ONE OF THESE DAYS
Chapter 12: The Reflex
~21 Aevum Illuminationis~
Sliding the final book back onto its place on the shelf, Nyx sighed sadly. Looking back down the row, which stretched on for dozens of trots without a break, she seriously contemplated dumping them out on to the floor again just so she could re-shelve them again for the third time this week. With a shake of her head, she started off again, this time for one of the restricted sections where the books that were not yet written were kept. As she walked, a tune popped into her head and she began to unconsciously sing along under her breath.
Coming to a locked door with no handle, she paused to make sure it was still secured. Satisfied, she walked through the locked door as if it were not even there, passing through as if it were not more substantial than smoke. On the other side was a brightly lit, white room filled with empty bookshelves of glass. The room's sole concession to decoration was a painting of three alicorns, one white, one purple, and one dark blue sitting next to Nyx, herself. Looking around, she first satisfied herself that the shelves were indeed empty before laying on her stomach in front of the larger-than-life-sized painting.
Locking eyes with the purple alicorn, she said, “It appears that the flesh is weaker than even I had thought. Less than a week has gone by, and I find myself here again talking to you instead of out there talking to you.” Shaking her head in disgust, she added, “Maybe it's just that here, in this room, I'm relieved of my responsibilities to Time, however briefly. Or maybe it's just that in here, I can tell you everything I'm feeling without fear of what you might say or do. Either way, it amounts to cowardice, and I'm Queen Coward.”
Unable to meet that unblinking stare any longer, Nyx looked down at her paws, one turned upside down and contemplated them. She noticed a paper cut on the pad and began picking at it with the tip of one of her claws, slowly widening it until a drop of black blood welled up, quickly congealing in the cool air. The sudden flare of magic in the room broke her reverie and she looked up to her the library's arcanificarum, Kat floating before her, beaming smile on her face.
Nyx knew that only one thing could make Kat smile like that, and couldn't help but find the excitement a little infectious. A smile automatically coming to her own expression dispelled her blue funk and she rose to her paws. “Tell her I'm coming, you silly thing, you.” With an excited giggle, Kat disappeared again, and the sphinx began her trek back to the library's entrance.
Calmly walking into the lobby, Nyx smiled at Twilight, whom returned it, though with some... trepidation? “What's all this, then, what's all this? You look like a cat with a mouthful of canary.”
Twilight stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Verily, thou doth have the most unusual and disgusting sayings, Nyx. Canst thee not ask in a more pleasant manner?”
With a chuckle, Nyx replied, “Sorry, let's try that again, shall we?” She cleared her throat dramatically, and asked, “You look like you have something on your mind. Bit for your thoughts?”
Twilight responded with a chuckle of her own. “Sooth, Nyx. Thou art the living end. Indeed, I have for thee a question. Thou rememberest our conversation about thee suffering from loneliness? I believe I hath come across the solution for thy problem.” As she said this, a small, black dragon, no larger than a pony floated out of her mane. He was curled up in on himself and snoring rather adorably, though he still bore some scars from recent wounds.
Nyx, who had become excited, hoping that Twilight meant that she was moving in with her, became slightly crestfallen when the dragon appeared, but quickly regained her demeanor when she actually looked at the dragon. The creature looked familiar, though she couldn't place from where, but she knew that the two of them would get along well. “Twilight, he's adorable! Where did you find him?”
The alicorn floated the small creature over to Nyx, whom gently took him in her paws which had turned into hands for the task. “I discovered him in a razed pony hamlet. I hath already seen his thoughts, and determined that he is safe. Indeed, he attempted to stand fast against the other dragons in his flight, but being the smallest, he was o'erpowered and left for dead.”
“Aw, poor little guy,” Nyx said, petting the dragon in her arms. She smiled, noting that he was actually purring. “Don't worry, Onyx. You'll be safe here.”
“Onyx?” Twilight asked with a raised eyebrow.
Nyx looked at her and grinned lopsidedly. “Of course. Nyx and Onyx. What else did you expect me to call him?”
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~
Unable to take another step, Silver Script sat down heavily on a large rock and sighed. She pulled a hind leg onto her lap, inspecting the hoof for the pebble she knew had to be there, and had been aggravating her almost from the moment she had set hoof on the winding mountain trail. Paladin walked up to her and said, “Come on. We're more than halfway there. We can rest when we get there.”
Looking up at the unicorn blankly, she evenly replied, “I'm not sure if you've noticed this, Milady, but not all of us are built for long journeys. Some of us were quite sedentary before now, and this trek is beginning to show on us.” The scholar gestured to the rest of the group, most of whom were in similar straits as her. The only two who seemed to feel fine were Ricochet and Knightengale, both of whom had some training.
Taking advantage of the pause, Awesomeshine and Silver Bell had collapsed against each other, much to the vexation of the two conversing ponies. Even Kitten was splayed out on her back, despite the fact that she had spent most of the time flying instead of walking. Not for the first time, Paladin regretted agreeing to take along civilians on this mission. Throwing up her forehooves in defeat, she rolled her eyes and grunted in disgust. “Fine. Take ten, everypony.”
As the unicorn walked off, Silver Script resumed her hoof inspection, using a stick held between her teeth to dig out some dirt that had collected under the hard keratin wall.
“Here, let me help with that.”
Looking up, she found Awesomeshine standing next to her, her magic already taking the stick from her mouth. Rather than object, she leaned back, and let the skilled unicorn dig out the irritant with deft strokes. The healer sat down and took the mare's hoof in her lap as she worked. Unable to find the words to express her gratitude, Silver Script looked down at the oldest, and only friend she had ever had, and the faintest of smiles formed on her face.
Awesomeshine looked up just in time to see the smile disappear, and grinned at her. “It's so good to see you again, Sil. I've missed you so much.”
“I feel the same, 'Shine,” she replied in her monotone voice.
Knightengale quickly pulled the flask away from Ricochet's lips, though the earth pony tried to follow the container with its delicious contents until it was capped and sealed again. “No more Rico. We're trying to wean you off the stuff, not get you drunk.”
“Och, just a wee bit more, Knighty. Tha' was hardly enough t' wet me lips,” Ricochet pleaded.
“Tell you what,” the aganippe replied, “tell me what happened between you and that unicorn, and I might be inclined to let you have another sip.”
Ricochet glared at her. “Darty pool, tha' is, Knighty.” Looking away to the valley spread out below the switchback trail to avoid letting her see the hurt in her own eyes. “If ye want t' know sae badly, ask her. I'll nae hold it against ye, but I ask ye to shut yer gob if she gets oopset. We dinna need tha' kinda tension right noo.”
With a nod, Knightengale stood and strode over to the unicorn with an apparent confidence that she didn't feel on the inside. As she walked up, she could hear the sandy mare muttering to herself, calculating the time of day. “Can I talk to you?” she bluntly asked.
Turning around, Paladin saw right away what this conversation would be about. She looked over the aganippe's shoulder to see Ricochet pointedly looking up at the sky and nodding. Returning her gaze to the mare before her after making sure nopony else was within earshot, she said, “Of course.”
Now that the time of confrontation had come, Knightengale seemed less sure of herself and hesitated. “Uh, well. You see, it's about Ricochet...”
“I love her.”
“What?” Knightengale almost shrieked in surprise.
“That's what you expected me to say, isn't it? What's really been preying on your mind lately?” Paladin said matter-of-factly. “Does it make you feel better to hear me say it?” She noted the aganippe's reaction was simply to glare and flex her wings in anger. “No? Good, because we never had that kind of relationship, Ricochet and I.”
Walking to the very edge of the path, the unicorn looked out across the lush valley below them, noting how the shadow of the mountain they climbed inched across the canopy of trees, sending them into darkness. “I'll admit that I had never really considered dating mares until meeting her, but Rico was like... I guess you could say she's like a big sister to me. That's why... that's why I felt such... disappointment at her dismissal from service.” Paladin swallowed the lump in her throat, and it was a long moment before she could find her voice to continue without quavering. “That's why I stayed away whenever I was in town. I couldn't stand to see what she had done to herself.”
“How could you do that to her? What kind of friend are you?” Knightengale hissed at her.
“The kind that kept her from being fired and jailed, but could not stand to see her in person,” Paladin replied. Knowing that her answer was just raising more questions, she added, “Several times Sheriff Tin Star called me in to take her away because he could not handle cleaning up after her drunken brawls or insubordination any longer. Every time, I managed to convince him to give her another chance despite his reservations, but every time it got harder and harder to do so.” She stood there in silence a moment before going on. “I once made the mistake of checking up on her after one such incident. Seeing her sleeping off her drunk in that pig stye she called a home made me physically sick. After that, I made it a point to avoid her if at all possible.”
Turning around, she walked past Knightengale a few paces before stopping. “I'm happy to see that she's found somepony to live for, now. You're very good for her, and I hope you'll continue to stay by her side despite how trying she can be.”
Continuing her path, she walked back to the rest of the group and said, “All right, everypony. Let's set up camp here tonight. I'd forgotten that up in the mountains, nightfall tends to come quicker than the plains. Besides,” she added, looking around at the group, most of whom looked dead tired. “I think we could all do with a little extra rest.”
( . .)
Ricochet watched Silver Script, clad once more in her regalia, work with something akin to awe in her eyes by candlelight, since a campfire had been forbidden as too conspicuous. With a small paintbrush held between her teeth, the earth pony deftly drew tiny runes in magical silver paint just militrots high on her bow. Though the runes were so miniscule, the special paint caused them to disappear almost as fast as they were written, making their creation a tricky proposition at the best of times. Silver Script though, made it look easy, working quickly, but without haste. Each rune flared once upon completion before disappearing entirely, but the former guard knew that such a feat was something that not many unicorns could manage, let alone an earth pony, as evidenced by the scarcity of strong magical items.
Silver Script set the brush down and recorked the inkwell containing the magical paint. “Go ahead and ask,” she said without preamble.
“Whatever it is you've been thinking about as you watched me,” Silver Script replied. She put in her monocle and studied the runes she had just written with a critical eye. “I think we've become close enough that you can at least ask personal questions. Whether or not I'll answer them is up for debate, but as long as I'm not actively runecasting, and they're not phrased rudely, I don't mind hearing them.”
Ricochet blushed prettily for such a huge, muscled mare. “Ah. Wall, I was just wondering how an arth pony casts magic an' all. Thought th' unicarns were the oonly ones tha' do tha'.”
Still examining her work on the bow, the scholar said, “Ah. Question two.”
Silver Script set the bow down and took the monocle out of her eye. Pulling aside the curtain of snow-white mane that hid her ruined left eye, she showed the other mare the milky-white orb along with the scar that bisected it on her face. “Usually, a pony's first question is about this. While I don't care if one is offended by it, I still don't like talking about it.” She let the hair drop back into place, covering the old wound again. “Painful memories. But the second question is almost always yours.
“The answer is a bit of a dichotomy, actually. I don't actually 'cast' magic, though I still make use of it.” Returning the monocle to her eye, Silver Script resumed her examination. “Technically speaking, all intelligent creatures make use of magic in one form or another. That symbol on every pony's flank of which they're so proud is actually an outward manifestation of that magic, and how it is utilized. As far as I know, ponies are the only intelligent species to have an outward manifestation like that. Some have theorized that it is because we had three patrons, but until the princesses say one way or another, it will remain pure speculation.”
“Ye mean I ha' magic in me, an' use it?” Ricochet asked incredulously.
Silver Script nodded, not taking her eyes from her meticulous work. “Mmm. Tell me. When you fire your bow, how do you stand?”
Ricochet arched an eyebrow, wondering where she was going with this line of questions. “On me hind gams, o'carse. I canna fire with me teeth.”
“And how long did it take to learn to do that? How many ponies do you know who fight like that?” the scholar asked.
Putting a hoof to her chin thoughtfully, the former guard replied, “Hmm... I've been using a bow since I was a wee filly, knee-high to a grasshopper. Dunno how long it took tae larn it. As far others, I know perhaps a hooful of others who stand like I do. Moost archers are unicarns like Pally or pegasi.”
“Did you know that an upright stance like that is unnatural for ponies? Most cannot maintain such a position for more than a second or two, and that's with training. This is especially true for a stationary standing position.” Silver Script picked up the bow and sighted along the length up at the night sky. She looked over at the archer and asked, “Don't you think that requires some sort of magic?”
“If ye say so. I dinna see it meself,” Ricochet replied.
Silver Script laid the bow across two rocks, and looked her in the eyes. The taller mare felt caught by that lone, emotionless eye that seemed to bore right into her soul. “Do you not trust magic? Not even the magic that runs throughout your own body?”
Ricochet felt ensnared and helpless before the mare's question, but could not find the will to answer her. The spell was broken when the scholar reared up on her hind legs and brought her forehooves down on the bow in an obvious attempt to break it. Eyes wide, Ricochet dived forward to try to stop her, but knew that she would be too late to stop the destruction of her most prized possession. “No!”
Hooves shod with magical shoes slammed down on the bow with enough force to snap it into kindling. Supported on two sides by the rocks, the bow bent along the grain unnaturally far, almost to the point where the two ends met. Just as Ricochet had finally reached halfway to the bow, the weapon snapped back into shape, sending Silver Script flying backwards several hooves away.
Ricochet picked up the bow, examining it for damage, but could not find any. In fact, all the old scars of damage that had been there before the scholar ever took hold of the bow were slowly mending, leaving it stronger than before. Dumbfounded, the archer whispered, “H- how?”
Silver Script got to her hooves slowly, dusting herself off. “If you cannot trust the magic I imbued into your bow, it will fail you when you need it most. The magic within you is the same way. Cease believing in yourself and you will fail. It's called the Law of Sympathy.”
“Tha'... tha' was impossible. Any bow pushed tha' far should snap, nae matter what it's made oof.” Ricochet said with quiet awe.
Silver Script gave her a quick, disappointed glance as she put her belongings back into her saddlebag, taking care to wrap her regalia in a silk cloth. “I did that just now to prove to you the strength of my runecasting. If even that was too much for you to accept, then perhaps we should stop right now. I have no intention of going to all this trouble for somepony who won't appreciate it, or worse, treat my work like it were a fragile vase. That bow is a weapon of war, and should be used thus. My magic is the same.”
As she turned away to find a sleeping spot, she was stopped by Ricochet's voice. “Thank ye. I dinna mean tae insult ye, I was just...” Silver Script said nothing, just nodded once and walked away to bed down for the night.
( . .)
Paladin stood dumbfounded before the wall overgrown with foliage on the side of the treacherous mountain trail. She had been trying to decipher the writing on it while waiting for the rest of her troupe to catch up, but was so far, unsuccessful. Kitten flapped up to her and landed, turning her head comically at the strange writing. “What's this say, 'abandon all hope, ye who enter here'?”
“Beats me,” Paladin replied with a shrug. For all I know, it may very well be the long lost recipe for somepony's award-winning brownies.”
Silver Script walked up and evenly said, “It's ancient Equish. It says, 'Read here'.”
Paladin arched an eyebrow at her questioningly. “That's it? Just, 'Read here'?”
“What did you find?” Awesomeshine asked as she brought in the last of the group.
Kitten pointed towards the writing and said, “It says it wants us to read here.”
Silver Bell looked confused. “What, like we should break out some books and start a discussion about them?”
“That was just a loose translation,” Silver Script clarified. “A truer translation would be, 'Look ye here, and read the truth'.”
Knightengale gasped, and Ricochet asked her, “What is it, love?”
“It's a phrase used by aganippe in the old days. It means there's a carved message here that only our echolocation can see.” Walking forward, she pulled down some creeping vines, and ran a hoof over the surface. With her mouth hanging open, she looked over the wall.
An almost-but-not-quite perceptible ringing sound could be heard by the ponies, and had them rubbing their ears, as if trying to clear a blockage. “Yeesh. I'm glad I didn't bring Lemongrab along; he'd be halfway down the mountain by now,” Kitten said.
Apparently finished, Knightengale looked to the others. “As near as I can tell, this was once a monastery of my people. When it was abandoned, they set up a number of traps and 'awoke the guardians', whatever that means.”
“You're nae sure?” Ricochet asked.
Knightengale shook her head. “It was written in an ancient form of the language. It's like ancient Equish. A lot of the words and terms have been replaced, or even faded from use entirely. Trying to read it is almost like reading another language.”Pointing up the wall, she added, “There's a secret entrance halfway up the wall, so we don't have to bother with the traps at the front entrance, at least.”
“It must be pretty well hidden. I can't see a thing from down here,” Kitten remarked.
The aganippe nodded. “It can only be opened by singing an old song in a really high pitch. Also, I'd appreciate you all keeping this secret. Non-aganippe aren't supposed to know about this.” After receiving promises of their silence, she flew up the wall until she was about twenty hooves above the trail, and began to sing, using her ultrasonic vocal apparatus. After a minute, a portal opened like an iris, revealing a hexagonal passage. A burst of stale air and dust blew in Knightengale, face, causing her to cough. She landed again, leaving the passage open.
“Open, says me!” Kitten said gleefully, obviously pleased at her pun.
Paladin looked to the still coughing mare and asked, “Could you take me up there so I can scout it out a bit? If it's clear, I'll start lifting the rest up.”
Knightengale nodded and spat out a bit of phlegm. “Sure,” she rasped. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “Sure. Should I wait for you up there or down here?”
Allowing the mare to pick her up under the forelegs, Paladin replied, “Up there. I may need to make a hasty exit.”
“All right. I'll keep an ear out over here. Just... just try to not touch anything you don't have to. This place once belonged to my people, and this feels a little too much like grave robbing as it is,” Knightengale requested.
Nodding as they landed, Paladin silently crept down the tunnel, using the light from the entrance to guide her. Coming to a corner, she encountered the first problem, a lack of light. Casting a simple light spell, she made her horn glow and continued until she came to a four-way split. She cocked her ears, trying to hear, but the only thing that registered was the slight breeze wafting past her. Not willing to risk getting lost without the others, the guard walked back to the entrance. “All clear,” she said to Knightengale and Kitten, whom had joined her.
Looking over the edge, she called down, “All right. I'm going to lift you up one at a time. As soon as you're up, move away from the entrance to make room, but don't go wandering off alone. We must stay in a group, or we may never come out of this place alive.” With that, she telekinetically lifted each of them up. She had considered leaving Silver Bell on the trail, but immediately dismissed the idea. There was no telling what might find her on the trail all alone, or even if they would be leaving the way they came in.
Turning to the others, she quietly said, “Okay, here's the marching order. Knightengale will lead so she can use her echolocation unhindered. I'll follow, then Kitten Caboodle, Silver Bell, Silver Script, Awesomeshine, and Ricochet, you'll bring up the rear in case something comes up behind us. If you have a light source, use it, because it gets dark ahead. Just be sure it leaves your hooves free. Make sure you stay with the group at all times. If you spot or hear something suspicious, alert the pony next to you. Do not, under any circumstances, go after it alone, I don't care what it is. Got it?”
Six heads nodded in agreement, and they all fell into the designated formation, the unicorn's horns lighting up to guide them. They marched along in silence, turning left at the intersection when Knightengale hesitated only a moment before deciding. An orange glow around a bend further on caused her to halt. Without looking back, she whispered, “Douse your lights. There's something ahead.”
The unicorns complied, plunging the tunnel into darkness, but as soon as their eyes adjusted, they too could see the glow. “What do you think it is?” Silver Bell whispered.
“I've got a bad feeling that I know,” Paladin replied. “Come on. Let's keep going, but quietly.” They crept along, more slowly this time until they came to the corner and peeked around it. The tunnel had collapsed into a large, open cavern. The glow came from a pool of magma over a hundred hooves below them. Stone bridges crisscrossed the cavern at many angles and levels. Now that they were this close, the heat from the molten rock was almost unbearably hot, causing them to shrink back where it was noticeably cooler. With a sigh, Paladin said, “I was afraid of this.”
Kitten held her hoof out over the broken lip, and pulled it back with a hiss of pain almost immediately. She sucked on it until Awesomeshine tapped it with her glowing horn, healing the damage. “We canna go in there! We'll roast like carn on the grill!” Ricochet said.
Wordlessly, Silver Script dug in her saddlebag and pulled out three jars, and a fourth, empty one. “I knew we could count on you to have something for all occasions, Sil,” Awesomeshine happily said, nuzzling the mare.
Silver Script gracefully accepted the affection, but did not return it. Instead, she was busy mixing pastes and gels from the three jars into the fourth in carefully measured amounts. After stirring the mixture with a wide, flat stick from her bag, she had to talk around the stick grasped in her teeth, “This will make you immune to the heat for about an hour, so long as you don't get too close to it. Get no closer than twenty hooves. Fifteen would be really pushing its tolerances, and within ten hooves, the unguent will fail utterly.” She spread the paste on the others' foreheads with the stick, leaving herself and Awesomeshine for last. “It's best to leave yourself a margin for error, and just stay away from the magma as much as possible.”
Looking over the edge, Paladin spotted a stone bridge close by. “All right. Same plan as before, just in reverse. I'll go down first and lower you all down one at a time.”
“I can carry somepony; make things go faster,” Knightengale volunteered.
Paladin chewed her lower lip a moment before nodding. “Carry them on your back though. Don't want to risk your hooves getting sweaty and dropping anyone.”
The ponies worked quickly, gathering on a stone bridge, looking all around them. “This place must be extremely well-ventilated. Noxious fumes should have overwhelmed us by now,” Silver Script commented.
With a smirk, Knightengale replied, “What can I say? My people know how to air out a cavern.”
“All right, ponies. Let's get this over with. I'd like to be out of here before Silver Script's unguent wears off,” Paladin said. She started walking across the bridge, towards an opening in the wall.
“I made enough for three more applications, if necessary,” the scholar said as she followed.
Paladin nodded as the group approached the opening. “Still, let's make this quick. No telling when we might need more of that stuff before this journey is over.”
“Indubitable,” Silver Script replied.
Silver Bell sidled up to the guard and whispered, “Sounds like she's starting to warm up to you.”
“Well, I didn't exactly make a good first impression,” she replied. When the dainty mare looked at her quizzically, she just shook her head. “Later,” she promised. A sudden, painful tug on their tails caused them to stop short and give out a yelp. “Ow! What was that for?”
Knightengale dropped their tails from her mouth and said, “You were about to step on a trigger for a trap.” She pointed towards the floor, but one section of the cobbled surface looked much like another to them. With a flap, she landed in front of them, and pointed to one particular stone set in the floor. “I saw it with my echolocation. Not sure what it would have done, but given that lake of molten rock out there, I'd rather not find out.”
Flying up beside her, Kitten gave her a piece of chalk in a mouth holder. “Here you go. Just outline the spots to avoid for the rest of us.”
With a nod of thanks, the aganippe flew on, moving slowly so as to not miss any more traps. The tunnels proved to be a maze, returning several times to the magma chamber, but they noticed that they always were moving upwards, and the passages themselves started to become shorter and shorter. Every so often, Knightengale would outline another stone, or sometimes, an entire section of the corridor as a trap. While the former was a simple matter of avoiding a small area, the latter was more time consuming, forcing the aganippe and Paladin to ferry the others across. Unfortunately, this required them to take on another dosage of the unguent, causing Paladin to frown, though she said nothing.
Eventually, they came to the top of the cavern. A bridge stretched across the magma lake over four hundred hooves below to the largest stalactite any had ever seen. The open portal on the other side of the bridge just fifty hooves away. Paladin hesitantly stepped out, and looked to Knightengale, whom had landed on the bridge, and was looking at it with worry. “There's something there, isn't there?” the unicorn whispered.
Knightengale nodded and whispered back, “Stay on alert, and as stealthy as you can. Hopefully, we can sneak past whatever it is.”
Paladin nodded and passed the word down the line. Stepping carefully, they made their way out on the stone bridge. This one seemed to be in poor repair, with sections on the side missing, and curious divots marring it's surface façade. They were less than halfway across when Silver Bell looked up to find an eye in the ceiling staring at her. She let out a loud gasp which seemed to echo among the stalactites, causing many more eyes to open up and stare at the ponies below them.
The ponies looked at her, then up at the ceiling. It was only because of this that Paladin was able to avoid the small stalactite that landed just centitrots away from where her head was just an instant before. The stalactite crashed into the bridge, gouging a huge divot. The stalactite then unfolded a set of crab-like legs from it's wide end and righted itself, pointy end up, and two eyes looked out at the pony next to it. “Piercers! Move!” Paladin shouted.
This seemed to be the signal to unleash mayhem, as dozens of the creatures fell from the ceiling, trying their best to impale the ponies; ponies who had abandoned all attempts at stealth, and instead opted for making a mad dash for the open entryway at the other end. Each step brought them closer to safety, but each second brought its own dangers as another piercer or two nearly lived up to its name. Paladin's training took over and she erected a wall of forces over the ponies' heads, sending many of the pointy creatures over the side of the bridge as they bounced off the barrier.
Just as Knightengale reached the doorway, the much-abused bridge could take no more and collapsed in the middle, and continued to do so, quickly gaining on Ricochet, who brought up the rear. In their mindless intensity, the piercers continued to rain down, hastening the collapse. The large earth pony lowered her head, and ran faster, pushing into Awesomeshine's rump, speeding her along. “Move filly, move!” she shouted, barely being heard over the noise of the bridge's demise.
The group piled through the doorway, collapsing into a pile at the far wall of the chamber. As they tried to get their heart rates under control, Paladin cried out, “Role call!”
“Silver Bell, here.”
“Kitten Caboodle accounted for.”
“Silver Script. Ow.”
Awesomeshine disentangled herself enough to examine her friend. “Ooo... that's a nasty sprain,” she said, trying to turn the earth pony's forehoof, but not getting far before a hiss of pain escaped her. “Unfortunately, my magical reserves are too low to heal something like this right now. Between the light spells and all this running around, I haven't had time to refresh. For now, we'll just have to make do with a compress and some pain medicine.” She took out some clean bandages and tightly wrapped the hoof. “You'll have to stay off the hoof until I can heal it; think you can manage that?”
Silver Script nodded and put some leaves in her mouth to chew. “I will be fine, thank you.”
“Let's hurry this up, everyone. The sooner we find that Element, the sooner we can get out of here,” Paladin said as the healer finished with the bandage. She pointed to the other side of the room and added, “I found some stairs over there spiraling up. We'll go up in the same order, but this time, Miss Awesomeshine, stay with Miss Silver Script in case she needs your help. Let's move out, ladies.”
They walked up the stairs, this time, Awesomeshine holding back on her light spell to rest up. At a landing on the stairs, they found a large room, whose floor was lined with curious tiles, and the walls and ceiling perforated with holes of various sizes. At the far end stood a pedestal with a now familiar stone orb decorated with a five-sided diamond shape cut into it.
Kitten was about to fly over to it, when Knightengale stopped her. “Easy there. This whole room reeks of a trap.” To prove her point, she threw a stray rock into the room, and a gust of air from the ceiling blew it down to the floor where it clattered loudly. “I suspect the floor is similarly trapped, but with more deadly mechanisms, but my echolocation can tell what's what.”
“You would be right,” Silver Script said, leaning over to examine a tile. She blew on it, clearing it of a thick layer of dust, revealing a carving of Celestia. She motioned them back and pressed the tile with her good forehoof and jumped back as a jet of flame spewed forth from a hole on one side of the room. “Give me a moment while I work out the pattern.”
She examined a dozen tiles near the doorway, noting each of the carvings. Satisfied she had figured it out after a few minutes, she said, “I believe I have it now. There are three different tiles; one of Princess Celestia, one of Princess Luna, and one of another alicorn. The safe tiles to step on are of the third alicorn.”
“A third alicorn?” Kitten queried, “I've never heard of a third alicorn princess.”
“This isn't the time nor the place to discuss this,” Silver Script replied with a shake of her head. “My unguent will be wearing off soon, and we don't know if we'll need that third application. I need to get over to that pedestal and get that stone so we can leave quickly. I suspect even taking it at all will result in another trap being set off regardless, so we'll need to move quickly.”
She stepped out onto the first tile, and when nothing happened, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Paladin said, “I'll be ready to pull you to safety once you have it.”
Silver Script merely nodded and continued along the path of mysterious tiles. Several times, her forced three-legged stance almost caused her to trip, but she caught herself in time. Jumping to the dais, she walked around the pedestal before standing in front of it with a nod. The scholar sat down and looked back. “Ready?” Receiving a nod, she turned back to the orb and drew in a deep breath. With her good hoof, she swept it off the pedestal and into the crook of her foreleg.
Immediately, an orb of force surrounded her and pulled her back, as a deafening CRACK thundered through the room from a huge crack the appeared in the ceiling, sending a shower of dust on all the ponies. Gouts of flame, jets of air, and arrows by the dozens broke over the bubble encasing the scholar as she flew back to the entrance to the room. An ominous rumble shook all the ponies to their core as the crack in the ceiling widened, snaking to every corner.
Rather than set her down again, Paladin ran out of the room, dragging Silver Script along in her bubble. The others quickly followed, heading up the stairs. “Run for it!” she shouted unnecessarily. They reached the top of the stairs as the structure started to collapse behind them. The stairs opened up into a huge room filled with pony diamond dog skeletons, obviously dying, locked in combat. Huge double door opened into a courtyard of some kind, and the ponies breathed in the late afternoon sun, even Knightengale.
Unfortunately, the rumbling had not ceased, and they looked back to see the building they had just exited collapsing. “Celestia, when is it going to stop?” Silver Bell cried out.
“Assume the whole mountain is going to go, and keep moving!” Paladin shouted. They fled the courtyard to find a steep, overgrown path down the mountainside.
“Here's our ticket out!” Kitten said, holding up a battered round shield.
“What?” Silver Bell shrieked. “How is that supposed to get us out?”
“Like this!” Kitten gleefully said, and threw the shield down on the ground, face down and jumped on it. With cheerful “Whee!”, she slid down the path on the shield, laughing at every jarring bump.
“Quick! Everyone find a shield!” Paladin said, setting Silver script down on one, and giving her a shove down the path, the dour mare's eye wide with surprise.
All the ponies did likewise, hopping onto a shield, riding it down the mountainside, most holding on for dear life, trying to outrace the collapse, which seemed intent on taking them with it. It was the most intense twelve minute ride of their lives, as seven ponies fetched up in a gully with a stream running through it.
Kitten sat up and screamed, “That. Was. Intense!” She grabbed the shield and was about to fly up the mountain, when Paladin pulled her down again.
“Wait a minute,” Knightengale said, realization dawning on her face. “You and I can fly. Why did we have to do that?”
“Duh! How many chances are we going to get to outrun a mountain collapsing while riding shield?” Kitten shot back with a huge smile. All the ponies laughed along with her, with the exception of Knightengale, who just banged her head against her shield.