The cheers were specially loud and crazed. Some extra dedicated fans of Spellcard Duels even started shooting spells into the air that turned into all kinds of patterns of bullets, blasts and other kinds of magical projectiles. This was a scene that was usually only seen at the end of really high level Spellcard Duel Competitions.
This pretty much qualified.
Aurora Star looked around. She was familiar with this kind of scene, only she was usually not the one who wasn’t in her original color during it. Twilight Sparkle swam towards her, and the doe wondered what the Knight wanted.
“Could you give me your autograph?” Twilight asked, conjuring a notebook and a quill.
Aurora Star was so surprised that she almost fell from the sky “What? It should be me asking for your autograph!” She recovered quickly.
“Well, I can give you one if you want, but...” Twilight gave a little sigh before adopting a focused expression “I’ve always liked Spellcard Duels. I could never train in them because of my training to be a Knight, but I always had the habit of watching recordings of them when I have the time. Your matches are some of my favorites, and meeting you in person for this fight only reinforced my admiration. I’m happy it was me who ended up fighting you.” The unicorn smiled.
Aurora Star just looked at her. Then she grabbed the quill and started writing on the page Twilight’s magic was indicating “Let’s trade.” She said.
After she was done, Twilight conjured a piece of paper and wrote her own autograph on it, before passing it to the doe. Then she conjured a camera and took a photo of the two together (she changed Aurora’s Star color back to normal first), then she duplicated the photo and passed the copy to the doe.
Then she shifted back to the rest of the Knights. Neither Sunset nor Trixie needed to say anything, they just put their hooves on Twilight’s shoulders while grinning.
“That was awesome!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.
“Darling, did you really need to go that far?” Rarity asked with a giggle.
“That seemed fun, maybe I should try to make an ability based on it.” Pinkie spoke in a halfway serious voice.
“Ah... Congratulations.” Fluttershy said with a smile.
“Welp. Ah learned a lot about magic just watching that. Maybe Ah should go to one of them spellcard duels sometime...” Applejack spoke with an air of doubt.
“Thanks, girls. Now all that is left is the team battle, is everyone alright for that?” Twilight asked.
They all responded in the affirmative. Rainbow Dash said she was at “120%” for some reason, Fluttershy said the training was harder, Sunset said their fight wasn’t that strenuous (both Trixie and Twilight glared at her), Trixie said she was ready to be magnificent, Rarity said she was eager to try out the full power of her Earth Ruler Sword, Applejack said she was solid like a rock and Pinkie Pie said she could do a party marathon.
With all that eagerness in mind, the Knights got on the transport platform for the last time, ready to take on the final challenge, whatever it could be.
The last arena didn’t seem to be much initially. The Knights saw a natural clearing with a small, rustic three floor tower. The space seemed fairly small... Until they saw that there were no crowd seating available around the clearing. Instead, there were floating cameras recording the clearing and sending the images to a special seating place far away. And the cameras were not only placed around the clearing, but they were also placed in several positions above the forest, multitudes of cameras, with some being even farther than the horizon.
Because the arena this time wasn’t just the clearing and tower, it was a significant area of forest. That was the biggest arena in all of the challenges.
Marching Water’s floating platform was far higher this time, and a floating camera accompanied him. That camera wasn’t transmitting only to the audience, but also to a magical screen right by the tower where the Knights were. The deer head of state soon started explaining the challenge, since there was no need to choose or announce the participants.
“It is time for the final challenge! It is time for the team challenge! Ever since the beginning, it has always been said that the true strength of the Knights was their ability to become stronger by fighting together... Today, we are going to see this by ourselves! And this challenge is also a very traditional method of combat. We call it... Castle Battle!”
He waited for a bit, knowing that the audience would be cheering “As you can see, the Knights are starting next to a tower. This tower is their castle, and losing it means they lose the battle. Each and every one of the deer challengers also have their own castle that they must defend. The Knights will obtain victory if they can take over, by which I mean enter and infuse their central jewel with magic, every one of the enemy castles. Accidentaly destroying one of the target castles counts as a defeat condition for the Knights”
He waited for a moment before continuing “And yes, that means the Knights need to take over the enemy castles while the deer only need to destroy the castle of the Knights. If the challenge isn’t at least this unequal, don’t you think the powerful Knights would be bored?” He waited for another moment, already foreseeing the response of the audience “And there is also another point! This is a timed battle. This challenge will only last for ten minutes, and if the Knights are unable to take every one of the enemy castles before the end of the time limit, this is also considered a loss for them!”
Marching Water was gloating more than ever ‘You have done well to reach this point, but I know you should already be tired and hurt, there’s no way you’ll be able to win this time!”
“So... Business as usual, then?” Twilight asked in a doubtful voice.
“He didn’t even restrict our magic use... I didn’t think anyone could be this overconfident.” Sunset was dangerously close to being flabbergasted.
“So, Applejack, what is the distance from the targets?” Trixie asked her apprentice, keeping her head in the game.
“Pretty far. And they are pretty spread out.” She started sketching out a diagram on the ground showing where the enemy castles where in relation to their initial position.
“Hmm... We have two objectives here, defending our castle and taking the castles of the opponents. Trixie thinks my apprentices should stay here and defend the castle. Rarity’s abilities can control the area effectively, and Applejack will see through anything sneaky they might try.” Trixie put forward a suggestion “Though since we have eight targets and only six other Knights available, that means two of us will have to take two targets each.”
“Let me and Rainbow Dash do it. She’s the fastest, and I have the quickest long range teleport.” Sunset offered “There’s no way we are going to fail.”
“Yeah!” Her apprentice agreed.
Trixie looked around to see if anypony had any objections, when no other ideas were forthcoming, she nodded and pointed at the diagram “So, Rainbow should first go to this one, and then fly to this one here.” She was pointing at different targets “While Sunset should start at this one and move to this one. This should be the best way to take advantage of your speed. The others don’t really matter that much, just choose whatever you fell like it.”
Trixie, Fluttershy, Twilight and Pinkie Pie choose their own targets, and then the Knights just had to wait for Marching Water to announce the beginning of the Challenge.
He didn’t leave them waiting for long:
“With all that said, I think it is time to start our final challenge! Ready... go!”
Rainbow Dash took off flying, quickly breaking through the sonic barrier with a rainboom and disappearing from view. Fluttershy called “Empathy Drive: Animal Spirit!” and choose an eagle spirit, before flying off at high speed, Pinkie Pie called “Emotion Charge: Joy!”, displayed the pink aura again and shifted away, and Twilight, Trixie and Sunset teleported away after charging their magic briefly.
Rarity looked at her fellow apprentice of Trixie “What do you think they are going to try against us?” She asked.
“Well, Ah was looking at our tower, and...”
Rainbow Dash flew. It was rare that she got the chance to really cut loose during a mission, so she appreciated the time where she could fly at full speed, as short as it ended up being (moving beyond the speed of sound made you get to places really quickly). It was a tower just as small and rustic as their own. The Knight dropped back down to subsonic speeds and made to enter via the front door.
But of course things couldn’t be easy. An immense magical circle activated when she was getting close and created a barrier of earth in front of the door. Rainbow Dash stopped and tried to see if there was an alternate route, and the barrier of earth started sprouting cannons that shot rocks at her at high speed continuously.
The Knight dodged them with a few quick movements and decided to just break through the barrier. Accelerating, she hit it with a powerful punch... which caused the entire tower to shake, because the barrier transferred the force of the punch to it. And the little bit of the barrier that Rainbow Dash managed to break reconstructed itself.
“Ah... So it is using the tower as a hostage.” The Knight realized the deal.
And then the earth barrier created a spike to try and pierce through Rainbow Dash, who was forced to retreat.
‘This is going to be annoying.’
‘This would be a lot easier if I didn’t need to keep the tower in one piece.’ Sunset thought to herself.
The unicorn Knight had quickly realized that the magical circle that was summoning swords and sending them to attack her, as well as creating a magical net of swords to block the path forward... Was actually connected directly with the foundations of the tower. Any direct attack on any of those things, or even on the circle itself would threaten the integrity of her target. And of course there were anti-teleportation wards on the tower to prevent Sunset had been forced to simply teleport around and passively defend while using scanning spells on the tower.
‘I can’t attack the circle... But maybe I can prevent it from receiving magic...?’
Trixie would freely admit that she was having a little trouble. The tower she had reached had some particularly troublesome defences, a powerful wind barrier that was like a tornado and prevented the showmare from even getting close. And her teleportation also couldn’t be used.
Thankfully, the more active part of the defences, consisting of wind blades that shot at her from time to time, simply wasn’t really threatening, because Trixie could simply confuse the targeting with illusions and conceal herself from view, so she had the chance to really focus on analyzing the target and think of a plan.
‘This magical circle is a weak point. I just need to figure out a way to use it.’
Fluttershy felt somewhat offended when she got to the castle that was her target.
The reason for that was the fact that the defenses of the castle were in the form of tree branches that snaked around the tower to prevent entry and some that tried to reach her to trap the pegasus. Fluttershy was offended because one of the biggest reasons why she had agreed to become Twilight’s apprentice was to be able to talk to trees, and now that she was dealing with having to fight an actual tree, she couldn’t talk to it because it was pretty much just conjured wood instead of an actual living thing.
'Still, those tree branches should be generated by some kind of magic circle. I guess this is a good opportunity to train my abilities.'
Fluttershy was still aiming for an ability capable of replicating the abilities of the opponents, but she had to work hard for it.
Twilight was suddenly reminded of her brother.
There was a reason for that. The tower had a magical circle that created special automatic protections to keep the Knights from going inside and completing the challenge. Those protections weren't that strong, but they had been connected with the support structure of the tower in a way that made getting rid of them a delicate and potentially time-consuming endeavor.
And those particular protections were in the form of layers of shield spells, together with special "ramming shield" spells that were shot at her if she got close. Twilight got reminded of Ground Tree, the competitor in the Race challenge, and thought it was fairly probable that each castle was being protected by magical defences based on the abilities of the competitors.
Still, this wasn't really very important at that point. What Twilight really had to be concerned about was how to get through the protections and finish her part in the team challenge.
Pinkie Pie bounced around happily. She hadn't expected this, but it turned out that she was getting the chance to take part in a hanging rope act after all.
The tower that she had chosen as her target turned out to be protected by countless strands of rope that kept trying to catch and bind her. Parts of the rope also kept releasing waves of cold or heat whenever she was in range.
However, none of it was dangerous to Pinkie. She could shift positions incredibly fast and use her chaotic abilities to slip through even the tiniest gaps. And since she didn't have to bother about going to a second tower, Pinkie could play a little with the ropes before doing her job.
She waved to the nearby cameras as she moved from rope to rope doing tricks.
"Ah... Looks like they are coming. All of them." Applejack spoke conversationally.
"All eight? That means they must have some sort of special defences in place to protect their castles. How do you think we should deal with them?" Rarity asked.
"Well... Ah guess they will be able to brag about being beaten up by the Knights for the rest of their lives. Perhaps we should leave a few scars for them ta show off?"
"I don't think that's quite what they want. Things should be natural." Rarity responded "So we should fight them normally, but not get too hang up about the possibility of leaving scars."
"Understood." She sorted her thought out for a moment "Flower Field coming from the north underground via tree roots, Strong Earth is coming from the east underground by controlling the earth, Living Leaf is trying ta sneak a few ropes unnoticed close ta the ground on north-northwest, Ground Tree is advancing from the north without any sneaking around and trusting her shields, Wing Cooler is coming from straight up above our tower, Glamour Sun is preparing ta act as artillery from long range in the southwest, Wind Shade is gathering speed and preparing to charge at our tower from up and southwest and Aurora Star is hiding right behind Ground Tree with immateriality activated and probably intending ta go straight through her and surprise us at the last moment."
Rarity raised both swords "Then we should focus, holding back to not hurt them too badly is hard."
Rainbow Dash tried to remember what Sunset had said about magical circle based defences. It was something like they could seem to be intelligent depending on how they were made, but in the end it was all programmed reactions, and if you did something unexpected they wouldn't be able to do anything.
With that, she got an idea. Rainbow Dash flew off for a bit before turning back and accelerating into another Sonic Rainboom, but instead of allowing the shockwave to expand, she gathered it in front of her like a digging drill. And she flew right into the ground, some distance away from the tower.
It was fairly unlikely that the magic circle would have been programmed to deal with attacks coming from below the ground, and understanding that, she went down a good bit before turning and moving towards below the tower and then going up and emerging inside.
After that, it was a small matter to activate the central jewel and take control of the tower. And after that, Rainbow Dash flew off to her next target.
Sunset understood very well the weaknesses of magic circles. The ones who drew magic from the air were simply incapable of sustaining large-scale phenomena for long. For those magic circles that had to create extremely powerful effects, the only way to get enough magic was by connecting them with special magic reservoirs via special channels.
The tower she was facing was obviously like that, so Sunset Shimmer decided that the best way to bypass the defences was by simply starving the magical circle of mana. And to do that, the simplest method was to destroy the magical channels.
She evaded the swords by teleporting high up in the air and creating a magical platform to stand on. Then she charged magic for a bit.
"Double Magic Enhance: Solar Bombardment!" She shouted.
And truly it was a bombardment. The multitudes of energy spheres that Sunset dropped around the castle didn't seem like much, but their destructive power was considerable, and their quantity was such that their effect became a lot more exaggerated. Sunset left the part of the magic circle alone, but blasted a ring of destruction around it, with holes that were dozens of meters deep.
The defences of the castle lost all power and Sunset simply had to walk inside to activate the jewel before running out and teleporting away.
The main problem facing whoever Knight tried to go against the magical circle was the fact that trying to damage it would affect the foundations of that tower that they couldn't allow to be destroyed.
However, Trixie had an advantage in that case by the fact that trying to damage it wasn't the only way she could deal with a magic circle.
"Perfect Illusion: Flux Control!"
The magic circle started inactive and activated when Trixie got near (probably due to the cameras detecting her), but that meant that there should be a way to make it turn inactive again. She just needed to detect the part of the circle that received this sort of on/off instructions and convince it to turn the circle back to off and not change it again.
And with Flux Control, she didn't even need to be all that precise. That was a magic designed to deal with magical programs and other similar things, and the effect was "convincing" the target off whatever she wanted. Trixie just needed to convince it that "it's time to be off for a while" and she was golden. It was somewhat more complicated than that, but not all that much.
Trixie simply strolled inside.
"Empathy Drive: Soul Mirror!" Fluttershy shouted, casting her magic.
Obviously, there were no deer around for her to use the Soul Mirror on, but magic was by nature versatile. With a little bit of work, she managed to aim her Soul Mirror at the magical circle itself. It didn't have a soul, but it had a complex structure of connections and instructions linked by magic.
Soul Mirror could only reproduce skills, not abilities. But that wasn't important in this case. Since the magical circle didn't have a soul, it couldn't truly have abilities. Fluttershy simply reproduced the way in which the circle was capable of manipulating magic to manifest and control wood. She couldn't simply affect everything at once, because it needed a direct connection with the physical structures around in order to create from them, but Fluttershy could affect things that were nearby, so she simply walked through the front door, using her superior magical power to suppress the original orders the magical circle was giving to the branches and force them to allow her passage.
Twilight had only used the stored spells in the armor for her Merged Spell, and could still use the ones in her body to perform another one and be able to use a Magical Sign for some impressive magic to get through the defences of the castle in a clever way.
However, she didn't feel like doing that.
She had already played properly in her individual challenge, which had been less than half an hour before. It was fun, but her mischievous side had appeared again, and she couldn't restrain herself too much or her chaotic side would be even more difficult to predict the next time she let it out to play. The fact that the previous time didn't result in too much damage was proof of the fact that allowing herself to act freely in defiance of conventions once in a while really (which she didn't really do too much before the Canterlot Destruction incident) made her chaotic side behave more. Simple things like pranking her partners and deliberately doing the opposite of what people expect.
After all, the nature of her magic was chaos, and just because she was a good pony didn't mean she had to be excessively stiff and uptight.
So, she created a stick and threw it.
Obviously, the defenses reacted, sending multitudes of shields after the stick, ready to destroy any possible threat. Twilight smirked and shouted a chaotically-charged word:
And then every single shield that had gone after the stick fused together into a gigantic dog made of shields that caught the stick in his mouth. He ran back to Twilight and deposited the stick at her hooves.
"Good boy, good boy!" Twilight praised, rubbing his head, which made his tail waggle.
Then she took the stick again and charged it with a big amount of chaos magic before throwing it at the entrance of the castle.
This time no shields tried to break it, since the shields that composed the dog were technically going after it. The stick managed to enter into the castle unopposed and the shield-dog went bounding after it.
A few moments later the dog came back with the stick in his mouth. But there was something stuck on the tip of the stick. It was the jewel.
As Twilight activated the jewel to finish things off after the dog brought it to her, she reflected that there was no rule saying that she had to activate the jewel while it was still inside the tower.
Pinkie Pie was wondering if she could could get into one of Living Leaf's rope acts. She was sure the two of them together could do some very fun things. It was something to be considered.
Pinkie finally decided that she had already had her fill of fun and simply used her chaotic movement to slip through everything and reach the jewel.
Chaos magic was pretty hard to deal with, specially when you had to use automatic systems.
"Earth Sword Style: Rising Earth!" Rarity shouted, raising her Earth Sword.
In two different positions of the area, Flower Field and Strong Earth were surprised when huge chunks of earth flew up into the air, taking them away from their attack plans. They got very confused and alarmed and those chunks of earth suddenly shot up at high speed, cut certainly not as much as Wing Cooler, who had to deal with being hit by those two chunks of earth. Thankfully for the deer, Rarity was gracious enough to bring the earth back into the ground slowly.
Then she raised her Wind Sword and cast another spell "Wind Sword Style: Barrier Whirlwind!"
And an extremely dense and powerful whirlwind formed around the castle creating a multipurpose barrier that completely prevented most of the enemies from actually being able to attack. Wind Shade got caught up in the whirlwind and spun around rapidly before being thrown out at high speed, Living Leaf's ropes were shredded by the strong winds due to part of them having already passed through the point where the whirlwind was formed, and Glamour Sun's first few rocks were slowed down to nearly nothing by the barrier.
On the other hand, Ground Tree and Aurora Star simply got through the barrier easily, with the former using her own force fields to protect her while the latter couldn't be hit in her current immaterial state.
So Applejack got to work, she did a Space Step right in front of them and charged her magic before delivering a tremendously powerful punch on the big doe. Even worse, she used her Eyes to localize the weakest part of her barrier, so it was broken through relatively easily, allowing most of the power of the punch to hit the body of her opponent and send her right back into the whirlwind, which only made things worse.
Aurora Star went right through her and through Applejack, preparing to send a spell at the tower. The earth pony simply space stepped to in front of her and charged her magic again.
"Truth Seeking Blow." She announced flatly.
Her next punch actually reached through dimensions to hit at Aurora Star's actual body, also sending her flying (though she managed to keep her immateriality and avoid being also hit while passing the whirlwind).
Then Marching Water surreptiously activated a mechanism that caused a hidden trap in the Knight's tower to explode, destroying the foundations.
Applejack simply charged magic through her armor and stomped on the ground, using earth manipulation to restore the foundations of their tower. Of course she had already seen the trap. And Rarity also took the time to send a blast of high pressure wind at Glamour Sun, that she barely managed to dodge.
The defenders weren't going to be overcome so easily.
Rainbow Dash quickly got to the next castle, which meant that she got a front row seat for when it went flying into the sky.
'What.' She thought.
'There's just two towers left. But that means I can redirect all the energy of the other six into them. This should be enough to stop them from winning... Please.'
Marching Water was getting desperate.
Rainbow Dash flew after the tower, and immediately realized that her previous strategy wouldn't work again. The defenses were now covering everything in a cocoon of stone, including the underside, and simply breaking through would cause too much damage to the foundations of the building.
But then she had an idea. Rainbow Dash realized that she would simply need to prevent the castle from falling, so there was a way, but she would need to be fast.
It wouldn't be a problem.
"EX-Mode!" She shouted, and activated it to get the greatest amount of physical power she could.
"Wind Destroyer Hoof!" She announced.
This was the non-limit break version of the attack, but it was still pretty powerful. Rainbow Dash reached the floating earth cocoon and hit it dozens of times in a second before using a whirlwind punch to drill through the barrier and get access to the tower.
The transferred force destroyed the foundations, and the tower started to topple... But then Rainbow Dash flew all over and touched every single part of the foundations, injecting magic on them 'Just need to do it like Applejack does...' She thought.
And the foundations fixed themselves, allowing her to simply go in and activate the jewel.
Later, she would get another earful for somehow instinctively using magic shifting to imitate earth pony magic.
Sunset realized several things very quickly. The first was the fact that this magic circle used the magic specialty of Aurora Star, Astral Magic, given the amount of light bullets, lasers and other kinds of star based shots. The second was the fact that a huge amount of energy had been redirected and gathered into a reserve in the tower, so using her previous strategy would be useless, given that the circle wasn't drawing energy anymore.
Still, after teleporting around just outside the range of the anti-teleportation wards, Sunset thought of a new strategy that was able to deal with this new development.
"Trance Mode!" She shouted, getting into her most powerful form.
But that was just preparation.
"Amplify Domain!" She shouted, casting the special spell.
She expanded the domain in which she could use her magic directly to be able to cover the entire magic circle.
Her idea was something that appealed to Sunset in a deep level. She was going to forcefully take control of the magical circle itself, by fighting its magical defenses directly. It was going to be power against power, and even using the Trance Mode, this would have been impossible, considering the huge reserves of magic that could be thrown against her.
But that was the point. It could only throw magic against Sunset. It could only use the normal defense patterns that had been imprinted on the magic circle. If this was an actual enemy with this much power, just a competent level of magical skill would be enough to allow victory, but this wasn't a living enemy, it was only a simple program, and just because she liked to overwhelm her enemies with power, didn't mean that Sunset didn't know how to be clever.
Emitting magic at one place to get the defenses to react and then inserting magic in another place while they are occupied. Deliberately spreading her magic over a large area to find the weak spots in the formation, that it cannot shore up due to that not being part of the programming. Tricking the flow of magic into gathering at damaged spots that cannot hold much magic at once. Those and other tricks Sunset used to slowly overwhelm the defenses of the circle. Finally, it got to the point where the magical reservoir simply could not keep up, and Sunset took control, shutting off the defenses.
Activating the jewel was a simple matter after that.
'How...? That didn't even take ten minutes...' Marching Water could not believe what he had seen. But still, there was nothing he could do about it, except for...
"Finish! With this... The Knights of this generation have proven their mettle, and won this Challenge! The protectors are strong as expected!" He waited for a moment "And now... It is my honor and privilege to invite the Knights for a victory party!"
He was a diplomat after all. He had to play to the crowd.
A day later, Princess Celestia got a letter with a photo in it. It was a photograph of the eight Knights posing (in ridiculous poses, of course, why would you even ask?) together with eight deer.
'I would get worked up about them corrupting young heroes of the deer, but...' She considered logically 'Considering how much deer like Knights in general, that ship had probably already sailed before they even went there.'
She closed her eyes and meditated.
'They don't seem to have overdone things and hurt themselves either... At least they have this much sense. While things are peaceful at the moment, I have a feeling this is not going to last much longer.'
Deer Arc End
Next: Shards of Chaos Arc