• Published 3rd Jan 2017
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Daring Do and the Secret of the Sunken City - 8686



Years ago, Daring Do discovered an ancient city, and a strange lock she couldn't open alone. A while ago she met Rainbow Dash. Now it's time to go back and uncover the secrets she once had to abandon.

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6: The Forgotten City

Morning came. Far too quickly, if you asked Twilight, for it seemed to her that no sooner had her head hit the plush grass than her ears detected the musical warbling of songbirds combined with the rustling of leafy trees, and warm, dappled rays of sunlight falling onto her eyelids. She took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet, fresh fragrances of the woodland and basking in the gentle mountain breeze. She did not open her eyes, content to lie at rest; at peace.

“She’s waking up,” said a familiar voice from nearby. A voice which her body thus became determined to prove wrong.

She shifted a little, finding her movement constricted by something warm and soft – a blanket tucked tightly around her – and snuggled down into it, desperate for just five more minutes.

And then suddenly the myriad subtle, clean scents of the surrounding flora were replaced with just one – a thick, overpowering aroma, earthy yet sweet, and instantly recognisable. Twilight felt a little smile come to her lips. There was no mistaking that smell. That was coffee.

Still groggy but her senses returning to her one-by-one, Twilight finally opened her heavy eyelids.

“Rise and shine, sleepy-head,” said Rainbow Dash with a grin. She and Daring were sat up around a small campfire over which a cooking pot dangled, suspended from an improvised spit made of branches and tied with thin vine.

Daring carefully retrieved the pot and poured some of the liquid contents into a small cup which she placed on the ground next to Twilight’s muzzle. The strong, sweet scent became irresistible and Twilight stirred.

With some difficulty – whoever had tucked her in had done a sterling job – she forced herself free of the blanket and sat up. Taking the cup of hot coffee in her hooves she brought it to her lips and sipped.

“Hope you don’t mind it black,” said Daring. “Coffee and sugar keep forever, but milk and cream don’t. Can’t really bring those on an excursion.”

Twilight swallowed, the smooth, hot liquid rolling down her throat and pleasantly warming her belly. She looked up. “How long was I... I mean how long have you both...?

“About an hour,” said Daring. “Don’t worry about it – we were all beat after yesterday.” She poured more of the liquid from the cooking pot into two more plain, handle-less mugs, one for herself and one which she passed to Rainbow. “I didn’t bring much of this, but I figured I had to break out the good stuff after what we’ve just been through. That and, since Rainbow Dash ‘fessed up this morning that, predictably, she’s out of food, we’re gonna end up pooling our rations one way or another. Might as well start.” Daring took a sip from her own mug and savoured the taste before returning her attention to Twilight. “Come on, I’ve got some pressed oat-bars with raisins for breakfast. Gonna need some energy.”

The three explorers breakfasted quickly and heartily on Daring’s rations, and enjoyed her generously gifted coffee. At a leisurely pace they finished their eating and packed up their respective pieces of gear – Daring securing her cookpot and cups and Twilight folding her blanket and pillow back into her bags. Before too long they had broken camp and were stood before the entrance in the base of the obelisk. As Daring had predicted, the capstone at the peak shone with a golden light this morn.

Before dousing the fire, Daring used the embers to ignite a torch, and then turned to her two compatriots. “Ready?” she asked. Two ponies nodded in reply and then, together, all three of them crossed the threshold.

* * *

Three sets of hooves clopped softly in the dark, echoing upon stone steps and cold, close walls. The dim light of Daring’s flaming torch flickered constantly; their only illumination, and the faint flagging of the flame the only sound besides their hoof-falls. Voices silent, they descended deeper and deeper into the earth.

The staircase wound downwards in an anti-clockwise spiral, descending far further than the depth of a normal basement with no hint of ending. As they forged deeper the walls changed in construction, becoming more normal block-and-mortar affairs rather than the sheer surface of the obelisk above. A floor or two further down they came to the first window – thin and tall like an archer’s post, but which looked out into deep, smothering blackness. A half-turn of the staircase later they found another, and it seemed as though they were within a high castle tower. Not a construction that one would normally expect to find underground.

Daring led her entourage ever deeper, wary of her footing but with a satisfied smile. She was in a good mood. More than that, even, she was happy. She was finally in her element here. She had a ruin to explore, a torch to guide her and her own wits to rely on, and thus she was content. All of the distracting elements that had contributed to this adventure thus far... the company, the talking, her feelings – the things that hadn’t quite been within her comfort zone – all just faded into the background – a mildly disappointing prelude to this, the main event. This was what it was all about. Nothing else mattered.

Another three-quarter turn down the spiral steps, Daring called a halt. From behind her, her two companions could not see why at first until Daring carefully stepped to the side and brought the torch low.

The stairs ended. Suddenly and without warning they simply stopped, the final step inviting descent into nothing but a pitch black void, and the walls ceased just as abruptly leaving a gaping abyss ahead of and around them. The tower they were within was suspended from the cavern ceiling, but supported by nothing from below. The air down here was cold, thick, and somehow tainted. It tasted old and dry, yet seemed to leave a thin, unwelcome film on the back of the throat with every inhalation.

“Careful here,” said Daring. She took a deep breath of the stale air and the memories already flooding back to her took on a life of their own. “When I was here before... I... I found the valley up there and, well, didn’t think much of it at first. I remember it started raining – a sudden downpour from thick, grey clouds. With the sky being so dim, the capstone glowing in the distance was easy to pick out, and I decided to investigate. Found the obelisk, and the rain was only getting heavier. I ducked inside to take shelter, found the stairs and just had to keep going. But the water ran down these steps like a sluice; made it too slippery to keep any footing and I stumbled and fell. Bounced down the stairs and slipped off the edge right here, down there, into the blackness, before my wings caught me. By then it was too late. I’d fallen too far and lost sight of the entrance in the smothering dark, completely disoriented and stuck below ground. Ended up spending a few too many days here.”

“How’d you find your way out again?” asked Rainbow.

Daring paused a moment, looking out into the featureless void, and then back up the staircase behind them. “When my last torch gave out, everything was pitch black. No light at all. I looked up to the cavern ceiling and I saw... really faint... a kind of white glow. Moonlight. Outside the full moon was in just the right place, and shone onto the obelisk at just the right angle, that the merest hint reflected down the staircase... and I was in just the right place to be able to see it. It was pretty lucky – I’d never have spotted it if my flame hadn’t died when it did. Figure Celestia was looking out for me that night.”

“Don’t you mean Luna?” asked Rainbow.

“This was a fair few years ago. Back then, Celestia was still in charge of the moon.” She tapped a hoof on the final step of the staircase and a couple of tiny pieces of masonry crumbled from it and fell into the deep black beneath. “Pretty sure this is the only way in or out, too. This was likely originally a tower from the city to the surface, but the tower collapsed leaving just this top section hanging from the cavern roof. Like a big stalactite.”

“I’m... not so sure,” said Twilight, drawing Daring’s attention. Twilight carefully stood a couple of steps up from the brink and pointed at the loose brickwork of the tower walls and stairs at the point they ended. Some feature seemed to have caught her interest. “I don’t think the tower just collapsed. Do you see?”

Daring followed her gaze to the stone, and when she saw it she berated herself for not seeing it first.

“Scorch marks,” said Daring.

“And some of the stone looks... melted,” added Twilight.

“Really?” said Rainbow, jockeying for a closer look. “What could even do that?”

Twilight stared at the stone and considered. In her experience, not many things, but one explanation seemed to fit the facts more than others. “Magic.”

The three of them paused to consider this, but without further context the precise fate of the tower was of little consequence at present.

Rainbow Dash broke the silence. “So, how’re we getting down? I’m not crazy about flying blind, y’know.”

Daring nodded and held her torch out over the drop. She released it and it fell, tumbling end over end, the flame leaving a faint orange streak against the lightless ocean into which it plummeted. It twirled for seconds that seemed to stretch into minutes, and then eventually a faint clatter reached up to them from below. Perhaps two hundred meters down, the torch came to rest and a tiny circle of orange light illuminated a patch of solid ground.

“Aim for that,” said Daring, who spread her wings and, with an air most casual, stepped out into space, falling at first and then gliding. And then she was gone, the dark absorbing her as if she were one with its shadows.

The two ponies now left in the dark in the ruined tower hesitated, one moreso than the other.

“Uh... Rainbow? You know how flying’s still not completely my forté? I’m not really sure I...” said Twilight, her cadence one of controlled fear as she peered into the featureless expanse, broken only by the tiny coin of light from directly beneath.

“No sweat, Twilight. Just... hold on to me, ‘kay?”

Twilight felt Rainbow Dash nudge her gently with her foreleg, and Twilight eagerly raised her own to meet it, linking them. Simply having something to hold onto reassured her no end, for aside from the dot of light beneath her now, she could see nothing. She breathed a calming, deep breath through her nose and let it out through her mouth. “Okay. We can do this?”

“Sure we can. Piece of cake,” said Rainbow’s voice from her side. And though Twilight could not see her expression, she knew she wore that grin of hers, confident and cocky. “Just don’t go anywhere. Ready?”

Twilight gulped. “Ready.”

They stepped out into the abyss together.

* * *

The odd statue was just as it had been on her first visit. A stallion with two necks; two heads side-by-side, each looking in the opposite direction, each with a long proud horn. The impossible horse stood at perhaps twice the height of an average stallion and the features – brows, jaws, muzzles, haunches, were heavily accented. The white, clean marble-work was exquisite, she could tell, even with only the dim flame a few meters behind her to shine on it. There were dozens of these that she’d seen on her first expedition here dotted around the city in differing states of repair. The one before her, though, was a fine, intact example and she couldn’t help but admire it while she suffered the interminable wait for her cohorts to catch up.

Presently, from behind, the hollow clicking of hooves upon stone reached her as her tag-alongs made landfall next to the torch still on the ground. The amount of light cast by the flame over the surrounding flagstones wasn’t much and so Daring had withdrawn to the shadows to be sure to give them enough space to land; and in doing so had noticed the statue nearby. Now with the other two mares safely down she turned back toward them, even as they, near the fire, looked around in confusion into what – to them – must have been an impenetrable screen of darkness.

“Uh... hello?” called Rainbow Dash. It seemed she and Twilight had guided each other down through the cavern, and they unlinked their forelegs now and scanned their surroundings. “Daring Do? Are you there?”

“It’s okay, I’m over here,” she said. She was only a dozen paces distant, but while she could see them the reverse wasn’t true. She walked into the torchlight and their gaze finally fixed on her. Their smiles widened too. Not sure why that would be.

Daring stooped and picked up the torch. “Just getting my bearings,” she said. “If we know this place is pretty much right beneath the exit, we’ll need to find it again when we want to leave.” She looked at Twilight. “Those strange statues I wrote about? There’s one of them just here,” she said, stepping back towards it. A few paces and the dancing flame revealed the mighty sculpture.

Twilight looked at it with an awe and wonder that Daring was sure she had held on her own face the first time she had seen one. Rainbow Dash looked more nonplussed, giving the piece a concise critique:

“Weird.”

“Rainbow!” scolded Twilight.

“What? You don’t think a two-headed pony is weird? Please tell me the city wasn’t like, full of two-headed ponies or something?”

“No, of course not,” said Twilight. “It’s probably some kind of symbolism.”

“That was my conclusion too,” said Daring. “Never did figure out... what... though...”

As she spoke, the flame of the torch guttered, spat, and finally died, casting all into black.

There was a moment of surprised silence before Daring felt her brow crease and she let out a grumble, casting an invisible but highly judgemental stare at the length of wood she held. “Already?!” she fumed. “Urgh. Pitch must have gotten wet dragging my bags through the snow yesterday. Gimme a second here...”

“Oh, it’s okay, I can help with that,” came Twilight’s voice.

A purple glow appeared at the tip of Twilight’s horn, lighting all around them. A moment later and with some more concentration the glow intensified and the light became brighter, and then brighter still. Then, at last, Twilight said, “I even think I can...” before trailing off. With a soft hiss, as though drops of water falling onto hot embers, the now hoofball-sized ball of light separated from the tip of Twilight’s horn and began to float. It ascended above them to a height of perhaps forty feet, acting as a miniature sun and illuminating far more than they’d been able to see by fire-light alone. Twilight had a little satisfied smile on her lips for a moment, but it dissipated quickly as the shadows around them changed, lengthening as the ball of light began to move of its own volition.

“Hey... where’s it going?” asked Twilight, aloud.

The ball of light rose higher, and moved faster too, at an angle now, soaring towards the cavern ceiling and leaving the ponies below in the dark once again. In the moment before it vanished it seemed to reveal a crystal of some sort, embedded in the rock high above. The light made straight for it, struck it, and was gone.

“It absorbed my light spell...! Oh...” Twilight whispered, still looking up.

A faint glow appeared. At first it was purple – the same colour of the magic that spawned it – but it soon resolved to white and grew brighter, and brighter still. It was some manner of crystal, set into the roof of the cavern as one would set a jewel into a crown. And as its brightness increased, nearby other lights began to flicker hesitantly to life. And then, adjacent to those, others still, the network expanding with exponential pace. Soon the entire cavern roof, hundreds of feet above them, was aglow with hundreds of glowing white crystals which shone their light down and gently drove back the darkness that had so long stagnated over the city. Pure, clean light fell onto a vast, ancient capital, and for the first time in an epoch the city revealed itself to lay its full glory bare. Not even Daring Do could suppress a feeling of wonder as the shadows around her receded as though on a tide, and from them emerged a city as ancient and as beautiful as anywhere she had ever encountered.

Tall, fluted towers rose gracefully above lower, stone-built buildings of tasteful architecture showcasing a restrained design ethic, with subtle baroque hints in the way windows were framed and arches drawn. Underhoof the ground was paved with flagstones, smooth and unfussy for the most part, though occasionally a beautiful and ornate design could be found in some prominent place among them – the same two-headed symbol that had adorned the obelisk above. The streets ran between the buildings at angles, as though designed in the manner of a spider’s web with all roads interconnected yet leading toward one point, though a point not at the centre of the city but offset by about a third to the east. In that direction the buildings became taller, grander and more ostentatious – perhaps denoting the rich-quarter of the metropolis.

The beauty extended to the cavern ceiling as well, as the myriad glinting crystals shining down upon them gleamed, shone and twinkled with a subtle but delicate rhythm. There was something oddly familiar about the way they were arranged, and it took Twilight to point it out before it clicked.

“Constellations,” she whispered from her side. “They’re arranged in the shape of the constellations. Look, there’s Ursa Major, and Scorpio... and Taurus, the bull... and there’s Orion and... wait... one of the stars in his sword is missing. Hmm, and one from Ares’ horn, and I can’t see Sirius at all! Just a large crack where it should... oh.”

It was true. In one, vast section completely covering the eastern third of the city, large, ugly black cracks had fissured and spread through the roof, doubtless casting down the lighting crystals that had been unfortunate enough to find themselves in their advancing paths. In fact where the cracks were thickest the whole ceiling of the cavern had even begun to bow, as though the bottom of a massive, shallow bowl.

As one, all three ponies stared in silence, up at the enormous convex deformity.

“Uh... isn’t there a lake up there?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah,” whispered Twilight.

“And water is...?”

Really heavy.” She looked to Daring. “I think we know why that lake is so much larger than the last time you were here,” she said. “The weight of the water has begun to collapse the cavern roof. As the roof slowly caves in the lake gets bigger, fed by snowmelt from the mountains, which means more water, which means more weight. Eventually the ceiling will give way.”

“And then?” asked Rainbow, with just a touch of the nerves.

“Well, the city will flood,” said Twilight.

“And... us?

“Relax,” said Daring. “The city’s been here for a long time. Over a thousand years, easily. That ceiling isn’t going to collapse in the next couple of days. Probably won’t even happen in our lifetime. We’ll be fine.”

Twilight nodded in agreement and Rainbow Dash, though still looking ill at ease, at least managed to tear her gaze from the roof and the thought of a bajillion tonnes of water crashing down on their heads.

Before them the statue they had been regarding had its own trick on display. It seemed it had siphoned off a small portion of Twilight’s spell and the lengthy horns on both of its heads stood aglow as though producing their own aura, adding to the light in their vicinity.

“Like a street lamp...” Daring noted, eyeing the statue with a new appreciation.

And if nothing else, all of this went to show that it was a very good thing that Twilight Sparkle had been brought along on this trip. Doing this in the dark, or even by torchlight, (again,) would have been much more bother than being able to see everything, as they could now. Definitely a good decision, Yearling. You won’t regret it. You really hope you won’t regret it.

Behind her there was a stifled giggle, a snort, and ultimately a laugh from Rainbow Dash, as though something had tickled her just so. Daring and Twilight eyed her.

“Sorry,” she said, still fighting to control her mirth. She looked at Twilight and indicated the statue. “It’s just... can you hear it? Rarity’s voice in your head? My, such an elegant fusion of form and function daahlings. It’s simply exquisite, and such a handsome specimen, too.

Daring Do watched as there was a split-second pause before Twilight’s mouth creased into a broad smile and she began chuckling right along with her friend. Daring rolled her eyes, setting her jaw and her sights on the road leading toward the centre of the web of streets as another apparently private joke passed her by.

A wide street ran straight through the square they had landed in towards the focus of the city’s network of roads, and the three ponies began to walk it, their destination barely visible in the distance. They passed abandoned buildings that had once been homes, now sitting silent, their darkened windows void of any warmth or comfort. The further they travelled the low-built homes and houses became larger until gradually the buildings took on more decorative appearances with short spires and balconies, terraces and verandas becoming the norm.

“Well, I think we can conclude beyond doubt that this is an ancient unicorn city,” said Twilight. “The fact that you need magic to turn the lights on is kind of a giveaway, even if the architecture weren’t.”

“How is that working anyway?” queried Rainbow. “Did your magic, like, charge up the roof or what?”

“Basically, yes,” said Twilight. “Luminal reciprocation again. It’s a very energy-efficient spell.”

The street entered another small plaza, this one circular and about twenty meters across, before continuing on. Within the new space four stone benches sat at the cardinal directions, and to one side there stood a three-story rectangular building with a triangular roof supported by half a dozen columns at the front. A town hall, or similar municipal building. In the centre of the miniature courtyard was a short, flat-topped stone pillar about four feet high and crowned with something. Like an angled point set into the top surface, as though someone had stuck an elaborate set-square on its upright edge and fixed it in place.

Daring watched Twilight spot it, notice it, and trot towards it with a face awash with confusion.

“That... that doesn’t make sense,” Twilight muttered to herself, though loud enough they could all hear. The princess turned her gaze from the pillar straight upwards to the cavern ceiling, a thoughtful frown creasing her brow, and then finally back to the artifact before her.

“What’s wrong?” asked Dash. “What is that thing?”

“Well... it’s a sundial,” said Twilight, not able to keep the confusion from her tone. “But what good is a sundial when you’re...” She spared a final look straight up at the cavern roof. She gazed at it for a long moment but eventually gave up, leaving the pillar and returning to the group. She still looked confused but had nothing more to say and no conclusions to draw, and so there was a moment of simple, uncertain quiet before they began moving once again.

They followed the road onwards as straight as the crow might fly, passing half-a-dozen more of the two-headed statues on their travels – and Twilight lit each one as they went. If they somehow lost sight of the suspended tower that marked the exit, then to find their way back to the square in which they’d landed they just had to follow the path of statues with glowing horns. Simple.

Daring had to admit it was an elegant solution, even if Twilight did seem a little too pleased with herself for coming up with it.

They passed a huge, rectangular space that intersected their road at right-angles and continued to their left and right, joining with other streets. Stalls, tents and flimsy shacks stood, before which were decrepit tables – not many of which still carried themselves on four legs – and crates built of long-decayed wood and crude nails. An ancient market or bazaar. Twilight seemed to pause to take a few mental notes but Rainbow Dash stayed in step. And they continued on. They were close now.

A short onward walk finally brought them to the centre of the spider’s web of roads and streets. To the focus of the city, and for the first time even Daring Do beheld it, now able to see it in its entirety, her vision not limited by mere torchlight.

The place where they stood was about a third of the way east of the geographical centre of the city, and almost directly beneath the worst of the deformity in the cavern roof. The street brought them to the cusp of an enormous circular plaza, a little under a hundred meters across. Right the way around the circumference a dozen other main roads led away into the depths of the city. The floor was sunken, about six feet down from their level, with steps leading down from the end of every road that terminated here. Three staggered rows of stone benches filled the remaining space around the perimeter, and it was as though they were looking onto a wide but very shallow amphitheatre. Directly in front of them, midway to the centre of the courtyard, a low and plain rectangular slab stood like an altar. On the far side to where they had entered, there stood a palace, smaller in scale than, say, Canterlot Castle but equally as opulent, with towers and spires reaching up almost to the cavern ceiling; lavishly worked engravings set into its walls, turrets and balconies, with elegant touches and flourishes that spoke of true care and attention to detail in its construction at every level.

If the road that they had used to enter the courtyard were viewed as the six o’clock position on a clock-face, and the palace stood at twelve, then at both the nine and the three-o'clock positions there stood a statue. For a change though, these two monuments did not have a pair of heads each. They were both simply normal unicorn stallions, clad in sculpted finery and upon their heads each bore an ornate crown with a single prominent jewel, and which had such detail in the stonework that the most artisan of craftsponies must have spent scores of hours working them. At first glance the statues appeared to mirror each other, but a closer inspection would reveal subtle differences in their features, mane, clothing, and the crowns on their heads. They were positioned in the courtyard at the terminus of two more roads, about a third of the way in from the stone benches that marked the perimeter.

And at the very centre of the huge courtyard was the apparent focus of attention for the whole city. The point from which every road supposedly had its origin. A round table of some sort, cast in bronze and into the surface of which were etched numerous decorative symbols and engravings. It was seven feet in diameter and the table-top near eight inches thick, resting upon a single, wide pedestal rising from the floor. Set into the vertical rim of the chunky tabletop were two four-inch wide circular holes, directly opposite each other and which seemed to bore inwards to the tables’ core.

“That’s it,” said Daring in a whisper. “That’s the mechanism.”

Rainbow, who had been squinting hard at the whole arrangement before her, offered her opinion. “That thing? Uh... are you sure? I mean... it just looks like a big, round table. Are you sure the reason you couldn’t get it to ‘work’ isn’t because it’s just a big, round table?”

“Trust me, I’m sure,” she said, taking a stride forward towards the short set of steps that led down to the plaza’s level.

She led them past the altar, heading straight towards the centre of the courtyard, and approached the mysterious dais with her companions in tow. Reaching it, she stopped, drew herself up and lowered her head enough to give it a severe glare from beneath the brim of her hat, gazing at it as though it were an old adversary.

The bronzework had long ago tarnished and faded to a dull and muted grey-green, but the intricate and bold floral decorations embossed into its surface were still clear and proud. The same two-horse-head emblem they had seen several times now was worked into the design in various places, and set into the very centre of the table was what looked like a large, round, white, semi-transparent stone of glass or crystal, as big as a large stallion’s hoof, and within which there seemed to be two bright strands of gold-white light writhing amidst a milky, roiling fog that gently swirled. On opposite sides of the table, directly above the round holes in the rim, a thin circular recess had been cast in the shape of a ring. Not as decorative or ornate as the other workings on the tabletop, as though functional in some way.

Daring shed her saddlebags not far from the table, rolling her neck and stretching her back, and Twilight and Rainbow did likewise. Spying something on the ground on the left side of the plinth, she stepped toward it and stooped low. When she straightened she was holding a six-foot long, thick and heavy cylinder of metal, the same tarnished colour as the table. One half of its length was covered in irregular grooves, both jagged and wavy but with no discernable pattern to them. Daring gave herself a chuckle as she hefted it. “Heh... forgot I left this one here.”

A pair of confused looks prompted her to explanation.

“You see the holes here in the side of the dais?” said Daring. “Inside of them there are small teeth around the interior. You insert one of these special, grooved rods into each hole, and each acts like a key. When both rods are in place, it should unlock the mechanism.”

“And when it unlocks?” asked Twilight.

“Not sure. Never got that far and I don’t know enough about this place, this culture or this artifact to guess. But... if I had to speculate based on previous experience and how these things normally go? I’m guessing the table opens up somehow to reveal some treasure or relic. If not, chances are we get a map or something, maybe projected by that stone in the centre.”

“Okay, so we just need to figure out how to work this thing with only one key,” said Rainbow Dash, eyeing the table. From her expression it was clear she was trying to find some way that ‘brute force’ could be employed as the solution. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

“You can’t,” said Daring. “Believe me, I tried. You need both.”

“Uh... stop me if I’m wrong,” said Twilight, “But isn’t the other one over there? I mean, it sure looks similar...”

“Yeah, that’s it,” confirmed Daring, turning only now. Twilight had indicated the stallion statue that had been towards their left as they’d entered the courtyard. Directly before it, another tall, thin cylinder jutted vertically from the floor, stood upright by virtue of the fact that the bottom third of its length – covered in the same grooves as its sibling – was recessed into a hole in the flagstones clearly excavated especially for it. In the same place on the opposite side of the plaza before the statue’s opposite number, a familiar-looking hole in the ground stood empty.

There was a moment of confused quiet.

“If that’s it then... why haven’t you got it and used it?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Daring snapped her head back toward them. “Oh, you think it’s that simp—!?”

She caught herself. Bit her tongue. She could feel herself getting annoyed; riled up, and she was sure that meeting this blasted table again – the thing that had beaten her; made her turn tail and slink away – was part of the reason. Knowing the cause did little to improve her mood though. She felt a frown on her brow and heat in her throat. “Be my guest, Rainbow Dash,” she said with cynicism. “Go get it.”

Still with a slightly puzzled look, Dash flitted over to the statue. The stonework horse loomed over her at easily twice her height as she approached the artifact. Grasping the metal relic with her hooves, she heaved and tugged, but the rod would not budge. She huffed before turning back. “It’s stuck,” she announced.

Daring nodded and, still carrying the cylinder, she led Twilight towards the monument on the right and the vacant hole in the ground. She was close to getting her answers now; to finally beating the one challenge that had bested her... except for every little delay by those other two ponies she still needed. Every question that felt like it took an eternity to ask and answer, every pause or look or action that wasn’t directly linked to accomplishing their goal were grains of sand that were slipping through her hourglass of patience, and they were beginning to pile up.

Twilight, for her part, didn’t seem to notice. As they crossed the courtyard she found herself looking more closely at the statue towards which they were headed. “There’s something about him...” she concluded. “Something I can’t place. It’s like I recognise him somehow.”

For a moment, Daring’s curiosity overcame her building irritation. “You’ve seen him before?” she asked.

“No... I’m sure I haven’t. But there is something about him that’s... familiar.

“What about this guy?” called Rainbow from the opposite sculpture. With only the sound of silence to compete with, even conversational voices carried cleanly across the plaza.

Twilight looked behind her, and while the far statue was quite some distance away, she still shook her head. “No. I mean clearly there’s a resemblance between those two. Maybe they’re brothers? But him...” she looked back at her own statue. Then, after a lengthy silence, she shook her head. “Nope, can’t put my hoof on it. Never mind. Probably my head playing tricks.”

They reached the hole in the ground before the other stallion. Daring frowned, and gritted her teeth a little in remembered frustration.

There was another of those strange, brief pauses before Twilight spoke. “Okay... so, what’s the catch?”

Daring harrumphed and rolled her eyes as another grain of patience slipped by. She inserted the cylinder she had brought with her into its recess and pushed it home. “Okay,” she said and turned back toward Rainbow Dash on the far side of the courtyard. “Now try it.”

This time when Dash pulled, her cylinder slid smoothly out. A half-second after it came clear of the flagstones, a solid ‘click’ sounded from somewhere underhoof and Daring felt the faintest of vibrations in the stonework beneath. Now it was Daring’s rod that was firmly stuck within the floor.

“You hear that? Feel it?” she asked of Twilight. “Some kind of lock or vice mechanism, I think. Removing one rod locks the other in place. I was never able to find a way to free both up together. Not... by myself and believe me, I tried.” She sighed.

“Alright,” said Twilight with a sudden, cheery smile “Well it’s a good thing you brought a friend then. Now... the lock only seemed to trigger when Rainbow’s rod finally came free. So, we’ll pull them both out at the same time, and see how far we get.”

“Yes... that is the theory...” said Daring with a quirked eyebrow. Twilight did have a habit of stating the obvious.

“Great! Okay get ready to pull. Ready Rainbow?” she called.

“Ready!” Rainbow called back, re-inserting her rod and instantly ready for her cue.

“Okay. Three... two... one... pull!”

Daring and Rainbow Dash carefully, slowly pulled on the cylinders in unison. And as Daring held her breath, both of the cylinders came smoothly free of their respective recesses until they were clear. Rainbow held hers aloft in triumph while Twilight gave a moderately confused look.

“Huh. Well, that was easy,” said Twilight with a creased brow.

Daring was taken aback, and could only stare and gawp at the metal rod she now held. Which Twilight noticed.

“Daring? Is something wrong?”

“Huh? No... nothing.”

“Are you sure? You look a little... well, shell-shocked.”

Daring shook her head roughly. When she raised it she found Twilight’s eyes looking at her with that weird ‘concerned’ expression she had. Daring sighed. “Two days. I spent two days down here, in the dark, playing with these things. Trying to extract them by myself without damaging them. Everything I tried, failed. I built up so much frustration around this... thing! And now... with you and your friend here the problem’s solved in two minutes. Like it wasn’t even a problem at all.” She broke eye-contact and shook her head again. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” she admitted.

Her reverie was interrupted by the sound of metal scraping upon metal from nearby. Over by the table, Rainbow Dash was already trying to insert the grooved portion of her cylinder into one of the holes in the table-rim without success.

“Ungh!” she grunted. “It’s stuck!”

“Because there’s a similar mechanism inside the table,” said Daring as she walked back over with Twilight. “Same way as you have to remove the keys together, you have to insert them together. I never got one to go in on its own.”

Rainbow looked up but Daring was already in position, on the opposite side of the table and with the end of her cylinder at the mouth of its receptacle. “Ready? One, two, three!

The quiet singing of metal sliding against metal sounded in the empty air as the two keys were pushed horizontally into the table, ancient locks within retracting to grant access to the twin rods until finally they were in as far as they would go, seating into place with a pair of clicks and each leaving about three feet of metal protruding.

Daring stood at the table, looking over it with a critical eye but her heart thundering within her chest. She had to remind herself to breathe, even. Finally, both keys were in place, after who-knew how long. A thousand years, at least and probably a couple of centuries over. But now, whatever the table was designed for was surely about to be revealed. This was the moment she loved. The discovery; the triumph. Any second.

Nothing happened.

“Huh,” said Rainbow Dash, leaning casually against the rod she had inserted. “Well, that was a bust. What now?”

Daring continued to scan the tabletop, searching. She wasn’t frustrated anymore though, in spite of her thin-lipped countenance. She was excited. This was progress, she was sure of it. There was just another step to figure out, and that was the fun part. “Could be there’s a hidden switch or lever we haven’t seen yet...” she said, before turning her attention to her own rod. “Or... it could be broken. Sometimes these ancient relics don’t last. I have to improvise.” She gave the cylinder a little push-pull back and forth, on the off-chance that it wasn’t correctly located.

And the table turned.

With Rainbow Dash leaning on her cylinder, and Daring pushing hers, the entire tabletop rotated a few degrees anticlockwise. More than that, it accompanied a horrendous scraping sound of stone dragged across stone which seemed to come from everywhere around them at once even as the ground beneath them seemed to... shift somehow. Twilight nearly lost her balance and Rainbow fell flat on her back – a combination of the cylinder she’d been leaning on suddenly moving away and the somehow unstable floor beneath her. “Ow,” she protested even as everything came to an abrupt, lurching end. She stood back up and regarded her friends and the table.

“Hey! Look at this!” said Twilight. She had turned to face away from the table and bent low.

Behind her – behind all of them, the ground on which they were standing had sunk. A twenty-foot wide circular section of floor from the very middle of the courtyard – encompassing the table at its centre – had uniformly descended about three inches below the level of the surrounding flagstones, and it was this brand new vertical discrepancy that Twilight eagerly pointed out.

Daring took another look at the table with its two protruding rods, that had rotated a few degrees about its centre axis, and the floor which had now descended by several inches from its original environment, and everything seemed to come into clear focus. She adjusted her hat with newfound confidence even as she felt a familiar, adventurous grin appear upon her muzzle.

“Oh, this just got much more interesting.”