• 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.

  • ...

8: The Crown of Unity

Rainbow Dash lay still near the back of the room, appearing for all the world as though she were asleep. But try as they might, neither Daring Do nor Twilight could wake her. They had at least adjusted her position to a more comfortable, less awkward one than she had landed in when she fell, but otherwise she was unresponsive. It was as though she had slipped into a coma.

“What’s wrong with her?” asked Twilight, her litany of knowledge failing to adequately explain the current malady that had befallen her close friend.

“No idea,” said Daring. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this. But she collapsed just after she put the crown on.”

“You think the crown could be enchanted with some kind of... sleeping spell?”

Daring looked at Twilight. “You tell me. Is that a thing?”

“Well... yes, it’s possible, but... why?

“Not sure, but let’s get it off her and hopefully she’ll snap—”

Daring never finished her sentence.

At that moment the jewel on the front of the crown began to glow with a fierce light. It built quickly and flashed, and then suddenly it seemed to project. At once the space around them changed, superimposed with vivid imagery and they found themselves no longer in an anteroom beneath a long-forgotten city, but somewhere else entirely. Twilight was familiar with projection spells – using magic to manifest a screen on which to essentially ‘play-back’ events, for instance – but this was more. This was an entire scene, in three dimensions, surrounding them. Something that they were a part of, as opposed to watching.

And it was very odd indeed.

They found themselves on the stage of an enormous amphitheatre, with rows of raked white-marble seating extending outward and upward for what seemed like miles. Perhaps forever. Even so, the theatre was packed with ponies, of every kind, so close together that not a free space could be found among them, and all of them were cheering furiously, creating a cacophonous, ecstatic pandemonium.

In the centre of the circular stage was what appeared to be a large egg – a pale-blue ovoid narrower at one end than the other, resting on its wide base within a shallow depression excavated especially for it. The egg was larger than the average house, but still dwarfed by the immensity of the theatre in which it stood.

The sky above and around the egg appeared to be divided loosely into two sections. In one half, a swarm of changelings hovered and darted, their black carapaces shining slickly as their wings buzzed, while the other half was home to a set of aerial obstacles – cloud-rings, slalom-pillars and the like.

And through the sky soared a cyan-coated, rainbow-maned pegasus.

She twisted and turned through the rings, pulled crazy loops and punishingly tight hairpins, all to the screaming adulation of the thousands of fans. Then she would zoom to the space on the far side of the amphitheatre where she would tackle dozens of changeling attackers at a time, weaving and striking cleanly while dodging vicious counter-attacks. She would alternate between the two constantly, first performing, then fighting, and the screams of the fans only grew louder.

As the pony in the sky continued to impress, the crowd began to throw things for her – roses, or streamers or confetti to express their adoration. The detritus all landed on the flat stage and quickly began to build up like so much rubbish. Except, on the ground with Daring and Twilight, was another pony. Her coat was a greyer, more washed-out shade of cyan, and the same was true of her rainbow mane, but even though she wore a thick, bored grimace it was still recognisably Rainbow Dash. She trudged around the stage with a broom, sweeping the clutter away slowly but surely, although the quantity of stuff raining down from above was more than her single brush could shift in any reasonable length of time. All the while her sweeping was accompanied by the overhead sounds of adoring fans, smacked changelings and the occasional sonic-boom.

“What the hay is going on?” asked Daring, trying to look every which-way at once, searching for any danger in this freaky, faux diorama.

Which prompted an immediate reaction from the pale Rainbow Dash who stopped her sweeping, head snapping towards them with a look of surprise. “The heck?” she said to herself, and then approached them cautiously and with a confused frown. “Who is that?”

“Rainbow Dash?” said Twilight. “Is that you? Are you okay? What’s going on here?”

“Oh, it’s you, Twilight.” Pale Dash’s posture relaxed and her gaze lowered. She resumed her sweeping, clearing a path through a thick covering of withered roses. “Dunno. This has never happened to her before. I gotta admit, it’s a little weird.”

“Rainbow Dash, what’s the last thing you remember?” asked Daring.

“Sorry, can’t help you there,” said the pale pony with a little, bored sigh. “If it’s short-term memory you’re after you’d need to ask her.” She spared a glance at the sky above them, and the vivid, multicoloured pony streaking around it, doing battle, showing off, the gaze of every fan fixed upon her.

Twilight looked up, and then called out. “Rainbow! Rainbow Dash! Down here!” she cried, waving her hooves to try and attract the soaring pony’s attention.

Pale Dash shook her head. “She can’t hear you. She’s asleep right now.” Her confused frown returned and her nose scrunched a little. “That’s odd. She wasn’t expecting to go to sleep. Huh...”

“So what we’re seeing here... this is her dream?” asked Daring.

“Actually, right now she’s dreaming about having to take her Wonderbolt History exam again, and she totally hasn’t studied at all. And she’s completely naked.” A thoughtful frown. “Not sure why that last part’s an issue but apparently it is.”

“But if this isn’t her dream then... what are we looking at?” asked Daring as she again tried to take everything in.

“This is Rainbow Dash,” said the pale pegasus. “This is everything she is. Everything she wants to be. Everything that makes her her, is right here. I guess you’re kind of... looking at her whole self in microcosm.”

“Microcosm?” asked Twilight, eyebrow raised.

“What? It’s a word.”

“It’s not a Rainbow Dash word,” she pointed out.

“She knows what it means,” said Pale Dash. “She heard you use it once. I liked how it sounded, so I bugged her with curiosity until she looked it up. But she won’t ever admit to opening up that dictionary you gave her, because she knows it’ll only encourage you. Don’t tell her I blabbed.” Pale Dash actually grinned for a moment before her gaze fell to her broom once more.

“Then... who are you?” asked Daring.

“Me? I’m just... here. Just think of me as a background pony. She goes charging through life, living it up, and I watch on. Clean up after her, make sure nothing important gets lost among the clutter,” she said, trudging toward another large pile of roses, broom at the ready. “I handle the things she’s usually too busy having fun to do: keep her heart beating, make sure she breathes, blink for her when she’s not doing it herself.” Pale Dash continued to sweep as she spoke, clearing away the myriad objects and tokens littering the ground of the amphitheatre stage.

“You’re Rainbow Dash’s subconscious,” concluded Twilight with a little awed inhalation.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“How come you didn’t recognise us?” asked Daring.

“Hey, this is all a little new to me as well,” said Pale Dash. “I don’t exactly get many visitors to talk to. It took me a moment to work out who you were. Well, you, anyway,” she said to Daring.

“But Rainbow knows us both,” said Twilight. “Surely you must recognise us too?”

Pale Dash shook her head a little. “I can’t actually see you. I can only process what Rainbow Dash’s senses can register, and at the moment her eyes are closed. But I’ve still got sound, smell, touch and taste to work with.” Pale Dash smiled again, but a warm smile this time. “But that’s more than enough to get you, Twilight. She’d recognise you just by the way you tread when you walk, or that little shuffling noise you make when you ruffle your wings and don’t realise. She’d know you anywhere.” She turned to Daring. “You were a little trickier is all. She just hasn’t known you as long. It takes time for me to build up a profile, especially one as complete as Twilight’s. I’m working on it though. You’re on the fast-track, as it were. Won’t be much longer until you’re as familiar to her as any of her other friends.”

In the air above them Rainbow Dash was clearly beginning to tire, and so were the crowd. The roses had stopped being thrown for her, replaced by empty hay-fries boxes and other actual litter. Where before there had been no spare seats to be found, now there were gaps as the spectators gradually seemed to become fewer and further between. The ones still watching the show were cheering much less, and instead of happy grins and shouts of encouragement, they instead offered bored expressions and the occasional heckle. But Rainbow Dash carried on, only getting faster, tighter, tougher, in spite of her increasing exhaustion. She zoomed from her aerial performance to the other side of the arena, doing battle with scores of changelings and doing an impressive job. When all of a sudden one of them broke formation and found a new target, diving toward the huge egg in the centre of the amphitheatre’s stage. The changeling reached it in seconds and began to hammer at it with its hooves and gnash at it with its fangs, causing a few deep scratches in the surface of the shell.

And when Rainbow Dash noticed, she let out an almighty scream of horror. A terrible, cracked cry of “NO!” that spoke to a level of fear and panic that Twilight had never heard from Rainbow Dash before. She powered down through the air to interdict the lone attacker, reached it in moments and laid into the snarling beast with every ounce of fight she had left within her, throwing it clear of the egg and sending it tumbling towards the stage. The changeling crashed into the ground and disintegrated, crumbling into small shards of what looked like black glass, ready to be swept away.

“Okay, none of this is making any sense,” said Daring.

Pale Dash simply looked at her neutrally and, after a moment, offered a resigned shrug. “It makes sense to me,” she said.

“What the heck is this egg thing?”

“It’s the most important thing in the world to her.” Pale Dash continued to look resigned and gave a few token sweeps with her brush. “You should have seen it when she was younger. It was tiny.”

Twilight continued to watch on with rapt fascination.

By now the changeling horde had all but been vanquished, and Rainbow Dash was putting what energy she had left into her amazing routine. She flew with sweat pouring off her, teeth clenched, fighting through the pain that must have been wracking her muscles and straining through the g-forces of aerial manoeuvres that would constitute the most dangerous, most spectacular flying performance ever to have been seen by pony eyes; all to the increasing indifference of the now miniscule crowd. Everything began to darken, the upper rows of the amphitheatre falling into shadow, and with no more than a dozen ponies left in the audience, Rainbow Dash finally landed.

She panted heavily, soaked in sweat, looking ready to collapse. She looked up at the crowd in a silent plea, spreading her wings as though ready to take to the air once more. She would show them what she could do. She would find some way to impress them if they’d just stay a little longer... but the final member of the audience simply shook his head in disappointed fashion and stood to leave as darkness descended over everything but the stage.

Rainbow Dash’s head hung, and she let out a long, ragged sigh. Her lips trembled subtly and she seemed about to cry from a tortured mixture of exertion, desperation, disappointment and defeat. She looked utterly drained, and utterly fed up. She had given her all, heart, body and soul. And all she had to show for it was a silent, empty theatre, with nopony else there for her.

“Oh, Rainbow...” said Twilight pitifully as she looked on.

“Oh, nono. It’s okay. This is the good bit,” said Pale Dash. She actually had a smile as she too watched the tragic scene unfolding before her. “I love this part.”

As they watched, Rainbow Dash’s head finally raised and she turned it to look at the egg towering over her, almost as though she’d just been reminded it was there. And as her gaze found it, a distant, wistful smile found her lips. With a couple of slow, faltering steps, Rainbow Dash approached, her despondency gradually molting from her until she reached it, her smile turning hopeful now. She extended a forehoof and touched it. The shell glowed golden where she made contact and seemed to become immaterial. Rainbow Dash passed through it, into the house-sized egg, and was gone.

“See?” said Pale Dash, still with her own smile. “She’s happy. Because no matter how bad things get out here, she knows she can always go in there.” Pale Dash looked at the ground once again, still with her smile, and swept.

There was a moment of silence, and then it was Daring who asked the question that, judging from her reaction, Pale Dash wasn’t expecting and yet probably should have been.

“Well? What’s in there?”

“Can we go in and see?” Twilight followed up.

Pale Dash’s brush stopped mid-sweep and she froze. Her expression became one of embarrassed panic, like a pony who’d promised to keep a secret realising they had just let it slip, and was now trying to work out how to backpedal without digging a deeper hole. She raised her head again, nervous. “Uh... no. No, I can’t let you in. Look... uh, please don’t take this the wrong way... but you can’t go in there. It’s... she... Rainbow Dash really doesn’t want any other pony to see what goes on in there. That’s... well that’s what she’d tell you, at least, so that’s what I have to stick to.”

Twilight’s head drooped a little, but Daring fixed Pale Dash with a frown. “Then how come it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself as much as us?” she questioned.

“Because I know what’s in there!” blurted Pale Dash before she could stop herself. “And... and I think it’s really sweet, and that more ponies should see it. I think it’s sad that she hides it away inside this thing. It makes her so happy but for some irrational reason she’s afraid that if other ponies know about it, somehow her life will be ruined.”

“Well if you think more ponies should see it... you could let us in and we could see it,” pressed Daring. The urge to explore extended even unto here.

Pale Dash was on the back hoof now, but still trying to fight. “No! It’s... it’s not my call. I’m sorry, I can’t just decide to let you in, okay? I don’t make decisions. Of any sort. My job is just to keep everything working. Rainbow Dash makes all the decisions, and she’s asleep right now. You’ll have to wait till she wakes up and ask her.” She paused, looked away and rubbed her head with the back of her hoof. “Of course, she won’t know what you’re talking about. I mean... it’s not like it’s a literal egg. If you ask her, ‘hey Rainbow, what’s inside that egg in your brain?’ she’s just gonna give you a funny look.” She met their gaze again. “Look, I’m not... I’m not saying I don’t want you to see what’s in there. I’m not even saying that, deep down, Rainbow Dash wouldn’t want you to know what’s in there. I’m just saying that...” She trailed off then and looked confused for a moment. Then her head hung in defeat. “Aw, snap.” Somehow, she’d managed to lose the argument without there even being an argument. She looked up again, still with a clear case of nerves, and spoke more softly. “There’s a very short list of ponies that Rainbow Dash would literally do anything for, and you both happen to be on it. But... if I let you in, you have to understand that it’s not what it looks like. And... and even if you don’t get it... you have to promise that you’ll still be friends with her, okay?” she begged.

“Of course I promise,” said Twilight without hesitation. She raised a hoof and made a little cross in the air over her chest, and then followed it up with an incomprehensible series of movements that Daring didn’t follow at all. “There’s nothing I could possibly see in there that would stop me thinking of Rainbow Dash as a true friend.”

Pale Dash’s gaze turned on Daring, expectantly.

“We’re not friends,” she said flatly.

“Daring!” admonished Twilight.

“What? Look, I like her, okay?” she turned her level gaze back to Pale Dash. “That good enough?”

Pale Dash hung her head, turned, and walked over to the egg. “I’m so gonna regret this,” she muttered, but she signalled the other two to join her nonetheless.

As they crossed the stage to the egg they walked through the leftover rose-petals and tokens of affection tossed by the earlier crowd. The debris that hadn’t yet been swept into a pile by Pale Dash’s broom. On a whim, Daring gently dragged her hoof through some, and then kicked lightly at a small mound of already-swept litter. The flotsam on the ground reacted exactly as one would expect, being pushed aside or tossed around according to her actions, even though she couldn’t feel it. Everything around her was just light being projected by the stone set into the crown that Rainbow Dash – the real one – still wore as she lay sleeping over at the edge of the real-world-room. But in spite of that, Daring was able to affect it. Manipulate it, even though it was intangible. She reached the egg with Twilight and Rainbow Dash’s subconscious manifestation, and halted.

At Pale Dash’s invitation they stepped forward, through the outer shell of the egg, and into the interior.

The scene changed. Gone was the amphitheatre and the crowd, the changelings and rose-petals. Gone too was the darkness that had fallen. Inside the egg everything was light and lively. They were in a pale-blue room the same colour as the egg-shell. Not one that Twilight had ever been in before, and likely not one that actually existed, but still recognisably a room. And a recognisable room at that.

It was a creche.

Along one wall, a septet of pastel-coloured cribs stood, empty for the most part. Five of them were painted in very familiar shades, and their headboards adorned with very familiar symbols while a sixth was smaller, with purple sides interspersed with green bars.

The floor of the room was festooned with soft-toys, story-books and all manner of foalish playthings, not to mention foals. Five instantly identifiable baby ponies and an infant dragon crawled and staggered and burbled happily, playing and making mischief, all under the supervision of Rainbow Dash. She stopped them before they touched something too sharp, or put something too small in their mouths. She read to them from a book, fed the ones that were hungry, and intervened when baby Applejack and baby Rarity started fighting each other and crying. It was wrong to say that Rainbow Dash looked relaxed, but she’d never looked happier as she darted around the room, trying to keep an eye on all of the tiny creatures in her care.

Twilight took it all in, took a slow, deep, quiet gasp, and her eyes glistened just a little as a warm smile settled on her lips.

Daring looked around the room, saw everything that was going on, and felt her brow crease into a familiar frown. She half-turned away, not quite able to stomach the scene before her. “Okay, I’ve seen enough. Maybe this was a bad idea.”

Stood beside her, Twilight expressed her surprise. “What do you mean?”

“This is just sad. And I’m sorry if that sounds a little harsh, but you’ve been paying attention, right? This is all Rainbow Dash. Everything we’ve seen, it’s basically a visual representation of her personality and innermost thoughts. And what have we seen? A pony who, when she can’t get the ego-boost she wants out there, literally retreats into her shell so she can find it in here. I’m guessing all these kids are representations of her friends right? I mean, that’s you over there, and there’s that dragon I saw in your castle. Well? Don’t you get it? This is how she sees you. As weak children she has to baby. Ponies who couldn’t take care of themselves without her around. That all look up to her as superior, wiser, stronger. That’s more than just narcissism, it’s a classic superiority complex. The only reason she keeps you around is to make herself feel better about herself.” Daring shook her head, an uncomfortable instinct to gag tickling the back of her throat. “And to think I was almost starting to believe in that ‘friendship’ guff,” she muttered.

Twilight couldn’t quite find the words to react, but from behind them both there came a defeated, depressed sigh. “I knew it. I knew you wouldn’t understand,” said Pale Dash softly. She looked skywards and her voice dropped to a whisper. “Oh no, what have I done? I’ve... I’ve ruined her friendships. Oh, no. Oh, no no no no!” Pale Dash’s panicked eyes began to water and she almost started to hyperventilate. “She’s going to lose her friends. And it’s all my fault...”

Twilight turned and walked the few paces over to the distraught pony. She put a foreleg around her withers – really holding it in mid air where Pale Dash’s withers apparently were, but Pale Dash reacted as though the limb were really there. And Twilight fixed her with a warm, encouraging smile.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”

Pale Dash risked a look back, hope daring to dart fleetingly across her face. “You... you do?”

“Yeah, I do,” Twilight whispered. “And she’s not going to lose any of us.”

Daring cocked an eyebrow as Twilight turned to face her, lecturing voice at the ready. “You’re wrong. That’s not what this is. You haven’t known her that long, and you’ve only really seen the Rainbow Dash we saw outside. That’s the one she shows to the world after all – the cocky, brash, confident pegasus who’s the best flier ever and can stop an army of evil villains with her bare hooves because why not? Everypony sees her showing off, and that’s how she likes it. But that’s not the whole story by a long way. She puts on that front because she wants ponies to like her. To respect her. Because underneath all that bravado... she’s actually kind of insecure.”

Pale Dash’s hopeful smile had come back now, and her eyes were watering a little. Twilight continued.

“You saw what happened when the crowd started leaving? She pushed herself harder. She did everything she could to get their attention; to make them like her, to the point where she was broken and hurting. But nothing worked did it? After all that effort, after everything she tried to do to wow them, she just ended up alone. That’s what frightens her. You wouldn’t understand this about Rainbow Dash unless you’ve known her for a while but... she really doesn’t do well by herself.

“She needs other ponies around. Not literally all the time of course, but she needs to know they’re there. So she has this place, and keeps it right in the centre of the stage. A place she can always come where there are friends waiting for her; where she can totally be herself, safe in the knowledge that her friends will always love and respect her. It’s an egg because she thinks it’s fragile, and you saw how horrified she was when she thought something might break it, because she loves her friends too. It’s something she’d give anything to protect.

“And as for what’s in here?” Twilight surveyed the room again, her warm happy smile only growing and then turning back to face Daring. “These aren’t how she thinks of her friends... they’re how she thinks of her friendships. Fragile things that need constant care and attention if they’re to thrive... and look at how she responds. She nurtures them, feeds them and cares for them, and so her friendships get stronger. I mean look at how healthy they all are. It’s beautiful,” she finished, her own eyes tearing up.

Pale Dash stepped forward now and threw her forelegs around Twilight in a tearful hug. “She never says it, but she loves you all so much,” she said.

“I know,” responded Twilight, still beaming. “We know.”

Presently there came a noise from the final crib in the room. This one was stood a little apart from the others, and it appeared unfinished. The structure was there, but the ochre paintwork upon its beech frame was only half-done, and there was no cutie-mark on the headboard yet. Rainbow Dash looked up, worried, and then made her way over to it as the noise became a dry, throaty cough. “Whoa, easy there lil’ filly,” she said soothingly. “It’s all gonna be okay. You just need some medicine and then you’re gonna be fine.”

Daring hesitated for a moment. She had a bad feeling about this, but she couldn’t not look. She wandered over to the crib with Twilight following, and when she reached it and looked in, that bitter, acrid taste of bile threatened to rise into her throat again. She sighed. “Yep. It’s me.”

In the cot, a tiny, weak and pallid-looking Daring Do was writhing and sweating, as though she had a fevered sickness upon her. She made little, pained noises and shivered, eyes scrunched shut.

“If there’s one thing that Rainbow doesn’t think of you as, it’s inferior to herself,” offered Twilight.

“Yeah? So why do I look so sickly?”

“Because she thinks her friendship with you is in trouble.”

“I already said, we’re not friends. So why would she even—?”

The infant Daring Do suddenly started to wail, sobbing and bawling as though wracked with a sudden jolt of pain she couldn’t comprehend.

Daring frowned, and for once found herself joined in this by Twilight. “Interesting...” she said.

“Fascinating,” echoed Twilight, who looked to Pale Dash.

“She might not be conscious but her ears are still working, and I’m still processing everything in the background,” she explained. “Hard for her not to think she’s losing you as a friend when you keep telling her you’re not one,” she said to Daring.

At the crib, Rainbow Dash looked down, her expression of concern never leaving as she offered the baby a spoonful of ruby-red syrup and tried desperately to comfort her. “...don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine, you’ll see...” she said softly.

“And yet she’s not giving up on you,” Twilight noted.

Daring remained silent as she watched Rainbow Dash devotedly try and nurse what she saw as an ailing friendship into a healthy, happy one like the half-dozen others that were playing and burbling and bounding around her hooves in the creche. Little happened though, and she supposed that there simply wasn’t a quick-fix for this sort of thing. She sighed through her nose.

“Okay, maybe you sold me, but as... nice as this all is, let’s not forget that this is all the product of a magical artifact that we know nothing about. It could all be a trick, so it’s probably best we make sure she’s okay for ourselves.” She looked to Pale Dash. “If you are her subconscious, can you wake Rainbow Dash up?”

Pale Dash blinked in surprise. “What? Now?

“Can you?” said Daring.

“But... she hasn’t finished her dream yet! Somehow that exam turned into extreme sledding with Fluttershy and she’s... I can’t wake her up from that!” she pleaded.

“She’ll get over it. Besides, we can’t stay. We’re three stories below an ancient city that is itself a couple hundred feet below a mountain valley. We have to get out of here,” insisted Daring.

Pale Dash’s pleas turned defensive now. “But she’s resting. Look, I know this has all happened a little strangely and she fell asleep without really meaning to which is odd in itself... but I checked: she’s not in pain, she’s not bleeding or freezing, there’s no trauma anywhere. She’s just... asleep. And if I wake her up now she might get all cranky and she hates feeling cranky. Can’t you just give her another six hours or so?”

“We can’t stay here for six hours,” replied Daring. “For all we know it’s not safe, which means she’s not safe either.”

“I’m afraid Daring’s right,” said Twilight. “We do have to get out of here, and we need Rainbow Dash with us.”

Pale Dash looked obstinate for a moment, then hung her head. “Okay, fair enough. I’ll wake her.” She raised her gaze for the last time and regarded the other two ponies. “Hey, uh, for what it’s worth? Whatever happens... it was nice to meet you. I mean I’ll see you again. Every time she does, in fact but... I don’t ever get to talk to other ponies myself. It was fun, while it lasted.” She smiled.

Twilight smiled back. “Goodbye. And don’t worry, Rainbow Dash’s friendships are going to be just fine.”

Pale Dash nodded a grateful nod and then closed her eyes. She disappeared from the room, and then the room itself began to fade. The jewel in the crown on the real Rainbow Dash’s head dimmed slowly and went out. With the projection gone, the two ponies found themselves once more in the semi-circular chamber beneath the ancient city with Rainbow Dash asleep near the rear wall. And a moment later, she began to stir.

She yawned wide and opened her eyes, apparently surprised to find herself anywhere other than her comfy bed made of clouds. She blinked blearily and forced herself to sit up, wobbling a little.

“Rainbow? Are you alright?” asked Twilight.

“Mmnhgh... I... think so?”

“How do you feel?” asked Daring.

“Like somepony stuck a wooden spoon in my brain and turned it into scrambled eggs,” said Rainbow, staggering to all four hooves now. “What happened? Last thing I remember I put that crown on my head and suddenly it was lights out.” She removed the circlet from her cranium and studied it.

“The crown is magic. It knocked you out... well, actually sent you to sleep, I guess,” said Daring. “Then it showed us what goes on in your mind.”

“It showed you... huh? What? You saw what happens inside my brain?” asked Dash.

“Yeah, in a manner of speaking.”

There was a brief pause.

“Cool,” said Rainbow Dash. Who then eagerly followed up with, “Hey, what’s it like in my head? Is it awesome?”

“It was... different,” Daring allowed. “But right now we need to get moving. Come on,” she said, turning for one of the twin doors.

“Whoa, hold on, what do you mean different? Daring? Daring?! Hey, come on, I wanna know! What’s it look like in there?” She tried turning to the other pony in the room. “Come on Twilight, help me out. You were in my head: what did you see?”

And suddenly Twilight reached out and drew Rainbow Dash into a tight, soft hug, nuzzling into her neck with a wide, happy smile. “Nothing I didn’t already know was there,” she said, her soft voice but a whisper. She released Rainbow Dash, wiped some moisture from her eye, and followed Daring towards the door.

Leaving Rainbow Dash utterly confounded.

“What? Hey, that’s not an answer! Wait... where are you going? Twilight? Daring?! Wait up! Come on, I wanna know! What does my head look like? Guys? Guys! Would you just tell me already?! Guys...!

* * *

With the object of their quest in tow, Daring led her small party back through the chambers they had initially traversed.

The first chamber was fully-lit now, as the crystals emitting the black-light had extinguished. Probably when the two gates had been raised earlier, Daring mused, but in their haste to proceed that detail had escaped their notice. With the blackness gone the chamber was far less terrifying in every single way. For one, the supposedly bottomless pit over which the path of columns was meant to offer safe passage, was only ten feet deep. The bottom, it seemed, had been flooded with black-light to give the impression that it was a much more cavernous excavation than it was, and hence something into which a pony would certainly not want to fall. And on the far side, near the door where they’d first entered, there were even hoof-holds to help a pony climb out if they found themselves stranded. Not only that, but the swinging blades that had caused no small amount of tension on their passage through were now hanging still, and moreso than that the blades themselves were decidedly blunt – more likely to crash into a pony and send them tumbling over the side with a bruised rib or two than to actually slice them in two pieces.

“‘Wicked-looking blades’, huh?” chided Daring with a grin as they picked their way past.

“Hey... they were moving real fast,” retorted Rainbow Dash. “They looked sharp. And don’t tell me you’re not glad they didn’t hit you.”

The columns had retracted too, giving the ponies a clear path to the exit.

The water-chamber was a non-issue now, as the gate through which Twilight and Rainbow had smashed their way earlier still stood open, and beyond that the grate over the spike pit was once again a trivial matter. After that it was a careful jump down the high climbing-wall that had greeted them when they’d first entered the gauntlet, and finally they arrived back at the ornate, round bronze table that had kicked the whole affair off.

“Okay... so now what?” asked Rainbow.

Daring studied the table, and found her gaze drawn to the pair of odd circular recesses upon its upper surface. They still seemed a little out of place: more function than form, and only now she understood why.

She took the crown from Rainbow Dash and placed it carefully into the ring-shaped groove in the table’s surface. At once there was a sound of clunking and grinding from beneath her hooves as hidden locks seemed to retract. But when Daring and Rainbow went to push and pull on the bronze rods, the table would not budge.

She frowned. There was a second recess on the opposite side of the table after all. And her friends seemed to come to the same realisation.

“Wait... did we miss something?” asked Rainbow. “Was there another one of these things in that room we were supposed to pick up?”

“No, there wasn’t,” said Daring. “That second bust was empty.”

“It’s not here,” said Twilight, fidgeting with the book she’d been clinging to all this way. “The other crown is gone. Taken by one of the two kings of this city as a ploy to trap his brother down here in the tunnels.”

Daring and Rainbow looked sternly at her.

“Alright Twilight. I think you’d better tell us exactly what’s in that book you’ve had your nose in all this time,” said Daring.

* * *

They listened patiently as Twilight relayed the fragmented accounts she had studied in the ancient journal, chronicling the fall of the city from glorious prosperity into abject ruin. A city whose twin rulers became enemies, with terrible results.

“But what was all this though?” Rainbow asked aloud indicating the pit and, as a whole, the rooms beyond. “I mean crazy, random two-pony challenges that might-or-might not kill you?”

“It was called Trial,” answered Twilight. “I couldn’t get all the details from the book, but every so often the two Kings would perform some ceremony together and come down here, to this gauntlet. They’d brave the challenges, retrieve the crowns of Unity and Harmony, and return to the surface victorious in front of their people.”

“Right, but... crowns they enchanted with a magic hex that, not only sends you to sleep when you wear them, but shows everypony who watches what your innermost thoughts and personality are? That doesn’t strike you as weird?”

“I’ve studied far stranger rituals,” said Daring. “Rituals and ceremonies are strange things. They often start out as common and sensible tasks, but over time many get added to and warped until eventually you end up with a mishmash of different pieces that add up to something... just bizarre. This? It was probably originally some kind of trial by ordeal. To show the citizens that their leaders were still strong enough to rule.”

“That’s it!” cried Twilight, a little too enthusiastically for the occasion. She realised her outburst and dialled it back a little. “Ahem. Though... I don’t think it was to prove ‘strength’. I think it was more likely to prove ‘trust’.”

Rainbow and Daring both turned their heads to look at Twilight.

“Go on,” said Daring, after a pause.

“Well, what’s the biggest threat any civilisation faces?” asked the alicorn.

“Epic pony war?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Catastrophic natural disaster,” opined Daring confidently.

“More insidious than both of those. Something that can happen right under your muzzle and eat a society from the inside out until it collapses in on itself: corruption.” She paused for effect. “When the ponies you put your faith in to organise and govern society fairly and justly stop working for the good of the people and start working for themselves. When they start abusing privileges, taking bribes, appointing the wrong ponies to high office, all while protesting that they’re acting in the best interests of the people. It’s difficult to stop because it often starts so innocently, but once it does it’s a slippery slope. And one that throughout history has often lead to violence and revolt.”

“The Prench Revolution, or Emperor Neighro watching over the destruction of the Roan Empire,” suggested Daring. She was scrutinising the bronze table now, casting her meticulous eye over every facet, searching.

“Exactly. So how do you avoid it? Or even the appearance of it? How does a ruler prove to the ponies they rule that when they make an unpopular decision they’re making it in good faith and not abusing the system for their own gain? Well, having two rulers is a good start, one to balance the other. But they’d have to trust each other implicitly – it would be no good if a grudge were ever fostered between them, or they were at each other’s throats all the time, because nothing would get done. That’s what the Gauntlet is designed to prove. That the foundation of their leadership is built on a bedrock of mutual trust between two ponies. And when they returned to the surface with their crowns, they’d put them on. They’d lay themselves and their personalities bare before the whole city, and let the populace decide if they were still the right ponies to rule. If either or both of them weren’t fully committed to the people above themselves, they wouldn’t be able to hide it. You have to admit, wanting to build a society where you can literally see if you can trust who’s in charge has a certain appeal.”

Daring found herself nodding slightly. Being able to know for sure if you could trust someone or not without the risk of being lied to? That did have an appeal.

“And if you don’t feel like putting the crown on, taking a nap and baring your soul to, like, thousands of ponies?” asked Rainbow.

“Well, maybe you’ve got something to hide. Or maybe you don’t trust them as much as you want them to trust you. Either way, you’re probably not the right pony for the job.”

“Wasn’t perfect though, was it?” said Daring. “From what you describe, things were heading downhill between those brothers for a long time before it all came to a head. How come the ponies didn’t pick up on that when their Kings put their crowns on?” She ran her hoof across the textured metalwork of the table before her. No sign of a hidden release mechanism.

“Because I think... in their own separate ways... they really were both trying to do what they thought was right for their people. In spite of how hard things got, I think they both genuinely loved each other, and their subjects. That’s what they would have seen.” Twilight looked at the crown, still resting on the tabletop. “I’m not saying it’s a perfect system. Even the King who wrote this realised that. But this is the system they had, and they made it work for a long time too if the age of the city is any indication. It’s just a shame it all ended down here because they realised they couldn’t trust each other anymore.”

Rainbow Dash nodded sagely, as though she’d followed everything. She hadn’t quite, but she’d got the jist. The whole, weird affair was one big performance to prove you had what it took to be king. That was enough. But there was one more thing she couldn’t let go of. “Okay so... let me get this straight... A whole bunch of years ago, this was pretty much the Unicorn capital of the world, with these two royal siblings who ruled it together equally. They were best buds, but then they fell out because one of them basically turned evil. So the good one had to trap the bad one somewhere he couldn’t get out of so that he couldn’t doom ponies to living in a world without sunlight and make their lives miserable forever.”“Well, as a summary that’s not bad,” admitted Twilight.

There was silence for a moment while Rainbow regarded her with an odd little frown.

“But you see what I’m saying, right?” said Rainbow.

“It is a familiar-sounding story,” agreed Daring.

“Yeah. It’s like pony royal families are doomed to end up fighting each other or something.” Rainbow put on a little grin and gave Twilight a quick nudge in the ribs. “Heh! Guess we’re just lucky that you don’t have a sibling who’s royalty and in charge of an impor...tant...” Her face fell even as she spoke, and realised she hadn’t thought this one through. “Oh, uh... oops. Heh. Sorry, Twilight.”

Daring took notice long enough to distract her from her examination of the table and the crown upon it. She glanced to Rainbow and then her stare fell on Twilight. “You’re not serious?”

Twilight nodded. “It’s true,” she said. “My brother is a Prince. He co-rules the Crystal Empire.” Her head hung and she looked oddly embarrassed. Guilty, even? As though some impending doom had just been prophesied to her.

Daring processed this new information for a moment before turning from the table to the pit wall behind her, sizing it up. “Relax. History only repeats itself until we learn from it. All you have to do is not start an epic pony war between good and evil next time he forgets your birthday and everything will be fine, okay?” She ran a hoof down the stonework: almost completely smooth.

“Hey wait...” said Rainbow Dash, piping up again. “Was that a... joke?

Daring looked around with an odd frown.

Rainbow’s curious smile developed into a full-blown smug grin. “It was! It was totally trying to be a joke!” She chuckled. “It was terrible by the way, but that’s not the point. You’re finally starting to lighten up!”

“What? I can make jokes!”

“Come on, Daring Do. You’ve barely even cracked a smile since we got here! I thought adventuring was supposed to be fun? Oh, and if that is what you call ‘making a joke’ then we’ve got some serious work to do with Pinkie Pie when we get back to Ponyville.”She poked and prodded at the pit wall, searching bit by bit. Loose brickwork? Hidden pressure-switch? No. “No need. When I come to write this up I’ll just give myself a better line. You’re totally getting zinged in the edit, Bravely Blue.” In spite of herself she had a grin now, and from behind her two ponies chuckled. It was nice hearing that, actually. Refreshing. It certainly made the current problem seem less severe, even if it were but for a moment.

After a minute she sighed and turned fully back to face the ponies currently trapped with her. “Jokes or not, history or not, none of this helps us,” she said, resigned. “The table won’t move without the second crown, and we’re not climbing out of here. Not with these walls.” She clenched her teeth and looked straight up toward the top of the pit with a scowl. “I’ve got gear that could help. Ropes and grapples, but it’s all in my saddlebag. And we left all our supplies up there.” She huffed.

The statement was greeted with a moment of awkward, introspective quiet. So far they hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the truth that was slowly beginning to resolve. Whatever locks held the table immobile would not release completely without the second crown being placed within the other circular recess, and, frustratingly, it was smaller in diameter by about half a centimeter or so than its sibling. Hardly anything, but enough that no amount of maneuvering and cajoling could force the crown they had to locate properly. And so the dais and the platform remained stuck. All the light-hearted chatter in Equestria wouldn’t change that fact.

As though she had been reminded, Daring looked to the round, hoof-sized crystal set into the centre of the table, blazing with white light as five thick but separate ribbons of energy within it seemed to twist and writhe, never settling. She frowned a deep, thoughtful frown and, after a pause, raised her head to the magic-expert of their group. “You think this stone absorbed our abilities somehow? That your magic and our ability to fly are literally in there right now?”

Twilight nodded with a sketch of hesitation. “It would explain why it’s glowing brighter since the flash, plus the increased... activity, inside it. Alicorn and unicorn magic can’t just disappear, it has to go somewhere. I’m guessing the same is true of pegasus-flight as well, but it would make logical sense.”

“Okay. So what if we smash the crystal? Will our abilities return to us? Like, will we absorb them again, or what?”

For a moment Twilight looked horrified, and Daring’s serious frown returned. “Hey, I’m not crazy about destroying an historical artifact either, but we’re running out of options more quickly than I’d like. We can’t climb this, we can’t fly, and we can’t move this platform without a key in the shape of a crown that, from what you’ve read in that book, sounds like it’s buried on the other side of Equestria. It sure isn’t here.” She let out a long breath. “So, you’re the expert. Destroying the crystal. Think it’s an option?”

“I really don’t,” said Twilight sadly, looking at the crystal herself now. “From past experience I can suppose that once our magic is free, it should return to us. But if we just smash the crystal open, the first thing that will happen is that the combined magical energy contained inside will be released in a completely uncontrolled, and possibly exothermic, way.”

“In other words... it would explode,” said Daring.

Twilight nodded gravely. “All of my magic is in there. And, I’m not trying to brag but... let’s just say that, knowing how much magic that is... I wouldn’t want to be stood here if that explosion were to happen.”

Three sets of eyes gazed at the crystal. After a long, heavy pause, Rainbow spoke up. “Well... okay... so, I guess, don’t stand here,” she said, not without hesitation and stepping with care around the table to the side furthest from the door. She reared a little and put her forehooves on the tabletop, looking at the crystal without humour. “Maybe... one of us stays here to smash the crystal... while the other two head back to the room where we found the crown. Lotsa brick and rock between here and there. Probably be okay...” she finished, not taking her eye from the glowing artifact. “I mean we... we don’t know it’s gonna blow up, right? Everything might work out...”

Daring stared, open-mouthed. Rainbow Dash had mentioned no names of course, but her body language, and the fact that Daring and Twilight were now slightly closer to the door than she was, said it all.

And the fact that Rainbow Dash was even considering it... the fact that it might come to that... sent a cold shiver through her. To her left, Twilight looked aghast and about to offer an objection of her own, but Daring almost surprised herself by beating her to it. Her scowl locked with Rainbow’s eyes and she lowered her head dangerously, advancing on her. “Whatever fool-pony thing is going through your head, Rainbow Dash, you can un-think it right now!” she seethed. She stopped next to her, still glowering, but the hoof she raised with the intention of knocking some sense into that chromatic cranium instead found itself coming to rest on her withers. “We are not there yet. Not by a long, long way, you hear me? I brought three ponies to this city. That’s twelve hooves, six wings, and three rumps, and I’m not about to go back to Ponyville and tell your friends that I came back with even one feather less than I left with!” That hoof on her withers was tugging slightly, almost as though it was trying to offer a little heartfelt reassurance. Daring wasn’t sure where her limb’s instructions were coming from, but it felt more right than the slap she’d been about to launch. “Nopony’s going to risk blowing themselves to Kingdom Come, understand? This is not the worst situation I’ve been in.” And besides, if we do get there... you won’t be the one who stays behind.

“Besides, it won’t come to that,” said Twilight, oddly confidently.“Exactly,” said Daring. “Smashing the crystal? That’s Plan Z, got it? Right now we’re working on Plan B.” She adjusted her hat and took another look at the sheer walls running up the side of the well. “Anypony got any ideas for Plan B?”“What I meant was, even if we can’t find a way up, we’re not in that dire straights. If worst comes to worst, we can just wait for rescue,” said Twilight with a smile.

Daring raised an eyebrow at that. “Uh... not to dampen your optimism right away... but nopony’s been here except me for well over a thousand years, and nopony knows where we are. How you figure we’re getting rescued?

“Think about it logically,” said Twilight, her smile and her gaze moving to Rainbow Dash. “Spike knows where we are, or at least where we were headed. And he’ll be getting worried about how long we’ve been gone more or less about now,” she said.

Rainbow Dash raised her head from the stone toward Twilight and, after a moment, her own smile spread as she caught on. “Right...” she chimed in. “And when you of all ponies don’t come back exactly on schedule, he’ll know something’s gone wrong.”

“Exactly. He’ll go to Applejack and tell her he’s worried about us, and Applejack will agree that something’s not right.”

“She’s always been Team Mom like that,” sniggered Dash.

“She’s not Team Mom! She’s more... Team Big Sister,” suggested Twilight. “Anyway, together they’ll round up the rest of the gang.”

“Fluttershy’ll say it ‘sounds dangerous’,” said Rainbow in her best soft-voiced imitation, which caused Twilight to smile.

“And Pinkie will say they’re all going on the ‘funnest adventure ever!’”

“Heh... Starlight’s right, you do have a Pinkie Pie voice...”

“They’ll head northeast, and Applejack will keep them following the river we flew over so they’ve always got water. That’ll bring them to our camp from that first night. They’ll see the remains of our fire-pit and know they’re on the right track.”

“They’ll keep going through the forest, and Pinkie will find the milestone I tripped on. One rock in a forest thousands of acres wide? It couldn’t not happen to Pinkie.”

“After that, they’ll reach Brokeback and have to deal with the Cliff Racers. They should be fine as long as Fluttershy keeps her hooves on the ground.”

“Hah! Are you kidding? Fluttershy will probably just talk to them. Or she’ll stare at them,” said Rainbow. “Either way, she’ll probably have those overgrown birdbats eating out of her hoof. She’ll ask them if they’ve seen us. And thanks to our little ruckus, I’m pretty sure they all did.”

“They’ll cross through the mountain pass into the valley, and Rarity – with her eye for detail and, uh, shiny things – will pick out the capstone on top of the obelisk amongst the foliage. It’ll lead them right to the entrance to the city.”

“They’ll find a way down with Fluttershy’s help and, thanks to all those weird two-headed statues we were lighting up, it’ll lead them like a path, straight here!” cried Rainbow Dash.

“Exactly. So you see, even if we can’t find a way up ourselves, there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll get out of this.”

Daring’s focus had been ping-ponging back and forth throughout the whole conversation, scarcely able to keep up, her jaw hanging open from sheer incredulity. Finally, she forced her voice into action. “I’m sorry... what?”

“What?” said Twilight, while Rainbow offered Daring her own confused expression.

Daring clarified her statement. “You can’t possibly believe that all of that is going to happen...”

“Duh! Of course it’s going to happen!” said Rainbow.

It was odd. It wasn’t hope or belief Rainbow was expressing in her tone. It was as though she were relaying a fact.

“Do you have any idea how many things have to align for any of what you just said to even get off the ground? How many ponies have to talk to each other? It’s a house of cards. If even one detail doesn’t go the way you think it will, then they don’t get here, do they? And it won’t happen like that because you’re just guessing. You can’t know how ponies will react in all those situations,” argued Daring.

To which there was only confused silence for a moment.

“Huh? Of course we know,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Really? How can you possibly know what might go on in the head of someone else? Someone who’s hundreds of miles away at that?”

Another moment of confused silence before Twilight replied. “Because we know our friends,” she said simply. “And trust me, if we need them, they will come through for us.” She had that smile on again. She was so sure! How?!

Daring snorted and returned to the wall. “That’s Plan Y.” She began methodically prodding the stonework again, more prepared to put her faith in a secret hidden mechanism than a one-in-a-million shot that relied on other ponies that she neither trusted nor really knew. If Twilight and Rainbow Dash wanted to take solace in their supposed ‘friendship’ coming to the rescue, then fine. As for her, she knew the truth. The only exit was one you made yourself. There would be one. Just had to find it.

“Our friends have never let us down,” said Twilight from behind her, still with that serene confidence. “We’re not going to be trapped down here forever. At worst, a couple of days, tops.”

Daring grunted. “If it makes you feel better. But I guarantee we’ll starve before anypony actually finds us out here.”

A new voice spoke. “On that count, you are most mistaken.” It came in a thick, accented, masculine tenor from high above, its echoes cascading down the walls of the well, imbuing it with a subtle, sinister timbre. The three adventurer’s heads snapped up, and the pony at the top of the pit narrowed his eyes, turning his voice to a low, smooth rumble. “Well, well, Daring Do. What an unexpected surprise.”

Oh, you are kidding me...