"I have good news." Sunset was the first one to warn her apprentice.
"What?" Rainbow Dash was suspicious.
"We are going to run you three through a special training scenario tomorrow." Sunset was smiling broadly.
"Special training scenario? What is that like?" The pegasus was sure it would be something weird.
"Well..." Sunset tried to decide which story to tell.
3 Years Earlier
Sunset groaned as she woke up. Looking around she saw that Twilight was already up (since she was the one responsible for the training scenario this time) and Trixie was already stirring.
Then she saw where they were, and that actually made her pause for a moment.
The three unicorns were inside a sphere of magic at the top of a pillar of crystal. Looking around she could note that they were in the western most room of the west wing of the castle, which was usually used as storage.
She could only note that, however, because she was very familiar with the castle, given that most of the room was submerged in lava.
The vapor wasn't very thick, so she could recognize the top edges of the room and their distinctive design, as well as the uppermost parts of the wall carvings.
The other notable thing in the room was a series of floating platforms going from next to their pillar all the way to a window in the eastern side of the room. Some of them were moving (including one who was briefly diving in the lava before going back up), some were disappearing and reappearing, some were spinning and flipping in all sorts of weird ways and some were keeping perfectly still.
Among the ones who were perfectly still were some platforms which had obvious traps, such as arrow-launchers, flame throwers and crushers, as well as some platforms which seemed completely ordinary but probably had hidden traps. And all platforms didn't have a common design, varying greatly in shape and size.
Also, Sunset could tell there were anti-teleportation wards running.
Seeing that Trixie had already awoken and taken note of the same things as her, Sunset turned to Twilight and asked the most pertinent question:
"Is this real lava?"
The chaotic unicorn shook her head "Nope, it's just boiling Kool-Aid. Lava turned out to be too temperamental to reliably contain, not to mention all the issues with toxic gases." Then she smiled "But I increased the boiling point by five times."
Trixie thought about it "So it's not as hot as the coldest lava, but still enough for heat transfer to be an issue, forcing us to divert more power to our aura defenses. and have less remaining to deal with the normal challenges."
Sunset had more pressing concerns "Are there any lava monsters?"
Twilight became thoughtful "None in this room, but I've memory charmed the knowledge of the other rooms from my mind so that it would be a surprise, and I know I would vary the challenges from room to room." She did a circle with her hoof "I only know that our goal is to get to the easternmost room of the castle."
"Trixie has to admit, this all seems very interesting." She congratulated her partner.
"Then we just have to leave this protection sphere for the challenge to start, right? Let's go!" Sunset was eager.
"That kind of thing." Sunset concluded, having finished her recollection.
Rainbow looked at her with her mouth opened "How did you even survive to be twenty years old?"
Sunset Shimmer almost laughed "Pft. Can you imagine the headlines? 'Princess' students die in training accident'. How uncool would that be!"
Dash imagined it "Yeah, you're right, it would be pretty uncool." She admitted.
"Right?" The unicorn laughed "I'm just excited to see how much all of you learned. I know about you, but the others are keeping the progress of their apprentices as a surprise."
Rainbow Dash grinned "I don't know about most of them, but me and Rarity were training together these last few weeks, and you're not going to be disappointed by her."
"Now I'm just more excited... And there's still an entire day of waiting!" Sunset complained.
1 Day Later
The five apprentices walked into the area of their newest trial.
In terms of appearance, they hadn't changed much. But only a fool would believe they were still the same ponies as before their Knight training had started.
Their steps were firm and sure, without the least hesitation, and their muscles were relaxed in a way that indicated a readiness to react instantly to any unexpected situations. Still, a more obvious sign was their eyes, sharp and taking in every bit of the environment without missing a beat, as well as glowing with an inner light of power ready to be unleashed.
Those five ponies were like a crystal clear river that seemed calm due to a lack of indications of movement, but was in fact flowing at a terrifying speed and would destroy anything that tried to disturb it.
Also, on her back, Rarity was carrying a huge saber that seemed to weight as much as she did.
"What do ya think is going to happen?" Applejack asked the other four.
"Well, considering their personalities, I would guess that they would divide the scenario in three stages, each for every one of them, and Sunset's stage should be the first, and a relatively straightforward combat challenge." Rarity put forward her opinion.
The three Knights were watching everything via a combined remote viewing spell.
"She's got you pegged." Twilight teased Sunset.
"Guity." Sunset admitted, then looked to Trixie "Looks like you taught her well."
"Trixie was lucky to have a talented student. Now pay attention, things are about to start." Trixie shushed them and the three focused.
"Looks like there's nothing ye-" Applejack cut herself off midword with a magically charged stomp to the ground.
The earth split and fragmented in front of her hooves, and screeches could be heard from under the ground, and them, beyond the area she had affected, the ground started to move and dozens of creatures jumped out.
They looked like a cross between foxes, koalas and bears, and were slightly larger than the average adult pony. Running on their rear legs, they advanced towards the five ponies, who prepared to meet them (both Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy took off to the air, and the others braced themselves).
The five apprentices knew that they should not spend magic unnecessarily, and this was very early in the training scenario, so it would be a good chance to test their physical combat abilities.
Dash was the first to attack, diving into one of the biggest concentrations of monsters and hitting one of them with a hard kick, making it fly and tripping those behind him.
Rainbow Dash was still using taekwondo, but had trained to fuse her weather control abilities with the attacks, and that first kick had been enhanced by a focused blast of wind. Combined with her already being pretty strong before, and having trained almost exclusively in pure combat applications, the pegasus had been the first of the apprentices to be declared ready to start sparring with the Knights. She still mostly lost, though.
Rarity dodged a tackle with a spin and attacked the offending monster with a precise hoof strike to the temple, before sidestepping out of range.
Rarity had been chosen to learn wing chun, a style focused on grace and mobility, due to her eye for detail that allowed her to understand the flow of a battle. She had been unanimously chosen as the best tactician of the five apprentices, and was already commanding them with simple gestures in this fight.
Pinkie appeared behind the enemy crowd and extended her hoof in a powerful strike to the center of mass of one of the monsters, injecting her chaos magic directly into the body to disable him instantly and distracting a lot of the monsters with her sudden actions.
Pinkie had, surprisingly, not been a problem in terms of martial arts. Sunset had taught her kenpo, due to its combination of agility, flexibility and power. The fact that she had learned how to channel her magic via strikes (being an earth pony helped, since they were used to channeling magic through their hooves) turned the party pony into a downright menace in the battlefield, with only Sunset and Rainbow being able to consistently defeat her in spell-less fights.
"Empathy Drive: Animal Spirit!" Fluttershy shouted, and the image of a falcon seemed to overlap with her for a moment, before (phantom-like) wings and claws of energy appeared in the appropriate places in her body.
She flew just above the monsters reach, using quick attacks to harass them.
In contrast with Pinkie, Fluttershy had been a problem in terms of martial arts. Her animal spirit abilities simply made her physical capabilities vary too much for a single style to be able to work for everytime. Instead, Sunset had worked with her in the sense of making use of the animal instincts she picked up and adapting them to work with her own body and the strategies of the others.
Applejack stood unmoved, and threw the first three monsters to reach her over her head with enough strength to break bones.
Applejack had taken quite well to the hung gar style, full of firm stances that gave her an extraordinary defensive capability, making it so that it became very hard to dislodge her from a spot when she didn't want to leave. Her eye for weak points only made her harder to deal with, since any enemy would have to be careful of counter-attacks.
The five acted like a single unit, with Applejack being a bastion of stability that could give the others time to breath, Rarity's quick orders controlling the battlefield while easily dealing with attacks, Fluttershy causing havoc and attracting attention from the enemy ranks, and Rainbow and Pinkie being able to move incredibly fast and attack decisively to break any attempt from the enemies to muster an overwhelming amount of force.
To sum things up, the monsters didn't have a chance.
Sunset was smiling smugly.
"Okay, you don't have to brag." Trixie said in a mock-annoyed tone "You really did teach them pretty well."
"Look, the second wave is coming!" Twilight warned, and the other two turned back to see what the apprentices would make of it.
Suddenly, from the distance, tens of flying monsters approached. They were similar to the previous ones, except replacing the fox part with bat, and they had disproportional bat wings. Their wings beat strongly as they approached making an endless screeching noise.
Rarity all but grinned, as she took the saber from her back and raised it above her head with telekinesis. Rainbow Dash (who was flying around quickly to deal with the last monsters of the first wave) saw it and grinned. Then Rarity opened her mouth and made her speech:
"If the pegasi are the rulers of the sky, then consider this an invasion of territory! All the air shall bow down to me and obey, because this is... The Wind Ruler Sword!" The sword started to shine.
In a change so subtle that even the skilled and well trained apprentices barely noticed, the sword seemed to have become the center of all wind currents in the area.
"Fall down and leave my domain!" Rarity shouted to the flying monsters "Wind Slash!" She made a slash motion with the sword.
Suddenly, blades of wind formed out of the air and slashed through multiple monsters each, cutting away heads and wings with such precision and speed that it took only seconds for the air force to be completely decimated.
Sunset Shimmer and Trixie Lulamoon had tears in their eyes.
"They grow up so fast..." Trixie said.
"That was beautiful..." Sunset declared, before turning to Trixie "You have got to let me borrow your apprentice for a spar very soon."
"Sure, just don't hurt her too much." Trixie accepted.
Twilight looked at the two of them and shook her head in bemusement. Then she recovered her focus, as the last part of the first stage started.
Are you serious, Sunset?! Was what Rainbow Dash was thinking as the earth shook and shifted to form a pony golem the size of a castle.
Applejack ran forward and started forcing her magic into the earth to interfere with the golem's footing, and then screamed "Neck!"
The other four understood immediately, and the first to attack turned out to be Fluttershy, who flew up on top of the golem, changed her spirit to a rhynoceros and started ramming the back part of the neck.
Rarity sent a few wind slashes into the neck that didn't have too much of an effect, and then changed her tactics when the golem tried to step on Applejack, forcing mini-tornadoes into existence to shift the trajectory of the hoof.
Pinkie Pie also got on top and started injecting chaos magic on the neck via her strikes, but neither her nor Fluttershy were making progress too fast. Rainbow gathered a great amount of wind and started hitting the neck as well, making more progress, but still not enough.
The earth pony golem turned and brought his tail to bear on Rarity and Applejack, while also waving a hoof to try and get rid of the three others.
"Send me up!" Applejack shouted, and Rarity catapulted her using wind, allowing the farmer to turn and charge a lot of magic for a big applebucking kick, straight into the weakest part of the tail, breaking off a lot of it and disabling the attack.
But Rainbow Dash could see that things weren't going well, and decided to finish it up fast. She flew into the sky and back down at an amazing speed, breaking through the sound barrier and unleashing a sonic rainboom.
But instead of allowing it to spread like usual, she forced the energy of the explosion to follow a linear path, straight into the neck of the golem.
Pinkie and Fluttershy had left the area as soon as they saw what Rainbow was going to do, and so they weren't hurt when the big explosion wave hit the neck and obliterated it, making the head and body fall to the ground separatedly.
"Good decision making." Trixie praised "It was really better to do a big attack early than allowing more time for the golem to cause problems and making all of them exhausted."
Sunset nodded, satisfied with the performance of her apprentice "Let's see how they deal with your trial."
The five barely had time to catch their breaths before the rest of the golem disappeared and a dark dome erected itself around them, turning day into night.
Then five mirrors appeared around them, each reflecting one of the apprentices.
Fluttershy was looking at her reflection when it suddenly murmured "sleep", and her mind was invaded by a copy of Fluttershy, giving the body the order to slee-
And the copy was eaten by a gigantic mouth.
Fluttershy blinked as the mirror broke, and she saw the other mirrors do the same thing by the corner of her eye.
"That didn't even slow them down?" Trixie looked at Twilight, incredulous "How did you even train their mental defenses this much?"
"I don't really remember much, but it must have been very demanding." Twilight answered, with a hoof on her chin.
Trixie and Sunset facehooved.
But while the first part was done, Trixie's task wouldn't be that easy to complete, for hundreds of mirrors appeared forming a cilinder around the apprentices. Then images of Trixie appeared in each of the mirrors, charged magic, and shot blasts of light at the apprentices.
Rarity immediately raised a barrier of wind around them.
Applejack shouted "Only some of them are real!"
Rarity understood that, but as the blasts of light hit her barrier, even the illusionary ones were so perfect that she kept putting power on their parts of the defence, power that was wasted, making her drain herself faster.
Applejack was looking everywhere with urgency "So many cores... where's the central one...?" Then she had an idea "Everypony, close ta me! Each one protects a side!"
They did it. The other four huddled around Applejack, giving Rarity the ability to reduce the size of her barrier and her mana consumption. Pinkie Pie put her front hooves forward, keeping ready for anything. Rainbow Dash created a barrier of lightning and tried to keep it stable and Fluttershy changed to a turtle spirit and simply endured.
It took ten seconds, but Applejack finally found the main core of the illusion.
"There! Dash!" Rainbow turned to her and looked in Applejack's eyes, suddenly seeing an image of a certain point of the mirror barrier several meters in the air "Go!"
Rainbow Dash went, she took a moment to decide to use a certain attack, and then accelerated to nearly sonic rainboom speeds.
"Rainboom Punch!" She forcefully accelerated her hoof with all wind magic she could, making it briefly break through the sonic barrier, and creating a directed rainboom shockwave that destroyed the core of the illusion.
All the mirrors and the dome shattered, appropriatedly, like glass.
"Oh, oh, now it's me! It's me!" Twilight jumped up and down, and her partners focused on the scene.
There was just one step remaining.
The apprentices barely got two seconds to catch their breaths before another change came over the field.
The change was heralded by an enormous flow of chaotic energy, which Pinkie recognized as being on the level of the energy Discord used for his "serious attacks".
That was probably a bad sign.
But before anyone could do anything about it, the world turned upside down and then mirrored itself.
Twilight Sparkle was merciful, and gave the apprentices five full seconds to get used to trying to coordinate themselves after this extreme flipping of the point of view. Which, of course, didn't come with a corresponding shift of the way they moved, meaning they had to do everything in reverse.
After those five seconds, an image of a clock with 01:00 appeared, and it started counting down, 59:00, 58:00...
And then a variety of monsters appeared from thin air and started to attack.
There was no time for strategy, so they just reacted. Rainbow Dash flew towards the enemies and started attacking with full strength and speed, bowling down enemies with the sheer shockwave of her weather magic enhanced attacks, Rarity created a small tornado and threw it at the biggest concentration of enemies she could see before being forced to surround herself with floating wind blades and use them to slash at enemies close by while she kept moving, Fluttershy switched animal spirits so fast she looked like a kaleidoscope, moving around and attacking anything that got close, Applejack was staying on one spot and using her eyes to quickly see the weakpoints of enemy formations and attack them, and finally Pinkie Pie was using the slipstream to become the greatest asset in the fight, turning monsters back into chaos particles, teleporting around to save her partners from danger (detected with Pinkie Sense) and once even blocking a particularly large fusion monster by making a ball of elemental surprise and throwing it at the monster, where the ball exploded, resolving into a minotaur with red clothes and hat as well as a cross necklace which punched the monster before disappearing (it was very surprising).
"What." Trixie and Sunset chorused, looking at Twilight.
"Well, I'm not really sure." She shrugged "I know she put the idea of surprise via a randomly resolving spell inside a common elemental ball spell matrix..."
Sunset and Trixie looked like she had skipped a few steps in her explanation, but that was usual for her.
"But I don't understand how she can do it so easily and fast, and without spending excessive energy." She finished.
The other two decided that it was one of those chaos magic things.
But of course things could not be simple.
When the counter reached 45 seconds remaining, the ground tried to eat them.
It would have succeded were it not by Fluttershy successfully Staring at it at a crucial moment (she had gotten better at controlling the Stare, but it was still hit or miss). But then they had to deal with the ground being an enemy in addition to the monsters. And when it got to 30 seconds remaining, space twisted to the point where the apprentices kept being teleported randomly from place to place, including inside the ground's mouth (thankfully, Rainbow Dash was fast enough to save anyone from being eaten). And when it got to 13 seconds remaining (a dirty and effective trick) the chaos magic tried to invade their bodies and shapeshift them forcefully, so they had to channel magic to resist that while also dealing with everything else.
At the end, the five were completely exhausted and their bodies were full of light wounds, but they were still standing.
The three Knights appeared in front of them.
"Congratulations!" They chorused.
The five sat down on the ground and tried to recover for a little bit before they could become happy about it.
"Don't you think that last challenge was a little out of proportion?" Rarity asked Twilight.
"Don't be silly. It was the climax, so of course it was harder." She answered with a grin.
Fluttershy was the next one to talk:
"So, how did we do?" She asked.
"Well, while there are some improvements to be made..." Trixie said with a glint in her eyes that promised further training and made the apprentices cringe "You were good enough that the decision was unanimous. You are ready to go on a mission and try to get proclaimed as Knights."
This time, there was no other option. The five cheered, hugging each other and crying in happiness.
How appropriate that in the next day, the Knights would receive a new mission.