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“I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
Twilight Sparkle tried to put up a brave front as she turned her back on her dreams and left the examination room, but when one of the professors stopped to talk with her parents and officially give them the verdict, her legs folded under her and tears welled from her eyes.
“So… did she pass?” Twilight’s mother asked, with a cheery optimism that even the little filly could tell was faked.
“Her excellent scores on the written exam, as well as the wide range of… creative incantations she attempted during the practical exam tell us that your daughter has a fine mind, and a true gift for focused study,” the unicorn began. Twilight looked up, with a flicker of hope. “What she does not have, however, is the special spark that we’re looking for – this isn’t a school for gifted *ponies*, it’s a school for gifted *unicorns*, specifically for unicorns whose special talent is magic. And I’m sorry to say, your daughter is not one.”
“So… did she pass?” Twilight’s mother asked again, less cheerfully.
“No,” the professor replied, bluntly. “This school is not for her. This is not the first time we’ve seen a young filly like your daughter, however, and we do have several recommendations for other schools that might better fit her talents…”
Which is how she ended up in a boarding school in Manehattan. Her parents were desperate to cheer her up, and she was too apathetic to object when they had her take the entrance exam, which she could have aced in her sleep. Perhaps she had; she couldn’t remember much about it.
By the time it sunk in that she was going to be separated from her parents and moved to a new city, it was too late to back out. “You’ll love it there, Twilight,” her father said, as he helped her load her bags onto the train – she was such a failure as a unicorn, she didn’t even have enough magic to carry them herself. “They have the largest library in Manehattan.”
“Everypony there is as smart as you are,” her mother added. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends!”
Neither half of that statement turned out to be true, but Twilight knew her mother well enough not to be too disappointed at that. The school wasn’t awful. The courses were far more challenging – and therefore interesting – than she’d had before, and instead of being bullied into breaking the rules and doing the slower students’ homework, she was encouraged by the teachers to help them learn.
Best of all, all three of her roommates were socialites there on their families’ money, and she generally had her room to herself. When they decided to bring the party home with them, she could hide out in a secluded corner of the garden. It was an easy place to be alone.
If it wasn’t for Applejack.
“Ah, it sure is nice to get away from the city noise, don’t you think?” she said one day, planting herself right next to Twilight’s favorite reading spot. “How do you think they get it so quiet here?”
Twilight pretended not to be intimidated by the sudden appearance of a rather athletic earth pony, and didn’t look up from her book as she answered, “Acoustics.” She wasn’t still reading, though, even if her eyes were locked rigidly on the page. When, after a few seconds, Applejack was still there, she added, “The walls deflect the sound of the city away from the school grounds, and the leaves of the plants help absorb the noise.”
“That sounds like some rather fancy magic,” Applejack said. “It’s like the rest of the school – everything’s so… fancy.”
“Uh huh,” Twilight said, trying to focus on her book. It wasn’t working.
But Applejack kept on talking. “I expected you to be fancy too, when I heard you were from Canterlot. I thought everypony in Canterlot was as proper as milk in tea.”
“I’m sorry,” Twilight said, closing her eyes and holding her book up like a shield. “Please don’t hit me!”
“I’m not going to hit you, sweetie,” Applejack said. “I just want to ask you a question. Do you know what a rooster is?”
Twilight lowered the book just enough to stare at the earth pony in confusion. “A male chicken?”
Applejack smiled back at her. “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”
A gentle hoof shook her awake. “Cock-a-doodle-doo, sweetie. We’re almost there.”
Twilight Sparkle lifted her head from the seat, and levitated a brush out of her bag to start straightening her mane, despite the lack of a mirror in the carriage. There wasn’t any light, either, so it hardly mattered. She held up a watch and peered at the face in the faint glow of her horn… and either she’d slept for eleven hours during a four hour trip, or it was the middle of the afternoon.
It had been six days – or six intervals that would have been days – since the onset of eternal night, and as their carriage rumbled through Ponyville’s square, it was obvious that the ponies here hadn’t quite come to terms with eternal night. One market stall was open, selling candles, and the streets were almost deserted, with lights on in maybe half the buildings. The town hall was not one of them, but that was their destination.
Twilight followed Miss Apple out of the carriage as she approached the door, and slammed her hoof into it loudly until a bleary-eyed old gray mare in bedclothes answered the door. “Do you know what time it is?” the mayor asked.
“1:23 in the afternoon,” Twilight answered stiffly, holding up her watch.
“We’re here to see Nightmare Moon,” Miss Apple said. “Where is she?”
“Nightmare Moon is not receiving visitors,” the mayor replied, and tried to slam the door in their faces, but Applejack’s hoof was faster, and she shouldered her way into the doorway.
“My name’s Applejack. I run Apples and Oranges – you might have heard of us?” Miss Apple said as she forced the mayor back. “We didn’t come all this way to be turned away by a two-bit lackey.”
“Please, maam” Twilight said, trying to back up her boss’ bluster with something a bit easier to swallow. “This is a matter of life and death.”
“Well, she isn’t here!” the mayor said, putting her hooves down and refusing to give any more ground, even as Applejack invaded her personal space. “Nightmare Moon was sick of the endless parade of ponies pleading for her to raise the sun, so she retreated to her lair in the Everfree Forest.”
“Her ‘lair’?” Applejack asked.
Twilight gave a nervous laugh. “You make it sound like some crumbling, monster-filled ruin.”
“According to the Shadowbolts, she drove out the monsters when she moved in,” the mayor replied. “If you make it to the old ruin, you should be safe enough. From everything but *her*.”
“Just tell us how to get there,” Applejack said.