Sladesteed trotted up with several of his mining associates. He adjusted the toolbelt along his upper body and sighed heavily. “Move along, everypony. You're blocking up the courtyard, and it's ten minutes until the second team heads into the mines—” He stopped cold, blinking at the huge cluster of equines, more specifically the colorful few standing directly in the center.
Astral and Rainbow Dash stared back, along with the other unicorns who had escaped the minotaurs' grasp. All around them, families were reuniting tearfully, joyfully. The excitement and noise dumbed down as all of the villagers turned to look at the flabbergasted heir to the elder's chair.
“Who are...?” Sladesteed blinked. “How did they...?”
“It's a flippin' miracle, Sladesteed!” Ironhoof loudly exclaimed. He galloped up and pointed excitedly towards the scene. “Look it! They're alive! The monsters didn't kill them after all!”
“That's...” Sladesteed mumbled, his eyes twitching. “That's unbelievable...”
“I know!” Ironhoof grinned wide. “Quickly! We must tell your father! He will be overjoyed!”
“Why will I be overjoyed?” Hushtail remarked as he was guided down into the courtyard.
Sladesteed turned and gasped across the fog. “Father!”
“Good heavens...” Hushtail stammered as he shrugged loose of his servants and trotted weakly into the gathering. He gawked at so many villagers that he had once thought dead. “How could this be? Have I died and gone to the Great Pasture?”
“It would seem that our Equestrian do-gooder has rounded them up,” Fulltrot said with a smile. “She just returned from a long journey, and she wasn't alone.”
“Hello, elder,” Astral said with a bow of his horn. “I assume you the chief elder of this village.”
“I may have forgotten a lot of things in my years, but there's no denying that!” Hushtail gazed at the stranger. “Do you have an explanation for this, good sir?”
“As well as I can give,” Astral replied. “I am Astral, head of the Archaeological Commission at Southstone College...” He winced slightly. “Well... former head. Most likely I am presumed dead at this point.”
“Dead?” Hushtail squinted at him. “Why would that be?”
“Because for the last few years, I have been held captive by a group of militant minotaurs several miles north of here in a quarry.”
Upon saying that, several ponies gasped in shock. Ironhoof looked at Fulltrot with a gaping expression. Gold Petals bit her lip and gave Rainbow Dash a glance.
Sladesteed's eyes narrowed. “A quarry, you say?”
“I know that this may be extremely alarming,” Astral said. “But the same minotaurs whom you've struck a business deal with all this time have been the ones responsible for the horrible monsters attacking your village. They possess two chaos strips, and have been using the dark sorcery of those artifacts to summon the abominations that have ravaged your lives.”
“To what end?!” Fulltrot exclaimed, a tone of anger rising in his voice. “We've been buying magical crystals from them for years to ward off the creatures.”
Astral looked fixedly at Fulltrot. “Those crystals were in my expedition's possession when my group and I were enslaved by the minotaurs. Since then, they've been distributing the crystals to your caravans while at the same time controlling the very same monsters that you sought to get rid of. On top of that, they've been training the monsters not to kill—but to abduct members of your village and force them to work in the same quarry as my associates and I.”
The commotion within the courtyard rose to a fever pitch. Angry stallions and distraught mares shouted a plethora of questions. Finally, Sladesteed raised his hoof and shouted towards the crowd.
“Quiet! Settle down!” He glared at Astral. “If this is true, how did you escape the minotaurs in the first place?”
“Miss Dash came to our rescue!” said a voice to the side. “First, she chased down the monster that had abducted my youngest son. Then she single-hoofedly guided us out of our imprisonment!”
“Red Turnip...” Fulltrot managed with an aged smile. “It is a blessing to see you once again.”
“I do most certainly feel blessed,” the senior member of the Turnip family replied. He nuzzled his wife and eldest son before marching over. “Rainbow Dash led us into the minotaurs' tunnels, down a subterranean river, and through a labyrinthine structure of ancient design. If it weren't for her, we'd be laboring endlessly at the end of the minotaurs' rope—or even worse.”
“Wait...” Sladesteed made a face. “What do you mean by a 'labyrinthine structure?'”
“All your lives, you've clung to the face of this mountain,” Astral said, gesturing towards the rockface just beyond the mists. “And you never considered to think why it looked so irregular compared to the rest of the Wintergate range?”
“Supposedly minotaurs really dig secret, ancient, shiny, underground stuff,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. “Funny how we lost them by going straight through all that crap.”
“Just how did you manage to get through it?” Sladesteed asked.
Rainbow Dash raised a curious eyebrow to that inquiry.
“What matters is that your village and everypony who works here has been suffering a grand deception,” Astral said. He shared a knowing glance with Rainbow Dash before bravely uttering, “Though we came here swiftly under the fear of our lives, we cannot be assured of this village's absolute safety. The minotaurs were dealt a destructive blow at their mining facility. What's more—I fear that they may still be in possession of a chaos strip.”
“You mean...” Gold Petals spoke up, nervously. “They can still send those creepy monsters at us?”
More villagers murmured in fright.
Astral raised his voice, “Do not panic! Listen to me, everypony. What matters is that the truth is now out. The crimes committed by these minotaurs cannot be tolerated. The national council of Wintergate will consider it an act of cruelty. Surely, as soon as I can get word to Southstone, the southern provinces will be properly alerted. Then, every minotaur will be hunted down and punished for what they've done to Windthrow!”
“And while we wait for the Wintergate Millitia to march all the way north and trample our enemies,” Sladesteed said with a frown, “The minotaurs will just send a huge swarm of monsters to raze this village off the face of the mountain!”
“The unicorn is wise, son,” Hushtail said. “I think we should spread news of the minotaurs' treachery and wait for a firm exercise of justice.”
“Oh, of course now you would resort to seeking help from the outside world, father!” Sladesteed snarled at his elder. “Where was your willingness to branch out and seek assistance before?”
“We have a solution in our grasp now,” Hushtail said with a firm frown. “Now that we know what's been done—”
“You could have prevented all this nonsense much, much earlier if you actually tried to think outside the boundaries of tradition!” Sladesteed loudly exclaimed. “Just because an act of daring becomes convenient doesn't legitimize how long it's taken to commit it! If you ask me, the answer to our problems here is as obvious now as it's ever been!”
“And what's that?” Red Turnip Senior asked.
Sladesteed faced the crowd. “We should all evacuate the village. We should all leave Windthrow.”
The ponies reacted in a cacophony of shocked words, glancing at each other with uncertainty.
“Now hold on one moment—” Hushtail raised a hoof.
Sladesteed continued, “We should leave! At any moment, the minotaurs could attack us with those creatures!” He pointed an accusatory hoof at Rainbow Dash. “Who knows how angry they might be about Miss Blue Impulse here having wrecked their mining operation to kingdom come!”
“Hey!” Gold Petals squeaked, struggling briefly to keep her voice lower pitched. “What makes it okay to blame her for what the minotaurs could do—?!”
Fulltrot silenced her with a gentle hoof on her shoulder. He trotted forward and stared at Sladesteed. “It's okay to be scared, Sladesteed. But I don't think packing up everything and leaving our forefathers' town is the solution.”
“You heard him!” Sladesteed gestured towards Astral. “The minotaurs possess a chaos strip! They could use it to wipe us off the mountain at anytime!”
“Yes, but—” Astral started.
“But nothing!” Sladesteed shouted. “Fulltrot,” he turned towards the old stallion. “Why are you taking my father's side? Especially now when the full ugliness of this situation is being exposed to us?!”
“I am not taking anypony's side! I don't believe that this situation warrants abandoning the village. I still feel like there's more that we should know before we leave this home of ours unattended and vulnerable!”
Sladesteed suddenly squinted at the older stallion. “How is it that every time you've gone on those long excursions to the minotaurs, you never once noticed the plight of our fellow ponies or these minotaurs here?”
“How could a wise and sagely Wintergater such as you have been fooled so easily by the minotaurs and their deception? All this time, hasn't the trade situation struck you as a little too convenient?”
“Hey...” Ironhoof marched forward with a frown. “The heck are you trying to insinuate, buddy—”
Sladesteed's companions held Ironhoof back while the heir gnashed his teeth and said, “You've made these long trips the focal point of your whole life! Everypony in town respects you and your leadership skills because of it!”
“What I have done,” Fulltrot said with a heavy frown. “...I have done in respect of this town and all of its inhabitants. I do not know where you are going with this, Sladesteed, but I would think about your next few words carefully.”
“And I would think about your family more carefully!” Sladesteed retorted. “What if one of those monsters had nabbed one of your children instead?”
The crowd burst into angry and accusatory shouts, some on Fulltrot's side, others on Sladesteed's. Hushtail tried getting a hoarse word in or two, but was drowned out by the anger and bedlam. Astral and his unicorn cohorts merely fidgeted anxiously.
All the while, Gold Petals was rubbing her two front hooves in a nervous gesture. “This is crazy. What's going on?!” She gulped. “Rainbow Dash, did the minotaurs really do all of these bad things? And if so, who helped them?” There was no reply. She looked up with trembling eyes. “Rainbow...?”
Rainbow Dash was squinting at the scene. Her pendant was glowing ever so slightly, and a flicker of yellow swam across her eyes.
The loud cluster of arguing ponies was glowing with a bright lavender in her vision. The longer she stared at the crowd, the dizzier she was starting to feel. Hushtail and Fulltrot and Astral and Ironhoof blurred into a glowing mosaic of madness.
“Rainbow...?” Gold Petals repeated.
“Somepony is lying...” Rainbow Dash murmured. Suddenly, her eyes widened. “Oh horseapples!”
“What? What is it?”
Instead of answering, Rainbow Dash darted into the crowd. She barreled through several gasping ponies, reached in with her teeth, and ripped at a strip of leather. When she emerged, she flung the belt to the ground. There was a clattering noise, and Rainbow Dash followed it with a shrill whistle.
“Hey! Idiots! Look alive!”
Everypony glanced at her, then gazed down at the wooden floor of the courtyard. A solid breath of shock flew through the crowd.
“The other chaos strip...” Astral stammered. He ran a hoof across his satchel, feeling his own within. He gazed up at Rainbow Dash. “But where? Who?”
“Flippin' duh!” Rainbow pointed across the way.
The ponies all turned to see Sladesteed standing alone, fidgeting, naked without his leather belt.
“Why keep the strip on one side of the mountain when you can have a little death remote on both sides and increase the range?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “It explains why there's always so much fog around Windthrow! I bet it also explains why the flying bat-cruds carried ponies like Spotty all the way to where the minotaurs were hanging out, cuz that's where the other chaos strip was!”
“Is that how they function?” Fulltrot asked Astral.
The unicorn gulped. “I'm afraid so. There must always be two of them in order to hone in on the discordant realm from which the summoned abominations hail.”
“Summoned...” Hushtail's nostrils flared as he glared over at his son. “...by my own flesh and blood.”
Sladesteed said nothing.
“Care to tell us what the game is, buddy?” Ironhoof said with an emphatic glare.
“Too long...” Sladesteed muttered, his head hanging low. “We've been on this mountain too long...”
Red Turnip Junior walked up beside his father. “Come again?”
Sladesteed frowned viciously at the crowd. “You know, you all really should be thanking me!”
“Thanking you?!” Ironhoof snarled. “You stinkin' traitor! You've been causin' all this stink the whole time!”
“Would you rather us all be dead at the end of minotaur polearms?!” Sladesteed spat. “Yes, I knew about the minotaurs! I knew that they were nasty, horrible, deceiving creatures! But that's because I found this out the hard way—over ten years ago—when they accosted me on my trip to Sparkill Highlands to barter for mining equipment! They told me that they were going to invade the village, seize the mines, and dominate total access to the structure beneath the mountain—unless I was willing to cooperate with them!”
“Cooperate how?!” Fulltrot remarked.
“If they destroyed all of Windthrow—word would spread throughout Wintergate of their presence. They needed a way to keep the mountain secure for their access.”
“With a bunch of horrible, flying monsters?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.
“It was how they initially planned to attack us!” Sladesteed said. “I begged them, pleaded with them to spare Windthrow. The best opportunity for lenience I got was to bear one of the strips myself. I...” He seethed. “I-I convinced them that a minor attack or two from the monsters would frighten us, send us packing. We'd leave this village under our own volition, and the rest of Wintergate would be none the wiser.”
“Uhhh.. Hate to break it to ya, bright eyes,” Rainbow Dash said with a nervous smirk. She pointed. “But everypony's still here.”
“Not for lack of trying on my behalf!” Sladesteed swiveled around and glared at Hushtail and Fulltrot in turn. “Every stubborn soul in this place had to insist upon tradition! You had to insist upon a set of isolationist values that will someday kill Windthrow off in a drowning whimper long after any monster could ever have its way with this place!”
“You could have told us the truth, my son,” Hushtail said in a cold tone. “You could have been honest...”
“And risk the minotaurs knowing the truth?!” Sladesteed replied. “Their eyes see farther than even these fumbling unicorns give credit. They would have squashed us in an instant!”
“And under the pretense of bullying minotaurs,” Ironhoof growled, “you let them plunder our village and abduct our loved ones over the course of ten long years.” He spat. “You're a coward.”
“I'm alive!” Sladesteed shouted. “You're all alive—thanks to me! And we can all remain alive elsewhere if we just move on from this dark chapter in Windthrow's history and leave!”
“You want off this friggin' mountain?!” Red Turnip Junior snarled. “I'll throw you off myself!” He charged ahead.
“Son! No! Wait—” Red Senior grabbed for him
But Ironhoof was charging too, and soon Sladesteed was at the receiving end of an angry tackle. He put up a good fight, head-butting and bucking the two stallions off of him. Two more ponies joined the fray, and soon the scene collapsed into utter chaos.
“Stop!” Hushtail shouted, gasping for breath. “Do not turn into animals!”
“Don't you see?!” Fulltrot also growled, trying his weak best to reach into the violent squabble. “This is what the minotaurs want!”
“Everypony just calm down!” Gold Petals squeaked. “You're all behaving like a bunch of stupid little—”
“Get off of me!” Sladesteed shouted and bucked Ironhoof heavily.
“Ooof!” Ironhoof flew back, tumbled, and fell towards the discarded chaos strip.
Astral saw it. He gasped heavily. “No! Don't—”
It was too late. Ironhoof rolled over the strip, making close contact with his living hooves. He sat—bewildered--as a deep glow emanated from the tiny artifact.
The mists around the place doubled. The ponies stopped fighting, immediately reeling in fear and anxiety.
“What have you done?!” Sladesteed shouted. “I swear to the Sun Goddess, this is the village of idiots!”
“This is definitely not a good thing,” Astral said as he trotted over besides Rainbow Dash.
“Is...” Gold Petals shivered as distant shrieking noises bellowed in the mists. “Is what I think happening actually happening?”
“Possibly?” Rainbow Dash gulped. “Maybe?” She turned around as a loud, frightened gasp filled the air. The mists parted, and several swooping bodies of leather sailed at her skull. “Awwwwwwwww poop.”