The months passed by in a whirlwind for Twilight. Instead of spending every morning in lessons with other students discussing the finer points of conjuration spells she found herself reporting to the barracks of the royal guard by sunrise. The Captain hadn’t been kidding when he’d told her that the training would be draining; The royal guard were expected to be in peak shape and Twilight was no exception.
“Faster, Twilight, you’re falling behind!”
“You call that a push up? Do twenty more, and do them RIGHT this time!”
“I don’t care WHAT time it is, Sparkle, nopony is leaving this room until everypony has completed a chin up, and that includes you!”
It frustrated her to no end and reduced her to tears more than a few times. She came to the brink of quitting a half dozen times in the first two weeks alone, but the Captain was always there with a few words of encouragement and reassurance. If he ever got too mean for her, he reminded her with a wink and a smile, she could always just turn him into some sort of topiary. Twilight also decided against asking her brother to speak to Reinolds about going easy on her. She valued the Captain’s respect too much.
Twilight found the intellectual portion of the training far less taxing. She’d always picked up new material more quickly than most, but she took to this field like a seapony to water. Blocking and channeling the flows of magical energy were her special talent, after all, and more than once reading about a new technique just gave her a name to attach to something she’d already been doing strictly by instinct. Still, there was lots to cover. Twilight learned how to create and maintain up to three different wards at a time, each one tailored against the different magical properties of attacks an opponent might try to strike her with, as well as how to recognize the elemental properties of wards and strikes constructed by others. She refined her grasp of telekinesis to a degree of precision and flexibility she hadn't known was possible. She discovered that most problems could be overcome with enough fire, lightning, or some combination of the two.
Despite the extra work piled on top of her usual lessons from the Princess, Twilight still managed to occasionally get back to Ponyville to see her friends. They were always happy to see her, of course, and Rainbow Dash especially seemed impressed by the training regimen she was undergoing. “almost as tough as my Wonderbolts training!” she’d finally conceded. The pegasus was eager to swap training tips and had plenty of horror stories of her own. Twilight was happy to have somepony to commiserate with, and found she'd developed a newfound respect for the friend who she’d always considered to be a bit on the lazy side before she experienced firsthoof how draining a marathon workout session could be.
Her other friends were happy to help her with her training as well. Even the Captain’s workouts didn’t compare to helping Applejack haul barrels of cider around the farm. And while the captain didn’t understand exactly why “playing tag with Pinkie Pie” was so much more effective than his own obstacle courses (Twilight had long ago given up trying to explain anything having to do with Pinkie Pie), he couldn’t argue with what it was doing for her reaction time and agility.
Even Rarity had seemed eager to help when Twilight had come to visit her boutique.
“You know Twilight, I took some self-defense training myself back in my school days,” said Rarity.
“Oh yes, every young gentlemare needs to know the proper way to fend off plebeian ruffians that might accost her. Here, let me show you.” Rarity walked over to her sewing table and picked up a pair of scissors. “Now, imagine I’m some terrible ruffian of a pony, and I’m going to take these scissors and I’ll... I’ll... ooh! Yes! I’m going to trim your mane!”
“Well, I guess it has gotten a bit shaggy lately...”
“What? No, dear, that’s not what I mean. I’m not actually going to cut your mane, you’re just supposed to pretend that I am,” said Rarity
“Oh, do you like it longer like this? I was worried that my schedule was so full that I’d kind of let it go a bit, but you think it still looks OK?” asked Twilight. Rarity gave her mane an appraising look, the scissors momentarily forgotten, and bit her lip.
“...That’s not important right now! The point is that I’m an attacker! I’m going to trim your mane! In a manner that’s not at all fashionable!”
“Oh! I think I’ve got it now. Well, the first thing I would do is immediately put up a quick ward against conic blasts, then I would try to use the terrain to get into a flanking position...”
“No, no, no Twilight, that’s all wrong,” said Rarity. “You have to SAY something first! The very first thing they taught us was that a sharp tongue cuts far deeper than a sharp horn!”
Twilight was unfamiliar with any studies from the New Equestrian Journal of Medicine that indicated a correlation between tongue sharpness and magical aptitude. She was also beginning to suspect that Rarity’s self-defense training had not been quite as thorough as Rarity believed.
“OK, let’s try this again from the top. I’m the attacker and I’m coming at you with a weapon, and I say something like ‘Grr, you call yourself a unicorn? You fight like a farm pony! Grr!’” Rarity waved the scissors around in what was probably supposed to be a threatening manner.
Twilight weighed her possible retorts. She had skipped the chapter on trash talk in her copy of ‘Dirty Tricks and Unsportsmanlike Conduct: A Combat Pragmatist’s Guide’ but she would obviously have to make sure to read it later in case it showed up on some future exam. Finally she settled on a response.
“How appropriate, you fight like a mule!”
Rarity’s eyes widened with shock and the scissors fell to the ground.
“How could you? You... You think I fight like an ugly old mule? Why I’ve never been so offended in all my life!”
Twilight’s efforts to explain that there were actually several schools of martial arts that were derived from mule culture fell on deaf ears. Rarity threw her out of the boutique to stew for the remainder of the afternoon.
Twilight's first few sparring matches against other unicorns went poorly. They usually did for newbies, Reinolds was quick to point out after an especially painful loss. It wasn't that she didn't have the raw power the other trainees did, but she wasn't quick enough on her hooves. In the library she was free to sit back and spend a few minutes considering, for example, whether the extra power a hexagonal deflection charm offered outweighed the improved efficiency of a Ponderer's All-Purpose Pentagram when it came to avoiding an energy blast composed of 70-80% frost affinity. Stopping to do so when another unicorn was actively trying to hit her with one was borderline suicidal. Reinolds was quick to remind her that while in theory there was no difference between theory and practice, in practice there was.
Twilight was if nothing else a quick learner. She picked up the techniques and fighting styles of the other fighters she watched, and never made the same mistake twice. It wasn't very long until she'd learned enough to start fighting opponents with years more experience than her to a draw. Not long after that, a lucky shot blew her opponent out of the ring and halfway across the gym. Twilight had claimed her first win by knockout.
From that moment forward, there was no stopping her.