• Published 23rd Mar 2014
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Contest of Champions - thatguyvex



The Lunaverse Six compete against champions from across the world in a test of skill, wit, and courage that will push them to their limits.

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Chapter 1: A Call for Champions

Contest of Champions

Chapter 1: A Call for Champions

The grove was absolutely silent save for the steady, soothing rush of the small waterfall that fed the glass clear pool in the grove’s center. Dense bunches of flowering bushes and short trees with long, draping branches of cherry blossoms surrounded the grove in perfectly arranged symmetry, every single piece of the scenery down to the last tiny leaf specifically crafted to provide an absolute barrier from intrusion, to create the illusion that this grove was a place apart from the rest of the world.

Upon the grove’s pool a kirin mare stood, balanced upon a single hoof that rested on a moss covered rock protruding just barely from the pool’s gently rippling water. The kirin’s coat was a lustrous, shining jade, covering her entirely except for where patches of golden scales flowed along the sides of her neck and the base of her hooves. Her mane and tail were both smooth as spun silk and long enough to almost dip into the pool, and were the same golden shade as her scales. Two horns of bone-white ivory, each shaped like twined together bolts of lightning, curved backwards from the crest of her head, and were glowing brightly with a pure silver aura of magic.

Around her globes of water spun, perfectly shaped, dancing intricately around one another, weaving in a complex pattern, never touching each other or once losing their flawlessly spherical forms.

The mare’s face was a still mask of focus, despite a tired paleness to her features and a series of sweatdrops beading upon her brow. At her hip rested a thin, elegant blade, sheathed in a scabbard of jade, a sinuous long serpentine dragon etched along the scabbard in gold. In a single, shining flash this blade flew from the scabbard and spun around the kirin mare as she jumped into the air, gracefully flipping once around the lightning flashes of her sword. She landed upon a single hoof, different than the one she’d been balancing on before, and in that same instant her sword was back in its sheath. Around her the spheres of water parted down their centers, rejoining after a second or two of continuing upon their paths.

Upon the horizon, where mist shrouded mountain peaks formed a verdant and distant wall, the sky started to turn a light cerulean, gradually welcoming a glowing orange hue as the sun lazily made its way upward into the heavens.

It took all of Dao Ming’s concentration not to smile as she felt the first heat of the sun’s morning rays warm her face. There was nothing like an all night meditative training session to put her in a good mood, despite how much it strained her endurance. Alone, quiet, and with only herself and her limits to push. It was peaceful in a way she did not get to indulge in nearly enough for her liking.

A harsh flutter of wings reached her ears, and even though her eyes were closed, she sensed the arrival to her grove as he landed on the soft grass by the pool. She heard him tuck his wings behind his back and the soft rattle of wood and porcelain as he sat and removed what she surmised was a wooden lunch box and a soup bowl.

“MmmMmm, nothing at all quite like the smell of fresh miso soup in the morning,” said a chuckling, twanging voice that held the same note of barely contained jovialness covering steel that Dao Ming remembered from the first time she heard it when she was just a filly.

She did not deign to respond, trying not to frown. She was still trying to meditate, and he bloody well knew it!

“Oh, this is so good,” the voice said and loud slurping noises could be heard, accompanied by the rich smell of soup, cooked rice, and vegetables, “Lady Ming, you’ve not broken your fast, yet, have you? Ah, of course, meditating, you probably haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. Must be hungry, I imagine.”

Loud clacking, from chopsticks no doubt, accompanied the slurping of soup, and no small amount of exaggeratedly loud noises of someone enjoying their meal far too much.

Even so, Dao Ming continued to focus on her mediation, maintaining her magic and the intricate dance of water spheres around her, though practiced eyes would be able to see that the flow of the spheres was becoming erratic.

“You know, I have read in the scrolls of Tien Zhu that when you are doing one thing, be concerned with only that one thing. However I’ve always found that distraction is life. To seclude oneself from distraction does not breed focus, only an inability to focus when life comes calling. Mmm, oh the cooks do love me so, to make such a fine meal for a humble monk like myself.”

“Many are the things one could accuse you of, Kenkuro,” Dao Ming finally said, her voice a strong, resonant tenor filled with equal parts disdain and grudging fondness, “But ‘humble’ is not among them. Fly to some other place, old crow, and trouble another with your cawing.”

She only had a second to feel a wash of satisfaction at her barb before her lack of concentration caused one of her spheres to burst. She rushed to compensate, but her magic flared strongly, too strongly, and in seconds spheres of water flew apart like blown piles of leaves in a hard wind. One of the spheres splashed right atop her head, soaking her mane and plastering some of her gold locks across her face.

She sighed in a puff of irritated air as she opened her silver gleaming eyes and looked at the tengu, who was laughing heartily at her. For a second she glared at him, then with a small smile she levitated up a stream of water and sent it flying at the tengu, soaking him, his soup and rice, and half the bushes behind him.

Kenkuro looked at his soaked self, and his equally soaked breakfast, and gave Dao Ming a wry laugh as he took off the wide straw hat he wore and shook the water off it, plopping it back on his head with a small flourish.

“Perhaps I should have foreseen that coming. Alas, my breakfast, I don’t think it will survive. As Tien Zhu wrote, ‘Accept loss, so that it does not cause more loss.’”

Dao Ming gracefully walked across the water, a simple spell freezing the now rippling pool into a slim bridge of ice for her to walk to shore upon. When she got to the grass she wove another spell, sending a wash of drying heat across her own body and that of Kenkuro’s. Then, from where they’d been laid in delicate, precise folds under one of the cherry blossom trees, Dao Ming levitated her black and gold silk robes, wrapping them around her body even as she approached the tengu with a warm smile.

“I’m certain you can acquire more food, old crow. You always do,” she said, eyeing his somewhat rotund stomach.

Any who looked upon Kenkuro would likely just see a tired looking, slightly overweight, old tengu. The bipedal bird still had feathers covering his form that were black as a clear, midnight sky, but the gray dusting across the feathers on his face belied his age. Black beady eyes still shone brightly however from a always grinning face, and despite the heft around his middle and the seeming creaking nature of his wings, Dao Ming well knew the strength hidden within her old mentor. The daisho blades at his hip, sheathed within the gold obi sash of his dark blue kimono were more than symbols of office. Dao Ming had seen him wield the katana in ways the most fit and youthful of the Jade Palace’s Imperial Knights could not match.

Kenkuro’s laugh was light and comforting, and banished any ill feeling Dao Ming had towards his impromptu interruption to her training. He was simply difficult to stay mad at, and Dao Ming, much as she was loath to admit it, probably did need to eat by this point. Still, it was strange...

“Kenkuro, is something amiss? You enjoy finding excuse to drive me up a wall, I well know, but you usually are not up this early. Some other business must have forced you to avoid your usual sleeping in.”

“My Lady Ming remains perceptive, even upon this hour that the heavens themselves should not condone. I’m fairly certain the Scrolls of Wisdom must say something about the unnatural manner some folk feel the need to be awake at such an early hour! Bah, even if they do not, perhaps I’ll add that passage myself.”

“Assuming the monks of Tien Zhu would ever allow you to set foot upon their sacred temples. Were you not thrown out of the Temple of Eternal Knowledge just last month?”

Kenkuro waved a wing dismissively, “They should not have such pretty priestesses tending their libraries, if they do not want others to look appreciatively! Did not Tien Zhu write ‘to acknowledge there is beauty in the world is the first step towards enlightenment’?”

Dao Ming suppressed a sigh as they left the grove, following a fine gravel path through the Palace gardens, winding their way towards the gilded, elegant halls of the Jade Palace proper. Around them, peeking through distant mists, the rounded cliffs of the high mountains the Jade Palace rested in surrounded them, like islands rising from an ocean of white.

“Somehow I doubt Tien Zhu meant that one should seduce innocent shrine maidens into acts of questionable moral character. Now, cease changing the subject, old crow. What is the occasion. I have this sinking feeling I’m forgetting something. Today... today is important...”

Then it hit her like a stone square between her eyes, which widened as she immediately picked up her pace towards the Palace, “It’s today! How could I forget!? No, no, no, this won’t do! Kenkuro, why didn’t you call upon me earlier!?”

Kenkuro lazily took to the air in order to keep up with the now flustered, half-galloping kirin, “Truthfully? I assumed you were aware of the date, and were merely getting in some final, mad training in order to prepare yourself. Or at least that is the story we shall tell your disginguished, exalted mother, when she asks where you’ve been all morning.”

Dao Ming forcibly took hold of her breathing and pushed down her rising panic. It would not do for a member of the Imperial Family to be seen lacking such control. Her face flushed with embarrassment she was glad only Kenkuro could see as she slowed her pace and took a few deep breaths, forcing herself into the poised, graceful trot expected of a member of the Imperial Family. Still, there was a tremor in her eyes as she looked at Kenkuro.

“Years I’ve been preparing myself for this day, and it slips my mind what morning it is! Mother would send me to a month of penance with the Silent Ones if she knew.”

A smile grew upon her face, though, as they went up the elegant wood steps leading to a sliding wood and paper doorway into a back entrance of one of the Palace’s many long halls. Now that she knew what day it was, and where she would soon be going, a tingling buzz of excitement was working its way through her. The Contest! At last, the Contest of Champions was here!

A few servants who were cleaning the smooth wood flooring bowed deeply and scuttled away at the passage of one of their exalted nobles, foreheads touching the ground. Dao Ming navigated her way through the many junctions of seemingly endless corridors of white washed wood and thin paper paneling, wood beams gilded in gold and carved with designs of birds in flight or dragons rearing for battle holding up high ceilings.

“It does not surprise me, Lady Ming, that you’d misplace the day,” said Kenkuro, “When you train, you tend to lose your sense of time.”

At her sharp look he held up a wing, “It was not meant as a barb, my Lady.”

Her smile returned and she nodded to him, “It is well enough,” a pause, “If mother doesn’t press too hard about where I’ve been. She must be too busy with preparations to have bothered sending anyone to search for me. Heh, I bet my siblings are less prepared than I am, and she’s having to corral them like ducklings.”

Entering a grand hall, lined with stern looking unicorns and lesser kirin with single horns wearing the jade lacquer armor of Imperial Knights, Dao Ming went silent. She gave the guards passing glances, but otherwise no more acknowledgement that she’d give statues as she glided up to wide, wood doors covered in golden script. Opening them, she entered what was one of several massive bedrooms that served as personal chambers for her. Kenkuro strode in behind her after only briefly pausing to give the guards a grateful nod. Normally it would be forbidden for any to enter the chambers of a member of the Imperial Family, let alone the Imperial Heiress, without specific permission of the Empress herself. All the guards knew Kenkuro held such permission.

Inside her lavish chambers Dao Ming went into a flurry of activity, her ivory horns aglow. Shelves, cabinets, and dressers of ornate and elegant design flew open and in seconds the room was a wild storm of floating clothing as the kirin began packing with a speed and efficiency that even an army of servants could not match. Kenkuro found a safe spot to stand out of the way, perching upon a luxuriously carved blackwood stand, a cross piece of polished wood designed to easily allow the tengu’s clawed feet to comfortably grasp. Dao Ming had made the perch specifically for his use when he visited her, and Kenkuro warmly recalled the embarrassed way she’d presented it to him all those years ago. He watched the frantically moving kirin mare with an amused crease to his beak. Behind closed doors the Imperial Heir dropped her air of measured calm, and all but vibrated with a potent mix of childish excitement and nervous anxiety. He knew he was one of the few who ever got to see her this way, one of the few the Imperial Heir displayed such trust.

“You could have the servants do this, my Lady,” he pointed out casually, reaching into the folds of his kimono and withdrawing a long stemmed pipe, placing it in his beak without bothering to light it. He didn’t smoke. He just, oddly, liked chewing on the pipe. Few questioned the old swordmaster’s choice; at least never more than once.

Dao Ming made a scoffing sound as she floated an arrangement of elegant, shimmering dresses by her inspecting eyes, “Not if I want it done right, and fast. Doesn’t Tien Zhu have some dusty old piece of wisdom to say about doing things oneself? You know I never let others do for me what I know I can do better myself. Besides, if mother seeks me, she’ll send a runner here first, and I can’t afford to... irritate her. Not today. Not for the next ten days.”

For a moment a look of real fear crossed Dao Ming’s features, her eyes widening a fraction as she paused, if only for a split second. The moment passed and she continued her packing, doing it at a speed that Kenkuro had to admit was admirable. Her good mood and energy was back in full force by the time she had three full trunks arranged before her, filled with ensembles fit for the highest of Imperial court functions... or impressing foreign royalty.

Making sure each trunk was securely locked, Dao Ming allowed herself a sigh of relief and went to a vanity mirror, floating a brush over to begin fixing her mane and tail. As she did so she glanced at Kenkuro, “I’m almost afraid, you know.”

Kenkuro nodded, unsurprised, though slightly so that she’d admit it, “Tien Zhu did once write that fear is the soil from which other emotions bloom. It would be strange if you were not somewhat afraid. The Contest of Champions will certainly test you. In more ways than one.”

“I will win,” Dao Ming said immediately with the tone of self-assurance, “There can be no other result.I have prepared for this moment for so long. Mother expects nothing short of my total victory. I could not tolerate no less from myself.”

Kenkuro’s black eyes flickered with a hint of carefully guarded worry, “Remember the purpose of the Contest, Lady Ming, is not victory, but understanding. The world’s nations come together to show each other what they are at their best, so that we may learn from one another.”

“Of course, of course, but it is a ‘Contest’, Kenkuro! And a Contest must have a winner,” she smiled at him, setting her brush aside, and inspecting herself in the mirror, “I can’t wait, old crow. All the doubts to my worth, all of the challenges I’ve been tasked to face, all for her acknowledgement. Now, I face my final test. Mother has long said that were I to bring us victory at the Contest of Champions she would make my appointment as the Imperial Heir permanent. She will finally acknowledge that my blood is her blood.”

Her eyes bored into the mirror with a fire Kenkuro had seen many times, and sadly, also a fear that he’d seen just as often. Dao Ming’s voice was tiny at her next words, like the voice of the filly he remembered meeting eighteen years ago; so tiny she had barely come to his knees.

“I am her daughter... she will see. She must.”

Dao Ming shook her head, as if dispelling a cloud from her thoughts, and broke out into a chiming laugh, “It is going to be a glorious thing, Kenkuro! At this very moment the greatest of all races, from all realms, are preparing to gather at one place! We will test our might, our magic, and our wits against one another! I will face legends, and prove my worth against them, old crow, and mother will see my worth. I can finally... finally remove all doubt that I am the one, true Imperial Heir.”

Dao Ming went to the side of her chambers, opening the huge sliding paper door, and strood onto a wide red painted balcony. She looked out across the vast golden curved rooftops of the sprawling Imperial Palace; spear-like pagodas rising in dozens of spots across a complex of buildings that hugged the mountains peaks in a dizzying maze. Beyond that, an ocean of mist and cloud hid the massive valley in which the ancient Imperial City rested. Further still, beyond the mists, was the shining blue ocean, the vast bay already dotted with dozens of ships whose talls white sails looked like specks to Dao Ming’s eyes. And beyond that ocean, somewhere beyond that horizon, she knew Equestria waited.

Dao Ming smiled at the sight.

“The Equestrians have uncovered the very Elements of Harmony themselves. I’ve even heard that they fought Corona herself! Can you imagine it Kenkuro? I will face mares who can challenge a living goddess, and win! Surely one among them will be a foe worthy of testing myself against, who will push me to my limits. An archmage of incredible power, or a swordmaster to match you, old crow!”

The kirin’s eyes glittered with an eager light of anticipation.

“I can’t wait to meet her.”

----------

“I’m walkin’ on moonlight, whooooa! I’m walkin’ on moonlight, whooooa! And don’t it feel good!”

Trixie’s somewhat off key singing matched the happy bounce of her hooves as she finished up her shower, shaking her tail back and forth in time to her tune. With a flourish she shut the shower off and hopped out, happily levitating a towel from the rack to dry herself as she continued her song in a humming format, dancing her way to the sink.

Examining herself in the bathroom mirror she flashed a smile, starting to brush her teeth while tapping her hooves along with her humming. Satisfied with the near twinkling of her freshly cleaned teeth she took a brush to her mane and tail with a vigorous vengeance, schooling the freshly dried hair into the smooth, elegant waves she prefered.

“Who’s the best looking Representative in Equestria?” she asked herself with a smile while striking a pose, “You’re looking at her, naturally!”

Satisfied at her freshly cleaned up appearance Trixie exited the bathroom and trotted with bouncy steps into her living room, still humming to herself.

In her office Trixie’s assistant, Pokey Pierce, walked out with a stack of scrolls and envelopes tucked tightly in his own magical levitation field.

“Good morning Pokey. Finished the morning paperwork already? Fantastic! Have I ever told you how much I appreciate the speed at which you destroy mundane clerical tasks? How much do I pay you these days?”

At Trixie’s upbeat and cheerful voice Pokey paused, glancing at her sidelong with one eyebrow slowly raising, “The same as you’ve always paid me. Don’t take this the wrong way, but what’s got you in such a good mood?”

Trixie paused on her way to the kitchen, looking at him over her shoulder, “What? It’s not that weird that I’d be in a good mood, is it?”

“It’s been known to happen, I suppose,” said Pokey, starting to tuck the scrolls and envelopes into a bag that he’d later take to the post office to be sent out, “Just, given we’ve still got a half-crazy alicorn of the sun at large, and stepping up her activities as of late, I’d figure you’d be more tense, is all.”

Trixie came back out of the kitchen, munching on a sandwich containing what Pokey suspected was jalapenos, peanut butter, and marmalade.

“Doesn’t do me or the girls any good to be freaking out every day on what Corona may or may not be doing. Cheerilee nearly drove us to death trying to prep us for our next showdown with Crazy Sunbutt, and it just went to show that there’s only so much we can do to prepare. I think everypony’s improving in our own way, bit by bit. It’ll be enough. I’m sure of it,” Trixie spoke with a firm air of confidence, one that had only been growing over the past few months. Recent successes, from overcoming the machinations of the Night Court, to surviving the trials on Tambelon, to more recent adventures involving runaway golems, bushels of Carrot Top clones, and numerous other incidents had given Trixie a well of confidence that she and her friends could take care of whatever Corona was going to end up throwing their way.

We’ve got your number, Corona! Just try and take Equestria from Princess Luna. Trixie Lulamoon and Friends will be the impenetrable shield of Harmony against whatever flaming doom you want to throw down against us!

“Trixie, you’re posing and talking to yourself again,” Pokey pointed out, and Trixie blinked, looking down at herself and noting she’d reared up on her hind legs, one hoof pointed defiantly at an imagined Corona. She coughed, setting herself back down on all four hooves.

“Yes, well, I’m just saying that I have every reason to believe in my friends, and we have no reason to worry ourselves maneless over whatever is to come. Our Harmony levels are at maximum!”

“You have been spending a lot of time with Raindrops and the others lately, even that Twilight mare,” Pokey noted.

Trixie coughed, choking down a bit of sandwich and suddenly finding a light fixture to be extremely fascinating, “We’ve all been taking some time with Raindrops to exercise and learn a little hoof-to-hoof. And its partially my job to keep an eye on Sparkle, even though there’s really no need. She’s been nothing but a help to the town since coming here, and a help to me. Our magical talents may lie in completely different directions, but we can learn a lot from each other.”

“Like how to deal with a small army of foals, eager to learn magic?” Pokey said with a dry and knowing smile.

“I would’ve been fine if I’d had time to prepare!” Trixie said, flustered face tingling red.

“Hey, hey, no need to sound defensive. Besides, I was just noting that you’ve been spending a lot more time with your friends than you did before, is all,” Pokey said with a shrug, “Might be why you’re smiling more these days, despite the impending invasion of ‘Sunbutt’ and her minions.”

Trixie nodded once, floating her signature purple, star-speckled magician’s hat and cape from their wall pegs and fixing them upon her head and back as she joined Pokey by the door, “Could be. It’s also that today is a particularly auspicious day for me and my friends! Don’t tell me you forgot?”

As they opened the door, the hinge squeaked loudly, and Trixie winced. Pokey glanced at her and smiled apologetically, “Sorry, I keep trying to fix the hinges on the new door, but it just keeps doing that.”

“You should have just used the old door, after fixing the lock,” Trixie muttered, “Can’t believe you actually tried picking it with your horn.”

“Was less ‘picking’ and more ‘awesomely destroying it with my unrivaled piercing might’!” Pokey said, chest puffing out, running one hoof along his unusually sharp horn, “Besides, I couldn't use the old door. Its a trophy. A sign of my conquest!”

“Trophy?” Trixie blanched, “Don’t tell me you’ve got my old door hanging over your fireplace or something.”

“Of course not, that’d be silly,” said Pokey, “I mounted it over my bed.”

He grinned at Trixie’s groan, then said, “So, let me think... auspicious day...? Somepony’s birthday?”

“No.”

“Anniversary of you moving to Ponyville?”

“No.”

“It’s National Bourbon Drinking Day?”

“Ugh, NO! Pokey, I told you last month what was going on! You couldn’t have forgotten! It’s been practically national news for weeks!”

“I don’t read the paper,” Pokey said, then rolled his eyes up in thought, but the dark blue stallion was truly stumped. Life in Ponyville, and especially life as the assistant to Trixie Lulamoon, Representative to the Night Court of Luna, and bearer of the Element of Magic, was busy enough that it wasn’t unreasonable he could forget any number of things the bombastic azure mare had told him a month past. And he didn’t exactly have his hoof on the pulse of national news either.

“Sorry Trixie, I’m drawing a blank here.”

Trixie sighed, but quickly composed herself, and took on a dramatic, elegant pose, holding a hoof to her chest, “Today is the day that I, along with my esteemed colleagues among the Elements of Harmony, depart Ponyville to journey to Canterlot, whereupon Princess Luna herself will take us out of the country to participate in the upcoming festivities at the Contest of Champions as Equestria’s chosen Champions!”

They paused in the street as Pokey halted, “Hold up, the contest of what?”

Trixie rolled her eyes, “Ask Lyra if you want details; she’s been researching it since Luna told us we were going. Basically, imagine the Equestrian Games if it was a worldwide event, and also involved a cultural exchange between every race participating. Every nation designates ‘Champions’ to compete, not just in simple battles, but in all manner of games and contests.”

“And you six got chosen?” Pokey asked, looking at Trixie askance, “Was this the Princess’ idea?”

“But of course! Who else could have named Equestria’s Champions? Why? Don’t t you think we’re up to the task?” Trixie asked, sounding both insulted, hurt, and incensed all at once.

“That’s not what I mean. I just think its weird that the Princess would send all six off somewhere while Corona is still at large, and could hit anywhere in Equestria at any time. Right now you mares are the only line of defense we’ve got. Can you really afford to be off playing games in another country while that kind of threat is bearing down on us?” Pokey glanced worriedly up at the morning sun, as if partially afraid to see Corona herself already descending on Ponyville.

Trixie didn’t blame him for his worries. Even though she and her friends had confronted Corona on more than one occasion by now, and knew well how effective the Elements of Harmony were in de-powering the mad alicorn, most of Equestria’s citizens had every reason to be fearful of Corona and her plans. While Trixie was filled with confidence of her and her friend’s ability to take on Princess Luna’s crazed elder sister, she couldn’t deny that Pokey had a valid enough reason to be worried.

“Princess Luna is going to be with us the entire time,” Trixie explained, “The moment Corona tries anything, anywhere, the Princess can teleport me and the girls there immediately once we get word. It’ll be no different than it is with us staying here in Ponyville,” she said with a reassuring nudge of her hoof at Pokey’s side, “Honestly, with Luna at the Contest, we can probably respond to Corona related emergencies faster than we can while here in Ponyville.”

He nodded, seemingly satisfied with her logic, “Where is this Contest taking place anyway? Now that I think about it I’ve seen a few family’s here in town getting ready for trips. I assume its going to see the Contest?”

“I imagine so. The Contest of Champions was announced last month right after Luna told me and the others we’d be participating. Its open and free for all who wish to come and see the contest and view the festival. I don’t know the specifics, but its taking place on some island called the Isle of the Fallen. I bet if you looked it up in any of the fliers or newspaper articles you’d learn the details. I personally have been more focused on what’ll happen once we get there, rather than where it is or how we’re going.”

Pokey accepted that as they got across the street to the post office, upon which he paused, frowning, “So... if you’re going to be gone... horseapples, that means I’m doing all the work around here while you’re out having fun and acting all chamiponish!?”

Trixie smiled and patted him on the shoulder, smiling wide and not at all with a slightly wicked gleam in her eyes, “Did I ever tell you how much I appreciated all the hard work you do for me?”

Pokey lowered his head and grunted, “How long...?”

“Ten days.”

“Double pay.”

“Time and a half.”

“... Deal.”

“You’re my favorite assistant.”

“I’m your only assistant.”

“I expect to still have a door when I get back this time around.”

“I make no promises.”

----------

My little pony, My little pony
Ahh ahh ahh ahhh...
My little pony
Friendship never meant that much to me
My little pony
But you're all here and now I can see
Stormy weather; Lots to share
A musical bond; With love and care
Teaching laughter; It's an easy feat,
And magic makes it all complete!
You have my little ponies
How'd I ever make so many true friends?

----------

Reaching the post office the pair went on in, greeting Silver Script, the postmaster of Ponyville. The older pegasus stallion gave the pair a warm smile and a wave from behind the desk, “Hello there Representative, Pokey. Looks like you’ve got a lot of post to send out this time around.”

As Pokey started to unload his bag Trixie came up to the desk, “I’ll be out of town for a time, so I made sure that a number of backlogged work and a number of missives explaining to the necessary ponies that I won’t be available are being sent.”

Silver Script nodded, “I heard, I heard. I remember the way my great grandmother told the story once, when the Contest came around last century and her family went there when she was a tiny filly. Sounded like quite the event, though I’m more an Equestria Games stallion myself; at least that happens every year and I can get into it. You girls going to be alright? Way my great granny told it it was a pretty serious competition, with those other races really taking it serious-like.”

The postmaster gave a worried look up at the ceiling, and Trixie could surmise he was thinking about Ditzy Doo, who rented out the apartment above the post office. Like all the other Elements of Harmony, the Element of Kindness, Ditzy, would be going with Trixie as a Champion of Equestria. Trixie wasn’t too worried. While often a soft hearted soul, and among the nicest ponies Trixie had ever had the pleasure of knowing, Ditzy had never failed to come through in a pinch when matters got serious. Besides, these were just games.

“I wouldn’t worry,” she told Silver Script with a confident nod, “It’s a contest, not a war.”

Silver Script didn’t look entirely convinced, a small line of worry forming on his forehead, “I suppose. Just, great gran said that it was the only time she’d ever seen somepony get real hurt, during that contest... I’d hate to think of anything happening to Ditzy, you know? Mare’s got a heart bright as the moon, but she’s not exactly what I’d call the competitive type.”

“Where is she anyway?” asked Trixie, paying out the needed amount as Pokey finished sorting the mail that needed sending and Silver Script counted up their postage cost.

“Out doing her rounds, ”Silver Script said with a sigh, “I tried to get her to take the week off, but she insisted working up all the way to today.”

Trixie frowned slightly, “Her choice, as long as she’s ready to go by this afternoon.”

“Oh, she will be, don’t worry Miss Trixie!” said a chirping, cheerful voice from the stairs, and down bounced the light lavender form of Dinky Doo, carrying the first of several bags in a shimmer of magic. Trixie was impressed, the young unicorn filly’s magical skill was improving. Probably in no small part in thanks to Trixie’s tutelage, but also, Trixie had to admit, because Twilight had also started to help with teaching some of Ponyville’s foals some of the magical basics. Dinky wasn’t overtaxing herself or gripping too hard with her magic, at least not as often anymore, and Trixie felt a small burst of pride at the way Dinky easily carried a full suitcase down the stairs behind her with seemingly minimal strain.

“What’s with the suitcase?” asked Pokey, “You help your mom pack, kiddo?”

Dinky pouted a little as she set the suitcase down, “No. I mean, yes, but this bag is mine! I’m going with all of you!”

Trixie blinked. Ditzy hadn’t mentioned bringing Dinky along. Then again, Trixie supposed there wasn’t any reason Ditzy couldn’t bring her daughter to the Contest. It just seemed odd. Who would watch Dinky while Ditzy was participating in the Contests’ events?

Pokey seemed to be thinking the same thing, from the way he looked at Trixie questioningly, and Trixie went up to Dinky with a warm, but quizzical smile, “Did your mother agree to this, Dinky?”

“Of course she did,” Dinky said, just a little defensively, but meeting Trixie’s eyes, and certainly not sounding like she was making anything up, “I’m supposed to be on my best behaviour, and I will be! I won’t run off, or get in trouble, or anything. I really wanted to see griffins! Oh, and do you think there will be any minotaurs there? Miss Cheerilee was teaching us about them yesterday and they sound so cool!”

“There probably will be,” Trixie said, “Uh, did your mother mention if anypony was supposed to be looking after you while we’re there?”

Dinky nodded, “Uh-huh! When I’m not with mom, I’m supposed to stick around Mr. and Mrs. Drops and do what they say.”

Ah, so that was it. Trixie didn’t have any immediate family in Ponyville, but some of her friends did. Of course Raindrops would want her parents and probably her little brother there to cheer her on, and she imagined that Bon Bon would probably accompany Lyra as well.

“That’s good then,” said Trixie, patting Dinky on the head, “Your mother will be able to do twice as good, knowing you’ll be in the stands rooting for her.”

Dinky’s smile was the kind that could turn the most gloomy room into a shining place, “I’ll be sure to cheer for all of you, but I’ll be cheering for mom the loudest! I just know you’ll all do great! I don’t think there’s anyone out there who's as cool as my mom and her friends!”

---------

A crisp, cold wind swept through the mountain tops, their peaks ever frosted with snow even with spring in full swing. A sprawling vista of deep forested valleys was covered by sky bound lakes of rolling white clouds. As the wind flowed past curving mountain spires it flowed into the midst of a grand city spanning three close knit mountain peaks that towered into the cerulean sky.

Arcadius, capital roost of Grandis, largest of the Griffin Kingdoms.

Once, in ancient times, the ramparts of the many stout city towers, laced together with fortified walkways and sky bridges, was the home of the Emperor of All the Griffs. That was when the land was unified and ruled by a single griffin bloodline, however, centuries in the past. Even in the modern day, though, much of the old architecture of the fortress roost remained intact, a testament to a time when the right to rule among the griffin’s was synonymous with the might of the ruler. Arrow slits and old ballistae mounts still dotted tower tops, even in the oldest and most dilapidated parts of the city. City streets could still be barred by thick portcullis gates and interior corridors were still marked by murder holes and dead ends. Walls carved from gray mountain stone enclosed city blocks like the rings in a tree trunk, fortifications and towers stacked one atop the other in a interwoven lace of defensive structures that were both occupied and well maintained in every quadrant of the city.

Despite its militaristic appearance the city had long since been converted to a place primarily concerned with being the beating commercial heart of the Griffin Kingdoms, with a quarter of a million residents bound in its ancient stone walls and deep mountain corridors. The banners that flew from rampart tops and hung over arched doorways were the royal blue and white of Grandis, alongside the gilded black and gold of its royal family, the House of Kraus.

The lower tiers of the city were a bustle of activity, the vast open markets a churning sea of griffins going about their day to day, merchants wheeling and dealing with locals and travelers alike, and huge quantities of coin exchanging talons every hour. Other species traveled to Arcadius as well, tourists, merchants, and even a healthy stream of adventurers and mercenaries. Unlike its southern neighbor of Equestria, the Griffin Kingdoms was often still be a dangerous place. Much of its deeper mountain valleys were untamed wilderness, where wild monsters roamed, and dangerous bandits made roost to prey on the unwary. The existence of many still unexplored ruins from the old Griffin Empire drew explorers and adventurers seeking to make their fortune from many corners of the world, and the ever present threat of monsters and rogues against struggling settlements created a booming market for sellswords who made their living through the second oldest profession.

Above the teeming residential and market sectors was the regimented military sector, with barracks and training grounds carefully kept pristine amid neatly ordered defense towers that were still armed with catapults and ballistae. Here hundreds of griffins flew in ordered ranks, going about daily training and patrols, the warriors of the House of Kraus training separately from Arcadius’ less prestigious but more numerous City Watch. Here was the kingdom’s largest concentration of military forces, housing and maintaining no less than half the kingdom’s army in its squat stone barracks, a force that would make even the most determined potential invaders hesitate to target the city.

Higher still than the military sector was Arcadius’ highest tier, the final stout towers of the noble sector. Here each noble House from across Grandis had a residential manor, and every one of the other Kingdoms that made up the alliance of the Griffin Kingdoms had an tower of their own for their chosen ambassadors. The streets were a riot of colors as each House and Kingdom displayed their own heraldry prominently, and griffins in the finery of their own Kingdoms strode through the polished stone streets with purpose in their steps. The finery they wore was, while ostentatious as could be expected, also durable and practical; much like the griffin’s themselves.

Finally, at the very peak of Arcadius’ highest peak, was the Talon; the former palace fortress of the Emperor, now the royal seat of King Gruber Kraus and wife, Queen Helga. The Talon was a solid triangular tower of stone and iron, as if someone tried to forge the blade of a sword out of the very mountain peak itself. Its surface was carved with elegant, yet deadly purpose. Hooked barbs the size of houses ran its height and jutting buttresses, like massive arrowheads, stemmed at regular intervals from the fortress walls; places where the griffins newest and most deadly iron-cast rapid-fire scorpion launchers were emplaced. These deadly weapons were larger than four griffin’s standing abreast, and were loaded with barbed steel shafts longer than a dragon’s talon, an intentional similarity as the scorpion launchers were designed with the notion of defending the fortress from dragon attack.

It was at the peak of this fortress palace, amid a large balcony garden, that griffin’s gathered in a former circle around two other griffins who were locked in a graceful but violent dance.

The air sang with the voice of steel meeting steel as members of the nobility looked on with eager eyes, many making loud comments amongst their companions as to which combatant was likely to win.

An elderly griffin, her crest of feathers tipped with equal parts red and gray, swug a sinuously thin blade with the speed of a pouncing mountain cat. She wore the royal black and gold of the House of Kraus upon a surcoat, and the clasping talon crest of the House’s personal guard upon her breast.

Her opponent parried her viciously fast assault with a broader bladed sword, one with a blade that seemed to drink in the morning sunlight and turn it red. The wielder of this sword was a young griffiness, no older than twenty summers, with a crest of feathers tipped a darker shade of red than the elder griffin, and a fun loving gleam in her orange eyes. She wore a simple green doublet with a gold sword and wings patch upon the shoulders; the sigil of the Border Legion.

“Slowing down in your old age, mother?” the younger griffiness teased, “You don’t seem as fast as I remember!”

The young griffin threw a fast side swipe to knock aside the elder griffin’s thinner blade and followed with a fast upper slash. However the elder griffin smirked and side-stepped, a beat of her wings sending her airborne for a moment as she twisted her tail around the younger griffin’s wrist and pulled. With a startled yelp the young griffin found herself on her back on the soft green grass of the garden. She quickly rolled aside before the elder could get the point of her blade to the young one’s throat.

Brushing grass off her coat, the young griffin eyed her elder more warily as the two circled each other, the elder laughing in a rich tone that showed the energy of a woman much younger than her older years would suggest.

“Fast enough for you,” she said, green eyes flashing dangerously, “Do not mistake me for one of your bumbling bandits. You will not find me as easy a target.”

The younger griffin snorted, but smiled, “My apologies, mother. I suppose I’ve spent so long from home, doing real fighting, I’ve forgotten that some of the old guard still know which end of the sword to hold.”

There was a murmur of voices among the watching nobles, a few heads of neck feathers ruffling from the young griffin's’ comment. Many a set of golden eyes narrowed at the young upstart as she continued to spar with her elder. Soon the constant melodious clang of steel reached a rising crescendo, long blade and thin blade becoming glinting silvery bands of steel in the morning sunlight as they danced. With a final crossing of edges the longsword was sent flipping end over end into the air, landing point first in the grass a few strides from its owner, who had the thin blade of her parent’s rapier tipped under her chin.

“Well...?” the elder said with a coy smile.

Gwendolyn Var Bastion held up her talons and grinned with a rueful gleam in her eyes, “Fine! Fine! I yield.”

Beatrice Var Bastion’s beak curved in a warm smile and she sheathed her sword, putting a talon on her daughter’s shoulder as the gathered noble’s clapped their applause at the display of sword skill, “Retrieve your blade, young one. That was a well fought match.”

Gwendolyn hopped over and grasped her sword, the faintly red bladed longsword sinking into an ornate black leather and gold filagree sheath attached to her flank, “So, seriously, how much were you holding back?”

Beatrice’s laugh was a rich, full thing, a sound that was filled with a kind of hearty warmth that had won over many a recruit to the Kraus’ military forces. The two female griffins went among the crowd, the nobles parting for the pair while they strode to a table of ready refreshments. Beatrice poured herself and her daughter fresh cups of wine and offered once, Gwendolyn taking the steel goblet gladly and downing half in one go.

“Not as much as I would have liked, to tell the truth,” Beatrice said, but her smile didn’t dwindle as she regarded her daughter, “You truly have become a skilled fighter, Gwen. I’m proud of you.”

Gwendolyn choked down the rest of her wine, hiding the rosy tinge on her beak by wiping it with one arm and pretending to look out over the city below, gazing over the old stone railing of the wide balcony, “Yeah, well, I didn’t do it just to earn praise from the higher ups.”

Gwendolyn’s tone took on a faint hint of anger as she gazed back at her mother, “My unit has been cleaning up a lot of messes along the borders, and we haven’t had an easy time of it. The problem is made worse by the interference from those feather-brained lords who think that merely because they hold a higher station than I, that they have the right to meddle.”

“They do, my headstrong daughter. You and your band have abandoned your duties and ignored orders. By rights that would make you all criminals,” Beatrice pointed out, naturally looming over her offspring in that manner any displeased parent learns to perfect, “That stunt you pulled with the Equestrians was one thing, as you managed to scrape some benefit for us out of that fiasco, and were not technically going against orders. Now, however, you’ve actively disobeyed orders on several occasions. You and your soldiers are fortunate that your success, and the friendship you’ve forged with that waif of a border queen has earned you consideration when most in your place would be looking at charges of treason.”

Gwendolyn smiled thinly, going back to the table to get more wine, “I do what needs doing, its nothing special. I’d be nothing without those who follow me.”

“Ah, yes, your precious Band of the Red Shield. Saving towns and kingdoms alike from bandit hordes and roving monsters, all the while flaunting the command of the kingdom you originally swore fealty to.”

“Hey, I’m here, aren’t I. I came at the king’s call,” said Gwendolyn defensively, “The Band isn’t disloyal, but we do operate far away from the capital, and we do rove between borders of other kingdoms.”

“Expressly a thing forbidden by treaty, as I recall,” said Beatrice, tone growing sterner, “No member of the Alliance of Griffin Kingdoms will send military units into the lands of their brethren, unless by official sanction by the Council of Sovereigns.”

Gwendolyn shrugged, “Hagatha asked for my help. Then asked the Band to stick around in her lands for a spell, as her kingdom did have a bit of a problem.”

“Problems that her own kingdom’s army should have handled, not a vigilante unit of young griffins from our kingdom’s border guard,” said Beatrice sharply, sipping her own wine slowly, “You do remember you’re a border guard company of this kingdom, right?”

“If it helps fellow griffins what does it matter?” retorted Gwendolyn with a sharp snap of her own, glaring out at the other nobles, most of which were pretending to carry on with their own conversations while listening in on the guard captain and her prickly daughter. Gwendolyn continued, raising her voice, “The Alliance of Griffin Kingdoms is cracking! Nobles who spend too much time in their mountaintop roosts are forgetting the common griffin’s plight, struggling against growing populations of monsters, and more and more young griffin’s turning to banditry to feed themselves; entire roosts turning against their own kind! Its not noticable yet here in the central kingdoms, but border kingdoms like those of Queen Hagatha’s Farhills are growing desperate. They cannot be blamed if they seek aid from wherever they can, and you know what, our kingdom should’ve been the first to offer aid! Me and the Band are doing what’s right.”

“And the people sing your praises for doing so,” said a boisterous and loud voice from across the balcony. Entering onto the wide balcony was a wide chested and tall male griffin with dark gray and black spotted feathers and a regal gold lion’s coat. He wore a shining gold breastplate over a fine silk black doublet, an equally black and gold trim royal cape flowing from his back. King Gruber Var Kraus, King of Grandis, strood with long bold steps among the higher ranks of his nobles. At his side was Queen Helga, almost as wide as her husband and a good head taller, wearing a fine shimmering gold dress spun with black patterns of birds of prey in flight. Her light white feathers complimented her husband’s dark ones, and her coat matched his save for being a shade darker.

The king approached Gwendolyn and Beatrice with a wide, welcoming smile, though Gwendolyn noticed one of his talons never strayed far from the broad bladed sword belted to his side, “From one corner of Grandis to the other I hear the cries say ‘The Band strikes against the corrupt and protects the people!’. From every tavern door I hear young, drunk griffins sing songs of your gallant battle at Brairthorn Mountain against the wicked sorceress Catrina! My own nobles at court whisper of how the griffins in Farhills take up arms, desperate to join your Band of the Red Shield to defend their homes against kobolds, hobgoblins, cave lurks, and dreaded dire wargs. Queen Hagatha herself has written me, imploring that we not look upon your actions as treason for disobeying your commanding officers, but instead see your heroics for what they are; true testament to the spirit that unifies the Griffin Kingdoms!”

Gwendolyn respectfully bowed her head to her king, though perhaps not quite as low as she should have, and received a brief elbow from her mother because of it. She raised her head slightly, though shot a slight irritated glance at Beatrice.

“You are kind to say so, your majesty,” she said, voice betraying none of the rancor boiling inside her. Being forced to show respect to the king should not have been a matter a young griffin would take issue with, but a natural matter of course. The king should have been the griffin in all the kingdom most worthy of such respect, earning his position because of what he did, not because he’d been born into.

“I am? Of course I am! Hah, don’t act so stiff, young Gwendolyn,” King Gruber said, smacking her on the back, and causing the watching nobles to grin along with their king, and Gwen to almost stumble. Much as she disliked the king, she couldn’t deny he was a big griffin, and had enough muscle to back that size, “Come, come, let us talk. You too Beatrice! For once I’ve given you a day off of guarding my prodigious flank and you spend it with your sword still attached to your hide like its a part of you. Today is a great day, and one to celebrate.”

“Ahem, of course, your majesty,” said Beatrice, somewhat stiffly, “Though I’ll remind you that you too are wearing a sword, even on such a fine day.”

“Yes, well, you’d chew my head off if I didn’t. Gwendolyn, did you know your mother has been sparring with me herself, ensuring this sovereign doesn’t get too flabby in the arms.”

“I’m certain you give her quite the workout, your majesty,” Gwendolyn said dryly.

“I do at that, though you couldn’t tell from the way she keeps insisting I practice! Phah, I’m certain my father didn’t have to put up with such a nag as a captain of his guards, but she’s too good at her job for me to justify firing her,” the king said, though the grin he gave Beatrice was joking and well meaning. Gwendolyn clenched her beak shut. King Gruber’s manner was much as she remembered before being posted to the Border Legion. A good natured fellow, with a lot of presence... but he never took anything seriously.

Like the state of Grandis’ less fortunate neighbors along the border lands.

“Dearest, perhaps we should tell the young Gwendolyn why we summoned her here to our fair city, before she combusts,” said Queen Helga with a coy smile, having acquired a fine crystal cup of wine that she drank while watching Gwendolyn with glittering eyes.

“Huh? Oh, yes, yes, I’m surprised none here have let it slip already! Beatrice, you didn’t tell your daughter what she’s been brought all the way from Farhills for?”

“I have not, your majesty. I thought perhaps you would like the pleasure of revealing it for yourself,” said Beatrice, who was giving Gwendolyn a strange look, one Gwendolyn couldn’t quite decide if it was pride or concern. Both?

“Ah, and right you are Beatrice, I was looking forward to telling young Gwendolyn the good news myself,” said King Gruber, a wry grin on his face. Gwendolyn paused, giving both the king and her mother a curious look, and also noticing the way that Queen Helga was hiding a smirk behind her wine goblet.

“Gwendolyn Var Bastion,” the king intoned, and the other nobles hushed up their conversations to listen in, gathering around, “It is by my royal decree and with great pleasure I hereby declare you as a Champion of the Realm, to represent in all honors the Kingdom of Grandis and the Griffin Kingdoms at the Contest of Champions!”

The king paused briefly after his proclamation, and Gwendolyn didn’t miss the sidelong glance he gave his wife. Queen Helga didn’t nod or acknowledge the look, but did smile at Gwendowlyn. Next to her, Beatrice was giving Gwendolyn a look of solemn pride.

Gwendolyn could only tilt her head in confusion.

“I’m the what doing what in the where now?”

----------

“Don’t know why you’re so worried Carrot Top,” said Lyra as she casually flipped through a thick, blue colored tome, her horn’s magic turning the pages as she lounged on the couch in her unique slouch that to most ponies looked both unnatural and uncomfortable, but for Lyra felt entirely relaxing.

Across from Lyra, sitting on a plush sitting cushion, Carrot Top gave Bon Bon a thankful nod as the other earth pony mare brought in a tray of fresh jelly-filled pastries.

“I’m not that worried, I just wonder what’s expected of us, is all,” Carrot Top said, taking one of the pastries up in her mouth and munching it down, then smiling at Bon Bon “Mmm, thanks, these are great.”

“No problem. Just had some leftover mix and didn’t feel like letting it go to waste,” the confectionist said with a grin, taking a seat next to Lyra and leaning into her affectionately, a move Lyra returned with a relaxed smile as she continued to look through the tome.

“Nothing too tough, I figure. We go there, represent Equestria like a bunch of bosses, eat lots of good grub, take in some cultural flavor, then come on back home.”

Carrot Top frowned, munching on another pastry, “Didn’t sound quite like that when Luna told us we were going last month. She made it sound, I don’t know... like it was going to involve some fighting.”

A small grimace played across the farm pony’s face and Lyra’s easy grin faltered a bit, her expression sobering.

“Well, yeah, but its just friendly contests from what I gather. Each nation sends its Champions, who compete in a bunch of events, some of which are, yes, martially oriented. C’mon Carrot Top, its not like it’ll be like on Tambelon, or your run-in with that crazy Lemon Hearts mare.”

The carrot farmer nodded once, unable to keep a troubled crease from forming on her brow as she thought of the dangers she and her friend’s had faced in dealing with the powerful necromancer, Grogar, or her own close call encountering a mad mare who’d stolen a rather nasty artifact from vicerne Puissance. Each instance had held moments of pure terror for Carrot Top, though she’d come through all those times, and many other troubles that’d come into her previously simple life since becoming a bearer for the Element of Generosity, relatively unscathed. Carrot Top loved helping others, and wanted to believe she’d be willing to give anything of herself to be able to keep doing so, but recent events made her wonder if she was really cut out for a life that would always be fraught with life threatening danger, or just how much she could really help. Lyra sought to dismiss the gloom by smiling brightly and leaned forward, fixing Carrot Top with enthusiastic eyes.

“This is going to be fun, Carrot Top, I guarantee it! We’ll get to meet a whole bunch of folk from different lands, and see a slice of their culture; the music, the food, the dances! A little sparring with a few of their Champions won’t be so bad for basically getting an all expenses paid vacation for ten days! Plus, who knows, we might do well! We’re not exactly wet behind the ears ourselves. Luna chose us for more than us being the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. We’ve come a long way, this past year, and the Princess knows it. Personally I can’t wait to see a cervid skald in action. Their storytelling skills and music are practically legend. In fact, that’s kind of the point!”

Carrot Top couldn’t help but laugh warmly, sharing her friend’s smile, and pushing away her lingering doubts, “You’re right. I’m just... nervous. I’m a farm mare, not a warrior, and have seen more combat than I’d ever wanted to already. I’m not really comfortable being shoved into more like this. I bet Trixie is just loving this though. A massive festival with all eyes on her, as an official Champion of Equestria on top of being a Knight of the Realm? That’s right up her alley. She’s got a free licence to show off to her heart’s content.”

“Looking forward to this myself,” said Bon Bon, “I’ve gone to a few baker conventions, to show off new recipes, but this is going to be way bigger than those. The Princess is setting me up with a booth right alongside some of Equestria’s best chefs. Its a pretty huge opportunity for me, even if the main reason I’m going is so I can be cheering you guys on.”

Lyra nuzzled Bon Bon, “And I’ll be fueled by the power of your love to conquer all and achieve total victory!”

Bon Bon snorted affectionately and gave Lyra a playful bonk on the head, “Be serious, hun.”

Lyra grinned, giving Bon Bon’s ear a nibble, “I’m always serious.”

Carrot Top coughed politely, “You two want some, ahem, ‘alone time’ before the train leaves this afternoon?”

Bon Bon and Lyra, suddenly both realizing they still had a guest in the room, pulled away from each other a bit, though Carrot Top noted not so far they couldn’t still keep their hooves around one another.

“N-nah, sorry Carrot,” Lyra said, “Anyway, you came to ask me about the Contest, but was there anything you specifically needed to know, besides what we’d be doing?”

Carrot Top sighed, fidgeting slightly on her cushion. She had a hard time putting proper words to her worries, because so far her anxiety was a vague sense in her consciousness. It was just that, ever since Princess Luna had gathered her and the other Element bearers in Canterlot last month and told them of the Contest of Champions and that they’d be competing Carrot Top had a sinking feeling in her gut that she hadn’t been able to shake. She hadn’t shared her worry with her friends until today, on impulse coming over to ask Lyra if she’d learned any details about the Contest, since Carrot Top knew Lyra was studying the Contest.

“I wish I could tell you something concrete Lyra,” Carrot Top said, “I just... I don’t know, I just got a bad feeling. Like when I know there’s something wrong with my crop, even if I can’t see the rabbit in the field. Its a gut feeling, that’s all. I was hoping maybe you’d found something in your studies that’d explain why I got such a vibe off of this.”

“What, like the Contest is secretly a sacrificial ritual to some demon from Tartarus?” Lyra laughed, “I think we’ve already covered our yearly quota for uncovering ancient evils. Nah, from what I can tell, the Contest is just to honor the fallen champions from a war that happened about twelve hundred years ago. Details are sparse in Equestrian texts on what really happened. Seriously, I’ve been through half a dozen tomes like this one,” she waved the book around in her magic for emphasis, “And I can’t even get any names! Who wants to hear a story where you don’t even know the heroes’ names? Anyway I’m really hoping I’ll meet lots of storytellers from the other nations at the Contest, so I can piece together the story from them.”

Carrot Top accepted Lyra’s words with the barest of nods, seeming to relax as she ate another pastry, but she just couldn’t shake that gut feeling coiling around her heart like a icy snake. Perhaps it was just nerves. Perhaps.

----------

“You’re set upon this course then?” asked the zebra mare, her mane, braided with beads ranging from ocean blue to blood red, waving in the heated desert breeze.

Tendaji, not looking back, nodded once, “I am.”

The mare walked with steady, smooth steps beside him, and Tendaji couldn’t help but tense, both in a thrill of fear, and love; a heady combination. Would she try to stop him? She was within both her rights, as his wife, and had the ability, as she’d proven on many occasions. In every way, Aisha was his superior.

“Some wives would be enraged when their husband obsesses over another mare,” she said, in that light, teasing tone that was halfway between a laugh and a warning. It was one of many qualities of hers that he’d fallen in love with.

Still, he kept his eyes firmly set upon the road ahead, “It is not this pony’s qualities as a mare that holds my interest. It is the quality of her spirit, and that it may speak to my own in a way you well know I seek in others, and rarely find.”

Aisha made a small clucking noise, shaking her head, braids swaying again, and lightly brushing his neck, “Then I must accompany you. I would like to meet this pony whose ‘spirit’ has drawn my husband’s eye.”

Tendaji’s first instinct was to forbid it. He then immediately recalled to whom he was speaking and realized that if he wished to not have to replace any teeth with a potion he’d best accept his wife’s words. Besides, having her along might not be a detriment, though it irked him to think that Aisha would undoubtable take an unhealthy interest in the object of his quest before Tendaji would have the opportunity to challenge the pony properly.

His mind went back to the mare in question; the pegasus named Raindrops. As he’d told his wife, his interest was not based upon anything as plain as lust. Certainly, by the standards of ponies, he supposed Raindrops might have qualities that were desirable, but his interest was more a spiritual and martial matter.

Raindrops had thwarted him in physical combat. It had happened months ago, when Tendaji had been working for a criminal organization in Equestria that used him as a ‘problem-solver’ and expert in the behavior of animals. Among the organizations many avenues of making profit in the otherwise peaceful and seemingly crime free nation of ponies, things such as the smuggling of animals for illegal races, exotic pets, and less... pleasant was a business that could earn no small number of bits. One such operation in a remote village in the south of Equestria had required Tendaji’s personal attention due to complications involving some local wildlife, a crazed noblemare, and some of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.

To Tendaji the details were not important, his job had simply been to ensure the smooth continuation of the smuggling operation. But he had failed in that task, in no small part due to the bearer of the Element of Honesty, Raindrops.

Though unskilled and seemingly only inducted in the very basics of Iron Hoof martial arts, Raindrops had still proved to be a confounding opponent who’d evaded his attacks multiple times.

Rather than be bitter over this, Tendaji was... engaged. There was something in his spirit that resonated with the pegasus mare, and he wished to explore that connection. He’d quit his employment with the criminal organization, after needing to... convince them that retaliating against him for his permanent severing of employment would be unprofitable. Returning to his homeland and his wife, Tendaji worked to prepare himself for his next meeting with Raindrops.

Fortunately he knew exactly where he would meet her again.

“Your father has gotten quite far ahead of us,” he remarked, nodding down the long, sandy road they walked. In the shimmering distance of the wide, dry plain another zebra, an elderly male in a tattered brown cloak and sporting a start white mane done in a single long, intricate braid was walking along with a spry gait utterly belying the wrinkles of his age.

The old zebra turned and called to the two younger ones, “Pick up your hooves and your pace! I could have been halfway across the continent in the time it takes you two lovey-dovey foals to snuggle and snog! And boy, you’d best not be thinking of doing any of that whilst on the train! I am not pretending to sleep through that.”

Aisha chuckled, “Father is eager. I cannot recall the last time he had an excuse to go out in public, at the behest of the Gathering of Chieftains no less.”

“We can thank the return of the pony’s unpleasant self-proclaimed Queen for this turn of events,” Tendaji said as they picked up their pace to try and catch up with the rather quick old zebra, “Were it not for Corona, and the suspicion she has cast upon us zebra for her association with one of our own, we would not be going to this auspicious Contest of Champions.”

Aisha looked as if she tasted something sour, and Tendaji resisted the urge to run a hoof along her neck to relax her.

“One zebra’s stubbornness has cost our people much then,” Aisha said, shaking her head, “I cannot imagine what she is thinking!”

“Perhaps you’ll one day have a chance to ask her,” Tendaji said. Aisha spat.

“I’m as like to give her a solid whack upside the head. Zecora... bah, she followed her own path when we were foals, she does so now, no matter what the consequences may be.”

“But that is why we go to the Contest,” Tendaji reminded her, “Nuru is among the most respected masters of our fighting arts, and many a Chief has sought his wisdom in matters of statecraft. He is a natural choice to represent us.”

“As are you,” Aisha said, calming from her short bout of fury, and now giving Tendaji a small smile of pride, “They chose you as well.”

Tendaji shrugged as if the fact was of no consequence. Which to him, it wasn’t, outside of the useful fact that it allowed him to pursue his goal in a more interesting fashion than if he just arrived in Ponyville out of the blue to challenge Raindrops to a finishing of their bout there in the town square.

...He had considered doing precisely that practically the day after the incident in the village of Oaton, but he’d already heard rumor that master Nuru would be chosen to represent the zebras at the Contest of Champions. Knowing that, it was easy to surmise that he, the master’s greatest pupil, would also be chosen. It was also no small feat of logic to guess that Raindrops, as one of the vaunted Element Bearers, would be one of Equestria’s chosen Champions.

There was no need to go to Ponyville.

A much grander stage was already being set for them.

“Yes,” he said, “They chose me. How I wonder what my family would think, were they alive? The Chieftains who refused to aid us in our time of need, now calling upon me, the last survivor of my village, to represent all of our people as a Champion? You and I both know I am anything but a Champion.”

Aisha’s hoof hit his side lightly, barely more than a brushing tap, but it had the instant effect of paralyzing his legs and making him drop like a threshed wheat. He saw her irritated tail flick as she continued to stride down the road as he lay there, still fully capable of breathing, but with limbs that wouldn’t be working for at least the next hour.

“When you are done pitying yourself, husband, do catch up with us,” she said in a clipped tone, giving him a sharp eyed look with her painfully sky blue eyes.

When she was out of earshot Tendaji let himself laugh, only reminded further of why he loved the mare so much. She did keep him honest.

While he waited for his extremities to regain feeling he contemplated the future, and what it held for himself and very unsuspecting jasmine coated pegasus mare. .

----------

Raindrops twisted to the left, springing off the ground with her hind hooves while keeping her fore hooves up in the ready position to strike. However her opponent hadn’t fallen for her feint, instead following Raindrops’ movements without relaxing her own guard. Gritting her teeth in frustration Raindrops went ahead and threw a hard right jab, only to find that she overextended herself.

Her opponent took full advantage of Raindrops’ overbalance and in seconds Raindrops felt her hoof grabbed, wrenched, and her whole body flipped end over flank until she was deposited back first on the soft grass, staring up at the irritatingly (to Raindrops at least) cheerful visage of Cheerilee, the blue sky above framing her smiling face.

“You okay down there?” Cheerilee asked, harmless mirth mixed with mild concern in her voice.

“Yeah, yeah,” Raindrops said, propping herself up with one hoof while rubbing the back of her head with the other, teal mane ruffling as she shook her head, “Not even bruised. I’m good to keep going.”

“Actually, we should call it here,” said Cheerilee, offering a hoof to help up Raindrops, which the pegasus gladly accepted. Cheerilee glanced up at the sun, just cresting the trees to the east, “Trixie would throw a fit if we showed up in Canterlot looking like we’d been through a tavern brawl. We can take the rest of the day to clean up, relax a spell. You coming to my sister’s for breakfast?”

Raindrops took a moment to consider, stretching her tired, sore limbs. She and Cheerilee had been sparring for most the morning. It was not uncommon these days, that one or more of Raindrops friends would join her for exercise, and on some occasions some actual hoof-to-hoof combat training. Raindrops wasn’t sure how she felt about that. For one thing, she hardly felt qualified to be teaching anypony Iron Hoof, or even just the basics of hoof fighting. Cheerilee was, in many ways, more experienced. No formal training, but Cheerilee had a certain edge to the way she fought. There was no hesitation in her strikes, and she seemed to know where all the weak points on a pony’s body were at. Cheerilee never ceased smiling, and never sought to actually hurt Raindrops, but... there were times Raindrops was fully reminded of why Cheerilee was a mare she never wanted to fight for real. The other thing was that, not too long ago, it was just her and Trixie sharing morning exercises in Raindrops secluded area of the Whitetail Forest.

Why that actually mattered Raindrops didn’t really know, but for some reason it did slightly irk her. Not that she minded helping all her friends with keeping in shape and staying sharp with learning some needed fighting skills, but she’d kind of liked it when it’d just been her and Trixie’s little thing.

But she couldn’t deny the need. With every passing month it seemed like her and her friends couldn’t go without some disaster befalling Ponyville, or calling them out somewhere to face danger, if not from Corona and the alicorn’s growingly dangerous schemes, then from some other source.

Some part of her still hadn’t accepted it, but the truth was the truth.

We’re Knights of the Realm, now. We can’t pretend anymore that we’re just normal ponies going about our daily lives. How long can I keep playing at being a weathermare, like my life is ever going to be normal again? Corona is coming... and even if we beat her, what’s next? What other dangers will be out there? Another Grogar? Something worse? Life is never going back to normal, and I think everypony is finally starting to realize that.

“Helloooo, Equestria to Raindrops? Anypony home?” Cheerilee asked, waving a hoof worriedly in front of Raindrops’ face.

Raindrops blinked, realizing she’d been staring off into space. Giving Cheerilee a reassuring nod she said, “Sorry. Just thinking.”

“A practice I fully endorse,” Cheerilee said with a warm smile, “About anything you’re up for sharing, or super-secret private stuff? I do love some juicy inner monologue.”

A soft laugh escaped Raindrops as she shook her head and nodded towards the forest path that’d take them back to Ponyville. As the two mares began to trot their way down the scenic path Raindrops said, “Not private or secret. Actually I feel like we’ve all been thinking about this lately, even if it hasn’t really come up much.”

She took a second to try and figure out how to phrase what was in her head, while Cheerilee waited patiently with an encouraging smile.

“I was thinking about how much has changed, and how much things are going to keep changing,” she said at length, looking up at the sky with a searching gaze, as if it’d hold some answers for her in its cerulean depths, “There are some days I wake up and expect to find out this past year was all some weird dream. Corona never returned to threaten the whole dang world. We never got chosen by some primal elemental powers of harmony to protect Equestria. I certainly never fought hoof-to-hoof with a basilisk, or a runaway golem, or a phoenix for moon’s sake! We’ve even been Knighted. It’s just... I don’t know. Cheerilee, you can’t tell me you thought this is what you’d be doing, a few years back?”

Cheerilee’s laugh was light, understanding, and lifted some of Raindrops’ anxiety, “Oh no, no, no. My plans for this time in my life involved leading the next generation of young minds into discovering the joys of education, completing my collection of exotic south equatorial fish species, and maybe, finally, finding a special somepony to share my life with. Monster fighting and Knighthood weren’t anywhere near the top of the list. We’re talking number twenty or twenty one on the list, tops.”

At the other mare’s joking wink Raindrops chuckled, “Right, so I’m the only crazy one, then? No worries about the future from you?”

“Of course I’m worried,” Cheerilee said, for a second her expression and tone turning serious, “Trust me, I know that our lives are getting more dangerous. I think we all figured that out on Tambelon, Raindrops. Just because the others hide it doesn’t mean they don’t have the same concerns you do.”

Raindrops didn’t feel entirely satisfied with that, but nodded her head anyway, “Guess I should’ve figured that. I just hope that a day’ll come when I don’t have to wonder, somewhere in the back of my head, if today’s the day something happens, and we can’t handle it.”

Cheerilee’s eyes softened, giving a sympathetic nod, which Raindrops was grateful for. She knew Cheerilee had quite the adventurous lifestyle before settling down in Ponyville. Maybe out of all the mares who bore the Elements of Harmony, Cheerilee understood the fear of a future laced with danger, and the possibility of losing friends.

As they reached the edge of Whitetail Woods and turned down a wider road towards Ponyville Raindrops’ mood brightened. There might not have been any rainclouds in the sky, but even Raindrops would appreciate a clear sky every now and again. For a minute Raindrops just let the soft breeze and pleasant warmth of the morning seep into her and help her unravel some of the worry that’d been building in her like a twisted spring.

Then she heard the distant cry of a mare and her eyes snapped open from the dreamy, half-lidded look of relaxation she’d gained.

“Did you hear that?” she asked Cheerilee and the other mare nodded as she squinted, peering ahead of the road towards Ponyville.

“That sounds like Ditzy... in fact that looks like Ditzy!”

Raindrops looked where Cheerilee was concentrating, and indeed saw a small, flying gray dot rushing away from town, and heading right up the road towards them. Behind the gray dot was another figure, this one trotting on the road. Raindrops couldn’t quite make it out, but the figure was obviously chasing the gray dot, which soon enough resolved into the form of Ditzy Doo. The gray pegasus mare was in her deep blue postmare’s uniform and cap, a brown satchel of mail hanging from her back and trailing a few envelopes as she flew full-tilt towards Raindrops and Cheerilee.

Seeing her friends, Ditzy Doo immediately angled towards them, crying out, “Cheerileeeeeee! Raindropsssss! Heelllllp! Heeeee’s craaaaaazy!”

Raindrops and Cheerilee exchanged confused looks. He? Without needing to say a word to each other, however, the two mares immediately broke into a gallop to go to their friend’s aid, whatever that might entail. Soon enough they met up.

Ditzy, heaving heavy breaths, face flushed red, and wings flapping in an erratic fashion, looked at Raindrops and Cheerilee with frantic exasperation, “Thank goodness! You have to help! He’s out of his mind!”

“Ditzy, calm down, catch your breath,” Cheerilee said, not unkindly, worry clear in her eyes as she looked towards the figure approaching them at a calm canter, the one who’d been chasing Ditzy apparently, “Explain what’s going on.”

Raindrops frown was back in full force, etched on her features as she instinctively lowered her head and went into a tense, ready stance, “Yeah, who’s messing with my friends?”

Before Ditzy could catch her breath and gather her wits to answer the figure arrived, and Raindrops got a detailed view of who, and what, it was that was accosting Ditzy.

It was a cervid. One of the elkfolk, through Raindrops couldn’t tell for sure which tribe. She hadn’t seen more than a few, and knew next to nothing about them. A dusky gray coat was hidden mostly under a darker forest green cloak that was ratting with a macabre array of bones. Dour, sunken blue eyes glittered out of a hood that shadowed most of the cervid’s features save for a pair of pale white tusks jutting from the top of his mouth. Upon his back a blade was sheathed, longer than a pony’s foreleg, and its hilt clearly carved from the same kind of bones dangling from his cloak. When he spoke it was with a voice hard as rock, and cold as an icy mountain stream.

“I am not messing with the cowardly gray one,” he said, drawing back his hood, revealing a scraggly brown mane that fell around his head in a disheveled mess, his eyes boring into Ditzy, “I am Sigurd, of the Devergar, and she has challenged me! If she stops running, we can have our duel here and now!”

Author's Note:

Welcome folks, welcome to Contest of Champions, my Season 2 Lunaverse story! Whether you've been reading the Lunaverse for awhile or just discovering it, I hope you'll enjoy. Not much else I can say in the opening chapter here other than give a big thanks to all the fine folks in the Lunaverse group whose stories about this awesome alternate MLP universe keep inspiring my creative juices, and preemptive thanks to everyone who reads. Like or dislike, comment or not, anyone who takes the time out of their lives to check out my story has my sincerest thanks for doing so. As always, comments, questions, and critiques are all welcome and highly appreciated.

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