The desert sun bore down on the heroes intensely, scorching the sand around them. The sand was also swirling around, covering them in grit. The conditions made it impossible for Ditzy to fly, so she was grounded with the rest of them. In the distance, Mario saw a small tent.
"We should see who lives in there, see if the inhabitant will give us some shelter" he said to his colleagues.
"I agree. All this sand is burning my hooves" said Scootaloo. They all ran to the large, beige tent sitting on the edge of the sandstorm.
"Um, hello, anyone in there?" asked Applebloom, peeking around the tent door.
A hoarse, feminine voice called out "Come in, come in". As Mario and the others walked in, they saw a pale greeny-beige pegasus, with a grey mane and wearing an explorers hat. "I'm just getting ready to raid the tomb of Standing Bull" she said, putting food in her saddlebags, which were sitting on a crate by a camp bed.
"You kinda look like Daring Do..." said Scootaloo, looking at the pegasus.
"That's me, greatest explorer in Equestria" she said proudly.
"I always thought she was a fictional character" asked Ditzy to Big Macintosh.
"I'm as real as the moustache on your face" Daring said to Mario, flicking him on the nose.
"Sorry. Do you know a way we can cross the desert in this storm?" he asked her, rubbing his nose.
"Hmm. Try putting these rags on your hooves and wrapping these cloths around your faces. Should keep the sand outta your eyes" she said, pulling a bundle of rags from a box in the corner.
"Wait, I got it!" shouted Scootaloo. "You're Sophia Sorrel!" The other ponies looked at her in confusion. "The actress who plays her in the movies?"
"Wait, is that the one which Rainbow Dash wouldn't shut up about?" asked Applebloom.
"Yeah!" said Scootaloo, almost full to the brim with happiness. "I'm your second biggest fan, Sophia. Can I have your signature?" asked the filly, beaming.
"Don't know about any Sophia, kid. You can have my autograph if you want though" the explorer said, grabbing a pen.
"Please!" said Scootaloo, almost tackling the pegasus.
"Now, now Scoots, we can't pester the nice lady" Mario said, pulling the filly away. "Thank you for the, er, rags. We'll just be on our way" he said, walking the fangirl out of the door.
"What the hay, Mario, I almost had her signature!" said Scootaloo.
"As you said, it's clearly the actress who's been brainwashed" he said, putting on his face guard.
"But who would do such a thing?" she asked.
"Discord?" asked Applebloom.
"Discord" stated Big Macintosh. "We can't dawdle about, she isn't important. Right now, we should be focusing on finding Dodge Junction."
"I agree" said Ditzy. She had put her face guard over her eyes, and stumbled around. "Little help?" she asked. Luckily, Applebloom came to her aid, tugging on her mask. Finally prepared, they set off from the delusional mare, and into the ferocious sandstorm that was sweeping the desert.
Hours had passed, and the storm had shown no signs of letting up. The group trudged through the sand, until they reached another oasis in the desert.
"FINALLY" yelled Scootaloo, running ahead and jumping in the lake.
"It seems that the storm has died down a bit around here. Could be a good place to rest up a bit" said Big Macintosh, taking off his head scarf. The group laid down and drank from the oasis, and waited in the calm part of the desert, where no sand was flying around. Big Macintosh got up and walked towards a large tree. He kicked it, and down dropped several lemons.
"Got us something to eat" said the farmpony, carrying over a bag full of fruit.
"Great, now we have a souvenir for Luna. At least we finished one of our missions" Mario said, biting down into a lemon.
"Also, it would seem that the storm is dying down a fair bit. I think we could make it to the town shortly if we leave soon" he continued, picking up his bags.
"I agree. The quicker we get to the town, the quicker we can find the element and stop Discord. Girls, we're moving out!" called Ditzy. The two fillies, who were swimming in the lake, ran up to the pegasus, following her as the group began the last leg of the journey towards the town.
Shortly afterwards, the group arrived at a small town. It was roughly the same size as Oasis, but had a large cherry orchard in the rear, on land which was just as pleasant as Ponyville. Sadly, all of the cherries had been turned into frogs and those were bright pink. The streets were crowded with all of the civilians who had decided to make demands of the royal guards who had arrived at the town. At the front of the pack, there was two armoured pegasi and an elderly donkey.
"CALM DOWN!" yelled the donkey, and the crowd fell silent. "We are trying our best to solve these issues, so our advice is for you to continue with your lives normally and to not panic. On my honour as a guard, we will stop whoever is causing this". As he said that, the crowd began muttering.
One mare screamed out "What about my orchard? I've lost a year of business here, and my stores are dwindling!"
"Do not worry, we will have aid sent here in order to feed everypony" one of the pegasi said. He glanced over at the metal draconequus in the distance and sighed. "Please return to your houses. Anyone still outside after seven o'clock shall be arrested on suspicion of treason".
Mario walked towards the donkey and his two aides. "What do you want?" the donkey barked at the red pony.
"I presume that you are the captain sent here by the princess?" asked Mario.
"Ex-captain, but what is your business here? This town is one frog from falling apart, and I'm getting quite stressed out" said the donkey.
"I'm Mario, and I was sent here by princess Luna in order to find you. She said you had some information regarding the elements of harmony" the moustachioed pony said.
"Oh, the princess did mention you when she gave us orders. Crazy old mare, she is. Well, I carried out my orders, and I found out some interesting information about this desert. Word on the street is that lots of activity has been seen around this big old tomb in the centre of the desert. Could be worth an investigation" the donkey said.
"Cheers for the information" said Mario. Applebloom walked up to him and squinted.
"You look familiar. I think I know you from somewhere" she said.
"Yeah, he does" said Ditzy. "You look like someone from Ponyville".
"Heh, you got me. I'm Cranky Doodle Donkey, retired captain of the royal guard. That Luna girl called up every person that has ever been on the records for the guard to help with the situation here. I pulled the short straw, so here I am in this sandy hellhole" he said.
"Oh that reminds me, I have mail to deliver!" said Ditzy. She gave him a small letter written in elegant handwriting. She darted off into the sky, occasionally swooping down towards a house. A faint thud could be heard as she landed.
"Oh, that'll be Matilda. Poor girl was beside herself with worry when I told her I had been called into action once again. Anyway, the quicker you find that element, the less everyone suffers".
"You know anything about the gang that could be hiding out in the tomb then?" asked Big Macintosh.
"Not a lot, actually. From what I've heard, there are no ponies in it, and it's lead by a big blue ape. The tomb itself is Standing Bull's, a famous buffalo leader" said the donkey.
"Anything special about it?" asked Mario.
"Not really. The buffalo rarely visit it and it was made way before they started developing anything resembling machinery" said Cranky.
"Cheers for the help, captain" said Scootaloo, saluting the donkey. He shot her a dirty look, causing her to drop her hoof. "Sorry" she said sheepishly.
"Should we wait for the mailmare?" asked Applebloom, as Cranky walked away towards the other guards.
"I think that's her there now" said her brother, pointing at the gliding pegasus. "Did you decide to continue on our adventure with us?" he asked.
"Yeah, I guess returning harmony is a bit more important than some late mail. Do we know where we are going?" she asked.
"The same tomb that delusional actress was talking about, apparently" said Mario. He pointed out to the desert from where they had arrived from. "Somewhere in that general direction."
"Great" she said dryly. "Anyone fancy a bite to eat, I'm famished." The rest of the ponies agreed, and they made their way to a small restaurant. Inside, Mario and Big Macintosh drank cider, grown in the nearby Appaloosa. The fillies had flower sandwiches, and Ditzy had a large muffin.
Talking with her mouth full, Scootaloo asked "Should we find Sophia for help?"
"I think she'd already be there. We should head towards her tent, and just search around there. See if she left any research lying around. Everyone ready to go?" asked Mario. Everyone replied with the affirmative, so they left the restaurant, after paying for their food. Far too expensive thought Mario.
A few hours later, they had reached the tent at which they had met the actress. The moon was struggling to stay in the sky, as it was being turned into cardboard, and having crude images of Celestia and Discord drawn on it. Inside the tent, the only noticeable piece of paper was a map on the table. On it was a position marked a kilometre north of the camp.
"I hope that's the cave, I'm tired" said Scootaloo, yawning.
"It is getting pretty late. I'm sure miss Sorrel won't mind us staying here for a bit" said Big Macintosh. Mario agreed, and pulled the tent door shut.
In the morning, the sun was blazing brighter than ever before. It felt like it was closer to the land, and it had a vile green colour. The group of ponies stood together outside in the storm, covering themselves in gear in order to survive their journey.
"Right, we're going to have to use stealth here. We don't know how dangerous this gang is, and personally, I don't think we can win a scrap against more than a few ponies. So keep your eyes peeled and be ready to leg it" said Mario, prepping his team. They all nodded in agreement and began their journey towards the north of the desert.
Upon arrival, they saw a small opening into a cave. Outside was a few crates, covered in tarpaulin and rope. Several ponies were tied up and chained together, being led into the cavern.
"What do you think they are doing in there?" asked Ditzy, her voice full of concern.
"Don't know, but it doesn't seem too pleasant" replied Mario. After a while, everything was moved inside the cave by cloaked individuals, and all of the prisoners were taken in too.
"So are we going to beat them up and free the prisoners?" asked Scootaloo.
"Didn't ya listen earlier?" asked Applebloom. "If we run in there, all that's gonna happen is we're gonna get thrown in jail again."
"Thanks, dear. I suggest we sneak in the front, and try to release the prisoners. Get another riot going so we can have a look around in peace" said Mario to his group.
"Sounds like a plan to me" said Big Macintosh, nodding his head.
"Let's go then" said Mario, running towards the entrance.
Inside the cave, there were candles illuminating the room, but only slightly. The crates were piled to the ceiling, and a foul musk was emanating from deeper in the tomb. Big Macintosh opened up a nearby crate, and saw inside bundles of food, likely stolen from the locals.
"Why would they have only stolen food, not anything like gold?" asked Applebloom.
"The area isn't exactly rich, maybe there wasn't anything to steal?" proposed Ditzy.
"Whatever the reason, I don't like this" said Mario, as he wandered further into the cave. In the next room, there were several cages with unconscious ponies inside them.
"Bugger, there goes plan A" said the moustached stallion, kicking a cage. In the rear of the room, a hiss could be heard behind the cages. "W-what was that?" he said, holding onto Big Macintosh.
The farmpony looked down at the cowering pony. "It's a snake. No need to worry, it won't bite" he said. Mario gave a sigh of relief, letting go of the other stallion. "Much" Big Mac said, grinning.
"Should we follow it?" asked Scootaloo.
"Do I really have to answer that?" replied Mario sarcastically.
"Yes?" asked the orange filly, with his sarcasm lost on her.
"I think Mario has a fear of snakes" teased Applebloom.
"I don't. I simply don't want to meet anyone hostile down here" said the stallion, holding his head up in the air.
"It doesn't matter, we have to get to the bottom of this cavern, and this mystery. And I hate to break it to you, the only way we are advancing is through where the snake went. Quicker we go, the quicker you can leave the snakes behind" said Big Macintosh.
"Fine" said Mario. In the next room, they found themselves overlooking a large chamber. In the centre was a pedestal, with a figure tied down on it unconscious. Surrounding it were several felines, armed with flails, maces and swords. The largest of the group was a large blue ape-like figure, which was wearing jewellery made of gold, and holding a dagger with his paw on his hand.
"That looks like Sophia down there on the altar" said Applebloom.
"That blue thing looks like Ahuizotl as well" whispered Scootaloo. She was met with blank stares, which caused her to sigh. "Daring Do's nemesis. But he doesn't exist, he's just a character. Why is he here, and more importantly, why is he only taking food? Normally, he just wants money and power."
"Those questions can be answered later" said Mario. "Frankly, I don't fancy our chances with those goons. I propose we sneak around them into the burial chamber behind them" he said, pointing to the large door behind the gang of beasts. It had words written over it in ancient Buffalo, and was very rotten.
"And leave her to die? Never!" hissed Scootaloo, jumping in front of the stallion. When she did, the platform she was standing on crumbled and began to crack loudly.
"Who goes there!" shouted Ahuizotl.
"Bugger" whispered Mario. " Keep low and hide."
"Rowan, that had better be you!" the ape called out. A loud hissing accompanied the call, and the ground began to rumble. Ditzy peeked over the edge and gasped, before stuffing her hoof in her mouth.
"I think we found our snake" she whispered, beckoning Mario over to her. He crawled over and saw the mythical villain sitting proud on a large, muscular black snake.
"Oh bugger" he understated.
Yes, Sophia Sorrel is a reference to 'The Prince and the Workhorse', which was a fic I enjoyed quite a bit.