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The first sensation Gadgets felt upon returning to consciousness was the absence of pain. Indeed the only thing he could feel was a series of warm, steady waves expanding throughout his body originating somewhere on his left shoulder. His first thought was that he had died as that would explain the absence of pain, but he then reasoned that if he were dead he would be aware of it and therefore since he could question whether or not he was alive he could not be dead. That settled, he cracked open his eyes.
A beautiful blue griffon loomed above him, her eyes filled with concern, her right talon stretched over him and out of sight, directly above where the warmth was coming from. Gadgets opened his mouth to speak, but the princess shook her head, indicating that he should remain silent, before gesturing a wing over to where his friends were. They were huddled together with their backs to him, whispering to each other, glancing fervently over their shoulders at something behind him.
Minion, his beloved Minion, was the first to realize that he was awake and rushed over to him, her eyes filling with tears. She was quickly followed by Captain Grayshaw, whose armor was missing, and Darkfang, who had lost his Gatling gun and most of his kilt in the avalanche. The avalanche!
Gadgets sat bolt upright, the princess dodging smoothly out of his way; looking around wildly, he quickly took note of his surroundings. They were still in the cave, light being supplied by the number of glowing orbs floating overhead, but it was not the cave they had entered all that time ago.
The shape was still the same, but now the walls were cracked and a new one had been added, this one made of rubble and dust rather than featureless stone. It was this wall of debris his friends had been looking at, as it sat right in the way of their only known exit, and even from the quick glance he spared it the pony could tell there was no way through, around, under, or over. Further down the tunnel was similarly blocked, meaning they were trapped in what would appear to be a small air bubble in the middle of Celestia knew how many millions of tons of rock. Perfect.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice coming out surprisingly steady and energized, not at all like he'd just nearly escaped death and fought off an army of vicious savages. Gadgets blinked, then ran through a quick mental checklist of his body: all four limbs accounted for, no damage to vital areas, mane and tail operating at peak efficiency. He blinked again, despite the ordeal they'd been through he was completely unharmed! Neat.
"Jackal chieftain blew up the cave," Grayshaw told him, gesturing sarcastically at the rubble around them, "rotten little bastard had the bright idea he'd kill us all along with himself. Guess that didn't work out."
"I dunno," Gadgets said brightly, "half his plan succeeded."
His friends smiled at that and they all basked in the brief, unexpected happiness before Gadgets continued, "But what I really want to know is how we're all fine. I've been in my fair share of cave-ins and nopony ever comes out looking this good."
He waved a hoof at the group, all of whom were in varying states of disrepair and distress from the cave-in, but were otherwise unharmed. It was Minion who answered him, pointing a hoof at the princess, who was slowly bandaging a fresh cut on her leg; the same leg which was already home to more scars than he'd ever seen on everypony he'd ever met put together.
"She healed us."
"Blood magic," Minion shivered, "it's an ancient, powerful form of magic that's forbidden to use."
"Why?" Gadgets noted that Grayshaw and Darkfang were looking at his marefriend with equal interest; the princess, meanwhile, was blushing furiously and attempting to hide beneath her wing.
"Blood magic is extremely potent because blood is the physical link of the soul to the body. It's the essence of life itself. To use blood magic, one weakens the ties between soul and body, drawing upon the limitless power of the soul to perform acts of great good...or great evil.
It's different from unicorn magic which relies upon willpower, or even griffon magic which uses complex rituals and symbols to draw the power of the elements into itself. It's primal, chaotic, and even the simplest spells can drain the user's life-force completely if they're not careful.
Fifty-percent of all ponies who try it die in their first attempt, ninety-percent die in their second, and ten percent don't try for a third time. I've always heard mastering it is impossible; even the alicorns don't dare to make use of it unless under the most extreme circumstances, and I'm not talking about life or death here, I mean fate of the entire world extreme. But...I suppose...if anypony could master it, I mean truly master it," she stared at the shy princess with an expression of utter horror tinged with fascinated amazement, "they'd have power beyond even the Sun and Moon Princesses."
The blue griffon squeaked and tried to run away, bouncing off a wall after two steps. Gadgets laughed, breaking the somber mood as the cute female clutched her head in her talons, moaning softly. Soon everypony was chuckling; even the princess once she'd recovered, though her laughter was soft to the point of being mute.
"Well, horrible potential aside," he said, when the mirth had subsided, "I believe we all owe you a great debt, Princess. Without you we'd probably all be dead."
"Hey, what about me? I made the air bubble thing," Minion piped up, pointing a hoof towards the roof of their sanctuary.
Gadgets laughed and kissed her; his friends (how could Grayshaw and Princess be anything but after all they'd been through?) watched with small smiles on their faces, as much a part of the two's love as they were, even if they didn't get all the physical benefits. Those belonged to him.
"Well, sentiments aside," Darkfang mused after a few minutes, scratching his chin and surveying the inescapable cell that had saved their lives, "we're still trapped here. I figure we've got a few hours of air before we suffocate, and there's no way we can dig through the rock, even assuming the entire tunnel hasn't come down on us. Even if it hasn't, I think it's a safe bet we're royally screwed."
As if on cue, the ground began to rumble and a rectangular hole, just big enough to allow the dragon through, opened on the far-side of the room, the beginnings of a dark passageway, Darkfang glared at this unexpected development.
"Seriously?" he asked, "We're all doomed to die horribly and suddenly this happens and its going to save us? What kind of stupid bastard falls for something like that?!"
"The ones who don't have any choice?" Grayshaw offered, starting towards the mysterious portal, followed after a moment's hesitation by the princess, and then by Minion and Gadgets.
Darkfang pondered on this for a moment, then shrugged and followed his friends in, bringing up the rear. To their surprise, the door did not rumble shut behind them but then, it didn't really have to. There was no going back from this point on.
They traveled for what felt like days, always moving down in a slow, unending spiral. They found nourishment from the strange fungi that grew along the dirt walls which, they discovered early on, were not only very nutritious but also extremely juicy, removing the need to search for water.
As they traveled, they talked, mostly of the past: Gadgets and Minion regaling their friends with tales of their homeland, Grayshaw telling dramatic stories of battles from his days as an Imperial Guard, and Darkfang telling them more of the dragon's history. They learned much about each other from these stories and soon, all pretense of the fear and mistrust so rampant between their species forgotten, they slept cuddled together around the magical campfire the dragon made whenever they stopped to rest. Their periods of rest became night for them, and when they awoke to begin their journey once more they decided it was day. Never stopping, never looking back, always moving forward.
It was on what Gadgets presumed to be the second day (all his equipment, including his watches, having been destroyed during the cave-in), that he asked the question that had been bugging him since the beginning of their mission.
"So what's your name, anyway?" He asked the princess, who blushed and hid her face in her wing, as she often did when talking to somepony. She mumbled something he couldn't quite make out, so Grayshaw answered for her, though he looked distinctly embarrassed when he did.
"Bluebutt," he told them, looking straight ahead and deliberately not meeting anypony's eyes. "Like Darkfang has said before: griffons...they're not good at naming things."
Gadgets chuckled and draped a friendly hoof around Bluebutt; miraculously, his mechanical leg had come through unharmed, "Don't worry, Bluey," he told her. "Yours isn't the weirdest name I've ever heard of, just wait 'till I tell you about Sir Moustacheface."
The princess smiled shyly at him and nodded. She never seemed to speak if she could help it, and when she did it was usually so quietly nopony could hear her anyway. They continued like that for some time, Gadgets talking and Bluebutt listening. He told her all the stories he'd heard from Darkfang, all about how Mr. and Mrs. Gears had seriously considered naming Minion "Pinkie Pumpernickle", and of how pretty she was. He did not think anything of these idle compliments, though apparently his marefriend did as, after about an hour, she rounded on them with barely cooled fury.
"Gadgets, you do know that 'she' is a boy, right?"
Gadgets blinked and looked directly at his new friend, who had slipped out of his hold and was doing 'her' best to bury 'her'self inside the wall.
"Za?" He asked, dumbfounded.
"I had hoped you wouldn't find out," Grayshaw told them, glaring slightly at Minion, who started whistling as if she had no idea what she'd done, "the Princess's identity is a closely guarded secret."
The captain sighed and indicated that they should sit, "We might as well get comfortable, this is going to take awhile and it's about time for a rest, anyway."
The group made themselves comfortable as Darkfang breathed a small, green flame onto the dirt, which stayed there with neither fuel nor unicorn magic to sustain it, providing comfortable warmth and light. Grayshaw wet his throat with a morsel of fungi he tore from the wall, then started.
"There is an ancient law, dating back to the 2nd Glorious Griffon Empire, that states all male griffons born in Imperial territory must enlist in the military. The purpose of this law was to ensure that the Empire would always have sufficient military power to defend its borders and enforce proper order."
"Just males? What about girls?" Minion asked, the griffon acknowledged her with a nod.
"Females at the time were considered too valuable to waste in such a dangerous pursuit. Though nowadays they are just as common as males; a bit more violent, perhaps, but common all the same."
Minion nodded back, evidently pleased, and motioned for him to continue. Gadgets noticed a small grin playing on the griffon's beak as he took another bite of his beverage.
"When the Princess was born, the Grand Sage of the Beakisburg Temple himself presided over the birthing. The Grand Sage is well-known for his gift of prophecy and he foretold the babe would grow to be strong but would undoubtedly die in the military.
Fearing this, Governor Gripeye made a secret deal with the priests, the details of which I do not know, but the prince's identity was entered into the records as female, and he was subsequently raised as such. When 'her' gift of magic was discovered, she trained with the priests and became a powerful sorcerer, despite her natural timidity and inability to function properly in large crowds.
Do not mistake this shyness for cowardice, however, Bluebutt is one of the bravest griffons I know. Not everypony could put their own life and soul at risk for the sake of perfect strangers, as you all witnessed when she healed us."
The others nodded; nopony there would ever doubt her courage. Not after what she'd done for them.
"I just have one question," Darkfang cut in, speaking for the first time since they had entered the tunnel, "how do you know all of this?"
Grayshaw nodded at the dragon, he tended to do that whenever speaking to someone new, "A fair question. Governor Gripeye told me all of this himself three years ago when I was reassigned to oversee the docks of Beakisburg. His intent was to have me help protect his son in an unofficial role, which I have gladly done ever since."
"And why were you reassigned?"
"I was serving in the Imperial Guard when I pissed off a certain noble and was sent to the lowliest post he could find. Luckily for me, a certain somepony we all know and hate was looking out for my interests and I landed more or less on my paws down at Beakisburg."
"Bluebeak helped you? Why would he do that?"
"Bluebeak may be a colossal, arrogant pile of dragon dung, no offense --"
"-- but he knows how to recognize skill and talent when he sees it. For all his posturing, he does care about the Empire, and he didn't want to see a soldier of my reputation wasted in some swamp. Or so he says, I've often had the feeling his motives were not entirely unselfish."
"He certainly gives that impression."
"Nevertheless, I was grateful for the change in scenery, however it came about. I'd never felt right spending all my time protecting nobles who didn't deserve to be protected, or enforcing the petty laws of an Emperor who'd never been outside the palace."
"You don't sound like you care much for your leader," Gadgets noted.
"I am loyal to the throne, not whatever ass is currently sitting on it."
The pony shrugged and scooted closer to Minion, cuddling up beside her for the night. Princess Bluebutt slept near Grayshaw, who rested almost side-by-side with Darkfang, though neither seemed aware of this as they bedded down for the night.
It was roughly a week after this incident, by Gadgets' estimate, that they came to the tunnel's end. Without warning the dark, cramped space in which they'd been living opened out into a vast cavern. More fungi, the smallest easily the size of The Inconceivable, provided sufficient light so as to impress upon the party the sheer size of the place.
All of Beakisburg could have fit inside with room to spare, and like the tunnel into the Forbidden Mountain, the walls were utterly smooth. In the distance, a colossal pillar of ice, nearly half again the size of the mountain somewhere far overhead, loomed menacingly, emanating a despair that gripped at their hearts.
Gadgets whistled appreciatively attempted to take a step forward...and discovered to his horror that he could no longer move! It was then he noticed the vast, alien consciousness digging through his own, spreading through his limbs, taking control of his body; even his eyes were frozen in place.
When the icy, black despair of the whatever-it-was had threaded itself throughout the entirety of his flesh, his legs started moving again, bringing him closer to the icy colossus in the distance. The sounds of hooves, scales, and claws scraping and clicking against stone told him his friends were in a similar predicament.
Gadgets had experienced the joining of another consciousness with his own once before, a year ago when he and Minion had made love for the first time. It had been a normal day working on the airship, bringing it closer and closer to the completion and the beginning of their dream. At sundown, they stopped and rested outside the cave, watching as the stars came out, perfectly at peace with the world.
"I have something to show you," Minion told him, pulling away. "It's a new spell I learned, it'll let my consciousness join together with yours. We can share everything, our memories, hopes, dreams, our very thoughts in a way we never could before."
Gadgets, intrigued by the possibility, agreed immediately and watched in fascination as her horn began to glow with gentle, purple light, which continued to steadily build. When the light was near-blinding she leaned in and kissed him.
Their lips met with the warm, comforting passion they always had, but there was something new. Before the pony could identify what that was, his mind was flooded with a thousand images, sounds, and smells. Suddenly he was looking through two sets of eyes, one was his own, gazing at Minion, in the other he could see himself.
With a start, he realized he must be seeing through her eyes and she through his, and then the memories came. He saw every moment of their lives up to that point; he could hear her thoughts, her dreams as she lay in bed at night, her most secret desires, and it was beautiful. He'd never loved her more than he had at that moment, and through her mind's eye he could see that she was looking into his own soul, and what she found there scared her. But the fear passed as quickly as it came, and there was only love.
They had made love, then, beneath the stars, on the edge of the place where his parents had met their end and where their dream continued to live. The memory of that time was his most treasured possession, and one he would carry with him to his grave, perfect memory be damned. This was his choice to keep, not the whim of nature that had blessed and cursed him with this mind.
But this invasion of his soul was not the same, this was not the joining of two lovers beneath the moon, at peace and content with the soul they melded with. This was power, authority, dominance, seizing control of his will and body as it would a plaything, and even as his heart trembled with dumb fear at such absolute power, he could feel only rage. Rage at the will which bound his friends, rage at the interloper that would dare intrude upon his, and more importantly Minion's, most private places.
Gadgets blinked as the little party entered an ice-field and his emotions were swept aside as the scientific part of his brain began to wonder how such a thing, obviously requiring immense cold, had managed to form when he felt only comfortable warmth in the air. Massive blocks of jagged ice rose from the ground, and within them he could just make-out the dark silhouettes of creatures belonging only in the blackest of nightmares, trapped forever within their frozen prisons.
But even as that primal part of him fluttered with terror at the malice and hate etched in their faces, the intellectual side of him knew that none of these monsters was capable of the vast, terrifying will which kept him and his friends moving. Not that that made them any less horrible to behold.
Many of the creatures were draconic, all scales, fangs, and spines, some of the larger ones easily the size of the Governor's Library, if not bigger! But there was something...wrong about them, as if they had been warped by foul magics meant to bring about the darkest part of their nature.
In a few of the smaller blocks he identified vaguely pony-shaped figures, the silhouettes of griffons, Diamond Dogs, buffalo, and a thousand other familiar races. They too had been changed by the wrongness, the cause of which Gadgets was certain was what the presence in his mind was driving them towards, and he was equally certain the whatever-it-was was housed within the colossus so far in the distance and yet so close to his soul.
It took hours of walking until they began to get closer, the creatures trapped within the ice growing steadily more hideous and malevolent as they approached the mountain's base. Hours more passed before they began to be able to make out details in the ice.
It was not, as it had appeared from the tunnel, one solid, featureless piece. The ice was, in fact, badly cracked and even half-melted in places, as if whatever had been sealed inside had been fighting until the end, or the more terrifying option: that the whatever-it-was was trying to get out. Clouds of frost rolled down the sides, shrouding its base in dense fog and chilling the stone beneath their hooves.
They came to an abrupt stop some twenty meters from the edge of the mist, lined up side-by-side, their heads tilted to stare directly at the center of the colossus, where a dark shape could just be seen in the otherwise uniform pale-blue of the ice. Gadgets stared at it intently, not that he had any choice, struggling to make out what it was.
The minutes rolled by until his eyes adjusted enough that he could see it at last. A massive alicorn, several times again the size of Celestia, was sealed at the heart of the colossus, and even from miles away Gadgets could feel its power. This alicorn was clearly male, being far broader of chest and thicker of limb than the Sun Princess had been, though it possessed an odd sort of violent, almost feral, beauty. Its coat completely black, its mane, tail, hooves, and the edges of its wings made from purple fire. Its eyes a slightly darker shade of the flame, and glowing with malevolent power; power that was reminiscent of the dark will which bound the adventurers.
"Be welcome, my little ponies, in the place from which all bad things come."
The voice crashed through Gadgets skull like a freight train, ripping his thoughts to pieces and setting his head to bursting. If he could move any part of his body, he would have screamed and attempted to tear out his own brain with his bare hooves. Anything to make it stop.
"Speak your questions, little ones; I would hear what you have to say."
Gadgets gasped as his head dropped to his chest with a thunk, suddenly returning to his control even though the rest of his body remained beyond his will to make it obey. Similar gasps echoed from either side, showing that his friends had been similarly released.
"W-Where are we?" He heard Minion say, immediately turning to look at her.
Her eyes were wide with fear and her voice shook, but otherwise she looked fine. A quick glance at the others confirmed that they were all in similar states: shaken but unharmed. He didn't know whether to be thankful or worried about that. If they hadn't been harmed, it meant the Voice wanted them for something, and whatever that "something" was, he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be good.
"Tartarus," Darkfang gasped, "it's got to be. No place else would have such monsters hidden beneath the earth."
The Voice laughed, a sound that was all the more terrifying because it appeared to come from genuine mirth rather than the cocky, self-aggrandizing chuckle reminiscent of third-rate stage villains. Apparently their captor had a sense of humor. Brilliant.
"Tartarus is but a pale imitation of this place. Built to house the petty, insignificant creatures your kind deemed worthy of the title 'monster'."
"So if it's not Tartarus, where are we?" Grayshaw cut in, his eyes locked on Bluebutt who was valiantly trying to shake uncontrollably with fear, yet only succeeding in vibrating her head at sickening speeds.
"The Great Beneath, built to house me and mine until the Fall of Forever when we would be finally destroyed by the Eternal Setting Sun."
"And who are you?" Gadgets asked, "You're obviously not just an alicorn."
The Voice laughed once more, "You are half right, my little inventor, I am not like the others of my kind. Indeed, many of them would not tell you of me at all.
I am the Forgotten, which all races once feared. Slayer of Cosmis the Benign, Raper of Galaxia the Brave, and Keeper of the Darkest Day they called me, but alas, time has not been kind to my memory.
Gadgets shivered, from all he'd heard about the two alicorn monarchs, the duo was a force to be reckoned with. If what the Voice said was true, they weren't just dealing with any old ancient evil, they were dealing with a creature right out of Celestia's own nightmares.
"If all that's true, and you're so powerful, how'd you end up here, imprisoned in the bowels of the earth?" Grayshaw demanded, his only defiance against such absolute power his ability to ask sharp questions. The Voice took no note of him, continuing with its tale as if the captain did not exist.
"I was once a unicorn, like you," Minion cringed at the comparison, "and in pride or lust I studied magic forbidden by the Maker himself. Death magic.
Mine was the power to kill with but a single glance, to fell armies with a gesture, to crush the mightiest wyrms beneath my hooves like beetles. But I was a fool, and I erred.
In my arrogance, I thought myself beyond the reach of my enemies, and so my beloved fell to their spears and primitive attempts at magic.
In my rage I called upon powers I did not understand and wished to destroy all that which had harmed me. Unaware of who had done the deed and uncaring as to who had not, I slaughtered thousands and raised their corpses to kill thousands more. I began a war to end all life, all existence, to destroy the world so cruel as to take her from me.
I would have succeeded had it not been for Cosmis, who dared to lead the alicorns against me, my war would have devoured the world. As it is, our duel above the Great Wastes, that which you now call Dragon's Breath, was legendary, and the magics we brought to bear linger there still. An eternal testament to my power.
In the end, I destroyed him, but in doing so I was mortally weakened, doomed to never again wield the powers which might have brought me unquestioned victory. But I had my revenge, for as we battled, a part of me slipped away, the barest trace of my essence flew to the City Beyond the Skies where Galaxia lay heavy with child.
My essence invaded her, the lightest breath upon the wind, the gentlest sip of cooling water, and reached down into her womb and the foal which lay sleeping there, tainting it and forever staining the innocent creature with my essence. I am ashamed to say I do not know what became of it, I wish I did.
And so, in time, my armies of death fell to the Disciples of Starlight, as the armies of Cosmis began to call themselves, and my body and spirit were sealed here, in this place. As were my greatest lieutenants, those whom you see around you."
Gadgets shuddered involuntarily; the Voice's story had come with pictures. Memories that were not his own flashed through his mind: visions of vast armies clashing in oceans of blood, of two alicorns dueling in the skies above what would later be re-named the Forbidden Mountain, and of a heavily pregnant mare weeping bloody tears as the soul of her beloved, unborn foal was violated.
"Alright, so all that happened," he spoke up, "but why are we here? What could you possibly want with us? And how did you open the tunnel that brought us here?" A horrifying thought struck him, "You're not really as trapped as you claim, are you?"
"Hmph, you are a smart one, aren't you? No matter, you are correct. I did bring you hear for a purpose. As to the tunnel, even bound as I am, I am far from powerless. For I, as the raging sea, can never be fully contained.
You will take from here a certain item, and you will bring it to the sun and the open air. You will do my will in this, but afterwards, what to do with the item I will leave to you, for I will have no more interest in it."
"And what makes you think we're going to do that?"
"Because you want to live, and because I can keep you here for as long as I desire until you agree."
"And what if we die before we agree?"
Gadgets paused, he had no idea what the Voice was capable of; the possibility that it could keep them alive forever was disturbingly real.
"That aside," he continued cautiously, "why would we help you unleash unspeakable evils on the world? How do we know that this thing you're giving us won't just kill everypony?"
"Your perceptions are clouded; I have no interest in the world above, for I have found peace here, in my prison."
"Believe what you will about me, but know that what I give to you is no direct threat to anypony. It is not a weapon or a spell, it is alive, and I would have it be free to make its own choices. If it is evil, then it is because the world in which it lives is evil."
"What is it?"
"My son, dormant and sleeping yet ready to awaken and live at my command."
Gadgets stared around at his friends, all of whom looked as perplexed and dumbfounded as he felt.
The Voice was silent for a time, and when it finally spoke it was filled with sadness and unimaginable regret, "I have done unspeakable things in my time. I have committed sins for which there can be no atonement, and I am paying for them here in my prison. But my son, my Heart, the last bit of light left in my soul, is innocent of my crimes, and yet punished for them all the same.
I desire what all fathers' desire; for my child to laugh and to grow and to be merry, to be free live his life. You will take him from this place and you will set him free into the world; I do not care what you do after that, abandon him if you wish. My child is not so weak as to die before his time, what little of my power he has will make sure of that."
Gadgets ignored the Voice and addressed his friends, "What does everypony think? It doesn't sound like he's lying."
Grayshaw stared intently at the frozen alicorn, then nodded, apparently reaching some kind of internal decision. Bluebutt looked him in the eyes and nodded as well.
"I don't know if he's lying or not," Darkfang said, "but we're not getting out of here unless he says so. I guess we'll just have to do it and hope for the best. Who knows, maybe everything will work out."
Minion was the last to speak, and when she did she spoke slowly, as if unsure of what she was about to say, "I don't know if this is the right thing to do. The child he speaks of could grow to be just as evil as he is, if it isn't already, and if we were the ones who set such evil loose on the world, I'd never forgive myself. But, on the other hoof, the chance to redeem such ancient power is definitely worthwhile. If we could raise the colt to be good, to make his own choices, to not follow in the footsteps of his father and hate the world, I think that'd be just about the greatest thing we could ever do."
Gadgets agreed, "Everypony deserves a second chance."
He turned back to face the Forgotten and the Deathsmith spoke, loud and clear, "Very well, we will take your son to the surface. We will raise him, nurture him, as if he were our own, but if he becomes evil, if he becomes like you, we will do our duty to the world and strike him down. Deal?"
"Then let it be."
The mist before them turned black as the blackest heart and began to coalesce. Tendrils of dark fog curled together, forming around a purple light, shaping into a cocoon. The egg-shaped thing floated toward them and Gadgets reached out to take it in his hooves, newly freed, as the Voice retreated from his mind and body.
As he touched it, heat pulsed through his body, eerily similar to the blood magic which had healed him an eternity ago.
"It feels," he murmured, "alive."
"The deal is struck, the doors are open, let the world tremble at my return. Good luck, my little ponies, your trials have only just begun."
Purple flames erupted around them, a swirling maelstrom of raw power, crushing their senses and driving them to oblivion. Gadgets screamed along with the others, as everything they were was ripped apart.
Gadgets blinked and opened his eyes. He was lying on something blistering hot and very scratchy. Sitting up, he blinked in the sunlight of early afternoon and took note of his surroundings. Everywhere he could see was sand, the sun was high overhead in the blue sky, and his friends were lying all around him, still unconscious. The egg he'd been given was roughly a hoof away, the sand around it turned to glass by the heat of their arrival.
The junk was still flying overhead, quickly descending under the expert command of its mechanical crew, but the corpses of their battle were nowhere to be seen. In fact, looking around, Gadgets realized the cave entrance was gone as well. He had a brief moment to wonder if it had been buried in the sand along with the bodies, most likely by the sandstorm that had been brewing when they first arrived, before stirring amongst his friends distracted him. He quickly climbed to his hooves and trotted over to Minion, nudging her awake with his snout, "Minion, we're back in the desert. No time to be a lazypony."
The mare mumbled something in her half-sleep before opening her eyes and looking at him, "So we're back in the sand?"
"Great." Minion mumbled something offensive he couldn't quite make out under breath as she sat up, rubbing a hoof against her temple. "So where are we?" she asked, looking around as Darkfang and Grayshaw climbed shakily to their, the latter helping Bluebutt stand as well.
"Where we came in at, but nothing's as it should be," Gadgets answered, their ride home thundering to the ground several hoof-lengths away, its crew waving frantically in joy at the master's return.
The mare mumbled something else as she stood up and walked slowly to the ship, climbing aboard with only a minor amount of difficulty. Satisfied that she was okay, Gadgets trotted back to the egg; he contemplated it for a minute before asking Darkfang to carry it to the ship. The dragon stared at him for a moment, then picked up the pulsating sphere without a word, grasped the railing in a claw, and swung himself over. He was closely followed by Bluebutt, Grayshaw, and finally by Gadgets himself, who stopped briefly to cast one last glance around.
No sooner had he boarded the junk then he was nearly bowled over by Minion's shout of disbelief, "A month?! We've been gone for nearly a month?!"
The mare was at the wheel, staring in consternation at the shipboard calendar presented to her by three mechanical crewmen standing one atop the other. The tiny machines had apparently been keeping track of the days until their master returned, yet another quirk of the intelligence programming that made them such excellent subordinates. They could get lonely. Every eye on ship looked to her, every expression puzzled.
"That's actually not too unbelievable," Darkfang said after a moment, breaking the silence. "Who knows how long we spent traveling down that hole."
Minion shook her head once more in disbelief, then started giving out orders to the crew to make the ship ready for the return journey.
As they lifted off and turned towards Beakisburg, Grayshaw stepped up beside Darkfang, who was drowsing against the rail, "What are you going to do when we get back?" He asked.
The dragon cracked one eye open, "First I'm going to pay my old friend a visit, and find out if what the jackal said is true. Depending on his answer, I'm either going to eat him or I'm going to set the town on fire."
The captain nodded, "I hope you won't mind if I offer to join you for that?"
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
The return journey took almost three hours; the party spent that time resting, drinking and eating from the ship's supplies. Most of their perishables had gone bad but the tiny airship also carried a number of non-perishable food items, and Gadgets patented Super Canteens meant the water was still fresh. So it was that by the time they came within sight of Beakisburg they were all feeling rather refreshed, rested, and ready for answers.
Gadgets flew the long way around town, rather than passing directly overhead, and settled the junk down at the wharf without incident. The party disembarked immediately, Grayshaw waving off the intrepid soldiers who attempted to confront them. Strangely enough, the moment the young recruits got a look at the old veteran they turned stark white and dropped their spears, looking for all the world as if they had seen a ghost.
The trip to the city was eventful only in that everypony who saw the group had the same reaction. Shopkeepers who Gadgets had spoken to stared dumbfounded at him, while the noble lady who had nearly struck Minion took one glance at the mare and promptly jumped into the Turbin. The adventurer found all of this very strange. Yes, they had gone missing for a month, but that wasn't uncommon for ponies in their line of profession, and it wasn't like anypony here actually knew them well enough to miss them.
With a shrug, the eternally optimistic inventor discarded his worries and concentrated on being angry at Governor Gripeye. It was high time they learned the truth of things.
At the palace they were waved threw by grim-looking guards, different ones than Gadgets had seen the last time he was here, though he figured they probably rotated out every once in awhile. The darkly suspicious glare in Grayshaw's eyes when he saw them, however, quickly cast shadows of doubt on this theory. The whispering nobles were still present, many of them pointing at Bluebutt before giggling behind raised fans, as if they were all in on some private joke.
It was not long before they reached the study and were ushered through by the chamberlain, the aging pony that had been in attendance the first time they had been there, and into a room filled with bristling spear points. Over a score of griffon soldiers filled the tiny space; Governor Gripeye was still seated behind his desk as calmly and sedately as ever, but his wife was nowhere to be seen.
"So," the governor said, his voice still sad and soft but edged with menace, "you survived, and I see you rescued my daughter. Unfortunate. Guards," he waved an idle talon at them, returning his attention to the pile of parchment before him, "kill them all."