in her time at Crystal Prep.
Um... He'd, if I destroyed this world, he would be, um... Yea. He'd go with it, wouldn't he? Along with... everyone else. Mom, Dad, Cadence, Shiny, everyone I've ever known, everyone THEY'VE ever known, it would all be-
Feeling something give, Sunset put everything she had into overtaking Twilight's magic. In the magical limbo that followed, she floated closer to the other girl, stretched out her hand, and offered to do for Twilight what someone else (saying it was the other Twilight would only confuse things right now) had done for her. This world's Twilight accepted, and the magic died away.
When they stood on solid ground again, their hair mutually messy, Twilight's eyes misted.
"I am so sorry," she said while taking a step back, "I didn't mean for any of this to happen."
"I know," Sunset said gently, "and going by my own experiences, they'll forgive you." When Twilight didn't respond, she very delicately reached out to seize her hands in her own, winning a little smile out of Twilight.
Adagio made another mental note of tear-banishing physical contact.
The sounds of barking quickly drew their attention, with Spike leaping up to tackle Twilight to the floor and lick her face. Twilight's adorable giggles made Sunset smile too. Then she heard Principal Cinch talking to Celestia in very loud, aggressive tones, something about CHS forfeiting the games.
"Clearly, CHS has had unfair advantage for quite some time and it's certainly obvious that your students have been using magic for their own benefit!"
Her arms crossed and a disinterested look on her face, Celestia held her tongue for a moment. Perhaps she could reason that preventing whatever calamity had just threatened the school, and apparently the world, again, benefited everyone, but Abacus probably didn't care about that right about now. And, at this point? Neither did Celestia. She thought back to what Sunset had said earlier, about how winning wouldn't mean anything if Crystal Prep 'didn't feel like they really lost.' Then she smiled.
"Very well, Crystal Prep wins, take your trophy and go." Everyone around her stood silent, which gave her a tiny tingle of delight, but most gratifying of all was the dumbfounded look on Cinch's face.
"I... You, s-so then you acknowledge that Crysta-"
Celestia inspected her nails, pleased to find that none had been chipped during the chaos. "You're still here?" She didn't look up, as she was having trouble suppressing her giggles at just the sounds of Cinch sputtering and making uncertain hand gestures.
After about a minute, Cinch turned to address her students. "Well. There you have it. Crystal Prep remains the best. Nicely done, everyone."
"Oh, goodie," exclaimed Sour Sweet as Cinch walked away, "all our efforts still amounted to something even after everything went bonkers!" She immediately lost her cheer. "Sure doesn't feel that way, though."
"Yay us," Sunny Flare muttered icily. She jumped at the sensation of headphones slipping over her ears, immediately hearing sad violin music. Turning to glare at Lemon Zest won her a sheepish smile. "Not. Helping."
Standing near the cheerleaders she'd been trying to convince of her school's superiority, Indigo Zap felt a stunning lack of it as she turned to face them. The purple one looked back at her, arms crossed and an eyebrow raised, but she couldn't do more than move her jaw around while making awkward arm-movements. Eventually, she sighed. "Uh... N-nevermind."
Sugarcoat crossed her arms. "This was not a day well-spent."
Sunset and her friends looked at Rainbow, but rather than bemoaning the 'loss', Rainbow shrugged. "What? With the way the Games turned out, I don't really think it matters who 'wins.' It's not much of a game if we don't even get to play, right? At least the second event was kinda fun. Still..." She walked closer to their insanely tall principal, standing on her tip-toes to whisper in the direction of her ear. "Doesn't this mean Crystal Prep'll just keep messing up our school?"
Chuckling, Celestia shook her head. "With the note the games ended on, I wouldn't be so sure. Besides, even if someone decides that vandalism is in order, it's high time I invested in some cameras anyway. That said, there's still time to actually make something of the games' namesake." She gently nudged Luna, who cleared her throat.
"THE FRIENDSHIP GAMES AFTERPARTY SHALL BE HELD LATER TONIGHT," she boomed, making sure even those that hadn't come out of hiding yet could hear her, "ALL IN ATTENDANCE MAY BRING GUESTS IF THEY WISH."
When everyone's ears stopped ringing, Sunny Flare tilted her head. "Afterparty?"
"Yea," replied Pinkie as she appeared next to the startled Shadowbolt, "just like the before-party! You guys are coming, right?"
Crystal Prep's students glanced about uncertainly, but looking at the smiling faces of CHS, the ones who 'lost' (whatever that meant now) and somehow still managed to keep a good mood, many of them smiled back.
"Sure," Indigo answered, "not like we have much else to do but bum around the hotel until tomorrow morning anyway."
Pinkie beamed. "Sweet! I'll go set up!"
And then she vanished in a frosting-scented puff of smoke. There was work to be done.