In The Shade of Time

by Silver Scrolls

The Next Step

Twilight and Rainbow stared at the yawning mouth of the cave. Mining tracks wandered into the inky blackness before them, carts and old tools lay scattered around them like corpses on a battlefield. Smoke hung motionless along the cliff face that traveled up from the mouth of the cave, wispy tendrils tracing from the black column towards the fleeing miners.

"Are you sure there isn't a faster way down there, Twi?" Rainbow said with a gulp as she used her wings to help a minotaur that was rolling on the ground extinguish himself. "Not that I wouldn't love to dive into a flaming pit in the ground, but...I dunno, there must be another way to get to the leyline."

Twilight nodded slowly and dumped some water on the burning contents of an overturned mining cart. “We should be fine. The fire won’t spread anymore and I can cast a spell to part the smoke.” She looked at the roiling column of smoke. “And to be frank this is just the quickest way to get to our destination. Technically the spot I need to cast the spell is roughly two and half miles southeast of one of the deeper tunnels.”

Slowly Rainbow landed next to Twilight, eyeing the tunnel cautiously. “And all the miners?”

“We save them of course.” Twilight smiled confidently but chuckled nervously. “That’s the plan at least.” Rainbow nodded and Twilight took a deep calming breath. “Well if you’re ready, so I am. I’ll warn you now, it’s going to get hot.”

As Twilight spoke a magenta bubble slowly enveloped the two mares and they began their trek into the mine.

Rainbow spoke shakily as they descended. “Hey Twi, um, are we going to put out the fire or are we just going to let it burn?”

Without slowing Twilight sighed. “I wish we could, but with a fire like this it’s almost impossible without proper training. We can put out all the fires we see, but if the fire is following a coal vein deeper into the rock or if the rock is hot enough to reignite the fires it won’t matter. I would love to put out the fire if I can, but I have no way of gauging how well I am doing while time is frozen, So rather than risk the miners thinking it’s safe when time resumes we will leave it burning.”

Rainbow nodded and watched as the smoke parted around the shield Twilight had up. It was oddly fascinating to her, like seeing a cloud split around her when she flew through it at high speed— only here it was happening in slow motion.

As they moved deeper into the smoke it got darker and soon only the gentle glow of Twilight's horn lit up the small bubble they were in. Rainbow’s wings twitched as they descended and the entrance became nothing more than a star behind them. Rainbow paused for a moment to take a shaky calming breath. Twilight kept moving and Rainbow sped up when the light began to dim.

Come on Rainbow, it’s just a like a thundercloud tunnel. Sure it’s dark but the tunnel is made of stone, far less likely to collapse than a thundercloud tunnel. I mean, sure, it’s a little bit warmer and smells different and there’s no water and I can’t fly out of here but Twilight knows what she is doing.

Lost in her thoughts Rainbow failed to see Twilight had stopped and ran into her flank. Twilight looked back, “We have four miners ahead. When the shield reaches them I want you to grab them and take them to the entrance.” Rainbow nodded. “I’ll keep going, splitting the smoke so you can follow me once they’re safe. I’ll make sure to clear the smoke around any others I find so you can bring them to the entrance too.”

Without another word Twilight began walking deeper again, Rainbow hung back a little until she saw the miners. Three diamond dogs and a zebra were collapsed against the wall together, a rope strung between them to prevent any of them from splitting off or getting left behind. Rainbow made quick work of the knot and took them to the surface one at a time in silence.

As she burst from the tunnel with the first miner she dropped the diamond dog unceremoniously and angled into the sky. A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she felt the wind washing over her wings, the sun warming her back gently. The sweat that had built up in her coat helped chill her body and calm her nerves.

She hit a few clouds as she circled the mining camp, throwing herself into them as hard as she could, relishing in the feeling of them bursting apart. After a few minutes she landed in front of the mine and grabbed onto the Diamond Dog’s vest, pulling him further from the entrance. As she looked up at the smoking mine entrance she shivered and bit her lip.

She needs me, they need me. I can do this, it’s just a tunnel. You’ve done caves before, this one is just on fire. What would Daring Do do?

She smacked her cheeks a few times and shook her head. You can do this, just dive in there and get it done. With a guttural scream she charged back into the tunnel with her eyes closed.  She quickly slowed to a safer trot and opened her eyes, her feathers twitching at her sides as her wings tried to open up and help pull her from the tunnel.

It wasn’t long before she had pulled almost a dozen miners to safety. Coated in soot and sweat Rainbow wiped away her sweat and stared at the entrance. She had know idea how much deeper Twilight had gone but it was about time for her to take a break. She rubbed her rumbling stomach with one hoof as she glanced around the camp. Three possible choices, only one of them would be the mess hall.

Choosing at random she made for the central building, the one with the most ponies running from it towards the mine. Inside she found exactly what she hoped to find, a mess hall. Giant pots of oatmeal sat on warmers underneath glass awnings, bowls of chopped fruit sat in ice. A barrel of apples sat beside the counter of assorted fruits and past that a bucket of ice and barrel of water.

Around her miners were frozen mid scramble. Some diving over tables others flying over the heads of their earthbound friends. The scene was almost comical but it made Rainbow think of the mine and she started to shake a little. After a few moments of deep breathing Rainbow wove through the chaos towards the buffet lines and filled herself up a tray of food and found an empty seat.

Overall the meal wasn’t bad but the ash clinging to her lips and throat sullied the taste a little for her, though the water tasted divine. It didn’t take her long to polish off the meal and she made a second trip up to gather some for Twilight. She carefully balanced it on her back and covered it with a relatively clean looking towel before weaving her way out of the mess hall and making for the mine again. On her way out of the mess hall she snagged a lantern from one of the panicked workers.

After going back into the mine Rainbow quickly lit the lantern and tried to keep herself calm as she went. She wasn’t sure how deep Twilight had gone but she couldn’t be that much further, could she? Finally after what felt like an eternity Rainbow caught site of a familiar mulberry flank and she breathed a sigh of relief, no more miners no more facing her fear.

“Hey Twi, I brought you some food I scrounged from their mess hall.” She slipped the tray from her back and placed it on the ground before whipping the towel off dramatically. “We have for her highness today boiled oats seasoned lightly with cinnamon and just a hint of ash. On the side we have two apples and some fresh spring water.”

Despite everything Rainbow managed to get a smile out of Twilight as she stopped whatever she had been doing and turned to look at Rainbow. “Thanks Rainbow, I was just thinking about calling it quits for awhile and heading back to the surface for a meal and some rest.” Gratefully Twilight pulled the oatmeal close and dove into it muzzle first.

Chuckling Rainbow pulled out a canteen of water and took a sip. “How much further do you think we need to go?” Twilight chose oatmeal over answering. “Fine I’ll wait till you finish your oatmeal.” Rainbow wiped some sweat from her brow, looking around the cave nervously.

“You okay Rainbow?” Twilight wiped the excess oatmeal from her muzzle.

“Hmm. Oh, yea...I’m fine.” Rainbow forced a smiled. “You weren’t lying about the heat, geeze, it’s hotter than your temper down here.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and grabbed one of the apples. “I think we might be getting close to the main fire that’s why it’s so hot.” The crisp crunch of an apple echoed around the empty halls. Twilight's mouth hung open slightly, juices dribbling down her chin as she moaned in ecstasy.

“By the fates, this apple is divine.”

Rainbow blinked a few times and then started laughing as she watched Twilight tear into the apple violently. “It’s just an apple Twi.”

Wiping the juices from her chin and licking them from her foreleg Twilight smacked her lips and sighed. “Lies and slander, that apple tasted as fine as a Sweet Apple Acres apple.” She stuck her tongue out and Rainbow rolled her eyes.

“Thank you, that hit the spot Rainbow. I didn’t realize how hungry I was.” Twilight grabbed the second apple and savored it a bit more than the first. “Are you sure these aren’t from Applejack’s farm?”

“No clue, the barrel was unmarked. Maybe.”

Twilight shrugged. “Maybe I was just that hungry, anyway, you asked how much farther. I’m afraid we are going to have to pass through the fire. I cast the divining spell a couple of minutes ago and the spot we need to dig from should be somewhere around the center of the fire.”

“So we will have to put out the fire as best we can.” Rainbow smiled. “When I was a filly I used to wonder what it would be like to be a firefighter. I always wanted to be a Wonderbolt but firefighter seemed like a good back up, until one of my neighbors went to fight a fire and never came back though. Poor Ms. Nimbus wasn’t quite the same after that.” Rainbow sighed and shook her head, the face of her distraught neighbor coming back.

“Wow really. That’s, well it’s rare, especially in Cloudsdale.” Twilight started on the second bowl of oatmeal, this time with a bit more civility. “Was it a factory fire or a warehouse?”

Rainbow thought for moment, she’d been pretty young when it happened and even though it had left a lasting impression she hadn’t thought about it in a long time. “I think it was a warehouse fire but I was pretty young at the time so I can’t say for sure.” Rainbow passed Twilight the canteen and let her take a few good gulps of water. “So should I try and bring a raincloud down into the tunnels and you can use magic to direct the water around?”

Twilight smacked her lips as she emptied the canteen. “That’s not a bad idea, we’ll need a pretty big one though so I’ll probably need to help out. It should be easier than using their fire suppressant system at least. Actually, it might be the only way unless we want to trek in and out carrying buckets.”

Rainbow jumped on the chance and was on her hooves before Twilight had finished her explanation. “Alright, you keep clearing the smoke, I’ll go roundup a few clouds, or a big one if I can find it.” She moved to take off and paused. The heat of the fire washed over her wings and she looked back at Twilight. “Be careful, I heard that mining tunnels get unstable around fires. I know time is frozen and all but...just be careful.”

A purple bubble encircled Twilight and she smiled. “I’ll be careful, I won’t even try to combat the fire with magic. I’ll wait for you and your cloud to fight the fire.” Rainbow hesitated slightly before taking off up the tunnel towards the surface, chewing on her lip the entire time.

~ ~ ~

The water hadn’t evaporated completely, instead it sat somewhere between the two states of liquid and gas. It clung to the floor like a thick bed of fog making the footing treacherous. Twilight stood next to the wall, her horn pulsing gently as she tapped on different spots with her hoof. Behind her Rainbow pulled at the fog around their hooves creating little sculptures out of the wispy steam like a bored child.

From time to time Twilight would mumble something and knock a piece of stone loose with a pick she had salvaged from the flames. Most of the samples were discarded with a frustrated grunt or shout. After a few dozen the discarded pieces started to act like little bullets, zinging around so fast they buzzed through the air like angry hornets.

About this time Rainbow had given up on her sculptures and hunkered down behind an overturned, and severely dented, cart. Every time she heard the sharp ding of a new dent forming she flinched and called out to Twilight, usually resulting in another ping of stone on metal.

“Twilight, calm down, please.” A puff of dust rose up from the ground by her hoof and Rainbow yelped.

She flipped the mining cart over and buried her head under her wing

~ ~ ~

It was sudden and cacophonous. The cave shook and rumbled like an angry dragon, the sounds tinny and even louder under her protective cart. Rainbow jumped straight up as the cave rumbled, her head smashing into the roof of the cart.

“Buck me, what in tartarus is Twilight doing now.” She rubbed the rapidly growing goose egg on her head as she turned the cart on it’s side to free herself.

A few feet down the tunnel from her was brand new hole. Roughly five feet around the sides were perfectly smooth and still glowed with a slight reddish hue. Carefully Rainbow moved up to the new tunnel, stumbling around in the fog as what she assumed where hundreds of samples Twilight had taken tripped her up.

Inside the tunnel was a thick sheet of dust hanging motionless in the air, illuminated from behind by an eerie purple glow. Every time the cave rumbled the glow pulsed slightly. She could almost make out through the dust a purple tail swishing back and forth.

From within the dust Rainbow faintly heard Twilight call out a warning and quickly stepped away from the hole in the wall. As soon as she was clear the dust started to shift and like a wave washing up on the beach it rolled out from the tunnel a dusty, muddy, panting Twilight following close behind.

Twilight rolled up the dust into a large ball and pulled the mining cart Rainbow had used as shelter back onto it’s track before dropping the dust into it. She smiled wearily before falling over onto her side.

“You okay Twi?” Rainbow shuffled up and poke Twilight’s heaving side tentatively and worriedly. Her hoof squelched against the layer of mud that had formed over Twilight's sweat soaked fur. “Twilight?”

“I’ll...” Twilight coughed some dust up after a few moments causing Rainbow to jump. “Be...” She paused to breath deeply. “Fine...” A cough shook her chest and interrupted her. “Just need....water.”

“Oh right, yea, that makes sense.” Rainbow took off then came right back. “I’ll be right back, don’t try and move or anything, seriously stay right there.”

Rainbow took off towards the surface again, barely finishing her sentence before she had taken off. It took only a moment for her to return and she sat down by Twilight's head. “Here we go, take it easy.” Rainbow gently lifted Twilight's head and poured some into Twilight's mouth. Twilight swished it around before spitting and opening her mouth for more.

Rainbow sat quietly, holding Twilight's head as she helped her drink. Worry wrinkled her brow and made her wings twitch as she watched her exhausted partner slowly recover. “Why didn’t you take any breaks Twi?”

Twilight leaned her head back against Rainbow’s leg. “I got wrapped up in the work, and I was frustrated with the rocks.” They both glanced at the pockmarked walls and the dented mine cart. “I didn’t realize how badly I was overdoing it until my vision started to tunnel.”

“Right, just like your study binges only with physical labor.” Rainbow chuckled and ran a hoof through Twilight’s sweat soaked mane. “I’ll need to keep a better eye on you if you’re going to keep doing this.”

Twilight chuckled weakly and rolled onto her stomach. “I’ll take a break then, let you do the next part.” An almost predatory smile spread across Twilight’s muzzle. “You see, all this dirt and stone I am ripping from the wall, someone needs to bring it up to the surface and toss it somewhere.” Rainbow stopped smiling and her face turned pale. “Now I was thinking I might do it but I don’t want to stress you out too much.” Rainbow gulped and looked at the heap of dirt in the minecart. “Of course, this shouldn’t be a problem for a strong mare with a well toned athletic body full of lithe muscle now should it.”

Sweat formed on Rainbow’s brow as she stared at the dirt and looked back at the short tunnel that Twilight had dug. “Um, how much of this is there going to be?” Rainbow gulped, afraid of the answer.

Twilight shrugged and wiped sweat from her brow and flicked the ensuing muddy concoction of sweat and dirt on the floor. “Let’s say I can dig six feet every hour, that means I can dig one mile in roughly eight hundred and eighty hours. Or one mile in just over a month. I have two and half miles of tunnel to dig, minimum.” Her head fell a little and she squeaked out the last part with dread a second time. “Two and half miles of tunneling through solid stone at six feet and hour.” She looked at Rainbow.

“I think I might die.”

Rainbow could already feel her muscles getting sore and tense as she thought about how many trips she would have to make while shoving a fully loaded mining cart...uphill. This next site was going to take them over two months to complete. Two months of ceaseless labor, endless shoving of stone uphill, it suddenly felt like a massively daunting task.

“Wait how far are you already?”

“About six feet.” Twilight looked at the tunnel and coughed before taking a gulp of water from the canteen Rainbow had brought. “Six feet out of ten thousand.” Her face turned pale, even through the layer of grime clinging to it. “This is going to be a lot harder than I thought it would even though I am digging with a softer vein of rock in the center.” She looked up at Rainbow. “At least you can use a mining cart and get breaks while I dig.”

Rainbow looked at Twilight with dread written all over her face. “Yea, breaks, not going to be worrying about you at all.” She chuckled nervously and looked at the mining cart. “So easy.”

“You okay Rainbow?”

“Sorry Twi, I guess it’s just kind of overwhelming.” Rainbow sighed heavily. “The other spots where so easy. Under the ocean off the coast of Fillypines. The basement of the old factory in that abandoned city. The canopy of that forest.” Rainbow kicked the dirt ball indignantly. “And suddenly you have to dig a massive tunnel and I get to push dirt around for two months.”

Twilight walked up to Rainbow and pulled her into a hug. “It’s not all bad, I have you here and we can always take a break from time to time.” She pulled away smiling. “We knew this wouldn’t be easy when we started, and it’s only a small setback. It’ll be over before you know it.”

~ ~ ~

They stood side by side staring at the rock wall in front of them. Twilight had her eyes closed and was breathing in a deep steady fashion while Rainbow licked her lips and shifted her weight from side to side.

“Just beyond this wall is the end of the tunnel.” Twilight reached out with her hoof and put it on the smooth stone she was getting ready to carve the final pieces of her tunnel from. “Four months of work, four long months.”

Rainbow bumped her hip against Twilight’s. “Come on do it already, rip open that wall and lets get this spell cast already. You said it wouldn’t take more than three months a month and a half ago.” Twilight rolled her eyes and her horn lit up as she stuck her tongue out at Rainbow. “Yea yea, how can I possibly mark of months when there is no time, well I am doing it the same way you did. You dug and I made tally marks at the entrance for each ball of dirt, hours into days into weeks into months.”

The cave shook and rumbled as dust exploded from the wall, washing over them in a wave, and Twilight carved away a large of the wall. “That’s really clever Rainbow, I am proud of you.” She smiled and dumped the rubble into the mining cart Rainbow had brought down the tunnel. More rumblings vibrated up through Rainbow’s hooves as Twilight sheared more stone away.

They both lapsed into silence as Twilight worked. Inch after inch of stone was carved away, turning into feet that slowly became a small cavern at the end of the tunnel. Finally the shaking subsided and the rumbling came to an end and Twilight stood sweaty and covered in dust. The cavern she had made was large enough for her and Rainbow to stand side by side and the floor was completely smooth.

Without a word Rainbow passed Twilight her chalk and Twilight got down to work. First she drew a simple circle and then without lifting the chalk she began to weave together complex runes. Rainbow watched enraptured as Twilight seemed to dance around the small cave, her magic leaving a short trail like a sparkler during the Summer Sun Celebration.

Finally Twilight stopped, a confident smile on her lips as she reviewed her work. “I’m really getting good at this circle I think Rainbow.” She looked over and found Rainbow staring at her with a dopey grin. “Hey Rainbow?” Twilight waved her hoof in front of Rainbow.

“Huh, what?” Rainbow shook her head and sat back, distancing herself from the flailing hoof in front of her.

“You okay Rainbow, you spaced out?”

Rainbow blinked and coughed into her hoof, turning to hide the light blush on her cheeks. “Yea, sorry. I was just...excited about us finishing and seeing the circle really drove it home.” She gave a strained smile and avoided making eye contact with Twilight.

“If you say so.” Twilight turned away with a worried shrug and plopped herself down in the middle of the circle. Her breathing slowed as her horn grew brighter and brighter. At first it was one beam of magic then three then six then twelve strings of magic branched from Twilight’s horn to the circle. From the points of contact the magic slowly spread along the lines of the chalk, a few centimeters off the stone. As they all connected the circle began to blink faster and faster until with a woosh it flared white and vanished.

Twilight stood up once the magic was gone and dusted herself off as best she could. “There we go, spell number four. Eight more and we get to see everyone again.” The smile on Twilight's face put a child’s to shame as she thought about seeing everyone again.

Twilight’s smile was infectious and Rainbow felt herself smiling along with her. “You think any of them would ever believe we dug a two and half mile tunnel through solid rock?” Rainbow slide up beside Twilight as she left the tunnel and bumped her with her wing. “The great and studious Twilight sheared out a two and half mile tunnel from a stone wall.”

Twilight shook her head and bumped Rainbow with her butt. “What about poor Rarity if she ever learned about that diamond we found?”

Rainbow let out a short barking laugh. “Or the look on Pinkie’s face when we tell her about that underground party store we found on that little back road outside of her hometown.”

The two leaned against each other as they laughed and reminisced about their journey as they left the mines. They paused to look at the hashmarks Rainbow had left and Twilight added one final mark at the bottom. A mischievous smirk played across her lips as she suddenly grabbed Rainbow by her front hooves and lifted her into a happy dance.

“We’re done atlast, one more spell cast and one more closer to seeing them again.” Twilight let out a bubbly laugh as she twirled with Rainbow. She spread her wings and they lifted into the air a little and Rainbow guided them down into a nearby stream where they splashed down, their bodies shaking with unrestrained mirth.

Rainbow rolled unto her back and floated in the water staring at the sky and Twilight drifted up against her and they floated together for a while. Finally they left the brook together and curled up under a tree and drifted off, visions of their friends playing through their dreams.