Sorry for the long update period, for all those who have been waiting. Unfortunately, between the two of us, life hit hard and fast these last two months. Don't worry, though, we do intend to keep writing and updating! Our thanks to Chatvert for beta reading this chapter.
Heather Gray blinked, shaking her head. It felt like she was trying to think through clouds...
Vaguely, she gathered that she wasn't lying on her bed. The bench she was on was thickly cushioned, but it wasn't familiar—and it was moving. There was a window in front of her, and orange light was leaking through it. She reached a hoof up to it, to try to push it open and see—
She screamed, closed her eyes, and then opened them again.
It was still a hoof connected to what was definitely a horse's foreleg, with a clean, light, soft gray coat of horse hair.
Heather screamed again.
The bench had stopped moving, and she vaguely perceived it was a coach of some kind... wherewasshe? Whathadhappened? Maybe it was a dream. She hit herself in the face with the hoof, and quickly ruled that one out. It hurt too much... and it hurt differently, as she stared not down at a nose but at a snout she'd bopped, a muzzle. She'd really turned into a—
There was the noise of hooves outside, and a face appeared at the coach window, blocking the orange light. Heather blinked—it was another horse, a pony said something in her mind, tan-colored with an intelligent-looking face and enormous blue eyes.
"Wow, you sure can scream, miss!" It said. Said!
"Y-you can talk!" She blinked, looking around at herself. "I can talk!"
"Well, I'd sure hope so!" The stallion, for the voice was definitely male, pushed the window open and leaned inside. "Would cause problems otherwise."
"Wh..." Heather felt twenty questions collide in her mind, and the stronger among them forced their way out in a half-shout. "What's going on? Why am I a pony? Where am I? Why am I—"
"Wooooah, there, girl, one at a time!" The stallion recoiled a bit, smiling. "You're in a coach on the Ponyville-Everfree road, on yer way to the Academy. That help at all?"
The word Academy triggered a rush of memories—the strange letter in her fireplace, filling out the forms—she blinked. "You mean that was..."
The pony chuckled. "Di'nt your mother ever teach you to be careful what you sign?" He climbed back from the window, though his face was still visible. "Anyway, they told me to tell you not to worry, yer perfectly safe and everything will be explained at con-vo-ca-tion." He pronounced the last word with measured steadiness, disappearing around the front of the coach again. "Made sure I wouldn't forget. My name's Caramel, by the by. If'n you like, we're just coming over the hill, you should be able to see it soon enough from the windows."
"See what?" The coach started moving again, now at a fast trot, and Heather shuffled along the bench towards the open window—it was hard to move, she didn't have any hands or toes and her joints bent all the wrong ways. With some difficulty, she stuck her head out of the window, looking ahead—and felt her jaw drop slowly open. "Oh."
Spread out before her was the most beautiful panorama she'd ever laid eyes on, an unspoilt band of nature running from horizon to horizon. In the background, a long chain of mountains curled across the edge of view, with a vast, jungle-like forest running right up to their bases. There were small clouds boiling over the forest in parts, but every other part of the sky was clear. The whole scene was lit in a brilliant orange by an enormous setting sun, dropping slowly behind the mountains, its rays dimmed by the low horizon enough to look almost directly at—if something hadn't been in the way.
Just in front of the sun, on the very edge of the enormous forest, a tall, forbidding block of stone jutted into the sky, sheer walls running straight up. Around the edges, intricate filigrees and detailing cast strange shadows along the blank walls, and the window wells were black pits, the faintest hint of filtering sunlight trickling through from the far side. In the center of the block, a tower rose to a height that was dizzying in comparison to the flat landscape around, the same tracing running up its corners to the top. Atop the tower, an ornate series of crenellations stepped up and up to a conical roof with a flagpole at the peak; the flags flying from it were impossible to make out, in front of the sun, but the roof itself glowed dully with a red-gold sheen in the light of the setting sun, as if it gave off a light all its own.
For a moment, Heather just stared at the apparition, completely at a loss for words. Then she gathered enough of a mind to ask "What... is that?"
"That'd be it, miss," Caramel replied, picking up his pace. "The Royal Fanfiction Academy."
She stared down at him, and he turned his head back for a moment, offering another smile. "Welcome to Equestria."
The forest rose above the carriage as it pulled to a halt in the shadow of the enormous building, the sun disappearing behind the trees. Heather could hear sounds from within as she climbed down on unsteady legs, sounds that seemed halfway between "back woods" and "deepest Amazon". In the quickly-disappearing sunlight, on legs she could still barely move, they sounded like they were closing in on her from all around—
Then, abruptly, a light appeared—a firefly lamp on a tall metal pole, shaking slightly from the kick Caramel had just dealt it. "The others should wake up right quick, ma'am. Just follow 'em to the main building, the meeting shouldn't be hard to spot."
Heather craned her neck upwards. From this close up, it seemed immensely high, shadowed stone dappled with windows glowing with warm light, and even more daunting than it was in the coach, now that she fully awake. "How could all this be real?"
"That question's a miite phi-lo-soph-i-cal, miss. Everything'll be explained inside. You best get along."
Heather nodded, setting off at a slow walk as the lights came up, getting used to moving on four legs rather than two. By the time she made it to the door, a few minutes later, she had barely managed to avoid falling over—twice—but was getting used to the rhythm.
Inside, she was greeted by a large lobby, and a gold and blue rug set at the doors, laid underneath her feet- no, hooves, now. Vaulted ceilings rose above her and the occasional other, still-shocked looking ponies. A chandelier stretched down from the highest point, glowing with light that still didn't quite reach the darkest points of the room, the corners where the tiled walls met the floor grading into shadows. The left and right walls both had doors which were currently closed, leaving the unlit corridor before her as only direction to go—deeper into the building.
At least, it was mostly unlit.
Bright colorful banners hung from the corridor's ceiling light wrapped wires, occasionally punctuating the darkness with 'WELCOME!' and 'THIS WAY!'. Wooden doors mounted with unreadable, gleaming brass plaques and even darker still intersecting corridors broke up the otherwise monotonous walls.
Finally, however, Heather reached a large pair of double doors, flanked on either side by stands of brightly colored balloons. Beyond lay an enormous auditorium that must have sunk deep into the foundation of the building; the path form the doors dropped down gradually, rich red carpeting unrolling to the stage at the bottom.
Within, scattered across the plush benches alone or in clusters, were an assortment of others who had arrived, still looking uncertain and antsy. After watching a few still-unsure-on-their-hooves ponies walk though, Heather warily followed, descending into the dimly lit auditorium.
She went and awkwardly sat in a mostly empty center row; for the most part, those who were present seemed to be close to the back of the auditorium, or pressed right up against the stage. Even from where she was seated, she could hear excited conversation from the ponies up at front.
Minutes passed, and the auditorium slowly filled in trickles until, from what Heather could tell, it was just about half full. Her row was no longer mostly empty, but nearly filled; all around she could see ponies in many different combinations of colors. Some were reasonable- complementing colors, like the sky blue and dark blue colt that was clutching a strange doll a row ahead of her, or just solid blocks of one color- and others... weren't. There was an entire row near the front full of black-and-red ponies, nearly invisible in the dim auditorium, and a several scattered throughout the various rows that were brightly colored enough she suspected they glowed in the dark.
Suddenly, the lights went off.
A male voice cried out from behind the curtain in a loud hiss. "Crusaders! The lights!"
There was a scramble of activity on the stage, and tiny forms could be seen darting back and forth from behind the curtains. In short order, the curtains raised, and a spotlight came on—about five feet to the left of center stage. A dark-gray pegasus with brick-colored hair, wearing black-framed glasses and a tired smile stepped into the light, squinting up past it as the sound of something being shoved grindingly across hardwood rose out of the darkness. "Okay, can you spot the podium?"
There was a moment's pause, and the spotlight slid to the right, illuminating a podium that had appeared on center stage—and catching a glimpse of two small ponies ducking away from it, having pushed it there. "Perfect," came the pegasus' voice from the darkness, and momentarily he appeared behind the stand, pushing his spectacles up his nose and placing a microphone in a small holder. "Thanks, Sweetie Belle, that'll do it."
Who's this, one of the teachers? Heather thought. He looks so dull.
The pony looked out across the audience, took a visible, deep breath, and began to speak.
"Hello, every...pony. On behalf of myself, and the rest of the staff, I'd like to welcome you to the Royal Fanfiction Academy of Equestria." He tapped his chest with a hoof. "I'm Iron Gall, and I'm one of two co-coordinators of this year's academy program. The other is my partner, and my very good friend, Glyph."
He gestured off to his left as he spoke, and another spot snapped on, illuminating the tail and back half of a turquoise blue pony standing off to one side of the podium. After half a beat, the pony stepped backwards, fully into the light, revealing herself to be a unicorn—who was sending a grin to the audience and a glare up into the lighting rigs.
The auditorium filled with sniggers and whistles.
Glyph rolled her eyes. "So we're all clear, he means work partner, not romantic partner."
Iron Gall stifled a snicker. "Perish the thought, and woe betide those who don't." He turned his attention back to the audience. "The two of us have been placed in charge of this academy at the behest of the Princesses. As your application forms so tactfully put it—"
"—Your fanfiction needs work," Glyph cut in. "Poorly written doesn't even cover it."
"Work is understating it, too, frankly." Iron Gall's gaze hardened into a glare, and his speech took on a biting, measured beat. "I would not have given some of the dreck you ponies have written the courtesy of a second scan-over had it not been my job to do specifically that."
Heather began to fume, and the other members of the audience were beginning to mutter angrily.
"It's just fanfiction!" one from the front cried out.
Other protests and shouts joined in. "Who cares?"
"It's not like it's real or anything!"
"Just like how you're not really in Equestria, right now?" came the reply.
Silence fell like a stone, and Gall nodded a quick thanks to his partner before turning back to his spiel. "And even if I was telling you this back on Earth, it would be beside the point. I thoroughly believe that you should never let the content of your work be an excuse to let the quality slide." He grinned. "The difference is, I'm running this railroad, and you ain't. And since we are in Equestria, and you are causing problems by writing terrible stories, you're not going to get your pen-privileges back until you can write something Glyph and I can read without going for the knives." He turned, slightly, standing half-sideways behind the podium so that his flank could be seen. "And, as you might have guessed by our noms de guerre and our marques mignons, we are not exactly lax. Fortunately for you all, while you'll be sending a school year here, when you get back, it'll be right when you left. Consider it a kindness on our part."
Heather squinted, and could just barely make out an inkwell with a black drop on the co-coordinator's side. She turned her attention to Glyph, who was sporting a feather quill mark. Writers. Professionals? The pit of her stomach sank, as she realized that all the other comers she had seen so far were blank flanks—and, bending around in the low light, she realized that she was one, too!
"That said," Glyph began, "Please welcome Princess Luna and Princess Celestia to the stage, as they begin the convocation ceremony."
A small pattering of clumsy but enthusiastic applause rose from the audience, as they tried to figure out how, exactly, to clap with hooves.
The princesses are here? Heather's stomach did a backflip—off a ten foot riser—while she watched the two winged unicorns trot onto the stage and over to the podium. Soft music began to play as a limelight turned on, showing a musical quartet.
"Welcome, again, to the Royal Fanfiction Academy of Equestria," Princess Celestia said. "I'm happy to see that so many of you decided to join us here for this year in hopes of improving your writing, beyond just watching the show and learning along with Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Writing, just like friendship, has a magic of its own. Without good writing, my little ponies would never have made a strong enough connection to many of you to become fans in the first place. Good writing inspires new ideas, and helps you convey things to whoever is there to listen, read, or watch. To quote one writer, 'In good writing, words become one with things.'
"That, in its heart, is what we hope for you to be able to achieve here; to make it so that you, who have already poured so much of yourselves into enjoying the world of Equestria, are able to shape your words into things that ring true for others, and share that joy. During this school year I will be glad to call all of you my little ponies."
With that said, Celestia turned, so her side was facing the front of the stage, and raised her head, straightening so her horn was pointing right up at the ceiling; Luna did the same, the two princesses mirroring each other. Magic glowed from their horns, and a beam went up, up, and up, disappearing out of sight.
The back of the auditorium suddenly became bright, light streaming in from the outside corridor.
Celestia turned towards the audience once more. "The new school year has officially begun."
Luna nodded, and the lights all across the stage went up slightly, revealing a line of familiar-looking ponies filing in from off to the right, ready to speak at the podium. "As it is late and you've traveled far, we won't keep you long. I'm sure we don't need to spend too much time introduc-"
A roar of shouting drowned her out.
"RAINBOW DASH! RAINBOW DASH!"
"APPLEJACK! YOU'RE THE BEST!"
"RARITY IS BEST PONY!"
"FLUTTERSHY! PLEASE MARRY ME, FLUTTERSHY!"
Heather found herself half-out of her seat already. The hall was rising into an uproar, the Main Six were rightthere, they were so close, she could be on the stage in a—
Silence fell, even more quickly than the last time. All eyes in the hall from the princesses to the newest student were turned on Iron Gall, who was glaring furiously at the hall, wings spread, breathing hard.
Glyph just laughed. "You'll pull something if you keep doing that."
The co-coordinator took a deep breath, folded his wings, and pushed his glasses back up his muzzle. "Probably. Er, sorry, Ms. Sparkle, carry on."
Twilight Sparkle cleared her throat. "Um, thanks for the warm welcome, everypony." She and the others had backed well away from the podium and the front of the stage; the microphone was now dangling in front of her, held up by her magic. "Classes will be starting tomorrow, and I know we're all excited."
To her left, Rainbow Dash snorted loud enough that the microphone was able to pick it up.
Twilight shot a glance at her, but otherwise continued on. "Each semester you will be taking six classes, with a variety of additional mandatory seminars throughout the school year. I won't be teaching any of the classes, unfortunately, since I'll be helping to make sure everything runs smoothly."
"Lucky," Rainbow Dash whispered to Pinkie Pie. She was soon hoof-cuffed by Applejack.
"Twi's tryin' to talk, Rainbow," Applejack hissed under her breath. "Don't ya think yer foolin' around can wait?"
Twilight raised her voice even louder, her eyes locked on the audience completely. "To aid in as much comprehension as possible, there will be two sets of four classes that cover a different, but broad base; whichever set you do not take this semester you will take in the spring. The other two classes are so important everyone will be taking them this semester. Additionally-"
"This is so boring." Rainbow blew a breath upwards, sending her forelock upwards until it covered one of her eyes.
Rarity glared at the bored pegasus, now. "Rainbow Dash, if you don't stop that behavior immediately-"
"Additionally," Twilight was nearly shouting into the microphone, "those two classes will be mixed so that everyone will not be divided completely by what set of classes they have so that-" She looked at her friends. "-uh, we can all get to know each other..."
To the side, Rainbow Dash was being quietly berated by Rarity and Applejack; Pinkie Pie looked ready to burst into a fit of giggles, and Fluttershy was trying desperately to disappear completely off the stage.
"...betterandbecomegoodfriends. Iiiii-think-that's-enough-for-tonight-don't-you-think? Gentlecolts-if-you-would-please-go-through-the-right-exit-Big-Mac-will-take-you-all-to-your-dorms-for-your-stay-here-and-Cheerilee-is-on-the-left-exit-to-lead-the-ladies. We'll-see-you-all-tomorrow-morning-nice-bright-and-shiny-early-have-a-good-night!" With that, she dropped the microphone and they all disappeared from the stage.
A beat passed, then another. Glyph walked across the stage, telekinetically scooping up the microphone. "Ah, one more announcement, before you go, I think?"
She passed it over to Iron Gall, who was speaking quietly with the Princesses. "—still not really sure he should be in charge of—ER!, ahem, yes. I, uh, almost forgot." The gray pegasus turned to face the audience, which had frozen mid-rise. "You shouldn't have to worry too much about being so close to the Everfree Forest, we have the Diamond Dogs running campus security, and they've proven well up to the task so far. But I feel it safe to warn all the students not to... bother overmuch any of the canons. They are here as volunteers to help you learn, and should any of you persist in harassing them..." He stomped a hoof on the stage, and a spotlight snapped on, lighting the very far right edge of it. "They're not the only volunteers here."
Standing in the circle of light were two ponies who would have looked fairly innocuous in any background crowd—one, an earth pony with a coat the color of old paper and dark blond hair, the other a unicorn with a long reddish-brown mane and a silver-white coat. They had been talking between themselves, but as the light snapped on, they turned their attention to the student body. The only things truly abnormal about them were the looks they gave—hard, and cold, unlike anything normally seen on a pony's face—and the vests they wore, black one-piece outfits with no adornment save for three large gold letters on the right shoulder, easily readable even from Heather's position halfway up the auditorium: "P P C".
A few scattered gasps and moans could be heard throughout the auditorium—not many, but a few. Iron Gall fluttered his wings slightly at the response. "Evidently some of you have already crossed paths with Agents of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. For those of you who haven't, the details can wait—it is frightfully late—but they will be acting as security for the security, as it were. And I should warn you, their tolerance for nonsense is much lower than mine is." He lowered his head, glaring over the tops of his glasses, and every pony in the hall suddenly felt like he was staring straight at them. "Do not test them."
Then he raised his head again and smiled, the flint suddenly gone from his eyes. "Well, that about wraps it up. As Ms. Sparkle said, the boys should go with Big Mac, the girls with Cheerilee. I'll see you all brightandearly tomorrow!"
As she got out of her seat and trotted over to where Cheerilee was waiting, Heather could feel that deep sinking pit in her stomach develop further. This isn't going to be easy.
We are still taking applications for students.