• Published 28th Nov 2011
  • 33,177 Views, 997 Comments

The Moonstone Cup - Cyanide



Twilight is invited to Canterlot to compete with some of the greatest unicorns in Equestria!

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Chapter 3

The Grand Ballroom of Canterlot had been nicely restored since the previous year's disastrous Grand Galloping Gala. The decorative pillars had been repaired, the polished white floors showed no sign of the damage a stampede of clawed animals had caused, and the broken stained glass in the windows had all been replaced. The only thing missing was the statue of Princess Celestia; in its place was a new statue, one depicting Celestia holding up the sun and Luna holding up the moon. The ballroom itself was already full as Twilight and her friends entered. Ponies, gryphons, and others clustered around the myriad group tables laid out across the floor. Some milled around, others were nibbling at the buffet at the back of the room, but most sat with their groups, talking.

Twilight led her friends toward an empty table with an elegantly engraved name card reading ‘Twilight Sparkle and Group’. Rarity looked around appraisingly; the general tone was slightly dressed up, but not ostentatiously so. She drew a stylish-but-understated purple and white scarf from her saddlebags and looped it around her neck, drawing an arch look from Applejack.

"What?" Rarity asked, guilelessly. "A lady should always be prepared."

"I think it looks very nice, Rarity," Fluttershy offered, softly.

"Well, thank you," came the magnanimous response. "At least somepony here recognizes the value of looking their best."

"Applejack always looks her best!" Pinkie piped up, standing up in her chair.

"Well, thank you, sugarcube-"

"Because she always looks the same! Right, Applejack? Just like me! I always look the same so I always look my best, too!”

"Thank you, Pinkie," the farmpony said flatly.

Pinkie sat back down, cheerfully. "You're welcome!"

"She is right, you know, Applejack," Rarity said as she absently inspected her front hooves for cracks. "You could try varying your wardrobe a bit. If nothing else, you could certainly use a new hat."

Applejack, fuming, pushed her stetson back on her forehead. "There ain't nothin' wrong with my hat! 'Sides, you already made me another hat to go with that dress you made me for the Gala."

"You can't wear that hat!" Rarity exclaimed, beginning to fume herself. "That hat is formal attire to be worn with the outfit for which it was designed to the proper sort of events!"

"There ain't nothin' wrong with my hat!"

"Yes, there is!"

"Stop arguing!"

The shout drew some very indignant looks from nearby tables and some shocked ones from everyone else at the table. Fluttershy, realizing what she had just done, curled her hooves underneath her and hid her face behind her mass of pink mane. The table lapsed into an awkward silence for a moment before Rainbow Dash, who had been staring off into space, realised the discussion of scarves and fashion and looking one's best had died the death it so richly deserved. She leaned into the table, excitedly. "Oh! Right, so I never got to tell you all who else I saw on the list of competitors next to Twilight!"

Twilight's eyes went wide and she suddenly ducked down low in her seat. "Trixie!"

Rainbow Dash blinked in confusion. "What? Yeah, how'd you know, Twilight?"

Twilight hushed at Rainbow Dash and spoke in a whisper. "No, Rainbow, it's Trixie! She's right over there!" Twilight gestured with her hoof at a table a few yards away, through a break in the crowd created when one of the adjacent ponies decided it would be best to turn his back to the loud table next to him.

The table in question only had two chairs, one of which held a familiar, bored-looking unicorn. She was wearing a new cape different in design than the one she had lost in Ponyville with a matching hat sitting in front of her on the table. Different clothes or not, however, the crescent moon and magic wand cutie mark on her flank did not belong to anypony but The Great and Powerful Trixie. As Twilight watched, Trixie said something inaudible and made an offhoof gesture at her companion, a vacant-looking tan-and-brown earth pony stallion. He got up and headed toward the buffet table, leaving Trixie alone.

Rarity turned to look the direction Twilight was pointing then quickly turned back to the table, a hoof raised to hide her face. "Ugh, it is her," Rarity said in much the same tone she might have used if she were talking about a swarm of Parasprites. "What's she doing here? And dressed like that? Orange and green on purple, really."

"Well, she’s probably in the tournament. Why else would she be here?" Applejack said with a shrug. "Her friend there ain't competin', that's for sure."

Spike snorted. "Who cares? Twilight'll wipe the floor with her just like last time! Twilight can beat any unicorn with one hoof tied behind her back!" A sideways look from Rarity later, and Spike started sputtering. "I mean, at magic! Just magic! She's not half as beautiful, talented, charming..."

Twilight glared at the baby dragon over the tabletop. "Thanks a lot, Spike."

Spike looked between Rarity and Twilight and promptly bit down on his claw, silencing himself before he could dig a deeper hole. A friendly and comforting pat from Fluttershy did nothing to alleviate his embarrassment.

Groaning, Twilight sat up a little straighter, just enough to rest her head on the table. "How much longer until the ceremony starts?"

"Little while yet, sugarcube."

Another groan.

Across the table, Pinkie Pie suddenly stopped working on a ship-in-a-bottle and sat up straight. "I know what would cheer you up, Twilight!" she said, determination in her relentlessly cheerful voice.

Twilight pulled her gaze away from Trixie's back to look at the sugar-rushing earth pony. "Pinkie, I don't think the table's big enough to throw a party."

Pinkie Pie squared off her hooves for a moment as if measuring the space out by eye. "You're probably right. But I was going to ask if you wanted to play a game!" Pinkie reached under the table, and when her hooves came back they were carrying a folding chess set. "Ta da!"

Sitting up straight, Twilight stared across the table in bewilderment. "Pinkie, since when do you play chess?"

"I play it all the time with Gummy!"

Applejack grimaced and gestured across at the momentarily-forgotten Trixie. "You got any eight-player games there, Pinkie? Cause I think we've got company."

The entire table turned to look and saw Trixie glaring daggers right back. She got up and marched over toward the Ponyville table, leaving her friend alone with his thought.

"Oh, horseapples."

Stalking up to the table, Trixie threw her mane back dramatically. "Well, well, well, look who we have here." She sneered. "Those country bumpkins from Ponyville! Have you come to gaze in awe as the Great and Powerful Trixie wins the Moonstone Cup?" She narrowed her eyes and scowled at Twilight, who was still slumped far down in her seat. "Or is Celestia's favorite student planning on making a spectacle of herself trying to show up Trixie again?"

In a blur of color, Rainbow Dash was out of her seat and hovering over the table, glaring down at Trixie. "Hey, Twilight's ten times the magician you are! Which of you got her dock handed to her by that Ursa, huh?"

"Rainbow Dash, language!" Fluttershy looked around furtively at the neighboring tables; the Table of Harmony was now awash in a sea of grumbling and indignant glares.

Twilight rubbed the bridge of her muzzle and sat up a little straighter, her ears twitching oddly. "Now, Trixie, I'm sure we'll both do our best and compete fairly. I'm glad to see you made it here too."

With a contemptuous snort, the belligerent blue unicorn reared for a moment, her front hooves kicking. "Talk all you want, Twilight Sparkle, but Trixie has been training! You may have defeated an Ursa Minor but you might as well drop out of this competition now because you won't beat Trixie a second time!" She settled back down, flipped her mane back again, and spoke a bit airily. "This is a competition for wizards, not librarians." She turned, swishing her tail contemptuously at the table as she walked back over to her oblivious companion.

"Why, that little... Come back here, you-" Rainbow Dash prepare to race after her and then squawked awkwardly as she was yanked back into her seat by her tail.

"Sit down, sugarcube. She ain't worth it."

The table once again lapsed into an awkward silence. Rainbow Dash had her front legs crossed petulantly as she fumed. Fluttershy was curled up on her legs again, while Rarity was looking away, trying her hardest to look as though she didn't know any of these crazy ponies. Pinkie Pie was hard at work on a crossword puzzle that she was discussing softly with Spike, and Twilight Sparkle had her head resting on the table, front hooves crossed over her muzzle.

A hush went through the ballroom and Twilight sat up again. Three beings were stepping up on the dais. First, the radiant form of Princess Celestia. She was accompanied by her usual retinue of barded guard-ponies who took up silent vigil to the rear of the dais.

Following closely behind Celestia was a wizened, hunched being stooped over on two legs, all grey and white fur with streaks of faded brown, draped in a purple dyed robe. It had piercing grey eyes and an elongated muzzle full of sharp, canine teeth that were nonetheless worn with age. Even from halfway across the ballroom Twilight felt as though this creature could see right through her. It was followed by two younger, stronger attendants that looked recognizably similar to diamond dogs but with black and brown fur speckled with white spots. They carefully lifted the robe away from the elder creature as it stepped on to the dais and took their own place to the rear, notably standing away from Celestia's guards.

Finally, the third being took the dais by itself with no guards or attendants. It appeared for all the world like an earth pony, as tall and strong as Celestia, all sleek lines and powerful muscle, vaguely feminine in an androgynous way. She had a bright green coat and a mane that faded from white to bright orange to red and finally to black at the tips. Her eyes were jade green and slitted vertically like a snake's or a...

Spike hissed, inhaling through his teeth. "Oh, wow, it's her," he said, barely audibly. Twilight could have sworn she saw him grow a bit taller out of the corner of her eye. This was Najstariot, then, the reclusive dragon queen.

The old, furred creature was to be the first speaker. It stepped its way to the front of the dais. "Good day." The wizened canine's voice was rough, scarred with age and harshly accented. Although the ancient creature spoke softly, its voice carried across the ballroom as if amplified. "And welcome. It is great honor to be here for three hundred forty seventh Moonstone Cup. My name Hadalsnan al-Dhi’b, king of Ghilan, leader of ghuls. For more than thirty generation my people and pony people and dragon people," al-Dhi’b said, his hands moving in broad gestures, pointing first at himself and then at Celestia and Najstariot, respectively, "come together to share knowledge and to compete in this place for honor of our homeland."

Al-Dhi'b continued speaking, regaling the thoroughly excited crowd with the wonders of ghul society. To hear the old creature tell it ghuls had invented everything from the wheel to matter transmutation. Twilight was astonished to find, as the speech/harangue went on, that even she was growing bored with the extended - and largely fabricated - ‘history lesson’.

A loud snore came from Rainbow Dash, followed by a yelp as Applejack kicked her under the table.

“...face responsibility as warders of earth with dignity and pride...”

“Hey, everypony,” Pinkie whispered, looking pensively at the crossword puzzle clutched in her hooves. “What’s a six-letter word for ‘giant fire-breathing lizard’?”

“...in friendship with dragon people, pony people, others...”

Resting her muzzle on her left hoof Twilight wondered if this is how other ponies felt when she lectured them.

"...meaning of tournament. Thank you again and welcome to Moonstone Cup."

Twilight shook herself out of her reverie and joined the politely restrained applause as Hadalsnan al-Dhi'b stepped back to the rear of the dais. Next, the dragon queen stepped forward, daintily; she walked with a grace and lightness that Fluttershy would have been hard-pressed to match.

"Good day, friends of all races," she began. Her voice could not have been more different than al-Dhi'b's. She was clear, mellifluous, with a hint of a deep thrum that lent a pleasant depth to her speech. Six words and everyone was awake and focused on the dais. "Welcome again to Canterlot and to the Moonstone Cup tournament. I trust everyone is full of energy and ready to give their all after my compatriot's fascinating and, dare I say, timeless speech?" A few chuckles ran through the crowd. "I will not keep you. As I'm sure you all know, I am Najstariot, empress of Ormsreich, and this will be my first time judging this tournament directly rather than sending a representative in... oh, goodness, so many years." She smiled fetchingly. "I do hope I wear my age well. It has been a pleasure to meet you all, and now I turn you over to our wonderful host, my dear friend Princess Celestia." The sound of clapping and stomping was riotous.

"She's amazing," Spike breathed as Najstariot concluded her extremely brief oratory.

The dragon queen stepped back gracefully and Princess Celestia stepped forward. "Hello, everyone," Celestia started in her usual understated, winsome fashion. "For those of you who don't know, I am Celestia, princess of Equestria, and I will be the third to welcome you to this year's Moonstone Cup. This tournament is a tradition going back over 700 years to the early days of co-operation between ponies, dragons and ghuls. This year's tournament is an extremely special one as it comes in the wake of two very important events: My sister, Princess Luna's, cleansing of Nightmare Moon and return to Equestria and the rediscovery of the Elements of Harmony."

Twilight sank into her seat again as Celestia gave a quick overview of the events of the past two years or so, in particular the ponies' battles with Nightmare Moon and Discord. To hear her tell it they might as well have happened one right after another, and in retrospect it felt that way.

Celestia went on to talk briefly about the tournament, having mercifully avoided naming any particular ponies in relation to the Elements of Harmony. There would be three phases; first, full bracket basic testing. The age brackets would be separated and sent to fields outside the Canterlot walls to demonstrate basic skills en masse: Power, accuracy of effect, fine manipulation, and some basic skills testing in transmutation, teleportation, object enchantment, banishing, summoning and personal augmentation. Twilight's ears pricked up at the last two; she had fairly well-rounded knowledge in the other areas but she had never tried summoning spells. Personal augmentation spells, as well, frequently felt like a waste compared to casting a Come-To-Life spell and letting something else do the heavy lifting. She'd be flying blind. Twilight squeaked softly and drew a concerned look from Fluttershy.

The second day was going to be direct "combat" with brackets made up of the top 10% of each group from day one. Magic duels only, the wizards themselves would be in no danger. This also eliminated the major physical advantage many of the non-pony competitors, in particular the dragons and gryphons, would have.

The third day would again be a short series of duels with the top two from each of the four age brackets from the previous day moving on to the semifinal rounds. This was usually where the less experienced competitors from the young adult bracket were knocked out of the running for the Moonstone Cup itself, but the gold medallion for the top competitor in the young adult bracket was almost as prestigious as the cup itself. Twilight had her eyes set there rather than on the almost certainly unattainable Cup. By and large, the grand prize ended up in the hands of the top competitor in either the Experienced or Sage brackets, all wizards over the age of a hundred with some of the most ancient Sages well over a thousand years old. The final day was reserved for the final match, and Twilight was more looking forward to seeing the magicians that succeeded in getting there than expecting to reach the finals herself.

Celestia wrapped up quickly as a buzz started going through the crowd; the reality of the situation, that the competitors would soon be lining up to begin the marathon to the Cup, was like electricity. "The first trials will be beginning tomorrow afternoon. Please everyone, relax, enjoy the buffet provided, and welcome once again to this year's Moonstone Cup."

---

The library of Canterlot had once been a second home to Twilight. It was one of the largest libraries in the world, maybe the largest, and was designed in the same style as much of Canterlot, all white marble columns and huge, open spaces with equally huge windows. As much as Twilight loved her library in Ponyville, the entire collection could have fit in a corner of the Canterlot library without even getting in the way. There was something to be said for having the collected wisdom of millennia at your hooves.

While Twilight’s friends had gone into the city to relax after the opening ceremony, Twilight herself had gone to the library for the afternoon. She had spent the time working her way through the library’s vast collection of magical texts and treatises, reading up on past Moonstone Cup tournaments and trying to fill in gaps in her knowledge as best she could. The afternoon wore on as so many did for Twilight, lost in books.

She looked up from a fascinating analysis of elemental summoning to see the last rays of sunlight fading through the library’s huge windows. Twilight sat back with a yawn and stretched then giggled slightly as her stomach rumbled loudly.

“Hungry?” piped up a familiar voice. Twilight turned and smiled brightly as she saw Princess Celestia standing next to her.

“Oh, Princess!” Twilight’s stomach rumbled again and she blushed in embarrassment. “Uh... A little, yes.”

Celestia smiled at her young student. “Well, dinner should be ready soon at the castle. Chef is preparing a lovely parsnip bourguignon for this evening and I’ve asked him to expect seven additional seats. After dinner, my sister and I can show you the quarters we’ve arranged for you and your friends. However, there is something I’d like to ask of you first.”

Twilight looked up at Celestia, worried. "Is there something wrong, princess?"

"No, Twilight," the day monarch said with a smile. "But there's someone who has asked to meet you, and I think you'll find this worth your while. If you'd rather go straight to the castle, of course, I'll send you to your friends and convey your apologies."

"Oh! No, that's alright, princess," Twilight said, her hunger and lassitude slightly abated by simply talking with her beloved teacher. "If you think it's important I'm more than happy to go. Who wants to meet me?"

"A friend of mine from long ago," came the reply. "Hadalsnan al-Dhi'b, the third organizer of this tournament. You saw him earlier at the opening ceremony."

Hadalsnan al-Dhi'b. The ghul king. Twilight's head swam. "O-of course, princess."

---

That evening, the sitting room of the library was nearly empty and silence greeted Celestia and Twilight Sparkle as they walked in through the archway. A single, hunched figure was sitting in a chair near a large fireplace. Celestia walked over to him, Twilight in tow.

"Greetings, your majesty," Celestia said, quietly.

Al-Dhi'b was old, older even than he had seemed during the earlier ceremony, grey through his muzzle and even on his paws. He turned his head ponderously and looked up at Celestia with a smile. "Pony Empress," he said, warmth in his raspy voice.

"Please, Hadalsnan, just Celestia. Princess, if you must."

Al-Dhi'b chuckled roughly as he rose to his feet. "Father always call you Empress. He remember days before Nightmare Moon."

Celestia bowed her head. "He was a good man. Even if our people weren't close until it was too late, he helped rebuild after Discord and Nightmare Moon. I'll never forget that."

"Good friend to pony princess, yes," the old ghul replied. "You good friend to him. He tell me. Always, he say, always help from Empress, and always be help to Empress. I tell young prince same thing. I make him learn Equestrian, too." He beamed. "My Equestrian, not so good. His Equestrian very good, he talk to Celestia way she deserve."

"Now," Al-Dhi'b said, turning to face Twilight with a craggy smile. "I meet hero pony, who save Luna, who defeat Discord. You Twilight Sparkle?"

"Yes, your majesty," came Twilight's choked response.

"You, your friends, do great service to world, not just to pony people." The withered creature leaned down in a bow and grinned in an oddly impish fashion. "Maybe I forgive you and other hero ponies for not paying attention at ceremony."

Twilight blushed. “I'm sorry about that, your majesty. I was trying to pay attention."

"So why not?"

"Well," the young unicorn said, uncomfortably. "I don't think everything you were saying was factually accurate, to begin with..."

Al-Dhi'b glared haughtily, his grey eyes boring holes in Twilight's. He drew up to his full height with the sound of cracking joints. When not hunched over, he was impressively tall, his eyes level with the tip of Celestia's horn. "I tell story of my people!" The old ruler thundered as he towered over Twilight. "Tell history! Ghuls once equal of any race in world! Once, all earth answer to ghuls! My father, earth his, just like sun and moon belong to pony princesses! He speak to earth, tell dirt to grow food, tell rocks to make gems! This fact! Ponies, dragons, gryphons, zebras, all owe debt to ghuls!"

"And you are still a proud and strong people," Celestia said softly.

The wizened old ghul deflated, the fierce gleam in his eyes fading. "No. Proud, not strong. Blood runs thin. Fewer pups every year. Earth no longer answers my people, just few sorcerers left. Some already lost, become...” He paused, grimacing. “Become animals. Stealing, eating filth, digging in dirt for gems that not speak. Call themselves diamond dogs." He sighed, slumping back down in his seat. He faced the fire, looking away from the two ponies. "Maybe two, maybe three hundred years, no ghuls left. Not much longer, no diamond dogs left. Young prince, last leader of our people."

Twilight looked stricken. The thought of a noble, ancient people reduced to the degradation of the diamond dogs and then to simply disappear... She had known, abstractly, that some ponies had been working with the ghuls to improve rainfall and soil quality in their lands and help fertility rates, but the idea that they were headed for extinction cut deeply. There was nothing like it in her experience. "Princess," she breathed. "Isn't there anything we can do to help?"

Princess Celestia turned her head to look at al-Dhi'b sorrowfully and said nothing. The old creature laughed, a raspy, dusty sound. "Silly young pony!" He said, harshly but without malice. "You think we never try? You think pony people, dragon people do nothing to help ghuls? My father, ruler before me, he see it coming. He ask for help from gryphon allies. He open formal negotiations and trade with Ormsreich and Equestria hundreds of years ago, gain trust, gain more friends and help. No use. Ghuls still dying. Hundreds of years, greatest minds working together. Ghuls still dying." He shook his shaggy head slowly. "No. Time for ghuls to go. Earth ponies, earth answer to them, now. More power in earth pony hooves than ever in ghul paws."

He took a deep breath and blinked away dampness forming in his ancient, grey eyes. "Time to move aside. World belong to younger races now. I tell story of my people so that pony people, dragon people, gryphon people all remember, we were here." He smiled thinly. "Good to meet you, Twilight Sparkle. You remember. You tell story when ghuls gone. You tell ponies who move to empty lands. You hero, people listen. You tell them, we were here."

Twilight blinked back tears that were threatening to run down her face. "It was good to meet you too, your majesty. I will."

"Come, Twilight," Celestia said, softly. "You should get some rest."

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