• Published 9th Sep 2012
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Twilight's Odyssey - DemPonies



In an Equestria without Princess Celestia, Twilight Sparkle gets lost in a crowd during the Summer Sun Celebration. Unbeknownst to her, she will set a series of events into motion that will change the fates of both the nation and her life, forever.

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Chapter 2: Examination

Twilight's
✶✶✶ Odyssey

An MLP:FiM Fanfic by DemPonies

Chapter Two:

Examination.


As soon as Twilight and her family came home from the activities of the Summer Sun Celebration, she scurried into her parents' library, bent on reading any material she could find about what she had just experienced. Only a bit of light reading confirmed her suspicion as to what that amazing feeling, that awesome power that had surged through her had been: magic.

Her curiosity piqued, she read about all sorts of amazing things unicorns could do if they took the time to learn: healing the sick, transforming objects, or even teleportation—the true mark of a master magician. The sheer scope and variety of things that could be done with it baffled her.

Mesmerized, Twilight's light reading quickly devolved into heavy reading, which promptly turned into many late nights of studying. Without giving it a second thought, she spent every waking second over the next few weeks learning everything she could about magic.

It wasn't long until she wanted to try some of the tricks she had read about herself. What she soon found out was that magic was hard. Anything more advanced than the simplest act of levitation took a lot of concentration and effort. That didn't discourage her in the slightest, however. If anything, it made her even more determined to learn.

Eventually, she did manage to master a few spells by herself, like an illumination spell, and even the “instill-silence” spell, both of which became very useful in her reading. In a short amount of time, Twilight exhausted her parents' collection of anything useful and soon found her way to the local library. Before long, her room was filled to the brim with borrowed books of various sorts about magic. At that point, her parents couldn't help but take notice of her newfound interest.

One evening, during one of Twilight's usual study sessions, she heard a loud knock coming from her door. Lying on the bedroom floor, engrossed in a very interesting book, she absentmindedly responded, "Come in."

The door creaked from behind her, and a greeting from her father followed shortly thereafter. "Hello, Twily! May we come in?"

"Dad? Mom?"

Twilight stood up and turned around to see both her parents standing by the doorway.

"What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be on your way to work by now?" she asked, arching a single eyebrow, before it struck her that that might have been a bit rude. "N-not that I'm complaining or anything!"

Her parents didn't seem to take offence, however, as their expressions remained reserved. Neither of them responded to her question. Instead, they both shared a sidelong glance, each waiting for the other to start.

"Well, your father and I just wanted to talk to you about something before we left," her mother finally replied, before giving her father a pleading look.

"Yes," he said, rubbing the back of his neck with his hoof. "Shining tells us that you've been reading a lot recently..." A drawn out pause started as he awaited a response.

"I always read a lot, Dad," Twilight said, as if stating the most obvious thing in the world.

"Yes, well," he said, chuckling, "would it be fair to say that your reading has taken up a more... specific subject?"

She nodded. "Mhmm. I've been reading about magic. Right now, I'm reading a book called Mnemonic Magic. It's really fascinating! It's about how you can learn spells by—"

"That's actually what we wanted to talk to you about," her mother said sweetly.

Bemused, Twilight slanted her head to the side. "You came here to talk about magic?"

"Yes. I mean no, not exactly." Her mother looked to the side, a little past Twilight. "Your brother came with the suggestion that... and we discussed... and, well, maybe it's best if you read it yourself."

On cue, her father levitated a piece of paper over to Twilight.

Her eyes grew wider, and a smile slowly spread across her face as she read the title: "Application to the Royal Academy of Magical Arts and Studies".

"You don't have to decide right away," her mother hurried to clarify. "We still have a week to cancel the application, so if you want to think about it—"

"Yes!" Twilight burst out, startling both of her parents. She began to happily skip around the room, knocking over a few piles of books along the way. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”

"So, yes, you want to think about it, or..."

"I'm pretty sure that's a 'yes, she wants to go', honey," her father told his wife, before being forcefully embraced by his ecstatic daughter.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she said in rapid succession.

"You're quite welcome, Twily," he replied, gently patting her head. "It was actually your brother's idea. Don't forget to thank him too, the next time you see him."

"I won't," Twilight promised as she let go of her father.

"Well, I suppose that settles it then," her mother said with a light sigh and drooped head. Her voice sounded dejected, as if some final, irreversible threshold had been passed. "We should probably head for work now. Don't wait up, we'll be home by morning." She kissed Twilight on the forehead and headed for the door. "We'll discuss the details of the application later."

"Goodnight, Twily! Try not to stay up reading for too long," her father said before following his wife out the door.

After her parents left, Twilight quickly reached for the pamphlet they had left behind and read it out loud.

"Dear Twilight Sparkle, thank you for your interest in joining the Royal Academy of Magical Arts and Studies—the most prestigious school for magic in the world. We are happy to inform you that you've met our qualifications for a potential place at our institution. In the event that you wish to withdraw your application, you have until the blah, blah, blah..."

She skimmed through the document and jumped to the parts that caught her interest the most.

"...free room and board... classes five days a week with some of the most talented magicians alive!... access to the Royal Library!"—her heart skipped a beat there—"an entrance exam... visit to the—"

Wait a minute!

She jumped back a few lines to read a particular section again. "Every applicant has to pass an entrance examination, including both a written and practical test, displaying his or her ability to perform magic to a sufficient degree..."

I have to pass an entrance exam?!

✶✶✶

"Twily, you've got to settle down!"

With Shining's hooves and what felt like a spinning head on her shoulders, she jerked her head up and down a few times in an effort to nod.

"I'm calm..." she said, trying to meet at least one of her brother's three pairs of eyes.

With one arched eyebrow, he eyed her up and down, scrutinizing her. "You sure?" he asked.

Twilight gave her best impression of a nod again.

Shining gave her a long, hard look. "Okay..." he finally said, slowly releasing his hold.

Once free, she shook her head vehemently, hoping it would make the world stop spinning. The results were lukewarm. After a few more moments, the effects began to slowly wear off and, with new focus, Twilight turned to her brother.

"What was that for!?" she growled.

Shining jumped slightly in surprise, but quickly recovered. With lowered eyebrows and tensed forelegs, he stared down at her. "Well, what was I supposed to do?" he asked, sharply. "You, storming down the stairs, screaming like a madpony. What choice did I have but to shake some sense into you?"

Twilight kept glaring at him, not offering a response.

Shining's stance relaxed a bit. He snorted, and asked, "What had you so upset anyway? I think I heard something about an 'errant's extermination'?"

Still on edge, she said, "What I said was that I had to do an entrance examination!"

Shining cringed. "What are you talking about?" he asked, tapping the side of his head with his hoof.

"I'm talking about this," she said, levitating a piece of paper over to him. He promptly grabbed it with his own magic and quickly skimmed through it.

"I don't understand,” he said, his ears drooped. “I thought you would be happy to study magic?" His voice sounded strange in her ears, carrying both surprise and a sense of dejection.

This time, Twilight shook her head. "No, that's not it," she said. "I would love to study magic at the Academy!"

Shining breathed a silent sigh of relief.

"It's just... it's just..." Twilight hesitated to say it out loud, afraid that she would jinx it if she did.

Her brother took the hint, however. "It's just that you're nervous about the entrance examination."

Twilight nodded, gulped, and said, "What if I f-fail?"

"I doubt that will happen, Twily," he said, "but it won't be the end of the world if it does." Shining snickered. "What do you have to worry about, anyway? Aren't you the filly whose teacher constantly gave her the same tests as the foals three years above her before she began homeschooling?"

Twilight shot her brother an annoyed look, her eyes squinted. "That's not the point!" she said, stomping her right hoof against the floor. "Besides, it's not the written exam I'm worried about."

"So, it's the practical test then?"

Twilight nodded again. "I’ve only been studying magic for a few weeks now. I'm not ready to stand in front of a group and be graded yet."

"Don't you worry, sis." Shining placed a gentle hoof on her shoulder. "According to the pamphlet, you've still got two more weeks before the exam," he said, glancing at the still-floating piece of paper.

"Just... t-two weeks," she repeated, with a single upraised, twitching eye and a slightly slackened jaw.

"A lot can be done in two weeks," Shining was quick to assure her. Twilight, however, kept staring blankly into the air.

"Tell you what, Twily," he said. "How about I, over the next few weeks, teach you some spells that might come in handy?"

Eyes widened, Twilight gasped, her trance swept away. "Really!? You mean it?" she asked gleefully.

"Sure."

"Even your barrier spells?" Her eyes lit up with excitement at the prospect of learning her brother's trade.

"I'm not sure, Twily..." he said, a hesitant frown on his face. "That's pretty advanced magic."

"Please!" Twilight begged, her head tilted down, lower lip pouting, and with her glistening, wide eyes gazing up at him.

Shining bit his lower lip and looked to the side, obviously unsure what to do. "Tell you what," he finally said. "How about this: after you've studied a bit in the Academy, I'll teach you how to form barriers during my next leave. In the meantime, I'll help you pass your exam."

"Promise?"

"I promise," he said, holding his hoof across his heart. "I bet Mom and Dad will help as well. You've got nothing to worry about."

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, and her posture loosened before she suddenly perked up. "Oh yeah, I almost forgot," she said. "Thank you. For talking to Mom and Dad about the Academy, and now for helping me practice." Her voice had calmed again and her face absolutely beamed.

Shining reciprocated the smile. "Hey, what are BBBFFs for?" he asked before they embraced each other in a tight hug.

✶✶✶

From then on, Twilight spent all her time either engrossed in her books—even more so than usual—reading up on magical theory, or with her family, learning various sorts of spells.

Whenever anypony in her family had some time to spare, Twilight practiced with them. When they didn't have the time, she studied. It often happened that she would study the mechanics of a single spell for multiple days in preparation for practice with either her parents or Shining Armor.

Even her dreams weren't entirely free from studies. Once, Twilight's parents found her sleeping on the floor in the middle of the library, clutching both Smarty Pants and a book next to her while mumbling all sorts of magical facts and iterations out loud.

Through tireless dedication and study, using magic slowly became easier for Twilight. Her repertoire of spells began to increase as well, and by the end of the second week, Twilight felt that special kind of joy one can only feel after a very long study session. She finally felt ready.

Then, of course, came the examination day.

"Mom! Dad! This really isn't necessary," Twilight complained, as she and her parents once again made their way to the Royal Castle, where the Academy was housed in one of its outlying wings. "I'm sure none of the other fillies have their parents with them."

"We know, dear," her mother said. "It's just that you sometimes get... erratic when it comes to tests. Do you remember what happened to Miss Hoofer at Magic Kindergarten?"

Twilight looked down sheepishly. "I thought we'd agreed never to speak of that again," she mumbled under her breath.

Meanwhile, the three slowly approached the looming castle. Before long, they stood in front of one of the famous Iron Gates of the castle walls, the indisputable division between the mundane city and the Royal Grounds within. This was the centre of all of unicorn culture, the home of the collective knowledge of all ponydom, where Lords and Ladies from across the realm came together to decide the fate of the nation. Most importantly, this was the residence of the ruler of all of Unicornia, Her Royal Highness Princess Guinemare Platinum.

For the longest time, Twilight stared up at the giant stone structure before her. Its turrets and towers seemed to stretch into infinity, and between its arched windows—each big enough for three ponies in height and two in width to pass through—the walls were decorated with carvings of ponies long since passed. As the stone eyes of gargoyles and statues alike seemed to turn their gaze on her, Twilight gulped and moved ever so slightly closer to her parents.

"Well, here's where we'll part," Twilight's father said.

"What!? You won't come with?" she asked, somehow managing to keep her voice almost completely steady.

"We're not allowed to come with you to the theory test, you know that," he said jokingly, bumping her by the side with his hoof.

Twilight laughed nervously. "Yeah, right..."

"Don't worry, sweetheart," her mother said, calmly running her hoof through Twilight's mane. "We'll see you again at the practical test." She leaned her head down slightly, looking deep into Twilight's eyes. "Are you ready?"

As ready as I'll ever be, she thought. Realizing her parents were waiting for an answer, Twilight nodded woodenly.

"In that case, good luck, sweetie!" her mother said, giving Twilight a quick hug. "We'll see you soon."

She reluctantly let go of her mother's grasp before she felt a light tapping on her shoulder. She turned around to see her father with a folded piece of white paper caught in a magic aura.

"Here, Twily," he said, handing it to her. "Show this to the guards by the gate"—he nodded towards two armored stallions standing by each side of the entrance—"and they'll let you through. Follow the path all the way to the entrance."

"Okay, Dad."

"Also," he went on, "you're supposed to have your test in room one-six-three. Got it?"

"Give the paper to the guards, go to room one-six-three," she repeated. Twilight made a quick nod. "Got it." Eyes closed, she took a deep breath to steady herself, only to jump high when somepony gave her a quick pat on the back.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" her father asked. "Run along, scamp! We're counting on you."

Twilight frowned, but, just as she was about to berate him, she saw his big, warm smile and beaming eyes looking down on her. "Mm-hm," she said, returning the smile. With a straight back, head held high, and chest stuck out—a stance she had often seen her brother make when confident—she decidedly turned around and marched away.

For the first few steps, she determinedly strode forward. However, the further she walked, the more her newly accumulated confidence faltered. Her hooves got heavier, and before she knew it, the pace of her walk began to slack.

"Break a leg, Twily!" her father shouted from a distance.

Determined not to falter, she didn't look back, for fear that she wouldn't be able to carry on if she did.

The air was heavy and her surroundings eerily silent. With nothing else to focus on, a disarming smell slowly began to pervade her nose as she approached the gate.

It smells like the... flower shop?

Before she got the chance to ponder it further, the two guards suddenly stood before her, blocking her path, seemingly out of nowhere. Despite standing right in their shadow, their golden armor appeared to inexplicably glisten, as if they possessed an innate shine of their own. Even in such close proximity, the stallions looked so alike—the same grey coat, the same brown eyes, and the same impressive stature—Twilight couldn't help but wonder if they were twins.

"State your name and business," one of them said in a deep, rigid voice.

She quietly cleared her throat before raising her head high. "My name is Twilight Sparkle," she said as articulately as she could. "I was told to give you—"

That was when the other guard magically pulled the piece of paper from out of her grip. Agape, she could only stand and watch as he gave it a quick read before casually dissipating it in a bright flash the moment after.

"You may pass," he said. And with that, both of them left and returned to their posts.

Twilight blinked. What just happened?

She shook her head slightly, pushing her confusion aside, and pressed forward again. As she kept moving, the smell became more conspicuous until it all but overwhelmed her. And when she caught sight of the source, it did.

Passing under the gate's threshold, Twilight stopped mid-step, stunned by the sheer beauty of the grounds. As before, the castle towered before her, but now lanes of perfectly trimmed green grass surrounded it. The fort looked as if it had naturally grown out of the soil somehow, like a great stone tree. In its turn, the grass was sprinkled with patches of various kinds of carefully groomed bushes and flower gardens, each with its own color scheme.

It took a few moments for her to notice the cobbled path leading through the grounds. Following it, she began to name all the sorts of flowers she spotted.

...red roses... white roses... blue petals... and... chrysanthemums?

Along the path stood the occasional marble statue, all of them depicting unicorns standing in a very grandiose manner. One of them raised a sabre almost its own height up towards the sky while another looked as if it was in the middle of a pirouette, balancing on one leg. The individual hairs in their manes were carefully sculptured, their legs boasted anatomically correct musculature, and a slightly darker shade of marble blushed a few of their cheeks. Even their eyelashes looked real.

In the distance she saw a lone gardener tending to few animal-shaped hedges, as well as what looked like real, exotic birds scurrying through the vegetation. Not allowing herself the distraction, she kept her eyes strictly on the path until she reached the entrance—a simple, door-less ingression. She wasn't there for sight-seeing, after all.

Compared to the grounds outside, the inside was only sparsely decorated. Even to a filly like Twilight, parts of the corridors were surprisingly narrow, and more than once she accidently bumped into the occasional suit of armor, causing a metallic noise to echo down the hallways. Between tapestries and the rare window or candlestick, Twilight passed wooden doors leading to unknown adjacent rooms. She soon noticed that all door-frames had three numbers written on them.

Let's see, I was supposed to go to room... one-six-three, I think. Right. She walked down the corridor, keeping her eyes on the door-frames.

...zero-five-three... zero-five-four... zero-five-five...

Twilight kept on going for a while until she suddenly stopped and made a loud groan. I can't keep going like this. I'm going to be late!

At that moment, she saw two similar-looking guards standing by the end of the corridor, keeping watch next to one of the doors. She looked up and down the hallway real quick, unsure of what to do, before she took a deep breath, bracing herself, and cautiously approached the two stallions.

"Um, excuse me?" she said, sounding as chirpy as she possibly could. "I'm here to take an admittance test in room number... one hundred and sixty three. You don't happen to know where that is, do you?"

Neither of them moved a muscle.

"Hello?" she asked again.

This time, one of them made a barely detectable eye movement towards a section of the wall some distance behind her. Twilight looked between him and the wall a few times before she turned around and walked to where he'd looked. There, inscribed into the wall, it said "100-200" and "200-300", both with arrows pointing to its own passage from the main corridor.

"Thanks!" Twilight waved to the guards.

Neither of them made any effort to reciprocate.

That's alright, she thought, I'm going to assume that's guard-speech for "you're welcome". Still, I hope Shining won't become like that after he's... Twilight stopped for a moment before she promptly picked up the pace.

It wasn't long before she heard chatter coming from down the hallway. There, outside one of the doors, stood at least a few dozen fillies and colts about Twilight's age, some talking in hushed voices to each other, others pacing back and forth or shifting nervously.

She looked at the frame. One-six-three.

The door suddenly slammed open, and everypony in the hallway jumped high. The chatter stopped instantly. Out walked an imposingly big stallion dressed in a green corduroy jacket, with patches on the elbows, and a tie matching his beige coat. His white handlebar moustache twitched as his golden eyes scrutinized them from behind a pair of small, round spectacles, hopping from one pony to the next.

"So, you're today's applicants?" he asked with a burly voice, almost enough to mask its indifferent tone.

A few nodded, but nopony said a word.

"Well, come on in then." He turned around and walked inside the room. After a moment's hesitation, during which the fillies and colts looked back and forth between each other, the others followed suit.

Twilight squinted, her eyes adjusting. Unlike the murky hallways, the room was brightly lit with enormous windows—the same kind she had seen from outside—bathing the room in sunlight. Wooden desks were stacked in rows along the room's stone walls, ending with a big, mahogany desk and an enormous blackboard. Sheets of paper laid on each desk, text down, and a lot of fillies and colts, Twilight among them, stared at a giant hourglass standing in the corner.

"Take a seat," said the stallion.

Twilight, and everypony around her, simultaneously fell to the closest chair with a loud thump.

"I suppose it's best that I introduce myself," he went on. "My name is Pocus—that would be Professor Pocus for the lot of you—world-leading expert in the practice of Henotic Magic and the teacher of Magical Theory here in the Academy since fifteen years back. So, in the unlikely scenario that you pass both of your exams, we will be seeing a lot of each other in the coming years."

While Professor Pocus paused for dramatic effect, Twilight sneak-peeked at her fellow applicants. Most were frozen stiff, like scared deer. At first glance, one could easily mistake them for the life-like statues she'd seen in the gardens.

"With the pleasantries out of the way, there's just one more thing I want to say before the test starts: don't expect anything from these results. Thousands of foals apply to the Academy every year. Out of those, hundreds make it as far as you have today. I suppose that means you aren't complete imbeciles—the Academy does thorough background checks on all its applicants. Still, only a few dozen are chosen each year, which means that even if everypony that will be accepted are from this group, then some would still have to leave empty-hoofed today."

He walked to the corner of the room and placed his left hoof on the top of the hour glass, the class tracing him with their gazes. "I should also remind you that cheating on these tests is a criminal offence, and that it ended very badly for the last foal who tried."

A collective gulp could be heard throughout the classroom.

"You have two hours to finish from... Now." He turned the giant hourglass upside-down, and sand slowly started seeping through it. The rustle of paper echoed through the room as the foals hurried to turn them around. With her pencil in a firm magical grip, Twilight put its tip against the paper and began to write...

✶✶✶

For two straight hours, Twilight read and answered dozens of questions. With her tongue sticking out, she filled out her answers and put the papers aside until they had formed a small pile by the edge of her desk. Only once or twice did she stop to look at her fellow applicants. Some of them stared blankly on their sheets of paper, rubbing the back of their heads, while others wiped sweat from their brows—despite the fact that the classroom wasn't very hot—or furiously erased entire answers with the back of their pencils.

While Twilight had to make a few educated guesses, most of the questions were pretty straightforward. "Name and describe the notable properties of magic fire:", "Name the seven uses of telekinesis:", and "How does magic power machinery?". She was in the middle of checking her answers when the last grain of sand hit the bottom of the hour-glass.

"Time's up, applicants!" Professor Pocus shouted. "Drop your pencils and leave your tests to be gathered later."

Twilight heard the collective sound of dozens of pencils, including her own, dropping to the desks of the respective owners. Still, some fervently kept writing.

"Everypony who I find has not dropped their pencils won't be graded."

The last desperate scratching sounds of pencil against paper suddenly stopped.

"That's better," Pocus went on. "As I said, leave your tests behind, go down the corridor and you'll be given the location for your practical exam there."

On command, the foals formed a line out the door, and scuttered down the hallway. Like a single organism, they moved in comfortable silence until they reached the end of the corridor—a big, lit-up room with big tinted windows, and rows of waiting-benches by the sides, where ponies of all ages sat, waiting for the right foals to enter.

"Twily!"

"Sweetie!"

Her mom and dad simultaneously rose from the benches further down the room before moving to her end. When they reached each other, Twilight's dad swept his hoof through her mane as he asked, "How did it go, Twily? Is it too early to crack open the champagne bottles yet?"

She giggled, moving her head to keep him from messing up her mane, and said, "I think it went well. It wasn't too hard, at least."

Her father made a burly laugh in response. "I bet you aced it."

"Well, as long as you did the best you could..." Her mother glared at her father, frowning with pursed lips, while she magically straightened out her daughter's mane.

He looked at her mother in return, mouth open in mid-word, before he closed it again.

"...we are very proud of you," she finished, smiling.

Twilight returned the smile, looking back and forth between her parents. "Oh, that reminds me!" she said. "I was supposed to find out where my practical exam is here somewhere."

Her father made a quick nod. "Yes, there's a list on the wall over there of applicants and their place of examination... but we've already checked," he hurriedly added as Twilight began to turn around. "We're supposed to meet up with your examiners in the eastern sentry."

"Oh," she said. "Where's that?"

"Apparently"—he magically pulled out a newspaper-sized map from behind his back and hid his muzzle deep within its contents—"it's in the gardens somewhere. Come, I'll show you."

Twilight exchanged a glance with her mom before they both followed her dad, still with his muzzle down in the map, out the entrance.

Apart from the sun standing lower than Twilight remembered, the gardens looked mostly the same, although she spied a lone tower not far away. On their way there, they passed even more statues, and a hedge maze even bigger than some of Canterlot's living-districts. As they walked down the cobbled road together, Twilight's steps gradually slowed down the further they came.

Eventually, her mom had to go back and nudge her forward. "Don't worry, sweetie," she said. "You don't have to be nervous; just remember that, whatever happens in there, your father and I will always—"

"We're here!" her father exclaimed, pulling his head out from the map for the first time, despite having walked in a straight line most of the way.

True enough, they had reached the giant doorway that lead inside the tower, with another pair of guards standing watch.

Her father waved for her to come closer. "This is Twilight Sparkle," he said, placing his hoof on her back. "She's to have her examination here."

Tacitly, the guards simultaneously lit their horns, and the door slowly creaked open.

"Thank you, gentlestallions." As the three of them walked through the doorway, Twilight's father leaned close to her and whispered, "Remember, we're only here for moral support, we can't actually help you with your exam."

Twilight nodded in response before she caught sight of a tall podium, behind which four ponies—two mares and two stallions with expensive-looking suits, neck- and bow-ties, and one clipboard each magically floating before them—stood. Twilight stared at them, absolutely sure that she had seen them somewhere before...

"Are you Twilight Sparkle?" one of the mares asked.

"Oh! Um..." Twilight turned around to see that both of her parents had left her side and were standing by the wall, nodding. She gulped. "Y-yes, I am."

"In that case,"—the horn of the stallion next to her began to glow—"would you mind telling me which of these gemstones is the illusion?" she asked as a cart full of rubies, emeralds, and sapphires rolled up next to her.

After the first cart came another one, and another one. For the better part of an hour, Twilight performed various tasks and tricks with props arriving on the small wooden carts, all with a drawing by the side detailing what she was meant to do. One came with a pile of twigs and a drawing of a fire, so she lit the twigs ablaze; another came with a wizened flower, and a picture of a blooming one...

After every performance, the examiners acknowledged her by writing a few scribbles on their clipboards. As time went on, more and more carts were laid out behind her. Her confidence growing, Twilight loosened up, and even began to smile, as she breezed through the assignments.

"Well done, Miss Sparkle," said the mare who had spoken to her at the start of the examination, giving her a single nod.

Twilight positively beamed as she looked back at her parents, who waved in return.

"You've done well thus far, and only the final, and most important, test remains," the examiner said as the final cart slowly rolled next to Twilight, carrying a brightly purple egg almost as big as her own head. Its picture illustrated a small dragon emerging triumphantly from the pieces of the shattered eggshell.

They want me to hatch a dragon!? I have no idea how to do that!

She looked over to her parents, who made a gesture as if zipping their mouths. The loud clearing of a throat promptly brought her attention back to the podium. "Well, Miss Sparkle?" the mare asked.

Twilight made an awkward laugh and began to sweat. Okay, Twilight, don't panic. Try the easiest one first. She tried to open the egg, same as she would any other when helping her mom bake. The only difference lies in size... right?

She took a deep breath, summoned her magic, and her horn began to glow. It's working! It's working! It's—and that's when her magic suddenly fizzled out and died—Oh no!

Twilight tried again and again, without results. She tried to lift the egg, she tried to crack it, to change its form, yet nothing. Her breathing sped up as one complicated spell after another failed. It was as if the egg had a slippery surface, and her magic just slid right off.

One of the examiners let out a loud yawn while another checked his hoof-watch.

"We don't have all day," the mare said sharply.

Twilight glared at the egg, tensing her muscles and clenching her teeth. In one last desperate attempt to hatch it, she poured all the magic she could muster into the egg, her horn glowing brightly and small sparks of magic flying out of it. She groaned, trying to force the egg to open, but only succeeding in tiring herself out until her legs wobbled beneath her, and she fell flat to the floor with a loud thump.

While struggling to rise back up, she felt a bitter taste in her mouth. On this, the most important day in her young life, she couldn't get it right. Head hanging, she looked straight down at the stone floor, not bearing to face the gazes of either her parents or the examiners.

"I'm sorry I wasted your time," she said.

The only response was the usual scribbles from the examiners' clipboards. That's it? Was it that obvious that I was going to fail!? She gave a deep sigh. Maybe I wasn't meant to go to the Royal Academy... Maybe it was hopeless to begin with...

Her thoughts dispersed as the strange sound of rattling windows echoed through the room. Everypony, Twilight included, looked around confusedly, the vibrations increasing in volume. Suddenly, the booming sound of a deafening explosion pierced through her, causing her to jump high. A burningly bright flash of spectral light followed, and Twilight quickly shut her eyes.

She was forced to stare into the light, however, when they forcibly blazed up, glowing. Her horn lit, and a purple, magic aura swept through the room.

Losing her hoofing, Twilight frantically flailed her legs as an invisible force ripped her off the floor. Levitating, she saw bursts of magic bolts and flashes all around her. One by one, the windows cracked by the pressure until they each exploded outwards, sharp pieces of glass flying out to the gardens. By now, the entire tower seemed to be moving; chairs and desks shook violently where they stood, and Twilight flinched as a chandelier crashed against the floor in a haze of fractured candles and metal.

Her vision blurred, she desperately looked around for help, only to see the examiners hovering inside an anti-magic bubble. She scanned the room for anypony else, but found nothing. Just a pair of potted plants.

Afraid, she tried to close her eyes, but found herself unable to. It hurt.

She shrieked as large boulders and pieces of debris suddenly smashed against the floor around her. Somehow, a grown dragon of monstrous size stood inside the tower, it's head sticking through the tower's ceiling.

Loud knocks came from the door. "Open up in the name of the Princess!" With a slam, the door split open, revealing half a dozen guards standing behind.

Twilight screamed. "Make it stop!"

✶✶✶

"You're going too far, Your Highness!"

The highness in question—Her Serene Celestial Monarch of Unicornia, Duchess of Canterlot, and the ruler of all unicorns, Princess Guinemare Platinum—sat upon her golden throne. Her eyes heavy, she spied across the hall. Through the windows, she could see the sun barely touching the horizon.

Reluctantly, her gaze returned to the stallion before her—a stallion with a flaxen blond mane, so fair only his bleach-white coat surpassed its brightness, slickly combed back so every strand of hair laid perfectly behind his head. In stark contrast to the Princess, who wore nothing but the Platinum Crown and her usual purple robe, he was elegantly dressed in what almost looked like a dark-blue military uniform, with a sash strapped over his chest, decorated with various emblems and medals in both silver and gold that rattled every time he moved. His ice-blue eyes were set squarely on her.

Guinemare sighed. "It's a bill, Duke Blueblood—a proposed one, no less. Why does it bother you so?"

He snorted. "This bill is a direct attack against the nobility, and Fancypants—"

"Lord Minister Fancypants," she corrected him.

His stare hardened, and his stance tensed. "Minister Fancypants," he conceded, "is out of line, and the gentry won't stand for it!"

This old tale again. Despite its necessity, she loathed the times when the two couldn't keep their personal vendetta to themselves. Almost by habit, she said, "The Lord Minister simply looks out for the betterment of Unicornia."

A sound akin to a snarl escaped the Duke's lips. "Minister Fancypants simply tries to strengthen his own political position by caving to populist demands, so much should be obvious! Unicornia, Equestria, even you, Your Highness, if I may be so blunt, owes the noble houses! The Minister tries to take away positions, many of which wouldn't even exist without the nobility, that rightfully belong to us. Not everypony can sit safely on a throne after all!" Blueblood held his head defiantly high, as if it somehow strengthened his position.

"There's no need to get so worked up, my dear duke," the Princess said. "I'm sure that if you just took your concerns to Lord Fancypants himself, he would—"

"Your Highness!"

The throne room's doorway swung open, and a lone guard stormed in, screaming, with pearls of sweat running down his face.

"What is the meaning of this!?" the Duke shouted. "Can't you see that I'm having an audience with the Princess?"

Princess Guinemare raised a single eye-brow. Blueblood obviously needs somepony else to take his aggravations out on. Dismissing his protests, she turned to the guard. "What is the matter, guard?" she asked, calmly.

"There... has... been... an attack..." he wavered, heaving for air. "On the eastern tower. A dragon."

The Princess gave a small, almost silent, gasp, while Blueblood simply snorted in response.

"Are you daft!?" he asked. "There hasn't been a dragon attack for generations, and if there ever was one, we would have prior warning!"

"I'm telling the truth, milord!" the guard replied. "I know what I saw!"

Before Blueblood got a chance to respond, Princess Guinemare rose from her throne. "I, too, think it odd that something so big could find its way to the castle without me knowing," she said. "But I trust you wouldn't barge in here in such a hurry unless something is amiss, so I will give you the benefit of a doubt."

If nothing else, it will be a pleasant distraction from the Duke.

"You said the eastern tower had been attacked?"

The guard bowed his head. "Yes, Your Highness."

"Please, take us to where you found this... dragon."

He saluted the Princess, turned around, and sprinted out the doorway.

✶✶✶

By the stars! What has happened here!?

The two noble ponies found the eastern tower absolutely destroyed. It leaned, as if in danger of falling at any moment, with a gaping hole in the ceiling, a trail of smoke seeping out of it.

"Well, the chances of seeing a real-life dragon in my lifetime just shrunk significantly, for better or for worse," Duke Blueblood snidely remarked. "Still, it seems your guardspony wasn't speaking complete nonsense when he so rudely interrupted my audience. Something peculiar definitely took place here. I wonder what it was..."

While the Duke was lost in thought, another stallion closed in from the wrecked tower.

"Your Highness," he said, and bowed before the Princess—the bangs of his flowing, blue mane reaching over his head as he did. He was a well-built stallion, clad in a stylish, black suit and purple bow-tie.

"Lord Minister Fancypants," she acknowledged him, and he raised his head. "It is a good thing you came when you did. Perhaps you might shed us some light as to what has transpired here?"

"For certain, Your Highness."

"Figures His Excellency would be involved in catastrophes outside the government, as well as inside," said the Duke with a diminutive smirk on his face.

"Good day to you too, Duke Blueblood," Fancypants scoffed. "You seem to be in a jolly good mood today, I hear."

Guinemare cleared her throat.

"Of course, Your Highness," Fancypants said hurriedly. "As I was about to say, it just so happens that I was in the vicinity when the incident took place. About an hour ago, I was walking through the statue gardens when..." He went on to tell the two about how he was blinded by the mysterious light and sound-wave, and his surprise of seeing a dragon springing out from the tower's roof once the effects wore off.

"So there really was a dragon?" Guinemare asked.

He visibly shuddered before nodding in response. "Indeed. For a while I thought we all were in great peril..."

"Well, spit it out already!" Blueblood said. "Why doesn't the castle lie in ashes yet; where is this dragon of yours?"

"Oh, I'm sure it's still around here somewhere," Fancypants said dismissively.

"What do you mean it's—"

Princess Guinemare held up her left hoof. "Please, Fancy, tell us. What else do you know?"

Fancypant's face broke out in a smile. "Well," he said, "I talked to witnesses closer to the incident than I was."

"And?" she urged him.

"And it turns out that there was a practical test inside the tower at the time. The examiners told me that the applicant, a filly by the name of Twilight Sparkle, got a perfect score."

"That is most impressive and all," said Blueblood, "but I fail to see what it has to do with the dragon."

"I repeat, my dear duke. She got a perfect score."

Princess Guinemare gasped. "You don't mean... the last test? She actually did it?"

Blueblood shared her disbelief. "That's impossible!"

"I thought the same thing this morning, but evidently not," said Fancypants. "Not only did she successfully hatch the dragon, she made it grow into an enormous size, trapped the examiners inside a force-field, and turned both her parents and half a dozen guardponies into potted plants!"

All the while, the Princess had remained silent, deep in thought. "Twilight Sparkle, you said her name was?"

"Yes, Your Highness. The daughter of the moon-movers Night Light and Twilight Velvet."

"Where is she now?"

"The filly passed out, probably from exertion. Not surprising, considering the massive amounts of magical energy she must have used. I saw her being taken to the infirmary a while ago."

Princess Guinemare Platinum nodded. "Very good. Please tell me when her condition improves. I would like to speak with her."