Trip the Light Scholastic

by ArgonMatrix

Chapter 1 – Grin and Bear It

Sunset half-knocked half-punched the door. It rattled companionably in its rose gold frame, the sound far too similar to snickering for her liking. Laugh now, door, she thought, irrationally. You’ll be mine one day.

“Be right there!” came the voice of the pretender, known to others as Mi Amore Cadenza: the pony as ridiculous and out of place as her name suggested. Even internally, Sunset refused to put any title before that name. By her count, Equestria still had only one princess.

“I don’t have all day,” Sunset called. “I’m coming in.” Feeling around the other side of the door with her magic, she flicked the lock and turned the knob with practiced ease.

The door yielded, and Sunset stood face to face with the pink horror herself. The alicorn blinked at the doorknob, one hoof uselessly outstretched. She snapped it towards Sunset and smiled wide enough to show off every tooth.

“You must be Sunset Shimmer!” said the swindler. “Call me Cadance. It’s a pleasure! Auntie Celestia speaks very highly of you.”

“Of course she does.” Sunset shouldered her way into the room and gave it a once-over, her eyes straining from pastel fatigue. Sour apples filled her mouth at the sight of the plush violet carpet, the fuchsia four-poster, and the vanity overflowing with more beauty products than Sunset had awards on her Walls of Achievement. Ceramic planters accompanied every window and lined the entire balcony. Each one held a different herb or flower, giving the whole space a suffocating, earthy smell. About the only thing in the room that didn’t cloy her senses was the study table at the far end, cluttered by a wild assortment of books, quills, scrolls, and inkwells. A dresser beyond displayed bric-a-brac galore, including a gaudy pendant in a glass case, its heart-cut gem the same sky blue as Cadance’s cutie mark—a blatant symbol of narcissism if she’d ever seen one.

“Pardon the mess,” Cadance said, pulling the door shut with her hoof—not her magic, Sunset noted. “I wasn’t expecting you so early.”

“I’m not early,” Sunset said, levitating her saddlebags over to the table and trotting after them. “I always arrive precisely when I mean to.”

Cadance gasped, verging on a squeak. “Was that a quote from Lord of the Reins?

Sunset shot her a look. “You read Folkien?”

“Oh, all the time! He’s one of the best, right up there with King and Yearling.” Her face glowed like a filly’s on Hearth’s Warming Eve. “Sorry, I’m kind of geeking out. Nopony back home knew any of the classics. Do you have a favourite?”

Sunset almost fell for the trap and blurted her answer: Skyspark, obviously. “What’s yours?” she countered.

“I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for Where the White Raspberries Grow, but it couldn’t be anything other than Skyspark.”

Figures you’d steal that too. “Mine’s more obscure. Paleopony piece. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

“Maybe I could borrow it sometime,” Cadance said, taking tiny steps closer. “I was actually thinking of starting a book club, if you’re interested.”

Scrunching her muzzle like she’d been force-fed Meadowbrook’s Tincture No. 9, Sunset said, “I’d rather catch horn rot.”

Cadance’s smile fractured. “Oh. Okay. I suppose that’s fair, seeing as we’ve only just met. Sorry if I offended you.”

You offend me by existing. It took all of Sunset’s willpower to refrain from giving voice to the thought. Had this not been a direct assignment from the princess, she would’ve shouted it loud and proud. “Whatever,” she said instead. “Let’s just get started.”

“Let’s!” Cadance trotted up to the table, bouncing from hoof to hoof. She took a few books from their piles, again without magic, and began laying them out. “Miss Inkwell gave me a few recommendations, so I brought as many as I could carry from the archives.”

Taking a cushion, Sunset scanned the titles: Modern Spellcasting; The Thaumaturge, Vol. I; Houyhnhnm's Guide to Magical Arcana; Filly’s—

She balked. “Filly’s First Phantasm? Seriously? I read this when I was three.”

Cadance’s cheeks pinkened, though it was difficult to tell since she was already a walking blush. “Well, I was a pegasus before all this, so I’m essentially starting from square one. Prismia, my old teacher, showed me a few things, but her methods were a bit… eccentric. I only really grasped the basics.”

Sunset sneered. “How basic?”

“I’ll show you!”

Planting her hooves like the earth might quake, Cadance wrenched her eyes shut and screwed up her face, looking primed to explode. Her horn sparked, flickered, and came alight with a cornflower blue aura. It brightened momentarily, then dimmed to a sustained level. Her eyes popped open and she grinned.

Sunset searched for what had changed. Nothing on the table had moved. No illusions were dancing around the room. All the plants had stayed the same size. Every door and window remained shut. She even examined her own body and found not a hair out of place.

“What did you cast?” she asked.

Cadance’s grin tightened to a seam. She pointed to her still-glowing horn, as if that explained everything.

Then it clicked, and part of Sunset died. “That’s it?

“Um… yes.” Her hornlight fizzled.

Sunset's temple throbbed like a wasp was trying to tear through. “You have got to be kidding me. You’re an alicorn princess”—she forced the words through nearly clenched teeth—“and that’s the best you can do?!”

Cadance’s ears pressed against her head like they were afraid to be seen. “I’m sorry. Like I said: pegasus.” She flared her wings as if Sunset wouldn’t believe her otherwise. “But I’m a quick learner! And if you’re as good as Auntie says you are, I bet I’ll be doing… that floating spell in no time.”

The black storm of a migraine thundered on Sunset’s mental horizon. “First, it’s called levitation. Second, I’m better than you were told.” Which is why I shouldn’t be wasting my day playing magic kindergarten with some tiara-wearing ditz! Again she managed to bite her tongue, if barely.

“Okay!” Sunset lied. “Obviously we have a lot of work to do, so let’s stop wasting time.” With a thought, she set about unraveling scrolls and unstoppering inkwells in a well-rehearsed dance. She slid Filly’s First Phantasm across the table—Cadance had to hold up her hooves to stop it from careening over the edge. “The intro is fluff; start at section one. I’ll take your notes until you learn to magiscribe. It’ll be faster that way.”

A little frown crossed Cadance’s muzzle. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You seem a bit on edge.”

I jumped that edge back at ‘Call me Cadance.’ Now I’m drowning. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

“Late night?”

“It’s really not any of your business. But if you must know, I was studying for my advanced summoning exam.” That much, at least, was true.

“I’ve been there. Not so much the advanced summoning—though that does sound interesting!—but I’ve had my fair share of all-nighters.” Eyes shiny like polished buttons, Cadance smiled and said, “Would a nap help? You’re welcome to use my bed.” She gestured to the fuschia nightmare. “Arabian cotton, so I’m told. And I promise I didn't leave any stray feathers.” Her eyes went stark like she’d realized some horrible truth. “I think.”

In that moment, Sunset convinced herself she could melt Cadance’s horn if she glared hard enough. “Just read,” she said, a harsh sigh in the same breath.

Cadance flinched. Her hooves wandered lamely back to the table, and she seemed to shrink. “Sorry,” she said, drawing the book close. “I just know that a nap usually helps me, so I thought it might—”

“You thought wrong, okay?!” Sunset slammed her hooves down, scattering quills and spilling ink. Trembling, she lowered back to her cushion and said, “I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to, so please just”—shut your mouth and—“open to section one already.”

At first, Cadance did not respond. She simply stared at Sunset with the wide eyes and frozen features of a cockatrice victim. Eventually, she bowed her head and gazed at the cartoon ghost on the book’s cover like she could read straight through it.

“You’re right,” she said, her bubbly tone dead and dry. She shook her head as if to clean dirt from her mane, then leafed through the book’s worn pages. “Let’s get to work.”

Finally. Sunset rolled her eyes and organized the crooked quills back into tidy rows before setting them off to the side. Magicking open her saddlebags, she whisked out her own phoenix quills—Philomena’s finest—and prepared her familiar workstation.

“I, um…” Cadance said, still flipping pages. “I browsed these a little before you got here, so I’ve actually read most of chapter one already.”

“Fantastic,” Sunset deadpanned. “Skip to the second one, then.”

“Well, I have a quick question first, if that’s all right.” She landed on a page with stars in the margin.

Sunset looked down her muzzle at Cadance like she’d told her the square root of four was heliotrope. “It’s a book for foals. What could you possibly be confused about?”

“I’m not really confused. I’d just like some clarification on this point.” She tapped the page right where a black-stenciled witch was saying something in a bloated speech bubble. “It talks about how, in order to begin using magic for anything, you’re supposed to treat it less like a force you want to control and more like a friend, or teammate. The example Mama Mana uses is, and I quote: ‘Imagine you and your BFF are playing a rousing game of keepie-uppie. You wouldn’t boss your friend around saying things like, “Go there!” or, “Hit the ball like this!” That’s no fun for anypony, and the game wouldn’t last very long because your friend would get very angry and frustrated!’”

“Relatable,” Sunset said, resting her head lazily on one hoof.

A pause. “‘Wouldn’t it be easier,’” Cadance continued, “‘if you and your friend worked together to keep the ball going? Absolutely! That’s the whole point of the game! It’s the same way with your unicorn magic. Show it some trust, kindness, and care, and you’ll keep that ball (or spell) going right until suppertime, no sweat!’”

She looked across to Sunset, her ponytail drooping over one shoulder. “The idea is lovely, but it seems a bit esoteric. I’d like to befriend my magic, but I’m having a hard time identifying it, if that makes sense. I can feel it, kind of, but it’s not as concrete as the book makes it out to be.”

“To your credit,” Sunset said, hardly believing she’d said it, “it’s a bad analogy. It works well for foals, but it’s less useful when you’re older—once you get into real magic.”

Cadance raised an eyebrow. “‘Real magic?’”

Sunset sighed through her nose. “Advanced magic. You know, the kind that I’ve spent the last decade training under Princess Celestia to master.” Wisps of flame had risen in her voice. She smothered them and kept on. “That kind of magic can’t be controlled by ‘kindness.’ It takes hard work, discipline, and commitment.”

“I see. So the friend metaphor…?”

“Forget it.” Sunset swiped the feathered end of her quill across the page’s margin, erasing Cadance’s marks with a crackle. “If you have to compare it to something, it’s more like an extra muscle. Weak at first, but you can hone it with a strict regimen and lots of time.”

“Huh. Okay, I think that makes sense,” Cadance said, nodding. “Thank you. Would you be able to write that in my notes, please?”

Haphazardly, Sunset jotted it down on some unfurled scroll. “Is that all?”

“That’s the only question I had, so, yes.” She turned past a rough dozen pages. “Onto chapter two, I suppose.”

And so the morning went.

By some miracle, Sunset almost found it tolerable. Without Cadance’s prattling, progress came remarkably quickly. No proper magic happened, other than a few miserable tries at levitation, one of which ended with Cadance’s mane covered in ink, a memory Sunset would cherish. But they breezed through the underlying theory—Cadance turned out to be a startlingly quick reader. Her questions were many, the answers mundane, and the hours crawled by as the orange sunlight turned white.

A knock at the door broke their concentration near the end of section six.

“Oh!” Cadance said, her ears perking. “I completely forgot that I sent for refreshments.”

“When?” Sunset asked as she finished scribing a line detailing how to avoid feedback loops. “You’ve been here the whole time.”

“Before you arrived. I asked Chef Sprig to send somepony by around noon since I figured we’d be hungry by then.” She rose from her cushion and offered a little grin. “Be right back!” she said, trotting for the door.

Noon? Glancing at the mounted clock, Sunset grimaced. She didn’t have any other plans, but her patience was thinning by the minute. Frankly, if she had to answer one more of Cadance’s questions about how leylines worked, an ink-stained mane scrunchie would be the least of the alicorn’s problems.

“Actually, I need to get going,” she said, parading her supplies through the air and into her bags. “Got that big summoning exam tomorrow. And an astronomy dissertation due.” A paper she’d finished last week, but Cadance didn’t need to know that.

“Oh, please stay!” Cadance said, wheeling around. “Just for a quick bite—ten minutes at most. It’s the least I can offer after all of your help.”

Sunset scoffed. “You don’t need to offer me anything. It’s not like I’m doing this because I want to. It’s an assignment, and—”

“I asked for sparkling guava juice,” Cadance said. Her eyes twinkled, persistent as trick birthday candles. “Auntie said it was your favourite.”

Sunset had half a mind to chew her out for asking Princess Celestia for such invasive information. But on the other hoof, it was her favourite, and her mouth had gone drier than the San Palomino after answering so many inane questions.

“Fine,” she said. “Five minutes.”

“You won’t regret it!”

Too late. While she waited, she scanned the table for any supplies she might have forgotten. Predictably, she found nothing. Her eyes continued to wander, for a lack of anything else to do.

The heart pendant in its glass case caught her attention. A strand of glossy pink pearls supported the indigo gem, all displayed on a black neck bust. It admittedly didn’t look nearly as gaudy up close. Still tacky, but hardly, and clearly quite expensive. Sunset wondered what—

She blinked. That heart had not been indigo when she’d arrived.

Peering closer, she noticed clouds of stardust swirling around in the gem’s facets, not unlike the special crystalline mist she used occasionally in potions class. The heart also looked to be glowing—dimly, but definitively—and it instantly went from some prissy noble’s jewelry to the most interesting object in the room.

Rising from her cushion, Sunset approached, and she heard the unmistakable hum of magic. It was faint and muffled, like pressing her ear to the leaded wall of an arcane vault—don’t ask how she knew that. She had never been one to turn away from an artifact, even if it belonged to this sow. And while all thirty-six volumes of Magical Compendium in her collection bore cracked, blistered spines, as well as her copy of Iomudan’s Inventory of Eldritch and Arcane Artifacts, nothing about this necklace jumped out at her. She privately cursed herself for putting off reading The Unabridged History of Amulets.

Checking over her shoulder—Cadance was chatting with some bellpony—Sunset wrapped the case in her magic and tried to lift it, but her seafoam aura slipped off like oil over water. Drat, enchanted. Probably Agnoscus. Scrutinizing the glass, she couldn’t find any mechanism to exploit; the case seemed nearly fused to the rosewood base. Barring shattering the glass outright or destroying the dresser, both of which she considered longer than she should have, she didn’t see a way in.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Sunset flinched. Cadance had stepped up beside her, silent as a librarian. Her eyes looked almost ethereal as she stared into the amulet, her muzzle plastered with a dopey grin.

“What is it?” Sunset asked.

“It’s called the Everheart.” Cadance turned to Sunset, her face half-cast in the watery sheen. Her smile went sheepish. “To be honest, I don’t really know much about it. It can amplify the emotions of the pony wearing it, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s what ultimately gave me this.” She crossed her eyes up towards her forehead and the horn that parted her mane.

And suddenly, nothing else mattered. Sunset’s eyes darted briefly to the Everheart before returning. “Can I hold it?”

Cadance shook her head. “Even if I wanted to remove it, Auntie Celestia put a spell on the display case that prevents me from opening it. She’s worried that I won’t be able to control its power until I have a better hold on my magic.” She beamed, but her eyes were a bit dewy. “That’s why you’re here. Partly, anyway.”

Sunset could practically feel the gears turning in her brain. “Is that so?” she said, her voice ghostly.

“It is!” Cadance’s wings fluttered lightly. “So, guava juice?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure.” Sunset followed Cadance back on numb hooves. She nearly crashed into the silver dining cart that had appeared at the tableside.

Grabbing the pitcher from the top tray, Cadance set about pouring two goblets of pink-orange liquid. “I hope you’re hungry, because I also managed to please-and-thank-you my way to two helpings of rarebit, which is my favourite.” She took the cloche’s handle in her teeth and lifted, revealing two plates of what looked solely like melted cheese and parsley, though Sunset could see patches of toast trying to breach the ooze. The savoury aroma further addled her senses.

Her expression must have given something away, because Cadance tilted her head and regarded her with sad filly eyes. She set the cloche down and said, “It’s fine if you don’t like it, but I hope you’re at least willing to give it a chance.” She took her own seat, carrying one plate with her. “And I know I’ve already said it more than enough, but… thank you. Even if you don’t especially enjoy being here, you’re helping me more than you realize. I’m still so new to all of this.”

A wayward strand of mane fell in front of Cadance’s face, which she brushed away. Taking up her goblet, she held it towards Sunset, center table. “To… fresh experiences?” Her pupils wobbled for a moment, then she shrugged and held her cup higher.

Sunset nodded absently, forcing her gaze away from the Everheart behind Cadance. “Sure,” she said and lifted the goblet in her magic. “Fresh experiences.” The clink barely registered in her ears.