The Pinkie squad shifted to the side of Glamour Sun, and then Pinkie spoke with her:
"Break it, let's have some fun!" She encouraged.
Not understanding what Pinkie wanted, but willing to see it, the doe did as asked.
The last deer symbol appeared in the air, and Pinkie Pie looked at it before glancing back at Glamour Sun and grabbing her hoof.
"Let's go up there!" She said, indicating the symbols in the air with her other hoof.
Then she jumped, carrying the doe along.
Glamour Sun got startled by the suddenness of the Knight's actions, and tried to hang on for dear life as they went up. She didn't need to bother, as Pinkie Pie had a very secure grip on her, but it made her feel better.
Pinkie's jump wasn't nearly enough to reach the symbols in the sky, but one of the Pinkie clones also jumped up and gave a boost to her when she got to the apex of her jump. And when Pinkie reached the apex of this new jump, another Pinkie clone appeared, having needed to receive a boost herself to reach that height, and repeated the process to send the Knight even higher up.
And with this slightly ridiculous manner of movement, Pinkie Pie and Glamour Sun got higher and higher, with the doe eventually just relaxing and wondering what exactly the Knight was planning.
The two eventually got so high up that they could even touch the symbols in the air. And then Pinkie let her go.
She had an instant of panic before somehow landing on the air. Pinkie attracted her attention by waving a hoof and then "popped" one of the pony symbols. Glamour Sun felt a pulse of magic come out of it and head back towards the ground, and then she had a thought she just had to confirm.
"Did... Did that just made the rock come back?" She asked.
Pinkie nodded with an excited smile "Let's play!" She said, and waited.
Glamour Sun knew what she wanted, so she walked over to one of the deer symbols (knowing that Pinkie's magic wouldn't let her fall) and popped it, resulting in the same pulse of magic as before.
She giggled and shared a smile with Pinkie, and then the two started popping the rest of the symbols.
It was pure fun. With nothing on the line, both of them simply popped the symbols in the air for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Sometimes simply sticking a hoof into them, sometimes using kicks or other martial arts moves, sometimes walking into them with extra drama. And somehow there always seemed to be more symbols, so they kept popping them way beyond the original thirty.
But eventually, they got tired of it, and Pinkie jumped down with Glamour Sun, sticking one of her rear hooves outward once they were close to the ground and somehow slowing down the fall, before the two jumped back to the ground. They smiled and waved at each other, having become friends, and then they went back to their respective places.
After the Knights once more got on the transport platforms and were moved to the next challenge arena. And it was a return to the previous style of arenas, a large space from which trees had been removed. But it had a few special features of its own.
On the side near the Knights, there were two entrances to the underground on opposite sides of the field, to the right and to the left of where the Knights started. One of those entrances had a sign bearing the symbol of a pony while the other had a sign with the symbol of a deer. On the far side there were three of those entrances, two of them mirroring the other side by being near the edges and the last one being near the center, almost directly to the front of the Knights.
Marching Water didn't waste any time before explaining the newest challenge "Hello! We are here with the penultimate individual challenge of this Challenge of the Knights. And we have another very traditional game! You might notice that the challenge arena is underground this time, and the reason for that is because we are doing a labyrinth this time!"
This time there was a mix of cheers and mumbles "I know what you are thinking! You think that not being able to see what is going on inside the labyrinth will make things boring. But allow me to allay your fears. We have already thought of that!" He waited for a moment "Both contestants are going to wear special necklaces again, except this time the necklaces will reveal to us their position underneath the ground!" Now the cheering was undivided.
Applejack looked at the other Knights "I think this is a challenge appropriate to my skills."
"I agree." Twilight said "I'll have the last one, whatever it ends up being." Then she tilted her head thoughtfully "I wonder what kind of cheating the deer will do this time..."
"Let me check." Pinkie said.
Marching Water was gloating inside again 'They may have surpassed every single challenge so far, but this time they have no chance. Their entrance to the labyrinth has no path to any of the exits, and even if they make a path, every single trap inside is programmed to become much more intense when activated by a pony, and our own contestant can use her powers to find the quickest path out and follow it with great speed. This challenge is in the bag.'
"Ah, the usual. No path to the end, specialized traps, the opponent was chosen precisely to have an advantage..." Pinkie informed the others, and then turned back to look at them.
Applejack had gone cross-eyed "Pinkie. Would ya please warn me ta stop looking at ya the next time ya do something like this? And what have ya even done, anyway? Ah didn't catch it."
"I... I also don't know..." Pinkie Pie admitted sheepishly "Twilight, what did I do?"
Twilight Sparkle had tilted her head so much it was nearly horizontal "I'm... also not sure... I think you channeled some kind of concept, but I couldn't tell what it was." She blinked "It doesn't seem like the kind of thing you can do all the time."
“No, it doesn’t feel like I can do it very often.” Pinkie confirmed.
“But going back ta the Challenge...” Applejack decided to hurry things along, while she blinked repeatedly to try and recover from the previous shock to her Eyes “Ah think this is the kind of thing mah abilities will be able ta deal with relatively easily.”
“Then go forth and show then your power!” Trixie dramatically encouraged.
Applejack nodded and started moving towards the pony entrance of the labyrinth.
Marching Water noticed it, and he started announcing “And for the penultimate individual challenge, it seems like the Knights have chosen Knight Applejack to be their representative!” He turned his head to the other side, the deer entrance “While the challenger side is composed of a doe that I’m sure many of you who are here today will recognize! She is the leader of the Aurora team which specializes in playing all sorts of extreme sports and performing amazing feats of skill and courage! I am talking about Wind Shade!”
The cheers were particularly loud this time, as a doe with a red coat and golden eyes started walking up to the deer entrance to the labyrinth. She seemed to be completely used to getting attention, and kept pausing momentarily to wave or blow kisses to the crowd. Applejack felt like both Trixie and Rainbow Dash would get along well with that doe.
Eventually, both contestants reached a line marked on their respective entrances to the underground labyrinth. Auxiliary deer quickly went up to them and provided the necklaces, which started to glow faintly when they were put on, Applejack’s in orange and Wind Shade’s in red. Then, they looked at Marching Water, waiting for the announcement of the start of the competition.
He didn’t leave them waiting for long “It’s time, everyone! Time to begin the seventh part of our Challenge of the Knights! Let us see what they are going to show us of their power and skill! It is time to start! Three, two, one... Go!” He shouted, and both Applejack and Wind Shade quickly ran towards the underground.
Knowing that every second counted, Applejack immediately used her Eyes of Truth to see through the entire labyrinth. She took a moment to take in every passage, to take note of every trap, both what kind it was and its location, to understand the position of every wall and every doorway. Most of the time Applejack didn’t show much of what she had learned from Trixie, but her simple sense of paying attention to every detail and planning considerably before making a move definitely showed the influence of her teacher.
After taking in every detail, Applejack started to move while planning the best route possible to get through the labyrinth. Wind Shade could use her wind powers to recognize the best path, and her wind-boosted movement would definitely be fast, so the Knight knew that she should try to get as many advantages as she could get. The three original Knights could play around quite a bit on these challenges, but their newest companions simply didn’t yet have the detailed portfolio of trainings and abilities that allowed them to easily tackle most situations.
Applejack’s route was a weird path designed to go towards the most convenient exit while taking the straightest path she could manage except in situation where trying to do so would actually delay her. It avoided as many traps as it could without forcing Applejack to take on weird detours. It broke through three walls, because any other walls that could be broken through to create a straighter path for Applejack would take longer to break than the time she would gain by going through them. And most of the curves it had were quick redirections that didn’t take her far from the straight path.
All of this planning happened while Applejack was still moving through the first few meters of the path and was just about to reach the first triple intersection. She took a right path, as planned, and then moved left and immediately did a Space Step to completely skip a trap whose activation range almost reached the end of the corridor. That avoided, Applejack ran forwards to the next intersection, and ignoring both the right and left paths, she charged magic through her armor gave a series of punches to the wall in front, breaking it down and opening up a path where she could actually reach one of the exits.
While this was going on, Wind Shade was moving quite quickly through the labyrinth, following her wind sense to go through the quickest route to reach the east exit of the labyrinth. She was moving so fast that the first trap she passed through simply wasn’t able to hit her with its flame payload. Wind Shade ran through the corridors, at one point even running on the walls, due to being unwilling to slow down.
And thus their competition went. The crowd outside watched the ground since the light from the necklaces was showing their positions through the ground (it wasn’t bright enough to get through the ground, but special spells made that irrelevant). Wind Shade had a faster movement speed, but her route had to go through several curves and detours, while Applejack kept going mostly straight.
The Knight kept looking at her opponent through the walls just to be sure she had an advantage. Even with her superior route, Applejack still had to use Space Step several times to compensate for the great speed her opponent was showing, even though doing it repeatedly was still hard on the Knight. She even took advantage of an explosive trap by creating a very resilient earth board to absorb the shockwave and use it to increase her speed.
Applejack knocked out another wall, and created an armor of earth to endure a trap consisting of numerous wind blades. Then she got an idea and started manipulating the earth as she moved, forcefully creating a wave of earth that carried her through the corridors of the labyrinth. She increased the speed of it more and more, and rammed through every single trap on her way, before also ramming through the third wall, without needing to stop to break it down. Her speed eventually reached more than she had been able to do with her previous running and space stepping.
However, seeing as she was getting close to the end, Wind Shade revealed a new burst of speed, and even with her new mobility, Applejack predicted she wouldn’t be able to win.
So, Applejack recalculated. Now she had a way to get through walls without losing any time, so the best possible route was a straight line. Forcing her earth-shaping to the limit, she completely ignored the whole point of a labyrinth as she proceeded to take the shortest path. And she was getting closer and closer to making up for the difference.
For the final part, she did a much longer Space Step, getting the leading position and finishing the path in a single motion.
A second later, Wind Shade also came out of the labyrinth, to be greeted with the sight of the crowd cheering loudly again, and Applejack already outside. The doe simply smiled at the Knight, without the slightest trace of shame or sadness for her loss. Applejack walked over and shook her hoof firmly before going back to the other Knights.
“Have ta thank ya, Rarity.” She said, upon reaching them “This here armor really helped a lot. Being able ta use earth-shaping so easily is definitely something amazing.”
Rarity grinned and passed a hoof through her hair “Of course, darling. Every one of my armors is amazing. It’s just that there hasn’t been much of a need for their functions so far, so the true potential of most of them is still waiting to be unleashed.
“I can agree with that. I can’t wait for us to get a real mission, where I can put this thing through its paces.” Sunset said eagerly.
The arena for the last individual challenge was the weirdest one yet. It was actually an aerial arena, suspended over an area of trees. And it actually didn’t have even a single bit of solid ground, being consisted of eight markers in the air, connected to each other by white lines, and demarcating a zone shaped like a rectangular prism and with the size of the Grand Hall of Canterlot Castle.
Marching Water didn’t waste any time to start announcing the Challenge “Since this is the final challenge, all of us know which Knight is going to represent them for this duel. It shall be Knight Twilight Sparkle!” There were a lot of cheers “And I’ll explain this Challenge now. It is something that I feel like Twilight will be fairly interested in.” He waited for a beat “A long time ago, an ancient society of mages tried to invent a form of duel to settle differences in a way that wouldn’t result in destruction and injuries...” Twilight’s eyes went wide, understanding what he was getting at “What they came up with were the Spellcard Duels, matches of exquisite magical control and precise movement. And while those duels have went out of vogue for centuries, there are still enthusiasts who practice then as a sport.”
“And one of those enthusiasts is the challenger for this match! She is Aurora Star, five times winner of the International Spellcard Duel Challenge, and famous user of Astral Magic!” The cheer was somehow even bigger than the last time. The doe who came flying onto the field had a white coat and purple eyes, and seemed to be used to the attention, but not enjoying it to the same degree as Wind Shade did.
“For those of you who don’t know about it, allow me to explain the rules of the Spellcard Duel. Both contestants are forbidden from leaving the field and from blocking the attacks of the opponent. Every attack must be an automatic spell whose formula may not exceed five lines. Every spell pattern must have a safe spot. The spells may last for as long as the user wants, but they can only have a single spell active at one time. All spells only activate on contact. And finally, no spells are harmful, but must only change the color of part of the opponent, to show that they were hit.” Marching Water spoke without stopping.
“Guess I’ll be going.” Twilight said, and started walking in the direction of the midair arena, without seeming to care that she was walking on air.
She kept walking, somehow going faster and faster without seeming to actually move her legs any quicker. Aurora Star had stopped over on one side of the arena, and was floating there without a care, so Twilight walked over to the other side and started doing stretches while still neglecting to have any kind of visible support to stand on.
After a few seconds of that, she stopped, and Marching Water decided to announce the beginning of the challenge “So we are going to start this Duel in three, two, one... Go!”
“Star Sign: Starlight Blaster.” Aurora Star announced her first spell.
“Chaos Sign: Light Shifting.” Twilight responded with her own spell.
As might be expected, Twilight was quite a fan of Spellcard Duels. The way she announced her Magical Sign abilities was based on the format used in those battles. She had never actually trained for this, since a form of fighting that was specifically designed to be non-harmful simply wasn’t a priority for the Knights, but Twilight had always liked seeing the creative and beautiful spell patterns that the duelists used.
Considering that she was a champion and a veteran in those battles, and was facing against an actual Knight, Aurora Star didn’t waste any time with a probing attack. Her spell consisted of a huge blast of magic that took most of the space in the battlefield and itself shot off hundreds of small balls of energy that actually had a homing property.
But that didn’t give Twilight any pause. She was a Knight, and they are the kind who simply refuse to show any weakness. Her initial spell was both offensive and defensive, and the defensive part created a dozen illusory copies of Twilight made of light infused with chaos magic, which had been achieved by the Knight slightly merging herself with the light around (the armor helped in this point). They were far from being Trixie level illusions, but they were good enough to confuse the rudimentary targeting that Aurora Star could give her spell under the constraints of the spellcard. Thus Twilight could dodge the rest easily with her true body by moving along with the light (still refusing to simply fly normally).
The attacking part came in the form of more chaos-warped light, this time shaped into arrows that simply showered the entire stage to give her opponent few paths to run. But Aurora Star was a champion, and Twilight wasn’t the only one who could merge offense and defence. The answer of the doe was to simply fly in a certain way that everytime she was in real danger of being hit it was during one of the periods where her spell turned her immaterial and impossible to hit. They weren’t long periods, but they were enough.
Both of those defensive maneuvers could be considered as top-class within the universe of spellcard duels. And those kinds of things were the reason why they were considered great ways of testing the skill in magic of the duelists. Within the constraints for the level of spells that could be used, these kinds of effects were impossible without a thorough understanding of your own magic affinities and spell creation methods, the kind of thing that is prized among mages even more than simple power.
“That definitely isn’t a true Magical Sign.” Rarity noticed, and looked at Trixie “I know you can miscall even your greatest magic, but that’s only because it is based on illusions, so how is she doing that?”
Trixie answered simply “She isn’t miscalling. The name of her Magical Sign was derived from this kind of competition, so she can call spells for this competition in the same way of her Magical Sign, even if they are not true Magical Signs. It’s a loophole, basically.”
Sunset piped up “Still, this is really fun to watch, now I know why these things are popular.”
“It’s even better with the Eyes of Truth, believe me.” Applejack spoke, while focusing firmly on the fight.
Only twenty seconds after the confrontation began, Aurora Star decided to switch up her spells. Usually she would force longer confrontations to wear down the focus and mental strength of the opponent, but she (rightly) decided that trying to compete in those kinds of things against an actual Knight would be worse than pointless.
“Aurora Sign: Rainbow Shower.” She announced, cancelling her previous spell.
Her magic came out quickly, a necessity for that kind of battle, where the smallest opening and flaw was enough for a defeat. Six prisms which were slightly bigger than her appeared forming a circle around Aurora Star, and they started to lazily spin in that circle. Above her, something like a minisun appeared, but it was more like a big lamp than a true ball of fire. The light of that sun hit the prisms and was split into hundreds of rainbow colored bullets, which were spread over all of the arena both by the simple shape of the prisms and by their rotation. Obviously some of the bullets passed through the doe’s position, but it was simple for her to set them all to be immaterial while they were in range of her. The spell had no aiming capabilities, following the premise of simply attacking everywhere.
Twilight still maintained her spell for five more seconds, but it simply wasn’t that useful against that new attack. While she couldn’t go immaterial herself, Aurora Star’s prisms turned any attack that passed by them immaterial, and while she wasn’t covered by a prism, the doe simply dodged the bullets that came in her direction, because they were too predictable due to being a simple spray of attacks. And Twilight’s illusions weren’t useful against an attack that didn’t aim. So she changed things up.
“Chaos Sign: World of Chaos.”
Twilight’s speed at switching spells didn’t lose to her opponent. Her clones stopped being mere illusions, and they started creating balls of energy that spewed more bullets, which this time were shadow based, and harder to see. More importantly, zones of chaos started appearing in between the two duelists, and every time Twilight’s bullets hit one of them, those bullets started doing random (randomness determined by detecting solar radiation in a constantly shifting field, a common trick) short range teleports (while still mostly moving in the direction of the opponent). While Aurora Star’s bullets that hit the chaos fields simply had their routes scrambled, some still going forward, while others uselessly shot to the sides and some even turned back on their master.
Twilight and her clones started moving around the field, with the original dodging all bullets, sometimes helped by the chaos fields, though they also moved randomly and were hard to predict. Her clones were hit by bullets sometimes, but the only result was a plaque with the word “CLONE” in it appearing briefly over their heads. And Twilight could switch positions with her clones, so there was no way to tell which was the real one (unless you had some way of detection beyond normal eyes).
However, even that wasn’t enough to beat Aurora Star. Her spell was automatic, so she could devote most of her concentration to feeling out the magical fluctuations of the bullets that got too close. They could sometimes teleport straight through her prism shields, but she was able to tell where they were going by understanding where they would teleport towards in the moment their destination was set. This was an incredibly complicated trick, but it was sometimes necessary to deal with random attacks, which she had to face often in her high-level Duels.
And she was only devoting most of her concentration to it because simply defending wouldn’t give her the victory. Aurora Star was also thinking about which spellcard to use in order to turn things around. And she decided after only twelve seconds of having to deal with the enemy attack.
“Universe Sign: Galaxy Spin!”
She teleported to the absolute center of the arena and created another one of her “Suns” which collapsed into a “Supernova”. Instead of simply emitting light, it started shooting blasts of magic that turned any projectile they hit immaterial, and that was only the defensive part of the attack. She also created four spirals of light at the edges of the arena, which started to shoot great numbers of light bullets, and spiral around the arena. And even that wasn’t the end, she also created several small portals in front of the spirals that caught some of the bullets and redirected them to other portals which were aimed at Twilight and her clones.
That was a particularly intense attack. Even with her ability to shift places with the clones, Twilight Sparkle had no choice but to get closer to the center of the arena to survive, and she soon realized that the blasts from the “supernova” were also capable of hitting her for a win. So after a few seconds of dodging, the Knight decided to change tactics, and then smirked as a particularly fun idea came to mind.
This is really not necessary... But I feel like it.
She actually decided to use a true Magical Sign to finish the battle. It was completely unnecessary and would be very hard to do without going over five lines for the spell... But what would the Knights be if they weren’t willing to do unnecessary hard stuff?
She actually had to dodge for two full seconds after cancelling her previous spell before her final attack was ready.
“Material Sign: Dual Nature!”
But the result was more than worthy it. Twilight’s spell actually mirrored the material nature of everything in the arena. With this, every object would be at once material and immaterial, which made Aurora Star’s defenses completely useless, because any attack would at once hit and not hit. That spell didn’t include any attack capability, but it wasn’t needed, because the doe’s own attacks would be the greatest threat to her.
To her credit, Aurora Star immediately cancelled her own spell, but it was already too late, the Dual Nature itself kept the attacks going, as they could still exist even without existing. The doe flew away from her own supernova, but Twilight shifted right in front of her, distracting Aurora Star for a crucial instant before shifting away and allowing an attack to hit that she had kept her opponent from seeing with her own body.
Twilight immediately cancelled her spell, and Aurora Star’s entire coat turned hot pink.
The crowd went wild.