Sunset looked up at the earth pony mare as she offered a hoof towards her.
"Sunset Shimmer, I have a feeling there is so much we can learn from each other," She said, smiling softly down at her.
Wiping her eyes again, Sunset took a breath, before accepting Sunny Starscout's outstretched hoof, and pulled herself up to her hooves.
"I certainly hope so," the unicorn replied.
Sunny turned and walked out of the open cell, and Sunset followed her out into the corridor, up to Queen Haven.
"I'm sorry for any problems I may have caused, Your Majesty."
The regal pegasus gave an understanding nod.
"Considering your circumstances, I'd say no harm done. I'm glad nopony was hurt. You're welcome back to visit Zephyr Heights anytime, and I hope you and Sunny can help each other get some answers," Haven replied, before turning to the light pink and white pegasi over by Sunny.
"I assume you two are headed back to Maretime Bay with the rest of your friends?"
"It wouldn't really be fair to expect them to unload the hundreds and hundreds of books we gathered up," the white one replied. Her mane was a brilliant hot pink with aqua and pink streaks, and most curiously, her wings were multicolored as well. The pegasus standing at her side was just as much of a curiosity; her wings were unlike any Sunset had seen before, the feathers white, large and fluffy.
"Don't worry, mom, we'll keep in touch. I've got to put together my next episode anyhow," the pink one told them.
"So, princesses, I'm guessing?" Sunset asked.
"Sunset, may I introduce two of my friends, Zipp Storm and Pipp Petals, princesses of Zephyr Heights."
Pipp's smile widened, while Zipp seemed to grimace just a bit at hearing 'Princess'.
"So, shall we? Hitch, Izzy, and Sprout are probably wondering what's happening." Zipp told her.
"Probably a good idea. Come on, Sunset, we've got another half-day's drive ahead of us," Sunny said. The four of them began to make their way upstairs, with Zipp walking next to Sunny and Pipp keeping pace with their new unicorn friend.
Now that she wasn't running from an unfamiliar authority, Sunset now took the time to take in the changes that had happened to Equestria's capital city. They got on the elevator and began to descend. Sunset saw how many screens and billboards were on the sides of buildings now, having to double check that she was standing on hooves to be absolutely sure that she was in Equestria. She heard electronic bleeps, and glanced over to see the pink pegasus poking away at a small hoofheld device.
The pegasus noticed the attention she was receiving from their new visitor.
"Oh, never seen one of these before? It's a smartphone. It's, uh, kinda like this..."
"Oh, I had a phone for years. I've just never seen one in Equestria. That was one of the many things I left behind when I crossed back over. Who's to say it would even work over here." Sunset replied.
The unicorn noticed Pipp's ears twitch and her eyes and smile widened as she got an idea.
"Quick stop downtown when we get down there, girls," She told the others.
"Five bits it isn't quick," Zipp muttered over to Sunny.
"So, Equestria has a queen now?" Sunset asked, looking over to Pipp.
"Well, not all of Equestria, just Zephyr Heights. Why, it didn't used to?" Pipp asked.
"Nope, it was always just Princesses. Come to think of it, the only 'Queen' they encountered was evil," Sunset replied.
"That was Queen Chrysalis, right?" Sunny asked. glancing back to the unicorn.
"Yeah. You've clearly done your homework."
The elevator touched down, and they headed straight to the downtown shopping centers.
Sunset was feeling... Odd for the moment. These downtown streets did nothing but remind her of downtown Everfree, so on one hoof, it was a familiar feeling and helped her feel at home, but on the other hoof, it was far and away from the 'old timey' atmosphere that she had enjoyed about Canterlot.
Plus, in 45 seconds of walking, she had seen a total of three other unicorns, who looked like they were just visiting tourists.
"And here we are! We'll just be a moment, girls. Come on, Sunset," Pipp said, as they came up to a storefront.
"Z Mobile?" Sunset asked, reading the signage above the glass doors.
"Most popular cellular service provider in Zephyr Heights. I've been using them for years," Pipp explained as the pair of ponies went into the store. Inside were a half dozen display stands spread out through the room, along with more cases that ringed the outer walls.
Sunset immediately heard the excited murmurs from the customers who were already in the stores. She was clearly recognized by all of them, as she gave friendly waves.
"Ah, Princess Pipp! Such an unexpected pleasure!" a manager said as he came in from the back office to check on things. "What can we do for you, Your Highness?" he asked, giving a short bow.
"We're in a little bit of a hurry, but I'd like to get my friend Sunset here set up with a phone. Please add the line to my existing plan," Pipp said.
Sunset's eyes widened when she realized what the pegasus was doing.
"P-Pipp, you don't need to do that."
"Nonsense, Sunset. I can tell you're in an unfamiliar, stressful situation. I'm sure you're as eager as Sunny to learn about what has happened between your era and ours, and while you do that, there's no better way to get familiar with our era than with a smartphone! Besides, if you're already familiar with one, I can't imagine a better way to spend the ride down to Maretime Bay."
"Well, alright," the unicorn conceded. "I promise I'll find a way to pay you back."
"Alright, Miss, Sunset was it? Right this way and we can find you the best fit for your case."
The manager guided the unicorn and princess over a display case, and asked for Sunset's hoof. Every case had an indentation for pony hooves, answering Sunset's fleeting question of how Pipp was holding her phone on the elevator ride over here.
"Alright, how does that one feel?" he asked.
"Pretty good," Sunset replied. She was honestly planning on doing most of the scrolling with her magic, anyway. Once she had decided on a holder, the manager got it around a phone.
"Alright, this is our flagship model. 20-hour battery life, great for power users," the manager explained as he gave the phone over to Sunset as he straightened a small stack of paperwork before putting it in a folder.
"Here's your instruction manual, charging cable, and assorted paperwork. Your phone number is right here at the top. If you have any trouble, feel free to come back in at anytime," he finished.
"Thank you, sir," Sunset replied. "And thank you, Pipp. I'll pay you back for this, promise."
Pipp merely waved her promise away.
"Nonsense. That's what friends are for, even new friends. And if you're experienced with it from wherever you came from, maybe we can give each other some tips. But let's get going. It's going to be late as it is by the time we get back to Maretime Bay."
The realization suddenly hit the unicorn as she felt Ray take a few steps on her back.
"Oh! Any chance we can swing back by Twilight's castle to pick up my stuff? I did kinda run off in a hurry."
The trip down the mountain had been entirely slower than it had been going up, and it gave Sunset the time to take in the sprawling forest below.
"So, where are we headed after we swing by the castle?" She asked, having pocketed her new phone into her saddlebags once the signal started to go as they descended.
"We were on the way back to Maretime Bay, Sunny's hometown, with all the artifacts we've spent the past week gathering up in the Crystal Empire."
"You made it all the way up there? Can't imagine much is left, just like Ponyville down there..." the unicorn remarked.
"The climate has actually done a fairly decent job at keeping things preserved," Pipp commented. "We've got a suit of armor, not to mention hundreds upon hundreds of readable books, and we've barely made a dent in the library."
"Yeah, a return trip is probably 'in the books', maybe with a trailer to hold even more," Zipp added.
"Did you ever make it up there?" Sunny asked, glancing back at their new friend.
"Once. It... It wasn't for very long," Sunset answered, recalling memories of how she had stealthily made her way through the Crystal Castle, evading the night patrols in search of Twilight Sparkle's crown.
That felt like so long ago.
They rounded a bend that continued down the west face of the mountain, and they began to hear a waterfall.
"We're getting close," Sunny commented, as the dirt road began to get trees on the sides.
"Ah, there it is," Sunny said, pointing down to a large, eight-wheeled vehicle. They went around the final bend and came to the base of the waterfall where the truck was parked. A few ponies inside saw them approach and opened the passenger side door.
"Hey there, we were getting worried," a lilac unicorn said, smiling down at them. "Who's this? New friend?"
The unicorn hopped out onto the riverbank, followed by an amber earth stallion and a red earth stallion.
"Everyone, this is Sunset Shimmer. Sunset, this is Izzy Moonbow, Hitch Trailblazer, and Sprout Cloverleaf," Sunny introduced the rest of her circle.
"I'm pleased to meet all of you. I hope you'll forgive how out-of-place I feel right now," Sunset replied, giving a short bow.
"Sprout, lets get this thing turned around and headed back the way we came. We have to stop at Princess Twilight's castle to pick up what Sunset brought with her."
"No problem. But, you do know that this detour is gonna put us into Maretime Bay pretty late, right?"
"Yeah. I know we were all hoping for a hot, home-cooked meal after a week's worth of pre-packed stuff. I'll make it up to you, promise. Lunch is on me tomorrow," Sunny said.
Sunset was currently trying not to stare at Izzy's horn, which appeared to be purely bone-white, instead of matching the rest of her lilac coat.
"Alright, let's get going, we're about to lose the rest of our light," Hitch commented before climbing back into the cab, followed by Sprout and Izzy. Zipp and Pipp went up to the bed in the back, among stacks of crates. Sunny climbed up, then gave Sunset a hoof up as Sprout climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine up. Hitch closed the passenger door, and as soon as everyone was buckled up, he carefully performed a J-turn and headed back down the river.
"Ooh, who is this little guy?" Izzy asked, eying the yellow and black-spotted winged lizard sitting on Sunset's lap.
"This is Ray. He, well, he was a gecko, but the mirror has had an effect on his form, too."
It was a short, five minute drive down the river, and it reminded Sunset of riding in Applejack's modified farm truck.
"Right here at this bend, Sprout," Hitch told him. The red stallion pressed on the brake, came to a stop, then applied the parking brake.
"Come on, Sunset. It's not far," Sunny said, unbuckling her belt.
The amber unicorn followed suit, unbuckling herself from her seat, and placed Ray on her back once she was down on her hooves, climbing out of the passenger side once Hitch had moved out of the way.
"We'll be quick," Sunny reassured them, leading Sunset through the trees. A couple minutes later, they came to a small campfire, with the pair of guards Sunset had encountered hours earlier. The sky blue mare was on her hooves the instant she saw the pair approach.
"Who goes there? Oh, Miss Starscout. Welcome back. And..."
"Sunset Shimmer. Sorry about the chase earlier..." Sunset told her.
"Staff Sergeant Zoom Zephyrwing, and, well, if you're with her, I'm guessing things have been cleared up. And honestly, no hard feelings. About time we got some excitement around here. Not the most lively posting down here."
"We're just here to pick up some things, and we'll be on our way," Sunny told her. Zoom nodded and went back to the fire with Thunder while the earth pony and unicorn passed them to the large front doors. The hinges of the left door had been repaired, and the door opened with a considerable shove. Sunny put on her LED headband, while Sunset lit up her horn, the tip giving off a warm orange glow as they stepped into the dark foyer.
"So, you really don't know how long it's been?" Sunset asked as they walked down the hall towards the stairs.
Sunny shook her head.
"Nothing definitive, I can only make semi-educated guesses. I know the Everfree Forest can grow at supernatural speeds, so estimating the passage of time using the surrounding forest is pretty much impossible. With the things I've collected, I want to say, and this is a very, very rough estimate, that it's been 500 years at the very least, maybe even a millennium or more. It's hard to tell at this point."
They went around the stairs to a door on the right, coming to a set of stairs that spiraled downward along the outer wall. When they hit the basement floor, Sunset concentrated, and narrowed the aura of light on the tip of her horn into a beam, shining it down on scattered shards of glass.
"What? What happened?" Sunny asked, seeing the mirror case near the back wall.
"I think it shattered when I came through. It was the first thing I heard when I crossed over," Sunset said, using her magic to carefully shove the mirror shards towards the back of the room to clear more of the floor. She came to her belongings, the chest, saddlebags, and guitar case. "I really hope I'm where I belong..."
Sunset gingerly placed a hoof on her guitar case, as she looked to the remains of the standing mirror, then to Sunny.
When they got Sunset's things loaded in what little room remained on the Scouticus Maximus, the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the only light surrounding the vehicle was provided by the beacon lights on the top. When they got back in the cab, they saw that while they were in the castle, Hitch and Izzy had gotten the sleeping bags laid out for the last part of the journey south.
At this point, Sunset realized that she had not slept since the night before graduation.
"I know you probably have so many questions for me, but I think I'd like to lay down for a bit, if that's okay," Sunset told Sunny, unbuckling herself from her seat once they were clear of the forest and river, and onto more smoother, rolling hills as they turned towards the southwest.
"There's absolutely no rush. I've got a guest room at my place, and we'll get you situated, and you can take all the time you need," Sunny immediately replied.
With a tired smile, Sunset dropped from her seat down onto the closest sleeping bag. After making sure Ray was warm and content in the right pocket of her saddlebags, she laid her head down, and was out just moments after her head hit the pillow. Seeing the unicorn sleeping soundly so quickly just got the others yawning as well, so they stopped for a moment to let Sprout give the driver's seat over to Hitch, and Pipp and Zipp came in from the bed, making it rather crowded in the cab, but everypony soon got situated, with Zipp and Pipp on both side benches, Sprout on the back bench, and Izzy and Sunny just in front of him, as the vehicle continued driving into the night.
Sunset slowly came to as she felt a hoof gently tapping her shoulder. She opened her eyes, and her vision cleared to show Sunny smiling gently down at her.
"We've arrived at Maretime Bay. I can show you to the guest room at my house, if you feel you haven't gotten enough sleep, but we do have a walk ahead of us," the earth pony told her.
Sunset nodded with a smile as she got out of the sleeping bag. She and Sunny were the only ones left in the cab, other than Hitch, who looked like he was getting ready to pull the vehicle into some kind of underground garage. He turned to the two mares as they disembarked.
"I'll get this thing parked and turn in myself. We can unload after a night's rest and a good breakfast," he told them.
"Sounds good, Hitch. See you in the morning!" Sunny replied with a smile.
Once they were clear of the vehicle, Hitch put it into gear, and began moving it down a ramp. Sunset noticed that they had already offloaded her personal items into a small cart, which Sunny promptly hitched herself too.
"Alright, Sunset, right this way. Welcome to Maretime Bay."
They were in the rear parking lot of a large factory, and Sunset began going down a walk that went around the right side. The walkway was adequately lit with lampposts and security lighting, and it wasn't until they had come around to the front of the factory and down into the city streets proper that it got a little darker, and she noticed the starry night sky.
"What time is it?" Sunset asked with a yawn.
"1 AM," Sunny answered. "Kinda hoping we get back to sleep once we get to my place, otherwise getting through the entirety of tomorrow is going to be a chore. And just to be clear, please don't feel obligated to come along if you're not feeling up to it. This must be so much to take in, so if you want to just spend the next few days relaxing at my place, or taking in the city sights, please feel free."
"Thanks, I'm not really sure what I want to do yet. I honestly still feel out of place, not sure what I should do next. Maybe some relaxing would do me good, and if it doesn't, I'm sure you'll have plenty for me to help out with. Like you said, I'm sure there's a lot we can learn from each other," Sunset told her.
Sunny saw Ray poke his head out of Sunset's saddlebag.
"And if you feel like he'll need an enclosure, we can also swing by the pet shop when they open in the morning."
Maretime Bay was a nice enough looking place. The streets were sparsely populated this late at night, so it was no trouble at all getting the cart down to the southwest corner of town, where the streets turned to a dirt path as the relatively flat cityscape gave way to rolling hills. As the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks below grew, a lighthouse came into view.
Sunny unhitched herself from the cart when they came to the front walk, and Sunset lit up her horn, and levitated all of her stuff out of it as they approached the front door. Sunny slid her key into the lock, and pushed the door open. Stepping to the side to let Sunset in, she shut the door, making sure the picture of her and her dad remained straight; the fact that it did so was probably one of her favorite improvements of the rebuild.
"Homey," Sunset complimented.
"Alright, kitchen is over there, that lift right there will take you to up to the light deck, and down this hall are the bedrooms and bathroom," Sunny began before taking her down the hall. "My bedroom here is on the left, let me know if you need anything, bathroom is second door on the left, and here we are..."
Sunny opened the second door on the right, stepping into a clean and furnished bedroom. There was a full-size bed, ceiling light, nightstand with a bedside lamp and alarm clock, a small desk, full length mirror, and a small closet.
"Have a good remainder of your night, Sunset. I'll see you in the morning."
"Thank you, Sunny. I'll find a way to repay you for this, promise," Sunset replied, setting her chest, guitar case, and saddlebags at the foot of the bed, before letting Ray down onto the blanket.
"Whatever you'll be able to tell me about Ancient Equestria will be payment enough, you don't know how much I'm looking forward to your insight."
With that, Sunny stepped back out into the hall and shut the door, leaving the unicorn alone with her thoughts. She sat down on the bed before taking a deep breath. The muffled sound of the waves would be more than enough to lull her back to sleep for a few hours, but her mind was still racing. She leaned over the front of the mattress, and opened the right flap of her saddle bags, taking out her barely-used magic journal, flipping to the last written page, confirming disappointingly that the last correspondence was with Princess Twilight shortly before graduation.
She then got up off the bed and unlatched the chest, opening the lid and pulling out the three new magical journals that she had been surprised with on graduation night. She opened the covers of all three, and her heart sank a little when each of the front pages were blank.
She took another deep breath, before levitating the top journal over to the bed, followed by a pen from her saddlebags, before settling herself down in front of it, and touched the tip to the top corner of the first page.
It worries me to no end that none of you may see this, or that if you do, you may be unable to respond. I have arrived safely back in Equestria, although it was nowhere near where or even when I expected to arrive. I have no idea what went wrong, but I seem to have jumped hundreds of years, or more, into Equestria's future.
My mind is absolutely overwhelmed with unanswered questions, and the entire world around me has changed exponentially, but if there is the slightest chance of contacting all of you, I just wanted to let you know that I'm alright. I'm going to be taking things one day, or heck, maybe one hour at a time. I have already been taken in and befriended by some ponies who can hopefully help in giving me an idea of what has transpired.
Sunset slowly came to, hearing the shrill beeping of the alarm clock next to her. An amber hoof came out from the top corner of the blanket and swiftly tapped the top of it, returning the room to a near silence, save for the morning tide, seagulls and... Sizzling?
She swung her hind legs over to the edge and got out of bed, and was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror before she went to open the door, finding that she had quite the bedhead, wondering if she had looked like that from her few hours in the sleeping bag, too. She turned to her chest at the foot of the bed, and pulled out a brush. Trotting over to the mirror, she ran the brush through her mane and tail, getting herself presentable in a couple of minutes. She was also wondering about the appearance of her horn; it was now a bone white, instead of being covered by the felt-like coat in the same color as the rest of it. It didn't seem to affect its performance, though. Finding herself acceptable, she returned the brush to her chest, close the lid, and then made her way to the door. She took a breath, then opened it and stepped out into the hall, where the sizzling sounds coming from the main room was now joined by an inviting smell. Walking down the hallway, she found Sunny standing in front of the stove with a cast iron pan, who turned her head at the sound of hoofsteps.
"Good morning, Sunset. Have a good night?" The earth pony asked.
"Yeah, thank you. Something smells great," the unicorn replied.
"Thanks, breakfast will be ready shortly. Hope you like pancakes!"
"Heh, I guess some things never change, pancakes sound fantastic" Sunset commented as she sat down at the table, remembering quite a few pancake breakfasts, not just in the castle with Celestia, but also with her friends in the mirror world.
Sunny was getting the pancakes plated up when there was a knock at the front door, followed by it opening a moment later, and the unicorn from yesterday popped in. Sunset tried to recall her name. Izzy, right?
"Morning, Sunny!" Izzy greeted enthusiastically.
"Morning," came the reply from not one, but two ponies, and the earth pony gave the amber unicorn a curious glance.
Sunset's cheeks tinted red.
"Ugh, I was afraid of that eventually... 'Sunny' has been an occasional pet name of mine..." Sunset admitted as she began twiddling her front hooves in embarrassment as Izzy came over to sit down at the dining table as well.
"Honest enough mistake," Sunny offered, returning her attention to the pancakes. A couple minutes later, she came to the table with three plates stacked with pancakes, and went to the fridge to return with a pitcher of orange juice.
"So," Sunny began, cutting into her serving of breakfast. "Now that we've all had a good night's sleep, we can finally hopefully start to clear some things up for you."
"Ooh, do you have your '142 Questions For A Unicorn'?" Izzy asked, taking her first bite, with Sunset's eyes widening. Sunny chuckled.
"No, no. A lot of those have actually been answered by now. But from what I've gathered from Twilight's journal, you're Sunset Shimmer, and you were Princess Celestia's student before she was, if I remember correctly?" Sunny asked.
"For just a little over four years, I jumped into that magic mirror after she removed me from my position as her student and banished me from the castle... Back then I was hellbent on revenge," Sunset told them. The trip down memory lane wasn't exactly pleasant, but she figured that her hosts deserved to know as much about her as they wanted, especially if her era was as far gone as they believed.
"What's on the other side?" Izzy asked.
"A parallel universe, but it's mainly inhabited by bipedal creatures, called humans, instead of ponies," Sunset answered.
"So how long were you over there for?" Sunny asked, writing down Sunset's answers as she gave them in the newest page of her journal.
"Just under four years. I enrolled at a high school. A statue base on the front entrance was the other side of the portal."
"Wait, a high school? How old are you?" Sunny asked.
"28..." Sunset muttered. "I know, I know it sounds weird. I guess I looked the part, but I think I needed that kind of experience. When I was that young, I wasn't the slightest bit interested in making friends, and for the first year, I still wasn't; I wanted to create and control cliques of students, and I was pretty good at it. Then at the beginning of my second year over there, I returned through the mirror to steal Princess Twilight's magical crown. I was successful, but she caught me in the act, and chased me through the portal, and eventually got it back. After that, I started to change my ways. It took me most of my second year to make amends for how nasty I was during my first year. But when Equestrian magic kept seeping through to that world, both from the statue portal and other sources, I was the only one who had any kind of expertise on it."
Sunny furiously wrote down Sunset's explanation as they ate.
"So, why did you come back?" Sunny asked, looking back up at her.
"Nothing seemed to stem the flow of magic, so knowing that me and my friends were graduating, the principal warned me that they were going to be building a sarcophagus of sorts around the statue base to seal the portal away, and that if I wanted a guaranteed way home, I would have to go right after graduation. It was the only sure way she would be able to protect the school and its students once we were no longer there."
Sunset paused to take another bite of syrup-covered pancakes.
"I had been periodically homesick for the better part of two years, but at the same time, I didn't want to stomach the thought of leaving the friends who had done so much to help turn myself around. So, for most of my fourth year, I didn't think about it. I considered staying over there, then, with only weeks to go before graduation, my counterpart showed up; the Sunset Shimmer from over in that world. Right then, I knew I couldn't stay over there without seriously screwing up cosmic balances or whatever. So, I packed up what I believed was safe to bring over, and came back through after heartfelt goodbyes. Princess Twilight had offered me the position of Archmage in her court, but... It's pretty obvious that isn't happening now."
She took another bite of pancakes.
"You said you and your dad had been researching my era? Is he here, your dad?" Sunset asked.
"My dad... Is no longer with us. He passed away a few years ago," Sunny said, her expression turning somber for a moment.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the unicorn offered in reply.
"It's alright. I'm sure he'd be proud of everything we've accomplished, and still accomplishing."
"I'm just amazed that Princess Twilight's castle is covered by the Everfree Forest, and Ponyville's gone, and not some shimmering beacon of unity," Sunset commented.
"Well, about that... 'Unity' is something Equestria hadn't heard of in generations. My activism didn't make me too many friends in town, and it wasn't until Izzy showed up until we decided to go off and find out what had happened to cause the races to split," Sunny said.
"Hard to imagine the pegasi taking Canterlot from the unicorns... Unless they didn't have magic," Sunset replied.
"That's... Probably exactly what happened. Sunny found a letter from a 'Princess Flurry Heart', in the Crystal Empire that claimed that a city of clouds came down on Canterlot, followed by a lot of unrest. Unicorns couldn't use magic, pegasi couldn't fly, and earth ponies had to work incredibly hard to farm enough food for everyone," Izzy offered.
"We just came back from the Crystal Empire, and I think they did something up there. Something to stop supernatural world-enders called 'Windigos'. I think in order to do that, they had to remove magic from everywhere in Equestria, and it cost them the city; it's nothing but a frozen wasteland all the way up there."
"So Sunny, I take it you're some kind of historian or archeologist?" Sunset asked, finishing the last of her pancakes.
The earth pony nodded.
"I help run a museum downtown. If you want me to show you what we've gathered, that can be arranged if you want to meet me downtown around 5:30," Sunny offered, sliding a pamphlet across the table to her.
"I think I'd like that, thanks," Sunset replied. "Until then, I think I will take your advice, take it easy, and go see about getting an terrarium for Ray, along with some food for him for the next few days."
"Feel free to use the cart out front, I'm not using it today," Sunny replied.
Sunset finished her glass of orange juice in a couple more gulps, then took it, her plate, and silverware over to the sink, rinsing them off and setting them aside to be washed.
"And to be clear, if I'm staying here for the time being, don't hit me with the 'guest' nonsense. I'll cook, clean, and do my part," Sunset told her. "So, 5:30 by the... Maretime Bay Museum of History?" Sunset asked, after she had unfurled the map and looked at it for a moment.
"That's the one," Sunny replied.
"See you then," Sunset said, heading for the front door.
"Oh, I almost forgot, here," Sunny said, tossing her spare key towards the unicorn, who caught it with her magic. "Izzy and I are headed out after breakfast, so we probably won't be here when you get back with your things for Ray. Oh, and... Here," Sunny tossed her a small bag containing 100 bits. "Before you say anything, I'm sure any ancient currency you've brought with you is worth more than that."
Thanking them and pocketing the key and bit bag in her saddlebags, Sunset Shimmer exited through the front door. A moment later, they heard the wheels of the cart roll down the front walk.
"I don't get it, Sunny. Unloading the truck at CanterLogic isn't going to take that long. Why are you making her wait until this evening? Doesn't the museum close at 5?" Izzy asked.
"I think a private viewing of the Guardians of Harmony wing is more appropriate in this case, Izzy. These are places she's been and ponies she's talked to as recently as two days ago, at least in her time frame. Things might get a little heavy for her when she sees all of that, and I'd rather not have her surrounded by other patrons if that happens."
It didn't take Sunset very long to realize that Maretime Bay was a considerably livelier town during the day. Trolley cars, pulled carts, and pedestrians everywhere. It didn't quite match the feeling of downtown Everfree, due to the lack of vehicles. In fact, she hadn't seen anything remotely close to the vehicle they had drove here in, maybe it was the first of it's kind.
Not that she minded; aside from the occasional trolley, ponies had the run of the streets. It was almost a perfect blend of what she had gotten used to in Everfree, and what she remembered from her protege days in Canterlot. She also noticed how just as there was the occasional earth pony and unicorn on the streets of Zephyr Heights, it was mostly earth ponies here, with a unicorn and pegasus every now and then.
Sunset couldn't imagine an Equestria divided. After everything that Twilight and her friends had done; after everything that Twilight had done for her, what could have possibly happened?
On the other hoof, things could change over time. Cultures and practices could easily shift over the course of a generation, and depending on how many there had been, everything Twilight and her friends stood for could have absolutely faded over time.
Sunset wondered what fate would have befallen her if Sunny hadn't shown up just hours later. Queen Haven seemed benevolent enough, and that was hardly a dungeon they had tossed her into; it was a day spa with bars and one spectacular view. Not even the unicorns of Canterlot had been that luxurious towards prisoners.
So, treating Maretime Bay as any tourist would, Sunset eyed her map carefully, and spotted Pickings For Pets on the corner two streets down. She was halfway down the block when she realized that since Ray had also changed form when he had made the journey through the portal, that his diet had likely changed as well.
What had Spike eaten over here? Gems? Hopefully the pet store would have some information, or she might have to spend a good portion of the day doing her own research.
"You still like insects and some occasional salad and fruit, right little guy?" Sunset asked the winged lizard riding in her right saddlebag pocket. Ray had been a fantastic exterminator in her apartment that basically worked for free. She was hoping that even though he was now five times the size, he wouldn't require five times the food.
She came to the corner shop and after detaching herself from the cart, entered through the front sliding doors, a chime signaling her entrance.
"Hello, and welcome to Pickings for Pets, looking for anything in particular today?" the mare greeter asked. She was a light tan earth pony in a white vest.
"Yeah, I'm looking for a terrarium for this little guy," Sunset replied, motioning down to Ray, who was looking up at the new face, and taking in his surroundings.
"Well hello there, little guy. Been awhile since I've seen a dragon that big. Our terrariums are right over in aisle two, and decorations are one aisle over in three."
"Awesome, thanks. Any diet recommendations?" Sunset asked.
"Hm, well if he's like other dragons, I imagine he's an omnivore, so leaf greens, berries, even gems. If you let him have free range of your residence, they also make great insect control," the greeter said.
"Yup, already experienced with that. I just moved here and his terrarium wasn't one of the things I was able to bring along," Sunset explained.
"Mmm. Always sad leaving stuff behind. But at least you're here, and I can assure you that our terrariums are hoof-built to last, and come with our best warranties. Take all the time you need to look around," the store rep told her.
Sunset nodded with a smile, then headed towards aisle two. She recalled plenty of the pointers from when she first got Ray from the pet shop in Everfree; a terrarium needed a wet area, a hot area, a humid area, and a cool area. With his increased size, she figured 20 gallons was too small, so she immediately moved down to the 50 gallon tanks. These would just barely fit in the cart out front. They were luckily having a sale, and she able to get an affordable glass one; that would be easier to clean and disinfect; she'd just have to be careful getting it back to Sunny's lighthouse. Next up was what would effectively be the ground; river pebbles. After that, it was a matter of decorations and hideaways. She grabbed a variety of preserved logs and rocks, some hollowed out, some solid, and lastly, a heating pad that would go under the terrarium.
Carefully placing these all into a cart, she went to the checkout counter, and only now did she hope that Sunny gave her enough bits.
"Alright, with the sales, your total comes to 96 bits," the cashier said.
Sunset let out a quiet breath of relief as she emptied the entire bit bag and got four 1-bit coins back. It took a couple minutes with the greeter's help to carefully load up her cart outside, but after that, she was on her way back to the lighthouse.
"Alright, Ray. Let's go get some food, and then get your living arrangements set up."
Sunny bit her lip softly as she very slowly and very carefully set the greyed Crystal Heart onto the steel wire stand she had spent the past thirty minutes carefully bending into shape. With that done, Izzy lifted up the glass case with her horn, and gently set it down into the recesses of the wooden display stand.
"Quite an addition to the wing, that's for sure. Glad you made it up there and back safely, Miss Starscout," Cinnamon said, looking at the Guardians of Harmony wing's newest display. A podium in front of the case showed an image of the Heart in it's original, pristine appearance.
"Certainly not the most interesting thing we found on our trip," Sunny commented.
"In addition to the thousands of books we'll need to go back and get once Sprout gets that trailer built. I can't believe he's started on it already," Izzy added.
"Well, we open in fifteen, so if you want to sneak out to the back to get a quick bite to eat, now would be the time," Cinnamon told her.
"Nah, I had a good breakfast. But I do need a favor. I need to bring somepony in after hours for a private viewing, if that's alright with you, Mr. Cinnamon," Sunny said.
"What, like a V.I.P.?" Cinnamon asked.
"You... Could say that, yeah," Sunny replied, not wanting to give too many details yet. Restoring unity and magic across Equestria was one thing, but interdimensional time-travel was something else.
"Well, no objection from me. Now let's have another great day of teaching history!"
Making another stop for food for Ray only made Sunset hungry again, so she made a stop for lunch before returning to the lighthouse with a full cart and full stomach.
She had forgotten how good carrot dogs were.
It took a half hour to get everything unloaded and half-sorted in the guest bedroom. The first thing she put down wasn't the terrarium, but the heating pad that would keep one section of it warm. With that done, she carefully levitated the empty terrarium up before setting it on top of the desk in front of the window, making sure it would get adequate sunlight throughout the day. Ray was content to curl up on the bed and watch her work.
With the tank adequately positioned, Sunset carefully cut the first bag of river pebbles open, lifted it up with her horn, and slowly poured it into the glass terrarium, using her magic to spread them out evenly over the entire surface area, going through a total of three bags before she had a satisfactory amount in the tank. The next step was the 'pond', a large circular container which she put in the front left corner and half-buried it in the pebbles, before filling it with clean water. Next, she began to arrange the logs and rocks, some solid to provide elevation, and some hollow to provide shelter and shade. When everything was said and done, she had a decent looking habitat for her 'dragon'.
Perhaps that's what Equestria called any winged lizard nowadays. Who knows how long it had been since they had seen somecreature like Spike, a dragon that walked and talked?
It wasn't like a small part of her was hoping that Ray would have been able to strike up a conversation after coming through the portal, but that had honestly been shoved to the back of her mind when the very first thing she saw was the state of Twilight's castle.
"Alright, I think that'll do it. Want to see how you like it?" Sunset asked, turning back to the bed where Ray was laying. She lifted a hoof up to the bed, and he climbed on. She carried him over to the terrarium and gently set him down on the tallest log, and he immediately began exploring.
Leaving him to his new home, Sunset went back over to her chest, and her gaze immediately listed to the right of it, where her guitar case had been set. Grabbing it with her magic, she took a seat on her bed and set it down on her lap before unlatching it, and opened it, revealing the sunburst v-body electric guitar within.
She had left the strap attached, and due to her obvious change in form, she had to take a moment to adjust the strap's length before putting it over her head, over her shoulder, and around her back. Cradling the neck in her left hoof, Sunset frowned for a moment, but just a moment. It wouldn't exactly be learning to play all over again, but unlearning finger positions and replacing them with hooves and magic would take time. She wouldn't be able to hit the ground galloping with her music.
But on the other hoof, it would be something to do. If she ever got overwhelmed by taking in this new Equestria, there would always be an opportunity to retreat back to a corner, plug in, sit back, and just play.
Well, that is once she found a music shop with a cheap enough amp, and she already owed Sunny nearly a hundred bits. After taking another moment to glide her hoof up and down the neck, before lifting the strap off, and returning the guitar to the case, closing the top and latching it. Setting that aside next to the desk on which the terrarium sat, Sunset got off of the bed and unlatched the chest.
Inside were mostly books; a couple scrapbooks, and four yearbooks, including the special one they had made just for her. She carefully levitated the four standard ones over to the empty bookshelf, before setting the special one with her gold-plated cutie mark onto the bed; she wanted to start looking at that in a bit. Next up was a recipe book from Applejack.
'Compare Apple family cooking to whatever they've got over there,' the farmer had told her. She'd have to look at each of these recipes very carefully, making sure there was nothing in there that called for rather carnivorous ingredients. Next up was a rather fat and packed flexing folder rubber-banded shut, containing all the sheet music for all of the Rainbooms' songs. Not just guitar either; every single part.
'In case you want to form another band when you get some free time, you know, take the Rainbooms interdimensional!' Rainbow had exclaimed. Making sure those were all organized would be another good time-killer, but for now set them on the bookshelf next to the yearbooks.
Next up was a small coffee table book containing countless sketches from Rarity, some black and white, and others fully colored.
'I admit I'm not prepared enough to have you depart with something for your equine form, but perhaps this will help my counterpart design something equally fabulous for you over there,' Rarity had told her proudly. She honestly wasn't sure how much use this would be now, but perhaps there was a good tailor around that could use these as a good template.
Next up was a polished oak and gold plaque; her award for reaching 500,000 subscribers on her livestream. She couldn't help but wonder if there was anything similar she could do here, and that Pipp would likely be the one to talk to about that.
Lastly, the last thing they had recovered from Twilight's castle, the first thing she had left behind upon casting her first teleportation spell in her escape; her graduation gown and cap. Thankfully it had not gotten too dirty, and Thunder and Zephyr had been kind enough to fold it up and keep it near their campsite when they had returned to their posts. The fabric had adjusted to her equine form, and the cap remained largely the same. She kept both folded and placed them on top of the dresser in front of the mirror.
Closing the lid of the now empty chest, she had only spent a few minutes flipping through the first pages of her yearbook before her phone began vibrating and chirping an alarm over on its wireless charger on the nightstand.
Her eyes widened when she realized it was the alarm she had set for 5:00 pm, to remind her to start to head downtown to meet Sunny at the museum.
"Where did the time go today?" She asked herself. Quickly making sure Ray had enough food in his dish, she threw on her saddle bags, put her yearbook inside, and headed out of her room, down the hall, and out the front door...
...Wondering if she was prepared for getting some more answers.
There was a certain charm to Maretime Bay as the sun began its final descent towards the western horizon. Most of the buildings downtown were two stories, and every single one of them was of course dwarfed by the 'CanterLogic' factory up on the hill to the east, which was six stories tall even before accounting for the hill, and judging by the garage that the all-terrain vehicle was pulled into last night, there was probably more than one basement level as well.
It didn't take a genius to figure out that this town's economy revolved almost entirely around that factory. Maybe there would be time for a tour later.
Double-checking her map, Sunset walked down the main street, and came to one of the trolley stops, in front of a two-story yellow structure, part of the greater strip on the left side of the street. She assumed that it was a lot like downtown Everfree; first floor was businesses, second story was housing for the owners. Coming up to the set of double glass doors, she saw the 'CLOSED' sign hanging prominently on the left door, but immediately saw Sunny waiting by the front desk, scrolling through her phone, and the earth pony immediately saw her, and came to the door with a smile. She unlocked the door just long enough to open it, give Sunset a smile, and let her inside before locking it again.
"Good evening, Sunset. Thanks for making the time to come down here. I hope what I've gathered here can provide you with at least some answers. Please, follow me."
Sunny wore a black velvet vest, with a gold tag with her name on it, signifying her as a curator of the museum. Beyond the entrance hall, the first large room they came to was filled with more modern history. Sunset took a few seconds to glance at what she could, but kept pace with Sunny as she went towards an archway on the left wall. Above the archway, almost touching the ceiling, were mounted letters, spelling out 'GUARDIANS OF HARMONY'. On the right wall next to the archway, there was a wooden and gold plaque, with a photo on it.
Guardians of Harmony Wing
This wing of the Maretime Bay Museum of History is dedicated to the memory of ARGYLE STARSHINE Who never stopped reaching a hoof out in friendship when his surrounding society would not.
"Your dad?" Sunset asked as she looked at the picture.
Sunny nodded solemnly.
"The studying and research he did set the foundation for what we've done to this place over the past several months."
Sunset stepped up to Sunny as she was led through the archway, and gave out a near silent gasp at the displays all around her.
The unicorn's eyes were immediately drawn to the larger-than-life cutouts of Princess Twilight, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack. They were mounted on the walls above several glass display cases, each containing gems. Before approaching the displays, however, she made her way towards the center of the room, where three more exhibits awaited her. The center one was a very impressive scale model of Princess Twilight's castle. She looked down at the etched words on the plaque.
The Kingdom of Friendship The Tree of Harmony bestowed this residence to Princess Twilight as a beacon of her rule, as she and the other Guardians spread the Magic of Friendship far and wide across the land of Equestria.
To the left of that, a trio of pegasi mannequins hung with Wonderbolt uniforms.
The Wonderbolts At first formed as an aerial honor guard wing of the Royal E.U.P., the Wonderbolts were known across the nation as the pinnacle of flight acrobatics and demonstrations.
"This is our newest addition. Added just today, actually," Sunny said, motioning to the case to the right of the castle model.
Sunset stepped up to the case, and saw inside, carefully set atop a wire display stand, was a dull, gray heart-shaped rock.
The Crystal Heart The lifeblood of the Crystal Empire in the far northern reaches of the nation, the Crystal Heart is currently believed to be the origin of the Earth, Unicorn, and Pegasus crystals that restored magic when the reunification of Equestria began.
Sunset's gaze moved again, listing over to a large stone tablet over on the right side of the room. Walking over to it, she approached the informational kiosk in front of it.
Replica of Discord's Last Message Discord was once an antagonistic demigod of chaos that was befriended by Princess Twilight Sparkle and the Guardians of Harmony. But when magic began to fade, so too did his grasp on his corporeal form in this realm. This is an exact replica of the last words he carved into the top tower of Princess Twilight's castle.
Feeling her throat tighten as she read the draconequus' farewell, she walked over to the left side of the room, bypassing most of the Guardian displays, and went right to Princess Twilight's, and looked up at the cutout, before gazing down into the display case, at the two dozen gems.
Princess Twilight Sparkle Twilight Sparkle was a unicorn prodigy and former student of Princess Celestia. She was sent to Ponyville to learn about the magic of friendship, in order to help fulfill a millennium-old prophecy, and restore Princess Luna to her rightful place next to her sister on Equestria's thrones, afterwards spreading the magic of friendship far and wide.
The display case had buttons and a screen built into the kiosk directly above the plaque. She hit the first button, and a focusing lens slid into place above the top left gem, and sent the image to the screen; a party in a library.
"So... So that's what she looked like without wings..." Sunset said, her voice beginning to quiver, taking a single step back from the display. "She... She promised me she would take the time to go through her early scrapbooks when I came back, and..."
The unicorn couldn't keep the torrent of emotions down any longer, and she dropped to her knees as she began to weep in front of the display.
"...And now she's gone. Everypony... Everything... I ever knew, is gone..."
Sunny took a quiet breath and came up next to the grieving pony, softly putting a reassuring hoof on her back, rubbing gently.
"Gods, what am I doing here? What am I supposed to do now? We had it all planned out. I was going to be her court wizard, an archmage... I couldn't imagine a better gift, to spend most of my years with the pony who helped me begin to turn things around..."
Sunny struggled to come up with something, anything to say to her new friend who had leapt forward untold centuries into an unfamiliar, frightening new world.
"I think if she was here, if she could see you now, I don't think even she would expect you to know what to do right off the bat. I mean, putting together a terrarium for your pet lizard barely a day after unwittingly time traveling? That's an accomplishment in itself, Sunset."
Sunset calmed her heaving shoulders, and took a breath, followed by a second before getting up off of the floor.
"You did all of this. You and your dad. I know we've only known each other for not even a day, but I'm honored to know you, Sunny Starscout. Thank you for bringing her story to as many others as you can."
Sniffling, Sunset stepped forward and put her front hooves around Sunny, a hug that was immediately returned.
"I owe a lot of it to my dad, he put that tenacity in me to very, very slowly get through to this town, and everypony for that matter."
Sunset parted from the hug, and took another deep breath, taking another look around the room.
"I feel so lost, and I don't even know where to begin," the unicorn confessed.
"Considering the circumstances, I think I'd be concerned if you did know where to begin. I mean, you said you just graduated school in this other realm, right?" Sunny asked.
"Yeah. I was actually planning on taking a few weeks off before jumping into the whole 'archmage' thing. Kinda get my Equestrian footing again, you know?" Sunset answered.
"So, why not do that anyway? My questions can wait if you want. Take some time to get to know the world you've come back to. Or just kick back and relax while you get all your ducks in a row."
Sunset wiped the last of the tears from her eyes and considered Sunny's words.
"You know, that's not a bad idea," Sunset replied, sniffling. "And don't worry, if I leave town for a bit I'll be sure to take Ray with me. Don't want to saddle you with anything more. And feel free to hit me with your questions any time, Sunny. Me being here must be a head trip and a half for you."
Sunny gave the unicorn a nod and a smile.
"You got me there. Well, if you insist, how about over dinner?"
"Sunny, are you really sure this reunification thing went off without a hitch? I mean, I'm getting some stares here," Sunset said as they made their way west away from Canterlogic towards the coast, as the sky became a continually darkening orange. With the sun below the horizon, lamp posts had started to flicker on, and while they weren't quite needed yet, they would be in about fifteen minutes as dusk turned to night.
Sunny did some quick glances, and saw that a few ponies were indeed looking at the unicorn in passing, but the looks weren't worried, concerned, or scared.
"I don't think it has anything to do with malice, Sunset. I think they're just curious. You're the only pony I've seen with two cutie marks," Sunny replied.
"What are you talking about? I've only ever had the one," Sunset said, glancing back at her flank, seeing the yellow and red yin and yang style sun.
"No, I meant on both flanks. For as long as I can remember, ponies have only had one, on the right," Sunny explained.
Now Sunset joined in on the curious glances, and indeed confirmed that everypony's cutie mark was indeed on their right flank, and only on the right flank.
"I don't suppose you have any theories for how that happened?" Sunset asked the earth pony.
"I do, actually, just one, now that I've seen the memory gems. My best guess is when Equestria lost its magic, ponies lost a cutie mark, because they had clearly lost a part of themselves."
"So, you know this place best. What are we doing for dinner?" Sunset asked as they came to Seaside Drive, the coastal road on the east side of town.
"You like hayburgers? There's a new place called Heights Castle a couple blocks down, the first pegasus-owned restaurant in Maretime Bay," Sunny answered.
Sunset's mouth immediately began to water.
"It feels like it's been ages since I've had a hayburger..."
The two mares walked down the street, being passed by the trolley as it started its evening route.
Coming up to the fast food establishment, Sunset saw that the exterior decor was indeed, very castle-like. There was a small line going through the trot-thru, so they elected to go inside to the front counter.
"Sack of ten hay sliders with cheese, please, and a medium drink," Sunny ordered, before turning to Sunset, who quickly skimmed the menu.
"Same, actually," the unicorn replied. Sunny dug into her bit bag and paid the amount due, before stepping over to the opposite side of the counter. Their twenty sliders took no time to make, and three minutes later, they were sitting across from each other in a booth.
"I wish I knew what a good starting off point was... So, what was this other world like? I don't suppose you have pictures?" Sunny asked as she started into her first slider.
"Actually, I do," Sunset said, reaching into her saddlebags and came out with her yearbook, with her cutie mark engraved with gold on the front cover. She flipped it open, turned several pages, and turned it around to face Sunny when she came to the picture she was looking for.
"Bipeds?" Sunny asked, leaning over the table after she had swallowed her first bite.
"Humans. Scientific name, homo sapiens. The fingers took awhile to get used to, as did walking on just two legs," Sunset explained, as she flipped through more pages, coming to the sophomore year Fall Formal, with Twilight up on stage receiving the crown.
"Looking back, being the protege of the ruler of Equestria was... Almost too easy. But that was probably because I was focusing on the wrong things, or not focusing enough on the right things. I still remember my entrance exam to her school like it was yesterday..."
The filly felt as if she was walking on eggshells as she made her way down the hall to the assigned lecture room.
"Nervous, Sunset? Don't be silly, you've been preparing for this for weeks. Just take a deep breath."
Sunset looked up at her only company for the past sixteen hours; her mom, Stellar Flare. The train ride over here had been uneventful, but had done nothing to calm her nerves. They should have left a day earlier, so she could get a good night's sleep in a hotel bed, not trying to get a quick nap on a rickety train.
As she got in line beside her mother, the only thing she could do is take a deep breath, and that didn't help much. She had been preparing these spells for weeks, true enough. She could perform these transfiguration spells in her sleep.
But, still... What if they weren't good enough. What if she wasn't good enough?
She wished Sunburst was here. He was half the reason her chosen spells were as honed as they were; her younger brother was right next to her reminding her of pronunciations, inflection...
Her whole family would be here with her right now if dad wasn't at home with him in Sire's Hollow, watching over him as he spent yet another day with that Starlight friend of his.
Her mom would have to suffice. Who knows, in a few years he might be in this school here with her.
There were currently five ponies ahead of them in line. One of them would go in with their accompanying guardian, she would hear some hushed, muffled conversation through the closed doors, and then there was usually some flashing and glowing that would come through the windows for a few moments. The room must have had another exit, because nopony came back, and the next one went in.
By the time they moved up two in the queue, five more fillies and colts had gotten in line behind them. Over the next ten minutes, they slowly moved towards the double doors, one pony at a time. The next colt to go in did as the rest did, stepped into the room, stated his name, then the other occupants of the room said some muffled dialogue; except this time after the flash of light, there was a puff of smoke that came out from under the doors, followed by muffled coughing fits on the other side. The filly next up in line looked a little concerned, but the door attendant didn't so much as flinch.
They must have given time for the smoke to clear, because it was another couple minutes before the filly was allowed to enter the room. After that, things had returned to what could likely be considered 'normal' for an application process like this. The filly went in, a few words were shared, followed by a few flashes of light. Next up was the colt right in front of her, who looked a bit nervous. Sunset was now close enough to hear the door on the other side of the room open and close, then the colt ahead of her was ushered in along with his guardian, presumably his dad. When the door latched shut, Sunset and her mom took a few more steps forward to stand in front of the attendant, who was looking down a clipboard grasped in his magic.
"No books, no help from your accompanying guardian, all spells must be performed from memory, and lastly, the decision of the judges is absolutely final, understood?" The attendant asked them, with barely a glance up from the papers on his clipboard.
Sunset merely nodded while Stellar offered a "clearly" in response.
There was another flash of light from through the thickly frosted windows. Another few moments of near-silence, then she heard the doors open and close on the opposite side of the lecture hall. The unicorn attendant opened the doors, and ushered them in.
Sunset wasn't quite sure how to judge the size of the lecture hall. There were two large windows on either side of a chalkboard on the front wall. A podium was in the front left corner, and two long royal blue banners hung between the windows and the left and right walls.
There were seven rows of orange chairs that took up half of the room, and four unicorns sat in the top row, each with clipboards, and wearing dress shirts, vests, and ties.
Stellar stood off next to the podium while Sunset made her way to the center of the room.
"Name, please?" The pink-haired mare on the right asked.
"Sunset Shimmer," she replied, taking a breath. They each quickly scribbled onto their clipboards.
"Miss Shimmer, the floor is yours. Please demonstrate why you should be here at the School for Gifted Unicorns," the gray stallion on the other side told her.
Sunset took another breath.
"Thank you. Today I will be demonstrating transfiguration magic," she announced.
As she began to mentally recite the first spell to herself, she saw the center left judge, a light blue stallion, lean over to the center right.
"Only the twelfth one this weekend," she heard him mutter, getting the slightest of smirks from the off white, brown-haired mare next to him.
Suddenly, Sunset felt a twinge of annoyance at the four ponies observing her from the top of the room. These snooty high rollers were already bored with her, and she had barely spoken two sentences. One of them was apparently going to judge her not based on her performance, but on what he had already seen. This was what her nerves were so frayed for? She barely slept on the 3am train for this?
She took that twinge of annoyance and anger, and took firm hold of it, and stretched it out, as her horn began to glow. Squinting her eyes, she spotted the pen being held telekinetically by the stallion who had apparently seen his share of one of the most advanced schools of magic she had read up on and practiced.
"Serpens!" She cried out, shooting a thin beam of orange light out at the pen, and he ducked, but the beam connected with his pen.
He was just opening his eyes back up when he realized he had lost the grip on his pen. Or rather, what used to be his pen. He let out a mighty shriek as a blue racer snake dropped down onto the floor in front of him, and he scrambled up to the top of the back row of chairs in front of him.
"Limax!" She said, having quickly turned her attention to the two pieces of white chalk on the chalkboard behind her. The two beams connected, and she took hold of them as they transformed, tossing them over the rows of seats and before he knew it, two slimy white garden slugs landed on his clipboard with a plop.
"Vinea!" She called, shooting a beam up at the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The golden arms holding the lights suddenly warped and turned green, becoming vines as they began to stretch out across the ceiling.
"Vita! Vita! Vita!" She shouted, firing three beams in quick succession at the chairs the other three shocked judges were standing in front of. The trio of seats suddenly came to life, breaking free of their bolted positions on the tiled floor.
"So many transfiguration spells in quick succession... Okay! Okay, you're in! Stop stop stop!" The pink-haired mare shouted, as her co-judge dropped his clipboard and it flipped end over end as it tumbled down three rows.
"What, stop already?" Sunset asked, her young voice dripping with annoyance and disdain. "I thought you had seen so much of this stuff this weekend. It's barely been twenty seconds!"
Sunset glared angrily at the four judges, and her mother was equally shocked, having never seen her daughter perform that many spells so quickly. Both mares barely heard the other set of doors open.
"That is enough, young lady."
Sunset, horn still glowing brightly, turned to the new, commanding voice in the room, and her demeanor changed almost instantly when she saw who had spoken to her.
Celestia, ruler of Equestria, and Princess of the Sun and Moon.
Sunset's anger didn't melt away entirely, but she was collected enough to close her eyes in concentration, and immediately nullify the spells she had just cast. The judge's pen clattered to the tile floor, the slugs became pieces of chalk, the center chandelier snapped back into place, and while the chairs would need to be bolted down again, they were again regular, inanimate chairs.
"P-P-Princess, I do b-believe a ten minute b-break is in order," the stallion judge stammered as he collected his clipboard and pen.
"Yes, I would say so. Please take those ten minutes to remind yourselves to keep comments about previous applicants to yourselves, and keep such comments from influencing decisions on your current one, no matter how bad you believe their hearing to be" Celestia told them sternly.
The judges collected themselves and filed out of the doors that Sunset and Stellar had entered through, while the Princess' attention now turned to the filly on the main floor.
"Ms. Shimmer, would you and your mother please come with me?" Celestia asked, before turning to exit through the opposite doors.
Mother and daughter took a moment before following Celestia through the doors.
"Well," Stellar Flare began. "I do hope the repair bill won't be too steep. Maybe we'll just be let off with a warning..."
Sunset rolled her eyes. Like those pompous prisses didn't have something like that coming eventually with comments like that.
Sunset followed her mom out into the hall, where Princess Celestia was waiting.
"Ma'am, if you wouldn't mind waiting here. Miss Shimmer, a moment of your time?" Celestia asked, beckoning her forward as she walked down the hall.
Sunset let out a quiet sigh, and followed the towering monarch down the hall.
"Seems you put on quite a show there," Celestia commented.
"Look, um, your Highness, I'm not terribly sorry for what I just did in there. I've spent months studying, weeks practicing, and hours just to get here, and to have them dismiss my demonstration before I've done anything..."
"Their demeanor can be a bit... Off-putting, I will admit," Celestia replied down to the filly. "But I do trust their judgement. This is my School for Gifted Unicorns, and we're looking for the best. Audition week can get a bit tedious, and they do the best they can."
Sunset resisted the urge to roll her eyes again with Celestia facing her this time.
"No offense, Princess, but if I'm being kicked out, I'd prefer to not waste any more of my time. It's another nine hour train ride home."
"Well, let's not jump to conclusions so quickly, Sunset. I said we're looking for the best. Once my judges get themselves collected from your, shall I say, nature-filled display, I'm fairly confident that they'll tell me that what you just did in there was more impressive than any exam they've seen all week. That you're potentially the best, of the best."
Sunset's eyes widened, and her annoyed demeanor finally started to fade a bit.
"I... Really?" She asked.
"You have incredible power and potential if that's what a filly your age can manage in a few short months of studying and practicing. So before you go running to catch the next train, perhaps you'll consider accepting my offer of becoming my own personal protege here at the school?"
Sunset's mouth now opened to join her widened eyes.
"You'd receive one-on-on tutoring, your own private study here on campus, and the chance to hone these abilities of yours into something amazing. You could be one of the greatest students this school has ever seen. What do you say, Sunset?"
Unable to bring any words out of her throat, Sunset merely nodded silently.
"In that case, congratulations, Sunset Shimmer. Let's go see how surprised your mom is when we tell her the two of you will be dining with a Princess tonight."
"Wow, that must have been some exam..." Sunny commented, now halfway through her sack of ten hay sliders.
"I wish I could say I was a model student. Sure, back then I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I always wanted more, and I wasn't the slightest bit interested in any lessons of Celestia's that didn't directly involve magic. Like humility. Like making friends."
Sunset paused, as she was considerably behind Sunny in terms of the amount of her order she had eaten, as she'd been the one telling the story so far.
"I never got any better. Once I had a lengthy talk with Twilight, how she had played her part in fulfilling a prophecy that Celestia was hoping to complete, and free her sister... I couldn't help but wonder if that was why she was so patient with me. That if she wasn't looking for somepony powerful enough to help free her sister, that maybe she would have kicked me to the curb long before she eventually did."
Sunset paused again to sip at her soda.
"She kept insisting that I wasn't ready, but I was a broken record asking about that magic mirror. Once I realized that my persistence wasn't going to get me anywhere with her, that's when I started going behind her back. Breaking into one of the school's restricted sections was the last straw. I kept telling myself that I was ready, that I could control darker knowledge that was kept behind locked doors. She formally ended my studies, and escorted me out. When I saw my chance, I jumped through the mirror. At the time it was only open for three days every thirty moons. I knew I wouldn't get another chance, so I decided to take my chances. I knocked out my escort, easy enough spell, and jumped through, coming out looking like that," Sunset explained, pointing a hoof at the photo in the yearbook.
"Once enrolled in the school over there, my mind was on one thing; getting revenge, and I was ready to play the long game. In my mind, I could have ruled Equestria, and she was holding me back because she was afraid of what I could do. What I could become."
Sunny saw how the unicorn's words ate at her. It clearly wasn't a pleasant subject.
"After about a year, I went back through the mirror to Equestria during a royal summit to take Twilight's crown when I learned about the Elements of Harmony. She gave chase back through the mirror to the other side, and figured out how to get to it before I did, as well as start to undo all the divisiveness I had sown. I... Wasn't a good pony back then. Just... SO much tunnel vision, dead set on vengeance. I still look back and just... Chuckle at the ludicrousness of it all. Like, what was I going to do? Seize Canterlot's throne with a few hundred mind-controlled teenagers-turned-equines? With three of the most powerful figures in Equestrian history waiting right there on the other side of the portal? Luckily, Twilight and the versions of her friends over there weren't having any of it, and stopped me right there. That... Fortunately, that was the low point for me," Sunset explained.
"You didn't come back immediately?" Sunny asked.
"I'm sure it crossed Twilight's mind, but she decided to leave me there with the mirror versions of her friends, so I could finally start to learn what Princess Celestia tried to teach me for so long. It wasn't easy. Some days I didn't want to get out of bed. But I slowly made it up to everybody. To my friends, my classmates, to the staff. When magic started to leak across dimensions, not just from the portal, but from other places over there, I was there to help. Quite a few Equestrian artifacts had popped up over there. Things eventually began to quiet down as I closed in on my fourth year over there, and I started thinking more and more about how homesick I had gotten. I mean, I won't keep going on, you've already heard this story this morning."
Sunny, now nearly done with her food, cleared her throat and took a sip of soda.
"It may not be where you intended to end up, but I am glad you're here, Sunset," the earth pony told her. "You may not be a Princess' protege, or archmage anymore, but you know what? You can be a living example of everything Princesses Celestia and Twilight taught you."
Sunset smiled at the earth pony.
"Thank you, Sunny. That means a lot," she replied, finally starting to dig into the bulk of her food. "I think I do want to travel a bit, see what's become of Equestria in all this time, but first I want to take a look at Canterlogic. Do they do tours over there?"
"They certainly do. I can go with you tomorrow, I know Sprout has already started work on the trailer attachment for the truck, and he'll want my feedback. I'm sure Toots or Phyllis can arrange a tour for you."
"Awesome. In the meantime, I think I'll get in touch with Princess Pipp about seeing more of Zephyr Heights. I watched some of her videos earlier today. I wonder if she livestreams video games."
Determined to beat Sunny to the kitchen that morning, Sunset set her alarm for 6:30 and took a quick shower. After getting dried off, she made her way to the kitchen, and took a look around, finding a waffle iron in the bottom right cabinet.
"Now we're talking," Sunset said to herself, taking out the appliance and setting it on the counter, before searching the pantry for flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. She combined the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl, and then went to the fridge to get the wet ingredients; eggs, milk, butter, and vanilla extract from the pantry. Knowing she wasn't going to need the entire mix this morning, she took what she didn't need of the dry mix and poured it into a jar and sealed it for later, before adding the wet ingredients to the bowl, making a thick, gooey waffle mix.
She heard Sunny's alarm go off as she was spraying the waffle iron with cooking spray before turning it on to heat it up. By the time the first glob of waffle mix hit the iron, Sunny had come out into the kitchen.
"That smells good already," Sunny commented.
"Two semesters of Canterlot High cooking," Sunset replied, lowering the top of the iron down, and the sizzling commenced.
For her part, Sunny went over to the cabinets on the left, and got the table set with plates, utensils, and glasses, before pulling the pitcher of orange juice from the fridge. Ten minutes later, they each had two jumbo waffles on their plate, topped with syrup and butter.
"So what did Pipp say about you coming back to Zephyr Heights?" Sunny asked as she started into her waffles.
"We haven't hammered out specifics, just that she'd love to have me back in town whenever I'd like. I don't want to rush over there, I was thinking about camping on the way there."
"Well, I've got some camping equipment from our excursion to Princess Twilight's castle you can use. We can get the cart packed up before our tour in a few hours," Sunny told her, continuing into her breakfast.
"So, how much of Twilight's history have you figured out?" Sunset asked the earth pony. Sunny put a hoof to her chin.
"When I compare the contents of the Guardians' friendship journal with the memory gems found in the castle... I'd actually say under half; by that, I mean that I've managed to put just under half of the memory gem images to specific entries in the journal; the castle is only really mentioned at the very end of it, when they defeated Lord Tirek and banished him back to Tartarus... And I'm wondering if that place even exists anymore. I just found it weird that she didn't even so much as mention you in it, even though one of the memory gems prove you're telling the truth about who you are."
"Well, that journal was mass produced; probably not the best thing to tell them about an alternate dimension that was able to be accessed via mirror and other spontaneous locations around the world," Sunset commented.
"Yeah, that's true. Quite enough Equestrian magic leaked through to that world as it was; not to mention ancient mages just, well, tossing threats over there to get them out of Equestria."
After breakfast, the pair of mares packed up the cart for the camping trip towards Zephyr Heights, and Sunset was realizing that having Ray along might prove tricky.
"Sunset, I don't mind looking after Ray, I promise. When Izzy heads back to Bridlewood, and you go to Zephyr Heights with Zipp and Pipp, this place will feel a little empty. It'll be nice to have a little company until you get back," Sunny told her.
"Truth be told, it would make traveling a bit easier, and he is really good with new ponies. I got enough food for him to last a few weeks, and I know I won't be gone that long. You sure?" Sunset asked.
Sunny nodded again.
"It'll be good practice if I ever want to get a pet of my own. He's in good hooves, you have my word," the earth pony told her.
With that, they put the cart up next to the front door, ready for Sunset to leave later in the day, and they were off into the Maretime Bay morning towards CanterLogic.
"There's one more thing that I've been trying to wrap my head around. Do you know what time dilation is?" Sunset asked Sunny as they made their way down the main street.
"Something about time moving at different rates in different places?"Sunny answered.
"The mirror world had counterparts for everypony in Equestria in my time, but it was more technologically advanced. Equestria didn't match the mirror world's tech until, well, until now. I'm willing to bet that when magic left Equestria, it threw the time dilation even more out of whack. I can't help but wonder if it really would have mattered when I came back through the portal. Would seconds passing turn into weeks, months, or years passing over here?"
Sunny could only shrug. Nearly all of this was beyond her.
"I should probably just stop occupying myself with those kind of questions; I'm not likely to get any answers, and I'm here now," Sunset commented.
"It's perfectly alright to have questions, especially in situations like this. But true, don't drive yourself nuts with them," Sunny offered as they came up on the CanterLogic's wide, front walk.
The factory sat on top of the highest hill, overlooking the rest of downtown Maretime Bay. A concrete walk ringed the building, with stairs leading down to a lower walk, providing stairs up the hill from almost any point around the structure. The two mares walked side by side up the center walk, up to the two sets of double doors. Stepping up to them, the left set of doors slid open, and they walked into CanterLogic's main concourse.
"Whoa," was Sunset's first comment, looking around at her surroundings. There was no hiding the inner workings behind 'tourism' areas here; right after coming through the first hallway, there were grabber arms and multi-level conveyor belts everywhere, snaking throughout the central area to all the different levels of the factory. The center room was quite large, and in the back was a large, T-shaped stage. This must be where they held product unveilings so tourists wouldn't have to go far.
The two mares went to a visitor's kiosk that was being occupied by a light pink mare with her mane spiked up in the back. She wore a collar and necktie. An ID badge was clipped on the left side of her collar.
"Good morning, Sunny. Nice to see you again!" she greeted.
"Good morning, Sweets. This is Sunset Shimmer, a new friend of mine. We're wondering if we could do a tour this morning," Sunny said.
"Anything for you, Sunny, and pleased to meet you, Sunset," Sweets replied, getting out a clipboard and picked up a walkie talkie on the desk, calling for a replacement to come to the kiosk. A dark blue stallion came from a door in the wall behind her, and with a nod and smile, took her place as she stepped out from behind the desk. "So, new to town, Sunset?"
"Very new," the unicorn replied, nodding.
"Well, CanterLogic can be seen almost anywhere you stand in Maretime Bay, boasting four stories above ground and two floors below ground, it finds its roots right here in town nearly 43 years ago. Back then, our now-CEO was just getting started on the ground floor..."
The tube elevator slowly descended down to the floor, before the doors slid open, and the trio of ponies stepped out.
"And here is our Research and Development area. Being underground allows operations to continue around the clock without disturbing the quiet nights of the surrounding populace," Sweets explained.
Sunset took it all in as best she could. More pipes, cranes, and conveyors ran along the outer edges of the large room. The whole area had an industrial green hue to it.
The tour had been very informative, and to Sweets' credit, she had been very forthcoming about CanteLogic's rather racist roots, how nearly all of their products had been some sort of deterrent against unicorns and pegasi, and how they had been rebranding ever since the reunification months ago, having opened up trade relationships with companies in Zephyr Heights, as well as ongoing efforts to bring non-intrusive industry to Bridlewood.
The three of them came up to a large elevated platform in the back, accessed by a ramp with yellow and black warning stripes. Up on the platform was a cargo trailer of some sort. A half dozen ponies were on top, looking like they were hammering rivets into a metal frame. In Sunset's mind, it looked mostly like an incomplete semi-trailer, but considerably more rugged, based on the tires.
"Hope he hasn't been exhausting himself," Sunny commented as they came up the ramp, seeing sparks fly from the underside of the trailer.
"Oh, just the usual arriving a half-hour before the first shift," Sweets commented. "Visitors, Sprout," she called to the pair of red and white legs laying exposed from underneath.
The sparks stopped, and out rolled the red earth pony on a garage creeper.
"This is Sprout Cloverleaf, and this is his latest project," Sweets announced.
"Looks like it's coming along great, Sprout," Sunny commented as the stallion lifted off the welder's mask he was currently wearing.
"Thanks, Sunny. Feel free to have a look around; it'd be great to have an opinion of how things look from somepony who hasn't been staring at this thing for the past 48 hours," Sprout commented. Sunny nodded with a smile, before going to do a walk-around with Sweets, leaving Sprout alone with their unicorn visitor.
"Sprout, right? You were one of the drivers of the truck, right? Thanks for getting us to town safely," Sunset greeted.
Sprout nodded with a smile.
"That's me. It was Sunset, right?" Sprout asked, the unicorn nodding in return. "Happy to do it."
"So, I can only assume you're the owner's son? Good to see you don't have one of the more cushy jobs upstairs."
"I've only been here for a few months. I used to be deputy for the MBPD. That didn't end well. You see, I... I don't have the cleanest past..." Sprout admitted, his gaze averting away from Sunset. When he risked looking at her again, he saw that her smile had only widened.
"Finally, somepony I can relate to."
Sunny slowly took in the incomplete trailer that would eventually connect to the back of the Scouticus, and could only imagine all the things they were going to be able to bring back from the Crystal Empire, and any future ancient sites they might visit. She didn't think they'd be able to get the whole library's worth of books into the completed trailer, but it would cut more than a dozen trips down to probably two or three.
When she came back around, she saw Sunset talking to a rather enthusiastic Sprout.
"Hey, Sunny?" Sunset started, taking a step towards her. "Could you send me a text when you find out when Zipp and Pipp are ready to head out? I think Sprout and I are going to go grab some lunch."
Sunset was leaning back in the padded booth as she awaited her lunch, the waffles having worn off by now.
"And here we are," Sprout announced, coming up to their booth with a closed pizza box and sliding it onto the table. "The best pizza on the coast."
The red earth stallion lifted the top flap up to reveal a steaming, sliced-pizza with possibly every vegetable in the garden topping the gooey cheese.
"Well, they certainly don't skimp on the toppings, now do they?" Sunset commented as Sprout took his seat across from her.
"That's my favorite part about this place. Probably why I'm one of their regulars. So, you called yourselves the 'Equestria Girls'?"
"I actually don't remember exactly who came up with that, it had to have been either Flash or Lyra. But yeah, that name spread around the school for our circle of friends that handled anything magical from time to time. Well," Sunset began, using the wooden and metal spatula to pull out her first slice, her mouth positively watering at the cheese pull that resulted. "You've heard my story. Let's hear yours."
Sunset passed him the spatula so he could get out his first slice, putting it down onto his plate.
"So, I've spent my entire life here in Maretime Bay, born and raised. I've known Sunny and Hitch for almost as long. When I was younger I always wanted to be Sheriff of Maretime Bay. I often mocked Sunny for her beliefs and views, probably because I, and most of Maretime Bay, sucked up every ounce of what we were taught to believe in history class. Her dad really turned her into an amazing pony, to be so civil and tenacious in the face of all of that."
Sprout paused to take a bite of hot pizza while Sunset sipped at her soda.
"Anyways, I never did make it up to Sheriff, and it was likely only because of Hitch's good graces that I was his deputy. Mainly just had me keep an eye on Sunny when he figured she was going to stage another protest, or try to sneak into CanterLogic again for another demonstration or speech. Her latest attempt was during my mom's annual showcase. After it went about a well as her other demonstrations, Izzy wandered into town, and drove everypony into a panic. Sunny took off with Izzy to go to Zephyr Heights, and Hitch gave chase, leaving me in charge. That's... When things got bad."
Sprout took another couple bites of pizza and a gulp of soda, as he mentally prepared how to explain himself at his lowest point.
"The populace was spooked, they were looking to the police department for answers, mom wasn't doing me or my ego any favors by suggesting that I take charge as acting sheriff, and... I just wanted ponies to trust me, like they trusted Hitch. I took the first pages out of his book, urging everypony to calm down, but I didn't act like him for too long; instead I started playing into their fears, just to hang on to their trust, because all I needed was one taste of it, and before I knew it, it was all I wanted. When Sunny and Hitch came back two nights later, I had everyone whipped into a small, panicky army that didn't last fifteen seconds at staring down a few unicorns and pegasi... And..."
Sprout took another deep breath, finishing off his current slice of pizza.
"...And when I thought they were going to use those crystals to give the unicorns and pegasi their magic back, I went and toppled the lighthouse. Thankfully, after that, things calmed down. The crystals restored everypony's magic, and I, somehow, kept my job. I knew I didn't have the trust of anypony anymore, and I began to realize that nothing I did would ever get it back. So I started splitting my time between the MBPD and CanterLogic, and when Sunny came to us wanting help designing a vehicle to get up north to the Crystal Empire, I decided to do everything I could to help her piece together Equestria's ancient past. We built a heavily modified version of my vehicle to get up to eight ponies and a fair bit of cargo up and back. Now that we've discovered how much is up there, and with how fulfilling I've found it, I've officially resigned from the MBPD, and I'm working in CanterLogic's Research and Development division full time now."
His story now complete, Sprout took another breath and pulled another veggie-filled slice of pizza up from the box and over to his plate.
"Well, it sounds to me like we've both had troubled pasts, but you've made all the right choices lately, Sprout. I know how that feeling; that you believe that you'll never earn their forgiveness or friendship, but I think you've already done that."
The stallion smiled at the unicorn across the table.
"I guess if you speak from experience, I can trust that. I mean, it's not like I turned into a demon form like you did."
"It's not just my experiences that you have to account for, it's yours too. You got your friends hundreds of miles north and back, safely, and it sounds like you're getting ready to do it again."
"Yeah. That trailer should be assembled in another day or two, then it's just a matter of stress-testing it, making sure it can handle the terrain and the weight; that'll take a week or two, and then I think we'll be good to go. You're more than welcome to come along and see it if you want; our route takes us pretty close to Zephyr Heights, we could pick you up along the way," Sprout offered.
"I'll probably take you up on that, after a few days up there. Just let me know when you guys are ready to go. I might even be able to help with driving. I took an RV up to a music festival for a weekend, so I've got some experience," Sunset answered.
As she started into her next slice, her phone vibrated on the table next to her plate. She lit up her horn and grabbed it, looking at the alert on the lock screen.
Pipp Hey Sunset. Zipp left for home early, looking like it's gonna be just you and me camping on the way. Meet you at Sunny's in about an hour?
Taking another sip of soda, Sunset tapped in a reply with a mote of magic extending from the tip of her horn.
Sunset Sure thing. Just finishing up lunch. See you soon!
"Well, looks like I'm gonna be headed out of here in a little over an hour. I don't think I'm gonna be able to finish my half, so since you bought, you can have the leftovers. I'm glad to have gotten to know you, Sprout. Thanks for introducing me to the best pizza place in town. I'm looking forward to traveling with you up north."
"Alright, my little sunshine..." Sunset coo'd, lightly running the tip of her hoof along Ray's top scales, which he stretched into fluttering his new wings. "You're not gonna give Sunny a hard time while I'm gone, right?"
The winged lizard gave a flap of his wings to climb up the unicorn's hoof as she brought him up to her muzzle. He gave her snout an affectionate flick of his tongue before Sunset nuzzled him in response, before setting him back down in his new terrarium. She made sure he had fresh water and a full food dish before adjusting the lid to give him the space to come and go as he pleased.
"So he won't jump out of a corner at me or anything, right?" Sunny asked.
"No," Sunset answered with a chuckle. "He likes hanging out near houseplants, at least he did back in the mirror world. I imagine he'll want to use his new wings a bit, and he's smart enough to know that his food and water are here in the terrarium, so he'll never go far."
"I'll move one of the taller plants in here for him to explore," Sunny said as the two mares went back out into the hallway.
Sunset had instructed her on how to clean the terrarium, and what his diet was, in case his food ran out. She was leaving her chest at the foot of her bed, but taking some of its contents with her, such as her yearbooks and guitar, after Pipp told her they could definitely find her a small amp in Zephyr Heights.
They made their way out into the bright afternoon, where Pipp was already waiting, taking a selfie with Sunset's packed cart. It took a bit of rearranging to make room for the pegasus' camping supplies, but after that, the unicorn and Pegasus were ready to go.
"Well, I hope you enjoy your time up there, and I'll see you when we head for the Crystal Empire in a week or two," Sunny told Sunset.
"If you're coming along, who's going to watch Ray?" Sunset asked as she did a final inspection of the cart.
"Hitch is great with animals. Like, great to a fault. He'll be in good hooves," Sunny assured her.
"Well, thanks for everything so far, Sunny. I'll see you in a bit."
The unicorn and earth pony shared a short hug, before Sunset got hitched up to the cart, and she and Pipp were headed northeast into the hills.
"I hope my fans enjoy this set of posts. Hashtag 'roughing it'!" Pipp said as she posed for a selfie in front of Sunset's cart, with the hills outside Maretime Bay becoming more distant as they quickly approached a forest of giant sequoia trees.
"So... Tell me something. Without the need to raise the sun and moon, without flight, without magic... How did your family come to the position it's in now?" Sunset asked as she pulled the cart of supplies behind her.
Pipp's ears flicked for a moment as she put away her phone and slowed her pace just enough to walk beside the unicorn.
"Coming clean already? Yeah, I suppose I could do that, what with the first less-than-warm welcome mom gave you when you arrived. Better you hear it from me than someone else. My family has always been performers. Not only did we know how to look good and pass illusions off as the real thing, but we knew ponies who could help us do that, put on a show. Once city-wide media became a thing, I don't even know how many moons ago, we got the entire city convinced that the royal family got their magic of flight back, and that we were using that magic to protect the city. We never could have done it without the help of all the stagehands working in the background with the wires and lighting. I suppose they felt the same way we did; maintaining the illusion of flight would be better for everypony and keep panic from spreading."
"So I'm guessing that didn't last?" Sunset asked. Pipp shook her head.
"The guards on outer patrol spotted Sunny and Izzy coming towards the city, and brought them before mom. She had them put into the dungeon until she could question them, but she obviously wasn't in any hurry, because Zipp and I were the first ones down there. I was down there for the content creation I could do, but Zipp was far more interested in the reason they were there; restoring magic for all of Equestria. Maybe... Maybe I would have been a bit more interested too if I didn't have a show that night... Which they managed to sneak into and try and take the crystal on mom's crown. In their sneaking around, they freaked out the stagehand controlling my wires, and that's when the cat came out of the bag. We were all over the news within minutes. I managed to get free of my harness and into the alleys before the guards surrounded us. I saw that they were after the gem and grabbed it on my way out. With nothing to lose and mom in custody, I figured the best shot would be to tag along and see what came of it."
"Well, something good obviously came of it," Sunset commented. "So, they actually let you guys back into power?"
"We were as surprised as you were. But I guess that news quickly spread that the royal family had a few hooves in bringing magic back. And... Well, she enjoys the luxury, but I have to give mom credit where it's due; she's great at handling the bureaucracy of the day-to-day city operations."
"Sounds like it's working out so far for everypony."
"You'd think so. Having a city of pegasi that can suddenly fly is proving to be a struggle. You know, mid-air collisions and such."
"Yeah, I can understand how that would take some time to figure out."
"So how's the phone working out?" Pipp asked.
"Great. I mean, Sunny and her museum remain the most accurate source of history. I haven't had a lot of spare time yet, but I have made the time to check out some of your vlogs, especially your series on exploring Twilight's castle. Pretty impressive footage."
"Wow, thanks! Always great to have another fan. It was at the perfect time too, when more ponies were getting curious about Equestria's ancient history. The different museums have been swapping artifacts and working to get our stories more straight. We can take a look at the Zephyr Heights museum when we get there if you like," Pipp offered.
"That definitely sounds like a plan, Pipp. Let's do it."
"Well, I don't know about you, but my stomach is starting to growl. What do you say we stop for the night and get a campsite set up?" Pipp suggested.
"Yep, I'm definitely getting on the hungry side myself," Sunset replied. "You think we've come far enough for the night?"
"Definitely. If we get an early enough start, we'll be there by early afternoon tomorrow. So let's start looking for a clearing," Pipp suggested.
The sequoia trees making up this forest made Sunset feel quite tiny. It also made it feel like they hadn't come as far as they really had. But according to Pipp, Sunny and Izzy had made the trek in just over a day's time, with stopping to eat and get enough sleep.
A quarter of a mile later, they came up to a small clearing off to the left of the somewhat beaten path,
"Yeah, I think this looks pretty good. What do you think? You're the camper," Pipp asked Sunset after looking it over for a few moments.
"Yep. Enough space for two tents and a fire ring. Let's get to it," Sunset replied, unhitching from the cart after pulling it just far enough off the road to not block the path. Once they had a fire ring arranged, and kindling gathered, Sunset lit up her horn, and after a momentary flash at the tip, a fire sparked to life in the kindling.
"Wow. Well, that's one way to go about it," Pipp said with a smile as she began to go through their food supplies.
For her part, Sunset got out the tents, poles, footprints, stakes, and the rain fly for each, and began putting up the tents diagonal from each other, and facing the fire. After she had both tents up and adequately sheltered from the elements, she returned to the cart to grab the two tightly-packed sleeping bags, depositing one in each tent, along with a portable battery to charge their phones overnight. By the time their sleeping arrangements were all set and ready to go, Pipp was ready with dinner fireside.
"Fresh campfire haycakes, hot off the flames," Pipp announced, passing Sunset a plate, who took it in her magical grasp. "So, you've clearly done that a time or two," she finished, motioning to the pair of tents.
"Camping trips were common with my friends back in the mirror world. Setting up camp is pretty second nature to me by now," Sunset said, before taking a bite. "And you seem to know good haycakes."
"Camping staple, or so I'm told. I never really camped before I met Sunny and the others, but I did do a vlog on quick and easy camping foods for my outdoors-y fans," Pipp replied before taking another bite.
"I'm looking forward to seeing your setup, you know, how you stream, and how often you plan in advance," Sunset said, taking another bite.
"I do my shorter vlogs right on my phone. I try to stream games once or twice a week."
"Heh, now we're talking. Gaming was my main avenue, got up to over five hundred thousand subs before I came back here. I gave the channel to a friend when it was clear I'd be coming back here."
"It must be so weird," Pipp began, swallowing her bite of hay cakes. "Coming back to a wildly different Equestria, but that's also so much closer to the world you just came from."
"Tell me about it, I've stopped trying to wrap my mind around it for now. Hope there's plenty of distractions in Zephyr Heights," Sunset replied.
"We've definitely got you covered there. Absolutely no shortage of things to do in our city."
"I wonder how much of it I'll recognize. I mean, um..." Sunset trailed off.
"Yeah, I know about Sunny's research, how ZH used to be a unicorn city untold moons ago. You're... You're not angry about that, are you?" Pipp asked, a twinge of nervousness in her voice.
Sunset immediately shook her head.
"Absolutely not. I don't hold the ponies of today responsible for the actions of the generations that came before. What happened happened. I just can't even, you know, imagine things getting so bad, that unrest or civil war would break out like that, after everything that Princess Twilight and her friends did. But I suppose Discord's message was right; every generation has the responsibility of taking up the mantle of friendship and carrying it forward."
"At least we're doing that here and now. For what it's worth, I hope you can find your place here."
Sunset found herself walking down tiled hallways that felt eerily familiar. Each hoofstep echoed off the dimly lit walls, as faint ghostly whispers reached her ears.
"You could be great. I thought I saw compassion and sincerity in you, but it was nothing but ambition."
"Hello?" Sunset called, getting no kind of direct reply in return. As she continued down the hall, the light shifted, revealing ghostly, barely visible equine forms standing and moving through the corridors.
Needless to say, this was a bit creepy.
"How dare you keep this kind of magic from me!"
The voice felt closer, and was angry, but was still at a whisper. It felt as if these voices weren't coming from these faded, transparent spirits, but from right next to her, or from within her.
"I deserve to stand beside you and be your equal, if not your better."
There was a set of double doors to her right, and it felt familiar. She stood here with someone, long ago...
"Every time you say you 'deserve' to get something without the effort just proves to me that you are not ready."
"I am ready."
Sunset stepped up to the doors, and pushed them open, trying her best to ignore the voices. She took a single step into the lecture hall on the other side of the doors, before coming to a halt as her breath left her.
"I told you it would be the biggest mistake of your life."
This voice wasn't a whisper, and it wasn't right next to her, but directly in front of her. Her eyes widened as she saw the winged, bipedal form standing over the prone, barely moving Princess Celestia on the floor in front of her. She immediately recognized the hair, and her shoulder blades began to tingle and ache as the she-demon turned her head to look back at her.
"All this power, and you just threw it away," the figure sneered. "How foolish."
Without another word, the demon raised her right arm, and a stream of fire erupted out her palm towards the unicorn. Sunset barely had time to put up a magical shield. But in protecting herself, the flames smashed against her shield and bounced off towards the walls and floor of the lecture hall as she backed up into the hall. The defensive retreat worked, and with a flap of her wings, the demon moved towards her and away from the injured Celestia. Sunset jumped out of the way of another duo of fireballs, quickly extinguishing the flames before returning her focus towards her demon form that had exited into the hall.
"You think I'm baited so easily..." the demon taunted, before generating another fireball in her right palm, before whipping it directly to her side back into the lecture hall, getting a flash of flames and a wave of heat rushing out into the hall. "She sealed her fate when she denied me my rightful place. And so did you..."
Snarling, the demon thrust forward her arms again, sending dual streams of fire out towards Sunset. When she lost sight of her demon form, she lit up her horn, and vanished from where she was standing in a flash of light, and reappeared behind the demon, firing off a burst of magical bolts at her back before turning and galloping back the way she had come.
The demon grunted in response to the attack's impact, and gave chase down the hall, shooting out bolts of fire as she flew. Sunset kept up her gallop, weaving from one end of the hall to the other, still hearing the whispering voices.
"I want Equestria, and with my own little teenage army behind me, I'm going to get it."
Sunset made a left at the next junction, and skidded to a halt, as the corridor came to an inexplicable dead end, with the magical mirror. She turned to head in the opposite direction, but that way was also abruptly cut off, and her demon form came around the corner, trapping Sunset between her and the mirror.
She let loose with another fireball, and while Sunset got her shield up in time, she didn't get enough time to brace herself, and she lost her balance, tumbling end over end, feeling herself tingle all over as she fell through the mirror. She lost all sense of direction as psychedelic colors spun past her.
Moments later, she felt gravity take hold again, and she felt herself scrape against concrete. Her blurry vision cleared, and she saw hands and flesh in place of her front hooves. Groaning, she rolled over onto her back, and began to push herself up, only to be pushed back down as a glowing white shoe pressed down on her chest, as she heard a familiar, snickering voice. She looked up into the burning gaze of Midnight Sparkle.
"Mmm hmmhmmhmm, I see your better half has finally cleared the way for me," Midnight sneered triumphantly, her dark violet wings flaring out. She glanced back at the portal as it ebbed, as Sunset's demon form stepped through.
"I suppose I could share the spoils of conquest with someone equally ambitious. If you could do me the favor of making sure she wont get in our way again," the she-demon replied, flashing a fanged smile at Midnight as Sunset felt around her neck in a panic, not finding her geode necklace.
"Well, I was going to leave you with this worthless high school, but a price is a price. Goodbye, Sunset," Midnight growled, reaching out an open palm towards the prone Sunset.
The girl braced herself a split-second before a blinding white beam of magic shot out of Midnight Sparkle's outstretched hand, enveloping her in a white hot light. She gritted her teeth, and tried to endure the burning...
Sunset shot up in her sleeping bag with a gasp. After taking a few deep breaths and looking around to confirm her surroundings, she brought up her front legs out of her sleeping bag to confirm that they were indeed hooves at the ends. After one more breath, she felt how damp and sweaty her sleeping bag had become in her sleep, and unzipped it, tossing the top flap off of herself, and rolling to her feet. She tapped the screen of her phone charging in the corner, and saw that it was a quarter til five in the morning. Groaning lightly, figuring it wouldn't be worth it to try and get back to sleep, she unzipped her tent and stepped outside, and after a momentary glow from her horn, the fresh kindling in the campfire lit up into a small crackling blaze, and she sat down in the dirt.
A couple minutes later, Pipp's tent unzipped, and she stepped out, sans tiara, towards where Sunset was sitting.
"Everything alright, Sunset?"
"Rough night... Pretty bad dream, not sure if I'll get back to sleep," Sunset answered.
Pipp reached back into her tent to grab her phone, and checked the time.
"Well, if we want to grab a quick bite to eat, I don't think I'd have a problem with breaking camp and getting an early start," She offered.
Sunset's horn lit up and the tub of snacks and quick meals opened up and two fruit-filled granola bars floated out and came over to the pair, one to Pipp, and one to herself. Sunset quickly unwrapped hers, and took a bite.
Due to their very early start that morning, well before the sun had come up, Sunset and Pipp were on the final approach to Zephyr Heights.
"Zipp may prefer free-climbing up the southwest face, but I myself prefer the main road into town," Pipp told Sunset as they approached Zephyr Heights' paved section as they came into the city proper, after cutting north joining the road that had been constructed next to the river which flowed south, bypassing the new road that went to Princess Twilight's castle.
"Welcome home, Princess Pipp," one of the gate guards greeted with a bow, as two more guards came out of the adjacent barracks and accompanied the pair into the city as the Princess' escort.
"Actually, if you want, we don't have to go straight to the castle first. We pass right by the Zephyr Heights Museum on the way," Pipp offered.
"Well, can we eat on the way? I don't know about you, but that granola bar from this morning has definitely worn off," Sunset commented.
"Now that you mention it, yeah, I could definitely do some lunch. What are you feeling? ZH has like, almost anything you could want."
"Let's see, I've done pizza, carrot dogs, hay sliders..."
"Cupcakes?" Pipp suggested.
"Yeah, sure. Let's break the rules. Dessert first," Sunset answered with a smirk.
"Private, could you please take Sunset's belongings to the castle's guest suite? We'll be a bit," Pipp asked, turning to the escort on her right. With a curt nod, the guard waited for Sunset to unhitch herself from the cart, and continued on towards the castle while she and Sunset cut off to the east towards the nearest confectionery. After a couple cupcakes each, they were on their way down to the Zephyr Heights Museum.
"Well, that hasn't changed a whole lot, at least on the outside," Sunset commented when she saw the exterior.
"You recognize it?" Pipp asked.
"It used to be Canterlot's public library," Sunset answered as they ascended the steps. They stepped through the doors and were immediately greeted by the receptionist.
"Hello, and welcome to, oh! Princess Pipp, Your Highness. Welcome back to our museum. May I help you with anything?"
Pipp shook her head politely.
"Just showing a new friend around before we head up to the castle," Pipp answered.
"Of course, of course, go right on in," the receptionist replied, waving them through.
"Yep... The walls look the same, but that's pretty much the only thing..." the unicorn commented, taking in her surroundings. Replacing the shelves upon shelves of books on both stories of the structure were now various displays. Artwork, artifacts, and other various displays lined the halls where endless rows of books once were.
Mirroring what had been happening the past few months with Maretime Bay's museum, the two story structure was now far more than pegasus history.
"One of the newest pieces," Pipp said, coming up to a metallic poster of the Wonderbolts. "Zipp was quite adamant about getting it restored and put on display. I think she's really hoping to revive the group. There's just the issue of... Well, mom."
"Not a fan of her doing all those dangerous stunts?" Sunset asked as they looked at more displays.
"More than that. You see, officially, my sister is Heir Apparent, and I know that's not what she wants to do with her life. I mean, maybe I could, but right now I don't want to think about how that would throw my content creation into chaos," Pipp commented.
"Yeah, I suppose if you don't aspire to something like that, it could really upend your life," Sunset commented, before stopping to look down the short corridor they had come to. It was various artwork on both sides, and on the back wall, which had a single large portrait of Cloudsdale.
"Can you imagine? An entire city in the clouds," Pipp commented, taking in the picture, while Sunset slowly stepped closer.
"I think this is the same hall... I wonder..."
Sunset stepped up to the painting, with just a velvet rope between her and the wall, and slowly reached forward, and gently tapped her hoof to the wall.
"What are you doing?" Pipp asked, nervous that the unicorn was disregarding the velvet rope. Sunset leaned over the rope, put her left ear to the wall, and tapped with her hoof again, her ear twitching in response, before standing upright again, and turned to Pipp.
"Pipp... What if I told you there was a secret passage here? Right behind this wall? Do you think the Head Curator would move this painting?"
Pipp's eyes widened at the request, but the princess had to admit that she was intrigued at 'secret passage', and Sunset even recognized the glint in her eye.
"And no streaming, Pipp. If it is still here, nopony was supposed to know about it."
Pipp gave a nod.
"I'll go see if I can find them," the pegasus replied before trotting off, and Sunset returned her attention to the wall, wondering if the mechanism had been removed, had been boarded over, and how hard it would take to get through. She was hoping her memory was serving her well; she didn't want to tear through a wall for nothing, but that tapping definitely sounded a bit hollow.
"Excuse me, miss?" Came a new voice, a well dressed pegasus stallion with Pipp at his side. "May I help you with something? Princess Pipp is saying something about a secret passage?"
Pipp took a step forward.
"This is Whirlwind, curator of the Zephyr Heights museum," she announced.
Sunset smiled gently at both of them, before looking at Whirlwind.
"Sir, how much do you know about this building?" Sunset asked, and Whirlwind cleared his throat.
"I do know that it's one of the oldest buildings in the city. Before it was a museum, I'm not sure. Records that far back are notoriously hard to find. I am aware of Sunny Starscout's new revelations on what happened in this city long ago, so I'm inclined to believe that this was a library repurposed as a refuge for homeless pegasi when their city collapsed."
"I don't want to confuse you too much by going into detail about who I am or where I come from, Whirlwind. Suffice to say, I remember this building back when it was a library, and if my memory serves, there is a secret passageway behind this wall that was accessible to only the Princesses of Equestria. I can only assume that they attempted to hide it when things in the city started to go south, so that only ponies that knew it was here would be able to even attempt to get into it. I'm wondering if we can move these paintings and do that right now."
Whirlwind's eyes widened, but he put a hoof to his chin in thought. Pipp saw this and chimed in.
"If it helps, I can promise complete financial coverage on whatever it costs to repair the wall," she said.
"I don't think I'll have to tear down the whole wall," Sunset reassured. "My main concern is if the enchantment is still in place. If the panel mechanism is no longer there, a disenchantment spell is the only way we'll be able to even begin to get through, and those aren't exactly my forte," she confessed.
"Well, first things first," Whirlwind began after clearing his throat. "Yes, I can arrange to have these paintings moved shortly. Apart from those, with Pipp's reassurances, you can proceed once they're out of the way. Please mind your surroundings during your, um, disenchanting," Whirlwind replied, adjusting his glasses.
"I'll be careful, you have my word," Sunset reassured him.
Several minutes later, he had a pair of museum technicians come and carefully remove the paintings, and also moved the velvet rope back to the front of the corridor, safely cordoning off the area.
"Alright, next, if you two could take a step back. I need to make this area as safe as possible in case anything does go sideways," Sunset warned.
Pipp and Whirlwind took several steps back, then saw Sunset's horn light up, a brilliant orange aura surrounding her horn. With a sparkling flash of light, the walls on either side, the floor, the ceiling, as well as the front of the corridor now glowed orange, and the two pegasi saw that Sunset had essentially encased herself in a glowing box of a shield, as she now turned her attention to the back wall where the painting used to be, and her magical aura now turned a sickly green. Whirlwind instinctually backed up almost entirely behind the corner, with Pipp doing the same at the opposite corner. They heard the unicorn take a deep breath, then lower her head so that her horn was pointed directly at the back wall, and a moment later, a green and black beam erupted from the tip of her horn.
Motes of green-tinted light began to emanate from the back wall, floating in midair for several seconds before falling to the floor around Sunset's hooves. The unicorn strained in concentration, maintaining the beam for around fifteen seconds, before it dissipated, and all the motes of light on the floor evaporated into thin air, as Sunset now struggled to stay on her hooves as her glowing transparent box shield faded to nothing.
"Hey, you alright?" Pipp asked, coming up to her, helping her stay up right.
"Yeah... Disenchantment spells are no joke, and neither are magic-induced headaches... Whew, undoing an alicorn-level enchantment... That's one for the books," Sunset commented as she rubbed her forehead.
"So what now?" Whirlwind asked, relieved that there had been no damage so far.
"Now..." Sunset paused to take another deep breath, before beginning to concentrate again, her horn lighting up bright, but this time there was no aura as she approached the wall. "We hopefully hit air and not caved-in boulders..."
Her horn must have been as scorching hot as it looked, because the tip touched the wall, and passed through like a hot knife through butter. There was some smoldering smoke, but little else, thankfully. Over the next thirty seconds, she very carefully cut a nearly perfect circular hole four inches wide.
"That's it?" Pipp asked as Sunset raised her head again and her horn stopped glowing.
"That's all we need," Sunset replied as she dug her smartphone out of her saddlebags, and turned on the flashlight, shining it into the hole as she peered closer.
"Bingo," she said satisfactorily with a smirk. "You two ready?" she asked, turning back to the pair of pegasi.
"Um, I believe I will wait up here, make sure no other patrons see this until you can verify it's safe. Whatever is beyond that wall, you've earned first look, after all." Whirlwind answered.
Pipp, however, stepped forward.
"Again, that's it? How exactly are we going to get through that hole?" the princess asked.
"No sweat. Here," Sunset answered, offering Pipp her left hoof. The pegasus stepped forward and took it, as Sunset turned back towards the wall, and her horn lit up again.
Whirlwind took a short step back as the unicorn's horn lit up again, and in a flash of light, Sunset and Pipp vanished into thin air.
After the near instantaneous flash of light, and the loss of equilibrium that lasted just a bit longer, Pipp found herself standing in near-pitch black conditions, trying to remain on her feet.
"Whoa there. Sorry, I forget that teleporting is quite disorienting for first-timers," she heard Sunset say. She saw the darkened features of the unicorn by a single beam of light coming from a small hole to their right.
"Teleporting? Where are we?" Pipp asked.
"The other side of the wall. This way, there's a lot less to patch up once we're done here. We'll be as quick as we can!" Sunset called back towards the hole.
"I'll be here!" Whirlwind replied.
Pipp saw Sunset's horn light up again, but instead of becoming bright, the mote of light traveled to the tip of her horn before expanding into a warm, wide glow that made their surroundings easily visible; a cobblestone passageway that almost immediately curved to the left and down.
"Wow, you weren't kidding," Pipp commented as they started down the passage. There were torch sconces on the walls, but they remained dark.
"Enchantments probably long gone on those, they usually light up when you get close," Sunset stated, glancing at the sconces whose torches had long since rotted away.
"You've been down here before?" Pipp asked, as they continued descending down deeper into the interior of the mountain.
"Once, with Princesses Celestia, Luna, and Twilight. We were attempting to find the origins of an artifact that had erased my friends' memories. This was the one place that had any kind of answer."
"Sunny's gonna jump out of her horseshoes when she sees this place," Pipp replied.
They had traveled down at least a story before it curved to the left again, and there were a giant set of doors.
"Well, this is it. Time to see what's inside," Sunset said. The glow of her horn intensified again, and the doors groaned and creaked in defiance, having not been moved for who knows how long. After a bit of straining, and her magical light flickering a bit, the right door gave, the ancient metal hinges letting out a screaming creak as it opened up, and Sunset took a breath as she stepped forward.
As they stepped into the large cavern, all guises of a pony-made corridor vanished, as the cavern had minimal additional construction done to it; just two limestone balconies that ringed the room and faded into the darkness beyond Sunset's illumination.
Pipp was perhaps expecting something akin to what they had seen in the library of the Crystal Empire, but truth be told, there wasn't much here in comparison. A few undoubtedly fragile books on the shelves, but this mild-climate cave didn't provide the conservation and protection that the arctic's frigid temperatures did.
"Sunset, look at that," Pipp said, pointing to a large carved stone table in the center of the cavern, with a lone chest on top of it.
The unicorn stood and looked, and Pipp was the first one to walk around the table, and her eyes widened when she saw the other side of the chest.
"What is it?" Sunset asked.
Pipp glanced at Sunset before she placed her hooves on both sides of the chest and rotated it so the other side was facing her.
"Your cutie mark is on it," the pegasus commented as the rotation was completed, and Sunset's mouth dropped open as she stared at the oak and brass-bolted chest.
"This is the trunk from my old dorm room. What's it doing down here?" Sunset asked, stepping up to the table, getting a closer look at the chest. The brass fittings and bands had a greenish-blue appearance due to the patina that had formed over the last millennium, but it was otherwise intact. So the first question was, did the lock still work?
The lock could be opened magically or physically, but neither might be feasible. According to Sunny, when magic left Equestria, that meant absolutely everything; including enchantments, protection, and conservation spells. Those obviously weren't going to be automatically reapplied upon the return of magic, as was evident when it didn't react at all to Sunset's magic. She carefully placed her hoof on the brass plate where her cutie mark was engraved, pressed gently, and tried to turn it clockwise, and it didn't budge. She tried again, leaning her ear down to the combination mechanism, and then took a step back, her horn firing off a soft beam towards the plate.
"What's that?" Pipp asked as the front of the chest was bathed in orange light.
"Lubrication spell. I'm hoping it could help me get the cam and dial working for the lock. Otherwise I'm going to have to figure out how to dismantle the chest without damaging whatever's inside."
After several more seconds, the beam dissipated, and Sunset once again put her hoof on the plate, and it began to rotate, and the dial clicked as it turned. After about ninety degrees, Sunset changed to rotating the plate counter clockwise. Pipp remained silent as Sunset's ears twitched at the dial. She once again switched to clockwise, and after another half-turn, the lock popped open, and the unicorn let out a quiet breath, as her magic now focused on the hinges on the back, firing dual beams at them, attempting to lubricate them. Once that was done, she put her hooves on both sides of the top curved half of the chest, and slowly lifted. There was some creaking protests from the hinges, but they let the lid of the chest swing up, and Sunset lifted it up and over, and Pipp put her hooves up to keep it from dropping once it passed the vertical position, and brought it down to rest against the back of the chest, as the unicorn peered inside, horn lighting up once again.
"Anything inside?" Pipp asked.
Not saying anything, the first thing Sunset magically lifted out of the chest was a laminated letter.
My dear Sunset,
I figured lamination would help this last long enough for you to hopefully find this. Enough time has passed that it's clear to me now that something about your return went awry. I don't have the heart to convince Twilight to give up, but I know if there was any way for you to contact us, you would have certainly done so. Ever since our clandestine correspondence with your school's headmaster, we've been unable to access the portal in the mirror, and our journal messages to you have gone unanswered as well.
I won't pretend that I haven't been worried sick along with Twilight; it's too familiar to what it felt like when you left the first time. In case you ever find your way back here, I've left this in a place that I'm confident only you would remember. I can't imagine how you're feeling, or what you're going through, but I hope if you find this, that it finds you in good health. I know you were looking forward to coming home, but maybe, just like last time, you wound up where you needed to be, even if you didn't know it at the time.
I think about you often, Sunset, and I hope you're okay, wherever you ended up. All of my best wishes to you.
Your former teacher and friend forever, Princess Celestia
Sunset sniffled as the tears ran down her cheeks, dampening her cheeks as she read the letter from Celestia. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she gently set the letter down on the stone table next to the chest, looked at what was under it, and the waterworks continued as she lifted up a framed diploma, secured in a metal and glass case.
Sunset quivered as she slowly lifted the honorary diploma out of the chest. Pipp came back around and looked at what she was holding.
"A diploma? I'm guessing congratulations are in order?" She asked, putting a hoof around the unicorn's shoulders.
"A school I essentially dropped out of, because I wasn't patient. Because I couldn't temper my ambition, because I wanted to dive headfirst into magic I absolutely was not ready for."
Pipp draped her right wing across the unicorn's back as she continued looking down at the encased certificate.
"I've barely gotten to know you, and it's clear that's not who you are anymore. And this diploma might be pretty appropriate right now. I've been to Bridlewood only once since Reunification Day, and I know Izzy's been practicing with telekinesis and illumination spells, but absolutely nowhere and nothing close to what you've demonstrated today."
The unicorn turned to smile at her new friend.
"So honestly, Sunset? Take that diploma with pride, because right now, you are probably the most powerful unicorn in Equestria."
Sunset took pictures and video of the Restricted Section, and sent them to Sunny as soon as they were back up on the main floor. It wasn't too long before she got quite the enthusiastic reply.
Sunny I'm not sure it'll be possible to ask Sprout to work any faster, but as soon as the truck and trailer are ready, I'll be up there, and we'll take a day or two to look at what you've uncovered before we continue up to the arctic. Thanks so much!
Sunset, of course, felt it prudent to temper her expectations.
Sunset There's not nearly as much here as you might think, and what is here will have to be studied very, very carefully. It was down there for a reason. Take it from somepony who poked and prodded where she shouldn't have.
Something extra came out of the restricted section with them; Sunset's old trunk, popping into existence onto the floor with the unicorn and pegasus.
"Incredible," Whirlwind commented, adjusting his glasses as he looked at the trunk that they had brought back up with them.
"It's probably a good idea to put that picture back up on the wall, and keep this corridor cordoned off until Sunny Starscout can get here to take a look at what else is down there." Pipp advised the curator. Whirlwind nodded as he momentarily moved the velvet ropes so the princess and unicorn could pass.
"Thank you again for letting us do this. I just got a little piece of my past," Sunset told Whirlwind with a half-bow.
"My pleasure, Miss Shimmer. If you'd allow it, it would be our pleasure to attempt to restore that trunk if you like. I can have our best antique restorers make that look good as new if you like," Whirlwind replied, before replacing the velvet rope.
"If your team feels up to the challenge, sure," Sunset replied, opening the lid and removing the laminated letter along with the encased and framed diploma, holding them in her magic and pushing the trunk over to Whirlwind.
"We'll treat it with the utmost care, you have my word," Whirlwind assured her.
Carefully holding the items she had just found, she and Pipp made their way out of the museum, where her one remaining escort was waiting, and together they continued their trek to the castle. Now that she wasn't leading a hot pursuit, Sunset took the time to take in her surroundings. It didn't look anything like the Canterlot of old, and the castle was at the very top of the mountain, instead of built into the side and the valley, like the rest of the mountain.
She couldn't help but wonder how damaged the city became in the unrest and riots, before the unicorns ran and the pegasi began to rebuild.
They went up the elevator, and down the main concourse towards the towering double doors. The guards stood at attention as they approached, and when they opened, Sunset wasn't met with a dozen spears inches from her body this time.
"Welcome home, Princess Pipp, and... Er, Welcome back, Miss..." the sergeant at the door greeted, trailing off.
"Sunset Shimmer," the unicorn introduced herself.
"Sergeant, please show Sunset to the guest suite where her personal effects were taken," Pipp said, and the guard gave a quick salute. "I'll let you get settled in and relax for a bit. I'll come get you for dinner, then if you like, you can hang around for my evening stream."
"Thanks, Pipp. I'm gonna enjoy unwinding here for a little bit," Sunset replied, nodding with a smile.
The sergeant beckoned her towards the right hallway, and she followed down the corridor. They came to another elevator, and took it up three floors.
"This is one of our finest guest suites, ma'am. We hope you enjoy your stay," the guard told her, evidently well-rehearsed. He swiped a keycard through the electronic lock, then passed it to her when the door lock clicked open.
"I know Princess Pipp is expecting you for dinner, but if you get hungry later on, all of our amenities are provided by phone, just look for the list of numbers on the nightstand. Have a pleasant afternoon, Miss Sunset," the guard told her, departing after a short bow, and the door to the suite swung closed, leaving Sunset alone in what was certainly the most lavish room she had ever stayed in. Even her quarters in the old castle barely compared.
The bed was queen-sized and exquisitely made. There was a big screen TV on the opposite wall, digital thermostat on the wall by the bathroom, a round dining table in the corner, a combination heater air conditioner built into the wall below the window, a nightstand next to the bed with a lamp, and lastly, her guitar case, the camping supplies, and everything else she had brought with her in the cart were neatly stacked next to the dresser below the TV. There was currently plenty of natural light coming in from the window, so there was no need to switch on any lights at the moment. She sat down on the bed and looked at the items on the stand; a wireless charger for smartphones and a pamphlet. Picking up the pamphlet, she saw that the front of it was a spectacular photo of the city. Opening the front flap, she saw that there were a quite a few advertisements and phone numbers for room service. She glanced down the list, and the first thing to catch her eye was the concierge.
New to town? We can help!
Laying back and resting her head on the soft, plush pillow, she unlocked her phone, grabbed the stack of sticky notes along with a pen, and dialed the number. A ringtone pulsed several times before the other side picked up.
"Zephyr Heights Royal Tower Concierge, how may we help you today?" greeted a friendly mare's voice.
"Yes, hello. What would you say is the best music shop in town?"
Sunset figured she'd have plenty of time to check out a music store in town before dinner. But then again, she also figured she wouldn't get turned around five times trying to find her way back out of the castle.
"Maybe I should have taken a break from all those phone numbers and glanced at a map or directory..." She mumbled to herself, as she stepped off of the elevator, making sure her guitar case was still secure on her back, before putting the keycard-attached lanyard around her neck after being advised to do so by a guard as she departed, so she could quickly be identified as a castle guest.
As she stepped off the elevator on the ground floor, she realized another thing she would have to get used to is her ears popping, as the Royal Tower, or Zephyr Heights Castle or whatever they were calling it, was considerably higher than Canterlot used to be; the pegasi having constructed additions to the city considerably higher up the mountain. She craned her neck a few times to help equalize the pressure, and get her balance back to normal as she started down the street towards downtown.
While her castle suite reminded her of her days as Celestia's protege, the streets of Zephyr Heights felt leagues closer to the mirror world than almost anything in Maretime Bay, with the exception of the CanterLogic factory. She saw a few unicorns and earth ponies on their own routes through the shopping district as they saw the sights, and a few minutes later, she came to her destination among a slew of other stores in the strip, an instrument retailer.
Sky High Notes
She pulled the glass and metal door open, and the speaker above gave off a short tone, letting the service counter on the right side know that a patron had arrived.
"Hello, and welcome to Sky High Notes," greeted the cashier, a light blue pegasus stallion with a dark purple mane. "My name is Swift Melody, how can we help you today?"
Sunset gave the stallion a smile before taking a quick look around the store. There were flutes, all manner of brass instruments, drums, keyboards, and even a few harps. Notably absent from the shelves and wall displays, however, were guitars.
"Well, judging from what you have up on the wall, I'm assuming you don't know too much about this kind of instrument?" Sunset said, taking her guitar case off of her back, setting it gently down on the counter between her and the cashier, and unlatched it. She lifted the top of the case up, and the cashier peered down at the sunburst-painted string instrument.
"Hm, fascinating. Like the banjos and ukulele antiques," he commented.
Sunset lit up her horn and carefully lifted the guitar out of the case, pulled the case away, and set the instrument down on the glass.
"I'm guessing pegasi don't really play these, then?" Sunset asked, letting him study the details of her guitar.
"Mm, not in my time here, no. Most pegasi prefer keyboard or trumpet, if not going entirely digital with their music creation. The strings are strummed here, like a harp, and held at various positions on the neck for different notes and chords... One has to wonder why we did move away from something like this. Certainly a beautiful and solidly crafted instrument, this 'Gib-son'," the stallion remarked.
"It's an electric guitar, Gibson is the manufacturer," Sunset commented, smiling at the compliment. Her guitar was a few years old, and she had taken very good care of it.
"What an odd name," he replied, and Sunset merely chuckled.
"I was hoping to play it, but I need an amplifier and studio cable," the unicorn told him, pointing a hoof to the underside of the guitar body. The cashier peered down, and saw the jack.
"Ah, well then you are in luck, ma'am. I'm not entirely sure how this instrument of yours works, but I do know that's a standard quarter-inch input jack; nearly universal no matter what electronic instrument you play," the pegasus replied. He turned to the back wall behind the counter, and took a packaged twenty-foot audio cable off of the wall. He turned back to Sunset, and saw the lanyard around her neck.
"Ah, a VIP guest at the castle? Well, in that case you certainly don't need to buy an amp today, miss. The castle staff can show you to their music room, where there's plenty of space and privacy for you to play and practice. I would know, Sky High Notes services all of Princess Pipp's performance equipment."
"Thanks, I think I'll do that," Sunset replied, returning her guitar to its case as she was rung up for the cable. She paid with what bits she had in her bag, and was out the door with a new cable, headed back to the castle, and now pondered how to best approach playing her favorite instrument for the very first time as a unicorn.
When she returned to the castle, Sunset Shimmer asked the concierge where the music room was for practice. She was directed to a medium sized room on the second floor, with smaller individual practice rooms, which were all lined with acoustic foam padding. It reminded her of Canterlot High's band room, except surprisingly more organized than she almost always saw the school's.
She spotted a small, 20-watt amp that looked like it wasn't being used, and picked it up, taking it over to the practice room all the way on the right. She set the amp down, plugged it in, and then gently set her guitar case on the floor, and unlatched it, taking out the sunburst Flying V guitar. She went into a sitting position, and put the strap around her shoulder, cradling the neck in her left hoof.
This was something she hadn't just been thinking about the past few days; she remembered writing to Twilight earlier on in her senior year about what would be okay to bring back with her, and how she would approach playing guitar as a unicorn, and the princess had suggested a few ideas.
Well, when your Friendship Games over there ripped open the portals all over, Lyra, a friend of mine, got a pretty good look at the bipedal forms over there, and became immediately fascinated with hands. I'm no guitar player, but if you think it would take too long to re-learn as a unicorn, maybe you could talk to her, I hear she's working on a conjuration spell that gives her magic hands.
Talking to Lyra Heartstrings now was quite impossible, obviously, but with all the experiences she had with hands, some conjured digits couldn't be that hard to put together.
There were three forms of spellcasting that she had learned about while in Celestia's school; verbal, motion, and mental. All spells used at least one, and some used two or all three, all depending on the nature of the magic and its use. Almost all conjuration spells were verbal and mental, as you had to clearly picture what you wanted to create out of thin air.
Getting as relaxed as she could in her sitting position, Sunset took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and began to concentrate and clear her mind.
"Creo," she whispered as energy began to course through her horn. She thought back to her bipedal form, sitting up in her room, getting ready to practice, reaching for the neck of her guitar...
She felt the weight on the guitar strap shift slightly, and she opened her eyes, and didn't let her mild surprise break her concentration, as she saw two transparent, disembodied hands; the left holding the guitar neck and the right one resting by her hoof by the pickups. Taking another breath, she 'reached' down into her case, with the right hand floating down and coming back up with her carbon fiber guitar pick that Flash had given her.
Having a third pair of limbs that were ethereal and floating was quite surreal, almost like being in both forms at once. Over the next several seconds, she began to recall all the frets, fingerings, and chords for all the songs she played with her friends...
Pipp stepped off of the elevator out onto the second floor. After knocking on the guest suite that Sunset was staying in and not receiving any answer, she checked with the castle concierge, and informed her that their guest was directed to the music room. She walked up to the double doors and pushed them open, and immediately heard the faint electrical chords coming from the practice room in the back corner, and saw the back of Sunset's mane through the window. The unicorn was grooving to the music, and her horn was glowing with her orange aura of magic. Crossing the room, she stood by the window, and saw Sunset with her instrument, but it didn't look like she was doing anything with her hooves.
Pipp tapped gently on the window to announce her presence, and the unicorn turned her head to see her visitor. With a smile, Pipp opened the door and stepped halfway inside. Sunset turned to her completely, and Pipp's eyes widened.
Sunset's expression was entirely elated, and her instrument hung by a strap around her neck and shoulder, with glowing... Claws, holding the long wooden neck and holding a small thin plectrum down in front of the strings on the body.
"That's... New," Pipp said, and Sunset saw that the pegasus was unable to pull her eyes away from her conjured digits.
"Right, some explanation probably. These are hands. The world I was in was filled with bipedal creatures that had these. I thought I would have to spend months relearning how to play with telekinetic magic, but this is so much better!"
"I see," Pipp replied, trying to wrap her head around it. "Your music sounds full of energy. I'd love to hear more of it soon. I'm actually rehearsing most of tomorrow for a concert. Would you... Be interested in maybe joining us?" Pipp asked.
The 'hand' holding the plectrum floated down to the open instrument case and deposited it in a small compartment, and then both dissipated, and the glow around her horn faded momentarily before she took the entire instrument in her magic, and slowly levitated it off of herself, and set it down gently into the case, before closing the lid and latching it closed.
"Well, it's more than just me, I played in a band. And I only have a six-string, not a bass, and that's generally required, although you could probably substitute in a keyboard for the bass part, and I've seen some of those around here... When I get back to my suite, I'll dig out some of the sheet music, and you can take a look at it."
The princess smiled, and gave the unicorn a nod.
"Sounds great, now I'm famished, let's go get something to eat!"
During her protege days, dinner without Celestia was frequently whatever Sunset wanted it to be, and it just involved a trip down to the dining hall before 9pm, when the cooking staff retired for the night. But here, she was a guest, and she imagined that the technological advances Equestria had made meant that it wasn't even going to involve a trip to the kitchen.
"If we're talking room service here," Sunset began as she walked alongside Pipp to her 'streaming room'. "Just as long as that isn't every meal here. If you've got a decent kitchen, let me have at it one of these times. I make some mean hash browns for breakfast."
"Sounds like a plan. You can make us whatever you like for breakfast before rehearsal tomorrow. For now, how's pizza and gaming sound?" Pipp asked as they turned the corner.
"Sounds perfect," the unicorn replied.
"I'm hearing that there's a development team here in Zephyr Heights that's designing an adventure game about a post-apocalyptic Equestria, and they're basing a fair amount of it based on what Sunny has gathered for the museums. Think it's called 'Hayrizon: Zero Dawn' or something like that. I'm looking forward to it."
They came to the third door on the right, and Pipp pressed her right hoof into the metallic pad next to the door. The LED light went from red to green, and the door unlocked, with the pegasus immediately turning the knob and opening it up.
"Come on in, and behold my gaming abode," Pipp told her.
Sunset stepped through the doorway and her eyes immediately widened.
It wasn't even a bedroom; this was 100% committed to all things streaming and gaming. Front and center was a large screen, and a very comfortable looking couch ten feet from it, with a polished oak coffee table in between.
From the controllers, microphone, boom arm, and web cam, Sunset knew a streaming setup when she saw one.
"Ponystation 4..." Sunset read the lettering on the white console just below the television screen. "Surround sound... Not bad at all. What are we playing tonight?"
"A crazy fantasy sports game called Pony League," Pipp answered, grabbing the remote control and turning on the entertainment center.
"Sounds vague enough to be anything," the unicorn commented as she took a seat next to the pegasus, who handed her the second controller; it was much closer to an arcade fighting stick and buttons than the ergonomic controllers that she had been using, but she immediately figured that these were easier to use with hooves.
Pipp held down the center button on her set of controls, and the Ponystation lit up, as did the screen.
"Don't worry, I'm not scheduled to start the stream for another twenty minutes. That's enough time to get into the game, give you a quick tutorial, and get dinner ordered," Pipp said, logging into her account.
Even with a new control pad, Sunset was fairly confident; she picked up new games fairly quickly; complete collapses on her part like Super Squirrel Climb with Fluttershy were pretty rare, and a hoot for her audience when they happened.
With Pipp logged in, a blue-tinted main menu appeared, and she selected Pony League. As the splash screens came up, it was accompanied by a seriously catchy techno beat, which dropped as the main menu came up. Pipp quickly selected multiplayer, and let Sunset create her pony avatar.
"There used to be just pegasus characters, but in the months following reunification, the developers patched in the two other races, so make whatever you like," the princess told her.
Over the next few minutes, Sunset carefully recreated herself in the game, a unicorn with a crimson and yellow mane.
"I did the same thing," Pipp told her, and as she selected her character, Sunset saw that it was a near perfect recreation of her.
With their characters selected, the game proper loaded in, and Sunset found their avatars in a large open arena.
"Soccer?" Sunset asked.
"Even better; ridiculous soccer," Pipp replied, as Sunset noticed the oversized ball that a half dozen ponies could fit into. "The goal is simple, get the ball into your opponent's goal. Things get complicated with your character's movement."
Sunset moved her on-screen avatar around a bit, and jumped towards the ball.
"What are those things on the hooves?" Sunset asked.
"The complicated part," Pipp answered, jumping her character up into the air, but as she was in mid-air, plumes of fire erupted from her hooves, and she took off higher into the air.
"Whoa. Jet-power hooves? Seriously?" Sunset asked, trying it herself, her unicorn avatar taking off into the sky.
"I told you it was ridiculous. Back when this game was developed, pegasi couldn't fly, so this was a creative alternative. Right now it's just you and me for practice, but matchmade games are 3v3 or 4v4, and things get fairly hectic."
It took a few minutes for Sunset to get the hang of flying with jet-powered legs, but she felt she had the basics down. Pipp made sure that all the cameras and microphones were receiving correctly before she and her new friend went live. Just as there was a knock on the door, signalling that dinner had arrived, Pipp's phone also went off, vibrating on the coffee table.
"You're popular tonight," Sunset commented as Pipp got up to answer the door.
"Are you kidding? This is actually kind of a quiet night because I've turned on limited notifications, so the only ones I get are from my personal contacts," the princess replied as she opened the door and greeted the server. "Good evening, sir! Thank you very much!"
"Anytime, your highness. Enjoy the stream tonight," the server replied with a polite bow.
Pipp returned to the coffee table wheeling a cart up next to the coffee table, then set down two steaming, bubbling cheese pizzas, along with plates, napkins, and individual bottles of soda. Sitting back down, she picked up her phone and checked the notification she had received.
"Alright, looks like Sunny and Sprout are going to make it up here in time for our concert. Think you'll be able to put on a show?" Pipp asked, swiping her phone's screen.
"I guess we'll find out during rehearsal tomorrow, won't we?" Sunset asked in return.
Pipp smirked at her.
"Well, now that we're ready to eat and game, let's put on a show right now."
With that, Pipp pressed a bright red button on her phone's screen, and Sunset saw the red light on the webcam below the TV lit up.
"Good evening, Pippsqueaks! Who's ready to thrash some noobs in Pony League? I know I am, and I've got a new friend along for the ride. Let's play!"
With the cast iron pan secure in her magical grip, she gave it a firm thrust up, and the half-done pancake within did one flip, coming back down into the pan with a sizzle as she set it back down on the burner.
"Pancakes with strawberries coming right up!" she announced to Pipp, who was standing on the other side of the counter in the castle's dining room. The other kitchen staff were going about their routine in getting the castle inhabitants their breakfast, but Pipp had arranged to get Sunset a small space to work with a sink, stovetop, and a pair of frying pans to make them breakfast. Or as Sunset put it, 'the best darn pancakes on this side of the multiverse.'
Whatever that meant.
"You certainly know your way around a kitchen," Pipp commented, as the unicorn went to grab two plates and set them next to her two pans. Several minutes later, she levitated the two plates piled with mini pancakes, strawberry pieces, and syrup back over to the counter where Pipp waited, then exited the kitchen through the door, and the two mares went over to their table, where a pitcher of orange juice was waiting.
"So, rehearsal today, performance tomorrow night?" Sunset asked after they got seated and began cutting into their breakfast.
"Yep, that's the plan. I'm sorry if that's too short notice for you," Pipp said. "Mmm, these are delicious."
"Thanks, and honestly, this isn't the shortest notice I've performed on, if you can believe it."
"Well, we've pretty much got our music down cold carrot, so we can spend some more time working with you and your music," Pipp told her.
"Well, I mean this in the best possible way, I'm thinking your performers will need more time than me to become familiar with my music. It all came back to me pretty quickly yesterday."
"Well, for now let's just focus on this amazing breakfast."
"So what do you think? How does it handle?" Sprout asked as he sat in the passenger seat of the Scouticus Maximus as Sunny drove for the first time.
"It feels bigger when you're at the controls, I'll say that much," Sunny replied, keeping most of her focus on the forest dirt road ahead of them, being sure to stay in the middle.
The attached trailer behind them was empty, save for the smaller, individual containers that would be slid out and brought closer to the objects that would be loaded into them, which for this trip was likely to be mostly books from the enormous Crystal Empire library that Zipp and Pipp had found.
Sprout's trailer had been finished ahead of schedule, and after quick but rigorous testing of the hitch that connected it to the Scouticus, he and Sunny were off towards Zephyr Heights.
"Are you sure we're going to need that much fuel?" Sunny asked, glancing at the left side mirror, seeing the barrels that now filled up the cargo bed of the all-terrain vehicle.
"Not entirely, but it's better to be safe than sorry. This thing isn't going to be as easy to maneuver with the trailer attached, and when we come back, presumably fully loaded, it's going to be slower going as well."
The red stallion did have a point; the space that the surplus fuel took up in the bed was more than made up for by the trailer that they were now towing. Behind them, the passenger area was largely unchanged, save for the cold weather gear that hung above the seats, including an extra one for Sunset, and Sunny hoped that they had estimated her size closely enough.
The last thing they had done before departing was take a couple practice laps over the hills behind CanterLogic with a simulated full load, and Sprout was correct on that account too; they were going to expend probably half as much fuel getting there as they would coming out. He was hoping they would be able to take advantage of the entire space the trailer gave them and not have to empty anything out if they were unable to climb out of the enormous 'bowl' of snow that surrounded the frozen, abandoned city.
"So, excited to see Zephyr Heights?" Sunny asked Sprout.
"Like you wouldn't believe. I can't remember the last time I was out of Maretime Bay. Well, other than the trip north, and in my opinion, ghost towns don't count. I do hope we'll have time to look around before we have to leave to head north."
"No worries there, we're making good time as it is, and we're staying for one of Pipp's concerts tomorrow evening, so we probably won't be leaving until the next morning at the earliest. And I get what you mean, it'll be nice to actually see Zephyr Heights as a tourist, and not a fugitive."
Sprout smiled at her.
"I always forget that you guys weren't really welcome at the places that you visited. The paranoia and misinformation was everywhere..." Sprout commented.
"Well, what matters is that we're all putting that behind us now."
"So, how are we getting this thing into the city?" Sprout asked.
"We're probably not. We probably have to park it down close to where we did before, then take the trail up on hoof. It's good exercise, and only takes about an hour, but yeah, there's no getting this thing up the mountain."
"Well, if keeping this thing moving as long as possible gets us more time up there, then I'm gonna go back there and try my best to catch some Z's, so I can take over when you get tired. Wake me when you've had enough driving, Sunny," Sprout said. He went to the back and unpacked his sleeping bag, getting it spread out across the back row of seats. He then grabbed a pillow and slid inside, digging inside his saddlebags for a moment and coming out with a sleeping mask, which he put on over his eyes before plopping down on the pillow.
"Wow, and I thought Maretime Bay was impressive," Sprout commented as he got out of the truck and onto the dirt road that slowly ascended the looming mountain. Sunny drove as long as she could, then Sprout drove almost through the entire night, stopping just outside the forest so they didn't have to navigate the river in the dark. So with that, Sprout got four hours of sleep alongside Sunny, and as soon as dawn gave them light on their surroundings, they traveled down the river as they had when they were racing back to Zephyr Heights when Sunset had first come through the mirror and raced up through the city to the palace. Parking the truck just off to the side of the river and dirt road to the abandoned castle, they were both rested for the most part, and now had the better part of a day to spend in Zephyr Heights before going up to the palace for Princess Pipp's concert.
Sprout made sure they were far enough off the path before giving the doors of the truck test pulls to confirm they were locked. There probably wouldn't be a whole lot of hoof traffic, but Queen Haven had opened up the castle exterior to photographic tours, and some were taking advantage of that to see what ruin was found in the middle of the forest.
"Oh, here," Sunny began, reaching into her left saddlebag and tossed Sprout a chocolate covered granola bar. "Something for the hike, then we can grab some brunch somewhere in the city."
Sprout immediately unwrapped the bar and started into it as they began uphill.
"How much of a hike are we talking?" Sprout asked, his mouth half full of his light breakfast.
"Well, it probably won't be as strenuous as it has been in the past, they've been making the grades more gentle, and that makes the trek up, and down, a little easier."
Sunny was right; in the past few weeks, they had added wooden guardrails to more easily define the path as the ascent left the forest behind and it became more rocky and jagged. But it was either this, or take the long way around, and that would have taken more than half of their day, and Sprout was very much anticipating a day in a new city as a tourist.
His granola and fruit bar complete, Sprout crumpled up the wrapper and stuffed it in one of his saddlebag's smaller pockets for disposal once they got into the city. For now, Sunny was content to sip at her canteen of water that was slung over her shoulder.
"Any idea what kind of food you want to look for once we get up there?" Sunny asked as they rounded the next hairpin and continued climbing.
"Well, I know some franchises from here have started to make their way to Maretime Bay, but let's look for something that we can't get back home," Sprout answered.
"Should be plenty of options then," Sunny replied.
It was a half-hour climb before they came to the top, and greeted two tourists who were on their way down. To the right of the gates was a welcome sign.
WELCOME TO ZEPHYR HEIGHTS We hope you enjoyed the climb, and that you also enjoy your stay!
They walked over to a trash bin to throw away their granola bar wrappers, and sat down at a bench to catch their breath from their climb. Sunny took the opportunity to dig out her phone and text Pipp.
Sunny Sprout and I just got into town. Parked at the bottom of the mountain. You and Sunset available for breakfast?
It was barely a minute before a reply came, and her phone vibrated in her hooves.
Pipp Sorry. Sunset is joining our band for dress rehearsals pretty much all day. Hope you two enjoy yourselves, and we'll see you at the concert tonight!
"Alright, well, looks like it's you and me until the concert tonight, Sprout, so what'll it be?" she asked as he looked over a pamphlet that he had grabbed at a kiosk just inside the gates.
"Ooh, Sky High Pizza Bagels!" Sprout said excitedly.
"I thought you just said you wanted something you couldn't get in Maretime Bay," Sunny interjected.
"Yeah. I've never had pizza on a bagel before!" the stallion replied.
Sunny chuckled. Didn't take much at all to drive Sprout back towards his favorite food. And they'd likely have to grab another meal before the concert, anyway.
"Alright, pizza bagels it is. Lead the way," Sunny told him, getting up from the bench, and continued heading towards downtown.
Zephyr Heights was still primarily pegasi, but there were a few unicorns and earth ponies here and there, as this city was just as quick as Maretime Bay to get a Tourism Board up and running and get their city as welcoming as possible to outsiders as they could in a timely manner.
The castle towered above everything else in the city, but down here in the downtown area, you couldn't really tell most of the time, with the billboards everywhere. It was somewhat overwhelming to Sprout, his eyes darting from one building to the next.
"Remind me to never bring mom here," Sprout commented, motioning to the electronic billboards. "She'd have Maretime Bay covered in these things."
"Maybe we run an idea by Hitch, get him to pass some ordinance to proactively prevent that," the mare suggested.
"Ah, here it is!" Sprout exclaimed.
The signage above the building was a graphic of a pair of winged bagels breaking through the clouds.
SKY HIGH BAGELS
Out front was a white board with the specials of the day.
"The Breakfast Bagel Supreme? That has my attention," Sunny commented as Sprout took a minute to look at the board, then they stepped through the double doors. The line wasn't too bad, and they both stood back and eyed the menu above the serving line.
"Hello, and welcome to Sky High Bagels! Step forward whenever you're ready to order," the blue pegasus stallion behind the counter greeted.
"Oh good it's not too early for lunch," Sprout commented, licking his lips.
"Granola bar didn't last long, huh?" Sunny asked, stepping up to the counter with him.
"Hey, you said it was for the climb, and I believe we are done climbing," Sprout shot back with a smirk. "I think I'll try your stuffed supreme bagel, please, and an apple juice."
"Coming right up, and for you ma'am?" the pegasus asked Sunny.
"What's on your Breakfast Bagel Deluxe?" she asked.
"Ah, our morning special. That's a bagel cut in half, dipped in egg wash, pan fried, then topped with a mini pancake, drizzled with strawberry syrup, and given a dusting of powdered sugar."
Sunny's mouth began to water.
"Yep, I believe I'll give that a try, with an apple juice as well, thank you."
"Alright, one Stuffed Supreme, one Breakfast Deluxe, and two apple juices. Twelve bits, please."
Sprout and Sunny handed him six bits a piece, and after depositing it in the drawer, he immediately went to work. Sprout wasn't too sure about cream cheese on pizza, as he saw him scoop out the bagel before filling it, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Once the cream cheese was spread around, it was covered in a hearty tomato sauce, sprinkled with bits of mozzarella, and popped in the oven while he went to work on Sunny's order.
Her dad had made her fancy toast before, but Sunny had to admit she had never seen it done with a bagel. But as the frying started, Sunny only got more hungry from the inviting smells wafting up from the frying pans. By the time both the bagel and the pancake were done, the oven timer went off, and the cook went over to pull out Sprout's bagels. With them now about ready for serving, the pegasus plated up Sprout's bagels before sprinkling the bubbling tomato sauce and cheese with basil. He then moved over to Sunny's plate, where he expertly handled a spatula placing the pancakes on top of both bagels, then giving them a generous dusting of powdered sugar, before drizzling both halves with strawberry syrup, before sliding both plates across to them on a platter with two glasses of apple juice.
"And there we are. Please enjoy, and thank you for visiting!"
The two earth ponies thanked him and went to a booth with a good view of the street, which was becoming more lively as noon got closer. They took their first bites at the same time, and their eyes widened almost simultaneously.
"Oh my stars..." Sunny said, the flavors mixing brilliantly and exploding across her taste buds.
Sprout was having a very similar experience.
"Okay, these guys have to follow Heights Castle and come to Maretime Bay," Sunny commented, taking a sip of her apple juice and immediately going back for more.
"You said it."
Sprout, surprisingly took his time, and Sunny understood why; these bagels were a work of art.
It would be wrong to not savor each and every bite.
"Wow, Sprout. I didn't know you brought that much money with you," Sunny commented as she looked at the new smartphone he had just purchased from Z-Mobile as he came out of the store.
"Well, when you live at home and half of your meals are paid for by the company you work for, it's easy to set aside some spending money, for instance, when you visit a new city. I know mom's looking to get CanterLogic involved in the logistics of getting Zephyr Heights phone companies in town, but I didn't want to wait, and I wanted to get one right from the source. Just texted you my number, by the way," Sprout answered.
Sunny dug her phone out and saw the new text message, and added Sprout's number to her contacts.
"And here..." she said, doing some scrolling with the tip of her hoof. "Are everypony else's numbers."
Sprout's phone vibrated and gave off six notification tones, and he spent the next couple minutes getting the numbers of Zipp, Pipp, Hitch, Izzy, and Sunset into his contacts, joining Sunny.
"Well, I can figure out all the bells and whistles of this thing over dinner. Where do we want to grab a quick bite on the way to the castle?" Sprout asked.
"Hmm," Sunny began, digging out the pamphlet that had the map on the back.
"How does hayburgers sound?" Sunny asked, pointing a hoof at a burger stand between them and the castle.
"Sounds great!" Sprout answered, pocketing his new phone in his saddlebag, and the two earth ponies made their way down the main street towards the large elevator that led to the VIP entrance to the castle.
They stepped into Heights Hayburgers and found themselves in a short line.
"What can I get you folks?" the cashier asked.
"I think I'll try the Honey Barbecue Hayburger," Sprout answered.
"I'll have the Amazing Avocado Burger," Sunny told him.
"Alright, that's 3 bits for you, sir, and 4 bits for you, ma'am," the cashier said after getting the items rung in. Sunny and Sprout paid, and were seated with their meals three minutes later. Sprout's burger had two slices of melted cheddar cheese, slathered with honey barbecue sauce and stacked with pickles between the hay and the top bun, while Sunny's had provolone cheese, pickles, tomato, and a generous smear of avocado spread.
Sprout spent the majority of his eating exploring all the apps that his phone came with, getting rid of some of the bloatware that he knew he would never use.
"We'll probably want to give ourselves some spare time to get over to the castle. We aren't sneaking in with Zipp this time, so who knows what kind of lines we'll have to wait in," Sunny told him.
"If you say so. Can't be a bigger crowd than CanterLogic's annual showcase, right?" Sprout asked.
"Better to be safe than sorry, especially since Pipp got us front row seats, so we don't want to be late."
"If you say so," Sprout said, finishing off his burger. After Sunny took her last bites, they took their trays over to the short stack of them above the trash cans, then made their way back outside, where the sun was beginning to dip below the Zephyr Heights skyline. They continued on towards the elevator, while more of the crowd made their way up the inclining street to another entrance.
"Good evening, Miss Starscout," one of the guards watching over the elevator greeted. "I know it's pretty much a formality, but do you have your VIP ticket?"
"Got it right here," Sunny replied, digging into her saddlebag and retrieving the ticket that Pipp mailed to her right before their first Crystal Empire excursion. The guard peered at it for just a moment before nodding, seemingly satisfied, waving her onto the elevator.
Sprout began to follow, but was stopped by an armored hoof.
"And your ticket, sir?" the guard asked.
"Um, I never got one," Sprout answered.
The guard shook his head.
"I'm sorry sir, but the elevator is for VIP's only. Ticket sales are up and around, at the west entrance to the grand hall."
"Excuse me, gentlecolts?" Sunny began, taking a few steps back to where the guard was keeping Sprout from getting on. "I'm not entirely sure if my ticket explicitly says if it's allowed or not, but Mr. Cloverleaf here is my plus-one. I'm not going in without him, and I would hate to explain to Princess Pipp that one of her best friends was late to her performance because I had to wait on him to purchase a ticket. So perhaps an exception can be made?"
The pair of guards exchanged glances, shrugged, and stepped aside, letting Sprout pass and get onto the elevator. Three other VIPs stepped on before the doors closed and the elevator began to slowly rise up to the very top of the city.
"Thanks, Sunny. You know, I don't think I ever said this, but you certainly know how to handle your celebrity status," Sprout complimented.
"Thanks, but to be fair, I did get a lot of help from Pipp. Otherwise I probably wouldn't know what to do a lot of the time."
"What kind of help?"
"You know, like pointers. The thing she wanted to impress upon me the most is knowing the difference between fans and friends, and realizing that there will be a difference between the pony that I am versus the image that other ponies have of me based on the things that I've accomplished."
"Ah, I guess that... Kinda makes sense," Sprout said. He had more than enough of his fill of fame from his two days as interim sheriff. Now he was more than happy to help Sunny further her exploration goals down in CanterLogic's R&D labs.
The elevator came to a soft stop at the top and the double doors on the other side opened to reveal the red carpet. The reaction wasn't as prolific as the princesses stepping off, but several of the photographers recognized Sunny, and asked for pictures as the two ponies made their way down the carpet. Sunny smiled, giving a short wave, but didn't break her gait as she walked along Sprout, who was smiling awkwardly in the same directions as Sunny was.
"Another thing she wanted to make clear was that you do your best not to let your fame affect your relationship with your friends," Sunny told him as she returned her attention to him and not the cameras.
Sprout couldn't help but smile, and suddenly didn't worry about the photographers as much as they made their way into the castle proper.
"Whoa," Sprout commented as he took in the interior.
"Yeah, it'll be nice to take in the surroundings now that we're not on a stealth snatch-and-grab mission," Sunny chuckled.
As popular as Pipp's concerts were before reformation, it was considerably more crowded tonight, and Sunny had a feeling that sneaking around like they had months ago going after the Pegasus Crystal with this increased crowd size probably would have been impossible.
The setup in the Grand Hall was a bit different as well. The royal seating had been moved further back, and the stage had been extended out into the middle of the room with an elevated walkway. With the equipment on said stage, it looked like Pipp was going to have an actual band performing with her tonight, and Sunny hadn't even asked how Sunset was involved with all of this, but she'd be finding out in a matter of minutes.
Sunny's gaze caught a white foreleg waving towards them to get their attention, and she and Sprout made their way through the crowd to the area directly in front of the center stage, cordoned off with a red velvet rope, where Zipp was waiting.
"Evening, you two, you got here just in time," Zipp greeted, with the two earth ponies coming in for hoof bumps.
"Not sitting up there this time?" Sunny asked, motioning to the trio of couches.
"Nah, this time it's all about the music. Haven't seen Pipp all day, so it's gotta be awesome," Zipp answered.
There were about two dozen other ponies in the VIP section, with plenty of room to move around as more and more ponies packed into the Grand Hall. Then, the lights began to dim, and cheers erupted as the crowd applauded the start of the show.
But as the music started, Sunny noticed that rather than descending down from the room above, Pipp and her musicians entered from the entryway behind the couch.
"Glowin' up kind of love Dip and slide through the cut Glowin' up kind of love We say 'Hi', you say 'What?'"
Sunny quickly realized that Zipp hadn't been kidding as they didn't even see Queen Haven sitting at the center couch, but rather Pipp's backup musicians had made themselves comfortable with their synthesizers and keyboards as Pipp slowly made her way down the elevated walkway, singing the opening verse of one of her newest songs.
Among her bandmates, stood Sunset, who had some kind of musical instrument strapped around her neck, with glowing appendages moving up and down the neck and strumming the strings down on the body.
"Used to care what they'd say Let 'em into my brain But I found a new way Ooh-hoo Every time I fall down I pick it up like rebound Gotta get through somehow"
Pipp's song was undoubtedly an ear worm, and Sunny was able to pick out the addition of Sunset's instrument as the unicorn grooved along to the music as Pipp took center stage.
"We don't fly like we used to We take what we've been through And we can feel brand new Ooh-hoo-hoo I know I am a fighter I feel the fire I'm shining brighter Ooh-hoo-hoo"
Performance wires or not, Pipp hadn't taken to the air this time, and merely slowly walked the circumference of the center elevated platform, pointing at her fans as she sang.
"We got the light We're coming in stronger We're in it together If you want it it's all inside your mind We got the light Won't wait any longer We'll get it together If you want it then you can paint the sky"
Sprout was entirely impressed with the show. Up until now, the closest thing he had seen compared to this was his mom's keynote at CanterLogic's annual show. But this was a bit more flashy, with more pizazz, and Pipp was certainly an expert at commanding the crowd's attention.
As her opening song came to a close, the applause erupted again, and she took a bow, as one of the stagehands brought up a microphone stand. Sunny thought that was a bit odd, as Pipp was wearing a wireless headset microphone. She took another bow as she stepped up to the front of the center stage.
"Good evening, Zephyr Heights, and thank you so much for coming out tonight!" She announced, getting more cheers. "Before we get any further into this, I'd like to announce that there have been some rather significant changes to our setlist this evening. Now don't worry, we're going to perform all of your old and new favorites, but just yesterday, we've got a new performer from out of town, and her music is simply stunning. I know you're going to love what she has in store for all of you tonight. So, without further adieu, it is my pleasure to introduce our guest musician for tonight, Sunset Shimmer!"
Pipp lead with the applause as one of the overhead spotlights came on, and shone down on Sunset as she made her way down the walkway to join Pipp on center stage, the glowing magic appendages continuing to cradle her instrument. Unlike Pipp, she didn't have a headset on, and instead came up to the mic stand that had been set up.
"Thank you very much, Princess. Zephyr Heights, I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to have been invited by Princess Pipp to join her onstage this evening. What I've got for you tonight may not be what you've gotten accustomed to, but she's assured me that you'll all love it. So, that being said..."
She turned to Pipp for just a moment, who then subtly signaled her band in the back by the couches. Sunny saw her tap her headset, going to a closed channel, but heard her tell her band "E-flat major", as Sunset positioned the glowing hand on the neck of the guitar, and took a breath.
"So you have magic And it's not that great But when it found you You know it was fate And it might seem scary now But it can be wonderful, too So how about we embrace the magic And make the magic part of you?"
Sunny's eyes widened as she heard Sunset begin to sing, strumming her guitar before the electronic drums and accompaniment joined her.
"You take a little dash of magic And you let it ignite Mix things up a little bit And it might start to go right In just five seconds flat How the story has changed All 'cause now you've embraced the magic And it just got better in every way.
Pipp once again stepped up next to Sunset, and joined her in the chorus.
"I say embrace the magic No more holding back, just let it out If you can take the magic And learn a little more what it can do Once the magic is part of you."
The crowd was lightly swaying to the rhythm of the song, but most of the eyes were on Sunset's instrument, as the glowing five-digit appendage moved up and down the neck, adjusting the tone and pitch of the notes she strummed.
"What's standing in your way That you can't move today? You've got the strength in you To make your dreams come true
No need to shield yourself From the magic that can help Protect from any harm that might come."
Pipp and Sunset together created a beautiful sounding harmony, and to her credit, Pipp was sharing her stage presence perfectly with Sunset, instead of being her usual flashy self. They went into the second refrain and verse, before repeating the chorus a final time, and the crowd erupted into cheers as the pegasus and unicorn took a bow.
"Alright, well I'm sold, Princess," Sunset told Pipp, standing at the microphone.
"I told you. Now that we've got this amazing crowd warmed up, how about you show them what that thing can really do?" Pipp asked, motioning down to the guitar.
Sunset showed just a moment of hesitation, looking down at the guitar and out to the crowd before turning back to Pipp.
"I don't know, you think they're ready?"
The crowd offered encouragement, and Sunny wasn't sure if this was convincing stage banter, or authentic uneasiness.
"Positive. Show'em what you got, Sunset," Pipp said, followed by cheers of affirmation.
Sunset gave a confident nod, before turning back to the mic stand.
"I apologize in advance for the lyrics, this song was written by a great friend of mine, and I haven't had the opportunity to make them into something more... Shall we say, modest. So, this is for you, Rainbow," Sunset told the crowd before turning back to the band by the couches. "Alright, you heard her guys. Key is D major, 174 beats per minute, and try to keep up," Sunset told them before turning back to the mic stand, and began strumming the guitar strings again.
Pipp and her bandmates began shouting a rhythmic "Hey!" to the beat of Sunset's guitar, a total of six times before Sunset came in.
"Awesome as I want to be!"
The opening was clearly not about the lyrics, but Sunset's instrument, as the tones and notes it was producing now was much faster and lively.
"First you see me riding on a sonic boom Got my guitar shredding up my latest tune There is nothing you can do to beat me I'm so good that you can't defeat me Yeah, I'm awesome, take caution Watch out for me, I'm awesome as I wanna be Yeah! I'm awesome, take caution Watch out for me, I'm awesome as I wanna be"
As the band went into a repeat of the 'Hey!' shouts, Sunset stepped forward beyond the microphone stand, and the glowing fingers on the neck of her instrument were like fire as she played a series of rapid, harmonic notes. The crowd was into it, and Sunny noticed that Zipp was absolutely enthralled by the performance.
"Step aside now, you're just gettin' in my way I got sick chops you could never hope to play When it comes to making music, I'm the ruler You wish you could be twenty percent cooler Yeah, I'm awesome, take caution! Watch out for me, I'm awesome as I wanna be Yeah! I'm awesome, take caution Watch out for me, I'm awesome as I wanna be!"
The crowd gave roars of approval, overtaking Sunset's final chord, and Sunny barely heard Zipp gave a loud whistle of approval with the tip of her hoof touched to her lips. It was maybe a minute of nonstop applause before Sunset finally turned to Pipp.
"Sunset, your entire performance was great, but I have to say, that last song? It was simply beautiful," Sunny complimented, as she, the unicorn, Sprout, and the two pegasi siblings made their way down the hall to the guest suites in the castle.
"Thanks so much, Sunny. My Past Is Not Today was the first song I wrote back when I was starting to turn things around for myself."
"If you ask me, it represents almost all of us right now," Pipp chimed in. "We've all been putting our pasts behind us through reunification."
"You got that right," Sunny agreed.
"I'll get recordings from tonight sent to your phone as soon as they're mixed and ready, Sunset," Pipp told her.
"Sweet, that's one of the best ways to improve, listening to yourself. It feels like I haven't missed a beat, but there's always room to get better," Sunset replied.
"We loved having you tonight, I know we're heading up to the Crystal Empire again after tomorrow, but let us know when you want to play again, there'll always be a spot open for you."
"Thanks, Pipp. That means a lot. I'll certainly keep that in mind. I'm not really thinking about my options right now, everything's still up in the air, but I'll keep that in mind. It's only been a few days and I've already missed it."
"I can't wait to take a look at that passage in the museum," Sunny commented.
"There's not a lot down there, but you can look around all you like.
"I don't know about you gals, but after that, I'm gonna grab some dessert and fall into bed. Great show, Sunset, I'll be seeing you tomorrow," Zipp said, before splitting off towards the castle kitchen.
"Well, after that performance, I'm nowhere near ready to retire yet. Say, Sprout, you much of a gamer? Feel like some tag-team Pony League?" Pipp asked the red earth pony.
"Say what?" Sprout asked.
"Go for it, you'll love it," Sunset immediately told him, and the pegasus and earth stallion split off to head towards the princess' streaming room.
"Guess it's just you and me. I'm up for getting a slice of pie or something downtown. Weather report says it's going to be beautiful out tonight, what do you say?" Sunny asked.
"I say cookies and cream."
The next morning...
Swift Melody walked down the main street of downtown Zephyr Heights. It was so early in the morning that the fog hadn't lifted from the top of the mountain yet.
It would be a good half hour before most stores on the main strip would be ready to open, and likely be closer to lunch before things would get considerably busy.
So seeing a line of ponies going around the corner as he approached his storefront, and seeing that they were all queued to get into his store was undoubtedly surprising. He had to do a double take at the more than two dozen pegasi waiting on him to open up.
"Um, well, good morning, everypony. I'm not quite ready to open yet, but can I get a heads up on what most of you are looking for?"
"Good morning, Mr. Melody. I'm pretty sure that all of us are here because we attended Pipp's concert last night. We're looking for that instrument that the unicorn was playing. What was it called? Oh, a guitar!"
After having a large piece of pie along with Sunset at one of Zephyr Heights' downtown confectioneries, Sunny had retired to her guest suite in the castle, and had set her alarm for what she had assumed would be early enough to get a head start on Sunset. To her surprise, by the time she was showered and had a granola bar for a quick breakfast, Sunset Shimmer was still waiting for her outside her door.
"You're quite the early bird, aren't you?" Sunny asked, stepping out into the hall and walked alongside the unicorn towards the front exit.
"I'm used to it. Plenty of early exams and band practices the past year," Sunset replied. "I think you can take your time if you want down in the restricted section, because Pipp and Sprout aren't up yet; think they went well into the night with Pony League," the unicorn commented.
"How could she possibly have the energy to play that long after that concert?" Sunny asked, bewildered.
"Take it from someone who's put on quite a few live shows; when the curtains close, you have such an adrenaline high that you can barely sit still. Takes awhile to come down from, and when you finally do get to sleep, yeah, you're probably going to sleep in." Sunset told her.
"So you mentioned that there's not a lot down there, but what is there has to be treated carefully? What do you mean by that?" Sunny asked.
Sunset took a few moments to consider her words carefully.
"What I mean is, magic is far more complicated than levitation and illumination spells. Some schools of magic take lifetimes to master, and if you don't know what you're doing, the results can be disastrous, for yourself and those around you. Nearly all of the magical problems that I dealt with over in the mirror world... Almost every single time it was because someone got their hands on an artifact, or something that they really didn't know what they were dealing with. So whatever is left down there, should probably stay down there for the time being, and the same goes with the Crystal Empire Library when we get up there; I'd like to check each spell book to make sure they're not dangerous before we even consider reprinting them for the unicorns of today."
"What about earth pony magic?" Sunny asked. "Unicorn magic is in their horns, and pegasi magic is in their wings. What about us?"
"In my time, earth ponies were almost always physically the strongest in Equestria, and almost all earth ponies have an affinity for either plants, botany, or farming. Yeah, unicorns and pegasi could try their hooves at it, but in almost every case, they were nowhere near as successful as the earth ponies. But that was long ago, things have obviously been modernized a considerable amount."
The earth mare and unicorn mare exited the castle's main entrance, and stepped out into the morning sun, riding the elevator down into downtown Zephyr Heights. They had barely reached the ground when Sunset's phone started vibrating in her saddlebags. She dug it out and tapped the alert on the screen.
Unknown Number Miss Shimmer? It's Swift Melody from Sky High Notes. I don't suppose you could tell me anything at all about the manufacturing process of your 'guitar' instrument, could you? I understand you performed with Princess Pipp last night at her concert, and now I've got more than two dozen ponies on a waiting list to see if they can purchase one, after I explained to them that from my understanding, it was an experimental instrument, and is so far, one-of-a-kind.
I would be immensely grateful for any assistance you can provide.
"Oh boy..." Sunset muttered as she began to type in a reply. "Got a whole lot of concert goers wondering where they can buy a guitar now..."
Sunset I'll see what I can do, but I can't promise anything in a timely manner, I've got quite the crowded schedule the next several days. I'll be in touch.
"I wonder if CanterLogic has three-dimensional scanning, so I can give him detailed designs. But... I mean, making them is one thing... All those pegasi are going to want lessons... And I'm being pulled in enough directions as it is."
"Well, I'm fairly certain CanterLogic can help you out there, and as for teaching them how to play, maybe that's another book we can keep an eye out for up north, so they can be self-taught," Sunny offered.
It was certainly an idea, and Sunset gave it some thought. She had never been in the Crystal Empire's library, but she was aware that its size and wealth of knowledge rivaled Canterlot's library, publicly accessible and otherwise.
The unicorn's phone went off again, and this time it was a picture message from Hitch.
Hitch Somebody is getting quite comfy on top of the cabinet.
Sunset couldn't help but smile at the picture of Ray content on top of Hitch's cabinet, with a view of the entire precinct office.
"You were certainly right about Hitch. Ray is right at home with him."
More and more ponies came out onto the streets as businesses opened for the day, and a few minutes later, Sunny and Sunset found themselves at the entrance of Zephyr Heights Historical Museum. They entered the lobby, and were immediately spotted by the curator, Whirlwind.
"Ah, welcome back, Miss Shimmer. Miss Starscout, it is always a pleasure having you here," the pegasus replied, giving the earth mare a short bow.
"We're here so I can show Sunny our discovery from the other day," Sunset explained.
"Of course. I figured you'd be coming back, so we relocated the painting and put up a curtain. Please help yourselves," Whirlwind replied.
Giving the curator a smile, Sunset and Sunny walked down the corridor and retraced the steps that the unicorn had taken with Pipp, coming up to a velvet rope in front of a curtain, with a simple podium and sign that merely said 'Pardon Our Dust'. They stepped around the sign, over the velvet rope, and through the curtain, coming to a plain wall with a four-inch hole in it.
"Alright, you ready?" Sunset asked, and Sunny immediately nodded.
"Alright, take my hoof," Sunset told her, offering her left front hoof, and Sunny placed her right front hoof on it, and Sunset closed her eyes in concentration as her horn began to glow. Sunny began to feel tingly all over, and after a flash of light, she found herself surrounded by total darkness, followed by a brief bout of dizziness.
"Easy, first time teleporting is a bit of a doozy," she heard Sunset say. Blinking a few times, waiting for the tingly sensation to fade, she saw Sunset's horn begin to glow dimly, and she saw that they were standing in a cobblestone corridor, with a set of stairs. "Alright, right this way, it's not far."
Sunny took a moment to dig out her LED headband from her saddlebags, place it on her head, and tap it on, following Sunset down the winding staircase, to a large set of doors that had been opened.
"Lux," Sunset said at just above a whisper, and the warm orb of light on the tip of her horn floated up into the air until it came to rest against one of the largest stalactites on the ceiling, before slowly expanding its luminescence, coating the entire cave in a warm orange glow.
Sunny was trying not to be disappointed, because Sunset had indeed warned her that there wasn't much here, and indeed, nearly all of the shelf space here was bare. Sunset took a quick look around, and her horn lit up again, and the half-dozen or so books that were here glowed and floated down to the stone slab table in the middle of the room, where the light was brightest.
After gently being set down on the table, Sunset eyed each one of them closely.
"I told you there wasn't much here, and I'm most comfortable with keeping these right where they are. These are Class Five spell tomes, Sunny," Sunset told the earth pony.
"Class five?" Sunny said.
"There were five widely accepted skill levels in magecraft in my time. Novice, Apprentice, Adept, Expert, and Master. One, two, three, four, five. The more complicated, or usually, the more dangerous a spell or incantation, the higher class it was assigned. Most elder mages were masters in a single school of magic, and they honed their craft for most of their lives."
Sunny looked at the covers of each of the ancient books, and saw that the one thing they had in common was the small 'V' etched on the bottom of the binding.
"I'm sorry if I'm not quite getting a grasp on this. What's so dangerous about words on a page?" She asked the unicorn.
"If you don't have the experience required, most Class 2 or 3 spells would simply be weaker, or not work. Class 4 and 5 spells, however, have to be controlled meticulously, and if you don't have the necessary experience, a spell can easily go out of control, and cause harm to the user, or those around him or her. Take this one, for instance," Sunset said, pointing to the red book cover with a half-bare, half-blooming tree on the cover. "Dracopellis, or Dragonhide. It's a Class Five alteration spell, that takes your skin, your coat, and makes it as indestructible as a dragon's scales. But if you don't know what you're doing, the spell could very well have a permanent effect on you, rather than temporary."
Sunny visibly gulped, now rather intimidated by the book, and Sunset sympathized with her.
"Like I said, Sunny. The things down here were kept here for very good reasons."
Sunset was completely clueless about hydrogen fuel cells, but she assumed it was somewhat comparable to the hybrid vehicles that she had started to see in her final years in the mirror world. If this vehicle used petrol, she likely wouldn't be able to sit back here in the bed of the Scouticus Maximus leaning against the barrels without choking on gasoline vapors as the truck headed north over arctic tundra. Sunny advised her to take in the relaxing scenery while she could, before the frigid cold forced her inside for the final quarter of the journey.
Aside from magic-fueled teleporting and the zeppelin-powered military airships, Sunset remembered the quickest way to get around Equestria was the national rail network. According to what Sunny had told her, the tracks had long since rotted away or had been long-buried by generations' worth of vegetation. The separate tribes were still working on connecting their cities and towns with simple roads, and were still relying on physical maps until Zephyr Heights installed signal towers in between locales, the previous six months having been getting better signal strength in Bridlewood and Maretime Bay. It made Sunset wonder what had happened to Equestria's other metropolises, such as Las Pegasus and Manehattan. Had they survived? Been razed or abandoned in whatever unrest had befallen Equestria's citizens? Or were they just as isolated as Bridlewood, Maretime Bay, and Zephyr Heights had been, and just weren't aware of each other yet?
The vehicle's passenger cabin wasn't as crowded this time, either. This trip, it was Sunny, Sprout, Zipp, Pipp, and herself, with Izzy currently tending to matters in Bridlewood and Hitch handling his office in Maretime Bay, in addition to caring for Ray. The current plan was to spend two to three days sorting, packing, and loading artifacts into the trailer they were pulling, and then she would disembark at the halfway point home, to head towards Bridlewood to spend some time with Izzy and the other unicorns.
The only part of the Crystal Empire she had seen was the interior of the castle when she stealthily approached Twilight's guest room all those years ago. If it weren't for the pictures Pipp had taken, she couldn't imagine an entire city buried in ice and snow. But in just about a day's time, she would see it for herself.
The food they had packed obviously wasn't up to par to the dishes she had eaten at Maretime Bay's and Zephyr Heights' restaurants and castle, but they certainly sufficed for a trip such as this. Finishing the granola bar that she had started a few minutes ago, she got up as she felt a brisk breeze blow her mane from overhead, and figured that the mild temperatures would soon be behind them along with the arctic tundra. Getting to her hooves, she climbed over to the top hatch, opened it, and slid down the ladder, depositing the granola bar wrapper into the trash can in the corner.
Sprout was driving, and Sunny was in the passenger seat reading 'The History of Magic', one of the first and few ancient books that were in good enough condition that CanterLogic was able to reprint them. The earth pony wasn't able to hide her disappointment, but she took Sunset's suggestion and left the Class V spell tomes right where they were in what used to be Canterlot Library's restricted section. Sunset figured after spending some time in Bridlewood with Izzy, she could finally earn some bits at CanterLogic by helping Sunny go through what was undoubtedly going to be a few metric tons of books that they were going to pull out of the Crystal Empire's library. The trailer Sprout had built was climate controlled all the way down to zero degrees, so they would be able to keep them in their frozen or near-frozen state for the journey back south, which the earth stallion warned may take a bit longer with the added weight.
There wasn't enough time to get fitted for cold weather gear of her own, but without Izzy on this trip, she was a close enough fit. Pipp was currently playing an offline game on her phone, since they had lost all phone signals a day and a half ago.
"Hey there, Sunny," Sunset checked in, coming up to the passenger seat, holding herself upright by grabbing one of the straps bolted to the ceiling in between the driver and passenger seats. "How's the book?"
Sunny glanced at her with a look of... Disappointment?
"I'm just... Thinking about something I said back when I was almost a foal. Playing with my dolls with Hitch and Sprout, I was quite adamant when I said that ponies never used their magic against each other. That... Couldn't have been farther from the truth. The more I discover about Equestrian history, the more I realize that magic was almost always involved in every single conflict. Nightmare Moon, Trixie Lulamoon, Queen Chrysalis, Starlight Glimmer, Tempest Shadow... All of them wielded powerful magic of one kind or another. It's... Not quite the picture my dad painted for me when I was younger."
Sunset smiled down at her as she turned to the next page.
"I can see why your dad would teach somepony so young history with a bit of rose-tinted glasses. Yeah, magic, or magical artifacts, were frequently the source of conflict throughout Equestrian history. But don't let that discourage you. Whenever nefarious ponies threatened us, heroes rose up to face them; I should know, I have firsthoof experience with that, on both sides. And it should also be noted that more than half of the names you just mentioned eventually found the light. Trixie became the counselor for Twilight's school, Starlight became the new headmare, and Tempest, or Fizzlepop Berrytwist, her given name, became the captain of her royal guard. My point is, history is almost always more complicated than books give it credit for, Sunny."
Sunny looked up at her, and nodded with a light smile.
Sunset sat in the front-most passenger side seat, securely strapped in as the Scouticus Maximus lurched downward as it began to descend into the enormous bowl-shaped valley of snow that contained the frozen remnants of the Crystal Empire. She would have thought that having made this trip recently, Sprout would have seemed less on edge. It took her a moment to realize that they hadn't been towing a trailer that was as long as the vehicle itself the last time, so their maneuverability was not as great as it had been the previous trip, and he obviously didn't want that careening out of control, taking the front half with it.
She was stunned when they had stopped outside city limits and she beheld the massive cyclone of wind and snow that completely occluded the Crystal Empire, and that according to Zipp, this storm was completely unmoving ever since the region was scouted months ago, and it was likely the reason that the Empire had remained unknown to all three tribes until Sunny began to uncover ancient history.
After a couple minutes, the incline began to flatten out, and Sprout gently began to apply the brakes.
"I'll try to get it closer to the library this time," Sprout told Sunny as he began to make a wide right turn, turning the truck and trailer all the way around on the frozen surface, coming to a stop next to a large four-story building. He set the parking brake, and everypony began releasing themselves from their harnesses.
"Alright everypony, let's get suited up," Sunny said, getting up from the front passenger seat and coming towards the back, unlocking and opening up the cargo compartments that were built into the floor, while Pipp, Zipp, Sprout, and Sunset went to the very back where the cold weather gear was hanging in both corners.
There hadn't been time to get Sunset fit for gear of her own, but since Izzy was out of town, she tried hers on, and it fit closely enough. Sunny gave her a quick tutorial on how the built-in radios in the hat worked, and after they all tugged their masks and goggles on, they stepped out into the eye of the storm. Sprout was the last one out, flipping on the vehicle's amber beacon lights to give a clear indication of where it was parked if they had to move further away.
Sunset found the stillness absolutely unsettling, with every single crunch of snow under her hooves in complete clarity with no wind to mask the sound.
"Well, Hitch and I never really got done with the house we were checking out, so I'd like to go back there and pick up where we left off," Sprout said.
"No one should go alone, who's up for going with him?" Sunny asked.
"I will," Sunset said, nodding at Sprout.
"Alright. Zipp, Pipp, and I will unload these containers and start going through books," Sunny replied.
"Alright. Remember what I told you about the spell tomes?" Sunset asked. "Look for the old ponish numerical symbol on the front corner or the binding, and try and keep them separate from whatever else you pack up, so I can go through them and sort through them later, find out what's safe and what isn't."
Sunny nodded at her.
"Will do. We'll be on channel one, you and Sprout on channel two," the earth mare told them. Sunset tapped her left ear twice, going to the second radio channel, quickly followed by Sprout.
"Come on, it's this way," Sprout said. Sunset was surprised to see hoof tracks in the snow already.
"I'm guessing from your first trip here?" she asked.
"Yeah," came Sprout's reply through her earpiece. "I'm really amazed the tracks are still here, but if the storm keeps most of the blowing snow out, then I think hoof tracks and tire tracks would last a lot longer than usual. Not to mention that we're the only ones that have been up here in... Who knows how long."
Sprout and Sunset retraced his and Hitch's hoof tracks to a three-story structure.
"How did you get in last time?" Sunset asked.
"Second floor window up there," Sprout answered.
"Hm..." Sunset mused, looking around for a moment, before her horn lit up. Sprout moved aside, and two orange beams shot out from the tip, impacting and quickly melting the snow drift against the building. The snowmelt quickly refroze after it ran down to the ground, but the front of the structure was quickly and efficiently uncovered, revealing the front door and windows.
"Let's go in through the front this time, what do you say?" Sunset asked Sprout, whose stunned expression was concealed by his cold weather gear.
"Whoa," was his only response to seeing that degree of magic this close up. It was certainly more flashy and extravagant than Izzy's levitation or her glowing claw-things at the concert the other night.
"So you've been in here before? What did you find?" Sunset asked, as her horn lit up again as she began to magically fiddle with the lock on the front door.
"We're guessing this place was the home of a crystal guard; the only thing we pulled out so far was a couple suits of armor; one went on display in the Museum of History in Maretime Bay, the other one went to the museum in Zephyr Heights. We'll have a lot more room this time around, but I'm not sure how much we'll get, I know Sunny wants to save most of the room for the library, and have one of the largest buildings in town cleared out."
After Sunset's spell had the lock sufficiently thawed, there was a click, and then she braced herself again, as her dual heat beams shot out and traced along the doorjamb, meeting at the top before parting and going down the sides again. She repeated this motion several times, until the sides of the entryway were positively steaming from the heat it was now giving off. After a minute, the beams dissipated, and she tried the door again, and it rotated inward on its hinges as she pushed, opening the way.
Sprout followed her inside, and they both noticed the change in temperature. It wasn't warm, but it was certainly more bearable, as they both pulled their goggles down, letting them hang from their necks and tugged their masks off, depositing them in their saddlebags. Sunset shook her head, but kept her mane tied back, not wanting to have to tie it back up when it was time to put the headgear back on when they were done in here.
"Getting things out of here should be a bit easier now, with that kind of access. I gotta say, it's still a bit unsettling, seeing a place that used to be lived in, look like this. Untouched for so long."
"Yeah, it's a bit eerie, I'll give you that. Maybe it'll be a little less eerie if we can put some names and faces to who lived here. For instance, how about you start there while I take a look at the living quarters," the unicorn said, pointing the earth pony to the stairs, where framed photographs hung on the wall. Sprout nodded, making his way over to the crystal steps, and began to study the pictures, as Sunset went to the large room on the left.
There was a couch, two end tables on either side, a center table, and a fireplace built into the far wall. There was a candle holder on each end table, and a larger, six-slotted candlestick on the center table, all with their wax sufficiently burned down. There was a frozen stack of wood next to the fireplace.
"No doubt they had to keep warm constantly until the order came down to evacuate... That would be my guess..." Sunset said to herself as she tried to picture what the city's final days were like.
"Flash Sentry..." she heard Sprout say from the stairs, and the unicorn's heart skipped a beat.
"What?" Sunset asked, turning back towards the foyer, nearly galloping across the crystal floor back to the stairs, where Sprout stood staring at a picture on the wall. "What did you just say?"
"Colonel Flash Sentry, of the Crystal Empire E.U.P. Guard," Sprout said, turning to her and pointed the tip of his hoof at the photo he had just read the golden plaque of.
Sunset came up the stairs, and Sprout went up another few steps to make room as Sunset's breath quickened as she closed in on the picture frame in question, and laid her eyes on the aged stallion in dress uniform.
It was really him. The features were decidedly more equine, obviously, but the eyes... She certainly recognized the confidence in the eyes, as hers began to tear up.
"You knew him?" Sprout asked, as he saw how captivated the unicorn was by what he had discovered.
The stallion in the photograph was nowhere near her age; his posture and proud expression denoted likely decades of experience. She slowly reached a hoof up and softly touched the photograph, before lighting her horn up and ever so gently removed it from its place on the wall.
"Sunset?" Sprout asked again gently, getting her attention.
The unicorn took a breath, and glanced at him before returning her gaze to the picture.
"Sort of. I sort of knew him. I knew a... A mirror version of him, if that makes any sense," she answered.
"From the world you came from?" Sprout asked softly, and she nodded.
"It still bugs me... Wondering if it's been just as long as I've been here... Or if just as much time passed over there as it did here, and all of their lives passed by in an instant... Ugh, time dilation, I'll never be able to wrap my head around it."
Sprout looked at the rest of the pictures on the wall.
"Well, it looks like he lived a long and happy life, and had more than a few descendants," Sprout pointed out, motioning to the rest of the pictures as the rest of them ascended along with the staircase.
Sunset tore her gaze away from the frame she held, and saw that Sprout was indeed correct; young ponies in cadet armor were gracefully aged as the photographs climbed the stairs, until new ones joined them as new generations were born. Seeing this took away some of the weight from Sunset's heart and mind.
If this was Flash's family home, he had lived a fulfilling life, and multiple generations had followed in his hoofsteps before this storm threatened the city. It had easily been a century or more.
"Did we bring materials to protect these for transport?" Sunset asked him as she wiped her eyes. Sprout nodded immediately.
"Pipp packed plenty in the truck. I'll go get them, be right back," Sprout replied, squeezing past Sunset and descended the stairs, putting his mask and goggles back on before heading outside. Sunset also headed down the staircase back into the living room, as she sat down on the frozen couch, gently running her hoof over the photograph again, taking another deep breath as she did so.
Sunset and Sprout had spent an hour carefully removing each picture frame that made up Flash's family tree and carefully wrapping them up for transport, before moving them out into the truck, where they were neatly stacked in one of the lower compartments. Sunset made a mental note to take a closer look at the set of pony armor that was on display at the Maretime Bay museum the next time she was in town, now that she knew it had come from either him or one of his descendants.
Being here, exploring these abandoned buildings, and very soon going through ancient books gave Sunset a faint feeling of déjà vu, and she couldn't quite put her hoof on why. Once their first load was secure, Sprout did a quick check of the fuel levels and temperatures, then tugged his balaclava back on and exited the vehicle with Sunset, just in time to see Sunny come down the frozen steps of the library they had parked in front of, identifiable by her mane and tail flowing out from her winter clothing.
"We just loaded up a few pictures of a family of royal guards," Sprout told her. "We might want to see if there are any genealogical records in that library."
"If there are any, we'll come across them eventually. We've got nearly all the empty crates inside on the main floor, and Zipp and Pipp are ready to start sorting and loading up. I'm headed back to the castle, so who wants to come with me, and who wants to go help the pega-sisters?"
"I suppose I can take another trip down memory lane, I'll go with you to the castle," Sunset answered, and Sunny nodded before turning to Sprout.
"Is the trailer temperature set for when they start loading crates up?" she asked the stallion.
Sprout shook his head.
"No need to waste fuel yet. The thermostat is set for the ambient temperature, but the cooling unit isn't on, and doesn't have to be until we get back down to the warmer climate."
"Good point. Well, don't you three work too hard. Come on, Sunset," Sunny said, before turning to head down the main avenue towards the towering, frozen structure looming ahead.
"We need music for any future trips up here, this silence is so unnerving," the unicorn commented as she walked next to Sunny, her hooves crunching on the snow as they retraced the tracks to underneath the four archways.
"I'm certain it's nothing natural. For this storm to be centered around this city, unmoving, for who knows how long... Equestria was saved up here, but they couldn't save this place," Sunny commented.
"At least everypony got out. Well, almost everypony," Sunset mused as they came up to the door in the back left arch that she and Izzy had dug out. They had closed it on the way out, and Sunny slid down into the small trench and gave it a few test pulls, and found that it had refrozen.
"Well, Sunset, if you wouldn't mind," Sunny told her friend, stepping aside. "We've already yanked this door open once, don't want to take the whole thing off the hinges by doing it too many times."
Sunset smirked, and her horn lit up as she fired off a wide heat beam at the door. When Sunny and Izzy were here, they might as well have opened a slab of ice, but as Sunset's spell began to melt away the buildup, the earth mare saw that the door was intricate, expertly engraved crystal. Sunny stepped forward and saw that the door now pulled open much easier, and Sunset followed her in. Almost immediately there was a set of stairs that spiraled to the right and rapidly ascended up the interior of the arch. After several looping rotations, they came to another door, that had been left open, and the pair of ponies stepped out of the corridor into the Crystal Heart chamber.
"You said you've been here before?" Sunny asked as they made their way around the central pedestal to the adjacent door, which led to more steps.
"Once. The mirror had been in Canterlot when I jumped through the portal the first time, so I was a bit surprised to realize that I came back to a location that didn't exist when I had left. But magic isn't that complicated to track, especially if you know what you're looking for, and I did; Princess Twilight's crown. I waited until I was sure patrols would be at a minimum, and it honestly would have been a clean getaway if I had been more careful with my footing. Princess Twilight gave chase, and it set me on the path I'm on now. Wherever it leads..."
The doors led to another set of stairs, climbing to the third and fourth floors.
"Princess Flurry Heart's quarters were here on the fourth floor. I found a letter she had left under a sheet of glass. I don't think she intended for this storm to last as long as it did. I think she was hoping her citizens were going to be able to come back home one day," Sunny told Sunset.
"I think they left in a hurry, with everything that got left behind; it makes sense that they made all the room for ponies and food," the unicorn replied.
"There should be another, smaller library here in the castle that I wanted to start going through. It's not nearly as big as the main one, but I'd still like to not miss anything." Sunny said.
They came to a large window, iced over like everything else close to the exterior had been, and Sunset once again applied her heat beam for a few moments, before gently pushing them open.
The view was a wide open field, frozen in snow. She made the educated guess of it being the castle's athletic field; she remembered Twilight writing to her about the Equestria Games. She envisioned ponies running, throwing, practicing their various athletic pursuits while Shining Armor and Cadance looked on.
"Sunset?" Sunny asked, seeing that the unicorn had become lost in thought again.
"Oh, sorry. It just feels eerie. The first time the Empire vanished, it was just that, vanished; frozen in time. Not like this, not frozen in ice. I don't know if it's been another thousand years, but I wonder if we'll ever figure out what this storm is, and if there's any way to stop it. If there's a way to once again save and restore the Crystal Empire."
Sunny came up and put a hoof around her.
"And if not, that's what we're here for. To uncover, restore, and preserve what's been forgotten."
"Class one... Three... One... Two..." Sunset mumbled to herself as she pulled books off of the shelves one by one of the Crystal Castle Library. The two-story repository took up considerable castle real estate, and was easily one of the largest rooms in here, only rivaled by the throne room, dining room, and the Crystal Heart chamber. They wouldn't be spending nearly as much time in here as they would in the public library down the street. Right now, the unicorn's only priority was separating spell tomes from every other type of book, and otherwise didn't care how books were organized before they were loaded into the Scouticus outside.
"So did you have a longer-term plan for these books?" Sunny asked, a couple shelves over.
"Not at the moment. I know you want to reprint as many of these as possible, but I'd really like to make sure they're safe first."
"How often did unicorns self-teach themselves magic?" the earth mare asked as they continued stacking up books, sorting between Spell Tome and 'Other'.
"All the time," Sunset answered. "It's entirely possible for simpler spells. It's actually how a lot of the Gifted Unicorn students got their start, with how many spells they can teach themselves before their parents realize that they're considerably talented, and takes them to the entrance exams in Canterlot. It's the more potent stuff where inexperience can be dangerous."
Izzy was slowly roused by the chiming of her unicycled alarm clock, tapping the top to stop the constant clanging of small bells in the wooden box. She sat up in her bed, and immediately saw her frizzy mane in the mirror of the dresser on the far side of her bedroom.
Yup, was time for a shower.
She trotted over to the bathroom, and turned on the faucet, immediately switching the flow of water to the shower head. The longest part of any shower was washing her incredibly long mane, but it was always worth it to her. Once her mane and coat were satisfyingly clean, she stepped out onto the bathroom rug and shook herself off, before stepping over to her sink and mirror, grabbing the blow dryer, and caught a glimpse of her shadow against the shower curtain.
"Huh, what d'ya know. Hitch was right. That shadow does look like a knife."
She spent the next twenty minutes getting her mane and tail curled just the way she liked it. By then, her coat and mane were completely dry, and she was ready for the day. After going back over to her nightstand to put on her bracelet, she headed down to the kitchen and fried up some oatcakes before sitting down at her dining table. While she brought her plate of breakfast to the table, what was already there was a book she had been studying for the past few days, ever since she had gotten back to Bridlewood.
'Weather Wizardry: Influencing the Forces of Nature
Izzy remembered how Sunny had discovered through her research that pegasi used to be able to control the weather, mainly through manufacturing thunderheads and other types of rain-producing clouds.
So why couldn't unicorn magic do something similar? That was exactly the question that this book was answering. Some of the old ponish was tricky to understand, and she also didn't understand what the 'IV' was on the binding. But it was an interesting look back to how unicorns learned magic back in ancient times.
She didn't get even two pages further before she finished her oatcakes, and she decided to save more for later. It was time to head into town and see how Alphabittle was coming along with his new study material. Putting on her saddlebags, she replaced her bookmark, closed it, and deposited the tome into her right bag, before turning to her front door and headed out into the Bridlewood morning.
If she was brutally honest with herself, Bridlewood hadn't yet experienced the same influx of tourists that Maretime Bay and Zephyr Heights had, but it was slowly increasing. Zephyr Heights had put up a cell tower right behind the Crystal Tea Room, and it allowed much quicker communication with friends abroad. She was even able to see some snippets of Pipp's concert that Sunset had participated in, and their new unicorn friend would be visiting here in a few days. The last she heard, she was going to be dropped off on the way back from the Crystal Empire. She was immensely looking forward to it.
Izzy's gait paused when she heard a faint boom in the distance, and she looked up ahead, wondering what had just happened. She was still a half mile out of town, but she already saw that a good portion of the forest had been disturbed, as flocks of birds took to the sky.
The unicorn took off down the path at a full gallop deeper into the forest towards the source of the sound. As she began to pass the first dwellings in town, ponies were poking their heads out of their windows or coming out of their front doors, wondering what they had heard as well. Fear began to creep into Izzy's mind as she made her way through Bridlewood, and the panicked voices began to become clearer. She was close enough to the center of town where she now saw the smoke rising through the canopy into the sky.
Her four hooves skidded to a halt as her eyes widened in shock as she saw the scene she was closing in on.
The Crystal Tea Room was engulfed in flames.
Ponies ran in multiple directions out and away from the most popular spot in town. Some crying for help, some calling for buckets of water.
Izzy galloped forward as Gloomy Sonnet stumbled out of the front door through the smoke, in a coughing fit as her lungs fought for air, and she seemed to be the last pony to come out of the burning wooden structure.
Unicorns scattered around began to carry and levitate buckets of water back, throwing the water towards the plumes of fire lashing out from the windows as it sought oxygen. Izzy's anxiety only continued to climb as not only did the fire slowly spread and come closer to other trees and structures, but she also didn't see Alphabittle in the crowd.
Her breathing quickening, she reached back into her saddlebags and pulled out the spell book, frantically flipping through the chapters she had already read, looking for something she knew she had read the other day. If this fire wasn't brought under control in the next few moments, everypony and their homes would be threatened.
Finding the page she was looking for, she gave it a quick read, and collected herself as best she could, given her surroundings. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and began to channel magic through her horn.
"Imber!" Izzy cried out.
A continuous brilliant blue beam shot out from her glowing horn, rocketing towards the sky, breaking through the canopy and stopped dozens of feet above the forest, as magical energy began to gather at the bright white point in the sky.
Half of the ponies scrambling around the Crystal Tea Room had paused at the sight of Izzy's spell continuing to feed into the sky. Dark gray clouds began to appear and circle around the mote of light as thunder began to rumble in the newly forming clouds.
Izzy stood firm as her entire head tingled intensely. She kept on taking deep breaths, focusing on keeping her magic flowing into this spell, knowing that everypony's homes, possibly the entire forest, depended on it.
The spectacle in front of the burning building had quelled the panic considerably, and ponies got a little more organized as the calls for more water continued.
The lilac unicorn fought back tears as the tingling began to get painful, and she felt rain began to fall through the canopy, starting as a light drizzle but was slowly picking up. Her legs nearly ready to give out as her body rapidly weakened from the magical expenditure, she was determined to stay on her hooves. She opened her tear filled eyes, looking up to confirm that the rain clouds had expanded sufficiently enough to cover the immediate area and beyond. Finally, her skull feeling like it was moments away from splitting, she took in a sharp breath as the magic in her horn cut off, and she fell to the muddying ground in exhaustion.
The intensity of the rain had built to nearly a monsoon, and the ponies of Bridlewood saw that the fires that had originated in the Crystal Tea Room was stopped in its tracks, allowing them to focus on the center burning building, as the surrounding trees and town was no longer in immediate danger due to Izzy's magical downpour.
Still coughing, Gloomy Sonnet got herself collected enough to come over next to the now prone and soaking wet Izzy, kneeling down next to her, lifting her head out of the mud and made sure she was still breathing, as she whimpered softly in pain.
Sunset had gotten used to the vibrations of the Scouticus' passenger cabin by now, and had gotten a good amount of sleep on both nights that they had spent on the return trip south from the Crystal Empire, which was taking a good deal longer due to the nearly twenty tons worth of cargo that they were towing behind them. She was certain they were going to need snow chains to get out of the snow drifts that surrounded the Crystal Empire, but she had to give credit where credit was due; Sprout and his team at CanterLogic had created one impressive vehicle, and it had taken longer to get up and over the hill, but no chains or magical assistance were required.
Most of the space in the trailer they were towing was taken up by crates of books. The framed photographs they had taken from Flash's ancestral home had been carefully wrapped and placed in one of the passenger cabin compartments under the floor panels.
As eager as she was to begin sorting through everything they had taken from the Empire, she also wanted to visit Izzy in Bridlewood, and see the home the unicorns had created for themselves in however much time had passed, and how they were getting used to magic again.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Sprout gently applying the brakes and stopping the truck.
"Alright," Sunny began, turning to her and getting up from the passenger seat. "This is the closest we'll get to Bridlewood on the route to Maretime Bay. Are you sure you don't want to have lunch first?"
"Nah," Sunset answered, getting up and making sure her saddlebags were tightened and ready for hiking. "I had a pretty good breakfast, and I'll move faster if I have a snack or something."
"Okay. Just follow the path straight west, and you'll come to the ravine. Izzy says they've completed the repairs to the bridge. At a good pace, should take more than a day or so. You have all your equipment?" Sunny asked.
Sunset looked over her shoulders and saw that her sleeping bag, tent, and everything needed to set it up were securely fastened to her saddlebags.
"Yep, I do believe I'm all set. You said phone signals were getting stronger between towns?" Sunset asked the earth pony.
"Yeah. Your signal might drop out a little bit out there, but should definitely get stronger as you get closer to Bridlewood."
"Alright, in that case, I'll be off. I'll try to not be more than a few days. When will you be back in Maretime Bay?" the unicorn asked.
"Should be a little bit earlier than last time, because last time, well, you happened. So a late dinner is probably in order if we eat lunch and keep moving at the same time," Sunny told her.
"Gotcha. Okay, have fun sorting through everything, and I'll be back in town soon."
"Alright, I'll set the magical crates aside until you get back. Take care!"
With that, Sunset disembarked onto the grass, and Sprout waited until she was a safe distance away before disengaging the parking brake and resuming their drive south, leaving the unicorn on the rolling green hills.
After reunification, one of the first things the three tribes did was create dirt roads to and from their three towns to make wagon and carriage traffic easier and safer, so goods and relics could be exchanged. They had dropped Sunset off right at the road between Bridlewood and Zephyr Heights. The unicorn's current surroundings reminded her of when she came back through the second portal they had discovered on spring break. Daisies as far as the eye could see, until the hills rose to what could likely be considered mountains. The new path to Bridlewood retraced the same one Sunny and her friends took before reunification. It included a moderate hike over a mountain pass, and Bridlewood was in the forest on the other side after another few miles of low hills.
It wasn't more than a few miles until she saw another pony, a white unicorn, headed east towards Zephyr Heights on hoof, carrying camping supplies similar to her own. He greeted her with a curt nod, and the two equines passed each other silently otherwise. Curiously, after that, Sunset didn't see anypony else on the path. She guessed that continuous tourism hadn't quite peaked yet, and whoever had decided to relocate to another settlement had probably done so by now. It would probably help if the journey didn't have to be made on hoof. Seeing the sights was nice, as was the exercise, but Sunset knew it wasn't for everypony, and for those that didn't have more than a day or two to get away, this pace of travel simply wasn't feasible.
Sunset was right; without a group to keep together, she could keep a brisk trotting pace, and after a quick granola bar from her saddlebags, she continued on her way west. After cresting a few more hills, the dirt road came to a wooden bridge that crossed a ravine. The bridge looked fairly new, and there was a sign posted just before the crossing on the right side of the road. Sunset approached, and read to herself:
Moonbow Bridge This river crossing is dedicated to Izzy Moonbow, of Bridlewood, who helped reunite the tribes of Equestria after untold centuries of separation and mistrust.
"How nice," Sunset commented, as she crossed the bridge, peering down to the river dozens of meters below. On the other side of the ravine, the hills quickly became steeper, and the road snaked around the taller mountain's south face. As the altitude increased, Sunset was finally starting to find herself short of breath, and had to slow her gait as she was now considering where to set up camp for the night and get started on dinner.
By the time the sun dipped below the horizon, she had reached the west side of the mountain, and would no doubt have a stunning view of the hills and forest below come morning. Finding a suitable clearing, free of flammable brush, she quickly made a stone ring, got a fire going, and got her tent set up, before digging into her bags once again and came out with freeze-dried haycakes, which she added water to and got heated over her camp fire.
She glanced over to the forest, where Bridlewood was nestled, and wondered, after this trip, after she had become familiar with each of the tribe's locales, what would be next for her. She had taken Sunny's advice to heart, but sooner or later, that time was going to run out, and she would need some kind of direction to pick and head off in.
She was doubtless that she and Sunny could make quite the archeological team, going to every forgotten corner of Equestria and seeing what remained, and seeing how much of the long-forgotten past they could piece together. It would no doubt bring more memories to the surface, some happy, some painful. But providing answers to the rest of Equestria would be worth it.
Zephyr Heights had been fun too. She had gone from visiting tourist to headlining performer with Princess Pipp in under 48 hours, the concert had been exhilarating and downright nostalgic. She still hadn't forgotten the promise she had made to Swift; she had told Sunny to take her guitar to CanterLogic and have them take a 3D scan of it so they could give the shop owner an idea of how it was constructed.
So what if Bridlewood was just as fun? What if she felt just as much at home with the unicorns as she had felt everywhere else? This sightseeing tour of how Equestria had changed hadn't exactly made the choice of where to settle down the slightest bit easier. The indecisiveness was familiar and unpleasant; it reminded her of how she had felt nearly her entire senior year, as she had to choose whether to stay or go. The choice had been made for her after her mirror world's counterpart had shown up, so through the portal she had gone after graduation, for good, and she had been thrust forward untold centuries, and gone were the career plans she had made with Princess Twilight.
As she finished her dinner and doused her fire, climbing into her tent, the questions continued to burn in her mind, keeping her from soundly falling asleep.
What was she doing here? What was she meant to be?
She just hoped her restlessness didn't invite anymore unpleasant dreams. What she wouldn't give for Princess Luna's help right about now...
Sunset's phone was blaring its alarm dark and early at 6:00am, and the unicorn immediately began a fire, not only to make breakfast, but also to warm up a bit before starting her hike down the mountain, and the rising sun wouldn't get over the peak for another couple hours. As much as she wanted to stay up here and wait for the sun to come up over the peaks to give her a stunning view of Bridlewood and the grasslands between, it would mean stopping for lunch before she actually got to the forest, and she preferred to hopefully join Izzy for a meal.
After a couple of hot fresh haycakes, her fire was doused, her fire ring scattered, and her tent packed up and ready to go. The descent was fortunately easier than the climb, and just about an hour later, her hooves touched the wide open fields between the mountains and forest. The blades were still wet with morning dew that hadn't quite evaporated, because the sun was just now reaching the fields. She checked her phone, and found that she was starting to get into range of the Bridlewood tower, but thought it would be a nice idea to surprise Izzy.
As she spent the next half hour waiting to see Bridlewood on the horizon, all she could think about was how stunning stargazing must have been out here. She made a mental note to make camp out here on her way back.
After another hour of hiking at a steady trot, she finally saw the tops of trees on the horizon. The forest of Bridlewood was almost completely perpendicular to the rest of the plains, almost like a wall of trees. If it wasn't for the very faint path of dirt she was walking on, she'd have almost no idea where to enter. But sure enough, said path went right up to where a couple of signs were prominently displayed on both sides of the path. At first she thought they were welcome signs, but was mistaken as she came up to the wooden welcome sign on the right side of the path, well before the treeline, very similar to the bridge dedication.
WELCOME TO BRIDLEWOOD All Earth Ponies and Pegasi Welcome!
Her curiosity now piqued, Sunset continued towards the treeline to have a closer look at the signs right at the front of the woods. They were painted white with red lettering.
ATTN: Unicorns Returning Home
Due to recent events, for the safety of you, your fellow Bridlewoodians, and all visitors, absolutely no magic is permitted within town limits.
Sunny had told her about the cluster of warning signs that they had encountered when they had first come to Bridlewood, that warned other ponies away. Those were nowhere to be seen, just these two signs for returning unicorns, and they looked new... Brand new. She could still smell the paint.
Maybe Izzy knew something about this. Her house wouldn't be hard to find.
'First thing you'll see on the right, you seriously can't miss it,' Sunny had told her.
The ambience had dimmed considerably as she went underneath the forest canopy. Natural crystal formations jutted out from the ground every now and then on both sides of the path. About a quarter of a mile in, the hills started up again as the forest got thicker, and the unicorn's attention was drawn to the right. There, a large pink and white tree jutted out from the hill, and a two-story dwelling had been built into it. It looked perfectly rustic; the doors, the windows, even the patio didn't look terribly out of place from the surroundings.
Sunset approached the large round door, and gave a trio of knocks with her hoof, announcing her presence. A few moments later, the door slowly opened, and the lilac unicorn appeared in the cracked open door, peeking to see who it was, before seeing the familiar unicorn on her doormat.
"Oh, Sunset! Sorry, I almost forgot you were coming, come in, come in," Izzy greeted, opening the door the rest of the way and stepping aside.
The first thing Sunset noticed was Izzy Moonbow had an ice pack on her head, resting against her horn.
"Hey there, Izzy. Um, everything okay?" Sunset asked as she stepped into the unicorn's house. In almost every corner, there was an arts and crafts piece, or some kind of contraption made of scrap metal, discarded plastic, and pieces of wood.
"Hm? Oh, this. I've just been fighting a headache for a few days, that's all," Izzy replied, shutting the door behind Sunset. "Can I get you anything?"
Sunset felt something was off as Izzy directed her to the kitchen, and she quickly moved a book that had been laying on the dining table and set it off to the side on the counter.
"Your headache wouldn't happen to have anything to do with that book, would it?" Sunset asked, immediately seeing the 'IV' etched into the side.
Before Izzy could answer, Sunset heard a groan of discomfort from upstairs, glancing up towards the bedroom area.
"You already have a guest?" Sunset asked. She remembered Sunny telling her that Izzy lived out here on the edge of the forest alone.
"Alphabittle. He figured it would be a good idea to get away from town for a little while to recover..." Izzy said as she started preparing a pot of tea.
"Izzy, what's going on? Something happened, and you're not doing a very good job of hiding it. Those signs out front are brand new. What happened?"
Izzy knew the facade was unconvincing at best, and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to keep stepping around the elephant in the room with someone as astute as her new friend here.
"We... Had an accident a few days ago. Alphabittle was practicing a spell he found in a book he found, and... There was a fire."
"Where?" Sunset asked.
"The Crystal Tea Room, pretty much the center of town, and—"
Sunset didn't wait any longer. She turned and pulled the front door open, and went into a full gallop down path deeper into Bridlewood.
"Sunset, wait!" Izzy called, to no avail.
The trees blazed past as Sunset maintained her fastest gait further into Bridlewood. She raced beyond a playground and another few treehouses before coming to the considerable clearing, and had to nearly skid to a halt.
The Crystal Tea Room sat barren and empty before her. Scorches and smoke stains marked the bark all over. Caution tape had been placed over the double doors that served as the front entrance. She stepped forward, and gently pushed the front doors open, ducking under the caution tape, and stepped inside.
She had never been inside a burnt building before, so it was very surreal to her. There was char and black everywhere. If this place could be salvaged, it was doubtless that everything would have to be replaced or scrubbed down, such as the stone mosaic floor, or the cobblestone tables. The wooden tabletops were all scorched or had soot on them that had fallen from the ceiling. Remnants of picture frames clung on the wall, or rested on the floor where they had fallen. Cups and dishes had shattered on the floor where they had been dropped as ponies clearly left in a panicked hurry. Some small table lamp fixtures sat blackened in the middle of tables, while others were on the floor on what looked like a stone stage area, and others still knocked over and shattered.
"Faciem larva" Sunset whispered, her horn lighting up for just a moment before a glowing cloth covering materialized over her mouth and nose as she continued into the structure. The center of the structure appeared to be a bar area of some sort, and Sunset immediately made the educated guess that it was there that the fire originated. Very little remained of the shelves behind the stone counter, and whatever keepsakes and trinkets were on them had turned to piles of ash.
Lastly, center on the counter, was an open book, bizarrely looking like the flames had barely touched the pages or the ink on them.
Sunset's throat tightened as she reached a hoof up to the counter, closed the book, and rotated it ninety degrees so that the binding was facing her, and what she wanted to see least of all stared right back at her at the bottom of the binding.
Her hooves quivering, she picked up the book, and silently slid it into her saddlebags, and immediately turned back to the front entrance. Ducking under the tape once again, she turned around and pulled the doors shut behind her, turning to face the forest clearing again, and found Izzy there waiting for her.
"Sunset...?" the lilac unicorn asked softly as the glowing covering dissipated from Sunset's snout.
"Izzy, I'm sorry this visit didn't go as planned, but I need you to do me a favor. That book you have? Go around town, gather up any more like it, and keep them in a safe place, please. I'll be back for them as soon as I can. Do you think you can do that for me?"
"Thank you. I'll be back."
Izzy watched as the amber unicorn galloped back the way she had come, down the forest path, saw her horn glow bright for a moment, and Sunset Shimmer vanished in a flash of light.
A few hours later, there was another knock at the door of Izzy's cottage, and she once again opened the door, and was greeted with the concerned faces of just over a dozen unicorns, most of whom had books either in their hooves or saddlebags.
"Izzy? What's going on? Who was that new unicorn? The one that went into the Tea Room?" Jasper asked.
Alphabittle came out to join Izzy outside her home, and risked seeing the lives he had carelessly endangered. Thankfully, he didn't see any looks of judgement, only concern and sharing Jasper's question.
Izzy took a step forward.
"I know we're all a little spooked after the accident, everypony. But don't worry. Sunset Shimmer... She's a unicorn from a far away land, and she knows more about ancient world magic than anypony me or my friends have met. I'm sure she wants all these books in one place so that accidents like the fire aren't repeated. She said she'd be back soon, and I'm absolutely sure she'll let us know what to do with them."
The unicorns present seemed to accept this. With their minds a little more at ease, they filed into the cottage one by one and set their gathered books in a stack next to the couch. Several minutes later, Izzy and Alphabittle found themselves alone again.
"How's the headache, Izzy?" Alphabittle asked as the pair went back into the cottage once the crowd had headed back into town.
"I can't believe you're worried about me. You're lucky to have all your coat after that flare-up. Since you asked, it's finally starting to let up a bit. It'll probably be awhile before I practice anything again, though. Sunset is right; these things are incredibly dangerous."
"But if you hadn't been reading up, who knows how much of the forest we would have lost."
"I'm sure Sunset can tell us more when she gets this all figured out. I'm sure she knows what she's doing."
Sometimes Sunny liked it quick and simple, and today, she was taking her lunch break with a quick peanut butter and jelly and a bag of chips. She had arranged with Cinnamon to take half-shifts at the museum until they had gone through everything they had gathered from the Crystal Empire. She'd make sure everything was in its place after lunch, then head over to CanterLogic. She was just about done with her sandwich when her phone began ringing and vibrating on her desk. She glanced at it to see who it was, and quickly picked it up, sliding her hoof across the screen.
"Hey, Sprout. What's up?" Sunny asked as she put the phone to her ear before taking the last bite of her sandwich.
"Hey Sunny. Just calling to make sure I'm not crazy. We did drop Sunset off yesterday in between Zephyr Heights and Bridlewood, right?" the stallion on the other end of the phone asked.
"Because she's sealed herself in the loading bay and she's been tearing through the crates for about twenty minutes now."
"She's there? Right now?"
"She hasn't said a word to anypony, and won't let anypony in. She seems a bit agitated."
"I'll be right there," Sunny said, hanging up the phone.
Leaving the remains of her lunch where it was, she immediately got up, hung up her curator's vest, threw on her saddlebags, and headed out of her office.
"Cinnamon, I'm headed out! Emergency at the factory!" Sunny called moments after exiting the Guardians of Harmony wing.
"Got it, hope everything's okay!" Cinnamon called back from his office.
Once out of the front doors, Sunny broke into a gallop towards CanterLogic, racing up the front concourse, and swiped her badge at the front doors, unlocking the doors. Understandably in a hurry, she merely nodded cordially at Sweets before going straight for the elevator, entered the lift, and hit the button for the bottom level. Sunny pranced in place uneasily. They had gotten back to Maretime Bay late last night and hadn't even had time to unload the trailer before everypony turned in for the night. How had Sunset gotten back here on hoof so quickly? How had she gotten into one of CanterLogic's most secure locations?
The lift reached the bottom level and the door slid open. There stood Sprout, and a few other CanterLogic employees, staring mystified at a gigantic magical field, dome-shaped, that encompassed nearly the entire large room, including the Scouticus Maximus, the trailer, and all of the crates they had unloaded.
"What in Equestria...?" Sunny said as she stepped up to Sprout.
"It's completely impenetrable. It might as well be a solid wall," Sprout told her as the earth mare approached the magical shield. She squinted her eyes to have a look inside. It was a little blurry, but there was Sunset, among all the crates that had been unloaded from the trailer, and it looked like she had surrounded herself with all the books that had been recovered. They were either in stacks near her, or most of them were levitating up in the air as they slowly rotated around her in a circle.
"Sunset, can you hear me?" Sunny called.
"We think she can, but she seems pretty focused on whatever she's doing in there," Sprout told her.
Sunny took a moment to think, and could think of no other option.
"Everypony stand back," she told Sprout and the others, who immediately stepped back towards the elevator. With that, Sunny turned towards Sunset's glowing shield, and closed her eyes in concentration. She took a deep, quiet breath, and held it for a moment.
When she exhaled, glowing golden translucent wings and a horn materialized on her body. Both the wings and the horn glowed brighter as she brought the wings around, shielding her front.
"Sunset, if you can hear me, I'm coming in."
With that, she took slow, purposeful steps towards the shield, and her glowing wings pressed against it, and began to pass through, as if they were a hot knife through butter. Sunny kept her pace steady, and felt her whole body pass through Sunset's shield. When she looked back, and saw that she was clear, she lowered her wings back down to her sides, and indeed confirm that Sunset sat in the center of the room, and had surrounded herself with the stacks of books they had collected from the Crystal Empire, and were floating several dozen more around her with what she could only assume was some kind of sorting spell.
"Sunset?" Sunny asked, taking a few steps towards her.
At last, the unicorn turned her attention to the earth pony, for only a moment.
"Sorry, Sunny. I had a feeling Sprout and the others wouldn't understand. Nopony in this generation has any idea how dangerous some of these books can be. I just saw firsthand what happens when the inexperienced get their hooves on these."
"What are you talking about? I thought you were headed towards Bridlewood."
"I was. I made it to Bridlewood, and was there for about twenty minutes. Alphabittle got his hooves on a Class V spell tome, and nearly burned his business down."
"What? Oh my stars..." Sunny said, her eyes widening in shock.
"Nopony was killed, thank goodness. I'm just double checking for Class Three through Five spell books. I told you they were locked away... Buried... For a reason. No matter where they're put... I'm afraid they'll be found eventually. I don't know what to do with them. I'm hoping to find a way to destroy them."
Sunny's heart skipped a beat.
"What? Sunset, you can't!"
Sunset turned to Sunny again, magically opening her saddlebags, and pulled out a book, and opened it.
"This is the tome I found in the scorched interior of the Crystal Tea Room. You want to know what the spell was that he thought would be okay to try in a crowded interior?" Sunset asked incredulously, flipping pages rapidly with her telekinesis. "Ignis tempesta. Fire storm. I doubt anypony alive today can completely translate the ponish from ancient times; if they could I doubt they would have even opened this book. You know what this book is, Sunny? Offensive spells written by battlemages. For war. Don't you get it? Conjuring balls of fire to rain from the sky. Streams of flames to shoot from the tips of your hooves. Spells to make your enemies bones spontaneously combust, incinerating them from the inside out. You think things like that should be left intact?"
Sunny felt a lump in her throat. She hadn't seen Sunset this emotional, this stressed, since she first met her in the cell of Zephyr Heights Castle.
"I understand your concern and your caution, Sunset. I do. But that's history. You shouldn't destroy history, or it's lost forever."
"History can be dangerous. History can get ponies killed. All it takes is one errant book, one inexperienced unicorn, and the next thing you know homes and businesses are up in flames!"
Sunny felt her throat tighten as her fear began to take hold, and her ethereal horn responded.
"You can't do this!"
She wasn't sure if she wanted exactly what happened to happen, but a beam of light shot out from her horn, and surged towards Sunset. It didn't do anything to her physically, but her concentration was broken, and her shield dissipated, and the dozens and dozens of books rotating around her dropped to the metal floor.
For the very first time, Sunny saw Sunset glare at her in anger and frustration. The unicorn's horn lit up again almost immediately, and Sunny raced towards her.
A new shield began to materialize at the tip of Sunset's horn, and it rapidly expanded outward, and Sunny was knocked back as it expanded to surround the unicorn and all the books again. The earth mare hit the floor, sliding back to where Sprout and the other employees stood in shock. Sunny quickly got back up to her hooves, and saw Sunset through her new shield, her horn sparking in anxiety.
"I'm sorry, Sunny. You just don't understand. You'll never understand."
The unicorn's horn glow intensified tenfold, and there was a blinding flash of light. Sunny and the other occupants in the room brought up their hooves to shield their eyes. When the light faded seconds later, Sunny lowered her hooves, and her eyes widened in horror at the sight before her.
Sunny felt her mouth go dry as the silence settled on the vehicle bay in Canterlogic's bottom level.
"Where should we start looking? Should I talk to my mom about increasing security?" She heard Sprout ask.
The earth mare took a deep breath to try her best to calm herself.
"Don't bother, Sprout," Sunny answered. "Additional security wouldn't be able to stop her, and as for looking for her, where do you suggest we start? She could be absolutely anywhere."
"So... What do we do, Sunny?" Sprout asked.
Sunny took another deep breath.
"Let's start going through what we have left. And... Just hope that she sees reason. I... I don't know what else we can do."
Izzy stood at her stove waiting for her tea kettle to start whistling. Her headache was almost completely gone, but she still wasn't sure when she would resume practicing spells. But Alphabittle did have a point; if she hadn't been reading through that weather spell book, there would have been no telling how far that fire would have spread.
She heard the whistle of the tea kettle, but when she looked down, steam wasn't coming out of the tip. She then realized that the whistling wasn't coming from the kettle, but from over by the front door. She felt a sudden wave of heat pass over her an instant before there was a flash of light, and in the next instant, Sunset Shimmer was standing there.
"S-Sunset?" Izzy asked.
Without saying a word, Sunset looked around, spotted the stacks of books the other unicorns had brought in, then looked over to the corner of the kitchen counter, where Izzy had set her Class IV book, and had yet to move it. Her horn lit up, and pulled the book from the counter and levitated it over to the stack next to the door, setting it on top.
"I'm sorry, Izzy," Sunset said, glancing at her for only a moment.
"Sunset, what are you doi- Hey!"
The glow around Sunset's horn intensified, and after another flash of light and wave of heat, she vanished, along with the books Bridlewood had gathered, leaving Izzy alone in her kitchen, with the now-whistling kettle on the stove.
"Wha... When... How... WHAT?!"
Sunny was trying, and failing, to keep her mind off of Sunset and the magic books, as she was sorting through the far more numerous non-magical books that they had brought back from the Crystal Empire's library.
She felt her phone in her saddlebag go off, opened the flap, pulled it out, and saw Izzy calling.
That would be a nice distraction.
"Hey Izzy, how's it going?" She greeted after accepting the call and putting the phone to her ear.
"Honestly, a bit freaky at the moment. Sunny, did you know Sunset is a book snatcher?"
"About 15 minutes ago, yeah. She's afraid that advanced magic books are too dangerous to keep around."
"Well, to tell you the truth, Sunny, she might have half a point. More than half, probably."
"So yeah, keep them safe, but she said she was thinking about destroying them! That's history, Izzy! Do you have any idea where she went?"
"Nope. She just poofed into my house, grabbed the books she asked me to have the town collect, said 'sorry', then poofed right back out again. Then I called you to see if you knew what was going on."
"Unfortunately I do. She just took all of the magic books that we had gathered from the Crystal Empire. I have no idea where she is, but I really, really hope she comes to her senses..."
The colorful ambience of Izzy's cottage vanished in a flash of light and was replaced by near complete darkness as Sunset completed her teleportation spell.
"Lux," she whispered, and a mote of light left the top of her horn and floated up, gradually increasing in luminosity, revealing her surroundings:
The basement of Twilight's castle library, where the shattered mirror still remained, the shards in piles back against the wall. Sunset turned around, and looked at the stack of more than two hundred books between her and the mirror.
Her lips quivered as she stared at the pile of spell tomes. She took another deep breath, held it, closed her eyes for a moment, and raised her right hoof, pointing it directly at the books.
A stream of fire erupted from her outstretched hoof, and immediately surrounded and engulfed the collected magical works. Her horn glowed as she maintained her concentration for just a few more moments, just long enough for them to catch fire. A few seconds more, and the flames from her hoof ceased, as if a valve was shut off.
Sunset looked on with determination, and her eyes widened when the flames subsided, and the books were left untouched, not even so much as singed. With a twinge of frustration, she raised her right hoof again.
The flames once again burst forth from the bottom of her hoof, and spread across the books again. She held the fiery stream steady for just a few moments longer than she had last time, then lowered her hoof again. Once more, the flames burned out, and the books were undamaged.
A white bolt of energy burst from her horn, and impacted against the stack of books, and they didn't so much as move, confirming Sunset's growing suspicions; there was something here, some sort of energy. At first she passed it off as leftover residual magical energy from the shattered mirror.
Feeling her frustration growing, she lashed out at the stack of books with her telekinesis, scattering them to every corner of the room, before she took several aggressive steps towards the mirror, taking hold of the piles of shards.
"Reparare!" She shouted, firing a trio of golden beams of light towards the mirror and both shard piles, lifting them up and bringing them to the bare mirror frame. Piece by piece, they were placed in the frame as Sunset's sparking horn continued to glow brightly. She felt the spell begin to falter, and dug her hooves into their places on the floor, and concentrated harder.
"Reparare!!!" She screamed again, desperately, watching as the vibrating shards were unstably placed in the mirror's frame, and the cracks slowly began to disappear. Nearly an entire minute passed, and as the last of the damage faded away, she appeared to have a fully functional magical portal mirror standing before her, as her magical reserves began to run low.
She turned her attention to the books scattered all around the room, mentally preparing to get them out of Equestria. All in the next instant, the mirror immediately shattered again, and the shards exploded out towards the room, right towards Sunset. Having next to no time to react, her instincts alone lit her horn up and cast a forward shield as quickly as she possibly could. The golden glowing field appeared in front of her between her and the shards, which bounced off of the field.
Sunset's shield didn't last but a moment, and as she felt a wet warmth run down her left cheek, she quickly realized two things; one, she hadn't blocked all the shards in time, and two, she had just pushed herself past her limits as her head was hit with magical exhaustion, and a debilitating headache immediately set in as her hovering illumination spell faded to nothing and returned the room to darkness. Squeezing her tear-filled eyes shut in a futile effort to block out the throbbing, she fell to her knees and then to her side, collapsing among the scattered books and shattered mirror.
The throbbing tension headaches brought on by complete magical exhaustion are unfortunately one of the quickest and most unpleasant ways unicorns learn their limits. Cold compresses may appear to help, but it mostly acts as a placebo, and the only remedy is to let the pulsating pains run their course as the horn's magical energies recharge.
Sunset would have gone outside and dunked her head in the river, were she able to currently stand up. She hadn't experienced complete magical exhaustion since her first semester at Celestia's school, and she had forgotten how absolutely unpleasant it was. The first and only time it happened, she spent the next three days in bed with cool damp cloths over her face. Disenchanting the museum wall had come close, but she had definitely pushed herself too far this time. So here she laid in the near-pitch black, bearing the pain as best she could, wondering how long it would be until the pain lessened enough for her to move and find something close to a remedy, it was clear that whatever noise her commotion down here made was not heard or noticed by the guards outside. The throbbing quickly robbed her of the ability to keep track of time, but if somepony had heard something, they would have checked it out by now.
The unicorn lightly wiggled her back right hoof, giving her mind something, anything else to focus on. At the very least it was pitch black and quiet in here, save for her own breathing and whimpering; magical exhaustion frequently brought on a crippling sensitivity to light and sound for the duration.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed, but she heard hoofsteps close by. Had the guards outside heard the commotion? She didn't summon the willpower to raise her head to look until she felt a hoof gently touch her side. Head still throbbing, she slowly opened her eyes, and they immediately widened when she looked up, and saw the visage of her long-gone teacher and mentor, Princess Celestia.
"Why so glum, my former student?"
Sunset closed her eyes again.
'I've finally done it. I've gone insane,' the unicorn thought to herself. The hoof on her side moved up to her head, and she felt a soft tingly sensation, and the throbbing in her head lessened, then faded completely over several moments. This grabbed her attention immediately. Still not willing to use her horn in such an exhausted state, she opened her eyes, rolled to her hooves, and eyed the towering white alicorn with caution. The aura coming off of her brightened the room just a bit.
"Alright, you're not really Celestia..." Sunset claimed, thinking back to some of her last correspondences with Twilight. She remembered something about a spirit underneath her castle and school. Sunny even told her she had encountered it in the caves underneath the remains of the school.
"The Tree of Harmony? What do you want?" Sunset asked.
"For you to not make a very grievous and tragic error," the spirit replied, motioning lightly to the books scattered all about the room.
Finally, the bit dropped for Sunset. It wasn't residual magic from the mirror; this spirit had been shielding them from her spells.
"These books are dangerous. A forest could have burned down, homes and businesses could have been lost, because these unicorns haven't had magic in generations, and they don't know what they're dealing with," Sunset protested.
"And destroying them will help them know?"
Sunset scoffed and began to pace back and forth in the middle of the room, knocking away the books in her path aside with her hooves, as the spirit merely watched silently.
"Destroying these tomes will not protect these unicorns forever, Sunset Shimmer. You must know that."
Sunset looked up at the spirit, looking into her mentor's pale magenta eyes.
"Keeping them around won't do them any good either."
"Tell me how you know that."
"Because an inexperienced unicorn got too curious and nearly burned a tree down, which could have very easily spread to the rest of the forest! To other homes!" Sunset shouted.
"And you stopped this fire?"
"N... No. Another unicorn did. With a weather spell, that gave her a splitting headache for days."
"It sounds like they need someone to guide them in their curiosities."
"There isn't anyone," Sunset replied.
"But there is," the spirit retorted, again raising a hoof, and pointed it directly at the unicorn, whose expression turned to disbelief, before her gaze lowered to the ground, looking at the spell tomes scattered about the room.
"What if you're wrong? What if these books are wrong? All this knowledge, all this magic... Everything that Princess Twilight accomplished, and Equestrian civilization still split apart!"
Sunset was surprised at her own words. Had that been her concern all along? Had her fear of history repeating itself been the driving force behind this escapade of hers? Sunny had said it herself; a great deal of the threats to Equestria revolved around artifacts and powerful spells. Generations upon generations of collected magical knowledge, and the unity that Twilight and her friends and proteges had championed... Had not been enough. The incredible magic that had helped change and transform her into a better person and pony had not been enough for Equestria.
That fact shook Sunset Shimmer to her absolute core.
"Time moves inexorably onward, Sunset Shimmer, and civilizations and societies rise and fall as surely as the sun does. It is the nature of existence. If you let the fear of failure paralyze you, you will be doomed to remain stagnant and stationary. The fire that this unicorn caused due to lack of expertise, do you think that curiosity won't befall other unicorns weeks, months, or years from now? You are one of the very rare individuals that has experienced multiple dimensions, and multiple eras. You have the opportunity to help shape and guide willing minds in the ways of magic, and your extensive knowledge rivals that of Twilight and Starswirl. Do you really want to keep that locked away within yourself, and have it fade to history? Do you truly think the magic portal that thrust you forward this many generations did so for no reason at all? A new dawn is coming, after eons of separation and darkness, and you can be the sunrise for these unicorns, and guide them into a whole new world."
Sunset wasn't sure how long she stood there, staring down at the books with the spirit's words repeating in her head, but when she looked up again, the form of Princess Celestia had vanished. The throbbing headache was gone, but she didn't dare use her horn yet; better to let it recharge. She dug into her saddlebags, found her phone, saw that the battery was dead, and instead took out her lantern, finding that it fortunately had enough of a charge to last at least an hour. Without using her horn, she went around the entire room, carefully avoiding the broken mirror shards, and gathered up the books, stacking them in the center of the room. When they had all been gathered, she picked up the lantern, and headed up the stairs out into the main hall, and towards the front door. She turned the lantern off, gave the right large door a yank, and it opened with a creak, startling the guard who had been sitting on the stairs just outside.
"Yah!" Thunder gasped, leaping to his hooves and whipping around. His frightened expression softened when he realized who it was, and also as Zoom came up to his side.
"Miss Shimmer? How long have you been in there?" She asked.
"H-How do they do that? We've been sitting here for hours. I swear sometimes I think this posting is a prank," Thunder complained.
"Can we help you, Miss Shimmer? Is everything alright?" Zoom Zephyrwing asked, seeing how tired the unicorn looked, not to mention the fresh cut on her left cheek.
"If you can do me a very big favor, I need a one-pony cargo wagon."
Sunny Starscout sat at her dining table, nibbling at her leftover pizza that had gone cold a half hour ago. She hadn't had much of an appetite the past couple days, since Sunset vanished without a trace. Countless texts and calls to the unicorn's phone had gone unanswered.
There were most certainly other troves of knowledge out there, long forgotten, that she would hopefully discover. But right now, the earth mare's biggest fear is that Sunset would beat her to all of the ones she knew of. Every time she tried her best to consider the unicorn's point of view, she always circled back to her initial position; destroying knowledge and history as a precaution was wrong.
The soft sounds of the evening tides crashing against the coastal cliffs was interrupted by a knock on her front door. Looking up from her pizza, she got up from her chair, and went over to the door, pulling it open, and was very surprised to see Sunset standing there, with a wagon full of books behind her.
Tears filled the unicorn's eyes, and her lips trembled as her gaze met Sunny's, and she took one shaky breath.
"I'm sorry, Sunny. I'm so very sorry," Sunset greeted on her unsteady exhale.
Relief had washed over the earth pony when she saw the books in the wagon, as well as Sunset's look of grief on her face. She stepped out onto her doormat and pulled the unicorn into a reassuring hug as she quivered with emotions. She held her for a few moments, then pulled away, and gave her a soft smile.
With Sunset and the spell tomes accounted for, Sunny suddenly found herself ravenous. She ordered an extra large supreme pizza from one of the late night pizza restaurants in town, and while they waited, she helped Sunset bring all of the books in from the wagon, keeping the Class V tomes separate from the rest in a separate stack by the couch. The doorbell rang just as Sunny finished getting an adhesive bandage put over the cut on Sunset's cheek. As they ate, Sunset told the earth mare about her encounter with the Tree of Harmony.
"I have to say I agree, Sunset. You are the perfect choice to lead the unicorns in their magical education," Sunny assured her.
"Sunny, I dropped out of my magical education," the unicorn replied.
"Right, and you went on to do amazing things. Almost like that's what you were meant to do."
Sunny hadn't been the first one to suggest that; even Celestia had offered that perhaps she wasn't meant to carry on with her studies in Equestria any longer than she had. After her redemption in the mirror world, she had been there to help deal with magical threats that weren't her fault. Her friends had needed her, the school had needed her.
And now, this new generation of unicorns needed her.
Sunset took a gulp of soda and a bite of pizza before returning to her thoughts.
"Still... I was naturally talented. I went through the basics, and even some of the advanced stuff almost without effort. And yet..." Sunset glanced off to the right end of the couch, where the Class V books had been stacked. "I'm not ready for spells like that. Nopony is yet. How can I be trusted to lead ponies who will need to put in more time and effort with things that I barely need to think about?"
"I think patience will play a part there, Sunset. I don't know about you, but I'd be excited! Helping others taking their first steps into an exciting new world of magic, while also learning more yourself. And as for the Class V books, we can absolutely keep them in a vault at CanterLogic, until you feel you're ready for them. As much as I hate to think about it, there may come a time where we need to face down a threat to Equestria, and we might need spells like that."
"If I do go this route, it would mean likely settling down in Bridlewood. This wouldn't be just once a week or something, this would be almost every day. I'd have to figure out class sizes, curriculum, safety measures..."
Sunny saw Sunset's expression as the realization came over her.
"This would be like a job. A career."
Sunny put her glass of soda down and put her foreleg around Sunset's shoulders.
"Told you it would come to you sooner or later. All you had to do was take a few days to do some traveling, and go on a panicky book-snatching spree," Sunny told her with a smirk. "And to tell you the truth? Teaching unicorns magic for the first time in generations? That beats 'Princess' Archmage' in my book any day of the week. That's just a title. But this? This is showing all these unicorns a whole new world."
Sunset smiled and finished off her last piece of pizza, before getting up and grabbing her phone as she headed back to the guest bedroom.
"First I've got to get in touch with Izzy and see what she thinks about all this."
"Have a good night!" Sunny called as she started to take the rest of the pizza to the kitchen to put away before she too got ready to turn in for the night.
Sunset stepped into the spare bedroom and sprawled out on the bed, thankful to be on something else other than a sleeping bag for the first time in a few days. Before setting the phone on the charging pad on the nightstand, she opened the messages and started a text to Izzy.
Sunset Hey Izzy.
I'll explain everything after I unwind. In short, the books are safe, and I'm back in Maretime Bay. I panicked, and I'm sorry.
Would any unicorns in Bridlewood be interested in some basic magic classes?
Sunset laid back, reclined in a beach chair, black sunglasses sheltering her eyes from the high noon sun overhead on what was a gorgeous clear day. She felt Ray skitter across her barrel before gliding down into the sand and began to cover himself to stay cool.
"A little too hot for ya?" Sunset asked, glancing down at him as she reached into her saddlebags to check her phone for any updates from Izzy. She swiped a hoof across the screen, and saw that the latest message from the unicorn had been from last night just before bed.
Izzy I'll ask around and get back to you as soon as I have a count! <3
Sunset was taking the morning to relax, because she had the sneaking suspicion that the 'summer vacation' that Sunny suggested she go on, was about to come to an end. No matter how many unicorns in Bridlewood were willing to learn, coming up with a curriculum and going through their collected spell tomes to decide which ones were safe was going to take a bit of time.
The first thing she was concerned about was class size; even if she could manage to get herself into a teaching mindset, she was only one pony, and there were only so many hours in the day. No matter how small she started out, if things went well, that was bound to only attract more unicorns who wanted to learn more about magic.
Her stomach began to grumble in hunger, and as she sat up, her phone buzzed again with a text alert.
Izzy So, do you need, like, an exact count? I'm still asking ponies all around town, and not a single one has said no yet, and word is starting to spread. It might end up being the entire town.
Sunset gulped as she leaned up, and began to put in a reply.
Sunset Alright, let me know when you've talked to everyone, and I'll see what I can put together.
Sunset hadn't even put her phone away before it vibrated again.
Sunny Hey there Sunset, couple things. Pretty big package arrived for you, they put it in the den. Second, Phyllis just got a hold of me, they said the vault is ready. You can come get the wagon whenever you're ready. If it's soon we can do lunch.
Sunset got to her hooves, put on her saddlebags, dusted off the beach chair of sand, and let Ray skitter up onto her back, before heading back up to the coastal road towards the lighthouse. She went up the dirt path at a healthy trot, and knocked on the door. Sunny answered a moment later, and let the unicorn inside.
"It's right over there," the earth mare commented, pointing Sunset to the den, where a cardboard and bubble-wrapped package sat next to the coffee table, coming up to barrel level of both mares. Sunset lit up her horn, and removed the bubble wrap that surrounded the cardboard, then carefully removed the cardboard that had been taped into place around the item, and a stunned smile materialized on her face.
"Sweet Celestia..." she said just above a whisper, as she gazed at her dorm room trunk that had been hidden down in the Restricted Section, waiting to be discovered for an untold amount of time. The ancient treated wood had been treated again, then polished and sealed. The brass fittings and bands had also been cleaned, polished, and restored.
"What is it?" Sunny asked, stepping in for a closer look.
"The trunk from my old study hall. Pipp and I found it in that cave that served as the old restricted section of the Canterlot Library. The curator offered to restore it for me. Didn't think they'd do it this fast. Can't think of a better way to pack some of my things for Bridlewood. I'm... Still having trouble mentally figuring out how I'm going to go about that."
"Sounds like something we can talk about on the way. My stomach is already starting to grumble, and we haven't even gotten the Class V books to CanterLogic's vaults yet," Sunny replied.
"Let me make sure this little guy is set with food and water, and we can be off."
The unicorn went down to the guest bedroom, set Ray in his terrarium, and refilled his water dish.
"See you in a bit, Ray," Sunset told her pet goodbye before going back out to the front door where Sunny was waiting. Magically grabbing the stack of Class V books, Sunset took them outside to the wagon that had sat overnight, and the two mares were off back into town towards CanterLogic.
"So did Izzy get back to you?" Sunny asked.
"Sort of," Sunset began. "She's still asking around town, and that's my first problem, she hasn't encountered anypony who has said no so far."
"Well, that's great! Um, isn't it?" Sunny asked as they came to downtown Maretime Bay proper, turning towards the factory.
"It's great that they want to learn magic, Sunny, but I am only one mare. All of the experience in this world or another won't do me much good against a crazy student-to-teacher ratio."
"I'm sure you'll figure something out. It's no good thinking on an empty stomach, so let's get these books vaulted and go eat."
Sunset's stomach started to growl too as they came up the main road to CanterLogic. A quick swipe of Sunny's badge got them through the front entrance, Sunset magically picked up the stacks of books with her magic, and they were immediately directed to the high security area in the basement.
Phyllis Cloverleaf was there to meet them when they stepped off of the tube lift.
"Hello again, Sunny. Miss Shimmer," CanterLogic's CEO greeted.
"Greetings, Mrs. Cloverleaf. I think I should apologize for the breaking and entering the other day," Sunset answered.
"That's alright. Nopony was hurt, and we've got everything settled. I've arranged an empty vault for your books. Right this way please."
Sunny and Sunset followed Phyllis down a couple of hallways, and entered a room with tall vaults, not entirely unlike lockers you'd see in a school, except a little bigger.
"Right here. Unit 61613," Phyllis said, swiping a card through the digital lock, and the red indicator light switched to green, and she turned the handle on the door, revealing it to be several inches thick as it rotated on the protected hinges. Sunset carefully stacked the books in the corner, making sure everything was in there, double-checking the class indicators on the bindings one last time before stepping back and letting Phyllis close the door with a clang, the light turning red again.
"Here you are, Miss Shimmer," Phyllis said, handing her the access card and a badge. "This badge will give you access to the front entrance and this area, and this keycard is only one of two that opens that unit; the other one is solely in my possession."
"Understood, and thank you," Sunset told her, pocketing the badge and keycard.
"And do let me know what sort of space you'll be working with in Bridlewood. We'll happily make you a vault for Bridlewood if you want to keep these close by."
"I'll keep that in mind, thank you," Sunset told her.
With some of the most dangerous books in Equestria now safely locked away for the time being, Sunny and Sunset left CanterLogic, and found themselves craving quite the meal once they were back downtown at a popular fast food hayburger chain.
"So let's take your theoretical worst case scenario; the whole population of Bridlewood wants to learn magic. How do you go about that?"
Sunset thought the question over as she continued with her current bite of fries.
"Well, both in this world and on the other side of the mirror, my preferred style of learning wasn't a classroom setting; it was always going out and getting my hands— err, hooves dirty. I think that'll probably be one of the only routes I will be able to take, until I find some of the serious talent in Bridlewood, and see if they want to help me along."
"An assistant of sorts?" Sunny asked.
"Something like that, yeah," Sunset answered as she finished her hayburger. As if on cue, her phone vibrated on the tabletop again, and Sunset swiped to see an incoming text from Izzy.
"And it's looking like that is the direction I am indeed heading. Izzy hasn't found anypony who has turned basic lessons away. I'll have to go through all the magical tomes you've gathered at CanterLogic, find out which ones to republish first, come up with a basic curriculum... Whew, this is going to be a hectic few weeks."
Sunny smiled at the unicorn.
"Just let me know whatever you need re-produced, and I'll push it to the front of the line."
When it was becoming more and more apparent that Sunset was going to have an entire village worth of unicorns eager for magical knowledge, Sunny and Phyllis set her up with a quiet workspace on CanterLogic's second floor. The unicorn was grateful enough for the spare bedroom in Sunny's lighthouse, but she had to admit, the expanded desk space was working wonders for getting organized and getting a baseline lesson plan lined out, and the cafeteria food wasn't half bad.
'Is this what it's like having a 9-to-5 desk job, or what being Twilight's Arch Mage would be like?' Sunset wondered. Would she have spent countless days with her muzzle buried in spellbooks from dawn til dusk, assisting the Princess with whatever magical conundrums came up? Or would she have been able to assist in teaching a class or two at the School for Gifted Unicorns?
But this wouldn't be a 'class or two'. It would be running a school. She could put it in as many informal terms as she wanted; that's what it was, and she still didn't believe she was fully qualified. Guiding eager and willing learners was great, but what if she had to deal with somepony... Like she used to be? Egotistical and power-hungry? Magic had been gone for generations, and now that it was back, the Spirit of Harmony was right; there would undoubtedly be those who would want to use it for nefarious purposes. If the need arose to defend Equestria, would her students be ready?
Would she be ready?
Sunset knew she was getting ahead of herself. She was on Step 2; that would potentially be Step 637. She glanced over at the stack of books; 200 newly produced copies of Magic 101: The Fundamentals of Unicorn Magic. That would go in one wagon, and all the other books that hadn't gone into storage here at CanterLogic would go in another wagon. She had arranged with CanterLogic to be able to rapidly produce any books that she would need to copy to hand out to her students.When she heard that Izzy would be coming by to see her to Bridlewood, she knew it would save an extra trip.
It would also let her give Izzy a proper apology for the stunt she had pulled a few weeks earlier. She hadn't forgotten that the unicorn had managed to keep the citizens of Bridlewood calm and understanding after her thievery stunt, and she was willing to bet that the fact that they were so willing to learn from her was due to Izzy as well.
There was a knock on her door, and it opened to reveal the lilac unicorn.
"Hey there, Sunset. I know I could have sent you a text to let you know I was in town, I wanted to come personally and make sure there's no hard feelings," Izzy greeted, stepping into the small room that had been serving as Sunset's 'office'.
"You're coming to see if there's no hard feelings? After what I did?" Sunset said, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.
"Not about the books, but honestly, I didn't really dissuade anypony from coming to a magic class, even when I saw that it was beginning to become the entire town," Izzy said.
Sunset gave her a gentle smile.
"No hard feelings, promise. The prospect of teaching so many is a bit daunting, I will admit, but I couldn't turn anypony away from wanting to learn about magic in a more formal setting, especially for the first time in generations. I'm going to give it my absolute best effort. You, and every single unicorn in Bridlewood, have my word. In fact..."
Sunset turned back to her desk, and reached to the far corner, and turned back to Izzy with a book the cerulean-maned unicorn recognized.
"'Weather Wizardry: Influencing the Forces of Nature'. This book is full of Class IV atmomancy spells. From what you told me, you used one to put out what could have been a disastrous forest fire, after just reading it twice?" Sunset asked.
"It was kind of an emergency, and I gave myself a migraine for nearly a week," Izzy explained, half nervously.
"Well, even if your emotions were elevating your magic, the fact that you successfully performed a Class IV spell after just reading it twice, and getting away with just a migraine, tells me that you've got some innate talent."
With that, Sunset stepped forward and offered the unicorn the book.
"Izzy, I'm wondering if I could ask you something. Would you like to be my teaching assistant?"
Izzy's eyes widened as she accepted the book in her magical grasp.
"In return, I can offer you some one-on-one instruction several times a week. What do you say?" Sunset asked.
Izzy's stunned smile widened.
"Yes, absolutely. I'd love to."
Sunset gave her an affirmative nod.
"In that case, let's go grab some dinner to celebrate. My summer vacation is over. Now it's time to show some unicorns some magic."
"Alright, so I know we literally just got into town, but thank you so much for putting that blindfold on and coming deeper into town with me so I can totally surprise you with something," Izzy rapidly said as she guided Sunset Shimmer down the main path into Bridlewood proper.
Well, not so much guiding her along as she was prancing and hopping all around her as the yellow unicorn cautiously made her way forward without sight.
'Pervidere' would have been all too easy to cast, but she really didn't want to spoil whatever Izzy had been planning, so she stayed here in the black that the blindfold had surrounded her with, and made her way forward at an easy trot, trusting that Izzy would right her if she veered too far off of the path before she ran into a crystal or a tree.
"It's no problem, Izzy. I can tell just by your tone that you're quite excited to show me whatever it is you've been planning," Sunset told her new friend.
"Oh am I ever! Just wait til you see it, you're not going to believe your eyes!" Izzy exclaimed.
"I'm pretty sure I will," Sunset quipped back.
After another five minutes of walking, and the occasional whisper or murmur from off on the side of the road, and tip-toeing hoofsteps, she felt Izzy's hooves on the front of her barrel, bring her a pause to her gait.
"Alright, here we goooo," the excited unicorn whispered, before beginning to untie the blindfold. "SURPRISE!"
Sunset had to squint from the sunlight suddenly flowing into her sight, bringing a hoof up to shield her eyes for a moment, she slowly lowered it, and found herself in the center of town, with the Crystal Tea Room in front of her, and all of the unicorns of Bridlewood were on her left, right, and rear, smiling at her.
The Tea Room no longer looked burned out and charred; it looked almost brand new, and Sunset's eyes widened when she saw the sign just to the right of the front door.
Sunset Shimmer's School for Unicorns
Alphabittle took a few steps forward to stand beside the sign.
"We scrubbed and cleaned for weeks, ever since Izzy told us that you were willing to do this for us. That fire was because I was too eager and foolish. The Crystal Tea Room is by far the largest interior space in Bridlewood, so I proudly donate it to you for your school. Izzy told us you come from a far away place, and we're hoping that Bridlewood can be your home away from home, Sunset. On behalf of all of Bridlewood, thank you so much," Alphabittle said, stepping aside and motioning her forward.
Taking a breath, and keeping her emotions under control as best she could, Sunset wiped her eyes first, then stepped towards the Tea Room. The dozens and dozens of hoofsteps behind her were all the Bridlewoodians eager to see her reaction to their work. She stepped up to the front door, and pushed them open, and her breath was taken away yet again.
The unicorns had indeed been busy; the soot and char that had been everywhere was entirely gone, and the tables and chairs had all been either replaced or scrubbed clean. She stepped towards the center counter, and her heart crept up to her throat when she saw the polished oak name plaque.
SUNSET SHIMMER HEADMARE
Sunset took another deep breath, determined to keep the waterworks at bay. She stepped around to the side, and walked to the other side of the counter, now serving as a desk, and saw that nearly all of Bridlewood had filed in behind her, or was standing looking in the windows.
She cast a minor amplification spell on her vocal chords, to ensure that everypony in and around the building heard her.
"I'm really struggling to find the words to explain how humbled I am by this welcome. Thank you so very much, everypony. I know you're all excited to get started, and I'm also excited to help you all take the first steps into a formal magic education for the first time in generations, or, well, as formal as I can make it. Under other circumstances, I'd probably include something about the dangers of exploring magic, but all of you saw what happened here, and what would have almost certainly happened if it weren't for the actions of Miss Moonbow here," Sunset paused as she gestured to Izzy. "Yes, magic can be dangerous and scary, but it can be wondrous, amazing, and inspiring too. Since Izzy has made it clear that pretty much all of you want some lessons. The fact remains that I am only one pony, and so is Miss Moonbow, who will be serving as my teaching assistant. We're probably going to take the first few days or so filling out information and helping me get to know all of you a little better. After that, I think the best course is to hold a lottery of sorts for each age group to fairly and randomly pick my first formal classes. Now don't worry, I've brought books that covers almost all of the basics of magic; Class I and II spells. It easily contains enough educational information where I believe self-instruction is quite possible. There are enough copies for all of you. I do think that for the safety of the town and everypony's homes and businesses, that the fields outside of the forest would be the best area for such practice. As soon as we finish filling out information cards and such, I'll get those passed out to each of you, and I'll be able to place protection enchantments on the fields outside, and over the next several weeks, can hopefully get enough enchantments placed around town where we're all more comfortable using magic in town limits again."
Sunset took a breath, and looked out at all the eager eyes and hopeful smiles in the room.
"Once again, thank you very much, and welcome to magic school."
Placing the current sheet of paper into the file folder in front of her, Sunset closed it, swiveled around in her chair, and deposited the folder into the filing cabinet. That had been the last thing on her to-do list. She glanced over at her disposable container of takeout, and figured it would have to be reheated if she didn't want to gag through every bite. If she did, at least nopony would hear her; the school had emptied out two hours ago.
It had been a very hectic, yet very fulfilling week. Sunny texted multiple times a day, asking how everything had been going, even going so far as to ask if any of her students would be willing and able to come help with further exploration of the remnants of the Crystal Empire, and honestly, it was an idea that Sunset was considering; additional hooves would make for faster work, and quite an exciting field trip for whoever wanted to come along; granted it would be a bit cramped.
She had managed to put six classes together; two for fillies and colts, two for adolescents, and two for fully grown adults with mature horns. They each met five times a week, giving everypony enough time off to relax and absorb the new information that they were taking in on a daily basis.
She had also started her one-on-one tutoring with Izzy, who agreed to get some more Class III spells memorized before she attempted any serious Class IV content again, not entirely eager to get another serious migraine.
The enchanting of the fields had gone swimmingly; the grass would now all but shrug off any errant projectile spells that ponies practiced out away from the forest. The first interior enchanting she had done was here in the school; every desk, table, and surface was now poised to absorb any magic and dissipate it without notice, and she would now be able to provide practical demonstrations with whatever the lesson of the day was.
She was also thinking of putting together an extra-curricular e-sports group, perhaps getting them really good at Pony League and giving Pipp the Noob Destroyer something to think about.
Well, that seemed like enough for one day. She pushed back from the desk, and got to her hooves. Her decision to reheat what she had in front of her or save it and go get something in town before every place closed was interrupted by a short knock on the front door. Her attention turned to the entrance as the door opened, and a light blue unicorn stepped in.
Her coat was a light blue, which turned to a pink for her fetlocks and also curiously, her belly. Her kinky mane was navy blue and teal, with most of it going off to the right side of her head and neck. Her horn matched her blue coat, save for the pink gradient towards the tip, and her eyes were a shade of teal.
"Hi... Is-is this where they're giving magic lessons?" The mare asked in a meek feminine voice as she took another step inside, letting the door close behind her.
"It is. I don't think I've seen you around town before," Sunset responded.
"Oh, uh yeah, I've been away, visiting Maretime Bay and Zephyr Heights. I heard somepony was opening a magic school so I decided to, uh, to come home, and sign up," the mare replied.
"Well, you've come to the right place. My name is Sunset Shimmer, I'm the headmare. What's your name?"