• Published 23rd Apr 2019
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Second Sunset - Starscribe

Sunset Shimmer has always known that magic was real. After discovering the portal hidden outside Canterlot High, she leaves her life behind to go inside and prove it. Equestria will never be the same.

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Chapter 2: Mocha

Sunset Shimmer had emerged into what looked at first like an ancient, abandoned cathedral. The ceiling above her was huge and vaulted, in elegant stone arches that suggested a gothic construction. Where the hell am I?

Some theories of the mysterious portal suggested it led to a parallel version of America, where the post office was the only government and magic was the dominant force in people’s lives. Clearly that wasn’t the case—or if it was, this America had a much longer history than the real one.

Whoever had built this structure, they’d spared no expense. Huge lengths of stained glass lined the wall at various points, their images obscured with protective cloth but a little light shining through regardless. It was just after dawn outside, wherever this was. I’m almost out. I’m almost free. I’ll find the secrets of magic here, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me.

Behind her, there were more barricades and locked doors, huge stone things that started to rumble and shake now that she looked. They’re trying to get in.

Sunset ran. She stumbled and tripped more than once, smearing ancient grime on her fancy cloak, but she hardly noticed. She could clean up when she escaped. There was very little in the way of furniture in this strange place, just some benches along the wall and ancient candle-holders, all covered over with cloth. But at the end of the room in front of her—was that a throne? It looked like it must be massive, on the scale of something Xerxes might’ve ridden atop a mountain of slaves. Even thick cloth couldn’t cover up the elegant curves of its construction, or the occasional bulge of what was obviously a massive gemstone.

More importantly, there were doors behind it. Sunset reached them just as the crash from behind her signified that her pursuers had breached the throne room—and she was already gone.

The tiny door led to a maze of passages and corridors, and Sunset could do nothing more than pick them at random. She followed any glimpse of sunlight she got, desperate for a way out. She had a huge head start, but the people behind her wouldn’t have been cursed. She couldn’t really guess at her size, but she didn’t think she was the size of a real horse. Otherwise she never would’ve fit in these hallways. They would catch her, then… who knew what.

Then Sunset smacked into a dead end. She came to a stop, panic rising in her chest as she searched desperately for a way out. There was only a single crack of light, coming from the wall in front of her. The wall that was outlined in wood, and had a rusty metal hinge along one side. A secret door! There was no handle, just a bar for her to lift. She pushed, then shoved her shoulder against the door with all her might.

And she stumbled out into the light. For a few seconds she was totally blinded by the light of sunrise, and she lifted one foreleg to shield her eyes. Even while she was blinded, Sunset pushed on the door behind her, settling it back into place. That wouldn’t stop the police from opening it again—but only if they realized this was the door she’d taken.

The glare faded from her eyes, and Sunset could suddenly see. The overexposed blotchy shapes faded into the outline of a skyline, like a charming medieval town built on a hill. A massive stone wall was at her back, and Sunset started walking along it, trying to take in what she was seeing.

This wasn’t just a hill—this city was built on a mountain, carved from white marble and accentuated with granite and glass. She could hear no cars and smell no smog, and instead she could make out the sound of many hooves on pavement, pulling carts and carriages and mingling with the voices. She glanced behind her, searching for the police—but they weren’t there. Instead she got her first good look at the castle.

It towered over the city below, with several massive wings and spiraling stone towers that were just now catching the light of dawn on gold caps and sculptures.

Sunset seemed to have emerged on a little access road on the side of the castle, barely wide enough for the sidewalk that followed the wall. Ahead of her was a massive gatehouse, and thick traffic pouring into the castle.

Sunset stopped dead in her tracks, staring at the flow of carriages and carts into the castle.

They were drawn by little horses, just like her. They came in an array of colors, with markings along their flanks just like the one she had. But where she might’ve expected most of them to be working, the vast majority were just walking. They wore coats, or bowler hats, or business suits, walking in a dignified crowd like any she might’ve seen on a city sidewalk right before work.

She was standing in plain view, on a road all by herself, where hundreds of them could see her. Plenty looked, eyes moving right past her as though she were just another member of the crowd.

What the hell is… Sunset stumbled forward towards the crowd, fighting one instinct as she satisfied another. Moving closer to a crowd was a great way to be hidden—the safest place to be was surrounded by others. Yet these creatures… were they safe? Were they smarter than horses should be?

As Sunset got closer, she realized the murmur of conversation she’d been hearing was coming from the horses, not some group of people out of sight.

“Yes, I felt the rumble. Guess the renovation crew got to work a little early today.”

“Strange for Celestia not to stick to schedule.”

“First time for everything. It’s not like Celestia to call the royal guard to her own castle, either.”

So many voices that it was difficult to follow any one conversation. Sunset Shimmer took in those words as best she could, though most of it went right in one ear and out the other. She heard “princess” and “royal” and that was enough to give her the next destination—as far away from this castle as she could.

There was the secret door in the wall, she would remember where that was. I can’t go home for years anyway. When I come back, I’ll be ready.

The horses in the crowd barely looked at her as she joined the little trickle moving the other way down the road. She dodged around a few fancy-looking carriages, and was soon on a winding boulevard, lined with elegant stone buildings on both sides. Old-fashioned gas lamps still glowed along the road, though even as she watched they were fading.

For each time she expected a person to emerge from the next opened door or from around the next bend, Sunset was disappointed. There wasn’t a single one, not even a statue of some ancient king. There were plenty of sculptures, plenty of carvings and bas-reliefs set into walls or located in fountains. All depicted horses, though they sported fantastic details like wings or horns.

This is an entire city of horses. Maybe not just the city, either—she’d been transformed by coming through a horseshoe-shaped portal. Maybe the magic went further than that. Maybe it was all like that.

Someone pointed at her, and a pair of bulky horses wearing gold armor stared in that direction. Sunset winced, turned away, sped up as best she could. She knew that look anywhere. Maybe not police like she’d imagined, but… it would be jail just the same if they threw her in it. I need to find some new clothes, and get away from this castle. She didn’t need a guidebook to see that this was obviously the wealthy side of town, with the “people” dressing in overwrought, complicated ways. She knew a rich street when she saw it. But maybe if I can get downtown, it will be easier to blend it.

Her robe probably wouldn’t help—now that she was out in the light, she could see there were gemstones stitched into some of the planets and stars. I’m probably wearing more money than I’ve had in my whole life.

And, unfortunately, it would make her easy to identify.

Sunset chose her direction at random, slipping behind buildings and into an alley past a smelly dumpster. Then she was on the edge of a street lined with a stone fence. Sunset approached the edge, expecting a dirt slope she could ride for an easy crossing to cheaper parts of the city. But what she saw instead…

It must have been a drop of a thousand feet, maybe more. The horse city was apparently built in tiers, with far more modest homes packed more closely together on the lower level.

There were horses flying between them, a cloud of traffic up and down the city that mimicked the roads. Damn, looks like I missed out on those. Sunset didn’t have wings, at least not that she’d noticed. Unless they only emerged when in use, she couldn’t fly.

But the road continued this way, maybe if she kept going she would find a way down. She walked at a brisk trot, occasionally joining with traffic in either direction. “Good morning!” said a horse from behind her, matching her pace with infuriating ease and settling in beside her. “I know that look anywhere. You’re on the way to the gondola.”

Sunset turned, glancing over the one who had spoken. She was a little taller than Sunset, and maybe a little older too. She was also completely naked, except for a little brown vest on her shoulders. Her body was one of the more mundane Sunset had seen so far, cream colored and with little dark splotches. She had an oversized mark on her flank, just like so many others. A cup of steaming coffee. Mine’s cooler.

“I didn’t… yes. The gondola.” Sunset grinned, pulling back her hood instinctively so she could get a better look. “I’m, uh…” she hesitated, mind spinning for a few seconds. What was so different from her own name that no one hearing it would even think about her? “I’m Moonrise!”

“Mocha,” said the pony, returning the smile. “I wouldn’t think a pony like you would have much business in the lower city. All dressed up like that. You must be a court wizard.”

“I, uh… want to be,” Sunset said. “One day. I’m not much of anything right now.”

She very nearly took a wrong turn as the trail forked in two directions, but she could tell from Mocha’s confused expression that she wasn’t supposed to go that way, and so she quickly altered course. Soon enough they’d returned to one of the wide streets, with a public transit station up ahead. There was an orderly queue of little horses lining up, some with newspapers or disposable paper cups of hot drink.

They all sound so American. Those accents… what’s going on here?

“Well, maybe you’re going the wrong way,” Mocha said. “I know Celestia’s school is up here next to the castle. Are you a student?”

Sunset didn’t answer for several awkward seconds, trying to think of a way to diffuse the question. When none came, she just said, “I wasn’t ambitious enough when I was younger. But I’m changing that now. I plan on learning… everything. Every bit of magic there is. It feels like it’s… all around us, you know? More than I’ve felt in my whole life…”

“Canterlot is a great place to live,” Mocha said, eyeing Sunset sidelong. “I think I’ve seen you before… I can’t imagine why. You wouldn’t be in the lower city much I’m sure.”

“But you are?”

She laughed in response, apparently not noticing the shift in subject. “My father insists we won’t inherit a bit. Says we have to make our own fortunes. I got a job as a barista, and that seemed like something to do. You should come by for a cup sometime. Maybe I’ll remember where I saw you before.”

Sunset laughed awkwardly. “I’ve just got… one of those faces, I guess.”

They reached the front of the line. Sunset winced, realizing that she had no money. But that didn’t seem to matter—someone rushed over to pull the gate open for her, and ushered the two of them forward past the rest of the line to a private car.

“Apparently you do,” Mocha said, but she didn’t object, just stared intently at Sunset as they were led past everyone.

The gondolas looked antiquated to Sunset’s eyes, with entirely wood frames and real glass windows. The cables were steel though, if covered with a thin layer of rust. They never stopped, just kept slowly moving forward. They climbed aboard, into a car that was obviously public transit, but still made with fancy plush seats and a flickering electric light for the interior. The door slid shut by itself, and soon enough they were moving down the cliff. A car that could’ve fit twenty, just for them.

“You’re not leading me on, are you? ‘Oh, I’m nopony. Not the court wizard at all. Just going for a little trip down to the lower city all by myself without a royal escort.’”

“I am nobo—nopony. Well that slang is stupid. What’s the point of ending everything in pony? “Honest, I have no idea why they did that. I just… don’t like to look a gift—” She stopped, wincing at the expression. “I don’t say no to generosity.”

“Right.” Mocha eyed her suspiciously, then took the seat next to her anyway.

If she said anything during the next few minutes, Sunset didn’t hear any of it. Up here in the air, there was no getting past just how magical this place was. The air was perfectly clear, without even a distant haze of smog anywhere. The horses—the ponies had chosen an incredibly steep bit of mountain for their city, somewhere that no human would’ve developed. Terraced layers were cut right from the stone, somehow supporting the weight of whole sections of city. Narrow walkways were often the only thing connecting them, with carts and foot traffic having to go in single file in places.

Ponies flew overhead, or chatted outside the bakeries and cafes as they started their mornings. “I can’t believe it’s so similar…”

“Similar to what?” Mocha had been watching her. “You sound like you’re from Canterlot, but… I’ve seen that look before. Like you’ve never been on the gondola. Did you never even look down? Guess you’re one of those born-into-privilege types, huh? Royal blood, born in the royal hospital, went to the royal school, now you work in the palace. Never seen the ground for yourself.”

Sunset shook her head. “Nothing like that. My family was pretty broke growing up, I—” She was saying too much. There was no way to end that sentence without talking about her world. “Actually, I have a question for you, Mocha. If you don’t mind.”

Mocha shrugged. “I probably don’t know as much as you do. If you wanted the private ride just to show off, it’s not gonna work.”

Sunset shook her head. “Is there lots of magic here? In… Canterlot, you said?” There’s got to be something to that name being the same. I wonder if they named their city after the real place on the other side.

“Uh… I dunno.” Mocha rolled her eyes. “Celestia put the sun up like twenty minutes ago, didn’t she? So there’s that. There’s the gondola we’re riding. There’s the power plant, they use magic I think. Or how about the weather service?”

But as she went on, Mocha’s annoyance was replaced with curiosity. “What kind of question is that?”

She ignored that question. “Do lots of peo—ponies learn about magic? Or is sacred?”

Sacred,” Mocha repeated. “Now that’s a word I’ll have to look up. And here I thought grammar school taught me everything. I’m not a unicorn, so… I don’t know why you’d ask me. I just make ponies their morning coffee. I think one day I’ll open my own shop. Dad says he’ll get me started… I guess there’s a magic to that. The earth ponies who put the beans in the ground, help them grow, the pegasus ponies who make sure they have the water they need… all that goes into the cup before you drink it.”

Unicorns, pegasi, earth ponies. She could guess at what each of those meant, or at least the first two. They used the same words, so that left process of elimination for the last one. “Where would a unicorn go to learn about magic?”

“Aside from… Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?” Her eyebrows went up. “Where I’m sure you went, and you’re just leading me on… a library? Like, I assume that’s how unicorns learn what they know. Lots of time surrounded by stuffy old books.”

Excellent. If Sunset could learn from books, it meant she could go somewhere without attracting attention. She only needed to offload some of what she’d brought, pick up a few books. She’d have to start with the basics, but… that wouldn’t be too hard.

I need to get out of Canterlot. Those police are going to keep looking for me until they find me. “Have you lived anywhere else, Mocha? Maybe other… centers of magical learning.”

Mocha laughed, clasping her on the shoulder. “Moonrise, you are the strangest pony I have ever met. As though you didn’t know a thing about magic.” She laughed for a few more seconds, as their gondola car approached the station. But then she noticed her expression. “Oh, you’re serious? Yeah, uh… I mean, my family came from Sire’s Hollow. Before we moved to Canterlot. I don’t know if it’s a center of magical learning, though. It’s really far west, and few earth ponies wanted to be there. Mostly unicorns…” she chuckled. “And we came to Canterlot, so I guess we didn’t learn our lesson. Uh… no offense.”

“None taken,” Sunset said, smiling weakly. The car stopped, and they stepped out. Sunset half-expected there to be soldiers waiting for her, but no. They just walked out the station doors together, and out onto the street.

Here the streets were both wider and more densely packed, mostly with carts and carriages. The ponies here were mostly naked, with hats and bags being the only common accessory. Sunset pulled her hood up self-consciously, glancing around.

“Well, you take care, Moonrise. I’ve got to get to work. But if you’re thirsty, visit me. I’m just down the street there, at the Star Bucks.”

Sunset collected her jaw from where it had fallen onto the sidewalk. “Sure, Mocha. Oh!” She settled one hoof on her shoulder, catching her before she could go too far. “Are there any pawn shops near here?”