• Published 1st Jun 2019
  • 1,589 Views, 103 Comments

The Tomb of the Nameless Evil - Klamnei



Sidestory to Fecundity. The Elements of Harmony and Maud Pie struggle to learn the ancient secrets of Mount Everhoof's most deadly cave.

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Part 2 - Two Guides

Part 2 - Two Guides

Geomancy: A discipline, profession, school of thought, magical ability, or philosophy related to the study, manipulation, and/or application of thaumic energy.

Thaumic Energy: A universal force of magic, found propagating in planets with oppositely-rotating cores. Associated with various aspects of organic and inorganic cell behavior in rocks, minerals, crystals, fossils, and cosmic debris.

Terrakinesis: The ability to innately sense and manipulate thaumic energy without physical contact. Rare in earth ponies/zebras, common in crystal ponies/yaks, and universal in alicorns.

Geomancy Grid: A mineral or crystal-based device that transmits thaumic energy according to a set of parameters.

  • - Geomancy 1001: Chapter 1 Vocabulary Terms, University of Manehatten

ZRRM!

Cramped, low-ceilinged corridors. Walls so cold your skin stuck to them. Twisting downward paths that never seemed to end. A horrid smell like burning plastic mixed with swamp gas. Clattering hooves on ice and slick stone. A lingering feeling of being watched. Neighsay did his best to ignore all of it and focus on a simple process: Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat.

ZRRM!

He kept hitting dead-ends with gruesome face carvings. Their dark, open mouths gave off an ungodly reek that made him gag if he got too close. The cold sank into his skin whenever he stopped, so he did his best to keep moving. He swore every path looked more and more the same as he went, but he shoved the thought out of his mind. Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat.

ZRRM!

The solid, frigid mass of his medallion pressed against Neighsay's left side. The gentle warmth of the Tear of Laughter radiated from his right side. The sizzling swishes of constantly opening and closing rifts were like the steady beat of a metronome. No, those weren’t spiderwebs clinging to him, just mana threads from all the rift-hopping. There were never any spiders, don't let yourself think otherwise. No, the shadows aren't moving, that's just the light from the earring. Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat.

ZRRM!

Stop thinking you might set off a trap. The corruption is playing tricks—don’t fall for them. Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat. Don’t think about the doppelganger in the ice with the fearsome eyes. Don’t think about the possibility of her learning about this place. Nothing is safe here; don’t trust anything. Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat.

ZRRM!

Don’t think about the Elements of Harmony or the consequences of failure. Don’t think about anything; just focus on what’s in front of you. Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat. If you have to think about something, think about how everything will be fine once those unstable immortals are off the throne. Think about the looks on the Elements' faces when they're exposed and arrested as traitors. Step through portal, get bearings, create new portal, repeat. Think about how this evil place will be destroyed with magical cannon fire. Think about making Equestria safe at long last. The three tribes will soon be the only ones that call these lands home, and balance will be restored. Step through portal, look around, create new portal, report to the Queen

RrAaaAaGGGggGhHhHhhH!” Neighsay flung himself into the freezing wall. The portal he’d just opened hung before him like a noose, its glow made dim by the flickering green light in his eyes.

You love the Queen, Sleeper.

You’ll do anything for the Queen, Sleeper.

Your only wish is to make the Queen happy, Sleeper.

You want to see the Queen more than anything.

She misses her Sleeper dearly—

"NO!" Searing cold bit into Neighsay’s thigh. A scream ripped from his throat as he tried and failed to pull his ensared leg free. “MY nAMe... is nOT... SleePeR!

Your inner turmoil is stirring, Sleeper. This place knows of your burden; how it claws at your mind and soul. Using the witch's power will only make it worse—

“SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTAAAAGGGGGH!” Neighsay yanked his leg free. He fell backwards clutching his thigh, a line of torn skin still dangling on the wall.

You want to return to the Queen.

You want to tell her everything you know.

You want to serve her forever.

[iIt's what you were almost meant to do.

Return to your place at her side, Sleeper.

Return to her right now.

Neighsay bit his lip so hard he drew blood. Seething, he rose little by little with murder in his glowing eyes. A manic smile formed on his face as he took an excruciating step forward... then another... and another... until he was past the glowing portal. He continued limping down the path without looking back.

You don’t want to think anymore.

Return to the Queen right now.

You want to obey your orders.

Return to the Queen right now.

Your inner turmoil will devour you.

Return to the Queen right now.

Only she can save you, Sleeper.

Return to the Queen right...

Neighsay slammed the portal closed with a wide, bloodstained grin. The pain was what saved him—stinging and throbbing right through the incessant commands. Warm, crimson rivulets wept down Neighsay’s leg, but he kept moving forward with a sanguine trail in his wake. He entered a new corridor with strange little holes along the walls—

His hoof sank onto a pressure plate.

FWTTT! FWTTT! FWTTT! FWTTT! FWTTT!

Black, needle-thin crystals fired from both sides. Dual clouds of death sailed towards Neighsay in slow motion, their cruel points sinking into his flesh.

“There’s one.” Maud pointed a spot on the left wall. “Left side, near the ceiling.”

The empathic corruption was the first thing Maud had felt on waking. The heightened power of the Elements was ever-present, yes, but you could still it festering beyond like a disease. A first-aid kit had helped with the pulsing headache Neighsay had so kindly gifted her, but it didn’t do much for a wounded ego.

Twilight squinted at the spot. It was faint, but she did feel something strange—like a magnetic pull. “I think I sense it! I can try terrakinesis—”

“Stop.” Maud's voice rose just a hair. “Let me learn more about the grid first. Attempt the wrong the thing, and we could cause a cave-in.”

Twilight went pale. “A-Ah... right. Sorry.”

Rainbow sniggered. “Guess it’s good Cadance hasn’t had time to show you the ropes, after all.”

Beyond the chasm was a series of narrow, claustrophobic paths. The floor here was more glossy ice than solid rock, and the alarmingly-cold walls meant they had to fly in lines of two. It kept growing colder and more corrupted the farther down they went.

Maud watched the readings of her scanner. She'd switched over to Rarity's back, as Fluttershy’s electric wings and metallic instruments didn't mix. "Okay, Rarity. Cast it now.”

Rarity swivelled her ears backward. “You’re sure?”

"Not really." Maud looked up through her bangs. "But we always have the Pinkie Sense.”

Pinkie beamed.

Sighing, Rarity wove together a lesser version of her Gem Finding spell. She paused to make sure no part of Pinkie was reacting, then released it proper with a FLASH!

...

...The silhouette of a wicked crystal appeared at the end of the left corridor wall.

Applejack curled her lip. “Does everythin’ in this place gotta be a crime against eyes?”

Fluttershy shuddered. “It looks like it’s covered in fish hooks.”

Maud’s lips parted. She stared at the glowing crystal... then put away her scanner and rummaged in her bags. She produced a cylindrical instrument covered in knobs and switches and turned it on.

“Erm...” Pinkie watched Maud wave the device around. “Not good?”

Maud didn’t answer. She was staring at one specific gauge as the needle inside rose bit by bit. It’d barely moved at all before stabilizing a moment later.

“You could say that,” she told Pinkie. “Though I suppose it could be worse.”

“What's wrong?” Twilight asked.

Maud adjusted a few settings on the cylinder. “Geomancy grids have two main components: Emitters, and resonators. Emitters draw thaumic energy from a power source and oscillate it to an intended frequency. The resonators receive the frequency and perform a designated action on activation. That crystal there—” She nodded at the one Twilight had revealed. “—is a resonator. It’s made of a substance called mutacite.”

Now Twilight REALLY went pale. She looked at the crystal, then at Maud, then back at the crystal again.

“Muta-what now?” said Rainbow.

Twilight swallowed hard. “M-Mutacite. It's... i-it’s a native quasicrystal with an amorphous molecular structure and an inconsistent convection tolerance. It’s malleability gives it the most diverse physical and metaphysical absorption properties of any known mineral, but that makes it EXTREMELY reactive.”

Rainbow ran a hoof down her face. “Babe...”

Twilight meeped. "I-I mean... it's a rare crystal only found in the Himaneighya region. It can absorb and store almost any kind of energy, but it has something like a seventy percent chance to… e-explode.”

Silence.

“Are my ears not working?” Rarity asked. “Because I thought I heard ‘explode’.”

Rainbow suddenly had an epiphany. “The explode-y crystals you and Spike gathered a few months back...”

Twilight’s face was grim. "Even casting magic around mutacite can set it off. I don't know how or why someone would use it as a power source, but—"

“I do." Maud showed Twilight the reading. “If my calculations are right, that mutacite over there only has about a four percent chance of rupturing."

Twilight blinked. “...How?!”

Maud shrugged. “Maybe there's a way to stabilize it.”

“Could be worse’ indeed.” Applejack folded her forelegs. “Yet four percent ain’t zero, no matter how ya slice it. You’re basically sayin' not only is this place trapped from nose to tail, but even the traps are booby trapped?!”

Maud looked at her, deadpan. “Eeyup.”

“What do we do?” Fluttershy asked. “We can’t just keep charging forward and hope we survive!”

“How about a golem?” said Rarity. “Twilight knows the Come-to-Life spell, after all. We could use it to scout.”

Rainbow held up a hoof. “Daring Do did something like that once. It's a good idea, but there's no guarantee we'll be out of harm's way when the trap goes off."

Twilight nodded. “The trigger could be anywhere in the effect radius. Not to mention if we cause one explosion, that in turn could cause more.”

“Or we could wake up another nasty critter," Applejack said in a dark voice. “No more slime creatures for me, thanks.”

“Hey, what about this?” Pinkie said. “Maybe we could…”

Several of them began talking at once. Maud listened to the ideas at first, but her head soon began to throb and pound. She put a hoof to her head as the concerns devolved into a fast, noisy blur. Her eyes unfocused without her meaning, and her thoughts floated off to come up with an idle bit of poetry.

Paladins five, a fiery Divine,
sent by Love to the lofty mount,
the poet and scholar guides them forth,
into the depths of ancient dread,
through frost and shadow they descend,
resolved to claim those lost to death,
though damned souls wail and secrets creep—

She stopped upon realizing how quiet it'd gotten. She looked up and saw the others were looking at her, their brows furrowed and expressions worried.

"Ahem." Maud tried to recall the last thing that was said. “I... think I have an idea to get us through.”

“Maud..." Pinkie began.

Maud waved her off. “Judging by the aetherial vibrations, this grid resembles an inverted Tackwell-Heinhitch lattice. I can measure the thaumic energy travelling between the emitters and resonators and isolate the oscillation frequency. Then I can use my equipment to at least nullify the ancillary resonators.”

You could almost hear the whoosh of that going over everypony’s head.

“I think I’m just gonna save everypony the trouble and say ‘go for it’,” Twilight said. “Although geomancy aside, ancillary refers to a support mechanism, not a primary one.”

"Correct." Maud began rummaging through her bags. “I’m not sure how the primary resonators are locked onto us. I’m not even sure what triggers them—I just know they’ve registered six intruders.”

Twilight tilted her head. “Six? But... there’s seven of us; eight if you count Neighsay—”

Suddenly, Maud’s metal cylinder lit up.

Applejack made a face. “That don't look good.”

The device’s crimson glow tinged the Elements’ light a bloody hue. The needles of several gauges were fluctuating, and the readings on Maud's other scanner were all over the place.

“An energy surge,” Maud said, “Different than what you described at the entrance. I believe it matches Sombra’s dark geomancy.”

Twilight’s eyes darkened. “We’ve only gone down about half a mile. The source of Princess Cadance’s curse is something he left behind, but these traps are too old to be set by him.”

Maud adjusted the sleeve of her sweater. “The original ones are, but it's possible he—”

That was when Pinkie’s back legs wiggled.

“AHHHH!” She shoved everyone forward with all her strength. She got everypony clear right as there was a terrible grating noise, huge cracks appearing where they'd just been.

CRUNCH!

A huge pillar of black crystal exploded from the floor. It smashed the ceiling with bone-crushing force, the entire hallway shaking from the terrifying impact. Shards of crystal and bits of stone pinged off the girls’ armor as they sailed down the hall towards the fish hook resonator—

WHUM

Fissures formed in the ground. Cracks spread up the walls, the ceiling quivering and quaking. The entire path began to shift with an ear-splitting SNAPS, portions of the floor giving way while others rose in several-ton slabs. Cruel veins of black crystal burst through ice and stone, new corridors forming while others collapsed.

“ARE YOU KIDDING?!” Applejack bucked away a falling slab. “That crackpot set his OWN traps?!”

"Not 'set'..." Maud waved her metal cylinder in a circle. “Modified.

“MOVE!” Twilight yelled.

Pandemonium reigned. Pinkie and Rainbow took the lead, Twilight, Rarity, and Maud stayed in the middle, and the other two took up the rear. Together they raced forward with crushing death close behind, black crystals bursting from everywhere like spiky hellish vines. Their ears were assailed by ceaseless scraping, snapping, crunching, and smashing. Dust stung their eyes and obscured their surroundings as all sense of direction was lost. The cramped, crooked tunnels were shifting like a colossal rubix cube, the way forward becoming a jumble of madness and doom.

Twilight and Rarity threw up a soundproof forcefield. Rainbow and Fluttershy managed to keep the air clear while Pinkie navigated the bedlam. The world fell blissfully silent within their glimmering magenta sphere… but Maud's splitting headache still grew worse by the second. It was made worse by the constantly shifting walls, her stomach doing somersaults with every swerve, stop, and start. It was only sheer force of will that allowed her to muscle down the nausea that crept up her throat. Gagging, she retrieved a rectangular device from her bags and extended its antennae, its batteries kicking on with a crackle of static.

A pillar shattering against the forcefield made Fluttershy flinch. ““The crystals keep coming! I-It’s like they’re following us!”

Rainbow muttered a curse. “I thought the Elements could dust Sombra’s geo-crud! Did he soup this batch up, or something?!”

“It IS bein' dusted!” Applejack said from the back. “I’m watching it all break behind us—it's just takin' a sec!”

“Then let’s amp up the juice and—”

“DID YOU FORGET ABOUT THE 'EXPLODE-Y CRYSTALS'?!” Rarity screamed at Rainbow. "We can't use excess force!"

Twilight had already thought the same thing. Not to mention that when Spike had retrieved the Crystal Heart, she'd learned that magic and Sombra’s crystals don’t mix. “Just keep moving! We’ll get through this!”

A constant barrage pummeled them from all sides. Twilight and Rarity could feel every weighty hit, every glancing blow, every wicked jab. Pillars tried to smash them, shards tried to shred them, and a sense of confinement loomed as the oppressive walls hemmed them in more and more. Every turn just made them more lost than the last, and as the minutes dragged on like hours, so too did this leg of the cave.

“I feel like we’re playin’ ring around the rosey!” said Applejack after a time. “What do we do?!”

“I don’t know!” Pinkie said. “I can’t tell which way leads out! Just looking at the walls makes me dizzy!”

“Well, this dust sure isn't helping!” Rainbow snarled. “I still say we bust through!”

“We can’t tunnel through a mile and a half of solid rock!” Fluttershy asked. “We'd have to pray we break into another cavern!”

Meanwhile, Rarity caught Twilight’s eye. She jerked her head at Maud, who was swaying back and forth with glassy eyes. Her complexion was clammy and pale as she adjusted the dials on her device.

Twilight pursed her lips. She could feel a strange energy from Maud’s device shifting alongside the crackling static. Everything about this was alien to Twilight, from the sounds of the instrument to the instrument itself. She couldn’t even tell if Maud was trying to tune them all out and focus, or if she was on the verge of—

“I believe in Maud!” said Pinkie. “Oscillate away, sis! Those ancillary resonators may as well give up now, because nothing can stand up to the Maud Sense! That thaumic energy frequency is good as toast!”

Silence.

"I... can keep up the shield for a bit yet!" said Twilight, disregarding the phrase ‘Maud Sense’ for sanity's sake. “Do what you can, Maud! We'll give you the time!”

The others nodded. They went back to their respective duties, their resolve making the Elements shine all the brighter.

Fluttershy strengthened her gusts of wind. “Y-You don’t think Neighsay is caught in this… do you?”

Rainbow strengthened hers, as well. “If he is... we might need another dustbox.”

Meanwhile-

It had all happened so fast. Neighsay had been fighting off the venom’s influence one second, and the next he'd been staring down his own demise. The only thing he could do was shut his eyes and wait for the end.

But then, he’d felt himself falling…

At last, Neighsay mustered the courage to open his eyes. Instead of seeing a skeletal boatstallion asking payment for safe passage across a river, he was somehow in another part of the cave. It was the top of a staircase, by the looks of it... if said staircase had been built by Pintocasso. Odd angles, nonsensical dimensions, bizarre overcomplexity... trying to go down would be like navigating the chaos of a kaleidoscope.

"Ugh..." Just staring at the oddity made Neighsay’s head hurt more than it already did. He turned around and—

“WAH!” He nearly fell down the stairs. “YOU!”

It was the doppelganger from before. They were watching him from within a wall like before, said wall encased in a layer of purest eyes. Their glowing blue eyes were glued to his every move.

Neighsay’s foggy exhales were like a cloud. He noticed that the ice was only cleaned off in a small circle around the entity. The rest of it was cloudy and dark.

“Who are you?” Neighsay could swear his medallion was pulsing, it’s foul, frigid magic tugging at his mind. “Why do you look like me? What did you do to my—argh!”

Stinging pain tore through him. Wincing, he realized he'd been pierced by crystal shards along his chest, sides, and legs. It looked like he’d had lost a fight against a gang of porcupines.

“Never... mind...” Blood trickled from Neighsay's split lip. The abrasion from the wall was still bleeding and throbbing, the fiery pain even worse than the crystal wounds. “Damn it all...”

“There is a first aid kit in your bags,” said the doppelganger. It’s mouth didn’t move, but its eyes pulsed alongside a ghostly chorus of voices. “Tend to yourself so we may move on.”

Lead filled Neighsay's stomach. The doppelganger’s cold, calculating stare continued to drill into him, but Neighsay didn’t look away.

“You're in my medallion,” he said at last, "and I sense her magic in you. What are you?”

The doppelganger’s eyes flared. “That is none of your concern—"

"Another golem?" Neighsay said. "Hmm... not entirely. There's something else behind the veil."

"Something you cannot even comprehend," the doppleganger spat. "With our Master's help, we have become the pinnacle of magic, geomancy, and alchemy—”

A distant rumbling and crunching interrupted the entity. Neighsay could tell it was coming from the direction opposite the staircase, but beyond that he was clueless. “Whatever you are, I don't appreciate you taking my form. I’ve not had great experiences with shapeshifters.”

The doppelganger glowered. “You're lucky to have this experience at all. You may not be the first anomaly to invade this place, but you're by far the weakest. If it weren’t for that accursed jewel and your obscene willpower, you’d be nothing more than our puppet.”

There was a lot to unpack in those two statements. Most wouldn't catch a lot of it, but Neighsay wasn’t the head of the Scholar’s Guild for nothing. “Is that what you were doing back on the cliff? Trying to mind control me? Ha! Then let me guess—you snuck into my medallion because I'm not as weak as you thought?”

The doppelganger bared their teeth. “You should be grateful. Transferring this proxy bolstered your medallion's stolen power, AND it allowed us to save you from the compromised defense node! You owe us your life!”

So there WAS kind of ancient geomancy grid in place. “Tell me, what’s to stop me from opening a portal to the nearest city, flagging down a Purifier to exorcise you, then being on my merry way?”

The doppelganger smirked. “It’ll take time to locate someone powerful enough to remove us… especially with your criminal status. You don't want to win your hard-won lead, do you?”

Neighsay had a strong urge to smash the ice. “Stay out of my head, ‘Proxy’. I mean it.”

Proxy laughed. “Treat your wounds, ‘Sleeper’. And do not open this door. The way forward is the stairs behind you.”

Neighsay hadn't even realized there was a door behind the ice. He muttered something under his breath, but nonetheless produced a first aid kit from his bag and set about treating himself.

“I may not fully know what you are,” Neighsay said a moment later, "but I know who your ‘Master’ is."

Proxy chuckled. “We would be surprised if you did not. Her power isn’t just in that medallion—it’s in you, as well.”

Neighsay spat blood on the ground. “Is that why you helped me?”

“Partially.” Proxy started pacing back and forth. “We never thought we’d encounter someone who was compatible with her magic. Though that is less important reason; in truth, we share a common enemy. You seek to destroy something left behind by Anomaly B, or ‘Sombra’, as you know him. We want it destroyed, as well.”

Neighsay snorted. “‘Then why didn't you bring me straight there? You saved me by activating my medallion, didn’t you?”

Proxy scowled. “Because it took most of our energy transporting you this far. Additionally, the item you seek is within the Inner Sanctum, where the defenses are strongest. No form of dimensional travel is allowed within.”

Neighsay pulled another red-stained shard from his leg. “So much for being the pinnacle of magic, geomancy, and alchemy. Is this typical protocol for you, then? Take over ponies’ minds and rifle through their memories, then try to zombie-walk them through this nightmare?”

Proxy’s eyes widened, but only for an instant. The calm, cruel mask had slipped back over their face before Neighsay could even blink. “An anomaly that’s made a living out of deciphering bureaucratic half-truths… splendid.”

Neighsay bounced the shard off Proxy’s image with a tink! “What exactly is an ‘anomaly’? You keep using that word.”

Proxy curled their lip. “...Any that retain their higher brain functions despite all attempts to the contrary is given the designation 'Anomaly'. Again, the one you know as ‘Sombra’ was Anomaly B. You are Anomaly C, and your pursuers are Anomalies D through J.”

Neighsay raised an eyebrow. “You’re missing a letter.”

Proxy hesitated. “We… only learned of Anomaly A when attempting to document Anomaly B. We’ve no record of a breach before that time, so we assume it to be an error in this proxy's spell matrix.”

Neighsay studied Proxy for a long, long time. “I think that might be the most truthful thing you’ve said so far.”

Proxy ignored that. “We want to help you because Anomaly B’s efforts have accosted us as much as they have you.” An image of Sombra appeared beside them in the ice. “Anomalies D through J are powerful; possibly even enough to force their way through, but we don’t trust their motivations. Your wielding of the Master’s power will allow you to pass through most of the facility unharmed, and your magic should allow you to withstand the natural hazards of each sector. The only danger to you will be the mechanisms Anomaly B has compromised.”

Like the one Neighsay had just tripped, he was guessing. It was good to know, yes, but it didn't convince Neighsay that Proxy’s motivations were innocent. “So you're offering to guide me through this place because you feel like it's the best option. You don't really expect me to believe it's that simple, do you?”

Proxy shrugged. “Not everything has to be overly complex.”

True, but that didn't mean the cards were all on the table. “That door behind you. Where does it lead?”

Proxy chuckled—a cold, sadistic sound voiced from a throng of surrounding ghosts. “To one of the compromised defenses of this sector. If you go in, you will die.”

Neighsay tossed another shard at Proxy. “Elaborate.”

The side of Proxy’s mouth twitched. There was a heavy pause, but then, the image of Proxy faded away. The open spot in the ice became like a hazy screen to reveal an image of the room beyond.

Neighsay leaned forward. It was a bare chamber about the size of a classroom. It was devoid of ice and enshrouded in a strange yellow fog, but those were the main things that he could see. It was completely nondescript otherwise—

And then he saw them. The starved, frozen bodies of a stallion and a mare were slumped in opposite sides of the room. Their manes were frozen to their bodies. Their glassy, sunken eyes were staring off into eternity. Their ashen grey coats were stretched across their waxy, emaciated features.

“That yellow fog is a series of powerful interwoven illusions,” Proxy whispered in Neighsay’s ear. “The magic saps all memory, instinct, and sense of self until the victim’s mind is blank. They starved to death without ever even touching their rations, for they’d forgotten how to eat.”

Bile rose in Neighsay’s throat. He averted his eyes, but the image was burned in his mind. Saddlebags, winter clothing, and supplies had all been abandoned near the opposite door. None of it had even been touched.

“They came here with five other trespassers,” Proxy went on. “We were able to commandeer most of them after they ran afoul of the defenses, but controlling multiple psychotic minds is taxing. They began to break free one by one as we guided them—”

“Enough,” Neighsay said through grit teeth. “Take it away.”

“—the first was quite powerful; a mage of some sort,” Proxy said. “She almost got a spell off before the fear effects sent her screaming off the chasm. It’s hard to say what killed her: the fall, or the—”

A burst of orange magic shattered the image.

“I SAID ENOUGH!” Neighsay bellowed.

“You remind us of the Master in some ways.” Proxy re-appeared to Neighsay's right. “Yet where she embraced her gifts, you’ve chosen to suppress them. Why?”

Neighsay didn’t look at him. “I don’t know what you’re on about.”

“Please.” Proxy laughed as their eyes flickered a familiar sickly green. “ We sensed how you channel the Master’s power during your psychotic episode. We can show you how to merge your inner turmoil with your soul, you know. You’ll be immune to the empathic magics, and the thing you’ve feared for so long will—”

“I didn’t come this far to give in to my own inner demons.” Neighsay crushed a freshly-removed crystal shard to powder. “Find some other patsy to play your games.”

“Then perhaps we should put this another way.” Proxy nodded to Neighsay’s saddlebags. “You need your medallion. We have merged with it. Attempting to remove us will take time and put you at risk, not to mention cause damage to the medallion itself.”

“You think you can—”

“Without our aid, the facility's compromised defenses will end you,” Proxy said. “You have three options: Flee and let your pursuers claim your prize, ignore our aid and die, or work with us willingly.”

...

Neighsay glowered while tending to the tender abrasion along his thigh. It required a little more attention than the shard wounds, but he got it addressed in short order. Salve-coated bandages were now visible through the rips in his leg sleeves, and the wrap on his thigh was held fast by a medical adhesive.

“We both know you’re not going to let me go afterwards,” he said at last.

Proxy’s eyes glinted. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it... assuming you live that long.”

“Charming.” Neighsay eased himself to stand, flexing his legs and testing his bandages. His movements weren't pain-free, but it's have to do for now. He then made to ask Proxy on what next... only to find the image was gone.

“Come,” Proxy’s voices whispered in his ears. “You need only be wary in the areas we warn you of. You’re safe from the other defenses so long as you keep ahead of Anomalies E through J.”

The funny thing was that Neighsay felt his medallion pulse with Proxy’s every word. It was funny how Proxy didn't seem to consider that a problem for some reason, even though—

"Wait." Neighsay played back what Proxy just said. "E through J? You said D through J before—”

BOOM!

The sound of crunching, smashing rock hit Neighsay like a blow to the head. A constant rumbling shook his body, dust falling to the floor in a sudden sheet.

“Proxy!” Neighsay scrambled to steady himself against the wall. “What—”

“Your pursuers are pushing through Anomaly B’s modifications,” Proxy said. “His additions take advantage of the kinetic dampeners that were already in place to protect the rest of the lair, which are quite easy to flip off...”

Suddenly, the racket and the vibrations stopped.

“...or flip back on.”

Neighsay’s heart hammered in his chest. “How much of this place can you control?”

"Far less than we'd like." Proxy’s voices grew embittered. “The only thing you should rely on us for is information. Anything beyond the facility's most simple systems are beyond the capabilities of this proxy.”

Neighsay made a note right then to find out who—or what—this thing was a proxy for. “Fine. Just tell me how to get down these crazy stairs!”

“When you step onto the first stair, the illusion will vanish," Proxy said. "Go. Hurry."

Well, at least would answer whether Proxy had it out for him. Neighsay took a deep breath, then lifted his hoof to step onto the first uneven stair—

WHUMmmMMmm…

A subtle humming resonated through the kinetic dampeners. The air shimmered with a sense of vertigo, and in the blink of an eye, the maddening perspective faded to reveal a wide spiral stair.

Except Neighsay's hoof was still in the air.

“What in the Master’s name?!” A vague, sweeping chill emanated from the portal medallion. “Portions of the defenses have been nullified throughout the sector!”

Neighsay’s fuzzy ears twitched. The humming was fading into the background, but he knew well enough what it was. He’d rattled off the equipment's make and model, after all. “Counter-frequency...”

Maud’s headache had vanished like smoke. The bump on her head still twinged, but the throbbing pressure and vertigo had vanished.

“Mercy...” Applejack looked behind them. “I thought we’d triggered another trap for a second!”

Maud didn’t reply right away, as she was busy writing down the frequency settings on some parchment. “There. We should be able to get through now.”

Twilight stared at the square device in Maud’s hooves. The strange thrumming had only lasted a second, but she could still sense the energy pulsing from the antennas. “So this is geomancy…”

“WOOHOO!” said Pinkie. “I knew you could do it! Let’s get the heck out of here!”

She started down the nearest chaotic corridor. The others made to follow, but then Pinkie zipped back right as the tunnel collapsed right in front of them.

KA-RUNCH!

“Whoopsie!” Pinkie put a hoof behind her head. “Maybeeeee this one?”

Rainbow gulped as the dust cleared. “I’m never going in a cave again...”

The walls were still shifting with dark crystals bursting forth, but the girls were now beginning to outpace the lethal chaos. It still took awhile to get out of the maze, however, as it was difficult to retain one’s bearings with the constant upheaval making new twists and turns. Eventually they made it out, and the noise dwindled as Maud and the others hurried down dismal, dungeon-like paths that spiralled, zigzagged, and meandered into the mountain’s depths.

“I’m picking up a frost enchantment on the walls,” Twilight said a short while later. “A nasty one, too. Try not to set it off.”

The others had already guessed as much. The dull grey stone around them was radiating an ominous chill, and the cramped corridors made it difficult for a party of seven to maneuver. Everything always led deeper, every route was a little bit colder.

Until it finally happened. Fluttershy’s flight path wandered, Rarity compensated, and her armored white leg grazed a corner.

CLANK!

“Ack!” Rarity’s leg was repelled with startling force. She looked down at her glowing, rune-lit sabaton, then over at the wall.

Fluttershy gasped. “Oh my gosh! Rarity, I-I’m—”

Twilight was already inspecting Rarity’s leg. The wards had done their job, but the metal was still vibrating like a tuning fork. "At least we know the armor works."

Rarity patted Fluttershy's shoulder. "It’s fine, darling. Startled me more than anything else.”

Applejack tightened the straps on her flanchard. “We miiiiiiiight wanna turn the heater on, if ya feel me.”

Twilight did. After giving the evil walls a dark glance, she closed her eyes...

FWOOM!

And just like that, Fluttershy was too busy freshening the air to wallow in self-pity.

The glistening walls and melting ceiling became the norm. Acrid water flowed with them down the descending way, dripping and flowing around Twilight’s fiery forcefield without pause. Shadows danced and water evaporated before her prismatic flames, a tense, eerie quiet settling in that left them speaking in whispers.

“Any sign of Neighsay, Fluttershy?” Rainbow asked.

Fluttershy, who’d moved to the front, shook her head. “Any tracks are being washed away. Have you sensed anything, Twilight?”

Twilight double-checked again to be sure. “No portal magic for a while now. Maybe we should go back and—”

“Wait.” Maud’s scanner chirped. “Stop here, please.”

They'd been about to enter a long, wide chamber with a low ceiling. The dirty floor sank to form a shallow basin, where the water was collecting to make a shin-deep pond. Twilight worried they might have to worry about flooding, but on looking closer, she saw the water was draining through paper-thin slits in the stone.

Rarity squinted at the far side of the room. “There's a door over there, by the by.”

Indeed there was. It was caked in ice from top to bottom, but its ugly green handle and black metal supports made it stand apart. There were also alien symbols etched upon it that repeated in a pattern.

"Some kind of language?" Twilight flew a bit closer. "If it is, I can probably decipher it with—"

Ping! Ping!

Twilight’s eyes shrank to pinpricks. She shoved everyone back the way they’d come with a burst of fiery magic.

“Whoa!” Pinkie did a somersault in mid-air. “Simmer down, there! Code green, code green!”

Twilight ignored her. She focused on the still-chirping ward, discovering the two sources were coming from beyond the door.

“I was about to say there’s another ancillary resonator beyond that door.” Maud held up her beeping scanner. “My counter-frequency is cancelling it out, though. We should be—”

“There are two E.G.E. members in that room,” Twilight said. “Neither them have a pulse.”

A deathly silence fell.

“Well...” Rainbow put a hoof behind her head. “Maud did just say it’s safe...”

“I'm wading through—hrk—a sewer," Neighsay said between portal jumps. "That's what this is, isn't it?! A ruddy ancient sewer!"

He’d smelled what he was heading into long before he got there. He hadn’t been sure what fresh horror awaited at the bottom of these stairs, but the festering, freezing swamp had still been a surprise. The oily, pungent ice had been thawed to make slushy flats, stagnant pools, and mires of reeking muck. Sinkholes like great cesspits were everywhere, each lined by great empty troughs that connected to the other bodies of water.

“This is nothing.” Every time Proxy spoke, the cold of the portal medallion would pulse within the bag.“It'll be far worse for the other anomalies—”

Neighsay vomited into one of the pools.

“...Perhaps we should have warned you.”

Neighsay’s world spun. Legs shaking, he fumbled in his bags and pulled out a winter face mask. He mumbled a few spittle-laden words and jammed it on, the spell deadening his senses of smell and taste.

"A bit of distraction, then." Proxy’s chorus of voices swirled around Neighsay like a winter gale. “The facility is divided into five sectors. Each one is as unique as they are brilliantly designed, their deadly traps second to none. You’ve just exited Sector One, which is the largest in square footage and most varied in its offerings. This is Sector Two, which, while not a sewer, is still quite chemically diverse. Sector Three is a twilit wasteland dominated by temporal magic, entropy, and fierce winds. Sector Four is a collection of interconnected chasms that each contain their own dangers; and in one of these chasms is the Inner Sanctum, where the item you seek resides.”

Neighsay gasped for air. He was recovering, but the memory of the smell still lingered. “That's only... four sectors.”

Proxy chuckled. “We advise against going to Sector Five unless you wish for death. It lies at the bottom of a pit deep enough to expose the trio of planetary ley lines beneath this mountain. As a scholar, you are aware of how deep that is, yes?”

Indeed, Neighsay did. It was tempting to ask the obvious follow-up questions there, but Neighsay could tell he was being led on. “Let me ask… something else. Why… is this place so well-guarded… even after all this time?”

Proxy paused. “We... thought that was obvious. Why else would it be guarded other than to keep out trespassers?"

Neighsay spotted a safe-looking patch of stone a fair distance away. He opened a portal and stepped through with care. “Why be so worried about trespassers? What's to hide?”

Another pause, this one longer. It soon became clear Proxy wasn’t going to answer the question, so Neighsay kept right on talking. “I know it’s not her body. I wouldn’t doubt she died here, but there’s no way someone like her would leave behind a corpse. I doubt it’s riches or a magical item, either.”

Neighsay stopped and looked around. The swamp was in a series of massive chambers larger than he’d seen so far. It remained cold as ever, but the water—if that’s what it truly was—never froze beyond a bit of slush. A thick mist around the high ceiling above looked like clouds on the verge of a downpour.

“A testing ground?” he mused. “Experiments, schemes, projects for unrealized plans? I suppose I can relate to not wanting to destroy your own work, but the effort to repurpose so much into a cohesive whole..."

“...Speculate all you like, Anomaly,” came Proxy’s sullen voices. “The Master’s legacy has been set in stone for millennia now. You cannot stop what is to come... but if you follow her example and embrace your sleeping power—”

“Which one of those girls is Anomaly D?" Neighsay asked. “I know you didn’t misspeak before—one of them didn't set off the defenses. Why?"

No answer. Neighsay waited for a time, but when it became clear Proxy either wasn't going to say (or simply didn't know) he continued portal-hopping through the nauseating chambers in silence.

If there was one good thing about this area, it was that it was very flat and open. Neighsay made very good progress through the chambers due to that, but he still was hampered by the slippery paths and unstable ground. He also realized after a while the chambers were curving inward, the entire sector shaped like a great spiral leading into the center. The clouds above remained dreary and fearfully black the whole time, but not a single raindrop fell.

“You’re approaching the sector interior.” Proxy’s first dialogue in minutes made Neighsay jump. “See the swamp fluids changing into a black ichor? That’s the chemicals and magic congealing. The air isn’t safe to breathe as a result, so you’ll want to move through as quick as possible.”

Neighsay gulped. Even with his enchanted face mask, a foul tang in the air made his head feel spacey. He continued on at a quicker pace, the somber quiet pressing in on his ears.

“Oh, another thing,” said Proxy. “Take care to avoid the shadowfrost jets. The fumes shouldn't be deadly, but direct exposure most certainly is.”

Neighsay froze. “The shadow-WHAT?!”

TTTTSSSSSS!

A column of violet-black steam erupted a few feet away. It was so cold it chilled the air even further before rolling over Neighsay in a horrid-smelling plume. Even inhaling diluted fumes felt like being stabbed in the lungs—

The dark mist dissipated. Neighsay coughed and scrambled away, the bulk of the gas repelled by the Tear of Laughter’s glow. He stared wide-eyed at the evil ‘shadowfrost’ slinking away to join the black jelly in the pools.

“The Master experimented heavily with shadowfrost at the first facility,” Proxy went on. “Though she did admit later, testing it on the local natives without studying their biology was a bit of a misstep. Ironic you've developed a resistance to that same biology; perhaps that will help you resist the compound.”

Cold, clammy sweat dripped from Neighsay’s brow. “What… wh-what are you saying?!”

Proxy just laughed. “Look for an immense statue resembling a snake devouring its tail. The way to Sector Three is within its base.”

Meanwhile-

Fluttershy studied the sanguine stains and bloody shards atop the spiral stairs. There were also some torn fabric, white gauze, and a collection of shattered ice.

“We just got lucky again," Twilight said upon flying in. "Those runes on the door were rigged to explode when someone read them. The only thing that saved us was that we couldn't understand the language."

Pinkie weighed the discarded saddlebags they'd found in her hooves. “Did it say anything useful, at least?"

Twilight's eyes fell on the pair of now-filled dustboxes. “No. It was just one word repeated over and over: ‘SUFFER’.”

Rarity muttered something very un-ladylike.

“ERGH!” Rainbow bucked the wall so hard it cracked. “Why... just, WHY?! Why would someone do all this?!”

Twilight’s fiery contrails made the air ripple around her. “If only I knew the answer.”

“We don't need an answer,” Applejack said. “We just gotta stop Neighsay, fix Cadance, then skedaddle. My brother can level this whole dungheap afterwards.”

Twilight pressed her lips into a thin line. “There's just one caveat. There's no guarantee destroying this place will stop whatever's causing the corruption. I want to find the source first before committing to anything."

Rarity hovered the dustboxes to Twilight. “We should do something about this room in the interim. The enchantments will turn back on the moment Maud’s device is out of range, won’t they?”

Maud, who’d been gathering samples around the room, looked over. “The resonator might explode if I extract it too fast. We'll probably be letting Neighsay get away.”

Twilight clicked her teeth. “Maud's right. We need to stay focused—”

“Girls!” Fluttershy called. “I found something!”

Fortunately, the thing she'd found was on topic. The girls came over one by one until they were all crowded around the evidence Neighsay had left behind.

“At least he’s still kickin’.” Applejack nodded to a piece of gauze. “Though it looks like he's hurt."

“How did he get through this room?!" Rarity glanced behind them and shuddered. “Did he open a blind portal and just pray it worked?! He’s either crazy or desperate!”

Maud snorted. "Why not both?"

Twilight was the last to come over. There was a small commotion upon her accidentally melting the ice and washing away half the blood, but after that, she did a quick magic scan.

“Whoa.” Twilight double-checked the reading. "It's definitely portal magic, but there’s some kind of chill to it."

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Chill?”

Twilight didn’t answer. The only thing she'd heard about magic signatures having a temperature was from Spike’s descriptions of his magic bonds. “I don’t like this. We need to catch up to him!”

“Then let’s move!” Rainbow leapt into the air. “C’mon!”

And so they zoomed down the dizzying stair two by two. Down, down, down they went, the rough-hewn steps and dismal walls blurring into a monotony. The occasional odd rock was the only indicator they weren’t in some kind of endless loop…
until the smell overcame Fluttershy’s lightning wings.

“Mother almighty!” Applejack covered her nose. “I’ve cleaned pigsties that smelled better!”

Fluttershy, Rainbow, and Twilight exchanged looks. They spoke quietly, then Twilight got to work modifying their wards. Rainbow flew to the front and spread her wings wide, while Fluttershy moved to the back and did the same. A strange, scratchy sensation swept over the group as Twilight’s alterations took effect.

Zzzzzzt!

A literal sphere of lightning sprang to life around the girls. The smell vanished instantly as a pale blue haze of ozone surrounded them.

“The Breathe Easy spell filters all kinds of contaminants,” Twilight said over the buzz. “Just be careful with the armor.”

Rarity tapped Twilight’s shoulder. “Perhaps you and I should resume the forcefield while we're at it. Heaven only knows what's causing this smell."

Twilight watched her flames dance in Rarity’s eyes. “I can handle it by myself if you want. You don’t have to—”

Rarity scoffed. “Please! The interference is a bother, but I’ve barely tapped into my reserves.”

Twilight studied Rarity. Her white coat was pristine, her violet eyes were bright, her multicolored mane was lustrous and full, and her magical aura was positively sparkling. There was a vigor and life to her movements, and not only could Twilight feel Rarity’s Element brimming with power, the others felt just as strong.

“Don’t count us out just yet, sugarcube,” Applejack told her. “We may not be alicorn-level, but we still pack a wallop!”

Twilight fidgeted. “D-Don’t misunderstand! I’ve just got a funny feeling we’re going to need every ounce of—”

“We’re approaching a primary resonator,” Maud announced. “It’s tracking six signatures again, just like the other one. The corresponding traps begin at the bottom of the stairs.”

The group screeched to a halt.

“Primaries are the ones you can’t do anything about, right?” said Fluttershy.

Maud squinted at her chirping scanner. “Not unless any of you have a prototype of the latest multi-mineral hyper oscillation frequency jammer.”

Twilight wasn't even going to pretend like she understood that one. “Maud... I've been thinking about which of us doesn't have a 'frequency'. I was at the front when we first entered the cave, but the whumming sound didn't start until the others followed.”

Maud furrowed her brow. “You think you're the outlier?”

Twilight nodded.

Maud’s thoughts whirred. “It's... too hard to say whether that's circumstantial. Let’s keep going for now, but I'll think on it.”

Rainbow cracked her neck. “Ttime to see what kind of super-happy-funtime is waiting for us. Bring it on!”

“Hey, don’t worry!” Pinkie gestured for them to follow. “It can’t be any worse than the stuff above, right?”

Meanwhile-

“Not there,” said Proxy. “There’s three around that spot. Try the raised bit of stone a few dozen—yes, there.”

It was like navigating a minefield. The shadowfrost jets went off at random without any rhyme or reason. Neighsay was avoiding them with Proxy’s help, but he kept having to stop and wait for the air to clear.

“You c-c-called them ‘s-s-shadowfrost jets’,” Neighsay said. He steered clear of unsteady-looking paths and noxious pools with bubbling gases. “E-E-Explain.”

Proxy chuckled again. “Caustic spiritual magic inlaid with transmutative spell matrices. The substance attacks the victim’s body and soul, eating away at both and turning them into an icy husk. The process is… quite painful.”

Neighsay fought the urge to be sick again. “But I-I-I’m… resistant?”

“So long as that venom coursing through you doesn’t adopt the vapor’s transmutative properties and mutate your genetic structure,” Proxy said. “If it does, your ‘tolerance’ to the compound might work against you.”

A chill went up Neighsay’s spine. “W-W-What are you—”

WHUM

The air pressure shifted. The mist around the ceiling thickened, roiling and seething and turning black as night. The septic pools churned and sloshed, the black ichor within glowing with magic and coalescing into thick, dripping tendrils. Their sizes ranged from short and thin to long and thick—the former like lashing whips, the latter like flailing, destructive tentacles.

“Your pursuers have exited the Maniac Stair!” Proxy hissed. “The sector defenses are activating!”

Neighsay took a step back. He was surrounded by nightmares—a forest of putrid death. The writhing, misty masses obscured the path beyond any hope of navigation. Any second these things would coil around him and—

“Wait… WAIT! They’re jamming the systems again!” Proxy said. “You still have a chance if you hurry!”

Neighsay was trembling. He didn’t dare take a step, much less light his horn. Escaping through a portal was his best chance but there’s no way such a thing would go unnoticed. He’d be dragged into the bog and—

“IDIOT!” For the briefest of moments, the ghost of something impossibly huge loomed over Neighsay. “The STORM is the true threat! Make for the Devouring Serpent! NOW!”

Neighsay quailed. He almost slipped before hopping through a portal and hurrying as fast as he dared. The evil tendrils let him pass without issue, some even bending away to let him pass. The black limbs grew more numerous along with the jets the closer he got to the sector’s center, but no matter how dense they became, they never gave him grief.

“Put up the best waterproof shield you can,” Proxy murmured in his ears. “Be ready for hail—you should be able to deflect it for a while. Just be happy the sector's psychic effects are being cancelled out...”

Neighsay was tempted to tell Proxy to can it. He weaved through the pestilence and deadly geysers, an ankle-deep layer of violet freezing fog numbing his legs and making him stumble. Oily drops were soon falling in a strengthening drizzle, their filmy greasy streaks clouding his barrier. He tried to move faster and stay ahead, but the storm was gathering speed as well as strength.

“Not much farther,” Proxy said a few minutes later. “Focus on your footing—the less that touches you, the better.”

Neighsay bit back a curse. The violet fog was up to his knees now, and the tendrils towered over him like humongous trees. The wet, slippery rock drained his body heat even through his ensorcelled shoes. It was getting more and more tempting to direct his next portal out of the caves entirely... but he pressed on.

The rain was falling in sheets now. The hail was kicking up as well, and Neighsay couldn’t see anything resembling a snake amidst this chaos. He could swear he was on the shore of some unholy lake, but the only reason he thought that was because the land had disappeared.

“PROXY!” Neighsay’s voice was drowned out by the sleet. “W-W-WHERE… N-N-NOW?!”

There was a pause, followed by grunts like an entire host trying to push a boulder up a hill.

“Useless… blithering...” Proxy snarled. “Again… we’re forced to… THERE!”

Dreadfully cold magic burst from Neighsay’s saddlebag. Suddenly, a small and flickering portal snapped to life that was just enough for a pony to squeeze through.

“Be careful!” came Proxy's beleaguered chorus. “There are—”

Neighsay had already jumped. He emerged into a dry cave the size of a room dotted with ominous cracks seeping shadowfrost. One of these cracks was right between his legs—

TTTTSSSSSS!

“What was that about ‘no worse than the other stuff’?” Applejack said.

It was chaos. A deluge of hail and filth dumped from clouds darker than Twilight and the others had ever seen. Frothing, repulsive rivers sluiced their way down great trenches into swiftly-filling sumps, their depths churning with loathsome retching whirlpools. What little they could see of the ground resembled the cyst-plagued hide of a rotting corpse, the sickly grey walls oozing with corruption that reeked beyond compare. Their lightning-inlaid forcefield had been soundproofed once more to drown out the storm’s spiteful roar, but it didn’t do anything for the dread that hung over them like a shroud.

Pinkie didn’t reply. She’d been quiet since they’d arrived at the swamp, doing little but look up and shudder. The clouds were like gaping jaws of a drooling monstrosity... or perhaps the mountain was alive, and they were trapped in its bulbous gut.

“Do I even wanna know what this smelly crud is?” Rainbow called over her shoulder to Twilight. The swamp was flat and straightforward, so she’d taken the lead while the others followed. “It sure isn’t water!”

Twilight, who was focusing on melting the hail with tongues of flame, winced. “Some kind of alchemy with heat leeching properties. I’m guessing the smell and texture are additives—dead plant matter, probably.”

Just then, a few chunks of something hit the shield.

“Gracious!” Rarity jumped. “You might want to focus, Twilight!”

Twilight’s eyes went huge. Another few chunks were sailing towards them, undeterred by her flames. Twilight caught them before they hit to inspect them.

“Seriously?!” Twilight intensified her flames threefold. "The hail has rock and metal in it! With penetrative enchantments, to boot!”

Maud’s ears twitched at the word ‘rock’. “I wouldn’t mind examining some of that—”

“NO!” Pinkie yelled.

...

“...Or not,” said Maud.

Twilight made sure the shield was doubly strong after that. “Keep at this altitude, Rainbow. Rarity and I will handle the weather!”

Rainbow laughed. “Didn't Rarity try handling the weather once before?"

“My, what a good memory someone has!” Rarity shot back. “Do you also remember the time you tried to be an animal caretaker? You were SO good at that!"

That shut Rainbow up real quick.

They progressed through the underground swamp at a speedy rate. The rain and hail made visibility close to zero, but Rainbow’s flight instincts kept flying straight and level. The odor grew fouler, the putrid sinkholes filled to even flood the few ‘safe’ paths, and the filth below shifted to darker and darker shades of gray. Yet they pressed on through the spiralling swamp in an unstoppable prismatic streak, so fast they even found themselves outpacing the storm to reveal more of their surroundings.

A few minutes later, Applejack felt her Element bristling. “Uh-oh.”

Fluttershy squeaked as the first writhing tentacles appeared around the bend. “What are those?!”

“Bad.” The colors in Pinkie’s mane flashed. “VERY bad!”

Twilight’s world slowed. A corrosive, hungering malice. Profane spellwork designed to twist and pervert. Some of the tendrils were tall enough to grab their group with ease, and more were reaching that size by sucking up the violet mist. Without a word, she tapped into her divine spark and looked with Soul Sight, the light of her glowing eyes reflecting off the girls’ armor.

She didn't like what she saw.

“...I’ve seen what this stuff can do.” Twilight didn't elaborate, but the memory of a hole-riddled soul filled her mind. “Or something similar, at least! Everypony, focus your Elements on the forcefield! We're getting through this, FAST!”

“You were just talking about conserving magic on the stairs!" Rarity motioned behind them. "You seemed so adamant—"

The forcefield exploded with fiery might. Light and heat scorched the ground and clouds alike in a scintillating burst of purity. The Element of Magic pulsed stronger as well, and the other Elements responded, a flood of intoxicating power circulating through the others like a current.

“I HAVE been conserving,” was all Twilight said.

“Guess Twi’s hoofin’ the bill for this one!” said Applejack. “Hang on, Maud!”

The girls began infusing the forcefield with their Elements. Rainbow was about to give hers, as well, but Twilight shook her head. Rainbow got the hint and faced forward, the memory of her marefriend’s powerful visage filed away for a lonely night. She pressed her hooves to the forcefield interior and cracked her neck.

“Might wanna boost that lightning spell!, Twi!” Rainbow’s wings glowed bright. Magic rose, flight muscles flexed, and with a great, feathery flap, the ground and ceiling became a muddy blur. Rainbow pushed the shield forward and plastered the others to the interior in a pile. The Element of Loyalty flared even stronger within Rainbow, the lightning from her and Fluttershy lancing out with every flap. Clouds were smote, nearby tentacles were fried, and anything within fifty yards was incinerated by a combination of light and flame.

“WOOHOO!” Pinkie pumped her hooves. “Talk about trailblazing!”

The swamp’s inner depths spiralled inward more and more. Their advance approached the sound barrier as they outflew the hail, but the rain still fell in tumultuous heavy sheets. The shadowfrost tentacles grew larger and larger until they even touched the clouds, but not even they could withstand Rainbow’s empowered charge. Their combined strength sliced through air, storm, and horror alike.

At last, they came to the center. The few bits of unflooded land in the swamp’s heart were like islands amidst a vast, fetid lake. Bubbling vortexes belched out shadowfrost like endless geysers to form a gelatinous, pulsating film. A grotesque stone sculpture loomed over the sickly landscape on one of the bits of land, and while it looked like a great circle from afar, the details soon came into view.

“Oh, lovely,” said Rarity. “A statue of a snake eating itself! Whoever decorated this place needs to be fired.”

"I think they're dead, Rarity," said Applejack.

"Sarcasm, darling."

Maud squinted. “The ouroboros…?”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat. “That’s a symbol of alchemy! Come on!”

They reoriented and descended through the raging storm. The colossal statue had the same melted texture as the shelf at the entrance, although it was so caked with grime and filth you wouldn’t know it. What was more noticeable was its size—it grazed the clouds above and was just as wide across, and its equally-massive foundation took up all of the surrounding land plus some of the lake. Shimmering shadowfrost clung to the grimy sculpture like a miasma, supplied by jagged vents far too numerous to count.

The foundation’s west side was a sheer cliff face hanging over the lake. There, a cave shaped like a battered pony’s skull had been carved halfway up the side—it’s teeth broken, eye sockets cracked, its shattered jaw dangling open. Shadowfrost wafted from its open maw like smoke, and not far inside, a tall pair of heavy doors were surrounded by several vents—

“LOOK!” said Fluttershy.

A masked stallion was convulsing just before the door. He was covered in pallid frost and ghostly ichor, his masked mouth twisted in a scream. A prismatic jewel was pressed to his chest that barely held the mist at bay. His teal eyes watered as he fought to use his freezing lungs, and every second that passed, the shape of his pupils shifted a bit more...