With the tunnels of Centum Cellae behind them now and no caprataurs chasing them, the Everfree forest quickly sank into monotony for Adagio. The endless sea of trees became just so much of a blur to her mind, all sense of time and direction lost under the dark skies and green canopy. She glanced down at her attire. The rain cloak was beginning to get saturated, even its water resistance being sorely tested by the storm. The simple traveling dress she was wearing underneath was ripped and torn in places from the battle below the earth, and splattered with mud from travel. Adagio couldn’t help but chuckle. Oh, if only the Canterlot crowd could see her now! They’d probably gasp at how uncouth and barbaric she looked.
Canterlot. She wondered how it was fairing? Normally, she would have every confidence in King Sombra to hold the city. But Chroma had banished Chrysalis with ease. What other tricks did the mad alicorn have at her disposal?
And what of Ponyville? Starlight’s plan had been the best one available. But the fact remained that they had been forced to leave the town behind, effectively leaderless in a crisis. Would they be able to handle the situation? Or would they return to a destroyed town?
Adagio began to trot a little faster.
- - - -
The Everfree seemed calm now. Adagio wasn’t entirely sure why. Maybe it just seemed more normal after escaping a giant, monster spider and the claustrophobic underground tunnels? Or maybe this part of the forest really was just not as monster infested as the rumors said it was? Either way, as the group continued to follow Roam’s ancient road system, they found themselves unmolested and the path unblocked. It was actually relaxing in its own way, despite the fact that Chroma was still out there, somewhere.
The rain had moved from the chaotic lashings that surrounded Ponyville to a steadier and perhaps softer chorus of pitter-patters. Somewhere, out of sight, a group of frogs were basking under the precipitation and croaking happily. Together they formed a sort of symphony of nature. If this kept up for the rest of the way to Roam, it might actually be a pleasant trip. Speaking of which…
“Lightning Dust, is there any chance you could scout ahead a little?” she asked. “We’ve been walking for a while now…”
Lightning sprang into the air, disappearing into the branches a moment later. Adagio watched her go for a moment, before deciding that now was a good enough time as any for taking a short walking break. While it was still difficult to get a read on the time of day due to the storm, it did feel like they had been going for quite a while already.
“Take a break. At least until Lightning comes back.”
Everypony slid their packs off for now, clustering under one of the larger trees just off the road that provided some shelter from the storm. Sonata took the opportunity to pass out some more of her dried snacks.
“Make them count everypony,” she smiled. “I’m actually starting to run low. Those caprataurs can really eat! We’re probably going to be grazing on the way back.”
“Can’t we be lucky for a change and have the Elements just teleport us back or something?” Aria grumbled.
“Pretty sure they don’t work that way. At least there’s no record of teleporation being one of the powers of the Elements,” Starlight mused, rubbing her chin. “Everything I’ve read has talked about…sealing, really.”
Aria raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t that make them big magical jugs that you shove evil into?”
“That…that is a gross oversimplification!” Starlight sputtered.
“But jugs are useful!” Sonata smiled. “What’s wrong with them being jugs?”
“Stop saying jugs!”
Adagio chuckled at Starlight’s flustered state, but a question occurred to her a moment later. “Starlight…did those books and scrolls of yours say anything about how one uses the Elements?”
Starlight nervously bit her lip. “No, they don’t. They just talk about Chrysalis, Sombra, Luna, Celestia, and Cadence claiming them and then unleashing them against Midnight, Chroma and their cohorts. The Elements themselves are reportedly the same as some of the virtues that Equestria espoused. Laughter, generosity, honestly, loyalty, and kindness. There’s also some vague references to a sixth element…”
“So…we’re going to have to just-”
“Experiment when we get there, I imagine.” Starlight shrugged.
“Remember that ‘lack of plan’ thing I brought up before?” Aria asked.
“Don’t you pegasai have an expression about winging it?” Adagio asked, tossing a few dried berries into her mouth. It wasn’t that Aria didn’t have a point. She was just getting tired of the constant nay-saying over the reality of their situation. Aria grumbled out a response and opted to bury her muzzle in her share of the snacks. Adagio sighed. “Look, you’re not wrong. But we have no other choice. We’ll just have to work together and figure this out.”
“…Fine,” Aria huffed again. “I’d still rather have a plan though.”
“I guess you could think of our plan as our lack of plan?” Suri proposed. “Chroma can’t anticipate what we’re going to do if we don’t know ourselves.”
“I guess we’ll have to take it,” Starlight muttered. With a flick of her magic, she produced a map from her saddlebags and unrolled it between the group. “I pulled this together based on every description of Roam’s layout I could find. Before the civil war, the elements were supposedly kept here,” she tapped a hoof against a building in the central part of the city. “The senatorial chambers. There’s no record of where they were placed afterwords, once everypony went their separate ways. Assuming both our and Chroma’s assumptions are correct and the Elements actually still are in Roam, I’d say that the senatorial chambers are a good first place to look. Followed by the royal mint.”
Adagio’s eyes roamed over the map, a few more possibilities running through her head. “What about the villas? All of the alicorns should have had their own villas and could have had their own vaults hidden underneath them.”
Starlight considered that. “I suppose it’s possible. The district with all the noble villas isn’t too far from the city center anyway. We could check them after-”
“Maybe we should check them first?” Sonata asked. Everypony blinked and stared at Sonata who shrugged. “This was her city, right? She’d know where they were kept before the war and stuff. If I was looking for a magic thingie I hadn’t seen in a while, I’d check the last place I saw it first. And I’d be waiting for anypony following me, just in case.”
Everypony blinked at her again.
“What? It’s just common sense.”
There was a certain amount of logic to what Sonata had spelled out. They were just…unexpected. Adagio looked back down at the map, mulling the point over. Did they take the Sonata path, or the Starlight path? A wrong decision here could lead them directly into Chroma’s grasp. Where would the alicorn be most likely to search first? She was in the middle of puzzling this out when something strange happened. A butterfly, with wings of snowy white, fluttered into view before aligning itself on the map. Adagio blinked. The insect looked…familiar. Unless she was very much mistaken, she had seen it just outside the entrance to the tunnel they had hidden from the caprataurs in.
“Aww! It’s so pretty!” Sonata smiled.
“Hey! Get off of there you stupid bug! I worked hard on that!” Starlight frowned.
Suri rolled her eyes. “It’s just a butterfly! Is it supposed to eat it?”
Adagio didn’t pay attention to them though, instead watching the butterfly as it crawled over to a specific building on Starlight’s map. Once there it slowly fluttered its wings a few times before flitting back into the air, doing a lazy circle around Adagio’s head before flying off into the darkness.
“…I think I know where to go,” Adagio said.
Suri cocked her head slightly. “Because of a butterfly?”
“Because of a butterfly.”
“What about a butterfly?”
Lightning Dust dropped back out of the sky, squirming her way into the group.
“Dagi thinks she knows where the Elements are because of a butterfly!” Sonata answered with her usual cheer. In response Lightning Dust turned and stared at Adagio.
Adagio huffed back, folding her hooves in front of her. “I assure you, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. I’ve seen that same butterfly before and I don’t consider it a coincidence that it keeps showing up while we’re on the way to Roam. Especially considering the dream I had before I woke up in the healing house. I heard a voice. It told me that I had to get to Roam.” She tapped the building the butterfly had landed on. “I say we explore this building first. Lightning, did you find anything?”
“Pillars and ruins mostly. But they’re starting to look thicker. We might be pushing into the outskirts now.”
“That would make sense,” Starlight mused. “I think we’ve been walking for long enough.”
Adagio pushed herself back to her hooves, wincing slightly at the aches and pains the trip had inflicted upon her. “Let’s get back to it then. The Heartlands need us.”
- - - -
Chroma considered herself to be a reasonable mare. When Equestria was at its height, her troops had spoken of her wit, even temper and brilliant command strategies. It was flattering, in a way, even if it had been somewhat overstated. But now?
She was absolutely livid.
Moments ago, a violet sphere of light had shot through one of the Equestrian Mints wide open arches. When it had rejoined with Chroma, it had brought with all the memories of her other self’s fight with Sombra. The traitor was alive! Centuries of preparation for that moment and Sombra was still alive! On top of that the search for the Elements had, so far, turned up nothing! The Mint and the Senatorial Chambers had proven to be Elementless. So, her fury was unleashed upon the contents of the ancient building and what remained within.
Lightning and fire melted gold coins to slag, cracked gems open, blackened statues and blasted mighty holes in the walls. Her “loyal” Everfree Rangers had bolted when her anger spiked, suddenly terrified to stand next to their liberator! Oh, they would face her wrath next! How dare they treat her as a pariah! She who only wished to make Equestria great once more! Snarling, she whipped one final fireball at a statue of Consul Celestia and stormed out of the building as it exploded into a dozen marble shards behind her.
As she emerged, her rangers scrambled to stand at attention. At least they had the bravery to show themselves and face the consequences of their cowardliness! Chroma’s furious eyes swept across the small crowd that…seemed smaller than it was when she first started tearing the Mint apart. A quick count revealed which ponies were missing from the group.
“Where are Soarin and Blaze?”
Spitfire responded quickly. “While you were dealing with the mint, we took the initiative to search the surrounding government buildings.”
Chroma perked up, her ears standing tall as the dark mood that had settled over her fled almost as quickly as it had arrived. “Ah! A fine decision! But that doesn’t entirely answer my question. Have they not returned?”
Spitfire winced. “They…have not. We were about to go looking for them.” She pointed towards a building across the wide central plaza. It was short, squat and plain looking, easily lost within the grander structures that surrounded it.
Chroma couldn’t help but smirk at the building the pair had opted to explore. “Somehow, I doubt that the Elements of Harmony would be hidden within the Grain and Farming Exchange. The only consul who really spent any time in there was Applejack. Buuuut I suppose it would be an ironic place to put them.”
A flick of her wings propelled Chroma across the square, landing neatly before the entrance. Stepping inside, she could see that the interior was much as she remembered it from centuries past. Still the same murals of farms, orchards and the bustling ponies that worked on them. Still the same low marble counters where runners would bring tallies of the harvests from all across Equestria for the local scribes to collect, collate and store in the record rooms below.
The pair of unmoving Rangers on the floor was new though.
Chroma kneeled to examine Soarin and Blaze. They weren’t dead. She could see their chests rising and falling ever so slightly. They also weren’t unconscious. Their eyes were open and the shock was clear within them. They were frozen, most of their muscles locked rigid. Chroma knew what was behind it though.
“Consul?” Spitfire asked. She and her fellows had flowed into the room behind Chroma.
“No more splitting up.” Chroma responded, lighting her horn with magic. “We’re being hunted and he’ll be trying to pick us off one at a time. We stay together and search in a grid pattern. We’ll find the Elements or him soon enough.” A light smile played across her lips. “It all makes sense...the Elements of Harmony haven’t just been left out here. They’re being guarded.”
“I’m sorry consul, but who are we looking for?”
“A centaur. By the name of Tirek.”
- - - -
As they continued towards Roam, Suri began to notice that the path was winding slightly upwards now, snaking between a few trees as it ran up a hill. She walked alongside Starlight as they went. The unicorn seemed lost in thought, half staring at the road as they clip-clopped along. Suri lightly bumped her on the side, snapping Starlight out of her funk.
“Something wrong?” Suri asked.
“Just…thinking,” Starlight frowned. “Running over what I’ve learned about magic. Especially everything I can remember about means of enchanted item activation.”
“Oh!” Suri gasped after a moment of thought. “Because of the Elements, right?”
Starlight nodded, her expression grim. “We’re probably not going to have a lot of time on our hooves once we reach the city. Claiming the Elements of Harmony and figuring out how to use them before we run into Chroma is our top priority.” Pausing for a moment, her tail flicked nervously under her rain cloak. “I’m the mage here. I’ve studied magic for years. What if I can’t figure out how to make the Elements…Element,” she finished lamely.
“What do you think the chances of that actually are though? If you’ve really been studying it for that long?”
“It’s still a possibility! What if I choke? What if I freeze? What if Chroma hits me on the head and I forget everything I’ve known?”
“Are you okay back there?” Adagio asked.
“We’re fine!” Suri answered. Placing a hoof on Starlight’s chest, she gently pushed her back a little bit. “Baroness, can you give us a moment?”
Adagio’s expression was puzzled but she nodded back. Satisfied Suri led Starlight back down the road till she was reasonably sure they were out of earshot of the rest of the group. “M’kay,” she sighed at Starlight. “What’s going on? You’ve run Ponyville as mayor on your own, why are you so nervous out of the blue?”
“Because I wasn’t running Ponyville by myself! I have Sugar Belle, Night Glider, Double Diamond and Party Favor helping me! Now? Everything is resting on my back! If I can’t figure out how these Elements work, all of The Heartlands are doomed! It’s all on me!”
“Well…you’re not completely alone. You have all of us to.”
A short, clipped, manic laugh escaped Starlight. “You? The only one of you that knows a thing about magic is Adagio and she’s basically a glorified bard! What possible help could you give me?” Suri raised an eyebrow as Starlight immediately realized her mistake and began to sink into a series of stammering half sentences. “I… I didn’t mean… Only in terms of academic magic study-”
“Starlight…why did you try to use me to blackmail Adagio?”
“It’s a simple question, m’kay? While I don’t think removing indentured servitude is a bad thing, I don’t really appreciate being used as a pawn.”
“But…I was trying to free you! To free a whole class of ponies! I thought that by giving her a solution to her problem, she’d be able to help my cause!”
“Baroness Adagio has her pride, Starlight,” Suri huffed, pacing back and forth a bit. She wasn’t afraid to admit to herself that the mage’s arrogance had gotten under her coat. “Even when battered down by the world around her. You picked the option that would have set her against you the most! Also, I am not a ‘problem’ to be solved! Or did you just assume that Adagio was mistreating me because I’m a servant and she’s a big bad noble for you to tilt against? Or that I was a useful tool to show off how compassionate you were?”
Starlight growled back, a fire in her eyes. “You think that I’m pretending? That the way I try to help ponies is some kind of show? I’ve been draining my family’s fortune buying out contracts and trying to cut deals with nobles! And I don’t do it for show, or because I feel guilty! I do it because ponies deserve to be free and equal!”
“No matter the cost?”
Starlight winced, but the glare returned and quickly. “You lived in Canterlot. You know full well what some of them are like there. Can you blame me for assuming Adagio was like them? With all the maddening laws ‘she’ had sent me?”
A memory of the fear Suri had felt at Fancy Pants’ anger came to mind. “…Fine, I can see how you thought that. But you can’t just go charging after your goals like a drunken lout! Take it from somepony that knows.” She turned away, taking a deep breath and then letting it out, allowing the frustration flow out of her. At least until the sound of a heavy thud and metal clinking against itself. Turning back towards Starlight, Suri was surprised to find a full bag of gold at her hooves.
“Take it,” Starlight said.
“No strings Suri. Just…take it,” Starlight sighed.
Slowly, Suri picked it up, balancing the weight of the gold on her hoof. It was…a lot. More than she had held in quite a while. Not since she had set up her business in Manehattan. She looked up at Starlight, who gave a half-hearted shrug. “This feels like a sudden change of heart,” Suri observed.
“Maybe it is,” Starlight smiled back sadly. “Or maybe you’re right and I sometimes get so wrapped up in my cause, I forget about the ponies I’m supposed to be helping.”
“It’s an easy mistake to make, I think. It’s what got Chroma, after all.” Taking a moment to carefully stow the gold in her saddlebags, Suri motioned towards the road. “Let’s get back to the others. We still have a country to save.”
- - - -
“There it is girls. The Eternal City,” Adagio said. She swept a hoof over the vista below them.
Aria furrowed her brow at the ancient skyline. “…Doesn’t look all that ‘eternal’ to me.”
Looking at the overgrown mass that was the city, Adagio had to concede Aria’s point. “Well, yes. But it hasn’t had anypony to look after it in the last three hundred years.”
Starlight looked up from her map. “Well, assuming that Adagio’s guess is correct-”
“And it is.”
“Then we should skirt the outside edge of the city until we reach the Alta Semita-”
“The what now?” Lightning Dust blinked.
“The High Path. The whole district was named after the main street running through it. From there, we should be able to find Adagio’s butterfly house.”
Adagio rolled her eyes and peered over the edge of the cliff. “Lightning, can you-”
“Say no more baroness!”
Lightning took a few minutes to fly them down to the ground below, one at a time.
“Stupid broken wing,” Aria grumbled on the way down.
From there they headed due west, avoiding the denser city core and, hopefully, Chroma with it. Even with most of the city overgrown, they found that they made good progress, using the city’s roads. Whether due to the distance they were from Ponyville, or due to some mercy of Chroma’s, the rain had slowed to a drizzle here. The sparser cloud cover finally allowing some non-alchemical created light into their lives. Perhaps there was something about her ancient home that quelled some of the alicorn’s endless rage.
Either way, the further they pressed on into what had once been the center of pony civilization the more lavish the overgrown structures became. The close packed brick constructed insula apartments giving way to the wealthier single family domus built from marble and other more expensive materials. Here they also found that the forest had reclaimed even more of the city, the open atriums and yards that once held carefully maintained gardens now having exploded into tangled thickets of thorns and other Everfree fare. More than once they found themselves having to take a round about detour to avoid the likes of a poison joke thicket or a tangle thorn patch.
“Anypony else wondering why we haven’t run into any Everfree creatures yet?” Aria grumbled, hobbling her way over a fallen trunk. Her hawk, having returned to his usual perch on her back, shrieked in agreement. “If no pony’s been here in three hundred years, you’d think that the place would be crawling with monsters. All these ready made dens and everything.”
Lightning Dust took the moment to soar a little higher, peering down their current path. “They could be here and just be hiding. Depending on how much noise Chroma made when she first showed up here, they could be spooked.”
“It’s a big city though. She could be miles from us.”
“My best guess is magic,” Starlight chimed in. “There have to be some kind of magical protections on them. Maybe even guardians of some kind. They could be keeping the monsters away.”
“Are you speaking from knowledge or just guessing?” Adagio asked.
“Well…,” Starlight paused, frowning for a moment. “It’s what I’d do at least.”
“Then I’ll leave you in charge of Element guarding when we get them out of this place,” Adagio smirked playfully.
Starlight rolled her eyes back before referring to her map again. “The house we’re looking for should be just ahead on the left.”
“You mean right where that mass of thorns is?” Sonata asked.
A mass of twisted black vines did indeed rise from the plot of land where the house in question should have stood. Gnarled and strong, they so completely choked the section of ground in question, that it didn’t seem like a house could have ever rested there, let alone be there now. Adagio’s eyes went wide and she galloped over to the mass.
“What? No! There’s supposed to be something here! I just know it!”
Lightning Dust landed beside her. “I don’t know Baroness. That doesn’t look like any house I’ve ever seen.” She wrinkled her snout at the thorns that bristled from the branches, their tips dripping with a viscous green liquid. “More to the point, those look incredibly toxic. I’m not sure we should mess with them.”
“But Starlight’s map showed that there was a house here!” Adagio hissed through gritted teeth. “And the butterfly- It lead us away from the caprataurs!”
“Sorry Dagi,” Sonata smiled sadly. “But that’s not a house. And even if there was a butterfly in the woods, it did kind of lead us down to where that big spider was. Maybe the forest is playing tricks on you.”
“I’m not seeing things!”
“Maybe you’re not,” Starlight shrugged. “But that doesn’t mean much in the Everfree. Maybe that butterfly is some kind of malicious nature spirit. Just because it’s real and magical doesn’t mean it's friendly or an omen.”
Adagio opened her mouth to argue some more, only to be interrupted by Suri placing a hoof on her side. “M’lady…there’s nothing here. And we have a very large city to search now. Maybe we should be thinking about our next move?”
Aria ruffled her good wing. “I don’t know…something doesn’t feel right about this place. Maybe there’s something hidden in one of these other nearby buildings? We could start looking there.”
A stiff nod was all that Adagio could manage. She had been so sure! The rest of the girls gathered in a lose circle around Starlight’s map, chatting to themselves about the next location to examine. Adagio tried to listen, but quickly found her mind wandering away from the discussion about whether to check the Grand Coliseum or the Equestrian Mint next and back to the nature of the thorn bush before her. The map had shown a building here, a fact that Starlight had sifted out of a dozen old records. But the bush wasn’t growing out of a cracked foundation, or wrapped around a collapsed pile of rubble. It was growing unimpeded and free.
The more she dwelled on that fact, the more she found herself thinking back to the spider in the caverns far below. A conjured illusion of the Elements of Harmony had ensnared them there, with Aria being able to see through it. Could these vines be an illusion? …But then wouldn’t Aria be able to peer past the falsehood here, as well?
But she doesn’t believe the Elements are here. Adagio mused. She didn’t believe they were in the tunnels, either. Maybe its an illusion designed to catch the skeptical? Or maybe it’s an illusion mixed with something else? What was it dad said? The more plausible the lie, the easier it is to fool a pony.
Before she even realized what she was doing, Adagio was walking straight for the vines. When she heard the others cry out in shock, she switched to a canter.
You’re not real! You’re not real! You’re not real! She thought to herself, dearly hoping she was correct.
A moment before she was to slam into the wicked thorns, the illusion fell away, revealing the more normal looking vines behind them. Normal looking vines that then creaked open, allowing Adagio to run straight through an open archway and into the building beyond. She slid to a stop, blinking both in slight surprise that her hunch had worked, but also in reaction to the contents of the room she found herself in.
Ornate rugs covered the floor, a swirl of reds, blues, greens and golds. The largest of them could have held twelve ponies easily. The walls were covered in tapestries, bearing characters and symbols the likes of which Adagio had never seen before. A basket of vegetables and herbs scavenged from the forest was pushed up against a few clay jugs of what Adagio assumed were water. Another corner had stacks of cloth, neatly folded. Cloaks or blankets perhaps? The very air was laced with the overlapping smells of spices and flowers, creating a mixture that had a soothing undertone to it. The source of the pleasant smells- a wooden incense burner- hung from the ceiling. A single doorway lead into chambers beyond. A moment later, everypony else came stumbling through after her, Suri at the lead. They joined Adagio in gaping at the decor.
“Well…,” Starlight sighed. “I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. There’s certainly something here.”
“What’s this script?” Lightning asked, poking at one of the tapestries. “It looks all…brushy.”
Starlight turned her gaze towards the swishy, almost pictographic strokes. “I…don’t know. The closest thing I’ve seen to it is rune magic but the symbols are all wrong. Not the right shapes, the sizes all all off…”
“Either way, somepony’s been living here,” Adagio mused. “And if it was being magically protected like this, it’s a good candidate for the hiding place of the Elements. Or at least a place to hide knowledge of their actual location. Let’s spread out and see what we can find.”
They did just that, beginning to ruffle through the paltry belongings. Aria's hawk took up a perch on one of the clothing stacks, watching them while they searched. It soon became apparent, however, that this room not only had no Elements of Harmony, it had no writings or scraps of information contained within it either. It was quiet and empty, perhaps intended for little more than meditation and rest.
Adagio was unperturbed though. “Let’s check the rest of the house then. You don’t waste time magically hiding a house like this unless there’s something here.”
“Something is indeed here,” a deep voice rumbled from behind them.
They whirled about to see a massive figure looming in the open doorway. Standing on four legs like a pony, it was also possessed of a minotaur like torso balanced upon that equine lower half. The details of the torso were hard to make out, obscured by a thick black cloak. Though a long white beard did billow out from the dark hood. Adding to the intimidation factor was the equine half’s coat. A deep, rust red color, that made the whole figure look like it had just stepped out of Tartarus. A wicked spear and sturdy looking bow strapped to his back completed the warrior appearance.
Her distress- and she assumed that of her friends- must have been evident, for the figure chuckled. “Is he friend or is foe, the ponies wonder?” He stepped forward, unslinging the spear lashed across his back.
Adagio and company responded in turn, brandishing their own weapons. For a moment, the two sides stared each other down, neither quite ready to make the first move.
“Who, exactly, are you?” Suri asked after a moment of the awkward silence.
Quick as lightning, Tirek lashed out with his spear, striking a specific spot on the wall. As the sound of stone grinding on stone filled their ears, Tirek lashed out again, this time sweeping the butt of his weapon across the legs of Adagio and her companions. Shoved as a group, they toppled backwards in a tangle of limbs and chorus of surprised shouts, disappearing into a yawning, black void.