As the years and generations pass before me, there are some things that never diminish. Love, hope, friendship, and learning. Perhaps the last of these is why I decided to make Canterlot a university, for I am ever a student.
Excerpts from the Candid Sayings of Celestia as recorded by her friends
The camouflage cover to their room flew open, rustling in the motion. Light, sharp and bright, flooded in and stung Celestia's eyes. She turned her head away, groaning. Luna shifted against her, burying her face under Celestia's mane. Their first night here had little sleep and they clung to what more they could get. But in vain.
"Get up." Phantom Spell's even tone demanded obedience without delay.
Tendrils of sleep still slackened Celestia's muscles, and it took some effort to rise. Luna made a squeak of complaint as she lost the comfort of curling against her sister and she too had to find her feet. It was strange to wake up here. The sun had always been gentle in its beckon to rise, shining gradually brighter and slowly warming those who fell under her gaze. But here in the darkness of the hidden room inside the tree, it came as a slap in the face, as if night had been torn away in one swift jerk.
"Come." Phantom Spell turned from the hole and his hooves could be heard trotting away in an impatient gait.
Celestia shook herself, mane and tail flying, to send a jolt of energy down her body. Tapping Luna on the flank with her nose, she motioned to the hole. "Come on, before he turns into Grumpy Gus."
The two sisters stepped out of the tree and onto the living bridge at a quick trot. Phantom paused, but resumed his walk as they closed. "I have consulted the heads of the crafts. Your arrival has thrown an unexpected twist in our vines. You know nothing of our ways, and nothing of magic. You are like foals."
Celestia bit her lip to still her tongue, but it failed to stop a huff.
Curiously, Phantom peaked over his shoulder before turning his attention back to the path. "But you are not foals. Had you been younger, we could have merely tossed you into class with the rest of the fillies, and that would have been that. But now, you need special arrangements. Special considerations due to your age. That means time and resources." Arriving at his destination where the bridge met the trunk of another converted tree, he turned around and sat back on his haunches, lifting one hoof to gesture. "We have to draw teachers away from their normal duties, arrange for times, lessons, we have to expend yet more in giving you chaperones and teaching you the basics of what every foal knows." He stomped his hoof down against the wooden bridge where it punctuated his sentence with a bang.
The action startled the mares straight and stiff, eyes wide as they listened.
"As you can imagine, the situation is precarious. Here is how it will go. You get those arrangements. For now. Your tutors will report directly to me with your progress. Show talent or skill that justifies the resources, you get to keep the personal tutors. You don't, and you learn with the fillies."
In the pause, Celestia swallowed a lump in her throat, only after realizing that Luna did the same at the same moment.
Phantom's eyes shifted between the sisters. "It's not a threat, but simply a fact. You are unknowns thrown into a very efficient system. It will take some trial and error before we find out the best way to make use of you." The pale horn on his head took on a gray glow, and the camouflaged cover of the tree peeled back. "On to your first lesson."
Celestia and Luna lurched forward, tension driving them into the hole without delay. Behind, the cover fell closed, and the sound of Phantom's hoof-beat drifted away.
"Hello!" A cheerful, female voice called their attention.
A fraction of a second passed before Celestia could see clearly in the lesser light of a fairy lamp suspended from the roof. Shadows danced and played as the creature fluttered around its small prison, perhaps too primitive to understand its cage. Unlike many rooms, this one appeared built with a specific purpose. Indents, in rows in columns just large enough for a small pony, sat in a floor that sloped to focus point. At that center stood a pony of brown with a mottled white midsection and a pale horn.
The teacher wore a smile that lacked sincerity. It sat on her face like a decoration, a friendly mask she could wear to hide any other feelings. Despite that, her demeanor did not seem sinister in the slightest. "Welcome to your first class day!" Her voice matched her smile, bubbly and approaching singsong in delivery. "My name is Levity, and I teach the basics of magic."
Despite the fatigue, the abrupt morning, stern Phantom, or this silly mare, it only took one word to wipe it all away: magic. Giddy feelings bubbled up in the white mare with the pink mane. In a surge of energy, she bounded down the sloped floor and rested her haunches on a front row indent.
Skeptical at first at this teacher, Luna's eyes sparkled and a grin spread her features as she took a seat next to her sister. Sitting tightly on her forelimbs, she eagerly awaited more.
"First, let me get your names!" Levity beamed her masking smile.
Both answered curtly.
"Ahh, those are good names!" Her singsong voice replied. "So this will be your first lesson in magic, will it? I'm sure this is quite exciting for the both of you. Never before cast a spell? We'll start at the very beginning."
Celestia gave a glance to Luna, who mirrored her incredulous expression. "No offense, Levity, but we are not foals."
Surprise wiped the smile off her face. "What? Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend. I'm so use to giving this lesson to the younglings that I guess I just fell into my old habits." She cleared her throat, most of the singsong gone. "I'll try to speak more at your level. So," she paused to think. "do you connect to your horns, yet?"
A blush reddened Celestia's cheeks, finding the concept unfamiliar. On the heel of what she just said, she felt quite foal-ish. "I'm, uhh, not sure."
Taking a deep and calm breath, Levity half closed her eyes. In relaxing tones, she recited a litany that felt well practiced. "Close your eyes, and follow my instructions."
In the pause, Celestia did so.
"Relax. Breath in until you fill your chest completely. Now relax as deep as you can, letting the air flow out. Reach deep into your thoughts with a still mind and feel what is there. Pay attention to what you experience. In the quiet, do you feel that inner thrum, like a heartbeat? If you don't, reach for it, let it gush to you like a spring. This is your will. It is a power inside you that wants change things. For other ponies, their will is separated from the world. It can only change themselves. But we are unicorns. Our will has a way to the outside world: our horns. Now, take that will you have, it responds to what you want it to do. Take hold of that will and guide it forward. Project it out of you, but don't release it." Her tone changed to hold the tiniest amount of giddy mischief. "Now, open your eyes."
Two new glows bathed the room. One a dark blue, the other a pale pink. Celestia gasped aloud. She kept her thoughts on her horn, sustaining the light, and bounced in excitement. "Ohmystars! Luna!"
Her younger sister proudly displayed her radiant horn with a wide smile.
"We're doing it, Luna! We're doing it!"
Levity's melodious laugh caught their attention. "Almost, almost! But what you have right now is nothing more than a lamp." With a green shimmer from her horn, Levity drew out a round stone no bigger than a hoof, and placed it directly in front of her. "Now that you have it glowing, though, it's ready to channel magic." Her masking smile returned as she fell into habit. "A skill every young unicorn must learn is simple telekinesis, otherwise known as moving something with your will! Practice on this granite ball. Your goal is to lift it up, off the ground!" She gestured to Celestia with a forelimb. "Oldest first! Your will that you have up in your horn. Shape it into what you want to change, give it guidance. Connect your will to what you want to accomplish. Then, release it."
Phantom Spell's voice echoed in the back of Celestia's mind as she stared down at the stone. "Show skill or talent . . . or be thrown to the fillies." The thought quickened her heart beat. She drowned out the voice by focusing on the task. The rock. Lift that rock. She envisioned it happening, the stone rising off the ground at her command. She lent that image to the power channeled in her and felt it take a specific shape, molding as easy as water yet retaining the desired form like clay. It had a purpose now, ready to impose itself on reality. Celestia stared intently at the ball and released the energy of her will toward where it sat.
The stone blasted into the air with the fury of a shooting star. Levity shrieked and threw herself to the ground. It struck the solid roof, splintered a section of wood, and bounced around the room like a hyperactive grasshopper. Luna took a cue from Levity and laid low, covering her head with her forelimbs. Celestia stared dumbfounded, trying to track the rock's frantic flight as the energy bled off in each collision. Eventually, it came bouncing to a stop, then rolled down the floor to bump the cowering, brown mare on the flank.
Levity rose, horrified and staring at Celestia. Her chest heaved in a fearful pant as she tried to catch her breath.
Celestia glanced around the room, noting each dent and each shatter of wood. A split piece of lumber the size of a branch fell from the ceiling and thumped on the floor. Turning back to Levity, she smiled wide and innocent. "Sorry?"
"N-next lesson." Levity squeaked. "Will be about control."
She didn't make the same mistake twice and produced a feather for Luna, rather than a stone. Using these small objects, she put them through the basics of managing their magic, releasing just the amount needed and no more. So engrossed in the reality before her very eyes in the floating of objects by thought, or creating light at will time passed in a blink. The next thing she knew, Ebon Swift stood at the entrance, leaning against the wall with a wry smile. Levity took notice and ended the lesson with teaching mental exercises they could practice away from class.
"Already on to control?" The black stallion made room for Levity to file out. She went in a rush not staying a second longer in that room with those two mares than she needed. "You must have left quite an . . . impression?" His dark eyes caught the fresh split wood on the ceiling and he raised a single brow.
"Umm, you could say that." Celestia blushed but smiled, happily trotting up the incline to greet Ebon. Luna followed in her wake. "What brings you here?"
"Oh, just your next lesson." He shoved off of the wall with his shoulder and opened the canvas with a white glow of his horn. "More pathways and hidey-holes."
The blue unicorn let out a tired groan, and Celestia sighed with disappointment.
A quirk found its way to his lips. "Or, tell you what. I'll show you a little something at every place we stop. Take you around the other unicorns and show you what they do."
Luna gasped and her wide eyes sparkled at the prospect. Celestia raised her head with some curiosity.
"Out we go!" Ebon went with fresh excitement, holding the canvas open for the girls until they followed him out. The bridges they cross twisted, joined, and forked with no obvious pattern. A pattern would have been a flaw in the camouflage, Ebon explained. So the bridges were erected trying to mimic the forest in all its chaos. Yet, there were signs for those who knew how to look. Vine arrangements, leaf or bark patterns, other things that would not stand out in the canopy, yet could be seen by trained eyes. It was by these things which the web was navigated.
"Hey! Good day to you, Cres!" Ebon nodded his head to an older mare sitting at the edge of an out of the way branch, deep in thought with horn aglow.
She glanced up from her work and the corners of her lips stretched in a soft smile. "Ebon, how good to see you."
"Cres, I've brought you a couple of mares who I'd like you to meet." He moved to the side and gestured to his followers. "This is Celestia, and her sister Luna. They are the new arrivals from the Earth ponies." He gestured to the older mare. "Celestia, Luna, this is Crescent Change. She is one of the best weavers of the craft."
"Weaver?" Luna lifted her head in curiosity, throwing back her mane from her eyes to see more clearly.
"It means I make all the curtains that cover the doors."
Celestia exchanged a glance with Luna. "Doors?"
Surprise came over her face. "Oh my! The Earth ponies are really different, aren't they?" She drew up what had been tinkering with. On the pathway, she laid out a bundle of multicolored hairsbrowns, whites, grays, blacks wrapped together like a single pony's tail at one end. At the other, the strands separated then joined together in a crisscross pattern, formed into a broad square. "This would be a curtain, in the making, anyways. Weaving we call it. When I am done, it will vanish on the bark, like all the others we use to hide. We put it in front of doors."
Thoughts of the trees she had been going in and out of all day struck her. Even if life on the fields had no doors or curtains, her question took on a humiliating edge in retrospect. "Oh. Those."
But it did not deter Luna from her curiosity. "Is this pony hair?"
"Yes, it is."
Apprehension filled her voice. "Where do you get it?"
A good natured laugh shook Crescent's frame. "Volunteers, and they are quite happy for the exchange."
Ebon cleared his throat and looked to Luna. "Would you like to volunteer?"
The pony took a hesitant step back. "I don't know."
"You'd be able to see how this all is done." Ebon offered with a raise of his hoof.
"I don't want to be bald!" Luna blurted out in panic and took several steps back.
Ebon and Crescent Change turned to each other with a wide eyed stare, then burst into riotous laughter. Luna shrank to Celestia's side as Ebon sat on his haunches and clapped a hoof against the ground. "Ha, ha, oh no! Nothing like that!"
"No." Crescent wiped a tear from her eye. "No, dear, I won't make you bald. We only take every third hair or so. In exchange, I groom your hair. Take out the knots and straighten it."
"Oh," Sheepishly, Luna left Celestia's side and walked forward. "O-okay. You can take my hair."
Standing up from where she sat on the side of the bridge, Crescent moved over to Luna with her horn shining purple. Luna pinched her eyes closed and stiffened her body as she lowered her head for Crescent to look. Gracefully, Crescent bent close to Luna and began to manipulate her hair. She unweaved the knots and tangles, taking the occasional strand from her mane. She cleaned the hair of blemish or oil, and arranged it so it fell around Luna's face and neck anew. Luna blinked her large eyes open. Gentleness calmed her nervous feelings as the older mare worked, curling the ends of some strands, straightening others and arranging them around her horn. Ebon, thinking ahead, gathered dew and water from among the leaves, and suspended it in air so Luna could see her reflection clear as day.
"Oh my!" The young pony gasped and slowly shifted her perspective to see all sides. Never before had her mane been arranged by anything more than the dalliance of rain or broad gestures of a pony's hoof."It's . . . beautiful!"
"Your hair," Crescent responded with her own amazement. "It's exquisite. Soft in texture, but with the richest, most pure blue I have ever seen. I love your mane."
Luna flushed and she giggled to see the reddening of her cheeks in her reflection. "Hey, I have a question?"
"You can change the color, right?" She lifted a hoof and pointed at the multicolored mat that lay across the bridge.
A mischievous grin spread on her. "Can you make mine pink?"
Crescent chuckled and concentrated on the mane for a fraction of a second. In a swirl of purple magic, Luna's rich blue turned vibrant rose.
Seeing her reflection, Luna clomped her forelimbs against the branch in a bounce and giggled impishly.
"Now, for a living mane, the change won't last. It will gradually fade back to your natural colors."
Celestia caught sight of Luna's playful glance and shot her an irritated look.
Luna teasingly stuck out her tongue in reply. "Okay, I was just curious, auntie Crescent. But better change me back, I don't think Celestia will like my new look."
The elder sister contorted her features and rolled her eyes in a silly face.
Another brief gleam of purple and Luna's mane was restored blue. "All the better, probably. Phantom Spell would not approve of me changing colors of all the adventurous mares that come my way." She gathered up the bundle of freshly cut, blue hair and sighed at the sight of it. "Wasted effort or some such."
Catching a grim look from Ebon at the sigh, Celestia felt a strange impulse. Like an inkling of something greater sat just below the surface . "Is something the matter, Crescent?"
"You have beautiful hair, both of you." She tied the new strands together and set it aside, next to the larger, half woven curtain. "It's a joy to fix manes, but Phantom insist on restricting the arrangements to being practical. Then there is this weaving. For once, I'd like to create styles, or sew a curtain into something to be admired and nothing more. Not for hiding or other things. But," She shrugged her shoulders. "It's not deemed important by Phantom."
"Oh," Celestia nodded her head then dropped her gaze in thought. Luna knelt close to the curtain itself and occupied herself with watching Crescent spin new strands into the design. Something felt wrong. Quickly, her mind went awry when she realized again she was standing on a branch, close to several pony-lengths off the ground, sea of green leaves anywhere she looked. Vertigo clouded her and she began to sway.
"Whoa, now!" In an instant, Ebon was by her and she was leaning against his broad side. "You okay there, Celest?"
She blinked, then sat down. "I-I-I think so. I'm sorry." With a forelimb, she wiped off her face, trying to rub sense back into it. "Just had a sudden rush." So much was new, so much different. Her friends gone, parents, starry nights. Left back home.
"Alright, go ahead and just lie down a moment. Let Crescent fix up your hair while you catch your breath. Maybe that lesson was tougher than you thought."
Wordlessly, Celestia complied and the older mare cleaned up her mane and tail, adding stylized curls much as she did for Luna. Once done, Ebon lead them to the ground level and continued to teach markings.
"What's that!" Luna interrupted him midsentence. "Over there!"
"That!" He laughed. "Is what I will show you next."
A streak and flash of blue-white light blinded Celestia. A pop, a pale reflection of lightning and thunder, crackled up ahead. Closing her eyes, she shook her head to wipe the after-image from her vision, then peered through the trees. Several young colts and an equal number of intense fillies stood in row, finding space in the underbrush. One of the fillies bent her head low and her spread her legs wide and aggressive. Her horn gleamed yellow, flashed, and released a burning ember that shot through the forest and exploded on a tree in a shower of sparks.
Silver Spear was there, behind that filly. He whispered something to her ear. She nodded and her horn glowed yellow once more. The fires caused by that ember became smothered in their own smoke, burning dimly than dying. The filly looked up to Silver Spear for approval and he gave a brief nod that brought a smile to her face.
"Combat training." Ebon answered. "You are a ways off from even considering such a thing, but I thought you'd like to see some wild spell casting."
Luna moved to Ebon's side, observing carefully. A colt bent low next, and a gush of wind stripped a branch of all its leaves. "Can you do stuff like that?" She asked, looking up to the stallion with wonder.
"No," He shook his head with a smirk. "I do other things."
"Could you if you tried?"
"No, probably not."
"Magic is complicated." He peeled his attention away from the practice range and looked down to the young mare. At that instant, Luna's blue, wide eyes had captured him. Distant eyes of the observer nevertheless held the impression of deep intelligence. She'd understand what he had to say. "It's a lesson you'll probably soon have covered, but most unicorns can only use their best magic in a single given skill."
A slight inquisitive twist of Luna's head signaled for him to explain.
"So, magic comes from your inner will, right? A lot of things influence that will. Mood, sleep, and so on. One giant influence is your passion, what you are passionate about. Crescent Change," He gestured up to the canopy of trees from where they came with a flick of his neck. "She is passionate about design, or being creative, or maybe just hair." Ebon gestured to the practice field where the colts and fillies cast spells. "They are passionate about defending those who need it, or maybe just passionate about fighting or seeing fireballs explode. The specific passion can be very different for two unicorns, even if they use it in the same skill."
Luna smiled to him, and nodded her head, pleased. A brief pause brought forth another question. "What's your passion?"
Celestia was shaken from her thoughts and leaned in to listen. "I'd like to know that, too."
Ebon blinked at that remark, blushed deeply at a thought on the tip of his tongue, then shook his head laughing. "I'm not really sure. I just know how I use it. I shape the branches we all use to cross the canopy. My passion is related to . . . bringing ponies together, I guess."
"Ahh," Luna nodded, letting her eyes linger on his face as his attention distracted him.
Celestia stepped forward along Ebon's other side. "That's a wonderful passion." She found herself smiling before a nagging thought resurfaced. "So, who is Silver Spear?"
"Huh?" Ebon was shaken from his introspective moment. "Silver?"
She pointed her horn down the field at the stoic stallion. "Silver. He was with Phantom when we arrived."
"Phantom often calls him when there might be trouble." Ebon responded matter-of-fact. "A close ally, friend maybe even? Either way, Phantom feels just a bit safer when Silver is there, but I guess we all do."
Celestia stopped her expression somewhere between a chuckle and a grimace. "Isn't he a bit . . ."
Ebon snorted with an unexpected laugh. "Yeah! Yeah he is. But let me put it this way." Ebon knitted his brow in thought. "He's not the most powerful --magically or in size. If you wanted to lift a big rock, or buck a giant tree, you wouldn't go to him. But if you were being chased by a hungry . . . manticore, the first pony you'd call is Silver Spear."
On ahead, a filly summoned a stream of water, only in her inexperience, she summoned it all over the entire line of students in a shower. They screamed like children and scattered to keep dry. Meanwhile, Silver Spear lifted a hoof to his face and shook his head with a sigh.
Luna, Ebon, and Celestia all burst into laughter.
That night passed easier than the first. It was no less uncomfortable to sleep up high in that tree, cut off from the ground, from the stars, and from the herd. They shared a bed again in the pitch black, the touch their only reminder that they were not alone. But the second night, it was less of an alien place, less of an unfamiliar herd, and it was less difficult to fall into a peaceful sleep.