Cobblestone shifted uncomfortably in her seat, both due to the chill in the air, which managed to permeate even through the protection afforded by her robe, and due to the swirling presence of nearly ten thousand souls in close proximity. She struggled with the tides of strange energies, feeling snippets of shared emotions and even a few stray memories that she knew not to be her own floating by. The sky above her was slowly fading to a blackish hue, and the young unicorn could have sworn that she was seeing stars at high noon.
Slamming her eyes shut, she focused on rebuilding the wall inside her head, taking the burgeoning power she felt there and compressing it with all of her might into a tight ball, which she imagined mortaring up inside a massive vault, sealed behind as many mental barriers as she could throw up. Gradually, she felt the effects of the magic lessen, and she could breathe normally again, at least for the moment.
Where was Libra? She has said that she would be along in a few minutes with the potion, but it had been nearly half an hour since then. The competition was set to begin soon, and Cobblestone didn’t know if she could keep herself composed for long. That had been the third time she had been forced to rebuild her mental defenses, and it was getting harder and harder for her to do so.
Cobblestone opened her eyes to see Serale looking at her strangely. “Are you alright?” she asked. “You look terrible!”
“I’m fine,” she grunted. “Headache, that’s all.”
Tell her, Hob urged. By keeping her misinformed, you put everypony here as well as yourself in danger.
Shut up, she shot back with a vengeance. The cat flinched slightly, imperceptible to any observer, but she could feel it. I can keep this under control until Libra gets back. Besides, Lady Hedera is sitting to my left. I don’t trust her.
A wise policy, Hob said, Which does you no good if you lose control of that magic and explode.
“I’m not going to explode,” Cobblestone muttered.
Serale looked at her perplexedly. “Beg pardon?”
“I said I feel like my head’s going to explode,” Cobblestone stammered, “But I’ll be fine. I’ve had worse, it’ll go away soon.”
Well, I’m convinced.
“If you’re feeling unwell, I might have a restorative in my clasp,” Lady Hedera said, her tone sympathetic. She opened a small purse up, rummaging around in it before withdrawing a small glass bottle, inside of which was a few white capsules. She proffered the bottle. “Here,” she said, “Take one of these. They should reduce the pain a bit.”
Cobblestone, seeing no polite way to refuse the offer without sounding suspicious, accepted it. “Thank you,” she said. Flicking open the wire clasp, she tipped a pill into one hoof, swallowing it dry. Resealing the bottle, she returned the vessel to the purse. Immediately, she felt a spreading warmth in her chest that seemed like it would indeed have relieved any pain, were she feeling any.
“Better?” Lady Hedera asked.
Cobblestone nodded weakly. “Better,” she managed to get out. “What were we talking about?”
“I was mentioning that my son was going to be competing in today’s competition,” Lady Hedera said.
“Oh?” Cobblestone said distractedly, realizing that the warmth from whatever she had just taken was making it more difficult for her to concentrate on her magic. Gritting her teeth, she managed to stymy a particularly powerful surge of power, which caused everything to go blue for a moment.
“He just got here a few weeks ago,” the Lady continued, “And only received his knighthood a week or two before that. Frankly, Lady Serale, I was surprised to see he was considered for the position.”
“Well, Vino’s training records show promise,” Serale said conversationally, “And I think he would do well in balancing out some of the more…flamboyant personalities that are auditioning. Assuming he makes it through.”
“And do you?” Lady Hedera pressed. “Think he’ll make it through, that is.”
Serale regarded her coolly. “I can’t show any favoritism to one particular contestant,” she said. “I wish him the best of luck, as do I the rest of the candidates. He’s skilled enough in combat, even if he is inexperienced. I think he’ll do well.”
Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “Wait,” she said. “Vino? You said his name was Vino?”
Lady Hedera nodded. “Vino of House Hedera,” she said. “Why? Do you know of him?”
Suddenly, and from seemingly everywhere and nowhere in particular, a horn blew a clarion call low and sweet, and the assembled spectators fell silent, waiting expectantly for the call for the tournament to begin. Serale rose from her seat, checking herself over as she did to ensure that she looked her best.
Cobblestone watched as Serale stepped forward to the amplification crystal, clearing her throat as she did so. The young noble drew herself to her full height before letting her imperious voice ring out across the expanse of the arena to well over ten thousand ponies, Changelings, and even a few Gryphons.
“Fellow subjects of the Evening Kingdom!” she cried. “We are gathered here today to witness some of the best warriors this fine realm has to offer!”
The crowd roared in approval, stomping their hooves and whistling. The Changelings, as usual, expressed their approval by humming. Serale held up a hoof, and the crowd gradually grew still. Cobblestone was thankful for that, as she could feel their excitement brushing against her.
“Thirty fine fighters gathered from across my mother’s nation have been assembled here, to fight in two teams! All shall be recognized for their fine achievements in the field, but in the end, only six shall remain, offered positions in my personal Guard! They have been divided into two teams, from which the winners shall be selected,” Serale said, gesturing to the two gates on opposing sides of the arena, closed with heavy iron portcullises.
“The winners may be from one team or the other,” she continued, “Or all from one. This shall be a grand melee, held in the old tradition! Fighters must exert themselves until they are forced to yield, at which point they shall retire.”
Ponies in the stands began to murmur excitedly. Melees were extremely dangerous at the best of times, with average fighters. Two teams of serious contenders would undoubtedly be quite the spectacle.
“I wish for those serving me to be true warriors, those who will fight without holding themselves in reserve! As such, these contestants have been given magical aid, to ensure that they will not need to worry about harming their opponents. There shall be no death here today,” Serale proclaimed, and Cobblestone felt a wave of disappointment wash over her from the crowd. She groaned softly.
“It is high noon!” Serale cried. It was obviously a signal, as the two portcullises began to grind open. “Let the contestants emerge! Let them present themselves for the competition!”
The crowd cheered once again as two lines of ponies began to file into the arena, one from each gate. One team was led by a bannerman carrying a green pennant embroidered with the sinuous form of a dragon, and the other was led by a blue pennant marked with a snarling manticore. In almost-perfect unison, the two lines bent towards the box, arranging themselves in a half-circle for the spectators to view.
As one, they bowed to the box, waiting on Serale’s signal, which she gave. A quick bow of her own head, the slightest inclination, and the two teams immediately split apart, filing towards opposite ends of the arena. Cobblestone felt her heart begin to beat a little faster as the two sides arrayed themselves in formation.
“Which team would your son be one?” she asked Lady Hedera, not caring that she was the one initiating conversation with this mare.
“Manticore, I believe,” she said, shading her eyes with one hoof, peering down at the arena floor. “Yes,” she said, pointing, “There. In the bright armor. It’s new, so his is easily noticeable.”
Cobblestone followed her gesture, and her heart skipped as she realized that Vino would be arrayed in the middle of the line. In her experience, the thick of the fight was never a good place to be. She drew the black of her robes closer around her, clutching Hob as she did so.
You needn’t worry, Cobblestone, Hob said reassuringly. Lady Serale has high hopes for Vino. He would not have been invited if he weren’t capable in a fight.
That’s not what I’m worried about, she thought back, I know he’s a good fighter. But so are all of the rest of them. And I have the awful feeling something’s about to go wrong.
Vino fiddled nervously with the visor of his helmet. The blue flag of Manticore was thrust down into the sand, and he realized that there was no backing out of it now. He felt his heart begin to pound, and his limbs went weak with nerves. He stopped himself from shaking, but only just. He didn’t want his comrades to hear him quaking in his armor.
“Son of Silvanus,” Ahan said, shaking the feathers of his wings out lightly, “Stay close by me. With my glaive and your sword, we can easily keep our enemies at bay.”
“Deal,” Vino said, with much more confidence than he felt. He frowned. “Your spear wasn’t a glaive before.”
“No,” Ahan replied, “It wasn’t.”
Then came the first sharp blast of the horn, the readying call. Vino slammed his visor into place, and focused on his sword. Reddish energy flowed into the metal, and the bladeband left his foreleg, hovering in front of him and ready for his call. He glanced to his left, and then his right, taking it all in.
The stands of the Field were packed nearly to the brim now, twenty thousand spectators cheering and waiting on a show. He was in the middle of the line, with Ahan to his left and another armored knight to his right. The tiles of the Field felt oddly textured beneath his hooves, and he was glad for the heavy shoes he wore, in order to protect them. That was a lesson he had only needed to learn once during his training.
Across the field, standing under the green banners, were arrayed fifteen opponents, each of whom were undoubtedly far more experienced than he was. He could see Afi off to one side, hefting his axe, his red mane streaming in the wind, and near him the two twins raised by the buffalo. Across from him, however, were nearly a dozen more knights in shining armor, hefting maces, spears, swords, flails, and other implements of battle. And he knew that the newcomer he appeared to be would be attracting their attention.
“Don’t take to the air,” he murmured to Ahan, thinking quickly. “You’ll never get off the ground with the half-dozen flyers they have.”
“An insightful bit of advice,” the Gryphon returned. “The three knights directly across from us mean to eliminate you first. Shall we surprise them?”
“Let’s,” Vino said. His heart began to beat faster, and suddenly he felt the distractions of the world fade away. The color faded out of the world, and it was as if he stood alone on the battlefield. He swung his sword experimentally, the weight of it feeling good. He was ready.
The horn sounded, and the crowd let out a roar as the two sides charged towards one another. Vino felt his muscles burning as he forced himself into a quick trot, then a canter, and finally a full-tilt gallop, his sword pointed directly at the thick of the enemy. Quickly he crossed the first quarter of the field, his hooves flying over the cobbles, and before the enemy could make the halfway point, he had passed it, catching the charge on the back third.
The knight in front of him looked at him with wild eyes, visible behind the slit of his visor. Vino’s blade pierced the helm through that slit, and the knight discorporated immediately before spiraling down into the stones of the arena. Vino sensed rather than saw a flail swung by one of the knights who wanted to single him out, and caught the blow easily with his sword, maintaining his momentum as he wheeled left, now behind the enemy line. He was vaguely aware of another blow on his right flank, but it hardly hurt him at all, and the tangle of chain and sword he and his opponent to the left shared was of greater importance.
The other knight, older and more experienced by far, attempted to wrench Vino’s bladeband away from him, but Vino had been expecting that. The tug the knight gave had the added bonus of putting more power behind Vino’s thrust, and he was able to guide his sword through the knight’s armor, catching him in the gap between the gorget and the breastplate. The knight evaporated a moment later, leaving his mace behind.
“Vino!” a voice called, and a blur of feathers and fury was suddenly standing beside him, the haft of his spear twirling to parry the blow of an axe that would have lodged between his shoulder blades. A quick flick of the glaive, and Ahan had claimed victory over his opponent. The Gryphon did something with his face that Vino assumed was a grin, which he returned, though it wasn’t visible through his visor.
There was a terrible crash from behind them, and Vino turned to see that the two lines of battle had met in earnest, though Manticore was obviously the better-off. Dragon’s line had split in twain thanks to Vino’s charge, though they had managed to seal the gap at a heavy cost.
“That was a foolish thing to do,” Ahan said. “You left the entire formation behind. What were you thinking?”
Vino blinked at him. “Thinking?”
“Never mind,” the Gryphon said. He pointed at the right flank of the Dragons, where they appeared weakest. “Shall we?”
The pair hit the fighters from behind, sowing confusion among the ranks that lasted for only a brief moment. Neither had been lucky with their blows, and the group of green-clad knights was able to disengage from their fight, leaving a few defensively-minded individuals to hold off the half-dozen or so Manticores from aiding their compatriots.
Ahan readied his glaive, and Vino his sword. They were outnumbered five to two, and the knights knew it, charging in a group. Two of the knights took to the air, pumping their wings furiously to lift themselves and their armor above their opponents. Vino knew how dangerous armored flyers were. They wouldn’t even have to use their weapons, just fall on their opponents and trust their armor to take care of them.
“Keep the flyers up there!” he barked to Ahan, “Don’t let them fall on us!”
Ahan merely nodded, flicking his glaive up as a defensive measure and backing behind Vino, who faced the three knights, who had spread out and were looking for an opening. Vino’s gaze flicked from one to the next, unsure which one was to lead the charge. The one directly across from him looked to be the strongest and best-armed, but he wasn’t sure. Vino felt a twinge of awareness that set his tail on end, and he turned just in time to parry a thrown spear from the knight on his right, who drew a short sword and followed it up with a charge, his comrades close behind.
Vino parried the sword-thrust, and threw a hoof at the side of his opponent’s head, knocking him into the path of the well-armed stallion who was charging him. He just barely managed to fend off a sword-stroke from the knight to his left, a desperate maneuver that bought him some breathing space, but not enough. He hissed as the sword swung towards his flank instead, scraping along his armor. Had he not been wearing it, that blow would have opened a cut eight inches long to the bone.
He struck out with the pommel of his sword, ramming into the disarmed knight’s head with enough force to drop him to the ground, only to realize that this left him facing two opponents who very much wanted him dead. The heavily-armed stallion confirmed this by swinging his maul directly at Vino’s head, just barely missing him. His compatriot made another move, which Vino blocked, turning the point of the thrust that had been made towards the knight’s companion.
Vino backed up a step, flicking the point of his sword back around in a sort of clumsy cut, and was gratified to see that it impacted the neck of the sword-wielding knight hard enough that it penetrated the armor. The knight disappeared, leaving Vino to face the maul wielder.
Vino didn’t have much experience with mauls and hammers. Sir Ironside had been insistent on the use of swords, axes, and polearms, but he had been insistent that other weapons were not part of the knightly code. Vino thought of only one trick that might work, and even then it was a long shot.
The stallion swung the maul over his head, building up momentum, and then swept it towards Vino’s face. Vino didn’t even bother to block, simply giving ground as the maul swung towards him again. Clearly this was a favored tactic of the knight, and for good reason. Even if Vino managed to get his sword in the way of the maul, it wouldn’t matter. The weighted weapon would shatter it and continue on through. Unless he timed it just right.
Twice more the stallion swung, once at his legs and once at his head, and then Vino acted. He stepped forward, into the path of the maul, and shoved his sword towards the haft of the weapon with all his might. The sword jerked back, almost catching Vino in the shoulder, but he was rewarded with the sound of splintering wood, and he quickly chopped back in the other direction, striking a deadly blow on the side of his opponent’s head. His opponent disappeared, and Vino was rewarded a brief moment later by the sound of the heavy iron head of the maul clattering against the arena floor.
“Vino!” Ahan cried, and the young knight turned just in time to see the Gryphon drive his glaive into the breast of one of the Pegasi. He pointed behind him, before turning to fend off the other one. “Ware!”
The steady clank of armored hooves on stone mingled with the jingle of mail on leather, and Vino knew who was behind him before he turned.
Afi grinned at him, his eyes full of something like pride. “Well, lad. Well, well. You proved yourself quite the warrior there. That was masterful.”
The black knight beside him said nothing, his face obscured by the wolf helm he wore. Mace’s shield hung at the low ready by his side, the weapon he was named for pointing straight at Vino. A clear challenge.
“As you can see, there aren’t many left on the field,” Afi said. “Ten by my count. We’ll leave them to it. Mace here saved my arse when I lost my axe, and I owe him. He wants a challenge, lad.”
“And if I refuse?” Vino asked, bringing his sword up.
“We knock you out proper-like,” Afi said, the laughter in his eyes becoming something more feral. “You’re good, lad, but not good enough to take on us two.”
Vino looked around the arena, at the box, at the warriors who were even now diminishing in number. It wouldn’t be long before there were only a few left, and their eyes turned towards the young knight as an easy target. It mattered little now who won or lost. The majority of those still on the field would be in the guard as it were. He felt the eyes of the crowd on him, and sighed, knowing what he must do.
“Defend yourself,” the knight in the wolf’s-head helmet boomed, and before Vino could do more than set his hooves, the knight was upon him.
Vino’s first thought was of the knight’s incredible speed, despite his obvious skill with the mace. He was forced to execute a rather unwieldy roll to one side to avoid being cratered into the arena floor, and he could feel the shockwave the mace gave off through the ground. He came to his hooves, his sword at the ready, and swung at the knight’s back. It wasn’t chivalrous, but then, Vino didn’t think this warrior would be holding to the old codes of combat.
He was right. The knight hurled himself at Vino, mace swinging at his legs in a clear attempt to lame him, and Vino’s only recourse was to spring forward, meeting the knight in a grapple. The duo struggled for a moment, landing a few ineffectual blows, before springing apart. Vino called forth his bladeband once more, and the mace rose into the air by the knight’s side.
Vino decided he wasn’t going to give the black knight the opportunity to attack him again. He leapt forward, his sword whistling towards his opponent’s unguarded right shoulder, and he scored a solid hit, though the blade failed to penetrate the armor. The dark-clad fighter slid back smoothly, out of range, but Vino kept at it, pressing his advantage. He knew that if he managed to keep the black knight from swinging his mace, he could keep him off-balance.
Evidently his opponent had the same idea. His shield swung around, catching Vino’s sword, and a swing of his mace just managed to clip the side of Vino’s helm, denting it a bit. Vino staggered back, feeling blood pouring down his face from a cut above his left eyebrow. He held up a hoof. The black knight stopped his assault and waited.
“Do you yield?” he asked calmly, a sonorous voice rattling the greaves around Vino’s legs.
“Sir Knight, please allow me the opportunity to remove my helm. I am blinded by it currently.”
The knight said nothing, merely nodding while Vino undid the clasps, tossing the now-useless piece of metal to one side. He shook the blood out of his eye, blinked once, and nodded gratefully. “When you’re ready,” he offered.
The black knight hefted his mace and rushed Vino, but Vino had learned his lesson from the mace before. The metal head rushed towards the ground from above the knight’s head, heading around towards his now unprotected chin, but Vino decided instead to step inside his opponent’s guard as he had done before turning the mace aside. He raised his sword to make the parry, committed to his stroke, and realized belatedly he had forgotten about his opponent’s shield.
The blow was a sound one, the shield catching him in the side and sending him skidding across the arena floor. The crowd gasped in sympathy, and that was when Vino realized that the remaining fighters had disappeared. He glanced around, saw Ahan and Afi standing to one side and watching, and a small cadre of blue-clad knights to one side. There were seven fighters left in the arena, all told.
He attempted to stand, and sat back down just as quickly. Dizziness came over him, and he realized dimly that there was a faint ringing in his ears. The black knight stalked up to him calmly, and levelled his mace at his head.
“Do you yield?” the knight in black asked calmly.
Vino raised the hoof around which was coiled the metal of his bladeband. “I…” he said, “I…”
And then there was an explosion.
Serale’s heart had been in her throat for the entire melee.
Vino, easily recognizable even from a distance, had led the charge across the field with a speed and ferocity that surprised even some of the veteran guards in the box around her, cleaving through the enemy line like a hot knife through paper. He had accounted for five “kills” on his own, and with the Gryphon by his side, the two of them had taken more than half of the enemy out of commission. It had been a miracle that the knights in green hadn’t been completely wiped out, thanks in no small part to the services of an old ranger and knight in black.
Vino had held his own against great odds, but even Serale was sure his time had come when he faced the knight in black, who had challenged him to single combat in front of twenty thousand screaming and hollering ponies, Gryphons, and Changelings. He’d had no choice. The Ranger and the knight had dispatched or wounded ten knights between them, and were more than a match for him together, she knew.
The knight in black was clearly more experienced, but Vino had managed to keep the entire crowd guessing with his tenacity and willingness to keep his opponent off-balance, even at expense to himself. Vino hadn’t realized it, but during the fighting, he had taken at least a half-dozen shallow cuts and blows to the torso and head. It finally took a substantial blow from the black knight’s mace to give him pause, and even then, it was only for a moment as he removed his helmet.
Serale snuck a look over to Cobblestone, who was looking paler and paler by the minute. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to invite her this morning. The mage’s apprentice huddled deep in her robes, the dark fabric only accentuating the paleness of her face, and was wincing in apparent discomfort, whether from her own headache or in sympathy for Vino, she didn’t know.
There was a great shout from the crowd, and Serale snapped back to the arena. Her heart sank as she saw Vino tumble limply across the arena floor, his blade gone and blood streaming down his face. The black knight stalked toward him, mace at the ready. Vino attempted to get back up and fight, but put a hoof wrong and sat back down hard. Serale groaned, feeling an enormous wave of disappointment wash over her. Now the knight was levelling his mace, offering Vino the chance to yield, and…
One of the stadium’s walls exploded outwards in a shower of rubble, spraying massive pieces of stone out over the arena floor. The cries of the crowd turned to screams, as the dust settled and a figure was revealed, standing in the gap. A tattered black cloak whipped in the winter wind, matching the black of her coat, and a mask of beaten silver shone brightly in the sunlight. Even from here, Serale could tell that a bird was emblazoned upon it, a crow in black.
Six other ponies climbed out of the hole, their movements unnatural and their heads held at odd angles. At a gesture from the cloaked pony, they sped from the hole, setting upon the beleaguered fighters below. The panicked crowd began to stream from the exits, and it was a brief moment later that Blind Nightshade, the Witch of Shadows, raised a single hoof , pointing it at the royal box. Black energies began to gather along it, and Serale realized that if they did not leave the box soon, they would most certainly perish.
Cobblestone cried out, clutching at her head as she toppled over, and Serale looked down at her friend in concern. The young mage’s horn began to spark and crackle, and a clap of thunder was heard from overhead. Serale looked to the sky, her eyes wide, as a bolt of lightning lit with a thousand colors sped from the darkening sky. It was headed right for her.