• Published 10th Jul 2014
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Sleipnir's Big Adventure - BlackRoseRaven



A hero makes an unlikely alliance with a stubborn prince, and they adventure across Equestria together.

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The Mines Of Horsia

Chapter Eleven: The Mines Of Horsia
~BlackRoseRaven

It had been almost three days since they left behind Oatsville, and Blueblood was actually smiling. He wasn't even entirely sure why he felt so good, but he just did today.

Sure, it had been a rocky start: he'd sent a messy letter to his aunt about what had happened, and Celestia had been quite upset and even offered to send along a carriage with the team of Pegasi that were going to retrieve the ironwood Sleipnir had gathered. But even if part of him was still worried about the journey, and part of him felt that he wasn't ready for this in the slightest... he had declined. He didn't want to let Sleipnir down, and he had made a vow to himself to try and stick out at least the next leg of the trip, to use it to find out whether or not he was really prepared for this journey... and if he did have to return to Canterlot, he was going to do it on his own hooves.

So they had cleaned their armor, and left after a quick breakfast. And at first, the walk had been uncomfortable, the prince more unsure than ever about the demon that was hurrying eagerly along with them, complimenting him constantly as if she'd been there watching the whole time... as if she hadn't just abandoned them to their fate.

Still, he did his best to be civil with her... and that night, Invidia had vanished again while he and Sleipnir had set up camp beneath an enormous tree. Blueblood had been wary at first, but the stallion had quickly put together a little lean-to, and it had been surprisingly comfortable. Sure, it had taken Blueblood forever to get to sleep, but... for his first night out, camping wild a short distance away from the road... it hadn't been bad at all.

He'd traded letters with his aunt in the morning, reassuring her he was okay, surprised and touched by how worried she still sounded, how she'd even offered to have a guard hoof-deliver the new sleeping charm Aunt Luna had just about finished for him. And while Blueblood looked forwards to having a new charm to help with the nightmares, at the same time, last night hadn't been terrible. Yes, he'd woken up in the middle of the night, scared out of his mind... but then he'd gone back to sleep, and actually slept. He'd never before managed to go back to sleep after a nightmare, no matter how minor.

So he asked his aunt to let him know when the charm was finished, and he'd let her know if she should send it along. A response that surprised Celestia... and himself, even more. The day had been spent walking again, stopping only briefly so that Sleipnir could teach him a little about wild herbs, and when night had come...

It had been a bad night, the second night. Awful nightmares, followed by waking up to Invidia leaning over him. She had just been worried about him, but Blueblood had almost broken down into tears at the sight of the demon: he still didn't know why she scared him so badly, even if he'd actually driven her off with only a few harsh words.

Sleipnir had half-chastised him, then gotten him back to bed. Blueblood had rested and fidgeted until the morning, then sucked up his pride and his fear and apologized to Invidia. The demon had hugged him, and... well... it hadn't been so bad, really. It had helped them both adjust a little to each other, even if she made his stomach twist when he looked at her.

They had polished their armor, eaten breakfast, and then spent the morning exercising and digging around for herbs. Once afternoon had rolled around, Sleipnir had been quick to point the way onwards, and now here they were. Walking the clear road on a sunny day beneath a blue sky, heading further towards the west.

Blueblood had never imagined he could actually walk this much, let alone... well, basically everything else Sleipnir was getting him to do. Sure, sometimes he got tired or grouchy, sometimes Invidia creeped him out or Sleipnir's constant rambling gave him a headache, but overall it was a surprisingly... easy, enjoyable experience.

He guessed it really was all about just taking those first steps: once he got going, he just kept walking. And to think, once upon a time he'd tried to get soldiers to carry him around the castle, because just going up and down the stairs had made him tired and cranky.

Blueblood smiled a little to himself, and Sleipnir looked curiously over at the unicorn. “Oh? Did thou think of a joke?”

“I... suppose you could say that.” Blueblood remarked wryly, chuckling to himself as he shook his head slowly. Then he looked thoughtfully over at Sleipnir, asking after a moment: “Have you always traveled like this, Sleipnir? I mean... the Equestria you talk about, it sounds so... uncivilized.”

“Uncivilized? Oh, pah, here we go yet again with all thy lecturing on 'polite society.'” Sleipnir said with mock offense, and Blueblood simply rolled his eyes, but smiled wider all the same. “But aye, I have always traveled by hoof when I could. It strikes me as very strange to ride in a carriage pulled by another pony, and trains and other such machines frighten me.”

“You're scared of trains?” Blueblood asked skeptically, and Sleipnir nodded vehemently as Invidia giggled behind a hoof. “Why on Equestria are you afraid of trains? I would much prefer to ride a train to some far corner of Equestria than walk.”

“And yet here thou art, walking across the country with me. And I would even accuse thee of smiling while thou does it!” Sleipnir declared, and Blueblood huffed and did his best to hide his blush as he turned awkwardly away, while Invidia smiled warmly herself. “But aye. I am always ill at ease with machinery, although we do have a great many strange and miraculous inventions in the Midgard I hail from... devices that do things not even magic can. And there are beings of electricity and metal in my world as well, who are more machine than they are pony.”

Blueblood cocked his head curiously at this, and Invidia gave Sleipnir an entertained look before she said kindly: “Now come, Sleipnir. It is not as if we have never heard of constructs or golems in this world... the magic academy has many such synthetic beings.”

But Sleipnir shook his head, replying: “Nay, nay, I do not speak of such magic, which I feel far more comfortable with mine own self. Nay, what I speak of are known as Clockwork beings, composed of equal parts steel and living flesh. Some of them are... are sad creatures, with little of mind and will. Others, I am proud to have as friend, for they are brave and alive as any pony, no matter how strange they may seem.”

Blueblood frowned a little after a moment, and then he asked slowly: “But wait. Your Midgard... you're always talking about all this adventuring nonsense, and baronies and... all sorts of odd things I don't claim to understand. You make it sound like the Equestria you traveled had nothing that we have here, and you didn't even understand what a telephone was...”

“Well, aye, but that is because when I traveled Equestria, 'twas more than a thousand years ago.” Sleipnir said blandly, and Blueblood did a double take, his jaw falling open before the earth pony added defensively: “And I simply had never seen such a telephotophone of such likes as that one! 'Twas very strange to me. Nor am I permitted to touch such things back home, my family is always telling me how clumsy and foolish I am.”

Blueblood was still trying to process what Sleipnir had just said, while Invidia only smiled slightly, saying kindly: “Now, Sleipnir. There is no need to exaggerate or brag. You are certainly an angel of interesting and magnificent persuasion, but even I find it difficult to believe these delusional tales of grandeur and ego you merrily spout...”

Sleipnir huffed at this, then he complained: “Well, how can thou believe mine siblings are Celestia and Luna in mine own layer of Midgard, and yet quarrel with me about my age? 'Tis silly. Thou art both stuffy. And I did not even claim to have lived for so long, furthermore, 'twas at least a thousand years and score since I was killed.”

Without thinking, Blueblood looked over at Sleipnir and asked: “How did you die?”

The earth pony cocked his head, looking mildly over at Blueblood, and the unicorn shifted awkwardly as he realized a little late that he had probably just asked a rather uncomfortable, personal question. But to his surprise, Sleipnir smiled after a moment before he turned his gaze away and murmured: “”Twas in the Gray Mountains, a place of great calamity and evil. My sisters and I were searching for sacred objects known as the Elements of Harmony.”

“Really? My Auntie used to tell me all about those...” Blueblood hesitated, then he frowned a little and asked: “But what were they doing in these mountains? That's not where Auntie found them...”

Sleipnir chuckled at this, shrugging and saying easily: “Well, 'tis not like all things are the same across the worlds, aye? And the Gray Mountains were... were a strange place, to say the least. 'Twas where reality was thin, and powerful forces of both good and evil converged and were imprisoned. Perhaps another concealed the artifacts there for safekeeping, or perhaps they were merely drawn there, by whatever forces that be.”

Blueblood nodded slowly, and Sleipnir turned his gaze ahead down the road, smiling even as he recounted: “Aye. But on our journey, we encountered a terrible creature. A Black Wolf, monstrous and destructive: 'twas named Fenrir, and the battle we fought against it was long and harsh and... and pointless. The beast was too powerful for my sisters and I to fell: so, knowing no other recourse, I waited for my sisters to withdraw before I charged ahead, and brought down the cliffs around myself and the beast.”

Blueblood shifted a little, and Invidia studied Sleipnir intently before she asked quietly: “Is that honor? Is that what love is, Sleipnir?”

“Honor? I do not know, for 'twas selfish. What better death for a warrior?” Sleipnir smiled and shrugged easily, then added quietly: “But love? Aye, 'twas love's hoof in it, or so I would like to think. For I did not do it out of spite or hate, nor even want of triumph. I did it to protect my sisters, knowing full well that they would do a better job of saving Midgard than this silly fool ever would.”

Sleipnir chuckled to himself, and Blueblood shifted awkwardly as Invidia bowed her head respectfully, and there was silence for a little while as they continued to walk. And then Blueblood glanced up curiously as Sleipnir grunted, and the unicorn narrowed his eyes before asking hesitantly: “Is that... something in the distance? A city?”

“Nay, 'tis not a city, but 'tis certainly something, aye.” Sleipnir said thoughtfully, frowning a little. “'Tis some kind of encampment, in front of a cliff base... and thick clouds above. Perhaps we have a reached a wall of mountains.”

“Oh, it must be the mines of Horsia.” Invidia said pleasantly, and Blueblood winced a little at this as the demon explained: “The mines used to be very active, very prosperous... but there's an old myth that they delved too greedily and too deep, and-”

“Yes, yes, terrible evil, very... mythical. We should go around. From what I've heard the mines have become very unstable... too many bands of would-be 'adventurers' passing through, trying to claim loot and using them as a shortcut, when it's perfectly easy to go over the Foggy Mountains instead of under them. There were only three ponies lost to avalanches last year.” Blueblood said hurriedly, and Sleipnir huffed at this.

“Climbing rock and snow? Nay, 'tis always easier to avoid such trifles. I am not fond of enclosed spaces, but... tell me more of these mines.” Sleipnir said curiously, and Blueblood grimaced and shifted uneasily.

Invidia frowned a little at this, and then she said finally: “Perhaps it would be wiser to go around... the young prince certainly doesn't seem to like the idea, and I hear it's several days' journey either way... don't we have the time to afford?”

“Several days? By the Gods, how great is this range of mountains?” Sleipnir asked dubiously, and then he looked up with a frown and murmured: “Aye, that is not cloud, is it? 'Tis fog, the fog of thy Foggy Mountains, I expect. And Mother Nature warns me 'tis a realm inhabited by fierce snow spirits... but that the mines are no longer her realm, but infected with something else. 'Tis a hard choice, my friends. 'Tis not one I would make lightly.”

Invidia and Blueblood traded uneasy looks, and they continued onwards down the road in silence as Sleipnir lowered his head in visible thought. For a little while, they walked onwards... until finally, the enormous earth pony looked up and said meditatively: “I would not lose time on this journey. Whilst part of me desires to try and go over the mountain, Mother Nature warns me that the cold will be biting, the snows constant, and our path narrow. I fear we would be driven back. So let us instead turn our eyes towards Horsia, and we shall pass beneath the stone and earth.”

Invidia immediately looked at Blueblood, and the prince hesitated for only a moment before he sighed a little, mumbling: “Yes. Yes, I suppose you're right. I... just don't like the idea of sleeping in a filthy cave. But still, ponies used to use it regularly, so there must be... sleeping locations still...”

“Well, we shall find out. But fear not, such a sprawling mine must have been half-city for the workers. I am certain we will be able to scavenge all we need.” Sleipnir replied after a moment, smiling before he glanced back and forth as the grasses on either side of the road began to thin into more barren tundra. And there were signs that ponies had halted in this area as well: debris, discarded tools, other odds and ends...

After only a few minutes, they reached a small set of outbuildings that sat near the base of the massive cliffs. Sleipnir paused here, studying the cliff thoughtfully before his eyes alit on what looked like an immense, broken doorway: it seemed like something had smashed through these long ago, however, but the doorway had been shored back up with old timbers and piles of cleared rubble laid on either side of the entrance, the stallion saying thoughtfully: “So there have been others here, using this route... although it looks as if 'twas quite a fierce battle.”

Sleipnir halted, then smiled over his shoulder at Invidia and Blueblood, who both looked nervous... and now, the earth pony thought the demon was doing more than just mirroring the prince's emotions. “If thee likes, feel free to search the buildings. I shall ensure the passage ahead is safe and see what little nature can tell me of these mines.”

Blueblood and Invidia both nodded, and then the demon smiled quickly over at the unicorn, asking a little too eagerly: “Would you like me to come with you? I would be more than delighted to, young prince... I'm sure working together-”

“I uh... I think it would be better if we each searched a different building. I'm. Going over here. You should... go in the opposite direction.” Blueblood said after a moment, leaning back and wincing a bit at those damned golden eyes of hers.

Invidia pouted visibly, but then nodded and turned, seeming to perk up after a moment as she hurried towards the building. Blueblood didn't dare guess what kind of idea the mare had likely just had, and he grimaced a little before turning and hurrying towards the structure he'd chosen as Sleipnir went off about his own task.

It stank in here, whatever else: Blueblood caught the distinct reek of Diamond Dogs as he pushed open the warped door and entered the building. He wondered nervously if the beasts were still here, but after a few moments, he realized there was a thick layer of dust over everything: even he would have been able to tell if something had been tromping around in here.

He had entered some kind of bunkhouse: there were beds that had a lot of half-eaten sheets and blankets, some rotten clothing, a few other odds and ends and trinkets. Blueblood took his time shuffling through things, far from eager to find out how many of the old, scary stories he'd heard about Horsia were true: worse still, he had always ended up hearing about all the ponies who got lost in the twisting, turning labyrinth and never made it out, because any rescue teams could only risk going so deep into the mines...

There was also the rumor that years ago, Princess Celestia had tried to blockade all access to the mines: Blueblood guessed that these bunkhouses and structures were all that remained of that ill-fated endeavor. The story went that the soldiers had rioted and fled their posts: according to official sources, it was because they had been underfunded and undertrained. But the legend went that the encampment had been haunted, and the soldiers had been driven to madness by the evil spirits that lurked here.

Blueblood shivered a little: he found it a lot easier to believe the second story than the first one right now, as he searched through the bunkhouse. There was just a... a bad feeling here, and ever since their encounter with that evil spirit in Oatsville, Blueblood had learned to trust in his instincts.

But that made him even more nervous about plunging into the depths of Horsia: what could be waiting for them down there? Would it be just as badly haunted in that darkness beneath the earth? Was it really wiser to cut through them instead of going overtop the Foggy Mountains?

All questions that the young prince didn't have the answers to... and that he had never honestly thought about, either. He'd always figured that adventuring would just mean wandering from place-to-place with Sleipnir while the giant of an earth pony rambled away: he'd never expected all this... everything else, or that maybe some of the places they'd travel through might be dangerous. How many dangerous places could even exist in Equestria, after all?

Blueblood felt like he was going to learn the answer to that question, and it was going to be something like 'a lot.' He grimaced a bit, then moved out of the main sleeping area into what looked like some kind of storeroom... although as he heard an ominous creaking around him, he couldn't help but search just a little faster.

Blueblood's efforts were rewarded, however: a sealed supply crate he managed to pry open contained some sleeping rolls and small pillows and blankets. Blueblood helped himself to everything he could fit in his saddlebags, then flinched when he heard a loud thud before he forced himself to calmly turn and begin making his way towards the exit...

That was, until hoofsteps thundered through the room straight at him, and Blueblood looked wildly back and forth before the door to the storage room slammed itself shut behind him. That was more than enough of a hint for the young prince, who immediately bolted for the exit and burst back out into the relative safety of the late afternoon sunshine.

He wheezed loudly for breath, trembling a little as he looked over his shoulder at the rickety bunkhouse... then flinched and almost fell over when Invidia said gently: “You were very brave, Lord Blueblood. They are such fierce and angry spirits... I am endlessly impressed by the courage you show in all the same exploring these ruins...”

Blueblood gave a weak laugh, and then he shivered and shook himself out before mumbling: “I wouldn't go that far...” He stopped, then looked uneasily at the demon, shifting a little on his hooves... but right now, he had to admit that even her creepy golden eyes scared him a lot less than nasty, invisible ghosts. “I uh... did you find anything?”

Invidia smiled at him warmly: a question, a little bit of attention, and she always brightened up so much. It made Blueblood feel almost... sorry for her. And he hated even more than he saw a strange reflection of himself in her: hadn't he once been willing to do anything for any kind of attention? “I searched high and low, my darling, but I fear that I am not nearly as brave nor keen-eyed as you... I found little more than a few trinkets, not of any value nor use to us.”

The prince nodded awkwardly, then he scraped a hoof against the dirt road before he looked uneasily over his shoulder. He knew he shouldn't encourage the demon, but he couldn't help but ask: “So can those ghosts... hurt you, too?”

Invidia smiled again, but she shifted at the same time, looking like she was fighting with herself. And after a moment, Blueblood understood why as she answered hesitantly: “Yes... yes, they can. My powers in this form are more suited to dealing with mortal and physical foes... and the rage and hate of these spirits can make me... unhappy.”

Blueblood somehow got the feeling that Invidia being made 'unhappy' would not be good for any of them. And what was that about the form she was in? Did that mean this pony-shape the demon wore wasn't actually her real body?

He shifted nervously, but thankfully was saved from any further conversation by Sleipnir calling to them. The prince turned with a sigh of relief, hurrying towards the earth pony as Invidia sulked for a moment before trotting after the unicorn, but she became as serious as Blueblood when Sleipnir said moodily: “'Tis a foul place that we venture into now, my friends. I only pray 'twill not be as wretched as it already feels from this gaping maw alone... but we have little choice.”

Blueblood frowned uneasily, and Invidia looked quickly at the prince before asking Sleipnir worriedly: “Should we perhaps make for another pass? There must be another way through the mountains, or around them entirely...”

“Aye, of course, but 'twill add too much time to the journey... and besides, I do not feel that anything will be gained by turning back.” Sleipnir shook his head, giving a wry smile. “Everywhere we go, there will be danger lurking, after all. 'Tis best that we face it here and now: as I have learned, turning away is never the answer. We must confront and conquer.”

He stopped, then smiled and turned around, gesturing up at the archway and saying easily: “Besides, does thou see those runes there? 'Tis a script I recognize, and among the few words I can make out there is 'friend!' 'Tis a good omen, methinks. 'Tis challenging us, inviting us in... and I am not one to deny either challenge nor invitation, whomever it comes from!”

“I think you're an idiot.” Invidia said distastefully, and Blueblood sighed a little, dropping his head and not knowing if he agreed with the demon or not. Well, no, Sleipnir was definitely an idiot: he just didn't know if he was an idiot for his weird obsession with symbols and fate and omens or not. After all, the idiot had been right more often than not...

Sleipnir only smiled, just like he always did, and then he turned around and strode calmly into the entrance of the mines. Invidia and Blueblood traded nervous looks, but then the demon and unicorn nodded slowly to each other before hesitantly following the enormous stallion into the maw of the tunnel, neither knowing anything else they could do or even say.

They walked slowly through a half-collapsed ruin, following in Sleipnir's wake as the earth pony led them slowly to another set of forced-open stone doors... and then Blueblood paled and trembled violently as his eyes locked on the curled-up skeleton of a Diamond Dog sprawled against the wall, the prince mouthing wordlessly and pointing wildly at this.

Invidia frowned, and Sleipnir glanced curiously over his shoulder before he smiled wryly, saying softly: “Fear not, young Blue. 'Tis old, very old. And these shan't be the last bones thou sees as we make our way forwards, that I can guarantee thee if anything thou hast told me of these mines is true. Now, do not be frightened: I know 'tis unpleasant, but that is merely the sign of a life that has returned to Midgard, to be kissed by the earth and born anew. Is that not correct?”

“We should not discuss such things. Not here.” Invidia said curtly, glaring at Sleipnir, and the earth pony was surprised before the demon suddenly glared at the skeleton, and it simply exploded into brittle fragments of bone as Blueblood yelped and skittered backwards in horror, gaping in shock before the demon turned to him and said quickly: “And there, look, it's all gone now... isn't that better, handsome Blueblood?”

The unicorn was only staring in horror at the broken shards of the skeleton, and Sleipnir sighed tiredly before he said finally: “Perhaps we should simply... move on. Blueblood, can thou cast a spell to light our way?”

“Uh...” Blueblood blinked, looking up dumbly. He was still trying to get over the fact that Invidia had just carelessly smashed those bones to dust... not to mention the fact they had been passing by the actual remains of an intelligent creature that had actually died here, never buried, never tended to, likely eaten away at by passing animals, and then countless insects as flesh had rotted and putrefied in a slow but steady...

Blueblood paled, shivering and looking away before he cleared his throat several times, but Invidia slipped quickly in before the stallion could speak: “Please do not bother our beloved Blueblood with such a trivial task. Permit me, instead, to deal with this. It will be but the work of a moment.”

Invidia flicked her horn, and a ball of glowing light formed above her head before it floated eerily upwards, the unnatural radiance filling up the cavern around them. Sleipnir gave a quick nod at this, and then he smiled to the demon, saying gently: “Thou hast our gratitude, Invidia. Will thou be able to maintain this for long?”

Invidia looked thrilled at the simple compliment, again visibly thriving under the attention as she replied easily: “Of course! It's nothing but a simple spell... I have a great amount of magic in my repertoire. Perhaps, Blueblood, you would be interested in learning some of the arts and spellcraft that I could share with you... I have no doubt that a talented unicorn such as yourself could quickly and easily master quite a few of even my most powerful spells...”

Blueblood only swallowed thickly, and Sleipnir quickly cut in gently: “Aye, that is a good idea, but perhaps thou can wait until our first break to teach young Blue thy magic? We have a dangerous journey ahead, and I shall need both of thee to keep thine eyes open. Elsewise, who knows what creatures of darkness may try and ambush us?”

Invidia went from scowling to almost-anxious, nodding quickly as Blueblood sighed in relief even as he felt an uneasy twinge. But when Sleipnir turned around to begin leading them onwards, the prince hurried quickly up to the earth pony's side, leaving Invidia trailing behind, her golden eyes staring obsessively at Blueblood's back as she whispered: “I will protect my closest, dearest friend.”

They journeyed for several hours, and Blueblood was quickly realizing how the mines of Horsia could easily take several days to cross. It wasn't just because they were so massive, but so many of the paths were nothing but thin stone ledges and bridges that they had to all-but-crawl over, while others were narrow, tight halls that Sleipnir was barely able to squeeze through, swearing and wheezing the entire time he wiggled his way out of them.

Maybe it was a little mean of him, but Blueblood was both amused and relieved by the fact that mighty Sleipnir was even more afraid of small, enclosed spaces than he was. He couldn't help but admire and envy the way that the big earth pony conquered his fears all the same... even if, well, Blueblood realized they didn't have a whole lot of choice at this point except to push forwards through these passageways and hope for the best.

Horsia was beautiful and terrible; sometimes they would walk through halls and corridors that had been gorgeous carved and shaped through solid stone, their majesty ruined only by dust and the scattering of debris. Then they would pass into another section of the mines, and it would be little more than some gaping black cave, with half-rotted platforms and broken islands of stone and gravel the only way forwards, nothing but stretches of emptiness and rock for what seemed like miles.

It was more than just a mine: it was an underground kingdom, and Blueblood was awed by it. And when they stopped to rest and so that Sleipnir could get a better sense of their surroundings, the young prince found himself wandering over to a set of tapestries that lined a cracked and broken wall, studying them with fascination as he used the few gentle spells he knew to try and clean them a little so he could better examine them.

They were stories of some ancient kingdom, he thought... maybe a history these mines, maybe myths and legends. Then again, Blueblood no longer knew exactly how much really was myth and legend anymore... if demons like Invidia existed and cauldrons could be possessed by sentient evil and ponies like Sleipnir could fall out of the sky, what else could be real?

The unicorn lost himself in thought for a little while, and it wasn't until he heard hooves crunching through the debris towards him that he came back to reality, looking almost embarrassedly over at Sleipnir as the earth pony smiled at him. Blueblood reflected how Invidia's strange magic light almost made the stallion look like he was made entirely out of metal... even if Sleipnir had actually removed his breastplate for some reason. “Art thou ready to go? Or would thou like a few more minutes to thyself?”

“Uh... why aren't you in your armor anymore?” Blueblood asked after a moment, and Sleipnir grimaced as he absently reached up and rubbed at his chest.

“Oh, 'tis these damnable narrow passages. The stone is both sharp and very sturdy, which is good for us but 'tis quite bad for the state of mine equipment. I would rather not see my armor damaged any further than already is... and 'twould be a horrible irony if it were to get lodged whilst trying to pass through one of the tighter fissures. Then I would cry and flail like a little filly and that would be most embarrassing.” Sleipnir said mildly, and Blueblood smiled despite himself.

The unicorn hesitantly looked at his own gear, but wearing this armor made him feel... safer, somehow. And more than that, he was quite a bit smaller than the enormous earth pony even with his full armor on, so he figured that anything Sleipnir could squeeze through, he probably could too. “Well, uh... alright. I suppose that I'm ready, otherwise... wait, where's Invidia? I see her magic, but not her.”

“Oh, aye.” Sleipnir glanced up at the bauble of light, saying mildly: “Apparently this will track us, but the demon has gone on ahead to scout... although I will not pretend I expect this magic to last long, or that Invidia will not take her time. Can thou cast a similar spell?”

“Well... yes, I should be able to mimic something like this if we need to.” Blueblood said uneasily, and then he smiled awkwardly when Sleipnir looked down at him curiously. “I... simply am not that good at magic. I'm not even sure how I managed to conjure up the power I did before...”

Sleipnir chuckled at this, then he said kindly: “Well, that has an easy answer, my young friend. Thou called upon such powers because 'twas necessary. For 'tis in the times of greatest need that our truest strength surfaces.”

He paused, then smiled and reached up, poking Blueblood's horn lightly and making the stallion wince. “Besides. Perhaps 'tis only because thou so rarely uses thy silly hornery that thou feels so uncomfortable with it.”

Blueblood scowled at this, then he opened his mouth to give his usual excuse... before slowly closing it in thought, realizing for maybe the first time that it really didn't make any sense. Prince or not, what did that have to do with his magic? Auntie Celestia and Auntie Luna could both move the sun and moon through the sky as they pleased, after all...

The unicorn finally looked almost sheepishly at Sleipnir, and then he admitted: “Perhaps... you're right. And you said you wanted to... well...”

He shuffled awkwardly, and Sleipnir smiled warmly before nodding firmly. “Aye, 'twould be mine honor to help thee with thy magic! And better yet, we can use this opportunity to teach thee something that shall benefit more than thy magic alone. We shall teach thee discipline, young Blue.”

Blueblood looked less than thrilled with this, leaning back and asking uneasily: “Discipline? I... I am not some pup you can simply send to obedience training, Sleipnir...”

“Oh, 'tis not that kind of discipline! And nay, I shan't be putting thee in saddles and restraints, either...” Sleipnir paused, then waggled his eyebrows at the stallion, grinning widely as he leaned down into his face. “Unless thou truly desires me to, of course.”

Blueblood leaned back with a wince, and Sleipnir chuckled before saying cheerfully: “Nay. This exercise is very simple, but 'tis very difficult, and made more so by the fact we shall be treading a dangerous path whilst thou attempts to master it.”

The young prince started to open his mouth, but Sleipnir simply rose a hoof and continued quickly: “Nay, shush, listen! Thou must first clear thy mind, and then thou shall picture a light inside thy mind. Thou shall make this light glow, steadily, without ever letting it fade nor become too strong.”

“That doesn't sound very hard. Or very helpful. I don't believe this has anything to do with anything.” Blueblood said dubiously, and Sleipnir huffed loudly at this.

“Well, we shall see what thou has to say after thou tries this little exercise.” Sleipnir retorted, and then he sniffed before adding mildly: “And well, if 'tis indeed too easy, my sister would often practice another exercise that perhaps will interest thee. She would create a charge of magic in her horn and hold it steady, without letting it grow nor fade... but while suppressing her horn's natural aura. Can thou do such a trick?”

“Suppress the aura? That's not even possible.” Blueblood scoffed. “Fairy tales. I knew you were either lying or delusional.”

“Write a letter, right now, to thine aunt and ask then, I dare thee!” Sleipnir challenged, and Blueblood scowled uneasily, shifting a little on his hooves before Sleipnir nodded firmly a few times. “Aye, there, precisely! Thou knows I am no liar, thou... thou froof.”

“I... I am not a froof! Do not address me as a froof! You're a froof!” Blueblood snapped, and the two glared at each other before the unicorn grumbled and glanced away, adding grouchily: “And besides, you... wanted to get going and you already gave me that other silly exercise to do. And Auntie will be busy until tonight, I'd rather not disturb her.”

Sleipnir grunted, and Blueblood paused before asking hesitantly: “And on that note, how... how precisely will we know what time it is?”

“Oh, fear not. 'Tis very easy for me to keep track of the passage of time. Celestia always said 'twas because my head is so full of sand anyway, so I need only ever check the passage of the grains.” Sleipnir said easily, then he turned and began to stride onwards, the little ball of light bobbing beside him. “Now, let us go! We shall walk for a few more hours, then find a spot to rest for the night.”

Blueblood grumbled and followed after the stallion, at first just content to follow the stallion through the ruptured corridors of the mine... but as they passed into a wide trench, with nothing but cracked, short cliffs to either side of them and a ceiling of stone high above, Blueblood found himself trying the strange little meditation exercise that Sleipnir had given him.

It was easy enough: so easy, as a matter of fact, that within only a few seconds Blueblood was thinking about how easy the meditation was instead of concentrating on that light in his mind. Then he blinked stupidly before scowling and hurried concentrating again... before grinding his teeth together, losing the image in his mind when Sleipnir asked cheerfully over his shoulder: “'Tis not so simple a task as thou thought, is it?”

“Shut up, Sleipnir.” Blueblood grumbled, and then he took a breath and steadied himself, bringing up the image in his mind again... and then he lost it when he couldn't help but blurt: “It's your fault for interrupting me, anyway!”

Sleipnir simply shrugged cheerfully, and Blueblood grumbled under his breath before he closed his eyes tightly, forcing himself to concentrate. With his eyes closed, the image was much more vibrant... but then Blueblood tripped over a large rock and went face-first into the ground with a tremendous thump.

He groaned and picked himself up, trembling and wiping at his face and feeling ridiculously like he was about to cry for a moment, before Sleipnir remarked: “'Tis quite fortunate we are in an enclosed space, not upon one of those wicked ledges. Although now I am curious.”

The earth pony looked thoughtfully up one of the short cliffs, then he bounded forwards before leaping up into the air as Blueblood stared, one hoof still rubbing absently at his muzzle as he watched the enormous stallion catch the edge of the rock and haul himself up on top of the stone face. Sleipnir looked back and forth thoughtfully, and Blueblood sighed before asking impatiently: “Well?”

“Oh, come now, it has been but moments. Not even Luna is as bothersome as thou can be.” Sleipnir said mildly, glancing back and forth before he frowned uneasily. “'Tis all... enclosed space, but... I do not like it for some reason. It reminds me of a great set of jaws... aye, let us continue onwards, now.”

Sleipnir hopped down from the cliffs... and then he blinked in surprise as the ball of light whiffed out, leaving them in near-complete darkness. Blueblood whimpered despite himself, but Sleipnir only glanced back and forth before tapping his hoof calmly a few times against the rock, muttering: “Well. 'Tis uncomfortable, but not impossible. Blue, perhaps thou could summon up a little bit of magic now.”

“I... I suppose I should try...” Blueblood mumbled, and then he concentrated, his horn lighting up and casting a ray of bright radiance ahead of him. He was pleasantly surprised that it had actually worked: he'd just tried to replicate the simple guided light spell used by the Royal Guard when they went on night patrol. It wasn't perfect, of course, since his was a little wide and a little dim, but it was more than enough to show the way, at least.

Sleipnir smiled warmly at this, then he nodded firmly before saying easily: “Good. Let us make haste onwards, then.”

Blueblood nodded awkwardly, half-glad that now he had an excuse not to work on his silly meditation... except as he shortly found out, maintaining this spell was almost as difficult a task. And it was made worse by the fact that he knew Sleipnir could see every stutter of his magic and how he was already struggling to try and maintain a spell he knew the unicorn soldiers of Canterlot could do for hours without so much as a thought...

But he kept up the magic for at least forty minutes: long enough for them to cross into a set of intricate, narrower passageways. Sleipnir slowed their pace here, and Blueblood grumbled irritably until the enormous earth pony suddenly halted in front of an old wooden wall.

He tore off several large timbers, then ripped down a tapestry before extracting several objects from his sidepack as Blueblood simply stared: but in moments, he put all these odds and ends together to create two large torches, one of which he passed to Blueblood with a smile. The stallion took this with telekinesis as his light spell flickered out, and he sighed in relief as he guided it awkwardly back and forth, grimacing a bit at the unsteady light. But still, it was easier to carry this than concentrate his magic...

Sleipnir, meanwhile, tucked the rags he'd created and the bottle and flint he'd taken out back inside his equipment satchel, the stallion saying easily: “These should serve us for a few hours' march more. But be careful, young Blue. While we have little to fear in the way of burning these ruins down, fire's light can be prankish: watch thy hooves and thy step.”

Blueblood gave an uneasy smile, then he nodded slowly before Sleipnir picked up his own torch in one hoof. For a little while, he led onwards like that, and Blueblood frowned moodily for the longest time at the earth pony's back before he finally asked: “How do you walk like that? It's so... revolting.”

“What?” Sleipnir looked curiously over his shoulder, continuing to stride easily along on three legs before he brightened. “Oh, 'tis just a matter of practice! Not all of us have such fancy horns upon our head as thou, after all, some of us must make the best of what we have.”

The unicorn only looked almost uneasily at the stallion for a few moments before he wrinkled up his muzzle, mumbling: “It's still very strange.”

“Oh, thou art strange. Strange and stuffy.” Sleipnir replied dryly, and then he suddenly halted in front of an open doorway, wincing as he reached back to catch Blueblood and stop him from going any further. “This could be a difficulty.”

Blueblood frowned... and then stared when Sleipnir simply tossed his torch through the doorway, and the two watched as it fell at least forty feet down a cracked stone cliff to land on a pile of broken rubble. Sleipnir looked moodily down at this point of light, and then he sighed and rolled his eyes before reaching back and grasping Blueblood, the stallion yelping as Sleipnir said mildly: “Hold on tightly, and for all that matters in the world, do not set my mane on fire.”

With that, Sleipnir threw himself out the archway, and Blueblood yelled in terror as he stupidly flung the torch away with telekinesis, his eyes wide with horror-

They crashed down on the pile of rubble, and Sleipnir gritted his teeth as he stumbled before falling in a sprawl with a wheeze, sending stones and chunks of shale rolling in all directions as his torch bounced to the bottom of the heap. He breathed hard in and out as Blueblood clung desperately to the earth pony's back, trembling and staring disbelievingly back and forth before Sleipnir smiled and slowly stood... then twitched, one leg trembling a little even as he said cheerfully: “There! 'Twas not so bad, was it? But... oh damnation, where is thy torch? 'Tis not in my mane or tail, is it?”

Sleipnir nervously looked back and forth, then stumbled around in a circle as Blueblood yelped and squeezed tighter into the stallion's back, before snapping: “Stop it! No, I don't know where it went! It... you should have warned me!”

“I did! Well. I mostly did.” Sleipnir admitted with a bit of a shrug, and then he turned and skidded down the pile of rubble before slipping Blueblood off his back and gently setting the stallion down. Blueblood glared at him, and the earth pony only smiled before gesturing with his head at the remaining torch. “Well, we still have one, and that shall have to be enough. And it looks as if...”

Sleipnir frowned a little as he gazed across what might have once been some kind of underground courtyard, and now was a half-collapsed ruin, broken rock and shattered stone walls forming listing edges near jagged ledges and parts of plateau that had fallen completely away.

Blueblood picked up the torch, and Sleipnir calmly strode forwards, moving a little slower than usual but refusing to show the pain on his face as he gazed uneasily back and forth. His foreleg trembled, bruising spreading through it, but it was well-hidden in the darkness... and Blueblood's eyes had caught on something else worrying already, the unicorn whispering: “Look. Up there.”

Sleipnir glanced up... and then nodded slowly as he immediately realized what the prince was pointing out. There, in the far distance, was a jagged peak that was glowing almost as bright as day from the massive bonfire on it. And more fires burned and danced in braziers and massive iron bowls set up along the rock face, up a set of half-ruined stairs and decayed wooden bridges.

“They may be influenced by magic, but we shall have to be careful. Unfortunately...” Sleipnir closed his eyes and took a slow breath, concentrating for a moment before he murmured: “Aye. Unfortunately, 'tis the direction we must travel in, Blue.”

He paused meditatively, then rose his head before saying clearly: “Invidia. I will ask for thee to come back to us. Blue and I require not just thy aid, but perhaps thy protection.”

There was no response for a few moments... but then, just as Blueblood was going to ask Sleipnir if he had lost his mind, the demon's golden eyes suddenly shone out of the shadows nearby, and Blueblood yelped as he spun towards her and almost flung the torch at her.

Invidia only smiled, somehow all the more fearsome in the flickering light as she said kindly: “It really is such an honor to be called upon... although now I feel I must apologize for taking so long. But I wished to do my duties thoroughly, and ensure that the path ahead is safe...”

“Did... did you light those fires?” Blueblood asked uneasily, and Invidia chuckled and shook her head, making the ivory stallion grimace as he nervously slipped the torch between them like a shield. “Then I suppose it can't exactly be safe, then...”

“For now, there is nothing laying in wait ahead. But move quickly and quietly, there are dangerous and evil things we should do our best to avoid attracting the attentions of lurking through these tunnels.” Invidia paused before her eyes flicked towards Sleipnir, studying him for a few moments before she licked her lips slowly and murmured: “Perhaps you'll allow me to be of assistance to you, oh magnificent angel...”

“Nay, I am fine.” Sleipnir smiled kindly, stomping his injured leg a few times and refusing to flinch even as pain shot through his body. Invidia scowled at him for a moment as Blueblood frowned, but then the earth pony gestured to them and said gently: “Come, let us continue onwards. We have much ground to cover through this labyrinth, and 'tis too open here.”

The young prince nodded in agreement as he rose the torch, and Invidia gave a quiet laugh before she said softly: “Of course. What a strange delight it is to understand that even you have your flaws, wondrous angel...”

Sleipnir only shrugged and smiled again, and Blueblood gave the two an uneasy look before he only winced away from Invidia, too distracted by the demon to notice the stallion favoring his leg. Anxious to move on, the young prince quickly took the lead, and Invidia and Sleipnir followed as the demon smiled hungrily at Sleipnir, and the enormous earth pony only looked placidly ahead, striding slowly but surely along on a leg he refused to admit was broken.