• Published 19th May 2020
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Rekindled Embers - applezombi

Hundreds of years after the death of Twilight Sparkle, a brutal theocracy rules over ponies with an iron hoof. A young pegasus mare slowly learns the truth about her world, and the lies her faith is built on.

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Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Recording of a Radio Free Equestria broadcast, taken 1109 AF. Listening to, recording, or possession of so-called ‘pirate radio’ broadcasts are to be considered an act of heresy and will be punished accordingly.

“Hello, folks, you’re listening to Radio Free Equestria, New Canterlot City’s best and only-est pirate radio station. I’m Cutting Wave, your resident heretic voice and all around friendly truth teller. We’re so glad you found the frequency, as it changes every time you listen! We’re here to bring you the Truth, only the Truth, with an extra helping of… you guessed it, folks… TRUTH.

“Tonight’s broadcast is gonna focus on the little cluster buck of a train wreck that was the broadcast of our ‘sister station’, EVOD one oh three point nine from two nights ago. Wow. Where do I even begin? Reeducation camp in Zebrica? What kind of messed up horseapples is that? Zebras don’t need anything the Diarchy has to offer, folks. In fact, we could probably use a lot of zebra education over here.

“And the village they captured? More horseapples. See, I just found out the facts, and turns out that the little ‘village’ our soldiers captured over there was nothing more than a half dozen zebras trying to caravan some expats to Jubilation. Doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy, folks, to have poor zebras being chained up by some colonialist bastards who wanna shove them in a torture camp somewhere, but it’s not really the big victory they're claiming.

"There were three ponies travelling with them, a mom, her daughter, and her daughter in law. Yup, one of those arrests. We have no idea where you are, Sunny Grain, Grape Soda, and Helix Swirl, but we’ll keep an eye out, and hope you can get away. If not, your names will go in the Book of Remembrance just like every other pony we know the damned Diarchy has tortured and murdered for being different.

“Second, what the buck were they talking about, capturing two Discordant? The big stallion says that it’s all fake. Want proof? That sort of thing would be all over the papers. Where are the pictures? Where are the public trials, the humiliation, the strait jackets and muzzles for the ‘dangerous heretic Knights’? You can bet your fuzzy butts that if the Diarchy really had captured a Discordant alive, they’d parade the sorry pony in front of literally everypony they could find.

“Last of all, that bit of horseapples about Shady Pine. Folks, Shady Pine wasn’t one of us. It’s too late now; the poor stallion’s already been black bagged. Nopony knows where he is. He wasn’t passing us information, who in the buck cares about ‘confessor’s secrets’? What was he passing, notes on which noblestallion is rutting which noblemare? Who cares? Besides, he wasn’t an agent anyways, he was just literally in the wrong place at the wrong time, and some incompetent Mystic plothole decided his superiors were getting impatient with his or her lack of progress on a case, looking for a real mole, so he just found some sort of scapegoat. It boils my blood. Well, Shady Pine’s going in the Book of Remembrance, too. Sorry it happened, sir. My condolences go out to his family, and if any of you are listening, please get out of the City. The further you are from the capital the safer.

“In other news, the big stallion says that recruitment to the Discordant is going better than ever. Last week seven more ponies joined the ranks of Equestria’s real protectors, and our well wishes and hopes go out with them. We’re still outnumbered a fifty to one, but we’ve got the Truth on our side, and TRUTH ALWAYS WINS. That’s it for our little broadcast tonight ponies, we hope you enjoyed yourselves, and as always, stay safe, stay low, and STAY AWAKE.

“The cipher for next week’s frequency will follow.”

1109 AF, Ivy Seminary, New Canterlot City

For some reason, Sir Sablebeard seemed annoyed at his students. Emberglow couldn’t understand why. After four months of teaching theory and memorization, he was now going to be teaching the pages the beginnings of basic rune casting.

She was sure there wasn’t a single page who had slept well last night; she herself had lain awake in anticipation for hours. The faculty seemed to understand what a momentous day this was, as well; when the sleepless ponies had shuffled in for their morning breakfast, several extra pots of coffee were already prepared for them. The other faculty members seemed to be at least partially as excited as the students; most of their classes had hinted at some sort of practical employment of rune magic. Lady Amaranth had said they would begin working on basic shield spells during their sparring, and Sir Heavenseeker had hinted that their final history project may need to be delivered via illusion spells, not a traditional essay. Only Sir Sablebeard had seemed grumpy about the whole thing when he had announced the class’ impending practical lesson with the tone a pony might use reading the obituary of a particularly boring slug.

Nopony seemed to notice, or even care, that there was one broken bulb in their otherwise glittering strand of cheerful, twinkling lights. Emberglow couldn’t even guess why Sir Sablebeard was so grumpy about practical instruction in his subject; wasn’t a working knowledge of runic spellcasting the end goal of his lessons? Oh well, it wasn’t as if his foul mood was going to change what they were learning about.

When Emberglow and the other students arrived at their first practical rune magic class, they found a small hinged wooden box on each desk. Sir Sablebeard sat at the front of the class, dressed in his own polished orange armor. While the chalkboard in his classroom was usually full of whatever runes he wanted to speak about that week, now there was only a single phrase. ‘DON’T TOUCH THE BOX UNTIL INSTRUCTED.’ It was a necessary sign; every pony in the room seemed to be chomping at the bit to see what was inside the mystery box. When it was time for class to begin, Sir Sablebeard addressed his students.

“Now as you all may have heard, the authorities at this school have determined that now is the time to begin your practical rune magic instruction,” Sir Sablebeard intoned. “Rune casting is a very precise and very delicate art. It takes will and focus. Amateurs and idiots are likely to make mistakes that will hurt themselves, or even destroy property.” He sighed. “Every year I try to get them to push back the date, and every year they say no. And every year, I have to patch up a giant hole in my wall, or scrape some poor pony’s innards off my ceiling. Since you lot are only as competent as everypony else I’ve ever trained, I expect to be sending at least three of you to the infirmary today. Just today! Saints above, please give me the time when it slows down to only one a week…” The instructor rubbed his forehead wearily with a hoof. “Maybe if just this once, everypony listens to me and follows my instructions WITH EXACTNESS, it won’t be one of you that I send to the Knights Radiant to put back together. Now. You may lift open the lids of your box. Only lift open the lids.”

Several of Emberglow’s classmates muttered impatiently at the rate Sablebeard was taking the class, but so far, every pony only opened the lids of their boxes. Emberglow opened her own box and peered in. Inside was a strange metal cube shaped apparatus with a cylindrical hole in the middle. The cube was attached via three cords wound together to what looked like a long, thin shoe. A cylinder, separate from the linked apparatus, also rested within the box.

“What you see before you is a basic rune casting gauntlet, attached to its power source. If any of you pages ever manage to make it out of training, your Knight armor will have one of these devices built into either your right or left hoof armor, depending on your preference. These larger, clumsier models are much less portable, but much cheaper to manufacture, making them ideal for instructing students. Keep in mind that cheaper doesn’t mean cheap; every single one of these units still costs enough to feed you for about three months. So be careful.

“Also in the box is a spell battery. Please carefully lift the spell battery out of the box. Do not drop it, and do not touch the gauntlet or the power source. You may rest the battery on your desk, gem side up.”

Having been at least partially cowed by Sir Sablebeard’s speech about scraping pony innards off the ceiling, each student very slowly lifted the spell battery out of the box with their hooves. Each battery was a cylinder, about as long as a pony’s ear, and the diameter of a bit coin. On one side were five gems; three of them were green, one was yellow, and the last was red. On the bottom of the cylinder were two narrow, short metal prongs. On Emberglow’s cylinder, the red and yellow gems were illuminated with a magical glow, while the green gems were dull and inert.

“Now, can anypony tell me what the gems indicate?” Sir Sablebeard asked. For a brief moment everypony stared at their instructor. He had never before asked anypony a question in his class; it had always been lecture and only lecture. “Well? You can’t all be asleep, I thought you ponies were excited for this.” Finally, a few hoofs rose hesitantly into the air, including Emberglow’s.

“You there, pink filly,” he said, pointing at Emberglow, and she realized with some surprise that Sir Sablebeard had never bothered to learn their names.

“Sir, the gems tell you how much magical energy is stored in the battery,” she said. She’d read the entire class textbook when it had become clear that Sir Sablebeard’s teaching methods were next to worthless for her.

“Do you know the proper terminology, or are you satisfied using unscientific language like ‘magical energy’?” he sneered. She nodded.

“Yes sir. Spells are powered by ‘motes’, a somewhat abstract unit of measurement that approximates the amount of energy required to cast a spell. While it is difficult to measure motes, it is possible to estimate and approximate them, and the batteries are designed to keep track of the amount of motic energy the battery has remaining.”

“…There might be some hope for you lot,” Sir Sablebeard said. “The pink pony is right. When you hold a spell battery, the lights on the outside are illuminated according to the approximate amount of motic energy that remains within the battery. The more motes that are used, the more lights dim and disappear. Green is for fuller batteries, and a battery in the red is nearly depleted. Over time, you will get a feel for which spells can be cast with how much motic energy.” He sighed. “Next question. How is a spell battery filled?” Several other hooves shot into the air, more quickly this time. Sir Sablebeard pointed at another student. “You there, green stallion.”

“The spell battery is filled over time, from the ambient magical… um… motic energy that permeates all of Equestria. Batteries can fill faster in some places than others.”

“Nice save, green stallion,” Sir Sablebeard noted with narrowed eyes. “He is correct. The time frame for filling a spell battery is fairly long; a completely empty battery the size of the ones in your hooves can take as much as a month to fill. Always remember: motic energy is a resource to be used sparingly, and only when needed. Magic is not for frivolous uses or silliness.”

“Now, please very carefully remove the power source and gauntlet from the box. Do not put it on yet. Each of you will decide which hoof to attach your gauntlet to; choose your dominant hoof, the one you use primarily to eat or write. Carefully loosen the buckles so you will be able to attach the gauntlet, and move the empty box off your desk carefully underneath, and out of the way.”

Emberglow could feel the collective groan building from all the students at the overly detailed, overly cautious instruction method. She felt her own impatience bubbling, boiling just below the surface of her thoughts as she picked up the gauntlet and power source, loosening the buckles as instructed.

“Now, place your chosen hoof in the gauntlet and tighten the buckles. If you can’t see how, I will be over to assist you. The spell gauntlets are not powered just yet, but they are expensive, so please be careful. Also, though I realize you ponies may not think it, I do care about your safety and wellbeing, more than any other concern here today. If at any point in time I say ‘stop, hooves on desk’, I need everypony to rest their gauntleted hoof on their desk and not move it until I give permission. Are we understood?”

A unison chorus of ‘yes sir’ floated through the classroom. Emberglow looked at the arrangement of the two buckles on the gauntlet. It would be easy enough to don. She slid her hoof into the apparatus, feeling the padded interior shielding her hoof from the metallic shell.

“Now, as you have heard from me before, if you bothered to listen, spellcasting takes willpower, concentration, focus, and intent. Because of the wonders of rune magic, the intent of a spell comes automatically, supplied by the runes we choose to draw. While we are casting the same spells that a unicorn could with his or her horn, we do not have to shape the spell with our own intentions. This means that there is no chance of a rune spell getting out of control in unexpected or unfortunate ways. This doesn’t preclude a miscast; using incorrect or improperly drawn runes can still result in unfortunate magical occurrences.

“We do have to worry about willpower, concentration, and focus. Lose your concentration on a spell, and the motic energy simply dissipates, lost forever. Lose your focus and you may draw the runes incorrectly, causing a spell failure, or perhaps even a disastrous miscast. Willpower is simply the mental command for the spell to shape itself, and complete. If you do not will a spell into effect, no amount of rune drawing will create a result. It may seem obvious, but you have to intentionally cast a spell in order for it to work.”

Sir Sablebeard walked over to the chalkboard, erasing the warning from earlier. He wrote three runes on the board; it was a combination nopony in the room had ever seen before, though they had memorized the individual runes in class weeks previous.

“I am writing a simple spell on the board right now. It is a completely worthless spell; it will do nearly nothing, other than summoning a coin-sized magical orb the color of your manes, floating in the air above you. It doesn’t even shed light, and the orb will pop like a soap bubble if touched. It has been designed merely as a safe way for beginners to practice rune magic. Take a moment to look at the runes, think about them, then lift your gauntleted hoof in the air and practice writing them in front of you.

“But sir, without the battery inserted nothing will happen,” one of the students complained. Sir Sablebeard glared at him.

“That’s the point. Now do as I said.”

Emberglow imagined that all the pages felt just as ridiculous as she did, waving their hooves worthlessly in the air in front of them in a vague pattern. Sir Sablebeard wandered around the classroom, watching their efforts with a stern look, correcting sloppy rune drawing when he could catch it. After about ten silly minutes of this, Sir Sablebeard had made his way to the front of the class.

“Now everypony stop,” he said, and the students complied. “Very carefully, with your free hoof, insert your battery prong-side down into the power source. A latch on the power source will secure the battery in place. Do not move your gauntleted hoof just yet.”

With a little trepidation, Emberglow picked up the battery and inserted it into the power source. She found the latch and flipped it over, securing the battery in place. It felt a little awkward to do all this one-hoofed, and with her left hoof even, but she was determined to follow instructions strictly.

“Very well. Now that we’ve…”

Sir Sablebeard was interrupted by a loud explosion, followed by a scream and a crash. Dust filled the room as a pony in the back of the class was thrown violently against the wall, her gauntlet cords ripped forcibly out of the power source as the pony they were attached to was catapulted across the room.

“Stop! Hooves on desk!” Sir Sablebeard called out loudly but calmly as he ran over to the downed student. It was Astrolabe. She was moving, moaning and coughing as she shifted on the pile of paint chips and masonry on the floor. The wall was intact, but there was a sizeable dent left where the mare had impacted. “Purple pony, are you okay?” Astrolabe moaned, and Sir Sablebeard quickly lifted his hoof, drawing three runes in the air.

“You have no broken bones, but a minor concussion. Somepony willing to walk purple pony here to the infirmary?” Nopony seemed to want to miss their first chance at practical rune casting, so the room was silent for a moment. Emberglow nearly raised her hoof; somepony had to do it, even if Astrolabe was an evil witch. But just as her hoof started to twitch, Green Fields spoke up.

“I’ll walk her down, sir,” Green Fields volunteered.

“Good, thank you, light green pony. Be sure to remove your gauntlet, some other student will put it away if you don’t get back in time. See if the nurses will send somepony down so that they’re immediately on hand if something happens again. It always does,” Sir Sablebeard said with a resigned sigh.

Green Fields rushed over to her friend and helped Astrolabe stumble shakily to her hooves. Once they were gone, Sir Sablebeard addressed the class.

“Now, does anypony know what happened?” He was met with blank stares to his query. He nodded. “I didn’t see the event myself, but I’ve been teaching ponies like you for decades, so I can guess. Your rune gauntlet is activated by will. That means, when you choose to turn it on, it turns on. It’s like a light switch in your brain; you have to consciously decide to start writing, otherwise the gauntlet is like an expensive metal sock. My guess is that purple pony was thinking about rune casting so much that she accidentally activated the gauntlet and miscast a spell, which caused a small explosion.”

Small explosion? The classroom erupted in whispered murmurs, each pony suitably awed and a little frightened at the dangerous tools they had strapped to their hooves. Almost two dozen sets of ears were firmly pointed at their teacher now, though several pairs of eyes kept drifting over to the pony-sized dent in the wall.

“Now, somepony will be by to fix the wall later, so we needn’t be too concerned about that for now. We’ll start off with a demonstration.” Sir Sablebeard lifted his hoof, and like before, began writing a rune in midair. As he wrote, the tip of the gauntlet’s hoof glowed, trailing soft white light. The students’ gazes were fixed on the gentle glow as it formed the same runes that Sir Sablebeard had written on the board. As soon as all three runes were written in the air, they hovered for a split second before disappearing. An instant later, a small black orb, the size of a coin, appeared in the air above Sir Sablebeard’s head.

“For those of you who care about history, this spell is called Star Shine’s Training Orb. It has been literally used for centuries to train would-be Knights such as yourselves. Now, we’re not going to try all at once, because there’s just too many of you to keep an eye on at the same time. So, we’ll do it by desk columns. You five are up first,” he motioned to the first column of desks, and five nervous ponies looked up. “Lift your gauntlets, will them on, and write the runes on the board. ONLY the runes on the board.”

Emberglow could see a few nervous gulps as the ponies did as he asked. Each pony wrote much more slowly than Sir Sablebeard, but soon enough five sets of glowing white runes appeared in the air in front of the five ponies. When they were done, however, only three colorful orbs appeared in the air above their heads.

“You two,” Sir Sablebeard said to the ponies who had failed the spell as they looked above their heads with confusion. “Did you become distracted? Lose focus on what you were doing?” He was given two nervously ashamed nods. “Try again, just you two. And remember, if you get distracted, the spell will probably fail to shape.” The two of them tried again, and one blue orb appeared in over one of their heads. The last pony finally managed on his third try.

“Very good. Next column,” Sir Sablebeard said, moving to the column that included Lofty Tale in its front. Lofty looked terrified.

“You got this,” Emberglow said softly. Lofty nodded, but didn’t look her way, his ears pinned back and his eyes locked on the tip of his gauntlet.

“Begin,” Sir Sablebeard said, and the next group of ponies lifted their hooves in the air and began to draw. This time three of the four ponies in this column managed the small colored sphere above their heads; Lofty was the only pony who had to go a second time. Blushing at the embarrassment at having singled himself out, he hesitated before lifting his gauntlet a second time.

“Just do it, boy,” Sir Sablebeard almost growled. Shakily, Lofty nodded and began to write, the white glow appearing before him in the air. Soon enough, a black orb appeared in the air above Lofty Tale. Emberglow couldn’t help herself; she clapped her hooves together for her friend. Nopony else applauded, though, so Emberglow stopped after a moment, a little embarrassed. It was all worth it when Lofty grinned at her, though.

“Congratulations, you’re all vaguely competent,” Sir Sablebeard announced blandly. “Moving on.”

When Sir Sablebeard moved in front of her group, Emberglow didn’t feel nervous, she felt elated. She looked over at Lofty, who was wearing an encouraging smile, and smiled back.

“Begin,” Sir Sablebeard commanded. Emberglow thought about her gauntlet. Just like Sir Sablebeard had said, she willed it to begin working. She immediately recognized that the analogy of a light switch was a good one; as soon as she had focused her thoughts into the gauntlet, she could feel it come to life. It wasn’t a pulse or a vibration, more like a sixth sense; she knew the gauntlet was on, and she could feel the metal hoof piece as if it were a piece of her body. The metal contours, the padding inside, and every edge of the gauntlet felt as if it had nerves, just like her own body.

She lifted her hoof in the air, and wrote the three runes. As soon as Emberglow began writing, she felt a building sensation. It was like a pressure on her mind; not unpleasant, but odd. The more lines of the runes she wrote, the further the pressure built. She finished the curves and points of the three runes, and suddenly the pressure leapt within her, asking to be set free. She realized she could hold onto it if she wished, but had no reason to, letting the building energy of the spell rip free. Before anypony else in her column, a red orb flickered to life in the air above her head. Emberglow heard a clopping of hooves from next to her; she looked and saw Lofty returning her applause from earlier. She gave him a grin.

“That was quick, pink pony,” Sir Sablebeard said. That was odd; the dour Knight never really complimented any students. Then again, he usually didn’t interact with students in any way, so maybe it wasn’t that odd. Emberglow looked back at the others in her column. This time, nopony missed the runes on the first try, with each student in the column having a colored orb above their heads. “Next group. Begin.”

The fourth group had three ponies that had to retry. Right as Sir Sablebeard was about to order the three to begin again, there was a scream from the other side of Lofty. One of the ponies in the first group, a grey earth pony stallion, was suspended in midair, surrounded by a green sparkling aura. He jerked and twisted in the air, his hooves pawing fruitlessly against the nothingness around him. His power source was still attached to his gauntlet, and it too was lifted off the ground, dangling from the cords that connected it to the gauntlet. The grey stallion’s panicked shouts and panting breath drew the attention of everypony in the classroom.

“Stop! Hooves on desk!” Sir Sablebeard shouted, running over to the suspended stallion. Once again, Sir Sablebeard’s gauntlet lit up the air, and Emberglow watched with awe as the instructor quickly sketched not three, but five runes in the air in the time it had taken her to draw one. The white runes disappeared, followed by a pulse of red light radiating from Sir Sablebeard’s gauntlet. As the red light bounced against the green aura that held the whimpering stallion in its grip, the green light faded. With each pulse, the light faded more, until finally disappearing. The stallion lowered slowly to the ground, collapsing onto his stomach as soon as his twitching hooves hit the floor.

“Mental discipline is a MUST for rune casting,” Sir Sablebeard said. “Grey stallion, are you unharmed?” The stallion stood up, carefully sitting back down at his desk, his face flushed with shame.

“I-I’m fine, sir. No injuries.”

“You are well enough to continue the lesson?”

“Um… yes sir,” the stallion said.

“Good. Last group. Everypony remember, the gauntlet is activated by willpower. If you don’t want random miscasts that explode in your face or change the nature of gravity relative to your own body, please control your thoughts. Now, begin.”

The final column had three ponies succeed on the first try, one on the second, and one on the fourth try, a nervous pegasus stallion who failed the first three times. But Sir Sablebeard was persistent, and the ‘red pony’ finally made it on the fourth try.

“Good. Now that you have all successfully cast a single rune spell, you will all break into pairs and practice. ONLY this spell, no others. One of you will cast, while the other observes. When the first is done, the second will cast. Move two desks so you’re sitting across from each other, and can see what the other is doing right, or doing wrong. Keep going until the end of class, or until one of you accidentally puts you or your partner in the infirmary,” Sir Sablebeard commanded. There was such a sense of inevitability in his voice that a few ponies in the classroom shuddered.

“Well, tutor, would you be my partner?” Lofty asked, as the other ponies in the classroom paired off with each other. Emberglow agreed, and the two of them slid their desks together. “You go first, I think it’ll help to see it done right again.”

“You did fine,” Emberglow said, rolling her eyes, but she did as he suggested, raising her hoof and casting the spell. It was even easier than the first time. With a grin, Lofty reached out with a hoof to pop the red orb that had appeared above her head. “Okay, your turn.”

This time, Lofty got it on the first try. The two friends took turns, casting the bubble orb and then popping it. They lost track of time, only stopping when they heard a scream of pain and Sir Sablebeard’s harsh cry of “Stop! Hooves on desk!” so that he could assess a broken leg and arrange for the injured mare to be carried off to the infirmary.

“It’s kinda weird that we just keep going when somepony gets hurt,” Lofty said. Emberglow shrugged.

“Well, at the rate ponies are getting hurt, and the level of certainty Sir Sablebeard had about the coming injuries, I’m not surprised. He clearly planned for this many injuries. I’m just a little surprised we didn’t have a Radiant on standby, like we sometimes do in martial arts class.” She thought about Lady Mercy Song, and how nice it would be to see her new role model again.

“It’s possible no Radiant could stand the company,” Lofty whispered, laughing. Emberglow gave him a horrified look; Sir Sablebeard had just wandered into earshot, behind Lofty Tale.

“You may be correct, green pony,” the Knight said from behind him, his voice deadpan.

“Sir! I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to…”

“Oh, be quiet. I’m well aware some ponies find my personality off-putting. But the fact is, the Radiant did offer to have one of theirs present. I declined. Rune casting, as you know, is a mental feat; if I had a magical doctor present, you all would have assumed injury was inevitable. You would have lost confidence, and everypony would have failed. Now, practice more and gossip less.” Sir Sablebeard wandered off, to check on a different pair of students.

“If he was so worried about damaging our confidence, why’d he do it himself?” Lofty hissed, whispering while watching the Knight to make sure he wasn’t close enough to overhear this time. Emberglow giggled.

“I have no idea. Now hush, green pony,” she whispered back in a clumsy approximation of Sir Sablebeard’s voice. “It’s your turn.”

Fortunately for the two of them, neither Emberglow nor Lofty Tale ended up taking a trip to the infirmary, though one of the other students actually caused a minor explosion inside of Sir Sablebeard’s desk, causing an explosion of a brand new ink pot that showered the entire front row in red ink. Sir Sablebeard, with a resigned sigh, commented that at least they’d only had two serious injuries, and dismissed the entire class, especially the front row, to go clean up before lunch. A free period had been deliberately scheduled during the time right after their first practical rune casting class, as if the staff had expected and made allowances for potential disasters.

“You could probably skip a bath or a shower,” Lofty teased as the two of them, spotted all over with red, like some sort of pox, walked out of the classroom. “Nopony could tell if you have red ink all over your mane.”

“Ha ha,” Emberglow deadpanned. “You look like a Saint Twilight's Night tree that somebody tied a black mop to the top of. Go wash up, green pony.”

“Is that my new nickname?” Lofty asked. Emberglow just smirked at him.

“Don't you think it's kinda weird that Sir Sablebeard doesn’t know our names?” she asked. Lofty shrugged.

“I’ll bet he never bothers to learn anypony’s name. Or maybe he’ll start, now that he has to interact with us instead of just talking at us.”

“Still,” Emberglow mused. “Accidents and ink explosions aside, that was pretty incredible. Did you feel the pressure? The power building as you formed the spell? It was weird, but it felt good.”

“Yeah, not the first attempt that failed, but after that I think I felt a little bit. Something.”

Emberglow stared at her friend. The sensation had been obvious, and quite powerful. She wondered if it were different for each pony, but she certainly wouldn’t have described the feeling as merely ‘a little bit’.

“But…” Emberglow began, then hesitated. She had no idea how to have this conversation about subjective experiences that she didn’t even have a vocabulary for. Still, she was curious. “I think I felt a bit more. A… a really strong pressure, or a force, in my head. It was just begging to be released, and as soon as I finished the runes, each time, it would kind of… try to jump out of my head. It’s hard to describe.”

“Huh,” Lofty said with a shrug. “I don’t know, Emberglow. Maybe it’s just because you’re more naturally talented at this than I am. I didn’t really feel anything like what you’re saying. Just a little tiny nudge, I suppose.”

They talked about it all the way back to the dorms, until they reached Emberglow’s room. Every day, Lofty still insisted on following her back to her room. She thought she should probably protest more; so far, there had been no other incidents. When they reached her door, however, it was slightly ajar.

“What?” she blinked with confusion, her ears pinned back nervously. “I didn’t leave it open…”

“Emberglow…” Lofty said, his voice worried. He sniffed the air. Emberglow did too; she smelled nothing. Cautiously, she pushed the door the rest of the way open with her muzzle, sneaking her head into the room to quickly inspect the inside. What she saw made her blood run cold.

Cream and rose colored fabric, shredded into chaotic strips, strewn across the floor.

Blue velvet, torn into pieces.

Two cutie mark medallions, bent and cast aside.

The largest remaining piece, what had once been a flared sleeve, was torn down one side to make a flat canvas. It was pinned to the wall with two daggers; somepony had written ‘Go home slut’ sloppily in red ink on the torn cloth.

She’d never asked her parents how much the dress had cost. How many bits had gone into the materials, how many hours of labor, or how much for the blacksmith’s commission to make the cutie mark medallions. As she stood there, looking at the shredded remains of the physical symbol of her parent’s love for her, all she could think of were the numbers. Ten bits for the yards of cream linen. Twelve, or maybe thirteen, for the cream linen with red dots. Another seven or so for the blue velvet; they probably didn’t need much of that. A few hours of labor for the both of them, not even counting the time it had taken them to adjust it for her growth, twice! She couldn’t even begin to guess how much it had cost for them to commission cutie mark medallions for the belt. Twenty bits? Twenty five? Emberglow had grown up around retail; she had a good enough sense of cost and markup to know that a dress like hers could easily retail for as much as a hundred and fifty bits.

Shock. Irrational thoughts. That was a symptom of shock. She was in shock. Was it possible for a mental or emotional trauma to bring on symptoms of shock? Emberglow couldn’t quite remember, but she thought so. Her hooves moved automatically, shifting her towards the demolished pile of cloth in the center of her room. Her hoof reached out, pawing woodenly at the shredded remains. As soon as she felt the touch of the soft fabric, her legs gave out, collapsing underneath her. She hit the wood floor stomach first, legs akimbo, and buried her nose in the torn cloth. There was noise. Somepony was shouting. Shouting at her? It didn’t sound angry, but she couldn’t quite make out the words at first.

“...too far. This is too much,” Lofty’s voice faded into her awareness. “I can’t… Emberglow, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

Something touched the back of her neck, and she shrieked, her rage and grief ripping the feral noise out of her throat. She spun onto her back, flailing at her assailant with her hooves. The stallion jumped back just in time to avoid getting clocked. Bereft a target, Emberglow’s limbs curled around herself protectively, and she flopped onto her side.

“Emberglow I… I’m going to go get help. Please stay here. Stay calm. Uh… yeah. I’m so sorry.”

She didn’t acknowledge him. She barely heard him. Reaching out with her front hooves, she gathered a pile of scraps from her favorite dress and clutched them to her muzzle. It was too much. She breathed in the scent of her dress and tried to think.

Emberglow was still curled up on the floor when she heard hoofsteps approaching. She didn’t bother to get up, but she did lift her muzzle out of the detritus on the floor to watch Lofty, Lady Amaranth, and a nurse from the infirmary, a grey pegasus mare, rush into the room.

“Who did this?” somepony asked. Lady Amaranth. She sounded furious.

More voices. Names. Accusations. Emberglow inhaled through her nose, trying to catch the scent of her parent’s shop in the torn cloth.

A new voice. The nurse? Maybe.

“... in shock, my lady,” the new voice said. “Probably a panic attack, as well.”

Lofty was speaking again. Answering again. He sounded angry.

Lady Amaranth asked a question.

“I believe she’ll be fine, physically.” This was the nurse again. “I recommend some counselling, too. A pony she can talk to.”

“... Mercy Song will help, Emberglow knows her.” Lady Amaranth mused. “That is, if she still wants to stay—”

“No! No, don’t send me away!” Emberglow snapped, surging to a sitting position on the bed. “This is… this is…” She didn’t know what she’d meant to say, her thoughts were a mess. “Don’t send me away,” she repeated, sounding pathetic.

“Shh, nopony’s going to send you away unless that’s what you want,” the nurse said. Lady Amaranth nodded.

“You’re one of the best in your class, Emberglow, and even your struggles in my class show a determination and willingness to work. No, the only way we lose you would be if you chose that yourself. I’ll leave her in your care, nurse. Lofty, help the nurse with whatever she needs. I’ve got some ponies to speak with.”

The Knight gave one last sympathetic look at Emberglow before swooping out of the room. Lofty looked expectantly at the nurse.

“Right. First, you’re going to take down that disgusting sign. Then, I want you to head to the kitchens, and get us some hot chocolate. Tell them you’re on a mission from Nurse Greyfeather.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lofty said, smiling a little and giving a military salute, hoof to chest. The nurse smirked at him, and sat down on the edge of Emberglow’s bed, a grey wing draped comfortingly around the younger mare. He walked over to where the two blades were spiked into the wall, and pulled them out with his teeth, spitting the weapons onto the floor contemptuously. “Would you like me to clean up the rest of this while I’m at it?”

“No, we’ll take care of that. You just look into the hot chocolate situation,” the nurse ordered. Lofty nodded, and left.

“I’m sorry,” Emberglow whispered as soon as he was gone. The nurse stared at her.

“Why would you apologize? You did nothing wrong.” Greyfeather said.

“No, for being such a mess. A Knight shouldn’t be… sh-shouldn’t be l-like th-th-,” Emberglow stammered, breaking down into sobs as the tears finally came. “I’m s-such a w-weakling…”

“Cry all you want, but don’t you dare say you’re a weakling,” the nurse protested, hugging Emberglow to her chest. “Do you know what Lofty said about you on the way over here? That you’ve been going months with these girls tormenting you. Months! And he says you just ignored it, and didn’t say a word! That’s not weakness. What happened here was a panic attack, brought on by stress and shock.”

“I was experiencing the s-symptoms of sh-shock earlier,” Emberglow managed.

“Ooh, that’s right, I did hear that you were medically trained. Quite the little genius, according to your classmate. Personally, I don’t think he does you enough credit, if you’ve been putting up with this as long as he says. Now, what is first aid for shock?”

“Um, cover the patient loosely with a blanket or sheet, make sure they’re lying down, and lots of fluid to prevent dehydration. Check for bleeding or other external injuries that may be contributing to low blood flow,” Emberglow recited, as the nurse eased her down onto the bed, sliding a sheet up and over her.

“That’s right,” the nurse said soothingly. “Are you injured? Bleeding anywhere?”

“No, I’m not,” Emberglow said.

“Okay, let’s move on to the next medical condition, doctor Emberglow. What do you recommend for a panic attack?” the nurse asked. Emberglow laughed shakily at the entire situation.

“Encourage the p-patient to take deep, calming breaths,” Emberglow began, and when the nurse raised her eyebrows, she took one. “Speak soothingly and calmly, tell them everything will be okay.” It was odd how thinking of things she had memorized, had been tested on in medical school, was calming her racing, churning brain. “Small sips of water might help."

“Hot chocolate,” the nurse corrected. “That’s my go-to for student panic attacks. Sorry, continue.”

“Remove the patient from the source of the stress, if possible,” Emberglow said, looking up at the wall where the daggers had held the sign in place. The nurse nodded.

“I suppose I should start getting this cleaned up, then.”

“But what should I… what can I… all my parent’s hard work…”

“Was destroyed, yes,” the nurse said calmly. “But this dress is not their love for you. This dress is not their feelings, or their pride. They won’t think or feel differently about you because the dress was destroyed. So right now we need to get your room in order, so you can stop looking at this pile, and start remembering the sentiment behind the dress, not the dress itself.” Emberglow nodded and started to rise, but was stopped by a hoof to her chest. “Nope. You stay there in bed and tell me all about your parents. I’ll get this cleaned up. It won’t take more than a moment.”

“My parents are tailors,” Emberglow began as the nurse began piling together the remains of her dress. “They raised me in Rainbow Falls until my cutie mark appeared and we moved to New Canterlot City so I could have a better education…”

The self-history continued while the nurse cleared the room, with Emberglow needing only gentle prodding to talk all about her amazing parents. Nurse Greyfeather was right; it didn’t take long to clean up the mess, and she did feel better as she thought about her mother and father. In no time, the ruined dress was gone, the scraps thrown away in a garbage bin, the only remaining bits being the two cutie mark medallions. The nurse had managed to bend them mostly back into shape, leaving them on top of Emberglow’s dresser as a keepsake.

“It’s like a metaphor for you,” the nurse said, as she put the two medallions down. “No matter how much damage they did, you’re still here, and you’re still strong. Like these. You’re going to survive, Emberglow, and you’re going to be stronger for it.”

“I still feel foolish that I had a panic attack, of all things,” Emberglow said. “I didn’t think…” and then blushed, not wanting to finish the thought.

“Go on,” the nurse prodded.

“I didn’t think that sort of thing happened to ponies like me. I thought I was stronger than that.”

“Well, now you know. Stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma are real things. The Saints can help us through them, but they don’t usually make them go away. More often, we prove ourselves to the Saints not by ignoring these things, but by enduring and overcoming them. And it’s just fine to get help on the way; remember, the Saints helped each other, so is it really so bad to get help when we need it?” the nurse asked rhetorically. “Even the blessed Diarchs are a pair, Sun and Moon, working with each other in perfect Harmony.”

“I’m back!” Lofty announced, reemerging into the room carrying a thermos and several cups. Emberglow jumped, startled. “The cook didn’t believe me at first, thought I was making it all up for free sweets.”

“Looks like you convinced him, though,” the nurse said with a smile. “Pour us all a cup, young stallion.”

Emberglow sat up, and Lofty watched her a bit nervously as he poured them all a steaming mug of hot chocolate. They all sat and drank, Emberglow sitting on the bed, Lofty and Nurse Greyfeather sitting on the floor, and sipped the hot sweet beverage. For Emberglow, it was the perfect solution. The chocolate was like a warm blanket hugging her from the inside.

“So…” she finally felt up to asking the question. “What happens now? To Green Fields, I mean.”

“Expulsion is what she deserves,” Lofty said bluntly.

“Expulsion is unlikely,” the nurse said honestly. “She’s not a sponsorship, so she’s here because her parents paid for her to be here. The Fields family is wealthy and influential. So most likely, she’ll be taken to the headmaster of the Ivy Seminary, and questioned about what happened.”

“So she can lie?” Lofty snorted angrily.

“She might,” the nurse said. “But on the witness of two instructors, both Lady Amaranth and Sir Sablebeard, as well as my own testimony, she’ll be put under a truth spell about the whole thing. I doubt she’ll be able to prevaricate at all. I think most likely, she’ll be suspended until the start of next year, and she’ll be on probation, closely watched by all of the staff to make sure she doesn’t torment some other students.”

“Why not kick her out?” Lofty asked.

“Because… even if she’s terrible, Equestria needs her,” Emberglow answered, surprising herself. “Even ponies like her are a resource. And maybe if she gets a second chance, she’ll be different.”

The other two ponies were staring at her.

“What?” Emberglow asked.

“She’s too nice,” Lofty sighed. “Are you seriously defending Green Fields?”

“Not defending,” Emberglow protested. “I don’t like her, and I’ll be perfectly happy if I never see her again. But it’d be selfish of me to want her to be kicked out forever, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re unbelievable.” Lofty rolled his eyes incredulously.

“No, she’s sweet,” the nurse argued, giving Lofty a light shove with her hoof. “But you really do need to be worried about yourself sometimes. It’s okay to be a little selfish, to take care of yourself, and let other ponies know when you’re hurting. I’ll send a message to Lady Mercy Song. She’s trained as a counselor. You’re comfortable with her, right?” Emberglow nodded. “She’ll tell you better than me, but you need to learn to let your feelings out, and not ignore what’s happening and bottle things up until it explodes. Talk to your friend, or talk to me, or talk to Lady Mercy. Okay?”

“Okay.” Emberglow nodded.

“Good. Now I have to get back to the infirmary. Sir Sablebeard has another period this afternoon, and they’re also learning practical rune casting today.” The nurse shuddered. “It’s been nice to take a hot chocolate break, though,” she said, as if that were the real reason she was in Emberglow’s dorm. “I’ll make sure the both of you are excused from your afternoon classes, but tomorrow you should be fine to attend. Who do you have this evening?”

“Knight Law with Lady Evenhoof, and then Martial Arts with Lady Amaranth,” Lofty replied. Nurse Greyfeather nodded, and stood after draining the last of her cup.

“I’ll send a note to Lady Evenhoof, and Lady Amaranth will already know where you are. Do something relaxing, paint, write your parents, read a book, whatever you do to decompress.”

“Um, all Emberglow’s free time has been taken up by extra laundry or extra tutoring of her incompetent classmate,” Lofty supplied helpfully, with a bit of angry bite to his tone.

“No wonder you broke down,” the nurse said, her voice tinged with awe. “Maybe try writing a letter to your parents, let them know what happened. I know it will be just a few weekends until you see them again, but it might help you process all this. Lofty, stay with her until bedtime tonight, okay? Nurse’s orders. Come get me if you need anything.”

The nurse left the two young ponies alone, with about half the thermos of hot chocolate left. With a grin, Lofty Tale refilled both of their glasses.

“I have to say, this has got to be the worst plan ever on how to skip a couple of classes,” he said, just in time for Emberglow to take a big sip of her hot chocolate. She tried her best not to laugh, snorted, and managed to almost not spill hot chocolate on her bedsheet. Mostly.

“You’re a brat.” She scowled at him, but she couldn’t hold in her laughter for long. She moved off her bed onto the floor next to Lofty, and reached out with hoof and wing to draw him into a tight hug. “You’re also a great friend. Thank you, Lofty Tale.”

“Any time, Emberglow,” he said, and the two friends held each other close.

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