JumpingShinyFrogs’ “School Tour”

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(RCL NOTE: We’re attempting the hopeless task of choosing the fandom’s Single Best Story™ at a special panel at Bronycon.  Help us pick the competitors!  Details here.  Voting is open until July 13.)

Today’s story comes out of the dark into the spotlight.

School Tour
[Dark] [Human] • 6,481 words

I was looking forward to the school tour for a really long time! We were going to the beach, and I love the beach. I love the bus trip as well, singing and talking with my friends. But then we drove into a tunnel. I’ve never really liked tunnels, but it’s always been fine because my friends were there. We always try to hold our breath the whole way through the tunnel, which is a lot of fun.

Today, we couldn’t hold our breath the whole way through, because the bus never came out of the tunnel.

FROM THE CURATORS: Fanfiction, by definition, is authors getting inspired by the settings and characters of others’ works.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that sometimes quality fanfiction spawns fanfiction of its own.  “Since we’ve featured The Last Pony on Earth, I’ve been going through some of the side stories it spawned, and I feel confident in nominating them on their own merits,” Present Perfect said in his nomination.  “This is many things. A story about survival and holding out hope against certain death. An excellent example of journalfic written in a nine-year-old’s voice. And a really good application of the setting and timeframe of the Ponies After People universe.”  Soge quickly added that this tale of a bus full of children turning into ponies worked as a standalone: “I only noticed it was related to Last Pony on Earth when it was explicitly mentioned near the end.  That didn’t actually impact my enjoyment of the story.”

One of the factors driving that enjoyment was the story’s tight and careful focus.  “It’s a very claustrophobic story, with essentially one location until the end,” Present Perfect said, “but the strength of the writer’s voice and the sheer desperation of their situation, on top of the fact that these are mostly kids, is what really sells this.” FanOfMostEverything agreed: “The story does a brilliant job of using the limited space and information given to the protagonist to drive home the claustrophobic atmosphere. The pacing is one of the best parts, gradually ramping up the dread as all the easy solutions fail and the situation worsens.”  And Soge appreciated the nuance that provided: “The limited perspective and understanding of Clara is used very well here, the child narrator being the best possible PoV to sell the bleakness of the situation, without actually falling into melodrama.”

But we also praised factors such as the efficient prose.  “There are tons of neat details peppered around, and in a very short amount of time it sells the reader very well on the characters, the world, and their predicament,” Soge said.  That was even more impressive considering the way the story was framed.  “The sheer innocence of the narrative voice is almost painful at times, when the reader sees the severity of Clara’s predicament so much more clearly than she does,” FanOfMostEverything said.  “Overall, this was some excellent suspense.”

Read on for our author interview, in which JumpingShinyFrogs discusses sneaky principals, acceptable birds, and story graveyards.
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miss-cyan’s “Now Hiring”

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We’re grateful our job brings us to gems like today’s story.

Now Hiring
[Sad] • 3,602 words

Pear Butter and Bright McIntosh have recently passed. What remains of the Apple Family find themselves in the care of their newest family member. But they can’t do everything to provide for the new foal on their own.

An ad is placed.

A position is filled.

But loss is a thing that affects each individual differently. And new faces can be both a curse and a blessing.

FROM THE CURATORS: There are certain story ideas which just hit you right between the eyes.  “This has about the most perfect set-up of any story I’ve read recently,” AugieDog said in our discussion thread.  “I mean, of course the Apples would need a wet nurse for Apple Bloom! Why has it taken all these years for someone to realize that?”  And it’s always a joy to find a story which capitalizes on an idea so strong.  “This is fantastic, a vivid tale of broken people fixing their lives by coming together at the worst of times,” Soge said in his nomination.  “It really puts all the characters through quite the ordeal, but never stretching credibility, leading to a well-earned ending.”

But even beyond the premise, we found much to impress us — chiefly, the exemplary balancing act the story pulled with its Sad tag.  “The emotional tone here is very carefully handled,” FanOfMostEverything said. “It lets us feel the characters’ despair without making us wallow in it.  There’s enough diversity in the mood to keep it from becoming a slog, whether it’s the attempts at normalcy that feel very true for a mourning family, or intriguing hints of things to come like Rosemary’s first reaction to seeing Apple Bloom.”  Present Perfect agreed.  “The emotional drain of the situation comes through in the writing; never is it forced, and that alone would make this worth reading,” he said.  “But taking the Apples’ greatest loss and turning it into an opportunity to bond with another pony suffering her own loss is a fantastic idea.  We get to see grief from multiple sides, and how it can bring people closer together.”

And that wasn’t all that curators praised.  “It is backed by some wonderful characterization, powerful drama, and very interesting tidbits of worldbuilding which really help elevate the story,” Soge said.  AugieDog, not normally a fan of perspective leaps, was even impressed by that: “Given the subject matter, I find the uncertain and wandering perspective very effective,” he said.  “The way we don’t get a single character name till we’re a dozen paragraphs into the story makes the opening very distancing, and it just plain fits.  Later, when the POV hops, it’s like the story’s opening up along with the characters. And having the last section be from Apple Bloom’s POV? Just right.”  All in all, as Present Perfect said, “this is a really good use of the show characters, not to mention the Sad tag.”

Read on for our author interview, in which miss-cyan discusses dog yards, Equestrian ladies, and yan seeing.
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Alphacat’s “Brothers and Sisters”

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Today’s story shows us what happens when the day meets the night.

brothers and sistersBrothers and Sisters
[Slice of Life] • 64,160 words

When Princess Luna goes missing, Private Lucky Break knows there’s more at work than a simple breach of court protocol.

For most, Hearth’s Warming is an occasion to celebrate family and friends, a time for reflection and goodwill to all of Equestria’s residents. But for two ponies, their relationship with the holiday is much more complicated.

Lucky, batpony soldier of the Night Guard, is assigned to escort Princess Luna to the grand reopening of her Night Court mere months after her return to Equestria. Everything goes well at first, until a visitor inadvertently offends the princess. Incensed, she cancels court and sends everypony away. However, when Lucky goes to offer comfort to a distraught Luna, she storms out.

Spurred on by an old wound buried deep in his heart, Lucky strives to mend a bond between sisters that feels all too familiar, and find the missing diarch before her grief consumes her.

FROM THE CURATORS: “OC” isn’t a four-letter word, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so, the way some ponyfic aficionados use it. After all, most people reading fan fiction are looking for more quality time with their favorite characters from the show they love, not the random creations of their enthusiastic fellows. But today’s feature shows how that can be an unfair judgment, with an almost-entirely original cast that’s so well formed and integrated with Friendship Is Magic‘s canon world and characters, you can’t help but become invested in their lives. “It feels so grounded in the Equestria we know from the show that I didn’t really realize until after finishing that the only real canon characters are the princesses,” said RBDash47 in his nomination.

The strong character work was a big selling point all around: “This is a story that thrives on the power of its characters,” agreed Present Perfect. “I was drawn in by Celestia’s quiet angst and the furor bubbling just under Luna’s surface. Sticking it out, I was rewarded with a cast of memorable OCs gathered together in relationships in a way I’ve never seen depicted this strongly in fanfiction before.” AugieDog had the same reaction, “echoing the points about the terrific bunch of OCs we get here. Lucky Break could have easily slipped into ‘Marty Stu’ territory, but the author prevents this by using the mechanics of cutie marks in quite a deft fashion.”

The author’s deft handiwork with taking canon elements from the show and running with them extended beyond clever cutie marks. For all their fan love, “batponies” make only a brief appearance in a single episode pulling Luna’s chariot, and ever since there’s been speculation whether or not they represented a fourth tribe of ponies, some clever Nightmare Night costumes for standard-issue pegasi, or something else. “Something I’ve not seen elsewhere,” said RBDash47. “Batponies aren’t a fourth tribe in addition to earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi, but instead are simply the nocturnal version of pegasi, and we meet the earth pony and unicorn equivalents as well. The overall population of these ‘nyctan’ ponies is small and largely segregated, only recently returned to Equestria and almost exclusively active at night, so I can roll with never seeing them in the show.” Present Perfect appreciated how the author played with the contrast between dayponies and nightponies. “I can’t say I’m in a position to really comment on the nature of racism, at its core, but I felt like the mistrust and fear directed at the nyctan in this story was at the very least true to the setting. For all that this Equestria is a bit more like our world than like the show, this also fit, because there are so many real-world issues tackled head-on throughout it.”

From top to bottom, this is a thoughtful, well-crafted novel, from the big picture—”the story’s structure is ambitious,” pointed out RBDash47, “with half of each chapter taking place in the present and half taking place in the past, allowing us to make inferences about past Lucky from future Lucky and vice-versa”—to the small—”the author even manages to handle the whole ‘new kid gains an instant foe at school’ thing in a way” that didn’t make AugieDog want to gag, “something that’s really hard to do.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Alphacat discusses trusting your intuition, manipulating dualities, and the importance of revision.

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AlexTFish’s “Daring Do: The Opera”

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We’ll make a spirited effort to sing the praises of today’s story.

Daring Do: The Opera
[Mystery] [Slice of Life] • 10,016 words

Diamond Tiara is excited to have a starring role in Autumn Blaze’s new opera. She knows the Opera House isn’t haunted, but if it were, she’d be ready to give any Opera Spirit a stern talking-to.

FROM THE CURATORS: This story was already on several of our radars when it took second place in the Season 9 Bingo Contest — and it didn’t take us long to discover why it did so well.  “The humor’s on point but knows when to get out of the way of the narrative, the mystery is neither too obvious nor impossible, and the story does more with Diamond Tiara than the show ever did,” FanOfMostEverything said in his nomination.  While our praise was wide-ranging, two factors stood out.  “This all comes down to two aspects,” Present Perfect said, “the characters and the twist.”

It was remarkable work on the former which came up most often in our discussion.  “The character work throughout really carries the story,” AugieDog said.  “I especially like the way that, after the twist, the early scenes take on a deeper meaning and lead to the realization that, without noticing or even meaning to, Tiara has had this literally life-changing effect on another character.”  Horizon also admired the protagonist: “The early look at Diamond Tiara’s redemption, especially her conversation with her parents, solidly carries the otherwise slow Chapter 1. (And I’m also a fan of its song lyrics, which is no small thing.)”  And Present Perfect was more broadly impressed: “Diamond Tiara is especially well-written, important since this is really about her. I very much appreciated the exploration of what she has to do as a character post-Lost Mark.  And Autumn Blaze strikes me as one of those characters like Maud Pie that’s going to be hard to write, but AlexTFish handled her blabbermouthing with aplomb.”

But the praise for the story’s central mystery was equally effusive.  “I absolutely did not see the twist coming, and the misdirection it went to justifies a feature by itself,” Horizon said. “The story gets a fantastic amount of mileage out of the things it doesn’t tell you, and the mystery, as FOME says, is very well calibrated.”  Present Perfect agreed: “I was amazed that I could be so right and so wrong about the twist at the same time. The devil was in the details!”  And all of those details pulled together to make the story a joy to read … occasionally, for an unusual version of joy.  Or, as Horizon put it: “I am incapable of voting against a story with such a transcendently awful pun in Chapter 5.”

Read on for our author interview, in which AlexTFish discusses spiky redemption, Magna Cartas, and 400 kinds of trouble.
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OfTheIronwilled’s “Again”

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Today’s story is (a) well worth your attention.

Again
[Dark] [Tragedy] [Human] [Alternate Universe] • 1,792 words

When she was young, Megan rode into Ponyland on the back of a flying pony.

Or not. She doesn’t know anymore.

All she knows is that for the second time, a pegasus has crashed into her well.

FROM THE CURATORS: Sometimes we get two nominations at once for works from the same author — only to find them both passing our feature threshold, creating a dilemma of which one to spotlight.  “As a fan of both G1 and Fluttershy, I get two completely different gut punches for the price of one!” AugieDog quipped in our debate.  He was one of the curators praising the character study of Where All My Layers Can Become Reeds: “The impossible dream of being a part while also being apart rings through every word of the story.” But in a split decision, the multi-generational tragedy of Again won out.

Again conveys a single moment of paralyzing horror fantastically,” FanOfMostEverything said, and the story’s short, brutal effectiveness drew broad praise.  “I love the character work, and the subtle way that it reveals the darkness of the situation,” Soge said, while RBDash47 added: “I did like how no one believing Megan played out; that felt very realistic.”  Horizon’s nomination tried to break down what made it work: “It uses its short length well, swinging in hard with a memorable gut punch of an image, and makes effective use of the generational gap,” he said.  “I think the fridge logic is the most terrifying part of it — there’s no road to the story’s events that doesn’t involve a great deal of implied abuse somewhere.”

If there was a common theme to our dissent on the fic, it was the story’s focus on the heroine of an earlier era.  “I feel it almost qualifies as G1 fanfic,” Present Perfect said, and RBDash47 added: “I wonder if I would enjoy it more if I was more familiar with Gen 1.”  But others saw that as one of the story’s strengths.  “I definitely think the G4 connection is strong enough, but even beyond that, it’s a fantastic allegory for the cost of the fear of seeming immature,” FanOfMostEverything said. “It’s all too easy to let amazing opportunities wilt away because ‘you’re too old,’ ‘that’s not how it’s done,’ so on and so forth.”  It even inspired fond comparisons to former RCL inductees.  “Again poses the question of ‘What if Meghan was the star of Through the Well of Pirene?’,” Present Perfect said, “only to answer it with a resounding, ‘Yeah, no.'”

Read on for our author interview, in which OfTheIronwilled discusses shower blame, piecemaking, and embarrassing edges.
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Everfree Northwest & MythrilMoth

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The RCL is taking a break today, as we often do on the weekend of a major pony con, and Everfree Northwest is in full swing in Seattle, WA! If you happen to be in the area, please report any sightings of FanOfMostEverything, who managed to escape the RCL reading dungeon room long enough to experience the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. We’d really like to get him back.

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bats’ “The Thinkin’ Spot”

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It’s easy to spot why we think today’s story is great.

The Thinkin’ Spot
[Slice of Life] • 5,282 words

Twilight’s first Winter Wrap Up in Ponyville had a rocky start. Things took a turn for the better when she assumed control over the planning and organization, but after a stressful morning and with an all-nighter in front of her, she was afraid it might all be for naught. Luckily Applejack was there and knew Twilight needed a chance to take a break and recharge.

She needed a visit to the Thinkin’ Spot.

FROM THE CURATORS: There’s something magical about a story that can inspire you to the level of reflection that we see in its characters.  “The thing about nostalgia is, sometimes we forget that there’s a reason we have it,” Present Perfect mused as we discussed The Thinkin’ Spot. “It’s not all wishful reminiscence; sometimes, nostalgia is just there to remind us about the things we once loved and can no longer grasp.”

Several factors combined to make the story so inspirational — nostalgia included.  “This is an excellently crafted nostalgia rush,” FanOfMostEverything said.  “This is Twilight’s very first Winter Wrap-Up in Ponyville, and it shows.  It’s also a fantastic meditative piece, and a wonderful bit of character exploration for both Twilight and Applejack, finding and embracing every inch of their common ground.”  The story also had “a thoughtful theme reinforced by a thoughtful tone, and a pace that swirls in eddies but keeps moving on downriver,” RBDash47 said in his nomination.  “Solid character work for each of them, with a lot of reflection on their places in Ponyville and what they mean to each other and the rest of their friends.”  The fic accumulated several more compliments on the strength of its construction.  “This is calm and quiet in exactly the right ways,” Present Perfect said, “and the fact that it continues integrating the Thinkin’ Spot into Twilight’s life, instead of just introducing it to her and leaving it at that, is what really gives this lasting power.”

Along the way, the fic offered some solid lessons in the spirit of the show.  “Applejack’s in her element when it comes to insightful, honest reassurances to Twilight (which should speak to anyone with anxiety issues or worries that they don’t fit in), but she also demonstrates that you don’t have to be the Element of Generosity to give your friend something valuable,” RBDash47 said.  And the quotable prose was a bonus, FanOfMostEverything added: “The story may deserve recognition for the line ‘Love ‘n about three sticks of butter’ alone.”  But ultimately, what sold us on the story was the exemplary friendshipping.  “It’s easy for us fanfiction writers to get caught up in the romance part of the shipping spectrum and forget the friendship part that gives the show its title,” AugieDog said.  “The show itself did a whole episode last season specifically to ask, ‘Why are Rainbow Dash and Rarity friends again?’ Looking at Twilight And Applejack, one could easily ask the same question: urban vs. rural, introvert vs. extrovert, cerebral vs. physical, et cetera. This story shows us why, and does it really, really well.”

Read on for our author interview, in which bats discusses drunken pegasi, wing transplants, and Fluttershy kicking a puppy.
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Jay Bear v2’s “We’re Eggspecting!”

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Today’s story will crack open your heart.

We’re Eggspecting!
[Romance] [Slice of Life] • 4,874 words

Silverstream and her husband Gallus are going to be parents! Everyone is so excited about their egg.

Well…almost everyone.

FROM THE CURATORS: Sometimes our search for quality fanfic leads us to the most un-egg-spected of places — in this case, a story everyone was surprised to find themselves enjoying.  “Look through my voting record, and it will be very clear that I don’t like shipping,” Soge said in his nomination.  “I am also not a fan of the ‘Student 6′. And yet, it seems like putting both together may be a recipe for success.”  Present Perfect had a similar reaction: “Having no particular love of the Student Six, I had actually passed this up a couple of times. I was a fool.”  Not even unfamiliarity was a barrier, we discovered: “I haven’t kept up with the show since mid-season 7,” RBDash47 said.  “I was pleasantly surprised to find this perfectly accessible and enjoyable without any real context.”

Part of that was the exemplary first impression the story made.  “It took four, maybe five paragraphs for this story to win me over completely,” AugieDog said. “Before Gallus has even woken up, just the simple act of showing him and their egg through Silverstream’s eyes gives me everything I need to know to enter the story with as firm a footing as I could want.”  That led into a tale that worked on many levels, Soge said: “Their relationship is the centerpiece of the story, and it sells the reader on it very well. But beyond that, it also explores many interesting topics, including the future of the rest of the students, the lack of privacy of royal life, the idea of egg-laying sapient species (the way Silver describes the egg in many different scenes is fantastic), the issues with Griffons as a species, and so much more.”  He wasn’t the only one commenting on the fic’s vivid descriptions.  “Apart from being well-structured, the author does a fantastic job of painting a picture: the multisensory imagery surrounding the egg itself is beautiful, which really helps us see it through its mother’s eyes,” RBDash47 said.  “Their nest sounds so inviting I’d like to curl up in it myself.”

And while that vividness was our most common compliment, it was far from the only one.  “The character work is just as impeccable as the gorgeous descriptions — I could hear the voices from the show in every line of dialogue,” AugieDog said.  “And I will freely admit that the whole exchange between Gallus and Slipstream about the book he got her on the history of stairs made me giggle.”  Present Perfect agreed: “This doesn’t just give us the domestic life of young, expectant parents, but of these two characters specifically,” he said. “This story could not work without them. And it very carefully crafts conflict from what little we knew about them after season 8, too.”  Ultimately, that chemistry was one of the factors elevating the core shipping, FanOfMostEverything said.  “The interaction between the two sells the relationship fantastically, and the background details and other characters’ involvement keep the story from the ‘only two people in the universe’ feel some shipfics can have,” he said.  “The emotional and narrative pacing are also top notch, letting dread about Gallus gradually build for the reader until it pierces even Silverstream’s happy eggnant* glow. (* You can all blame the Splatoon fandom for that one.)”

Read on for our author interview, in which Jay Bear v2 discusses unfinished Austen, subtitle curses, and feathered fishes out of water.
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The Seer’s “After I Looked Up, The Stars Had Gone Away”

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You won’t find today’s story vanishing from your memory.

After I Looked Up, The Stars Had Gone Away
[Horror] • 6,738 words

There is no such thing as a gut feeling, not really. If you suddenly start to feel afraid for no apparent reason, it’s very unlikely to be anything serious. But it doesn’t make it feel any better does it?

Twilight is up burning the midnight oil again, when suddenly every sense she has tells her that something is terribly wrong. There can’t be anything really wrong though, not in reality.

Can there?

FROM THE CURATORS: “Gentlemen, I give you one of the best horror stories on this website,” Present Perfect said in his nomination.  Soge quickly assigned it a top score and responded, “That is not hyperbole.  When a horror story makes me feel uneasy after just reading the description, I know there is something special here — and somehow, the story delivers on that promise and more.  I am glad I read this during the day, as I had to go walk outside for a bit. It is that effective.”

The premise behind that acclaim was simple — and it was that simplicity which first turned our heads. “This is a horror story about what it’s like to feel fear, and that’s really all you need for one,”  Present Perfect said.  But there was nothing simple about the careful construction which sold that tension.  “The thick atmosphere; Twilight’s thought process; the subtle changes that never let you feel comfortable; the feeling of utter isolation that permeates the whole story,” Soge said.  “It is not a single thing that makes this fic work this well, it is all those combined and more.”  Horizon agreed, adding, “This walks a masterful tightrope between the fantastic and the mundane.  It’s a heck of a balancing act keeping the reader so consistently off-balance.”

Several of us thought it was that exemplary execution which sealed the deal.  “It needs an editing pass — however, it does enough right that I don’t have any reservations about a feature,” RBDash47 said. “The author does an excellent job of slowly building tension as Twilight’s anxiety sends her spinning in mental circles, and the tension is built on something completely relatable.  Even better, they didn’t fumble their beautiful setup — the story ended exactly where it should have. The author stuck to their guns and didn’t give us the barest hint of catharsis.”  That combined with powerful framing and character work to make this memorable beyond its short length.  “The great thing about this is that, taking place in Twilight’s mind, we’re given a full analysis of the spectrum of feelings she’s experiencing at any given time,” Present Perfect said. “And that includes the highly rational conclusion that none of this is happening, despite the fact that she’s terrified. The reader is thus left to ponder whether any of this is real, despite having all evidence to the contrary, and that tiny bit of doubt is all that’s necessary for a pulse-pounding thriller.”

Read on for our author interview, in which The Seer discusses dip-pen rips, catastrophic bois, and two-sentence horror.
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Lets Do This’ “Friendmaker”

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Today’s story looks in a mirror, darkly.

Friendmaker
[Drama] • 8,589 words

“I am Friendmaker!”

Twilight Sparkle is concerned that she may one day go insanely evil, as with Nightmare Moon or Daybreaker. So, knowing Twilight, do you really think for one moment she’s just going to wait for it to happen?

FROM THE CURATORS: A popular trope in science fiction involves main characters getting a chance to face an “evil” version of themselves, whether through a jaunt to a parallel universe as in Star Trek or a visit to a simulated reality as in TRON Legacy or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Today’s feature uses the magic of My Little Pony to take that conceit to a powerful extreme: rather than coming face-to-face with a vile copy of herself, Twilight deliberately corrupts herself and we get a first-row look at the experience.

“We’re treated to an interesting analysis of what it means to be good, and what could drive people to be the worst that they can be,” said Soge in his nomination, “all through the medium of Twilight discussing that topic with some of the show’s reformed villains.” Horizon was “more than happy to back the nomination up,” and felt that “when Twilight started talking to the friends she’d redeemed, it really fired up.”

“Characterization is the name of the game here, and all involved are written and used very well,” according to Soge, and the other curators agreed. “Discord in particular was quite well done, and his explanation for why he chose friendship was a lovely bonus,” said Horizon. Present Perfect was “impressed by the part-by-part analysis of villainy. Some of the short character pieces, Sunset’s in particular, went in surprising directions.”

Horizon called the story a slow burn, and everyone enjoyed the build to a strong finish. “It all dovetails perfectly into a smart moral, and a real moment of character growth for Twilight,” Soge said, and Present Perfect applauded “the tense standoff at the end” because it “reinforces the theme of how anyone can come to power.” Horizon appreciated its thoughtfulness “in how it presents the Alicorn Amulet’s temptations. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, indeed.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Lets Do This discusses the draw of Derpy, the power of online publishing, and the staying power of pony.

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