• 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 5: Cloak and Dagger

Sunset reached the address hours before the mid-morning light broke the clouds. Not unlike Moondancer, Sunset had to wait for her recruiter. But Sunset didn’t know Saffron well enough to say if trust linked them. In actuality, she felt bad for using Saffron, who stood as a pawn in the secret scheme. And in the back of her mind, Sunset told herself it was fine. It was for Twilight, after all.

In the alleyway between a rug shop and a café, Sunset did her best to remain calm. The ponies inside would see and read her expressions like scripture. She could only guess how many Masters would be there, or if the Grandmaster might make an appearance. Even with all the answers Moondancer gave Twilight, she didn't have enough information. Only then, upon her speculation, did Sunset realize how outmatched she stood.

One unicorn versus ponies who had practiced, grew, and taught each other. Who knew how powerful the Grandmaster could be? Sunset had learned Starlight Glimmer took cutie marks off ponies. What if this Grandmaster could do the same? Or worse?

The bleakness consumed her thoughts. But she snapped back to reality; it was for Twilight. She remembered how powerful Twilight’s magic was. Not alone, but with her friends as well. The bleakness faded in time for a shadow to appear at the alley’s entrance. “You showed!” Saffron greeted.

Sunset examined the cloaked figure. Other than the voice, she wasn’t sure it was Saffron at all. What little face showed sat hidden in a dreary grey. No mane, no tail, not even a hoof to see. “Sure. What are friends for?” replied Sunset, half-focused on her thoughts.

The hood fell. Saffron said, “I do apologize for the secrecy. The Masters will explain the reasoning shortly. Come inside before the early birds crawl the streets.” She lifted out her insignia, a silver pin, and tapped it to the wall of the rug shop. They didn't enter the store, but an opening that unleashed at their hooves.

A short flight of stairs circled, and they stood beneath the alleyway. Sconces lit with blue fire for the small room. Deep and thin, only a few doors existed at the sides. Saffron led the way to the end of the hall. Instead of opening the door, she knocked. Ponies on the other side answered, allowing them entry. Three cloaked figures matching Saffron, yet these bore the golden pins of three horns.

They stood in the center of the room. It wasn’t large. Sunset guessed if they’d done the eclipse here, the members would’ve squished together, shoulder to shoulder. The society made do, making this the site of Sunset’s induction. Should she pass, of course.

Sunset didn’t try to hold back her arrogance. She wanted nothing more than to portray a confident, Canterlot mare. Whether or not she could back it up didn’t matter. Falling from grace granted humility that others would find awe-inspiring. Victory would fill them with respect of her power. “I expected a red carpet for saving Equestria. There’s a rug store up above us. They should have one.”

The Masters glanced to each other, questioning without words. Saffron spoke with her hood down for them to see. Nopony else stood within the confines of the small room. For a split second, it crossed Sunset’s mind that these three could have their identities revealed. She could simply teleport the cloaks off them and see their faces. Or she could teleport them from the sanctuary to Twilight’s castle. But the fear that they could incinerate her with ease brought reason back to her imagination.

“This is Sunset Shimmer, Masters. I thank you for accepting her declaration, and hope she proves a valuable proponent.” Saffron bowed her head as she spoke.

“What brings you into our midst, Sunset Shimmer?” the middle Master asked. The feminine voice matched the decibels of Sunset’s. A Canterlot or Manehattan accent made the most sense.

“I met Saffron here and she invited me. Call me a loner with nothing better to do, because that’s the truth. Helping Equestria has a nice ring to it. And it’s not like I can get accepted into the School for Gifted Unicorns at my age,” answered Sunset. She let out a little chuckle. “Not that I need training, mind you.”

The Masters spoke among themselves for a moment, her bravado hitting or missing. When they ceased their quiet chatter, one of them brought a book. A spell book. “Here is our test for entry into the society. Completing a large portion of spells will also determine your status within our group. Try to go as far into the book as you can.”

Sunset levitated the book in front of her, and examined the words with consideration. From the beginning, she judged the first half to be incredibly belittling. The last half held almost impossible feats. Such as a mare into a stallion; too much magic for a requirement like these achievements.

It wasn’t just about performing the spells. This was an endurance trial as well. A beginner would dazzle the crowd with complex spells right off the bat, and then have nothing for the finale. Sunset was no beginner. Starting small allowed her to ease into expensive spells. In a race of the tortoise and the hare, Sunset dared to be a diamond-shelled turtle. Beautiful, strong, and a unique sight.

The first three spells were basic for most unicorns. Levitation, teleportation, and transmutation. In an instant, she transmuted the very spell book into a dumbbell, then an anvil, and finally a fridge. Teleporting inside, she levitated herself and the fridge above Saffron. She then multiplied the fridge, juggling a trio with ease. She dropped them all around the Masters. Teleporting herself, she felt much like Discord, popping out randomly from inside the fridges.

Saffron clapped at the showing, surprised at their impressiveness. But the Masters remained nonplussed, immobile to the strange act.

When the fridges combined back into the book, Sunset wrapped it in a bubble. The shielding she cast around it protected from the additional lasers she fired. The bolts of magic ricocheted off the guard with ease, almost striking the onlookers. With Saffron distracted, Sunset used the opportunity to transfigure the fellow unicorn. Her brown fur became white, her dark fuchsia mane became pink. Then, as Saffron instinctively rose bipedal in shock, Sunset froze her in place.

No longer did the Masters remain idle. They clopped their hooves against the ground, chorusing cheers and praise. Sunset, however, wasn’t finished. She filtered over the harder sections of the spell book.

One became two. As one Sunset stood below the frozen Saffron, another Sunset pressed into her back. The two unfroze the unicorn, while also reverting her original brown coat. Saffron wasn’t upset at the involvement. She howled with delight as the two Sunsets hugged her sides.

The strain became painstaking to hold two entities in her magical grip. Before she limited her being, Sunset transformed the world around them. Reality shifted. Grass grew beneath their hooves. A night sky tore open, whereas it was day moments ago. Trees grew taller than any building in Manehattan, vines stretched across their limbs in interwoven patterns.

And then it collapsed. The two Sunsets fell into each other as the world became lit with blue flame and limestone walls. Believing Sunset at her limit, the Masters called her end. “We are stunned,” a high-pitched feminine voice said, different from the other. “You have passed with flying colors. Take your breath.”

“I’m not finished,” Sunset interrupted, refusing to falter. She then threw the spell book at them and turned to Saffron. “I’d like to show you a spell of my own. If you’d allow me to borrow you for a moment, Saffron.”

“You’ve already been doing so, once more is fine. I’m excited to see your own work,” Saffron enthused, nodding wildly in anticipation.

Before the Masters could defuse the situation, Sunset’s horn lit in a spark. “I’m not so sure you’ll be saying that in a moment.” In an eruption of light, Sunset connected her horn’s magic to Saffron’s. A moment passed before it appeared to do anything more than produce a glow.

Falling on her front knees, Saffron gasped with shock. “W-what is happening?” she asked, fear striking her pupils, turning them tiny.

“What is happening?” Sunset repeated the question. “A regret. One made by many.” The glow stopped, and Sunset allowed herself to inhale. “It’s siphoning. Or you could say it’s mimicking Lord Tirek. It doesn’t matter. I exhausted my magic, and now I’ve borrowed yours.” Her horn lit with a ball of energy, displaying her returned strength, and ending the trial.

“Truly, you are equal to no unicorn known in Equestria,” a stallion said, the third Master. “Nor should they know you. Your success must be kept secret, for should the princesses fall, we will be there to pick up the fight.”

The middle Master addressed Saffron. “For bringing such a gift, Saffron, we give you the rank of Evoker,” she said. The stallion brought a golden pin with two horns and pinned it to her cloak. “Please take your rank and go,” the mare commanded. “We would like to speak to the new initiate alone.”

Saffron thanked and bowed and thanked again before taking her leave. She closed the doors behind her, and Sunset stood alone with the trio of Masters. The middle came forth with a cloak and silver insignia. “Please put this on,” requested the mare.

Doing so, Sunset felt a swarm of pride creep up her neck. Tests and questions were common at her school beyond the mirror—yet this wasn’t like any of those. Instead, it brought nostalgia of her time under Celestia. The self-importance fell in line with the days long past. With her hood lowered, she pinned the insignia, and couldn’t contain a smile.

“Sunset Shimmer,” the high-pitched mare called. “You received a proud emblem of our group. The Society of Secret Sorcery welcomes you with open hooves. We believe you will do great things.”

“And we would even be granting you the status of Evoker,” the stallion added. “Were it not for recent events. A terrible tragedy.”

“Let us not worry our newest addition with the past,” the middle mare spoke. “Though we only grant you the status of the initiated, we will include you in the right of ascension. The Grandmaster heard your name and found nothing worrisome. You proved yourself here. These two things grant you the right to become host under our guidance.”

Sunset’s pride evaporated. The need to reveal the mystery of the three Masters overcame all other senses. She choked on a knot in her throat, her breathing stuttered. The middle mare came forward. Sunset wanted nothing more than to blow the hood off the mare and see the face in the light. “You did a background check on me?” she asked, her voice shallow. They found nothing worrisome, which meant Celestia must’ve scrubbed any records after Sunset’s escape through the mirror. That didn’t surprise her, though. If she were Celestia’s sister, Sunset would’ve become a mythical prophecy in some old book. “Why the secrecy?” she asked.

“Our original reasoning was to keep our identities secret from one another. If the time came and we were face to face with a villain like Tirek, he could not force our members to rat each other out. They couldn’t, because they wouldn’t know. Time progressed, and we are all glad we forced our discretion on all members. One initiate scampered off, telling a princess of our society. She jeopardized our whole reasoning for hiding. Only we Masters know our members,” the middle mare explained.

“And I don’t get to know any of yours—in case I decide to rat you out?” Sunset asked. To play up her charade, she then followed it with a muttered comment. “Why anyone would do that is beyond me.”

The trio heard it, as she wanted them to. And in response, the middle mare answered, “The princesses see our work as troublesome, and perhaps it is. But we do not take it as a slight. We are nearing the end of our tests, and you come at a wonderful time. Soon, we will have a red-letter day. We’d like for you to become our Master-in-Training. I believe you’ll fit right in. Your skills prove it so.”

“Master-in-Training? To become one of you three?”

“That’s right. We need someone with your talent to help guide and teach the other initiates. Through hard work, together we can complete our goal,” the middle mare said. Sunset couldn’t hide the inquisitive look on her face. Noticing, the mare added, “One more test of our abilities and we can begin a ritual. Sunset, how would you like to become an alicorn?

Moondancer held her tongue as she stood on the sidewalk. The modest two-story home of pale pink sat happily in front of them. Clean cut grass, freshly watered potted plants. A little rooster wind vane on a corner of the blue roof. They stood in the lower section of Canterlot’s housing district, not far from the abandoned home. The owner of the dilapidated dwelling lived inside. Starlight discovered it before their return from Manehattan. The lilac unicorn came with them, though only to get out of the work they’d dropped on her. She’d return to it once they finished in Canterlot—though they all hoped this meeting would conclude the society’s business.

“Why do I have to stand out here and guard the flower ghost?” Starlight asked Twilight. She stood next to Tirek, a brown and yellow sheet covering his figure. After the terror he caused in Manehattan, Twilight saw fit to keep his appearance hidden.

“If you’d like, you can wear this and I’ll have the snooty attitude,” he replied. The sheet had two eye holes cut for him to see.

And Moondancer held her tongue. Laughter crept up her throat, but she retained her silence.

“Would you two quit your complaining? Just wait outside,” Twilight commanded, then nodded to Moondancer. The two trotted up to the door, then knocked gingerly. Midday light shined down on them well, allowing the answering mare no shadows to hide behind. Not that she had any intention to hide.

“Good day!” the small tan mare greeted.

“Are you Auburn Nest?” Moondancer asked, giving the name Starlight cross-referenced. This mare was indeed a unicorn.

When the mare declared herself Auburn Nest, Twilight stated herself and Moondancer. “You own an abandoned home over near the upper district. It’s linked with a crime, and we’re looking for information.”

Politely, Auburn Nest invited the two in. “I’m not sure about any home I own aside from this one,” she said, once inside.

As they followed into the home, Moondancer eyed the empty picture frames and barren shelves. Art abundantly hung around, though nothing expensive. The entry had a stairway and led right into the living room. “Is there anyone else home, ma’am?” Moondancer asked.

“Oh, no. It’s just me nowadays,” the mare answered, inviting them into the living room.

“Would you mind if my friend looked around your home while we discuss your involvement?” Twilight asked in an authoritative tone.

Moondancer halted, stunned by the idea. She shot a look to Twilight. How could Twilight want her to search? There was no way. Not alone. “Twilight, are you sure that’s wise? I’m not exactly the right pick. Maybe Starlight can take my place,” she whispered.

But Twilight shook her head, refusing to allow Moondancer her moment of weakness. “Of course, Princess!” Auburn Nest replied with a delightful smile. “How can I say no to a princess? I bet my neighbors will be jealous!”

With a side eye from Twilight, Moondancer trailed away from the living room. She stood in the hallway for a moment, listening to the two get settled. Though Twilight wasn’t harsh in her tone, the words were severe. Moondancer could barely believe her old introverted friend now commanded such a voice. And here Moondancer remained, still beating herself up over her part in the society. She tried to pull herself together, but all Moondancer could do was stand in a hallway, feeling ashamed. With a deep breath, she put one hoof forward.

Moving steadily, she found a view into the kitchen and of the rustic dinnerware. The dining room held a backdoor, though all the blinds remained closed to the yard. Every step felt less anxious. Peering out, Moondancer noted the rusted swing set.

Back down the hall, she went upstairs. There were three doors. One room was Auburn Nest’s, which she found first. A spotless room, and quite barren. No pictures. No books. Not even a single receipt or magazine. Examining all the obvious hiding spots, Moondancer found nothing. Not a thing out of place.

The bathroom appeared as flawless, but the third room remained a mystery. Dust soaked every portion of furniture, though there wasn’t much. It became clear that no one came in here often. She wondered why. The dresser and drawers were empty. Not even a secret compartment. The fitted sheets felt stiff, and nothing sat under the bed. She bemoaned the lack of a hidden space beneath the floorboards, though the carpeting felt nice.

A mirror across from the dresser drew her attention. It sat tall for a pony. Moondancer stretched to see her knees. She noticed spots on the edges where time wore away—with one part faded less than the others. A note or picture maybe? There were a few of these spots ranging all over the frame. Had someone used to live with Auburn Nest?

Moondancer returned to the living room just as the tan unicorn served tea. “I do hope you found everything to your liking!” Auburn greeted. Raising a teacup in her hooves, Auburn gestured to Moondancer. “It’s so rare to be in company of a princess. You’re a mighty lucky mare!”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Moondancer replied, levitating the cup. She watched as Auburn Nest chugged down the tea, not even stopping to breathe. Twilight took a gulp of her own before continuing her interrogation. Moondancer listened, still holding the tea, though further from her glasses to avoid them fogging up. When a short pause occurred, she asked, “Ma’am, who else lived here? There’s two rooms, but one doesn’t appear used.”

“My daughter,” Auburn said, shaking her head. A bright smile hung on her face as her eyes glazed over. A memory trapped the mare for a moment before she continued. “She’s such a sweet thing. She got me this tea. Black tea. Said it’ll help with my headaches. She’s such a sweet thing.”

“Miss Nest, please,” Twilight begged. “Your name is on the paperwork. If you’re part of the society, you should just come forward. Our goal is harmony, not friction. Equestria hangs in the balance.”

But Auburn Nest smiled and nodded. “I’ll bet a princess’s work is never finished. It’s so nice of you to visit the common folk from time to time. Is this some sort of program? Will Princess Celestia and Princess Luna be joining us? Oh, I had such an admiration for Princess Celestia when I was a filly.”

Moondancer studied the tan mare, assuming she could be no older than her own mother. The dull grey eyes looked cloudier than other ponies’, though blindness wasn’t a question. Auburn avoided furniture and did not need to search for her cup. “I do apologize for my home. I try to keep it as clean as possible,” Auburn added. “Do be a dear and let me know before Princess Celestia arrives. I’ll scrub night and day before then.”

“Miss Nest.” Twilight hung her head and sighed. “Celestia’s not—” The alicorn then went silent, taking a drink. “About the house...”

“I rarely leave my home nowadays. My daughter is so nice. She brought me this tea, you know. She helps me clean, though I can never seem to get it as clean as she does. Makes me proud.”

The living room was immaculate. Nothing littered the floor, no clothes hung off racks. Moondancer found the mention of an untidy house odd, as even the kitchen stood kept and clean. “You’re a unicorn,” Twilight countered, keeping the conversation on the subject. “Have you at all heard of the Society of Secret Sorcery? They’re a large group.”

“Oh, you are sweet,” Auburn replied. “But I don’t need any help. Everyone has their own trials and tribulations. If I believe I can do it, then I’ll be sure everything is spotless.”

Moondancer watched as Twilight’s disgruntled face fell dejected. They both knew the next few questions would bewilder them more than solve anything. Following the mare’s train of thought, Moondancer interjected with a question of her own. “Where is your daughter now? Do you have many children?”

“Only one. A filly. She’s very sweet. This tea, it’s black tea. She introduced me to it. I have such strong, painful headaches. It’s like a dozen drums against my forehead.” With both hooves, she set the cup down to refill it from the kettle. With it full, she didn’t wait for it to cool, downing the cup like it was nothing.

“Where is your daughter?” Moondancer repeated.

“Where is who?” Auburn asked as she leaned back in her chair.

Your daughter?” Twilight spoke harshly.

“Oh. She is very sweet,” Auburn replied, and then pointed to the tea in Twilight’s hooves. “She introduced me to this tea. Black tea, she called it. I’ve had such a terrible problem with headaches, and she is so kind to find this for me. It helps with headaches.”

Moondancer snapped her eyes to Twilight whose face twisted in confusion. She didn’t even bother speaking to the alicorn before ripping the teacup away with her magic. A few hot drops struck the loveseat they sat on. Placing her own cup next to Twilight’s, she made a gesture to the kitchen. Twilight gave an understanding nod.

“Ma’am, can you tell us about your daughter? Anything at all?” Twilight asked as Moondancer headed into the kitchen. “A name? A description? Where’d she go to school?” Moondancer examined the cabinets and listened. A ceramic, blue-painted jar sat near the sink, with several teabags inside. Sniffing the contents, Moondancer determined it to be the same as Auburn served.

“Who?” Auburn asked, as if the conversation didn’t exist.

Once she returned to the living room, Moondancer set the container in front of Auburn Nest. “Who gave you this tea, ma’am?” she asked the mare, hoping to spark something.

“That’s black tea.” She stared. “My daughter is so kind to have found it. It helps with headaches. I’ve got terrible headaches, you know. Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed.”

“Did she say where she found it? I’d like some for my mom,” Moondancer lied.

“Where she… found it?” Auburn blinked, lost in her mind. “I’m not sure. But she’s such a dear. I’m lucky to have her as a daughter. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“Can you tell us more about her?” Twilight asked before Moondancer could stop her.

Auburn replied with the answer they didn’t want. “Who?”

Moondancer looked to Twilight who visibly shook. “The room upstairs hasn’t seen use in a very long time. There’s so much dust, it’s like the dumbbell set Twinkleshine gave me for Hearth’s Warming during our school days. Whoever her daughter is hasn’t shown up in ages, which means she’s been drinking this tea for ages too.”

With a stern, melancholy expression, Twilight agreed with a nod. “You reached the conclusion before I did, but I’m there now. I have no doubt this mare’s daughter is a Master, or even more likely, the Grandmaster. We need to get Auburn Nest to the hospital. Whoever they are, they poisoned their own mother.”

Author's Note:

Author's Commentary:
As a writer, it's hard to not want to push everything about the world into the first chapter. Some reasons, some designs, and some information needs to be put aside. Starting the story off with Moondancer's expulsion made that ten times harder, seeing as how the plot revolves around the society. Having Sunset go through from the beginning allows you readers to get a good idea of what its like inside, without it being a boring information dump in the front of the story. Who wants to read Moondancer telling about her initiation and involvement? Yawn! Not to mention it shows off Sunset's impressive skills. Being astray from Equestria for so long, I can only imagine what she would've accomplished at the height of her apprenticeship.