• Published 8th Jun 2016
  • 8,122 Views, 410 Comments

Student of the Night - Nadir

After a plague sweeps through the city, life is hard for the lower class. But, there are always those who can claw their way back, fight for every inch of success. With her determination and intelligence, Twilight hopes to be one.

  • ...

Calm Before

The morning began like any other -- to no surprise of Twilight’s. It mattered not how the night before progressed, the morning after always started the same. She had a routine; a simple little schedule that did her well. And so, after a mere four hours of sleep, Twilight woke on her own accord. Eight A.M sharp, like every other day. She didn’t need a timepiece, nor the clock on the side of her bed to tell her that. Her internal clock possessed more accuracy, more precision, and more trustworthiness than any physical item. Today, it served her well. The day Twilight Sparkle woke after eight A.M. was the day that the world would end.

Despite the late night, Twilight woke with no headache, no nausea when she roused from her slumber. The first few weeks of her trysts to the library had left her exhausted, a barely moving corpse shambling along her daily life. Those precious beginning weeks had been the most precocious, her life balancing on a razor’s edge. The dangers of the night were not the only menace she competed with; her own awareness had started to dip and wane as well, her body betraying her during those long, quiet nights.

Several times, she had fallen asleep in her place in the library. Those were the most perilous times, the times where she’d nearly been discovered. If she had even slept a few minutes over… well, she didn’t like to think about it that much. Those thoughts only brought memories of Aqua -- memories of a friend long gone. Twilight remembered her, even if the others in the orphanage tried to pretend she never existed.

Not only that, but her brother and the Matron had become eerily suspicious for those weeks. They had noticed her acting strangely, noticed the zombie she had become. How could they not? Anypony who knew her well could tell. Even the other unicorns had made passing comments. But Matron and Shining acted more proactive, more caring than any of the others. They wheedled and pushed, pressing on and on until they got the answers they so desperately craved.

But Twilight was good. Twilight was careful. She would never let those precious secrets slip from her hooves, she would never let them find out. She suspected that her brother had a hint, a hint that she crept out at night, but nothing more. Nopony followed her through the winding passages, never caught her on re-entry. Shining had no clue where she went, other than ‘out'.

And speaking of her nightly visits, the mad dash home had been something of a record. On any other night, Twilight knew the exact pathway to take home, the exact steps to make, the exact stones to avoid. But after the visit from the strange ponies, things were different.

Her way home deviated from the careful, meticulous walk that she was used to. No, it turned into a sprint, a near kamikaze to get to safety, to get to cover. Her normal path meant somepony could follow her, they could figure out where she lived. With the only possible suspects being the mare and her friend, that would be a death stroke for Twilight. Twilight owned the library at night and to see another pony there had been more than terrifying. She had felt violated, like her secrets had been ripped forcefully from her mind. Neither the white mare nor her accomplice had permission to visit her lair, and thusly, they had intruded on her sanctum. Their crime was especially foul since they knew of her teacher, knew of the ones hiding the marks. Perhaps they were fellow students, acolytes in service to the great mare behind the mask, the one behind all of her secret lessons and private studies. She’d been so caught up in that aura, that malaise that stuck to the mare she hadn’t even thought to confront them, to demand how they knew of her teacher. But no, Twilight was much too careful for that. Twilight would find out, but it wouldn’t be today, nor tomorrow, nor did it even need to be within the year. But, she would find out.

Eight o’ five passed with Twilight still in bed. Rarely did it take Twilight longer than a moment or two, but she had been lost in her own thought. With only the smallest of groans, the mare herself sat up on the straw mattress that she called her bed. Their room was sharp contrast after sharp contrast, revealing their caste as orphans obviously. Their positions belied a stigma, a coat of taboo attached to their bodies. No matter what Twilight did with her life, everypony always knew. No matter how they walked, no matter how they carried themselves, no matter where they went, everypony knew. To be an orphan meant being a shame, a shame that no deed could wash away entirely, save for adoption. Ignorance born of superstition fueled the craze.

To be an orphan meant a mark, marred by the plague for the entirety of your life. You were unlucky, you were soiled, ruined for all. To be around one of them invited the misfortunate on your own life; which may as well hang out a ‘welcome’ sign for the plague. It was all foolishness, but the uneducated, unwashed masses believed every word of it, believed it to be absolute and total truth. No amount of intervention from the crown or help from the nobles changed that. No reason would change the blinded eyes of the foolish ponies who believed such things. Twilight couldn’t help but grit her teeth at the thought.

Because, or rather in spite of this, the room showed off the odd mixture of riches that revealed the inhabitants as orphans. In the upper classes, mass sympathy still sputtered on, yet it was a token sympathy, something fashionable and nothing more. The noble ponies used it as nothing more than a way to look ‘good', a way to show how delightfully altruistic they could be, how much they cared about the lesser ponies. Bah.

It manifested its way in the oddest of ways. No noble started a food donation campaign, or book lending, or charity drives. Those pompous fools believed those needs were long taken care of. And besides, what did a pony really want? According to them, ponies could do without all of the above. A pony could live without food, or clean water. But not their gift! No, for some Celestia-forsaken reason, some noble pony had gotten it in their head the orphans needed clothes. Well, clothes and blankets. Thus, there had been a veritable flood of the two into their little orphanage. Every pony had at least ten outfits and five blankets for themselves. Who even needed that many? Twilight wasn’t exactly complaining about the free stuff, but it was such a waste of time, such a misallocation of resources.

Regardless, she would exploit it for whatever she could. Quilts, afghans, and blankets of all types piled onto her bed, overloading it and practically turning it into a nest. The blankets served their purpose well during the winter months, keeping the chill away adequately. But, the warm, comfortable nights of the fall hardly needed them. For those, the blankets were nothing more than padding, extra comfort against the hard, wooden underframes. Shining, her brother’s bed, looked much the same, and each of them had their own little dressers, stocked tight with clothes of their own. Little adornments crested the top of each of their dressers. Each of them had a portrait of their parents, rare, beautiful things in this day and age. Shining had their father, the proud, noble stallion in fully uniform dress overlooking them and keeping them safe at night. Twilight’s was of their mother, her warm, comforting gaze strong enough to ward off even the worst of nightmares.

Next to each of their beds was a nightstand, a few individual items on top. Shining’s clean in an almost spartan fashion, while Twilight’s still held half-burnt candles and books she had long since finished, or started and never finished. During the day, she stuffed her packs under the bed, keeping them hidden as best she could. That, and Shining insisted the room stay clean, already training to be in a guard-house. She didn’t exactly know why she to follow that rule, since she was never going to be in such conditions, but he’d twisted her into it.

It had become part of her routine to pick out an outfit for the day. Twilight didn’t care for superficialities, didn’t care for all the frills and colors. Twilight lived and breathed function over form, but the clothes that were so graciously gifted to them most of the time weren’t. She made do with some modification, and today would be. She tried to plan this kind of thing in weeks, just a few minutes on one of her evenings was enough to plan ahead for several days. Instead of digging through for several minutes every morning, she spent barely fifteen seconds. Just another little time saver.

Twilight dug through the dresser, pulling out a simple green dress that wouldn’t get in the way. Some pony somewhere had set the paradigm long; mares got dresses, stallions got pants and conservative shirts. Culture dictated that mares and fillies absolutely must wear skirts, much to the dismay of Twilight. Wearing pants, rather than the long flowing skirts of a dress made skipping across the streets during the night infinitely easier. Twilight had smuggled a few pairs of her own into the back of her drawers, her little stolen stash of night gear. She only wore them at night, without even having the chance to wash them. Thus, they were disgusting things, stained, broken and cut open in multiple places. But, ultimately, she owned them, alone, and there their importance rose.

Eight ten A.M crested the clock. Twilight had fallen behind schedule, behind by nearly four full minutes now! It seemed introspection dominated today, though with the night she had how could it not be? With one final stretch, she made her way out of her and Shining’s resting place. Like the rooms themselves, the rest of the orphanage had better days. Most of the orphans lived on the upper two floors, both of them nearly exactly the same.

One long hallway split the middle, with a shared bathroom at one end (one toilet and one shower per fifteen foals) and a spiral staircase at the other. Eight doors were interspersed down the length, each leading to a bedroom much like hers. On her own story, there were seven shared rooms and one solo. The lone room held Quarker, the oldest Earth pony in their orphanage. He shared Shining’s age, if she remembered right. The ones on her side of the hall were all unicorns, the only ones that were actually in the orphanage. The upper floor repeated the pattern, with the same layout and all, save with pegasi on the side where the unicorns would be. There were no mixed race rooms after a certain.. Incident. Ponies spoke of it only in whispers, but everypony knew what had happened. There was a reason that Quaker was in a room all by himself, after all.

Twilight sniffed, and the hint of breakfast wafted up to her.

Twilight trotted down the stairs quickly, following the delicious scents gracing her nose. If there was one thing that was as reliable as Twilight, it was their breakfast. Their breakfast was everything you could ever want from a breakfast, everything anypony could eat. Pancakes, waffles, toast, fruits of all kinds, syrup, even bacon due to a few of the residents. The orphanage hardly ever had much money, but Matron always made sure they had something to eat, usually at the expense of herself and a few of the older orphans. The older foals had taken a secret pact long ago. Once you were thirteen, you were in on it. During the winter months, the older foals only ate every other day, to save money for Matron. The young ones needed their strength and ate their fill instead. It was just one of the many ways the orphanage scraped by. But now wasn’t winter, and Twilight felt starving.

Like the rest of the building, the rooms in the ground floor were horribly cramped. A foyer housed the front door, though the room was abandoned now. Hardly anypony ever came to adopt, so there was no point in really waiting. However, everypony’s attention did need to go somewhere, and it went to the playroom. The playroom stretched wide, easily the largest room in the house; it was spacious, wide, and had plenty of toys for little fillies and colts. Sure, many of them were broken, but Shining and others had managed to repair them into a workable state at least. The last two rooms were the kitchen and dining room, the former of which Twilight was no longer allowed into. One little alchemy mishap and Matron had banned her for life. A pity.

Like the rest of the orphanage, the dining area didn’t look like much. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t anything but functional, kind of like the orphanage as a whole. The room centered around the five tables, as dining rooms were wont to do. They were wooden, round style tables that most ponies had gotten a few splinters off at least once in their life. Each of them could seat five, or not so comfortably seat six, as Twilight’s group had started to do. The earth ponies took three of the tables for themselves, pushing them together to make one big table they could all sit at comfortably. The others followed suit, with the six unicorns taking a table and the five pegasi taking one as their own. The non-ponies sorta rotated around. Greta, the griffon, mostly sat at the pegasus table, while Spot the diamond dog took the earth ponies. The race lines were rigidly drawn. No pony crossed them, nor did anypony dare to speak about them. The rivalry remained strong and fierce, despite its silence in the recent years.

Seeing as how it was now eight twelve A.M, only one other pony sat at her table. Shining Armor sat with two plates beside of him. He worked on one, munching away at a stack of pancakes nearly as tall as Twilight’s head, and the other left alone for her. She ambled on over, keeping a close eye out. It seemed like Quaker and his gang hadn’t woken up yet as the earth pony table lay mostly empty. Might mean that her breakfast would remain peaceful for once.

They were hardly ever caught for it, but those earth ponies didn’t particularly like unicorns -- or ‘horn-heads’ as they called them. Naturally, Twilight and Shining being the most unicorn of the unicorns, received some extra ‘special’ attention from Quaker and his boys. Years ago, the bullying had been a brutal affair. Punches and kicks weren’t uncommon, nor were jabs from a horn in revenge. Most of that had stopped once Shining had increased his training to a fevered pitch. All it had taken was one brawl and Shining had knocked Quaker out cold. But the little things still continued.

It continued on in back alleys, or during the nights, or minor irritations, just enough to sting. Gone were the beatings, a campaign much more devious, much more hidden taking their place. In their place was a hoof stuck out when carrying a plate of food, or finding the bathroom door locked in the middle of the night, or maybe a few pages torn from a favorite book. That last one had nearly made Twilight lose control, but she managed, somehow, she managed.

At eight thirteen on the dot, Twilight took her spot at the table, the one right beside Shining himself. “You’re late today, Twily.” Shining commented, in between bites of his pancakes, smothered in syrup. As usual, he sounded calm, cool, and friendly above all else. Shining personified the ideal of a good pony, a paragon of their kind.. Also, an observant one, it seemed. He had noticed her lateness, something that most other ponies would’ve brushed off as nothing, if they even realized. But that was Shining, that was her brother. He cared about her to a fault.

“Didn’t sleep well.” Twilight lied. It was a lie perfected by use, crafted in the fires of necessity, and presented on the pillow of good intent. It was a lie she’d told many times before, a lie that would always serve its purpose. A lie that both of them pretended to believe, despite how obviously untrue. Twilight knew that he knew. It wasn’t like Shining hadn’t woken up before when she was sneaking back in. ‘Going to the bathroom’ was only a good cover when you weren’t lugging twenty pounds of books and covered in rain. Well, unless you had a very messy bathroom trip.

They had had talks about it. Long talks, short talks, angry talks, calm talks. None of them worked, none of them could possibly convince Twilight to stop. Shining couldn’t keep her locked away and goddesses knew he wouldn’t turn her in. Walking the streets at night was a crime after all, a crime punishable by who knows what. Nopony returned from the plague doctors. She could still hear the scream.

“Well, make sure you get a good night’s sleep tonight, tomorrow is an important day!” Shining’s voice broke through her thoughts. And thank the goddesses they did, those were dark thoughts indeed, a pit harder to get out of than into. She nodded at that, plopping down in her chair and working at her food. Shining had gotten her favorites, as he always did. Single pancake, with whatever fruit was in season, and a single apple. Today, it seemed to be strawberries. She absolutely adored strawberries. Twilight honestly didn’t know what she would do without her Shiny.

“Can’t believe it’s already tomorrow.” Shining stated, calmly. He swallowed down the rest of the pancakes and settled down to watch her. Twilight didn’t mind talking while eating with her brother, his conversation nearly always pleasant enough. No wastes of time there. “Seems like it was yesterday for the last one, least you’re finally old enough for this one, right?” He added, with a small chuckle.

Shining spoke, of course, talking about the exam tomorrow. The exam for Luna’s school, the exam that would decide the future of the rest of their lives. That exam.

Naturally, there were age limits to such an exam. Their little clique of unicorns had all agreed to wait until they could take it at the same time, much to Twilight’s chagrin. Any unicorn only had one shot at the test, no matter how close to passing or failing they were. Twilight found that incredibly foolish, but some aristocrat had decided it ‘saved money’. The remaining waste was all the unicorn talent left undiscovered, all the magic that was skipped simply because somepony took the test before they were ready. Their single chance, gone up in flames.

Being the youngest in their group, the rest had been waiting on her. With her being thirteen now, she could finally take the exam. The others had suggested waiting longer, waiting for her to study. Twilight, on the other hoof, felt confident that that wouldn’t matter. She’d ace the test, she’d get it. She worried more about the others in their group than herself.

Except for Sunset. Sunset was another of their group, a unicorn obviously. She was older, nearly Shining’s age and she knew her stuff. It didn’t matter what, from transfiguration to thaumaturgy, to alchemy, to theory and everything in between. She had an impressive control over her magic, able to even pick locks with just her telekinetic field. Sunset learned her master from her extensive use of it. Sunset could move her magic in the most intricate, tiny ways. Twilight honestly couldn’t help but be amazed by her control, her abilities almost astounding. Her magic alone nearly made Twilight like her. Almost.

Unfortunately, Sunset also acted bloody insufferably.

Twilight and her had never really gotten along. Like, ever. Which was strange, since both of them were something of magical prodigies for the orphanage. One would expect that two ponies who love magic would have a lot to talk about. One would also be dead wrong about that.

Sunset acted pushy, overbearing, and arrogant. The thing was, Twilight could look past all of that. Everypony had their flaws. What really made her angry about Sunset was her little crush on Shining. Everypony knew it existed, the fact absolutely and disgustingly obvious, but Shining just pretended to not acknowledge it. And that infuriated Twilight to no end. Especially because that meant that Sunset decided to act like she was Twilight’s mother or something. Twilight hardly needed any coddling, but Ms. Shimmer decided to take it upon herself regardless. And thus, Twilight avoided her like the plague. Yet, with the closeness of their orphanage, avoiding her was nigh impossible.

And speak of the devil, and she shall appear. “Morning, my favorite ponies!” That shrill, way too affectionate voice announced. Sunset sat on the other side of Shining, her own little food tray loaded up with magic clattering to the table. Twilight internally cringed at her voice, breathing out heavily through her nose.

“Careful there, Shimmy!” Shining said, with a wry chuckle. “Somepony didn’t get very much sleep last night.” He elbowed Twilight in the side, as if it point out the exceedingly obvious. She just glared back at them, clearly less than enthused.

Eight twenty five came by and Twilight had already finished her breakfast. Naturally, because every other pony in this house was lazy, Sparkler, Lime, and Citrus weren’t even awake yet. At least Sunset tended to get up early and stay on time. They were supposed to have their magic lessons at eight forty-five every morning, but that hardly ever happened. Usually eight fifty passed, or even as late as nine thirty! It drove Twilight mad.

Her angry thoughts were interrupted viciously by a sweeping hug from behind. “Is my little Twily sweepy?” Sunset asked, in a voice like that’d you talk to a dog with. Twilight’s eyebrow twitched, magic sparking for the absolute briefest of moment before sputtering right back out. Perhaps the lack of sleep did make her a mite bit more volatile.

“I”m fine Sunset. Please stop.” She finally answered, steel in her voice. Of course, that only prompted a giggle from the orange mare, but really, what had she expected?

At least, the others arriving saved her from the she-demon. Sparkler, Citrus and Lime completed their sextet with ponies that Twilight found much more tolerable. Sparkler, while closer to Shining’s age, was nowhere near the flirtatious freak that Sunset was and Citrus and Lime, only a year older than Twilight each, were actually downright tolerable.

Each of them tended to live up to their names, as ponies tended to do. Sparkler was rather bright and sunny most of the time, but not obnoxiously so like Sunset. She was a bright purple color, with a darker purple and blue mane, something even the earth ponies found pretty. Citrus and Lime were more teasing, twins with dual palette colors. The easiest way to describe the two was ‘fun’. Both of them had a penchant for jokes and pranks, the two essentially being all their interests outside of the kitchen. The two did try to prank her before, but that had been quickly rectified with a little of her own magic. Citrus and Lime belong together, to the point of even looking the exact same. One had a yellow mane and light green coat, and the other the opposite. Honestly, Twilight forgot which was which. She thought Lime had a green coat, it made sense after all, didn’t it? She’d never admit that, yet another of her secrets.

“Morning you three!” Sunset said cheerily, giving Sparkler a light hug and thankfully releasing Twilight from her grasp. Apparently, Sunset had enough affection, and she practically danced back to her chair and waiting food. Lime (or was it Citrus?) took the seat beside Twilight, the other two falling in line after, finishing up and filling up their table.The group gathered fully for their breakfast.

The table fell into a comfortable silence. Sunset busied herself with eating, and the twins were still groggy from the early morning. Only Shining and Sparkler would really talk this early, and both seemed content to let silence reign. All the while, Twilight’s hoof tapped in annoyance. Eight thirty now, and they all had to eat.

With a little groan of her own, Twilight laid her head on the table. If they were going to be slow, she could at least get a little sleep in. Today would be busy, and Twilight could use all the sleep she could, especially after last night. It was the last day before the exam after all, mess this up and she had basically no chance. Or, even worse, imagine if she fell asleep during the test tomorrow. Gone would be her chance, nothing more than dust in the wind. Gone would be any hope of getting out of this wretched place, of making a future for herself. Gone would be the possibility of saving her fellow orphans. She didn’t like all of them, but they deserved better.

This wasn’t just for her; she could not mess the exam up.

The sound of a fork against a glass interrupted her sleep. Twilight jolted awake, her sleep head raising off the table. That shrill noise could wake anypony up, and it could definitely wake her up. She blinked away the fatigue, noticing that she’d actually fallen asleep. Her eyes glanced over to the window, trying to judge the time by the light. Luckily, their table sat right by the room’s only window. Eight fifty. That late already? At least the others seemed to be done eating, if not done talking. Then again, were they ever done talking? Who knew?

Twilight looked up towards the front of the assemblage, trying to find the source of that glass. She suspected Quaker, or one of his goons. The few that were close to Quaker seemed to always need to be the center of attention, no matter the circumstances. That, or they just noticed she was asleep and wanted to rudely wake her up. One day, one day she’d be able to get back at them. When the Queen took her as a student, she’d know exactly what to do. She’d find a way to get her revenge, one way or the other. Her eyes fell onto Quaker and his little gang.

Only to notice it was not him with the glass. Instead, her eyes were drawn to the center of the room, where a little griffon stood. She had clearly just rang the glass, as she was just now landing back on all fours, glass being returned to its own with a thanks. The griffon was white coated, with black around her blue eyes, her crest a dark, abyssal black as well. The rest of her was pure white, with only little flecks of black to break up the relative monotony of her coat. The gryphoness was wrapped in an old, half tattered dress. It used to be something grand, the bodice layered and feathered out. There had definitely been lace before as well, but it was mostly torn off by now, long sold for something or another. The skirts used to be flared out, but now hung limply with a few holes near the tail end of it. In a way, it spoke of the orphanage itself. Once something high class, now run-down, beaten down, and broken. This was their matron, this was their leader and caretaker. And despite how brusque, how blunt she could be, every single one of them loved her.

Matron was a griffon that nopony could really get their hooves around. She was sweet, and caring, and nice beyond belief. If you were hurt, she’d kiss it better, if you were hurt emotionally, she could be the balm for any of your woes. She would much rather go hungry herself, or sell the very last of her jewelry just to put food on the table during the winter. She only cared for the orphan’s well-being and nothing more. But anypony who’d lived there long enough could tell you of her other side.

You didn’t cross Matron. That wasn’t to say she was some badass warrior griffin or something; nay, that was a silly idea. Life wasn’t some fairy tale, where everypony had a dark, secret past. But, the gryphoness was fierce and protective beyond belief of her little foals. Not a single harm would come to their little heads under her watch. Matron would go to incredible lengths to safeguard each and every one of them.

There were stories about her, told in the halls at night, or in the backyard, away from her prying ears. Shining told her long ago of when an alchemist had come to the orphanage. He was looking to adopt a few foals, though he wouldn’t say his reason why other than trying to improve their life. On the outside, he was the picture of an altruistic, middle class stallion. His wife had passed away before she bore him any foals of his own and he wanted a few of his own to love on and take care of.

Matron later said she didn’t know how she felt something wrong, just the hint of danger. It was a nasty feeling, a feeling of sleaziness and malice from the stallion. And Matron latched onto it like a cat with a fish. Without him knowing, she stalked him home, the untrained gryphon somehow making it completely unspotted. She snuck inside after him, abusing an open window to ferret her way in. Her steps were careful, guarded, and she even managed to sneak her way out, all without him seeing a single trace of her.

He wanted to test the potions on the foals. Matron found one dead, one dying foal already in his home that had the misfortune of being adopted by him. Not from their orphanage mind, but one of the innumerable others in the city. Naturally, Matron was a little less than pleased with the turn of events. To have the hope that some stallion would finally give a home to one of her precious babies ripped away ate at her core, fury replacing her hope instead.

Nopony really knew what happened after that and Matron obviously wouldn’t tell anypony, but there were whispers. All anypony knew was that the potion maker mysteriously disappeared that night. Some said that Matron killed him herself, ripping him to absolute shreds with her talon. Others say that she poisoned him with his own potions, forcing him to drink one after another down until he was dead in his own home. Still others hold out that she terrified him so much he fled from the town.

The constables probably just arrested him.

Still, logic hardly ever prevailed around these parts, and thus the rumors propagated. If you believed every one of them, you’d probably think Matron was some sort of secret Griffon commando. Or some kind of James Bond-esque super spy, who got all the ladies as well. As if that last one made even the least lick of sense.

Regardless, nopony could completely ignore Matron’s attitude. Even if all the rumors were false, you didn’t cross Matron. And if Matron was standing up in front of the room? You turned your attention to her. So, Twilight tilted her head, blinking back sleep and keeping a close eye on the gryphoness. Her companions followed suit and even the rowdy table of the earth ponies had turned their attention to her. That was an impressive feat, considering that just before they’d been launching berries at Sparkler with a spoon. She didn’t even notice there was one in her mane still. Sunset’s magic dug it out, albeit slowly and carefully.

“Good morning everyone!” Matron said, her voice a little gravelly but as enthusiastic as ever. Her words were met with a chorus of ‘Good morning Matron’ from the assembled ponies (and griffon and diamond dog) with various excitement. Quaker and his gang were exceptionally loud, except their voices were falsely eager. Sunset’s voice was just as happy but much more honest. Who was that enthusiastic this early?

None of that bothered Matron in the least bit. She was used to their little quirks and eccentricities to the point where she mostly ignored them. Her smile never left her beak when dealing with her little ponies and it seemed exceptionally true this morning. “Thank you very much, everyone! Today is a very special day, because today is the last day we may see some of our little friends!” Matron dipped her head towards the unicorn’s table.

“As everyone probably knows, tomorrow is the day our unicorn companions will take their exam! So I want everypony to wish them the best of luck!” Matron continued. Her gaze lingered on the Earth Ponies table, an implicit request to behave obvious behind her eyes.

“Good luck!” The chorus rang out again. The excitement wasn’t there, the eagerness gone. The earth ponies were alright for the most part, but there were a select few troublesome individuals who remained silent.

“Now, that wasn’t very good, was it?” Matron asked. Her gaze went disapproving, lingering on the usual suspects. “Can we get another good luck for our special friends today?” She asked. Her beak just barely turned towards a frown, just the very edges of it hinted at disappointment. Nopony had ever seen her frown fully. Apparently, it was a terrifying sight to behold.

“Good luck unicorns!” No slacking this time. Matron was the only one in the orphanage to get Quaker to behave and she could do it with just a stern look and a veiled threat. Twilight still wanted to know how she did that at least.

Sparkler and Sunset were beaming in pride, but the rest of them seemed to just want to be left alone. Twilight hardly payed attention anymore, Shining almost completely focused on Twilight, and Lime and Citrus were alternating between dying from tiredness and struggling to somehow pry their eyes back open.

“Thank you everypony!” Sunset called out. Twilight just barely glanced over her way, seeing the chipper pony actually smiling wide. How Sunset managed to always be genuinely happy, always excited, always ready baffled Twilight. Such a waste of energy.

“Now, today’s a busy day like any other! Lunch will be at one today, little ones. I hope to see you all then!” Matron added, flashing the room one more brilliant smile. With that, she left the room in relative silence, taking her own seat at the pegasus table.

Matron actually switched tables every day. She hardly wanted anypony to feel left out, so she made sure to eat breakfast with a different table as much as possible. Some days, she even switched by meal. Nopony wanted to see her switch by meal; those were the days when there wasn’t much, or there was bad news.

Really, Twilight wasn’t sure when Matron got to sleep. Some nights when she snuck out, Matron was still awake and she was oft already awake by the time Twilight returned. She was probably the only pony --well, gryphon-- that had less time to sleep than Twilight herself, though it didn’t show. Twilight knew her real secret though. The one that nopony else even suspected, the one she guarded more than anything, that not even any rumors existed of.

Matron was not a happy griffon. Twilight knew this, Shining suspected it, but most of the orphans had no clue. She cried at night, sometimes. It was rare, but Twilight had heard it. It wasn’t just crying either, it was bawling, sobbing, wailing, whatever you wanted to call it. Matron put up a brave front, but something in her hurt, and that something gave her a great deal of agony. After all the kindness the gryphoness had given Twilight, she hoped to one day find out what plagued her and fix it if she could. It would likely never happen, really. If Matron hid even her tears that hard, how much must she hide the source of them? But Twilight was nothing if not persistent.

A hoof tapped her shoulder. “Twily, you ready?” Shining asked from behind her. Twilight finally managed to break her sight away from the griffon, turning back to her brother. All told, even with Matrons’ speech, it was only eight fifty-five. Surprisingly, they weren’t actually that far behind schedule. The others must’ve not been very hungry today, possibly from nerves. Today would be their last day of practice.

Twilight nodded and jumped out of her seat, stretching herself out with a tiny groan. Sunset darted past her, leaving her with a smile and a few words: “Meet ya outside, silly!” The older mare’s tail even flicked across her muzzle, gesturing Twilight to follow her on out.

“Come on everypony, let’s get warmed up.” Shining ordered towards the rest of the table. He was almost like a drill sergeant for them, a leader and an example to look up to. He took his role of guard seriously, incorporating it in nearly all aspects of his life, from his training to even his bedroom. That kind of control was probably good for the others, it really kept them on track. Who knew where Sparkler, Lime and Citrus would be without her brother? Probably still struggling with basic telekinesis if Twilight had to guess. Unicorns in the lower city didn’t exactly have much of an opportunity to use their magic.

In the town proper, it would get you all sort of looks. The shopkeeps would believe you to be stealing, the constables would expect the same. Any sort of tingle or spark in a bar would get you a swift hoof to the jaw. It was a prejudice born over time, a fear of the unknown and an unhealthy dose of xenophobia. Such were the lower cities, bastions of ponykind’s greatest.

Nine A.M crawled on by and all six of them were assembled in the backyard. Shockingly, the backyard actually had quite a bit of room. A tall, brown picket fence even surrounded the yard, enclosing it. The fence had probably once been something upscale. Once. Sometime in the distant past it had been painted white, with a few chips of the paint still sticking to the marred wood in their futility. The grass, once overgrown and unkempt, had been beaten down by repeated use, almost to the point of a rough mat. The edges, near the fence, still stuck straight up, nearly a foot tall and polluted with weeds. This early, the sun was already up and ready, though her heat had not yet seeped its way into the earth, not yet made their practice miserably hot. The chill of the night remained, every step across the grass, still soaked with its morning dew, cooling Twilight’s warm hooves.

The five were already split into their own groups, leaving Twilight off on her own and still near the orphanage proper. It was strange, seeing the little pairings that had formed with their already diminutive clique. Shining and Sparkler were almost nearly always together, by virtue of being the same age if nothing else. Twilight at least approved of that, Sparkler really needed all the help she could get. The other purple-coated mare was good at very few things; namely, light shows. But what kind of job would that get her? How on Equus would that help her pass any sort of test? It was a specialization, for sure, but not a particularly useful one. Shining’s instruction would probably be the only thing that got her through the theoretical part, but goddesses only knew how she’d get through the practical exam. Shining tried, her really did, but there was only so much he could do.

Lime and Citrus meanwhile, were coached by Miss Sunset. The younger pair seemed to have absolutely no interest in magic at all. Not that Twilight really blamed them for that, she was no unicorn elitist. Unfortunately, that meant they were doomed to the toils of the lower city, few options indeed letting them out. The two wanted to be some kind of cooking duo, as obvious as their names and cutie marks probably made that. Funny how all of that worked out actually. Sunset’s instructions were inevitably wasted to the absolute void of emotion the two held, but that didn’t stop her from trying. Eventually their teachings changed into practical things. Levitating forks and knives, chopping onions with just magic, burn wards for the kitchen. Spells and incantations that were applicable to their chosen craft. To Sunset’s credit, she had done an excellent job with it. Neither of the two was going to pass the test, but at least they might be able to make a living. Yet, a decent living in the lower city was still a poor one indeed.

The others often left Twilight on her own. But really, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Who else would be as efficient, as quick, as flawless as her? She could do it better than anypony else. She alone kept to her schedule, the rigors of her training far beyond what the rest of them could handle. Perhaps that wasn’t doing justice to Sunset and Shining. Their training was just different.

It totally didn’t have to do with her hurting another pony in practice before.

Nope, absolutely, definitely not. Her accident only happened once, a little fire spell gone wrong, really all in the past now! Little mistakes like that were just a side effect of Twilight’s magic, an aberration. Pony magic was a weird, eccentric beast. Nopony really understood it, despite how some pompous blowhards tried to claim they did. Everypony’s magic was intrinsically a little different. Sparkler’s light spells were a good example. Try as she might, even Sunset couldn’t imitate some of them. These kind of signature spells were nearly always unique to their pony. As far as she knew, the only other pony who had one was Shiny with his ‘famous’ shield spell. Not even Twilight could scratch or dent the outer shell of it, and the inner shell was barely touchable.

Spells themselves were complicated enough, and that didn’t even touch on wellsprings. Each pony had a different wellspring size and thaumic channel width, both of which influenced what kind of spells you could cast. Sunset had a smaller wellspring, and her thaumic channel was quite narrow. Which almost made her absolute precision even more impressive. With so little magic available to her, Sunset had had to learn an incredible amount of control for her magic. Twilight couldn’t do half the things she could do, though they were certainly focused. She could pick a lock with just magic, light a candle from across the house, and even add the exact grains of salt to a stew. Her magic could even pull a single strand from your mane, all things that required a level of exactness most unicorns could never reach. All because she had such a small wellspring.

Twilight was the exact opposite, as was her brother. Both of them had massive wellsprings, especially Twilight. Her horn was able to glow bright with exertion, enough to truly blind those who were too close. Her channel was significantly wider than any of the other ponies, allowing her to output a huge amount of magic at once. Unfortunately, that limited her mostly to big things and big things only. Teleportation was one of them, even if she hadn’t managed that yet. Some of her uses included mass lifting or ritualistic spells, in addition to a few baseline spells that every unicorn could do, like levitation. Twilight’s class were the ones to call down storms and tornadoes, or part the sea, or hold a shell over an entire city. Twilight couldn’t do any of that.. Yet.

Coincidentally, she had the same type of wellspring as Starswirl the Bearded and Clover the Clever, perhaps the most famous unicorns. That didn’t necessarily mean they were more important. Nay, sometimes it was the other way around. Control often trumped raw power, more necessary than just throwing your energy around. When spells weren’t wrong for her type, spells went wrong.

Last time she had tried to light a candle, Twilight had blown it up entirely. The wax exploded across the room, some of it still on fire or smoking. The fire had spread quickly, flames fueled by magic particularly voracious. It mattered not what the material was made from. Magic flames could eat it all; metal, wood, books, even pony flesh all succumbed to the burn. Only quick intervention from Shining had stopped the entire orphanage from burning down, or from any harm falling to another pony. Ever since then, she hadn’t been allowed to practice in doors. Matron had given her the earful after that.

Most ponies tended to fall in between the spectrum. Levitation was the only thing that all of them had in common, which was thankfully one of the most useful spells. Their levitation field strength did tend to vary, but not by huge margins. Each pony also had a certain affinity, with Twilight’s being arcane based, Sunset’s fire, and so on.

Twilight felt nearly sure something like that would be on the test tomorrow. The schools of magic were nearly always mentioned as a part of the curriculum. They were as follows: Defense, Healing, Alteration, Arcane, Thaumatic, and Alchemy. Many ponies didn’t really consider the last one a school of magic, but she’d definitely get extra credit for mentioning all of them. Not many ponies even knew about it, especially down here in the lower city. That didn’t stop those like the potion seller or snake oil salesman from making ridiculous claims. Claims that were so easily dismissed if you knew anything about alchemy. A single potion for all your ails? As if. The earth pony dominated lower city had a sorry excuse for magical education, as was to be expected.

“You gonna do anything, Twily?” Shining called out, interrupting her ‘review’. Twilight frowned. Nine fifteen? She’d been caught up in her own thoughts that long? Well she had to give something a try before the day ended, right? Really all she had left to do was actually use her teleportation spell, but risk remained. Well, she supposed it was riskier doing it for the first time tomorrow, in front of all the judges.

The worst she could do now was lose herself in the ether and die. So really, no big deal.

Okay, no pressure. Twilight took a breath and nodded in response to her brother. This was easy, it would be easy, right? She’d studied the theory a hundred times at the least, possibly even a thousand.

First things first, Twilight’s horn started to light up, charging with her wellspring’s magic. Teleportation took a lot. There were no exacts in magic, not in terms of ‘charging your horn’, but there were plenty of guidelines. For a well-endowed -- oh goddesses, not that kind of endowed -- unicorn, the books had proposed charging your horn with roughly a quarter of your magical energy.

What did that even mean? A quarter. What was a quarter of a lot of magic? The lack of measurements and specifics bothered her probably more than it should have. Regardless, she let her magic trickle in. Slowly at first, before it started to turn into a veritable flood of energy. The lilac magic had already started to tint the air around her horn, making her mane stand on end.

With enough energy, things around your horn started to get kinda broken. Light was already spilling forth from her horn, enough to almost make her look like a second sun, except the different color. Within a foot of her, the air was thick, almost as if you were standing in molasses. Anymore and the veil could break entirely, creating a portal to the ether. Nopony wanted to do that. Even if they didn’t last long, the effects of the unicorn in question were always catastrophic. Twilight didn’t particularly have time to be infinitely tortured by demons or something like that.

Easy part done. Despite how alien the aether, the mare or stallion who was teleporting still had to force their way through it. From there, the pony had to concentrate on their exit point. The other side of the yard would have to do. Short range teleports were still teleports, right?

Distantly, she could hear somepony yelling her name.

Unfortunately, the hardest step would be the last. The endpoints had to be created. It wasn’t a portal to the ether in this case, but a slit. Just a tiny gap in the real world that ferried you through to the other side. Runes for protection and timing had to be added, lest you get lost forever, or get consumed while inside. The slits had to be made on both ends, and the further away the endpoint, the harder it was to do.

Twilight opened her ‘magical’ eyes. Any unicorn could do this sort of thing. The world tinted violet, and Twilight could intimately see the ethereal currents through the yard. She mentally marked an X on the other side, her exit. Twilight could feel sweat start to streak across her brow as she ‘ripped’ the exit open, quickly spelling it with her runes as well. Bright white lights in patterns marked the edges around it, signaling that her runes had taken well. They were in the old alphabet, of Unicornia, yet they still worked today. She repeated the task for her entrance, opening the slit right in front of her muzzle. Brief terror flashed through her as she glimpsed the ether, a limitless, foreign thing. A place that no unicorn could live for long, and a place that would eat any other race alive.

You know, that book had been about longer range teleports than a short jaunt across the yard. Perhaps she was putting too much magic into it. That would really only hurt her by taking more of her magic, so it was probably fine. Everything was double and triple checked and her magic was primed. Nothing would go wrong. With a last grunt of effort, she let the magic fly.

“Twily!” Twilight managed to hear in that moment before. It was clearly her brother, worry obvious in his voice. But why was it there? Everything was amazing. Her body felt light, lighter than ever before, almost floating. A giddiness filled her body like no other, almost making her want to dance and sing all at once. She even felt a rush of affection towards the earth ponies, how silly was that? Her horn was so fuzzy, so buzzing she could barely even think straight.

“Yes broth--?”

Author's Note:

Sorry for being a little late! But better late than never, right? Please let me know what you guys like/don't like or whatever else! I love feedback, even if it's "You suck!".