The Circle in the Square
There was no way to measure time within the raindrop room. Nopony entered the dungeons to give the freezing mares food or water, and Rainbow Dash paid attention to the increasingly frequent growls of her stomach as a means to estimate how many hours were passing.
After their first sleep in the cell, Ditzy and Rainbow paced its outline and speculated what Alula might be planning for them. Why had no food been sent? Was he trying to starve them? Was he merely deciding what to do? Where was Daring? Where was Piedra? And the most pressing question of all weighed heavily on both their minds: how long would they have to wait?
Hours upon hours passed, many in total silence, and the perplexed Ponyvilleans ran out of ideas. Faster than they had anticipated, the mares were struck with fatigue, and they wondered if the oxygen was low inside their chamber or if time was simply passing faster than they were assuming. Comforted by the constant firelight from the torches in the jagged hallway leading to the prison, they huddled together and fell asleep again in the center of their cage.
Many hours later—or perhaps only a few—they woke to the angry sounds of a nearby struggle.
“Lemme go! What the heck do you think you’re doing? Hrrgh… stop it! Nyeeaauh!”
The cell door opened. Rainbow and Ditzy leapt to their hooves and spread their wings, ready to bolt if given the chance. Two tall, Haissanic ponies with dark coats threw a third prisoner into the cell. Rainbow dove forward, but the stallions closed the door, locking it with a key twice the size of their hooves. Rainbow growled at them and tried to shake the bars. “You tell Alula that we’re frickin’ starving down here, ya hear me!?” She blinked as the pair trotted away. “And also to let us out!”
“Oooaaahh…” the pony on the stone floor moaned.
Ditzy gaped at the newcomer. “Daring?”
The pony’s head popped up instantly. “Ditzy! Oh, thank frickin’ everything!” She jumped on her sister, wrapping the grey pony in all four of her hooves. “I thought he would have killed you or something!”
“He might as well have!” Rainbow shouted from behind. “We haven’t eaten forever!”
“Kid!” Daring squeaked, leaping from one grappling hug to the next. “You’re okay, too!”
“Did you not just hear me?”
“S’okay, I totally brought food!” Daring said, searching her pockets until she produced a single, tiny carrot. “Uh… sorta.”
Rainbow slumped. “Aw, whatever. Give it to Ditzy.”
“I’m not that hungry,” the mailmare said. “You can have it, Rai—”
“All right!” Rainbow dove for the vegetable, devouring it whole. “Mmmm! Thanks!”
The goldenrod pegasus frowned. “Yeah, you bet.”
“What are you doing here, Daring?” Ditzy asked. “I thought you must have made some kind of deal with Alula.”
“I did,” she spat, stomping a hoof. “I told him where you were and he gave me the foals.”
Ditzy’s eyes flashed and she opened her mouth to shout, but Daring lifted a preventive hoof. “Hold on, I’m not done! Look, I knew he was gonna lock you guys up, but… not like this! He said he would take care of you! I thought I could just go give the foals to their parents and by the time I got back here he would have convinced you to... I dunno, like....” Her lip quivered. “Oh, geez, what was I thinking?”
“We’ll get to that later,” Ditzy said through clenched teeth. “Keep going. What happened?”
“I t-t-took the foals back to Ponyland,” Daring said, hugging herself, “and gave ‘em to their parents. I was supposed to... bring your daughter back to Haissan.”
“I didn’t, though!” Daring said, waving her hooves emphatically.
Ditzy sighed. “Oh, thank goodness.”
Rainbow’s brow creased. “Why not?” she asked harshly.
“Bec-c-cause she… Luna’s nipple, it’s freezing down here…”
“Because she what, Daring?” Ditzy hissed.
“Because she’s missing!” Daring shouted. “A bunch of ponies are! The baker couple told me all their names.” She shut her eyes tightly and tapped her hooves together. “Uh… there’s Dinky and Sweetie and Apple Blossom and Doodle-Loo…”
“Scootaloo!” Rainbow corrected, tugging on her ears. “The Cutie Mark Crusaders!”
“Right!” Daring yelled, pointing happily. “That’s what she called ‘em!”
“Who else?” Ditzy snapped. “You said a bunch of ponies were missing!”
“Yeah, there’s a couple more. Adults.” She pounded her own skull. “Two of your friends, kid. Twilight somethin’ and the pink one.”
“Twilight and Pinkie Pie?” Rainbow blurted. “Where are they?”
“Heck if I know! That’s what missing means!”
Ditzy paced between the mares, chewing on her lower lip. “So the Cakes’ twins are safe?”
“Yeah. Safe and sound,” Daring said, nodding, “but when I came back without your daughter, Alula blew up in my face! He told his guards to do the same to me as he did with you two. I thought that meant he killed you!” She couldn’t stop a few hot tears from leaking down her face. “Oh, Sweet Celestia, I’m so glad you’re okay!”
She hurried forward to hug Ditzy again, but the grey mare decked her sister right in the snout.
“Ouch!” Daring yelped, stumbling back. “What was that for?”
“You told him where we were!” Ditzy roared. “You told him about Piedra’s cave!”
“Well, yeah! He said you were—”
“Crazy, I’m aware,” Ditzy interrupted. “And you believed him?”
Rubbing her muzzle, Daring said, “Well, now I still kinda do!”
Ditzy dove for her sister, but Rainbow caught her by the tail, pulling the mailmare as far away from Daring as she could in the little space. “She was joking, Ditzy,” Rainbow said around the blonde tail in her mouth.
“Thanks, kid,” Daring said, wrinkling her reddened snout. “At least somepony gets my sense of humor.”
Ditzy blinked. “Wait, so… you don’t believe him?”
“No!” Daring said, scrambling to her hooves. “Not anymore, at least. When he got that mad about your missing kid, I figured he had some ulterior motive. I’m sorry, okay? I was… I wasn’t thinking.”
“Yeah, well, you haven’t been the only one.” Rainbow smirked and patted Ditzy on the back.
The glowering mare pulled away from Rainbow’s gesture and stomped closer to Daring. “How dare you even think about bringing my daughter to him!”
“I thought you were crazy! He was very convincing!”
“Notreally,” Rainbow coughed into her hoof.
“He has no right to take my daughter from me, and you’re crazy to have almost gone through with it!”
“Shouldn’t you be a little more worried about where she is now, Sis?”
“How about first we worry about getting out of this stupid cage!” Rainbow piped up.
Daring snorted and walked in tiny circles. “What the heck is this place, anyway?”
“I was hoping you could tell us,” Ditzy admitted, still shouting. “How far down is it?”
“Crazy far!” she answered. “And it’s right under the palace, too. They used some kinda secret tunnel in the garden to drag me down here.”
Ditzy’s eyes widened. “In the garden?”
“Did I stutter, Bubbles?” Daring snapped.
Ditzy put a hoof over her sister’s mouth. “In. The. Garden?”
Bewildered, Daring’s eyes flicked between Ditzy’s. The longer she stared, the higher her brow rose, until she said into Ditzy’s hoof, “Ooohhhhh!”
“What? What about the garden?” Rainbow asked, joining the sisters near the bars.
“We once asked Alula about the Flying Carpet,” Ditzy explained.
Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Yeah, and it doesn’t exist. I read that in the book.”
Daring shook her head and pulled Ditzy’s hoof away from her mouth. “I made that up. It does exist! It’s just that Alula doesn’t want anypony stealing it.”
Rainbow tilted her head. “Why not? What’s the big deal about floating fabric?”
“It’s not just that it can fly,” Daring said as a light danced behind her eyes. “That’s just what it got famous for. The carpet is the only object that can be permanently enchanted. Any spell that’s cast on it will never go away.”
“So what?” Rainbow shrugged. “Isn’t that normal?”
“All magic fades with time,” Ditzy said, “but this carpet denies entropy. Can you imagine how dangerous it would be if enchanted with a fire spell, or multiplied, or if it harnessed the ability to continually heal its owner?”
“Plus it’s a sweet ride!” Daring said. “Can you imagine pulling up to a party on a flying carpet? Heck yeah! Life o’ the party!”
Rainbow blinked. “So… Alula’s keeping it for himself?”
“He buried it thousands of years ago,” Ditzy said, “to keep it from devious hooves.”
“The only information we ever got from him,” Daring added, “was that the entrance to its cave was hidden in the garden!”
“He also warned us never to look for it,” Ditzy remembered, “and that the traps he set to catch its would-be thieves were impassable.”
“Do you think that’s where we are?” Rainbow asked, glancing around the cell. “The Flying Carpet’s hiding place?”
“It’s possible,” Ditzy allowed, tapping on the iron bars. “Perhaps this is the first trap. There’s no way back—only forward.”
Rainbow blinked. “Forward where?”
“The way it’s pointing, of course!” Daring said, curving her hooves in a raindrop shape and thrusting them toward the small end of the cell.
Rainbow stuck her nose into the corner. “Uh… there’s nowhere to go.”
Ditzy’s wonky eyes swept over the ground. “The slabs,” she said, tapping one of the smooth, stone pieces that made up the floor. “It must have something to do with the slabs.”
Daring looked down and beamed. “Good eye, Ditz!” she said, crouching low to get a better look. “Well, not literally, but… you know what I mean.”
“Hold on, I’m confused,” Rainbow said, lifting a hoof above her head. “What has to do with what, again?”
“You see the strange tiles on the ground?” Ditzy asked, tapping one with her hoof.
Rainbow nodded. “Yeah, they look like puzzle pieces.”
“Exactly,” said Ditzy. “That’s because they are part of a puzzle, and if we figure them out, we’ll be one step closer to the Flying Carpet.”
“Which means one step closer to freedom!” Daring said, trying to pry one of the slabs from its place. “I’m already sick of this dump.”
“You haven’t even been here for five minutes!” Rainbow shouted.
“Yeah, well, let’s not make it ten. Come on, kid, help me look for something!”
Rainbow crouched beside her. “Like what?”
“I dunno. Anything out of the ordinary.”
All three ponies snooped around the tiny cell, poking and prodding the smooth, grey tiles of various, curving shape. None of them stood out from the others, and none depressed even with all of their combined weight.
“It’s no use! We’re done for!” Daring exclaimed, flopping against the wall. “Oh, yuck! It’s all slimy in here.”
Ditzy scraped her hoof along the wall, examining the damp residue on her hoof. Rainbow continued to scour the ground with her eyes, noticing a little speck of black on one of the stones near the doorway. “Hey Ditzy, did you see this?” she asked.
With a quick glance, Ditzy nodded. “It’s just a teardrop from last night.”
Rainbow’s brow knitted. “Why is it still here?”
“Because it’s cold.”
Rainbow pushed her jaw to one side. The mark didn’t seem wet or icy; if anything, it looked burnt. “A teardrop…” she mumbled to herself, standing up straight and surveying the cell. “A teardrop… ah-ha!”
The sisters jumped at Rainbow’s exclamation. “What is it, kid?”
“A teardrop!” she repeated, gesturing all around her. “That’s what this little cave is shaped like, isn’t it? A drop of water? Maybe the stones do something when they get wet.”
Daring smirked. “Unless you’ve got a copy Trotanic on ya, don’t be expecting any tears from me. How are you gonna get the whole floor wet?”
“With this,” Ditzy said, lifting the residue on her hoof. It glistened in the dim light from the lanterns in the hallway. She reached down and wiped the stuff on one of the tiles, watching it sizzle and blacken under the moisture to become as brittle as charred paper.
“Quick, burn it all!” Daring yelled, coating all four of her hooves in the slime and dragging her legs over the floor. The other mares followed suit, and soon every tile crumbled into slates of ash.
“Now what?” Rainbow asked.
“Brush it away,” Ditzy instructed, pushing as much of the dry remains against the walls as she could. When their hooves had cleared the center of the cell, a symbol carved into the earth was easy to make out.
“The circle in the square,” Daring mused.
“The universal symbol of our world’s relationship with the unseen realm of magic,” Ditzy expounded for Rainbow Dash’s sake. “It appears in every civilization since the dawn of time.”
“Cool,” Rainbow said. “Uh… what does it do?”
“Prob’ly opens a door,” Daring said with a smirk, pressing her hoof into the symbol’s center.
“Wait, no, Daring, stop!” Ditzy yelled as a metal beam broke through the point of the raindrop. All three mares dove out of the way just before it skewered them. Ditzy groaned and peeked under the cell’s new obstruction at her panting sister. “Nice one, Daring! You almost got us killed!”
“Wow!” the goldenrod mare exclaimed, adjusting her hat. “I forgot how exciting this stuff can be!”
“Exciting is different than surprising, Daring,” Ditzy scolded. “Be more careful, okay?”
“Uh, girls? Check it out.” Rainbow nodded at the small end of the room where the beam had smashed the wall. It left a hole large enough for a pony to squeeze through.
“Me first!” Daring squealed, leaping for the exit.
“Please! Be! Careful!” Ditzy hissed through clenched teeth. “I want all three of us to get out of here alive.”
When Daring had passed through the hole, Rainbow ducked under the beam and stood next to Ditzy. “Why would Alula put us in this room?” she asked. “Do you think he wanted us to go this way?”
Ditzy gulped. “It’s… very possible. But it doesn’t look like we have much of a choice.”
Smiling sadly, Rainbow nodded, flying through the little hole and out of sight.
Taking a deep breath, Ditzy straightened her own pith helmet and brought up the rear of the trio, wiggling out of the raindrop room and into a much brighter chamber.
“Whoa,” Rainbow breathed. Her companions were speechless.
They had entered a dome more than twice as large as the raindrop room. Like their first puzzle, the cavity’s walls were coated in a peculiar slime... that glowed bright green.
“What the heck is this stuff?” Daring asked, moving toward one of the cavern’s curved walls.
“Don’t touch it before we know what it is!”
Daring froze with her hoof mere inches from the wall. “Well, how will we know until one of us pokes it?”
Ditzy’s eyelids drooped. “Are you volunteering?”
Daring blinked and pulled her hoof away, coughing into its side nonchalantly.
“I… I think I’ve seen this stuff before,” Rainbow said. “Not as much as there is in here, but… I think Twilight has some in her library, down in the basement. She’s got a whole lab set up down there. One time she showed us some project she was working on... I dunno, it was boring... but this same glowy stuff was in a little vial on a table. I wanted to play with it, but Twilight said it could be dangerous if it got mixed with any of the other chemicals she had lying around.”
“Hm… doesn’t sound that bad,” Daring said, reaching out to scoop some of the slime. Instead, her hoof hit something more like glass. “What the heck?”
“It’s solid!” Ditzy realized, cantering to Daring’s side and running her hoof over the emerald stone. With a swift kick to its surface, Ditzy shattered a large section of the wall. Chunks of glowing, green glass fell to the ground; the pegasi leapt away.
“Whoa, Ditzy, what are you doing?” Daring asked in a mocking voice, tugging down on her hat. “Be more carefullll!”
“Oh, shut up,” Ditzy grumbled, picking up one of the shards. “I wonder what it does.”
“Look like there’s a way out,” Rainbow said, pointing to an archway at the other side of the luminescent dome. Once Ditzy had tucked the glass into one of her pockets, the ponies ran across the length of the cave and ducked through the small doorway. After passing through a short corridor, they found themselves in a similar cavern infused with yellow stone.
“What the heck?” Daring’s shout echoed through the bright hollow. “Are these just here to light our way?”
Ditzy felt her breast pocket heat up. She glanced down in time to see green steam leaking from its cracks. As fast as she could, she pulled the chunk of green glass from her pocket and threw it across the cave. When it neared one of the yellow walls, the shard of green exploded in a ball of gas and fire.
“Holy crap!” Daring yelled, shuffling away from the blast. “What was that?”
“The substances are reactionary,” Ditzy explained, breathing hard. “Green doesn’t react well to yellow.”
“Let’s keep that in mind,” Rainbow suggested. Swallowing, Ditzy nodded.
Another small corridor led them to a third room coated in dark red crystals. The difference in texture from the green room encouraged them to backtrack and take a closer look at the yellow walls. They were lined with tiny ridges, as if they had solidified while rippling.
“This is weird,” Daring complained. “I don’t like this at all.”
“There was another corridor past the red cave,” Rainbow said. “We better see how many rooms there are.”
Racing through the cave of blood-red crystals, the ponies found the third corridor to be much longer than its predecessors. Rather than leading them to a dome covered in glowing gemstone, the ponies were faced with a circular machine mounted to the wall in a much smaller room.
“What is it?” Rainbow asked, walking to its side to get a better look.
The machine consisted of three flat circles carved with geometric patterns. The largest of the three, sealed to the wall, was as tall as a stallion; the second, held in front of the first by several thin, metal rods around its circumference, was slightly smaller. The third, suspended even further from the wall, followed the shrinking trend. A pony could easily fit their head in the space between each circle.
“What does it do?” Rainbow inquired when nopony could answer her first question.
“Kinda looks like it’s s’posed to…” Daring twisted the smallest circle, setting the entire contraption into kaleidoscopic motion. Panicking, Ditzy jumped forward and stopped the rotation, shooting her sister a lethal glare. Daring smiled weakly. “…spin.”
“It can’t be as simple as turning them,” Ditzy said. “It must have something to do with the glass in the caves.”
Rainbow squinted at the machine, rubbing a hoof against the side of her head. “Maybe we have to…” She gasped, pointing at the largest circle. “Look! There are little spaces to put gems in!”
Daring flew to the other side of the machine and nodded. “Yeah, I see ‘em, too. All three of these things have little notches to fill.” She turned to her wall-eyed sister. “What do we do, Sis?”
Surprised, Ditzy couldn’t help but smile a little as she thought it through. “Well, seeing how easily the glass breaks into pieces, we must need to bring some of it in here and… hm. Make some kind of pattern?” She ruffled her wings. “The biggest problem is that—”
“They explode when they get near each other?” Daring guessed with a smirk.
Rainbow’s ears drooped. “Well, what are we supposed to do?”
“There must be some kind of order,” Ditzy said. “Like… maybe certain colors don’t have any reaction on each other.”
“I’ll find out!” Rainbow said, rocketing from the little room. Ditzy watched her go with worried eyes.
Daring scoffed. “Oh, so you don’t tell her to sit down and shut up?”
“She thinks through her decisions,” Ditzy said, “unlike either of us.”
“Pff. She does not.”
“How do you know? You barely know her.”
“Whatever! I’ve been hanging out with her for, like, three days.”
“What else am I s’posed to call it?”
BOOM! An explosion rocked their little cavern, making both the sisters gasp.
“I’m okay!” Her scratchy voice called through the cavern several seconds before she appeared, panting hard. “Okay… green reacts to yellow, yellow reacts to red, but nothing happens between red and green.”
Daring smiled. “Good to know. Way to go, kid!”
“Green to yellow, yellow to red…” Ditzy mumbled, running her hooves over the face of the smallest circle. “Green to yellow, yellow to red, nothing between green and…” She flicked her tail and spun around. “I got it. Rainbow, will you bring a red crystal in here?”
The blue pony saluted, zipping out of the room as fast as she had appeared.
“What’s the plan?” Daring asked.
“To leave me alone.”
Daring slumped and blew her bangs out of her face. “Come on, Sis, I know you’re still mad, but I can help if you’ll just—”
“Here ya go!” Rainbow said, tossing a large red gem into Ditzy’s hooves. She crushed it against the ground under her hoof and picked up three smaller pieces, fitting them into place among the center circle.
“Okay, now bring me green.”
“Gotcha!” In another flash of spectral light, the mare was gone.
“Luna’s nipple, she’s fast.”
“Will you stop saying that vulgar phrase?”
“Vulgar? I think it’s funny!”
“That’s not even the proper terminology.”
“Well, saw-ree. ‘Luna’s teat’ doesn’t sound quite as funny.”
Daring cracked a smile. “Yeah, I was about to say!”
“Got a bunch!” Rainbow said, diving into the sanctum with a dozen green-glowing gems in her forelimbs. “Had to leave some steamers behind in the yellow room.”
“That’s fine. This is plenty.”
As Ditzy went to work fitting the green stones into the biggest circle, Daring turned her attention to Rainbow Dash. “Hey, kid. You’re not still mad at me too, are you?”
The Element of Loyalty’s ruby eyes narrowed. “Of course I am. You fell for Alula’s lies like a tree to an axe.”
Daring’s jaw dropped. “What the heck? Doesn’t anypony like me anymore?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like you,” Rainbow clarified. “I’m just… unhappy with your choices.”
“Gee, thanks, Mom.”
“Done!” Ditzy said. “Okay, last time: bring me some of the yellow glass.” She tugged at her collar. “And everypony be on the edge of your hooves. We might have to be fast with this.”
The other pegasi nodded and Rainbow rushed away. Daring asked, “Won’t the yellow ones blow up when they get close to the red?”
“And the green when they get close to the yellow,” Ditzy confirmed. “Like I said, we might have to go fast.”
Daring chuckled nervously, pattering her forehooves.
Rainbow barreled through the corridor with four yellow chunks in her grasp. As she brought them closer to Ditzy, both the yellow stones and the green ones in the largest circle started to steam. “Back up! Back up!” Ditzy yelled. When Rainbow increased the distance, the gemstones stopped reacting.
“Darn it,” Ditzy said under her breath, eyeing the colorful stones. “How are we gonna do this?”
Rainbow set the yellow rocks on the ground and scooted them away from the machine. “Do you think there’s another type of glass we’re missing?”
Ditzy shook her head. “No, there are only three circles.”
“Well what if—”
“Compounds!” Daring shouted.
The other mares gave her startled looks.
“No, listen for a sec. What if, like, green and red together make yellow not blow up?” She shuffled her hooves in front of her body.
“Together?” Ditzy asked. “How are we supposed to fuse these gems together?”
Daring dropped her hooves. “You don’t have to fuse ‘em. They react just by getting close to each other. So… just put those rocks close to each other!” She jabbed her legs at the green and red gems stuck in the circles.
Ditzy’s faced screwed up in thought. “Hmm… perhaps….” She removed one of each color from the machine and set them close to each other on the floor. “See how close you can get these to the yellow ones, Rainbow,” she said, sliding the two gems toward the young pegasus.
Rainbow took the two gems between her hooves and inched toward the group of yellows.
“Maybe try just one!” Daring offered in a squeaky voice. She trotted over to help, separating one of the yellow stones from the rest of its group. Rainbow nodded in thanks and held her compound of crystals closer to the yellow rock. No matter how close she pushed her hooves, nothing happened to any of the rocks.
“Nice thinking, Daring!” Rainbow complimented.
Daring donned a smug smile as Ditzy rearranged the rocks, making sure there was an even amount of red and green on both of the larger circles. “That should do it,” she said, a bead of sweat sliding down her neck. “Rainbow, hoof me the yellow ones.”
Moving slowly, Rainbow complied. When none of the gems steamed, Rainbow started to squeal with delight. Her hooves trembling, Ditzy fitted each of the yellow shards into place on the smallest circle.
Daring grinned. “Okay, sweet! Uh… now what?”
“Now… we spin it,” Ditzy said, pulling down on the edge of the first wheel. As each segment of the machine rotated, drawing nearer together against the wall, it created a continuously morphing crisscross of colors.
“Whoooaaa…” Daring and Rainbow said together, watching the show straight on. Ditzy, keeping close to the machine, watched for any signs of pre-explosive steam.
The wheels clicked and turned in their places, ever so slowly retreating in on themselves. Daring rocked back and forth, watching them turn with strangled fascination. “Come on, hurry up,” she hissed. “Ditzy, spin ‘em faster!”
“No!” the sweating pegasus said. “We can’t risk any of the stones falling out of place.”
They twisted and spun, casting strange and colorful shadows onto the walls and ponies within them. As an entire minute passed, Daring began to chew on her tongue, pattering her front hooves against the cold ground. “Okay, this is getting ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t think it’s working.”
“It’s definitely working,” Ditzy argued.
Daring bobbed her head from side to side. “Yep. For sure. But I think it could afford to work a bit faster, don’t you?”
“Daring, will you just—”
“You’ll thank me later!” The goldenrod pegasus threw herself forward and spun the first wheel with both hooves.
Two green stones flew out of place and shattered against the ceiling as the machine swirled out of control. Rainbow jumped into a low hover. “Should I grab more?”
Yellow steam billowed from the gyrating bomb.
“Too late!” yelled Ditzy. “Get out of here!”
“No, no, it’s fine!” Daring shouted over the amplifying whir of the machine. “We can just take out two red ones and—”
She reached forward with a swift wing, aiming to knock out two of the central circle’s stones. At that moment, all three wheels collapsed in on themselves, becoming a single, beautiful design of glowing gems—and catching Daring’s wing among them.
“GgggeeEEAAAAUUUUGGHHH!” she shrieked as half of her wing crunched between the connected wheels. The new circle sunk deeper into the wall as yellow and green steam billowed from its crevices, filling Daring’s screaming lungs with stinging fumes. “Noooo, no, no, NO! Gaaaah-hah-haaaaugh!”
“Daring!” Rainbow Dash screamed, hurrying to the trapped pony’s side. “Daring, are you okay?”
“Sweet mother of frickin’ crap!”
“Ditzy! Get over here!”
The grey pony’s empty gaze was locked on the sputtering wheel. “It’s supposed to blow up,” she whispered.
“Ditzy! What are you doing!?”
The mailmare stared at Rainbow Dash with horror in her golden eyes. “It’s a controlled explosion. It’s gonna bring this place down.”
Rainbow stopped pulling at Daring for long enough to scream, “What!?”
“Alula was serious,” Ditzy said, running her hooves down her face. “This place is inescapable. It’s designed to kill its thieves.”
“No way!” Daring shouted, half delirious. “He’s fair! He’s always fair! He gives us chance! He—nnyyeaaaAAHH!”
A sickening crunch from her wing brought tears to Rainbow’s eyes. “Come on, you have to help me get her loose!”
Ditzy started to hyperventilate, throwing her head every which way for means of escape.
“We’ll find a way out!” Rainbow shouted as the whistling steam filled the room. “We’re going to be okay! But first you have to help Daring!”
Ditzy froze. For a moment, both of her eyes swiveled to rest on Rainbow Dash as she heaved at Daring’s motionless body. The wounded mare had lost consciousness. “What did you say?” Ditzy asked.
“We’ll all make it out of this,” she called above the noise, her voice cracking at every other word, “but you have to help Daring!”
“Why?” Ditzy asked. The glimmer in her focused eyes trembled with emotion. “Why should I help her?”
Those ruby eyes lit up and her powerful wings spread at her sides as Rainbow yelled at the top of her voice, “Because she’s your sister!”
Ditzy wanted to argue. That doesn’t matter! What does that change? She put herself in that situation! Look at all the things she’s done to me! Instead, she found herself galloping forward and grabbing Daring around the middle. “Pull with me!” she said to Rainbow.
“But… her wing is stuck!”
“Pull with me!”
Rainbow grimaced and wrapped herself around Daring’s hind legs. Together, the blue and grey pegasi pulled, yanked, and flapped their wings away from the fuming machine set to blow.
“One!” Ditzy shouted, tugging at Daring’s limp form.
The steam’s whistle reached a high point.
Rainbow Dash whimpered and closed her eyes.
With a final jerk of their entire bodies, Ditzy Doo and Rainbow Dash tore away from the wall with a screaming Daring Do held tight in their forelegs.
Rainbow’s eyes darted to what was left of Daring’s wing. “Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh!”
“Get her on my back, Rainbow!”
Fighting dry heaves, Rainbow unzipped her own green shirt and wrapped it tight around the wound. She tried to avoid touching the growing dark spot behind Daring’s left shoulder as she draped the shaking figure over Ditzy’s waiting back.
Just before they bolted for the corridor behind them, one of Ditzy’s eyes drifted toward the wheel machine. Without Daring’s body holding it back, it slid far enough into the wall to reveal another passage.
“Rainbow, this way!” Ditzy yelled, galloping with all her speed through the thick, colored smog and into the escape route. Lined with clear blue crystals, the hidden tunnel wove away from the caverns full of explosive gems. The two Ponyvilleans didn’t dare slow down as the sound of their hooves thundered in the snaking corridor—but that was nothing compared to the blast that sounded off behind them.
A wave of heat slammed into their backs and singed the hair of their tails as a sound like a hundred firing cannons shattered the blue gems around them. Sprinting through the falling specks of glittering gemstone, Rainbow and Ditzy tried to outrun the roar of approaching fire.
Miraculously, the tunnel opened up into a mile-deep well. A perfect tube shot upward through the earth—a tiny pinprick of Moonlight could be seen far above their heads. Hovering over a slab of granite at center of the well was a masterfully embroidered rug of the most exquisite threads. It seemed shine even in the low light of the distant night—or perhaps it was reflecting the imminent column of horizontal flame rounding a bend of the tunnel.
“Take the Carpet!” Rainbow urged, shoving Ditzy toward the artifact. “I’ll take Daring!”
“Look at that thing, it’s tiny!” Rainbow said. “There’s no way we’re all fitting on there.”
“Then let’s both carry her up!”
“Take the frickin’ Carpet, Ditzy!” Rainbow shouted, dragging the yellow pegasus from Ditzy’s back and tucking her under her forelimbs. “You have to find your daughter! You have to stop Alula!”
Ditzy could hardly breathe. “But… b-but I—”
“Go! I’ll get us out of here, I promise!”
Gritting her teeth, Ditzy leapt onto the Flying Carpet and pulled on its tassels; true to its name, the artifact hurtled skyward at two times the speed necessary for a sonic rainboom.
As Rainbow watched her mailmare ascend to safety, she glanced back at the nearing inferno and snorted at her promise. “Good thing I’m not the Element of Honesty,” she mumbled, and climbed toward the light as fast as her wings could manage with a flaccid passenger in her hooves.