The Sound Of One Hoof Clopping
Koan 23: The Candle

Babs Seed awoke to the sound of snoring ponies and the pinch of a full bladder. It took a moment for the little earth pony to gather her bearings: she lay in her sleeping bag inside the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ tree house at Sweet Apple Acres, where she’d been visiting for the weekend. Gingerly she slipped out of the bag and tiptoed to the door so as not to wake her sleeping friends. Babs stepped out onto the balcony, closed the treehouse door behind her, and sighed a breath of relief.

"Huh. Sure is dahk out here in the country at night," she murmured to herself, feeling apprehensive about her imminent trip to the outhouse. The darkness seemed to swallow up the open field between here and there. It wasn’t at all like the big city where she lived, where bright lights illuminated every street-corner in the evenings.

A soft “clunk” resounded from the roof of the treehouse. Babs jumped back, swiveled about and nearly fell from the balcony. Up on the roof stood Princess Luna: her starry midnight-blue mane waving gently in the breeze.

"Oh geez!" Babs gasped, her muzzle dropped open. She squinted, then blew a stream of air upwards across her face to brush aside the tiny lock of pink mane which crossed over one of her eyes.

"Hello, my little pony," the alicorn announced, carefully keeping her royal Canterlot voice in check to avoid waking the others. She deftly hopped off the roof and glided down to the balcony, landing right beside the little chestnut filly. "You are the one named Babs, yes?" she asked.

"Y-yeah," said Babs. She’d never been this close to a real princess, unless you counted Twilight Sparkle, and to be honest, Babs didn’t. Twilight was just too, well… normal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

"So, um, you’re that night Princess chick," the little pony declared, abruptly. The tall, dark mare looked taken aback by the little one’s directness, but quickly regained her composure.

"Yes. You may call us—I mean, me, Luna, if you like," the Princess offered with a slight nod.

Babs’ tiny docked tail flitted back and forth against her blank flanks. “Wait, does this mean I’m still asleep or somethin’? My friends told me about you bein’ in dreams, an’ stuff,” she remarked. “An’ they say you’re pretty cool,” she added.

Luna smiled. “I am quite flattered. But, no: this is not a dream. While I do wander into the dreams of restless sleepers, I also keep watch over Equestria by night. I happened to be overhead when I sensed the tension in your withers, young mare. I presume you are not used to the stillness of my country night?”

Babs blushed and looked down at her hooves. “Well, yeah, it’s different, that’s fah sure. I ain’t a scaredy cat or nothin’, but it’s just not this dahk out where I live, like, evah. Here, it’s like a big ol’ stretch of empty,” she explained, pointing down at the field below them.

The tall mare nodded sagely. “There’s nothing wrong, or even unnatural, with being afraid of the darkness. But I can promise you that the fields of Sweet Apple Acres are completely safe for you to traverse,” she said reassuringly.

Babs nodded. “Yeah, I know. I dunno what my prob is, miss Princess. I mean Luna,” she said.

The Princess paused for a moment, and reached down with a hoof. She gently took the filly’s cheek and turned it toward the grassy expanse. “Is it not beautiful, the way the darkness softly blankets the grass?” she asked.

"Oh yeah, it’s sure pretty alright," said Babs. "I can definitely see why you like it and all. An’ I know there ain’t nothin’ bad out there, but it feels like, if I can’t see somethin’, maybe I can’t trust it?" she added, fumbling to describe her feelings.

Luna felt sympathy for the young pony. Trust issues were all too common in foals: other fillies and colts could be so cruel and deceptive, leaving a little pony scarred and doubtful of everypony else’s intentions. The Princess looked around and noticed a small, white candle sitting on the edge of the balcony, and had an idea. Luna’s horn glowed as she levitated the candle upwards, magically lit the wick, then lifted it to Babs.

"Here, take this candle," offered the royal mare. Babs took the candle in her hoof.

"Well, it’s not much light, but I guess…" the filly began to mumble.

Luna leaned over, locking eyes with Babs, and blew out the candle.

"Hay! Whaddya go an’ do that for?" Babs asked.

Luna rubbed a hoof against Babs’ mane. “Only to help you,” she explained. “Why would you want the candle to be lit? If it is the darkness you fear, I wouldn’t want you to have to see it on your journey.”

Babs Seed scrunched her face in thought for a moment. It almost made sense. “But, isn’t this about what I can’t see…?”

The alicorn shook her head. “No, dear foal. In your mind’s eye, it is about something that isn’t there at all,” she corrected. “And if the unlit candle isn’t enough to keep you from seeing the darkness, well then: you can always close your eyes too,” she smiled, and playfully winked.

Babs stifled a nervous laugh at the silliness of her fears. “Okay, I think I get it,” she said, and remembering her urge, started stepping down the ladder. “I guess if I should trust anyone about this sorta thing then you’d be the one, right?” she admitted as she stepped down to the bottom of the tree.

"I will watch over you from here, Babs Seed," sounded the voice above her as Babs started walking across the field on three legs. Her fourth hoof still held aloft the oddly-comforting unlit candle that hid her from the darkness.

Koan 22: Caging Cadence

Princess Cadence (formally, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza of the Crystal Empire) thoroughly enjoyed the rare moments of freedom from her duties. She was neither a reluctant leader nor poor at her tasks, but the burden of the crown often wore heavily upon her brow. Being a Princess with a domain of one’s own was not nearly as exciting as she’d dreamed about back when she was a little filly.

Fortunately, today provided a nice distraction. One of the guards monitoring the area around the city-state had reported activity in the mountains nearby. Cadence wasn’t a fan of the snowy weather which surrounded her kingdom’s magical shield, but the trip would serve as a welcome respite from other, more boring responsibilities. Her husband Shining Armor was fully capable of handling the throne in her absence. With her yellow and violet mane tucked firmly into a well-fitting snowsuit, the Princess set out quietly in early morning to investigate the guard’s report.

The weather was quite mild today, making for a short trip through the snow. The outer limits of her kingdom were surprisingly beautiful despite the harsh climate, provided you had the horse sense to view them through snowblind goggles. The Princess approached a rocky outcropping near the base of the mountains, where the guard had first noticed strange footprints in the snow. After a few steps around the rocky perimiter, she noticed a small opening in the stone. Cadence stepped carefully into what appeared to be a well-hidden cavern entrance, and she pulled back the hood of her suit. As she brushed loose snow from her pink cheeks with a fetlock, a strange chemical scent drifted into her nostrils: a pungent form of lamp oil, perhaps? Her mind snapped to attention as she realized the peril she’d carelessly walked into, but before she could react, her vision faded to black. The last thing she remembered was an all too-familiar hissing and buzzing sound.

Princess Cadence awoke to nausea and blurred vision, and took a moment or two to focus. Her clothing and even her crown were still on her. Her legs felt like they’d been scraped or dragged recently, though the cold dulled the pain substantially. As she came to her senses, her fears were confirmed: before her, two small changelings cackled from the other side of a prison door set into a wall composed of iron bars.

"I should have known," she sighed, standing up and taking in her surroundings. The small nook in the cavern made an excellent cell, though magic must have been used to set the bars into place. Cadence immediately tried to pick up the nearest changeling with her magic, but the bars of her cell responded by glowing instead.

"Sssss. Magical bars keep ssstupid horses in place," hissed one of the changelings, and the other one cackled happily.

"I hope you realize," the Princess said, "that you have no chance of fooling anyone in the Crystal Kingdom if you try to take my form." While she neglected to elucidate, this was a true statement. Several security protocols had been instituted to ensure that changelings wouldn’t get very far if they ever decided to attack the kingdom.

The other changeling narrowed its eyes. “Yesss, we know thisss. We wait for queen inssstead,” he explained.

The Princess’s heart sunk, but she wasn’t about to give up without a fight. If there were any traits which defined changelings, hubris and stupidity topped the list. She paused a moment in thought, and then smiled serenely as the idea came to her.

"Hay!" one of the changelings announced, flying upward to look at his prisoner eye to eye through the bars. "What are you ssso happy about, filthy mule?"

Cadence decided to overlook that bit of racism. “Oh, nothing,” she said sweetly.

"No, tell usss!" the other changeling buzzed, getting frustrated.

The Princess paused again, just long enough to irritate her captors. “Well, I just realized that you’ve locked yourselves out, rather than me,” she explained.

The changelings looked perplexed, then one of the chuckled. “That is sssilly!” he said. “You are in the sssmall cell, and we are outside it.”

"I don’t think so," smirked the pony. "Small or not, this cell is clearly the outside. You’ve foolishly trapped yourselves inside the bars, where you can’t get to me." Cadence calmly sat down and adjusted her coat.

"Thisss is not possible," hissed one changeling.

"But if she is on the other side of the barsss, and we are trapped on this ssside?" panicked the other. Quickly, the changelings fiddled with the door mechanism.

"Wait! What are you doing?" said Cadence, maintaining the ruse as the little changelings grabbed her and forcibly ejected her from the cell. The two changelings cackled with glee, pulling the door shut and locking themselves inside.

"You cannot fool usss!" said one of them, quite self-assured.

Cadence supressed the urge to gloat, and secured her clothing for the cold outside. “You may have won this time, but this isn’t over,” she scowled, and walked out of the cave, smiling as she listened to the dissonant laughter behind her.

Back in the cell, the changelings sat for a moment, thinking. Finally, one broke the silence. “Do you think we may have done something very ssstupid?”

"Shut up," said the other one. "Let’sss just enjoy the moment for once, okay?"

As the Princess began the snowy march back home, she briefly wondered if she was on the outside after all, but then realized: perhaps her cell had no outside or inside to begin with.

Koan 21: Daisy’s “Moo”

As they often did, Daisy Jo and Matilda were having lunch at a little café in Ponyville. Matilda was less fond of gossip than her bovine friend, but still appreciated the moment of solidarity with another creature who naturally lacked magical marks or abilities. The mundane nature of cattle and donkeys was rather conspicuous in a town dominated by enchanted ponies. As much as she loved Ponyville and its gracious residents, it was hard not to feel left out from time to time.

"So, I was speaking to Twilight the other day, don’cha kno’," began Daisy.

Matilda rolled her eyes. “Now you leave that fine young pony alone, Daisy Jo,” the donkey admonished her friend in advance.

"No, no, it’s nothin’ bad. Ya know she’s taken up studying Cowhili with me, mhmm?" the cow countered, and paused to sip some herbal tea.

"Oh! That’s very interesting," Matilda replied. "I can barely speak a lick of Cowhili myself," she admitted, with a chuckle.

"Well," said Daisy, a bit of juicy news tickling in her voice, "as ya might expect, she’s an amazingly fast learner, yes yes. ‘Cept I had her flummoxed all afternoon on the meaning of one of just one of our unique words."

Matilda could sense this was headed toward a mild bit of scandal, but her interest was piqued. “Alright, you have my attention.” She took a bite of her rosemary and orchid sandwich, barely noticing the flavors.

"Ya see, I forget the context but she was gettin’ all chatty up about the meanin’ of life and all, since it’s not too often you find a language with that kinda lingo built in. An’ I went an’ told her that we got one o’ those words in Cowhili, so she asked o’course. An’ so I told her all about MU,” said the cow, emphasizing the key word.

Moo?" Matilda laughed, not realizing the subtle mispronunciation. "That sound I hear coming from cows all the time? I wasn’t aware it meant anything at all."

"Well ya, that’s kinda the point, y’know," explained Daisy Jo. "It don’t mean anythin’, and it don’t mean nothin’ either. It’s nonsense, but it don’t mean nonsense, y’see. Kinda hard to explain to someone intent on learnin’ the meanin’ to every single word tha’cha got one of ‘em with no definition, by definition."

"Of course, I assume she understood it eventually," said the donkey, taking a sip of her coffee.

Daisy smiled. “Twilight Sparkle is good at bein’ Twilight Sparkle after all, so, o’course she gets it now, ya. But she’s still thinkin’ ‘bout it I bet, which is good because that’s what the word is for after all.”

Matilda nodded, and just then something obvious occurred to her. “And so when I hear other cattle lowing in the field?”

"Yep, we’re just ponderin’ the gee-golly imponderable. Not much else to do on a slow day," Daisy said with a wink.

The donkey looked back at her friend, and smiled at the simple revelation. Ponies didn’t really have anything on cows after all, she realized. And maybe, just maybe, neither did they on donkeys.

Koan 20: The Empty Cup

Princess Celestia sat with her pupil Sunset Shimmer at a modest table outside one of Canterlot’s many cafés. The pair drank tea together while waiting to order their meal. The large white alicorn dwarfed the little chestnut filly, who currently fidgeted in her seat. The princess had chosen a public venue to speak with her new protégé so it would be a comfortable environment for the youth, yet one that still afforded her the ability to surreptitiously evaluate what sort of a student Sunset might become.

"So, um, thanks for taking me out for lunch, Princess?" Sunset Shimmer offered, a bit uncertain. "Is there something you want to talk about with me?" The foal pushed aside a few fiery red-and-yellow locks from her mane. One of Celestia’s concerns with Sunset was vanity, since the filly seemed to take great care in crafting her outward appearance. It was odd to find a foal so young taking pride in her looks, but perhaps she had matured quickly in other ways as well. Her raw talent with magic was truly exceptional. However, as a student of the Princess, Sunset Shimmer had much to learn.

Celestia smiled demurely. “Certainly, my student,” she explained. “I assume you are eager to discuss the workings of magic…” the princess began, but Sunset cut her off before she could finish.

"Yes, absolutely. I have a number of ideas about magical theory that I’d love to test and examine," the filly said, her eyes lighting up with interest. She then launched into a lengthy one-sided discussion about the workings of magic. Some of the concepts Sunset described were interesting and novel, and a few even showed rare insight. Most of her talk was inaccurate, however, as would be expected for such a young student of magic.

The princess smirked knowingly and lifted a teapot into the air, her horn glowing as she used the levitation spell common to most unicorns. In response, her student lifted her empty cup to meet the pot, using her own magic. Being highly adept at magic for a foal her age, she didn’t need to pause her speech for even a moment. Celestia gently tilted the teapot and poured tea into her pupil’s cup, all the way up to the rim, and then past it. Tea began spilling onto the table, yet the alicorn continued pouring.

It took a moment for Sunset Shimmer to notice what was happening, and she finally stopped her babbling. “Princess! Um, the cup is full already,” she pointed out, the confusion apparent from her facial expression.

"Is it, now?" Celestia said, then smiled and stopped pouring. "Sunset Shimmer, you come to me to learn about magic. Yet your cup is already full with all sorts of ideas. Ideas are good to have, but I cannot teach you anything new unless you come to me with an empty cup," she explained. "You must set aside what you think you know in order to proceed further."

The little filly blushed and nodded, understanding. As her mentor smiled and looked down upon her, she studied her student’s posture and expression to gauge how receptive the foal truly was to her. The embarrassment was obvious, but that was a little thing. There was something more, however, and it was hard to place: some negative emotion deeper than the mere momentary embarrassment.

Celestia hid her worry behind a practiced smile. Was it… resentment? In a foal this young? It seemed highly unlikely, but only time would tell.

Koan 19: Wisdom Of The Stitch

Rarity sighed and brushed aside a lock of her professionally-styled curly violet mane. The fashionable white unicorn was often a bit high-strung, especially when it came to spending time with her rambunctious little sister. However, today’s visit was different. Today, Sweetie Belle was learning how to sew by hoof. Clothing design and execution was Rarity’s craft, and she took great pride from it; but teaching things to a foal was another challenge altogether.

"Ow," said Sweetie Belle, as the little white unicorn poked herself in the hoof with a needle once again. Of course, it didn’t actually hurt her—not physically, anyway.

Rarity patted her sister’s pink and lavender mane with a hoof, resisting the urge to give the filly a full-on hug. She loved her little sister, naturally, but she knew the value of independence. Sweetie needed support, not coddling. She had come to visit Rarity’s shop, the Carousel Boutique, not only to spend time with her sister but to learn from her expertise as well.

"It takes time, dear. Watch again on my piece," the older sister spoke, and slowly ran a small, perfect stitch along the edge of her example swatch of fabric.

Sweetie Belle frowned. “You make it look so easy,” she complained.

Rarity laughed. “Actually I had to practice a bit before you came over. It’s much easier to use telekinetic magic,” she explained. Her horn glowed and levitated the needle, performing a lightning-quick stitch by example.

"I can’t wait to be able to do stuff like that," Sweetie marvelled, beaming.

The mare smiled down at her sibling. “It can useful to be a unicorn. You’ll be able to do that too, soon enough. But hoof-eye coordination is important practice, and it teaches patience. If I couldn’t do it by hoof, I dare say I’d not be very good by magic either.”

The little foal nodded, then turned her attention back to her piece of fabric. Sweetie furrowed her brow deep in concentration as she began another stitch, but the needle slipped again. “Darn it!” she cried, unaware of the hidden pun.

"Hmm. Perhaps going more slowly into it?" Rarity offered. It took every bit of her resolve to avoid doing things directly for her sister, but she had to resist. That sort of behavior would sidestep the entire point of the lesson.

"What’s hard," Sweetie Belle whined with frustration, "is that it seems like the harder I try, the harder it gets."

At that comment, Rarity smiled. “I think you’ve hit on the problem, little sister. You might notice when you see me sewing, I don’t seem to be trying at all. Putting great effort into each stitch of my sewing would lead to tight, overworked stitches. You practice mainly so that you can learn to act without so much effort,” she explained.

"Oh. Wait, what do you mean? Sweetie Belle inquired.

Rarity paused and carefully thought out her response. “Those who already know always make things look easy. True wisdom, be it sewing, or anything else in life for that matter, doesn’t take effort once you know it. Birds can build nests without being taught, can’t they? It certainly looks effortless to watch them in action. Gems don’t try to be sparkly, they just are by nature. In fact, all of nature’s wonders look absolutely fabulous without ever really trying to.”

"So," Sweetie said, looking back down at her tortured scrap of fabric, "how do I get good at this without trying so hard?"

"Learning not to try? I believe that is the part that requires the effort," Rarity explained, and watched closely as Sweetie made another stitch. The little foal relaxed her posture, aimed, and pushed the needle through a hump of fabric. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best stitch she’d done all afternoon. Sweetie Belle smiled up at her mentor.

With that small but important success, Rarity decided that now was indeed the proper time for a hug.

Koan 18: Fear

Commander Hurricane frowned as he surveyed his troops. The freezing weather had become uncontrollable over the past two weeks, and all hooves were needed as the prospect of war between the tribes grew. He hadn’t yet decided whether to flee or fight, but it wasn’t because the pegasus pony army stood any chance of losing. Recon missions had already suggested the unicorn and earth pony tribes simply had no provisions left to take, so an assault would hardly be worth the effort.

The pegasus commander flew past several companies engaged in combat practice as he headed straight for the Pegantheon. His agenda had to be placed on hold once he’d heard of the new recruit. Her name was Pansy, which suggested strength. Pansies were, after all, Winter-hardy flowers, and at present the army was stationed in a land where Winter simply wouldn’t give way to Spring.

However, the stories of Pansy’s character were not exactly flattering. Several troops had reported that she was afraid of her own shadow: literally afraid of it. She’d been spotted on at least two occasions jumping in surprise at the smallest flicker of light. Commander Hurricane would simply have none of this brand of weakness in his army. Strength could be acquired, and honor could be earned; but fear was forbidden. Soldiers can have it, of course, but they must not show it. Courage is simply the mastery of fear, and without courage you have no army. While it might be the case that Pansy was easily spooked rather than truly fearful, the leader of the pegasus brigade knew better than to merely assume competence from anypony beneath his command.

As Commander Hurricane arrived at the Pegantheon, he stood on the firm cloud surface and looked up at the structure. It was a magnificent building for a cloud structure, designed to allow in light from above for meditation and respite. It was a shame it would likely need to be abandoned if they left this land, as it was too large to move under such dire circumstances. It used to be so beautiful when the rays of the sun would grace it, both outside and in. But the sun had not cleared the towering cumulus in a long time, and so its interior remained dark and dreary.

He stood there at the entrance for a few moments out of reverence and respect, then donned his helmet, carefully tugging his rainbow-colored mane through the crest ferrule. Although he never publicly said so, the Commander often resented new female recruits. From the perspective of a male soldier with aspirations, it was bad enough that there were more mares than stallions. The mares tended to learn more quickly too, which led them to positions of authority despite the fact that they were generally weaker and smaller. But at least they tended to be very fast, and most of them were brave. Most of them, he thought, shaking his head distastefully.

Commander Hurricane narrowed his gaze and walked through he archway into the dim interior of the building. It had no floor, as was appropriate for an important site intended for pegasi alone. In the center of the vaulted hall sat Pansy, eyes closed, clearly meditating. The Commander snorted gruffly and walked to a weapons rack stationed near the entrance. It was a sure mark of a warrior culture to find weapons of war even here, in this place of quiet solace. He selected a bastard sword, removing it with his wingtip, and twirled it a bit.

If Pansy had heard him, she didn’t indicate it. So he walked right up to her. Walking on a cloud made no hoofbeats, but his armor made soft clinking sounds which gave his position away. Unless she was deaf as well, she knew he was right there in front of her. He raised the sword before her, and addressed her directly.

"Private Pansy," he said, in an authoritative tone of voice.

Pansy opened her eyes. Her coat and mane were difficult to see in the dimness, but the colors were clearly soft pastels. Not the sort of thing that sends the enemy running for cover, he thought, mentally adding that to the list of her potential flaws.

"Um, yes, sir, Commander sir," she replied, her voice meek and faltering. Nonetheless, while Pansy’s face revealed an obvious shyness in the presence of her commanding officer, she showed no sign of fear.

The experienced soldier glowered down at his cadet. “I’ve heard things about you, Private. I’ve heard you are afraid of your own shadow,” he hissed, making his displeasure as evident as possible.

"Oh, um… I’m sorry. I mean, sir. I’m sorry, sir. But, um, if it’s okay for me to say so, I’m really just a little bit jumpy, is all," she explained, head slightly bowed as she looked up to her superior from where she sat.

The Commander gritted his teeth and raised the sword up to a striking position deftly with one wing. His eyes flashed with rage. The sight of Commander Hurricane wielding a sword with intent to kill was enough to send most ponies running for cover. He was one of few pegasi strong enough to power the swing of a hacking weapon when held by wing rather than mouth, and everypony knew of his prowess. Yet Pansy simply stared upwards toward the Commander, looking a bit befuddled but not at all frightened.

"Private Pansy! Do you not realize I could strike you dead this very instant, without even making a sound?" he shouted, his voice reverberating with loud, angry echoes reflected back from all sides within the Pegantheon’s open chamber.

Private Pansy merely smiled peacefully. “Oh, yes I do, sir,” she said, her soft voice echoless, in stark comparison to the threat before her. “But, do you realize that I could be struck dead this very instant, without even making a sound?” she retorted back, completely unfazed.

Commander Hurricane drew in a sharp breath of air, eyes wide with surprise. He’d never encountered somepony who could not be intimidated by steel. What sort of warrior could be made of a pony for whom death was nothing? Slowly, the Commander began to identify the sensation was he was experiencing, deep in his chest. It was quite unfamiliar to him. It was unbridled fear.

After a short discussion with the new recruit, Private Pansy became the Commander’s personal assistant, both for scouting missions and negotiations. He would long recall this as one of the easiest decisions of his lengthy and distinguished military service.

Koan 17: Good Eye’s Tail

Long, long ago, in the pre-classical era of Equestria’s history, a powerful conjurer named Star Swirl the Bearded developed his powers under the watchful tutelage of sister Princesses Celestia and Luna. Star Swirl’s love of the magical arts showed from an early age, and by the time he was referred to as “the Bearded”, his writings were extensive. Ultimately, his impact upon magical theory was nothing short of legendary.

Throughout his career in magical research, Star Swirl served in many roles. One of his favorite duties was teaching magical abstraction theory, a course required of all new entrants to the Magic Program of the Canterlot School for Unicorns. Despite the name of the school, on very rare occasion a new student of the Magic Program might be a pegasus pony, an earth pony, or even a member of some other species. Without a built-in magical focus, certain accommodations were necessary, but this was mostly a technical issue. Learning and mastering magical abstraction theory, for one matter, required no magical abilities at all. It did, however, require great mental focus: many of the learned mage’s pupils failed his course the first time through. For this reason, many young ponies approached the course with dread and hesitation, and this tended only to made things worse.

Star Swirl the Bearded had a number of habits about him, from the way he dressed to the manner in which he spoke. He flaunted his beard, stroking the long, grey thing whenever speaking at length about some abstract concept. He paced a bit when he lectured, and with each soft step resounded a soft tinkling sound from the bells which lined the almost comically-large brim of his wizard’s hat. The room in which he lectured was empty of desks, as he preferred ponies to sit on the floor and pay close attention to his words rather than write down everything he uttered mechanistically. It’s not like the students didn’t have full access to his lecture notes, anyway, since he’d authored the text book himself.

Magical abstraction theory is a difficult subject, but Star Swirl had long since realized the true barrier to learning something new and different was the process of unlearning the things you already thought you knew. This was a delicate and difficult thing to teach young ponies! On occasion, a pony in the class would raise a hoof and ask a question of some sort, to which Star Swirl would stroke his beard for a moment in silence, and then answer the question. Often, however, his answer was simply the question itself, restated in a different form; sometimes even made silly or ridiculous. The goal was to get ponies to abandon their preconceptions of reality, for a proper understanding of the workings of magic requires, first and foremost, a truly open mind.

One of Star Swirl’s most memorable students was an albino pegasus filly named Good Eye, the only non-unicorn in his class that season. She was quite scrawny, but had a remarkably beautiful fluffy mane and tail that almost looked to be made of cloud-fluff itself. To better fit in, Good Eye had taken up the position of class clown among her peers. Reportedly, she had a decent (if unflattering) impression of each instructor in the program. She generally kept these impressions to private displays outside the classroom. However, Star Swirl found himself curious. He knew he could elicit his mimic with a bit of trickery, and so he hatched a plan.

Good Eye received the summons at dusk, and dutifully reported to Star Swirl’s office. Her stomach knotted with a mix of curiosity and fear, as being the class joker ran the danger of a filly seeming flippant in her studies. She breathed in deeply through her nostrils as she entered the already-open door.

"You called for me, sir?" she asked, trying her best to sound professional.

Star Swirl looked up from where he sat in his office, the surroundings lit by a single candle. It surprised the filly to note his reliance on such a simple physical tool, when Star Swirl could certainly conjure any light he desired with ease. Her mind wandered a bit over that.

"Yes, Good Eye. There was a question one of the colts asked near the end of session today, do you recall it?" the bearded mentor asked, a wistful smile creeping across his aged muzzle.

Good Eye somehow blanched, a surprising feat for a pure-white filly. She remembered having done her impression of Star Swirl after class to that same question, but willfully blocked this from her mind as revealing such facts to her elder was not a pleasant thought at all.

She nodded. “Yes sir. It was a question about how magic requires us to imagine things which cannot be. Specifically, how can we separate the thought of a hoof from the physical hoof itself, or the thought of a tail from the tail itself,” she recalled, her voice growing in alacrity as confidence returned to her spirit.

"Very good," Star Swirl responded. For the briefest moment his horn appeared to glow—but perhaps it was just the lighting, the nervous filly decided. She smiled and relaxed somewhat, feeling incredibly relieved, though not quite certain as to why.

Star Swirl continued his lecture, looking down toward his diminutive pupil’s soft pink irises where they glimmered in the dimness. “And I believe I responded,” he said, and began stroking his beard in his trademark manner, “…by saying that no dichotomy exists. Ponies are simply too used to the action and the experience coinciding, to realize that they are but two halves of the same coin.”

As Good Eye listened, she had to consciously resist mimicking her teacher’s habitual behaviors. She felt a bit giddy, and resorted to biting her lip to avoid chuckling.

"But alas, not one of my students appeared to grasp this lesson today," he said, and concluded his sentence with a barely-noticeable bounce at the base of his tail. Good Eye could not resist but to copy the action with her own tail-base, and her eyes widened suddenly in horror.

Star Swirl chuckled loudly. “There it is! I had been told you did a great impression of me and I simply had to see for myself,” he smiled broadly. Good Eye froze where she stood, not yet certain of her fate.

"You’re… not mad at me, sir?" she whispered, knees shaking despite her best attempts at maintaining the tiniest bit of courage.

The bearded wizard shook his head, bells tinkling madly for a moment. “No, not at all, dear, but it’s hard enough to get ponies to understand what I try to teach them, and I do have a reputation to maintain,” he said, cocking his head. His horn glowed, and the familiar glimmery sound of a magic invocation filled the air. Good Eye quickly looked around the room, then about herself, and noticed that her tail had disappeared! A kick backwards with a rear leg confirmed that it wasn’t just invisible, but completely absent. Her tail was no more.

"Sir?" she gasped, her voice cracking with desperation. "Oh please, please, not this!" the filly begged, her rump tilted up behind her, the smooth white surface entirely bare. She tried rather pathetically to cover the area with her tiny wings, but there was simply no hiding a missing tail, especially not one as lovely as hers had been. Her ears burned with shame at the thought of others seeing her branded this way. "I… I know I deserve punishment, but…"

Star Swirl the Bearded reached down and pulled Good Eye’s chin upward, meeting her watering eyes with a tender gaze. “This isn’t punishment, my student,” he explained, and with that, he took a step backward, pulled at his beard with a hoof, and again caused the base of his tailbase to bounce, just as he always did when answering questions.

And Good Eye felt her tailbase raise as well, even though it did not exist.

At that instant she understood the lesson, and she gasped softly with wonder, quickly regaining her composure. The filly smiled even as she wiped the fresh tears from her eyes.

"I’m sorry for the theatrics," the elder pony offered, the apology in his voice sincere. "But sometimes a little hooves-on demonstration goes a long way," he explained. His horn began to glow as he began casting the spell to reverse the missing tail.

"No, please," Good Eye stopped him, reaching out with a hoof. "I mean, not yet, if I may. A few days without, at least?" she requested. Somehow the raw impact of her lesson felt like a mountain next to the negligible hill of potential ridicule by her peers.

The elder sage raised a brow but nodded, quite surprised; but such pleasant discoveries were the best part of a teacher’s job, after all. Star Swirl wished his pupil a pleasant evening, and the filly trotted out of his office and clopped down the hallway with a curious spring in her step.

Koan 16: To The Bone

Sweetie Belle shivered. Like most of the foals in the schoolyard, the little white unicorn filly had neglected to bring a coat with her to school today. In the past few hours, a surprise cold front had pushed in over Ponyville. The unexpected weather was almost certainly the fault of some careless pegasus. As much as the little pony wanted to play hopscotch, she was far too preoccupied with the chill biting at her pelt.

"Sweetie Belle, aren’t you gonna come play?" Scootaloo asked, trotting over to her friend, her little wings buzzing excitedly. The chestnut-pelted pegasus pony stomped a hoof impatiently against a soft patch of earth. "I mean, you can’t let something like a little chilly air take you down," she added. She punctuated her claim by blowing a little stream of air upwards from her lips, knocking a lock of her violet mane away from those lilac eyes.

"But it’s cold!" Sweetie complained, standing on her rear hooves to grip her body with the other pair. "You have feathers to keep you warm, anyhow," she pointed out. Scootaloo looked down at her fluffed-up wings, and realized they did indeed account for at least a little of her warmth.

Apple Bloom cantered over to the pair. “Well, Ah ain’t got no horsefeathers, and lookit me. Ah’m just fahn,” she intoned in her cute Southern drawl. “Yeah, it’s a little cold, but you kin get use’ta it if’n ya try,” she coaxed, nuzzling warmly at Sweetie Belle’s flank. Her curly red mane tickled the spot where Sweetie’s cutie mark would one day appear.

The little unicorn pony blushed, but frowned. “I just don’t know how you do it, Apple Bloom. Maybe I just spend too much time around my sis. I mean, she whines a little bit, you know,” the white pony explained, momentarily lowering her voice to a whisper. “But still, I know she can handle anything at all when she really needs to. I don’t want to be helpless. Can you tell me how do you do it? Is there like, a secret?” she asked, eager for a solution to her discomfort.

The lemonsilla earth pony stood a moment and thought out a careful response. She’d never before had to come up with an explanation for something she always just felt in her gut. Then, the light hit her square in the eyes.

"Okay, Ah think Ah got it," Apple Bloom announced. "Sweetie Belle, ya just gotta let the cold in," she explained. "When it’s hot, let yerself get hot deep in yer belly; when it’s cold, let it chill ya to the bone," she smiled.

Sweetie Belle looked horrified. “But that sounds awful!” she gasped.

"Well, how do you know if you don’t try?" added Scootaloo, smiling. "Maybe the only thing keeping you so cold is the way you’re acting so shy of it. You might be making it a lot worse than it is."

Apple Bloom nodded. “Exactly! Let it be a part of ya, and just, y’know, accept it. Trust us?” she asked.

Sweetie Belle looked nervously from one friend to the other, both of them relaxed and smiling despite the cold. Could it really be so simple? Was it all in her head?

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, dropped to all fours, and forced herself to relax…

It was cold! The little pony winced, but fought against her instincts. Let it happen, she thought. After all, the worst case scenario was she’d get a little colder than she was, and then just warm up later. But the shock only lasted for a moment, and suddenly, it was over. Yes, it was definitely chilly, but when she wasn’t trying to fight it, it wasn’t really so bad. It was just kind of…different. She opened her eyes and smiled brightly.

"Wow! It’s…well, it’s not really fun, but this is way better than before! Thanks guys!" Sweetie Belle said, and offered her friends a warm hug, which they accepted.

"Hey! We just did something," Scootaloo remarked on the obvious, arm in arm with the other two ponies. "Cutie Mark Crusaders, um…"

"Unicorn warmers? No…" said Apple Bloom.

"Helpful freezing pony calmers…?" tried Sweetie Belle.

"Something… on our butt getters?!" exclaimed Scootaloo, half in desperation.

All three ponies quickly turned to look at their flanks, which were, unsurprisingly, still blank.

"It was worth a check," rationalized Apple Bloom. "But Ah’m not sure just exactly what Ah’d have expected that to look like, to be honest with ya."

Sweetie Belle grinned. “I like to think when it happens, somehow we’ll already know before we even look.” Then the three friends giggled and trotted over to the hopscotch board, cold be damned.

Koan 14: Teaching Without Words

Foal instructor Cheerilee had a remarkable reputation for her ability to teach complex concepts to young ponies, both educational and social. At one point in her career, rumors began to circulate that the deep-magenta coated mare had access to a keen sort of wisdom which far exceeded that of the average earth pony. While such a thing might be expected for a college professor in philosophy, it was a rare trait for a humble grade-school teacher. Cheerilee soon knew of the unusual gossip, but she paid it no heed. Those sorts of value judgments always seemed silly to her.

It was a warm Summer afternoon in the Ponyville schoolhouse. Cheerilee was giving speech lessons to Twist, one of her younger students. The little perlino Earth pony adjusted her oversized purple glasses and sighed sadly after several failed attempts at a sentence filled with sibilants. “I canth quite do it, Mith Cheerilee,” she lisped, fuchsia eyes shimmering on the edge of tears.

Cheerilee hugged the little pony tightly, comforting her. “It’s okay, Twist. Things aren’t hopeless just because they’re hard to do. In fact, most of the things in life worth doing are hard! You may not notice it yet, but you improve every time we work together,” she informed her student.

Twist’s curly scarlet mane bobbed about her face as she shook her muzzle. “Well, maybe,” she said, feeling a bit better as a smile surfaced. Cheerilee was always so compassionate and understanding. Twist figured she would probably come up with an excuse to see her even if she didn’t have a stupid speech impediment to work on.

The sound of the schoolhouse door caused the instructor to turn her head and brush aside rose-colored bangs. Into the room trotted Filthy Rich, the prominent entrepreneur of Ponyville. He was always business, and usually a bit stressed out. However, Cheerilee noticed that today he seemed far more relaxed than usual, even though he wore his usual business lapel-and-tie combo.

"Just a moment, Twist," Cheerilee soothed, and trotted over to the champagne-coated stallion. "Hello, Rich," she smiled, knowing well his name preference. "Are you here about Diamond Tiara?" she inquired.

"Heh. No, no, not today, Cheerilee, unless she’s in trouble again. It’s not easy raising a filly with all the distractions of wealth around. Sometimes I think I spoil the little dear, but she’s just so adorable," he chuckled, and ran a hoof along his slicked-back black mane.

Twist watched wide-eyed from her seat, her insatiable curiosity getting the best of her as usual. She’d been interested in Diamond Tiara’s father ever since he told the story of their family during the previous Family Appreciation Day. It took a special sort of pony to make bits in the way that he did, and most of the other students couldn’t see the value in it. Twist, however, understood. She had been helping out with her family business as far back as she could recall, and while they weren’t as successful at making confectionaries as the Cakes, many of their treats sold alongside the Cakes’ specialties at Sugarcube Corner itself. These even included Twist’s specialty: candy-canes made from the work of her own four hooves.

"Adorable she is," Cheerilee agreed. "Give her time, though. Foals will be foals," she insisted.

"Yes, yes," her guest retorted, nodding. "But, anyway. I’m here because I hear you have…heh. How do I say it? Everypony around town says you have a special sort of wisdom beyond your years," Rich accused.

Cheerilee suppressed a blush. “Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” she said plainly. Her face maintained a very curious half-smile, not unlike the famous Roana Lisa.

Filthy Rich leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. “Please, impart to me something serene, teacher,” he said in a soft, but reverent voice. “Something I heard once, how does it go… Tell me how a pony can teach without speaking, yet at the same time, without silence?” he asked the cryptic riddle, then leaned back, expectantly, studying Cheerilee’s face very closely: his blue eyes locked onto her green.

The teacher merely maintained her calm appearance, expression unchanging, gaze unblinking: offering no response other than to continue being herself. The pair stood there in a silent staring contest for so many moments that Twist had to bite down on her tongue to keep the suspense from making her cry out. Then, suddenly, Filthy Rich’s eyes opened wide, and he bowed deeply.

"Thank you Master," he said politely, with a smile, and trotted out.

Twist quickly rose to her hooves and cantered over to her teacher. “Oh! Cheerilee! Whaddya teach him?” she asked. “Or, ith it one of thothe, umm, adult thingth…?”

Cheerilee smiled widely and shook her head. “Just don’t repeat this, dear… You remember when Diamond Tiara ended up in detention every day for a week, and after that she’d sit up straight and stop goofing off if I even looked at her funny?” she giggled. “Some horses will run at the mere shadow of a whip.”

Twist looked confused, then the light came on. “Oh…you mean he’s looking for answers, but just anywhere. But what happens if he comes back and wants a real answer?” she asked, her voice a quiet whisper.

"Hmm. Well, I guess I’ll have to figure out what to say when that happens. And speaking of teaching without words, you realize you just said all that perfectly, yes?” she revealed.

Twist gasped. “Oh, thyoot! Right when I thtopped lithening to mythelf,” the poor filly moaned. Her teacher simply smiled, and said nothing.

Koan 13: Shining Armor’s Spear

Long ago, at a time before Twilight Sparkle had moved away from Canterlot, her brother Shining Armor was fast advancing through the ranks of the Royal Guard. Like his younger sister, the blue-maned unicorn stallion had already made a name for himself with his skill at magic. In particular, his aim with a magically levitated spear rivalled that of the most elite warriors in all of Canterlot.

Prior to entering service, all of the young recruits for military duty were required to study the writings of Commander Hurricane on the art of war. Commander Hurricane was an ancient pegasus mare whose strategies in battle were unmatched, and her contributions to pony defense helped put Equestria on the map. One of the most important elements of her philosophy was in understanding that all conflicts represented a false dichotomy: there were not really two sides to any conflict, but only one side being looked at from different points of view. In order to understand the enemy, one must first be able to see them as one sees oneself. New recruits were not considered fit for service until they truly understood the falseness of the “fight or flee” mentality.

The Captain of Shining Armor’s unit was a well-respected grey unicorn mare, although she was so muscular that other ponies ocassionally mistook her for a stallion. She was excellent at identifying flaws in the mindsets of her troops, and so her instruction was highly regarded. She frequently tested Shining Armor in tricky ways, seeing if she could elicit an error in her star recruit’s thinking. She rarely succeeded, but this only encouraged her to push him harder.

Shining Armor galloped across the training grounds and slowed to a canter as he approached the Captain, his heavy armor clinking with each step. It was a warm evening in early Autumn, and it was unusual to be called upon by a superior in the evening hours while off-duty. He walked up to a distance of eight hooves from the Captain, saluted, and stood at attention.

"At ease, Guard," the Captain stated crisply, and he relaxed ever-so-slightly. "I know you are off-duty this evening, and I hope I haven’t called you from that mare you’ve been seeing recently," she accused, putting him a bit off-balance.

"I…um, that’s just my sister’s old foal-sitter," he began, then noticed the severity of his Captain’s glare. "But yes, she is a close friend," he admitted.

"That is alright, Shining Armor. What you do on your off-time is your business as long as it does not interfere with your work. Besides, my observations of your private life are confidential," she explained, and Shining Armor breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t even told his family yet about his time spent with Candace, and dating an actual Princess wasn’t exactly easy to keep quiet.

The Captain noisily cleared her throat. “Speaking of work: I have a special request to make of you that goes beyond the boundaries of your typical assignments,” she revealed, with a hint of mystery in her voice.

"Yes sir," the white unicorn pony responded to his superior, finding himself deeply curious about his assignment. It was a trait he shared with his little sister, one which needed to be kept carefully curbed most of the time.

"I need you to test two new recruits to see if they are prepared for admission. They are alone in the meditation stables. Use whatever method you think is best," she said, and nodded her head at a spear near Shining Armor’s feet, as a possible offering.

Shining Armor thought for a moment, then levitated the spear to his side. It was an honor for a Guard at his station to be given the authority to review a recruit, let alone two. “Right away, sir,” he said, then trotted off toward the meditation stables, spear floating alongside him. He resisted expressing gratitude or promising results, as his Captain was always business when wearing the Royal Uniform of her rank. And Shining Armor knew well that while this may surely have been an honor, it was just as surely another test of his mettle.

He entered the stables and saw the two rather young earth ponies, both seated in a lotus position: one colt and one filly, and neither old enough yet to bear a cutie mark. Upon his entry he noticed their ears perk up, so he knew they could hear him approach, as well as the soft humming sound of his levitated weapon. However, the recruits neither rose nor opened their eyes, preferring to remain in the meditative state, as they had not been expressly ordered to cease.

The unicorn knew very well that any new recruit must be prepared to face death, must be calm in the face of danger, and above all, must understand the false duality of conflict itself. He was already certain of the test he would employ.

The guard carefully drained all signs of emotion from his face and voice as he stepped forward. “I am Shining Armor of the Royal Guard,” he announced to the pair, who continued to keep their eyes closed. “I am armed with a spear. If you speak a word to me, I shall run you through with my spear, and you shall not survive.” He paused for one moment, watching the two ponies closely. “Also, if you do not speak a word to me, I shall run you through with my spear, and you shall not survive.” Having delivered his impossible ultimatum, he stood in silence, the only sound in the well-insulated stables being the eerie hum of his magic spell.

Without speaking, Shining Armor waited there before them, carefully watching the foals maintain their quiet meditation. Initially, he spied the tiniest bit of trembling coming from each of them. It was so small as to be obvious only to his practiced eye, but it subsided within a few seconds of his initial threat. After several minutes of standing there and observing the serenity of the young ponies, he smiled to himself, turned, and exited the stables, leaving the pair to their mental training.

Quickly he returned to the Captain, who was standing right where he’d left her.

"At ease," she ordered, after the customary attention and salute. "Now, tell me, Guard. What did you do, and are these recruits prepared to begin the next stage of their training?" she asked.

Shining Armor relayed the story of his actions as objectively as he could, without explaining the motivation behind them. “I believe they are ready for training, Captain,” he concluded.

The Captain pursed her lips in thought. “An interesting test, and an interesting response. Perhaps so,” she said, and could not suppress a slight, mischievous smirk from gracing one side of her muzzle. “But you have only told me one side of the story. What about their side of things?” she asked. “Now. Tell me what you think of that.”

The stallion momentarily looked down at the ground, a rare act when addressing a superior officer, then breathed in sharply as though preparing for a rush to combat. “If that is your concern, sir,” he said coldly, “then my recommendation is different. I would in that case recommend they are ready for training… but not under you.” And despite the severity of his insubordinate suggestion, he looked his Captain square in the eye, unflinching in determination.

The Captain stood silent, perhaps dumbstruck, for what seemed like minutes, then suddenly burst out with a laugh! It was strangely feminine coming from his superior, and a sound Shining Armor had never heard from her before. “Excellent,” she said with a grin, her voice filled with ususual gusto. Her protégé relaxed quite a bit, exhaling slowly in relief and scratching at the edges of his blue mane with a hoof.

"You’ll have my job someday, you know that don’t you?" she told Shining Armor as she motioned for him to follow her. She was trotting back toward the meditation stables.

"I’d be lying if I said I had no ambition," the stallion admitted. "But it will probably be a while before I even make Captain, to be fair." The two arrived at the stables, but the mare stopped near the entrance.

"Maybe sooner than you think, son. We’ll save the ceremony for tomorrow, but welcome to the rank of Captain," she said with a voice returning to solemnity, and Shining Armor suddenly felt his heart racing in his chest. "Oh, and those are your first two recruits to field out to your staff officers. Congratulations, Shining Armor. I’ll see you tomorrow at daybreak, and we’ll hash out the details then." His former superior trotted off briskly toward the armory lockers, without another word.

This time, it was a well-armored, Captain of the Royal Guard who stood in silence, uncertain of what to do when faced with the unknown. But after a minute of stunned silence and an quiet but energetic hoof-pump in celebration, Shining Armor opened the door to the meditation area, ready to make a less lethal introduction to his new recruits.

"So awesome. I can’t wait to tell Twilie," he murmured to himself, bravely fighting back a manly tear as he attended to his new duty.