by Airstream

In Which There Is Selection

Cobblestone winced as another bucket of warm water was dumped over her head, rinsing the lye soap out of the brown of her mane. To the observer, the effect would have been noticeable immediately, her hair lightening past the shade of dusty earth and into something approaching a respectable chestnut. Thankfully she had remembered to close her eyes, getting a faceful of caustic soap wasn’t her idea of fun, but it was the best soap the prison had to offer.

Directly after leaving the ward where she had been kept, they had approached a small bathroom similar to the ones used by the prisoners, tiled in white with exposed pipes running along the walls, gleaming a bright copper. The difference here was the absence of showers. Instead, low baths were set into the floor, one of which was swiftly filled with water by an attendant nurse, who took Cobblestone’s cloak from her, hanging it on a hook by the wall.

She had been shooed into the tub by the same nurse while Libra looked on, and despite her protests to the contrary, the nurse insisted on washing the unfortunate unicorn on her own. The nurse, thankfully, didn’t appear to be taking any special joy in it, though her actions weren’t what could be called rough. Instead, they were strangely impersonal, as if Cobblestone was simply another task, like the laundry that needed doing.

“I think that shall be sufficient,” Libra said. “What about you, Cobblestone? Feeling clean enough?”

Cobblestone nodded thankfully, hoping to get out of the tub. “I’m clean, I promise. Please let me out.”

The nurse focused, her horn flashing. The basin began to drain immediately, leaving a damp Cobblestone to clamber out of the bath and search for something to dry herself with. The nurse produced a brown towel from seemingly nowhere and began to dry her with quick economy. Simultaneously, a hairbrush flew through the air towards Cobblestone’s mane and set itself to the task of teasing the knots and snarls from it, and none too gently.

It was perhaps five minutes later that Cobblestone stood straight haired, dry, and shivering on the white tile of the bathroom floor. The nurse was brushed aside gently by Libra, who smiled at her.

“I think that will do, Mira. She looks fine. Could you please bring in the packages I left in the other room?”

The mare blanched, her pale coat turning whiter as she bowed briefly, one eye hidden by a lock of errant blue hair which had slipped from her bun. The heavy door clanged shut behind her, and Libra and Cobblestone were left alone together for what seemed to the young unicorn like the first time.

Libra turned to her. “So,” she said. “I believe there are a few things I need to say before we leave, in order to clarify things.”

Cobblestone nodded, tucking her hair back behind her ears and choosing not to say anything.

“Firstly, the transfer out of this prison is conditional. You will work in the employ of the Crown in whatever way deemed fit, until the expiration of your contract. You can be assured that your work will never put you past your limits, nor will it place you in the path of harm intentionally.”

Libra’s horn flashed a light purplish-pink, and a pendant appeared from thin air, hanging suspended in front of her. It was a disk made of beaten silver, containing within its bounds a star with five points encircled by a dragon. “The work in question, unless you have any special objection, is as my apprentice. Six years is an appropriate amount of time for a term of study under a mage. Is that alright with you?”

Cobblestone’s heart began to race. She had thought that her chances of becoming a mage were gone when she was sentenced, and here was an opportunity to study magic, real magic! And not just under a mage, but under the Mage.

“I’d be honored,” she croaked. “I accept.”

Libra smiled, pride and relief mixing on her face. “Then before you put this pendant on, allow me to explain what your duties are as an apprentice. It will not be an easy path. Your days will be long and your nights will be short. You’ll be learning different ways to tap the power you have, and then practicing them with me.”

Her tone turned serious. “I must be frank, Cobblestone. There will be a long road ahead of you. Most ponies are groomed for apprenticeship from a young age, and half of them can cast their own high-level spells by the time we get them as apprentices. You’ve got catching up to do, and a lot of it. There’s going to be late nights of study and early mornings of exercise back to back for weeks on end before you can rest.”

“Most foals we get don’t make it to the status of a full Mage,” she said. “Some can’t handle the physical aspect, others can’t keep up with the studies. Some just lose interest, and I think that’s the worst way to lose a potential student. If you keep at it, Cobblestone, magic can be rewarding in more ways than you can imagine. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can receive, and not many ponies get the chance to put on a set of robes.”

It was at this point that the door creaked open, and the nurse returned, bearing with her a bundle of packages tied up in brown paper bounded with string. She said nothing, merely placing them on the floor before closing the door once more, leaving them alone.

Libra picked up the first and largest of the packages, unwrapping it gently. From within the paper she drew a mass of black fabric, seemingly shapeless, which she held suspended in the air with a mixture of pride and something approaching reverence.

“This,” she said, “Is a set of apprentice’s robes. They’re blank now, but by the time your apprenticeship is done, you’ll have earned at least seven of your twenty runes.”

Cobblestone looked at the robes. They didn’t look special at first glance, shapeless black cloth, but the closer she looked, the more she saw. The fabric itself was very high-quality, well-woven and almost fluid, like silk, but different, sturdier. Woven through it were strands of something else, some thread of a different quality that she couldn’t quite see outright.

“You’re seeing the enchantments in the robes,” Libra said. “These garments will never stain, never tear, never burn or wear away unless you’re handling something of significant magical power. They’re warm in the cold, keep out most of the rain, and keep you cool in extreme heat. That’s because the strands are woven through with stasis spells through every inch of them. Quite frankly, these robes often outlive their usefulness in our apprentices, seeing as they tend to do a lot of growing. I got these a bit big for you.”

Cobblestone admired the robes, though she did not reach for them. “So what about runes?” she asked. “Do they show how good I am or something?”

“No,” Libra said. “Each rune governs a facet of known magic, and in turn, an aspect of Magecraft. Alchemists often wear the rune Pyruseria, which governs Change and transformation, as well as Garasher, which rules over Unraveling and unbinding.”

Cobblestone frowned, shivering. Something about the way Libra had said “Change” and “Unraveling” sent shivers down her spine. “I thought each rune was for one facet?” she asked. “Why did you list two for each one?”

Libra smiled. “You’re attentive. Good. Each facet has two parts, a major and minor part. The runes reflect this.”

“We’ll have to get your things tailored and such,” Libra said, “But for now you’ll have to wear the robes as they are. We’re running late as it is.”

She unwrapped the second package, withdrawing a belt with several loops attached for holding different items. “This is to bind your robes with,” she said. “The belt itself is nothing special, but the things you will craft will be your most steadfast tools. They can be adjusted as well, to ensure the right sizing.”

The next package was also handled gently, and it was oddly misshapen. When Libra unwrapped it, Cobblestone could see why.

The hat contained within was made of the same black material as the robes, and tapered to a gentle point. A wide brim encircled the bottom to shade her eyes, and a few wrappings of fabric hung from the back, clearly meant to be tied in order to avoid it flying away.

“I know it seems ridiculous,” Libra said, “But this hat is one of the most important traditions associated with magecraft. It’s older than any current country, older even than the rule of the Princesses themselves. Every depiction of ancient mages shows them wearing these hats, and by doing the same, we carry on their noble and ancient work.”

Cobblestone took in the objects floating before her, the somber black clothing and the pendant hovering in front of her as if daring her to reach out and take them. She felt suddenly nervous, as if she stood upon the precipice of a dizzying drop into an abyss she could not see the bottom of. Suddenly, she began to reconsider.

Was this what she really wanted? Years of magecraft? Rules and lessons and endless tasks with no guarantee of success? Hob’s advice rang loudly in her ears. She wasn’t one to be tied down, whether it was by bars of steel or ones of her own devising. Maybe Dis was right, maybe the Everstar family was going to be nothing but trouble. Certainly no good had come of being near Serale, not since the night…

The night Ivy died. Because Cobblestone hadn’t been strong enough. Her fear vanished, replaced by anger. Because she wasn’t strong enough physically or mentally, not smart enough, not brave enough. It was her stupidity and bull-headedness that had forced them to rob the inn that night as opposed to waiting for a better moment. In front of her was a chance to change that, possibly the only chance she would get to remedy the mistakes she had made.

She reached for the pendant, and slung it around her neck.

The rest of the clothing came to her naturally, wrapping around her all at once as she felt herself lift into the air, the robe falling across her back and down her legs, the hat sitting on her head, the belt buckled firmly around her waist.

Libra smiled. “You look the part already,” she said. “I greet you as my apprentice, Cobblestone.”

“Thank you,” Cobblestone said. “What should I call you, Magus?”

“The traditional address is “Master or “Mistress”, Libra said, “But I think in this case I’ll settle for my title in formal settings. Informally, you can call me by my name.”

Cobblestone looked at herself in a nearby mirror. The mare there gleamed a healthy white, properly clean for the first time in a long time. Her face, while still drawn from mild malnourishment, was healthy and well-groomed, framed by locks of brown mane that held the slightest bit of curl. Even her tail, which she had long ago resigned to being tangled and full of burrs and other detritus, was well-groomed and shone faintly with health. In all, Cobblestone looked almost nothing like the pony she had been a month ago.

The robes felt right, a bit big but at the same time familiar, as if she had been accustomed to wearing such a thing all of her life. It felt right to be wearing an apprentice’s robes, like she was born to them. She smiled. She had taken the first step on her journey.

“Come,” Libra said. “We have much to do before we leave this place, and we have places to be, my apprentice.”

Cobblestone grinned. “I’ll follow you,” she said. “My Magus.”

The winter sun could not rightly be said to have beaten down on the two ponies who left the jail that morning, though it was bright enough to have at least given it a decent effort, so much so that both stood temporarily dazzled in the glare after the dim surroundings of the prison they had just left. It was just as well that they stood still, for a black coach, pulled by a team of soldiers in purple gear, approached them at the door, negating the need to walk.

“After you,” Libra said, the door to the vehicle swinging open.

Cobblestone cast an eye around the exercise yard, apparently looking for something while she shifted the weight of her rather underfilled knapsack on her back.

“Is something wrong?”

Cobblestone snapped back to attention. “No,” she said, “I was just…”

“Looking for Hob?” Libra asked.

Cobblestone nodded, relieved that she wouldn’t have to explain it to Libra. “He ran off after the witch showed up,” she said, “I don’t know where he is.”

“Nightshade is not a witch,” Libra said, “And as for Hob, I would imagine he will find you again. I have more than a few questions to ask that damned cat.”

Cobblestone climbed into the carriage, Libra following close behind her. She clung to her bag tightly, looking at the outside world as if she was seeing it for the last time as the door shut behind Libra. She sat down as the carriage began to move without warning, causing Cobblestone to jump.

“I’ve never done this before,” she confided in Libra.

Libra looked at her strangely. “Left prison?”

“Ridden in a carriage,” Cobblestone clarified.

Libra’s face turned soft, clearly chastened. “My apologies,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”

Cobblestone shrugged. “It’s not a problem,” she said. “I was just making an observation.”

Libra shook her head firmly. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I need to stop thinking of you as a thief, Cobblestone. As of now, you are apprenticed to me.”

“So what does being an apprentice mean?” Cobblestone asked. “Will I be helping you cast spells and that sort of thing? Or is it like a fisher’s apprentice where you have to bait nets for six hours a day?”

“A bit of both,” Libra said. “You’ll be learning different ways to tap the power you have, and then practicing them with me.” She lifted the shade of the window, letting in light. Cobblestone watched as they passed through the gates of the prison, and it finally struck her that she was really leaving this place and not coming back. A wave of relief washed over her.

“As I said, there will be a lot of practice,” Libra said. “I was trained with physical exercise and classroom work in the morning, and practical application in the afternoon. It’s a tradition that’s worked well so far, so I’d imagine we’ll be practicing similarly. Our first order of business is to find out what you do well in and what areas you lack skill in, so we can address them.”

“You mean like what sort of magic I can do?” Cobblestone asked.

Libra made a noncommittal motion with her head. “Magic’s only part of your education, Cobblestone. Languages are important, especially High Equestrian and Magical Runic, or Ancient Equestrian. Mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, all of these need to combine for a strong understanding of magic. It’s more than shoving energy through your horn, magic behaves certain ways, and so does the world around it. If you know how to make it work for you, then there’s no part of the world or magic that you can’t make easier.”

The carriage rattled over a bridge, and Cobblestone frowned. They weren’t heading for the Regia.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “I thought Serale wanted to see me.”

Libra looked at her, the gold of her coat glinting in the late morning light along with the pepper and cinnamon shades of her mane. “I said Milady Everstar,” she said, “Meaning Lady Everstar wishes to speak with you. However, that is for this evening. You’ll be taking a meal with her and her daughter after we finish our business at the Crown Arena.”

“What’s there?” Cobblestone asked.

“The reason that I, too, will be wearing formal attire,” Libra said. “We’re going to be assisting with the selection process of the mages that will enter Lady Serale’s service.”

Cobblestone’s heart began to beat a bit faster. “Me?” she asked.

Libra looked at her, startled. Seeing the worried expression upon Cobblestone’s face, she couldn’t stop herself from chuckling. “No,” she said. “I’ll be doing the selecting. You will watch.”

Cobblestone looked at her teacher curiously. “How do you select them?” she asked.

Cobblestone shifted nervously in her seat. The arena was huge, able to seat ten thousand, and while it wasn’t completely full, seating near the ring was occupied as a rule, and most, if not all of the ponies wore the black robes and pointed hats of mages. She herself was seated in the third row, and that was what made her uncomfortable. Her seat had been held, and the ponies to either side of her were a good deal older, wiser, and undeniably more powerful than she was.

Libra stood upon the sand of the arena, her cloak flapping in the chill breeze. With a simple movement, not even a flash of her horn, the cloak and indeed the rest of her clothing vanished; replaced by a robe very similar to the one Cobblestone was wearing. The difference between hers and the young unicorn’s, however, was where Cobblestone’s robes were completely blank, Libra’s were covered in runes. Even from a distance, it was easy to tell that Libra had long achieved mastery of her craft. Cobblestone managed to count ten, fifteen, eighteen, and finally twenty runes shimmering silver in the midday sun.

The hat perched on her teacher’s head was also richly adorned, though in addition to the band of twenty runes which circled the brim of the hat, there also was a band of colored silk, gleaming the purple of House Everstar and fastened in place with a pin in the shape of a six-pointed star. Her robes were kept under control with a belt of black leather, which held little save an arming sword, kept in a sheathe of the same black leather, unadorned save for a small ruby in the pommel.

Serale’s voice rose above the wind and the murmur of the crowd.

“Let those who would compete enter the arena!”

The portcullis on the far side of the pit began to rise, and in began to file mages of all descriptions.

Perhaps “mages” did not do them justice, and indeed, not all of the ponies arrayed in the arena wore the distinctive black robes of their craft, with only eight of the fifteen chosen similarly attired. Two wore armor of bright steel, one bearing the crest of a sturdy oak tree and carrying a hammer, and the other, standing beside him, wore the crest of a crescent moon and carried by her side a long scimitar. Three were zebras dressed in simple clothing, one carrying a staff from which dangled a totem made of feathers and shells. The final two wore armor of a different sort, mostly patchwork consisting of chain, boiled leather, and a few pieces of plate from varying sets of armor. Over these they wore cloaks of plain blue, and at their sides were straight short swords.

A murmur arose from the crowd, apparently directed at the ponies not wearing the black robes. Cobblestone noted that even the most well-decorated of the mages in the ring didn’t possess twenty runes, and an odd swell of pride rose in her chest. Apparently she wasn’t the only one to notice. A few of the ponies were shuffling nervously in the presence of the Magus, perhaps regretting their choice to come and apply.

“Those who wish to leave the arena may do so,” Serale said, her voice imperious and commanding. “There will be no shame in that. Those remaining will be facing Magus Libra, the Court Mage of House Everstar, to determine their place in my service.”

One of the zebras, as well as two of the mages in black, turned and left the arena, leaving twelve remaining. None of those still in the arena looked at all confident, despite the fact that they outnumbered the Magus by a hefty margin.

“The remaining combatants will be split into four groups of three,” Serale said. “First group. Zantira of the Golden Plains Tribe, Sir Dunlevy of Oakton, and Solaria ex Azuria, step forward.”

The pony in armor with the hammer, the zebra which carried no staff, and a mage stepped forward. A circle of energy rose up around them, keeping them in the bounds of the arena with Libra. The bounds had been clearly drawn. They fanned out, the knight taking the middle and the two others flanking him. Libra watched them all, analyzing their steps, their weaponry.

“No physical attack is to be made during the examination period,” Serale announced. “Any attempt to do so will result in disqualification. No explicitly lethal attacks are to be performed. Any attempt to do so will be met with appropriate force. The parameters for qualification are as follows.”

She gestured to the ring. “Your goal is to avoid leaving the ring. Magus Libra will be attempting to knock you out of the ring. Those of you able to knock Magus Libra out of the ring will be accepted into the ranks of my Guard with no further examination. You are to work together in this task. Aside from the restrictions I have laid, you are free do as you wish to accomplish this goal.”

Her voice hardened. “Contestants! On my mark!”

Cobblestone could feel the magical energies building up in the ring, and watched Libra’s hooves set underneath her. The three contestants had spread out, two flanking her with the armored pony in the middle.

“Begin!” Serale called.

Libra’s first moves were almost unbelievably swift. A shield flickered into existence around her, gleaming purple as the very earth itself rose up to shield her from the frankly ferocious attacks of her competitors. The wall served to obscure her as well as shielding her with startling effectiveness against the withering magical assault that had been presented. The mage’s attack, in particular, was supremely aggressive. A needle of fire, vicious and bright, immediately began carving its way through the rock and exposing the shield beneath, causing the stone to glow bright red.

The knight and the zebra were no slouches either. The zebra flicked a hoof, sending powder at the rock which appeared to eat through it with ease as she grabbed for another pouch from somewhere on the belt she wore. The knight was nothing if not straightforward. Lines of force began to pulverize the rock, causing it to crumble much more quickly than the mage or zebra could manage.

It was a surprise then when the shield was revealed to the world minus the pony that had been standing inside. The attacks ceased immediately, but it was too late for the mage in the ring. Libra appeared to one side of her, and with a flick of her horn, sent her tumbling across the sand and over the line. The zebra and knight turned to face this new threat, but it was too late for the zebra. Another magical assault sent her reeling, this time a gust of wind, causing her to put a hoof wrong and sending her out of bounds.

The knight hefted the hammer from his back, and Cobblestone had to suppress a gasp, thinking he was surely about to charge her teacher. But instead, he merely pointed it at Libra, and the next blast of energy she cast was bent to one side, seemingly diverted by an invisible shield. This wall of unseen force began to move, then, as evidenced by the pulverization of the rock wall that remained, now covering nothing, the shield dispelled.

Libra bowed her head, set her hooves, and the knight’s eyes widened in shock as she appeared to catch the wall, straining with effort. It took but a moment for her to send it back to its source, and soon the knight found himself out of the arena as well, hoisted by his own petard.

Polite applause echoed from the massed ponies of the stadium, and Cobblestone joined in. Even she could tell that Libra’s defense had been masterful, achieving results with minimal effort. The three contestants bowed respectfully to the Magus, a gesture which she returned, and waited to one side, nursing bruises and such. The knight in particular looked shaken, though his armor had protected him from the worst of it. Either he didn’t know his own strength, or Libra’s attack had genuinely surprised him. Cobblestone thought it might have been a combination of the two.

“Angelus of the Magekillers, Fulgura ex Pomona, and Rorem Secundus ex Mirantique, step forward,” Serale ordered. One pony in a blue cloak, along with two mages, stepped into the ring. They took up a similar position, waiting on the mark to begin. Libra did likewise, her stance low and guarded.

“On my mark,” Serale said. “Begin.”

The three didn’t waste any time attempting to get Libra out of the ring. Fire, force, and lightning shot forth from the three mages, in a clear attempt to overwhelm any defenses Libra would have put up. Libra, however, didn’t move from her spot, or indeed take any visible action. Instead, the lines of magic sent her way appeared to bend around her, twining around each other into a lance of pale orange energy that lashed savagely through the air at one of the mages, who was forced to roll to one side with remarkable agility and speed.

The lance continued through the air, bending back towards the other mage, who managed to get a shield up in time. The shield managed to turn the attack, but only just, failing at the last minute and knocking the mage back, but not out of the ring. Finally, it headed for the pony in the blue cloak. His face wrinkled with effort, and he drew his sword and slashed at the air in front of him with a single deft motion.

The lance split in twain, each portion speeding to one side of him close enough to cause a wind to lift up his cloak. He retaliated with another bolt of lightning, but Libra was already gone, blinking out of existence and appearing to one side. The lightning bolt sped through the air and struck one of the mages instead, knocking her out of the ring.

At this point it was only a matter of time. The Magekiller was remarkably adept in his defense, but Libra was far beyond his ability to handle. His horn flashed electric blue once, twice, as he parried probing bolts of magic and even managed to send a few back. One of these ricocheted off in the direction of the mage who had nearly been driven out of the ring, catching him off-balance just as he was recovering and sending him tumbling. But each spell drove him just a bit further back, until he was fighting on the edge of the line. Libra, seeing her chance, stamped a single hoof on the ground. The edge of the arena rose up underneath him, depositing the Magekiller over the line.

Another round of polite applause rippled through the arena, this one a bit more emphatic, as the contestants exchanged bows with one another. Though it was a formal event, clearly the crowd enjoyed a good show as much as the next pony.

Serale’s voice once more rang out through the arena. “Pacem ex Sapphirus, Honoria ex Salices, and Ceres ex Anima, take your places.”

The assembled mages murmured as the three robed ponies stepped into the ring. Two of them, Pacem and Honoria, were clearly experienced. The third, Ceres, had only seven runes on his robes, indicating that he had apparently just finished an apprenticeship. Nonetheless, he stood proudly in the ring, ready to begin.

Libra watched him intently, and even from a distance, Cobblestone could tell that the elder mage was troubled. But aside from her expression, she made no move to stop him from taking his place.

Serale paused for a bit longer than was necessary, perhaps realizing that the pony in the arena was younger than his peers. But as he showed no signs of leaving, she spoke. “Contestants, on my mark,” she said, her voice sharp. “Begin!”

There was an explosion of light inside the arena as the three mages let loose with a barrage of attacks. Clearly, they had come to the conclusion that their best bet was to overwhelm their opponent. Fire, the perennial favorite, flickered through the air in great amounts, causing the air inside the barrier to waver and shimmer. Libra herself was obscured by great gouts of flame, encasing her in a roiling sphere of light and heat which gradually unfurled itself into a loose pillar. Libra’s shield was visible through the black smoke that was now filling the arena, far more smoke than there should have been given the fire itself gave off almost no smoke.

It became clear what Libra’s plan was. The arena was soon full of smoke, obscuring vision and obstructing breath. Coughing could be heard, and soon the smoke was broken by three lights given off by three horns. A flash of magic, and one light went sailing from the circle, revealing a mage that looked frankly relieved to be out of the circle.

It was a stroke of brilliance, really. The first thing a unicorn did when confronted by unexpected darkness was to conjure forth a light. They couldn’t cast a spell on something they couldn’t see, after all. All Libra had to do was keep her horn dark until she could get in position, and she could find her opponents with ease.

Her opponents clearly had the same idea. A breeze picked up in the arena, dispelling the smoke and restoring sight, but it was already too late for the second of the mages. Libra’s horn spat twice, and two bolts of magic carried the mage out of the circle. She whirled, searching for her third target, a spell on her horn and ready to fire.

The bolt came out of nowhere, a coil of smoke thicker than the one around it. Bright green, it soared through the air and struck true on Libra’s side, catching her off balance. The mage stumbled, nearing the edge of the circle, and by dint of determination and sheer dumb luck, caught herself before putting a hoof over the line. Her return volley was fierce and efficient, and the young mage, Ceres, could only last a moment before he, too, was knocked from the ring. Libra’s horn flashed, and the smoke began to spiral up and away, leaving her standing alone in the ring.

There was applause from the crowd, true, but there were also murmurs and whispers about the young mage. It could have been luck or skill that allowed him that hit, where other, more experienced mages had failed to land a single blow on the Magus. Of course, she was on her third round of tryouts, and so might be winded. But Libra had been conserving her energy, or so Cobblestone thought. She shouldn’t have been tired, not yet.

The three mages bowed to Libra, who returned them all graciously. Especially low was the bow of the young mage, who appeared almost frightened, as if he might have offended Libra by daring to strike her. She returned the favor by keeping her head inclined just a bit longer than she had with the other two mages, a gesture of respect.

Serale’s voice resounded through the arena once more. “Lady Cheval du Ombre, Zara of the Great Rocks Tribe, and Prasinus of the Magekillers, on my mark,” she said.

The three ponies in the arena readied themselves, sensing weakness in their opponent. The zebra with the staff was chanting under her breath, working towards something big, while the armored mare with the scimitar and crescent moon crest had unsheathed her blade, which glowed with a blue edge. The Magekiller had thrown back the hood of his cloak, horn spitting and sparking white as he waited for the mark to begin.

“Begin!” Serale called.

Thunder roared from a clear blue sky, and a bolt of lightning sped down from above as the zebra struck her staff on the ground. The armored mare had thrown up a shield of dark blue energy in preparation for whatever was on the way, which saved her from an unfortunate early out, as the Magekiller’s horn flashed alabaster, causing an explosion of air that laid a thin layer of frost on the sand of the arena.

None of the blows landed, as Libra was already gone. What appeared next, however, was something unexpected. Three copies of Libra stood in the arena, each of them identical to the last detail. Immediately a barrage of magic erupted from their horns, each spell apparently just as real as the last. Curlicues of bright orange and pink and green spiraled through the air alongside gouts of flame and lines of purple force. What appeared to be silver serpents crawled through the air, shattering on impact with the hasty defenses thrown up by the contestants. No illusion was being cast, at least not in regards to Libra’s attack.

The zebra’s staff managed to ward off the attacks, runes flaring into life along its length, but not for long. It cost precious seconds for her to bring forth a new powder from her belt, enough to knock her back almost to the edge of the arena. The Magekiller was faring no better in his defense, clearly out of his depth. He was the first one to fall, tumbling from the arena in ignominy.

The armored pony, Cheval, was solid as a rock, secure behind her defenses. Her saber flicked through the air beside her as she searched for an opening in the magical barrages. It took her a moment, in which she appeared to be at a loss, but inspiration struck. The bubble around her turned into a half-sphere, which began to invert itself, becoming concave, trapping the spells instead of cancelling or deflecting them outright. The copy of Libra which had knocked out the Magekiller focused instead on this new target, attempting to hammer through the defenses while the first copy began to curve magic around the shield. The saber came into play here, as Cheval parried those few spells that made it around her barrier with ferocity.

The zebra slipped out of the ring, leaving the knight to face odds of three to one. She began to lose ground, but she managed to find an opening in between two particularly virulent volleys of arcane assault, and her horn flashed blue. A bolt of raw, brutish force sped towards the copy trying to get through her shield, impacting solidly and causing it to waver and vanish. A grin could be seen on her face as she began to parry the attacks coming her way more aggressively, sure of victory.

Cobblestone’s heart leapt into her throat as she sensed the tide turning in favor of the armored pony. Part of her wanted to see Libra do well, a part demonstrating loyalty to her new master, but she couldn’t deny that watching a single pony managing to succeed in fending off attacks that nopony else could was exciting.

A second opening led to another bolt, another devastating strike dispelled a copy of the Magus. She let her shield drop, using her saber to great effect as she and Magus Libra began to spar in the arena, trading blow after blow as they danced around each other. Cheval’s skill with her magic and steel was astounding, a blur of silver and blue that seemed to turn metal into a living being, a serpent striking and coiling around her in a mesmerizing and deadly dance.

Libra stumbled, and Cheval struck. The blow was warded off, but now Cobblestone’s teacher was on the defensive, bending attacks away from her that rained down thick and fast upon the beleaguered Magus, driving her back to the edge of the circle and defeat. She was five steps away from the edge, now three, now one, now on the very edge of the line. Cheval’s horn flashed, her saber pointed at Libra as she roared with effort, and the bolt sped true.

Libra flickered and vanished.

From the knight’s right and behind her, there was a shimmering, not noticeable in the light show that had heretofore dominated the arena, but now dispelled and obvious to all who saw it. Libra dropped the spell of invisibility she had laid upon herself, and with a neat flick of her horn, tossed the knight out of the ring with a minimum of effort.

There was a moment of perfect quiet in the arena, as the ponies attempted to realize what had just happened. When they did, the applause was deafening. Cobblestone joined them in cheering, both for the deft maneuvering of the Magus and for the skill, tenacity, and ferocity of her opponent.

Libra bowed her head to the crowd, then to each of her defeated opponents in turn.

Serale rose from her seat, and the applause died down. The contestants in the arena, along with Libra, kneeled respectfully.

“Well done, contestants!” she said, her voice rolling forth clear as a bell and sweet as a bird. “Your prowess is clear, and your reputations well-deserved. You have fought well, and for that you should be proud. However, only five from your number may be selected. Magus Libra judged your strength, and so she shall choose those deemed suitable from among you.”

Libra nodded only once before rising and drawing the arming sword by her side. Well-oiled steel gleamed coldly in the light of the day, and she held it aloft for a moment before proceeding to where the contestants remained kneeling.

The tip of the sword was laid first on the knight wielding the massive hammer.

“Sir Dunlevy of Oakton,” Libra said, “Rise and approach the Lady.”

The stallion said nothing, merely rising as instructed, drawing his hammer, and approaching the box, kneeling before it with the head of his hammer resting on the ground.

Libra’s next selection was the Magekiller. “Angelus of the Magekillers,” she said. “Rise and approach the Lady.”

Her sword came to rest next on the shoulder of the zebra with the staff. “Zara of the Great Rocks Tribe,” she said, “Rise and approach the Lady.”

She approached the mage who had managed to strike her. She appeared to consider him for a moment, wavering in her choice before the tip of her sword came down, resting on his shoulder. “Ceres ex Anima,” she said sternly, “Rise and approach the Lady.”

Finally, she turned to the armored pony who was resting as much as kneeling, her face soaked with sweat and her sides still heaving with exertion. The blade fell true, resting on her shoulder. “Cheval du Ombre,” Libra said. “Rise and approach the Lady.”

The armored pony rose, joining her new comrades in kneeling before Serale, who watched over them with an expressionless gaze. As the knight knelt before her, Serale spoke.

“Chosen,” she said, “Do you swear to do me good service, to use your powers for the common good, and to remain loyal to me and those under me until such time as I hold your obligations fulfilled?”

“Aye!” came the answer from the five kneeling ponies.

“Do you swear to obey the orders of those I appoint over you, and to lead those placed under you with bravery, fairness, and kindness?”

“Aye!” came the answer.

“Do you swear to give me your utmost, to fulfill your oaths to me in their totality, and to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to fulfill your service?” Serale asked, her voice ringing true and bright.

“Aye!” came the third and final refrain.

“Then rise in my service, as my soldiers, confidants, and servants,” Serale said. “And begin your service in my Guard!”

There was a long cheer from the crowd as the five rose, proud to serve their lady as her spellcasters. Cobblestone cheered as well, eager to applaud them and caught up in the moment, though it was not for them alone that she cheered. It was in that arena that she had seen what a great mage was capable of, and she had come to realize exactly how lucky she was to be apprenticed under a master such as hers.