Before they actually set off for their mission, the eight Knights gathered in the storage room in order to finally wear the armors Rarity had made. And of course, she had to make a spectacle of it (Trixie approved).
"First..." Rarity announced, standing beside the eight crates while the others faced her from a couple meters away "IIIIIIIt's Rainbow's armor!" She lifted a bundle from inside one of the crates.
"Yes!" Rainbow Dash cheered, and dived down right next to Rarity.
The artificer unicorn didn't keep her waiting. Unwrapping the bundle, she revealed a set of armor pieces, which she started placing on Rainbow Dash's body with meticulous precision, all the while she was explaining stuff.
"For this, I have taken inspiration from the style of armor of the ancient Pegasus Light Brigade. It doesn't provide much protection on its own, but the spells on it are designed to ressonate with the energy of the wearer generally, and with pegasus magic specifically. The design concept is that it will strenghten everything you can do from the ground up."
As Rarity mentioned, it was a pretty light set of armor, except for the gorget part. For the rest of the armor, the pieces were thinner and covered less area, but they were put in such a way that the most critical points were properly protected. The whole armor was colored in variations of light gray and silver tones, and it gave a feeling of belonging to the sky, like the armor would be able to fly on its own. As soon as it was done, Rainbow Dash started flying around, doing flips and other difficult maneuvers, and exulting on the feeling of freedom it gave her.
"Awesome!" Was her veredict as she landed back on the ground "You're the best, Rarity!"
The unicorn smiled in appreciation and started runmaging on another crate with her telekinesis.
"The next one is..." She seemed to be enjoying the looks of anticipation of the others "Fluttershy!" She announced, taking a bundle of this new crate.
The pegasus herself flew over to Rarity, who started the same process on her.
"For Fluttershy, since most of the time she will be using Animal Spirit or similar abilities, I have decided to make the protection even less of a priority than Rainbow's armor. Instead, the concept is increasing natural affinity so that Fluttershy can use her empathy more easily. The spells on this armor act as kind of a middlepony, helping with any connection between the user and the target. Bond magic is difficult, so it mostly just helps a bit."
This new armor was colored in tones of green and blue, and most of the area was taken up by the connections in between plates, instead of the plates themselves. The pegasus in such an armor gave a feeling of belonging and approachability, like she fit perfectly in the world and accepted anything.
"Thank you." Fluttershy did a small bow of appreciation and went back to the others.
Rarity went on, taking another bundle from a crate "The next is Pinkie Pie."
"Oooooh... Incrediroonie!" The pink earth pony showed her appreciation, somehow appearing next to Rarity already dressed in the armor.
To her credit, the artificer recovered almost instantly "The spells in this armor were creating using a special artificer method of sleep-casting, since I don't understand enough chaos magic to do it normally. From what I can understand, they affect any magic around and increase the factor of chaos in it, which should help with any magic you do and hinder any enemy magic. The inspiration for the physical design is popcorn."
That was the weirdest armor yet, basically a fullplate with extra protrusions of varied size and shape that shifted freely all over the surface of the armor due to only being loosely conected with it thanks to small chains. The color was a pinkish red, and the constant shifting made Pinkie Pie seem like a being of chaos magic that couldn't maintain a single shape for long.
After that, Rarity called for Twilight, who walked forward politely to allow for Rarity's fitting.
"For Twilight I had to use the same method as Pinkie Pie, for the same reason. The spells on this one seem to help with changing its shape and properties, so you can manipulate it with your chaos magic. I also put extra spells to hold basic spells for using merged magic. The physical design is an adaptation of the clothes of an archmage."
That armor was dark blue with while highlights and seemed like an stylized, plate version of a wizard's robe and hat. Using it, Twilight seemed mostly like a magic knight, except that the runes on her armor gave an unknowable impression, giving a certain sense of mystery and hidden danger to the design.
"It feels... Magical." Twilight spoke dramatically, earning a few giggles.
Then, it was Applejack's turn, and she stepped forward without hesitation.
"For Applejack, I remembered our mission on the castle, so instead of trying to do something with the Eyes of Truth, which would be even harder than managing chaos magic, I decided to create an armor with magic focused on enhancing the natural earth-shaping magical abilities of earth ponies. With this, you should have a lot more options in combat."
Applejack's armor was almost completely normal. It was a red full plate similar to heavy infantry style armor, except that the part of the legs was incredibly overdesigned, with an excess of runes and extra layers of varied shapes. With this, Applejack felt like a titan of earth, connected to the ground in a profound and deep way.
"Ah feel like... like Ah can move a mountain." Applejack spoke, while trying to get used to her new sense of the earth.
After that, Trixie was the next pony called.
"For Trixie, I decided that the best way to help her style would be a magic armor that suppresses magical vibrations, making it easier to perform spells undetected. But similar to Twilight's armor, I also put an extra, a special part that can hold a Sphere of Charge for you to use any time you want. The physical design is just as you can see."
Trixie's armor was the weirdest, since most of it consisted of plates that were connected to her usual cape and hat, and replicated the design of those parts to the point it was hard to tell they were there. However, some armor parts were put on the underside of her barrel as well as her legs, just for some extra protection. All in all, it seemed like a subtle, plainsclothes type armor, that could also attract attention depending on what Trixie did, just right for the showmare.
"Trixie's magnificence is increased!" She declared grandly.
Obviously, Sunset Shimmer was the one chosen next.
"Sunset's armor has the simplest concept. Overwhelming power. The magic on the armor helps in power channeling, which makes it easier to use stronger spells. It is also designed to interface with the magical circle inside your body and make it easier to use Trance Mode. The physical concept is the old "sun knights" who served Celestia in the distant past and specialized in sun magic."
Sunset's armor was mostly a normal plate, with some stylized leanings similar to Twilight's own armor. But the main theme of the armor was the sun, the color was mostly orange-red, and the detailing brought to mind flames. There were also images of the sun on certain points. All in all, Sunset seemed like a Magic Knight as well, except one which also had a sense of overwhelming power and high temperature.
"I think I know how those villains felt every time they talked about 'unlimited power'." Sunset spoke with barely restrained glee.
And after that, Rarity put on her own set of armor.
"As for me, the armor is made to be able to ressonate both with my own telekinesis as well as with my swords. The magic in it will make it easier to control, reduce the cost and even lessen the burden on my mind. The physical concept are the armored dresses made by Artificer Magic Star, since they are the perfect fusion of elegance and functionality."
Armored dress was a really good description for it. It was a nearly seamless fusion of plate and fabric. It was colored light blue and silver, and using it, Rarity practically oozed elegance. The feeling the unicorn gave while wearing the armor was that of a fairytale knight, a feeling of unreality due to the sheer beauty of the ensemble combined with the obvious power it projected.
The Knights were still checking themselves over when Rarity spoke something strange:
"So beautiful... It's hard to resign myself."
"Resign yourself? What are you talking about, Rarity?" Trixie asked curiously.
"I read the stories." She said in a determined voice "I know that none of the Artefacts used by Knights managed to last for too long, simply because even the sturdiest of them can't handle the level of magical combat the Knights go through... And I know I'm still getting better, and will make even greater works later... But it is still hard to accept." She put her head down.
The other Knights simply had no way of consoling her. So the original three decided to change the subject by mentioning that they should be going. This brought Rarity out of her funk.
And despite quite a lot of grumbling about doing the Knight equivalent of "chores", none of them delayed much. There were many restrictions against teleporting inside Deer lands, so they had to teleport outside of the Emerald Green Forest and wait for Deer guides to slowly bring them towards the center city, where the Challenge would take place.
Thankfully, despite being slow, the travelling time was nice.
"And then, Trixie's apprentice managed to achieve the level of being able to see the 'paths' through space, but it was only the most basic and primal understanding, not enough to actually step through them and save her partner." Trixie narrated, while using illusions to reproduce the scene in a stylized manner "But she wouldn't allow such a small barrier to overcome her, so Applejack performed an Overdrive!" She did an exaggerated burst of light "Ignoring her limits as she pulled a burst of magic from her soul! And she stepped through space and she bucked the changeling queen in a critical attack!"
A bunch of deer were watching Trixie's performance with bated breath, while Applejack was trying to ignore all the eyes turned towards her. Trixie was telling the story almost as if she had been there at the time but this was mostly because the new Knights gave detailed reports about what happened while the others were unconscious. Very detailed reports.
As the performance got into the climax (with Rainbow Dash puffing up her chest proudly), even the other Knights, who had seen variations of that performance more than once, were unable to keep from watching Trixie's show with their full attention. And once it was finally over, there was no one in earshot, whether pony or deer, that didn't start clapping.
It turned out that the deer in general were fairly good hosts, and they liked the Knights.
They were travelling via a convoy of enchanted platforms, which moved through the forest at a speed somewhat higher than a brisk walk. And the deer guides were clearly very experienced and dedicated to the confort of their passengers. They kept their guests entertained every step of the way, with songs, books, games, interesting conversations and food. The platforms also had cushions and all sorts of amenities to keep the Knights rested and happy.
And that was not all, the platforms even kept making stops in interesting places to strech their legs in walks, take baths in clear rivers and appreciate multicolored flower fields. And the forest itself was also just generally beautiful and peaceful, due to the constant efforts of the deer. This was pretty much a first class experience that any rich tourist would pay big bags of bits for.
And even that was not all, the Knights were also well-received in the various villages they passed on their route, being asked to demonstrate their magic and having the local deer show their traditions and give them some of the best of the local food specialties. And why would the deer act so positively towards their opponents in the challenge? This could be understood by the words of one of the deer who approached them in a village:
"My sister is one of the deer chosen to do the challenge. She's amazing and has trained a lot, so I hope you'll show her and the others how good the Knights are, because seeing the strength of the Knights was always one of their dreams."
And Applejack could see that he was completely honest about that. The same thing about the other deer who approached wanting autographs, or who liked having the Knights over and tried to make everything confortable for them. As princess Celestia had said, it wasn't the deer in general who were the problem, but the simple fact they seemed naive enough to completely believe that this whole system based on the challenges was something that celebrated the Knights, showing to all that they were strong enough to protect the land.
The Knights were really, truly popular and the deer seemed to not mind at all their repeated defeats in the previous challenges, seeing the simple duty to test the Knights as an honor that put the strongest deer, the deer that were part of the challenge, as an important part of the stories and legends. Those deer seemed to be remembered more for their losses against the Knights than for their succesful accomplishments, and that was not in a negative sense. The stories of their defeats were told in a cheerful manner, with an emphasis in how much they learned from the great protectors who were admired for both their power and character.
It was really quite flattering, all in all.
Of course, with all of this, the Knights felt the journey go by very quickly, and soon they found themselves standing right at the entrance to the deer capital, Deervania.
As they entered, the Knights got astonished by what a beautiful place it was, and by the fact that even with such a big city, the deer were still able to make a perfect fusion of the deep forest with their own way of life. The city was a bustling place with buildings and streets in several different levels of height, with countless bridges connecting their various levels, and several buildings that were like islands, separated from all but a few small paths, as well as connections which bridged all sorts of different places. Their buildings were not only connected to the trees, they were part of the trees, with some alterations that seemed purely magical in order to make the vegetation accomodate the deer without killing it.
And it wasn't as regular as a normal city either. The habitations of the deer were a festival of colors and shapes, some snaking around tree trunks, while others were hanging below tree branches, connected by organic cables that looked too thin to handle the strain. Flowers and fruits grew from all sorts of unexpected places, making a decoration that also looked fairly tasty.
But despite their travelling experiences, the Knights weren't there as tourists, and after reaching Deervania, they were quickly taken to the main plaza, where the announcement meeting for the Challenge would be held.
The eight Knights stood in a stage surrounded by a crowd of deer. In the other side of the stage, atop a raised platform, the chief of state of the deer, Marching Water, stood.
"Hello, my brothers and sisters!" He started a speech "This is an auspicious day, because after far too long without any Knights of the Realm existing in the world, eight of them have appeared within such a short period!"
There was a cheer, Marching really knew how to work up the crowd.
"Eight! Exactly eight! This can only be a sign that our generation is blessed, because we have the chance to become a part of the legends!" More cheers "Today, we have here Sunset Shimmer, Trixie Lulamoon, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity and Pinkie Pie. These young Knights who have already proved their strength and their will!"
Pinkie Pie was getting a little restless from having to remain in a single place, so she secretly made a clone who started to run around the city with chaotic shifting.
"And tomorrow, we shall be witness to their power! Tomorrow, we shall test them in the Challenge of the Knights! We have prepared nine great challenges featuring some of our own strongest heroes, and I guarantee that we shall see some wondrous feats! May the Challenge be Legendary!"
The cheers reached a fever pitch, and Applejack was looking ar Marching water with a face of someone who had bitten bitter lemons. She had never seen a pony, or deer, that was as fake as him. It was truly a new and unpleasant experience for the holder of the Eyes of Truth.
As Marching Water had said, the Challenge would actually only occur on the following day, and it was already getting pretty late, so the Knights were subsequently guided to a small but cozy inn, where they would have dinner and sleep their last night before the challenges.
"Here is the food." The owner of the inn brought the food to the table the Knights had in the dining room. Since this was an unusual time for dinner, the ponies could eat in relative peace (there were some deer, specially children, watching them from the edges of doorways, but they were well-behaved enough to give them space), but before they began eating, Sunset sighed:
"Twilight?" She didn't need more than that.
Twilight activated a spell and sent a pulse of magic over the plates of food. They started glowing piece by piece and Twilight spoke:
"A few small poisons, a cocktail that would take effect around eleven hours from now and make us sluggish and unfocused. Just the kind of thing that the Princess warned us about." She sent a new pulse of magic, this time colored blue "Done, now it's safe for eating."
"I wonder what is the justification for trying to sabotage us even before the competition starts." Rarity spoke.
"Ah think they consider all of that ta be just part of the test." Applejack shrugged "When she gave us the food, I could see something like playfullness from her."
"That seems to fit. Let's just eat, put the usual wards on the rooms to prevent other problems and go to sleep." Trixie gave her veredict.
The next day, after breakfast, the Knights took another spelled transport in order to get to the arena of the first Challenge (apparently, each Challenge would have its own arena).
The place where they went was an empty space the size of the main plaza of Canterlot. It was empty because all the trees in that place had been removed with magic (they would be replanted later). All around the place were several raised platforms serving as stages for the deer audience to be able to watch from a safe distance.
The Knights were directed to a waiting place on one side of the arena, while the deer who was going to be fighting went to the other side together with his team to make the final preparations for the challenge. The Knights still didn't know what exactly the challenge was going to be, except that it would be one of the "single pony" challenges, since the team challenge was always the final one.
But they didn't have to wait long before Marching Water came to inform the Knights and the audience about what exactly the challenge would be.
The deer flew above the arena in a magical flying platform "It is time, brothers and sisters!" He started winding up the crowd again "The first challenge of the Knights is about to begin... And what would be better to start it other than a kind of battle that symbolizes the Knights better than anything else?"
With that said, the earth near the Knights started shifting, and moving, and then being displaced as something started slowly coming out. At the start it was impossible to recognize the mass, but as more of it was revealed, and the earth covering it started to fall off, everyone present understood what it was.
It was a pony. A house-sized, magical (there were runes vibrating with power engraved in it) wooden pony construct. With a lance in a slot on its shoulder.
"Of course I am talking about jousting!" Marching Water explained, and the cheering reached an amazing volume "Which member of the Knights is going to accept this traditional challenge?"
Rarity decided to ask the three original Knights, since they were the teachers and the others usually deferred to them:
"So, who should WHAT THE-" Her question was interrupted by the sight of the three.
They were fighting. And it wasn't mere play fighting. They were fighting so intensely that the other five Knights immediately raised their aura defenses and left for a safer position. Sunset was throwing around high-level destructive magic, Trixie appeared to be trying to make the others blind, considering the extremely bright spatial distortions and illusions she was creating, and Twilight had split herself into many copies who were releasing spells with all sorts of weird effects.
But such an intense fighting couldn't last long. In fact, the fight in its entirety wasn't even one minute long when Sunset made the deciding spell:
"Double Magic Enhance: Earth Breaker Ballista!"
And she shot a ridiculously large magical ballista bolt that created a big explosion and made the Knights stumble from the shaking of the earth.
When the resulting cloud of dust went down, everypony and deer could see Twilight and Trixie fallen down and groaning inside the resulting crater, and Sunset shakily walking towards the others.
"So..." She started, her horn shining menacingly "Does anypony else want to compete with me for the position?"
The five shook their heads frantically.
"Good." She smiled and started walking towards the pony construct.
The other five Knights, who were the apprentices of the other three, still could barely believe what had just happened. They were united in one thought:
'Was that really necessary?!'