• 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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7: Gauntlet

With Twilight and Rainbow Dash on one side, and Daring on the other, all three ponies were now pushing against the bronze cylinders they had inserted into the table, causing the whole arrangement to rotate anti-clockwise, one revolution after another. And as it rotated, the whole twenty-foot wide platform gradually descended below the level of the flagstones; as though it were on the head of a screw that they were winding down. In fact, if Daring had to guess, the actual mechanism wouldn’t be too dissimilar to that analogy.


Metre by metre they lowered the platform into the depths of the city’s underground as smooth stone walls of block and mortar rose up around them, as though they were sinking into the depths of a deep well. When Daring let go of her rod to re-adjust her grip the whole apparatus came to a sudden, lurching halt and Twilight and Rainbow found their weight thrown forward onto the suddenly-stuck handle they’d been pushing, almost knocking the wind from them both. There were slight exclamations of protest as they both let out some variant of, “Oof!”


“Huh...” said Daring with a faint scowl, concentrating on the table. “Some kind of brake mechanism,” she concluded after a few seconds. “Both handles have to pushed at the same time or it doesn’t budge? Whoever built this place really was keen on the whole, ‘do everything in twos’ thing.”


“It’s getting tougher too,” noted Rainbow.


“Agreed,” said Daring. “Feels like we’re pushing against a spring or something. The deeper we get the harder it’s becoming.”


“That’s not all,” said Twilight, pointing to the centre of the table.


The crystal or glass stone mounted in the centre had begun to luminesce as the fog trapped within it moved more rapidly, roiling and swirling as though it were a miniature storm and emitting a pure, white glow that had been building in intensity the deeper into the pit they had descended. The twin strands of light had become more agitated too, writhing with new vigour.


“You don’t think it’s just illumination?”


“I think it’s magic,” observed Twilight. “And I think it’s building to something.”


“Well, if we’re lucky we’ll find out when we hit the bottom,” said Daring as she took a firm grip on the rod once more. They had come too far to stop now.


After a half-dozen more revolutions, Rainbow spotted an opening in the wall of the well, right at floor-level. A few more turns and the platform lowered further, revealing a doorway complete with an iron portcullis to block the way. And after a final mighty heave – the resistance of the platform having risen considerably so as to almost make the table unmoveable now – there were a series of loud knocks, clicks and scrapes and the table came to a certain end of its rotation. The platform floor rested at the same level as the base of the door, at least three stories below the surface. Clearly, they had reached the end of the line.


Suddenly there was a sizzling sound in the air, and before any of the ponies had time to react the crystal stone in the centre of the table let out a blinding white flash of light that engulfed all three before fading quickly.


As soon as the light touched her coat, Twilight gasped and let out a shuddering shiver, as though she had been plunged into an ice-bath.


“Twilight?” blurted Rainbow Dash as her vision started to return.


“What’s wrong?” asked Daring in a calmer, more measured tone, blinking to reassert her own sight in the face of the sudden flash.


Twilight took a moment to gather herself before she responded. “I’m not sure. It... felt like walking through a freezing waterfall. Didn’t you feel it?”


“I dunno. Maybe a little?” said Rainbow, her own sight returning quickly. “Nothing worth going all wibbly over. You’re okay though, right?”


“I think so. But the stone did something. Almost like it cast a spell on us,” said Twilight, turning. She lowered her horn a touch and... her eyes widened. “My magic. It’s not working! Whatever that thing did, it’s blocking it,” she said, suddenly awed. “That’s... amazing.” She took another look at the table and then up at the pit they’d found themselves at the bottom of. “Whoever it was that built this place... they had an immense grasp of the arcane.”


“Really? It, uh... doesn’t sound that impressive?” said Rainbow Dash.


“Using magic to neutralise itself? Believe me, that’s quite a feat. Like... imagine if you had to dam a river, but you were only allowed to use the river-water itself to make the dam. Yes, it’s possible, but not without some creative thinking and a lot of skill.” She started musing to herself: “The builders of an ancient unicorn city went to great lengths to ensure that nopony who found their way down here could use their magic. Why would they do that? And why did you feel it... too...?” Twilight trailed off, looking a worried shade of askance at Rainbow Dash. “Rainbow? Can you fly?”


“Huh? Of course I can fly.”


“I mean right now? Can you fly right now?”


“Well obviously,” said Rainbow, extending her wings and giving them a couple of flaps. Just enough the get her off the...


A moment later Rainbow looked back at her furiously flapping wings as all four of her hooves remained stubbornly in contact with the stonework beneath them. She even tried jumping into the air, and though the flapping of her wings slowed her descent by a negligible amount, flight was simply not on the cards. Rainbow’s brow raised and her jaw dropped, abject horror a picture on her face. “Agh! Twilight! I can’t fly! Something’s wrong! What’s wrong?!”


“Whatever that spell is, clearly it can nullify flight as well as magic,” said Twilight calmly, which drew Rainbow’s annoyed glare.


“What are you talking about? You can’t just turn off flying! It’s about air and pressure and surface area: it’s physics, not magic!


“No, Rainbow, there is a magical component to pegasus flight. Not a large one which is probably why you didn’t feel it as strongly as I did, but it does exist. And you can neutralise it. Tirek managed it, remember? I wonder if the enchantment on that stone is a variant of the spell he used...” Twilight mulled as she regarded the stone with scrutiny once more. The milky, roiling mist within it had become noticeably thicker and swirled more vigorously now, and she noted with horror that the two strands of electric light within had been joined by three more separate strings of fizzing energy. “It’s not blocking it... the stone absorbed—?” she whispered, only to be cut off.


“Twilight, this isn’t cool! Can’t you do something?”


Twilight straightened. “Well... I’m sure there’s a counter-spell that would restore our natural abilities. But without magic, I can’t cast it.” The look on Rainbow Dash’s face told her that was exactly what she didn’t want to hear, so Twilight tried another tack. “Okay, let’s think about this for a second,” said Twilight. “The stone was building up its spell on the way down, right? Well, maybe when the table returns to the surface, it releases the spell. It would make sense. This was all clearly designed for a reason. I doubt that reason was to permanently deprive ponies of their gifts.”


“Getting the platform back to the surface? It’s not gonna happen,” said Daring Do with a grimace. “The whole platform’s locked in place somehow. We’d need to figure out how to unlock it first.”


“But... how are we supposed to—?!”


“Relax,” snapped Daring. “We’ll figure it out. Just add it to the list of questions we don’t have answers to yet, along with worshipping two-headed horses and using sundials underground. For now though... we go on,” she finished, raising a hoof and pointing.


Their sole route of progress was now unimpeded for the portcullis had raised, apparently in time with the flash of light. Daring stood before it and a grin spread across her face. Ancient ruins, clever mysteries, dire peril. This was what it was all about! With her head raised high, she strode to the threshold with her two tag-a-longs hesitantly forming up behind her.


The corridor beyond was the same block-and-mortar construction; hundreds of perfectly chiseled, flat-edged lumps of rectangular stone formed a passage about two meters wide and a little over that high. Here and there, embedded at regular intervals in the walls, crystals glowed with a faint, white light, providing barely adequate illumination. The air was more stale even than that of the city above and without any warmth to it at all, and the only sound a hoofstep echoing on the stone, deafening in the absence of any other noise.



With a practised eye, Daring scanned the walls, the floor, the ceiling, everything she could see from just inside the threshold. Searching for the holes in the stonework that signified dart or arrow traps; the subtle variances in texture and pattern that indicated a false floor over a spike pit. And the rest. She found none in her immediate vicinity but she trod lightly, joints always slightly bent, ready to duck, roll or leap at an instant’s notice. So far into her typical routine was she that she forgot to register that she needed to take additional account of her novice tourists. Presently she stopped and turned to look back over her shoulder. “There could be traps anywhere so here’s how this is gonna work. You step where I step. You touch nothing. Not unless I say so, and if I say run... run. Got it?”



“Traps? What... like, booby-traps?” asked Rainbow.



“Hey, watch your language. Little foals are gonna end up reading this, y’know,” said Daring, allowing herself another grin.



From behind, Twilight let out a little surprised noise. “Hey hold on... there’s something here. In the wall of the pit. There’s a narrow gap in the brickwork where the mortar’s been dug out. There’s something in it... oh... wow. You won’t believe this: there’s a book here!” she cried, clearly elated. Daring had never heard of anyone getting so excited over a book before. A subtle noise of scraping and sliding indicated that Twilight was, at that moment, retrieving said book from where it had been hidden.



Daring looked round with a frown. “What did I just say?”



Twilight seemed to realise her error, but the fact was that no arrows had been fired from the walls and the floor hadn’t collapsed from beneath them. “Sorry. But... it’s a book,” she said, pleading her case.



And so it was. An average-sized hard-backed book within a plain green dust-jacket with no title at all. But the front of the jacket was adorned with a delicate gold-work example of the same two horse-head symbol they had seen many times now.



Not being able to resist, Twilight very delicately – for she did not have magic to assist her – opened the cover to the first page. Dry, yellow, cracked and terribly brittle paper greeted her, upon which was text written in beautiful, flowing calligraphy, and text that she could still read no less.



“You’re gonna read that now?” queried Rainbow Dash.



Twilight looked up, her gaze cast between both of her friends. “You know those answers we don’t have? Some of them might be in here.” She put on a little grin. “The answers are always in a book, remember?”



“Whatever.”



“Just keep your wits about you, alright? We’re not stopping for a reading session and I don’t want you skewered by a spike-trap,” said Daring.



“Fair enough. I can read and walk at the same time. I’ve had a fair bit of practise.”



“And remember... if I say run...” reminded Daring.



They walked on towards the doorway at the far end of the corridor.



And Twilight read...

* * *

I find myself having a difficult time, of late. In recent months there have been so many questions and concerns on my mind that they all scream and clamour for attention, yet I am unable even to stop, pause, and think on their solutions. Summer Sun knows me too well not to have noticed, and she has finally convinced me to take action, of a sort. She believes that writing about my stresses will give me the chance to order my thoughts. At the very least, she says, it will allow me to lay them all bare. She is probably right. And though it feels foolish to disclose my troubles to a quill and a ream of bound parchment, I know better than to dismiss her suggestions. She has always been more knowledgeable in these matters than I.


Platinum is not returning. Not two weeks ago we received word: herself and her assistant, with whom she struck out on her headstrong quest to explore a new land for settlement, have located just that. By her account it is a vibrant land of rich colour and warm weather, and she has made good friends upon her travels, including Earth-kind and Pegasus ponies! Summer Sun was far less surprised by this news. Pegasi make for the most devoted and loyal companions, she noted, then astutely reminded me that it was for this reason I married her. I cannot argue.


But while the thought that my niece will not be returning home has sent a pang of grief through my own heart it is nothing to what I know must have beset my brother. I believe he always thought she would return from what he saw as her foolhardy endeavour, and while they may not always have seen eye-to-eye, she was ever his daughter, and he her loving father. But at least he knows she is safe and happy, and has not met with any ill fate. Thus he will weather this and respect the decision she has made. For us both, our first duty is to the city and our people, as it always must be.


Unfortunately I cannot say I blame her for not wanting to return. The unusual winter has grown colder, though I did not think that possible, and it has lasted for eighteen months now. Spring, once a certainty, is now but memory and hope. Blizzards pile snow in the streets faster than it can be cleared. Ice covers everything from doors to drains and our ponies are wrapping themselves in many layers of clothing simply to call on their neighbours. In this terrible climate the only seeds that grow are those of tension and mistrust, and they have finally bloomed among the populace, with rumours of hoarding and even crime beginning to cause unrest. The mages are once again proclaiming the foul weather to be the work of malevolent spirits, but such preposterous notions cannot be entertained. Not when we must focus all of our energies into finding a solution to the cold.


And it seems there are only two options to consider: in the first case we must leave the city – every last stallion, filly and colt – and abandon all we have built here, all we have worked so hard for, and travel south and west, hoping that Platinum might welcome us into the new land they are even now building. But there are some – the young, the elderly, the infirm – who would simply not survive the journey through the mountains in this climate. And the worse the weather becomes, the greater the number that cannot make the trip grows. My brother and I have talked long and seriously about this, and in this we are in complete agreement – we will not abandon a single pony. Thus we must take the second option: remain and protect our city and our ponies in whatever way we can. Our best architects have devised a plan – one that I never would have thought possible, one that I am afraid to even give voice to – but they assure us it will work. It will be a massive undertaking, and it will require every ounce of skill and expertise that this city has ever cultivated... but that skill is second to none anywhere in the world. This will change our city and our way of life forever, but I do believe it will save us, as does my brother, and so there is no choice.


And yet, even in spite of all of this talk of strife, desperation and melancholy, with the weight of thousands upon my brow, I find myself all of a sudden filled with hope. For not four hours ago Summer Sun told me of the most terrifying yet exhilarating news that it is possible for any stallion to hear:


I... am going to be a father.

* * *

The far end of the corridor ended in another doorway, beyond which was a room, and their first obstacle.


On the far side, at about head-height, a similar door to that through which they had entered provided the exit. But directly before them a ramp sloped away, downwards at an angle of perhaps thirty degrees. The incline descended about eight feet before it leveled out and then met a sheer, vertical wall eight or nine feet high which led up to the level ground of the corridor. It was as though they were standing before a deep pit which spanned the entire width of the room, albeit one that it was fairly easy to trot out of on their own side.


Daring sized it up. Spike-trap? No, no holes. Moving walls? No, no grooves or scuff-marks. Gigantic boulder rolling down the slope to squish you? Hmm... no. Just no. Safe. She trotted down the incline and stood before the wall. It was too high for even a tall pony to grab the top edge even with the most athletic of leaps, and the gradient of the slope behind her seemed designed to ensure that no matter where you stood on it, that would always be the case. Flight was also out of the question thanks to that magic crystal. So, that left only one solution. She spun with a little grin.


“Alright. We’re gonna need to fashion some basic climbing tools. Anything sharp and thin that we can drive into the mortar will work. Give us some hoof-holds – it’s not that high, we should only need a couple. Failing that, we’ll braid some of our tail-hair to make a short rope and find something we can use as a grapple to haul ourselves up with.”


A pair of confused, befuddled expressions stared back at her from the top of the slope.


Seriously?” said Rainbow. She exchanged an odd, almost pitied look with Twilight before closing her eyes and shaking her head a little. And with that they both trotted down the slope to the base of the wall. “C’mon, Twilight, I’ll give you a boost.”


Daring watched open mouthed as, next to her, in the space of seconds and without prior rehearsal, Twilight clambered onto Rainbow Dash’s back, and then stood upon her head, their combined height easily allowing her to reach up with her forelegs to cling onto the ledge above them. Rainbow Dash reared a little, giving Twilight an extra foot in height and then Twilight scrambled, and was up. She turned and lay on her belly, reaching down for Rainbow’s hoof, linked with it, and pulled Rainbow up to her level too. Then Rainbow turned and reached down for Daring.


“Or... y’know, we could totally do the whole mane-rope thing instead,” she said with a smirk.


Daring’s mouth had not yet found closure and she continued to gawp for a moment. “Huh,” she finally concluded.


There wasn’t really much she could add.

* * *

I would not have believed it possible. It has been only a few months since my brother and I assented to the project, and the structure is already half-complete. Including the magnificent central tower. The finest unicorn builders and engineers ever to have lived are, even as I write, crafting and creating piece-by-piece our salvation from the cold. When it is finished even the mightiest storm needn’t trouble us. In another few short months, our ponies will finally be safe from the worst the world can throw at us in these discordant times.



But meanwhile the weather grows worse. Some days I can almost believe it mirrors the decaying mood of our people. The worst of the blizzards seem somehow timed to strike at the worst possible moments, when morale is at its lowest, as though they respond to the combined, desperate anger of the populace. There are many that are enraged, and outspoken in their views; their disagreement to this course is clear, particularly among the groups joining the miniature exodus that seems to be underway.



The Celestial Cadre were always the most vociferously opposed to the endeavour. It did not take them long to work out that being cut off from the sun and the moon would make it most difficult for them to perform their task of bringing forth day and night. Though my brother and I rule the city as equals, the Cadre has, by virtue of the importance of their station, always wielded a vast measure of power and influence. Even before we had decided on this course they had given us an ultimatum: stay this madness or they would be forced to leave the city. They made good on their threat, and perhaps one-in-ten of the city’s ponies left with them: those who said they would rather brave the treacherous mountains than live the rest of their lives devoid of sunlight. More decide to follow them every day. They will travel southwest, to Platinum and the new land of Equestria, and to all of them I wish the best of luck.



But our city must survive. Our culture and people must survive. And this is the only way it can. The vast majority support our decision. When we undertook our most recent Trial a week ago, their spirits soared! The bond between my brother and I is strong; our trust unshakeable. And with Unity and Harmony the people saw once again that it is our commitment to keeping them safe that drives us. I swear there was such a swell of warmth from them, and at the perfect moment the sun even managed to appear through the clouds to gladden our hearts; as though the storm were banished by the raising of their spirits. It was a good day.



I worry that those will be in short supply in the days to come.

* * *

The next chamber brought them face-to-face with another pit. This one about five meters wide and three times that in length. The pit seemed to be two or three meters in depth, but rising from the floor, in neat rows, were scores of thin, pointed spikes rising to two-thirds the height of the drop. As before, there was no way to circumvent the pit itself as it encompassed the entire width of the new chamber. From each of the four corners, and from midway along the two longer sides, six thick chains of rusted metal seemed to trail loosely upwards before disappearing into six holes in the ceiling, one directly above each. Along the left and right walls, stretching out away from them at about floor-level, a series of blocky protrusions extended a few inches, a dozen on each side. Far too narrow to stand on, their purpose appeared utilitarian rather than decorative, but Daring couldn’t fathom their function.



On the right wall next to where they stood, not far from the drop, was mounted a simple vertical wheel half-recessed into the stone. Thin metal rods protruding at perpendicular angles to the wheel’s surface allowed easy purchase for hooves to pull on, and allowed free rotation of the wheel by virtue of thin slits in the stone wall above and below through which the handles passed easily. The whole affair was doubtless connected to some mechanism hidden from view. On the other wall, diagonally opposite the wheel on the far side of the pit, was what appeared to be the exit. Thus the pit itself was rectangular, extending all the way to the back of the chamber, but the room seemed to be L-shaped, with the goal ahead of them and to the left – solid ground on the same level as their own.



I do love a classic spike-pit, thought Daring as she turned to Rainbow. “Give that thing a pull or two,” she said, indicating the pull-wheel on the wall.



Rainbow stepped over to it and began to turn it. At once the six dangling chains rising from the pit went taught and began to ascend into the ceiling, clattering and chattering as they went. As Dash continued to pull on the wheel, from the floor of the pit – heretofore hidden in the gloom – rose a metalwork mesh composed of thin strands of criss-crossing ironwork within a thick bronze frame, now being suspended by the half-dozen chains around its perimeter. The mesh was woven in such a manner that it allowed the slender spikes in the pit to pass right through, but still knit closely enough that it would be easy to walk upon. Rainbow continued to pull on the wheel until the mesh cradle cleared the spikes and came to rest at floor-level, impeded from further ascent by the blocky protrusions on the long walls against which the frame suddenly clattered. So that’s what they were for.



Daring stepped right to the edge of the pit and examined with care the mesh beneath her. It seemed strong enough, but the sheer size of the frame made it look extremely heavy. Doubtless there was some pulley-mechanism at play allowing a single pony to lift its weight, but...



She turned back to Rainbow, still with a handle of the wheel gripped in her hooves. “Let it go.”



She did, and at once the improvised suspended floor plummeted back into the pit. The spikes rose cleanly through the mesh, and the whole frame crashed heavily to the floor with an almighty racket of metal hitting stone.



Rainbow gulped. Twilight grimaced.



“So... if you’re on that thing and the pony holding the wheel lets go...” began Twilight.



“You fall onto the spikes,” said Daring grimly. “Nice.” She took a deep breath.



Turning to Rainbow, she said, “Okay, pull it up again.”



The mesh cradle was once more raised above the sharp forest of needles, coming to rest against the bottom of the blocky ‘teeth’ in the walls. When it was in place and the crank would turn no more she faced Rainbow again. “Okay. You hold that thing right there. You don’t let go. Not for anything. And if it feels like you’re gonna lose your grip, or you’re gonna sneeze, or anything like that, you yell out. You hear me?”



Rainbow gave her an odd look in reply. As though Daring might as well have just informed her that water was wet, or that bees made honey. “I’m not gonna let you fall, y’know,” she finally said with an odd, soft sincerity to her tenor.



To which Daring frowned. “Darn right. Because I’m not becoming a pony-kebab today, got it?” She turned and, with a light step, trod carefully onto the wire floor, held over the pit of deadly spikes by nothing more than a fallible pony of flesh, blood and attitude, who might decide at any moment that it was more important to scratch her butt or something than actually keep her alive. Her blood almost ran cold when she realised just what a terrible idea this actually was, putting her fate in somepony else’s hooves, but she was already halfway.



She reached the corner diagonally opposite from where Rainbow Dash stood holding the wheel, and, turning to her left, stepped off the mesh onto solid stone again. Stupid, Yearling, stupid! You know better than that! Trust them with a pen or something. Not your life! Nopony’s that trustworthy. She let out a long breath, thankful that the other two could not see her, concealed as she was round the corner on the short side of the L-shaped chamber.



Ahead of her stood the exit doorway, and on the wall to her left – concealed from the far end of the pit where Rainbow and Twilight stood – was another vertical wheel similar to the first. Daring pulled on the wheel now, and she could feel the slack being taken up with each turn. Eventually the wheel would turn no more and when she tried, the frame jostled noisily against the teeth in the walls that prevented it from being raised too high.



“Okay, you two. You can come across. It’s safe,” she called.



A slight pause.



You’re sure?” That was Twilight’s voice.



“Yeah, it’s okay. I’ve got it.”



Alright, we’re coming over.



Another slight hesitation before she heard Rainbow’s voice, talking to Twilight. “Look, maybe I should hold onto this. Just in case.



She said it was safe,” was Twilight’s simple reply.



Followed by another, brief pause.



You’re right. Daring Do said it was safe, so it’s safe. Okay, let’s go.” And with that, there swiftly followed two sets of hooves clanking softly and carefully upon metal.



They trust you though, Yearling. Daring sighed. More’s the fool them, then. Just... hold real tight, okay? Don’t let them fall. They’re more important than scratching your butt.



Mere moments passed, though they seemed to stretch into hours, before finally both ponies reached the corner and stepped onto firm stone again with obvious relief. They looked at each other.



“What?! I wasn’t worried! You were worried,” began Rainbow with a sly grin.



“I was not!” protested Twilight with an expression of mock offense.



And then they were both chuckling in that strange way they did.



And for once, Daring too found just a hint of a tickle in the back of her throat. She wasn’t sure why. Couldn’t pinpoint where it had come from or what was even the slightest bit funny, but there it was. She let out a subdued, nasal exhalation that might have had the merest note of mirth to it before she turned and led them towards the door, and onwards.

* * *

I have a daughter!



Oh, I am so happy I could leap for joy. She is beautiful – so much so that I cannot even find the words to convey it on paper. Mere text cannot describe how radiant she is, or how happy she has made Summer and I! She has Summer’s coat and her beautiful, expressive eyes. She is everything we could have wished for: strong and healthy and happy. And we have been positively inundated with outpourings of love and goodwill from everypony – my brother and his wife, our loyal courtiers, the city ponies all. I cannot thank our physicians enough – they have been truly amazing. Today is a day for celebration, and doubly so, for it has come to happen that on the same day of the birth of my first daughter, the Great Construction has been completed. The final section of the roof that now covers our city and shields it from the terrible climate has been erected and sealed in place. And though the sun is now lost to us and we must learn to adapt, I am nevertheless overjoyed that my daughter was able to see its light, if only for a few brief hours. It feels fitting, somehow.



Already the air is warmer and the snow does not trouble us. Life can finally return to how it was before this cursed winter befell our city and tried to drive us away. Let this be a lesson to all forces that would seek to uproot and destroy us, be they natural or foreign – we are unicorns, and we will protect our way of life and those we hold dear, no matter what is thrown at us.



I hear music playing outside in the Grand Plaza. A party is beginning in honour of my daughter and my family. I intend to join it. After so many months of doubt and stress, I know now that it was all worthwhile. The city and its ponies are safe. Everything is going to be just fine.

* * *

The corridor turned several corners in both directions before bringing them to the next chamber, which was...



Ugh. This isn’t gonna translate well to paper.



The chamber was rectangular, but about three times as wide and long as any they’d explored yet. Three-quarters of the way down, a gridded, iron latticework stretched from the left wall to the right, bisecting the room into two halves. Nearest the right-hand wall of the room the metal trellis incorporated a door, hinged at the wall itself but prevented from opening by two thick, iron bands extruding from the stonework and locking into brackets mounted on the door and its jamb. Their placement was such that the iron bars appeared designed to retract into the wall somehow, thus freeing the door to open.



In the half of the room that the explorers stepped into, the dominant feature was a square pit four meters to a side and about three meters deep, leaving enough space to walk around it easily. It looked much like a small, empty swimming pool, actually, but for two oddities. On the left wall, near the top of the excavation, was a large square recess, one metre deep, at the back of which was a sheet metal plate, while on the wall straight ahead at the bottom of the pit, was a similarly-sized opening which seemed to lead into a square tunnel or passage of some kind. Finally, on the left of the room, above the recessed alcove in the pit, a parallel pair of chains extended from floor-to-ceiling as though they might be rigged to a pulley.



“Okay... what?” said Rainbow Dash aloud, her brow furrowed and her nose scrunched as she tried to puzzle out the room. Daring remained quiet, scanning everything she could see but reaching no obvious conclusion.



Twilight, for her part, headed to the right and then along the right wall, circumnavigating the pit until she reached the door in the gridwork that opposed their progress. Instinctively she gave it a little push-pull, but her only reward was the sound of metal clanking on metal. The door stayed firmly shut, bound by the thick bars. Peering through to the other side of the room she let out a thoughtful hum. “The floor on the far side of the room is lower – there’s a couple of steps down – and there’s a metal trap-door or something in the floor over there,” she said. “I can see thick iron catches holding it closed.” She turned with her own puzzled expression.



“Hold on here,” Daring told her two accomplices, stepping to the edge of the pit. With a quick leap she jumped down and landed on the sunken floor, bending her knees to cushion herself as she landed. A three metre drop was child’s play.



She headed for the entrance to the tunnel directly ahead of her, but had to stop when she reached it. Her confused frown increased. The tunnel ran ahead of her for a couple of metres before making a ninety-degree left turn. Except that in the wall directly ahead was a small section of the same iron grille as that which separated the room above into two sections. Beyond the grille there was another, in the wall of the tunnel as it ran past again, and beyond that another. The tunnel, as far as she could guess, was simply a long series of S-turns running the width of the room, with those gratings placed so that, standing here at the entrance, she had a view of the goal all the way on the far side. It was a crank, complete with handle, mounted on the far wall. That wasn’t what halted her though. Because the entire floor of the tunnel – as far as she could see anyway – was covered in fine metal spikes from wall-to-wall. Not large ones, or even particularly deadly ones, for they were only about three inches in height. But they were more densely packed than the width of a hoof and so walking into the tunnel was not possible.



Daring turned and regarded the pit once more, but the only other feature of interest was a grating in the centre of the floor which looked as though it was firmly fixed in place.



A drain? Ah... okay. Starting to make sense.



She looked up, addressing the other two ponies above her. “There’s a wall-mounted crank at the far end of this tunnel. I’m betting turning it retracts the bars up there and opens up that door. But the tunnel floor’s lined with spikes. Can’t just walk up to it.”



There was a moment of silence before Rainbow Dash asked the obvious question. “Okay... so how are we supposed to reach it?”



Daring nodded at the pair of floor-to-ceiling chains on Rainbow’s level. “Give those a tug,” she said, fairly confident in the result.



Rainbow stepped over to them and, grasping one, gave a heavy pull. The chain moved smoothly and at the same time, from the recess in the wall of the pit underneath it, the metal plate – in fact it seemed more that it was a door – raised and unleashed a torrent of water which spewed out and into the pit, beginning to fill it. Tugging the chain had also caused the drain in the centre to close up somehow. Must be a linkage somewhere. Pretty complex. The fact this is all still working is astounding.



Daring nodded a grim nod, looking down at the water rising around her fetlocks – it was freezing – and flowing into the tunnel too. At this rate it wouldn’t be long before it was flooded. She raised her head to Rainbow and Twilight again and had to raise her voice to be heard over the sound of the water cascading into the pit. “Okay, so here it is: I swim down the tunnel to the crank, open that door for ya, then you go on through and unlatch the trapdoor so I can climb out. Got it?



Are you sure you don’t want one of us to swim the tunnel with you?” called Rainbow Dash.



It’s narrow enough as it is; I don’t want one of us getting in the other’s way. Relax, this isn’t my first water-hazard. Just get that trapdoor open, right? Oh, and hold this for me,” she said, pulling off her pith helmet and tossing it to Rainbow Dash.



You can count on us!” called Twilight.



Yeah... we’ll see. I don’t have much choice, thought Daring with a hidden grimace. She looked down, and cleared her mind. The water rose above the tunnel ceiling and quickly, she breathed all of the air out of her lungs before inhaling the deepest, fullest breath she could... and dove.



Everything went quiet, calm and blurry. Daring’s world was a muted symphony of muffled sounds and barely-visible walls as she located the entrance to the now-submerged tunnel. She slipped inside, sailing over the spikes in the floor and made the turn to the left. In various places on the walls, more of those glowing crystals had been mounted so at least it wasn’t dark. She reached the far wall and the tunnel turned right, and then right again, doubling back on itself as expected, and Daring found herself swimming the width of the room just to make progress. She moved quickly and efficiently, saving her stamina, giving an occasional flap of her wings to help her along – two extra limbs sure were helpful when it came to underwater challenges, and the propulsion they supplied far outweighed the drag they created. She reached the far wall again and the tunnel turned left, and then left in another switchback, and so now she was swimming back toward the left wall.



It’s like they wanted to cram the longest tunnel possible into the smallest space.



Thanks to the gratings in the walls at the mid-point of each tunnel she could accurately gauge her progress at least. It looked like she had two more full widths to do after this one – a right and then a left – before the final half-width should bring her to the crank. She’d been slowly releasing her breath bit by bit, but she had plenty left. She reached the left wall. Halfway now. She picked up the pace a little, flapping slightly harder with her wings, pumping her hindlegs a little more, making the next width pass more quickly and reaching the left turns at the end. On the home-stretch; the fourth and final full width with her lungs just under half full. She reached the midpoint and passed the grating, with the crank tantalisingly close right there on the other side. Got to the end. Turned right and...



Whoa...



The tunnel didn’t offer her a second ninety-degree right-turn to take her to the crank. Instead it turned ninety degrees straight down. Daring halted for a second and stared. The tunnel did look like it continued in the right direction about fifteen feet below. Not too great a dive, but if it threw another curveball at her after that... she was already running out of air.



But there was no point in going back. She was so close. Pumping all of her limbs now, she dove downwards, reaching the bottom of the vertical drop. There were no spikes anymore, and the tunnel resumed its course heading to the right. And there, halfway along, as expected, it turned upwards, climbing like a chimney. Daring swam up, her breath nearly gone now, and there was the crank. She took a firm hold of it and began to turn. It was heavy, but that was good – in all likelihood that meant it was still connected to the mechanism, and after half-a-dozen revolutions, the wheel came to a solid stop and would not rotate further.



She looked up. Just above her a metal sheet similar to that which had formed the sluice door served as the termination to the tunnel. She swam up to it and knocked on it two times with her hoof.



Nothing happened.



She knocked twice more, not the easiest of tasks underwater, but the sound still came as a clear ringing thud that must have been heard above-ground. Still nothing happened.



Daring frowned. It didn’t make sense. This was it – the underside of the trapdoor that Twilight and Rainbow would open up to let her out.



Wasn’t it?



You don’t know. You never actually saw that trapdoor, did you Yearling? You took somepony else’s word that it was there. Believed them just because they told you something. Didn’t make certain yourself. And even if that is it... they don’t need to open it, do they? Why would they bother? For you? They’re not your friends.



Daring’s blood ran colder than the freezing water surrounding her as the horrible realisation dawned. This was it, wasn’t it? This was the sudden but inevitable betrayal, right now? The two ponies she had made the journey all this way with had decided that she wasn’t needed anymore, and all they had to do to make certain that she’d never be any trouble again... was nothing.



And she hadn’t seen it coming.



That annoyed her more than anything.



Daring closed her eyes, her breath gone now and her lungs starting to ache. She refused to panic, and weighed her options.



There was no way back. It was too late for that. Her air was spent and she would drown before she was even halfway through the second width of the tunnel. Morbidly, she realised that the tunnel had likely been designed to be as long as it was for exactly that reason, making the door above her the only viable exit. If another pony decided they wanted to open it.



She placed her hooves on the underside of the trapdoor and pushed. She felt it give a millimeter or two, just enough to determine upon which side it was hinged, but it was held tightly shut by something. She pushed harder, and then with all her might, hoping somehow that her dwindling reserves of strength might prove superior to a locking mechanism constructed over ten centuries in the past... but to no avail. The edges of her vision darkened, black spots dancing in her periphery and growing larger. Her head felt light and muzzy, her lungs burned and the impulse to draw breath became overwhelming.



This is it, isn’t it? This place... this city... it really did beat you, in the end.



Still. At least you were right. Can’t count on anypony. They just let you down. Anypony that ever made a friend is a fool.



You were a fool.



...



Daring Do? Daring Do?! Twilight get a hold of her!



I can’t, she’s sinking! I can’t reach her!



Move over, I’m going after her!



...



Pull her out! Hurry!



...



...her back! Roll her on her back!



Daring Do, can you hear us?! Twilight, do something!



Come on Daring Do! Breathe! Breathe!!



...



Come on, Yearling. Don’t you think you should go see what they want? You can’t end the story like this, after all.



Breathe...

* * *

Daring Do spasmed, sat up, turned to the side, and vomited. A half-gallon of cold, clear freshwater seemed to ejaculate from her bowel, her stomach and her lungs all at the same moment. And though her first, primary, and overwhelming instinct was to inhale, for a brief, terrifying instant that ability was denied to her as she could only hack, wretch and splutter.



Yet, for a mercy, it was temporary. After a moment of pure agony, Daring felt her lungs clear somewhat and she was finally able to take a breath. Cool, sweet air filled her, and she coughed it right out again along with the remains of the liquid still inside. And then she breathed. Deep, regular breaths, the like of which she hadn’t believed she would ever experience again a scant few moments prior.



After a few repetitions she managed to bring herself to some sort of stability. She found herself on her back, a few feet distant from the trapdoor which was, at this moment, standing open. Behind Twilight and Rainbow Dash the doorway in the metalwork grille was ajar, and not entirely intact it had to be said. The criss-crossing metal bands were warped, twisted and dented badly, as though they had been hammered upon with staggering, desperate force to create a gap just large enough for a pony to squeeze through. She managed to roll onto her front and cough up the last of the water in her lungs before she fixed one of the ponies – Twilight, as it happened – with a scowl.



“What the hay took you so long?!”



“We’re so sorry,” began Twilight with an expression that was an excellent example of, ‘sincere.’ “The bars opened just as they should have, but the hinges on the door – they’d corroded badly. They’d seized shut and we had to force them open. We were barely able to get through, and the catches on the trapdoor – they were just as bad. We almost... we thought....” for a second, Daring could have sworn there was a tear in her eye? Pah! Probably just a figment of her—



Until Twilight reached out and hugged her. Tight.



“We’re just so glad you’re okay!” she said.



“Yeah!” echoed Rainbow Dash, joining in and wrapping her forelegs around her. “That was a close one!”



Daring sat still, stunned for a moment, trapped between two ponies who had thrown their legs about her. Ponies never normally got this close to her, unless she was being attacked. It was a bit like being attacked, only... in a kind-of-nice way. “What... is going on here?”



“What? This is the hug!” said Rainbow.



Daring clenched her jaw and rolled her eyes. “Get off me.”



The two ponies released her and stepped back. They were still smiling.



She levelled her gaze at Rainbow Dash. “Take that thing off. That hat looks ridiculous on you.”



“No problem,” said Dash, removing the headgear and passing it back to its rightful owner.



“Thanks,” said Daring, seating her hat, and then raising her head to look at them both. “And, uh... thanks.”

* * *

My old journal. It’s been years since I set eyes on it. Perhaps it’s fate that I’ve happened upon it now, when I seem to need it more than ever. It always did help me think.



All is not well in the capital. Indeed, if I am honest they have been deteriorating for a long time.



The city’s stores are running low again, and this time I do not know how we will replenish them. The trade caravans, upon whom we have relied for years, arrive far less frequently than before, and even some of the more renowned traders have ceased visiting altogether. After speaking with one or two, I believe it is only a matter of time before the rest follow suit as well. The mountains are too treacherous, the weather too severe, and there simply isn’t enough profit to outweigh the risks to themselves and their wares. There are no other settlements this side of the mountains any longer, the merchants tell us. Every other township lies abandoned to the snow and ice. Our city is the last bastion of the old world. And it is withering.



Every week a few more ponies leave, as though deserting a sinking ship. The small community of pegasi to which we were host have almost completely evacuated. Only Summer Sun and a half-dozen others remain for the sake of their families, and while our contingent of earth-ponies was always tiny, when I learned that there were now none left in the city at all, it was sobering. In total we have half the population we once had, and the more ponies that leave, the less profit for the traders; and the less frequently the traders arrive, the more ponies decide to leave, fearing the day when their supplies run out and the merchants do not come.



My brother and I have done everything possible to encourage solidarity and to persuade the vendors that the route here is a profitable one, but it seems to no avail, and our citizens drift inexorably away. Meanwhile the peddlers that do arrive come bearing only good news from afar. They tell wondrous tales of the prosperous new land that is Equestria – a land even now thriving under the benevolent stewardship of Platinum and her fellow councillors. Where Earth-kind, Pegasi and Unicorns all live together in true friendship. Where the pegasi have regained control of the climate and earth-ponies grow food in abundance beneath warm, sunny skies. Where hardship and strife simply do not exist. And these tales captivate and inspire, and tempt more of our ponies to strike out and seek their fortune. It seems most find it, for none have ever returned to re-settle.



So we must act, before it is too late.



After we complete our next Trial, my brother is set to announce a restriction that will prevent our citizens from leaving the city. The gates to the great tower will be barred and guarded, and access to the surface will be curtailed. This must be done. I know it must, and issuing the edict at Trial will allow the ponies to see that we are doing it for their own good. The hemorrhaging of our citizens must stop before there are too few left to sustain the city.



And yet I am filled with disquiet at the prospect. I support my brother, of course. We only want what is best for our people and our way of life. But I cannot shake the notion that we are denying them their freedom. And I don’t see how that can be for the best.



Yesterday I asked Summer if she would want to leave too. To say goodbye to this city – our home – for good and go to a place where she and I and our daughter can live under the sky again. I know she wanted to say yes. Truly, that is all it would have taken and I would have started to pack that very moment. But she simply smiled at me. Hugged me. And told me that she would support me, always.



I am so confused. Everything I have done has been to try to save our city. Our society. But it seems all I have managed to do is prolong its death. And I do not see how this will help.

* * *

“Come on, Twilight. Not even a little one?”



“For the last time, Rainbow Dash, there are no booby-traps in Canterlot Castle!”



“There’s gotta be! Seriously, you can’t tell me that a million years from now, when Daring Do’s great-great-great-grandaughter discovers the ruins of Canterlot and starts searching for the Princess’s lost treasure in the secret dungeons under the palace, that there isn’t even the tiniest pressure-plate arrow-trap to make it interesting?”



“Rainbow, there are no secret dungeons. There’s no hidden treasure! There are some empty caves in the mountain that are sealed off and a couple of secret passages – and before you ask, they’re secret and, actually, kinda boring – and that’s all. And the crown jewels aren’t even hidden – they’re on display to the public!”



“So, not even a simple spike-pit?”



“Rainbow, Princess Celestia does not design death-traps!”



There was a brief interlude of quiet.



“Princess Luna might,” said Rainbow.



“I’m not having this conversation,” groaned Twilight in exasperation.



“What about yours? Come on, we gotta make your castle cool! How about a classic moving-wall trap in the entrance-hall? Or a break-away floor over a bottomless pit? I bet you could use magic to actually make it bottomless. That would be awesome!



“Rainbow, I don’t want ponies to have to defy death every time they come over for a visit!”



“Suit yourself, but in a million years when explorers discover your castle, they’re just gonna end up writing about, The Really Easy Stroll through the Front Door to find the Obvious, Not-Secret, Not Even Hidden Treasure. Not exactly gripping stuff.”



“I don’t have any treas—! Ugh. Never mind. How did we even get onto this?”



“We started talking about historical cultures,” Daring piped up. “Discussing how lots of societies, including this one, designed elaborate traps protecting their relics and treasures, and then Rainbow Dash wondered why we don’t still do it. Then she thought, maybe we do.” She glanced at Rainbow with a little grin. “But I doubt it.”



“That’s right, we don’t. And besides... I wouldn’t say the challenges we’ve faced here so far are death traps, exactly,” said Twilight.



That caught Daring’s attention, and she frowned. “Spike-pits and water-mazes seem pretty death-trappy to me. Just speaking from experience.”



“Well... yes, on the face of it,” began Twilight. “But these aren’t traps designed to catch ponies out. They’re more like challenges, and they’re obviously designed to build and foster co-operation between the ponies facing them. If the ponies facing them trust each other, they’re actually not that dangerous. Stuck hinges aside.”



They continued walking in the low light of the corridor, headed for the next chamber just up ahead. Daring gave a thoughtful hum.



It was an obvious conclusion, and yet she had to admit, not one she would have reached alone. But it was true, wasn’t it? Two ponies working together and trusting in each other would have no problem negotiating any of the perils they’d faced. The rotating table, high-wall, spike pit and water-tunnel were all laid out as problems to be solved, not traps to avoid. Conversely, she thought back and tried to decide if a single, resourceful pony could have made it this far on her own. Well, the table already beat me, but after that? That wall I could handle; the spike-pit? I guess I could find something to wedge under the wheel to stop the bridge from dropping. The water-maze? Uhhm... actually, no. Don’t think I’d have got past that, unless I found a way to bust through that grid somehow. Guess it’s still a good thing those two are here, then.



There was a twin conclusion there too, though. No matter what the next obstacle was, Twilight’s theory suggested that, as long as she kept her wits about her and they put their faith in each other, they would be in no real danger.



Of course... putting her faith in them? That was still a big ask. But after what she’d been through already, she was pretty sure she could manage it. Just until they managed to get out of this place.

* * *

I love my brother. I do. But... this cannot continue. This realisation has been a long time coming but now, after yesterday, I can ignore it no longer. Everything has become so clear, and I have my precious daughter to thank for it.



She is still a filly, but she is growing up quickly. Insatiably curious, devouring knowledge like a ravenous beast. She is always asking questions, always learning. Her eyes are still young and innocent but every so often, when I look into them, I see the beginnings of wisdom. She was so excited when we told her the happy news the other day: Dr. Holby is certain that Summer is carrying another foal, and what’s more he is fairly sure it will be a girl. He has rarely been wrong in these matters and so we trust to this prediction. When we told her, my daughter’s face lit up and she squealed excitedly. She cannot wait to have a baby sister!



And then there was yesterday. A day I will never forget as long as I live.



We were in the parlour, reading, the three of us, when all of a sudden she cocked her head and gazed at Summer’s flank, as though seeing something for the first time. “Mom, what is that?” she asked.



Summer looked around at her cutie-mark and smiled happily. “Why, that’s the sun, sweetheart,” she said.



My daughter considered this for a moment, and then she cocked her head again. “What’s the sun?”



Truly, it felt like I had had a ton of bricks dropped on my head. The shock and weight of guilt I felt was overwhelming. My daughter; my beautiful beloved daughter with her books and her inquisitiveness and her happy, happy smile, has never seen the sun. She doesn’t know what it is! How could I have denied her this? Summer tried to explain that the sun was what made day and light, and made plants grow and gave us warmth... but my precious girl did not fully understand. How could she? Her entire life has been spent down here, away from all those things.



That evening we had an early supper and as a special treat I took her up the great tower to the surface. And I have never seen such joy before! When she felt a breeze on her face, when she bounded into the snow, when she saw daylight for the first time! It was wondrous. We found high ground where I sat with my foreleg around her, and together we watched the crimson sunset as it dipped below the Western mountains, beyond which Equestria is even now thriving while we wither. The sky turned a deep, burnt orange and faded, and the sun finally slipped from view. It was beautiful.



“I don’t want it to go,” she said with an innocent, sorrowful lilt. And before I could even console her, she had lit her horn and... I experienced a terror and a wonder the like of which I have never felt before. I am shaking even as I think on it. I turned to look at my daughter in shock to find only a sincere smile, happy and contented. I bade her to stop. Told her that she must never interfere with such things! And her face fell, surprised and shocked. She almost cried. “I... was only making friends with it,” she whimpered. We hugged then, tightly. I believe we both shed tears.



I have only told Summer for no-one else in the city would believe me. But I am certain that wherever they are now, the Celestial Cadre must be doing backflips in horror. For yesterday evening the sun set twice.



It was then that I knew she is meant for great things. Things that she cannot accomplish here, in this cavern. But even were that set aside, I will not condemn my daughter – no, my daughters – to a life here below ground. Where the beauty of the world, and even simple pleasures like running through a sun-soaked meadow upon fresh spring grass, are denied to them. No-one has the right to deprive them of that. They deserve better than this failing city. And if this is true for my daughters, then why is it not also true for my people?



We have been so obsessed with preserving our way of life, with saving our culture, that we have entombed ourselves. After seeing the sunset and feeling the wind for the first time in years, descending the stairs to the city felt so like entering a dreary crypt that I wonder if we have literally dug our own grave. I told my brother of this, in private, and he dismissed my concerns without hearing them. We must stay the course, he said. But I cannot, not any longer, for the sake of my wife and my children. I will not force them to endure this life. To survive is not enough. I want my daughters to live.



There are rumblings of disquiet among the populace. The growing schism between myself and my brother was widely rumoured even before now, despite our efforts to show our unity. Already I see the ponies in the streets begin to divide according to their loyalties. Those who demand to be allowed to leave oppose those who are determined to remain, and I am in danger of becoming a figurehead for the former. I pray that it does not fall to violence but by the same token, I know something must be done.



I love you, brother, I do. But this cannot continue.

* * *

The next chamber was the largest by far. It seemed it was a long rectangle, ten meters wide, but its length could not easily be determined. In the centre of the room, a little way in from the entrance door, a partition reached from floor to ceiling and ran the remaining length of the chamber, dividing it lengthwise into two five-meter wide corridors lit from above by more of those glowing crystals.



At the point the partition began, both of the corridors gave way to a pit, the bottom of which was shrouded in blackness and could not be seen. But rising out of the darkness in each half of the room, was a path. Comprised of square pillars about a meter wide, the path seemed to form a continuous, though not straight, walkway from the explorers’ end of the room down each corridor, to...



Well...



Looking down the left hand half of the room, the path extended about thirty meters before a wall of darkness seemed to absorb it. As though a thick, black, featureless curtain had been stretched across the entire width of the corridor, blocking the view of anything further along. In the right-hand corridor the wall of blackness was much closer – a mere ten feet away, and just as impossible to see through.



Daring stepped over to the left-hand side of the chamber, scanning everything she could see. Twilight joined her while Rainbow Dash had headed to the—



“Gah! Twilight!”



Daring’s head whipped round, and Twilight wheeled. “Rainbow?!”



Daring’s heart skipped a beat and then, after a second, there was an obvious sigh of relief from the other side of the partition. “No... no, I’m good. This is just... really freaky. You gotta come see.”



They walked toward the rightmost half of the room and found Rainbow Dash had taken the first few steps on the pathway. Thanks to the fact that it seemed to be constructed of square pillars joined together, the individual sections of the path could readily be described as ‘squares.’ In which case, the path began with three squares forward, two left and one more forward before the curtain of blackness engulfed it. Rainbow was stood there now, directly in front of the void, and looking back.



She saw them, and then by way of demonstration, extended her foreleg into the veil of darkness. And it vanished from sight completely.



“It just disappears!” she said. “And if you stick your head in there, it’s like, boom, can’t see anything! This isn’t just darkness, this is like super industrial-strength darkness.”



Daring frowned. She’d never experienced anything like this before. From beside her, Twilight gave a little, thoughtful hum, drawing her questioning stare.



“Black light,” said the alicorn. “At least it looks like it. Dark magic; very old.”



Immediately Rainbow’s face blanched and she withdrew her hoof into the light at a rapid clip. “Dark magic?”



“Dangerous?” asked Daring, still with her frown.



Twilight looked confused for a moment, and seemed to replay what she’d just said in her mind. “Oh... no, I don’t mean Dark magic, with a capital ‘D’. I mean it’s literally ‘dark magic.’ A magic spell that emits darkness instead of light.” A pair of confused stares prompted her to elaborate. “Okay... imagine you’re somewhere really dark. You can use a flashlight to make it brighter, right? Well, just flip that around. If you cast Black Light on that flashlight, it’ll emit a beam of darkness instead.”



Daring looked back at the veil of impenetrable darkness, and then stepped back so that she could compare it to that on the other side of the partition. Rainbow continued to appear confused. “What? How is that useful? Like... at all?!



“Well, it isn’t really,” admitted Twilight. “A long time ago they thought that manipulating black-light might eventually lead to a true invisibility spell, but it never did. We used to play around with it at Celestia’s school, but it’s more an academic curiosity than a useful skill.” She peered at the ceiling. “See? They’re like floodlights. Those crystals are emitting light. A little further along, there are others emitting black-light. That’s why we can’t see beyond it.”



Rainbow turned and regarded the wall of black before her. “Okay... so we have to pick which path to take?”



“Well, we need to decide which we prefer. Not being able to see now—” she indicated the path before them, “—or not being able to see later.” She gestured to the left-hand corridor.



“No. That’s not it,” said Daring with a head-shake. She hung her head and gritted her teeth, releasing her breath in a slow hiss before she looked back up. Her frown still hadn’t left. “It’s all about co-operation, isn’t it? Well... look.” She pointed a hoof at each path in turn – as much as they could see. “The two paths are the same. Look, there’s even a square there that’s a different texture in the same place. We’re supposed to take both. The catch being that one pony can see where they’re going... the other can’t. And then...” she pointed further down the left corridor, “... I’m guessing we switch.” She looked back at them. “Gonna be tricky.”



“Hah! Is that all? Nothing we can’t handle, right everypony?” enthused Rainbow Dash. Twilight’s wide, beaming grin signaled her agreement. Daring had to refrain from rolling her eyes.



But there really wasn’t any choice.



“Alright, let’s get this over with.” She walked over to the left-hand path and stepped onto it.



A moment later Twilight joined her and she looked round, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re coming with me?”



“Well, I can’t go down both,” she pointed out.



“Thought you’d prefer to stay close to your friend, is all.”



“I am staying with my friend,” said Twilight. Her grin was even wider now.



Daring had to roll her eyes now, and she gave Twilight a hard stare. “Real subtle.” She let out a breath. “You remember how this works?”



Twilight nodded. “I step where you step. I touch nothing,” she recited.



“Okay then.” Daring looked back ahead. A few steps had brought her to the point in the path that mirrored where Rainbow Dash had been stood in front of the blanket of darkness earlier. To her right, the whole length of the partition was peppered with small holes about two inches wide in a regular, diamond pattern. Too small to allow her to see the other corridor, but enough for sound to pass through easily. “Are you ready, Rainbow Dash?” she called.



Ready!” came the reply.



“Okay. Let’s go.” Daring stepped forward, with Twilight right behind her. The route the path took wasn’t diffic—



Whoa!



“Rainbow? You okay?” Twilight called.



Uh... I’m fine. It’s just... really freaky, y’know? Like, I can’t even see my own hooves, or tell which way is up right now. It’s totally disorienting.



“Keep our voices on your left and stone underneath you and you should be okay,” Daring pointed out.



Okay. So... what do I do?



Daring frowned. The route the path took wasn’t difficult. It was fairly straight with a few dog-legs here and there, and a couple of simple obstacles. Child’s play, really. But... she forced herself into Rainbow Dash’s horse-shoes, and suddenly it was an infinite labyrinth of deadly traps and byzantine twists designed to catch you out – where your next hoofstep could easily be your last and you’d never know until it was too late.



“Where are you now?” called Daring.



I’m on the first tile into the darkness. I think.



“Okay. Walk two more tiles forward, and then two to the left. Let us know when you’re there.”



Okay... one...” a moment passed. “Two... and then two left... One...



Daring shook her head, herself and Twilight already having strolled to the relevant square. This is going to take forever.



She bit her tongue, disappointed at herself. If it takes forever and everypony comes out okay, then that’s as long as it takes, Yearling.

* * *

Progress was slow. Almost painfully so at first, but it did improve. One of the issues they hadn’t immediately appreciated was that in order to make any progress at all, it was vital that Rainbow and Daring were always on the same square before moving on. It needed a lot of concentration to keep track because even one tile’s difference meant that at some point down the line instructions became impossible to follow. And while there were more of those differently-textured squares – ‘safe squares’ as they soon came to be known – to serve as reference points, they were few and far between and backtracking to one was almost as difficult for Rainbow Dash as going forward.



After about five minutes of trial-and-improvement they came to their first real obstacle.



“Alright, Rainbow Dash. Stop dead.”



Right. What now?



“In front of you there’s a gap in the path. You’re on the last square before it falls away. Can you feel the edge?”



Yeah.



“You’re going to have to jump it.”



Uh... okay. There was a slight tremor of nervousness to the voice from beyond the partition. “You know I can’t see where I’m going to land, right? Or even... if I’m going to land?



“You’ll be fine. The landing area on the other side is three whole columns in width. You won’t miss it.”



Easy for you to say...” came a grumble. “How far is the gap?



“It’s not far at all, but it’s slightly too wide to step over.”



That information’s not as useful as you think it is.”



Twilight spoke up. “Rainbow? It’s okay. The gap in front of you? It’s just a little wider than Fluttershy’s hop-skip-and-jump. Remember hop-skip-and-jump?”



I remember. Heh, sheesh, that was ages ago...” She trailed off and there was a moment of silence before, “Aw man, now I’ve got the song stuck in my head. Thanks a lot, Twilight.



Daring looked over her shoulder at Twilight and quirked an eyebrow. “Song?”



“Uh... never mind. It really was more of an improv piece.”



Daring shook her head. What were they going on about?



Never mind, they had to keep moving. A small jump was all it took to clear the short gap, and she landed on the wide platform on the far side with Twilight joining her a moment later.



Okay. Here I go,” came Rainbow’s voice. The quick clip-clopping of hooves on stone gave way to a moment of horrific silence—



—Daring heard Twilight’s breath catch for a moment, and she called out. “Rainbow?!”——an instant before the sounds of a solid, heavy impact and a little scraping signified that Rainbow Dash had made a successful, though awkward, landing on the other side.“I’m good. I made it! Heh, hop-skip-and-jump works every time.



They gathered themselves, and Daring sized up the path ahead. Two tiles in front of them was a textured square – this one with a series of horizontal wavy lines carved in relief – then two regular tiles before a dog-leg right, short straight run, dog-leg left, couple more straight, and another safe square in the distance, just before the cloak of darkness fell over their own path. Piece of cake.



“Alright Rainbow, couple of tiles forward and there’s a safe square.”



Okay... aaaand... I’m there.



“Good, now—”



As Daring took the next step ahead she felt a familiar but immediately-disconcerting sensation of the ground beneath her giving way, just ever-so-slightly. A pressure-plate. She looked down with a scowl and a chill ran up her spine. “Uh-oh.”



“What’s—?”



Twilight didn’t get more than one word of her question out before, from their left, a series of thick, stone blocks the same width as the columns upon which they stood – essentially the wall of the chamber from the landing on the far side of the pit all the way to just-short of the next safe-square – began to extend horizontally. Towards them.



“They’re going to push us off the path!” cried Twilight.



Guys? What’s going on? There’s a lot of noise and vibration happening over here!



“Rainbow! You have to run! Uh... Two forward, and then two right! Then, forward for, uh, one, two, three, four...”



Twilight! Not helping!



“Five! And then—!”



Twilight!



“Everypony, stay calm!” yelled Daring. She spared a quick glance at the columns: they had time, but not much. She whirled and fixed Twilight with a steely stare. “Sparkle? Run on ahead. The next safe-square. Go, now.”



“But I—!”



Daring glared. “Step where I step, touch nothing, and when I say run...” she growled. “I’ll take care of Rainbow. Go!



Twilight was clearly a little taken aback, but she nodded and raced on. Daring stood where she was, almost as though she were in no hurry. Panic was the real enemy, almost as deadly as any deathtrap. Once you learned to keep it at bay, most things were survivable. This eminently so.



“Rainbow Dash? Listen carefully. That vibration? The columns in the wall to your right are advancing towards you, and in a few seconds they’re going to push you off the path into the pit. But do exactly what I say, and you’ll be fine. Understand?”



Uh... yeah.



“Good. From the safe-square, walk two tiles forward. Do it now, do it quickly, tell me when you’re there.” As Daring spoke she herself copied the directions she had just given. The columns were over halfway toward her now, and since the paths were identical as opposed to mirrored, Rainbow’s next steps would be towards the pushers while her own would be away.



I’m there. I can feel the edge in front of me.



“Good. Now two to the right. Say when you’re there.” Daring took her own two steps to the right. A run of five columns lay ahead of her, but she had to reach the far end of the run quickly, otherwise she would be cut off before she could make the left-right onto the final section where Twilight was waiting.



Here!



“Good. Now five forward. At a trot, Rainbow! Count them off as you go!” Daring galloped along the run to the fifth tile, but to her left the final pushing column had already reached the corner stone and was grinding over it, almost upon her.



Three... four... five... There! Agh! I can feel the wall. It’s pushing me!



“Relax, Rainbow! You’re fine! Two tiles to your left, you hear me? Then forward until you hit the next safe-square. Get there!”



Daring couldn’t follow suit with her own instructions this time. The pushing column advancing from her left side had already cut her off from the path, and if she stayed put she was done for. With no other options, she set her sights on the path diagonally ahead of herself, took a quick run-up, and leapt for it just as the moving stonework started to eclipse her tile. On instinct her wings flapped in mid-air, though they provided no lift, and Daring hit the side of the path beyond the final pusher, hooves just about finding purchase as she clung on. Twilight was above her, offering her hoof to pull her up to safety, but she was good. She had this. She didn’t need help.



Daring hauled herself up back atop the path of columns, dusted her shirt down and reset her hat. The pushing columns stopped moving, having covered all of the width of the pathway behind them but not quite reaching the whole width of the chamber.



And slowly, her own and Twilight’s gaze turned to the partition, from which there was only silence to hear.



“Rainbow Dash? You there?” called Daring.



A silence that lasted too long, before...



Yeah, I’m here. I’m good. Whoa, sorry about that. It’s taking my eyes a while to adjust after so long in the dark.



“You can see again?”



Yeah. The darkness just ended at this safe-square. I’m guessing for you... it’s just about to start?



“Yep, you got it,” said Daring, regarding the curtain of darkness that descended a couple of column-widths in front of herself and Twilight. With a fixed frown, she walked towards it.

* * *

It has begun. It was only a matter of time before a spark ignited the building tensions. And now my brother has provided far more than that. I still cannot believe what he has done, yet I saw it with my own eyes.



A large group of unicorns formed at the gates to the central tower, demanding that the guards allow them to leave the city. And when, at my brother’s order, the guards refused to stand aside, the citizens could no longer turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truth: they have been imprisoned here against their will. And they responded with violence.



The guards were mobbed, overwhelmed and disarmed; their weapons used to force the gates open and reduce them to scrap, and then dozens of our ponies began to surge through, climbing the tower to claim their freedom.



And, whether consumed by rage or desperation I do not know, my brother destroyed it. Before the escaping citizens could climb even beyond three floors he obliterated the top of the tower, chunks of stone and iron collapsing from the cavern ceiling, causing a mass panic on the ground with many stampedes starting as the crowd ran and screamed. The ponies who fled up the tower were left with nowhere to go, and so returned to the courtyard where they were arrested. Twenty ponies linger in the dungeons at this very moment, judged guilty by my brother because they chose to pursue their freedom; their right.



Seven ponies have been hurt; two even have broken bones. I cornered my brother later, and demanded to know what he was thinking! And he replied with a fevered zeal I have never seen before, his eyes ablaze. He said that this city needed every citizen to be loyal if it is to remain strong. He said that we would restore this city to glory; that soon it would once again be the greatest city in the world, and a place to which his daughter would finally want to return, and be welcomed with open hooves. He spoke with such passion that I could not find it in my heart to be angry; I could only pity him. But, as much as I love him, this cannot be allowed to continue.



There are calls for another Trial.



I have plans to make.

* * *

“Alright Rainbow Dash, Twilight and I are in the dark. We’re... officially in your hooves.”



You don’t have to be that downbeat about it.



“Just tell us where to go?”



Right. No sweat. Three forward and then three left.



“Anything in the way?”



Nope. Not yet. After that, go two more forward and then stop.



...



It really is disconcerting. Just a sea of blackness, in every single direction. No up or down; really easy to get turned around. The only thing I’ve got to go on is smooth stonework beneath my hooves and a disembodied voice from somewhere over there. Can’t even see Twilight right behind me. Gotta be careful, keep moving, make sure to keep pace with Rainbow or else we’re both gonna get lost. Can’t count on Rainbow Dash being as fastidious with her directions as I was.



“Okay, we’re there.”



Twilight still with you?



“I’m here, Rainbow.”



“We’re both okay. What’s next?”



Great. Okay, now this is gonna be a little tricky. There’s like a beam reaching out from the tile you’re on, over a gap in the path, to the far side. Like a balance-beam making a really thin bridge. You get the idea?



“We get it,” said Daring. “How far is it to the other side?”



Further than you can jump.



“Rainbow!” snapped Twilight.



No, I mean... ugh... it’s like... remember how far Applejack jumped in the Iron Pony competition? Imagine like, two times that.



“The iron-what?”



“Say about twelve metres or so,” explained Twilight.



“Right. Fine. Let’s do this.”



Okay, but be really careful, okay? Cuz it’s really narrow, and it’s not straight.



“Not straight? What do you mean?”



Well, it’s left-and-right straight, but it starts off going uphill a little until it gets to halfway, and then goes back down. Just make sure you go slow and keep your balance.



“Not my first rodeo, Rainbow Dash.”



No, but... Twilight? You still okay?



“Still... whoa... uh, still here! It really is narrow. It’s only about a hoof-and-a-half wide!”



Just keep moving forward slowly. You can do it.



“I’m at the apex,” said Daring. “Careful here, Twilight. It’s trickier going downhill than up.”



“It’s almost impossible – how am I supposed to keep my... whoa!... balance when I can’t see!



“Just keep putting one hoof in front of the other. Close your eyes if it helps.”



“Oh. That does help a little.”



Guys? I’ve reached the other end. You there yet?



“Not... yet... okay, I’ve hit stone again. I’m there, back on the path.” Daring sighed a quiet sigh of relief.



“Twilight?



“I’m coming! I’m... nearly... or at least I think I’m nearly... nearly... uh...”



“Relax, just keep coming.”



“There! Phew...”



“Okay. Good. Rainbow Dash? Now what?”



Okay, two tiles ahead there’s a safe-square. Go there.



...



“Okay... we’re there.”



CLICK.



WHOOSH! WHOOSH!


Oh boy...WHOOSH! WHOOSH!



“Rainbow Dash? What’s going on?!”



Uh... I think we triggered a trap.



I could’ve guessed that much. “What kind, Dash?! Do we need to move?!”



NO! Don’t move! At all! Stay really... really... totally still, okay?



WHOOSH! WHOOSH!



“Rainbow Dash, what is happening?!” This was not a good situation to be in, blind and with no information as to the danger.



It’s okay. You’re safe. Don’t move and you’re safe. Uh... let’s see...



WHOOSH! WHOOSH!



Okay... it’s like this: you know those old-timey tall clocks? What are the things inside them that dangle down and always swing back and forward?



“You mean grandfather clocks,” asserted Twilight. “That part you’re talking about is a pendulum.”



Right. Imagine that, except ten times bigger.



“Okay...?”



And moving really fast.



“Okay...?”



And on the end of each one is a wicked-looking scythe-blade. And the first one’s literally right in front of you.



Twilight gulped audibly.



“First one?” said Daring.



There’s four, all moving at different speeds. They’re swinging between each tile, over the join. Imagine like if you’re right in the middle of a tile, you’ll be fine, but if you’re halfway between two of ‘em... you’re gonna end up as half a pony. Or two ponies. Whichever. It’s not gonna be good.



“We can’t see them. We don’t know when it’s safe to move.”



I know... and you gotta trust me on this, okay? I mean like... really really trust me. Only move one square at a time. And only when I say. And only stop when you’re sure you’re in the middle of a tile. And only—!



“Rainbow! Stop babbling!” scolded Daring. “We need clear instructions, not a motor-mouth!” She was getting frustrated now.



Right. Sorry. Move when I say so, okay? Are you ready?



“Ready.”



Twilight? You ready?



“Um... I’m... I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”



A short pause.



Twilight? I’m gonna get you through this, alright?



“I know,” said Twilight. “I know.”



Okay. We’re doing this. Ready...? Aaaand... MOVE!



A step, fumbling in the dark. A faint rush of wind from behind, grazing the tip of her tail. A pony close at her side.



“STOP! Wait... aaand MOVE!”



Another rush of wind, passing in front. A stride forward. Twilight with her. Then standing still. Very still.



“STOP! Wait... wait... wait... aaand MOVE!



In the dark. Guided by nothing. Stepping forward because another pony told her to. Because that pony knew when it was safe. Because that pony wanted her to be safe too.



STOP! One more! Ready... aaand... MOVE!



An act of faith. Of trust. A final step. A rush of wind. A feeling of safety, textured stone beneath her hooves and then...



“Whew! That’s it! Past the last one! And you’re not gonna believe what I can see next! Guys? Guys?!



“It’s okay, Rainbow, we’re both here, although I think Twilight might be about to lose her breakfast. And don’t worry... we can see it too.”



With black-light no longer shining on themselves and everything around them they could once again see, and it seemed finally they had reached the end of the pit. Three tiles in front of them, the path of columns once again became floor, with the far wall of the chamber a few meters beyond that. The partition did not end, though. It kept the two halves of the room separate for one final obstacle.



Ahead of them, in the centre of the end-wall, a doorway to the next chamber. Covered by a gold gate within vertical runners, and attached to the top of which was a heavy golden chain. The gate was adorned with the two-headed unicorn symbol, and the chain extended toward the ceiling and then to the right, held up by metal rings, until it passed through a small opening in the partition to the other side. A similar, parallel chain made the return trip, descending the wall between the partition and the door, where it finally wound around an iron winch.



“We don’t get to raise our own gate,” observed Daring. “We only get to pass if our partner decides we...” Before she’d even finished the sentence the chain attached to the gate jingled, clattered and started to move. The gate began to rise.



Daring blinked and found herself walking toward the winch. “Huh. For some reason I was expecting this to be more of a thing.” She began turning it and Twilight moved to help her.



After a dozen or so revolutions, Daring and Twilight’s gate had raised fully. And when their winch would turn no further, there was a loud click as some kind of ratchet engaged, preventing it from turning backward. With both gates raised fully, all three ponies passed through their doorways and into the next room.



Suddenly there was the sound of galloping hooves upon stone, getting rapidly closer, and before Daring even had time to turn to look, she and Twilight found themselves on the receiving end of a charging Rainbow Dash, who leapt at them and threw a foreleg around each, hugging tightly, and laughing all the while.



Daring grimaced. “This again?” she muttered.



Twilight didn’t seem to mind. In fact she was hugging back.



Rainbow stopped laughing for long enough to speak. “Whoa! That was tense! But I totally wasn’t worried,” she said, still refusing to release her embrace. “Not for a second. And if you tell anypony I was, then I’m gonna say it’s not true. Cuz it’s not. Wasn’t worried at all.”



“We’re glad you’re okay too, Rainbow,” said Twilight with a happy smile and a little nuzzle.



If Daring had been wearing a watch, she would have checked it. The seconds before the hug was released seemed interminable.



Not that it was unpleasant. As before, it was... sort of nice. But there was no sense getting used to it. This was simply some strange ‘friendship’ ritual she had to participate in; not the first time she’d come across an odd custom she had to respect. After this mission was over, there wouldn’t be any more.



Finally, Rainbow released them and the three ponies stood separate.



“Right!” said Rainbow Dash. “What’s next?”



Daring turned to regard the room into which they had all stepped. “I think... nothing,” she said in mild surprise. “I think... I think we made it.”

* * *

It has taken months of planning, and preparations have had to be handled in the utmost secrecy, but finally we are almost ready. There is but one more fragile step.



I am so sorry that it has had to come to this.



My loyal guards are slightly outnumbered by my brother’s, but by the time his soldiers realise what has happened it will be too late for them to act. Nay, it is my hope that with my brother out of the way they will finally see sense and stand down.



Tomorrow we hold Trial, as we have done many times before. The Architects have once again devised new obstacles for us both to overcome in the gauntlet. We will surpass them all, I am sure. And it will not matter. Not this time.



Tonight while the city sleeps, with the aid of a spell of concealment, I will descend into the catacombs with the only pony in this city I can truly trust, now. I feel so much guilt asking this of her, but she supports me and our trust is so strong we cannot but succeed. Summer Sun and I will pass the gauntlet together, and I will take Harmony. Without both crowns, when my brother and I undertake the Trial we will not be able to unlock the dais to return to the surface. And by the time we reach the end of the gauntlet and that becomes clear... it will be too late. The evacuation will already have begun.



As soon as my brother and I enter the catacombs my guards will seize key points in the city and rally the ponies. I have loyal mages standing by to manifest a staircase of light beneath the ruins of the central tower so that the citizens can flee to safety. They will leave the valley and take the pass through the mountains to their new home. And I will give Harmony to Summer Sun. I will tell her to find a secluded spot in some far off forest, and bury it. In the land of Equestria its value as a symbol of authority will be nonexistant, and as for its power... perhaps it is better that it be forgotten, else the ruin that has befallen this city might be destined to repeat itself.



As for myself, I will bear my brother’s wrath and fury, as we both remain trapped beneath the city. I do not believe I will leave that place, for it would require nothing less than the trust – the real bond – we once shared, and that is a slim hope indeed. If Trial were still about showing that trust, and not the mockery of going through the motions it has become, perhaps there would be no need for any of this. But my brother will not understand. He will rage and thunder when he realises I have deceived him. He may even try to kill me. For this I am prepared.



But my wife will be safe. My daughters will be safe. And they will find a new life in Equestria. My family is royalty but, while I am a King in name, my brother is the elder, and tradition must hold that the true succession of title rightfully passes to his descendants. My daughters will never be more than princesses, but that does not matter. What matters is that they will be able to live their lives according to their heart’s desire. And I will gladly die to give them that gift.



And now I must go and talk to my daughters. My youngest is still an infant, but my eldest... she knows. She understands that they are all going on a long journey tomorrow, but she does not yet know that I am not going with her. There are so many things that I must say to her that she should never have to hear. I am going to have to tell her to be strong for her mother. To take good care of her baby sister. And to never look back to this place. I am more afraid of this conversation than I am of any I have ever had with my brother. Than anything I have ever done. I feel so much guilt. I feel like a monster for doing this to my family. But I love them. I’m doing this for them. And so it must be done.

* * *

The high-ceilinged room in which they found themselves was semi-circular, with the straight wall behind them home to the twin doors. Decorative stone friezes containing more representations of the two-headed horse symbol adorned the curved walls which extended away and before them, until at the furthest point of the room, two small recesses sat side-by-side at about chest height. Within each recess, a featureless bust was carved. A stone pony head without details such as eyes or a mouth. Underneath each recess, a stone plaque – beneath the left recess, the word Unity; beneath the right one, Harmony.



And while the head on the right was plain and barren of adornment, upon the left bust rested a gorgeous crown – a circlet of deep, rich gold on the front of which was mounted a large, flawless, marquise-cut jewel of the palest azure.



Daring approached it, jaw slightly open. A stunning, pristine example of pre-classical, pre-paleopony craftsponyship, delicately worked with detailed flourishes moulded and etched into the metalwork, the gem mounted almost seamlessly, tastefully yet its prominence clear. This was it. The reward at the end of the road.



With steady hooves she carefully relieved the bust of its crown and picked it up, holding and turning it delicately, the gold and the jewel catching and reflecting the light just so. It was beautiful.



I did it. I actually did it. I finally beat this place. I finally—



She stopped herself. Paused and took a breath. Turned slowly, towards the other two ponies in the room. Saw them smiling.



I didn’t do anything, did I? We did. Together.



“It’s beautiful,” said Twilight in a hushed whisper, unable to take her eyes off the crown Daring held.



And Daring took a step towards her. And smiled herself. “Go on, take a look. You’ve both definitely earned it.”



“It’s amazing,” said Twilight, captivated as Daring handed her the crown. It seemed that the delicate nuances of the period detailing were not lost to her either.



Rainbow Dash seemed of a far more practical mindset as she took the crown from Twilight. “Yeah, sure it’s pretty. I mean Rarity would definitely approve, but how much do you think it’s worth?”



“A lot,” said Twilight without humour.



“Doesn’t matter,” said Daring. “A find like this? We have to turn it over to the Equestrian Archeological Society. I mean, this may be the oldest symbol of power from the oldest civilised city known to ponydom. They need to study it.”



“Aw, phooee,” said Rainbow, blowing a little raspberry. She looked at the crown in her hooves, and a little mischievous gleam came to her eye. “‘She who wears the ancient crown, be they worthy, shall become a princess!’” she ordained in a low, bassy voice.



“Rainbow, it doesn’t work like that. You know that,” Twilight chuckled.



“Come on,” said Dash with a smug grin of her own as she flipped the crown onto her head. It was just a little big for her, but it managed to seat nicely. “Princess Rainbow Dash? Tell me you’re not already totally on board with this idea.”



“And what would you be Princess of, exactly? Awesomeness?”



“No. Speed. Duh,” said Rainbow and stuck her tongue out playfully as she wobbled on her hooves. “It’d be my job to make sure ponies... um... make sure they... sure they... urrgh.” She trailed off into a groan, and all of a sudden it was as though all of Rainbow’s strength up and left her. Her knees buckled and she slowly collapsed to the ground as her eyes fell closed. In the space of a moment she had fallen into a heap, head resting on the stone floor, unconscious.



“Rainbow? You okay? Rainbow?!” cried Twilight, her voice rising in volume, using her hooves to cajole Rainbow Dash back and forth in an effort to rouse her. But she was dead to the world.



And Twilight was shouting.



“Rainbow?! Rainbow wake up! Rainbow! Rainbow!