Trip the Light Scholastic

by ArgonMatrix

First published

Sunset Shimmer is assigned to be Princess Cadance's private magic tutor. Clearly this can only end well.

Sunset Shimmer had hated Cadance since before they'd even met. After working her tail off for so many years as Princess Celestia's personal protégé, striving for perfection and aiming to eventually earn a royal title of her own, to have some random, two-bit nopony fall out of the sky and steal her crown felt like a kick to the horn.

So you can imagine Sunset's absolute delight when Princess Celestia assigns her to be Cadance's private magic tutor.

While at first it seems like some cruel punishment, Sunset quickly sees a golden opportunity. If she does this right, she might stand to gain far more than a mere grade.

Chapter 1 – Grin and Bear It

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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.

Chapter 2 – Birds of a Feather

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Sunset twirled her fork clockwise, then counter-clockwise, paying no real attention to the lone noodle she’d drawn from the tangle. Her mind remained in her study, deep within the pages of Kanthaka’s Facts and Artifacts. She’d checked it out from the Canterlot Archives, alongside twenty-seven other books of varying scopes, not long after escaping Cadance’s tower. Anything even tangentially relevant had made the list, ranging from The Confounding Copiosity of Cordiform Crystalline Curios right through to Gems: A History. She’d only had two hours to peruse them before dinner, but she’d have all the time she needed afterward. A scent-free taper candle was already waiting back home—her only companion for the long night ahead.

Early signs weren’t promising, but she’d hardly scratched the surface. Given a few more hours, Sunset was confident that she would be able to write a whole thesis on the Everheart. After all, if Equestria’s own Research Rodeo Queen—four years running—couldn’t pinpoint such a potent artifact given so many resources, it must not exist. But she’d already ruled out that possibility, having seen it herself, so it was only a matter of time.

At present she was mulling over a peculiar footnote in the “Pins & Brooches” section of Kanthaka’s. It stated that magical objects of such designs were often reconfigured into necklaces or amulets after a few centuries, if deemed important enough. That tidbit made her want to double-check Magical Compendium: Volume XVII for potential—

“What has you so distracted, my student?”

Sunset snapped back to the moment. She glanced across the dining table to Equestria’s reigning monarch and shrugged, her focus falling to the pesto-drowned pasta. “Nothing. It’s just been a long day.”

“Indeed it has,” Princess Celestia said, her fork clinking against the porcelain. “You must have had quite an early start this morning, considering your most recent assignment.”

“Uh huh.”

Most ponies would have taken the ensuing pause as just that, but Sunset knew better. Princess Celestia was always saying something, even with her silences. Especially with her silences. Not that Sunset could decipher their meanings most of the time, but being aware of the message at all was an acquired skill.

“Speaking of which,” Princess Celestia continued, “how did you find your first meeting with Princess Mi Amore Cadenza?”

Torture, thanks for asking. “It was fine,” Sunset said. The pasta no longer appealed to her, so she switched to the side salad.

“Only ‘fine?’”

“Mm-hmm.” She skewered a cherry tomato and popped it in her mouth.

“Did anything noteworthy take place? Anything you’d like to share?”

She swallowed the tomato whole, partly hoping that it would lodge in her throat so she’d have an excuse to end this conversation. “Not really.”

More silence, which suited Sunset just fine. Seizing the opportunity, she gathered up random clusters of spinach and began shovelling them in, barely tasting anything beyond the vinaigrette. She hoped it would prolong the pause long enough to force a shift in topic.

Nothing so simple ever worked on Princess Celestia.

“Strange,” the princess said, underscored by the ambient hum of her magic. “Princess Mi Amore Cadenza had quite a bit more to say on the matter.”

The next bite froze at her teeth. Sunset looked up into Princess Celestia’s smoky smile right before it vanished behind a goblet of water.

All right, let’s get this over with. Sunset lowered her fork and said, “Like what?”

Finishing her sip, Princess Celestia grinned. “For one thing, I believe your eagerness for learning is already rubbing off on her. I invited her to join us here this evening”—she nodded to the third place setting that Sunset had deigned not to mention—“but she declined. She wanted to spend more time practicing the mental exercises you taught her.”

“Good,” Sunset said, her gaze scurrying away. “She needs it.”

Another break, but brief—a silent exclamation point. “From what I could gather, she also seems to have taken quite a liking to you personally.”

Sunset met the princess’s eyes, furrowing her brow like she'd been tasked with solving one of Erudite Enigma's infamous riddles. “…Really?”

Princess Celestia nodded. “I believe her exact words were ‘passionate and inspiring, if a bit brusque.’”

Oh, that little— Sunset pursed her lips. “That’s nice,” she said, then pushed her dinner away—flecks of green sauce splattered onto the tablecloth. “Princess, I’m not very hungry, and I have a lot of studying to catch up on. Can I go?”

“You may,” Princess Celestia said, levitating the dishes away. “I only ask that you answer one small question first.”

“What?”

Not a wrinkle of mirth on her face, the princess said, “I would like to know why you refused Princess Mi Amore Cadenza’s invitation to join her book club.”

Sunset blinked. She waited for a moment to see if the princess intended to ask a genuine question. When she didn’t, Sunset said, “Forgive me, Princess, but that hardly seems like something worth discussing.”

“And yet, here we are discussing it.” Princess Celestia’s eyebrows sulked. “It’s an activity that seems right up your alley, so I’m confused as to why you wouldn’t want to partake.”

Maybe because being forced to see her three times a week already makes me wish for stone sleep. “My schedule’s full enough as it is. I don’t have the time for any clubs.”

“If that’s your only concern, I’m certain we can rearrange your lessons to accommodate.” In a flash of gold, a quill and spiral planner winked into being. Princess Celestia opened the notebook to a red-tabbed page, and her eyes flitted across it like she were reading a grocery list. “Perhaps we could eliminate one of your seven study hall sessions.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Fine. I just don’t want to.” She stood, and her chair reeled backward with a wooden squeal. “Happy?”

Had Sunset not been so familiar with Princess Celestia’s many frowns, she would’ve needed a microscope to see the corners of her mouth dip. “May I ask why?”

“Why does it matter?”

“It’s important to expand your horizons beyond the classroom, Sunset, and you lack any other extracurricular activities. A book club would be a good choice, especially considering your common ground with Princess Mi Amore Cadenza.”

“‘Common ground?’” She spoke the words like they might be laced with arsenic.

“She tells me that you share some literary interests,” Princess Celestia said. She placed the planner right in front of Sunset. “You’ll be spending a lot of time with her. You may find it helpful to get to know her outside of tutoring sessions.”

Sunset’s gaze dropped to the schedule and bounced off. “I don’t see the benefit.”

“Perhaps not yet, but the most valuable teachings can often be found in the most unassuming places.” The quill hovered over, and the aura holding it bled from gold to teal. “I believe the two of you could learn a great deal from one another.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes at the page before her. Small, colour-coordinated blocks filled the six rightmost day columns in a rainbow mosaic of academic perfection—the far left column an unbroken black streak that tied it all together. She took a few moments to admire the sheer beauty.

Once she felt like she’d feigned consideration long enough, she set the quill down and said, “I’d rather use the time to study. Like I should be doing right now.”

Princess Celestia initiated an impromptu staring contest, which Sunset immediately forfeited. The planner and quill poofed out of existence. “Sleep on it. You might have a different perspective come morning.”

“Fine.” Sunset flicked her tail. “I answered your question. Can I go now?”

“Of course.” Princess Celestia offered the sort of smile that reminded Sunset of her mother, which admittedly made her heart hurt. “Enjoy your evening, Sunset Shimmer.”

“Thank you, Princess.” She bowed hastily. “You too.”

With that, she trotted from the dining hall and quickened to a canter as she gained distance through the corridors. Already she felt the conversation slipping to the back of her mind and being replaced by the many articles and indices waiting in her suite—seeds of knowledge ripe for harvesting.

Sunset smirked, her blood turning electric. By tomorrow morning, she would be one step closer to the end of her quest—the start of her legend. The answers she needed were just a few tomes away.


Next dawn’s light stabbed Sunset in the eyes, angering the swollen beast in her skull. She grumbled and rolled to the other side of her pillow, which was actually an open copy of Mistmane’s Reliquary. Her mane sagged around her face, slick from the heat of the midnight oil. She glared into the dusty shadows of her study.

The floor had become a wasteland. Tumbleweeds of balled-up notes littered the arid stretches between towering book-hoodoos. Traitors, Sunset thought as she scanned the crooked silhouettes.

Apparently the Everheart didn’t exist. Not on paper at any rate, which meant that it might as well have been adrift in Limbo for all she could learn about it.

She’d come up with two theories: either Cadance had lied about the name, or she had been lied to about the name and had never bothered looking into it herself. The latter seemed more probable for a dunce like her. Besides, she didn’t strike Sunset as a good liar.

Still, even that hadn’t seemed like much of an obstacle six hours ago. After sniffing out the name as a red herring, Sunset had assumed that the relic simply went by another name, so she’d reoriented her search around its ability to amplify emotions instead, hoping Cadance had at least been right about that. But even if she had, that trail had so many branches and dead ends that a solo expedition across Labyrinthia sounded easy by comparison. Emotional resonance happened to be the single most common trait among heart-shaped magic objects; doubly so if it was a gem or crystal. Go figure.

Forget the books then, her inner pragmatist said. You have a primary source.

Sunset scowled. The truth occasionally had that effect.

Cadance, by her own admission, knew horseapples about the amulet. Yet somehow she had still been able to trigger its magic, and while she didn’t understand how it worked, Sunset undoubtedly would. All she needed were details—details both Cadance and Princess Celestia had left curiously vague, only alluding to “an inspiring feat” at the coronation. Just as well. For Sunset, hearing that story would be like pouring water on a grease fire.

Of course, that had been before the Everheart. If that amulet turned out to be the key she needed, enduring Cadance’s tale of ascension might be a necessary evil. Unless she could get her hooves on the Everheart directly, in which case—

Sunset’s ears twitched, barely catching the gentle crackle behind her.

Then the window exploded.

Earlier than usual, Sunset thought. Otherwise she did not react to the waves of heat crashing around her, the white embers slicing past, or the screech shrill enough to curdle blood—all the wrath of a supernova packed into two heartbeats. It soon dwindled to little more than torchlight, leaving the room no worse for wear.

“Nice try,” Sunset said. She peeled her cheek from the book and sat up, grinning at the divine bird on her windowsill. “I almost flinched that time.”

Philomena warbled dramatically. She closed the distance with a single flap and perched on the edge of the desk. Her head dipped to Sunset’s level with the uncanny motion of a drinking bird, and she leaned in for a nuzzle.

Sunset returned it, heedless of the beak strong enough to snap obsidian. She nickered and said, “Thanks. It’s been a…” A yawn crept out between her words. “…long night.”

Rising to her full height, Philomena glanced about the study. Her forge-coal eyes narrowed at a nearby stack of books. Following her gaze, Sunset read the topmost title: Lichdom Through the Ages: Art of the Phylactery.

She grimaced. “Independent research study,” she stammered, and it technically wasn’t a lie. That particular theory had been a long shot, but she needed to consider every possibility. “There wasn’t anything useful in that one anyway.”

Philomena cocked her head.

In an attempt to climb free of the hole she was digging, Sunset said, “What are you even doing here? Breakfast isn’t for another hour.”

Ignoring the fact that it was physically impossible, Philomena smirked. She soared across the study on golden winds, coming to a hover by the door. Her talons turned the knob and revealed the gloomy living space beyond. Before Sunset could even begin to respond, Philomena pumped her wings and shot out the window, melting into the sunrise.

“Uh, bye?” Sunset said, then shrugged. She’d learned long ago not to question Philomena’s antics. Ever since their bombastic first meeting which had earned Sunset her cutie mark, she’d understood that the phoenix harbored wisdom beyond her comprehension. And oddly enough, she was okay with that.

Deciding that she had moped too long already, Sunset blew out the wax flower that had once been a candle and rose onto wooden limbs, stretching like a cat. Trotting out of the study, she lit her horn and gathered the discarded notes into one corner, simultaneously pushing all the books into another. She meandered across the loft to her kitchenette where a dark Smoky Mountain brew was singing its siren song.

She only got halfway before the knocks came: three timid thuds she definitely wouldn’t have heard had she still been holed up in her study.

Sunset frowned. She corrected her course to the railing overlooking her little foyer. “Who is it?” she called, making zero effort to sand the edge in her voice.

“It’s Cadance!” Of course it is. “Sorry for coming by so early. I just know you have a busy day, so I wanted to catch you before you got going.”

Sunset’s eyes sharpened—daggers hot from the grindstone. She marched for the double doors, considering what sin she must have committed in a previous life to deserve this. Murder, probably.

She yanked the handles with her magic. The doors hadn’t even finished opening when she said, “How did you find out where I live?”

If Cadance was put off by the harsh welcome, her smile hid it well. “A little birdie told me,” she said.

Rustling leaves pulled Sunset’s attention upward. From the tree just opposite, Philomena winked and took off like a red-hoofed colt.

“Hey!” Sunset cried, trying and failing to catch her tail feathers in an arcane vice. A feral groan ripped from her throat.

Cadance frowned. “Have you been up all night?”

“So what if I have?! I don’t have to explain myself to you.

“No, you certainly don’t,” Cadance said, her voice frustratingly even—a flaccid attempt at mimicking Princess Celestia’s tone, no doubt. “I was, um, hoping to have a little chat, if you have time. May I come in?”

“Oh, I don’t think so. In fact…” Knowing and not caring that she was crossing a line, Sunset grappled Cadance in her magic and shoved her like one might shove broken furniture from their home. Cadance gasped as she skidded a few hooves backward, stumbling when Sunset released her. “That’s about close enough. Now what do you want?”

For a razor-thin moment, Cadance’s eyes hardened into what could generously be called a glare. It looked wrong among her soft features, like a butter knife in a bouquet. She hid it behind her eyelids, exhaled audibly, and her eyes came back as shiny amethyst bubbles.

“Okay,” she said, putting on a new smile, “clearly this isn’t the best time for you, so I’ll be quick. I was hoping, if you’re free, that you might join me for a picnic later this evening. Maybe around six o’clock, if that works for you.”

Sunset gave the incredulous face of a pony who’d been asked to spend the night in Tartarus. “You’re inviting me to a picnic? With you?”

“I am!” Cadance said, and her smile widened until her dimples were showing. “There’s a lovely spot in the east castle courtyard I had in mind, unless you’d prefer someplace else. You know the grounds better than I do, after all. Oh, and do you have any allergies I should know about?”

A thousand biting retorts swarmed in Sunset’s mind, but she ignored them all in favour of, “Why?”

“I want to know what kinds of food I can and can’t bring.” Cadance giggled and took a step closer. “This one time, I went for lunch with my neighbor’s daughter, Honeysuckle, and I made honeysuckle sandwiches because I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll be cute,’ but ironically enough—”

“Not that,” Sunset said. “I really don’t care. Why are you inviting me in the first place?” What makes you think I’d say yes?

Some of the brightness drained from Cadance’s face, going from noonday sun to candlelight. “Well, I feel like we got off on the wrong hoof yesterday, and I was hoping we could start fresh. I thought a picnic might be a fun way to do that. I’ll understand if you’re not up for it though, especially if you haven’t slept much.”

Sunset’s upper lip curled. Venom boiled on her tongue, but her rational brain put a lid on it before it could erupt. Primary source, remember? Could be a good chance to get some information out of her. And it might get Princess Celestia off your back about the book club nonsense. Two parasprites, one trombone.

Sunset groaned. “I don’t know,” she said, mostly to herself.

“I get it,” Cadance said. “I’m probably being too forward, and you’re clearly not comfortable with it. Maybe some other time.” She offered a curt nod and turned away, starting down the path. “Good luck with your summoning exam! See you in a couple days.”

Window’s closing, Shimmer. What, you hoping to find something when cross-referencing The Unabridged History of Amulets for the twentieth time?

Biting her lip, Sunset pinched her eyes shut and sighed. “Six, you said?”

Cadance’s hooffalls stopped. “Pardon?”

“I can do six,” Sunset said, hating herself more by the second. “For the picnic.”

The air had gone still and silent, as if the world was holding its breath. “You mean you’ll come?” Cadance said.

“Only because I don’t have anything better to do tonight.” Sunset opened her eyes and met Cadance’s owlish stare. “But we’re doing the west castle courtyard. It’s quieter.”

“Of… Of course!” Cadance’s wings fluttered like party streamers. “I can handle the food, so all you have to bring is yourself. Unless you want to bring something, of course. Did you want to walk there together or—?”

“I’ll meet you there,” Sunset blurted. “Now get out of here. I have classes to prepare for.”

Folding her wings in, Cadance beamed and said, “Right, I’ve kept you long enough. Just one last thing.” She lowered her head and squinted, giving Sunset a look similar to what one might expect from a surly stallion in some dodgy back alley. “Where d’tha timbah widows creep by midnight?”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

In a blink, Cadance became her chipper self again. “That’s all I needed to know.” She turned tail and cantered off towards the castle. “See you tonight!”

Remaining on the threshold for a full minute longer, Sunset replayed the conversation in her head to see if she had missed something. She arrived to the conclusion that Cadance was insane, which actually answered more questions than it raised. She shook her head, plodded back inside, and finished her grand odyssey to the coffee pot.

She skipped the mug and chugged the whole carafe.