• Published 1st Jun 2019
  • 1,590 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 3 - Downward Spiral

Part 3 - Downward Spiral

The mind has limits on what it can and cannot process. If a healthy mind deems an event too traumatic (or the resulting cognitive dissonance too extreme) the recollection can become significantly altered, if not blocked out entirely. For example, many veteran soldiers will attest that functioning in the heat of battle often requires some level of detachment, i.e, ‘living in the moment’. Victims of extended, repetitive acts of abuse have been known to block out the trauma. Even a particularly grievous violation of one’s personal beliefs can cause a significant rejection of reality (even if the violation was accidental) to the point a false memory covers it up. In essence, all sentient beings have defense mechanisms for coping with traumatic events, and understanding these mechanisms can give us insight on how (and why) they can go wrong.

The defense mechanism of separating oneself from the memory of an event is known as dissociation. It is not strictly a good or bad thing (so long as the accosting memories are acknowledged and processed within a reasonable amount of time) indeed, dissociation can be an acceptable short-term coping mechanism for extreme acute stress. It’s only when the mind continues to run that problems arise, as while dissociation is effective in the short term, it is the mental equivalent of sweeping problems under the rug.

The traumatic memories in question (referred to as ‘inner turmoil’ by empaths) will rot the mind until dealt with, growing in size and strength without limit. In the worst known cases, the inner turmoil has been observed to take on a life and personality of its own. This rare disorder, known as Dissoputrefactive Identity Disorder (see the Diagnostic and Statistical Encyclopedia of Psychiatric and Empathic Disorders) is one of the most dangerous maladies to accost the mind. If left untreated, the new, often-psychotic personality can become the dominant identity. In the recorded cases where this has happened, the prognosis has always been poor.

  • A Modern Analysis of Dissociative Disorders - by Dr. Quick Wit, PhD

Falling.

Neighsay was falling.

Sickly green flashes flickered like fireflies everywhere. Other blurry colors spun around him like a carousel. Faces, places, days and nights, entire years compressed into moments, all whizzing by in a twisted montage. One moment he was inside a house, the next he was in a field. The noonday sun hung in a cloudless sky while the crescent moon peeked out from the clouds. He was in a cramped tidy office, but he was also his foalhood bedroom.

“Amusing,” a voice rumbled from the shadows. “The changeling queen, the puppet of frost and shadow… and you, my little hate-filled hypocrite. A desperate trio all stinking of fear.”

A quaint hamlet amidst a flurry of powdery snow. A bustling city enduring a summer heatwave. Neighsay’s steps were lively and quick, but was he hurrying to arrive, or depart? Everyone was faceless, everyone was two-faced. Those in the hamlet were kind and caring while the city was selfish and cruel. No matter how far he ran, he was always surrounded by shapes creeping on hole-filled limbs.

Then he saw her. She was smiling, beckoning him towards a cozy house. Their house.

“The Queen says I’ll devour you.” Something huge beyond reckoning paced in the shadows. “The puppet says I’ll help you. Just another contradiction that surrounds you and makes up who you are. After all, the only thing you want more than to save Equestria...”

He couldn’t see her eyes. He’d spent hours in bed staring into them, but now he couldn't remember their color. Bursts of green flame belched from cracks in the floor that became icy violet tendrils. Venom burned his veins while mist choked his lungs. Pictures of an orange colt were falling from the sky, but when Neighsay reached out to them, they turned to ash in his hooves.

“You’ll be hitting rock bottom soon.” The mountainous thing drew closer, it's cat-like eyes a sulfuric gold. “That iron will of yours will break under the strain. You won’t be able to keep me under much longer...”

He’d recognized the boy the moment they crossed paths. Same teal eyes. Same receding maneline. Same jawline, same quiet anger, shrewd look and goatee... they even had similar tastes in clothing. Something in Neighsay seethed at the mere sight of him, something else sang, and a third thing sobbed.

“Yes, keep running.” The thing smiled, showing off a tremendous set of glistening fangs. “Keep pretending that I'm not here. Will you be offering me your latest harrowing experiences, too? I’ve never tasted such trauma before; I wonder how much bigger it’ll make me...”

The boy was gone, as was the mare with the scarlet mane. In their place was Queen Chrysalis atop her vile Seat. He could feel those foul magics resonating with his medallion. Snow and ash fell like rain from a burning cloud. The waxy resin walls pulsed with noxious hate and syrupy love. Neighsay made to flee, but Chrysalis was already injecting venom into his horn. His shrieks echoed through the changeling lair before being cut short by her glorious will.

“Don’t go dying on me, Neighsay.” The massive thing watched his counterpart a bit longer before slinking away.“Stay alive just a bit longer, and I’ll give you all that you deserve...”

The jumbled scenes of Neighsay’s life turned to gray. The mindscape faded entirely, and the monster settled down to watch from it's prison once more.

And that would've been the end of it, but before the monster shut its eyes, a second Neighsay appeared on the edge of the
mindscape... one with glowing blue eyes.

“You...” The monster's fury blazed to life. “He told you to stay out of our head!

Proxy tilted their head, smirking. "Ah, you ARE cognizant. Good, that makes this easier."

"Your bungling portal just put us at death’s door!” The monster leapt up and stormed forward with earth-shaking steps. "I'm going to—"

“We don’t have much time,” said Proxy, not batting an eyelash. “We’ve come to make a deal.”

“The thing narrowed its tremendous eyes. “You have nothing to bargain with. You're a prisoner like me, forced to act through a feeble mouthpiece.”

Proxy craned their head up, up, up to the thing’s face. “The other anomalies have caught up. They’re working to stabilize you and Neighsay as we speak.”

Most might expect the monster to be pleased at this news, but instead, it SMASHED the ground with a scaly fist. "That just means we're a prisoner within and without. The Elements of Harmony are the most powerful entities of the era, you half-wit! Why do you think Neighsay was trying to avoid a fight?!”

“There's still a way we can escape,” Proxy said. “But to do it, we'll need to work together.”

...

“If this is a trick," the monster said through clenched jaws. "You’re going to regret the day you were made.”

Proxy sat on their haunches. “You are the conduit through which Anomaly B wields the Master's power. It will be taxing, but together, we should be able to activate the medallion and manage one short jump. We can do it once the Elements have stabilized Anomaly B.”

The thing growled. “You’re forgetting a few things. Assuming they don't stop us with another dimension lock, the energy of the Elements of Harmony is anathema to your master’s. We wouldn’t be surprised if the medallion has been already damaged just from them being nearby.”

Proxy tilted their head. “We did say we bolstered the medallion’s power. Did you not hear?.”

The thing hesitated, but only for an instant. “The words of a liar are easily dismissed.”

Proxy grinned. “The words of a monster are no better. Now, we’ll make a distraction, and then you’ll…”

“Holes.” Twilight’s grim, glowing eyes were fixed on Neighsay’s soul. “Just like the ones changelings have.”

The skull cave was flooded with harmonic light. Twilight, who’d been tending to Neighsay, was examining the damage the shadowfrost had wrought. Maud was behind her scanning the tall iron doors and beyond, her eyes drawn now and again to her stolen Tear of Laughter clutched in Neighsay’s iron grip.

“The mist is putting holes in his—” Fluttershy gulped. “O-Oh… oh, dear…”

“I told you this stuff was bad!” said Pinkie. She and the others were trying to keep the area clear while Twilight worked, but the vents were relentless. “Super-ultra-MEGA bad!”

Rarity’s nostrils flared. She still recalled the soul magic experiments Twilight had described within Sombra’s old research journals. "I’m beginning to suspect King Sombra was an innovator rather than an inventor.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”

Rarity gestured to the cave. “Creativity doesn’t develop in a vacuum, darling. I’m saying Sombra more likely improved on things he found here rather than invent anything himself.”

Fluttershy and Applejack exchanged looks.

“Oooookaaaaay,” said Rainbow, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

Rarity gestured to the mist. “We all saw Thorax’s transformation back in the Empire. If the changelings have… have ‘soul wounds’ just like Neighsay, there might be a connection! What if long, long ago, his ancestors stumbled upon something just like this?”

There was a long, heavy pause.

“I think you might be going too hard on the mystery novels,” Applejack told her. “No offense, but that seems a mite—”

“INCOMING!” Pinkie yelled.

The geysers erupted again. The girls flared their Elements again to combat the influx together.

“Twi!” Rainbow called over her shoulder. “Could use an update!”

Twilight, who’d been silent while she worked, didn’t reply right away. Her Element and fire affinity had combined well to burn purge the dark magic from Neighsay’s system. The filmy, waxy hoarfrost had melted off his body. But that was it. She hadn’t healed any actual damage—just stabilized him.

“I’m almost done!” Twilight wrenched her gaze from Neighsay’s spirit. “If the mist affected his magic in some way, a long-range jump might kill him! I'm checking his arcana system now!”

Maud looked up from her scanner. “I should probably leave my instruments here if we're going to be teleporting. We can come back for them, right?”

Twilight started rummaging through Neighsay's saddlebags. “Bandages… rope… climbing gear… rations…” She moved to another pocket. “Where is that stupid magic scrambler?! I can't check his arcana until it's—HEY!”

Everyone whipped around.

“This… th-this is my Dad’s telescope!” Twilight held up the item with shaky magic. “I gave… I-I gave it to him for his birthday!”

The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Twilight ran her hooves over the instrument, eyes glassy and wide. The engraving ‘To: Dad, From: Firefly’ at the base had been crudely scratched over.

“E-Erm…” Fluttershy took a step forward. “Twilight—”

“N-Never…” Twilight’s booming whisper echoed throughout the cave. “Have I been so tempted…”

Nopony dared say a word. It wasn’t lost on anyone how the longer Twilight stared at the telescope, the more her fiery mane shifted from reddish-orange to blazing gold... then scorching gold... then searing white. The ground around her was starting to glow red, and if she hadn’t put an Element Endure on Neighsay before treating him, he would’ve been pony flambé.

“‘I don’t serve freaks.’” Twilight couldn’t even bring herself to look at Neighsay. “That’s what he said at the entrance, wasn’t it? I can understand culture bias to an extent, but this…?”

The tall metal doors were heating up. The shadowfrost in the cavern had all but vaporized, and where the cave mouth had belched out deadly mist, now it belched superheated air.

“Why?” Twilight’s face twisted even more. “The princesses, our families, us... even his own son—”

RRRRRRUMMMBLE

Perhaps if they’d been paying more attention, they might’ve realized the geyser closest to them hadn’t been going off at all. They certainly realized now, though, its sputtering and steaming accompanied by a deep shaking.

“THAT ONE!” Pinkie pointed.

Twilight grit her teeth. She threw a shield over Maud, and with some reluctance, Neighsay as well. Ichorous sludge bubbled forth from the vent as she rallied the others around the widening hole. Twilight immersed herself in her Element and let the others’ power and emotions flowing through her soul. Her power and emotions diffused into them as well, particularly into Rainbow—

“WHOA!”Emotions pulsed through Rainbow like a burning coal of power. They seethed and roiled inside her they were about to explode! She could feel something happening inside her, the tantalizing magic coursing through her body—

FWOOM!

Sweltering heat and spidery bolts of electricity flowed off Rainbow. Her coat shifted from blue to brilliant white, her mane and tail became literal prismatic flames, her cutie mark and leg sigils flared brighter than ever, and her eyes swirled with multicolored light.

“COOL!” Rainbow checked herself over. “Are you seeing this?! I’m—”

RRRRRRUMMMBLE

“LATER!” Applejack drew deep on their shared energy. The others did the same, the vent’s ichorous sludge already starting to bubble forth.

BZAM!

Their beam shot down like a missile. The internal pressure allowed the sludge to fight at first, but then was overtaken with a sizzling, waning gurgle. Prismatic light rocketed from the other cavern vents in a dazzling light show, spreading through the hidden tunnels to encompass the entire lake. Cave walls trembled, rimy ceilings shook, and harmonious pillars leapt up to pierce the bloated clouds.

It was almost half a minute before Maud could open her eyes. She could see through the glow of Twilight’s shield that the others were still gathered around the vent, thankfully no worse for the wear. She let out the breath she’d been holding.

Suddenly, Pinkie started freaking out. She whipped around and pointed at Maud… no, wait, not at her—

A painful flash of cold erupted from Maud’s left. She looked, and a portal was opening beneath Neighsay, his limp form enshrouded in a deathly-pale aura.

Maud made to grab him—

Neighsay opened his eyes. Gold irises beheld the world for the first time, their fierce gaze focusing on her.

Visceral dread gripped Maud. “Wh-What…”

And then he was gone.

“Wake up, anomaly,” said Proxy’s eerie throng. “We must move.”

It felt like being dredged out of a void. There had been nothing—no time, no space, no darkness, no light. No perception of the world, no sense of self. No sensation or awareness whatsoever; no anything of any kind. Nothing had ever existed, and nothing ever would, for eternal oblivion was the true afterlife. A glorious singularity was all that embraced—

“Wake up!”

Dry air knifed down Neighsay’s parched throat. A harsh wind stung his freshly-thawed insides and tender skin. His mouth felt like a desert, his shrivelled tongue little more than jerky.

Proxy watched Neighsay open his eyes. “So the first test subjects were an outlier. Perhaps a similarity in the ocular makeup of unicorns and the ruling caste of the failures...”

Neighsay’s hackles rose. He could feel something wrong inside him—like he was missing a piece of himself. He could see every aspect of his surroundings in stark detail, but the colors were all strange. His sense of touch was sluggish, the full feeling lagging a few seconds behind.

And even though it was shockingly cold, his exhales barely made any fog...

The next several minutes were an exercise in patience. Neighsay’s lucidity was fleeting, although he eventually awoke proper and managed to sit up. His canteen and saddlebags were a few feet from him. He snatched the former and slugged down its contents in long gulps—

Some of it went down the wrong tube. Water splattered everywhere as he gasped between wet, hacking coughs.

Proxy sighed. “Organic beings…”

Neighsay’s breaths were haggard and weak. “P-Proxy... what h-happened?”

The question hung in the air like a guillotine.

“The words of a liar are easily dismissed,” Proxy said at last.

Neighsay pinned back his ears. “I’LL... decide that. Tell me!”

Proxy wasn’t projecting an image at the moment, but if they were, they’d be grinning. “We just saved your life again. You needn’t worry about your pursuers for the moment, for we transported you to this temporal field to sleep off your little beauty nap. Time moves much faster in here.”

They were in a dome-shaped distortion amidst a descent of drooping stone arches. Decrepit crags and loose gravel were scattered about as far as Neighsay could see. The ceiling was covered in layers of bumpy ice-coated nodes that looked like warts, said nodes tapering off farther down the tunnel. Fat, wide stalagmites and thin stalactites dotted node-covered areas, the gnarled formations ranging from brittle to tough.

“Welcome to Sector Three,” Proxy told him. “This is where the Master conducted most of her temporal experiments. The dome we’re in is one of many time fields present in the area... although they won’t be so hospitable once the defenses turn on—”

“How’d you save me?” Neighsay asked. “And what from?”

Another pause, this one almost as long as the first. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Neighsay blinked. Flashes, blurry fragments, piecemeal events of the last hour. Running through portals. Worsening cold. The Elements of Harmony. Pain. A festering, stinking swamp. A sludge creature with too many eyes. Something about a ‘first facility’. Open-mouthed statue faces. A strengthening storm. Spiders. Chrysalis’ venom and a double-edged sword. Shadowfrost. Dead bodies. Proxy’s overview of the sectors. Stepping on a trap and getting stuck full of crystal shards—

Wait.

“Wh-What...” Neighsay checked his chest and legs. His bandages were black—not dark red… black. He peeled back the gauze and saw the skin beneath had healed without even a scar.

But not without cost. The new patches of his skin were pale, hairless… and numb.

“The last stretch of Sector Two proved troublesome,” said Proxy. “You suffered severe shadowfrost exposure, and the venom in your system adopted the vapor’s transmutative properties. You’re now progressing through the first stage of metaphysical mutation.”

Neighsay’s world slowed. Horn blazing, he tore out his metallic medallion and beheld his reflection.

“No…” His pupils were cat-like slits. The whites of his eyes were in the midst of turning sickly green. His incisors were sharp and pointed, and several other teeth were following suit. “NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO—”

“ANOMALY!” The medallion flared with brutal cold. “Calm. Down. We’ve been monitoring your condition the past few hours. That jewell is slowing the process considerably—”

“You did this...” Neighsay barely even felt the medallion’s chill anymore. There was an alien sensation tickling the back of Neighsay’s mind and tongue, all of it emanating from the medallion. “What did you do?! I-I can TASTE something coming off you!”

“It’s called ‘contempt’, you twit,” Proxy snarked. “We advise against feeding on it—or any emotions for that matter. We’ve still yet to determine if the venom has limited you to a strict diet of love.”

Neighsay could barely breathe. It felt like something was cracking inside his head, and from the dark cracks came a familiar rumble of horror. “Ch-Changelings… your master m-made… the ch-changelings?! I’M TURNING INTO—”

“SHUT UP!” Proxy said. “No, you’re not! Those failed experiments are nothing but overgrown fae!”

Neighsay ran his hoof over the numb patches of skin. They showed no signs of becoming holes, but he could tell the white pockmarks were spreading. “What are you saying…?”

Proxy was honestly surprised Neighsay hadn’t figured this out sooner. “The creatures you know as changelings were once a diminutive race living in the southwestern jungles of Equestria. Their closest evolutionary relatives are flutter ponies—breezies, you call them. The Master had a personal vendetta against their kind, and so she decided to blanket the jungle with a prototype strain of the shadowfrost compound. The results looked spectacular at first: an apparent mass extinction of flora and fauna!”

Proxy’s voices fell to a growl. “But then… that night, they came for her.”

Lead pooled in Neighsay’s gut. He’d always wondered how creatures like changelings could’ve built such a complex and well-fortified hive. “What’s going to happen to me?”

Proxy’s presence swirled around Neighsay. “The strain of shadowfrost you've been exposed to is more developed than the original compound. Your physical form will continue to destabilize until it reaches equilibrium, worst case deteriorating into a mist-like state. You’re turning into a living spectre of frost and shadow, dependant on feeding on emotions to sustain your damaged soul.”

Neighsay wanted to throw up again. The changelings… the Badlands… even Sombra... Proxy’s master was responsible for all of them! What other evils was she behind? What did Proxy intended to do FOR her?!

“I’ll… I-I’ll be a freak.” Neighsay watched his coat hairs fall to the ground. “You're telling me I'm nothing more than the missing link between the lovesuckers and that crystal-loving sadist.”

The long, deep shadows of the sector wrapped everything in gloom. The visage of King Sombra danced through Neighsay’s mind, only to then morph into Queen Chrysalis. He’d suspected there was some kind of link between then when she’d started searching for artifacts, but this…?

“A dangerous mutant...” Neighsay licked his budding fangs. “Another threat begging to be used by someone even more dangerous. A stain upon Equestria...”

...

“You’re a learned individual,” Proxy said at last. “We assume you’ve heard of a geas?”

Neighsay frowned. "A geas is a binding magical contract. It forces someone to either do or not do something, no matter what. They’ve been outlawed in Equestria for centuries."

“Our purpose is to serve the Master.” Proxy’s words came out in a rush. “All we’ve said, all we’ve done, it’s all been for that cause. Swear you’ll do everything in your power to fulfill her final legacy—everything—and we’ll tell you all you wish to know. What we are, the Master’s legacy, the details of her past, the purpose of her research, even the cure for ailment! We don’t have to be at odds, anomaly. Why, perhaps even one day, you could even become one of us!”

Silence. Chunks of rock floated in midair within cloudy domes amongst the crags. Granular bits of crystal peeked out from the bumpy nodes that played tricks on the eyes. It was hard to tell how intense the wind was while in the time field, but despite the gusts Neighsay could feel, for the first time since setting hoof on this damn mountain, he wasn’t cold in the slightest.

“Twilit wastes.” Neighsay squinted about the area. He couldn’t tell where the light was coming from. “That’s what you said about this area, right? Doesn’t stink as much, at least. We should probably get moving.”

Proxy watched Neighsay get to his hooves. “Did... did you not hear us? We share a common interest, anomaly! Our enemies are the same! You can have power unlike anything you’ve dreamed!”

A gust of wind almost made Neighsay almost fall down again. He recovered and slung his bags over his back, idly noting they felt lighter for some reason. Had he dropped something at some point?

“We’re being earnest!” Proxy continued. “Not even the ones who pursue you will be a match! You need only swear allegiance to the Master!”

Neighsay stood still as a statue. His predatory eyes glinted in the semi dark, the whites of his eyes continuing to change color. The dark rumble in his mind was still there, and he could swear the wind was whispering...

“How do I know you didn’t poison me on purpose?” Neighsay said. “Why aren’t you proposing we both take a geas so there’s no chance of a double-cross? How do I know there’s actually a cure at all, hmm? What proof do you have?”

Proxy tried to reply, but all that came out were splutters. Neighsay could ‘taste’ that bittersweet contempt more than ever, which upon further examination, reminded him a lot of dark chocolate.

“You’re playing a dangerous game, Proxy.” Neighsay’s lips curled, twitching with the makings of a sneer. “If I die, you lose. If I give in to the lovesucker, you lose. If the Elements of Harmony learn about you, you lose! If I leave this place and let them get to the Sanctum, YOU LOSE! All of your hopes hinge on me continuing, and I’m running out of reasons to! You think I can't see through your games?!”

“We saved your life twice!” Proxy shouted back. “Interacting with you at ALL tests the pact we made with the Master! You're nothing more than a disgusting, backwards blah, blahblahblah...

The whispers were getting louder. Neighsay could sense the corruption bubbling up from the mountain roots now, feel it dance on his tongue and make his stomach growl. The sensation was so distracting he barely even felt the sudden pain from the cracks in his mind straining...

“You know, I think it's time I chose the game.” Neighsay’s horn came to life like a winter gale. “Ever heard of something called Roanssian Roulette?”

“Wait, what are you doing?” Proxy could feel Neighsay drawing on the medallion. An entry portal split the air in front of them, but the exit portal wasn’t anywhere in sight. “Stop! ANOMALY!”

Neighsay leapt into the rift.

Meanwhile-

BOOM!

Glowing orange hooves bucked open the metal doors. Beyond was a long, straight stairway that went farther than the eye could see, with the walls, floor, and ceiling all coarser than sandpaper. The ancient hinges were torn off as the doors fell tumbling down the stairway with with ear-ringing crashes, their great weight smashing several steps—

WHAM!

Blue and magenta auras pinned the doors to the walls. The group then flew past at breakneck speed, the encroaching dark seared by their approach.

“My counter-frequency might not be as effective if we go much faster." The needle on Maud's scanner was ticking more and more to the right. “The hatred and fear energies are rising, as well.”

Twilight grunted and stopped accelerating. Her terrakinesis could sense the resonators were hidden in the floor, walls, and ceiling. She didn’t want to know what they did. “Let me know when you find the next primary resonator.”

The mood was uneasy. The stench faded behind them as they continued farther beneath the fetid lake, but that was a positive in a sea of negatives. Fluttershy and Rainbow (now de-flamed) ceased their electric current to conserve strength, and without the buzz of lightning, though, the only sound was the whooshing wind.

“He didn’t have that... whatever that was back outside,” Applejack said.

Maud shuddered. “It felt like it was coming from him, but…”

Rarity chewed on her lip. “I know this might sound strange, but… did anypony else get the impression there was more than one… erm, ‘awareness’ in him?”

Fluttershy's eyes were distant. "A bad awareness."

“All I felt was the heebie-jeebies!” Pinkie’s shimmering mane wilted at this. “The same nasty heebie-jeebies from baddies like Sombra and Tirek!"

Rainbow’s scowl soured even more. “D’you think you can spread that awesome fire power to everyone else, Twi? I'm starting to think we might need it.”

Twilight didn’t reply. Her mind was somewhere else entirely—namely, two parts of the Crystal Heart’s prophecy that were looking to be more and more relevant.

The mother waits, her sacrifice
Can be undone, but at a price
A Hate-Filled Dragon, born of ice
An error made, not once, but twice.

A king shall rise, a queen shall fall
Freed at last from cruelty’s thrall
The past is passed, you must stand tall
The Hate-Filled Dragon devours all.

Twilight exhaled out her nose. Temporal theory was one thing, but prophecies were quite another. The only thing she knew for sure was prophecies were always related to one or more fixed points in time. It was possible some of those lines could apply to this situation, but...

“...gotta get that medallion,” Twilight heard Applejack say. “He can keep slippin' away so long as he’s got it.”

“Not to mention potentially separate us," said Fluttershy.

Rainbow swiped at the air. “Then that's the plan. We get that dumb thing away, then hogtie him!“

“And then teleport his butt to jail!” Pinkie said.

Rarity nudged Twilight. “You’ve been awfully quiet, dear. Are you…?”

A telescope rose to the front of Twilight’s mind. She shoved the thought away. “Just thinking about, erm… time stuff. More specifically, the—”

“That's alright!” Rarity looked away with a scrunched face. “No more Starswirlian theory, thanks...”

Twilight couldn’t help but smile. “Staying on track, then... I think going for the medallion is a sound plan. But I think we all know how hard that’s going to be, even if we come up with a way to sneak up on him. How do we plan around that when we don’t know who or what is with him?”

“Ooh! Ooh! Let me do it!” Pinkie waved her hoof in the air. “I’ll give Neighsay a plus one invitation to my first ever Bad Guy Bash! Or should I call it, ‘Evil Extravaganza’? It’s like a regular extravaganza, but eeeeeeeeevil!”

Rainbow grinned. "Jerkwad Jamboree?"

“Meanie Mash?” Fluttershy offered.

“Cantankerous Cookout!” said Applejack.

“Sinister Soirée!” Rarity said.

“Wait,” said Maud. “Before that, we should talk abot something else.”

Twilight blinked. “We’re... not actually going to throw a party—”

“When Neighsay opened his eyes, I saw that they’d changed,” Maud said over her. “They weren’t shaped like a pony’s, but a dragon’s.”

The word ‘dragon’ made Twilight’s ears twitch. “A dragon... filled with hate...”

Maud flat expression never changed. “And born of ice.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Rainbow put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “You were thinking about THAT time stuff?”

Twilight winced. “I'm starting to think Neighsay could be an even bigger threat than we thought. We have to—”

One of Maud’s geomancy devices beeped.

“Rain check!” Rainbow tightened her armor straps. “Look sharp, gals!”

Maud fiddled with the switches and knobs on the device. At the end of the dreary stairway, the steps opened up into an unknown twilit chamber. “The next primary resonator will be detecting us any second.”

“How close to the finish, Twi?” Applejack asked.

Twilight probed for the source of Sombra’s curse. “We’re halfway there! We can do this!”

A strong gust buffered them from below. Lumpy, misshapen bumps coated the ceiling—sparse at first, but accumulating more and more. There were also eerie clusters of holes along the walls that made you want to avert your eyes. Twilight and the others steeled themselves and pressed on to the bottom, their approach heralded by a WUMPH of displaced air.

Dormant domes like oversized soap bubbles were scattered amidst a steeply-descending landscape. Frigid winds buffeted brittle stone formations and eroding bridges alike, the yawning gaps below leading to certain doom. Above, the stomach-turning, cyst-covered roof was like a festering wound. There was also a strange, waning light radiating from the domes that Twilight recognized as—

WHUM

The eerie light pulsed. In an instant, the domes had changed from shimmering soap bubbles to angry dark voids. Glinting flashes of magic sprang up from the ground throughout the cavern in wide, tall sheets. The wind picked up into a howl, then a full-blown shriek that blasted the girls back towards the stairs. They endured it, but that’s when they noticed teetering, tower-sized stone formations on either side of them…

The girls paled. They made to fly forward, but a heavy, sluggish sensation infected their minds. Moving out of the way was so troublesome, wasn’t it? All that effort and exertion, all to possibly not even get out of the way… and using magic was just so much worse when you thought about it. Heck, why were they even bothering with any of this at all—

Maud’s counter-frequency cancelled the compulsion.

“AAAAHHHHHHHHH!” The girls zoomed forward. The stones shattered and split behind them with teeth-rattling force, a hail of rocks careening off their shield with great THOKS and PINGS. Twilight’s mettle was tested again as the wind carried more debris to assail them from the sector’s depths, some of the projectiles larger than a pony.

The wind suddenly shifted. There was no warning, it just went from blowing against them to pushing them to the right. Twilight’s forcefield (and thus Twilight herself) went hurtling to the right... but the others weren’t, their inertia nearly plastering them against the shield.

“GAH!” Rainbow’s feathers bristled at the wind’s horrid feel. “Jeez louise!”

“What are those black spheres?!” Fluttershy said. “They look like—”

“RIGHT!” Pinkie yelled.

The group veered from the faint haze of a magical wall. The forcefield grazed it with a sizzle, the clashing energies throwing up a trail of burning sparks.

“Whoa!” Applejack felt her Element flare. “Those walls are bad news!”

Rarity suddenly realized what all those flashes were. “A maze?! In THIS?!”

The screaming wind shifted again. Twilight compensated a little better this time, but it took all her focus to react. “It’s weather magic… only stronger than anything I’ve seen! Cadance and Gleaming said the weather around Everhoof got crazy; this might be why!”

Rainbow's honed senses confirmed it. “She's right! The emotion crud’s fueling—”

The wind shifted a third time.

“OOF!” Applejack was thrown into Twilight’s forcefield. “Can the explanations wait?!”

Twilight’s nostrils flared. “Pinkie!”

“Okey-dokey!” Pinkie cracked her neck. “Time to play ‘Everything is Lava’!”

It was like flying through a tornado. The wind was unpredictable and fickle: one minute speeding up, the next falling into a lull. It came from every direction imaginable, too—even from straight above or below. The shrieking chaos fought to toss them into vortexes or worse, and every close call with a barrier made their Elements buzz. Nonetheless Pinkie led them in a winding route through the debris and destruction, the hungry black voids always far too close for comfort.

Maud realized the needles of her instruments were fluctuating. She put everything away and focused solely on her broadcasting device. “The rifts are bending local space-time. I’ll do my best to compensate, but my counter-frequency may waver.”

Twilight glanced at the closest dome. She didn’t even want to know how a portal or teleport spell would behave around such warped magics. “Keep your eyes peeled for Neighsay, everypony!”

They continued down the slope at a decent clip. Dust and detritus limited their view along with the constant barrage of debris, but Pinkie didn’t need eyes to get them through. She guided them around barriers, flying boulders, dead-ends, and vortexes despite the endless tempest. Little by little, their little magenta sphere continued on through the vast chamber with their momentum intact.

Down, down, ever downward. They bobbed and weaved, twisted and turned, swerved and serpentined. It was like riding a rickety roller coaster that should’ve been demolished long ago. There was nothing pleasant about the scenery—just varying states of abhorrent or bland. Every bwoop, click, or crackle of Maud’s equipment set them all on edge, but Maud herself said little.

“What the—” Rainbow did a double-take to her left. A series of dilapidated stone buildings had just emerged from the gloom. “Hey! Over there!”

The others looked. It was hard to tell much, but they were definitely buildings. They were all roughly cube-shaped, there were openings for doors and windows, and they were organized in the approximation of a crooked line.

“Nuh-uh,” Applejack said. “No way, no how, not ever! Ain’t no way anypony ever coulda lived down here.”

Just then, Maud’s frequency device chirped. The sound wasn’t loud, but it was enough for her to nearly drop her pen.

“My counter-frequency just negated another trap,” she said. “A second compulsion, by the looks of it. The effect is centered on the buildings.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. The buildings were situated on a plateau while the rest of the cavern continued down. The ‘town’ was strangely free of barriers and time domes, but something told her there was a good reason for that.

“There’s something farther back.” Fluttershy squinted. “Rainbow, Twilight, can you see it?”

They could. Silhouettes of strange spires like gnarled fingers were just visible within the murk. The buildings decayed the closer they got to the spires, the bases of said spires surrounded by foundations and sand.

“Keep clear…” Twilight ushered them on. “C’mon…”

The wart-like nodes dissipated as soon as they passed the buildings. The entropic time domes became more numerous, however, and the barriers continued to hamper their way. Rarity found a Disintegrate spell could destroy the barriers, but it took long enough that it was faster to go around.

About fifteen minutes later, Twilight detected Neighsay's scrambled portal magic from within a temporal dome.

“Guess this confirms his ‘companion’ has inside knowledge.” Twilight could sense two instances of dimensional rifting: one arriving, one leaving. “There’s no way he could’ve opened a blind portal this convenient.”

Applejack looked around. “Don’t think he’s still around, do ya?”

Twilight shook her head. “Even worse, I can't tell—” A wind change cut her off. “—where he went! Argh! This dumb wind!”

Fluttershy, who’d just been smushed by everypony shunting to the right, adjusted her helmet. “Should we... um, keep going, then?”

Twilight blushed. “You alright?”

Fluttershy nodded. “I know you’re doing your best.”

The shadows deepened the farther they ventured. The cavern itself continued at steep downward angle, but the barriers made their path through anything but straight. The girls started to see wispy trails of debris floating through the air on currents of twisted space-time, the rocks crumbling and re-forming like potter’s clay.

A few minutes later, the path took a ninety degree turn. More temporal domes and barriers greeted them to continue into the velvety dark, but there was a gap in the obstructions.

“What’s this?” Rarity brushed back her sparkling mane. “An ancient construction zone?”

It certainly looked like it. Cracks dotted the floor with similar crystalline repairs that were centered around a cave-in obstructing half the chamber. A portion of forty foot wall was cracked like it’d endured a barrage of cannons, several parts reinforced with black crystal. Broken and shattered stalactites lay collected in a pile off to the side, the ceiling from where they'd fallen now a pure, translucent black.

Maud held up her scanner. “Mutacite residue around the collapse indicates a resonator explosion. Happened about one thousand years ago, according to the half-life.”

Applejack’s eyes were drawn to the cave-in. The blast marks travelled UP the tunnel a good ways from the damage, but not down the tunnel. “Think one of Sombra’s ‘innovations’ backfired?”

“Ha!” Rainbow crossed her hooves. “It's a nice thought.”

“What about Neighsay?” Fluttershy asked Twilight. “Find any sign of his portals yet?”

Twilight scanned the area. There was no evidence of portal magic, scrambled or otherwise. “I… wouldn’t hold my breath at this point. He has a significant advantage if his companion is familiar with this place. He might've even gotten what he came for.”

...

“So he might be long gone,” said Applejack. “He slips through our hooves twice, then gets the heck outta Dodge.”

Twilight looked away. “I underestimated him. I shouldn’t have—”

‘An error made, not once, but twice.’” Maud dragged a hoof down her face. “Outside factors stopped us from catching Neighsay when we tried, and the attempts always happened in pairs.”

Twilight’s lips parted. It wasn’t the most obvious correlation, but the longer she considered, the more sense it made. “Cadance let him get away in the throne room... we let him get away here. The same error made twice...”

The merciless wind swirled around them. The manic rush to hurry was ebbing, everyone’s ears slowly drooping.

“Guess we gotta pay more attention to that fancy poem,” said Applejack. She put her hooves on her hips and nudged the others. “C’mon, there ain’t no sense feelin’ bad about something outta our hooves from the get-go! Neighsay could be telling Chrysalis about this place as we speak!”

Rainbow clacked her hooves together. “She’s right. No slowing down, no stalling! We keep moving forward no matter what!”

“Onward to better things!” said Pinkie.

Twilight’s eyes hardened. “You’re right. There’s too much down here that could fall into the wrong hooves. We know what we have to do."

The others nodded.

Twilight spread her blazing wings. “Our objectives haven’t changed. Remove Cadance’s curse. Find and destroy the empathic energy source. Secure the bodies of the late expedition team. We move fast, smart, and safe.”

They took off in a burst of speed. They zoomed around the cave-in and continued through the sector, the corruption rising and temperature dropping all the while. Pinkie was more alert than ever as she set the faster pace, dodging barriers and time domes with agile grace.

“Erm…” Fluttershy glanced at the others. “Since we’re paying more attention to the poem... If we’ve ‘paid the price’ with Neighsay’s escape, what is ‘the mother’s sacrifice’?”

Rarity watched the time domes roil and writhe. “I'm not sure I want to know.”

As Twilight adjusted for another wind change, she had to wonder the same thing.

Earlier-

Sector Four was a series of twisting, perilous canyons of pure, pristine ice. Each canyon contained varying hazards to stop invaders, but together they formed the greatest hazard of all—a dizzying vertical labyrinth of corkscrew-like paths, slick bridges, and winding tunnels. The overall depth varied from thousand feet to just over a mile depending on the respective hazards. Intermittent rivers of otherworldly light flowed through the air that allowed one to see how daunting a task lay before them... but any who made it this far quickly learned the light served another purpose.

There was a feel of malice here. Not just from the staggering corruptive energies, but the very canyons themselves. Aimless, ominous intent permeated the stillness and saturated the air like a stormfront. It even affected the temperature to create a worsening bitter cold. Unfortunate souls that perished here became entombed in ice to serve as a grim warning—

WHUM

A portal opened within one of the canyons. Neighsay emerged from Sector Three to discover that yes, he was still alive, but that first step was a doozy.

“YOU RECKLESS HALFWIT!” Proxy tried to open a portal back, but their meager magic was spent. “YOU COULD HAVE KILLED YOURSELF OUTRIGHT!”

A shrill, choked cough escaped Neighsay. Even altered as he was, the sheer cold was like being stabbed in the lungs. He plummeted in freefall past crisscrossing ice bridges and spiralling dead-end paths, the corruption making his head spin.

“Put up a frost ward!” Proxy’s voices rose in pitch. “The cold will kill you before you can even land! HURRY!”

They weren’t exaggerating. It was cold, colder than Canterlot winters, colder than the northern wastes. Wastes that reminded Neighsay of the Badlands, in all honesty. He’d travelled them at Chrysalis’ command so he could open portals for her spies. If he squinted hard enough, he could almost see tiny colorful creatures encircling him on diaphanous wings. Though that wasn’t what the spies had looked like, of course…

“Your poisoning was an accident!” said Proxy. “You’ve no idea how difficult casting spells like this! We didn’t realize the portal was short until you’d already jumped!”

Neighsay’s reflection flickered off the flawless canyon walls. Ghostly batponies and wispy crystal ponies watched his descent without a word. Alicorns circled above him like vultures while a colossal-sized Chrysalis laughed below. She opened her drooling maw and waited, her putrid breath making Neighsay’s eyes flicker.

“THERE REALLY IS A CURE!” Proxy bellowed. “WE SWEAR IT ON THE MASTER’S NAME! WE CAN—oh, no.”

No, not flickering... glowing. The whispers of his insidious GLORIOUS Queen were deafening, and the sector’s overwhelming corruption strained his mind even further HOW DARE YOU DEFY ME The dual-sided attack clawed his tattered will, the unholy impulses so strong he could taste them.

The Queen was waiting I WILL FIND YOU She wasn’t mad at all I WILL RIP YOUR MIND APART She was just worried about him I KNOW YOU FOUND SOMETHING It was time to return to his familyYOUR SON WILL SUFFER FAR BEYOND—

...Wait, son?

FORGET I SAID THAT He didn’t have a son THAT’S RIGHT YOU DON’T Why, he’d never forgive himself if he had children YES, YOUR STUPID BLOODLINE ENDS WITH YOU especially if he had them with someone not descended from the three…

…the boy NONONONONO the boy NONONONONONO the boy!

THE STUPID BOY!

“ERRRRGH!” A deathly pale aura surged from Neighsay’s horn. Two side-by-side portals opened at the last second in the glassy ice bridge he was careening towards. He rocketed into one and emerged out the other, soaring straight back up as the hallucinations faded one by one.

“What the…” Proxy realized they were ascending again. “That wasn’t us! What just happened?!”

WoRd... t-T-tO tHe wiSE...” Neighsay snarled through chattering fangs. “NeVErrRr g-g-gaMBle… agAiNSt s-S-SoMEonE WiTH... nOTHinG T-t-tO... LoSE!

Their ascent reached its apex to let them fall once more. Several hundred feet later, Neighsay landed in the portal he’d just exited. He emerged from the other portal to start ascending again. Their ascent reached its apex to let them fall once more...

“Such willpower...” Proxy could sense the Tear of Laughter was little more than cosmetic now. “How…?”

T-teLL mE... THe c-C-curE.” Neighsay could feel the dark energies changing him more by the second. His sclera were completely green now, and the hairless patches of pale skin were spreading. “tEll Me N-nOw... or I END iT!”

Silence. The wind rushed past their continued rise and fall, Neighsay keeping their momentum going with an occasional magic ‘push’. His teeth tingled as they grew longer and sharper, his jaw itching from the muscle and bone shifting...

“A confession of love laid bare,” Proxy said at last. “The fire of friendship shared, and the light of harmony sent in prayer. The confession of love heals the soul and reverts the body, the fires of friendship thaw the heart and purge the mind of darkness, and the light of harmony stabilizes the combined effects. You need to use all three at once in order for it to work—they’ll prove harmful otherwise.”

Neighsay cursed. He waited until they reached the next apex, then opened a portal a foot under him. He slid into it and was dumped out on the bridge hundreds of feet below.

A chorus of relieved sighs rushed through Neighsay’s ears. “Thank the Master…”

Neighsay panted for breath. His heart was hammering, his shaky limbs barely able to support his weight. He couldn’t feel much of anything right now… but if he could, he’d have felt how the assorted dark energies were being funneled into the depths of his psyche, siphoning into a tiny rupture in his mental ‘scar’...

“How...?” Proxy asked. “Your mind should be shattered! And why would you even open a blind portal in the first place?! You’d truly take your own life over—”

Neighsay smashed his hoof on the ice. “DoN’T… puSh me! Y-You haVE your valuEs… I have miNe! I don’t owe you any eXplanations...”

Proxy was tempted to argue, but they weren’t keen on revisiting Mister Neighsay’s Wild Ride. “It… would seem the knowledge and mannerisms we’ve collected from previous intruders has failed to win your trust. A pity; a mind and soul as resilient as yours would… well, no matter.”

Neighsay couldn’t be sure, but he’d guess the sudden spicy flavor emanating from Proxy was… disappointment? “I n-need to... keep moving. I ported d-down about a mile… S-Sombran relic must be close...”

“Indeed,” said Proxy. “We may not be keen on your methods, but you’re now in Sector Four. The Inner Sanctum is on this level!”

Neighsay looked around. Some of the canyon ledges looked naturally formed, some sported bizarre chiseled angles, others had no angles whatsoever, and others still had a combination. Great chunks of ice were set poised to fall tumbling down select narrows paths at any moment. And speaking of the ice, he could definitely feel something strange about it...

“Avoid looking at your reflection,” Proxy warned. “The defenses might be dormant, but the enchantments in the ice can still activate. That’s what the light’s for.”

Neighsay averted his eyes. He wasn’t exactly raring to see his reflection right now, anyways. “I’m t-tempted to have you give the coordinates so I can open another blind p-p-portal…”

Proxy was tempted to say it wouldn't be blind if Neighsay agreed to being temporarily commandeered, but they both knew he wouldn't agree to that. “We’re loathe to admit this, anomaly, but… you’re right that our hopes rest upon you. Your mutation will acclimate you to the conditions in short order, so there’s no sense in any additional risk.”

Neighsay blinked several times. “Why, P-Proxy! If I didn’t know better, I’d say that was an apology! I’m t-t-touched.”

The portal medallion bristled. “In the head, certainly. We recommend you rectify that; no one wants an insane minion.”

Annnnnnnd the moment was gone. “You do realize I can p-p-portal myself into the nearest wall whenever.”

Proxy ignored that. “You’re currently in Ravine M12. The Inner Sanctum is in Ravine G17. Portal jump to the ice bridge ninety feet above you, then…”

It was a slow and laborious effort. The silence bore an ill-will as Neighsay portal-hopped from ledge to hazardous ledge, the stifling malignance making his mouth water and stomach growl. The missing ‘something’ inside him became more noticeable as time passed, but he pressed on nonetheless, Proxy’s directions guiding him around natural hazards and Sombra-made modifications.

The path out of the first canyon was in a crag near the top. After making his way there, Neighsay trotted around a series of concealed pits before emerging into the ravine beyond. The ribbons of light revealed that, while the blueish-white chasm wasn’t very wide, long, or tall, it’s dizzying depth was enough to make Neighsay’s head spin. Proxy explained it wasn’t actually wasn’t very deep at all, but through a clever bit of magic and a heavily-twisted pocket of localized space, it took millennia of falling at terminal velocity before one reached the bottom.

“The Master was quite fond of this one,” said Proxy. “Forcing the mind to comprehend the incomprehensible isn’t easy. As you can see, even the simplest examples cause disorientation and make the victims vulnerable in various ways. It’s even worse for those with a fear of heights.”

Neighsay flopped onto his belly on purpose. The icy impact rattled his ribs and teeth, but the ice wasn’t as cold as he’d expected. Not even as cold as the previous canyon, to be honest… He opened a portal and scooched in before he could get disoriented and fall.

He stayed on his stomach for the rest of the time in the chasm. Proxy prattled on about his master’s enthusiasm for torture and whatnot, revealing disturbing tidbits with gruesome implications. Neighsay didn’t register much of it—all that mattered was to keep moving. A part of him still revolted at the grotesque descriptions, but the revulsion was taking longer to register.

There was something odd about the rivers of light. Shadows weren’t where they should be, and trying to identify the ones in the ice was like sifting through a distant memory. Neighsay’s saving grace proved to be how the colors of everything were still off to his changing eyes, particularly a shade of violet that looked downright alien.

He reached a western arch concealed by an illusion. The dizziness faded as soon as Neighsay passed through and continued into the tunnel, allowing him to get up and head for the next canyon. The shivers plagued him less and less as he went, although he didn’t feel any warmer. He didn’t feel much of anything far as temperature was concerned, even with the trail of fur being left in his wake...

“...an interesting juxtaposition—turn left here. The exits become sealed upon detecting an intruder, so there’s no chance of escape...”

One step in front of the other. Another new portal opened up, walked through, repeat. This canyon was like a vertical garden of icy thorns, but Neighsay couldn’t attest to being cut. The only thing he could attest to was a dreadful empty feeling and a throbbing pain in his mind. He moved through portals as reality became more and more like a waking dream.

“... that was the general idea. It causes lethal starvation and dehydration in under a minute…”

Vague recollections of traversing incredible heights. Floaty memories of skirting Sombra’s modifications. Pain-soaked impressions of trudging past smooth cliffs and long, zigzagging chasms. Neighsay remembered all of these things, but when he willed his eyes to focus, he swore he was in another chasm. These instances were always accompanied by the echo of dread, and a cruel, impossibly deep voice that was... laughing?

“Here’s another of Anomaly B’s modifications,” said Proxy. “We knew he could transmute flesh to crystal, but we didn’t realize he was so adept at concealing magic within other enchantments. Fortunately, it seems doing that causes the trap to become a one-time use.”

Neighsay blinked. He was looking over a thirty foot drop ending in the floor of yet another ice canyon. The bottom was lined with black shards originating from two sources, but more importantly were the details the shards themselves. Most were beyond recognition, but some could still be recognized as saddlebags… limbs… part of a face…

“I see.” He trotted on without another thought. “I imagine your Master didn’t incorporate much of that herself for that reason.”

“Erm…” Proxy waited for something more, but Neighsay didn’t so much as shudder. “Yes, actually. This place was intended to last the test of time.”

A far-off, half-numbed ripping sensation made Neighsay rub his head. “How much farther? I’m starting to get a headache.”

Proxy didn’t reply at first, watching as Neighsay made for a five-way fork in the path. “Not far at all. Take the far-left route, and you’ll be at the ravine exit. The Inner Sanctum is in the canyon beyond.”

Neighsay’s draconic eyes glittered. The dark laughter echoed in his mind again, but this time, all he did was smile. “Good.”