[Author's Note: For those of you that haven't yet, I highly recommend looking through the three works I've done in my secondary story entries 'Studies of a Bookworm'. They will make this chapter and most chapters after this one much more colorful for all of you to read through. With that said, enjoy! By the way, this chapter feels awkward to me, I don't know why, but it just felt weird to write it. Maybe it's just me?]
Strider stood before the entrance to Everfree Forest, his armor once again strapped to his body, turning his mane blonde and his fur a pure pristine white. His shiny silvery-looking armor shimmered in the early morning light. It was ten in the morning; that gave him around two hours to get his first task done. He wasn't here just because he was dating Rainbow Dash....he was ordered to scout and evaluate Everfree. Still, at least the Princess seemed to be understanding of his current predicament with Dash, and was willing to give him the time to be with her here and there, though even he felt they didn't get to spend enough time together.
Still, he had pledged his service to both of the Princesses, and a single relationship would not deter him. He could only hope this wouldn't take too long, lest he keep her waiting, he'd rather not get that look from her for making her stand still for too long, Celestia forbid. The things he'd been told about his upcoming adversary though, they unnerved him. With a deep breath, he stepped forward past the threshold and into the untamed wilds of the Everfree Forest, a crystalline bottle with a small black ball pulsating with a dark dim light.
Silently, he reminisced about the events that brought him to this place....
The sound of metal hoof armor plating could be heard clinking against the ground, the bottom padded with a thin layer of rubber to make the sound far less noisy on the mostly marble and tile flooring of Canterlot Castle. Princess Celestia moved calmly along with her sister, with a small group of around twelve normal-looking Royal Guards, the group silently being led outside late in the evening. One of the Royal Guard stood out from the rest, wearing customized armor with a silver-y, glimmering sheen to it that could only be described as magical.
Wind Strider wasn't sure just what exactly he'd gotten himself into. The Princesses had discreetly sought out willing volunteers for some kind of magic training, and oddly enough he didn't see a single Unicorn amongst them. Surely this was a mistake, though the very serious look on the face of the Princesses told him otherwise. This was no mistake. Pegasi and Earth Ponies couldn't do magic though....could they?
As the Princesses approached a pathway leading towards the barracks for the guards in the West Wing of the castle, they turned left and led the twelve guards behind them down what most of them already knew was a dead-end pathway with a cracked wall at the end. Though, Wind Strider being as critical about detail as he was, he also knew that that cracked wall had a hole in it, at the very center of all those cracks, something he'd noticed a long time ago....but it fit in so well with the rest of the cracks along the wall that he'd never questioned its purpose until now. He knew about the rooms akin to the one that was being used to hold the Elements of Harmony in safe keeping, and the doors that only select Unicorns and the two Alicorn Princesses could access.
Sure enough, he was proven correct the moment they approached the wall, Princess Luna doing the honors and sending a pulse of magical energy through the wall, the energy coursing through all of the cracks in the wall, but in particular forming a normally unseen vertical crack up and down the center of the wall, all of the cracks soon creating a makeshift doorway that slid open and revealed a very well-hidden, very large room the size of the throne room. Strider was in awe, along with many of the other guards.
As they all entered, the door closed behind them, as if it hadn't been there at all. "Royal Guard, stand firm!" Princess Celestia suddenly called out, and as if by reflex, Strider joined in a single line, all of them standing tall, chests adorned with their armor bearing either the royal symbols of the Sun or the Moon, proudly. Strider's, of course, bore the mark of the Moon, being young and a new recruit taken in by Princess Luna. "I'm sure you're all wondering what exactly my sister and I have gathered you twelve soldiers together for. We spoke of magic, yet none of you are Unicorns."
Several of the guards looked between each other, including Strider, who looked somewhat unnerved suddenly. His armor was enchanted, did it have something to do with something as cosmetic as a silvery sheen? No, that couldn't be it. Princess Luna spoke up after holding up a hoof to silence some of the concerns brought about by the guards talking amongst themselves. "Please calm yourselves, and listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. What is about to be spoken of in this room is not to leave this room."
Princess Celestia cleared her throat after her sister was finished, nodding her head once the guards had gone quiet. "Very good. Now then....as you all know, the Zebra Nations have long been rumored to be capable of their own magic, but for the most part no real magic has been seen in the public light thanks to a treaty struck between Equestria and the Zebra Nations a long time ago," she explained, eliciting some murmuring between a couple of the guards, but Celestia only continued. "That being said, the Zebras have discovered a very, very potent form of magic that anypony can use, not just Unicorns, or any particular species for that matter. It is known as Runic Magic."
Wind Strider went wide-eyed and looked down to his armor, quietly touching a hoof to the chestplate he was wearing, gently tracing the edge of his hoof along the edge of the moon. He had seen a rune being used to enchant his armor....was that the same thing? Surely it couldn't be....but then, he was no expert on magic. He just assumed that it was a normal part of most Pony Magic. Princess Luna chimed in once everyone began to speak up more, this was a rather shocking thing to hear after all, it was surprising that anyone could keep such magic suppressed so well! "Silence! You are Royal Guards, behave like them!" she exclaimed with a bit of exasperation, all of the guards quickly shutting up and standing straight, but their eyes betrayed that normally stern and focused gaze they usually gave to everyone. Wind Strider was staring at Luna closely, curious.
With a sigh, Luna nodded once again. "Now then....you have all agreed to 'experimental magic tests'. This is both true and untrue. You are all actually going to be a part of a resurrected experimental enchantment process, using a variation of Runic Magic known as Purification Magic, and you may even learn Shadow Magic, if you have the innate power to do so. Shadow Magic takes an infinitely larger amount of focus to perform though, so do not get your hopes up," she explained, stepping back once she was finished, her sister stepping forward next. "Those that are capable of both forms of magic will bear my sister's mark on their armor. Those that can only perform my Purification Magic shall retain their normal Royal Guard armor, with the Mark of the Sun emblazoned upon it."
All of the guards looked between each other for a moment, but Wind Strider suddenly felt....well, he felt excited. He was going to learn magic?! Even better, secret and powerful magic? He was giddy on the inside. With a cheerful smile on his youthful face, he straightened his left foreleg and pushed it out further in front of himself, his right foreleg bending until his knee touched the floor, once his left foreleg was outstretched far enough. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. "I thank you for this opportunity, My Ladies!" he said, his eyes turning up to look to both of them, that smile turning to a grin when he saw them smile a little as well. The other guards followed suit, bowing in the same way. "For the peace of Equestria!" they all exclaimed, and both Princesses just looked at each other, giggling a little at the formalities. They looked to their chosen guards and nodded in unison. "We will begin immediately," Celestia said, Luna quietly approaching Wind Strider, seemingly delighted by his enthusiastic behavior. "Six guards, with me. The other six, work with my sister."
Wind Strider didn't need to make a choice, Luna had already selected him as her first 'student'.
The quiet 'snap!' of a few twigs deeper in the forest, away from the path he was following, made him jump a little and snap to attention. 'Calm, stay calm, do not show fear,' he said to himself a few times in his mind. 'Fear will kill you, fear will kill you, fear will kill you....' he chanted in his head more and more, taking a few breaths and reaching back, tentatively touching that odd glass bottle with the dim, black ball of light within it. He shuddered at the sensation of negativity the contained magic gave him, but the glass, subtlely adorned with intricate patterns, did its job and kept the magic inside instead of letting it out into the world around him, which he was very thankful for, for now.
Quietly, he recalled his lessons that he'd been put through just before taking this mission from the Princesses. He had learned everything he needed to learn to handle what he was being put up against, but that didn't stop his particularly abundant imagination from giving him the classic self-scaring issue. He kept pondering on what they would look like, what they might use to scare him, or how they might catch him by surprise, approaching him from behind. Just the same though, he slowly began to fall into the mentality he and all of his fellow Royal Guard members had learned first and foremost.
"Sound, twigs snapping. Could be a number of things, nothing that will harm me. Can't be the targets, I haven't summoned them yet," he said to himself, eyes turning forward and ears perked up, trying his best to calm his nerves. "Have to maintain a calm demeanor. Got taught how to do that when I first became a member of the Royal Guard, should be easy enough to do. Come on, Strider, c'mon....!" he said to himself, whispering towards the end of his sentence and slipping his eyes shut.
As he started walking again, his mind drifted back through his lessons, right around when Luna first started to teach him and the other five.
"Fear is your enemy! Always remember your training," Luna exclaimed, her sister busy teaching the other half of the group of twelve guards. "You are the Royal Guard. There is little to fear that you aren't already prepared for. We are preparing you for that 'little' that you don't know about."
Strider quietly muttered his incantations under his breath, putting the voices of the other guards out of his mind, his eyes focused on the enchanted dummy in front of him, dummies guarded against the various elemental magicks they were being taught. His re-enchanted armor now had the subtle ability to access the magic he was calling forth, after Princess Luna had re-enchanted his armor with Runic Magic, something he'd learned how to do himself a few days ago. It had been two weeks since they had first started, and thus far he had set his wings on fire, eviscerated a training dummy or three by fanning razor-sharp winds at them using those same wings....thus far, a lot of his magic had proven to work through his wings, which Luna had told him held magic of their own. How else could a Pegasus fly with them, when they're so small? Pegasi simply don't know they're using natural magic when they fly, and it also explains how his friend Rainbow Dash can fly so amazingly fast and perform remarkable feats of agility, such as her Sonic Rainboom.
Soon his incantations were finished, and he spread his wings far out to each of his sides. A red-colored runic circle finished forming at his feet, and began glowing brighted and brighter, pulsating pillars of flame rising up all around him, reaching the ceiling and circling about his entire body. As they touched the tips of his wings, he winced a little at the warmth, but thankfully it didn't escalate beyond a slight heat as the flames slowly covered over them entirely, becoming an intense blaze that covered his wings perfectly. He wasn't getting burned, or harmed in any way unlike the last time he'd attempted this exact same spell. He maintained his focus and kept the flames under control, calming his breathing and keeping his eyes locked on his target.
Carefully, he gave a firm and sweeping fanning motion forward, wings curving down towards the floor and forward as if flapping them, all of the flames in his wings coursing along the tiled floor towards the dummy, yet he wasn't speaking of what he wished to do with the spell. This caught Luna's attention in particular. As the fire transferred from his wings to the dummy and began burning it to a crisp rapidly, his eyes never lost focus and he never once looked away, his thoughts alone seeming to will the blaze to intensify. The guards stepped aside when Luna began to step past them, her standing next to Strider now. When the flames finally went out, he turned his attention to her, only then noticing that the Princess was standing next to him. "O-oh! Yes, Princess?"
Luna seemed rather shocked, and so did the other guards. Thus far, they all needed to speak every part of the incantations down to the letter to even come close to casting the spells, but Strider had forgotten the last part, yet the spell had gone off perfectly, possibly even more powerful for it. None of them had seen a fire spell that burned with that level of intensity thus far! "How did you do that?" Luna asked, turning her gaze away from the training dummy, the flames having burned right through the elemental shield Luna had placed upon it, turning it to ash. Strider shook his head and blinked a few times. "I'm not sure Your Majesty. I just focused on the target like you told us to, and I....I think I said the last part of the incantation in my head. I felt like speaking the words was more distracting than doing it in my head, it let me put all the other noises around me out of my mind as well. I don't think I've ever focused that hard on anything!"
Luna blinked a few times as well....then laughed. "How appropriate for your average stallion," she said in a teasing tone, turning to the others. There were three other males in her group, and two females. Strider was the sixth, leaving her with four males to work with, so of course her little sexist jab got a few giggles and grumbles equally. Well, almost equally. "Everyone, keep practicing, and do keep in mind what you have just heard! This lesson was meant to be taught later on, once you had all mastered your spells and memorized them perfectly, but it IS possible to cast these spells by speaking the incantations in your mind. If you feel you can handle that level of focus, feel free to attempt this method of Runic Magic!" she said, turning her gaze back to Wind Strider. "Please, come with me. I believe you and I need to talk about this in more detail," she said to him, Strider bowing his head to her. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
Luna led Strider away from the others, looking back to them. "Continue practicing!" she ordered her group of guards, all of them turning to bow to her in respect in unison before going back to their attempts at their own spells. Much like Strider, most of them were still surprised that they could do magic, possibly even being unable to focus properly because of still being in shock over this concept. As Strider followed Princess Luna, still very new to being a member of the Royal Guard at this point, let alone what he was learning now, he found himself confused to hear Luna having Princess Celestia come with her, the three of them stepping into a room connected to this hidden training room. Now, he was alone, and Luna was talking quietly under her breath with her sister about what he'd just done, or at least he assumed that was what was being spoken about. He couldn't entirely hear either of them after all.
Standing at attention the entire time, Luna turned her eyes to him and oh'ed quickly, laughing a little. "At ease, uh....Wind Strider, correct?" she asked, and he let out a small breath, nodding. "Yes, Princess Luna," he said, smiling proudly, his armor apparently working, his original reason for having it made in such a way to distinguish himself from the other guards that were content to treat their job as just another job, and not as actual service to two living Deities. Then again, perhaps he was just a romantic at heart, thinking that way. "I only recently joined the Royal Guard."
Luna turned away from her sister after speaking for a moment longer, both of them nodding to each other. "Yyyes, I believe I remember you. I see you were allowed to keep the changes you made to your armor, very unique and creative," she said, actually sounding genuinely impressed, causing Strider's chest to swell with a certain amount of pride. "O-oh! Well, actually, I used to play Dungeons and Ursas with some friends back in Flight School, and....I mean, thank you, Milady!" he said, smiling still, though he stood at attention once more. He wasn't exactly sure how to behave in this situation, but he tried to stick to just showing respect to them both. Princess Celestia laughed a little. "Please, do relax, Strider! There's no need for formalities at the moment, we get plenty of that in our daily interactions with the nobility." Celestia said, Luna nodding in agreement. Strider just nodded and sat down, his wings drooping a little. "Th-thank you, Your Majesties."
Luna looked to him curiously, stepping up to him and looking him over. "I'm guessing you feel tired, yes? The spell you cast seemed to draw upon a lot more magic all at once than you should be capable of at this point. It's rare someone as young as you can focus long enough and well enough to actually intensify a Runic spell already in effect. That alone sets your mental discipline far above any of the other guards currently training out there," she said, nodding towards the door. "That being said, you'll be stepping into this room from now on, and practicing in private sessions with me," Luna said, politely bowing her head to him. Strider went wide-eyed at that concept. "Puh-private lessons? Are you sure, Your Majesty?" he asked, looking between them. Celestia just smiled and nodded, responding for Luna. "Yes. I can easily teach the others in place of my sister. This level of training requires constant attention from the pony teaching you."
Strider looked shocked, but soon he just smiled happily and bowed his head to both of them, taking up the same bowing position he'd given before. "I'm honored to have such an opportunity then, Miladies! I'm still in disbelief that I'm performing magic of any kind," he said, Princess Celestia starting to walk towards him, then past him, the door leading into the room opening with the assistance of her magic, her heading back outside. "I'll leave you two to it then. I look forward to what you may wind up being capable of, Wind Strider!" Celestia said, and stepped back out, calling the guards to gather into a single group just before she closed the door, leaving her sister and Strider to their own devices.
Luna nodded to that and smiled. "Now then! First things first....as my sister said, we go through enough formalities dealing with the nobility on a daily basis, each in our own ways. So, I would prefer if you just call me Luna, not Your Majesty or Milady, or Your Highness....nothing like that," she said, her tone seeming a bit more shy than her very outgoing sister's usual demeanor. Then again, Luna was still very new to modern Equestrian society, so being nervous in a one-on-one interaction was expected on her end. Strider, in his youth and gentlecoltly mannerisms, understood entirely and nodded to her. "Of course, Luna....can I assume I'm allowed to speak casually as well?" he asked, standing up once more and rolling his shoulders, loosening his muscles a little, the tension from always standing at attention in the presence of what were mostly superiors compared to his fresh-and-new position seeming to all build up in his shoulders and nowhere else.
Luna nodded to him, a light blush staining her cheeks, though her expression still remained calm and friendly. "I will admit, I am not used to these sorts of interactions. The last time I held power within Equestria, I tried my best to stay in the background, and allow my sister to handle social interactions. She has a natural talent for such things, whereas I am the more logical and intelligent out of the two of us. This is why I will be handling your lessons, because this level of focus requires a far more logical way of thinking, emotions can only negate from the power of this form of magic, as far as we have found when experimenting with Runic Magic."
Wind Strider listened intently and nodded when she was finished speaking, his wings flapping a few times, feeling remarkably warm just in his wings at the moment. "I would prefer nopony else, you seem to have a lot of talent for this kind of magic....erm. Is it normal for my wings to still feel really hot, after successfully casting that spell?" he asked, Luna approaching him and stepping to his side, lowering her head to examine one of his wings carefully. "Extend it, please," she said, and Strider complied. Her horn glowed and slowly hovered over it, from the tip to the base along the bone of the wing. "Seems you didn't fully release all of the magic....interesting. Out of curiosity, would you mind trying to take off and fly around the room a few times?"
Strider bowed his head and bent his knees, his wings spreading when Luna stepped away. When he leapt up and switched over into the mindset of flight, he suddenly jolted up and barely stopped short of the ceiling. The ceiling, that was fifty feet above the floor. He went wide-eyed when he realized where he was. "Wh-what the....?" he muttered, and looked forward. Okay, plenty of room....so he started to fly forward, but he made a few tentative flaps, and found himself bounding forward almost effortlessly, something giving him a ridiculous amount of momentum. However, he could feel the heat in his wings cooling off with every flap, little by little the magic must have been leaving them, returning them to normal. Luna stepped over to where he landed soon after. "What happened to my wings, Luna?" he asked inquisitively, keeping one extended and looking over it curiously.
"My goodness....you managed to alter your spell and turn it into the Accelerator spell. It's, uh....hm. You said you played Dungeons and Ursas, correct?" she asked, and Strider nodded. "Well, think of Accelerator as a speed enhancement spell. You can move faster and with less effort for a short period of time with it, but it can be dangerous. It can overload the body and cause severe burnout."
Strider stood firm and flapped his wings a few more times, slowly letting the warm sensation leave them. He let out another worn-out breath, a sudden physically worn burning sensation filling his wings, him letting them droop down from his sides. "I see....seems like a spell that could be used in desperation, perhaps, but not something I'd want to rely on," he said, Luna nodding to that. "Very true....however, this is not entirely the case. You see, the enchantment on your armor is very unique, it allows ponies to use Runic Magic outside of the Wilder Nations. Of course, the way of the natural world is that all things come with a price. In this case, much like when Unicorns use their Latent Magic, when you use Runic Magic outside of an untamed wilderness, a part of yourself will be used to fuel the spell every time. However...." she said, holding up a hoof to him before he could say anything. "The soul always regenerates, given enough time. You can easily exhaust yourself though, so be careful how far you go with your spells."
He bowed his head to her. "I'll have to remember that. Erm....how did you learn of all of this? I would think somepony capable of such extensively powerful magic like yourself and Princess Celestia would have no need for something like Runic Magic. Where did it come from?" he asked, and Luna just smiled. "THAT is what you'll be doing after I teach you a few second and third-tier spells, such as Accelerator. You have the focus to cast them, but you need to train yourself to use a controlled amount of magic when drawing from your own soul for these spells, though I expect you to show discretion in using this kind of magic anywhere outside of locations such as the Everfree Forest. Nopony is supposed to know about Runic Magic outside of the Royal Guard, and even then it is not to be spoken of openly outside of this training room."
Strider bowed his head to her again, and she tsk'ed. "H-hey, what did I say about formalities?" she asked, grinning a little, nervously still, but at least she seemed to be relaxing more as well. He just laughed a little. "Heh, sorry about that....Luna," he said, clearing his throat, not really feeling all that comfortable himself at the concept of just saying her name. He barely knew her! It was hardly appropriate. Luna continued though, sitting down and relaxing a little more. "In any case, I learned this magic during the original creation of the Zebra Nations, Runic Magic is actually Zebra Magic. You would be amazed at what Zebras can do with life-long practice of such magicks. In any case....we developed Purification and Shadow Magic by applying our own experimental tests to Runic Magic. You will be mainly learning normal Runic Magic, as well as Purification Magic. Still....you already show promise. You might be able to focus well enough to perform Shadow Magic. Only time will tell."
Strider blinked a few times at that. She had lost him at 'Zebra Nations'. "....Huh?" he said, head tilting in one direction, a hoof coming up to idly rub the side of his head in a sign of confusion. Luna smirked and nodded a few times. "Ah yes, that's right. You have no idea what all of that's about. Don't worry, my sister and I have put together books on the subject for you and your fellow guards. It will be required reading, trust me, you want to know what you're getting into. It isn't excessive reading though, so don't worry yourself too much over it. It should only take maybe an hour to get through it all," she said, the blush on her cheeks having left now, her feeling much more relaxed. She didn't know why, but his presence felt natural, comfortable. Was it because he was so young and so relaxed as well? She wasn't sure....but it was a nice feeling, at least, to have somepony that felt like an acquaintance without an ulterior motive for getting to know her.
He groaned a little, placing a hoof over the bridge of his nose. "Eugh, reading....now I remember why Rainbow Dash left Flight School, the same reason I didn't get good grades," he said, heh'ing and grinning a bit. "So! When can I start?" he asked, extending that same hoof to her. She nodded and her horn lit up, a single thin-looking book appearing before him, landing on his hoof. "There you go. I would like that back when you're all done reading and learning every bit of that book, just so nopony can come across it by chance," she said, standing up again. "When you're done with that, I'll teach you how to perform silent incantations properly. What you did out there was an advanced technique, but it is one that can be done for the entire spell instead of just part of it. I hope you continue to show further promise."
"Then I can teach you my Shadow Magic."
He found himself smiling, once he left his memories behind and came back to the real world. He looked around, having wandered off of the beaten path and into a clearing deeper into the forest. He was happy to find that his training had done him well, instincts having led him to an area that would be appropriate for what was about to happen. He sat down and undid the thin rope he had around his midsection, taking the bottle with the dim black light and setting it down in front of himself. He sat there and stared at it for a moment, recalling the incantation for the bottle, silently going over a multitude of his own spells. Powerful ones, weaker ones, even the quicker cantrips....was he really ready to do this on his own?
After a few moments of sitting in near-silence in the open area of the forest, he cautiously leaned down towards the bottle and placed a hoof down on it, holding it against the ground while gripping the cork between his teeth and tugging it free, spitting it off to the side. He sat up straight in front of the bottle, focusing on the summoning incantations and silently speaking the words that came forth in his head. It was an unexplainable sensation, to have your voice echoing through the air around you instead of coming from your lips, but Shadow Magic was remarkable in its genuinely scary methods of spellcasting, and summoning up a ball of pure Shadow Magic was only his first task, today. He went quiet as soon as it was finished, trying to keep himself calm as that ball of magical energy grew and pulsated with dark power. His sensitivity to Runic Magic made him sensitive to this intense collection of Shadow Magic before him....and the nature of it made him fairly uneasy.
Quietly, he shook off this burning fear in his mind and took a re-evaluation of his surroundings, first with his eyes, then with his ears, and finally with his magical sensitivity. The last method wasn't as effective because of the large amount of energy right next to him now, he could barely notice any amount of magical energy aside from the ball next to him....so he moved away from it, focusing on using his eyes and his ears in-tandem to keep a more accurate track of his surroundings.
As he walked around the area, quietly sifting through the thinner underbrush and scuffing up his legs and his face when he stepped through a few raspy bushes, he could hear something. He wasn't sure what it was, but it was sort of like....crying. Yes, that was definitely crying. It sounded like a young pony as well. He wasn't fooled even for a moment though, he was keeping his lessons in mind and trying his best to shut all other thoughts out. He had experience with these things in the past, but the other guards and the Princesses were always around. Now, he had no safety net.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed through the underbrush and towards the crying sound.