“That was irresponsible.”
Princess Celestia’s ear flicked just to show she was listening, but she didn’t take her eyes off the folder she was leafing through. “Did you know she applied to my school? It was years ago, but she was allowed to test. She failed. Cadence probably told me this at some point, but I forgot.” A sigh. “No, I let myself forget.”
Iron Cross let out a grunt and plopped down behind his desk. He was used to Celestia ignoring his criticisms by now. “It makes me wonder what the hell kind of bar you have set for little fillies these days,” he said as he pulled a dark, half-full bottle from the bottom drawer.
“I suppose I am wondering about the school’s admission standards as well. I typically let it operate under my board of directors without direct supervision, but a more active hoof seems to be warranted.” The alicorn flipped to the next page. It coaxed a snort from her. “And it seems she is also the sister of Shining Armor. You remember him, I trust?”
“He’s the unicorn that managed to get into the Royal Guard a few years ago, right? I’ve heard he’s being considered for Captainship next year.” Iron Cross tripped a bit of the bottle’s contents into a shot glass, thought better of it, and tipped it again.
Celestia flicked the folder closed and tapped it with her hoof. “One and the same. He made it to the fourth ring, I think.”
“Third. I remember because he was one of the first layponies to actually do it. Mostly it’s just graduates from your school.”
The princess nodded. ‘Until now’ was the unspoken addendum to that sentence. If a unicorn made it to three rings, they would have to get registered once they had left the military. Their training and power made them a potential danger, even if they were law-abiding citizens. If they could go one farther, to four, then the Magisterium would do anything to keep them. Five, and they were among the most powerful unicorns in the kingdom. Six was unheard of and seven was just theoretical. Twilight had sat there, in the middle of seven industrial dampening rings, and pulled something from deep within herself. Celestia had witnessed it personally, as had just about every cadet and the base medics.
For a split second Twilight’s magic had tapped into its most primal form and what had stared back was something that shook the alicorn.
Celestia brought a hoof up to rub her throbbing skull. It was a small lapse in professionalism, but she trusted Iron Cross. “I overlooked her. Even with Cadence telling me that I should watch her friend, I didn’t listen.” She looked at the unicorn, pensive. “How did I overlook her?”
Iron Cross just shrugged and slid a glass over to her. “None of us are perfect, Princess. We’ve caught her now, though. We should be thankful for that.”
“True. She can go to the Magisterium and begin the education she should have been receiving years ago. We can make up for this.” Slowly, a smile tugged at the edge of Celestia’s lips. “Perhaps she would make a good foil for Sunset Shimmer? That filly could use someone nipping at her heels to make her take her studies seriously.”
The stallion took the folder while Celestia demurely sipped at her glass. Today seemed to be a day for lapses.
“Did you read her ROTC psych profile, Princess? She’s got an early history of violence and the counselors say she has the social grace of a dead fish. Even her character references left out any volunteer work or local leadership.” He frowned when he got further down the page. “And there are some concerns she’s an adherent to the Church of the Dawn, or at least ripe for conversion. That doesn’t sound like someone you want to be a ‘foil’. That sounds like someone who should be on some kind of watch list.”
Church of the Dawn. That left a bad taste in Celestia’s mouth that had nothing to do with alcohol. “That’s a bit in depth for an ROTC profile, isn’t it?”
“She’s being offered a commission as an officer, based on her graduation scores and her standardized tests, so she was looked at a bit harder. Being the sister of a Royal Guard Captain candidate probably helped with that as well.”
Celestia smiled, but it didn’t reach the rest of her face. “I remember Cadence once told me Twilight Sparkle welded another filly into a school locker. I should have realized something then.”
Iron Cross nodded at that. It was as close to an actual admonishment as he would get. For a moment it seemed like he wasn’t going to say anything, but something was clearly tugging at his curiosity. Even an old military horse like Cross could only keep it stowed for so long.
“What is it? Ask, Iron Cross. We are beyond holding our tongues now.”
“It’s only…what is she, Princess? When I came back with the medics she was on fire. It wasn’t just an illusion or random magical flare, either. I could smell it. I could feel it.” The big stallion fidgeted in his chair, making it wobble slightly. “And she looked like you. Her coat. Her mane. Even her magic, Princess. It felt the same.”
What does it mean was blissfully left unsaid by the sergeant. No one wanted to hear that their timeless princess didn’t understand what was going on. They wanted to pretend that it was all just over their head and that it was covered by someone higher up than themselves. Celestia herself wasn’t like that and her student wasn’t like that, despite her other faults.
And, apparently, neither was Twilight Sparkle.
Further introspection was ended by the telephone ringing. Celestia made a slight motion her head and Iron Cross answered. “Doctor Cross. Right, any complications? I see. We’ll be down in a few minutes, then.”
Celestia put her glass to the side and pushed herself up off the couch she had commandeered. “Perhaps, Sergeant Cross, it would be better to put questions like that out of your mind for the time being. Whatever Twilight Sparkle’s true nature, she wishes to join the Guard. That can only be a good thing for the kingdom.”
“I’ll defer to you on that, Princess.” He coughed when Celestia almost opened the door. “Princess, your disguise?”
Celestia’s horn blazed and her silhouette shimmered and bathed the room in a brilliant gold. When Iron Cross could stand to open his eyes again the alicorn was gone.
Master Feldspar, the special attaché from the Magisterium that only graced Initial Processing once every blue moon, smirked back at him. “Now then, are you ready to go and meet our newest recruit?”
Defense in Depth: Valley Forge, Part 3
Twilight Sparkle woke to searing pain and frantic whispers. Unfamiliar magic washed over her when she tried to move and pushed her back down into the bed she was lying on. Twilight continued to push and roll, nearly screaming at the pain wracking her head as she tried to magically push back against foreign magic on her body.
“Miss Sparkle, please! You’re going to make your injuries worse!” The voice was perfunctory and demanding, but Twilight recognized the authority in it and let herself ease. The magic on her loosened and went back to just a gentle probing. “Better. Don’t cast anything until your headache subsides. You’ve nearly strained yourself too far.”
It was just magical strain, then. Relief washed the tension out of Twilight’s body and she sank back into the soft cot as the medics did their work. Her horn tickled when they began soothing its taxed innards, but she was glad for it.
There wasn’t much to see when Twilight let herself take in the room. It looked like a standard examination room, only packed to the walls with white lab coats and uniformed medics. There were no less than three different unicorns working on her right that moment, but their magic didn’t feel invasive anymore. Twilight just let them work, easing the burning in her skull and horn, as she thought about her exam. Had she passed it? Surely the Royal Guard would take her now that she’d done so well? The exam proctor, that Iron Cross, had seemed to think it was a big deal. So had the creepy magister.
The Magisterium. Twilight had heard of it, just like any other unicorn that was interested in the military. It was one of the few organs in the government that was unicorn-only by necessity. Ponies would complain about it once in a while, but no one really wanted it to go away. The unicorns there were the most powerful in the entire kingdom and loyal to the crown. They weren’t officially part of the military, but they worked hoof-in-hoof with them.
“And there’s our newest prodigy.”
Speak of the devil and they will appear, Twilight thought. The black robes of the magister were a sharp contrast against the sterile white of the room. He was smiling as he pushed his way through the crowd of doctors, leaving Sergeant Cross to smooth things over in his wake. His horn lit in a soft golden glow and pulled a stool over to Twilight’s bedside.
“Well, you look rather spry after nearly blowing your horn off. It’s a sign of well-developed magical pathways in the horn, you realize. A must in our line of work.”
Twilight wasn’t exactly sure what the protocol was for a Magister. Was she supposed to salute him? Stay silent until he asked her a direct question? The Magisterium existed outside the normal chains of command.
“Thank you, Sir,” Twilight said, settling with a middle-of-the-road approach. “I’ve never neglected my training.”
The stallion waved his hoof. “I’m not a Sir. I am Magister Feldspar, one of the attachés to Introductory Military Processing. We switch off every few weeks.” He leaned in, whispering, “It’s just my luck that you came through on my watch. Let me tell you, my fellows are going to be so jealous.”
“Jealous, Si-ah, Magister?”
“Just so! Can you tell me the last time a unicorn managed to get past the entire ring test?” Twilight started to answer, but the Magister threw up his hooves. “Never! This is the first time since these tests were developed that someone has beaten it. The entire Magisterium is in a tizzy right now.”
Twilight looked to Iron Cross for some kind of guidance and only received a blank look from the sergeant in return. He looked rather put-out, though, at having to run interference for the magister. Twilight didn’t know what to make of that. Was a magister ranked higher than a sergeant? Right now Iron Cross looked more like an entourage than anything else.
Maybe she had been too flippant. “I apologize if I’ve caused extra work for you, Magister Feldspar.” Twilight didn’t actually care about that, but it’s what she would have said to her old ROTC superiors if she’d screwed up.
“Accepted, but it’s work I don’t mind. Especially not when I’ve been the first to meet what I’m sure will be the next High Magister. In a few decades, of course,” he amended when Twilight’s mouth went slack. “Yes-oh-yes you could be! And I found you! Oh, I think both our stars are going to be on the rise, Twilight Sparkle,” he added with a wink.
It was a bit more than Twilight could process at the moment. High Magister? The current High Magister was the Ancient and Honorable Sol Shard. He had served the Grand Spire for nearly a century! Twilight had done a biography on him for her senior thesis in Advanced Magical Studies back in high school and he’d had dozens upon dozens of books dedicated to his legacy!
A rather seductive image of that textbook showing her legacy one day popped into Twilight’s head. That word, though. That word ruined it. “Decades? Magister, how long would it take me to even work with Celestia?”
That verbal wrench ground Feldspar’s mental machinery down to a halt. “Work with the Princess? Ah, well, Princess Celestia, as you know, is a busy pony. I’m sure that eventually you would work yourself up to the point where you would be called upon for tasks by the Princess, but…” Twilight’s face must have shown a hint of her feelings because the Magister rushed to fix his verbal faux pas. “That’s not to say it’s impossible! You are, as I have said, the most magically talented pony seen in this exam. After a few remedial magic classes you are sure to rise through the ranks! Maybe in a year…or five. And…and…you’re going to turn it down, aren’t you?”
Twilight flinched. She was fully aware of just what kind of opportunity she was turning down. “My brain is screaming at me not to, Sir, but it’s been my dream to work for the Princess. Since I was a filly.”
“Perhaps Princess Cadence needs…” Twilight gave the Magister a flat look and he let the thought trail off. They both knew who Twilight meant when she said that she wanted to work for the princess. “Well, take a while to decide. We can talk later about-”
“So how did you do it?”
The room seemed to sigh as Iron Cross fractured the perfunctory interview with a question that had clearly been burning in his throat since he entered the room. Feldspar sent the former sergeant a sharp glance that he completely ignored as he pushed by the magister. “Seven dampening rings is enough to crack a unicorn’s horn if they try to even make a light. What you did is impossible.”
Twilight shrank back in her hospital bed as Iron Cross jabbed his hoof at her. The stallion’s face held none of the fatherly warmth he’d given the first tester; all she saw as anxious fear. He was barely holding himself together, she realized. “You…transformed into something. At the end. Your mane it…” Cross trailed off and took a hesitant step back. He looked at Feldspar for a long moment and then his eyes flicked closed and his shoulders sagged. “Never mind. I'll be in the hallway until you're finished. We can talk about your job after you've heard the Magister out.”
The sergeant left the hospital room like a stallion who had just set aside a heavy burden. He didn’t look back and the door shut behind him.
When Feldspar finally turned back to Twilight, his smile was back in full-force without even a hint of stress. “Forgive the good Sergeant. Military processing day always takes a lot out of him and seeing a display like yours outside of an exhibition…well, it’s a bit much for him to grasp right now.”
“Was it really that unusual, though? Dampening rings aren’t an exact science. There have to have been flukes and false positives before.”
“Naturally. If a unicorn does exceptionally well in this test we will adjust the ring harmonics and have them test again on the off chance that their own magical frequency was too close to the ring’s harmonics that there was some cancellation. However, I was present in your case. There was no bleed through. You went past seven levels of magical nullification. It has never happened. It is unprecedented.”
Unprecedented. Something in her stomach began doing flips at the word. Twilight was a modest pony, not a stupid one – she knew that her abilities were beyond what anyone else in her magic classes could do. She could cast spells more powerful than even the teachers and could channel her magic for hours on end without rest. But for a magister, one of the most magical unicorns in the entire kingdom, to call her unprecedented…it was a feeling headier than Twilight could have imagined.
“I want to join the Royal Guard,” Twilight said firmly. She actually felt the knot in her chest loosen after saying it out loud. It felt like a bookend – a hammered-in nail that truly punctuated her resolve. Twilight actually smiled. “I really do appreciate the offer, Magister. Something like this only comes once in a pony’s life. But, I joined the military to get somewhere; to work with someone. The Royal Guard gets me there faster.”
For a solid beat the stallion didn’t seem to know what to say. It was understandable; Twilight couldn’t believe she’d turned him down either. “You…but no unicorn has ever turned down a position in the Magisterium. Even your brother was jumping at the chance. This is your life, Twilight Sparkle. The Royal Guard will take everything you have to offer. You will spend days simply wandering around the castle on routine patrols. You will have to look after annoying nobility who can barely function without attendants, with no time for personal study. Is that the kind of life you want? Your talents will be wasted!”
Twilight shook her head. “My talents will be protecting Princess Celestia. That’s not a waste.”
“It is when the pony you want to protect is the most powerful magical force currently active in the world.” It wasn’t a snap, but Feldspar had gotten close. “No matter how much raw talent you have, you are not Celestia. Especially not without training. Perhaps, in time, you could stand with the Princess as she faces down some eldritch monstrosity, but only after years of study. Which you will not get in the Guard. You will simply be one more face in the crowd. One more pony to get underfoot. The Guard-”
“The Guard is twice the organization the Magisterium is!” Twilight shouted. Her nostrils flared like a bull and she rolled out of her bed and put herself snout-to-snout with the ranting magister. “My brother does not get underfoot! He, and the rest of the Royal Guard, protect the princess with their lives! Maybe they don’t stand a chance against some monster, maybe they don’t have the same time you ponies up in your tower do, but they put their lives on the line for Princess Celestia more than any of you ever would!”
Feldspar opened his mouth to start again, but Twilight was well and truly riled up. She poked him, hard, in the chest with her hoof and pushed him toward the door. “I know the runners when I see them and you look like the type of pony that will run the other way when something hard comes along. That’s why you’re not a Guard! Because the Guard has to jump in the way despite not having all of your fancy training. Some of us are willing to serve without any kind of thanks or promises of fame or wealth! Now, get out!”
Twilight’s horn sparked and Feldspar was lifted off his hooves like a very flummoxed sack of potatoes. His own horn sparked in response, but Twilight simply pumped all of her magic into her telekinesis and suppressed him instantly. The door was jerked open, surprising a few nurses and Iron Cross, who had retreated to the adjacent wall.
“I’m joining the Royal Guard,” she told him. Feldspar was floating, slightly off-center, when Twilight dropped him. He landed in an undignified heap by the door.
Iron Cross glanced at Feldspar and raised an eyebrow. “Don’t let me stop you,” he said, as even and smooth as ship’s keel. “The train leaves in an hour from Depot 12, Station 3-C. Here’s the paperwork.”
Twilight didn’t even question why the sergeant had her file ready to go. She took it, gave him a crisp salute, and stomped down the hall with a purpose.
It took a few moments for the hospital to right itself after that. Nurses went back to doing their rounds, doctors continued checking their patients, and one very contrite alabaster stallion rolled around until he could get back on his hooves with a scrap of dignity still intact.
“I imagine she took your sales pitch personal,” Iron Cross guessed.
A passing nurse giggled and Feldspar glowered as he smoothed out his robes. “Astounding observation skills you have there, Sergeant. Just wonderful. And you were such a help in there, what with your amazing arguments and years of experience.”
The stallion shrugged. “I’m not going to put myself between a unicorn that can crush the ring test and what she wants. And you did say you wanted her in the military. A Royal Guard is better than leaving bitter, isn’t it?” Feldspar said nothing and pushed past the sergeant. Reluctantly, he followed along. “Where are we going now?”
“You are going to make sure that news of Twilight Sparkle’s test don’t get out to the Magisterium. I am going to go have a conversation with General Pranco at Fort Dressage.”
Iron Cross slowed to a halt and nodded warily, even if the disguised princess couldn’t see him. No need to tell her that he’d already floated a story to his staff (and therefore the entire base – the gossips) that the rings had malfunctioned. Bringing that Pranco into it, though…
“Well, whatever. Let the kid figure it out.” After all, Iron Cross thought, no matter what Twilight Sparkle eventually turned out to be, she was new. She was the future. Somehow, someway, that unicorn was going to do something monumental in history – if Celestia would let her plans deviate a bit.
And that, Iron Cross knew, was a very, very big “if”.