A bright flash lit up the heart of the city. The ponies all stumbled slightly, disoriented by their sudden translocation. Ditzy was the first to recover, already familiar with the feeling of being off-balance.
Her eyes went wide as she took in the scene. “Whoa…”
Beside her, Spike shook his head to clear it. “What do you mean, whoa? Did something… whoa.”
Around them rose towers of glass and metal, which the ponies wandering the city seemed to deliberately ignore. In several places, a black vine with thorns large enough to impale a pony poked out of a building. Many of these sites were festooned in brilliant colors, as if they were attractions at some sort of grim amusement park.
Orange Sherbet took a step forward, feeling her heart sink at the sight before her.
“What is this place?” Octavia asked, incredulous.
The businessmare looked back at her. “You don’t recognize it?”
The musician tilted her head slightly. “No, should I? I never had time for sightseeing when I resided in Canterlot. Practice consumed all my attention.”
A few moments of silence passed. At length, Sherbet lowered her head. “I suppose you wouldn’t. You’re not my old friend, after all,” she murmured under her breath. She waved a hoof, and, louder, she stated, “It would seem our first stop is the largest city in Equestria. This is—was—should be Manehattan.”
“Very good,” Discord said, clapping. “Nicely exposited, and you beat my predicted time, too. The question is, what are you going to do now?”
Rainbow Dash towered menacingly over the miniature draconequus. “I think a good place to start would be you telling us who it is we’re supposed to be looking for,” she snapped. “Otherwise we can’t really do anything, can we?”
He took a few steps back. “Now, now, let’s not get carried away here,” he beseeched her. “I’d like to help you, really, I would. I already told you, this situation is not looking good for me. But I’m afraid my claws are tied. All this dimensional travel, chaos and harmony stuff, there are rules, you know.”
“You mean to say that suddenly matters to you now?” Sherbet raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t care about rules.”
“The situation has changed,” Discord replied in an exasperated tone. “The multiverse is in a state of flux. And you all know what that means.”
The ponies looked around at one another, then back to Discord with blank expressions.
“Well,” their captor/host continued with a shrug, “you see, the world is constantly changing. For all I can say, the very act of describing something could change it. I can’t do much more than give you hints. So you’re on your own until you’ve managed to restore enough order to keep things relatively stable.”
Pinkie eyed him warily. “I don’t buy it,” she growled. “What if all he really wants is us out of the picture so the other Discords can do something or someTHINGS to our worlds? What if there are no lost Elements?”
“It’s conceivable,” Sherbet agreed. “Discord is a consummate liar and we have little information to challenge him with. But even if that’s the case, I don’t see any way out of this without doing as he asks. If that means starting from nothing, then I’m afraid that’s where we stand.”
“Well, great,” Rainbow grumbled. “So he gets to just sit and watch us, and make jokes about how we’re doing? Like he knows better but can’t tell us?”
Octavia sighed. “It seems that way. I still can’t find a reason to distrust him apart from the simple fact that he is who he is.”
Their unicorn companion seemed deep in thought about something. He paced back and forth a bit, mumbling something to himself. It wasn’t until everypony else’s eyes were on him that he stopped and looked to the group.
“Is something wrong, Spike?” Ditzy asked, training an eye on him. “You’re acting antsy.”
“It’s just,” he explained hesitantly, “something Discord said earlier. He said each of the missing Elements is connected to one of us. Shouldn’t that tell us who it is? After all…”
“...only one of us lives here,” Sherbet finished. “Yes… that tells us a great deal. He must have meant that the first Element is somepony I know. Let me see.” She looked around, contemplating, humming something to herself.
Discord looked increasingly annoyed as they spoke. “You know, it’s very rude of you to talk about me like I’m not here,” he remarked. “What do I look like, your night cook? I suppose I might as well play the part.” He struck a menacing pose, which was somewhat offset by his stature, and began to change color. Gradually, his body was metamorphosing to stone, from the tail up. When it reached his waist, it stopped for a moment. He relaxed his posture and added, “Do try not to disturb me. I need my beauty sleep, after all.” Then he resumed the stance and the rest of him transformed all at once.
“I guess I’ll hold onto this,” Dash commented, picking up the statue. “So, you come up with anything?”
“Ah… I don’t know,” Sherbet admitted. “I help out so many businesses, have so many partners and contacts and old friends, that I can’t think of any of them as being the best candidate. Of course... my husband does come to mind. Perhaps we should try him?”
“Well, that’s as good a place to start as any,” Spike agreed.
“Better than most,” Ditzy added. “So where can we find him?”
“Hm, perhaps ten minutes from here,” Sherbet started forward, gesturing toward an adjacent street. “We’ve actually recently relocated to a place close by Central Park after the—” She stopped as she reached the turn, staring at the mess in front of her.
A huge fissure broke the cobblestone, and out of it rose a veritable wall of thorns. It would be impassible by hoof, and it rose high above the streets, woven around the surrounding buildings like some huge web.
“There must be some way around,” she said, looking down the neighboring roads. “Perhaps over there?”
Before she could check the next street, Octavia cleared her throat. “Are you certain the hotel has moved in this reality? It may be in its older location,” she pointed out. “The vines will have disrupted commerce, after all.”
Sherbet paused, thinking. “That’s true,” she agreed. “In that case, we may be better off. The original location is nearer. This way,” she declared, starting off in the opposite direction.
They followed quietly, with the exception of Pinkie Pie. She was still grumbling something to herself about Discord. Ditzy cast a concerned glance at her.
“Hey, are you okay?” she asked, drawing closer.
Pinkie sighed wearily. “It’s just… do you know what he does to ponies? It’s sick. He shouldn’t even exist.”
The pegasus shook her head. “Is it like what you’re doing to yourself now?” She draped a wing over the party pony’s back. “C’mon, I know my world’s Pinkie never lets anything get her down, and she’s not even an Element. You can smile at anything, can’t you?”
The look the pink mare gave her was almost pleading, begging Ditzy not to take away her anger. Ditzy stayed close, offering what comfort she had.
After a minute, Pinkie relaxed slightly. “Alright, fine. If you insist…” Almost instantaneously, her expression brightened. “I guess I shouldn’t let him spoil my mood when he’s not even doing anything. You know what? Forget about him! I can’t let him make me a sour Pinkie! I’ll just have to laugh harder!”
Ahead of them, Spike had moved closer to Sherbet’s left, a concerned look on his face. “Hey, you’d know better than I would, but… I think something’s wrong here,” he ventured.
“Yes,” Octavia added from the right, “unless Manehattan always looks so… festive.”
Sherbet had to admit that this was a valid observation. Brightly-colored tents lined the streets in places, and run-down buildings were festooned with cloth and oddly colored lights. Even the chatter of the ponies around them, not unusual for a busy day in the city, had a peculiar, sinister quality to it.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” the Manehattanite replied, shaking her head. “If I hadn’t been down this street so many times, I’d be certain this was an entirely different city.”
“Well, whatever it is,” Spike said, “it’s giving me the heebie jeebies.”
“But you’ve gotta admit,” Pinkie interjected, bounding forward with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, almost knocking Octavia out of the way, “these ponies look like they’re ready for the biggest party ever!”
The “biggest party ever” was not the scenario that seemed likely to Sherbet. If anything, it looked as if the whole city was about to fall apart from neglect—ponies, buildings, and all. Just how could things ever progress this far?
“This city means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”
She hung her head as she thought about how to respond to the unicorn. Taking a few deep breaths, she found the air was stale, somehow. Had there been no air currents since the vines came? Was there not one single pegasus in the sky?
“It’s my home,” she answered at length. “Of course it means a lot to me, as I’m sure yours does to you. It’s worse this time.”
“This time?” Spike blinked. “What do you mean, this time?”
Sherbet waved a hoof at the tiny Discord sculpture in Rainbow Dash’s grasp. “I told you he escaped once before in my world. Well, he showed up in Manehattan, and gleefully turned the city into… oh, I get headaches just thinking about it. It wasn’t pleasant, but at the same time, though he turned the city inside out, he never did truly touch its soul.” She glanced at the dingy-looking ponies gathered around a tent, edging away from them just slightly as they stared back menacingly. “Until just now, I didn’t believe he could.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it!” Pinkie nudged her lightly. “We’ll get this place fixed in no time, and it’ll be like none of this ever happened!”
“I hope so,” Sherbet replied. She thought for a moment, then gave Pinkie a hesitant smile. “Yes… I suppose we will. We must.”
Speaking the words helped. Upon having said it, she visibly relaxed. The spirit of Manehattan wasn’t dead, it was just sleeping. All the same, the looks they received from the ponies around them felt unnatural, frightening.
“It might help to know what is happening here,” she added. “Those tents, first. After a disaster like this world has suffered, I would expect to see homeless ponies living in tents, but these are different. Shape, size, color, location… they’re too bright, too big, and too spread out. They’re being used for something else, but what?”
“I bet she knows,” Pinkie said, bouncing forward a bit and pointing to a tent ahead of them.
A pink mare with a purple mane stood there, in front of a crowd of murmuring ponies. She was making huge gestures, drawing attention to the vines, and then to some large devices set up just beside the tent. Sherbet thought she recognized her, but she wasn’t sure where from.
“I can see you’re all curious,” she was saying, when the rumble of the crowd died down a bit and her voice reached Sherbet. “I’ve made some big claims. But just pay attention now, and I’ll prove it. I know why all this happened, and if you follow my advice, you can have everything back the way it was before!”
The six looked at each other. “So… there’s that, I guess,” Spike stated. “Maybe we should ask some questions here.”
“I’m not sure,” Sherbet replied hesitantly. “I don’t know if I trust this situation. Not with Discord’s mark on it.”
“Yeah,” Pinkie agreed, “he can even make Fluttershy into a bully, and have you met Fluttershy?”
Above, Rainbow Dash laughed. “Leave it to me,” she snorted. “They haven’t made the pony yet that can catch me, so if I have to I’ll just lose ‘em and come right back.” Before the others could protest, she zipped away toward the tent. “Hey!” she called. “Maybe you should start at the beginning. I wanna know what’s happening here. How’d the vines mess up the city this badly?”
The crowd parted in her wake, allowing Sherbet to get a good look at the ponies for the first time. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she caught a glimpse of somepony moving away from the newly-formed clearing. Beside her, Spike and Pinkie exchanged a glance. With a nod, the pink one bounced into the mass of ponies.
“Aren’t you a little slow to be asking that?” the earth pony in the tent poked, prompting a visible twitch from Rainbow. “Well, it’s simple. Neigh York is one of the biggest cities in Equestria, and one of the most advanced. But a city like that needs a lot more movement than some little village, and the vines took that away. Ponies couldn’t do their jobs, or get to anyplace important. Even pegasi had trouble getting around.”
The businessmare nodded quietly to herself. That much was simple and straightforward. It was strange that the mare was taking the time to explain all this before getting to the important part; it must have been obvious to Rainbow Dash as well.
“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. “Yeah, I mean… I knew that.”
Or perhaps not.
“Well, from there it all went downhill. Ponies tried to figure out ways to clear out the vines, or to get around them, but the process was difficult and expensive, and eventually they had to give up. But here,” said the mare, tapping on a tube-shaped object beside her, “is the best bet at finally finishing the job. This chemical sprayer will cause the vines to wither away, and within a few weeks your home will be completely clear. So who wants a can?”
“How much?” Spike called out. Sherbet glanced at him and noticed he was shooting a fierce glare toward the speaker.
“Well, it’s free, of course,” she responded calmly. “Why would I charge for something like this? That would just be downright greedy.”
“Yeah, I guess it would,” he agreed, with a note of anger. “And it’s not like you need more money. I guess you’ll have all you want by the time your accomplice is finished.”
The mare’s face paled several shades as he spoke, and her eyes bulged at the implication. “What… what are you talking about?” she choked out.
“Oh, come on,” he scoffed. “Who did you think you were going to fool with this?”
“Found her!” Pinkie called out, rising out of the crowd with a light, rosy mare held squirming in her forehooves. She caught a wallet that had fallen from the mare’s hoof in her mouth, and turned her head to give it to a pony beside her. “I think that’s yours.”
Sherbet did a double take at the sight of the thief. She knew the pony in the tent looked familiar! These were Suri Polomare and Coco Pommel, two local clothiers! When last the elder mare had encountered them, the two had parted ways in a manner not particularly amicable. It seemed, though, that they were still working together in this universe.
“While you distracted everypony,” Spike continued, “she was going around looting whatever she could get her hooves on. They wouldn’t have realized until you were long gone that whatever’s in those cans—I’m guessing some untested prototype you scavenged up or garden-variety weedkiller, unless it’s just beet juice—cost them everything they had on them.”
A wave of murmurs rose from the crowd.
“Highly unbecoming,” Octavia commented.
“Just plain rude,” Ditzy added.
Sherbet stepped forward. “Heavens,” she called out, “it’s one thing to see an everyday con artist take advantage of ponies, but this sort of thing should really be beneath you, Coco. You should show some dignity.”
“I can’t afford dignity!” Coco growled, finally dislodging herself from Pinkie’s grip, and accidentally flinging several stolen purses to the ground. “Nopony can!”
The Orange mare strode calmly through the crowd that was now parting for her, fixing her gaze on the young mare. “Everypony can afford dignity,” she answered evenly. “Even if you have nothing else, you can still have that. Believe me, I know. It’s how I was born. I can see that things are difficult, but if you lose yourself to the troubles of the time, you’ll never have anything of value. If you don’t have what you need, stand up and work harder. Help somepony else, and they’ll help you in return. What you’re doing here is not the way. Not now or ever.”
The apprentice looked shaken as Sherbet approached her, and backed away a step, only to bump into Pinkie. “Well,” she started fumblingly, “I guess… I mean, that’s kind of…” She shrank back further under the wiser mare’s scrutiny. “Okay, you’re right,” she said. “This isn’t who I am. I’m sorry.” She bowed. “I swear, I’ll stop, and I’ll make this right.”
The businessmare nodded, then looked to Suri. “And you?”
Suri, who appeared to have composed herself by now, scoffed. “You really think I was working with her? So there was a thief in the crowd. That doesn’t mean I had anything to do with it.”
“Oh, you can bet she did,” Coco retorted. “In fact, she has a lot more scams that I’d just love to tell you all about.”
Bit by bit, each word brought back Suri’s look of worry. A few of the onlookers were raising their voices now to shout indistinct jeers. “Well… that’s… you see…”
Octavia sighed and shook her head. “So you can’t even admit to your guilt when it’s been plainly exposed? You really don’t have any class at all, do you?”
“And you’d let your partner take all the blame for you,” Dash added, sneering. “You’re just all around not a very good pony.” The crowd as a whole seemed to give a shudder now, starting to move toward Suri. “Looks like everypony else agrees. Sure you don’t wanna change your story?”
The purple mare edged away from the advancing ponies, but found herself cornered in the tent. “Okay,” she proclaimed, a tinge of fear invading her voice. “it’s true, we were trying to rob you. It… it was Coco’s idea!” She waved a hoof defensively in Coco’s direction. “She was just using me all along, to cover for her thefts!”
This only seemed to agitate what could now be called a mob. They inched closer, shouting over one another in their steadily building rage.
“I mean,” Suri corrected herself, “we were in it together, we were going to split everything, I knew it was a bad idea but—”
“But nothing!” a stallion at the front retorted. “You’re wasting our time! We don’t want excuses!”
“Alright,” she shouted desperately, “alright, I admit it! I was trying to rob you, I made Coco help me—please, have mercy!” She fell to the ground, covering her head protectively with her hooves.
The sound of hooves was deafening as the rush began, but just before a pony could lay hooves on Suri, a gray blur whipped forward from behind. Moving faster than Sherbet had thought she would be able to, Ditzy set herself between the lone pony and her attackers.
“Wait!” she yelled out. “Look, she’s confessed. I think we all need to calm down now. Ponies make mistakes. She apologized. What she did was pretty rotten, but you should still give her a chance to prove she means it.”
“P-prove…?” Suri began, looking up at the pegasus.
“You are going to prove it,” Ditzy added, looking back at her. “Right?”
“Oh… er… yes, of course I am,” she answered, and stood up. “Thank you… I’ll do whatever I have to. I… don’t have much to offer, but… I do still retain my home and shop. I know some of them are homeless. I can’t support them for long, but I could give them a place to stay for a while.”
The crowd whispered among themselves, and the stallion from before nodded. “It’s a start,” he said.
“Good. Then I think we should be on our way.” Ditzy nodded to Rainbow Dash, and they fluttered back to rejoin their earthbound companions.
“You really intend to just forgive her?” Octavia asked as the six started off down the street.
“Well, it’s not like she stole anything from me, anyway,” Ditzy replied, “but, yeah, even if she had, I kinda have to.”
“No, ya really don’t,” Rainbow interjected. “You coulda just let those ponies do whatever they were going to.”
For a moment, the gray pegasus fixed the cyan one with a glare that sent chills down everypony’s spines. “We all do things we regret sometimes,” she stated. “If she realized she was wrong, then I wouldn’t want her getting hurt because of it. And it’s always important to give ponies a second chance, or you might find they won’t be as kind to you.”
“Yes, that’s exactly right,” Sherbet said. “I’ve seen the importance of goodwill often in my life, and if you can’t offer somepony else mercy, how can you expect it yourself? If I could fly, I’d have been standing beside you in front of that crowd.” She cast a glance sideways at Octavia. “After all, what goes around comes around,” she remarked with a smile.
A moment passed, and Spike inclined his head toward Sherbet. “You knew those two, didn’t you?”
The Orange shook her head. “They’re acquaintances,” she clarified. “I know of their character, I’ve helped Coco in the past, but I can’t say either could possibly be the connection Discord mentioned.”
The search was still on. The hotel wasn’t far away. Sherbet could only hope they would find what they needed there.
The doors to the Orange Hotel swung open, and six ponies stepped inside, letting them close again with an uncomfortable creak that complained of two years of neglect to anypony familiar with them.
“Mosely!” Sherbet called. “Honey, are you here? Come quickly, we need to discuss something!”
The interior of the hotel looked no less troubling than the exterior. The once-luxurious furniture was cracked and ripped, the walls dented and the carpet threadbare. All the colors seemed faded, and were it not for the sound of hooves approaching, anypony might have assumed the building was abandoned.
The hooves faltered, uncertain, and the six exchanged a nervous glance. When a stallion, yellow, green-maned, and looking as though he hadn’t bathed in a year, stepped slowly into the lobby, Sherbet gasped.
His eyes narrowed suspiciously at them. “Who are you,” he asked, an edge in his voice, “and why are you here?”
Auntie backed away a step. “Mosely, it’s… it’s me, Sherbet! Your wife!”
“My wife is upstairs,” he replied angrily. “She hasn’t left the building since the last thief who came by stole her hairpin. What have you come to steal?”
“Nothing! I…” She paused, trembling a little. “Her… hairpin?”
“Yes,” Mosely growled, “her hairpin. It was very important to her, but I suppose all anypony else saw was a valuable little gem. But of course you wouldn’t know about—”
Before he could say any more, her hoof had reached her mane. A glint of gold silenced him as she produced her hairpin.
“This hairpin?” She edged closer now. “It’s identical, isn’t it?”
It was a straight, golden pin of modest size. His eyes fixed on the glittering red-orange jewel set into it at the top.
“It was the first gift you ever gave me,” she reminded him. “It cost more than you could afford at the time… but that didn’t matter…”
He reached out for it with a hoof. “Where did you…”
“I think I have a lot to explain.”
Seated around a room on the first floor, the ponies listened as Orange Sherbet began to tell her story. She spoke of her youth, of meeting Mosely in Ponyville, when she was a poor young farmer and he a simple grocer’s assistant, the challenges they had overcome together with their skills, and the surprise of his inheritance suddenly catapulting them into Manehattan society. How since that day, they had sworn to help as many ponies from similarly humble beginnings see the success they deserved.
She went on to explain what had happened in her own universe, almost two years ago now. The return of Nightmare Moon, the quest for the Elements, and how she had sacrificed this very pin to bring back the light when the situation was hopeless. And in the end, the magic of the Elements had restored the irreplaceable treasure she thought forever lost.
Mosely closed his eyes pensively as he listened to her describe the visit to the museum not an hour ago, and the mission they had been tasked with in this new world. As she finished, he sighed. “I’m not sure what to make of your story,” he said. “You know too much of our life to be lying, and yet… some things aren’t quite right. That part about my inheritance, for instance. My parents were as poor as I was. I built my business, with my wife’s help. And we never once thought of sharing our money. It was ours, after all. Why would we give it away?”
Sherbet bowed her head. “I see. Then you aren’t the pony we’re looking for after all.”
“Somepony generous, who has faltered, you mean? No… you can’t really fail at something you never tried in the first place.”
She sighed. “I hoped it would be you, but I suppose that would be too simple. It’s good to know that at least you are well.” With a glance to the door, she added, “Where is Tangerine? I had hoped to see her while we were here.”
“Tangerine,” he said, a little tensely, “is busy, and I’d rather not explain you to her.”
“But I want to know how she’s doing. A crisis such as this must have been difficult for her to see.”
He waved her off. “There’s no need for you to worry about her.”
“There certainly is!” Sherbet protested. “I couldn’t just forget my own—”
“In any case,” he continued, raising his voice slightly but noticeably, “as you said, I’m not the pony you’re looking for, and I don’t know who is. I suggest you leave now. Before my wife or daughter sees you.”
“So that’s it, then?” Octavia cut in, sounding a bit annoyed. “You’re just going to be rid of us so quickly?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said, standing. “I doubt it’s in any of our interests to continue this, least of all mine. I can’t get you out of this world any faster, but I can certainly get you out of this hotel.”
“That’s absurd!” The musician now stood herself, glaring at him. “This is the closest place we have to a safe haven, nevermind a clue to what’s going on, and you expect us to leave with nothing?”
They remained there for a minute, glowering at each other. Octavia’s hoof twitched slightly upon her cello. Mosely inhaled deeply, the irritation in his scowl growing by the moment. He stepped forward, raising a hoof to shoo them away.
He paused mid-step as Sherbet climbed to her feet. “He’s right,” she announced, approaching him. “There’s nothing more to do here. We shouldn’t be wasting time like this. This entire world is at stake, along with our chances of seeing our own worlds again.” She took his hoof in her own and nodded. “I am sorry that our meeting could not be more… pleasant.”
With that, she turned and gestured to the others, ushering them out despite a grumble of dissent. The last to leave, she paused in the door and looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, and Mosely… I’ll get it back for you. Don’t worry.”
The door closed quietly behind her.
“So what now?” Rainbow Dash looked annoyed. “We’re no closer than we were before.”
“I don’t know.” Sherbet closed her eyes. “I know too many ponies in Manehattan. I can’t say for sure who it could be. But there must be something to point us there.”
“Actually.” All eyes turned to Spike. The unicorn stood, deep in thought, not quite looking at anything in particular. “Well. Think of it this way. We know one of the Elements is here. It stands to reason that somepony like that would stand out in a crisis. If there’s one pony in this entire city who, if only for a little while, was doing everything they could to fight the vines, ponies must have noticed it, right? Maybe we can find some old newspapers or something that will point us in the right direction.”
“Well, that’s easy!” Pinkie exclaimed, bouncing up and down. “Lots of places have newspapers, don’t they? We could just go to the nearest library and get one!”
Easy, indeed. Sherbet smiled. Once they knew where to look, it would be simple, wouldn’t it? Just find the pony they were looking for and use a little Element power on them. Soon everything would be normal again.
As they stepped outside again, Ditzy nudged her. “Hey, ma’am…”
“Call me Auntie,” the earth pony responded. She turned her face to the pegasus. “I do prefer it.”
“Oh, okay then… Auntie,” the blonde said, raising a curious eyebrow. “You were talking about a Tangerine. Is she your daughter?”
Auntie nodded in reply. “Yes. It’s uncomfortable to think of her amid this wreckage. Another reason we should hurry to correct it.”
“Well… what about the Tangerine back in your own world?” Ditzy frowned. “Aren’t you worried about her, too? You haven’t mentioned her at all.”
With a soft sigh, the older mare adjusted her mane slightly. “Of course I’m worried about her,” she answered. “I can only imagine what she must be thinking to see her mother disappear into thin air. It must frighten her. Even if Discord keeps his promise, that image will remain with me. But my mind needs to be on getting back to her, rather than fearing for her. She’ll be alright. She is with her father, and some trusted friends.”
“Oh.” The pegasus paused to process that. “Lucky you, then.”
“Hm?” Sherbet blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing… don’t worry about it.”
The Manehattan Public Library was almost a sacred place. Sherbet had been here merely two days prior to speak with a cherished friend.
It had looked so different then. It had been beautifully kept, inviting all who saw it into a world filled with ancient knowledge and arts. The bronze statues in front had promised to stand watch forevermore. Now those same statues looked as though they might eat anypony who dared approach. The columns seemed crumbled and crushed in places, and the pristine exterior was broken by more of those awful vines.
The sound of their hooves on the cracked floor rang uncomfortably in her ears. The only reassurance they had been given was Discord’s word that after all this was done, Equestria would be safe and whole again. It was hardly comforting, and every facet of this place showed a decay that made Sherbet uncertain whether or not it was possible.
The newspaper racks were in a room near the back. The papers spilled off the racks and onto the floor, and Sherbet wondered whether it was due to negligence. Perhaps every news item had seemed vital at the time. There was a crisis to document, after all.
Spike picked up one of the fallen papers and began scanning through it. “Sherbet, you should take it from the beginning, everypony else should start with the most recent stories and see what turns up… man, I wish my assistant was here. She’s way better at this kind of thing than me.”
Sherbet leafed through the newspaper racks until she found one dated two years prior. The paper contained the sort of articles she would expect to be archived, including the obituary of a renowned local artist. There was nothing about the vines, though, so she set it aside and tried another one. The next yielded similar results.
The fourth paper, after an article on a mayoral election that the businessmare found particularly surprising, contained the first hint of the seeds sprouting. There was a report of an unidentified invasive plant species in Central Park, which had resisted attempts to remove it. She was closer, but the only pony named in the article was Merry Garden, the botanist from Vanhoover, who had been in town at the time and dismissed it as a hoax.
“Ooh, here’s something,” Pinkie chirped, pointing to an article in her own paper. “‘Robbing Hoof Strikes Again, Authorities Helpless’! This could be it, right?”
Spike leaned over the paper and shrugged. “Maybe. It could be anypony under that cloak. Better look for other stories about this pony.”
The pink mare inspected it closer. “Hm, you’re right,” she said. “It could be anypony. It could be the mayor, or it could be Sherbet. It could even be me! Wait, what if it is me?” She gasped. “What if I meet myself? What if all our other selves are secretly evil? Or stallions! Or evil stallions!”
While the newscolt fumbled for an answer, Sherbet took a glance at the photo Pinkie had been looking at. They were right, the dark green cloak hid a lot. The stature gave away that it was a mare, but nothing else could identify her. She was aiming a longbow at some police, who were scrambling for cover.
Uncertain, Sherbet continued searching through the older papers. They documented, day by day, the development of the vines from a minor public nuisance to a genuine menace. It had taken less than a week for the vines to emerge, and this was at the far end of Equestria from their point of origin. But the damage they had caused was multiplied over time by the size of the city, and its dependence on major economic centers and transportation. “City In Shambles,” one paper reported. “Railroads Wrecked,” claimed another. “Supply Lines Cut,” a third warned. And then, out of nowhere, “Anonymous Benefactor Steps In”.
The article detailed an initiative undertaken by an anonymous pony to restore function and order to the city using a stockpile of resources that should have lasted several years. The plan was intricate and well-laid. The process called for aid tents to be established throughout the city. They all had to look similar, brightly colored in a certain pattern, so that a leyline symbol connection could be established between them. Sherbet only half understood what that meant, but the idea was that the mysterious pony and her allies could use the connection to deliver supplies wherever they were needed. The money required to maintain these routes would come first from the benefactor’s own purse, then from donations.
It was clever. But clearly, it had failed. The individual pieces Sherbet had been given were beginning to fit together, symbols and meanings, methods and results, but the full picture still wasn’t clear. There was still something missing. She just needed a little more.
“Pinkie,” she asked, beckoning to the pink mare, “do you have any more articles on that thief?”
“Oh, yeah, lots!” Pinkie pushed a pile of papers toward the older mare. ”Why, whatcha lookin’ for?”
Sherbet began leafing through the papers quickly, scanning each one. “I want to know where she was active,” she explained.
“Ooooh.” Pinkie nodded. “So you know who it is?”
“I have a few ideas.”
Pinkie somehow managed to completely bury herself in newspapers in the time it took the businessmare to say that.
“It kinda looks like she was all over the place, though,” she reported. “A little here, a little there, north, south, east, west… well, hold on, a couple of these say she’s at large in east Saddlin’ Island. But then most of the others say she’s around Coneigh Island. I guess she likes islands?”
Sherbet dropped the paper she had been examining. “Oh… yes, that’s definitely it,” she said.
“Yeah, I know, right? She probably goes swimming all the time. If I lived on an island, I’d swim to work every day and—”
“Coneigh Island is an amusement park,” Spike interrupted.
“Oh.” Pinkie took a moment to be extremely excited at the prospect, then raised an eyebrow. “Well then whatchoo talkin’ about, Sherbet?”
Sherbet started for the door. “I mean I know who we’re looking for. And I think I know where to find her. Come on, let’s go.”