A month had passed since Sunset Shimmer's arrival on Planet Uma.
Between her training with Flash Sentry, her hellish weekend sessions with Vice-Principal Luna, and her interactions with other students, Sunset had grown into a formidable fighter. Her sentou-ryoku had risen dramatically from all the beatings she'd taken, and her hard training had refined and honed that raw power, tempering it with skill and fighting instinct. While there were still students at Harmony High who Sunset was wary of fighting—namely, Applejack and Rainbow Dash—she had rapidly established herself as a formidable presence, and her awkward first days at school had been largely forgotten by all except Rainbow Dash, who still regarded her with suspicion and distrust.
One Friday morning, the students of Harmony High were called for a general assembly. Principal Celestia stood on the stage; rather than her usual business-casual attire, she wore a royal blue bodysuit with pale gold boots, gloves, and golden body armor with the school emblem—six hexagonal gems arranged around an eight-pointed star—engraved over the left breast.
"Good morning, students," Celestia said. "As some of you may know, in two weeks, Harmony High is hosting the Strongest High School Tournament with our longtime rivals, Crystal Prep Academy. This will be the fifteenth meeting of our two schools, and while we have not had the...best record..." She grimaced. "I am confident that we have very promising students right now, students who will give Crystal Prep a real challenge. Participation in the Tournament is, of course, entirely voluntary, but I encourage every student with a high sentou-ryoku who enjoys a good fight, who wants to show the world what they're made of—" She glanced pointedly at Rainbow Dash. "—to compete in the team tryouts which begin in one hour.
"We will have a tournament of our own here at Harmony High. The top eight combatants in this round robin format tournament will be fielded in the main tournament. The top combatant overall will be the team captain." She paused, then added, "The pride of your school is on the line. Please, show the world that Harmony High's students are the strongest on Planet Uma!"
A huge cheer went up in the crowd. Over the din of the cheering, stomping, clapping students, Sunset just barely heard her phone beep in her pocket—in fact, she barely felt the vibration of the text alert. She pulled it out and glanced at it.
I expect you to compete today, and I expect you to make the school team.
It was from Vice Principal Luna.
Sunset closed her eyes and took a deep breath. *This is it. All the secret training I've had over the past month, it's time to put it to the test. In real fights against the other students.*
She espied Rainbow Dash giving her a predatory look. She fought the urge to swallow nervously.
* * * * *
An hour later, a crowd of students milled around on the combat pitch behind Harmony High, with many more students crowded into the stands. Most of the faculty were either seated along the front rows of the bleachers, or sitting at tables on either end of the field. Professor Harshwhinny, a severe woman with short blond hair and dark orange skin, stood in the center of the large, square concrete stage which took up most of the field.
"The entrants have been divided into three groups," Celestia explained over the PA system. "Each group will have eight one-on-one matches, with matchups determined randomly. In order to give the contestants time to recover, we will rotate which groups are fighting on the field at any time. Group A will be up first. When all contests in group A have been decided, Group B will take the field, then Group C, and so on until all eight rounds of combat have been completed. We'll be judging each student on number of victories, conduct, technique, and power. At the end of the tournament, the top eight will be selected. Those eight will defend the school's honor in the upcoming tournament.
"Group A, take the field at this time. Your matches will be assigned by random draw. Groups B and C, please remain in the stands until Group A is finished."
As it happened, Sunset was in group A; she filed with the rest of the students in her group over to Professor Doodle, a sour-faced man who sat behind a table with a ball draw tumbler. Once each student had drawn a ball with a number on it, Professor Doodle entered their names into his tablet; the matches for the first draw lit up on the electronic bulletin board behind the battle stage.
"Group A, Match 1," Professor Harshwhinny announced from the stage. "Contestants Flash Sentry and Bulk Biceps, to the stage please."
Flash Sentry leapt up onto the stage, dressed in loose dark blue silk pants, a black gi top, and thick boots. A moment later, the stage shook as a hulking tower of muscles with blood-red eyes and short blond hair landed across from him. Bulk Biceps wore a pair of purple trunks and a black tank top. He pointed one massive, meaty fist at Flash, then made a thumbs-down gesture.
"The contest is decided by knockout or ringout," Professor Harshwhinny said crisply. "Refrain from maiming your opponent. If you kill your opponent, you will be expelled from Harmony High on the spot." She hovered up to a relative safe distance above the stage. "Begin!"
Flash charged in; Bulk planted a foot and let out an earthshaking roar, a swirling aura of ki exploding away from his body. Flash aborted his charge and braced himself; as the pressure wave abated, he blurred and reappeared behind Bulk, flying at him in an impossibly straight kick parallel to the ground. His foot slammed into Bulk's lower back, knocking him off his feet. Flash blurred again, appearing above Bulk, and dropped a blazingly fast diving elbow on the back of his head just as Bulk was preparing to stand. Flash hauled the stunned Bulk over his shoulder by one arm, spun around, and with a loud yell, hurled him off the stage. He landed in a dazed heap on the grass near the Group B spectators.
"Match over!" Professor Harshwhinny declared. "Winner by ringout, Flash Sentry!" Flash raised a hand to acknowledge the applause from his peers and strode casually off the stage.
"Group A, Match 2!" Professor Harshwhinny called once the noise settled down. "Contestants Sunset Shimmer and Vinyl Scratch to the stage!"
Sunset stepped up onto the stage, her nerves jangling. This would be the first time she'd ever fought any student other than Zephyr Breeze or Flash Sentry, and for the first time, there would be an audience watching her fight, judging her.
Several seconds after Sunset took the stage, her opponent strutted up, bobbing her head to the beat of whatever music she was listening to through the large seafoam-green headphones she wore. She had pale yellow-white skin and shaggy electric blue hair and wore overlarge purple sunglasses. Her clothes looked like a second-hand shop had thrown up all over her, a mishmash of contrasting styles that somehow combined into what could almost pass for a look. She gave Sunset a nod and cracked her knuckles, still dancing in place to her music.
Sunset took a deep breath and reached out with her senses, feeling Vinyl's power. What she felt wasn't especially strong, and seemed relaxed. The girl had no defenses of any kind up. Frowning, Sunset decided to take the initiative. In a blur of speed, she shot toward Vinyl, aiming a knife-hand strike at her ribs, following up with a low kick to her left knee.
Her strikes met nothing but air. Vinyl glided effortlessly out of her path, still bopping along to her own beat.
"What the—?" Sunset shook her head and turned around. Vinyl seemed completely disinterested in her. With a growl, she pressed a second attack, upping her speed and unleashing a volley of punches and kicks. Vinyl danced and weaved out of the way of every strike, never deflecting or countering—and never once changing her stance, facial expression, or the bobbing of her head. Snarling, Sunset jumped up and fired several ki blasts straight down at Vinyl, spread in a tight pattern around her.
She succeeded in leaving a ring of black marks and cracks on the concrete stage, but nothing hit Vinyl. She just kept dancing in place, heedless of the assault.
*What's going on here? Why can't I hit her? Why is she just ignoring me? Is she trying to make a fool out of me?* All around her, Sunset could hear the other students starting to snicker and laugh. Her blood boiled. Her eyes narrowed in anger. *No. I'm not about to let this badly-dressed clown make a mockery of me!* Taking a deep breath, she gathered all her power, focusing her energy into her hands. As her fingertips glowed with charged ki, she dropped down in a blur behind Vinyl, reaching out and grabbing her headphones. With a yell, she released her ki.
Vinyl's headphones exploded into plastic shrapnel which rained down on the stage.
Everything went quiet.
Vinyl slowly turned around, a frown on her face. She reached up, slowly, and lowered her glasses, staring at Sunset with red eyes.
"Those were my favorite cans," she said quietly.
Sunset suddenly found herself on the defensive as Vinyl laid into her, hands and feet floating in a rhythmic pattern of strikes—quick, deliberate, dancelike attacks that took all of Sunset's concentration just to block. Her hands and shins stung with each impact, and she found herself pressed back, heels digging into the concrete.
She tried to find a break in the rhythm, an opening to counter or break out, but there simply wasn't one. She did the only thing she could think to do: She flew straight up, hoping to buy a few seconds to think. She watched Vinyl warily.
Vinyl frowned up at her, then began making record-scratching motions with her hands. Two dark purple discs of ki formed beneath her hands; she made a final 'scratch' to each, and they came flying up at Sunset. Eyes wide, Sunset put on a burst of speed that took her to the other side of the stage, turned around, and loosed a volley of ki blasts at the oncoming projectiles. They exploded violently, lighting up the air with a shower of fireworks that momentarily dazed Sunset.
And then she found herself rocketing down to the stage as Vinyl appeared above and behind her and attacked, literally dancing on her back to drive her to the ground. Sunset managed to let loose a desperate burst of ki to break free just as she hit the stage; she tucked into a roll and rolled across the stage, coming to a shaky stop and rising to her feet. Her knees wobbled as she took a defensive stance and turned back around.
Vinyl was dancing toward her with determination, jaw set.
Sunset frantically analyzed the situation. *I could just yield,* she thought. *Losing one match doesn't automatically knock me off the team. It's not worth it to take this much abuse in my first fight when I have seven more to go. On the other hand...* She was well aware that a sizeable portion of the audience was openly mocking her. *I really don't want to look like any more of a fool than I already do. And this girl is getting on my nerves.* She watched Vinyl drift toward her, seemingly in no hurry, completely unconcerned.
*She moves like she's dancing. All her attacks are set to some kind of rhythm. Rhythm...* Sunset narrowed her eyes, her lips curling into a devious smile. *So all I have to do is kill her rhythm.* A plan formed in her mind—one that would certainly not help her look any less foolish in the eyes of her peers, but it was a small price to pay.
Sunset took a deep breath and started singing loudly, tunelessly, and off-key. "LaLALALALALALAlalaLAAAAAAAALalalalalalalLAAAAAAlaaaaaaLAAAAAA..."
Vinyl faltered, frowning. Confused murmuring filled the stands, along with more snickers and laughter. Sunset tuned it all out and continued singing at the top of her lungs, keeping her voice off key, not settling into any one tune or rhythm. As she sang, she closed the gap between herself and Vinyl. Once she was right in front of her opponent, she drew back her fist, and...
Drove a massive haymaker right into Vinyl's nose. Vinyl flew back, blinking as her sunglasses shattered from the force of the punch. Sunset wasted no time in following up with a powerful forward kick that knocked Vinyl into the air, then an uppercut; she jumped high and drove a series of spinning kicks into Vinyl's unguarded back that sent her sailing over the edge of the stage. Vinyl landed on the grass with a thud; Sunset dropped to the stage, her knees buckling as she gasped for breath.
"Uhhh...match over," Professor Harshwhinny said after several seconds. "Winner by ringout, Sunset Shimmer."
Sunset left the stage to incredibly mixed reactions from her fellow students and the faculty. At the head table, next to Principal Celestia, Vice-Principal Luna smirked.