The Elements Chapter 9
Rays of light shone through the carved slits in the walls, filling the room with a substantial amount of light. Luna squinted when one of the rays of light streaked across her eyes as she lay awake in her bed staring at the Flutterpony who slept next to her. Forza’s chest rose and fell steadily, and her face remained peaceful while she lay faced towards Luna.
Luna rolled onto her back. The sounds of High Talon Rock echoed from the city below, quietly filling the room with muffled shouts, squawks, and conversation. She and Forza lay in one of the guest rooms of the castle, which contained a single bed, a drawer, a closet, and a balcony that opened up for a view of the city and mountains beyond.
You do not sleep.
Luna’s ears perked up, and she glanced at Forza only to see that the Flutterpony remained asleep. She looked back up at the ceiling. You can now speak to me out of my dreams?
I always could, the black mare’s voice said, but I never chose to. There was never a reason.
And there is a reason now? Luna asked.
There is, in fact. Remember what I told you about being reckless?
I do not care to listen. Luna’s face contorted into a frown and she began to count the cracks that ran through the ceiling.
Do not be such a foal, Luna, the black alicorn said, a hint of irritation creeping in her voice. Do you have any idea what you are getting involved in? You’re putting your life at risk so that you may save a failing nation. You’re sacrificing yourself in hopes that you may give these unthankful mortals a chance to continue mulling about.
Equestria is not failing, Luna growled. Have you not seen the spirit that still holds strong in everypony? We may be beaten, and we may have lost more than anypony could have dreamed, but we have not lost everything.
Pack up and run, Luna, the black mare said calmly. Retreat north. Retreat to the Crystal Empire. Seek shelter with them. Don’t stay here and try to save this dead nation.
Why the Crystal Empire? Luna asked. They have shunned the rest of the world, refusing to integrate with the rest of us for fear that we may somehow corrupt the Crystal Heart. Why would they allow for ‘Tia and I to enter their kingdom and take shelter?
There was no response. Luna growled audibly, and she rolled back onto her side to face Forza, her eyes coming into direct contact with Forza’s own. Her breath caught in her throat as the Flutterpony’s cold eyes bore into her’s.
“I-I’m sorry that I woke you,” Luna said quietly.
“You didn’t wake me,” Forza said, lifting her head. “I have been awake for awhile now, and so have you. Why do you not sleep?”
“It’s...” Luna started, staring at Forza, whose dark, red eyes searched her face. Luna looked away, grimacing up at the ceiling. “It’s not something I’d like to particularly talk about.”
Forza scooted closer to Luna, and she reached one hoof around Luna to pull her back onto her side. Their muzzles were centimeters away from each other, and Luna could feel Forza’s gentle breath blow on her face. Their eyes locked.
“You said that last time,” Forza said, “yet you are visibly bothered by an internal battle you are having with yourself.” Luna tried to look away, but Forza’s eyes forced her own in place. “There is only so long that you can hide what it is that tears you apart. Do not let your pride or determination distance those who wish to help you.”
Luna opened her mouth, but she was interrupted when there came a sharp rap on the door. Forza’s eyes narrowed, and she slowly turned over and rose herself from the bed. Luna did the same, and she walked up behind Forza when the Flutterpony opened the door. Rikkard was standing outside dressed in painted griffon platemail. He had a long Runka spear strapped across his back.
“Good morning ladies,” Rikkard said, bowing. Forza opened the door more, allowing for Luna to stand next to her. “I have come to tell you that the preparations for the Twilight Gauntlet have been made, and that you have been requested to meet King Bloodbeak at the first trial. If you have anything you wish to do today, I suggest that you do so now.”
“No, we are ready,” Luna said quickly. Forza shot her a side glance.
Rikkard nodded his head, and he turned from the door and started to walk down the hall. Luna stepped into the hall and fell in behind Rikkard, shortly followed by Forza, who shut the door behind them and strode up next to the princess. They quickly arrived at the elevator, piling in before the griffon at the lever could shut the door. After giving the elevator a brief glance, the griffon pulled the lever and spurred on the elevator’s descent.
“Is there anything you can tell me about these upcoming trials?” Luna asked Rikkard, steadying herself after the initial jolt of the elevator’s descent.
“I cannot discuss anything about the trials prior the event,” Rikkard replied grimly. “Any information can give cause to either give you an unfair advantage over the test or lower your confidence.”
“Lower my confidence?”
“The Twilight Gauntlet does reward failure with death,” Rikkard’s voice was quiet, and he refused to look at either Luna and Forza. “I did state so before.”
Luna looked uneasily at Forza, and the rest of the descent down the mountain continued in silence. The elevator jerked to a halt and was locked in place by the griffon at the bottom of the mountain. Rikkard stepped off first, nodding thanks to the griffon then leading Luna and Forza alongside the mountain. The streets were filled with griffons and ponies, but Rikkard walked through the throng quickly.
They came upon a gate, smaller to the gate they had initially passed through, and the griffon standing guard hurriedly ushered them through. Beyond the gate was a large expanse of rolling grasslands with large, snow capped mountains in the distance. Rikkard continued to lead them alongside the mountain, across a large river, and then towards the edge of a dense forest that bordered the Northern Drakenridge Mountains. At the edge of the forest stood a large crowd of griffons and ponies who were all kept a far distance away from the treeline.
King Bloodbeak stepped forward as Luna approached, and he scowled when Luna graciously bowed before him. Rikkard stood next to Bloodbeak with the Runka spear unsheathed and held out in front of him.
“I am putting my nation at a great risk for allowing you to attempt the Twilight Gauntlet,” Bloodbeak said in a hushed growl. “Know that I will be watching you, Princess Luna. If I catch a hint of any deceit, I will personally throw you out of my kingdom. You have a nation to protect, and so do I.”
Luna glared at Bloodbeak. “Your message has been duly noted.”
Bloodbeak stepped back, allowing for Rikkard to take his place. “Before we begin the trials, there is a set of rules that must be followed in order for this to be considered a legitimate run of the Twilight Gauntlet. First, you are not allowed to use your magic at any point during the gauntlet.”
Luna’s ears folded back, but she listened as Rikkard continued. “Second, when you begin any of the trials, you are not allowed to leave the vicinity of the trail area until the test has been completed. The test areas are typically very large, however, so there should be no problem.
“Lastly, you are permitted to use this,” Rikkard pushed the Runka spear in front of Luna’s face, and she gingerly gripped the spear in her teeth. “You may use the spear in anyway you wish, but be warned, you are only given one spear. If it is ever broken or lost, you will not be given a new one.” Luna placed the buttend of the spear on the ground and propped it against her shoulder. “That being said, you may use anything in the environment you wish. Remember: this is a fight for survival, so anything I did not list off as a rule is permitted.”
Luna nodded her head, signally for Rikkard to continue. “Right, then. Now that that is out of the way, I’ll present you with the first trial.” Rikkard stepped to the side and lifted one of his talons towards the forest. “In the forest lies a brood of giant spiders who remain hostile to any who step foot behind the treeline. During this time of the year, the broodmother lays her eggs somewhere inside the forest, and the spider eggs are important ingredients for some of the Griffon Kingdom’s finest dishes. Your task is to enter the forest, find the broodmother’s lair, and steal three of the eggs.”
Luna stared at the massive treeline before her. The foliage inside looked dark, more so than what the shade from the tree canopy could cover. The bark from the trees was old, and dull groans rumbled through the forest when a breeze kicked up around everyone. Luna’s eyes hardened as she looked back at Rikkard.
“How will I be able to carry the eggs out of the forest?” she asked.
“You must find that out on your own,” Rikkard replied, stepping away. “You may begin when you are ready.”
Luna pushed the Runka spear from her shoulder and quickly gripped it in her mouth. She took a step forward, but she stopped and turned around. Forza was staring at her. The Flutterpony’s eyes no longer sent shivers down her spine, and she nearly dropped the spear from her mouth.
“Good luck, Princess Luna,” Forza said.
Luna nodded, and she slowly turned away and made her way past the dense shrubbery of the forest. The air felt heavier behind the treeline, causing Luna to pause before she tread any further into the forest. Dark vines of ivy wrapped around tree trunks and held limply from branches all around her. No light penetrated through the tree canopy, shrouding the entire forest in dim, hazy shadows.
A twig cracked underneath Luna’s hoof, breaking the eerie silence that added to the stillness of the air. She paused, ears swiveling around her head in every direction. Her eyes remained locked in front of her, straining to pierce through the darkness of the forest. When she saw that nothing in the forest moved besides the dense particles of air floating in front of her face, however, she gingerly glanced down at her hoof and moved on.
Luna treaded across the leaf-covered ground, snaking her way around thorny plants and low hanging branches that impeded her path. She carefully watched the ground as he moved underneath her hooves, scanning for any thin branches that could potentially snap under her weight.
A small creek came threaded through the dense forest ahead of her. Luna made for the water to cross it, but before she reached the creek, there was a gentle rustle from the bushes on the other side. Luna slid her body against the side of a wide tree trunk and slowly began to peer around the trunk. She eyed the bush carefully with the spear gripped tightly in her mouth.
After another rustle from the bush, a rabbit hopped from beneath the shrubbery and stopped before the creek. It began to lap up the water that flowed down stream, and Luna let out a sigh of relief, tucking the spear underneath her wing. She watched the rabbit for a few seconds more, and then she took a deep breath and stepped out from the tree trunk.
Before she could move any closer to the rabbit, a massive spider burst from the undergrowth and snatched the rabbit up in its jaws. The rabbit had hardly enough time to let out a squeak as the spider sunk its fangs into the rabbit’s stomach. Luna gasped, quickly sliding back behind the tree trunk and grabbing the spear in her teeth once again.
The spider turned back around from the tree and disappeared into the dense shrubbery. Luna waited, listening intently to the silence that had descended upon the forest again. Once she was certain that the only sound that filled her ears was from the creek, she stepped out from the tree trunk and bounded towards the edge of the water.
“That thing was nearly as big as I was,” Luna whispered to herself, glancing at the small spots of blood that coated a few of the rocks. She looked back up and spotted that some of the leaves the spider had disappeared behind were crinkled. “I bet that spider took the rabbit back to the broodmother’s lair.”
Luna dashed into the bushes, following after more crinkled leaves or minor scrapes against various tree trunks. The spider’s trail led her across more creeks, around tall rock formations, and even through a tall, abandoned wooden building. She had taken to flying towards the end of the trail, and she landed back onto the ground as the mouth of a massive cave came into view.
The cave mouth had numerous vines dangling in front of it, almost shrouding the large, gaping hole from anyone who happened to tread by it. Luna dived behind a few rocks that were a ways off from the cave, and she peered over the edge of the rocks towards the cave mouth. Another spider slowly made its way out of the cave, allowing for the vines to brush over its body. It paused, looking around the entrance to the cave.
Luna’s ear twitched when she heard a twig snap in the distance, and she watched as the spider twisted its body towards the sound. It sped off into the forest, leaving Luna alone at the mouth of the cave again. She glanced in the direction the spider had gone off to one last time, and then lifted herself from her hiding spot and trotted towards the mouth of the cave.
The vines parted easily for Luna as she stepped into the grotto. The ground squished under her hooves, and when she pressed her body up against the wall, a thick coat of slime rubbed over her wing. Luna recoiled, cringing from the strange sensation that the muck sent through her wing. She tried to whip the substance on her feathers off, but she soon gave up after a few powerful shakes of her wing failed to remove any of the slime.
Luna huffed, took the Runka spear from underneath her other wing, and made her way deeper into the cave. A few shrubs grew along the sides of the wall, forcing Luna to make her way around them to avoid disturbing the deadening leaves. The stench from deeper inside the cave began to seep into her nostrils, and she had to suppress a gag that started to rise within her throat.
This cave smells like I just walked into a room full of hundreds of plants of stinkweed, she thought to herself.
Luna rounded a corner and stopped in her tracks. Before her was a massive, dimly lit cavern. The chamber was circular in shape, with many holes filling the walls that were large enough to allow for one of the giant spiders to pass through individually. Below her was the source of light: thousands of glowing, green eggs filled the pit. Each egg seemed to pulsate like it had its own, beating heart.
Glancing around, Luna spotted a small slope carved into the side of the cavern that descended down into the pit. After checking each of the holes and failing to spot any giant spiders within the chamber, Luna started to make her way down. Before she reached the bottom, she grabbed a fern that was growing alongside the wall in her teeth and carried the plant with her to the first set of spider eggs she came across.
Luna sat down on the squishy ground and began tying the fern leaves together, making a small, makeshift basket that could easily fit three of the spider eggs inside it. She grabbed a vine that dangled next to her and used it to tie the end of the basket together. After testing its sturdiness, Luna picked up three of the eggs and placed them into the basket, closing it and then securing it closed with the vine. She then took the remaining piece of the vine and used it to tie the basket to her back.
Just as Luna finished tying the basket to her back, a deep hiss boomed from one of the holes above her. She quickly dashed behind some eggs, keeping herself low to the ground and pulling out the Runka spear. Glancing up, Luna spotted that a massive, purple spider started to make its way down into the pit.
The spider reached the bottom of the pit in a matter of seconds, landing on the squishy floor with a thud that shook the cavern walls. Luna peered around one of the eggs, and she watched as the spider rushed over to the far side of the pit. It used its foremost legs to begin sifting through the many eggs that were in front of it. Luna’s heart beat in her throat, and her ears folded back when more hisses and growls echoed from the spider.
When the broodmother failed to turn around, Luna started to crawl from out behind the eggs and jumped up onto the ramp to the top of the pit. She glanced once more behind her, and found that the spider was still concentrated on looking through the eggs on the far side of the pit. She took a deep breath, starting to slowly climb up the ramp towards the cave opening above.
Halfway up the ramp, Luna stepped onto a loose patch of rocks, slipping slightly and releasing some loose pebbles to slide down the side of the pit. She cringed, and quickly pressed herself up against the wall. The spider stopped sifting through the eggs in front of it, but after giving an irritated grunt, it returned to its task. Luna sighed in relief.
She made a dash the rest of the way up the ramp, trodding as carefully as she could over the rocky ground. When she finally reached the top of the ramp, she hid behind a few ferns that shrouded the actual view of the cave from the bottom of the pit. Her ears rotated in place, and she noticed that the entire pit had gone silent.
Luna poked her head out from the bushes to peer down into the pit. The massive, purple spider was nowhere to be seen. Her eyes widened, and she ducked back into the bushes, panting.
Where did that thing go? Luna asked herself. How can something so massive just disappear without making a sound.
A pebble tumbled to the ground behind Luna, and she slowly turned around, meeting the eight eyes of the purple spider. She hardly managed to grip the spear in her mouth in time before two of the legs from the spider pushed her off of the edge of the pit. Luna landed in a pile of spider eggs, breaking through the soft shells and covering her body in the sticky, green bile inside of them. She looked up, and managed to scramble away before the spider could land directly on top of her.
Luna got back to her hooves, clutching the spear in her teeth. The spider made a lunge at her, but Luna quickly dodged the attack and thrust the spear into the side of the spider’s head. The beast reared back, screaming in agony and pulling Luna with it as she still clutched onto the weapon. She was thrown against the rocky wall of the pit, and upon contact, she lost grip of the spear, sending it flying across the cavern.
The spider charged Luna, and she rose to her hooves and dodged the massive beast as it collided head first into the pit wall. Luna scrambled over to the Runka spear, picking it back up into her teeth and making a dash for the ramp. The broodmother regained its balance, quickly pursuing after Luna and closing the gap quickly between them.
Before the broodmother had time to snap at Luna with its fangs, she leapt into the air, spread her wings, and banked sharply away to quickly shoot up to the top of the cave. The spider screamed behind her, and when Luna landed at the top of the pit, she galloped into the cave’s mouth.
Luna sped through the cave, and she soon burst through the original entrance back into the forest. There were more hisses and growls emanating from all around her, but Luna ignored them as she leapt back into the dense foliage and made her way back to the challenge’s starting point. Bushes and twigs cracked behind her under the weight of the spiders that gave pursuit.
Luna’s heart pounded in her ears, and desperate pants escaped from her mouth as she still clutched onto her spear. The eggs in the basket on her back bounced heavily while she galloped, leaving bruises across her skin. She was just about to reach the first creek she came across when she entered the forest when a leg from a spider extended and tripped her.
The creek was frigid as Luna tumbled out of the bushes and into the water. She quickly picked her spear back up and turned to face two spiders as they emerged from the bushes. One of the spiders already made to lunge at Luna, but before it could sink its teeth into her, she leapt up over the spider and landed on it’s back. The spider let out an ear-piercing hiss just as Luna turned and drove her spear into the center of its head.
The spider jerked upward, sending Luna flying through several branches of the tree behind her. The spider continued to rear backwards, and eventually it fell over onto its back and curled up into a ball. The other spider took one look at its slain partner, and it turned to charge Luna.
Luna groaned as she got back onto her hooves. She picked the spear back up in her teeth and leapt to the side before the spider had a chance to run her down. Weaving around to the back of the spider, Luna lunged with the spear at its abdomen, only to miss when the spider turned around and causing her to strike through one of its legs. The spider smacked Luna with another one of its legs, pushing her back into the creek.
Instead of pursuing the attack, the spider hissed at Luna and vanished back into the forest. The princess watched it disappear, and after remaining in place and listening to the forest intently for several minutes, she tucked the Runka spear back under her wing. Walking over to the spider, she glanced at the wound on the top of its head, sighing and then making her way back towards the edge of the forest.
When she emerged from the treeline, a roar of cheers rose up from the crowd of griffons and ponies when they saw the basket of eggs on Luna’s back. Forza bounded up to Luna and embraced her in a tight hug, in which Luna responded with a hug of her own. Rikkard stood behind Forza, a slight smile stretched across his face.
“Glad to see you have returned with the eggs, Princess Luna,” Rikkard said once Forza and Luna broke from their hug.
Luna untied the straps from the basket with her magic and levitated the basket over to one of the griffon guards, who quickly took the eggs began to walk back to High Talon Rock. When she was free of the eggs, Luna glanced over at Bloodbeak, who glowered back at her.
“Would you like to clean up any wounds or... yourself before we move onto the next test?” Rikkard asked.
Luna looked down at herself, and the over at Forza and noticed that the Flutterpony now had some of the green bile on her coat. Forza rolled her eyes, and Luna said, “No, let us move onto the next challenge. There will be time to clean myself up when I have completed the second test.”
Bloodbeak growled and turned away to begin the trek to the next challenge.
After traversing for several hours across the grasslands of the Griffon Kingdoms, an enormous gorge came into view. The canyon looked to drop at least ninety meters into a thick bank of fog, which shrouded everyone’s view from being able to tell exactly how far down the canyon went. Caves lined either side of the canyon, and the walls were lined with hundreds of rock outcroppings that made it possible to at least attempt to walk along its sides. The troop came to a halt.
As several ponies and griffons walked to the edge of the gorge to look down, Bloodbeak and Rikkard both stepped forward towards Luna and Forza. Bloodbeak’s scowl had not lightened since they had left the forest, causing Luna to flair her wings. Rikkard held a thick rope around his neck.
“For your next test,” Rikkard said, motioning for two griffon guards to walk over, “you shall traverse Quarray Gorge to recover an artifact that has been placed at the end of gorge. However, because you have the ability of flight, you will be fitted with this rope to handicap yourself.”
The two guards stepped forward, taking the rope from Rikkard and tying it around Luna’s wings once she folded them back against her sides. Her eyes narrowed, but she did not flinch when the talons from the two guards scraped across her sides and on her wings. When the two guards were finished, she gave an experimental tug against the rope, failing to break the rope’s bonds.
“Fit to your liking?” Bloodbeak asked.
Luna looked away from Bloodbeak, instead focusing on Rikkard as he said, “If you follow me, I shall take you to the starting position.”
Luna and Forza walked behind Rikkard as they headed towards the edge of the canyon. Small cheers rose up as Luna passed groups of ponies. Ponies and griffons alike waved at Luna, some even attempting to reach out and touch the princess or the Flutterpony as they passed by. Luna simply nodded her head in return to the crowds cheers.
When they reached the edge of the canyon, Luna peered over and noticed that there was a set of crudely cut stairs descending to the first of the rock outcroppings. Luna backed away from the edge and faced Forza and Rikkard.
“You may begin whenever you wish,” Rikkard said. He turned and started to walk back towards Bloodbeak.
“I have a feeling Quarray Gorge is named for the Quarray Eels that inhabit those caves,” Forza said, looking at one of the caves on the far side of the canyon. “I, uh... I hope you will be careful.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. “When did you turn soft?”
Forza’s cheeks reddened, and she grimaced, but her eyes still remained warm to Luna’s gaze. “I have not turned soft, I just wish for you to be safe. You cannot save Equestria if you are... dead.”
“I’ll be okay,” Luna said, stepping forward and wrapping one hoof around Forza. “I’ll make it through the entire Twilight Gauntlet.”
Luna pulled away from Forza, and the two nodded at each other before Luna turned to make her way down the stairs to the first rock outcropping. The steps were small, and several rocks scattered and fell down the edge of the canyon into the mist. Luna looked over the edge once she had reached the ledge.
“I can only imagine that this canyon spans much further down than this mist,” Luna said to herself. She backed away from the edge. “Just don’t look down.”
Luna leapt from ledge to ledge, securely placing each hoof down on the rocks before making another leap to the next ledge. She hopped onto small outcroppings that barely held her, cracking under her weight, and she hopped onto massive outcroppings that gave her enough room to have a running start. Whenever she spotted a cave on the next rock she was going to leap to, Luna tried hopping to a rock below the cave or backtracking to find another route around. After what seemed like an hour, however, the muscles in her legs began to strain to continue to push her to the next ledge, and eventually she sat down next to the canyon wall when she leapt onto one very large rock.
Across from the rock outcropping was one of the large caves that were located throughout the canyon. Luna stared at the darkness within the cave, but when nothing emerged, she got back onto her hooves and made her way to the other side of the rock.
On the rock that was closest to her, another cave was built into the side of the mountain. Luna shook her head and looked down, spotting a rock that was further off.
“If I make a running jump, I’m sure I will be able to make it,” she said to herself.
Luna began to slowly backup on the rock, but before she had even made it halfway across, the entire ledge cracked. Luna held her ground, her legs shaking violently as the ledge cracked once more.
“Horsefeathers,” Luna said to herself. “I’m not going to make it.”
She eyed the ledge with the cave warily. The sound of her thumping heart filled her ears as another crack erupted from the far side of the ledge. Luna’s legs tensed, and just as the entire outcropping began to fall, she made a running jump for the ledge in front of her. When her hooves left the rock, the ledge broke from the canyon wall and plunged into the mist below.
Luna’s hooves easily landed on the next ledge, but before she had time to steady herself on the rock, a massive, pink eel emerged from the cave. It snarled and lunged at Luna, who deftly dodged the attack by hopping over the eel to the other side of the ledge. However, she stopped in her tracks when she saw that there were no other rocks that she could jump to from the ledge she was on. She glanced across the canyon for a second and spotted a ledge on the far side halfway down towards the mist.
The quarray eel turned around and made another lunge at Luna, but before it could snap its jaws around her, Luna leapt towards the far ledge. Her stomach felt like it was in her throat as she descended through the air, and her wings pushed against the rope in an attempt to free themselves.
As Luna collided with the outcropping, she let out an agonizing scream as she landed on her wing. The force from the collision shook the entire rock, and the ledge began to fall away from the canyon wall. Luna rose back to her hooves as quickly as she could, and just as the rock was turning over and dove into the abyss, she leapt towards another outcropping.
A quarray eel emerged from the cave next to the ledge. Luna barely managed to steady herself as she was pushed back from the initial velocity of the eel leaving the cave, and she skirted around the eels body when it made to attack her. Another rock ledge lay before her, and before the eel had time to turn for another attack, she jumped.
Luna stumbled when she reached the ledge, tumbling over onto her damaged wing and crying out once again. She looked back, staring in horror as the quarray eel began to make its way onto the ledge she was on. Luna grabbed her Runka spear in her mouth and scrambled to her hooves, wincing when she tripped over herself and bumped against the canyon wall.
The eel lunged at Luna. She easily dodged the massive beasts attack, causing it to collide with the canyon wall. A crack began to creep its way up the side of canyon, shortly followed by several other cracks branching out in every direction. Luna’s eyes widened, and she made a dash for the far side of the rock.
Rocks began to tumble from high above the canyon, crashing down up the rock outcropping. An elongated boulder landed in front of Luna, and it tipped over and crashed onto a ledge a few meters away, creating a small bridge. She scrambled over the bridge while more rocks rained down over her.
The quarray eel slithered after Luna, but before it could crawl over the same bridge, a boulder fell down on top of its head, snapping the bridge in half and pulling the eel down into the mist. Luna continued to gallop across the rock, and she leapt from the edge of the rock onto a thin ridge that ran along the side of the canyon. Without looking back, Luna sped across the ridge as fast as she could, evading rocks as they fell from the ledge above her.
The ridge angled up towards the top of the canyon, but before it reached the canyon’s edge, the path narrowed and Luna was forced to jump to another rock outcropping far below her. She flew through the air, letting go of the spear that was still in her mouth before she crashed into the rock. Luna released another agonizing cry when one of her hooves landed on the spear, and she rolled to the edge of the rocks.
“Shit,” Luna panted, crawling back to the center of the rock. She looked back at her hind leg.
The spear was still stuck in her, with the tip of the spear point sticking through the other side of her leg. Luna twisted around and gripped the shaft of the spear in her teeth.
“Okay,” Luna said to herself. “One. Two. Three.”
Luna yanked the spear from her leg, inciting another scream to pierce the canyon. The metal slid out easily through her flesh, quickly slipping from the back of her leg. When she finished, her whole body was convulsing, and she dropped the spear.
Smoke and dust rose from the mist and the walls of the canyon behind Luna. She looked back at the caves she had escaped from, and her heart dropped. All of the rock outcroppings she had escaped from had now disappeared, leaving a massive, open chasm between her and the path back to the starting position.
“How...” Luna started. “I... There has to be another way back.” She dragged herself to the canyon wall, taking the spear with her. A few pebbles falling from the aftermath of the collapse echoed through the canyon.
“Okay, everything will be fine,” Luna whispered to herself, looking back at the stab wound through her leg. Blood dribbled out of the wound. “I think I will be fine.”
Luna slowly got back onto her hooves, taking the spear in her mouth and limping towards the edge of the rock. A short distance below her was another rock that was connected to a staircase leading down into the mist.
“It shouldn’t be far now,” Luna panted. “Those stairs have to lead to the artifact.”
Luna took a deep breath, and she jumped down onto the rock, grunting and rolling away from the wound on her hind leg. She struggled to get back to her hooves, slipping and falling back onto her side. Luna groaned, dragging herself to the canyon wall again and using it to gradually allow herself to raise back to her hooves. She limped to the top of the stairs.
As the stairs submerged into the misty gorge, Luna strained her eyes to see the steps that were in front of her. She carefully tredded onto each step that had been carved into the side of the canyon, testing the stability of the staircase. The water from the mist slicked the rocks all around the canyon, leaving the entire staircase slippery. One of Luna’s hooves slipped on a step, but she quickly caught herself with her other hoof before she could go tumbling off of the side into the canyon.
The mist started to clear when Luna reached the bottom of the staircase. Dense vegetation decorated the walls of the canyon, shrouding the once gray scenery with multiple hues of green and blue. Thick, green particles floated through the air all around Luna, brightening the dimly light canyon.
Luna peered over the edge of the ridge the staircase had descended onto, and her eyes widened as she stared into a black abyss. The bottom of the trench was invisible with light being unable to pierce much further than below the mist above her head. She stepped back from the ridge, turning and looking ahead of her.
A massive altar carved into the side of the canyon wall stood on the end of the ridge. Dirtied, gold embroidery decorated the sides of the altar, while green vines and shrubbery were encasing everything that lay around the altar’s base. Luna walked along the ridge and up to the pedestal, eyeing the golden dragon’s talon that had been placed at the top. After checking either side of the walls for the altar, Luna winced as she raised herself onto her hind legs to grab the talon.
When she got back onto all four hooves, Luna spat the talon out and inspected it. “So this is the artifact I was supposed to have gotten?”
A few thumps echoed through the canyon as something landed on the ridge outside of the altar. Luna drew her Runka spear and started to make her way out of the altar.
“Do you think she fell into the canyon?” a voice asked. “You saw the massive landslide back there.”
“We heard the landslide, Baltar, but I don’t think she did,” Rikkard replied. “We have to keep checking.”
Luna dropped the spear and trotted out from the altar, startling the two griffons on the ridge. Rikkard’s eyes widened.
“Princess Luna, you’re alive?” he asked. “And I see you found the altar as well.” He noticed the limp in Luna’s walk as she approached him, and he added, “Although it seems you didn’t walk completely unscathed from the landslide.”
Luna stopped before the two griffons and looked back. Blood soaked her leg and hoof, and she said, “I think I’ll be able to make the trip back.”
“How do you expect to make the trip back when all the paths have been ripped from the sides of the canyon?” Rikkard asked. “You have found the artifact already, proving your worth for this trial. Baltar and I can take you back to the starting point.”
“I won’t be disqualified?” Luna asked.
“No, you won’t,” Rikkard replied. “The king will need some coaxing, but after he says the damage done to both the cave and your leg, he’ll relent.” He stroked his chin with a talon. “Not to mention you have already received a large following from both the ponies here in the Griffon Kingdoms and some griffons.”
Luna made to hop onto Baltar’s back, but before she could take a step towards him, his eyes widened and he dropped onto his belly as he was dragged off of the side of the ridge. Rikkard spun around, backing up next to Luna while two large arms gripped at the rock. A gray, stone-like creature with long pointed ears and massive wings lifted itself over the ridge, snarling while it held Baltar in the grips of one of its feet.
“What is that thing?” Luna asked, backing into the altar with Rikkard.
“Gargoyle,” Rikkard spat, picking up Luna’s Runka spear. “We need to get out of here now before more show up.”
Before Rikkard had a chance to attack the gargoyle in front of them, Baltar lifted his head and sunk his beak into the gargoyle’s feet. The beast screamed, and it twisted around and shook its foot to throw Baltar off. The griffon held on tightly however, snapping his beak along the gargoyle’s feet, who finally reached down to grab Baltar only to have its head wrapped by the griffon’s forelegs. Baltar pulled the gargoyle with him, sending them both into the black abyss below.
Rikkard swore under his breath. “Now’s our chance. Quickly, hop onto my back before more of those things show up.” Luna jumped onto Rikkard’s back, and the griffon took a running jump and soared into the air and out of the canyon.
The congregation of ponies and griffons came into view as Rikkard flew quickly over the canyon. Luna rode on the griffon’s with her forelegs wrapped around his neck and dragon talon in her mouth. The misty depths of the canyon passed under them, but Luna hardly noticed their approach as her eyes struggled to stay open. The blood from her leg continued to dribble out over her hoof and onto Rikkard’s fur.
There was a wave of cheers that rose through the throng of ponies and griffons when Rikkard landed, but when Luna rolled off of the griffon’s back and landed stiffly in the dirt, everyone grew silent just as quickly. Forza galloped up to Luna, quickly followed by two other griffons who each carried bags full of medical supplies.
“Damn it, Luna,” Forza whispered as she yanked one of the bags from a griffon and began pulling supplies out. “You were supposed to have been careful.”
Rikkard stopped the griffon before he could reach for the bag Forza had taken from him, and then walked up to Bloodbeak as the king approached. The king had a smile stretched across his face.
“So, it seems like the pony princess gave up already,” Bloodbeak sneered. His face dropped, however, when he noticed one griffon was missing. “Where is Baltar?”
“Dead, My Lord,” Rikkard replied. “Slain by a gargoyle.” Rikkard pulled the dragon talon out and held it in front of Bloodbeak. “And I’ll have you know that the princess was successful in this trial, as we found her already at the altar with the dragon talon recovered. The reverberations we heard came from a massive landslide that she happened to be caught in. There was no way for her to successfully return with the artifact, so I safely flew her back.”
Everyone was staring at Bloodbeak and Rikkard, and Bloodbeak said, “You can’t possibly expect me to grant the princess a victory. She didn’t return on her own.”
“Look at her,” Rikkard said, turning and pointing at Luna and Forza, “if she had the ability to attempt the trek back on her own, she would have died from blood loss before she was even halfway through the canyon.” A dull murmur snaked through the crowd. “Besides, the return trip on this particular trial is only so that we do not have to follow the participant and risk being ambushed by the quarray eels in the caves or the gargoyles that lurk beneath the mist. She’s lucky a swarm of those creatures didn’t arise from the depths of the gorge because of the landslide.”
Bloodbeak growled, looking past Rikkard at Luna and Forza. The Flutterpony lay over the princess, carefully wrapping medical tape around her leg. Luna’s eyes were open again, and she was staring at Bloodbeak with a blank expression. Their eyes met.
“She may have this victory,” Bloodbeak spat, snatching the dragon talon from Rikkard, “but know that I will not be so lenient with her with any further trials.” He turned and began to walk towards High Talon Rock. “I will return to the city and begin preparations for tomorrow’s trials. Make sure the princess returns to the city without dying.”
Luna gazed at Bloodbeak as he left. Her wings clenched tightly against her sides.
“His vehement behavior is irritating me, too, Princess,” Forza said, untying the rope that held Luna’s wings together. Luna stretched her wings, wincing slightly from the wing she fell on back in the canyon. She glanced back and noticed that a large bruise extended from the base all the way to halfway across the wing.
“I’ll continue trying to heal you as best as I can when we get back to the city,” Forza said, turning and leaning herself up against Luna, “and we had best get back to the city quickly so I have enough time to do so. I have a feeling tomorrow’s trials are going to be far more difficult that the ones you faced today.”