Adagio’s world was black and empty.
In fleeing the caprataurs, she and her companions had plunged into the darkness of the tunnel without a second thought of what might lay beyond, rushing along its winding, labyrinthine length in a blind stumble of feeling along rough rock walls. At least until Lightning Dust regained her common sense and called for a halt. Then she had set to wordlessly rummaging in her pack while the rest of them had to wait in this lightless void.
In light of deciding to oppose a mad alicorn with a plan that was, at best, something even Sonata would most likely have called “half baked”, Adagio had started to think of herself as rather a brave pony. Walking willingly into the Everfree Forest, opposing the “local color”. Those were brave acts as well. But as engulfed by the nothing as she currently was, her imagination now seemed dead set on conjuring up the worst possibilities for what might be lurking just beyond leg’s reach. She immediately made a note to learn a light spell as soon as she had a chance and to curse herself out for not doing so earlier.
Giant spiders maybe? Perhaps armored purple worms that could gulp down a pony without so much as a second thought? Or this cave was the home of those undead ponies she had heard rumors about. Or-
There was a sharp snap sound of metal striking stone, their immediate surroundings becoming bathed in light. In the confusion of the darkness, they had wandered into a large cavern, with a vaulted ceiling that seemed about the size of an average pony’s house. There was a gap in the corner of the ceiling through which cascaded in a miniature waterfall, before it flowed through another gap in the floor and the unknown depths beyond. A few jagged tunnels had been hewn into the walls, leading further and perhaps deeper into the bones of the earth. Lightning Dust slipped past Adagio, an iron rod clutched between her teeth. It’s tip glowed, though Adagio didn’t detect the telltale tingle of magic, which meant that it had to be alchemical in nature. Either way it was the source of the warm light that was filling the cave. She stalked forward, sparing Adagio the briefest of glances and head nod. Adagio nodded back.
“Suri? Take Starlight for a moment.”
Once the unconscious form of Starlight had been hoofed off, Adagio advanced once more drawing her weapon as she followed Lightning around the room. She was coiled like a spring and despite the wide open nature of the cavern and the smooth, nearly polished, nature of the floor. Lightning was clearly determined to examine every bit of it, perhaps incase yet more monsters lurked in the shadows; invisible or imaginary.
After some time, Lightning then moved over to the waterfall, craning her neck slightly to cast light through its shimmering cascade. It took a moment or two of examination before Lightning determined whatever it was she was trying to puzzle out and then, with a shake of her head, she tossed the metal rod into the middle of the chamber, where it acted like an improvised campfire.
“Water’s clean. Probably coming in from outside. So, we got air. We got water. It might be getting close to dawn at this point...for whatever that’s worth.” She looked back at the group. “And since we have wounded, this is probably the best camp we’re going to find right now.”
Adagio nodded, her eyelids beginning to grow heavy. The exhaustion and her burns were catching up with her now that the thrill of the chase and the fear of the dark had been expelled. Sonata trotted over to the glowing rod and carefully placed Aria down beside it, before sliding her saddlebags and tent off her back. Humming happily to herself, she set to work raising it, even going so far as to drive the iron anchor spikes directly into the stone floor.
Lightning Dust eyed the spikes as Sonata worked. “Don’t suppose you have anything I can use to make some splints in those bags of yours?”
“Top backpack, right pouch. Wooden ladles!” Sonata responded happily.
“Spoons? Well, at least you’re using good equipment,” Aria responded, dryly as a desert.
“Come on,” Lightning smirked as she dug the improvised tools out of Sonata’s bag. “You’ll pull through. You’re of good stock!” She finished with a wide grin, almost daring everypony to guess the hidden meaning in that turn of phrase.
Adagio blinked then, despite herself, nearly collapsed into a fit of giggles. It was a stupid, stupid play on words, but at this moment, it was the kind of levity she needed. Suri joined in and soon, so did Sonata. For her part, Aria peered around at them with a raised eyebrow and a deep frown of displeasure.
“....I don’t get it.”
“Stock! Like soup stock.” Sonata supplied before animatedly waving a hoof at her ladles. “Because we’re using spoons!”
Aria groaned. “Seriously? Is that what passes for humor with you noble types? Because-”
Another groan silenced Aria’s objection, as Starlight began to stir. “What...happened?” she managed to croak, as Suri slowly lowered her to the ground.
“That shaman managed to hit you in the horn with a spell,” Adagio answered. She examined Starlight’s horn. The tip was blackened by the trauma of the spell, but it didn’t seem to be cracked or otherwise broken. “How do you feel? Can you channel?”
Starlight’s response was a wink and shake of her head. “Maybe...don’t want to try right now though. Sleep now. Horn tomorrow morning.”
Adagio wanted to argue. She could have pointed out that Chroma and her traitorous Rangers had a head start. She could have pointed out that they weren’t sure they had actually lost the caprataurs. But one look at the how exhausted and wounded everypony was and the objections died in her throat.
“Fine. Let’s rest of the night.”
She opted to help Starlight get into her bedroll while Suri unpacked theirs. Adagio had no desire to struggle with her own tent, and as such was surprised to see Suri fighting with its support poles, now that she had unpacked the beds.
“Suri, what are you doing?”
“Putting up your tent m’lady.”
The tent poles promptly slipped out of her hooves as she attempted- and failed- to stifle a mighty yawn. Adagio rolled her eyes.
“Suri, you’re exhausted. I don’t need to sleep in a tent tonight. The bedroll will be fine.”
Suri sat there for a moment before shrugging and letting the tent clatter to the floor. One by one they bedded down for the night...or perhaps the morning. As it was impossible to tell, Adagio supposed that it didn’t really matter. She vaguely considered suggesting a watch system of some sort, but consciousness was already fleeting and she was asleep before her head hit her traveling pillow.
- - - -
Chroma seethed with irritation.
Arriving in Canterlot had gone well enough. Three hundred years ago, the mountain it was built upon was riddled with gem choked caverns and tunnels. Now mostly empty, they had provided an easy means of slipping into the city. But the trip had stirred a bitter set of memories in Chroma’s mind. A mining outpost had once been built on the mountain's slopes and the wealth extracted from the stone had fueled Equestria’s early growth. She had overseen the opening of the initial mines alongside her friend Rarity. Oh, the pride that had swelled in her chest as the carts of gems had been dragged forth! But there had been frustration too. Her friend hadn’t been able to stop nattering in her ear about their luster and shine and how she was going to use them for such a “darling” little toga design she was working on.
At the time, she had rolled her eyes, sighed and pushed the rambling to the back of her mind. But as she had snuck into the city through empty tunnels that once teemed with energy and industry, she found herself pining for the sound of Rarity’s voice. Or Applejack’s simple provincial ways. Or even Twilight’s tendency to get lost in the scrolls and forget about everything else going on. Watching Equestria crumble to ruin on top of that had been sheer agony.
That had been then though. Now with the clarity of another three hundred years on her side, Chroma could recognize those thoughts and feelings for the mere nostalgia of her lost youth. That Equestria had been weak. That Equestria had been challenged by every rival empire and power in the known world. It was only after she and her friends had become powerful, had ascended, were they able to transform Equestria into a true empire!
All of those feelings and memories churned about in her mind while she grappled with every ounce of her self control to not cave in the skull of the fool in front of her.
Flashing Blade was the Grand Master of the Everfree Rangers and his sheer prattling ineptitude spoke volumes to just how far removed from Equestria, The Heartlands really were. Oh, sure, muscle that came from years of plying his trade still rippled under his coat, now dappled gray with age. That same gray bled into his wood brown mane and tail, which were neatly cropped like she’d expect from a knightly pony.
Yet, having been around the stallion for not even half a day yet and Chroma could already see the base, petty, pathetic, gnashgab-
No, that’s not right. That’s a pony who complains a lot. What’s that accursed word I’m thinking of? Fustylug? Lubberwort? She mulled over, while Flashing Blade rummaged in a cabinet. ...I should have my other self ask Spitfire what good slang for an idiot is.
For an idiot he was. Upon her arrival to the good pony’s estate, Chroma was aghast to find that while the leader of this part of her glorious reclamation had trained himself an army of rangers, it was clear to her he had no intention of leading that army anywhere. No polishing his armor, sharpening his weapons and preparing for battle. Instead he had been longing about his opulent home like a slug. He produced a bottle of wine from a cabinet he had been giving his attention to and began to pour. The red liquid sloppily spilled into a jeweled goblet, a few large globs splattering against the lush carpet. Chroma wrinkled her snout at his carelessness, but he came strutting back over to the map of Canterlot pinned on the wall, unconcerned with his sloven nature.
It had been hung under the stuffed head of a greater fire drake. The head’s mouth was twisted back in a horrible snarl of challenge, much like all the other heads and monsters that served as decoration in this sitting room. Here, the grand master seemed content to linger among plast glories.
“There,” he said, tapping the edge of his cup against one part of the map. “The garden between the grand hall and their private chambers. Tomorrow morning, Sombra will meet with his advisors and ministers before coming to the garden to tend it. ...Or at least the roses he planted for that ‘wife’ of his.”
“Why wait for morning? We alicorns might not...well...need to sleep. But it is nice..,” she shook her head. “My point is, why not attack him while he rests?”
“...We aren’t ready. Some of the Rangers from the northern lodges haven’t reported yet. And a few of my local allies seem to be wavering. Not as willin-”
A yellow loop of magic pulled tight across his neck. Eyes bulging in shock, the aging pegasus frantically beat his wings, the instinct to run punching through his alcohol addled mind. Chroma lifted him effortlessly, a grim smile crossing her lips at the strangled gurgle that escaped his.
“Three hundred years. That’s how long I’ve been without my friends. My friends who trusted me to have their backs. I’d ask if you had any comprehension of how long that really is, but I won’t waste my breath. Because ya can’t.”
Flashing Blade was beginning to panic now, frantically clawing at the magic around his neck and kicking his legs. But Chroma kept her grip tight. “So, when I find out that you’ve been dragging your hooves and that you don’t have some very simple things already in place for our armed revolution, it leaves me...well, to borrow words from a friend of mine, peeved.”
A casual flick of her magic sent Blade rolling across the floor, coming to a stop before the grand fireplace of the room. It was currently cold and dead but with a twitch of her eye and another spark of her magic, Chroma had it roar to life again. Flashing Blade looked from fire to alicorn, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
“So, now that we’ve made that clear, we are going to collect these ponies of yours and remind them of their obligations. And you, my dear Grand Master, will fight with the rest or face the fire.”
Flashing Blade audibly gulped before nodding. “Y-yes consul.”
“Good. Now tell me about Sombra’s current guard detail…”
- - - -
Miles away in the Everfree forest, another Chroma stood on a ledge that had once not existed in this place and looked down upon a city she hadn’t set hoof in since the civil war that tore her homeland apart.
While the glory of the old empire was long gone, there was a certain lingering glory to the buildings spread out beneath her hooves. Despite the plant life that choked the wide streets and snakled languidly up the sides of buildings, the marble domes and peaked roofs that poked through the verdant carpet retained a modicum of their ancient unblemished state. Silvery moonlight highlighted buildings and statues alike, for here there would be no summoned storms, no dark clouds to intrude upon the diminished perfection of her old home.
Still, there was something gnawing at her. A tingling sensation that ran right down the back of her neck and made her coat stand on end. Unless she was really wrong, there was a presence here. One that she hadn’t felt in a long time...
Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, Chroma sighed to push her dark thoughts and musings away from her mind. She had soldiers to command. A war to fight. A nation to save. Turning to face Ranger Spitfire and her crew, she set to the task of giving commands.
“We’ll have to search the city thoroughly. The Elements of Harmony used to be kept in the senatorial chambers, but the traitors would have to be completely bereft of their common sense to leave them there.” She flicked a wing, gesturing to the buildings below. “Split up, but not too much. No group smaller than two ponies. Understood?”
They had shouted as one, their voices rising together in a single roar of unity. Like a unit. Like a legion. ...Like friends. Beaming with pride, Chroma raised a wing...only for one of her stormcrows to drop from the sky in a ruffle of wings and shower of sparks. If one of her faithful creations had come to her, something must have gone wrong.
“Report,” she commanded with a nod.
The crow cawed and cackled, speaking in enchanted tongue that only Chroma could understand. It paid to have a network of eyes that couldn’t be compromised by a pony listening in where and when they shouldn’t be. That was a lesson hard learned. But as she listened to the words that flowed from the crow’s beak, a cold, familiar fury began to build in her chest.
“Damned incompetent fools!” she snarled, wheeling about and stomping towards the rangers. Sparks of lightning, white hot with rage, flew from her hooves with each strike against the earth.
Spitfire flared her wings in surprise, but resolutely placed herself between her ponies and Chroma.
“Consul Dash? What's wrong?”
Dimly, somewhere in the depths of Chroma’s mind she was aware that Spitfire was reaching out with genuine concern. But that little voice of concern was overwhelmed by the crackling, electric hum of anger that so regularly coursed through her.
“The traitors escaped! The rangers you left behind weren't able to keep some wounded rabble restrained and now mayor Glimmer is missing as well!”
Spitfire’s brow furrowed as her mind began to sort out the full reality of the situation. “So, that means-”
“That Ponyville is in open revolt!”
“It can’t be!” Spitfire argued back. “They have to know that it’s hopeless. Their only option would be to come here. Are Adagio and her thugs supposed to hobble their way past the caprataurs?”
“Well, what do you think they’re doing!”
Spitfire was shouting now. “Running, obviously! Adagio clearly doesn’t have the drive or spine to last in the nation we’re building, so she’s probably running far away, to set up some petty fiefdom where she can be useless for the rest of her worthless life!”
The fury of Spitfire’s rant was enough to give Chroma pause, despite her own anger. Admittedly, she hadn’t actually ever spoke with the unicorn. Lightning was something of a conversation ender on its own. So she was willing to take Spitfire’s word in regards to the ex-baronesses’ character. But Starlight Glimmer was another matter. The fake Element of Harmony in her office spoke to the mare’s interest in such things. Clearly, she had to be the pony in charge of this burgeoning rebellion, the true mastermind behind all the ponies she had talked into such a farce of a rebellion! Could they really be so bold as to follow her into the Everfree? Considering all of this Chroma juggled her own options before making a decision.
She turned to her stormcrow. “Take the rangers and the flock. Search Ponyville house by house. If you find them, detain them. If they resist, kill them. If Ponyville resists further, subject it to decimation.”
Decimation. The act of culling your own insubordinate ponies for the greater good. There had been a time she had viewed it as an atrocity, conducted by only the most underhooved thugs and petty dictators. Oh, how naive that opinion seemed after the collapse of Equestria. Now she was prepared to do what she needed to do. She also didn’t miss the ripple of nervousness that had ran through the assembled rangers. Even Spitfire.
“Rainbow Dash? Is that-”
“Don’t finish that sentence Spitfire. Don’t. Even. Dare.”
“But-” Spitfire began.
A bolt of lightning struck the ground and inch from her hooves. Her eyes flicked from the scorch mark on the grass to the fleeting wisp of magical power rising from Chroma’s horn.
“No more talk. We have our roles! To action!”
Urged on by their commander, the Everfree Rangers lept off the cliff edge and dove towards the city below. Chroma spared one last look at her stormcrow before nodding and following suit. For its part, the stormcrow watched its master disappear from sight before lazily clacking its beak and flapping its wings to take off again. There was a message to deliver and justice to mete out. But the message would never arrive.
It was a scant foot off the ground when the arrow struck, black fletched and made solidly enough to pierce the arcane flesh of the magically constructed creature. With a strangled caw, in toppled backwards, collapsing into a shower of sparks as it went. And as the last bits fades away to nothing, a pair of angry red eyes watched it do so with a grim satisfaction.
It was time to hunt again.
- - - -
Through the half conscious daze of fitful wakefulness, Lightning Dust could smell food and feel warmth. Slowly she opened one eye, then the other, to see a fire merrily crackling away in the center of the cave. At first, she wondered why and how it was there. A cave was not an abundant source of wood after all. Yet, there it was, complete with cast iron pot hung over it in such a way to be perfectly warmed by the flickers of flame. Some manner of spicy soup bubbled happily away inside, judging by the delicious smells that lazily rose with the steam over the edge of the rim.
A burr of light blue danced just out of the corner of her eye. It was accompanied by a melodic humming, light and airy in its tone. Shifting slightly under her blanket Lightning saw that the source was Sonata Dusk. The earth pony was hunched over a wooden cutting board, working away at a mound of dough, pounding her hooves into the gooey mass before neatly folding it over and kneading it again.
Lightning bristled, wondering how a civilian could have managed to wake earlier than she did. Months and months of Spitfire’s crack of dawn revelries and brutal training had to count for something! The act of running of a restaurant couldn’t be comparable! No matter how early one had to get up in order to do the work.
But as Lightning watched Sonata toil away a certain rhythm to her work became apparent. The slapping of the dough was in time with the humming, almost forming a new cadence to the sounds. She found herself bobbing her head slightly with the improvised tune, until Sonata was satisfied with her efforts and she began to sculpt little circles of the dough. Those were slid onto a flat piece of iron and shoved near the fire to cook. Seemingly satisfied with her efforts, Sonata Sat back on her haunches with eyes closed. It was a strange thing to do with food cooking away. But every time Lightning thought biscuits or stew was growing close to burning, Sonata would open her eyes and make a slight adjustment. A stir here, a shift of the plate there. It took a few such repetitions for Lighting to realize what was happening.
“Are you cooking by ear?” she exclaimed.
Sonata opened her eyes. “Well...yeah. Doesn’t everypony?”
Her tone was so simple and straightforward, as if the idea of having one's food talk back to them wasn't completely insane. Lightning rolled her eyes. “No Sonata, it isn’t common for ponies to listen to their cooking. We have to follow recipes and recommended cooking times.”
“Oh,” Sonata blinked. “That sounds horrible! Like you’re blind or something.”
“The rest of us will just have to deal with that fact I suppose.”
A mighty yawn rose from the lump that was Baroness Dazzle. Her blanket wraped form quivered for a moment before the whole mess was thrown aside and the noble bolted upright in a sudden, jerky motion. For a moment, she looked around the cavern, blinking blearily at her surroundings. Lightning Dust smirked back at the baroness, waving a hoof at her.
“Morning m’lady! We have biscuits.”
Adagio took a deep breath, letting the smell of the cooking dough fill her nose. “Mmmm. Is that a hint of honey I smell?”
“Did somepony say honey?” Starlight Glimmer asked, now awake herself. “I love honey.”
“You’re up and about pretty fast, considering..,” Adagio waved at Starlight’s horn.
Starlight shrugged. “I’ve always been a fast healer.”
The rest of the group was stirring now and as Aria woke, Sonata bustled over and began to poke at her splint wings and leg. Aria’s reaction was predictable.
“Hey! Stop it!” she shouted, flinching away from Sonata’s pokes and prods. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“I can see if they’re less broken!”
“Well, they’re not! It’s been a day!” she looked around the cavern, illuminated by sunrod and cooking fire. “...I think. Stupid underground.”
Sonata shrugged and returned to her cooking while everypony began to crowd around the fire, bellies already grumbling at the thought of breakfast. The chef dished out her carefully constructed repast and the group tore into it with gusto. It was a practice that Lightning was familiar with from her time in the Rangers. Hard work just had this way of building up and appetite and they had practically walked through Tartarus last night. She had a feeling that Sonata was aware of that fact more than she let on, for the soup they dined on was more of a stew, chock full of vegetables and grains. Almost a perfect marching strew, really. But her musings and the silence of eating were both broken by a question proposed by Aria.
“So...where are we going now?”
“To Roam,” Adagio answered. “Just like before. That's where the Elements of Harmony should be.”
“Okay…,” Aria frowned. “But how? We’re underground and I don’t think we can backtrack. I don’t want to take a chance with those caprataurs again.”
Lightning twisted about slightly to peer at the tunnels that surrounded them, before looking back at Sonata’s fire. The flames flickered and danced, almost tousled by invisible hooves. “We have a breeze,” she pointed out, gesturing to the fire. “That means air is moving through these caves. One of them should lead back to the surface. We can work out the direction to head from there.”
“Sooo...wander around and hope for the best?” Aria snorted.
“Please. The technical term is scouting.”
Aria rolled her eyes. “Right…’scouting’. So we just scout around and hope for the best. Do we even know what we’re looking for?”
“I know what we’re looking for!” Starlight shot back. “I’ve studied Roam and ancient Equestria extensively.”
“Ancient?” Adagio blinked. “It fell three hundred years ago. It’s not like those legends of Marelantis.”
“And what’s the plan for dealing with the pony who broke my wing?” Aria asked frowning even deeper now.
“We find the Elements of Harmony, right?” Suri supplied. “And then those let us blast her with magic or something.”
“Seriously?” Aria gaped. “Just...blast her with magic? I…. You have no plan! We’re opposing an alicorn without a plan!”
“But she’s vulnerable now!” Starlight argued. “I saw her split herself into three different versions of herself.”
“Do you actually know she’s any weaker?” Aria snapped back. “Or were you just grasping at straws out of fear?”
Starlight sat up a little taller, stomping a hoof against the ground. “I came up with the best plan I could at the time! Chroma is afraid of the Elements! You didn’t see her reaction when she saw the one she thought I had!”
“You’re right! I saw what she’s like in battle when she almost killed me!” Aria shook her head, her eyes nervously flicking from pony to pony. “Maybe we should turn back? If we make the right kind of deal with Chroma, she’ll let us go, right?”
“You didn’t see her with Spitfire in my office,” Starlight frowned, practically hunching over her soup. “She is not the bargaining type.”
Aria’s eyes snapped back to Lightning Dust, her one good wing flaring in a challenge. “Your group signed up with her? They had to be getting something out of it! Why are you even here?”
Lightning beat her own wings once, shooting her own nasty glare back at Aria. “I am loyal to The Heartlands! Just because I’m a Ranger doesn’t mean that I’m going to just go along with following a madmare!”
“Wellll…,” Sonata said, lightly rolling her eyes. “You did say you could understand why they did what they did. So it can’t be entirely crazy for you, right?”
Lightning swung her head around to glare at Sonata. “That doesn’t mean I want to rebel! I just wanted Chrysalis and Sombra to support us more!”
“They support you plenty!” Starlight shouted back. “They gave you a massive piece of land for your own personal fief! A perfectly good farm could have gone there to support a family!”
“Right until the caprataurs came and burnt it down!”
Now Suri jumped into the fray. “Really? I’ve seen the amount of time Canterlot pours into military training. They don’t just sit back and let whatever creature do whatever they want!”
“Could have fooled me!”
Everypony’s heads immediately swung towards Adagio. Her eyes were closed, like she had been lost in deep thought while the rest of them had bickered. “I will not roll over and accept that insane pony as my ruler and I won’t just sit back and accept mindless pining for a nation that was dead before these pony’s grandparents were born!”
She snorted, opening her eyes as she did. Lightning couldn’t help but notice that they seemed to blaze with the same intensity she had shown in the healing house. “You hear this talk flit around the Canterlot courts sometimes. Usually when some noble is trying to suck up to Chrysalis and Sombra. ‘Oh, your majesty, what a horrible tragedy!’, ‘I’m deeply sorry for your loss your majesty.’! It’s pathetic, pining over past glories that aren’t even relevant to our lives anymore.”
Lightning Dust could only stare after that sudden outburst and she wasn’t alone. Everypony seemed at a loss from Adagio’s sudden burst of passion. At least until Starlight Glimmer opened her mouth.
“You can’t be that dismissive of Equestria, Adagio. It was one of the world’s greatest nations. It’s art, philosophy, and architecture were without peer! That aqueduct we followed here is centuries old and looks like it was built yesterday!” She sighed, the sudden burst of energy that had come from her outrage falling away. “Like it or not baroness. We’re living among the bones of a greater nation. It’s hard to not wonder what might have been.”
“And what does that matter? Equestria is gone! And because of this damned nostalgia, we’re just sitting around, wistfully thinking about what could have been, instead of fixing our problems and trying to improve our situation!”
Now Adagio grew quiet, focusing on her stew. “The Heartlands won’t get better unless we do something about it. And since- to my knowledge- we’re the only ponies trying to do anything about Chroma...she won’t be stopped unless we do something about her.”
“Wow,” Lightning Dust smirked.
Adagio blinked. “What?”
“That was a nice rousing speech. It’s like you’re being an actual leader or something!”
A chorus of snickers rose from Starlight and Aria, while Adagio rolled her eyes. “Very funny. How about you do your job and scout us a way out of here while the rest of us pack up.”
“Sure thing m’lady.”
“Actually,” Suri said, placing a hoof on Adagio’s side. “Can the others pack up? I wanted to talk to you for a second...privately.”
Lightning watched them walk over to the cave entrance they had entered via, before turning to face the others. Digging another sunrod out of her saddlebags, she picked one at random and headed for it. Time to see what laid beyond the darkness.
- - - -
“What is it Suri?”
Adagio could only watch her servant struggle with what she wanted to say with a slightly bemused expression. Suri could usually be counted on to speak openly. It was one of the reasons that Adagio trusted her to assist in all of the business that came with running a noble house. So the scrunched up expression currently playing across Suri’s muzzle while she puzzled out whatever words she wanted to use was just...well...funny.
“Come on now, spit it out.”
Suri sighed. “Fine. Is it true that Starlight Glimmer offered to buy out my bond?”
In a moment, a half dozen lies ran through Adagio’s mind. That question was one that she dearly didn’t wish to answer. What was there to say? That she had thrown away a perfect solution to both their debt related problems out of...pride? Spite? ...It was probably both, if she was being honest with herself.
“Yes,” she found herself saying, the word tumbling out before she could stop herself.
“Why? Considering some of your money issues, it would have helped solve your problem at least.”
There wasn’t as much anger in that question as Adagio had been expecting. If anything, Suri seemed more puzzled by the decision. Adagio shrugged.
“Well, she did kind of try and use your release as a way to try and blackmail me into passing new anti indentured servitude laws. I couldn’t let that stand.”
Now Suri’s expression fell, a disappointed frown crossing her muzzle. “Oh. Well, that does make sense, I suppose…”
“It’s not the only reason though…,” Adagio muttered, rubbing the back of her neck. “I guess… Stars above, this is hard.”
“I don’t want you to leave!” Adagio snapped. She spun neatly on her hooves, suddenly unable to look Suri in the face. “I...don’t want to be in that manor house alone. Especially now, since I don’t know if Will is even going to wake up or not.”
“Why would I leave though?”
Adagio snorted, turning to face her servant again. “Don’t patronize me Suri. I’ve seen your dresses, your head for numbers and business, the work ethic you’ve developed since Manehattan. I may still not know the whole story of how you wound up in that much debt, but I know one thing.” Huffing slightly, her whole body slumped slightly, misery beginning to set in like one of Chroma’s storm clouds. “You’re too damned talented to stay the assistant of a never was like me.”
Suri gasped and in the next moment Adagio felt her hoof press against her forehead. “Are you feeling alright? Did Chroma do something to you?”
“Suri! Stop that!” Adagio squirmed. “I’m fine!”
“Scorpan’s twisted tail you are! I’ve never heard you talk about yourself like that before!”
“The possible collapse of everything I’ve worked for, my country and Will’s injury has left me...contemplative,” Adagio smiled sadly. “Let’s face it. Despite all my efforts and scheming, I don’t have much to show for it. You and Will are the closest things I’ve probably ever had to friends. And he’s seriously hurt right now.”
“With all due respect m’lady, that is a poor excuse and a poor attitude. I expect better from you, m’kay?” Suri shook her head, chuckling softly to herself. “I mean, you’re talking to a pony who ruined her life by being the kind of ruthless, out for herself pony that you're moaning about being. But then a sassy noble pony bought out my debt and things got better. And the Adagio Dazzle I know isn’t a has been. Especially after your little speech out there.”
She held up a hoof and plowed onward. “And another thing. If you want to make friends, there’s four ponies in the cave here to start making nice with. It is the six of us against the world at the moment. And even if I am freed, that doesn’t mean I’ll leave you right away, m’kay? Everypony knows you’d be lost without me anyway.”
Adagio rolled her eyes, but reached a leg over and yanked Suri to her side. She winced as some of her burns flared up again from the close contact, but didn’t let go. “Maybe.”
Suri raised an eyebrow at the leg resting on her withers. “...You’re being rather affectionate too. Are you sure that you’re alright?”
“...No...I’m probably not alright,” Adagio answered with a slight smile. “Chroma...just something about her got to me. I’ve never felt so powerless before in my life. And that includes...well, that night. With my parents.”
“And you realized how powerless some other ponies felt next to you?”
“Started studying philosophy have we?”
Suri gave a sly tilt of her head, “I prefer to call it deduction.”
“Hey, everypony!” Lightning Dust announced having returned from one of the caves and she was wearing a massive grin on her face,“I found the road!”
Adagio and Suri looked at each other for a moment before looking back to Lightning. “What?”
- - - -
Lightning idly waved a hoof at the near immaculately constructed road. Save for a jagged slice at the beginning, where the current stretch seemed to have been severed from the rest, it stretched down the winding tunnel as naturally as if it had been built here. In fact, to Lightning Dust’s admittedly untrained eye, it really did look like the builders of Equestria had decided to just build a road in the middle of a cave.
Adagio and Starlight, being the noble and the academic of their little band, were already wandering to and fro over the stones, examining them with an intensity that bordered on obsession. She, Aria, Sonata and Suri just watched this display with a mixture of bemused, confused and annoyed expressions. Through Aria’s annoyed expression might have had something to do with her holding the sunrod at the sametime. After a few more minutes of examination and searching Adagio looked up from the road and fixed Starlight with a quizzical expression.
“Well..,” Starlight mused, rubbing her chin. “Roam wasn’t just the city. It did have a lot of villas, farms and little villages around it. And I know that some of those villages were sites of battles during the war. They would have been swallowed by the Everfree too...and I guess that with the layout of the forest always shifting around, one of those towns could have been buried.”
Lightning trotted forward, squinting into the darkness beyond the boundary of their light. “I suppose we won’t really know until we look deeper, will we?”
Adagio grimaced, the experience with the caprataurs clearly still running through her mind. “Starlight? How up to casting do you feel?”
Starlight rolled her eyes up towards her horn. It was still a bit charred from the caprataur spell strike, but at a thought and a little concentration, it was engulfed in her normal magical aura. She held it for a moment, letting the magic scintillate up and down its length for a few cycles before releasing the channel.
“I think I’ll be okay. Though if things get intense-”
Adagio nodded. “Then we’ll have to be careful. Everypony stick together and watch each other’s backs. Lightning?”
“Up front. Aria, you’re wounded, so you stay in the middle.”
Aria grunted in response while Lightning slipped up to the head of the line. The group set off again, cautiously, as light from alchemy rolled the curtain of blackness back a step at a time. For a while they advanced with nothing more than the sounds of their hooves clacking against the well maintained stone. It was difficult to maintain a sense of travel time when underground, but by Lightning’s reckoning they had walked quite a while before the first glimmer of something besides an unending stretch of tunnel. A mile marker was the first thing their light spilled over. Square and blocky, it rose out of the ground like an overly ordered stalagmite, its sides marked with the blocky letters of Roaman style Equestrian.
Starlight was on it in a moment. “Centum Cellae,” she read, immediately perking up. “Ah! I’ve heard of this town! It was mostly an artist community. Did a lot of public works in Roam, especially for the senate.”
“Oooo! I love art!” Sonata grinned. “Maybe we can grab a piece or two while we’re here?”
“From who?” Suri remarked. “Are you expecting to find a working market in there or something?”
Lightning perked up with a sly grin. “Oh! Maybe! Maybe the whole town is still populated? The descendants of the original inhabitants, who are now these pale, shambling things that feed on blind cave fish but that’s starting to get boring and now really want to give succulent pony flesh a try! And then they’ll ambush us when we explore the place and chase us, then somepony will trip and then BLOOD!”
On the “blood” she flopped over onto her side. Making exaggerated gagging and choking noises, she thrashed her legs about as she “died”. She knew full well that everypony was staring at her. That was the point. Aria and Starlight rolled their eyes. Sonata and Suri looked confused. Adagio just frowned.
“Lightning,” she asked, voice deadpan. “Do you listen to yourself talk?”
“I actually make a point to avoid that whenever possible m’lady.”
Aria snorted, while Adagio shook her head. “That explains so much,” she muttered.
Lightning didn't miss the smirk she tried to hide though.
Moving passed the way marker they begin to enter the outskirts of what had once been a prosperous town. The ancient buildings in all their finery remains surprisingly intact despite the passage of time. While the domed and peaked roofs have merged with the rocky ceiling in places The columns and walls that supported them remain strong and covered with the works of its previous citizens.
As Lightning Dust lead the way she couldn't help but admire the statues and frescoes that surrounded them. They were tapestry of life before the fall of Equestria and the likes of Chroma and her ilk showing daily life in the former empire as well as scenes of triumph and glory from wars and diplomacy alike. The Great Road they had followed here snaked its way through the middle of the town and it they continued to follow winding through the rows of buildings and statuary alike.
“It really is amazing. Some of these pieces look like they're still being maintained,” Adagio said her eyes alight and she observed a statue of a mighty alicorn. “Is that?”
Starlight Glimmer- now their primary source of light as she carried the sunrod- eyed the statue as well. “Luster? Probably. She was Equestria’s primary patron of the arts. Even tried to keep it going after she went mad.”
“And how did that work out for her?” Aria frowned.
“She was the first to get sealed away.”
“Ha!” Aria beamed.
Lightning Dust chuckled herself. “You know, I’ve heard about suffering for your art, but I don’t think that’s what Luster had in mind.”
Adagio chuckled and- much to Lightning’s surprise- managed to smile in a way that didn’t look completely sinister. “Oh, I don’t know. I sat for many a family portrait when I was a foal. I remember them being particularly horrific.”
“You’d choose magical imprisonment over posing for a painting?” Lightning asked, eyebrow raised.
“I’d rather debate the finer points of ancient Equestrian agricultural law with King Sombra than pose for another painting,” Adagio snorted.
Everypony chuckled at that, save for Starlight Glimmer. “I don’t get it. Ancient Equestrian agriculture was fascinating! We still use half the techniques for field rotation and crop enhancement they came up with to this day!”
Starlight stared at Aria. “What?”
“Egghead. That’s you.”
“...Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”
“I don’t know too many other ponies who’d actually find old scrolls and books about farming, interesting.”
“Uh huh…,” Starlight frowned. “And what’s the difference between a stratocumulus and a stratonimbus?”
Aria pouted, her one good wing flaring out in the usual pegasus challenge. “That second one isn’t even a real cloud! It’s a nimbostratus, and weather is a completely different thing from farming!”
“Not completely different,” Lightning grinned.
“How?” Aria’s eyes narrowed.
“They’re both boring.”
The group shared another round of laughter, this time save for Aria, who sputtered indignantly. At least until Lightning threw a leg over her.
“Ugh,” Aria groaned, rolling her eyes. “You’re the worst Lightning.”
“You love me and you know it.”
The road chose this moment to hook a right hoofed turn, breaking between a pair of sturdy looking government buildings. Lightning held up a hoof for everyone to halt, before creeping forward to peek around the corner. The road ran on ahead for a few dozen more paces before passing through an archway in a high stone wall. It had merged with the ceiling at some point in the past, now effectively forming a cave within a cave. But like most of the buildings in this long abandoned town, the walls were covered in murals. These ones mostly depicted ponies engaged in making artwork of their own; painting and sculpting mostly.
“Well, that looks nice and homely,” Lightning muttered. “Hey, Starlight? I need your egg head for a moment.”
“...I’m never going to escape this nickname, am I?” Starlight grumbled, trotting forward all the same.
“Probably not. But do you know if this town was supposed to have any painted forts in it?”
“Forts? No, nothing like that.” Starlight joined Lightning, likewise peeking around the corner. “No, I’m pretty sure that’s the art academy. Training young minds and all that.”
“Well, that’s the only direction for us to go. I can’t wait to see what they were working on!”
- - - -
Whatever glory the academy once held was now long, long past. Compared to the rest of the town, it seemed to have suffered from far more neglect and in some cases outright vandalism. The hallways were choked with dust, cobwebs and the shattered remains of statues. Horrendous curses, insults and furious damnations against Luster and her fellow alicorns had been scrawled upon the walls, to the point where the frescoes beneath were barely visible anymore.
“Wow,” she muttered at one particularly graphic piece. “I didn’t even think you could do that with a gladius… Maybe if you used the grip side-”
Adagio whipped her head about, fixing Lightning with a glare that could have frozen Chroma in her place. “Don’t even think about finishing that.”
“What? It’s true!”
“What did I say about you being ‘the worst’?” Aria growled, sparing a moment to peek into yet another room they passed. “Another studio. This one’s full of half carved black colored rock. You know, instead of the white rock in the last room.”
“It’s almost like this was an art academy or something,” Starlight smirked.
“I guess I was expecting there to be more besides rocks.”
“Wood, paint and canvas wouldn’t last three hundred years without pony care. So metal and stone is probably about all you’re going to find at this point,” Starlight commented, waving a hoof at the hallway. “That’s why the frescoes are still here. They’re painted directly into wet plaster so that when it dried, the paint was locked in as well.”
“Doesn’t make looking at a bunch of rocks anymore interesting!”
Pressing onward, they came around a corner into a different, wider hallway. It was short though, more of a foyer than a true corridor. Here the frescoes depicted gardens and other scenes of natural splendor, before the mini-corridor opened up into what looked like a truly massive chamber that stretched far beyond the range of their light. Lightning advanced to the edge of the new cavern and waited for a moment, straining her ears for any sound of movement.
At first, she heard nothing save the soft breathing of her friends. But then in the distance came a slight...was that a tune? Her ears pricked up as she strained to listen more. Had music really been what she heard? Again, there was silence at first before the sound of music returned. It was a series of plucking, string like tunes. Maybe from a harp? Something like that at least. A quick glance back at the rest of the group told Lightning that they had all heard it too. Silently, those that had their weapons, drew them before advancing as a group again.
Their light rolled back the darkness head a bit at a time, revealing more and more of what once must have been a lovely looking garden. The topography was all there, now battered and decayed from the passing centuries. The empty bed of a little stream curled lazily off to their right, before dropping into a massive open hole that was once a lake of some kind. Every step they took kicked up dust from a carpet of crumbled grass and picked their way past half crumbled stone benches. The music grew louder as they advanced, settling into a light, airy tune that seemed to swirl and dance around them much like the dust clouds that billowed around their hooves.
“This must have been open to the sky at one point,” Starlight mused, looking above their heads. “At least before the town was buried.”
“How can you think about that when we don’t know what’s making that music?” Aria growled.
“It’s just music Aria,” Starlight frowned. “It could come from any number of sources. Remember, Luster used to patronize this town all the time when she was active. It could be some enchanted thing she created.”
“And you’re not worried about that, considering Chroma?” Aria glared back.
Lightning frowned. Aria’s accusation really got under her coat for some reason. It was just music after all. “Come on Aria,” she said, keeping her usual cheerful grin in place. “Not everything alicorns make is inherently evil. Look at what Sombra and Chrysalis have done. I’ve even heard that Celestia, Luna and Cadance have managed to not suck entirely in their kingdoms.”
Aria lapsed into silence remained locked in a fierce glower.
“Oh! Look!” Suri suddenly called out, pointing at a spot on the ground. “Is that gold?”
Lightning followed Suri’s outstretched hoof to a spot among the sea of ash. There was indeed a golden coin glittering among the grey. And another beyond that. And yet another past that one. She rushed forward, almost skipping as she began to follow the trail. It was vitally important that she find out where this gold had come from.
“Come on!” she shouted.
Up ahead, the empty river bed doubled back across the grounds, a quaint looking bridge arcing the expanse. Lightning could already see more glinting as the light began to creep across the bridge, so she didn’t even wait, leaping the distance in a heartbeat with the help of a flap from her wings.
What she saw made her heart soar.
Sure, there were mountains of gold and treasure piled around the area in a loose ring. But they seemed almost secondary to what was in the middle of the “clearing” they formed. The most beautiful marble pillar rose from the ground, while six smaller marble platforms slowly rotated around it, buoyed aloft by delicate pillows of magic. On those platforms sparkled six golden necklaces, each set with a different, ornate gemstone. Their craftsmanship was sublime. The chains looked somehow as fine and as soft as silk threads, but as sturdy as the mightiest boulder. The gems had been cut so well that Lightning didn’t think she could see a single flaw on their surfaces. Magic thrummed from them in such an abundance that Lightning could feel it. Right down to the roots of her feathers. A cheerful giggle escaped her lips and she almost felt like dancing right there and then. They had done it! They had found what they were looking for!
The Elements of Harmony.
“They’re...beautiful,” Adagio breathed at her side. “Chrysalis and Sombra must have hid them here after the war.”
Sonata was prancing in place. “Oooo! They look like a bunch of warm hugs!”
“I knew that rock I bought was a fake!” Starlight laughed. “Not a single drop of magic in it, but I had to be sure. But in the face of these...stars above, why did I even entertain the possibility it was one?”
“So, are we just supposed to take one at random?” Suri asked. “Or is there a way to figure out who gets which one?”
Lightning giggled again and took a step forward-
“What in the name of all the thundering thunderheads in The Heartlands is wrong with the lot of you?”
Everypony turned at once to stare at the furious form of Aria Blaze. She alternated between staring at them in shock and at their surroundings (and all the beautiful treasure) in a mixture of horror and disgust.
“What’s gotten into you?” Adagio frowned. “Don’t you understand? We’ve found the Elements of Harmony! ...Not that all this gold isn’t appreciated as well,” she finished with a grin and bout of laughter.
“You’re all mad!” Aria spat back, waving her good hoof at their surroundings. “There’s no gold here! No Elements of Harmony! You’re standing in the middle of a bunch of bones!”
Lightning shared a look with Adagio and the rest. Then they broke into a bout of laughter, Sonata almost doubling over from the intensity of her giggles.
“Perhaps you’re the one who’s lost it?” Lightning suggested. “I know that the caprataurs were scary, but come on! Gold isn’t skulls.”
Aria didn’t back down though, instead hobbling forward so that she was almost snout to snout with Lightning. “There isn’t any gold here,” she hissed. “You’re all being influenced by something! Think about this! What are the odds that we’d just happen to stumble on the things we were looking for in a lost town that we didn’t even know existed until just now?”
“But the fact it’s lost makes it a good hiding place!” Starlight argued back. “I’d be surprised if Chroma even remembers that this town is here.”
“Maybe if they were in a vault or something,” Aria argued back. “These are just so coincidentally laying right in the path we were already walking. Oh, not to mention, one of us is seeing bones and skulls!”
“Aria-” Adagio began.
Aria interrupted her, shoving a hoof against lips. “Look Baroness. I know that I’m grumpy and a pain in the flank sometimes. And I know that it's weird that we’re seeing different things. But...please,” she winced. “I’m asking you all to trust me and at least be careful. Can’t you and Starlight...I don’t know...do some kind of unicorn thing to check?”
For a moment, Adagio looked ready to spit some horrible insult as Aria took her hoof away. But then she slowly, she let out a deep sigh and nodded. “You’re right. At the very least, there might be something affecting you-”
The music from the Elements rose in a flurry of activity and intensity, like some invisible musician was now plucking at their strings with a new fury. Before she even began to realize what she was doing, Lightning began to run towards The Elements of Harmony. Vaguely, she was aware of Aria shouting something, but it was lost amongst the new chorus ringing in her ears. She was halfway to the Elements and all she needed to do was grab one!
It was at that point that a few things happened in rapid succession. Firstly, she felt something close down on her tail and yank her backwards. In the next moment, a mass of sticky looking white strands impacted into the ground where she had just been. Off balance from the yank, Lightning toppled backwards. It ended up being a lucky accident of timing. For the music cut out at that moment a large illusion spell on the high cave ceiling puffing out with it. Now instead of blackness, Lightning could see a crisscross net of massive spider webbing that choked the stalactites and a large bulk that was beginning to move within.
Landing hard, the wind was forced from her lungs for a moment. This also ended up being lucky, for it prevented her from crying out in shock when she saw that Aria had in fact been correct. Skulls, bones and shattered statues surrounded them, mounded up in macabre piles where the treasure had been a moment before. The bones were from a mishmash of sources. Some looked vaguely canine in origin, while others were clearly caprataurs. Others were even rarer in origin, including-
“Stars above, is that a manticore skull?” Starlight gaped.
Before anypony could answer a new voice rang through the cave. It was feminine, but cold, cruel and almost detached.
“Such polite fresh meat to roam into my parlor.”
Lightning looked towards the ceiling again, her hooves unslinging her borrowed crossbow instinctively.
The webbing quivered once before something crawled out on eight tree-trunk sized legs. The most massive spider Lightning had ever seen, but somehow even worse than she’d expect a spider of that size to be. It’s carapace was a lurid mix of sickly green and bone white, the latter of which couldn’t help but remind her of all the bones that surrounded them. The head, almost comically small relative to its body the size of a small barn, wasn’t that of a normal spider either. The face was flat and squashed. Like a furless minotaur had run face first into a stone wall. Though its mouth remained full of fangs that dripped and glistened while it chuckled coldly again. And perhaps the most maddeningly, it had a mane like a pony. Long and black it dangled light a straight waterfall as the...thing clung to the underside of its web.
Adagio didn’t even need to give the order to run this time. They were already galloping and flying towards the far side of the room.
“Now, now,” the monster chided, almost like a mother disciplining her foals. “It’s not nice to run out on an old woman during dinner.”
With a surprising amount of grace she plunged her eight legs into the bulk of her webbing and began to strum, using the silky strands as an instrument. The tempo struck up this time was faster, and more discordant with sharp plucks that picked and tore at Lightning’s ears.
“I liked your last tune better!”
The spider mare...thing, just cackled as everything around them began to shift into a chaotic mass of different shapes and colors. It was like trying to run through a painting and they came to a sudden halt. Save for Aria. She hobbled ahead, the illusions still not finding purchase on her mind.
A sound like a whip tore through the air and a sticky strand hit Aria right between her wings. Without even thinking, Lightning dove forward, grabbing onto Aria as both were yanked into the air. The world turned into a chaotic jumble of motion, the near sixty feet distance from floor to ceiling gone in a moment, and sound before Lightning found herself coming to a sudden stop. It was a sticky stop as well, with her forelegs stuck to the webbing that had Aria bound, leaving the two of them snout to snout.
“Aren’t you a strong willed one,” the spider chuckled, peering down at both of them, but addressing Aria. She had managed to snare them with a strand of webbing from her thorax, while continuing to play her webbing. “Your brain will be quite the tasty treat!”
“Go buck a beehive!” Aria snarled.
The spider laughed, her rear legs beginning to pull them in.
Then Adagio began to sing. She had picked a slower tune in direct contrast to the discordant tune that the spider had picked.
Alas my love, you do me wrong
To cast me out so discourteously
And I have loved you oh so long
Delighting in your company
“What is that saccharine nonsense?” the spider hissed.
Lightning blinked and spared a glance at the ground. She watched as the mishmash of clashing colors faded away, revealing Adagio and company below. The baroness’s horn was alight as she sang, weaving the song throughout the chamber.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my lady greensleeves?
The spider hissed, her own playing becoming more broken and disjointed. It took Lightning a moment to realize what was happening. Adagio was weaving her own music based magic into that of the spider’s, throwing off her rhythm and timing.
Right on the hooves of that realization, came a wooshing sound followed by a flash of light. Before monster or pony could react, one of Starlight’s fireballs struck the webbing near the spider’s massive legs. She gave a startled and panicked shriek before plunging towards the cavern floor, her perch destroyed. Lightning beat her wings with all her might, shooting backwards from the plummeting monster. Everypony else scattered like ants and not a moment too soon. The massive bulk of the spider almost shook the ground as it hit but, to both Lightning’s shock and horror, a fall of sixty feet wasn’t enough to slay the beast.
“You vile little creatures!” she shrieked, legs failing. “How dare you!”
With another roar of fury, she managed to flip back onto her legs and go scuttling after Starlight. She yelped, dove to the right and rolled behind one of the skull piles as one of the massive legs slammed down where she had been a moment before.
Adagio bolted out from behind a different pile, rapier gripped in her magic. Rushing past one of the spider’s legs, she thrust the blade at one of its joints, eliciting a another cry of anger from it and a small amount of purple ichor. Spider spun about with a speed that seemed impossible for her size and lashed out with a leg, sending Adagio tumbling head over tail into another pile of bones.
“This is bad,” Lightning winced. “And I can’t get my crossbow with my legs stuck to you!”
“You might not have to,” Aria said, looking over Lightning’s shoulder. “I think I see something.”
“Turn around and look up.”
Lightning did just that, spinning in place with a beat of her wings. This close to the ceiling, she could see other things trapped in the webbing. Gold, actual gold, glittered in the strand, along with perfectly carved statues...and a truly massive one of Luster. Fashioned out of gold, silver, platinum and gems, it depicted the alicorn in the rampant position, eyes closed and one hoof extended forward. More importantly it was nearly the size of the beast that had collected it.
“You see what I mean?” Aria asked, with a tone that told Lightning she was grinning.
“Absolutely,” Lightning grinned. “Let’s find Starlight.”
Spinning around again, Lightning dove towards the ground below. The spider was scrambling towards Sonata, who was rummaging in one of her saddlebags for something.
“Look out Sonata!” Adagio shouted, charging at the monster from behind again.
Just before the monster reached her, Sonata produced a jar of red colored powder, throwing the whole thing as hard as she could. “Saddlebag Spice!”
The jar shattered against the spider’s face, spilling the spices into her eyes. Roaring in pain, it lashed out with one of its front legs in a wild, sweeping motion. Sonata tried to duck, but caught the limb right in her side and was sent flying through the air, and through yet another pile of bones with a cry of pain. Adagio immediately changed direction, rushing towards where Sonata fell while the spider clawed at her inflamed eyes.
Lightning dropped into a hovering position next to Starlight, who had taken refuge behind the same bone pile as Suri had, just as she unleashed another fireball. The sphere impacted against carapace, sending a shower of sparks across the floor and making her roar in anger again, but otherwise producing a quite lame effect. Lightning tapped Starlight on the back with a hind hoof, the unicorn almost jumping out of her coat before turning.
“...You do realize how ridiculous you two look, right?”
“Be quiet!” Aria growled.
“There’s a massive metal statue trapped in the webbing up there,” Lightning explained. “If we can get her to the right spot, can you hit the webs with another fireball?”
Starlight nodded. “I have enough magic still.”
“Where do you need her?” Suri asked.
Lightning glanced back up at the webbing, doing some estimates on her head. “There,” she said, waggling a hind hoof at a spot maybe twenty feet to their left.
To her surprise and before she could object, Suri nodded, grabbed a canine skull from the pile and charged back out into the open.
“Hey!” she bellowed at the spider. The massive monster had stopped clawing at her eyes, having rid herself of the spices. Suri reared onto her hind legs, wound up and threw her chosen skull. It clattered noisily, but rather uselessly against the carapace, but it did catch the monster’s attention. Suri glared at her as she landed back on all fours. “I’ve squashed bugs bigger than you! You couldn’t catch one of us for dinner if we were all tied up already!”
The spider screamed. The spider charged. Suri bolted for the spot.
With her huge size and massive stride, Suri’s head start melted away. Lightning swore under her breath and shot after both as they passed Starlight’s pile. As the spider reared to smash Suri to the ground, Lightning tucked her wings close to her body, shot between the outstretched legs and shouted to Aria.
Aria lashed out, her unhurt hind legs striking the spider right between her eyes. It wasn’t much, making her do little more than take a half hearted swipe at them as they flitted back out of reach. But in that moment, it gave Suri enough time to reach her spot.
“Starlight! Magic!” Aria bellowed.
With another woosh, Starlight let her fireball fly. It streaked through the air, covering the distance in a blink of the eye and impacting into the webs with an explosion. The spider stopped, looking up with wide eyes as the massive statue of Luster began to drop, barely hanging on by a single thread.
She turned to run, only for Starlight to leap out from behind her pile, grabbing at its massive legs with her magic.
“No...you...don’t!” Starlight shouted.
“Yes...I...do!” The spider screamed back, pushing through the arcane grip.
Then a new round of singing rose from Adagio. The baroness stumbled towards the spider, horn glowing bright as the sun, magic flowing over her target in a torrent, even as sweat gathered on her brow. To Lightning, it looked like Adagio was expending a tremendous amount of effort to do...whatever it was she was doing.
You didn’t know that you fell.
Now that you’re under my spell!
The spider froze in place.
The final strand of webbing burned away.
The statue of Luster fell.
It slammed, head first, into the spider’s over-sized abdomen with a sound not unlike a mushy, rotton tomato splattering against a hard wood wall. Suri shrieked and recoiled as a wave of purple icor washed outwards from the ruined remains of the body. A final, rattling grasp, shook the spider’s body, before it slumped to the ground. For a moment, all was silent, save for the occasional soft ping of a gold coin or gem clattering to the cavern floor.
Then with a squeal of joy, Sonata ran forward, almost tackling Adagio in a tight hug.
“We did it Dagi! We did it! We worked together and beat the monster and- Ow! Owie Ow!” she winced, clutching at her side. “That’s an owie.”
Adagio smiled and pulled Sonata into a light hug. “Yes Sonata, we did. You took a real risk with that spice.”
“Says the pony that charged it!” Starlight pointed out, despite the fact she was smiling too.
“While it’s great that we managed to not get eaten...can somepony please get Lightning and me unstuck?” Aria grumbled.
Lightning smirked, waggling her eyebrows at Aria. “You know you love me.”
“...You’re still the worst!”
Lightning chuckled. She hadn’t missed the smirk Aria tried to hide. While she wasn’t sure what Chorma had in store for them, she was sure of one thing as Adagio and Starlight started to unstick her.
At least they could work together.
Once they were pulled apart, she dusted herself off and grinned at everypony. “Onto Roam!”