• 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 3: The Isle of the Fallen

Chapter 3: The Isle of the Fallen

Propelled on conjured winds and aided by a summoned, swift current, the RES Wingsong cut across the soft southern sea, its sails and speed giving it the look of the fin of a shark. On the ship’s bow Trixie excitedly stood with her forehooves propped up on the deck railing, enjoying the warm sea breeze blowing through her mane and peering ahead, eager to catch a first glimpse of their destination. Her eyes flashed with anticipation and there was a slight bounce in her hind legs. She was speaking under her breath to herself, mind lost in planning.

“Oh, oh yes, just the right timing on the starbursts, mix in some echo enhancements to support Lyra’s playing, this is going to completely awe the crowds. Hehehehe, oh, and when we all take the proper pose, the glamour of false lightning and explosions to match our colors.”

“Uuugh,” Carrot Top’s languid groan was plain to hear over the sound of water breaking against the ship’s hull. .

“Hey, if you don’t appreciate my intensive planning you could at least be less negative,” Trixie began, but looking over at Carrot Top she realized the mare wasn’t making noise at Trixie, but rather just happened to have her head hung over the rail. There was certainly a pea-green tint to the farmer’s usually healthy yellow coat, and Trixie thought Carrot Top’s mane and tail even seemed wilted and ill.

“S-sorry, Trixie, boats... ocean... bad...” Carrot Top explained, smiling wanly.

“Ah, my mistake then,” Trixie said, giving Carrot Top a pat on the withers, then immediately took a step back as that caused another bout of heaving. Trixie gave her friend a bemusedly worried look, “So I take it you and the ocean still don’t get along?”

It had been discovered not too long ago that Carrot Top could get almost violently seasick. In fact the Wingsong had been the ship Trixie and her friends had rode that time as well, to the island of Tambelon to investigate the island’s mysterious return and to confront its necromantic master. Between dealing with deadly golems, the advent of a near unkillable lich, and Corna herself, seasickness had been among the least of Carrot Top's adversaries, but remained one she had yet to conquer. That had been some months ago, not quite half a year, and apparently Carrot Top had not devised a solution to her trouble with the not-so-proverbial motion of the ocean.

Carrot Top raised her head just long enough to give Trixie a flat stare, “Not yet. Still hate the sea. And water in general, I think.”

“Don’t you need water to operate a farm. Irrigation and all that?” Trixie pointed out.

“That’s nice, clean, non-rolling...urggg... river or lake water. Not this horrible ocean water. Urk ... and none of my herbal remedies are helping!”

The farmer mare gave a small stamp of frustration before groaning and laying across the rails like a wet bath towel.

“Anything the magnanimous and merciful me can do to help?” asked Trixie, about as politely as she could manage while trying not to laugh a bit. Not at Carrot Top’s suffering, but rather at how the mare reminded Trixie far too much of some of her cousins and how they got after an all night bender across Neigh Orleans numerous taverns.

“Cut my head off, or convince Luna to teleport us the rest of the way?” Carrot Top replied, sounding quite serious about the head removal suggestion. Trixie was reminded of some of her less pleasant hangovers and could sympathize.

Trixie looked back across the deck of the Wingsong. Her friends were enjoying some fresh air, Ditzy floating around, watching Dinky and Snails play a game of tag while making sure to keep out of the way of the sailors working the ship. Raindrops was actually up in the crow’s nest, wanting to be of help but having no practical skills to aid in the sailing, so instead the ship’s captain had allowed the mare to take a turn on watch. Cheerilee was near the forecastle, speaking with Raindrops’ parents, though what about Trixie couldn’t hear. Judging by the smiling expressions it was pretty light conversation. Lyra was with Bon Bon on the starboard side of the ship, the pair watching the passing waves together, and Trixie noted their intertwined tails. That and the fact that Lyra was still wearing her new suit of Astranium armor. Trixie almost rolled her eyes. Almost. She had preened a bit in front of a mirror last night herself, admiring the look of the armor and feel of it on her coat; like wearing solid moonlight.

Finally, on the aft side of the ship, Trixie could see the tall, dark form of Princess Luna, her midnight blue coat standing out against the bright blue of the horizon. Next to Luna was another alicorn, not quite as tall, but perhaps even more graceful, with a thinner, more delicate build. A pink coat turned blue towards the tips of her wings, and a three toned mane of creme, violet, and pink cascaded down Princess Mi Amore Cadenza’s back in perfectly groomed curls.

The pair of alicorns seemed locked in deep conversation, nopony, not even the ship’s sailors, daring to wander close to what might have been a private talk between the two sovereigns. Trixie gave Carrot Top a helpless shrug, “If you want I could ask if either of the super-powered immortal Princesses happen to have a spell that help with seasickness.”

“Nah... ugh... appreciate the offer, but I wasn’t serious. Shouldn’t bother the Princesses with my... with my...” Carrot Top’s words trailed off into a groan, and Trixie grimaced, infinitely glad that she didn’t share her friend’s problem with the sea. If anything she found the ocean air bracing and the gentle rolling of the waves oddly relaxing.

Note to self; when I become rich and powerful, get a boat. I rather enjoy sailing.

Finished with her most recent battle with her stomach, Carrot Top drew in a few ragged breaths and asked, “How much longer until we reach this sun blasted island anyway?”

“Not long,” Trixie said with a confident nod, “Should only be a few more hours, at the speed we’re going. It’s not that far off the coast.”

Indeed the southern coast of both Equestria and Cavallia were visible to the north behind the ship’s wake, a thin green and brown line across the horizon. Trixie could almost make out the dotted white and gray specks that indicated Port Golden Shore, the town that rested upon the border between the two nations, a place that was more an extravagant beach resort than it was a trade harbor. The six Element Bearers and the family members traveling with them had arrived with Luna early in the morning via teleportation and gotten to enjoy a spectacular sunrise over the ocean while eating breakfast at one of the town’s best shoreside restaurants. Trixie made it a point to remember the place, as they served among the best poni colada’s she ever recalled having.

After breakfast they’d gone to the docks where the Wingsong had been moored alongside several other Equestrian naval vessels, and a single Cavallian ship. The other Equestrian ships would be carrying members of the nobility who were more interested in appearing at the Isle of the Fallen alongside the Princess than in simply getting there. Trixie knew a number of Equestrians, those who had the means, had been making their way to the island over the past week or so. She didn’t know the full list of which Night Court nobles might be in attendance but she wasn’t too concerned about it. Trixie no longer had any fears of any in the Night Court trying to manipulate her or her friends. There were even, perhaps, a few who Trixie could start to trust. According to Raindrops, Cheerilee, and Carrot Top at any rate this Baron Mounty Max was a noble they could count on in a pinch, at least if the story her friends had told her of their recent adventure in Canterlot had been any indication.

As it turned out the two highest ranked nobles who were traveling by ship alongside the Wingsong were Vicereine Wallflower and Viscount Blueblood. Trixie was infinitely glad they were using their own ships, if only so she could minimize her contact with Blueblood. Wallflower was a bit of a chatterbox by Trixie’s remembrance of her time in court, but Trixie didn’t mind the mostly harmless Vicereine, but Blueblood still irked Trixie. It wasn't that he'd been any worse than any other Night Court noble in terms of manipulation. He was just annoying. And loud. And full of himself. And... pretty much exactly like Trixie had been a few years ago. That comparison, perhaps, was what irked her most of all.

The Cavallian ship was Princess Cadenza’s, apparently one she’d had custom built for her personal use. The sleek, narrow schooner lacked the size one might expect of a Princess’ conveyance, but it carried all the majesty. The Dawnsray certainly seemed aptly named, its rosey hull and ruby sails blending so well with the sunrise splash of that had colored the sky that morning.

While the two Princesses had exchanged pleasantries and Wallflower had chattered about something Trixie had ignored, Trixie had noticed something very strange.

She didn’t recall Luna, specifically, raising the sun. Had anypony else noticed? Trixie didn’t think so. Nopony had said a thing. Probably, Trixie reflected, because everypony was so used to the sun rising each morning that none of them really bothered to think about it, or Luna’s role in the affair. Unlikely anypony really knew what Luna went through to raise the sun who hadn’t actually seen the Princess do so. Most probably assumed Luna just sort of willed it to happen. Trixie knew Luna at least needed to use a fair bit of magic to perform the deed.

Trixie mulled the situation over in her head as she gazed, now, across the deck of the Wingsong at the two chatting alicorns.

She didn’t know Princess Cadenza very well, having only met Cavallia’s ruler a small number of times over the years, but she did know that the pink alicorn was not only a true alicorn and no mere pegasus/unicorn hybrid, but also Luna’s daughter... sort of. It was complicated. Alicorns normally could not bear foals (which led to all sorts of interesting questions about where exactly Luna and Celestia had come from in the first place) and the existence of Princess Cadenza was the result of very unique circumstances, not likely to ever occur again. Dark magic, Elements of Harmony, extremely unusual metaphysical happenings. Luna was a master of the vague explanation.

Yes, Trixie was curious what those two were chatting about, and about asking Luna just why she hadn’t raised the sun with her own magic that morning, but she had no intention of interrupting a private talk between the world’s only alicorn mother/daughter pair.

What secrets or weighty immortal matters could those two be talking about?

----------

Princess Cadenza, or Cadence as she preferred those close to her to call her, gave Luna a sidelong smirk at the question Luna had just asked.

“Oh, we haven’t quite gotten that close, but yes, it’s going well between Shining and me. To the point where I can say ‘Shining and me’ and have it be meaningful rather than hopeful,” Princess Cadenza had a warm smile on her face, wings fluttering happily, “We’ll see how things go, but so far he’s done nothing but hit all the right buttons.”

“I suppose he’s handsome enough, but not to my taste,” Luna commented with a joking wink, her smile deep and content as she started to extend a wing to wrap around her daughter, only just barely noticing her action and pulling back at the last second. They were still in public, and the public did not know about her and Cadence’s true relationship yet. A prospect that had once frightened Luna was one that she now found she could not wait to have happen, so she could openly show her affection for her daughter without fear.

Cadence noticed the aborted gesture and her own smile turned knowing as she carefully moved one of her hooves to comfortingly touched Luna’s leg with a firm pat.

“You never have told me much about your tastes,” Cadence said teasingly, an airy laugh on her lips, “I always have difficulty deciding just who I should introduce you to that will suit. I don't even know if you prefer stallions to mares.”

Luna shrugged, “I have had lovers before, of either sex, when I felt the need, and found one suitable to my tastes.”

Cadence inclined her head, giving Luna a look that made the Princess of the Night shift uncomfortably.

“You make it sound like shopping for clothes,” Cadence said, through her expression lightened considerably, “There's more to love than simple flings. Not that there is anything wrong with a few flings. I’ve had my share of those. But I’ve also had my share of loves worth more than a fling. Near a thousand years since my own ‘birth’, centuries since we started seeing each other regularly as equals, yet in all that time not once have I seen you with another pony as I am with Shining.”

Luna frowned, pursing her lips, ears twitching as she kept her voice low so nopony could hear, “You know, I’m the mother here, I don’t think I need lectures on my love life from my own daughter.”

Cadence nearly giggled at the ruffled Princess of the Night, also speaking in a low whisper, “Oh but it’s practically a daughter’s duty to see to her beloved mother’s happiness, and to meddle in her love life. But, truly, centuries and not one mare or stallion has made a spark in the Night’s heart?”

For a moment Luna’s eyes looked distant, “Of course there have. I merely approach the matter differently than you do. I am not comfortable with making such relationships public. It would complicate matters. You’re still young, yet, you haven’t had enough experience to understand.”

“Luna, I’ve been married five times, and have had dozens of relationships in between that didn’t get serious enough for marriage. I’d say I have experience.”

“I’m not merely speaking of the matter of recognizing and pursuing love, Cadence,” Luna said, “I’m speaking of being aware of how much my actions can affect those around me, because of who and what I am.”

“Oh?” Cadence’s voice was coyly prompting for Luna to go on, “Are you speaking of being a Princess, or of being an immortal alicorn?”

“A little of both,” Luna admitted, “All I mean is that, after many thousands of years of life, I like to measure my actions, and think of their long term ramifications. Most ponies, when they think of long-term consequences merely think in regards to what will happen next week, or next month, or next year, and the immediate affect their decisions have on the ponies around them; friends, family, neighbors. I’ve learned after many mistakes and regrettable actions to think about what I do in terms of what will happen in a hundred years, or a thousand, and how my choice can affect those beyond the ponies immediately involved.”

“And thinking like that doesn’t drive you mad?” asked Cadence, and her eyes widened a bit as she realized what she’d just said and what it might mean to a pony who’d lost arguably the singular most important pony in her life to such madness.

Luna just smiled, a small smile that seemed to carry with it a weight of knowing beyond the depths of the ocean below them, “It is not an easy thing to contend with, at times. Yet we have an infinite number of chances, a limitless number of days, to adapt and grow. We also have each other... each other and...”

Luna’s voice trailed off as she looked up at the morning sun, well on its way to reaching its noon zenith. Cadence shared the look, and once more put a comforting hoof on Luna’s own, “Do you think she will see reason?”

“I don’t know. Before Tambelon, I would have been preparing myself to face her to a bitter end, mine or hers, but now?”

Luna shook her head, “Is there anything more dangerous to hold onto than hope?”

“Probably not,” admitted Cadence, but she looked at Luna with a comforting smile, “There’s also few things I can think of more worth holding onto.”

Luna nodded, and continued to watch her sister’s sun climb into the vast blue sky.

----------

Cold sea air harshly whipped about Dao Ming’s face and she welcomed the chill. It helped her focus when her heart threatened to distract her with its incessant hammering. Among the many challenges she’d managed to overcome in her short life one of the most difficult was maintaining her calm while under her mother’s intense scrutiny. Dao Ming could not see her, standing as she was poised on the bow of the prize flagship of the Imperial Fleet, but she could feel the Empress’ eyes upon her, like two jade spears boring into the back of her head.

The Empress Fu Ling would not be alone, either, joined by the other members of the Imperial Family to watch Dao Ming perform her duty. Her many ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ were gathered in silent observation of the present Imperial Heir. Mostly silent. Among them Dao Ming could hear whispers, her eldest sister Tomoko’s lowered voice saying, “Is it safe for her to do this alone?”

To that Dao Ming heard the whisper of a younger sister, Xhua, reply, “Does it matter?”

The whispered were followed by a crack of sound like the snapping of bone, followed by a few startled gasps. Dao Ming didn’t need to look to know her mother had merely flicked her tail in annoyance, but that gesture alone was enough to pacify the chatter. Dao Ming was almost appreciative, though if she were being honest with herself Tomoko’s concerns were far from invalid.

She had never performed the Rite of Swift Passage without at least one partner to share in the Mantra. While the Imperial Fleet’s flagship, the Divine Current, was a swift vessel for its incredible size, it was not a small thing. At nine masts and nearly one hundred and fifty paces long the Divine Current with its emerald painted hull and golden square sails dwarfed the other ships in the small fleet that would make its way to the Isle of the Fallen. Normally such a voyage would take weeks, even months without favorable winds. But that journey would be cut into a single afternoon with the Rite of Swift Passage. It was a rarely used ritual, but not unheard of when the Imperial Family wished to make an impressionable entrance somewhere.

Dao Ming had expected her mother to assist in performing the Mantra chant, and had been given quite the surprise when the Empress had informed her that she would be taking on the task alone.

Another test, Dao Ming thought, somewhat bitter, Even on the advent of my greatest challenge, she still tests me at every opportunity. Well, I shall not be found wanting!

With a deep breath Dao Ming began her casting. Her twin ivory horns lit with curls of pure golden light. This was magic born of the heritage all kirin shared with their unicorn kin. Dao Ming felt the vast pool within herself that her horns tapped into, felt the ripples across that pool as the magic flowed into physical being through the conduit her horns represented. This was but part of the magic she would be conjuring, however. Kirin and unicorn alike who had settled the ancient land that the westerners called Shouma had discovered many great secrets, one of them being that of the magical art of Mantra. Words of power that spoke to the spirits laying dormant in the world, inside every object, from the smallest blade of grass to the mightiest mountain. The magic still drained the innate magical power inherent in many of the equine races, unicorn or otherwise, yet the spirits merely took that power to allow themselves to manifest with their own unique strength. This meant that any who knew the Mantra could cast spells with the proper scrolls; earth pony, pegasus, longma, it mattered not. But the kirin were unique. They shared a connection with the spirits that was of blood and ancient pacts, at least according to the oldest legends of the land.

Dao Ming’s magic took hold of a case of scrolls tied to her flank, and like wisps of smoke a trio of scrolls unfurled from the caste and flew around the kirin’s body, forming three rings that circled her again and again until it was if Dao Ming were encased in a loose cocoon of velium. Upon these scrolls, written in black ink, were thick lines of complex script; kanji pictographs. Each was the size of a hoof, and as the scrolls spun around Dao Ming she sent her magic into the scrolls, golden arcs of light touching the scrollwork and flowing through it like a river, lighting up the black kanji ink like water filling a channel.

Words began to tumble from Dao Ming’s mouth, the swift, resonate words of the Mantra, words that when mixed with the medium of the scroll’s enchantments, brought to life by the channel of her magic, would translate into a mighty spell that would draw forth the spirits latent in the world.

I raise my head to the sky

Soul of air, soul of sea, hear my voice!

My path is long, my haste great

I humbly ask, aid our journey, swift air, sure sea!

With every word she spoke the letters seemed to fly off the scrolls, each line pulsing with her heartbeat and the steady flow of her magic. Like a yawning chasm had opened up inside her Dao Ming felt her magic pour away, filling the scrolls, empowering the words, sending out the call of the Mantra to the spirits around the Divine Current and the four smaller ships trailing in the wake of the humongous flagship. As her magic poured out Dao Ming very quickly began to feel the drain on her body. Normally there were supposed to be more casters performing different parts of the chant, using different Mantra scrolls, to collectively pool their energies. Now all of the drain fell squarely on Dao Ming’s shoulders and she struggled not to let it show as she started to feel hollowed out, strain beading sweat on her forehead and sending trembles into her legs.

Still, she continued to chant, feeling her mother’s eyes on her.

Build a bridge between realms, spirits of the air

Carry us safely across the expanse, spirits of the sea!

Do this, I beg, and be honored by our blood, our praise!

Winds of the east, waves of the west, come now!

She forced her legs to stiffen before they could buckle, and ignored the sweat now flowing freely down her face. Her horn’s magic wavered, the glow of golden aura greatly diminished. Her breath was coming in small, shallow gasps. But the ritual was working, the Mantra having its desired results. Water bubbled up in a frothing storm around both the Divine Current and the other ships following it. Glowing with motes of gold light the water rose in tendrils, then steamed into a billowing mist. Wind, sweeping in from all sides, carried the mist around the ships until all around was a white, thick fog that obscured sight no more than a short distance from the deck. The air was cool, and sound oddly muted, through Dao Ming could still hear the gentle waves of the ocean on the ship’s hull.

More than the mist, Dao Ming knew the ritual had worked because she’d felt the soft touch of something on her consciousness, another presence beside her own. A spirit of air, a powerful one, and likely the one leading the congregation of spirits summoned by the ritual, had sought her mind and picked out the destination Dao Ming desired. Dao Ming, despite her exhaustion, felt exhilarated. The spirits had answered the Mantra chant of her alone, and her magic had been sufficient sacrifice to appease the spirits. Now, amid this mystical mist, the span between the offshore waters of Shouma and the distant seas around the Isle of the Fallen off the shore of Equestria would be bridged.

Behind her she heard a soft tapping of hooves, and the voices of her family.

“Excellently done sister!” she heard Tomoko say, with no small amount of relief.

“At least we won’t be late,” said Xhua.

“Oh be quiet, I don’t recall the last time you did a three-scroll Mantra chant, even as part of a circle,” said the loud, booming voice of her elder brother, Lo Shang.

Not immediately trusting her legs to keep herself upright Dao Ming slowly turned, hoping to hear some words of praise from her mother. But as she looked all she saw was Empress Fu Ling’s back as the Empress walked away across the deck towards the door that would lead down into the bowels of the ship. The Empress’ tall, lithe form was a darker green than Dao Ming’s own jade coat, her scales a more burnished, red gold, and her own twin horns more akin to the smooth branches of an ash tree than the intertwined lightning of Dao Ming’s horns. The Empress wore a brilliantly shining gown of silken gold and onyx, trailing behind her like a river.

Dao Ming fought back the grinding of her own teeth, taking an involuntary step after her mother, almost shouting a protest. Would one word of appreciation or acknowledgement have been too much!? Even a single, satisfied nod!? She had just performed a ritual meant for an entire cadre of experienced Mantra chanters by herself and her mother simply walked away as if Dao Ming were simply accomplishing a mundane, daily task!?

Abruptly she felt a brush of feathers on her back following the familiar rush of wings.

“Well done, Lady Ming,” said Kenkuro, one wing draped across Dao Ming’s back, his pipe held in a soft, proud smile, “I doubt many in the Empire could have done the same and remain standing.”

“Yes,” Dao Ming said between labored breaths, “It seems certain individuals do not share the sentiments.”

Kenkuro looked past Dao Ming to where the Empress paused only briefly to allow the guards at the door to the lower decks to properly bow their heads to the ground and open the door for her before vanishing inside. Kenkuro smile faded slightly as he took his wing off her shoulder and folding them behind his back.

“She turned away quickly, I think, to hide her face from you,” he said.

Dao Ming scoffed, looking down at the deck as she whispered, “And why would the illustrious Empress need to hide her face from her own daughter?”

“So you did not see her smile, I would think,” said Kenkuro, to an incredulous look from Dao Ming. He squawked a small, cackling laugh, “Through perhaps my old eyes are showing me illusions.”

Dao Ming considered the latter possibility the most likely. Empress Fu Ling did not smile, at least not in Dao Ming’s experience. Perhaps one day that would change. Perhaps one day soon. Perhaps at the very Contest they now sailed across a mystical bridge of mist between oceans to reach. Dao Ming, still feeling drained to the last drop of her endurance, managed to maintain her poise as she strode towards her gathered siblings.

“Sister,” said Tomoko, inclining her head in a respectful bow to one who was of higher station. Tomoko, like all the adopted members of the Imperial Family, was a greater kirin, with two horns as opposed to the far more common single horn. Her horns were smooth, slightly curved like a bow, and split into a trident of spikes at the end. She had a brilliant ruby coat, an uncommon color on the mainland, but more common on the island state of Neighpon that was part of the Empire since being brought into the fold ages ago. Tomoko’s black mane and dark brown eyes were also testament to her heritage.

“Perhaps you would like to join us for breakfast and recuperate from your impressive efforts?” Tomoko asked politely, indicating the pavilion set up on the port side of the main deck where food was already being prepared on a carefully controlled and monitored grill. The smell of cooked fish was enticing and Dao Ming was glad her stomach didn’t rumble embarrassingly... yet.

“I would enjoy that,” she said, “I’ll need all my strength restored for when we reach our destination.”

“I could certainly go for some of that delicious, fresh caught tuna,” said Kenkuro.

At that Xhua gave the tengu a flat look, nose slightly upturned “Did I not just see you eating an hour ago? How much can you fit in that belly of yours?”

Xhua had a short, dainty stature, very much an example of classic noble birth and beauty, with her own dark mane bundled close to her head in an intricate and tight bun. Her own sea blue coat was well groomed and matched well her turquoise eyes. Her own horns were shorter, and forked in many places in elegant, short spines.

“Bah, why act so surprised? The Blade of Heaven could eat out half the Imperial storehouses and have room for dessert!” laughed Lo Shang, coming up and clapping Kenkuro on the back, using the tengu’s official title rather than his name, out of respect. Lo Shang was a tall, well muscled kirin stallion whose black coat and long white mane were the envy of many in the Empire, with emerald eyes that Dao Ming knew had seduced more than a few courtiers in the palace; mare and stallion alike. His own horns were curved inward, their edges and tips sharp as blades. They reminded Dao Ming of the blade of Lo Shang’s naginata spear.

Xhua sighed, looking at Lo Shang with a deadpan stare, “I was trying to subtly suggest our honored blademaster, who also happens to have a little thing called the Contest of Champions to participate in, might want to pace himself.”

Kenkuro laughed, holding up a wing, “Ah, but a warrior knows that he must eat whenever he can, for that meal may be his last!”

“Well said!” proclaimed Lo Shang with a grin, and he and Kenkuro both shared a laugh.

Xhua shook her head, but Dao Ming smiled, saying to Kenkuro, “As if you would ever fall in battle, old crow. It matters not what champions we may face, I cannot imagine a one of them that will be a match for you.”

She paused, adding with a barely concealed look of embarrassment, “Not that I shall allow you all the honor of taking victories on the field.”

They took seats at a lowered table, plush cushions available in abundance for them to sit upon while servants providing them with platters of fresh food, and goblets of fine, clear wine. Dao Ming had to restrain herself to eat properly, at a slow, dignified pace, because her hunger was already intense even before the ritual, and exhausting her magic only increased her appetite. It didn’t hurt that the Divine Current was carrying a massive retinue from the Imperial Palace, including the Empress’ finest chefs. It was sheer willpower that kept Dao Ming from literally shoveling the food down her gullet.

Kenkuro certainly felt no such sense of restraint, and Lo Shang followed his idol’s lead and ate like a starving pony. Xhua rolled her eyes at the spectacle, and Dao Ming found she couldn’t disagree with her younger sister. Even if she was a tad envious.

Tomoko, seated next to Dao Ming, turned to her, speaking in a casual tone, “I’m certain you will acquit yourself well, siser. Never have I known you to fail at any challenge placed before you. This will be no different.”

There were faint, mixed feelings in her sister’s voice, Dao Ming could sense. Of all the children Empress Fu Ling had adopted, Tomoko was the oldest, and had many talents that had made her an ideal addition to the Imperial Family. She’d been the highest born daughter of Neighpon’s richest noble family, and to be elevated to the Empire’s Imperial Family had been a natural step for her. Tomoko’s skills were not as martial as Lo Shang’s, or even Xhua’s, but as a member of the court, as a political figure, she was tireless and skilled. Much of the smooth running of the Empire’s affairs, especially in the Imperial City itself, were thanks to Tomoko’s efforts. Tomoko had been the Imperial Heir, before Dao Ming had been born.

Dao Ming wondered often if Tomoko was truly supportive of her, or if it was a mask her elder sister wore. How much had losing the position of Imperial Hier stung Tomoko’s heart? Did she secretly wish, perhaps even plan for, Dao Ming failing? Of course Dao Ming could lose her position at any time, were she to fail so spectacularly that the Empress could give the position to one of the other siblings gathered at the table. However, among those siblings, only Tomoko was skilled enough to warrant the possibility of ousting Dao Ming. Lo Shang, for all that Dao Ming was fond of her boisterous adopted brother, was a stallion of the battlefield, pure and simple. Politics did not become him. Xhua was capable both in the arts of war and of the court, but was held back by a lack of creativity and initiative. Dao Ming loved her siblings, but that was her assessment of them.

It made her consider all the more the importance of succeeding in the Contest. Were she not to, could she trust any of her siblings to take the responsibility of one day ruling the land and caring for its people? Could any other than she be capable of fulfilling the duties expected of the Empress?

“I do not doubt that you are correct,” Dao Ming said to Tomoko, hiding a flutter of nervousness, “Between myself and Kenkuro I know we will surely win.”

“Strange, though,” said Tomoko with a quiet tone, unlikely heard by the boisterously joking Kenkuro or Lo Shang, or the bored looking Xhua, “Why would the Empress dishonor you by insisting the Blade of Heaven compete alongside you?”

Dao Ming blinked, “Dishonor? I don’t understand. There could be no better warrior in all the Heavenly Empire to stand by my side.”

“Oh, I do not question Kenkuro’s skill. None in all the land would be so foolish,” said Tomoko with a disarming smile, which then faded to a worried look that Dao Ming could not tell was genuine or not, “Yet I am surprised at you sister. I thought you would have familiarized yourself with previous Contests and seen the... issue. I’m sure the Empress has good reasons, I would never doubt her. But it remains that since the Contest of Champions began our Empire has only ever sent a single champion to represent us. You will be the first since the beginning who has not been the sole champion of the Empire.”

Dao Ming took that with the feeling of a cold blow to her chest. She kept her face calm, not allowing her dismay to show on her features, but her voice held a hint of the disappointment she felt, “I see. I did not know that, Tomoko. I thought mother was providing a partner worthy of my skills to fight at my side.”

“Perhaps she is,” said Tomoko quickly, bowing her head, “I apologize, sister. I did not mean to upset you. I thought you knew already. For what it is worth I firmly believe you do not need the Blade of Heaven’s... protection.”

A flash of anger swept through Dao Ming and her eyes narrowed, “I need no protection. Mother will see! I will sweep away all comers at the Contest like the wind wipes away autumn leaves. You shall see, all of you will see, I am worthy. Just wait, sister, this Contest will be remembered for all the eternal years of the Empire to come!”

Amid Dao Ming’s incensed if quiet tirade she did not notice Tomoko’s slight smile as she sipped her wine and whispered, “Of that I am absolutely certain.”

----------

“I see it! I mean, land ho!” Raindrops cry came from the crow’s nest, and Trixie found herself eagerly looking over the bow railing towards the south. With a rapid rush of hooves she heard her friend’s joining her, even Carrot Top lifting her head from over the rail to compose herself.

“Where is it? I’m not seeing anything,” Lyra was bouncing on her hooves, all vibrant energy as she hugged Bon Bon, then nearly climbed on top of her marefriend to get a better view. Bon Bon, with a warm smile but an equally half-flustered snort pushed Lyra down.

“Easy there hun, if Raindrops just saw it from up there, it’ll be a bit before we can see it ourselves.”

Ditzy in the meantime happily raised Dinky onto her back so the foal could prop herself on her mother’s head, and Dinky held her one hoof in front of her as if she were imagining holding a spyglass towards the horizon. Then, rather suddenly, a spyglass floated over to Dinky in a wreath of soft blue light, which Dinky blinked at in surprise.

“By all means,” said Princess Cadenza as she and Princess Luna joined the ponies on the bow deck.

Dinky’s mouth make a large ‘O’ of awe, then Ditzy patted her daughter gently saying, “It’s okay Dinky, just remember to say ‘thank you’ to the Princess.”

“Thank you so much! You’re the best Princess!” Dinky said, taking the spyglass, then paused, glancing at Luna sheepishly, “You’re also the best Princess.”

Luna chuckled, waving a hoof, “I don’t mind second place. Cavallia could not ask for a better Princess to steward it than Cadenza.”

Dinky looked quite eager to start scanning the horizon, but noticing Snails nearby with his own parents Dinky tapped her mother’s head and nodded towards the colt. Ditzy smiled and nodded, letting Dinky down, who quickly scampered over to offer to share the spyglass with Snails so they could watch for the island together.

Meanwhile Cheerilee flanked Carrot Top with Trixie, the schoolteacher carefully examining Carrot Top’s face, “You holding up?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m alive, and better now that I know land, blessed land, is near!” said Carrot Top, taking in deep breaths.

“We’ll make sure to get some food back in you once we've got dry land under our hooves again,” Cheerilee said firmly, “You’ll get hungry pretty fast once the nausea has run its course. Oh, next time you ought to bring saltines with you; it’s an old sailor standby for seasickness. I hear, ironically enough, that carrot juice can help.”

“I’ll try to remember that the next never that I get on a ship,” muttered Carrot Top.

“You do realize we’ll probably be coming back on this same boat, right?” asked Raindrops as she flew down from the crow’s nest to land lightly next to the mares. Carrot Top just groaned

Trixie looked at Luna as the Princess stood next to her, Cadenza pausing behind the pair.

“Princess Luna, I’ll be returning to the Dawnsray,” Cadenza said with a polite nod to Trixie and the other mares, “I look forward to see all of you compete at the Contest. I do hope Cavallia’s own champions will learn from you and you from they in this wonderful time of bonding between nations. I also look forward to being able to speak with you all in a more relaxed setting between competitions. If none of you have had the chance to try Cavallian cuisine or experience the art and music of our land it will all be on display at the festivities.”

Most of her friends seemed a little taken aback, not sure how to respond, but Trixie was fast to offer a bow to the Cavallian monarch, “I don’t doubt the festival will be made all the grander with Cavallia’s contributions, and I for one eagerly anticipate seeing the chivalry and skill of your champions, Princess Cadenza.”

Princess Cadenza took that with a warm smile and a final nod to those gathered before spreading her wings and alighting, flying across the waves towards the swift and sleek Cavallian clipper, the Dawnsray, the ship keeping a strong course alongside the Wingsong’s starboard side, while the other two Equestrain ships carrying Wallflower and Blueblood kept a distance to the port and stern.

“That was well said,” commented Princess Luna beside Trixie, “Maintain that and you’ll do well at the Contest. Between this and the aplomb with which you handled the impromptu visitation of those from Elkhiem I feel confident you’ll represent Equestria well both on and off the field.”

Trixie coughed, trying to hide a pleased smile. She knew Luna was aware of how much Trixie enjoyed a good bit of praise, but Trixie did not want her head getting too big before this Contest even started. She’d had enough problems with wrestling her ego and dealing with the fallout of not thinking things through. While Trixie was proud of her accomplishments over the time spent in Ponyville there was an anxiety inside her that she might slip up that had never fully gone away. The Contest was an open an invite for ego as any Trixie had ever faced, a challenge to her self control that rivaled her trip to Oaton last year, when an entire village had treated her like a hero for all the wrong reasons until she managed to finally put things to right.

But this isn’t like Oaton. There, I let myself take praise I hadn’t earned; at least until I fessed up to the truth then did what I needed to do. Here, Luna herself has appointed me and the girls as Equestria’s champions, with the expressed purpose of showing the whole world why we’re great. I shouldn’t feel so nervous. This is the kind of thing I’ve dreamed of since I was first made Luna’s apprentice! I… I don’t want to screw this up. For me, or for my friends. This is their time to shine too! All of us, together, like it should be! So why do I feel like I’m walking towards a cliff?

“Are you alright, Trixie?” asked Luna, a reserved but distinct hint of concern in her tone. Trixie looked up at the alicorn with a confident smile, standing up straighter.

“Of course! I couldn't be more fine! Don’t worry Princess, we’re going to dazzle them beyond anything anypony, griffin, elk, or anything else has ever seen! They’ll be talking about this Contest of Champions for the entire hundred years until the next one, and beyond even that!”

“Ha, that’s what I’m talking about!” cried Lyra, pumping a hoof with a wide grin on her face, “We’re gonna knock ‘em dead out there! Win or lose, though I totally prefer win, this is going to be awesome!”

Raindrops let out a small, faintly humored laughed, shaking her head, “I’ll be happy if we just all get through this without anything weird happening.”

Cheerilee smiled and gave the pegasus a playful punch on the shoulder, “Oh, come on, try to get more pumped for this! Do me, Trixie, and Lyra have to start up a cheer chant to start getting you in the spirit of things? I think I still have a cheer-leading uniform from my college days.”

“Oh, for the love of Luna…uh, no offense Princess, but for the love of the moon please don’t.”

“I’ll cheer for ya sis!” offered Snails with a wide grin, and Shutter Bug and Dewdrop were quick to affirm the fact.

“Daughter, we’ll be cheering so loud in the stands that they’ll hear us all the way back in Ponyville,” Shutter Bug said with a firm nod and stamp of her hoof.

Dinky all but bounced up and down, her horn letting off little sparks of excitement, “I’ll definitely be cheering momma the loudest!”

Bon Bon drew Lyra close to her for a tight hug and nuzzle, “I think you all will have no shortage of fans rooting for you.”

“So, no pressure then,” Carrot Top said with a wry half-smile, the good cheer of her friends helping break through the sickness, or at least help her forget it.

Trixie just grinned, “Pressure is what I live for.”

“I thought sleeping in was more your thing?” asked Cheerilee.

“Not all the time. Only half the time. The morning time,” Trixie said with a slight upturned snout.

“Hey Princess, “ Lyra said, after finishing returning Bon Bon’s nuzzle, “What was with the elk coming through town anyway? They said they were going on to Canterlot to meet with somepony, but I didn’t see them after we left Ponyville.”

Luna smiled in an oddly conspirator like manner, and for some reason Trixie thought she saw the Princess of the Night blush? “Oh, yes, ha, that is… well, I may have once made a good friend to a member of the Elkhiem delegation. I may have also, at the time, offered to show him the best drink Canterlot had to offer had he ever happened to find his way to the city. I do think Wodan took my offer more seriously than I ever expected, and now… the Palace stores are nearly exhausted.”

“But… you don’t drink,” Trixie said.

“I don’t. Wodan does. Exponentially,” said Luna, looking away, “In any case, they may well have reached the Isle ahead of us. Despite the wind and currents I and Princess Cadenza have conjured, a wyvern can fly at remarkable speed and for incredible lengths of time, and they left Canterlot at an earlier hour than we.”

“How did you even meet somepony, er, someelk like Wodan?” asked Ditzy curiously tilting her head, wall-eyed stare almost but not quite managing to focus on Luna.

“I’ve been to Elkhiem and other parts of the north many times Ditzy Doo,” said Luna, “Often for political reasons, but I do take personal time when I can, and don’t always spend it inside Equestria’s borders. I met Wodan on one such trip, enjoying some of the more spectacular mountain vistas of northwest Elkihiem.”

The Princess of the Night, shaking her head and laughing at the memory, “I was enjoying a mid-day nap on a cliff overhang that offered a breathtaking view of a convergence of mountain valleys when, well, Wodan sort of landed on me.”

“Landed...?" began Lyra

“On you?” finished Trixie.

Cheerliee’s response was a flat, “Did he mistake you for a one of those wild trampolines, so common to the region?”

At the stares Cheerilee rolled her eyes, “Joking. Those aren’t actual things.”

“Cheer, we gotta double check with you sometimes,” Lyra said with a grin.

Luna coughed politely and said, “At any rate, no, it was no case of mistaken identity. Wodan had been climbing the mountain above me and had slipped. I sort of broke his fall.”

“That’s cool, so you saved his life then?” asked Raindrops.

“I’m not certain the fall would have been life threatening for him. Wodan’s capacity to withstand injury impresses even me,” said Luna, then smirked, “But it was a memorable way to start a friendship. I’d tell you of what happened after that, but he tells the tale better than I anyway, and I do think we near our destination.”

“Oh, yes, yes I see it!” said Snails and he offered the spyglass to Dinky, “You can see it right?”

Dinky was fast to confirm it, “Yep! There it is! Land ho! Again!”

All the ponies turned towards the distant sight, watching as a dark green strip on the horizon quickly started to grow larger as the swift ship brought them to their destination. As they approached Trixie’s excitement was all but a living thing vibrating in her chest, but so too was that nervous sense of anxiety that she couldn’t quite shake; that feeling of approaching the cliff.

The feeling only intensified as the Isle of the Fallen became a clear shape, its details becoming more distinct.

The island was shaped like the head of an arrow, its tip pointed westward. Trixie estimated it was perhaps ten miles long from one end to the other, though obviously its width would be shorter towards its tip, which tapered into a small peninsula that petered out into a series of half a dozen much tinier islands, like trailing tears…

…or drops of blood, Trixie’s mind oddly conjured the morbid image. She shook off the thought, wondering what was wrong with her. As her eyes roved the island she began to pick out its features. It seemed its north side was mostly covered in thick, green forest, with a more open grassy fields dominating the southern end. She saw at the southern tip was a small inwardly curved harbor and the clear dots of buildings indicating a small town; the port of Champion’s Rest, as she recalled from Lyra who’d studied up on the island’s history.

Which meant Trixie also recognized from Lyra’s information that the rise of hills into a steep set of cliffs on the north side would be where the monastery of the strange order of monks who looked after the island would be situated. She couldn’t see the monastery itself as it was blocked from view by the cliffs themselves, but she knew the monastery was built right into the stone itself, and was mostly underground.

That left one, final distinctive feature of the Isle of the Fallen to behold, and as she laid eyes on it that feeling of anxiety inside her gut transmuted into a sense of near dread.

At first it looked like a small, black volcano, some natural part of the island, wreathed in wisps of white cloud. Only at closer inspection could the streamlined angles of it be made out, the tired structure clearly built by intelligence and not nature. It reached into the sky, hundreds of paces high, its shape like two tiered pyramids laid one atop the other, one facing up, the other downward. The lower tip was speared right into the ground, its depths hidden by the forest that seemed to grow up around the dark stone. Trixie could make out archways all along the tiers, archways that she imagined had to stand taller than some of the towers in Canterlot. What those archways even led to she couldn’t fathom. The entire, impossible structure was surrounded by a monolithic circle of metal, connected to the thickest part of the main structure by long, stone bridges. From the edge of the ring dozens of spires rose, crystalline spears the size of the Wingsong, an even thirteen, Trixie realized as she counted. The very top of the dark structure remained obscured by cloud, but as Trixie looked she could almost imagine it being capped by what might have been a normal fortress in any other place, but upon that… mind numbing large thing it was nothing more than a crown.

“...What the bu-“ Lyra began, before Bon Bon stuffed a hoof in her mouth and nodded towards the foals. The foals, however, clearly wouldn’t have heard Lyra anyway, both of them wide eyed and staring at the sight before them.

Luna’s entire expression had changed, turning grim as she solemnly said, “My little ponies, I welcome you to the Isle of the Fallen, but also unfortunately must introduce you to its most notable resident; Rengoku, the Warlord’s Fortress.”

Trixie looked at Luna, then back at the looming sight of the fortress. She tried to picture how such a thing could have been built. Or what manner of magic could have animated it and given it flight.

“Whoa...” Snails said, and Dinky nodded, the little filly dumbstruck.

Lyra looked less fearful and more like she was about to start jumping in excitement, “It’s bigger than I thought it’d be.”

“There are words I never imagined hearing you say,” Bon Bon said dryly. Lyra laughed, elbowing her fiance playfully.

“Huh, those griffins over there?” asked Raindrops, squinting at what Trixie at first thought had been simply a flock of birds flying by the fortress, but now that she looked more intently, Trixie saw the forms of sky carriages and the flying trails of banners. It was indeed a large flock of griffins, dwarfed so by the fortress of Rengoku as to look like little more than sparrows at this distance.

“Looks like it,” confirmed Cheerilee, shading her eyes with a hoof, “Must be half the Griffinn Kingdoms being represented in that flock! I can recognize the colors of Grandis, Halriech, Fokkerwulf, Schwartzwand, huh...”

“What?” asked Trixie at Cheerilee’s confused expression, the schoolteacher’s nose scrunching up.

“Those are all inner-kingdoms,” Cheerilee said, “I don’t see any banners from the border kingdoms.”

“You are right, Dame Cheerilee,” said Luna, her own eyes squinting, “Almost. There is one banner among them that is from the border kingdoms of the griffins; Shaldwrick.”

“Neat...” said Carrot Top, “Is this weird for reasons I’m not figuring out?”

Luna turned to answer but Lyra beat the Princess to the punch.

“Its odd because every Griffin Kingdom is allowed to send its own champions. So why are there only inner kingdoms being represented in that flock, except for one specific border kingdom?”

Carrot Top just gave her friend a blank stare, then shrugged, her face still tinged green as she eyed the railing, “Can’t even begin to guess, Lyra. I think I slept through class when griffin politics came up.”

“Maybe the other champions for these border kingdoms arrived already?” suggested Ditzy.

There was no way to know for certain and so the conversation drifted towards what they would do once they landed at the island. Lyra was eager to visit the monastery to see what information the monks there had on the island, but agreed to help Bon Bon with setting up her food stall at the festival grounds between the port and the monastery. Cheerilee had an interest in sightseeing around the island while they had the spare time and Ditzy was quite happy to voice her interest in joining in. Carrot Top just wanted to rest and recuperate from the sea voyage before doing anything else. Raindrops was oddly silent, continuous casting wary looks towards the distant, dark fortress of Rengoku.

Trixie shared a mood with Raindrops, nervous still for reasons she couldn’t quite pin down. And for some reason the oddity of the griffin delegations just added to it.

----------

“Quite the sight, isn’t it?”

Gwendolyn didn’t bother looking at the griffin who spoke, instead roving her eyes over the expansive shape of Rengoku with a critical gaze. She was flying near the head of an entire flock of griffins, the lead vanguard of the small army that was descending on the Isle of the Fallen. While no one of the Griffin Kingdoms’ delegations consisted of much more than a score of griffins, all the central Kingdoms were represented. Some had arrived days earlier, but many others, mostly the stronger of the Kingdoms, Gwendolyn noted, decided to fly together as a show of collective strength. The absence of any notable border Kingdoms bothered her, like a tiny barb in the back of her mind.

While most the griffins flew, a few dignitaries were being pulled in elaborate cloud chariots and carriages, flying the long, colorful pendants of their Kingdoms. That, combined with the distinctive livery each griffin wore to show their allegiance, gave the mighty flock of griffins an almost prismatic quality, countless colors reflecting off of their tabards and cloaks in the morning light.

The flock was passing by the east end of the island, flying past the giant black fortress’ southern side. They were high enough that Gwendolyn was afforded an incredible view of the island itself and the surrounding waters, and much as she had with the fortress of Rengoku her eyes roved the island as well; always searching. Out of habit she was deciding how she might attack the island, or defend it. Same with the fortress. Her mind was always working tactically.

She decided she wasn’t that impressed, with either the island or the supposed ‘Warlord’s Fortress’. The island was small, and awkwardly shaped for defense. Too flat. The few hills and cliffs she saw wouldn’t be all that well suited for building fortifications. The forest on the north and east ends were thick enough, but once those were stripped of lumber there wouldn’t be anything of note to make the island worth having. Not that she thought she’d ever need to actually care about the island’s usefulness, but her mind just tended to catalogue these things naturally.

As for the fortress, it looked like a cumbersome target to her. She couldn’t imagine what the ancient kirin Warlord had been thinking, building something so lumbering and massive. It was like throwing up a gigantic sign that screamed, ‘I’m evil, please everyone come kick my butt!’

“A waste,” she finally said to the griffin who’d spoken earlier.

He quirked his head, looking at Gwendolyn sidelong with one eye, “Come again?”

“I said its a waste. Of resources. Too big, too easy to surround, worse it just makes you a target. Rather just have an army at my back than be inside that thing.”

“I don’t know how read up you are on your historical contexts,” said the male griffin flying next to her, “But that ‘thing’ you’re so unimpressed with had an excellent track record for smashing armies into tiny, ineffectual pieces.”

Gwendolyn frowned, giving the male a longer look with one eye while her other scanned the ground for a good spot to land. She hadn’t been paying him much mind since he’d pulled up alongside her during this last leg of the flight south, but now that she was thinking about it he looked familiar. His feathers were white, but tinged with a shade of burnt orange just a shade darker than his bronze coat. Brown eyes looked back at her with confident amusement that engendered a sudden urge in Gwendolyn to punch him. Hard. She noted his clothing, a cloak and circlet; both of a black iron coloring and each bearing a sigil of a violet wing.

“It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? It’s just the world’s largest paperweight now. Might impress the tourists but far as I’m concerned it laying there like that is proof enough that if you want to make a difference, you don’t need a giant toy, you need the people on your side.”

“Ah, yes, the people,” said the male, “I suppose if you get enough of them together it might equate to something like power. My experience is that ‘the people’ can’t accomplish much without direction. Perhaps the kind of direction you suppose you give them?”

“You trying to say something? Who are you anyway?” Gwendolyn wasn’t hiding her hostility, banking closer in a maneuver that forced the other griffin to back off a bit and trail behind her. She noted that flights of griffins from the flock were starting to peel off to land in a wide grassy area the west side of the island, just in front of the west beach. The flights jockeying for position to land first, the stronger Kingdoms edging out the weaker Kingdoms with their smaller retinues. Gwendolyn heard the piercing screech of her mother, Beatrice leading squad of soldiers in securing a route for the King and Queen’s cloud carriage to take the lead among those landing.

“I’m shocked you don’t recognize me, Gwen,” said the male griffin as he cut across her both in a surprisingly bold maneuver, wheeling downward to join the landing possession, “Perhaps a race to the ground will shake some memories loose?”

He laughed, and darted downward, and Gwendolyn with a savage grin dove to give chase. She wasn’t entirely certain if she found this fellow aggravating or amusing, but she’d play along for now. It’d been awhile since she’d had a good race, and it’d take her mind off of worrying what was happening to her Band of the Red Shield while she was stuck here halfway across the hemisphere. She plummeted downwards, rapidly catching up to the laughing male.

“I thought you wanted to race!” she taunted, “You even trying to give me a challenge?”

“Sharp tongued as ever I see. Alright, let’s see if you still have the spark I remember.”

Gwendolyn frowned, wondering just where he supposedly knew her from. She didn’t recall anything specific, but then this male’s coloring wasn’t uncommon. His annoying laugh was faintly familiar but she couldn’t put a talon on what. Interest as much as an want to crush this fellow thoroughly spurred her onward as she pulled ahead of him. They were rapidly approaching the ground, getting close to the point where it was be important to reduce their speed or risk a painful, or worse, landing.

Yet the male wasn’t slowing down. If anything he was speeding up to keep pace with her, grinning all the while.

Gwendolyn scoffed, “Think I’ll pull up first?”

The male turned his eyes towards her, and that spark of madness in them, more than anything, broke through the malaise around her memory. Years peeled away in her mind’s eye and Gwendolyn was a young chick again, and the male next to her was a scraggly, thin runt, not even worth a second glance if not for that look of pure crazy in his eyes.

Shock as much as the practical fact that they were less than a hundred feet from the ground had Gwendolyn sharply pulling up, slowing her decent rapidly. The male shot right past her and didn’t try to pull up until he was less than fifty feet from the ground. He didn’t so much land as skim the ground and ended up rolling into a partial crash into the sandy beach beyond the landing field. Despite the painful looking tumble Gwendolyn heard him laughing the whole way. Other griffins who had landed nearby, soldiers and nobility alike, looked at him like he was mad.

Which he was. Gwendolyn breathed heavily as she landed near the male, staring at him.

“Grimwald! You sky cursed crazybrid!” she growled, stomping up to him as Grimwald lay on his back, “Why didn’t you tell me it was you!?”

“Hehehe,” Grimwald laughed, wiping blood off of a cut scalp and smiling widely as he stumbled to his feet, shaking his wings off of sand from the furrow his tumbling form had cut in the beach with his rough landing,“This was more fun! It hurt my feelings, Gwen, thinking you might’ve forgotten me.”

“You think maybe there was a reason I forgot!? Bah, my blood pressure needed the reprieve. What are you even doing here? Last I heard your family married you off to some noble family in one of the east border kingdoms.”

“Yes, yes, married off like a particularly unwanted piece of spare meat,” Grimwald said with a sad shake of his head, then he burst out into giggles, “My darling wife, suffice to say, got tired of me even faster than you did. Oh, but she doesn’t mind me being out of the house as much as I can. Marital bliss is us staying as far away from each other as possible, as long I helped her pop out a few chicks first, to keep the parents happy that the ‘noble line’ is continuing. Since my own exploits keep the family’s coffers surprisingly full I get no complaints if I miss a few dozen social events.”

“Exploits? What exploits?” Gwendolyn asked, looking at him askance, “You were never good in a fight, and a weak flier as well! I was always having to bail you out of trouble! Which you always found. Your beak was bigger than your brain, as I recall.”

“Ha, indeed it is. A skill I’ve cultivated over the years to work for me. More to the point, I learned I don’t need to be good at a fight to win a fight. The best fights are, in fact, the ones you win before they even start. That’s why I’m here. The Kingdom of Shaldwrick has nominated me as its champion, for all my good work dealing with the piracy problems in the east sea.”

Gwendolyn couldn't stop her laugh, trying to imagine Grimwald dealing with pirates. He was crazy enough, she didn’t doubt, but she also remembered how easily and often he got the crap kicked out of him back in flight school. The eastern pirates had had a reputation as particularly ruthless. Gwendolyn had heard rumor they’d entered into some kind of pact with one of the eastern kingdoms, but she hadn’t known that kingdom was Shaldwrick, or that the one who’d facilitated the whole affair was Grimwald. She couldn't help but ask, “How?”

To that Grimwald’s eyes just twinkled with a mad light and he said, “You’d be surprised what people will agree to when you’re as charming as I am. And where charms fail, money talks. And where money fails, well, pirates have kidneys like anyone else. Kidneys don’t respond well to sharp objects, I’ve discovered. And, hey, apparently you get named nifty things like ‘champion’ after enough kidney stabbings; as long as you’re stabbing the kidneys polite society wants you to.”

Gwendolyn had a hard time absorbing that, unable to see the griffin before her as anything resembling a ‘champion’. But then again, she had a hard time seeing herself in the same light. Neither she or Grimwald had been heroic material in their youth. Both were children of noble families in Grandis, and had been playmates during those years. Gwendolyn might have given Grimwald no small amount of guff over his mannerisms and tendency to always find trouble, but ultimately she’d enjoyed it all. Things had never been dull, whether he was picking a fight with bigger, older griffin youths, or was challenging her to a similar race that was actually a game of chicken. He apparently hadn’t changed much into adulthood, though he’d clearly filled out his scrawny form.

She hadn’t been happy to see him go, all those years ago, but among the nobility that was fairly normal. Arranged marriages between different Griffin Kingdoms. She’d never expected to see him again, and had been too immersed in joining Grandis’ military to bother trying to keep up some written correspondence. Now here he was, apparently roped into this Contest just like she was.

She shook her head, laughing, “Well, I suppose Shaldwrick can’t be blamed for choosing a crazybird as their champion. Just don’t embarrass your kingdom on the field. So, has your ‘loving’ wife come with you? And chicks, you say? I have a hard time seeing you as a father.”

“Why’s that? I’ll have you know I’m the picture of a responsible father figure! I teach my kids how to properly hold a knife before I let them run around with one! Drives the missus crazy. Oh, she’s around, by the by. Appearances and all that. If you see the griffiness with the purple eyes that look like they’re trying to strangle me with a look, that’s her. Viletta. Such a sweet thing.”

He leaned towards her, whispering with a talon up as if blocking out others from reading his beak, “Just between the two of us, she may hate me, but she’s a demon between the sheets. Whips, leather, and chains, oh my.”

Gwendolyn gave him a grimace and punched him on the shoulder. Hard.

“The less I know, Grim, the better.”

“Our safety phrase is ‘hot sauce’, but we only worry about that when she wants to use the rack- OW! Hey, I bruise easily, Gwen!”

“Sounds like a personal problem between you and your wife,” Gwendolyn muttered as her eyes gazed over the beach towards the gentle rolling ocean beyond. Her sharp eyes made out the sight of several ships approaching from the north, heading for the docks of a town that was also a little ways to the north. She recognized the ships as being of pony make, keen eyesight spotting the flags. She knew the heraldry of Equestria's Royal Navy, but the other ship, the one with the ruby colored sails, was less familiar to her.

“Cavallian,” Grimwald said, coming up next to her, “The clipper ship, I mean. It’s from Cavallia. Nice place, so I hear. Excellent wine.”

“The ponies, I would’ve expected more ships...” said Gwendolyn, then frowned as her eyes caught sight of something strange. A white cloud of fog seemed to be taking shape from the ocean, rising like a wall right next to the two pony sailing ships.

“What is that?”

----------

Trixie sensed it almost as fast as Luna did, both unicorn and alicorn responding at nearly the same instant. Trixie, more curious than worried by the odd mist and magical pressure she felt simply cast her magic sight spell. However Luna’s reaction was quite different, the Princess immediately raising a hoof and calling out to the crew of the Wingsong.

“Turn to port, now!” the Princess aid with absolute command, and the captain of the ship didn’t question the order at all, instantly barking her own orders to get the crew moving and the wheel spinning, sending the Wingsong into a sharp turn.

Trixie and her friends stumbled to keep their footing on the deck as the ship turned, and Trixie looked at the forming opaque wall of mist that had risen from the sea next to them with curious confusion etched on her face. She couldn’t recognize the type of magic forming in that mist. It was like an army of fireflies and strangely swirling whipcords of air, all colored different shades, were intermingling in that mist, and forming some kind of… tunnel?

A few seconds later something emerged from that tunnel, flowing out of the mist and breaking into a high wave in a spray of water. It was a ship, a jade ship with the bow shaped like that of a coiling, serpentine dragon. The massive ship out massed the Wingsong almost twice over, and was heading straight for the desperately turning Equestrian sailing vessel.

In a few heartbeats Trixie saw things only in parts. Ditzy protectively hugging Dinky and taking to the air. Raindrops jumping to do the same for Snails. Lyra put herself in front of Bon Bon, as if she could shield her fiancée with just her body. Cheerilee had grabbed up life preserver rings in her hooves. Carrot Top was digging in her saddlebags for something.

Then as instantly as the danger had appeared in front of them it was past them as a burst of water rose like a wall between the two nearly colliding ships, and the deck heaved underneath them. The swell of water carried the Wingsong narrowly out of the path of the massive jade colored ship, which only now was finally fully emerging from the tunnel of fog. After a few shaking heartbeats the Wingsong had cleared any possible danger and slowly came about alongside the strange new shp, with its massive square sails, and ludicrous nine masts.

On the larger ship Trixie could see shapes moving, ponies it looked like, but many of them wore strange clothing she didn’t recognize and she heard the distant chatter of a language she didn’t know. Others on the foreign ship weren’t ponies, but rather equines with dragon-like wings. Longma, Trixie realized. Soon there was a call from the larger ship, possibly an inquiry if they were okay, if Trixie was judging by the somewhat panicked tone in the call.

“Who in a blue moon are they and how did they nearly run us over!?” asked Raindrops, settling back down on the deck and setting down a shaking Snails.

“Whoever they are they need better aim with their mist swirly magic thing,” said Carrot Top, putting away a vial she’d drawn from her saddlebags.

From the misty tunnel other ships were emerging, of the same general style of the jade one, but with much smaller frames and sails. On their decks Trixie saw that several of the longma and a few ponies, pegasi, both groups wearing strangely segmented, almost insect-like armor, were taking flight and angling over the Wingsong.

Off to starboard the Dawnsray was pulling up beside the Wingsong and a flashing message of magical lights was being exchanged between the two ships; no doubt Princess Cadenza confirming that everything was okay. The message passed along back to the vessels of Wallfower and Blueblood, which had kept a safe enough distance that they hadn’t been caught in the near collision.

The oddly armored pegasi and longma finished their flyby, and soon returned to the deck of the huge jade ship. Meanwhile Princess Luna strode among the Element Bearers, her gaze softening, “Nopony is injured?”

“No, we’re okay,” said Ditzy, still holding Dinky close.

After confirming everypony was well Princess Luna looked to Trixie, “I haven’t seen a passage like that in a long time. This must be the delegation from Shouma. Only the greater kirin of noble blood, or the Imperial Family itself, would arrive on such a ship, and using that manner of magic.”

“What is that magic? I looked at it, but I’ve never seen magical energy like that before,” Trixie still watched the wall of mist with its swirling tunnel, until the last ship emerged and the tunnel swirled away, then the mist itself dispersed into the ocean as if it had never been there.

“Mantra,” Luna said, “A method of calling upon natural spirits in the world to do one’s bidding.”

Trixie quirked an eyebrow but didn’t inquire further. There was some branches of unicorn magic that delved into the arts of conjuration and summoning, sometimes even binding beings like elementals to perform services, but she’d never known that kind of magic to be able to do something like create a giant tunnel of mist, supposedly to allow several large sailing ships to travel halfway across the world. She wondered just how many kirin were needed to cast such a potent spell.

“Hey, check it out, somepony is coming over,” said Lyra, pointing, then huffed, “Think we’ll be getting an apology for the near collision?”

Trixie peered and saw that indeed somepony was coming over. Walking over. On the air. Trixie starred, unable to tear her eyes away from the strange display, and the… pony, doing so. No, not a pony. Ponies didn’t have golden scales amid their coat, or twin horns of ivory curving up from their brow. This had to be a kirin.

Trixie’s impression of her first kirin was one of remarkable poise and grace, but she didn’t know whether to attribute that to this particular kirin or if all of them carried themselves like that. It reminded her very much of the nobility in Canterlot, but with less snout in the air and more… carefully controlled balance. This mare, for indeed the kirin was a mare, walked as if her every movement was measured, calculated.

The kirin mare walked on the air and Trixie saw small discs of magic forming under her hooves, acting like constantly reshaping steps for her. There was a glow of golden magic around the kirin’s twin horns and Trixie, her magic sight still active, examined the magic closely. It was actually a fairly simple conjuration spell, and the magic the kirin used was now much more familiar to Trixie, and she was reminded that kirin were essentially unicorns with a little dragon blood in their veins. The spell itself was a highly modified and specialized version of a low level conjuration spell, often used to create disks of force to carry goods. This was simply being used to make a series of steps for the mare to reach the Wingsong.

When she reached the deck the kirin mare stepped down from her summoned disks and took a moment to look over everypony. Trixie felt a need to stare back as the kirin looked at her, feeling like she was being weighed, sized up, and Trixie found herself returning the look and not blinking. The kirin paused on Trixie longer than Trixie’s friends, and Trixie saw the mare’s eyes tighten slightly. Then the kirin looked to Princess Luna and inclined her head. That was it. No bow, no kneeling, just a simple incline of the head, that barely ruffled the kirin’s long golden mane.

“Princess Luna Equestris of Equestria,” the kirin mare said in a heavily accented voice, clearly not used to speaking Equestrian, “I am Dao Ming, Imperial Heir of the Empress Fu Ling of the Heavenly Realm and the Tien Empire. I extend my apology for the incident of our arrival. The presence of other ships was not unexpected, but our scouts failed to report just how close your ship was to our point of egress and our sailors slow in shifting our course. Rest assured suitable punishments will be administered to those who have cause such a shameful display.”

Princess Luna was silent for a moment, her own eyes boring into Dao Ming’s, until Trixie thought the kirin mare might actually start sweating, but then Luna smiled and shook her head, “There is no harm done. Convey to the Empress that I would consider it a personal favor if she were to be merciful to her sailors, who could not have reacted much faster given the circumstances. We can put the matter behind us.”

“So be it,” Dao Ming said, as if the matter was of no consequence to her, “I will convey your wishes to my mother. I would want to extend proper introductions to you and get a chance to meet the champions of Equestria, wherever they may be, but I should be returning-“

Suddenly a black, feathery form dropped from the sky right next to Dao Ming, and she jumped a little in startlment, her poise broken abrustply by the new arrival.

“Ho ho, let us not be too quick Lady Ming! I’m certain your mother won’t mind you staying aboard this fine ship a moment longer, as long as I’m here to be an honor guard.”

The one who was speaking was a creature completely unlike anything Trixie had seen before. He, or at least Trixie was judging it was male based on the voice, was a tall, bipedal avian being, with feathers black as ink. He stood on two tall, skinny bird legs, but had a more upright torso, where two long articulate wings spread almost like arms from his shoulders. He folded one behind his back like a bird might, but his other wing reached into a regal blue dress-like garment Trixie had never seen before and he withdrew a pipe that he stuck into his beak, without lighting it. Trixie noted he also wore a sash where a peculiar thin and curved blade was sheathed. There was also an odd, wide brimmed hat of straw resting on his pointed avian head that reminded Trixie of some of the hats she’d seen farmers wearing around Ponyville, though this hat’s brim was wider and it was oddly peaked, like a flattened out cone.

Dao Ming regained her composure, though there was a thin press to her lips like she was just keeping herself in check, as she turned to Luna and said, “Princess Luna, allow me to present Kenkuro Kazeyama, the Blade of Heaven.”

“I recognize the sword,” Luna said, bowing her head to Kenkuro, “An honor, Kazeyama-dono. I knew your predecessor quite well and I am pleased to see the sword passed on to a capable wielder. May the Empire stand long under your watchful protection.”

“Please, please, no formalities,” Kenkuro said, waving a wing, “Kenkuro will be fine. And, yes, my master spoke more than once of the Equestrian Princess, whose beauty surpassed the breathtaking nights she created. He is sorely missed, but he died well. Now, I see a lot of colorful ponies standing about, staring away. I do make quite the sight if I do say so myself, or perhaps it is the Lady Ming that draws such stares? She is a fine sight as well. As Tien Zhu wrote ‘the eyes are a gateway to the soul’s garden’ and if I’m reading the eyes of the crowd right there are some of you whose feathers are still a tad ruffled, eh?”

Trixie glanced at her friends and saw that, at least in the case of a few, the stares of surprise at the two arrivals on deck were mixed with hard glares. Raindrops especially seemed to have her ire up, the jasmine pegasus grinding her teeth and nearly baring them, and Trixie could see her friend’s wings twitching. Trixie felt an urge to go over and hug Raindrops, or at least give her a calming pat on the leg. She really didn’t enjoy seeing the mare get that worked up. Ditzy wasn’t looking happy either, though Ditzy seemed less angry and more just still a little shaken up about the near collision, having still not let go of Dinky.

“That stunt you pulled could’ve seriously hurt ponies,” said Raindrops, “What’s the big idea, dropping some freaky magic portal like that right near the island? Didn’t occur to you geniuses to maybe pull it back a ways, pop out well away from where anypony’s likely to be sailing ships?”

Dao Ming’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, her tone becoming iron, “And who are you to question and berate a member of the Imperial Family after they have already offered a formal apology? A mere deckhoof? A commoner has no right to lay such insults towards her betters!”

Kenkuro sighed, and Luna stepped forward before Raindrops could speak.

“Lady Ming, I think it best that these mares introduce themselves, so we all know where we stand before any further pointless quarreling occurs,” she gave Raindrops a meaningful look at that last bit, and Raindrops took a deep breath, glancing at her parents and little brother as if seeking a source of comfort to help calm herself. Shutter Bug and Dewdrop both looked utterly out of their depth, their daughter getting into a dispute with foreign royalty not being something either pony was prepared for. Snails, for his part, seemed less concerned, having calmed down from the fright of the near ship collision and was now just looking on at his sister with curiosity.

Dao Ming met Princess Luna’s eyes and gave a small nod of deference, “As you wish. I will set aside the rude one’s comments and allow them the honor of addressing a member of the Imperial Family.”

Trixie could hear Raindrops’ teeth grinding, and couldn't entirely blame her friend. Dao Ming’s manner was starting to remind her of certain members of the Night Court. Among her friends Ditzy Doo was the first to speak up, looking about nervously for a momment before giving Dao Ming a firendly smile.

“I’m Ditzy Doo. This is my daughter Dinky.”

“Hi there! Um, are you part reptile?” the filly asked, looking at the golden scales upon Dao Ming's neck and legs.

“Dinky!” Ditzy gave her daughter a firm look, but Dao Ming waved her hoof, puffing out her chest.

“Dragon, young one. Kirin carry the blood of dragons in our veins," Dao Ming said proudly.

“Same thing is said of the longma,” said Lyra, who then shrunk back a bit at Dao Ming’s sharp look, but at a touch from Bon Bon Lyra stiffened up and met the kirin’s gaze, “Lyra Heartstrings. Dame Lyra Heartstrings, at your service.”

The mention of Lyra’s title made Dao Ming’s eyes shift curiously between the mares and soon Cheerilee stepped forward, bowing her head, “We’re all Knights of the Realm, Lady Ming. I’m Dame Cheerilee.”

“All of you?” Dao Ming asked, then gave Dinky an incredulous look.

Cheerilee deadpanned, “Okay, not all of us, obviously.”

“But all of you mares are knights?” Dao Ming asked, eyeing Trixie and her friends. There was just as much incredulity, Trixie noted, in that look as the one she’d given Dinky.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Carrot Top said, raising her hoof, keeping her other hoof on the deck rail in case she needed it, “Names Carrot Top."

Raindrops rolled her eyes, “Yeah, Carrot Top, way to represent yourself firmly there.”

“Hey, let’s see you sound off enthusiastically when your stomach is trying to turn you into a living hose,” Carrot Top shot back.

Raindrops hung her head for a second, shaking it before standing up prouder and looking Dao Ming in the eye, “Dame Raindrops. Bearer of the Element of Honesty. So know I’m being honest when I say I don’t appreciate the way you’re looking down on me or my friends.”

Dao Ming’s eyes burned with a barely contained inner anger but it was tempered by the sudden surprise on her face as she looked severely taken aback.

“The... Elements? You bear one of the Elements?”

“We all do,” said Trixie, stepping forward and drawing Dao Ming’s gaze. Trixie managed a disarming smile, hoping to smooth over this kirin’s clear discomfort at learning who they were, “Now that you’ve met my friends, allow me to introduce myself. I am Trixie Lulamoon, Knight of the Realm, apprentice to Princess Luna, Representative of the NIght Court to Ponyville, bearer of the Element of Magic, and designated champion of Equestria!”

She ended with a smooth flip of her cape and a bow, snatching her hat off her head and crossing it in front of her as she bowed. Glancing up to see the kirin’s reaction Trixie had a hard time not frowning. Dao Ming had a singular look of disbelief as she looked at Trixie and the other Element Bearers, the kirin apparently at a utter loss for words. Trixie didn’t think it was that hard to believe that she and her friends were the Element Bearers. Kenkuro on the other hoof seemed jovially impressed as he smiled and bowed to her.

“We’re both honored,” he said, lightly poking Dao Ming in the side with a wing, “To meet such fine Equestrians. If you are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony then all of the Tien Empire owes you acknowledgment for sparing us the threat of dealing with Amaterasu's unbridled fury. Tales of your exploits reach even the golden shores of the Heavenly Realm and echo up to the Imperial Palace. Dao Ming has long spoken to me of how much she has looked forward to meeting the mares who could battle a goddess and wield among the world’s mightiest magics.”

“Y-yes...” Dao Ming said, her composure showing a crack as she glancing at the ponies before her, flustered, “I have heard tales. Sparse tales. Lacking in details. Like your names and the fact that none of you appear to be archmages or warriors-”

Another poke from Kenkuro’s wing cut her off and earned a quick sharp glance from Dao Ming, but she licked her lips and said, “What I mean to say is... the six of you were not quite what I was expecting. You mares fought Amaterasu, Corona... and were victorious?”

“Think of it like this,” said Cheerilee, “If we’d been actual warriors and mages, we would’ve gotten our flanks kicked by Celestia. Alicorn super strength and all that. Being normal, everyday ponies probably helped us more than hurt us, because we had to go for the Elements to stand a chance.”

“Also, being a mailmare is hard work,” put in Ditzy, “Fighting monsters and other bad guys isn’t half as much a workout as some of my Mondays are.”

“Top that off with Ponyville being the disaster capital of Equestria and I think you’ll find we’re more than you’d think by looking at us,” piped in Lyra confidently, “We’ll give as good as we get.”

Raindrops said nothing, silently staring at Dao Ming in silent challenge for the kirin to try insulting her friends. Carrot Top looked the least comfortable with the conversation, though, staying in back and merely watching with a worried look on her face.

Before Dao Ming could respond Kenkuro said, “I don’t doubt a one of your words. It looks like this Contest of Champions will prove to be memorable. Don’t you agree, Lady Ming?”

“I suppose I do. I apologize again. Kenkuro, you may remain here if you wish, but I am returning to the Divine Current. It would not do for me to disembark on an Equestrian ship. The Empress will want all of her children present, I think. Princess Luna, Element Bearers, meeting you has been... interesting. I look forward to see more at the Contest.”

She swiftly turned without waiting for a reply and leaped with seemingly unnatural balance onto the deck railing, then off over the open water. Her golden discs appeared beneath her hooves and Dao Ming quickly, but with no less poise from before, returned to the Shouma ship she’d come from, which had maintained a parallel course to the Wingsong. Trixie saw that there were other kirin waiting for Dao Ming on the deck of the Shouma shiip, and it looked like they eagerly started speaking with her when she returned. Friends? Fellow nobles? Trixie shrugged off the question, off put a bit by Dao Ming’s attitude.

“I am sorry, Princess Luna, Element Bearers,” said Kenkuro with a more stiff, apologetic bow, “Lady Ming was not intending offense, and perhaps takes offense herself too easily. She has high expectations of the Contest, and puts much stock in those who would be named a nation’s champions.”

“It is alright, Kenkuro,” sad Luna, her smile friendly, but carrying a slight edge to it, “If she has any doubts as to the capabilities of Equestria’s champions, those doubts will be answered when the Contest begins.”

“Darn straight,” said Lyra, getting a hug from Bon Bon.

Raindrops blew out a heavy sigh, wings twitching, then blinked as she felt Snails nuzzling her leg, which caused her to smile and ruffle the colt’s mane.

As her friends began to relax and get ready to disembark, the Wingsong rapidly approaching the port of Champion’s Rest, Trixie remained on the bow deck, finding she couldn’t quite stop watching the large jade Shouma ship. She didn’t know why. Suddenly she found Princess Luna standing next to her once more, the alicorn gazing at her with calming blue eyes.

“Are you alright Trixie?” Luna asked kindly.

“Yes, yes, I’m good,” she said, putting on a smile, “I’m on a ship with my closests friends by my side about to make landfall at an exotic island for ten days of being center stage on a show that’s drawing players from every corner of the world! I’m pretty sure this counts as a milestone in my journey to becoming Equestria’s most amazing unicorn.”

At Luna’s look Trixie let the grandiose smile slip into one smaller, but more real, “That said; I’m a tad terrified. Never thought I’d find a stage I was apprehensive about walking onto, but a part of me feels like we’re not ready for this. Don’t tell the girls, okay? I don’t want them thinking I’m anything less then completely one hundred percent confident!”

Luna nodded, drawing Trixie into a soft hug with one of her wings, which Trixie leaned into, welcoming the old familiar gesture from the Princess.

“Fear not, Trixie, I’ll not reveal your trepidation to anypony. Its no shameful thing, however. Even those who are at their best when in the spotlight can find themselves overwhelmed at times. The Contest will challenge you and your friends, no doubt. I have faith that you will, regardless of performance in the competition, do both me and Equestria proud... and more importantly, do yourselves proud.”

“Thank you Luna, and I will.”

----------

The port of Heroes' Rest consisted of a wide set of docks, eight long piers jutting from a curved, bleached white beach. Small buildings of a simple stone architecture clustered in a disorganized spawn around a central road that ran straight from the docks to the fields to the east. To Cheerilee it resembled very much like an ocean-side Ponyville, both in size and atmosphere.

She trotted down the gangplank alongside her friends, trailing behind the Princess to go meet a group of ponies on the dock who appeared to be waiting for them. Well, mostly ponies. Cheerilee noted that there were a trio of people wearing thick brown robes with hoods up, through not hiding their faces. In those hoods she saw the visage of a goat, a griffin, and an elk.

The lead pony of the group, a portly, rounded gray mare with a curly mustard mane and a gavel cutie mark bowed deeply to Princess Luna.

“I welcome you to Hereos' Rest, Princess,” the mare said jovially, “We’re delighted to receive you and Equestria’s champions. I’m assistant mayor Courtly Manner. I’m here to ensure all of your needs are met and any questions you have answered.”

Cheerilee noted that, a few docks down on either side, the Shouma ships had docked and their delegation being met similarly. Cheerilee chuckled to herself, wondering how many ‘assistant mayors’ were recruited to meet so many people arriving at this small island town. Looking to her right, past where Vicerine Wallflower and Viscount Blueblood’s ships had docked, Cheerilee noted a strange sight.

At the far right dock there was a ship, and one Cheerilee had never seen with her own eyes but only read about, or heard tell of. It was smaller than the kirin’s massive ship, but larger than the Wingsong, a squat, square vessel made of dark banded iron wrapped around an equally dark wood hull. No sails popped up from its flat, straight deck, but instead three tall, rounded stacks of metal, from which Cheerilee saw wisps of steam coiling upwards.

The hull of the ship was chiseled with a dizzying, asymmetrical pattern of lines, twisting and turning in upon each other, always at right angles, never a curve. From the head of the ship two iron spikes curled forward like the horns of a bull.

“Well I’ll be,” Cheerilee said aloud, “A minotaur steam-ship. And here I thought Iron Will was joking about them.”

“Huh?” Ditzy asked, poking her head past Cheerilee’s curiously, then her one focused eye widened, “Wow. How is that thing floating on the water!?”

“Buoyancy, Ditzy,” Cheerilee explained, “A ship of metal can float as long as its hull allows for proper water displacement and maintain buoyancy. Well, that and its still partially made of wood.”

“Heheh, neat,” Ditzy said, glancing around, “Dinky! You need to see this! Its a whole ship made of metal!”

Cheerilee smiled as Ditzy raised up her daughter to let the foal see the distant, strange ship. Cheerilee herself was curious to get a closer look herself. She could use her hooves to count the number of minotaurs she’d personally met, though at one of them had gone well beyond merely ‘meeting’.

It didn’t take long for Courtly Manner and Princess Luna to finish with the formalities and the three in the brown robes to be introduced as members of the Virtuous Keepers, the monastic order in charge of the island.

“The champions are free to walk where they will,” said the goat, an elderly male with a black coat and trailing white beard that gave Cheerilee a unpleasant flashback memory of Grogar, “You are merely required to present yourselves at the monastery before nightfall so that your names and deeds be recorded upon the tablets. Rooms will be prepared for you, but if you wish to secure lodgings in town merely let us know. The only thing we ask is that you respect your fellow champions and cause no conflict outside the bounds of the Contests.”

“Sounds fair,” said Carrot Top, the mare’s mood brightening with every moment spent off ship. Cheerilee could see the farmer brim with new life, rather disturbingly like watching a zombie transform into a living pony. Carrot Top was eyeing the town, and with a clear rumble from her stomach that she didn’t seem to find embarrassing in the slightest, she said, “So, who's up for lunch?”

“Little early for that,” said Raindrops, stretching her wings, “Weren’t you wanting to sleep or something?”

Carrot Top stretched her hooves, “Feeling ten times better now. Feel like I could eat half my own crop! C’mon girls, let’s go find some grub!”

“Guess you’d need to refill your stomach,” said Cheerilee with a smile, “Might as well go see what we can see of town while Carrot Top hunts for brunch.”

“Agreed,” said Trixie, casting a questioning look at Luna, “Where will you be, Princess?”

“I must meet with nobles who have arrived and likely spend most of my day exchanging pleasantries with the delegations from the other nations,” Luna replied, then eyed Trixie with a knowing smile, “You of course will need to help with that at some point, but I suppose I can brave the storm alone for a time. You all enjoy yourselves, and come to the monastery before this evening.”

With that Luna departed, leaving the mares to their own devices. Raindrops’ parents went off to secure rooms at an inn, all expenses paid by the crown of course, and Ditzy went with them so at least one of the Element Bearers would know which inn to go to if they didn’t feel like staying at the monastery. Nopony worried that Ditzy would easily find them when needed.

Trixie looked about the docks, Cheerilee noting the showmare’s eyes settling upon the sight of the Shouma kirin’s marching off with a huge guard of armored soldiers and a larger contingent of servants bearing ornate plaquines. It seemed they were heading straight to the monastery built into the distant cliffs.

“Think I’ll go for a walk,” Trixie said, a strange look on her face that Cheerilee couldn’t place, “I’ll catch up with you girls later.”

“You sure Trixie?” asked Raindrops, Cheerilee hearing the note of deeper concern the pegasus was trying to hide, “I could come with. Don’t have much else to do.”

“That’s alright, I’ll be fine. I doubt there’s much to see until tomorrow when the festivities start up. Just feel like... walking.”

With that enigmatic response Trixie trotted off, with an odd amount of purpose to her gait. Cheerilee was curious, but she trusted Trixie. Whatever the showmare was off to do, she didn’t doubt Trixie would be just fine and find them later.

“Food now,” said Carrot Top, “Anypony who want’s, follow!”

“Count me in!” said Lyra, then hesitated, glancing at Bon Bon.

“Don’t worry hun,” said Bon Bon, nodding towards a group of sailors, “I’ve enlisted some help with my things. Just don’t forget to drop by the festival grounds when you’re done. Though you might have trouble finding me in the crowd.”

Lyra leaned over and gave Bon Bon a quick, but full, kiss, “I’ll follow the scent of Equestria’s best candy.”

“Heh, I won’t start baking until tomorrow morning.”

“Wasn’t talking about the candies you bake,” Lyra said, eyes lidded, suggestive.

“You coming, Cheerilee?” asked Raindrops, who’d flown up into the air to hover above Carrot Top. Cheerilee smiled at her friends, but shook her head.

“Think I’ll take a cue from Trixies and go for a bit of a walk myself. Enjoy the hunt for food.”

“Suit yourself,” Carrot Top said and was off eagerly, like a hunting dog let off the leash. Raindrops shrugged and followed after, Lyra trailing behind after giving Bon Bon a final peck on the cheek.

Soon Cheerilee was left to herself, and though her wanderlust itched to start her towards any number of parts of the island, she soon found herself moving at a swift canter towards the docked minotaur ship.

----------

Trixie couldn’t explain her actions to herself. She moved with purpose, but where or why she felt this compulsion she couldn’t identify. It wasn’t magic, no spell or charm. She knew this because just moments after departing her friend’s she’d used her magic sight spell, just to see if there was some invisible magic affecting her.

But no, there was nothing. Trixie merely felt a powerful inner urge to walk, and not without a destination because she somehow felt she knew where she was going. She walked along the docks heading north, barely glancing at the Shouma ships that had moored there. Soon she found herself leaving the center of Hereos' Rest and was walking along a simple cart path rolling between a few outlying buildings, snaking out into the grassy fields and hills along the island’s northwest face.

Along the shore of the beach she saw a trio of large, wood ships, with open bowl-like decks. Shields and spears hung like decorations from the hulls of these ships, the bow and afts both carved into fierce cervid heads. Well, no doubt whose ships those belong to, even if the wyverns laying out like sunning lizards in the sand near the ships weren’t a dead givaway.

Oddly, the ships had no sails, but instead thick handles that sprung up from the front and back. Handles, Trixie realized, that could just about fit the claws of the wyverns.

Had they carried the ships here!? Trixie didn’t know whether to find that impressive or insane. Given what she’d seen of cervidkind so far both terms applied equally.

She did see a number of cervid of numerous tribes setting camp near the ships, but couldn’t pick out if any of the individuals were the ones who’d blown through Ponyville. Just as well Trixie wasn’t stopped for conversation. The cervids were not her destination, as the urge inside her pulled her on, her quick trot along the cart path continuing. Before long she left even the path behind, and was crossing naked grassy hills.

To the north was the ocean again, the curve of the northwest portion of the island forming a small cove where a small but thick forest rested. Trixie’s route carried her into the forest, and her trepidation rose with her urgency. For a moment she thought to cast an invisibility spell on herself, but as she entered the small forest a sense of calm started to pass over her.

Was she being ridiculous? As if to prove herself that she was in control she forced herself to stop. There was no resistance, she halted in place. She even turned around, as if to leave. Trixie paused, frowning.

“What is going on with me?” she asked aloud, shaking her head, “Why did I come out here?”

Nickering lightly in irritation she was about to walk right on back to town, but something caught her eye. Curious, she turned, and walked a little further into the trees. The forest wasn’t large, and soon met the edge of a short cliff that led down to the sandy shore of the cove. Only a small clearing here left any space without trees, and birds chirped melodiously as Trixie entered the clearing.

The clearing was not empty.

There were thirteen stones, arranged side by side in a gently curving semi-circle along the cliff edge. The stones were tall and straight, like pillars. Plaques made from a brilliant silvery metal was set into each pillar, and Trixie recognized the metal. It was Astranium, the same metal the armor Luna had gifted her and her friends with was made from.

Intrigued now, and feeling the urge to approach stronger than ever, Trixie examined the pillars more closely.

Names were etched onto the plaques, along with further words. Before Trixie could read any of them, however, a stiff breeze billowed through the clearing, nearly taking her hat off, and she turned to see that she wasn’t alone in the clearing anymore.

Standing across from Trixie, a look of bewilderment on her face as if she had been mysteriously compelled here as well, stood Dao Ming.

----------

Deep inside a place that had seen no light for centuries a spark of lavender fire ignited, just for a second.

Ancient metal flickered, for mere moments, with baleful energy, across miles of corridor and within massive chambers.

That which was not alive, but possessed of a bare strip of purpose from its creator, stirred.

It sensed the blood. The blood of those who shared the blood of its creator.

Near... oh so near.

Deep within the core of the ancient leviathan of stone and metal powerful magic stirred, eager, willing...

...waiting.

Author's Note:

Ah, so much to do so little time. Was really hoping to get to the minotaurs this time, but just couldn't quite get them in there. Well, at least I could hint at them. Silly kirin, nearly running over the Equestrians. This is why I always wondered how nervous I'd be if a teleport style of transportation was ever invented; how do you know you're not teleporting right on top of someone? Lots of transitions here, but that's going to be fairly common until we hit the chapters that focus on individual Contests. Next time, the first day of the Contest, opening up with what I like to call the Grand Melee. Hope you folks are enjoying and by all means let me know what you think.

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