“Sweet Celestia…!” Rarity gasped at the sight ahead of them.
“It really is a sight, isn’ it?” Applejack said with wide eyes, to which everypony − and Spike − nodded in agreement.
It was indeed. The Crystal Mountains, which rested at the northernmost edge of the Wide Plains of Earth, marked the northern border of Equestria. Beyond the Crystal Mountains was the Sea of Eris, and beyond that, the Crystal Empire in the Frozen Circle around the north pole of Harmonia. In a bygone era, the Crystal Mountains marked the boundary between the nascent Equestria and the chancellery which would become the Crystal Empire. The splintering of the Crystal Empire landmass off of the Equestrian continent and settling of it in the Frozen Circle was heavily debated by tectonicists the world over, with very few coming up with plausible ideas as to how it could have happened so suddenly.
Neither was it fully understood how the Crystal Mountains had become so completely encrusted with precious stones of all sorts: diamonds, amethysts, pinkamenas, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, beryls, opals. The study of geologists and thaumaturgists amounted to nothing, leaving it a mystery − and a beauty − for the ages.
“It’s amazing…” Fluttershy piped in.
“I never thought I’d see these in person,” Twilight breathed, her eyes sparkling at the mountains in the distance.
“It’s just a bunch of shiny rocks,” Rainbow Dash muttered.
“‘Just a bunch of shiny rocks’?” Spike asked in indignation, his claws balled into fists and his pupils narrowing to slits. “That’s a veritable buffet right there! So many different types of gems up there…!” Saliva dripped from the corner of Spike’s mouth, his fangs bared and his spines standing upright. “And they’re all ripe for the taking…!”
“Sorry, Spike, but we’re going to have to wait for you to sate that gem appetite of yours,” Twilight said warningly. “We’re going to need to rest up here for a day or so. We might need to clean ourselves up; I can’t imagine what we smell like after three weeks of almost completely steady cantering.”
“Prob’bly smell worse th’n Winona at the end of a hot mid-Solis day,” Applejack mused.
Rarity shivered. “Please, don’t make me think of such horrors, Applejack!”
“Ah don’t think that Winona smells quite that bad, Rarity.”
“Not your dog. Me! I can’t perish the thought of smelling so dreadful…”
“Yeah, it stinks, don’t it?” interjected Rainbow Dash, wearing an uncanny smirk as she cocked her eyebrows with that statement.
Rarity gave the flying Pegasus a withering look.
“That droll statement was so unfunny that I forgot how to laugh.”
Pinkie gasped sharply, clamping Rarity’s muzzle between her hooves. “You forgot how to laugh, Rarity? That’s awful! I can’t imagine what sorta life you’d live not knowing the joy of laughter!”
“Pinkie, she didn’t really―…”
Pinkie ignored Twilight’s statement. “Quick, Rarity! Ask me what the ruby said to the diamond!”
“Pinkie Pie, I hardly see what this―…”
“ASK ME THE QUESTION!”
Recoiling in terror, Rarity whimpered, “What did the ruby say to the diamond?”
Immediately, Pinkie beamed.
“Nothing, silly! Gems don’t talk!”
Rarity let out a short and sharp whinny that only tenuously passed for a laugh. It seemed to satisfy Pinkie, though, because she gave a little neighing giggle as she pronked into the air.
“Guys!” Twilight barked, getting everypony’s attention. “We’re going to need to make camp here, clean ourselves up so that we don’t stink any guards out, and―…”
“Wait. Guards? I thought that there wouldn’t be any so far off from Canterlot!” Rainbow Dash interjected.
“Like I said, the Crystal Mountains are a very secure facility, within which Queen Celestia has stored all sorts of materials that must be kept apart from the average Equestrian. That includes, apparently, Studies on Pundamilia Culture. She must have been planning for this day.”
“Maybe,” Applejack said lowly. “Ya think maybe that’s why th’ estate a’ this ‘Masquerade’ is so shifty about publishin’ it too much?”
“Anything is possible,” Twilight replied, shifting her forelegs in a slight shrug. “All I know is that the sooner we rest up, the sooner we’ll be rested up to get into the Crystal Mountains. And we don’t need any more delays in getting our hooves on that book!”
“Why don’t we listen to my radio a teensy bit?” Pinkie said brightly, balancing the little gumball-radio on a forehoof… while she balanced herself on her other forehoof and flapped her hind legs about in the air, her tail twirling about like some kind of whirligig.
“You know what? Let’s,” Twilight said. “We need to cool down a bit before we work out what we’re going to do. I have a good idea about my part, but we’ll need to talk out what everypony else does before we take another step toward those mountains.”
Pinkie’s gumball-radio had seen a good deal of work during the two-dozen-gross-mile trot, being used to keep updates on the means by which other Equestrians had reacted to daytime’s extended leave of absence, to play music from Octavia Melody & Vın̈yl Scratch’s DJ station and receive clandestine reports that NightMare Moon was likely cracking down on, to lighten the atmosphere in the seemingly endless days when they would do nothing but canter forward through the seemingly endless Wide Plains. They’d taken care to shut it off as they approached towns, villages and farms; it would not do to attract undue attention to themselves.
Reading between the lines of what made it to the radio waves, the band learned through the radio that Unicorns in virtually every other major city, town or village in Equestria were casting heliogenesis spells over each settlement to counteract the everlasting night. The Shadowbolts and the Nightmare Guard were evidently stretched thin attempting to suppress these disparate insurrections. Tellingly, though, the heliogenesis spells were occasionally dispelled by the Nightmare forces who’d struck. Twilight had been encouraged as to her magical strength (her TQ, or Thaumaturgical Quotient) by the rest of her band at this revelation, as NightMare Moon herself was unable to dispel the heliogenesis-generated sun she’d created for Ponyville.
It was also through the radio that the band learned of large groups of ponies who were migrating out of Equestria, to the other hemisphere of Harmonia which was still sunlit… only for inhabitants of said opposing hemisphere to arrive in Equestria and state that that other side of the planet was scorching and dry. While this was news to Twilight and her band, it was not unexpected; the Sun could not have disappeared from the sky everywhere on the planet. The fact of the matter was that one side of the planet being exposed to perpetual sunlight while the other was subject to eternal night did nobody on either hemisphere any favors. With word spreading on each side of the globe as to the return of NightMare Moon, it was unlikely that the selenic demon would only see resistance from within Equestria.
This, together with Pinkie’s continuous and humorous encouragements, was what enabled the band to traverse the two-dozen-gross-mile journey from Ponyville to the Crystal Mountains. Now, Pinkie’s gumball-radio was belting out manic polka music by the Cheese Sandwich Band which elicited light laughter even from Rarity, who so fancied herself as being haute-couture. With this laughter came a lessening in tension, and with this lessening in tension came heavy eyelids and drowsiness.
Quickly rousing herself, Twilight looked over to Pinkie Pie, “Pinkie, do you think you could take the first watch?”
Pinkie hopped into the air with wiggling hooves, “Yuppers~! You bet that I can, Twilight!” She suddenly and uncharacteristically narrowed her eyes. “Nopony will get past my eyes while I’m awake!”
Twilight nodded, knowing that she could trust Pinkie to keep her word. The bubbly pink Earth Pony had proven her mettle during their dozen-and-eight-day trek, as she had eagerly volunteered to take first watch the very first night. Against her better judgment at the time, Twilight acquiesced, if only to keep Pinkie quiet. To her astonishment, Pinkie had kept a vigilant watch from the moment she’d taken her spot around the perimeter to the moment that everypony had awoken six hours later refreshed, bright-eyed and ready for another day of continuous cantering. It was then that Twilight decided that, after Applejack, Pinkie was her choice for first watch.
Maybe she’s just so crazy already that a little sleep deprivation doesn’t mean anything to her, Twilight thought grimly as she drifted off to sleep.
Coming to, Twilight spotted Rainbow Dash flying in a tight circle around the sleeping band; Pinkie had apparently tagged the cyan Pegasus as her second watch. Giving the Pegasus a glance, Twilight received a small but emphatic salute in response.
“What time is it?” Twilight asked.
Rainbow Dash blinked. “Does it really matter? I mean, it’s nighttime all the time, Twilight.”
“Let me rephrase that. How long have we been asleep?”
Rainbow looked up at the starry sky.
“Well… Let’s see… Pinkie woke me up an hour ago so she could get some shuteye… and she told me that she’d hopped around us exactly five-megagross-two-gross-six-dozen-and-one times, so… it’s been six hours.”
“Wait… you know how long a Pinkie jump is?”
The Pegasus shrugged. “When you’ve lived in the same village as Pinkie Pie for as long as I have, you pick things up. And Pinkie Pie jumps, provided that she doesn’t hover with her weird Pinkie magic, are usually in the ballpark of about one-point-one-nine seconds long.”
Twilight rubbed her eyes.
“No, I’m just… weirded out that you’re using dozenals.”
Rainbow Dash narrowed her cerise eyes at Twilight Sparkle.
“Just because I don’t like reading doesn’t mean I’m dumb.”
“Oh yeah?” Twilight smirked.
“Name the five most recent commanders of the Wonderbolts, starting with the most recent.”
Rainbow scoffed. “That’s easy! There’s Spitfire, then there’s…” Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened a little and her teeth clenched together as her mind ground to a halt. She rubbed her hooves together nervously as Twilight arched an eyebrow at her. The Pegasus chuckled nervously, “Can we rain-check on that?”
“Okay, fine, so I’m not that well-read on the Wonderbolts! There, I said it! Happy?”
“I appreciate the honesty,” Twilight commented, “though you could’ve been a bit more upfront about it. If you want to join them, then you’ll need to read up all you can on them, memorize names, places, maneuvers, battles that the Wonderbolts took part in…”
“Sounds like a bunch of egghead stuff. But… Spitfire did say something about that. I always thought the Wonderbolts were just… flyers.”
“I’ll have you know, Rainbow Dash, that the Wonderbolts do more than just fly about leaving contrails of thunder-clouds and sun-bolts. The maneuvers they pull in their shows are based off of the military tactics that were used since the Wonderbolts were founded ell-gross-ell-dozen-and-eleven years ago.”
“They’re that old? Who was the old fossil that founded them?”
Twilight’s eyes almost popped out of her head.
“General Firefly was a great mare, but she was hardly ancient when the Queen banished NightMare Moon. I’ve seen woodcuttings from that time, and she looked quite young. She stood by Queen Celestia’s side after the banishment of NightMare Moon, and oversaw the beginnings of the Equestrian military as we know it… including the Wonderbolts.”
“General… Firefly?” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Sounds like my kinda mare.”
“The way I understand it, she was a very strong-willed mare, always looking for trouble. Not too unlike a certain Pegasus I’ve come to know,” Twilight said lowly, looking at Rainbow Dash from under furrowed eyebrows. “But General Firefly had resolve, and fortitude. She knew when there was a job to do, and she did it. And she never left Queen Celestia hanging.”
“Hey! I waited for you guys! It’s not that I’m too fast; it’s that you guys are too slow!”
“General Firefly was also disciplined, never abandoning her comrades.”
“Look, if you want me to apologize, I already did.”
“I’m not asking for an apology. I just would like for you to consider ponies who aren’t as ‘awesome’ as you claim to be!”
“You asked me to prove I could clear the sky in ten seconds, and I did! I told you that I don’t talk out of my―…”
“Landsakes, Rainbow! Ya tryin’ ta go fer some kinda shoutin’ record or sumthin’?”
With a start, Twilight and Rainbow looked at their company. In all of their shouting back and forth, neither had realized that the rest of their group had woken up. Each seemed quite rejuvenated, even Pinkie Pie, who could not have gotten much more than an hour’s rest.
“How was your power nap, Pinks?”
“Powerful!” Pinkie replied with a backflip into a hoofstand.
“‘Power nap’?” Twilight echoed.
Rainbow arched a prismatic eyebrow at the lavender Unicorn. “Wait. You know everything there is to know about everything ever, but you don’t know what a power nap is?”
“Should I?” Twilight suddenly felt worried, and it showed in her own voice. Over the dozen years of her tutelage to Queen Celestia herself, Twilight Sparkle had read a good number of books, and the volume of reports she had written on them (most were of her own volition, and not mandatory for the Queen’s assignments). But never, in any of the readings she had perused, had she ever seen the word power nap. Had she overlooked something in a book of hers…? Was this ‘power nap’ some sort of secret to unlocking greater power through napping in a particular way? Did these Ponyville ponies really hold some sort of secret power that could help her triumph over NightMare Moon…?
“A power nap’s when you only sleep for, like, half an hour or an hour,” Rainbow Dash explained shortly. “You get all the benefits of a full night’s sleep, but in only, like, half of the time.”
Something in Twilight’s mind snapped. An eye twitched.
“Technically, Rainbow, that power nap a’ yers would only really be ‘bout a quarter or an eighth ‘f a night’s rest.”
“Don’t bring math into power naps, AJ. It won’t end well.”
“Trust me. I know~”
“Only you could bring math into a power nap and cause such mayhem, Pinkie Pie.”
“Well, it all worked out well in the end, didn’t it? Well, I mean, apart from Mr. Cake’s tail getting caught in that clothes wringer, and Auntie Mayor’s silver mane dye going missing, and all the leaves on the Golden Oak Library being painted plaid…”
“What’s shakin’, Fluttershy?”
“I think you girls… should look at Twilight…”
Twilight had zoned out, staring blankly at Rainbow Dash even as she carried on her conversation with the other four ponies. Spike, who had just begun to stir, immediately looked to Rarity, then to Twilight when he saw where the alabaster Unicorn was looking.
Twilight shook her head swiftly, her ears flattening as she did so. She fixed her expression into a more confrontational look at the cyan Pegasus.
“That’s it? A power nap is just what you call a nap where you can’t put in the time for a full six hours of sleep?”
“Hey, don’t get mad at me. I didn’t name it. Besides, I’d thought an egghead like you would already know about power naps. Get more time into the day to read, right?”
Twilight prepared to snap at Rainbow Dash’s cocky expression, but then she processed those last nine words, and a whole new range of scenarios opened up in her mind…
“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight beamed. “I really shouldn’t have gotten mad at you about power naps. They really sound useful for a reader with so little time on her hooves!”
‘I bet they would be,” Rainbow Dash muttered. This did nothing to diminish Twilight’s high spirits. Now she could potentially earn acclaim for being the pony who’d read through A Treatise On The Exchange Of Spell Matrices Through Alicorn Contact faster than anypony! Said treatise was notorious for being particularly sesquipedalian and loquacious even for a treatise, and took an average of three-dozen hours to read in full, so it took most ponies three days at least to read it. With power naps, Twilight could read it in two days! This was…
“Why’re we focusin’ so much on power naps?” Applejack interjected. “We gotta be plannin’ on gettin’ into and outta them there Crystal Mountains!”
Twilight recoiled, shaking her head. She had been so sidetracked by this little discourse that she had almost forgotten about what they had come all this way for.
“Right. Thank you, Applejack,” Twilight said seriously. “You always help keep me on track.”
“Ya cin count on me fer that,” replied the palomino Earth Pony with crossed forelegs.
“So, what’s the plan?” Rainbow Dash asked. “We’ve kinda trusted you knew what to do for the past three weeks. Ready to spill?”
“Just about,” Twilight said sharply, “if you were less blunt about it.”
Fluttershy stepped forward, between Twilight and Rainbow Dash; was it coincidence, or was she interceding on her friend’s benefit? “I’m sorry, Twilight,” she said, “but shouldn’t we be worrying more about the Crystal Mountain plan?”
Twilight bowed her head slightly to the yellow Pegasus, “Es tut mir leid, Fluttershy. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I’m a little sleep deprived myself…? Anyway, here’s the plan…”
Twilight then delineated the plan to her band, etching lines in the ground with one toe on her hoof to represent the boundary of the Crystal Mountains a mile away, their present location, the path that security would head to see to their distraction, and the assumed path they would need to take to avoid the security detail. Twilight had been mulling over the details over the fortnight-and-a-half since they crested the North Equinus Mountains. She’d recalled looking over an outdated overview of the Crystal Mountains the year before. She had no idea how much stronger the security had gotten since then. She knew about − and warned the band of such − silent alarm spells that were placed around many of the most vitally important items kept in stock within the Crystal Mountains. Twilight emphasized, particularly for Rainbow Dash, that caution was of utmost importance, and that quietness and stealth would be needed in the event that stealth spells Twilight had learned under Queen Celestia would not be sufficient for the security they’d meet.
Twilight took in a deep breath. “Well, I think that’s everything we’re going to need to cover. Any questions, anypony?”
The five mares had set themselves down on their haunches, listening to Twilight attentively, though attention could be easily feigned (as Twilight had learned by so many social-climbers back in Canterlot). Sure enough, Rainbow Dash put a hoof into the air.
Twilight sighed. “Yes, Rainbow Dash?”
“You sure you can handle your part of the distraction?”
Twilight paused for a moment, impressed; she had expected a more intricate question out of the cyan Pegasus.
“Well… I’m a more adept Unicorn than Trixie was. I’m sure I can handle it.”
Rainbow Dash blinked, “I guess.”
“Alright. Any more questions?”
Some seconds passed. Nopony else raised a hoof − but Spike raised a claw.
Spike blushed, “Can I go with Rarity?”
Twilight chuckled lightly, “Of course you can, Spike. Rarity, keep a close eye on him.”
“You can depend upon me, darling, to keep Spike safe during this operation.”
Spike trotted up to her, clasping his claws endearingly, “Isn’t she just wonderful, Twilight?”
Rarity giggled shortly, “Oh, Spike, you flatterer!”
Twilight cast her eyes about the band, “Well? Anypony else?”
Silence greeted Twilight, and she gave a sly smile to the group.
“Alright then, everypony. Grab your saddle-bags. We’re gonna get that book!”
Officially, the Crystal Mountains had been first transformed into a storage facility for extremely sensitive items less than a douzaide after the banishment of NightMare Moon. In a confrontation unrelated to NightMare Moon, Queen Celestia came to possess several artifacts brimming with forbidden magic − known to some as dark magic or black magic, though the Queen worked hard to discourage such classification, as neither dark magic nor black magic were inherently evil, and even light magic and white magic could be used towards ill ends. Storing them under Canterlot was considered, but rejected; it was a heavy population center, and a port of call for airships and zeppelins the world over.
The Queen’s eye drifted towards the Crystal Mountains. They were too treacherous for the residents of the Crystal Empire to traverse, and at any rate, the Crystal Ponies usually made port at Vanhoover (then known as Coltumbia) to the west or Manehattan (New Amstirrupdam at the time) to the east anyway.
Over the course of two-gross years, the entirety of the Crystal Mountains’ interior was carved out into a labyrinthine complex save for a four-dozen-and-two-meter-thick façade bolstered by all manner of defensive and repulsive spells, burrowing at least two miles down below the base of the mountains. Laws were passed forbidding the settlement of any land within one-gross miles of the Crystal Mountains in case of a cataclysmic breakdown in security. A token guard force was kept on patrol to maintain the defensive spells, which were constantly being updated to counter advancements in offensive spellwork, and to ensure that the items within remained tranquil.
For not all of the spells were meant to keep things out, but to keep just as many in. As the facility within the Crystal Mountains saw its contents swelling, many artifacts that were possessed of a fell eldritch magic began to stir, and countermeasures had to be developed to prevent them from visiting terror unimaginable upon the ponies of Equestria.
Nopony knew exactly what simmered beneath the surface of the Crystal Mountains, but many terrible stories had spread over the grossenturies by word of mouth and by guardsponies lucky enough to successfully transfer out of Crystal Mountain duty, driven half-insane and living off of a compensatory stipend granted by Queen Celestia herself. Tales of quasi-sentient books that twisted the minds of innocent ponies into bloodthirsty puppets; of mirrors that sucked out the soul of anypony unlucky enough to even glance at her or his reflection; of feedbags filled with ponies’ teeth that turned a pony’s bones into splintered wood when worn; of troughs of water that drain the fluids from anypony sorry enough to drink from it… The list of horror stories could go on forever.
Of course, as time passed, and awareness of how to deal with certain artifacts became more widespread, the deterioration of Crystal Mountain guards’ minds trickled off, though would usually spike shortly after the acquisition of a new magical artifact.
As things presently stood, the two guards on duty at the unassumingly small entrance to the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility were bored out of their respective skulls by the tedium of the far-too-long-lasting night sky.
“So, I just got a message in Horse Code just after lunch,” the orange Pegasus said abruptly, his blue mane sticking in every direction and even hanging over heavy-lidded eyes.
“Really?” replied his compatriot, a hazel-eyed Earth Pony with an earthy coat color and dark-brown mane. His eyes had shadows under them as well; neither had gotten good sleep in weeks, and orders were often slurred and repeated angrily as a result. “What’d it say, Flash?”
“Said that NightMare Moon came back, stopped the Sun on the other side of Harmonia,” Flash said flatly. “Don’t that explain this, Blade?” He nodded lazily out to the gleaming stars and glowing Moon.
“Oh,” Blade said lazily. If either was at their full faculties, the return of NightMare Moon and the eternal night would have seen a far more animated response. As it stood, they knew that they would be better served saving their energy in case anypony or anything got too close to the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility.
Not that anypony ever bothered to come up here. Not even dragons looking for gems for their hoards bothered to attempt any sort of attack on the Mountains. It really was as dull as a worn horseshoe these days up at the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility.
“You know,” Blade sighed, “sometimes I wish that my special talent was tempting fate, so that I could say I really wish that something would happen out here at the Crystal Mountains, and then, bang! Something happens.”
Flash only nodded and gave a grunt of acknowledgement.
It seemed like fate had a sense of humor.
A tremendous ursa major, bright pink in color, a white six-pointed star gleaming on its forehead, reared up as if out of nowhere, bellowing to the heavens a half a mile off to the east. Its claws were as thick as tree trunks, its teeth wider than a draft horse’s torso, its gaping mouth wide enough to swallow a six-pony house.
Flash Sentry and Valiant Blade’s hearts leapt into their throats, and adrenaline shot through their bodies. Any malaise that had hung over them moments before had vanished. All that was left was an exhilarating terror pumping through their veins as they faced each other.
“Valiant Blade, alert the security detail! They probably felt the roar in their ribcages, but tell them anyway!”
Valiant Blade smiled in spite of the situation, saluted Flash, “Wilco!” and galloped back into the Storage Facility. The ursa major continued to prowl about the exterior of the Crystal Mountains, too close to the entrance for comfort; if it figured out there was an entire detail of ponies inside this mountain, it would not rest until it smashed the mountains apart to feed upon them.
Within minutes, Valiant Blade had returned with every able-bodied mare and stallion in the Storage Facility, saluting Flash Sentry. The herd of guardsponies galloped − or flew in the case of the Pegasi − towards the ursa major in the hopes of driving it off from the Crystal Mountains.
After five minutes, when they had gotten within a stone’s throw of the ursa major, a shadowy band slipped up to the entrance of the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility.
“We made it!” Twilight beamed.
“That worked smashingly, darling!” said Rarity smilingly in spite of her ragged mane and rough hooves.
“Well, Ah’ll be…” Applejack looked at the carven cavern leading into the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility. It was not lit up by any means, but there could be no mistaking this for any naturally formed cave. The walls of gray stone were exactly parallel with one another, as was the earthen floor with the ceiling, leading deep into the mountain. “This is some quality Earth Pony work…”
“I think I should warn you guys,” Twilight said sharply, getting everypony’s attention. “If what I remember about the Crystal Mountains is still accurate, there are all sorts of evil magic artifacts being stored here. Most of them should be under containment, but… just don’t touch anything, no matter how much it tempts you.”
“‘How much it tempts us’…?” Applejack echoed.
“Darling, what could possibly be so tempting?”
Twilight hesitated. She was not exactly inclined to tell them exactly what could be found in the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility, nor was she entirely sure what could have been introduced into the mountainous warehouse since she had read about the Crystal Mountains. She knew that, as a filly, she was always terrified of the idea that NightMare Moon was hiding under her bed at night. Finally, her mother set her mind at ease, her alicorn lighting up blue to show that there was nothing there but a pair of shiny ping-pong balls that she’d taken for eyes. Knowing that imagination was more powerful than words, she took a deep breath.
“You don’t want to know what could tempt you down there,” she said as she gestured into the mountain with her horn.
“Uhh, yeah. She does,” Rainbow Dash interjected. “And I’m pretty sure we all do.”
“Ah’m fairly certain that what’s down in these here Crystal Mountains is better worth not knowin’ about.”
“Thank you for your continuing support, Applejack,” Twilight said brightly. “Now, everypony after me.”
And with that, Twilight led the path down the tunnel, followed by Spike, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy.
The tunnel sloped down slightly, at a steady angle set by Earth Ponies probably long dead, lit by the occasional grate in the ceiling revealing a dwimmer-light cast by Unicorns probably long dead. Though the tunnel itself was not long, only a couple gross of hooves, the trip seemed to take an eternity. There was no way of knowing what was happening outside except judging by the ursa major outside, which was no accurate barometer of how much time they had to search for Studies on Pundamilia Culture. Their every hoofstep seemed to echo with exceptional clarity, as though the very Mountains themselves were trying to alert the guardsponies as to intruders.
“Umm… Twilight…?” Even Fluttershy’s hushed voice seemed to be magnified in the tunnel.
“Will… will the guardsponies know something is up when they can’t touch your ursa major?”
“Well, my ursa major should be intelligent enough to avoid being touched by them.”
The hoofsteps of Twilight’s companions stopped, and she turned to see why. The looks on their faces, illuminated dimly in the faint dwimmer-light of the tunnel itself, were of shock and astonishment.
“You mean… that there bear-titan outside’s… alive?” Applejack stammered.
“Not exactly, Applejack,” replied Twilight. “It might be acting out in ways that would prevent those guards from touching it either physically or magically − better they suspect an unusually fast ursa than know that it’s an illusion − but it’s not in any way self-aware, which is a hallmark of something that is truly alive.”
Rarity blinked. “Darling, I do not believe that is quite how Trixie Lulamoon’s illusion spell worked.”
“Oh? An’ what makes you an expert on illusion magic, Rarity? All them airs ya put on each day?”
“Ha ha ha, very funny, Applejack. As I was saying, I have a very keen eye for how ponies’ minds tick. It’s how I determine what a mare is looking for in a saddle when coming to my Carousel Couture. And though I know that your ursa major is a dead ringer for hers − even being the color of your dwimmer shimmer, like hers was − it behaves altogether more autonomously.”
“Well… I guess I might have subconsciously improved on Trixie’s illusion magic, having never actually seen her doing it, but―…”
“Wait. So… you mean you actually wrote a new spell, darling…?”
“See what I mean, Mom?” Spike piped in, spreading his arms wide. “You’re amazing! No wonder Queen Celestia picked you as her student!”
Twilight’s ears flopped as she felt herself smiling stupidly and flushing pink. “I’m not all that special. The Queen just took me in so that I could train myself up enough to turn Mom and Dad back to normal…”
“Not just that, judging by the string of clues she’s left us,” Rainbow Dash cut in.
“Ah agree. Doncha think it a might bit odd, sugarcube, that she’d put so much faith in ya if’n she didn’ think you were a real swell magic-doer?”
Twilight turned away, facing back down the tunnel. “You guys are just saying that to make me feel better about myself…”
“Of course we are!” Pinkie suddenly popped up in front of her, despite Twilight not having heard her move. “It’s because we all like you!” Once more, Pinkie Pie administered a rib-crushing hug to Twilight’s barrel, and once more Twilight felt like she was being hugged by a very fuzzy octopus. Looking down, she saw that Pinkie’s forelegs seemed to be bending fluidly around her multiple times, as if they had no bones. And that wasn’t all…
But Pinkie had already let go, and had immediately grabbed Twilight’s face in her really rather rubbery hooves, her spirally blue eyes filling Twilight’s vision.
“It’s not wrong to wanna make somepony happy just to make them happy, Twilight, you silly filly! We’re your cheering squad when you need it! Don’t forget it!”
Looking over her shoulder at the mares standing behind her and offering her each of their unique smiles − Applejack sloppy but also steady, Rainbow Dash irreverent and fangy, Rarity graceful and strong, Fluttershy small and sincere − Twilight felt her heart singing in her barrel. She never felt such kinship with any ponies before. After everything she’d seen with all the social climbers and hooflickers before and especially after becoming Queen Celestia’s personal protégée, she had foalishly assumed that everypony everywhere was exactly the same. There was no reason that anypony wanted to know you unless they could get something out of it. The sole exception seemed to be Queen Celestia herself; such a paragon of patience and kindness that even the meanest and most petty pony could easily see the light of the world just by meeting her. Spike had the reason of seeing Twilight as his mother.
But these ponies… they wanted to be her friend… just for her being her!
Twilight shook her head.
“We better get going,” she said clinically. “We’ve wasted enough time in this tunnel as it is.”
But as they continued their trot down the tunnel into the hub of the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility, Twilight wore a gentle smile on her muzzle, and tears of warm joy slid slowly down her face.
The central hub of the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility was a wide perfectly circular chamber hewn out of solid rock, lit by intermittent torches along the wall. Between each pair of torches, enchanted to glow whiter and brighter than normal fire, was a hallway leading deeper into the facility in every direction. At the opposite end of the hub from the entryway was a ramp leading up to higher rings in the hub, each one also featuring bright torches and hallways into further subsections. At the right-hoof corner of the hub was a larger hallway, obviously leading into the living quarters for the guardsponies. Despite the brightness, or perhaps because of it, the atmosphere was very unfriendly, as though somepony or something did not want them there.
“Ah’ll be…” breathed Applejack. “This place just keeps surprisin’ us…”
“Where do we even start?” Rarity gasped.
Twilight examined one hallway entrance carefully. Etched into the wall above one of the torches were the words AQUASTRIA ACQUISITIONS.
“Aquastria…?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Somepony must not’ve paid enough attention in spelling.”
“No, it’s… this is where artifacts from the undersea kingdom of Aquastria are kept,” Twilight explained.
“I do believe I have heard of that,” Rarity said. “Is that not the realm of Mermares and Sea Ponies?”
“It is, Rarity. And that means that these storage archives are categorized alphabetically.”
“So where do we start the search?” asked Fluttershy.
“If I had to guess…” Twilight scanned around the hub, squinting at the lettering by each torch. After a few moments, her alicorn glimmered pink, a thin dwimmer-beam shining out at each distant etching by each hallway, the letters glowing pink briefly. After a quick sweep, Twilight’s dwimmer-beam settled upon a singular hallway on the second level, the letters gleaming out for everypony to see: PUNDAMILIA ACQUISITIONS.
“There!” Twilight shouted triumphantly.
“Alright! Let’s go!” Rainbow Dash cheered, gearing up for a flying charge down the Pundamilia hallway.
The clearing of Twilight Sparkle’s throat stopped Rainbow Dash dead. Her ears flattened as she grinned nervously, floating to the ground and innocently nibbling at one of her primaries.
Twilight smiled, “That’s more like it. Everypony after me!”
She cantered to the Pundamilia corridor with her band of companions at her heels.
The hallway into the Pundamilia section had entered into another hub of sorts. For this was how the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility was laid out; the central hub branched off into smaller hubs that themselves branched off to the expansive storage chambers throughout the Crystal Mountains. As such, many of the branching pathways could lead on for miles in any given direction, a simple but proven defense against any aspiring thieves; the isolation could often be enough to prompt a ne’er-do-well to turn themselves in out of desperation to simply see somepony else again.
So when the path started to curve onto its side ahead of the band, most of them became tremendously unsettled.
Pinkie Pie just giggled, “The hallway’s all twisted~”
“Twilight, I think I’m going quite mad!” Rarity breathed. “The corridor seems like it’s… twisting.”
“That’s a part of how this facility was designed,” Twilight explained, sounding a little uneasy herself. “Special gravity alteration spells were devised exclusively for this Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility, so that the storage chambers would not necessarily have to be level with one another. Each hallway twists and turns at any angle the designers pleased, regardless of the gravitational center of Harmonia itself. It’s to disorientate anypony who’d be daring enough to come all the way up here and and try to steal something they shouldn’t.”
“Well, it’s really working,” Rainbow Dash said warily, floating in the middle of a twist in the hallway, trying to remain upright with the hallway’s original orientation. “I feel like I’m flying sideways…”
“Ya should land on the floor an’ give walkin’ a try, Rainbow,” Applejack sighed. “Yer just makin’ things all complicated-like fer yerself.”
Rainbow Dash gave a look of bitter defiance to Applejack before alighting on the stony floor, kicking spitefully at the smooth surface.
“We all have our burdens to bear, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said. “We must progress forward in spite of, and because of, the troubles that we will face.”
“Yeah, yeah, I gotcha. No need to sound like some Dark-Horse Ages philosopher or something.”
“That’s… an oddly specific simile, coming from you,” Twilight observed. Instantly, Rainbow’s muzzle scrunched up and her pupils narrowed, prompting a round of laughter from her fellow members of the band.
“Umm, I’m sorry, but… shouldn’t we be moving on?” asked Fluttershy.
Twilight started, “Yes, we should! You shouldn’t apologize for it, Fluttershy. We really do need to be moving along! But… slowly, if you please. With gravity as it is, you really don’t want to go too fast, or you’ll get sick or dizzy.”
In spite of Rainbow Dash’s grumbling at being “grounded”, the band progressed down the hallway even as it twisted around such that if one of them were able to look up through the ceiling, they would be able to see Harmonia’s core dozens of grosses of miles straight “up”. The progressing gravity spells placed upon each hoof’s length down the corridor were meant to gradually ease a pony into a new gravitational orientation from the normal, but not so gradually as to be unnoticeable. Particularly sensitive guardsponies in the past had gotten quite nauseous in passing through especially sharp twists and turns. It had since become an unspoken rule of the facility to take the corridors at a leisurely trot and keep one’s gaze down so as to avoid vertigo. This corridor to the archive of Pundamilia artifacts twisted around itself by one-gross-six-dozen-and-nine degrees counterclockwise, before gradually sloping down into the very roots of the Crystal Mountains. This meant that, after the twisting, the corridor would seem to slope upwards to an angle of six-dozen-and-eight degrees off of the perceived horizontal. Skittish or hasty ponies could be dizzied by the nature of the gravity spells.
The progression down the corridor was handled better by some than others. Rarity kept staring down at her own hooves, almost bumping into Twilight as one either slowed down or the other sped up. Fluttershy trotted forward very slowly, to the point that Rainbow Dash flapped over behind her − staggering a little at the vertical shifting in gravity − and pushed her along with her head against Fluttershy’s flank. Pinkie was bouncing off of the walls and ceiling, seemingly unencumbered by the changes in gravity as Twilight could swear that Pinkie occasionally walking along the walls or ceiling. At some point, Twilight thought that Pinkie was trotting along with her left hooves on the wall and her right hooves on the ceiling! Each time Twilight double-taked, and Pinkie was suddenly on the floor with the rest of her band. Twilight put it down to her experiencing delusions because of all the gravitational shifts she was walking through and gave it no further thought.
After some minutes of trotting down an increasingly darkening corridor, never knowing if the hallway would take another twist or turn in some other disorienting direction, the band of seven suddenly stepped into pitch blackness. Twilight’s ears perked as she heard her hoofsteps echoing more loudly than they had in the corridor. They had entered a large space.
“I think we’re here,” Twilight whispered to her companions.
The instant the words had left her mouth, the room lit up brilliantly. After the progressively dimming dwimmer-lights in the hallway ceiling, the bright-white torches encircling the room were practically blinding. Twilight’s foreleg flew up over her eyes, and some stumbling behind her told her that the other six were doing the same.
Blinking the spots out of her eyes, Twilight took in the Pundamilia archives hub. It was smaller than the central hub of the Crystal Mountains facility, but more decorated, and with no branch off to living quarters. There were ominous-looking wooden masks with wide empty eyes and long muzzles. Deadly-looking spears, tipped with barbed teeth rather than forged steel, rested against racks between torches and hallways. At the opposite end from the entryway stood a pair of statues like ponies, but with grooves along their bodies at intervals, manes that pointed straight out not unlike mohawks, and rather broader muzzles than ponies.
“Zebra culture,” Twilight said lowly.
“It’s… rather frightening,” Rarity stammered.
“Actually,” Twilight motioned towards the wooden masks, “those masks are supposed to mean hello and welcome.”
“They don’t look very welcoming,” Rainbow Dash blurted out, her ears flattened slightly.
“It’s welcoming to Zebras,” Twilight said. “It’s the culture that they’re used to, and we have to respect it, as different as it may be to us.”
Eyes spread out to the six corridors branching out from the Pundamilia archives’ hub.
“Okay,” Twilight continued, “We each take our own corridor, and investigate for a book titled Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”
She lit up her alicorn.
“Everypony, touch your heads to my horn.”
“Why?” Rainbow Dash asked. “What’s this all about, purple-smart?”
“It’s a simple signal spell I learned,” explained the purple Unicorn. “I’m going to place a small enchantment on each of you, which will be lifted when one of you says The striped book, by hook or crook. That will be psychically broadcast to each of the rest of us, a signal that we should all return to this hub.”
“Will it hurt?” Fluttershy asked timidly.
“It don’ matter if it hurts,” Applejack said decisively, stepping forward. “Ah’ll do it.”
“That’s the spirit,” Twilight said with a joyfully triumphant tone, and she touched her shimmering alicorn to Applejack’s forehead. Their eyes met, and Twilight could count all the freckles on Applejack’s scarred muzzle. As the palomino stepped back, Twilight asked, “How do you feel, AJ?”
Applejack lightly rubbed a forehoof against the side of her head, a faint pink light glowing from the roots of her mane, “It tingles a might bit, but Ah cin bear it.”
With some mild trepidation, each of the four other mares trotted up to Twilight, one by one, starting with Rarity. Twilight’s pink dwimmer shimmer glimmered at the roots of each mare’s mane as she stepped away.
“Okay,” Twilight nodded, before turning to each of the six corridors in turn, “Everypony, pick a branch-off and look for the Studies on Pundamilia Culture book.”
“I’m going with Rarity!” Spike interjected brightly.
Trading nods and exclamations of assent, the seven split off down into the six corridors in search of Queen Celestia’s next clue to unlocking the Elements of Harmony and retaking Equestria.
The ursa major just would not go down!
It was not due to lack of trying for the part of the guardsponies. It just moved… too fast. Too fast for an ursa major. Flash Sentry chalked this up to their being sluggish with so little activity up here in Equestria’s Far North. What was truly baffling was how it seemed to become sluggishly slow when it was about to strike somepony, giving them just enough time to evade. Then somepony would lash out with a dwimmer-beam or a flying buck, and it would evade too quickly once more.
“Something’s not right here,” Valiant Blade huffed to Flash, bracing himself for another assault on the ursa. “No bear-titan can move that fast…”
“I know,” Flash replied. “There’s something off about this ursa.”
Before he could think any further on the situation, a boom echoed from the south. In a flash, a band of stars leading back to Canterlot blacked out, and dark contrails swirled around the ursa which went deathly still, as if it were stuffed by some vile Griffon of Orlalvov, before it dissipated into pink mist and faded away.
Flash, Blade and their comrades barely had time to comprehend what had unfolded in front of them before three dark-purple shapes landed sharply upon the plains. They were three Pegasi, in flight suits not unlike the Wonderbolts. They looked altogether less friendly and more formidable, and the mare at the head, with a wild blue mane stepped forward to Flash Sentry.
“Well, it doesn’t look like these guards will be of any use to the Queen,” she hissed through a mouth of fangs. She lowered her flight goggles below her muzzle, revealing golden eyes with slitted pupils narrowed in murderous intent. “They can’t see through such an obvious illusion!”
Nightingale’s partners bared their teeth as well, and Flash’s blood ran cold.
The hallway was all straight forward and stuff. To Pinkie Pie, straightforward was boring. Why do something straightforward when it can be all crooked and wonky and fun? So, she bounced down the twisting hallway with all-encompassing glee, ricocheting off of the walls and ceilings shamelessly, sometimes bouncing in opposite directions at once just to laugh at the look that would be on physics’ face if they had one. Really, obeying the same laws of physics as ponies did wore her down sometimes.
Pinkie sung a song of friendship and laughter and love and smiles to herself, which for Pinkie Pie meant singing for all the world to hear. Ignoring the social norms of not being a noise polluter, and flagrantly breaking the laws of physiology and gravity in such a way that Twilight Sparkle would be driven insane if she bore witness to this, Pinkie Pie found herself in the archive within a minute.
The hallway expanded slightly on what ponies would call all of Pinkie’s sides, alcoves every ten paces down the hallway winding downwards into Harmonia’s core, dwimmer-shields that were meant to prevent ponies from touching or interacting with their contents. For inside each alcove was an artifact of Pundamilia, and inside each artifact was an eldritch energy that sought to twist the minds of ponies into puddy.
Pinkie didn’t care in the slightest. So she reached through each dwimmer-shield as though they were not there and doodled funny faces on each of the snarling masks, produced some of her fluffy balloons from her flanks and blew them up and tied the strings around the grasping claws of loathsome statues, pulled her custom-built party cannon out from one of her saddle-bags and sent confetti and party favors flying both up and down the corridor at the same time, sprucing up every horrible thing in the hallway that she could find (and even some that she couldn’t, just in case).
This place was just so gray, just like the rock farm.
It really needed some fun colors, then everypony would smile!
Even for a steadfast mare like Applejack, it still took quite a bit of effort to avoid looking too intently at any of the artifacts to her left or her right. There were some downright peculiar doohickeys hereabouts: amulets made out of yellowing teeth and opals; a staff made out of what had to be bone; a shrieking mask with ivory fangs, headed by a sign stating WARNING: Has claimed the lives of two-dozen-and-three guardsponies; bulky statues of looming apes with wide jaws and clutching not-claws. If she was not mistaken, it almost seemed as though the gleaming gemstones set as eyes in statues were watching her. Thoughts that were not her own were whispering in her mind, trying to persuade her to break the magic shields and set them loose.
Applejack shivered. The hallway seemed to stretch on for eternity in front of her and behind her. Her hoofsteps echoed into infinity. She might have been the last mare on Harmonia for all she knew. She didn’t even hear the hoofsteps or voices of the others anymore. Had they fallen victim to the weird magic of these Pundamilia voodoo whatchamacallits…?
She steeled herself. This was not a good line of thought to take. If Applejack of the Apples was the last of this band, she would see its goal through to the end, if it was the last thing she’d do. Twilight Sparkle trusted her to see this task done, and she would stand by Twilight even if she could not be by the Unicorn’s side.
Folks back in Ponyville called her “the loyalest of friends, the most dependable of ponies”.
Stepping forward further into the dark, Applejack resolved to put her bits where her mouth was.
“Urgh… This is nothing like they made it sound in Daring Do…”
Rainbow Dash was beside herself with boredom. She could hear the voices of these things hissing free us this and unlimited power that, and really, what was it all about? She knew it was all a ruse, so why were they even bothering? The way that A.K. Yearling made it sound, Rainbow Dash would have thought that they would be controlling her mind to draw her in and disrupt the magical shields protecting them from less-than-awesome ponies and let them out and was Rainbow actually almost touching her muzzle and a hoof to a shield?
Withdrawing sheepishly, Rainbow gave a nervous laugh to herself.
“Yeah, that’s totally not creepy,” she muttered to herself. “I totally didn’t just almost kill myself.”
Guess I better eat my words, she thought. I guess this… this toothy-spear-thing was trying to get me to pull it out. I guess things really are more like Daring Do than I thought…
Bristling from her cannons up to her withers, Rainbow Dash shook her head violently, her mane settling even more unsettled about her neck than it had been previously.
She really wasn’t much of a daredevil for this sort of thing as Daring Do was.
Archaeology was for eggheads.
Whimpers echoed up and down the corridor. Fluttershy was quite overwhelmed by all of the scary Zebra things that were being stored here. Of course she wanted to help Twilight bring back Queen Celestia and the Sun, but this… this place… there was so much hate all around her!
Fluttershy froze. Did one of those statues just… turn?
Her heart leapt into her throat. It couldn’t have moved! But… maybe it did move! Fluttershy had never seen a creature like whatever the statue represented. It looked like a bull, but thinner and wilder. A sign above the alcove read CAUTION: This wildebeest statue has driven scores of Zebras and guardsponies incurably insane.
Rage filled her heart, her eyes meeting the sapphires in its head. Something changed in the light of those gems as she glowered at it.
“How dare you do that to those Zebras, and those ponies, and their families and friends? All that pain and misery you’ve put them through, and for what? You should be ashamed of yourself!”
The wildebeest statue did not budge − it was a statue − and Fluttershy quickly withdrew from it.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re… just a statue…”
But the atmosphere of this wing of the Pundamilia storage wing had changed. What had previously been an angry and oppressive air about the room had become more withdrawn. Radiating out past the wildebeest statue went a wave of fear and regret, and Fluttershy felt that she was no longer unwelcome here.
“See? If you can’t do something nice, it’s better to not do anything at all.”
“So, Rarity… how’ve things been for you lately?” Spike asked in his most casanova-ish voice.
“I’m sorry, Spike, but now’s not really a good time to talk,” Rarity said in her most sympathetic tone.
Spike’s face fell. “Oh. I see. You don’t like me.” He kicked ruefully at the stone floor, looking morosely at the wall for scraps of gem.
Rarity placed a cloven hoof under the mulberry drake’s chin, drawing his eyes up to hers. “No, Spike! You mustn’t let yourself believe that. Of course I like you!”
His entire demeanor changed immediately, his slitted pupils widening to either sides of his eyes and his smile almost splitting his head in two. “Really?”
Rarity smiled, “Really. It’s just… we’re on a bit of a tight schedule here, helping look for that book for Twilight. I’ll promise you, Spike: we can talk together, pony-to-pony − err, rather, pony-to-dragon − after we’ve emerged and found a place to settle down. Promise?”
With Spike’s spirits lifted, Rarity faced down the hallway once more.
“Now, remember, Spike, that we’re looking for a book titled Studies on… Pundamilia… Culture…”
Spike turned from facing the left-hoof side of the corridor to face Rarity… who was enraptured by a golden statue of an ornately dressed ape wearing a savage grin of fangs, clutching in its not-claws the biggest ruby Spike had ever seen!
Rarity’s eyes shimmered with the crimson glow of the ruby. It was so big… so beautiful… It had to be over ten-and-a-half-megagross carats! And it was just sitting there, gathering dust, nopony wanting it or needing it… Nopony would miss it… It deserved a better home than this…!
Spike watched Rarity warily. She was almost pulling herself forward towards the ruby, an odd glow in her eyes that Spike didn’t like. This wasn’t right. That ruby looked delicious, but there was just not something right about this. It was down here for a reason…!
Looking up at the frame above the statue and ruby, Spike read a sign that stated The ape should NEVER be parted with its ruby. The fact that the word NEVER was triple-underlined set Spike’s heart at marathon speeds. In all his time living with his mom Twilight, triple-underlining meant that it was of absolute utmost importance. Then again, Twilight triple-underlined almost anything, but even so…
“Snap out of it, Rarity! That ruby’s not good! Leave it alone!”
Rarity’s ears twitched at hearing her name, but she continued to trot forward as if hypnotized. Spike began to cry; this was not good for Rarity. Even if the dwimmer-shield in front of the ape statue didn’t kill her, the ape statue itself most likely would…!
He gulped. “I’m sorry, Rarity…”
He grabbed her tail and pulled as sharply as he could.
Rarity let out a high squeak as she jerked back from Spike’s pulling, and she almost fell backwards on top of the little drake. Scrambling backwards from the fallen alabaster Unicorn, Spike braced himself against the wall as she staggered back to her hooves, staring at the ape statue’s base. Would she hurt him…?
“Please don’t hurt me, Rarity…”
She turned to face him, slowly, mechanically.
Tears were flowing down her smiling muzzle, leaving black eyeshadow trails.
“Why would I hurt you, Spike? You saved me from that wretched statue,” she said, her soft tone shifting briefly to venomous as she glanced back at the ape statue. “I felt compelled… to take the ruby it had there… It’s just too big to leave down here… But it’s not mine to take, or to give, is it?”
Spike sniffled, “I’m still sorry I hurt your tail.”
Rarity twitched her leonine tail gingerly, “Well, I will admit that it will be a little sore where you grabbed it, but… I could have been hurt a lot worse.”
Suddenly Spike, who was twiddling his thumbs, found himself in a periwinkle dwimmer shimmer, Rarity bringing him in towards her, her right foreleg wrapping around his small torso as she nuzzled him. Spike’s round face flushed pink as he smiled stupidly at her warm touch.
“I do feel like I owe you my life, Spike, my little knight in shining armor.”
She opened her eyes, looking at the alcoves opposite the ape statue…
One of them did not have a dwimmer-shield.
And on a small plinth inside it was a thick book with wooden bindings and yellow pages. Its title, etched into the cover, was Studies on Pundamilia Culture.
“What is it, Rarity?” Spike asked concernedly.
Rarity beamed at Spike broadly. If it wasn’t for him saving her hide here, they might have passed this by and not even noticed it. She really did owe him a real treat, one that she did not have to pass through a deadly dwimmer-shield for. She would if she could, but for now…
Rarity’s words had a peculiar echo to them as she said, “The striped book, by hook or crook.”
A faint numbness trickled down Twilight Sparkle’s alicorn as she looked at each of the successive Pundamilian artifacts. At first she dismissed it as some sort of mental intrusion by one of the terrorful sources of magic in this corridor. But then she heard a distinctly ursine roar in her mind’s ear, and she knew:
Her ursa major had been extinguished.
Time was limited now. Any minute now the Crystal Mountain guardsponies would return to their posts throughout the facility, and Twilight and her band would be trapped in her until they were eventually found, by which point the guards would most certainly have switched their allegiance to NightMare Moon, and the seven of them would be brought to the chopping block in public executions as a testament to the folly of rebelling against the Night and Spike would die and
“The striped book, by hook or crook.”
Rarity’s voice echoed in Twilight’s head and presumably the heads of each of the other four mares in their band. The fact that she’d said those words, which Twilight chose because of the unlikelihood of anypony else using them in casual discourse, could only mean one thing: she’d found the book Studies on Pundamilia Culture.
The timing really could not have been better.
Without sparing another look further down the corridor, Twilight turned and galloped as quickly as she could back down the hall towards the hub. The nauseous spells of passing through the twisting, turning gravity orientation deviances meant nothing to Twilight; all that mattered was reuniting with her friends, getting out of here and deciphering the Queen’s message.
Reaching the hub, shaking her head to clear out the urge to heave. Applejack and Pinkie Pie were already waiting there, the latter bouncing back and forth from her left and right hooves.
“Got here as fast as we could, sugarcube,” Applejack said as Rainbow Dash flew out of the third corridor. “Seems like Rarity beat us to the buck.”
Pinkie Pie was singing a song about how working together meant that everypony could laugh together. The first hallway, the one she had searched down, was streaming with confetti and streamers and blue and yellow balloons. Blinking, Twilight realized that, once more, Pinkie was short some balloons on her flanks.
“Uhh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash said quickly. “You might wanna straighten your cutie marks out.”
“Oh? Really?” Pinkie said, looking over either shoulder and twisting her flanks slightly to get a good look at her now-asymmetrical cutie marks. “Okie-dokie-lokie~!” She took in a deep breath, deeper than Twilight thought she’d ever seen anypony taking, her cheeks swelling as her face twisted in consternation, concentrating and straining as though she were trying to pass a kidney stone…
Pop! With a sound not unlike a party popper, the missing balloons popped into existence back on Pinkie’s flanks. With a gleeful smile, Pinkie inspected her renewed cutie mark and gave a joyful cheer and leap.
“Guys, Rarity found the book! Rarity found the book!” Spike called out as he ran out from the fifth corridor, Rarity cantering closely behind. A wood-bound book levitated in her dwimmer shimmer.
“Excellent work, Rarity, Spike!” Twilight said brightly as Fluttershy trotted out of the fourth corridor. Twilight took Studies on Pundamilia Culture in her own dwimmer shimmer and slipped it into one of her saddle-bags. “Now that we’re all here… we have to leave. Schnell. The ursa major’s been dispelled.”
Her six addressees suddenly went stiff with shock, their pupils shrinking to points. Twilight lowered her head slightly, “Spike, get on my back. I can’t wink out because of anti-winking wards, so we’re going to have to run.”
The band did not need telling twice. Spike bounded up to his surrogate mother and leapt onto her back without her kneeling over for him, as she had already begun a full gallop straight out the hallway leading back to the main hub, the other five mares hot on her heels. The sickening feeling of galloping at full speed through the gravity shears did not affect the six adrenaline-charged ponies. What mattered more than anything was getting the book on Pundamilia culture out so that the Queen’s message could be decrypted.
The seven emerged into the hub from the Pundamilia corridor, and froze.
The Shadowbolts awaited them, several guardsponies tied up in some blue miasmic mist by the hallway to the living quarters. Nightingale’s malicious gaze shined even through her glowering shades, chilling the marrow of her seven targets.
“Well, well, well,” the Shadowbolts’ captain sneered, “look what the chimera dragged in. You fillies have got a huge bounty on your head, put forward by Queen NightMare Moon herself. And guess what? You’re also trespassing on government land.”
“This is Queen Celestia’s storage facility!” Twilight shouted in defiance.
Nightingale bolted forward quicker than blinking, leaving a misty blue contrail behind. She bared her teeth in Twilight’s face, her off-white muzzle twisted in a snarl. Yellow light danced behind her goggles.
“You do not interrupt me!” the dark captain growled, before her look settled down to mere dark anger. “This government facility is now under the purview of the Queen of Everlasting Night. Any claims that Celestia could make to it are now rescinded.”
Nightingale reared up.
“As are your rights to live.”
Without thinking, Twilight quickly shot a dwimmer-concussive-beam into Nightingale’s belly, sending the Shadowbolts’ captain flying into the ceiling. Her two wingponies immediately flew up to her sides to aid her.
“RUN!” Twilight bellowed, and immediately she and her band charged under the dazed Nightingale as she pulled herself off of the wall, shaking her head. As Fluttershy’s tail crossed the threshold, Nightingale’s voice echoed up the tunnel to Twilight’s ears.
“I’ll be fine! Wind Shear! Descent! Pursue them! Don’t let them escape!”
Daring to turn her head around to look at her chasers, Twilight saw the two Shadowbolt stallions as growing specks in the distance. Before she could call forth any banishment spells to send them back into the hub, Pinkie Pie leapt into the air, pulled out a bright-blue cannon that had no business fitting into one of her saddle-bags, and fired what looked like a ball of condensed confetti at the pursuers. Wind Shear and Descent, for their part, were too baffled themselves by Pinkie’s random attack, and were blown back by the packed party favors.
Shaking her head lightly to drive this insanity out of her head, Twilight looked ahead to see the growing gateway back into the starlight and moonlight of the outside. Any minute now, they would be outside of the Crystal Mountains’ anti-winking wards…
They were outside!
Taking in a deep breath she did not realize she was holding, Twilight took in the rich night air. The earthy scent filled her nostrils, reinvigorating her even though she could not have been in the Crystal Mountains facility for more than two hours.
“Hey, Twilight, we’re out!” Rainbow Dash shouted at Twilight as she flew up to her side. “Why didn’t we wink outta here yet?”
“The anti-winking wards extend for half a mile southwards from the Crystal Mountains themselves.”
“Half a mile?” Rarity called out from behind.
Applejack stole a glance back at the Crystal Mountains. The three Shadowbolts had emerged, beelining for Twilight. Nightingale’s flight goggles had shattered, revealing gleaming gold eyes with slitted pupils. Her eyes glowed with a murderous light.
“Sugarcube, we’ve got company!”
“Look, in the sky!” Fluttershy cried out.
More Shadowbolts, seven more, were descending from the southwest and southeast.
“Now what do we do?” Rainbow Dash moaned.
“Now’s the time for you to put your sick moves to the test!” shouted Twilight.
A spark danced in Rainbow Dash’s eye, and she beamed at Twilight as she’d never had before.
“Wilco, Captain Sparkle!” she barked before taking off into the air, barrel-rolling her way into the air to form a twister.
“Don’t stop!” Twilight called to the other four mares behind her. “Just let Rainbow Dash distract them long enough for us to get out of these wards!”
“No need to tell us twice, Twilight!” Rarity huffed.
Up above, the Shadowbolts were attempting to dive down towards the band galloping away from the Crystal Mountains, but none of the nine got very close before Rainbow Dash swooped in with a twister at her beck and call. Rather than risk getting caught in the prismatic tornado and tossed out at cyclonic speed (potentially) into the side of the mountains, each of the Shadowbolts veered off and attempted to regroup.
Nightingale narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash’s twister, before she bolted forward, barrel-rolling her way towards the cocky Pegasus bronco. Rainbow grinned boisterously at the blunder that Nightingale was making, before realizing that Nightingale’s move mirrored her own.
Nightingale planned to fight her twister-to-twister.
Down below, Twilight Sparkle felt a fine change in the way that the magical currents traveled through the air. There was only one thing for it.
“We’re out of the wards! Rainbow, get down here!”
But Rainbow Dash, so close to a twister of her own making, which was struggling against the counter-spin of Nightingale’s, did not hear Twilight’s call.
“Stand back, Twilight!” shouted Pinkie Pie, stepping up in front of Twilight, “I’ll handle this!”
Reaching into her saddle-bag, Pinkie produced a megaphone − just how much could she fit into them? − and bellowed into it, “IT’S TIME TO GO, DASHIE!”
Twilight shook her head to try to get the ringing out of her ears, as did Applejack, Fluttershy and Rarity.
But Rainbow Dash did hear Pinkie’s call, and she broke off from her twister flying down to her friends at a speed faster than terminal velocity, tucking her legs in as close to her body as she could. The winded Shadowbolts, catching on to what she was doing, bolted down in pursuit to overtake her… “This is gonna be close!” Twilight said through gritted teeth as the other four mares huddled close to her… Rainbow Dash was pulling ahead of the nine… She tackled the group to the ground…
And Twilight Sparkle and her band of five mares and one drake fell through a singularity into an infinitely tight space, the seven of them being crunched into a single subatomic point, everything of all seven of them being compressed together, mingling and crushing together…
Until the seven emerged to take deep breaths of relief in the salty, misty air.