If the world through the portal was the same geographically as the one Sunset had left behind, it got harder to tell during a sea voyage. Sunset spent much of her time aboard the Chrysanthemum’s deck, reading or practicing the suggested levitation drills. While up there, she saw basically the same empty ocean stretching away in all directions. Occasionally an angry member of the crew told her to move so they could work the sails, but she soon found the places she wouldn’t disturb them.
She gave up on wearing her clothes much after the second day. She hadn’t had the time to buy a second outfit, and besides, nobody cared. They were all naked themselves, even the captain of the Chrysanthemum just had his fancy hat. As much as it made her ears flatten whenever she thought about it…
There weren’t very many other “ponies” her age, so Sunset spent meals together with Flash. He was good enough company, if a tad naive, and prone to getting them into awkward conversations about details of her life she couldn’t give him without revealing the truth.
Then they arrived. The island was something straight out of Jurassic Park, with huge stony coasts on one side and thick jungles of tropical flowers stretching away from harsh beaches. They circled around the island for some time, until they found a natural harbor and the makeshift dock ponies had built there.
In Sunset’s world, an island like this would be covered with resorts and other vacation destinations. Here there was a tin-roofed warehouse by the dock and a trail made of gravel and felled trees.
“Welcome to Isla Colas,” Gangplank said, once the strong ponies had unloaded all their crates into the empty warehouse. “Our camp is on the other side of the island, so we have a bit of a walk. The few of you with wings, don’t think you can fly ahead and get there first—everypony will be hauling. It’s not a short trip, so conserve your strength.”
“Beautiful place, isn’t it?” Flash asked, from beside Sunset in the back of the line. “I hope the camp is near the beach. I’ve never seen the ocean look so… friendly.”
“Maybe,” Sunset agreed. “That would be nice.” Of course, Sunset doubted she would be able to surf during her time in Equestria, not without fingers. The constant nudity might be an advantage while swimming, or it might make the problem of sand ten times worse. Don’t think about it Sunset. You’re here for the mysteries of the unseen world, not skinny dipping with boys.
By the time they made it to the front of the line, there was only a single cart left. Polaris looked them both over, then rolled her eyes. “Well, neither of you is an earth pony, so… guess you can pull it together. Put your saddlebags into the cart, I’ll get you hooked in.”
It was as primitive as primitive could be, with solid wooden wheels that looked like they’d been carved from the local jungle trees. The cart would not have seemed out of place in a medieval village, except for the four more modern wooden crates inside.
“You don’t have one,” Sunset pointed out.
“I don’t,” Polaris agreed, voice flat. “Now get over here so I can hook you both in. Complain again and you can pull it alone.”
Sunset doubted she could pull it alone, but she didn’t argue that point. I probably don’t want to piss her off too bad. That ship is the only way off the island. Princess Celestia isn’t going to be able to find me out here. I can stay hidden as long as it takes for them to forget about me.
Soon enough they were trudging through the jungle, at the very back of the group. What Sunset had taken at first for a stunningly beautiful island filled with flowers and life she’d never seen before quickly turned into a miserable place, where she was constantly sweating and barely strong enough to pull the cart. Where the ponies ahead of them could easily take the same amount of cargo with barely any effort, her and Flash together could only just keep it rolling. Every slight slope or steep turn was another struggle, straining against the worn harness and pulling for dear life.
“Can’t believe… those other guys are so good at this…” Sunset wheezed, coughing and spluttering every second. “They don’t even slow down!”
“Earth ponies,” Flash answered, only a little more comfortable than she was. “They’re built for it. I’ve heard earth ponies can… move whole houses.”
Maybe Sunset should have been watching her words a little closer—but she was exhausted, covered in mud and slime, and her level of “care” had depleted to critical levels. “Why… are ponies so different, anyway? You’re all the same species, but… only you can fly, only I can do magic, and I guess only they have super strength. Doesn’t feel… very fair.”
“Fair?” Flash repeated. He slowed to look at her, and the whole cart nearly came to a stop. Sunset had to struggle forward a few more steps to keep it moving, tugging on Flash with the harness to remind him not to stop. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anypony talk about it… that way before.”
“Maybe they should. Your powers are… interesting, but it seems like they’re made to complement each other. None of you is the full set.”
“Alicorns are,” he answered, though he was still watching her intently. “But I think that’s why everypony says friendship is so important. Your friends can make up for your weaknesses, and you can make up for theirs. Like pulling this… neither of us could do it alone.”
Sunset nodded. “Maybe. Doesn’t… feel much like we should be doing it at all. Ponies like that can make another trip without even blinking. Look at them, they’re not even sweating.”
Flash shrugged. He didn’t answer after that, and Sunset wasn’t exactly upset. It took enough of her energy just to move that she couldn’t think about talking much anyway.
She couldn’t have said how long the trip took. Hours and hours for sure, and at times the ponies ahead of them were completely hidden by the trees. Only the thin path was any sign of the direction for them to go.
By the time they reached the camp, the rest of the carts had already been unloaded. The unicorn from earlier and Polaris were waiting by a makeshift dumping area, looking bored and annoyed. “Took you long enough.”
“As fast as… we could,” Sunset breathed. “How the hell did you do it?”
The unicorn shrugged. “Come to life spell. I wasn’t going to pull it myself.”
“Oh, of course,” Sunset repeated. “I should’ve just animated the wood to roll itself around. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You made it,” Polaris said. “Let’s get that harness off you. Tent assignments were done while you two were gone, so you both got assigned. You’re in G.”
Sunset followed her hoof to the dumpy-looking tent at the very edge of camp, facing the jungle. Of course it is. Wait a minute, tents are coed? But Flash wasn’t reacting, and neither of these ponies seemed to think it was unusual either. Oh god we’re sharing a tent.
“Mess is there, Moonrise. Your first work shift is tomorrow. Flash, armory is there, same thing. Get lots of sleep, we wake up early.” And they left. Sunset retrieved her saddlebags, then joined Flash to eat from the dregs at camp mess.
Apparently she wouldn’t have a very high bar to climb, as the meal waiting for her was a mashed barley stew. Even her horse mouth thought it was barely edible, and the other members of camp seemed to think so too.
But Flash didn’t complain, not even once. “All the way to Isla Colas,” he said, once they’d brought their trays to a back table in the mess tent. There were oil lamps to light the place, casting an orange glow over everything that made Sunset’s body even yellower. “And now the hard parts are over. Now we get to make a difference.”
“If they let us,” Sunset answered. “I’m starting to realize why they were having such a hard time recruiting. This is like… a work camp. Something that the Japanese might’ve set up for POWs during World War 2.”
“I have… no idea what you just said,” Flash muttered. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be eating with the research assistants?”
She kicked him under the table. “I’m not that kinda smart. It’s better to learn by doing than just… surround yourself with books all day. Guess that’s why I’m out here. Wonder what ruins they’re excavating that it was worth bringing so many people so far away from civilization.”
“You… don’t know?” Flash’s eyebrows went up.
“I don’t.” She glowered at him from across the table. “You’re making me regret telling you that.”
“Alright!” He put his hooves up defensively. “I didn’t follow it too closely for the magical side. Mostly I was interested in the, uh… the monsters. Supposedly the ancient ponies could build these clay monsters that come to life when we break in. The spells still work, after all these years. That’s the reason so few ponies wanted to come out here. Something happened during the first excavation, and nopony made it out.”
“Golems,” Sunset supplied. “They made golems.” That’s possible? How many old legends were really just about the world on the other side of the portal? Maybe it was all possible.
“Yeah, I think that’s right. Apparently there used to be ponies on this island, a long time ago. There are some ruins here and there. It’s some kind of… forge, I think. Or maybe a factory? I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. But it was impressive magic for sure.”
“Perfect. I came here to see some magic for myself. A factory… I guess that works.”
Despite having last choice, their tent was nothing too bad. At least the cot didn’t rock back and forth, and she could get some decent sleep. But ponies were as much creatures of smell as sight, and the smell of a guy so close was a little distracting. I can’t look over there, can’t look over there, can’t look over there…
The next morning, Sunset woke with the bell like everyone else and reported to the mess tent. Instead of gruel, like they’d eaten the night before, Sunset prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns. By lunchtime, many of the crew had already learned her “name.”
“That was great,” one of the archeologists said, passing a tray of dirty plates across the counter to her. “I’m glad they managed to find a cook.”
“Y-yeah.” Sunset laughed awkwardly. “Me too.”
Her work wasn’t glamorous—most of her time was spent either preparing the next meal or washing thirty people’s worth of dishes. But compared to hauling carts through the jungle, Sunset would sign up for it any day.
Besides, the only other kitchen worker was happy to foist all the work on Sunset, which meant she had plenty of time alone to practice her levitation. It took her a week or so into the expedition to actually lift something for the first time. Another week beyond that to move anything heavier than a salt-shaker. But she was improving, and that was what mattered.
She hollowed out the other book she’d bought, using it to hold whichever of the child’s “intro to spellcasting” texts she happened to be studying at the time. Unfortunately they proved to go into magic far less than she’d hoped. The second book was only about more advanced levitation and some basic light spells, when she hoped it would’ve already been getting deeper into the mechanics and lore of how magic worked.
Being around ponies was at least a chance to learn a little more about them. For all they were naked most of the time, they weren’t all that different from the people in the world Sunset had left behind. They didn’t have a democracy or very advanced technology, but they didn’t seem to be missing either.
“I’m going into the Guard after this,” Flash said one evening, over Sunset’s latest experiment with wheatberries and potatoes. “A few more months, and we’ll be back home. I’ll be a veteran then, one of the few ponies who braved a dangerous expedition into the wilderness.”
“Dangerous,” Sunset repeated, hastily stashing her child’s book in her saddlebags. She kept them hanging on a hook in the kitchen at all times, where she could keep an eye on them. She’d brought more money on this trip than most of the ponies were making. “I haven’t even seen a bobcat out in the forest. I don’t think this island has any predators.”
“Oh, sure. Not that kind of danger. But there are monsters in the ruins. I was talking to Mudbrick yesterday, and he swore he could hear voices while they were digging. They’re getting close to something. As soon as they get it open…”
Sunset heard it then, almost as though it had been called by Flash’s words. A distant, guttural roar, echoing through the jungle and the tents. It sounded artificial somehow, mechanically amplified. And close.
“That was the dig site.” Flash rose to his hooves, knocking over the stool in his rush to put his armor back on. Nothing compared to the stuff that ponies back in Canterlot wore—this was really just a thickly padded vest and a helmet, along with a sharpened wooden stick as a weapon. But he grabbed them all the same. “I’ll be back.”
“Be careful,” Sunset said. “It’s probably nothing, though. Sound is… easier to make than a monster.”
“Y-yeah.” He left through the back door, waving with one wing.
Sunset walked out a few steps, around the corner that separated the counter from the mess tent. Like every night, they had been eating last, and so the only ponies left in mess were relaxing. There were cards out on tables, musical instruments and little mugs of alcohol rations. Rations that Sunset didn’t get, despite having lied about her age. Stupid ponies.
The ground under Sunset’s hooves shook, violently enough that a few of her spice bottles tumbled off the counter. Ponies out in the mess tent stood up, huddling closer together with their nervous fear. It’s okay, it’s probably nothing, was her first thought. But it didn’t linger long. You came out here looking for magic, stupid. What did you think you would find?
What if something makes it this far? Sunset’s eyes scanned over the kitchen—there were plenty of sharp objects in here she might’ve been able to use, if only her magic were a little stronger. But it wasn’t—Sunset could lift one thing if she concentrated quite intently on it, but the instant it met resistance she would drop it. She could barely cut veggies, she certainly wasn’t going to be able to stab something that broke into the tent.
Maybe someone else knows how to defend themselves? Sunset crouched low, looking out into the mess tent at the research assistants and digging ponies packing into an increasingly tight herd. Ponies twice her size with muscles as big around as her neck were cowering like children.
Flash had said that this was part of the reason ponies didn’t want to come out here. Maybe there was truth to that—maybe the danger was too intense.
Something tore through the front of the mess tent, so violently that the entire entrance collapsed in torn cloth and splintered wood. One of the lanterns fell to the ground, shattered, and the canvas started burning.
In the shadowy gloom a creature emerged from the dark, a creature that stood on two legs. Its body was rough, with only the general suggestion of arms and legs. Whole sections of its torso were missing, and the strange substance it was made from crumbled away as it moved.
It had no true eyes, and instead had gigantic rubies where eyes would be. Its head searched the room, scanning around wildly before settling on Sunset.
A brave camp hand pony tossed a chair in its direction—the stool shattered as it hit, knocking away chunks of clay as it did so, but not even slowing the monster down. Ponies scattered, some ran, but most just cowered as smoke began to fill the tent. You idiots!
Why is it coming for me? Sunset Shimmer turned and ran for her saddlebags, reaching in with her mouth past the money wrapped in scrap cloth and bandage to the hard plastic box at the bottom. It seemed oversized to her now, her mouth could barely get around the handle. Strange how immune to magic this thing was.
Behind her, the monster moved right through the serving counter, shattering its glass top and spraying scraps of broken wood all over the place. It roared—the same guttural sound that pierced the night. Only now it was right behind her, demanding.
Sunset pushed the plastic locks open with her hoof, shaking every second as the monster bore down on her. It was a good thing it wasn’t in a hurry, or she would probably be dead already.
The box popped open. Inside, her father’s Glock 22 service pistol, with his name engraved on a little plaque in the back of the case. The magazine was already loaded.
Sunset lifted the gun into the air using her feeble magic, turning on the creature. Her eyes widened and she nearly dropped it immediately in surprise as soon as she saw just how close it was. Knives, plates, and spatulas from the kitchen had all embedded into its body as it approached, totally oblivious to anything else in the world.
“Get out!” Sunset screamed, and for once she found the object she was holding didn’t droop in her magic. Her concentration didn’t matter when her blood ran thick with adrenaline. “Get out of my kitchen!”
The creature roared again, extending one of its arms towards her. It didn’t speak—the opening it had for a mouth didn’t seem to connect with anything.
Sunset didn’t have more time to try and reason with it, or get away. She took aim for its head, flicked off the safety, and started shooting. The night cracked with shot after shot as she emptied all fifteen rounds in the magazine directly into the monster’s head from point-blank range. Most of them did nothing, passing through the dried clay with as little effect as everything else. But then came her last bullet, striking one of the gem-eyes directly.
The ruby shattered like glass dropped on the pavement, spraying little chunks of red out around it and cratering the clay of the monster’s face.
The creature gurgled and lurched forward towards her with one arm, then crumbled to the ground, motionless.
A little trail of smoke rose from the end of Sunset’s gun as it clicked empty, brass surrounding her on the kitchen floor. Then ponies started cheering.
The night was a blur after that—Sunset was dimly aware of the firefighting efforts, and the cleanup of the mess tent. There was much attention to the camp’s guards, many of whom had been badly hurt trying to stop the creature from making it in. Flash was among those who ended up with a cot in the medical tent, all wrapped up in bandages but in good spirits despite it all.
All the while ponies cheered Sunset’s false name, clasping her on the back and offering her gifts for what she’d done. “You stopped it when nopony else could,” they said. “You’re a hero.”
Well, almost everypony. Polaris called her to her private tent so late into the night that Sunset could see the first creeping orange feelers of dawn through the trees.
Polaris had a tent all by herself close to the dig site, though by some coincidence it hadn’t been one of those hit as the monster rampaged through camp. Sunset stumbled inside, bleary with exhaustion and relief, and stopped dead. Where she’d expected a cot and maybe a folding desk, this interior was like stepping into a rich gentleman’s parlor. There were thick carpets on the floor, a little stove in the center with fresh logs to keep the place warm, real wooden furniture, and plenty of maps, books, and diagrams. The desk that dominated most of the space looked like it would’ve taken two of the huge cargo crates on its own.
“Damn,” Sunset muttered, stopping in the entrance and staring around at everything. “This is… not what I was expecting.”
“We’ve both made some errors in judgement,” Polaris said, walking past her and ducking around the desk. “But after tonight… I think you’re just what I’m looking for.”
Oh crap. What have I gotten myself into now?
“Was this what you were expecting?” came Polaris’s voice from behind the desk. Cloth and fabric fell away from her as she rose. The bat’s entire body crumbled. But there wasn’t another monster inside, perhaps the one that had been leading the entire expedition. She was just a pony, yellowish with a monochrome mane. She posed in front of her, as though expecting Sunset to recognize her.
“I, uh… no, it wasn’t.” She blinked. “You’ve… actually got different wings?”
“You must not read much,” the pegasus said, exasperated. “That’s fine, makes this easier. I’m Daring Do. Polaris is a persona… a way for me to keep the expedition running without anypony suspecting who I really am. The integrity of the dig would be compromised if ponies knew I was here. And… instead of getting only the bravest applicants, I would’ve got sycophants.” She gestured for Sunset to sit down across the desk, before pouring a few glasses of steaming tea. “What you did tonight, that was something special. Bravery like that shouldn’t be stuck in the kitchen making breakfast. Even if I will miss someone in there who knew what she’s doing.”
Sunset hardly had the magical energy left to sip from her tea. She did anyway, and it made her feel much better. It was something simple and herbal, but filled her with warmth with every sip. “You want to transfer me.”
“Excavation into the workshop complex is finished, but I haven’t found a way past the golem guards. I planned on luring that one out near a river so it would be washed away, but… as soon as it got outside, it forgot about me completely. I don’t know how much of the camp would be left if you hadn’t been here to stop it.”
I don’t know how much of me would be left, Sunset thought. A few hours hadn’t been enough to forget how laser-focused on her the golem had been. It didn’t seem to care about the ponies. It fought past all of them without even caring what they did to it. I wonder if it knows I’m not from here. What can it see that the ponies can’t? “I couldn’t let it hurt people. I was just doing what anyone else would’ve done.”
Daring Do laughed. “Everypony else cowered and hid. Or… the camp’s guards didn’t, but they couldn’t stop it. You did. I don’t know what kind of spell that was, but… I need someone with your skills. The workshop has at least one more guardian we’ll need to get past to get inside. Equestria deserves to get its history back.”
“Sounds… dangerous,” Sunset began. And I only have one more magazine left. So far as she knew, none of the ponies had actually seen what she did to it. They all just assumed that it was unicorn magic, ignoring all previous evidence of her struggling to manifest even simple levitation.
“Oh, yeah. It will be. The ancients knew the power of their secret magic, and they didn’t want it shared with just anypony. Everywhere like this is protected, so that only the ones they think are worthy can get inside. The ones who built the place would know where all the dangers are, all the passwords and traps… but we don’t, so all we can do is keep our heads down all the way in and hope they don’t have something set up to ‘destroy their knowledge rather than letting it fall into the wrong hooves.’ I’m about… thirty percent sure there’s nothing like that here.”
“If we find anything…” Sunset began. “Anything magical, I mean. And I help you. Can I study it too? Old books, old magic… do I keep any of it?”
“Keep, no.” Her eyes grew stern. “Study, yes. The ponies who built this place are long gone, their culture’s forgotten. Nopony really knows why they came out here, or what they were doing. We’re bringing their story back to ponies. That means the stuff we find belongs in a museum. But you can be one of the first ponies to learn it with me. And… if it makes a difference, I won’t keep paying you like a cook. How about a percentage of our expedition’s revenue instead? Five percent?”
Sunset stuck out a hoof. “Ten, and you have a deal.”