• Published 25th Mar 2019
  • 2,579 Views, 76 Comments

Altered Destiny - SoothingCoffee



Becoming a Royal Guard in the peaceful land of Equestria, Twilight had expected boring posts, and patrols around the Castle. Instead, she had to deal with monsters, vengeful ghosts, cultists, and Sunset Shimmer. She's not complaining, though.

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Twilight Becomes a Royal Guard... In Just One Moment​

Twilight’s alarm clock rang.

It was a loud, and long-drawn shrill cry — almost painful to the ears. It was annoying, and that was its main purpose; to annoy its owner enough to wake them up.

Riiiiinnnggg — click.

Twilight cracked her eyes open, and pulled the clock. It read: 5:40. “Oh — wait — ” Twilight paused. She glanced to her left — the cot was empty. She blinked, and then craned her head up to the top bunk beds. They were also both empty. A pit of dread formed inside her stomach as she stared back at her clock. Its long needle ticked, almost taunting her. “Damned rotten soypiss, they messed with my alarm.”

Great, Twilight thought sullenly as she put the clock back, and climbed off her back. Normally she’d wake up early before dawn to work off some sweat — not that she needed to anymore; at least not compulsory so. But it set a good habit, and early exercise was good to get the blood pumping for the day. It was one of the things that her roommates were happy about since today was… the final… Twilight stopped; the towel hanging limply in the air, before slipping from her magical grasp.

Today was the Final Test of the Final Week.

“Rotten soy…” she muttered, that pit growing deeper as she checked the clock back. 5:46. The Exam Proctor, Sergeant Whiplash had told them to gather on the courtyard at 6:10. That meant that she had half-an-hour. Her heart skipped a couple beats, and for a moment, Twilight thought she was going to keel over. What if I had decided to snooze the clock? What if I had — not that Twilight would ever do any of those, but still! “Oh those jerks…” Twilight growled, her eye twitching. She took one deep breath, quickly — she was told she had to do it slowly, but she didn’t have time for that — count from ten to one

Shower was both a luxury, and ritual after her daily morning exercise — but she could skip that. Being a little stinky was worth being punctual. Breakfast? That’s important. Skipping breakfast was heavily warned against. She snatched the military-approved ration-bar from her bedside, and immediately munched for it. Faintly sweet, but overall bland and dry. Rich in calories, and nutritions though. As she turned the sink-water on the corner of the room on, she splashed some water over her face, and took a quick few gulps to down the bar. That done, she slammed her wardrobe open, and practically leaped into her nondescript dark-yellow easily. She took a glance at her mirror. Looked a little messy, but — her cap! She almost forgot about it! One smooshed over her head, and Twilight smiled happily. Fit like a fiddle. She gave the sewed sun insignia on her breast a quick buff-up, before saluting. “Cadet Twilight Sparkle, ready for duty.”

She was the perfect model of a Royal Guard Cadet.

Dropping her hoof, she glanced back to the clock. 5:50. More than enough time to grill them when I see them later, Twilight thought darkly as she broke into a gallop, slamming the door behind her.

The corridors, and hallways of the dormitory blurred around her as she accelerated. Twilight passed several ponies, and grimaced. One of them was Sergeant Sharpeye, Twilight was sure. Running was strictly forbidden in the hallway, and the stallion was a stickler to the rules. A reason why Twilight liked the stallion, his pettiness and sadism aside. Even if today was her final day here, Twilight made a note to deliver the stallion an apology apple pie personally afterwards.

Normally, Twilight preferred to take her time in these corridors; taking the much more scenic route. These were, after all, the halls of heroes — perhaps not in the most literal sense, but in spirit. Her predecessors had walked here, and there were tiny proof left of their presence. Traces of memories. From motivational posters that were made by cadets of last generations, to that little hoof-mark on the wall left by the current Captain of Royal Guards who led the inter-curriculum prom-date war between the first and third years.

Twilight passed another glass-case that was proudly displayed, filled with trophies, medals, and certificates from various competitions. This one of them even had Twilight’s name on one of the trophies — 1st Place on the Duelling Competition, placed alongside other gold-plated cups of the same competitions. Perhaps it was a little vain, but she could still recall standing on that podium; black and blue, and practically mummified. For all the hurt, it had been worth it, and Twilight had left her mark on these four years. She had planned to take an early morning tour through the dorm, and the academy building as her last day here.

Another thing to grill on them later, Twilight added as she leapt through a staircase, grunting and rolling to bleed of the momentum, and immediately picked up speed again, feeling the cold morning air against her coat, and the warm heat of the sun, rising upon the horizon. In the end, it had taken Twilight roughly ten minutes to reach the scheduled meeting place. She could already see that most of the Cadets had already gathered here, and she was one of the last. Eyes were already on her by the time the formation of ponies entered her vision.

“Exactly ten minutes before we start…” Sergeant Whiplash announced stoically, eyeing his watch. The earth pony cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’re later than usual, Cadet Sparkle. In fact, you’re the last to arrive. Should I be worried?”

Chuckles spread through the formation. Twilight felt her cheeks heat up as she snapped into a salute, trying to hide her hard breathing. “No, Sir! Unfortunately —”

“I do not want to hear your excuse, Cadet! Save it to whoever cares!” Sergeant barked, and Twilight nearly felt her spine jump at the volume. “Go to your line!”

“Sir, yes, Sir!” Twilight replied, watching the Sergeant nod approvingly before she finally dropped her hoof. As she turned back, her steps zeroed in on three particular ponies. The pairs of eyes immediately looked away. They were lucky that her spot was nowhere near them.

“Damn,” she heard the pegasus on her left whisper nervously. Soft white coat, and yellow mane that reach the side of her neck. Her blue eyes glanced to her. “Last time you were this late, the whole class had to be cancelled. Should we actually be worried, Twilight?”

Twilight’s eyes twitched, and didn’t deign to answer. Stupid question normally didn’t deserve one — especially when that question was based on stupid superstitions.

“I heard that, Creamy Delights!” Sergeant Whiplash growled. Said pegasus squeaked. “Now, stand at rest!” the earth trembled a little as a hundred ponies shifted their stance. The Sergeant watched, before nodding. He checked the clipboard on his hoof, before putting it back into his saddlebag. “I’ll begin the roll call! Afterwards, I’ll explain to you what the Final Exam entails while we wait until our ride arrives! Open your damn ears wide, because I will not be answering questions, or repeat any of this!” this time, the air trembled. With a Cutie Mark of a megaphone on the dark-brown earth pony’s flanks, it was said that his voice rivalled that of the legendary Royal Canterlot Voice.

Nopony so far seemed to disagree.

“Ambrosia!”

“Here!”

“Anemone!”

“Here!”

“Astral Line!”

“Here!”

.

2

.

The Equestrian Armed Force was divided mainly into three branches: the Equestrian Aviation Force, composed mostly of Pegasi and the few odd Griffons, there to maintain Equestria’s air might, and in the case of the Wonderbolts, to flaunt it around for diplomacy and entertainment. There was Equestrian Ground Force, perhaps the hardiest of the bunch; a mixed batch of all Pony races, though with a distinct count of Earth ponies, peppered with the occasional odd races. Then there was the Equestrian Navy Force, responsible for maintaining Equestria’s sea supremacy, and their control of the borderlines between countries or continents.

Then there was the Royal Guard: the elite of elites, the best of bests; knight of knights, composed of the most honest, loyal, charismatic, and strongest — the Crème de la Crème. Despite having to graduate from the Military Academy with flying colors, pass the officer training, and several other classes that seemed almost extraneous, they were actually no part of Equestrian Armed Force than the police were.

They were Princess Celestia’s Sword and Shield — and the distinction where Equestria ends, and Princess Celestia begins (or was it where Princess Celestia ends, and Equestria begins?) might be small, blurry, and nigh imperceptible, but it were there. It existed — and their existence; their reason for being was to be that, and only that. Protect the Princess with all their might, and serve whoever she wishes to be served.

And it’s what I’m going to be, Twilight thought with a grin. Her dream from a filly had never changed. Matured, perhaps, becoming more in touch with reality — less hoping to fight a fire-breathing dragon, with Princess Celestia behind her, and more patrolling the Castle, and following the Princess, ensuring everypony — chief of all, Princess Celestia — was all safe and happy. Assuming that I’ll pass this exam.

At that, Twilight’s grin faded away, her mind returning to the present. Batch of twenty ponies this year, all of them aiming to join the ranks of the Royal Guard. Each of them was divided into a group of four, and with Twilight appointed as leader, she was confident that they would pass. After all, she had prepared for this exact moment. There were two conditions to passing the exam: Either stay, and survive in the terrain they had been assigned into for three days — in their case, a forest, or retrieve the “relic” that they had hidden inside. There would be danger. Wolves, and bears. Possibly worse. In Twilight’s mind, it was the perfect exam; the culmination of her four years in the Academy; every skill she had picked up, and every knowledge she had internalized, all put to test.

… And she had nearly missed it because somepony thought it would be funny to mess with her clock. Oh sure, her internal clock would have woken her up five minutes later, but it did not change the fact that the chance of her having to repeat the year, not because she would fail, but because she’d be late existed.

Her eyes narrowed, zeroing in onto the three ponies sitting opposite of her. The flying carriage they were in, heading towards her team’s designated forest, was quiet. Painfully so. Three ponies that had been her roomates for roughly four years. Three ponies that she barely knew much at all despite that four years, and had provided no reason why she should — and currently, three pairs of eyes that were refusing to meet hers.

“Look at me,” Twilight said. They didn’t. Inhale, count from ten to one, exhale. “I said,” her horn came to live, and the three ponies were yanked towards her. “Look at me,” she hissed. Wide eyes, filled with shock and fear stared at her. For a moment, Twilight paused, almost recoiling; her throat felt dry. Then she took another breath, and focused on each one of them.

Scuffed orange coat, and a messy dark-magenta mane the almost resembled the streak on Twilight’s mane: Pockets the pegasus, her bunkmate. Then there was Hard Coal, whose grey coat lived up to his name, and whose short pony-tailed mane streaked alternately between white and blue — a stallion whose stature bordered on being a mare; lithe, and slender, though there was no denying the strength of an earth pony.

Then, finally, there was Star Cell. Unicorn. Her sapphire blue coat seemed to almost glimmer, and her mane, an equal divide of dark and sky blue, was styled with the help of so many chemicals it was probably more unhealthy than the amount of candies Shiny ate during Nightmare Night. And that’s saying a lot — Shiny’s a healthy young colt who exercises a lot because of her, and Dad said I wasn’t much better than him, but sometimes… Twilight shook her head, and focused back to the present.

These three ponies, they were all her roommates, had lived together in the same space for four years, and by fortune or misfortune, had been teamed together.

They were not friends. Acquaintances, yes. Colleagues, at most. But never friends.

And by far, Star Cell was perhaps the worst of them all. Twilight couldn’t remember why; perhaps there was none. Some ponies were bitter like that, and she wouldn’t be surprised if Star Cell was within that “some ponies”. Even if the three all played a part, either through inaction or otherwise, Twilight was willing to be her whole left foot that Star Cell had been the one with the idea.

Twilight inhaled deeply. “We’ve lived together for four years, so we should’ve known each other’s habits by now. I never touched any of you guys’ personal belongings, and I’ve never given any permission for one of you to touch mine — so never. Ever,” Twilight stressed, leaning closely towards them, almost touching eye-to-eye-to-eye-to-eye — before focusing fully towards Star Cell. “Mess with my clock, got it?” Twilight waited for their nod; or rather, Star Cell’s, before she eventually released them from her grip.

They grunted, falling back to their seat. Silence descended back into the carriage, and Twilight tried to ignore the dripping pit of shame formed by her outburst. As she saw the way her teammates refused to meet her eyes; more fear than before… Twilight bit the inside of her cheek. The apology tried to snake out of her mouth, but she immediately swallowed it back, tightening her jaws.

“I-it was just a prank, Twilight,” Pockets choked out, rubbing the side of her neck. “Geez.”

“I could’ve overslept,” Twilight pointed out.

“But you didn’t,” Pockets shot back, grumbling. Her eyes looked away. “You said we should’ve known each others’ habits, and we have — I have, at least, and that wouldn’t have happened.”

“Oh, so that justifies everything, doesn’t it?”

Pockets didn’t answer that, resorting to glaring unsurely.

“That actually hurt a little,” Hard Coal returned quietly. “Besides, I… I didn’t even do anything.”

“Coal,” Twilight rolled her eyes. “You’re not as charming, or smart as you think you are.”

“For once, I have to agree with Twilight,” the sneer on Star Cell’s lips showed how difficult it was for her to say that.

Coal let out a quiet grumble.

Dropping her hoof from her neck, Star looked at Twilight and scoffed. “Still, what a marvelous team leader you are, Twilight. Makes we wonder if we should even listen to you.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Twilight said. “I’m appointed as leader.”

Anger flashed in Star’s eyes. Anger and envy — but they were gone as soon as they appeared. Not that she needed to hide it, Twilight thought. “You say that like it actually matters,” Star said. “Consider this: a passage breaks off into two paths; in a group of four, three of them agrees to take left one, while the fourth the right. Against the majority, what’s the minority going to do? Go alone? She could, but she’s probably smart enough not to do that. Tattle? Sounds like something she would do,” Star cocked an eyebrow. “Would you, Twilight?”

Twilight flinched. Inwardly, she knew she deserved this — perhaps not for Star Cell’s own little grudge way before this, but for that little outburst she did. It was unbecoming, and the more she viewed the last few minutes back, the more sickened she felt. She was just so stressed from the past five days of intense testing; a boiling kettle with no outlet to release the steam. It was still no justification for her to explode just like that. It definitely did not live up to the Principle of Harmony Equestria stood for.

“Mutiny it is, then,” Twilight muttered, not feeling quite as opposed as she probably should at the idea.

Star smirked. “No. Just a practice of democracy, Twilight.”

“Democracy, you say,” Twilight snorted, smirking despite herself. She shook her head. “Is that what they call it, these days?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Star mused wryly. “Nevertheless, the test hasn’t officially began yet, so how about we put this to a vote. Those in favor of me leading this team, raise your hoof.”

With smug confidence, Star raised her hoof. Hard Coal followed, his eyes flinted against Twilight. Then there was Pockets; her eyes alternated between Twilight and Star, before she finally raised hers.

“And those in favor of having Twilight as our glorious leader?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. It was only formality at this point — almost an act of indulgence, from the smirk Star wore. She didn’t get it, how or why she got that enmity. Still, she raised her hoof, anyway, while the others lowered theirs.

“Well then,” Star stated gleefully, clapping her hooves once. “I think we’ve reached a consensus.”

Ousted on my first team-leading exam, Twilight mused. Maybe I’m not fit for this — leadership thing. In all the classes and courses she took, that was probably the only one she had scored mediocrely. You’re too impatient, Cadet Sparkle, too greedy; not everypony is like you, and they’re not pawns on a chessboard — they’re their own player, and character. Not that it mattered, Twilight supposed. It stung, of course. She had been the one assigned as team-leader, and that meant it carried a certain expectation. Betraying that expectation — that trust — didn’t sit well. In the end though, they all wanted to pass the exam, and that was all that mattered.

“Prepare yourself, Cadets,” one of the pegasi drivers called out. “We’re five minutes away from landing.”

“And just on time too,” Twilight said, dryly, ending the conversation. She gathered her weapons — a spear and a sword — from the side of the carriage, and strapped her saddlebag onto her back. She watched her teammates do the same, though it seemed that Pockets had decided to bring a set of knives and a crossbow instead of the usual armaments.

Shaking the minor pique of curiosity away, Twilight pushed the small curtains of the carriage away, and took in the sight. There was that sudden sickness and nausea that never failed to hit her — realizing how far she was from the ground; how easy it would be for her to just open the door, and go splat as gravity took over. It had been bad enough, with the air sickness lingering in the background, but now with it taking the front-seat, Twilight had to wonder why she even bothered opening the curtains. Unicorns weren’t simply made for flight.

Below was nothing but a stretch of green plains, rolling over and over, forming small hills upon hills — and a road rolled over them like a carpet made of dirt. Looking up from here, it painted a rather picturesque image; it reminded her of the ocean waves crashing against the side of the pier — pressed into a portrait, and its essence pasted onto the land.

Her eyes traced over the road, nothing the few occasional caravans and carriages passing through them. Merchants, if Twilight had to guess, and down the road, it separated into two paths. The left continued towards a small village, hard to see from being at the edge of the horizon, while the right path eventually led to a patch of trees; a forest that looked smaller from above, but was probably way bigger from below. That’s where they’re going to have their exam. Where she’ll finally join the ranks of Royal Guard.

Her chest began to beat faster, ears twitching and prickling. Twilight licked her lips, hooves tapping against the sill of the window. True enough, the forest soon grew larger as they got closer — and the descent was much worse than the flying, or the ascent. Her guts flipping, and fluttering; the body was convinced that it was touching solid surface, but the brain wasn’t so easily fooled. In the end, Twilight had to close her eyes until she felt that bump as the carriage touched surface, and heard the clop-clopping of the pegasi outside trailing to a stop.

“We’ve arrived, Cadets,” one of the pegasi shouted. “Come out now.”

One by one, they filed out of the carriage. If it wasn’t for the fact that everypony’s watching, Twilight might’ve leapt out and hugged the earth immediately. As it was, however, she waited until Star Cell stepped off the carriage, before following after — Coal and Pockets trailing after her. The wind blew softly at her mane, and the sound of brushing, and crackling leaves tickled at her ears. Twilight took a breath. The air tasted different here compared to Canterlot. Fresher — more natural, though not necessarily better or cleaner.

“Welcome to the Bluegrave Forest, Cadets,” wearing a cocksure grin, one of the pegasi approached them — Sky Count, Twilight recalled, and both his coat lived up to his name; sky blue as the color of his eyes, and his blond mane curled and permed; the picture of a top hat on both his flanks. “What do you think, Trigger? Think these guys got what it takes?”

The other pegasus — Trigger Feathers — shrugged. Deep blue eyes, and short brown mane coupled with his lighter shade of brown coat cut him as an almost unassuming figure. His Cutie Mark, a lightning strike with wings of them was anything but. “The exam is only a formality,” he said. “If they got it this far, then they already got it.”

Twilight tried not to preen under the praise, and eyed the mouth of the forest. “Why is it called Bluegrave Forest, Sir?” she pondered.

“A leftover from ages ago — Pre-Unification ‘ages ago’. It’s one of the resting grounds of those wendigos. It’s why it gets a little colder at night,” Count explained, before chuckling at Pockets’ worried look. “But that’s still ‘ages ago’, Cadet. The wendigos are nothing but memories by now — locals here visit it for their annual Nightmare Night, and it became a little of a haunted forest attraction thing for some brave tourists.”

“... And we’ll have to camp here for three days, huh,” Coal gulped. “With little food, and in the cold…”

“You’ll survive,” Trigger assured them. “Nothing to worry about.”

“You sound so sure,” Star Cell pointed out, eyes cocked skeptically. “Did you actually go through the same thing?”

Trigger tilted his head in thought, before nodding. “Eeyup.”

Star rolled her eyes.

“Well, no point in dilly-dallying, Cadets!” Count shouted, grinning. “Get in there! Three days, or retrieve the hidden ‘relic’ — and remember, the red flares are for personal use, but the green flares are if you guys are calling it quits — or in some emergency,” his face grew serious at that. “No shame in doing that, Cadets.”

Twilight could connect the dots. You could still repeat the exam if you’ve failed — you can’t if you somehow got severely injured. For a moment, Twilight pondered about that. Failure wasn’t an option — and she knew that none of her group was going to pull the green flare.

“Got it,” Star Cell nodded stoically. “See you in three days, Sirs.”

Twilight gave her two seniors a proper salute, much to their trailing laughter behind her as she caught up to Star Cell, with Hard Coal and Pockets behind Twilight. They stood directly at the lips of the Forest — a certain excitement coursing through them; some nerves, and anxious energy. Even if Trigger assured them that the exam itself was a “formality”, that didn’t shake the fact that they had waited four years for this; that even though he called it “formality”, there was still a chance for failure.

Not that Twilight would ever let it come to that. Her face settled at that, back towards the basic stoic expression that everypony wanting to join the Military — or the Royal Guard, in her case — had been hammered into. Yes, Twilight was sure that despite the incident back in the carriage, and whatever hostility Star had against her, they could work together for this. A unified group of soon-to-be Royal Guards.

Twilight nodded, taking a step forward. “Let’s go in —”

Star Cell put a hoof before her, stopping Twilight. She smirked, moving in front of her. “We’ll go in with a two-by-two formation. I and Coal will lead the front, while you and Pockets will cover our back. Understood, Twilight?”

Her eye twitched. She wasn’t sure what annoyed her the most: that she had been cut off, or the fact that Star Cell had said what Twilight would’ve had said.

Well, things can only look up from here.

.

3

.

“Let’s find a spot to make camp first,” Star suggested after a while. “Then we’ll brainstorm on how to get that relic.”

“Wait, we’re doing that?” Pockets blurted. Her hoof stumbled over a poking root, and she let out a small squeak. Her wings flared open, flailing. Twilight could only watch in bemusement with the rest of the group as Pockets’ leg got more trapped with each moment. “T-Twilight, h-help!”

“Calm down, Pockets,” Twilight said, approaching the mare, her horn glowing with intent.

Pockets let out a whimper, but with great effort, folded her wings back in. She winced when she saw her entangled leg. Purple aura enveloped them, and soon enough Twilight stretched a hole through the vines and roots for Pockets’ limb to slip out. She tumbled forward for a bit, letting out a small cheer, before realizing that the entire group was looking at her.

“Um,” she coughed, glancing surreptitiously at Twilight. “T-thanks for the assist, Twilight.”

“You’re welcome,” Twilight replied the group continued moving. “I guess you’re not used to forests, huh,” she asked wryly.

“Er. No,” Pockets glanced away, ears splaying over her head. “I always lived in the city… and I never bothered taking the survival classes. N-not that I need to!” she snorted, puffing her chest up. “You?”

“I took said classes,” Twilight replied blandly. “And a few camping trips with my family.”

“Oh,” the pegasus grimaced, ears folding. “A-anyway,” she started again. “So we’re going to look for the relic as well? How we going to do that? Can’t we just… you know, wait out for three days?”

“No.”

“No.”

Twilight met Star Cell’s eyes squarely. Star looked away with a huff. “If you want to do things mediocrely, be my guest — but we’re all going to excel the test,” Star said. “And it’s rather obvious, isn’t it, that the secret hidden ‘item’ that we don’t really need to get would rate much higher than just ‘wait out for three days’?

“... You make it sound like that’s a bad thing,” Pockets pointed out.

“It’s not,” Twilight jumped in, when Star didn’t look like she was going to respond. Pockets gave her a cocked eyebrow. Twilight shuffled slightly on her hooves. “... But doesn't it feel wrong to not give it our all?” she pondered aloud. “If I pass then I pass, but I believe that if I could pass better, then I'll aim to pass better. I'll still be pretty upset if I scored an A,” Twilight admitted. “But knowing I did my best to get an A+...” Twilight trailed off, staring at a distance, before shrugging. It was hard to put into words; or rather, it was considerably easy, but words couldn’t really carry the gravity of her intent.

She knew it sounded somewhat foalish, but settling down smelled so strongly of defeat and disappointment; it was bitter like oversteeped black tea, and equally as sickening, or like coffee but without all of the caffeine goodness that pulled her through her all-nighters — it was giving up before one even began to work; to do things half-heartedly in half-measures, and aiming for said ‘decent’ result. ‘I’ll never get an A, so I’ll just aim for C. So long as I get through...’ Twilight often heard; lingering whispers in the Academy’s Library, the words of the defeated seeping through the books like memories.

Words of the defeated, the line repeated in her mind, and Twilight realized that she was scowling at empty air. She shook it away.

“You make it sound so bad and trivial,” Pockets grumbled. “Do you actually have a plan to find it?”

It wasn’t a question specifically to her, as much as it was for everyone. Twilight opened her mouth, but once again, Star beat her to it: “It’s unlikely that they’re going to leave us cold like this, and expect us to stumble onto the relic blindly relying on luck — there’s probably a clue; a trail that we can follow.”

Hard Coal perked up, speaking for the first time. “So like a treasure hunt?”

Star glared at him. “Yes. Like a treasure hunt.”

“But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Twilight reminded. Star shot her an ugly look. It was something she often did, Twilight noticed bemusedly, and filed the mental note elsewhere. “We should first find a spot to make a camp.”

“Y-yeah,” Pockets nodded.

Of course, they were actually making it sound easier than it actually was. Fact of the matter was, this was still a survival test — and unlike the camping trips Twilight went through, or the trips her survival class had, they didn’t come here fully prepared with tents, supplies, and such. Instead, they had to make do with that they could gather from the surroundings. And safe as Count made it sound like, the Bluegrave Forest didn’t have the fortune to be “domesticated” like the ones near Canterlot. There weren’t probably creatures like manticores or timberwolves living in Bluegrave forest, yes, but it didn’t mean normal animals like bears, or actual wolves wouldn’t happen to be here. Count was right — the wendigos were already long gone, but that didn’t mean dangers didn’t lurk still. If they weren’t being careful, if not the wild animals — then the forest itself was going to swallow them whole.

With the conversation dead, and nopony willing to start it up again, the walk was both quiet and uneventful. It was only broken occasionally and briefly whenever Star Cell had a direction she wanted to move toward — or an order for a pause to check at their surrounding. With Star Cell's Cutie Mark being a set of compass resting over a paper-map, nopony was silly enough to object her. If anypony was going to have any say on where to go, it was definitely Star Cell. That said, she didn't miss the satisfaction or smirk Star shot her whenever Twilight listened to her order, and by the look of everypony else, neither did they.

“So hey. Twilight,” Pockets murmured, breaking the silence hanging between them. ”Why does she hate you?”

Twilight arched an eyebrow. “Your guess is better as mine,” she muttered back.

“Did you do something to her?”

“What? Why would you assume I did something to her?” Twilight leaned away slightly, shooting the pegasus an odd look. After a moment, she let out a shrug, and a huff. “To answer your question, no I didn’t do something to her. Does she even need a reason to hate me? Maybe there’s no reason — she just does.”

Pockets pursed her lips together. “Nopony hates like Star without a reason, Twilight,” she mumbled.

“And you're now an expert on that?”

The pegasus shot her a glare, before glancing away. “… What if I say yes?” for a moment, she didn’t say anything else. Twilight herself wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Besides… I remember that there was a time when Star didn’t hate you. In fact, rather than hate, on that first year, she was actually…” she trailed off, looking at Twilight.

Twilight stared back. Her throat tightened, and her limbs felt stiff as ice.

Of course,” Pockets bit out, her voice almost snarl. “You wouldn't remember. No, much less remember — I doubt you were even aware.”

Twilight grimaced, looking away. Shame filled her, like a pit of black tar, drowning her from inside. That first year… Twilight shook her head. “I guess…” Twilight tried, licking her lips. “I guess, now that I think about it, Star never bothered me during the first year.”

Pockets snorted at that. “As if anypony could. Or would.”

Twilight shot her a glare.

Pockets met it squarely with a cocked eyebrow.

Twilight was the first to break contact. Pockets wasn't wrong. Her first year had been a blur, and whatever snippets Twilight recalled were wholly unpleasant; like a badly healed scar no medical spells or advancement could ever remove it away — an eternal brand of how badly she had fucked up. “... You said,” Twilight paused. “You were about to say something. How Star was actually… what?”

Pockets remained quiet for a long time. “If you weren’t even aware, I think that’s something for you to find out yourself. Not my secret to tell.”

Twilight sighed. “I guess that would be too easy, huh,” she muttered, before grimacing. “I... don’t know where to even begin.”

“Maybe you should go straight to her, Twi,” Pockets told her. “Sometimes — most of the times, really — being straightforward is the best method. It’s painful, but…”

“Like ripping off a bandage,” Twilight echoed. Pockets nodded. “Also, it's Twi now, is it?” she cocked an eyebrow, smiling wryly.

Pockets hesitated. “You don’t like it?”

“No,” Twilight answered simply.

“Oh,” Pockets’ ears flattened, a grimace on her face.

“Twi and Twiley’s are for my mom. I prefer Sparky.”

Pockets blinked, ears perking up. She narrowed her eyes at Twilight, focused on the grin, before looking away in a huff. “Sparky it is, then. You know that sounds worse, right?”

Twilight recalled how everypony at home called her. It used to be annoying. Especially when Shiny started calling her that, much to dad’s amusement. But distance made the heart grow fonder, and living in the dormitory was distant enough to make the annoying nickname much less so, even if she could visit them during the weekends. “Oh, I know,” Twilight smiled, before it faded away. “And… I’ll go ask Star once we’re over with the exam — soon as I got the chance to.”

Pockets nodded appreciatively. “All I could ask for… Sparky,” she snorted quietly at that.

Twilight was already regretting her decision. Maybe Twi or Twiley was better. Still, not take-backs, Twilight supposed. “Can I ask something?” Twilight murmured, after a moment. Pockets gave her a slight nod. “Why do you care so much anyway? Heck. Why now of all time?”

“I said I was an expert on this, right? It’s not healthy to hold a grudge — to hate the way Star does… it drowns you, Twilight. Consumes you, and it feels good, it feels right. It feeds — no, gorges you with powerful; with all of those feel-good emotions… and it’s only when you snapped out of it; when the wool is lifted from your eyes, that you realize how so, so wrong you are. As for why now...” Pockets hesitated, ears flattening in the same thing Twilight often showered herself in. Shame. “I’m not a saint. Never claimed to be one… and I’m not like your or Star. Not even Coal. I… I had to take care of myself first — had to play catch up from “A”, when everypony’s already at “J”.”

Twilight stared at Pockets for a long time, eyes wide. The intensity in which she spoke; the fervor — if Twilight hadn’t received enough of Drill Sergeant Whiplash… lashing, she would’ve staggered away. As it was… Twilight wanted to say something. Of comfort, perhaps. There was pain there; deep, and seared into Pockets; perhaps even deeper than the one Twilight’s First Year had caused. A deeper part, that primal animalistic part that four years preparing to get catapulted straight into the Royal Guard had awakened, wanted to accuse her; to corner her. To judge her. To say “why didn’t you ask for help”, to make herself feel better. Because it meant it wasn’t her fault that Pockets was struggling in more ways than one, and nopony hadn’t given her any form of aid. Because despite the fact that they had lived together for four years, and Twilight should’ve noticed, the blame laid squarely on Pockets’ shoulders, because she didn’t want help; others’ fault, because surely they should’ve noticed. Not hers.

Twilight clamped that urge shut. It was an urge reserved only in a fight — reserved only against her enemies, not allies. Even though Twilight wanted to say something — anything that came out of her mouth wasn’t going to help. “I see,” Twilight said, eventually. Heavily. “Thanks for answering.”

Pockets nodded. There was a smile on her lips. “Thanks for not judging.”

“... Don’t thank me for that,” Twilight said after a moment.
“Stop, and shut up,” Star Cell abruptly raised her hoof. The whole group braked to a stop, and perhaps it was the tone in Star’s command, or maybe her face: eyes closed in pure concentration — regardless, the group waited with bated breath. Her ears perked up, twitching, and swivelling here and there, before they eventually stopped. “I hear water,” she smirked. “Running water. A river. Looks like we’ve found our camp-spot.”

Twilight blinked, before trying to follow the direction of Star’s ears. She strained them, trying to isolate other unimportant noises away, until… there it was. Faint. Ridiculously so. “You heard that?” Twilight blurted out, astonished. “That’s impressive, Star.”

If anything, that only made Star Cell scowl. “I don’t need your praise, Twilight. Save it to whoever cares,” she grunted, before turning towards a direction. “Let’s get a move on.”

Twilight shot Pockets a look. The pegasus replied with a shrug. As Star began to walked off into a direction, Twilight let out a sigh and followed.

Now with a concrete direction to go towards, the trek was both shorter and faster. Twilight didn’t even have the chance continue her conversation with Pockets — though she didn’t know what to continue it with — before the sound of flowing water entered her ears, and the scent of wet soil wafted into her nose. Soon enough, they broke through a tree-line, and into a clearing; the late-morning sun beaming brightly above them, chasing the dimness of the claustrophobic forest canopy away. Twilight had to blink at that, chasing the dark spots away.

The river sat right in front of them — three meters wide, by Twilight’s quick estimation, its length stretched farther than her eyes could see. It was unlike the quick rushing river Twilight had usually seen during her camping trips, and more the calm and shallow clear creek where one could easily spot the fishes drifting lazily; a gentle current that colts and fillies could easily jump in without fear as long as they could handle the cold — as ponies these young oft could. Shiny definitely could. A bed of rocks and pebbles separated the river and the soil proper; crunching, and shifting underneath their hooves as they approached. Standing here, with Celestia’s sun shining at the right angle, it felt as though the river’s surface was made from a bed of diamond-dust.

“Whoa,” Pockets whispered, eyes wide.

“Mhm,” Hard Coal agreed, humming as he stretched his neck out, taking a deep breath with closed eyes. “Reminds me of home,” he mumbled.

“First time?” Twilight asked, leaning towards Pockets.

“Y-yeah,” she nodded stiffly. “I… I actually never left Canterlot before, and…” Pockets blinked, and for a long moment, just stood there. Then she let out a giggle. “Huh. Weird. I just realized that I’m not actually in Canterlot anymore.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “It’s been three — well, four hours now since we left Canterlot.”

“I know that, Sparky,” Pockets rolled her eyes. “But —”

Sparky?” Pockets stilled. Twilight blinked. Coal opened his eyes, tilting his neck slightly. Star Cell’s voice was as cold as the arctic wind; face flat, and expressionless.

Pockets gulped. “Uh.”

“... Did you two suddenly become besties when we didn’t notice?” Coal said, before giggling. “Cute. The worst student, and the best student in our year,” he leaned towards Pockets. “How did you do it, Pocky?”

Worst student? Once again, she felt that cold; that deep pit of black tar. She… she didn’t know that. Also… friends? The word tasted foreign; almost ashen. They weren’t friends. That short conversation, however informative, and insightful it was, wasn’t enough for them to become one. Acquaintances, perhaps — proper colleagues rather than strangers she met every morning and evening. But not friends. Never — not quite friends.

Pockets shot back with a glare. “None of your damn business, Coal.”

Twilight recovered, shaking her head a little. “Really, Coal,” she drawled, somewhat bemused as she cocked her eyebrow. “I’m right here, and I’m not deaf.”

“Oh,” Coal pulled back, eyes blinking in that cutesy, innocent way; lips pursed into a pitiful pout. Frustratingly, it worked. Evidently, the stallion had spent hours in front of the mirror for this. “I’m sorry, Twilight. Didn’t mean for you to hear that.”

“Yeah, right,” Twilight snorted.

“Alright! Enough dawdling!” everypony jumped at Star’s voice. Green eyes bored into Pockets. “Pockets, with me. We’re going to get some firewoods — maybe some berries while we’re at it. Twilight, and Coal, you two prepare the camp,” there was a pause. “And if you’re done early, try to find some food as well. We’ll meet in two hours,” without even waiting for Pockets, Star Cell turned around, and moved back into the forest.

Pockets paused by Twilight’s side. She licked her lips. “So if I don’t come back, you know where to find the murder weapon, right?”

Twilight’s brows raised, giving Pockets a piercing look. “I hope that’s just a stupid joke.”

“You and me both, Twilight,” Pockets giggled. “You and me both.”

Twilight watched as Pockets followed after Star; her body obscured as she entered the forest back. “Well that’s both worrying, and disconcerting,” Twilight noted.

“So how does it not being the smartest pony in the room?”

Twilight turned towards Coal. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m not gonna tell,” Coal giggled, smirking. “It’s funnier watching you bumbling like this.”

Sometimes Twilight wondered why Coal even bothered with the innocent attitude, with him exposing himself as easily. It was annoying — not just his behaviour, but also knowing the fact that she was missing something; something that Coal and Pockets certainly didn’t miss. It almost tasted of failure. “Whatever,” Twilight muttered, rolling her shoulders. “Let’s do what our leader told us.”

Coal smirked, but didn’t say anything.

As they set to work, an hour passed like a breeze — as well as uneventfully. Unlike Pockets, Coal didn’t seem that keen on having an actual conversation aside from the few occasional snide remarks, and smirks. And to be honest, Twilight preferred it this way; she didn’t need to know about Coal’s feelings and insecurities. Much as the talk with Pockets had been insightful, and had changed how Twilight viewed her, there was now an additional weight on her shoulders. Twilight didn’t not like it. She knew this weight. It was a weight that, as a Royal Guard; as Soldier and Protector, she’d have to carry more. Responsibility. Not quite accurate, but it was the least inaccurate. Now... simply wasn’t the time to add more to it.

Fortunately, Hard Coal was a good subordinate — not in the sense like how Strong-Back-Yellow-Tail was to Sea Penny; the minotaur who was always ready to provide a supportive shoulder to his boss-slash-friend, but more… an obedient soldier who would put their feelings aside even though they hated their leader’s guts. Thus they dug the pit, and made a bed of rocks around it. Dragged logs that fell from time and wind as their impromptu seats. They gathered whatever food they could get from the fringe of the clearing, and placed them beside their soon-to-be camp that only required some fire before it could be called one. All in all, it wasn’t exactly what Twilight would call hard work — she had a hunch that Star Cell had given the order just so they’d do something.

Twilight sighed, watching the clear surface of the river. Fishes swam about, poking their head underneath a rock, before wandering back out. Small tiny river-crabs, and curious birds perched above a poking tree branch, or rocks; their beady eyes twitching at her, letting out a chirp, before looking elsewhere. She heard hoofsteps to her side. “Have you ever tasted fish?” Twilight asked.

She could hear Coal stop. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You know,” Twilight gestured at the water. “Fish.”

“We’re herbivores.”
“We’re partially omnivores, actually,” Twilight corrected, eyes trailing at one particular fish. Relatively small; roughly the size of her horn. “Eating too many meat is obviously bad since our stomachs aren’t meant to digest them, but then the same could be said on most things — ‘too many’ is the keyword here. They’re nutritious, and so long as we keep it in moderation… I’ve heard that they’re quite the delicacy. You know some of Equestria’s traditional recipes could be traced back to Ancient Griffonia? Sergeant Sharpeye told me that. He also told me that there’s few new restaurants popping up in Canterlot that offers a carnivore menu. Mainly by and for Griffons, but that doesn’t stop some ponies —”

“Twilight, stop,” Coal grimaced, rubbing his temple. Glancing at a wandering fish, he shuddered. “I get it, I get it. Geez. Always thought you’re a sun-damned freak. But you’re not seeing me pushing my lifestyle onto you, so you better keep your weird meat-fetish into your own closet.”

Twilight smirked.

Coal narrowed his eyes at her, before huffing, looking away.

Well, she didn’t exactly lie either. She was a little curious, but the first time she had suggested the idea during one of her family camps had also been the last. Corporal Sugar Canes, the Survival Class teacher had been more receptive at the idea, but had told her that that was probably a bit too advanced as well — which Twilight was sure was another lingo for ‘I’d genuinely like to, but dot dot dot’. Twilight would’ve visited the restaurants if they didn’t exist at the either extreme spectrum of too expensive and exclusive, or too cheap, and seedy to be not feeling suspicious at.

A stray object caught her eyes.

Twilight blinked. “Huh,” she extended her magic, and levitated the object close, rotating it. “Well that’s curious.”

“... Huh,” Coal muttered, leaning into her periphery. “Well, I’ll be damned. That’s obsidian, but —”

“There’s no volcano here — at least not hundreds of kilometres away. So either a mineral enthusiast dropped this here during their last visit,” Twilight grinned, excited. “Or we just got our first clue to our ‘relic’.”

.

4

.

Star and Pockets arrived fifteen minutes earlier than the agreed-upon time. Stepping into the clearing, a bundle of twigs, and sticks floated by their side, ensconced by a wispy blue aura. Star Cell’s expression seemed to have an almost zen-like state — impassive, with a hint of storm behind those eyes. Slightly behind her, the same couldn’t be said about Pockets. Ears swivelling, and pupils glancing left and right. Whatever it was that Star had wanted to talk with Pockets, it had left the pegasus nervous. Her lilac eyes flickered to Twilight, and she thought she saw a hint of… pity? Worry? Concern? Something along those lines.

Clambering up to her hooves, Twilight shook her head. “Welcome back,” she greeted as they reached their camp. “How did everything go?”

“Well enough,” Star answered, placing the bundle of twigs and sticks down. “We got wood,” she gestured at Pockets’ stuffed saddlebags. “And gathered some berries. Should last us for a while.”

Twilight nodded. “There’s something you want to see,” she lifted the obsidian, and lobbed it gently to Star.

The moment the purple aura faded from the obsidian, Star’s blue took it over. “Huh,” Star blinked. Slowly, her eyebrows rose. Up, and up until they were nearing her hairline. “I know there’s no volcanoes around here — not in a hundred or so kilometers, at least. So unless a rock enthusiast dropped this while visiting here —” in the background, Coal let out a snort. Star paused, slowly turning to the stallion. He responded with an innocent whistle. Twilight rolled her eyes. Star sniffed, turning her attention back. “This must be a clue for our ‘relic’. Good — “ Star gave Twilight a look. There was a pause — before her lips peeled back, showing teeth. Scowling. “Good work, Twilight.”

Twilight blinked, taking a step back. That… Twilight was reminded of what Pockets had told her earlier. She had always known Star Cell has disliked her — she wasn’t blind. Or deaf. She saw the looks, and heard the whispers spreading around the campus. In the end though, Star Cell had never crossed the line; at most, she would glare openly when they met at the hallway, or during the off-days that she had spent nestled in her cot, reading her books, when suddenly Star Cell would stand on the sideline and stare at her like one would a cockroach. Sometimes, the Manehattan-born unicorn would grow a little bold, and nudge her lamplight a bit to the side. Rarely, she would try to pull off a few pranks like bluffing that the class had changed room, or borrowing the book Twilight had been hunting for weeks because nopony cared about time-limit, and fines anymore.

Until today, Twilight realized, recalling her alarm clock. Was that why she had reacted so badly?

But it didn’t matter. Those three spat-out words had been filled with so much spite and resentment, Twilight now understood the full extent of Pockets’ concern. “... Thanks,” Twilight replied, frowning as she watched Star turn around. She wanted to reach out to her, and asked her what Star’s deal was — but Twilight also knew this wasn’t the time for it.

“We’re setting out,” Star declared.

“W-wait,” Pockets scrambled up to her feet, wide-eyed. She had immediately collapsed the moment she slid her saddlebags off. “Now? You mean, now now?”

“Yes,” Star narrowed her eyes. “Now now. Is there a problem here, Pockets?”

“... No?” Pockets tried, before wincing. “I… I mean, shouldn’t we take a little rest? Two hours top, maybe?”

Star looked unimpressed.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Twilight asked, curious. She had her guesses, and so did Hard Coal — they both had agreed on what the obsidian likely meant.

Her eyes flickered to Twilight, before moving away dismissively. “Of course I do. And I know where,” from the look of it, Star Cell wasn’t going to share. “So are you all going to follow me, or laze around while I go ahead by my own lonesome?”

“I’m coming with you,” the words fled from her mouth before Twilight could think on it. She wouldn’t change her mind regardless. Star’s impeccable of direction aside, leaving Star Cell do this on her lonesome tasted too much of betrayal — of abandonment; it went against the Tenets of Harmony. More than that, it smelled of ‘settling down’; of giving up. It wasn’t, of course. Not really. Especially when another of your teammate’s wellbeing, Pockets’ fatigueness being the case. Besides, unlike Pockets, Twilight had been well-rested. Craning her head, she gave Coal and Pockets a nod. “You two can stay here. Rest, and keep watch, I guess. Maybe light up the camp. We’ll be back before… sundown, I think?” Twilight trailed off, before giving her team-leader a questioning look.

Star’s expression was impressive in its lack of one. Her eyes dug so much into Twilight that she wouldn’t be surprised if she were to suddenly keel over due to the gruesome case of melted head right then and there.

Pockets squirmed. But it wasn’t her who answered Star’s question. “I’ll stay here,” waving his hoof casually, Coal smiled from where he sat. “You two can have fun in there.”

“Erm. Yeah,” Pockets followed tentatively. “Same.”

Star rolled her eyes. “Fine. Twilight, come with me.”

In retrospect, Twilight mused as they entered through the treeline, there were ways this endeavor could potentially go wrong. They were a team of four, and not a team of two for a reason after all — though of course she didn’t think anything about this before. It’s different, Twilight argued. Before, splitting off was appropriate; it was a simple resource gathering mission, and they had covered both grounds this way. Twilight also didn’t believe that Star and Pockets were going far from the campsite.

This… this felt like one those things you needed to do together. Maybe it wasn’t dangerous, but… memories from Hearty Hoof High School resurfaced. “This is quite something else. I would’ve scored you an A+, Twilight. If this had been an individual-only assignment. Alas, it wasn’t. Have an E for that effort though.”

It had been the first, and last time Twilight had failed a test.

“Star,” breaking the silence had never been Twilight’s forte. At least, not experty. “Where are we going?”

“...” for a moment, Twilight didn’t think Star would give her an answer — happy with ignoring her. Then she tilted her head slightly, smirking. “Wouldn’t you like to know, Twilight?”

It was a rhetorical question. “I do, yeah,” Twilight bulldozed through it. “It’d be nice knowing we’re not actually lost.”

Star scoffed, and faced back to the road. She ducked under a low hanging branch, and hopped over a high rising root. “Do you trust this leader of yours, Twilight?”

Twilight blinked. The answer of that question depended on the context. Would she trust Star’s words like gospel? No. Would she trust her with Twilight’s schedule? Fat chance. Would she trust Star with her life, as well as the success of this exam? “I do.”

From the look of Star’s face, that had been the wrong answer.

Twilight sighed quietly. What was the problem here? Not for the first time, her hooves itched for the dependable grip of her sword, straddled by her side; that hold of her magic that never almost failed her. She preferred battling timberwolves, and duelling a fellow duellist until they had both abandoned the proper decorum, their face unrecognizable as they devolved into a sudden no-holds-barred beatdown — good times, Twilight thought fondly rather than… whatever this was. At least then she knew whether she was succeeding, or failing. Or what she was doing at all.

It was a particularly treacherous thought, but sometimes Twilight wished that team-building, diplomacy, and maintaining interpersonal relationship wasn’t as heavily enforced into the Royal Guard curriculum.
“So?” Twilight prompted at the ensuing silence. “Are you going to tell me, or…”

Star paused for a moment; a short hovering in her next step, before she continued like usual. “I don’t know, Twilight,” she could hear the smirk oozing off her voice. “What are you going to do if I don’t? Why don’t you just follow me like a good little puppy, hm?”

Twilight’s lips thinned. This was getting annoying, and she didn’t have the patience for this. “Just give me the damn answer, or I’ll get creative.”

A mirthless chuckle. Cold as the arctic winter of the North. “Is that a threat, I hear. My. Treachery, Twilight? I didn’t think you have it in you — no, let me rectify that. I don’t think you do.

“Not a threat, though I am thinking of a takeover.”

Star snorted. “A takeover, you say. At least you’re honest.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “... And you’ll be surprised in what I’m willing to do,” though she’s not wrong. Just the thought of it revolted her. She had planned smooth-sailing; to push the rough waters that is Star Cell later after this Exam. There was something to be said about plans never surviving the encounter.

There was a momentary pause. Star’s hoof rose up to the side of her neck, and Twilight felt a knot choking her throat; that dark pit of shame swelling, stretching with drip-fed guilt and loathing. Twilight opened her mouth. To say… something. Apologize, maybe. Told her it was a mistake. An overreaction. A bout of irrationality, regardless how justified she felt about it.

“Yeah, you’re right about that,” Star agreed, and Twilight wished she didn’t open her mouth. “Though I wouldn’t call that ‘creative’,” she smirked sharply, before sniffing. “Oh fine, I’ll tell you. Wouldn’t want Miss-First-In-Everything to cry, would I?” rolling her eyes, the small obsidian levitated with a blue glow.

“It’s a pretty simple puzzle, if you could even call it that. Just need some basic knowledge, and a little thing called process of elimination,” she sighed. “They weren’t kidding when they said this was a formality. Essentially, when one thinks of obsidian, one associates it with volcanoes. But there are no volcanoes here — which what makes this stone particular in the first place. Closest things to volcanoes? Mountains. Hills. Bluegrave forest has a few of those, but I think we can cross this line out; it’s too stretching as it is,” Star gave Twilight a long stare, almost expectant.

Pursing her lips, Twilight nodded. “When one thinks of obsidian — or rather, gems, crystals, or stones in general, one thinks of mines. Or caves. From the look of your face, there’s also some those here, isn’t there?”

Star smirked. “A few, yeah,” it was unexplained how she knew that. It probably involved her Cutie Mark. Twilight had never asked what it meant, but she knew it had involved, well, topography and stars. Directions, basically. “That sounds feasible; bit of a stretch, but I think it works with the next hint. Another thing ponies associate with obsidian is,” Star snorted. “Evil, dark magic, sorrow, misery, and fear.”

“It’s mainly known as a tool of massacre,” Twilight murmured. It’s not, of course — at least, not anymore. A nickname for obsidian was the “misunderstood rock” for the negative connotations that surrounded it. “It’s most infamous within “Proud Flag’s Account” where he recounted the Prairie Butchery during his visit to Griffonia,” Twilight closed her eyes. “Weapons as dark as night, drinking the sun’s light; Diamond Dogs and Griffons alike struck with savagery, and crazed abandon. As they ate flesh, and drank blood, I realized belatedly that these weapons of obsidian were the ones wielding the dogs, and griffons, not the other way around,” Twilight recounted, nodding. Dramatized, yes, but then, Proud Flag had been a poet, world-traveller, and a journalist — he was not a soldier. A stallion at the wrong place, at the wrong time. In the end, it had been the final nail in the coffin for Equestria to send relief force, and diplomatic envoy to settle the conflict between the tribal dogs, and the griffon duke of that land of Griffonia.

Aploosian Buffalos had also made jewelries out of them — pretty, though the same can’t be said with its meaning. It resembles the flesh of their sworn enemy, and it reminds them of their fallen dead; in the end, they both wore it as a badge of honor, and a grim reminder. “It doesn’t help,” Twilight added. “That it’s very similar to another silica-based rock — though that one is actually dark; one that actually meant fear, sorrow, and misery. Ponies know better, nowadays, but back then, there’s no sure way to check for them, so they just avoided anything that seemed the slightest bit similar.”

Nodding, Star glanced at Twilight: “Remember how Bluegrave forest came to be?” Star shot, before chuckling. “There’s lots of caves in here that lead underground, but coincidentally there’s only one mine that does,” she shrugged, chuckling.

“So that’s where we’re going,” Twilight surmised, before smiling. “That’s also what I and Coal speculated together too,” she admitted, before chuckling. “Although you knowing where the exact location

Star sniffed, raising her head higher. “Of course. And I only need myself to solve the puzzle.”

“Uh-huh. But see,” Twilight started, and she could see the frown growing on Star’s lips. Twilight raised her hoof to stall. “This feels like one of those things we should’ve brought the others along with.”

“They can take care of themselves,” Star replied. “Unlike you, I actually do know what those two — my teammates — are capable of. Do you, Twilight?”

Twilight’s eyes fell upon a stray tree branch upon the forest floor, the leaves attached a mix of brown and yellow-green, somewhere in that stage of decaying, and struggling to stay alive. “... They’re not who I’m worried about,” she muttered, eventually.

“Then we can take care of ourselves,” something about the way Star snorted tickled Twilight’s withers. “Besides, this was your idea, wasn’t it?”

Twilight blinked slowly. “I’m sorry? You would’ve gone alone if I didn’t follow you, and Pockets was tired — Coal’s Coal.”

“But you didn’t suggest that, did you?” Star cocked an eyebrow. “You want to do this — not as much as I want to, naturally, but you leapt at the chance you saw the opportunity.”

That’s not just it, Twilight wanted to say. Leaving Star Cell to go alone tasted too much of abandonment, and staying behind smelled so much of giving up. But then, Star wasn’t exactly wrong either. She could’ve tried to convince Star, futile as that endeavor might be. She could’ve tried to look for the third option beyond stay, or follow, because there’s always the third option. Twilight just hadn’t even bothered to.

“You’re right,” Twilight admitted, sighing. “Well, at least you’re not wrong. I aim to give this exam my all, and that meant completing it as fast as possible.”

Apparently, that too was the wrong thing to say. “Whatever,” Star clicked her tongue. “I answered your question — so be a good little puppy, and stay quiet, Twilight.”

Twilight looked up, watching the slivers of light filtering through cracks of leaves, and branches — within the dimness of the forest, they were like tiny pillars of light. Perched on those branches, dark beady eyes stared back at her, tilting their head curiously — though not at all bothered. They chirped, almost in askance. Through the distance, she could hear more of them; echoing through the canopies, like a conversation in some foreign language. Idly, she pondered if such pony who could translate them existed. Clearly, they had some essence of intelligence.

Sighing, Twilight shook her head, and watched Star’s swishing tail in mild resignation.

.

5

.

Twilight wasn’t overstating it when she said that Star Cell was a blessing. Even if cracking the “puzzle” behind the obsidian was easy as pie, it would take theoretically a full day to comb the forest out to find this one specific “mountain-like place that has a mine” — in that sense, the treasure hunt would have turned into a mind-numbing scouting. With Star’s impressive sense of direction, it had only taken them two-and-a-half-hours.

They both stood before the mouth of an abandoned mine. Beyond its threshold, Twilight couldn’t see anything but consuming darkness. There were the tell-tales of ponies here; semblance of civilization, that ponies used to come here often to make a living — the carriage tracks composed of wood, and iron that began from here and continued within; rusted from the lack of care. A minecart laid on its side, halfway consumed by the earth; dented, and beaten from use and time, its side was caved in as though impacted by something heavy, and rust had long gone covered it. Twilight spotted what probably used to be a bunch of crates; rotten, and poking out of the ground. Lunchboxes, only its surface visible, poking out from the dirt. Hard mining hats; shattered, and covered in mud.

“I wonder why they abandoned the mine like this,” Twilight mused, eyes observing the scene. Certainly, it appeared something done out of panic and hurry, rather than something planned. By the look of it though, they weren’t the only one here recently, by the look of it, though recently could range from days to a week ago. “It’s likely that the old miners didn’t expect the wendigos to come here.”

“Or maybe they just had an accident,” Star shrugged, glaring into the depths.

“Neither’s mutually exclusive,” catching the Manhattanite’s glare, Twilight frowned. She doesn’t like the dark? No, not the dark. Tight spaces, maybe? Her nose flared, stepping forward. “I’ll take the front, and you take my back.”

Star Cell grimaced, lips quirking into a sneer. “You’re not the one in charge, Twilight Sparkle,” her leg crossed Twilight’s path, stopping her. She turned, face-to-face. “I am,” she stressed out, pressing a hoof onto her snout. “And I haven’t given any order yet. I’ll be taking the front, and you’ll be on the back.”

Twilight stared at the offending hoof in bemusement. The wiser thing would be to relent — let Star do whatever she wanted, and find whatever her problem was after the exam; that had been the plan. But this went beyond that, already. She pushed Star’s hoof down. “It’s officially a coup, and I’m taking my position back,” she stepped past the mare, into the abandoned mine — her horn glowed, and a ball of warm purple light formed out of it; oozing, almost, as it wobbled like liquid, before it solidified; steadily floating just a little beside her head. Magelight. It revealed a long shaft, reinforced by wood and metal, sloping downwards — a really long shaft, Twilight mused, when she couldn’t see the end of it. “You can have it back once we’re out of here.”

“Leadership’s not some badge you can take off, and one whenever you want it, Twilight,” Star growled, and despite her complain, she followed her regardless. “It’s not given, it’s earned.

Twilight paused, glancing backwards. “Is that why you hate me, Star?” Twilight snapped, before blinking. The words were sharp — sharper than Twilight intended. No take backs, though. Looked like her plan just got pushed days early. She didn’t care. Her chest burned. Her right eye twitched. “Because you don’t think I deserve — because you don’t think I didn’t work hard enough? That I’ve come this far because I was what? Favoritism? Some sort of privileges? Is that why you hate me?”

Star blinked, taking a step back. “That’s not —” she paused, gulping. Her eyes narrowed, meeting her glare squarely. “... I don’t hate you.”

Twilight recalled the way Star had always looked at her, and remembered Pockets’ warning. She returned to this morning; waking up, with her clock’s alarm changed. Pockets might be right; Star Cell didn’t always hate her, but something happened that made Star change. Twilight didn’t know why, or what she herself was being angry at right now. Star’s accusation stung, but that wasn’t it — and honestly, neither was this morning’s prank. But it boiled. It was probably something entirely unreasonable. It was a word the academy’s guidance counselor loved to use when in Twilight’s presence.

“Really,” she returned dryly, turning around fully. Face-to-face, eyes-to-eyes. Ther nose an inch away from actual touching. She smells like dirt, sweat, and candies. “Then look at me in the eyes, and tell me you don’t hate me.”

“I…” Star began, before trailing off. Her jaws moved, but no sound came out. Her pupils a pair of pinkpricks. In the end, she looked away. “... I don’t hate you,” she whispered out, and Twilight wondered who she was trying to tell that to. Belatedly, Twilight realized, if Pockets had been wrong; if Star truly did not hate Twilight somehow, then she certainly did now.

No take-back. Twilight turned around, wondering why her hoofsteps felt heavy. “Mind telling me why?”

In the tight space of the mineshaft, the smell of earth was thicker here, and their hoofsteps echoed seemingly without an end. Star Cell didn’t answer Twilight. Keeping her eyes forward, her lips thinned in frustration. She had pushed, and pushed too far. Burned bridges among burned bridges. Twilight’s initial worry of entering the mineshaft, and their quiet journey downward ended as they reached a dead-end. A large rock had been placed here, sealing the mine proper — a warning nailed onto it: ABANDONED. NO ENTRY. DANGER BEWARE, written in thick bold letters, with a picture of stick-pony being crushed by a falling rock, and a pony-skull over crossbones; it looked both and natural, and artificially placed, the boulder-seal. A cave-in had happened, and somepony else decided to add into it to stop stupid ponies to venture deeper.

There was an envelope, with the candle-seal of Celestia’s Sun pressed on it, hanging by a string. She levitated it to her face, and opened it. A note was inside: The treasure lies where it’s coldest. “We got our clue,” Twilight stated, offering it to Star.

She took it with her magic grasp, and read it. Wordlessly, she placed it back into her saddlebags. “Gonna take the fore, leader?” she hissed quietly.

Twilight looked around. They could switch formation; there was enough space for it, but it would be tight — one probably filled with too many awkwardness, and fur-touching, and in-the-dark groping. Looking at Star’s sour expression, Twilight shook her head. “No. Let’s just get back up. We can brainstorm what the clue means in the camp — I think I have a guess.”

Star snorted. “Of course you do.”

Rolling her eyes, she gestured towards the exit. Their journey upwards the shaft was as quiet as their journey down into it. How stifling, Twilight thought — it reminded her second month into dating Flash Sentry. That feeling of… not quite stress, or dissatisfaction, but close enough; that growing urge of ‘let’s end this already’. It was tiredness. Exhaustion. Instead of hesitating, that desire of ripping the bandaid only grew bigger until it combusted into a fantastic fireworks. They weren’t quite there yet, but they were pretty damn close. The three short hours Twilight had spent alone with Star Cell had expanded the balloon far more than they had spent four years living, studying, and sleeping in the same room.

Soon enough, they reached surface. Twilight took a deep breath, taking in the fresh air — and froze as the trees shifted and creaked; as the earth trembled. Belatedly, Twilight realized that it was quiet. Too quiet. No chirps of birds, or squeaks of errant squirrels and rabbits. Stomp, stomp, stomp. A pause. Stomp. Closer, and closer. It’s going their way. Only tenseness remained in the air.

Twilight shared a look with Star, and nodded. Licking her lips, Twilight pulled out her spear, and unsheathed her sword. “Let’s run —”

Stomp. Stomp stomp stompstompstompstomp — Twilight’s eyes widened. Wood cracked. Trees bent. Leaves blew. Earth shattered. “Now!” Twilight roared turning the direction away from the big monster and —

Too late. Something stepped out of the treelines — and Twilight felt her throat dry.

The monster — for what else could it be — towered above her, its shadow swallowing her presence. Six meters? Has to be four, at least. Leathery hide dark as the blackest night, and Celestia, her belly churned: terror, and sickness mixing into a batch of bilious concoction. It stood on two feet like a minotaur, but unlike a minotaur, its body slouched under its own weight; spine stretched, and curled like a sickle. Arms that were too long, too thick for its own good laid limply on the forest ground; claws the size of her sword formed a cruel row at the end. Its head was as bad, if not worse: a crocodile’s muzzle that lacked everything; a face — a smooth blank slate that Twilight swore reflected some of the sun’s light; a cracked line ran on it, like a zipper. It parted a little; a distorted growl leaking out of it. A migraine pulsed at the back of her head. Everything about this creature was unnatural — chaotic, and disproportionate, like one screwed up game of Mister Potato Head —

Oh Celestia, that’s a lot of eyes — dozens; no, hundreds. What Twilight had thought as… she wasn’t sure what, exactly — scars, perhaps? Jagged lines that ran along its body, criss-crossing, and branching into paths like the root of a tree — they cracked open. Sickly yellow eyes, muscles twitching, and veins throbbing behind them.

They twitched, and leaped towards them. No. To Star Cell. In a blink, it shot its arm out like a spear; fast — faster than Twilight believed its stature could support. It was like the piston engine Cloudsdale loved to show off, Twilight numbly thought. That, snapped Twilight out of her reverie, as she immediately leapt to the side, and immediately rolled to her hooves.

That, didn’t snap Star Cell. She still stood frozen, stiff as a statue.

Twilight could only watch in horror.