Sunlight awoke Raindrop, and she yawned softly, stretching. Her blanket was warm, but the air was not. The first weak rays of morning light were touching the hilltops, highlighting them in liquid gold.
Shuddering at the cool morning air, the young pegasus rose and slipped off the blankets, tucking them into her bags and straightening up, looking out towards the grave site. In the morning light, it looked peaceful and calm. The small bundles of Sentinel’s things were still visible.
Raindrop leapt from the hilltop, and glided over the long savannah grass to the gravesite, backwinging to a halt in front of the split stone and looking around. Everything was just as she’d seen the previous night. His gear was slightly spread out as though it had been disturbed during a scuffle, and there were several multicoloured peanuts, as well as Sentinel’s helmet sitting in the centre of the rock where she’d left it.
The pegasus stepped over to Sentinel’s packs, tipping up the flap of one of them and peeking inside. Within the pack was a collection of long-lasting food, a spare set of straps for his armour, a small hoof-dagger, and a thick book. Raindrop hummed to herself as she pulled out the book, peering at it. It was a thick, leather-bound thing She flipped the pages open with mild curiosity, seeing a few pages of hoofwriting about some magical fantasy place across the seas.
A picture tumbled from the book, and flapped onto the ground. Raindrop stooped to pick up the picture, peering at it for a moment. It was an old, grey picture of a pair of ponies. One male, one female, in the hospital, smiling for the camera. The female was heavily pregnant, ready to give birth.
Raindrop peered at the photo for a moment, considered tossing it aside, and then shrugged and tucked it into her pack, placing the book aside and rummaging in the second bag. This bag was filled with food, again, a travel blanket, pillow, and a strange red gem that pulsed faintly with a strange inner light. It was as large as her hoof, and seemed warm to the touch.
Giving a thoughtful hum, Raindrop pocketed the large gem, took a food pack, and then closed the lid of the back, turning her back on it and then stalking to the edge of the rock, peering down at the edge. There were signs of a scuffle in the grass, and then nothing. But a little bit further on, she spied a hint of green among the swaying brown of the grass.
Raindrop took to the air, sweeping her wings slowly to maintain a low altitude as she swept across the grass, keeping an eye out for the little coloured specks that were the peanuts.
It took her an entire hour just to get out of the grasslands, and she was sure that she had missed several peanuts along the way, but they were all strewn in a straight line, heading for a mountain range in the distance.
So instead, Raindrop headed for the mountain, seeking out the odd speck of strange colour. It was easier the closer she got to the mountains, as the grass grew shorter and sparser, until it was rocky ground strewn with stretches of sand. And then the peanuts disappeared altogether. In their place, she found pieces of armour instead, as well as scuff marks. It seemed that Sentinel had still been struggling.
Raindrop moved quietly here, keeping low to the ground, coasting between mountain valleys on silent wings. After a time, the armour pieces seemed to stop appearing as well, but Raindrop found one partly hidden underneath a rock. Sentinel’s little trail had been found, it seemed, and his captors had started hiding the armour pieces.
Giving up on following the trail, Raindrop flitted up to the mountaintops to look for a likely place.
Perching upon a peak, the young pegasus cast her gaze down the other side of the mountain, frowning as she observed and odd sight.
A flat valley lay between her mountain and the next, and there, the ground was perforated. A series of large holes lay in the earth, with mounds of dirt besides them. They seemed as though giant mole hills. Each of them had a circumference wide enough for Raindrop to fly inside with her wings open without fear of touching the side.
Raindrop knew what these were. They were Diamond Dog holes. They were holes created when Diamond Dogs dug for the precious stones that Equestria was so famous for.
A glimmer of light near the entrance of one of the holes alerted Raindrop to the presence of a piece of Sentinel’s armour. It was his chestpiece and backplate, the largest pieces of his armour. Likely the last pieces he had been wearing.
As far as Raindrop could ascertain, Sentinel had been dragged down into the tunnels by Diamond Dogs. So the Diamond Dogs maybe had a clue what had happened to the Elements of Harmony. It wasn’t a whole lot to go on.
At that point, Raindrop could have just gone home. Could have just turned around and gone back to Celestia, told her what she had found out. Pretended that Sentinel had wandered off and gotten ‘lost’.
Instead, Raindrop sighed and leaped from her mountain top, coasting down the face of the mountain and then backwinging to a stop at the holes. She stepped over to the one that had Sentinel’s armour at the entrance, and kicked aside the heavy metal plates, peering down into the darkness. She frowned slightly, and then reached back with a hoof into her pack, digging out the red gem she had ‘borrowed’ from Sentinel’s pack, and held it above the hole. The glow from inside the gem was sufficient to light up the tunnel to the edges, but not much further.
Raindrop sighed and shook her head at what she was about to do, taking a few steps back from the tunnel entrance, sloughing her packs, and then holding aloft the red gem as she dropped down into the tunnel.
Raindrop entered a new world. It was dark down here, and quiet. There was a clammy feel to the air, cool and moist. A faint current of air was carried from deeper inside the network of caves. The tunnel she was standing in was smooth around the edges, patted down by the passage of many paws and hooves. The marks of something being dragged, though, were visible, as were scuff marks. Sentinel seemed to have been struggling the entire way.
The young cloud chaser lowered her head slightly, and transferred the gem to her mouth, to leave her hooves free, beginning to head down the tunnel, keeping her hoofsteps light, so they didn’t make any noise.
It was only a hundred or so metres of downward-angled tunnel before it terminated in what seemed to be an antechamber. A pair of flaming torches lit up the large circular room, which had tunnel entrances set going off of it from all angles. Looking around at all the tunnels, Raindrop turned and beat her hoof against the wall several times to leave a mark she would recognize on the way back through, to mark her tunnel.
The obvious way to proceed was a single tunnel set in between the two flaming torches. The pegasus stepped down the tunnel warily, keeping her eye out for any Diamond Dogs that might be around. But the tunnels were all quiet. Creepily quiet. It was scary how little habitation the tunnels saw.
It was a good two hundred metres before Raindrop found out why. The tunnel leveled out, and then opened up into a wide chamber. Torches here were scattered everywhere, and even though there was no sound, Raindrop could sense that there were creatures in the chamber. She slipped the gem from her mouth, to her wing, hiding it among the pinions there to keep its glow from being seen, and crept to the end of the tunnel.
The tunnel widened out into a massive chamber, and like the smaller one preceding it, the outside of it was perforated by dozens of tunnel entrances, and it was filled with Diamond Dogs. A simple wooden stage sat in the centre of the chamber, surrounded by the Dogs. They milled about here and there, in groups of three or four. Large, small, all shapes and sizes. It looked like an army.
“Come, my children!” a voice was calling across the crowd.
It was coming from the wooden stage, where Discord stood, reared up on his hindlegs, mismatched paws spread wide, presenting the Royal Guard strung up in chains on the pedestal. His hooves were tied to a brace that crossed over the back of his neck, in what looked to be an extremely uncomfortable position. It was Sentinel, of course, devoid of his armour.
Raindrop saw that he looked like he’d been beaten up, but she noted with pride that the most damage done to him seemed to have come from her own hooves.
The diamond dogs stood to attention as Discord spoke, and Raindrop peered over at the stage for a moment as the god of chaos began his spiel. He was talking about Celestia, and taking over Equestria, and other evil things. Raindrop didn’t really pay attention. Somehow, for the god of chaos, Discord wasn’t so impressive to her. No magic, no lightning, no random events of chaos happening all around. Maybe he was trying his paw at subterfuge for a change?
And then his triumphant monologue about taking over Equestria was done, and the Diamond Dogs began to disperse. Raindrop withdrew into the shadows, sheltering behind a boulder. The chamber was massive, and keeping it all lit was impossible. The few torches provided light enough to see shapes, but not much else. At least, not out on the edges of the chamber.
And then, it was quiet. Everyone was gone.
Raindrop peeked out around the boulder, at the centre stage. Discord was gone, as were the Diamond Dogs, seemingly to do their daily evil business. Taking candy from foals, stepping on flowers. Or whatever it was they did during the day.
The young pegasus grimaced slightly, peering over at Sentinel. She could have turned around then, and made her way out of the tunnels. But no, here she was, playing the hero.
Setting her shoulders, Raindrop stepped out from behind the boulder, and bounced her way over to the centre stage, looking about furtively and then pulling herself up onto it, sliding over to the Royal Guard. He looked exhausted and out of it. He was bound in heavy chains, and a pair of padlocks secured him to the post. She stepped closer, and immediately, his eyes opened, and his head lifted, his eyes narrowing on her.
“You’re one of them,” he hissed.
“Yeah yeah, we established I’m a changeling already, idiot,” she hissed, having no patience for this conversation.
“No. You’re in league with Discord!” he accused.
Raindrop slipped over to him and clasped a hoof over his mouth, staring into his eyes, glaring. “You are going to be quiet or so help me Celestia, I will knock you unconscious and drag you out of here by your tail. The only thing I want to hear come out of that stupid mouth is where the keys are to your locks.”
The young pegasus removed her hoof, glowering at the guard, and he scowled back at her for a moment, before jerking his head towards the tunnel behind the stage. “One of the Diamond Dogs has the keys, changeling.”
“Welp, I’m off to play the hero, then. Don’t go anywhere, honey,” Raindrop said, gently tapping the guard on the cheek with her hoof and then slipping past him to begin creeping down the tunnel he had indicated.
Time to play the hero.