• Published 20th Oct 2019
  • 1,356 Views, 31 Comments

The Alicorn Problem - TheTimeSword

Do you want to be part of a secret magical society to help Equestria? The idea sounded good to Moondancer. That is, until the society started endangering ponies for their "tests". And just who is the mysterious Grandmaster?

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Problem 4: Openings

Tartarus wasn’t like Equestria. Cold, unfriendly, dangerous. A prison for Equestria’s worst.

The guard dog, Cerberus, greeted the two mares with a bark and a growl, and the third head gave a snort. Even as a princess, Twilight wasn’t welcome. But being welcome and gaining entrance were two different things in the many eyes of Cerberus. “Coming here isn’t something I exactly like either,” Twilight said, and Moondancer trailed at her side.

The stone pathways led to many of the evil or malevolent creatures of Equestria. Some were unaware of their malicious nature. Others, like Lord Tirek, were conscious of their sinful ways. Tartarus kept them at bay from the calm ponies, allowing the good-natured folk their livelihoods.

As they traversed the stone steps, Twilight wondered how long those livelihoods had. Whether from the society or Tirek, it didn’t matter. “Let me do the talking,” she told Moondancer. “He’ll most likely have as many snarky comments as Discord. And he’s going to be sore since I’m the one who put him here.”

“You don’t think he’ll cooperate?” Moondancer asked.

Twilight tried to imagine the centaur denying a chance to be free from Tartarus, even if only for a few days. “It’s not that.” Her mind wandered, images of Tirek escaping filled her thoughts. “It’s how long he’ll cooperate.”

She hushed their debate as they neared the top—wouldn’t want to give him any ideas.

On the center of the mountainous stoop sat Tirek’s cage. None of the edges were close enough for him to nudge toward, though Twilight doubted any of his strength existed. The metal bars were thick, matching the heaviness of the cage’s ceiling and floor. No amount of prodding or pushing would budge the prison so long as the mover remained inside.

Light abundantly filled Tartarus, magically preserving a continuous daytime. Why should the prisoners deserve darkness for a false night if only to use it to escape? Even with such light, the shadows of the cage only silhouetted the centaur. His red skin was greyer, and black fur darker than usual.

Twilight pressed forward and Moondancer followed at a slower pace. Twilight didn’t mind. Unicorns made tasty snacks, but she had no doubt he’d want an alicorn entree.

“Princess Twilight.” The voice exaggerated the name, a chill in the breath. Two hands gripped the bars as a snout pierced the gap. Yellow, beady little eyes stared out at them. “What brings you to my humble abode? Gloating doesn’t sound becoming of a princess, and you’ve never been particularly social.” His wrinkles upturned with his horrifying smile. “You want something.”

“Lord Tirek,” she replied with sternness in her tone. “You want something, I want something. How’d you like to be out of your cage for a short while? Stretch those legs of yours. Must be sore being in there for so long.” Twilight eyed the expression of the centaur, wondering if the words would rouse his anger. But the centaur held his tongue, proving his intelligence. And that made him far more dangerous.

Without getting too close, Twilight took the cloak off Moondancer's back and levitated it to Tirek's reach. “I’m in need of a tracker, and Discord recommended you.”

“Discord?” Tirek spat the name. “And you believed that ignoramus? You ponies are fools for allowing him such freedom,” Tirek replied. He took the cloak in his skinny fingers.

Moondancer brushed against Twilight’s side, leaning close. “Someone sounds a little jealous,” she said in a hushed tone, but the centaur wasn’t deaf.

“Jealous!?” he snarled. The cloak would’ve ripped at the seams were he stronger. His anger erupted, then simmered, as though he were a timid volcano—bellowing only smoke. “Jealous of what? His freedom? His right to walk amongst the world while I sit here in this dreary land? He took over Equestria and turned it into his personal playground for who knows how long? But I show up and absorb a few ponies' magic and those sisters lock me away before a full phase of the moon passes. Jealous doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and wondered if debating with the centaur would be worth her time. “Discord caused chaos, you caused destruction. I’d argue his is the lesser evil—and he’s on our side now.”

She hadn’t expected her words to silence the centaur, but they did. His eyes fluttered back and forth for a moment. The dumbfounded expression made him look senile. It broke all at once as he pushed his head between the bars. A smile of serrated teeth creased his wrinkled cheeks. The sudden change left Twilight with an eerie feeling. Like a single violin string run by the length of a bow before snapping. Unnatural, and ominous.

“And now you would have me help you,” he said with a soft voice. “A chance to reform, like Discord?”

“Is that what you want?” Twilight asked, the thought never crossing her mind till now.

Though he heartily laughed, the tension didn’t break. “Oh heavens no. Draining ponies of their magic would really put a damper on their friendship with me. But I’ve never been given a chance, either!”

It wasn’t something she intended, but Twilight couldn’t refuse asking. She stepped forward, close to the cage, leaving Moondancer back a few paces. “If you help us find our pony, I’ll ask for a summit meeting of all the princesses and fellow leaders. It’ll be a chance to see you reformed. Fair’s fair.” Twilight lifted a hoof to shake. “Deal?”

But the centaur snickered at the hoof. “A chance upon a chance is a lot of ways to say it’s a gamble with me gaining no reward. It also means I’ll be stuck here while waiting for the ifs and buts with no candies or nuts.” He waved the hoof away. “I want a bigger cage. Some furniture too. Maybe a nice fleece rug.”

Twilight covered her face with her hoof, holding back a sigh. “Fine. That’s fair. Help us, and you’ll have your furnishings and a summit meeting. Now, can you track the pony who owned this cloak or not?”

“Track a pony? With this? I’m not a bloodhound!” he mocked and fiddled with the hood. He raised it above his head, and the cloth wrinkled in his grip. “I am no dog for you to order around and slap on the rump whenever I run through the mud.” He pulled the cloth to his nostrils and his nose ring jiggled against the fabric. “But I can smell the magic. Taste it—almost. It’s faint. And it’s rough. I can sift out the smell of this magic, yes.”

“So if we release you, are you going to lead us to the owner?” Moondancer asked.

“Again. Not a dog. I can’t lead you straight to the pony. Not to mention this is washed. If we were in the same location as them then perhaps, but Tartarus isn’t much of a tourist attraction.” He waved a hand dismissively. “With a bit of luck, I might find the pony if we’re in the same city. Well, same street, at least.” He flexed his brows and sniffed again. “Same room? I’m definite on the same room. If they haven’t showered in a few wee—months.”

As Twilight stared up at the centaur, she couldn’t say whether she misplaced her confidence or if it had never been there. When it came time to open the cage, her nerves caused hesitation. Once she steadied her thoughts, Twilight shot the latch up without another fearful second of doubt passing by. The tall villain slumped out from the shadows into the light. He stood no higher than Princess Luna, but his lanky form and slender, wrinkled arms unnerved Twilight.

But she stood ready, refusing to take her eyes off the centaur.

His unsteady hands went to give the cloak, but dropped it, covering her in a shroud of darkness. The sudden blindness sent her into panic.

After jostling and freeing herself from the cloth, she found the centaur motionless. He hadn’t budged—other than the pleasured smile he got from watching her struggle. With his arms crossed, he looked skinnier and nonthreatening. “Do you have an inkling where to go? Why is it so important to find a single pony?” he asked.

“It’s not a single pony,” Twilight answered, still catching her breath. Her fear settled, and she added, “It’s a group.”

She folded the cloak and gave it to Moondancer. “We’re going to Manehattan,” the unicorn stated. That's where they were going to send me. We figured it’d be a good place to start, in case we find another cloak or garment.”

“Is it wise bringing me to a city with a lot of ponies?” Tirek asked, a question that hadn’t occurred to Twilight.

“Stopping the society is more important than scaring Manehattan’s citizens,” she replied. “Not to mention, that’s a lot of eyes to watch for you should you choose to dishonor our deal. Now, gather together, I’ll teleport us there.”

Canterlot. It’d been a while since Sunset Shimmer returned here, alone. She noted that not much had changed since Celestia ended her apprenticeship and forced her to run off beyond the mirror. Twilight put a lot of faith in ponies not knowing her, and Sunset hoped the business with Wallflower stayed private enough. Avoiding her old stomping grounds and the castle would help ensure her identity remained hidden. Though getting noticed wouldn’t be easy if she had to keep a low profile.

While Sunset mulled over the past and future, her curious eyes stared up at the castle in the distance. It was as beautiful as she remembered. The sun sat high in the sky, reflecting the white walls like mirrors. She had plenty of time to perform her parlor tricks. She didn't doubt she'd get noticed quickly.

Still, an anxiousness tingled her bones and tightened her throat. The idea of lying wasn’t something foreign in her repertoire. To do so for the side of good felt unnatural. It tautened the area of the body between the heart and stomach, an area unreachable by voluntary muscles. And though she tried to focus back on the task, her eyes wouldn’t draw from the castle.

Her mind settled on the past like a hen comfortable in her nest. She couldn’t help but think of Celestia staring down at her from a castle window. How could she even know Sunset was here? A childish thought, but it brought a smile.

The daydream didn’t last.

A potted plant burst—dropped by a clumsy pegasus. A broken wheel of a cart shattered in two places, displacing the pony driving it. An older gent struggled to hammer a nail into his shop’s sign. All these things were commonplace in day to day life—accidents were bound to happen. Not everyone was careful, or meticulous about maintenance, or wise enough to ask for help.

Sunset went to work, envious of her own magic, which wasn’t readily available in the world beyond the mirror. Though out of touch with Equestria, her magic remained as strong and powerful as the day she left.

Without a hammer, she studded the board and levitated the sign for the shopkeeper. After reforming the potted plant and the wheel of the cart at the same time, she took no thanks from the pegasus. And the owner of said cart felt immensely better as cloth wrapped his leg and tied to his neck. “No need to thank me. Anypony with strong magic would’ve done the same,” she told them. Her voice boomed as loud as it could. Everyone in Canterlot would either hear her words, or partake in the gossip spurred by it.

Of course, as she spoke the words, she knew it as a lie. Years prior, before her escape to the world beyond the mirror, she had magic. Strong magic. And yet she did not help others with her superb skill. Her focus went inward. Bettering only herself, for herself.

The comparison wasn’t lost on Sunset, but her will to help Twilight pushed her forward. Every new spell she cast, every bit of magic she used, every pony seeing her power. It went to helping Twilight. Ponies thanked her. Sunset even drew a crowd, though never for long as she wouldn’t dare stay in one place. Her behavior remained frivolous, or so it seemed to onlookers. With a rudimentary knowledge of the strange base Twilight mentioned, she moved in a semi-circle around it.

In the upper district, construction ponies stood in awe of her impressive work. Sunset finished a new building’s walls with ease. With the shingles, she played darts, each a bullseye. The overseer rushed to Sunset, begging for her to have a position within his company. But Sunset sang a tune and pranced away as she did with all the ponies who wanted more.

This became a common occurrence. The more ponies knew of her, the better her chances. Oh, that orange unicorn! Of course I know of her, she felt they’d say. Her magic saved my business! I’ll tell the society all about her! Half of Canterlot had become a well-oiled machine by the day’s end. The other half had heard about it.

And when the sun set on Sunset, her body aching from all the walking, she wondered if the trouble was worth it. Even her horn barely contained any spark left. Ponies thanked her and went about their business, but none sought her out. Nopony cared for a private chat. And no one invited her to their super-secret powerful unicorn club.

Shadows quickened over the city—stretching far and high like a flood pouring up walls. The only places not soaked in shade were open spaces. The fountain Sunset found herself at was one such venue. Her body rested on the marble side, while the water rippled from the constant spray. Sunset’s reflection, though broken by the lack of stillness, blended with the sky. Orange hues matched her fur, leaving her features prominent. Eyes floated with red and yellow hair above. She twisted in a direction and half her face grew darker.

Her body stiffened when another reflection came up beside her, one with a horn. A quick snap and she held her breath. A colt, so young and small. He had to stand on the marble to see his reflection, but his eyes focused on her. “You’re pretty!” he said. A high-pitched laugh escaped his chubby cheeks before he jumped down and trotted off. Sunset let go of her breath in relief, and couldn’t suppress her giggling.

Her ego deflated once it became apparent the society hadn’t noticed her. She sat on the fountain’s edge till night came. Any forethought of shelter never occurred. She assumed her prominence would’ve landed her in the society’s secret base before Luna raised the moon. It’d take a single day, nothing more, she had believed. She was wrong.

The lit city lamps guided any pony who preferred the night owl lifestyle. And they guided Sunset. Restaurants slowly closed up shop, evicting the fattened gossipers in their gluttonous stupors. Homes darkened and shuttered. A quiet city; a peaceful city. Alone, Sunset walked.

With nowhere to go and no one to notice her, Sunset meandered the streets. Her mind wandered while she walked. Of her past; her fillyhood. Of a night leading to a forbidden archive within the local library. That nostalgia brought her to such a place. To the Canterlot Library of Magic. It hadn’t changed since her apprenticeship under Celestia. Two cement unicorns siding the steps. The dome atop the structure reflected the moon well in the night. How was it still open this late?

To her surprise, ponies exited the library. She traversed the steps and found that not all things remained stagnant. An extension in time for the open hours was something new. Entering the lobby, an old mare with cloudy eyes behind thick glasses greeted Sunset. The librarian mentioned closing time neared and Sunset made sure to acknowledge she wouldn’t be long. Of course, she didn’t plan to check out any books.

Memories carried her past shelves she once scoured for magical expertise. With those thoughts came a starting pain in her chest, a revelation of pride burdening her. A claim for perfection. Her old self wanted to be greater. All the emotions became caught like a fish on a hook and strung up out of the water by her conscious thoughts. She hadn’t meant to reminisce.

As she turned to head back for the entrance, another unicorn slammed into her. A shower of reading material went flying, littering the floor. Neither had been paying attention to the other, and both apologized immediately. Sunset scanned each title as she helped the brown unicorn pick up her books.

“I’m alright. My mind has been so preoccupied, it was bound to happen sooner or later.” The brown unicorn took the books in her magical grasp, but a sudden falter caused them to fall once more. “Oh! Forgive me!” As she tried to levitate the books again, fatigue staggered her.

“Here, let me.” Sunset took the books all at once, circling them into the air and setting them down atop the nearest table. “Are you alright? Something wrong with your magic?” she asked, examining the mare. Her own magic dwindled after the day’s outing, but less so than the groggy mare.

Tired eyes fell to the ground in embarrassment. The puffy, dark fuchsia mane looked dry, almost brittle. A golden band stretched above the unicorn’s horn, close to her hair. Between the horn and band, Sunset could see matted fur, caused by an overabundance of sweat.

“Yes—well, no. I’ve been using it so much lately, it’s growing uncomfortable to perform basic tasks. My cooking has suffered, and my father has taken notice.” The realization of her words erupted with a confused expression. “My apologies! My concerns are not for a stranger.”

Raising a hoof, Sunset said, “Alright. My name is Sunset Shimmer. Now you know me. Not a stranger, right?”

The brown unicorn laughed, shaking the hoof lightly. “Saffron Masala. Pleasure to meet you.”

“You’re a cook?” Sunset asked, and examined the books once more. “Only one of these is for recipes. I didn’t know cooking required so much magical talent.”

“My father’s more of the cook than I, though I do love it so. I’ve actually been studying so hard in magic because I—” Saffron paused.

The random hesitation allowed Sunset to correlate the two. “Magic does have its own sort of cooking ritual. Coming up with new spells is like creating a new dish, I’d imagine. Though I’d definitely argue my spell craft is superior to the grilled cheese sandwiches I make.”

“You create your own spells?” Saffron asked, surprised.

Before Sunset could answer, the librarian echoed out a call for closing. Saffron checked out the books, which Sunset carried, giving the brown unicorn a rest.

Outside, Saffron successfully used her magic, and she thanked Sunset once more. “You didn’t check anything out? Well, I suppose if you’re creating your own spells, you don’t need other materials.” The tired eyes held a sparkle in the moonlight. “Sunset. Are you a powerful unicorn?” she asked, and Sunset answered wordlessly with a nod. “Did you have someone who taught you?”

A sudden image crossed her mind. Not of Twilight or the secret society she pursued. It was the same image that brought her to the library, and had come up more often than any other throughout the day. For a moment, her teacher came into her mind’s eye. “Yes,” she finally answered. “I had a great teacher. She taught me much.”

“Do you live in Canterlot?”

“No,” Sunset replied. “I’m only here reminiscing.” Lies are always better told with a sprinkle of truth.

Saffron sidled in beside Sunset, a sudden nervousness resonated from her body language. Something new, a hesitation in her jaw. With no pony around, the words erupted like an ocean wave striking a sandy shore. “I’m part of this club. We’re looking for new members all the time, but it’s hard because we’re secret,” she said hastily. “If you’re not doing anything…”

Sunset’s heart skipped a beat. The realization washed over her. “Sorry,” she nonchalantly replied. “I’m not interested in learning or teaching magic.”

“Oh! It’s not that,” Saffron whispered. A short giggle broke her nervousness. “We’re a group trying to help Equestria with magic. We’re improving lives. We need strong unicorns. I don’t know how I lucked into meeting you. But if you’re powerful, adding you would be a boon. We offer shelter. Food. A purpose, if you’re looking for that. Friends, if you’re lonely, though you seem confident enough to have plenty.”

But Sunset could only snicker at the words. “Help Equestria? Not sure how a group of ponies can do that. What could I do that a princess couldn’t?”

“All over Equestria, we’ve heard of attacks. Even Lord Tirek showed up here in Canterlot. We’re trying to form a secret group where, should the princesses fall, we’ll be there to take up the challenge.”

“That’s quite brave of you. A secret society fighting villains? Isn’t discretion the better part of valor? Why put yourself in harm’s way?” Sunset stared deep into Saffron’s tired eyes. “You’re a cook, right? Why should you fight for Equestria?”

Saffron shook her head. “It’s not just Equestria. If the society can stop someone evil from ruling Equestria, that’ll protect the ponies I care about. Isn’t that worth fighting for?”

Taken aback, Sunset went speechless. She now understood why ponies found appeal in the zealotry, and had no doubt that if the society had somehow found her first, she too would side against Twilight. She wondered just how strong Moondancer was to break away from such inspiring zeal. Twilight had spoken of the other friend who remained in the society and the ardor she had for their goals. Catching herself, Sunset brushed off the thoughts. “That does sound nice. What should I bring?”

“Just yourself. If you’re interested—” Saffron took her receipt of the books she checked out, scribbling an address on the back “—Meet me here in the morning. The introduction phase is a little worrisome, but I have no doubt they’ll see what I see.”

Sunset glanced over the location for a moment. A coolness in her stare kept her giddy feelings hidden. “Interesting. I’ll keep it in mind. Don’t be mad if I don’t show, it’s hard to rouse me toward anything. I didn't even mean to come to the library tonight.”

“Such a free spirit!” Saffron laughed as she trotted away. “I believe you’ll fit right in. Have a goodnight, Sunset Shimmer!”

Somehow, she’d done it. All in a day, just like she claimed. Sunset stood with the address in her hoof. Happiness washed over her, and a sense of glee pulled her lips wide. She wouldn’t let Twilight down.

The cold stone’s symmetry didn’t match Canterlot. Cement walkways and thick brick buildings were unlike the beautiful gleaming white marble. In a way, Manehattan remained dreary and toneless. Well, aside from the strip of theaters which sang and played at all hours. But the trio passed those while heading for Moondancer’s address. The tall skyscrapers sat far behind them, to the southwest. Construction went unchecked all over the place with renovations from the terrible vines that had swept the city.

The trio walked in a part of the city that held homes and smaller businesses. The vague alley they found sat between two three-story buildings. It didn’t lead anywhere but to a tired, sun-bleached wall. But this was it.

Moondancer glanced over the address on one of the buildings. A barber shop on the bottom floor, and stairs led up on the outside to the second and third floors. On the door, she found that this was the place, and each floor had an additional number hyphenated. “It should be here,” she told Twilight and Tirek. While levitating the insignia from her sweater, she trotted down the alley and then began trying it against every brick.

“I don’t suppose that nose has picked up anything?” Twilight waited with Tirek just inside the alley. She stood behind him, preventing his escape, but trapping Moondancer as well. Not that Moondancer minded.

“This place is a cesspool of magic. It’s hard to differentiate between them all,” he argued. The centaur’s body was too big for the small alley. Turning to face Twilight wasn’t possible. He’d have to back out to leave. “You brought the cloak, correct? I’ll need another whiff inside. I might be able to tell if the owner came here.”

As a trash can fell, Moondancer threw a look over her shoulder. Twilight had thrown the cloak over Tirek's head, blinding the centaur momentarily. The sight of a few threads catching on Tirek’s nose ring sent her into a spiral of laughter. A bit of the cloth broke, leaving several strands hooking the metal. "Very funny," he groaned.

She resumed her search after catching her breath. The tears in her eyes didn’t help, but luck was on their side. One of the bricks with a crack in the middle reacted to her insignia.

Moondancer trembled suddenly, though not of fear. The ground itself shook—a door beneath her. Jumping off, she watched the ground lift and fall against the walls, revealing another wooden door. The same symbol, she noted, adding it to her pad. A golden snake devouring its tail. Moondancer didn’t think it looked like much of a snake, other than it being limbless. Snakes were smooth, but the design made the sides seem jagged, like little triangles. Or teeth.

After opening the doors, Moondancer trotted down the steps. A short walk into a larger opening. Tirek followed in, coming to stand at her side, with Twilight at her other. “They didn’t remove any furniture in this one,” the alicorn stated. “Hello? Anyone home?” she called out to the darkness.

The egg-shaped room didn’t mimic Canterlot’s. The brown, aged walls were there, but only another set of double doors sat opposite the entrance. The room wasn’t large. Their either meant it for reading or socializing.

When Twilight took a step, Moondancer did too, but a long arm stopped them both. The swift movement tilted Moondancer’s glasses, forcing her to fix them. “What are you doing?” Twilight asked with annoyed brows raised.

“Saving your lives,” Tirek answered in a short rasp.

With her glasses straight, Moondancer looked up at the centaur. His face stood still, though wrinkled. “Is something wrong?” she asked him as her eyes took in the room.

“Can’t you smell it? Feel it?” He grimaced. “You ponies are so useless. There’s a trap. The room is so full of magic, it’s like a buffet. Unfortunately, we’d be on the menu.” He tossed the cloak into the center of the room, and it flopped on the floor.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the room shifted. From the ceiling came down a limbless creature the size of a pony and three times the length, mimicking the golden logo outside. This one wasn’t gold. Instead, made of the limestone walls, it bored into the ground, then came up. Again and again it went in a circle, entangling itself. It would’ve crushed anyone caught inside its ball of stone. The cloak jumped and moved with each turn. Once caught, the snake ripped it against the ceiling before the magical beast ceased to move.

Moondancer’s face shriveled in horror, and Twilight’s wasn’t any different. Without Tirek, they both would’ve been the cloak—a mangled shred. “You ponies are always so clumsy,” he told them as he relaxed his arm.

Turning to Twilight, Moondancer saw the alicorn figuratively and literally swallow her pride. She had expected her to be angry about the damaged cloak, yet Twilight was the opposite. “Th-thank you, Tirek,” she said with sincerity. “That would’ve been the end for us if you hadn’t been here.”

“That’s right!” Moondancer gawked, realizing Tirek’s mistake. “Why didn’t you let us walk? Wouldn’t that have allowed you to escape and steal pony magic?” A sudden elbow from Twilight shut Moondancer’s mouth from another question.

Tirek’s anger seethed in his words. “Do you take me for a murderer!?” he snapped at her, silencing both mares. But he expected an answer. “Do you!?” he shouted again. Their eyes didn’t shy away from the answer, though their mouths did. “I may enjoy tearing down your pony lands and hearing you scream, but I trapped those three prissy princesses in Tartarus.” He folded his arms. “I can neither steal your magic nor hold it over your head if you’re not alive. Where’s the fun in that?”

Moondancer inclined her head in apology of her misinterpretation of the centaur. She went to apologize, but Twilight’s laughter stopped her short. “Now I can see why you and Discord got along so well. Up to your betrayal, anyway. You two both like to taunt your victims.” Twilight then pointed to the trap. “That’s why this Society of Secret Sorcery is even more dangerous than you, Tirek.”

“More dangerous than Tirek?” Moondancer asked. Her glasses fell down the bridge of her muzzle. As she pushed them back up, her eyes fell on the centaur. His old face, wrinkled body, and limp stature made him seem weak. “I suppose I can see that. Maybe he’s not all bad.”

He snorted. “Think whatever you want. In the end it makes no difference so long as I get my rug.” He stepped into the egg-shaped room, and the two mares followed behind, giggling to each other.

The limestone creature broke the ground and ceiling in such a way that rubble surrounded the edges. While Twilight examined the creation with her light, Moondancer levitated the torn cloak from the monster’s broken face. In shreds, she held it to Tirek who waved it away. She dared not imply Twilight be at fault for giving him the cloak in the first place, and chose to throw it back on the ground.

“This is a ward,” Twilight said aloud. “A trap is one thing. The way this brick moved, the spell must be complex!” Moondancer followed around to Twilight as the alicorn pulled on some of the monster.

“A trap would’ve meant they dug the ceiling, designed this creature, and set down a spell, right?” Moondancer asked. “But can a ward do this? I’m not as familiar with warding magic.”

She watched as Twilight’s mind went to work. Silence between the two was common in the old days, during their schooling. “Anything is possible. The eclipse proved that,” Twilight answered in time. “I’d be very interested in meeting the pony who crafted this. On a scientific level, the structure and design are amazing. But now we need to be all the more careful. Okay, Moondancer?”

She nodded. “I’m with you.”

“Are you two done fawning over magic? You know that sort of thing is unhealthy,” Tirek called from the double doors.

Moondancer didn’t much care for the joke, but Twilight rolled her eyes and grinned. Following the centaur into the second room revealed it to be a long hallway. Seven doors in total, four on the left side, one at the end, and two on the right. They checked each. All the furniture remained, no more traps, and not a single piece of clothing to replace the cloak. A kitchen, two sleeping rooms, another study without any books. A grand gathering hall, like the one Moondancer attended, and two practice rooms.

At Twilight’s side, Moondancer helped examine and reexamine each room twice, then thrice. Tirek remained in the hallway, his job done. At one point in their search, Moondancer stopped and gave him an annoyed look. “You could at least act like you’re helping us,” she said.

“I already helped. The owner of the cloak’s smell is here.”

“It is?” Moondancer eyed side to side. “Are they here?”

“Don’t you think you would’ve found them by now if they were?” he mocked. His leaning against the wall allowed him to sniff the bricks. “The scent is outrageous here. I don’t know if they’re in the city or not, but we can check when you’re done.”

“We are done." Twilight returned to the two. "There’s not a single piece of evidence here! They’ve had time to make sure of that. I suppose the ward proved it too. They knew we were coming.”

Hanging her head, Moondancer apologized. “I should’ve brought you here right after Canterlot. They might not have thought of the letter they sent me.” She slapped her forehead, wishing she could remember Minuette’s address to the Crystal Empire as well.

Back through the egg-shaped room and outside, Twilight voiced her disagreement. “We needed time. We needed a plan. It’s better this way.”

When they stepped into the light of Manehattan, Tirek’s arm once again stalled them. Moondancer snapped from her reflective stupor. “Another trap?” she asked, hoping to be wrong. But the centaur lifted his nose. “He’s got the scent!” she realized.

“Really? Find it, Tirek!” Twilight cheered. “Lead us to them!”

The centaur ignored the dog-like beckoning. Moondancer watched his nose ring jiggle as his mind focused. Every few seconds he would take a big sniff and move a couple inches. Out of the alley, his expression looked lost, and she feared the worst.

His eyes abruptly went wide. He held up a finger to point, but switched with the wind. Ponies on the street howled at the sight of him, but his focus remained.

Moondancer shook with anticipation, biting down on her bottom lip. She wanted to scream, “Come on! Come on!” But she kept it inward, cheering him on internally. The sensation exploded outward once Twilight’s enthusiasm erupted. “You can do it!” they said in unison.

The centaur had something. Ponies moved to the other side of the street. Some rushed into buildings, locking the door behind them. Either way, the streets became empty whenever Tirek turned onto them.

But he lost the smell outside a printing shop. He circled, and Moondancer asked if it was gone. He shook his head and pointed to the door. “In here?” She pulled on the door, and Twilight rushed in first.

The building wasn’t even a two-story. At the small counter, the receptionist greeted the two mares. A pencil between her ear and mane, she pulled it out with her hoof. “Do you two have an appointment? Need some designs printed?” she asked, and placed the pencil in her mouth to write their names.

There were no walls in the building. The rattling of printing presses echoed out with the clopping of workers’ hooves. Moondancer glanced over each pony, noticing none of them were unicorns. Before she could tell Twilight that Tirek might be wrong, the centaur entered. “This is where the trail ends. It’s a frequent smell here, but the owner of the cloak hasn’t been by in some time.”

“T-T-Tirek!” the receptionist screeched.

All the printing presses stopped. Ponies scrambled out the back entrance. The receptionist jumped out the window. Screaming echoed in all directions until the place went silent. “Well, that could’ve gone smoother,” Twilight said. “Tirek! Are you sure this is the place?”

Tirek went to answer, but Moondancer intervened. “There weren’t even any unicorns here.”

“No unicorns? Are you certain?” Twilight repeated and looked back at the centaur. “Tirek!” But he shrugged in response. “Let’s spread out then, maybe we can find something here that you can smell.”

Moondancer stepped back outside. “I’ll jot down the address. I believe Tirek. If he says the scent ends here, and it’s strong enough to fade, that has to mean something.” After pulling the notepad from her sweater, she wrote down the building’s number. There were still ponies watching in horror on the opposite side of the street. “Starlight’s going to be mad if you make her search a whole filing cabinet of clienteles and employee listings. I hope adding the owner of this place isn’t too much to ask.”

“Once we’re done searching, let’s head back to Ponyville. She might have something for us,” Twilight called from inside. “You caused this, Tirek. Get in here and help!”

“I should’ve asked for a penthouse,” he groaned.

Author's Note:

Alternate Scene:
Somehow, she’d done it. All in a day, just like she claimed. Sunset stood with the address in her hoof. Happiness washed over her, and a sense of glee pulled her lips wide. Out of a consistency from the world beyond the mirror, Sunset tucked the address into her pant's back pocket. Only later in the night did she realize she wasn't wearing pants.