• 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 2: Dealing with Deer

Chapter 2: Dealing with Deer

Cheerilee and Raindrops found themselves exchanging glances with one another, Raindrops’ face sporting a deep, disgruntled frown that said she was more than willing to solve this issue via playing a game of Whack-A-Deer. Cheerilee just had a faintly amused twist to her lips and a quirked eyebrow, apparently less concerned and more simply curious about the situation.

“Perhaps one of you could explain exactly what’s going on?” Cheerilee asked, half to Sigurd, and half to Ditzy.

“I don’t know!” said Ditzy, pointing a hoof, her wings fluttering in agitation as if she was ready to bolt off again, “He’s nuts! I just ran into him in town, and the next thing I know he’s coming after me talking about accepting my ‘challenge’ when all I did was tell him it wasn’t nice to look at other pony’s mail!”

Sigurd’s snout wrinkled as he snorted, “You accused me of theft, pony! That is as clear a challenge as any could dare make! I have no need to steal what I want!”

Ditzy’s fear briefly turned to professional outrage as she poked her head from behind Cheerilee, wings buzzing, “But you were stealing mail! Right out of the box! It’s my duty as an appointed officer of the postal service to protect the mail of the citizens of this town. Why were you even taking letters!?”

Sigurd grunted, “I was stealing nothing. I saw you putting paper in those boxes and was satisfying my curiosity! You had no right to insult me by claiming I was thieving anything! I would’ve only read, one, perhaps three letters at most before realizing what they were and putting them back. Phah, thief, as if I would lower myself to such degrading acts of weakness as needing to steal what I could win through my own strength.”

Raindrops was still tense, ready to spring on this cervid if he made a false move, creepy looking bone-sword or no, but was glad enough when Cheerilee took a firm step forward, all the while a disarming smile on her face. Even if things went south and this Sigurd fellow didn’t back down Raindrops felt confident that between her and Cheerilee that they could subdue him. Mostly sure. Ninety percent sure. That was a sharp looking sword.

“I think I see the problem. Good Sigurd,” Cheerilee’s tone shifted, becoming something more akin to something Raindrops’ would’ve expected to hear on a stage-play of olden days knights, or from Lyra when she really got into a period piece, “My noble friend here meant no insult to your unquestionable honor, for clearly she did not know how the title of ‘thief’ would affect you so. She was merely performing her duty as one of our town’s honored couriers. Surely that is worthy of respect, and putting this matter aside without the need for a duel?”

“Hmph, you speak well for a mare of these warm, soft, southern lands,” Sigurd said, a grudging smile creeping onto his face, “Cunning, honeyed words... but lucky you we of the Dvergar respect cunning over mindless brawn, unlike some of our brethren tribes.”

He eyed Ditzy for a long few seconds, and to Ditzy’s credit she met the stare, not quite flinching but holding steady. Granted the effect was somewhat ruined by the fact she was still hiding behind Cheerilee, but the mailmare wasn’t shaking, nor looking like she was about to run away again, her wings having stopped twitching and now firmly tucked against the mailmare’s sides. After holding Ditzy’s gaze for a moment longer Sigurd nodded, as if he’d just confirmed something.

“Very well,” He bowed his head slightly to Ditzy Doo, “I will forgive your insult, gray one, for it was not given in knowledge of its meaning. Let us begin anew, our meeting. I, Sigurd, greet you and hope that, were any true thieves lurking to ransack your honorably delivered messages, that they would soon find the vengeance of your hooves upon them, noble courier!”

“Ummm, heheh, okay, thanks,” Ditzy said, slowly coming out from behind Cheerilee, one eye on Sigurd while the other wandered somewhere to the left, “I’m Ditzy Doo. Happy to meet you, and uh, not have to fight or anything! Sorry I called you crazy.”

She extended a hoof, which Sigurd took after a moment to shake, seemingly a little unfamiliar with the friendly gesture, “Crazy I did not mind, friend Ditzy. That would be a true enough statement, and doesn’t suggest I’m weak.”

“Right,” said Raindrops, trying to relax her posture and finding it a lot harder than it should have been, as if the brief confrontation had turned on a switch in her that didn’t want to switch off, “Since you’re not going to trying to hurt my friend, guess I’ll introduce myself too. Raindrops.”

“And I’m Cheerilee,” said the schoolteacher, finishing up the introductions.

“Well met to all of you,” said Sigurd, eyeing Raindrops up and down in a way that just made her mane bristle, though she couldn't place why.

“Right, so, don’t go getting all offended, but I gotta ask,” said Raindrops, “How do you not know what mail is?”

Sigurd’s features drew up in a posture that Raindrops thought looked like he wanted to charge at her, despite the way he smiled. It was... disconcerting. Raindrops couldn't tell if this guy was a threat, because all of his body language felt off. Was it a cervid thing, or just this guy in particular, she wondered?

“In Elkhiem all news is carried verbally. If I wish a friend to know something, my words will be carried to them upon the winds. Or a messenger bird. Messenger birds are cheaper, but Sigurd of Myklrdalr is not cheap, so his messages flow along the routes of wind. With a song.”

“A song?” Raindrops asked, not entirely sure she even wanted to know.

Instead of answering her question, though, Sigurd sniffed the air, his small ears twitching as he turned suddenly back towards Ponyville.

“I should return to my comrades, as I sense Wodan has sniffed out the mead hall by now and has gotten ahead in our contest!”

“Contest?” Raindrops asked.

“Mead hall?” Ditzy asked at the same time. Both mores glanced at each other. Cheerilee chuckled.

“Cervids of all tribes are renown for their love of good drink,” Cheerilee said, “Especially mead. Actually almost exclusively mead. Did you know that over forty eight different kinds of mead come from Elkhiem alone?”

“Great, but we don’t have a mead hall,” muttered Raindrops, “So this Wodan fellow is not going to finding any.”

“Oh, he probably just went to my sister’s bar,” said Cheerilee, starting to trot for Ponyville, pausing to say, “Though I know she doesn't open up the liquor cabinet this early.”

Sigurd, having started to trot with Cheerilee, though he had an odd, loping gait that didn’t look much at all like a pony’s trot to Raindrops eyes, gave the magenta mare a shocked look, “The drinking hall isn’t... open? Why would this be!? Where is one to find a fine morning drink!?”

“Ponies usually don’t start their day by getting smashed,” said Raindrops flatly, then paused, thinking, “Unless you’re a Night Court Representative. Then it seems to be a prerequisite.”

“Berry might be serving a little alcohol this morning,” Cheeilee said, “It’s the weekend, after all. But she does sell drinks other than alcohol.”

Sigurd’s incredulous expression was matched by his tone, “Strange, these pony lands, truly strange.“

----------

Despite the fact that they weren’t leaving for Canterlot for a number of hours yet, Carrot Top anxiously finished getting her home sorted out far earlier than needed. Not that there was much to actually do in that regard. Her farm was going to be looked after, once again, by a eager troop of Colt Scouts. They’d done a fine enough job when she’d gone to Tambelon that Carrot Top hardly minded the enthusiastic foals tending to the farm while she was away for the Contest, and Princess Luna had made the arrangements.

Carrot Top left her farm packed light, with just a single pair of saddlebags on and no further luggage. Part of this was simply that she didn’t need to bring much with her. She didn’t own much in the way of “formal” attire for something as seemingly prestigious as the Contest, and what little she did own didn’t seem to fit. Besides, she’d heard from Trixie that Luna herself was going to be providing some manner of appropriate dress for this affair. Carrot Top didn’t know how to feel about that, other than nervous. She had her Gala dress packed, just in case, and a few basic amenities, but no more.

There was a second reason, through, for Carrot Top’s light saddlebags.

She left her home and trotted around a bend in the road, heading towards one of the many back trails that led to the outskirts of Ponyville. As she did so she thought she heard distant shouting coming from the direction of the town square. Unable to quite make anything out, she shrugged and trotted on. She thought the shouting was coming from Berry Punch’s bar, but then that wouldn’t be all that unusual. Ponies did go to a bar to get drunk and rowdy after all.

It never occurred to her that at mid to late morning it was rather unusual for ponies to be getting that drunk.

Following a winding trail to a tall field of grass on the west end of Ponyville, Carrot Top picked up her pace, glancing around to make sure nopony was watching where she was going. There were a few Ponyvillians out and about, tending gardens, or pegasi cleaning up the morning clouds, but nopony was looking at the field Carrot Top was crossing.

Once past the tall grass Carrot Top looked ahead, at the looming edge of the Everfree Forest. Taking a deep breath she trotted past the dark tree line, following a almost invisible game trail between the thick, twisting trees. She didn’t go far into the forest. In fact the edge of the forest, the bright light of the sun, and Ponyville itself, were still just barely visible when Carrot Top reached her destination.

It was a very plain, simple shack. Recently built, but crude and lacking any polish or flare. Just a simple shack for a simple mare, doing slightly less than simple work.

The inside of the small shack was cluttered, and anypony looking at the shelves packed with beakers and vials, the thick clusters of seemingly random potted plants and jars of strange liquids, would think they were looking at somepony’s discarded and forgotten junk rather than the lab of a hobbyist budding into...

What? Carrot Top wondered as she started to go over the shelves, selecting various herbs, vines, flowers, and roots as she identified the ones she thought she might need the most, Budding into what? This is just a hobby. Just me tinkering with a few neat properties that anypony could find if they bothered to learn the methods.

Not that Carrot Top denied her growing knowledge of herbalism and alchemy were turning out to be useful. On Tambelon, and more recently in Canterlot, she’d discovered her talent for mixing up salves, tinctures, and even bombs, from relatively easy to harvest flora was quite useful. It’d certainly given some mafia thugs in Canterlot a few things to think about!

But this was different. At the Contest there was no telling what kind of opponents they might face. Would a few smoke or stink bombs really be enough?

She shook her head, taking a deep breath, This won’t be life or death. Relax. It won’t even matter if we win, at least not to me. Trixie might, and I can see Lyra or Cheerilee getting into it... but it won’t matter if we lose. All I have to do is my best. Help when and where I can. This will be the best benchmark we’re likely to get on how much we’ve improved before... before Corona comes.

That more than anything was what spurred Carrot Top to come to her shake and stock up on her assortment of alchemical concoctions. Corona, the Tyrant Sun, or perhaps now it was almost more accurate to call her Celestia, was likely to soon make her final gambit to make Equestria hers and declare herself Queen. Corona had clearly and firmly stated her intent to seize the throne from Luna back on Tambelon, after the deadly, all too close battle with the necromantic ram, Grogar. There wasn’t going to be any peaceful resolution between sisters, no last minute reconciliation. Corona would come, and it would be the fire and fury of the Sun against whatever resistance could be scrapped together against her.

That meant that Carrot Top and her friends had very little time to prepare themselves for that confrontation. The Contest of Champions, perhaps there wouldn’t be a better place to test themselves. Certainly Carrot Top couldn’t imagine a more suitable way to put some of her more... experimental creations through a solid field trial.

She stocked an entirely different kit of saddlebags with all the ingredients she’d need, then swept up a pair of bandoleers that she strapped, one after another, over her chest in an X pattern. One bandoleer had pouches for smaller, thin vials; meant for potions that she or her friends could quickly imbibe. The other bandoleer had spots for larger flasks, the kind made of clay that would easily shatter on impact with something or had small fuses to light.

“Whatever happens, I’m as ready as I can make myself,” she said aloud, as if to affirm the feeling of confidence she was trying to invoke, but couldn’t quite manage.

Regardless, there was no turning back. It was time for the carrot farmer to become... whatever she was going to become. Would that mean she wouldn’t be the farmer mare anymore? Could the farmer, and the Knight, share the same, simple life?

Maybe I’ll find an answer at the Contest. Stop being so worried about what’s going to happen next, she thought to herself as she walked out of her shack...

...and ran face-first into the snout of a large, draconic beast with a maw filled with rows of curved, razor teeth.

----------

“Hey, Miss Representative, oh bestest of best customers of mine,” said Berry Punch with a remarkably calm voice as she leaned forward on her bar, fixing Trixie with a desperate look that didn’t match her voice, “Could you maybe explain to me why there’s a moose in my bar, drinking out my entire stock?”

Trixie, who’d just walked into the bar hoping to top off her own reserves of alcohol before leaving Ponyville, blanched, suddenly wishing she wasn’t the go-to mare in Ponyville for solving its Crisis-Of-The-Day. That was the job, though, and she’d like to think she’d gotten pretty good at it. Having friends she could count on certainly helped. Not that any of them were here at the moment. As far as she knew they were each getting ready to leave for Canterlot, and only for Trixie did that entail going to Ponyville’s tavern. Trixie put a hoof on her purple, star speckled magician's hat, and pulled it more firmly down on her brow.

“Don’t know. Let me ask him,” she said, and trotted further into the bar, heading for the mountain of flesh and fur that might have been a moose, or just some animated continent carved roughly into a moose shape. Trixie couldn’t even fathom how this creature had gotten into the bar! Actually, taking a closer glance at the doorframe, she noticed the wood had been warped and the walls had cracks spidering out from them. Apparently he’d just barely squeezed in.

The ‘he’ in question was at the bar’s main counter, sitting on his haunches, which still had him towering almost to the ceiling, his vast, twisting antlers scraping the ceiling beams and bouncing off one of the iron chandeliers. Even as Trixie approached, the giant of chestnut brown fur took up a barrel of Berry’s beer in a hoof about as big around as Trixie’s face, and stuffed one end of the barrel into a jutting, if smoothly oval maw with huge flaring nostrils. Dark beady eyes narrowed in contentment as teeth like flat bricks crunched down, popping the barrel open, and the moose just upended the entire barrel, foaming beer pouring down his gullet in amber rivulets.

In seconds the barrel was empty, and the moose ate the barrel, iron banding and all, with a few hearty chews.

“MMMMMmmmm,” the giant said, in grumbling rumble like a localized earthquake. His single dark eye scanned the bar, locking onto the few remaining barrels behind the bar, which Berry Punch was quick to throw herself in front of, standing on her hind legs, forelegs splayed out defensively.

“Nu-uh! No way!” the brightly colored barkeeper said firmly, “You are not getting more until I see payment!”

The moose looked at the mare as if he was seriously considering eating her before going for the remaining barrels, one of his thick bushy eyebrows raising. Trixie was fast to interject before things could escalate further, clearing her throat and sliding up next to the moose. She couldn't help but notice that she barely came up to the hip of one of his hindlegs. It was even harder to avoid noticing that, while his coat was thick and clean, his hide was covered from neck to flank in scars, the most prominent one being an oddly smooth gouge over his missing eye. Not all of them looked like normal scars either, through there were certainly no small amount of those. No, many of the scars had distinct shapes, sharp curves, angular cuts that formed sharp, bold shapes and characters. Trixie knew what they were, having seen a few in the rare magical book she’d read back in Canterlot concerning magic from other parts of the world.

Runes. This moose has runes carved into him.

That gave her a moment’s pause, before she remembered who she was. Trixie Lulamoon, Night Court Representative, Knight of the Realm, and designated Champion of Equestria! An over sized moose who’d run afoul of a kitchen knife was not going to intimidate her!

At least, not without trying, first.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, drawing herself up to her full height, though admittedly the act seemed rather silly next to someone whose head was longer than her arm, “I am Trixie Lulamoon, and I am Ponyville’s Representative with the Night Court of Princess Luna. I don’t know what things may be like in your homeland, but in Ponyville, if you go into a bar, you settle up with the bartender when she asks you too, or you stop drinking! I should know, I drink here quite often, and Berry Punch has the best stuff in town. Given your apparent interest in drinking further, you seem to agree with that assessment, so if she’s asking, pay the mare!”

She paused, trying to maintain her air of authority, but noticing that, when the moose’s biceps flexed, the individual corded muscles were thicker than knotted rope. Trixie cleared her throat and felt a sudden kinship to Ponyville’s resident veterinarian, Fluttershy.

“You know, if you want. If you have money. To pay. And don’t mind. Sir.”

Please don’t eat me., she added silently, somewhat proud to match the moose’s unblinking stare. She felt a small trickle of sweat on her neck as the moose lowered his head so he was eye to eye with her, and she could smell the beer wafting out of his nostrils as he took several deep sniffs at her.

Then the moose smiled. Trixie didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified.

She settled on both.

“I can pay. Do ponies take these?” the moose’s voice was still a bone rattling rumble, but was remarkably cordial in tone, as he reached for a thick leather sack big enough to fit a few ponies in that was slung across his back. Rummaging around in it out came a small (by the moose’s standards, a pony would have trouble carrying it) chest and tossed it at Berry. Berry cried out as she reflexively caught the chest, and the weight of it knocked her over, the lid popping open as both mare and chest hit the ground.

Gems, of an entire kaleidoscope of colors, spilled out of the chest.

Trixie was no money changing expert, but just a quick glance, and using what little she did know of Equestrian economics... Berry Punch had just been very generously compensated for the entire stock of her bar. And for her medical bills, possibly. Trixie poked her head over the bar counter, real concern blossoming on her face. After all, Berry was her source of bourbon in town! And a friend. That too.

“Berry, are you alright!?”

“Ugggh, give me a moment,” Berry Punch said, eyes swirling a bit as she slowly shoved the chest off herself and then took note of the pile of gems both covering her, and inside the chest. Wincing, she grinned, “I think I just got paid to be alright. Ow. Seriously though, Mr. Moose, if you had this kind of scratch on you why didn’t you just say so?”

The moose turned his eye towards her, tilting his head slightly, “Do ponies not pay the barkeep after they have drank their fill?”

Berry rubbed her head, “Uh, well, yeah, sort of. They usually order what drink they want first, then I ask them if they want more, and we settle up before they leave. You just didn’t ask and just started drinking, well, everything!”

The moose issued forth a throaty, gravely noise that Trixie realized was laughter, “A land where one must ask before one drinks! Ha! You ponies are very amusing! You’re drink is good too. I desire more. Have I paid enough, pony?”

“The name’s Berry Punch, and I got more, but not for long if you keep at the rate you’re going, Mr...?”

“Wodan of Haustfell! Wodan, Bane of Mountains!” he declared, then took another barrel from behind the bar, smiling toothily, “And Bane of Mead!”

“That’s actually Maretonian dark ale,” Berry pointed out by Wodan shrugged and cracked the barrel open.

“I seek to be the bane of many things,” he said as he upended the barrel and drank away.

Berry gave Trixie a flat look, “Sure you don’t got any moose in your family tree?”

Trixie rolled her eyes, “Ha-ha. So, crisis averted, you’re bar is safe, thanks to my timely diplomatic skills?”

Berry sighed, “Going to be hard explaining to my customers this evening where all the drink went, but at least I’m getting well compensated.”

Wodan set down his barrel and grunted, “My apologies goodmare Punch, I assumed your stocks were as vast as the halls of my homeland. To deny others the warmth of your fine drink would be a deed unbecoming a guest. I shall let my thirst be satisfied with this barrel, and leave you the rest.”

“What is this I’m hearing!?” came a voice from the doorway, Trixie turning to see another deer, this one a cervid of a much smaller stature and breed than Wodan, “No more drink!? Wodan, we must still settle our bet! And you’ve taken a head start without me!?”

Wodan issued forth a low, mirthful grumble, his one eye becoming lidded in amusement, “Does any other hear the buzzing of a fly?” the moose then gave a look of mock surprise upon spotting the smaller cervid, “Ah, Sigurd, I didn’t see you there, my friend! You must learn to speak louder, otherwise someday I might mistake you for some small bug that has attached itself to my hide.”

“Hah! As if I could be so readily ignored, large one! This ‘bug’ named Sigurd shall out drink the mighty Wodan this very moment... if there were enough drink to satisfy our contest!” said Sigurd in a jovial tone, striding into the bar with head held high. Behind him Trixie saw her friends, Cheerilee, Raindrops, and Ditzy enter. Upon seeing her Ditzy smiled and waved, and was first to come over, with the other two close behind, while Sigurd, which Trixie noted with some nervousness was armed with an openly displayed sword and was wearing clothing covered with trinkets of a noticeable bone motif, approached Wodan.

“What is this?” Trixie asked her friends, “Did Ponyville volunteer to host a deer caravan or something?”

Cheerilee shook her head while Raindrops looked over at the hulking form of Wodan with a distinctly worried, guarded look. Trixie couldn't blame her, even when he was acting friendly Wodan had a threatening presence that would set just about anypony on edge. What Trixie found odd was that Sigurd was generating just as much a imposing feeling in her, setting her on edge almost more than the giant Wodan. It was the eyes, Trixie decided. Wodan had just the one eye, and a vicious looking scar, but that one eye of his seemed warm. Sigurd’s eyes were just black pools and whether he smiled or laughed, none of it seemed to touch the cervid’s eyes.

“They’re travelers,” said Cheerilee in answer to Trixie’s question, causing Trixie to shake out of her thoughts and look towards the schoolteacher, “But not merchants or anything. In fact they’re here for the same reason we’re about to head for Canterlot.”

“The Contest?” Trixie asked, suddenly glancing sidelong at Wodan and Sigurd with even greater scrutiny than before. They were going to compete... against that!? Trixie took a deep breath, forestalling her initial impulse to panic. She and her friends had gone up against bigger. Not bigger by a lot, but bigger. Actually, Wodan wasn’t the worrying one. Again she couldn’t shake a cold feeling in her gut when she looked at Sigurd.

“Yes, the Contest,” said the cervid in question as he took up a seat at the bar, nodding to Berry Punch, “Drinkkeeper, if my greedy friend has not drained your vault dry then I shall start to drink my fill.”

Berry Punch smiled, albeit a bit nervously, as she sent a mug his way, and she glanced at Wodan, “You see? He asked.”

Wodan snorted as if that somehow proved something about the smaller deer, who took up the mug and upended it quickly, Berry Punch refilling it and not really bothering to ask this smaller deer about payment. Trixie, swallowing her own unease, took a seat next to Sigurd. .

“What are you two doing here in Ponyville, then?” she asked, “The Contest is taking place pretty far from here, you know.”

Sigurd looked at her, his own dark eyes scrutinizing her in a way that Trixie found she didn’t like. Her mane felt like it was trying to crawl off her scalp. It was a sizing up look. Judging. She’d gotten enough of that at the Night Court. It was made worse by the fact this cervid just made her hide crawl in general.

“Of course we know that. We are ultimately on our way to the Isle of the Fallen, but our journey would take many more turnings of the day, even upon wyvernback. We are using an old acquaintance of Wodan’s to make our journey easier, and meeting with her in Canterlot.”

Trixie blinked, and looked at her friends, Raindrops sharing her blinking look, Ditzy shrugging helplessly, and Cheerilee putting on a thoughtful look as she looked up and held a hoof to her chin. None of them, however, seemed to know what ‘wyvernback’ meant. Trixie had a sinking feeling it might involve something that would cause the Ponyvillians to panic.

“Wyvernback?” she asked in a politely leading tone.

Sigurd nodded, draining his second mug and accepting a refill a grateful nod to Berry Punch, “We could hardly walk the long distance to our destination,” he smiled, a unpleasantly bitter smile, making the water-deer’s small tucks seem like he was snarling instead of smiling, “Our good prince saw fit to let us borrow some of his prize pets for the journey. Poor things, I took the prince’s largest to carry prodigious Wodan. Even mighty wyverns require rest, and a space to feed and water themselves, however, so we have stopped by this settlement to let our mounts recover before making our way to Canterlot.”

Trixie, understandably, was a mite concerned, and with her best diplomatic smile asked, “I don’t suppose you bothered to inform the local authorities, like the mayor perhaps, that you were bringing wyverns to the town?”

Sigurd shrugged, clearly not sharing Trixie’s concerns, “They’re not in your village, little pony, they are resting at a lake near the edge of that large forest. And prince Cederik is watching the wyverns, so there is no need for worry. Probably.”

“Probably?” Cheerilee asked, her tail swinging about as she looked out one of the windows, “I don’t think ‘probably’ should be the term one uses when discussing flesh eating wyverns.”

Sigurd didn’t even look up from his drink, “The prince can control his pets, and won’t let them wander towards this settlement. They’ll just hunt for food in the forest. Worry not, none of your fellow ponies will be gobbled. Probably.”

Cheerilee gave him a distinct stink eye before glancing at Trixie, “Well, just in case ‘probably’ becomes something else, I think I’ll go let the mayor know to warn anypony off from wandering into the Everfree today.”

Trixie nodded, “Smart idea. Might want to send somepony to check on Fluttershy, given where her cottage is.”

“On it,” Cheerilee said and hastily left the tavern.

“So you have a friend in Canterlot?” asked Ditzy, flying up between Sigurd and Wodan, the mailmare seeming more relaxed than Trixie would have thought, as if the unnerving coldness that Trixie sensed in Sigurd didn’t register to Ditzy or just didn’t bother the pegasus. Trixie did note that Raindrops, despite Ditzy’s easy manner, had moved into a position nearby that’d allow her to quickly pounce on Sigurd. Trixie also noticed Sigurd’s eye flick towards Raindrops’ movement and the corner of the water-deer’s mouth turn in a small smirk before he answered Ditzy.

“Not I, but the towering Wodan. Wodan, who was that pony you befriended? I keep forgetting. She was gracious to offer us a quicker means to travel to the Contest. And a beauty, far as the looks of ponies go. A shame she doesn’t drink.”

Wodan, who’d ceased his drinking, much to Berry’s relief, and was instead seemingly content to sit there and enjoy the ambiance as the others talked, then glanced down and seemed to think about it, as if he had to work to recall, “Hhhhmmm, she never did speak of why she refused to drink. Saddening, as she would offer me a great challenge in such a competition. Unlike a certain noisy Dvergar who has yet to make good his boast of being able to best me at the drinking table.”

Sigurd, on his fourth mug by this point, wiped foam from his lips, “You shall soon see, my friend. The Contest will be a fitting place to settle the matter, with all the world to behold which of us is the superior!”

“How did you two start trying to out drink each other? Was it a bet?” asked Ditzy.

Sigurd slapped his mug down hard, apparently already somewhat tipsy, as he put an arm around the mailmare, “It was at my wedding that our battle began! Twenty, or was it thirty, years ago? Wodan, as I recall, struck first, attempting to drink all of my favorite brand of mead that I had saved for the wedding feast.”

“You should not have had it on display if you didn’t want it consumed,” the giant moose pointed out.

“Bah! I had to display it like any proud owner would display a prized falcon or forged blade! I don’t recall inviting you to start drinking it! So of course I had to challenge him. A proper duel to decide who would earn the right to drink my finest mead!”

“A duel you’ve spent the better part of two decades losing,” Wodan said with a chuckle, “I keep waiting for you to concede.”

“Never. Shall I live a hundred years our match will not end until I have defeated you.”

“I bought you a replacement for that mead ages ago.”

“It’s the principle of the thing!”

“Twenty. Years.”

“And twenty more if need be!”

Trixie, still more concerned over the notion of there being predatory beasts near Ponyville that weren’t contained to the Everfree Forest wasn’t paying the bickering cervids as much mind anymore, and had all but forgotten that her original reason to come to Berry Punch’s place had been to get her own stock of drinks for the trip. Remembering, and seeing that Berry was looking more relaxed now that she seemed to have a handle on how to deal with these new customers, Trixie motioned the mare over.

“If you’ve got any left, I could use a bottle of bourbon,” the Representative said in a low voice, not really wanting to chance that the cervids might hear, and for any number of incomprehensible cervid related reasons decide to challenge her to a duel over possession of the bourbon.

“I got some left downstairs,” Berry said, “Figured you might want some, given you’d be out of town for-”

Before Berry could finish, there was a scream from outside, a familiar voice that Trixie recognized as belonging to one of the flower sisters. Which one she wasn’t sure, but when it came to screaming Lily, Daisy, and Roseluck had a distinct sound that could be heard from one corner of Ponyville to the other. The sisters were occasionally referred to as ‘Ponyville’s Disaster Alarm’.

At the sound of the scream Trixie, Ditzy, and Raindrops immediately went into town-defense mode, the three mares exchanging looks. Ditzy had gone from enjoying Wodan and Sigurd banter with a friendly smile on her face, to a firm expression of worry mixed with readiness. Raindrops’s gaze belied little but sudden, schooled calm. Wodan and Sigurd both seemed to sense the change in mood, the moose standing and slowly turning towards the door, while the water-deer raised a hoof to a hook on the hilt of his sword, the air around him getting strangely cold.

They all hurried from the tavern, the ponies first, the two cervids behind, Wodan himself hunching down and pulling his legs in to just barely manage to push through Berry’s door while only slightly cracking the frame while doing so. Outside Trixie led her friends and the two cervids in a short gallop towards the sound of the screaming, to find Lily, Daisy, and Roseluck all laying in the middle of the street, apparently fainted.

“The... horror...” said Roseluck, before rolling over like a dog playing dead.

So, not quite all fainted.

Trixie would’ve paid those three more mind if not for the fact that standing no more than twenty feet in front of them, on two thick legs tipped with sword sized claws, its huge wings spread out to either side of it like the flaps of a giant tent, was a wyvern. The beast was easily the size of one of Ponyville’s more modest homes, covered in deep rust red scales. Not quite as towering as some creatures Trixie and her friends had encountered, like the massive red dragon that worked with Corona, Solrathicharon, or even the golem that had gone berserk not too long ago, but this wyvern still cut an impressive and sleekly dangerous figure in the middle of town.

But for all the impressive sight of the winged lizard, what gave Trixie and her friend’s pause was the not the sight of the wyvern, but the sight of the mare riding atop of it.

“Hey everypony!” said Carrot Top, waving happily, riding with her legs astride the wyvern’s long, thin neck.

Raindrops, pausing only briefly to make sure the three flower sisters weren’t actually injured or anything, just doing their normal ‘freak out, play dead’ routine, gave Carrot Top a frowning, narrow eyed look.

“Carrot Top, what the hay! Don’t bring something like that into town! What are you even- I don’t - what!?”

“That’s about sums up my thoughts,” said Trixie, giving the wyvern a nervous look, reading herself to start casting spells. The beast wasn’t doing anything provocative, just glancing about with its triangular, draconic head. Ditzy even giggled a bit as the creature scratched at its nose with the clawed tip of one wing and yawned.

“Its... kind of cute,” Ditzy said.

Trixie gave her a look and Ditzy shrugged, “What? It is.”

Wodan grumbled in a tone not unlike a rolling boulder, “Prince Cederik, if you are playing another of your pranks, I shall personally drag you back to Elkheim and throw you off the top of Yggdrasil's highest boughs!”

Sigurd nodded solemnly, re-sheathing his bone sword, “I’ll help.”

“Okay! Okay!” said a male voice from behind the wyvern, “I give up, o’ mighty guardians of the common folk! It wasn’t even a proper prank, just me showing a lovely mare just how friendly my beloved Bloodwing is.”

Stepping from behind one of the wyvern’s tree-trunk thick legs was another deer, this one of elk variety. He was certainly tall, much more so than Sigurd, but gangly, and oddly ill proportioned, with a thick body and neck covered in light chestnut brown fur, but with spindly legs that didn’t seem like they ought to support him. His antlers were darkly colored and somewhat twisted, but polished to a smooth sheen. He wore a fine white and green trimmed doublet over his chest, and hanging at either side of his shoulders were elegantly curved sabers with pearl carved hilts, small runes etched into the pearl itself.

The elk bowed his head, an amused sparkle in hazel eyes, “I do hope I haven’t caused too much of a ruckus. Don’t be afraid, Bloodwing is actually rather gentle, far as her kind go.”

The wyvern issued for a hissing, hooting sound, like some cross between an owl and a massive snake, and bumped the elk with a wing, smacking him cleanly upside the head. The elk grunted, then grinned up at the wyvern, who was looking up and away as if turning its nose up at him.

“Oh don’t be such so sensitive! You’re a lovely example of deadly wyvernhood! But you are the only wyvern I’ve ever raised that balks at bloodshed. You even cried when that pet mouse of yours died!”

Bloodwing looked rather outraged as she let out a hissing roar at the elk’s face, lowering her neck to let Carrot Top climb down.Carrot Top for her part just patted the wyvern on the neck and smiled, saying, “Don’t mind him Bloodwing. I think you’re perfectly terrifying. Had a small heart attack when I first saw you!”

Bloodwing held her head high, as if soaking in the praise, and Trixie even thought the wyvern might have been smiling. Or just baring her fangs. Hard to tell, really. The wyvern nuzzled Carrot Top a bit, then gave the elk a look as if to say ‘See? At least someonpy around her appreciates me!’

Raindrops, wings flared and her face scrunched up a bit, flushed somewhat red, almost stomped up to the elk, almost getting snout to snout with him, “Okay, you’ve had your fun, but this was a dumb prank! Somepony could’ve gotten hurt if it’d been busier in the streets, and you’re still probably scaring half the town into staying inside! Who do you think you are!?”

Carrot Top was quick to interject, coming over and putting herself between Raindrops and the elk, “Raindrops, relax, he didn’t mean any harm. I thought seeing me riding Bloodwing would make it clear to anypony that she wasn’t a threat. Frederick really was just letting me ride her because I thought it’d be fun. I’m sorry if I caused a problem.”

Raindrops glanced at her, face still red, but she let out a sigh and backed off, “Fine. Still think it was a bad idea.”

The elk strode forward and offered Raindrops an apologetic bow, “I meant no harm. It has been a long journey from Elkhiem, and as my companions behind you will attest, I let off steam in ways that... er...”

“Irritate everyone around you?” suggested Sigurd in a cold tone, the water-deer giving Frederick a look that could chill magma into solid rock.

“Get yourself, and hence your companions, into constant trouble?” suggested Wodan, somewhat more warmly, if no less admonishing in tone.

Frederick huffed and stamped a hoof, “I am the prince! You two could be a tad more respectful.”

“Earn it, and I shall,” muttered Sigurd.

Wodan let out such a prodigious sigh that it blew Trixie’s mane about like a small gust, “Spend less time playing games and sowing your oats among all of marekind and perhaps in time you will earn that title of prince. For now, we treat you as you act, Frederick.”

Frederick rolled his eyes, then noted the look Carrot Top was giving him, and coughed, “I’m not nearly as bad as they make me out to be. These two just don’t appreciate my sense of humor.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you’re a riot,” said Raindrops in a low, unamused voice, “So if you’re here with this,” she pointed a wing at the wyvern, “Who’s watching the other ones you brought with you?”

Frederick grinned, “Oh, I met a beauty of a mare at the edge of the forest,” he paused, blinked, and nodded to Carrot Top, “I mean a beauty besides your golden radiance, Dame Carrot Top. No, this are was a pegasus, yellow as fresh churned butter, with a mane of the softest pink, and a voice to tame the roaring fires of a dragon. She trotted right up to the flock as the wyverns were slaking their thirst at the lake, and to my utter amazement started to talk with them! Never seen the like of it. Well, she introduced herself as Fluttershy... after several attempts to ask her. Such a quiet voice on that one. I wanted to come into town, and the wyverns seemed to like her, so I asked if she wanted to watch them for a time. She seemed more than eager to do so. I don’t think she’d ever actually seen wyverns before and was quite enthusiastic. Well, Bloodwing I knew was still off hunting, but I thought I’d spied her landing near town, so I went to find her, leaving Miss Fluttershy in charge of the others. When I caught up to Bloodwing I found her and Dame Carrot Top here engaged in, how shall I say, a bit of a game of hide and seek?”

“That is to say,” said Carrot Top, with a somewhat embarrassed rubbing of her neck, “I was hiding behind the nearest bushes and Bloodwing was trying to root me out. Not trying to hurt me, I think she just wanted to say hi.”

Bloodwing let out a soft hissing screech that seemed to be a confirmation of Carrot Top’s assumption.

“Indeed. After which I’m sure you can guess the rest,” said Frederick, then paused to look over the gathered ponies, “No then, since I haven’t done this properly yet, allow me a more formal introduction. I am prince Frederick of Yggdrasil, Keeper of the White Blades, Protector of the Verdant Gate, and... about six or seven other titles I tend to forget. I think there’s a ‘Guardian of the Something-Something’ somewhere in there. And you mares, I take it, are the vaunted bearers of the Elements of Harmony, Knights of the Realm, and soon, perhaps, to be Champions of Equestria?”

At Trixie’s look Carrot Top smiled, somewhat embarrassed as she glanced away, “I kind of told him about us.”

“That’s fine Carrot Top,” said Ditzy, smiling warmly and flying up to Frederick, holing out a hoof, “Ditzy Doo! Pleased to meet you.”

Frederick took her hoof and left a kiss upon it, “A pleasure and privilege. I had heard faint rumors in distant Elkhiem of the fair and powerful mares that did battle with ancient and wrathful Celestia, but I had no notion they’d all be such shining examples of feminine grace. I feel lucky that I’ll get the opportunity to see so much more of you at the upcoming Contest!”

Ditzy coughed, withdrawing her hoof and floating away a bit, walled eyes looking away, and Sigurd let out a loud grow.

“That’s enough Frederick. Do not embarrass the royal blood further with such childish attempts at flattery of those who have earned better respect,” he paused, turning to Ditzy, “I did not know who you were by your name, and for that I apologize. News can travel slowly into Elkhiem. I offer my respect to you, Ditzy Doo, and your companions. It is an honor to meet those who faced a foe as fierce as Sunna, the Sightblinder, and who will face us upon the field at the Contest.”

Ditzy Doo looked even more embarrassed, just sort of floating to the ground and looking at the grass, “T-thank you? I didn’t know we’d gotten famous outside Equestria. I’ve never heard of this Sightblinder though.”

“Merely another word we use for the one you call Corona. Or Celestia. Or Tyrant Sun. Sunna was her 'proper' name in our language. She certainly has garnered a large number of titles,” said Frederick, smiling brightly, looking at all of the gathered mares, finally resting his eyes on the three fainted flower sisters, “So... should we do something about them?”

Trixie glanced at Lily, Daisy, and Roseluck and shook her head, “They’ll come out of it in an hour or two. Most ponies will just walk around them. They tend to quickly forget whatever crisis made them faint in the first place. Look, I get that you weren’t trying to cause a real problem, but if you could, please take your... friend, back to the lake, before everypony in town goes catatonic?”

Frederick frowned, “Very well. Bloodwing, return to your sisters.”

Bloodwing let out a hooting screech, adopting as indignant a look as a house sized winged lizard could, and with a few hefty flaps of her wings that stirred up a cloud of dust the wyvern rose into the air and flew off out of town. As Bloodwing flew over the rooftops of Ponyville, Trixie saw more than a few fearful heads peeking out the windows of their homes. Trixie imagined she’d have a lot of written complaints to deal with soon...

Then she smiled, because she remembered she was going to be out of town, and it was Pokey who’d get to deal with her complaint box. She really did need to give him a raise at some point. He’d more than earned it.

Frederick had turned to Carrot Top and was offering her a leg, “Well, Dame Carrot Top, perhaps you’d like to show me around your home? I’d greatly enjoy seeing your farm. And later, mayhaps we could get something to eat. I have had little chance to sample Equestrian cuisine and, later tonight we-”

“Prince Frederick,” rumbled Wodan, “We will need to leave long before the fall of night, if we are to be in Canterlot on time for our meeting.”

“I’ll be in Canterlot tonight anyway,” Carrot Top said, giving Frederick a friendly, if nervous smile, not taking his offered arm, “I don’t mind showing you around town before my friends and I leave this afternoon, and we can grab a bite while we’re at it.”

“Ah, I would enjoy that,” Frederick said, seemingly hesitant to lower his offered leg, but ultimately did so with a friendly smile of his own, one no longer quite dripping with the same lustful attempt at charm as before as he and Carrot Top began to trot off. Carrot Top turned to glance at Trixie and the others over her shoulder.

“Meet you girls at the train in a few hours?”

“Yes,” said Trixie, slightly bemused, “Train leaves at three.”

Trixie felt Raindrops standing next to her, looking over to see her friend frowning. Trixie didn’t like seeing her friend so agitated. She raised a hoof and gently touched the pegasus’ shoulder, causing Raindrops to start in surprise. Trixie quickly pulled her hoof back. Without a word passing between them Raindrops relaxed her stiff stance and took in a deep breath, letting it out and nodding at Trixie that she was fine. Trixie didn’t even question it further.

Sigurd, watching Frederick and Carrot Top vanish down the street, grumbled, “I cannot believe such a useless stag is the son of our King and Queen. Blood should not run so thinly.”

Wodan let out a deep, rumbling sound that was half grunt and half growl, and Sigurd gave the moose a sidelong look, “What? You know I speak the truth.”

“He is young,” Wodan said, voice resonate yet stiff, the moose’s sizable mouth drawn down in a deep frown, “I remember being young. I, too, was a fool. Time, and experience, cures one of that ailment, as it shall our prince.”

Sigurd’s eyes darkened, whispering something that was so low Trixie wasn’t certain it was heard by any but her, who was used to listening to whispers from her time in the Night Court.

“If he lives that long.”

----------

Trixie didn’t have much further business to take care of, once the situation with the deer in town was cleaned up a bit. Cheerilee had met up with them again, letting Trixie know that mayor Ivory Scroll was already aware of the cervids in town. Apparently one other deer that Trixie and the others hadn’t met yet had arrived ahead of the others to meet with the mayor about the impromptu visit. Trixie had only been left out of the loop because she’d left the Residency before Ivory Scroll’s message about it all arrived at Trixie’s doorstep.

Raindrops and Ditzy had both left to take care of their respective packing, and Cheerilee had remained with Sigurd and Wodan, agreeing to act as the pair’s chaperone around town until it was time to leave. Trixie had no objections, as long as no more wyverns flew into town and Berry Punch’s remaining stock of bourbon was left alone. Trixie’s first order of business had been to march right back to the tavern and get what she needed from there. That taken care of she really only had one last stop to make before she was set to leave.

She found herself outside the tall, gently swaying boughs of Golden Oaks Library, the sizable tree turned public book repository having a warm, more lived in quality than Trixie ever noticed it having. Probably because somepony actually lived here, now. Trixie’s eyes noticed tiny touches, like the new telescope parked on one of the upper balconies, or the welcome mat in front of the door with the words “{Wel-come} verb: 1) to greet (somepony) in a warm and friendly manner. 2) to accept with pleasure the occurs or presence of (welcomes you).”

Trixie shook her head with a laugh that was in no way derisive, but rather just happily non-surprised as she knocked on the door. After a few moments the door swung open, a purple coated unicorn with an even darker violet mane with a single pink streak through it standing there with her horn alight with the magic she’d used to open the door.

Twilight Sparkle’s eyes widened a bit, first in surprise, then in warmth.

“Hello Trixie. What brings you here? Not that I mind, but I figured you’d be busy getting ready to leave,” there was a slight tremble of glumness in Twilight’s voice at mentioning leaving, just barely perceptible to Trixie. Twilight Sparkle was still relatively early into her house arrest/community service sentence here in Ponyville. The reasons for this house arrest involved a rather complicated story involving a star-bear, running from the law, interdimensional travel, and ultimately two mares who had completely different views on magic managing to come to terms with each other. As it stood Twilight was Ponyville’s new resident librarian, and she seemed to take to the job like the proverbial pegasus to cloud-kicking, but the fact remained that Twilight was not allowed to leave Ponyville without an escort, and even then only under specific legal circumstances, until her sentence was up. Trixie was more or less the other unicorn’s official watcher, not that it was really a necessary task. Twilight was every shade of cooperative, and had settled into the town with little issue. Quite the opposite really, the Ponyvillians had seemed to readily adopt Twilight into their eclectic township with open and welcome hooves.

“Yes, well, I do travel light,” said Trixie, somewhat awkwardly scraping her hoof on the welcome mat, “Nice mat, by the by. Quite, uh, educational.”

“You think so? I hoped it would be, but wondered if it might be too much. A library is a place of learning after all, so I thought it’d be appropriate, and funny. It was funny right? Not condescending? I hope nopony felt offended and might walk away just because the mat suggests they don’t know what welcome means!”

“It’s fine, Sparkle, its fine!” Trixie said, laughing, “I doubt anypony got their tail in a bunch, ever, over a welcome mat. Anyway, the reason I came is-”

There was a sudden crash from inside the library, sounding to Trixie like it had come from the kitchen that was adjoined to the main floor of the library itself. Twilight nearly jumped with a tiny ‘Eep!’ and almost immediately bolted for the kitchen. Trixie, more confused than concerned, trotted on inside and closed the door behind her. The inside of Golden Oaks library was cozy, the main floor looking larger on the inside than one would think from its outward appearance.

Trixie didn’t linger in the main room, instead following Twilight towards the open door to the kitchen, which Twilight was standing in.

“Are you okay Lucky?” Twilight asked, one hoof in the kitchen.

A voice answered, female, laughing, and totally unworried, “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine Tenbs. Just got a bit ambitious in doing the dishes. Remind me that twenty six plates is my maximum for stacking on my nose. Don’t think I broke anything, but if I did I’ll replace ‘em, soon as I get another job.”

Twilight let out a relieved sigh, “Okay, that’s fine, just don’t hurt yourself.”

“Twilight, you have a guest?” Trixie asked. Not that she was bothered by this, as there were no rules against Twilight having guests. At least Trixie was pretty sure there were no particular rules during house arrest against guests coming over. That’d be silly, given Golden Oaks was a library. Still, Trixie didn’t know who this might be, and her curiosity was piqued.

Twilight looked back at Trixie, blinking, then her eyes went wide, “Oh! Uh, yes, um, you see this is... that is to say, I had these friends, or associates, and things happened, but they went wrong, very, very wrong, and I ran away, but they’re still my friends, some of them at least, and now Lucky is here!”

Trixie stared at Twilight for a moment, then the voice called from inside the kitchen, “Yo, Tenbs, you got more company over?”

“Tenbs?” Trixie raised an eyebrow. craning her neck to finally get a look around Twilight to catch sight of who was talking. The speaker was an earth pony mare, fairly nondescript by Trixie’s estimation, with a gray coat and a curly mane a shade of green that reminded Trixie of a pine forest. The mare was busy gathering up a bunch of dropped dishes, wincing at some of the broken plates.

Twilight entered the kitchen with a little trepidation and motioned Trixie to enter as well. Twilight was quick to help gather the dishes, using her magic to rapidly separate the broken from the whole. The gray mare smiled apologetically, rubbing the back of her neck.

“Sorry, I’ll get you more plates, through I’m telling you there’s nothing wrong with paper and plastic. If you get paper bowels you can double them as plates and save money, all you gotta do is squash them flat and wham you’ve turned a bowl into a plate.”

“I... guess that makes sense?” Twilight said, then turned, looking between Trixie and the gray mare as if unsure as to how exactly to proceed. Luckily for Twilight and Trixie both the gray mare wasted no time in sensing the social awkwardness and she smiled brightly, coming right up to Trixie and extending a hoof.

“Hey, Clover Charms. Lucky, to my friends.”

Trixie hesitated only a moment before extending her hoof and letting Clover shake it, “Trixie. Representative of Princess Luna’s Night Court in Ponyville,” did Clover just stiffen, somewhat? Or had Trixie imagined that? Trixie glanced between Clover and Twilight, eyes searching. Twilight looked like a filly caught while levitating the cookie jar, but Clover seemed relaxed and friendly. Weird.

“So, just how do you two know each other?” Trixie asked.

Twilight glanced at Clover, whose smile turned encouraging and supportive as she met Twilight’s look. Twilight seemed to come to a decision and took a deep breath.

“Remember when I mentioned I kinda sorta tried to... well... create replacement Elements of Harmony?”

“I seem to recall you skimming over the details, but yes, you mentioned that venture. Carrot Top told me more of the incident,” Trixie said, already piecing things together before Twilight confirmed them with her next words.

“Lucky was one of the ponies I picked for that whole affair. I kind of found her by accident, really, but she was supposed to be matched with Laughter.”

“You should hear my stand-up routine sometime,” Clover said, her smile turning wry, “Hasn’t gotten much traction here in Ponyville, but I’m working on some new material.”

“Uh-huh,” Trixie said, “So you’re not the one that went totally ponyfeather’s in the head and tried to eat ponies souls via a corrupting amulet of Ultimate Evil?”

“Nah, I just sort of hung out, quipped, and hit a Vicerne in the face with some fondu.”

Trixie blinked. Then shook her head. Twilight actually chuckled a bit, her nervousness seeming to drain away as she listened to Clover, “Lucky moved to Ponyville about a week or two ago, but I didn’t even know until I bumped into her yesterday. So I invited her over to have breakfast this morning. We were just playing catch up on all that’d happened since the... incident with the Alicorn Amulet, when you showed up.”

“I see, well, I don’t want to keep you two from that,” said Trixie, and gave Twilight a meaningful look, “I just dropped by because I wanted to thank you for helping me with ‘that spell’ this past month, and if it’s alright I wanted to take your notes on it with me to the Contest.”

Twilight almost immediately perked up, ears standing straight and her eyes sparkling, “OH! Of course! I have them down in the basement. It was a pleasure helping you work on your magic, Trixie. I know you have your own intuitive way of doing things, but even then there’s nothing like hard work and study to learn and improve! I’ll go get the notes right away!”

The good cheer in Twilight’s steps was palpable as she trotted off to the basement, and Trixie watched with a reserved grin. Nothing seemed to brighten Twilight’s mood like academia, even something as small as helping a friend with developing a new spell. Well, perhaps not ‘small’, then, as working on this spell had been no easy feat, even with Twilight’s help. Trixie normally wouldn’t want the notes, as she had difficulty really making use of that kind of rote information and translating it into something she could use, but because her control of the spell was still not perfect she wanted something to keep herself refreshed on it. She probably wouldn’t even need it in the Contest, but... well, never hurt to have a trump card up one’s sleeve.

“So,” said Clover, looking Trixie over curiously, “You and Tenbs? Anything going on there?”

“Excuse me?” Trixie asked.

“What? Just saying, two mares, alone, spending hours and hours working closely together to make ‘magic’. Its the kind of set-up you’d see in dozens of erotic novella,” said Clover with a wink, “And it doesn’t hurt you two really compliment each other. The bookworm and the stagemare. I’d buy that book.”

Trixie flushed, deciding to find one of the kitchen cupboards to be of sudden and great interest, “Feel free to write it, as long as I get some of the royalties for the use of my name.”

Clover laughed, “Deal.”

A minute later Twilight came back, a small blue notebook floating next to her. Trixie took it in her own magic with a grateful nod, “Thank you, Sparkle. For this, and all the help. Between this, and extra practice with shields, I ought to be able to put on a good show for all to see!”

Twilight’s smiled faded a bit, her expression growing serious, “Just remember Trixie; be careful out there. Before... everything that happened after the Ursa, my family considered it very possible that I would be selected to represent Equestria at the Contest, because so few unicorns were born with a talent for magic as strong as mine. It was a slim possibility, but it was there, so I studied previous records of the Contest. It can be dangerous. Please, don’t take any chances you don’t have to.”

Trixie waved a hoof, “Of course, of course, I’m the soul of caution.”

“I’m serious, Trixie,” Twilight said, and something in her tone made Trixie look the other unicorn in the eyes.

“I...” Trixie paused, then nodded firmly, “I will. Don’t worry so much, Sparkle.”

“Its something she does,” Clover said, coming over and wrapping a hoof around Twilight’s shoulders, “But that’s part of why we love, her, right? She’s adorkable when she worries.”

“I am not,” said Twilight, who then blanched, “And ‘adorkable’!? Where do I even begin explaining the ways in which that is not a word?”

Trixie just laughed, “I think I’ll leave you two to it then.”

“Hey, why not stick around for lunch?” asked Clover, “I’m teaching Tenbs some tricks on keeping her food budget down.”

“I’m not exactly poor...” muttered Twilight with a quiet snort, “And I don’t know if bananas and mustard really go together.”

Trixie’s ears twitched as Clover retorted, “It’s not that bad, and you got to be willing to experiment with whatever happens to be on sale that week! Can’t always afford to eat out everyday.”

“Did you say mustard and banana?” asked Trixie, licking her lips, and giving Clover a new, appraising look. Clover noticed the look, and then got a coy expression on her face as she leaned forward.

“That I did. Tenbs has some leftover hay-burger buns that I was going to chop up bananas on and add mustard. Interested?”

Trixie paused, thinking that she did have some time before she needed to meet the girls at the train station, and that it wouldn’t be at all bad to get something to eat before leaving Ponyville. After a second she smiled, nodding, “I suppose I can stick around for a bite, and to hear any other culinary ideas you happen to have. Tell me, have you ever tried mixing ketchup with muffins? The last time I tried Ditzy nearly fainted...”

----------

Lyra and Bon Bon had finished packing the trolley they’d be pulling to the train station, the luggage mostly Bon Bon’s. The pair were leaving Bon Bon’s home and shop, Lyra talking excitedly, her tail wagging back and forth as she all but bounced along.

“I finally found a juicy tid-bit buried in the account of an old Equestrian knight’s squire who was there on the Isle of the Fallen,” she said, floating up a dusty, journal-like tome, “She speaks in real flowery language, kind of a thing from back then, but listen to this. Ahem...”

She flipped open to a marked passage and began to speak in an affected accent, “Our toil ends and our spirits are drained, if not for the guiding lights of Sun and Moon. Even the eternal sovereigns seem tarnished, made mortal to my eyes in their struggle to fell that great beast. What a horrid word it is named, ‘Rengoku’. Our sisters from realms beyond the sunrise have named it well. Purgatory. This island is a fitting rest for the corpse left by mindless ambition, a fortress some name it, I call it a monster given shape in stone and metal. I see the smoke flowing from it now as blood, and hope to never see its cursed form rise again should I chance to live a thousand years. Rengoku. Tomb of our fallen.”

“Yeesh,” said Bon Bon, “Talk about being obtuse. What does any of that mean?”

Lyra grinned from ear to ear, “Haven’t a clue, but I’m going to find out! I’ve stumbled across a few more passages like this in various accounts from back then. The dating system is less than what I’d call ‘precise’, so I can’t even make sure when this one was written, but I’m pretty sure its close to the mark when the Contest started up. It has to be pre-Corona banishment because the mare mentions ‘Sun and Moon’, a phrase that all but completely faded away after Luna banished her sister. Most entries mention similar phrases, especially this one; ‘Rengoku’.”

“What’s it mean?”

“It’s from the east, from Shouma. The language can be hard to translate, but the mare who wrote the entry got it right. It means ‘purgatory’.”

Bon Bon frowned, giving Lyra a sidelong look, “That’s... ominous.”

“Indeed. Ominous is just one of many ways to describe the monster that was vanquished that fateful day,” said a voice above the two mares, and both turned to look up, where there was someone standing on top of the roof of Bon Bon’s shop.

The form leapt down from the roof, landing behind the pair of mares. Lyra, equally excited and bemused, watched the figure stand to her full height...which may have been impressive if she wasn’t a few inches shorter than Lyra.

She was definitely a deer, and Lyra recognized by the redwood coloring to her coat, amid a few dots of white, that she was of the Vanir tribe, a red deer. She had a mane of dark auburn elegantly woven into a single long braid that hung well past her neck, woven with strands of white and red cloth. A deep red vest made from manner of scaled leather was worn tightly across her chest and a dark green cloak over her back, with a baggy hood that was currently drawn back. A pair of almond brown eyes looked at Lyra and Bon Bon with an amused gleam.

“Hey! You’re one of the new deer in town!” Lyra said, stepping forward with a smile on her face, “I was hoping to spot one of you before leaving today. Did that huge wyvern belong to you?”

“Lyra,” Bon Bon said in a faintly chiding tone, “It’s rude to just start asking a stranger questions... even one that was randomly on top of my roof for no reason, and I’d really kinda like to know why?”

The red deer made a sound that was almost a laugh, but more an amused huff, and she started to pace around Lyra, not really acknowledging Bon Bon’s presence beyond the initial glance.

“The wyvern is a pet of prince Cederik of Yggdrasil. A convenient ride across the vast leagues between our home and these warm lands of the south. Tell me, are you a spinner of tales?”

Lyra, taken slightly aback by the deer’s shift in topic, and the sudden scrutinizing proximity of the deer as she circled Lyra, still answered quickly and with a sureness in her tone, “Sure am! Name’s Lyra Heartstrings.”

“I know your name,” the deer said, with a growing intensity in her look, “I may be one of the few of my kind that would. Lyra Heartstrings. Blackcherry Lee Punch. Ditzy Doo. Carrot Top. Raindrops. Trixie Lulamoon. These names are known to me. I made it a point to know them, as no storyteller could stand to tell a tale if she didn’t even know the names of the tale’s heroes.”

“Well, yeah, obviously,” agreed Lyra, “Got to know who’s who, otherwise the story kind of is missing one of its key ingredients. It’d be like trying to play a song with half the notes missing.”

“Ah, so you do understand. Yes, I thought you would. You might understand better than any of them,” the red deer said, but in a quiet voice, as if she was almost speaking to herself, then she continued in a clearer tone, “I am Andrea of Vaskyrsongr, a skald of the Old Words, and an eager devourer of tales from all parts of the world.”

“And I’m Bon Bon, confectioner, and fiance of the mare you’re circling like a shark,” Bon Bon said, ears flat, and moving to stand protectively next to Lyra.

Andrea glanced at Bon Bon, not stepping back, but ceasing to pace around Lyra, “I mean no harm. I find I tend to forget that others outside Elkhiem do not realize the... honor, of being sized up in such a manner. It’s a compliment. It means I consider Lyra a worthy challenger. If I thought of her as nothing, I would thusly ignore her.”

“As you were ignoring me?” asked Bon Bon.

Lyra held up a hoof, to comfortingly pat her lover’s back, “It’s okay Bon Bon, I don’t think she was trying to insult you, either. Deer social traditions are kinda complicated from what I remember.”

“No more so than those of you ponies,” Andrea said, “I’ve studied your culture for a long time and still don’t quite understand some of the things you do. I was being dismissive of you, Bon Bon, but only because I had to acknowledge the strength of your paramour first. She is the one I will most likely face at the Contest of Champions, after all. It would’ve been rude beyond belief to acknowledge any before her.”

Lyra blinked, looking at Andrea in a new light, and even on her own instincts somewhat sizing the red deer up. She was so short, and her build was slight, almost twig-like. Lyra knew she ought to know better than to underestimate this deer based on her stature, but there was a bit of a sense that Andrea wasn’t really dangerous. Which suddenly struck Lyra as a bad way to start thinking of Andrea. From what she knew of deer culture, while each tribe had its own customs, one universal was that you never insulted a deer’s strength by suggesting they were in any way weak.

Bon Bon didn’t look as if she was completely satisfied but Lya continued rub Bon Bon’s back, feeling the tension in the earth pony mare. Lyra turned her attention to Andrea, “Well I’ll take the compliment for what it is.”

She held out a hoof, “Looking forward to seeing what you can do at the Contest. By the end of it I hope we’ll have plenty of stories to take home with us.”

Andrea took the offered hoof, and Lyra felt the steel-cord muscle underneath that dainty limb, and Andrea smiled, “I can assure you that we certainly will have quite the story to tell, but the time its all over.”

If there was any kind of undercurrent of a different meaning in her tone, Lyra couldn't hear it. Andrea sounded sincere, and eager, both of which Lyra understood as she felt the same way. With introductions out of the way Lyra’s mind turned towards something Andrea had said before, “Anywhos, you were talking earlier like you knew a lot more about the story in that account I found...”

“Yes, the tale of the Isle of the Fallen, and of Rengoku itself,” Andrea said, a teasing quirk coming over her lips, the red deer coyly leaning towards Lyra, “I’ve noticed the histories of ponies remove so much detail of that particular saga. I’m shocked you found even one account that even mentions the name of Rengoku.”

“Ha, tell me about it!” Lyra said, floating the book over and flipping through it’s pages, “This thing has stories from soldiers in the old Equestrian Royal Guard, and most of them have nothing to do with whatever happened twelve hundred years ago. Lots of stories about ceremonies and festivals, but only a few bare bones mentions of any kind of battle or war. That entry was the only one that even suggests some kind of fight happened where Corona and Luna were involved, or this ‘Rengoku’ thing.”

“Twelve hundred years is a long time, even for those who claim immortality,” said Andrea, “It's not surprising accounts are limited, especially if there was an intentional attempt to limit such accounts.”

“Who would do that? And why?”

“Not ‘who’, I would guess,” said Andrea, “Rather it was likely all of ponykind wanted to forget such dark days, and look instead towards the hopefully better future. It seems to be your way, to move past unpleasant events and focus on brighter possibilities to come. After all, how many detailed records are kept of any war you’ve fought? How many accounts in your books tell of the deaths of others, of great suffering, in your realm or abroad? Many more are the tales of peaceful days and great accomplishments under the protection of your Princesses, not of any great dangers that threatened that peace.”

“Well, there have been dangers we have stories about,” said Lyra, thinking of Tirek, or the Smooze... but then even as the thought about it she realized the only reason she knew about such ancient threats that had plagued Equestria is because she had dug for them, amid old, locked away archives. Aside from the banishment of Celestia there was few tales of the threats to Equestria that were common knowledge. For the most part Equestria’s history was a long list of peaceful transitions, magical and technological progress, and the occasional story of Luna protecting her little ponies against... one thing or another. The details were always glossed over, in those events.

Just like with this ‘Rengoku’ and whatever had happened twelve hundred years ago.

“Its quite alright,” Andrea was saying, “Many of my kind would not understand. We revel in our tales of struggle and woe against mighty foes, and take solace in grim ballads of the death of heroes. But our culture is defined by unending conflict, with invaders, each other, even our own land which is an unforgiving place of cold and many monsters that would make a meal of the weak. While some of the tribes would look upon the ponies and seek weakness, I admire a land that maintains such a long standing peace. Would that a few more of our stories were of peaceful times of dance and song, rather than of battle and blood.”

Bon Bon was still frowning, “Lyra, the train...”

Lyra blinked, realizing they had just been leaving to go for the train station, “Right! Right! Sorry. Hey, uh, Andrea, it’s great meeting you and I can’t wait to talk to you more. I want to hear the songs a real skald can belt out! And you better believe I’ll be bringing my A-game to the Contest!”

She and Bon Bon went back to their luggage trolley, Lyra helping Bon Bon put on the harness to pull it. Lyra gave Andrea one last wave as they trotted off towards Ponyville’s train station, and the red deer returned the wave with a smile.

Lyra didn’t hear Andrea’s final words, whispered as they were.

“I hope so. For both our sakes.”

----------

Canterlot was a jewel in daylight, but once the sun set and the city was embraced by the light of the moon it was if that jewel transformed into a living star. All of its lights shone with life from every window, and its streets became buzzing venues where anypony might turn a corner and find an artist performing or an open restaurant enticing in patrons with the promise of the delicacies within. It wasn’t simply a city that never slept, it was a city that woke up with the night.

Trixie had grown fond of Ponyville, but she couldn’t deny she sometimes missed living in Equestria’s capital city. Didn’t hurt that she was currently enjoying the luxuries offered by the Royal Palace. When Princess Luna decided to set a table, she didn’t skimp. The dinner table Trixie was sitting at was in one of the palace’s many side rooms, with a sizable fireplace at one end that kept the room warm despite what was turning into a chilly night. Huge, tall windows with dark blue curtains drawn back showed a beautiful night with Luna’s moon full and high in the sky.

“I do hope everything is to your liking,” said Princess Luna at the head of the table, “I told the chef’s to provide a suitable variety, as I confess I don’t know the tastes of many of you besides the... eclectic ones possessed by my apprentice.”

Trixie rolled her eyes. As if her tastes were that strange. Oranges went well with tartar sauce! If Luna had just stopped being such a big baby and tried it Trixie was certain the alicorn would’ve agreed with her. As if reading Trixie’s mind Luna gave her a look and said, “And no, you’ll never get me to try that smoothie you make. Ever.”

Trixie sniffed, “You’re missing out.”

“I’ll try it, if you wish, but only on the day you find a special somepony to enjoy some personal time with,” Luna replied with a tiny smirk.

Trixie nearly choked on her salad and Cheerilee chuckled across the table.

“I think that’s check-mate there, Trixie, better give it up,” the schoolteacher said with a grin.

Trixie, hoof hitting her chest to get the errant piece of greens down her throat, glared at her friend for a second, then found herself laughing as well.

While Trixie was at ease, having been both a resident of Canterlot, the Royal Palace, and having shared a meal or two with Princess Luna in the past, there were a number of other ponies at the table who were clearly trying to mind their manners more than Trixie knew was needed. Most of her friends were used to Luna to one degree or another by now, though Carrot Top still tended to fidget around the alicorn. Dinky Doo and Snails were equally at ease, the pair of foals seated together and taking far more interest in the treats spread before them than paying much mind to the adults in the room.

It was Raindrops’ parents, Dewdrop and Shutter Bug, who both seemed like they were ready to vibrate right out of their seats with how nervous the pair looked, both of them seeming to glance everywhere they could besides Princess Luna while still also stealing glances at her. Raindrops, seating right next to her parents, was doing her best not to look uncomfortable herself, though that probably had a lot more to do with her parents than with Luna herself.

“Dinky, eat your food, don’t play with it,” Ditzy said, gently but with a firm enough tone that Dinky stopped poking at a rather tall pile of blue jelly shaped like a castle spire. Dinky looked a tad startled at herself, and quickly nodded, but her eyes kept looking at the jelly shaped castle with curiosity.

“Are you interested in what it is?” asked Luna in a leading manner, and Dinky nodded.

“I’ve never seen any pictures that looked like this,” Dinky said, “It’s neat! Why is the roof shaped like that?”

“Its called a ‘pagoda’, and the tiered, sloped structure is very common in architecture from the realm of the east; Shouma,” said Cheerilee before Luna could open her mouth to speak, and seeing the Princess glancing at her with a raised eyebrow Cheerilee grinned and rubbed the back of her head, “Sorry Princess, its your jelly mold, I guess you can explain it.”

Luna smiled and raised a hoof, “It’s quite alright. You are the educator, and she is a student of yours, after all. But, yes, that is a rendition of one of Shouma’s foremost temples, the Temple of Eternal Knowledge.”

“Sounds like my kind of place,” said Lyra, “Bet its packed with cool stories.”

“It is where the peoples of the east pool their greatest teachings and most enlightened philosophies,” said Luna, “Even I have only been within its hallowed halls a bare hoofful of times, though each visit was certainly enriching.”

“What’s Shouma like?” asked Carrot Top, “I barely remember hearing it mentioned once or twice back in school.”

“Do they have any neat bugs there?” Snails added, a hopeful note in his voice.

Trixie leaned forward, interested as well. If meeting the deer from Elkhiem had been any indication it was going to be quite the experience to meet all the others coming to the Contest, including this mysterious eastern land that even she hadn’t heard all that much about.

However a clouded look passed Princess Luna’s face, if only for a second or two, before she adopted a more serene smile, “It is a land as filled with magic as our own. Wondrous sights I could not possibly do justice to with words. There are certainly many fantastic creatures there, including insects of all manner of shapes and sizes, young Snails. Like the Golden Crickets, that are said to bring good luck to anypony who are fortunate enough to befriend them."

"Neat," Snails looked excited, but also paused, confused, "Wait, don't ponies not like gold 'cause of... you know..."

Luna nodded, giving the foal a kind smile, "In Equestria this is true, but the banishment of Celestia did not impact distant Shouma much. Gold remains a color looked upon as signifying good fortune by the ponies of that realm."

"Just how long have ponies been living there?" asked Trixie, having a hard time getting her head wrapped around a land that distant from Equestria, but apparently still fully inhabited by ponykind.

"Ponies off all three tribes migrated to that land well before... before I and my sister came to be rulers. Somewhere between four to five thousand yeas ago, I would estimate. In truth, while Celestia and I once sought see that land joined with Equestria we came to realize that those of Shouma have their own path to walk, and Equestria will ever be distant cousins. It is a land ruled by a noble caste of ponies who have draconic blood and magic running through them, called the ‘Kirin’. A single Imperial family has ruled Shouma for twelve hundred years, always headed by a single Empress.”

Trixie’s perceptive eyes caught a twitch from Lyra, seated a few chairs down, Bon Bon next to her. Lyra’s ears had done a little dance and the bard had leaned forward when Luna mentioned how long the Imperial family had been ruling in Shouma.

“What happened twelve hundred years ago? Who ruled there before that?” Lyra asked, voice burning with intense curiosity.

Luna, rather slowly, lifted a cup of tea and took a pointedly long sip. When she set the cup down and looked at Lyra her eyes held a pained glint.

“Before the Imperial family was established the land of Shouma was divided into many disparate, smaller kingdoms, many no larger than single city-states. Conflict was, unfortunately, quite common between them. It was not a peaceful time. I and my sister tried many times to guide that distant land towards a better future. Our efforts met with... mixed results. I’d rather not speak of the details, if you do not mind, Lyra Heartstrings. I know you would wish to hear the tale, but I do not trust my ability to tell it without coloring things with my own biases.”

“But it has to do with the reason the Contest of Champions exists, right?” Lyra pressed, nearly rising from her seat.

“It does,” Luna said, frowning, not a particular deep frown, but coming from the Princess it was enough to make Lyra deflate slightly, “To give you the, shall we say ‘abridged’ version, to satisfy that insatiable curiosity of yours, the threat the world faced back then originated in the realm of Shouma. The fight that required the rise and sacrificed of Champions from many races happened because of the actions of one of Shouma’s most ambitious and viscous warlords. A kirin who...”

Luna’s eyes lost focus for a moment, flickered briefly towards Trixie, then she closed them with a sigh, “...who at one time I called a friend. And also, an apprentice.”

There was a round of silence following that, none of the ponies seated at the dining table having an immediate response to the Princess’ words. Trixie herself felt an uncomfortable disquiet. She was still trying to work out something to say when Ditzy spoke up first.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to keep talking about it Princess. I’m sure Lyra didn’t mean to make you remember anything bad.”

Luna’s smile returned, giving the mailmare a small nod, “It is alright Ditzy Doo. My long life has accumulated many sad memories, this is true, but every day affords me the opportunity to make good memories as well, and I have no few of those to spare thanks in part to those gathered at this table.”

Lyra, looking abashed as she glanced away, scrunching herself into her chair, said, “I’m still sorry to poke you for info like that. It’s just frustrating because I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the story behind the Contest, and have been coming up mostly empty due to every Equestrian source I’ve tried has been nothing but the most bare bones info. Thought if I talked to a mare who was around back then I might learn more. Guess I just did... sorry.”

Luna raised a hoof, “As I said, it is alright. Do not worry. I doubt I could do the full story proper justice anyway. Suffice to say the mare I once called friend changed a great deal over time, and sadly was consumed with a desire to make the world bend to her vision of what should be, no matter the cost others were forced to pay for her ambitions. You will see firsthoof the legacy she left behind, when we reach the Isle of the Fallen.”

“Rengoku?” Lyra asked.

Luna actually looked surprised, not an expression Trixie saw often on the alicorn’s face.

“Where did you hear that name?”

Lyra coughed, “A, uh, red deer who visited Ponyville today. Name of Andrea.”

“Ah, that explains it then,” Luna said, “She and her fellow Champions from Elkhiem arrived at the palace not long before you all did. I have for some time teased my friend Wodan about visiting Canterlot, and he took it upon himself to bring company. I have not met Andrea personally, Lyra, but I will tell you that you’ve had the honor of meeting Elkhiem’s most renowned skalds and loreseekers. If any in Elkhiem would know the tale of the Contest’s origins by heart it would be her. I suppose she teased you with a name, but failed to elaborate further?”

“Yeah,” Lyra crossed her hooves, “Figured she was keeping all the juicy bits to herself.”

Bon Bon frowned, “Still don’t like the way she was looking at you, whatever deer customs happen to be.”

“So what is this Rengoku anyway?” asked Raindrops, a worried look in her face, her wings twitching slightly.

“A fortress,” Luna said, expression darkening, “And a weapon. One that could traverse mountains and oceans alike through the power of flight.”

Trixie found herself scoffing before she could catch herself, then at Luna’s look she said, “Sorry, sorry, but... you’re serious? This apprentice of yours made a flying castle? Why didn’t you ever teach me that spell? I could make the Residency fly and not worry about my window getting smashed in anymore.”

“Right, because that’s what you’d use a flying house for,” Raindrops said, “To keep your window repair costs down.”

“Does Trixie’s window get broken that often?” asked Ditzy, “I haven’t been counting.”

“Windowpane really is fond of Trixie...” Carrot Top mused, speaking of Ponyville’s resident window repair pony and the fact that Trixie recently was given a preferred customer card. One free window repair for every five visits!

Trixie, trying very hard and not quite succeeding in keeping a slight pout off her face said, “I’m just going to save up and spring for those reinforced, double-thick windows next time. I will make the Residency Ponyville-proof!”

“Better work on your door, then, as well,” said Cheerilee, “Though I don’t think it’s possible to make any door Pokey-proof.”

Luna, one eyebrow quirked up at the turn in conversation, coughed politely and said to Trixie, “I did not teach my former apprentice the spells to create her fortress. Nor would I have, had I known of such magic at the time. Rengoku was the pinnacle of my former friend’s magical skill, and was forged of secrets she uncovered in Shouma’s most remote regions. To this day I still do not understand just how she managed to construct something so... dangerous. It alone allowed her to make all the east bow to her rule, and launch a war of conquest into the west. Even my sister and I together were only able to slow the fortress’s progress, to buy the time needed for others to brave its dangers and face its master.”

She looked at each of Trixie’s friends in turn, finally resting her gaze on Trixie herself, “Of the thirteen Champions who entered Rengoku to put an end to the threat only two returned. One was a pony, a young mare of no small magical talent, but the loss of her friends hurt her greatly. She refused to allow her name to be recorded, and personally requested of me and my sister that the tale not be venerated. That is part of why so few accounts of the battle exist in Equestria. The other survivor was the daughter of the warlord, who fought to free her people from fear of the tyrant her mother had become. After the battle this daughter went on to establish the dynasty that is the current Imperial family, a bloodline that has ruled in peace for the generations since.”

“And the fortress itself, what happened to it?” asked Lyra.

“Did it fall apart when the bad guy got beat up?” asked Dinky, “That’s what usually happens, right?”

Luna got a bemused look on her face and Trixie was quick to say to her mentor, “It’s sort of a common occurrence in modern stories. Lyra, what was the term, again?”

“Load bearing boss,” Lyra said.

“Ah,” Luna said, though in a tone that suggested she still found the notion odd, “I am sorry to say that, no, the fortress did not crumble upon the defeat of the warlord. It fell, yes, but it remained quite intact, and to this day remains on the Isle of the Fallen. My sister and I would have destroyed it, but even after the fall of its master the fortress’ core retained a truly frightening amount of magical energy. To destroy it would risk causing destruction potentially worse than what the fortress could cause on its own. So instead Celestia and I created a barrier around the fallen fortress, sealing Rengoku away. We also... encouraged the formation of a monastic order on the island, which to this day remains as the island’s guardians against potential intruders who’d seek to tamper with the barrier. In fact most of the Champions for the Contest will be sleeping at this order’s monastery while the Contest takes place.”

“Speaking of sleep,” ventured Shutter Bug uneasily, though the mare seemed to relax a little at Luna’s calming nod, “We should probably get Snails to bed, your highness. It’s an early morning tomorrow for all of us.”

“You are quite right,” Luna said, “All of you should take this chance to rest well. At dawn tomorrow I shall be teleporting us to the southern coast of Cavallia where we will meet with Princess Cadance. Equestria’s Champions will sail alongside Cavallia’s and we shall arrive at the Isle together.”

“The island must not be that far from the coast then,” said Cheerilee, “If we’re meant to arrive there that day.”

“Indeed, it is a mere forty miles from the coast. The trip shall be made faster with my magic giving us a favorable wind and a strong current to bear us at best speed. I imagine we’ll arrive before the morning gives way to midday,” Luna said, and Carrot Top made a small, gulping sound.

“More boats...” the carrot farmer groaned. Not long ago, during their adventure to Tambelon, Carrot Top had discovered she was no mare of the sea, “I guess that means I’m skipping breakfast.”

Not long after that the gathered ponies started to rise from the table, a number of servants entering to start cleaning up the remaining platters and plates. Princess Luna joined Trixie and the others out in hallway, “There is one last thing I wished to do before the six of you retired for the evening. I’d like to show my Knights of the Realm something. It shan't take long, and through it could wait, it would be best to do this while we’re still in Canterlot. If that is alright?”

There was a brief moment of exchanged looks, mostly with Ditzy seeming to hesitate about letting Dinky go off to bed by herself, but then if the foal wasn’t safe in the center of the Royal Palace, just where else could she be considered safe?

“Don’t worry Ditzy,” said Shutter Bug, “We’ll be looking after her at the Contest after all, we’ll certainly be watching her here.”

“You’re right,” Ditzy said with a smile at the other mother, then she turned to give Dinky a quick nuzzle, “I’ll be back soon muffin.”

A few minutes later Princess Luna had led the six mares to a wing of the palace containing a simple, offshoot tower. They climbed an exterior set of stairs the wrapped around the tower, providing an excellent view of Canterlot and the surrounding palace grounds. As they walked, or in Ditzy and Raindrops’ case flew alongside, Trixie’s curiosity got the best of her patience.

“Soooo, what are you showing us, Princess?” she asked, only half-joking as she added, “Not some hidden away text that explains that an ancient lord of Tartarus is sealed up inside that fortress, and you need us to fight it? Because I think I read that story in one of Sparkle’s adventure novels last month, and if my life’s following its normal pattern, that would be what would happen next.”

“Nothing so dramatic I’m afraid,” said Luna, “You’ll have to save your heroic battle with a lord of Tartarus for some future date.”

“That’s all well I suppose,” said Trixie, “I don’t have anything to wear for such an occasion anyway.”

Luna broke into a coy smile as they reached the top of the stairs, where the tower held a single circular room with a single pair of heavy doors. Luna gripped the doors within a sheath of her midnight blue magic, but before she opened them she turned to the six Element Bearers before her.

“When I named you all Knights of the Realm it was, in part, a reward for the services you’ve done for Equestria and your fellow ponies. It was also in part because I realized those who bear the Elements of Harmony needed both acknowledgement and backing to properly serve the role of defending this nation from harm. Since then, on Tambelon and beyond you six have shown courage and skill in facing danger. I have thus also called upon you to be Champions, to show all the world at the Contest what ponies of Equestria can be.”

She opened the doors and gestured with one wing for the six mares to enter, who all exchanged looks before doing so.

“I would be remiss, I think,” said Luna, “If I asked you to be Champions, but did not ensure you could at least look the part.”

Inside the room there were no furnishings, merely a simple marble floor and a ceiling supported by thin, elegant pillars. But in the center of the room were six stands, with mannequins in the shape of ponies.

Trixie gulped, unable to keep an eager grin off her face, said “You give the nicest gifts.”

Carrot Top was simply blinking in surprise, “What are they made out of...?”

Cheerilee, even, seemed to shock to make a quip, instead saying, “That is Astranium, more ‘commonly’ known as star-steel. I say ‘commonly’ in the loose sense, because there isn’t supposed to be much more than a few dozen pounds of it located since the founding of Equestria.”

“Such reports,” Luna said, “Did not account for my own personal search for such metal.”

Ditzy looked at a tad confused, tilting her head slightly, “Are we allowed to wear these? They look expensive.”

Lyra was practically hopping with excitement, “Ditzy, of course we’re supposed to wear them. They have our cutie marks right on the tabards! And those banners? Princess, did you decide on those designs?”

“I did. I hope you do not mind me taking some artistic licence with them?”

“They look alright,” Raindrops said with a shrug, and at everypony else’s stare directed her way the jasmine pegasus did manage to look a tad abashed, “Well, I mean... I’m just not that big on armor.”

“You’ll find these are so light it is little more than like wearing a piece of cloth,” said Luna, “But cloth with the protective properties of magically enchanted steel. Mainly because I also took the liberty of enchanting these suits with some of my stronger warding spells.”

The six mares approached the armor mannequins, each of which bore a suit of armor that sported a tabard colored in each individual mare’s coat colors and bearing their cutie marks upon the chest. The armor itself was made from fine interwoven links of chain-mail small enough to almost appear to be silk rather than metal, and was designed to cover the neck, chest, back, flanks, and forelegs with a snug fit, leaving just enough space in back for the tail. The metal itself was a silvery sheen, like starlight given physical form.

Next to each suit of armor was also a metal pole, sporting a banner of silk that hung down to two tapered points. Each banner held designs upon them that were clearly meant to signify their individual Element Bearers.

Lyra’s was a stylized lyre, not unlike her cutie mark, but surrounded by a golden glow of magic that in turn seemed to be summoning a storm of scrolls and book pages, swirling around it like a tornado.

Cheerilee’s banner displayed what looked to be Ponyville’s schoolhouse, but surrounded by a field of flowers that looked like the ones on Cheerliee’s cutie mark, and, strangely, a school of fish swimming through the air above it all.

Ditzy’s consisted of a pair of wings the same grey color as Ditzy’s coat, on a background of soft yellow, dotted with bubbles. The wings were protectively enclosing the largest bubble and if one looked closely at it one could see the outline of a small unicorn filly at the center.

Raindrops’ banner depicted a stormy black cloud letting forth a deluge of rain, the droplets of rain forming the shape of a heart crossed with two stylized wings whose tips were pointed like swords.

Carrot Top’s sigil was an orange shield, the same color as her mane, on a background that showed a seemingly endless expanse of farm fields of all kinds, with no fences or demarcation separating the fields of carrots from any of the other crops.

Finally, Trixie’s banner showed a swarm of fireworks exploding across a field of azure blue, the many colored lights bursts framing the silver sheen of a crescent moon hanging in the center of the field, and upon the inner curve of that crescent was the form of a rearing unicorn in a purple hat and cape.

“I trust you all find them to your liking?” asked Luna, with an actual hint of trepidation as the alicorn Princess of the Night seemed to shuffle a tad nervously on her hooves. Trixie turned from running a hoof appreciatively along her banner, turned and all but flung herself at Luna with a big hug.

“They’re perfect. Thank you.”

“Well, at least now if we lose, we’ll lose looking stylish,” said Cheerilee, eyeing her armor, “Any neat magical powers we ought to know about? Like can we leap tall buildings in a single bound with these on? Or have the strength of ten mares?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” said Luna, “The armor is protective, nothing more. However the strength of Astranium, combined with my enchantments upon it, should help you withstand blows that might otherwise cause no small amount of harm.”

“That legal in the Contest?” asked Raindrops.

“Yes,” replied Luna, “Champions are in fact encouraged to make use of any items of power they might possess. It is part of the spectacle. One of many reasons I felt it was due time I provided you mares with something to properly signify your station and help keep you safe. These suits of armor will be yours to use on any dangerous mission you might undertake as Knights of the Realm, not just in participating in the Contest.”

“Spiffy,” said Lyra, already trying her armor on, which slipped over the mare as smoothly and easily as she might've put on a hoodie, “Ooooh, this does feel light. I can barely feel it!”

Lyra turned around in a few circles, “Need a mirror. Wanna see.”

Trixie laughed, conjuring up an illusionary image of Lyra as she was with the armor on, “How’s that?”

“Oh yeah,” Lyra said, striking a pose, “Bon Bon is gonna love seeing me in this. I think tonight's the night to try a little role-play action.”

Trixie blanched, dismissing the illusion, much to Lyra’s chagrin, but Trixie said, “Remember that talk we had about the meaning of too-much-info?”

“Nope!” said Lyra with a grin.

Raindrops rubbed her forehead, “And I think that’s our cue to call it a night. Princess, thanks for the consideration. As long as this armor helps keep us all safe, I don’t have any complaints.”

“Same here,” said Ditzy, “It’s just like wearing a uniform to work, right? Its real nice of the Princess to think of this for us.”

“I’m glad you all like them,” said Luna, “I wanted to make sure you would, before springing this on you at the Contest. Well, then, I’ll take no more of your time. Go and get some rest my little ponies. Tomorrow you have a very big day ahead of you.”

Author's Note:

Whew, chapter 2 certainly took me a lot longer than I expected it to. Got stymied quite a bit on this one, mostly because deciding how I wanted to go about introducing the deer was something I had a lot of difficulty getting satisfied with. In the previous chapter I had a much easier time showcasing characters from Shouma or the Griffin Kingdoms because they were in their home environment, but with the deer I decided to have them show up in Ponyville and cause a bit of a ruckus; simple enough in concept but the interactions took me awhile to bang out just how I wanted it to go. Hopefully you guys found them an interesting enough bunch.

Next chapter we finally get the L6 to the Contest, and we'll get to see just what that's going to entail. Oh, and Minotaurs. Can't forget the Minotaurs. Think they're the last bunch I haven't introduced yet, but that'll wait until the party arrives on the island.

As always thank you for reading and any and all comments or critiques are highly appreciated. Let me know if I'm moving too slow, or if something seems up with the characters. Also, the Lunaverse being the wonderful shared universe it is, any thoughts on how the characters from other nations act or notes on their culture I'm more than happy to hear thoughts on and make any adjustments if it seems like they need to be made. I'm sailing into a lot of unknown territory here, and certainly don't feel like I have the sole right to map it all out myself!

'Till next time folks.

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