• Published 8th Jun 2016
  • 8,120 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.

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The Exam

Eight A.M. Twilight woke with a jolt, sitting directly upright in her bed. Despite her brother’s best efforts, sleep had still come uneasily for the mare. Nightmares plagued her dreams, infesting the far reaches of her mind and keeping her from the peaceful night of rest she so greatly desired. Nightmares of the visions, of the exam, of the plague, and of everything in between stalked her mindscape, unrelenting until the end. Twilight had grown used to nightmares; nopony who lived through the plague remained unscathed from their icy touch. But these fresh horrors, those of the visions, had woken her up in a cold sweat. Mercifully, she still managed her eight hours of sleep. Her exam wouldn’t be sabotaged from fatigue, at least.

Nightmares, like pain, rode with Twilight often. Ever since she could remember, she’d had them. Shining helped in his own ways. Some nights, he’d cuddle next to her on the bed, others he’d leave a candle. Twilight could hardly lie and say the companionship didn’t help. She held no such pride that prevented her from admitting her own weaknesses, and her fear of the dark and the night presided as chief among them. Shining’s presence and love helped her, but all of that had to end. It had to end when she went to the library, as even his kindness had limits. She always had to wait for him to sleep before going out, so cuddling dropped out as an option.

Twilight noticed her brother had kept to his own bed last night, which, to be honest, mildly disappointed the young mare. His form next to hers would’ve been greatly comforting. Maybe not enough to stave off the nightmares, but enough to help at the very least. She missed their closeness, missed the bond the two shared back before her trips to the library had begun. Maybe someday they’d get it back. Maybe someday very soon.

The exam. Today.

Shining had already awoken. He sat in his bed, a light sheen of sweat already over his coat and the smell of exertion clinging tight. It seemed like somepony else had their fair share of sleeping troubles, but he had taken his out with training instead of fitfully rolling over and going back to sleep. Probably a wise move; productive, rather than wasteful. He had already dressed as well, wearing the same clothes that he wore for their ill-fated market visit.

“Morning Twily.” Shining spoke first, breaking the silence of their room and the orphanage. “Assume you’re not going for breakfast today?” Twilight shook her head, slowly scooting her way out from underneath the sheets. With a rub to wipe the sleep away, she sat up in her bed, trying to wake herself. No, no breakfast today. Too many thoughts swam in her head to even think about eating. She’d always read that eating before tests helped, but for the life of her it just made her sick. Twilight wouldn’t waste her time with breakfast this morning. She needed to keep herself calm, and breakfast would do the opposite. Food could come later, much later. If she was lucky, it’d be for lunch, if not, dinner.

“Alright, um… I’ll be downstairs if you need me. Remember, be at the door by eight thirty.” Shining mentioned. The stallion jumped from the bed, landing on four confident hooves. He needed not remind her. Who else would know the time as well as Twilight Sparkle? She’d be there. Shining shouldn’t worry about her. No, he should worry about Lime and Citrus instead. Those two were late for damn near everything. Normally that could be excused, but not today.

“See ya in a bit, BBBFF.” Twilight whispered. She used a pet name, one that neither of them had heard for quite some time. Big Brother, best friend forever. A phrase that came from better days, from days with long, close evenings, from a closeness no other pony could ever match.

Shining paused at her words, half in and half out of the door. He looked over his shoulder, a faint smile on his muzzle. Twilight could almost make out a small sparkle in his eye. Almost. “See ya soon, LSBFF.” He answered. Shining gave her one last nod, and out he went.

No matter what, the two would have each other. No matter what, Shining would be at her side. It may not always be the same, but their bond remained.

First things first, the mare hurried through her shower then retreated back to her room to dress again. The water did well to wake her up, replenishing the energy lost from her broken sleep. Today’s morning would be a simple ritual, a ritual of pushing fear from her mind. She didn’t allow herself to worry about what would come, didn’t allow herself to stress out about it. Any other normal day and she would’ve been a nervous wreck, but today Twilight focused. Today Twilight honed in on what was important and that meant staying calm no matter what. Her breathing exercises certainly helped. Even a few years prior and she would’ve devolved into a gibbering, thoughtless mess of anxiety.

Twilight had long since grown out of all that!

From the drawers, Twilight pulled out her ‘fancy’ dress, the thoughts of the past gone from her mind. Despite her relative dislike of skirts, Twilight loved this dress. Somepony had made it with care-- with something bordering on love. The entire thing shrouded itself in shades of blue from the top to the bottom. The bodice sported a rippling pattern, almost looking like a cloudy sky. It darkened gradually as it went on, until the skirts themselves, which were an almost navy blue, flared out behind her so wonderfully. The dress even had long sleeves, though they were made nearly entirely of a nearly translucent, robin’s egg blue lace.

Something like this would fetch a high price on the markets, but no matter how desperate they got, Twilight could never bring herself to sell this. No, this dress was special. No matter how many presents from the nobility they received, no matter how many donations, none could top it.

It was her mother’s dress, her last gift to the fledgling siblings.

Eight fifteen. Everything for her morning had finished already. Nothing remained but to wait, and wait Twilight would. She sat on the edge of the bed, careful not to mess up her dress. She’d been careful to not wrinkle it for months, it would be quite a shame to trip over the finish line, wouldn’t it?

Twilight breathed in and out, focusing on absolutely nothing at all. No thoughts would seep into her mind, no matter their context. No thoughts of the visions, no thoughts of the exam, no thoughts of the Queen, her brother, or anypony else. For now, Twilight sat with an empty mind. She could hardly keep it up, but before an exam, nothing relaxed her more. Her breathing slowed as time went on, as her relaxation enveloped her mind and body. Very few times afforded her the chance to just sit and rest like this. Twilight always felt so busy, so rushed. If it wasn’t studying for the exam, it was going to the library. Or studying the books she brought back. Or speculating on her mentor. Or just trying to survive. Still, she did her best to keep herself calm, lest she go entirely crazy. Once a month at the minimum she’d sit like this, usually two or three times when things became rougher. Shining always pushed her towards it if the need arose.

Eight twenty-five. What a wonderful session of doing absolutely nothing. But, the time grew late, and Twilight grew restless. The mare stood, shaking herself out and chasing away the last vestiges of sleep. Twilight breathed one last, deep breath, stretching herself out from mane to tail.

With that, down the stairs and out the door she went, meeting the assembled ponies there. As expected, Matron waited right near the doorstop, practically ambushing Twilight with a truly massive hug. While the gryphoness barely stood as tall as Twilight, her wings stretched wide around the mare, enveloping her fully and gifting her with a cocoon of feathers as protection from the outside world. It wouldn’t last, not for long, but the isolation proved valuable in keeping Twilight calm and collected. She missed the days would Matron would cuddle a few of them under her wings and read to them, even though she’d long since grown past them.

After a few seconds, Matron drew back, giving her one more kiss on the forehead. Perhaps the last contact the two would ever have. “Be good, you hear? I expect to see you back tonight, then no more after that, alright?” She asked, her raspy voice cloaked with sadness. A flicker of regret covered Twilight’s visage. To pass meant to leave all this behind. For the most part, that boded well. Life here could be suffering.

But on the other hoof, there were always bright points. Matron being the biggest example, or the long nights at the library. Even the simple interactions with the other unicorns would be sorely missed; she didn’t expect all of them to pass after all. But perhaps Twilight drew ahead of herself. Perhaps she thought too far in the future.

Twilight could always fail the exam.

Suddenly, the mare’s calm dissipated. She sucked in a deep air of breath, even as Matron held her at arm’s length, face full of concern. Twilight’s body started to tremble, the old worries coming back in a growing maelstrom of anxiety and insecurity. She was Twilight Sparkle, the best of them, the most studious, the fastest learner, but what if it wasn’t enough? What if it would never be enough? She’d never amount to anything, never meet her teac--

“Sweetie. It’ll be fine.” Matron whispered, shaking her lightly. Twilight snapped from her reverie, doing her best to give Matron a wobbling, little smile.

“R-right.. Sorry.” The two hugged once more before Matron released her entirely, small, crooked wings retreating back to her side. Eight Twenty Nine. The six of them needed to be off, needed to leave all of this behind one more time. They’d be back, that much was certain, but for how long? Some a day, others the rest of their lives. Only time would tell.

The two parted with soft goodbyes, letting Twilight’s gaze fall on the rest of the unicorns for the first time. Shining led their group, as he tended to do, flanked by the two older mares. The twins sat, scuffing their hooves at the dirt occasionally. Seemed like their normal trend of not being morning ponies wouldn’t break now. Yet, even Sunset stayed silent. All of them knew the gravity of the situation, knew how much rested on the next eight hours of the time. The time for levity had passed in a flash, and now the somber tone remained over them like a gray pallor.

“Let’s go, everypony.” Shining announced, voice strong and confident as if this day didn’t differ from any other. If their idol failed, their idol wavered in his strong confidence, who could they trust? Twilight could only imagine the rolling emotions that stirred throughout her brother, couldn’t dare to think about what he had to deal with. Only he knew what went through his head, but she’d help as much as she could. Just.. later.

Shining set a pace that all of them could keep up with, a slow, meandering pace that would please the twins but keep Twilight engaged enough to not complain about wasting time. Such was the compromise they had to make with such a diverse group. It wouldn’t be far from them; just a couple of blocks. Even on the worst of days, the walk stretched no more than twenty minutes. They’d arrive well in advance of the nine A.M cutoff, none of their number would be turned away this year.

The walk itself felt rather boring, yet full of apprehension at the same time. None of them actually wanted to take the test, yet it remained something they must do. She knew it was like a bandage -- the sooner finished, the sooner her anxiety would end -- but the road stretched forward into infinity. Based just on how much Lime and Citrus lagged behind, she could guess they felt hesitance; yet she couldn’t blame them. How pleasant would it be just to walk on with these same ponies forever? T’would be better than taking the test, for sure.

Finally, the testing center appeared in their sight. The building sat at the top of a hill, a great monolith of some old mansion. Surely, back before the plague, some noble had lived here. Now, it had been reappropriated, a purpose that likely would send that noble rolling in his grave. Whatever architect had made it shaped the building into a single line. Hallways split off from the main entryway, rooms that were converted into classrooms darting off on each side. Nowadays, the insides felt much like a school building, not that any of her type went to a real school anymore. That cost bits.

The long backyards that once were gardens now served as the practice field. Large expanses of grass stretched out, letting new and training unicorns cast their spells with impunity. The danger of hitting anypony else or damaging a building at least mitigated in this sort of space. Surprisingly, no lines led into the belly of the beast, the ponies this year seemingly much better at processing such a volume of applicants. Then again, there were never truly that many unicorns in the lower districts.

As the group approached, the mare at the forefront perked up. A single desk manned the entrance, held down steady by a unicorn mare, dressed like your typical secretary. She looked professional, an image only re-affirmed by the two armed pegasi off to her side, Equestrian Navy badges clear and center on their uniforms. Their wings fluffed as the unicorns approached, revealing deadly wing blades for the briefest of moments. Well, good thing Twilight hadn’t planned on misbehaving anyways…

“Good morning, ponies!” The mare behind the desk greeted them, shuffling and stacking papers with her hooves. She gave them a wide smile and gestured them forward, closer up. “Single file line! Give your name and age please so I can log you, and step inside for your assignment!” Oh, well wasn’t she a little chipper thing? Her smile seemed to never leave her face, and just the little movements at her desk had a little bounce in them. She reminded her strikingly of a more sincere Sunset Shimmer, one who actually cared. Why else would a pony volunteer for duty like this? What other educated unicorn would come to the lower cities?

Regardless of who checked them, Shining split their group up. He went with the twins first, leaving Twilight with the two older mares. She intentionally placed Sparkler between herself and Sunset, just to be extra careful with it. Up stepped each pony, Shining letting the two twins go first. They spoke quietly, keeping their voices low, but the mare’s smile still didn’t wobble.

“Excellent!” The mare exclaimed, gently ushering them onwards. Yet, they milled around off to the desk, at least until Shining gave his name and age as well. Once he joined them, the trio marched on in, disappearing behind the great, wooden doors that served as the building's entrance. The last bit she saw was a flick of Shining’s tail.

She didn’t know it yet, but that would be the last she saw of her dear brother that day.

Finally, Twilight’s turn came. “Good morning, miss! You’re quite young!” Twilight twitched. Yes, she knew by now that she was the youngest. She’d always been the youngest, and always would be that. Years worked that way.

Somehow, she managed to smile back. “Mhm. I’m Twilight Sparkle, thirteen.” She spoke with a voice beyond her years, hardened by her upbringing. Her voice diverged from her youthful, nearly innocent appearance enough to make the chipper pony blink confusedly for a second. The smile even lessened, but only a millimeter, if that.

“Oh. Um, well good luck to you, little one! Take a left inside!” The mare pushed her forward with a light touch of magic, urging her through the doors and past those navy pegasi.

Twilight glared back, the magic hardly needed. She could’ve walked through those doors on her own power, thank you very much. She took the first left, leaving her face to face with another unicorn, this one a pink and blonde one who didn’t look anywhere near as happy. That’s better. Morning ponies were weird.

“You’re in theory first. Down the hall, fifth door on the left. Classroom should be empty, you’re the first.” The unicorn intoned, voice nearly devoid of emotion.

With a swift nod, Twilight trotted on down the hall, just barely getting a peek of Sunset taking the fourth door on the right. She really dodged a bullet there; Sunset and her would not share a room for the theory part at least. Good, Twilight could most definitely concentrate more without the bacon-haired distraction next to her. Unfortunately, that meant Sparkler would also be in that room. Twilight would be well and truly alone for her test. Other ponies would be there, but that meant nothing. She knew none of them.

Twilight took a deep breath, turning her way into the designated room. She could handle it, Twilight Sparkle was strong. At least the room stayed empty; if she needed a breakdown... Well, she had a few minutes. She wouldn’t need them, however.

Twilight chose a seat near the back, right beside the window. The room truly had the feel of one of the study rooms back at the library. Neat, orderly rows of desks took up most of the space, making a five by five square in the middle of the room. Up front, a chalkboard perched behind a larger desk, though it lay empty for now. The sides were devoid of anything for now, just wood, wood, and more wood. At least Twilight could snag a window seat now - it would give her something to look at when she sat bored after finishing early.

Twilight took her seat carefully, balancing in the wooden, uncomfortable desk. Deep breaths, in and out, in and out, everything would be fine. Ponies started to filter into the room, all unicorns of course. Thankfully, the unicorn that sat beside her, an auburn stallion, chose not to speak. Blissful silence held for a while longer, until some of the new ponies started to speak amongst themselves. Fine, whatever. It wouldn’t last long anyways, and Twilight honed her laser like focus to the center of the room.

Eight fifty seven. In stepped the proctor, two saddlebags, both clearly loaded with papers and the like. Like everypony else here, she was a unicorn, an azure mare to be exact. Her horn split her two-tone mane down the center, already sparkling with cyan magic as a thick sheaf of papers levitated out to each seated pony along with a pencil. “No starting, no peeking, don’t even pick up the pencils. I’ll know if you try anything.” The unicorn spoke in a clearly no-nonsense sort of way. She knew what to do, and she’d execute her duty well. For some reason, Twilight felt a rush of gratitude for such a proctor. Better than the inexperienced who could muck it up.

Yet, as her own copy floated onto her desk, Twilight nearly couldn’t resist. She stared at the papers, the top having a few words.

Unicorn Competency Test

Fifteenth Edition

Editors: Midnight, Snow Haze, and Glow

Valid for: 1103 AD

For such a lauded, stressful test, the cover was absolutely unremarkable. Midnight she’d heard of at least, one of Luna’s former students of the night. Hardly the most successful, but even her contributions were something of note. She started the whole thing after all, started the tests. The other two were lesser knowns, Twilight having not heard hide nor hair of the two. That didn’t say much, but it ruled out the most well-known of unicorn researches.

Her hooves itched to pick up that pencil and start writing. Eight Fifty Nine. So close, she could very nearly taste it. So close, she almost started sweating. So close, she could almost jump for joy. The torment of waiting neared its end, and the torment of worry crested the horizon once again.

Twilight felt overjoyed, reveling in her worry.

That should not have been possible, but here she was. On one hoof, she longed to finish the test, to get it over with and have the guillotine over her head gone for good. On the other… what if she failed? Yet, she couldn’t let herself fall into that mindset. To consider failure an option meant inviting it into your life. If she kept her distance from it, it would remain a distant neighbor. Twilight had studied, toiled, sweat, cried, about all of it. She couldn’t be more ready, the confidence must remain.

Nine. “You may begin.” The proctor’s smooth voice rang out, like the final nail in her coffin. With one last deep breath and a scribble of her name at the top, Twilight’s magic flicked the front page open.

Name three of the Six Schools of Magic:

Three? Just three? Well.. That was easy, wasn’t it?

Defense, Healing, Alteration, Arcane, Thaumatic, and Alchemy.

Couldn’t hurt writing more than just the three, right? Okay, well, first question easy enough, that had to be a warm-up, right? Something to get everypony into it? That made sense. This test wanted to find the best unicorn candidates, getting them comfortable just made sense. No point in being needlessly hard!

Second question.

Name three of Starswirls’ theorems.

That.. was it?


Preservation of magic, Theory of distances, and Thoughts on time.

Maybe the warm-up went on?

True or False:

Alteration deals with the changing of an object.

Obviously true!

On and on it went for Twilight. Despite the ease of each question, the test still went on for pages and pages, and Twilight didn’t want to mess it up. Even with her extreme care for each question, the mare finished the test after barely an hour. Of the four hours given, Twilight only took a quarter of them. The test, after all the hype, all the tension, everything, ultimately felt like nothing.

To think, something like this had kept her up at night. To think, something like this had worried her and the others. To think, she’d cried over this. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So much wasted time, but yet it all paid off. If the test just based success on the written portion, no doubt remained that Twilight would pass.

Elation won out, tickling her from her head to her hooves. A near frantic grin took over her face, and she shook her head very slowly. She was done! The test was done! She still had the practical part to go through as well, but after this easiness? How could she worry? The world sat in her hoof, ready for her to take! She could do anything, absolutely and positively anything! The test, the test that everypony dreaded so much was nothing to her! Absolutely nothing!

Okay, perhaps she got a little out of hoof with it. Somehow, she managed to calm herself down, realizing now she had quite the time to wait. Briefly, she wondered how the others were doing. The test felt easy enough, but how much did Sunset and Sparkler know? Okay, right off, Sunset would be fine. Twilight had no doubt of that whatsoever.

Sparkler, on the other hoof… She’d never done well in their mocked tests. She’d never done well in their surprise quizzes. She couldn’t be considered studious by any stretch of the word, and quite frankly had never shown an interest beyond her little light tricks. The material was easy but Twilight still held no faith for the other mare. Sparkler might be able to do something amazing with her magic, but she simply didn’t try. That fact frustrated Twilight to no end; she could truly have a talent, but she squandered it. And for what? Chasing after a stallion? Gallivanting across the town? Twilight honestly had no clue, and she doubted that Sparkler did either.

Perhaps Twilight judged too harshly. Perhaps she had a plan that Twilight had not learned. Those didn’t really fit with her idea of Sparkler however.

Her thoughts drifted to the ponies in the practical exam. Shining would be doing well, she knew that much. Twilight still had yet to see anything of the practical exams - her window faced back towards the street. That mattered not, Shining would still be doing well. Everything Shining did gleamed of perfection, from the smallest meal, to the largest training session. He drove himself into the fire over and over, and always came out on top. He’d do well for himself, no doubt making it into the guard, if that was what he wanted.

Lime and Citrus just needed to not set the field on fire. Those two clearly had no hope as well, but they could make something with their life. A good apprenticeship at a restaurant, even a lower class one, would go a long way. Even if they could turn a few heads here, it would help. Doubtless, Matron would aid the two as well as she could, hopefully getting them a stable job in some kitchen. The two would do well for themselves, Twilight had hope.

With those thoughts out of the way, Twilight’s mind wandered. Primary among her thoughts were ‘what-ifs’. What if she became the prized ‘Student of the Night’? What if she didn’t quite make it? What if the Sun Goddess chose her instead? What would she do once gone from the orphanage? What would happen to her home?

What would happen to Matron?

That foolish thought came without warning. Matron had lived fine without her long ago, and she’d live fine now. Twilight would simply have to find a way to continue and check on her. There had to be ways, right?

Wait, what time was it? More and more ponies seemed to be putting down their tests, more and more seemed done. She checked out the window. Twelve Fifty Five already? Five minutes until the end.

Those five minutes passed faster than any she had ever experienced. It seemed nearly instantly the proctor stood from her chair. “Tests in, everypony.” She announced, magic grasping at each and yanking it forward. It seemed that they’d hardly get a chance to cheat at the time limit. Magic made these sorts of things so much easier.

“Lunch will be along in a minute.” The proctor didn’t even look at them as she spoke, instead stacking the tests up nicely together. The tests fell into her saddlebags and the mare got up to leave, pushing through the door just as another mare tried to slide in. In any other day, that probably would’ve been funny - the two met snout to snout, barely avoiding running into each other.

One flustered apology later, and the new mare scrambled in, levitating out covered plates. Lunch would be served right here? Convenient, she supposed. The plate top levitated off with the mare’s magic still wrapped around.

A hay sandwich and an apple.

Twilight didn’t really expect much, so this fit her expectations. The others? The others seemed to grumble about it, but they couldn’t do anything about it. “Thirty minutes, little ones.” The food-mare called. “Just leave the plates on the table. Another will come for you.”

Plenty of time. In fact, Twilight could take it slow, really enjoy the meal. Well, enjoy it as much as she could. There was really only so much that a pony could enjoy a hay sandwich. Something of a classic, sure, but nothing special. And with how droopy it looked, it likely wasn’t fresh either. So a hay sandwich that had sat out for a few hours.

Free food was still free food, though Twilight’s first bite didn’t exactly reinforce her positive thoughts. She ate as quickly as she could - if she ate fast enough, she could barely taste the food. At the least, it filled her up quite nicely. She’d have no rumbly tummy during the practical part of the exam.

For how long the night had gone on, the morning so far had moved incredibly fast. Lunch kept that trend, and as she finished yet another unicorn mare came to collect them. Unicorn mares, unicorn mares everywhere. Were all the instructors and proctors mares? It certainly seemed like it.

“Orderly line, ponies. Fall in.” This pony reminded Twilight of Shining Armor; the gruffness, the almost military style orders. It fit. She might be one of the guard? But she wasn’t wearing a uniform. Perhaps she was off-duty? Guard ponies didn’t have to wear their uniforms when volunteering or on their off-days. At this point, Twilight could probably pass a test to get into the guard. She’d learned enough simply by being in the same room as Shining.

Regardless, Twilight fell into line, the ponies following the guard in a single file line back down the hallway. The mare lead them from whence they came, except she took a left, towards the backyard, instead of a right towards the street again. Unfortunately, by the time her class reached the outside, the field lay mostly empty. It seemed she truly wouldn’t see Shining or the twins until much later. With luck, she wouldn’t see Sunset either.

Very few ponies stood on the grass. Those that remained outside seemed to be instructors, or guard. A fair amount of military unicorns waited on standby, ready for any sort of spell to go wrong. Just in case disaster happened, they watched on, ready to jump into the action. Very few young unicorns could do enough to actually challenge one of them, so the twenty or so that ringed the back yard were probably overkill.

The back lawn itself seemed to be perfectly molded for this sort of thing. It stretched for yards and yards, just free, open space. Plenty of room to maneuver, plenty of room to cast spells, plenty of room to fuck up. Most of the instructors at least had clustered in the middle, talking, comparing notes and the like. They must be reviewing the first class, weeding out the weak, and keeping the strong. Shining would easily be on the list of the strong.

The mare herded on the group of youthful unicorns on, towards the bunched up instructors. They drew close, Twilight barely able to see around the crowd in front of her. What she did see, however, nearly made her heart stop.

Queen Luna.

Right in the middle of the grounds.

She looked on the process serenely, listening to each and every report without a word. Her judgements passed internally, only a flicker on her facial features giving any hint of her mood. In real life, the Queen looked even more beautiful than Twilight could’ve ever imagined. She’d heard stories of her mane in the past, but seeing it now made her realize not one had done them justice. It flowed, on and on, the night sky seemingly contained within each lock. Stars and twinkling comets floated through her mane even as she stood still, the background to it nearly pitch black. Her mane drifted in some unseeable, unfeelable wind, the mane itself nearly reaching down to her mid leg. Like all alicorns, she stood tall among normal ponies, easily twice the size of any near her, and possibly three times the height of Twilight Sparkle. Her coat matched her mane, a deep, luxurious purple that contrasted near perfectly with her marvelous mane.

As usual, she’d walked out with her accoutrements. Her black crown, bearing a silver moon, made from a diamond, perched high on her head, held back by her sharp, lengthy horn. A peytral covered her chest, made of onyx or some black metal, she couldn’t be sure. Amethysts and peacock topazes covering the front with designs of the night sky. Even now, the mare wore armor under her finery. It covered her undercarriage, her sides, and the inner parts of her legs with black metal, simple but elegant at the same time.

Her presence terrified Twilight. Even from this distance, she could feel the power. Even from this far, she could feel the oppressive aura, radiating out from the Queen. Her magic.. She held nothing back. Everypony here would be able to feel it, from the lowliest of them to the mightiest. None of the unicorns would dare protest anything she might say, not with such might lording over them at any step. Even the pegasus guards off the side seem to be affected; they kept shuffling their wings, as if uncomfortable. But what pony wouldn’t be? What pony would dare to stand against a goddess, a conqueror, a lady?

A Queen.

Belatedly, Twilight realized she’d fallen behind the others. Twilight stared at the Queen, stared at her unabashedly, her attention stuck fascinated on the mare. Somehow, the Queen knew, and her head turned, slowly, ever so slowly, giving her the smallest, most secret wink.

Most ponies wouldn’t even know it had happened. Most ponies wouldn’t be able to tell. But Twilight, Twilight knew. The Queen herself.. The Queen had winked at her? The Queen had acknowledged her! Her heart swam, bounding forward to catch up to the group. This practical part would be easy, so easy! She’d smash right through it, her confidence hit new heights. She would not be denied, not be stopped, not be contained. The Queen herself watched her!

Queen Luna watched her.

Twilight’s blood chilled within her veins. She’d have the attention of a goddess on her. Any little mistake, any fuck-up, even the smallest of things and she’d be done. Chances snuffed right out, gone forever. The stakes had raised again, somehow making the test even more tense. All of her earlier confidence plummeted, replaced by a cold, hard anxiety.

Twilight worked well under pressure, right?

No, she did not.

Finally, she joined the group, interrupting the conversation from who she expected to be the lead instructor. “-will be split off with an examiner. Wait in your places for one to come to you.” She explained. “With that being said, please wait patiently. We’ll have plenty of time for all of you.” With that, the mare stepped down from the podium, standing on the ground once more.

Excited murmurs broke out throughout the crowd, partially from the start of the exam and partially from the presence of the Queen herself. No other pony had seen the Queen’s look, as Twilight stayed ignored the entire time. That was fine, however. Really, she wanted it that way. The less attention the better. In fact, she stared down at her hooves, trying to zone everypony else out. It remained the only way to calm herself down.

Yet, she wouldn’t be afforded even that mercy. “Twilight Sparkle?” A stiff, formal sounding voice asked. Twilight’s head tilted up, falling on two ponies. One, the head instructor from earlier, a ruby-coated mare, and the other, the Queen herself. Instantly, she bowed low, pressing her body down to the ground. Ponies showed deference, ponies showed respect. She’d heard tales, tales that weren’t worth repeating of what happened to those who didn’t bow. Who knew how many were true, but Twilight didn’t want to become just another rumor.

“Please rise. I’m here to observe, nothing more.” The Queen spoke, her voice a powerful wondrous thing. The words left her mind quaking, struggling to catch up. Even the little speech had sent her reeling, her stomach going all a flutter at the words. How could anypony stand in her presence like this? Despite the words, Twilight ducked her head lower for a moment, overwhelmed by her mere presence.

Finally, she managed to rise on wobbling hooves. Luna had started to look out over the pairs, watching the others as she waited, but the instructor started right at her. And the instructor did not seem pleased. “Her highness wishes to see your performance. You will show off right here.” Right here? But, they were in the dead center. Everypony could see here.

And Luna wanted exactly that.

Yet again, the Queen spoke. “Do not be alarmed, simply show us your best. We can feel your energy from here.” She explained. So her power was the reason. Why else would somepony like the Queen take special interest in her? It always came down to power, always came down to her ability. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

At least the explanation was nothing uncouth. Luna held no interest in her body, held no special love for her. She’d have no special treatment besides what she’d deserved. Her task grew to heroic proportions, but if Luna had taken an interest in her, Twilight felt confident she could meet each and every one of them. The only question that remained? What spells to use.

The obvious came to mind first. Teleporting was, by and far, her most impressive spell. But after yesterday, she didn’t dare risk it, especially not with such an important pony close by. If she lived from such a mishap, the terror that would be thrust upon her would not be light. Nay, they’d probably see it as some kind of assassination attempt, some try to take the crown from the Queen’s head. Teleporting fell right out, but that hardly remained her only impressive spell. Perhaps a warm-up would serve her well, something to get the proverbial muscles flexing. Fire felt easy, and fire felt very warm indeed.

Twilight turned her back to the ponies; out of sight, out of mind.The expanse between their position and the manor stretched far enough, more than enough to bust out her more impressive spells. Fire, one of the four elements, didn’t even try to behave most of the time. Controlling it spoke not only to the unicorn’s pure firepower -heh- but also to their control over their magic. Somepony like Sunset could control small, candle-like flames much more carefully than her. But nopony that she’d met could make the same blaze she could.

With one last look over her shoulder, she channeled magic into her horn. Fire felt different than going into the aether. The aether had a chill to it, not a coldness, but a void of temperature. Fire, on the other hoof, roared with each cast. The familiar screaming intensity filled her mind as she fed more and more magic into her horn. Well knowing the problems from yesterday, she let it loose.

A jet of fire erupted in a tsunami out of her horn. Strangely, fire elements mixed with enough magic actually acted as a liquid for a while. It landed nearly twenty feet away, a bonfire that sailed nearly forty feet high erupting from the ground. Twilight sweated, but not from the heat, her dress starting to wilt under her body’s exertions. Strangely, the fire burned nothing around it, and even the strongest orange part of the flames were tinted a very slight purple. Every unicorn’s flame had at least a little bit of the pony in it.

Twilight panted with the effort, holding the flames high for several seconds. Amethyst magic swirled around her horn in a tempest, letting all those around seeing how much she put into it.

Eventually, she let the spell drop, magic winking out slowly. The flame died down, as if doused by some great rainstorm. Once done, nothing remained, nothing stayed behind. The fire hadn’t even scorched the grass, much less turned into that ugly refuse that her teleport had. Magical fire behaved differently than normal, only burning the exact things you wanted it to. And Twilight had wanted all to remain whole, a testament to her magical control.

Twilight tilted her head over her shoulder, looking at princess and her instructor. The judge, at the very least, looked quite impressed, though there was no jaw dropping, no amazement. She didn’t really expect anything like that for her first spell. Nearly any unicorn could make a fire after all. What she didn’t expect was the Queen’s reaction: none.

Okay, time to ramp it up, she supposed. Her head whipped back around, focusing on the patch of grass where her flame had scorched. First, she swept a flame across it. A real one this time, scorching the grass and instantly killing every living thing within it. The patch she roasted ended up being five feet by five feet, just the amount of area she’d practiced with. She banished the thought of fire from her mind then, transitioning it to the earth, the greens of new growth, and the fresh rains of spring. Creating life, at least plant life, from a dead patch wasn’t entirely difficult. Nay, what was difficult was the how and the when.

Typically, a unicorn would add just a drop or two of magic to an earth pony’s garden. The magic warded off diseases and vermin, though it rarely made them grow faster save extreme cases. But few earth ponies knew the true extent of unicorn powers in regards to earth magic. Few realizes how deep some of them could go. Twilight, however? Twilight knew exactly what to do with it.

Vines, thick, clinging, thorn ridden vines erupted from the patch of earth, reaching out towards the sky. The amethyst glow around her horn had tinted a light green, though her purple still shown through most of all. She grit her teeth, holding the growth, coaxing the vines on. At the end of them, flowers started to sprout, great, red flowers the size of Twilight’s head, some bigger. Offshoots split from each, every single one ending in their own bloom. Sweat streaked Twilight’s brow now, and she had actually started to shake with the effort. Rarely did she power this much magic in such a short amount of time. But, the Queen watched on and Twilight had to impress her.

Her magic finally stopped as the plant growth reached as high as the Queen herself. She turned back again, panting even more, her hooves sunken into the ground beneath her. Such magical flow had disrupted the ground next to her, creating little ripples of dirt on the ground. And yet, all of this, all of it amounted to nothing compared to the power the Queen still radiated passively. This time, unfortunately, dirt marred the sleeves of her mother’s dress, a little rip even in the middle of the bodice. She frowned mentally; that’d have to be fixed.

Once again, the instructor looked incredibly pleased, but the Queen had not yet changed.

What in Equestria did Twilight need to do? What did Twilight have to do in order to make her smile, to make her look anything over than entirely impassive? The task had to be impossible. Other students even looked on at the commotion, clearly impressed. Frustration flared through Twilight’s chest. She didn’t want a student, did she? She had came just to watch, watch their little ponies gloat. Well, not Twilight, Twilight would show her.

Twilight could put on quite the show. She stalked forward, brushing her way deep into her patch of vines, deep into the ‘forest’. She stopped in the dead center, taking a deep breath. Her head ached, her horn twitched, and the vines had covered her dress in little scratches, picking at the fabric. Another casualty for her little display, another thing to be repaired. If all went well, she’d have the bits to, at least. Yet, none of that mattered, none of that bothered her one bit. The show had started, and Twilight would see it to the end.

All at once, her horn began to grow, the earth beneath her trembled, and the her familiar magic encased the vines. Slowly, ever so slowly, they raised her into the air, borne in the middle of a bubble of defensive magic, a safety cloak around herself. The vines pushed on, raising her far above what she’d left them at. She passed her instructor’s head, then the Queen’s. Slowly, she raised on, ascending to the heavens.

Only once, she had tried this in a single garden pot. Like everything else small she touched, it shattered, ruining her investment and destroying any remaining life in the seeds. She learned from that mistake, from that one and many like it. Go big, or go home.

With a single grunt, she stopped the growth, now at least thirty feet in the air. From her vantage, she could see everypony in the field. Some looked up at her, like they would like at Luna herself. Some seemed dejected, barely able to concentrate on anything, least of all her. Those ponies no longer had their instructors with them, already failed out. Still others fought on against the practical exam, casting all they knew, all they could ever know.

Belatedly, she spotted Sunset and Sparkler off to the side. Sunset worked on, engrossed in her task levitating a series of objects, shrinking them, growing them and really showing off her fine control. She juggled, ten, fifteen, twenty of those small objects at the same time, though Twilight could hardly see what they were. She barely even seemed to put in an effort, even walking around and talking to her teacher as she worked. And that wasn’t all either. As she stepped, she left little hoofmarks in the grass, growing a fluorescent green, each step leaving tiny little flowers in her wake. Sunset’s magic continued on, plucking individual blades of grass, tucking them, tying them and making them into little balls. Each one joined her floating circus, adding to the complexity.

Twilight couldn’t let herself get distracted. She turned back down, eyes locking on the Queen’s body. Now, she had her attention, now she had her full gaze.

Twilight had not finished yet.

Under her, the vines all bloomed at once, creating a perfect platform of flowers for her. Her magic dropped the shield, letting her stand entirely on her plant abomination. Her magic flickered again, touching at her own vocal chords. A little alteration never hurt anypony. Lights flared around her, and she cleared her throat. Now, she had even Sunset’s attention. “I am Twilight Sparkle. Sister to Shining Armor, daughter of Twilight Velvet and Night Light. I have worked for thirteen years for this, and I will not be denied!” Her voice carried on, amplified by her magic to an almost thunderous tone.

For a brief second, all eyes were on her. Some were split wide open, ponies’ jaws even dropping open. Even Sunset’s spell had wobbled for a second, though she quickly recovered, even going as far to increase the speed of her juggling. Twilight reveled in the attention in the moment, high on her magic, high on the energies coursing, flowing through her, taking her to heights she’d never felt before.

The mare stepped forward, reaching the edge of the platform. She glanced down towards the Queen, recognizing the hint of emotion for the first time. The very corner of Luna’s mouth had tilted up, the smallest smile gracing her flawless features.

With one last breath, Twilight stepped off her platform, plummeting through the air below. Her horn flashed so bright it seemed white, hurtling her into the aether once more. Yesterday, she had promised Shining, swore she wouldn’t try and teleport again. Twilight didn’t like to break her oaths, didn’t like the uneasy feeling it left in her. But sometimes, it felt necessary.

For once, Twilight had lied.

Something, whether it be the situation or her earlier attempt, had made her change the spell. The setup stayed the same, but the extra power went into another layer. Twilight wrapped herself in a shield as she thrust herself through the slit, protecting her from the visions. She had no idea if it would work, but she let her theory be tested by the fires of necessity. Thankfully, mercifully, her shield stayed intact, though it drained her magic at an alarming rate.

How long had Shining said it took her? Seven seconds? A normal teleport should be milliseconds. And now, in the time of do or die, fight or flight, Twilight cracked the code. As soon as she entered, she was out again, landing with a bang right in front of her majesty Queen Luna, spear of the night, Nightmare to the enemies of Equestria, and the sword of Equestrian might. She landed within inches, close enough to see each individual gem on her armor, enough to smell Luna’s perfume even. Lilac.

“Your highness.” Twilight spoke, bowing her head. Sweat dripped into her mane, her body shook from the effort, and her vision had mostly blackened. Somehow, with her lowered muzzle, Twilight noticed her gown had miraculous been repaired. The cuts were gone, the fabric softened and even cleaned, and the rip? Disappeared. Yet, Twilight still stood, still stood after all that. She dare not lift her head back up.

Silence reigned. Twilight felt like any moment a pegasus guard would take her down. Or maybe the Queen herself would smite the young mare. Such insolence wouldn’t be taken lightly, not so close to the Queen. The alicorn was infinitely more important than some self-righteous mare, and if Twilight had hurt her, she’d never see the light of day again.

But her doom didn’t come. Instead, a soft, silver-shoed hoof lifted her chin up, forcing her to stare right into the eyes of Luna. And what fantastic eyes they were. For once, the Queen smiled, fully this time.

“You’ll do.”