Chapter 2: Tomb Raiders
Saddle Arabian Desert.
Sixty-two hours after the Hole.
"Eeep!" Fluttershy screamed, as the trio of Crusaders popped into existence directly in front of her as she crested a dune. Thankfully, she managed to avoid her normal curl-into-a-ball reflex and actually remained aloft.
"Hi, Fluttershy!" Scootaloo yelled, waving as the hybrid pony set down next to them, her hooves and paws crunching through the thin layer of frost covering the sand in the waning moonlight.
"Umm, hi, girls. What are you doing here?"
"We heard ya mention that tomb," Apple Bloom said. "So we came to take a look."
At the mention of the tomb, Sweetie Belle noticed Fluttershy lower her head and her ears, showing her fear at the mere thought of it. If anything, Sweetie thought as she stared, the new hybrid form made the timid pony even easier to read than before.
As Fluttershy made eye contact and realized Sweetie was staring at her, she flinched, pulling her longer body in on itself, trying to be as small as possible as a blush grew on her yellow-furred cheeks. Yes, definitely easier to read, Sweetie decided. Even if she hadn't heard from Scootaloo how Fluttershy was embarrassed by her new form, it was written quite plain in her body language now. But perhaps she could help.
Step one, get Fluttershy to say something ridiculously overnice.
"Sorry to stare," Sweetie said.
This, of course, caused Fluttershy to blush even more. "Well, umm... It's okay. I know I look like a freak now and it's only natural that ponies want to stare at me."
Easier than expected, Sweetie Belle thought. The next part was a bit trickier though. She knew it was very, very difficult to convince Fluttershy to take a compliment directly, so step two was to take the ridiculous statement and run with it some direction that Fluttershy didn't expect.
"Who called you a freak?" Sweetie said, doing her best to sound sincerely offended. "What kind of horrible pony would think you were a freak just because you looked different? Tell us and we'll go take care of 'em right now!" She finished by pounding a hoof into her open paw.
Okay, she thought, perhaps that was a bit of oversell, but hopefully Fluttershy wasn't in a mental state to notice.
"What?" Fluttershy said, eyes going wide in shock and she looked between the three Crusaders, who had caught onto the act and were putting on tough looks as well. "Oh no! Please don't go hurt anypony." Fluttershy then hung her head and continued, "I mean, umm, nopony actually said anything like that."
Step three, wait for Fluttershy to realize her own mistake.
After a moment of silence, Fluttershy looked up and saw a smile on Sweetie Belle's face. "You know," Sweetie said, walking up to Fluttershy to hug her. "I once knew this wise pegasus who told me it wasn't very kind to call a pony names. I think she needs to take her own advice."
Fluttershy leaned into the hug, wrapping paws around Sweetie's neck and sniffling. "It's just so scary."
"I know," Sweetie said. "We all know." She gestured to the other golems. "Trust me."
Fluttershy let go of the hug and sat down, wiping her eyes and smiling as she realized what Sweetie meant. "I guess you girls would know better than anypony."
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said. "Ya remember how much we were all panickin' back when we first learned what we were?"
"But I'll bet ya never once thought of me as a freak, even after ya saw me bleedin' mud."
"No!" Fluttershy said. "I would never think that!"
"Mah point exactly," Apple Bloom finished, smiling.
"But I just... it's so hard to get used to looking so different. I mean, even if other ponies don't think badly of me, they're still bound to look at me strangely."
Sweetie could only smile as she held up her own metal paw, wiggling the toes for emphasis. "Tell me about it."
Fluttershy let out a small chuckle and a sigh. "I get your point, Sweetie, but it's not quite the same, is it? I mean, you kept your leg that way on purpose. You told me you could grow your skin and fur back if you wanted. But me... I'm stuck like this."
"Okay, yeah," Sweetie said. "I did make a choice, but the result is the same. Sure, some ponies stare, but you get used to it pretty quickly, and so do they. Besides, the rest of the Elements are going to be getting stares too now that they're all alicorns. Then there's Discord. Ponies used to cower in their homes just seeing him walk by. Now I don't think anypony in town even blinks twice when they see a draconequus mushing a team of ice weasels through the market in mid-summer."
"That was one of his cuter pranks," Fluttershy said, a smile growing around her fangs.
"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "Everypony in town already knows you two are together, I don't think they'll flinch just because you look a bit more... chaotic."
"Well I suppose that's—" Fluttershy stopped, her facing turning bright red. "What do you mean... 'together'?"
"Oh, come on Fluttershy! It's not like it's a secret. You two are always in town together, making eyes at each other, and all that stuff. Everypony knows you two have been getting it on for a while now."
A small, shrill note began to emanate from somewhere within Fluttershy as her face discovered even brighter shades of red which it could turn. Meanwhile the rest of her seemed to have frozen in place, pupils locked, eyes wide as dinner plates.
"Fluttershy?" Sweetie waved a hoof in front of the hybrid, as the shrill noise got louder.
"Way to go," Apple Bloom said, elbowing Scootaloo. "You broke her."
"Hey!" Scootaloo said. "I was just saying what we were all thinking."
"I think ya mean you weren't thinkin'!"
"I'm sorry, Fluttershy," Scootaloo said laying her ears flat against the ever-increasing squeal. "Please... please stop squeaking."
The shrill squeak stopped abruptly, and was followed by a cascade of half-whispered words. "But why would anypony think that I mean we never even so much as kissed until just the other day when he gave me his powers and oh no I can't believe everypony in town thinks Discord and I have been doing... that... that kind of stuff!"
"But you've thought about it, haven't you?" Sweetie said.
Fluttershy kept her head low, but slowly lifted her eyes to stare up at Sweetie with an uncertain grin. "Maaybe...?"
"Ha ha!" Scootaloo laughed. "Good for you!"
"But... I... just... I but..."
"Relax!" Apple Bloom said. "Don't overthink it. You two are perfect fer one another. Everypony in town thinks it, you think it, and I got it on good authority that Discord thinks it too."
Fluttershy's eyes brightened at this. "Really?"
"Really really!" Apple Bloom said. "Hasn't he told ya somethin' like that already?"
"Well, umm, he said that he did love me and all that, but I... umm, wasn't sure if he really meant it like that."
"Oh for crying out loud!" Scootaloo said. "Fluttershy! Look at me!"
Though her ears instinctively went flat at the aggressive tone, the hybrid pony obeyed and looked at the orange pegasus. Scootaloo grabbed both sides of her face, pulling her closer and completely invading her personal space.
"Fluttershy," Scootaloo said. "Stop worrying about your appearance. You were a fashion model at one point, and if anything, you look evenmore exotic, lithe, and powerful now with this new form. Anypony would be lucky to have you on that alone. You've also saved Equestria more times than I can count, and deserve to be happy for that alone as well. And now... you're possibly the most powerful pony in the world! But Discord loved you before all that, and still does."
Fluttershy blushed again at the compliments. "Well, umm, I guess that's true, but Discord—"
"You're not getting it." Scootaloo sighed. "Discord didn't give up his power to save the world. He gave up his power to save you!"
There was a moment of complete silence as Fluttershy's mouth hung agape. Then she spoke. "Do you, umm... really think it—"
"Yes!" all three of the crusaders shouted in unison.
The hybrid pony was silent for another moment. Tears then began to form in the corners of her eyes, but they were accompanied by a growing smile. "Thank you, girls," she said. "I... I needed that."
The trio all smiled, and Apple Bloom spoke up. "Now, about that tomb?"
Somewhere slightly northwestish.
"Found it!" Apple Bloom shouted, as she surfed the wave of sand over the crest of a dune, her earth pony magic turning the fine grains into her own, personal conveyance. The other two Crusaders had split up somewhat to search, as Fluttershy's alicorn flight had covered quite a few miles between her sighting of the ruins and the point where they'd caught up with her. She'd pointed them in the general direction, but had to hurry on to the next target site to help with shifting the planet, and couldn't take the time to go back and show them the exact location.
"I see it!" came the faint call from Scootaloo, somewhere off in the sky to the east. The pegasus swung closer and shouted "I'll go find Sweetie!" before soaring into the distance again. Meanwhile, Apple Bloom headed directly for the sharp, artificial angles sticking out against the otherwise curved world of dunes and sky.
As she approached the ruins, the silhouette resolved into individual structures. There were several domed roofs, held up by columns half-buried in sand. The architecture looked quite similar to many of the elaborate, open-air structures in modern Saddle Arabia. The roofs seemed to be arranged around an open area and a black obelisk. It was only a couple of stories high, nowhere near the three hundred feet Discord had described. Then again, Apple Bloom thought, the draconequus was quite prone to exaggeration.
The tell-tale "pop" of a teleport let her know that Sweetie and Scootaloo had arrived, and she turned to find them standing a few feet beside her.
"Wow," Scootaloo said. "That's a pretty fancy tomb."
Sweetie Belle started walking toward it, gawking at the structures herself as she got closer. "It doesn't really look like a tomb though. Too open for that."
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said, as she and Scootaloo trotted forward and into the structures as well. "It's more like a temple or garden."
Scootaloo lifted a hoof, about to shout a new rallying cry, then thought better of it. "Nah, 'tomb raiders' still sounds better than 'garden raiders' I think. Let's just stick with that."
"Hey!" Apple Bloom shouted. "Look at this."
The other two turned to see what the earth pony had found. Behind the initial semi-circle of roofs, there actually was a garden, and in it, a fountain which had a slow trickle of water dribbling into it from a small rocky outcrop. There was a thin layer of ice over the rest of the water's surface.
"Must be some kind of spring to be flowing for all these years," Sweetie Belle said.
"How deep do ya think ya'd have to go to hit water in all this sand?" Apple Bloom said. Sweetie and Scootaloo could only shrug. If the earth pony didn't know, they surely wouldn't.
The three continued to investigate the ruins for a bit, but other than a few abstract murals, didn't find anything of interest. Beyond, that is, the obelisk itself. Unable to procrastinate any further, the three finally turned and faced it as the first rays of dawn began to brighten the sky. Thinking consciously about it, they could all feel the slight sense of foreboding that emanated from the artifact.
Sweetie Belle was the first to step forward into the sandy courtyard. "Well, it's not nearly as big as Discord suggested." As she said that, the ground began to rumble, and the sand surrounding the monument begin to shift. Sweetie quickly scrambled back to the slate floor beneath the roofs surrounding the open space around the obelisk.
As the Crusaders watched, the sand in the courtyard drained away like water in a tub, revealing a massive cylindrical well surrounding the obelisk, one that descended hundreds of feet below ground, and was maybe fifty feet across. When the sand finally stopped flowing, it was clear that the thirty feet of obsidian above ground was only a small fraction of the massive obelisk that continued deep into the earth.
"Oh," Sweetie said, as the roaring shush of flowing earth subsided. "Never mind then."
Stepping to the edge of the massive abyss, the ponies saw that the light of early morning only reached a short way into the depths. Sweetie cast a small light orb spell, sending it dropping into the darkness. As it descended, they could vaguely make out a spiral staircase protruding from the stone wall of the well, and eventually it hit bottom, showing that the entire thing looked to be perhaps two-hundred and fifty feet deep. Tracing the staircase back up, they could see that it started on the far side of the courtyard from where they were, and looked to provide easy access to the bottom.
"Well?" Apple Bloom said, looking to her friends for their thoughts.
"Riiight," Scootaloo said, rolling her eyes. "Like we're somehow not going down there."
"I'm just sayin' it looks a tad suspicious is all."
"Relax, AB, we do this all the time, remember?"
"Yeah yeah," Apple Bloom said, rolling her own eyes. "Forgive me for bein' a bit hesitant when I'm the only one that can't fly or teleport my way out o' stuff like this."
"You know we'd never leave you behind," Sweetie Belle said.
"I know... I just get tired o' bein' the one gettin' rescued all the time."
Scootaloo punched her in the shoulder. "Then stop being the one walking into traps!" she said teasingly.
"That's what I'm tryin' to... Ya know what, never mind, let's just get on with it."
Apple Bloom set off around the perimeter of the well, heading for the top of the staircase on the far side as her friends followed. Reaching the far side, she examined the stairs and found that they looked pretty solid, the massive stones protruded from the wall a bit like pegs or the branch-staircase on Rupert, and were wide enough to not cause too much concern, even if it was a rather large drop, with no rail along the inside edge.
Sweetie lit her horn to provide some additional light, and took the first hesitant steps down. Apple Bloom followed a few paces behind her, and Scootaloo trailed after that.
"You know," Scootaloo said, launching into the air after a few slow paces. "How about I just meet you guys at the bottom?"
Her friends both glared at her.
"Or... Maybe we shouldn't split up," she said, getting the hint and setting back down on the staircase.
The three descended for several minutes, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom both taking their time and checking their footing cautiously. No false steps were found though, no traps sprung, no tripwires hit. Eventually, as the sky above continued to brighten in the inexorably slow dawn, the trio reached the bottom of the well and found themselves standing on a roughly level sand and gravel surface surrounding the massive obsidian obelisk.
Looking closer, the Cruasders could make out faint runes etched into the surface. They were each nearly a foot high, but considering the size of the artifact, plenty of meaning could still be inscribed. Sweetie increased the brightness of her light spell, but the symbols were still hard to discern. Walking closer, Sweetie brought her horn and eyes within inches of the lowest rune and moved about, examining it from multiple angles. The etching was still nearly invisible though, and Sweetie thought it was almost as if the stone was absorbing the light itself.
Stepping back, she joined Apple Bloom, who had been examining the stone of the well walls.
"Look at this stuff," Apple Bloom said. "I've never see anything like it. It's almost like metal in the way it shines an' with how dense it is. Yet... the tool marks an' such show it's clearly been chiseled and carved like stone." Apple Bloom put her head against the rock, trying to get a line of sight as close to the surface as possible. "Dang it! Ah need more light to see how these line up."
"I'm a little hesitant to use too much magic near that thing," Sweetie pointed at the obelisk, "but I can can cast a bigger illumination spell if you want."
"Or you could just wait," Scootaloo said. "It's gonna be dawn soon I think."
Apple Bloom looked at the giant tower, feeling the sheer presence of it throughout her being. "Yeah, maybe best to just wait."
The three ponies looked up toward the sky at the top of the well, trying to estimate how long until proper sunrise might provide the light they needed. As they watched, the moon came into view, tracking across the sky much, much faster and larger than they'd ever seen it move, before disappearing beyond the other edge of the well.
"Well, looks like Luna and Twilight are obviously still hard at it," Scootaloo said.
They sat down in silence for a few minutes, and continued to wait.
Apple Bloom saw it first. "Look!" she said, pointing at the now brighting tip of the obelisk as the first rays of direct sunlight hit it. As they watched, the light moved down the tower, and even though it'd be many hours still before direct light reached the bottom of the well, the ambient light was already making it easier to see.
Then the tower began to hum slightly, and the runes that were so faint before began to glow a pale, ethereal red.
Sweetie Belle walked back toward the obelisk, studying the now visible symbols, trying to recall what she could of ancient languages and spells. As she got closer, she could make out finer details surrounding the large runes. These details turned out to be smaller runes, flowing and weaving between the large ones like webs strung between branches of a bush. The smaller symbols pulsed slightly, their light dimmer overall, but flowing in pulses, almost as if they were conduits of some sort. Unlike the large runes, these smaller ones seemed to be beneath the surface of the stone somehow, even though the material itself was completely opaque. Suspecting some sort of optical illusion, she reached out with her metal paw to touch the surface. As her first claw made contact, she screamed and fell backwards.
"Sweetie!" Scootaloo was beside her in an instant, as was Apple Bloom. "What happened!"
Hyperventilating, eyes wide, it took Sweetie a moment to answer as she lay on her side. "Nemesis," she said between gasps for air. "Definitely his..."
"Are you gonna be okay?" Apple Bloom asked.
Sweetie nodded, and took a moment to catch her breath. "Yeah, I think so." She moved to stand up, but collapsed when she tried to put weight on her metal leg. "Well that's not good."
"What is it?" Scootaloo said.
"I can't seem to move my leg or paw. Everything below the elbow is... not responding." Sweetie held the leg out to her side, and showed how it flopped lifelessly from the elbow and down.
"That's it," Apple Bloom said. "We're gettin' outta here. Now!"
"No argument from me," Scootaloo said. "Sweetie, wanna just zap us out of here?"
Nodding, Sweetie closed her eyes and lit her horn. But instead of finding themselves turned inside out and tasting cotton candy, the three heard and saw only a small fizzle from the unicorn's horn. "Really?" Sweetie said, stamping her good forehoof in frustration. "Really?!"
"Stairs it is," Apple Bloom said. "Let's move."
Scootaloo thought of flying ahead, but wasn't about to leave her injured friend to make the climb on her own. "Need me to help you, Sweetie?"
"I'm okay for now I think." Sweetie said, hobbling forward on three hooves and looking up at the staircase. "But we'll see how that holds out after a thousand stairs."
The three began to climb; Apple Bloom in the lead, Sweetie Belle in the middle, and Scootaloo following. With a lame leg, it was slow going, but after a relatively short while, they'd reached about a third of the way up, and took a brief break.
"How're ya holdin' up?" Apple Bloom said.
"So far, so good," Sweetie said. "Not even that tired yet. Just have to take it slow."
Then the well began to rumble. Looking up, they saw the top of the staircase shifting. The stones that stuck out from the wall to form steps rotated, turning the upper portion from a staircase into a slide for a brief moment, before retracting completely into the wall. The pattern of movement cascaded down the spiral, the staircase effectively vanishing from the top down.
"Seriously?!" Sweetie yelled, as she turned and began to hobble back down as quickly as possible.
"Come on, come on!" Scootaloo urged, alternating her glances between her injured friend above and the vanishing stairs not far enough above. "We're not gonna make it. I'll just fly you down."
Scootaloo spread her wings and leapt into the air beside the staircase, aiming to scoop up Sweetie. Gravity had different plans though.
"Oh no, not again," was all she managed to say before tumbling into the edge of the stairs and falling when no magical air currents were there to support her weight.
"Scoots!" Sweetie yelled, collapsing to one knee on the edge of the stairs and glancing over just in time to see the spiraling pegasus smack hard into the ground below.
"Keep moving!" Apple Bloom said, coming up behind Sweetie, as the very stairs they stood on began to shudder with movement.
But it was too late. The two ponies lost their footing and slid along with the rotating stairs a brief way before falling off the inside edge as they tumbled and lost control on the rough surface. Thankfully, they were only a dozen feet or so above the ground by that point, and the loose gravel and sand absorbed a small bit of the blow, even if the individual stones left some painful bruises.
Apple Bloom was the first on her hooves. "You okay?" she said, looking at Sweetie who'd fallen right next to her.
"Yeah, good enough. Go check on Scoots."
Sprinting to the side of the orange pegasus, Apple Bloom saw quickly that her friend was at least still moving. "Scootaloo! Are you okay?"
"Ugh..." Scootaloo moaned, starting to roll over, but stopping abruptly with a loud cry of pain.
Settling back onto her back, Scootaloo turned her head to look at Apple Bloom. "Crap! I think I broke my wing."
Looking now at her friend's wings, Apple Bloom could see clearly that the leading edge of the left one had a bend in it where there was no joint.
"Let me take a look." Apple Bloom stepped around the fallen pegasus, careful not to tread on either outstretched wing, and examined the break carefully. She could hear Scootaloo gritting her teeth as she gently probed through the feathers with her hooves. Puling a few feathers aside, she saw a small bit of bone protruding through the skin underneath the feathers.
"How bad is it?" Scootaloo asked, after hearing Apple Bloom suck her teeth in sympathy.
"It's... It's definitely broken, Scoots. But it don't look too bad, considerin'."
"Alright. Gimme a hoof here rolling over?"
Scootaloo pulled in her other wing, and then slowly rolled onto that side, as Apple Bloom helped steady the broken wing. Getting her hooves underneath her, she was able to stand up. Wincing, she started to slowly fold the injured wing as far as she could. The pain became too much though, and it was clear she was going to be stuck with it extended at least one third or so.
By the time she'd caught her breath from the pain, Sweetie had limped over to join them. "You were right, Apple Bloom."
"About what?" Apple Bloom said.
"It's a trap." Sweetie said, and pointed down at the ground they were standing on. Where Scootaloo had hit, she'd torn up a bit of the surface sand, and revealed that the the rough "gravel" they'd originally thought they were walking on in the dark was actually thousands of broken bones. Looking closer, the three could see bits of skulls, jaws, long bones, ribs, and countless fragments too small to be identified. "I think it's been a trap for a very, very long time too."
Nine hours later.
As the planet still wasn't up to full rotational speed, this day was lasting much longer than normal, and the sun was still several hours from noon. The direct sunlight did reach most of the way to the bottom of the well though, illuminating almost the entire obelisk as well as heating everything to a sweltering temperature.
The Crusaders had taken what meager shelter they could in the shadow of the eastern wall, then as that diminished, the tower itself. Though as solar noon approached, that was diminishing as well, and none of them were eager to get too close to the monolith again.
Scootaloo had spent the first hour exploring the damage to her wing, trying to see if there was any possible way to flex and use it, or for that matter, gain control of even the slightest breeze. The sky looked so tantalizingly close and inviting, the few clouds occasionally high overhead—only seconds away at almost any other point in her life—now impossibly distant without access to magic. With little else to do though, she'd finally given into sleep.
Apple Bloom had tried, unsuccessfully, to grow some form of vines or weeds along the walls to provide a hoofhold for climbing. After that, she'd attempted to manipulate the rock itself. That would be difficult at the best of times, and it had taken her years to learn that it was even possible to manipulate solid stone with earth pony magic, but she thought perhaps even the tiniest indents might provide some hold for climbing. Manipulating the sand should have been easy—she usually had nearly as much control over the fine granules as Scootaloo had on air currents—but found that, like Scootaloo, she couldn't even move a single molecule, thanks to the magic draining effects of the obelisk. Eventually, she'd taken a nap as well.
The magic was what Sweetie Belle had been focusing on. She'd tried to sleep a bit, as the others napped, but the dark feeling of dread from the obelisk kept her from it. Ever since the sunlight had touched it, the obelisk seemed to have started draining their magic, preventing any use of flight, teleportation, or even the growth of a single weed. Thinking back on what Discord had explained about Nemesis however, it perhaps made a kind of sense. It wasn't the sun that triggered the artifact, but rather the Hole that came with it. If artifacts like this had been designed to help Nemesis return, then it made sense that they would siphon magic from the world—or from victims sacrificed or trapped here—and send it to the anomaly that had been at the core of the red star once it became visible in the sky each night.
Sweetie Belle felt for sure she was on to something with her theory, but despite the better part of a day mulling it over and refining it, nothing she could think of helped in any way with escaping the pit they were in. The only consolation seemed to be that perhaps the magic drain would cease with nightfall, but that was still at least ten hours away, and she had a haunting feeling that whoever built this trap knew what they were doing. She also thought back to Celestia's sacrifice a few days before, and the way a drain of magic had quickly shifted to drain even more.
Sweetie was distracted from her thoughts by the sound of Apple Bloom moaning nearby.
"Ugh," Apple Bloom said, wiping the sleep from her eyes. "How long was I out for?"
"About seven hours," Sweetie Belle said.
"Then how come ah feel worse now than when I started?"
"I think the obelisk is actually starting to drain our lifeforce."
"That don't sound good."
"So I'm guessin' ya changed yer mind about trying to wait for night and hope we get our magic back?"
"Actually, I'm starting to worry about even waiting for noon. This thing started when just part of the tower had a line of sight to the Hole. With the way this whole structure is built, it's clear that astronomical alignments are important to the spells here. I'm really nervous about what's going to happen when the entire obelisk is in view of the sun, or when it lines up directly overhead."
"You think it'll shift gears or somethin'?"
"I don't know, but if a pegasus could just wait for a star to set then fly out, I don't think we'd be walking on so many wing bones, do you?"
"Good point," Apple Bloom said, cringing a bit at the thought of walking on dead ponies. Forcing herself to ignore it though, she went to reexamine the walls for what felt like the hundredth time. She hoped that the nap, ineffectual as it felt, might at least give her a new perspective on how to escape.
Looking at the strange stones now in the full light of day, the material seemed even weirder. What had seemed metallic in the wan starlight and magic now looked much more clearly ceramic, like the stone had been carved and placed, then the surface sintered and fused to a high sheen. The cracks between the blocks were the only thing that gave her a clue to this, as deep within a few she could see more porous stone. Unfortunately, such larger gaps were very few and far between, as most of the stones were cut with high precision, leaving only the narrowest of gaps, far too small to get even the tip of a hoof into.
If she had access to a proper shop, Apple Bloom knew she could come up with something. Even just mounting a grip on an L-bracket might be enough. The thin metal could probably wedge between most of the stones, and would easily let her climb. The blocks themselves were between one and two feet in size for the most part, meaning easy reach if only there was something to grip.
But she had no tools, no materials even. Apple Bloom cursed herself for setting off to the far side of the world without even a stupid saddle bag. She and her friends had become so used to having their magic to get them out of every tight spot, that apparently they'd lost the ability to even plan ahead. That would definitely have to change, Apple Bloom thought, as she stared into yet another impossibly small crevice, hoping for new inspiration that just wasn't coming.
"What're you looking at?" Scootaloo said.
"Gah!" Apple Bloom said, jumping at the surprise. "Didn't realize you were right behind me."
"Hey," Scootaloo said, smiling. "Don't blame me. You're the one staring at solid rock."
"It's not solid though... not quite." Apple Bloom pointed out the cracks between each stone. "There's just no way to get any grip in those small spaces without climbin' tools or somethin'."
Scootaloo froze in thought, then facehooved and started laughing. "Oh wow! After all these years, now I finally get it!"
"Daring Do. Reading the early books years ago, I could never figure out why a pegasus would have a grappling hook like they showed her with on some of the covers. I mean, it wasn't in the narrative, so I just figured the artist had been an earth pony or something and didn't realize what she was drawing. But now it makes sense. Now that I've got a broken wing, I really wish I had a grappling hook!"
Now it was Apple Bloom's turn to smile. "Daring Do! That's brilliant!"
"What?" Scootaloo asked.
"Book... fourteen or something, I forget now. Anyway, the one where she was trapped in the troll's cave and lost all her gear."
"Right, she had to make a weapon and all she had to work with were..."
The two ponies smiled, and finished the sentence together, shouting, "...the bones on the ground!"
Apple Bloom went to work immediately, digging through the sand and fragments to find some larger bones she could work with. Her first attempt was a small long-bone, which she chipped at with a rock to sharpen one end of, making a wedge. Approaching the wall, she put the point in the largest gap she could find, and tapped it into place with a hoof. Letting go, it stayed put. Excited now, she quickly made another, and wedged it into a gap slightly further up and to the side, and decided to give things a try.
Holding as closely as she could to the rock, she began to pull herself up. But the bone snapped long before taking her full weight. She tried again with the other, but it too gave way, shearing where the structure of the bone was compromised by the sharpening.
Later attempts got more creative. Apple Bloom tried different types of bones, trying to find something that would fit into the gaps without modification, but almost none would. The exception were skull fragments, which would be hammered into the gaps in groups and sets, forming small ledges which the tip of a hoof could just barely catch on. Apple Bloom found that if enough were put in place, and she was very careful in distributing her weight, she could actually get entirely off the ground using these. Unfortunately, it took nearly half an hour to get two hoofholds in place, and considering the enormity of the climb before her, it would take days to reach the top by that method.
Then she tried ribs. They were somewhat flat to begin with, and though they still had to be sharpened some, their internal structure meant they didn't weaken quite as much in the process. Setting them in place while on the wall was very difficult though, their curved shape not lending itself well to hammering.
"Dang it!" Apple Bloom cried, as yet another rib shattered with an off-angle blow.
"Do you have to bang each one in by hoof?" Scootaloo asked from the ground a few feet below.
"If I don't wedge 'em in good, they won't hold mah weight."
"Can you maybe make some sort of curved hammer?"
"You know, like an ice axe."
Apple Bloom jumped down from the two working hoofhold she'd established. "That might work."
Rummaging around in their pile of collected bones, Apple Bloom found a couple of roughly matched femurs, and a pair of similarly matching ribs. Then, grabbing a sharp bit of broken bone, she turned and cut some hair from her tail. Using this, she tied the ribs to the ends of the long-bones, making two pretty decent facsimiles of an ice axe.
"Okay," Apple Bloom said. "Let's give it a try."
She approached the wall, and carefully swung the first at a gap a few feet above her head. It wedged and stuck perfectly. Pulling her weight up, she swung again for a higher gap, connecting there as well. Using her forelegs alone, she continued this for a couple more swings, bringing herself to nearly a dozen feet above the floor. The next swing failed though. The gap may have been slightly narrower, or the angle may have been off just slightly, but either way, the rib bone failed to wedge into the gap, and instead broke, rendering the axe useless.
Apple Bloom's scream of frustration got the attention of Sweetie Belle, who, with only one hoof, found she wasn't much use in crafting tools, and had tried to rest briefly. Seeing her friend dangling now by one forehoof from the wall, she quickly hobbled over to join Scootaloo below.
"Are you okay, Apple Bloom?" Sweetie called up.
"No, I am not okay!"
"Can we do anything to help?"
"Not unless you've got a ladder, or either a ya'll got yer magic back without tellin' me."
Scootaloo unconsciously began to flex her wings, every instinct telling her to fly up and help, but the pain quickly reminded her that wasn't an option, and even without the break in her wing, the lack of magic was keeping her grounded.
"Just get out of the way!" Apple Bloom shouted. "I'm jumpin'."
It was a long drop, but at least this time she was prepared for it, and growing up with an accident prone pegasus like Scootaloo as a friend, she'd had plenty of practice at the tuck-n-roll. It still hurt though.
"I thought you had it there for a minute," Scootaloo said.
"Yeah, me too," Apple Bloom said, rubbing one knee where it'd hit the rock on the way down. "All this bone is just too darn weak! What I wouldn't give for a bit o' proper metal to work with. Anything! Just some angle brackets even. Anythin'..." Her mouth wound down as her thoughts sped up. "...anythin'... metal... at all."
"Why're you looking at me like that?" Sweetie Belle said, as Apple Bloom's stare drifted down toward her disabled leg. "Wait, what are you thinking?"
A strange half-grin crossed Apple Bloom's face. "Here I am, wishin' I had some metal pieces, and here you are with a whole leg made o' metal."
"You can't be serious," Sweetie Belle said.
"It's not like yer exactly usin' it right now," Apple Bloom said, her grin becoming more sheepish. "Besides, it won't matter at all if we don't get out of here soon, right?"
Sweetie closed her eyes and sighed. "You're right. I guess it really is the only resource we seem to have down here besides bone and a few rocks." Sweetie smiled, remembering a conversation years prior. "And it's not like I can object just because it seems weird."
Apple Bloom returned the smile, and then sat down with Sweetie and started thinkings things over. First order of business was probably getting the leg off. She wasn't sure exactly what would work best, but the longer "bones" in Sweetie's forearm looked the most promising. Unfortunately, with no tools and no magic, there was no easy way to do things. She realized that to even try to get those parts out, she'd have to wedge an actual bone between them, twisting that until the joint itself was forced to give, rivets and other smaller components snapping and bending. Disconnecting the other end would be even harder, as there'd be no easy leverage to pry things apart. But even if she could get the parts out, there was still no way to sharpen or flatten the ends to fit in the gaps.
"Argh!" Apple Bloom screamed in frustration after pondering it for a few minutes. "I can see a thousand things I could build just with what's in yer leg here, but I don't have the tools to do any of it! All I can do is hammer on things with rocks! Which would be fine if I had some nails to hammer on! But I don't, and I can't believe we're all gonna die for want of a damn nail!"
"Take a deep breath," Sweetie suggested. "Calm down and think things through. I'm sure we can figure this out."
"I'm sorry, Sweetie. It's just... Well, the heat ain't helpin, but it's so frustratin' not being able to do any of the stuff I'd normally have no problem with. It's like—"
"Like having a broken wing when you want to fly?" Scootaloo interjected.
"Or losing so much magic you can't even move your own leg?" Sweetie added.
Apple Bloom hung her head. "Point taken, girls. It's just... I'm supposed to be the clever one, right?"
"What do you mean?" Sweetie said, leaning over to nuzzle her friend.
"Well, ya both got yer powerful magic and flight, right? I mean if it weren't for the obelisk, you'd just fly us out of here, right Scoots?"
"And Sweetie, failing that, you'd teleport us out. Or levitate us, or summon a ladder, or who knows what else."
"Something like that, I'm sure."
"Right, but me... I don't have the same direct abilities. I gotta think my way outta situations when you girls aren't there to save me. And now, when it's finally my turn to pull the weight, we're all gonna die 'cause even though I got a thousand ideas, I can't do nothin' with 'em without tools."
"Oh Apple Bloom," Sweetie Belle said. "It's not your fault. You are clever, but it's not your responsibility to be the clever one, okay?"
"Yeah," Scootaloo said, giving her friend a nudge. "What makes you think you are the clever one anyway? If I recall correctly, I'm the one that got her cutie mark for applied physics and mathematics in using her power."
"Scoots is right," Sweetie said. "And I got my mark for thinking things through instead of using my own power. You, on the other hoof..." Sweetie couldn't help but grin, "basically just rage-smacked death upside the head with a giant tree; no clever plan or forethought what-so-ever."
Apple Bloom chuckled, as tears welled at the corners of her eyes. The conflicting emotions of frustration and sadness, of fear and love for her friends, combined with the heat and insane situation, overwhelming all normal responses, but she made a joke anyway. "So you're saying I am the best one to bang the rocks together then."
The other two laughed gently at that, the desperation and despair behind all their eyes weighing heavy against any real humor.
Apple Bloom wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to focus. "Okay then," she said. "If I'm not the clever one, then I don't think either of you are either, or we'd be out of here by now. So let's assume we're all idiots."
"Us?" Scootaloo said. "The ponies who dashed off to the far side of the world without supplies, on zero sleep, no preparation, and even less planning, then walked themselves right into an ancient death trap? Yeah, I don't think we need to assume anything."
"So," Apple Bloom continued "Let's put our heads together. Maybe three idiots can add up to a single clever pony if we try hard enough."
"Hmm," Sweetie Belle said. "Maybe if we try to think like some other pony that actually is clever. You two were getting a lot of ideas from Daring Do earlier. That was kind of working. So who's the most clever pony we know?"
The three just looked at each other, Sweetie realizing she knew the answer before she'd even finished asking. "Okay," she continued. "So what would Twilight Sparkle do."
"Heh," Scootaloo laughed. "She'd probably make a list."
"Okay, what kind of list?" Sweetie said, continuing the exercise.
"Seriously? I was joking."
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said. "But yer right. Twilight would make a list. There's gotta be a reason she always does that."
"Okay then," Scootaloo said. "How about a list of ways we could escape?"
"How about a list of things we could use to escape instead?" Sweetie suggested.
"Item one, magic!" Scootaloo said.
"Yeah, and item two is 'airship' then," Apple Bloom said. "Let's try for simpler. What's the simplest things we can think of to get us out here? Obvious starters include ladders, ropes, climbing gear—"
"What about water?" Sweetie Belle said. "If we could somehow flood this pit, we could just float to the top."
"In the middle of the desert?" Scootaloo said.
"There was a fountain up top. That water had to come from somewhere."
"Sand then," Apple Bloom added. "It was flooded with it when we arrived. There probably is a way to do that. I just doubt it's down here near us."
The three pondered the idea a bit more, but none of them could think of any way to trigger whatever hidden mechanisms were in place when they only had access to solid stone walls.
"I keep going back to climbing out," Apple Bloom said. "It'd take so little. L-brackets, pitons, stakes, bolts, anything like that. Heck, like I said earlier, just gimme a box o' nails and we'd be on our way."
"How many nails?" Scootaloo asked. "Minimum, I mean."
Apple Bloom, in the groove of the thought exercise, went with it and looked up the walls, considering things. "I'd guess maybe a hundred all the way to the top if ya really stretched it, but if they were bigger nails, ya could probably pull 'em and reuse 'em like we were tryin' with the bones. Maybe only need four then. Two to stand on while ya hammer the next ones in."
"Say they were about two or three inches long."
"You're gettin' really specific now, Scoots. Ya got somethin' in mind?"
"Just humor me?"
Apple Bloom agreed, and thought hard on it. Finally she said, "If I had a hammer, sure."
"We've got rocks and bones!" Sweetie said, hoping this was going somewhere.
"No, I mean a proper hammer," Apple Bloom said. "It's more about pullin' the nails back out to reuse 'em. Nails that short, can't pull 'em out by hoof."
Scootaloo hung her head in defeat.
"What were you thinking, anyway?" Sweetie asked her.
"Your claws," Scootaloo said. "When Apple Bloom mentioned nails, I was looking at your paw and saw that they look a lot like nails, metal and everything."
Sweetie looked down at her limp leg. The claws she'd put on the end of her toes were vaguely nail like. They curved and tapered a lot more than any normal nail, but that probably wouldn't matter at all for the use they were thinking of here.
"What do you think, Apple Bloom?" Sweetie said, nodding toward her paw. "If you had a proper hammer, do you really think you could climb out of here with these?"
"I reckon I could, at least if the hammer could pull 'em without a normal nail head on 'em."
"So then," Sweetie said. "We're exactly one nail puller from escape then."
"What if you didn't have to pull them each time?" Scootaloo said. "Like the axes you tried earlier. Can we tie the claws onto bones or something like that?"
Smiling, Apple Bloom stood. "Only one way to find out! Pass me that sharp rock!"
After a few minutes, and a few well-placed blows, Apple Bloom had managed to shear the four large claws off the end of Sweetie Belle's metal toes. Sweetie assured her that she could feel absolutely nothing as this occurred, and she had helped her friend repair the leg a few times before, but it still felt weird to be hammering on a friend's foot.
After the claws were removed, the three worked quickly to tie them to the end of some bones. Unfortunately, the small size and diameter of the claws, as well as the slick surface of the metal, meant that this didn't hold together very well. Other attempts were made to drive the claws through the bone, before wrapping and tying it with hair, but this weakened the bone too much, and the ends of the bones splintered after three or four swings.
Then the sun peaked over the rim of the well, finally reaching the bottom of the obelisk.
"What the hay is that?" Scootaloo said, suddenly doubling over with pain. "I feel like I just got kicked in the ribs."
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said, feeling similar. "Makin' me feel like I got the wind knock outta me."
Looking from their work area toward to the obelisk, then up at the sun, Sweetie realized her fears were coming true. "I think I was right. The whole obelisk has a line of sight to the Hole. It's... trying to kill us now I think."
The ponies inched away from the center of the pit, finding the sensation lessened slightly the closer they got to the walls, but the drain on their lives was obvious and undeniable.
"Well," Scootaloo said, looking at the shattered remains of the last axe they'd tried. "It's been a pleasure knowing you both."
"No!" Apple Bloom said. "We're not going out like this."
The fierce determination in her voice reminded Sweetie Belle of a previous time when the earth pony had adamantly refused the inevitable. As such, she couldn't help but feel a small glimmer of hope, that maybe, just maybe, the same incredible power Apple Bloom had harnessed to save Applejack might somehow overwhelm even this horrible artifact of Nemesis's. She didn't dare say anything, but kept looking for any sign of glowing eyes or other magic channeling.
"I'm not sure we're really getting a choice in the matter," Scootaloo said.
"No! Ain't gonna let that happen!" Apple Bloom muttered, stomping around in furious thought, hitting her own head with a forehoof. "Think, AB, think! You can figure this out."
"I'd tell you to let it go," Scootaloo said, also remembering the near-death of Applejack. "But we all know you're too stubborn for that."
Apple Bloom ignored her friends, continuing to pace and mutter to herself.
After a minute, Sweetie said, "I wish Twilight was actually here."
"Why?" Scootaloo said. "She'd lose her magic too and be just as stuck as us."
"I guess you're right. The rest of the Elements would probably be no help either."
"Well, Fluttershy's new chaos magic might work."
"Heh," Sweetie Belle chuckled. "You know who would actually be the best at getting us out of here?"
"Spike! His claws are like built-in climbing gear. He wouldn't need anything else at all, and could just climb right out of here."
Apple Bloom froze in mid-pace, then ran and hugged Sweetie. "Okay, today, you are the clever one!"
"Built-in claws! We've been thinkin' about this all wrong. I keep tryin' to make tools, 'cause it's what I'd normally do. But this ain't a normal situation. Gotta think outside the box an' all that!"
"At the risk of repeating myself," Sweetie said. "What?"
"Oh just grab that big rock o'er there 'fore I change mah mind!"
Scootaloo grabbed the rock in question as Apple Bloom started holding one of the detached claws against the edge of her own hoof, contemplating angles and thicknesses.
"What are you thinking, Bloom?" Sweetie said, nervous at the nearly manic demeanor of her friend.
"I'm thinkin' this claw is a lot bigger than a hoofnail, and I'm thinkin' it's gonna hurt like tartarus when Scoots pounds it through my hoof."
"What?!" Scootaloo said, eyes going wide as she started to understand her friend's plan. "No way!"
"Well, I can't just put it in the toe, it'd split it an' tear right out. Gotta be through the sole."
Sweetie Belle's own eyes went wide and her jaw dropped. "Do you have any idea how much that'll hurt?"
Apple Bloom turned and looked at her two friends with fierce determination in her eyes. "A whole lot less than watchin' you two die in this pit." She knelt down and held the first claw in position over the top of her other forehoof. "If I can't be the clever one... well I'm at least gonna be the stubborn one. Now just do it!"
Scootaloo quivered a moment in uncertainty, but after making eye contact with Apple Bloom, knew she had no choice. She brought the rock down on top of the claw, and, like a nail, it penetrated slightly into the tough outer surface at the top of the hoof.
"Ow," Apple Bloom said, feeling the impact, yet knowing it still hadn't hit the incredibly sensitive tissues inside her hoof. "Okay, Scoots, that's one. I'm pretty sure I got it aimed 'tween the bones, but even so, it's gonna take a few blows to get this all the way through. I'm gonna scream. A lot. Ya gotta ignore that an' keep goin' until I actually tell ya to stop, okay?"
Scootaloo bit her own lip, but nodded in agreement.
It took five more blows with the heavy rock to drive the claw all the way through Apple Bloom's hoof. The screams had been enough that Sweetie had looked away entirely, and Scootaloo's eyes were completely flooded with tears as she saw the muddy "blood" begin to seep out through the wound she was making. But the pegasus was true to her word, and kept at it until Apple Bloom called her off, the three inch claw finally going all the way through from the top of the hoof and protruding through the sole and into the sand. The hoof itself didn't split though, and when Apple Bloom gave the sharp end a tug, it had zero give to it, even if it did hurt like nothing she'd physically experienced before.
Then there were three other hooves to do.
When the ordeal was finally over, and a shaking Apple Bloom had emptied her stomach twice over from the pain, she finally approached the wall.
Reaching up with a muddy forehoof, she found the protruding claw easily slipped into a gap and the pointed end gripped the stone well. She then kicked a rear leg up into a lower gap. The claws there had gone in from the bottom and been driven slightly forward, leaving the point sticking out from the middle of the toe on her back hooves. This let her keep her mass close to the wall like a biped. With two claws in, she began to pull herself up to reach for higher gaps. The pain was indescribable. Her weight was being held by metal, crudely driven through some of the most sensitive tissues in pony anatomy. Her scream echoed so loudly in the hollow cylinder of the well that even her own ears were ringing afterwards.
"Apple Bloom," Scootaloo said, wincing in sympathy. "You don't have to do this."
"Ya know that ain't true, Scoots. I meant it when I said we ain't goin' out like this."
"It's just... you don't have to be the one to do this."
Putting on her best smile, Apple Bloom looked down at her friend. "Ah Scoots, it ain't like I haven't done this before." She reached and hooked another gap, gritting her teeth against the pain. "Sometimes, when ya say 'no' to death, ya got magic an' stuff on yer side, and everything comes up all flowers and pretty like." She reached again and gained a bit more height, the burning pain almost overloading the nerves, feeling cold and hot at the same time. "Other times though, ya only got metal and pain to back ya up." Apple Bloom swung another hoof, gaining a few more feet. "But I didn't let that bastard take mah sister, and I ain't lettin' 'im take my friends either."
Scootaloo looked away as Apple Bloom continued to climb. She was sobbing, and Sweetie Belle hobbled next to her, leaning against her in lieu of the hug her injured leg wouldn't allow.
The pain really was excruciating. With every step of her climb, Apple Bloom felt as if somepony had driven a nail through the tender quick of her hooves and was wiggling it around to exacerbate the overload in as many sensitive nerves as possible. She also felt it was somewhat ironic that her mind's own attempts at analogies could do no better than the actual pain she was experiencing. This was, she realized, exactly how villains tortured their captives in Daring Do and Captain Venture novels. But here she was, dangling now a hundred feet above a literal death pit, the tortuous metal her only hope of salvation. Nearing the top, she realized there was at least one up side to the pain in her hooves. That was, it so overwhelmed all other senses, that even though her muscles were in more pain from this climb than ever before in her life, she hardly even noticed, thanks to the near-demonic agony in her hooves.
When she finally reached the top, Apple Bloom could hardly even remember her own name. The climb had taken perhaps twenty minutes in total, but the pain had made it feel like a lifetime. As she scrabbled over the lip of the well, and onto solid, horizontal ground, all she wanted to do was sleep for a thousand years. But she knew she couldn't afford even a moment's rest. The obelisk had been continuing to pull at her life during the climb, and was of course still draining her friends as well. Looking up at the bright, mid-day sky, she could see the sun was nearing noon-position as well. If Sweetie was right—again—then that would be a very bad thing.
Ignoring the pain, Apple Bloom set off to reinvestigate the complex. There were obviously ancient mechanisms controlling the stairs and the pit, and—
Apple Bloom paused. In front of her, one of the previously normal-looking columns now glowed with red runes. One of those runes looked very, very much like a set of spiraling stairs.
It can't be that easy, she thought. No way. Just, no way.
But she couldn't resist the potential either. Noon was almost here, she had no other idea on how to get her friends out of the pit unless she went far, far away for help. She weighed that urgency against what'd happened to Sweetie when she'd last reached for a rune. But this column wasn't the obelisk in the bottom of the bit. This was up top, where presumably those in charge would be. Those watching the sacrifices... or making them.
She reached out and touched the rune.
A loud rumble sounded behind her, and she ran back to the edge of the pit awkwardly, as the claws protruding from her soles made it hard to balance her weight. Looking down, she saw that the stairs were, in fact, reappearing.
"Sweetie!" Apple Bloom yelled. "Scoots!"
She could see the forms of her two friends, laying down near the edge where she'd climbed. It looked as though they may have passed out due to heat or perhaps some effect of the obelisk.
"Scootaloo! Sweetie Belle! Wake up!" she shouted again.
The forms below her didn't stir, but the staircase continued to unfold itself and was nearing the bottom. Thinking quickly, she ran to the fountain they'd seen during the night, and, tearing a large leaf from a nearby plant, made a small bowl and filled it with water. She dumped this over the edge and, though it broke up into droplets on the way down, the "rain" was enough to waken her friends.
Seeing them stir, Apple Bloom yelled again. "Stairs! Start climbing!" She waved a hoof as well, pointing. The two waking forms seemed to get the hint, and she heard a faint "Whoo hoo!" from the pegasus as well. Watching, she saw her friends start up the stairs, and tracked them as they continued to climb. Every fiber of her being wanted to rush down and try to help, but the exertion of the climb had caught up with her, and she found she couldn't even stand under her own weight anymore.
As her friends neared the top, Apple Bloom heard and felt the obelisk begin to hum. Looking up—and down at the shadows—she realized the it was almost exactly noon, even if it was eight hours late or so. As she watched, the runes on the obelisk began to pulse, the reds much brighter than before, and even the smaller conduits of writing were now glowing bright enough to see from quite a distance. Then a red field lanced out near the base, thrumming ominously as it encompassed the entire floor of the pit before beginning to rise slowly. Apple Bloom could feel the heat released by it from hundreds of feet above, and realized very quick that this was what killed all the ponies whose bones they'd been treading on, and what had sintered the stone walls to their black ceramic sheen. Her gaze quickly sought out her friends.
Sweetie Belle was hobbling as fast as her three legs could carry her. Scootaloo was making decent time, though her broken wing meant she took up the entire width of the stairs and couldn't help support her friend from the side. The two were almost to the top when they felt the flash of heat from below. A quick glance was all it took to make them both speed up their pace. The intense heat field drew closer and closer as the magic field climbed up the well like rising lava. They could feel it starting to singe the tips of their tails, but they managed to reach the top of the stairs before it climbed halfway up the pit.
Throwing themselves away from the lip of the well, the two ponies took a minute to catch their breath, before turning and looking back at the obelisk. They caught sight of Apple Bloom on the far side of the rim, waving to let her know they were okay. Then the obelisk, finished with its spell of incineration, went dark.
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo looked at each other. All the noise and heat had ceased, and for the briefest moments, they thought perhaps it was all over. Then a beam of actinic light, brighter than the sun itself, lanced from the top of the obelisk and directly toward the center of the sun, and the Hole within.
On the far rim, Apple Bloom had to shield her eyes and turn away. She thought she could feel her flesh being seared, even through her fur. Then it was over, the beam ceased, and the pit started to fill with sand. It took many long minutes, but when it was finished, and all was quiet again, she still refused to believe it. She waited, not at all convinced the game was really done. But nothing happened and nothing continued to happen. Eventually, she saw that Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo had risen and were slowly making their way around to her, careful not to go anywhere near the edge of the former pit in the once again flat and innocent looking courtyard.
"Well," Scootaloo said, as she and Sweetie came into range of Apple Bloom. "That was something."
Apple Bloom, utterly exhausted, hooves in blinding agony, looked up at her friends—her living, breathing, not-at-all-dead friends—and grinned. "Yeah, not like we had anything better to do."
Some many hours later.
"Oh my goodness!" Twilight Sparkle said, seeing three ponies collapsed by the edge of a fountain in the moonlight. "Girls! Are you okay?"
Scootaloo was the first to stir. "Twilight?"
"Scootaloo! Are you three okay?"
"Yeah," the pegasus mumbled, still regaining consciousness. "At least mostly."
"Oh no!" Fluttershy gasped, seeing the bent and broken wing Scootaloo was favoring when she stood. "That looks horrible!"
"Heh," Scootaloo let out a tired laugh. "You should see the other pony."
Twilight lit her horn, and began scanning the Crusaders, wincing as she detected their injuries, and sensing their more subtle pains as they all woke up.
When Apple Bloom stood up, mud oozing from around the claws driven through her hooves, Fluttershy nearly fainted.
"It's worse than it looks," Apple Bloom said. "Well, at least I hope so."
"What happened to you all?" Twilight asked, looking around at the temple structures at the remaining tip of the obelisk.
"Well..." Sweetie Belle said, grinning, "Scootaloo had this great idea..." She then proceeded to tell the story from the beginning, with only occasional interruptions from the insulted pegasus.
"So it took all your magic?" Fluttershy asked, as the story was completed.
"Not quite." Sweetie looked down at her paw. There was a slight but visible twitch in it when she concentrated hard enough. "I think some of it is coming back now that we're out of the pit."
Twilight turned and looked at the obelisk. After a moment of concentration, she lit her horn and said, "I think I can create a spell to destroy it. It seems to be pretty fragile when it doesn't have a connection with the Hole or victims to leech."
"No," Sweetie said, stumbling to her hooves. "Wait!"
"What?" Twilight said, turning back to look at the unicorn. "Why?"
"I'm... I'm not sure exactly, but I've got a hunch."
"That thing is sucking in magic and beaming it directly to Nemesis, right?"
"I guess that'd be one way to put it."
"Yet none of our own magic can reach anywhere near the sun, or Nemesis and his Hole."
Twilight paused a moment, thinking. "So... you think..."
"I think that maybe there's some way to use this. Maybe, just maybe, we can find the right spells, the right powers, the right something to send into this... and we can use his own artifact as a channel to attack through!"
"There's no way this one artifact—despite it's obviously powerful local effects—was strong enough to draw the red star in from so far away," Twilight said. "There'd have to be others like it elsewhere, all working together to channel that kind of power over such a vast distance. Even if we could find some way to send our own spell or attack through this one, the power from those others would probably wash it out by the time it got to the Hole."
"So we find the others," Apple Bloom said, resolute. "We get them all and turn them against him."
"Cutie Mark Crusaders... tomb raiders..." Scootaloo said, raising a hoof and twirling it in mock excitement. "Yaaay...?"
After chewing her lip in thought for a moment, Twilight came to a conclusion. "Okay, we'll leave it for now. If we can find the others, maybe we can use them. For now, let's get you girls back home and fixed up. We've got a day or so before the world reaches final orbit, and I think I can still manage one last teleport back to Ponyville."
Apple Bloom had never felt so glad to feel herself being turned inside out.
So we're shifting back to a more traditional narrative from the insane pace of this story's opening. To all of you reading this, thank you for sticking with this story through a very rocky beginning. Also, thanks to all of you that let me know your fears and concerns with the way this story started, as it showed me what I did wrong. I hope this chapter assuages some of those worries, but please, continue to leave comments! Let me know when you feel I'm steering things wrong (or right) so I can get better at this "words" stuff.
[strikethrough]Next up, "Chapter 3: The Manehatten Project." What, you thought I forgot there were more than three Cutie Mark Crusaders?[/strikethrough]
EDIT: Next up, "Chapter 3: The Mulligan." Manehatten is still coming, but will be later on.
In the meantime, if you aren't following me, you probably missed the Three Wishes Christmas story, Cinder Claws. It takes place between the original Three Wishes story and the sequel, with the CMC and the Princesses joining Gunnar and his family, as Gunnar recounts the Caribou legend of Kol-Klor for Winter's Eve. It'll tie more directly into this story in later chapters, but for now, can be considered a stand-alone story.
Oh, and parts of this chapter were inspired by this Cloud Cult song: Grappling Hook.