The pony city of Canterlot might have the same name as the real city she’d left behind, but its charming design led far more to confusion than it did to understanding.
Sunset thought she’d be heading for the train station, yet as she got closer, she realized the path she was on led right to a cliff. She hadn’t noticed because dozens of ponies were still taking it, sliding off into the void and coasting down on their wings to the train station below. The flow of messengers and businesspeople up and down made for a fairly convincing illusion, unfortunately for Sunset, she’d have to find another way.
She turned, stomping one of her hooves in frustration as she searched for the path down. They’re horses, and only a third of them have wings. That means two thirds of the people in this city still have to walk down. Just think like a horse. What do horses like?
Not stairs, probably. Sunset knew plenty of dogs that had trouble with stairs. But maybe there were other ways. The widest, thickest road heading down the city had less overhanging sprawl than many of the other streets. This probably goes there, right?
Sunset stumbled down the sidewalk, avoiding huge posters of her own face and speeding up whenever anyone looked in her direction. After just a few steps, she was already out of breath. She’d basically been moving every second since she’d arrived on the other side of the portal, either running for her life or searching for a way to stay hidden or running away from the police.
You’re already too late, world. The portal is closed. You can’t send me back for thirty moons. I’m going to learn magic, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
Of course, she’d wandered in such a confusing path that Sunset realized she’d been there before. She stopped on a street corner, looking up at the Star Bucks in horror. She’d waved goodbye to Mocha standing outside this very building. And now, after hours and hours, she was right back where she started.
I can ask her for directions. She’ll be able to help me.
Sunset gritted her teeth, then marched straight up to the building. Her walking was still a little awkward, and she smacked one of her hooves on the curb between the road and the sidewalk. She just hissed, sucking in a breath and ignoring the pain. For not having feet, that can really hurt.
She walked into the coffee shop, and let the familiar atmosphere wash over her. There were soft lights, wood floors, and a single saxophone player in the corner filling the shop with a casual, sophisticated ambiance. Ponies sat around low tables or couches, sipping at their drinks and reading newspapers. Sunset could’ve sworn some of the items on the menu had the same name too.
At least there wasn’t much of a line. Sunset walked around the queue right to the front, where Mocha greeted her with a smile. “Somepony’s got a new look.”
“You recognized me,” Sunset muttered, wincing slightly. “I was trying to… to change more.”
“What did you say… one of those faces? Let’s go with that.” She grinned, looking her over from the other side of the counter. “Did you just come to chat, or…”
“No, I need a drink for sure,” Sunset breathed, fishing around beside her for the bag of bits. She’d discovered since the pawn shop that her neck could stretch quite a bit further than she would’ve expected, far enough that she could grab the bits in her teeth and set them on the counter. “I want, uh… a pumpkin spice Frappuccino with two pumps of vanilla.”
Mocha covered up a laugh with the back of one hoof, loud enough that a few ponies from their benches and tables actually looked up. “Sweet Celestia how did I know you were going to say something like that. One… pumpkin spice Frappuccino, coming right up. For… Moonrise, right?”
“Moonrise,” Sunset repeated, watching Mocha scribble it up on the cup. Isn’t that gross, using the pen in your mouth like that? But there was no way to ask, not without standing out as even stranger than she already was.
She took her bits, and Sunset wandered off to find a seat. There weren’t very many open tables, but she found one near the window, so she could sit and watch the street. Outside, the building was dark enough that she knew ponies wouldn’t be able to look in and see her. At least this way she’d know if there were guards out there.
So far as coffee shops went, “Star Bucks” wasn’t fast. Sunset heard several more customers come in and order, and she still hadn’t got her drink yet. She took off her saddlebags, trying to find a comfortable way to use the pony table.
“How are you doing that?” asked a tiny voice from behind her. Sunset blinked, and she looked down. It was a unicorn, bright green with a minty mane and a heavy bookbag over her shoulder.
“How am I doing what?’ she asked. The little pony didn’t have a mark—it didn’t seem polite to ask why.
“Sitting like that. Your back is…” The pony winced. “Does that hurt?”
“Oh, uh…” Sunset looked around the room, and realized she wasn’t the only pony staring at her. Every other group of ponies was sitting mostly on the floor, leaning forward like they were animals. But Sunset, she’d sat up with her back straight, rotating her hips around to accommodate what would’ve been a perfectly natural way of sitting.
Except now that she thought about it, it was terribly uncomfortable. Her lower back was already sore. So much for taking a break. “I guess it is a silly way to sit.” She slumped forward like all the others, and it was like she’d vanished again.
The little green pony made a sad sound, then wandered off to her own table. Sunset watched her go to join her friends—a bunch of other little unicorns in a dejected circle—and finished her drink.
No guards came to arrest her, even after the cup was finished and she refilled it with water instead. Most of the crowd vanished as the peak hour passed by and Sunset was one of the few ponies left in the shop.
Enough that Mocha sat down beside her. “Room for me?” She didn’t actually wait for an answer before taking the other seat. “You look like a pony who’s got something on her mind.”
“You can say that again,” Sunset muttered, flicking her cup a little further away on the table. Though the paper was designed a little differently, its purpose was unmistakable. So many differences in this world, yet so many things were the same.
“You look like a pony who’s got something on her mind.”
Sunset turned to glare at Mocha. “I’m a joke then, I guess.”
Mocha shrugged. “You looked like you needed to smile. I’m guessing you don’t get to very often.”
“Not… recently,” she admitted.
“Do I want to know?” She looked Sunset’s new mane up and down, then sidelong at the skirt. “Looks like you went through… quite the change.”
“Safer if you don’t,” Sunset said. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but… the less you know, the better off you’ll be.”
“Well…” Mocha sighed. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. I probably can’t solve the problems of a big important pony like you, but…”
“Just… directions to the train station,” Sunset said. “I think I need to get away from Canterlot. Clear my head. Then… maybe I’ll remember why I came here in the first place. Once I’m sure I’m not going to go crazy…”
“Sure, I can give you directions.” Mocha settled one hoof on her shoulder. “But, Moonrise. No matter where you go, you should remember. You’ll still be you when you get there. Whatever gave you trouble here in Canterlot is going to be on the train with you.”
“I… yeah.” She whimpered, sniffed, then looked away. It’s too late for me, Mocha. I can’t go back to my family. And if they ever figure out what I did, they wouldn’t want me to anyway. I’m better off as a statistic. Until I finally find what I’ve been looking for, and come back to shove it in their faces. “I still need to get on the train. And thanks, Mocha. You’re… nicer than I deserve.”
She heard the voice of the caller as she emerged onto the main road again, where she could clearly see the train station visible below. This was obviously a center of activity for Canterlot, with a massive square packed with ponies and carts. Ponies lined the side of the road, selling souvenirs, snacks, or just asking for donations.
But one group attracted her attention far more than others.
“New discoveries, new frontiers, limits of magical thought never imagined! Be a part of Equestria’s next big discovery! Have your name in the history books, be the first to learn the next generation of incredible spells!”
Sunset stopped walking, turning to inspect the caller and his group. They were a rugged bunch of ponies, some of the few she’d ever seen wearing pants. They were mostly stallions, gathered near the back of the train around crates of supplies marked “Expeditionary.” But for as interesting as their suggestions sounded, most ponies seemed to be hurrying past them. Instead of running away, Sunset cut through the crowd, so she could hear a little better.
“The Royal Archeological Society has sponsored another expedition! Sail with us to the ends of Equestria and beyond! Hazard pay included.” Then he noticed her, focusing in her direction like an aimed spotlight. “You, miss! You have the look of a pony who’s done with convention! A pony who’s not afraid to see the world expand! Don’t you want to be part of something bigger than yourself?”
She nodded. She wasn’t yelling, not with so many eyes on her. Most of the crowd seemed relieved that this pony was ignoring them—ponies sped up to get past the group a little faster, eyes down and ears flat.
The male might’ve been attractive, if he’d been human. Tall, muscular, with a sweaty smell that suggested a physical occupation or long visits to the gym. The sort of guy freshman Sunset never would’ve imagined even looking at her. “Then you’ve come to the right place! The Royal Archeological Society needs brave ponies just like you to join our expedition!”
He told her. It was less than she had—she’d have to work for months to earn as much as was already sitting in her pockets. But I don’t care about money. I just need to get out of the city as quick as possible. “I’m not an archeologist,” she said. “I don’t have a degree or anything.”
“No, no.” He waved a dismissive hoof in her direction. At least he wasn’t screaming anymore. “We have the best expedition leader in Equestria—and plenty of research assistants. We’re looking for ponies to do practical work. Cooking, hauling, camp maintenance. It’s not glamorous work on its own, but you’ll be pushing the future of—”
“Where do I sign?”
It took a few hours to get underway. Sunset waited along with the other recruits, hiding in the fortress of boxes as guard after guard passed by. A few looked in at her, seemed to see her mane, then went back to what they were doing. These guards are not very good at finding spies, are they? There was no ID check, no inspection waiting at the train. She just went in with the rest of the group, into the very last car.
Apparently the “Royal Archeological Society” hadn’t paid for an actual passenger car for the expedition, but had rented an entire cargo car and expected their people to use the extra space between the boxes.
“Settle in for a long trip!” Gangplank announced, slamming the metal door closed behind them. “We’re going all the way to San Franciscolt, that’s where the boat is waiting. From here, it’s about… twenty hours. We’ll do supper in a few hours, restroom is in the passenger cars.”
Sunset was the only girl of the new recruits, though Gangplank had a stern-looking assistant with bat wings and a constant scowl. She scowled at Sunset whenever she looked, just like she scowled at everything else.
“We’re not resting,” she said, before Gangplank had finished. “Don’t get comfortable, new blood. I need to interview each of you—get your skills, your work assignments. Be honest with me, or you’ll be digging latrines until the expedition ends.”
At least the pony didn’t choose her first. Sunset found herself a corner between two crates, and kept her saddlebags right in front of her, where she could easily open them to start reading. She didn’t dare open them yet though, in case they saw. Those books were obviously not meant for adults, and Polaris wouldn’t be impressed with that.
There weren’t windows exactly in the cargo car, but there were a few ventilation slots, giving them a view of the mountains and sky as they blurred past outside. Sunset watched Canterlot vanish into the distance as they turned a corner and approached a tunnel, leaving the city behind.
Goodbye portal. Goodbye castle. I’ll be back in three years, with all the magic I’ve learned. Her parents would probably have forgotten about her—she’d be declared dead, failed all her classes… but none of that would matter. Her world wouldn’t be the same once she brought magic into it, and she would be the one to do it. She’d be in the history books after this.
“Hello, hello. If you’re asleep, wake up.” Polaris plopped down in front of her, pulling over a crate. The bat wore an oversized hat, similar to those of ancient British explorers, though there were cutouts for her ears. She had a worn clipboard in front of her, and a well-chewed pencil in her mouth.
“I’m awake.” Sunset sat up, resting her back against one of the crates.
“We’ll see.” The pony glanced her sheet up and down. “You didn’t put much on here. Gangplank let you sign up with this?”
She nodded. “Guess you really need help.”
The bat’s eyes narrowed as she said it, but Sunset wasn’t intimidated. No matter how she looked, this was still an adorable little horse with tiny little fangs and slitted eyes. Did she honestly think she could scare Sunset like that?
The bat was first to blink. “Gangplank was right about that—we do need help. But it’s not the kind of thing that gets you famous, most of the time. What can you do?”
“Basic stuff,” Sunset answered. “I can cook, err… clean. Organize.”
“Mess duty, good enough.” She got up. “But if I don’t like what you serve, I’ll move you to sanitation. Got it?”
“Got it,” Sunset answered. It wasn’t as though she would’ve been afraid, except… I don’t know what kind of food ponies like to eat. Hay fries had been excellent, but that was street food. That didn’t seem like the sort of thing they’d be eating here.
She had little other interruption, and was finally free to extract one of the books from her bag and start studying.
Levitation was apparently one of the most basic abilities of all unicorns, something that nearly all adults could access. It hadn’t been the miracle she thought when she saw it at the pawn shop—it was just the minimum. The entire first book was about levitation, describing the techniques for focusing on one object, improving her strength so she could lift more or for longer. There were drills, exercises, group activities…
Sunset couldn’t do most of it, not without attracting attention. But she could practice levitation simple enough. Everyone else here seemed so determined to sleep the trip away, that Sunset could start with the first exercise. She picked a flat surface, took one of the golden bits the ponies used as currency, and tried to push it.
Outside the train, Sunset watched as the whole country went by. She recognized much of the climates she saw—the flat, endless fields of the Midwest, transitioning into scrubland, plains, and then desert as they kept going west. I need to get my hands on a map. I wonder how similar this world is to mine.
The train stopped many times, waiting as long as an hour in the hot sun while regular passengers got on or cars further up were switched. Sunset considered just stepping out and vanishing into the station of one of the pony towns beyond, but ultimately dismissed it. Polaris watched her like a hawk whenever she got near the doors, and anyway leaving would mean she’d be giving up an easy opportunity to learn in a low-risk environment. I don’t know how serious that Princess Celestia is about finding me. Being with this expedition will take me too far from civilization.
It took Sunset almost twenty hours to see the coin move for the first time. She felt the slight buzz from her horn, like a change in air pressure. A glow appeared around the coin, just like the curtains in the castle.
I’m doing it! The coin bumped into the edge of the crate, stopped glowing. But that didn’t matter—Sunset wouldn’t have cared if the coin exploded at that point. She’d done magic.
In all her years searching for magic, she’d never seen anything so concrete. So much she read about was vague, like she had to believe in the spell for it to do anything. But this—this was real, obvious, impossible to deny. This was the kind of magic she could bring back to Earth, shove in everyone’s faces, and make them see.
It could even help make up for not having hands! Unicorns had an unfair advantage—what if she’d been an earth pony? What did they even have?
The train came to a stop, and the door banged open. Cold air smelling of dead fish wafted in. She could make out the distant outline of the ocean there, with seagulls flying far ahead.
They were in a port, surrounded by huge wooden boxes and crates. No robotics or metal shipping boxes, as she might’ve expected in her own world.
“The ship is waiting,” Gangplank said, hopping out of the car and shaking himself out. “Four days sail to Isla Colas. Your breakfast is waiting aboard, as soon as we get all these boxes up that ramp.”
Sunset followed his hoof, looking down the long road to the water. There was a single ship visible at the docks down there, looking like something out of the civil war. It had a corroded metal shell, with a single tall smokestack and two gigantic sails. There was already a ramp leading up into the back—where their cargo would be going.
Sunset wasn’t much help getting things loaded. Polaris took her and one other unicorn straight down to the ship, where they waited to start tying down boxes as they came in. Except that Sunset couldn’t use her magic well enough, so instead of helping the other unicorn she served only to get in his way, not moving the rope at all, except sometimes pushing it away from her.
“I’ll just do it,” Anchor Bend barked, shoving her towards the back of the ship. “Not everypony knows what they’re doing with knots, it’s fine.”
There was plenty of empty space in the cargo hold when they finally finished packing in all the boxes, filling Sunset’s mind with dread of where they’d be sleeping that night. But that wouldn’t exactly be different from anything she’d endured so far.
The Chrysanthemum didn’t have anything close to enough berths for everyone, but it did have hot food and a hotter shower. By the time she was finished, the Chrysanthemum was underway and a crew-member pointed her back towards the cargo bay. Most of the crew were already there, choosing the best parts of the room to hang their hammocks. The most valuable spots seemed to be the ones closest to the huge air-intake at the top of the cargo bay, which meant of course that only the empty corners near the ground were available.
“Here.” Gangplank tossed her a bundle. “Find somewhere you like. It’s a two day trip, so don’t break it before tomorrow.”
“I hope there’s… somewhere real waiting for us,” Sunset said, catching the bundle under one hoof. But she didn’t sound angry anymore, not after getting cleaned up. She felt like a real person again after two days in a tiny train car. Now it was time for two more days in a tiny boat.
“There’s already a large camp waiting, and we’ve got provisions for everypony,” he answered. “But it’s not a luxury hotel. We’ve got cots and sleeping bags.”
“That’s fine, thanks.” She wandered off, into the lowest corner of the cargo bay where the smell of exhaust collected in a near-visible cloud and the ground was perpetually damp. She hung up her saddlebags by a metal cargo hook, then spent several minutes struggling to tie off the hammock the same way.
“Hey, you need help with that?” asked a pony from the other side of a row of boxes. A yellowish pegasus, with a mane almost the same colors as she had dyed hers. “You look like you’re having a hard time.”
“Yeah.” Sunset slumped back, ears flattening. “Is it too obvious that I’m helpless? I’m helpless.” The other half of the hammock slid off the hook right as she said it, splashing into the water at her hooves and getting all over her freshly-washed coat. “Fantastic.”
“Here.” The pony moved past her, all warmth and muscle. He lifted into the air, using his mouth to loop the end of the hammock into place on one hook, then another. “Headache? Or just not been one for magic?”
“Little a, little b,” Sunset answered. “Thanks for the help, uh…”
“Flash,” he said. “Flash Sentry.” He offered his hoof for her, as though she were supposed to take it.
“Moonrise,” she answered. She didn’t have fingers to shake his hand, but he didn’t have a hand, so… she just touched hooves, and that seemed to be good enough.
“What brings a pony like you out on an expedition to the edge of Equestria?” he asked, settling down onto a nearby box without invitation. “I shouldn’t assume, but… you look like you’d be happier in Canterlot’s club circuit. Out here… there isn’t going to be much of that.”
“I know!” She glared at him, though she couldn’t find the energy for much anger. Flash had just helped her. Not only that, but he was also about her age, and not overwhelmingly huge like most of the other guys. Do not even think about it, Sunset. You are talking to a horse. Put that thought right out of your head. “I came out here because I’m looking for adventure. Magic is… amazing, but Canterlot… wasn’t treating me right. Thought maybe I’d have better luck out here.”
“Oh.” He nodded knowingly. “I know that feeling. Royal Guard is a nightmare—they won’t hire you without experience, but no one else in town will give me experience without a reference like the Royal Guard to get me hired. But protecting an expedition on an island can’t be too hard, right? Just… a bunch of archeologists and some tents. Nopony’s lived there for generations… should be simple.”
“What do Royal Guards usually protect ponies from?” Sunset asked, her voice cautious. The question might be a little too obvious, but she couldn’t resist. What’s he going to do now? We’re already on a boat bound for nowhere. And he obviously doesn’t know anybody important if he has to work here.
“Not a lot,” he admitted. “Other ponies mostly, but not very often. There aren’t very many criminals in Equestria. Less and less every year.” He hesitated for another second, then. “And what made you want to join? Unicorn like you doesn’t need to… peel potatoes to get a reference.”
She shrugged. “I wanted to see as far as magic could go. See the end of the world… learn something that nobody else knows. And make sure everybody who thought I couldn’t regrets doubting me.”
“O-oh.” He hopped down from the crate, nodding weakly to her. “Well, uh… guess I’ll see you in camp, when we get there.”
“Yeah.” She let him go, then slumped into the hammock with her book for more study. This trip would take a few more days, and she was determined to master levitation by the time they arrived.