With rocks about to crush everypony Twilight had to think fast. She quickly increased the magic power that she was already directing to her horn to provide light in order to make a new magic effect that would grab Applejack and Pinkie Pie and drag them closer to her. Putting her forelegs around them she then called out to Rainbow Dash. "Dash! Grab us then fly down as fast as you can!"
Without even taking the time to verbally respond to Twilight Dash grabbed Twilight's tail and started accelerating downwards as fast as she could. There were a few heart stopping moments when she felt like she was losing her grip on Twilight's tail, but she tightened her jaws and held on as firmly as she could. Despite the danger they were in and the necessity of them traveling as fast as they could Dash made a point to not accelerate to sonic rainboom levels. With their current luck such a thing done underground would destroy Equestria, a place that Rainbow Dash rather liked. It was where she kept all her stuff.
Through long practice flying Rainbow Dash had developed a knack for determining the time it would take her to do something after she'd done it once before, and she could tell at the breakneck rate she was flying that the bottom of the hole they were traveling down was fast approaching. She started slowing down just enough so that her friends momentum would cause them to press against her back, then she flattened her body by pointing her legs outwards like she was doing a cartwheel. She did this hoping that it would increase her surface area enough so that when they had to stop fairly abruptly none of her friends would fall off her sides. As for Twilight, Applejack and Pinkie Pie, they clung to each other desperately trying not to lose any of their number while they zoomed downwards.
When the end of the hole finally came Dash put on the breaks as hard as she could. Because they were under the effects of the feather fall spell Twilight, Applejack and Pinkie were spared some of the more drastic effects of such a sudden stop but Dash had the wind knocked out of her. They spread out across the cave floor, exhausted by their ordeal.
Rarity and Fluttershy quickly ran over to their friends to see what was wrong. "What in the world-" Rarity's cry was cut short as Twilight let out a burst of magic that enveloped her friends and propelled them all away from the bottom of the hole they flew down, just before a pile of rock fell right where they would have been.
Pinkie Pie was the first to get up after the shock wore off. Even she was pretty shaken up about what happened, but she had a natural resilience that allowed her to bounce back from things faster then most ponies. "Wow, Dash. After this how many lives have you saved?"
Despite taking a bit of a beating on the way down Dash shakily got to her hooves, bolstered by having once again kicked death in the face while simultaneously proving to the world that she was awesome. "Pinkie Pie, after awhile you just stop keeping track." Dash said with a smirk, but after a second she added with a little humility, "Although I wouldn't have been able to save everypony without Twilight's quick thinking. And she also kept us from getting crushed by rocks with her magic after we crashed down here. So it's like 50/50 me and Twilight who saved everypony."
Applejack adjusted her lamp headgear, making sure it was still functional. Then she got up and gave her body a shake to get the adrenaline out of her system before she gave the hole they came through a look over. "Ah'm as thankful as anypony that you and Twilight saved our hides, Rainbow Dash. But Ah'm sorry to say that seems to be the only bit of good news at the moment. The hole we came through is plugged up. Twilight, is there any other way out of here?" Applejack said with worry in her voice.
Twilight had also been looking at the hole. Whatever seismic event it was that had happened had resulted in so much rock and dust falling down the hole that it piled up and indeed blocked it. It looked like any attempt to dig their way out might bring the whole ceiling down on them. Twilight gestured for her friends to leave their current area to find a more stable cave to make plans in. Once they had some distance from the unstable part of the cave they were now in they settled down and Twilight took out her journal and explained what their plan was to get out of their predicament. "We can't go back up the way we came in, unfortunately, but luckily there are still mapped out paths back to the surface recorded in my journal. We aren't trapped down here. The bad news is that the way out is fairly distant. It's going to be a hard march through unknown territory to get there. Thankfully our supplies are intact and we are well stocked for such a trip."
Rarity leaned her head onto Twilight for emotional support. "Twilight, you talk as if though you're forgetting about our original task. I know it's important to find a way out for all of us, but that doesn't mean we can't also pursue the purpose we came down here for in the first place."
Twilight leaned against Rarity in turn, showing her acceptance of her support. "Thank you, Rarity. I'm not giving up on finding out more about the underground pony settlement while we're down here, but my main concern is going to be making sure all of us get out of here in one piece." Twilight said with a serious expression. She then got up and after checking to make sure everypony had their composure back she lead them in the direction she estimated that their exit was located.
As the ponies traveled they kept quiet, except for Pinkie Pie. Pinkie Pie would go on in a disjointed narration, mostly because she had an excess of nervous energy then because she really wanted to talk to anypony. Everypony was nervous, the caves were pretty unsettling to be in and it was hard to keep track of the time without the sun, moon and stars. Twilight's time sense was generally good but even she was having trouble with the unrelenting gloom of the caves around her. She was also getting discouraged because she was seriously beginning to doubt that she'd find any kind of pony settlement down here at all. She had assumed there would be some kind of ecosystem down here, something for ponies to eat, but there didn't seem to be anything. Perhaps, she thought sadly, there really wasn't going to be anything down here but dust and bones.
As they continued on their journey the caves they were traveling in increased in size, and the beams of light produced by the unicorn's horns and everypony else's lamp headgear shot off into the distance without actually doing much of anything other then providing a contrast to the darkness that surrounded all of them. Around the time when Twilight assumed the sun had gone down on the surface they started hearing the sound of moving water in the distance. They excitedly followed the sound till they found an underground stream of water. Twilight checked it with her horn, a simple spell to determine water purity, and deemed it safe to drink. This was a real boon for the expedition, because it meant not tapping into their stored supply of water. Rarity couldn't go very long without a proper bath so she convinced Twilight to make camp for a bit by the water so that she could clean herself up. The other ponies took the time to enjoy splashing around in the water as well, while taking turns looking out for trouble.
While Pinkie Pie started an impromptu splash fight with everypony acting like fillies, Twilight took the time to study the water. It occurred to her that such a damp area as the one they were in was a prime place to find signs of life. The other ponies had left their lamp headgear by the side of the water, to give them light, so Twilight had the chance to look around without an excess of light drowning out details. With her own horn's light lowered in intensity Twilight walked around the perimeter of their makeshift camp with her face to the ground. She saw some tiny pools of stagnant water with something growing in them. The walls also had stuff growing on them, slick stuff that seemed to catch the light of Twilight's horn, reflecting it back to her. It was only when Twilight got closer to the walls of the cave that she saw that the slime itself was giving off a soft glow. Lowering her horns glow even further she looked upwards and saw that the cave ceiling had tiny specks of glowing light that seemed to mimic a night sky. It occurred to Twilight that if they shut off their sources of light and waited for their eyes to adjust they might be able to see by the light of the strange glowing flora that grew down here. They probably couldn't see very well, but it was an option, at least.
By this time Twilight had wondered a little further from her friends then she had intended, so when she saw her horn's light reflected in the eyes of an indistinct figure off in the distance she gave a yelp of surprise. Though she herself was pretty freaked out by the sight of the eyes, the owner of them was even more so, and the figure ran off into the darkness. "Wait!" Twilight called after whatever it was. Perhaps not the smartest move, but it was the first living animal she had seen down here and she wanted to know what it was.
Twilight ran back to her friends. "Girls, I just saw something! We have to find out what it was!" she said while quickly gathering her things. With her magic she gathered her friend s things for them and placed them back in their bags and then slipped the lamp headgear onto Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pies and Applejack's heads. With that done she took off after the figure she saw with her friends hot on her hooves.
Whatever else the figure turned out to be it was definitely clever. It went down side tunnels and back out of them, left false trails, and did other tricks to lose its pursuers. It was only Twilight's cleverness and the odd magic spell that kept her and her friends on its trail. Finally what they were following went down what appeared to be a one way tunnel, with no exit other then by going through Twilight's group. Twilight motioned for her friends to slow down, with the thing cornered she had the chance to think in terms a bit more rational then just "chase it!" and she knew that rushing after something cornered that was in full fight or flight mode would probably make it fight. Even though Twilight knew that whatever it was they were chasing was probably distressed she still needed to see what it was. She rationalized to herself that if it seemed like either their presence was detrimental to it our it seemed to be about to attack them she and her friends could leave without either party coming to any real harm.
As the ponies inched forward they were shocked at what they saw. The "creature" they were chasing after was a small filly. She was tiny, seemingly younger then she really was, despite her actual features indicating she was probably around Applebloom and her friend s age. She was breathing hard, almost looking like she was hyperventilating, and her wide eyes were being shielded by her hooves as if though the light they brought with them was hurting them. She was nearly silent with the only sound that she was making being that of her heavy breathing and an occasional whimper, when other fillies her age would be crying or screaming in fright. Her mane, a faded light blue in color, was kept shorter then was generally popular amongst fillies on the surface, though it was well groomed. Her coat was an even lighter shade of blue, faded to such a degree that it looked white.
Twilight and her friends surprise left them speechless, and before they could gather their wits and try to communicate with the little filly a group of wild eyed ponies rushed out of holes that were hidden in the cave walls. The camouflage was done so well that the ponies seemed to come out of nowhere, and they bellowed and screeched as they reared up on their hind legs, trying their best to be intimidating. Twilight was scared, but she kept enough of her senses to note that the eyes of the ponies that had come to the little filly's defense were rolling around in their sockets, and she could tell that the ponies were as blinded by their lights as the filly was, though they tried to hide it.
"Back! Get back you savages!" An imperious voice shouted out, with a slightly odd accent to the Equine she was speaking. Suddenly the light that filled the cave they were in brightened to near daylight levels of intensity, far beyond the paltry levels that Twilight's group could generate with their horns or their lamp headgear. The light terrified the cave ponies and they grabbed the filly and fled through the camouflaged holes in the cave wall. The source of the light revealed itself to come from a group of unicorn ponies, who were accompanied by some earth ponies in full armor. These new ponies, along with the ponies that apparently lived in the dark caves, were all of a tinier build then ponies of the surface. The unicorns in particular had an almost fairy-like look to them.
"This world is dangerous, my friends." Said the apparent leader of the other party, a unicorn with her horn shining even brighter then those of her companions. In her strange accent she continued. "I know not who you are or how you came to be here, but we must go to a safe place that we might talk in peace. But before we go I must introduce myself: I am Radiant, the leader of New Equestria."
Pinkie scratched her head in confusion. "There's a new Equestria now?"
Radiant and her entourage had brought Twilight and her friends to a large chamber with a set of imposing doors. They stopped before them, and Radiant turned towards Twilight with an unreadable expression. "This is the main gate to New Equestria. However, before you are allowed admittance you are required to answer some questions."
Twilight, who had been ready to explode with her own questions for the shorter, but still imposing, unicorn tried to compromise. "Perhaps we could have an exchange of questions? There is much we can learn from one another."
Radiant looked at Twilight with a thoughtful, yet still wary, expression. As Radiant considered whether to agree to answer Twilight's questions as Twilight answered her own, Twilight took the opportunity to study the unicorn. In addition to being shorter then her she was also nearly completely white in color. Her mane, coat, and horn, all were white. Just her eyes and cutie mark had any color, both being blue with her cutie mark being some kind of stylized crystal. Her horn was long and intimidatingly sharp, so too were the other unicorn's horns in Radiant's group. In the past unicorns had grown their horns long, for use in battle, while in the present unicorns purposefully blunted their horns as they were only needed to serve as instruments of magic and not as something you needed to stab somepony with. Apparently underground was a different story. All in all Radiant gave off the aura of somepony not to be trifled with.
"I will answer some of your questions." Radiant finally said. "But first you must explain yourselves. How is it you come to this place after so long? Did other settlements of Old Equestria flee underground when the Usurper claimed power?"
"Usurper?" Twilight said with a confused expression. "Do you mean Nightmare Moon? Please, could you perhaps give a short summary of what you think happened on the surface when you chose to flee down here? I need a little context before I explain anything."
Radiant nodded impatiently. "New Equestria was founded by ponies that fled the surface when the Usurper took power from Princess Celestia, she who raised the sun. The Usurper unleashed eternal night on the surface world and a New Equestria was founded as the last bastion of pony civilization, perhaps the last bastion of life itself after the Usurper's eternal night ravaged the surface world. Now, WHO. ARE. YOU. How is it that after hundreds of year s ponies from elsewhere find their way here? We are the last, or so we thought."
Twilight exchanged a look of amazement with her friends. Her theory about the ponies that fled Nightmare Moon was true! "The surface world isn't a wasteland." Twilight said carefully, not sure how such a shock might effect an entire civilization that seemed to base itself around being the last bastion of ponykind. "Nightmare Moon was relatively quickly banished to the moon she took her name from by Princess Celestia. There has been a thousand years of relative peace."
Radiant's eyes widened at Twilight's revelation, but she let no further indication of her emotion show on her face. "So those who came before us fled underground for no reason? You'll forgive me if I find such an idea preposterous. What proof do you have for any of this?"
Applejack looked around in her saddle pack until she found an apple, then pulled it out by its stem and set it before Radiant. "Ah don't know how things work down here and what you ponies all eat underground but Ah reckon that you've never seen an apple as juicy as this one. We're from the sun blessed surface, no doubt about that."
Radiant, and the other ponies that called this underground world their home, looked at the apple with awe. "Yes, we've never seen an... apple like that before. We've never seen an apple before." Radiant said quietly. Applejack seemed pleased by that comment, but Twilight couldn't help but see a dark expression momentarily shift across Radiant's face. Radiant grabbed the apple with her magic and lifted it towards one of her unicorn companions, who floated it above his head and kept it there. The unicorns had no bags with them so perhaps he was now being tasked with carting the foreign, precious object around. Radiant let her eyes linger on the fruit, before directing her attention back to Twilight. "Such an object is impressive, but hardly conclusive proof of you being from a surface undisturbed by the Usurpers wrath. Perhaps your settlement simply had better luck growing plants beneath the surface then we've had in our own city."
Applejack bristled at the implication that she and her friends were being untruthful about where they came from, but Twilight managed to convey with a look that she'd be handling things. "Radiant, I know that this all must be a lot for you and the ponies you lead to take in, but if the supplies we have aren't enough to convince you we are telling you the truth about where we are from then you are just going to have to have faith that we are telling you the truth. Besides, even if we are lying about where we are from it should be evident that we pose no threat to you or the ponies you lead. Please, allow us to enter your home so that we can actually talk with each other."
Radiant shook her head with a frown, but rather then disagreeing with Twilight it seemed the gesture was just an indication of her displeasure with the situation she was in because she quickly whispered to one of the earth pony guards with her, who then left. A moment later the large doors that were blocking their entrance into the underground ponies home began to open. "Very well, we will go to the central government building. Once there we shall talk in greater detail about where you are supposedly from. We'll also feed you and provide you with a place to rest."
"Thank you; we could all use a rest as it's been an exciting day." Twilight said. She then realized that she hadn't yet introduced herself or her friends to the pony who was the head of state of an entire underground society, and decided to rectify the situation. "Such and exciting day that I may have neglected to make proper introductions. Allow me to make amends: I am Twilight Sparkle and these are my friends... uh." Twilight's pause wasn't because she had forgotten her friend s names, but was rather because what was behind the slowly opening doors was amazing.
What was beyond the doors was a large cave, but that hardly did it justice. It was so large that looking through the doors was like looking outside. The inside of the cave was arranged like one bowl placed upside down on top of another, a dome of stone arching far above a valley. From Twilight's position she looked "down" into the valley, in which she could see indistinct patches of green, probably containing the crops that were grown for the ponies that lived down here. Far in the distance there were many tall buildings, with the tallest structure being the primary cause of Twilight s surprised silence. The tallest tower had a massive crystal at its top, a crystal that glowed with a strange light that provided an illumination equivalent to daytime on the surface while providing none of the actual sun's warmth. It was an impressive, and altogether alien, landscape that took Twilight's breath away.
Radiant seemed satisfied at her home's effect on the strange visitors and she gestured for them to enter. "Come along, Twilight. The night cycle begins soon and nopony likes to be out in the dark."
The walk to the central government building, apparently the same building that had the large glowing crystal that served as the sun for this underground world at it's top, was a fairly short one. As they walked Twilight made some idle chitchat with Radiant, continuing her introductions of her friends and making some impressed sounding comments about the world she was being introduced to, while most of her attention was dedicated to observing the details of the society she had been thrust into.
The green patches she had seen on her first look into New Equestria were, as she had thought, crops. There was poor soil quality down here, if she was any judge, and the plants they grew down here were hardy specimens that looked like they were chosen for how robust they were rather then for the quality of how they might taste. The plants were grown by earth pony farmers; farmer's who ignored the strangers accompanying their leader to their capitol. Considering how hard they had to work in order to get surface plants to grow in such a hostile environment Twilight was surprised and dismayed to see that she couldn't see any cutie marks on the flanks of any of the farmers that were working so hard to feed their fellow ponies. She had hoped to see some cutie marks indicating that some of these farmers were doing what was their driving passion in life, but the fact that it seemed none of them had a cutie mark at all was very worrying. It would make sense if some of them had cutie marks indicating that their passion in life wasn't farming, sometimes for the good of the community you had to do something you didn't like, but the fact that they all didn't seem to have any passion in life at all was horrible.
As they neared the central government building, Twilight finally gave voice to her concerns about the missing cutie marks. "Radiant, I couldn't help but notice that the farmers we saw as we walked seemed to be missing their cutie marks. Is that common?"
"Cutie mark?" Radiant said the words as if though they were foreign and strange placed together like that. "A strange phrase. The only "mark" that I'm aware of is the one that only those who are truly devoted to the safety and welfare of New Equestria receive." She looked at the blue crystal at her flank, and nodded to similar one's on the flanks of the other ponies in her entourage. "It's a prerequisite for government service. Other ponies receive positions more suited to those with a lack of conviction. Farming and the like."
This particular bit of knowledge was not to Twilight's liking at all, but she didn't want to get into it with her host at that particular moment. Unfortunately for her, Applejack wouldn't let Radiant's comments go without saying something. "No wonder you don't have anything decent to eat down here, if you're forcing ponies to grow things who don't want to. If you got a pony who loves what she's doing she can pull fresh carrots out of granite, but making these sad sacks grow things it's a wonder you all ain't starving."
"We WOULD be starving, if nopony grew anything." Radiant said icily. "We don't have the luxury of choosing to do what we love in New Equestria, perhaps it's different on your surface."
Rainbow Dash had an expression like she smelled something rotten; she didn't like this Radiant one bit. Still, for Twilight's sake she tried to be civil and ask a question. "What about the pegasus ponies, Radiant? Aren't there any of us down here?"
Radiant nodded, happy to have a distraction from the lippy pony with a hat. "Pegasus ponies maintain the sun crystal; it's a very important job."
Rainbow Dash squinted up at the sun crystal. "And that's all they do?"
Radiant looked at Rainbow Dash like she'd asked why ponies chose to breath. "What else would they do?"
Twilight was beginning to piece together a rather unflattering and even sinister picture of what New Equestrian life was like, no matter how hard she tried to keep from passing judgment over an entire civilization from bits and pieces that could have been taken out of context. She needed some more info. "So, earth ponies farm and pegasus ponies maintain the sun crystal. What do Unicorn ponies do?"
Radiant lifted her head proudly. "Isn't it obvious? With our magic we are the only ones who can power the sun crystal. We are responsible for the very sun of this world, and like Princess Celestia did before us we rule. Of course only unicorn ponies such as me, those with the mark, can have actual positions of authority. Still, because all unicorns help power the sun crystal we all have the natural birthright to rule. Earth ponies and pegasus ponies who receive the mark are trusted figures in our society, and they help to enforce our rule, but even they aren't given the responsibility of governance."
Warning klaxons were going off in Twilight's head. New Equestria was an extremely authoritarian state with what seemed to be a strict caste system, and the only ponies in a position of authority were the ones whom had a cutie mark that indicated they were completely devoted to the state. Twilight was becoming more and more of the opinion that it would take only one wrong statement for their interactions with Radiant to go downhill very, very, quickly.
"That's dumb!" Twilight turned stiffly towards Rainbow Dash, with a shocked expression. She didn't have a chance to stop her from saying anything more. "This place isn't a country; it's barely big enough to be a city. And cities have mayors!"
"And cities elect mayors, they don't have rulers who claim a birthright to rule." Applejack said in agreement with Rainbow Dash, while Twilight put her hoof to her face at how very wrong everything was going. "You unicorn ponies seem to think yer royalty, on the same level as the princesses. Well Ah hate to break it to you, sister, but Celestia and Luna have wings in addition to the fancy horns you got on your foreheads!"
Radiant's eyes widened in shock and anger. "Princesses? There is only one princess worthy of the title, and she is dead. The other one who had claim to that title sacrificed such claim when she usurped power from her sister.
Applejack had enough of this self important pony and she stamped her hooves down as she marched over to her and looked her dead in the eyes. "Princess Celestia lives and rules with a kind hoof, and her sister Luna rules by her side, the position she was always meant to have. Or are you callin' me a liar!"
Radiant backed of a step and lowered her horn so that the needle sharp tip was pointing directly between Applejacks eyes. "I'm not calling you a liar... I'm calling you a HERETIC! Guards! Seize these ponies, at once!" The argument between Applejack and Radiant had been at the very front door of the central government building and guards were everywhere within seconds of Radiant's cry. Three earth pony guards tackled Pinkie Pie. Two burly Pegasus ponies dropped a net on Fluttershy, which was enough to keep her from being able to fly away, and they then chained Rainbow Dash's legs to their own so that she couldn t fly off anywhere that they didn't go as well. Ten Unicorn spell casters were what it took to capture Twilight, with Rarity trapped with her, the unicorns being unsure if she was as formidable as her purple friend. Applejack was under Radiant's own watchful eye, making it so that all the foreign ponies were safely subdued and could await her judgment.
"These ponies are spies in the employ of Nightmare Moon!" Radiant said spitting out the horrible name to impress on her guards the importance of making sure none of the prisoners got away. "Take these ponies to the dungeon. Their fate will be decided tomorrow. Like all agents of the Usurper they shall be given a just punishment."
"Oh come on! This is like some kind of inquisition!" Pinkie Pie said, after spitting out some of her mane that had been jammed in her mouth after being so rudely forced to the ground. Her expression grew thoughtful as she reached up with a hoof that she probably shouldn't have been able to get out of the grasp of trained soldiers to scratch her head in confusion. "Huh, I did not expect this."
To Be Continued!