When she thought about it, Daring Do frequently came to the conclusion that much of what she did professionally was in spaces that were not exactly what one might call “pegasus-friendly”.
Oh, her lecture hall had quite a bit of vertical wall space, which she’d covered in blackboards that were tall enough that ground-bound ponies had to get creative (or use unicorn telekinesis, but she always felt that that was almost cheating) to write on the higher levels. And every now and then, she’d have digs at properly open-air sites, which gave her the chance to stretch her wings if she felt she needed to.
But, she reflected as yet another drop of water fell the few inches from the sandstone ceiling onto her pith helmet, far too often her work took her to places that seemed almost designed to draw out any latent claustrophobia she possessed. It was hardly uncommon among pegasi to be uncomfortable in enclosed spaces, and though she didn’t usually suffer from it, it could poke its head up at inconvenient times.
Like it was trying to do now.
Nopony would have faulted her for it, were anypony else around to see. The hallway was just tall enough for her to stand up straight, and even folded in against her barrel, her wings were almost scraping the rock walls on either side of her. As it was, she knew she would want to wash them off before she preened next. Whatever was at the far end, the ancient Amareicans had only wanted ponies to be able to traverse the passage in one direction at a time. And considering how long it had been so far, she was questioning their judgment more and more with every step.
As she continued to trudge forward, another drop fell from the ceiling and landed on her, this one near her haunches. Daring thought something uncomplimentary about whoever had thought that cutting a tunnel through porous rock without sealing it was a good idea. It made for an effective form of water torture, but it wasn’t something she wanted to be on the receiving end of. Never knowing when the next drop would land, or where on the body, so that you couldn’t be ready for it, couldn’t adjust to it, every drop of cold hard water as much a shock to your system as the first, leaving you to shiver with antici—
Daring shook her head. That was quite enough of that line of thought.
Then she stopped in her tracks. Maybe it had just been her imagination, but she thought her headlamp had flickered a bit during that head shake.
No, that couldn’t have been it. That never happened. She made sure to change the batteries before every trip. And she certainly hadn’t used it enough on this expedition for them to be running out now.
Still, the thought was a worrying one. If her only source of light was starting to fail on her...
When the light from her headlamp remained steady, Daring decided to move on.
There was definitely a curve to this tunnel. It was not a very tight curve, nor did it possess any sharp corners, but she was certain it was not cut straight through, and she felt as if she had been walking far enough for the Corifoalis effect to set in. She was, at any rate, positive that were she able to turn her head far enough around to see behind her, she would not be able to see her entrance. The air pressure was starting to thicken, too; she must have also been going downward—
Daring’s headlamp flickered again, then got very bright for an instant before cutting out entirely, plunging her into total darkness.
She had replacement batteries with her, but she had neither room nor visibility to change them now. Any such action would have to take place back at the campsite or the dig site, which were both near the tunnel entrance.
That would be a very long way to walk backwards, and she had no room to turn around. Nor had she had such for some time. Her best option could very well be to reach the chamber said to be at the end of the tunnel, turn around, and then come back — but who knew how long that was going to take.
“Oh, good,” she said to the emptiness, her voice echoing down the length of the tunnel. “And here I was thinking I would have to worry about getting bored.”
It was very easy to lose track of time in total darkness.
One of the innate bonuses common to most pegasi was an excellent sense of direction and location. Not all pegasi had this, of course; Daring’s distant cousin Random Walk had once famously gotten lost on a numbered grid, but he was something of an outlier in that regard. Daring, by contrast, had a sense of direction even better than most pegasi, which had saved her haybacon more times than she cared to count. It was somewhat necessary if you intended to pursue a line of work in which actual labyrinths were something you could encounter on a recurring basis. So she knew exactly where she was, at least relative to where she’d started. (She had significantly less of an idea where she was relative to where she was going, but then again, if she knew where the place she was trying to get to was, she could potentially have been there already.)
How long she had been in there, though, was another question entirely. There were no visual cues to indicate any sort of progress, one hoofstep felt very much like another, and the hard water slowly dripping down onto her hat (and her shirt, and her back, and her tail, and her flanks…) wasn’t landing with any kind of regularity. She supposed she could start using music to give her a sense of time elapsing, but that ran the risk of distracting her from important things, like the texture of the surface beneath her hooves, or the potential for increased range of motion. She could not afford to miss something critical like that due to humming along to the Washington Bays March.
She was still in the narrow, compressed hallway, still with no room to turn around and head back the other way. Her wings, which had previously been folded against her side, were now slightly extended, intentionally scraping the tunnel walls (and oh, was she going to want to wash them extensively the next time she got to running water). This was not doing anything good for her claustrophobia.
Not for the first time today, Daring silently cursed at the designers here. At least when she was infiltrating Ahuizotl’s bases, it was understandable that the things she was sneaking past were specifically intended to keep her out, for all the good it did him.
Though, actually… huh.
As another drop of water landed on her, Daring reviewed the tribal legend surrounding the mountain she was now standing under. The indigenous earth ponies of the area, the Arapahoof tribe, told the tale that Long Ago, they had had a Majestic Settlement here, until the Sky Ponies swooped down from somewhere up the slope and raided their village, taking about half of their most prized possessions with them. The Sky Ponies had left a declaration that They Would Return, and the villagers split into two groups. One left the settlement to be more nomadic, feeling that there was more safety in mobility, though they stayed in the general area in case they needed to come to the aid of their compatriots. The other group had been so overwhelmed by the Mighty Combat Prowess of the Sky Ponies that they decided they would rather go within the mountain itself, with what remained of their relics, and develop their skills until such a time as they could challenge the Sky Ponies on their own terms. They dug deep into the mountain, carved out a chamber for themselves, and then once it was finished, they moved in.
Naturally, they were never seen again.
As legends went, this one was honestly not that ridiculous. It had the ring of something that both was probably based in fact, and was not embellished overmuch. The Sky Ponies’ alleged actions fit the modus operandi of the old Coltmanche pegasus tribes known to have been active in the area, and the dig site near the tunnel entrance was on the location of a village that appeared to have been abandoned fifteen hundred years or so ago.
Furthermore, an excavation fifteen or so months ago by one of Daring’s colleagues, a unicorn named Keen Eye, had discovered some figurines clearly of earth pony make in a Coltmanche camp just above the treeline of a neighboring peak. The camp and the figurines had also been dated to near the fifteen-hundred-year mark. While this was hardly conclusive evidence towards the idea that the figurines had been stolen from this particular settlement, it seemed a not unreasonable inference.
Daring found herself reevaluating her previous frustrations. If the creators of this tunnel had, indeed, been attempting to defend against pegasus attackers, it would make sense for them to have designed it to be as pegasus-unfriendly as possible. It would certainly explain why the locals kept looking at her wings as if they expected them to do something.
She still couldn’t help but think that they might have gone a bit overboard to their own detriment, though. They may not have delved too greedily, but it was very probable that they delved too deep.
That the tunnel had angled upwards at some point since her headlamp died did nothing to change that opinion.
When Daring had been but a filly, her parents took her to visit an old, abandoned mine. At one point on the tour, the guide had provided a demonstration of total darkness, and claimed that if you were in it for a long enough stretch, things started to happen to you: first you went blind, then you went insane, and then some time after that, you could become a tour guide (this last said with an audible grin). Daring wasn’t sure how true any of that was, but she currently felt confident saying that with the water continuing to fall on her, she would go insane before she went blind.
Her hoof made contact with something round, which promptly shattered into what felt like splinters. This had probably been a torch, then. She was a little surprised it had lasted this long, but if nothing had disturbed it in a millennium and a half, she supposed it was possible for it to sit there decomposing but still balanced.
A jolt of realization hit her: If she was stumbling over torches now, she must be close to the end.
There had never been any real question that the chamber existed. The remaining Arapahoof were absolutely certain of it. The stories of its appearance, however, had been lost to time — and, unfortunately, would continue to be for at least another day or two, since Daring couldn’t see anything now. Still, it was there, and she was almost certainly near it.
Indeed, a scant few steps later, she was able to finally properly stretch her wings out.
As she did so, her surroundings started to brighten.
The source of the light was not immediately apparent, though Daring decided she could put off looking for it while her eyes were still adjusted to the darkness. As it was, she felt it was at least considerate of the light to rise slowly, so as to make sure she didn’t actually go blind. If it had hit her all at once, that could have caused some problems.
The old pegasus truism that it wasn’t the fall that was fatal, but rather the sudden stop at the end, sprang to mind.
In the dim light being supplied, Daring began to examine the chamber.
The ceiling wasn’t especially high, for obvious reasons, but it was at least higher than it had been in the passage here. An earth pony stallion could probably rear up on his hind legs and still stay clear of it without much effort. What the chamber lacked in height, however, it made up in breadth — she wasn’t certain she could actually see the far wall from the entrance, though the low lighting wasn’t exactly helping on that front, either. What she could see were the pillars that had been left in the rock to help hold the ceiling up. She walked over to one of them and saw the telltale erosion channels left by the groundwater that had percolated down through the chamber over the centuries, but if she was any judge, those pillars would hold for a while yet. The knowledge that the ceiling wasn’t going to collapse on her was a relief.
She would have liked to see some actual reliefs, but was only mildly disappointed by their absence. Those took time to create, and she wasn’t sure the population had actually survived long enough to do so, and in any event, they weren’t common to the region.
Every pillar also had four sconces for torches attached, roughly ninety degrees apart, and there were a number of similar sconces on the walls as well. This seemed, to Daring, to be another on the list of poor design decisions the Arapahoof had made; whatever else the chamber may have been, it was not well-ventilated, and that many open flames would eat up the available oxygen quickly. It was one of the reasons she’d brought her headlamp along with her on this trip: a battery-powered light source wouldn’t cause any such issues.
Her headlamp. Right. She took off her helmet and turned it to take a look at the lamp, which had been mounted on top of it.
The problem was clear immediately. Water had gotten into the bulb socket, and the bulb showed all the standard signs of burnout. She wasn’t going to be able to use it to light her way back to the campsite, not that the path needed much in the way of illumination anyway; for all its length, they really hadn’t gone to the effort of setting up any traps, or at least none that she’d encountered on the way in. It was unlikely, though perhaps not impossible, that there would be some that would only activate on the way out.
Daring put her helmet back on, took a drink of water from her canteen, and looked around the chamber again. The lighting seemed to have stabilized, though she still wasn’t sure where it was coming from. She began to walk through the room, eyes peeled for any signs of what exactly had failed, what had happened to the inhabitants—
Ah. There they were.
Daring slowly approached the set of skeletons nearest to her by the left wall, careful not to accidentally step on anything and hoping not to wake the seemingly-lifeless bones. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been chased by angry ex-ponies, after all, nor even the first time this year, and it was never pleasant when it happened.
There were three skeletons in this group, all earth ponies: a full-grown stallion, a full-grown mare, and a foal, possibly a filly. Probably a family. There were no obvious marks on any of their bones, suggesting that they probably hadn’t died in combat and that any other foul play was unlikely have been involved. Starvation, dehydration, suffocation and disease were but four of the many ways to die that left no mark on a skeleton. Daring picked up the knife that lay next to the father and took a few experimental swipes. Balance wasn’t as important for a knife as it was for a longer weapon like a sword or a polearm, but the feel of it in one’s hoof still mattered, and this one felt good. Its sharpness was another question, but Daring wasn’t particularly inclined to test that here or now.
But while those skeletons were more or less intact, the next set of bones that caught her eye was much less so. She walked over towards what looked like a fire pit, ignoring a few other piles off to the side — she expected she’d be able to come back to those bodies later, and they probably weren’t significantly different from the ones she’d already examined. In an initial survey, she usually preferred to go broad instead of deep; she could focus more on details later, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to do so when one didn’t even know where the interesting details might be. Sometimes, however, a section of a site simply called out for immediate investigation, irrespective of all other areas around it, and a fire pit in here of all places definitely qualified.
The pit was shallow, but visibly depressed from the floor around it, and just as visibly charred from the activities it had been used for. It was roughly circular and about a bodylength and a half in diameter, and two posts, each about as tall as a stallion, stood across the pit from each other. A crossbar stretched between the posts, crossing about over the spot where the center of the fire would have been. Daring noted that the posts were cut so that the crossbar could be easily removed, and that the bar itself had been sharpened to points at both ends. She also observed that there were a number of pony bones in the pit, many of which were blackened at one or both ends; she lifted something that was probably a femur to examine it a bit more thoroughly, and was able to clearly see the telltale saw marks that indicated somepony had inexpertly cut the meat off the bone.
She shuddered as she set the bone back down. Cannibalism: the last refuge of the desperate and starving.
The question that had been nagging her since she arrived in the chamber once again reared its head: where was the light in the room coming from? The fire pit wasn’t lit, and didn’t even have fuel; the same was true for the torches on the pillars and the walls... were the walls themselves glowing?
Daring took a moment to consider this idea. The light had risen when she entered the chamber, so it was obviously keyed to whether or not anypony was present who might need light. This had to mean that it was a magically activated effect, and one that could run without anypony able to power it. A ward on the entrance from the corridor might have been able to sense a pony entering, but the most intuitive way to set one up wouldn’t have noticed that ponies had died in the chamber, merely that they had entered and had yet to leave. And if that were the case, the room would have been lit before she arrived.
This did not, however, preclude something like a rune set that monitored the room for life signs. Runes were a fairly standard early form of permanent enchantment, flexible and powerful, and had the added benefit of being something that anypony with enough power could create and activate, regardless of subspecies. The downside, however, was that learning how to properly create them involved learning a new language, one that wasn’t used for anything else. These days, it was usually easier to just get a unicorn to enchant whatever you wanted enchanted, though that did tend to cost a pretty penny — few unicorns sold their services in the matter, and those that did were in high demand throughout Equestria. Daring was fairly certain that Cloudsdale kept a few on retainer. Doing your own runes was cheaper, but much more complicated, and many ponies weren’t even aware it was an option.
Daring realized that in her musings, she had completely failed to answer the question she’d posed herself. She walked over to the nearest wall, on the far side of the room from the pile of bodies she’d first looked at, and held her hoof up a few inches away from it before moving it back and forth a bit.
Indeed, the closer she got to the wall, the more brightly lit her hoof appeared to be. One mystery solved.
Well, if it was runes that were causing the walls to glow, where were the runes? The obvious answer was that they were somewhere on the walls, but there was a lot of wall to cover. However, runes stopped working if they were damaged (or, rather, they changed their effect to whatever the new rune was, which usually meant they just failed), so they would have to be somewhere they wouldn’t accidentally get scratched by a random pony whose knife bounced off something, or who accidentally kicked a rune and chipped away at it. This ruled out most of the lower sections of wall... and actually, most of the mid-height sections as well, come to think of it. If they were on the walls, they were going to be high up, near the ceiling.
Perfect for a pegasus explorer. Even if her wings were still a mess.
Daring looked at her wings and considered rinsing them off, but decided against it. That would have required more water than she had on hoof, and besides, she needed what she had for her thirst.
She took another swig from her canteen and lifted off, using a bit more force than she normally had to. The alignment of feathers on a pegasus wing affected how efficient that pegasus’s flight magic was, with recently groomed wings being more efficient than wings whose feathers had been ruffled, twisted, and dirtied, as hers were. If it turned out she needed to do precision or speed flight, she might be in trouble. Even hovering would require some actual effort — normally, pegasi didn’t have to do any work to stay in a spot in three-dimensional space, unless there was a strong enough breeze blowing to push them around, but with her wings as messed up as they were, she would slowly drift downward unless she made an active attempt to stay at the same height.
Daring flew up to the top of the wall, quickly found the runes inscribed there, and began reading them. They extended off in both directions, suggesting that there was more to them than just this section, and she made a note to examine them in more detail when the rest of the team could be present and she didn’t have to keep flapping her wings to stay aloft. The spot she’d started reading at appeared to be what she’d been looking for — roughly translated, it read: If living beings are in this room, then raise the walls’ brightness to (a specific level). The exact level didn’t really matter to her, mostly because without knowing the possible values, she couldn’t know where in that range it fell. She decided to go ahead and see what she could make of the next one.
If pegasus magic is used in this room for longer than—
Daring heard the crossbow fire in just enough time to drop under the bolt as it shot towards her, embedding itself in the wall. It looked like it probably missed the runes, which she appreciated as an archaeologist, but not so much as the pony whom the defenses the runes had activated were trying to kill.
She hit the floor a bit harder than she’d really intended and glanced around to see where the bolts could have been fired from, as several more soared overhead. She could swear those holes in the wall hadn’t been there when she walked in. They were decent-sized holes, squares a few inches to a side, just a little below the level of the runes.
Loud noises started going off. Meant to wake any sleeping earth ponies, perhaps?
There also looked like there were a few smaller, circular holes that had revealed themselves. As Daring looked around for the exit, she saw a puff of dust come out of a wall and a small object fly out.
She snapped a wing out, trying to catch it in an air current, and it fell to the ground. It was a blow dart. Probably laced with poison or tranquilizer of some sort.
Daring finally saw the door and started running. The alarm was still going off, and things were still flying through the air around (and mostly above) her, and she just really didn’t want to be here anymore.
She made it through the door and kept going. It was a long way back to the outside, and she did not want it to take any longer than it had to.
She ran for a while, she wasn’t sure how long. Eventually she started slowing down, the adrenaline in her system beginning to wear off. She was starting to feel tired, and her hooves were getting sore. Of course, it didn’t help that her rear left leg felt like there was something stuck in it—
Ah, buck. How long had that been there?
Daring forced herself forward, intent on making it as far as possible before the dart’s effects fully kicked in. It felt like she’d made it to the part of the tunnel that started sloping back up again, but she finally collapsed, brought low by a combination of chemical trickery and old-fashioned exertion. Her breathing slowed, and she fought to keep her eyes open, but oh, they wanted to close so... very... badly....
There was water landing on her face.
Daring shook her head and opened her eyes.
“Oh, good. You’re awake,” said the relieved voice of her top assistant, Dusty Trowel. “We were a little worried about you there, boss.”
Daring glanced around. She was outside, near the stream by which her team had chosen to set up camp during the excavation. Dusty was holding his canteen, which presumably he’d been emptying on her to try to get her to wake up. The rapidly approaching sunset brought out the red in his already chestnut coat and mane even more than usual.
“Who got me out of there?” she asked. She’d gone down the tunnel before noon, which meant that either she’d been in there for a while, or she’d been unconscious for a while, and regardless, somepony had to have moved her from where she’d collapsed.
“Clean Cut did the heavy lifting,” Dusty said. “Tiny unicorns like her are good to have around. I’d’ve helped more, but I could barely get into the tunnel and I’d have gotten in the way.”
Daring stood up and glanced at her wings, noting they still needed to be washed off and preened. Not that she would have expected anypony else to have already done it for her, or even to have known that it was something to be done; non-pegasi didn’t generally take much of an interest in knowing how wings worked, and except for Clean Cut and herself, her entire team was earth ponies. “Did the team find anything useful today?”
“Not much. A few potsherds, a couple arrowheads, some things we may just end up calling ritual objects.” In other words, they had no idea what they were. “Did you see anything interesting, or was your headlamp busted before you could get there?”
“I did, actually,” Daring said. “I’ll talk to the team later tonight. By the way, can you or someone replace that bulb?”
Dusty nodded. “Candela’s already working on that.”
“Great.” Daring dismissed Dusty, who headed back towards the main camp. She took off her helmet and shirt and set them off to the side before jumping into the water to rinse her wings. If she was quick about it, she could clean them before dinner.