Magic of the Heart

by Pegasus Rescue Brigade

Chapter 9

As Clarity had promised, nothing suddenly changed about Dinky's life. Her friends' treatment of her was no different, events at school proceeded as usual, and the darkness swirling inside her remained firmly under her control. Still, she welcomed any distraction, keeping busy to keep her mind off the worrying lack of any sign of a heart within her.

Thus, she was quite excited when one particular May morning she'd been waiting for all year finally arrived.

Dinky's eyes fluttered open as she felt the warmth of morning sunlight on her face. She grinned.

"Guess what today is, girls," she called out to her roommates. "A certain somepony is finally eighteen!"

There was no reply. Dinky glanced to the bed across the room, which was vacant, but neatly made as usual. Honeydew was clearly already awake and somewhere else in the tower or castle, which was pretty typical for her.

Dinky rolled onto her back and knocked on the underside of the bunk above her. "Oi, Clarity, wake up!" she said loudly.

Still silence. Dinky frowned and lit her horn, teleporting to the center of the room so she could look up at the top bunk. The sheets were thrown casually to one side, but Clarity herself was absent.

"Hmph," the filly snorted, skulking out of the room. "No time to even say happy birthday, huh?"

Dinky emerged into the tower lobby. The room was totally empty, which was definitely strange; on most weekdays, it should've been full of fillies preparing for the day's classes. Her ears stood up as she caught the sound of faint voices from the stairwell. Two fillies in their third term hurried down the steps, with Clarity trailing close behind them.

"Head to the castle, please," Clarity instructed. "I need to check if anypony is still here, and then I'll be along."

"Got it!" one of the fillies replied as the both of them turned tail and hurried out of the tower. Clarity caught sight of Dinky as they made their exit.

"Is something going on?" Dinky asked, flattening one ear and looking at Clarity quizzically.

"The Overseers were informed to get everypony to the castle as soon as possible," Clarity said simply. "I didn't want to wake you until everypony else was out, but I see I won't have to."

Dinky sighed. "As assembly? What's going on this time?"

Clarity frowned. "They didn't say, but... well, it's not a secret," she admitted. "The rumors have already gotten around the whole campus, just in the last hour or so."

"What rumors?" asked Dinky impatiently.

The Overseer bit her lip. "Dinky, somehow, it happened again..." she mumbled, her voice heavy with worry. "News from the Crystal Empire is spreading throughout Equestria as we speak."

Dinky made the connection almost immediately. "The Crystal Empire? Don't tell me..."

Clarity nodded gravely. "Now Princess Cadance has vanished too."

Princess Luna always had a tendency to be the most serious of Equestria's princesses, but her mannerisms today took her usual reputation to a whole new level. She stood upon the stage with a stony expression as she addressed the student body. Joining her were Dean Script, Counselor Wishing Star, and this time, one additional pony: Dinky's old tutor, Princess Twilight Sparkle.

"Students, it would be wrong of me to downplay the seriousness of this situation," Luna admitted, scanning the crowd before her gravely. "While we have worked tirelessly for the past month to determine the whereabouts of Celestia, there were many possibilities that could have explained her disappearance, and we didn't want to assume the worst. But now that a second princess is gone without a trace, the possibility of foul play has become much more likely. We have no choice but to believe that somepony is kidnapping Equestria's princesses."

A murmur coursed through the crowd. Dinky exchanged a shocked glance with her friends.

"Now, the important thing here is not to panic," Spiral Script called. "All of you are smart enough to know that, yes, alicorns are very powerful, and so whoever or whatever has managed to capture both Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance must have access to fearsome magic indeed. But that does not mean that the other races of ponies stand no chance. We already have a plan in place to begin combating this unknown threat, so please hear us out."

"First of all, the Crystal Empire will manage for now, even without their princess," Twilight said. "My brother, Prince Shining Armor, is still there, as is Flurry Heart. The Crystal Heart, the artifact that sustains the Empire, is also untouched. Shining Armor didn't witness Cadance's disappearance, and I know he's very upset, but he's also an experienced leader; I know he will be strong for her. He will look after matters in the Crystal Empire until Cadance can be located."

Dinky could tell that Twilight was doing her best to remain professional, but her face and body language betrayed her concern much more than Luna's stoic disposition did.

"Second, now that we are almost certain there is a threat, we know to be on our guard," Luna continued. "Given the silent nature of these disappearances, we suspect treachery. And it's not a stretch to assume that our villain's next targets are Princess Twilight and myself. Both of us will be under increased guard; if a treasonous pony is indeed responsible for these kidnappings, it would be unwise to allow that pony an opportunity to catch either of us alone."

"Places that our missing princesses were frequently found will also be under increased security," Spiral Script added. "This includes much of Canterlot, Ponyville, and the Crystal Empire. Our academy, Celestia's pride and joy, is also considered a high risk area, so please prepare yourselves for the presence of additional guards, and stricter enforcement of all school regulations. You are all Celestia's students, and your safety would have been her top priority, so it shall be ours too."

"And if you're anxious about anything, anything at all, please come and see me," Wishing Star chimed in, giving the students a compassionate smile. "I understand that an escalating national crisis will put everypony under a lot of stress. I know one thing for sure, though; all our princesses, both the ones with us today and the ones that are absent, want the same thing for all of you: a comfortable, positive place to learn and grow into the brilliant mages I know you're all going to be someday."

"I couldn't have said it better myself," Dean Script said with a small smile. "While our remaining princesses look after Equestria, rest assured that all our staff, including Counselor Wishing Star and myself, will be here to look after all of you. Now please, try not to fear for Cadance or Celestia; just do as you know they would want, and continue your study. Our Overseers will now lead you back to the towers, where you can prepare for the day's classes."

Clarity's ears perked up at the dean's orders. Following the usual procedure, she teleported to the typical gathering point and waited as all the female students gathered around her. Dinky pushed through to the front of the crowd to talk to her friend.

"Yeesh," the purple filly groaned. "Do you really think somepony's kidnapping the princesses?"

Clarity dropped her voice low enough that none of the other fillies crowded around could hear. "I mean, we've met at least one pony powerful enough to do that..." she reminded her. "Fortunately, we sealed her back in the stars, but I shudder to think what would happen if another pony with that much power is loose in Equestria."

"What if it's another... you know..." Dinky whispered, not daring to use the word 'wraith' with other students so close. "Maybe my research with Professor Surge is gonna become important sooner than I thought..."

Clarity sighed. "For all our sakes, I sure hope that's not what's happening," she mumbled. "Sorry, Dinky, I guess this whole thing's gonna put a pretty big damper on your birthday, huh?"

"Aw, you remembered!" Dinky cooed. "Even in spite of all this!"

Clarity chuckled. "C'mon, Dinky, when have looming threats to the nation or impending, mortal danger ever made me forget about my best friend?" she teased.

Despite the events that were unfolding, that got a laugh out of Dinky. Grateful as always for friends that stuck with her no matter what, she followed Clarity back to the residence tower.

In the coming weeks, a pall of uneasiness loomed over all of Equestria. Everypony was on edge about the disappearance of a second princess, and with good reason; who or what could possibly have the strength and the cunning to quietly overpower and capture two alicorns?

But despite their worries, for most ponies, Ditzy and Dinky included, there was little to do but let the guard continue their investigation. Life went on without further incident as spring gave way to summer.

One evening, after a particularly rough failed shipping assignment, Ditzy was in need of a distraction. Fortunately, that distraction came in the form of a knock at her front door. She trotted to the foyer and pulled the door open, revealing a yellow and teal pegasus on the other side.

"Hey Ditzy," Raindrops greeted, giving her a small smile. "I wanted to talk to you. Do you mind if I come in for a minute?"

"Raindrops!" Ditzy gasped. "Yes, please, come in! Did you find out about—"

"Let's go inside and get comfortable first," Raindrops suggested rather loudly, cutting Ditzy off. "Then we can, um, talk."

Ditzy stepped aside and let the antsy pegasus enter her home. A few moments later, they were both seated in the parlor, though Raindrops looked only marginally less nervous. Ditzy had a sneaking suspicion she knew why, but she didn't press the issue; the last thing she wanted was to make Raindrops chicken out.

"Can I get you anything, Raindrops?" she asked. "You're looking a little frazzled. Maybe you'd like some tea?"

Raindrops took a deep breath and tried to appear calm. "Yeah, tea would be nice, Ditzy. Thanks."

In the usual flurry of legendary hospitality, Ditzy soon placed a cup of tea and a remaining muffin from breakfast in front of Raindrops. The yellow pegasus hooked the handle on the tip of one of her wings and took a small sip.

"Sorry I'm so jumpy," she said abruptly. "Just look at me; I'm at the home of one of my oldest, dearest friends, and I'm acting like I'm about to be interrogated or something. I guess I just... gotta be careful that I don't let the familiar atmosphere lead me to say anything I'm not supposed to say."

Ditzy kept her thoughts to herself as she sipped her tea. Is Raindrops here to help me with Sparkler's plight? Or to tell me she's decided not to?

A few moments of silence followed. Raindrops stared into her tea, her brow furrowed in an expression of deep thought.

"So Ditzy," she said finally, "I've been branching out at work lately: accepting delivery routes to far-flung part of Equestria, instead of just the towns within a few hours flight. It's been a lot of work, but I've gotten to see a lot of cute little corners of Equestria I've never seen before."

"Really?" Ditzy asked, genuinely a little curious. "I was never able to handle anything besides the local routes. My sense of direction is too poor, given my vision and all."

Raindrops nodded. "Well, one of my favorite parts about it is getting to meet ponies who live way out there. They're ponies I'd probably never cross paths with in my life if I wasn't a mailmare. For instance, this week I got to fly way up north, just a couple degrees shy of the Crystal Empire, to deliver a few letters and packages to the town of Trottowa."

Ditzy gave a low whistle. "I've never been there," she confessed. "Was it nice?"

"It was lovely," Raindrops assured her. "Even though I wasn't the usual mailmare for those ponies, they were still eager to thank me for their deliveries."

She paused, her blue eyes flicking nervously away from Ditzy's gaze. "One pony in particular seemed very friendly," she continued, in a slower, somewhat softer voice. "I was making a delivery to a home on Steeplechase Court when I met a pleasant black and white unicorn stallion, a few years older than Dinky, I guess. He seemed to be quite accomplished with magic, too, if the complexity of the scholarly-looking magic tome I delivered to him was any indication."

"A... a black and white stallion, huh?" Ditzy asked, her eyes wide. Raindrops chanced a glance at her again, and smiled sheepishly.

"Of course, it'd be against company code to tell you the name or address of anypony in particular..." she pointed out, "but an anecdote about an incidental pony I happened to encounter while out on a delivery route is certainly not either of those things. You know, just in case anypony asks."

Ditzy chuckled. "That's right," she said with a wink. "This is just two mares casually talking about work. Nothing wrong with that."

Raindrops smiled as she finished her tea. "Well, I'd really better be going, Ditzy," she admitted. "Good luck with, erm, everything you have going on right now. I'll see you soon, okay?"

Ditzy put a hoof on Raindrops' shoulder as she turned to go. "You know," she said softly, "there's a young mare that's really going to appreciate your help."

Raindrops paused, looking at Ditzy pleadingly. "I'm happy for her, but... make sure that help remains anonymous, okay?" she asked weakly.

"I promise."

Just moments later, Ditzy waved goodbye as her old friend took to the air. Smiling, she returned to the house and immediately went to grab her saddlebags.

Looks like it's time to pay Sparkler a visit...

A single purple eye peered out from between the blinds that covered the window of the small apartment. "What do you want?" came Sparkler's muffled voice.

Ditzy, determined never to be put off by the young mare's bluntness, smiled back at her. "I just want to talk to you for a minute, Sparkler."

"You're here to encourage me again, like you were last week, aren't you?" Sparkler grumbled. "Hate to tell you this, Mrs. Doo, but kind words aren't a lot of help for a pony in my situation."

Ditzy shook her head casually. "Nope," she replied. "I just figured I'd drop by and let you know I've found Presto."

The door to the apartment was yanked open by magic so quickly that for a moment Ditzy feared it would be torn from its hinges. An instant later, a purple aura surrounded her, and she found herself quickly dragged inside. The door slammed behind her, and she blinked a few times to adjust to the lower light. Sparkler kept all the shades drawn for maximum privacy; she was, after all, sort of in hiding, successfully evading her mother for the last four months. Unfortunately, this meant the apartment was rather dim, even in the middle of the afternoon.

"Follow me," Sparkler commanded, not even looking back as she led the way to the next room.

Ditzy made an attempt to focus her vision somewhat and followed the young mare to the apartment's small sitting room. It only took a moment to realize that Sparkler had made absolutely no attempt to decorate. All the walls were bare white, without so much as a poster to break up the blank expanse. The shelves held no trinkets, or even any photos. The only thing in the room besides a couch and a single armchair was a small bookshelf, neatly stocked with about half a dozen tomes pertaining to magic. Ditzy bit her lip and quietly made her way to the vacant couch. Sparkler sank into the armchair across from her.

"So..." the unicorn began, her violet eyes fixed on her guest.

Ditzy waited. Sparkler did not continue. "So...?" she prompted.

"So talk," Sparkler said, frowning. "This was your little project, wasn't it, Mrs. Doo? What happens now?"

Ditzy sighed. "I... I figured you'd be, you know, more excited," she admitted. "Haven't you been hoping to see this pony again for almost four years?"

"I save the excitement for when I get results," Sparkler grumbled. "So you found Presto. That doesn't mean he's going to want to see me again. Even if he does, there may not be a connection anymore after so long. Excitement is pointless when there's still so many ways this could go wrong."

"But there's also so many ways it could go right!" Ditzy insisted. "In those memories you showed me, Presto's attempts to reach out to you never wavered. He could be thrilled to see you again the moment you turn up in front of him."

Sparkler's frown deepened, and she looked away. "I don't... like to think about things like that," she mumbled. "It'll just make it hurt more if it turns out it doesn't happen that way."

"Well, you won't know the truth until you try, Sparkler..."

"I know," Sparkler deadpanned. "So let me repeat my question. What happens now?"

"Well, um, I've managed to determine Presto is living in Trottowa, in a home on Steeplechase Court," Ditzy explained.

Sparkler's ears flattened against her head. "That far?" she breathed. "I suppose, in a way, that makes me glad I had somepony look into this. There's no way I ever would've encountered him just by chance if he lives all the way up there."

"Well, now you can!" Ditzy sad cheerfully. "It'll take a while, but the train system will take you all the way to Trottowa. You can go pretty much whenever you're ready. Even tomorrow, if you want."

Sparkler raised an eyebrow. "You're not coming with me?"

"Did... you want me to?" Ditzy asked. "I thought you would've sought Presto out long ago if you knew where to find him. I figured once you knew his location, you'd be on your way."

Sparkler scowled. "You know what would happen if I did that?" she asked bitterly. "A bitter, aloof mare would show up on Presto's doorstep. He'd see the same pony he knew during our last year at the Academy. And things would go the same way they did a few years ago, because I can't... I don't..."

She fell silent. Ditzy finished the thought for her.

"You don't know how to communicate that, somewhere inside, there's a pony longing for his friendship?"

Sparkler turned away, leaving Ditzy to watch her tail flicking in agitation. "Mrs. Doo," she said softly, "you work for a matchmaking company, don't you? I'm no expert, but I think there's more to matchmaking than dropping your client off at the address of the pony they're interested in. If I go to meet Presto alone, it will be a waste of time. But... if I go with somepony who can help me figure out what to say... what to do..."

Though she was still facing away, Ditzy could see her whole body quiver. She rose from the couch and trotted to the despondent filly's side.


"I know you hardly know me," said Sparkler suddenly. "I never expected to find myself turning to you in the first place... but I have nopony else. Dinky showed me that bonds with other ponies are worth pursuing, and I want to try, but I..."

She paused, visibly fighting with herself for a moment. "For years I've tried to handle every situation alone," she continued. "But this time, I... I need help. I'm willing to place my trust in another pony for the first time in I don't know how long. I know Trottowa is really far but... please, Mrs. Doo, can you help me?"

Ditzy reached up and softly rubbed Sparkler's back with a forehoof. Sparkler tensed, but didn't force her away.

"I'll find a way," Ditzy promised. "It's much further than I go for most of my shipping assignments, but who am I to turn down a pony asking for my help with something like this? Dr. Candyfloss would've sent me in a heartbeat, and though he may be gone, I won't stop doing my job the way he would've wanted."

Sparkler turned her head enough that Ditzy could see one wary eye staring back at her. "S-so you'll go?"

"Soon," Ditzy assured her. "I just need to work out the timing with my job. The number of assignments has been gradually declining, and shipping has been getting a little more challenging. I'm sure the citizens are just on edge, given the disappearance of two princesses. The point, though, is that it's important to have all of us around when possible so we can select the right pony for each job, and that makes an unplanned trip to a far off city tough to schedule."

"That's fine," Sparkler replied. "I've already been away from Presto for years. A few more weeks won't change anything now."

She didn't say anything else. Ditzy shifted her weight awkwardly. "So... I should come back here and find you when it's time?" she ventured.


Silence again. Deciding Sparkler needed some space, Ditzy turned and began to make her way out of the apartment.

"Mrs. Doo."

Ditzy stopped and turned her head. Sparkler was no longer visible, the view of her totally blocked by the back of the armchair. "Yes?" the mare questioned.

"Um... thank you. For everything you've done, and will do."

Ditzy beamed. "You're welcome, Sparkler," she called back, "and don't worry, we'll be on our way to Trottowa in no time!"

"I give, I give! No more!"

Dinky froze mid-spell and waited. Across from her was a bright red-orange filly with a mane colored in a whole host of flowery shades of pink and yellow, who looked utterly frazzled. Shaking, the other unicorn hurriedly turned to the scoreboard and wasted no time casting a spell to signal a forfeit. As the buzzer sounded, she promptly flopped down on the stone floor, panting hard.

"That does it, everypony!" Professor Surge cried over the cheers of the gathered crowd. "We have a winner! Dinky Doo has overcome Hibiscus, and therefore becomes the last of the ponies advancing to the tournament's semifinal round!"

Beaming, Dinky returned to the stands amid a chorus of cheers. She sat down next to Clarity, who gave her a congratulatory pat on the back, before the professor continued.

"Now, before you all go, let's talk about what comes next," Surge said. "We've completed two rounds of the battle magic tournament, which means the original sixteen ponies have decreased to just four of our most talented battlemages. We're only about halfway through the term, so there will be a bit of a break in the tournament to give our remaining competitors time to hone their skills and prepare their strategies. The semifinal matches will be held in late August and early September, just after you all return from midsummer holiday."

August, Dinky thought. That gives me more than a month to prepare for the next duel.

"Now, four remaining competitors means only two semifinal match-ups," the professor continued. "As the tournament reaches its final stages, it tends to draw more and more curious ponies to watch what are usually the most dramatic and exciting duels of the year. And this year's duels are sure to be some of the best we've seen in a while, considering the semifinalists!"

He gestured to the scoreboard. Twelve of the sixteen faces that had once been displayed on it were gone. Now, just four remained.

"In the left bracket, it's Tango Trot vs. Seeker!" he announced, pausing to wait out another swell of cheers from the audience.

Dinky stared up at the scoreboard, watching the line between Tango and the filly named Seeker light up. She knew, of course, that this left only one pony who could be her next opponent.

"And in the right bracket... it's Dinky Doo vs. Scuffle!"

Dinky leaned forward a bit, looking to the end of the row of friends sitting next to her. On the other end of the group, Scuffle stared back at her. He smirked.

"We will continue with normal battle magic lessons in the coming weeks," Professor Surge reminded them. "Outside of class, our four remaining combatants will have plenty of time to develop a strategy to overcome their opponent, and select an appropriate enchantment or potion to bring with them. I hope you're all looking forward to some truly epic duels as the second half of the term commences!"

Surge dismissed the class. Dinky climbed down from the stands and Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle quickly gathered around her. Tango Trot gave the group a wave and his usual brilliant smile before trotting off to speak with the pony Dinky had just defeated.

"Wow, Dinky, you really didn't let up that time, huh?" Clarity remarked. "That duel only lasted about three minutes. Hibiscus never stood a chance."

"Well, she didn't put up quite as good a fight as you did," Dinky laughed. "I guess her first opponent must've been an easy one, but she wasn't quite prepared to deal with me."

"Of course, now there's going to be a duel between two close friends again..." Honeydew lamented. "Dinky vs. Clarity was stressful enough."

Scuffle patted Honeydew reassuringly before stepping forward to face Dinky. "Well Dinks, I think we both knew we might end up in a spot like this," he admitted. "Last time we dueled, we'd known each other less than a week, and barely knew any battle magic at all. That duel ended in a stalemate. I guess it's time to find out which of us really has the skills to take down the other, huh?"

He extended a forehoof. Dinky reached out and gave her friend a firm hoofshake and a determined grin.

"You're on, Scuffle," she challenged. "And don't get too cocky; you're gonna need to bring your best to beat me."

Fiery competitive spirit twinkled in Scuffle's slate blue eyes. "Oh, don't worry Dinks," he replied. "I play to win. We're pals now, and I'd rather face a rival than a true enemy... but on duel day, you're gonna get a taste of some real battle magic."

The prospect of another major duel was another welcome distraction to keep Dinky's mind off of things like missing princesses or the true nature of her wraith form.

"So, have you started thinking about what enchantment you're going to bring for your duel with Scuffle?" Clarity asked, as the two of them trotted to class.

"I've got about fifty ideas, but none of them are good enough," Dinky grumbled. "Scuffle's battle magic skills are just so well-rounded. There's an enchantment that would render those powerful shields of his almost useless, but he knows so many counterspells and defensive techniques that I'm sure he could do just fine without them. And while defense will always be his specialty, he's a lot better at offensive spells than he was when we were foals."

Clarity nodded solemnly. "When I dueled you, I kind of put all my eggs in one basket," she admitted. "As soon as you found a way to cancel all my illusions, the fight was over. Scuffle's not like that though; you can't exploit a weakness. You're going to have to overcome him with cleverness and pure skill."

"Well, Scuffle's got me outmatched as far as skill," Dinky confessed. "If I were to duel him right now, with no time to strategize, he'd kick my pastel purple rump clear across the arena in about a minute. If I want to overcome Scuffle, I need to anticipate all of his strategies, and have a plan to deal with each and every one."

"That's why the enchantment you bring is so important!" Clarity declared. "If you can just find a common theme in a lot of Scuffle's techniques, maybe you can negate a whole bunch of them with a single spell. You just have to find the right one."

"Ooh, now is that talk of dueling I hear?"

With a resonating strum and an echoing clatter, Tango Trot appeared from behind the two fillies. "By the way Dinky, my most sincere congratulations on your latest victory," he praised. "It's such a comfort to know that, should I win my semifinal match, I'll be facing off in the finals with one of my dear friends Dinky and Scuffle."

"Thanks, Tango," Dinky replied, giving him a halfhearted smile.

Dinky didn't quite know what to think of Tango Trot these days. His politeness never wavered, but his intent to woo Honeydew was no longer any secret to anypony save for Honeydew herself, of course. A part of her felt a sort of dull, vicarious anger for Scuffle's situation, but another part agreed with Clarity's view; Scuffle had never made any attempt to make Honeydew aware of his feelings, so who was she to say that Tango Trot couldn't try his hoof at gaining the timid filly's affection? Tango, it seemed, was either unaware of her conflicted opinion, or simply didn't care.

"So, ready for Runic Syllabary?" the blue colt asked. "I've overheard Dean Script has something special for us today."

"Really?" Clarity asked. "Runic Syllabary's not awful, but the class can be a little dry. I guess we'll see if the dean's lesson plan changes that today."

The trio of students filed into the classroom. Dean Script was at her desk, looking over the concealed contents of a small crate in front of her. After a few moments, she stood and strode to the front of the class, the mystery box clutched in her aura.

"Good morning, students," she greeted. "Today, we're finally going to take another step forward in our use of runes for spell enhancement. Until now, much of our coursework has been on the theory of the subject; we've learned what different types of runes are used for, and practiced writing them as neatly as possible for maximum effect. But as you all know, the way to give a rune the maximum effect is not to draw it onto the exterior of an enchanted object, but to actually engrave it into the surface. This is sometimes quite difficult, but that's what these are for."

A cloud of small, identical tools rose from the crate, suspended in the dean's golden aura. They made their way through the air and came to rest on the desk of each student. Dinky examined the implement; it was a very small, finely bladed chisel of some sort, with a handle reinforced with tough rubber and several symbols carved into the metal.

"These are no ordinary crafter's tools," Spiral Script continued, watching the students scrutinize the objects before them. "They are, in fact, highly specialized runecrafter's chisels, meant specifically for carving intricate lines into small, delicate objects."

Clarity squinted hard at the tiny lines in the metal. "Dean Script, are there... are there runes carved into these rune carving tools?" she asked with a bit of a chuckle.

"There are," Spiral Script replied, cracking a rare smile. "The runecrafter's chisels are both enchanted and refined with runes themselves. The spell they are imbued with makes them incredibly steady; they actually automatically correct for minor error, so a single slip of the hoof... or rather, horn, won't ruin an engraving. With enough attention and care, even a pony with relatively poor skills in magically manipulating small objects should still be able to engrave nearly perfect lines into something with one of these."

"Goodness, I've seen these in a shop in Canterlot," Tango Trot realized aloud. "They're of such quality that they're nearly three-hundred bits apiece. Acquiring enough for the class to use must've cost a fortune."

"Oh, not at all," Spiral Script replied casually. "I invented them. The prices you've seen on them are merely because making them is time consuming, and I'm the only pony who makes them."

There were murmurs of awe throughout the class. Dinky reminded herself never to take Celestia's Academy for granted; she truly was in the presence of the nation's most talented unicorn mages on a daily basis.

"Speaking of which," the dean continued, "while runecrafter's chisels are a popular item in certain Canterlot magic shops, I did originally design them with academy students in mind. It takes me a few weeks, but I make a new batch of them for my Runic Syllabary students each year. Those are now yours to keep, but if you lose them, don't expect a free replacement."

"Wait, you're just giving these to us?" Dinky gasped.

"You are currently the academy's top students," Spiral Script replied simply. "I expect top quality work from all of you, and for that, you need top quality tools. It wouldn't be fair of me to give wealthier ponies an advantage, would it? With all of you on an even playing field, the best and most brilliant will be the ones whose abilities shine through."

The professor lit her horn and pulled open the doors of an enormous cupboard on the side of the room. Flat, square sheets of polished copper sat inside.

"Now that you have your engraving tools, it's time to practice using them," she announced. "The metal here is just for practice. Use it to get started; your first few engravings will probably be a bit of a mess, but most students improve quickly once they get used to handling the tool. Once you're confident in your ability, feel free to use your chisel to add runes to personal items. I know more than half of you regularly wear enchanted jewelry, and you're probably eager to enhance it with runes. Either way, just practice for today; I need you all to be familiar with the engraving by next week's class. Most of our coursework for the remainder of the term will involve it."

With that, the dean returned to her desk and left the class to practice. Dinky examined her chisel with admiration.

"Dinky, you've got to try this!" Clarity urged, already cutting the first few lines into the soft metal. "The dean's come up with something really special here. It's hard to explain, though. Engrave a rune and you'll see."

Dinky picked up the tool with her aura and decided to start with a simple rune made of a pair of interlocking triangles meant to restrict the flow of magic at a specific point in an object. She made an attempt to carve a single, straight line, and immediately understood what Clarity meant.

The enchantment in the tool seemed to work like an extension of her magic, interacting with and changing the levitation spell coming from her horn. Under her own power, she realized, the line she was carving would've slanted a bit to the left, but the chisel countered this with an equal amount of rightward slant, resulting in the perfectly straight, vertical line she had intended to draw. She glanced at Clarity, grinning.

"Bravo, Dinky," Tango complimented. "It seems the most important factor in using these tools is a focus on your goal. If you've visualized a straight line or a precise angle, the chisel favors the result in your mind over the actual motion caused by your magic. As long as that visualization doesn't waver during engraving, you should end up with exactly that which you set out to carve."

Dinky shook her head softly. "I swear, I've been here almost five years and every now and then I'm still blown away by what experts can do with magic," she admitted.

"Now let's put these things to use!" Clarity suggested, pulling the barrette free from her mane and ignoring the resulting bright blue curls falling in front of her left eye. "I've had this enchanted barrette since our first term. Maybe I can upgrade the spell in it with an engraving."

"What kind of alteration would you even make to that spell?" Dinky asked. "All it does it let you locate Honeydew and me at any time."

Clarity frowned. "Uh..."

"I have a suggestion," Tango chimed in. "The pony compass charm normally functions entirely with mental cues, doesn't it? It tells you where to find a pony, but if you're lost or disoriented, like in total darkness for example, you may not be able to get yourself to that location. I'd imagine there must be a rune that will allow you to add an additional visual cue to the spell."

"Worth a try," Clarity admitted as she began to page through the index in her textbook. "Let's see, I'd need a rune with narrow spaces between the lines to funnel the magic to the outside of the gem, and something to direct the loose light..."

After a quarter-hour of research and several practice carvings in her copper sheet, Clarity carefully etched a tiny rune into the topaz embedded in her barrette. She clipped it back into her mane while Dinky and Tango watched with interest.

"Okay," she mumbled, "now, let's try and locate Dinky..."

Immediately, the jewel began to glow, and a small, bright cone of red light extended from its surface, its tip pointing directly to Dinky's head. "Looks like it works!" she laughed.

"What about you?" Clarity asked as the light faded. "Are you going to add any runes to your pendant?"

Dinky shrugged and softly stroked the diamond around her neck, feeling its glow a few moments later as Pipsqueak responded to her thoughts of him. "You know how these dual enchantments work," she reminded her friend. "I shouldn't make any modifications to mine unless Pip is here so I can make an identical change to his, so maybe someday, but not now. On the other hoof, this chisel might be just what I need to prepare the perfect enchantment to beat Scuffle in that duel..."

Filled with new motivation, Dinky began poring over the rune index, searching for just the right combination of enchantment and rune to turn the tide.

Around the start of summer, sunset was later in the evening, and that meant curfew was a little later too. After the day's classes were over, Dinky wandered outside as she and Clarity updated Scuffle on the events of Runic Syllabary that morning.

"So this little thing is that big of a deal, huh?" Scuffle asked, turning Dinky's runecrafter's chisel over and over in his aura. "I mean, if you say so, Dinks."

"It is a big deal," Dinky insisted. "By the time our duel arrives, I'll have come up with an enchantment so powerful, even you won't be able to stop me."

"Right, Dinks. Keep dreamin'," Scuffle said idly as he tossed the tool back into Dinky's bags. "You know, maybe we should tell Dewey about the rune engraving stuff, though. She might find it useful."

"Honeydew's never been really into enchantments," Clarity pointed out. "There isn't much overlap with magical biology. And without enchantments, runes are kind of moot."

Scuffle smirked. "Man, Clarity, you're usually the smart one," he teased. "I think you're forgetting something. Honeydew wears an enchanted tail ring that increases her ability to magically communicate with the life around her. She's also spent half the term trying to develop a new spell that requires a huge amount of power. And you don't think she'd want to use runes to add power to that enchantment?"

"Ooh, he's got you there, Clarity," Dinky snickered.

Clarity huffed and flicked her tail. "Fine, you have a point," she conceded. "Where's Honeydew now?"

"Where do you think?" Scuffle asked. "That filly's more at home in nature than she is in her dorm. If there's still daylight, she's probably studying at the hideout."

The three students made for the forest. Dinky watched Scuffle out of the corner of her eye; the colt had a determined look on his face, and she had a pretty good idea why.

"So, Scuffle..." she chanced, breaking the brief silence, "...made any progress with Honeydew?"

"Tryin' my best," Scuffle grunted. "We're both free around the middle of the day three days a week, so I've been meeting up with her for lunch a lot. Once classes are over though, she gets to work on that Lifesense stuff, and then that poser Tango swoops in the second I look away. I bet that colt spends all his free time scheming, figuring out my schedule and Honeydew's so he can maximize his chances to spend time with her."

Clarity rolled her eyes. "Scuffle, Tango Trot is not scheming anything," she insisted, tossing her mane in exasperation. "He just likes Honeydew, and he has every right to. If you're not gonna ask her out because you're worried that she likes him more than you, that's your business."

Scuffle snorted. "What do you think, Dinks?" he asked. "You got an opinion on pretty boy too?"

Dinky sighed. "I just wish I knew for sure if Tango is really as nice as he seems, or if he's putting on a front to make sure Clarity and I stay neutral on the whole thing," she admitted. "I want to see you succeed, Scuffle, because I know you've felt like this about Honeydew for a long time, but if Tango really is just a charismatic young stallion who happens to like the same filly you do... then I guess I'm with Clarity on this one."

Scuffle kicked a stone. "Whatever," he mumbled. "When I prove to Dewey that I'm the better pick, it won't matter anyway."

"Well, one advantage Tango has is his knowledge of Magical Biology," Dinky pointed out. "Even if we ignore this whole competition for her attention, he's the one who knows enough about the subject to help with her research. If you convince her to engrave her tail ring, though, that'll be some points in your favor."

"Oh," Scuffle realized. "Yeah, I guess that'll be good, won't it?"

Clarity raised an eyebrow. "That wasn't your motivation for this in the first place?"

Scuffle's expression softened. "I wanted to help Honeydew because I want her to succeed," he replied. "I want to beat Tango, sure, but that's between me and him. But if giving Honeydew a tip for her spellweaving wins me some brownie points too, I'm not complaining."

The trio arrived at the hideout, and Dinky coaxed the roots over the passage open. With a smile, Scuffle slid down the tunnel.

"Hey Dewey, you here? I wanted to—"

He stopped, and as Dinky arrived in the small cave beside him, it was easy to see why.

Honeydew was lying comfortably on her beanbag, her tail ring clutched in her aura and the typical intricate braid of her tail messy and half-unwound. Sitting right beside her was Tango Trot, who appeared to have been interrupted by Scuffle's arrival.

"Ah, it seems that premonition that struck me a few minutes ago was referring to our friends," he said to Honeydew. "I suppose 'two's company, five's a crowd' is a bit of a deviation from the more typical version of the phrase, but in this case it seems it's accurate."

"Hi Scuffle!" Honeydew greeted, cheerfully waving a forehoof. "Good news! Tango Trot pointed out that we might be able to engrave runes in my enchanted ring. If we can find the right one, it might be a big step toward making my spell work better!"

"Ah, it was nothing, Honeydew my dear," Tango dismissed. "I'm sure Dinky and Clarity would've been quick to suggest something similar, after what we learned in Runic Syllabary this morning."

"That's... great," Scuffle mumbled, slowly trotting over and seating himself at Honeydew's opposite side. "Did you come up with anything?"

"I've posed several ideas," Tango Trot answered, flashing a grin in Scuffle's direction as the other colt sat. "Each modifies the spell in a different way, but there's only room to engrave one on the surface of the sapphire. Do any of them tickle your fancy, Honeydew?"

Honeydew turned the ring over in her aura a few times. "I... need to think about it," she said finally. "This ring is one of the reasons my life connection spells are as powerful as they are. If I can only enhance it once, I need to be a hundred percent certain that I pick the right rune."

"There's about a hundred books in the castle library on the subject," Clarity pointed out. "Wanna go take a look?"

"Yes please!" Honeydew chirped, standing up and hastily tying her tail back into its braid. "And Tango, thanks so much for all your help again."

"Anytime, Honeydew, anytime," Tango said, his mirthful gaze flicking briefly to Scuffle as Honeydew gave him an appreciative nuzzle. "Do keep me in the loop as soon as you make progress."

"I will," Honeydew promised as she and Clarity made for the exit. "And Dinky, Scuffle, see you back at the towers tonight."

She galloped eagerly up the tunnel, causing Clarity to have to hurry to follow. This left Dinky, Scuffle, and Tango alone in the hideout.

"So Dinky, Scuffle, how lovely to see you both," Tango said once the other fillies were gone. "As you can see, our dear Honeydew's research is slow going, but perhaps she's close to another breakthrough.

Scuffle glared. "Great," he said through gritted teeth. "I'm sure she just loves having her little assistant around to 'inspire' her."

"Oh, I imagine she's quite happy to have the help," Tango affirmed, ignoring Scuffle's tone of voice entirely. "It seems I've really found the right subject to break down her social barriers; now that we're together so frequently, I'm beginning to learn a bit about her other interests, too. In no time, we'll be the best of friends, and from there..."

He paused, chuckling to himself. "Well, from there, I'm sure it won't be too terribly hard to convince her to take the next logical step. The poor thing, she still struggles with her anxiety and seems a bit starved for affection; I think she'll take quite nicely to the idea of a coltfriend to be there for her."

Dinky had to admit, she didn't expect Scuffle to hold his tongue in the face of Tango's self-satisfied grin. He managed to keep his reply to no more than a grunt of vague agreement, though he looked like he was about to explode.

"Tango Trot, are you, uh... you know, really sure that you're a good fit for Honeydew?" Dinky questioned, slowly moving between the two colts to defuse the tension a bit.

"Whyever wouldn't I be?" Tango asked, pressing a forehoof to his chest. "These past four months, we've seemed quite compatible. And clearly Honeydew chooses only the very best of ponies to be her close friends, seeing as she's spent a few years alongside you two and our cherished mutual friend Clarity. Since I'm already so well acquainted with all of her friends now, I'm sure that would make the transition to a relationship situation even easier."

"I see," Dinky replied, unable to think of anything more to say without showing support for one side or the other.

"Now, as much as I enjoy both your company," the colt continued, "I'm afraid it is beginning to grow late. I'm heading back to the towers, and I suggest you two do the same soon. Wouldn't want to miss curfew now, would you?"

He ran a hoof briefly through his expertly-groomed mane and flashed both of them a smile that caught the light of the hideout's illumination orbs, and then disappeared in a flash of icy blue light. Silence ensued, and Dinky turned to Scuffle, who was staring rather intently at the dead air where the other colt had been a moment before.

"Holy Celestia on a cracker, Dinks," he growled, "I figured my brothers would always be number one when it comes to pissing me off, but this guy..."

Dinky frowned. "I don't mind the excessively welcoming attitude most of the time," she confessed, "but yeah, when he won't break character even when you clearly resent it, it's, uh..."

"Really, really smug," Scuffle finished. "Being smart, engaging, and attractive is one thing, but he knows it, and he sure isn't ashamed to remind everypony else. In his eyes, dating Honeydew's already a foregone conclusion."

He looked at the dirt floor, stewing in his frustration. Dinky placed a hoof on his side.

"So prove him wrong."

Scuffle looked up. "Huh?"

"You heard me," Dinky replied. "Clarity and I still think you should just tell Honeydew how you feel, preferably as soon as possible, but if you wanna put Tango in his place, then do it. Show him he's full of hot air. Just make sure you do it fair and square; trying to undermine him just shows that you already feel like you can't win on your own merit, which only serves to prove him right."

"I was never planning to sabotage anypony," Scuffle assured her. "If Tango wants to play this game, fine. I'll play by the rules he's set... and I'm gonna beat him at his own game."

Later that night, Dinky arrived back at her dorm. Clarity and Honeydew were already back from the library; the latter was paging through one of half a dozen books stacked on her bed, and scribbling tiny runes into her notes every now and then.

"Hey Dinky," Clarity greeted. "Did Scuffle head back to the colts' tower?"

"I think so," Dinky replied. "He's, uh... a little stressed out. I think he probably needs a night in to clear his head."

Honeydew looked up. "I hope he's okay," she worried, clutching at the end of her tail anxiously. "He did seem a little off at the hideout earlier. I'll go find him at breakfast time tomorrow in case he needs somepony to talk to."

"He'll appreciate that, Honeydew," Dinky said, nodding. "But as for tonight, I think I'm ready to just relax. It's been a busy day."

Just as she was settling into her bunk with a book, there was a tiny knock at the door of the suite. Without getting back up, she tugged it open with a touch of magic, revealing a little pinto pony standing on the other side.

"Oh, hey Inkwell," Clarity greeted. "Everything alright?"

"Everything's fine," the younger filly replied quickly. "I just... well, I saw you and Honeydew come back from the castle with a bunch of books about runes, and I got curious. But if this is a bad time, I can ask about them later."

Clarity chuckled. "Well, Honeydew's using those books for her research right now, so maybe later, okay?"

"Sorry," Honeydew apologized, smiling shyly.

"Oh, that's okay," Inkwell assured her. "Today in Professor Luster's class, we got to make enchanted items of our own. Professor Luster doesn't teach about runes though, so I just wanted to see if Clarity could maybe help me add one."

"Oh, we don't need the complex books Honeydew's working with for something like that!" Clarity laughed. "Come here, let's see what we're working with. Dinky, you too, if you don't mind."

Before Inkwell could move, Clarity lit her horn and teleported both her and Dinky up onto the top bunk. The younger filly, disoriented, gave her head a shake that made her braids swing haphazardly back and forth.

"Bleh... I'm not used to teleport spells yet," she remarked.

"They'll feel pretty natural in a couple years," Dinky promised. "Especially once you start casting them yourself instead of hitching a ride in Clarity's."

"But enough about teleport spells," Clarity cut in. "What did you enchant, Inkwell?"

Inkwell pulled a silver horn ring sporting a decent-sized ruby from her bag. "This!" she declared proudly. "It fits on the base of my horn."

"And what's the enchantment?" Dinky asked.

Inkwell faltered. "It's... uh..." she stammered. "You're... you're gonna think I'm really geeky when I tell you."

"Inkwell, we're students at a school for ponies who have not only the intelligence, but the focus and passion to be great mages," Clarity stated, ruffling the top of Inkwell's mane for a moment. "Being geeky is definitely a good thing here, trust me."

Inkwell giggled. "Well, I've been doing some light research on runes in my spare time like you suggested," she began, "but I've found a lot of old scrolls in the library where the text is smudgy or faded or just written with really hard to read hornwriting. So I put an enchantment on this ring that let's me look through a sort of filter and see the characters on the page clear as day."

To demonstrate, the filly placed the ring on her horn, with the gemstone facing downward toward her forehead. A pair of shimmering yellow-orange lenses flickered into view in front of her eyes as soon as she lit her horn, and she looked quite pleased with herself.

Dinky, always enthralled by a well-done enchantment, gave an impressed whistle. "I've never seen something like that," she admitted. "It's a clever spell. Maybe I should make something like that one of these days."

"It'd certainly help with reading Scuffle's writing..." Honeydew mumbled from across the room.

"I don't know what kind of additions to the spell a rune could make, though," Inkwell lamented. "I was hoping Clarity could help with that."

Clarity rubbed her temples, thinking. "Honeydew, can I borrow that copy of 'Classical Era Symbols', just for a second?" she asked finally.

The book floated up to Clarity's bunk in a pale green aura. She flipped through the pages briefly, and smiled.

"Inkwell, we won't know for sure until we try it, but I think we might have a really exciting combination here," she said, pointing to a particular rune on the page. "If we use a rune like this, we might be able to extend that ring's ability from just clarifying letters to translating entirely different scripts. If it works, foreign languages viewed through the enchantment's lenses will appear to be written in common Ponish!"

Inkwell's jaw dropped. "Let's do it!" she begged. "That would be so cool!"

Clarity withdrew her chisel. Working with incredible care, she joined her aura with Inkwell's and helped her slowly carve the rune into a wide, flat facet on the ruby. Inkwell took the ring back, staring at the symbol with awe. "How will we know if it works?" she asked. "I don't have anything with me written in another language."

Wordlessly, another book arrived in Honeydew's aura, but this one was definitely not a textbook on runes; rather, it was a colorful graphic novel, covered in Neighponese characters. Dinky blinked and glanced at Honeydew.

"Now I see why Scuffle described Neighponese comics with such detail a few weeks ago," she snickered.

"S-so what?" Honeydew asked, blushing. "You guys just said being geeky is a good thing. It's got foreign characters for you to translate, and that issue's perfectly appropriate for foals."

Clarity grinned mischievously. "So you're saying you have some that aren't appropriate for foals?"

Honeydew quickly cracked open the largest of her rune textbooks, holding it upright to shield her face from her friends' gaze. Clarity just chuckled as she placed the graphic novel in front of Inkwell. The younger filly lit her horn again, and the rune carved into the gem began to glow as the ethereal lenses once again appeared in front of her face.

"It... it works," she breathed, paging through the book. "I can read every word. Clarity, I... h-how did you figure that out?"

Clarity shrugged. "After you learn a lot of magic, you sort of start to get a sense of what you can and can't do with it, I guess," she explained. "The broader your knowledge, the easier it will be to come up with cross-discipline spell combinations. It just comes with experience, I guess."

Inkwell slowly removed the horn ring and placed it back among her belongings with something akin to reverence. "Was your Overseer as experienced as you are now when you were a foal?" she asked.

"My Overseer was... not always the friendliest pony," Clarity confessed. "But in spite of that, she's still one of the most brilliant unicorns I know. She saved my life, and Dinky's too. Twice, actually. If she wasn't so experienced with magic, I wouldn't be here talking to you."

Inkwell paled a bit. "I... I hope I can thank her for that someday then," she stammered. "But anyway, I guess she wasn't really the type of pony to answer fillies' questions about magic, huh?"

"Not really," Clarity chuckled. "But that's okay; my older sister Lucid graduated before I even started my first term. She was her class's valedictorian, so I was always able to ask her if I needed magical advice."

"Lucky," Inkwell said with a pout. "I have six older sisters and not even one of them can use magic. I know I can ask the professors questions, but it's more comfortable to just talk to another student. I hope you don't mind..."

"Not at all!" Clarity promised. "Inkwell, when I was your age, I was just as excited to learn about illusions as you are to learn about runes. I researched and practiced for years, and learned stuff way beyond what they taught in my classes, cause I just loved the subject. Working with another pony with that same kind of passion is just so uplifting."

"When I was a foal," Dinky chimed in, "I had a book with one particular phrase in it that really stuck with me. It said 'Magic is limited only by the strength of the mind and the passion of the heart'. It's easy to tell you're pretty bright, and there's no denying your enthusiasm, and as long as you have those two things, nothing's stopping you from becoming a master unicorn mage."

"So don't be afraid to seek advice from other ponies," Clarity added. "If anything, Inkwell, be as inquisitive as you can and don't let anything stop you from pursuing the magic you love. Keep at it, by the time you're my age you'll be using runes to elevate spells to levels that nopony's ever dreamed of!"

Inkwell sniffled softly and scooted closer to Clarity, leaning against her coat. "I hope so," she whispered. "But in about four more months, you'll be gone. After you graduate, can I still write to you about the magic I'm studying?"

"As often as you like," Clarity replied. "But for tonight, I think we've done plenty, and it's starting to get late. We're gonna turn in soon, but you should go upstairs and show Portabella your ring."

"She's gonna be soooo jealous," Inkwell giggled, hopping down from the bunk. "Oh, and thanks a million for helping me with my first engraving!"

She galloped away with her usual vigor. Dinky turned back to Clarity and smiled.

"I hope that filly grows up to be everything you say she can be," she remarked.

"She will," Clarity said, nodding slowly. "She's gonna do amazing things someday. I can just tell."

Dinky yawned and returned to the lower bunk with another teleport spell. "Well, you can keep inspiring the foals tomorrow," she chuckled. "For now, it's time for bed."

"Agreed," Honeydew said, speaking up for the first time in a while as she stacked all the textbooks beside her bed.

As Clarity drew the light out of the illumination orb, Dinky thought about Inkwell's magic.

Even younger fillies have something to contribute, she mused. I need to get more creative with my own enchantments. Time to start thinking outside the box...

Later that week, Advanced Enchantments class offered Dinky an opportunity to do exactly that.

"Something's up," Scuffle mumbled, angling his head toward Professor Luster. "She's making that face. She always makes that face when she's trying to keep something exciting under wraps."

"What's left that could surprise us at this point?" Honeydew asked. "We're halfway through our last term. By now, I figured we'd be familiar with most of the ways to use enchantments."

"Beats me," Dinky said, shrugging. "Clarity, did Lucid mention anything special that fifth-term ponies learn in this class?"

Clarity grinned. "Well, I know one thing we didn't learn yet..." she said mysteriously. "But if that's what's happening today, I think you should just wait for the surprise..."

Before Dinky could object, Professor Luster trotted to the front of the room and spoke up. "Hello everypony!" she called, beaming. "I'm sure it's starting to dawn on all of you that in just a few short months, you'll all be reaching the end of your time here at Celestia's Academy. That, of course, means that now's the time for your professors to show you the most advanced types of spells in our respective fields. Only now, after years of practice, can we possibly expect even the brightest unicorns to be able to work with spells such as these. Now, I don't know what the others professors are up to, but in my class, that means learning to cast one very special kind of enchantment."

She suddenly pointed a forehoof at Dinky. "Dinky, your scores in this class have always been tip-top," she said with a smile. "Remind the class for me, what types of objects are easy to enchant, which are difficult, and why?"

In any other class, Dinky may have stumbled when put on the spot in such a way, but here, she knew the answers like the back of her hoof. "The molecular structure of an object is the factor that governs how readily enchantable it is," she recited. "Materials that have a very uniform structure accept and hold onto magic more easily than objects that don't. This makes crystalline items like gemstones the easiest things to enchant. Plenty of other objects can hold enchantments too, though, but the spell often becomes harder to cast and lasts a shorter time, especially if the object being enchanted is an artificial, pony-made item made of multiple different materials."

"Perfect, Dinky," the professor chirped. "But tell me... what is the hardest thing to enchant?"

"Didn't I already say something about that?" Dinky asked. "I guess it would be any composite object, wouldn't it? Like... if a pony wanted to enchant their carriage to move on its own, it would be very challenging because the carriage is made of wood, metal, and fabric in different proportions."

Professor Luster shook her head. "I know I certainly don't say this often but... sorry, Dinky, that's not it!"

Dinky blinked, shocked. "Th-then what?"

"In a way, you're on the right track," the professor continued. "The hardest thing to enchant involves many different compounds in the same object, and none of them follow a nice, crystalline structure. But in addition, the actual makeup of it is always changing. Some compounds are broken down, and new ones are formed, continuously. To allow something like that to accept an enchantment is momentously difficult... but it's not impossible."

Dinky exchanged a stunned glance with her friends. Clarity in particular winked at her.

"Professor... are you talking about—"

"As it turns out," Professor Luster interrupted, smiling broadly, "the most difficult enchantment is that which is cast on a living thing. A pony new to the world of magic would never stand a chance of doing so, but for seasoned enchanters like you... I think it might be worth giving a lesson on a little something we call self-enchantment."

That sent the room into an uproar almost immediately. Dinky reeled, trying to wrap her head around the concept.

"It's possible to enchant your own body?" she asked, once the noise finally dulled.

"To an extent, at least!" Professor Luster said excitedly. "It's something you really have to take care with, though. At least so far, after several millennia of study by unicorn scholars, there is currently no way to permanently enchant yourself or another living thing. The spells usually last anywhere from minutes to a few hours at the absolute max. But during that time, you can use them for amazing things."

Professor Luster's horn glowed. She surrounded her body with her aura, and her coat continued to faintly glow even after her horn was extinguished. "For instance," she said, "unicorns can't fly with magic. It's simply too much strain to use the type of levitation spell you need to hold yourself afloat. But if you need to reach a high place for a moment and there's no standing room to safely teleport there..."

She bent her knees and jumped, causing most of the class to gasp as she launched herself about four pony-lengths into the air, landing gracefully as if she'd made no more than a bunny hop.

"...a springy hooves enchantment might be just what you're looking for," she chuckled.

A moment of stunned silence followed. "That's... nuts," Scuffle said finally. "That's not a power granted by an enchanted item you're wearing or anything?"

"I've got nothing of the sort," Professor Luster declared proudly, turning in a small circle to prove there was no hidden bauble somewhere on her body. "The magic is stored not in an item, but in my own hooves. That magic's already beginning to leak away though, see?"

She bounded into the air again, and though it was still an impressive leap, she only went about two-thirds as high as she had the first time. "Self-enchantment, while amazing is unfortunately not a popular type of spell. It's very difficult to cast, often taking weeks or months of practice, and the effects are brief. In some cases, an easier spell can be used to accomplish the same goal in a different way. These factors make self-enchantment so esoteric that many unicorns don't even realize it exists. But if you ever find yourself in those rare situations, it can be an incredibly valuable tool."

Dinky squirmed in her seat, barely able to stop herself from lighting her horn right at that moment and attempting the spell. She practically jumped up when Professor Luster finally finished her lecture and gave them permission to begin to practice.

"Somepony's eager," Honeydew giggled. "Go on, Dinky, you try first."

"Don't expect too much though," Clarity warned. "It might take a while before even you can use a well-done self-enchantment."

"Says the pony who managed to teleport the same day Professor Morningstar taught us about that," Dinky replied, defiant. "Just watch. I'll be self-enchanting by the end of class!"

Dinky was not self-enchanting by the end of class.

That didn't stop her though. In the following days, she did little in her free time other than flooding her form with enchantment magic, trying to get her body to retain it, even for a few moments. One afternoon, Clarity trotted into the hideout to find her practicing.

"Any luck, Dinky?"

"I've gotta be close," Dinky insisted, the tip of her tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth as the light around her horn grew again. "I can feel my own magic in my hooves, but I can't make it take hold..."

"If you try to test springy hooves in here, you're gonna get a faceful of dirt real fast," Clarity pointed out, glancing at the hideout's rather low, root-filled ceiling.

"I'm not casting springy hooves," Dinky deadpanned. "I'll show you what I'm working on if I could just get it to stick..."

She squeezed her eyes shut and focused on both the spell and her body. As meticulously as she could, she tried to weave her aura first into her skin, and then gradually deeper. She used all her willpower to try to let it seep into her muscles, surround her bones, even work its way between her very cells.

It happened all at once. It wasn't a faint feeling that grew and grew, like those used in magical biology. The moment Dinky achieved the correct mental balance between her spell and her body, the magic acted like any other enchantment and bound to its target. The sensation was so alien that Dinky gasped and nearly lost her balance.

Clarity was at her side immediately. "Are you okay?" she asked, furrowing her brow. "What did you do?"

Dinky looked down. Her jaw dropped slightly when she saw the gentle, golden glow radiating from her hooves. Clarity followed her gaze and had a similar reaction.

"Wait, did you... did you do it?"

"Let me check," Dinky said softly, trotting over to the earthen wall of the chamber. She reared up and placed both her forehooves on the soil, earning her a confused look from Clarity.

"I figured self-enchantment might help me gain an edge in my duel with Scuffle," she explained. "Scuffle's gravity manipulation is so good, he can casually walk up vertical walls. You and I can barely even cast gravity spells, but..."

She hopped up and pressed her hind hooves against the wall. She stood completely horizontal, grinning at Clarity as she did so.

"...maybe an enchantment that makes my hooves adhere to walls like a changeling's can compensate for what I can't do with gravity," she finished, giggling.

Clarity stepped closer, examining Dinky's glowing hooves with wonder. "I knew you'd be the first of us to manage to self-enchant," she admitted, "but wow Dinky, you've been at it less than a week and you've already—"

Before she could finish, the light in Dinky's hooves faded. With a surprised squeak, the purple filly collapsed on the floor in a heap.

Clarity burst into melodious laughter. "Well, that was a self-enchantment alright, but given the duration I don't recommend using them for anything too risky until you improve," she snickered.

Dinky scowled. Rather than try to untangle herself, she let her body dissolve into smoke and reformed in a standing position. "Still, it's a step in the right direction," she argued. "If I can get proficient at enchanting myself at will, I'll be able to do all sorts of things most unicorns can't."

"I don't doubt it," Clarity replied, nodding. "You've mastered just about every kind of enchantment we've learned over the years. I can't see why this would be any different."

"Right!" Dinky said confidently. "Now come on, let's go show Scuffle! I wanna make him squirm knowing what he's gonna be up against in the duel."

She started to exit the hideout, but Clarity didn't follow. She glanced over her shoulder at her friend.

"You coming?"

"Yeah, sorry, you just got me thinking when you did that smoky thing," Clarity started. "You've taken on the burden of finding positive ways to use dark magic, and now I can't help but wonder... is there such a thing as a dark enchantment?"

Dinky pondered the question. "It's not something I've ever tried," she confessed, "but I guess if there's anypony out there who could combine those two things, it's probably me, huh?"

"Bring it up in your next session with Professor Surge," Clarity suggested. "Maybe it's something to look into."

"I will, but first..." Dinky began, pawing at one of the earthen walls until a small hunk of quartz fell out, "since we have the privacy of the hideout, there's no sense in not giving it a trial run here."

Clarity bit her lip. "I dunno, Dinky, dark magic outside of Surge's research? Is that a good idea?"

"If it's just an enchantment, what's the harm?" Dinky asked, placing the piece of quartz on a flat patch of ground. "Enchantments don't do anything without a pony wielding them. Even if it works, I can just disenchant it so it doesn't end up somewhere it shouldn't."

"Okay, but I'm sitting over here," Clarity declared, plopping down on the opposite end of the room. "I'm used to seeing your dark magic now, but I prefer to give it some space."

Dinky nodded and lit her horn, letting the gold give way to violet and black. With careful, delicate casting, harnessing the dark magic with control that only a wraith was capable of, she slowly began to fill the quartz in front of her with its energy. It seemed to be working... for about five seconds.


Dinky realized just an instant too late that the gem couldn't handle the amount of magic she'd funneled into it. Before she could make an attempt to draw it back, the little piece of quartz exploded apart, flinging shards around the room. On instinct, Dinky instantly melted into a black cloud, letting the fragments pass right through her instead of embedding themselves in her flesh. Unfortunately, there was somepony in the room who lacked the ability to do the same.


The sound made Dinky turn her head immediately. Clarity sat stunned, with a long, very narrow slice along her flank, caused by a razor sharp shard glancing off her at high speed. She touched the thin wound with a forehoof, a bit of blood staining the underside when she pulled it away again.

"I am so sorry!" Dinky apologized, rushing to her side. "I didn't... I just... sometimes I don't realize that even very gentle, weak dark spells can have nasty effects..."

"It's okay," Clarity said, standing and nuzzling Dinky reassuringly. "It's just a scratch. I don't even need to go to the infirmary. I'll just go back to the dorm and get Honeydew's help; she's gotten good enough at healing spells now that she can seal a minor cut like this right up."

Dinky grimaced. "You're too forgiving," she moped. "I swore I wouldn't hurt anypony with dark magic ever again, let alone my best friend. You told me to wait to test this and I didn't listen."

"Dinky, it's—"

"No, it's not okay," Dinky interrupted. "I know you're not seriously hurt, and trust me, I'm relieved. But every time I make a mistake... every time I get a little too excited about trying out new dark magic, or a little too casual about using it, those slip-ups make me worry that way deep down inside me is the monster Scorpio intended for me to be. Usually I can push those thoughts away, but if that gem had exploded a little differently, you could be in serious need of medical help right now, and... that's hard for me to brush off."

Clarity leaned forward and hugged Dinky tightly. "You know Honeydew, Scuffle, and I will always be here to prove that's not the case," she cooed into Dinky's ear. "Though, if you're really struggling with how dark magic affects your sense of self... we do have a guidance counselor who knows you're a wraith. Maybe talking to her could help assuage some of those fears?"

Dinky smiled weakly. "Maybe that's just what I need:" she admitted, "somepony who knows how to help ponies with the fears and uncertainties in their lives."

The two fillies stepped out of the cavern and squinted in the late afternoon sun. "Go get Honeydew to help you with that cut," Dinky instructed, gently nudging her friend toward the towers. "As for me... I'm gonna to talk to Wishing Star."

"Come in!"

Dinky slowly pushed open the door to the counselor's office. In four and a half years at the academy, she'd never once set foot in this room. It was a tidy, cozy space, with a wide window overlooking the courtyard behind the castle that was currently allowing the last shreds of evening sun in. A few sculptures and abstract designs, all composed of some sort of pink crystal, decorated the room. Dinky had to admit they added character, even if they weren't exactly her style.

Wishing Star looked up from her desk, the light of the sunset glinting off her bejeweled headband and reflecting a rainbow of colors around the room.

"Oh! Dinky!" she called, giving the filly a friendly wave. "I haven't seen you since our latest session with the dean and Professor Surge. Come, sit! Let's chat."

Dinky smiled halfheartedly and seated herself across from the counselor. "Hey, Wishing Star," she greeted. "I... need some help. I was hoping you could curb some of my worries."

"That's what I'm here for," Wishing Star replied, nodding in affirmation to her own comment. "You seem a little hesitant; is it something hard to talk about?"

"Well, not really," Dinky admitted. "I've just never really needed help from a guidance counselor before. I've got good friends and caring family, and I'm doing well in my classes, so—"

Wishing Star reached across the desk and gently gripped Dinky's hoof with her own. "Now hush," she instructed. "Just because you have a 'good' life doesn't mean you'll never struggle with things. You have just as much right to seek counsel as anypony else, and I'm just as happy to help you as I would be to help a pony in a very different situation, I promise."

Her compassion put Dinky at ease almost immediately. "Okay, but it's about my... special condition, so we need some privacy."

Wishing Star's horn flashed, and Dinky heard the office door lock behind her. "There you go, now it's just the two of us," she reassured. "So, what's on your mind? I can't imagine you're struggling to control that dark magic, right? You always seem to be able to command it with ease when you're helping Professor Surge with research."

"It's not anything like that," Dinky promised. "I've been feeling anxious because... well, not too long ago, my friend Honeydew, who is gifted with magical biology realized that she can't detect my heart."

"Well that's not really too surprising, is it?" Wishing Star asked, cocking her head. "You told us on the first day of the research project that your body is made of dark magic. I suppose you don't need the organ that ponies have to keep you alive if your magic does that instead."

"That's not quite what I mean," Dinky clarified, shaking her head. "Honeydew can't detect the core of my being. The thing that supposedly is allowing me to keep behaving with the emotions and values of a pony, despite the fact that I'm not a pony at all. If that was destroyed along with my body... can I continue to exist like this? Or is it only a matter of time until something... changes?"

Wishing Star pursed her lips and tapped her forehooves together softly, clearly deep in thought. "Dinky," she said finally, "can you tell me about the night that Scorpio pony did this to you? Or is it too painful to talk about?"

"We can discuss it," Dinky said, shrugging. "It began when my friends and I set out to stop Scorpio's minion, Antares, from fulfilling his plans..."

Dinky painstakingly recounted the night of Scorpio's Apex, how Antares had tricked her into helping, Scorpio's resurrection and her subsequent forced transformation into a wraith. Wishing Star sat quietly, drinking in every word and pausing only to ask the occasional question. By the time she neared the end of the tale, dusk had given way to night.

"So just when it seemed like Scorpio's power was too much, even with all of us combined, that's when Trouble sprang into action."

"Sorry, Trouble's the fox, right?" Wishing Star asked, looking apologetic. "I was starting to wonder why he was relevant to the story..."

"Trouble saved us," Dinky explained. He clamped onto Scorpio's tail, which is what she was using to channel her magic the way a unicorn uses their horn. With Scorpio's attacks directed away from us, we were able to push her... and unfortunately, Trouble as well, back into the Realm of Stars. She almost escaped again; in fact, the end of her tail made it back into Equestria, but it was severed when we closed the portal. Scorpio and Trouble have been chasing each other across the sky ever since."

Wishing Star nodded. "Well, it sounds like things turned out okay," she admitted. "If you were able to resist Scorpio's influence then, what makes you think something will change now?"

Dinky sighed. "Well, Scorpio didn't leave my personality entirely unchanged..." she confessed. "As time has gone on, dark magic has started to become..."

She paused, determined to admit the truth to herself as well as to Wishing Star. "...More and more... um, fun," she mumbled. "I don't have any violent thoughts or anything. I don't want anypony to be hurt by my powers. But as I've gotten used to being a wraith, my aversion to dark magic has begun to fade. I have moments where my powers seem safe and harmless enough to experiment with, and I end up taking unnecessary risks."

Wishing Star took a breath as she formed her reply. "Well, Dinky, you're a smart pony," she pointed out. "It sounds like you've made a few mistakes, but you've learned from them and adjusted your behavior to keep your loved ones safe from harm, right?"

"Of course!" Dinky assured her. "I always felt like my mind and heart were strong enough to withstand the influence of the darkness, and would help me make the right decisions before anypony wound up in any real danger. It's only now that I've discovered that my heart may be, well... fading, or even extinguished, that I've started to think otherwise."

Wishing Star attempted to say something, but Dinky continued, with growing urgency in her voice. "What if that interest, even excitement, for using dark magic isn't just my body and mind adjusting to my new form?" she asked, her gaze focused firmly on the floor. "What if it's an indication that Scorpio did more damage than I thought, and what's left of the good pony inside me is starting to wear away?"

Wishing Star gripped Dinky's forehoof a bit tighter. "Dinky, hon, take a deep breath and try to stay calm," she suggested. "We'll talk this out, alright?"

Dinky shivered, but she did as she was told. She closed her eyes and drew a long breath, letting it out slowly and allowing her muscles to relax.

"...Sorry," she mumbled.

"No need to apologize," Wishing Star replied. "May I give my two cents on the matter?"

Dinky nodded slowly, finally glancing up for a few moments and staring into the counselor's empathetic pink eyes.

"I'm afraid you're the only pony any of us have ever met who's going through something like this," Wishing Star admitted. "You're the only one who can say for sure what you're thinking and feeling, but I'm just worried you're jumping the gun a little. The dean told me that impulsive decisions and a degree of recklessness are a normal part of the effects of dark magic, and that you stand alone among wraiths in your ability to rein those impulses in. What you're experiencing right now is still in line with that. Sure, your interest in using your powers has increased, but I mean... you're also the pony who found a way to use dark magic in good and moral ways. Just answer this for me: do you feel any sign of your friendships, or relationships with your loved ones, beginning to fade? Or perhaps a desire for destruction or violence in any form starting to grow?"

"No, neither!" Dinky vowed, clutching instinctively at her pendant, which began to glow almost immediately. "I'm not quite the same pony I once was, physically or mentally, but my friends, my mom, my coltfriend... they mean the world to me. That hasn't changed."

Wishing Star smiled. "Then perhaps it's best not to let this worry you too much unless something does change," she suggested. "Because right now, I see a wraith who still wants to be a good pony. Let's try not to panic unless something concrete arises to back up these fears."

"Y-yeah, maybe you're right," Dinky stuttered. "I'll redouble my efforts to listen to my friends when they try to make sure I don't do anything too brash. I guess, as long as I still have full control over both my thoughts and my magic, everything will be okay, right?"

"That's the way I see it!" Wishing Star chirped. "Does that help a little, Dinky?"

"More than a little," Dinky corrected. "Thank you, Wishing Star. I was getting a little ahead of myself; I've been the master of this darkness within me for almost four years, and right now there's no reason to believe that's going to change."

Wishing Star beamed. "Glad I could help!" she bubbled. "Have a lovely evening, Dinky. I'll see you at Surge's next research session!"

Dinky said her goodbyes and unlocked the office door, disappearing into the hallway. The counselor continued to smile and wave as her student shut the door. Once the sound of Dinky's hoofsteps faded away, her joyful smile slowly morphed into something much more sinister.

"Now that little performance ought to keep her from being suspicious," she giggled aloud to the empty room.
"Dinky will be brimming with new confidence, but only as long as there are no further signals of the wraith part of her growing more dominant. All it would take is a few subtle changes to make her think the good in her really is fading, which would bring those fears and concerns rushing right back, stronger than ever. And since dark magic is linked so closely with negative emotions, it could wind up being quite a vicious cycle, and put poor Dinky in a perilous position. In such an agitated state of mind, it would be all too easy for her to slip up."

The mare's horn glowed pink, the faint light reflecting off the room's crystal decorations. "Better tread lightly, Dinky Doo," she chuckled, "or before you know it, all of Equestria will discover your terrible secret..."