• Published 4th Aug 2012
  • 50,500 Views, 453 Comments

The Writing on the Wall - Horse Voice

Beneath the earth rests something beyond equine understanding.

  • ...

The Writing on the Wall

A reservoir of darkness, black
As witches' cauldrons are, when fill'd
With moon-drugs in th' eclipse distill'd.
Leaning to look if foot might pass
Down thro' that chasm, I saw, beneath,
As far as vision could explore,
The jetty sides as smooth as glass,
Looking as if just varnish'd o'er
With that dark pitch the Seat of Death
Throws out upon its slimy shore.

—Thomas Moore

The pyramid's perfect geometry stood sharp against the Iblis Desert's smooth curves. Its shadow, growing in the late afternoon sun, brought an early twilight to the outpost of modernity that covered the flattened ground at its base.

Though one of the last to arrive, Daring Do felt the familiar thrill of discovery—a swelling in her chest and a fire behind her eyes. It was not quite the largest ruin she had seen, but even at this distance, she could tell it was the most well-preserved. She flashed a smile and waved at the bridge of the airship whose pace she had been matching, then wheeled away and dove, spiraling toward the pyramid before letting a desert zephyr carry her toward its summit. Once a sharp point, the apex was now weather-worn enough to perch on, and Daring balanced upon it, wings outstretched like a tightrope walker's pole, and gazed down the smooth granite walls at the scene beneath.

Tiny shapes of ponies moved among clusters of tents and prefabricated buildings. Several began to hurry toward the makeshift airship landing pad on one side of the camp, as the ship that had carried Daring most of the way from Manehattan began to descend. At the pyramid's base was a rough tunnel entrance, about large enough for three ponies to comfortably walk abreast.

"Started without me, huh?" she said aloud.

A hedge of metal spikes surrounded the whole site in a perfect circle. Its points not only stuck outward at all angles, but also inward, and Daring saw no pattern to their arrangement. Four stallions, standing on one another's backs, might almost reach its topmost point, and it was half again as wide as it was high. But it would not have done for a protective wall, as the spikes were far enough apart that one could walk between them with ease. In the late sun, the hedge's long shadows reminded her of black talons, reaching out to rip and tear.

It would take time for the airship's cargo to unload, and Daring decided to reconnoiter before claiming her equipment. She flitted downward, landing just outside the pyramid's recently-dug entrance.

"Glad you could finally join us," somepony said.

Daring turned to face the speaker—a pegasus the color of storm clouds.

"Dark Horizon," she said, eyes narrowing in a mock glare. "Funny. The letter said they wanted the best."

"Yes," Horizon said, "but they thought I might need backup."

Daring chuckled, having known he would counter her needling. She sometimes let him hold his own in minor skirmishes, just so it would not seem one-sided when she inevitably proved his better. As the coup de grâce, she planned to take him unawares, pin him to the ground, gloat a bit, and steal a kiss. Perfect. In fact, being hired for the same job might be just the opportunity...

"Well," she said, "since this is our first time working together, I guess I should ask what you know." She looked again at the granite wall beside them. "They said it's 'the oldest archaeological site ever found,' but I know that's not right, 'cause masonry this advanced was invented about fifteen hundred years ago. So..."

"Oh, they didn't tell you." Horizon grinned. "You'd better brace yourself."

"Alright." Daring grinned back. "Hit me."

"It's seventy-one thousand years old."

"Nice try. Magic aura dating doesn't go back that far."

"I know. There's an astronomical calendar inside."

"Alright," Daring said, moving toward the doorway. "Let's see." She gestured toward it with a foreleg. "Ladies first."

"Of course," Horizon said, taking the lead. "I know you sure don't qualify."

The two walked in single file through the long, chiseled tunnel, lit at intervals by kerosene lamps.

"Watch out, by the way," Horizon said as they walked. "The director doesn't like how late you are."

"Hey, that's what you get if you call on me when I'm in the jungle." Daring snuck a glance at his haunches before continuing. "They're just lucky I was on the way home when the letter got to my house."

"Well, be warned, this director doesn't like ponies who get fresh."

They emerged into a high, domed chamber, ringed by tripod-mounted arc lamps, from which extension cables ran to a heavy-duty magic battery off to one side. Just ahead, a dolmen made of three huge granite slabs supporting a fourth loomed over them. Beyond that, a broad, square-walled tunnel sloped downward into darkness. Its entrance was surrounded by piles of slag, which Daring could tell had recently been dug up. Among all this, a hoofful of ponies moved to and fro, some of whom paused briefly upon noticing the new arrival before proceeding on their respective business.

Horizon led Daring into the dolmen, and she looked around, impressed. Chiseled letters densely covered the first two walls and most of the third. Only the lower fifth of the right-hoof wall was untouched, the letters ending three quarters of the way across the slab. She picked out dozens of alphabets, each with its own section of wall, and found herself amazed, and a little perturbed, that she did not recognize even one.

"Look at that," Horizon said, glancing upward.

Pictograms also covered the ceiling. Daring took off and, slowly hovering across the chamber's ceiling, scrutinized them. Some of the carvings were arranged into something like the staves and bars of sheet music, but instead of notes, small points were connected by lines to a central, slightly larger ring-shaped glyph. The pattern changed from one bar to the next, with the dots shifting and the ring remaining in the center.

"What do you think?" Horizon said, flying up to join Daring.

"Stars, right?" she said, pointing to the dots.

Horizon nodded. "Whoever built this place knew how to predict the stars' movements."

Daring gave an impressed whistle. "That's some advanced math."

"As much as our own, if not more. Look at this." Horizon moved toward the southwest corner. "At the beginning, there's a pictogram of the pyramid and the hedge of thorns." He pointed to the northeast. "It goes on 'til the hundred-thousand-year mark, then stops."

"So what happens after a hundred thousand years?"

"Maybe the world ends." Horizon's voice had just enough of a lilt to show he was joking.

"Well," Daring said, "if it's only been seventy-one thousand, we won't live to see it."

The duo alighted just inside the dolmen's entrance.

"Kind of amazing it took this long for somepony to find a tomb this big," Daring said.

"You must not be familiar with this area. No one ever comes this far into the Iblis. If that one airship hadn't gone off course, we wouldn't be standing here."

"Not necessarily. This morning, I found someone who knows there's something around here."

Horizon frowned. "Don't tell me you're a leak now."

"Well, the airship stopped at a trading post for a couple hours, and I got to talking to..." Daring saw Horizon's frown deepen. "Hey, it was a camel, okay? They don't blab."

"Did he say anything?"

Daring adopted her best impression of an old patriarch's basso. "'Go not there, my friend. The forefathers of my forefathers told their progeny, generation after generation, it was a bad place.'" She switched back to her own voice. "You know—usual stuff."

Horizon bit his lower lip and looked away for a moment, considering. "Well," he said, "it can't be helped. But the walls have ears, you know. I'm surprised you're not more careful, since you're always being dogged by that blue creature with the hands."

"Hey, if I can handle Ahuitzotl by my lonesome, I'm sure he's no match for this whole camp."

"You always did attract the wrong sort of male, Ms. Do," a third voice said.

For the second time that day, Daring turned to see a familiar face, but now found herself surprised. "Dr. Thorn! What are you doing here?"

Thorn was the living stereotype of the Trottingham academic: past middle age, with a greying mane and perfectly round spectacles. He always carried his snout slightly raised, as if the weight of his over-sized brain made his head tilt back. Daring usually found ponies like this funny, but Thorn brought back certain memories, and part of her wondered if he was about to criticize her for something.

"The directors saw fit to bring me here, for my expertise in the field of dead languages," Thorn said. "Incidentally, I read your report on your expedition to Pohjola. I took it in lieu of your final term paper and gave it a B-plus, not accounting for it being five years late."

"Well, thanks for giving me a break..." She stopped herself before the word "sir" could slip out.

"I would not have done, if not for your discoveries. Now then, has Mr. Horizon explained the glyphs?"

"Just the ones on the ceiling."

"Oh?" Thorn somehow peered down at Horizon, despite being a little shorter. "You don't think much of the letters?"

"I was getting to that," Horizon said quickly. He had also once been Thorn's student.

"It is just as well," Thorn said, turning toward the dolmen's inner walls. "Allow me." He began projecting his voice, as though he was back in his lecture hall and not speaking to two graduates in the middle of a desert. "All of the writing systems you see here are the sole examples known to modern civilization, with a single exception: that at the bottom of the rightmost wall, which according to other experts present at this site, is approximately five thousand years old."

"Five thousand? So we're not the first ones here." Daring frowned.

"Indeed. Initially, only the top half of the leftmost wall had any inscriptions. From there, moving top to bottom and left to right, they grow progressively younger and, I'm told, easier to accurately date."

"So, in other words..." Daring raised an eyebrow. "Everyone who found this place broke in, translated it into their own language, added it to the tablet, and sealed it back up again?"

"Quite right. The entryway behind you already existed, but was sealed by masonry of the same age as the youngest inscription. The first teams to arrive here simply re-opened it." Thorn pointed to the third wall. "But the seal on the large tunnel heading underground was older: about twenty-six thousand years. Several sets of inscriptions upward, we find one of the same age."

"That means," Horizon said, "not everyone who opened the outer entrance opened the tunnel as well."

Daring tapped a hoof against her head, brow furrowed in thought. "Think maybe the builders left most of the wall space blank on purpose?"

"To allow for future translations." Thorn gave a short nod—a sign that a student had impressed him a little. "Yes, that is a valid hypothesis."

"Well," Daring said, "wouldn't be the first time a tomb got re-sealed by would-be robbers. Once, there was this—"

"I'm sure he's heard that story, Daring," Horizon said.

Thorn continued. "In addition, the old glyphs use several different alphabets, so the message was meant to be widely read. I must confess, I find myself at a loss as to why an architect would make certain of this and then build a hedge of ominous-looking metal thorns to frighten potential readers away."

"Well," Daring said, "looking scary is the first line of defense for a lot of old tombs." On an impulse, she decided to try something she had never done before: needling the professor. "Y'know, with that in mind, if this place is anything like others I've seen, I can pretty much tell you what the writing on the wall says."

"Oh? Do tell."

Daring leaned back on her hind legs and haunches and waved her forelegs like a mad prophet. "'This is the tomb of the great and terrible So-and-So! Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair! Whosoever steals the treasure will face the gods' curse, and the sky will fall on their heads, et cetera.'" She stood back up and waved a hoof dismissively. "See enough of these, and you can pretty much guess what they say."

"Ms. Do, you disappoint me," Thorn said. "Have you not stopped to think of how many tens of millennia passed between this artifice's construction and the next-youngest civilization we know of? No other message has survived even a fraction of as many years. Culture after culture lived and died, while this place remained. Furthermore, an inscription translated by generations of visitors is unprecedented. It is our obligation to try to understand it."

Daring knew all this was true, but pushed her luck anyway. "So, it's the world's longest-running chain letter."

A look of horror crossed Horizon's face, and he interjected: "Hey, here's something interesting!"

Thorn and Daring both turned to him, expectant.

"I, uh, talked to this masonry expert they brought in. He said he found mortar residue between the stones, but given how perfectly they're cut, he can't imagine why they bothered with it. The camp's top geologist told me the Iblis has had no tectonic movement for millions of years, and it rains here maybe twice every century. So whoever built this place wanted it to last basically forever."

"Did he say anything about that big tunnel on the other side of the dolmen?" Daring said. "'Cause I assume that's where they're sending us tomorrow."

"No, but that is where we're going." Horizon already looked relieved at the change of subject. "A few of the work crew who unblocked it went a little way down, and they said it goes on and on."

"Cool. Whatever's buried that deep has gotta be good."

"Regarding your expedition," Thorn said, "if you require more information from me, you had best ask now. I will depart this evening on the airship."

"Aww, and we were just getting caught up."

"Nevertheless. You of course noticed that I said all the languages on the walls were unknown except the latest. By happy coincidence, my private collection contains a key to translating that language into Old Equus."

Daring assumed a skeptical tone. "If they're all translated from each other, won't that be like taking a photo of a photo... of a photo?"

"Yes, but if the message was as important as it seems, they may have used plain, straightforward wording, and hopefully there won't be much loss of meaning."

"Can't you just have another copy mailed out?"

"The original is in my vault, and I won't give anypony the combination for any reason—you understand, I'm sure." As he spoke, Thorn pulled a watch from his jacket and examined it. "I will take rubbings of the glyphs with me and translate them on the way back. Excuse me, but I must go. Good evening."

Daring stuck her tongue out at Thorn as he walked away. She disliked that some private collectors kept unique artifacts away from the public eye, but never said so. Some of them were her best customers.

Horizon nudged Daring's shoulder and pointed off to one side with his snout, wrinkles of worry on his brow. Following his gaze, Daring saw a light grey mare, her mane cut short and her face marked by a permanent scowl, marching toward them.

"Ms. Daring Do?" she said snappishly.

"The mare herself."

"I am Dr. Ivory Tower, and I am in charge of this site. Make any preparations necessary for an extended period of time underground. You will also report to Dr. Lance for your physical examination. Understood?"

"Yes'm!" Daring mock-saluted.

Tower's scowl somehow deepened, and she turned and marched away, reminding Daring of a clockwork toy.

* * *

"Try not to let anypony breathe on you."

Dr. Lance was one of those professionals who seemed to never turn his businesslike manner off for any reason. The examination, though not too invasive, had been strictly pragmatic, with no attempt at real conversation on Lance's part. This sudden order was as close to interesting as he had gotten since Daring walked into the medical tent.

He continued. "A number of the work crew came down with a strain of flu I hadn't seen before, shortly after they broke through that inner barrier. The director said she would have sent the other treasure hunters in without you if that hadn't slowed the project down."

"Maybe it's an ancient virus and they released it by accident," Daring said with a wry smile.

"Doubtful. At any rate, it's not particularly dangerous, though it can linger if you don't get plenty of rest. And it sometimes comes back after you seem to have gotten over it."

"'Kay. So I'm good for tomorrow?"

Lance signed the bottom of a paper and passed it to Daring. "As far as I can tell, yes."

"Far as you can tell?"

"My microscope was broken in transit, and the replacement doesn't arrive until the next airship, so a more thorough examination is impossible."

Daring silently thanked Celestia for that, but only said, "That's too bad."

A moment later, as she left the medical tent, she silently gave thanks once again, this time for being teamed up with competitors instead of the project's leaders. After these ponies, she thought, the depths of the earth would seem almost warm.

* * *

Daring was the only one left inside the pyramid when the camp's activity wound down for the night. She had a personal tradition, when beginning a journey, of bivouacking at the head of the next morning's trail. Though no stranger to the desert night's cold, she found herself turning over in the dark, thinking of the tunnel whose entrance began a few hoofsteps from where she lay.

What was it that some previously unknown civilization wanted kept safe into eternity? It must be something special—not just valuables or kings' bones. Maybe, just maybe, it was the find no archaeologist or treasure hunter dared dream of: a last will and testament by a culture that wanted to be remembered for all time, and had preserved its combined knowledge. And if they were advanced enough to build such a long-lasting structure, they might have known things no later culture discovered.

This find might change the world.

With that thought, Daring leaped to her hooves, lit the nearest kerosene lamp, clenched it in her teeth, and took off down the tunnel.

It was vaguely square-shaped, with rough-hewn walls, and its slope was gradual. After galloping for a few moments, Daring flared her wings and glided down the tunnel, checking her speed only enough to prevent a crash, should a sudden obstruction appear.

On it went. Daring had left the outer ruin's perimeter some time ago. She reasoned the builders must have used the gradual incline to haul slag out from the diggings. A ramp like this would be used to make the job easier, suggesting they needed a lot of underground space.

There might be a whole city down there.

At last, the tunnel began to curve to the right. Daring alighted and considered the lamp. It had not been full when she had taken it, and if the next length of tunnel was as long as the first, the kerosene would run out before she could regain the surface. She might even find herself in the dark before reaching the bottom. But now that she was so much closer, she could not turn around just yet.

She turned the light down as low as possible without dousing it and stood still in the darkness. A mild wind from the passage ahead, brought forth by the cooling earth, teased Daring's mane. If she listened carefully and emptied her mind, it seemed to her as though the tomb itself was breathing out.

She remained there a while, taking slow, deep breaths of the millennia-old air. She stopped trying to imagine what lay below, instead taking in the ambiance of a place no one had seen in thousands upon thousands of years. Soon, she lost track of time.

After a while, she roused herself, turned the flame back up, and reluctantly began flying back to the surface. Tomorrow—yes, tomorrow, she would go all the way.

* * *

"There's no way you're going."

As dawn broke, one of the workers had found Daring just outside the pyramid's entrance, vomiting onto the sand. She now lay on one of the medical tent's hammocks, Dr. Lance standing on one side and Dark Horizon and Ivory Tower on the other.

"It's the same flu," Lance said. "If you don't rest, it will get worse."

"Ms. Do, these delays are unacceptable," Tower said. "Mr. Horizon, your team's expedition will proceed as planned."

"We'll be understaffed..." Horizon said.

"Treasure hunters ordinarily work alone. You and the two others still fit for work will be more than sufficient."

With a deep breath, Daring mustered the strength to speak. "He's right. I don't know about you, but I think a tomb that gets opened and sealed up again is real suspicious. You don't know what the walls say, either. You guys could..."

"How many archaeological sites have you plundered?" The director's tone suggested an unwillingness to argue.

"I... lost count."

"And how many have contained anything more dangerous than the sort of traps you or Mr. Horizon are qualified to deal with?"

"Well, I don't know about him, but..."

"Ms. Do, you were only invited on this expedition because its sponsors wanted insurance. Now, they want results more. Furthermore, this is an inconvenient time for an allegedly fearless treasure hunter to start believing warnings on tomb walls."

"Well, Dr. Thorn said..."

"He only said they might be warnings. I am fully confident in the other treasure hunters' abilities. Excuse me." With that, Tower marched from the tent.

Lance moved from Daring's vision, and she heard him scratching a quill on paper. There was a clip-clop as Horizon's hooves shifted a bit with... what? Nervousness? Daring closed her eyes and tried to relax.

"If it helps, I was looking forward to working together," he said at last.

His hoofsteps faded into the distance.

* * *

Two days passed, and Daring did not get much better.

Sometimes, she felt well enough to leave the hammock for an hour or two and plod around the camp, either moving among the structures or following the hedge of thorns. She did not go into the pyramid and avoided looking at it whenever possible.

In the early afternoon of the second day, a glint of sunlight off a distant object in the sky caught Daring's attention, and as she watched, it grew into the shape of an airship. She smiled for the first time in days and began making her way toward the landing area. If all had gone well for Dr. Thorn, he would be on that ship, and Daring might be one of the first to read his translation of the prehistoric testament.

When the airship touched down, she was only one of three who gathered near the passenger door, while about a dozen others approached the cargo door at the rear.

They waited. Neither door opened, and no movement could be seen through the portholes, whose inner shutters had been drawn.

"They going to open up, or what?" one of the work-ponies asked, addressing no one in particular.

Daring saw the doorgrip move slightly, then jiggle.

"Must be jammed," the same pony said as he moved to the door.

In her weakened state, Daring barely perceived what happened next. As the worker reached for the grip, the door flew open, and a blindingly fast storm of black feathers and yellow fur seized him in its talons and carried him into the air, shouting in terror. Daring did not see what happened to him next, as about fifteen rough-looking ponies, dressed in bits of light armor and old military uniforms, stormed from the two doorways. Daring flared her wings and reared up. On a good day, she would have swiftly eluded the attackers, or at least put up a formidable defense. As it was, two of them rushed her at once, and while one blocked her sluggish forward kick, the other shoved her to the ground.

Too slow to break her fall, she landed hard, the wind rushing from her lungs and her vision filling with stars. There was a drumming of hooves on ground and angry shouts from all directions.

Above the din, a familiar voice bellowed, "Do not fight us! There are hostages in the airship!"

He had found her again. And this time, he had hired help.

Something gripped her beneath the shoulders and hefted her up. The air around her head filled with the stench of meaty breath. Her vision cleared, revealing Ahuitzotl's jagged grin.

"We meet again, Daring Do."

She spat on his face. "Now you've got what I have," she said.

Though taken aback, Ahuitzotl recovered fast—to save face, Daring supposed. "What is this? You, of all ponies, too ill to resist?" His chortle was like gravel under a door. "This is too rich! Now then..." He slung her under one arm, wiped at his snout with the other, and started toward the pyramid. "You will show us this place's spoils, or it will be the worse for those in the airship. Your friend, Dr. Thorn, is among them."

"So, you rushed 'em at one of the stops on the way, or something?"

"With ease."

Looking around, Daring saw most of the camp had gathered around the landing area. Many looked angry and, outnumbering Ahuitzotl's mercenaries, would probably have attacked them, if not for the hostages. They made way as Ahuitzotl passed, flanked as he was by a mean-eyed tan earth stallion and the black-feathered griffin who had led the attack.

"I bet they don't even have hostages," somepony said. But Daring was sure nopony would risk it.

Slung under one arm, Daring could not look ahead of the little group. She did not see why Ahuitzotl stopped a few meters short of the pyramid, nor why everyone present fell silent, mouths open and eyes staring at something ahead.

"What's going on?" she said.

To Daring's surprise, Ahuitzotl dropped her. As she shakily pushed herself to her hooves, she noticed everyone present staring, mute, at the pyramid. She looked toward it and gasped.

In the doorway stood Dark Horizon. Patches of his coat, mane, and feathers had fallen out, and festering sores turned the bare hide an angry red. A trail of dried blood ran from his nose and mouth, down to his chest. His glazed eyes stared at nothing. Before anyone could react, his legs gave way and he crumpled to the ground. His torso convulsed, and he vomited a little bloody foam. A sickly rattle emanated from his throat, and he moved no more.

"Horizon..." Daring began to struggle toward him. Her enemies did not stop her.

"A doctor!" the gravel voice shouted. "Whoever is this camp's doctor, come forward!"

As she reached the body's side, Daring heard Lance's voice say, "Here I am," from somewhere close behind. There was unease in its timbre.

"Tell me what happened to him," Ahuitzotl said.

As she looked for a sign of life from the mess that had once been Dark Horizon, Lance approached from her right and, keeping as far from the body as possible, began scanning it with a beam of light from his horn. With magic-grip, he then rolled it over and repeated the examination.

At last, Lance leaned on his haunches, and his face creased with thought. "There is no evidence of physical assault," he said. "It's as though something broke his body down at the cellular level."

"Then it is powerful magic."

"I don't sense any... sir."

"Daring Do!" Ahuitzotl's voice was right behind her now. "What do you know of this?"

"I've never... I mean..." She trailed off.

"Sir," Lance said, voice still wavering, "it stands to reason a civilization able to build a structure lasting this long could employ microorganisms, unknown to modern science, to defend it. If this is the case, we are all in danger."

"Then this body must be burned." Ahuitzotl shouted to someone behind him. "You! Bring a quantity of kerosene!"

"In addition," Lance said, "it may be airborne. Quarantine will be necessary. I'm afraid you and your associates cannot—I mean, must not leave."

Ahuitzotl raised a fist, and Lance took a few quick steps back. But Ahuitzotl seemed to change his mind in mid-strike, turning to jab a finger at Daring. "If I die here, I will see you die first—painfully."

Daring did not answer, but picked herself up and began plodding toward the medical tent, head low.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"I'm sick, and I'm sick of this. I'm gonna lie down."

Ahuitzotl made as if to stop her, then checked himself, instead nodding to the griffin. "Vlad—watch her."

* * *

About twenty minutes later, Lance stared out the window of the prefabricated dwelling Ivory Tower had been using as an office. "They're still inside the airship." He spoke quietly, so the mercenary guarding the door would not catch too many words.

Nearby, Tower sat at a folding table, one hoof nervously tapping the tabletop. "And the crowd?" she said.

"Still restless. They're keeping as close to the ship as they dare. Only a few have dispersed. Ahuitzotl's guards look ready to fight. Wait. Somepony just came out of the passenger door. He's talking to the guards. One of them is coming this way." Lance closed the curtain and stepped away from the window.

A few seconds later, the two heard a shouted command from outside, followed by the drumming of two sets of hooves moving away. Lance opened the curtain again.

"Now what?" Tower said.

"Ahuitzotl's crew are offloading the cargo. They're also sending the hostages out—for less weight, I suppose. They must want to put on extra speed, to get as far away from here as possible."

"They're giving up." Tower's voice had an undertone of disbelief.

"Mercenaries are only proficient in killing organisms large enough to see. Even if Ahuitzotl wants to stay, they outnumber him. Now they're getting into the airship."

The window pane shook as a rumble of machinery boomed across the camp. Lance turned to Tower, expecting her to join him at the window, but she only looked at him expectantly.

He turned back. "Well, obviously, that was the engines. Everypony around the airship is clearing the area. We had better send a message to..." He began making his way to the door.

Tower's hoof-tapping finally stopped. "Well. It seems your stratagem worked, Doctor."

Lance paused and looked back toward her. "My stratagem?"

"You guessed they would leave if they were afraid of..."

"I told Ahuitzotl the truth. I don't want to cause alarm, but it's possible everypony in this camp will soon die." Lance's voice remained calm, except for a slight tremble in the last word. He did not turn away from the door. "And if Ahuitzotl has become a carrier, the disease may spread wherever he goes."

"That would mean..."

"Epidemic, yes." Lance raised a shaky foreleg and wiped a bit of sweat from his brow. "That would make this the first ancient tomb whose curse was fulfilled."

Without warning, the door flew open and Thorn burst in. He was now nearly unrecognizable—spectacles missing, forehead bandaged, wide eyes bloodshot. He quickly looked around the room, trying to focus on its occupants.

"Ivory Tower! Is that you?" He squinted at her. "Listen to me! You have to seal up the tunnel!"

"Dr. Thorn," Tower said, "it is good you are relatively unharmed, but..."

Thorn ignored her, galloping across the room in an instant. "Here is the translation." He passed her a single paper sheet, which she took reflexively. "Read it—out loud, please."

Tower paused, bemused, then held up the paper, adjusted her glasses, and began to read.

You should not have come here.

This is not a place of honor. No great deed is commemorated here.

Nothing of value is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive.

We considered ourselves a powerful culture. We harnessed the hidden fire,

and used it for our own purposes.

Then we saw the fire could burn within living things, unnoticed until it destroyed them.

And we were afraid.

We built great tombs to hold the fire for one hundred thousand years,

after which it would no longer kill.

If this place is opened, the fire will not be isolated from the world,

and we will have failed to protect you.

Leave this place and never come back.

Silence reigned as the implications sank in.

At last, Thorn spoke. "There is a blank space at the bottom of the last dolmen wall. We must carve the warning there, in every modern language. Then seal the tunnel and pyramid, as they were before. Nopo—no one must open it again."

"'Burn within living things...'" Lance pressed a hoof to his head. "So those treasure hunters... And it's here, too. Maybe in this room. Those workers who got sick—it wasn't a virus. They unsealed the tunnel, and that 'hidden fire' was waiting for them."

Tower stood, motionless except for her eyes, which flicked across the page, left to right, again and again.

"Excuse me—Director?" Thorn said.

Her attention broke from the page, and she turned to him. "Yes?"

"Aside from the work crew and the treasure hunters, did anypony else go into the tunnel?"

Before she could answer, hoofsteps sounded from the doorway, and those present turned toward it. There, jaw slack and eyes half-glazed, stood Daring Do. Bloody rivulets ran from her nostrils and mouth.

"Help me," she said.

Comments ( 453 )

Aw shit.

That ending was chilling. Well, I hope that shit is nearing its last half-lives, at least.

Chills. Up my back.

Just... wow.

Having read your comment before reading the story, I hate you so much right now. :raritydespair:


I owe you an apology. I thought of adding a warning that comments might contain spoilers, and it somehow slipped my mind. I won't make that mistake again. Luckily, I have other ideas for stories with twists at the end. :twistnerd::twistnerd::twistnerd:

(But why the hay read comments before the story?)

Because I caught it so soon after this story went up; I figured it would be harmless. Curiosity killed the cat and all that jazz.

That said, you don't owe me anything. In fact, I'm actually paranoid that making people think about the ending specifically before starting to read the story might make them figure it out too soon, heh. That said, I look forward to whatever you put out next.

Makes you wonder what's down there.


Didn't you see the image at the end? I ask because it's kind of important to understanding the ending, and I was worried someone might skim over it.

EDIT: radiation symbol removed for being too didactic.

I meant: Makes you wonder what is causing that extreme radiation. I was just avoiding outright saying it.


now to read story...

I suppose this is redundant for anyone reading this far down, but detailed spoilers below.

1039994 While the effects and reach of the radiation may have been exaggerated throughout the story for what it implied the source was(and the half-life made incredibly shorter, for some reason), the purpose of the structure, the incredibly redundant ways of communicating what was contained, the design and placement being made to maximize how long it stood were all foreshadowing for the structure being something that exists in real life: a long-term storage facility for nuclear waste. I say that the effects/reach were probably exaggerated because such facilities have very, very thorough containment for the actual fuel rods themselves completely irregardless of the structure that houses the containers, both of which are graded to last for hundreds of thousands of years, and hoped to last for millions. Meanwhile, Daring Do somehow got a lethal dose of radiation without ever entering the chamber that housed them...

Oh shit, Daring Do with extreme radiation sickness. Take your potassium, Daring! It's your only hope!

Hot damn, that is how you end a story. How chilling... And food for thought: future civilisations in our world may well meet the same fate. Presumably that waste facility has suffered a serious containment breach if just walking into the entrance tunnel is enough to give you a lethal dose.

Actually, Fridge Horror: could that pyramid be our nuclear waste, 71,000 years hence? Stranger things have happened...

Oh crap, that story sent a shiver down my spine.
Doubly so, as after the first third, a nasty suspicion was creeping on me regarding what exactly might be down there - and how seriously screwed Daring Do and the others would be if it turned out to be correct...

TMH #14 · Aug 12th, 2012 · · ·

And this is why you always carry Rad-Away.

Carry On

Comment posted by Alondro deleted Mar 10th, 2013

ugughghghg *shiver*

That is so unsettling. You have nooo idea.

Very interesting. Very interesting indeed.

MORE... please:derpytongue2: I love it :raritystarry:can't wait to read more!


Loved the story. Most of the way through, I started thinking back to my lab's safety training and some hideous warning pictures of that kind of thing.

But I didn't see any image at the end- did you take it out, or is it just a problem with my browser?

This story was... chilling. I loved it. 1076155 That link is amazingly informative.


I had to cut it because the pre-readers thought it was too didactic. (It was a radiation symbol.) No biggie; I compensated by putting some more hints in the titular Writing.

Everyone else: I'll address your concerns first thing tomorrow morning.

Rainbow Dash looked up from the cornuscript, puzzled. "I don't get it."
Twilight Sparkle sighed. "The tomb wasn't a tomb, except for those who invaded it. Her crew dies of radiation sickness over the next month."
"Woah, woah," said Rainbow, taking to the air, "You're telling me this isn't a curse?"
"No, it's a natural physical phenomenon. Mare-ie Curie discovered-"
"Too much science," interrupted Rainbow, "Talk smaller."
Twilight sighed. "There are rocks which are constantly shooting out invisible fiery poison."
Rainbow landed again. "In real life, or just in your story?"
"In real life. In fact, the math says that if enough of these rocks are gathered together, they'll make enough heat to boil water and turn a turbine."
"Huh. So the ancient civilization made these badass waterwheels and toasted themselves?"
"Pretty much."
"So how does Daring escape? Does the doctor know of an antidote that she has to find in a crumbling temple?"
"Can she find a cure in the writing on the walls?"
Rainbow grimaced. "You're telling me that Daring Do.... dies? That's horrible! How can you do that to her, Twilight?"
"It's not canon," said Twilight, annoyed.
"Well of course she doesn't get hit by a cannon, she dies of fire rocks that you put there to kill her. Why would you kill Daring Do?"
"It's just a story, based on a story," said Twilight, now exasperated. "Write your own if you want her to live."
"What?" said Rainbow, wings flared, "I can write my own Daring Do stories?"
"Sure. And if you join the fan club, you can get them published in our mailing. You'd like the other stories," Twilight said, pulling a mimeographed stack of papers from a shelf of her reading parlor. "They're mostly adventures with good endings. I just went with the death angle for a haunting tale."
Rainbow flipped through the stack quickly. "Um, Twilight? Why is Daring Do kissing Ahuitzotl in this drawing?"
Twilight blushed. "That's fan art, and not all of it is like that."
Rainbow flipped through a few more pages. "Too bad. I kinda like it."

1076155 Wow, fascinating link. Certainly highlights how different cultures can view things. Leaving a massive monument might say 'Danger!' to us, but 'Cool stuff buried here!' to a future society. Thanks for that! :twilightsmile:

Big thanks to all the responders, and a warm welcome to all my new readers.

Oh dear, I was afraid this would happen. I did do some research, but I might not have read enough sources, and I admit I took some liberties with the effects, since radiation might effect magical ponies differently than humans. As for the half-life, a lot of my information came from this film, and it may have been wrong, or I may have misunderstood something. But I did suggest, obliquely, why containment was breached: the ponies aren't the first ones to break in.

I honestly don't know who built it. But that's pretty much the exact reaction I was going for. :twilightsmile:

Mwahahahaha... :trollestia:

Thanks! Now I don't have to link to that.

Bad news, I'm afraid. You're my first-ever "reader who mistook a one-shot for a first chapter". Although, Duplex Fields seems to have written an epilogue...

There are no words to describe that feel when someone writes a continuation of something you wrote. If you don't mind, I'd like to put this in a blog post.

1080936 :fluttershysad: but it ended on a cliffhanger


A continuation wouldn't be very long. There's only one thing to do after absorbing that many rads: write your last will and testament. Further reading may be found here.

Man... I read this story and gave me chills, similar to the time I read The Cough.

Then thanks to you guys I figured where the message came from and my mind was blown into microscopic pieces.

Good show Horse_Voice! You really made me feel things with this one...


Also, you get some extra cool points for portraying Ahuitzotl as an evil treasure hunter (instead the evil overlord image that the show gave me), I think that alone makes him a better antagonist for Daring.

I am pretty sure this story was inspired by an article once I read, or the report it was about, detailing plans for a long-term nuclear waste storage facility. Spikes all around the facility, warnings in several languages and some kind of universal language, I didn't remember blank walls for translations tho. The quote "This is not a place of honor. No great deed is commemorated here. Nothing of value is here. [...]" is also very signature.

That article was very chilling due to it being so apocalyptic and bordering on the science fiction, and even if I recognized pretty soon that it is such a facility in the story, it still gave me chills because it evoked my reactions to the article when I realized the references.

I think this is it but I'm not so sure, there are a few similar articles now that I search for it, Hoarse_Voice will tell the original article anyway :)


Ah yes I see in another comment he confirmed it :)

Damn, still feeling the chills, perfect with the Fallout soundtrack.

I was also wondering whether this was a mistake:

Daring: "They said it's 'the oldest archeological site ever found,' but I know that's not right, 'cause masonry like this has only been around about fifteen hundred years. So..."

Then later...
Thorn: "All of the writing systems you see here are the sole examples known to modern civilization, with a single exception: that at the bottom of the rightmost wall, which according to other experts present at this site, is approximately five thousand years old."

So was the outer entrance 1500 or 5000 years old? I guess the other civilizations from 26k to 5k years ago had enough sense to try to translate the messages before breaking the inner seal.


I think the masonry in that sentence is supposed to mean the actual building, not the seal. ie the style/ability to use this kind of rock/ standard of building is something only invented by the ponies in the last 1500 years.

Also, I too wish to see continuation, maybe with Celestia finding out what they opened and knowing what it is? Or ponies brewing toxin-removers or finding accidentally that something one of them ate reduced symptoms... I was so sad when I saw this was a one shot and not a chapter.


Re: the masonry. You are absolutely right. Thanks for saving me the trouble.

I guess I could try to write a sequel, but my heart wouldn't be in it, so it wouldn't be as good. I want the horse skull to always be a symbol of quality. However, I certainly wouldn't stop others from writing continuations, hypothetically.

"The Writing" was partly inspired by the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Those involved a rising sense of dread, punctuated by a big reveal. The aftermath was often left to the readers' imaginations. They don't make 'em like that anymore, so I have to.


I do love the story as it is, and the saying is that one should leave your audience wanting more.
After all, if you give the audience exactly what they ask for it's never as awesome as they expect.

There is one thing though, and it's probably just me, dense as I am about foreshadowing and suchlike, but I didn't actually twig to the whole radiation thing until I saw a comment a second after finishing the story that mentioned half-lives. Apparently there used to be a big old radiation symbol at the bottom, but I can see that being too garish and too easily skipped to for spoilers accidentally. Other readers might do the same and wonder what this mysterious disease is - though of course once you know what it is the hidden fire bit is rather blatant.


I was afraid of this. The pre-readers told me I could lose the symbol, or lose my chance at being featured. In the grand tradition of writer-publisher relations, I folded like a lawn chair.

I did my best, and I wish I knew how to make things clearer. The problem is, there is absolutely no way ponies know about ionizing radiation, and I can't keep going, because the whole point of this type of story is to deliver the shocking reveal. Once that arrives, you take your hands off the keyboard.

I'm open to suggestions.

Go for it. I wrote it to distance myself from how truly haunting it was. Let's see, how many levels of metafiction is this? In my fanfiction of your fanfiction, your fanfiction is Twilight's fanfiction of an in-universe fictional universe.

0. Us
1. The show
2. My frame story
3. Your story


You could link the inspiring article and documents at the end of the story. The connection between them and the story will be obvious and the chill will be even stronger.

I am a big fan of horror-themes, be they in motion picture, music, literature or whatever other way. You would even say I am a scare-addict. But unlike the straight-forward, in-your-face gruesomeness of bloody Pinkamena fiction or the cheap jumpscares of summer teeny horror movies, your short story gave a wholly different kind of creepy chill I haven’t felt for a while.

Slow, psychological horror, which you can often find in Lovecraftian novels or the occasional Silent Hill game, are hard and rare to pull off. And even if you exaggerated some details, it was all stylistic means to accomplish the goal of making us all shudder in horrifying, slow realization. Due to small, but significant characterization of all ponies involved, you felt genuinely sorry for their fates by the time the end came around.

To wrap this up, this is by far my favorite horror FiM story and I will likely remember it for quite a while to come. In other news, who else feels a bit different about radiation and nuclear waste all of the sudden? :rainbowderp:

Xon #39 · Oct 17th, 2012 · · ·

Despite being an exaggeration*, this type of nuclear waste is only an issue due to political incompetence of those who do not have the political will to use nuclear waste recycling. This recycling use nuclear transmutation to actually breakdown the nuclear waste with a long half-life to something with a shorter half-life which makes the stuff safer in years compared to hundreds of thousands of years.

Nuclear waste storage is actually a massive waste of resources and leaving highly posionious(uranium oxides are nasty and water soluable) and radioactive for longer literial hundreds of thousands of years.

There is only a few hundreds to a thousand of years uranium for nuclear reactors known to exist using single usge fuel rods. But with nuclear waste recycling, it becomes hundreds of thousands of years.

*Nuclear storage facilities shouldn't actually leave the waste in a position to generate ionising radiation at such lethal levels. Current practice is to melt the used rods into a slurry and mix it with glass substance and store it in barrels while being left in cooling ponds for years.

Site Blogger

>She had a personal tradition, when beginning a journey, of bivouacing at the head of the next morning's trail.
"Bivouacking" is the generally-accepted spelling. It appears in Merriam-Webster; "bivouacing" does not. I say generally-accepted because "bivouacking" returns approximately 103,000 results on Google; "bivouacing" returns only 8,000.

"In the grand tradition of writer-publisher relations, I folded like a lawn chair."
I laughed so hard at this I cried. At work. Damn you. I also happen to agree with EqD; the rest of the story is a subtle masterpiece; to include the radiation symbol beats the reader over the head with the "correct" meaning.

I thought your interpretation of the Message was perfectly satisfactory.


One thing a writer dreads is encountering an expert on something he's writing about, because there's no way he'll know as much as the expert. Well, the existence of nuclear waste recycling is a relief, anyway.


Re: bivouacking. I really appreciate you going to the effort to look that up. :pinkiesmile:

>I laughed so hard at this I cried. At work. Damn you.

Oh dear! I hope you didn't get in trouble. But it's funny -- I think you're the first person I know of who's laughed at that.

"Subtle masterpiece"? That's the sort of critical praise one sees inside book covers. May I quote you?

By the way, you recently said this story was 35th on your list. Would I be right in guessing you were looking for something short enough to read over a lunch break?

Site Blogger

Re: bivouacking, it's what I do. Well, one of the things, anyway.

I'm fortunate enough to have my own office. And it was probably reading something so funny right after reading something so... not.

More or less; there were roughly 1.5 million words ahead of this, and you're already in the Vault which should have put you at an even lower priority compared to the dozens on my list I've never read before, but I've wanted to read this story ever since I saw it. Something about the tags, title, summary... basically I got tired of telling myself no. I'm glad I gave in.

Oh, and sure you can quote me. I guess "the story is a subtle masterpiece" has quite the ring to it, don't it?


There are all types of arguements over nuclear proliferation which make nuclear waste reprocessing a political nightmare, because the reprocessing actually increases the fissionable elements which could be "easily" for a nation to overhaul into a nuclear weapons program.

Your fic is a really good treatment of the problems that long term nuclear storage has. Which is still a damn sight better than what we currently do with nuclear waste.

As leaving it in a cooling pond next to the nuclear reactor hoping someone gets around the solving the problem before human civilization goes away, isn't the best solution.

No really, that's the current "solution" for countries which don't use nuclear reprocessing. Because it sure as hell beats moving around thousands of tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste and the political nightmare that would ensue.


If anyone needs me, I'll be under the bed.

God damn chilling, and I didn't notice what was going on until the hidden fire line and that was in spite of having had my last lecture on radiation síckness on tuesday, 3 days ago.
That was rather terrifying, for obvious reasons.

Hey Horse_Voice not sure if you saw this comment.

Link the article at the end for maximum chills instead of the rad symbol.


I tried, but I didn't like the way it looked when it was set up that way, so I removed it. I know that sounds fussy, but every author reserves the right to fuss about his own work. Thanks for the suggestion, anyway.

Gripping and, as others have said, chilling. Even if the speed of decay and storage protocols seem a bit ill conceived, the telling of the story nevertheless makes up for it. I hear that there was originally a radiation symbol at the end of this story, and I'm glad that there wasn't when I read it. I think you did a fine job of leaving sufficient clues as to exactly what horror they were uncovering.


:pinkiehappy: I hope you don't mind me quoting you on my user page.

As for the symbol, you can thank Vimbert for that. Would you believe at the time, I tried to convince him to let me keep it? Well, lesson learned.


By all means. I would consider it an honor =).

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