Chapter XVII: Vesper Radiance (Part One)
The storm had dissolved into a light drizzle that helped put out the rest of the mountain fire. Hoofington’s weather patrol team then began the process of breaking the storm up and pushing it away. By the time Sunset and her friends had reached the town, tiny patches of blue sky and sunshine were visible.
Twilight was bombarded with questions about what had happen and whether or not Vesper had been dealt with. After multiple assurances, the townsponies breathed a collective sigh of relief and began to celebrate, praising Twilight all the while. Sunset swore her face was beet red all the way to the train station.
Because of the crisis, the train had been delayed. A positive, Sunset believed, since the next train to the Crystal Empire wouldn’t arrive for another two days.
After Twilight managed to shoo off the last of her admirers, the group collapsed onto their separate beds. Even though it was only mid-afternoon, Sunset was ready for a long sleep.
“Ow,” Rainbow grunted, trying to get comfortable on her bed. “I think I’m feeling the after-effects of wearing that crown. My wings are dead.” She tried to flap them, but all they did was give a feeble twitch.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine after a nice, long rest,” Twilight said, curling up under her blankets.
It took another hour for the train to begin moving, but they were finally on their way again. Sunset pressed her face against her pillow and waited to fall asleep. She wondered if Princess Luna would be waiting for her. Night was still hours away yet, so maybe she would have to wait a little before dreamwalking. Her moony thoughts led her to wonder what Luna’s sleeping patterns were like.
Her eyes grew heavy as she thought about what it was like having breakfast at six in the evening. Before she knew it, she was snoring along with everyone else.
The world around her was empty, devoid of everything save for her thoughts. There was only darkness that devoured every speck of light. She floated there, neither dead nor alive—just existing.
“Where am I?”
Gravity curled its fingers around her and dragged her down into the abyss. The darkness churned around her, before it lightened to grey, then became white. It felt warm in comparison to the inky black she had just fallen out of.
As her hooves touched the invisible ground, the white around her materialized into a small room, where an even smaller filly sat reading on her bed. Standing in the doorway was an older mare with a serene yet concerned smile.
The mare named Ms. Smiles flickered in and out of existence before her image doubled and one of them changed completely. Standing next to her was a tall, beige stallion with a scruffy beard.
“Sunset, you really should go out and play,” Ms. Smiles and her dad said simultaneously.
Sunset looked up from her book. “But I’m just at the good part.” Her voice echoed like there was two of her.
Yes. She remembered that time. She could remember both times. Ms. Smiles… her father… Both events had happened; both times, the same words had been spoken, and the same answer had been given.
“We were never too different, you and I…”
The room dissipated into white fog before a regal hall took its place, boasting polished marble and large, open windows. In a square of light, Celestia and Sunset stood with a pot of soil between them. Sunset’s eyes began to glow, and a blue aura surrounded the pot. A sprout popped out of the soil, then rapidly matured; vines and flowers filled the halls and grew out of the windows. When Sunset had finished, the entire room resembled an indoor garden.
Celestia stomped her hooves against the leaf-covered ground in approval. “Bravo, Sunset—very well done!” It was Celestia saying the words, but it was Twilight’s voice that escaped from her throat.
The scene shifted until only the vines’ placement changed, and Twilight took Celestia’s place. “I’m so proud of you, Sunset. You’ve grown so much.” Now Celestia’s voice passed through Twilight’s lips.
The memory vanished, and the world returned to the black abyss once more.
“Where is the line between reality and fiction? Truth and lies?”
“Yes. Your fictional dream against my reality. Haven’t you figured it out by now that your life is an illusion, thinly veiled over mine?”
“Liar! My life is my own! I have my own memories and feelings!”
The abyss transformed into a terrace in downtown Canterlot that overlooked the Unicorn Range. Sunset sat with two other ponies—another unicorn and an earth pony—with large bowls of ice cream sitting between them. They were engrossed in pleasant conversation with jubilant looks on their faces. A few seconds passed, then they broke into loud fits of laughter.
“See? This is mine. Those are my friends.”
“Are they really? How can they be your friends if you don’t really exist?”
Sunset vanished instantly into nothingness, leaving the other two girls by themselves. However, they hardly seemed to notice that their friend had disappeared.
“None of this belongs to you. It’s just a fabrication to keep you ignorant.”
Instead of melting, the scene shattered into thousands of fragments, dropping the real Sunset into the pit like a rock. She spun over and over, unable to find the way up.
The darkness lifted and her descent slowed as she floated down into the ruins of Canterlot. The air was thick with ash, and the sky was still stained with blood and scabbed with black clouds.
Sunset landed in the castle courtyard. The ground was shredded into large chunks, steam hissing from the resulting cracks.
“Come, Sunset. I will show you your truth.”
Her hooves moved on their own, like they already knew where to go. They took her through the empty castle once more: over the broken staircase, down the corridors and past the unhinged doors to the throne room.
“A world of lies. That’s what you inherited, little replica,” a voice spoke from the shadows covering the throne. “Your life is not your own. Your body, your soul, your magic… everything you are is borrowed. You are just an accidental experiment gone wrong.”
Sunset trembled uncontrollably as the shadow pulled her in. Waves of hatred, loathing, and pain bombarded her. But as much as she wanted to run away, she found herself constantly drawing closer, her will subverted.
“Gaze upon me, Sunset Shimmer: your past, present and future.”
Two balls of fire appeared in the shadows, and a creature slowly emerged, towering over Sunset. Her blood froze, her trembling stopped, her breath caught in her throat. Every part of her body ceased to function while she beheld the monster in front of her.
“Come now. You’re not scared of yourself, are you, Sunset?” The monster hadn’t spoken; it had instead come from the shadowy Sunset who stood off to the side. She was even more translucent than when Sunset had last seen her, resembling more of a ghost than a shadow.
An ironclad hoof smashed against the broken tile, and Sunset jumped back, having regained her senses. She charged her horn but was beaten to the punch and blasted in the chest. She sailed across the room and landed on her back near the door.
“H-how? Why?” Sunset wheezed, trying to sit up.
“How?” the shadow echoed. “Oh, that’s right. You haven’t finished storytime yet.” She waved her hoof, and the throne room was replaced by the fully intact library from Sunset’s last dream. “I do love tormenting you, but I guess I should take a break so you can finish learning your history. And I can feel Luna trying to intervene as we speak. The fact that I held her off this long is a testament to my strength.” She put on a familiar smirk. “Anyway, enjoy, and ta-ta for now.”
With a powerful gust of wind, Shadow Sunset was replaced by Princess Luna, looking flustered.
“Sunset, were you repelling me?” she asked with a mixture of indignity and surprise.
“Yes… no… sort of… I don’t know.” It was the other Sunset, but if they were the same…
Luna raised a hoof and placed it on Sunset’s shoulder. “What happened?”
Sunset didn’t meet her eyes, choosing to look at the surrounding books instead. “She showed me things. She showed me…”
...Your past, present and future.
She brushed Luna’s hoof away and ran to the bookshelf, her mind racing. “I need to know. I need to know what happened to the other Sunset!” she said desperately.
Luna looked at her with heavy eyes. “I understand your desire for truth, Sunset, but please, calm yourself.”
Sunset pulled a book from the shelf and tossed it onto the table. “I can’t. Not until I prove she was lying. Because I can’t be… I just can’t be…” She shook her head and flipped the book open.
Sunset sat alone in her bedroom, unfocused eyes lazily tracing words in her book which resembled nothing more than black squiggly patterns.
She had barely slept since the night before. Her heart still pounded from the excitement she had found in reading that dark tome, yet her stomach was flooded with dread over her ensuing conversation with the princess.
Had she been out of line when she said that to Celestia? Did the princess not feel the same way?
Sunset’s fur was matted under her eyes from the constant trail of tears. She snapped her book shut and swept away the fresh droplets forming at her eyelids. Who was she kidding? Of course Celestia didn’t love her. She had Cadence for that. She was already an alicorn after all. Sunset had missed her chance.
She contemplated leaving, but had no idea where to go. She had no family to return to, and she’d rather go live in the Everfree before returning to the orphanage.
Before she could pull out a map of Equestria, there was a soft knock at the door.
“Sunset, are you in there?”
Sunset gasped and flung herself at the door, throwing it open. In front of her stood Princess Celestia, looking regal as always. A frown, however, disrupted her heavenly face.
“Sunset, did you get any sleep at all last night?”
“N-no, Your Majesty.”
Celestia looked past Sunset, briefly pondering something before saying, “You’re going to have lunch and a long nap, then. But first, I think we need to talk.” She gestured with a wing.
Sunset stayed within her shadow the entire walk. Up and up they climbed through the castle until they reached one of the highest balconies. Sunset recognized the place; she and Celestia had shared a few lessons here together.
The sun was close to its apex in the cerulean sky. Below, the distant sounds of Canterlot could be heard: laughing foals, bickering nobles, gossiping mares. Everything seemed very surreal to Sunset right then. Her body felt light, weighed down only by her heavy heart.
She sat down next to Celestia and they overlooked the Unicorn Range together.
“Sunset,” Celestia began softly, her eyes on the horizon, “do you remember the day we first met?”
Sunset nodded. Her throat decided today would be a good day to stop working.
“On that day, I thought I had found a bright young filly who was exceptionally gifted with magic. But I was mistaken.”
Sunset’s heart stopped. She turned and looked up at Celestia…
And found majestic purple eyes looking back at her, brimming with tears. “I had found so much more than just an apprentice.”
Life flooded Sunset for what felt like the first time. She breathed in an air of relief, restoring function to the rest of her body. “Really?” she said, her voice croaking.
Celestia dipped her head. “You showed such great promise from your studies that I meant to take you on as my apprentice, to guide you further than normal schooling could. Where exactly it would lead you, even I didn’t know at the time. But then, your cutie mark appeared and I began to think.”
“Think what, Princess?” Sunset continued to read Celestia’s eyes, though she might as well been trying to decipher ancient runes without a reference for all she gleaned.
“I began to think that maybe destiny had a far greater plan for you than being just my apprentice.” Celestia looked back over the Unicorn Range, her gaze lost in time. “Sunset, do you know why I have ruled for well over a millennium?”
“It’s because, while many desire it, I have found nopony suitable to take my place. I have waited countless years to find a pony who could rule in my stead. They would have to be brave, wise, strong, compassionate, fair… and you have many of these traits, Sunset. But most of all, you have the greatest affinity for magic I have seen since Starswirl himself.”
Sunset heart pulsed; blood rushed through her veins. “Princess… are you saying…?”
“I told you before that you had the potential to become a princess. It was at this very spot if I’m not mistaken.” Celestia looked back at Sunset. “And I meant it. Indeed, Sunset: I want you to one day become my equal. And then, my successor.”
Sunset was breathless again, the range of emotions she had undergone in the past ten minutes starting to take a toll on her. Still, she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She had always dreamed it would come to this, but to hear it with her own ears!
Celestia regarded Sunset with a cautionary eye. “I will not lie to you, Sunset. It is a long and arduous road, one that will take time—”
“But I’ve already been walking it, haven’t I?” Sunset blurted out. “I mean, all these years of training, of history and politics—you’ve been grooming me for this for a while now, right?”
“Yes,” Celestia said evenly, “I have. These plans have been in the works for a few years now.”
“So why are you telling me now? Why not before, or…”
Celestia faced her fully, spread her angelic wings around Sunset, and blocked her from the outside world. Sunset felt all of the tension leave her body. Wrapped in this heavenly cocoon, she felt completely safe. Celestia’s face, a radiant sun, beamed down at her.
“Because of what happened last night,” Celestia said. “I was genuinely concerned when I found you reading those books, Sunset. Less for their content and more of what it represented. Many ponies have sought to become alicorns on their own and all of them have failed, meeting only terrible fates.
“When Cadence became an alicorn, I knew her arrival would spur you into action, though I had hoped you would not take that road.”
Sunset squirmed in Celestia’s embrace, a guilt-laced knife cutting at her heart.
“Part of it is my fault, though. I should have sensed you would be a little jealous and tried to console you. Although jealousy is unbecoming of a princess, Sunset,” Celestia scolded, cutting Sunset further with the knife. “Still, I should have said something then, or perhaps even before. I did not wish to tell you because I feared the knowledge would disrupt your training, though I see now it is because I didn’t tell you that you sought out other resources.
“I’m telling you this now, Sunset, so you do not have to believe that Cadence is replacing you—that I am demoting you, or punishing you, or that I am no longer proud of you. It is hard for me to find a moment where I am not proud of you.”
Sunset smiled at Celestia. Her heart felt light and relieved, though only for a moment. She recalled the words that had been spoken just moments after she was caught in the forbidden section of the library. Her smile faltered and she thought to bring it up, but decided against it.
“There is also one other reason I speak of your destiny, Sunset.”
Her heart did a backflip.
Celestia leaned in closer, and Sunset could smell the sweet fragrance of flowers on her lips. “You shared something very personal and intimate with me. Something I can see was on your heart for a long time, just as what I am about to say has been on my heart for a while.”
Sunset’s mind wiped itself clean. Even amongst the heavenly down, her body went rigid.
“I told you I loved you, Sunset, and that is so very true. And over our years together, you have made me smile and laugh in ways I haven’t in a very long time. Indeed, I want you to become a princess. And I will help you along that road as your mentor, and… if you’ll truly have me…”
Sunset threw herself into Celestia’s chest. “Yes, yes! Of course I’ll have you, Mother!” she cried. Joy and relief took liquid form and ran down her face in rivulets. “Thank you! Thank you so much! I love you!”
Celestia rested her head atop Sunset’s. “I love you too… my daughter.”
Sunset snapped the book shut and hastily pulled out another one. She would not—could not stop to think. Questions battered relentlessly against her mind, but they could wait until the end.
Behind her, Luna opened her mouth to speak, but Sunset held a hoof to stop her.
“Hello, cousin.” Sunset sauntered up to Cadence with complacent vigor. “Lovely day, isn’t it? I suppose we have Mother to thank for that.”
Cadence had positioned herself under a shady cherry blossom, a book floating in her light blue telekinesis. Sunset hated to admit it, but Cadence had gotten a little better at magic. Still, she was nothing compared to the Heir of the Sun.
“Good afternoon, Sunset,” Cadence said civilly. She looked up from her book and smiled, though it didn’t quite make it to her eyes. “I was just about to go get some tea. Would you care to join me?”
“No,” Sunset said plainly, the same response she always gave Cadence. “I’m only here because Mother asked me to come and find you. It’s your turn for training.” The words dripped from her mouth, bitter and vile both in taste and in delivery. “She’s waiting in the library.”
Sunset turned tail, not letting Cadence respond. Back across the gardens she strolled, admiring the wonderful day, the pleasant aroma of springtime flowers loosening her nerves. She had been having such a nice practice session with her mother. Then it was ruined all because of Cadence needing her training as well.
Sunset didn’t see why. Celestia had said that it would be Sunset who inherited the Throne of Equestria. The thought tingled her spine, jolts of ecstasy dancing on her back. Someday quite soon, she would sit next to her mother on the throne, the two of them ruling Equestria side-by-side until Celestia decided Sunset could do it alone.
Yes, soon everypony would look up and admire her and call her Princess Sunset Shimmer. Some of the castle staff already did, but Sunset was eager to hear the rest of the country singing her praises.
Of course, Sunset didn’t voice any of these thoughts aloud. Celestia had warned her about being ‘humble’ and ‘modest.’ Ponies didn’t like it when you thought you were better than them, even if it was true. So Sunset stayed quiet, letting her actions speak for her. They would all come to worship her in due time.
Still, as she wandered back through the castle to the solitude of her room, she wondered why Celestia hadn’t made any public announcement yet of their enhanced relationship. Well over three months had passed since Celestia claimed Sunset as her daughter—her heir. Sunset expected that the citizens would be overjoyed at such news. After all, there had been quite a clamor when Cadence was paraded around with her new horn and crown. Ponies were in awe that Celestia had a niece.
Perhaps she doesn’t want to overwhelm them, Sunset thought as she opened the door to her room. Yes, that could be it. One new princess was something to take in, but two in such close succession? Perhaps Celestia thought ponies would fear some sort of looming tyrannical dictatorship with so many princesses (and that arrogant, self-entitled prat commoners had mistakenly called Prince Blueblood) running around.
Sunset flopped onto her bed, summoning her chart of ancient runes to unravel itself before her. Or maybe this is another kind of test. Mother wants me to become an alicorn before showing me off to the world! That could very well be another reason. After all, she was Princess Celestia. She couldn’t just have any regular unicorn be part of the royal family, even if said unicorn was the strongest alive.
How the rest of Canterlot took to calling Blueblood a prince still baffled Sunset. Yes, Celestia had let him stay at the castle after the death of his parents, but the word ‘prince’ had never been used!
Sunset shook her head. It was pointless to worry about him. He had as much royal blood as a slug. No, Cadence was Sunset’s real nuisance. So loving, so graceful, so perfect. It made Sunset nauseous just being near her. Celestia had tried to get them to work together, to play nice with each other. Well, Cadence had been willing. Sunset had exhausted all of her tries already, finding Cadence to be just like the rest of the ponies she had tried to make friends with over the long years: annoying and hopelessly beneath her.
The word ‘friends’ stained Sunset’s tongue with an unpleasant taste. Even after adopting her, Celestia continued to push for her to make some friends. It baffled and annoyed Sunset. Hadn’t she made it clear that she only needed Celestia? Sunset had outright told her so! She hated trying to make friends with other ponies. Relationships with them were pointless in the long run.
Of course, that was something Celestia praised Cadence for: her ability to make friends with anypony and spread love and happiness wherever she went. Sunset’s horn sparked dangerously, threatening to ignite her paper. The thought of Cadence stealing time away from Celestia made her blood boil.
I’m Mother’s favorite! Why doesn’t Cadence just get her own private tutor?
Angry thoughts chased each other in circles within Sunset’s head. If Celestia had called Sunset her daughter, then why didn’t she feel like family?
Sunset stood with Celestia in an unfamiliar room. It was quite dusty, like no one had been inside for years. It was also practically empty with only a few moth-eaten chairs, crates covered with old, rotting tarp, and a large oil painting hanging on the back wall.
The painting depicted Equestria at night, a spectacle of stars hanging in the dark blue background. A large, pale moon shone down on a balcony where an alicorn stood. She was as dark as the sky with a crescent moon cutie mark and a somber expression.
Sunset stood half a step behind Celestia and did her best to stand tall, despite the nervous fluttering in her stomach. She waited as Celestia stared at the portrait with an unreadable expression.
“So. A ‘practical’ lesson,” Celestia said at last. Her voice was not harsh, but Sunset heard loud and clear the level of disappointment.
Shifting from one hoof from another, Sunset said, “I thought it would be best if I gave her a ‘hooves-on’ approach.”
Celestia slowly rounded on her, eyes solicitous. “Sunset, all I asked was that you give Cadence a minor lesson in defensive spells,” Celestia said, now more enervated than anything.
“I did,” Sunset said mildly. “I taught her how to cast a shield. It’s not my fault they weren’t very good. And I didn’t even hit her that hard.”
Sunset had desperately wanted to go all out, but knew it would only lead her into trouble. She was content, however, with the few bruises Cadence had acquired before Celestia checked in on them.
Celestia removed a hoof from one on her hoofguards and rolled it around her temple. She opened her mouth to say something else, but then closed it, along with her eyes.
Sunset sighed and took the initiative. “I’m sorry, Mother. I shouldn’t have treated Cadence like that. It was wrong of me. I guess I couldn’t help showing off a little.”
If Celestia had even heard the apology, she didn’t show it. She slipped her hoofguard back on and gestured to the painting behind her. “Sunset, you know the legend of the Mare in the Moon, yes?”
“Of course, everypony knows that story. A mare named Nightmare Moon tried to throw the land into eternal darkness. She wanted ponies to appreciate the night more. Pretty stupid if you ask me. Other than stargazing, there isn’t much else to do at night. And the world would freeze to death.”
Celestia took a sharp inhale of breath and released it slowly. “There’s more to the story than just that, Sunset.”
Sunset looked from the painting to Celestia. “Wait... you mean it really happened?”
“Yes. I had a sister who ruled beside me long ago. I raised the sun while she raised the moon.” A fog obscured Celestia’s eyes and she hid her face from Sunset. “I always believed us equals, but our subjects raised me on a higher pedestal than her. She felt nopony cared about her nights or the stars she crafted into the sky. In time, she became jealous, resentful… even hateful. Not just towards our ponies… but to me.”
Sunset stepped closer to her mother and brushed up against her side. “I’m so sorry.” She meant it too. She knew what it was like to not be liked by your own family, though perhaps not in the way Celestia had.
“Eventually, she was consumed by her hatred and transformed into Nightmare Moon.” Celestia paused, wiping a tear from her eye before continuing in a weighted voice. “I was forced to use the strongest magic known to ponykind against her and seal her away in the moon.”
“So that face on the moon really is…?”
“The mark of her imprisonment, yes.”
They both looked on in silence at the portrait of the lost princess. It felt to Sunset that the tale contained a lesson, but Sunset couldn’t see it. “So… what was her name?”
“Luna.” The word rolled off Celestia’s tongue like a gentle caress. Sunset felt a twinge of annoyance at hearing the name spoken like that. Celestia had never spoken her name that way. It was with small satisfaction that Sunset knew Celestia had never spoken Cadence’s name like that either.
“Sunset—” Celestia’s voice was solemn, her eyes still on Luna “—she became what she did because she felt nopony loved her. She filled that hole in her heart with jealousy and envy.”
Sunset raised her chin. “Are you implying that I’m jealous of Cadence? Because I’m not.”
Celestia looked at her. “I should certainly hope so. You have nothing to be jealous about: I love both of you.”
Yes. Except you love me more, right? You picked me after all. The words were dangerously close to leaving her mouth, but Sunset knew the resulting reprimanding would be colossal.
“I want you and Cadence to be friends. You two will have to work together in the future to maintain harmony in Equestria.”
“Together? But you said I would be your successor.”
“My plans haven’t changed, Sunset. If my assumptions are correct, then Cadence will have her own kingdom someday.”
A knot undid itself in Sunset’s chest. Sharing Celestia with Cadence was bad enough, but a whole kingdom? And Celestia still wanted them to be friends! Sure, if that frou-frou airhead wouldn’t talk about colts and romance and stopped being so perfect.
Still, she put on her best genial smile and said, “Okay, Mother. I’ll try a little harder to get along with her.”
“Thank you, Sunset.” Celestia smiled at her. “In the lore, do you remember what power I used to subdue my sister?”
Sunset thought for a moment. “The Elements of Harmony?”
“Yes. And do you know how the Elements work?”
Sunset shook her head.
“There are six of them. Together, they represent the strongest virtues of friendship, and the magic that unites them together.”
There was that look in her eye. A cryptic look that Sunset knew all too well. “Mother… what are…?”
“No seal lasts forever, Sunset, and the one thousandth anniversary of her imprisonment is only a decade away. That may sound like a long time to you, but with all the waiting I’ve done…” She cast one last wistful glance at Luna’s painting. “It feels but a few long hours away.
“I believe the Elements can free my sister from her madness. They just need the right ponies to wield them.”
Celestia turned and left the room, her eyes passing over Sunset as she exited. Sunset continued to stand there long after her mother had left, words and emotions tangling themselves up in her heart.
“Is she just using me?”
“Nonsense! Mother would never do something like that!”
“But the way she said Luna’s name and looked at her picture. What if I’m just a stand in until she comes back?”
“No! Celestia is a better pony than that! She promised me the throne! I am the sole inheritor of Equestria. She just wants her sister back, that’s all.”
“Why though? Aren’t I good enough for her?”
Sunset paced back and forth in her room, her mind a hornet’s nest. Ideas buzzed angrily and stung her relentlessly while she tried to decipher the hidden context of Celestia’s words.
She had mentioned the Elements of Harmony: trinkets that Sunset had discounted as just myths. And she had hinted—no, she might as well have outright said that Sunset was to wield one of them.
Was that her final test? Wield the Element of Magic and defeat Nightmare Moon? Was that what Celestia had been waiting for? Over the past several months, whenever Sunset had brought up her ascension or princesshood, Celestia would steer the conversation away with a simple, “When you are ready.”
Sunset came to a halt in the middle of her room. She was ready. She had been ready. She knew all about politics and history. Her magic was surpassed by only her mother. Yet she was supposed to wait ten years before she could be crowned a princess?
“No. I can’t wait that long. Even if it is a test, ten years is too long to wait. Mother might try and reconsider, she might…” Sunset shook her head. “Stop being so paranoid, Sunset. Mother isn’t going to replace you.
“Isn’t she, though? I mean, look at Cadence and all the time they spend together now. And look at what my last test is supposed to be: rescuing her sister. Both of them clearly take Celestia’s priority. I mean, neither of them had to ask to be related to her; she just accepted them as family. But me? I was the one who told her that I wanted to be family.”
A stray piece of her mane broke the normally perfect uniformity of her crimson and gold locks.
“But she still accepted me. I’m her daughter; she said so herself! She won’t replace me! She loves me!
“But why doesn’t she parade me around like Cadence? Why doesn’t she want me to ascend? Making me wait ten years… it’s like she wants to see if I’ll mess up…”
Another hair struck up.
“And why does she keep pushing me to make friends? I told her what I think of them—they’re pointless! Does she not want me by her side?”
Sunset inhaled deeply and brought a hoof to her chest, imitating Cadence’s breathing technique. She then brushed her mane back and took an extra breath. “Calm down, Sunset. You’re just overthinking all this. Mother is only asking you for a favor. She’s trusting you of all ponies with the task of saving her sister. She must love you and believe in you if she delegates a task like that.
“Well, technically, she delegated it to six ponies. There are the other five element bearers.”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t care about them.
“But ten years? I cannot wait ten years to be an alicorn! I’ve waited my entire life! There has to be another way to prove to Celestia I’m ready!”
Sunset racked her brains for a solution and scanned the room. Shelves of books stared back at her from every corner. And then it hit her.
“The dark tomes. I never finished reading them,” she whispered. She shuddered with excitement. That was still the last branch of magic she hadn’t mastered. If she could fully understand the nature of magic like Cadence did with love, then she could ascend! That was the last step she needed!
Her euphoria quickly evaporated. After her last attempt, Celestia had put up new wards around the restricted section door. Out of curiosity one day, Sunset had scanned it, only to find the spells around it were undetectable. She raised a hoof and stomped it against the carpet.
“There could be virtually anything guarding that door now! But I need to get in there! I need to learn everything!” Sunset paced the room again. The only way she could see the spells guarding the door was if they were set off. Even if she presumed none of them were lethal, who knew what could happen? She would need somepony else to set them off for her so she could observe. Somepony to take the fall.
Sunset stopped, a wicked smile painting her face.
It was late in the afternoon a few days later when Sunset found Cadence sitting on the veranda with a thick tome in front of her and several sheets of paper lying across the table.
“You seem busy,” Sunset remarked. She looked at the title of Cadence’s book: “Magical Theory and Practice Volume II.” She scoffed inwardly but allowed herself a small superior grin.
Cadence looked and gave Sunset a weary smile. “Hello, Sunset. Yeah, just trying to study all of this magical gibberish. Auntie Celestia gave me some extra notes she thinks I should look over. Honestly, I don’t know how you manage to stay on top of it all so easily.”
Because my brain isn’t the size of a peanut. Sunset walked around the table and looked over Cadence’s shoulder at some of her notes. There were the basic diagrams and instructions for enchanting spells, written in Cadence’s over-flowery cursive.
“I’ve written it down and read it multiple times, but nothing seems to click,” Cadence said dismally.
You’re really making this too easy. Sunset pulled up another chair and sat down. “Well, unfortunately I have nothing to do right now, so maybe I can help you.”
Cadence raised an eyebrow. “You want to help me?”
“You don’t want my help?”
“No, no, it’s not that! It’s just…” Cadence coughed into her hoof. “Things didn’t turn out so will the last time you tutored me. And you’ve never really shown interest in doing anything together.”
Sunset rolled her eyes. “Mother said we should be friends, so I’m trying again on her behalf. And I can’t help it if I’m a more aggressive teacher. You learned something, didn’t you?”
Cadence rubbed a spot on her foreleg. “Yes, magic hurts.”
“Well then—” Sunset got up from her chair “—if you don’t want my help, I’ll just be on my way.”
“No, Sunset, please stay!” Cadence gestured for her to sit back down. “I really want us to become friends too. Just, do you think you can go a little easier on me for the practical magic?”
Sunset sat down again and smiled impishly. “All right, all right, since you asked so nicely.” She tapped a hoof against her chin in mock thought. “Actually, I just remembered a good way to practice some of these enchanting and dispelling charms…”
Sunset pushed the library door open and allowed Cadence to take the lead. As she moved down the rows of books with measured steps, Sunset lagged behind and shot a sleep spell at the librarian sitting at her desk.
She gave a loud yawn and fell face-first into her book.
Sunset joined Cadence at the back of the library. In front of them was the plain black door, locked with a metal bolt that ran along its width. It appeared rather unimpressive, but standing that close, Sunset could feel some of the magic radiating from it.
Beside her, Cadence rubbed at her horn with an irritated frown.
“Don’t worry,” Sunset said. “That’s just the sensory spell I taught you. Your horn is picking up the enchantments on the door.”
Cadence gave a swift shake of her head. “I’m not sure about this anymore, Sunset. This is the door to the restricted section, after all.”
“Pfft, it’s not like we’re going to take anything, Cadence. We won’t even set a single hoof inside. This is just an exercise.” Sunset gave her a reassuring grin and said smoothly, “All you have to do is identify and undo the wards on the door, and then I’ll set them back up again so you can keep practicing. Then, we can switch roles. It’s how I learned so fast.”
“And you’re sure this is safe?”
“Everything will be fine, Cadence,” Sunset said with an impatient edge. “Trust me… as a friend.” She almost gagged on the word.
Cadence took a deep breath and approached the door as a blue outline coated her horn.
Sunset suppressed her smile and took a few steps back as she watched Cadence push her magic against the door. The golden aura around it appeared, and Sunset prepared her own magic to counteract whatever defense the door had. She could muffle the alarm spell that was sure to come, but everything else was a complete mystery.
“Um, Sunset? I’m not really recognizing any of these spells. Are you sure these are beginner enchantments?”
“Don’t worry, you’re doing fine,.” Sunset said lazily. “Just relax and concentrate.”
She probed the newly exposed magic, being careful to not set anything off while Cadence helplessly picked away at it. So far, it all seemed to just be a knot of advanced level spells woven tightly together, nothing she couldn’t have handled on her own. Perhaps she hadn’t needed Cadence after all.
That was when Cadence screamed.
Sunset felt the knot of magic snap and lash out at Cadence, just as her own magic retreated from the door. Jolts of lightning ran down Cadence’s horn and across her body, and she was violently thrown back down the aisle. She crashed near the front desk, all while a loud, shrill siren went off overhead, paralyzing Sunset.
Not a second later, Princess Celestia appeared in a flash of golden light next to Cadence. She looked from the writhing alicorn to a wide-eyed Sunset, already lining pieces up. For the first time in Sunset’s life, she didn’t see disappointment or even frustration in Celestia’s eyes.
She saw anger.
Celestia scooped Cadence up and vanished in another burst of light, leaving Sunset alone with the cold talons of dread grabbing her throat.