Sunset hadn’t been allowed to see the dig site before. But now, after weeks of cooking and hauling and cleaning, she was finally allowed to walk the short trail up into the hills and see what was worth sending people so far into the wilderness to retrieve.
The ruins were located at the bottom of a valley, nestled into the peaks of Isla Colas so tightly that most would probably have walked past them within a hundred meters and never known what they were missing.
“Couldn’t have happened to a better pony,” Gangplank said, waiting at the ridge with the few camp guards that weren’t in the medical tent. “Good luck down there, Moonrise. Make the difference for us.”
Daring Do had given her only a single day to recover, and that wasn’t long enough for her fame from the attack to quite subside. Sunset smiled and waved to the pony, but she couldn’t help but feel awkward at all the praise. It attacked me. I hope that thing wasn’t drawn to me somehow. It wasn’t like the golem had let her stop it to ask for clarification.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she answered, adjusting her saddlebags awkwardly on her back. She’d removed everything she could to save weight, entrusting her bits to Flash for safekeeping. If there was any pony she could trust, he was the one.
She had the gun, with every bullet she had left already loaded and ready to fire. And once those bullets are gone, they’re gone. Sunset had seen nothing like firearms here in Equestria, nothing more advanced than spears and shields that the soldiers carried back in Canterlot. And most of those had seemed ceremonial.
The ruins were roughly horseshoe shaped, carved from the black basalt of the island. Stone steps had been carved into the rear face of the mountains, and they were one of the first parts the excavation had cleared, leaving a straight shot all the way down.
As Sunset got closer, she was surprised to see something far closer to Greek construction than South American. There were many columns, each one carved in the likeness of a dragon holding up the stone above it. They seemed to look out through the past at her, judgmental.
Beside the structure and its entrance to underground vaults beyond, there was a large tent she knew was for the archeologists based on the crowds of them going in and out. They carried wooden boxes between them, strainers, and other such tools. But Sunset wasn’t here to see any of them.
Assistant Fossil stopped her anyway, extending one leg to block the ramp into the ruins as she got closer. “Expedition leader said you could go in there?”
“Yeah,” she answered, annoyed. “Two nights ago, after I saved your lives?”
The pony made an exasperated sound, lowering her leg only reluctantly. “Don’t touch anything she doesn’t tell you to, while you’re in there.”
“I know,” she said. “I’ve been in museums before. Look, don’t touch. Simple.”
“Not simple,” Fossil said, glaring at her. “This isn’t a museum. This was a real site, used by our ancestors before the founding of Equestria. Almost nothing is known about that era. We don’t even know which of the tribes built this. Leading theories suggest it must be the pegasus ponies, as the sailing methods necessary to tack against the current hadn’t been developed. But there are some new—”
Sunset cleared her throat. “I won’t touch anything she doesn’t tell me to, promise.”
Fossil glared down at her for a few more seconds, before turning and stamping back into the tent to return to work. Sunset glanced inside only for a few seconds, at the ponies hunched close together, dusting off bits of pottery and other small relics. The crumbs. I’m here for a steak.
Even the thought of meat made Sunset’s mouth water. It had been almost a month since her arrival in Equestria now, and she’d never been served meat once. I might not be missing it as much if we had real food out here, instead of whatever I can throw together in a camp kitchen from the supply boats.
Sunset needed to focus. There was only a red ribbon across the entrance to the ruins now, along with a sign that “entrance was strictly prohibited.” Sunset ignored it, slid underneath, and reached down into her bag. Her camping headlamp was one thing that had transformed when she crossed the portal, in so much as it changed size so that it would fit on her pony head. Unfortunately her horn was right in the best place for a headlamp, so she had to wear it slightly on one side.
Sunset gripped it with her magic, twisting until bright white light shone out ahead of her. Unlike the bullets, she’d be able to recharge the flashlight. She had known she’d be stuck here for years, even if she hadn’t known there would be so many people.
The ruins became pitch black almost immediately. There were new lantern stands set up along the central path, though only one in the far distance had been lit.
Sunset glanced up at the nearest wall, and froze in momentary awe. There on the stone in front of her was an army of winged ponies, each one wearing armored breastplates and skirts and carrying rounded shields. And on the other side, thousands of evil-looking… things. Fish creatures, as hideous as they were disturbing. The ground behind them looked barren, villages burning and ponies dead. But the brave winged army flew on anyway.
Sunset reached into her saddlebags, removed her phone, and snapped a picture. The flash filled the entire dome with white for a second, before going out again. “Wonder what they’ll think of that.” She needed to take more selfies while she was here, and more pictures with the ponies she met. Even with all the magic I’ll be bringing back, they’ll never believe this.
Sunset continued forward into the ruins, towards the glow of light she knew would be near the “workshop.” Whole sections had been marked off with red ribbon, with little notes in Daring Do’s perfect script that read “THIS DIRECTION IS UNSAFE” or “DO NOT STEP ON DIAMOND TILES.” Sunset obeyed each piece of advice she found, and so there were no gigantic boulders or anything else derivative to crush her to death on her trip into the ruins.
She could see Daring Do waiting around the single lit lantern, already wearing an oversized hat and a toolbelt. The pony paced back and forth impatiently, until she noticed Sunset squeezing through the opening.
Through a collapsed tunnel that had been braced up with metal rods, Sunset emerged into a three-story chamber, built with another huge dome and layers of balcony overhead. The ground on the floor was terraced as well, like it had once been an amphitheater. The rows of benches were just stone slabs, worn polished by many butts.
“Sorry.” Sunset didn’t sound sorry. “I didn’t know it was such a long trail to this place. Got here as soon as I could.”
“I’m sure you did.” Daring Do looked her over with a single probing glance. “No tools?”
“Just this.” She lifted the gun with her magic. It seemed bigger than Sunset remembered on Earth, larger than a whole hoof. The metal was black and unadorned, and the English letters on the side were much easier to read.
“What’s that supposed to be? Some kinda… wrench?”
“Yeah,” Sunset agreed, tucking it away. “A wrench that stops things from hurting us.”
Sunset couldn’t have said if the pony could tell what she meant, or if she just realized that she didn’t want the answer. But either way, Daring Do nodded and pointed down at the “stage.” At the bottom of the amphitheater was an archway with a metal door. “Hey, that thing’s copper. It’s as green as Liberty.”
The pony didn’t react to that. “See the alcove there, next to the door? There’s another of those things. This one was buried deeper in the ruins, it doesn’t seem like it’s falling apart. I don’t think we’ll be able to beat it as easily.”
“The other one broke as soon as I shot its gems. I’m guessing those things are what keep it moving.”
“Oh, sure.” Daring Do rolled her eyes. “That’s easy. The ancients didn’t pick gemstones to put their spells in because they were pretty. They picked them because they’re tough. Now stay with me. There’s a chance that it won’t wake up when we get close. If it does, we need to have a plan. Just because you got lucky once, doesn’t mean we should go in unprepared.”
“Then wait.” Sunset tried to stop her, but she didn’t really know what she was doing. Even after a month in Equestria, her movement could be generously described as “trying very hard.” She flopped onto her face, then rose as quickly as she could, wiping the dirt away. “We already know we’re going to fight it. But that thing is just… standing there. Why don’t we figure out a way to break it before we set it off?”
“It might not attack us,” Daring Do answered as though it were obvious. “We shouldn’t hurt things that we don’t have to.”
It’s a miracle any of you ponies are still alive, Sunset thought. “The last one already did, that seems like enough evidence to me. We could, uh… oh! That clay isn’t baked, so… we could bring water up here. Maybe we could wash its body away! Or, uh… we could build a catapult, aim something really heavy right at its head? Or bring some ponies in with hammers.”
It seemed like a problem that could have easily been solved with real weapons. A bomb would probably take care of it, easy. But bombs weren’t something that Sunset could just make whenever she wanted. She knew how to cook, she wasn’t a crazy person.
“We can’t,” Daring Do said. “We can’t attack it if it doesn’t fight back, that wouldn’t be right. Just because the other one did… that isn’t how we do things. We’re not here to rob the place, despite what they think. We’re bringing the history back to ponies all over Equestria. It’s not a noble cause if we wreck everything on our way in. Now are you coming or not?”
Sunset came. She wasn’t even a little bit surprised when the clay creature’s eyes began to glow red as they neared.
It rose from the alcove, shaking dust and dried dirt away from its body. The spear it its thick “hands” crumbled away until only a rusty head remained. It tossed the spear aside, watching them. “GO… AWAY!” it bellowed, voice filling the cavern.
Sunset held the gun as steady as she could, taking careful aim.
“We’re here to study!” Daring Do responded. “We honor the memory of the ones who built this place. We’re here to resurrect it!”
“AWAY!” It charged, its massive bulk making the whole room shake. Sunset fired. The gun flashed, and the room rang with the echoes of gunfire one after another. Daring Do winced and withdrew, her ears flattening at the sound, but Sunset had been expecting it. Holes pierced the monster’s head, three before it could reach her. None struck the gemstones.
Then it reached her, and smacked Sunset at an upward angle with one of its arms. She went soaring through the air, screaming before smashing down into the benches with a crater of sand and dirt. Sunset’s head rang with the impact, and for a few seconds the whole world seemed to swim. She couldn’t focus on anything, could barely even see her own hooves.
“Hey, mud brain! Over here!” Daring Do flicked her whip through the air. The golem turned on her, seeming to lose interest in Sunset.
Where was the gun? Sunset whimpered, struggling to her hooves as she scanned the room. There was a glint of metal from near the door, and she started crawling for it behind the monster’s back. The gun hadn’t fallen far, it should still be working…
“Now would be a good time!” Daring Do called from across the room. “If you’re going to… do that whole saving thing, Moonrise? Any minute now!”
Sunset winced, then realized she was an idiot. She didn’t have to make it to the gun to pick it up! She grabbed at it with her magic, shaking off the dust from the barrel and spinning around. The golem was lifting Daring Do up into the air with one of its meaty paws, probably intending to smash her down on one of the stone benches. A blow that a horse light enough to fly probably wasn’t going to survive.
Sunset took aim again, and fired. Again came the blast of sound, filling the stone amphitheater. This time Sunset kept shooting, walking slowly forward and adjusting her aim with every shot just like her father had taught her. There was a sound like a dropped glass, and suddenly the creature stopped moving, as though it had been doused in liquid nitrogen.
Daring Do was still clutched in its hand, eyes wide as she stared out at Sunset. “That’s some wrench, unicorn. Does it have to be so loud?”
“Not anymore.” Sunset tossed it into her bag with a sigh. “It won’t work anymore. That was all fifteen extra bullets I brought. There… wasn’t supposed to be this much danger through here. I was kinda surprised that there was anything alive at all.”
“Great,” Daring Do said, glaring at her. “How about we wonder about the existential questions of life in the ruins after I escape its clutches?”
“S-sorry, yeah.” Sunset scanned the room for a minute, before locating a bit of wood that looked solid. She lifted it carefully in her magic, bracing it against the golem’s arm, then used her hooves to push. There was some resistance at first, but not much. The clay slid away, and as soon as it did, Daring Do dropped out between its arms.
She landed on her hooves, grinning. “Great job, Moonrise! That was the last one! The vault is ours.”
Sunset followed the pegasus in a dull haze, into the vault and its promised magic. But for all she’d been expecting, it looked more like an old factory than anything. It had been making armor once, with steampunk equipment like nothing she would’ve imagined on Earth. It had all long-since fallen to rust
Daring Do was excited, ranting about the various theories this proved or disproved, and what this would mean for Equestria’s academic scene. There were no books, not even old scrolls. Nothing that contained the magic that Sunset Shimmer had come through the portal for in the first place.
But that didn’t mean the expedition didn’t love her. “Polaris” spoke highly of her work in the ruins, making it safe for the helpless archeologists to finally go in and start cataloging. She promised a great reward, but Sunset didn’t really understand what bits were worth, or care.
At least she got herself a spot with the camp’s most important ponies that night, around a table where the alcohol rations finally flowed free, even to her. Hard cider apparently, from a farm near where her trip to Equestria had begun in the first place. Sunset liked it, and the slightly fuzzy feeling it left in her head with every sip.
“You’re… experienced, Polaris,” she said, only managing to keep from using the real name through force of will. If she hadn’t learned that name first… “I came out here, hoping I could find a specific kind of magic. It wasn’t here. Maybe you know where I could go?”
“Maybe.” Polaris’s tone was suddenly low, dangerous. Probably she was trying to signal something, but Sunset was too drunk for that now. “I’ve read a bit. What are you looking for?”
“Pretend there was a… place, somewhere far away. Someplace where magic hadn’t been for so long that people forgot what it was.”
“Okay.” Her eyebrows went up. The rest of the table seemed equally confused, though they had a different way of showing it. Sunset wasn’t just a cook anymore—there were rumors about who had really sent her, but she didn’t get the significance of S.M.I.L.E. or the Knights of the Pillars. “Hard to imagine, but fine. Place without any magic. You’re trying to find a dead zone?”
“No… I’m trying to find a way to help a place like that. Some kinda… spell, I guess, that you could cast, bring to a place like that so that everybody’s magic would come back. Like… fix the world.”
“Wouldn’t work,” Daring Do said. Her voice was so casual, so nonchalant, that it bit even deeper than it would’ve otherwise. “Magical dead zones exist. There’s one in the high arctic. Another one around Tartarus. Probably a few more nopony’s discovered. You can’t cast spells from in there. You can’t create new artifacts in there either. Magic creates more magic. When it fades away… it’s gone. Only an existing artifact would do you any good, and even then… it’s a gamble. Most ponies just steer clear. Not worth the risk to really study something like that.”
“Not worth the risk!” She stood up, glaring around the table. “It’s my home! Someone has to do something about it!” She turned, leaving them all behind.
Flash Sentry had been moved from the medical tent by then, already on the mend. He was at their tent, though he wasn’t asleep yet. He was still heavily bandaged, and one of his back legs was in a cast, but otherwise he seemed intact. He’d lit a lantern in the center of the tent, and was sitting up in his cot with a guitar. It was smaller than what she knew, and only had three strings, but… there was no mistaking it.
“Hey Flash.” She slumped forward onto her cot, burying her face in the crappy pony pillow.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, strumming a few simple chords. They weren’t familiar to Sunset—no human guitarist she’d known had ever made those sounds. But they sounded pleasant enough. “I thought you were with the director and the archeologists. Don’t they get double vegetable rations?”
“Because that’s the most important thing in the world.”
“What?” Flash leaned towards her. “I don’t speak bed.”
She rolled onto her back, glaring up at him. “Don’t be dumb. Yeah, they get double veggies. But they don’t get any steak.”
Flash just looked blankly at her. “Like for putting up tents? What’s wrong with ours?”
Sunset rolled her eyes. “You ponies are so naive. Flash, how are you still around? You’ve got a magical world full of mysteries and dangers, but you’ve still got these cute little cities with pink glass and hearts in your doors. What sense does that make?”
“I…” Flash put the guitar down. “They gave you cider. Cute little unicorn like you… probably drank twice as much as she should’ve.”
“I am not cute!” She threw her pillow at him with her magic. Apparently harder than she meant to, because instead of just tapping Flash in the face, she smacked him right off the cot. He squealed briefly as he landed on the wooden deck with a thump, legs splayed awkwardly. “Ugh…. Owww.”
“Flash!” Sunset jumped to her hooves, or tried to. Instead of doing something useful, she tripped and flopped right onto the floor beside him, one of her legs caught under the others. She groaned. “Four legs does not get any easier with alcohol.”
“Fancy seeing you down here,” Flash muttered, glaring. “You didn’t have to smack me like that.”
“Sorry.” She rose, then offered her hoof to help him. It wasn’t an easy process—without hands, she had to bend the sensitive fetlock instead, and brace her body against his in ways that would’ve been intimate for a human.
“There.” Sunset deposited him back in his cot, heaving with effort. She didn’t even make it back to her own, just slumped onto the edge of the bed in a sitting position. “I didn’t mean to hit you that hard. Sorry… about…” The stupid smell. The air was thick with it, and it was making her almost as light-headed as the alcohol had. Heady, musky, with just a faint hint of ozone and static. That came from him being a pegasus.
“Yeah.” He glared up at her. Sunset had no idea how he could think so clearly around smells like that. Maybe I don’t do it. I’m not really one of them, so I don’t have their smells. “What upset you so much, Moonrise? You never acted this way before.”
“Frustration,” she muttered. “With…” She looked away from him, hastily switching back over to her bed. “I was hoping we’d find more here.”
“In the tomb, you mean?” Flash asked. He tried to sit up, winced, and only managed it halfway. “Or… I guess it wasn’t a tomb.”
“Workshop,” she muttered. “Yeah, no bodies. Just old machines. The boss was thrilled, and I guess everypony’s excited about bringing them back. Gonna be in the history books now.”
“That sounds great! Moonrise, you did way more than any of us. You helped get past the defenses, didn’t you? You fought something I couldn’t. You should be excited.”
“I wasn’t looking for just anything!” She landed on her hooves, her face just inches away from his now. “Flash, I came here looking for a specific kind of artifact. I knew my chances of finding it were slim, but that didn’t mean… I’ve been getting hopeful. Your world is so magical, I thought… it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to find what causes that. Coming out to the end of civilization is supposed to find world-shattering stuff, isn’t it? I guess I just got too used to things going my way.”
“Your world,” Flash muttered, eyebrow raised. “You must’ve had more cider than I thought. What are you talking about?”
Sunset froze. If she was thinking a little clearer, she would probably have some answer to that. Her mind spun, reaching for something, anything through the haze of alcohol. And there was Flash, inches away, eyes insistent. And that smell…
Sunset knew what to do. She learned forward, and she kissed him.
It wasn’t exactly what she’d been expecting from her first kiss. Ponies were shaped differently, and her nose got in the way of doing what she’d always imagined. But that didn’t matter—he was attractive, the smell was surrounding her, and she didn’t really want to think. Maybe she didn’t have much of an instinct for moving around in her body, but… this was deeper. And Flash—he seemed like he’d been waiting for this moment. Only a split-second of surprise before he led her.
“Oh,” Flash whispered, when they’d finally broke apart. “That’s what you mean.”
It hadn’t been, but maybe she didn’t care.