IV: A Little Give, a Little Take
The enemy is a vicious creature, known alternately as the Nightmare or the Knight. It has no identity besides what its host provides it with, but it is quick to alter its host with their own desires. Afterwards, it will reflect those changes onto the entire world if left unchecked. These changes are always destructive at best, without regarding the inevitable death of billions.
The Nightmare does not reason. What it wants it gets, and damn the consequences.
The wind's swift violence grew far less intense as the ragtag group trekked through a shallow valley, protected as they were by the towering violet-gray mountains on either side. It still shrieked like a banshee as it passed those rocky faces, though, and while it wasn't enough to drown out all sound completely, its eerie noise still made their skins crawl.
The unicorn guard led the way, marching stiffly down the almost nonexistent path as rocks clacked beneath his iron shod hooves with a forced rhythm. He seemed to be at the head of the group as a matter of course, and at Luna's insistence that he ward off any dangerous creatures that might be ahead. From the brief scowl that had crossed his face at this order, Celestia couldn't quite understand how he had managed to get into the royal guard. Even though he did indeed follow the order with little more than some grumbling, surely his disrespect would have gotten him thrown out.
Luna trailed close behind him, giving him a word of thanks every now and then as she addressed him as "Private Diamond Strike." Her cloak billowed impressively in the wind, making her look like a true princess and goddess of the night even at the middle of day. For a pony who didn't seem to really believe what the stranger had been saying, the blue alicorn was certainly taking this mission in stride; with every brief spurt of rain the clouds brought on, she took a moment to lift her muzzle towards the heavens and embrace the weather, a small smile crossing her face and occasionally a contented sight passing through her lips.
Following the moon princess came the blue earth pony and Short Notice, the latter of whom fluttered close beside the former. He would constantly talk to her in a seemingly never-ending stream of chatter, which in spite of its rather annoying lack of cessation seemed to have done the trick somehow bringing the ghost of an exasperated smile to her lips. The guard was clearly irritated by the noise however, snapping at them indiscriminately every so often regardless of who was making any noise. As much as Celestia wanted to smack him with her wing for his annoying lack of patience and tact, she couldn't help but agree with his sentiment a little. The constant noise kept echoing off of the mountain faces, and she felt a few twinges of unease at the idea that it was attracting the native beasts.
That was far from the only thing occupying her thoughts, of course. What with Luna and Diamond Strike leading the party, and the earth pony and Short Notice partially guarded at the center, Celestia herself was left trailing the group with that uncanny brown unicorn. He seemed to be trying to do his best not to look at her, but from the way he kept shooting glances in her direction it was obvious that he was failing miserably. Celestia, chewing on a strange idea that had been seeping her mind with suspicion, didn't bother to look too much into whatever kept his eyes wandering. It was quite likely that he'd been surprised to figure out that she was his princess, considering the awkwardness of their first meeting.
Of course, there was also her quickly developing theory to consider.
As they passed a shallow drop where the mountain beside them ended and another began, the unicorn finally threw his hooves into the air. "Oh, all right," he exclaimed, though due to the excitement continuing just ahead of them, only Celestia paid attention to his sudden outburst. "I guess—"
"So you're the one who was fooling around with my sunrise," she said, cutting him off smoothly. "Am I right?"
His mouth dropped open. Then it shut, as was the habit of those who belatedly realized that their flabbergasted expressions were ridiculous. Then it opened as he put on a determined expression, as if ready to launch into a self-righteous tirade. But he realized that he had no such tirade prepared at the forefront of his mind, and he grudgingly shut it again.
"Because it makes sense, logically," she continued, trying and almost failing to fight the urge to smack him hard in the face with a wing. "Luna wouldn't pull something like that. Diamond Strike is a guard, and even if he is rather insufferable his entrance to the force proves that he is at least trustworthy. Short Notice and the earth mare aren't unicorns, so I think I can discount the idea that either of them did it even in the face of all these random occurrences that have happened today."
The unicorn made a face and looked away. "Fine. You win. I guess I'll just walk over here and sulk at the fact that one of the goddesses of Equestria could stand up to …"
He trailed off, still not facing her. Celestia's ears pricked with curiosity. That was odd … it had sounded as if he had almost given something away there. Something important. But it probably wasn't something that would really make any difference in the long run, so she set her curiosity aside.
They trotted without speaking for a while longer, letting Short Notice fill the silence with his constant declarations. As they approached a particularly windy trail through the jagged boulders, the sun slipped out of its noon position at the sky's zenith and proceeded to begin crawling down to the western horizon. Celestia couldn't help but look up at it nervously, hoping she could return in time to help it set … she didn't want to think about what would happen if she were too late. On the other hand, the idea of failing to stop Blood Knight made her skin crawl. If only one weapon could stop them … she decided she really didn't want to continue on that train of thought.
A sudden brief stab of pain jerked her out of her reverie. "Ack—!" she gasped, looking down at her leg. A small wound marked the place where she had struck out against a rock, taking a fair bit of skin with it. She hissed through her teeth, pausing to get a better look at it. It probably wasn't particularly serious; she could heal it easily, in fact. That didn't make the pain any better, though.
"Hm. Stumbled while blinded by the mists of dreamland, I see?"
Gritting her teeth, she prepared to whip around and snap at the unicorn for his childish comment – and then she paused, tilting her head in confusion at the sudden tingly sensation washing the pain from the wound. Within the span of just a few seconds, a scab formed over it, then turned lighter and more solid until it had healed completely. Even the hair that had been scraped off grew in as healthy as ever.
She began to start walking again automatically, mind momentarily blank over the sudden healing. "What …"
"Consider that my apology for almost ruining your morning." The unicorn's magical glow dwindled into nothing horn as he spoke with a smirk. "Wouldn't want you to ruin your princessly image, after all. I don't even know if princessly is an adjective, but does anyone really care about such trivial details as that?"
She gave him a flat-lidded stare. "So you want to make up for almost destroying the royal and divine reputations and unleashing one of the world's foulest monsters by making a cut go away?"
"To be fair, Blood Knight is loose due to us, not just me," the unicorn said with more than a hint of smugness.
"I know." He beamed at her disbelieving expression. "It's just excellent, isn't it?"
She sighed, refusing to honor that question with a response.
Discord paused for a moment, watching as the sun princess pulled just ahead of him. That conversation hadn't gone quite the way he'd expected. She'd beaten him in an epic cosmic struggle worthy of the ages, and she was annoyed by it instead of smug and conceited? How was that even possible? It didn't make any sense!
… Not that he disliked things that didn't make sense. Hm. Was it normal to feel conflicted for hazily defined reasons that weren't logical? And if not, was it fine anyway due to those reasons being illogical? He shook his head, deciding that this unexpected contemplation was only making his head hurt due to his attempt to deal with it with logic. Sometimes it was best to just accept things as they were and get over them.
"I'm Di— … I'm Puppet Strings, by the way." He forced himself not to make a face at the near slipup. "We're on a quest to save the world, so we might as well get to know each other. True companions and all that."
"You make it sound as though we're not going to go our separate ways after finishing this mission," she replied a bit haughtily, barely deigning to look back at him.
"Well, I just …" He just what? What was he supposed to say to that? "I thought that—"
"Somepony should probably assist me in this predicament!"
The two stiffened at the sudden call, which had come from far ahead on the path. Without wasting any more time, they took off in the direction of the voice, doing their best to catch up to the group they had fallen behind from. Celestia even flapped her wings to gain a bit of speed; had she not pulled ahead of Discord, she might have noticed that his hooves were barely touching the ground. Levitation could be a hard habit to break.
Only a few seconds later they managed to reach the rest of the ponies, where they skidded to a stop as soon as they turned a particularly sharp corner. Just ahead of them towered an enormous statue of an unfamiliar battle-scarred mare, with a shaggy mane tossed over her air force pack and a nebulous ball of what might be lightning forming between her forehooves. The statue was worn down from sheer age, yet the determination in the mare's snarl still struck a sense of awe into even the princesses. The fact that a tingling in the air of some ancient magic might have added to that feeling, of course.
Nearby, however, was the real call to attention. The earth pony had somehow managed to tumble off of a cliff some distance away, and she was now holding onto the edge for dear life. The other three ponies stood just above her, doing their best to lift her up onto solid ground again without making her fall to a very messy death. To her credit, she wasn't panicking in the slightest
"Private Diamond Strike," the two latecomers heard Luna order as they trotted up, "Willow Wisp's hind leg is caught in some thorns. On the count of two you will ease them away from her hoof while I levitate her up. I'd much prefer if this caused her as little harm as possible."
"Count of two?" Diamond Strike muttered, snorting. "What the hell is wrong with three?"
Luna haughtily ignored that comment. "One! TWO!"
A sharp snapping noise and a rather bemused grunt followed her shout; then the blue earth pony – Willow Wisp – floated upwards in a cloud of blue alicorn magic. With a brief motion of her head, Luna set the mare onto the ground, where she stumbled for the briefest of moments before easily balancing herself onto her three good legs. She casually lifted the remaining limb to examine the thorn wounds there, which released a slow stream of blood droplets that splattered on the stone beneath her in tiny red bursts.
Luna pointed her horn at the deep scratches, and with a brief flash of magic they disappeared. "Try not to do that again, won't you?" she asked, shaking her head as Willow Wisp put weight on her now healed leg with an anticipatory head tilt. "We don't exactly have all the time in the world."
"I'll say," Diamond Strike added; there was a jeering tone to his voice. "You really shouldn't be so stupid as to bolt when you think you see a mountain cat up on a cliff."
"My apologies." Willow Wisp peered at her perfectly healed leg, more interested in the princess' flawless work than the soldier's sharp criticism. "I did not intend to fall—"
"You don't need to be a bastard about it, you foul cretin!" Short Notice snapped, fluttering up to the earth pony's side defensively. "The fair lady has likely never done anything like this before! Consider that before you snap violently."
"Well, I haven't done anything like this either," Diamond Strike retorted, "but you don't see me toppling down all over the place, do you?"
"Stop arguing!" Celestia shouted, drawing everyone's attention. "Luna's right, we really don't have much time. I wouldn't be surprised if Blood Knight dealt with the stranger already … he could be on our trail right now."
There was an uncomfortable silence.
"… Perhaps we should see where the cave is that he mentioned," Discord remarked after a sufficient amount of awkwardness. "I'm pretty sure that statue features the Skytorn Warmare."
"Whoever the hell she is," Diamond Strike snorted. "We'd better get this over with, at any rate."
They trotted off to the cliff face a few feet behind the statue, not saying much aside from Short Notice's mumbling. As they clopped along the sheer wall of rock, Discord wondered how they were supposed to find the entrance of the cave. The Skytorn Warmare wasn't a frequently visited landmark, he knew, but enough ponies trekked out this way to pay their dues that the area wasn't a completely mysterious one. Any secrets around here had probably been discovered for a while now.
… Well, of course they had. That stranger had known about it, after all.
But that was beside the point. Surely any of the little ponies who had come out here would have found it and spread word through Everfree about its existence. How were they supposed to find something that generations of pilgrimages had never come across in thousands of years …?
"Pardon me, everypony, but I believe I have found what we're searching for."
He blinked. Well, he certainly hadn't expected that to happen so quickly.
The ponies gathered around the spot where Willow Wisp had indicated, with Diamond Strike naturally grumbling about her stumbling around where she shouldn't be. Even his neigh-saying ceased, however, when they realized what she had found.
Directly behind the Skytorn Warmare gaped a hole. Not a particularly wide hole, but one that probably two ponies could stand in comfortably if it had a floor. Instead it had a long, winding staircase that clung to the long cylindrical wall, extending downwards as far as they could see – since its depths were hidden in shadow, there was no telling just how far down the passage went.
"Willow Wisp, I …" Celestia paused, trying not to sound too accusatory. "How did you even find this?"
"There was a sample of scribbles on the statue," the earth pony explained, gesturing up at a piece of the graffiti that the stone figure had accumulated over the years. "It appeared to be written in a particularly old language, perhaps Sumareian. I had never heard of its presence here, even in my extensive study of the pilgrimages. There seems to be an area on the ground nearby that reveals the stairs …"
"Yeah, of course you'd go looking for more stupid things to get into instead of actually being helpful," Diamond Strike said with a sneer.
"That's enough, Private," Luna said sternly, shutting him up.
The six of them peeked their heads over the hole, trying and failing to make their eyes pierce the darkness … well, five of them failed, anyway. Discord had just adjusted his eyes to the distant darkness below when a bright orb of light suddenly descended into it, partially blinding him. With a wince he staggered backward, eyes watering at the sudden brilliance. Even with the light, though, it was still far down enough that nobody could see the bottom properly.
"So … who wants to go first?" Short Notice asked, trying to sound as though he didn't get picked for that dubious honor.
There was an awkward pause as they considered this.
"… I don't think it really matters," Celestia remarked, tilting her head and lowering it slightly as she examined the cracked stairs. "Not unless there's a spell that kills mortal ponies or something along those lines. Which I doubt," she added hastily, noting the sudden worry on the others' faces. "After all, that stranger knew about this place, didn't he? And he wasn't an alicorn. It was just an example. Though I guess he wasn't exactly mortal either."
Another awkward pause.
"Fine," she relented with a slight huff. "I'll go first then, since I made you so worried …"
She set a tentative hoof on the topmost stair, gently pressing her weight on it in fear that it might suddenly crumble and fall away beneath her. When it didn't, she inwardly sighed in relief. For a brief moment she'd actually worried that this mission might turn ugly.
At that moment a horrid shriek ripped across the mountain air, sending showers of pebbles clicking down steep cliff faces. Above them, the already dark clouds grew even closer to an ominous black, as if on cue.
Everyone stiffened in alarm, heads jerking in the direction of the sudden noise – or at least, in the direction they thought it was coming in. What with the echoes ricocheting off of the mountains, judging such a thing was difficult to tell. As such, there was much glancing about all around them, with their faces turning one way and then another.
"He's coming," Short Notice whispered, his indigo eyes wide and fearful.
Willow Wisp's brow furrowed slightly and she smoothly sidestepped the others, somehow passing Celestia on the narrow staircase and swiftly slipping down the tight spiral. Without thinking, everypony quickly followed her example and practically trampled one another in their efforts to get underground; only the helpfully descending orb of magic light prevented them from tripping and falling messily to their deaths.
As soon as the trailing Luna, bringing up the rear, cleared the threshold and became swallowed by the earth, there was a faint rumbling above as the opening resealed itself, cutting off the fading light of the stormy afternoon with the covering of stone.
It felt as though they simply were flailing their hooves in their rapid descent, somehow managing not to trip with their clumsy hooffalls. What felt like a journey of half an hour, though, passed in about a couple of minutes in reality. The six of them set foot on a level stone floor before any of them had realized this transition.
"That was awfully close," Discord remarked as everypony else panted for breath. Then he realized that he should probably be exhausted too, and so proceeded to enter a phase of over the top fake wheezing. Fortunately, nopony seemed to notice this slipup, not even Short Notice.
"What the …" Luna stared at the cave around them, drinking in what could be seen in the orb's shining light. "What is this place?"
Nopony was quite sure what they had been expecting, but it probably hadn't looked anything like this. Rather than a mere unremarkable hole in the ground, they were at the edge of an intricately carved chamber of solid gray stone – every inch of the walls and ceiling was shaped into some sort of shape, whether they were small delicate things resembling water droplets or large bas-reliefs of astronomical shapes. Every here and there were scattered a collection of sculptures of ponies rearing up on their hind legs, bucking at some invisible enemy with rocky hooves, standing in tense majesty with distantly staring eyes … But all wore the same militaristic outfit, cloth rippling motionlessly with the bold marking of a lightning bolt embroidered over the flank where the cutie mark would be.
"I have no clue," Celestia replied, unable to recall anything from her history lessons that matched up with this silent scene. "But it certainly is eerie."
A loud crash far above them caused panicked jumps to ensue. Even through a hundred feet of stone, they could hear the thundering of iron shod hooves clashing against the mountain terrain, and a frustrated scream that only marginally resembled any sound that could come from a pony's throat.
"… We should probably head further in," Celestia stated, as if there were any other course of action that would result in them still being alive.
Everypony nodded nervously, and with that they proceeded to trot into the far depths of the chamber. As they weaved around the statues in their path, the orb of light floated just ahead of them, casting the shadowy expanse before them into visibility. Though more pony statues stood deathly still before them, they caught sight of a few other creatures: a dozen or so griffons with outspread wings and bared claws; an adolescent dragon crouched here and there, snarling viciously; a few diamond dogs with weapons clutched in their paws, baring their teeth at the unknown foe … even a draconequus stood at the far side of the chamber, lunging at something with a determined scowl on her face. Celestia dimly noticed Puppet Strings startle slightly at the sight of something, but at the moment she was too busy considering how they were supposed to escape the creature above to pay much attention to such behavior. In the center of the chamber stood a massive mechanical thing, with shapes of creatures visible through "windows" that were too dim and undefined to make out fully. From the screaming pony in the range of one of its tubes sticking out of the top, it appeared to be a deadly contraption.
The far end of the chamber held a tall door set deeply in the stone, decorated only with a rusty handle that was embedded with a sparkling diamond. To either side of the door was the jagged scribble of several lines of an ancient text, which nopony present could decipher at a glance.
"Well, of course it would be locked," Diamond Strike growled after failing to twist the handle. "Er… perhaps one of Your Highnesses could blast the door open with your divine alicorn magic?"
"Not necessarily," Celestia said, biting her lip as she stared at the text with half squinted eyes. "There might be a trap set to go off if we do that. I doubt whoever made this cave would want just anyone stumbling into its innermost secrets, after all."
Diamond Strike looked rather disappointed at that verdict.
"Hmm," the sun princess said thinking aloud. "The section of writing left of the door seems to be some brief history remarks, we don't need to look at those. I don't know how to read Sumareian anyway. On the right of the door there are some readable instructions on how to enter. Apparently we need to prove that we really need to get what's behind it with a … oh …" She trailed off, looking a bit sickened.
"Well? What is it?" Short Notice demanded.
"Oh, don't leave us in such sordid suspense!" Discord said drolly.
"It says that one of us needs to spill some blood as a sacrifice," Celestia continued, wrinkling her nose.
Discord swooned and collapsed to the floor. Nopony else noticed his distress, of course.
"I don't want anypony here to injure themselves," she said, biting her lip. "But I don't think we have much of a choice. I wish it wasn't necessary, but apparently there's some old magic lingering here and … if we don't give it the requirement, we will die, and—"
"Celestia, stop being so dramatic," Luna interrupted, stepping forward unflinchingly. "I'll give the blood sacrifice."
The white alicorn blinked. "Luna … are you sure this is a good—"
"Look, I'm certain nopony including myself wants to do it, but that doesn't matter." Luna stood in front of the door, and without missing a beat she sliced her hoof on the jagged rock wall nearby, opening a shallow cut that dripped slightly onto the floor below. She smeared blood across the face of the door, forming a thin red line that began to dry almost as soon as it formed. "As a princess, it is my duty to make sacrifices for those in my charge."
She stepped back, admiring her work proudly. The door failed to budge.
"Er … there's more blood required than that," Celestia said hesitantly. "Quite a bit more."
"Hmph, that's no trouble." She smeared another line against the door, then a few more as it became clear that it was making no difference. "How much does it require exactly?"
" … A lot," Celestia murmured, casting her eyes down.
With a huff, Luna smashed her injured hoof into the protrusions of stone and dragged sharply down. There was a wet tearing noise as a thick slice of skin came loose, hanging limply from her leg. Everyone gasped at the sudden gore aside from Luna herself, who only allowed a wince to break her haughty self control. With a swift movement she covered the entire middle section of the door with broad swathes of blood, which dripped down into the lower parts with macabre slowness.
Still the way failed to make way for them.
With a frustrated growl, the moon princess cut her other foreleg, opening a gash from elbow to hoof that soon spurted blood all over the mocking door. Red spray bounced lightly backwards at the horrified onlookers, who quickly skipped back to avoid being splashed with it. Discord, who had just begun to come to, took one look at the snarling dark alicorn covered in blood and proceeded to faint again.
It was only when the fountain of blood emerging from her wound slowed to a slight trickle that the door grudgingly creaked open, moving inward on its own.
"Ugh, finally," Luna muttered. Her eyelids drooped, and without warning she toppled to the floor.
"Luna!" Celestia exclaimed, rushing to her sister's side, heedless of the puddles of blood she was stepping in. Hastily touching her horn to the cuts and gashes, she allowed a few small pulses of healing magic to flow into the injured alicorn, allowing the skin and muscles to flow into their unscarred state once again. "Luna, you stupid, stupid, stupid …"
"Ha … knew I could do it …" Luna said, chuckling for some bizarre reason. "Anything for you, eh Tia? And for those other ponies too, I guess."
"Well … that was disturbing," Diamond Strike said after a moment. "But Princess Celestia, shouldn't we proceed inward? Blood Knight should be catching up to us soon."
"Yes, of course." Celestia levitated her sister a few feet, only grunting slightly as her full weight pushed down on her back. "Nobody is getting left behind, though. Especially not my stupid sister." She sighed and twisted her head around to nuzzle the half-conscious Luna. "Would somebody get Puppet Strings?"
She walked carefully through the door, reluctant to let Luna fall through some careless movement.
The three mortal ponies looked at each other, then at the unicorn, then at each other again.
"I … don't think I'd be very useful carrying him, considering everything," Short Notice said after a pause, glancing down at himself to point out his short stature. Without waiting for the others to order him otherwise, he quickly turned and fluttered through the door as well.
Willow Wisp considered the situation. She speculated on what might happen if he should be startled while somepony were carrying him, noting how as a general rule a stallion tended to lash out more violently the more frightened he was. Then she reminded herself that she was in this situation through sheer coincidence, and that she had no obligation to cart around one of their damsels in distress. It would be a waste of strength on her part.
With that logical conclusion, she shrugged apologetically at the conscious unicorn and trotted after the others before any furious exclamation could rein her back.
Diamond Strike gritted his teeth. "What the hell. Of course the buff military stallion should deal with the swooning pony. That's never been done."
Glaring at nothing in particular, he levitated Discord onto his back similarly to how Celestia had done to Luna.
"It's not like I couldn't stand him or anything, of course not," he grumbled as he walked and brought up the rear, scarcely aware of the bloody door closing noisily behind him. "This is exactly what we army guard royal ponies do. Take care of screaming mares and snot-nosed foals. Forget any actual peacekeeping and warmongering; this is where the military of the Equestrian Empire truly shines. It's a glorious faction, I tell you."
The "first ever" Summer Sun Celebration remained in full swing. In fact, the sights and sounds had only grown more raucous if anything; Shrieks of laughter punctuated an already deafening hubbub; brightly-colored ponies were made even more vivid with swathes of paint, decorated in shining gold and silver, red and blue. The royal family had long since departed from the high platform, but almost no one cared much about their absence — their only concern was for the immediate present.
An exception to this rule was currently trotting cheerfully past what appeared to be a vast forest of balloon animals. A juggling act caught the stallion's eye, and he slowed briefly as he gazed in fascination at the sheer number of swords being flung into the air; but soon his legs carried him away from the sight, and he somehow shook himself back to his mission.
"Fairly soon, I'd imagine," he mused, pulling an anachronistic pocket watch from one of the many pockets in his trenchcoat. He flipped it open casually, glanced up at the looming clock tower above, and looked back at the readings of his watch. Clicking his tongue and shaking his head, he stuck it back in its place and glanced about at his chaotic surroundings.
Everyone was so happy, he thought wistfully, rubbing a hoof through his shaggy mane. It was almost a shame that he'd have to crash the party beyond repair.