• Published 31st Mar 2014
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Project Sunflower: Harmony - Hoopy McGee



After the events of Project: Sunflower, Erin returns to Ponyville to study magic. Meanwhile, something is stirring on the newly-discovered world of Harmony.

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Chapter 15: Trials

After the gateway closed, the Gateway Office in the Canterlot Royal Gardens quickly returned to its normal quiet routine. The small building, just hours ago bustling with activity, now seemed unnaturally still to the few occupants remaining. The stained glass murals set into the top of the building were all dark, as the sun had set hours before. The small fire in the fireplace provided enough heat to drive the chill of early spring away.

The light grey unicorn behind the reception desk, a stallion clerk by the name of Silver Scribe, hummed softly to himself as he sorted some papers with his magic. So much filing to do, especially with that wave of students that had gone through from both sides. The forms would be picked up by Immigration Control tomorrow, and he was determined to not let a single one through with any mistakes. At least, not with any mistakes that were his fault.

The two Royal Guards assigned to this shift, a unicorn and a pegasus, were relaxing in the lounge area while chatting softly with each other. Princess Celestia had ordered that the Gateway Office had to be staffed every hour of every day, even though it was only busy when the gateway was open.

So far, everypony expected this to be another quiet night. That is, up until a familiar hum started up. Silver Scribe stood up from his desk, regarding the crystal spires that framed the gateway warily. The guards also stood, coming quickly to attention.

The gateway to Earth snapped open. Silver braced himself. The agreement was that the gateway would stay closed during the week, with the exception of emergencies. I hope none of the students are hurt, he thought as he chewed worriedly on his lower lip.

Silver’s speculation was cut off as a human male in a charcoal-grey suit stalked through the gateway, his face set into a stern scowl. He held up a picture ID. The unicorn gave it a close look, noting with some discomfort as the human’s coat gaped open that he had one of those “gun” weapons in a shoulder holster.

“Marcus Weiss, head of security for Project Harmonics,” the man said briskly by way of introduction.

“How can I help you, Mister Weiss?” Silver Scribe asked, unable to stop a nervous stomp of his hind hoof.

“You can let your Princess know that we have a problem,” the human said, scowling. “There’s a damned changeling on Earth.”

~~*Raka*~~

“Fascinating,” Raka said as she stared raptly at the monitor. “Please tell me I’ll get to examine it.”

She was in an observation room, along with Marcus Weiss. Also there was Maggie Henson, who was vainly trying to smother yawns behind her hand. There were chairs, but none of the room’s occupants were seated.

Marcus, a stocky man in his fifties with close-cropped grey hair, snorted and shook his head. “Not a chance. I’m not letting you or anyone else near that thing.” He rubbed at the twisted scar along his jaw with an index finger as he scowled at the monitor. “Not until we can be sure it isn’t lying about being unable to manipulate our minds without magic.”

The changeling was stretched out on a bench in small room that had initially been intended to hold potentially-dangerous samples from foreign worlds. The room had been quickly cleared out, leaving only the cameras and the bench that was the room’s sole concession to comfort. The only exit was a heavy steel door, outside which were a pair of armed Harmonics security guards.

Raka let out a disappointed grunt and ran a delicate finger over the monitor. “A whole new species. It looks almost insectile, but I really doubt that it is. And those eyes! They’re beautiful!”

A derisive laugh from Marcus pulled Raka’s attention away from the monitor. “Creepy, you mean.”

“Fascinating,” Raka countered. “The eyes glow, Mister Weiss. Through what mechanism? And how does that not interfere with its vision? Do they even see the same way we do?”

Maggie sighed. “I’m more interested in knowing how many others came through that we didn’t catch,” she said.

“Ah,” Raka said, rocking back on her heels while rubbing a hand across the short hair on the back of her head. She hadn’t thought of that. “Finding out if our visitors are changeling or pony could be a problem.”

“Not much of one.” Marcus folded his arms over his chest. “We just find each pony that came through and take away their torcs for an hour or two. I’m more worried that any changelings that came through might disappear on us.”

“We have to assume they can change into human form as well.” Raka grimaced, adding, “We just don’t know enough about them as a species.”

“They’ll be outed eventually,” Maggie said. “We control the torcs, after all. Without magic, the changelings can’t maintain a transformation.”

“Wrong,” Raka replied. She scratched absently at a dry patch of skin on her arm as she watched the changeling on the monitor. “We know they can metabolise love. And, according to what little information the Equestrians have already given us, they can use that love for either sustenance or to power their magic.” She offered a wan smile to the horrified Marcus. “After all, their queen was able to eat enough love that she was able to go a round with Celestia herself, and win.”

“Damnation,” Marcus said, staring off into space. “So, assume that changelings can take the place of someone who is very well-loved. You think they could maintain a disguise indefinitely?”

“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” Raka replied. “I think we have to assume it's possible, though.” The two stood in silence for a long moment. “Any chance we can get some Equestrian experts over to help with this?”

Marcus grunted. “I forwarded a request for some more information on changelings when I went through the gateway an hour ago. Hopefully Canterlot will pass along what they know.”

Rakka watched the changeling for a while longer. A frown pulled down the corners of her mouth as she saw it shivering in its concrete cell. “Any chance we could turn the heat up in there?”

Marcus turned and stared at her as if she’d asked him to make a balloon animal. “What?”

“The poor thing is shivering,” she said, pointing at the monitor. “No need to keep it miserable.”

“No need to make it comfortable, either,” Marcus pointed out.

Raka scowled at the head of security, preparing a scathing reply. Maggie got there first.

“It’s been docile enough since we found it, Marcus,” Maggie said. “Surely that deserves something of a reward. I’ll get facilities to turn the heat up a little in there.”

“They aren’t to go in the room, Maggie,” Marcus said sternly. “I’m firm on that.”

“They won’t need to,” Maggie replied. “We’ve got heating elements running through the walls, and I can turn them up from here.” She leaned forward and pressed the button for the intercom. The little changeling on the monitor jumped as a loud click echoed through its room, followed by Maggie’s voice. “You seem uncomfortable. Is the room too cold?”

The changeling looked around, finally setting eyes on one of the cameras. It nodded.

“You can talk,” Maggie said with a hint of wry humor in her voice. “I can hear you.”

This seemed to surprise the changeling, which drew its head back and blinked several times. “Yes, I am cold,” it said eventually.

“Okay. We’re going to turn the heat up a little bit. If it gets too warm, let us know.” Maggie released the intercom and leaned back.

“I don’t like this,” Marcus said. “For all we know, it can do its mind-control thing with just its voice. We shouldn’t even talk to it until we get more information from Canterlot.”

Raka patted the man and smiled. “You worry too much, Marcus.”

“It’s my job to worry,” Marcus replied shortly. He turned to scowl once again at the changeling in the monitors. “And, apparently, I didn’t worry enough.”

~~*Luna*~~

Contrary to what many ponies might believe, the majority of a Princess’ time presiding over her “court” was not spent in the actual throne room. For the most part, individual petitioners would schedule appointments, which would take place in one of the many much more comfortable conference rooms, antechambers or reception rooms strewn about the palace.

The door to one of these reception rooms flew open, revealing a richly-dressed earth pony with a panicked expression on his face. The stallion fled, pursued by the thunderous scowl etched across Princess Luna’s features.

“Odious little windbag,” Luna growled.

Her personal assistant for the day, on semi-permanent loan from Celestia’s administrative staff, lit her horn and closed the door, though not before the stallion’s ears flicked back upon hearing the Princess’ statement. Clearing her throat, the dark-maned unicorn nodded towards the proposal left on the low table, surrounded by the devastated remains of various appetizers.

“Would you like me to read through his proposal and provide a summary, Princess?”

“Yes, Raven. Thank you.” Princess Luna’s wings settled back to her sides as her breathing slowed. Her feathers ruffled and began to settle. “I imagine I was a little harsh on him.”

As it wasn’t quite a question, Raven had apparently decided to treat the statement as rhetorical. Instead of answering, she floated the thick stack of bound pages into her saddlebag.

“Still, if I hear one more pony state some variation on how Celestia would have done things differently…” Luna considered for a moment. “Do we still put ponies in the stocks, these days?”

“Not typically, Princess,” Raven replied smoothly. “I believe that particular practice fell out of favor… oh, I want to say four hundred years ago.”

“I see.” Luna’s scowl faded to a light frown as she regarded the secretary. So far, nothing she’d said or done had so much as ruffled Raven’s implacable veneer of professionalism. Celestia had trained her well. “Seems a tragedy.”

Again, Raven ignored the remark. “I should have a summary ready by tomorrow morning, Princess.”

“If you would be so kind, Raven,” Luna replied. “Pray, tell me what is next on the day’s itinerary, which I swear gets longer every time I glance away from it.”

“Well, Chancellor Fussbudget of the Ministry of Finance sends his regrets and asks that the budget review meeting be rescheduled until tomorrow. Then there’s—”

Whatever Raven was about to say was cut off as the door was rudely slammed open. An armored unicorn came through a moment later, a grim look on his face. Luna recognized the dusky grey stallion immediately, of course. She had promoted him to be the captain of her personal Lunar Guard just a few days ago. His yellow eyes and black mane were a clear indication of the nacht pony blood in his veins. Somewhere in his ancestry could be found at least one of the rare bat-winged pegasi.

“Captain Feldspar,” Luna said evenly. “Something urgent, I take it?”

“Yes, Princess,” the captain replied, his voice clipped and even. “The humans have reopened the gateway. There is a changeling on Earth.”

Well, at least that takes care of the day’s schedule, Luna thought wryly. “Captured or free?”

“Captured,” the captain said. “The humans are requesting aid in the form of both intelligence on changeling abilities, and in the form of magic capable of restraining it.”

Luna nodded, moving towards the door. “I shall meet with them immediately.” She stopped in front of the door, frowning. The captain hadn’t moved. “Captain, step aside.”

“With all due respect…” Feldspar drew himself up. “No, Princess.”

The refusal shocked Luna enough that she took a step back. “No?”

“I can’t allow you to go to Earth. Not while I’m your captain.”

Luna’s eyes narrowed, though she managed to keep her ears from laying back. “That can be arranged. I am not used to having my orders countermanded.”

“Earth is too big of a security risk for a Princess,” Feldspar said. His voice was tight, but his eyes were steady. “They could close the gateway behind you, and you would be entirely at their mercy.”

“I am no helpless filly,” Luna said, her brows knitting and tail flicking as her irritation built.

“Very true,” the captain replied. “At least, not while your torc still has an active store of magic in it. Once that runs out, though, you would be helpless. And we would have no way of retrieving you.”

Luna opened her mouth, prepared to snap at him. What he said had a ring of truth to it, however. She was entirely reliant on humanity’s newly-acquired technology to ensure her safe return to Equestria.

“The humans are our allies,” she reminded the captain.

“And I am grateful for that,” Captain Feldspar replied. “And I found much to be impressed about as I read up on their history. That doesn’t change the nature of the risk.”

“I understand your point, Captain. But we’ve never seen cause to distrust the humans yet. I believe I will be safe.”

“It wouldn’t have to be a deliberate act. An accident of some sort could leave you just as stranded as a deliberate action.” He looked up at her, then, pleading clear in his eyes. “Princess, if you were lost in the Griffon Kingdom, we could at least mount a rescue mission. As it is, we have no way of venturing to Earth. You must remain here. For the sake of all Equestria.”

Luna stared at him, considering. He had a valid point, she decided. Eventually, she nodded. “Very well. Would you be willing to go in my place?”

Captain Feldspar saluted. “It would be my pleasure, Princess.”

“Gather up any intelligence we have on the changelings. See if any experts from the college would like to go along to render advice.”

“Yes, Princess.” He saluted again and turned to leave.

“One last thing, Captain,” Luna said, stopping him in his tracks. The captain looked back over his shoulder at her. “Let Maggie Henson know that it is past time for the humans to keep their promise to build a Harmonics facility in Equestria. We look forward to having one soon.”

“Yes, Princess,” Captain Feldspar repeated before trotting briskly away.

Luna sighed and sat down. The first official day of governmental transition, and already she was dealing with changelings and obstinate captains. What else could possibly go wrong?

Raven chose that moment to clear her throat. “Well, now that that is out of the way, the next thing on the schedule is…”

Luna sighed and rubbed her temple with a hoof. Being in charge hadn’t changed much in the thousand years she’d been gone. A Princess she may be, but even she had to bow to the Almighty Schedule if she wished for the nation to run smoothly.

~~*Changeling*~~

The containment room was twenty feet per side with walls made of steel-reinforced concrete poured two feet thick. The door was solid steel and was barred from the outside. The only furniture was in the form of a heavy steel bench bolted solidly into the concrete floor. Cameras in each corner covered every square inch of the room.

At least the room was more comfortable, now that it was warmer. The changeling had managed to stop shivering, at least. It hadn’t been fooled, though. Kindness was something other creatures only showed to changelings when they were disguised. Every changeling knew that.

At some point, the changeling sensed a faint taste of magic and deduced that the gateway to Equestria had opened once again. The changeling absorbed as much magic as it could, though it refrained from using it. A disguise would be unlikely to fool the humans while it was so closely observed, after all, and would likely make the humans hostile.

Time passed at an incredibly slow rate. There was nothing to do, nothing to see. And, though the gateway to Canterlot was once again open, no other changelings were attempting to make contact. With a shudder, the changeling realized that it had probably already been written off as dead.

For the first time in its life, the changeling was utterly, completely alone. It was an interesting experience, and one that would have been almost enjoyable if it weren’t for the sense of impending doom that it felt. The changeling had been told, in gruesome detail, what fates likely waited in store for it should the mission fail. Starvation was the least of its worries. In the deafening silence of the concrete room, it ran through every possible torture it faced. It had just begun contemplating live dissection when the door opened, startling it out of its macabre reflection.

A mismatched pair of figures came through the open door, which shut the moment they were both through. The first figure was a human in a dark suit. The second was a unicorn of the Royal Guard in black lacquered armor. Emotions radiated from them both in a dense cloud, mixing and swirling, making it difficult to tell for certain which of them was feeling which emotions. Not that it mattered, really. The emotion with the greatest presence was the sour tang of fear mixed with loathing.

“Straighten up,” the unicorn snapped.

The changeling realized that it was cringing away from the pair of them and forced itself to a somewhat more upright position.

“I am Captain Feldspar, of Princess Luna’s guard,” the unicorn said, his voice blunt. The changeling didn’t need to be able to read emotions to sense the distaste coming off of him.

“Marcus Weiss,” the human said in a similarly terse voice. “Head of security here at Harmonics.”

There was a pause, a moment of dreadful anticipation. The changeling waited through it, eventually becoming aware that they were waiting for something.

“Uh. Hello. Nice to meet you?” it ventured. No harm in being polite, it decided.

The unicorn snorted. The human chuckled grimly.

“Do you have a name?” Marcus asked.

“You mean one of my own?” The changeling shook its head. “No, sorry. Though, I do have a designation.”

The human and unicorn exchanged a glance. It was Captain Feldspar who spoke next. “What do you mean?”

“We can sense each other’s thoughts, you see. We all know who we are, and where we stand in the hive, and our designations reflect that.” The changeling considered for a moment. “The closest I can come to a name in your language is ‘Drone from the southwest section, born seventeen years ago, knows shape-shifting, telekinesis and basic office skills, on first assignment’.”

The pair were staring at it blankly, and it shrugged. “There’s more to it, but it mostly relates to other skills I have.”

Marcus snorted and rolled his eyes. “With names like that, conversations must take weeks.”

“Not really. We communicate through concepts, not words.”

“Forget that,” Feldspar said. “We’ll just call you ‘changeling’, then.”

Contempt spiked from the captain. The changeling sagged down on its bench and looked towards the floor. “If you like.”

“We have more important questions,” Feldspar said, stepping forward. “The first is, what happened to the real Rose Quartz?”

The changeling cocked its head and looked at them. Somewhere in the back of its mind, the idea took hold that it had something that these people wanted. It wasn’t totally powerless. Perhaps it could gain favor through cooperation?

“Why should I tell you that?” the changeling asked. Sensing the thunderous fury hiding under Feldspar’s stony face, it quickly added, “What I mean is, if I tell you, then there’s nothing stopping you from torturing me to death, right?”

Marcus Weiss scowled at that. “We’re not going to torture you to death.”

The changeling’s mind was racing. It sensed honesty coming from the human, and rage coming from the unicorn. It was impressive how Captain Feldspar was able to keep his face relatively calm when he was so very angry. For the first time since its capture, the changeling felt a glimmer of hope.

“So, you’re saying I don’t have a gruesome fate in store for me, even if I don’t cooperate?” the changeling asked.

“I’m saying,” Marcus said, his voice slow and deliberate, “that there is no advantage in you being contrary. Give us information and we’ll treat you well. Give us nothing, you stay locked up here for the foreseeable future.”

“As I slowly starve to death,” the changeling pointed out. “Not the best of fates, even if you’re not going to torture me.”

“I don’t suppose you can eat regular food?” Marcus asked.

“I can, yes. Pretty much anything, actually. We’re omnivorous scavengers. But that just sustains our bodies. Without love to feed off of, our brains will eventually shut down and die.”

“Well, how were you planning on staying fed on Earth in the first place?” Marcus asked, folding his arms over his chest.

“I was hoping that Mintie’s compassion for ‘Rose Quartz’ would be enough for me to get by. Also, humans seem to have some affection for pony-kind, which may have helped. I have no idea if I can process human emotion, though. That’s one of the things I was supposed to find out.”

“Emotion isn’t just emotion?” Marcus asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Maybe? I don’t know. I just know we haven’t tried it on humans, yet.” The changeling considered that for a moment. “As far as I know, at least. I’m just a drone, after all. I’m not told everything. It’s not like I can find out now, anyway. You humans seem to be pretty horrified by me. I’ll starve to death, here.”

The changeling said that in an even tone. It had known back when it had first been chosen for this mission that the odds were pretty high that it would end up dead. It had long since gotten used to that idea.

The unicorn and human exchanged another look, making the changeling wonder if they had their own ability to communicate without language.

“We may be able to get you a trip back to Equestria,” Feldspar said. “May even be able to get you back to your hive. But you have to answer our questions, first.”

The lie would have been obvious even if the changeling weren’t able to pick up on emotions. It broke into a grin. “No need to lie to me, pony. I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve got.”

Feldspar had a doubtful look on his face. “Really?”

The changeling shifted on the chill steel bench. “Don’t worry about Rose Quartz. She’s alive. We changelings never kill unless we have no other choice. Can’t feed off of the dead, after all.” It grinned again, relishing the feeling of horror coming off of the two of them. It made a nice change from the unicorn’s disgust and the human’s steadily-growing knifelike curiosity.

Feldspar’s ears flicked back briefly and his eyes narrowed. “Where is she?”

“There’s an old, abandoned bakery on the corner of Second Avenue and Sojourner Lane,” the changeling said. “There’s a small nest of us there, usually six changelings guarding the place at any given time as the other members come and go. That’s where we keep the…” the changeling cleared its throat. “The prisoners.”

Feldspar’s ears flicked back as his mouth twisted into a frown. “How many changelings total are in Canterlot?”

“At least ten. Could be more, though.”

“You’re being extremely cooperative,” Feldspar said, his eyes narrowing. “Why? No loyalty for your queen?”

The changeling considered the question for a moment. “Loyalty. I’ve heard of that, but I honestly don’t know what it is. Changelings follow Chrysalis because she and her nymphs don’t give us a choice. You ponies follow Celestia for no reason. She isn’t in your head, or anything! You just do it!” It shook its head. “It makes no sense to me.”

“Celestia treats us well and leads us wisely,” Captain Feldspar said. His tone became more reverent as he added, “As does Princess Luna. That is why they get our loyalty.”

The changeling grinned humorlessly. “So, not exactly like a changeling hive, then.” It chuckled bitterly. “This is the first time in my life that I haven’t had the Queen or other changelings in my head. The silence is… intense. So, no, I can’t say I currently have ‘loyalty’ for Chrysalis.” It frowned. “That will change the moment she contacts me again. So, I suggest you ask your questions quickly.”

“What are Chrysalis’ plans for changelings on Earth?” Marcus asked, interrupting whatever question Feldspar had been about to ask. “And are there any other changelings who came through?”

The changeling shook its head. “As far as I know, I was the first. The grand experiment. If I was able to stay disguised, only then would the others come through after me. They’d be disguised as some of the other ponies you’ll find at the bakery. I don’t know all of their identities, because I didn’t need to. But if you figure it out, then you’ll find your disguised ponies.” It hesitated, then. “Please. Don’t hurt them, if you can help it. They have as little choice in this as I do.”

The questions went on for a while longer. The changeling answered them as best as it could. After the human and pony left it went back to laying on its bench. Eventually, it managed to fall asleep.

~~*Luna*~~

The intersection of Second Avenue and Sojourner Lane was in a somewhat dilapidated part of town. This particular area had been hit with several stores going out of business at the same time, which had led to still more store closings as the location had become less desirable for shoppers.

Currently, there were more ponies in the area than there had been for over a year, almost all of them either in the armor of the Royal Guard or of the City Watch. There was even a group of Sun Talons circling in the sky, a griffon contingent of the guard loyal to Celestia. The griffons’ superior vision was extremely useful when it came to spotting and tracking suspects.

Luna watched, not interfering as the guards arrayed themselves outside of what the boarded-up remains of what had once been a bakery.

Captain Feldspar had insisted on taking the lead. Once he was happy with how everypony was arrayed, he sent up a flare with his horn. Several groups of guards, mixed units made up of earth ponies and unicorns, breached the building on all sides, tearing open the door and blasting through the boarded-up windows. Then came the waiting.

The command post was on top of another abandoned building a short distance from the bakery. The roof was flat, which had allowed a large number of command staff to congregate and observe the action through binoculars. Luna’s hoof pawed restlessly against the roof as she waited for word, heart thudding as she stared at the blank, gaping windows.

It felt like hours, but truthfully it was only minutes later when a sergeant of the City Watch exited and shot up a flare of his own, followed quickly by a second. The first burst a bright green, indicating mission completion. The second burst yellow, and Luna’s heart clenched. Yellow meant “Medic needed”.

“It’s probably for the civilian prisoners,” Captain Feldspar said softly next to her. “Here comes a flier now.”

Luna noted the pegasus flying quickly from the building and couldn’t help but try and read his expression. He seemed excited, but not upset, much to her relief. The pegasus guard landed and saluted.

“Report,” Feldspar said.

“Sir! No injuries to report. Five changelings were found and captured. Seventeen civilians were discovered in the basement, wrapped in some kind of cocoons. The civilians seem to be alive but unconscious. Medical personnel are on site and are working to revive them.”

“Very good. Dismissed.” Captain Feldspar said. He turned to Luna. “Princess, seventeen civilians indicates that this incursion may be greater in scope than anticipated. We should do a building-by-building sweep to look for any further changeling infestation.”

“Do it,” Luna said, reeling from the report. Seventeen civilians captured, held prisoner in Canterlot, right under the nose of both Celestia and herself.

Captain Feldspar saluted and began snapping out orders. Luna watched as the guards went door to door quickly and efficiently. Any civilians discovered were quickly scanned by unicorn guards to make certain they weren’t changelings in disguise.

It was an hour later when the first of the civilian victims were brought up from the bakery’s basement. Some of them were walking, while others were carried out on stretchers. Luna felt her chest tighten in anger at the sight.

“Captain, I would like a report on the status of the victims.”

“Yes, Princess,” Feldspar replied with a salute.

It took a few minutes for the Captain to round up a medic with enough free time to visit and report. The medic, a misty grey unicorn mare with a heart crossed with a bandage for a cutie mark, introduced herself as Caring Heart. She was visibly nervous about her unexpected introduction to royalty, and yet her report was crisply and efficiently delivered.

“All of the prisoners were kept in some sort of cocoon,” Caring Heart reported. “They were kept suspended in an unknown substance. We believe this substance has the dual purpose of keeping them alive while also sedating them. We wanted to make sure everypony was stable before we began moving them.”

“I see.” Luna frowned down at the group being escorted out of the building. “And the reason why some of them are walking and others being carried? Are there complications?”

“There may be,” Caring Heart replied, casting a worried look at the ponies below. “Perhaps some ponies were exposed longer, or the sedation is affecting some ponies. For the most part, it looks like it is the older ponies who are the hardest hit.”

“Very good,” Luna said. “Keep an eye on them and make sure they have everything they need. If there is anything I can—”

A loud cry from street level got Luna’s attention. A light brown earth pony mare with a green mane was barreling past the guards, heading towards one of the recovered civilians in particular. “Rosie!” the mare called as she ran.

Her target, a light pink unicorn, looked up blearily just in time to be tackle-hugged by the earth pony, who immediately began fussing over her. Luna allowed herself a smile at the sight. This “Rosie” had no doubt been through a terrible ordeal, but hopefully a good friendship would see her through the worst of it.

Names and addresses had already been gathered from the civilians, with squads of guards going off to find the changelings who had been impersonating them. Luna got the list as soon as it was compiled and noted, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, just how many of them were on government staff. The only small grace was that they were all in low-level positions.

Luna issued a few orders, and the newly-freed ponies were all brought to the palace. Those that needed it would get the best medical care available, while the others would be given food and drink before being sent on their way home with a guard escort.

The sun was nearly down by the time Captain Feldspar reported back. He snapped off a quick salute. “No further changeling activity discovered, Princess.”

“Very well.” Luna looked around, noting that the various guardsponies were already beginning to leave the area. “I shall return to the palace. Meet me there when you return.”

Captain Feldspar nodded. Luna wasted no more time, launching herself into the air. She had much to discuss with her sister. And then it would be time to begin screening Dreamguard candidates.

~~*Erin*~~

It wasn’t pleasant, pulling a burlap sack off of a cart with your teeth. Erin was pretty sure she’d never get the taste of it out of her mouth. With a flick of her head, she tossed the bag of seed up on top of the two others she already had on her back. She’d had a lot of practice with that, recently. Every day since she’d come back from Cloudsdale, Erin had joined the Apple family on their farm, helping them with their work in exchange for training in earth pony magic.

The strangest part of the training had been when Applejack had given Erin her own apple tree sapling and then insisted that she come up with a name for it. Erin had considered it for a while before deciding on Pomona. Applejack had been confused by the name until Erin had explained its origins as the name of the Roman goddess of orchards. Besides, the only other name she could think of for a tree had been Groot.

Erin’s first task of each day had been to check on the tree, watering it and looking it over for signs of disease or damage. This didn’t typically take very long, as Erin had no idea what to look for. Then Erin went and did whatever chores Applejack assigned to her.

Today, that meant stacking bags of seed on the edge of the freshly-plowed field where they would soon be planted. After dropping the last bag on the stack, Erin took a quick breather, looking at the now-empty cart with a quiet satisfaction.

The hard work had left her exhausted and filthy at the end of every day, but Erin couldn’t find it in her to complain. The first reason for that was because her physical abilities were coming along nicely. Her morning runs were getting easier, for one thing. And, though each day left her just as tired as the day before, she was accomplishing so much more in the same amount of time. She still wasn’t back up to where she was when she’d first arrived in Ponyville, but she was getting closer, which was a very nice feeling.

The second reason that Erin didn’t mind working so hard was brought to mind by the clang of the Apple family’s dinner bell. Technically the “bell” was a triangle, but Erin wasn’t going to argue the point when there was free food involved. She grinned and broke into a run, heading towards the source of the sound: the Apple family farmhouse.

With any luck, one of these days she’d be able to fly the distance, rather than running.

Thoughts of flying reminded her of Rainbow’s lessons on air-sculpting. On a whim, Erin concentrated on the air in front of her, willing it to get thin, to reduce air resistance. The result was immediate, causing her to stumble a half-step forward as the minute-but-steady pressure of the wind on her chest all but vanished.

Erin recovered quickly. Then, with a grin, she kicked up her heels and poured on the speed, running faster than she had since she’d returned to Equestria. Sadly, her run didn’t last long, her new-found endurance seemingly abandoning her after a mere minute or so. Panting, Erin staggered to a halt and leaned against the fence along the side of the road.

“What… the heck…” Erin gasped. A stitch had formed in her side, and she spent a few painful moments rubbing at her ribs with a hoof, trying to make the knot of pain go away. She shoved herself upright with a grimace and started walking down the road once again.

Erin opted to continue walking, rather than trying to run any more. Whatever it was that had sapped her strength had her a little worried. I hope I’m not getting sick, she thought. That’s all I need…

The smell of lunch greeted her as she approached the Apple family’s front door. Breaking into an eager grin, Erin trotted the rest of the way, knocking lightly on the front door. Apple Bloom opened it a moment later. She hadn’t put her traditional ribbon in her mane, yet. In fact, with her mane all snarled and sticking out in all directions, it looked like she hadn’t brushed it, either.

“Hey, Erin! Just in time for lunch, like usual.”

Erin smirked at Apple Bloom’s cheeky grin. “Hey, free food for free labor. Them’s the rules, kiddo!”

Apple Bloom stood aside and Erin walked in, mussing up the filly’s mane even further with a hoof as she did so. Apple Bloom stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry before breaking out into giggles. Erin grinned at the filly as she followed her nose to the dining area, where a simple but wholesome lunch was laid out.

On Earth, working four to six hours on a farm for no more than two meals would have been seen as a bad deal. But since those meals were Apple Family meals, Erin considered herself to be coming out on top in this particular arrangement.

Erin pulled up a chair on the same side of the table as Apple Bloom, with Applejack sitting across from them. Granny Smith was bringing the last of the food out, and Macintosh hadn’t arrived yet.

“You get all them bags stacked up, Erin?” AJ asked her.

“Yup,” Erin replied as she eyed the spread on the table before her. Salad, a thick stew, steamed veggies smothered in butter, fried squash with brown sugar, and so much more. It all smelled wonderful.

“You brought the cart back with ya, then?” Applejack asked with a knowing grin.

Erin felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. She looked up sheepishly back at AJ. “I, uh… Yeah, I forgot that.” She hunched down into her chair a little bit. “Sorry. I’ll go and get it before heading home.”

“No worries, sugarcube.”

The door opened, then, sparing Erin any further embarrassment. Macintosh Apple walked in, his coat and mane damp. He took a seat next to Applejack and across from Apple Bloom.

“Now, why in tarnation are you all wet, Big Mac?” AJ asked, favoring her brother with a frown.

Macintosh shrugged, though his cheeks darkened a little bit.

“He was prob’ly out back, washin’ himself off with the garden hose again,” the younger Apple sister said. She started snickering and added, “He only does that when we’ve got company for lunch.”

Erin sighed. Apple Bloom seemed set on matchmaking, taking every opportunity she could to get Macintosh alone with her. Failing that, she would needle her big brother about it at every opportunity. Applejack would sometimes join in, while the eldest of the Apple siblings sat there, stoically ignoring them.

Erin decided to try and derail the teasing before it got going. “Speaking of cleaning up for company, Apple Bloom, did you happen to brush your mane this morning? Or were you just letting a goat chew on it?”

Apple Bloom’s sour grimace and extended tongue brought a snort of laughter from Applejack, followed by a critical examination.

“She’s got a point, Bloom,” AJ said to her sister. “Just ‘cuz you got the day off of school, that’s no reason to leave your mane in such a state.”

Apple Bloom muttered peevishly as she slouched down in her chair. Macintosh caught Erin’s eye and gave her a quick nod as he flashed a grateful smile. Fortunately, this went unnoticed by his sisters, or a new round of teasing would likely have started up.

Granny joined them a moment later, putting down a pitcher of iced tea before taking her usual spot at the head of the table. The next few minutes passed in relative silence as everypony loaded up their plates. Once they all had enough, at least for a first course, conversation started up once again.

“So, there’s no school today?” Erin asked Apple Bloom.

Apple Bloom beamed and nodded, whatever lingering resentment the filly might have had towards Erin for calling out her messy mane vanishing in the pure joy of a school-less spring day. “Yup! It’s Founding Day.”

“Founding Day?”

“The day Ponyville was founded,” Applejack said. “No school, some businesses are closed, and ponies that have to work get paid double. It's also the start of the Ponyville Days Festival. Old tradition.”

Granny Smith snorted at that. “Ain’t all that old.”

“So… Does that mean I get to eat twice as much as usual?” Erin asked, eyes twinkling.

Applejack snorted a laugh. “Nah. But I reckon we can give you some to take home, if you like.”

“I wouldn’t say no to that,” Erin said. “The food is really great, Granny Smith!”

The old mare grinned at that. “Ya can just call me ‘Granny’, young’un. And thank ya kindly.”

Apple Bloom turned to look at Erin. “Speakin’ of school, Miss Cheerilee asked me yesterday if you could stop by an’ talk to her.”

“Oh? Did she say why?”

“We’ve been talkin’ a bit about humans, an’ such.” Apple Bloom shrugged. “She prob’ly wants you to talk about humans in front of the class.”

“Oh.” Erin considered that for a moment. “Yeah, I don’t see why not. I have to ask my boss for time off, though.” She shot a grin at Applejack. “What d’ya say, boss?”

AJ smirked and drawled, “Well… typically I would like more notice from my farmhooves before they take time off. But, considerin’ it’s for the young’uns, I guess I can’t say ‘no’.”

“Thanks, Applejack.” Erin shot her a smile that turned down into a frown. “Of course, now I have to figure out what I’m going to talk about.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Applejack replied. “Just talk about yourself. You know, how you grew up, an’ stuff like that.”

Erin considered that while chewing on a hot, buttered roll. She nodded, swallowing. “Yeah, that would work.”

“Speakin’ of stuff happenin’ on Earth, have you heard anything new from Twilight about the changelings?”

Erin grimaced and shook her head. “No, just the letter that we got from her yesterday.”

Twilight had sent out six letters to her friends, each of which had been nearly identical. Erin’s had been personally delivered by Ditzy on Tuesday. It had been nice to get a more rational view of events than what had been printed in the papers, which were reporting that there were anywhere from hundreds to thousands of changelings, who were either kidnapping or viciously attacking ponies in the heart of Equestria’s capital city. Naturally, that news had caused considerable panic in the small town until the Ministry of Public Relations released their official statement that it had only been a small cell, all of whom had already been captured.

“You think there’s lots of changelings on Earth?” Apple Bloom asked.

“Apple Bloom!” AJ scolded.

The filly drew back defensively. “What?”

“No fear-mongerin’ at the table.”

“But that’s what the papers were sayin’! It was an invasion!”

“There was only one changeling, according to Twilight,” Erin replied. Please, let there have been only one, she thought.

Applejack harrumphed. “Can’t believe everythin’ you read in the papers, Apple Bloom.”

“Why not?” The filly cocked her head and frowned up at her older sister.

“‘Cause they ain’t paid to print the truth, they’re paid to sell papers,” Applejack said with a sour grimace. “Don’t believe nothin’ you read until you check it.”

“That’s another thing Earth and Equestria have in common,” Erin said.

AJ chuckled and the tension left the table. The conversation went back to farming topics, primarily concerning plans for the coming months which Erin found herself tuning out. She wasn’t planning on working the full spring and summer at the farm.

The conversations wrapped up around the same time as the meal did, and everypony got back to their hooves while Apple Bloom and Granny cleared the table. In response to a query from Applejack, Macintosh announced his intention to get started on planting the northeast field.

“Oh, that’s where I left the cart,” Erin said. “I’ll go with you.”

Macintosh considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Eeyup.”

Erin followed him out, while Applejack went off to do whatever it was she was planning on doing that afternoon. The stallion’s longer legs made it necessary for Erin to break into the occasional trot to keep up with him. All the while, she was staring at the road while considering a way to delicately bring up a fairly touchy topic she’d been thinking about for the last few days.

“Somethin’ on your mind, Sunflower?” Macintosh asked. Somewhere along the way, he’d picked a grass stalk and stuck it in his mouth.

“No. Well, yes. How do you feel about foals?”

Erin could have kicked herself the moment the words were out of her mouth. Considering their past, that was the worst way she could have phrased the question.

That wasn’t delicate at all, you idiot! she scolded herself.

Macintosh’s reaction seemed to back up her assessment. The poor stallion stumbled and nearly fell before freezing, wide-eyed, in the middle of the road. The stalk of grass dangled from his lower lip and his coat was a much darker red than usual as he uttered weak little “Buh? Wuh?” sounds.

“No! I mean…” Erin groaned and stomped a hoof. “What I meant to say was, ‘would you consider dating a mare who already has a foal?’”

“Buh…?” Macintosh shook his head. “What?”

“Well… I don’t mean to interfere, and I always hated it when a friend tried to hook me up with someone else, but… well, let’s say I know a mare who might be interested in going out with you, but she has a foal. Would that bother you?”

For a minute or so, Macintosh’s only reaction was to blink at her in confusion. “A… a mare? Who…?”

Erin shook her head. “Nope, not going to give you a name unless you’re interested. It would spare everypony a lot of embarrassment if you’re not interested.” Erin was flushing a pretty deep scarlet, herself. She’d bungled this pretty badly already. “It’s just… I don’t know how it is for ponies, but among humans, having a kid can be a deal-breaker for a lot of males your age.”

Macintosh had recovered most of his composure by this point. At Erin’s last statement, he recovered the rest of it, straightening himself with a frown. “Can be for some stallions, too. Always thought that was short-sighted of ‘em.”

“So… so you’d be okay with it?”

Macintosh considered that for a moment. “Depends, really. It’s different for me than most.”

Erin tilted her head and frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Anypony I end up with is gonna have to live here on the farm. Ain’t many ponies willin’ to give up whatever life they got to do that. I reckon that’s ‘specially true of a mare with a foal.”

“Yeah…”

The two of them started walking again. Once again, Erin found herself deep in thought. Macintosh was either considerate enough to let Erin think things through, or he was deep in thought himself, because he didn’t utter a peep until they got to the cart.

“You reckon you can give me a name, now?” Macintosh asked.

Erin offered up a weak smile as she strapped herself into the cart’s harness. “Tell you what… let me talk to her tonight, and I’ll let you know if she’s actually interested in dating you or if she just finds you attractive.”

Macintosh blushed again and looked away. “Eeyup.”

Giggling, Erin turned the cart towards the farmhouse. “See you tomorrow, Macintosh,” she said.

“See you tomorrow, Sunflower,” came the reply.

Erin trotted off, leaving the stallion to his work. Applejack was waiting for her at the barn, leaning against the wall with her hat down low over her eyes. She waved at Erin, who smiled and broke into a trot.

“Hey, Applejack. What’s up?”

“Y’know,” Applejack drawled, “If’n I didn’t know better, I’d say Big Mac still has a bit of a crush on ya.”

Erin blushed as she shrugged out of the harness. “We talked about it, Applejack. We’re just friends.”

“You sure about that?” Applejack asked, grinning.

“Pretty sure. Why?”

Applejack chuckled as she kicked the barn door open with a hind hoof while still leaning against the wall.

“‘Cuz the darned fool went to go plant the field and left the seed drill behind,” she said, nodding her head at the device. It looked a little bit like a comb suspended between two wheels.

Erin gaped at it. “Oh. Is that what that is?”

Applejack started laughing. “Big lug probably realized it by now an’ is just waitin’ for a bit to make sure you ain’t around when he comes back to get it.”

The conversation, following so closely on Erin’s earlier “how do you feel about foals?” blunder, had her flushing a deep red. “Well… maybe he just forgot? Doesn’t have to be because of me, does it?”

Applejack only laughed harder, dropping to the dirt and wheezing for air.

“It’s not that funny, Applejack!”

Erin was getting ready to leave in a huff when AJ lifted a shaky foreleg and pointed back the way she’d come. Erin turned to look, spotting a brief glimpse of deep red that was suddenly—and, unfortunately, incompletely—obscured by the trunk of an apple tree.

She sighed, rubbing her forehead with a hoof while Applejack whooped it up. “Can… still… see ‘im!” Applejack managed before breaking into fresh gales of laughter.

“I’m going home,” Erin said, rolling her eyes. “Try not to tease him too badly, okay?”

As she trotted away, accompanied by AJ’s laughter and the memory of a stallion trying to hide behind the woefully inadequate cover of a tree trunk, Erin found herself desperately hoping that Ditzy had been serious about being interested in Macintosh. Hopefully, if he started dating somepony else, his family would stop torturing the two of them every chance they got.

~~*Trixie*~~

Trixie was second-guessing herself, and not for the first time. The road back to civilization had been hard, though things definitely perked up once she managed to reach a town with a train station. Then there was the application process itself, which had mostly involved standing around with a mob of ponies all hoping for the same thing: learning dream magic from a princess.

One of the first things she’d found out was that palace staff had very little patience for grandiose statements of awe-inspiring ability, and even less for referring to oneself in the third person. As a result, Trixie was now forced to temper her language to match the ordinary ponies around her. That, coupled with her lack of customary cape and hat, left her feeling out of sorts and irritable.

The daily scans to make sure none of them were changelings hadn’t helped to improve her mood, even when the guards had found two changelings among the applicants on the first day. Two days later, they were still scanning all the applicants. While Trixie could certainly understand the need, having unfamiliar ponies casting spells on her was extremely unnerving.

Many of the ponies who had applied were the down-and-out dregs that Trixie had been expecting. Ponies without work who were hoping for a job, any job. Of those that looked somewhat better off, most of those were ponies young enough to just barely be out of school, with the rest being curiosity seekers. A few upper-class ponies stood in their own small groups, sneering down their muzzles at everypony else in sight.

Trixie might have said something to them about that, but she was far too aware that her current appearance fit in best with the dregs, rather than the aristocrats. That Trixie wasn’t actually down on her luck wasn’t immediately apparent, thanks in large part to her dry and frazzled mane and chipped hooves. Even though she’d stopped by a spa before arriving at the castle to apply, there was only so much that could be done to improve the appearance of a mare who had spent so much time on the road. It would take days of pampering to even begin to get the sheen and bounce back in her mane.

So it was that Trixie spent most of each day by herself, going through round after round of interviews with steadily higher levels of palace administration. The group she had applied with dwindled rapidly along the way.

The ponies with major crimes in their pasts were the first to go. The remaining applicants were told very bluntly that being in the Dreamguard would be a lot of work and would require serious dedication, making most of those who were here just for a lark or who thought this would be an easy job the next to be sorted out. Nearly all of the nobles and upper-class ponies left at that time, as did many of the curious and a few of the students.

After every round of interviews, the remaining applicants were moved to a different, smaller room. What was left now were those truly determined to get a position in the Dreamguard. And, as nopony had any idea how many positions were open, every pony in the group had to be viewed as a rival.

Trixie maintained an air of aloofness, keeping herself apart from it all. That didn’t stop her from analyzing every pony she saw, looking for weaknesses. For example, the plain-looking earth pony mare, barely more than a filly, who kept looking around nervously: a few well-chosen words in her twitching little ear, and she might just decide that all of this wasn’t worth the stress.

“May I have your attention, please?”

Trixie broke off her surreptitious study of her fellow applicants to look at the unicorn mare who had just walked into the room. Her black mane and tail were both done up in no-nonsense buns. She was levitating a clipboard in front of her.

“Good evening, everypony. My name is Raven, and I am one of Princess Luna’s personal assistants.” A murmur of excitement ran through the remaining score or so of applicants. The corners of Raven’s mouth curved up in what was very nearly a smile. “My congratulations to you all. You’ve all passed the preliminary interviews, and are on the short list as candidates for the Dreamguard.”

This news was met by an excited shout by a few of the rougher-looking ponies, most of whom had the grace to look embarrassed when Raven sent a withering glare their way.

“Ahem, yes. All that remains now is to determine if you have the actual ability to use dream magic. If you are capable, then you will be accepted as a provisional member of the Dreamguard.”

Trixie was grinning at this point, as were the other ponies in the room. She had made it! She was in! Well, assuming that she could wield dream magic. But Trixie wasn’t worried about that. After all, it was practically a foregone conclusion that she could.

Raven allowed herself a tight smile at the applicants’ excitement. “Alright, settle down, everypony. First, I’d like to do a quick roll call. Raise your hoof and say ‘here’ when I call your name.”

Trixie did her best to remember the names as they were called off. After all, these were potentially her fellow Dreamguard. The tiny earth pony mare she’d noted from before shyly raised her hoof when Raven read out the name “Smidgen”, which Trixie thought was an extremely odd name. Who names their filly Smidgen? No wonder the poor thing looked nervous all the time! A small bubble of guilt welled up as Trixie remembered her thoughts of sabotaging the poor mare’s confidence.

“Trixie Lulamoon?” Raven called.

“Here!” Trixie called while raising her hoof.

Raven nodded, made a check mark on her clipboard, and continued calling names. Trixie took that opportunity to sidle up next to the unfortunately-named Smidgen, who cast a nervous glance at her before staring at her hooves.

“Smidgen, is it?” Trixie asked softly, pitching her voice low.

Smidgen nodded and flashed an apprehensive smile before looking back at the floor.

“You can relax, Smidgen.” Trixie smiled confidently at the trembling earth pony. “You made it in!”

“Not yet,” Smidgen replied in a whisper. Trixie had to strain to hear her. “We still have that test.”

“I am confident you’ll pass it with flying colors,” Trixie replied staunchly. “And, if there’s any way I can help you pass, I will.”

Smidgen looked shocked at the offer for a moment before a joyful smile broke out across her face. The smile transformed her plain features into something more, transforming her face into something quite lovely.

“Thank you,” Smidgen whispered.

“Think nothing of it,” Trixie replied, feeling oddly good about herself. She looked about, noting that Raven had finished checking off names and was now leading everypony out of the room. “Ah. It looks like we’re being moved to yet another room. Hopefully, the next one won’t be much smaller. They’ll be trying to fit us all into a closet, at this rate.”

Smidgen giggled at that. Together, the two of them joined the others and moved into the hallway.

The room they were led into was a departure from the previous trend, being much larger than the last one. The first thing Trixie noticed was the incredibly high, vaulted ceiling. Chandeliers of delicate crystal and gold glowed with enchanted light, bathing the room with soft illumination. The walls were painted a dark red, rich and vibrant, the perfect compliment to the gleaming wood floor, which was tiled in alternating light and dark stain like a chessboard.

All around the large room were scattered cushions and couches. There seemed to be no organization involved at all, other than keeping at least a few feet of space between each piece of furniture. As the ponies walked in, their hoofsteps echoed around the enormous room. It was almost enough to make Trixie feel small. Almost.

Further examination of the room was cut off instantly when Trixie saw who was waiting for them. Twilight Sparkle, the unicorn that had been haunting her for months now, was laying on her belly on a low couch. Her eyes were closed and, if it weren’t for her upright posture, Trixie could have sworn she was asleep.

Next to her, Smidgen gasped. Trixie looked down at the little mare to see that she was staring into a different corner of the room. Trixie followed her gaze, noting a little belatedly that Twilight Sparkle wasn’t the only pony who had been waiting for them.

Princess Luna was sitting on her hindquarters amidst a pile of cushions. Her dark blue coat shone softly in the light, her flowing ethereal mane alight with captured starlight. A polite smile graced her features as she nodded to the prospective Dreamguard who were entering the room.

“Welcome, one and all,” Luna said once the door clicked shut behind them. “For the final portion of your application to the Dreamguard, there is but one final test. Do not worry, should you fail here today. I do not expect that many of you shall pass on your first attempt, after all. You will be given more chances, should you need them. Please, find a place to lie down, and make yourselves as comfortable as you can.”

Twilight Sparkle had cracked her eyes open once Luna had started speaking. She glanced at the students, and Trixie was certain her eyes widened a fraction when they met her own. Good, she remembers me, Trixie thought with quiet satisfaction.

Trixie didn’t bother to look around, simply finding the closest pile of cushions and lowering herself into them. Smidgen found another set of cushions nearby and sunk into them, looking even tinier by comparison once she was fully settled.

Twilight had already closed her eyes once again by the time Princess Luna began talking. Trixie tore her gaze away to look once more at the Princess of the Night.

“The point of today’s lesson is to try and guide your mind to the place directly between reality and the world of dreams,” Luna said. “This is the Threshold, what we used to call the Gate of Dreams. Should you succeed, I will meet you there.

“Now, what you need to do is very simple. Simply begin relaxing your mind, calming your thoughts. I shall give you some advice on how to accomplish this…”

Princess Luna continued talking, but Trixie wasn’t able to pay much attention. Instead, her focus was on Twilight. The mare was sitting there, all peaceful and quiet. Ignoring Trixie! As if it weren’t her fault that Trixie had spent months trying to salvage a shattered reputation before finally giving in and looking for an artifact that would give her power, that would allow her to show Twilight—no, to show everypony, that Trixie was no joke. And she was just sitting there, all placid and peaceful, as if she didn’t even know or care what she’d done to Trixie! As if—

“Is something troubling you?” a gentle voice asked to her right.

Trixie squeaked and jumped slightly. She looked over to see a pair of long, dark legs, which she followed up until she met Princess Luna’s eyes. The princess was regarding her with a calm but concerned expression.

“Ah! Uh… No. Thank you, your majesty. Trixie is quite well.”

She bit her lip, regretting the slip into third-person, but Luna either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Instead, the princess simply nodded.

“Try to relax. Clear your mind of distractions and try to achieve a state of perfect calm.”

Trixie almost snorted at the suggestion. With her rival only a stone’s throw away? Not that there were any stones to throw, only cushions, which Trixie refused to even consider throwing as it was obviously beneath her dignity, no matter how funny the thought of Twilight Sparkle receiving a face-full of fabric was. Instead, she schooled her expression to stillness and nodded.

“I will try my best, Princess,” she said.

There was only one reason why Twilight Sparkle would be here in this place. Obviously, she was trying out for the Dreamguard as well. As Celestia’s student, it made a certain amount of sense, but it was so unfair. How could one unicorn have so many advantages while Trixie had to scrape and work her tail off to achieve any amount of progress?

Just then, Twilight Sparkle grimaced and adjusted herself. Something about her expression when she did so… Was it disappointment? Frustration?

Elation burst inside Trixie’s chest when the realization hit her: Twilight was a student, just like she was! And, from the looks of it, she was still struggling with this first part, the relaxation. The thought hit her almost like a physical blow. She could still win!

She followed what little snippets of Luna’s advice that she remembered. She concentrated on her breathing. She tried relaxing. Minutes ticked by, and yet Trixie still found herself unable to relax.

The other students’ breathing was becoming synchronized, possibly due to some latent herd instinct. The sound of it put Trixie in mind of the many nights she’d spent in her wagon, traveling from one town to the next. After the sun went down, after she put out her last candle, the only sound was the creaking of insects and the wind sighing in the trees.

She’d spent most of the last several years like that. It was lonely, but it was a serene sort of lonely. The thought of the trees swaying always reminded her of the sea, her little wagon like an island in the night. Nopony around for miles, nopony to disturb her.

She lost herself in the memory of these feelings, stilling all other thoughts in her mind. The other students, even Twilight Sparkle, all fell away. The sensation of the cushions beneath her had long since faded. All that was left was Trixie, alone in her wagon, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees.

And, shortly thereafter, even that was gone.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” a soft voice said.

Trixie’s eyes snapped open. Much to her amazement, she found that she was no longer in the classroom. Instead, she was apparently standing on nothing, with a featureless grey stretching away from her on all sides.

The voice had come from behind her. Trixie wasn’t sure if she turned, or if the world somehow revolved around her. Either way, Princess Luna came into view, wearing a pleased smile. “I am most impressed. I confess, I wasn’t expecting anypony to reach this place tonight.”

Trixie looked around. She had a vague feeling that she should be frightened to find herself suspended in the middle of grey nothingness, but it was hard to conjure the emotion. “Where are we, Princess?”

Princess Luna’s smile beamed like moonlight. “Why, we’re on the Threshold of the Dreamrealms, of course. Welcome!”

“I made it?” Trixie gaped up at the princess for a moment before squealing with delight. If her hooves had been on solid ground, she would have hopped into the air. As it was, her legs just paddled at the nothingness around her. “I made it!”

“You did indeed, my little pony,” Princess Luna said. Her tone was grave, but she was smiling still. “And soon, your true training will begin.”

~~*~~

Trixie kicked her hooves idly while she hummed an aimless tune. As fascinated as she had been at first, there is only so much time a pony can remain excited while suspended in the middle of the featureless grey void that is the Threshold of the Dreamrealms.

Some distance away, Princess Luna was standing perfectly still, a look of calm serenity on her features. She’d said something about “checking on the others” a few minutes earlier, ending their impromptu question-and-answer session. Trixie had learned a little about the different levels of the Dreamrealms, with the promise of more instruction to come.

After an unknown amount of time, Princess Luna shifted and opened her eyes. “Alas,” she said, “It seems my earlier optimism at such a quick initial success was unfounded. It seems as if you will be the only one joining me tonight. I do believe that we can call an end, for now. If you please, concentrate on returning to wakefulness.”

“Um…” Trixie rubbed her forehooves together and looked away.

“Something concerns you?”

“Well, Princess…” With a grimace, Trixie let spill what had been bothering her. “What if—and I’m not saying it would happen, mind you—but what if I… uh… can’t get back here?”

Luna smiled kindly as she walked over to where Trixie hung suspended on nothing. “Have no fear, my Dreamguard. Each time you come here, you will find the return to be easier. Soon, it will be as simple to you as closing your eyes.”

The rapid fluttering of Trixie’s heart abated somewhat. She managed a nervous smile back at Luna. “Alright, Princess.”

Trixie concentrated. A rushing feeling filled her senses, then nothing. This lasted for a long moment before all of her senses came flooding back, and she realized three things in quick order.

The first thing she noticed was that the real world was loud compared to the Threshold, even with nopony making much noise. Just the movement of the air and the occasional shift or cough from other ponies seemed to be an incredible din. Second, her body had acquired a number of small cramps, itches and other such annoyances. Third, she badly needed to use the little filly’s room.

“I think that’s enough for this evening, everypony,” Luna called. A series of groans and frustrated mumbles answered her, causing her to raise a hoof. “Worry not. You shall be given many further opportunities to qualify for a position. As we go on, we will attempt to hone in on a process that will allow you to achieve the proper state. Perhaps music shall work for some of you.” A playful gleam entered the Princess’ eye as she looked towards Twilight Sparkle, who was standing and beginning to stretch out her legs. “Though, I know it doesn’t work for everypony.”

Twilight’s face twisted as if she’d bitten into a lemon, and, Trixie’s heart sung a little song. One corner of her mouth lifted up in a not-quite-sneer as she looked across the room at her dejected rival. What happened next made her victory even more sweet.

“I am pleased to announce that one of your number has passed initiation. Everypony, please give a warm welcome to the first pony to enter the Dreamguard in over a millenium: Trixie Lulamoon!”

The applause was half-hearted and accompanied by some jealous grumbling. Nevertheless, Trixie drank it up like it was the sweetest nectar, not even bothering to keep the smug grin off of her face.

“A repast has been prepared for you,” Luna said as she swept gracefully towards the door. “Castle servants will be present shortly to show you all to the dining hall. For those of you staying in the castle, you will be shown to your rooms after dinner is done. For now, I have other duties to attend to, and I shall see you all tomorrow.”

With that, Luna left. Trixie had to restrain the urge to trot after her and demand—politely, of course—to know what would happen next. Food, she decided, would not be unwelcome. Besides, a palace servant would likely find her to tell her where and when the princess needed her. For now, she had other things to do.

She rose to her hooves and began picking her way between the cushions. Half-formed boasts and gloats were forming in her mind as she approached her nemesis, the mare who had shown her up and humiliated her. The cause of all her suffering, the reason for her homelessness. Twilight Sparkle.

Trixie had dreamed of this moment. As her shadow fell across the sitting mare, Twilight blinked and looked up at her. Trixie cleared her throat and opened her mouth, preparing the first of many barbed statements designed to lance into her rival’s heart.

“Oh, hi Trixie,” Twilight said, smiling as she stood up. “It’s good to see you again.”

Every carefully prepared jab and every stinging comment, all of it spun away as Trixie’s brain whirled with confusion. “It is?” she blurted.

“Oh, yes! I was pretty worried about you after you left Ponyville.”

“You were?”

Twilight nodded, her face taking on a somber expression. “I was honestly expecting you to come back to town some time later that night. I was really concerned when I checked the next day and none of the hotels or inns said you’d stayed there. I mean, with your wagon smashed and everything, that meant you had to sleep outside, right?”

“I, uh…” Trixie had actually spent that first night crying tears of loss and shame while huddled under the dubious shelter of an apple tree. At least the tree had been kind enough to provide her with breakfast the following morning.

“Oh, that reminds me!” Her dreaded rival smiled a chipper and hateful smile. “I salvaged what I could from your wagon. It’s in storage in the basement of the Ponyville library.”

“Uh… but…” Embarrassed resentment began heating up in Trixie’s chest. She’d practiced this encounter in her mind every night for months! This was not the way this conversation was supposed to go!

“I even cast a repair spell on whatever I could identify,” Twilight continued, blithely oblivious to the distress she was causing Trixie. “I mean, some of it I couldn’t even tell what it was, so I couldn’t repair it. Oh, and your fireworks powders were too dangerous to store in the library—flammable books, you know?—so I gave them to the local fireworks shop for storage.”

Trixie’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t say?”

Twilight Sparkle nodded and smiled in a naive and hopeful way that Trixie had no doubt was carefully crafted to get under her skin. The display of kindness had put Trixie off of her game for a moment, but the oh-so-casually mentioned repair spells had put things back on track. That was a spell an order of magnitude more difficult than anything Trixie could currently manage. Obviously, Twilight had simply been distracting her until she could get her own jabs in.

Well, two could play at that game, and Twilight Sparkle was about to find out that Trixie’s own horn wasn’t all that blunt!

“So, the Dreamrealm,” Trixie said with exaggerated casualness as she buffed a hoof on her chest. “It’s pretty fascinating, isn’t it?”

Trixie smirked as she saw her comment hit. Twilight’s ears drooped, and she looked shamefully at the floor.

“Actually, I haven’t made it there yet,” the other mare confessed. Trixie drank in the note of bitterness she heard in her voice. “Luna says I keep overthinking it, but… well, it’s hard to just turn off my brain like that, you know?”

Trixie barely managed to avoid snarling at the comment which was, to her mind, a particularly good hit. The thought came to her, quick and furious. Is she implying that she’s too smart to enter the Dreamrealms?!

“Well,” Trixie said loftily as she tried to hide her little trembles of rage, “we can’t all emulate Princess Luna so easily, you know.”

Twilight winced. “True,” she said, then sighed. “Still, if you have any tips or tricks, I’d appreciate it. I’m really getting frustrated, here!”

A flash of inspiration took Trixie in that moment. Sabotage! She could give this mare advice that would guarantee that she’d never enter the Dreamrealms! She thought intensely for a few seconds before a wicked idea came over her.

“You need to focus intensely on one thing in particular,” she said. “That’s what I did.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “What?” she asked, sounding almost desperate. “What did you focus on?”

Wind in the trees, the gentle creaking of a wagon, and the knowledge of not a single soul within miles, but there was no chance Trixie would tell Twilight that. Instead, what she said was, “Something I was very familiar with. I’m afraid that wouldn’t work for you. Instead, what you need to do is find something, one single thought, and run in through your head over and over again.”

Twilight looked doubtful. “That would work?”

“It worked for me,” Trixie said. “Perhaps something like a song? Or a line from a book?”

Twilight considered for a moment. “Multiplication tables, maybe?”

Trixie very nearly laughed, then. It was too perfect! If over-thinking was what kept the accursed mare out of the Dreamrealm, then math problems would be perfect for ensuring her absence! Trixie cleared her throat and fought down a grin. “That could work,” she said with carefully feigned casualness.

“Oh, thank you!” Twilight said. Trixie stiffened as Twilight rushed forward, but it seemed all the other unicorn wanted was to give her a hug. “Thank you so much.”

“Eh, heheh…” Trixie patted her awkwardly on the back. “Don’t mention it.” She pushed Twilight firmly away from her. “Seriously. Like, ever.”

Twilight giggled as if Trixie had been joking. Just then, their conversation was interrupted by a castle servant who called for their attention.

“If everypony will follow me,” the servant said, “I will lead you to the dinner that has been prepared."

As dejected as the other candidates had been before, the promise of dinner in the palace perked many of them back up. They began filtering out of the room, many in small groups.

This encounter had started roughly, but Trixie felt that she had managed to come out on top. Her success in reaching the Dreamrealm before Twilight Sparkle was a definite win for her. Being gracious now could only help to cement her victory. She forced on a plastic smile.

“Well, it seems it’s time for dinner,” Trixie said. “I suppose I shall see you there?”

“Oh, well…” Twilight ducked her head and grinned apologetically. “I’m actually supposed to have dinner with Celestia and Luna tonight.”

Trixie gaped at her, completely lost for words. Twilight didn’t seem to notice as she blathered on.

“I should probably get going, really,” her hated nemesis said in a lilting tone, as if she hadn’t just rubbed salt into an open wound. “I’ll see you around, Trixie!” Twilight trotted away a few steps before turning and waving a hoof. “It really was great to see you again. And, congratulations on making the Dreamguard!”

Trixie waved a hoof back reflexively as she made a little squeaking sound in her throat. She watched as Twilight Sparke trotted perkily out the door. It took almost a full minute before Trixie’s brain began working again.

Somehow, Twilight had turned the tables once again, securing the win for tonight. Trixie’s eyes narrowed as her blood began to boil.

“I swear on my magic,” Trixie seethed, “I will get the better of you, Twilight Sparkle!”

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