• Published 28th Feb 2018
  • 6,060 Views, 755 Comments

Northern Venture - Chengar Qordath

Sunset Shimmer journeys to Northmarch to meet the ancient dragon Argentium the Runescaled. Her dreams of becoming an alicorn clash with a threat that may require sacrifices—not just for her dreams, but survival.

  • ...

An Offer She Might Refuse

I had not been having a good day.

I’d heard that Magi are supposed to be subtle and quick to anger. I was getting better about subtlety, but I definitely had the other half of it down. Fortunately, it was all justified anger. Politics is a pretty great way to get anyone in a bad mood, especially when I had to deal with a group as frustrating as the Freeport Council. Maybe it had been a bit optimistic to hope they’d immediately jump on board with my plan, but I’d expected better results than what I’d gotten.

I was in the process of pacing a groove into the floor of my tower when someone rapped on the front door. It was just a token knock, because a second later I felt my visitor pass through my wards and open the front door. My apprentice Kukri Doo grinned up at me, still wearing her mini-me disguise. “Hey Shimmer-mare!” She must have picked up on my mood, because she reverted to her natural changeling form and tried to look a bit more serious. “This one is here for its lessons.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” I grunted. “We’ve got an important lesson to cover today.” I’d actually been so distracted by the meeting with the Council that I didn’t have anything prepared, but I was sure I could improvise something.

Kukri’s ears perked and her eager grin showed off her fangs. “This one is ready for whatever you’ve got!”

“Glad to hear it.” I cobbled together a quick lesson to fill the time until I could come up with a proper one. “Tell me everything you know about Alpha Limits.”

“Alpha Limits?” Kukri blinked in surprise, then frowned as she wracked her brain for information. After a couple seconds of concentration she stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, almost exactly the same way she did when focusing on her spellcasting. It was a habit I’d been trying to break her of, but I wasn’t in the mood to chide her over it again. “Don’t tell this one, it knows this...”

She spent several more seconds cycling through different expressions before her eyes lit up. “Oh right!” She took a deep breath, then dutifully recited. “The Alpha Limit is the theoretical maximum of any unicorn’s natural magical potential. The term was originally coined by Star Swirl the Bearded, though later theorists like Clover the Clever and Midnight Sparkle suggested that it was a flawed term because most unicorns have a natural limit far below the Alpha level.”

I nodded approvingly. “All of that was correct. However, it’s also worth remembering that the Alpha Limit isn’t a hard-and-fast line as Star Swirl originally posited. Rather, it’s more of a loose metaphorical barrier where diminishing marginal returns make further investment close to worthless.” Kukri’s confused frown prompted me to dumb it down a bit. “Magical development is a lot like any other field: you’ll eventually reach a point where there’s just not much more you can learn, and you don’t really gain all that much from practicing. It’s not so much that you hit a hard wall as it is that you’ll spend years of work to get a tiny bit of advancement.”

Kukri nodded thoughtfully. “Mom said something similar once when it asked why she practiced with many different weapons instead of just one.” She paused, then shot me a confused look. “So what’s that got to do with today's lesson?”

I chuckled at her impatience and ruffled her head-crest. “It’s something to always be mindful of. Your growth as a magus is not going to be infinite progression. Eventually, you’ll plateau and start to hit the limits of your potential, and from there you’ll stop learning at the explosive rate you’ve been growing at.”

“Oh.” Kukri shuffled on her hooves, her eyes dropping to the floor. “Well, yeah. This one knows it's never going to come close to the Shimmer-mare’s power and skill, but still...” She bit her lip, then glanced up at me out of the corner of her eye. “There’s gotta be more though, right? Like research and whatnot, or something? This one thought it recalled hearing something about ways to get past the Alpha Limit...”

I smiled and patted her back. “Considering how much magi obsess over getting better at magic, it’s one of the more heavily studied topics. Everyone wants to find a way to get around their limits and become something more, and of course there’ve been a few success stories. The simplest method is the one used by Star Swirl himself, using focuses or other magic or enchanted items to supplement your own spellcasting ability.” I briefly considered mentioning my biological mother’s studies with rune magic as another example, but I wasn’t eager to open up that can of worms. “It might not technically be a direct boost to your power, but it accomplishes the same thing for most purposes. You can still accomplish more, and everything’s still based on your own magic.”

Kukri nodded along. “This one might have to do that at some point. It believes that Puzzle uses similar tricks to enhance his own powers.”

I was tempted to point out that most of the items Puzzle used were trinkets compared to the sort of artifacts I was talking about, but that would’ve been a long and pointless tangent. “Secondly, there's the option of getting additional power from an outside source. Sentient artifacts, or really ancient and powerful beings who can spare the magic. Dragons, demons, and things like that.”

Kukri cocked her head to the side. “Could the White Pony do that too?”

I frowned for a moment and thought it over. “I’d assume Celestia could probably do it, too, but I haven’t heard of her ever sharing her magic like that.” I briefly considered the possibility that Cadenza had gotten her alicorn transformation that way, but it didn’t fit. “Anyway, the problem with getting a power boost from an external source is that nobody gives away that kind of power for free.”

Kukri nodded along, dutifully reciting another one the lessons she’d gotten. “Anything that’s being offered for free could be dangerous, because everything with real value has a price. Something free is just something with a cost you haven’t identified yet.”

“Exactly.” I was pretty sure she’d picked up that particular lesson from Puzzle or her parents, but it was true regardless. “Most of the artifacts that can boost someone’s magical power that much come with a massive downside. The Alicorn Amulet brings out all your worst impulses and gives you the power to act on them, the Eclipse Armor gradually enslaves your mind to Nightmare Moon, and the Reliquae of Draamound only works if you fuel it with regular blood sacrifices.” I chuckled humorlessly. “And if you’re getting that power boost from a living being ... well, enjoy being a really powerful lackey. If you don’t follow orders, you’ll be lucky if the worst you suffer is just losing all your power. Not to mention making an enemy out of a creature that’s vastly more experienced and stronger than you.”

Kukri grimaced. “This one just finished reading one of the history books you assigned it—the one about Magus Midnight Sparkle’s encounter with House Honeyfield in Equestria, and their Compact. Nooooooooo thank you.”

“And fey aren’t nearly as nasty as some of the other forces out there.” You could at least trust a fey to keep their bargains to the letter (even if they violated the spirit), and they usually weren’t outright evil the way something like a demon or dragon could be. “After that, the next option would be to bypass those limits by changing yourself. That’s where most of the false alicorns in Equestria’s history come from, and a lot of necromancers go down that route by turning themselves into liches. It’s also one of the rumors for the origin of the Old Mind—Chrysalis.” I’d probably been spending too much time with changelings if I was starting to pick up on their vocabulary. Let’s just hope I never accidently called Mom ‘The White Pony’.

“Transformation would be rather pointless for this one,” Kukri observed dryly. With a flash of green fire she turned herself into a miniature alicorn, then reverted back to her old self. “Though this one supposes there is a substantial difference between looking like something and actually being that thing.”

“That’s my understanding.” I liked to think I’d learned a fair bit about the mechanics of changeling transformation by having one as my apprentice. “Just because you can make yourself look like Celestia doesn’t make you an ancient immortal alicorn who controls the sun.”

“Dad mentioned something similar,” Kukri confirmed.

“The other thing to bear in mind when it comes to changing yourself, we’ll talking about something a lot more fundamental and permanent than changeling shapeshifting.” I thought back over the various false alicorns and other creatures that had popped up in Equestria’s history “It’s not just putting on a new disguise, you’re overwriting a huge part of your own identity. The changes that can cause won’t always just be physical, and you might not like what you become. Some of Equestria’s false alicorns started off with good intentions, but...”

Kukri frowned and cocked her head to the side. “Right, this one recalls the old saying about the road to Tartarus being paved with such intent. So ... transformations. This one has a question—it heard that the White Pony can turn other ponies into alicorns like it did with the Cadenza-mare. Would that count as an example of the second type of surpassing the limit since it came from the White Pony, or the third type since it’s a transformation?”

That was a topic I really didn’t want to touch. I might’ve gotten a slightly better perspective on the whole thing with Cadenza thanks to time and distance, but it would probably stay a sore point for a long time. I definitely didn’t want to come across as petty or bitter to Kukri. Instead, I moved to something a bit healthier. “Finally, there’s the option of addressing the Alpha Limit by just accepting it. Learn to live with the fact that your magical potential isn’t going to grow much more, and start focusing your energy into other fields.” Kukri frowned at me, and I did my best to explain it bit better. “It's why things like Knight-Magi exist—a lot of battle mages decide to combine their magic with physical training.” I’d been taking that a little bit more seriously ever since I’d gotten roped into a fighting a duel where I wasn’t allowed to use my magic. “It’s also why a lot of older magi go into pure theoretical research, dabble in politics, or just about anything else. It’s natural to find other outlets once you get to the point where focusing purely on magic isn’t rewarding anymore...” I trailed off with a grimace.

Kukri frowned at me. “Is everything alright, Shimmer-mare?”

“Fine,” I grunted. The last thing I needed to do was make myself look bad in my apprentice’s eyes. “So what will you do when you hit that point?”

Kukri blinked in surprise “This one?” She paused and frowned in thought. “Well, so far it’s focused on just learning new magic. Mom offered to teach it some more advanced self-defense skills, and it was thinking it could learn a bit of alchemy or runecraft at some point. Otherwise ... this one would obviously be very wary of transforming itself or taking power from an external source after the Shimmer-mare’s warning . Not unless it was very careful or very desperate, and even then...”

“Trying to make a deal with someone you know is out to take advantage of you is almost never a good idea,” I agreed. “No matter how careful you are, most of the beings that are going to make that sort of bargain have hundreds of years of experience with cutting dirty deals. And as for doing it when you’re desperate...”

Kukri nodded grimly. “Dad’s always told this one that one the most important aspects of effective haggling is the ability to walk away from a bad deal. If you wait until you’re desperate to make a deal, you probably won’t have that option.”

“Exactly.” I gave her a quick pat on the back to show my approval. “Just look at what happened when Archmagus M—”

Another knock on my front door interrupted me, this one far louder and much more annoying than Kukri’s. There was only one being in all of Freeport who would insist on pounding on my door to the beat of the latest really generic and annoying song that had gotten really popular for reasons I couldn’t begin to grasp. “Strumming.”

Kukri grimaced. “Speaking of beings to be approached carefully and only when we’re desperate for help...” I frowned at her, and her ears drooped. “This one knows that the Shimmer-mare doesn’t approve of its anger towards the Heartstrings-mare.”

“Being mad at her is fine,” I grumbled. “She has a real talent for annoying the hay out of me. What’s not okay is holding onto that anger until it turns toxic and hurts you way more than it does her.” I suppressed an internal groan as I realized I was paraphrasing one of the many lessons Celestia had tried to drill into my head what I was younger.

“Yes, Shimmer-mare,” Kukri answered dutifully.

Her tone left me with the distinct feeling that she was taking the lesson to heart about as well as I ever had. Considering the issues I’d run into on that front, that wasn’t good enough. “I mean it, Kukri. Let it go.”

My apprentice flinched, and I wondered if I’d been a bit too harsh. Nothing for it if I had been a little too firm—apologizing would just undermine the point I’d been trying to make. Besides, I might not have made as many mistakes if Celestia had taken a slightly firmer hoof with me. Lessons and past regrets aside, Strumming had already started a second round of knocking, and I knew she would just get more annoying if I left her waiting. I briefly lowered the wards and opened up the front door. “Come on in, Strumming.”

Strumming trotted in, grinning at both of us. She’d bounced back pretty well from her recent brush with death, and aside from the new white patch on her coat her attitude remained unchanged. “Hey there, Bacon-mane and Bugsy. How’s it going?”

“Fine,” I answered politely. “How about you?” I’d been trying to be a bit more tolerant of her since she’d gotten shot, and we’d come to something of an understanding. Plus I was pretty sure some of her shenanigans and general flippancy were just an attempt to get under my skin, and I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.

Kukri turned to face her, keeping her expressing as carefully neutral as possible. “Hello, Heartstrings-mare.”

Strumming grinned at her, either completely oblivious to my apprentice’s antipathy or more likely quite aware of it and deliberately tweaking her. “Hey, kiddo. How’s the apprentice thing going? Your boss still got you doing all her chores and saying they’re lessons?”

“I do actually teach her useful things in between all the free chores,” I pointed out. “And I don’t charge her parents for all the lessons I’m giving her.”

“You’re a paragon of generosity,” Strumming remarked. “Anyway, just checking up on you. Plus bug-boy’s information network must’ve dropped the ball for once, because he thought it’d be a good idea to buy me some licorice.” She pulled out a package of it. “Either of you want it? I can’t stand the stuff, but it practically goes against my religion to let perfectly good food go to waste.” She looked over the box, then amended, “Or even theoretically edible food items.”

Kukri cautiously took a piece of it and tried a small nibble, then grimaced and dropped it. “No, thank you.”

“I’ll pass as well.” My horn lit up and opened up the snack cupboard, floating out a couple bags of chips. I passed one to Kukri, and kept the other for myself. Kukri opened it up and swallowed one, murmuring appreciatively.

Strumming’s eyes narrowed. “You know, Bacon-mane, you’ve got a nasty vindictive streak that comes out at the worst possible times.”

I smirked at her. “I might have one more bag left in my pantry.”

Strumming sighed. “Why do I have a sinking feeling you’re going to make me suffer horribly in order to get it?”

“Probably because you know me,” I concluded. “Though really, you just need to ask.”

Strumming frowned suspiciously. “Okay. Can I have that bag of crisps?”

Kukri grinned impishly. “This one doesn’t know. Can you?”

Strumming’s eyebrow twitched. “May I have that bag of crisps?”

Kukri rubbed her chin. “The Shimmer-mare’s tower is a place of magical learning. It seems only proper that you use the magic word.”

Strumming’s eyes narrowed, and a hint of a growl entered her voice. “May I please have that bag of crisps?”

Kukri smirked at her. “This one is less than wholly convinced of the Heartstrings-mare’s sincerity. Perhaps if she asked more nicely...”

“You’re starting to push your luck, Bugsy,” Strumming warned her.

“What will the Heartstrings-mare do?” Kukri asked archly. “Kidnap this one and illegally hold her within the embassy for several days until it surrenders the chips?”

Strumming scoffed and shook her head. “Nah, I try not to repeat massive mistakes I regret and only ever did that because my boss can be a real jerk sometimes.” She paused, frowning and tapping her chin. “Did I ever get around to apologizing for that? Thought I did, but just in case I didn’t, sorry and all that rot. Anyway, gimme those crisps, or I’ll unleash my most horrifying secret weapon, something I uncovered the other night with Puzzle: my hidden knowledge of a changeling’s ticklish spots.”

Kukri stared at her for several seconds, then turned to me. “This one’s very confused.”

“You’re not the only one,” I assured her.

Strumming smirked, then darted into my kitchen and snagged the last bag of chips. “Ha! Once more you have fallen prey to my master plan. Now the crisps are mine, all mine!” She trotted over to one of my chairs and flopped into it, tearing open the bag. “Mmm, so salty and greasy and unhealthy...” She got about halfway through her snack before she seemed to remember we were there. “Where was I? Oh yeah! Like I said, I wanted to check up on how everyone's favorite Freeport magus is doing.”

“I’m fine,” I assured her, sticking to my policy of just letting her quirks pass unremarked and unnoticed. “I was in the middle of one of Kukri’s lessons, actually.”

“Oooh.” She shifted around in her seat until she was upside down, her hind legs hanging off the back of the chair. “Sounds neat. Mind if I watch for a bit? Or maybe you could even teach me? There’s supposed to be ways for us poor hornless wretches to do magic, right?”

I decided to play along for once. “Sure, you can listen in if you want. Right now Kukri and I are mostly just covering some theory.”

“Sounds good to me.” She ate a couple chips while upside down, coughing a bit when one got caught in her throat. “As Puzzle would say, if you’re not learning, you’re dying. I’m way too young and beautiful to die yet, so....”

Kukri snorted. “Did Puzzle say that too?”

“Idioms get around.” She shrugged. “Kinda like that one great-aunt of mine nobody in the family likes to talk about. Or was it a distant cousin? Bah, can’t remember. Anyway, how long do you think it’ll be before I can start throwing around fireballs?”

I smirked and levitated out a dozen of my thickest books. “First, you’ll need to read all of these just to get the basics down. Then, if you decide to go for pyromancy, you’ll need to read all of these as well.” I levitated over several dozen more books. “Oh, and since you’re a pegasus instead of a unicorn, you’ll also need to learn to write out your spell matrices by hoof instead of casting them through your horn, so you’ll also need to read these books, and then do a whole bunch of practice to make sure you can get the whole thing right without a single error. Kukri, what happens when a spell matrice is improperly used?”

My apprentice had done her homework, and had the answer ready to go. “If you’re lucky, an improper spell matrix will only cause the spell to fizzle. Otherwise, it could either explode from the unstable magical energy, or the results could be even more ... interesting.”

“‘Interesting’ like I start sprouting purple tentacles?” Strumming looked over all the books warily. “So, ballpark figure, how long before I can cast spells?”

“Maybe a decade before you can master your first spell,” I answered. “It gets a bit easier once you’ve got the foundation down. Give it fifteen years of intense study and practice, and you could cast a modest selection of one subgroup of a single school of magic. Still way slower and probably not as well as a unicorn, but...”

Strumming shrugged as best she could while upside down. “Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that. Too much work. Fire gems are easier. Although if I do end up with the weird purple tentacle thing, that could be a fun surprise for bug-boy...”

I rolled my eyes and was briefly tempted to put my hooves over my apprentice’s ears. Despite a very good effort to be patient with her, Strumming was really pushing it. “Enough about you and your boyfriend, Strumming. Nobody wants to hear about that.”

“But I like talking about it.” Strumming pouted. “Speaking of, last night we tried out this crazy new position—not sure how kinky it is, wanted to get your take on it.”

I sighed softly and shook my head. “Kukri, could you go clean up my runecrafting bench? I think I need some time to throttle our guest before she traumatizes you too much.”

“Yes, Shimmer-mare,” Kukri answered, fleeing the room as quickly as she could.

Strumming waited a few seconds later, then righted herself in her seat. “There we go. Thought I’d never get rid of Bugsy.”

It took me a second to follow the sudden crazy shift of topic and behavior. “So all that was just to get Kukri out of the room?”

“Yup!” She grinned and ate another chip. “Well, that and it was funny. And before you say it, yes—I could’ve just asked you to send her off, but that would’ve been a no-go. Kukri would’ve known I wanted to talk to you about stuff she wasn’t supposed to hear, and kids just love listening in on those types of talks. This way she thinks you’re stuck putting up with me, and she lucked out by getting away.”

I blinked a couple times as my mind processed that. “I’m not sure if there’s a method to your madness, or if you just made all that up to try and justify you being ... you.”

“I like keeping the ponies around me baffled when it comes to my true intentions,” she conceded. “Anyway, caught some of what you two were talking about. So why do you have her studying Alpha Limits? I didn’t think changelings even had those. At least, not in the way unicorns do. From what bug boy told me, a lot of their raw power is dictated by how well they’re keeping fed—quantity and quality. I know Puzzle’s got a lot more pep right after a big meal.”

“It’s a factor,” I agreed. “But there’s more to Alpha Limit than raw magical power and potential. Things like skill, insight, and talent are also part of the equation, and those are a lot more universal. Even if the details differ, the basic lesson is still valid.”

“Yeah, the kid who’s only a year into her apprenticeship needs to get all that long-term planning locked down right away.” Strumming tried to shoot a serious look my way, though stopping to eat a chip spoiled the effect. “Now I’m just a silly spy who knows nothing of the ways of magic, but from what I can see the Alpha Limit’s something that’d be a much bigger worry for you than her. I think somepony’s projecting...”

I scowled at Strumming, but it bounced right off with no effect. She chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Come on, you think you’re the first unicorn to think about the Alpha Limit? And really, calling it the Alpha Limit is just unicorns trying to act like their magic is special and unique. It’s just like that whole stupid system you hornheads have for classifying how much magic you have. Never mind that there’ve been times when a pony took that magic test twice and got two different scores, even when all the equipment was working fine. Or all the debate about whether what all those fancy magic tests measure is actually an accurate gauge of magical potential.”

“Pretty sure I know a lot more about it than you do,” I grumbled. “And you’re right, most of the tests for magical potential aren’t perfect. But unless you’ve come up with a better one...”

Strumming shrugged. “You could just ... not. Seriously, the world isn’t going to explode if you can’t come up with a meaningless test that lets you shove every single unicorn’s magical potential into a bunch of arbitrary categories just so it’ll all be neat and organized.” She nodded to herself, seeming quite satisfied by her out-of-nowhere rant. “Anyway, back to you worrying about your nonexistent limits imposed by a group of arbitrary categories. Lots of ponies go through those little internal crises where they’re afraid they’ve gotten as good as they’ll ever get, or that their best days are behind them. You’re way too young for a mid-life crisis, buuut I think I’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going in your bacon-maned head.”

“Why do I have a feeling this is going to be both extremely annoying and completely off-base?” I grumbled to myself.

“Doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots.” Strumming draped herself over the chair’s foreleg-rests, flopping across them bonelessly. “You bailed from Canterlot because of a short temper and a bad case of alicorn envy. Now you’ve spent almost two years away, first ‘cause you were on the run and staying away out of sheer stubborn pride, and then because you were building things up over here. That’s enough time for even you to cool down and realize you might’ve overreacted.”

“Wasn’t there going to be a point to all this?” I groused.

“Yeah, we’re talking about you and Alpha Limits. Try to keep up, Bacon-mane.” She spread her wings and went up, attaching herself to the ceiling and hanging upside down from it. “Wow, word of advice. Next time you got Bugsy doing some chores, put her on the ceilings. You groundpounders always forget to check places you aren’t physically capable of reaching.” She spread her own wings, taking a moment to admire them. “And speaking of no wings, that’s kinda your problem: you spent those early years assuming you’d sprout a pair of wings just like CelestiMom, and that’d be your ticket to greatness. Gonna guess when you ran off you figured you’d just find your own way of getting those wings, but here you are almost two years later and still just as unicorn-y as you were when you started. If I were you, I’d be wondering if maybe I made the wrong call.”

I grunted and scowled at her. “Well I guess it’s a good thing I’m not you, isn’t it?”

“Gotta admit, you’d look weird with wings and no horn, and I don’t think you have my unique flavor of charm and sophistication.” She dropped down from the ceiling, landing upside-down in the chair once more. “Anyway, how’d the meeting with the Council go?”

I grunted and started putting away books. Strumming might not be the subtlest of ponies, but she wasn’t stupid. “Oooooh. That bad?”

“Why are you even asking?” I snipped. “Pretty sure you and Puzzle have the sources to know about what goes on in Council meetings five minutes after they’re done.”

“Bug-boy’s good, but he’s not that good.” Strumming got out of the chair entirely, trotting over to me. “And yeah, I could probably work out what happened. I mean, I asked you about it, and it made you grumpy. That’s already a pretty good answer. However ... the details matter, especially when I can get them straight from the horse’s mouth. Plus I figured maybe you’d want someone to vent to about it.”

Well, she wasn’t wrong about that last part. I sighed and slumped into one of the chairs she hadn’t flopped into. “Could’ve been worse. They didn’t completely shoot down my idea of starting up a magic school. They love the idea of getting their own magic academy and magus corps, in theory. They just aren’t wild about funding a school for someone with just about no real teaching experience. They said they’d revisit it in a few years, once Kukri’s training was further along and they could see what kinds of results I’m producing.”

“Hate to say it, but they’ve got a point,” Strumming answered neutrally. “You were asking them to drop a lot of money on you. Can’t blame them for wanting to make sure they get something worth the investment. I thought that was why you wanted to fund it yourself.”

“Yeah, soon as I get enough money to add two more zeroes onto the end of my bank account.” I grimaced down at the floor. “It’s not ... getting the Council to fund it wasn’t a perfect plan or even one I liked all that much, but it was something I could’ve done on a reasonable timescale.”

“Making a few compromises to get things done is part of the deal,” Strumming conceded with a thoughtful nod. “You know, there are ways to build up your résumé, if you really want that school of yours.”

I frowned at her. “What’s that supposed to mean, and why do I have a sneaking suspicion you’re setting me up for something?”

Strumming shot me a knowing smirk. “I might’ve been setting something up. Anyway, Princess Celestia wanted me to pass on a proposal to you, if you’re interested in hearing me out: a nice teaching position just opened up at her School for Gifted Unicorns. If you want some experience in the classroom and a chance to pad out your résumé, you could do worse than the best and most prestigious magic academy in the known world. I bet the pay’ll be pretty good, too.”

Well. That was—credit where it was due, Strumming had set that trap very effectively. Not to mention Celestia had given her some very effective bait. Hay, I knew exactly what their goal was. If I went back to Equestria and spent a year teaching at her school she’d have plenty of time to get her hooks into me. It was entirely possible if I left Freeport, I’d never come back. Sure, the city had been my home for the last year or so, but aside from a few friends I hadn’t set down deep roots in the place. Not to mention how little progress I’d made towards my really big goals.

Despite knowing the risks ... it was a tempting offer. I’d been getting nowhere with my vague plan of starting up a magic school, and Celestia had just offered me the exact thing I needed to pull it off. “I’ll think about it.”

“Great.” Strumming grinned and pulled a letter out of her bag. “Got all the details and a contract right there, just look ‘em over whenever you’re ready. Oh, and Her Highness also wanted me to mention that part of the deal would be a full scholarship for Kukri, since she’s your apprentice. She’s even got another especially brilliant student she’d like to have you take an interest in. And ... well, I’m probably not supposed to share this part, but I think she thinks it might help you earn those feathery appendages you want so much.”

More baiting, but once again it was frustratingly effective. No matter how many times I told myself (or Kukri) to be wary of an offer that looked way too good to be true, it was hard to ignore that she was throwing just about everything I wanted in life on the table. “Right. Thank her for the offer, and let her know I’ll get an answer to her in … wait, why am I hearing this from you instead of from the magical book she gave me?”

Strumming smirked at me. “Obviously she wanted to have the offer delivered with a bit more charm and charisma than the written page can really convey.”

I scoffed at her. “Okay, that makes sense. So who’s coming by later to deliver the offer?”

Strumming sighed melodramatically. “You wound me, Bacon-mane. Right in the heart. You’re practically cutting the strings. Worse than that, you’re...” She trailed off uncertainly. “Darn, can’t think of a good pun using the rest of my name. Had it right on the tip of my tongue, but then it ... hmm ... I was sure it ... gimme a minute, and I’ll get it back.”

I rolled my eyes and opened the door for her, then used a bit more magic to pick up a seat cushion and gently nudge her towards the exit. “Goodbye, Strumming. I’ll write Celestia once I have an answer for her.”

Now I just needed to figure out what that answer would be.

Author's Note:

As always, thanks to my pre-reading and editing team for all their hard work. Also, I would like to thank all my dedicated Patreon supporters. You guys are awesome.

Click here if you want to join the list of awesome people who support my writing.

Aidan Hall
Alt Grendel
Benjamin McLaren
Borg Lord
Brion Wauters
Charles M. Hagmaier
Chris Hall
Deep Cover
Dixie Daley
Edmon Star
Emlyn Costilow
Jade Walters
Jessica T
Singularity Dream
Sweet Gale
Sylvain Colinet
Web of Hope