The group split into two, and each took to a separate boat. The oaken craft were sturdy, and yet sleek. They glided down the underground river at a swift pace, illuminating their way with the combination of unicorn horns and lit torches swiped from the minotaur camp. The large width of the stream and the tall height of the cavern made judging the actual speed of the journey practically indeterminable. Overall, it was a relatively relaxing experience, and the ponies took advantage of the moment by breathing evenly and shaking loose the paranoid jitters from the previous hours of panicked escape. The Windthrow mares and stallions talked with one another, reveling in the dark chapter of their lives being over and anticipating what happiness waited for them in their home village. There was still an overlying cloud of uncertainty, a fear that the minotaurs weren't quite done chasing them, or that this stream was heading towards a dead-end.
Regardless, as the hours went on, and they marveled at just how incredibly long the river was, they worked together as a group. They kept the boats from drifting far apart. They called to one another to point out and avoid obstacles: rocks and stalagmites and debris. The entire time, Rainbow Dash was a constant aid to both groups. She darted back and forth like a winged corridor, giving one group a set of supplies taken from the minotaur camp, giving the other group some of the stolen food, making sure all of the torches were well-lit. All the while, she did her best to liven the situation, making a joke here or there at the minotaurs' expense. Several ponies actually managed to chuckle, and the dim ride became less grim.
“She was like this at home, Daddy,” Rockspot said as he sat in a tiny seat next to Red Turnip Senior. “Some of Red's friends told me that she helped the guards fight a bunch of the monsters when they attacked the village at night.”
“Well, she seems to be a very brave pony, Spotty,” Red said with a smirk.
“I wonder if all pegasi are like Miss Dash?”
Rainbow Dash touched down and hoofed several ponies in the boat some supplies. “Only the sexy ones, kid.”
Rockspot's face scrunched up. “What do you mean?”
“You'll find out about eight or nine years from now,” she said with a wink.
Red Turnip Sr. laughed. “I bet you're pretty popular in Equestria.”
“I may have egged a rich house or two.”
“But fought minotaurs and monsters and caused flash floods?”
“Let's say I'm still working on my portfolio,” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. She grabbed a canvas bag and called across the cavern, her voice echoing over the waters. “Hey Astral! I got those tools you asked for!” She nodded towards the ponies in Red's boat. “Be right back.”
“Heh, take your time, Miss Dash.”
Rainbow flew up, flapped her wings, and glided easily to the other boat. She landed lightly at the very rear of the craft, squatting beside a lonesome Astral.
“Still don't know what you want with all of these metal knick-knacks, dude,” she remarked, digging her hooves through the bag full of metal junk. “I'd be catching some Z's if I were you. I could have sworn you were gonna pass out several hours ago, what with how weak you were from the minotaurs forcing you to do stuff telekinetically. Did you eat any of the food that we found?”
Astral said nothing. He sat in a slump, his eyes nervously shifting across the waters around them.
Rainbow Dash saw his expression. “Hey, buddy.” She leaned forward and squinted in his face. “You alright? You look as though your horn weighs a hundred tons all of the sudden.”
He gulped and squirmed in his seat. He slowly turned to look at Rainbow. When he spoke, it was in a low, unsteady voice. “Miss Dash, on the two separate occasions that you did battle with Thunderhorn, did he state anything in the midst of his anger as to why he was so vehemently chasing you?”
“Hmmmm...” Rainbow Dash rubbed her chin and stared up at the slowly passing ceiling of stalactites. “Whelp, it's all a blur, but I figure it was something along the lines of 'Hey you horrible sack of glue, I'm going to kill you and stuff, grrrrr-grrrr.'” She shrugged. “I didn't pay attention, really. I was too busy smacking him in the face every time he opened his mouth.”
Astral merely shuddered and stared down at the leather strap that he had been carrying the whole time.
“Hey...” Rainbow Dash hoarsely uttered. “Why the long face? I mean, besides you being an equine like me and the rest of the gang and all...”
He bit his lip. He opened the pouch of the leather belt.
Rainbow Dash winced slightly. She braved the dizziness as Astral pulled the silver chaos strip out. Exhaling, she remarked, “Yeah, okay. So I see the chaos strip that Thunderhorn had. What's your point?”
He gazed at her. He merely held the strip in silence.
Rainbow blinked. “Wait... Where's the second one?”
His lips quivered. “I was terribly afraid that I would have to ask you the same.”
Rainbow Dash went pale. She glanced at the rest of the ponies in the group. She now understood why Astral had been so reserved and quiet. “But... But...” She looked at the belt. “There isn't another pocket somewhere in that thing where the second one could be hidden?”
“No, Miss Dash. I've spent the last several hours checking.”
“Then... Then...” Rainbow Dash started to hyperventilate. “M-maybe the thing fell out of his belt while we were fighting! Maybe it got crushed in the tunnel! Or—”
“There's really no way to tell, I'm sure,” Astral remarked. “But the fact of the matter is, we only have one strip now.”
“What's that mean, exactly?” Rainbow Dash remarked, the coat hairs on her neck rising on end. “We could be attacked by monsters at any time?”
“That would definitely be the case if Thunderhorn's minotaurs still possess the other strip,” Astral said. “But the fact of the matter is we haven't been attacked.”
“It's not like they could have forgotten about us, right?”
“There's no limit to the range of chaos strips, so the length of our flight would be no excuse either.”
“Then what gives?” Rainbow Dash's voice cracked. “I mean—I'm not complaining, but how come we're not bat-freak food by this point?”
Astral shuddered. “It is a mystery to me, Rainbow Dash. And please do not think that I am admonishing you in lieu of this discovery. You have done so much to make sure that we've come this far and survived. But until we know more about this, I don't think it would be wise to tell the other ponies.”
“Sadly, your charisma isn't infectious to every member of our group. If they found out about the missing strip, panic would spread, and I doubt even you could put them all at ease.”
“Then what do we do?”
Astral sighed and slipped the strip back into the bag. “We persist. We survive. And, what's more.” He gazed solemnly up at the passing roof to the large corridor. “We find a way out of here.”
Rainbow Dash sighed and slumped against the edge of the boat. She stared down at her lethargic reflection in the rippling waters. “What I wouldn't give to reverse time and bear the Element of Smartness instead...”