A set of lilac hooves stepped off the gangway and touched down on warm, white sand. Their owner took a deep drag of the scent of this new shore, slightly salty sea air mixing with the wet freshness of dawn - the sun had risen just an hour ago. An omnipresent warmth hung in the air, too early in the day to be stifling, but comfortable and invigorating. With a little map floating in front of her, bathed in sparkling red glow, Twilight Sparkle cracked a smile and announced her arrival.
"Here we are girls, the Fillypine Islands!"
"Omigosh omigosh omigosh we're here!" A bouncing ball of pink fluff nearly knocked her flat as it passed.
"Hold yer horses Pinkie, we've only just arrived an' already yer nearly sendin' us to the hospital!" Applejack chuckled as she stepped off their boat. Rarity and Fluttershy calmly followed her, while Rainbow Dash made a flight-assisted leap from the prow straight to the beach. Twilight flipped through her brochures and itineraries intently.
"Let's what we've got here... restaurants, hotels, ice-cream parlours..." Pinkie perked up at the mention, her tongue hanging out with a little drool, and she bolted from the group in search of one. "... spas, wildlife reserves, an apple market..." One by one, Rarity, Fluttershy and Applejack followed suit, running off to pursue their chosen goal with nary a 'see you later'. "... here we go! The ancient Fillypine ruins! Who wants to come with m-" Twilight brought her nose out of the leaflets, finding herself alone on the beach, with Rainbow Dash lazing on the sand a few lengths away.
"I think they said they'll see you later," the pegasus chuckled, lifting her sunglasses for a moment before returning to her nap.
"Fine..." Twilight grumbled. "I'll visit the ruins by myself."
The tranquility of the forest was a cold comfort for the unicorn. She kept muttering things to herself as she walked, petty frustrations moulded into half-formed sentences and grimly chewed over to pass the time. She knew they'd come around and hang out together soon enough, but it still ground her gears to be abandoned in the space of thirty seconds. They hadn't even bothered checking into their hotel before splitting. Hah! Jokes on you guys, she thought. I've still got your travel papers!However, her satisfaction in this victory was minimal. She didn't like the idea of being spiteful - it was just an accident of circumstance after all.
The trail to the ruins was well off the beaten track. It looked like nopony had been this way for decades at the very least. She figured the locals wouldn't go out of their way to visit ruins they were practically tripping over all the time. But again, it was meagre consolation for having to beat thickets of brush out of her path all the way there. She reckoned her travel time was going to be doubled at the very least, and while it wasn't nearly as dangerous as the Everfree Forest (or so the brochure said), she was loathe to dawdle.
About an hour later - she couldn't quite tell - she emerged from the densest part of the woods into a clearing, midge-bitten and weary, but still as determined as ever. The treeline stopped abruptly at the edge of a steep hill, overlooking a vast hollow, surrounded on all sides by the same steep incline. At the bottom, spread across the river was a set of crumbling, yellowed stone buildings, stacked and scattered like a set of foals' blocks. The jungle around them had been cleared away, leaving pale green grass and exposed slabs of stone. From up here she could see a few cordons and signs, but from the state of the place, she guessed that the only regular visitors were groundskeepers, swinging by every six months or so to keep the place in check. That's a shame. You'd think more ponies would be interested in their history. It's not every day you come across ancient Mustang ru-
"-ah!" She squealed and jumped back when a pair of raspberry pink eyes, set in an upside-down sky-blue face, appeared from nowhere.
"R-Rainbow Dash! I thought you were staying at the beach!" the unicorn gibbered, still panting from the shock.
"I was gonna, but I got bored," Dash admitted, righting herself in the air and touching down next to Twilight. "And then I saw the Daring Do book in my bag, and got ideas. And I kinda felt bad for everyone ditching you..."
"Huh. Good to know at least somepony has a sense of loyalty," Twilight groaned.
"I know, right? Like I say, I never leave my friends hangin'!" Dash was as cheery and sincere as that night in the Everfree Forest.
"U-huh." She smirked, and started down the hill. "C'mon, Miss Loyalty, we don't want to be heading home in the dark."
"I'm gettin', I'm gettin'!"
Twilight wasn't sure if they were making good time, or the time was just passing quicker now that she had somepony to talk to. Either which way, they were standing at the metal fencing around the ruins in what felt like minutes. The whole place seemed to have a forgotten air to it, and not just the ruins themselves. The grass was at least fetlock-high, nearly ankle-high in some places, and weeds were plentiful. Every few dozen lengths along the fence, there were large, faded signs, with things like 'do not enter' and 'do not touch the ruins' written in big red capital letters. Somewhat less frequent were information posts, which were all bleached into illegibility. Neither pony was amused.
"Is this it?" Dash whined, hovering around one of the 'no entry' signs. "We came all this way to stand around and look at some rocks?"
"Well, if everypony who came here went climbing on the ruins, they'd get damaged pretty quickly..." Twilight grimaced. She had to admit she was disappointed too, but rules were rules.
"But nopony comes here! Unless they were expecting, I dunno, elephants, I don't think they have to worry about damage." Dash touched down on the other side of the fence, and started walking to the steps of the pyramid.
"Rainbow! Where are you going? You're not supposed to go in there!" Twilight nearly dropped her map. Dash stopped and cocked her head back with a frown and a raised eyebrow.
"And who's gonna stop me? Ahuizotl?"
"But... dh..." Twilight gibbered and tripped over half-formed words, and Dash resumed her course. The unicorn looked around - as far as she knew, the two of them were the only ponies for miles. She wasn't keen to wait around in the sun for her friend to return, and Celestia knows what might be hiding in the forest. Still, the prospect of trespassing didn't thrill her either.
The distant call of a jaguar forced her hoof. She gulped, hopped the fence and raced after her. "... wait for me!"
When she caught up to Dash, she was pacing at the mouth of an opening, just big enough that it might once have housed doors. The pegasus was staring into the darkened corridor contemplatively, occasionally muttering something to herself. Twilight smirked, her presence still unnoticed. She could just about make out the shape of pillars and loose stones in the shadows, and more importantly, unlit torches. She lowered her head, concentrating on sneaking a spell past the hesitant pegasus...
Fwoom. Three pairs of torches burst into life, illuminating the short corridor all the way to the back. Dash yelped in surprise, and shied from the entrance to hide behind a boulder.
"Need a light?" the unicorn chuckled, watching her friend peel herself from behind the rock.
"I guess that makes us even..." Dash replied, trying (unsuccessfully) to mask the quivering in her voice. Twilight started through the doorway.
"C'mon. Are we exploring these things or not?"
"I thought you 'didn't want to trespass'?" Dash zipped through the air to catch up to her, pulling a face and mocking Twilight's voice. As if on cue, another jaguar cry echoed from the hills. Twilight just looked at her with a quirked brow, and gave a little breathy snort.
The back of the corridor was a bronze tile wall, covered in weathered inscriptions in an inscrutable, dead language. A couple of statues with pieces broken off lay littered around, and the metal itself was dull and corroded in places. Twilight peered over her papers and travel guides, while Dash flew to the top of the panel and made loud thinking noises.
"It says here that the ancient Mustangs had a pictorial alphabet, where simple drawings of objects and animals were used in place of letters. But since they died out so long ago, nopony has any idea what they mean!"
"I wonder..." Dash browsed the top row of tiles; a wheel, a hawk, a snake, an arrow, a pegasus, a... she thought that was a house, but she couldn't be sure, and a unicorn. She pressed her hoof against the wheel tile - it stayed perfectly still. Like leaning on a wall.
"Rainbow, what are you doing?" Twilight looked up from her papers. Dash tried again with the arrow, only to get the same result. However, when she pressed on the pegasus tile, it sank into the wall about a hoof's width, with minimal effort. She gasped and pulled her hoof back.
"Hmm." She tried again with all the tiles, while Twilight watched nervously. Of the entire row, only the pegasus and unicorn tiles depressed. A lantern flicked on in her mind. "That's it!" Twilight, press all the tiles that look like ponies!"
"What? Uhm... okay..." The pegasus skirted down each row of the panel, pressing the occasional tile as she went. Twilight worked her way up from the bottom, her magic making it a simple task. They met somewhere just above the middle, and upon pushing in the last tile, they heard a loud click. Both of them shied back from the wall a length or two. The click was followed by a low rumbling sound, making the tiles vibrate and rattle. The sound was the dull grinding of stone against mouldy stone, ancient mechanisms springing into life for the first time in centuries, perhaps. The wall started to split along seemingly random sutures, all convening on the depressed tiles, and it retracted into the side of the tunnel in four pieces, revealing the darkened corridor beyond. The two ponies stared into the shadows for a few stunned moments, before turning their gazes on each other, quickly breaking into excited giggling. Dash leapt into the open door way, hovering to get up on her hind legs so she could gesture dramatically.
"Deep in the jungle, Daring Do and her sidekick, Professor Egghead..."
"... okay, her assistant Professor Egghead, brave the deathly dangers of the lost ancient Mustang ruins to uncover..." She swept her head back and took a deep breath, just for added drama. "... the secret of the Fillypine islands!" Only her echo responded. Twilight suppressed the urge to burst out laughing, and started down the corridor. As ridiculous as Rainbow Dash was being, she had to admit she was pretty excited too. Maybe not thatexcited, but still, the mystery corridor called to her. With a quick flash of her horn, the torches further along lit up.
"Alright Daring, come on..."
The tunnel snaked ever downwards, continuing in a straight line for twenty lengths or so before hitting a flight of stairs, and continuing level again. Twilight quickly found that it was easier to carry a torch with them than to keep lighting them as they went. From time to time, they'd come across some particularly thick cobwebs, or a few pony bones scattered around. Rainbow Dash tried scaring her friend by dropping a skull from nowhere, but she was more disgusted than surprised. The air was cool and musty, and it was pretty clear that nothing bigger than a rat had been down here for a long time. As they continued, bones became more frequent; Twilight speculated that it might be some kind of tomb, if it weren't for their haphazard alignment and random distribution. Alongside the occasional long bone or jawless skull, they started finding complete skeletons, slouched and sprawled like exhausted, emaciated athletes. They were as likely to be accompanied by pith helmets as ancient jewellery here; it sent a trickle of fear running through the two ponies' minds. Still, they pressed on.
Eventually, they rounded a corner onto a sight that hit them like a shovel to the face. The corridor ahead looked unassuming on its own; there were the same pots and pillars that had sat by the walls all the way here, and the same enigmatic symbols etched in the walls. But a second glance revealed the piles of skeletons littered around - dozens of them, sprawled around the hallway from wall to wall. When Twilight lit up the wall torches, they could pick out finer details; journals, machetes, jewellery, and more importantly, plenty of loose darts.
"That explains the dead explorers..." Dash gulped. Twilight leaned forward to inspect the floors and wall closer. If there were pressure plates there, she reasoned, they were very well hidden, and she knew there wasn't a magical device at work; she would sense it if there was. The "So what do we do, Twi? Do we risk it?"
"Hmm..." She shelved her curiosity about the mechanism. "I think the most dangerous part of this trap is the element of surprise," she chuffed, summoning two translucent, violet walls either side of her, and a third over her head; together, the shield was just big enough for two. "No surprise, no risk." Rainbow Dash took her cue hesitantly, and when the unicorn started walking, she kept close. Without the slightest warning, the trap sprung; volleys of darts spat from virtually invisible gaps in the masonry, in every direction. The first wave made Dash shriek and duck to the floor, but she quickly recovered and resumed tailgating when she saw them pangoff the ethereal barriers. Twilight couldn't help but chuckle at the wannabe-Daring Do's 'courage'.
The last darts flew right at the brim of the far staircase; Twilight didn't miss a beat, and as soon as they were in the clear, her shield evaporated. Dash wiped cold sweat from her brow, and stuck close, flexing her wings every so often. These steps were much steeper than the ones they'd encountered previously; additionally, the stones were less regular, and they just looked more sloppily put together. Twilight had to pick her way down, carefully jumping between the more level steps, examining the walls as she went. Some of the designs looked a little different, more rudimentary, teasing her with the notion that this part of the complex was even older. Rainbow Dash just kept her eye out for more traps, no mean feat in the half-light from the single, lonely torch they carried.
"Uah!" The unicorn misjudged a jump, stumbling on the edge of a brick. Dash zipped over to help her up pretty promptly.
"Twi, careful! You sure you don't need to be carried?"
"I'm fine, mother..." The mild mocking tone in the pegasus' voice wasn't lost on her. Dash shrugged and drifted lazily down the stairwell. Twilight grumbled, and made sure to judge this next jump perfectly.
Klop-shunk. She landed flawlessly; two forehooves hit the block with a firmly, and she used her hind hooves to fight momentum. However, it wasn't her landing that gave way, but the stone itself. It sank in a couple of hoof-widths into the floor, triggering another series of whirrs and clicks from below. She didn't like this one bit, and started looking for another brick to escape to. But when she looked, the other stones on the staircase were... moving. Twisting, rotating, rearranging themselves; pretty soon, the mechanical noises were echoing all along the staircase. Before she could find another level surface to cling to, her own brick swerved violently, tossing her down the shaft. In the time between her launch and landing, the bricks had settled, forming a perfectly smooth and very steep incline. With nothing to grab on to, she was at gravity's mercy. The torch fell away ahead of her, her grip lost with her concentration. Upon landing, she bounced on the rough stone, knocking the wind from her lungs and muting her screams. When she hit the ground again, she rolled, her horn panging painfully off the stone surface every now and then. The bangs and scrapes made it difficult to figure out which way was up, let alone form a plan.
She was relieved when the painful thumps finally stopped, but all relief was quickly doused when she realised why. The steep stone slope just ran out, and she felt herself accelerate towards the unknown. She was still spinning, so she couldn't keep track of the torch, and when another thumphit her side, she lost sight of it altogether.
"You sureyou're alright?" a cocky, grainy voice asked.
"I... ah... what?" Still breathless, she opened her eyes. She wasn't falling anymore, and she could feel something warm and soft holding on to her. After taking a moment to dispel the dizziness, she brought forth a gentle light from her horn. Rainbow Dash was holding on to her, and a few lengths above was the bottom of the slope. Below, the torch was still falling away into the pit; eventually, they hear a faint splash, and its light vanished. Twilight gulped. "Th-th-thanks, Rainbow..." The pegasus didn't hesitate to lift her from the pit and deposit her on the (mercifully level) far side. As soon as she touched down, she sprawled out, practically hugging the ground. "That was too close..."
"I thinkwe might have some problems checking into the hotel when we get back..." Dash said, looking back over her shoulder at the pit. Twilight patted her sides - her saddlebags had come off in the fall.
"D'oh, shoot... we should head back. I should see if I can get through to Spike from up top."
"You mean I have to carry you all the way back up that?" Dash groaned, pointing a hoof at the slope. Twilight looked again at it; it was steep, but it didn't look impassa-urk. She felt something yank back sharply on her tail. A split second later, there was the loud crackof a heavy stone barrier sliding from the ceiling in front of her and landing flush with the floor. She looked back over her shoulder to see Dash with her tail in her mouth and a look of relief on her face. When she re-examined the stone wall, she found it completely blocked the way back. There may have been a crack or two, but with her only light on this side, it was impossible to tell.
"Uhm, I guess you don't..." she chuckled sheepishly.
"Can't you teleport past that?" Dash tilted her head, looking almost disappointed.
"Unfortunately, not through here. Teleportation spells are a function of familiarity and raw magical power. Because I don't have line of sight to the destination now, and I was incapacitated when I did, no matter how much energy I channel, there's no way I'll be able to reliably wink in in the right place, and thenthere's the possibility of horn shock from that fall, which I'm already taking a risk with by running a light spell..."
"Say what." Dash blinked. Twilight furrowed her brow.
"I can't see where I'm going."
"You mean you can't teleport to places you can't see? That's lame..." The pegasus swung a hoof frustratedly.
"Let's go with that." It's easier than giving you remedial magic lessons. Twilight sighed. "Well, let's get moving. If we're lucky there should be another way out we can reach before it gets dark."
"I sure hope so..."
Twilight made a point to look for another torch as soon as she could; holding one of those up would be a bit less work than a the illumination spell, and she wanted to keep her magic to a minimum for the time being. Alas, this lower level of tunnels didn't seem to have any; either they had just rotted away, or the last ponies here took them with them. To compensate, she kept her light dim, barely enough to see a few lengths in front of their faces. At this depth, it was actually starting to get pretty chilly; they were pretty sure that nothing else was alive down here. Thus, their surprise when halfway down an otherwise unremarkable corridor, they heard a voice. It was soft and echoing, as if calling from a distant hill; it certainly didn't sound like it was coming from further along the tunnel. They stopped dead, and even held their breath to listen; Dash scanned their field of view for the source, and Twilight risked brightening her light a little. Even with their concentration, it took a moment to figure out what it was saying, but when they did, it was a slap in the face.
"Turn back... turn back!"
"Twilight, was that you?" Dash pouted and cocked her head around.
"No... I thought that sounded like you, actually."
"Huh. I could have sworn that was your voice."
"It must be some magic device to mess with our heads. I'd be able to check with a quick spell, but, y'know, still worried about horn shock."
"Right! Hah, you lose, temple!" Dash jeered, to nothing in particular. Twilight rolled her eyes, and kept walking.
They might have been walking for minutes, or maybe for hours; with no view of the sky, they had absolutely no idea of the time. Conversation helped while away the long walks through the increasingly monotonous tunnels, and while neither were particularly happy about their current mess, they were grateful for each other's company, and could definitely think of a few ponies they'd rather not be stuck with down here. As they continued, traps became less frequent and less sophisticated, and the condition of the walls deteriorated from carved stone to what was essentially natural cave. Pillars gave way to stalactites, intricate carvings to cave paintings, and smooth blocks to rough stone. With every step they took, the hope of a ray of light shining just beyond the next twist dwindled.
"Hey Twilight, look!" Rainbow Dash shook the unicorn by the shoulder, and pointed. Twilight shook herself out of the trance monotony had dug her into, and brightened her light. It stung a little to do so, but she pushed through the pain. Just ahead of them, the texture of the cave changed abruptly; a metal wall protruded from the stone at an awkward angle, like a chocolate chip sticking into a pore in the dough of a cookie. It was heavily blackened, and rusted in a few places, and the kind of metalworking looked... alien. There was no craftsponyship to it, it was just cold, angular, mechanical. The panelling was bent in many places, and one panel had buckled to the point that it had broken off the structure, leaving a gap tall enough for two ponies.
"What... what in the wide world of Equestria is this?" Twilight gawped, taking a few steps closer, craning her neck to see inside. "I've never seen anything like it..." She tentatively prodded the broken panel. When it didn't bite or set off a trap, she placed two hooves on the gap where the panel was, and hauled herself up. Dash followed cautiously, keeping to the air. The inside was much the same - joyless square panels, with all sorts of junk lying around, fixed to the corners or hanging from the ceiling. Boxes, buttons, wires, grates, all sorts - their function remained as much a mystery their existence. The downward angle of the structure made it a little difficult to walk without stumbling forward, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the shifting staircase. Ahead of her, the metal corridor continued into darkness. She gulped and looked to Rainbow Dash uncertainly.
"Might as well." The pegasus shrugged, and fluttered on down the shaft. Twilight kept close.
About thirty lengths from their entrance, the corridor opened on to a balcony. With the dim light from her horn, Twilight could barely make out the dimensions of the hall below, following minute reflections on the occasional shard of glass or stretch of metal that hadn't succumbed to corrosion yet. A spiral staircase built from metal grating joined the balcony to the floor, but she wasn't terribly confident of its stability.
"What is this place?"
"I think I found its last owners..." Dash called. She trotted to the top of the staircase, and gently plucked something from the top step. It was a skull, but it definitely wasn't a pony skull; the snout was much too short. There were canines present, but were too short to belong to a cat or a bear; if anything, they told her monkey. But that just raised further questions. The rest of the skeleton was missing - she guessed it had fallen down, or through, the stairs, and who knows where it had ended up after that.
"Let's check out the floor..." She gingerly put one hoof on the stairs to test its stability. It creaked a little, but it didn't give way, inviting her onward. Every time she put another hoof's weight on the grate, it creaked again; each time she paused, gave it a few seconds to settle, and pressed on. When she had all four hooves down, she sighed with relief, and continued. After one turn of the spiral, another creak echoed out; she froze. Dash hovered in the air in the middle of the hall, looking concerned. The unicorn gulped, and took another step; again, nothing. She frowned, as much frustrated as afraid. Come on you stupid hunk of junk, if you're gonna collapse, collap-
Pang. Somewhere, the added weight made a bolt shear in two. Without that bolt's support, the stairs began to creak and buckle. Twilight instantly leapt to the side, over the guard rail; Dash dove to catch her, but in the half-light, she couldn't quite find her. The thump of the unicorn taking a hard landing on the metal floor was masked by the kerrashof the stairs falling apart. The light vanished, and the pegasus panicked.
"Twilight! Twilight, are you okay? Where are you?"
"Ughhhh... I'm okay..." she coughed. Slowly, the soft light flickered back into life. She wasn't particularly hurt, just a little roughed up. "Who builds a place entirely out of metal anyway?"
The hall was the first of several, all built from the same corroded metal. From time to time they'd find other skeletons, in varying degrees of completeness; with no soft substrate to sit in, their original shape was lost - it was all loose collections of bones. The devices and collections of junk grew steadily more varied and complicated as they ventured deeper; tubes, pipes, strange glass panels mounted on plastic stands, shelves of vials and flasks... there was the occasional label etched into metal, but reading it was just out of the question. The symbols bore no resemblance to the Equestrian alphabet, and the language was anypony's guess.
Twilight guessed they were wandering around the complex for about half an hour, before stopping to rest in one central-looking chamber. One side of the room was a giant, curved glass wall sitting above a shelf with lots of buttons, and some large glass tubes sat by the walls, some of them broken. She let her light dissipate, giving her some respite from the dull headache of casting through horn shock.
"Hey! I can't see!"
"I'm sorry Rainbow, I need rest..."
"I... okay." She heard the pegasus set down next to her, and felt the brush of cool air from her wings. She paused; tense silence hung in the air. The quiet in the metal labyrinth was deafening; whenever they moved, the light clackof hoof on metal echoed for minutes on end, unimpeded by the utter dearth of other sounds. Eventually, Rainbow Dash continued, if only to break the silence. "We're lost, aren't we..."
"A little bit."
"Any sign of food or water?"
"Nope. Lost it with the saddlebags."
"Darn..." Dash grumbled, and laid her chin on her forehooves. If her friend needed rest, she figured she might as well take a nap. She gave her hind legs one last stretch before settling in, just to stay loo- Thunk. "Oops." Her hoof connected with something behind her, and the metal rattled loudly. She tensed up as the structure behind her went off like a drum kit; not pleasant after a few hours of near silence. When it all died down, she grimaced and shuffled away from the source of the noise.
"What was that?" Beep.
"I don't know!" Beep. "What did you do?" Beep.
"If I had some light..." Beep. "... I'd be able to tell!" Beep.
"What about that one?" Beep.
"What light?" Beep.
"That red one." Beep. "Making the beeping noise." Beep.
"This one?" Dash held a hoof up, partially obstructing Twilight's view of the small red light on the box. Beep. "Huh. I wonder..." Beep.
"Rainbow, what are you doing..." Beep-click. She could just about make out the hoof closing in on the light and pressing it like a button. The beeping stopped, and a low whirring noise started up. The glass wall behind them seemed to glow for a moment before it erupted into bright white, forcing the two ponies to shield their eyes. When they adjusted, Twilight's jaw fell to the floor. The wall was covered in the same kind of writing she'd seen earlier, flashing and moving about like it was alive. Rainbow Dash was mesmerised; she fluttered around the pane, checking out some of the markings up close. It hurt her eyes to stare at the glowing wall, but she put it down to hours of darkness. Neither had a clue what anything this wall was saying meant, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Dash risked touching it with a hoof - just a gentle prod before shying away. When her hoof connected, there was little dink of keratin against glass, and the wall responded by rippling, like water. It was a very subtle effect, and she tried it a few times before realising that it was just circles of light inside the wall, rather than the glass itself. The illusion was a little scary, but at the same time... awesome. "Careful with that! We don't know what this does!"
"Relax, Twi, what's the worst that could happen?" The pegasus started fluttering around, running her hoof along the surface and watching the wake. When she traced over a symbol, it dragged for a moment, before snapping back into place when it got too far from its home. When she tapped on a symbol without dragging, the wall changed completely; most of the symbols vanished, to be replaced with a set of similar-looking, but noticeably different ones. Twilight rolled her eyes, powerless to stop her friend playing with the mysterious machine.
"When you're quitefinished..." she sighed.
"Research log, 5.12.3433, 0120 UTC, Erwin Broca recording..." The third voice made them both jump and shy back from the wall. It was deep and masculine, with a strange accent, like nothing they'd ever heard before, and a somewhat crackly, muffled quality, like speaking into grease paper pressed across the mouth. On the wall, a box appeared with a squiggly line from left to right, slowly changing colour from white to blue. "This will be my last recording. That... thing... they called it 'Discord'... it's made of tougher stuff than anyone expected. We've thrown entire nuclear arsenals at it, and it just... tossed them aside like paper planes. Collateral damage has been... extreme. There's practically nothing left. I... as far as I know, I'm... I can't believe I'm saying this. I am the last human being alive. I could be poetic about it, but I don't have time. It might be too late for the human race, but there's still a hope for life on earth. I still have a few doubts about fighting fire with fire, but if the last volley has told us anything, it's that conventional warfare just doesn't work on arcane targets."
"What's a human?" Dash whispered. Twilight just shushed her.
"By the time I finish this recording, the machinery will be fully powered, and I can release Project Celestia. It's... she's... humanity's finest accomplishment of arcanotechnology, and hopefully, she'll be our legacy. If anyone... anything is there to hear this in the future, then now you know... she worked, and Discord has been neutralised." The voice paused and sighed. "She's technically still a prototype. We... didn't have time to finish her. I'll probably be killed in the launch process, but... heh. One insignificant ape is a small cost for a shot at saving all life on earth. And if this works, heh... it'll show that man's best friend isn't the dog, it's the horse." A strange, high-pitched whirring noise started up, slowly escalating into a deafening shriek. It was masked by the same crackles and muffles; they had no doubt it was part of the recording. "The awful daring of a moment's surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract... by this, and this only, we have existed..." After this, white noise washed out all other sound, and the recording cut out, leaving the two ponies staring slack-jawed at the glass wall.
"Did... did that just happen?" Twilight blinked. Shaking a little, Rainbow Dash repeated the last touch she made; a single tap on a sideways triangle. The recording played again from the beginning, and again, they hung from every word. Again, they stared, shocked into silence.
"That's..." Dash stammered, breaking the silence after a few minutes. "That's some find, eh?"
"Are you kidding? We have to tell somepony about this! This is... this has so many answers about history, where we came from! About where the Princesses came from, how the world was made! There's bound to be more about this down here..." Twilight lit her horn again, and turned from the wall to gallop back the way they came. Or at least, she thought it was back the way they came. "... but first we need to get out of here in one piece."
"Right!" A smirk returning to Dash's face, she reared up and took off after her friend.
The pair hurried through the complex, hastily backtracking and doublebacking around the labyrinth until they found the remains of the spiral staircase by the entrance. They stopped for a moment, only now realising that they had been sprinting all the way here. Still bubbling with the thrill of discovery, Rainbow Dash scooped Twilight up in her forehooves and started hauling her up to the balcony.
Once she could see over the edge of the balcony, she dropped her again. Thump.
"Ow!Rainbow, what the hay?"
"P... Princess?" Dash gibbered.
"Princess? What are you talking about? I can't see! What's goin-"
"I am verydisappointed in you both." The silky smooth voice sent shivers down her spine. She'd recognise that velvety texture and perfect diction anywhere, but there was certainly ice in Princess Celestia's tone. Again, both ponies were stunned to silence. "While I'm impressed with your resourcefulness, your curiosity has led you too far."
"Wh-what do you mean? How did you even get in here?" Twilight blinked.
"I'm afraid what you know can't be allowed to leave."
"Why not?" Dash folded her forelegs, hovering back a little as Celestia stepped forward on to the balcony. The white light she radiated illuminated the cold, rotting metal of the room, letting them see it properly for the first time. The sight did little to ease their nerves.
"My little ponies... the fabric of Equestrian society is delicate, and this knowledge is... harsh. Upsetting. Nothing good will come from it, I can assure you." The Princess's voice was calm, but firm and cold.
"You can't just cover up history! Ponies have a right to know!"
"I know this doesn't appeal to your... studious side, Twilight, but trust me. This knowledge is toxic."
"If you're trying to cover it up, why is this place even still here?" Dash cut in.
"Yeah! Ponies have diedtrying to find this!" Twilight added.
"Like you said, you can't just cover up history. I allow a select few ponies to study this place under close supervision. One day you might have been able to join them, Twilight, but now, I'm afraid that can't happen."
"Oh for the love of Pete, we're the Elements of Harmony! Who could you possiblytrust more than us?" Dash yelled. The Princess was unmoved.
"Ponies who don't disturb the piece by shouting upsetting secrets from the rooftops."
"What do you mean 'that can't happen'? What are you going to do?" Twilight was starting to sound a little worried.
"Like I said, what you know can't be allowed to leave."
"So what are you gonna do? Keep us down here?" Dash snorted, a little incredulously. Celestia lowered her head and flared out her wings, and light began to fill the room, blinding them. They both felt her magic pluck them into the air, encircling them... trapping them. Struggling was futile.
Thump. It wasn't long at all before they were released from her grip. When they hit the ground, they were greeted not with cold, hard metal, but with cold, rough dust. The light faded slowly, but the more they saw as it did, the more panic started to set in. Gone were the rusty old panels and mysterious machines; all they could see on the ground was pale grey rock and dust. Above the horizon was an inky black, permeated with dots of white, and a large blue and white mottled pearl, half lit by a penetratingly bright sun at high noon.
"I'm deeply sorry that you got caught up in this, Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash..." The Princess's voice echoed in their ears, but she was nowhere to be seen. "... but this is just the way it has to be." Twilight tried to speak, but found herself hopelessly short of breath. She could feel her chest moving, but still her voice found no wind for traction; her eyes felt puffy, her ears hurt, and after Celestia's voice departed, all she could hear was whatever reverberated through her hooves. Beside her, Rainbow Dash was beating her wings furiously, but going nowhere. "Before I leave you, Twilight... you might want to make yourself some air." Air? Oh, air!It still stung to cast spells, but she figured that avoiding suffocation was worth putting up with it. With a quick flash of her horn, she pulled up a shield dome, four lengths across, and kept generating air until her ears stopped hurting. The two ponies sank to their knees and gulped the precious air down.
"What... what happened? Where are we?" Dash panted.
"If I had to guess, I... I'd say we're on the moon."
"The moon?" Dash jumped back to her feet and started looking around. "You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding! Oh my gosh, you're not kidding, we're totally on the moon..." Within seconds, she was on the brink of tears.
"And do you know whywe're on the moon, Rainbow Dash?" the unicorn growled.
"Oh no... oh no no no nothis can't be happening!"
"Forever is way too long to be trapped on the moon! It's like... forever!"
"Rainbow Dash, get a hold of yourself!" Twilight snapped, and she brought a hoof across, decking the pegasus on the side of the head. The bolt from the blue floored her, leaving her to whimper at the unicorn's feet. "We're on the moon because you thought it would be a good idea to hop the fence! You started pushing buttons and touching things that you didn't know what they did! And now we're stuck here because you wouldn't listen when I told you to be careful! What's the worst that could happen? Now you know!I hope you're happy with yourself."
"I..." The pegasus started welling up visibly. "I didn't mean to..." she snivelled. "I mean... how was I supposed to know? I just wanted to poke around... thought it might be an adventure... and now we're never gonna see our friends again... never gonna see Ponyville again..." She sniffed, tracing shapes in the dirt with the tip of her hoof, tears starting to roll down her cheeks. Twilight's glare softened a little. She didn't like the idea of being spiteful - it was just an accident of circumstance after all. She forced a smile, and gently lifted Dash's chin with a hoof.
"Rainbow, I... shucks, I can't stay mad at you. I guess it's not allyour fault... the ruins were my idea in the first place."
"Yeah..." Dash cracked a weak smile, and wiped a tear away. "Professor Egghead." Twilight couldn't help but smile. Maybe this wasn't as bad as it looked. Sure, they were marooned here, but they at least had each other.
"Alright Daring, c'mon. We need to find shelter. A cave or something I can block up so I can go to sleep without us suffocating." Rainbow Dash nodded, and slowly rose back to her hooves again. They left their landing site at a brisk trot. The low gravity made walking feel positively surreal; the light, bouncy feeling did a little to keep their spirits up.
"Hey Twilight... think you can teleport us back to Equestria? I mean, I'm pretty sure you can see it from here..."
"Maybe. It might take me a while to work up the energy though, it's a pretty long way. A couple of months at least."
"Okay." She paused, staring into space for a moment. "Y'know, it could be worse."
"Pff. Dare I ask how?"
"We could be stuck up here with Pinkie Pie." The thought drew another, slightly guilty chuckle from both of them.
In the dead of night, on the cliffs above Canterlot, two figures touched down, feeling Equestria's wind on their faces for the first time in a long time. So long that they hardly recognised the city below them; one might argue that they themselves were unrecognisable. Mechanically augmented to combat the ravages of age, they were all but mere shells of their original physical selves, their bodies a patchwork of faded fur and metal. It has its benefits though; crafting prosthetic wings and horns to work as well as nature's design takes lifetimes, and these ponies had lifetimes in spades. The countless years of isolation took their toll on their minds too. Throughout their exile, there had remained one constant, one niggling little thing, that they were reminded of at every turn - they were on the moon, and... sheput them there. It might be argued that their minds had been wiped clean several times over, that the ponies they once were died up there, and all remained was the deep seated thirst for revenge that anchored their psyches.
Regardless, it felt good to be back.
"Is there anything else to be done?" one asked, perched at the brim of the cliff, wings outstretched. Their supporting metal frame clung desperately to her last natural feathers. "I don't want to go smashing Celestia's door down if we don't have to."
"There is... one thing," her companion answered. "A message."
"Are you sure it'll work?"
"We have to try." The first figure nodded silently, and they lowered their heads to cast a spell.
Time travel isn't, strictly speaking, possible. Sending things into the past creates paradoxes, and all sorts of causality headaches. But the framework of magic allows for a certain... flexibility. One might at least see what's going on, in rare cases send a message.
The feeling of being a disembodied spirit cast into the past was strange; liberating and nauseating at the same time. They were plunged into darkness, broken only by a distant flame, slowly approaching them at walking speed. It took its time getting to them, but they didn't mind the wait. After a thousand years, what's another few minutes? The light revealed itself to be, as they expected, a torch, floating ahead of a pair of ponies; a pale blue pegasus and a lilac unicorn. As soon as they saw them, their reserve broke, and they started screaming the first thing that came to their heads, in the hope that it might get through.
"Turn back!" The two ponies stopped, and looked around, uncertain of the source of the sound. "Turn back!"
"Twilight, was that you?"
"No... I thought that sounded like you, actually."
"Huh. I could have sworn that was your voice."
"It must be some magic trap to mess with our heads. I'd be able to check with a quick spell, but, y'know, still worried about horn shock."
"Right! Hah, you lose, temple!" The pegasus jeered, to nothing in particular. The unicorn rolled her eyes, and kept walking.