Second Sunset

by Starscribe

First published

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.

Sunset Shimmer isn't like the other Freshman in Canterlot High School. While so many others explain away the strange things that happen in their town, she knows better. There's an entire world out there, a world of magic and incredible creatures, one that she's determined to reach.

Careful study and preparation brings her to the portal in front of her school, at the last moment of its opening. Sunset doesn't have a clue what might be waiting on the other side, but she's sure it will lead her to the magic she's always wanted.

No matter what it costs.

Updates Tuesdays.

This story was sponsored by my glorious enablers Bitera and Sparktail, who also did the editing. I know I don't deserve it. Want one of your own? Drop me a PM. Cover by Zutcha.

Chapter 1: Mirror Darkly

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Sunset Shimmer took one last glimpse around the block, crouching behind the low wall on someone’s front lawn and watching Canterlot High with sharp eyes. There was a single security guard in the building, but he kept a regular route, circling around the entire perimeter every hour or so. According to her watch, he should be on the far side within the next thirty seconds. The screen glowed faintly in the darkness, illuminating the little moon-phase tracker at the top.

If you were ever right about anything, Sunset, time to be right now. There would be no going back after what she’d done. The heavy bag slung over one shoulder would definitely land her in juvie for a few years, if she was caught. Assuming they didn’t try her as an adult. But that wouldn’t matter anymore.

When I come back, you’ll all wish you took me seriously. I would’ve shared the magic with you. She could hear their laughter in her ears even now. Her fellow students, her parents—no one took her seriously. Magic could change the world, it could solve every one of mankind’s problems if only it was understood. But they refused to admit that it existed.

Sunset Shimmer knew, knew it in her bones just the same as she knew pain was bad and joy was good. Canterlot was the perfect town for an aspiring wizard to grow up, with its rich history of mythical monsters and ancient attacks. Of course it was just legend now, nothing anyone believed. But Sunset believed, and she studied.

She had a little magic with her now, protection charms she’d made herself in her bracelet, garlic around her neck, a container of salt where she could get it. There was so much conflicting information out there that the only way to be sure was to try it all.

Of course, she wouldn’t have to cast any of her own spells tonight, just make it across a street and up to a statue. Sunset tightened the backpack, wincing at the loud metallic clanking from inside. Her watch beeped a second later, and she ran.

A semi-truck chose that moment to round the corner, far faster than was probably legal. Sunset screamed, rolled, and landed on the pavement inches away from turning into an orange and red smear on the road. The driver hadn’t even slowed down. “Damn you,” Sunset hissed, scrambling to her feet and hurrying forward. “Damn all of you. See if I share any of my magic powers when I get back.”

But her screaming had attracted attention after all—the wide beam of a flashlight shone from inside the building. She could see Night Watch’s outline on the other side of the glass, as he fumbled with a lock. It wouldn’t take him long.

This is crazy, Sunset thought, ignoring the shock and pain as she approached the statue. Nothing would matter so long as she could get inside. Nothing she’d done, nothing she’d failed to do—she would have magic when this was over. They’d all see just how wrong they were.

“Stop!” called Night Watch, from the stairs. He had a large flashlight in one hand, and a mop in the other. “I see you there! If you’ve done anything to vandalize school property…”

It just looked like glass—a polished mirror, a little strange to find in such a public place. Every story agreed, this statue was everything. It was the opening, but only for a short period every few years.

Sunset ignored the shouting, stopping an inch in front of the glass, her hand poised over its surface. She didn’t dare touch it, for fear that the “magic” might be as real as so many of her other attempts. But if it wasn’t… Once I do this, I’ll be gone for years. My parents might think I’m dead. Night Watch kept shouting as he got close, his flashlight harsh in the reflected light. Her hands were bleeding, and there was stolen property in her bag.

“Cya,” Sunset called, then pushed forward against the glass.

There was no glass. Elation melded with the rush of surprise and fear as she jerked forward. Her head swam, and she found herself falling forward instead of down. She saw strange things reflected towards her—a starry sky she didn’t recognize, cities built of carved marble into slabs of crystal, her own strange reflection blazing past the other direction. She screamed, but the words twisted in her mouth, contorting until there was nothing left of them but more confusion.

“That’s why nobody knows about this!” she screamed to herself, clutching the bag tight against her chest. “It’s fatal! Nobody ever comes back!” She had gone beyond time and space—become a cautionary tale that would survive in school rumors. The weird kid who vanished one night. Probably they’d get the details wrong and say the horse statue ate her.

Then she landed. There was an unceremonious thump, and Sunset’s rear end was above her. Long strands of red and yellow dangled down into her face, like her hair but somehow attached to…

Sunset tried to stand, and only managed to flop uselessly to one side. Her hands weren’t shredded from the pavement anymore—she could only feel numbness now. Numbness, and a universal, pervading wrongness. “What happened?” she moaned, but of course there was no answer. There was a stone floor up against her face, with little grains and speckles, not the even gray of concrete. She didn’t feel the cool night air—instead the temperature was thick and oppressive, yet somehow blasting all the way up her pants like she was wearing a skirt without any underclothes…

Sunset winced, opening one eye and glancing down her body. As it turned out, she wasn’t wearing underclothes. She wasn’t wearing anything at all. “This can’t be…” she lifted one arm, and one of the legs moved in response. She moved it up to her face, searching for the fingers. There were none, just thick tissue in a rim around a softer pad of skin in the middle, recessed.

Oh god. I know what this is. She tried to sit up, and somehow managed to get the lower half of her body under her, enough that she could see in front of her.

The room was dark, but a crack of white light from the open door illuminated the mirror enough for her to see.

A horse looked back into her eyes, a horse with her same cyan eyes, her same yellow and red hair. Actually the horse had twice as much, since she also had a tail in a similar color and style.

The room around her looked like a warehouse, if the warehouse had been retrofitted into an ancient building—European, maybe? There were shelves on either side, and leaning in front of her was the otherworldly equivalent of the portal. This one was a single mirror, with an intricately worked metal rim encrusted with gemstones. To add insult to injury, whoever had crafted this ancient relic had made it in the shape of a horseshoe. I get it, you cursed me. Sunset hesitated, one hoof near the edge of the portal. She could return right now, albeit without clothes since those apparently couldn’t pass through the portal intact. She could do that, or…

Through Elysium's gate,
A great herd roams.
It’s ancient secrets kept unknown.
But through the lockless door they watch,
After thirty moons to enter and catch.
What once was given now returned.
Arcane secrets never learned.

I came here looking for magical secrets. Even cursed, I might still be able to learn them. Besides, going back might not take the curse away. Maybe whoever made this wanted to force anyone who came through it to return to them to get changed back.

But before she could do that, Sunset would have to stand up. Staring into the face of her reflection—small, yellow, adorable—gave her everything she needed to understand why she couldn’t walk the way she wanted to. Her body couldn’t stand up on two legs anymore. So she tried something else, rolling sideways so that her legs were under her. She smacked into an oversized bag as she did so—wait, no. Her bag had transformed. Instead of an athletic bag with Canterlot High’s sports logo emblazoned on the side, it had been… divided. It was still made of sturdy vinyl and canvas, but now there were two bags, connected by a strap with an opening in the middle.

It took Sunset a few seconds to understand. Oh my god. Those are saddlebags. Saddlebags that still had the Wondercolts “C” on either side, with a look of embroidery instead of heat transfer.

Sunset had no idea how to “wear” saddlebags, any more than she knew how to stand up. But she gritted her teeth, and pushed her head through the opening. The straps proved remarkably flexible. By bracing her hind legs on the ground and the saddlebags up against a metal shelf, she could slide it down her back until it settled into somewhere comfortable. Instead of buckles or buttons, the saddlebags used some kind of elastic. They were still just as full, making the same metallic clanking sounds as she finally rose to her feet—well, her hooves.

“I look ridiculous,” Sunset told the mirror. The mirror agreed—if anything, the face reflected there wanted her to use more extreme language. She wasn’t just an impossibly-colored horse, but she was a unicorn at that, with a sharp point protruding right through her hair. Those eyes were ridiculous, so oversized that she could easily see the moisture collecting near the bottom. And was she just completely losing her mind, or was there a gigantic tattoo on either side of her butt?

No, Sunset! You aren’t going to cry! You’re going to get out of here and discover the secrets of the universe. You’ve just traveled to another world. Maybe that involved a horse curse, so what? You can do this.

She needed to be rational. Sunset took a deep breath, then turned to inspect her surroundings.

The storage room had no windows, no exits at all except the door that was also its only light source. There were no lights on the ceiling, but there were empty metal brackets along the wall. Like they were waiting for candles that weren’t there.

The storage room had other strange objects, though just about everything had been wrapped up somehow. Even the portal had been covered with cloth before the dense layers and rope had been ripped away. Apparently the force of Sunset’s arrival had been strong enough to cut clean through the rope in a few places, and throw the wrapping across the room.

The portal itself looked like it had been propped haphazardly against the wall. I hope wherever this is doesn’t get earthquakes.

Sunset wanted to move the thing back down, maybe lay it flat so that it couldn’t fall. But she put one hoof up against the side of the mirror and realized the stupidity of that plan. Holy crap, how am I supposed to do anything? Without hands, she wouldn’t be able to use half of the things she’d brought.

I was so prepared for this, and now here I am. A stupid farm animal.

So she left the mirror where it was, hobbling towards the only exit she had. Walking proved to be a difficult task, though not so much if she didn’t watch what she was doing. So long as she kept moving, she could walk without tripping over herself. I’m probably not supposed to move like this. How do horses do it? Now she wished she’d given the Equestrian club a little more attention. As it was she just tried not to fall, and mostly she succeeded.

The first thing she needed was something to wear—just because she looked like an animal didn’t mean she was going to start acting like one. Putting on clothes might make her seem like someone’s cute pet, or maybe it would let them realize she was really a person. Either way, Sunset needed something.

Fortunately for her, this storage room contained a few useful objects. Against one wall was an old wardrobe, made of dark stone and covered with bluish gemstones. Someone built this thing pretty small. I can almost reach the handle. Someone’s kid must’ve owned this.

Getting it open was its own disaster—but Sunset found a bit of metal, and she could wedge that into the bottom of one of the doors. A little patience, and the door popped open. A cloud of dust exploded out into the air around her, and she looked away, hacking and coughing.

Her search was rewarded—there were clothes inside. Sunset selected the lumpiest, most misshapen thing she could find—like someone’s blue and silver Halloween cape. Someone had sewn little star and moon patterns into the cloth, which felt like silk against her coat.

But would someone’s dusty old Halloween costume fit a horse-thing?

Yes, as it turned out. She squirmed into it the same way she had got the saddlebags on, headfirst. It was more of a cloak than a cape, though the whole thing was a little tight with the saddlebags.

That’s lucky. I wouldn’t expect it to fit me so well. Maybe her luck was turning around.

She made it to the door, and was able to lean forward, peeking out into the passage. An even white light shone from up ahead, illuminating the black stone of an empty hallway. This at least seemed even and electric, though she couldn’t make out the fixture from this angle.

She pushed the door open in a single nervous motion, forcefully enough that it banged loudly against the stone wall. The sound rang out in the empty hallway, echoing painfully. Was it her imagination, or did she hear an answering sound through the floor and the walls? There were voices for sure—someone had heard her.

It was time to move.

Sunset couldn’t go fast, not without falling on her face and straining the fancy cape-thing she was wearing. She pulled the hood up as high as it would go, and hurried down the hallway. The footsteps seemed to be coming from one direction, so Sunset chose the other, walking as quickly as she could.

All her practice when it came to breaking the rules would do her no good here. She couldn’t look like she belonged when she’d been cursed to look like a farm animal. The cloak might make her blend into the dark, but it would not let her pass for a person.

There was a rickety-looking wooden barricade at the end of the hall placed just at the height that made it inconvenient for her. The other side looked open, but… obviously this was the way she needed to go.

“You, stop! Don’t move!” the shout came from the other end of the hall, probably several hundred feet away. Sunset didn’t so much as turn around—she ran.

Well, ran was generous. Sunset stumbled, tripped, and flopped her way forward, rolling under the barricade and pausing momentarily at an ancient spiral staircase of rickety metal and slabs of rock. There were two directions. No windows, stone everywhere. I’m underground. She chose the “up” direction, and started climbing. The stairs creaked and strained under each step, rumbling a little the faster she went. She watched as bits of rock splintered out of their rusty metal brackets on the layers above her, praying to all the gods she didn’t believe in that they wouldn’t collapse under her.

Obviously her pursuers had reached the stairs, because she heard their voices echoing up from below. “What do we do?”

“We can’t go into the east wing… double back and go around. There’s only one way she could’ve gone. We’ll cut her off at the garden.”

Thanks for telling me, idiots. Sunset didn’t let herself slow down just because she knew what the ones chasing her would do. As their strange-sounding footsteps hurried off, she only climbed faster.

Her hoof hit the stone above her, and the rusty metal casing around it gave way with a crash. Sunset squealed in surprise, but was able to catch herself with the other three legs, her forth hanging out over open air.

The stone kept going. It struck the stairs below with another crash, and the whole staircase began to wobble. Oh god.

Sunset leapt over the missing step, running now. What kept her from tripping over her own hooves, she might never know, but she didn’t have time to think. There was light from somewhere ahead, the dim light of dawn. Sunset ran, even as huge sections of the stairs below her started to give way. What had begun as a single step was becoming a total collapse.

Sunset reached the edge of the floor above, and sprang with all her might. She landed on her belly, back legs dangling over a cliff as the stairs crashed into the basement. Good thing those police didn’t follow me up those.

Sunset was slipping. Her stupid saddlebags, filled with clanking metal and supplies, were dragging her down towards the opening. She screamed again, scrambling for purchase against tiles. The floor underneath was so dirty that it lubricated her motion, making her start to slip faster and faster.

There, on the wall beside her, a bright blue wall-hanging! It was out of reach, but if she strained… Sunset grasped for it desperately, opening her mouth to catch it in her teeth.

Then the wall-hanging moved. She couldn’t say what pulled it, maybe an errant breeze, maybe just dumb luck. There was a faint glow of blue, and the old cloth was in her mouth. Sunset yanked, and pulled herself up over the edge, rolling until she was well away from the opening.

“Holy… crap…” For at least a minute she just lay there on her back, breathing heavily. She wanted to stay there—to curl up in the corner and sleep. But she couldn’t, not with the knowledge that there were police here. Or… whatever this world had for police. I have to get out.

Sunset stood up, easier than she had the first time. Her ears were moving, her tail wouldn’t stay still, and for a few more seconds she just froze, trying to make them stop. But no—there was distant shouting coming through a nearby wall. She needed to keep moving. You’ll get out of here, Sunset. You can do this.

Chapter 2: Mocha

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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?”

Chapter 3: Value

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Sunset Shimmer had known full well that there might be civilization on the other side of the portal. American fiat currency would be worth less than the paper it was printed on, but she might need money to get things done.

There hadn’t been a transcendental instant waiting beyond the mirror, stripping away the illusion of substance from reality and giving her a single experience that would empower her with magic forever.

She would have to work, have to read, and have to study. That’s fine. I knew it might happen. There was no chance to study magic on Earth, because no one took it seriously. But here everypony did. Here it was so routine that her question about it had seemed strange.

Mocha had directed her down a long main road, so densely packed with ponies that she didn’t feel like she stood out anymore. Unlike the calm, dignified processions of the upper city, these ponies moved more like she was used to—they rushed, they swore, they packed in tight and darted across streets at inopportune times. Granted, without automobiles there was far less chance of an accident. At worst, they’d just be running into each other.

The Gilded Stirrups shop was tucked away in the end of a narrow side-road, where the houses above packed in so close that the street was in perpetual shadow. The glass was covered in a layer of grime, and a bell chimed her entrance in an off-tune jingle. Sunset winced as it shut behind her, taking in the shop at a glance.

In some ways, she was amazed it even existed. For all that this place was an alien world governed by magical laws she didn’t understand yet, the culture was so similar. Mocha had known instantly what a pawn shop was, and even knew about this one. Now that she was here, the contents of the shelves didn’t surprise her in the least.

Lots of art, strange objects, family heirlooms, some behind glass and some just sitting out on the shelves. There were some useful objects too, though Sunset couldn’t have said what any of them did. Accessories for pony bodies, with lots of straps and elastic and few buttons or fasteners.

“Well look what we’ve got,” said a voice from behind the counter—exactly the sort of voice Sunset expected to hear in a shop like this. As she came out from around a shelf, she found exactly the sort of pony she’d been expecting too. Somehow dumpy, with an unshorn shadow on his face and beady eyes. He had a horn too, and seemed to be watching Sunset carefully. “Castoff from a noble house, I know that look. You’re selling.”

“I am,” Sunset admitted, stopping in front of the counter. Here were the shop’s most valuable items—mostly jewelry. Strangely the simple gold was under glass, while objects covered in precious stones were piled up on the shelves. Maybe they just have a way to make really convincing fakes.

“Alright,” the pony said. “We keep this simple. You don’t threaten me, you don’t wave your family name around like it’s your horn. I don’t care about the story, I don’t care about how long you’ve had it. I tell you what it’s worth, and you take it or leave it.”

“Sure,” Sunset said. Then she pulled off the robe. Her ears flattened in embarrassment as she did it, tail tucking between her legs. But she hadn’t seen anything like this on the street, and she had seen plenty of ponies not wearing anything at all. It’s fine, it’s just animal parts. It’s not really me.

She settled the robe on the counter in front of him. “How much for this?”

“Hmm…” The pony glanced to one side, and something shot across the room towards him. Sunset squealed in surprise, retreating a step and staring in horror. A jeweler’s glass seemed to have come to life, glowing faintly as it settled in front of the pony’s eye. At least until he saw.

It seemed almost as though the pony were holding it with an invisible hand. The glass moved out of the way, and his eyes narrowed. “You okay, miss? I don’t give discounts for crazy. Or drunk. You don’t feel well, you shouldn’t sell. Simple as that.”

“Shouldn’t…” Sunset couldn’t take her eyes from the glass. I can ask when it’s over, it’s fine. Don’t make him think you’re crazy now. “I’m fine, sorry. I thought for a minute I had… forgotten something! That I wanted to sell… in the upper city. I thought I was going to have to go back for it.”

“Riiiiight.” He looked away from her, back at the cloak on the counter. “Intricate stitching… double crossweave… this is silver thread. How’d it get so dirty?”

“Trip over,” Sunset muttered. “Didn’t go… quite the way I planned.”

“Restoration is expensive… I’d have to pay for it on a piece like this. How about… five hundred bits?”

“I…” Sunset hesitated. What the hell was a “bit”? In retrospect I probably should’ve asked Mocha about their money. “I’m not sure. I could get twice that in the upper city. Maybe I should take it up there.”

“A thousand!” Maybe this pony thought he was being sly, but she knew the sound of desperation anywhere. The number was meaningless to her, but the need wasn’t.

“Fifteen hundred.”

“Fine!” He snatched it off the glass, before Sunset could so much as open her mouth. “Deal. Fifteen hundred. Is that it?”

“No, uh… no. Hold on.”

Sunset couldn’t actually reach into the saddlebags. While settling them on her back that way made them feel almost weightless, they were also quite inconvenient. Sunset winced, gritted her teeth, and wiggled the saddlebags forward until they came off on the ground in front of her.

“You’re, uh… not just going to give me what you have? You don’t have to… whatever.”

Once they were in front of her, Sunset could open the flaps with her mouth, and look inside. She scooped the contents up onto the counter one at a time.

It was jewelry—several thousand dollars’ worth. Sunset had brought the most valuable stuff she could grab, covered with precious stones. Curiously, the metal seemed to have changed just as much as she had. The necklaces had widened enough that she could probably slide them down over her pony head. The rings looked like they were made for hooves now, or maybe with a slightly conical shape for a horn.

Sunset settled it all onto the counter between them. If a stupid cloak was worth fifteen hundred, all this must be.

“Hmm. I’ll give you… five hundred for the lot. Rubies, diamonds… this is barely worth the effort to flip.”

“What?” Sunset’s mouth hung open. “You just gave me fifteen hundred for a cloak. This is…”

“You’re new at this,” he said. “Look, I don’t care about the sentimental value. This is mostly gemstones by weight. There can’t be more than… a hundred grams of gold. I’ll be generous, seven hundred. Take it, before I change my mind.”

Where before he had sounded desperate, now the pony was stern. Sunset could hear no deeper undertones—either he’d suddenly started caring about hiding it from her, or he just didn’t care about the jewelry. Maybe I should’ve robbed a thrift store. Not that it mattered either way. They wouldn’t be finding her in here.

“Alright,” Sunset said. “Fine. Deal.”

The pony swept it all into a bin, then walked over to a safe. He fumbled with it for a moment, then the second miracle of the day. A little pouch flew through the air all on its own, landing on the glass counter right in front of Sunset. A pair of heavy-looking coins slid inside. “Two thousand…”

Then came a much larger pouch, landing on the counter in front of her with a metallic thump. “Two hundred. Now get out, before I change my mind.”

“How did you…” There was no mistaking it—this pony was moving objects with his mind! “How are you doing that?”

“Doing what?” The safe smacked closed all on its own, and he turned to glare down at her again. “If you’re setting up some kind of insanity thing, forget it. All sales final.”

Sunset tucked the money away in her saddlebags, which were now far emptier than they were before. Just a few basic survival supplies in there now, and a hard plastic box on one side. I can’t believe I didn’t think to bring a change of clothes.

“Nothing like that…” Sunset slid the saddlebags back on again, going a little faster on her second time. She could barely even feel the weight of them now. “The way you’re moving things… how are you… how did you do that?”

“You’re trying an insanity thing.” The pony lifted a hoof, pointing at the door. It opened of its own accord, bell ringing. “I paid you good bits, filly. Now, leave.”

She left.

Sunset didn’t have to go far after her first stop. With significantly lighter bags and significantly heavier conscience after what she’d done before leaving Earth, she went out on the first stop to conceal her identity: a hair salon. Yes, the magical pony country had them—and in this part of the city, they were staffed by the sort of person who did their job without paying much attention. Sunset never would’ve dreamed of patronizing a store like this on Earth, or else emerge with split ends and hair wrong in every way.

But just now, she needed it to be as unrecognizable as possible. “Can you do color?” she asked. The first store she tried couldn’t, but they happily pointed her towards one that could, soon as she left a few bits on the counter to loosen their memories. A brief trip down a few more shady alleys, avoiding anything that even sounded like the clink of that metallic guard armor, and she found a salon. She cut her mane short, in something a human might call a boyish pixie cut, dyed midnight blue with a little stripe. It felt unnatural, maybe unfaithful—but that didn’t matter now.

It’s okay, it’ll grow back. I can’t let them catch me. If they did, Sunset somehow knew what would happen next. They would lock her up in prison until the portal opened again in a few years, then banish her. She couldn’t take that risk—Sunset couldn’t return to Earth until she had taken every power this world had to offer for herself.

That bit of disguise helped, but there was nothing she could do about the mark on her flank. The salon had laughed at the suggestion that she could color her whole coat, and seemed genuinely disgusted with her when she suggested covering up the thing they called a “cutie mark.” So she abandoned that plan, found a store that sold clothing, and searched for anything she could use to conceal her identity.

Even Sunset’s embarrassment at now having a much shorter tail, revealing everything about her body to anyone who wanted to look—was secondary to her survival instinct. But when the adrenaline finally ran out…

But for all they could make a city beautiful, these ponies had never heard of jeans, and what little clothing they did have rarely did anything for either her modesty or stealth. But eventually she found something—a skirt in similar shade to her new hair, that would cover up the mark on her flank. It wouldn’t do much if someone was standing right behind her, but… priorities. She could worry about that once she found her way out of Canterlot.

Sunset about had a heart attack on her way out of the used clothing store, as a squad of burly-looking guards in gold armor passed right in front of her. Sunset watched them with horror, frozen and unable to move, not daring to try and run. They glanced once at her, but no eyes lingered.

They were putting up posters. Sunset waited until they had turned the corner, before approaching the one they’d pasted to a dirty brick wall.


For crimes against the Crown

Court Wizard, Sunset Shimmer
Reward for information that
leads to capture: 10,000 bits

There in the center of the poster was a near-perfect image of her head in profile, along with her “cutie mark” beside it. Both were perfect in every detail, or at least they would’ve been before she changed her hair.

I don’t understand—they know my name? Had she been watched somehow? Maybe the room she’d arrived in had been full of cameras. Or worse, maybe this place had agents on the other side. Maybe they’d known about her desire to explore beyond the portal, and had been waiting for her this entire time.

It doesn’t make sense. I didn’t do that much! She had broken an old stairwell, and stolen a piece of clothes. Was that really worth putting up wanted posters and filling the city with soldiers? Soldiers that… weren’t even competent enough to tell she was the same person, once she dressed a little differently and changed her hair.

I shouldn’t get overconfident. I need to get out of here. The ponies didn’t seem to have some of the basics of modern life. No one she’d asked knew what a “phone” was, and they seemed to think that it was normal for light to flicker. Maybe if she got far enough from this city, they wouldn’t have heard of her. I need a new name to go with this new face. And maybe a tattoo artist for the cutie mark.

Sunset checked to see if anyone was looking, then ripped the poster off the wall with her mouth. She tucked it away quickly, into the ample extra space left by the jewelry she wouldn’t be carrying around anymore.

But now she had another problem: how to escape the city? Canterlot in this world was a cliffside settlement, with no connection to the valley below that she could see.

Sunset found her way to the railing on the lower level, where she hoped she might get a better view. Maybe there would be more gondolas, all the way to the valley floor below.

Sunset stared off the stone railing, admiring the view. The sheer stone side of the mountain stretched away into the blue, so far that she began to feel light-headed. There was no ramp down the mountain, no switchback road. Yet when she looked to one side, there she saw something. There was a bridge there, and thin metal tracks running along either side. Even as she watched, a little railcar came churning down, leaving a trail of white smoke as it went and whistling faintly.

My god, that’s adorable. There’s little hearts on the side.

Sunset could only get a general idea of where the train was—but she could walk that way, see what she found.

She didn’t run, that would only draw attention to herself. She hurried through the city, weaving between charming little shops and overcrowded tenement buildings. Here in the lower city there were street-vendors, and she bought lunch from one—something called “hay fries.” They were just what her stomach was craving—something greasy and delicious. She didn’t ask questions about the “hay.”

But as much as it was probably the smart thing, Sunset couldn’t just march right out of the city and never look back. She had come through the portal for a reason, and reminders of that reason were hard to ignore.

“Two Bit Books,” said the sign, an old-fashioned wooden one with faded lettering. Inside was exactly the sort of place Sunset imagined would sell spellbooks, with rickety shelves leaning overhead and lots of tomes that looked painful to lift.

A little bell chimed as she walked in, and Sunset found herself surrounded by the charming feeling of a used book store. There were a few ponies reading in comfortable chairs, or perusing the shelves.

Sunset ignored all of them, searching for someone who looked like they worked there. “Excuse me…” she muttered, to a mousey little mare putting books on the shelf from a metal cart. “Can you help me find something?”

“Oh, uh… sure.” She blushed, adjusting her glasses and looking up at Sunset. She seemed barely old enough to be working here—but what did Sunset know about child labor laws in horse land? I don’t know she’s a kid. I’m projecting. “What can I help you with?”

“I’m looking for… magic,” Sunset said. “I don’t know what you’d call it… maybe… opening the chakras, taking the oath, pacts with the Vanir… a spellbook?”

The pony’s eyes widened, and she took a step back. “That’s, uh… that’s a bit broad. Every book in here is about magic. We have lots of spellbooks. I don’t know what that other stuff means.”

“Hmm… maybe… the fundamentals? What’s the first spellbook that a wizard would study? And the second, and the third…”

“Like… in magical kindergarten? Are you looking for textbooks?”

“Sure! Magical kindergarten. That sounds about right.” She could feel the pony’s uncomfortable eyes on her, and she added, “For my, uh… little sister.”

“Oh, okay. We have used textbooks, over there.” She pointed. “Look for the bound volume. Starswirl’s Spellcasting Basics. It’s cheaper when you get the whole set.”

Sunset found the indicated books, and her eyebrows went up as she examined the image on the cover. The books were printed with oversized lettering on thick paper, with exaggerated images of ponies on the cover engaged in incredible feats. They moved objects around, juggled, or blasted beams of light from their horns. The pages were well worn from between the covers, as though many children had passed the books between them. Sunset selected another book from the bargain bin, paid, then slipped back out onto the street before any of the ponies could realize just how strangely she was acting.

It’s somewhere to get started. Now I’ll be able to study on the train.

She didn’t make it to the train.

Chapter 4: Flash

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The pony city of Canterlot might have the same name as the real city she’d left behind, but its charming design led far more to confusion than it did to understanding.

Sunset thought she’d be heading for the train station, yet as she got closer, she realized the path she was on led right to a cliff. She hadn’t noticed because dozens of ponies were still taking it, sliding off into the void and coasting down on their wings to the train station below. The flow of messengers and businesspeople up and down made for a fairly convincing illusion, unfortunately for Sunset, she’d have to find another way.

She turned, stomping one of her hooves in frustration as she searched for the path down. They’re horses, and only a third of them have wings. That means two thirds of the people in this city still have to walk down. Just think like a horse. What do horses like?

Not stairs, probably. Sunset knew plenty of dogs that had trouble with stairs. But maybe there were other ways. The widest, thickest road heading down the city had less overhanging sprawl than many of the other streets. This probably goes there, right?

Sunset stumbled down the sidewalk, avoiding huge posters of her own face and speeding up whenever anyone looked in her direction. After just a few steps, she was already out of breath. She’d basically been moving every second since she’d arrived on the other side of the portal, either running for her life or searching for a way to stay hidden or running away from the police.

You’re already too late, world. The portal is closed. You can’t send me back for thirty moons. I’m going to learn magic, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Of course, she’d wandered in such a confusing path that Sunset realized she’d been there before. She stopped on a street corner, looking up at the Star Bucks in horror. She’d waved goodbye to Mocha standing outside this very building. And now, after hours and hours, she was right back where she started.

I can ask her for directions. She’ll be able to help me.

Sunset gritted her teeth, then marched straight up to the building. Her walking was still a little awkward, and she smacked one of her hooves on the curb between the road and the sidewalk. She just hissed, sucking in a breath and ignoring the pain. For not having feet, that can really hurt.

She walked into the coffee shop, and let the familiar atmosphere wash over her. There were soft lights, wood floors, and a single saxophone player in the corner filling the shop with a casual, sophisticated ambiance. Ponies sat around low tables or couches, sipping at their drinks and reading newspapers. Sunset could’ve sworn some of the items on the menu had the same name too.

At least there wasn’t much of a line. Sunset walked around the queue right to the front, where Mocha greeted her with a smile. “Somepony’s got a new look.”

“You recognized me,” Sunset muttered, wincing slightly. “I was trying to… to change more.”

“What did you say… one of those faces? Let’s go with that.” She grinned, looking her over from the other side of the counter. “Did you just come to chat, or…”

“No, I need a drink for sure,” Sunset breathed, fishing around beside her for the bag of bits. She’d discovered since the pawn shop that her neck could stretch quite a bit further than she would’ve expected, far enough that she could grab the bits in her teeth and set them on the counter. “I want, uh… a pumpkin spice Frappuccino with two pumps of vanilla.”

Mocha covered up a laugh with the back of one hoof, loud enough that a few ponies from their benches and tables actually looked up. “Sweet Celestia how did I know you were going to say something like that. One… pumpkin spice Frappuccino, coming right up. For… Moonrise, right?”

“Moonrise,” Sunset repeated, watching Mocha scribble it up on the cup. Isn’t that gross, using the pen in your mouth like that? But there was no way to ask, not without standing out as even stranger than she already was.

She took her bits, and Sunset wandered off to find a seat. There weren’t very many open tables, but she found one near the window, so she could sit and watch the street. Outside, the building was dark enough that she knew ponies wouldn’t be able to look in and see her. At least this way she’d know if there were guards out there.

So far as coffee shops went, “Star Bucks” wasn’t fast. Sunset heard several more customers come in and order, and she still hadn’t got her drink yet. She took off her saddlebags, trying to find a comfortable way to use the pony table.

“How are you doing that?” asked a tiny voice from behind her. Sunset blinked, and she looked down. It was a unicorn, bright green with a minty mane and a heavy bookbag over her shoulder.

“How am I doing what?’ she asked. The little pony didn’t have a mark—it didn’t seem polite to ask why.

“Sitting like that. Your back is…” The pony winced. “Does that hurt?”

“Oh, uh…” Sunset looked around the room, and realized she wasn’t the only pony staring at her. Every other group of ponies was sitting mostly on the floor, leaning forward like they were animals. But Sunset, she’d sat up with her back straight, rotating her hips around to accommodate what would’ve been a perfectly natural way of sitting.

Except now that she thought about it, it was terribly uncomfortable. Her lower back was already sore. So much for taking a break. “I guess it is a silly way to sit.” She slumped forward like all the others, and it was like she’d vanished again.

The little green pony made a sad sound, then wandered off to her own table. Sunset watched her go to join her friends—a bunch of other little unicorns in a dejected circle—and finished her drink.

No guards came to arrest her, even after the cup was finished and she refilled it with water instead. Most of the crowd vanished as the peak hour passed by and Sunset was one of the few ponies left in the shop.

Enough that Mocha sat down beside her. “Room for me?” She didn’t actually wait for an answer before taking the other seat. “You look like a pony who’s got something on her mind.”

“You can say that again,” Sunset muttered, flicking her cup a little further away on the table. Though the paper was designed a little differently, its purpose was unmistakable. So many differences in this world, yet so many things were the same.

“You look like a pony who’s got something on her mind.”

Sunset turned to glare at Mocha. “I’m a joke then, I guess.”

Mocha shrugged. “You looked like you needed to smile. I’m guessing you don’t get to very often.”

“Not… recently,” she admitted.

“Do I want to know?” She looked Sunset’s new mane up and down, then sidelong at the skirt. “Looks like you went through… quite the change.”

“Safer if you don’t,” Sunset said. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but… the less you know, the better off you’ll be.”

“Well…” Mocha sighed. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. I probably can’t solve the problems of a big important pony like you, but…”

“Just… directions to the train station,” Sunset said. “I think I need to get away from Canterlot. Clear my head. Then… maybe I’ll remember why I came here in the first place. Once I’m sure I’m not going to go crazy…”

“Sure, I can give you directions.” Mocha settled one hoof on her shoulder. “But, Moonrise. No matter where you go, you should remember. You’ll still be you when you get there. Whatever gave you trouble here in Canterlot is going to be on the train with you.”

“I… yeah.” She whimpered, sniffed, then looked away. It’s too late for me, Mocha. I can’t go back to my family. And if they ever figure out what I did, they wouldn’t want me to anyway. I’m better off as a statistic. Until I finally find what I’ve been looking for, and come back to shove it in their faces. “I still need to get on the train. And thanks, Mocha. You’re… nicer than I deserve.”

She heard the voice of the caller as she emerged onto the main road again, where she could clearly see the train station visible below. This was obviously a center of activity for Canterlot, with a massive square packed with ponies and carts. Ponies lined the side of the road, selling souvenirs, snacks, or just asking for donations.

But one group attracted her attention far more than others.

“New discoveries, new frontiers, limits of magical thought never imagined! Be a part of Equestria’s next big discovery! Have your name in the history books, be the first to learn the next generation of incredible spells!”

Sunset stopped walking, turning to inspect the caller and his group. They were a rugged bunch of ponies, some of the few she’d ever seen wearing pants. They were mostly stallions, gathered near the back of the train around crates of supplies marked “Expeditionary.” But for as interesting as their suggestions sounded, most ponies seemed to be hurrying past them. Instead of running away, Sunset cut through the crowd, so she could hear a little better.

“The Royal Archeological Society has sponsored another expedition! Sail with us to the ends of Equestria and beyond! Hazard pay included.” Then he noticed her, focusing in her direction like an aimed spotlight. “You, miss! You have the look of a pony who’s done with convention! A pony who’s not afraid to see the world expand! Don’t you want to be part of something bigger than yourself?”

She nodded. She wasn’t yelling, not with so many eyes on her. Most of the crowd seemed relieved that this pony was ignoring them—ponies sped up to get past the group a little faster, eyes down and ears flat.

The male might’ve been attractive, if he’d been human. Tall, muscular, with a sweaty smell that suggested a physical occupation or long visits to the gym. The sort of guy freshman Sunset never would’ve imagined even looking at her. “Then you’ve come to the right place! The Royal Archeological Society needs brave ponies just like you to join our expedition!”

“How much?”

He told her. It was less than she had—she’d have to work for months to earn as much as was already sitting in her pockets. But I don’t care about money. I just need to get out of the city as quick as possible. “I’m not an archeologist,” she said. “I don’t have a degree or anything.”

“No, no.” He waved a dismissive hoof in her direction. At least he wasn’t screaming anymore. “We have the best expedition leader in Equestria—and plenty of research assistants. We’re looking for ponies to do practical work. Cooking, hauling, camp maintenance. It’s not glamorous work on its own, but you’ll be pushing the future of—”

“Where do I sign?”

It took a few hours to get underway. Sunset waited along with the other recruits, hiding in the fortress of boxes as guard after guard passed by. A few looked in at her, seemed to see her mane, then went back to what they were doing. These guards are not very good at finding spies, are they? There was no ID check, no inspection waiting at the train. She just went in with the rest of the group, into the very last car.

Apparently the “Royal Archeological Society” hadn’t paid for an actual passenger car for the expedition, but had rented an entire cargo car and expected their people to use the extra space between the boxes.

“Settle in for a long trip!” Gangplank announced, slamming the metal door closed behind them. “We’re going all the way to San Franciscolt, that’s where the boat is waiting. From here, it’s about… twenty hours. We’ll do supper in a few hours, restroom is in the passenger cars.”

Sunset was the only girl of the new recruits, though Gangplank had a stern-looking assistant with bat wings and a constant scowl. She scowled at Sunset whenever she looked, just like she scowled at everything else.

“We’re not resting,” she said, before Gangplank had finished. “Don’t get comfortable, new blood. I need to interview each of you—get your skills, your work assignments. Be honest with me, or you’ll be digging latrines until the expedition ends.”

Uh oh.

At least the pony didn’t choose her first. Sunset found herself a corner between two crates, and kept her saddlebags right in front of her, where she could easily open them to start reading. She didn’t dare open them yet though, in case they saw. Those books were obviously not meant for adults, and Polaris wouldn’t be impressed with that.

There weren’t windows exactly in the cargo car, but there were a few ventilation slots, giving them a view of the mountains and sky as they blurred past outside. Sunset watched Canterlot vanish into the distance as they turned a corner and approached a tunnel, leaving the city behind.

Goodbye portal. Goodbye castle. I’ll be back in three years, with all the magic I’ve learned. Her parents would probably have forgotten about her—she’d be declared dead, failed all her classes… but none of that would matter. Her world wouldn’t be the same once she brought magic into it, and she would be the one to do it. She’d be in the history books after this.

“Hello, hello. If you’re asleep, wake up.” Polaris plopped down in front of her, pulling over a crate. The bat wore an oversized hat, similar to those of ancient British explorers, though there were cutouts for her ears. She had a worn clipboard in front of her, and a well-chewed pencil in her mouth.

“I’m awake.” Sunset sat up, resting her back against one of the crates.

“We’ll see.” The pony glanced her sheet up and down. “You didn’t put much on here. Gangplank let you sign up with this?”

She nodded. “Guess you really need help.”

The bat’s eyes narrowed as she said it, but Sunset wasn’t intimidated. No matter how she looked, this was still an adorable little horse with tiny little fangs and slitted eyes. Did she honestly think she could scare Sunset like that?

The bat was first to blink. “Gangplank was right about that—we do need help. But it’s not the kind of thing that gets you famous, most of the time. What can you do?”

“Basic stuff,” Sunset answered. “I can cook, err… clean. Organize.”

“Mess duty, good enough.” She got up. “But if I don’t like what you serve, I’ll move you to sanitation. Got it?”

“Got it,” Sunset answered. It wasn’t as though she would’ve been afraid, except… I don’t know what kind of food ponies like to eat. Hay fries had been excellent, but that was street food. That didn’t seem like the sort of thing they’d be eating here.

She had little other interruption, and was finally free to extract one of the books from her bag and start studying.

Levitation was apparently one of the most basic abilities of all unicorns, something that nearly all adults could access. It hadn’t been the miracle she thought when she saw it at the pawn shop—it was just the minimum. The entire first book was about levitation, describing the techniques for focusing on one object, improving her strength so she could lift more or for longer. There were drills, exercises, group activities…

Sunset couldn’t do most of it, not without attracting attention. But she could practice levitation simple enough. Everyone else here seemed so determined to sleep the trip away, that Sunset could start with the first exercise. She picked a flat surface, took one of the golden bits the ponies used as currency, and tried to push it.

Outside the train, Sunset watched as the whole country went by. She recognized much of the climates she saw—the flat, endless fields of the Midwest, transitioning into scrubland, plains, and then desert as they kept going west. I need to get my hands on a map. I wonder how similar this world is to mine.

The train stopped many times, waiting as long as an hour in the hot sun while regular passengers got on or cars further up were switched. Sunset considered just stepping out and vanishing into the station of one of the pony towns beyond, but ultimately dismissed it. Polaris watched her like a hawk whenever she got near the doors, and anyway leaving would mean she’d be giving up an easy opportunity to learn in a low-risk environment. I don’t know how serious that Princess Celestia is about finding me. Being with this expedition will take me too far from civilization.

It took Sunset almost twenty hours to see the coin move for the first time. She felt the slight buzz from her horn, like a change in air pressure. A glow appeared around the coin, just like the curtains in the castle.

I’m doing it! The coin bumped into the edge of the crate, stopped glowing. But that didn’t matter—Sunset wouldn’t have cared if the coin exploded at that point. She’d done magic.

In all her years searching for magic, she’d never seen anything so concrete. So much she read about was vague, like she had to believe in the spell for it to do anything. But this—this was real, obvious, impossible to deny. This was the kind of magic she could bring back to Earth, shove in everyone’s faces, and make them see.

It could even help make up for not having hands! Unicorns had an unfair advantage—what if she’d been an earth pony? What did they even have?

The train came to a stop, and the door banged open. Cold air smelling of dead fish wafted in. She could make out the distant outline of the ocean there, with seagulls flying far ahead.

They were in a port, surrounded by huge wooden boxes and crates. No robotics or metal shipping boxes, as she might’ve expected in her own world.

“The ship is waiting,” Gangplank said, hopping out of the car and shaking himself out. “Four days sail to Isla Colas. Your breakfast is waiting aboard, as soon as we get all these boxes up that ramp.”

Sunset followed his hoof, looking down the long road to the water. There was a single ship visible at the docks down there, looking like something out of the civil war. It had a corroded metal shell, with a single tall smokestack and two gigantic sails. There was already a ramp leading up into the back—where their cargo would be going.

Sunset wasn’t much help getting things loaded. Polaris took her and one other unicorn straight down to the ship, where they waited to start tying down boxes as they came in. Except that Sunset couldn’t use her magic well enough, so instead of helping the other unicorn she served only to get in his way, not moving the rope at all, except sometimes pushing it away from her.

“I’ll just do it,” Anchor Bend barked, shoving her towards the back of the ship. “Not everypony knows what they’re doing with knots, it’s fine.”

There was plenty of empty space in the cargo hold when they finally finished packing in all the boxes, filling Sunset’s mind with dread of where they’d be sleeping that night. But that wouldn’t exactly be different from anything she’d endured so far.

The Chrysanthemum didn’t have anything close to enough berths for everyone, but it did have hot food and a hotter shower. By the time she was finished, the Chrysanthemum was underway and a crew-member pointed her back towards the cargo bay. Most of the crew were already there, choosing the best parts of the room to hang their hammocks. The most valuable spots seemed to be the ones closest to the huge air-intake at the top of the cargo bay, which meant of course that only the empty corners near the ground were available.

“Here.” Gangplank tossed her a bundle. “Find somewhere you like. It’s a two day trip, so don’t break it before tomorrow.”

“I hope there’s… somewhere real waiting for us,” Sunset said, catching the bundle under one hoof. But she didn’t sound angry anymore, not after getting cleaned up. She felt like a real person again after two days in a tiny train car. Now it was time for two more days in a tiny boat.

“There’s already a large camp waiting, and we’ve got provisions for everypony,” he answered. “But it’s not a luxury hotel. We’ve got cots and sleeping bags.”

“That’s fine, thanks.” She wandered off, into the lowest corner of the cargo bay where the smell of exhaust collected in a near-visible cloud and the ground was perpetually damp. She hung up her saddlebags by a metal cargo hook, then spent several minutes struggling to tie off the hammock the same way.

“Hey, you need help with that?” asked a pony from the other side of a row of boxes. A yellowish pegasus, with a mane almost the same colors as she had dyed hers. “You look like you’re having a hard time.”

“Yeah.” Sunset slumped back, ears flattening. “Is it too obvious that I’m helpless? I’m helpless.” The other half of the hammock slid off the hook right as she said it, splashing into the water at her hooves and getting all over her freshly-washed coat. “Fantastic.

“Here.” The pony moved past her, all warmth and muscle. He lifted into the air, using his mouth to loop the end of the hammock into place on one hook, then another. “Headache? Or just not been one for magic?”

“Little a, little b,” Sunset answered. “Thanks for the help, uh…”

“Flash,” he said. “Flash Sentry.” He offered his hoof for her, as though she were supposed to take it.

“Moonrise,” she answered. She didn’t have fingers to shake his hand, but he didn’t have a hand, so… she just touched hooves, and that seemed to be good enough.

“What brings a pony like you out on an expedition to the edge of Equestria?” he asked, settling down onto a nearby box without invitation. “I shouldn’t assume, but… you look like you’d be happier in Canterlot’s club circuit. Out here… there isn’t going to be much of that.”

“I know!” She glared at him, though she couldn’t find the energy for much anger. Flash had just helped her. Not only that, but he was also about her age, and not overwhelmingly huge like most of the other guys. Do not even think about it, Sunset. You are talking to a horse. Put that thought right out of your head. “I came out here because I’m looking for adventure. Magic is… amazing, but Canterlot… wasn’t treating me right. Thought maybe I’d have better luck out here.”

“Oh.” He nodded knowingly. “I know that feeling. Royal Guard is a nightmare—they won’t hire you without experience, but no one else in town will give me experience without a reference like the Royal Guard to get me hired. But protecting an expedition on an island can’t be too hard, right? Just… a bunch of archeologists and some tents. Nopony’s lived there for generations… should be simple.”

“What do Royal Guards usually protect ponies from?” Sunset asked, her voice cautious. The question might be a little too obvious, but she couldn’t resist. What’s he going to do now? We’re already on a boat bound for nowhere. And he obviously doesn’t know anybody important if he has to work here.

“Not a lot,” he admitted. “Other ponies mostly, but not very often. There aren’t very many criminals in Equestria. Less and less every year.” He hesitated for another second, then. “And what made you want to join? Unicorn like you doesn’t need to… peel potatoes to get a reference.”

She shrugged. “I wanted to see as far as magic could go. See the end of the world… learn something that nobody else knows. And make sure everybody who thought I couldn’t regrets doubting me.”

“O-oh.” He hopped down from the crate, nodding weakly to her. “Well, uh… guess I’ll see you in camp, when we get there.”

“Yeah.” She let him go, then slumped into the hammock with her book for more study. This trip would take a few more days, and she was determined to master levitation by the time they arrived.

Chapter 5: Isla Colas

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If the world through the portal was the same geographically as the one Sunset had left behind, it got harder to tell during a sea voyage. Sunset spent much of her time aboard the Chrysanthemum’s deck, reading or practicing the suggested levitation drills. While up there, she saw basically the same empty ocean stretching away in all directions. Occasionally an angry member of the crew told her to move so they could work the sails, but she soon found the places she wouldn’t disturb them.

She gave up on wearing her clothes much after the second day. She hadn’t had the time to buy a second outfit, and besides, nobody cared. They were all naked themselves, even the captain of the Chrysanthemum just had his fancy hat. As much as it made her ears flatten whenever she thought about it…

There weren’t very many other “ponies” her age, so Sunset spent meals together with Flash. He was good enough company, if a tad naive, and prone to getting them into awkward conversations about details of her life she couldn’t give him without revealing the truth.

Then they arrived. The island was something straight out of Jurassic Park, with huge stony coasts on one side and thick jungles of tropical flowers stretching away from harsh beaches. They circled around the island for some time, until they found a natural harbor and the makeshift dock ponies had built there.

In Sunset’s world, an island like this would be covered with resorts and other vacation destinations. Here there was a tin-roofed warehouse by the dock and a trail made of gravel and felled trees.

“Welcome to Isla Colas,” Gangplank said, once the strong ponies had unloaded all their crates into the empty warehouse. “Our camp is on the other side of the island, so we have a bit of a walk. The few of you with wings, don’t think you can fly ahead and get there first—everypony will be hauling. It’s not a short trip, so conserve your strength.”

“Beautiful place, isn’t it?” Flash asked, from beside Sunset in the back of the line. “I hope the camp is near the beach. I’ve never seen the ocean look so… friendly.”

“Maybe,” Sunset agreed. “That would be nice.” Of course, Sunset doubted she would be able to surf during her time in Equestria, not without fingers. The constant nudity might be an advantage while swimming, or it might make the problem of sand ten times worse. Don’t think about it Sunset. You’re here for the mysteries of the unseen world, not skinny dipping with boys.

By the time they made it to the front of the line, there was only a single cart left. Polaris looked them both over, then rolled her eyes. “Well, neither of you is an earth pony, so… guess you can pull it together. Put your saddlebags into the cart, I’ll get you hooked in.”

It was as primitive as primitive could be, with solid wooden wheels that looked like they’d been carved from the local jungle trees. The cart would not have seemed out of place in a medieval village, except for the four more modern wooden crates inside.

“You don’t have one,” Sunset pointed out.

“I don’t,” Polaris agreed, voice flat. “Now get over here so I can hook you both in. Complain again and you can pull it alone.”

Sunset doubted she could pull it alone, but she didn’t argue that point. I probably don’t want to piss her off too bad. That ship is the only way off the island. Princess Celestia isn’t going to be able to find me out here. I can stay hidden as long as it takes for them to forget about me.

Soon enough they were trudging through the jungle, at the very back of the group. What Sunset had taken at first for a stunningly beautiful island filled with flowers and life she’d never seen before quickly turned into a miserable place, where she was constantly sweating and barely strong enough to pull the cart. Where the ponies ahead of them could easily take the same amount of cargo with barely any effort, her and Flash together could only just keep it rolling. Every slight slope or steep turn was another struggle, straining against the worn harness and pulling for dear life.

“Can’t believe… those other guys are so good at this…” Sunset wheezed, coughing and spluttering every second. “They don’t even slow down!”

“Earth ponies,” Flash answered, only a little more comfortable than she was. “They’re built for it. I’ve heard earth ponies can… move whole houses.”

Maybe Sunset should have been watching her words a little closer—but she was exhausted, covered in mud and slime, and her level of “care” had depleted to critical levels. “Why… are ponies so different, anyway? You’re all the same species, but… only you can fly, only I can do magic, and I guess only they have super strength. Doesn’t feel… very fair.”

“Fair?” Flash repeated. He slowed to look at her, and the whole cart nearly came to a stop. Sunset had to struggle forward a few more steps to keep it moving, tugging on Flash with the harness to remind him not to stop. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anypony talk about it… that way before.”

“Maybe they should. Your powers are… interesting, but it seems like they’re made to complement each other. None of you is the full set.”

“Alicorns are,” he answered, though he was still watching her intently. “But I think that’s why everypony says friendship is so important. Your friends can make up for your weaknesses, and you can make up for theirs. Like pulling this… neither of us could do it alone.”

Sunset nodded. “Maybe. Doesn’t… feel much like we should be doing it at all. Ponies like that can make another trip without even blinking. Look at them, they’re not even sweating.”

Flash shrugged. He didn’t answer after that, and Sunset wasn’t exactly upset. It took enough of her energy just to move that she couldn’t think about talking much anyway.

She couldn’t have said how long the trip took. Hours and hours for sure, and at times the ponies ahead of them were completely hidden by the trees. Only the thin path was any sign of the direction for them to go.

By the time they reached the camp, the rest of the carts had already been unloaded. The unicorn from earlier and Polaris were waiting by a makeshift dumping area, looking bored and annoyed. “Took you long enough.”

“As fast as… we could,” Sunset breathed. “How the hell did you do it?”

The unicorn shrugged. “Come to life spell. I wasn’t going to pull it myself.”

“Oh, of course,” Sunset repeated. “I should’ve just animated the wood to roll itself around. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“You made it,” Polaris said. “Let’s get that harness off you. Tent assignments were done while you two were gone, so you both got assigned. You’re in G.”

Sunset followed her hoof to the dumpy-looking tent at the very edge of camp, facing the jungle. Of course it is. Wait a minute, tents are coed? But Flash wasn’t reacting, and neither of these ponies seemed to think it was unusual either. Oh god we’re sharing a tent.

“Mess is there, Moonrise. Your first work shift is tomorrow. Flash, armory is there, same thing. Get lots of sleep, we wake up early.” And they left. Sunset retrieved her saddlebags, then joined Flash to eat from the dregs at camp mess.

Apparently she wouldn’t have a very high bar to climb, as the meal waiting for her was a mashed barley stew. Even her horse mouth thought it was barely edible, and the other members of camp seemed to think so too.

But Flash didn’t complain, not even once. “All the way to Isla Colas,” he said, once they’d brought their trays to a back table in the mess tent. There were oil lamps to light the place, casting an orange glow over everything that made Sunset’s body even yellower. “And now the hard parts are over. Now we get to make a difference.”

“If they let us,” Sunset answered. “I’m starting to realize why they were having such a hard time recruiting. This is like… a work camp. Something that the Japanese might’ve set up for POWs during World War 2.”

“I have… no idea what you just said,” Flash muttered. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be eating with the research assistants?”

She kicked him under the table. “I’m not that kinda smart. It’s better to learn by doing than just… surround yourself with books all day. Guess that’s why I’m out here. Wonder what ruins they’re excavating that it was worth bringing so many people so far away from civilization.”

“You… don’t know?” Flash’s eyebrows went up.

“I don’t.” She glowered at him from across the table. “You’re making me regret telling you that.”

“Alright!” He put his hooves up defensively. “I didn’t follow it too closely for the magical side. Mostly I was interested in the, uh… the monsters. Supposedly the ancient ponies could build these clay monsters that come to life when we break in. The spells still work, after all these years. That’s the reason so few ponies wanted to come out here. Something happened during the first excavation, and nopony made it out.”

“Golems,” Sunset supplied. “They made golems.” That’s possible? How many old legends were really just about the world on the other side of the portal? Maybe it was all possible.

“Yeah, I think that’s right. Apparently there used to be ponies on this island, a long time ago. There are some ruins here and there. It’s some kind of… forge, I think. Or maybe a factory? I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. But it was impressive magic for sure.”

“Perfect. I came here to see some magic for myself. A factory… I guess that works.”

Despite having last choice, their tent was nothing too bad. At least the cot didn’t rock back and forth, and she could get some decent sleep. But ponies were as much creatures of smell as sight, and the smell of a guy so close was a little distracting. I can’t look over there, can’t look over there, can’t look over there…

The next morning, Sunset woke with the bell like everyone else and reported to the mess tent. Instead of gruel, like they’d eaten the night before, Sunset prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns. By lunchtime, many of the crew had already learned her “name.”

“That was great,” one of the archeologists said, passing a tray of dirty plates across the counter to her. “I’m glad they managed to find a cook.”

“Y-yeah.” Sunset laughed awkwardly. “Me too.”

Her work wasn’t glamorous—most of her time was spent either preparing the next meal or washing thirty people’s worth of dishes. But compared to hauling carts through the jungle, Sunset would sign up for it any day.

Besides, the only other kitchen worker was happy to foist all the work on Sunset, which meant she had plenty of time alone to practice her levitation. It took her a week or so into the expedition to actually lift something for the first time. Another week beyond that to move anything heavier than a salt-shaker. But she was improving, and that was what mattered.

She hollowed out the other book she’d bought, using it to hold whichever of the child’s “intro to spellcasting” texts she happened to be studying at the time. Unfortunately they proved to go into magic far less than she’d hoped. The second book was only about more advanced levitation and some basic light spells, when she hoped it would’ve already been getting deeper into the mechanics and lore of how magic worked.

Being around ponies was at least a chance to learn a little more about them. For all they were naked most of the time, they weren’t all that different from the people in the world Sunset had left behind. They didn’t have a democracy or very advanced technology, but they didn’t seem to be missing either.

“I’m going into the Guard after this,” Flash said one evening, over Sunset’s latest experiment with wheatberries and potatoes. “A few more months, and we’ll be back home. I’ll be a veteran then, one of the few ponies who braved a dangerous expedition into the wilderness.”

“Dangerous,” Sunset repeated, hastily stashing her child’s book in her saddlebags. She kept them hanging on a hook in the kitchen at all times, where she could keep an eye on them. She’d brought more money on this trip than most of the ponies were making. “I haven’t even seen a bobcat out in the forest. I don’t think this island has any predators.”

“Oh, sure. Not that kind of danger. But there are monsters in the ruins. I was talking to Mudbrick yesterday, and he swore he could hear voices while they were digging. They’re getting close to something. As soon as they get it open…”

Sunset heard it then, almost as though it had been called by Flash’s words. A distant, guttural roar, echoing through the jungle and the tents. It sounded artificial somehow, mechanically amplified. And close.

“That was the dig site.” Flash rose to his hooves, knocking over the stool in his rush to put his armor back on. Nothing compared to the stuff that ponies back in Canterlot wore—this was really just a thickly padded vest and a helmet, along with a sharpened wooden stick as a weapon. But he grabbed them all the same. “I’ll be back.”

“Be careful,” Sunset said. “It’s probably nothing, though. Sound is… easier to make than a monster.”

“Y-yeah.” He left through the back door, waving with one wing.

Sunset walked out a few steps, around the corner that separated the counter from the mess tent. Like every night, they had been eating last, and so the only ponies left in mess were relaxing. There were cards out on tables, musical instruments and little mugs of alcohol rations. Rations that Sunset didn’t get, despite having lied about her age. Stupid ponies.

The ground under Sunset’s hooves shook, violently enough that a few of her spice bottles tumbled off the counter. Ponies out in the mess tent stood up, huddling closer together with their nervous fear. It’s okay, it’s probably nothing, was her first thought. But it didn’t linger long. You came out here looking for magic, stupid. What did you think you would find?

What if something makes it this far? Sunset’s eyes scanned over the kitchen—there were plenty of sharp objects in here she might’ve been able to use, if only her magic were a little stronger. But it wasn’t—Sunset could lift one thing if she concentrated quite intently on it, but the instant it met resistance she would drop it. She could barely cut veggies, she certainly wasn’t going to be able to stab something that broke into the tent.

Maybe someone else knows how to defend themselves? Sunset crouched low, looking out into the mess tent at the research assistants and digging ponies packing into an increasingly tight herd. Ponies twice her size with muscles as big around as her neck were cowering like children.

Flash had said that this was part of the reason ponies didn’t want to come out here. Maybe there was truth to that—maybe the danger was too intense.

Something tore through the front of the mess tent, so violently that the entire entrance collapsed in torn cloth and splintered wood. One of the lanterns fell to the ground, shattered, and the canvas started burning.

In the shadowy gloom a creature emerged from the dark, a creature that stood on two legs. Its body was rough, with only the general suggestion of arms and legs. Whole sections of its torso were missing, and the strange substance it was made from crumbled away as it moved.

It had no true eyes, and instead had gigantic rubies where eyes would be. Its head searched the room, scanning around wildly before settling on Sunset.

A brave camp hand pony tossed a chair in its direction—the stool shattered as it hit, knocking away chunks of clay as it did so, but not even slowing the monster down. Ponies scattered, some ran, but most just cowered as smoke began to fill the tent. You idiots!

Why is it coming for me? Sunset Shimmer turned and ran for her saddlebags, reaching in with her mouth past the money wrapped in scrap cloth and bandage to the hard plastic box at the bottom. It seemed oversized to her now, her mouth could barely get around the handle. Strange how immune to magic this thing was.

Behind her, the monster moved right through the serving counter, shattering its glass top and spraying scraps of broken wood all over the place. It roared—the same guttural sound that pierced the night. Only now it was right behind her, demanding.

Sunset pushed the plastic locks open with her hoof, shaking every second as the monster bore down on her. It was a good thing it wasn’t in a hurry, or she would probably be dead already.

The box popped open. Inside, her father’s Glock 22 service pistol, with his name engraved on a little plaque in the back of the case. The magazine was already loaded.

Sunset lifted the gun into the air using her feeble magic, turning on the creature. Her eyes widened and she nearly dropped it immediately in surprise as soon as she saw just how close it was. Knives, plates, and spatulas from the kitchen had all embedded into its body as it approached, totally oblivious to anything else in the world.

“Get out!” Sunset screamed, and for once she found the object she was holding didn’t droop in her magic. Her concentration didn’t matter when her blood ran thick with adrenaline. “Get out of my kitchen!”

The creature roared again, extending one of its arms towards her. It didn’t speak—the opening it had for a mouth didn’t seem to connect with anything.

Sunset didn’t have more time to try and reason with it, or get away. She took aim for its head, flicked off the safety, and started shooting. The night cracked with shot after shot as she emptied all fifteen rounds in the magazine directly into the monster’s head from point-blank range. Most of them did nothing, passing through the dried clay with as little effect as everything else. But then came her last bullet, striking one of the gem-eyes directly.

The ruby shattered like glass dropped on the pavement, spraying little chunks of red out around it and cratering the clay of the monster’s face.

The creature gurgled and lurched forward towards her with one arm, then crumbled to the ground, motionless.

A little trail of smoke rose from the end of Sunset’s gun as it clicked empty, brass surrounding her on the kitchen floor. Then ponies started cheering.

The night was a blur after that—Sunset was dimly aware of the firefighting efforts, and the cleanup of the mess tent. There was much attention to the camp’s guards, many of whom had been badly hurt trying to stop the creature from making it in. Flash was among those who ended up with a cot in the medical tent, all wrapped up in bandages but in good spirits despite it all.

All the while ponies cheered Sunset’s false name, clasping her on the back and offering her gifts for what she’d done. “You stopped it when nopony else could,” they said. “You’re a hero.”

Well, almost everypony. Polaris called her to her private tent so late into the night that Sunset could see the first creeping orange feelers of dawn through the trees.

Polaris had a tent all by herself close to the dig site, though by some coincidence it hadn’t been one of those hit as the monster rampaged through camp. Sunset stumbled inside, bleary with exhaustion and relief, and stopped dead. Where she’d expected a cot and maybe a folding desk, this interior was like stepping into a rich gentleman’s parlor. There were thick carpets on the floor, a little stove in the center with fresh logs to keep the place warm, real wooden furniture, and plenty of maps, books, and diagrams. The desk that dominated most of the space looked like it would’ve taken two of the huge cargo crates on its own.

“Damn,” Sunset muttered, stopping in the entrance and staring around at everything. “This is… not what I was expecting.”

“We’ve both made some errors in judgement,” Polaris said, walking past her and ducking around the desk. “But after tonight… I think you’re just what I’m looking for.”

Oh crap. What have I gotten myself into now?

“Was this what you were expecting?” came Polaris’s voice from behind the desk. Cloth and fabric fell away from her as she rose. The bat’s entire body crumbled. But there wasn’t another monster inside, perhaps the one that had been leading the entire expedition. She was just a pony, yellowish with a monochrome mane. She posed in front of her, as though expecting Sunset to recognize her.

“I, uh… no, it wasn’t.” She blinked. “You’ve… actually got different wings?”

“You must not read much,” the pegasus said, exasperated. “That’s fine, makes this easier. I’m Daring Do. Polaris is a persona… a way for me to keep the expedition running without anypony suspecting who I really am. The integrity of the dig would be compromised if ponies knew I was here. And… instead of getting only the bravest applicants, I would’ve got sycophants.” She gestured for Sunset to sit down across the desk, before pouring a few glasses of steaming tea. “What you did tonight, that was something special. Bravery like that shouldn’t be stuck in the kitchen making breakfast. Even if I will miss someone in there who knew what she’s doing.”

Sunset hardly had the magical energy left to sip from her tea. She did anyway, and it made her feel much better. It was something simple and herbal, but filled her with warmth with every sip. “You want to transfer me.”

“Excavation into the workshop complex is finished, but I haven’t found a way past the golem guards. I planned on luring that one out near a river so it would be washed away, but… as soon as it got outside, it forgot about me completely. I don’t know how much of the camp would be left if you hadn’t been here to stop it.”

I don’t know how much of me would be left, Sunset thought. A few hours hadn’t been enough to forget how laser-focused on her the golem had been. It didn’t seem to care about the ponies. It fought past all of them without even caring what they did to it. I wonder if it knows I’m not from here. What can it see that the ponies can’t? “I couldn’t let it hurt people. I was just doing what anyone else would’ve done.”

Daring Do laughed. “Everypony else cowered and hid. Or… the camp’s guards didn’t, but they couldn’t stop it. You did. I don’t know what kind of spell that was, but… I need someone with your skills. The workshop has at least one more guardian we’ll need to get past to get inside. Equestria deserves to get its history back.”

“Sounds… dangerous,” Sunset began. And I only have one more magazine left. So far as she knew, none of the ponies had actually seen what she did to it. They all just assumed that it was unicorn magic, ignoring all previous evidence of her struggling to manifest even simple levitation.

“Oh, yeah. It will be. The ancients knew the power of their secret magic, and they didn’t want it shared with just anypony. Everywhere like this is protected, so that only the ones they think are worthy can get inside. The ones who built the place would know where all the dangers are, all the passwords and traps… but we don’t, so all we can do is keep our heads down all the way in and hope they don’t have something set up to ‘destroy their knowledge rather than letting it fall into the wrong hooves.’ I’m about… thirty percent sure there’s nothing like that here.”

“If we find anything…” Sunset began. “Anything magical, I mean. And I help you. Can I study it too? Old books, old magic… do I keep any of it?”

Keep, no.” Her eyes grew stern. “Study, yes. The ponies who built this place are long gone, their culture’s forgotten. Nopony really knows why they came out here, or what they were doing. We’re bringing their story back to ponies. That means the stuff we find belongs in a museum. But you can be one of the first ponies to learn it with me. And… if it makes a difference, I won’t keep paying you like a cook. How about a percentage of our expedition’s revenue instead? Five percent?”

Sunset stuck out a hoof. “Ten, and you have a deal.”

Chapter 6: Daring

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Sunset hadn’t been allowed to see the dig site before. But now, after weeks of cooking and hauling and cleaning, she was finally allowed to walk the short trail up into the hills and see what was worth sending people so far into the wilderness to retrieve.

The ruins were located at the bottom of a valley, nestled into the peaks of Isla Colas so tightly that most would probably have walked past them within a hundred meters and never known what they were missing.

“Couldn’t have happened to a better pony,” Gangplank said, waiting at the ridge with the few camp guards that weren’t in the medical tent. “Good luck down there, Moonrise. Make the difference for us.”

Daring Do had given her only a single day to recover, and that wasn’t long enough for her fame from the attack to quite subside. Sunset smiled and waved to the pony, but she couldn’t help but feel awkward at all the praise. It attacked me. I hope that thing wasn’t drawn to me somehow. It wasn’t like the golem had let her stop it to ask for clarification.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she answered, adjusting her saddlebags awkwardly on her back. She’d removed everything she could to save weight, entrusting her bits to Flash for safekeeping. If there was any pony she could trust, he was the one.

She had the gun, with every bullet she had left already loaded and ready to fire. And once those bullets are gone, they’re gone. Sunset had seen nothing like firearms here in Equestria, nothing more advanced than spears and shields that the soldiers carried back in Canterlot. And most of those had seemed ceremonial.

The ruins were roughly horseshoe shaped, carved from the black basalt of the island. Stone steps had been carved into the rear face of the mountains, and they were one of the first parts the excavation had cleared, leaving a straight shot all the way down.

As Sunset got closer, she was surprised to see something far closer to Greek construction than South American. There were many columns, each one carved in the likeness of a dragon holding up the stone above it. They seemed to look out through the past at her, judgmental.

Beside the structure and its entrance to underground vaults beyond, there was a large tent she knew was for the archeologists based on the crowds of them going in and out. They carried wooden boxes between them, strainers, and other such tools. But Sunset wasn’t here to see any of them.

Assistant Fossil stopped her anyway, extending one leg to block the ramp into the ruins as she got closer. “Expedition leader said you could go in there?”

“Yeah,” she answered, annoyed. “Two nights ago, after I saved your lives?”

The pony made an exasperated sound, lowering her leg only reluctantly. “Don’t touch anything she doesn’t tell you to, while you’re in there.”

“I know,” she said. “I’ve been in museums before. Look, don’t touch. Simple.”

“Not simple,” Fossil said, glaring at her. “This isn’t a museum. This was a real site, used by our ancestors before the founding of Equestria. Almost nothing is known about that era. We don’t even know which of the tribes built this. Leading theories suggest it must be the pegasus ponies, as the sailing methods necessary to tack against the current hadn’t been developed. But there are some new—”

Sunset cleared her throat. “I won’t touch anything she doesn’t tell me to, promise.”

Fossil glared down at her for a few more seconds, before turning and stamping back into the tent to return to work. Sunset glanced inside only for a few seconds, at the ponies hunched close together, dusting off bits of pottery and other small relics. The crumbs. I’m here for a steak.

Even the thought of meat made Sunset’s mouth water. It had been almost a month since her arrival in Equestria now, and she’d never been served meat once. I might not be missing it as much if we had real food out here, instead of whatever I can throw together in a camp kitchen from the supply boats.

Sunset needed to focus. There was only a red ribbon across the entrance to the ruins now, along with a sign that “entrance was strictly prohibited.” Sunset ignored it, slid underneath, and reached down into her bag. Her camping headlamp was one thing that had transformed when she crossed the portal, in so much as it changed size so that it would fit on her pony head. Unfortunately her horn was right in the best place for a headlamp, so she had to wear it slightly on one side.

Sunset gripped it with her magic, twisting until bright white light shone out ahead of her. Unlike the bullets, she’d be able to recharge the flashlight. She had known she’d be stuck here for years, even if she hadn’t known there would be so many people.

The ruins became pitch black almost immediately. There were new lantern stands set up along the central path, though only one in the far distance had been lit.

Sunset glanced up at the nearest wall, and froze in momentary awe. There on the stone in front of her was an army of winged ponies, each one wearing armored breastplates and skirts and carrying rounded shields. And on the other side, thousands of evil-looking… things. Fish creatures, as hideous as they were disturbing. The ground behind them looked barren, villages burning and ponies dead. But the brave winged army flew on anyway.

Sunset reached into her saddlebags, removed her phone, and snapped a picture. The flash filled the entire dome with white for a second, before going out again. “Wonder what they’ll think of that.” She needed to take more selfies while she was here, and more pictures with the ponies she met. Even with all the magic I’ll be bringing back, they’ll never believe this.

Sunset continued forward into the ruins, towards the glow of light she knew would be near the “workshop.” Whole sections had been marked off with red ribbon, with little notes in Daring Do’s perfect script that read “THIS DIRECTION IS UNSAFE” or “DO NOT STEP ON DIAMOND TILES.” Sunset obeyed each piece of advice she found, and so there were no gigantic boulders or anything else derivative to crush her to death on her trip into the ruins.

She could see Daring Do waiting around the single lit lantern, already wearing an oversized hat and a toolbelt. The pony paced back and forth impatiently, until she noticed Sunset squeezing through the opening.

Through a collapsed tunnel that had been braced up with metal rods, Sunset emerged into a three-story chamber, built with another huge dome and layers of balcony overhead. The ground on the floor was terraced as well, like it had once been an amphitheater. The rows of benches were just stone slabs, worn polished by many butts.

“Sorry.” Sunset didn’t sound sorry. “I didn’t know it was such a long trail to this place. Got here as soon as I could.”

“I’m sure you did.” Daring Do looked her over with a single probing glance. “No tools?”

“Just this.” She lifted the gun with her magic. It seemed bigger than Sunset remembered on Earth, larger than a whole hoof. The metal was black and unadorned, and the English letters on the side were much easier to read.

“What’s that supposed to be? Some kinda… wrench?”

“Yeah,” Sunset agreed, tucking it away. “A wrench that stops things from hurting us.”

Sunset couldn’t have said if the pony could tell what she meant, or if she just realized that she didn’t want the answer. But either way, Daring Do nodded and pointed down at the “stage.” At the bottom of the amphitheater was an archway with a metal door. “Hey, that thing’s copper. It’s as green as Liberty.”

The pony didn’t react to that. “See the alcove there, next to the door? There’s another of those things. This one was buried deeper in the ruins, it doesn’t seem like it’s falling apart. I don’t think we’ll be able to beat it as easily.”

“The other one broke as soon as I shot its gems. I’m guessing those things are what keep it moving.”

“Oh, sure.” Daring Do rolled her eyes. “That’s easy. The ancients didn’t pick gemstones to put their spells in because they were pretty. They picked them because they’re tough. Now stay with me. There’s a chance that it won’t wake up when we get close. If it does, we need to have a plan. Just because you got lucky once, doesn’t mean we should go in unprepared.”

“Then wait.” Sunset tried to stop her, but she didn’t really know what she was doing. Even after a month in Equestria, her movement could be generously described as “trying very hard.” She flopped onto her face, then rose as quickly as she could, wiping the dirt away. “We already know we’re going to fight it. But that thing is just… standing there. Why don’t we figure out a way to break it before we set it off?”

“It might not attack us,” Daring Do answered as though it were obvious. “We shouldn’t hurt things that we don’t have to.”

It’s a miracle any of you ponies are still alive, Sunset thought. “The last one already did, that seems like enough evidence to me. We could, uh… oh! That clay isn’t baked, so… we could bring water up here. Maybe we could wash its body away! Or, uh… we could build a catapult, aim something really heavy right at its head? Or bring some ponies in with hammers.”

It seemed like a problem that could have easily been solved with real weapons. A bomb would probably take care of it, easy. But bombs weren’t something that Sunset could just make whenever she wanted. She knew how to cook, she wasn’t a crazy person.

“We can’t,” Daring Do said. “We can’t attack it if it doesn’t fight back, that wouldn’t be right. Just because the other one did… that isn’t how we do things. We’re not here to rob the place, despite what they think. We’re bringing the history back to ponies all over Equestria. It’s not a noble cause if we wreck everything on our way in. Now are you coming or not?”

Sunset came. She wasn’t even a little bit surprised when the clay creature’s eyes began to glow red as they neared.

It rose from the alcove, shaking dust and dried dirt away from its body. The spear it its thick “hands” crumbled away until only a rusty head remained. It tossed the spear aside, watching them. “GO… AWAY!” it bellowed, voice filling the cavern.

Sunset held the gun as steady as she could, taking careful aim.

“We’re here to study!” Daring Do responded. “We honor the memory of the ones who built this place. We’re here to resurrect it!”

“AWAY!” It charged, its massive bulk making the whole room shake. Sunset fired. The gun flashed, and the room rang with the echoes of gunfire one after another. Daring Do winced and withdrew, her ears flattening at the sound, but Sunset had been expecting it. Holes pierced the monster’s head, three before it could reach her. None struck the gemstones.

Then it reached her, and smacked Sunset at an upward angle with one of its arms. She went soaring through the air, screaming before smashing down into the benches with a crater of sand and dirt. Sunset’s head rang with the impact, and for a few seconds the whole world seemed to swim. She couldn’t focus on anything, could barely even see her own hooves.

“Hey, mud brain! Over here!” Daring Do flicked her whip through the air. The golem turned on her, seeming to lose interest in Sunset.

Where was the gun? Sunset whimpered, struggling to her hooves as she scanned the room. There was a glint of metal from near the door, and she started crawling for it behind the monster’s back. The gun hadn’t fallen far, it should still be working…

“Now would be a good time!” Daring Do called from across the room. “If you’re going to… do that whole saving thing, Moonrise? Any minute now!”

Sunset winced, then realized she was an idiot. She didn’t have to make it to the gun to pick it up! She grabbed at it with her magic, shaking off the dust from the barrel and spinning around. The golem was lifting Daring Do up into the air with one of its meaty paws, probably intending to smash her down on one of the stone benches. A blow that a horse light enough to fly probably wasn’t going to survive.

Sunset took aim again, and fired. Again came the blast of sound, filling the stone amphitheater. This time Sunset kept shooting, walking slowly forward and adjusting her aim with every shot just like her father had taught her. There was a sound like a dropped glass, and suddenly the creature stopped moving, as though it had been doused in liquid nitrogen.

Daring Do was still clutched in its hand, eyes wide as she stared out at Sunset. “That’s some wrench, unicorn. Does it have to be so loud?”

“Not anymore.” Sunset tossed it into her bag with a sigh. “It won’t work anymore. That was all fifteen extra bullets I brought. There… wasn’t supposed to be this much danger through here. I was kinda surprised that there was anything alive at all.”

“Great,” Daring Do said, glaring at her. “How about we wonder about the existential questions of life in the ruins after I escape its clutches?”

“S-sorry, yeah.” Sunset scanned the room for a minute, before locating a bit of wood that looked solid. She lifted it carefully in her magic, bracing it against the golem’s arm, then used her hooves to push. There was some resistance at first, but not much. The clay slid away, and as soon as it did, Daring Do dropped out between its arms.

She landed on her hooves, grinning. “Great job, Moonrise! That was the last one! The vault is ours.”

Sunset followed the pegasus in a dull haze, into the vault and its promised magic. But for all she’d been expecting, it looked more like an old factory than anything. It had been making armor once, with steampunk equipment like nothing she would’ve imagined on Earth. It had all long-since fallen to rust

Daring Do was excited, ranting about the various theories this proved or disproved, and what this would mean for Equestria’s academic scene. There were no books, not even old scrolls. Nothing that contained the magic that Sunset Shimmer had come through the portal for in the first place.

But that didn’t mean the expedition didn’t love her. “Polaris” spoke highly of her work in the ruins, making it safe for the helpless archeologists to finally go in and start cataloging. She promised a great reward, but Sunset didn’t really understand what bits were worth, or care.

At least she got herself a spot with the camp’s most important ponies that night, around a table where the alcohol rations finally flowed free, even to her. Hard cider apparently, from a farm near where her trip to Equestria had begun in the first place. Sunset liked it, and the slightly fuzzy feeling it left in her head with every sip.

“You’re… experienced, Polaris,” she said, only managing to keep from using the real name through force of will. If she hadn’t learned that name first… “I came out here, hoping I could find a specific kind of magic. It wasn’t here. Maybe you know where I could go?”

“Maybe.” Polaris’s tone was suddenly low, dangerous. Probably she was trying to signal something, but Sunset was too drunk for that now. “I’ve read a bit. What are you looking for?”

“Pretend there was a… place, somewhere far away. Someplace where magic hadn’t been for so long that people forgot what it was.”

“Okay.” Her eyebrows went up. The rest of the table seemed equally confused, though they had a different way of showing it. Sunset wasn’t just a cook anymore—there were rumors about who had really sent her, but she didn’t get the significance of S.M.I.L.E. or the Knights of the Pillars. “Hard to imagine, but fine. Place without any magic. You’re trying to find a dead zone?”

“No… I’m trying to find a way to help a place like that. Some kinda… spell, I guess, that you could cast, bring to a place like that so that everybody’s magic would come back. Like… fix the world.”

“Wouldn’t work,” Daring Do said. Her voice was so casual, so nonchalant, that it bit even deeper than it would’ve otherwise. “Magical dead zones exist. There’s one in the high arctic. Another one around Tartarus. Probably a few more nopony’s discovered. You can’t cast spells from in there. You can’t create new artifacts in there either. Magic creates more magic. When it fades away… it’s gone. Only an existing artifact would do you any good, and even then… it’s a gamble. Most ponies just steer clear. Not worth the risk to really study something like that.”

“Not worth the risk!” She stood up, glaring around the table. “It’s my home! Someone has to do something about it!” She turned, leaving them all behind.

Flash Sentry had been moved from the medical tent by then, already on the mend. He was at their tent, though he wasn’t asleep yet. He was still heavily bandaged, and one of his back legs was in a cast, but otherwise he seemed intact. He’d lit a lantern in the center of the tent, and was sitting up in his cot with a guitar. It was smaller than what she knew, and only had three strings, but… there was no mistaking it.

“Hey Flash.” She slumped forward onto her cot, burying her face in the crappy pony pillow.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, strumming a few simple chords. They weren’t familiar to Sunset—no human guitarist she’d known had ever made those sounds. But they sounded pleasant enough. “I thought you were with the director and the archeologists. Don’t they get double vegetable rations?”

“Because that’s the most important thing in the world.”

“What?” Flash leaned towards her. “I don’t speak bed.”

She rolled onto her back, glaring up at him. “Don’t be dumb. Yeah, they get double veggies. But they don’t get any steak.

Flash just looked blankly at her. “Like for putting up tents? What’s wrong with ours?”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “You ponies are so naive. Flash, how are you still around? You’ve got a magical world full of mysteries and dangers, but you’ve still got these cute little cities with pink glass and hearts in your doors. What sense does that make?”

“I…” Flash put the guitar down. “They gave you cider. Cute little unicorn like you… probably drank twice as much as she should’ve.”

“I am not cute!” She threw her pillow at him with her magic. Apparently harder than she meant to, because instead of just tapping Flash in the face, she smacked him right off the cot. He squealed briefly as he landed on the wooden deck with a thump, legs splayed awkwardly. “Ugh…. Owww.”

“Flash!” Sunset jumped to her hooves, or tried to. Instead of doing something useful, she tripped and flopped right onto the floor beside him, one of her legs caught under the others. She groaned. “Four legs does not get any easier with alcohol.”

“Fancy seeing you down here,” Flash muttered, glaring. “You didn’t have to smack me like that.”

“Sorry.” She rose, then offered her hoof to help him. It wasn’t an easy process—without hands, she had to bend the sensitive fetlock instead, and brace her body against his in ways that would’ve been intimate for a human.

“There.” Sunset deposited him back in his cot, heaving with effort. She didn’t even make it back to her own, just slumped onto the edge of the bed in a sitting position. “I didn’t mean to hit you that hard. Sorry… about…” The stupid smell. The air was thick with it, and it was making her almost as light-headed as the alcohol had. Heady, musky, with just a faint hint of ozone and static. That came from him being a pegasus.

“Yeah.” He glared up at her. Sunset had no idea how he could think so clearly around smells like that. Maybe I don’t do it. I’m not really one of them, so I don’t have their smells. “What upset you so much, Moonrise? You never acted this way before.”

“Frustration,” she muttered. “With…” She looked away from him, hastily switching back over to her bed. “I was hoping we’d find more here.”

“In the tomb, you mean?” Flash asked. He tried to sit up, winced, and only managed it halfway. “Or… I guess it wasn’t a tomb.”

“Workshop,” she muttered. “Yeah, no bodies. Just old machines. The boss was thrilled, and I guess everypony’s excited about bringing them back. Gonna be in the history books now.”

“That sounds great! Moonrise, you did way more than any of us. You helped get past the defenses, didn’t you? You fought something I couldn’t. You should be excited.”

“I wasn’t looking for just anything!” She landed on her hooves, her face just inches away from his now. “Flash, I came here looking for a specific kind of artifact. I knew my chances of finding it were slim, but that didn’t mean… I’ve been getting hopeful. Your world is so magical, I thought… it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to find what causes that. Coming out to the end of civilization is supposed to find world-shattering stuff, isn’t it? I guess I just got too used to things going my way.”

Your world,” Flash muttered, eyebrow raised. “You must’ve had more cider than I thought. What are you talking about?”

Sunset froze. If she was thinking a little clearer, she would probably have some answer to that. Her mind spun, reaching for something, anything through the haze of alcohol. And there was Flash, inches away, eyes insistent. And that smell…

Sunset knew what to do. She learned forward, and she kissed him.

It wasn’t exactly what she’d been expecting from her first kiss. Ponies were shaped differently, and her nose got in the way of doing what she’d always imagined. But that didn’t matter—he was attractive, the smell was surrounding her, and she didn’t really want to think. Maybe she didn’t have much of an instinct for moving around in her body, but… this was deeper. And Flash—he seemed like he’d been waiting for this moment. Only a split-second of surprise before he led her.

“Oh,” Flash whispered, when they’d finally broke apart. “That’s what you mean.”

It hadn’t been, but maybe she didn’t care.

Chapter 7: Sentry

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Instead of being packed into the cargo hold with the other help, Sunset got a cabin all to herself on the return voyage. Well, it was assigned to her, but she invited a certain stallion to share it with her just like their tent. Some part of her wondered if Daring Do had put the two of them together like that all along, after noticing their friendship during the trip over—but that was stupid. There was no reason for an important pony like her to care.

Sunset did a lot of stupid things during the trip over, but nothing teenagers before her hadn’t been doing for thousands of years. It got easier the more Flash Sentry healed, and it wasn’t as though there were many other distractions. Her one worry—the same worry as many girls in her position, probably, Flash dismissed with confusion.

“Moonrise, you can’t. That… only happens once a year. The chances of anything happening at a different time are… tiny.”

I think I’m going to leave this part out of my stories of the other world, Sunset thought later that night, when she’d made her way to the deck to watch the stars. They’re probably better off not knowing I had a boyfriend. Maybe Flash would leave his dreams of being a stupid guard behind. I have to tell him the truth. He can’t decide for himself if he doesn’t even know.

“Hey, Moonrise.” That was Polaris’s voice from behind her. She was in costume again, as she always seemed to be around other ponies. So far as Sunset knew, only Gangplank knew the truth about her. Her identity was kept secret from everyone else. “Can you talk?”

“Sure.” Sunset didn’t even turn, just kept leaning over the railing, staring off into the blackness.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Daring Do said. “Your questions about how to bring magic back to somewhere without it.”

“Oh.” Sunset hadn’t brought the subject back up again, not since the first answer. She didn’t need to hear that her quest was hopeless a second time. “Yeah.”

“I bring my whole library out on extended digs like this. Lots of these old ruins are connected… we like to think in modern Equestria that we’re the only united ponies there ever were, but the past isn’t black and white. There’s gray back there, and lots of the stories we think we know are really just retellings invented by the ones who stayed.”

“The victor writes the history books,” Sunset said.

“Victor of…” The “bat” shook her head. She had a book under one leg. Sunset could read the gold embossed title of the faux-leather cover. “SECRET SPELLS OF STAR SWIRL.” That name never leaves me alone. “If there’s one thing you learn being me, it’s never discounting an investigation. Most of Equestria thinks I’m an adventure novel. Well, that’s good enough for everypony. We all put on our masks. I wonder what mask you’re wearing.”

She flipped the book open in front of them, for Sunset to see. There was the horseshoe mirror, exactly as Sunset remembered it. The Equestrians even had the right period of its opening correct, with a precise chart of the phases of the moon and the procession of the equinoxes.

“I see you recognize this.”

Sunset nodded weakly. There was no point lying. Besides—if there was one pony unlikely to reveal her secret, it was one who had her own to hide. Sunset knew who she was—any destruction done to one could be returned. I’ll make you go down with me, Daring Do. I swear to god. “Maybe.”

The bat’s eyebrows went up. “You know what every magical dead-zone on Equus has in common? It’s how I figured this out…” She snapped the book closed. “They’re wastelands. Nopony lives there. Not more exotic creatures, either. Yaks don’t want to be there, deer don’t want to live there, or buffaloes, or even the dragons. Plants barely even grow.”

She lowered her voice, eyes down on the deck. “I’ve been to two of them. It’s… horrible. All the color drains out of the world. The music loses its harmony, food loses its taste. Even lifting your hooves gets hard. Remembering who you are, what you’re doing there. Your cutie mark barely matters. Princess Celestia decided not to put up any official warnings about the one in Equestria, or even to acknowledge its existence. Ponies avoid them on their own. They’re terrible places.”

“I don’t understand…” Sunset took a deep breath, counting to five as she inhaled. Watching her words hadn’t ever been something she was good at. “What are you trying to say?”

“Long time ago, Star Swirl caught all kinds of monsters. Nopony else at the time could beat them, not even the princesses. So what did he do? Banished them somewhere without any magic, so they couldn’t threaten anypony ever again. Their abilities would fade, they wouldn’t have a way to get back.” She tapped the book. “Almost nothing is known about the other side. But I’m guessing there might be… civilization there after all. Ponies on the other side, living in…” She shuddered. “I can barely imagine. Spending your whole life… probably didn’t even have a cutie mark.”

Was she crying? No, Sunset wasn’t crying! She wouldn’t do that, certainly not where anyone else could see. She nodded reluctantly. “Maybe somewhere like that exists. So what if it does? So what if someone wants to bring the magic back?”

“I still don’t know if it’s possible,” Daring Do said. “I hate to be the one to give you bad news Moonrise. But I wasn’t lying. Nopony even knows why dead zones form in the first place. The best theory I ever heard was that they’re sites of… ancient, terrible battles. Nopony knows what fought, or why. But the world gets scarred forever after that, and magic doesn’t come back. But it really doesn’t matter. No ordinary pony could do it. It’s impossible. There’s only one pony who might know more, but she’s not good about answering questions.”

Sunset knew what Daring Do was going to say before she said it.

“Princess Celestia is an Alicorn. She’s the oldest pony alive. She was there when some of the ruins I explore were built. Nopony even knows for sure just how old she is.” Now the pony in front of her was looking frustrated. It was a good thing there was nopony else on the deck with them, because she raised her voice a little. Behind them, swells crashed into the side of the boat, raining down spray and foam on the deck.

“She sits back on her throne and says nothing while we debate over questions she could answer from her memory. She lets ponies spend thousands of bits to dig up garbage dumps, then stands by and lets a pony like me discover an artifact that could really hurt ponies if it got into the wrong hooves. I’ve never understood her way of doing things.”

“I might know something you don’t,” Sunset said, after a nervous silence. “Through the portal, I think… our worlds might be connected. I don’t know how, don’t know why… but when I got here, there were posters with my name on them, my picture. I think… a pony who looks like me… got into trouble. I joined this expedition mostly because it was the fastest way out of town.”

Daring Do actually laughed. “That’s why your mane is coming in red. And… why you don’t like ponies seeing your cutie mark. You could really learn a thing or two about having a good pseudonym. Lucky for you, I’m one of the best. I might be able to teach you a few things. But you already seem to understand the basics. Pick somewhere to live that’s far from the ones looking for you. Change your appearance… we can work on that. But here’s a third one—”

She leaned in closer, lowering her voice. “Don’t be a criminal. Thing about hiding when you’re guilty, your behavior gives you away. I’ve been watching you this whole trip. I thought at first you were here to steal from me. Maybe Dr. Caballeron sent you, to make sure that the artifacts wouldn’t make it back to Equestria. Doesn’t matter where you go, a guilty conscience always weighs you down.”

“Not sure what to do.” Sunset sat back on her haunches, looking up at the sky. “You’re right about one thing. I’m… I’m not ready to go back. What if Celestia forces me? There’s so much magic here, I don’t know if I’ll ever want to leave.”

“We could…” Daring Do hesitated just a second. “You did save my life. I could give you something in return more valuable than a percentage. I could call in a few favors, get us a private meeting with the princess. How about you tell her the truth? Bring the stallion, she’ll like that. Tell her you’re here, why you’re here… and don’t be afraid anymore.”

“Unless I was afraid for good reason,” Sunset muttered. “And she throws me in jail.”

Daring Do shrugged. “In my experience, the story doesn’t usually go that way. Ponies go through dark times, but the good ones always end up doing alright in the end. Are you a good pony, Moonrise? Or a bad one?”

“I’m not good at coming up with fake names,” she answered, chuckling. “My real name is Sunset. Sunset Shimmer.”

“Yeah,” Daring Do took the offered hoof anyway. “I figured that out. But it’s good you told me. It isn’t for me to decide when you share that with Celestia. Just… give me an answer when we get back to shore. If you want to take your bits and go, I won’t stop you.”

There was one other pony for her to ask. Daring Do was clever, resourceful, and well-informed. But she was still someone that Sunset had barely talked to. If she was going to go around spilling her secrets, there was someone who mattered more.

She waited until the next day, until early in the afternoon when shore had come into view and they’d already packed up the cabins. Sunset and Flash were on a lower deck—there wasn’t much of a view, and the fumes of the ocean were worse. But Sunset had insisted. It was somewhere they could go for privacy.

“I dunno what you could want to tell me,” Flash said, after several minutes of Sunset waffling back and forth and not admitting to anything. “I think I’ve figured you out pretty well after a whole expedition together.” He settled one wing across her back, possessively. Warm, delicate feathers. Sunset smiled at the feeling. It was nice to be close to someone.

“Really?” One eyebrow went up. “What did you figure out, Flash? Cuz’ if you just mean what bits I’ve got… that isn’t that special. I’m sure there are books about that.”

Predictably, the stallion’s ears flattened and his wings folded, scent changing to embarrassment. “You don’t have to say it like that. Even if there’s nopony who can hear…”

“I’m serious! What do you think you figured out? Because… I’m willing to bet you don’t know. That’s why I want to tell you. I wasn’t sure how close we would… it’s only fair. You deserve to know. What you do after I tell you…” She shrugged one shoulder. “Guess that’s up to you.”

“Okay.” Flash sat up on his haunches, relaxing a little. They passed a pony cargo ship out on the water, moving much slower than they were. It had huge metal cargo boxes, just like a ship on Earth might’ve had.

Strange how much we have in common.

“Well, I know you’re not very good with magic. I think you… might’ve grown up in one of those… weird enclaves? No offense, but… you just don’t know very much. Maybe you ran away, made it to civilization. And I’m glad you did.” He leaned forward, rubbing up against her. “You’re better off here. Ponies are meant to live together.”

Sunset chuckled. “I did run away from somewhere to get here. It’s just… not an enclave.” She hesitated, glancing around them one last time. The shore was approaching rapidly, and with it any chance for her to tell him somewhere safe. It was now or never. “What if I told you I was from further away, would you be upset?”

Flash shook his head. “Moonrise, I don’t care where you’re from. A pony isn’t their past, they’re what they do in the present. You’re brave, you’re smart, and you’re a great cook. How much more could I want?”

Now her cheeks were burning. Sunset tried to ignore the flattery, as best she could anyway. But just because she knew rationally that she shouldn’t be influenced didn’t mean the logic would jump from her body to her brain.

“I’m… not from your world, Flash. I’m from so far, you’ve never even imagined where I’m from.”

“Is that why you wanted to go adventuring with the Royal Archeological Society? Expedition to… wait, that doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t learn more about ponies far away. You should’ve stayed in a city. You were recruited in Canterlot like I was, so…”

“I don’t know why this is…” Sunset began. “But… I think maybe… I think maybe your world and mine have some similar people. There was another pony here with the same name. I don’t know where she went, but… she left me with her mess.”

Flash raised an eyebrow. Now he was really watching her, seeming genuinely nervous. “A pony who…”

The Chrysanthemum thunked loudly against the shore, rocking slightly to one side. Sunset wobbled, but didn’t fall over. Flash had moved out of reach, but for once it didn’t matter. Sunset’s coordination had improved considerably since her arrival months ago.

“I think she was… a criminal. I dunno, but they were putting up wanted posters all over Canterlot. That’s why I left. I didn’t want them to mistake me for her.”

“Wanted posters…” Now Flash’s eyes had gotten wide. He backed away from her, spreading his wings. “You’re a criminal?”

“No! It wasn’t me, Flash! I don’t even know what she was supposed to have done! I’m not from here!”

“Right.” He lifted into the air, landing on the railing and glaring down at her. “You’re her evil clone, or… maybe she’s yours. Moonrise, you know I’m trying to get into the Guard, right? I’m going straight up to the castle as soon as we get off the train. They already accepted my application.”

“Flash, I didn’t do—”

“No!” Flash landed in front of her, holding up one wing. “I know what the oaths say, Moonrise. When I go in that castle, I’m going to promise to protect Equestria. To uphold justice, to turn in evildoers… you need to stop talking right now. You need to stop, because if I know any more…” He lifted into the air again. Were those tears? He was a very large pony to be crying, but… yeah, he was crying. And Sunset was crying too. “I don’t want to turn you in. I can’t if I don’t know. Probably… we won’t be able to…”

“I’m not a criminal!” she said. “I’m from another world, I already told you! I’m from a place where people walk on two legs, where they eat meat, drive around in metal cars, where horses are a hobby and nobody has seen magic in their lives! Nobody even believed it was real, that’s why I—”

“I thought we mattered, Sunset. I thought… I thought you cared.”

“I did!” she said. “I do! I’m not—”

“You’re not acting like it,” Flash said. “I think… I think I liked you better before you saved everypony. Back when I thought you were like me. Not some… some criminal hiding from justice. You could’ve at least told me the truth.”

“I did!”

But he wasn’t listening. Flash took off, flying across the water and into the city. It wasn’t like he had anything to wait for—like the laborers, he’d already been paid.

Sunset watched him go, crying quietly to herself. Why didn’t he listen? Why doesn’t anyone listen? On Earth they hadn’t believed her about magic. But she spelled everything out in plain language, and he seemed determined not to hear.

Sunset found Daring Do as the Chrysanthemum was unloading, waiting in the back as she signed things off and dealt with dock officials. Only when they’d moved off did Sunset emerge from between the cargo boxes.

“What is it?” Daring Do asked, eyebrows up. “You look… upset.”

“I’ve been thinking about your offer,” Sunset said, sniffing. “I’ll, uh… I accept. Get me a meeting with the pony princess. I need to get this over with, not hide.”

“Okay,” Daring Do said. “Wait here while we unload. You can ride with me into Canterlot. You can talk to her after our presentation. Might go better that way, if you tell her who you are right after we’ve all said how helpful you were.”

“Sure, whatever.” Sunset turned away. She didn’t much care how it went. But at least she could get it over with.

Chapter 8: Celestial

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For the palace of the princess, Canterlot Castle wasn’t much of what she’d expected. It was really just a large room, with an elegant chair on one end and a few seats for witnesses along the wall. Sunset walked in at the back of the group, keeping her head down. I can see why the Princess is renovating. The throne room she’s building is way more impressive than this.

The trip into Canterlot had been uneventful, painfully so. She couldn’t have said which train Flash Sentry had ridden in, but she hadn’t seen him again. Maybe that was for the best.

She had taken enough of a detour to visit a proper clothing shop, and got herself a simple dress that fit. It opened at the back for her tail, and so far as preserving her modesty she’d probably have rated it a solid 3 on the scale. But Sunset didn’t blush while she walked around anymore, didn’t even think as much about how naked she was. Sunset Shimmer had been in this world long enough that the casual nudity of the place had just become another part of life. It was hard to stress about something that literally everyone else in the world ignored.

Even Princess Celestia. She was a regal creature, taller than any pony she’d ever seen and with wings so wide that when she opened them to shuffle and move they seemed to fill the space around her. Her mane was even stranger, blowing constantly to a breeze that Sunset couldn’t feel, like it were on fire but didn’t actually burn.

Sunset had dyed her mane again, a fresh blue that concealed the several inches of red she’d been growing on tail and mane. She hadn’t cut it this time, just styled it back in a way that the barber had told her was formal. Apparently it was, because nopony at the palace looked down on her more than any of the others.

The group of scholars was ostensibly led by Gangplank, who formally addressed the princess and presented a large case of artifacts to her after a lot of bowing and ritual. But once that was out of the way, most of the actual questions were for Daring Do, or for the professors. Gangplank was really just a face.

There were hours of questions, about the various threats they had overcome and what the island had contained. Princess Celestia listened intently to all this, as though she cared about nothing else in the whole world. All the while her advisors and assistants watched with annoyance and barely suppressed boredom.

But then they brought up her name. “Moonrise here saved the expedition not once, but twice. Her quick thinking was instrumental in preventing more serious injury once the guardians got loose.”

“Guardians.” Celestia sat up, suddenly alert in her throne. She’d gone instantly from simple amusement to laser-focused interest. “Clay creatures, two legs. Gemstones for eyes?”

Polaris nodded. She kept her face neutral enough, but through the makeup Sunset swore she could detect some of the anger there, frustration with Celestia at not telling them about a danger she had known.

“They attacked you?”

“Not… specifically,” Polaris admitted. “They attacked anypony who got in their way. But it was Moonrise who stopped each one.”

“Incredible.” Celestia’s eyes now turned on her. Her horn glowed a faint white, and those eyes… they seemed to be boring straight through Sunset’s dress and into her soul beneath. There was a whole world of definition behind those eyes that just kept going, deeper and deeper. “The guardians were built as the ultimate weapon against unicorns. Enough of them could even threaten an Alicorn, since they resist spells so well. A unicorn defeated them?”

She could feel the expedition’s mood turn on her. They shifted, backing away from her uncomfortably. Only Polaris was unafraid, standing a few feet away.

“Yes,” she said. “Tell her how, Moonrise.”

“With, uh…” Sunset cleared her throat. “Princess. I didn’t use magic. I used projectiles. I shattered their eyes.”

Princess Celestia nodded. “That would do it. Though the skill to hit such a shot is impressive. Very interesting.”

Sunset withdrew into the back of the group, or tried to. But the archeologists and professors would no longer let her blend in. They backed away from her, as though standing nearby would attract Celestia’s ire to them as well.

But Princess Celestia didn’t press. She let the presentation continue until the very end. “I… would like to add a few things,” Polaris said, once the professors were filing away with their medals and rewards from the crown. Sunset had one too, a little gold sun around her neck with a moon beside it for valor.

“Of course, Polaris,” Celestia smiled, and Sunset knew then beyond a doubt that Daring Do’s secret identity wasn’t secret to the princess. “What is it?”

“My friend Moonrise… she has something she’d like to say to you,” she said. “Before she does, I just want to add: she really did do everything I said. The expedition might not have returned without her help.”

Celestia raised a wing. “The suspense is killing me. Save it for your books, please.” She turned, and once again Sunset felt her eyes on her. “I think I know what it is, anyway. Those guardians… would not have become aggressive unless they sensed a threat. I know your technique, you’re methodical, respectful with the sites you investigate. I believe they sensed her.

Sunset swallowed, retreating a step from the princess. But it wasn’t like there was anywhere to run—there were gold-armored guards on both doors, and in front of her this giant of a pony with power radiating around her like a physical force. There was nowhere for her to go, and no way to get there. They did come for me. In the mess hall, it ignored everyone else. Then in the ruins, it came straight for me until Daring Do outright attacked it.

“I didn’t come here to be a danger to anyone,” Sunset said, her voice weak. “I didn’t… threaten anyone. Didn’t hurt anyone.”

“Perhaps.” Princess Celestia’s voice was stern. Her eyes were two torches now, so bright that she had to look away. They could see her every fault. Every lie she’d ever told while here in Equestria. Every mistake she’d ever made. Flash Sentry’s disappointment. “Perhaps not. I’ll soon decide. Tell me what you came to say.”

“I, uh… I got here a few months ago,” she said. “In the middle of the night, just after the solstice. I’d been planning for a long time… but I didn’t know what would be on the other side of the portal. I only knew that everyone agreed there was magic here. That maybe, if I was lucky, I could come here to learn about it. There was nothing protecting the portal in my world, nothing to stop me, no warnings about what was over here. I just… passed through.”

“From the other side of the mirror?” Celestia’s eyebrow went up. “Oh, that’s all? Here I thought perhaps one of the echoes of the last generation had returned.” She grinned, though there was still darkness in her eyes. “I would’ve welcomed a visitor to my castle. But I… don’t remember ever receiving any. And I should know—the mirror has been under heavy guard, ever since—”

“It was that night,” Sunset interrupted. Shocking enough that Daring Do actually gasped, staring at her in horror. Obviously she wasn’t supposed to do that. But Sunset didn’t care. “That was when I arrived, Princess. See… when I got here, I ran. It seemed like… your whole castle was already searching for me. I was already a criminal and I hadn’t even stepped through the door.”

Celestia had fallen silent now. Sunset couldn’t read her expression—whether it was overflowing with anger about to scour her from the castle floor, or if she was amused, or maybe that she didn’t care. Sunset couldn’t tell. So she went on.

“I think someone with my name, my face… I think she did something really bad. I don’t know what it was. But I… it wasn’t me.”

“Your name,” Celestia whispered. “The name of someone with a bright yellow coat and a sun as her cutie mark?”

She nodded. “Sunset Shimmer.” Her magic was still weak, but not so weak that she couldn’t lift the side of the dress, just enough that the mark was visible. It was a good thing Celestia herself wore only shoes, or else she’d probably have felt incredibly stupid doing that.

But it couldn’t be stupider than everything else she’d done so far.

“You look…” Celestia blinked, wiping away a tear. It didn’t last long, only a second. The moisture steamed away on her feathers. “You look so much like her. That’s dye, isn’t it?” Celestia’s horn flashed, and Sunset felt a brief heat in her mane and tail. A quick glance told her what she’d suspected. Celestia had melted straight through the dye, leaving her hair bright red and yellow again, even back to the proper length. “Are you sure it… isn’t you? You’re really from the other side?”

She nodded. “I am. I came here to learn about magic. No one would believe me. My principal… god, she’s so much like you. It doesn’t make any sense. But I promise I’m not her.” She reached into a pocket, removing her few Earth artifacts she had left. Her levitation could hold all of them at once now, and not drop them. “This is my phone, my charger. The weapon I used to fight the guardians. It… won’t work again.”

A brief white glow from Celestia’s horn passed over the objects, then Sunset herself. She nodded. “Yes.” She sat up a little straighter, clearing her throat. “Of course. Sunset Shimmer—but not ours. Not the pony who defied my teaching. Not the one I wanted to save from herself. You’ve come to our world instead, and instead of needing rescue, you rescued others. But what do you want now? I take it you know the way the mirror functions. You know it won’t open again for over a year’s time.”

“I know,” Sunset answered. “Honestly, I… if you’ll permit me, princess… I’d like to stay for a while. Your world has so much magic, and mine has almost none. I hope one day I’ll find a way to bring magic back with me. But if I can’t do that, then…” She lowered her voice. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to go back.”

Celestia was silent for a long time. In the end, her eyes fell on Daring Do. “This pony, this member of your expedition. Is she a danger to Equestria? Would you trust her around my subjects? I have always known you to be a good judge of character.”

The “bat” nodded without hesitation. “She did good by my camp. Cooked good meals, did her work on time, saved my ponies. I don’t know about the guardians targeting her, but I know she stopped them. Saved my life.”

“Then… I think we can make room for her,” Celestia finally said. “For as long as she wishes to stay.”

A few months later…

Sunset Shimmer woke to the sounds of the birds. There was no radio to listen to as she woke, no television spewing the latest depressing bit of news, and no memes to scroll through on her phone.

By the time she’d finished washing her mane with strawberry soap and pinning it back in a bun, there was a faint knock on the door. She didn’t have far to go—the apartment had only the two rooms. She dodged around an old table, then opened the door wide.

“Mornin’ Sunset!” said the milkpony, offering a metal cart with her day’s groceries. A tiny glass container of milk, some fruit, and half a loaf of oat bread.

“Morning Speedy!” she responded, taking the tray and exchanging the six bits it was worth with the faint green glow of her magic. “Interesting route today?”

“Same as every day,” he responded, tipping his brimmed hat. “Which means it’s great. Nice to see everypony first thing in the morning. Enjoy your class.”

“I always do.” Sunset smiled politely, then shut the door. With no distraction but the birds and no light but the sun coming in through her window, Sunset read from a book as thick as her hooves about the “Transcendental application of tass modulation of low thaumic fields”, until her clock chimed for seven.

Then it was down three flights of steps, and out into the cobblestone streets of Motherlode. Well, “streets” was a bit generous—there was only the one, and dozens of little dirt roads that ran to various farms and little mining operations along the route. She smiled to all her neighbors, and enjoyed a few words of polite conversation with some.

She didn’t have far to walk—Motherlode’s old schoolhouse was only a block away, right beside the old brick of city hall. She unlocked the front door with a rusty key from around her neck, then spent the next hour or so preparing her classroom.

There were ten desks, but only six of them would be used. She greeted Limelight, Crimson Flame, and Zenith in turn, taking the little unicorns’ homework assignments and accepting a polished apple from one instead.

“You know I’m still giving you a zero, Limelight,” she said, taking a bite anyway. “I asked for a rune diagram, not for breakfast.”

“I know.” He stamped and pawed at the ground, ears flattened with embarrassment. “But I was gonna bring it anyway, I swears.”

“I’m sure you were.” Sunset patted him on the head, then returned to the front of the classroom. “Welcome to Motherlode magical kindergarten, class. If you’ll open your textbooks to chapter four…”

Class only lasted three hours—the children were needed for work at home, and that was all their parents would give them. Even that seemed like a great relief to her students. Sunset waved them goodbye a little before lunch, then went to work sweeping the little schoolhouse, cleaning the board, and preparing for the next day.

Somepony tapped lightly on the door as they stepped inside. “Afternoon, Sunset.”

“Not quite.” Sunset looked up. An earth pony stood in the doorway, with an oversized hat and a purple cape that seemed to go on for days. “You made it all the way out to Motherlode, AK Yearling?”

“Didn’t have much of a choice.” She crossed the room in a few strides, betraying the athleticism of the pony hiding in all that costume. “You could’ve picked a better town to hide in. You know the train up here only runs once a week?”

“Oh, I know. Had to eat grass the first time I thought I could just visit a convenience store for what I needed.” She winced at the thought, sticking her tongue out in disgust. Just because ponies could didn’t mean they should.

“The express leaves tomorrow,” AK Yearling went on. “And you’re coming with me.” She reached into her robes, and removed something wrapped in dark cloth, settling it onto Sunset’s desk.

It looked like a huge chunk of broken coral, except that it was covered in runic marks. Sunset could feel the magic still radiating from it, like an afterimage after looking into the sun.

“It’s from down south,” the pony went on. “Ever heard of the Hippogriffs? No, obviously. Well, they were experts with enchantment. Look of this thing… seems like some of their old creations might still be intact.”

Enchantment, the one kind of magic that could keep working even in a magical dead zone. “Looks interesting,” Sunset said. “Let me talk to the mayor. I think I could get some time off.”