A 26-year-old Minnesota native attending college for the second time. With a pen in one hand and a sword in the other, CyborgSamurai cuts his way through writer's block and enemies alike.
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The Next Day-
“Trust your eyes, they deceive you not. Behold, my friends, Old Canterlot.”
Pinkie, Zecora, Vigil, and Ras stood on the edge of a tall, grassy cliffside deep in the heart of the Everfree Forest. Sprawled out beneath them were the crumbling ruins of an ancient city, barely discernible in between the towering trees. The buildings were made of weathered and bleached stone, all of them with caved-in ceilings and holes blasted in their sides. Their frameworks and innards had long since been abandoned to be reclaimed by the forest, which had done so with great abandon. Fuzzy green moss, long leafy vines, and plants of all kinds had sprung up everywhere, long since destroying any evidence of order. The decrepit walls of the city looked like swiss cheese covered in long vines of ivy, and the remains of a once-great, now-fallen castle stood on the far edge.
“This is so exciting!” Pinkie’s eyes filled her head as she beheld the ruins.
Ras frowned and turned to her. “Weren’t you here when you got the Elements and used them on Nightmare Moon?”
Pinkie pointed to the northwestern edge of the city, where Ras could make out a deep, gaping chasm that was spanned by a rickety rope bridge. Even from this distance, the faint roaring of water could be heard, accompanied by the fine spray of mist rising up from the depths below.
“We came in from that side,” Pinkie said. The city wall had collapsed and led straight into the castle. “I didn’t see any of this as we were coming in because it was really dark and misty and stuff.”
Vigil shielded his eyes with a hoof. “Doesn’t look like you missed much. There’s barely anything left.”
“Afraid that you are incorrect.” Zecora eyed the city walls as she stepped up to the edge of the cliffside. “There’s something here we can collect. The crumbling rock’s a telltale sign, it’s here we’ll find Dalaci Vine.”
I can’t believe how useful this plant is! I’ve never even seen it around her hut! Pinkie examined the cliffside. The giant trees of the forest went all the way up to the very edge, their tough thick roots becoming exposed as they snaked down the cliff. “Guess we’ll need to find a way down, huh?”
Ras walked over to a massive, looming tree with roots thicker than his legs, and gave one an experimental tug. “This looks like it might work.”
He began to nimbly climb down the side. Vigil watched him for a moment, then turned to address Zecora.
“Are you sure this is safe? I’ve heard stories of nasty things that sometimes move into ruins like these.”
Zecora laughed, and a clicking sound emanated from her saddlebags. “Danger lurks round every bend, and hides in every shadow. There’s not a place within this world I would describe as hallow.”
Vigil stared at the ground as he picked apart Zecora’s verse, not noticing that Pinkie was stealthily sneaking up behind him.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better about going in there.” Vigil squinted and looked down at Ras, who had made it to the bottom. “I’d rather we—“
Vigil jumped and whipped around. Pinkie hid her amusement under an innocent smile and continued. “We’re in the middle of the Everfree! There’s supposed to be nasty things everywhere! What does it matter if we run into them out here, or in there?”
Vigil pressed his lips into a thin line. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”
Ah, he’s too much fun. He’s almost as easy as Twilight! Too bad I can never get Rassy, though. Pinkie winked at Vigil. “Maybe you shouldn’t let me, then! I keep telling you to watch your blind spots.”
Pinkie could barely contain her laughter as she watched him grind his teeth.
“Caution’s not unjustified, the peril is quite real,” Zecora cut in. “Many native creatures think we’d make a tasty meal. But preparations have I made for times of dire need, and been here several times I have, so let me take the lead.”
Vigil considered her words for a moment again, this time with an occasional glance to his left and right. “All right,” he finally said. “Let me go down first though, just to make sure.”
“Go ahead!” Pinkie said. “We’ll be right behind you.”
Vigil walked over to the tree root and tugged it a few times. Satisfied with its strength, he climbed down the cliff.
Pinkie watched him descend, then came up beside Zecora and lowered her voice. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner that Dalaci Vine can be used as a panacea? Are you still worried about them?”
Zecora examined a nearby bush and she spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Many uses this plant has, not all will make you whole. Before such knowledge could be shared, I had to see their souls.”
Why is she still so edgy? I’ve told her a million times that they’re just here to help! They’ve been here for weeks now. If they were going to do something, they’d have done it already. Pinkie watched Zecora remove a few of leaves from the bush and put them in her pouch. “Do you trust them now?”
“One of them, yes, the other I’m unsure.” Zecora’s teal eyes met hers. “Take heed, Maalufunzi, for not all hearts are pure.”
Pinkie and Zecora followed Vigil down the tree roots to the forest floor below. They saw that Ras had gone ahead and found a path through the brush, and when he returned, he guided the rest of them through. A few minutes later, they beheld a set of twisted, rusted gates that stood off their hinges, and lay in the middle of what looked to once have been a wide road leading in and out of the city. What little of the walls that weren’t covered in plant life looked even more dilapidated from this close up, and beyond the walls were the continued trees and the shrubs of the forest. They completely ignored the once-established order of civilization, growing in any and every place they could. Zecora went to the front of the group, took the lead, and guided them past the gates into the ruins proper.
Pinkie took in the remains of the abandoned buildings as she bounced along. The few ones that were still standing were little more than bare foundations and shattered walls, the only things inside them were rays of sunlight, shadows, and the slow, inevitable creeping of the forest.
So this is where the big old nasty war between Celestia and Luna happened, huh? Viggy’s right, there really isn’t much left. Makes sense, though, if both of the Princesses are really super-duper strong, then anywhere they would’ve fought would’ve got smashed up pretty bad. I just hope all the other ponies evacuated in time.
Pinkie heard the clattering of a misstep to her right. She looked, and saw that Ras had stumbled on an upturned cobblestone. He cursed and kicked at it, which caused it to explode into fine powder.
Pinkie chortled as she watched him shy away from the dust. “Careful, Rassy. This place is destroyed enough as it is.”
“One thing that I don’t endorse,” Zecora said from ahead of them, “is the use of too much force. The structures teeter on verge of collapse, converting them into giant deathtraps.”
Ras’ face was grim as the dust settled. “Stay out of the buildings. Got it.”
“I never understood why Her Majesty didn’t make any kind of effort to preserve this place,” Vigil said. He glanced down a side street to their left. “This is a historic site! Ponies everywhere should be able to see it.”
“I understand why.” Ras’ eyes unfocused as he followed Vigil’s gaze. “This war wasn’t pretty.”
Pinkie noted his expression. “What do you mean?”
Ras turned to her and curled his lower lip. “I’m pretty good buddies with Blair, and he likes to ramble about strategies and battles and stuff. The War of the Sun and Moon is his favorite.”
“A tragic tale of darkness and light.” Zecora stopped as they reached a crossroads of three paths. “Born of those who forsook the night.”
“Something like that,” Ras agreed. “Luna went psycho because nopony even treated her like a Princess anymore, so she took her half of the military, corrupted them with her magic, and tried to stage a coup.”
Pinkie’s bouncing came to a halt. “Corrupted?”
“Yep.” Ras brushed the dust out of his coat. “When Luna turned into Nightmare Moon, her magic also mutated all her soldiers into bloodthirsty monsters that slaughtered anypony they could. Soldiers, civilians, even chil—“
Ras recognized the awkward silence and looked up at the others. Zecora had narrowed her eyes, Pinkie had cocked her head, and Vigil had his jaw clenched with his teeth exposed.
“Where in Celestia’s name did you hear those lies?!” He stormed over to Ras, stopping only inches away from his face.
Ras put up a defensive hoof. “Hey, hey, calm down! I already said that Blair told me. Get a few beers in that guy and you won’t be able to shut him up! We’ve been drinking buddies since before we joined the military.”
Vigil considered that for a moment before stepping away. “You should know better than to trust the words of someone when they’re drunk,” he said in a quiet tone.
Ras lowered his chin with an odd smirk on his face. “Au contraire. Depending on the pony, those words may be the most honest you’ll ever hear.”
“Not in this case,” Vigil snapped. “Nightmare Moon’s half of the military wasn’t corrupted by magic, and they certainly didn’t murder civilians or children. The soldiers were tried as war criminals, and then sent to the Changeling Wastes to fulfill the Peccatum Pactum.”
Ras’ lips parted. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he quickly lowered his head and rubbed the dust out of his eyes. When he looked up again, his face was a stoic mask.
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” Vigil turned away. “And with all due respect to the Lieutenant, you shouldn’t listen to somepony who doesn’t know what the buck he’s talking about.”
Ras chuckled. “You’re absolutely right.”
Zecora cleared her throat. “We need not feud about the dead. Our quarry lies but straight ahead.“
The buildings became more run-down as they continued. Walls, arches and frames gave way to grass-covered mounds of rubble and dirt, and the few skeletons of buildings that remained were so far gone, there was no way of telling what they once were. The road they were following split again, but the left path was blocked by a large mound of rocky debris. A single weather-beaten spire still stood at the top like a clawed, rocky finger pointing to the sky.
Zecora led them off the path to the right and back under the looming shadowy trees and thick underbrush. They hiked for a few minutes, making slow progress before Vigil spoke up.
“How much farther do you think we’ll need to go?”
In response, Zecora pushed down a large fern with her hoof, revealing a blinding ray of sunlight from a clearing just beyond. “No further need we go this time, for just in here grows Dalaci Vine.”
It’s just in here?! This will be so amazing! If I can figure out how to get rid of the bitter taste without dispelling the effects, I can put it in my punch and then I’ll have made a super-duper medicine! Then I can help all those ponies who’re hurting feel better! Pinkie squee’d and took a step forward.
A faint sound suddenly rang in her ears like the chiming of a bell. It was a single, definitive note, low, ominous, and minor in key.
Pinkie stopped as a chill went up her spine. Ras and Vigil didn’t notice, and disappeared into the light.
“Did you hear that?” Pinkie said to Zecora.
“Hear?” Zecora stared quizzically at Pinkie. “Nature’s sounds are prolific. You must be more specific.”
Pinkie took another step forward. “It was like a—“
The sound came again, louder and higher on the scale. Pinkie shuddered as a stronger, more noticeable chill ran through her body.
Zecora wrinkled her brow. “You act as though the fern will bite. There is no reason for such fright.”
What? I’m not talking about the plant, it’s a bell! Somepony’s ringing a bell! Pinkie squinted and leaned forward as she tried to see what was in the clearing. “Can’t you hear the—“
The chime rang so loud that Pinkie squealed and fell to the ground. She covered her ears and lay prone on the grass, her entire body quivering in fright.
Zecora rushed over to her student and put a gentle hoof underneath her chin. “Enough stammering, Maalufunzi, speak true! What is happening to you?!”
The ringing had stopped as soon as Zecora had released the fern. A small ray still shone in from the clearing beyond, A gentle breeze picked up, creating flecks of light and odd shadows that played about the forest floor. Pinkie looked up into her teacher’s face, and the faint luminance in her eyes went unnoticed.
“I-I don’t think… we should go this way.”
Zecora raised an eyebrow at Pinkie’s words. “Far have we come, and much have we risked to get this potent herb. If we turn back now empty-hooved, what purpose did coming here serve?”
Every fiber in Pinkie’s body was telling her to turn around and go back the way they came. She’d always been one to trust her instincts, and while they told her to do some odd things at times, they hadn’t steered her wrong yet. She’d long since dismissed the peculiarities of such feelings and just went with the flow, and if left to her own devices, this time would be no different.
However, Zecora had a point.
Am I really gonna chicken out just because I heard a weird noise and got the chills?! I feel weird stuff all the time! Okay, yeah, most of the time those weird feelings turn out to be right, and I have been on a pretty good streak lately, and when I get that kind of chill it usually means—no! I came all this way, I’m not gonna be a chicken-scaredy-pants now!
The light in Pinkie’s eyes died, and her resolve drowned out the ringing. She got to her hooves and smiled happily at Zecora.
“Sorry about that. I just got the heebie-jeebies there for a second. Let’s go!”
Zecora held her gaze for a moment longer, searching for some sign of relapse, but after finding none, she relented and held down the fern again.
Pinkie’s eyes adjusted to the bright light to see that they were at the bottom of a set of terraces with a great set of stone stairs in the middle. The buildings higher up were in decent condition, but the ones on the first level were nothing more than crumbling piles of rubble. She looked up to see a giant fountain on the second terrace, as well as another set of stairs continuing up the hill to a third.
Zecora walked up behind her and pointed to the third level. “Last I was here, found quite the crop. It should be plentiful at the top.”
Ras and Vigil had gone ahead and were halfway up the stairs, gingerly testing each one as they went. Pinkie and Zecora followed them, stepping where they’d indicated was a safe portion. Together they reached the second terrace and approached the fountain, which was fifteen feet in diameter, and filled to the brim with dark rainwater.
Ras and Pinkie went around the left side while Zecora and Vigil elected to go around the right. Pinkie aimlessly meandered by a pile of rubble, scooped up a weathered stick on the ground, and threw it into the fountain. It landed with a slurp before slowly descending into the depths.
The stick never made it to the bottom. It began to lose cohesion as it fell, with pieces of it breaking off and fading away to nothingness.
Pinkie stopped and watched the stick disappear. “Cool!” She looked around for another one to throw. “It’s a stick-eating fountain!”
Zecora eyed the liquid within. “In future travels such sights may bring, but I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Pinkie found another stick with a knobby end and brandished it at Zecora. “Look at this!”
Both Ras and Zecora gasped as they recognized what Pinkie was holding, but before they could protest, she threw it into the fountain. It landed with a plop, then slowly dissolved into the depths and disappeared like the first.
The water in the fountain began to shift and move about.
Ras swore, grabbed Pinkie’s tail in his mouth, and yanked her back several feet.
“Hey!” She turned and rubbed the base of her tail. “Rassy, what—“
“Stay away from it!” he hissed.
The water in the fountain quivered and rippled, but no new object had disturbed its depths. It sloshed back and forth in a more excited fashion, yet not a single drop fell out.
Zecora took a few tentative steps back, her shaky legs making no sound on the mossy stone. She reached inside her saddlebags and pulled out several small silver spheres with wicks in them.
Vigil noticed her action. “What are you—“
Zecora’s had spoken the word in a clear, urgent voice of command. Her teeth were bared, and her breathing was ragged.
The fountain was now churning violently. Vigil took one last look as the fluid brushed his tail, which caused it to sizzle… then disintegrate. His eyes turned to pinpricks, and he yelped and scrambled over to Zecora.
The water fell out of the fountain with a wet sloshing heave and gathered itself up as a giant, transparent inky blob. It extended a pair of pseudopods towards both groups of ponies.
Zecora lit the wicks of the spheres and rolled half a dozen of them towards the quivering mass, screaming one word in a shrill voice.
“I thought you were the lucky one!” Ras heaved Pinkie on his back and galloped away down the left street at full speed.
The terrace exploded in a fiery blaze. Tons of ancient rock shifted from the blast with an awful grinding and smashing, sliding down the hill and taking the ruins with it. The blob made no sound other than a sickening squelch as it was caught in the blast and buried by the sliding rocks.
Pinkie shielded her eyes as she was pelted by bits and pieces of raining debris. She tried to speak, but found she couldn’t hear herself very well. She rubbed her ears and tried again in a louder voice.
“Put me down!” She squirmed on Ras’ back. “I can run!”
Ras didn't slow down. “Not out of danger yet!”
Pinkie watched as smoke billowed out from where the terrace used to be. “Look behind you! Zecora just blew that entire area to smithereens!”
“You don’t understand!” Ras looked wildly around as he ran. “If oozes have an ample supply of food—“
They came to a crossroads to behold two inky spheres blocking the path to their right.
Ras gulped. “—they split.”
The oozes rolled towards them. Ras turned and galloped down the left path instead, which was covered in snaking vines, grasping tree roots, and raised cobblestones. He deftly weaved back and forth through the natural obstacle course, doing his best to ignore the slurping sounds as the oozes heedlessly rolled on after them.
Pinkie liked watching how the amorphous creatures smoothly flowed and jiggled as they bowled over anything in their path, but Ras’ jerky movements were starting to rattle her brain.
Okay, as much as I love piggyback rides, this getting ridiculous. Pinkie stood on Ras’ back and did a backflip, spinning in midair to land beside him and run alongside. He snorted as she matched his pace.
“Fine, just stay close to me! These things like to—“
The road ended, and they came to an abrupt stop. Below them was a grassy pit eight feet deep, filled with quivering goo that shifted upon their approach.
“—hide?” Pinkie offered timidly. She jumped back as the ooze started to climb out of the hole.
Ras turned around. The other two oozes were advancing behind them. To their left was an alleyway that ended in massive pile of jagged debris. He raised his eyes to the sky and softly muttering to himself.
“Commercial District… Tipsy Coinpurse…”
Ras’ eyes lit up. He turned to Pinkie and motioned down the alleyway.
Pinkie looked down the broken pathway. “That’s a dead end—“
“This isn’t a debate!” He lowered his head and prepared to scoop her up again.
“Okay, okay!” Pinkie dodged around him and ran down the alleyway to the moss-covered stone mound. She tried to climb up, but it tore away at her touch, revealing a smooth rock face beneath. She looked up and saw that the moss continued up for thirty feet.
Pinkie’s chest tightened as she looked for a hoofhold. “I don’t think we can—“
There was a loud clang, followed by the screeching of rusted metal giving way. She turned to see Ras standing beside a pony-sized hole in the side of the wall.
Pinkie looked back once at the entrance of the alleyway. The oozes had cut them off and were now rolling towards them. She went toward the hole, and heard the sound of rushing water from somewhere within the darkness.
No choice, I guess… Pinkie hopped into the hole. Ras turned to look at the oozes one final time before clambering in himself.
Pinkie fell through the darkness for a second and landed on wet, slippery stone. She fumbled blindly for a few seconds before striking a rough wall with her hoof. She went up against it and tentatively inched alongside, trying to make room for Ras, who she expected to be right behind her. However, there was no indication of his descent.
Don't tell me he... The tightness in her chest doubled as Pinkie stared out into the darkness.
“Get away, Pinkie!”
Ras’ voice had come from above. She looked up to see Ras hanging by one hoof on an outcropping of rock beside a beam of light ten feet up. In his free hoof was a small silver sphere with a sparking wick.
Pinkie froze. “Is that—”
One of the oozes slithered into the hole.
Ras tossed the sphere. “I SAID GET AWAY!”
Pinkie’s couldn’t breathe. A vision of Ras being blown to bits or crushed by falling rocks surged to the front of her panicked mind, and her eyes bulged as she screamed in a primal voice.
The Element of Laughter awoke with a burst of light. Pinkie’s world slowed down to a crawl, the darkness of the tunnel melted away, and the colors of the world intensifying with a blinding flash. Pinkie now saw that she stood beside a shallow stream, in the center of which was a single circular spot of light that shone brighter than all the rest. The dim chiming sounded again, still playing the same low, ominous note from before from the grove, and the light beckoned to her like a warm fire on a cold winter night.
Pinkie heeded the call, and as she arrived in the circle, the low, dangerous note turned bright and happy, like she had just won a prize at a fair. She turned her gaze back to Ras, who’d jumped away from the hole and was now flying in slow-motion through the air. She knew he wasn't going to make it. He hadn't known that Zecora used fast-burning fuses in her bombs.
Only one thought filled Pinkie’s mind as she concentrated on his airborne form.
You will live.
The light in Pinkie's eyes brightened, filling her irises and reflecting off the water. A soft breeze rose up in the dank tunnel, and Ras became surrounded in an aura of blue light.
The bomb exploded with a deafening bang that was amplified by the enclosed space. It was followed by more grinding and shifting of rock, and the foundations above collapsed, crushing the ooze and killing the light. For an instant, Ras felt a force from behind him tear and rip at his body, but it was swiftly banished by a soothing warmth that enveloped him like an embrace. He landed beside Pinkie, instantly dropped to the ground, then covered his head and shut his eyes.
The rocks ceased falling, and silence reigned for a time. Ras cautiously lowered his hooves and did an internal check, expecting to encounter some kind of searing pain, broken bone, or numbness from a grievous injury. There were none. Not only was he whole and unharmed, but the fatigue from walking all day had vanished, and he felt calm and at peace, with not even a trace of adrenaline present from the chase or explosion.
Ras jerked at the address. Pinkie had spoken in a whisper, but it was laced with a faint echo. His skin tingled as he looked up at the Bearer of Laughter.
Pinkie’s eyes were half-filled with a soothing blue light that illuminated the remains of the cavern. Even as an earth pony, Ras could feel the waves of magic radiating out from her like warm gusts of wind on a late spring day. She was soaking wet from the large, jagged rocks that’d fallen into the stream around them, which had caused her normally-poofy mane and tail to go flat and straight. She stared at Ras with furrowed eyebrows and spoke again, her warm, earnest voice saturated with quiet power and concern.
“Are you okay?”
Ras’ mouth twisted with internal conflict. He returned her gaze for a few seconds, but finally, he sighed and got to his hooves. “I should be asking you that.”
Pinkie blinked. “Me? You’re the one that got caught in the explosion!”
Ras pursed his lips and turned to examine one of the fallen rocks behind them. “Didn’t think the fuse would burn that fast. Oh well, no harm done… thanks to you.”
Pinkie looked down at her reflection in the water. Even with the ripples from the fallen rock, she could see that her eyes were glowing like a pair of nightlights.
“You know what this is, don’t you?”
Ras felt another burst of enchanted wind rush through him. He rolled his eyes and turned back to her. “I swear, you worry almost as much as Blair. You don’t need to keep blasting me like that.”
Pinkie’s face was blank. “Blasting you with what?”
“Your Healing power,” Ras said. “I’m fine. You can turn it off.”
Pinkie continued to stare at him with her half-filled eyes.
Ras sat on his haunches. “Come on, make the connection. Don’t you feel anything right now?”
Feel? I don’t—
Pinkie gasped as something inside her pulsed lightly in response. She closed her eyes, searched within herself, and found that the warmth was radiating out from her heart. She mentally poked and prodded at it, and she realized it was like a sixth sense that had been there the entire time, but she never knew she had.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You tell me.” Ras had his head turned and was poking around in his saddlebags. “Haven’t you felt it before?”
Have I? It’s like it’s foreign and familiar at the same time. Now that you mention it, this is just like I remember from when we fought Black Snoo—er, Nightmare Moon! It was a lot stronger then, but it made everything really bright and it felt like the air was hugging me, just like now, and I felt really happy and calm, just… like… now…
Pinkie’s eyes snapped open. “I-It can’t be, that’s just silly. There’s no way it’s—“
“—the Element of Laughter?” Ras finished. He pulled out a small cylindrical tube. “Of course it can. Half of its power got transferred to you when Nightmare Moon smashed its original vessel a few months ago. You’re its new avatar.”
Pinkie said nothing at first. She waited a few seconds, half-expecting Ras to say something else. He didn’t. He simply sat in the water with a raised eyebrow, watching how she’d take the news.
The Element of Laughter is… inside me? I can... heal... others?
Pinkie hair poofed back out as she squealed with delight. She dashed forward to Ras, grabbed his forehooves and began dancing around in a circle.
“It is it really is it really really is!” Pinkie spun round and round, her echoing voice filling the cavern. “I saw the ooze when you threw the bomb and I panicked and everything slowed down and then I knew where the rocks were gonna fall so I went there and then I saw you were gonna get caught in the blast and get hurt and I really really really really didn’t want that so I focused on you as hard as I could and it felt like I was telling the air to hug you and then the bomb went off and I was safe but you weren’t and ohmygosh you got hurt and I healed you didn’t I?!”
Ras couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing as he let himself get caught up in Pinkie’s excitement. “You’re taking this better than I thought!”
Pinkie giggled and released him. She bounced all around, splashing him with each jump. “Why wouldn’t I be excited? Now I can heal ponies along with my herbalism and my parties will be super-super-super—“
How does he know about this?
She stopped as the sobering thought struck her. The light in her eyes dimmed, the Element of Laughter faded to a pinprick in her heart, and absolute darkness to enveloped them both.
Pinkie wrestled with the uncertainty that clawed at her mind. She looked at where she guessed Ras was, and spoke in a cautious tone.
“You’re not here to protect me, are you?”
Pinkie had a few ideas on how he’d react to the question: Denial, ignorance, confusion, maybe even fear. Any of those reactions would be perfectly understandable, and she was ready for something along those lines.
The last thing she expected however, was to hear him chuckle and reply in a sly tone.
"Not in the way you think."
There was a scraping sound, and the cavern became filled with a dull red. Ras held the end of the cylindrical tube, which created just enough light for them to see each other. His face was half concealed by shadow, and he looked at Pinkie with a dark, mischievous smirk.
Pinkie’s breath caught in her chest. “Who are you?”
Ras set the flare down on a rock. “I’m a lot of things. Some of which you know me to be, and others that you don’t. I’m afraid detailed explanations are gonna have to wait, though. We’re kinda in a jam here, in case you hadn’t noticed. For now, I’ll just ask you a question in return.”
Ras swept his dripping mane behind his back, stepped up to Pinkie, and knelt down before her with his gaze to the ground.
"Lady Pinkamina, Hero of Equestria and Bearer of Laughter, wilt thou place thy trust in me?"
Whoa, cool! He’s like those fancy ponies in that one play I saw! Pinkie giggled. “Are you really from the Royal Guard?”
“Aye, milady,” Ras kept his eyes on the water. “Served the Crowns I have for two and twenty years.”
Twenty-two?! I thought he was around my age! Pinkie wrinkled her brow. “How old are you?”
Ras’ shoulders shook with more laughter. “Many answers there are to that, as well. Though in any answer, one fact still holds true.”
She watched the sly smirk reappear on face in the reflection of the water. “I am thine elder.”
Pinkie splashed a bit of water at him. ““Oooh, aren’t you a sneaky-sneak. I knew there was something funny about you.”
“Thou hast not answered mine query.” Ras’ voice was tinged with amusement. “Wilt thou trust thy humble servant?”
Zecora said she didn’t trust him, now I know why! He really does seem nice, though, and he could’ve left me back there to those oozy-things. Pinkie looked around the cavern for a moment before answering. “Only if you make me a Pinkie Promise.”
“Thy conditions are amicable.”
She hesitated as she remembered what ‘amicable’ meant. “When we get out of here, you’ll tell me what’s really going on.”
Ras stiffened. “By my troth, I may say I was sent to you by Her Majesty, and I have thy best interests at heart. Though not much more may I share, for already have I sworn another oath to keep silent. Thou wilt have to consult thy superiors if thou wishest to know more.”
Pinkie’s face assumed the rare expression of stoicism. Superiors? Does he mean the Princesses? They know about this and haven’t said anything, but they sent guards… to… ahhh, I get it. He’s not protecting me, he’s watching for when and how the Element of Laughter’s power manifests. Wait… if this is happening to me, then the oth–sweet sugary strudels! Looks like Rassy’s not the only one around here who’s a sneaky-sneak! I wonder what kind of powers they have... oh ho ho, I could have fun with this. I think I’ll play along for now.
Pinkie put on a convincing smile and nodded. “All right, Mr. Fancy-Talk, I’ll trust you. You can go back to normal now.”
Ras got to his hooves. “What, you don’t like Old Equestrian Grammar?”
“It’s hard to pick apart what you’re saying half the time.” Pinkie watched him retrieve the flare. “Why’re you telling me about this now? This was supposed to be a secret, wasn’t it?”
Ras rolled the flare in his hooves. “You were gonna find out in a few months, anyway. I knew something like this would happen with us going into the forest so much, and I figured the truth would be easier to explain than some other reason for why an earth pony all of a sudden has glowy eyes and can do magic.”
I’m kinda curious to see what would’ve come up with. Pinkie bit her lip. “You’re not gonna get in trouble, are you?”
Ras shrugged. “Blair can throw ice spikes at me all he wants. I’m not gonna keep a secret when your powers are the only way I see to get out of this mess.”
Pinkie cocked her head. “How’s Healing gonna get us out of here?”
Ras winked. “I said powers, as in the plural. Healing’s not all you have. You have another power too: Luck.”
Luck? What—thaaaaaat’s what the chiming and the light was! He’s right, if it warns me of danger, I can see the safe way to get out of here! Pinkie raised her eyebrows. “How does that one work?”
“It was explained to me as ‘the ability to sense and avoid misfortune.’” Ras raised a hoof to his chin. “You said something about knowing where the rocks were gonna fall, right? How’d it show you?”
Pinkie gave a toothy smile. “I heard a sound like a scary bell, and the spot we’re in now got brighter than everywhere else.”
“Good enough,” Ras took a deep breath. “So then, here’s our situation. We’re in what used to be the Dawn River Passageway. It runs underneath the entire city, and comes out around the place where you and your friends came here the first time. Judging by the running water we’re in now, and the spray I saw coming up out of the chasm when we were up on the cliff, I’d say it still does.”
How does he know all that... no point, he Pinkie Promised somepony else. Pinkie nodded and let him continue.
“Now, the passageway itself may be too blocked for us to get through, but there’s another system of tunnels that goes under the entire city that were used for, well… a lot of things.” Ras met Pinkie’s gaze. “There’s an entranceway going into them not far from here, and if it isn’t collapsed, we should be able to use it to get out of here.”
Pinkie ignored the faint voice in the back of her head screaming something about an elephant and forced herself to look innocently clueless. “So what’s the problem?”
Ras glanced to the side. “It looks like the ruins have been infested by Forest Oozes. There’s a good chance we’ll run into more of them down here, and if we do, there won’t be anywhere to run.”
Okay, this one I really don’t understand. I’ve never seen Zecora so scared as when that first one came out, and that really smarted when Rassy yanked me. Pinkie frowned. “Why’re you so scared of them? They’re just blobs.”
“Blobs of flesh-eating acid, you mean.” Ras shuddered. “Oozes are essentially nature’s janitors, devouring anything and everything that isn’t a plant or a rock.”
Something didn’t match up. Pinkie looked up at the rubble where they had come in. “That first one ate a few sticks, though.”
Pinkie looked back at Ras to see that his face was gaunt and tight. He lowered his chin, and his eyes were veiled by the darkness.
“Those weren’t sticks.”
Pinkie took a step back. “You mean—”
“—if you manifest your Luck power, you should be able to see the safest way through the passageways,” Ras said pointedly. “Hopefully that will make us avoid any ‘unfortunate’ pitfalls along the way.”
He said the War of the Sun and Moon wasn’t pretty. He really wasn’t kidding, was he? Pinkie swallowed hard. “How do I do it?”
Ras raised the flare and looked around. “Your powers are fueled by the emotions that the Element of Laughter embodies, as well as a desire to alleviate pain and suffering. Focus on those things, and it’ll respond… I think.”
Pinkie nodded and concentrated, finding the pinprick of light in her heart. It quivered at her touch.
“Oh, and one more thing.”
Pinkie opened her eyes. “Hmm?”
Ras wore a grimace as he spoke. “The reason why we weren’t supposed to tell you is because your powers aren’t fully developed. You’re going to hurt yourself if you push too hard, so don’t go overboard.”
Something in Ras’ voice made Pinkie’s lips twitch. “Do I have anything other powers besides Healing and Luck?”
Ras looked away. “Let's concentrate on one thing at a time, here.”
Pinkie tilted her head with a playful smirk and took a step towards him. “Rassy...”
Ras shook his head and fought against the rebellious corners of his mouth. “I don't want you to get distracted trying something you can’t do yet!”
Pinkie went puppy-eyed and curled her lower lip as she approached him. “Come onnnnn. Can you leeeeeast give me a hint?”
Ras‘ resolve caved, and he met her eyes with an excited grin. “You any good at singing?”
“I love to sing!” Pinkie said. “Why—“
Ras waggled his eyebrows.
Oooooh! Pinkie jumped in the air. “I wanna—“
“Escape now, explore untapped potential later.”
Pinkie needed a few minutes of concentration in order to coax out the Element of Laughter. It crept out with the speed of a snail, slowly filling her body with warmth and shining like a steady lantern in her heart. A breeze picked up as the darkness faded away again in her perspective, and her pupils became filled with a sparkling blue. A pathway of light stretched out before her that went across the stream and into where she could now see the remains of an archway, half-filled by debris.
Pinkie pointed at the road of light. “Can you see it?”
Ras raised the flare. “What, the other side?”
That’d be a no. Pinkie took the lead. “This way.”
She led Ras across the stream and climbed over the debris, taking care to test her steps before moving on. As she walked, she noticed that she was accompanied by a pleasant background of musical notes. She stopped when she got to the top, swaying back and forth in tune to the beat.
“Uh, Pinkie?” Ras said as he watched her erratic movement. “What're you doing?”
She turned back to him and helped him climb. “Can't hear the melody, either?”
Ras stood still and twitched his ears, but then shook his head.
Pinkie slid down the other side and into a narrow corridor two ponies wide and made of dark sandstone. “You know, now that I think about it, I always hear happy music! It’s just really, really faint.”
Ras looked down at her from atop the mound of debris. “And you didn’t think anything of it?”
“Everypony gets tunes stuck in their head!” Pinkie defended. “I just figured I had an overactive imagination!”
Ras jumped down after her. “You’d get along well with Ace.”
Pinkie put her trust in her new abilities and walked on without fear, the music filling her ears as she jaunted down the path. The darkness faded away at her approach, letting her see as well as if she was out on a sunny day.
Pinkie snapped back to attention and realized the path had split in two. One path went to the north, the other to the northeast. The path of light followed the latter.
Pinkie hesitated as curiosity got the better of her. With utmost care, she lifted one hoof off the lucky road and took one tiny step on the northern path.
The music ceased, and a single sharp, dangerous note rang in her ears with the force of a gong.
It took all Pinkie had to keep from screaming out in pain and surprise. Instead, she turned around and forcibly pushed Ras down the northeastern path.
“This way, definitely this way!”
The path continued on in the same direction for a few minutes before turning fully again to the north. The Song of Luck resumed in Pinkie’s ears, but the deafening note still reverberated and made pay attention to where she was going. Her train of thought switched tracks to assume a more analytical destination.
So, he knows about my Element and my powers, was sent by the Princesses, talks funny, is older than me, and is sworn to secrecy. To quote Granny Pie, 'I smell me some shenanigans.' Royal shenanigans, at that! He did say I could go to the Princesses if I really wanted to know… nah, what’s the fun in that? This is almost like a game, and if it is, then it’d be a shame to spoil it so soon. Still, though, I wanna know more than this, so how do I get Rassy to tell me? I know! If I get him to talk about himself, he might let something else slip.
Pinkie spoke over her shoulder. “I didn’t know you knew how to use explosives.”
“Norric showed me how,” Ras replied. “I don’t think you’ve met him. He’s one of the members of my platoon. Kind of a klutz.”
And probably another sneaky-sneak. Pinkie shook her head. “When did Zecora give you one of her bombs?”
Ras cracked his neck. “She didn’t. That clicking sound was driving me nuts, so I went through her saddlebags to see what it was when she wasn’t looking.”
Oh, well it was a good thing—wait, what?! Pinkie whirled around. “You stole it?!”
“Borrowed,” he corrected. “Thought it might come in handy.”
Pinkie narrowed her glowing eyes. “You’re a big meanie!”
A red outline formed around Ras at her words. A cold wind brushed past Ras, and a piece of the ceiling fell on his head with a clunk. He staggered back comically and fell to his knees.
Pinkie’s hoof flew to her mouth. “Oh my gosh!” She rushed over to him. “Are you okay?!”
Ras gave a pained laugh. “Pinkie, Pinkie, Pinkie. I thought you said you’d trust me!”
“I do!” Pinkie defended. “Why would you say that?!”
Ras rubbed the spot on his head with the rock had hit him. “Your Luck power has two functions. It makes allies lucky… and enemies unlucky.”
Pinkie blinked as she realized what the red outline meant. “I don’t think you’re an enemy! I'm just mad at you for stealing!”
“Lying doesn’t suit you, my friend.” Ras looked up at her through his eyelashes. “Your words are patronizing, but your powers certainly aren’t.”
Pinkie bit her lip. “Okay, I might still be a liiiiittle itty-bitty leery of you, and now I find out you’re stealing?!”
Ras leaned against the wall and eyed the ceiling. “If I hadn’t swiped that bomb, we’d both be ooze soup. Like it or not, that little theft saved our lives.”
She winced as the weight of his words hit her. Ugh, I don’t want to admit it, but he’s right. It may have been wrong, but I don’t know how else we could’ve closed the tunnel. Come on, I was just telling myself earlier that if he would’ve done something nasty by now if he really was a big meanie. He may be hiding things, but if he says he’s a friend, I believe him! So, stop it, Element!
Ras’ outline flickered, and slowly shifted from the red to a blue that blended in with his coat. He relaxed as he felt the wind around him become warm again.
Pinkie helped him up. “I’m soooooo sorry! I guess don't have full control over this.”
“Figured as much,” he said. “If it makes you feel any better, I was gonna put it back if I didn’t need it.”
“You still shouldn’t have stolen it,” Pinkie admonished. “She would’ve just given it to you if you’d asked!”
Ras hid his smirk by looking at the floor. “That I very much doubt.”
Pinkie couldn’t see his face, but heard the disbelief in his voice. “Why not?”
“Zecora’s pretty sharp.” Ras picked up the rock that’d hit him and tossed it down the tunnel. “ She knew what I was first time she laid eyes on me. Probably has some experience with ponies of my skill set back in the Flatlands.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. The path turned to the east as they continued on side by side. “And what are you, exactly?”
Ras snorted. “Officially? They call me a specialist. I believe my fancy title is ‘Covert Operative,’ but I’ve never been a fan of mincing words. No matter how you slice it, a thief’s a thief.”
Pinkie gasped. “You really are a big meanie! You’re a nasty-sneaky-undeserving-grabby-taker!”
Ras quickly looked up to see if another rock would fall, but the ceiling remained intact. “You know, I’ve been called a lot of things, but that one’s a first. I’ll have you know I’m the nicest nasty-sneaky-undeserving-grabby-taker you’ll ever meet.”
Pinkie stuck out her tongue. “That’s like saying you’re the nicest ooze I’ll ever meet! How can you think it’s right to take things that aren’t yours?”
Ras was silent for a time, and the path began to curve until they were going west. “It’s not a matter of what’s right, it’s a matter of what’s necessary.”
“Why would it be necessary to steal?”
“Hunger’s a pretty powerful motivator.” Ras ran a hoof along the wall. “Not everypony comes from a providing family, and one meal a day doesn’t really cut it for a growing colt. If I wanted more, though, I had to resort to alternative means.”
One meal a day?! Not even my family was that poor! It may have just been bread and water a few times, but we always had three meals. Pinkie’s voice went soft. “It’s a little more understandable if you were only stealing to eat.”
“Well, that’s how it started,” Ras admitted. “Every now and then, I’d see some high and mighty noble come into the market, strutting his stuff and dressed up like a prissy peacock, and I figured anypony who’s that rich and stupid isn’t gonna miss a few bits… or a few dozen… or his entire purse…”
“Rassy!” Pinkie swatted his shoulder.
He took the blow without protest. “You lived on a rock farm before you came to Ponyville, right?”
“Personnel file.” Ras helped her climb over a pile of rubble that filled the corridor before it turned again to the north. “I've no idea what that kind of work that is, but how hard was life for you growing up?”
“Hard enough that I left as soon as I could so my family could eat more than bare bones,” Pinkie replied. She jumped over a hole in the floor, landing with a clippity-clop on the other side. Ras followed after her. “The Pie’s have always been really strong Geomancers, but I was never very good at it.”
They now stood in a half-collapsed triangular room with three possible passageways leading on. One went to the northwest, another straight ahead to the north, and the last went to the northeast. Ras hung back as he let Pinkie choose their path. “Let me ask you this then: if there was a way that you could use your talents to let them live in comfort, would you do it?”
“I already do.” Pinkie unerringly followed the road of light down the northwest path. “I send home the money I earn from being a party organizer every month.”
Ras nodded and followed behind her. “I tried to do the same thing. It just wasn’t enough.”
So he went from stealing food so he could eat to stealing money so he could help his family. There had to have been a better way than that! The pathway gently sloped upward, and the walls turned a lighter shade of gray. “Why was your family poor, anyway?”
Ras barked out a harsh laugh. “In a nutshell? My father’s an idiot.”
Pinkie shot him a reproachful glare. “That’s not a very nice thing to say!”
Ras sneered. “Would you call somepony that gambles away all his money and then can’t buy food for his family an idiot?”
Oh… um, yeah. Wow, that’s…. Pinkie shuffled. “I suppose that’s a pretty idiotic thing to do.”
Ras sighed. “My dad had a mountain of gambling debts that he had no way of repaying, and when he found out I was good at stealing, he asked me if I wanted to ‘help the family.’”
And then he was stuck doing it. Aww, poor Rassy. Pinkie spoke in a quiet tone. “Did you ever get caught?”
Ras raised his chin. “I’ve been stealing since I was six. Not to brag or anything, but I’m kinda good at it. First thing you learn is how to cover your tracks. After that, you figure out how to recognize safe targets, and you never make a move unless you have a backup plan. I had standards, though, unlike most thieves. I never stole from the poor, I never stole more than one thing at a time, and I never chose the same target twice.”
The path leveled out, and they entered a rectangular room where the floor had caved in. Pinkie looked down, and saw that the hole went down several dozen feet before ending in a pile of jagged rocks. The path of light went to their right along the edge of the hole, which was just wide enough for them to continue on single file.
Pinkie went first. “Did you manage to pay back your dad’s debts?”
Ras eyed the pit before following carefully behind her. “You need to stop digging In order to fill a hole. I’m pretty sure I repaid the original amount he owed ten times over, but as soon as he paid back one debt, he went and made another one. I don’t know how many times he told me, ‘this is the last one, I promise.’”
Ras facehooved and watched Pinkie scramble up into a hole in the wall. “Who’s the bigger idiot, him for squandering away his money, or me for believing his lies?”
Pinkie’s voice echoed from within the hole. “You were just trying to help!”
Ras shook his head and he climbed up into the hole with a grunt. He had a harder time of it due to his larger frame, but he was still skinny enough to squeeze through. “I never liked stealing. At first it was just so that I wouldn’t go hungry, but then Dad starting taking bigger and bigger chances, and wound up owing more and more. I finally realized it was never gonna end, and I had to get away from him if I was ever gonna build a life of my own. So, as soon as I turned eighteen I moved out, got a real job, and tried to go straight.”
The tunnel turned to the left, then opened up into a proper passageway. Ras poked his head out, but when he tried to pull the rest of himself out, he found that he was stuck. He wiggled and struggled as he tried to get free.
“Uh,” Ras laughed nervously. “Little help?”
Pinkie realized his predicament. She went over to him, grabbed onto his head, and pulled with all her might. Ras came free with a pop, and he tumbled out of the hole, landing on top of Pinkie. They fell to the ground together in a jumble of manes and hooves.
Pinkie giggled as she got back to her hooves. “What do you mean, ‘tried’?”
Ras brushed the cobwebs and rubble out of his mane. “You know how family is. You can try all you like, but you can’t stay away from them forever. We eventually crossed paths, and when we did, the first thing out of his mouth wasn’t ‘Good to see you,’ or ‘How’ve you been,’ it was, ‘I need your help again.’ I’d just gotten out, put it all behind me, and here he was trying to suck me back in again. I didn’t take it very well.”
Pinkie took the lead again, and the path of light continued on to the north. “What happened?” she asked.
“We had an argument,” Ras said simply. “The gist of which was that he didn’t care that I was trying to build an honest life, and I didn’t care that he was an idiot. He threw the usual things in my face to try and guilt me into it, but they were the same lines he’d been feeding me for years, and at that point they didn’t even faze me anymore. I finally told him that I wasn’t going to help him, and if he ever asked again, it’d be the last time we’d ever speak.”
That can’t have been good. Pinkie pursed her lips. “What’d he do?”
“He gave me an ultimatum of his own,” Ras said through gritted teeth. “He said if I didn’t help him, he’d turn me in to the authorities.”
They were just about to enter a new room. Pinkie stopped in the corridor and turned back to him. “He really wouldn’t have—”
Ras flared his nostrils. “It was an empty threat. Like I said, the first thing you learn as a thief is how to cover your tracks. He had nothing on me and we both knew it, but that wasn’t the point. He’d crossed a line in trying to hold that over me, and the way he said it was so... casual, I knew right then and there that he never cared about me at all!”
Ras stormed past her into the blank, featureless room, and began to pace back and forth, all the while speaking in a rising voice.
“How many times had I risked my neck for him?! How many times had I been only inches and seconds away from being caught?! One false move away from getting my nose smashed in, hauled away to jail or worse, and it was all to help put food on the table because of that pathetic, selfish, weaseling, useless wastrel! And how does he repay me? After years of bailing him out of his jams and fixing his mistakes?! He tries to betray me! He’d made our family suffer, used me like a tool for years, and now has the audacity to try and stab me in the back when the whole reason I was doing it the first place was for him?! How DARE he—“
Ras went to the far wall and raised his back legs to strike it as hard as he could. He remembered himself, however, or more accurately, remembered where they were, and held back the strike at the last minute. He hit the wall with a soft tap, then let his legs fall to the floor and hung his head. His shoulders sagged, and he sat down on his haunches.
Pinkie walked up to him and put a hoof on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Rassy.”
Ras didn’t look up, and his reply was soft and strained. “He was so blind... blind and weak. He couldn’t see his own faults and mistakes, and instead of realizing he was the one who needed to change, he turned around and blame others for their misfortune. I knew how desperate he must’ve been to threaten to turn me in, but I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now—you don’t blackmail your own son. He’d dug his own grave, and the notion that he was trying to bury me with him filled me with rage.”
Ras swallowed hard, and his breathing became forced and controlled. “And… in the thrall of that rage... I did something that I’m not proud of.”
His outline darkened dangerously. Pinkie took a step back from him, but got a grip on her anxiety and forced her Element to behave.
“What’d you do?” Pinkie whispered.
Ras met Pinkie’s luminant eyes. “I set him up. He was trying to get me to rob a bank, and I pretended to agree to it. On the night of the heist, I anonymously tipped off the authorities, planted evidence in his house, called in some favors for some eyewitnesses, and tied myself up as a hostage. He got caught red-hooved, took the entire fall and was hauled off to jail. I was never even a suspect.”
Pinkie’s jaw dropped. “You got away with it?!”
Ras crossed his hooves. “Wasn’t even the hardest con I’ve pulled. Who would you have believed, a hard-working model citizen with a spotless record, or a penniless gambling addict with a history of involvement in illegal acts?”
He did that to his own father?! How could—he didn’t really have any other choice, did he? His dad was trying to get him to do super-bad things all because he kept throwing away his money! What else could he have—wait, if he framed his dad, then why is…
Pinkie lowered her chin. “You just blabbed a pretty big secret.”
Ras laughed and got to his hooves. “This is all ancient history, Pinkie. The Princess granted me a boon in recognition for my services to the Crowns a while back, and I told her what happened. She pardoned my transgressions, then dropped the charges against my father.”
The two of them walked out of the room and into a new corridor, which went on for several paces before turning to the west. “Did she do it?” Pinkie asked.
“Her Majesty is as benevolent as she is powerful.” Ras fervently lowered his head. “Not only did she grant my request, she also voided my father’s debts, and moved him from prison into rehab.”
Well at least now he won’t hurt anypony. Pinkie looked down the corridor, and saw that they were entering another room. The northern pathways had caved in, but the path of light beckoned her to an open one to the southwest. “Have you seen him since?”
“No,” Ras said immediately, “and I never want to. I’m glad he’s not in prison, but I’ve had enough of him for two lifetimes.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through all that,” Pinkie said.
Ras sighed. “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. It’s not easy to watch them hurt themselves, and you try to do everything you can to help them, but ultimately you can't do a thing if they don’t think they have a problem. Blair helped me to see that.”
Oh yeah, he'd said that he was buddies with him or something. Pinkie kicked at a pebble. “Blair seemed nice. How long have you known him?”
Ras scrunched his eyebrows. “When did you talk with him?”
Pinkie reached over and ruffled his mane. “Silly, he was there at the picnic last week, remember? How’d you guys meet?”
The corridor widened and went on to the west. “I prefer his version of the story.” Ras cleared his throat and plugged his nose. “We both got mistakenly involved in a dispute with some unsavory individuals that quickly escalated to hostile levels. We found ourselves ill-at-odds, and so formed an alliance to achieve to a desirable outcome.”
I… think that means… I got nothing. Pinkie blinked several times and stared at Ras, who burst out laughing.
“We started a bar brawl,” Ras said. “It was late one Friday night, and we were in separate corners of the room, minding our own business and not being rowdy or anything. I was playing cards with a group of ponies, and Blair was at the counter by himself.”
Ras stopped for a moment as Pinkie squeezed through a half-collapsed archway. He looked around for a moment to figure out the best way to get through. “A group of stallions came in from another bar, already drunk and looking for trouble. One of them was this big burly guy, with legs like tree trunks and a face only a mother could love. For no reason, he stormed over to Blair, whipped him around, screamed ‘you look like the guy who stole my mare,’ and decked him right in the face.”
Ras reared up on his hind legs and edged through the gap. When he got through, he saw that they were now in an uneven room filled with scattered debris, and Pinkie was making a zigzagging path through as she continued to the south.
“Now normally, Blair’s a calm, collected guy, but like I was saying to Vigil, he’s different when he’s drunk, and he wasn’t exactly sober when that guy punched him.”
“So what’d he do?” Pinkie asked.
Ras snickered. “He didn’t say a word. He just got a look of cold murder in his eyes, turned around with the force of the hit, and bucked the poor sap across the room. Which would’ve been hilarious... if he hadn’t crashed into me.”
Pinkie ceased her zigzagging and followed the path of light down a moss-covered corridor to the west. “And that’s how you got involved?”
Ras raised his eyes to the ceiling and tried to hide a guilty smile. “You could say that. I was cheating in the card game I was in, and the ponies I was playing against could be described as… interesting. They weren’t very happy when all my hidden cards got sent flying.”
“I thought you were trying to go straight!” Pinkie admonished.
“This was an exception,” Ras said. “The guys had stolen money from one of my co-workers, and I was trying to get it back. I’d learned enough about the dangers of gambling, though, so I‘d no intention of losing. I’dve been fine if Blair hadn’t gone gung-ho, but thanks to that, I found myself facing the wrong end of five very pointy daggers.”
Pinkie unconsciously looked back at Ras to check for any scars or wounds, but then giggled. Now who’s the silly one? Even if he had been hurt, I already healed him! She shook her head. “So what happened?”
“The bar dissolved into chaos.” Ras silently shook with laughter. “Blair and I both wound up fighting five guys, and got pushed to the middle of the bar. We turned to each other, met eyes, and without missing a beat, we switched groups and kept going. We cleared a path through the mob, got to the door, and high-tailed it out of there before the authorities came. We got to talking after that, and well, we just kinda started hanging out every week. At a different bar, though, mind you.”
Hehe. I’d imagine you wouldn’t want to show your face after starting a big-ol free-for-all punch-fest like that! The path opened into a room that stretched on to the north and south. Pinkie followed the lucky road to the north. “Was Blair the one who talked you into joining the military?”
Ras adopted an odd, nostalgic smile. “No. That was due to another set of ‘extenuating circumstances.’ Let’s just say that depending on how you look at it, I was either at the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time.”
Pinkie was about to ask what he meant by that, but then realized she was face to face with a wall. Ras almost bumped into her as she jumped back.
“What’s up?” Ras said.
Pinkie looked all around to check and see if she’d missed something. “The road stops here.”
Pinkie nodded. “It just cuts off.”
Ras walked up and inspected the wall. It was made of dark moss-covered stone, and looked the same as all the others. The only notable feature was a few cobwebs that hung in the ceiling above.
Ras put his ear to the wall and tapped it. Sure enough, an odd, hollow sound resonated from within. He raised an eyebrow and took a step back.
“Never knew about this.” Ras put his back to the wall and bucked it as hard as he could. There was a dull cracking sound, and a seam became visible in the wall. There was now a whistling sound as the air began to rush in.
Pinkie realized what was happening and went to stand beside Ras. He nodded his approval and sounded off a count.
“One, two, three!”
Ras and Pinkie bucked the wall together. It cracked even further, then caved in and collapsed in a mound of rubble. A passageway became revealed that continued on to the north, and the path of light continued along it.
Pinkie clapped her hooves. “This is so cool!”
Ras coughed and waved away the dust. “It’s certainly better than being eaten.”
The walls and ceiling transitioned to smooth limestone as they continued down the path. The glow of the flare reflected off the new lighter rock, and Ras’ range of vision increased. The pathway came to an end at a short set of stairs, which was blocked by an old, rusted grate.
Ras grunted and heaved as he pushed at the obstruction, but his efforts were fruitless. After a few minutes, he stepped away and looked to Pinkie.
Pinkie looked around for moment, then did a double take. There was a block in the wall that shone brighter than the rest. She went over to it, and after nosing tracing its outline, she pressed it in.
There was a click, followed by a pop, and the grate was freed from its hinges. Ras shook his head and pushed it open.
“What I would’ve given to had you around back in the day.”
Pinkie stamped a hoof. “I wouldn’t have helped you steal!”
Ras smirked and ascended the stairs. “I dunno... you might’ve enjoyed the thrill.”
The two of them now found themselves in a vast, underground room lined with tall hexagonal pillars. Dim shafts of light filtered in from grates high above in the vaulted ceiling, similar to the one they had just come in from. Spindly metal braziers covered in thick layers of cobwebs and dust dotted the room, and the sickly green walls were filled with several deep recesses, each of them filled with a large, ornate stone box. Beneath each box was a golden plaque etched with markings in a thin script.
“What is this place?” Pinkie whispered. It had an eerie stillness to it that made her hair stand on end.
Ras didn’t reply. He stood with his back turned a few feet away from her, then slowly walked over to one of the recesses in the wall.
Pinkie remained where she was as she watched him examine the stone box. He then lowered his head and read the words of the plaque aloud, his voice unnaturally loud in the deathly silence.
“Here lies Paladin the First, son of Charlemane, Knight-Grandmaster and Founder of the Solar Guard. May his selfless deeds and unshakable valor shine on through the hearts of future generations.”
Ras reverently bowed to the coffin, then turned back to Pinkie. “We’re in the Royal Crypts beneath the old castle. This is where high ranking military officers and ponies of notable deeds were buried.”
We’re beneath the castle? Wow, I didn’t know we’d gone that far! Then that means that all of the boxes are—got it, special place, can’t goof off here. Pinkie held back a sneeze as the dust tickled her nose. “What’s the Solar Guard?”
Ras turned away from Paladin’s resting place and continued along the wall, inspecting the plaques as he went. “Before the War of the Sun and Moon, Celestia and Luna each had a personal contingent of knights that they considered to be the finest in the military. Celestia’s was called the Solar Guard, and Luna’s was the Astral Guard.”
That sounds kinda like what we have now, except it’s just the Royal Guard. I wonder if they’ll do something like that again now that Luna’s back? Pinkie realized that there wasn’t a road of light anymore, just a vague circle that moved along with her. “Before? What happened during?”
Ras hesitated and sucked on his teeth. “You heard what I said earlier about Blair tending to ramble, right?”
Pinkie thought back to earlier in the day. “You said something about Nightmare Moon corrupting her soldiers, right? Was that really true?”
Ras face turned grim. “Luna’s transformation into Nightmare Moon also turned her half of the military into crazed, malicious monsters. The Astral Guard was the worst of all, and they usually led the battles while Nightmare Moon and Celestia fought each other.”
I’ve never heard any of this. The only thing I remember from school about the War of the Sun and Moon was that it’s the reason why Canterlot got rebuilt. Is he making all this up? Pinkie kept her voice even. “Is that how Canterlot got destroyed?”
Ras kept his gaze on the plaques. “Nightmare Moon was the one who did most of the damage. The Astral Guard rarely even made it inside the city walls.”
“Why?” Pinkie asked. “Did the Solar Guard stop them?”
Ras’ ears drooped. “The Solar Guard was slaughtered by Nightmare Moon while trying to protect Celestia in the first battle. She was so stricken by the loss that she never reformed it.”
Pinkie’s stomach dropped out. “Then who?”
Ras underwent a subtle change at the question. His posture straightened, and he turned to Pinkie with a fierce look in his eyes.
“On the night Luna fell, a group of low-ranking soldiers that’d survived initial onslaught banded together and fought off the Astral Guard while Celestia held off the nascent Nightmare Moon. Sounds impossible, I know, but it happened all the same.”
“Fought off?” Pinkie repeated. “You mean they just bought some time or something, so Celestia could push them away?”
A cocky smile formed on Ras’ lips. “No. Celestia had her hooves full, and it was all she could do to keep Nightmare Moon busy. The soldiers defeated the Astral Guard all by themselves.”
Pinkie’s eyes went wide. “Wow, cool!”
“Nightmare Moon was enraged,” Ras said with a dark laugh. “She broke away from Celestia and tried to attack the soldiers instead when she realized what happened, but in doing so, she gave Celestia an opening. Her Majesty blasted Nightmare Moon out of the city, and then for good measure, all her troops, as well.”
“So what happened after?”
Ras spoke in a strong, confident tone. “Celestia grieved over the loss over the Solar Guard, but she also knew she’d need new ponies to replace them. She was amazed that a bunch of noponies had just gone hoof-to-hoof with an entire contingent of vicious killing machines, so in honor of the fallen, she retired the Solar Guard, then took the twelve new ponies, knighted them on the spot, and formed them into a new order. That order then went on to repel the Astral Guard in every battle they appeared in, saved hundreds of lives, and played a vital part in winning the War.”
Pinkie was hanging on his every word. “What were they called?!”
Ras smiled. “The—“
He stopped as he noticed something on the far end of the room. He squinted for a moment, and his lips slowly parted. He trotted forward and left Pinkie behind.
Ras didn’t reply. Pinkie followed after him to the northwestern edge of the room, where before them stood a large door made of smooth, polished obsidian. Etched upon it was a circle divided into twelve halves, each of them emblazoned with a peculiar, colored rune.
“It can’t be...” Ras approached the door and searched for a handle. He found that a pull-ring was inlaid in the center, and he took it in his mouth and pulled. The door resisted for a moment, but then slowly inched open on unseen hinges, and when he got the door wide enough to slip through, he swiftly went inside, his tail disappearing with a flick.
Pinkie followed him inside, and now found that she was in a narrow corridor made of silver glass. The same runes etched on the door were on the walls, each of them colored in a different kind of stone. Pinkie glanced at each symbol as she passed, but her gaze hovered over one in particular—a pair of horizontal, jagged indigo lines.
Pinkie came into a room with a low ceiling, where twelve jewel-encrusted tombs sat in two rows of six. Each one was inlaid with a rune and a shining golden plaque. The walls were covered with paintings of stallions in silver armor, fighting off hosts of foul monsters. In the center of the floor was an altar, filled with long forgotten incenses and fuel-oils.
Pinkie stood beside Ras, whose face was impassive as he stared at the tombs. He walked a small set of stairs, went to the altar, and produced a flint and steel from his saddlebags. He ignited the oil, and the room was filled with softly flickering light.
Ras turned to Pinkie, and named the ponies around them in a whisper that carried through the chamber.
“The Order of the Zodiac.”
Pinkie felt a chill. She went down the stairs, then walked to the tombs and inspected the plaques.
He really was telling the truth… yep, they all say it. Order of the Zodiac, huh? Sounds pretty nifty, but I’ve never heard of any of these names. Gemini? Taurus? Scorpio? Sagittarius? Why were they buried here instead of new Canterlot? Did they all die in the War, or something?
Pinkie didn’t notice that Ras had come down the stairs behind her, and had gone to the tomb in the back right-hand corner.
I remember Twilight saying something last week about there’s not a lot of stuff about this War. Hehe, she’s gonna have a cow when I tell her about this! Oooh, but nopony’s gonna trust Luna if they find out that she turned her soldiers into monsters and killed civilians. I’ll bet that’s why Celestia hid all this.
Pinkie’s ‘think-think-think’ mode drowned out the soft click and scraping sound that came from her right.
Could Luna go crazy again? Hmm… no, I don’t think so. We zapped her pretty good with the Elements, after all. Now that I think about what she was like before we saved her, though, I think I can believe what Ras is saying. My heart almost broke when I felt hers. She was so cold and lonely, filled with bitterness, anguish, and hate. What about Celestia, though? It couldn’t have been easy to lose her sister rule the country all by herself. Heh, maybe we should zap her with the Elements, too! Or at least help her in some way. I can’t stand to think that she might be hurting as much as Luna was!
The Element of Laughter flared in response to Pinkie’s emotions. The light in her eyes filled her irises, and a blast of wind emanated from her body that was accompanied by a wave of blue light.
Ahhh, I set it off! I’m gonna have to get used to this. Calm down, Pinkie, calm down. I can see why Rassy was—
“You can’t bring back the dead.”
Pinkie looked over at Ras, who was watching her with a solemn look. “Not even Her Majesty can do that.”
Pinkie took deep breaths and quelled her Element as she walked over to him. “I wasn’t trying to, I just—“
Pinkie was suddenly hit by a wave of fatigue. She stumbled and almost fell to the ground.
“Whoa, there!” Ras quickly caught her. “I told you not to push too hard!”
Owieeee… Pinkie felt woozy and drained, and a dull throbbing pressure had formed in the back of her head. She looked over at the tomb Ras had been looking at, and noticed something odd about it.
“That one’s plaque is missing.”
“I know,” Ras said. “Don’t worry about that, though. You’ve gotten us this far, I can take it from here.”
“How do you know where to go?” she asked as Ras led them out of the chamber.
“Your Luck power led us here,” Ras said simply. “There has to be an exit somewhere.”
The two of them walked out of the silver chamber and back into the Crypts. Ras let Pinkie rest against a pillar, and he went and inspected the area. He returned a few minutes later with a smile, saying that he’d found a way up and out to the surface. She let him lead the way without protest, and ten minutes later they stepped out into the sunshine and remains of the castle courtyard.
Pinkie was feeling a little better by now, and could walk on her own. She followed behind Ras in silence, but a lingering thought from Vigil’s outburst still nagged at her.
Ras stopped and looked back at her inquiringly.
Pinkie met his eyes. “Nightmare Moon’s soldiers weren’t banished to the Changeling Wastes, were they?”
Ras pursed his lips. “What makes you say that?”
Rassy, Rassy, Rassy. I just found out that Celestia is covering up a War so that Luna will have a chance to start over. Why do you think I’m a little suspicious of the rest of the story? Pinkie wet her lips. “Viggy was too mad to notice, but I saw. You looked shocked, like he’d said something really rude.”
Ras scoffed and looked out over the courtyard. “The Princess is a kind, loving soul. She wouldn’t damn anypony to such a terrible fate... not even the Changelings.”
Not… even… what? Pinkie frowned. “What do you mean?”
Ras closed his lips for a moment and licked his teeth. “Nightmare Moon’s corrupting magic granted her soldiers a form of twisted immortality. They could be wounded, disabled, even dismembered, but they could never truly die so long as their mistress still existed. There was no real place to put such vile, terrible creatures after the War, and Celestia couldn’t even try to do anything until Nightmare Moon was freed again, so she made a place for them to be confined for the interim. A multilayered prison of sorts, guarded by powerful enchantments and residing in a pocket dimension. Separate from our world, but connected at the same time.”
Why does that sound familiar to something I’ve heard before? Pinkie rubbed her head as she tried to recall the story. “Does the place have a name?”
Ras’ expression darkened and spoke the word in a hushed tone.
Pinkie flinched. “Tartarus is real?!”
“As the ground you stand on." Ras lowered his gaze to the ground. "Most ponies think it’s just an old story to scare children, or something to swear by. I’m afraid we’re not that lucky.”
“Well…” Pinkie said slowly, “even if it’s real, and it really is where all the nasty old soldiers from the War of the Sun and Moon were imprisoned, it must be empty now that Nightmare Moon’s gone!”
Ras watched as Pinkie closed her eyes and moved again to an unheard tune. He raised his hoof and opened his mouth to speak, but then quickly looked away and lowered his hoof, letting out his breath a sigh.
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s gone, all right.”
Pinkie stopped her bobbing as the dizziness threatened to return. She opened her eyes and regained her bearings. “We really saved the day, didn’t we?”
Ras nodded, and they crossed the castle courtyard together. “You really did.”
The two of them navigated out of the castle and came out beside the bridge over the chasm they had seen from the cliffside. Ras reached inside his bags when they got to the edge, and pulled out another flare, along with a small metallic device.
“So what are you going to do?” Ras asked.
Pinkie watched as he loaded the flare and closed the device with a click. “About telling the others about all this?”
Ras nodded. “I can’t stop you. I’m under orders not to interfere with your life.”
There’s more going on here than Rassy’s telling me, but it sounds like we were gonna find out about all this pretty soon, anyways. This just means is that I get to be in on the surprise! I don’t like that the Princess trying to cover up what Luna did, but what else can she do? Celestia wants to give Luna a second chance, and I’m not going to be the one who messes that up. Hehe, it wouldn’t make much sense to tell ponies anyway. All it’d mean is more work for me!
Pinkie looked out over the chasm to the Dawn River below. “The girls are gonna find out soon, right?”
Ras raised the device into the air. “In around two months or so... that is, if they don’t find out on their own before that.”
Pinkie smirked deviously. “ I can wait that long. This is gonna be a doozy of a surprise, and it’d be a shame to spoil it.”
“Fair enough.” Ras looked up in the air and took aim.
“I do have onnnnnne condition, though.”
He looked down at her. “Which is?”
Pinkie was bouncing up and down. “You gotta tell me what powers the other girls have. I’m dying to know!”
Ras laughed. “I think I can do that.”
The flare shot high up into the air, and ignited with a pop! A few moments later, a second flare shot up from the other side of the ruins. Ras and Pinkie walked along the edge of the chasm, and went to rejoin Vigil and Zecora.
“I’ll start with Magic,” Ras said. “Her first one is…”